Oberlin College environmental studies professor, David Orr, was invited to deliver a commencement address to a graduating class at the University of Arkansas 28 years ago. The whole content of Orr’s speech was important and I encourage reading the full transcript, but there is a subsection titled “An Assignment for the Campus” that is particularly relevant. Here, Orr proposed four things.
First of all, Orr implored the school to “Engage in a campus-wide dialogue about the way you conduct your business as educators… With each graduating class.” Orr asked, “Does this college contribute to the development of a sustainable regional economy or, in the name of efficiency, to the processes of destruction?”
Second, he suggested that students and faculty gather together to examine resource flows on their campus, such as food, energy, water, materials and waste. Together, they can more effectively manage the school’s resource intake and waste output. After finding the sources, he recommended the university integrate the study of resource flows into all curriculum, as it must be considered a vital skill.
Third, he suggested re-examining the college endowment to ensure it is invested in globally-focused organizations involved with doing responsible and necessary things for the world, as well as locally, to help ensure a renewable energy infrastructure and sustainable regional economy.
Finally, he proposed a goal of ecological literacy for all students.
Against these decades-old entreaties of a concerned environmentalist, how does Stony Brook measure up to Orr’s suggestions today? Well, not much better than most colleges and universities in the U.S.
However, I disagree with the way Orr places so much of the responsibility of environmental activism, education and ecological literacy on the faculty and administration of a university, rather than on the student body. Students are perfectly capable of learning about their own impact on the local and global economy and ecosphere, and so must share some responsibility in reforming the campus. Stony Brook students have shown their capability to unite and demand campus-wide change when they see it is necessary, and they should do the same in this situation.
The university has a series of general credit requirements each student must fulfill before they can graduate. Do any of them relate to ecological literacy? Are there classes required for each major linking their field of study to the ecological and economic responsibility each newly graduated student must understand? I am a psychology major and there are not any on my university grad requirement checklist. Have you, or anyone you know, had to study campus resource flows, to learn where and how we acquire all our raw materials to become aware of where our waste is deposited and what effect it has? In my, admittedly mild, investigation the answer is no.
I believe none of us are innocent of complacency, including myself. Considering this, I challenge us, the Stony Brook student community, to adjust ourselves to at least be aware of the ways we are gambling with our longevity and continued existence.
I challenge the ever-evolving, living body that makes up the true identity of Stony Brook University, the entity which is responsible for the change that occurs in each class from the time they come to the university to the time they walk the stage. From now on, we must take careful measures to ensure we raise responsible citizens who will fall outside of the broken definition of success, who will stand up to society’s dysfunction, who will become the generation to change in unison to address the massive challenge of safeguarding the environment. To halt ourselves as we accelerate toward the cliff, or sputter into collapse in the coming decades.