Destined for Failure

I AM ASTONISHED by the number of academics convinced that the infusion of a few technological electrolytes will cure the pounding hangover sure to punish us for partying so recklessly in the hospitality tents sponsored by Cheap Readily Available Oil. People with five or seven letters after their names are clinging to the delusion that energy and technology are interchangeable, that when one goes into decline the other will arrive to take them up the mountain for a weekend of downhill skiing.

This error persists for any number of reasons, among them the fact that higher education has largely become a faith-based institution governed by the motto “In Progress We Trust.” But perhaps a more immediate cause is that as participants in an increasingly abstract economy we have simply let ourselves live in a kind of blissful ignorance about oil — how it was formed, what we use it for, how we get it, what and whom we destroy in the process. And so as a teacher I have often wondered whether general-education curricula should include an interdisciplinary course on oil — and whether passing such a course should be a graduation requirement.

This is part of a larger question concerning the problem of ecological illiteracy, that unselective pestilence as likely to infect a professor as a frat boy. Too many of the guests and tenants in academia bear a striking resemblance to that clueless freeloader at the end of The Great Gatsby who shows up one night after Gatsby’s death, unaware that the party is over.

But it is, and it’s high time we who teach started saying so, because lean times are coming. For example, our dependence on the food system, which is run by oil from farm to table, will waste no time teaching us a few things about how incompetent we are. That many of us with impeccable academic credentials will be among the first to starve means only that chickens do come home to roost: we are the confessors of an educational creed that dismisses the value of the domestic arts and sends graduates out into a world of surrendered skills and purchased necessities. We are the diploma retailers who have allowed students to assume that the machines and the ungraduated will supply all their real needs. We have let these students major in Getting Ahead. We have strip-mined the local talent, converted it into “graduates,” and shipped it to Big Important Places. Deracinated and deracinating vandals that we are, chasers of whatever grant money inflates our egos, we have taught students to be as we are: citizens of every place, which is to say citizens of no place — that is, not citizens at all, but parasites.

It’s time for something better.

On every campus we need large, highly visible vegetable gardens that are tended by everyone who likes to eat; cafeterias that provide, insofar as they can, only local foods; compost heaps steaming next to these cafeterias to remind us to pay our debt to the soil. We need administrators committed to dismantling, not enlarging, our vast system of technological dependencies, and professors committed to living defensibly and responsibly and competently before their students. Our foreign studies programs must become local studies programs. Our new buildings must be made to run on energy sources that will still be available when the buildings turn fifty or a hundred.

We can’t ignore the problem of ecological illiteracy any longer. It must become a prominent curricular concern all across higher education. And no one should graduate who doesn’t know what oil has done for us — and especially what it has done to us: made us fat, lazy, stupid, and incompetent. This won’t cut it.

Jason Peters teaches English at Augustana College and is the editor of Wendell Berry: Life and Work.


  1. This very sound comment is spoilt by the common one of considering energy as though it is a commodity.The energy we use is invariably an attribute of matter. This means that when we use energy for our purposes, the process invariably produces material wastes. Using energy from fossil fuels has initiated climate change as well as producing pollutants harming the health of many creatures, including us. Most people do not understand that there is an immutable relation ship between eenrgy and materials.

  2. And we need to look back to the last time in our lives that anything made sense.
    This thinking will lead us to those times when we took responsibility for our own health and grew our own food and had gardens with highly nutritional vegetables and fruits which were tended by loving hands.
    Not someone else’s idea of food as a commodity but food as medicine.
    We see quickly enough what happens when food is treated as a commodity-we end up with massive amounts of stuff which does not decompose and there is no away for all this waste.
    We cannot have an entirely new educational curriculum soon enough which has as the most important course Gardening, Nutrition and Health and how their relationship is crucial to the human species and the Planet.

  3. bravo bravo bravo. I agree 100% that we need to strongly reevaluate the focus of current academia. Much of it is strongly out of touch with reality. Our educational institutions need to emphasize localization and more sustainable thinking…and they need it NOW.

  4. I sympathize with the spirit here, but the tone and the quick-fix solutions seem to me a symptom of the disease being diagnosed. A failure of systematic thinking, and an assumption that the local doesn’t extend beyond my neighborhood (out-of-sight, out-of-mind). I teach at a large state university, with students from all over the world, a constant reminder that higher education is part of a system that doesn’t just serve residents, but creates (ambiguous) possibilities. The “last time in our lives that anything made sense” was, I think, in Eden.

  5. When we finally, (and fatefully,) understand the value of energy and its undeniable power to have created this fantasy world we now live in, will those who are providing the tangible and truly meaningful livelihood for us all– the gardeners and cooks– finally be able to claim the respect and equity they deserve?

  6. Interesting points. It seems to me that in addition to those vegetable gardens andcompost heaps we also need to remember E.F. Schumacher’s admonition, “Small is beautiful.”

    Do we need huge city-unto-themslves campuses? Do we need so many universities rather than broad generalist colleges? Would we benefit from “pocket colleges” of a hundred or so liberal arts undergrads with a dozen faculty living in small flats surrounded by fields, gardens, and orchards?


  7. Yes small is beautiful for sure and we need to now be working into a world of human dignity and rights.
    The education system is old paradigm where true thinking, based on the reality we find ourselves in, does and cannot happen.
    We can’t go back to the past but we can return to a time when life made sense and revive those experiences on a small is beautiful scale.
    Organic and biodynamic farms where conscious food is produced will be the universities of the future. Folks will go to learn practical skills in a living sphere which will bring forth a legacy for the next generations.
    If we eat food that is conscious we become conscious and act out of morality. The place where nutrition, education and nature meet is where the real work will cocreate a living legacy. And humans can
    live in Right Relationship with All Beings planting seeds of hope for a time beyond their own.
    This knowledge is not available at the Ivory Towers or in books.

  8. Right on. Our national elections are now decided by Metripolitanos who have no idea of the connections that link soil biota, arable, cows and lattés. Unless our educational system can teach students to recognize the duplicitous architecture of elaborate card houses, a majority of our electorate, attracted by fancy Jacks, Queens and Kings, will vote to live in a pending flush.

  9. Diane said

    The real problem is that we did not understand that using that energy came at an appreciable cost – the associated production of material wastes. The damage has been done with climate change being one aspect.

  10. Your observations of the chronic failure of our educators are accurate Jason and it is no mistake that the more highly paid and educated they are the more delusional their behaviour. At heart is their incapacity to embrace fundamental physics and most live in grand denial of the Conservation Principle of Energy. It is this failure that results in their chronic ecological illiteracy. It is no mistake that the most illiterate are the supposed “ecology” and “energy” experts, for their lifestyles are in extreme dissonance with their knowledge. I have explored how this dissonance is reflected in their use of key symbols. The problem is so endemic that I have drafted a speech that President Elect Barack Obama will have to deliver if he is to divert us from our current decline into catastrophic war. For those interested it is at Principle/Barack Obama speech on energy.htm

  11. “no one should graduate who doesn’t know what oil has done for us—and especially what it has done to us: made us fat, lazy, stupid, and incompetent”

    On behalf of all the fat, lazy, stupid, incompetent and illiterate metripolitanos out here, I just want to say how grateful we are that there are still some people who can tell the difference between fantasy and reality. 🙂

  12. What a perceptive comment, Rick. It was never as simple as Barbara makes it sound. I sometimes wonder whether the whole environmental movement (of which I’m a part) isn’t fundamentally based on nostalgia for a recent past that has been colored by our wishes.

  13. Here in Oregon it has just been reported that the prez of OU gets over $700,000 in salary, plus perks, and the prez of tax-supported Oregon Health and Science University (OHSU) had salary and perks this year of over $1.1 million. Try to picture these characters, and for that matter any prez of a large university, out digging in the campus garden . . . .

  14. Never as simple as Barbara makes it sound?
    I beg to differ and agree wholeheartedly with Rick that oil has made us fat, lazy, stupid, and incompetent.I will add moral superiority to the list and that far reaching lack of moral shame amongst humankind.Lack of shame for the huge mess made for our young ones to clean up.
    I do not speak here from a stance of a solution coming out of another ideology but from a life as gardener, wildlife biologist, farmer, environmentalist and mother.

    Here is a quote from Robert Graves from a lecture on Human Culture. “The decline of a true taste for food is the beginning of a decline in national culture as a whole. When people have lost their authentic personal taste, they have lost their personality and become instruments of other people’s wills.”

    Think about what is being said here, it is about connections or links that people can no longer make. That essential unity with the soil has been broken and hence our inner landscape as human beings can no longer link to the outer landscape of nature.

    It is simple, only we haven’t had the forces necessary to think, feel and excercise our wills, those forces , not substances, that will lead us back into the realm of life. A life that serves as a living legacy and an archive for the future.
    It is possible for us to walk a practical path with spiritual feet and that can be as simple as giving your kitchen scraps to feed the micro
    organisms and worms in your compost heap.
    Consciousness , a life of consciousness which to me does not include stupidity, fat, lazy and incompetent.
    How many of you know that there was once in Oakland, California the Composting Corporation of America started by E.Pfeiffer
    and that this fertile soil was sent out to many farms and nurseries across the country? Yes, in the early 1950’s, read about this in Secrets of the Soil and see if you can figure out why this practical solution to waste was shutdown.
    I am currently writing a book on wolves who I studied in the 1970’s and early 1980’s. What I looked at here was the food habits and social organization of two wolf packs.
    Even wolves serve as models for the human population now that food supply and social organization are staring one another in the face in the human culture.
    The solutions are not going to come from a book, or another research project, or another course on stress management,or another machine, they will come from seeing the connections in nature that are simple, life affirming,practical and real.

  15. to Dave McArthur ~ the link you posted: is a dead end. please repost, i’d be very interested to read it.

    i’ve long been waving my hands in frustration and disgust at the mainstream education system these days, that teaches children and ‘adults’ virtually nothing about taking care of ourselves in the authentic ways: emotionally, mentally, spiritually and physically.

    i like the bluntness of this article and the tone of putting a mirror where society hasn’t wanted to acknowledge it’s needed.

  16. As a 6th generation WASP college grad, and a 5th generation post-secondary research/educator, I have college memories that go back over 60 years. In the past 30 years, most colleges and universities have evolved from centers of learning, with fixed academic standards and headed by ex-faculty, to financially- oriented corporations, headed by Administrators who couldn’t distinguish between Christopher Wren and Christopher Robin. In my Grandfather’s time at Wabash, and my Mother’s time at Carleton, college presidents knew all of their faculty, and entertained them at dinner at least once a semester. Then the duty of the president was to act as a nucleus for faculty, as well as secure additional endowment. Then the endowment was dedicated as much to faculty chairs and scholarships as to new buildings and athletic facilities. Today’s corporate academic CEOs seem more concerned with building campuses than endowments. Many don’t even know their own faculty members. Because their new buildings and athletic facilities add operating costs, modern curricula and grading standards are lowered to guarantee tuition by preventing failure. I hear TV’s Armanied talking heads rhapsodizing that America’s colleges and universities are the worlds’ best. We wouldn’t even have most of our graduate schools of science and engineering if it weren’t for foreign grad students. I’ve stopped counting American grad students who can’t write a cohesive, persuasive, grammatically correct essay.

  17. Thank you for confirming what I have long suspected, Mr. Leavenworth. So what is the way forward?

    Cadging a few million from well-to-do families to create small niche liberal arts colleges in varied settings which ignore accreditation and career preparation and simply get on with learning in a collection of homes?

    Ignoring disciplinary silos and using Great Books or Great Ideas format undergraduate education curriculum?

    Returning to the idea that faculty own and manage the college – the old Oxbridge model? And that clerks exist to execute faculty set policies, not make policies for faculty?

    Faculty focusing on teaching to the exclusion of research at the undergraduate level?

    There is much to be done and little time to begin….


  18. I do have a couple of thoughts about beginning to reform higher ed.

    First, governing boards should wake up and begin to defend the academic mission of their tax-sheltered institutions, whether private or public. And that includes the big bucks (“compensation”) committees that hand over sweetheart salaries to top administrators, administrators who now duck responsibility for either teaching or research.

    Second, schools having, say, a minimum of a billion dollars in tax-sheltered endowment should–in this time of recession–apply both the annual yield and the required fraction of the principal to eliminating tuition for both newly admitted and continuing students beginning with fall 2009. This would free up millions of dollars in grants and loans for students at less privileged schools and give many middle-class families immediate relief. The alternative should be the loss of the gigantic tax shelter.

  19. Peters is talking about a college degree that MATTERS? I like that idea. I’m reminded of Wendell Berry’s quote to the effect that what colleges and universities really should be doing is helping students figure out what’s important. And what better way to do that than to offer (or mandate) classes that study the things we cannot live without: food, energy, stable, healthy ecosystems?

  20. I just graduated with Honours in Sustainable Development through a university in Australia. When I discovered this degree I thought I’d finally found The Degree that would formalise all the stuff I was doing and believing for the last 40 years (I’m a later bloomer!) Now I am employed in local government as a sustainability officer, and finding that although my degree has given me credibility insofar as it makes people think I have ‘the answers’ about how shall we live, they are rarely interested in committing to act on the recommendations they are paying me to make. Feels an awful lot like I am at risk of being a greenwasherwoman. My higher education has not taught me how to deal with these realities.

  21. Leah wrote: “although my degree has given me credibility insofar as it makes people think I have ‘the answers’ about how shall we live, they are rarely interested in committing to act on the recommendations they are paying me to make.”

    Generations of parish priests would sympathize with your situation, Leah, as would a range of workers in the helping professions. Shaking an addiction is hard enough for motivated individuals: imagine the challenges for a society that has been addicted for more than half a century (three generations and counting).

    I agree that colleges should be places where students can figure out what’s important (universities are a different animal). Trouble is, many things are important, and–if you think learning (as distinct from just knowing) is itself important–there are a lot of false starts, dead ends, frustrations, puzzlements, simple curiosity and wild pleasure involved.

    Students are growing things, too, not just an industrial product: mandate all you want to, you still won’t get a standardized yield.

  22. Leah (posting 22) notes that there is a discrepancy between having answers and getting anyone to listen much less implement them.

    A few thoughts, Leah:

    * If there is a community organizing school or institute in your area, contact them about their next round of classes and enroll. In the interim, find copies of Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals and Reveille for Radicals – while you’re waiting for the books you might want to read

    Next, look around the community you are serving as a sustainability officer. Any garden clubs, Green Party folk, environmentalists, E.F. Schumacher “Small is Beautiful” devotees, urban homesteaders, local/indigenous arts and crafts retailers and producers? On the religious front how about Quakers, Mennonites, Brethren, Liberal Protestants, Jews, Humanists? They are your allies and may need you to be a catalyst for a grass-rrots movement.

    Also, who are the primary grantmakers in your territory/state? Any chance you could get a demonstration grant to do a “Walden” like Thoreau to make your point? For many folks seeing is believing….


  23. As a 30 teacher in public schools and jr college I see a pressing need for teaching the practical side of science, how to use less energy, compost, grow veg. maintain a house and yard. I am part of a movement to establish green campuses where kids have an outdoor classroom, garden and compost. It is a challenge but its happening. I am also collecting the leaves from my neighbors, 200 bags and still collecting. Why not just run over it with the mower and let it fertilize the yard. i hae the biggest pile of leaves in the city and it will compost down by summer to a wonderful leaf mulch. What a waste of time and energy to rake and bag leaves.Produce waste from the grocery store, they won’t let me have it for my chickens, another area of organic waste. don’t get me started!!! Isabel Halsey

  24. Resolution for 2009: SPEAK OUT loudly, clearly and often

    Dear Friends,

    In calling for change in our time, great scientists are speaking about what could somehow be true to wealthy and powerful people who prefer that the “business as usual” status quo be maintained. Industrial/big business powerbrokers and their bought-and-paid-for politicians want to keep things going along just as they are going now, come what may for the children and coming generations, for life as we know it, for the integrity of Earth and its environs.

    Many voices are needed to support “voices in the wilderness” like those of Jim Hansen and John Holdren, exemplary scientists who have been willing to speak truth to those with the power to make the kinds of necessary change that make belief in a good enough future at least a possibility. Assuring a chance of a good future for the children and for life as we know it is an achievable goal that will lead us to overcome the arrogance and avarice of many too many leaders of my “Not So GREAT GREED GRAB Generation” of elders.

    If too many leaders of the family of humanity choose to keep doing precisely the things they are advocating and doing now, and if we in the human community keep getting what we are getting now, then it appears a sustainable world for our children cannot be achieved. By so doing, the limited resources of Earth will be permanently dissipated, its biodiversity massively extirpated, its environment irreversibly degraded and life as we know it recklessly endangered. The current gigantic scale and anticipated growth of per-capita overconsumption of limited resources, global production and distribution capabilities, and absolute human population numbers worldwide are simply, clearly and patently unsustainable, even to the year 2050. Given Earth’s limitations as a relatively small, evidently finite and noticeably frangible planet, the projected increases in these currently unbridled consumption, production and propagation activities of the human species could soon lead the human family to come face to face with some sort of colossal ecological wreckage.

    Now is the time to speak out loudly, clearly and often about what is true for you. Forget about political correctness and convenience. Let go of economic expediency and greediness. Embrace necessary change rather than waste another day preserving the selfish interests of the small group of rich and powerful people, and their many minions, all of whom are adamantly and relentlessly defending an unsustainable, same old “business as usual” status quo.

    Steven Earl Salmony
    AWAREness Campaign on The Human Population,
    established 2001

  25. Goodness. That letter certainly doesn’t reflect what I know to be occurring on college campuses across the country. While there are individuals who fit the description, they’re becoming ever more of a minority. Do a little research and see how many colleges and universities now have sustainability intiatives, who have interdisciplinary programs, degrees, and learning communities addressing these very issues. The numbers are large and growing every day. As an academic who teaches courses focused on sustainability and relocalizing aspects of our economy and society, I can tell you that this letter missed its mark.

  26. Joy Perry’s post is right on the money. I work in research administration at a major public university. I see significant involvement from faculty, students, and administration in sustainability-related education and research. The reasons are twofold: One, the people involved are genuinely convinced of the importance of sustainability and related issues, and, two, it “sells” — there are increasing research opps in sustainability-related science and technology. And many faculty and student researchers are proposing sustainability projects to traditional funders. This doesn’t mean that every student has a compost pile — it means that serious hard-science research is going into new energy sources (green electricity generation, for example) and related issues.

    Changing individual lifestyles is crucial to moving our economy toward sustainability, but it’s also important to know that some answers can come (and are coming) from university research.

    There’s been a lot of ax-grinding in this thread — lots of sparks but little illumination.

  27. I appreciate the folks who posted comments 27 and 28, but I think they miss the point. Research may provide big business with new ways to control the economy – why else would Exxon/Mobil and BP be funding alternative energy research at major universities, public and private? And yes, various colleges are creating sustainability majors, at the same time, btw, they are creating emergency management programs. But I find myself wondering, “Does someone need a degree in sustainability to live sustainably?” and “Do I really want the same companies that control energy today be the comapnies that control our energy tomorrow?” I think we’ve been marketed into believing research always leads to better living, although I’d say the reality is something else again….

    One of the real abuses perpetrated by American higher education is to perpetuate the myth that a college degree makes someone ready to do x, y or z…sustainability, though, is about living with what one has, maintainence, and balanced growth offsetting natural loss. The fact that folks think college coursework is equivalent to living sustainability only shows how meaningless much of higher ed has become. I’d sooner buy a subscription to Mother Earth News and get their 5 CD past issues collection, or join a 4-H club, or a Master Gardener program, a County Extension program or investigate than waste time and money in a university classroom or lab.

    I’d like to see community colleges focus on how to make sustainable living happen in their immediate communities. And I’d also like to see less high tech and more appropriate tech made available nationwide.

    And on a separate note, I agree with Isabel Halsey – we have to get folks out of classrooms and into the world if sustainability is going to catch on. And that includes more practical education not only focusing on why but who, what, when, where and how with what we have to work with at hand.


  28. Marc (post 29), I didn’t mention Exxon/Mobil or other corporate sponsors of research. What I see are researchers responding to NSF solicitations for basic science and technology that will allow our culture/economy to live the life it’s currently living WITHOUT the devastating impact on the Earth itself.

    Lifestyle is one way to attack sustainability issues — we did it to a degree in the late ’60s and early ’70s — but that requires an act of individual will that many adopters couldn’t maintain.

    If universities provide us “spinach electricity” to run our laptops instead of coal-fired electricity, then we’ve moved toward sustainability. “Active” solar panels didn’t come from somebody’s back shed. They came from university research.

    Ultimately we in the environmental community have to ask ourselves what our goal is: (a) to live sustainably in ways that may involve technology and university research or (b) to look like we’re living sustainably by adopting cultural markers (shopping local, composting, biking, etc.)

    It will probably require a mix of both, but I can’t discount the possibility that important solutions will come out of university research settings.

  29. Marc Kivel (29) asks: “Does someone need a degree in sustainability to live sustainably?” and “Do I really want the same companies that control energy today be the comapnies that control our energy tomorrow?”

    I wonder, Marc: do you think you can live sustainably by yourself? Good luck with that: climate change affects us all, and addressing it is going to be a bit more complicated than growing your own veggies.

    Don’t get me wrong: I’m all for personal downscaling and more appropriate technology. But lots of people still live in cities–more and more, in fact, worldwide–and it’s better not to pretend they don’t exist.

    Getting to sustainability is going to take more smarts, more ingenuity, more social skills–not fewer.

  30. Bill (30) does make several good points: no, you did not mention corporate involvement. However, the track record is rather clear that new technologies developed with public monies then get picked up by corporations and we get to pay for them a second time to the profit of big business. That is not sustainability. And I’d offer the thought that beecoming suatainable is a great deal like losing weight – miracle diets might work for some, but in general one has to exercise more and eat less to see a difference. If we’re not willing to decrease the quantity of wasteful living, which requires lifestyle choices, then how do we attain sustainability?

    I’d also note, Bill, that the cultural markers you mentioned are in fact simply changes in choice of tools to accomplish particular ends – a bike and a car both get you from a to b, but at very different immediate and long term costs and with varying benefits to the user and the larger environment.


  31. Rick (31), a couple of comments:

    You wrote, “I wonder, Marc: do you think you can live sustainably by yourself? Good luck with that: climate change affects us all, and addressing it is going to be a bit more complicated than growing your own veggies.”

    Hmmmmmm. First, degrees in any subject do not in and of themselves translate into assisting anyone. And I’d say that the resources I listed could be substantially more valuable to the average consumer than a degree – even better would be a weekend workshop with folks who actually do the work in the real world daily combined with how to use the resources cited.

    “Don’t get me wrong: I’m all for personal downscaling and more appropriate technology. But lots of people still live in cities—more and more, in fact, worldwide—and it’s better not to pretend they don’t exist.”

    Having an academic background in urban studies/city planning, Rick, I’m all too aware of the reality of urban living…but are you aware of and some of the work being done in major urban areas around the world with appropriate technologies?

    I believe we have to stop thinking that living sustainably must mean living as we currently do…there’s nothing innately sustainable about contemporary American lifestyle, particularly the average American urban/suburban version.

    “Getting to sustainability is going to take more smarts, more ingenuity, more social skills—not fewer.” Agreed, Rick. So doesn’t it make more sense to encourage the average apple knocker to rethink priorities and wants and act on them rather than waiting on academics to make the next high tech breakthrough and resultant economic bubble?


  32. Well, someone has to say it: In a closed system like Earth, it is absolutely physically impossible to achieve economic stability while simultaneously increasing both population and per capita consumption. This is because Nature’s Economy doesn’t respond to supply and demand. Greater demand may exhaust supply, temporarily or permanently.
    This should be taught at every level beyond primary school, and especially in B-schools.
    At the current pace, sometime in this century, Thomas Malthus will eat Adam Smith and pick his teeth with the bones of Smith’s “Invisible Hand.”
    Either we find ways to implement population reduction and per capita consumption over a short time, or we will do it violently in resource wars.

  33. Grammatical problem there in the last sentence: Per capita consumption must also be lowered. I apologize.

  34. “I believe we have to stop thinking that living sustainably must mean living as we currently do…there’s nothing innately sustainable about contemporary American lifestyle, particularly the average American urban/suburban version. ”

    I agree with the sentiment, Marc. Beliefs and habits have to change. The question is, how quickly can they change? and how completely?

    Say we have 10 years to cut carbon emissions by 80% or face drastic alterations to the world’s climate. It’s taken us 50-60 years to build up the infrastructure of the “contemporary American lifestyle” (dating it to the Interstate Highway System). How rapidly can we expect people to change their lives? And how do we get them to adjust their expectations of what’s possible?

    I agree that “degrees in any subject” don’t necessarily help. But suppose we replace “degrees” in that sentence with “education.” Do you want to argue that “education” won’t help either? If so, the only alternatives I can see are divine revelation or authoritarian politics–neither of which strike me as preferable (or, frankly, effective).

    If we’re stuck with education and democratic persuasion, then I think not only do we need more education in sustainability–both in and out of classroom, degrees or no–but we’re also going to need more research and development of technologies.

  35. Thanks for the follow on, Rick! I think getting practical has much merit, so here are a few options for getting things going:

    1) I read in this morning’s paper that city recycling is running into a problem – with the market downturn the prices for recycled materials have fallen with overall commodity demand and cities are unsure what to do with mounting recyclables. Seems to me that smal, and I emphasize small, local firms could be reworking the recycled materials into locally reused materials – paper,containers, etc. I’d also say that biowaste-to-methane production could provide jobs and lower cost/more natural energy production.

    2) Builders, architects, planners and engineers need to get a clue. Houses are too freaking large, expensive and frankly shoddily made anymore. At the same time, in countries worldwide there are structures hundreds and thousands of years old made of local materials. I’d like to see more competitions for small environment friendly housing design, pedestrian oriented villages, and
    more human sized/human powered transport, energy and communications. The co-housing movement could be very approrpiate on the Great Plains and in many suburban areas of North America.

    3) I’ve lived in a 2nd world environment with my spouse in 300 sq feet and was perfectly comfortable – I believe that in 1950 the average American home with 2 adults and 3 kids was something like 980 sq ft. They needn’t be drab, but they could be fashioned from local materials – cob construction, adobe, stone, strawbale, sod and wood with minimally processed man-made touches.

    4) And with the downsizing could come a need for locally made and maintained furniture, waste systems, water systems…

    5) Seems to me there are enough people in a large enough country to make better use of resources and capacities.

    And for those in large cities? Perhaps the inner core needs recycling, like Detroit, with lower densities/co-housing/devolution into smaller political entities with more attention to reusing exitsing resources and diversifying industries and trades.

    Nothing prevents Cleveland, or Dallas, or Albuquerque from having co-housing, fewer slurbs and more greenbelts than builder-friendly zoning, yet most major cities didn’t grow up with zoning and frankly are dying with it….

    If we want to get where we haven’t been we have to ignore the maps that take us down roads we ignore as we ride….


  36. Marc–

    Thanks for the suggestions; I think they’re all great ideas. We need these–and more–spread far and wide.

    There’s still a huge gap between being able to imagine a better world and being able to improve (and preserve) the one we have. How do we get there from here? And how do we decide, democratically, exactly where “there” is going to be?

    There is, I think, a risk in thinking too “locally” when it comes to sustainability issues–what could be called the “let’s tend our own garden” syndrome.

    Water systems are a great example. A lot of us–everyone between the Rockies and the Appalachians–live in the Mississippi watershed: if we’re thinking about water, that’s “local” for us. If we’re going to do something about the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, we’re going to have to think about catchment on that scale.

    Reducing agricultural fertilizer use has to be high on the list; so does restoring wetlands and riparian corridors. But, as my friends tell me, wetlands are also a source of methane, so there’s climate impact to keep in mind….

    I’ve found that a good rule of thumb is to consider environmental issues as “wicked” problems–meaning they don’t have clear-cut, hard-and-fast answers. So we have to learn, not just to come up with good ideas, but how to publicize, advocate, pilot, revise, adjust, organize, compromise and keep at it.

  37. Well, if there’s no food at home and the kids are starving, those with food are in trouble. So, agricultural self-reliance begins just out the back door. Or, as Candide said, “Il faut cultiver son jardin.” We can worry later about wider impacts of local self- reliance.
    Here’s something to ponder: At the time of Christ, the population of the city of Rome was between 1 and 2 million, and the city ate in North Africa. In the year 546, the population of Rome was well under 35,000, and they ate pretty much at home, when they ate. The North African granary could no longer support a large, distant urban population. There’s a lesson for contemporary metropolitan areas, as they grow increasingly dependent on more distant sources of food, energy and water. Large cities are simply not enduring enterprises, over the long run. They consume too much of their environment, and quickly lose their perspective on their own precarious bargain with it.

  38. “At the time of Christ, the population of the city of Rome was between 1 and 2 million, and the city ate in North Africa. In the year 546, the population of Rome was well under 35,000, and they ate pretty much at home, when they ate.”

    I don’t think I want to take the fall of the Roman Empire as a guide for the transition to sustainability. There may be catastrophes–environmental, social, political–to deal with, but most of us would rather avert than embrace them. I put more faith in planning for resilience than in grow-your-own survivalism.

    As for cities not being viable “in the long run:” If you’re going to be around for as long as it takes cities to become obsolete, I salute you, Methusaleh. I have, at most, another half-century in me, and I expect most cities will outlive me.

    I’ll ask you what Marc asked me: “are you aware of and some of the work being done in major urban areas around the world with appropriate technologies? “

  39. I am aware of some of the work that is being done to improve sustainability in cities around the world. I do not expect to live another 50 years. I do think that cities are not sustainable, long-term; they simply can’t feed and water themselves, although they might, with effort, provide themselves with energy. But if the world’s population doesn’t begin to calculate, individually and collectively, its impact on the long-term (1000 years +) sustainability of its immediate and extended surroundings, then someone’s grandchildren will die in a cataclysmic war for resources and food. And I suspect any self-inflicted apocalypse will be attended, not by Gods, but by cockroaches.

  40. It is almost sad to see how many of us agree that the world is heading into a dark abiss … and how few are able to cut he cord of all this good living made possible by oil.
    I truely believe that in my lifetime I will see a deep decline in oil production and a resulting shock wave of social unrest and economic crisis. And no amount of shopping will save us then.
    We need more than gardens and compost piles… we need to have working model habitats that show the world it is possible to live with MUCH less energy and much more quality.
    It will take about 150 of us to really make a difference – or – we continue to drive down to in and out burger until it is tooooo late.

  41. I agree, Dan…I believe that there is no one solution, strategy or program that can turn things around. I’m reading Wendell Berry’s “Unsettling America” and I think some a attitudinal adjustments are in order. I find myself guilty of focusing on how to preserve things (lifestyle, personal economics, values) as they are rather than asking, “What’s a healthier way?”

    Perhaps a better way is not to work to change others but to change ourselves a small bit each day. That is something we have control over and need not wait or depend on others to begin.

    Today I choose to make my own lunch with food in the house rather than buy out which also entails using a car, gasoline, wear and tear on the motor and tires, not to mention putting carbon in the atmosphere.

    Today I choose to turn off lights and open curtains trading secrecy from neighbors for sunlight.

    Today I choose to spend my time cleaning and dusting with an old fashioned broom and rags rather than using the Hoover, and opening a window or two to let the outside in to sweeten the house’s stale air – no deoderizers, ionizers, or other machinery.

    Most importantly, today I choose to be thankful to God for the gifts I usually ignore in my rush to be, do, see, and accomplish.


  42. Just an observation: Six generations of my ancestors fished, farmed, studied, practiced medicine, operated small rural businesses, hunted, made music, served under arms in wartime, and NEVER SAW AN AUTOMOBILE. Were they underprivileged? Only a few of my great-grandparents ever rode in a car. Why do we suddenly think we’re entitled to own huge cars? Why don’t schools and colleges teach ecosystem reality as ardently as they teach political correctness?

  43. Well, William, schools and colleges/universities being communal institutions, they tend to reflect and uphold the values and norms of their society for the most part. I think a better model of practical education might be the Folk Schools that teach traditional arts and crafts tied to a particular area.


  44. William asks: “Why do we suddenly think we’re entitled to own huge cars?”

    Maybe it depends on what you think is “sudden” Automobiles have been around for more than 100 years, and we’ve built our social infrastructure and expectations around them for 60+–three generations, by my count. That maybe sudden from a geological standpoint, but it’s reasonably significant in human terms.

    I don’t think we can grapple with our problems by shutting our eyes to how the world works (in every sense of that phrase).

  45. we all seem to be on the same page – as are most people that I talk to.
    Sudden or not we have been trained to become dependent upon our cars, our ever increasingly big houses and the idea that we can hire someone to do every little chore – from fixing a leak on the sink or mowing our lawns.
    I don’t believe that little changes will save us – the human race as a whole won’t be saved from tearing each other apart when oil runs out or 5 million folks in LA realize that small garden plots won’t feed them when corporate ag collaspes.
    What I would like to discuss with you all – is: how would you design an alternative society? What size? What amount of time working – vs – playing? Education?
    I hate to seem to be such a pessimist – but if a big ship is sinking and you have only a few lifeboats… do you save some or just run around trying to plug leaks inside the ship.????

  46. I’ve contributed my 615 words and should, I suppose, sit back and watch now. But I’ll go ahead and submit a few remarks for correction and reproof. I don’t pretend always to be on the scent, but I do think we should bark up the right trees if we can. So . . . I doubt that what we’re doing now—I doubt that what we call “civilization”—can be saved. A population inflated by the profligate use of ancient sunlight cannot be sustained in its absence, which is to say I think grim times are coming, and woe to her who is with child. But I do believe that small solutions are the only ones available to us (where “us” means something like a pre-WWII global population, maybe even a pre-industrial population). Those solutions include, above all, the care of the soil. I agree with Wendell Berry that we must reduce our problems to the scale of our own competence. No one can save a planet, but each of us can help save one or two of its small places and neighborhoods—so long as we’re willing to stay put and know these places intimately. And that’s part of what I tried to say in my attenuated argument in the Point of View piece: academics have rarely been willing to resist the careerism and hyper-mobility that are, as Bill Kauffman says, the great undiagnosed maladies of our age. But these academically certified itinerant vandals had better learn to resist them if they wish to be of any real use to everyone else. I would also like to see colleges and universities cease to be complicit in destructive practices, even as each of us tries, piecemeal, to put an end to our own complicities. I would like our schools to be better neighbors and members of their communities—their real, not their abstract, communities—just as I would like to see people in my racket be better members of their real, as opposed to their disciplinary, communities. (I assume that loyalty to a place is always better than loyalty to an abstraction.) I would like to see our standard of living drop considerably, especially in our schools. We don’t need email kiosks between urinals; surely a man can pee without high-speed internet connection available to whatever unoccupied fingertips he may be sporting at the moment. And we need to be smarter about population. It bears keeping in mind that when we’re in a traffic jam and we say “traffic is terrible,” we’re never talking about ourselves. It’s always someone else who is the population problem. So we mere consumers must learn to look upon the hungry and say, “there, but for the grace of oil, go I.” All of this is a way of saying that in the grim future I’m imagining we’re going to need to be smarter, but also better, people than we are now.

  47. Well said, Jason. Maybe 2 acres, a cottage with vines and fig trees and a couple of goats or chickens, and an end to labor-saving (read work destroying) conveniences and we’d all be better off. Well, as Moliere so sagely advised, I’m off to tend my garden.

    Looks like there’s going to continue to be a premium of wisdom for the forseeable future….


    On Jason’s comment:
    “I would like our schools to be better neighbors and members of their communities—their real, not their abstract, communities—just as I would like to see people in my racket be better members of their real, as opposed to their disciplinary, communities.”

    Two points: (1) Schools are invariably a part of their community. I work for a major state university with international connections. The people associated with my school (faculty, staff, students) have intimate and extensive social, political, economic, and cultural connections with my city and MSA. They are, after all, citizens and residents actively involved in the civic life of our area. (2) I couldn’t DREAM of wanting my university to have a greater formal INSTITUTIONAL connection to the community’s power hierarchy. When called on as an institutional entity, our professorial and administrative ranks are too often tone-deaf to the social and political needs of the larger community — a product of the ivory tower (to resort to cliche).

    Jason again:
    “(I assume that loyalty to a place is always better than loyalty to an abstraction.)”
    My aside: Loyalty to place has been associated with most of the large-scale, horrific conflicts in human history. I’d take loyalty to “love” over loyalty to “the Holy Land” any day of the week.

    On to Marc:
    “Looks like there’s going to continue to be a premium of wisdom for the for[e]seeable future . . .”

    I might amend that to say the premium may need to be on knowledge first — Voltaire, it was, who penned, “Il faut que nous cultivons notre jardin.”

  49. Was that Candide, or Pangloss?

  50. Candide was Voltaire’s erstwhile protagonist who uttered the garden quote, indicating his passive rejection of his tutor Pangloss’ eternal and unsupportable optimism.

    The quote was not an endorsement of the kind of gardening Orion readers are likely to be interested in — it was more in the spirit of “I need to mind my own business, look after myself.”

  51. Haven’t read it in 35 years, since grad school in comp lit.
    As I recall, Candide and Pangloss had been reunited with Candide’s erstwhile love and her nurse, who were slaves in North Africa. Voltaire was mocking the current wave of philosophers who maintained that it was “the best of all possible worlds.”
    Unfortunately, they may have been closer to the truth than most folks would like to believe, since collective human nature stands between the status quo and improvement.

  52. Thanks for reminding me how long its been since I’ve read Voltaire – time for a re-read. Darn old age! Aside from wrong author and wrong character…anything else I misattributed to gardening? 🙂

  53. ATABS: You have some good points,BUT your comment about climate change (ie: global warming) is WRONG. If it wasn’t for oil, most of the students in the left wing instutions would not be there. OK, if you want to get away for oil —- go to nukes. Nukes have made this planet what it is today. Only the United States people are lacking in the nuke world. France, Japan, and China are so far ahead of the American civilians it is not funny. (The reason I said civilians is because the U.S. Navy has been dealing with nuke propulsion plants for 50 years.

    My recommendation is to take the students to the “garden” on a bus and leave them there until they can get their head togeather and realize that they are on the BOTTOM of the pile. Then they can go into the world and be an asset. If they don’t, they are mush heads like the graduates for today’s schools.

  54. Have you ever visited the East Texas Oil Museum in Kilgore TX?

    I have often wondered why US History includes the story of the Gold Rush and not the story of the Oil Rush. Today we are still trapped in the legacy of the values and myths we’ve inherited from a culture that was blind to the true costs of its infatuation with oil. My visit to the East Texas Oil Museum and the film it shows that glorifies the industry and oil refineries around the world opened my eyes to the scale of our problem. Your article identifies the solution but I doubt if our social and economic institutions can get reorganized in time to head off the final crisis.

  55. I have just come back from a discussion with one of the schools I work with (I have been director of the Audubon Center in MN for 37 years) and we discussed the concept of a school community. They are in a relatively rural area, a small school that is project based and trying to be as green as can be.

    Their students are mostly poor and they are looking at gardens not just to provide learning, but perhaps to reach out to the families and affect the community.

    I think we forget how the school used to be an integral part of the community system. Now we destroy systems and wait for artificial constructs to save us. The social system like the ecosystem must have all its parts functioning.

    It is time to examine not just oil, but the capitalist system that promotes consumption over conservation. I do not advocate the destruction of capitalism, but I do want to shift the measurements to social capitatlism and the value of resources saved, not just a Gross (This word is correct if we shift to the second definition) National Product.

    We are in a reflective time and that is good. The question is – can we remember the lessons of the last depression when the dust bowl and the market crash were twins of economic and environmental disaster? Now we have a global climate and a deep recession – coincident? I think not.

    Ultimately we need to live in a real world, not a virtual one. When reality is in pixels we will all be lonely and hungry.

    Oil is the symptom and not the single issue.

    Thanks for the stimulating conversation.

  56. I think that Mike’s idea of building a community around a school is a vast improvement over our current suburban sprawl system of throwing school buildings in the middle large sections of tract homes.
    To put more focus on building social systems over four lane highways would help us to avoid another repeat of the boom and bust cycles our current form of capitalism seems doomed to repeat.
    In our area of North Idaho gas got up to $4 a gallon a few months ago… then down to $1.35 a few weeks ago… now back up to $ 2 – all the while the price of oil has gone down.
    I strongly support the concept of optimized capitalism – where the economic system is built from the bottom up – maximizing the power and value of each individual worker.
    Mike’s point about remembering the lessons of history is our society’s weak point – we don’t remember last months lessons let alone the great depression.
    perhaps soon we will

  57. Integrating environmental education into schools has been going on for as long as I’ve been a mother (over 30 years). But it seems to happen fairly quietly (outdoor education centers, sometimes learning gardens), and even though the programs earn kudos from scientists, they get little respect from the politicos. The Dallas Independent School District, for example, recently cut off funding for its learning garden even though the students were testing higher in science than their peers.

    We all have to take responsibility for teaching this stuff, though. Everybody who has children should have some kind of a garden, and as much as possible acquaint children with the environment as a whole. There are ways to do this that don’t involve blowing up the TV (although that might be my first solution if I had it to do all over again)–but we can’t expect those in higher ed to know what they don’t grow up with.

    I teach in a for-profit college that requires either conceptual physics and environmental science in order to earn a BFA; I integrate scientific context into my art history and humanities courses. But I was trained as an archaeologist and got the education; most people don’t, and don’t seem to be curious or concerned enough to educate themselves.

  58. Without good exposure to the environmental models underlying all of our book-economics (and very existence) the chances are quite real that today’s gated communities will become tomorrow’s protein corrals. Sometime in this century Thomas Malthus will eat Adam Smith, and pick his teeth with the bones of Smith’s “invisible hand.” Education today will determine how Smith is cooked.

  59. In all fairness to Adam Smith, he never meant for his theories to be applied on such a large scale. His model was the face-to-face community in eighteenth-century Edinburgh. He also meant for Wealth of Nations to be read in light of Theory of Moral Sentiments.

    The poor guy is probably tired of rolling around in his grave at what’s been done since.

  60. It would be strange if every horrible thing ever dreamed up in scary alien movies happened to us just by virtue of being too lazy to change our ways.
    As frustrated as I am by the disconnect in the U.S. between what needs to be taught and how little our young addults are willing to give up their addiction to material goods – it is small potatoes compared to the roar of six billion people around the world consuming every scrap of food, metal and energy that can be fished, grown, dug up or burnt down.

  61. Smith isn’t the only one rolling. Any residual stability in our world probably derives from the gyroscopic effect of all our ancestors spinning in their graves.

  62. I think there’s a major point being missed, because it’s so big and so obvious. Civilization has never been sustainable. Hasn’t been since it started 10,000 or so years ago. It’s continually had to expand into new lands (a growth economy) to make up for this, notwithstanding some occasional shrinkages, like the Dark Ages (which evidence shows was due as much to climate changes as the political disruption of the fall of the Roman Empire).

    Only now are we really running up against some hard, probably immovable limits, precipitating all the problems we see: global warming, the dissolution of the social fabric, wars, etc. We’re being forced to look at this now, because there’s no avoiding it.

    My question is this: if they couldn’t live sustainably in a world powered by horses and oxen, where entertainment was a story by the fire, and most people lived very locally… what makes us thing we’re ever going to be able to live sustainably while still having computers, cars, cable TV, and Iphones?

    It seems like just another case of “the technology will save us” when it was the obcession with technology that got us here. What, more cancer is going to cure cancer? More fire will stop the house from burning?

    Research is good, will have its uses for us in dealing with all this. I’m not saying we’re totally screwed and we should just give up. But that question still stands.

  63. I’m not sure why Brandon McGinnity thinks civilization is intrinsically unsustainable. That might be true, but only if we follow a constant-growth model–which is itself unsustainable. Equilibrium is a better concept, and were we to consider changes that make a more balanced description of what it means to be civilized, we might have more luck.

    That said, perhaps the growth impulse is so firmly ingrained that there really isn’t anything we can do about it, barring world-changing (and paradigm-shifting) catastrophe.

    The Medieval world-view that didn’t recognize progress (the great chain of being was static) may not have allowed for growth, and may have produced plague and war, but at least they didn’t have to worry about how to sustain 9 billions on this planet. We’ve still got plague and war, but we also have to figure out how to survive all the other crap we’ve produced.

  64. can we move past the ‘gotta have growth’ economic model that the United States serves as the world leader of???
    I see all of the economic recovery plans looking to stimulate growth. Not to build a sustainable alternative model… why?
    Because – we are sheep … we won’t change until there is a true environmental collaspe.
    Mega cities will be viewed as the solution to housing displaced rural poor in growth addicted economic – until food can’t be delivered to those cities and the people within become crazed bands of killer humans.
    At some point soon, we may look back and think of a medieval world as the good old days.

  65. Owlfarmer (post 65), even though the Medieval world-view didn’t recognize progress (which I’m not sure is true, but will take you for your word for now), they did actually continue to grow and change dramatically. There was contraction in the beginning of the Dark Ages, but after that, through the first millenium populations expanded continually. The people were getting crowed (at least in the context of the limits of life at the time). This is what drove the Angles and Saxons into Britain, and the Vikings into Iceland and beyond. There were great changes in Europe’s culture over the Middle Ages, laying the foundation for the Modern era.

    Population growth is the foundation for the growth economy in many respects. It doesn’t matter if the cultural beliefs are of stasis and continuity, because they in actuality do end up changing, (if not progressing, whatever that would mean). We altered the limits with fossil fuels, but we’re still limited by the biosphere, the amount of resources, etc. This is the basic cause for the problems we’re beginning to see. We overshot the carrying capacity for the earth thanks to cheap oil, and now we’re going to go through the readjustment.

    I don’t know if civilization in general is unsustainable, but what civilization have you ever heard of that didn’t decline or collapse? Greek, Roman, Indus, Mesopotamian, they all fell. You think the Technolgic Civilization will be different? I don’t know that oil will be so easy to replace, and unless a critical mass of people change their minds about how they order their lives, the readjustment is going to hurt, bad.

    But even changed minds don’t matter, if population keeps growing, and that’s due to continual food surpluses; i.e., the foundation of civilization.

  66. “Decline and fall” is one way of telling–retrospectively–the story of civilizations; transformation and change is another. Both have their uses, but the first tends to be pessimistic/deterministic whereas the second leaves some room for hope and agency.

    Neither Greeks nor Romans thought of themselves as “declining;” in fact, the Byzantines thought of themselves as carrying on the best of both traditions through the 14thC CE (until Constantinople was sacked). After that, Moscow thought of itself as the New Rome, whereas various Italian city-states advanced their own claims under the banner of the Renaissance.

    The difference now is that civilization is global: no place can escape from the effects of climate change, for instance. There are disruptions and dislocations in store for us, no question. But dreaming of total breakdown seems, to me, the easy way out.

  67. The Medieval world was pretty much governed by the notion that everybody stays where he or she (and she didn’t matter much) is born. The aristocracy dumped their excess population into the monasteries and abbeys, and peasants were essentially resigned to their lot. In the big picture, at least. Of course there were individuals who joined crusades (as valets and squires if not crusaders), and others who bypassed the system, but a notion of progress wasn’t built into European Christianity.

    But decline and fall really is sort of a rule. Some sort of excess usually takes over and lets loose a group of monkeys into the plan. I’m not sure what our monkeys will look like, but suspect that some will show up and we’ll fall on our collective backsides in one way or another.

  68. good point made on declines and falls of any and all civalizations – out of the crashed debris comes some new human energy and sense of purpose.
    It seems sad to sit here and realize that no great political minds want to think of some plan other than proping up the old system.
    A few billion dead humans won’t seem to be a worthy learning curve on how not to structure a society.

  69. A few billion dead humans is not a learning curve; it’s an epistemological chicane.

  70. The first step towards freeing ourselves from an unthinking addiction to technological fixes is to understand how long this process has been going on and how much it is a part of all human cultures. Luckily a great deal of thinking on this topic has already been done by James Burke and Robert Ornstein in their 1995 book “The Axemaker’s Gift: Technology’s Capture and Control of Our Minds and Culture”.
    In the book the authors point out how a special group of technologists (axemakers) in each culture produces artifacts which on the one hand “solve” existing problems and lead to “progress” while on the other create new problems through their “side effects”.

  71. John makes a very good point about our societies addiction to technology – and it makes us so much more unwilling to face the truth.
    In a recent article I was reading in ‘Communities’ magazine the author talked about how hard it is for people who want to leave modern life for communes because of the addiction to creature comforts.
    Most of us are to lazy to walk two blocks to the store for a gallon of milk.
    Change – no matter how clearly we on this blog site may see it coming – will not come until there is a crisis of greater pain than our current recession or $5 a gallon gasoline.
    But change will come – because every economic boom and bust cycle brings us closer to the breaking point.
    My guess is that we have one more 3 to 6 year boom ahead (after a couple of years of this recession).. and then bad news – really bad news.

  72. Human population numbers can be reasonably, sensibly and humanely decreased, but reducing those numbers would require a level of cooperation and sharing among members of the human family that is hard to even imagine in times like these in which political convenience, economic expediency, human greed and elective mutism are predominant, motivating characteristics of many too many leaders.

  73. I sincerely hope that your proposal becomes a serious one for academia. I do teach these issues to my sociology, economics, and civics classes at a rural high school, but only reach a few (30-40) per year. They, like most of America, hear about the problems coming to us soon from me first, so they think I am a doomer of sorts. I try to show them that there is quite a nice silver lining to the return to a slower, more sane, and sustainable world. They already live in the perfect spot to weather the storm, but it is the transition that frightens me.

  74. Oddly enough, it’s the suburbanites who have trouble walking to places further than a block or so away. When I lived in Philadelphia, and later in Chicago, I either walked everywhere or took public transportation. But even urban-dwellers (at least of a certain economic level) are addicted to convenience and ease; they “have to” use elevators, get take-out for dinner (or microwave a meal), etc. Some of us who remember simpler lives would now (in our “sunset years”) gladly give up the convenience for the healthier habits of our youth. Perhaps we can start working on our grandchildren, providing them with experiences that can enrich their lives and suggest alternatives to what they’re learning from the modern world.

  75. I have been a teacher and have been an elected official in my community. In both settings I have seen that most people have no understanding of the way the earth works to cycle nutrients, clean water that falls on the earth, etc. I don’t believe that developers are evil people who want to destroy habitat, they just don’t understand the impact that a development, say in a floodplain, has on the ecosystem. Elected officials who approve the zoning and permits don’t understand either. All of that goes back to education where ecology and environmental sciences are most often found at the back of a large biology or chemistry textbook and is not covered in classes that always run out of time before they get to that last chapter. We need to include ecology as well as math and reading. If we don’t have any clue on how the earth works, how can we take care of it? How can we keep from harming it if we don’t understand how the harm occurs? We need to revamp our education systems to include this most basic knowledge. It used to be picked up to a small degree by our spending time outdoors and observing nature, participating in it. Now, most people don’t even do that anymore. It starts with education.

  76. Catherine (post 77), I agree with you. So perhaps it would be beneficial to make some changes in the scholastic model?

    First, perhaps we need to refocus formal education on tools and techniques and learning how to learn. Half a day in a classroom and half a day out in nature showing how the learning shapes our capabilities and responses to life and living. More informal education to truly educate and make the formal education useful and valued.

    I’d think it would be an interesting experiement to pour water with colored food dye or a good dose of dyed vegetable oil into a storm sewer and follow it downstream – see where it goes, how it is diluted, what it comes into contact with in terms of flora and fauna, and how long it takes to get to a treatment plant – assuming that it does. Then consider how run-off contaminated with all manner of industrial waste handles a similar trip….

    We spend too much time on inculcating information but failing to work up Bloom’s hierarchy to understadning much less wisdom. Perhaps informal education might succeed where formal education falls short?


  77. Serendipity rides again. Please check out the Green Mountain College website with their “37-credit Environmental Liberal Arts General Education Program, which all GMC students complete.”


  78. The few remaining traditional indigenous cultures around the world contain the kind of detailed and sophisticated knowledge of sustainable ways of living that we need in modernized societies– as well as of the social and spiritual frameworks that make them workable — but this knowledge is rapidly being wiped out by the near-universal imposition of modern institutional schooling.

    Once indigenous children are “educated” in modern schools, they come to see their own culture’s knowledge of sustainable living practices as “primitive” and inferior, and aspire only to enter the urban corporate consumer culture. Sadly, the elders often buy into this assumption of the inferiority of their knowledge systems, and become willing participants in its loss.

    The rapid and accelerating destruction of this deep ecological knowledge is one of the unnoticed tragedies of our age. We need to question our assumptions about the primacy of institutional schooling at a very deep level. We should be learning from these societies, not destroying them.

    Check out if you’re interested in a documentary film that explores this issue.

  79. This was a very sound article; reminded me of the thesis project I wrote for grad school in 2005. It was titled “Ecopsychology and Sustainability; The Missing Pieces in Environmental Education, An Undergraduate Curriculum.” In the Research I did, I found several colleges (Including Green Mountain College, which another writer mentioned) that have some sort of courses offered. But very few have an ecological literacy requirement such as theirs. David Orr (and many other academics) have written extensively about this topic. It will take local efforts at each college from faculty, students, and administration to see this changed. Perhaps I am overly-optimistic, but I have already seen some progress since I wrote the thesis. Many more colleges have added courses and additional sustainability initiatives…

  80. If our species is going to avoid collapse and consequent anarchy with a dose of cannibalism, we must make environmental history and environmental science required courses in Business Schools. MBAs still don’t understand that our laws of supply and demand rest on an entirely separate foundation of natural resources. Raising the price of oil will not entice Nature to make more.

  81. To extend William’s point – in a culture where “everything has its price”, people often think there’s nothing past the bottom line. I’m far from the first to say it but it bears repeating: analyses based on energy must not be overlooked. The barrel of oil that takes more than a barrel of oil energy equivalent to extract it should, and probably will, be left in the ground.

  82. Actually, John, your statement is not necessarily true — it’s a question of relative value. You say: “The barrel of oil that takes MORE than a barrel of oil energy equivalent to extract it should . . . be left in the ground” [emphasis added].

    I say: If that single barrel of oil will do something for us that only it can do, then we may well expend more equivalent energy to extract it than it will produce of itself.

    It’s difficult to think of an analogy without sounding silly but, come to think of it, the U.S. expended an implausibly large sum of money/energy to refine a ridiculously small amount of fissionable uranium to create the first nuclear weapon. (Whatever you think about nuclear weaponry,) clearly a nation put an extraordinary and energetic effort into produce a virtually miniscule amount of U and then of plutonium.

    If our culture judges that oil (gas) for cruising the Dairy Queen is more important than the excess energy equivalent used to produce it, then it will be produced — until there is no more to be had.

  83. As much as I enjoyed college and as much as I value education.. I don’t see that our collective ecological literacy has improved just because a few colleges added some classes.
    The test of progress is not what happens during the good years of economic bloom – it is what happens now… during the tough years of not having enough to go around.
    Governmental budget crunch has forced area colleges to slash budgets and dump classes. Cheap labor overseas has deeply cut the job market.
    The average guy is hurting and has no prospects to stop hurting. Oil, and all the other perks of wealth, will continue to be sold no matter how much it costs to produce. It just means that with each passing year, fewer and fewer average folks will be able to buy gas or afford the car that runs on any alternatives to gas.
    Our culture is the thing we need to change the most – and like an addictive drug – it is that thing we are least likely to change.

  84. Before we rush to try and make cultural changes (and certainly there is a need), its well worth taking a look at historical cases of crisis and cultural change. I’m sure there is a great deal being done in this area, but for me Jared Diamond’s recent books(“Collapse” and “Guns, Germs and Steel”)draw together an incredible amount of historical research and analysis with just this question of cultural change in mind.
    Also I’m aware of two organizations which support the study of cultural change: the Institute for the Study of Human Knowledge in San Francisco and the Institute for Cultural Research in London.
    Efforts like these can provide a knowledgeable basis for lasting and effective change in our culture.

  85. Thanks for your clear voice.

    More voices…….we need many more voices speaking out loudly and often. Time is being wasted by those with wealth and power who adamantly defend unsustainable status quo overconsumption, overproduction and overpopulation activities of the human species that are overwhelming and threatening to ravage the Earth in our time. Because these distinctly human activities could soon become patently unsustainable, necessary behavior change has to occur fast. If more members of the human family do not speak out to vigorously resist what the leaders of the human community are demanding all of us do now as we strive to ravenously overconsume Earth’s resources; to relentlessly hoard wealth; and to overproduce unnecessary stuff, then the planetary home we are inhabiting and overpopulating could be made uninhabitable for our children and life as we know it by 2012.

  86. I just returned from the World Environmental Education Congress in Montreal. Despite the fact that there were 2,000 people gathered from around the world to share talk of projects, pedagogy, programs, and “practice,” there was considerable annoyance at keynote speaker Stephen Lewis’s mention of the advanced rate of climate change, and little discussion dealing with it. There was no discussion of oil or technology or biospheric limits on finite ecosystems or the laws of thermodynamics. There were many people doing worthy environmental projects in schools and communities, but hardly any discussion of how to make sustainability education available to the mainstream as a matter of urgency and, from what we now know about oil and ecological illiteracy, the continuation of civilization.
    At my roundtable I posed the question, “Should sustainability education be a right?” The question was largely evaded for more talk of what people were already doing – things they enjoyed and cared passionately about (recycling, tree-planting, spring restoring, connecting kids to others in other countries, botanical gardens). I’d like to imagine the subject of sustainability as a required course across the education system. That’s where we need to go to begin to catch up with the damage we’ve caused by teaching ourselves, in the endlessly repeating cycle of “civilization,” to be above and totally divorced from the natural systems that give us life. Nature will step in and teach us a lesson if we choose not to teach ourselves.

  87. As a recently retired science teacher, I have seen that the usually single chapter on ecology or the environment is delegated to the end of science textbooks and is the one that consistently gets skipped or glossed over at the end of the year. It is just as important to know ecology, to really understand how the earth works, as it is to know reading, writing and math. We need to be proactive in advocating for it to be included in all curricula. People who drain wetlands for farming or for development are not evil, they just don’t know what harm they are doing. The same can be said for all development or land use decisions that are harmful to our planet. If we don’t understand the function of wetlands, riparian corridors, the interaction of groundwater, surface water and precipitation, etc., then we can’t know how to make decisions that are good for the planet. It is as essential understanding, as important, perhaps more, than any other skill included in our academic subjects. Now, without an education in ecology, we know not what we do.

  88. Interesting to hear from a science teacher. Do you happen to know of any curriculums that give ecological principles a prominent place? In my very limited experience, science tends to be taught in a building-block manner, with physics at the bottom, then chemistry, etc. Environmental science, when offered, is considered the “soft” option–the interior-decorating of the house of science.

    I live in Ohio, where we’re facing the death-throes of the auto-industrial economy. The response has been a rush to embrace the so-called STEM fields: Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. We’re hitching our future to educating more engineers, some greener than others, but all in the service of creating a high-tech economy. That approach is now being written into the state standards for science teaching.

    It’s an uphill effort, but I’m wondering whether anyone is working on an alternative science curriculum, in which ecology and sustainability might be organizing principles. Just having such an alternative would open eyes to the choices we’re making about the future.

  89. Several organizations and universities seem to be creating and/or maintaining sustainability curricula for both K-12 and higher ed. Two examples that I can think of are Second Nature ( and the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education ( Children can be a big influence on their parents, and the right teaching materials can help “convert” parents more quickly than any number of arguments in venues that most people don’t read (like Orion, unfortunately).

  90. I can’t think of a more inspiring collection of examples of environmental projects in schools than “Place-Based Education” by David Sobel. This book emphasizes the idea that effective environmental education is less dependent on the inclusion of certain subject matter than it is on connecting students with what’s actually happening in their immediate surroundings (school grounds, watershed) and nearby community.

  91. It just might be that that single chapter on ecology or the environment is at the end of the textbook because the students have to know the material that precedes it BEFORE they can take on the ecological interplay.

    I work in research administration at a major public university. The geochemists, the ethnobotanists, the computational biologists who are breaking new ground have to master the basics of biology, chemistry, physics, etc., before they can begin to interweave those disciplines into the complex paradigms that are the only way to understand the environments that concern us humans.

    Environmentalism is not for the hobbyist; it’s not a parlor game; with each year that passes environmental sciences demand the highest level of the basics.

  92. Bill says: “Environmentalism is not for the hobbyist; it’s not a parlor game.”

    I understand that you’re looking at this from the perspective of research, but it does strike me as pretty dismissive. Students aren’t hobbyists, and concerned citizens aren’t playing parlor games. What we’re talking about is an understanding of basic principles–what it takes to grasp the consequences of different policy choices. (e.g. do we need to protect wetlands or can we mitigate the effects of development by rebuilding them elsewhere?)

    Beyond that, though, I wonder whether the reductionist/foundational view of science hasn’t outlived its usefulness. As #89 points out, the building-blocks approach means that, for students, environmental issues are an afterthought, material that can safely be ignored. They learn that physics is real, hard science, whereas ecosystems are soft, fuzzy, and hard to measure. The result is that people who talk about space travel are taken seriously (let’s explore Mars!), whereas bioregional ecologists are regarded as nostalgic primitivists.

    So the question is: how do we get our educational priorities straight? How can we teach science as if the Earth mattered?

    I don’t, believe me, think there’s an easy answer. But it’s not the question of a flat-earth amateur, either.

  93. I agree with Rick that we can’t dismiss the non-specialist, because a large number of people get their introduction to environmental causes and efforts through folks like volunteer trail interpreters in local wildlife/ecology centers, for example. If we think of concerned non-professionals as merely amateurs and make light of their contributions, we don’t do anybody any favors, and we get called “elitists.”

    Grass roots may be something of a cliche these days, but environmental education and awareness starts there: right where the dirt meets the plant. If our goal is to educate the populace on the necessity of sustainable practices in the small snapshot of our daily lives as well as in the big picture, we have to welcome everyone who expresses and interest–and then work on raising the level of their understanding.

Commenting on this item is closed.