December 5, 1997


Environmental activism -- 401

New course taught by Dr. Jim Butler dedicated to excellence in environmental research

Folio Staff

Renewable Resources
professor Dr. Jim

Most of us can probably remember one course that fundamentally changed our world view.

Environmental and Conservation Sciences 401, Environmental Activism, taught for the first time by Dr. Jim Butler, is in the running for that distinction, according to some students.

"I've never seen a class with so much participation, genuine interest and willingness to work on course projects," says student Tove Reece. "It was a great overview of environmental activism."

"It was much more than just a science course on resource management," says Butler. "This was a course about individual empowerment, about showing students that they can change the world. Students learned that they aren't on this earth, they are part of this earth."

Butler says he developed the multi-disciplinary course in response to students, who came to him with the idea. Andy Bezener and Erin McCloskey were among them. "Jim gave us what was missing in other courses," says McCloskey, who will graduate this spring.

"So many other professors heavily affiliated with industry tip-toed around these issues. It's ironic that in a university we are taught all sorts of perspectives, but no one gives the environmental perspective."

About 25 students registered in the fall course. Another 15 simply showed up. Most of the students in the course were enrolled in the environmental and conservation sciences program, but students also hailed from political science, anthropology, physical education, arts and sciences departments and the general public.

Students read the work of this century's leading environmental writers and listened to guest lectures from today's leading environmental advocates. Lecturers included Adrian Carr, a director of the Western Canada Wilderness Committee; Brian Staszenski, director of the Environmental Resource Centre; a lawyer associated with the Alberta Wilderness Association; and a woman from Saskatchewan who successfully fought the dumping of toxic wastes near Meadow Lake.

Those were inspiring, say students. Moreover, adds Butler, many people engaged in environmental advocacy feel they're alone. Many grow disillusioned and burn out. But the students learned they are part of a larger community of people dedicated to environmental health and eco-system integrity. That's been beneficial, says McCloskey, and ultimately it will help students find jobs in the field.

Butler acknowledges the course-one of the first of its kind in Canada-has its critics. But he says physicians study and are advocates for human health. Why isn't the study of and advocacy for environmental and eco-system health a legitimate study? McCloskey says so many other courses were taught from the perspective that the earth is simply a resource for humankind, and are taught from a completely biased point of view.

"I found the course was taught very rigorously and structured," says Reece. "We weren't a bunch of people sitting around doing a group hug."

Some students took their environmental advocacy to West Edmonton Mall November 22. However, security guards at the mall were in no mood for a group hug when about 20 students marched around the Deep Sea Adventure area, demanding the dolphins be released. One woman was arrested.

"We learned to speak out for the things we believe in," says Reece, one of the city's more outspoken advocates for animal rights. And the course has helped Bezener-a self-described fence sitter- re-evaluate the way his society works. "We're trapped in a value system dominated by development; we need to see its flaws and examine the alternatives."

Examining those alternatives needs to happen on the basis of good common sense and judgment, says Butler. These students don't always need more science to understand the issues. They need to work on the optimal rather than the maximal, and not be afraid to be guided by their emotional feelings for the earth.

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