The Nature of College by James Farrell

About the book

Engaging in a deep and richly entertaining study of campus ecology, The Nature of College explores one day in the life of the average student, questioning what “natural” is and what common sense is really good for, and weighing the collective impacts of the everyday.

In the end, this fascinating, highly original book rediscovers and repurposes the great and timeless opportunity presented by college: to study the American way of life, and to develop a more sustainable, better way to live.

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The Ecologician's Blog

Toying with Materialism

Recently, I’m reading Life at Home in the 21st Century, a thorough ethno-archaeological dig through 27 American homes in the Los Angeles area. More later, but one sentence caught my eye: “While American children constitute a tiny fraction of the world’s population of children, U.S buyers are responsible for annually purchasing a mind-boggling 40 percent of the world’s toys.” It seems that we Americans love our children, and that we love them by teaching the lessons of materialism.

And what might kids learn from all the toys they have? I’m not sure, but here are a few suggestions from a kid’s perspective:

1) Fun is the primary purpose of life. Parents do buy educational toys, but not many, and nobody seriously thinks children will play with them very much.

2) Our own imaginations are inadequate to the task of having fun. If we’re going to play, we need toys, and we need instructions. Age-appropriate toys—as marked on the box—guide us through the process of maturation.

3) Plastic is the primary material of the cosmos. Later, of course, we discover that plastic toys are a life-cycle thing, but the primacy of plastic is learned early, along with the forgetfulness of its environmental impacts.

4) It’s important to have desires. The ads on TV tell us that, but so do the “wish lists” compiled for birthdays and Christmas and other holidays. At any given moment, a normal American wants something s/he doesn’t yet have.

5) It’s not enough to watch a movie or TV—you need to have the associated hardware that comes with happy meals or trips to Toys R Us.

6) There’s no such thing as enough. You may have 22 Barbies, but there’s always one more—or at least a new outfit. In this way, children are acculturated to the excesses of American life.

7) If Jimmy Jones has a toy, then I should have it to. I don’t know the concept yet, but I do know how to keep up with the Joneses.

8) Emotions can be expressed with stuff. Parental love manifests itself not just in care and feeding, but in dolls and action figures, Beanie babies and other plush toys, Matchbox cars and other automotive vehicles, board games and video games, as well as the pre-school plastic that shakes, babbles, rattles and rolls.

9) Toys are the payoff both for trauma and for good behavior. When Mom and Dad are out of town, when your feelings have been hurt, when you’ve done well in school, or when you need to be pacified, a toy is an appropriate response. This accustoms kids to a culture full of extrinsic rewards, and a closet full of forgotten trinkets and toys.

10) Toys are a way for parents to have time to themselves. When children have enough toys—or too many—parents expect us to occupy ourselves instead of occupying increasingly scarce adult time. Toys and games—especially video games—are often a way of telling children to keep our distance.

All toys, therefore, are educational toys, and they teach us how to live in a consumer society, but not how to create a satisfying and sustainable society that might last more than a lifetime.

The New Math

Some college students major in math, but all college students should be interested in the new math explained in Bill McKibben’s new essay in Rolling Stone. McKibben, who wrote one of the first books on global warming in 1989, synthesizes the scientific literature to show that three numbers matter immensely in the future of the planet.

The first is 2—the 2 degrees Celsius that scientists say is the outer limit for average global warming. Beyond that, conditions on the planet will be so bad that inhabitants may find it basically uninhabitable. So far, we’ve warmed the planet just eight-tenths of a degree, and the catastrophes flow one after the other. We’ve also emitted enough carbon already to warm the planet another eight-tenths of a degree. There’s not much room for error.

The second number is 565 gigatons—the amount of carbon dioxide that can be emitted in the future without exceeding the limits of habitability. That’s a big number, but not for 7 billion people burning carbon in various forms. Currently, emissions are 31.6 gigatons annually. At the rate humanity is going, we’ll emit another 565 gigatons in 16 years. The math is inexorable—but the future is not. Individually and collectively, we have a choice.

The third number is 2,795 gigatons—the amount of carbon in the proven reserves of fossil-fuel corporations, and countries—like Venezuela or Kuwait—that produce like corporations. As you’ve no doubt noticed, that number is five times larger than 565. There’s five times as much carbon available than we need to destroy the planet. That’s what we might call a margin of unsafety.

Because it’s profitable—very profitable—fossil fuel companies plan to burn it all. AND they plan to discover more fossil fuels in places like the Arctic, which will be free of ice because of global warming. That’s the creative destruction of capitalism at its best—creating profits now but destroying the habitability of the planet in the process.

So what can a college student do? Get engaged. Vote for candidates who understand global warming, and understand the importance of change—economic, ecological, social, political. Vote for the candidates the oil and coal and gas industries don’t support. Get engaged with the movement against coal. Start using Facebook for organizing ideas and protests. And ask demand that your professors address the new math in their classes—and not just in math.

James FarrellAbout the Author

James Farrell is the Boldt Distinguished Teaching Professor in the Humanities at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota, where he developed Campus Ecology, a course that makes students the subject of their own environmental studies. He also speaks to colleges around the country about greening college. Learn more »