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Students unite to create State of the Planet course

Various, Nature
Correspondence Nature 447, 775 (14 June 2007) | doi:10.1038/447775a; Published online 13 June 2007

Krystal L. Rypien1, Jill Anderson1, Jason Andras1, Rulon W. Clark1, Gretchen A. Gerrish1, James T. Mandel1, Marie L. Nydam1 & Daniel K. Riskin1

Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York 14853, USA

SIR – Ours is a world in crisis. We are despoiling our habitat, outstripping our resources and failing to provide an acceptable living standard for much of the world’s population. Although academic institutions are equipped to help remedy these problems by informing the leaders of tomorrow, they often fail to do so. Increasing pressure for specialization has led universities to trade breadth for depth in curricula, thereby depriving students of an understanding of complex, interconnected global issues. For example, solutions to our energy crisis span economics, engineering and politics, yet the typical student is exposed to only a portion of this spectrum.

Here, we propose a first step in addressing such shortcomings. We, the undersigned graduate students, have created a campus-wide ‘State of the Planet’ course at Cornell University under the mentorship of faculty members Tom Eisner and Mary Lou Zeeman (see

Our goal is threefold: to improve understanding of complex issues; to add global context to disciplinary education; and to motivate action and involvement. To this end, we recruited experts, mostly resident faculty members and community leaders, to address the challenges we agreed were paramount.

Administrative support was quick to materialize, as was a pool of enthusiastic participants. We launched the course in January 2007, after campus-wide publicity highlighting its multidisciplinary nature. Our 250 current students come from 45 different majors ranging broadly across the humanities and basic and applied sciences. In lectures, experts familiar with our most pressing global problems emphasize how solutions span disciplines. Students participate in discussion groups led by graduate assistants, where they not only build on ideas presented in lectures, but also set up projects aimed at solving problems.

Mid-semester student evaluations have been overwhelmingly positive, with 93% saying that the course has changed their views on education, career plans and lifestyle, and 95% believing that their peers should also take this course.

Comments include: “This course has influenced my perspectives on almost everything, from the food I eat to how long I leave my computer on” and “The course demonstrates how many different skills and backgrounds can help shape policy that is instrumental for the planet.”

We are continuing to expand our course in the hope that it will become a campus-wide requirement. Our vision is that other universities will adopt similar courses as a curriculum component for all students. We extend an open invitation to like-minded people at other institutions to join us, and others launching parallel efforts, in what we believe will be a modest but fundamental change to university education.

We maintain the optimistic belief that, given the right information, people will change their habits and their world. But the burden is on us, as educators, to motivate this change.
(13 June 2007)
Original is behind a paywall.

Contributor ML (a geneticist) writes:
Sounds like a bottom-up revolution in teaching.

State of the Planet (course website) has good material, such as the Lecture Schedule with links to the PowerPoint presentation.
Teaching a student-led course on peak oil by David Huck at Oberlin.

Could Rationing Be Made Palatable?

Sharon Astyk, Casaubon’s Book
Could a system of energy rationing, or even rationing of high energy goods and foods work in the US? The conventional answer is that it is politically impossible to even consider it, and that the public would never go along with it. But a closer look at the history of rationing during the second World War suggests that it might not be so unthinkable, and that in fact, rationing has historically been viewed as highly positive, pro-democratic and good public policy by the general populace. Now there are obvious historical differences between now and the past, but the framing of rationing may be more important than the exact historical context – in World War II, for example, where few real risks of famine or severe shortage existed, rationing was quite popular. Now, facing actual shortages and potential crisis, rationing is probably not as hard to sell as many people believe.

This is important because there are a number of public policy initiatives that include rationing plans. Among the most important are Richard Heinberg and Colin Campbell’s Oil Depletion Protocol, discussed in Heinberg’s book of the same title and George Monbiot’s proposal for carbon credit cards described in _Heat_. These are excellent and highly rational programs that create just responses to difficult issues, and they deserve to be given more attention than they have. I believe that in part, they have been underestimated because of the assumption that rationing is politically infeasible.

Formal rationing, whether voluntary or mandatory, is preferable to traditional capitalist rationing by price or taxation models. For genuinely scarce items for which everyone has a basic need, rationing is really the only just system.
(14 June 2007)

Organic Food Helps Revive Fortunes of Europe’s Farmers

Adam Mitchell / Rachel Shields, Independent/UK
The organic revolution is sweeping across Europe, with the area of land dedicated to environmentally-friendly, pesticide-free food production more than doubling in the last decade.

And organic land is likely to make greater inroads, as the consumer appetite shows no sign of slowing.

“Organic almost certainly will continue to grow and we think it’s a good thing,” Michael Mann, an EU agriculture spokesman said.

The growth is partly being driven by Europe’s farmers, who are being undercut by produce imported from countries such as Brazil. For many farmers, organic foods are becoming a key way to reinvent their failing farms.
(14 June 2007)
Also at Common Dreams.