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David Orr ends his column at Conservation Biology with some final thoughts about nature and culture

Thursday, November 26th, 2009

After 21 years of writing a column for the journal Conservation Biology, here are a few excerpts from Orr’s final piece—a retrospective1:

  • I believe that all of us working for a habitable planet should have focused more clearly on politics and on the question of how good ideas move across the chasm from being right to being effective in the conduct of our public and international business.
  • I think we should have learned to be more adept, personable, and creative in talking to the public and the guys down at the truck stop and the women working two jobs to make ends meet. I think we might have gone to fewer scientific conferences in exotic places and to more Rotary meetings and  tedious city council sessions. We should have talked less often to ourselves in a scientific jargon and more often to the public and in the common tongue. And we should have mastered the art of persuasion on radio and television the way some others have. We in the “environmental movement” are sometimes accused of being effete, overly intellectual snobs more concerned about nature than people, and there is some truth to that.
  • [W]e know enough right now to make far better decisions than we typically do about wildlife, ecosystems, and landscapes….What ails us, rather, is  fundamentally political and is the result of the yawning chasm between the  world of science (and intellect generally) and that of public affairs.
  • [T]he worldwide conversation about sustainability and the human future is  larger than just the issues of biodiversity, pollution, climate change, land use,  and resource scarcity.
  • [W]e are rapidly becoming an indoor species with fewer people spending time  outdoors and with fewer experiential connections with nonhuman nature.
  • Finally, 21 years ago it would have been difficult to plausibly imagine the scope, scale, and rising intensity of the global movement to build a decent, fair, and sustainable world. The resilience of the human spirit in difficult times is the news of our age.

1Orr, D. (2009) retrospect and prospect: The unbearable lightness of conservation. Conservation Biology23, No. 6, 1349–1351

Posted in communication and framing, environmental studies, environmentalism, nature and culture, race and class | 1 Comment »

Environmental literacy in higher education—Part 4: Making it happen

Thursday, November 26th, 2009


Prerequisite posts:

We should work towards the goal of creating a curriculum where the majority of students are learning environmental perspectives outside Environmental Studies (ES) programs.

ES programs are often the focal point for environmental education and scholarship.  It seems natural, then, for ES programs to deliver environmental literacy (EL) to the academic community.  But giving ES responsibility for EL absolves the rest of campus from addressing it.  Our disciplinary silos remain intact.  If, as many suspect, traditional, disciplinary structures produce graduates unprepared to meet contemporary environmental and social challenges, higher education needs to re-frame the disciplines.  ES programs are certainly key to this conversation, but all disciplines need to be part of this transformation.  Environmental issues are increasingly covered in political science, economics, history, and philosophy courses.  We could do more to show students how environmental changes are relevant to civil society, social traditions, and other expressions of the human condition.

Environmental literacy needs to grow from the bottom up—from faculty and students realizing the importance of using multiple frames of analysis.  Faculty in ES could take a leadership role in providing information, helping faculty understand concepts, and identifying useful case studies.  Issues can be framed through the use of readings, papers, field trips, issues, media, case studies, and other approaches, where students would have the opportunity to explore how an environmental perspective adds meaning and important new perspectives to their understanding of disciplinary issues and experiences.  Faculty outside ES programs have an active role to play in thinking about which connections they’d like to emphasize in their courses. There are many courses on the books that include potential ES or ES-related material without being fully self-conscious about it.  With a little retooling, it can be as simple as asking a different set of questions about existing reading and subjects.

Women’s Studies, International Studies, and Ethnic Studies programs have undergone this transition and can serve as a useful template.  In the last decade, disciplines have become more international, multicultural, and focused on issues of power and identity. The environment now needs a similar nudge.

And there should be reciprocity.  As mentioned in the previous posts (here and here), ES programs could do a much better job of incorporating how issues of race, class, gender, power, and culture inform attitudes on the environment.


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Posted in environmental literacy, environmental studies, higher education, nature and culture | 1 Comment »

Environmental literacy in higher education—Part 3: Framing contemporary problems

Wednesday, November 25th, 2009


Prerequisite posts:

Understanding environmental change and its impact on natural and social systems is a critical frame of analysis that needs to be added to the repertoire of student perspectives (such as race, class, gender, and power) and competencies (such as writing, quantitative skills, and languages).  Each of these frames/skills is an arrow in the quiver of a 21st century liberal arts education.

Upon graduation, students encounter problems—environmental change, poverty, war, disease, injustice.  An environment frame, together with race, class, gender, and power frames, is critical for a more-sophisticated understanding of (1) environment within a social context and (2) society within an environmental context.  That is, it is not just about habitat, charismatic animals, or big government/corporate policy, but about all of the ways that the social and the cultural intersect with questions surrounding environment — What is nature, how it is implicated in our lives, who benefits and who loses from environmental harm, what issues of power and identity are invested in environmental discourses, how do we make policy or economic decisions given these questions?

Adding an environmental frame to courses does not connote advocating a particular agenda or ideology.  Rather, it is one of several analytical frameworks that allows faculty and students to evaluate critically the interconnected dimensions of our contemporary world.


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Posted in environmental literacy, environmental studies, higher education, nature and culture | 2 Comments »

Environmental literacy in higher education—Part 2: Understanding the cultural context of environmental literacy

Tuesday, November 24th, 2009


Prerequisite posts:

We need to consider how knowledge reinforces or challenges our understanding of nature and human society.  How might it influence the ways we choose to deal with environmental and social challenges?  In this post, let’s take a look at how efforts to promote environmental literacy benefit from an understanding of cultural context and speak to the ways that environmentalism itself is evolving.

The Western world continues to struggle with a nature/culture divide.  In his bestseller, End of Nature, Bill McKibben argued that the worldwide reach of global change has turned all remaining wild nature into human-dominated ecosystems.  When Bill Cronon and others asserted in Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature that wilderness is as much of a social construction—shaped by individual experiences and values attributed to nature (or lack thereof)—as it is a natural phenomenon, they were assailed as environmental heretics.

Both of these texts force us to consider, What’s nature?  Can it include the coexistence of people and ecosystems, or must it be human-free wilderness?  If the former, then it’s hard to see how climate change marks an end of nature if we accept the coexistence of people and ecosystems as natural.  If the latter, this means that the end of nature happened in most parts of the world with the dawn of humanity and the spread of modern civilizations over the past 10,000 years.

Each philosophy leads to different outcomes.  McKibben has focused on nature and the prevention of catastrophe through the mitigation of carbon emissions.  Uncommon Ground asserts that “if we hope for an environmentalism capable of explaining why people abuse the earth as they do, then the nature we study must become less natural and more cultural.”

Thinking about the intersection of nature and culture is often uncomfortable and complicated.

It’s uncomfortable when we look historically at how the nature/culture divide was promulgated.  For example, the establishment of national parks in the American West was often accompanied by the forcible eviction of Native Americans who had lived there for millennia.  “Wilderness,” in the traditional American experience, emerged as a product of conquest rather than by innate properties of the species and environments themselves.

It’s complicated—as Cronon suggests—when we realize that there are multiple cultures conceiving of multiple natures, each with its own notion of the relationship between nature and culture.

The Sierra Club, Inuit peoples, and African Americans, for example, have traditionally thought about nature and culture differently.  The Sierra Club was born from the classic wilderness tradition where nature is synonymous with a world without humans.  The Inuit’s perspective is (pun intended) the polar opposite:  Nature and culture are seamless, and the idea of wilderness without people is completely foreign.  And African Americans have become engaged at the interface between environmental and social issues, such as racial and class disparities in harm arising from pollution.  Where land has been important to blacks historically, it’s been about land ownership, farming and gardening, and access to public parks—overtones of the post-slavery experience, not the wilderness experience.

It’s not surprising, therefore, to find that the relationship between nature and culture varies dramatically, even among environmentalists (here and here).

Bottom Line:  In addition to gaining new knowledge that builds environmental literacy, students should also become aware of when they are operating within specific cultural frames of reference (and the merits and limits of each) and how new information reinforces or challenges those frames.  Sure, there are points of contention, but there are also opportunities to forge a vision for what it means for humanity to live sustainably and justly in the modern world, as Julian Agyeman and others have advocated over the past few years. Back to our simple example above:

  • The Sierra Club (and other preservationist/conservationist groups, many natural scientists, and some ethicists) shows us why the preservation of other species is beneficial in its own right as well as being instrumental to humanity.
  • The Inuit (and other indigenous cultures and many social scientists) illustrate that humans and nature can coexist for millenia and adapt to climate change provided that resource use is sustainable and social systems are flexible enough to accommodate new situations.
  • And environmental justice advocates (and some social scientists, politicians, religious leaders, and ethicists) highlight the importance of ensuring that the benefits of social progress and the detriments of environmental harm are considered fairly across race, ethnicity, and class.

Perhaps this is the ultimate challenge for students:  In the quest for environmental literacy, how do we navigate these cultural contexts to figure out how we can accomplish multiple worthwhile goals simultaneously.


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Posted in environmental literacy, environmental studies, higher education, nature and culture | 4 Comments »

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.


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Posted in environmental literacy, environmental studies, higher education, nature and culture | 1 Comment »

Environmental literacy in higher education—Overview

Sunday, November 22nd, 2009

In the next series of posts, I’d like to continue the conversation about environmental literacy initiated in the context of why people don’t engage climate warming.  In that discussion, EL was mostly framed as a matter of knowledge about climate warming and the earth system:

  • People don’t know enough about how human and environmental systems work and interact.
  • Personal actions don’t match required solutions.
  • Bad mental models facilitate underestimation of the problem and the time scale to deal with it.
  • Environmental literacy is affected by how we structure disciplines in higher education

Let’s build on this last point and broaden the focus to higher education and environmentalism.

Many thanks in advance to friends and colleagues, most notably Matt Klingle (Bowdoin), Joe Bandy (Bowdoin), David Hecht (Bowdoin), Kim Smith (Carleton), Jen Everett (DePauw), and David Orr (Oberlin), who helped shape my thinking about this issue.

Related post: Why don’t people engage climate warming? Problem 1: Environmental literacy

Posted in environmental literacy, environmental studies, environmentalism, higher education | 4 Comments »

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