The Environment: Where Some See Progress, Others Are Disillusioned

Laurie Walker bustles about the southwestern corner of the USF campus, where lies a 16-acre space of greenery frequented by human visitors, bees, butterflies and two resident cats.

It was 1969 when the university established its Botanical Gardens, which serves as a breath of fresh air for the community as well as a home and research center for plants and animals.  Walker has been the director of the Botanical Gardens for 15 years.

Despite the soothing quietness of the gardens, worries about environmental degradation and health bubble underneath.  Having to protect plants from damaging weather is always a challenge, suggests Walker.  But newer challenges keep rising to the surface.

On site is an apiary used in the gardens’ yearlong beekeeping course.  The effects on bees were deeply felt this year.

“We were not able to collect honey this year,” said Walker. “There was just not enough honey to take. And we don’t do it for commercial purposes. We just do it as an educational component of the course.  But our honeybees have not been stockpiling honey.”

Step outside of the gardens and back into the day-to-day of Tampa Bay, and you’ll find that concern about the environment comes second.

“Everyone cares about the economy, which I can understand because people are concerned about ‘I need to feed my family, I need to feed myself,’” said Samantha Szatyari, a junior environmental science and policy major.

Dr. Susan MacManus, a distinguished professor of political science at USF, confirmed this sentiment.  MacManus notes that just because jobs and economy are at the top of the list does not mean Floridians don’t see its importance.  Many move to Florida because of its environment, so its health is already near the forefront of their minds.

MacManus directs the USF-Nielsen Sunshine State Survey, which concluded last month that the environment was the second most pressing issue for Floridians.

“The environment will absolutely intensify as an issue because of its high priority for younger people,” said MacManus.

Walker holds on to this as hope.

“Easier said than done, but I think young people now, college students, get this, and with social networks, that information can get out to others,” said Walker.

But some college students are not so sure. At the very least, they don’t think their peers care enough.

“Back home, one of the major problems that we have is people throwing garbage,” said Awa Ndiaye, a sophomore engineering student. “You walk down the streets and you see a bunch of plastic bags or you see a bunch of trash that shouldn’t be there and it’s something that directly impacts your life.”

Home for Ndiaye is Senegal, where she says the difference in approach to the environment is an awareness issue—lack of knowledge generates inaction.  But in the U.S., she says, it’s apathy.

“Here, a lot of the people I’ve been around—they’re kind of conscious of climate change and environmental issues, but they don’t care because at the end of the day it doesn’t affect them,” said Ndiaye. “If they waste water or if they’re wasting food, it doesn’t matter to them because at the end of the day, they still get food.”

Inaction is also exacerbated by the feeling that it’s too big of a problem for a single person to tackle, both Ndiaye and Szatyari say.

But it’s also a matter of wanting instant gratification.

“To take care of the environment is to make an investment in the future,” said Szatyari.  “A lot of people don’t want to make that investment.  People want to see results now.”

Szatyari, who is also the director of networking for the Student Environmental Association at USF, felt her view was fairly pessimistic, but nonetheless true.  Still, she continues to be active.

“There’s that disillusionment, but then there’s that ‘well what if I can be that voice of change?’” said Szatyari.

To Walker, young people can be that voice.

“Few people understand that one person can make a difference,” said Walker. “We have to be vocal, we have to get the word out. We have to educate people.”