Ecological Literacy Proposal

To: Greg Crawford, John McGreevy, and members of the Core Curriculum Review committee

Re: formal proposal for an ecological literacy requirement

Date: February 28, 2015


As you know, several authors on the bulletin board and several commentators at the town meetings have emphasized the importance of ecology or sustainability.  We believe that a Notre Dame student must have some knowledge about our changing planet before graduation in order to be a responsible citizen of that planet.  At your last meeting, you suggested that we more concretely describe our proposed modification of the core curriculum to meet this need.  We are responding to your suggestion here.


The proposal

We propose that all Notre Dame students be required to take one course that would meet a requirement termed “ecological literacy.”  By ecological literacy, we mean “having some knowledge about the human impacts on the non-human environment, ecological principles, and the Earth as a system, and about the response of the global community to such impacts.”

This knowledge could come in the form of information, including answers to such questions as: How many humans live on Earth?  What factors contribute to species extinctions?  Why does warmer air temperature mean greater precipitation?  How does increased carbon in the air lead to ocean acidification?  What are the links between environmental degradation and human suffering?  How do governments and economies respond to environmental change?  How are human impacts on the environment reflected in literature and the arts?

Knowledge could come in the form of exposure to key controversial questions, including: As water sources dry or become contaminated worldwide, what are the best options for increasing water quantity and improving water quality?  What are the ecological impacts of human food production and can those be minimized while still feeding the world?  What are the best options for meeting human energy needs in a sustainable way?  How should governments and economies respond to environmental change?  What ethical principles can guide our understanding of human impacts on the environment?

All departments would be welcome and even encouraged to contribute courses that meet the requirement.  The commonality would be that all instructors of these courses and all students share the overarching learning goal of ecological literacy.  Departments would also be encouraged to work together to create new, genuinely interdisciplinary course offerings.  The requirement would thus leave a great deal of flexibility for students to fulfill it.  Importantly, it would also change the conversation on campus and ensure that the life and death issues of our new geological epoch, the Anthropocene, were prominently featured.



As a starting point, eligible courses could be those that are currently listed as counting for the Sustainability Minor.  These include:

American Wilderness (AMST 30174)
Aquatic Conservation (BIOS 40320)
Biodiversity: Its Challenge & Future (BIOS 10117)
Biodiversity and the Law (LAW 70348)
Chemistry, Environment, and Energy (CHEM 10102)
Climate Change and Conflict (POLS 60326)
Climate Change Law (LAW 73328)
Climate Physics (PHYS 20054)
Concepts of Energy & the Environment (PHYS 10052)
Earth Focus (PHYS 10033)
Electrochemistry (CBE 40435)
Energy and Climate (CBE 40498)
Energy and Society (PHYS 20051)
Energy, Technology & Policy (EG 40401)
CSC Seminar: Energy, Climate and Social Change (CSC 33985)
Development Economics (ECON 40800)
Energy Law (LAW 74329)
Environmental Chemistry (CHEM 20204)
Environmental Economics (ECON 40530)
Environmental Justice (PHIL 43308)
Environmental Law (LAW 70349)
Environmental Microbiology (CE 40350)
Environmental Systems I (ARCH 40411)
Foresight in Business & Society (BA 30310)
General Ecology (BIOS 30312)
Global Change, Water, and Energy (CE 20300)
GLOBES: Global Change & Civilization (ANTH 40805)
GLOBES: Humans, Genes, & the Environment (ANTH 40808)
Intro Environmental Engineering (CE 30300)
Literature and Ecology (ENGL 20160)
Natural Resources Law (LAW 70350)
People, Environment, Justice (ANTH 30325)
Population Dynamics (SOC 43402)
Science Technology and Society (STV 20556)
Self, Society, and Environment (SOC 43719)
Social Factors and Sustainability (ARCH 40312)
Sustainable Food Systems (SOC 33580)
Sustainability: Principles and Practices (SUS 20010)
Synergoi (THEO 20653)
Science, Technology, and Society (STV 20556)
Topics in Sustainable Business (BAET 30520)
Transportation (CE 40620)
The Marine Environment (BIOS 10112)
The Politics of Adapting to Climate Change (POLS 30493)
Theology, Ethics, and the Environment (THEO 20616)
U.S. Environmental History (HIST 30632)
Water Chemistry & Treatment (CE 30320)
Water, Disease and Global Health (CE 40355)

Very quickly, the requirement could motivate the creation of new courses that individual departments could recognize as meeting the goals of ecological literacy or that instructors could suggest themselves.  Vetting for whether new courses contribute to the goal of ecological literacy could be accomplished through the Sustainability Minor program or a separate committee.

Double counting should be possible.  For example, a student may fulfill the ecological literacy requirement and a disciplinary requirement simultaneously.  A seminar designed to meet the USEM or Arts and Letters CSEM requirement may also fulfill the ecological literacy requirement.

Incentives could be offered to create courses with instructors at different colleges.  Ideas include providing financial support through the Sustainability Minor to assist with course development, ensuring that such courses count by home departments as part of each instructor’s teaching load, and formally acknowledging the value of such courses by looking upon them favorably in evaluations of teaching for tenure and promotion.


The advantages

By proposing that our students graduate as ecologically literate citizens, we address several questions that you have outlined in your recent letter to chairpersons about the core curriculum, especially your questions about “knowledge, dispositions, and skills” and also about Notre Dame’s Catholic character.  The ecological literacy requirement has the further advantage of allowing students and faculty to cross disciplinary boundaries in a purposeful and meaningful way and thereby share a dialogue about humanity’s greatest challenges.


Knowledge, dispositions, and skills

Great demands will be placed on leaders of the future to come up with innovative ways to solve the problems that accompany an altered planet.  Notre Dame students therefore need to understand the altered planet, its climate, ecosystems, acidified oceans, droughts, floods, environmental degradation from overpopulation and changing land use, and so on.  They also need exposure to potential solutions that are discussed and debated globally –for example, relocating humans away from rising seas, drought stricken regions, or other newly uninhabitable areas; relocating non-human species or otherwise trying to minimize the mass extinction underway; and finding alternative fresh water sources or improving the quality of the diminishing sources we currently have.  Students need to be given the tools to weigh these solutions and, ideally, contribute solutions of their own.


Catholic character

According to Notre Dame’s mission statement, “the University seeks to cultivate in its students not only an appreciation for the great achievements of human beings but also a disciplined sensibility to the poverty, injustice and oppression that burden the lives of so many. The aim is to create a sense of human solidarity and concern for the common good that will bear fruit as learning becomes service to justice.”

In today’s world, an ecological literacy requirement is necessary to meet this objective.  Environmental damage and climate change have the greatest impact on those members of the global community who are the least able to adapt to such change.  Students need to understand these connections.

The portfolio of courses available to students could address such issues in broadly ethical as well as distinctly Catholic ways.  The ethical questions are immediately apparent: What should be sustained, and why?  How do we address conflicts between the developed and developing world and between classes, generations, and humans and nature?  In the face of environmental and social injustice, what is the appropriate arena for resolution?

The connection to Catholic character is equally apparent.  Care for creation is at the heart of Catholic social teaching and embedded in encyclicals from the 1970s onwards. Several Notre Dame theology scholars at Notre Dame currently offer courses on ecotheology and environmental issues examined through the lens of Catholic social thought.  Many additional courses could be offered given the richness of this area in current theological research.

The creation of an ecological literacy requirement will also be quite timely from a Catholic perspective.  Pope Francis is scheduled to release his much anticipated encyclical on climate change in 2015, and he will also serve as the opening speaker for the September 2015 meeting of international leaders to discuss sustainable development goals, sponsored by the United Nations.  Led by the Pope, Catholics worldwide are discussing issues of ecology and sustainability, and Notre Dame is well placed to be at the forefront of dialogue, symbolically by simply having the new requirement and substantively by encouraging campus wide discussions about the literacy gained from the requirement.

There may also be recruitment benefits to an ecological literacy requirement as evidenced by our many strong undergraduates who already have environmental interests.  The requirement would signal to prospective students with a strong Catholic or social justice motivation that their environmental interests will be nurtured at Notre Dame.


Meaningful interdisciplinary dialogue

Ecological literacy is a fundamentally interdisciplinary concept.  The world is characterized by problems too broad to be addressed by any single discipline.  Because of this, we envision that an ecological literacy requirement will not only include courses housed in isolated departments but will encourage course development on subjects that cross disciplinary boundaries.  Participating faculty members will enrich the scholarly community with collaborative efforts that might not otherwise be pursued.

Stated differently, individual departments at Notre Dame could participate in the ecological literacy requirement in two ways.  First, they could nominate existing or new courses to count toward the requirement.  Indeed, even now most departments on campus could potentially contribute courses that would meet the requirement.  Second, they could encourage or support faculty members to co-teach with colleagues from different departments and, ideally, different colleges.  Courses designed to meet the ecological literacy requirement that involve instructors from two colleges could serve as models for other interdisciplinary endeavors on campus.

In summary, we enthusiastically submit this proposal to require Notre Dame students to take at least one course that would assist them on the path toward ecological literacy.  We have all drawn inspiration from our own experiences teaching such courses and speaking to students and each other about such issues.  We look forward to supporting our colleagues in developing more such courses and welcoming them to a growing dialogue at Notre Dame on the future of our planet.


Debra Javeline, Political Science

Celia Deane-Drummond, Theology

Jessica Hellmann, Biological Sciences

Rachel Novick, Biological Sciences

Phil Sakimoto, First Year Studies

Anthony Serianni, Chemistry & Biochemistry

John Sitter, English

Laura Walls, English


In support of this proposal:

Ruth Abbey, Political Science

Elizabeth Archie, Biological Sciences

Sotirios Barber, Political Science

Ted Beatty, History

Melissa Berke, Civil & Environmental Engineering

Paola Bernardini, Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies

Nora Besansky, Biological Sciences

Tobias Boes, German Language & Literature

Diogo Bolster, Civil & Environmental Engineering & Earth Sciences

Catherine Bolten, Anthropology and Peace Studies

Jacqueline Brogan, English

David Campbell, Political Science

Dervis Can Vural, Physics

Elizabeth Capdevielle, University Writing Program

Nitesh Chawla, Computer Science & Engineering

Sheila Christopher, Environmental Change Initiative

Annie Gilbert Coleman, American Studies

Jon Coleman, History

Manoel Couder, Physics

Denise Della Rossa, German and Russian Language & Literature

Liz Dube, Hesburgh Libraries

John Duffy, English

John Duman, Biological Sciences

Amitava Dutt, Political Science

Kathleen Eggleson, NDnano

Georges Enderle, Mendoza

Morten Eskildsen, Physics

Elizabeth Evans, English

Stephen Fallon, English

Stephen Fredman, English

Umesh Garg, Physics

Lee Gettler, Anthropology

Donna Glowacki, Anthropology

Holly Goodson, Chemistry & Biochemistry

Melinda Gormley, Reilly Center for Science, Technology, and Values

Perin Gurel, American Studies

Alan Hamlet, Civil & Environmental Engineering & Earth Sciences

Christopher Hamlin, History

Paul Helquist, Chemistry & Biochemistry

Amy Hixon, Civil & Environmental Engineering & Earth Sciences

Vittorio Hosle, German and Russian Language & Literature

Paul Huber, Chemistry & Biochemistry

Victoria Hui, Political Science

Stuart Jones, Biological Sciences

Diana Jorza, Romance Languages and Literatures

Prashant Kamat, Chemistry & Biochemistry

Emmanuel Katongole, Theology and Peace Studies

Kathryn Kerby-Fulton, English

William Krier, English

Gary Lamberti, Biological Sciences

Donald LaSalle, First Year of Studies

Angela Laws, Biological Sciences

Shaun Lee, Biological Sciences

Michael Lemmon, Electrical Engineering

Erin Moira Lemrow, First Year of Studies

Blake Leyerle, Theology and Classics

Dan Lindley, Political Science

Neil Lobo, Biological Sciences

Elena Mangione-Lora, Romance Languages and Literatures

Patrick Martin, Romance Languages and Literatures

David Mayernik, Architecture

Sarah McKibben, Irish Language and Literature

Jason McLachlan, Biological Sciences

Odette Menyard, Romance Languages and Literatures

Edwin Michael, Biological Sciences

Ann Mische, Sociology and Peace Studies

Shahriar Mobashery, Chemistry & Biochemistry

Candida Moss, Theology

Darcia Narvaez, Psychology

Robert Nerenberg, Civil & Environmental Engineering

Allen Oliver, Chemistry & Biochemistry

María Rosa Olivera-Williams, Romance Languages and Literatures

Alex Perkins, Biological Sciences

Catherine Perry, Romance Languages and Literatures

Margaret Pfeil, Theology

Michael Pfrender, Biological Sciences

Vinicius Placco, Physics

Bill Purcell, Catholic Social Tradition

Patrick Regan, Political Science

Kimberly Rollings, Architecture

Kevin Rooney, First Year of Studies

Jonathan Sapirstein, Physics

Sharon Schierling, Kellogg Institute

Catherine Schlegel, Classics

John Sherry, Marketing

Vania Smith-Oka, Anthropology

Edward Stech, Physics

Kasey Swanke, First Year of Studies

Alexandros Taflanidis, Civil & Environmental Engineering

Jennifer Tank, Biological Sciences

Julia Adeney Thomas, History

Steve Tomasula, English

Andrea Topash-Rios, Romance Languages and Literatures

Ernesto Verdeja, Political Science and Peace Studies

Robert Walls, American Studies

Leonor Wangensteen-Moya, First Year of Studies

Andrew Weigert, Sociology

Joannes Westerink, Civil & Environmental Engineering & Earth Sciences

Michael Wiescher, Physics

Matthew Wilkens, English

Michael Zuckert, Political Science