(Photo: Emily Litvack/UANews)
(Photo: Emily Litvack/UANews)

Mixed Greens: The UA's Studies in Sustainability

Across a broad spectrum, instructors are emphasizing the social component of sustainability alongside the scientific aspect, for a fuller understanding.
Sept. 2, 2015

By offering well over 400 courses related to sustainability — in everything from poetry to economics — the University of Arizona has committed to giving students of virtually every major the opportunity to "go green."

Morgan Apicella teaches one such course. As one of the first participants in the "Community and School Garden Workshop" course eight years ago, Apicella has seen it grow and evolve over time.

Students from a variety of majors enroll in this course to work with community partners on projects encouraging environmental awareness. Many will work with Tucson Unified School District teachers to help develop curricula that "integrate outdoors and ecological work with what they're already teaching in the classroom," Apicella said.

Students have an impact in the community this way, he said, recalling one student who effectively restarted a garden that had been shut down for five years at Davis Bilingual Elementary Magnet School. She collaborated with the school, reached out to community partners, wrote grants, personally taught lessons about topics such as rainwater harvesting and growing food, and created an after-school program.

"There are many ways to approach sustainability," Apicella said, "and the UA has a wide variety of professors from different disciplines doing that. Courses like ours give students an opportunity to think about sustainability in broad and complex ways and in contemporary, relevant contexts."

Food and History

Jeremy Vetter, assistant professor in the history department, teaches HIST 357, a course titled "Food, Health and Environment in U.S. History." He urges students to consider "the intersection between food history and regular U.S. history."

Students in HIST 357 will learn about how food is produced and consumed in the U.S., how the transfer of food from farm-to-table has shifted over the years and how the industrialization of agriculture has changed the food system.

Vetter hopes his students will come to understand that history does not follow one clear trajectory, and that even something as seemingly objective as a food system has nuances and complexities for consideration.

"We're all stakeholders in this conversation, including me, since we're all eaters," Vetter said.

Climate Change and Poetry

Eric Magrane, a local poet with a background in geography, is a graduate research associate for the Institute of the Environment on campus and a Ph.D. candidate in the School of Geography and Development.

Magrane also is a member of the Art & Environment Network at the UA. Coordinated by the UA Institute of the Environment, the network involves on- and off-campus artists, writers, humanities scholars and environmental scientists in efforts that encourage public involvement on environmental issues. 

This fall, for the first time, he is teaching a community course in climate change and poetry. He believes the arts can play a fundamental role in addressing the problem of climate change. 

His students will read poems addressing climate change, he said, and "we'll use those materials to think about and understand the various ways to approach climate change, both as a scientific and a social issue. Then we'll juxtapose those readings with scientific reports."

Climate change "leads us to think about social change," Magrane said. "It is a chance for us to reimagine how we want to live on and with the Earth. What better place to look than to poets? Artists and poets work in the realm of intuition and emotion, and they're very good at embodying different ways of thinking. Poems have a certain way of engaging moments and organizing the world in different ways."

Culture's Enormous Impact

Sapana Doshi, assistant professor in the School of Geography and Development, teaches a graduate course in development. DVP 602, "The Role of Culture in Sustainable Development," is aimed at helping students gain a cultural sensitivity that will prepare them for future pursuits in development practice.

Doshi said that to create sustainable development plans that combat global poverty and social injustice, acknowledging and exploring the role of culture is essential.

She pointed to a 1975 case study in Lesotho, a small country in southern Africa. At the time, the World Bank was spearheading a development effort commercializing bovine ranching to help locals make a living.

However, the effort failed to acknowledge "in that particular culture, cattle have a very different kind of value," Doshi said. "People weren’t about to sell cattle."

When a severe drought forced the sale of cattle out of desperation, all sold at the same time and received the lowest values as a result.

Doshi wants her students to have a higher awareness of culture.

"In taking my class, I want students to go away with the idea that there's not a one-size-fits-all development model," she said. "They need to do a lot of homework before going into a particular area. What is the local culture? Not every community is the same. You need to be aware of your own cultural biases."

She noted that a strictly scientific approach to sustainability will not benefit society in the long term.

"Humans are social beings," Doshi said. "We create meaning in our world. If you're coming from a very narrow perspective, you won't be able to speak to people about sustainability in a way that's meaningful."

Other UA courses offered this fall that focus on sustainability include:

  • ART 496F/596F, "Critical Issues in Design," with Ellen McMahon, UA art professor and a member of the Art & Environment Network
  • GEOG 256, "Sustainable Cities and Societies," with Adrian Esparza, an associate professor of natural resources
  • PLG 379,  "Urban Growth and Development," with Dereka Rushbrook, an associate professor in the School of Geography and Development
  • TLS 200, "Sustainability and Education," with Alberto Arenas, an associate professor of teaching and learning and sociocultural studies
  • GEOG 368, "The Green Economy," with Ardeth Barnhart, a program director at the Institute of the Environment
  • PA 484, "Environmental Management," with Laura Bakkensen, an assistant professor in the School of Government and Public Policy
  • ENGL 385, "Environmental Writing," with Brent Hendricks, a lecturer in the Department of English
  • GWS 400, "Environmental Justice through Film Photography Art," with Eva Simone Hayward, an assistant professor in the Department of Gender and Women's Studies