Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Environment and Society: A challenge to teach

Teaching the undergraduate environmental science 1 course at UP is extremely challenging since I had to consign the syllabus to the trash bin! Why? It is because the traditional idea of chopping down the environmental system into its spheres e.g. lithosphere, atmosphere, biosphere, cryosphere, hydrosphere etc with their problems may not reflect what is happening in nature. Of course we have to introduce these "sphere" concepts because it allows us to have a good initial grasp of the various physical and biological processes happening. However in nature, what happens in the hydrosphere for example has a direct effect on the atmosphere and of course on the biosphere. All these processes are linked.

That everything is linked in nature is the central tenet of environmental science and environmentalism. The natural processes are linked and so too is the damage we humans inflict on these processes. Perhaps the history of our dealings with the environment can be simply summarized on how we use resources. Here is where I take off and teach about the story of humans and their relationship with the environment.

So we start with human evolution, the beginnings of agriculture, human population growth, biodiversity to globalization in the 21st century. It is a challenge to integrate this story since there are many disciplines to discuss. For instance with biosphere economics, we have to talk about capital both from the classical sense and the postmodern sense. Of course no one gets through the concept of capital without reading Karl Marx. So I have to brush up on my Marx! And so do the students.

Public health is no longer viewed just as a health care delivery issue but also as an environmental issue. Would you believe that the present brain drain of Filipino health workers is not just an economic issue but an environmental one? It is because the demographic transition in developed countries has resulted in a more resource intensive lifestyle and this requires skilled health professionals to fill the need.

These are the challenges we have to face. Environment is a complex system with a complex past and future.

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