The Nature of College by James Farrell

The Ecologician’s Dictionary: Coming to Terms

Action/information ratio: The amount of action that comes from each unit of information; the practices that come from knowledge; thus, the practical consequences of learning.  TV news, in general, has a ratio of zero.

Activist: A person who does something about environmental (and other) problems, instead of just bitching about them.  Synonym: citizen.

Air conditioning: A way of warming the planet by cooling the air.

Appeerances: The way that peer pressure looks in our lives.

Apposite sex: The appropriate sex for sexuality.  For heterosexuals, the apposite sex is the opposite sex, but for homosexuals it’s not.  “Apposite” means “fitting, suitable, appropriate,”so the term “apposite sex” helps us to remember that we’re not all heterosexual.

Asceticism: The art of getting more life with less stuff, a practice of restraint which is increasingly rare in a consumer society that promotes self-indulgence more than self-discipline.

Automobility: The combination of ideas, assumptions, institutions and technologies that have driven Americans (in cars) since the early 20th century.  See Car culture.

Bearthday: 1) The day on which a person is born; 2) The day on which the elements of the earth combine to produce a human being, whose being is, in fact, inextricable connected to the nurturing of people and the planet’s ecosystem services; 3) A day that might be ritualized not just as a celebration of one life, but as a celebration of the many lives involved in one life.

Beer: The elixir of college life, the fermented beverage that foments fellowship and fun and fantasy and audacity and hook-ups and unconsciousness and hangovers, among other things.

Bitching: A characteristic conversational mode in the college culture of complaint, an expression of cynicism, learned helplessness, and quiet desperation.  Antonym: hope.

Boredom: 1) Mindless, listless tedium, brought on by a lack of stimulation or a lack of imagination; 2) The primary social disease of college life, often cured by TV or video games or pharmaceuticals or fun.

Boycott: A way of putting our money where our values are, a protest withdrawing business from merchants who have withdrawn from the moral economy of the culture.  “We boycott,” said Martin Luther King, “not to put people out of business, but to put justice into business.”

Buycott: A way of putting our money where our values are by buying goods that are good for people and the planet.  If you believe that sustainability is a good thing, you can buycott manufacturers by purchasing organic foods or textiles, by looking for energy-efficient appliances and cars, and by preferring recycled products.  In this way, consumers get to make the market work for the good life instead of just for profits.

Carcass: The body of a person who drives a car.

Comfearth: The amount of comfort that’s consistent with sustainability.

Comfort: One of the most important American environmental values.  See comfearth.

Commodity: A thing, specifically a thing that can be bought and sold; thus, everything in a capitalist economy, including the labor (and sometimes the bodies) of human beings.

Commodity fetishism: A fetish is, in primitive societies like ours, an object believed to have magical qualities—like toothpaste, which effectively cleans teeth and magically attracts the opposite sex.  Fetishism is the belief in such fetishes.  For Marx, one of the magical things about such fetishes is the way they work in disappearing acts.  When people focus on money and stuff, the social and environmental consequences of money and stuff magically disappear.

Commodity self: The identity of a person expressed by the things a person owns.  If you are what you own, what are you?  A commodity self.

Common sense: The ordinary and everyday interpretation of reality, a social construction of a community for the convenience of its members.  The sense that we don’t need to think more deeply about the reasons for our lives. Antonym: Uncommon sense.

Commons sense: The common sense of the 21st century, in which “everybody knows” that human life depends on other lives in the biosphere—and the health of the biosphere itself.

Compartmentalization: The cultural sport of boxing, sorting ourselves into the boxes we call specialization—or, in academia, departments.  See myopia.

Consumer forgetfulness: Ignorance of, or intentional ignoring, the implications of our consumption and materialism.  In writing about 19th century transformations in the making of meat, historian William Cronon reminds us that “The packing plants distanced their customers most of all from the act of killing. . . . The more people became accustomed to the attractively cut, carefully wrapped, cunningly displayed packages that Swift had introduced to the trade, the more they could fail to remember that their purchase had once pulsed and breathed with a life much like their own. . . . In the packers’ world, it was easy not to remember that eating was a moral act inextricably bound to killing.  Such was the second nature that a corporate order had imposed on the American landscape.  Forgetfulness was among the least noticed and most important of its by-products.”

Convenience: One of the core values of American consumer culture, the idea that saving time is a saving grace, even when it reduces the amount of care and cooperation and sustainability in the society.

Cultural work: The work performed by actions and artifacts that reinforces (or challenges) cultural values, assumptions and expectations.  Grades, for example, tell us how we did on papers and exams, but they also do cultural work, reinforcing patterns of authority, hierarchy, quantification, and the reification of values. Bananas are good food, but they also do cultural work, reinforcing patterns of globalization, free trade, resourcism, and underdevelopment (they weren’t called “banana republics” for nothing.)

Cynicism: Despairing doubtfulness, a defense against the challenges of hopefulness and idealism.  A common reflex of college students; as Mark Edmundson says, “Cynicism became their habitual mode.  They are the progeny of Bart Simpson and David Letterman, and the hyper-cool ethos of the box.”  See realism.

Dense fact: A cultural act or artifact, as seen by a person with a connecting mind.

Designing minds: Minds designed to see the designs of nature and culture, and to design a society that harmonizes them happily ever after.

Distraction: The act of paying attention to the wrong thing.  In the early 21st century, Americans live in a culture of distraction, designed to keep us thinking about white teeth and white  laundry, about beer and big breasts, about junk food and giant cars, about fun and fashion, instead of liberty and justice for all.

Ecologician: 1) A student of ecology, including the moral ecology of everyday life; 2) a magician who practices the arts of regenerative design; 3) us, if we choose to be.

Ecosystem services: what nature does to nurture us, producing such things as the air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat, the fibers we wear, the bacteria that help to digest our food, and the instincts that drive us when we’re not driving ourselves.  In addition, nature supplies habitat, produces soil, supplies lumber, manufactures medicines, prevents floods, controls pests, regulates climate, develops genes, maintains biodiversity, and absorbs wastes—all without cost to people.

Enchantment of goods: Making magic with materialism. In a scientific, semi-secular society, most of us don’t believe that there’s magic in the world—except in our products, which routinely cause magical transformations in people and their places.

Enough: An obsolete word that used to connote a sufficiency.  In modern America, enough is not enough, because there’s still more, and it’s new and improved.

Ethicurean: A person who seeks out tasty things that are also sustainable, organic, local, and/or ethical — SOLE food, for short.  See

Expressed values: The values we say we love and live, as opposed to the ones we actually practice.  Many Americans express environmental values, but they live as if environmental impacts occurred only in other places—which, often, they do. See operative values.

Extensive pleasure: The pleasure derived from living in right relation to the world.  Eating is a good example. According to Wendell Berry, good food tastes good, but when you know that food has been carefully and conscientiously prepared (from farm to fork), it tastes better.  See intensive pleasure.

Extinction: The death of dying for a species, the transformation from life to obliteration

Extrospection: The practice of looking outside the self to understand the self.  When we see the consequences of our lives, we get a better idea of who we are.  Ant.: introspection

Facebook: An online social network that substitutes profiles, poking and writing on walls for face-to-face conversation, which is so old-fashioned.

Familyism: The focus on the family of American culture, in which we sometimes sacrifice the public good and environmental health for the good of our families.

Flow: A state of satisfaction more fulfilling than fun, an active engagement in work or play in which a person loses themselves in the intrinsic interest of the activity.  The deep pleasure that comes from intense engagement in play, in the play of work, in a problem, in a quest or a question, or in another person. The goal of a good society.

Food: Nature converted to culture converted, by cooking and preparation and dining, to human nature.

Fun morality: The idea that people ought to have fun in the socially accepted ways that people in beer commercials do.  The idea that leisure is our duty allows merchants to sell us our own leisure time.  See free time.

Fundamentalism: The primary religion of American life, the idea that people are created to have fun. Fundamentalism explains why the great American interdenominational prayer is “Thank God it’s Friday.”

Freakological era: The freakish time period between 1800 and 2000 in which human beings seemingly expected that they could live well by compromising other lives on the planet.

Global warming: A euphemism for the climate changes that are occurring as people heat up the planet.  See global weirding.

Global weirding: A phrase coined by Amory Lovins to emphasize the catastrophic climate changes that accompany global warming, including drought, heat waves, thunderstorms, hurricanes, blizzards, dust storms, plant and animal extinctions and population explosions, spreading pests and diseases, human starvation and social upheaval.

Habitat: 1. In nature, the environment in which an organism or biological population normally lives; 2. In culture, the sum total of our habits, the way we inhabit our habitat. One of the most important questions of ecology is how well human habits are adapted to the habitats that homo sapiens occupies, all of which are on a planet with a beleaguered biosphere.

Hope: 1) The practice of possibility; 2) the art of making the good life a better life—and not just for people.

Hoping mechanism: A person, community, institution, text, image, performance or artwork that sustains our hope for sustainability. Ant: coping mechanism

Ignorance: 1. Lack of knowledge. 2. Avoidance of knowledge, as when we actively ignore the signs of global weirding in order to preserve a culture of comfort and materialism.

Ignorant knowledge: (from David Orr)  Decontextualized knowledge, knowledge that ignores the bigger pictures of human fulfillment and environmental health.

Incarceration: The voluntary process of imprisonment in cars, a process carried out over the course of the 20th century.

Industrial lawn: A form of industrial agriculture, the application of industrial processes (chemical fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, fossil-fueled mowers) to the growth of a crop which is harvested weekly and thrown out.  See also freedom lawn.

Inhabitant: A person whose habits are in synch with their environment, a human being who fits within nature’s regenerative cycles, a person who makes a habit of harmony.

Insight: The sight you get when you think about what you see, and about the cultural norms that frame perception.


Interdependence: The only kind of independence there is, xxxxxx.  See interbeing.

Invisible technology: A tool so familiar that we forget that we’re using it and it’s using us. Grades are an invisible technology, a tool designed to communicate quality to students, but a tool which also naturalizes such ideas as the standardization of excellence, the importance of hierarchy, and the identity of the self (“a B student.”)

The Joneses: The mythical other, responsible for motivating the real us to consume.  The family next door (figuratively) who put pressure on us to keep up with their appearance of wealth by buying things.  Synonym: us. See peer socialization.

Know-how: Instrumental knowledge, often technological.

Know-why: Instrumental wisdom, often philosophical.

Latent function: The unintended function of an action or artifact.  Sometimes, ironically, a function at odds with the manifest function.

Lifestyle: 1) The complexity of life, reduced to the simplicity of consumption and commercial style; 2) A life, conceived as a collection of commodities.  See commodity self.

Manifest function: The expressed or intended function of an action or artifact.  The manifest function of this class is to help students learn American Studies.  The latent functions are something else.

Mindfulness: The quality of attention and care that keeps earth in mind, so that we can mind our own social and environmental behavior. Antonym: mindlessness.

Mining: 1) Extraction of minerals from the earth’s crust for human benefit; 2) Making things mine by buying them; 3) Making people, plants and animals mine by appreciating them and taking responsibility for them.

Moral amnesia:

Moral drift: In “Bad Politics and Silly Literature,” Carol Bly

Moral ecology: According to Habits of the Heart, moral ecology is “the web of moral understandings and commitments that tie people together in community.”  In this book, moral ecology is the web of moral understandings and commitments that tie people together with each other and with nature.

Moral economy: The underlying sense of fairness that makes markets work not just for the benefit of capitalists and consumers, but for all people and the planet.  In the past, when manufacturers violated the moral economy of a culture, they paid for it with strikes, boycotts, riots, etc.

Murketing: 1) Promoting consumption by converting human hopes into commercial fantasies, half-truths, and lies; 2) the process of making complexity invisible.

Necessity: Something we need, or something that everybody else has.  Necessities are always cultural and (in this culture) usually commercial.  In his trenchant essay “A Sad Heart at the Supermarket,” poet Randall Jarrell noted that in American “the frontier of necessity” always moves forward.  And in The Overspent American, Juliet Schor shows how many things are now “necessities” in American life.

Need: A verb with expansive meanings.  When Americans say they “need” something, most often it means that they “want” it.  And in a capitalist society, invention is often the mother of necessity as advertisers try to create a demand for what they can supply.

Noah principle: 1. According to David Ehrenfield, the idea that all species have a right to exist (and by extension, to be protected); 2. The precautionary principle: in the face of the deluge, it’s prudent to build an ark.

Operative values: The values we really live by.  Few people—even politicians—espouse the value of convenience, but almost all of us live by it.

Ordinary consumption:

Opportunity costs: The cost of missed opportunities; what you might have purchased instead of the things you did.  On the personal level, I might have purchased a co-op membership instead of an iPhone.  On a national level, Americans might have purchased renewable energy or increased energy efficiency instead of a war in Iraq.   Opportunity costs do not include the costs of missed opportunities, like the global climate change that’s coming from the missed opportunities for reducing our use of fossil fuels.


Peer pressure: One form of peer socialization, in which your friends and fellow students exert their influence to get you to conform to social expectations of a culture or subculture, even when those expectations are environmentally disastrous.

Peer socialization: The way we teach each other how to think and act in a consumer culture.  Usually peer socialization works to help us live up to the low expectations of a consumer society.  But it can also be a force for creating a life that’s better than “a good life.”

Perfect standard: (Paul Loeb)

Permaculture: 1) The agriculture of forever, cultivating plants and animals in perennial, closed-loop systems; 2) The culture of permanence, cultivating human beings in cultures rooted in the land and in an ethic of ever after, practicing regenerative design in all aspects of living.


Planned obsolescence: The art of designing products that don’t last, either functionally or fashionably, so that manufacturers can increase sales. Disposable products are good examples of functional obsolescence, while fashion trends and the annual model change in cars are good examples of stylish obsolescence. On college campuses, new textbook editions speed obsolescence as well.


Practical idealism:

Precautionary principle: A canon of carefulness, the idea that people proposing risky behavior must prove the benefit of the risks before proceeding.  Environmentally, it means that people shouldn’t conduct experiments with the planet; instead we should conduct experiments in the lab before we pollute the planet or alter the atmosphere.  Although the term is relatively new, the idea is old, an essential part of folk wisdom.  “Better safe than sorry” and “look before you leap” are the common sense of the precautionary principle.  The precautionary principle is also a way of reminding ourselves that the bottom line of business doesn’t go deep enough—a better bottom line considers the health of people and the planet.

Product chain: The sequence of events by which nature becomes culture, as a natural resource is produced, processed, packaged, shipped, distributed, sold, consumed and discarded.

Professor: 1) The chairman of the bored; 2) Any person who professes values, either academically or actually; 3) Us.

Progress: 1) xxxxxxxxxxxxx; 2) Regress.

Ratcheting: A process of rising expectations whereby today’s luxuries become tomorrow’s necessities.

Real world:

Remote control: 1) The device we use to control our TVs and other electronics; 2) the designs we use to control the world, socially and environmentally. Eating, for example, is a form of remote control.

Republicanism: From the Latin “res publica” (the public things), the quaint idea that private virtue is necessary for the public good.

Republican Party: The quaint idea that private enterprise is the same thing as private virtue and the public good, even though corporations are legally bound to serve the interests of shareholders before any public purposes.

Responsibility: (also spelled response-ability) The human ability to respond carefully and comprehensively to one’s environment

Reverse adaptation: The process by which people become tools of their tools.  When Americans began to adapt their culture to cars—or other technologies—they practiced reverse adaptation.  When college students worry more about their grades—an invisible technology—than their learning, they practice reverse adaptation.  When people do things for the sake of the economy—instead of the other way around—it’s reverse adaptation.

Road kill: A popular form of animal sacrifice, in which we take life (including human life) to drive wherever we please.


Sacramentality: The radical idea that we all live in the Holy Land.

Sacrifice: (obs.) The idea that a person who can have it all might prefer to give some of it to somebody else.  In a culture of individualism, this is a crazy idea.  In a culture of the common good, it’s common sense.  Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King believed in redemptive sacrifice.  George W. Bush was afraid to use the word, except for soldiers who are sacrificing their lives for oil and other national interests..  See virtue.

Scenery: The predominant way that nature is seen (and scene) in American culture, the way that land becomes landscape.

Seeing: 1. The act of perception. 2. The art of perception, honed by practices of attentive mindfulness.  See Annie Dillard on “Seeing” in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

Silence: One way we make environmental history, the sound that most of us make in response to the degradation of natural systems.  “All of us are collaborators in this silence,” says Sallie McFague.  “We enjoy the consumer lifestyle; in fact, most of us are addicted to it, and, like addicts, we cheerfully live in a state of denial.”

Sitizen: A person whose civic engagement consists of sitting around and bitching about the state of the world, the gridlock in Washington, the environmental crisis, and the bias of the media, without ever doing a damn thing about it. Antonym: Citizen

Social capital:



Television: 1) a technology for transmitting sound and images, and for transforming culture by distracting people from big questions; 2) a way of seeing the world, a vision of the world that focuses on the bottom line and the lowest common denominator.

Time poverty: Part of the price we pay for affluence, because we generally have to spend too much time working to make the money we spend.  In Walden, Thoreau calculated that the price of a thing was the time it took to acquire it.  But even though most college students read Thoreau, most of us still ignore him.

Totem: 1) An animal, plant or object that serves as the emblem of a clan or tribe or family because of common ancestry.  Many Indian tribes identified with animals which looked over or helped them.  2) An animal, plant or object that serves as the emblem of an object like a car: the Ford Mustang, the Chevy Volt, Dodge Ram, etc.  Such totems capture the “spirit” of the car, and transfer those spiritual powers to the driver.   3) The natural symbol of a college or university, especially its sports teams.  Such symbols, originally called totems but now called mascots, most often represent predators, perhaps because college teaches students practices of predation.



Water cycle:

Wisdom: The goal of education, almost never discussed, because people become wise by asking whys.


Wor(l)dplay: The art of using words to challenge worldviews, and change the world.

Zen affluence: The art of having much by wanting little, the art of having your heart’s desire by restraining your desire.  For people who live in what William Leach calls “the land of desire,” this is not an easy trick.  See desire.