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Teaching to save the world

<p>Iñaki Prádanos-Garcia is a lifelong learner and even cultivates his own food forest.</p>

Iñaki Prádanos-Garcia is a lifelong learner and even cultivates his own food forest.

It’s the very first day of my freshman year at Miami University, and as the nerves course through my veins, I sit down at a desk near the front of my Spanish Literature class, waiting anxiously for someone else in the room to break the silence. As the minutes pass, the silence remains, building my anxiety until finally the paneled wooden door leading into the classroom opens and in walks a slim man with tight brown curls, bright red pants and three hoop earrings lining the lobe of his left ear. 

As the man introduces himself as Dr. Luis Prádanos-Garcia, or better known by his nickname Iñaki, I take in his casual and relaxed appearance, wondering what kind of “hippie” professor I had signed myself up for. Little did I know that in the next four years at Miami, I would be so impacted by this “hippie” professor’s passion and integrity that I would schedule three other classes with him, reconsider my entire career path and end up writing an op-ed for my university about his work.

Iñaki began his higher education studying humanities in Spain, which he describes as being “a student of everything and a teacher of nothing,” playing off of the fact that he studied a multitude of disciplines — including history, philosophy, economics, anthropology and psychology — without specializing completely in any one of them. Although he did not fully study any one of these disciplines, he still views this type of education as critical in showcasing the importance of forming connections between different fields and recognizing themes of interconnectedness. 

Once he moved to the U.S. to pursue his doctorate in Texas, Iñaki began to apply this understanding of interdisciplinary studies to the contemporary problems he saw around him. In the years prior, he had become familiarized with social justice and cultural movements, but it wasn’t until he arrived in Texas that he heard of environmental phenomena such as ecological overshoot and rapid loss of biodiversity

Ecological overshoot, which occurs when human demand exceeds the regenerative capacity of a natural ecosystem, especially resonated with Iñaki and led him to reflect: “How could I be studying for my doctorate without ever having had a class that talks about this? There is nothing more important.” 

From this reflection, Iñaki began his specialization in topics such as post-growth economics and culture that seek to connect the human and nonhuman while emphasizing that everything needed to maintain life should be put in the center of economic and social activity as opposed to the never ending accumulation of money and the consumption of finite resources. Putting life and not capital in the center of society simultaneously combats both the ecological crisis and the crisis of inequality that have been created by a system that prioritizes the production of goods over the reproduction of life. 

According to Iñaki, “The idea [behind the socio-ecological transition movement] is that the social and the ecological issues are connected and we cannot resolve one without resolving the other. They must be addressed together.” 

Iñaki is a passionate advocate for change and is continually informing himself more and more on both the topics in which he specializes and those that he sees as related, making him an extremely effective and engaging professor. 

However, teaching was not necessarily always his dream. 

“I didn’t really even decide to teach. It’s just what you do with a doctorate,” he says.  “But it serves as a stable platform to talk about important issues and to investigate and publish influential work in your field so that others can share in your findings.” 

Within the classroom, Iñaki implements a non-traditional way of teaching that emphasizes discussion over information. When asked if his classes have changed students’ opinions or behaviors, Iñaki firmly replied: “I don’t change anyone. I facilitate conversations.”

Iñaki believes that the professor doesn’t have to be at the front of the classroom presenting information in order for students to learn. Rather, he has seen that students learn better through open discussions surrounding texts, ideas and personal experiences. “This makes it so that no one is alienated from a conversation and we can all engage critically with the information we have compiled together.”

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Outside of the classroom, Iñaki practices what he preaches by dedicating himself to regenerative practices. One of the most prominent activities that he participates in is the cultivation of his own food forest that, like permaculture, is “designed to imitate the normal ecological processes of a forest while incorporating plants, such as fruits, vegetables and medicinal herbs, that benefit humans.” 

Food forests thrive by attracting biodiversity, creating habitats, regenerating soil, filtering water and improving fungal ecology. However, as Iñaki acknowledges, food forests often go against what we consider a “beautiful garden,” meaning we must transform our standards of beauty to be more ecological and less anthropocentric. 

Iñaki recognizes that, on Miami’s campus, doing something such as growing a food forest may not be a viable option for students. Luckily, he can identify a plethora of other alternatives for those who want to get involved in the ecosocial transition movement. 

One of these activities is volunteering at the Institute for Food at Miami, where students can learn how to grow food in an ecological way and receive products in exchange for their help. Miami students can also put pressure on the university to make real and integrated changes such as switching the globalized, unsustainable and unhealthy food system on campus to a system that is local, ecological and nutritious. 

Furthermore, students can raise awareness that carbon neutrality, one of Miami’s main sustainability goals, cannot be treated as an isolated issue. Rather, as Iñaki emphasizes, “climate change is merely a symptom of ecological overshoot, so our campus must start integrating what they are already doing with other issues such as loss of biodiversity and the disruption of the cycle of nutrients if we truly want to make an impact.” 

Although there is much to do and much to overcome, Iñaki maintains that we must have hope for a better future. 

As the professor of my first class freshman year and the professor of my last class senior year, Iñaki has instilled this hope in me. When I graduate from Miami University, I am taking this hope with me, along with the belief that we do in fact have the power to enact change. And as I get up from my desk in Iñaki’s classroom for the last time, I will be hopeful that the “hippie” professor I met in August of 2019 will have as big an impact on the next person to sit there as he did on me.