Environmental issues are no longer the sole purview of environmental science at Catawba College. Classes in religion and philosophy, economics and political science also offer their perspectives on the relationship between human beings and the environment.
Students discuss urban sprawl in Dr. Michael Bitzer’s State & Local Politics class and the costs of pollution in Dr. James Slate’s Principles of Economics II. They talk about the changes in the way humans have viewed the environment throughout the ages in Dr. Seth Holtzman’s Environmental Ethics course and Christianity’s approach to the environment in Dr. Ken Clapp’s Christian Beliefs class.
This interdisciplinary approach to environmental issues seems to come naturally for a college with a nationally known Center for the Environment and Environmental Science and Studies Program. “We are delighted that so many professors have incorporated these issues into their classes,” says Dr. John Wear, the center’s director. “The more perspectives our students have on the environment, the better educated they will be when they deal with these issues in their own communities.”
Bitzer, assistant professor of political science, is using “The Limitless City: A Primer on the Urban Sprawl Debate” by Oliver Gillham this semester to help focus the discussion in his State & Local Politics class.
A product of a liberal arts education himself, Bitzer is a strong believer in interdisciplinary approaches. “Getting students to talk across interdisciplinary bounds can help to show them what a liberal arts education can do in terms of preparing them for future career opportunities,” he says.
He leads his students in discussions on ways to manage community growth and to deal with public policy issues that are deeply impacted, such as transportation, educational policy and land-use development opportunities. “All of these things have a direct impact because government plays a role in all of them,” Bitzer says.
He incorporates environmental issues into his class because he is keenly aware that his students will be dealing with these issues when they graduate. “We have teacher education majors in the course,” he says. “They are going to be directly impacted by growth, by development. We see that here in Rowan County with the need for another high school in the southern part of the county.”
Bitzer knows that government cannot be studied in a vacuum. “Government has a daily impact on everyone’s lives,” he says, “whether they realize it or not.”
The Western World View
Holtzman, assistant professor of religion and philosophy, says classes in environmental ethics are an attempt to bring the resources of philosophy to bear in understanding our ethical obligations to the environment. “It’s extremely important that people be able to focus on the environment not only through a scientific lens – although that is important enough – but through thinking of how science should be used, what science there should be and what our relationship to the environment should be as [community] citizens and world citizens,” he says.
He raises questions about how our approach to commercialism and our western world view affect how we deal with the environment. “There’s a growing recognition that modern western civilization has viewed nature as something to be manipulated for human purposes,” Holtzman says. “Indeed, the very conception of nature changed quite drastically from pre-modern to modern ways of thought.”
In the pre-modern era, people viewed nature as alive, as something to respect. “In the medieval era, people conducted religious ceremonies before they sank a mine,” he says. “That idea for us seems ludicrous, but it makes all the sense in the world when you understand their approach to things.”
Pre-modern man looked upon the earth as if it were a womb. The ores in the earth were not set elements but rather substances that were in the process of becoming other substances, even gold. “If you wanted to mine copper, you were interfering with a natural process,” Holtzman says. “You needed sanction to do that, religious sanction in this case.”
Today, companies many times do whatever it takes to get the ore they want – even if that means leveling a mountain or ruining a river or destroying a community. Manipulating nature for human benefit is part of the modern world view.
“It’s important to study that change in the conception of nature,” Holtzman says, “to consider whether there might be philosophical problems with our present view of nature and whether we need to do some serious rethinking.”
Like Bitzer, Holtzman knows that his students will have to face environmental issues no matter what profession they choose. “Their world is a world that is inescapably environmental in a way that, even 50 years ago, was not so,” he says. “They have to learn how to think about the environment, how to understand how their decisions are going to affect it both individually and, in a broader sense, socially and politically.”
Holtzman’s aim is to get his students to think beyond the problem and possible solutions. “It’s more a matter of, ‘Here’s what’s wrong with our thinking. Are there other more defensible, more comprehensive ways we can think about these matters?’”
He quotes Anwar Sadat: “He who cannot change the fabric of his thought will never be able to change reality.”
“That’s what we’re about,” Holtzman says. “We’re about examining and potentially changing the fabric of our thought.”
The Environment & the Marketplace
Students in Slate’s Principles of Economics II class learn that you can’t separate the economy from the environment. “Economics is all about resource allocation,” he says. It is also about equity and efficiency. And that’s where pollution comes in.
“Not all costs are captured by market exchange,” says Slate, associate professor of economics. “The most obvious externality (read ‘consequence’) of production and exchange is pollution.” For example, the waste from making film is toxic, which clearly has an environmental cost as does burning gasoline in cars.
“The best way to reduce pollution is to implement policies that internalize all costs of production – or consumption – so that economic agents react to all costs,” Slate says.
Economists often suggest “cap and trade” policies to deal with pollution. “Essentially one can cap the total amount of pollution, then distribute pollution vouchers and allow polluters to buy and sell the pollution permits,” Slate says. “This essentially caps the total pollution in a particular market and internalizes that cost to the economic agent, which then gives the agent a tangible incentive to get rid of, or improve, the method which is generating the pollution.”
For example, if a driver has to pay for the pollution he is causing, he has an extra incentive to reduce that pollution by driving a hybrid or deciding to walk or take the bus. If a company has to pay for the air pollution it causes, it is motivated to upgrade its plant to reduce its emissions.
It’s important to teach about externalities (consequences) like pollution, Slate says, because externalities are market failures. “You’re teaching an exception to the rule – the rule being that competition is good.”
The Christian Perspective
Clapp helps the students in his Christian Beliefs class wrestle with the concept of whether God created human beings to have dominion over the earth or to be stewards of the earth.
“Does ‘dominion over the earth’ mean we are to use the rest of creation for our benefit to conquer and enjoy the spoils?” asks Clapp, assistant professor of religion and philosophy.
“If we look at what we’ve also been instructed to do in terms of being stewards of God’s creation, then we have to approach that very diffently and recognize that the fact that human beings have the capacity to reason and to understand cause and consequence gives us a responsibility,” he says.
To be responsible means using the earth in a prudent way in order to make it available for future generations, according to Clapp. That way of thinking “is not one of using God’s creation for our own benefit but living in harmony and communion with it in such a way as to preserve it and to continue to make it available.”
This concept is basic to humans’ relationship to creation. “We do not live in isolation,” Clapp says. “If I live in harmony with the rest of God’s creation, I won’t see myself as the only player on the field.”