“In the morning the dust hung like fog and the sun was as ripe as new blood. … An even blanket covered the earth. It settled on the corn … it piled up on the wires, settled on roofs, blanketed the weeds and trees.”

Katherine Kersten’s attack on the sustainability movement in colleges (“Going green is just part of the plot,” June 28) recalled to me the above quote from John Steinbeck’s “Grapes of Wrath,” describing the ecological disaster of the 1930s Dust Bowl. I was not yet born, but my mother, who grew up on a farm near Donnelly, Minn., in the 1930s, shared its effect on her family. It was so dry all the crops withered and died in the fields, but luckily, a large slough on their farm stayed moist enough to yield a crop of potatoes that kept the family alive that winter.

Families on the Great Plains were not so fortunate. They cleared the land of prairie grass to grow wheat and cut down the trees to build houses. When the drought came, there was nothing to hold the soil in place, and the thousand years it took to build one inch of topsoil was blown away in minutes. The plains were so vast and the soil so rich that no one dreamed it could all disappear because of unsustainable farming practices combined with a severe drought. One hundred million acres became unlivable. President Franklin Roosevelt’s government supported a conservation movement to make farming a sustainable enterprise by preventing soil erosion. Contour plowing, terracing, strip-cropping and crop rotation helped restore farmland; planting shelterbelts of trees helped control the wind, and grassland restoration reclaimed wind-eroded lands.

Kersten derides teaching sustainability in our colleges as an ideological agenda forced on students by “manipulating, cajoling and browbeating” them. Her only source is a report released by the National Association of Scholars in New York. According to Jack Kerwick, a conservative political columnist and commentator, the association believes that higher education has been infected by politicization and seeks to resist that politicization. One must wonder why striving for sustainability is a political question.

Contrary to what Kersten implies in her argument, sustainability makes logical sense and should be included in college curricula; after all, the responsibility to be caretakers of the Earth will soon belong to the students passing through these schools.

According to Herman Daly, an early pioneer in the sustainability movement, sustainability means three things: 1) For renewable resources, the rate of harvest should not exceed the rate of regeneration; 2) for pollution, the rates of waste generation should not exceed the assimilation capacity of the environment (sustainable waste disposal) and 3) for nonrenewable resources, the depletion of the nonrenewable resources (that is, fossil fuels) should require comparable development of renewable substitutes for that resource. Achieving such sustainability will enable the Earth to continue to support life. Thus, teaching sustainability is common sense. It is our responsibility; it is not a “plot” to brainwash students.

Had such a movement existed in the 1930s, perhaps the tragedy of the Dust Bowl — causing economic disaster and destroying the lives and dreams of millions of Americans — would not have happened. Teaching today’s students to take care of resources does not seem unreasonable in light of the consequences of not doing so: the destruction of the Earth, which sustains all life, including our own.

 

Kathleen R. Sevig, of Eden Prairie, is a retired teacher.