Institutions need to play a more active role in sustainability efforts

Who joined in the celebrations yesterday? Anyone?

National Campus Sustainability Day? Anyone? October 26th? Anyone? … Anyone?

Don’t worry — you didn’t miss out on any festivities. The University of Illinois apparently didn’t get the memo and scheduled Sustainability Week for next week, Nov. 1 to 4, completely missing out on being a part of the national dialogue in celebrating the power of universities in the sustainability movement.

That’s what we students have: power. But how many students are even aware that the University has a Sustainability Week, let alone when it is and what events are occurring? Anyone?

An extremely disconcerting rift is growing between the passion and potential students have in protecting the environment and the way institutions respond to kindling that passion. If we continue to allow this gap to widen, we lose the power that our generation holds in tackling the largest problem humanity has faced.

Institutions, like universities and the media, have not stepped up to help realize the opportunities we students have. For example, in the past year, The New York Times has not had a single major “headline about climate change”: Media has steadily declined its coverage of environmental issues, and the University has steadily lowered the environment down on its list of priorities. But individuals, especially students, still consider the environment to be at the top of their list.

Just last year, University of Illinois students voted 77 percent to raise their green fees. Think about that: “77 percent said”: they were willing to raise a fee on themselves, despite how much money they already paid in tuition and fees. This means that students value the University’s potential to reduce its footprint enough to pay their own money, even if they will never see the payback. If that doesn’t show to the University that we care, I don’t know what can.

But on a campus that barely publicizes Sustainability Week, doesn’t celebrate National Campus Sustainability Day, doesn’t have a General Education requirement for sustainability and doesn’t have a strong Office of Sustainability, Sustainability Week can’t make a lasting impact. Many students do not even know that we have a Sustainability Week every fall and an Earth Week every spring. We cannot expect students who are not already personally invested in sustainability to know about Sustainability Week, much less take time out of their schedules to come to the events. If we want more students to become actively engaged, we at least need to make sure more students know how they can get engaged.

Having said that, if only 10 students show up to, for example, the open house about how the University is following through on the commitments it made to carbon neutrality, that surely does not mean that only 10 students care. Just because we are only here for about four years does not mean that we don’t want to see our university become more sustainable for years after we leave.

When it comes down to it, both the students and the University are crucial to making a positive impact on the environment. Both care. The problem is that there is a lack of synergy between the two sides. Sustainability Week is one way that we can bridge the gap, but unfortunately it only highlights existing discord.

So happy (belated) National Campus Sustainability Day. Just because our institutions are failing to recognize our potential does not mean we get a free pass to ignore it as well. It will take both sides to live up to the challenge.

_Emily is a junior in LAS and editor-in-chief of The Green Observer magazine._