MEDFORD, MASS. — THE room looks eerily high-tech. There are exposed rafters, hanging fluorescent lights, a lime green carpet, plastic chairs. A slightly anomalous setting for a conference on how to live in harmony with nature, but that is indeed what is happening here at the Tufts University campus on this day in early June.
At the lectern is Anthony Cortese, dean of environmental programs at Tufts. Professor Cortese is energetically recounting his experiences at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, where he recently spent a week. "The Rio scene was unbelievable," he says. "It reminded me of an environmental Woodstock, except it was much more organized."
Cortese tells his audience, consisting mostly of fellow university professors, that the great environmental problems of the world are caused by the "billion richest people and the billion poorest." The richest are guilty of "polluting and overproducing," while the poorest "have to destroy their natural environment just to survive."
Later in the day, the professors bicker among themselves over how best to alleviate some of the environmental disasters-in-the-making.
Jack Ridge, a Tufts geology professor, earnestly asks whether "sustainable development" - a favorite catch phrase of Cortese's - is possible. Susan Ostrander, who teaches sociology at Tufts, suggests that ecological catastrophe can only be staved off through the "redistribution of wealth and the empowerment of women." But Marcelo Bianconi, a Tufts economist, counters that this kind of talk is purely emotional and lacks a "scientific basis."
Welcome to the Tufts Environmental Literacy Institute, or TELI as it is known by its devotees. This three-year old program brings about 50 professors together each year for two weeks of lectures, workshops, and field trips - and for a great deal of self-conscious soul-searching about such issues as ozone depletion, population growth, and water quality.
These professors are not being trained to become ecologists or to teach specialized courses in environmentalism. Rather, their goal is to become "environmentally aware" so that they can inject ecological concerns into whatever course they happen to be teaching - whether it's Spanish, political science, or civil engineering.
Once exposed to these issues, the sponsors of TELI hope that these professors will in turn teach their students about environmental concerns - thus setting off a chain reaction of increased sensitivity to nature. In the three years of the program's existence, sponsors estimate that 5,000 to 8,000 students have had their consciousness raised by program graduates.
A former commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection, Cortese created TELI to meet what he perceived as a growing need for a new form of environmental education.
"There is an urgent need for retraining faculty to integrate population, development, and environmental perspectives as part of their normal teaching," Cortese says with the zeal of an evangelist. "It's better than specialized courses. Through integration, students get broad, continuing exposure to these issues."
Although most participants in this year's TELI course, which ended June 5, work at Tufts, some came from as far away as Howard University in Washington, D.C., and Xavier University in New Orleans.
More important than their geographical diversity is their intellectual variety. The participants in TELI spanned virtually every academic department, from philosophy and political science to mathematics and biology. The program is meant to provide a forum for academic cross-fertilization.
It is an approach to education that the program participants seemed to appreciate.
"I've enjoyed interacting with people from different disciplines and hearing their awareness of problems and how to solve them," says Lynn Brant, a geologist from the University of Northern Iowa. "In academia, there are a lot of big, high walls between disciplines that are difficult to jump over. Here, the walls are taken down."
Ms. Brant and the other program participants spent most of their two weeks at TELI listening to lectures on topics with such tedious-sounding titles as "Agriculture and Problems of Soil Degradation" and "Focus on Water as a Medium."
But besides these speeches, the TELI-ites also attended a play called "The Christopher Columbus Follies: An Eco-Cabaret," put on by a local theater troupe. And program participants took a number of field trips, visiting, among other places, an organic farm in Concord, Mass., and the town of Quincy's water-treatment facility in Boston harbor.
A number of participants cited these field trips as a highlight of the program. "The field trips were very useful," says Judy Staicer, who teaches set design in Tufts' drama department. "They brought home in a practical way what the solutions are, what works in solving environmental problems."
Each TELI workshop costs about $100,000 to put on. The program was originally funded by Allied-Signal Corporation, a chemical company, but now the costs are split among the Environmental Protection Agency and three corporations: Union Carbide, Dow, and Du Pont.
The program also has received the White House's seal of approval. In fall 1991, President Bush awarded the program an Environmental and Conservation Challenge Award.
Now TELI hopes to take its success on the road. Cortese is applying for an EPA grant to train other American universities how to set up similar programs. During the Earth Summit, he visited Brazil to finalize the arrangements for a Brazilian Environmental Education and Research Partnership to be run by Tufts in cooperation with four Brazilian universities. The money for the Brazilian venture, which will train local professors in "environmental awareness," is coming mainly from Alcoa Corporation.
But Cortese isn't planning to stop with that project. "I've written a proposal that says that if we develop 50 centers like this on a worldwide basis we can reach a million students a year for a cost of just $50 million," he says proudly. Later, he adds, "It's an exciting idea for the future." And an ambitious one.