"What do we need of bags?" Thomas asks the class, adding that Americans use 100 billion plastic bags and 10 billion paper bags every year.
Thomas is dressed casually in blue jeans and a granite-colored T-shirt. His sage-colored jacket matches the theme of the course he is teaching: the environmentally conscious class called Green Chemistry, which is being offered for the first time this semester.
"Maybe paper bags aren't better for the environment," Thomas poses, an idea that surely defies conventional wisdom. Most paper bags just sit in landfills, he says.
The students are here to ponder environmental problems, but whether they take his lessons to heart is yet unclear. Philosophically, the course -- and the fact it exists at all -- raises an interesting question: If science and technology brought us the products and lifestyle that led to so much environmental destruction, can they also solve those problems?
"If science doesn't, who will?" asks Thomas, an assistant chemistry professor. While he has faith in science, "I'm not confident the solutions science offers will be acceptable to everyone."
Let's hear from some other people.
Mike Petersen, the executive director of the Lands Council in Spokane, a grassroots nonprofit dedicated to conservation, says he's skeptical whether technology alone is enough.
"Our lifestyles need to change," Petersen says. But that change will come slowly, because our "infrastructure" is not equipped to handle a drastic shift in behavior, he says. Still, there are subtle changes people can make in the meantime -- like carpooling -- but first people have to break habits and consider alternatives.
"You have, really, the citizens that love -- and I'm one of them -- that love their private automobile," he says. "It is a cultural training."
Jonathan Isacoff, director of Gonzaga's environmental studies program, teaches political science as well as courses that examine "green" topics. He acknowledges the cultural forces that Petersen identified, but says ideas and politics -- not necessarily science -- are more to blame for our climate crisis. He points to capitalism, saying it has driven behavior that exploits science and technology.
"They have exponentially enhanced our ability to extract and destroy," he explains.
Later, Isacoff backs off a little, saying capitalism, while flawed, is not necessarily evil. He is, however, sure of one thing.
"There's little question we need to get off the fossil fuel bandwagon," he says. "We cannot go on forever using coal and oil."
For his part, Thomas, in professor fashion, says he just wants his Green Chemistry students -- and Americans, really -- to make informed decisions. He came to the university in part to teach the class. He is versed in the environmental culture and is aware of its pitfalls.
"Both sides of the environmental spectrum use fear as a tactic to get people on their side," he says. Thomas explains that he, instead, aims to identify "good, scientific understanding," and, ultimately, he wants to make fear tactics less effective.
"I will try not to inject my personal opinions, but I will try to inject what I know as a scientist," he explains. Thomas doesn't much care what people do, what they buy or how they behave. He just hopes there is a purpose behind it.
Back in class, he's still pressing the debate about paper versus plastic bags, asking the students to identify the pluses and minuses of each. Then, he instructs them to consider ways to develop a reusable bag.
Students break into small groups and begin discussing the logistics. When one student asks for feedback from Thomas, he curtly replies, "I don't know, it's your bag."
His shortness is not the product of a lazy educator, but rather is proof of Thomas' objective: to force people to think independently.
Miles Miller, one of Thomas' students, says people just need to think of different ways to use resources. He and Todd Arnold, one of his partners for today's project, brainstorm ideas for their reusable bag, and each seem sold on the environmental movement.
"One of the factors [the environmental movement deals with] is our willingness to change all of our habits, how we do things," Miller says.
For now, the students' habits do not appear to be changing much. There is one reusable Nalgene bottle in the classroom, and only one student is saving paper by taking his notes on a laptop. At the end, students stream out of Thomas' classroom, leaving the lesson in their wake. Cell phones come flashing out as some students race to their cars. As Thomas says, "It's your bag."