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Harry Gregory & Melissa De Witte

Stanford professors William Barnett and Chris Field have one message to their students: Tackling the environmental crisis will require that each of us take on a leadership role, now.

Stanford professors William Barnett and Chris Field have one message to their students: Tackling the environmental crisis will require that each of us take on a leadership role, now.

Some of those solutions – from the small to the systemic – were the topic of a course Barnett and Field taught in spring quarter as part of Civic, Liberal, and Global Education (COLLEGE) – Stanford’s newly restructured undergraduate requirement designed to deepen students’ critical and ethical understanding about society and the world. Their class, COLLEGE 106: Environmental Sustainability: Global Predicaments and Possible Solutions, was one of seven different courses COLLEGE students could choose from as part of the spring quarter theme, Global Perspectives.

The two professors brought to the class differing disciplinary insights: Barnett is a business school expert on organizational change, and Field is a leading climate scientist who has examined how the natural world is being impacted by climate change. Together, the pair aim to show students that sustainability requires a holistic approach.

“The real key to solving important environmental problems is to take a system-wide view and to try and understand how cause and effect flows through all the different pieces,” said Field, the Melvin and Joan Lane Professor of Interdisciplinary Environmental Studies in the Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability and the director of the Woods Institute for the Environment.

How different perspectives lead to different solutions

Nearly 150 Stanford frosh gathered each week to learn how to reduce and repair damage done to the environment. As the class emphasized, perspective matters; how one approaches environmental problems such as biodiversity loss, deforestation, resource depletion, and air pollution determines what the solutions are.

Students were asked to consider environmental challenges and solutions from three lenses: the technical, the behavioral, and the normative. The technical lens solves problems through science and engineering. The behavioral lens tries to understand why people and institutions act the way they do and inspire change through action, while the normative lens considers the ethics surrounding these decisions and desired results.

“Whenever you think about issues of environmental sustainability, it can be understood as an ethical dilemma, a behavioral challenge, and a technical problem to be solved,” explained Barnett, the Thomas M. Siebel Professor of Business Leadership, Strategy, and Organizations at the Graduate School of Business and a professor at the Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability (SDSS). “You’re always moving between those three lenses.”

For example, take mass extinction and biodiversity loss, which was a topic students examined for one week.

In their lecture that week, Field talked about some of the technical solutions to the problem, including building gene and seed banks that serve as biorepositories of genetic material of animals, plants, and wildlife. A behavioral approach considers concrete efforts to stop and reverse loss. An example came from a target set at COP15, the United Nations biodiversity conference in 2022 to protect 30% of the planet and 30% of degraded ecosystems by 2030. The normative perspective considers the moral duties to protect habitat and the responsibility we all bear to be good environmental stewards.

But, as the students discussed, each solution has its own hurdles – including the ethical. They spent time in small groups discussing the different reasons why these solutions were a good or bad idea.

One theme to emerge was how protection efforts ought to be implemented – particularly who shoulders the burden of these efforts. As one student asked, what would protection efforts mean to indigenous people, who have historically been disproportionately impacted by the effects of climate change? If the land they live on is turned into a conservation zone, would they be forced to move away or lose their livelihood?

How then, can society solve a problem without causing new ones?

Questions like these emerged throughout the course.

Environmental crisis affecting everyone

Owen Jung, a Stanford first-year who took the course this past spring, was troubled to learn about the inequities that have emerged from depleting and degrading the environment, particularly the short-term gains made by a few that have come at the long-term detriment of many. One reading from class that stayed with him was Garret Hardin’s seminal 1968 essay Tragedy of Commons, a term economists now use to describe the collective cost of individual behavior.

“This whole environmental crisis is a tragedy of the commons situation – everybody suffers just a little bit,” Jung said.

For Jung, the problem of the climate crisis feels inescapable, but not insolvable, if acted upon now.

“It’s an all-hands-on-deck situation, because everyone is being touched by climate change, and everyone needs to do all they can to stop it,” Jung said.

Stefaniya Zozulya, who took the class with Jung this past quarter, also came away from the experience with a sense or urgency for collective action. For Zozulya, Barnett and Field’s class built on issues she examined in her winter quarter COLLEGE class, Citizenship in the 21st Century.

“The citizenship class really tied into this course because we are looking at systems of people and how they work together,” Zozulya said.

For Zozulya, living sustainability means taking into account the needs of the entire population.

“Systemic change means making sure that everybody is included in the solutions – not the aggregate or the average, but every group, including the most vulnerable,” Zozulya said.

Giving back to people and the planet

The course inspired first-year student Katelyn Kramer to give back to nature.

“The thing that I’ve taken most out of this class is that people are meant to evolve with nature, but in American society, what’s most common is evolving away from nature by building things, like cities, that are very separate from nature and disconnected,” Kramer said.

Kramer said she particularly enjoyed reading excerpts of Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants, botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer’s book that delves into indigenous knowledge of plants to inspire readers to reconnect with the world around them.

The class has made Kramer take a critical look at the full environmental consequences of human behavior and action.

“You can never actually throw anything away,” Kramer said. “Nothing is ever actually gone. It’s always here, it’s just in a different place, so that’s very interesting to learn about.”

One thing Kramer said she plans to act on immediately is helping raise awareness about effects like this with her friends and family back home, and to remain mindful of them moving forward in her own life and career.

“I definitely want to make efforts to help future generations and be able to keep our planet healthy and able to sustain life,” Kramer said.

For Barnett, seeing sustainable solutions emerge is what keeps him optimistic about the future.

“For every problem you name, there are dozens, sometimes hundreds, often thousands, of innovators trying to help us cope with those problems,” Barnett said. “This new generation will be known as the greatest generation. I know they said that about my parents’ generation, but it will be the generation to come because they will be building sustainability into everything that they do.”

Barnett is also a senior fellow at the Woods Institute for the Environment.

Field is also the Perry L. McCarty Director of the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, a professor of Earth system science and of biology, and a senior fellow at the Precourt Institute for Energy.

This course also satisfies either the Ethical Reasoning (ER) or Social Inquiry (SI) “Way” in the “Ways of Thinking, Ways of Doing” breadth requirement.