Are You Living the Story?

My grandfather was a man of few words. But a couple of his favorites were, “Still talkin’?” He’d ask it with a glint in his eye, one brow slightly raised, pitched as a half question, half you-know-exactly-what-I’m-gettin’-at directive.

It’s not that he thought words were cheap. But he was a farmer. Every day for him was about what he did, not what he talked about doing.

Earth Day 2014 is upon us, and with it comes the inevitable flow of truisms about millennials and sustainability in higher education. As schools and students everywhere tell their stories of living greener and of fostering environmental conservation, it begs a familiar question…

Still talkin?

Without question, millennials are conscious of sustainable living practices and their importance at a level unmatched by any other generation. This is borne out by piles of Pew research, where millennials surpass every other generation surveyed:

  • 82% favor more federal funding for wind, solar, and hydrogen technology
  • 71% say we should focus on developing alternative energy sources
  • 57% believe stricter environmental laws and regulations are worth the cost
  • 43% believe the earth is warming because of human activity

But there’s a big difference between answering a question, and living that answer. According to a 2013 Eco Pulse study on millennials put out by the Shelton Group:

  • 33% always recycle aluminum cans, plastic bottles, newspapers, and cardboard, less than Americans as a whole.
  • 40% drink water from reusable containers instead of disposable plastic bottles, less than Americans as a whole.
  • 40% avoid letting the water run while washing dishes, brushing teeth, etc., less than Americans as a whole.
  • 28% always unplug/turn off when not in use, less than Americans as a whole.

Obviously there are a lot of variables to be considered as to why their numbers are lower when it comes to matching their actions with their attitudes. And this isn’t about ripping on a generation of kids who are light years ahead of where I was on environmental awareness at their age.

The point is that colleges and universities are in a unique position to empower students to really start living their beliefs. What a story that could be. But to do it, schools need to check themselves and make sure they haven’t fallen into a similar crevasse between attitudes and actions.

What are those environmental policies and sustainability initiatives actually doing? Are they simply words on a forgotten list of action items? What have they accomplished? Where’s the impact? How have you transformed students from talkers to doers?

Think about how powerful it could be to move beyond the typical messaging about environmental consciousness and campus clean-up days you see from every school, and instead focus on how your efforts have transformed the way your students will live their lives. Powerful stuff.

But you’ve got to live the story, before you try telling the story.

For a good example of a school living its story very, very well, check out Unity College and its practice of sustainability science.

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