Note: This post is an attempt to hash through an experience I had alongside my students earlier this semester. I’m attempting to make sense of some big ideas for myself, and I find that I think better through writing, so here goes. What follows may or may not come out in a clear, coherent form. (It should also be noted that this piece was written in dribs and drabs over a period of almost two months.)
I teach in a school that has an ambitious vision for education, which is one of the things that drew me to it in the first place. While many schools talk of an “integrated curriculum” or “place-based education,” this place comes the closest I’ve seen to backing that up, with scaffolded themes and essential questions for each grade level (progressing from a local emphasis in the 9th grade to a global emphasis in the 12th). Each grade level also has a unique three-day “immersion trip” designed to bring these themes to life in an experiential way. Also incorporated throughout the curriculum is a “triple bottom line” approach to sustainability, though the degree of incorporation varies by teacher.
For a sense of what this looks like in practice, I served on the 9th grade team for my first two years here, so I spent some time paddling a canoe around one of the most ecologically significant ecosystems in the entire Chesapeake Bay region, visiting one of the earliest and largest tobacco plantations in the area, talking with an elder of the Chickahominy Indian Tribe, and thinking about the ways in which the Rappahannock River watershed might impact culture and economy (both historically and in the 21st century).
This year, I served on the 12th grade team, so the focus was much broader. In theory, our students are prepared by the 12th grade to address complex questions on a more abstract level, and so in early April, we spent a long weekend in the DC area, exploring questions of global significance. (Because I recently accepted a position at another school, this was also my last immersion trip, so it was very bittersweet for me personally—but what a privilege to be able to witness the entire progression of the program from 9th grade to 12th grade before I leave!)
The trip spanned Thursday morning to Saturday afternoon, and we spent the first day hiking along the Potomac River in Great Falls Park and in Old Town Alexandria. The hike was a bit more strenuous than I expected—a lot of rock scrambling which tested my balance and ankle strength—but the views of the river were worth it. I had heard of Great Falls but never imagined that there was something of such impressive natural beauty and power in such close proximity to the nation’s capital. And that was the point. The trip was designed to take students—and first-time faculty, like me—from a place of relatively unspoiled natural wonder (unspoiled to the naked eye, at least) just a few miles into the city to demonstrate just how much our “built environment” affects the natural environment. After dinner and some time for exploration in Old Town, we ended up along the banks of the Potomac just downriver from its confluence with the Anacostia—a heavily-polluted and long-neglected waterway. We were also about two miles due south of Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, almost in a direct line with its north-south runways, which meant that there was a constant flow of planes overhead. I marked them at about one every 90 seconds. Except for the noise, it was hard to imagine a better setting in which to talk about global development and the triple bottom line. Not only was it literal the confluence of two rivers, it was the figurative confluence of people, environment, and economics—all very tangible for students in that moment.
One of the highlights of the trip for me was a visit to the headquarters of the National Geographic Society and its well-known magazine, where we visited with Robert Kunzig, Senior Environmental Editor. Kunzig gave a brief presentation on climate change and the challenges we face, and I was pleased to learn that he is basically optimistic about our prospects. Without downplaying the reality of climate change at all, he acknowledged that there is a lot of scary, out-of-context information out there, and that meaningful improvement is within our reach… if we act. He offered a quote from E.L. Doctorow, which I found quite poignant: “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” Doctorow, of course, was referring to the process of writing a novel, but Kunzig applied the same principle to reversing climate change: We can’t necessarily see the destination right now, and we certainly can’t reverse climate change in one fell swoop, but that doesn’t mean we can get there.
The best part of the visit, however, was not Kunzig’s presentation; it was the Q&A that followed. The big question of the weekend for me—the question that kept playing in my head, as if on a loop—was “Where does culture fit into the ‘triple bottom line’?” If you’re familiar with the concept, you know that “triple bottom line” companies seek to achieve sustainability, which is defined not strictly as environmental protection, but as a balance of environment, equity, and economy (e.g., profit). But what about culture? Perhaps it fits into the equity (people) category, but that doesn’t feel quite right, as my understanding of equity is structured more around issues of fairness, etc. A company which seeks to profit but do so equitably may nevertheless destroy or change a culture in the process.
Nevertheless, this question of culture arose in my mind on the first night of the trip as we discussed the sustainability of Old Town Alexandria, and affluent community with many historic row houses and other buildings. In a discussion with students about urban planning, I suggested that the preservation of older buildings was one element of sustainability; by not tearing down old buildings to construct new, modern ones, fewer resources were consumed. One student rightly countered, though, that many of those old buildings leak energy, which led to a broader conversation about the “energy cost” of tearing down a building, removing the old materials, the environmental cost of disposing of them, etc. It was a good conversation, and the students were doing their best to consider the different elements of the “triple bottom line,” but I was struck by how quickly the conversation became about economics and ecology. For all of its flaws, one of the things I appreciate about Old Town Alexandria is its charming historical character, and this was barely a consideration.
The question really came to life for me later that same night, as I lay in my sleeping bag on the floor of the church where we were staying. Preparing for our meeting with Mr. Kunzig the following day, I read his article, “Germany Could Be a Model for How We’ll Get Power in the Future” (in National Geographic’s recent “Cool It.” issue). In it, he connects Germany’s environmentalism to its culture:
The Germans have an origin myth: It says they came from the dark and impenetrable heart of the forest. It dates back to the Roman historian Tacitus, who wrote about the Teutonic hordes who massacred Roman legions, and it was embellished by German Romantics in the 19th century. Through the upheavals of the 20th century, according to ethnographer Albrecht Lehmann, the myth remained a stable source of German identity. The forest became the place where Germans go to restore their souls—a habit that predisposed them to care about the environment.
As I read that, I began to think more about American culture. One “grand narrative” of American history involves manifest destiny: “Go west, young man.” Strike out for the frontier. Conquer the land. Bend nature to your will. Having grown up with this narrative likely gives us Americans a very different perspective on the environment. (I recognize that I’m oversimplifying here, but I do think the principle holds.)
During our conversation with Kunzig the following day, a student asked a question about climate change deniers, and Kunzig (who was surprisingly even-handed throughout) came the closest I saw to being dismissive. He basically said that those who deny the science of climate change aren’t worth wasting our time our breath on. While he was talking, though, it hit me: Why not use culture to “sell” action on climate change? It seems to me that many of the people who deny the science are the same ones who might actually be persuaded by a a more visceral cultural argument in favor of environmental sustainability. (Kunzig pointed out that there is a small evangelical movement focused on climate issues, and in response to a student question about the viability of living off the grid, he posited that he could see a rancher in Wyoming choosing to do so because he wanted to be “independent.”)
Yes!, I thought, when he said this. A rancher in Wyoming who installs wind turbines, solar panels, and a cistern for harvesting rainwater? This is rugged individualism. This is bending nature to your will for the 21st century. Of course, when thinking about the triple bottom line, we need to take into account the upfront costs of these technologies: what is the break-even point for recouping one’s investment? And, as the residents of Cape Cod could tell you, wind turbines may affect my neighbor’s business, property values, or quality of life, so there are equity issues to consider as well. But culture has a role to play, too.
The triple bottom line model—useful though it is—is insufficient to address this. Perhaps it’s time to explore a quadruple bottom line.