Environmental Almanac: UI program looks at why saving resources is 'wicked problem' for humanity

Environmental Almanac: UI program looks at why saving resources is 'wicked problem' for humanity

Can you save money for yourself and save the Earth at the same time?

That was the vexing challenge a group of high school students and incoming University of Illinois freshman faced earlier this summer as they participated in a classroom exercise conducted by Jonathan Tomkin, a colleague of mine in the UI School of Earth, Society, and Environment.

Those who met the challenge were rewarded with Cadbury Crunchie bars, a treat packaged (appropriately) in a gold-colored wrapper, and brought to Illinois by Tomkin on return from a visit to his native Australia; those who did not meet the challenge got nothing, so the game had a real consequence.

The point of the exercise, and an overall point of the course in which the students were participating, was to help them comprehend why sustainability is such a difficult goal for humanity.

"Sustainability is a 'wicked problem,'" says Tomkin, who also teaches college courses on the topic. "Cooperation doesn't arise naturally in our efforts to address it, and it's often not economically rational for individuals — or nations — to work to resolve it on their own."

The students who took part in Tomkin's game were on campus for a weeklong course called "Sustainable Futures" that was organized by the UI Center for Global Studies. Choosing to build a course around the subject of environmental sustainability was natural for us," said Elly Hanauer, associate director for the Center.

"It's an issue that affects all of humanity and it's also one our staff recognized would be interesting to motivated teens."

The students remained engaged even though things got no easier in other classroom sessions, where UI faculty members introduced them to challenges ranging from national environmental policy and international negotiations on climate change, to the extinction crisis and ecosystem collapse.

Of course, some parts of the week were also devoted to acquainting participants with the inventive ways faculty and others on the UI campus are working to meet the sustainability challenges of the twenty-first century.

On the South Farms, we visited the field plots of the Energy Biosciences Institute, where research funded by BP is conducted to weigh the potential of various perennial plants that might serve as feedstocks for second-generation biofuels. In addition, we made stops at the Student Sustainable Farm and the Woody Perennial Polyculture site, both of which seek to become economically viable, environmentally positive alternatives to conventional row-crop agriculture.

On an indoor trip, we got a behind-scenes-tour of the Business Instructional Facility with Guy Grant, an engineer who is part of the Retrocommissioning Team with UI Facilities & Services. (Their charge is to tune up the systems in existing campus buildings to conserve resources.)

BIF, which opened in 2008, garnered platinum status from the Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design certification program sponsored by the U.S. Green Building Council. Touring it with Grant enabled students to see for themselves the features that earned it that status, from the vegetation and solar panels on the roof to the sophisticated heating, cooling and ventilation equipment in the basement.

Because yours truly orchestrated the field trips for "Sustainable Futures," the course had to include an excursion to experience tallgrass prairie, the incredibly diverse ecosystem that once dominated the landscape of central Illinois. For this, we visited the prairie reconstruction Don Gardner established near Kempton in the mid-1970s and which he continues to improve and expand today.

What students retain from such a busy week varies enormously from one to the next. Some, I hope, will remember the beauties of prairie and why people like Gardner work so hard to protect and restore it. Others, I suspect, will recall only how hot the day was or how long it took for us to drive there.

In any case, participants in the "Sustainable Futures" earned an hour of college credit and almost all of them expressed interest an attending other such events, "wicked problems" like sustainability notwithstanding.

Rob Kanter is a lecturer with the UI School of Earth, Society, and Environment. Environmental Almanac is supported in part by the UI Institute for Sustainability, Energy, and Environment, and can be heard on WILL-AM 580 at 4:45 and 6:45 p.m. on Thursdays.

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