Whether we realize it or not, environmental studies (ENVS) seems to infiltrate every aspect of our lives by drastically altering the way we think. Even after taking one introductory level class we bristle at ‘big words’ like sustainability, and start to question commonly accepted bodies of thought. A goal is that students will be able to move past the set of ideas they came into Lewis and Clark with and learn to think more critically about all issues, whether they appear to be ‘environmental’ or not. In this way, it may be argued that the Environmental Studies Program teaches students how to think critically as opposed to what specific environmental facts to memorize.
Students in ENVS 350, Environmental Theory, often find themselves grappling with larger ideas that seem to stretch far beyond what one would consider environmental studies. The concepts draw on contrasting views from different disciplines, making them hard to fit into a neat little category of environmental issues. A topic such as globalization is a perfect example because it can be discussed through many of the frames learned in Environmental Theory, but could never be classified as solely an environmental subject. Roan Shea reflects on his connections with globalization and media and poses the question of whether attention to global environmental concerns, such as conservation in the Amazon, runs the risk of exotifying and simplifying these places. His final conclusion that “like with most questions, it seems like there is not a black and white answer,” seems to perfectly capture the sentiment of most ENVS students.
ENVS has a way of appearing in discussions and thoughts even outside of classes. Perhaps the best group to attest to this is the seniors, who often find that their theses topics pop up everywhere. Aaron Fellows, a senior currently writing his thesis, found that the concepts of ENVS were surprisingly relevant to a dinner he had with the College’s Board of Trustees. In this candid post, Aaron describes how the experience made him analyze the connections between his two majors and the role that the conventional scientific method plays in the Environmental Studies Program. In particular, having a clear hypothesis was important to his process in economics but factored in very differently to his ENVS thesis and was not something he even considered initially. His thesis studies the value of urban forests, and does an incredible job of methodically organizing such a complex and tangled topic.
Lydia Bleifuss’s work is another perfect example of the senior theses that critically grapple with larger issues. Her entire site is extremely well laid out but perhaps the best part is the frequent posts that chronicle her thought process. If ENVS meant simply learning as much as we can about the most prominent environmental issues there would not be such an emphasis on the process of personal growth as students develop their theses. Her recent post on the “No Alto Maipo” river conservation movement demonstrates the larger questions that arose during her research process, such as trying to untangle the various sentiments of those in Santiago towards the movement. Funnily enough, she echoes Roan’s previous conclusion that “this dynamic is not black and white.”
Through posts, projects and senior theses, our ENVS students demonstrate creative thinking. Students are encouraged to track their thought processes and to go back and reevaluate their own work as they grow. In the same way that Aaron went back and readdressed the fundamentals of his thesis, students constantly go back and reshape their research. Methods and research get changed as we come to better understand the assumptions that were present when they were originally crafted. This all serves to break down the expectations that we entered the program with, especially our definitions of what constitute ‘environmental’ issues.