If you attended this year's commencement at Williams College in western Massachusetts, you probably sampled the fresh cinnamon gelato made from locally produced, hormone-free milk. You might have tried the organic greens with edible chive blossoms (purple, of course, the Williams color) or sampled the fresh asparagus—all from nearby farms. These dishes not only tasted better than standard fare but also saved fossil fuels normally used to ship food long distances. Disposable plates and cutlery were nowhere to be found, reducing trash by 80 percent. And the rare disposable items were ecofriendly. "We used compostable paper napkins and biodegradable straws," says Stephanie Boyd, who helped organize the "green commencement" as part of her job as chair of Williams's climate-action committee.
It was not a stunt to impress parents. More and more colleges are getting serious about going green. In June, 284 university presidents representing some of the nation's most influential schools announced an agreement pledging to make their campuses "carbon neutral." The message was clear. "We're saying that sustainability is no longer an elective," says Cornell president David Skorton.
Their motivation wasn't merely to reduce energy consumption and waste. As a $315 billion sector of the economy—and one that will train future leaders—higher education has a special responsibility to encourage environmental stewardship. The university presidents hope that even students who don't pursue increasingly popular majors in environmental studies will learn simply from being on a green campus, living in green buildings, eating sustainable food and absorbing everyday messages of conservation. And who knows? Far-reaching environmental programs may create an air of excitement that attracts applicants. "In the long run, students will say, 'Why would I want to go to a school that doesn't care about this?' " says Michael Crow, president of Arizona State University, which has made a major commitment to sustainability.
At Harvard, going green starts before students even arrive on campus, when freshmen receive mailings urging them to buy only energy-efficient refrigerators for their dorm rooms and purchase compact fluorescent bulbs, which use an average of 18 watts apiece instead of 75. But some of the most effective lobbying comes from students themselves. Harvard pays 20 undergraduates to help get the green message out to fellow students in a fun way. That might mean whipping up a competition between residential houses to win the coveted Green Cup for the greatest energy reductions and biggest increases in recycling. Or it could be organizing trash-free dances or green movie nights ("Who Killed the Electric Car?") with free ice cream for anyone who brings a recyclable bowl. One day a year, students collect trash from Harvard Yard and pile it into a single heap, dubbed "Mount Trashmore." The giant mound reminds students how much they are throwing away—and how much waste they could avoid by recycling. Students even compete to come up with the best eco-themed cartoons. This year's second-place winner showed Marilyn Monroe with her iconic billowing skirt under the caption wind does great things. The fun adds up to serious savings. "Energy use in the dorms has decreased 15 percent over the past few years, and recycling has risen 40 percent," says Leith Sharp, head of the Harvard Green Campus Initiative.
At many schools, the construction of a new building is another chance to push green solutions. "What message does a conventional campus send?" asks David Orr, who teaches environmental studies at Oberlin. "It sends the message that energy is cheap and plentiful." At Oberlin and other colleges, administrators are seeking to reverse that message with energy-efficient buildings. The Lewis Center at Oberlin, opened in 2000, was one of the first. It's powered entirely by solar arrays, which produce 30 percent more energy than the building consumes—and this is in cloudy Ohio. Sensors throughout the building monitor energy use. And all wastewater is purified on site in a "living machine," an artificial wetland with carefully selected tropical plants and microorganisms that filter the water. Located in the building's lobby, the living machine looks like a greenhouse. "You'd have no clue it's a wastewater system," says Orr. It even includes an indoor waterfall, powered by the sun, with 600 gallons of water flowing across a rocky surface. As long as the sun is shining, the water flows. Orr credits the building with having helped to inspire hundreds of Oberlin students to choose professions in ecodesign, architecture and related fields—including Sadhu Johnston, class of 1998, who joined other students in brainstorming ideas for the new building and who now works as environment commissioner of Chicago.
If buildings can influence people, so can something as profound as the food we eat. Melina Shannon-DiPietro of the Yale Sustainable Food Project says she tries to "seduce students into the sustainable-food movement" with tasty dishes. Favorites include grass-fed-beef burgers from a nearby farmers' cooperative and pizzas made with organic flour, heirloom tomatoes and organic basil. In all, 40 percent of the university's menu items now come from local organic farms. "Most food travels 1,500 miles before we eat it," she says. "It doesn't taste fresh, and transporting it long distances adds to the university's carbon footprint." Eating locally and organically solves those problems. And, as students learn from placards in the dining halls, the benefits don't stop there. "Connecticut loses farmland at the rate of 8,000 to 9,000 acres a year," says Shannon-DiPietro. "Supporting local farmers helps maintain a working agricultural landscape."
For those who want to go the extra carbon-neutral mile and formally study the environment, the possibilities are expanding. Sustainability has become a multidisciplinary field that goes beyond ecology and biodiversity to embrace architecture, engineering, urban planning, economics and public health. Arizona State has just opened an entire School of Sustainability that will start taking undergraduates in the fall of 2008, drawing faculty from 25 departments. "Sustainability is the linchpin," says Oberlin's Orr. "If you get it right, it reduces dependence on Middle East oil, cuts carbon emissions, takes care of pollution, reduces health-care costs associated with pollution, and creates jobs." ASU is now working on the employment aspect, set-ting up a high-tech business park to draw innovative, eco-oriented businesses from around the world—and to provide internships and, ultimately, employment for students. Early occupants include a Chinese water-purification company and a firm making lenses that focus more sunshine onto solar panels, generating added power for less money.
As vigorously as colleges are encouraging students to research environmental problems, students are prodding colleges to purchase renewable energy and set ambitious carbon targets. In part because of student lobbying, Middlebury College in Vermont adopted a goal of carbon neutrality by 2016, says Nan Jenks-Jay, dean of environmental affairs. "Students were telling us, 'You're not doing enough'," she says. Undergrads at dozens of schools have gone so far as to vote for increases in their activities fees to help finance green initiatives. At St. Mary's College of Maryland, for example, 93 percent of students voted last spring for a $25 annual increase in fees, which will raise approximately $45,000 a year for the purchase of renewable energy.
There is, of course, room for improvement. "Not a single campus is even close to achieving sustainability at this point," says Richard Olson of Kentucky's Berea College, which aims to reduce its energy consumption 45 percent below 2000 levels by 2015. "Colleges need to get out ahead and model truly sustainable behavior to society."
Many students are helping to do just that. This June, a group of 11 Dartmouth students struck out across the country in a big green school bus fueled by waste oil from fast-food restaurants. The bus itself contains the filters that make the french-fry grease usable. Stopping at parks and music festivals, the vehicle became "a science fair on wheels," says senior Brent Butler. But for sheer creativity, few top Allison Rogers, Harvard class of 2004. After wrestling with her feminist principles, she ran for and won the 2006 Miss Rhode Island title on a green platform and spent the next year delivering a version of Al Gore's slide show to schools and civic groups. It may be an inconvenient truth—but her post gave Rogers a very convenient way to spread the word.