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Pope’s message on ecology resonates with college students


Planet_EarthAlthough classes are not in session, Pope Francis’ call for a more sustainable future, sounded in On Care for Our Common Home (Laudato Si’), resonates on college campuses this summer. Colleges and universities by nature tend to take the long view—both in their mission to educate citizens and in their desire to sustain thriving institutions. The vision of environmental sustainability fits well with these priorities.
 
Today’s college students certainly understand the pope’s message. From my position as director of sustainability at the University of Pennsylvania, I see every year’s incoming class more keen to adopt sustainable practices—and eager to collaborate with administrators and faculty seeking to reduce our campus’s environmental impact. It’s not surprising—it’s their future that we university staff and professors are helping to create. Students feel an appropriate sense of ownership of their campuses, and they believe that colleges and universities should be leading the way in changing how we live, how we treat each other, and how we treat the planet. After all, if colleges and universities don’t take the lead, then who will?
 
Universities have often been early adopters of societal transformations. Colleges are full of young people, open to new ideas and hopeful that the society they build will be more open, more inclusive, and more just.
 
But there’s a second reason why campus communities are at the forefront of social change, and certainly at the forefront of environmental awareness. University and college campuses are physical spaces each with a particular character and history. Much smaller than cities, they are places where students live, work, study, play, and socialize in close proximity to each other—spending every minute of the day on campus for weeks at a time. Places like these develop particular meaning for their inhabitants: students care about them and for them.
 
Campuses share these characteristics with other intentional communities. Students apply for admission (and pay to stay at school); staff members compete for jobs; and faculty face perhaps the most severe selection process of all: tenure review. Everyone at a university wants to be there; most everyone respects and cares for the institution; and all that care to are granted the opportunity to participate in making it better.
 
Academic institutions are intentional communities in another way that is rare in our culture. Although diversity of opinion is welcome (eagerly pursued, in fact), campuses engender a sense of shared mission among its inhabitants: a love of learning; respect for accumulated knowledge and the traditions of scholarship; and a common spirit of inquiry. Places with such shared values are, as has been often pointed out, the places where sustainable practices and habits are most likely to arise.
 
Campuses with shared values are also the places where you find yearning for social justice, and students intuitively relate to Pope Francis when he quotes the wisdom of the Dominican bishops in Laudato Si’: “Peace, justice, and the preservation of creation are three absolutely interconnected themes, which cannot be separated…” Social equity and a sustainable future are tied together. The urgent pleas for social justice, so evidenced on American college campuses in this year rife with examples of institutional injustice, are tied to the yearning for a better future for all. The desires to reduce carbon emissions or promote biodiversity are, after all, not ends in themselves, but means to achieve a more livable planet for everyone.
 
The University of Pennsylvania is committed to reducing our environmental footprint and improving social equity in our city, our region, and throughout the world. And, I’m happy to say, we’re far from alone in our efforts to do so. Through the Ivy Plus Sustainability Consortium (to name just one of many coalitions of universities), Penn has committed to working cooperatively with thirteen other research institutions to improve social equity while reducing our collective environmental impact. We meet annually to share best practices and engage in joint research projects focused in institutional sustainability. We’re fortunate to have support from our university presidents, trustees, faculty, and students in these endeavors, and are working hard to make progress. This year, we also have a powerful ally in Pope Francis, who is helping to galvanize communities of faith on campuses across the world. His call to seek social justice through environmental improvement will not go unheeded, and we are looking forward to seeing the impact of his message on college campuses over the coming years.
 
RENEW International is working with the Catholic Climate Covenant and Greenfaith to produce a small-group resource on Pope Francis’ encyclical for parishes, college campuses, and religious communities. For more information, visit www.renewintl.org/renewearth
 
Dan Garofalo is director of environmental sustainability at the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia.

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2 Responses to “Pope’s message on ecology resonates with college students”


 
  1. Honora Nolty, OP says:

    Such “good news, full of hope and vision. It would be interesting to hear the best practices of students in relation to this. Too often comments are glibly made that young people are focused only on themselves; this blog offers a different view.

  2. Judy Bonneville says:

    I believe in global commitment towards working to stop green house gases. !

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