Last week, the faculty of the Middlebury School of the Environment convened on campus for a two-day retreat to discuss our courses and co-curricular programing for the coming summer. We took advantage of Gregory Rosenthal being here to talk with him about his thoughts on environmental humanities, globalism and poverty, and his courses for the School. Check out the video that emerged from the interview. I think you’ll agree that he will bring an exciting perspective to the School this summer!
This summer, Alden Woodrow will join the School as a practitioner-in-residence, bringing to the students his experience in leading teams that develop alternative energy strategies as well as a background in economics and business.
Alden Woodrow leads the business team for the Makani project at Google [x] (formerly Makani Power), which has developed a novel approach to generating wind power. The Makani Airborne Wind Turbine is a tethered wing that generates power by flying in large circles where the wind is stronger and more consistent. It eliminates 90% of the material used in conventional wind turbines, and can access winds both at higher altitudes and above deep waters offshore — resources that are currently untapped. Their goal is the utility-scale deployment of airborne turbines in offshore wind farms.
Alden directs Makani’s strategy, business development, communications, policy, and partnership efforts. He previously worked for a power project developer financing utility-scale wind farms, and as an economic and environmental consultant on topics ranging from climate policy to dog house manufacturing. Alden holds an MBA from UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business with a focus on energy finance.
We’re very much looking forward to him joining us this summer, as can offer a fresh perspective not only on the future trends in alternative energy generation but how innovative thinking can be manifest in a business environment.
One of the goals of the School of the Environment is to offer as comprehensive and integrative of a curriculum as possible. It is therefore with great pleasure that I introduce the School’s Artist-in-Residence for 2014, Mr. Martin Clark Bridge.
From his website … “Martin is proudly carrying his family tradition forth as he lives, creates and teaches in the hills of Western Massachusetts. His work spans a wide range of media from Drawing, Painting, Sculpture, Theater Design and Site Specific Installations to Performance. His Spiritual Path as an Animist first and foremost influences his art. His work celebrates the sacredness inherent in nature, the consciousness in all things and power of place and seeks to challenge the cultural paradigms that dictate the way we relate to both the natural world and our brother and sisters. He strives to create work that improves his own awareness of how he relates to the natural world and invites viewers to contemplate how to live in better balance with the world around us. Through his work he hopes to inspire and cultivate a greater sense of mystery and possibility in our experience of the world.”
As a Fellow with the School of the Environment, Martin Bridge has accepted a commission to paint an original piece to commemorate the inaugural session of the School. This image will be used on the School’s t-shirt (a tradition that I hope will continue with future artists-in-residence in the coming years), and the original will be placed on display at Middlebury College. Martin will also present an installation lecture, during which he will talk not only about the commissioned piece itself but about how it contributes to his larger exploration of arts and the environment.
Martin Bridge brings to this subject a diverse set of skills and world views that transcends traditional approaches to studies of art and the environment. He is a painter, sculptor, musician, architect, landscape designer, and mycologist … all of which both inform his practices and come together to create a more integrative reflection of the arts than any one practice alone could do. More than anyone else working in this area today, Martin Bridge lives his art, and his art comes alive (often literally) through him.
We are very pleased that he will be joining us during the second week of the summer session, and look forward not only to his presentation but to his deeper engagement with the students.
In the meantime, be sure to visit his website and its associated gallery. I am sure you will agree with me that his work dramatically throws open the door to explorations of arts and the environment.
I just put down Mike Davis’ haunting book about urban poverty, Planet of Slums. (We will likely be reading another of Davis’ fine books this summer in my elective course, “Environmentalism and the Poor.”) In Planet of Slums, Davis recounts the late twentieth-century history of how “second world” and “third world” states—lured on by “first world” incentives—adopted neoliberal privatization schemes that dispossessed the rural poor and sent hundreds of millions of people flying into outsized urban ghettos. World poverty is now more an urban phenomena than a rural one, Davis writes, and more humans today live in “slums” than at any other time in human history.
This leads me, an environmental historian, to wonder: whose environments matter? What I mean is: when we talk about “environmental” issues, or we engage in debates over how best to protect the “environment,” whose environments are we really talking about? Do we care most about protecting flora and fauna, air quality and water quality, work environments, slums? And what do we mean by “protection”? Protection from whom? In his book Crimes Against Nature, historian Karl Jacoby shows that late nineteenth-century efforts to protect wilderness in the United States really amounted to a class war: a series of battles waged by affluent conservationists against the poor people who already lived and worked within those woods. Creating “wilderness,” Jacoby reasons, necessitated removing indigenous and working-class peoples first. This same theme was echoed in Ramachandra Guha’s aptly titled classic, The Unquiet Woods, about indigenous and working-class resistance to forest conservation in India. The take-away here is that whenever we think about “environment,” we ought to ask “whose environment” and then we might try and listen and see if we can’t hear the “unquiet” of those marginalized peoples whose ideas about “environment” perhaps differ from our own.
But the question “whose environments matter” does not simply apply to woods and waters, the traditional subject matter of environmental scientists, humanists, and policy makers. This question also forces us to reconsider which (and whose) environments are most worthy of our attention. In Planet of Slums, Davis’ chapter “Slum Ecology” does just that. The writer takes us inside of the world’s worst concentrations of urban poverty to understand how slums environments work. They are geographically situated on top of fault lines, on eroded and unstable hillsides, and in stagnant bottomlands where untreated water is never flushed out and the “modern” convenience of toilets is almost wholly unknown. Slum environments, Davis writes, are unusually prone to deadly fires, rampant disease epidemics, and worst of all, unbridled military and police repression. States love to “clean up” slums—U.S. history is full of such examples—and poor people are consequently displaced over and over again in a cycle of violence, poverty, and economic and political marginalization.
But to understand the linkages among poverty, globalization, and the environment, it is not enough just to study (and seek to fix) slum environments. We also must understand what forces have caused—and continue to cause—the largest rural-to-urban mass migration in human history. This summer, I hope that we may read a short selection from Hsiao-Hung Pai’s recent book, Scattered Sand. Pai, a journalist, traveled for years among China’s “floating population”—the hundreds of millions of rural peasants who since economic reforms of the 1980s have left the countryside and moved into urban work environments. Environmental transformations—such as the commoditization and export of local resources, and even the creation of wilderness areas and the initiation of environmental management programs meant to provide clean air, water, and housing— have sometimes had crippling effects on the world’s poor: farmers dispossessed, locally-based economies ruined, and working peoples left in the cold with no social safety net to fall back on. Whereas Karl Marx theorized that capitalism would soon turn the world’s rural peasantry into a massive urban proletariat, Mike Davis, in Planet of Slums, suggests that in most cases, that never really happened. Instead, enclosure and dispossession led only to high levels of unemployment, informal “black market” economies, and megacity-sized slums.
For those of us who care about the “environment” and “environmental issues,” this line of thinking only leads to further questions rather than answers. Should we focus on urban, rural, or wild environments? Should we study plants, animals, or people? Land, water, or air? Where does the solution to global poverty lie? And how are terms such as “poverty,” “globalization,” and “capitalism” not only interconnected but also reified in the real-world environment around us? Can we see it in our local forests? Can we hear it in the song of the loon? Can we taste it in our morning coffee or feel it in the evening breeze? At the School of the Environment we will explore these questions.
Last November I had the pleasure of speaking at the TEDx Middlebury event called “Research, Rethink, Rebuild.” The title of my presentation was “Reclaiming the Soul of Higher Education,” and in it I make the case for why I think programs like the School of the Environment are not only important but essential for higher education in the 21st century. But rather than describe to you what I said, check it out for yourself … and let me know what you think about the message. The only thing at stake is the very future of society.
I am pleased to announce that Gregory Rosenthal, Ph.D. candidate in the Department of History at SUNY Stony Brook, will join the faculty in the School of the Environment, as an instructor in environmental humanities. Gregory will teach a course entitled “Environmentalism and the Poor: Class-Conscious Histories of Globalization,” which he describes as follows:
Environmentalism used to be understood as the privilege of affluent “first worlders,” an exercise in protecting nature from those too uncivilized or too ignorant to care for it by themselves. But this is no longer the case. In the past several decades, environmentalists—and environmental historians who study the history of human-nature relationships—have begun to acknowledge and account for the diverse “environmentalisms” that are practiced by both “first worlders” and “third worlders,” by both rich and poor, by both workers and capitalists, between the global north and the global south as well as within small-town communities, villages, and cities across the world. That class is one of the key determinants in how different people experience and care for the environment is gaining acceptance among social scientists and is inspiring exciting new research in the field of environmental history. This course will explore the relationships among environmentalism, class, and power in human history, as well as the consequences of these relationships for poor and working class peoples. A class-conscious history of globalization—in which “globalization” is understood as the rise of a globallyinterwoven capitalist economy over the past two centuries—reveals the various ways in which “environmentalism” has served the powerful while impacting the less powerful. At the same time, we will examine the resistance strategies of working class peoples the world over, to see how environments can be reclaimed by and for the poor. We will work collectively in this class towards developing a “poor people’s environmentalism”: a blueprint for thinking about global nature and the responsibilities of the powerful and privileged in alleviating poverty and supporting poor people’s rights to, and in, the environment.
Gregory will also co-teach the course on “Interdisciplinary Understanding of Place: Lake Champlain,” bringing to this class his unique perspective on how historical perspectives on culture diversity and identity help illuminate the narratives that frame a comprehensive understanding of a landscape and its possible environmental futures.
We are excited to have Gregory join us for the inaugural summer for the School of the Environment. He specializes in global environmental history with a focus on migrant labor, indigenous peoples, and human-environment relations in historical perspective. At SUNY Stony Brook his Ph.D. research examines the history of Native Hawaiian migrant labor in the nineteenth-century global economy. He has published in Environmental History and World History Bulletin and received grants and fellowships from the American Historical Association, the Huntington Library, and the Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley. In college, Gregory studied traditional Chinese music and indigenous ethnomusicology (and even attended Middlebury’s Chinese Language School). He holds a Masters degree in Public History from SUNY Albany and formerly served as Education Coordinator at the Thomas Cole National Historic Site in upstate New York. He also previously worked as a Park Ranger in New York City, and when not at Middlebury, Gregory continues to lead historic walking tours of Manhattan’s streets while also enjoying hiking, birding, swimming, and clamming in the city’s urban forests and coastal waters.
Gregory joins Steve Trombulak and Cat Ashcraft as a member of the full-time faculty in the School of the Environment, and will participate throughout the six-week session in creating the full immersion program we have planned.
One of the most valuable skills for manifesting positive change in the world is creativity. Being able to envision possible solutions to a problem — whether it’s a small improvement to a home or feeding the world — is the first step in bringing solutions to life. But too many people feel like they simply aren’t creative. Creativity, they think, is for artists, writers, and musicians, but for them. We all start out life as creative people; just think back to your early years when you had no trouble drawing and play-acting with joy and complete abandon.
But somewhere along the way, many of us hit barriers that led us to believe we just didn’t have what it takes to be creative. Maybe it was a teacher, a parent, or a peer who said, in effect, that we weren’t very good artistically or musically. And as a result, we shut off that part of our identity, and closed off the world to the benefits of our insights and intuition.
It’s against this backdrop that Tom and David Kelley offer a way forward in their new book Creative Confidence: Unleashing the creative potential within us all. Based on their decades of experience with IDEO, the acclaimed design and innovation consulting firm based in San Francisco, and d.school (aka the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford University), the Kelley’s offer up a guided tour that not only demolishes the myth that creativity is a gift only given to a select few but also offers a way forward for everyone to unlock their own gift within.
Creative ideation — the act of formulating, testing, and implementing creative ideas — is at the heart of the School of the Environment’s curriculum, and therefore Creative Confidence will be at the core of our reading list. Over the next several weeks, I want to unpackage the practical steps that the Kelley’s lay out so that everyone can unleash the “creative” within. So get a copy and read along. It’s well worth the journey.
In the meantime, ask yourself these questions: Do you feel like you are a creative person? If not, what happened to convince you of that narrative about yourself? And more importantly, how has that belief prevented you from unleashing your positive influence on the world?
Dr. Eleanor Sterling is the Director of the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. She recently spoke in the Howard Woodin Colloquium of the Program in Environmental Studies at Middlebury College. Her presentation on how biocultural perspectives influence conservation strategies is well worth watching, and can be viewed in its entirety here.
The main thrust of her argument, as I see it, is that the practice of conservation is not strictly a natural science. Because conservation is imagined and implemented (or not) by people embedded within distinct cultures with distinct histories, the design of conservation strategies requires consideration of those cultures and histories. In short, the people who will ultimately responsible for implementing the strategies must be equitably included in the design process. The alternative is to risk failure.
Her example of how failure to consider the importance of an animal’s color to ethical perceptions of whether or not they are acceptable as food is an instant classic. A strategy to provide rabbits to villagers in Madagascar as an alternative to endangered lemurs as a food source failed … because the rabbits provided were black, and the villagers have a cultural proscription against eating black animals.
She further develops her argument through the lens of systems analysis, which shows that conservation problems (such as an endangered species) cannot be understood or solved by focusing on only one level, such as a local village. Local actions are influenced by conditions and policies at higher levels and larger spatial extents, such as regions, nations, and international communities.
I like this message for two reasons. First, it reminds us that conservation anywhere involves the responsibility of people everywhere. We are all a part of a global system of social, cultural, and ecological interactions, and it is simply not defensible to claim that we are not connected to the root causes of every conservation challenge. Second, it reminds me of reason I am uncomfortable with the tendency of many of my colleagues to view “conservation biology” as synonymous with “conservation.” If conservation strategies get reduced to being just the application of biology, it’s easy to ignore the role of culture and society in making conservation work. And as Eleanor Sterling so eloquently points out, we ignore this at our peril.
What I still find challenging in thinking about biocultural perspectives is not how they can help implement successful strategies. It’s what happens when cultural perceptions of what matters irreconcilably clash. At some level, all human-defined goals are reflections of human-defined values, and not all values can be promoted simultaneously. If a natural resource extraction industry values profit over the persistence of a species, how can a path forward be shaped that does not fundamentally require that one or the other biocultural perspective be devalued?
And when unconstrained economic growth is increasingly held as the preeminent global paradigm, how can conservation succeed?
Today’s New York Times reports on an effort currently underway by a non-profit organization to create a 3-million acre reserve in the grasslands of Montana. The American Prairie Reserve is buying ranches that are for sale and slowly stitching together a landscape in which bison can roam freely and in which ecological conditions akin to those present 200 years ago can flourish.
This project is admirable in its scope and goals. Bison, as the largest native herbivore in North America since the time of the post-Pleistocene mass extinction, were powerful ecological engineers, and their loss — brought about primarily by overhunting — has had widespread consequences on the biological integrity of this continent’s prairies. Coupled with subsequent land-use changes that have largely involved ranching, with its associated fencing and cattle, the loss of bison herds is one of the biggest wildlife transformations anywhere in North America.
Which makes the work of the American Prairie Reserve one of the biggest wildlife conservation stories today.
What I find interesting about this story, however, is not what they are trying to achieve. Rather it is the social environment within which they are trying to achieve it. This story does not involve government intervention, eminent domain, or an Eastern Establishment driving up property values. Fair-market value is paid to willing sellers who are approached after they put their ranches up for sale.
Yet as reported by the New York Times, this conservation effort faces opposition from some ranchers in the area because … it does not conform to their vision of how the land ought to be used: cattle ranching.
This reminds me of similar conflicts that emerged in New England in the 1990s over logging and timber lands. All such stories about the “legitimate” uses for large landscapes seems to involve similar questions.
Are there limits to private property rights that would allow neighbors to say to someone, “You cannot sell your land to this other person because they aren’t going to use it the way I think they should”? It is easy to understand why one would not want to allow a new neighbor to build something that was destructive or dangerous on their land, but should rancher be able to say that a conservation group should not own land because they are practicing conservation? Or a snowmobiler be able to say that a new landowner cannot post their land against snowmobiling?
On what basis can those who believe in a particular cultural narrative of place claim that their narrative is the most important? It’s understandable that ranchers who want to continue ranching should expect to be able to continue ranching on their land. But what gives ranching primacy over other cultural narratives, such as those held by Native Americans who lived there before the ranchers?
And what constitutes the “place” being considered? An individual ranch? A single valley? A 20-million acre prairie? As spatial scale increases, so too does the opportunity for and challenges of diverse cultural narratives to come together – woven together either collaboratively or in conflict.
This really isn’t just a story about Montana or ranching or bison. It’s a story about landscape-scale conservation planning everywhere and the role of social identity in shaping the cultural narrative that is used to describe a place. How we learn — or don’t learn — to unpackage those issues will determine how successful conservation will be in the 21st century and beyond.
Back in 1999, my colleague Chris McGrory Klyza and I wrote in our book The Story of Vermont that at one point in Vermont’s post-colonial history, it could easily be described as “sustainable.” This was in the 1700s and early 1800s.
After the mid-1800s, however, not so much. What caused the transition? In a word, transportation. Once Vermont — or any other place in the world, for that matter — becomes connected to a larger region through an efficient transportation network, the limits imposed by the need to live within the regenerative capacity of one’s own landscape break down.
In Vermont, the development of a railway system that connected farmers to markets in Boston and New York City moved the people away from sustainability. The development of the interstate highway system 100 years later only accelerated that trend. While an environmental ethic continued to grow and take root, sustainability was lost. Vermont is now as “green” as anywhere in the U.S. but it is as unsustainable as it has ever been.
I don’t believe that we will ever go back to being an isolated outpost of insular settlements. But if we are to decrease the unsustainability of societies — here and everywhere — we have to think more creatively about the environmental costs of how we achieve our connectivity.
In that spirit, my curiosity is piqued by the Vermont Sail Freight Project. A plywood ship, powered by sail, is sailing down the Hudson River to New York City, loaded with 15 tons of locally produced agricultural products (e.g., potatoes, grains, syrup) bound for the booming local foods markets there. The organizers of this venture describe the ship, called the Ceres after the Roman goddess of agriculture, the “to” in “farm to table.”
I wholeheartedly applaud the creative thinking behind this project. The organizers moved from identifying a problem (e.g., the carbon footprint of modern transportation networks) to analyzing the landscape in which the problem is manifest (in this case, the Hudson River Valley, which flows directly into New York City) to imagining a solution (a wind-powered barge). And not incidentally, along the way they encountered the need to apply key leadership skills, included fundraising and team-building.
What I’m curious about is how, or even whether, this system can be scaled up to make any real difference to the sustainability of a place like New York City or the agricultural systems of a place like Vermont. Rail and road networks were so successful because they scaled easily. Can barge traffic along waterways do the same?
I hope so. And I look forward to seeing what the future brings for this project.