An Education for Ecologists by E . L . Jones
Anyone reading the hotter of the environmental magazines—say.
Playboy—might think that Northwestern University, where I teach, is the place for environmental studies. Northwestern might appear as "where it's at" in the current American idiom. This would not be strictly true, either i f one is expecting long-haired hippies protesting against pollution by big business or i f one is hoping to find a co-ordinated programme of environmental education already in being. Nevertheless, it is interesting to see how the image evolved and how the university is really striving to create a study programme of that kind.
Playboy's Press last year brought out a paperback called Project Survival and subtitled "our environmental crisis exposed by Dr Paul Ehrlich, Sir Julian Huxley... et al" That is in keeping with the times, even to the lurid cover with a blonde wearing a gasmask. The text is quite serious, although it should not be confused with another Project Survival, edited by R. C. Gesteland and J. B. Putnam, published by Northwestern University last year and inspired by the same event, the environmental "teach-out" of 10,000 people held at the university on 23rd January, 1970. The Playboy Press book opens with a chapter called "Project Survival" by the magazine's assistant editor, Geoffrey Norman. He reports the Northwestern Project Survival "teachout" as the precursor of the national Earth Day in April, 1970. The local event was a massive feat of organisation, publicity, all-night participation and crisis talk. There were enough bigname environmentalists and politicians speaking to bring it into the limelight.
Why Northwestern University, traditionally a little staid? The driving force was a student body, supported by many professors, called NSBE: Northwestern Students for a Better Environment. This had mushroomed from a few students concerned about the quality of Lake Michigan, which borders the campus, to a committee of committees, staffing their own office and library, collecting and spreading information on environmental problems within the University and outside :n the prosperous suburban city of Evanston, and all up the richer
and richer North Shore suburbs of Chicago. For all its wealth and the serenity of its suburban avenues, this is an area under stress, in the Lake with its shoals of alewives dead along the beaches and on land with the urbanisation of suburbia.
The air above is cleaner than in Chicago, but noise and black oil streams behind the airliners incessantly coming and going from O'Hare airport. The trees which line the streets are contracting Dutch elm disease (the penalty for mono-cultural tree-planting) and spraying against it has killed off too many robins. The last corner of farmland is being developed and the Killdeer Plovers calling over the bulldozers this Spring will be the last with a chance of nesting. There is a splendid wildlife preserve 25 minutes drive north-west of the campus, in the Erickson Forest Preserve and Skokie lagoons. Migratory birds swarm there, Snow Geese and Hooded Mergansers in the autumn, Blue-gray Gnatcatchers and innumerable bright warblers in the spring. But the birds flit through while human visitors trample around like elephants. The pressure of picnicking and walking parties is intense and they leave litter ankle-deep. Worse, in this lung for northern Chicago, the lagoons are seriously contaminated with metal wastes and sewage.
Eco-Curricula The university has supported NSBE's activities and sought to set up teaching programmes in environmental subjects. Like other American universities it is for the moment short of ready cash and can offer few new courses. The challenge was to hammer out a curriculum from courses already on offer. Basically the bachelor's degree requires about 20 per cent of courses taken to be in a student's "major"— his honours subject in English terms. The remainder are not completely free, since there are obligatory courses in science and arts subjects which makes the "two cultures" problem less severe than in England. Yet there are still many options, great freedom to experiment with unfamiliar subjects. Out of this slack in the system, but without using it all up, we sought to devise the equivalent of a "minor" in environmental studies which might be taken with any "major". Whether the scheme will pass all further committee stages, or in what precise form, it is still too early to say, but I feel that the structure which the undergraduate curriculum committee proposed was sound and is worth consideration in other places.
The plan was to arrange existing courses (to minimise the cost to the university) in a set which if satisfactorily completed would warrant granting a certificate in environmental studies. The certificate label was used because formally there are no "minors" at Northwestern. A student with the certificate would have had some training, officially recognised, in this field as well as more intensively in his major, and ought to be better-placed to compete for graduate scholarships or jobs in, for example, government environ- mental agencies for which his major alone might not be a self-evident qualification. In short, the student gets a bargaining advantage. Educationally he will have had an ordered sequence of courses which he would have found it difficult to select for himself from the multitude on offer.
At this point a practical problem arose. Although the Northwestern system, like many in America, forces the student out of the narrow arts or science rut which is still too common in English universities, the tendency remains for natural scientists to take their optional courses in their major field or closely-allied sciences. Likewise, social scientists and students of the humanities tend to huddle in their small corners. We were, and are, training people who have a declared interest in environmental problems so that, if they are natural scientists, they have scant formal acquaintance with the decision-making social sciences of economics, politics, anthropology and sociology. In consequence they are apt to suggest technical remedies for perceived environmental disorders with little regard to context or cost. Those who come from the arts end of the campus cannot even start to evaluate a "scientific" case for or against some technical device or procedure. At the undergraduate level this will never be fully overcome. We cannot train polymaths. But if we cannot properly temper the wind to the shorn lamb, we can see that he grows some protective fleece by requiring him to do some work in both natural and social sciences related to environmental problems.
Avoiding hysteria The Northwestern students seem anxious for the certificate proposal to be adopted. Many of them are sincerely concerned about environmental problems and are already trying to select their courses with that interest in mind. Some are a little over-excited about quick solutions to a supposed global environmental crisis, fed by hysterical journalism, but not many. In my own course on the economic history of the environment I can introduce without fear of riot or inattention such views as those of Matthew Crenson, who thinks that air pollution may not be worse than it was decades ago and that the clean air campaign is merely symptomatic of rising expectations and mis
placed priorities of social welfare, or Lloyd Rozeboom's urging that because it is the most effective way of controlling malaria, DDT should not be banned as it has been in several states and some European countries.
Can similar training in environmental studies be introduced into undergraduate education in English universities? I t can. Money is tighter even than in the United States, the structure of bachelor's degrees is altogether less flexible, and the propensity to innovate is lower, so that change will not come easily. But novelties seep into English education in odd ways, often from levels below the universities, and there has already been much more experimentation even at university level than one could reasonably have anticipated a decade ago. The ecological problems of a crowded island are as severe, in their own way, as in the rumbustious continent of North America. People with joint natural science and social science training are needed to tackle them. Natural scientists alone, or classics-trained civil servants, are just not professional enough for the job. I f there is a will to down departmental barriers, there must be a way.
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