Sustainability: Teaching for a Moving Target

Julie Maxson, Natural Sciences, Metropolitan State University

"You ever wonder what global warming is going to look like? In its early stages, exactly like this."

Bill McKibben on the recent Colorado wildfires*

The Cannon River, that picturesque flow through downtown Northfield MN, flooded last month. The effects were most intense downstream in Cannon Falls where the tributary Little Cannon River drops over a 40-foot height of limestone just above their confluence. For me and my neighbors, flooding means a sharp rise in the level of Lake Byllesby, a 1500-acre impoundment on the Cannon. For us, for the most part, the only disaster borne of the floodwaters is to our docks, our narrow strip of beach, and the landscaping between lawn and normal summer water levels.

This is the second big event here in as many years. And weirdly, neither flood has been in the spring, when the reservoir is drawn down to accommodate the extra water. Neighbors, at least the ones who know what I do professionally, want to know if this is evidence of climate change. To them, I have been quoting Bill McKibben a lot.

Students in my Environmental Geology class also ask, of this summer's hot, dry weather punctuated by intense storms, whether we are re-visiting some kind of Dustbowl event (about which they have just learned). To them, I also quote Bill McKibben, and further present them with data from a recent report on the increase in extreme weather events in the Midwest.** Then I pose questions back to them: Are we in an "event," or are we entering a "New Normal"? And if so, what does that mean for the systems we have been learning about – particularly in light of the evidence that our current agricultural systems may be end-dated by problems of land-loss, and soil erosion. What happens to even the hardiest, high-yielding GMO crops, and the soils that support them, if we have more dry weather punctuated by more intense storms? What are we going to do?

I learned that last question from a student. I have been teaching Environmental Science and Environmental Geology, with a heavy dose of climate science, for the past 20 years. In the first few of those years, I never thought much beyond asking students to work with the facts, to convince any doubting students that the science of environmental change was already well-established. At the end of one of those courses (which those days involved learner-engaging tasks but relatively little open discussion) one of my students asked plaintively, nearly in tears "But what are we going to do?"

I was completely kerflummoxed. And then a little embarrassed, as I realized that I had never given any though to teaching about environmental solutions. After all, solutions are so technological, or so sociological, or economical, or maybe they're just too speculative but in any case they aren't really science, right?

I have come a long way since then. I am less and less interested in teaching upper-division courses in the discipline of my training (Sedimentary Geology) and more interested in engaging students in the science, policy, culture, and economics surrounding environmental problems, working with them to speculate about solutions. In other words, I am teaching as often as I can about Sustainability.

But I am doing so in a tricky environment. I know that several of my colleagues in our small Natural Sciences department can't quite handle the word "Environmental" in course titles. They immediately associate this word with the lowest possible forms of scientific inquiry, sullied by issues of economics, policy and culture. But while thought of "Environmental Science" makes them squeamish, the term "Sustainability" makes them see red.

So what am I going to do? I have begun to engage colleagues from other disciplines, to talk about developing course and programs around an environmentally-focused, interdisciplinary curriculum that spans not just our College of Arts and Sciences, but also the Business, Nursing, and Community Development programs. Sustainability in our curriculum stands a better shot of being Sustainability Across the Curriculum at my institution, and I think that's exactly where it belongs. As my colleagues in the sciences focus on rigorously defined disciplines, I am looking beyond my discipline to find a springboard for a curriculum focused on environmental solutions.

Ultimately, our thinking about Sustainability needs to involve thinking about complex, multifaceted solutions. And it needs to involve thinking about moving targets. For this geologist, trained in extracting elements of earth's deep past, it needs to involve thinking about earth's impendent future.

*While Colorado Burns, Washington Fiddles; The Guardian, Friday 29 June 2012
**Doubled Trouble: More Midwestern Extreme Storms, May 2012. Saunders, S, Findlay, D, Easley, T, and Spencer, Theo. Rocky Mountain Climate Organization and The National Resources Defense Council. Available as a pdf at