Charlotte Alter / TIME

Want to Heal the Planet? Make Environmental Degrees Free

Apr 22, 2014
Charlotte Alter / TIME 

Young people are facing two enormous problems: income inequality fueled by the rising cost of college, and the fact that they're entering adulthood and will be raising their families on a planet with a climate that is growing less stable and more dangerous all the time. There’s a way to begin addressing both of these problems at once. It’s not cheap, but it’s not as expensive as rebuilding New York City, and it’s much better for the economy.

Think of it as the G.I. Bill, but for a different kind of war. Students who study environmental science, engineering, or design in college and then spend five post-grad years fighting climate change could have their tuition paid by the U.S. Government. The plan could even share the name of the 1944 bill that educated millions of post-war Americans: G.I., for Green Innovation.

Environmental science suffers from a chronic brain drought, and the reasons aren't hard to understand: green careers don't have a big payoff like business or engineering and they don't set students on as secure a professional path as do, say, law and medicine. In 2012, over ten times as many students in the U.S. graduated with business degrees (almost 367,000) as with degrees that involved agriculture or natural resources (under 31,000.) Degrees in health and psychology (over 272,000) were nine times as common as green majors. Overall, environmental science is the 60th most popular college major in today's working population, behind anthropology (#55) and music (#37,) according to a Georgetown University study of college majors and the workforce. Environmental Engineering fared even worse, finishing at #144, behind zoology (#119) and cosmetology (#115.)

Jeffrey Koseff, one of the Faculty Directors of Stanford's prestigious Woods Institute for the Environment, said most of the students who study environmental issues are motivated by "altruism," and a "long-term sense of social responsibility." Those are qualities that don't exactly translate into a big following on campus.

And no wonder, considering the amount of debt students are juggling. According to numbers recently released by the Federal Reserve of New York, student loan debt rose 300% between 2003 and 2013, to a nationwide total of $1.2 trillion, and rose 10% last year alone. People under 30 were in $322 billion dollars of student debt as of 2012. Graduating with bills like that doesn't exactly motivate you to prioritize the welfare of the world over making money. But something's got to give. Terrifying reports released by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) earlier this year warned that unless we take swift and decisive action, rising sea levels, melting ice, and greenhouse gas emissions will raise the planet's temperature to a point that threatens to destroy the world's food supply and flood coastal communities like New York, Los Angeles, and Miami.

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"To take climate change seriously, it means we need to mobilize at a scale we cannot imagine," said David Orr, who once taught environmental science at Oberlin College and is now in charge of its Oberlin Project, which aims to build an example of a sustainable economy in the Rust Belt. "We need a World War II-level mobilization to equip a generation with the intellectual and practical skills to fight the biggest civilizational crisis ever."

Of course, a deluge of environmental scientists isn't necessarily going to solve climate change. "Science by itself isn’t going to dig us out of the problem we’re in," said Darron Collins, President of the College of the Atlantic, a small college in Maine that focuses on Human Ecology. "We pretty much know what the issues are, and we know a lot of what it takes to reverse it, but when you get down to it, it’s also going to take a very serious amount of behavior change on our own part."

Collins is right, but if education shapes behavior, then mass education shapes civilization, and a civilization shift is what we need right now. A generation steeped in environmental science would be more likely to recycle, more likely to buy sustainable products, and more likely to elect lawmakers to pass climate change legislation. Even environmental graduates who don't go into into the green sector would become better stewards of the planet. Imagine if the CEO of General Motors or the R&D director of General Electric had environmental science degrees. "No matter what they wind up doing, a degree in human ecology is a step towards a more ecologically sustainable planet,” Collins said.

Certainly there's the question of whether there would be enough environmental science jobs even for the share of graduates who do want to go into the field. "Jobs in the government and nonprofit sectors are not increasing as quickly as one would like," said Buzz Thompson, a co-director of the Stanford program with Koseff. A green G.I. Bill would thus have to coordinate its efforts with government-backed groups like the Peace Corps and NGOs like the Gates Foundation so that graduates could travel around the world, taking on such challenges as providing clean water to rural villages and low-emission or no-emission vehicles to congested cities.

But it stands to reason too that investing in young problem-solvers would likely yield creative, sustainable solutions in the private sector—generating both jobs and economic stimulus. "Whether it be green technology companies or consulting firms, there’s a real opportunity for students to be truly pioneering entrepreneurs and come up with these new, efficient, sensible solutions to environmental issues," Thompson said. "But it’s hard to start a business if you're loaded with debt."

Yes, this kind of initiative is a heavy lift, perhaps even politically impossible, especially with the current Congress. But part of the reason there is so much inertia around climate change is that the problem seems too big to solve. But sooner or later the planet will make the decision for us, whether we want it to or not. Allocating some extra money to environmental education today is a whole lot easier than relocating Florida tomorrow. The problems aren't going away. Doesn't it make sense to motivate our best minds to solve them?

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