Environmental Studies Steps Out

by H. Jay Burns

[Photo: Ducks on Lake Andrews]

A liberal-arts college like Bates is a perfect place to teach students to think critically about environmental problems, big and small - like how to rid polluted Lake Andrews of water-fouling ducks.

At first glance, Bates’s new environmental studies program looks like professor stew.The faculty members who teach in this program come from everywhere on campus. Carl Straub trails clouds of glory from his post in the philosophy and religion department. Economist James Hughes checks in from the social-science hangout, Libbey Forum. Physicist John Smedley leads the science crowd from Carnegie Science, while still others call biology, chemistry, or education their home.

To be sure, these folks might click fabulously at a faculty dinner party, but should they be teaching in the same academic program?

Yes, said Dean of the Faculty Martha Crunkleton. In fact, there’s nothing unusual about the smorgasbord of disciplines found in the College’s twenty-ninth major. It’s pretty typical, in fact.

The days of sequestered disciplines are over, she said, especially in the sciences. For example, studying biology might lead you to biopsychology or biological chemistry. “If you look at scientific journals today, they are profoundly interdisciplinary,” said Crunkleton. “You’ll see an article written by a chemist and a geologist. They’re both doing the research. They’re both writing the article. It’s hard to tell which field is which.”

When it comes to studying the environment, almost every discipline can crowd under the big umbrella. “I can’t think of any department at Bates that couldn’t offer a course in environmental studies,” said John Smedley, who chairs the faculty committee that oversees the ES program at Bates.

If you want to investigate environmental issues, “you can’t just study one field. You can’t just be a chemist, for example” said Crunkleton. “You’re going to have to know a lot about biology, a lot about policy. You can’t just do one thing any more.”

Another reason for the mixed-nuts approach is that environmental issues are brutally complex. “We have done something truly awful to the environment over a long period of time,” said Crunkleton. “To remedy that, it’s going to take time, complicated work, and knowledge from all the sciences and from many other fields, like political science and economics.”

Environmental issues demand a thoughtful, probing approach. We must avoid a good-guy, bad-guy approach, said Crunkleton. “We need to avoid that easy reflex of ‘you should do this’ or ‘do that.’ We must make a more thoughtful analysis of the problem and not just believe it’s a question of morality or of will. It’s a lot more complicated than that.”

The soft shoe needed to resolve complex environmental problems is something Scott Williams ’71, a consulting lake biologist, learned on the job. In his business, based in Turner, Williams works with Maine lake associations, conservation groups, and towns (he’s even taken a look at Bates’s Lake Andrews), helping these groups work together to protect the water quality of local lakes and watersheds. “Environmental issues are all about balance and perspective,” he said.

Williams learned the art of compromise the hard way. Moral fervor — trying to convince people to do something because it was the right ecological thing to do — never got him very far. “I’ve spent a lot of time talking to townspeople, officials, grass-roots organizations, and fish and game clubs, and I found early on that when you preach ecology, few people pay attention to what you’re saying. But when you start talking economics, everybody listens,” he said.

In other words, when Williams put a liberal-arts spin on the ecological discussion — by, say, mentioning that shorefront real-estate values plummet when lake water quality declines — his audiences perked up.

“That was a hard reality for me to accept: that I could be more effective talking about protecting resources because it makes good economic sense, as opposed to arguing for the protection of natural resources for ecological reasons alone,” he said.

He continued, “You can’t just assemble a lot of data and say, ‘This is what you should do.’ You have to go out and negotiate with people and communicate with them effectively and look at the socioeconomic factors driving these issues.”

Hit by the clue bus

Bates has never had a formal program in environmental studies, though through the years many departments have offered courses relating to the environment, from Straub’s “Environmental Ethics” to “Applied Environmental Geophysics,” taught by geologist Dyk Eusden ’80.

Starting in the fall of 1996, all those courses plus many others will be brought under the environmental studies umbrella. In addition, thanks to a $1-million gift from Bates alumnus Clark Griffith ’53 [see sidebar], the College will be able to hire a new professor to teach in the program.

Until today, students who wanted to major in environmental studies had to play Frankenstein, digging out relevant courses from the curriculum and putting them together so they made some sense.

It was a scary proposition. “It involves a lot of red tape,” said Tracy Gregoire ’96 of Lewiston, who went that route two years ago. “I had a hard time getting an advisor. I had a hard time getting four or five departments to sign off on my program.”

Meanwhile, other small liberal-arts colleges have offered organized ES programs since the 1970s. They’re now celebrating twenty-fifth anniversaries while Bates is kicking off its program. But in truth, many of these peer programs were only sleepy curricular sidelights until the explosion of student interest in the late 1980s.

Marina Schauffler, who will teach two introductory ES courses at Bates this year, went to a small liberal-arts college in 1981 that advertised an ES program. “I was told I could integrate an English major with environmental studies,” she remembers. “But when I got there, I was told, basically, ‘Chaucer or chemistry. Take your pick.’” She transferred. In 1985, she graduated from Brown with an interdisciplinary major incorporating environmental studies, communications, education, and art.

“A lot of colleges have had something in place for twenty or twenty-five years, but when you look at what they did in the past, it was minimal and student interest was minimal,” said Associate Dean of the Faculty Jack Pribram, who chaired the Environmental Studies Task Force that proposed the new ES major last year. “But because they had something in place, they were able to build up their programs when student interest perked up five years ago.”

Today, ES programs at other colleges are chock full of majors. At Middlebury, the number of majors graduating in 1986 was four; last year it was sixty. Introductory courses attract hundreds. Bowdoin’s intro course, for example, had 250 students enrolled last year.

But Bates had nothing in place twenty, ten, or even five years ago. In the early 1970s, the College’s bare-bones, understaffed academic departments were scrambling just to serve their own majors. “When I got here in 1970,” said Pribram, who is also a professor of physics, “there were three of us trying to serve majors and non-majors — and teach astronomy, too.”

As the departments grew during the 1970s and 1980s, they began to look beyond themselves. Today, Pribram’s physics department has six members, one lecturer, and two support people. “Once you’re serving the majors properly, then you come up for air and say, ‘Maybe we ought to be doing more,’” he said.

Today’s Bates faculty members push the boundaries of their disciplines. Often, due to a combination of personal and professional interests, they find themselves wading deeper and deeper into environmental issues. “There’s a lot of faculty interest in the environment, from research to general concern,” said Smedley. “My interest in the environment has snowballed since I was in junior high, when ‘pollution’ was the big word.”

The final push for a Bates program came from the students. More and more, potential applicants to Bates want to know if the College has an ES program. The student Environmental Coalition conducted an informal survey last winter and found that 146 out of 550 students would consider majoring in environmental studies — if only the College offered it.

“Students were saying to us, ‘Get hit by the clue bus. This is an important issue; how are you letting us study it?’” said Crunkleton.

[Photo: Ongley and student]

Right: Assistant Professor of Geology Lois Ongley and her students have analyzed the poor water quality of Lake Andrews, part of the College's collaborative effort to solve the Puddle's chronic problems.


 

[Photo: Eusden and students in sea kayaks]

Far right: During Short Term, Assistant Professor of Geology Dyk Eusden '80 takes students kayaking along the Maine coast, where they conduct bedrock mapping projects.

Not just about good intentionsAt first glance, environmental studies seems to be a warm ‘n’ fuzzy college major, a magnet for the do-good idealism of college students. What eighteen-year-old wouldn’t be drawn to a major that could help save the planet?

Very few, as shown by the Environmental Coalition survey. The expected popularity of the Bates ES program (Crunkleton estimates forty majors each year) poses a special problem.

“Some people looking at this major might say, “Oh, neat, I really care about the environment. I’m going to major in environmental studies,’” said Crunkleton. “And then they’re going to take the first course, and they’re going to go ballistic because it’s going to be really hard.”

In other words, the Bates ES program (occasionally known as “EZ” studies — as in “easy” — elsewhere) won’t be a gut. If nothing else, said Crunkleton, the Bates program will be rigorous, with a strong science component.

It has to be that way because environmental issues are not easy to solve. They’re as gray and muddy as the Androscoggin River was twenty years ago. Any academic program that pretends to address the environment had better be pretty savvy and thorough.

“Students must learn that majoring in environmental studies is not only about good intentions,” said Crunkleton. “We’re going to have to separate the people who are serious [about ES] from those who just thought it was a nice idea.

“At Bates, we’re trying to turn out men and women who love the world enough to think it can be better, who are critical enough and who think enough to realize that you don’t make it better by saying, ‘Let’s make it better.’ It really takes a lot of hard work and hard thinking.”

Professional vandals

An occasional criticism of the nation’s best colleges might be this: “Your graduates aren’t inclined to help pitch in and help solve problems. Weighed down by the thought of their pricey education, they’re more apt to hustle from job to job, climbing the career ladder and ignoring their obligation to serve society in even the smallest way.”

The poet, philosopher, and farmer Wendell Berry says colleges and universities today have betrayed their true and proper mission. Colleges once “had a clear mandate… to receive the daughters and sons of their regions, educate them, and send them home again to serve and strengthen their communities.”

But today, colleges “uproot the best brains and talents” and “direct them away from home into exploitative careers.” He calls these college graduates “professional vandals” and “upwardly mobile transients” who “permit no stay or place to interrupt their personal advance. They…have no local allegiances; they…have [no] local point of view.”

Bates, for one, is trying to counter this perception. The College’s new Center for Service-Learning, for example, is dedicated to the simple concept that students can strengthen their sense of responsibility to society through service to others. With that in mind, the center coordinates a range of opportunities for students to serve the local community.

Likewise, the Bates ES program will give students the chance to connect with the real world, outside what they call the “Bates Bubble.” Already, students conduct environmental research on Lake Auburn and the Androscoggin River and in the White Mountains, to name a few. Faculty more and more regard the surrounding area as a research opportunity.

“I hope the ES program will train students to become good citizens who have a good sense of where they live, what the local environment’s like, what the problems are, and what the people are like,” said Smedley. “That’s my hope. It’s a side of education you often don’t get.”

After graduating two years ago, Amy Powers ’94 packed up her undergraduate honors (Phi Beta Kappa and cum laude, with an interdisciplinary major in Spanish and environmental studies) and headed out to Colorado. There, she’s teaching children and adults at the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies.

Some days, she guides snowshoers up into the mountains, teaching them about birds of prey in the alpine environment; other days, she’s down in the valley teaching in the Aspen public schools, explaining how an owl with an injured wing is rehabilitated.

She said her Bates career, combining practical, off-campus experience with rigorous, ivory-tower academic work, “helped me become a better citizen, especially in terms of being aware of environmental issues in my local area.”

[Photo: Goodwin with food scraps]

Before and after:near right, Jack Goodwin of Dining Services hoists a compostable bag filled with food scraps. The College sends that waste to Wayne Ricker's farm in Lisbon,

 
[Photo: Ricker with compost]

middle right,where he oversees a large-scale composting operation. The finished compost then gets sent back to Bates, where it's used in the campus gardens.

 
[Photo: Tracy Gregoire]

Far right: Tracy Gregoire '96 "had a hard time" designing her own environmental studies major two years ago.

An environmental BatesIf Bates is going to boast an ES program, shouldn’t it also be environmentally aware? Shouldn’t it set an environmental example?

Colleges have a special duty to be environmentally sound, according to David W. Orr, a professor of environmental studies at Oberlin College who has written extensively on the subject. “Institutions purporting to induct students into responsible adulthood should themselves act responsibly toward the earth and its inhabitants,” he writes.

At Bates, the College’s recent efforts to act responsibly toward the environment is illustrated by the recent attention given Lake Andrews, aka “the Puddle.”

Bates created Lake Andrews in the late 1950s as part of the general landscaping and construction that was occurring in the northwest part of campus. The low, wet area was always a natural location for campus runoff (since the early part of the century, it had been flooded in the winter for hockey games) and the College formalized that relationship by excavating the area, landscaping it, and directing the campus storm drains there. Presto: a new pond.

From the start, there was speculation that the pond water would not run clear. In 1958, even before the pond was completed, a tongue-in-cheek article appeared in the Bates Student, written by John Curry ’61. “Eventually, there will be a luxurious layer of grass covering the gently sloping banks,” he wrote. “Combine this with the green of the algae on the lake, and no one will know the difference between the grass and the hole in the ground.”

His prose was prophetic. A couple of years ago, the College moved to improve the pond’s chronically poor water quality. In doing so, Bates brought together different perspectives, treating the problem as a interdisciplinary environmental issue.

Alumnus Scott Williams ’71 came down from Turner to look at Lake Andrews. Assistant Professor of Geology Lois Ongley and her students tested the water. Faculty and staff came together to address the problem.

“It’s a sick little water body,” said Williams, who understands the irony of having a polluted pond in Bates’s backyard. “With all the landscaping and groundskeeping being done at Bates, it’s really sort of inconsistent to have this pretty, but sick, water body, which is otherwise a very nice aesthetic amendment to the campus.”

Williams explained the science of the pond’s illness. “It experiences raging algae blooms every summer. That’s a sign of excess nutrients in the pond: hypereutrophication. When we were out there, the clarity was so poor that you could only see three or four inches into the water in the middle of summer.”

Yet he also found the pond to be a remarkable place. “It’s really a unique fresh-water resource,” he said. “I was astounded to see the variety of waterfowl that use the pond: sea gulls, two cormorants, and, most surprising, an osprey fishing out of the pond, taking those bloated goldfish that have taken up residence over the years.”

The source of the pond’s problem is its watershed: the campus, which is relatively heavy on buildings and pavement and light on water-cleansing wilderness. Much of what hits the ground on campus — oil, gas, salt, and sand from cars and parking lots, fertilizers for the fields, runoff from roofs — gets washed into the College’s storm drains, where it becomes concentrated before sluicing into the pond. In addition, the regular “blow downs” from the College boilers flow into the pond, too.

And then there are the ducks who’ve taken up residence at the pond, sending their own contributions into the water. They wouldn’t hang around in such numbers if not for the free food fed them by humans. “You used to see people with grain bags full of bread, tossing it out for the ducks,” Williams said.

Here’s where our environmental example involves disciplines besides science. Take your pick: Is it training in English, sociology, psychology, history, political science, education, or economics that best helps someone teach a community not to feed ducks? “It’s a tough issue — and a classic environmental problem — because the ducks do bring pleasure to some people in the community,” Williams said. “When making environmental decisions, people have to decide what values they hold highest.” In other words, do you want clean water or do you want to make way for ducklings?

No duck feeding

Recently, the College placed signs along the pond that encourage people not to feed the ducks. Rather than just ordering “No Duck Feeding!” the signs explain their message, asking visitors and community members to help restore the pond’s environmental balance by not feeding the ducks. It seems to be working.

With regard to the runoff, the College will try several things. Bates plans to move the Maintenance Center to an area behind Merrill Gymnasium, with the existing maintenance building behind Lake Andrews being renovated and expanded into a new academic building. The project involves moving the boilers, which will eliminate the discharge into the pond (the discharge at the new site will be treated before it’s sent into the sewer).

The College plans to reintroduce vegetation along the pond’s eroded banks, and that will act as a buffer for runoff. It will also help stop the erosion, worse lately because the algae blooms have shaded out vegetation along the water’s edge. Non-phosphate fertilizer is another possibility. And putting alum into the pond would create a chemical reaction, causing the phosphates to precipitate out.

Addressing the Lake Andrews situation is just one example of the increasing environmental awareness on the Bates campus.

For her senior thesis, Amy Powers researched the emergence of ES programs at colleges along the East Coast. She also looked at the environmental philosophy at each school, including Bates. “Bates has come a long way,” she said. As one example, she points to the heightened efforts of the College’s dining services, which has begun aggressive recycling and composting programs.

Such initiatives often involve student watchdog groups like the Environmental Coalition. Another group promoting environmental awareness on campus is the Committee on Environmental Issues, including faculty, staff, and students. The committee addresses the ways Bates as a community and business interacts with the environment. Last year, the committee drafted the College’s first environmental policy [see sidebar].

A visitor can find environmental reforms throughout the campus. For example, retrofitting lighting outlets in twenty-four dorms and ten academic buildings saves the College 600,000 kilowatt hours each year. Water-saving fixtures and energy-saving windows have been installed throughout campus. Recycling paper is an automatic part of day-to-day life at Bates for most faculty, staff, and students.

Bates students are involved at each step, and Orr says being involved in solving problems is a good thing for any college student. “Despair is the typical [student] response to overwhelming problems such as global warming,” writes Orr. “Students need to know that global problems exist and that these problems threaten their future. But they also need to know how to solve problems, beginning at the institutional level.”

“It’s essential that students be given the chance to engage in projects, to take action,” said Schauffler. “They must recognize that they have a lot of choices to make, and that their choices do have an impact on the world.”

[Photo: Lake Andrews, early 1900's]

Lake Andrews was once just a scrubby low spot on campus. This photo, taken in the early 1900s, looks from what is now Pettigrew toward Russell Street.