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Science with a point of view

| 31 March 2005


George Brimhall (Wendy Edelstein photo)
For many years, George Brimhall, a professor of geology in the Department of Earth and Planetary Science, has felt that “sustainability is only in part a scientific and technical issue — cultural, social, and international factors” now largely determine which of the planet’s resources are used, the relative global environmental consequences, and whether or not international conflict ensues.

This semester, Brimhall, a resource geologist, rolled out his new American Cultures course, Crossroads of Earth Resources and Society (EPS 106AC, cross-listed as L&S 107AC), a historical examination of how European Americans, indigenous peoples, and Asian Americans interacted while seeking their place on the land and striving for human rights. His objective is not simply to provide students with a historical framework but to help them see how their ancestors were part of the nation’s social fabric and that “the resources we use every day are part of the Earth. The greatest challenge in regard to the American consumer lifestyle,” says Brimhall, “is getting people to see their own personal, everyday role in this issue.”

Brimhall covers a lot of figurative ground in the course, beginning with the current situation in Iraq, “to show how resources influence foreign policy.” After Saudi Arabia, Iraq has the second-largest oil reserves in the world, notes Brimhall. Part of the purpose of the class, he says, “is to encourage students to ask questions and search for truth rather than passively listen to the media.”

From there the syllabus takes an ethnogeographic turn, moving far back in time to the Pleistocene era when, Brimhall says, the ancestors of the Native Americans were “far from primitive peoples, surviving the worst climate variations imaginable, and very sophisticated in their understanding of nature and its cycles.”

Unlike the old iteration of the class that drew geology students primarily, the redesigned version has attracted equal numbers of science and non-science students, says Brimhall, from “an incredible array of majors” — art history, political science, math, English literature, pre-law. He takes special pleasure in seeing students from such different areas of interest interact with each other.

An extended opportunity for students to mix will come later in the semester. A “real believer in field trips,” Brimhall has arranged a two-day expedition to the Sierra foothills, incorporating suggestions from anthropology professor Kent Lightfoot. Mother Lode geology, the Gold Rush, and Victorian-era architecture will be mixed in with a discussion of the Miwok tribe that once lived in the path of the Gold Rush. Students will record their impressions in journals that they’ll share around the evening campfire in the Miwok village not far from their campsite.

One measure of the course’s success, says Brimhall, will be if students assume “a sense of ownership” of these “very real issues of sustainability. We’re the greatest consumer society in the world,” he observes, “and we have no idea how much stuff we use.”