Colleges can build ecologically sustainable campuses, societies

Author, biologist Sandra Steingraber promotes "green" curriculum development, student activism and institutional practices

October 09, 2008

Sandra SteingraberHigher education has opportunities to help build a sustainable society in three areas, according to author and biologist Sandra Steingraber, speaking October 8 at Knox College.

In addition to serving as "incubators for new ideas," such as sustainability, colleges can contribute in curriculum, student activism and institutional practices, Steingraber said in a campus lecture sponsored by Knox's Presidential Task Force on Sustainability.

  • In the curriculum, colleges and universities should develop new courses in areas like environmental literature and environmental law, Steingraber said. She also took aim at her own field, biology, which "needs to be freed from slavery to the MCAT" -- the Medical College Admission Test that, she said, focuses on molecular and cell biology and ignores ecology. "Don't we need doctors who understand ecology?"
  • Student activism in environmental issues is consistent with the roles that previous campus generations had in promoting other historic changes, such as the civil rights, anti-war, anti-apartheid and anti-sweatshop movements.
  • "In the operation of the university itself... every new building can be a showpiece" for energy conservation, Steingraber said. Campus dining halls can purchase locally grown organic food, and gifts of land from alumni can be dedicated to sustainable agriculture, she said.

Also critical of United States government regulations of toxic chemicals, Steingraber said the U.S. should follow the European model, where the suspicion of biological hazard is enough to pull a chemical from the market. Currently a scholar in residence at Ithaca College, Steingraber is a native of central Illinois who has written extensively on environmental health.

Founded in 1837, Knox is a national liberal arts college in Galesburg, Illinois, with students from 48 states and 42 nations. Knox's "Old Main" is a National Historic Landmark and the only building remaining from the 1858 Lincoln-Douglas debates.

"We're in the midst of an ecological crisis and an economic crisis... when you erode diversity, you create fragility... if you have fewer banks, likewise when you wipe out species, the system is more prone to collapse..." Sandra Steingraber at Knox College; below, greeting students at a post-lecture book signing.

Sandra Steingraber