The Paperless Professor

The Paperless Professor

Today I read about a 68-year-old college professor who has been paper-free for more than a decade.  This Tennessee professor of religion pledged over 15 years ago to keep his classes paper-free, and he has stuck to that pledge. 

I wonder if he has ever calculated how many reams of paper he has saved?  How many tons of toxic chemicals from the production process he has spared?

In 1994 when Gerald Smith made his pledge, it was big news.  The graphical internet was still in its infancy, and many people had not yet heard of email.  AOL had only just released version 1.5 for Microsoft Windows 3.11.

However, colleges had always been on the leading edge of email and internet technology.  When I was attending the University of Washington in 1994, they made it a point to create an email account for every student.  We checked our email using the text-based email program PINE on terminals in the computer labs.  (Uphill, both ways, in the snow.)

Smith is deeply connected to the local ecology.  As part of his "Rural Religion" course he takes students on field trips out into the Tennessee woods to identify wild and abandoned or feral plants.  Many of his classes are conducted outdoors, or with local residents as special guests to talk about what life is like in the rural South.

As a professor of religion and a "practicing Cumberland Presbyterian," Smith also embodies a possible road out of the social deadlock we have created in the realm of ecology.  Most religious people fall onto the conservative part of the political spectrum, which automatically rejects "hippie stuff" like concern for the environment out of hand, as leftist politics. 

But as Smith's work amply demonstrates, being an environmentalist can be seen as honoring the works of God.  "Waste not, want not," Smith says, and this attitude of personal thrift and responsibility has the potential to resonate farther in our society than "normal" green mantras might. 

I had this conversation with a conservative religious right-wing friend a while ago.  He argued "Why can't we save the Earth because it's God's work, rather than getting bogged down in this whole Global Warming thing?"  And I was like, "Okay!  DO THAT."

Smith's story, his respect for the Earth, and his deeply considered belief in the power of the individual to change people, is hopefully a message that will go far.  And his joyous embrace of paper-free alternatives - like hands-on classes and online lecture notes - may help counteract what is often dismissed as "hair shirt environmentalism." 

Reading the story about Smith in the local paper, I'm struck by the fact that Smith didn't ban paper from his life.  Instead, he opened his life to other possibilities, better routes, and easier methods.  Too often we let ourselves be boxed in by two false choices: waste resources, or deprive ourselves.  The truth is that it's a big wide world out there, and better alternatives are all around us.  If we'll simply take a walk in the woods, have a good think, and look around ourselves, we can find a better way.

Photo credit: Flickr/Muffet