Whenever I tell people outside of Lewis & Clark that I’m majoring in environmental studies, I typically get a reaction along the lines of, “Great! We need people like you to help the planet!” or the slightly more critical, “Wow, you’re so idealistic!” These responses are interesting because they both assume (to a certain degree anyway) that I chose this field because I want to save the world, to make it look more like a certain ideal. To be fair, I did go into the Environmental Studies Program feeling this way, as did many of my peers. I thought we were going to learn about important, current environmental problems, and the best ways to solve them. Instead, I gained something much deeper: the ability to analyze and critique environmental issues and the responses to them.
It’s been comforting to know that my peers are also going through the process of learning to set aside their preconceived assumptions and think critically. Working on the ENVX website, I get to see the best work that comes out of this learning process. While perusing through content nominated to ENVX this week, I saw two posts that deal with the concept of idealism associated with Environmental Studies. The first comes from Hannah Smay, an English and ENVS double major whose post “Utopia for Whom?: Whiteness and the College Campus” reflects on both classical notions of utopia and current issues of racism on campus. As befits an English major, Hannah references several literary depictions of utopias, analyzing who they include and who they leave out. She then connects this idea of utopia with modern college campuses (which are often characterized as idealistic spaces disconnected from the “real world”), making the claim that they too exclude people to maintain a particular image–an image that emphasizes diversity over genuine inclusion. By catering to the values of a white majority, she argues, colleges leave out the voices of people of color. I really like Hannah’s focus on both inclusion and exclusion; she does a great job of meaningfully critiquing a concept that seems inherently good at first glance. It’s a well-written post, and very relevant to ongoing debates about racism, diversity, and inclusion on college campuses.
Marielle Bossio’s post “Critiquing the Well-Intentioned: Politics, Sustainable Development, and the Global/Local Divide” analyzes sustainability, another concept that is often portrayed as an environmental ideal. She too discusses the island-like nature of college campuses and the ways they advertise their sustainability to create another image of utopia. However, Marielle goes further by connecting campus sustainability to ideas of sustainable development. She points out that, like the concept of sustainability in general, sustainable development goals are either very general (for the purpose of being applicable to a broad populace) or very fragmented and site-specific. To make this point, she cites a scholarly article entitled, “Sustainable Development: An Oxymoron Comes of Age,” by Michael Redclift. Marielle’s post is not intended to come to any broad conclusions; rather, it simply provides food for thought on a complex topic. Like Hannah, Marielle does a good job of unpacking a concept that many people take for granted as positive.
I particularly enjoy how both Hannah and Marielle connect these broad ideas to life on a college campus. The concepts of sustainability and utopia certainly apply to college life: colleges are advertised as idealized, progressive, environmentally friendly spaces. However, both college campuses and ideals of sustainability and utopia are also frequently dismissed for being too far removed from “the real world.” By analyzing these ideals and the ways they apply to our everyday lives rather than simply dismissing them or putting them up on a pedestal, we can get outside of our preconceived notions of “good” and “bad.” In this way, we develop a more nuanced way of viewing our worlds.