We’re near the end of the year, so there’s a lot going on, so I’m going to cover a lot of short snippets today.
Happy Friday –
One of the amazing (but slightly depressing) things about being a faculty member is that most of our students are 18-22 years old, year after year, but we get one year older every year. When I first started teaching in 2001, I was only a few years older than the seniors in my classes. Now, I’m almost a few decades older than a typical freshman in next year’s incoming freshman class. How did that happen? While it’s wonderful to have new students coming in the door all the time, it’s also bittersweet when they leave. In fact, to me, that’s the worst part of our jobs as faculty: we generally stay in the same place, but our students graduate and go on to live the rest of their lives. Obviously, we celebrate their successes and want them to fledge the nest. But it’s still sad to see them go.
It’s also bittersweet when faculty leave. As some of you know, Kit Anderson is retiring at the end of this year. Kit has been a mainstay in our Environmental Program for a couple of decades, and you can see her handiwork in many of the things we do in the Program. Though I’ve been here only a semester, Kit has profoundly influenced me and how I think about our Environmental Program and where it’s headed. Kit is the embodiment of many of the core principles and values we share. She has maintained high standards in her courses and with her students while simultaneously maintaining a wonderful sense of humor and balance. Her commitment to her courses comes across any time I hear from her students. And her scholarship is fundamentally interdisciplinary. Kit has influenced all of the faculty in our Environmental Program, probably more than she realizes. And she has influenced hundreds, if not thousands, of students who have passed through her classes or who have been lucky enough to sit down with her in her office.
So, Kit, we will all miss you. Thank you for everything. You know where to find us, and you know there will always be a piece of chocolate waiting for you when you come by The Bittersweet.
I’ll see many of you next week at the Senior Celebration on Tuesday night (RSVP if you haven’t already!), at the Arts & Sciences Awards ceremony on Friday, at the reception in The Bittersweet on Saturday, or at graduation on Sunday!
Happy (but slightly bittersweet) Friday –
There is always so much going on this time of year. Our current students are preparing for finals (and maybe their final finals, if they’re graduating). Others are defending theses. Some might be gearing up for a summer in the mountains (like me) or for a summer interning, hiking the AT, summer schooling, or working.
The other thing that happens this time of year are the celebrations. In the Environmental Program, we do an amazing job of celebrating our successes and our students. Last week, I got to have dinner with several students who’ve received scholarships and the wonderful individuals who have contributed funds for those scholarships. I was lucky enough to share a table with the generous and warm Forciers, Gail Fendley, and Diane Gardner Quinn, as well as some of our very best and brightest ENVS students.
Last night, I had dinner with many current and former recipients of the Ian Worley Award, as well as Ian Worley and Gary Simpson. We talked about everything under the sun, from the Monterrey Bay Aquarium to what life was like at UVM in 1970. It was a special night, for sure. I got to see Ian teach and inspire students in ways that only he can. At the same time, the students were equally inspiring, whether they were talking about sustainable agriculture in Honduras, water quality, sunsets and human well-being, or the Rio Olympics.
Both of these celebrations highlighted for me one of the most amazing things about our Environmental Program – our sense of community and connections, across disciplines, across colleges or schools, and across generations. I’ve been here for only a few months, but I know that I’ve made friendships that will last forever, and I’ve met students who I know are going to move mountains. I’ve met alumni who have already moved mountains.
Developing and maintaining connections are easy when a program or group is small. But we’re big, and growing! We have more than 400 majors on campus right now, and it looks like there’ll be about 100 first-year ENVS students arriving to UVM this fall (which is the largest incoming cohort in at least several years). Plus, there are more than 3000 ENVS alumni scattered around the planet.
How can we do a better job of facilitating community among the 100 incoming students? What about the 3000+ alumni, our current students, and the faculty and staff in ENVS? We talked about it last night over dinner and came up with several possibilities that we’ll be pursuing this summer and fall, so stay tuned. But I’d love to hear any ideas that you all might have, whether you’re a first-year student or someone who was last at UVM in 1972. Just shoot me an email, stop me in town, or swing by the Bittersweet for a chat.
In the meantime, enjoy the end of the semester and the beginning of spring/summer.
Happy Friday –
I’ve spent the past week or so watching red-winged blackbirds, mallards, painted turtles, green frogs, bullfrogs, water striders, water beetles, and much much more come to life at a small pond on our property in Williston. My kids and their friends from the neighborhood spent much of last Saturday and Sunday in little paddle boats floating about in the pond catching leeches. I spent Thursday morning on our deck, switching between writing a paper and looking through my binoculars at the painted turtles and green frogs. Aimee and I are enjoying the pond more than we thought we would. And I bet it’s true for our kids as well. It’s certainly true that I had no idea my kids would get pleasure out of catching leeches.
The pond on our property does more than just entertain us and provide my kids with leeches. It harbors biodiversity, obviously. But it provides an important service for our neighborhood as a storm water catchment. As you probably know, some of the faculty in our Environmental Program and the Gund Institute for Environment are world leaders in this area of scholarship – on the benefits provided by nature.
Rachelle Gould is a rising star in this area of scholarship (if she’s not already a star). Just last week, she had a novel paper published in the journal Ecosystem Services that I would encourage all of you to read. The paper points out that while “Ecosystem Services” attract lots of attention, the Cultural Ecosystem Services that nature provides have largely been ignored. Her paper proposes three new “Cultural Ecosystem Services,” based on empirical data from Hawaii. Those three services are:
Ingenuity: ecosystems aid in developing innovative ideas, approaches, or practices
Life teaching: an ecosystem’s provision of opportunities for learning life lessons and personal values
Perspective: ecosystems’ helping people to gain perspective on their place in the world, to see where they fit, or to "put things back in perspective"
The paper concludes “The benefits of creativity, perspective, and life learning arose repeatedly in our open-ended questioning and find nuanced support from a long history of scholarly work. We hope that naming them will encourage innovation in how to characterize and subsequently incorporate them into studies and practitioner efforts. The ultimate goal of ES work is to allow decision-making based on more complete information; we argue that, when the three new bodies of meaning we suggest are included, the information provided will be just a little more complete.” I absolutely agree.
On a completely unrelated note, I’m really enjoying the Senior Thesis and Honors Thesis presentations I’ve been to so far, and I’m really looking forward to upcoming ones. I’m trying to get to as many of them as I can.
Happy Friday. I’ll be sure to let you know how many leeches my sons catch this weekend.
Hi all –
One of the (few) downsides of my being the new kid on the block is that I don’t yet know a lot of students in our Environmental Program. However, good news about current and past ENVS students makes its way to me, from all over campus (and the country, actually). Today I wanted to share a couple stories with you about our current students. A couple of weeks ago, I think I shared with you the importance of talking with those outside your bubble. These are two stories of speaking up when the time is right.
The first story is about Julie Macuga. Julie speaks for the warblers. (You’ll have to read her commentary published hereto know what that means.) But just briefly, Julie and many others have opposed the development of the Vermont Gas Pipeline. Trish O’Kane inspired Julie to become a shareholder in the Quebec-based company that is overseeing the development of the pipeline just so she could go to the shareholder’s meeting and speak up about both the environmental and economic downsides of the proposed project to the other shareholders, the CEO, and interested parties. In a word, this is bravery. When I was in college, about the bravest thing I did was knock on doors in Denver and Ft Collins for the Sierra Club. I did stupid things on skis and mountain bikes that I called being brave. But what Julie did in Montreal was true bravery. And it’s also inspiring.
The second story is about Kaitlyn Morris’s ENVS002 class that made the trek over to Montpellier for the annual VPIRG Lobby Day. I’m sure that many of our students went to engage with our representatives in state government. But I loved that students in our ENVS002 classes are already engaging in important activism. Here are just a few quotes from a few of the inspiring students who went:
“Wow! Such a powerful experience to be surrounded by a group of young committed activists. It reminded me that our generation has the power and responsibility to make a change.” -Isabel Lisle
“I regained a sense of hope after observing how dedicated the younger generations are about making a positive difference in the world.” -Annie Brown
“When individuals on the ground choose to come together and express their values, it can have a great influence on decisions and policy of those higher up. -Zachary Guillian
“The experience I had at the Youth Lobby Day in Montpelier was not only educational, but inspiring as well… What I took away fro Youth Lobby Day is that knowledge and awareness are powerful tools to use in order to make change, so now going forward, I am excited to put these tools to good use!” -Victoria Nash
It’s often said that the future belongs to today’s youth (a refrain oft repeated during graduation ceremonies). But what I think our students demonstrate is that it’s not just the future that belongs to today’s youth. It’s today. Our students are effecting change all over the world. Keep it up. And keep in touch.
Happy Friday –
All - something slightly different today. The below is a letter cowritten by myself and colleagues here at UVM.
Best wishes -
Science is essential. Evidence is helpful. Facts don’t have alternatives.
We are writing to encourage you to participate in the March for Science on April 22, either in Washington DC or here in Burlington.
This is not about political parties, climate change, or funding. It’s more fundamental than that.
Science underpins our economy and our lives: more people have better medicine, technology, nutrition, renewable energy, and safety because of science. Evidence improves policy: big decisions need to account for what we know as well as what we believe. Science is discovery: the stuff we learn is breathtaking and inspiring, and we need to engage more people in that inspiration.
Others have laid out their own reasons, and we encourage you to look at the March principles, statements by AAAS, AGU, ESA, and more than100 other organizations. Also, read this powerfuleditorial by a leading scientist about his family. And a nice blog post on inclusion and access.
Here is what we hope you will do:
1. Go to the march website and register now to go to the Burlington or DC marches. Adding your name now helps.
2. Bring at least 2 non-scientists with you. This is important. This is a march for science, not for scientists.
3. Use this timely event to discuss the issues in your classes and with your peers.
4. Get together with your friends and colleagues to discuss links above, your own message, make signs, etc.
5. If you agree with this message, share it by email or with this link: http://bit.ly/2ofxIS5
This isn’t the world’s only issue these days, or the only concerning thing about our current leaders. But science is essential to continued progress in this country and the world, and it’s relevant to the mission of all centers of education and research. We hope you’ll add your voice.
Robert Bartlett – Professor, UVM
Breck Bowden – Professor, UVM
Alison Brody – Professor, UVM
Chris Danforth – Professor, UVM
Stuart Hart – Professor, UVM
Jane Knodell – Professor, UVM
Chris Koliba – Professor, UVM
Jane Kolodinsky – Professor, UVM
Beth Mintz – Professor, UVM
Taylor Ricketts – Professor, UVM
Donna Rizzo – Professor, UVM
Nathan Sanders – Professor, UVM
Stephanie Seguino – Professor, UVM
The comments or opinions here expressed are our own and should not be taken as a statement, opinion, position or endorsement by the University of Vermont.
One of the great joys of my job is that I get to travel and interact with colleagues and students all over the world. Two weeks ago, I wrote to you about some of my trips to China. This week, I’m reporting on locales that aren’t as exotic as China, but are definitely exotic in their own way: Norman, Oklahoma and Knoxville, Tennessee.
These trips within the US, especially at this time of year, always amaze me because I get to see spring emerging over and over again. Both Norman and Knoxville are at peak spring: redbud trees and daffodils were blooming in Oklahoma, and the dogwood flowers were as bright and white as I’ve ever seen them in Tennessee. We all know that spring arrives a little earlier in the southern US than it does here in Vermont.
And maybe you’ve heard that spring is coming a little earlier each year (though it might not seem like it this year in Vermont, but wait until Monday…). My friend Jake Weltzin runs the National Phenological Network which tracks all things phenological (phenology is just the timing of biological events, like onset of spring). They have some incredible data here in the US (see here for example). But the most amazing data about spring arriving earlier and earlier comes from Japan. Amazingly, folks in Japan have been documenting when cherry trees flower in the spring for hundreds of years. If you look at this striking graph, you’ll see pretty clearly that, sure enough, spring is coming earlier and earlier each year.
But so what? Isn’t it good that spring is coming earlier and earlier? I know I’ve heard some folks grumbling that they’re ready for spring here in Vermont. What are the consequences of earlier and earlier springs? One answer is that not all species are responding to changing climates in the same way. Some species are being triggered to migrate earlier in the year, even though when they arrive at their spring destinations, nothing is actually available for them to eat; that is, ecological systems are becoming uncoupled, and we don’t really know what the consequences of that uncoupling might be, except that many of the players in ecosystems have evolved complex webs of interactions with other species and are inextricably linked to one another. If the phenology of one species is affected, it’s likely that others are as well (see this story from The Guardian, for example).
But we were talking about Tennessee and Oklahoma. Let’s go back there. It’s more likely than not that the average person on the street in Tennessee or Oklahoma isn’t concerned about climate change. However, they probably realize that spring is coming earlier and earlier and our climate system is out of whack. Though I spent most of my time at universities in Tennessee and Oklahoma, I also got to talk to three cab drivers for about 20 minutes each. Cab drivers are generally affable and like to talk and tell stories. Admittedly, they don’t always want to talk about global change or phenology, and I don’t either (as an aside, one cab driver wanted to talk to me about how to commit the perfect murder; I’m not sure she was affable). But I have been taking these opportunities with cab drivers to talk about global change and its consequences. In the backseat of a cab, I can’t rely on fancy slides or graphs or data because we’re just two people in a car talking. But I can talk to them about what they’ve seen changing where they are, how the forest behind their grandma’s house has changed since they were a kid, how invasive fire ants are now in places they never used to be, how spring is coming earlier and earlier, and some storms are more intense and more frequent than they used to be.
As I’ve said before, we need to get out of our bubbles and talk to the rest of society about what’s important to us and why. When I travel to other universities or to conferences, I talk to hundreds of people who generally see the world in the same ways I do. But in these chats with cab drivers, where I’m just talking as a human to another human, I hope do some good. I’m not pedantic, pencil-headed, or science-y. Instead, we’re just people talking. And we need more of that – just people talking to one another.
So next time you’re in a taxi, be it in Knoxville, Boston, Dubai, New Orleans, or wherever, talk to your driver about what’s important to you and why. Or if you don’t ride in taxis, talk to someone you normally wouldn’t talk to about what’s important to you and why. Don’t preach, proselytize, or provoke (though there is a time for that). Just talk.
Happy almost spring –
p.s. Tyler Doggett has been making connections with the public here in Burlington, with his public discussions about a variety of topics. Because I was traveling, I didn’t get to go, but I certainly heard great things about it.
I’m currently in Norman, Oklahoma enjoying a lovely spring day with colleagues, but I’m looking forward to getting back to some snow in Vermont.
There’s good news to share this week. I learned that three of our stellar students were invited to become members of Phi Beta Kappa: Gina Cassara, Erica Gilgore, and Katherine Mitchell. It’s yet another acknowledgement of how accomplished so many of you are, so sincere congratulations.
In other news, I get a lot of email, as you might guess. Paul Ehrlich sends a lot of emails, and I’m on the receiving end of many of them (he sends out lots of missives). One of the ones he recently sent was about the role of the humanities in environmentalism. I’ll paste his email below because I think many of you will enjoy reading it.
Happy Friday -
One question I am often asked is how the humanities can help out with the MAHB and other efforts to avoid a collapse of civilization. Analysts usually agree, based on the record of public education in evolution and climate disruption, that providing people with scientifically sound information does not move popular opinion very much. This is especially true if the conclusions indicate a need for social change, new thinking, or sacrifice. I think the role that can be played by the arts is clear to most people; the impact of photographs on thinking about the environment has been enormous (the iconic first picture of Earth from outer space being the classic example).
When being interviewed about On the Nature of Things, the ecology-science dance show that Karole Armitage and I put together in 2015, I was often asked why I thought the humanities, in addition to the arts, could help solve the human predicament. The answer is purely based on my likes and personal observations, not on “scientific” evidence. I usually use a famous Abe Lincoln story to exemplify the potential impact of literature. When the President was introduced during the Civil War to Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, he greeted her with “So you’re the little woman who started this big war!”
The potential contribution of photography is clear. For instance, one of my valued colleagues, distinguished neurobiologist Sue McConnell, has been very concerned about the loss of biodiversity. She became a superb photographer and has been teaching conservation photography to students. No one can see a display of her elephant photos and not feel closer to and more sympathetic with those magnificent animals. On the possible role of music, I think back to my World War II childhood experience with martial music. Does the environmental movement need the equivalent of the Marine’s Hymn? Could the music world produce a song to express the tragic loss of biodiversity with the impact of Lili Marlene?
Philosophy, ethics, history, music, art, and so on are often lumped into the humanities, but here I’d like to say something about literature and poetry. I think both can be extremely helpful to thinking about the human predicament –and in constructing narratives that could have emotional impact and deepen understanding of what the dangers we face really mean. Such an understanding by the public at large is a critical prerequisite to addressing and solving our existential problems.
One of the pleasures of my life has always been reading, a wonderful way to expand one’s experiences. I read all the time and listen to recorded books as I walk and wait in airports and doctor’s offices. It’s often technical tomes or histories, especially histories about the two World Wars (which I’ve long viewed as two acts of the same historical event). I think one learns a lot about human behavior when it is behavior under stress. I also read novels, especially those based on accurate historical material or showing interesting human behavior. Many have been both a great pleasure to read and useful sources of information. I remember well how reading Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, like the original movie, decades ago altered my view of war. I’ve never forgotten what the protagonist (okay, a butterfly collector named Paul!) said when he returned on leave and found his old teacher trying to persuade more young boys to enlist.
Mary Doria Russell’s Epitaph introduced me to life and “development” in the old West in realistic depth, as Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers did for slum life in modern India. My favorite novel of all time, Michael Shaara’s Killer Angels evoked pathos over the careers of Civil War officers. Wilbur Smith’s The Burning Shore gave me a feel for the culture of San Bushmen in South Africa, Smith’s page-turning narrative A Time to Die changed my thinking on southern African politics and conflict, filling in details of what I was first introduced to in 1966 traveling through Portuguese East Africa (now Mozambique) while the Portuguese army was fighting the Frelimo liberation movement, and visiting Southern Rhodesia (and committing a capital crime by criticizing Ian Smith’s government). Recently I was reading our friend Bob Carr’s Diary of a Foreign Minister (he was Premier of New South Wales for 11 years and greatly interested in the environment before becoming Australia’s foreign minister) and discovered that he was also a fan of novelist Alan Furst. Furst’s gripping novels taught me more about the run-up to World War II than any history text ever has. One of my greatest regrets at the prospect of dying is that I’ll never get through all the books stacked by my bed or on my iPad and iPhone.
Many lines from poetry have fit in with my thoughts. The poet imperialist Rudyard Kipling looked at his beloved British empire, for which his only son John died in the trenches of France, and wrote “Far call’d our navies melt away, on dune and headlands sinks the fire. Lo all our pomp of yesterday is one with Nineveh and Tyre.” One with Nineveh became the title of a book Anne and I wrote about the prospective end of our civilization.
I agree with my old acquaintance Vladimir Nabokov that human existence is a “brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness,” and think an “afterlife” is a nonsensical idea. Nonetheless I take comfort from Housman’s thought: “Clay lies still, but blood’s a rover; breath’s a ware that will not keep. Up, lad: when the journey’s over there’ll be time enough for sleep.”
We know scientifically that emotional input is required for decision-making. With part of the frontal lobes that control emotions damaged, a person may have committed to memory the menu of every restaurant in town, but be unable to decide where to eat. The “rational choice” theory once beloved of most economists and many political scientists is a theory about something that doesn’t exist –as Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky so famously demonstrated long ago. That emotional input is something that literature and art can provide.
It is, of course, a two-edged sword. In the absence of adequate supporting information, emotion can steer populations in self-destructive ways, as has happened with the denial of climate disruption by Donald Trump and many Republican politicians, among others. There is a long history of demagogues leading societies to disaster, as Adolph Hitler demonstrated so dramatically. So our challenge is to create narratives that will grab people and yet steer civilization toward sustainability, which implies as well a broad discussion and contemplation in literature of the many ethical challenges society now faces.
Which works of literature or poetry have you found particularly rousing? How do you think these works manage to affect you on an emotional level? What works are next on your list to dive into?
I will never forget the first hours of my first trip to China. The airport in Beijing is a gleaming symbol of modernity and efficiency. Though there were thousands of cars on the interstates into Beijing, there weren’t any potholes. Beijing itself is a complicated amalgamation of towering high-rise buildings, mopeds, hutongs, food carts, newsstands, and of course millions of people with places to go. And the air; well, you know about air quality in Beijing, but you can’t imagine what it’s really like on the worst days. You can feel it and taste it.
After being in Beijing for only couple of hours, jet-lagged me had the “profound” insight, which is of course embarrassing in hindsight, that China is a whole other country with cultures that are completely foreign to anything I’d ever experienced before.
I was there to talk about biodiversity with professors and students from Peking University. Once I was (slightly) over jet-lag, I realized that, despite the often dramatic cultural differences between me and my Chinese hosts, we wanted to know the answers to the same questions: Why do some places have more biodiversity than others? How might ongoing climate change affect biodiversity and the ecosystem functions and services it provides? What became apparent was that our questions were similar, and sometimes our approaches were to. But where they differed, they differed because of our different cultural contexts. I’m certain most of you have known this sort of thing for your entire lives – that different cultures approach questions and problems in different ways. I didn’t know that. Growing up, my family never traveled out of Arkansas very often. And if we did, it was to go to, say, Missouri or Alabama. Even after college (in Colorado), I still assumed that there were only a handful of cuisines in the world: American, Chinese, Mexican (which was really Tex-Mex to me), and European. I had no idea that Indian food and Thai food were even things, let alone the amazing diversity of foods in China. I wasn’t a citizen of the world, to say the least. I share those embarrassing stories about how unworldly and culturally unaware I was to give you a sense of where I was culturally and culinarily (to make up a word) when I first started traveling.
But about China and my time there. One of the outcomes of that visit was the now 10-year long collaboration I’ve formed with a team of Chinese ecologists at Peking University. We have worked together in mountains around the world and on climate change in the Tibetan Plateau. And one of my colleagues and friends, Xin Jing, is here in Bittersweet visiting me and Aimée Classen for the next month to continue to work on a variety of (I think at least) interesting projects.
I’m also really excited to let you know that The Environmental Program is hosting Gong “Victor” Cheng, from Minzu University in Beijing. Victor is here for a year as a Visiting Assistant Professor. His scholarship and teaching center on Traditional Ecological Knowledge and many other aspects of the environment and sustainability. He’s visiting classes and talking with many folks across campus.
Among many other international initiatives The Environmental Program is developing and strengthening, this is one I’m especially excited about. China and the US could and should partner to tackle many of the vexing environmental problems facing the planet. And I hope that the Environmental Program can help forge better ties between Chinese students and scholars and US students and scholars. Moreover, we would like to make more connections with the many Chinese students who attend UVM. How are we going to accomplish that? Well, this email is a step. And hosting visiting scholars is another step. Establishing connections with host institutions in China and offering courses in China is another step. And there are other steps that we’re working on in a number of arenas.
I’ll stop there and just say that if you’re interested in helping to make these Chinese-American connections, let me know. I think that personal connections we make with people in other countries and other cultures is going to be incredibly important in the coming years. And I’d like to think that Our Environmental Program can help facilitate those connections.
Happy Friday -