Institutional Ignorance

by Bill Duesing

First broadcast on WSHU/WSUF-FM, November 29, 1996

On a beautiful fall day, Suzanne and I strolled under the mature oak trees which shade the campus of Drew University in New Jersey. The grounds crew had obviously been busy, blowing leaves noisily and mowing grass around all the trees. It was Parents Weekend, and we were visiting Dan during his freshman year. The university was so proud of its campus trees that it gave us a book called The University in the Forest.

Last winter, we attended several events at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. Each time, big, fat strawberries were served at the reception.

Last summer, on one of the most beautiful weekends in August, with clear skies, cool breezes and warm sun, we attended a conference at Hampshire College in the rolling farmland south of Amherst, Massachusetts. In the class and lecture rooms at the college, we were all shivering. The air conditioning was cooling the rooms way below comfort level. The temperature was about right for polar bears.

These institutions of reputed "higher" learning charge over a hundred thousand dollars for a four-year education. Yet, in all of these examples, each institution has behaved in a way which costs it money, is detrimental to the environment and is contrary to its stated values. It has created a model of dumb consumption and rote behavior disconnected from, and probably more powerful than, the instruction provided in its classrooms.

Isolated information has very little use. A lack of direct holistic knowledge and of an understanding of the connections between parts is dangerous and expensive.

In nature, fallen leaves build up the soil and insulate tree roots. Acorns sprout into young oaks to carry on when the old ones become lumber, firewood or soil. Mowing grass and raking leaves in a forest, however, ensure that it will eventually die from grass-stressed roots and lack of young trees. Presumably, there is an ecologist at Drew who understands forests, but he or she must not talk to the groundskeepers, or to the public relations office.

Winter strawberries are one of the most pesticide-polluted fruits on the market, and one of the main reasons that toxic, ozone-destroying methyl bromide is still used in California agriculture. I know that Yale University has an expert in the dangers of pesticides, and experts in the ozone layer among its faculty, but there seems to be no communication with the dining hall staff.

I'm sure that a Hampshire college physics professor could tell us that air conditioning is one of the least efficient uses of energy. Most environmentally-aware students know that our overuse of energy causes many serious problems, including climate change, and that many of the fluids used in air conditioners destroy the ozone layer. Almost any fool should know that it is stupid to spend money to make paying guests uncomfortable.

This institutional ignorance is not exclusive to higher education. Suzanne's fifth graders know it doesn't make sense for the office air conditioner to be on as they shiver in line at the school's entrance. Or, for their classroom windows to be open at the same time to prevent the out-of-control heat from baking them.

And this ignorance goes right to the top. Remember President Nixon, who was reported to turn on the White House air conditioner so he could sit in front of a blazing fireplace in the summertime?

With Drew's institutional ignorance, as well as its "all-the-junk-and-fast-food-you-can-eat" meal plan and "all-the-partying-you-can-imagine" dorm life, we were relieved when Dan decided that one year there was enough for him.

But day in and day, out these institutions model many expensive, damaging and dysfunctional behaviors. Students and faculty live with these bad examples while they study to learn more and more about less and less.

As good examples of forest management, food systems and efficient buildings disappear, our nation's brightest students don't have much to go on.

It's kind of scary.

This is Bill Duesing, Living on the Earth.

This page and its contents are copyright © 1996-1997 by WSHU-FM, Fairfield, CT, and by Bill Duesing.