Tyler Swanson, a University of Illinois senior in Environmental Economics and Policy, is the image of a student who can never have their hands in enough work.
As an iCAP Team clerk, a member of the first Environmental Leadership Program student cohort, Q Magazine author, and writer/host of his own blog and podcast, he maintains a tight schedule of academic and personal activities. Driven by passion and supported by his talent, research, and connections to numerous campus and local organizations, he is paving the way for concrete steps to be taken on environmental initiatives.
Originally from the small north-central Illinois town of Pecatonica, Swanson enrolled at Illinois in Fall 2019 in Agricultural and Consumer Economics, with a concentration in Public Policy and Law. He intended to pursue a path to law school — but in a change of heart familiar to many first-year students, he altered that plan.
His decision followed the worldwide climate strike that took place his first semester, organized by climate activist Greta Thunberg and the Fridays for Future organization. He had not planned to attend but stumbled across the strike on the U of I campus, and immediately felt empowered. He switched his concentration from Public Policy and Law to Environmental Economics and Policy.
“I’d always been interested in policy, but now I have an avenue to direct it,” he said.
“I also really loved to write,” he said. So, with a newfound passion for environmental policy, he launched a website called The Bipartisan Post where he and some peers could have an outlet for writing and sharing major news stories from an unbiased, policy-based perspective. The mission of this news outlet is to provide information in a way that does not feed the growing political divides in America. The focus slowly narrowed from broad political issues to environmental policy specifically, such as carbon taxation.
The blog eventually led Swanson to start a related podcast called “The Bright Green Light” with influential guest speakers. His first interview was with Lynn Englum, an Instagram blogger whose goal was to “travel to a lot of Island Nations or communities that were essentially drowning because of climate change.” He has continued using the podcast to promote other voices he believes need to be heard, including a climate activist in D.C. who works with congressional committees. He recently interviewed two U of I alumni who work in the circular economy: Alexa Smith, who focuses on the circular economy and food waste; and Mona Fang, creator of Karma Trade, a recycled clothing organization in Urbana.
As Swanson continued working through his freshman year while managing the website and podcast, a friend introduced him to the sustainability honors minor at Illinois — the Sustainability, Energy, and Environment Fellows Program offered through iSEE. The minor complemented his workload and career goals perfectly, so he added it to his schedule.
During the 2020-21 academic year, Swanson served as a student senator and a member of the Illinois Student Government’s Sustainability Committee, but he wanted to work on sustainable initiatives in a position with more individual responsibility. After completing his senate term in Spring 2021, he learned about clerk positions available on the Energy and Transportation iCAP teams, part of a network of student/faculty/staff committees that work to advance goals in the Illinois Climate Action Plan (iCAP).
“Sustainability was at the core of my education and what I wanted to do,” he said. “What better way to do that than to help that occur on campus?”
Swanson believes that energy and transportation are the two most crucial aspects of sustainable societies. “Everything that we do requires energy. And if a majority of our energy is powered by fossil fuels, we’re not really going to get anywhere, no matter how much plastic we eliminate,” he said. He was ecstatic to be hired to work with both teams in Spring 2021 and to begin making concrete progress on issues in the community.
In addition to the primary goal of constructing an all-encompassing campus plan for sustainable and resilient energy by 2050, the Energy iCAP team is working to improve energy efficiency in campus buildings. The vast majority of buildings are more than 50 years old and highly inefficient. The challenge to Swanson and his team is to make them more energy-efficient in a cost-effective way. Meanwhile, the Transportation iCAP team is working on an active commuter program to encourage faculty and staff to forgo parking passes and instead use buses, bike shares, or carpool programs to reduce commuter emissions and avoid clogging streets.
His experience with the iCAP teams led him to look for other ways to get involved in iSEE initiatives. During his summer internship with U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Illinois, another intern mentioned how cryptocurrency has harmful consequences for the environment. Swanson decided to research this issue and wrote an article called “Crypto’s Dark Secret” that won the grand prize in the 2021 Janelle Joseph Environmental Writing Contest and was published in iSEE’s Q Magazine.
In the Spring 2022 semester, Swanson was accepted to iSEE’s new Environmental Leadership Program (ELP). The program is designed to help students develop the skills necessary for environmental communication, mobilizing social resources, and implementing sustainability plans, all while fostering networking opportunities in the field. The week before classes started, he and other ELP participants attended a two-day intensive training where they spoke with officials from State Rep. Carol Ammons’ office and the Urbana and Champaign city councils about environmental policy. The students then formed groups based on which the policies they wanted to pursue.
With his focus on economics, he was excited about a “green tax” proposal suggested by Council Member Grace Wilkin of Urbana. Swanson and four other students spent the first eight weeks of the semester developing a green tax plan for Urbana. They invited different representatives from the environmental movement to speak to them each week about ideas and advice for achieving their goals. After extensive research and consultation with politicians, the students decided a green tax would be most effective as a plastic bag tax.
“Not only do you reduce people’s likelihood of using plastic bags,” he said, “but it also generates a lot of revenue for the city — for community solar, community composting, EV charging stations, and infrastructure.”
The five students then prepared a fact sheet with the costs and benefits of a plastic bag tax and presented it directly to the Urbana and Champaign city councils during public comment sessions.
“It was very exciting to be up there in front of these people and show them what you’ve been working on and really advocate for the environment,” he said. “That was a great experience.”
The pinnacle of the ELP was a spring break trip to Springfield, where the students met with state legislators and policymakers on a range of sustainability issues. Swanson described it as “a phenomenal couple of days to be able to not just have the experience of lobbying and advocating for environmental issues, but for connecting with people who also have interests in those issues. I think it was a very good program not just for education, but also great fellowship.”
Although his work in the ELP is technically complete, Swanson is committed to following through on the issues and is diligently keeping in touch with council members about the plastic bag tax: “It’s kind of like we had achieved our part of the program, but we still hadn’t achieved the goal.”
He recently received an update from Urbana council members that a plastic bag tax can, and will, be implemented in the city, but it could take time. “It’s already a policy in Chicago and Edwardsville, so we kind of used that to get Urbana on board. And maybe if we get enough cities on board, we can go to the state and say all these cities have it, make it a statewide thing because it’s a good policy,” Swanson said.
Outside of his rigorous academic and professional schedule, his leisure time is precious. He finds refuge in the many beautiful green spaces around campus. Athletics are important to him as well, so he tries to go to as many football, basketball, and volleyball games as possible. As a lifelong baseball fanatic, Swanson also loves seeing the White Sox play in Chicago.
Still, he has big plans for his senior year, including research with the Bock Agricultural Law and Policy Program on agricultural sustainability — specifically, the idea of “solar grazing.” As he described it, farmers sign a contract with a solar farm saying, “Instead of you hiring a lawn care service, hire me. I’ll bring my sheep. My sheep will graze and eat all the long grass, and then you’ll pay me instead of them, and I’ll be able to feed my sheep.”
He is also preparing for a graduate program in Economics related to energy and the environment, the next step toward his long-term career goals in academia, research, and environmental policy. Judging by his undergraduate career, he clearly has the skills and passion necessary to make long-term strides toward a sustainable future — locally and beyond.
— Article by iSEE Communications Intern Quinn Wolski