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NEH funds Choices and Challenges

By Sally Harris

Spectrum Volume 18 Issue 12 - November 9, 1995

The Choices and Challenges Project at Virginia Tech has received funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities for 1996-97 to develop and hold public forums exploring humans' relationship with the environment.

At a time when diminishing federal support is being directed toward programs in the humanities as well as the environment, the Choices and Challenges Project grant is one of the largest awarded by the Public Humanities Projects Program of NEH during this funding period. The award is for $85,000.

The 1996-97 project will feature a series of public programs centered on the theme "Quality of Life in the Global Environment." These programs will extend the examination of "quality of life" that began in 1994 with a highly successful forum emphasizing medical care ("Quality of Life at the End of Life") and continued in 1995 to consider changes in community organization created by advances in information technologies ("Quality of Life in the Electronic Village").

The centerpieces of the 1996-97 project are two independent but interconnected public forums to be held on the Virginia Tech campus. The first, "Sharing the Earth's Water Supply," will be held Oct. 17, 1996. "Many parts of this country and large areas of the world are facing inadequate supplies of water," according to Doris Zallen, who heads the Choices and Challenges Project. "This is a situation that threatens human health, impairs prospects for agriculture and industry, and jeopardizes the survival of animals and plants."

The problem of providing fresh water intensifies with each year. Technological solutions-such as building dams and diverting water flow through elaborate transfer and irrigation systems-have not been sufficient to meet the growing needs and, in many cases, have introduced new problems, depriving some areas of suitable water or causing water quality to deteriorate, Zallen said. "Water is crucial for life," she said. "In making decisions about how to share this fragile resource, we will be determining the quality of life of all of earth's residents."

Examining the earth's limited fresh-water resources will serve as the entry point for an exploration of the way humans see their place in nature. "Water-related issues-made real by raising contemporary case studies-will be used to clarify the ethical, cultural, religious, and legal traditions that have led us to our current view of the natural world and that form the basis of our present ways of thinking about the environment," Zallen said.

The second forum, "Preparing for the Next Century," will take place April 3, 1997. This forum, looking to the future status of the global environment, will examine the prospects for balancing the earth's available water, energy, and food and fiber resources with the needs of its residents and will identify areas of greatest potential concern. The humanities disciplines will continue to be used as guides to determine if the ways in which we now deal with environmental questions will be sufficient to meet the environmental challenges of the 21st century.

The forums are one-day, free events composed of three parts: background or "tutorial" sessions held in the morning; a main session, designed as an interactive teleconference that brings all the participants together; and concluding sessions that expand the discussion on specific topic areas. The teleconference session is broadcast live from the Donaldson Brown Center to sites throughout the United States by the PBS Adult Learning Satellite Service, and participants at these sites can ask questions by phone, fax, or e-mail. At the 1995 forum, 350 sites participated nation-wide.

In addition to the two day-long forums, several community programs will be held, both prior to and following the forums, in the form of video presentations, panel discussions, and book groups. These programs will be co-sponsored with local community groups to promote dialogue and thinking about these issues within the local community.

Also in the works are a World Wide Web site for information about the forums, written transcripts of the teleconferences, bibliographic materials, information on past Choices and Challenges programs, and an electronic discussion group to accompany the 1996 and 1997 forums. Additional funds to support local programming efforts are being sought.

For more information, contact the Choices and Challenges project office at 151 Lane Hall, call 1-6476, or use e-mail (choices@vt.edu).