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  • Getting to Green

    An administrator pushes, on a shoestring budget, to move his university and the world toward a more sustainable equilibrium.

Freedom of civil religion?
May 15, 2012 - 8:25pm

A friend of mine has pointed out repeatedly that, while Environmental Studies graduates can talk about the environment, Environmental Science graduates can actually do something. (Of course, the guy's an Environmental Science professor. No surprise, there.)

I don't particularly disagree with his distinction, although it kind of misses the point. Good Environmental Studies programs teach students to talk -- and more importantly, to think -- about the environment not so much as an entity separate from society, but as part of an integrated whole. Society suffers as the environment degrades, but if a particular society is falling on hard times (self-inflicted or otherwise), the prognosis for the local environment isn't too healthy, either. While I don't make a point of it (especially at his house), I sometimes wonder whether those Environmental Science grads have any depth of understanding, not of what they're doing, but of why it's important that they do it.

(FWIW, at the undergraduate level, a strictly physical-scientific, a strictly social-scientific, or a strictly humanities education is so incomplete as to be potentially harmful.  But I've pitched the idea of restoring meaningful (as opposed to token) gen ed requirements to Greenback faculty before.  When the wounds heal over, I may try it again. No time soon, though.)

As it happens, Greenback has no Environmental Science program, per se.  Nor, for a number of reasons, is it likely to institute one. So the best our undergraduates are likely to do is to be able to talk/think about the environment, and about sustainability. But when it comes to the subjects of social and economic sustainability, I doubt that many of our grads can even talk, much less think.  Greenback teaches all the social sciences, and has a well-established economics department. We even have sort of a cultural studies program hidden on campus (it's for grad students only, and you have to know where to look).  But most of our curricular materials strenuously avoid topics of social/economic sustainability, and for a long while, I didn't understand why.

Eventually, the light began to dawn. One of the books that helped crack the shutters was Lewis Lapham's Money and Class in America. Published in 1988, its specifics haven't aged well (the "big numbers" the author throws around to exemplify the power of capital seem rather modest today). But it's general message is at least as true now as it was a quarter-century ago.  In his subtitle, Lapham insightfully refers to regard for money as the USA's "civil religion".  And the intervening years have only increased our overall civil religiosity. 

So to teach that sustainability is preferable to short-term growth, to teach that materiality (worse, the pursuit of an imaginary materiality -- the peak experience is not having, but buying) is counterproductive, to introduce even the concept of immutable constraints is to preach the most vile of all possible heresies.  Marxism seems mild by comparison, and there aren't a whole lot of (even closeted) Marxists left at Greenback.

With luck, they'll only banish me to Rhode Island.  I kind of like Rhode Island (or at least parts of it).


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