Letting environmental studies blossom

Amherst has it. So does Middlebury. As do Colby, Bates and Bowdoin. So why doesn’t Williams? In past years, an environmental studies major has been proposed to the Williams Committee on Education Policy (CEP), and each year, the proposition has been declined. This is perplexing. For a school that prides itself so intensely on environmental consciousness, for a school that spearheads environmental projects in the Berkshires and abroad and for a school that graduates students who perennially become leaders in the environmental field, it would seem only natural for Williams to have a major that honors this visible commitment to the environment. Yet this is not the case. If the CEP could only recycle its perception of environmental studies with the same devotion the faculty, staff, administrators and student body recycle plastics, the true value of the discipline would be clear.

Over the past few decades, the environment has become intertwined more and more tightly around global politics – obliging the world to confront a range of grave environmental issues. Given the current economic turbulence and recent spikes in oil prices, energy has emerged as more of an issue than ever. For the Obama administration, reshaping America’s energy consumption with the implementation of alternate energy sources still remains a high priority, despite a daunting agenda. And even in the midst of a crippled world economy, other countries and regions across the world are reflecting a similar attitude and urgency concerning the need to move to renewable resources. Furthermore, many people correlate energy security to national security, affirming that more energy security will translate to stronger national security in the future. And by the way, global warming has not been solved. The need to reduce carbon dioxide emissions is continually growing. As scientists gather more information about global warming, the alarm only increases. And these issues are just the tip of the iceberg. Essentially, if one picks up the morning paper, the criticality and relevance of environmental studies should be blatantly evident.

As important as the environment has become in recent years, circumstances and relevance should not necessarily dictate the fate of environmental studies. Rather, the reasoning is far more basic. Environmental studies offers students the skills to identify and comprehend the intersection of the natural earth with humanity and moreover, the skills to reconcile this timeless interaction. If this, which is merely one element of the vast discipline, does not strike at the heart of a liberal arts discipline, then the parameters of a Williams liberal arts education are isolate and rigid. It does have a place – and a large one at that. Bowdoin views environmental studies with such inspiring esteem that one could only deem a liberal arts education remiss for not placing it at the forefront of its curriculum: “a liberal arts education should promote environmental literacy: an understanding of the world around us – the built and the natural, the local and the global, our role in it, and our effects upon it,” reads the department’s mission statement.

Perhaps the question is not so much about Williams recognizing environmental studies as an area of importance, but rather about where Williams has traditionally placed environmental studies. Next to the pillars of the liberal arts education – beside economics, history and mathematics – and in the shadows of biology and chemistry, the stature of environmental studies is unfairly subjected to secondary status. However, situating a field with such tremendous fundamental significance in this manner plainly belittles it.

Although a concentration for environmental studies exists at the present, students do not have the opportunity to specialize exclusively in this field of study. Yet the course requirements for an environmental studies major could already be clearly defined. To supplement the four core classes, students must take classes under three other subdivisions to complete the concentration: the natural world, the humanities, arts and social sciences, and environmental policy, all of which contextualize environmental science in a breadth of terms. The robustness of environmental studies necessitates that students expose themselves to a myriad of classes. Simply, it boils down to giving environmental studies the appropriate label it deserves.

Unfortunately, with scalebacks in department funding, the window to make this change come to fruition may be closed for a time. But if the current holdup is a matter of department politics or a matter of not recognizing environmental studies as a suitable field of study that continue to delay the creation of the major, then this is doubly unfortunate. Regardless of what happens to environmental studies in the future, one thing will remain constant: the College’s collective efforts to wear its environmental conscience proudly and honorably as a part of its multifarious image. As Williams is at its core an academic institution, its academic offerings should reflect its priorities.

Henry Montalbano ’10 is a political science major from Washington, D.C.

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