The start of winter and the new year bring many things: Christmas bird counts, whale migration along the Pacific Coast, New Year’s resolutions, and…college football bowl games (U.S. colleges, U.S. football).
Ah, you say, that last one makes you…a) giddy, b) annoyed, c) like, whatever. (I get a thrill out of watching college football, but don’t catch it that often.)
Last night, in the final game of the season (and the last of 34 bowl games), the Alabama Crimson Tide rolled over the Texas Longhorns to claim the BCS National Championship. 92,000 fans packed the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California, to witness the matchup. Another 30 million tuned in to watch the game on television.
What does this represent? Big bucks. College football is a multi-billion dollar industry in the U.S. (think hats and T-shirts, hotels and restaurants, alumni donations and TV rights). In 2005, the 121 football teams of what was then called Division 1-A (now Football Bowl Division) generated US$1.8 billion for their colleges.
Of course, the ultimate value of a football program to these institutions of higher learning is, supposedly, to further their educational and research mission.
So what does this have to do with people and nature?
Alma mater and Mother Earth
Here’s a thought experiment: Imagine college football as a network of places and regions
What do you see when you picture a college stadium on game day? The swath of crimson or orange or blue t-shirts reflects a strong self- (and collective) identification with an institution. These fans are invested in the ongoing success (at least football-wise) of an institution. They maintain a vital connection with a place.
Now, I know not everyone relates strongly with college sports or goes to a school with a team or even attends college. But it is a big part of American culture. And for some, the sports seasons are as important as spring, summer, fall, and winter.
On the field or in the media, sports teams stand in for their respective colleges and places — and states, conferences, or regions. Tuesday night, following the Orange Bowl, a sportscaster asked the quarterback of Iowa what it meant to him to represent mid-America. Bowl games still offer intriguing contests between teams from different regions that don’t normally play each other.
The regular college sports season revolves primarily around teams playing other colleges within their respective conferences, which are mostly regional groupings of schools. The reason for the proximity is practical: less travel time and expense for teams and fans (mostly students). I suppose having regional rivals also means enough familiarity to develop “healthy competition” (i.e., acceptable levels of contempt). The conference name often reflects the region: Southeastern Conference, Mountain West, Pac-10.
Now look at this through another lens. Regional affiliations means that the schools may share landscapes or other connections through nature.
- The Pac-10 and Atlantic Coast Conferences link universities along major flyways and migration routes.
- The Ohio Valley, Big South, and Ivy League conferences share watersheds or ecoregions.
- The universities of the Big 12 cover the breadth of the Great Plains.
Beyond the green campus
As American society becomes more urbanized and life more media-saturated, what’s the role of the university in fostering a land or nature ethic?
Undoubtedly, college campuses across the nation are hotbeds of “sustainability.” Students are concerned about their future and what to contribute to a better world. The “green campus” seems to emphasize energy and resources, or operations and planning. These are important changes that can be made. Beyond that, what are the complements to becoming “carbon neutral” in the educational mission of the university?
The crux of making the transition to sustainability is large scale behavior change. Policy and regulation are essential tools, as are technological advances, but systemic change may ultimately reflect new patterns of individual and social behavior. Is there a concurrent push to educate and develop residents, community members, and decision-makers who are ecologically aware — not simply to emit less CO2, but also to act in greater alignment with the natural systems that support our world?
How might these institutions of higher learning take the regional relationships of competition and develop corresponding relationships of cooperation to
- foster a higher level of awareness of natural systems
- inculcate within students a greater appreciation of place and context, especially where young adults may spend four years
College education represents an important transitional phase for young adults — as much about social relationships and networks, growth and distraction, as it is about books. But writ large, it is about finding a place in the world.
Today’s institutions of higher learning introduce students to a broader horizons of time and space. In a sense, though, “higher education” tends towards ways of understanding that are more abstracted, more disciplined, less experiential, certainly less outdoors. The community of scholars usually has more in common with other similarly disciplined individuals scattered across the globe than with the world across the street, along the river, in the valley. But as some have observed, even in the era of globalization, the world isn’t really flat; it is made of people living in places.
Especially in today’s culture, a student may spend two or four years on a campus without developing any real connection to or awareness of the natural world. The Leave No Child Inside movement, led by Children and Nature, takes on “nature deficit disorder” at a formative age. Some projects, such as Classroom Earth, focus on high school students.
Given the rise of nature-deficit disorder, colleges may be tasked with a new kind of remedial education.
This world of climate change and degradation of the ecosystems that support the well-being of human society and all life on earth calls for a rewidgeting of the academic disciplines. Social sciences can highlight ecological and behavioral economics, sustainable security, ecosystem services.
For an analogy, one might look to the evolution of the environmental movement. Initially, the movement focused on point-source pollution and its impacts on air and water quality. As many of those conditions improved through effective regulations and education, non-point-source pollution became the greater challenge. The pervasive, systemic issues that underlie global warming and biodiversity loss, etc. require new approaches.
If one thinks of campuses (and college communities) as embedded in nature’s systems, then alongside campus greening, we can look beyond single institutions to how they relate in natural networks. The sustainable campus is a site specific endeavor. The sustainable conference or ecoregion or flyway may offer possibilities for higher education to support future generations.
Faithful college football fans — and other alumni — hold dear the alma mater, which is Latin for “nourishing mother.” Perhaps college can become a place where people can develop deeper connections both to home and to the larger world.
I imagine there are great examples of innovative work going on out there. If you know of colleges connected by nature, schools working together to promote a better understanding of place and the value of natural systems — or have other thoughts on this — please share them below.
Next post: Land-grant universities for the 21st century