Sunday, May 22, 2016

Teaching Environmental Ethics: Feeding “The Good Wolf”

Dr. Leah D. Schade

In the Spring of 2016 I taught a course entitled Environmental Ethics at Susquehanna University in Selinsgrove, PA. Having taught a similar course at a different college the previous semester, I knew that the study of environmental ethics can easily devolve into a spiral of pessimism, given the unprecedented challenges we face regarding the climate crisis and other ecological threats to the well-being of our planet. So this semester I began by showing the students some clips of the film Tomorrowland (Disney, 2015), including one which recounts the Native American “Tale of Two Wolves,” the story of two evenly matched wolves in a battle. One is evil, greedy, arrogant, lying and full of fear.  The other is good, filled with love, hope, compassion and integrity.  The question is: which one will win?  The sage’s answer:  the one we feed.

When it comes to the environmental crises facing our planet, we are tempted to feed the wrong wolf and give into despair and a fatalistic resignation. In fact, as one of the characters in the movie describes it, we feed on it “like a chocolate éclair.” So in this course, I explored with the students some religious, philosophical and environmental perspectives to help us understand the roots of the many environmental crises we face, as well as search for resources to help us “feed the good wolf,” and work toward possible solutions. 

One of the university’s requirements for the course was for a Team Intensive component to be included that met the following criteria: 

1. Demonstrate processes needed for a positive working relationship with team members.
2. Demonstrate and evaluate the roles and functions of leadership and team membership.
3. Work together in a team to create a presentation wherein a specific environmental issue is researched, the problem articulated, a hypothesis about a possible solution is suggested, and that hypothesis is tested through a project on campus.

So I devised a semester-long group project called Life Stories based on an idea from Cynthia Moe-Lobeda’s book Resisting Structural Evil: Love as Ecological,Economic Vocation (Fortress Press, 2013).  In her book, Moe-Lobeda has several “Life Stories” – vignettes that illustrate the damage being done to the planet, ecosystems, communities and individuals.  Each story has a second “episode,” however, that show what steps have been taken to resist structural violence and build alternatives. 

I assigned each group to create its own “life story” over the course of the semester.  There were seventeen students and I assigned them to four different groups based on one of their choices of general topics of interest. They were to begin by researching how the university setting was in some way part of the problem.  But then they were to actively engage in changing policies and/or practices of life on the campus on one of four levels:  individual; a communal living place (dorm or house of students); a division of campus life (buildings and grounds, foodservice, informational technology, health center, athletics, etc.); administrative (office of the VP, Pres, Admissions, etc.). 

They drew from Moe-Lobeda’s work, as well as selections from Chip and Dan Heath’s Switch:  How to Change When Change is Hard (Broadway Books, 2010) to identify and describe the problem, and then strategize and carry out a solution (the website has a nice summary of the Switch steps:

For their final exam each group presented their “Life Story” through a PowerPoint presentation or short film documenting their effortsBelow are links to the presentations for each of their projects.  Keep in mind that these are college students – not professional film-makers.  But you can get a sense of the research they did, the way in which they devised plans for addressing the problem, and the creative ways in which they approached their projects.  The goal is for others to see what they did, learn from their process (as well as their mistakes), and be inspired to create their own projects that “feed the good wolf” and work on solutions that engender hope.

The Terracycle Project (Learning about the harm plastic items cause to birds, and initiating a recycling project for discarded pens, markers, etc.)

The Meatless Project (Challenging students to go meatless for one meal a day.)  

Do Right, Save Light: Candelight Dinner Project (Learning about saving electricity through energy efficient lighting on campus [with a dash of college-student silliness for good measure!]). 

Saving Water: The Shower Heads Project (Students learned how much water is wasted in showers on campus and embarked on a project to have low-flow shower heads installed.)

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