Faculty Make Environmental Study "Tasty Intellectual Stew" By Ken Keatley The 10 professors teaching "The Logic of Environmentalism"-- from such disparate disciplines as economics, religion and paleobiology--dispel the myth that too many cooks spoil the broth. Instead, they have each brought their own special ingredients to the undergraduate course, culminating in a tasty intellectual stew. For one class this semester, Kyle McCarter, a professor of Near Eastern studies, interpreted the Book of Genesis to explain the Judeo-Christian origins for contemporary discussions of the environment. During another, paleobiologist Steven Stanley traced the history of biodiversity, and noted how the value humans place on species can impact and often disrupt ecosystems. Among the other lecturers weighing in on the topic this semester are historians Ronald Walters and Stuart Leslie, geographers Gordon Wolman and David Harvey, economist Ali Khan, sociologist Andrew Cherlin and environmental engineers John Boland and Charles ReVelle. (Historian Sharon Kingsland is away this semester, but has been an active participant in the past.) "It's interesting, because we're getting such a wide range of views on environmentalism, things you wouldn't normally think about," said senior Charles Cheung, a chemical engineering major. "You dig a little deeper in this class, questioning the morals and ethics involved. I'm not used to that." That comment makes Dr. ReVelle smile; he is one of the creators of the elective course and its coordinator. "Most environmental courses begin with 'protect the environment' as a given. But the question of this course is why? What is the basis, the rationale, the logic for our environmental concern?" Dr. ReVelle said. Now in its third year, "The Logic of Environmentalism"-- initially funded by a Hewlett Foundation grant for innovative undergraduate courses, which was channeled to the course by President William C. Richardson and Provost Joseph Cooper--has evolved into a favorite for students and the participating faculty. By exploring the philosophic, mythic, historic, biologic, economic and social underpinnings of the environmental imperative, the course has generated a fruitful dialogue that would not have been possible had this multifaceted collaboration not taken place. "It is enriching for everybody," Dr. Khan said. "Especially during the last class, a forum when all of the faculty members get together and the students ask questions. It is wonderful how our answers get modulated and nuanced." Dr. ReVelle said that the course came to life following informal discussions involving him, Dr. Wolman, Dr. Walters and political scientist Matthew Crenson. "Each of us felt we had something to say that was different, and that individually we could not offer all of these perspectives," Dr. ReVelle recalled. "And the reality is so much better even than what we envisioned. It's fascinating how our interests have dovetailed." Jennifer Walker, a junior majoring in English and Writing Seminars, said the course has been enlightening in that it doesn't approach the environment from a solely scientific point of view. "The best thing is that this course wants students to think, and that makes you more impassioned about the subject," Walker said. "It's more exciting when you look at more than just raw data and facts." Sophomore Rebecca Justice, an international relations major, said the multidisciplinary nature of the course has encouraged her to rethink her views on the environment. "With most environment classes, you mainly get the (standard) political line," Justice said. "Here we get so many different perspectives." One is Dr. Wolman's lecture titled "Protecting People or Protecting Nature," in which he gives as an example the continuing struggle to control the breeding of black flies that transmit the disease river blindness in West Africa. Because pesticides can potentially damage aquatic ecosystems, a complex trade-off is continuously required to balance human and ecosystem health. In another example, Dr. Wolman noted that draining wetlands reduces disease-carrying mosquitoes, but wetlands are important environments for wildlife, fish and water quality. "His lecture illustrated the tension between human health and welfare, and the environment," Dr. ReVelle said. During the first two years of the course, the lecturers and teaching assistants Alan Wood and Mary Burke discussed it every Wednesday over lunch. Those meetings, along with the opportunities to sit in on other lectures, were illuminating experiences for the professors. "Ali Khan's lecture on economics or Steve Stanley's on evolutionary theory--those are topics pretty far from what I do. Sitting in on these lectures has been very positive for me, and I would imagine for the other professors," Dr. McCarter said. Dr. Stanley agreed. "I'm very impressed with the quality of the lecturers and their commitment," he said. "There is a vibrancy about the students as well. They are engaged in a way you don't often see. We need more courses like this that can draw out that component."
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