Green U

I wasn’t a very enlightened college student and, like many today, I spent most of my out-of-class time partying until all hours of the morning. I was almost totally detached from ecological or social issues of any kind. I read The Greening of America for an economics class (because I had to), and that actually did raise my awareness a little, but that’s about as far as I got. I didn’t “get religion” until my mid-20s, at which point I practically hit the ground running and haven’t stopped yet.

Some are comparing growing interest in global warming on the part of young people (and particularly college students) to 1960s anti-war enthusiasm. That’s probably a bit of an overstatement, but the momentum is encouraging.

I”m actually a bit skeptical about college student interest in world affairs in general, though I hope I’m wrong: Last year I got all worked up after the mass killing at Virginia Tech and e-mailed a letter to college newspaper editors around the country to try to engage them on the issue of gun control. Of the 500 letters I sent, all I got back was one very incoherent response from a young woman who (I think) agreed with me, and an angry reply from one young male editor who called me a “bleeding heart” and whose solution to campus violence was to give guns to all students.

But if the Energy Action Coalition’s recent experience is any indication of things to come, I”ll try to stay positive: The group’s “Powershift 2007” conference held last November in Maryland attracted 6,000 students from all over the U.S. to address global warming issues. Attendance far exceeded the organizers’ expectations, and as you”ll read in Brita Belli’s feature in this issue, much is happening to improve the carbon footprint on campuses through clean energy purchases, student-run gardens, water efficiency measures and composting, to name a few, a mix of administration- and student-driven initiatives.

Global warming is uniting everyone, on and off campuses, and as it is often said about many issues, youth involvement is what matters most. Thanks mostly to Al Gore, the Martin Luther King, Jr. of the environmental cause, global warming is causing ripple effects that are creating or renewing interest in many environmental issues, from stopping bottled water waste and cleaning up toxic diesel school bus exhaust to promoting organic eating, eco-fashion, green building and more.

College campuses are ideally placed to start an environmental revolution: They are big users of energy, food, paper, construction materials and other consumables, and are therefore in a key position to support green industries by becoming their first big customers. This is also true of other large institutions, such as governments, hospitals and large corporations, where students (and graduates moving into the work force) can continue their influence and pressure to push society in a greener direction.

One thing’s for sure: Everyone “gets it” now. Our future and even our short-term health depend upon ecosystems that work, undisturbed by reckless human behavior. College students represent the next big wave into the work force, and if they can bring with them a higher, greener ethic than their predecessors, it can only have a positive effect, no matter what particular shape the new “60s-like movement actually takes.