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Statement of Commitment to Ecocentrism

I recently signed the “Statement of Commitment to Ecocentrism” sponsored by The Ecological Citizen , an open-access, peer-reviewed online journal that, according to its mission statement, is “striving to address the central issue of our time: how to halt and reverse our current ecocidal course and create an ecological civilization.”

This statement resonates with me on a number of levels, including its support for the “intrinsic (inherent) value in all of nature and the ecosphere.” While the statement briefly maps out ethical, evolutionary, spiritual, political, and ecological rationales for ecocentrism, I also see important implications for social justice.

Ecocentrism does a better job than the discourse of sustainability of taking into account the profound interrelatedness of all life on Earth. Many of our models of sustainability and almost all ways that we try to implement sustainability reflect the values of human supremacy (aka, anthropocentrism), and will ultimately be self defeating, as Aldo Leopold pointed out in his famous “Land Ethic” essay, which was published in the Sand County Almanac in 1949. Human supremacy as a way of being has been destroying the foundations of our existence for centuries.

Moreover, the ideology and practice of human domination over the natural world in both the past and present is implicated in various systems of hierarchy and domination. I am thinking, for example, of how the African slave trade, which was one of the most brutal of these systems, empowered Europeans to transform and exploit the lifeworlds of the Americas to grow commodity crops such as sugar, tobacco, and cotton, at unaccountable human and ecological costs. But I am also thinking about how global capitalism today distributes both the benefits and harms of industrial production in terribly unequal ways. Thus, some of the most “productive” places within the context of the global economy also have the most polluted air and water. And, some of the poorest communities on the planet will suffer the most because of climate disruption, even as they contributed the least to CO2 emissions.

In other words, although ecocentrism might at first glance seem to replace anthropocentrism with misanthropy, that’s far from true. Overcoming human supremacy is a critical requirement for transforming the various systems of human oppression that continue to hold sway. Thus, as the statement concludes: “a transformation towards an ecocentric worldview is a necessary path for the flourishing of life on Earth, including that of our own species.”

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Earth Day 2020 Talks at UWGB

On April 22, 2020, the 50th anniversary of the first Earth Day, I was fortunate to participate in a panel discussion with several wonderful UWGB colleagues and Bill Davis from the River Alliance of Wisconsin.

The full video recording from Blackboard Collaborate is available here.

Dr. Kevin Fermanich moderated, with assistance from John Arendt. The topics are briefly summarized here, with approximate times for each part noted in parentheses:

  • Dr. Michael Draney, “My life with Earth Day” (00:30 to 08:30) — I was 2 ½ years old during the first Earth Day in 1970 so Earth Day and I have gone through life together. I want to reflect on how it’s doing as we enter our fifth decade together.
  • Dr. Vicki Medland, “Is nature slipping away? ” (08:30 to 16:30) — Earth Day was in part a response to an environment that the organizers no longer recognized. Today, we are shocked by what seems to be a sudden and massive loss of biodiversity and natural landscapes. Why do we not notice these massive changes to our environment?
  • Dr. David Voelker, “Earth Day 2020 in Perspective” (16:50 to 27:00)– How can we understand the 50th Earth Day and the environmental movement that it helped launch in historical perspective, and in light of the Covid-19 pandemic?
  • Bill Davis, “A New Water Agenda for Wisconsin” (31:50 to 39:20) — What would a system look like that could achieve our human health and ecology goal regarding water?

In my response to a question from Kevin Fermanich (at about 50:00 to 53:00 in the recording), I referred to the shared experience of the Covid-19 pandemic. I do think that the pandemic is affecting just about all Americans and most people around the world, whether directly or indirectly. I’d like to emphasize, however, that the pandemic is not affecting all people equally, or in the same ways. In many U.S. cities, for example, African Americans (especially men) are dying disproportionately, and that’s just one example of how the pandemic reflects and compounds existing social and economic inequalities. (For more on this topic, see this column by Owen Jones at The Guardian.)

For more information, see the UWGB Earth Day event page, and the official Earth Day website.

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Human Rights, Climate Disruption, and the Living Planet

Spider on Web
Spider on Web, Prairiewoods, Hiawatha, IA, September 14, 2019 (photo by David Voelker)

I spoke on climate disruption at the Common CAHSS conference on human rights at University of Wisconsin-Green Bay on December 10, 2019. The sources and links below are listed roughly in the order in which I refer to them or draw on them in the talk. I’d like to thank my colleagues Ryan Martin and Alise Coen for their leadership in organizing this event. Early in the talk, I neglected to mention the Forest County Potawatomi when I was naming First Nations in Wisconsin. I apologize for this oversight!

David Voelker, “Human Rights, Climate Disruption, and the Living Planet,” Common CAHSS, Dec. 10, 2019, University of Wisconsin-Green Bay

Sources and Links:

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Climate Change as a Human Problem: A Report from the Climate Change Talks

Note: This article was originally published at CAHSS and Effect (from the College of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay) on Oct. 22, 2019.

The call of young people around the world to support the Global Climate Strike inspired me to organize the “Climate Change Talks” event on the UW–Green Bay campus on September 20, 2019. I was moved by the frustration expressed by these young activists: “We feel a lot of adults haven’t quite understood that we young people won’t hold off the climate crisis ourselves. Sorry if this is inconvenient for you. But this is not a single-generation job. It’s humanity’s job.”

The climate change rally in Downtown Green Bay on Sept. 20, 2019. (Photo by David Voelker.)
The climate change rally in Downtown Green Bay on Sept. 20, 2019. (Photo by David Voelker.)

When I put out the call for presenters, I encouraged colleagues to consider how the problem of climate change connected with a number of issues relevant to the humanities and social sciences, such as:

  • How has the fossil fuel industry funded climate change denialism?
  • How will addressing climate change require social, cultural, political, and economic transformation–not just new technologies? 
  • How is climate change related to social justice issues, such as racism, colonialism, and immigration? 
  • How have film, literature, and the arts helped us understand and envision climate change and how to confront it? 
  • What are the barriers to action in the face of climate change? 

As you can see from the talks (which are available on YouTube), the result was an outpouring of presentations that addressed many of these issues in compelling ways. A dozen speakers explored a wide range of issues, encouraging the substantial audience to ponder the climate crisis in light of speculative fiction, ethics, big data, economics, architecture, history, and poetry–among other perspectives.

Even as I strongly support the call of the Global Climate Strike movement for national and world leaders to take climate science seriously, which means taking major actions now to limit the scale of climate change, I also agree with the idea that this is “humanity’s job”—and it’s especially the responsibility of wealthy, industrialized countries like the United States, who have emitted most of the climate-changing gases, and whose fossil-fueled economy continues this trend.

In my own comments, however, I emphasized that addressing climate change is not only a job for scientists and engineers. Climate change is not simply an environmental problem that’s “out there.” It is a human problem, deeply rooted in the history and habits of the global, industrial economy–a system that has already done tremendous harm to the web of life on Earth. In order to transform this system, we will need to understand it deeply, and the arts, humanities and social sciences have a critical role to play.

The humanities have traditionally asked, “What does it mean to be human?” At the time when the humanities disciplines were emerging in American and European universities, the answers to this question usually focused on perspectives from the Western world, mostly on cultures with a long history of dominating both other cultures and the natural world. Today, knowing what we know about the impact of human activity–not only on the climate, but also on all of the systems that support life on Earth–we need to understand this history.

At the same time, we need to continue to ask that question anew, “What does it mean to be human?”—right here and right now (as opposed to focusing exclusively on how people in the past lived out answers to this question). We must do so with awareness of many enduring cultures outside of the West. Indigenous knowledge keepers from around the world supported the April 2017 March for Science, but they also asserted that “Indigenous science provides a wealth of knowledge and a powerful alternative paradigm by which we understand the natural world and our relation to it.”

Mitigating climate change and coping with global climate disruption will surely demand that we go beyond technical adjustments; we will have to address systemic problems in the modern human relationship with the living planet, as well as social injustices. To protect the web of life, we need to untangle the webs of domination—not only of humans over nature, but of humans over other humans.

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Interview with Humanities+ digital and public humanities podcast

Pop-Up Student Showcase, May 6, 2019, UWGB

During the May 6, 2019, Pop-up Student Showcase at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, Kate Farley interviewed me for Rachel Scray’s Humanities+ podcast. Students in my “Craft of History” course were presenting on their research, which they shared via the Encyclopedia of Wisconsin Environmental History. I’m excited to say that two of the students in the Craft of History course spoke about their research projects, which were based on archival collections at the Cofrin Library Archives. The whole episode is well worth listening to. The segment on my class runs from 11’50” to 20’10”.

“Craft of History” Presentations
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OPID 2018 Faculty College

The schedule for the 2018 OPID (UW System) Faculty College is a bit different this year, and I’ve changed up my workshop offering. Instead of doing a multi-day workshop on the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL), I’m offering a more focused 75-minute workshop called “Doing Research on Your Students’ Learning: An Introduction to Scholarship of Teaching and Learning” on both Wednesday and Thursday afternoon. I’m in my sixth and final year of co-directing the Wisconsin Teaching Fellows & Scholars program, and I’m very excited to be working with one last cohort of UW instructors. This year also marks my seventh year as a presenter at Faculty College. I expect it to be my final year, at least for the time being!

It has been a good run, and I have learned from so many people along the way. I would like to thank the following people for sharing ideas that helped me develop my SoTL workshops over the past seven years: Angela Bauer, Lendol Calder, Bill Cerbin, Nancy Chick, Anthony Ciccone, La Vonne Cornell-Swanson, David Hastings, Aeron Haynie, Jennifer Heinert, Cyndi Kernahan, Regan Gurung, and Ryan Martin, and Alison Staudinger. I also benefited from feedback from participants in the 2012–2017 OPID Faculty Colleges, including five cohorts of Wisconsin Teaching Fellows & Scholars. I have enjoyed working with the new OPID Director, Fay Akindes. My favorite thing about OPID-style SoTL is the way that it brings together educators from all across the academy!

I have shared updated versions of my workshop handouts on the SoTL Resources page.

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OPID 2017 Faculty College

On May 30 to June 2, 2017, I will be facilitating two workshops at the UW-System OPID Faculty College:

  • Going Behind the Scenes of the Learning Process: The Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL) — I will lead the beginner workshop which focuses on defining a research question.
  • Reflective Dialogue and Transformational Learning

I have shared many of the handouts from my SoTL workshop using Creative Commons licensing.  See the SoTL Resources page on this site.

I am also sharing my workshop resources on reflective dialogue.

This will be my sixth visit to Faculty College as a workshop facilitator, and I am very much looking forward to working with my colleagues from all around Wisconsin!

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Rethinking Content Coverage

I am excited to be leading a workshop on this topic at the 2017 UWGB Faculty Development Institute, which will take place on the UWGB campus on January 19, 2017. An abstract follows.

As experts in our disciplines and professions, we sometimes forget that we developed our mastery of content knowledge in tandem with—not prior to—understanding, judgment-making abilities, and disciplinary skills.  While it might be possible for students who are inundated with a large volume of content to retain some factual and conceptual information, a pedagogy driven primarily by the imperative to cover content leaves many students holding a bag of disconnected pieces—and the bag probably has a hole in it.  Even “active learning” strategies focused on content mastery (isolated from application of content) can only go so far in helping students develop the deep understanding and disciplined modes of thinking that would allow them to apply what they know.  Participants in this workshop will learn about and discuss several concrete strategies for moving beyond coverage in a way that will allow students to practice applying “content” as they learn it deeply. This workshop will challenge participants to consider what their students might be able to accomplish if content is conceived of as a raw material that students must transform into knowledge, rather than as a finished product that they receive.  Participants will review the “backward design” strategy of course development, which draws attention to what students will be able to do as a result of completing a class.  Additionally, participants will consider a strategy for bringing the highest learning goals for a class into alignment with the assignments, assessments, and pedagogical techniques used in the course.

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OPID 2016 Faculty College

I’m excited to be leading two workshops at the 2016 OPID Faculty College:

  • Going Behind the Scenes of the Learning Process: The Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL) (co-led with Regan Gurung; my break-out sessions focus on developing a SoTL research question)
  • Reflective Discussion and Transformational Learning

I have shared many of the handouts from my SoTL workshop using Creative Commons licensing.  See the SoTL Resources page on this site.

I am also sharing my workshop resources on reflective discussion.

I think it really speaks to the quality of the teaching faculty and staff of the UW System that this group of about 100 participants are diving into a week of professional development almost immediately after completing the Spring semester.



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