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Manifesto for Environmental Studies (d1)

caleb.eckert's picture

This is the first draft of a working manifesto for Environmental Studies at Haverford/Bryn Mawr/Swarthmore. I have a feeling that in the future, much of this is to be revisited and rewritten. Over the summer, I'll work more on further defining pedagogies for environmental education at the undergraduate level, as well as compiling practical examples and ideas for turning that pedagogy into practice. In the fall, I plan on getting students together for another version with more changes and ideas—both theoretical and pragmatic—as to how this might be translated and enacted inside and outside of institutional contexts.




[draft 1, May 13, 2015]


In the face of climate change and environmental disaster, we, as beings in this tumultuous world, are called to reconfigure our ways of learning and being.

In the midst of crisis, something twisted and frightening cocoons us. The enormity of it all may paralyze us from action. Perhaps our disconnection and emptiness keeps us bound in despair. Yet we know that this is not the time for business as usual. The slow, amorphous, complex entities of climate change and environmental disaster upend conventional ways of teaching and learning. To grow empowered and thoughtful students, environmental education needs to provide shovels for us to dig deep into the way systems are set up, the way we live, as well as to inculcate a rich ethic of stewardship based on empathetic, compassionate encounter with both world and self.

At a liberal arts college, we have the unique opportunity to do this through the already established Environmental Studies program. I write this manifesto as a beginning call out to all of us at Haverford, Bryn Mawr, and Swarthmore to dig deeper together and reconsider the formats of our own pedagogy and practice. Our relationships with the land, the sea, and each other are at stake.

I speak from my love and my grief, my frustration and my exhilaration, my anguish and my hope. I hope in some way these words can provoke further dialogue about imaginative responses to the enormity of what we face—both “out there” and in ourselves.

I. Environmental Studies must question what is “normal.”

To learn about our earth, about our world, is a process of becoming aware of the other living beings around us. It is a reorientation to listening and curiosity, towards a necessary inter-activity for the future. In doing so, we must be careful with our definitions of normal.

The greatest lie we tell ourselves today is a selfish one. It is the lie that we are not wholly dependent on the earth and all that it gives to us. It is the lie we tell to ourselves to think we are independent and self-made, removed from consequences. In reality our existence—our sustenance and nourishment, our joys and fulfillment—is contingent on the well-being of our shared planet—our home. The current system is a cancerous one built on the exploitation of both land and people. It is made “normal” and “natural.” Now, fruit comes from the supermarket aisle, electricity from the outlet, and technology from the online retailer. But is pesticide-filled monoculture agribusiness controlling patents of seed genes normal? Is the pollution and depletion of water sources normal? Is making a profit off of the oppression of others normal?

All of this, by our system’s standards, is now considered habitual and established. We seem to often move too fast to care. If we can’t step outside of what is considered normal—a throw-away culture, a militarized police force, the using and discarding of people, the unbridled plundering of the earth, an individualistic progress-driven lifestyle—then how can we foster relationships with the land and with others? How might we engage in our identities and contexts and implicate ourselves in practical hope?

II. Environmental Studies must be experiential.

As a student, I feel that we need a separate literacy to “read” the land: to interact with it and to love it, as well as critique the systems of power that enable us to disregard and dispose it, to foreground some of us and background the rest. Part of the curricular pedagogy of environmental studies is its interdisciplinary nature that fosters holistic and diverse approaches to problem solving and critical thinking. Indeed, this collaborative mentality is built into the introductory courses and the final capstone project. However, the knowledge learned by direct contact, by making and cultivating, is often devalued or brushed to the wayside.

At our high-caliber institutions, it is all too easy to become wrapped up in work that keeps us on campus and indoors. To reconnect with our passions and spark our interest, students need experiences that pull us out of the normal, the conventional, the everyday busy-ness of our lives. Risk is involved: getting outside of our comfortable classrooms means lessening control of what might happen. Yet in doing so we invite the possibility of curiosity and wonder through the exciting responses of the senses, responses which push us to become intimate with places and involved in the lives of others.

What if we were to run with this risk of intimacy? What if we were to push the boundaries of pedagogy and apply our practice of learning to inform the practice of staying in a place, of making something? Certainly, some classrooms have begun to integrate making in their curriculum, though there is room for growth. Direct engagements with the world beyond the classroom—and perhaps outside of conventional academia—can call for collective responsibility. Seeking to study our contexts means realizing that there is so much around us that we must be aware of.

III. Environmental Studies must foster ecological literacy and bioregional mindfulness.

The places we live in are multifaceted and interconnected. In the globalized world, one cannot ignore the fact of our entangled existences. By ecological literacy I mean a literacy to think relationally about many seemingly disconnected facets. Indeed, it is powerful to connect the dots and see the array of structures, data, individuals, actors, To ground our learning, we must also learn of the places we live in direct contact with.

In order to imagine other possibilities and solutions, we need to get ourselves outside. Not only because it is enjoyable and fulfilling, but because our studies are situated in the world. What is environmental education if it isn’t to practice the cultivated awareness of place that we can carry with us wherever we go? If we are holding nature and our local environments at a safe distance, if we continue to study nature “out there”, how are we to become stewards of this planet? In a world that all too often moves too fast, we must practice slowing down and paying attention.

Know thyself, know thy neighbors—human and nonhuman. Through direct encounters, we learn to acknowledge and be mindful of . Do we dare to take a walk through the woods, to learn by foraging, to be outside and pay attention to the histories, topographies, chemistries, and fellow beings around us?

Haverford’s campus is located in a key place and time. Three hours away to the north, hydraulic fracturing rigs bore holes into the Marcellus Shale. Two hours to the northwest lies the largest anthracite coal region in the Americas. In Camden, some of the country’s worst environmental racism continues today. Philadelphia urban community farms spring and thrive in food deserts across the city. Shouldn’t there be more ways we can partner with local communities, put our academics and resources to use beyond campus, and become co-collaborators in our own locales? Perhaps we can promote productive partnerships through knowledge exchange and proximity. Are these not active, responsible, ethical, meaningful engagements with the classroom, oneself, and the world?

IV. We, Environmental Studies folk, must foster an open community rooted in practice.

I believe there is a great hunger is at the root of our being. We are told to hide and pave over it with distractions and norms. Doing so makes us afraid of vulnerability, of community, of love. It’s how we are told to privilege oneself over the shared, the “I” over the “we.” It’s how we have degraded our curiosity, our contentment with enough, our capacity for empathy. We need each other, we need community, and so often we are afraid to admit it.

In our time, it is too easy to forget the ways of living and interacting that truly make us whole. Needing one another, we must come together to say what we need to say. We must allow ourselves to be passionate, vulnerable, and fearful of what we experience and feel. How are we to grow an ethic of stewardship unless we have others to share it with? Now more than ever, we must foster an critical and loving engagement with the world through our heads, hearts, and hands—one that actively involves us in thinking, feeling, expressing, dialoguing, contemplating, and making.

What does this look like? It looks like students practicing active democracy through discussion and feedback on curricular direction. It looks like having spaces and opportunities to explore inquiry and physical creation contextually. It looks like a variety of knowledges coming together in messy, unpredictable, but valuable ways. And it looks like aiming both towards our institutions and beyond the campus. Our lives and futures gradually expand out from these academic centers. Our education should reflect this. We will take with us what is meaningful, moving, formative, and fulfilling, from our time here.

Because of our impossible task, we have to work together to mentor one another: student, professor, teacher, learner, community member, neighbor. Never should we think that environmental studies is “done;” rather, it is because of its diversity and adaptation that we are drawn to it.

None of this work is easy. It is hard, an ongoing endeavor, and it requires many kinds of letting go. But it also has the potential for beauty, justice, collaboration, reflection, building, and joy. It is a break from the junk food diet of a society on autopilot. It can be a disruption and a collaboration, a reimagining and remaking of our place within a shared world.