New Environmental Studies minor is evidence of growing climate concern at Westmont

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Sarah Newton

The approximate 150 attendees at the Climate Action Teach-in on Tuesday the 24th sit on the Dining Commons Lawn.

Will Walker, Staff Writer

The last time Westmont burned was in 2008, when the Tea Fire swept over half the campus, but since then the Westmont community has been fleeing from fires and digging out the mudslide-buried houses of their neighbors.

It’s no surprise, then, that environmentalism is catching on at Westmont, and to that end, this is the first year in which Westmont students can minor in environmental studies.

The new minor is remarkably embedded in Westmont’s General Education curriculum. Its interdisciplinary focus provides what Dr. Amanda Sparkman, who co-advises the minor, calls a “path through the GEs.” Certain professors are teaching “special sections” of required courses which include considerations of environmental issues, which means students can select a particular section of a course they were already going to take, and it can count toward the minor. They’ll still have to take courses specific to the minor, Sparkman said, but “it makes it a lot easier.”

A look at the faculty involved reveals the program’s broad scope: Dr. Sparkman, who is a biology professor, co-advises the major with Dr. Marianne Robins, a history professor; rounding out the rest of the program are Dr. Steve Contakes, a professor of chemistry; Dr. Lisa Deboer who teaches art history; Dr. Meredith Whitnah, a sociology professor; and Dr. Caryn Reeder and Dr. Sandra Richter, who both belong to the religious studies department.

But efforts to study the climate crisis are not confined to the new minor. Yesterday, a “Climate Action Teach-in,” organized by a combination of Westmont students and faculty, took place on the Dining Commons Lawn. Additionally, Santa Barbara’s De La Guerra Plaza will be the city’s site for the Global Climate Strike on Friday.

Dr. Heather Keaney, a Middle East history professor who helped organize the teach-in, hopes Westmont will keep expanding its focus on the climate, especially given its recent experiences with fires and mudslides. “Westmont aspires to be a leader on global issues,” she says. “It’s hard to imagine an issue with more global and immediate impact than the climate crisis.”

And yet, despite its progress, Westmont remains in the company of Christian liberal arts colleges which lag behind in the study of the climate crisis. While proposing the minor to the college, the committee Sparkman had chaired noted that, when some 40 higher education institutions were surveyed, three Christian liberal arts colleges were the only ones with no environmental studies or environmental science major. Westmont has now added a minor in one of those fields. “We’re in a small minority of schools without an environmental studies major,” Sparkman says.

Politically speaking, some of this has to do with religion, she said. Environmentalism and the climate “are not an emphasis among evangelicals, and there’s even been some antagonism. I definitely think Christian liberal arts colleges need to catch up.”

But Sparkman also sees this changing. As soon as the environmental studies program was created, Westmont students rushed to sign up for the courses; the introductory course is currently full nearly to capacity. “They’re embracing theological reasons to care about the environment,” Sparkman said. The program also received strong support from Westmont’s provost, Dr. Mark Sargent, as well as faculty members, including from the religious studies department. Dr. Richter, who is expected to teach a course in the minor in the future, just finished writing a book titled “Environmentalism and the Bible,” and Dr. Reeder’s religious studies course, “The Apocalypse,” will also count toward the minor.

Dr. Keaney will be taking her Modern Middle East class to the climate rally on Friday. “Learning about the people of the Middle East is only part of the educational journey,” she says. “We also need to see them as our global neighbors and respond with informed and compassionate action.” Keaney says her region of study will be hit hardest by the effects of human-caused climate change. “It’s irresponsible and un-Christian to fail to act.”