As a young boy growing up in Uzbekistan, Akbar Abduljalil loved spending summer days at the beach of the Aral Sea, which is actually a lake located in the northwest corner of the Central Asian nation.
When Abduljalil was 6, he and his family moved to Somerville. A few years later, when he was in middle school, Abduljalil was shocked to learn that the Aral Sea had all but disappeared. Water diversion projects started by the Soviet Union in the 1960s to irrigate cotton crops had drastically reduced the size of the lake, which was once the fourth-largest in the world. By 2009, rising global temperatures turned what was left of the lake into a desert.
“It was pretty devastating to see a place where I had so many childhood memories fade away,” says Abduljalil, an economics major who pinpoints the moment as his first experience with the impact of climate change and the importance of sustainability. “That’s when I realized the scale of our actions. That’s when I knew that something needs to be done.”
Motivated by that lesson, Abduljalil now serves as president of the Student Society for Sustainability (formerly the Climate Change Coalition), a student organization dedicated to developing an environmentally conscious university community.
“Until I came to UMass Lowell, I didn’t understand what I could do about the environment and what I was capable of,” Abduljalil says. “A lot of people are probably in the same boat; they’re aware of the problem but don’t understand what they can do about it. We want to get those people involved.”
In his first semester as president, Abduljalil has focused on developing volunteer opportunities for club members with community organizations like Mill City Grows and the Lowell Parks and Conservation Trust. He’s also organized several educational events, such as the World Climate Simulation with the university’s Climate Change Initiative and a performance by Taina Asili, a musician and activist whose recent work highlights the resilience of Puerto Ricans in the aftermath of hurricanes Irma and Maria.
“I’ve already learned so much doing this – about managing projects and people and the interworking of different organizations – but there’s still a long way to go,” says Abduljalil, who has been struck by the passion that so many UML students, faculty and staff have for sustainability.
While Abduljalil stresses that he’s not an economist (“I still have a lot to learn,” he says), he does think about sustainability issues in economic terms such as supply-and-demand and short-term vs. long-term economic growth.
“In our competitive economy, we work on an annual budget system and everyone is worried about short-term profits,” says Abduljalil, who notes that environmental issues require long-term solutions. “Instead of prevention, everyone is focusing on adaptation. If the sea rises, we build up walls and just say we’ll worry about everything else later.”
Political proposals like the Green New Deal would provide regulations that target long-term prevention, but Abduljalil can understand why they make some people nervous.
“The short-term negative effects could be very detrimental to our economy if we’re in it alone, because everyone else gains a competitive advantage,” he says. “Ideally, I would like to see it be a global effort.”
Short-term economic thinking contributed to the vanishing of Abduljalil’s beloved Aral Sea, which had catastrophic impacts not only on tourism, but also on the fishing industry and trade. But more recently, there have been efforts to regulate agriculture and restore the sea.
“It has begun to come back,” says Abduljalil, his expression rising in optimism.