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 -
It’s the day before spring break here at UVM. I’ll spend this one catching up on a couple of writing projects and spending a bit of time outside, either on my bike or skis. Spring break is sort of the inflection point of the semester. For me, it never really feels like the semester is in full swing until spring break hits. But then, after spring break, it feels like a sprint to the end of the semester.
Spring break also signifies the time of the year when we start thinking about awards for students and faculty, wrapping up student thesis work, and ramping up our summer research plans. And today, I wanted to share some good news with you in each of these areas.
Happy Friday –
Yesterday, we learned that two of our faculty are going to receive awards for their excellence in providing service learning opportunities for ENVS students and others.
Amy Seidl will be awarded the Lynne Bond Outstanding Service learning Faculty Award, and Trish O’Kane will receive the Outstanding Service Learning Award for New Faculty.
About Amy, the committee wrote “The review committee was deeply impressed with your long-standing commitment to service-learning (as evidenced by your involvement in the Davis grant, the scholarship of service-learning pedagogy, and your choice to participate in the Faculty Fellows program for a second time), as well as with the depth of reflection and engagement required of your students. Finally, your broad-minded choice of community partnerships inspired the review committee.”
The committee was equally glowing about Trish: “The review committee was deeply impressed with the rigor and reciprocity demonstrated in your course, the explicit commitment to racial and social justice within the project and its broader context, and with the strength of the critical reflection assignments provided.”
Student thesis work
In student research news, Simon McIntosh ’17 is featured on the UVM front page for his thesis work in Mongolia. You can read about his work here. It’s impressive and inspiring stuff, and I’m really looking forward to Simon’s presentation of his thesis work (and while we’re at it – Patricia Stokowski, Bob Manning, and Rick Paradis deserve a round of applause for advising Simon’s project). The pictures and story are stunning. But I also really enjoyed Simon’s last line in the story:
“Write a thesis or do an independent study. Find a project that is yours,” McIntosh suggests to incoming students. “You should look at college as something you do, rather than something that’s done to you.”
And finally, I wanted to highlight the work that Ernesto Mendez and his group are doing on campus, in Vermont, and abroad. Ernesto and his team have renamed their group and started several new initiatives. Rather than recount them, I’ll just copy and paste Ernesto’s summary below.
I have taught a sophomore-level “General Ecology” course a dozen or so times since I first started teaching 2001. I’ve tried to keep the content fresh over the years. But, like the jokes I tell in class, the learning outcomes are generally the same from year to year: students should be able to think ecologically and quantitatively, they should know something about how biotic and abiotic factors interact to shape ecological patterns and processes, and they should understand something about how many of the crises facing the planet today are ecological problems, and solving them likely requires, at least in part, ecological understanding and solutions.
Along with my jokes and the learning outcomes, the other thing that hasn’t really changed is the answer many students give when I ask them to define ecology. Almost without fail, a dozen or so students describe ecology as “studying how everything is connected to everything.” I guess in some ways that’s true. One of my former PhD students did his dissertation research on the connections among exotic ungulates, understory plants, mistletoe, hummingbirds, exotic wasps, and a cute little marsupial called “monito del monte” in Patagonia. (Here’s the paper, if you’re interested.)
I bring all of this up because this morning, I was reminded of Liz Coleman’s TED talk from about 8 years ago. If that name rings a bell, Dr. Coleman was the president of Bennington College for more than 25 years. Dr. Coleman’s TED talk was about how we teach college students to address the big questions. In the talk, Dr. Coleman said
“It's not easy when a system is built on that version of accomplishment, when narrowing your sights is treated as a virtue. We all use the language of experts and of separating things. The progression of today's college student is to jettison every interest except one and within that one, to continually narrow the focus, learning more and more about less and less. This, despite the evidence all around us of the interconnectedness of things. As one moves up the ladder, values other than technical competence are viewed with increasing suspicion. Questions such as, what kind of a world are we making, what kind of a world should we be making, what kind of a world can we be making, are treated with more and more skepticism and move off the table.”
Dr. Coleman’s description of today’s typical college student might be true of students in other programs or at other institutions. But I think it is definitely NOT true of students in the Environmental Program at UVM. We take great pride in the interdisciplinary nature of the Program. Admittedly, there is something to be said about knowing more and more about less and less (that is, focusing deeply on a particular subject). But that focus should not come at the cost of breadth of understanding. And it’s that balance, that sweet spot between breadth and depth, that we seek in designing our undergraduate program. The ability to ask (and answer) the most pressing questions today requires some expert knowledge, but it also requires at least the ability to engage with others who have different insights and experiences and knowledge bases. Ideally, one could do more than just engage others on a particular issue. Ideally, one could not only cross disciplinary boundaries, but synthesize those disciplines in ways that matter on issues of consequence. Doing that is, by definition, being interdisciplinary. Being able to do just that – blend some level of expertise with the ability to cross and synthesize disciplines – is one of the things we hope all students in the Environmental Program are able to do. After all, being able to understand the connections among, say, Energy Law and Climate Change, Environmental Ethics, and Landscape Restoration perhaps isn’t that different from understanding how exotic deer in Patagonia affect the monito del monte.
Happy Friday. Stay warm. And stay interdisciplinary.
If you would like to work with Nate
Please email him a summary of your research experience and research goals, along with a CV.