By Richard Olson
Last November, with the College under lockdown in response to a shooting on the edge of campus, Food Service delivered lunch to students shut in the dorms. Soon a request came from the Art Department “we have students in our building who need food.” Requests from other departments followed.
In the Agriculture Building, chili was pulled from the freezer, corn bread was whipped up in the kitchen, and we ate and continued with our work.
January 2009 brought a different kind of lockdown. An ice storm cut power to the campus for several days. The January Short Term was terminated early, students were sent home, and Facilities worked feverishly to drain the pipes in cold, dark buildings. The campus ceased to function. Except for the Agriculture building and farm. Gasoline generators provided power, while students in Carhartt overhauls and insulated boots fed livestock, kept water lines flowing, and performed other essential functions. In the face of the loss of electricity, the Ag Department reorganized its operations, and maintained its basic functions. The Agriculture program was resilient, while the campus as a whole wasn’t.
As the demands of a global economy based on infinite growth increasingly meet the limits of a finite planet, disruptions to the flow of energy and materials that our communities and households require will become more frequent and more severe. Peak oil, climate change, ecosystem collapse, social anarchy, and a financial system crushed by debt will produce stresses on our communities that will make an ice storm look pretty tame. Yet most U.S. households and communities are not resilient, and their residents lack the necessary knowledge and skills to achieve resilience.
Colleges and universities need to address this dilemma through changes to their infrastructure and operations, and changes in their curriculum. In the face of massive social, environmental and economic threats, what skills should our graduates possess? What should we be teaching?
One answer is encapsulated in the SENS House mission statement:
To demonstrate and teach household and community resilience in the face of declining fossil fuel supplies, climate change, economic contraction, and environmental degradation. Emphasis is placed on the fostering of practical skills, particularly in the areas of energy, water, food, and shelter.
This is not to say that a liberal arts college should teach only agriculture, technology, nursing and health or what some critics derisively label the “vo-tech curriculum.” But the practical skills associated with these disciplines should be given priority (think Maslow’s hierarchy of needs), and all students should include them in their curriculum. Our poets and artists and writers need to know how to grow food and insulate their houses. And we need many more farmers, but farmers who can write poetry and paint and write. Think Wendell Berry.
During the ice storm, the SENS House with its super insulation, woodstove and woodpile, well-stocked pantry, and candles did quite well. The residents sat by the fire, talked, read, and made music. Resilience.