It’s Easy Being Green: Sustainable Learning

America’s colleges and universities are riding a green wave in the fight against global warming. Here are some of the leaders.

The fight against global warming on college campuses is continuing to generate steam. There are now 514 signatories for the American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment, almost 600 U.S. and Canadian schools organizing around clean-energy solutions as part of the Campus Climate Challenge, and competitions such as RecycleMania challenging schools to see who can reduce the most waste.

The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee will gather tomorrow for a hearing on reducing greenhouse gas emissions at U.S. colleges and universities, so we’re taking a look this week at the higher education institutions leading the way in transforming their campuses into cleaner, more sustainable learning environments—in short, the “greenest schools.”

The College of the Atlantic: The College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, ME offers human ecology as its only major and has a history of environmental awareness going back to the 1970s. In 1972, students helped pass Maine’s returnable beverage container bill. The tradition continues, as the college was the first to pledge carbon neutrality and held a zero-waste graduation in 2005. As of December 2007, the college had “reduced, avoided, or offset all of its greenhouse gas emissions.”

Oberlin College: In 2005, students and faculty at Oberlin College in Oberlin, OH collaborated on a web-based campus resource monitoring system for dorms that tracks how much water and energy students are using, enabling them to make adjustments to their habits. Last year, students worked with Cleveland-based CityWheels to create a car-sharing program on campus. Oberlin houses Ohio’s largest solar array and is transitioning to 100 percent earth-friendly cleaning products. Half of its electricity comes from green sources, and a third of the food in the dining halls is produced locally.

Middlebury College: The board of trustees at Middlebury College in Middlebury, VT approved a student-driven proposal to make the school carbon neutral by 2016, which is only one of the school’s many eco-efforts. Students, along with scholar and climate crusader Bill McKibben, organized the national Step It Up 2007 campaign to protest global warming, which led to hundreds of rallies in all 50 states. The school is currently building an $11 million biomass plant and has exchanged more than 2,000 incandescent light bulbs for energy-efficient equivalents.

These schools’ efforts are laudable. But what’s best of all is that these initiatives are hardly isolated. All over the country, driven by passionate students and faculty, colleges and universities are creating a new generation of activists who are learning lessons and forming habits for future sustainable lifestyles and commitments to the planet. More schools are becoming laboratories for experimenting with climate solutions and training grounds for the leaders who will take charge in the massive effort needed to battle global warming in the coming decades.

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