David A. Van Wie
What Do You Teach?
This fall I began a new job as an adjunct faculty member at the University of New England (UNE) in Biddeford, Maine. The obvious question I get frequently is “what do you teach?”
The short, expected answer is “Environmental Studies 104: Introduction to Environmental Issues,” a required class that is part of the core curriculum in the College of Arts and Sciences. Most of my students are First Years (we used to call them Freshmen), with a few sophomores and a lone senior sprinkled in.
I find it admirable and inspiring that UNE requires several courses within the theme of Environmental Awareness for first-year students. In their second year, students must complete courses under a Social/Global Awareness banner. As juniors, the core curriculum theme is Critical Thinking, and senior year the theme is Citizenship, emphasizing personal and public responsibilities.
The Environmental Studies Department provides its faculty with a list of learning objectives for ENVS 104 that reflect the interdisciplinary philosophy of the core curriculum. The objectives include understanding and explaining key environmental issues, including:
air and water pollution,
global consumption, and
environmental laws and policies.
The class assignments require students to research and read various sources of information, such as journal articles or classic nature writers. We are expected to encourage students to consider political and ethical choices, and develop a sense of individual and group responsibility about the environment.
With my broad background in environmental sciences and policy, I have selected a wide range of technical and policy topics where I have firsthand experience: the Clean Water Act, evolutionary ecology, hazardous chemicals and contaminated site cleanup, hydropower relicensing, and anadromous fish restoration, to name a few.
To supplement our fairly generic introductory textbook, my students are reading A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold (Oxford University Press, 1949) – an influential and lyrical exploration of the conservation ethic and America’s emerging environmental awareness, long before Rachel Carson and Bill McKibben came along. We have also read Garrett Hardin’s classic Tragedy of the Commons, a short piece by Donella Meadows on the definition of sustainability, and an E.O. Wilson op-ed column on biodiversity and extinction.
What I Teach
Amidst all those topics, I am also trying to teach my first-year charges to become serious and skillful students, lifelong learners and provocative thinkers. What I teach goes well beyond the subject matter to build on the bigger lessons that should help them succeed in their major classes, and in their careers.
Here is what I teach:
Be aware of your own worldview – How do you see the world? What perceptions and biases do you have? In Deadeye Dick, Kurt Vonnegut wryly noted that we all view the world through a “peephole.” How big is your personal peephole? And how does your view differ from how other people in different places, circumstances and moments in history view the world, and our environment in particular? How does our limited but expanding understanding of ecological principles and scientific observations influence the way we look at the world and our environment?
Cause, effect and impacts are linked in complex ways – Our actions create impacts, some known and some unknown. Trying to understand cause, effect and impact in a complex system that includes multiple interconnections and feedback loops is very difficult. Almost nothing is simple, and often we will encounter counterintuitive results.
Science matters – How we apply our intellect to explore the world around us is an important part of the human experience. Not every question can be answered with science, but many of the most important issues of the day require serious scientific inquiry. We don’t get to choose what science we believe, but we must know how to properly question and test the science and data we are presented. If we doubt the evidence before us, then we must pursue knew knowledge and new data with a better scientific approach.
Words and definitions matter - When we talk about the definition of sustainability, for instance, what exactly do we mean? How are words like “sustainable” co-opted or watered down in a way that renders them less useful as a guiding principle. Our laws and regulations and related litigation are all about words and their meaning.
It is important to think and write clearly, because the only way to forge solutions is through clear understanding among participants. We spent considerable time discussing argumentation by assessing the difference between facts, assumptions, values and perceptions. We have been learning how to question sources of information, and learning how to critique an argument. I have encouraged my students to appreciate the beauty of great writing.
We must understand how our government works. When we confront a problem, what is the legal basis for action? What type of authority has jurisdiction to take action? How do we engage? Almost every “Tragedy of the Commons” type of problem will require some level of government response. How can we make public policy work on problems that may affect our health and survival, like climate change?
Policy design and implementation are very hard – It is easy to complain or protest and offer simplistic solutions, but it is much harder to design policies that are effective, equitable and affordable. We must consider whether policies might have unintended consequences that are unfair or counterproductive to the goal of the policy.
We must take action at different scales – For any problem we can choose to work at different scales: individual/personal choices, community, city/county, state, regional, federal and international. How can we as individuals get involved at various levels to work on different parts of the problem?
Consider the ethical issues in environmental policy – How does human society develop an understanding of right and wrong, both within society, and with our (humans’) interaction with other cultures and other species. How do we view our responsibility toward future generations?
There is wonder and beauty in our world to be enjoyed and celebrated.
Environmental issues can be big, ugly, scary and depressing. The world is changing, and it always will. No matter how much impact humans have on the planet, we must celebrate the beauty and wonder of nature, and draw strength and renewal from our natural world, and the resilience of our global ecosystem.