In this edition of Warren Wilson College’s Swannanoa Journal, Joshua Carpenter profiles John Casey, professor of environmental ethics at WWC.. (In partnership with Warren Wilson College’s Environmental Leadership Center, Xpress presents The Swannanoa Journal, short audio essays on regional environmental sustainability issues, written and recorded by WWC students.)
He’s tall and thin with wispy grey hair and eyes like the morning mist on the mountains. His students have their papers ready, and hand them in before they step out of the room for good. Their grades will be posted online in a month, while they’re out on winter break, but some of the papers handed in that day will be retrieved later. Professor John Casey reads through the papers in the days following, knowing some of the students will return for these papers. He knows this — so he keeps them just in case.
The papers written are for his popular philosophy class — Environmental Ethics. This is the class he has taught for over 20 years at Warren Wilson College, and he still refers to as the class he came here to teach. Anyone who enrolls in it finds themselves learning and debating the effects of environmental climate change, and what can be done to solve it. At the end of the semester the final paper is assigned. The topic is to draw out a plan for an organization that will resolve climate issues, or at least some of them. Casey says, “There‘s very seldom more than two or three papers that are kind of the first dumb idea I thought of, most of them are pretty inventive ideas. Some of them seem to receive a lot more attention than just over the past few weeks. Occasionally it‘s somebody’s sort-of life plan.”
More often than not, the students take the papers fairly seriously. Some have proposed things as simple as starting organic farms. Others propose plans for organizations that would end up changing the world. Since there is no required length, the papers vary from two to almost a dozen pages. Some of them have enough material that they could be used to start websites. But the truly amazing thing is that some environmental organizations have actually begun with these papers. Every so often a student returns for his paper, having decided that an idea is worth following through. Then they use the paper as a guideline and then set up an organization. As farfetched as it may seem, sometimes a simple class paper can actually begin something as big as an environmental-action group.
When it comes to the organizations he recalls being started by the assignment, Casey says, “Most of them are very local, since it’s hard to actually start a national campaign.” Gardening in Detroit is one of the organizations, in which the group has tried to bring together the community within the gardens. Another student is currently trying to use art to combat environmental climate change. Within the Western North Carolina bioregion, some students have started organic farms. But all of these began when Professor Casey asked them to draw out these fledgling ideas in their final paper. The paper is actually a well-known assignment for the philosophy students; many attend his environmental ethics class looking forward to writing it.
As Casey reviews the papers at the end of the semester, sipping from his old, grungy coffee cup, he wonders which of the students will return for their papers. And which of the proposed groups left to him on stapled white paper will wind up becoming an organization that tries to save the world.