Sustainability Across the Curriculum

by Mick McCann, Geography

On Friday, October 29th, I attended an informational meeting to start up a Sustainability Committee on the COCC campus.  Faculty members, administrators and students comprised the group of about 30 people in attendance.  Everyone’s self-introduction included what his or her particular interest was in participating in the committee.  One comment, made by a fellow faculty member, was her observation on how many students throw recyclables into a trash container, when there is a recycle bin adjacent to the trash.   Her comment was something to the effect of “what can we do to effect change of this type of behavior campus-wide?”  That got me to thinking…

People who throw aluminum cans in the trash do so for one of two reasons. One important reason is that they do not understand the value of the can and all of the processes and inputs, which went into the manufacturing and distribution of the product.  In essence, they are unable to analyze the life cycle of aluminum.  All they see is that they are holding a container, which has fulfilled its purpose, which is to hold the liquid for consumption.  Once consumed, the beverage container has no other function, and is something to be disposed of.   We can address this lack of understanding via education of the aluminum life cycle.  The other reason is, that although they may be aware of the huge inputs of energy and transportation required to manufacture the can and ship the contents to their location, they willingly choose to degrade the environment anyway.  I would like to think that most of us are in the former group.

I teach Environmental Geography (GEOG 190), a 100 level survey course in Environmental Science every Winter Quarter.  I have an opportunity to explain the life cycle of aluminum, discuss the cost/benefit ratio of reusing resources vs. disposing of them in a landfill, as well as discussing with students such business and economic terms such as externalities and environmental economics.   However, I can only presently have an impact on about 30 students per year through teaching this course. 

There are a couple of ways to get the message to more students.  Sure, we could make Geography 190 a requirement for all students, but I think it would be more valuable to attack certain problems and explore solutions to them from the unique perspective of all of the disciplines.  Since Geography often incorporates other subjects into the problem solving process, maybe there are ways in which we can all explore some of the same problems. 

In Geography classes, we discuss the locations of the raw material, bauxite, from which we derive aluminum.  Students learn that most of “our” aluminum actually comes from bauxite mined in Suriname, Guinea, or Jamaica.  It is then loaded on barges and shipped to northern locales, where there is cheap and abundant hydroelectric power.  In fact, the amount of energy required to make one aluminum can from bauxite ore is enough to run your television set for three hours.

Students in Geology classes and Chemistry classes could study the mineral composition of bauxite ore and the chemical weathering processes of the laterization of tropical soils. Business students could study the market costs of refining raw bauxite into aluminum and compare those costs to those of recycling aluminum. Mathematics students could quantify all of the data, and algebraic formulas taught in class could use word problems relating to energy use. The cost of landfills is another subject for Mathematic, Geography, and Economics students. 

Economics students could compare positive and negative externalities of aluminum production, while discussing option values and future resource values of alternative land use.  Sociology students could study the social context of recycling.  Psychology students could analyze how attitude and past behaviors intervene between goals and intensions in decision-making.  Writing students could write about aluminum recycling. Art students could use recycled materials for Art projects, and Foreign Language students could discuss issues in the target language.  Virtually every subject taught on campus could have some unique way of incorporating a sustainability topic into the curriculum.

This type of cross curriculum approach to sustainability is not limited to recycling aluminum cans. Faculty, administration and students, together as a campus community, can identify areas where we most need to work on to achieve sustainability goals.  After identifying target areas, we can best effect change via a multi-disciplinary approach.  After targeting a specific campus-wide sustainability goal, we could have at least one assignment in each class for a given quarter relate to that topic.  Students would then receive messaging via an integrated focus, while also benefiting from the interdisciplinary approach to problem solving.  Over the summer, faculty members could pool their assignments and post them to a central web page.  This may also enhance faculty academic collaboration.  The battle to achieve a more sustainable campus is as much the function of changing the social culture, as well as providing technical solutions. 

 Further Readings:



One Response to Sustainability Across the Curriculum

  1. Michael Van Meter says:

    To rephrase your second paragraph: People toss aluminum into the trash because they’re ignorant (not having been educated about the huge energy demands of making new aluminum) or mean (willfully trashing the planet). Since our mission is to educate, certainly it’s important that we focus on the former, and I think Mick’s focus on sustainability in GEOG 190 is vital to our students, our institution and our community.

    It may, however, be far more important to focus on a third reality of our headlong rush to planetary suicide: The sense that most of us feel powerless to make a difference. That feeling — the “why bother” response — is addressed in one way by Michael Pollan in his essay naturally entitled “Why Bother?” His writing is better than mine, so I’ll leave it for you to follow the URL.

    This comes quickly to mind because many of my developmental composition students are obsessively devouring Pollan’s writing (partly by design and partly by happenstance). It also comes to mind because I think there is great power in action — even something as simple as throwing that aluminum can in the recycling bin forcefully enough to awaken (physically and mentally) the person sitting near to the cluster of bins. I like the idea of art students making stuff out of other people’s trash. I think it’s important that writing and psychology and sociology students write and study and analyze — but I also think it’s important for them to take action. We could very well maintain that it’s every bit as essential to have observed or volunteered in a recycle center as part of field research necessary for any one of those subjects as it was to have written and studied and analyzed. (I think this is the point where we invite service learning folks like Betsy Warriner to weigh in?)

    Finally, to address my own area of expertise: One of the great weaknesses of far too much of today’s journalism is that it’s written by desk jockeys. Absent an active, energetic, physical connection to the story being reported, readers/listeners/viewers are left asking themselves why they should bother.

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