What's My Job?

Do teachers have a role when it comes to saving the planet? By Susan Allen-Gil

You can’t say we haven’t been warned about how human actions are irrevocably changing Earth’s ecosystems and threatening the survival of millions of species--and humankind. Jared Diamond warned us in Collapse. Al Gore begged us to kick our fossil fuel habit for the sake of future generations in An Inconvenient Truth. Actor/activist Leonard DiCaprio cautioned us that time is running out in The 11th Hour. The World Wildlife Fund’s global ecological footprinting analysis indicates we have been living on borrowed time; for the last five years, humans’ collective footprint has been about 40 percent higher than the earth’s ecological carrying capacity.

As the coordinator for both the Environmental Studies Program and the Partnerships for Sustainable Education between Ithaca College and the community, I think a lot about education’s role in diverting or delaying the impending world collapse if we stay on our present resource-intensive path. In this regard, Ithaca College is doing quite well. Our reputation for embedding sustainability in our courses and operations extends across the United States and abroad. However, maximizing awareness among the IC community won’t make a significant dent in the global Hummer of consumption in which we’re riding.

For much of the global community, the conditions are not ripe for changing the world through education. To investigate this situation, I convened a workshop of international experts this summer in Ukraine, sponsored by NATO’s Science for Peace Program, the Christian Johnson Endeavor Foundation, Sigma Xi, and Ithaca College.

My codirector, Olena Borysova from the Kharkiv Academy for Municipal Economy of Ukraine, and I brought together 36 highly respected participants from 14 countries, including Algeria, Armenia, Belarus, and Slovakia, for four intensive days of discussion. IC communications management major Sarah Brylinsky ’08 and physics major Lia Stelljes ’08 joined me; both wrote and presented papers about successful educational strategies from a student perspective and impressed the experts with their intellect and energy.

Global conditions that hinder the ability of education to save the world are as diverse as our workshop attendees. In some countries, political corruption prohibits educators from changing or even addressing environmental problems. Nations such as Ukraine are preoccupied with a postindustrial legacy of pollution followed by economic collapse. A Ukrainian biology professor said his first concern is surviving the effects of the Chernobyl nuclear explosion. “If we live, we will think about recycling,” he told me.

When discussing the future of energy in Eastern Europe, another colleague said, “The concern of my parents’ generation was freedom; the concern of mine is the economy; perhaps the concern of the next, or the one after that, will be renewable energy. But not now — we are happy just to have electricity.”

Throughout many of the former Soviet States, the education system was developed to produce specialists prepared for narrowly defined occupations, with little or no room for electives. While some programs now require a course on the environment, faculty say students see no connection between the course and their degree in, say, transportation engineering.

This led me to think about what my job really is, as a college professor trained in environmental toxicology. I posed the question one evening to a mixed group of students, faculty, and policy makers, giving the audience three choices. Is my job to (1) ingrain scientific facts and equations into student brains; (2) make sure that graduates can get jobs; or (3) produce learned citizens who can make rational decisions and contribute to society?

While there was some disgruntlement about being forced to pick just one, the most popular answer was (3). This led to some consternation on my part about whether someone trained in the biochemical effects of pollutants on animals, or almost any other Ph.D. dissertation topic for that matter, is really the best person to teach students how to contribute meaningfully to society. But I will do my best.

Another group discussion involved developing an action plan for “saving the world” in which each person listed 10 actions they believe are most important, whether they could be implemented soon, and if education could play a role in advancing them. Influential factors ranged from severe environmental disasters (frequent Hurricane Katrinas) to religious leadership, celebrity influence, and humanitarian aid. The most commonly recommended actions were changing behavior, educating early, slowing population growth, offering specialized education (especially in renewable energy research and development), and improving environmental legislation and policy.

This led to the last question: What role can college educators play? While they cannot influence environmental disasters, they can influence every other critical component in saving the world. We raise awareness about the importance of behavioral change; teach the parents and teachers of tomorrow, and so influence early education; provide the intellectual force behind innovations; and train lawyers, policy makers, and voters.

If we are going to avert the looming ecological crisis, we need to make sure we are all in the game, and that we step up to the plate and swing hard.

Susan Allen-Gil is an associate professor of biology specializing in environmental toxicology, coordinator of the College’s Environmental Studies Program and the Partnerships for Sustainability Education, and faculty affiliate with the Latin American Studies Program. She is at left in photo above with physics major Lia Stelljes ’08 and Sarah Brylinsky ’08 in Ukraine. Read more about Allen-Gil’s work at