Here's why we should have an environmental gen-ed requirement at UConn

The Research column will be a weekly feature on the scientific opportunities on campus written by staff writer Diler Haji.

Students gather to interact with a multitude of eco-friendly exhibitors and vendors on Earth Day, April 19, 2016. The event hosts an outdoor zero-waste barbecue catered by Dining Services featuring vegan/vegetarian and sustainable food options. (Jason Jiang/The Daily Campus)

Students gather to interact with a multitude of eco-friendly exhibitors and vendors on Earth Day, April 19, 2016. The event hosts an outdoor zero-waste barbecue catered by Dining Services featuring vegan/vegetarian and sustainable food options. (Jason Jiang/The Daily Campus)

From pipelines that threaten the quality of water for Native Americans at Standing Rock to callous disregard for the health and safety of minorities in Flint and the Lower Ninth Ward to unending strife in the middle east and Africa driven in part by massive drought and diaspora, the environment isn’t just a “poor polar bear,” as Benjamin Breslau puts it. The environment is a humanitarian issue and it weaves itself into every aspect of our society. 

These are just some of many reasons why Breslau, a junior ecology and evolutionary biology major, is excited to propose an environmental literacy and sustainability general education requirement to the University of Connecticut's Senate Monday.

“UConn has an obligation to make sure students are ready for the global trend in renewable energy and sustainability,” he said.

People are undoubtedly worried and it’s not just because the environment is at risk. A Trump presidency threatens to undo the promises we made to reduce the amount of fossil fuels spewed into the air, accelerating the rate of climate change to levels beyond what the earth can sustain. It threatens to bolster the oil industry and lead us down a road to further overexploitation of the environment, not to mention the human rights issues associated with such disregard. 

In a world where we are increasingly realizing that our natural resources are not unlimited, Breslau and hundreds of other students at UConn hope that a educating future graduates is a significant step toward influencing the decisions of the future: decisions that will pit the environment against human interests.   

Breslau represents the university’s Office of Environmental Policy in ECOalition, a group of representatives from various organizations on campus. ECOalition includes  

UConn’s Wildlife Society, EcoHusky, Green Building Club, Soil and Water Conservation Club, Honors in STEM, Geology Club and Birding Club, just to name a few. The group has garnered support from faculty and over 800 petition signatures from students across campus to push for the course requirement.

What would an environmental literacy and sustainability course requirement mean for students?

Breslau and other drafters of the petition emphasize that there will not be an additional course that students would have to take in order to satisfy their general education requirements. In fact, requirements will be reworked so that students must take an environmentally themed course already in their field of study. These courses already exist across majors, including Environmental Economics for economics majors, Literature and the Environment for English majors, The Environment in German Culture for German majors, American Environmental History for history majors, and the list goes on. These courses exist in nearly every major at UConn, making the requirement fairly easy to fulfill.

“It’s not to be a punishment,” Nick Russo, a senior ecology and evolutionary biology major and president of Birding Club, said. "Students should learn through interest and curiosity.”

Both Breslau and Russo are big players in writing the petition and garnering support from students.

For Russo, the environment is about aesthetics. An avid birder and naturalist, Russo takes comfort in the sound of singing birds and the vibrant forests of New England. He believes that humans are always interacting with the environment, whether they know it or not.

If such a requirement were implemented, the university would indeed be a leader among the pack of higher education institutions across the country. According to the World Wildlife Federation, only 8 percent of these institutions have an environmental literacy degree requirement.

Knowing that our future generations will inherit the Earth we give them, it seems like common sense to include environmental literacy and sustainability among the courses that define our liberal arts education.


Diler Haji is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at diler.haji@uconn.edu.