(and professor's personal statement)
In the Summer of 2001, the chair of the Engineering Department at Swarthmore College approached me with a suggestion that I develop a course that would have wide appeal, especially to those students who were not inclined to science or engineering, but that would nevertheless teach a great deal about technology. As former chair of the Environmental Studies committee at Swarthmore College, I had recognized the desirability of a introdutory-level course that would provide a broad overview of the environmental studies topics that ENVS minors would meet in their later courses. I had just finished reading Paul Ehrlich's book "Human Natures: Genes, Cultures, and the Human Prospect" (Island Press 2000), in which an evolutionary biologist marches through human history examining the genetic versus cultural components of many human activities. I offered the idea of doing something similar with technology: examining the environmental effects of technology from the Stone Age to the Information Age.
The generosity of John W. and Jane Roberts provided summer salary so that I might undertake the formidable task of assembling readings from fields as diverse as intellectual history, anthropology, history of science, history of technology, ecology, biology, military history, political history, and engineering. The result was a collection of articles, book chapters, video tapes, and audio recordings of National Public Radio spots that served as the grist for in-class discussion. The website you have found is the result of the first implementation of the course, in Spring 2003. Each student in the course was required to write and post on this site her/his thoughtful responses to the readings, after in-class discussion. The response essays are organized around certain themes, those which were central to the historical periods we were reading about. In the essay lists, I have placed an asterisk beside those essays I found particularly insightful, although one can pick any essay at random and understand the particular student author's point of view.
The class was populated approximately evenly among students in each of the four undergraduate years, and each student brought his/her perspectives to bear on the discussion. Perhaps the most interesting aspect was the importance of human "culture" in determining the evolution of technology and its effect on the environment (e.g., evangelist religions spread technology as well as their faith). The reciprocal nature of technology and the environment was also a surprize to many students: often nature (e.g. disease, or mountains, or whether a kind of tree was fast-growing) played a decisive role in the development of technologies that in turn affected human cultures. In any case, I hope you find the site as interesting as I do.
Here is the course description:
The course examines the relationships among human cultures, technology, and the environment. Three or four million years ago, our Australopithicene ancestors' main enemies were disease and predators, about which the hominids could do very little. For two and a half million years thereafter, human culture changed only very gradually, employing very limited technologies (e.g., stone tools). Starting about 50,000 years ago, however, a cultural revolution occurred that produced an explosion of language, art, religions, and new tools. The agricultural revolution of 10,000 years ago created crops that were the basis for civilization. The continuing acceleration of the pace of technological change is seen in the development of writing a few thousand years ago, the invention of printing a few hundred years ago, the industrial revolution in the previous century, the computer revolution since World War II, and the internet revolution within the last decade. What effects will biotechnology, robotics, and artificial intelligence have on the environment of the future? Human societies now control technologies that influence local pollution levels, regional ecosystem characteristics, and global climate change.
Has the evolution of human culture kept pace with the evolution of human technology? Pessimists, pointing to war, racism, and selfishness, argue that global environmental catastrophe is inevitable. Optimists, pointing to changes in human thinking about slavery, animal rights, and the interconnectedness of ecosystems, argue that we can attain a sustainable society. What societal mechanisms can be employed to help our culture evolve quickly enough to adapt to modern realities? Among the answers: technology, from nanochips to wind turbines to human genome manipulation; legal structures that take into account issues of environmental racism; new economic theories that value the services provided by natural systems; political systems that transcend traditional borders; and religious principles that integrate ancient wisdom with modern understanding.
Structured chronologically, the course investigates how humans evolved physically and genetically, what tools they employed and what were the consequences for humankind and the surrounding environment. Special attention is paid to how the problems of the 21st century relate to circumstances of the past, from excessive fat intake in our diet to the "tragedy of the commons" and its relationship to the depletion of finite natural resources.
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