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When it comes to the environment, our students are an inspiration

Editorial in the April 18, 2007, issue of the Austin American-Statesman.

Recently, I’ve wondered where the American people might find the leadership to tackle environmental issues. Climate change and the rapid depletion of our natural resources are just two of the issues that need immediate attention.

While many of our national leaders do not seem to be serious about addressing these issues, fortunately we have found another source of leadership: college students.

This week, Southwestern University became (signing is 4/19) the second university in Texas to sign the Talloires Declaration, an international effort to promote environmental sustainability in higher education. More than 430 universities in 40 countries around the world have signed this declaration, which takes its name from a town in France where the effort was conceived in 1990. Universities that sign the declaration commit to a 10-point plan that includes offering degree programs in environmental studies, teaching environmental literacy to all students, establishing community partnerships, and setting an example of environmental responsibility in areas such as energy use, recycling and waste reduction. Participating schools must prepare an annual “environmental audit” detailing their activities. 

 Other colleges are participating in similar efforts. More than 170 of my fellow college presidents have signed the American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment, which asks colleges to develop and publish plans to reduce carbon emissions. Colleges that sign this commitment must agree to obtain at least 15 percent of their energy from renewable sources.

These initiatives are coming from our students, not administrators. At Southwestern University, students worked diligently for nearly a year to build support on campus for the Talloires Declaration. In many cases, they are the ones educating the educators.

Students aren’t waiting for formal documents to be signed, though. They’re setting up “green” residence halls, planting organic gardens on campus, and forming co-ops to sell locally produced food. They’re also focusing their academic work on the environment. At Southwestern, for example, we have a first-year student who has designed a low-cost solar water heater and a graduating senior who is doing her capstone project on different composting methods that we plan to implement on Southwestern’s campus. One of our 2007 graduates will be staying on campus for another year to work as Southwestern’s first sustainability coordinator - a position created in cooperation with the AmeriCorps/VISTA program.

Our students see the direct connections between sustainability and issues of justice for all inhabitants of this planet - human and nonhuman. They realize that patterns of consumption impact the lives of people in every corner of the world, and are increasingly interested in issues related to “environmental justice.” These students, as the leaders of tomorrow and the leaders of today, are bringing their energy and creativity to build a world where everyone can survive and thrive.

As we commemorate Earth Day 2007, we should be inspired by the leadership that our students are providing, and hopeful that when it comes to the environment, the next generation will do better.

Jake B. Schrum is president of Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas