Recently, I was speaking with a group of students. One of them emphasized to me a point I've often made myself, that the differential environmental impact created by how efficiently (or in-) a single campus operates is trivial in comparison to the aggregate differential environmental impact created by our alumni as they live out their lives, their careers, and their various influences in society. I wish I could have some confidence that what students learn at Greenback will, on balance, lead them to influence society away from accelerating unsustainability, but I often fear it's just the opposite. On balance, our curriculum (like the curricula of most US universities) positions our graduates to earn more, consume more, and thus demand more from an already overburdened ecosystem. Too often, our graduates leave campus with skills to be prolific consumers, and without attitude or understanding likely to help them resist material temptation.
If I could add one ingredient to the recipe for a Greenback graduate, it would be a dollop of ecological consciousness. Not just the abstract concept that "somehow everything's connected" -- abstract concepts don't really shape individual or collective behaviors. Rather, I'd like to add some gut-level sense (preferably, one so fundamental that it would resist verbal expression) of how, and how profoundly, and how importantly, all life and all that interacts with life on the only planet we've got is intertwined. And I think I may have found just the teaching tool I've been looking for.
Evoking true ecological consciousness on Greenback's campus is inherently difficult, in large part because our campus's ecosystem is so severely truncated. Lawns and flower beds and old maple trees may be aesthetically pleasing, but they're (at best) a superficial facsimile of nature. About the only quasi-complete ecosystem I can point students at occurs at the insect level, and somehow I've never found bugs to be the right tool for teaching anyone not already ecologically aware. I've wished we could have large, charismatic mammals on campus. In full knowledge, of course, that it's never going to happen.
But maybe a picture -- especially a moving picture -- most especially a moving picture that truly moves the viewer -- can be worth at least a small number of real wilderness experiences. Maybe the profound systemic impacts that a population of about 325 wolves have been able to work on Yellowstone National Park demonstrate, at a more visceral level than anything I could ever say or write, just how pervasively and importantly "everything's connected".
The right gut-level consciousness would be more profound learning than has been evoked by any three-credit course I've ever seen.
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