On a beautiful fall day, Suzanne and I strolled under the mature oak trees
which shade the campus of Drew University in New Jersey. The grounds crew
had obviously been busy, noisily blowing leaves and mowing grass around all
the trees. It was Parents Weekend and we were visiting our son Dan during
his freshman year. The university was so proud of its campus trees that it
gave us a book called The University in the Forest.
Last winter, we attended several events at the Yale School of Forestry and
Environmental Studies. Each time big fat strawberries were served at the
Last summer, on one of the most beautiful weekends in August, with clear
skies, cool breezes and warm sun, we attended a conference at Hampshire
College in the rolling farmland south of Amherst, Massachusetts. In the
lecture rooms we were all shivering. The air conditioning was cooling the
classrooms way below comfort level. The temperature was just about right
for polar bears.
These universities of reputed "higher" learning charge over a hundred
thousand dollars for a four-year undergraduate education. Yet, in all of
these examples, each institution has behaved in a way which costs it money,
is detrimental to the environment and is contrary to its stated values.
These three prototypical universities have created models of dumb
consumption and rote behavior disconnected from, and probably more powerful
than, the direct instruction provided in its classrooms.
Information presented in isolation has very little use. A lack of direct
holistic knowledge and of an understanding of the connections between parts
is dangerous and expensive.
In nature, fallen leaves build up the soil and insulate tree roots. Acorns
sprout into young oaks to carry on when the old ones become lumber,
firewood or soil. Mowing grass and raking leaves in a forest, however,
ensure that it will eventually die from grass-stressed roots and lack of
young trees. Presumably, there is an ecologist at Drew who understands
forests, but he or she obviously hasn't talked to the grounds-keepers, or
to the public-relations office.
Winter strawberries are one of the most pesticide-polluted fruits on the
market, and a primary reason that toxic, ozone-destroying methyl bromide is
still being used in California agriculture. I know for sure that Yale
University has an expert in the dangers of pesticides, and experts in the
ozone layer among its faculty, but there is clearly no communication with
the dining hall staff.
It's fairly safe to presume that a Hampshire college physics professor
could tell us that air conditioning is one of the least efficient uses of
electrical energy. Most environmentally aware students know that our
overuse of energy causes many serious problems, including climate change
and that many of the fluids used in air conditioners destroy the ozone
layer. We all know that it's idiotic to spend money in order to make
paying guests uncomfortable.
Institutional ignorance is not exclusive to higher education. Suzanne's
fifth graders know it doesn't make sense for the office air conditioner to
be on as they shiver outdoors in line at the school's entrance. Or, for
their classroom windows to be open at the same time to prevent the
out-of-control heat from baking them.
This kind of ignorance goes right to the top. Remember President Nixon,
who was reported to turn on the White House air conditioner so he could sit
in front of a blazing fireplace in the summertime!
With Drew's institutional ignorance, as well as its
"all-the-junk-and-fast-food-you-can-eat" meal plan and
"all-the-partying-you-can-imagine" dorm life, we were relieved when Dan
decided that one year there was enough for him.
But day in and day out, these institutions model many expensive, damaging
and dysfunctional behaviors. Students and faculty live with these bad
examples of forest management, food systems and building design, while they
study to learn more and more about less and less.
It's kind of scary.
This is Bill Duesing, Living on the Earth
(C)1997, Bill Duesing, Solar Farm Education, Box 135, Stevenson, CT 06491.
Bill and Suzanne Duesing operate the Old Solar Farm (raising NOFA/CT
certified organic vegetables) and Solar Farm Education (working on urban
agriculture projects in southern Connecticut and producing "The Politics of
Food" and "Living on the Earth" radio programs). Their collection of essays
Living on the Earth: Eclectic Essays for a Sustainable and Joyful Future
is available from Bill Duesing, Box 135, Stevenson, CT 06491 for $14
postpaid. These essays first appeared on WSHU, public radio from
Fairfield, CT. New essays are posted weekly at http://www.wshu.org/duesing
and those since November 1995 are available there.
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