Since 2010, religious studies professor Todd LeVasseur ’97 has been helping students better understand their place within nature. We caught up with him to discuss his passion for music, skateboarding (and surfing) and sustainability literacy.
For 2015–16, You were the director of the environmental and sustainability studies program. Why are students drawn to the program? Indeed, it’s 20 years old and as of right now, we have more than 150 amazing and committed minors. I can’t speak for all of them, but if I could distill out a few reasons, one would be passion (many of our students have a strong passion for the planet’s health, matched by their passion for justice in society), and the minor lets them marry those interconnected concerns. Many also want to get a job that will change society and the planet for the better, and this minor gives them the skills to do so and be competitive for graduate opportunities and/or jobs that require thinking in new, holistic ways.
Who are your eco-heroes? Paul Watson and the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society — they’re putting their lives on the line to save cetaceans. Julia “Butterfly” Hill lived in an old-growth redwood tree for two years without literally touching the ground – she not only saved the tree from being logged, she also raised awareness about logging of the last remaining old-growth redwoods. Jane Goodall is the embodiment of compassion for all species and she has so much dignity. Bill McKibben, who started 350.org with some of his undergraduate students. Clayton Thomas-Muller and all the indigenous activists involved with Idle No More up in Canada who are fighting continued colonization, empowering women and transgendered indigenous youth, and mobilizing against the extraction of tar sands oil. Vandana Shiva, for her work with women farmers the world over. Wes Jackson, for his work at the Land Institute. And Wendell Berry, for giving a poetic and moral voice to modern-day ecological agrarian concerns. Then, of course, I have to pay respect to our elders: Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, Aldo Leopold and Rachel Carson.
What book would you recommend all students read to better understand their relationship to nature? You know it’s illegal to ask an academic to suggest just one book, right? Given that, I’d suggest rather than read a book that they instead turn off their phones and spend three hours being silent out in nature somewhere, observant of the sacred community of life within which they reside and of which they are an integral part.
What has been your favorite class to teach? I’ll give a rote but authentically true answer: any class that has students willing to learn, who are engaged and passionate and who consistently challenge me to be a better teacher for them — that is my favorite class to teach. If these criteria are met, the subject matter is secondary. If they get my sarcasm and laugh at my corny jokes, then it’s even better.
You can often be seen skateboarding around campus. Why is this your chosen mode of transportation? Well, I personally don’t think riding bikes is a safe option currently in Charleston until we have comprehensive bike lanes. So, skateboarding allows me to get from my car to my office in a fairly safe and quick amount of time, and back to my car so I can get my daughter from school. I only have one skateboard, which I took over from my wife (Jeanette Marie Halberda ‘01) – it’s a Gravity brand longboard shape that she had as an undergrad here.
When you kick back to relax, what music is playing? This depends on my mood. Archive.org has a live music archive which contains a Grateful Dead section where you can access all the various recordings of shows by each day they were performed, so I spend a lot of time on that site. I’ve been listening to Xavier Rudd and the United Nation’s album Nanna nonstop since it came out last year.
And I’m a huge fan of one-drop roots reggae that mixes horns, percussion and socially conscious lyrics, so Bob Marley and the Wailers, Burning Spear, Groundation, John Brown’s Body, Alpha Blondy and the Solar System, Michael Franti and Spearhead. To top it off would be some Neil Young, Paul Simon and Bob Dylan. But the best music to me is hearing my children laugh and my wife singing to them, or waves breaking at Folly —if I can hear them from my house, I know it’s big enough to surf.
You’re the quality enhancement plan director for sustainability literacy. Why’s that particularly relevant to the CofC experience now? Of the many reasons, here are a few: the job market is demanding students have sustainability literacy, and we need to prepare our students for these emerging future career opportunities.
Sustainability literacy is inherently interdisciplinary, and this presents a chance for us to foster dialogue, research and teaching across multiple schools on campus, which will benefit student learning and research opportunities. It allows us to “walk our talk,” since sustainability is embedded in our strategic plan.
And, lastly, most scientific metrics suggest a much warmer planet that is undergoing major ecosystem shifts, with many of these shifts being inimical for many lifeforms as currently evolved (including ours), and we need to marshal our many resources on campus and in Charleston to help society deal with this tough future that is coming our way.
The College can be a leader in helping generate solutions to these “wicked problems,” as they’re called in the literature. I’m excited to see where we’re going to go as a campus in the coming years as we learn about sustainability literacy together – exciting new opportunities are going to emerge and our students are going to be given the skills they need for their future. Sustainability literacy is central to that mission.
Final Thoughts? How lucky are we to be alive on this beautiful planet at this critical moment in time, with all its magical lifeforms as we all spin through the infinity of space together. To me, the grandeur and fragility of this demands of each of us loving service to all lifeforms. This motivates, inspires and humbles me every day.