Looking Forward by Looking Back: Earth Day 41 Years Later

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When Gaylord Nelson developed the concept of Earth Day 41 years ago, he was looking for a way to raise the profile of environmental issues at the federal level and garner political support to address a visibly ailing environment across the country. While first attempts, including a Presidential tour of national parks, began a conversation, it wasn’t until Nelson recognized the grassroots efforts happening across college campuses in protest of the Vietnam War as a strategy that may also work to draw attention to environmental neglect at home.

Colleges and universities provided a powerful platform for raising awareness during the early stages of the environmental movement and remain a critical resource for advancing social, economic and environmental interrelationships emblematic of  sustainability initiatives today. Responding to current and projected demand for skills in the burgeoning field of sustainability, curricula and entire fields of study have been developed, redesigned and expanded. Degrees in sustainability policy, renewable energy technology, corporate social responsibility, even “green” MBAs, are becoming standard academic fare across campuses.

As physical centers, college and university campuses themselves often closely resemble and act as micro versions of cities. Many own, operate, and maintain their own utilities, transportation systems, recreational fields, housing, infrastructure, medical facilities, and public safety programs – and almost all do so through complex financial systems which, like cities, are also typically stretched to their limits. In spite of the challenges, and in some cases because of them, college and universities have also been taking the lead on a number of sustainability initiatives and similar to their surrounding cities, are creating sustainability plans and implementing programs to maximize efficiency and create a high quality of life for their residents.

Institutions of higher education also have an asset that many cities strive to attract – large populations of young, creative, talented and highly skilled individuals, the future workforce of the country – and in many cases, are interested in sharing this resource with the surrounding community. Many college and graduate level courses routinely require students to gain hands-on experience in their field through internships or similar learning opportunities, commonly through partnerships with local organizations, business and agencies. Such opportunities are designed to provide mutually beneficial exchanges between partners, are often unpaid and in many cases, result in competitive placements and high-quality outputs.

Colleges and universities have long been laboratories, implementers and visionary leaders in the field of sustainability. Committed to preparing tomorrow’s leaders and finding the solutions to emerging challenges, they are also excellent resources for new ideas often born of interdisciplinary collaboration. Meanwhile, across the broader community, and decades after that first Earth Day sought political recognition of environmental challenges, support for sustainability efforts is today visible in the active leadership, policies and programs of local governments taking steps to increase quality of life, maintain stable and robust economies and protect natural resources for future generations.

Partnerships between cities and universities have a long history spanning across issue areas.  As both sides increasingly find themselves needing to do more with less, might there be additional opportunities to develop, expand and strengthen these partnerships to promote and advance sustainability practices within today’s communities while engaging and learning with tomorrow’s leaders? Today, as we celebrate Earth Day, let’s remember the important role of college and universities – both then and now – and continue to find ways for cities and institutions of higher education to work together to lead the way towards a more sustainable tomorrow.