The Stream

Opening ceremony

This afternoon, under blue skies and bright sun, we held the official opening ceremony for the 1st Middlebury School of the Environment.  Honored guests includes Ron Liebowitz, President of Middlebury College, Michael Geisler, Vice-President of Graduate and Special Programs (of which the School of the Environment is a part), and Nan Jenks-Jay, Dean of Environmental Affairs and the person who made sure that the dream of bringing the School of the Environment to life did not die.

President Liebowitz addressing the studentsAnd, of course, the most honored participants of the ceremony, were the students.  These were my comments to them this afternoon:

You already understand that you are a select group, the founding students of the Middlebury School of the Environment. This is an initiative 19 years in the making, building upon this college’s 50 years of commitment and excellence in environmental education.

I envy you. I have been privileged a few times in my life to have participated in the beginning of an initiative, and I know how powerful it is – years and miles down the road – to be able to claim participation and shared ownership of a true beginning. For this, you will always be able to say that you were among those who were the first.

But what, exactly, are you the first of? That will be revealed to you over the next six weeks as you engage with what lies before you, intellectually, emotionally, and somatically.

You are being called up to let go of any expectation you might have of engagement through modes that have unfortunately become too common in higher education today: modes characterized by passivity, characterized by expectations of being led, like boats bobbing in the water, to wherever the current takes you. The world has had enough of that, and you have chosen to come here this summer to prepare yourselves not simply for a life of the mind but for a life of meaning, to prepare yourselves to help change the world.

We invite you to be co-creators of your experience, to join with us in looking under the hood, if you will, of this experience. Not to critique it as a consumer would, but as someone intent on honing her or his skills at building something new and leading an initiative that you intend will make a positive change.

More than any other educational experience you’ve ever had, we invite your full engagement in making the structure of your experience part of your education.

At the risk of seeming to be a parody of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, here at the beginning of your time with the School of the Environment, I would like you to reflect on four questions.

The first question is: Where do you come from? I know the answers that you all would give if you were asked that in a traditional setting: Lake Forest, IL; Shelburne Falls, MA; Kabul, Afghanistan; Basalt, CO; Potomac, MD; San Francisco, CA; Bedford, NH; Conway, AR; Glenside, PA; Heyward, WI; Wilson, WY; Vienna, VA. But consider what the narratives are of those places, both the cultural and ecological, that led them to be what they are today. Consider what makes them unique, consider what connects them to the broader world, and consider their interconnections with the more-than-just human world. So consider the question: Where do you come from?

The second question is: Where are you now? You know that you are at a place called the Organic Farm, which is part of a place called Middlebury College. But what are the narratives of this place, what kind of system is it a part of, and what does it represent. Fundamentally, why did we choose this place for the opening ceremony? It was not chosen at random, but rather deliberately because it is a visual manifestation of an environmental system that you need to better visualize and understand. It is one that involves food, energy, transportation, ecological diversity, material cycles, water, the built environment, and human engagement all interacting through time. So consider how you need to train your mind and all of your senses to recognize these things wherever you find yourself in the future.

The third question is: Why are you here? I know from your applications that you come to this School for many personal reasons: to both deepen and broaden your education, to prepare for new career directions, and to gain the leadership skills you will require you to not simply to move forward into the world with knowledge, but to do so with the skills and confidence to do something wonderful with that knowledge. But as you engage with your time here, I hope you will continue to ask the question of why you are here, to both broaden and deepen your answer as you encounter things you have never thought of before. However, I do not want to burden you with unreasonable expectations, especially of your path in life, and I encourage you to always hold close to your heart the words of the poet Mary Oliver:

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.

And the final question is: Who do you wish to speak for? Being an adult, being a citizen, involves coming into yourself as a speaker for others, an advocate for rights, responsibilities, and aspirations that transcend simply your own, but those that encompass others who do not have your opportunities and abilities. For whom do you wish to speak? Your family? Your religious community? Your country? The oppressed? The dispossessed? Endangered species and ecosystems? Future generations? The choice is yours, but here at the Middlebury School of the Environment we encourage you actively to make the choice. And with such a choice you then see your true path and your true calling.

Our classroom

Snake Mountain 2One of our activities on the second day of the School was to climb to the summit of nearby Snake Mountain, about 1,000 feet above the floor of the Champlain Valley and with a spectacular view of the landscape that will be the focus of much of our curriculum this summer.  Note the interplay of both cultural and natural forces that shape the landscape: farmland, wood lots, transportation networks, Lake Champlain, and the Adirondack Mountains to the west.  Over the semester, we will be unpackaging many of the narratives of this place, narratives which influence the environmental realities of the present as well as the options for creating a sustainable future.

But for the students on this day, the real pleasure was in stretching our legs, getting introduced to the landscape that will be home for the next six weeks, and enjoying the first day of summer.

And the weather was pretty darn spectacular, as well.

Snake Mountain 1

 

And we begin!

I have been somewhat silent on this blog for awhile, largely in order to focus on final preparations for the launch of the School of the Environment, which have been monumental. But today is the day we begin!  All of the students have checked in at the Arrival Center, and we’re now getting them settled into their rooms.  We are planning to have a group dinner this evening to kick things off, following by a welcoming and orientation session to talk about course assignments, the schedule for the weekend, and our shared hopes and expectations for the semester.

Many people deserve much credit for getting the School to where it is today, poised on the edge of its inaugural launch.  But I want to especially call out thanks to the 12 students who have enrolled in the School this summer.  They are the ones who will make all of this worthwhile … and help us make it even better as we proceed!

I plan to use this blog while the School is in session to post regular — if not daily — updates on what we have been doing.  If you are interested in tracking the daily life of the School of the Environment 2014, this is the place to be!

Gus Speth at the School of the Environment

Gus_SpethI’m very pleased to be announce that Gus Speth will join the School of the Environment as a Fellow this summer, both talking informally to the students about his life as an environmental leader and giving a formal lecture, which will be open to the public.  Throughout his career, James Gustave “Gus” Speth has provided leadership and entrepreneurial initiatives to many task forces and committees whose roles have been to combat environmental degradation and promote sustainable development, including the President’s Task Force on Global Resources and Environment; the Western Hemisphere Dialogue on Environment and Development; and the National Commission on the Environment. Among his awards are the National Wildlife Federation’s Resources Defense Award, the Natural Resources Council of America’s Barbara Swain Award of Honor, a 1997 Special Recognition Award from the Society for International Development, Lifetime Achievement Awards from the Environmental Law Institute and the League of Conservation Voters, the Blue Planet Prize, and the Thomas Berry Great Work Award of the Environmental Consortium of Colleges and Universities.

In short, there are few people who can speak more authoritatively or with more breadth of experience about what it will take for students to become effective agents of environmental change than Gus Speth.

He is the author, co-author or editor of seven books including the award-winning The Bridge at the Edge of the World: Capitalism, the Environment, and Crossing from Crisis to Sustainability and Red Sky at Morning: America and the Crisis of the Global Environment. His latest book is America the Possible: Manifesto for a New Economy, published by Yale Press in September 2012.

He is currently on the faculty of the Vermont Law School as Professor of Law. He serves also as Distinguished Senior Fellow at Demos, Senior Fellow at The Democracy Collaborative, and Associate Fellow at the Tellus Institute. In 2009 he completed his decade-long tenure as Dean, Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. From 1993 to 1999, Gus Speth was Administrator of the United Nations Development Programme and chair of the UN Development Group. Prior to his service at the UN, he was founder and president of the World Resources Institute; professor of law at Georgetown University; chairman of the U.S. Council on Environmental Quality (Carter Administration); and senior attorney and cofounder, Natural Resources Defense Council.

Stay tuned for more information about the title, timing, and location of his public lecture.  If you are in the area, it will be well worth attending!

Bill McKibben Joins Us This Summer

McKibbenWe are pleased to announce that noted author and environmentalist Bill McKibben will join us as a Fellow of the Middlebury School of the Environment this summer.  Bill has worked tirelessly – and successfully – on behalf of the environment for over 25 years.  His 1989 book The End of Nature is regarded as the first book for a general audience about climate change, and has appeared in 24 languages. He is founder of 350.org, the first planet-wide, grassroots climate change movement. The Schumann Distinguished Scholar in Environmental Studies at Middlebury College and a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, he was the 2013 winner of the Gandhi Prize and the Thomas Merton Prize, and holds honorary degrees from 18 colleges and universities; Foreign Policy named him to their inaugural list of the world’s 100 most important global thinkers, and the Boston Globe said he was “probably America’s most important environmentalist.” A former staff writer for the New Yorker, he writes frequently a wide variety of publications around the world, including the New York Review of Books, National Geographic, and Rolling Stone.

This summer, Bill will bring to the students at the School of the Environment his expertise as a journalist on how to craft Op-ed pieces for promoting environmental issues and narratives, as well as his expertise as a practitioner in organizational strategy and creative ideation.  We are pleased and excited that he is joining us, and I know that students who attend the School this summer will benefit tremendously from his experience, insight, and passion.

Welcoming New Leadership Fellows

As I have noted in several previous posts, the curriculum for the Middlebury School of the Environment will include workshops offered by a wide variety of professionals who have expertise in one or more tools critical for achieving success in effecting environmental change.  I am pleased to be able to announce the addition of two more Fellows for the School of the Environment, Dr. Helen Riess and Dr. Michael Kiernan.

Portraits of Middlebury College's Board of TrusteesHelen Riess, M.D., is the Chief Technology Officer of Empathetics, Associate Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and Director of the Empathy and Relational Science Program in the Department of Psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital. She conducts translational research using the neuroscience of emotions in educational curricula to improve empathy and relational skills in physicians and other health care providers.  Dr. Riess will join the School of the Environment this summer as a Fellow to lead a workshop on “Empathy and the Environment,” building upon her innovative work on the power of empathy as both a leadership skill and a means to develop positive relationships with people in virtually any setting.

 

MiddCORE Winter Term (j-term) class at VPR with Jane LindholmMike Kiernan is a physician, actor, public speaker – and one today’s most energetic and engaging voices for creative leadership and communication.  He will be joining the School of the Environment as a Fellow to engage with the students on persuasive communication skills.  He has been an instructor in Middlebury College’s leadership and innovation training program, MiddCORE, since 2008 in all areas related to leadership and communication: crisis management, networking, story-making, and both strategic presentation design and delivery. He has also worked as a communications consultant with political candidates, physicians, business executives, and teams on leadership retreats. Mike is an actor and member of the local professional theater company, the Middlebury Actors Workshop. He is also a physician and recently was President of the Medical Staff at Porter Hospital. Mike serves on the Technical Advisory Group for the Green Mountain Care Board and the Executive Counsel of Vermont Medical Society. He is also an advisor to the State of Vermont Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy Committee.

 

 

Gregory Rosenthal, in his own words

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!

Gregory Rosenthal interview screen grab

Leadership in Alternative Energy

Alden WoodrowThis 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.

MakaniAlden 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.

Art and the 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.

Martin_Clark_BridgeFrom 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.

What Lies Beneath II

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.

Principle XISeedpod

Whose Environments Matter?

Delhi, India (1973).Source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:1973_Delhi_Slum.jpg

Delhi, India (1973)
Source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:1973_Delhi_Slum.jpg

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.

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