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Web Event: Our College, Environmental Literacy, and Technological Dependence

mturer's picture

In my earlier Thoreauvian walk, my examination of Bryn Mawr's campus was restricted to the literal environmental aspects of the school. I looked at trees, I walked, and I let "nature's compass" guide me. Now that I have read more closely into the idea of ecological literacy and have been able to analyze my personal experiences in the context of ecological schools of thought, my early campus exploration seems limited and too literal in the way I defined my relationship to the environment and our relationship to it as an institution. Recently, I have found myself without easy access to required technology. This problem has actually prevented me from accomplishing most academic things that Bryn Mawr students would usually assume to be simple. With no personal computer and limited mobility toward an outside computer, I would like to examine the ecological illiteracy of Bryn Mawr's dependence on the internet and computing.

In an effort to reduce negative effects on Bryn Mawr's environment by saving paper and operating electronically, the institution has instead distanced itself from physical material, accessibility, and therefore participation in the natural world. The reliance on electronic devices requires Bryn Mawr students to separate themselves from their campus, making activities like the Thoreauvian walk assignment and exploration of the campus necessary to understand the very environment in which we live. This is a very inactive form of environmental action in which we distance ourselves from the environment as much as possible to decrease the effect we have on it, ignoring the fact that the natural world also acts on us and we are also members of it. Richard White’s “Are You an Environmentalist or Do You Work for a Living?” criticizes this attitude. White mentions that “this distrust of work...contributes to a larger tendency to define humans as being outside of nature and to frame environmental issues so that the choice seems to be between humans and nature” (172).  Operating electronically as to not use up too many resources divides the “human world” from the “natural world” in a way that causes students to separate themselves from their environment.

White argues that humanity requires resources and that using the environment to gain benefits is not always a bad thing. All other animals, after all, use resources from their ecosystems and humanity looks on this as a natural process. In operating electronically, Bryn Mawr students often experience the instance of having the academic (or work) part of life be technological, structured, and separate from the leisurely part of life that can be open to varying content possibilities and autonomy over the student’s own relationship with the natural world. White also addresses this, stating that “nature has become an arena for human play and leisure. Saving an old-growth forest or creating a wilderness area is certainly a victory for some of the creatures that live in these places, but it is just as certainly a victory for backpackers and a defeat for loggers. It is a victory for leisure and a defeat for work” (173). While White refers mostly to work as it relates to manual labor, his concept applies just as well to student life. Rather than experiencing dependency on technology and preserving resources by not requiring notebooks, much printing, or hand-written work (and often disallowing this entirely) and then reserving interaction with the environment for free time or the few alternative classes provided, Bryn Mawr could improve its ecological literacy by embracing the dependent nature on the environment and incorporating time spent examining and participating in this into its students’ academic lives.

The form of passive environmentalism seen here is an example of Charlene Spretnak's idea of androcentric environmentalism that she discusses in her essay “Ecofeminism: Our Roots and Flowering.” Through the mentality of saving paper and operating electronically, members of this community regard the environment from within present patriarchal societal structures. Spretnak argues that “we need to find our way out of the technocratic alienation and nihilism surrounding us by cultivating and honoring our direct connections with nature” (8). Following this model of ecological thinking, instead of molding the narrow demands of our current system towards a passive, or liberal, form of environmentalism, this institution should try to accomplish a more radical method of experiencing the environment outside of typical structures if it is to be ecologically literate. Usual demands include traditional paper writing and workloads that attempt to further Bryn Mawr students in the existing cultural system that in turn oppresses them. Instead of adapting this traditional way of study to lessen environmental impact, the ecologically literate path would be to examine our environment through alternative study that does not depend on conventional structures (and therefore not on access to electronics) but seeks to exist outside of them as the environment exists outside of them.

Students without laptops are given a disadvantage here. They are inhibited from moving freely and from having the ability to choose which spaces they occupy in an academic setting. Students are therefore required to either have a laptop or have the ability to travel easily to locations with computers. When neither is an easy option, these students must go to great lengths to accomplish occasionally menial tasks that other students can accomplish easily. The suggested fluidity and openness of “nature writing” is limited to the students that have the privilege to approach their work in this way rather than the calculated planning of those that have to plan how they will manage to get their work done. Gary Snyder suggests in “A Place in Space: Ethics, Aesthetics, and Watersheds” that ecological writing, or what he calls “nature poetics,” should be “always open, shape shifting” and “omnivorous, fearless, without anxiety, steady, generous, contemplative, and relentlessly protective of the wild” (171). These guidelines do apply to the actual grammar and style of ecological writing, but this cannot be achieved without Spretnak’s idea of abandonment of “technocratic” structure.

Snyder’s guidelines require the writer to have a free, easy, and close relationship with his/her environment, but those within Bryn Mawr’s structure of technology that do not have the necessary access to it are less likely to possess that. The argument can be made that all students could simply take a pen and paper into Morris Woods or to the field by Rhoads Pond, but the reality of this is that the expectations in many classes do not line up with the idea. Some students would then have the use of electronic tools like spell-check and online searches while the others would not, and, as mentioned previously, professors often do not accept handwritten work and/or suggest electronic submission of writing. Being able to write in a private space and to choose a location in which to work with the knowledge that other compensations won’t have to be made for doing so is significantly more enabling of the mindset of “omnivorous, fearless, without anxiety” and “always open” than the premise of required locations and public institutional buildings. The environment in which ecological writing takes place has a lot of influence over its quality and often credibility. Snyder also mentions that “when we are in the act of playful writing, the mind’s eye is roaming, seeing sights and scenes, reliving events, hearing and dreaming at the same time” (179). The environment in which the writing takes place can either facilitate this or stunt this depending on the writer’s comfort level or potential outside restrictions.

While I do not think that Bryn Mawr is unique as an institution in its ecological shortcomings, I do believe it is a reflection of our academic system as a whole. The aspect of life here that has been mentioned previously that some students here graduate without truly knowing the area in which they studied is, I think, reflective on most institutions of higher education in our culture. What is fairly unique, though, is the ability to begin a course here with an assignment of a Thoreauvian walk. Because of this, I have been able to investigate Bryn Mawr’s ecological literacy level based on the starting point of an unguided saunter around its campus. Lately I have come to realize, through studies and through personal experience over the semester, that the environment and our relationship to it cannot be defined by looking at plants and finding physical boundaries. What struck me most recently has clearly been the dependency the school has on technology. My saunter has expanded into an examination through its severe lack in understanding of the school’s relationship to the natural world, but the sauntering nature of it has remained. Upon being thrown (also unguided and without intention) into a situation in which I am without easy access to technology or mobility, my academic experiences have allowed me to uncover the ecological illiteracy behind the consequences of this. For instance, the consequences reflect the separate nature of the school’s strictly technological work setting and the natural and free leisure setting, the androcentric environmentalist attitude involving adherence to social structures that causes the school to behave this way, and the difficulty gaining access to the work sphere from the leisure sphere experienced by Mawrters with limited access to technology. An ecologically literate way of approaching higher education could very well still include modern technology, but it would have to be sure to make sure the technology did not exclude environmental understanding from the academic sphere by not limiting itself as much to the demands of the system that makes the use of this technology necessary. Familiarity and awareness of the environment and personal relationships to it in education are critical in furthering and developing the environmentalist movement.


Snyder, Gary. A Place in Space: Ethics, Aesthetics, and Watersheds. Washington, DC: Counterpoint, 1995. Print.

Spretnak, Charlene. "Ecofeminism: Our Roots and Flowering." Ecospirit III.2 (1987): 2-9.

White, Richard. "Are You an Environmentalist or Do You Work for a Living?" Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature. New York: W. W. Norton &, 1996. 171-85.



Anne Dalke's picture

Ecological Illiteracy

I'm very interested in your attempts, here, to move beyond what now seem the "limited and too literal" understandings of your first web paper. Along these lines, you may find graham's paper of interest: It also posits a (more radical?) experiential ecological education, based on his own experience w/out power.

Your argument here, as I understand it, is that Bryn Mawr's dependence on the internet and computing is a form of "ecological illiteracy"; by "operating electronically, the institution has distanced itself from participation in the natural world." Drawing both on the work of Richard White and your own experiences of lost access and reduced mobility (so interesting that it's only when we lose something that we recognize its presence!), you construct an argument that the College (like most other contemporary educational institutions) has separated our "technological work setting" from "the natural and free leisure setting," and so engaged in a "very inactive form of environmental action," a form of "passive environmentalism" that both severs us from "direct connections with nature" and prevents us from "experiencing the environment outside of typical structures." Such an educational structure, you claim, also hinders the sort of "wild writing" Gary Snyder advocates, since it's hard to be “omnivorous, fearless, without anxiety” while performing within a “technocratic” structure.

In response to the problem you've described in such detail, you propose that we not limit ourselves "as much to the demands of the system that makes the use of this technology necessary." Other proposals along these lines (and there are many!) include evaluating technology in the context of health and permanency, or (going further) using technology to push ourselves over the ecological edge. Your proposal differs from these, in actually advocating a "pull back" from technological dependence, replacing it with a more direct (less mediated?) relationship with the environment. (See class notes from last week re: the possibility of any unmediated experience....)

I'm wondering if, in a few weeks, the framing of this paper will also begin to seem "limited and too literal" to you? As a nudge in this direction, I invite you to learn the etymology of "technology" and of "environment." What happens to this argument, if you conceive "teche" less narrowly? And "environment" as less separate from the organisms, like ourselves, who inhabit it?