UCLA's Institute for the Environment gaining ground

Environmental economics professor Matt Kahn teaches to a packed auditorium these days.
Environmental economics professor Matt Kahn teaches to a packed auditorium these days.
KPCC/Molly Peterson

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With a green jobs boom predicted, more than a hundred U.S. colleges started environmental programs last year. Schools in Southern California have long had environment as a strong suit, going back 40 years, just like Earth Day. UCLA's four-year-old Institute for the Environment is growing in a climate warming to its subject matter.

Doors slam as UCLA's Rolfe Hall auditorium fills up with coffee cups, laptops, and the sweatsuit clad students who carry them. They actually pay attention to environmental economics professor Matt Kahn as he begins to lecture.

"Oceans are public property; nobody owns the oceans," Kahn says, a little smirk on his face. "Suppose there's 200 nations on the planet. 199 of them go hippie. They go to Woodstock, they watch Dennis Hopper films."

Kahn spins out a hypothetical: suppose almost every country in the world signed a treaty to limit overfishing in the ocean. "Folks, let Matt Kahn be the one nation that doesn't sign the deal. What are my incentives now?," Kahn says. Some students chime in. "If everybody else is abiding by the international treaty don't I have an incentive to cheat? And the answer is yes."

Kahn's class is a draw for students majoring in environmental science. Kind of like UCLA's environmental science program itself. Less than 10 students declared the major when it began, now, four years later 230 students have signed up.

One is Sarah Diringer, a 4th year environmental sciences major with an emphasis on atmospheric and oceanic sciences and a minor in conservation biology. Coming from San Luis Obispo, Diringer almost didn't choose UCLA. Classes she planned to take, like biology, were offered through the Life Sciences major. It's huge and populated with future doctors.

"There weren't environment classes yet," Diringer said. "And you would sort of look around and see wow, I'm the only non premed in this room."

UCLA's environmental science students take a seminar together over several quarters; Diringer says faces got more familiar. Now she and her cohorts are working on what she calls a capstone project — a practical preview of real world work.

"There's a group doing ecolabeling, there's marine debris, I'm doing an individual project on carbon uptake by little phytoplankton. It's been an incredible experience to take what I've learned, and apply it to a project."

As a geography professor Glen MacDonald helped UCLA develop the Institute of Environment. He says it's rigorous. After two years of basics, students pick an emphasis and a minor, and take science courses from seven other departments.

"I said to myself it'll be pretty small just because it's a pretty hard filter. And so it started out just a handful of students. Then it grew. Then it exploded!"

MacDonald, now director of the program, says he also misjudged the rapid growth of green job opportunity in L.A. and around the country. What hasn't grown is UC funding: instead, the institute for the environment seeks grants. Corporations lend their support. In return, UCLA lends students to research for them.

"I think it's a good thing because we are influencing the people who run those corporations. We are giving them information in some cases saying you know what you probably have to do better," MacDonald says.

That might not have flown 40 years ago, MacDonald says — he calls the tone of environmentalism then more adversarial. MacDonald says students now see environmental studies differently from kids he taught as a younger professor. "They'd say, 'A lot of us don't want to be 50 years old and living in a studio apartment wearing a green power T-shirt.' But they didn't see a lucrative financial future."

Students now can. And Sarah Diringer says environmentalism's changed too. "I am an environmentalist but I don't like the term because its also associated with the crazy hippies who go around and chain themselves to trees."

With her bachelor of science degree, Diringer says her future is flexible.

Earlier grads of UCLA's program have gone on to public health Ph.D.s; one woman directs policy at the L.A. Bike Coalition. Diringer says she and those students have made UCLA greener as their program has grown.

As environmentalism itself has gone mainstream, Sarah Diringer says people who care about it have to negotiate those wider waters gently. "If you're hardcore, you're not going to be able to convince people that little steps actually do something. They may not do a whole lot but maybe we need to start the ball rolling a little bit rather than just drop the ball off a cliff and see what happens."

Diringer drops off a little cliff of her own in June, when she and nearly 60 other environmental science majors graduate – about four times last year's number.

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