Skip to main content
Subscribe to E-news

Can We Save Los Angeles?

With many experts warning that time is running out, students are at a critical crossroads as they prepare to guide the Earth and its inhabitants toward a better future. Leading the way are Jim Haw and the redesigned environmental studies program in USC College.

Can We Save Los Angeles?

USC students will face an enormous challenge during the next few years: help Los Angeles and other cities survive or risk losing them.

This is an urgent — and local — call to action.

According to U.S. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu, 21st-century climate changes indicate that agricultural production in California will eventually be near zero due to changing rainfall patterns. Therefore, the possibility exists that L.A. may be uninhabitable by 2100.

“How do I prepare my students for these challenges and communicate the immediacy of the daunting problem?” Jim Haw, the Ray R. Irani, Chairman of Occidental Petroleum, Chair in Chemistry and professor of chemistry, asked before firing off a passionate response. “They will be 60 years old with children and grandchildren of their own by 2050. By the time 2100 arrives, the ball will be in the court of their grandchildren,” he said.

The world’s population today stands at roughly 6.7 billion — close to the Earth’s full carrying capacity. By 2050, its population is forecasted to grow from 9 billion to 12 billion, which, combined with increases in affluence worldwide, will create a need for several times the ecosystem services of today.

Beyond 2050 the future of human population is filled with uncertainty. It is possible that the numbers in 2100 could be fewer than in 2050, with the world’s population predicted to drop back to 6.7 billion by 2100. Why will this happen? Haw cites many reasons: lack of food, water, sustainable energy and oil, as well as the depletion of other natural resources.

To educate students about these environmental challenges, the College has redesigned its environmental studies program under Haw’s leadership.

“Located in L.A., USC is ideally positioned with the desire, brainpower and resources to bring forth workable solutions,” said Jim Haw of chemistry. Under his leadership, the College has redesigned its environmental studies program. Photo credit Alexandra Bissonnette.

“USC is a great research university with the College at its core. Located in L.A., USC is ideally positioned with the desire, brainpower and resources to bring forth workable solutions,” he said.

Haw recognizes it is rare in the life of a university professor to have the opportunity to redesign a single core course because in mature areas such as chemistry, physics, economics and English, there is a national paradigm for how these courses should be formulated.

“My colleagues and I were able to sit down and do what was right. We developed an entire curriculum — a truly interdisciplinary curriculum — that respects the roles of both the natural and social sciences. It was a tremendous and rare event. Even so, we are not done. Whatever we do this year is not going to be perfect five years from now. It is a moving target,” Haw continued. 

Haw notes that the field of environmental studies is a fairly new and rapidly evolving discipline. Enrollment has doubled in the past 10 years alone and is sure to grow at an even faster pace in the next decade.

In the redesigned environmental studies program, for example, economics is necessary because of cap and trade, taxation, and incentive-based systems for regulating emissions.

“If our majors need more biology, we can add this by teaching the essential elements of biology,” Haw said. “The curriculum is designed to allow for adjustments in coursework that make our students successful advocates of environmental change. We just began teaching a case study course in green business, with the endorsement of the USC Marshall School of Business. We think this will be very important.”

What type of student gravitates toward an interdisciplinary environmental studies degree? The short answer is really good students. They have an interest in the social sciences and environmental studies.

“These students have to be good at everything. They don’t have the luxury of saying they are putting all their efforts into chemistry and biology so that they can get the highest grades in medical school; they have to be good at economics, international relations, earth science, chemistry, and biology,” Haw explained.

Environmental studies students need to know the essentials of the social sciences and the natural sciences, as well as policy. Haw adds that many of these students have double majors, such as political science and environmental studies. A progressive degree in environmental studies will be implemented this fall.

An environmental studies major can choose one of two options: a Bachelor of Arts or a Bachelor of Science. Each degree has three concentrations. The Bachelor of Arts includes sustainable energy and society; climate, earth and environment; and policy and science skills. The Bachelor of Science includes environmental economics, psychology and environmental law.

Students will graduate from this program and transform their energy-saving ideas and knowledge of policy development into real-world solutions.

Haw would not be surprised if one day it will be not only virtuous, but fashionable for Angelenos to wear secondhand clothes. “If it can happen anywhere, it can happen in L.A.,” he said. “Our youth has inherited the Earth’s problems and we will look to them for scientific and policy expertise to ensure a better future.”

Haw, an expert deep-sea diver, has seen firsthand the ravages humans have fraught in the ocean. He has come across plastic grocery bags and other garbage at depths of more than 100 feet.

“All of us can contribute to reducing our consumption levels and respecting the environment in myriad ways whether by recycling clothes, using eco-friendly reusable grocery bags, using less water, driving less, among other lifestyle changes,” he said. “For impactful solutions that cast a deep and wide net, we look to our students who will be serving us, our children and future generations in Washington, Sacramento and corporate boards in 20 and 30 years.”

And it is with the promise of bright, dedicated and passionate USC students that L.A. — and the world — are poised for a better future.


Read more articles from USC College Magazine's Spring/Summer 2009 issue.