Verner: Training up environmental stewards

  • Posted: Monday, May 2, 2011 12:01 a.m.
    UPDATED: Wednesday, October 26, 2011 12:19 a.m.

When it comes to confronting environmental challenges such as expanding green energy, sustaining ocean fisheries or providing a thirsty world with pure water, you couldn’t blame America’s youth if they were worried about the future.
Actually, they’re a pretty optimistic bunch. American high school students see many of our problems, particularly in the environmental realm, as solvable through creative thinking and technological innovation, according to the Lemelson-MIT Invention Index, a periodic nationwide survey that gauges Americans’ attitudes toward invention and innovotation. On clean water, 91 percent of the high-school students polled nationwide expect technology to create a solution. A can-do majority, 82 percent, foresee significant strides in energy conservation in the coming years, and 84 percent believe we’ll eventually clean up the world’s pollution problems.
Those findings won’t surprise Dr. John Wear, director of the Center for the Environment at Catawba College. As a longtime teacher, he’s spent decades around smart, engaged young people who want to apply their talents in positive ways. He expects to meet a lot more of them this summer when the center hosts the National Youth Environmental Summit from July 20-25. The summit will bring together 200 or so high school juniors and seniors from around the country for workshops, field trips, group projects, lectures and other exercises. These activities will integrate environmentalism with a range of disciplines and interests — from public speaking to performing arts to computing — led by members of Catawba’s faculty along with staff from the center and the Rocky Mountain Institute, which is partnering on the project.
“I’ve found over time that more and more students have an interest in environmental stewardship but may not see themselves working in environmental areas as their primary job,” Wear says. “They’re looking for ways to apply their interests to the environment.”
At the “Redesigning Our Future” summit, students will explore ways to combine individual interests with environmentalism while developing leadership skills, with an emphasis on three areas: whole systems thinking, collaboration and effective communication.
Whole systems thinking is an area of increasing importance in the environmental arena, Wear said, and one in which RMI has developed considerable expertise through its work with corporations and government agencies to improve profitability and efficiency while reducing waste. It involves taking a holistic approach to problem-solving with the realization that changing one part of a system — whether an ecosystem, a global manufacturing network or a social group — inevitably affects other parts as well.
“When you look at environmental issues, you sometimes see a failure to think in terms of whole systems,” Wear said. “There’s a failure to understand what that means.”
For example, whole systems thinking might warn that introducing kudzu to the South for erosion control could have unwanted consequences. Ditto for envisioning an economic bonanza from nutria fur farming.
The corporate world has embraced whole systems thinking in a big way, with companies such as Food Lion, Walmart, Lowe’s and UPS incorporating sustainability experts in their management teams. What critics might once have dismissed as “green-washing” is an increasingly important part of strategic planning. Summit participants will learn how it works.
“We’ll have group activities in which students will look at how to think in terms of whole systems,” Wear said.
While whole-systems exercises will help students grasp the importance of looking at the big picture, other sessions will explore how collaboration and partnerships can harness the energies of entire communities. Programs on communication will help students hone writing, speaking and other presentation skills.
The summit has been a longterm project, with planning going back more than a year. Major sponsors helping to underwrite costs include the Blanche and Julian Robertson Foundation, Schneider Electric, the late Robert Pruehsner and his wife and First United Church of Christ Foundation. Students who will be high school juniors or seniors for the 2011-12 academic year are eligible and can download an application at the center’s website (www.centerfortheenvironment.org). Thanks to generous sponsors, tuition has been set at $200 (including housing and meals), which is significantly lower than initial projections, and some financial aid will be available. Businesses or individuals who want to help sponsor students should contact the center.
Wear expects the summit to draw participants from around the country. The center has already received inquiries from several states, including California and Washington. While the students are likely to arrive brimming with energy and optimism, Wear hopes the summit reinforces that outlook by giving them new skills and a deeper awareness of how their innate interests relate to promoting a healthier environment and creating positive change in the world.
“We want to help students see that there are any number of ways they can help solve environmental issues,” he said. “The summit will give them new opportunities to learn how to apply their own God-given talents.”
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You can find more information about the National Youth Environmental Summit at www.centerfortheenvironment.org or call 704-637-4727. Chris Verner is opinion page editor of the Salisbury Post.

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