Sunday, May 10, 2009

Humanities and Sustainability at FGCU

I was down in Florida over the weekend for a conference on the Humanities and Sustainability at Florida Gulf Coast University in Fort Myers. It's a fairly young institution (founded mid-1990's), with a commitment to sustainability built into its mission statement. One way they've found to realize that commitment is a required junior-level course ("Colloquium") on sustainability, with a common syllabus. So roughly 2500 students a year are enrolled in 30-40 sections of the course, covering some of the basics of environmental awareness. Some of the sections are locally-focused (conservation); others more global (climate change); some science-intensive, others political.

FGCU also has a Center for Sustainability and Environmental Education, whose director, Peter Blaze Corcoran, was involved in drafting the Earth Charter back in the 1990's. The Earth Charter and its uptake have become central to a number of courses, as students are asked to discuss its language and concepts--ethics of care for the earth--as well as being introduced to the global civil society movement that acted as the matrix for the Charter, after a more nation-centered approach faltered. The genius of this is that it brings students to think critically about both the international legal framework of the UN and alternatives to it, as well as concepts like sovereignty and "national interest" that underpin right-wing critiques of the UN. The Earth Charter also serves as a document in a course on "eco-spirituality," involving not only critical consideration of the premises and process but also contemplative exercises (silent meditation, walking, focused visualization) that elaborate on the practice of care.

I'll admit that eco-spirituality makes me more than a little nervous; Bron Taylor, who gave the conference keynote, claimed that a naturalistic spirituality and reverence for life is entirely compatible with science, except for the part about enthusiasm, which sidles up to proselytzing. But in explicitly foregrounding ethical practice (even in the form of contemplative practice) and care, it fills in a palpable gap in my thinking about environmental citizenship: the affective, moral dimension that gives juice to rationalist argument and responsibility. As one of the participants said, care is transitive; it can't just be the self-directed emotivism ("I care") that comes too easily to late adolescence. An ethic of care is a virtue-ethic, one of character and sacrifice.