Designing the Future

Visioning Education for the Environment and Sustainability in the 21st Century at Middlebury

Discussion with Gus Speth, November 20, 2012


November 20, 2012
Strafford, Vermont

Present:  Gus Speth, Jack Byrne, Nan Jenks Jay,  Jon Isham, Steve Trombulak

Summary of Discussion with Gus:

All problems we are facing are ultimately environmental problems, or problems for the environment. Environmental studies is a field with endless connections to all other disciplines. It’s linkage to the humanities seems to be a natural one and an important one for informing and inspiring people to meet the ominous environmental challenges we are creating for humanity and there rest of the planet through pollution, overconsumption, atmospheric warming….

Is it possible to define the core/canonical courses and core knowledge needed for environmental studies? This is hard to define because ES is so open ended.

The environmental movement is stalled out compared to the major advances of the late 60’s/early 70’s. This is true internationally as well. Recent UNEP appraisal of effective environmental initiatives found that 5 out of 160 had made a substantive difference (3%).  ES is not working well enough to address this “loser’s game.” What’s missing from ES programs is how to address the dismal state of politics in the US to effectively address the many issues pressing in on us. It’s also being ignored by the major environmental organizations in the US. They have become good at playing the political game but not in effectively changing it to focus on developing and passing legislation to solve our solvable environmental challenges. We need to address economic equity, endless consumption as a model for economic growth, population growth…

Environmentalists need to avoid the “anti-growth” label in their efforts to bring about positive change. We need to be seen as advocates for better growth and for moving out of the era of uneconomic growth into one of healthy, sustainable development. Affecting what people value is a key to this – need to change the perception that increasing consumption and material growth is the sign of a successful life.  Need to be asking the question:  What kind of country do we want? Is it the one we have now?  Need to get back to the notion of the commonwealth and the rights of future generations.

One of the most popular classes at Yale in the 70’s was Charlie Reich’s Greening of America. It had 700 students per semester. It’s different today.

Daniel Moynihan talked about changing values through cultural change which can be changed, often through crisis, but we need to be more skilled in how to purposefully affect cultural change – distinguish between values vs. behaviors.  The courts have played an important role too. Justice Douglas’ dissent in the Mineral King case at the Supreme Court cited Aldo Leopold’s argument that nature has rights like humans do.

Civil society organizations and NGO’s have been smart and adept and creative and have been effective because they cross over the environmental boundary into other arenas to collaborate. The labor movement needs to be more engaged in environmental initiatives.


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