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But given some reading I did earlier today, perhaps that shouldn't be the case. If the findings of a new study are accurate, academia is doing its level best to make sure the environmental professionals of tomorrow are exposed only to a narrow point of view that excludes nuclear energy from the global solutions toolbox.
Over at The Conversation, Matthew Nisbet, a professor of communications at Northeastern University, tells the story of Jacqueline Ho, an environmental studies graduate who recently conducted a study into how major colleges and university teach environmental issues.
What did she find? Apparently the reading materials in environmental sciences courses present only one side of the debate, and fail to challenge students to develop critical thinking skills they'll need to solve environmental management problems.
Yet only after taking an upper-level political science course on renewable energy and completing a summer fellowship with the Breakthrough Institute, an environmental think tank, was Ho introduced to alternative ways of thinking about climate change as a social problem and the possible solutions.It's good to see that Miss Ho was able to come into contact with the team at the Breakthrough Institute, an eminently reasonable group based out of Oakland that recently authored its own "Ecomodernist Manifesto." From my own perspective, Ms. Ho's experience gibes closely with what I was told by a graduate of a local Masters' degree program who took a course in environmental sustainability. In that course, like in Ms. Ho's experience, nuclear energy was mentioned with a sneer, if at all.
“I came to see the transition to a clean-energy economy as an issue requiring technological innovation and deployment, in addition to simply being caused by insufficient climate awareness or the inefficient pricing of fossil-based energy,” she writes in a new co-authored study in the Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences.
“Nuclear power, an energy solution I seldom encountered in my classes except in the context of the negative health impacts of uranium mining, became a default alternative energy option in my mind,” she writes.
Today, several core concepts and insights from her introductory courses continue to guide her work as a researcher at Resources for the Future, an environmental economics think tank. “Yet, in many ways, I would have appreciated being exposed to a greater diversity of perspectives and solutions earlier in my education so that I could have learned to wrestle with these controversial perspectives alongside my environmentally minded peers,” she writes.
But what about the rest of Ms. Ho's counterparts at other institutions? What sort of education are they getting through introductory courses in environmental science at some of the nation's top institutions?
Of the 22 syllabi assessed, less than half explicitly mentioned the importance of critical thinking or exposing students to competing perspectives. Only 10 made any reference to the fact that even among those advocating for action to address a problem like climate change, there are competing narratives about the major societal challenges, the possible technological solutions, and the political strategies needed.Ms. Ho found that the vast majority of readings assigned in these courses are authored by a group of public intellectuals that Nesbit calls "environmental activists." Bill McKibben, David Suzuki and George Monbiot are all on the list.
Of course, when you teach environmental science solely through the lens of environmental activism, it's safe to conclude that what you'll really produce is another generation of environmental activists. That would be unfortunate. Our world needs professionals comfortable integrating the disciplines of science, engineering, law and policy to craft real-world solutions to thorny environmental challenges, not just compelling narratives.
UPDATE: Ms. Ho reached out to us regarding our blog post, and passed along the following:
[W]e want to be careful about the way we present our findings: we mention in our article that the research is suggestive rather than conclusive given our small sample size ...Fair enough. Though given the reaction I've gotten from of our readers, not too many folks were surprised by the findings.
One last note: the study was co-authored by Eric Kennedy. Props to both him and Ms. Ho for doing some important work. If I was the parent of a high school student planning on studying environmental science in college, Ms. Ho and Mr. Kennedy's study would give me pause, especially if I was financing that college education.
Editor's Note: Eric McErlain is NEI's director of digital strategy. He's currently pursuing a Masters' degree in Integrated Marketing Communications at Northwestern University. Photo courtesy of Mary Mactavish via a Creative Commons License.