Vermont may prove to be a leader in the nation once again.
This time it will be higher education.
Answering what is being called “the reckless and destructive expending” of resources, Sterling College announced this week a bold effort to take on “the climate emergency.” Its aim, through expanded programs and a shift in emphasis, is to better prepare students for the long-term effects of climate change, identify challenges and offer potential solutions. The effort is both a call to action — by arming students with facts, theory and education — and a seismic shift in how higher education officials elsewhere should consider serving as better examples as stewards for the environment.
Matthew Derr, the college’s president, indicted higher education as “contributing to the catastrophic loss of the planet’s biodiversity” and argued that by doing so, it is “worsening the effects of climate change by leaving a generation unprepared for the ecological and social crises ahead.”
“Colleges and universities, like strip mines that cleave off the tops of mountains and factories that produce herbicides, have been co-conspirators in the emergency now unfolding,” he noted in a release issued Tuesday. “It is critical, and overdue, that the academy, and its leaders, take action to avert imminent calamity.”
Derr accused higher education institutions of being addicted to economic growth and consumption.
“The seizure of the planet’s natural wealth for financial gain is a moral issue. If we continue to be the training ground for extractive economies — capitalist or socialist — that rob graduates of the livelihoods they promise, we will betray this and future generations. Instead, we must offer the education they need to contend with the ecological crises ahead.
“Students know that they will face the consequences of inaction on climate change, and they are losing patience,” Derr said.
That requires a change in approach.
In an op-ed he wrote for Medium.com titled, “Greta is Coming: An Open Letter to Higher Education Leaders in the United States,” Derr writes, “Asking a generation to go into debt for an education that prepares them for the ‘careers of tomorrow,’ without ensuring a livable tomorrow, is a betrayal that undermines the entire higher education enterprise.”
Those careers include farming, the backbone on which much of America (and Vermont) has been built for generations.
Already, Sterling is addressing the promotion of harmful agricultural practices. Recently, it partnered with The Berry Center to launch the Wendell Berry Farming Program in Henry County, Kentucky, to prepare a generation of farmers to make agriculture regenerative rather than destructive. (The school offers five environmentally focused bachelor’s degrees in ecology, environmental humanities, sustainable agriculture, sustainable food systems and outdoor education.)
In response to this “climate emergency,” the college is aligning its mission and vision to address the effects of “economic growth and consumption.”
Derr hopes the school can move the needle even more.
The initiative puts the crisis into the curriculum, discussing and debating the forces leading to climate apocalypse: fossil fuel dependence, destruction of biodiversity, promotion of harmful agricultural practices, persistence of structural oppression that impacts human and natural communities, and “the deterioration of civil society through estrangement from community, nature and place.”
He said student leaders like Greta Thunberg, who, at 15, began protesting outside the Swedish parliament about the need for immediate action to combat climate change and has since become an outspoken climate activist, should inspire higher education leadership to rethink their models.
“Failure to do so will relegate colleges and universities around the world to irrelevance,” he said, referring to this change as a “critical mission.”
He maintains Sterling is responding to the youth movement.
“Students no longer believe that educational business-as-usual is viable. They are disconnected from the institutions and the norms that our generation built, and are experiencing the anxiety of an uncertain future. Will we join their rebellion and find pertinence in the process?”
A college standing up to say, “Enough,” and adapting in kind is an inspiring and thought-provoking approach. We commend them. We hope it broadens the discussion and drives higher education in the right direction of being more forward-thinking about the natural world — and less about money.