James Farrell

Earth in Mind
Professor James Farrell, Professor of History
Director of American Studies


Phi Beta Kappa induction
April 22, 2004

Congratulations to all of you! You’re now officially smart people. You’re American scholars, and, at least according the people who wrote recommendations for you, you’re not just geeks or dorks or bookworms. You’re examples of how to be thoughtful and engaged. As I look around, too, I notice that not very many of you have ever taken a course from me, and I acknowledge that as another vital sign of your wisdom and perspicacity.

You know a lot that you didn’t know four years ago. You all know something about history and human behavior and society. You’ve finished the religion requirement, and you’ve mastered (or at least endured) science and mathematics. You know something about art and literature; you’ve been introduced to some social sciences and a couple of physical activities. You mastered the intricacies of a major (and sometimes two or three). You know a lot, but do you know enough?

A lot of this depends on the answer to a question that Wendell Berry poses as the title of one of his books: What Are People For? What are people for? What are you for?

The book of Genesis gives us one answer to that question. God creates the Earth, She bestows it as a gift, She looks at it, and She sees that it is very good. This is, as Dan Maguire once said, the most radical statement in the Bible. The Creation is good, and if we screw it up, it’s not God’s fault, it’s ours.

Another radical statement appears in this same story. Among the animals of the Creation are Adam and Eve. God creates Adam and Eve in her own image, and then She tells them, as the King James Bible says, to “Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.”The radical statement is not the part about being fruitful and multiplying; most animals and many people will do that without much instruction at all. The radical part is what follows: “Replenish the earth.” This sometimes gets missed in all the language of subduing the earth and having dominion over it. But, in fact, it tells us what the dominion must be like. People must have a relationship with the earth that fills it up again, that makes it whole, that makes it healthy, that makes it holy, that keeps it, as God said, very good. This simple sentence—”Replenish the earth”—is an invitation to Adam and Eve, and to you and me, to take part in the ongoing gift of God’s creation, to be co-creators with God.

I now think, contrary to my upbringing, that creation wasn’t finished at the end of the Sixth Day. And I think that God rested on the Seventh Day, not because the work was done, but because it wasn’t. The Sabbath was not so much for God, who probably wasn’t particularly tired, but for God’s co-creators, who needed time to think about how to respond to the gift of creation by taking responsibility for replenishing the earth.

So have we taught you how to accept this responsibility for replenishing the earth? To some extent, yes. Environmental Studies programs are growing quickly at colleges like St. Olaf, and today’s students are much more ecologically conscious than we were at their age. You know something about the dangers of global warming, and ozone thinning, and toxic waste, and deforestation, and endangered species. You might know, as Andrew Shapiro shows in a brilliant little book called We’re Number One, that the United States is:

  • first in the world in greenhouse gas emissions, and first in contributing to acid rain
  • first in air pollutants per capita
  • first in use of freshwater resources
  • first in forest depletion
  • first in paper consumption per capita
  • first in garbage per capita
  • first in hazardous waste per capita
  • first in nuclear reactors and nuclear testing
  • first in gasoline consumption per capita, first in oil imports, and first in oil spills affecting our shores
  • first in TVs per capita
  • first in cars per capita, and first in use of cars instead of public transportation.

We’re first, in short, in environmental problems, and those problems don’t stop at the borders of the United States. They go all the way to the borders of the biosphere and beyond.

But unfortunately, this knowledge about the greenhouse effect and other environmental impacts has little or no effect on the way we live our lives. In large part, I think, this is because we too often educate the head but not the heart, and, in part, because mere knowledge is never enough.

To a great extent, too, the medium of ecological literacy has contradicted the message. We teach students about ecological literacy in institutions like St. Olaf which operate, to some extent, according to the ecological illiteracy of American culture, promoting short-term efficiency and convenience over long-term environmental benefits. At St. Olaf, most us have not the slightest idea about the sources of the resources we use every day. We are part of what Robert Bellah calls “the problem of invisible complexity,” in which the consequences of our actions are hidden from us by ideas and institutions that keep us focused on our lives as individuals rather than our lives as members of communities, both social and ecological. We are good citizens of what Barbara Kingsolver calls “the nation in love with forgetting.”

In her novel Animal Dreams, Kingsolver shows a high-school biology teacher who tries something different in environmental education. Codi Noline says of her class: “What did I expect? They were teenagers. I knew that, but still I screamed at them because the Black Mountain [Mine] was poisoning their mother’s milk and all they cared about was sex and a passing grade.

“I had rational intentions. I talked about evapotranspiration and rain forests and oxygen in the biosphere, how everything was connected. The last virgin timber cleared and milled to make way for a continent of landfills choking on old newspapers. It was a poetic lecture. Marta made the mistake of asking me how much of this poetry was going to be on the test.

“I glowered. `Your life is the test. If you flunk this one, you die.'”

Codi began to put the abstractions into personal terms, telling the class, for example, about stonewashed jeans:

You know how they make those? They wash them in a big machine with this special kind of gravel they get out of volcanic mountains. The prettiest mountains you ever saw in your life. But they’re fragile, like a big pile of sugar. Levi Strauss or whoever goes in there with bulldozers and chainsaws and cuts down the trees and rips the mountainside to hell, so that all us lucky Americans can wear jeans that look like somebody threw them in the garbage before we got them.”

And she continued:

“Think about the gas you put in a car… The real cost. Not just pumping it out of the ground and refining it and shipping it, but also cleaning up the oil spills and all the junk that goes into the air when it gets burned. That’s part of what it costs, but you’re not paying it. Gas ought to be twenty dollars a gallon, so you’re getting a real good deal. But soon the bill comes due, and we pay it, or we eat dirt. The ultimate MasterCharge.”

We’re doing similar teaching this semester in an American Studies class on Campus Ecology. The class is the CIS senior project of Elise Braaten, whose major is “Wild and Precious Life: Educating for an Ethic of Sustainbility.” Elise designed the class in the Fall, and she’s team- teaching it with me now. We’ve done some weird stuff in this class. One day, the assigned reading was the J. Crew catalogue. Another day, students read their own rooms as a microcosm of ecological flows. We’ve taken field trips to the cafeteria, the power plant and the natural lands.

We’ve written first-person essays on the St. Olaf campus from the perspective of another organism. You’d be amazed (and amused) to know how the landscape looks to skunks and squirrels, bacteria and bugs, grass and evergreens, deer and foxes. In small groups, students are currently working to learn about the environmental implications of cars, the curriculum, architecture, energy, food, purchasing (including paper), water, waste and the landscape, both on the campus proper and on our prairie and forest restorations. Because we’re a church-related school, we also have a group looking at the ways that religion shapes campus ecology. And we have another group working on the American values that bind all these things together. Each group is writing a conventional research paper, but they’re also writing a proposal for improvements to the college’s Sustainability Task Force (with 1-year, 5-year and 10-year goals).

According to Elise, this allows students to express their “practical idealism” in the very “real world” of college life.

A few years ago, in an Environmental History course, a student started an environmental impact statement by saying, “I believe that, given today’s society, it is impossible for an American to have a positive impact on the environment.” What this student meant is that the ideas and institutions of this country, our social construction of common sense, virtually guarantees that a normal, “good” American will live a life that is neither just nor sustainable. It is not just, because it is not possible for all people on earth to live this way. And it is not sustainable, because we are depleting resources at a rate that cannot last. “Since 1940,” notes Alan Durning, “Americans alone have used up as large a share of the earth’s mineral resources as did everyone before them combined.” We are stealing the gift of creation from our children and grandchildren, because we are not replenishing the earth.

We don’t do this because we’re mean or stupid, although sometimes we certainly are. We do this because we’re not thinking carefully. We’re not thinking holistically. In a culture of specialization, we’ve learned to focus our thinking through the microscope, but we haven’t yet mastered the macroscope. We’ve learned some of the disciplines of the college, but we haven’t always connected them to the essential disciplines of life. In a world of intricate interconnections, as Wendell Berry says, “to think of one thing is not to think at all.”

Because we’re not thinking systematically, we have created what David Orr calls “social traps,” situations in which people are drawn into individually rational behavior that is destructive to the planet. The suburbs, where I live, are such a social trap. Because I live there, and because I work here, I quite rationally drive to work each day, without thinking about the ways in which my rational choice has been channeled by government policy and social beliefs about the importance of individual choice in American culture.

In part, this is because America’s primary educational institution teaches us that such patterns of consumption are perfectly normal. Television, which is America’s main educational system, has a peculiar relationship to nature, as Bill McKibben shows in The Age of Missing Information.

McKibben taped every program of the nation’s largest cable system (105 channels, I think) for 24 hours, and he watched all of it to see what TV teaches us. McKibben also took a 24-hour trip up a mountain near his home and compared the information of that trip, the information of nature, to the “missing information” of television.

He concludes that in America, television is like religion, except we watch it more religiously. This secular religion teaches us mainly that we are disconnected from the earth, which we usually are when we are watching TV in our climate-controlled homes and recreational vehicles. Even nature specials, which contribute a great deal to our appreciation of the creation, focus on those species which are most like people, and on the most active aspects of those animals. They change our expectations of nature. They do not show us lions asleep most of the day, any more than the sitcoms and soap operas show us people watching television all the time. “The upshot of nature education by television,” says McKibben, “is a deep fondness for certain species and a deep lack of understanding of systems, or of the policies that destroy those systems.” It is an extraordinary irony, notes McKibben, that in the midst of the so-called Information Age, most people lack the basic information about plants and animals that was common knowledge a century ago. American kids can identify hundreds of commercial logos, for example, but very few plants or animals in the ecological community that is their home.

On TV, the creation is presented to us in anthropocentric terms that make it difficult to see the whole story. If TV were to make the Book of Genesis into a mini-series, says McKibben, people would be created on Day One and Noah’s Ark would be filled with zany folks—not much room for animals, especially the boring ones.”On TV, he notes, people are everything. Most cultures, historically, have put something else—God or nature or some combination—at the center. But we’ve put them at the periphery. A consumer society doesn’t need them to function, and it can’t tolerate the limits they might impose; there’s only need for people.”

But God didn’t create just people; She created the world, and She gave it to people for their needs and for their care, but not for any damn thing they might want. And this, says McKibben, is “the most important question of the late twentieth century: how much is enough?”This is also the title of Alan Durning’s book, How Much is Enough? Consumer Society and the Future of the World. Television tells us that there is no such thing as enough, but God and Christianity tell us differently. Consider, for example, the lilies of the field…

So it’s Earth Day, and these are some of the thoughts I’m thinking as I ponder the successes of exceptional students like you. As a professor, I want to say that we probably haven’t talked enough about how much is enough.

And, since I’m a professor, I want to make an assignment as you graduate from St. Olaf. Ask your parents to buy you The Consumers Guide to Effective Environmental Choices for a graduation gift, and write an environmental impact statement of your life. Study yourself as a part of resource flows of food, water, energy, materials, and waste. Notice how you notice nature, and where: average Americans spend just 2% of their time outside. Make an inventory of all the electrical appliances you own, and calculate the environmental costs of their use. Try to figure out the ecosystem that is your home. Think about what you waste, and where it goes. Think about your children, who, if they are average Americans, will consume 80 times more resources than a child in India. Look for the problem of invisible complexity, the consumer forgetfulness, the social traps.

See if your life is sustainable.

Then consider the alternatives. What virtues in our lives would produce actions that were harmonious in a larger commonwealth of plants and people? And what sort of communities must we create in order to encourage the virtuous action that we expect from individuals? Perhaps we could relearn a religion of relatedness and sacred ground. Perhaps we could learn from the Amish and other so-called “backward” peoples, who have shaped cultures that preserve the virtues of humility, simplicity, moderation, prudence, frugality, hard work, neighborliness, and family stability. Maybe we could ask more frequently, as Ron Lee did several years ago, not just what in the world is a liberal arts education good for, but what good is a liberal arts education for the world. We might also ask what good we are for the world, not the world as an abstraction, like a globe, but the world as a living, breathing set of intricate interconnections. This is your homework assignment, literally, the work of making your new home in a particular place, on a planet that needs both your care and your best thinking. Apply your knowledge and wisdom to the global problem that appears on your plate everyday, that pours out of the faucet or the showerhead, that blows out the tailpipe of your car, or that flows through the electrical cords that connect your computer to the wall and ultimately to the mining of coal and uranium.

The title of this talk, “Earth in Mind,” comes from a book by David Orr. In it, he explores the assumptions of American higher education. He says we’re not yet teaching much that equips us to deal with an oncoming ecological catastrophe. He says that we’re preparing students for a future that’s not possible because current trends of consumption and production, especially the production of carbon dioixide and pollutants, can’t continue. And Orr suggests several strategies for change. One of the most important is a redefinition of success.

He notes that a conventional measure of academic success is successful people. He contends, however, that “the plain fact is that the planet does not need more successful people. But it does desperately need more peacemakers, healers, restorers, storytellers, and lovers of every kind. It needs people who live well in their places. It needs people of moral courage… And these qualities have little to do with success as our culture defines it.”

My challenge to you, as you leave this ecological community at St. Olaf for another one, is to find ways, as many of your already have, to include these new definitions of success in your goals. And then, in the process of achieving them, I hope you’ll re-make success as our culture defines it. The test will be in ten or twenty years. Remember that “your life is the test. If you flunk this one, you die.”

When you come back to visit the college online, check out the Black and Gold and Green section of the college webpage, and let us know what you think.