One rainy morning I pulled into the Pacific University parking lot and was puzzled by the sight of sprinklers contributing to an already saturated lawn. I thought of the pesticides that were applied a few weeks earlier and wondered where they will end up. Which one of my aquatic friends would get to experience the flavor of the chemical’s toxicity? My mind then drifted back to a faculty meeting of years past where I recalled being told that the most important thing Pacific University should be focusing on is sustainability.
Sustainability is a curious word. I really don’t care for it much. It seems so hollow, so meaningless. The word “sustain” means to prolong or to keep up an action. It seems that we can hardly keep up our actions if we want to avoid some of the environmental maladies that await us.
The word sustainable or sustainability is used four times in the university’s mission statement. One particularly intrepid excerpt found in the university’s mission statement reads that we should “embrace sustainability, and use the university as a learning laboratory for sustainable practices.” I wonder how much the university learning laboratory has taught the campus community about sustainability.
I am not sure that our LEED buildings are an effective part of our learning laboratory. Sure there is more—recycling, the B Street Farm, the university sustainability committee (did you know there was such a committee?) and banning bottled water in the Bistro just to name a few. But what does this mean? Is it enough?
I teach an environmental science class and perhaps looking at my class notes will provide some answers. I started teaching this course back in 2000 and my notes from that beginning year state there were 6 billion people on the planet. That number has been crossed out several times and today it reads 7 billion. In 2000, the concentration of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, in the atmosphere was 370 ppm. Today it is 389 ppm. Most scientists think it should be below 350 ppm to avoid the repercussions of global climate change. In 2000, it was estimated gloabl reserves of crude oil would last more than 50 years. Today it reads 38 years. Of course one would assume that peak oil will occur much sooner. This is problematic since food is based on having a ready supply of cheap fossil fuels. The trend of changes in my notes spans many topics, including species extinction, toxic chemicals in the environment deforestation.
Will students be ready for what awaits them when they graduate? Should a liberal arts education help students understand the challenges they will face and provide them with strategies to deal with these problems?
The idea of trying to solve these problems is daunting and it seems that we are paralyzed to do much of anything. I speculate this paralysis can be largely attributed to the busy, stressful and complicated lives we lead. Who has time to be sustainable? The way we live our lives pulls us apart. This includes the Pacific community. We need to come together and have more “good conversations” about a suitable liberal arts education given the new set of problems students will face.
However, having these “good conversations” is more challenging than ever. We have created conditions that decrease human interaction and increase human isolation. We have learned to speak with our thumbs and have diminished our visual field to the size of a computer screen or smaller. In addition, it seems like there is less time for faculty to interact with each other and with students. I’m not sure why this is. We certainly have undergone huge changes in a short period of time (focal studies, cornerstones, four-credit system, change in governance, football, more scholarly activity, etc.). I am amazed at the multifarious activities that my colleagues are involved with. But I wonder how long they can keep up this pace? Is this sustainable? Is this keeping us from coming together?
We need to create an environment where there is more face-to-face interaction. An environment where there are more conversations between students, between faculty, and between faculty and students. Once we increase community and get to know one another, we can then start looking at what makes for a good liberal arts education based on the challenges students will face. Students should ask these questions: Will I be prepared for the challenges I will face when I graduate? Do I understand what these challenges are? I hope you do.