For those calling themselves environmental educators, it is sobering to note that the only people who have lived sustainably in the Amazon rain forests, the desert Southwest, or anywhere else on earth could not read or write (which is not to say that they were uneducated). And those in the United States living closest to the ideal of sustainability, the Amish for example, do not make a fetish of education, seeing it as another source of deadly pride. On the other hand, those whose decisions are wreaking havoc on the planet are not infrequently well educated, armed with B.A.s, B.S.s, L.L.B.s, M.B.A.s, and Ph.Ds. Elie Wiesel has made the same point in a different context, noting that the designers and perpetrators of Auschwitz, Buchenwald and Dachau, the heirs and kin of Kant and Goethe, also possessed quite substantial academic credentials. It would seem, then, that the relationship between education and decent behaviour of any sort is not exactly straightforward. Three possibilities are worth considering.
First, perhaps education is part of the problem. Cultures capable of generating an alphabet and written language have tended to become environmentally destructive. Written language is implicated with the rise of cities, agricultural surpluses and soil erosion, fanatical belief systems, irate and well-armed pilgrims, armies, usury, institutionalised greed, notions of collective aggrandizement, and eventually progrowth hucksters—all of which take a toll on soils, forests, wildlife, and landscape. Hence Chateaubriand’s observation that forests precede civilization and deserts follow it. In the larger scheme of things, education may only have made us more clever, but not ecologically wiser.
As circumstantial evidence I offer the observation that the time and expense of higher education is most often excused on the grounds that it increases lifetime earnings, a crude but useful measure of the total amount of carbon the scholar is able to redistribute from the earth’s crust to the atmosphere. It is somewhat rarer for education to be extolled on the grounds that it reduces the graduates’ impact on the biosphere, or because it hones their skills in the art of living simply. Such claims are indeed sufficiently rare that we may reasonably surmise that, on average, those whose lifetime earnings are enhanced by degrees do more damage to the planet than those less encumbered.
Second, it may be that, beyond some fairly minimal level, education is just not an important determinant of behaviour, ecological or otherwise. There is a shelf of dust-laden studies about the difference education makes. And what difference does four years of higher learning make? The conclusions, given present tuition rates, are remarkably ambivalent. For the majority, peer influences seem to be a more important source of ideas and behaviour than professors or courses. Most students seem to regard education as a ticket to a high-paying job, not as a path to a richer interior life, let alone one of saving the planet. We also have reason to believe that television, the automobile, and cheap energy have had more to do with ecological behaviour than formal schooling.
A third possibility is that, under certain conditions, education might exert a positive influence on ecological behaviour, but that these conditions by and large do not now prevail. Higher education, particularly that in prestigious universities, is often animated by other forces including those of pecuniary advantage and prestige. ‘Academic professionalism, specialism, and careerism, ’ in Bruce Wilshire’s words, ‘have taken precedence over teaching, and the education and development of both professors and students has been undermined.’ The ‘moral collapse’ that he describes results from the separation of the professionalised intellect from the personhood of the scholar. Moreover, the university ‘exists in strange detachment from crucial human realities, and perpetuates the implicit dogma that there is no truth about the human condition as a whole’.
The moral crisis of the university is perpetuated by faculty, and I suppose administrators, who can ‘rationalise away and conceal [their] stunted personalit[ies] and emotional infantilism’. Wilshire proposes to heal the ‘ethical sickness’ of the university by reducing its scale so that it can ‘address the persons within it as beings who are immeasurably more than their professional roles’ by ‘leav(ing) room for listening, ruminating, and silence… for wonderment and for caring’—an interesting subject for a memo to the dean of graduate research. But whether a morally resuscitated university would turn out graduates better suited to the limits of the planet is not clear. I am inclined to think that moral revitalization is necessary but not sufficient.
Defenders of the generic university tend to justify it not on the quality of teaching or the moral refinement and ecological rectitude of its faculty and graduates, but rather on its contributions to what, with suitable gravity, is called the ‘fund of human knowledge’, that is research. And what can be said of this form of human activity? Historian Page Smith, for one, writes that:
The vast majority of research turned out in the modern university is essentially worthless. It does not result in any measurable benefit to anything or anybody. It does not push back those omnipresent ‘frontiers of knowledge’ so confidently evoked; it does not in the main result in greater health or happiness among the general populace or any particular segment of it. It is busywork on a vast, almost incomprehensible scale. It is dispiriting; it depresses the whole scholarly enterprise; and most important of all, it deprives the student of what he or she deserves—the thoughtful and considerate attention of a teacher deeply and unequivocally committed to teaching.
There is more to be said. Most research is aimed to further the project of human domination of the planet. Considerably less of it is directed at understanding the effects of domination. Less still is aimed to develop ecologically sound alternatives that enable us to live within natural limits. Ultimately our survival will depend as much on rediscovery as on research. In this category I would include knowledge of justice, appropriate scale, the synchronization of morally solvent ends and means, sufficiency, and how to live well in a place.
The university’s preoccupation with research rests on the belief that ignorance is a solvable problem. Ignorance is not solvable because we simply cannot know all of the effects of our actions. As these become more extensive and varied through ‘research and development’, knowledge grows. But like the circumference of an expanding circle, ignorance multiplies as well. (This is not true, I think, for what is called ‘wisdom’, which has to do with knowledge about the limits and proper uses of knowledge.) The relationship between ignorance and knowledge is not zero-sum. For every research victory there is a corresponding increase in ignorance. The discovery of CFCs, for example, ‘created’ the ignorance of their effects on climate and stratospheric ozone. In other words, what was until 19 30 a trivial, hypothetical area of ignorance became, with the ‘advance of knowledge’, a critical and possibly life-threatening gap in human understanding of the biosphere. Likewise, our ignorance of how to safely and permanently store nuclear waste did not exist as an important category until the discovery of how to make a nuclear reactor. This is neither an argument against knowledge nor one for ignorance. It is rather a statement about the physics of knowledge and the peril of thinking ourselves smarter than we are, and smarter than we can ever become. In Wendell Berry’s words:
If we want to know and cannot help knowing, then let us learn as fully and accurately as we decently can. But let us at the same time abandon our superstitious beliefs about knowledge: that it is ever sufficient; that it can of itself solve problems; that it is intrinsically good; that it can be used objectively or disinterestedly.
The belief that we are currently undergoing an explosion of knowledge is a piece of highly misleading and self-serving hype. The fact is that some kinds of knowledge are growing while others are in decline. Among the losses are vast amounts of genetic information from the wanton destruction of biological diversity, due in no small part to knowledge put to destructive purposes. We are losing, as David Ehrenfeld has observed, whole sections of the university curriculum in areas such as taxonomy, systematics, and natural history. We are also losing the intimate and productive knowledge of our landscape. In Barry Lopez’s words: ‘Year by year, the number of people with first-hand experience in the land dwindles…herald(ing) a society in which it is no longer necessary for human beings to know where they live except as those places are described and fixed by numbers.’ On balance, I think, we are becoming more ignorant because we are losing knowledge about how to inhabit our places on the planet sustainably, while impoverishing the genetic knowledge accumulated through millions of years of evolution. And some of the presumed knowledge we are gaining, given our present state of social, political, and cultural evolution, is dangerous; much of it is monumentally trivial.
Conservation education need not be an oxymoron. But if it is to become a significant force for a sustainable and humane world, it must be woven throughout the entire curriculum and through all of the operations of the institution, and not confined to a few scattered courses. This will require a serious effort to rethink the substance and process of education, the purposes and use of research, the definition of knowledge, and the relationship of institutions of higher education to human survival. All of which will require courageous and visionary leadership. In the mounting battle for a habitable planet it is time for teachers, college and university presidents, faculty, and trustees to stand up and be counted.