When John Mulrow, a Stanford senior, pledged for Sigma Nu, he wasn't thinking about saving the environment. Yet somehow he ended up with a new position created just for him—"sustain- ability chair." You could almost hear the toga parties collapsing. For years, fraternities have been all about getting wasted, not preventing waste—not that Mulrow is a vocal opponent of the former. He even thought organic beer would be a great addition to the chapter's fridges. But with colleges clamping down on alcohol use, he turned
his energies instead to greening Sigma Nu's most ambitious event of the year, a weekend-long party in May 2008. He printed fliers on discarded paper, replaced nonrecyclable red-plastic cups with recyclables and purchased used lumber to build a canopy over the backyard for bands and DJs—a measure that not only saved trees, but also cut costs for the structure in half. "The morning after, we cleaned up the glass, aluminum and plastic into big recycling bins," Mulrow says. "There was hardly any landfill-bound trash at all."
Environmentalism is taking serious root on campuses. You can see it across the nation, from the zero-waste stadium at the University of California, Davis, to a $10,000 gift of solar panels to Vassar from the class of 2007. Students have gotten into the spirit, waging competitions to boost recycling and slash energy use in dorms. There are courses and entire majors built around environmental issues. There are even a few scholarships. The newfound attention makes sense. Higher education is well positioned to shape not only eco-aware citizens, but green engineers, architects and policymakers. Cornell president David Skorton puts it best: "Sustainability is no longer an elective."
For evidence of how the movement has spread, consider the nationwide RecycleMania competition among colleges. The 2008 champion wasn't a powerhouse university like Harvard or Stanford with an established reputation for environmentalism. It was tiny Kalamazoo College in Michigan. During the 10-week contest, K'zoo students recycled 59 percent of their trash. (Harvard and Stanford totaled 27 percent and 30 percent, respectively.) Members of the recycling club launched a "dorm storm," ambushing students in their rooms and preaching the virtues of waste reduction. They collected recyclables from public bins around campus—even carting Styrofoam and old computers to companies that could reprocess them. They cut discarded books from bindings so the paper could be recycled. Even old chairs, mugs, speaker systems—and a piano—found new life at the campus exchange, a room full of secondhand stuff that's free.
Green buildings are also cropping up on campuses, from Duke with its green-roofed "Smart Home" (a dorm that also functions as a laboratory for green living) to the new University of California, Merced, where all the buildings meet the exacting standards of the U.S. Green Building Council. One of the most unusual projects is at Furman University in Greenville, S.C. In June 2008, the college opened a solar-powered showcase home called Cliffs Cottage in conjunction with Southern Living magazine. At 3,400 square feet, it could be an environmentalist's trophy home. It features geothermal heating, organic gardens, bamboo flooring (since bamboo is quick-growing) and Energy Star appliances. The house generates six to 10 times more energy than it uses, thanks to solar panels outside and energy-sparing technologies within. For a year, Cliffs Cottage will be open to the public. After that, it will become Furman's Center for Sustainability, with classes on green living.
No matter how many efficiencies are built in, though, the edge can be eroded if a building's inhabitants guzzle energy by leaving on lights and computers not in use. At Dartmouth, four dorms now have flat-screen LCD displays in the hallways showing cartoonlike polar bears in various levels of comfort or distress, depending on the amount of energy being used on the floor at that moment. As depicted by graphic-arts minor Sonia Lei, high energy use sends the bears plunging into the sea as their ice floes melt and crack. Low energy use keeps them happy and healthy, chasing butterflies on their bergs. "This isn't meant to be realistic, but engaging, and to give real-time feedback," says Lorie Loeb, director of student digital-arts projects. At Oberlin College in Ohio, six dorms have wall-mounted "energy orbs" in the lobbies. The glass domes glow with colors from red (indicating double the normal energy use) to green (when the load is half of the usual), with a full gradient of oranges, yellows and lime greens in between. The orbs serve as a nonverbal reminder. "You don't even have to consciously look at the orb, it just enters your awareness," says John Petersen, chair of environmental studies. Students wanting more information can go to a Web site showing energy consumption dorm by dorm. It even lets users convert kilowatt-hours into the resulting CO2 and mercury emissions.
For those seeking more-rigorous ways to study the environment, there's no lack of options. Colorado State University offers more than 100 courses in fields from engineering to atmospheric science. "Students can work with professors who are engaged in the latest ideas on reducing climate change and producing new energy sources," says CSU president Larry Edward Penley. Several years ago, engineering students came up with a way to retrofit two-stroke engines on snowmobiles, making for cleaner, more efficient machines. A company called Envirofit International is now marketing the technology in Asia to help cut pollution from auto rickshaws. Students will also be able to help with multiple research projects at the huge new wind farm CSU is building.
It's not just the sciences that offer opportunities for study. Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa., has more than 70 classes in departments like policy studies and history. "Humans have transformed the environment, and the environment has affected human events," says environmental historian Jeremy Vetter. He points to the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, when severe dust storms devastated so much farmland that the government stepped in to help save topsoil. Furman has even added a core-curriculum requirement for environmental studies, with classes like The Sustainable Corporation and Environmental Writing. And the college offers scholarships of up to $7,500 a year to environmentally active students. "I'm tired of looking to the next administration in government to do something about the environment," says Frank Powell, the campus's "sustainability guru."
Students like Roque Sanchez, an environmental-engineering major at Rice University in Houston, are already leading the way. He's head of Rice's team in the prestigious Solar Decathlon, an international competition sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy. The goal: to design and build an attractive house powered solely by the sun, yet with adequate power for normal household use. That's tough enough, but Sanchez and his team have upped the ante by aiming for a house suitable for low-income families. In October 2009, the finished houses from all 20 teams will be transported to Washington, D.C., where they will be on display on the Mall for a month. After that, the Rice team will donate its house to a family in Houston.
Ultimately, the goal for many students will be to translate their experiences into internships and jobs. For Maggie Stonecash, a 2008 Dickinson graduate, that means spending six months helping to manage the college's 15-acre organic farm. She and her fellow interns take field trips to places like the Rodale Institute, which is a leader in sustainable farming, and to nearby farms that raise grass-fed beef or use "no till" practices to spare the topsoil. They live on the farm for "full immersion" (and they live in yurts—large, round Mongolian-style tents, which are solar-powered and off the grid). "I feel passionate about organic farming as a way to help bring back a sustainable lifestyle," Stonecash says. More power to her.