Greening the Liberal Arts

Every day, owing to modern conventional agricultural practice, soil is washing off our fields 10 to 40 times faster than it is being replenished. This destroys an area of cropland the size of Indiana each year, even as we run short of fresh arable lands to plow under. Every year we are losing species at a rate estimated between 1,000 to 10,000 times faster than natural—faster than at any point since the extinction of the dinosaurs. Every second, industries release 310 kilograms of toxic chemicals into our biosphere, around 10 million tons each year. Some of this stuff will critically sicken people even in concentrations of parts per trillion. After a half century, we still don’t know what to do with the 3,000 tons of high-level nuclear waste produced by commercial nuclear reactors in the United States every year. As a stopgap, we simply store this deadly radioactivity in swimming pools or in concrete caskets scattered across secured parking lots out in the open.  

As Oberlin College Professor David Orr comments, “It is worth noting that this is not the work of ignorant people. It is, rather, largely the work of people with B.A.’s, B.S.’s, LL.B.’s, M.B.A.’s, and Ph.D.’s. Elie Wiesel made a similar point to the Global Forum in Moscow … when he said that the designers and perpetrators of the Holocaust were the heirs of Kant and Goethe. In most respects the Germans were the best educated people on Earth, but their education did not serve as an adequate barrier to barbarity.”

We believe that education is innately a good thing. But in fact we have created what in many aspects is an uncoordinated beast, creating agency for accelerated destruction of the natural world. In resource-intensive ways, we have compartmentalized learning into guilds and boxes that compel students to focus ever more narrowly, learning trades of discourse and theory incomprehensible to their nominally well-educated peers and wholly detached from the natural stage that makes all this possible. This proves to be a powerful way of advancing knowledge, considered altogether, but the dangers lie in taking too much pride or faith in one’s own deep training—intellectual hubris—and an inability to integrate across the disciplines in a way that spares the world unintended hurt as graduates grow into positions of professional power—and unsustainable acquisitiveness. 

What is all this new knowledge for?

The liberal arts are intended to mitigate this situation, but in my three decades of teaching I see abundant signs of shortcoming. The sole purpose of most departments seems to be to prepare students for traditional graduate schools—especially in the sciences. The critical discourse of how “it all fits together” and why a broad vision of interdisciplinary coherence is so important so far eludes general elective efforts. Interdisciplinary programs can demonstrably provide a better platform for addressing the issue, and in terms of our environmental crisis, such interdisciplinarity is absolutely vital. It may be that environmental analysis (EA) is actually the most liberal of the arts practiced at Pomona College. For science students, in fact, it is the only option for avoiding incentivized hyper-specialization while maintaining a broad view of the role their training plays in the real world. 

I do not get special pleasure from writing about how badly things are going with the environment. In fact, I’ve almost grown to hate doing so. But nothing of what I write is hyperbolic. Environmental conditions have definitely worsened worldwide since I stepped voluntarily into the position of EA Coordinator in 2002. I now reluctantly concede that globalized society is in real peril of disintegrating in the coming century from sharp climate change if not from the factors indicated above. I honestly believe that our graduates should think about how to save civilized life, not merely enrich it as they leave the college gates. Their viewpoints must also embrace, as John Muir’s did, the many species fatefully strapped to our runaway capitalist growth imperative.

I think that a liberal arts education and an EA-type program can be a superb way of framework-building toward this end. But our efforts fall short of the mark. Would that we had the resources at Pomona for everyone to take a rigorous discussion-based course in environmental systems and social responsibility, or courses in toxic pollution and building for sustainability. Would that academic discourses were better integrated toward nurturing “Earth citizen-scholars,” not simply high-profile niche researchers. Irrespective, major paradigm shifts are in the offing, and these will greatly reshape the traditional liberal arts landscape in unexpected ways over the coming years. As Aldo Leopold commented, graduates must come to believe that they are primarily cogs in an ecological mechanism—not an economic or cultural one. Like it or not, this change will happen someday.

Richard Hazlett is the Stephen M. Pauley Chair in Environmental Analysis at Pomona College and an affiliated professor in the Geology Department.

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