Teaching and Research

On the Hill, studying sustainability means thinking, talking across borders

By Noelle Short '05


Spring 2009
Frank Sciacca (center), director of the 1812 Garden and associate professor of Russian, works with students to lay out the garden

At the start of the school year, the National Wildlife ­Federation had both good news and bad news for higher education. An NWF survey of nearly 900 institutions found that a growing number of colleges and universities, like Hamilton itself, are taking giant steps in making campus operations greener. Sustainability plans, recycling and more efficient use of energy are on the rise. But on many campuses, the teaching of environmental issues is actually in decline. Nationally, there are fewer majors and minors offered in environmental and sustainability studies than seven years ago, fewer students taking such courses, and dwindling support for faculty development in the field.

Kevin Coyle, the NWF's vice president for education and training, told The Chronicle of Higher Education that the contradiction may be rooted in the growing specialization of academic disciplines and the insularity of departments. By contrast, "the very nature of looking at things in sustainability is looking at things in an integrated system," he said.

Just a few days after that report, Hamilton offered a glimpse of how such an "integrated system" might work when more than 80 students and others gathered in the Kirner-Johnson Auditorium for an intense discussion of environmental justice and sustainability. Sponsored jointly by the Arthur Levitt Public Affairs Center and the Diversity and Social Justice Project, the panel presentation and the open forum that followed drew on the sciences, the social sciences and the humanities to consider the complexity of the environmental crisis, its relationship to social and economic issues, and the common ground that can be mapped across disciplines and ideologies.

"This is not a problem that one person or one discipline can solve, but we need different perspectives to come together," says Ann Owen, founder and director of the Levitt Center's Sustainability Program and associate professor of economics. "I think that will happen. In some senses I think Hamilton is an ideal place for that to happen."

Hamilton's ability to transcend the divisions that beset environmental study elsewhere is a result of both individual efforts and institutional choices. The Environmental Studies Program has evolved over two decades into a model of balanced interdisciplinary study. The ­College's commitment to collaborative student-teacher environmental research is evident as close to home as the Science Center's laboratories and the 1812 Garden, and as far away as the frequent Antarctic expeditions led by Eugene Domack, the J.W. Johnson Family Professor of Environmental Studies. The nearby Adirondack Park provides a rich, scenic natural classroom as well. And such ventures as the Levitt Center's Sustainability Program, the popular Food for Thought seminar and the Diversity and Social Justice Project all encourage Hamilton ­students to take academic lessons into the world and the workplace, where passion and activism can make a difference only when they are grounded in hard-won knowledge and critical thought.

Faculty members say the College's approach to teaching sustainability can and should continue to grow. "I think we are fairly interdisciplinary in our teaching, but I would like us to be more interdisciplinary in our research, which is so important for this particular issue," Owen says. Peter Cannavò, assistant professor of government and a member of the College's Sustainability Committee as well as an advisor to the Community Farm Garden and Graduates for a Greener Hamilton (GGH), believes that he and his colleagues need to do a better job of attracting and engaging a broader range of students. "One thing that has troubled me is that virtually all of my students in environmental studies or related courses are white," Cannavò says. "I think we on the Environmental Studies Committee need to make a much stronger effort to attract students of color. This would also match the increased diversity of the environmental movement of the past 25 years."

Nevertheless, Cannavò says, he's inspired by the "enormous level of commitment and energy" evident among students, faculty and others in the Hamilton community. "Some critics of sustainability have called it a feel-good movement among unrealistic leftist students, but students and alums are giving themselves a real, practical hard-nosed education in sustainable policy and economics," he says. "They are the future of a prosperous, sustainable economy."

'A multitude of ­perspectives'

Spring 2009Professor of Biology Ernest Williams, who served as the first chair of the Environmental Studies Program in 1990, when the ­College began the program as a minor, says the decision to title the program Environmental Studies rather than Environmental Sciences at the time was a considered one. "Environmental issues are broadly interdisciplinary, and to really consider them we need a multitude of perspectives," says Williams, also a member of the Sustainability Committee and an advisor to GGH.

In 2005, the growing demand for courses with an environmental focus led the College to begin offering environmental studies as a major. The concentration takes interdisciplinary course work a step further by emphasizing a balance of broad, practical groundwork and focused individual study in such disciplines as government, geosciences, economics, philosophy, biology, English, religious studies and women's studies. According to Onno ­Oerlemans, associate professor of English and a former chair of the Environmental Studies Program as well as a member of the Sustainability Committee and a GGH advisor, the interdisciplinary nature of the program is reflected in the committee that oversees it. "When we talk, we always talk across and between disciplines," Oerlemans says.

"At a small liberal arts college like Hamilton, it's really easy to be interdisciplinary," he adds. "I can phone up a friend in a science department if I have a question about evolution. Or if I have a ­technical question or need suggestions, I can have a biologist read over my papers. It's so easy to do here."

Kaitlin Bear '05, a GGH executive board member, says that breadth and collegiality have appeal and value for students. An art major, she ultimately found that her minor in environmental studies turned out to provide a better career fit. "I've always liked science, and I loved how the Environmental Studies Program combined classes from various departments," she says. "I liked discussing and approaching environmental issues from a scientific as well as sociological and historical perspective. I even studied environmentalism from a literary perspective!" Her study led to a career in teaching (see page 48).

Defining sustainability

Two decades ago, the World Commission on Environment and Development defined sustainable development as "development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." While that definition subsequently has been challenged and amended in various ways, it remains a useful point of reference. When Owen and colleagues affiliated with the Levitt Center's Sustainability Program, such as Cannavò and Naomi Guttman, associate professor of English, focus on sustainability, they work from different perspectives but often find themselves returning to a shared set of core principles.

As an economist, Owen says she thinks of sustainability holistically. Her vision goes beyond a "pro-environment" perspective and includes a consideration of the relationship among poverty, health and our use of natural resources. "You can't think about the environment without thinking about how people's economic resources affect their behavior," she says. "One of the big international negotiations is, how do we think about what developing countries need to do? If we think about the fact that they don't have the same income, maybe it's not fair to ask them to cap their emissions."

Guttman, who currently directs the Diversity and Social Justice Project and in 2004 helped launch the seminar Food for Thought: The Science, Culture and Politics of Food — a popular interdisciplinary course that explores diet, agriculture and cooking from the multiple perspectives of science, culture and politics — notes that equity and lifestyle are at the center of the debate. "I think sustainability has to do with making sure that the Earth can support our activities," Guttman says. "Americans are very independent and libertarian in spirit, so it's hard to convince us that we need to give something up now for a better outcome in the future and that what we perceive as a sacrifice is necessary."

Such concerns, Guttman says, makes the theme of this year's Diversity and Social Justice Project, environmental justice and sustainability, a natural fit. In addition to September's introductory panel discussion, the project has featured lectures on sustainability in the South Bronx and environmental politics, a discussion focused on polluted sacred rivers and religious environmentalism in India, and a visit by a Welsh poet and environmentalist, among other events.

"It's not that students are unwilling to look at these things; it's just that the majority of us think, 'What does it have to do with me?'" Guttman says. "We feel disempowered. I think the job is a big one — to educate students to become more active. Democracy requires action."

For Cannavò, questions about social justice involve the preservation of ecological systems, community bonds and individual rights. He wants students to understand connections across natural and human boundaries as well as the importance of studying the scientific, political, economic, philosophical and cultural dimensions of environmental problems.

"Students should learn that personal commitment and belief are not sufficient to tackle or even understand environmental problems," Cannavò says. "They need to be knowledgeable, to see all sides to these issues — which are rarely good versus evil but are almost always about very complicated choices that involve moral responsibilities, public policy, corporate practices, economic needs and our own individual consumption habits and preferences."

Sustainability and sustenance

While the Environmental Studies Program provides plenty of food for thought, faculty environmentalists also devote a great deal of thought to food. When Katheryn Doran, associate professor of philosophy and director of this year's Hamilton Program in New York City, read bioethicist Peter Singer's work in the late 1970s while she was in graduate school, she realized she would have to convert from an avid hamburger fan to a "very reluctant vegetarian," based on Singer's case that the suffering imposed on animals raised and killed for food was unethical.

"At the time, my diet consisted pretty exclusively of, I confess, hamburgers, and I well remember the sinking feeling," she says. Today, Doran, who follows a mostly vegetarian diet but occasionally eats fish, has funneled that "sinking feeling" she felt 30 years ago into a desire to connect her students in environmental ethics courses to "what are among the most important problems facing humans today."

The topic of food in fact provides an ideal entrée into environmental discussion because it combines an elemental fact of life with the countless forces that shape its production and consumption: corporate economics, political policy, class, technology, history, the arts, nutrition and health, the developing world. In effect, food becomes a lens through which to observe how humans interact with the world. "I want people to think hard about their political priorities, and the nitty-gritty decisions they make every day about where they go, what they buy, what they throw away and what they eat and where it comes from," Doran says.

When Guttman first approached her colleagues several years ago about developing the course that would become Food for Thought — a staple of interdisciplinary study at Hamilton — she wanted to approach such issues by exploring the historical realities behind contemporary habits. "Students don't understand how much time was spent just being fed … what it means to cook," Guttman says. "It's thought of as a time-consuming activity rather than a way of literally sustaining yourself and sustaining a world."

History from the Earth

Spring 2009The historical dimension has remained a cornerstone of Food for Thought through several incarnations of the course. In the fall, Frank Sciacca, associate professor of Russian, had his Food for Thought students begin the seminar with a meal that a 19th-century Hamilton student might have eaten. "That's always eye-opening for students," says Sciacca, who is also director of the 1812 Garden, the reconstruction of an early 19th-century farm garden on campus that is part of the larger Community Farm Garden and serves as the outdoor "laboratory" for Food for Thought.

The Food for Thought seminar and the 1812 Garden combine Sciacca's interests in gardening, history, food, teaching and research into a "gratifying" hands-on experiment. On the first day of classes last fall, he and his students met in the classroom and headed out to the Community Farm Garden, where a smaller plot of land is designated as the 1812 Garden. The students and Sciacca used pitchforks and buckets to harvest heritage early rose potatoes that had been planted last spring. "The students take to it very quickly," Sciacca says. "We all eat, and I think we all want to be educated about what we eat."

As the class progresses, Sciacca enjoys asking his students to interview their families about their food customs and origins — and specifically to figure out how many generations they themselves are removed from working on the land for a primary income. "It's really great if they are able to get that information," he says. "Particularly if they are unaware of it, because there is an intimacy with the land in growing your own food, which is in fact what we are trying to do. It is really a blip of the last 50 years that has seemed to change everything. Agroindustry has taken over the whole production of food for the nation, with horrible and detrimental impact."


Spring 2009Charlotte Beck, professor of archaeology, says a sense of historical perspective is critical to teaching and learning about the environment in the sciences as well. Beck and her husband Tom Jones, professor of anthropology, long directed Hamilton's field school in Nevada, a ­program that introduces students to methods of artifact collection and curation that they learn about in the classroom. Both on the Hill and in the field, Beck has encouraged students to take the long view.

"In learning about the past, they often don't see connections between what people did in the past and what they are doing now," she says. "A couple of years ago I taught a course based on Jared ­Diamond's book Collapse, in which we examined several current-day examples and several prehistoric ones. One of the latter was Easter Island, where the population eventually cut down all the trees, over-farmed the land and, according to Diamond, caused their own destruction. Students were shocked that the people didn't see what they were doing — didn't they see that they were cutting down the last of the trees?

"So, studying what people did in the past can be quite helpful in making people see what's going on in the present," Beck says.

Hard science for hard questions

Spring 2009While Hamilton's Environmental Studies Program was designed from the outset to build a conversation across disciplines — not only in the sciences — strong empirical research and study continue to provide a crucial foundation for that conversation. Associate Professor of Biology Bill Pfitsch, the current chair of the Environmental Studies Program, has worked since 1989 with Hamilton students who study sustainability issues, so he's not surprised to find his classroom filled with students intrigued by habitat restoration or the impact of human interaction with the environment. What is new and exciting for him, however, is the fact that he has more students from outside the sciences coming into his classroom.

"I have known environmentally inclined students since I've been here, so it is really hard for me to say that has changed, but I do know that because of the Environmental Studies Program I am exposed to more than conservation-based biology students," Pfitsch says. "It's brought more students into the science world, and they tend to have a different perspective on the questions that we think about."

Assistant Professor of Biology Michael McCormick, who developed a passion for sustainability issues while he was a Peace Corps volunteer in the late 1980s in Ghana, insists that it is a global responsibility to include the sciences in future debate. "Science plays an essential role in understanding sustainability," McCormick says. "If we are going to achieve a sustainable society, we will have to make important policy choices in the years ahead.

"Environmental decision-making is fraught with uncertainty. For example, we don't have perfect knowledge of how the world works. To the extent that science provides a framework for addressing these uncertainties, it can inform decision-makers of the likely consequences of their actions. Ultimately, decision-making is a political process that involves much more than science, but to make these decisions while ignoring science is folly at best and disastrous at worst."

Geoscientist Eugene Domack, the J.W. Johnson Family Professor of Environmental Studies, has played a critical role in the Hamilton effort to frame environmental education with cutting-edge research. His study of the paleohistory of Antarctica's Larsen Ice Shelf, documenting how the region's climate has changed over thousands of years, is a linchpin of contemporary global-warming research and was cited in the 2007 report by the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which shared the Nobel Peace Prize and was co-authored by Jonathan Overpeck '79.  Just as important, Domack's work, funded continuously by the National Science Foundation since 1987, is built on student collaboration. He has taken more than 100 undergraduates on his Antarctic expeditions as researchers, and his work there continues with a NSF-funded collaborative research project with McCormick that applies multidisciplinary analysis to abrupt environmental change in the Larsen Ice Shelf system.

Domack notes that science plays an essential role in sustainability issues but also argues that "a three-tier policy of sustainability" articulated by physicist and environmentalist John Holdren — the new director of the White House Office of ­Science and Technology Policy under President Obama — is how we must address issues that "are no longer jurisdictional."

"The large majority of the planet's population does not or cannot afford to care," Domack says. "It matters little to the starving and sick in Africa that the Arctic ice is in retreat." Citing Holdren, Domack argues that "sustainable well-being for the planet means attending to the population of malnourished and ill, anticipating and mediating the impact of a warming planet, and nuclear disarmament."

That struggle will require the "education of extraordinary global citizens," Domack says. "Places like Hamilton can do that, but not without a clear vision and discipline to a rigorous curriculum. Demand a great deal, and much can be accomplished. Expect little and gain even less. The former is what I expected out of my Antarctic students, and I was often surprised at how much the payback was in intellectual maturity, responsible growth and happy global teamwork."

Contact Information

Stacey Himmelberger

Editor, Hamilton Alumni Review
198 College Hill Road
Clinton, NY 13323
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