Earth Day began 49 years ago as an idea for a national teach-in on the environment and gained immediate traction on college campuses across the country. Today, we need stronger collaborations among Texas higher education institutions, the private sector and local governments.
Simply put, the Texas environmental movement is strong on college campuses, but we can do better.
There was an urgency in 1970, driven by the political and social issues of the time. But it also had a focus on the big environmental issues that spanned politics and was grounded in a moral responsibility to safeguard the quality of life of future generations – or at least, not to undermine future generations.
But now the urgency is measurably greater. It can be seen and felt with increasingly extreme weather events such as local flooding, stronger hurricanes and tougher droughts; the many pressures of rapidly growing cities and suburbs; and the resulting water, mobility, health and humanitarian challenges for which there are no silver bullets.
We can’t just hope for meaningful change at the highest levels of government. We need to double down on our work at the local level.
The burden with dealing with environmental challenges inexorably falls to city and county governments. And they need help. Every square inch of Texas is also served by a community college district, and we have more than 90 four-year universities, both public and private, spread across the state.
All of these local governments, and their neighborhood higher education institutions, collaborate daily with nonprofits and the business sector, from local farms to multinational energy companies. And of all these entities, at the end of the day, are doing what they do to improve the quality of life of every Texan – that’s why you should care that they all work together better.
There are successes to be told. Even before the recent Environment Texas 100% Renewable campaign aimed at universities and community colleges across Texas, we were investing in renewable energy – from building solar arrays on campus, as at Austin Community College and Huston-Tillotson University, and buying into Texas solar and wind developments through programs such as the Texas Power Pool created by the Texas comptroller’s office.
Beyond energy, Texas higher education institutions are evaluating how to keep improving campus food systems, waste reduction, reuse and diversion programs, water conservation programs, and the design, construction and operation of green buildings. In 2013 we formed the Texas Regional Alliance for Campus Sustainability, which has traveled to Commerce, Lubbock, South Padre, Stephenville, College Station, and even Austin.
But these successes are not enough. There is a shadow on our hopes and efforts. We wonder how we can better support this next generation as they learn about the world they are inheriting and rise up to the challenges our generation is leaving them.
To truly access the full benefits of our potential future opportunities – and minimize the potential risks – government, business and higher education need to invest in one another even more fully. Texas higher education institutions need to reenergize the “town and gown” movement with an environmental edge if we want to best support Texans and their local communities.
For example, Planet Texas 2050 initiative of The University of Texas at Austin is an eight-year research effort to support communities state-wide, including in Central Texas. This will overlap well with City of Austin efforts to update their 2015 Austin Community Climate Plan, in part with funding from Bloomberg Philanthropies through their American Cities Climate Challenge.
In the Dallas area, the seven colleges of the Dallas County Community College District are working with Texas’ State Energy Conservation Office to take the district’s current energy savings programs to the next level; they plan to transition to 100 percent renewable energy by 2024.
These examples are what we need more of across the region and the state.
Every corner of our state has its own natural beauty and environmental challenges and Texans who care about both. With one year before we celebrate the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, let’s see how far we can take the initiatives already launched, and what new ideas we can imagine together.
Jim Walker is the director of sustainability at The University of Texas at Austin.