Sustainability Beyond the Lab

By the end of my first year here, I finally had some things figured out. The alphabet soup of campus acronyms had finally resolved into an intelligible language. I no longer got lost on my way to the Quad, and I knew exactly which dishes to avoid in Annenberg.

Nonetheless, as I returned for sophomore fall, one big question mark remained: my academic future. It was already time to pick a concentration, and it didn’t seem like Harvard offered one for me. I knew I wanted to study environmental issues—but not geology, plant biology, or the chemistry of the stratosphere. Rather, the questions that intrigued me were social and political, not scientific. I wanted to figure out how humanity’s philosophies, cultures, and political structures interact with the natural environment.

Environmental issues have both technical and sociopolitical dimensions. To be sure, we will need to develop new technologies and advance our scientific understanding of the natural world in order to tackle pressing concerns like climate change. Yet global warming arises not merely from chemical reactions and combustion engines, but also from the tangle of institutions, values, incentives, and social arrangements that give rise to these physical phenomena. For example, Americans drive so much not because driving is an inevitable aspect of human life, but because our particular market system prices oil a certain way, because our government favors highways over mass transit, because we inhabit a culture that views casual car use as morally acceptable, and so forth.

Addressing tricky environmental problems requires both scientific and sociopolitical innovation; we’re not just going to fix climate change (or any other major environmental issue) in a lab. Yet as I flipped through the Courses of Instruction that sophomore fall, I began to wonder whether I could pursue environmental studies here at all without spending the next few years in the Science Center. Harvard College’s environmental concentrations and courses were then, and still are, overwhelmingly scientific. Even this year, as “Green is the New Crimson” banners fly high, the University Center for the Environment’s guide to environmental studies lists fewer than 15 undergraduate courses that could be considered environmentally focused but not scientific. Equally significant is the lack of a relevant concentration, or of well-defined subfields and tracks within existing concentrations. In this and other ways, Harvard undergraduates intrigued by the social, cultural, political, and economic dimensions of environmental issues face steep odds.

As for me, after that demoralizing tour through the Courses of Instruction, I took a leap of faith and enrolled in Social Studies. Over the subsequent semesters, I’ve combined courses in social and political theory with the sporadic environmental offerings of other social science and humanities departments. In this way, I cobbled together a concentration that more or less worked for me. Now, looking back over my Harvard experience, I’m happy, but I fear I’m an exception. Without sufficient courses, or a clear track or concentration to follow, Harvard students with nonscientific environmental interests sometimes give up, study other issues, or (often unhappily) settle down in science-intensive concentrations like Earth and Planetary Sciences or Environmental Science and Public Policy.

For a school committed to environmental leadership, this is a big problem. Harvard’s commitment to institutional sustainability is second to none, and I’ve been privileged to take part in the university’s efforts to “green” our campus. But it’s long past time for time for Harvard to ensure that “Green is the New Crimson” rings true not only in its labs and dining halls, but also in Sever and Emerson. We need more relevant courses, better-defined environmental tracks within the social sciences and humanities, and perhaps even a nonscientific alternative concentration to ESPP. For guidance, we can look to programs at peer universities. UC Berkeley’s Society and Environment program, for example, offers well-defined focus fields in environmental policy and theory—and a wealth of relevant classes to match. And, of course, existing Harvard courses—like the excellent (if lonesome) environmental offerings in the history and anthropology departments and ESPP’s handful of nonscientific seminars—can help inspire the next generation of classes.

My vision of an environmentally friendly Harvard is of a school committed not only to reducing its ecological footprint, but also to producing the next generation of environmental leaders. This vision will never be a reality without big improvements to the College’s environmental curriculum. With these reforms, Harvard will not only better serve its discouraged nonscientists, but it will help answer what is perhaps the most pressing sociopolitical question of our time: how to build a more just and sustainable society in the years to come.

Zachary C. M. Arnold ’10 is a social studies concentrator in Eliot House. He is a captain of the Resource Efficiency Program and a former co-chair of the Environmental Action Committee.