USC Expands Green Courses and Programs

For thousands of years, the content of a classical education remained the same: a cross-section of mathematics, letters, philosophy, history, sciences and other core subjects designed to produce well-rounded citizens.

Then the world started to fill up.

Curricular reform is the overlooked legacy of climate change. It is hard to imagine future liberal arts programs without a sustainability component.

As with climate, the planetary crisis has forced a change in an ancient system.

“Any educated professional in the 21st century needs to know about environmental sustainability and to understand the social and policy dilemmas that it presents,” said USC College political scientist Jefferey Sellers, who is teaching a general education course this fall titled “Critical Issues in American Politics: Environmental Challenges.”

The restructured course, which includes role-playing exercises in which students try to negotiate national and global climate change agreements as well as take part in team projects to reduce campus greenhouse gas emissions, is one of several new or revamped sustainability courses at USC.

The courses are part of a broader, campus-wide effort that includes the imminent hiring of USC’s first manager of sustainability – who will focus partly on making USC a living laboratory for sustainable practices learned in class – and the completion of a baseline report on energy and resource use on campus.

On a recent Monday, 15 or so students in the freshman seminar “Technology and the Environment” filled a small conference room in Grace Ford Salvatori to deliver their report on energy consumption in the dorms.

Also on hand was their teacher, professor Najmedin Meshkati of the USC Viterbi School of Engineering, and two administrators leading the sustainability effort: Charlie Lane, associate senior vice president in Career and Protective Services, and Ed Becker, executive director of environmental health and safety.

The survey, available at showed that students are only somewhat conscious of their water and energy use.

Some easy improvements stood out. Most students place their computers in sleep mode, which can use substantial energy, instead of turning them off at night. Three out of four leave their chargers plugged in 24/7, not knowing that the devices continue to draw current.

The findings prompted the class to write two op-eds on “vampire power,” which they plan to submit to local newspapers.

Also at the seminar, Lane and Becker shared some insights from their attempts to increase sustainable practices at USC. Becker called the sustainability baseline report “the first time that we had students, faculty and staff working together” to assess energy and resource use on campus.

Becker told the recycling-conscious students that USC is trying to improve its recovery rate, which has been stuck around 50 percent for the past 10 years. All garbage collected on campus is sorted for recyclables at an off-campus facility.

Lane noted that many departments have moved forward on their own. For example, the USC Department of Purchasing Services is replacing plastic cutlery with biodegradable bamboo utensils, and USC Transportation runs buses, powered partly with biofuels, that link the University Park and Health Sciences campuses to each other and to Union Station.

“We are at the cusp of a new business and social revolution, which is called sustainability,” Meshkati told the class.

But where to go from here?

To make informed choices going forward is harder than it seems.

USC College geography professor Jennifer Wolch, who directs the Center for Sustainable Cities, uses her “Science and Society” general education course to lay out the theoretical framework of sustainability.

Much of it boils down to life cycle analysis, which considers the carbon footprint at every step of the production and consumption chain.

“I want (students) to broaden their thinking about the kinds of consumption choices they make and what they mean for sustainability,” Wolch said.

She gives the example of the “eat local” trend. Appealing on its face, the trend ignores the fact that the kind of food one eats often matters more than how many miles it has traveled.

“There are a lot of other aspects of food that are much more carbon-intensive than transportation,” she said. Take cattle ranching, which according to some estimates produces nearly 20 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions.

Consumption and climate change also are intimately related, Wolch said. Every turnover in one’s possessions comes with a carbon cost.

“How do you decouple consumption from quality of life?” she asked. “If you have six polo shirts versus 10 polo shirts, is your quality of life really reduced?”

If food and clothing have significant carbon costs, imagine buildings.

Thomas Spiegelhalter, assistant professor of architecture, teaches two courses on sustainable design, cities, infrastructures and buildings. He prefers passive methods – resource conservation, renewable energy, natural climate control – over active methods such as air conditioning.

Currently, he said, a modern city such as Los Angeles has an ecological footprint – the amount of land area required to sustain its inhabitants – the size of Peru. Even Santa Monica, which he considers progressive, has a footprint the size of metro L.A.

“The most surprising lesson (students) learn is that in developing countries (there) are better implementations of sustainability standards than in the United States,” Spiegelhalter said.

He does find some local bright spots, such as the Audubon Center at Debs Park, which was built off the utility grid and is almost completely self-sustaining (

At the USC School of Policy, Planning, and Development, professor Dan Mazmanian is teaching a course called “Environmental Governance and Sustainability.” The class was created during the fall semester after the school noticed a strong interest from graduate students who wanted to learn more about environmental policy and sustainable development.

Mazmanian said the class focuses on the need to reconcile some of industrial society’s more environmentally harmful and wasteful patterns of production and consumption with the long-term impact on our health, well-being and natural resources. Students are introduced to issues as far ranging as their own environmental footprint, greening of businesses, climate change and a variety of public policy strategies for addressing environmental pollution and the depletion of natural resources.

“The 21st century challenge is that we don’t have any simple roadmap to guide us in the transformation to a more sustainable world,” he said. “Therefore, in the class we address the long-term challenges in terms of values and choices that we make individually and as a society, and discuss ways to use those policy tools and approaches likely to move us in the desired direction.”

In another graduate course, “Industrial Ecology: Technology-Environment Interaction,” professor Mansour Rahimi of USC Viterbi also finds reasons for optimism.

One example is Denmark’s Kalundborg Symbiosis Institute – an industrial park where companies use each other’s waste products, help the environment and save lots of money. One company’s fly ash (coal combustion byproducts) becomes another company’s raw material, one building’s waste heat powers nearby factories and homes, and so on (

Rahimi uses the case study to illustrate the concept of industrial ecology: like natural systems where every organism lives off another, manufacturers can thrive by banding together into an efficient closed-loop system.

“The objective of the course is to draw an analogy, or a parallel, between industrial systems and ecological systems,” Rahimi said.

A proposed USC Viterbi master’s program in green technologies, which the school hopes to offer starting next fall, would include Rahimi’s class as one of the school’s core courses, complemented by a range of electives tailored to students from different engineering disciplines.

At USC College, James Haw, director of the environmental studies program and Ray Irani Professor of Chemistry, is proposing three new symbiotic tracks for students pursuing bachelor’s degrees in environmental studies: sustainability and society, marine and coastal, and climate and the environment.

If approved, they would be the first interdisciplinary tracks in what may be the most interdisciplinary field of study. Existing tracks within environmental studies, such as chemistry or business or social sciences, tend to be department-based, Haw said.

“This could be kind of what the College is all about,” he said, “a group of scholars coming together across disciplines to have exciting conversations.

“The environment is something that is going to be vibrant and central to academic instruction and discourse for the next 400 years,” he added. This year Haw started teaching a revamped ENST 150, “Environmental Issues and Society,” that reaches back to the collapse of ancient civilizations such as the Maya for modern lessons on sustainability.

“We think we’re doing important things here, and we think that we’re giving students the central information tools that they will need in the 21st century.”

Whether a sustainable society is possible remains unclear. But education in sustainability is here to stay.

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