Now and Later
Would you refuse to drink bottled water if it would help your yet-to-be-born great grandchild?
That’s a delicate balance—the contemporary demand for immediate gratification and the responsibility to secure and protect resources for the future. From debates about oil drilling in the Arctic to the use of reusable bags, the tension between having it now and having enough for later generations crosses all spectrums.
“Our shared work on sustainability will change this campus and the world for the better.”
—Dean Carolyn Dever
Understanding and managing these competing issues has been the topic of the Sustainability Project, a yearlong Vanderbilt-wide exploration under the aegis of the College of Arts and Science’s American Studies program and funded by the College of Arts and Science’s Fant Fund.
Sustainability—broadly defined as meeting the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs—is the most pressing issue of the 21st century, says Teresa Goddu, associate professor of English and director of American studies. “The ultimate goal of the Sustainability Project is to create a campuswide conversation that emboldens Vanderbilt’s efforts toward sustainability while deepening our understanding of what we are working toward.”
Dean Carolyn Dever puts it more directly. “We’re applying the full diversity of Vanderbilt’s academic expertise to one of the most complex and urgent human challenges of our time,” Dever says. “In the year to come and for many years ahead, our shared work on sustainability will change this campus and the world for the better.”
The initiative began with the Cumberland Project, a spring 2011 two-day intensive workshop for faculty. Faculty from various schools and across campus met to discuss sustainability and to develop curricula that incorporated the topic. A second workshop held May 2012 carried the project forward. While the Sustainability Project will conclude officially in 2013, a new minor in environmental and sustainability studies was recently approved by Arts and Science faculty.
A concurrent goal was to create course collaborations between the sciences and humanities that discussed sustainability as a societal issue. More than 30 courses were offered, ranging from Water and Social Justice in Bangladesh, taught by faculty from Earth and environmental sciences and political science, to The Psychology of Sustainability and even an intensive elementary Spanish course with a sustainability focus.
For Dana Nelson, Gertrude Conaway Vanderbilt Professor of English, delving deeply into a compelling topic by drawing on resources across disciplines represents the best of a liberal arts education.
“Fundamentally, the Sustainability Project opens pathways where students learn to speak in the languages of other disciplines,” says Nelson, who is also a professor of American studies and women and gender studies. “Doing so opens them to new ways of thinking and seeing the world around them.”Nelson’s fall 2011 class, Writing for an Endangered World, captured both the multidisciplinary ground of American studies and the core objectives of the Sustainability Project. Using works ranging from Henry David Thoreau to Barbara Kingsolver, she challenged students to think and write persuasively about the allocation and distribution of common resources.
In the spring semester, she and John Ayers, chair of Earth and environmental sciences, taught a graduate seminar exploring society’s ability to manage valuable resources in common and the role of government, corporations and other institutions in protecting those resources in a fair, equitable way.
Such issues inspired Katie Ullmann, a rising senior and American studies major, to look closely at the environment, climate change and resource scarcity within the context, ethics and morals of American culture and history. Ullman, an environmentalist since high school, spent the spring 2012 semester in South Africa, where she focused on urbanization and ways to reduce individuals’ environmental impact through shared consumption and space.
“The Sustainability Project has changed my viewpoint,” she says. “I’ve always felt one person could make a difference. At the same time, however, Sustainability Project speakers often stressed collective action and that helped me see how much top-down environmental change we need to expedite the cultural shift to more sustainable practices in America.”
Impact and Implications Everywhere
Beyond the classroom, speakers such as Peter Gleick, cofounder of the Pacific Institute for Studies in Development, Environment and Security, and Bill McKibben, environmentalist and author of Eaarth and The End of Nature, brought environmental discussion to public forums on campus.Road trips—open to any Vanderbilt student but a core component in American studies courses—took participants to Hindman, Ky., to learn firsthand about the impact of mountain top removal, an environmentally contentious method of coal mining. Other activities included visiting the water reclamation operation at Metro Nashville’s Water Treatment Plant and exploring environmental justice in Nashville.
Yearlong green lunches cosponsored with the university’s Sustainability and Environmental Management Office addressed practical topics ranging from cooking with local foods to composting and alternative transportation. One symposium explored sustainability in connection with legal issues and another with creative writing. The Film Studies program and campus film series sponsored films that involved sustainability issues.
Awareness and action galvanized students who participated, including some who began studying the topic even before the project was officially launched. Jill Vaum, BA’11, took a course on water in American studies last year. She says the topic opened her eyes to numerous ideas that previously had not been on her radar, including the environmental impact of fracking—a controversial method for retrieving oil—to water rights and their intersection with religious beliefs.
Vaum says she’s become her family’s moral environmental compass, advocating against beverages in disposable plastic bottles and for using recyclable shopping bags. “Now, when I hear stories on the environment, I’m interested and I’m taking small steps in my own life to lessen my environmental impact,” Vaum says. “Change is fundamentally about one person making a different decision.”