C. A. Bowers Essay

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Chet Bowers was an environmentalist long before it was fashionable. As a teacher and scholar at the University of Oregon and Portland State University, his work since the 1970s has focused on the developing ecological crisis, the role of education in reproducing it, and the deep cultural roots that underlie it. A contrarian, he eschews the labels of liberal and progressive, and at times claims rather to be a conservative, because he wants to conserve older traditions of sustainability and community.

While most scholars on the left have focused on capitalism as the source of social and ecological problems, Bowers argues that the roots are much deeper, in the set of metaphorical assumptions he calls “modernity.” These assumptions, or “root metaphors,” have developed over centuries, primarily in Western culture, he says, and include individualism, mechanism, anthropocentrism, and a faith in progress as inevitable and progressive.

Professors and teachers, even those who consider themselves radicals, Bowers points out, reproduce these assumptions in their everyday language in the classroom. For example, a teacher who asks students to “think for themselves” reproduces individualism. This has led him into conflict with prominent followers of Paulo Freire’s critical pedagogy, which Bowers considers part of modernity. The assumptions of modernity, he argues, underlie both the ecological crisis and the increasing fragmentation of community that is exemplified in rising drug abuse and child neglect.

He points out that modern culture has forgotten many of the beliefs and practices of older cultures, which carried assumptions that have produced more sustainable ecosystems and communities. He is sometimes accused of romanticizing indigenous cultures, but his point is more to illustrate the problem with modernity than to advocate for a particular cultural practice.

Recently, he has emphasized the importance of the “commons”—what is held in common ownership rather than being privatized. This includes both the natural—air, water, and so on—and the cultural— the skills and knowledge that are passed down through generations.


  1. Bowers, C. A. (1997). The culture of denial: Why the environmental movement needs a strategy for reforming universities and public schools. Albany: State University of New York Press.
  2. Bowers, C. A. (2000). Let them eat data: How computers affect education, cultural diversity, and the prospects of ecological sustainability. Athens: University of Georgia Press.
  3. Bowers, C. A. (2003). Mindful conservatism: Rethinking the ideological and educational basis of an ecologically sustainable future. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.
  4. Bowers, C. A. (2006). Revitalizing the commons: Cultural and educational sites of resistance and affirmation. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.

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