The Monster in the Academic Room

Last August, two professors of anthropology from California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, Kristen Conway-Gomez, and James Blair, invited me to offer a graduate seminar on ecological regeneration. I accepted.

The Lyle Center and the computer university 

For 16 weeks I met 8 students at the Lyle Center / Department of Regenerative Studies, College of Environmental Design. The Lyle Center stands on a hill, overlooking the main campus. Yet there’s very little it shares with the university. The two institutions differ in location, architecture, and mission.

Like most American universities, Cal Poly Pomona has been caught in a fashionable frenzy of multiculturalism and ethnic studies. It’s as if we had never had a Renaissance or Enlightenment and we are still trying to discover our roots.

Moreover, the State Polytechnic at Pomona has become for all intents and purposes a computer university. Computers are its lifeblood. They are the primary means of administration and communication. They are running the school’s immersion in engineering, industrial agriculture, and other technical instruction.

The pandemic has intensified the oppressive existence of the computers as instruments of human relations, administration, and control.

During my Fall 2021 semester of teaching, I met no more than a handful of technicians and administrators. I sensed that university employees and professors went out of their way in discouraging interaction with other people, including me. This bothered me. The university, after all, is supposed to be a community of scholars teaching and searching for truth. But where would one find truth or do real teaching through computer zoom?

The Lyle exception 

In contrast to the Polytechnic University, the Lyle Center was like a lighthouse of hope and knowledge designed to study the planet and evaluate the harm humans inflict on the natural world.

The Lyle Center educates and inspires students to repair the ecological damage of America’s chemical and mechanical economy and society. It is the brainchild of John Tillman Lyle, 1934-1998. He was an academic authority on “environmental design and regenerative systems,” about which he wrote an enlightening textbook: Regenerative Design for Sustainable  Development (1994). David Orr, environmental studies professor at Oberlin College, called this book “a user’s manual for planet Earth.”

A professor of landscape architecture at Cal Poly, Pomona, for several years, Lyle had the knowledge, vision, courage, and persistence to convince the university to build a center / department where students could study the effects of humans on the planet and, in theory and practice, exercise their minds in the science and politics of how to regenerate healthy ecological and human relations and practices.

Students and regeneration

It’s this moral mission that brought me to the Lyle Center. I did not appreciate the university’s classifying me as a lecturer, but I let it go.

I wanted to find out firsthand how college students saw their country and the world at this utterly stressful time, fall of 2021, when a global pandemic and a worsening climate chaos were issuing their dire threats to a largely greedy and deaf global oligarchy bought and sold by the fossil fuels industry, corrupt country politicians, and powerless multitudes.

After an introduction on the revolutionary idea of regeneration, I spoke to the students about ancient Greece, especially Athens in the sixth and fifth centuries BCE. I described the near civil war condition Athenians faced when a few rich farmers loaned money to poor farmers who could not repay their debt. The moneyed oligarchy enslaved the indebted small farmers.

A few enlighten Athenian politicians saved the day. They appointed Solon to supreme power for a year. Solon, a former leader trusted by rich and poor, abolished debt peonage and slavery. His reforms of the Athenian Constitution set the foundations for democracy.

Democracy means power in the hands of the people. Along with their invention of science, democracy was the quintessential Greek contribution to civilization.

Athenians did not discover democracy. It was in the civilization of the polis all over Hellas. Even natural philosophers like the seventh century BCE Anaximander added equality and justice to natural phenomena of cold, hot, dry, and wet as necessary virtues for the harmonious working of the Cosmos.

I urged students to always have democracy in mind. In the absence of democracy, no effective action will be taken soon enough to save us from ourselves for having trusted for so long the untrustworthy petroleum, natural gas, and coal companies, and their political subsidiaries in Congress and the White House.

The students, ranging in age from the thirties to the forties, took the difficult idea of regeneration seriously. They participated in the discussion and asked me and each other important questions. Each Tuesday afternoon we spent about three hours talking. Most of that discussion took place under a tree in front of our classroom.

I enriched this discussion with a few guest speakers from the Center for Biological Diversity, Rodale Institute, and the Natural Resources Defense Council. These experts shed light on the vital importance of biodiversity, ecological values and needs and threats in Southern California; the history of the disappearing Los Angeles River; insights and applications of agroecological farming; and the destructive politics of pebble mining at Bristol Bay, Alaska.

River’s End

I could not ignore the dirty water politics of California. The director, editor, and producer of River’s End, Jacob Morrison, and his colleague producer, Kurt Kittleson, came to my class and presented their award-winning documentary of how the farmers of California, and especially those of the Central Valley, use 80 percent of the drinking water of California, causing immeasurable harm to fish and wildlife and democracy. Most of that precious water farmers use to produce almonds, primarily for export. A gallon of water is necessary for each almond.

The consequences of this public water grabbing and wasting for private profit, including those of mining and industrialized farming, are crippling to democracy, science, and biological diversity and beneficial insects like honeybees. These are gigantic ecological crimes that neither professors nor students can punish.

My hope was simply to make the students aware that, beyond the often useful façade of science, state and corporations are undermining life itself, as climate chaos illustrates with terrifying power and frequency.

New Homestead Act

One of the students, Arthur Levine, felt the US government and early Americans all but wiped out Native Americans, looting and appropriating their lands and killing their buffaloes. They inflicted similar violence against Black people kidnapped from Africa. So for any regeneration to work, Levine argued, the federal government had to pass a New Homestead Act, which would gift 200 million acres of federal land to Native Americans, 120 million to Black Americans, and 100 million to “immigrants who are working the land on private farms.”

Levine was certain his landmark reform proposal “would rise to the occasion to uplift the country and marginalized people in the nation while addressing climate change and improving democracy: a modern-day Homestead Act which invests in nature as infrastructure and people as stewards of the land.”

I agree we need another Homestead Act to expand and transform farming from a mining business to raising food in harmony with nature. We have a moral obligation to restore the integrity and independence of Native Americans.

But instead of depleting the land owned for all of us by the federal government, it would be more appropriate and just to recover the excess land owned by large farmers, ranchers, and billionaires.

A provision in a New Homestead Act would prohibit any American from owning more than 160 acres of land. The federal government would buy the excess private land and then redistribute it to people (Native Americans, Blacks, and immigrants, able and willing to farm and raise food without threatening the natural world).

As part of this New Deal, the homesteader would have to farm with his family without hiring workers and knowing he could not sell the land. Once the homesteader ceases working the farm, the land would revert to the federal government.

Americans and the natural world

Other students explored the idea of regeneration in a variety of ways that demonstrated the uneasy relationship of Americans to the natural world, be that of water abuse in the Central Valley of California or the use of anticoagulant rodenticides for “pest management.”

“Humans need to take responsibility for their food storage… use air-tight containers… [work] with the natural world in the form of raptor boxes. We must stop prioritizing profits over the health of our wildlife and subsequently our environment,” wrote Lauren Hamlett.

Whitney Doyle explained the transformation of “the valley of pear blossoms,” the Rogue Valley, “where rolling green hills, with old oaks, dance alone the tree line of pines in Southern Oregon.” That was her birthplace of dreams. However the pear orchards bordering her home became agribusiness selling choice pears to the world. Her hometown, she writes, is now “littered with fast food and chain restaurants, in place of backyard gardens and small family-owned farms.”

Whitney sought relief and regeneration in agroecology, a marriage of traditional farming to the latest knowledge from the science of ecology.

Flowers for the gods

Priyankaa Cid focused on the innovative strategy of a start-up in India, Phool (Flower). Its director, Ankit Agarwal, convinced some temples to allow him to reuse their ceremonial flowers  rather than dumping them into the sacred Ganges River. Temples usually throw daily about a thousand tons of flowers in the Ganges River, thinking that the Ganges River would return the flowers to the gods.

Prayer for the planet

Katherine Ferwerda, born and raised in a family farm in Wisconsin, took the idea of regeneration to the American war in Afghanistan. She selected prayer rugs weaved by women as the mirrors of war and liberation. She explained:

“The 3 rugs I have designed are based on symbols I see assimilated into our landscape and that I believe will become icons of our future. I’ve become very frustrated with the program, wondered what I’m doing here, and concerned with how I can participate in the necessary changes we all have to make. This [final assignment on the prayer rugs of Afghanistan] felt like [a] glimmer of possibility for me.”

Livable future

These fragments from the research papers of my students highlight the significance of the Lyle Center. As Katherine said, students are stressed. However, the teaching experience, listening to voices from defenders of the natural world, and visiting an organic farm, raised their hopes. This experience changes students to well-informed, educated, and inspired citizens fighting for a livable future.

The message of the abandoned Lyle Center

And yet the Lyle Center is ignored by its legal overlord, the California State Polytechnic University at Pomona. One walks around the beautiful if lonely and deserted buildings and land of the Center and sees neglect and deterioration everywhere.

Could it be senior administrators of the University are afraid of the Lyle Center? Potentially, a thriving academic place studying and advocating ecological family farming, no more fossil fuels, solar and wind energy, a healthy natural world, and vigorous democracy, could be a magnet for talent and money. This would overshadow the business as usual university. After all, we are surrounded by climate chaos, about which the Center has knowledge and wisdom, while the university barely recognizes we live in a period of climate emergency.

The Spadra trash volcano 

One of my students, Audrey Snyder, in her final paper, argued that students at the Lyle Center don’t have to go far for tracking down issues and dilemmas of ecological trouble and regeneration. They only have to discover the Spadra Landfill adjacent to their classrooms.

Audrey connected the Lyle Center (and the Polytechnic University) to the Spadra Landfill, a 338-acre burial ground for 17.1 million tons of garbage. This monstrous mountain of trash, including food wastes, came from Los Angeles County in the years 1957 to 2000. The Spadra Landfill, former Smith Ranch, is on the western edge of Cal Poly Pomona.

Like all landfills, this gigantic Spadra holding tank, is a volcano emitting greenhouse gases like methane and spilling hazardous waters. Technicians for decades have been going around offices and classrooms at Lyle Center and the university checking for methane in the air.

The Spadra Landfill has been threatening the Lyle Center for 27 years and the Polytechnic University for 65 years — and counting.

The city of Pomona, which hosts the Lyle Center and the Polytechnic University and the Spadra Landfill, also suffers from the Los Angeles County trash buried in its land. Pomona is an extremely impoverished community, which ranks fourth in the country for toxic air pollution.

My student Joshua Siegel reported that most of the residents of Pomona “have been taken advantaged for decades. [They]… suffer from degraded and polluted environments, lack of opportunities for education and job training, [and] lack of access to healthy food. The only available solution for these [Pomona] communities is to come together, to work together for better living conditions. Forming low-income residents into cooperative corporations provides the structure for this solution to be realized.”

Siegel could add that the Polytechnic University also ignores Pomona.

However, does anybody care about Pomona, including the State of California that allows polluters to darken the air people breathe? Are we learning from the corrupt history of burying our wastes? What is it that convinces us to add toxic traps to the future of our children and grandchildren?

I was shocked when I learned of the massive landfill not far from my Lyle Center classroom.

Pedagogy of liberation and survival

Yet my student Audrey saw the landfill for what it is. So large that it became landscape itself. So portent with ill omens that she described the Lyle Center as a “utopian project.” No matter the feelings, however, one could not ignore it. She asked a philosophical question, perhaps it could be a “pedagogical site.”

“How might an investigation of the Spadra Landfill adjacent to the Lyle Center for Regenerative Studies lead to patterns of educational experiences and community shift?” she wrote.

Of course, Audrey is right. The Spadra Landfill should become part of the pedagogy of students at the Lyle Center and at the university, and the residents of Pomona.

This is the reason why I could not tolerate the university’s abandonment of the Lyle Center. It’s immoral and self-destructive. Yes, teach students ethnic studies but, above all, open their eyes and mind to reality. Offer them knowledge for survival and civilization.

California has plenty of Spadra-like landfills. The US EPA reports that these California landfills emit 419.6 million square feet of methane gas per day, Audrey cited in her paper.

The Lyle Center, even at its dilapidated state, is an ember reminding us daily we must act to save ourselves and the irreplaceable and priceless natural world.

At a bare minimum, Cal Poly Pomona should renovate the Center as well as hire the best scientists who will educate students and America to regenerate America and the world.

Evaggelos Vallianatos is a historian and environmental strategist, who worked at the US Environmental Protection Agency for 25 years. He is the author of 6 books, including Poison Spring with Mckay Jenkings.