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Looking to the next generation to solve our environmental crisis

Marc Lefkowitz  |  04/22/10 @ 4:45pm

The PBS special on the first Earth Day did a nice job looking at the fundamental change in the environmental movement over 40 years. We're no longer storming the barricades; we're busy trying to enter the boardroom (and 'voting' with our shopping carts, and in some cases still going back to the land and growing our own food).

In 1970, it looked like everyone was pouring out into the streets calling for an end to dirty air and burning rivers. Forty years later, our environmental problems are just as serious, but are much less visible. We aren't forced to witness the devastating effects of coal mining on rural Southeast Ohio and West Virginia. Sprawl and our industrial food system isn't an issue until we wake up one day and realize we're a nation of fat people and our addiction to cars and corn is putting the planet in peril.

I like the way David Beach sums it up-and proposes an answer:

So many well intentioned people throw up their hands when faced with a problem like climate change. What can one person do? The carbon emissions that cause global warming come from everywhere. They are embedded in the design of our society.

So perhaps the question for Earth Day 2010 is how to create a more profound sense of urgency about designing and building a sustainable society - better transportation, buildings, cities, power systems, food systems, and businesses. This will be the necessary transformation of the next 40 years."

Thankfully, as Ecology of Commerce author Paul Hawkin told PBS, sustainability is being infused everywhere these days-from corporate boardrooms to block clubs to schools. Locally, we have some fine examples of the younger generation learning how to design solutions and create jobs while working on climate change. Colleges are introducing sustainability majors, and high school science classes are being transformed.

Baldwin-Wallace College, which introduced the Cleveland area to the first Sustainability bachelor's degree, will announce soon that it submitted curricula to the Ohio Board of Regents for an MBA in Sustainability. If approved, four new courses will be launched: Introduction to Sustainability; Sustainable Products and Services; Environmental Science and Regulation for Business; Sustainable Venture Capstone.

At this week's address at Cuyahoga Community College, Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson said the city's sustainability agenda is setting the table for university and community college programs like Tri-C's Green Academy, which "trains students in the principles of sustainability, green construction, new energy codes, improving energy efficiency in residential construction, and interpreting green bid specs."

The city's support for Evergreen Cooperative ventures, and the Ohio Solar Cooperative should provide a green collar jobs pipeline for the Green Academy, the mayor's Chief of Sustainability Andrew Watterson added.

Case Western Reserve University has been ramping up sustainability with its Fowler Center for Sustainable Value, which "customizes curriculum supplements for professors seeking more sustainability in their coursework. Staff is also working with the school's Net Impact chapter to develop a student experience that more holistically addresses sustainability, at home, at work, in values, in the classroom, through speaking engagements, and via extra-curricular experiences." About half of Case Weatherhead School of Management core courses now include components of sustainability, according to a school spokeswoman.

On campus, a café run by Bon Appetit–a food management company that has made news by sourcing 25% of its food from local sources–is going beyond recycling to composting in order to cut down on waste it sends to the landfill (as an aside, Bon Appetit has its Low Carbon Diet Day today at Case and the Cleveland Botanical Garden).

High schools are also starting to incorporate lessons of sustainability. Last Friday, Beachwood High School's marketing class organized another successful Green Dream event. The students raise funds for green causes by charging exhibitors who get their green wares in front of thousands of visitors. Cleveland's Garrett Morgan School of Science High School also showcased its environmental work last week. The school is taking a hands on approach to sustainability, heading up a massive vermicomposting program with students (they collected hundreds of pounds of food waste from the hospitality area at Earth Fest last Sunday for the worms to munch on).

I'll leave off with this great quote from Van Jones, who's been a huge proponent of empowering youth to get America going with green collar jobs. He said in this interview:

President Clinton said, 'there's nothing wrong with America that can't be fixed with what's right about America. That's as true now as in 1992. And what's right about America are the young people, who are on these campuses. They've grown up in a completely different world. They're comfortable with people of different races, different genders, different classes. They're networked; they have the tools in their hands that are literally more powerful than were used in the rockets that sent man to the moon.

This new generation has the ability to use its creativity, its dynamism to solve some of these problems. And they don't have to be limited to the person that lives next door. They can collaborate with people all around the world.

And so we have to issue a call to young people in America and say to them that we expect you to not be the generation characterized by your problems but by the solutions that you're bringing forward.

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