Grant Connects Study of Asia and Environment

March 5, 2015

Communications Staff

Students and faculty (group shot).
Visiting the office of Green Earth Volunteers.
Photo credit: Photo provided

Oberlin is strengthening its approach to teaching Asian studies through the lens of environmental studies and sustainability with a yearlong exploratory grant from the Henry Luce Foundation.

With the Luce Initiative on Asian Studies and the Environment (LIASE) grant, the college is expanding its study of Asia and the environment through classes, research, public presentations and faculty seminars. The grant directly funds seminars for faculty from a variety of disciplines to explore sustainability and resilience; curriculum development grants for faculty to include new case studies and perspectives; and intensive study trips to China and Japan for first- and second-year students. The study trips are designed to introduce them to issues of sustainability and resilience, to experience Asian culture firsthand, and to meet colleagues and students in China and Japan.

Through study of sustainability and resilience, Oberlin faculty, staff, and students will be better prepared to understand the “interdependencies between human societies and the natural world,” according to Associate Professor of Environmental Studies Rumi Shammin. The Luce grant activities will enable the college as a whole to contribute solutions to problems that harm ecosystems and human communities when confronted with slow environmental changes such as water and air pollution. The project also lays the groundwork for revised curricula that build bridges among the natural sciences, the humanities, social sciences, and the Conservatory of Music.

“The health of the Earth and of our communities are not just scientific issues,” says Professor of Japanese Ann Sherif. “The Luce-funded activities also recognize the keys roles of the arts and humanities in dealing with global problems that have to be confronted from multidisciplinary vantage points.”

Sherif says sustainability is a daily topic of critical importance in Japan and China. In Japan, the area surrounding the Fukushima nuclear power plant is still contaminated, and it’s estimated that it will take 40 years to fully decommission the site. As a nation low in natural resources, Japan must also debate the future of nuclear power and alternative energy sources. In China, where pollution is tied to rapid economic development, the central government has mapped out ambitious environmental initiatives.

The grant funded a study trip to China in January. A group of Oberlin faculty and six first- and second-year students toured three regions in China. The first leg of the trip began in Beijing, where they attended presentations on environmental topics by university faculty and students at the School of the Environment at Beijing Normal University, an Oberlin College and Oberlin Shansi partner institution.

They also met with Green Earth Volunteers, one of the first non-governmental organizations (NGOs) established in China. The organization is working to limit development, such as dam building, on rivers flowing from the Tibetan highlands and for wildlife habitat preservation in the adjacent areas, says Steven Wojtal, professor of geology and associate dean for curriculum. Wojtal was joined by Professor of Geology Dennis Hubbard, Associate Professor of History and East Asian studies David Kelley, and Associate Professor of Chinese Qiusha Ma.

From Beijing, the group traveled to Taigu, home of Shanxi Agricultural University (SAU), also an Oberlin Shansi partner institution. There, the group heard presentations by SAU faculty and visited the Dazhai, “a farm collective representing agricultural development in the early years of the PRC.”

The study trip ended in the city of Chengdu, where they heard lectures by environmental science faculty from Sichuan University. They traveled to the village of Anlong, on the Funan River in the suburbs of Chengdu, where they met with members of Chengdu Urban Rivers Association. A second trip took them to Dujang Yan, a 2,500-year-old irrigation project.

“China faces many of the same environmental issues that we do in the United States. The widespread use of coal, rapid growth in industry, and very rapid growth in the number of automobiles have led to significant air quality issues,” Wojtal says. “These were very apparent in both Beijing and Taigu. At the same time, NGOs and academic institutions are working to make society more sustainable.”

Wojtal says any proposed solutions to environmental problems must fit within the culture of the society for which they are proposed. “Given the populations and anticipated economic clout of Asian nations, it is critical that our graduates are prepared to develop environmentally sound and culturally appropriate paths toward making societies more sustainable. Students on our trip were so excited to make connections with students in China who share an interest in sustainability and the environment.”

Sherif recently held an information session for students interested in the Luce grant-funded study trip to Japan that she will lead this summer. The theme of the trip is energy and sustainability in Japanese society.

Upcoming programs on campus include a public presentation and faculty development seminar on sustainability and environmental NGOs in China on May 2-3.

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