[Source: Dan Shilling, Community Columnist, Phoenix Republic, June 6, 2008] — Visit the Decision Theater at Arizona State University and you’ll discover an amazing tool that helps citizens, students, professors, and elected officials appreciate the ecological challenges facing us. Don the 3-D eyewear, and the facility’s computer wizardry will display on huge wraparound screens elegant graphs and pictures that forecast, for example, water use or air pollution. It’s a great tool, but relying on it suggests what is missing in today’s conversation about Arizona’s future, which was reflected in two reports in [the June 2nd] Arizona Republic, “The Green Imperative” and “Time To Diversify?”
You see, there is little that Decision Theater’s $3 million in computer software explains that George Marsh didn’t tell us about land use in 1864 or John Wesley Powell didn’t warn us about water use in 1878. We’ve known for a long time that Arizona’s economy, built on extraction and growth, is not sustainable, so the question remains: Why do other communities and cultures act on that knowledge but we, for the most part, have not? It’s not for lack of a fancy computer system.
Sustainability is not a new idea. Read the Iroquois Constitution, which includes the well-known decree that tribal decisions should account for the next seven generations, and you’ll find an excellent expression of sustainability. The term is also the subject of our finest nature writing, such as Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac and Rachel Carson’s A Silent Spring. But even these scientists knew technology alone could not solve our environmental predicaments. Science is a handy tool, say Leopold and Carson, but it doesn’t provide the wisdom that tells us what to do with tools. Something else is needed.
While designing college courses on conservation in the 1930s, Leopold realized that until his students develop a commitment to the land, an attachment born of love and affection, all of the research, technological gizmos, economic designs, and political schemes might delay but ultimately will not halt the land’s destruction. However, from where does this commitment come? After decades of asking this question and working with citizens to foster pride in their communities, I believe the answer is clear: The more people know the story of a place the more likely they are to be stewards of that place.
The sad irony is that while we continue to invest millions in the science and economics of land-use, we’re neglecting the human connections. Students can earn a graduate degree in sustainability without studying much history, anthropology, or other social disciplines; without taking philosophy or theology courses that ask large ethical questions about our responsibility to the land; or without reading Thoreau’s Walden or other contemporary works that explore basic moral themes about our relationship to nature, such as the writings of Terry Tempest Williams or Arizona’s Gary Paul Nabhan. And why don’t initiatives such as ASU’s Institute for Humanities Research, which is exploring the human dimensions of sustainability, receive as much funding and attention as the technology programs?
Here’s a suggestion: If we want our children to develop an attachment to this place, we should teach history in every grade — not just a smattering of it in fourth grade along with a dab of civics in eighth. How can we expect students to develop the care and commitment that is needed if our educational system doesn’t exhibit that same sense of pride? Words like “love” and “care” and “commitment” don’t show up in today’s research and teaching about sustainability and ecology, but they should. We’ve seen the disastrous results of believing economics should trump everything, or of hoping that technology will save us.