The Solutions Generation.

At a recent three-day workshop here in Vermont, I joined a visionary set of leaders, including Mary Evelyn Tucker, David Orr, and Larry Susskind, to help launch Solutions.  The brainchild of Bob Costanza and his Gund Institute colleagues, it’s a great idea: an academic journal dedicated to analyzing and sharing solutions, in real time.  Stay tuned: the Solutions website will soon be alive with practical ideas for building a more sustainable and more desirable future.

I have made the case to Bob’s team that Solutions has the potential to thrive on campuses worldwide.  The reason?  Today’s remarkable college students are truly the Solutions Generation.  Like their older sisters and brothers – the Millennial Generation – the current batch of  late-19 and early-20 somethings were born into a warming world in which poverty has stubbornly persisted and human rights have been denied to too many for too long.  But even more than the millennials, “the solutions” (I like that… ) believe in action.  They don’t see college as a time to prepare to lead; it’s a time to lead.  And while they don’t shy away from academic theories or even ideologies, they are not burdened by them.

Here’s an example.  In late January, Lois Parshley and Ben Wessel, Middlebury sophomores, approached me with a modest proposal: to get academic credit for researching and writing a detailed guide to The American Clean Energy and Security Act, or ACES. Their reasoning? Everyone in the youth movement was talking about ACES; few had studied its contents.

While I saw the merit of their proposal – akin to outstanding work for 1Sky that three other Middlebury students led a year ago –  I wasn’t sure that they would succeed.  For one, Lois was planning to spend 10 days in Antarctica during the semester (following Ben’s footsteps – he was there last summer!)  But based on their irrepressible enthusiasm, I signed off and held my breath.

The result, The Citizens Guide to Climate Policy, speaks for itself.  Forty-four detailed pages on ACES: the research is thorough, the analysis is rigorous, and the presentation is clean and clear.  (And yes, they both got an A!)

I detail this example to make a case: those of us in higher education should be playing to the strengths of this generation, in part through online, open-source resources like Solutions.  What shapes their pragmatic worldview? For one, these young leaders are products of their time.  As Nicholas Kristof has been documenting for several years, citizens of all kinds are using the networking and information-sharing power of the internet to effect real change,  Here’s just his latest example, on Charity Water.  As many of my co-authors document in Ignition, the web-powered civil-society movement may well be a transformative tsunami

There’s even more going on with today’s college students.  Their babyboomer parents have not only offered caring and opportunity; they have passed along an ethic of commitment to social change.  So their kids have inherited the best ideals of the 60s and early 70s – without tangled ideologies and the raw sense of a nation falling apart, forces that left too many of the hopes of that age unfulfilled.  Now, young leaders don’t have to try to effect change in the street (though their good at that too – see the latest from Mt. Rushmore); they organize online, big time.  For example, take a look at what Sierra Murdoch, another Middlebury student, has done to accelerate the fight against coal.

So I am hopeful about the journal Solutions, in large part because, if done well, it will complement the pragmatic leadership of the Solutions Generation.  In fact, I look forward to a special edition of Solutions, edited by leaders like Lois, Ben and Sierra.  I know I’ll learn a lot from them.

About Jonathan Isham

Jonathan Isham Jr. is Professor of Economics at Middlebury College, where he teaches classes in environmental economics, environmental policy, introductory microeconomics, social capital, and global climate change. Since early 2005, he has spoken widely throughout the nation about building the new climate movement.  Isham serves on advisory boards for Focus the Nation, Climate Counts, and the Vermont Governor’s Commission on Climate Change. He was the co-recipient, representing Middlebury College, of the 2005 Clean Air–Cool Planet Climate Champion Award for advancing campus solutions to global warming. In January of 2006, he was featured on National Public Radio’s Radio Open Source program “Global Warming Is Not an ‘Environmental Problem.’” In January of 2007, he was trained in Nashville, Tennessee, as a member of Al Gore’s Climate Project.  He has published articles in Economic Development and Cultural Change, Journal of African Economies, Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly, Quarterly Journal of Economics, Rural Sociology, Social Science Quarterly, Society and Natural Resources, Southern Economic Journal, Vermont Law Review, and World Bank Economic Review. He was the coeditor of Social Capital, Development, and the Environment (Edward Elgar, 2002) and has coauthored chapters in books published by Oxford University Press, Cambridge University Press, and New England University Press.  He holds an AB in social anthropology from Harvard University, an MA in international studies from Johns Hopkins University, and a PhD in economics from the University of Maryland.