Benjamin Darr, Ph.D. and Christoffer Lammer-Heindel, Ph.D.
Humanity’s relationship to the environment is, in all likelihood, the defining issue of our time. The need for environmentally sustainable human practices has never been clearer or better understood, yet nearly all of the practices of modern life are organized around unsustainable modes of production, distribution, and consumption. We can clearly see our global impacts on the environment in many different ways, including climate change, sea level rise, deforestation, and overfishing, to name just a few. Taking into consideration the combined magnitude of humanity’s environmental impacts inescapably leads one to the realization that environmental sustainability is not just an urgent priority, but the definitive global challenge of our era. As such, an understanding of ecological systems and our relations to them—what can be called ecoliteracy—is an indispensable piece of the well-rounded liberal arts education that Loras College aims to provide to students.
Environmental sustainability has connections to a wide variety of academic fields. In fact, it is difficult to think of disciplines of study that do not meaningfully intersect with the interdisciplinary breadth of environmental studies. While the natural sciences are foundational in any environmental studies curriculum (e.g. chemistry, biology, physics), the human causes and consequences of environmental issues are studied intensively in the social sciences (e.g. economics, psychology), the humanities (e.g. literature, philosophy, religious studies), and everything in between (e.g. politics, sociology, history). In the humanities, philosophers and ethicists work, for example, to determine meaningful standards and norms of environmental sustainability, and writers and literary critics capture in human stories the depth and significance of humanity’s relation to our ecological context. Indeed, the humanities themselves have been deeply impacted by ecological change: as Dipesh Chakrabarty has argued, the now widely accepted notion that human beings are the principal drivers of planetary-level phenomena such as global warming challenges longstanding frames of reference and distinctions employed within the humanities, including the distinction between natural and human history.1
Meanwhile, in the social sciences, sociologists and political scientists study the effects of our social and political systems on our ability to live in harmony with the ecosystems in which we are embedded, analyzing the causes of our current ecological crises as well as suggesting possible social solutions. A central question for scholars in these fields is how drastic and far-reaching social and political changes need to be in order to achieve a reasonable standard of sustainability. There is a broad range of debate on this, with some scholars like Peter Dauvergne and Jane Lister emphasizing the efficacy of corporate policies promoting sustainability, and others like John Bellamy Foster calling for nothing short of the abandonment of capitalism in its entirety.2
In the natural sciences, chemists and biologists provide our most foundational understandings of ecosystems and their physical processes, and can also develop technological tools to aid in addressing issues of sustainability. It should be noted, however, that even in this area invaluable criticisms have come from the humanities. For instance, recent research in energy economics, engineering, and other technical fields has begun to demonstrate that the rise of technological efficiency has been, in many ways, not a solution but perhaps the central problem with humankind’s relationship to the environment, as it has accelerated the use of fossil fuels among other finite resources.3 This has been a criticism of the technological progress narrative from “deep greens” and others in the humanities for some time.4 Lastly, in pre-service and professional programs, students of business, for example, are increasingly expected to understand how firms can successfully integrate sustainability principles, manage risks associated with global warming, and negotiate external demands for greater regulation.5 Thus, across the entire academic spectrum, scholars work on environmental sustainability from a diverse array of angles.
Making such interdisciplinary connections is one of the chief virtues of a small liberal arts institution like Loras College. At Loras, faculty regularly cross disciplinary divides as they engage in scholarship and teaching. For example, a critical component of the general education curriculum is that each student in their senior year takes a pair of courses that are “clustered.” The cluster constitutes two courses from different disciplines whose topic areas intersect. The same group of students takes both classes, and each instructor also attends their counterpart’s classroom sessions. Humanities courses are regularly clustered with courses in the social and natural sciences and in professional programs. Thus, this proposal simply further builds on this longstanding campus culture of interdisciplinary collaboration. As the general education curriculum at Loras is now in the process of being revised, this proposal will seek to ensure that the humanities remain not only well represented in general education, but engaged in discourse with other disciplines as well. Moreover, it will ensure that students’ education in the humanities begins earlier rather than later, and it will show students the value of the humanities not just in isolation, but in relation to a variety of different disciplines. Perhaps most importantly, it will deepen their engagement with the humanities through exploration of a common theme and multiple intentionally designed high-impact learning experiences, ranging from community-based service learning to intensive research projects.
While some of these outcomes could be achieved by studying other topic areas, building our program around issues of environmental sustainability also builds on a set of commitments already in place at Loras College. Many sustainability-related courses are already taught in a variety of academic programs at the institution, and our proposal would harness these existing efforts in order to form a meaningfully designed four-course curriculum in sustainability studies that intentionally cultivates the intellectual virtues and modes of critical inquiry associated with the humanities. In the past decade, the college has recruited new faculty with a scholarly interest in sustainability in many different disciplines, including politics, philosophy, religious studies, chemistry, and literature. This grant would provide a welcome opportunity for such faculty to collaborate across their disciplinary boundaries. In addition, the surrounding community of Dubuque, Iowa is itself a leader in sustainability. This has provided Loras College with many opportunities to collaborate with the city on sustainability-related projects. For example, through its Honors Program the college has received grants from the city to fund projects such as a community garden and water-saving dual-flush adapters in campus restrooms; faculty have worked with various city departments to create community-based learning opportunities; and the Dubuque Metropolitan Area Solid Waste Agency has partnered with Loras College to create the DMASWA Education Office.
As a four-year liberal arts institution with a robust general education curriculum, Loras College is already committed to the humanities. This proposal plans to channel this commitment by organically incorporating the humanities into a curriculum on environmental sustainability, thereby engaging students in a holistic pedagogical approach to a pressing topic.
1 Chakrabarty, Dipesh. 2009. “The Climate of History: Four Theses.” Critical Inquiry 35, no. 2, 201.
2 Dauvergne, Peter, and Jane Lister. 2013. Eco-Business: A Big-Brand Takeover of Sustainability. MIT Press. Foster, John Bellamy. 2009. The Ecological Revolution: Making Peace with the Planet. Monthly Review Press.
3 See, for instance, Ayres, Robert U. and Benjamin Warr. 2009. “Energy efficiency and economic growth: The rebound effect as a driver.” In Herring, Horace and Steve Sorrell (eds.), Energy Efficiency and Sustainable Consumption: The Rebound Effect. Palgrave Macmillan.
4 See Naess, Arne. 1973. “The Shallow and the Deep, Long‐range Ecology Movement. A Summary.” Inquiry 16, no. 1–4: 95–100.
5 See International Institute for Sustainable Development. 2001. “Business Strategies for Sustainable Development.” http://www.iisd.org/library/business-strategy-sustainable-development.