As a parent and a professor I’ve been inspired by young people who are passionate about making a difference in the fields of sustainability and environmental studies. But I’ve also been troubled. Some students dropped out of the major after taking just a few courses; others seem to have lost those flames that originally fueled their desire for change. They’d shrug their shoulders as if resigning themselves to taking classes that didn’t inspire them at all. Their talents in filmmaking or writing now totally set aside.
The stories of these young people made me wonder: what’s happening here? Why are we losing talented minds in the field of environmental studies? And what will be lost without their unique perspectives and diverse experiences? And so I dug a little deeper, I reviewed environmental studies program requirements, I found some data, and I listened to my daughter. And what I found made me realize that we in higher education hold the future in our hands. And so do you.
Environmental Studies is defined by the National Center for Education Statistics as, “A program that focuses on environment-related issues using scientific, social scientific, or humanistic approaches or a combination.” It is one of the fastest growing fields in the United States. According to data from the Department of Education, in 2011/12, 4,298 degrees were awarded (to 2,013 males / 2285 females). By 2017-18 Environmental Studies attracted a total of 6532 majors (of which 2,752 were men / 3780 were women). In 2020, that number went up to 7,764 bachelor’s degrees, states College Factual.
Yet despite the disproportionate impact of climate change on people of color, in 2020, based on numbers collected by DataUSA on Environmental Studies, 65.8% of white students were awarded most of the Environmental Studies degrees, while only 11.2% were awarded to hispanics or latinos and only a shocking 2.71% went to blacks or African Americans. Why is this?
I am not a specialist in this field, let me state that from the get-go (and keep in mind that this is a blog, not a full-fledged research article please), but I can’t help but wonder whether the lack of diversity has something to do with the fact that people of color do not see their own histories, cultures, beliefs, experiences or identities represented in course requirements at current Environmental Studies programs nationwide. This self-representation would not be so significant were this not a field whose ultimate goal is to save humankind. And humankind consists, of course, of people from diverse histories, cultures, beliefs, experiences, and identities living within distinct environments and geopolitical spaces around the world. We can’t really disassociate saving the earth from saving people, can we?
And if we need more diverse solutions to our environmental crisis, then we need to build more diverse learning paths to welcome more diverse thinkers and doers into the field, don’t we?
Welcoming students of diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds is extremely important. And there is also another kind of diversity that needs to be taken more seriously. One of my students (yes, white, male, middle class) came up to me after a class last year. He was clearly distressed. He didn’t know what to major in. And he told me that he had hoped Environmental Studies was going to be his ticket into the future. He soon dropped the idea after taking the core requirements in courses like chemistry, physics, biology. In essence, he found that because the major did not offer more multidisciplinary inroads, including in the social sciences and the arts and humanities, he was simply not able to find his place in it. So he dropped out. And he is not alone in this experience.
My daughter, who is an artist and marine affairs double major experienced a similar situation. Her search for a university that could offer broader disciplinary inroads where she could ideally integrate both passions, and more, led to some frustration. It also led her to co-edit a book at the age of seventeen meant to help other students understand that alternative pathways into marine conservation do exist despite what the mostly science-based college programs might suggest. Advice from the Ocean: Unexpected Paths into Marine Conservation features 22 professionals from 14 countries around the world who share their personal experiences building careers in fields as diverse as data analytics, documentary filmmaking, creative consulting, geospatial technology, law, biomimicry, sculpture, and more.
How many other kids are we cutting out of the field of environmental studies by not offering more diversity in cross-disciplinary engagements? By extension, what perspectives, voices and solutions are we removing from helping us save humanity?
Although this field of study has emerged because of the impact of humans on the environment and the environment on human life, the top five schools in Environmental Studies clearly focus more heavily on the sciences, beginning in the title of their schools, and continuing with their foundational courses and major or minor requirements.
In my exploration of major course requirements across the top Environmental Studies programs nationwide, I found that the human component–the role and impact on human beings–was sorely missing.
The consistently top rated school, University of Stanford’s environmental studies program, is marketed under StanfordEARTH in the School of Earth, Energy, and Environmental Sciences. Under this major umbrella undergraduate students can major in one of four degree programs, including Earth Systems, Geological Sciences, Geophysics, and Energy Resources. Stanford also offers one interdisciplinary undergraduate program: Earth Systems Program (only as a Minor or a Masters). The other two interdisciplinary programs are geared toward graduate studies and professional studies only.
Although the above programs are defined using words like “interdisciplinary, “caused by human activity,” “tackling the world’s most pressing social-environmental problems and sustainability challenges,” the only courses I found that were connected to building students’ humanistic capacity were: “The Worst Journey in the World: The Science, Literature, and History of Polar Exploration” and “Farm and Garden Environmental Education Practicum” (whose description, if I may add, lacked any mention of environmental and agricultural justice). Even a course called “Climate and Society” focused on the role of the natural and social sciences on climate change, not on human action or impact.
To my surprise, only the Minor in Earth Systems Program asked students to take core courses in two human-centric classes, including “Human Society and Environmental Change” and “Environmental Justice, Ethics, and Human Rights.” That said, all students are asked to complete courses in the following areas: Biology, Chemistry, Economics, Geological Science, Physics, Mathematics, Statistics. The Arts and Humanities are totally absent from this list.
These findings about science-driven core curricular requirements—and by this I do not include General Education requirements—in the broad field of Environmental Studies at Stanford, were largely repeated at other institutions that emerge in a Google search on the “best undergraduate Environmental Studies Programs in the United States,” including at Harvard University, University of California at Berkeley, Duke University, University of Michigan. A quick search for degrees in Environmental Studies at Berkeley led me to Environmental Design (in the school of Architecture), Economics and Policy, Health Sciences, Planning, Landscape Architecture, Science, Policy and Management, and Environmental Science.
Here’s the problem: high school students looking for the top Environmental Studies programs in the nation find that program descriptions include words like “interdisciplinary” or “multidisciplinary”, but the message these students gain when they review and take core course requirements is that what matters is science, policy and economics. not humanity.
While I understand that each institution has its own mission, priorities, and learning goals, and that most of these programs have evolved through science departments, I would argue that we can’t proclaim the need for an environmentally secure and equitable future without demonstrating through our course requirements that, as Joanna Carey declares in The Entrepreneurial Humanities, “‘Environmentalism” could indeed be termed “humanism, ” because “a well-functioning earth system is necessary for a well-functioning human society” (78). As such, “The Earth does not need saving. People need saving” (79). Or, rather, both need saving simultaneously?
This declaration leads me to wonder: shouldn’t all undergraduate programs in Environmental Studies today, whether they are titled Environmental Science, Policy, Ecology, GeoScience, Atmospheric Studies, Forestry, or Sustainability, among others, not include a foundational core required course on Environmental Justice? Might then, more students see themselves represented in this field?
And if, in fact, our institutions of higher learning are fully committed to diversity, pluralism, equity, justice, inclusion, then shouldn’t ALL programs that engage with the environment and sustainability have to include environmental justice as core, visible and foundational course requirements?
Not to speak of other core requirements on topics usually taught in arts and humanities or area studies programs, such as classes on black history, women and gender studies, indigenous studies, religious beliefs, data visualization and storytelling, foreign languages, human behavior, and many more.
To gain some perspective on the impact of core learning of the arts and humanities in Environmental Studies, I turn to a publication titled Teaching of the Environmental Humanities: International Perspectives and Practices, edited by Emily O’Gorman, Thom van Dooren, and others in 2019. This well-researched and insightful volume examines the rapidly growing field of named Environmental Humanities programs in the United States and around the world, with an emphasis on key opportunities and challenges. In the process of defining what the Environmental Humanities are and how they work, the authors also provide the vision and language to reframe and reform Environmental Studies programs as such.
Among the many insightful findings (this book is worth a read!), the authors explain that Environmental Studies programs have traditionally separated “nature” from “culture,” leading to what many other contributors of the volume describe as “increasingly atomized science-based responses to environmental dilemmas” (429). By engaging with issues of justice, inequality, oppression, and a strong understanding of diversity of all kinds, the Environmental Humanities therefore seek “to develop and support alternative framings, approaches, and solutions that operate outside of the dichotomized understandings of society and the environment” (429). In essence, one could say that they contribute to the kind of solutions we desperately seek.
The authors state a truth that can no longer be ignored: that all knowledge about the environment is “rooted in cultural and historical positioning.” They advance that, “contemporary environmental challenges are inescapably social and cultural, grounded in particular modes of understanding, valuing, organizing and inhabiting our world” (434). This perspective challenges the identification of science students as inhabiting a “culture of no culture” (450), in other words, of taking objective, neutral and apolitical positions often grounded in so-called truthful knowledge (450). Yet, I would add, isn’t it true that climate change is becoming more “subjective” every day? At least it’s personal to me.
What follows, then, is that if there is in fact a “growing recognition that diverse human understandings about, and activities in, the environment are critical factors in making sense of, and responsibly inhabiting, a dynamic more-than-human-world,” (428), then we must not only offer Environmental Humanities programs that will inherently attract students already in tune with these topics, but we must also work to rebalance existing course offerings in current Environmental Studies programs. This work can be mutually beneficial and enriching. And it could quite literally save our young people.