May 9th, 2010

Teaching Sustainability As If Your Life Depended on It: A Photo Essay of Fort Lewis College’s Ecology and Society Field School

By Rebecca Clausen

The purpose of education, according to some Native Americans,
is to ensure the survival of people,
-Gary Holthaus, Learning Native Wisdom

In his many years living in rural Alaska, Gary Holthaus learned important differences between how indigenous cultures and modern cultures understand sustainability, subsistence and spirituality.  In part, these differences stem from worldviews on the purpose of education.  As the quote above suggests, Holthaus learned that the Koyukon Indians of the Koyukuk River use traditional stories as a way to “teach us how to be human.”  In contrast, present day academia prioritizes education as a way to get a job and make the U.S. the global economic powerhouse.  In a time when scientific evidence makes it terrifyingly clear that we can no longer continue to consume and degrade the world’s limited resources, we must reconsider the purpose of education with specific regards to sustainability.  We must teach sustainability as if our lives, and the lives of many other species, depended on it.   We must teach sustainability to ensure the survival of people.

What could this model of sustainability education look like?  The following photo essay of Fort Lewis College’s “Ecology and Society Field School” gives us a glimpse of how one summer course can offer a new purpose for education.   Visionary teachers Dr. Kalin Grigg and Dr. Jim Fitzgerald of Fort Lewis College (Durango, CO) created this model fifteen years ago; its achievement over the years is a testament to the value it offers to a variety of learners.   In 2009, I had the privilege of co-teaching the “Ecology and Society Field School” with Dr. Grigg, and the experience has transformed my expectations and understandings of sustainability education.  I witnessed four themes that I feel contribute to the life-long accomplishments that arise from this 5-week course.  I will briefly describe each theme below, accompanied by photos of the incredible students of the 2009 Ecology and Society Field School.

I.  Sustainability In Action

In addition to teaching about the theories and concepts of sustainability, we have a responsibility to teach how it is achieved in our communities.  Rather than simply defining sustainability, we aim to recognize it on the ground.  The Ecology and Society Field School travelled to 5 different communities in Southwest Colorado, actively engaging in projects that involved local food production, sustainable building, watershed organizing, and cultural connections to landscapes. In this way, the object of study became the medium of study.  Although action learning and experiential education are not new pedagogical concepts, they are particularly important in the context of sustainability.  First, we become empowered when we are actively learning practical skills to sustain our community.  So often, students and scholars alike succumb to feelings of helplessness and apathy after a semester long course discussing our environmental crisis.  Social structural forces seem to outweigh individual agency, and we forget that we are all historical agents of change.  Learning how to transplant seedlings or ‘double-dig’ a garden bed combines muscle and mind, reaffirming that through our labor and ideas we can achieve meaningful results.  Albers (2008) explains how the cycle of experience, reflection, collaboration, and action reinforces the belief that teaching sustainability cannot be achieved through the reduction and examination of component parts.  Rather, it must be understood as a process in which we can actively contribute our labor.

Transplanting seedlings in a greenhouse at Tomten Fam (Telluride, CO) where food is grown at 10,000 feet elevation throughout the year.

The permaculture technique of “double-digging” a garden bed involves loosening the soil more than 12” down and creates conditions for plants’ roots to thrive. This method was learned and practiced at a Community Supported Agriculture farm in Bayfield, CO.

II. Reclaim production

Teaching sustainability ‘as if your life depended on it’ must address hyper-consumption and the alienation resulting from our disconnection with the basic skills of production.  Dr. Brian Obach, environmental sociologist, explains, “Popular presentations of environmental issues often avoid discussion of the significance of excessive consumption. To the extent that consumption is raised in connection with these issues, we are often told how switching to different types of consumption (not reducing consumption) can help to achieve ecological sustainability.”  The Ecology and Society Field School requires students to move out of their consumption role and begin to reclaim production.  Students use home-grown food to prepare home-made meals, learn to card and spin wool, milk cows, make cheese — skills that might have seemed ‘quaint’ a decade or two ago, but are now gaining the respect they deserve as the realities and limitations of our fossil-fuel dependent system become apparent.   If we are going to critique “green consumerism” as a superficial fix, we must provide needed instruction on how to go beyond it and produce for ourselves.  While the Field School cannot accomplish this entirely within 5 weeks, it can introduce students to the satisfaction and immense ability inherent in each of them to reclaim production in the service of sustainability.

Learning to spin wool at the Fitzgerald homestead in Bayfield, CO creates relationships between food, fiber, and clothing.

Understanding the benefits and obstacles to small-scale milk production included lessons of political economy of diary industry as well as reclaiming individual health.

III. Communal Labor and Democracy

What do a labyrinth garden and a tipi have in common?  Aside from their round shape, both are incredibly difficult to set up by one person acting alone.  Without any prior experience, students were asked by community leaders to accomplish both of these tasks during the 2009 Field School.  Both the labyrinth garden and the tipi serve practical purposes of proving food and shelter, but they also demonstrate a larger theme of the course: the benefits of communal labor and collective decision-making.   Sustainability education goes beyond learning practices that we should or should not do, and includes forming social processes to address complex problems.  Democracy is at the core of sustainability education because it values the equality of voices and perspectives to collectively solve problems facing our society.   Dr. Richard Norgaard, ecological economist, poses the following question:

Acknowledging that understanding complex problems is necessarily a social process compounds existing tensions between science and democracy.  If knowing is necessarily a social process, then how should it operate vis-à-vis democracy?  Should the process be open to all or limited to those with PhDs in relevant areas?

The Ecology and Society Field School emphasizes that we do not need ‘experts’ to get us out of environmental problems; rather, we need collective learning and knowing.   In the tasks at hand, neither of the instructors could offer any guidance in labyrinth design or tipi construction – we were just as stumped as the students!   Students are rarely asked to engage in physical labor for a common purpose, and often the dominant mode of education is to treat all students as isolated individuals competing against one another.  We have difficulty thinking about sustainable communities because we have had so little practice through formal education.  The association of democracy, collective knowing, and sustainability is put into practice during the Field School, and the results renew our optimism for achieving social and ecological justice.

Visioning and implementing the labyrinth garden was a democratic process including representation of all voices and collective decision-making.

IV.  Reconstructing the Human Role in Environment

Many courses that address sustainability rightly focus on the anthropogenic causes of the environmental crisis, introducing students to the profound impact that societies and civilizations have had and continue to have on the natural world.  We as educators introduce the underlying social causes of environmental degradation such as economic systems and social inequality.  I feel strongly that this should be a part of all sustainability education.  However, the Field School experiences presented an alternative and important consideration for myself and for the students: reconstructing the role of humans as providing possible benefits to natural conditions.   The view that humans are a plague to the planet has some traction in many circles.  As a sociologist, though, I challenge that this is not an inherent trait of humans but rather a product of historical circumstances such as capitalism and the modern world-system.  The Field School presents alternative social and cultural situations where humans can have positive impacts to the natural world.  During our visit to Chicano farming systems in San Luis, CO, we heard from 7th generation farmers that continue to provide habitat for diverse species amidst their agriculture practices.  Students read an article by Dr. Devon Peña, accomplished scholar and our trip leader for that week, which explained:

The agroecology of the Chicano farming systems promotes biodiversity through a variety of practices: acequia irrigation ditches create biological corridors and vital habitat; the riparian long-lot preserves multiple life zones and ecotones; and the conservation and use of native land races as family heirlooms preserves the genetic diversity of rare and endangered crops.

That an alternative cultural connection to the landscape can have a positive impact on ecological function is a new concept for many students of sustainability.  Reconstructing the role of human impact on the environment goes well beyond the idea that one person should change a light bulb or drive a hybrid, and introduces students to the potential for radical transformation that is so desperately needed right now.

Students camp on the property of a century-old Chicano farm that continually strives to work within and improve ecological functions.

Dr. Kalin Grigg, co-founder of the Ecology and Society Field School, shares with students his passion and knowledge of beekeeping. His life-long dedication to preserving the pollinators demonstrates to students the potential for humans to positively impact their local surroundings.


Albers, S. 2008. “Improving Pedagogy through Action Learning and Scholarship of Teaching and Learning.”  Teaching Sociology 36(1):87-94.

Holthaus, G. 2008. Learning Native Wisdom: What traditional cultures teach us about Subsistence, Sustainability, and Spirituality. Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky.

Norgaard, R. 1994. Development Betrayed: the end of progress and a coevolutionary revisioning of the future.  New York: Routledge.

Obach, B. 2009. “Consumption, Ecological Footprints and Global Inequality: A Lesson in Individual and Structural Components of Environmental Problems.” Teaching Sociology 37(3): 294.

Peña, Devon G. 1999. “Cultural Landscapes and Biodiversity: The Ethnoecology of a Watershed Commons in the Upper Rio Grande” Pp 241-271 in La Gente: Hispano History and Life in Colorado, ed. Vincent Cabeza de Baca.  Denver: Colorado Historical Society.

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