October 9, 2018

LAM | Missing the Skills for the Theories: Environmental Science Courses Must be More Practical

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Cornell can do better in preparing students to solve the world’s environmental problems. Because the coursework offered is still too focused on theoretical approaches, rather than on practical knowledge, we simply do not have the skills nor attitudes to move forward. I thank the enrichment efforts that have taught us that our generation’s most crucial problem is perhaps not geopolitical turmoil, like World War III or a nuclear holocaust, but rather the environmental changes that are happening literally everyday. They clearly have accomplished much: many surveys, like a World Economic Forum 2017 study, shows that young people worry the most about the environment. We get it.

In 2018, however, Cornell is still largely preaching to the choir. For example, Hardin’s “Tragedy of the Commons” is now a mere cliché in sustainability courses. Without discussing Hardin for the ten billionth time, we can simply look at history to know that complete reliance on states, markets, or people to solve any problem will lead to nowhere.

Absolutist control causes more harm than good because governments themselves can very much be corrupt — see Mao’s Great Leap Forward, Stalinism, Fascism, etc. Leaving everything to the markets also doesn’t work because market actors often ignore the externalities they cause to the environment — see the Gilded Age, Roaring Twenties, deregulation of the 1980s. Community-based actions are also largely ineffectual because of plain personal disagreements and the lack of mechanisms to deal with them — think of any social situation from a student club meeting to organizing a dinner party. States, markets and people need to cooperate and fill in each others’ weaknesses to effectively protect our environment. Governmental bans are very effective for point source pollutions, for example, but markets are more effective in dealing with pollution that is fundamental to societal functions or non-point sources like carbon dioxide and methane. The pattern is clear: whenever there are opposing radical theories, the solution probably lies somewhere in between.

Rather, it seems to me, the environmental problem of our lifetime is largely an engineering, economic, political and ecological challenge, and the coursework should reflect this reality. If anything affects ExxonMobil’s bottom line, it’s whether their oil rigs work and commodity prices rise. So why are we not learning how these industries and their finances work? Why are we not learning about supply chains and how we can make them more sustainable or how cutting it will affect society? Why are we not understanding why there is so much backlash and apathy from the populace on environmental issues and how we can nudge lifestyle changes? Why are we spinning our wheels with value judgements and theories that we can argue about literally ad infinitum.

What everyone can agree with, however, is that our current course is simply not sustainable for our society and we need to nip it in whatever way we can. According to the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the world has a mere 12 years to slash global emissions by 45 percent in order to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. Cornellians should act and take part in this fight. Spending our time combing through philosophical constructions, however, is another form of inaction that won’t add much. Can you imagine a conference on solutions to reducing Botswana’s reliance on coal and someone suddenly brings up, “But Dryzek, in his The Politics of the Earth, says on this page…”?  Climate change’s a chess competition and we’re still playing checkers.

To be clear, Cornell students can learn theories. We are capable of understanding logical relationships and memorizing vague terms an environmentalist came up with in the ’70s. We can’t afford, however, to continue living in a world of abstraction and pat ourselves on the back, anymore. We need to pick up tangible skills and learn how things work in governments and markets and then change them. We care about the environment, so why isn’t Cornell teaching us more on how to do something about it?

Matthew Lam is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at mhl82@cornell.edu. The Despatch Box appears alternate Wednesdays this semester.