EnviroMentalities

Uncommon Ground - EnviroMentalities - Spring 2006

Environmental Studies Director Tom Schultz asserts that the program’s past, present, and future success depends greatly on the contributions of faculty from many disciplines who apply their scholarship and teachings to issues related to the environment. We asked some of them how their various directions point to life on Earth.

 

Carol Goland, environmental studies

Some questions I use in my description of the course Sustainable Agriculture: Community, Crop, and Cultivation are: Can small towns survive when their family farms are lost? Can we reduce pesticide use by returning to traditional practices like rotating crops? Can a Twinkie be certi?ed as an organic food? What alternatives to the globalized food system can we envision?

 

Harry Heft, psychology

Many of the environmental challenges we face today originate in human choices and action, as does any hope for addressing these challenges. A National Academy of Sciences publication by Silver and DeFries stated over a decade ago: “No longer is it suf?cient to explore only the physical dynamics of the earth system. This effort, daunting in itself, may be dwarfed by the effort to decipher the confounding behavior of Homo sapiens, the planet’s most powerful inhabitant.”

 

Quentin Duroy, economics

Generally economic growth is perceived as the solution to the socio-economic ills of poverty, unemployment, underdevelopment, etc. So what happens when economic growth becomes part of the [environmental] problem rather than part of the solution? I teach a course designed to explore the relationship between economic growth and the natural environment, and whether/how sustainable development can be successfully implemented at the local, national, and international levels. One of the big questions that we investigate is: Can economic growth occur without increased environmental pressure? In other words, is it possible to experience qualitative rather than quantitative economic growth?

 

Geoff Smith, biology

Most of my research relates to how organisms respond to human changes to the environment. In Ecology of the Changing Planet, we ask questions like: Is the climate changing? Can the human population grow inde?nitely? Can the exploitation of natural resources be sustainable? What is biodiversity worth? One of the major insights I hope my students are left with is that solutions to issues of humans and their environment are complex, and quick and simple solutions often will not work. Solid science and a variety of perspectives are needed to help craft long-term solutions—we can’t base solutions solely on emotion or political expediency

 

Bahram Tavakolian, anthropology

I have taught courses like Women, Development, and Ecology; Culture and Environmental Knowledge; and The Culture and Psychology of Environmental Perception (with Harry Heft). In them, we ask questions about the effects of cultural concepts, symbols, values, and ideas on the identi?cation and utilization of “nature.” We look at how the social and physical environment is perceived within different cultural systems.

 

James Pletcher, political science

In my Politics of the Global Environment class, we look at three global problems: ozone depletion, climate change, and ocean ?sheries depletion. I ask students to identify the factors associated with successful international environmental agreements regarding these problems. This ties the environmental issues to broader issues of international relations and foreign policy. In the same class we study three different ethical approaches to thinking about the relationship between humans and the environment: autonomous individuals are the units of society (egocentric); groups of people are the units of society (homocentric); and humans are simply a part of nature and not exceptional (ecocentric). These views are useful for identifying the logic behind different environmental arguments. I ask students to evaluate their own ethical positions and link these to concrete environmental policies to deal with the three problems I mentioned as well as sustainable development.

 

Abram Kaplan, environmental studies

Environmentalists have long sought fundamental values change as the basis for a better future—more altruism and less self-interest, more stewardship and less frontierism, more concern and less apathy. But changing a value is one of the most dif?cult transitions we can attempt, with “reactance” as one likely result. How do people change their behavior to promote sustainability? What in?uences them to act differently? How do new ideas and technologies diffuse through our culture? The answers could improve our education system, our government spending, our business initiatives, and our individual priorities. Through speci?c forms of experiential learning and a focus on familiarity, we can foster behavior that can make a difference in protecting our fragile planet.

Published March 2006