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What is Education's Role in Saving the Environment?

Pixabay Classroom

I had a little talk about climate change with two college students going into their third semester at the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee (UWM).

I know that people my age (73) talk about global warming from time to time. Do people your age talk about this? I mean you are both in college, is this issue ever brought up in a class?

Brieann: No, not really.

Andy: Unless it is the class focus.

Brianne: The only place is in the dorms where they want you to recycle but they are not real big on it. They have the bins and the trash shoots. So, they tell you what can be recycled and what can’t be but other then that there’s not much. When you go outside the buildings they only have trash receptacles. They don’t have recycling bins. It’s just all garbage cans.

So, isn’t there some environmental presence on campus? Isn’t there a sense on campus that something is going on with the environment?

Andy: In the cafeteria they do promote composting. It’s compost, trash and recycle stuff. Sometimes they have people standing there to help you get it right.

If people your age aren’t talking about it, that worries me.

Brieann: There are a few things on social media. Twitter is about the only place I ever see anyone talking about the environment. The big one is that ocean clean up group. I thinks it’s the one with the boom clean up equipment.

This group has a presence on campus?

Andy: No, just a social thing.

There isn’t an ecology group or club on campus? I mean, there are 27,000 students there.

Andy: There could be, we just don’t know about it. There are hundreds of clubs so there are a few concerned with the environment I am sure.

So, are you guys worried about climate change?

Brieann: Ya.

Andy: Sure.

What do you think is going to happen?

Brieann: I don’t think we will be able to plant anything anymore. They are building so much on land that is needed to grow food that I think we will be in trouble.

Andy: The soils and bees are under stress. Long term doesn't look good.

When do you think things will start collapsing? 10 years? 20? 50? You guys will be around to see it.

Brieann: Yup

Andy: They say 2050 will be the big year. By then, if nothings done, it’s over.

Do you think someone will magically pull us out of this problem?

Brieann: No

Andy: It’s not possible

Brianne: I think there are just too many people who thinks this doesn’t exist. This is not a real problem and that we are going to be fine.

Andy: They think that global warming is just warmer temperatures. You know, you get days of extreme heat or cold or too much rain or not enough rain.

Brianne: But even the corn this year which is supposed to be “knee high by the Fourth of July” was barely to people shins whereas last year it was like 5 feet by the beginning of July.

Andy: Right, it rained every day through June. Too much water. (Andy and Brianne are both from farm country in Northern Illinois.)

Right. You know one problem your generation has is that they weren’t around in the 1950s when I was a boy. They don’t know what kind of winters we had. It could get to 25 below without a wind chill. In fact, there wasn’t a “wind chill” talked about back then. Now the winters aren’t anything like they used to be but how would young people know about that? That works against everything. Young people don’t have a sense that there is a real problem. It’s normal to them.

Brieann: Right

Right now you guys are just going with the flow.

Brieann: Yeah, kinda.

Andy: Well, we are just learning about it.

Where are you learning about this stuff if UWM isn’t doing anything about it?

Andy: Well there are environment classes you can take. There is probably a related degree here.

Brieann: I seems like there is a degree on everything. Honestly, I feel I learn most of this stuff from Twitter and Ana. (Ana is Andy’s 14 year sister who is a dancer and a vegan and not shy about her views on environment.)

It seems like young people are either not in to it at all or are totally in to it. What are you guys going to do? Just wait to see it all happen?


Would you be willing to make a lot of changes in your life like; not using as much water, or eat differently, use non-plastic bags, stop using straws, etc.

Brieann: Sure

Andy: You know when you go to the grocery store and pick up two things they want to know if you want the stuff in a bag. They want you to put it in a bag. I mean I can carry two items without a bag. They push it. That’s our culture.

Brianne: I think its hard because people our age don’t realize how much this is already affecting us. We kind of grew up when things were already starting to get bad so we don’t know any better. We have no memory of a time when things were better.

What about the Architectural Program, Andy. It must be talked about there although this is your first semester. Have they mentioned LEED at all.

Andy: Well it’s pretty early for me but I’ve seen stuff on ‘green roofs’ so far. This is the first big year for architecture for me. I’m sure there will be a lot on the environment.

Someone recently said we have 11 years to turn it around. Does that scare you?

Brieann: Yes, but at the same time there have been so many things like…. 2012 when the world was supposed to end, and Y2K in 2,000 would crash everything, and nothing happened. I mean, I know its different but …..

Andy: People won’t believe it until they actually see it in their lives. They see ice melting but not around them so they don’t care.

Brianne: Things aren’t having a direct impact on their lives and that’s why they don’t want to change anything.

Andy: If all the trees were dying and the grass then you’d see people responding.

So we are in that part of the country where we can get away with for a while.

Brieann: Right. All the fires, hurricanes and storms are somewhere else. No real impact here as far as most people are concerned. Actually, the really big thing around here is the agricultural impact. All the corn fields and bean fields are in trouble. My boss has about 100 acres and over half of it they couldn’t even plant because the rain was so bad. Then it got to be too late to plant corn.

Did you talk to him about it? Did he say anything about what was going on?

Brieann: They were more worried about the financial aspect of it even though they have crop insurance. They are worried that the seasons continue like this and their land will be ruined. They will have some spots where they are able to plant but even there the crops don’t seem to be growing as well. They have no idea what they can do. They are resigned to it.

What upsets me is that schools don’t seem to be doing enough about climate change. Do you see it that way?

Brieann: Definitely! Especially at the younger ages.

Andy: I don’t think Plano High School recycles at all.

Brianne: They do have recycling bins but everyone just throws the stuff in the same bin. I think schools are the most important place to learn at an early age when it is most impactful. You are the most impressionable then.

I think Ethan and Ava and Mabel are pretty worried about it. (Andy’s cousins ages 7, 7 and 9) They don’t get much in school either. Leadership is what we need.

Brieann: Right. It doesn’t help that the President is saying that Global Warming is not real.

Andy: Having him make his own plastic straws isn’t the message we need.

Brieann: Why should people believe in it when the leader of the entire country tell you it’s not true. I think it’s funny that older generations and younger generations are the ones that care the most. I think the older generations care because they knew what it was like when things were better and I think the younger ones care because they want to live into the future. I think the middle generations don’t care that much and they are the ones that could make the most change. They are probably too busy with family and job.


After I left them, I went to the UWM website to see if what I could find about environmental activity. There are 13 schools or colleges in UWM. A brief view of the programs in each college I found these:


Fresh Water Sciences Program – Human and Ecosystem Health,

Architecture - Ecological Design

Letters and Science - Conservation and Environmental Science Minor/BA/BS


Living Learning Community – Architectural Sustainability

Events – Troubled Water, What’s wrong with what we drink? (Just one environmental event of the dozens available in the Fall semester)

Atmospheric Science Club, Association of Energy Engineers (19 members), Conservation Club (68 members), Sustainable Design Club (6 members), Youth Climate Action Team (forming – 1 member out of 27,000 students)

And then there was this…. The Office of Sustainability, I couldn’t tell how strong the connection was between this office and the students.

Clearly there are opportunities to be involved but seemingly not much participation. Nor does it seem there is an awareness of the importance of this issue. It hardly appears to be part of the school culture. Maybe that has been the case everywhere and forever in schools of advanced learning. Students are concerned with their classes and their grades and the next party. I know when I was in college that’s the way it was. Should we expect all the students to be activists as well?

In the sixties many campuses were hotbeds of social unrest. But the 60s were a time of global unrest not just the local college campus. It was truly a different time. Maybe that is the point. Now is a truly different time. There is an existential threat to the human species and young people will see the worst of it. If there was ever a case for student activism it would be now.

We expect much from our schools. Time and again we have been told that we expect too much. There is truth to that last statement. However, we need to turn somewhere and push someone. Schools are the obvious target. They are organized, dedicated to young people and should be alive to new ideas. In the end, though, it seems that students have to take the first step. What might help is for schools at all levels to make the existential threat of our life time more visible to them.

Devote a component of each class or program to climate change and environmental degradation. I would challenge anyone to see that every phase of life is affected; our mental health, physical well being, the structures we build, the cities we plan, the health care systems and economic institutions we depend on. Schools can encourage participation in campus organizations that target climate change, sponsor more programs and events that help students understand the issues and their importance. It would be nice to know that they feel a sense of urgency about climate change.

Schools, at all levels, seem to be concerned with their campus when it comes to sustainability. What energy do they use, how do they handle trash, the water usage, green spaces, etc. Perhaps they believe that is the appropriate role and feel that is all they can do. I don’t profess to know that politics of it all. Can schools aggressively advance an agenda on climate change without blowback from someone? I don’t know. I do know this though. Without our schools to lead the way the chances of the next generations surviving are greatly diminished.


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