Thursday September 15, 2016

Our Common Home

By Eric Spina

When Madalyn Beban and her friends talk about their passion for sustainability, it gives me hope for the future of our planet.

Over lunch, Madalyn, a junior mechanical engineering major from Akron, brought together a dozen student leaders — from the Hanley Sustainability Institute to the Sustainability Club and ETHOS — to introduce me to ways the sustainability movement is taking root on campus. Some students are looking at the feasibility of installing green roofs. Others are River Stewards dedicated to the conservation of the Great Miami River watershed. Still others are working with community partners to transform a former Dayton Public Schools site into an urban farm.

I was so moved by their stories. The issue is complex, but their passion is contagious. As educators, we can encourage them to believe in what’s possible, help them to think big — and smooth their paths so they can move their ideas to reality.

Our students' efforts to protect our world draws attention to a global imperative, the need to be stewards of what Pope Francis calls “our common home.”

Climate change, the pope argued in a sweeping encyclical issued last year, “represents one of the principal challenges facing humanity in our day,” largely because of its disproportionate impact on the poor around the globe. Pope Francis urges us to hear both “the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor.”

Long before the pope spotlighted the issue, though, our students were deeply committed to sustainability with a capital S. This generation recognizes environmental stewardship is a social justice issue that extends beyond reducing greenhouse gases on campus to building sustainable neighborhoods and communities — from the city of Dayton to the villages of Africa and Guatemala.

In labs across campus, students are involved in researching wind, fuel cells and batteries, algae, coal-to-liquid fuels and other clean, alternative energy research. Engineering students are conducting energy audits for regional industries. And in the Rivers Institute, students motor the RiverMobile to local schools to educate students about the importance of preserving the watershed.

Closer to home, students are thinking about ways we can conduct our everyday business in a more environmentally friendly way that can lead to cost savings.

Sparked by a recommendation from a student-led research project, the University has invested $1 million in a new Green Revolving Fund and is looking at the entire campus community as a laboratory, classroom and testing ground for energy-saving ideas. Here's how it works: Anyone on campus can suggest a project, which is given the go-ahead based on projected savings and the educational value. When the project is up and running, energy savings are tracked and those savings are credited back to the fund to provide funding for the next project.

Through the Hanley Sustainability Institute, innovative courses like SEE 401 (Research on Campus Sustainability) and the ongoing work of our facilities management division, students last semester received a list of more than three dozen projects that could be inexpensively implemented.

It’s encouraging that one effort is already under way by the Hanley Sustainability Institute. The UD Sustainability Representatives and Leaders (UDSRL) program provides experiential learning opportunities for students working on projects and programming sponsored by the institute. These students are organizing events that encourage students to make simple lifestyle changes to help the environment and are working alongside the facilities management staff to develop and install a green roof on the Kennedy Union patio.

It's not easy to change the world, but creating a sustainable future is the right thing to do. I believe Madalyn and other student leaders have the imagination and passion to do just that.

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