Sustainability in Geosciences in a Liberal Arts Curriculum

Jeff Walker, Earth Science and Geography, Vassar College

Sustainability for me encompasses two important concepts. It is the merging of environmental, fiscal, and social concerns to help create an equitable distribution of the world's resources. In this it assumes close attention to the local conditions within which the system of interest (institution, farm, personal lifestyle) is operating. While it is probably true that there is no such thing as true sustainability (because the systems are all open systems and we do not have control over all the inputs to the system of which we are a part) I believe that humans have a responsibility to not waste, and to use the resources at hand wisely.

Bringing these ideas into an interdisciplinary context is easy in conceptual terms, but harder in real terms because of the need to balance the practical aspects of sustainability with the academic aspects. My experiences in sustainability have been primarily practical (college sustainability coordinator for past 12 years; small-scale farmer for the past 15). In those two activities I have internalized the "three legged stool" of sustainability, and endeavored to live locally at the most basic level. The biggest challenge for me, in fact, is to think of sustainability in an academic context
There are, however, certain values associated with sustainability that I believe can be investigated through academic inquiry in important ways. The concept of waste can be studied in terms of efficiency, alternative sources, and alternative ways of doing things. Sustainability-conscious people are fond if saying that there is no such thing as "waste" but that what we call waste is just energy and materials for another ecosystem process. Besides the obvious conservation of mass/energy lessons in this statement, the idea can be used to illustrate the complexity of ecosystems, and the interconnectedness of participants (including humans) within them.

My approach to interdisciplinary teaching has been to develop topics of mutual interest to colleagues from around the college. I have team taught with faculty from Mathematics, Geography, Religion, and Political Science. In each case, our mutual interest in a topic is what led us to propose and develop the courses we eventually taught. In some cases the field aspect of the course, and the potential field experiences we could give to our students, also compelled us to teach together.

In my experience, the most effective courses have been a combination of background theory with practical field exercises. I find that the students are very interested in seeing how theory transfers to the field, and how difficult it is sometimes to realize something that makes sense theoretically in a practical setting. Although I enjoy doing this in a team-teaching setting, due to budget constraints I have had to try to give students the same experience when I am the only teacher. I am sure it isn't as good as having my colleagues there to challenge and correct me, but I think it is nonetheless stimulating to the students' intellect.

Downloadable version of this essay

Sustainability in Geosciences in a Liberal Arts Curriculum (Microsoft Word 32kB Jun20 12)