Sustainability education at Whatcom Community College founded on Earth Week issues

An effective citizen needs knowledge of the day’s issues to avoid manipulation by those who profit from a course of action. This was a core belief of our nation’s founders and it remains fundamental to the democratic process. As a professor at Whatcom Community College, I promote inquiry and discussion to stimulate critical thinking and to illuminate ideas central to the world in which we live. At Whatcom, we consider knowledge of sustainability issues to be essential for our students’ future. We reinforce the lesson throughout the academic year and celebrate our commitment during Earth Week.

Sustainability does not require us to give up modern conveniences, live in the dark and shiver in the cold. It requires developing ourselves, our sciences and our technologies to the highest possible level to live enjoyable lives while not decreasing future generations’ opportunities for the same. With over seven billion people on the planet and growing, our choices are more critical than when there were two billion people on earth.

To be truly sustainable, a policy or action must address ecological systems, economic systems and quality of life – known as “the triple bottom line.” As we teach our students, for every issue, there are short- and long-term impacts and trade-offs. To make informed opinions, they must understand varying viewpoints. The proposed coal shipping terminal at Cherry Point is an example. To help students in my Introduction to Sustainability course examine the impacts, I invited representatives of the coal terminal and an environmental group to present their perspectives.

As a class we examine the pros and cons. There are immediate economic benefits in construction and jobs. There are long-term concerns about the impact of coal trains on communities, on global warming when the coal is burned and on ecosystems. Impacts on Native American communities’ fishing practices here and revenue on coal sales in Montana complicate it further. Pragmatically, coal will be burned in the world for some time, so why not sell American coal supporting American jobs mined under American environmental laws? But global warming is a long-term threat with uncertain severity that cannot be reversed for many generations. Should we profit now at the expense of the future? Learning to ask questions and to examine issues helps us offer informed opinions that provide the best solution for our community.

That’s one example of how we incorporate sustainability into Whatcom’s curriculum. There are many more. Further expressing Whatcom’s commitment to sustainability education, we require transfer degree students to take one course that devotes substantial content to sustainability related issues such as geography, cultural anthropology, physics of energy or environmental economics, ethics or science. In addition, we are exploring a sustainability-in-business certificate that will enhance students’ value in job applications and four-year college applications. We also engage students in service-learning activities with sustainability related agencies such as the Nooksack Salmon Enhancement Association and Growing Veterans. Our campus community also models sustainability through efforts such as recycling and encouraging bus and bike travel to Whatcom.

Sustainability education is learning to seek information, assess credibility, identify various interests and values involved in an issue and consider courses of action with the three components of sustainability. What is the effect on ecosystems upon which humanity’s future well-being depends? What is the effect on economic systems through which people make a living? What is the effect on the quality of life for humans in their communities? We must assess relative benefits and costs surrounding the issue, compare those with the values we hold dear, realize that most courses of action will be a mixed blessing and curse, and finally identify the best mix for the short term and the long term. Sometimes we will find that short-term costs lead to greater long-term benefits.

While issues such as land-use planning, energy development, agricultural practices, water policies and use, pollution prevention and more are not always decided by a vote of the citizens directly, we each have a citizen’s responsibility to know the issues and to express our views through our representatives. Whatcom Community College considers sustainability education that teaches students to develop informed opinions to be one of our contributions to a higher quality of life for the future.