How Much Environmental Science Is Relevant?

How Much Environmental Science Is Relevant?

Political Reality

In 1971, the Constitution of the United States was amended for the twenty-sixth time. It was a simple procedural modification providing that the minimum voting age in federal elections shall be 18 years of age instead of 21. On August 26, 1920, a similar procedural Amendment, the Nineteenth, gave women the right to vote. We have lived with women’s suffrage for more than fifty years but now our political system faces a new challenge–the young voter. Scarcely having completed high school, or even a high school dropout, the young voter has been given what may become a decisive role in our political process. What manner of being are these new political persons?
What this country and all the established and emerging democracies of the post Cold War era need are young voters who are capable of leading this generation into a new era in which the many recent advances in basic science will be made relevant to social problems. Young voters who will insist that this nation tap the enormous but tragically underutilized reserve of scientific, engineering, business and industrial talent long buried in the pigeon holes of bureaucracy or lost in some corporate organization maze, to meet the very real environmental crisis facing most of the world’s metropolitan communities.
Young voters who will assume responsibilities that are now, unfortunately, scattered among federal and state agencies, universities, business corporations and industrial associations–a diffusion of leadership and dilution of initiative which cannot possibly meet the timetable imposed upon mankind by the reality of our environmental, energy, and social crises. Young voters who can bring together the human and technological resources of these disparate communities and mount a concerted effort to restore and maintain our beneficent environment.
How Much is Enough?
Many young voters do not regularly read scholarly journals, literary magazines, or even the in-depth reports in major newspapers. In some cases, young voters do not read anything at all other than road signs, record album covers, and the occasional titles flashing across the motion picture and TV screen. Young voters have been held in the school system until at least their sixteenth birthday, yet are the product of an educational system in which many of the teachers, particularly in the elementary and secondary schools, are ill-prepared to cope with the science and mathematics on which major political, social and economic decisions must be based if this country is to survive.
Yet these young voters of the world will be asked to cast an informed ballot on many issues involving the Earth upon which we live, the seas from which we all may have come, the air we all must breathe, the fresh water we need to drink, the soils on which we depend for food, and the non-renewable mineral resources which are basic to maintaining the world Economy. While we all know that an informed ballot can only be cast by an informed voter, we have yet to face the real issue: How much Environmental Science must an 18 year old voter know in order to cast an informed ballot on such issues as offshore oil and gas exploration, underground nuclear testing, nuclear or fossil fuel electric power generation, mining methods, weather modification, land use planning, water resource management, mineral exploitation, and the countless other politically sensitive, emotionally charged issues of any election year?
Just how much of the vast reservoir of information encompassed within the general intellectual disciplines we now call Geology, Hydrology, Meteor­ology, Climat­ology, Sedimentology, Seismology, Geomorphology, Stratigraphy, Mineralogy, Bio­logy, Biochemistry, Ecology, Botany, Entomology, Physical Chemis­try, Organic Chemistry, or any of the other myriad individual fiefdoms of academic science is really relevant to the 18 year old voter? If you. the scientists, don’t know now, you had better find out. Quickly!
You can no longer say, “Wait until the 18 year old goes to college.” Too much time has already been spent designing one year survey courses in “Environmental Science” for students who need a year of science to graduate and can’t stand the sight of blood, the smells of chemistry, or who can’t add, subtract, multiply, divide, integrate or differentiate well enough to take any of the other science courses offered. It is time to determine just what information from and about the sciences is needed by the 18 year old voter and then develop a program to convey that information and teach those scientific methodologies during the first eight years of school. Those are the academic years during which there is some hope of making a meaningful educational impact. College survey courses are too little and too late.
Among other information, 18 year old voters need a clear understanding of the natural processes that affect the area in which they live. 18 year old voters need a way to determine the impact of any proposed human activity upon the elements and processes of the regional environmental system it will affect. 18 year old voters need a sound basic understanding of the planning process in a systems sense in order to evaluate the conflicting demands upon the regional environmental system of which they are elements together with their family and friends and the entire human community.
Politics, Pollution and Education
Problems arise when politics enters the academic world, as it has. Problems arise when politics dictates the course of technological development, as it has. The ultimate problem arises when the people are excluded from these specialized political processes, as they have been.
Remember the Energy “crisis”? Many sincere and well-meaning public officials were unable to evaluate the conflicting claims of special interest groups each ably represented by “experts.”i

Land, Natural Resources and Popular Sovereignty
Land and the biotic and abiotic natural resources of the planet Earth represent the fundamental capital assets of human civilization.
If we are to live in harmony with the land, landscape, and natural resources which have been left for us by preceding generations to use wisely, we must make certain assumptions
• Development of land and consumption of natural resources to some extent is inevitable and necessary.
• We must accommodate land use and natural resource consumption to the extent necessary to advance those aspects of civilization that nurture the development and evolution of those uniquely human characteristics which transcend the mere biological heritage of our species.
• Land use and resource consumption must be limited by the natural constraints imposed by natural processes.
• Planned growth toward the highest and best use of land and natural resources is of greater economic benefit to the human community in any regional ecological system than unplanned growth.
• The police power of the state, the ultimate sovereignty of the people and traditional private property rights are compatible concepts which can mutually assure the beneficial development of land and the wise use of natural resources.
Scholars, People and Communication
The key to promulgating ecologically sophisticat­ed, environmentally responsible, socially relevant, economically rational, and politically feasible legislation is determination of the highest and best use of land and natural resources in terms of intrinsic suitability and natural constraints. At the same time procedural due process must be assured by establishing administrative criteria based on verifiable, scientifically acceptable data. [n_] The adequate determination of the highest and best use of the land and natural resources in a regional environmental system mandates a systems approach. The effort demands sophisticated communication among scholars from diverse disciplines and the people affected by their opinions. [n_] The human community itself, particularly its people, constitutes an element of any regional environmental system just as surely as does the land and landscape.
Environmental Science Education
Representative government in this country was founded on the principle that the people, if properly informed, can determine a wise course of action for their time through their elected representatives. This principle is based on the fundamental belief that the human intellect can discern truth, in a relative or pragmatic sense, case by case, situation by situation, in real time provided that there is sufficient information available, and provided, of course, that people are sufficiently interested to consider the matter at all.
Whether their community is a suburb or an urban neighborhood, generally the 18 year old’s only direct exposure to the political process will have been local elections. It is at just this level of local government that environment and the political process most often meet. Land use decisions are constantly forced upon ill-prepared local legislatures. Estuaries are dredged; marshes are filled; cesspools leach into public water supplies; the topsoil of prime agricultural land is stripped away for sale as suburban lawns; and houses are planted on fertile soils.
Occasionally citizens rise up and just say, “No!” following the age old practice of those frustrated by lack of knowledge and lack of power: “When in trouble or in doubt; run in circles, scream and shout, ‛Not in my back yard’!”
Unfortunately, what information is available about the environment, land and natural resources is not in a form readily comprehensible to elected officials, much less to young voters. While we can not ignore media interest in the Environment, we should be concerned with the evolution of public attitudes that ignore scientific data and scientific methods because of the failure of scientists to make such matters seem relevant. In order to consider relevance, we must look at the concerns of today’s 18 year old voter.
The future of any 18 year old is one of limited choices: finish High School or drop out. In either case the next socially acceptable choice is among employment, military service, volunteer activity, or further schooling.
A Unique College Experience
In the fall of 1970, a unique College opened in New England and an exciting experiment in higher education begin. Absent were the many traditional departments of the liberal arts college. Replacing them were three schools: Natural Science, Social Science, Humanities and The Arts. Other established colleges and universities in the vicinity provided additional academic support. The new College was located in a lovely river valley—a River of History and the setting for some of the most significant environmental controversies of the decade. Plans called for many dams, nuclear and fossil-fueled electric power generating facilities and much industrial development, as well as the constant extension of suburban sprawl. In one proposal, the River Valley was to provide the sanitary landfill sites to receive the garbage of a major city more than 100 miles away.
For the better part of a day in 1970, the students considered the problems of the valley and the entire planning process in general, preparing to assert, in Court if necessary, that the people of the River Valley, not only of this generation, but of those generations yet unborn, had an absolute right to demand that development of the valley proceed in accordance with a comprehensive regional plan. The people of the Valley had the absolute right to insist upon determination of the highest and best use of the available natural resources, the land and landscape as elements of the regional environmental system.

The Syllabus

Out of this discussion came the outline for a course in planning, actually a course in the planning process, suitable for high school or the introductory college level and including the minimum essential information necessary for an individual to intelligently evaluate any development proposal involving the land, landscape and natural resources of a region

  • Resources; Natural, Human. What constitutes a resource? How are resources measured? To whom do resources belong, if anyone? Preserve resources? Protect resources? Consume resources? Utilize resources?
  • General Systems Concepts. The elements of General Systems Science.
  • Models and Modeling. Conceptual Models and Predictive Models.
  • The Lithosphere. Environmental Geology.
  • The Hydrosphere. Water and nature; water and man.
  • The Atmosphere. The breath of life.
  • The Biosphere. The web of life.
  • The Psychosphere/Noosphere/Sociosphere. The interaction between human beings and nature which results from the acts of humans as rational animals.
  • Contamination/Pollution/Enrichment. One man’s waste is another man’s fertilizer,… raw materials,… How much is too much?
  • The Regional Environmental System as a set of regional environmental systems.
  • The methods and mathematics of General Systems Science.
  • Energy.
  • Perturbations in environmental systems.Land: The fundamental capital asset of civilization.
  • Planning: A Communications Process
  • Regional Planning.
  • Environment and the Law. Environmental Legislation.
  • Environment and the Law. Equity Litigation; The Maxims of Equity.
  • Environment and the Law. The Administrative Process.
  • Home Rule or Home Ruin? Politics

While I cannot tell you how much of such a course would be considered within traditional academic departments of geology, or biology, or chemistry, or sociology, or mathematics, or physics, or political science, or any other established discipline, I can tell you that each student must emerge from the course with a synthesis of the specialized knowledge and disciplinary outlook of the individual teachers, never again to be intellectually hobbled by the traditional limitations of departmentalized academic inquiry.[n_]

The Renaissance Men and Women of Tomorrow

The time has come to revive the Renaissance humanist; that noble intellect who believed that all knowledge can be attained. [n_] The time has come to instill in our young people the desire to seek the unifying principles of science, and reverse that trend in modern higher education which encourages the learning of more and more about less and less. Specialized knowledge is certainly valuable, but it must be related to the general concerns of human beings and the world in which they live and should be acquired as experience.
This coming generation of voters and elected officials must be generalists drawing together the specialized knowledge accumulated during the last fifty years of scientific inquiry and establishing a new Humanism. In any challenge to land use or resource exploitation in the courts, you must demonstrate that in some respect the proposed action will cause serious, permanent and irreparable damage to the land, landscape or natural resources involved as elements of the regional environmental system. This means, in practice, that you must present the substance of this proposed two semester course in a matter of hours to a concerned but often uninformed judge, jury or administrative hearing officer. [n_]

Restructuring the Environmental Science Curriculum

Considering environmental education from the pragmatic position of trying to maintain a representative system of government, it should be obvious that what has been outlined is the core curriculum in Natural Science and Social Science that must be mastered by every young man and woman before they enter the voting booth at 18 years of age. Because of the structure of this core curriculum and its ready application to matters of local concern anywhere in the country, it can be presented in general conceptual form during the primary grades, with the emphasis on observation, classification and description of resources and environmental processes.
In the middle elementary grades the emphasis can begin to shift from general description and qualitative observation to quantification. Mathematical concepts should be introduced at this early age so that general habits of mathematical thought and the presentation of information based on observation in a mathematical form becomes a natural part of the educational process.
In the Intermediate School or the Junior High School, the student can be introduced to the general academic disciplines involved in the planning process: Earth Sciences, Life Sciences, Social Sciences and Physical Sciences together with their common language, mathematics. There should be some specific involvement in matters of local concern in support of the high school program.
During the first two years of high school the student should complete the formal course as outlined concentrating specifically on some matter of local concern to the students and their community. The Junior High or Intermediate School students can be involved in gathering data and preparing resource inventories.
The remaining years of high school can permit students to pursue physical science and mathematics as a common subject and molecular biology and chemistry as a common subject. The conventional earth science potpourri and biology as the study of living elements of the environment will have already been studied as part of the environmental science curriculum.
Black Sheep and a College for Black Sheep
If they are not to wither and die as institutions while leading us into the next Dark Ages, each modern University must establish a “College” which will permit “Black Sheep” scholars to pursue investigations outside the confines and limits of their Academic Departments, yet within the overall shelter of a major university so that they may draw upon its vast scholarly resources.
Data, no matter how accurate, is not information, and information is not necessarily knowledge. Certainly knowledge does not become wisdom until it is tempered in the fires of experience. Properly managed and with appropriate administrative support, a College for Black Sheep could, within only one academic generation of four to six years, produce some significant information and might even begin to suggest wise approaches and promising solutions for many of the seemingly intractable problems of present day civilization.
Overhead should be minimal since the Black Sheep would not be conducting laboratory research other than computer modeling and information management. If promising experiments are suggested, they would be explored by conventional academicians at the appropriate existing laboratory sites, not at the Black Sheep College. The Black Sheep would make use of the gedanken experimental method developed by Einstein, Schrödinger, and other physicists during the early Twentieth Century, and leave the actual hands-on lab work to others.
What the students and faculty at the Black Sheep college would be expected to do is open lines of communications into, and establish communication networks within and among traditional academic departments and established scholarly disciplines, abstracting from these traditional sources the information required by themselves and their fellow Black Sheep.
The students and faculty of the College for Black Sheep should include gifted and talented elementary and high school students (whose insights are often as profound as they are refreshing) undergraduates, graduate students, postdocs, and senior scientists who are tired of the intellectual fetters imposed on them by traditional academic departments.
The quintessential “senior” scientist and student mentors at the Black Sheep College would be someone who brings to work normally conducted by scientists of one discipline the talents and skills developed and honed through generations of experience in another discipline—a priceless storehouse of wisdom that must be passed on as quickly as possible to young investiga­tors. It cannot be done in conventional Departments or even a traditional College in a modern university. [n_] The Doctoral program at the Black Sheep College would be relatively free of conventional constraints. Every student would be working on significant societal problems. It should be no trouble for a faculty committee to make a list of problems that will excite the curiosity of any investigator from any discipline, young or old, but which have been generally regarded as intractable. Since all of these problems can be approached from the perspective of any academic discipline, yet any solution proposed must account for effects and impacts normally the subject matter of study by other disciplines, any student offering a proposed solution or even attempting to identify a potential solution will have to be conversant at the very least with the subject matter and language of a number of established academic disciplines and demonstrate at least an informed acquaintance with many areas of human knowledge.
A degree from the Black Sheep College signifies that the student may assume a leading role in fomenting, then leading the next Renaissance.

Action is Required

The time has come for the scientific community itself to restructure the educational curriculum in environmental science.
If it cannot be done in the public school systems—for whatever reason—it must be done in the private schools and in the parochial schools. If it cannot be done immediately at the elementary school level, it must be done as soon as possible in the High Schools. There is certainly no excuse for not doing it immediately at the freshman level in every junior college, college and university in this country.
Adapted from V.J.Yannacone,jr., “How Much Geology is Relevant to an Eighteen Year Old Voter?” in Proceedings of the Geological Society of America/National Associa­tion of Geology Teachers, 1971 Annual Meeting, Abstracts with Programs, Vol 3, No. 7 (October 1971); reprinted in Journal of Geological Education, XXII (September 1974) 162–166.