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Environmental literacy in higher education—Part 1: What a changing world means for our graduates

Monday, November 23rd, 2009


Prerequisite post:

To the extent that all of our disciplines and personal lives are rooted in the natural world, and the natural world is changing dramatically because of human impacts, the foundation for each of our lives and disciplines is likely to change in the decades ahead.  And the lives of our students and their opportunities for a rich liberal arts education will be impacted as well.

Responding to these changes is a matter of theory, methodology, and praxis. Higher education needs to develop a curricular strategy to help our students learn how to navigate this change and become important leaders in business, government, science, and civil society.

But it is also a matter of cherishing human-environmental experiences and preserving some of them for future generations of students, faculty, and the rest of the world.  Being a scientist, writer, photographer, sociologist, educator, fisherman, hunter, farmer, or islander in the year 2100 may bear little resemblance to these experiences now because of the diminution of the natural world in which these activities thrive. Whole cultures, experiences, and ways of understanding the world may disappear:

  • Coastal Inuit in the Polar North, coastal Bangladeshi farmers, and Micronesians living on Pacific coral atolls will be among the first cultures forced to migrate because of sea level rise and permafrost thaw.  As they will tell you, physically relocating people is not the issue—it’s leaving their homelands and losing their hunting grounds that marks the end of their culture.
  • The Great Barrier Reef (Australia) is expected to be significantly diminished—if not largely dead—by 2050 from a combination of acidification and warming temperatures.  How do you tell students to soak up this opportunity because they will be among the last generations to experience this ecosystem in anything other than photos and videos?  Tourists will continue to visit the Great Barrier Reef.  They will don SCUBA gear and cruise past the remnants of the coral formations we once dove as living ecosystems.  But it’s unlikely that they will have similar kinds of experiences when the coral and fish are gone.  Eventually nobody will return there to dive.
  • Imagine the plot of Old Man and the Sea if Hemingway were to fish off Key West (Florida) today:  Instead of battling a legendary marlin to exhaustion, Santiago would have to settle for the all-you-can-eat shrimp platter at the local Red Lobster because of overfishing.

What is the measure of success when our graduates do well in a world that is ecologically unsustainable and socially unjust? Higher education can be a leader in society’s transition to reinvent itself, but to do so it needs to think critically about how disciplines are rooted in an environmental context.  We are training students to have disciplinary depth and proficiencies in writing, quantitative literacy, foreign languages, and breadth across natural sciences, social sciences, and the humanities. Now we must take the next step and help our students understand how their lives impact and are dependent upon the natural world.  In the short run, technical skills and distribution breadth are undoubtedly important for an individual’s well-being in society, but in the long run, teaching sustainability—which has been omitted from the curriculum taught to generation after generation of college students—is vital to the well-being of society itself.

To extend the Titanic metaphor, higher education is in the business of producing people who can count, speak, and write about ships and icebergs, but it is failing to train them how to recognize that the ship is sinking and how to rescue those on board.

It’s time for higher education to integrate the environment across disciplines to help our students become leaders of this sustainable future and to ensure that the cultures, experiences, and ways of understanding the world we enjoy today can also be enjoyed by future generations.


Photo credit: / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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