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Michael Meyer, Ph. D., Philosophy Department
Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2012
In the 1970s, sustainability was not discussed much in high school classrooms. At least that is how Santa Clara philosophy and ethics Professor Michael Meyer, Ph.D., remembers it. But even though the concept of sustainability was not yet part of the curriculum, Professor Meyer still recalls beginning to think about the environment when he was in high school. “I grew up in the Midwest and I read about John Muir and his travels away from there,” he says, “from Wisconsin to the Gulf of Mexico and then to California and Alaska. This was pretty exciting.” It was ultimately environmental activists such as Muir and his colleagues that had an effect on Professor Meyer and raised his awareness of environmental issues, which created the foundation for his lasting passion for sustainability.
Professor Meyer’s passion evolved slowly over time. When he was in Graduate School, he had the privilege to travel to West Africa where he visited his soon-to-be wife in the Peace Corps in Niger. He reflects on this experience as one of many that began to influence his thoughts regarding the environment and sustainability. “There I saw many things related to sustainability that had an effect on me such as desertification, poverty, and issues of clean water,” he says, “but at the time I did not at all fully realize this.” When Professor Meyer came to Santa Clara over 15 years ago, he created the first course in Environmental Ethics within the Philosophy Department, and he has continued to teach it every year.
For Professor Meyer, being able to teach an ethics course every year dealing with themes of sustainability is something he has become quite passionate about. He says, “Introducing environmental ethics to students, many but not all of whom already have some considerable interest in, or concern for, sustainability, is quite rewarding.” He loves taking those students’ thinking regarding such issues to a more philosophical level, which is personally rewarding for him because he often receives notes of thanks from these students after they have gone off into the world. He recently heard from a former student who is now the first sustainability officer for the largest company in the Philippines.
Professor Meyer takes great satisfaction in teaching students an ethical approach to environmental issues, which for many of these students is something that is new and fun for them, and he hopes that his passion will encourage them to consider how they can incorporate sustainability into their futures. One of the main reasons Professor Meyer continues to be passionate about sustainability in both his personal and professional life is that he believes it is one of the very top moral issues for this generation—if not the single most important one. “This is not just a question about how we treat the environment today,” he says, “but how we treat the poorest people among us as they are typically the most vulnerable when it comes to environmental destruction.” A further aspect of environmental justice, Professor Meyer often considers and teaches about is the impact we have on future generations, and he poses the question of how we are affecting the ability of future generations to meet their needs. He admits that the world will not be any better for future humans as the rapidly growing population as well as our present choices will only make it harder for future individuals to “scratch out a decent living in more trying circumstances.”
Although he expresses concern about the future and our ability to live sustainably in it, Professor Meyer remains resolute and explains that living sustainably can be a tenable way of life if people only understand it in a fuller capacity. For Professor Meyer, this means living a simpler life. He says, “Every day I try to get up and live a simpler life than I might otherwise do if I were not concerned about sustainability.” He notes that both his wife and his daughter play major roles in helping him live more simply. His wife, for instance, recently oversaw a major remodel of their house that upgraded its water and energy facilities to make them more sustainable. And his daughter, he says, “reminds me often to do a better job with reusable bottles, bags, and the rest.” But instead of focusing solely on these sorts of practical sustainable habits, Professor Meyer maintains that the best way to live sustainably is to live more simply day-to-day. Having good friends who help him to live sustainably is a large part of this, but he also believes getting involved in the community and “in the best kind of progressive politics” is a sure way to promote sustainability and encourage others to do so as well.
Professor Meyer plans to work with the Dalai Lama Foundation in the near future to explore the development of ethics education materials, and he knows that an important part of this project will deal with ethics and the environment. He acknowledges, though, that the opportunity to work in this area is difficult because of time-constraints, so he is content, for now, to work with Santa Clara students—such as those who are part of the Environmental Ethics Fellows group and are at present working on issues related to a carbon-neutral residence. In Professor Meyer’s opinion, this situation is perhaps the best of both worlds. He is able to continue to teach and advise motivated students, but he never has to go too far to do something that is worthy of his continued passion for sustainability.
By Aven Satre-Meloy, '13, Sustainability Intern