The Nature of College by James Farrell


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.

The Nature of “Scrubs”

In my Campus Ecology class, when we’re reading the chapter on “The Nature of Screens,” I ask students to watch their favorite programs for its environmental implications. Here’s an example—try it for your own shows. What will it take to change media portrayals of environmentalism?

Yesterday in class we discussed TV and how TV makes us think about environmental values. How perfect then that today I was watching my Scrubs DVD collection and saw the environmental episode they did. In the show, the janitor takes on making the hospital sustainable, comically threatening those who didn’t recycle, carpool to work, etc. Like all Scrubs episodes, it was hilarious, but I decided to focus on what environmentally the episode was telling me. The episode just ended up upholding the common comical view of environmentalists. First, the person who pushed the janitor to become an environmentalist was the hospital’s lawyer and resident sad-sack, Ted. It’s also a common theme on the show that the janitor’s pretty crazy. So that’s what a viewer takes away from the show—environmentalists are made up of pathetic and weird people. Throughout the episode the janitor is also mocked for what he was doing, including being the stereotypical “hippie.” And by the end of the episode, he gives up, thinking he can’t and hasn’t made a change—another negative environmental message. The one positive was the episode did end by showing people carpooling and wrapping it up by saying maybe we can affect small changes even when we feel we aren’t making a difference.  So that was a nice little end, but overall I got a negative portrayal at environmentalists from the media, a view I think TV takes too often.

Air Conditioning

Intro: During this hot summer season, Americans are looking for ways to keep cool.  Today, on the 110th anniversary of air conditioning, Dr. America, who is nothing but cool, cranks up the heat on air conditioning.

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

We live on the only planet in the solar system with an atmosphere that supports life.  The air we breathe is a beautifully conditioned combination of nitrogen, oxygen, carbon dioxide, and other gases.  But it isn’t conditioned enough for most Americans, who like to put on airs that have been treated some more.  As the old saying goes, “If you can’t stand the heat, air condition the kitchen.”

Invented by Willis Carrier in 1902, the air conditioner is essentially a refrigerator for human beings.  Like a refrigerator, it takes heat and humidity from the conditioned air, and deposits them elsewhere.  Air conditioning conditions the air, but it also conditions cultural expectations.  It reveals our preference for the great indoors, and our predilection for what we proudly call “climate control.”  It suggests that, unlike other animals, Americans expect the environment to adapt to them instead of adapting to the environment.

Such comfort does not come cheaply.  In Minnesota, it costs roughly 25 cents a day to run a fan, $2.50 to run a room air conditioner, and $6.00 for central air conditioning.

Air conditioning is a simple technology that replaces the complex cultural conditioning that taught primitive people–like our parents and grandparents–how to deal with heat.  Before air conditioning, people generally did not build cities in deserts.  In past times, in temperate climates, they planted trees or shrubs to shade their homes.  They used awnings to shield windows on the east and west side of buildings.  And, instead of cooling all of the spaces of the building, they used fans to cool the particular spaces that they occupied.  When indoor spaces became too hot, they sat on porches where the evening breeze brought some relief.  For work, they designed buildings with windows that opened.  In some cultures less obsessed with work, a siesta also served to keep people from the busy-ness of business during the hottest hours of the day.  Sometimes, too, people were simply uncomfortable.

Sixty percent of American homes–and 75 percent of new homes–are equipped with air conditioners, which annually consume the electrical equivalent of seven large coal power plants.  Fifteen percent of American electrical output goes to space cooling; on a hot day, a third of Northeastern energy consumption and half in the South Central States goes into air conditioning.  The fuel we burn to cool our homes and offices releases a hundred million tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.  Since 1958, carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere have increased by eleven percent.  This means that air conditioning the indoors comes as the cost of the global warming of the outdoors.

Every time Dr. America and his fellow Americans use energy extracted from the combustion of coal or oil or wood, we flip the global thermostat to “warmer.”  Indeed, the whole industrial era has been an experiment in air conditioning.  The widespread use of fossil fuels pours greenhouse gases into the air, where they trap infrared heat energy attempting to escape into space.  Air conditioning, therefore, is only the chilly tip of the iceberg that may be melting as a result of Americans’ attempts to condition the climate.

Generally, Americans stay cool in the face of this warming by airing their brains, removing the facts that cause them discomfort.  Conditioning the air, they have also conditioned themselves to consider their comfort a constant in a natural cycle of the seasons.

“On the air” from the American Studies Museum, this is Dr. America, keeping cool.

Sustainability Across the Curriculum Workshop–St. Olaf College, June 13-14

With all the environmental problems facing Americans—including global weirding, biodiversity loss, ocean acidification, resource depletion, soil erosion, etc.—it’s time for the college curriculum to signal students that environmental issues are essential to their future. And students want such engagement. At St. Olaf, for example, 76 percent of our entering students consider themselves environmentalists. Eighty-five percent of first-year Oles think that environmental literacy is an important part of a college education, and 58 percent support a general education requirement for environmental literacy.  And their interest isn’t just informational or theoretical. Almost 71 percent of our students say that “one of the things I expect to learn in college is how to live an environmentally responsible life.” Your students are probably similar—they know that, for them, sustainability isn’t an abstract word. It’s their life—or not.

So plan to be a part of a workshop on Sustainability across the Curriculum to be held at St. Olaf College June 13-14 this year. Modeled on the faculty leadership workshops of the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE) and of the Upper Midwest Association for Campus Sustainability (UMACS), the gathering at St. Olaf will provide chances for individual faculty to re-think courses to see where the big ideas of their disciplines might intersect profitably with the big ideas of sustainability. And it will also provide suggestions for ways that faculty might be more involved in the sustainability initiatives on their diverse campuses.

The workshop will be facilitated by Jim Farrell and Jon Jensen from Luther College. Jon teaches courses in Philosophy and Environmental Studies at Luther College, where he’s been a leader in sustainability initiatives. Both Jon and Jim were invited to attend the AASHE curriculum workshop in San Diego in 2010, which resulted in the publication called Sustainability Curriculum in Higher Education: A Call to Action. Jon is also a board member of AASHE and UMACS, so he has finger firmly on the pulse of sustainability efforts in higher education.

Jim teaches courses in History, American Studies, and Environmental Studies at St. Olaf, including Environmental History, The Culture of Nature, Campus Ecology, and Imagining Environmentalism.  He’s  a member of the Sustainability Task Force at St. Olaf, and  the author of The Nature of College: How a New Understanding of Campus Life Can Change the World (Milkweed Editions, 2010), which explores the intersections of college culture, consumer culture and the environment.

For more on the workshop, click here.

Please join us.


Education and Practicality

In an era of budget cuts, many state governments are increasing funding for college departments that prepare students for today’s corporate employers (especially the STEM disciplines), forgetting the tradition of liberal arts in higher education. Michael Crow, president of Arizona State University, responds here. My own take on practicality, written as a part of St. Olaf’s mission statement, is here:

Indeed, one of the main practicalities of the liberal arts at institutions like St. Olaf is to show some of the impracticalities of the so-called “real world.”  Too often in modern societies, the push for practicality is a call to conform to the world the way it is, not the way it ought to be.  The practical world sometimes accomplishes so much because it encompasses so little, setting aside whole dimensions of the human person–aesthetic, spiritual, ethical, and sometimes even political. The liberal arts reject this narrow definition of practicality, and remind us of the fullness of our humanity.  By keeping our minds critically engaged with the world’s presumed practicality, they free us to wonder how, practically, we might become as good as we could be.  At St. Olaf, therefore, when we teach students practical skills and knowledge, we also teach them ways of evaluating their use in the world.

It is practical to get a job, but that’s not the only practicality in a world of human beings, who are more than employees and consumers.

Campus Ecology and the Nature of College

I’m recently back from the AASHE conference in Pittsburgh, where I talked about the class that inspired The Nature of College, and conspired with me to write it. Students fact-checked it against their own experience, and they edited to make sure it wasn’t a boring textbook. If you’d like to see a transcript of the talk, look here.

Change Begins in the Dorm Room!

Students buy a lot of shelves and desks and furniture at Ikea, and now they can get more for their money, because Ikea is introducing a product scorecard evaluating on 11 different stages of the product chain. The evaluation includes:

1. Less material
2. Renewable materials
3. Recycled materials
4. Environmentally better materials
5. Separable and recyclable
6. Quality
7. Transport efficient
8. Energy-efficient production
9. Renewable energy in production
10. Raw material
11. Ensuring that products help customers to reduce energy, water or waste in their homes

For more on Ikea’s environmental commitments, click here. As more and more companies follow Ikea’s lead, ordinary consumption can become both more conscientious and more sustainable. And that’s a good deal.

The Prodigal Son and the Pigs

From time to time, I’m asked to talk about sustainability in religious settings, which I love to do, because it seems to me that sustainability is in many ways the first commandment, implicit in God’s sense that the creation is very good (even before She created people). In any case, here’s one of those talks:

The Prodigal Son and the Pigs

My text today is the story of the prodigal son, told in the gospel of Luke:

There was a man who had two sons. The younger one told his father that he couldn’t wait for him to die, and that he wanted his share of the estate now.  So Dad divided his property between the two sons.  The younger son took his share and blew it all in wild living in a foreign country.  After he had squandered his whole fortune, there was a severe famine in that country, and he began to be in need.  So he went and hired himself out to a farmer, who put him to work caring for pigs.  The young man was so hungry that he wanted to eat the slop that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.  So he headed home. 

While he was still a long way off, his father spotted him and was filled with compassion.  So he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.  The son said to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.”

But the father said to his servants, “Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fatted calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.”  So they began to celebrate.          

As you might imagine, the older brother was not too thrilled and refused to join them at the party.  So his father went out and pleaded, but the older brother was not convinced “You must be out of your mind,” he said.  “All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders.  But you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends.  And then when this son of yours who has squandered your fortune with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fatted calf for him!”

“My son,” the father said, “you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and now he is alive again; he was lost and is found.”

I’m the oldest brother in my family, so I have a peculiar relationship to this story.  I know it’s about repentance and forgiveness, about justice and mercy, about law and love.  But, frankly, it’s still not fair.  It’s also not fair, when you think about it, to the fatted calf.  But, lucky for you, I don’t really want to talk about that today.  Instead I want to talk about the younger brother and the pigs.

The younger brother is us, the prodigal sons and daughters of a Creator who gave us first a planet and then a savior as a gift.  The word prodigal means “recklessly wasteful and extravagant,” and as the recent reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change suggest, the people of the so-called developed world have practiced prodigality from the beginning of the industrial revolution until now.  One reason for the wastefulness of the over-developed world is that we have an under-developed sense of stewardship, which gets us to the pigs.

The root of the word “stewardship” is the Middle English word “sty,” which is an enclosure for pigs.  At first, a steward was simply the keeper of swine.  Eventually, the word involved broader responsibilities, and the steward became the keeper of the hall.  As we now understand it, a steward is a person who takes good care of something that belongs to someone else.  And in a religious sense, a steward is a person who takes care of God’s creation, since all of it is God’s, including us.

So the first lesson of stewardship—and a hard one in a culture of capitalism, consumerism and private property—is that we don’t own anything.  It’s all God’s, and when we bend nature or human nature from God’s purposes to our own, we’re not stewards but thieves.  Genesis 2:15 suggests that we’re called “to till and keep” the earth.  But as Larry Rasmussen points out in Earth Community, Earth Ethics, a better translation requires us to “serve and preserve” the creation—and not just the “natural resources” that serve and preserve us.  As stewards, we can consume nature, but we can’t pig it all.  As stewards, we can take from nature, but only if we always take care.

A second lesson of stewardship is that, etymologically at least, we’re called—like the younger brother—to take care of pigs.  For most of us, this is not an attractive career choice—or even a practical one, since pigs are now manufactured, more or less, on factory farms.  But if we go looking for the biggest pigs on the planet, we actually don’t need to look any further than the mirror.  Currently, human beings use more than 40 percent of the biologically productive capacity of the earth for themselves.  And Americans consume collectively more than anybody else in the world. Just five percent of the world’s population, we consume about 25 percent of the world’s resources.  Like the younger brother, we take too much, in part because we take so much for granted.

So maybe we should consider stewardship in its original sense, and think of our responsibilities to be keepers of pigs—pigs who, in this case, happen to be ourselves.

In this definition, a steward would be someone who watches over the piggishness of human beings, and who tries to manage it for the good of God’s creation.  Such stewardship involves the management of natural resources, but also the management of cultural resources, especially the cultural resources that conserve natural resources.  Colleges and universities have traditionally served as stewards of cultural traditions, and they’re desperately needed again today, when the cult of novelty and a culture of consumption relentlessly replace the tried and true with the “new and improved.”

As cultural stewards, we need to take care of our piggishness by cultivating cultural values that cultivate restraint.  In Earth Community, Earth Ethics, Larry Rasmussen suggests that stewardship is intimately connected to Sabbath.  He suggests that Creation culminates not on the sixth day, when Adam and Eve are created, but on the seventh day, when Adam and Eve learn how to leave creation alone.  The Sabbath, then, is not just a day of rest for people; it’s a day of rest for the rest of creation.  It’s a day of restraint, a day of re-creation, a day in which we watch the world grow without our interference, a day in which we humbly acquiesce to God’s creative complexity.  As stewards of the creation, therefore, our first duty is to learn how nature works, and then to figure out how to work with it.

As cultural stewards, we need to take care of our piggishness by telling stories about taking less, stories that counter the acquisitive nature of our culture.  For more than a century, we’ve lived in a society of conspicuous consumption.  Now it’s time for a culture of conspicuous frugality.  Instead of praising each other for our new purchases, it’s time to exert peer pressure in favor of restraint, repair, and renewal.  For more than a century, we’ve marveled at what people can do—and we’ve done it, with disastrous results.  Now, it’s time to marvel at what people choose not to do.

As cultural stewards, we need to take care of our piggishness by cultivating institutions that can shape communities for the common good, including the common good of all God’s creatures.  In the 20th century, we cultivated supermarkets and shopping centers and Wal-Mart.  In the 21st century, we need to cultivate co-ops and repair shops and local businesses.  In the 20th century, we cultivated an institutional infrastructure for cars and carbon consumption.  In the 21st century, we need to cultivate institutions that replace fossil fuels with other energies, including our own.  In the 20th century, we cultivated a politics of distrust, division and denial.  In the 21st century, we’ll need to cultivate a politics of permanence based on common work for the common good.  In the 20th century, we cultivated an economics of unlimited growth.  In the stewardship century, we’ll need to cultivate what Bill McKibben calls a “deep economy”—one that looks not to the bottom line, but to the bottom half, where the endangered species—both human and natural—cry out for economic development based on harmonizing human development with the natural rhythms of the beautiful blue-green planet.  In the 20th century, we cultivated our hubris, with disastrous results.  In the 21st century, it’s time for humility, and the attentiveness to natural cycles that it allows.  In short, the 20th century was the age of the so-called “economic miracle.”  But the 21st century will be the age of the ecological revolution, nesting the human economy gently within nature’s economy.

To put it another way, in the 21st century, stewardship becomes vocation and vice versa.  All of our work—including the work of consumption, where most Americans change the world most dramatically—must, in the words of Genesis, serve and conserve the gardens of creation.  Our vocation isn’t just what we get paid for—it’s what we do in our lives to serve the common good, and the commons good, the good of the global commons that we share with all of God’s glorious creatures.  And that might mean that an essential part of our vocation today is to create the vocations of tomorrow by transforming public policy and the economy so that people do get paid to serve and conserve God’s creation.  Instead of providing perverse subsidies to corporations that undermine the health of natural communities, including our own, we might direct public money—the money of “we the people”—to projects of restoration and regeneration.

At the beginning of the ecological revolution of the 21st century, we all have work to do.  We have pigs—and piggishness—to take care of.


The Real Revolution

Sometimes, the ecological revolution of the 21st century seems stalled. There hasn’t been significant environmental legislation for years. Republican resourcism and denials of what everybody else can see with their own eyes dominates public discourse. Environmentalists are caricatured as Birkenstock-wearing long-haired hippies AND (inconsistently) as “enviro-nazis.”

And yet there’s a lot going on at the grassroots. In Blessed Unrest, Paul Hawken contends that the environmental movements—local, logical, practical, problem-solving—are the largest social movement in the history of the world. Businesses are embracing environmental action—especially efficiencies—as standard operating procedure. And most people—even most Republicans—believe that we need to pay attention to environmental health, making polluters pay for poisoning the rest of us.

This situation isn’t new; it happened in democratic revolution of the 18th century as well. Long afterward, John Adams wrote that the American Revolution “was effected before the war commenced. The Revolution was in the minds and hearts of the people . . . This radical change in the principles, opinions, sentiments and affections of the people was the real American Revolution.”

That’s true for the ecological revolution as well, and so it’s worth asking: How have we affected the principles, opinions, sentiments and affections of the people we know—and the people we don’t know too? How are we engaging the hearts and minds of Americans in our time?

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