Spring 2017 | By Paul Robbins
We use the word change around here just about every day, with good reason. This is a time of remarkable transformation at every level. We’re confronted by enormous challenges to our science, ingenuity, adaptability and sense of justice.
Change can certainly be unsettling, but it also presents opportunities to reimagine goals, strategies and methods. For our part, the Nelson Institute, and the field of environmental studies as a whole, are entering a period of reflection and reimagination in these churning times.
Why? Because environmental studies, as practiced in institutions all around the world, has not always kept pace with economic and political change, the rate of environmental transformation, and the growing diversity of challenges it faces. Environmental studies demands reinvention.
One of its most glaring shortcomings is a lack of diversity and inclusion. The study of the environment has been associated with, and dominated by, an unnecessarily thin demographic of stakeholders, communities and populations – those associated with “environmentalism” as a social phenomenon. The result is a demographic that is predominantly white, largely middle-class and politically green, rather than one associated with urban populations, working-class people, non-Anglo groups, and a politically diverse range of interested communities – including business leaders, hunters and communities of faith.
We have much to gain from expanding our reach. The absence of historically underrepresented communities in environmental studies – whether those communities are African Americans from Milwaukee, native people from Menominee, hunters from Washburn County, or Evangelical churchgoers from Fitchburg – represents a human resource deficit. Without the experiences, views and knowledges of these diverse populations, environmental studies cannot be rich enough, strong enough or robust enough to understand and address the enormous challenges we face on a changing planet. Earth belongs to everyone, and no one should be bystanders in the complex decisions and struggles ahead. Inclusion is a question of justice and fairness, but it is also a basic imperative of collective survival and practical problem-solving. This isn’t optional; it’s existential.
I’m enormously proud of the work we do across the Nelson Institute to find solutions to climate change, biodiversity loss, food insecurity and other large-scale problems. I’m also proud of our record of gender inclusiveness in both our faculty and student populations, which far exceeds national averages, and of our extensive efforts to engage with diverse communities beyond campus.
But we still have a lot of work to do to fully reflect our society’s changing demographics within the institute itself, and to more fully represent its rich diversity of communities, experiences and interests. We’re expanding our efforts and making strides – for example, we’ve founded a series called Everyone’s Earth to make our programming more inclusive and relevant. We’re offering a new summer course called Outdoors for All that will explore the underrepresentation of people of color in outdoor recreation. And we’ve initiated visioning exercises to find new ways that our research enterprise can engage with issues of race, justice and the environment.
These efforts and more will help us build on our outstanding legacy of environmental scholarship, education and engagement by bringing more diverse knowledge, perspectives and experience to the table. To steal a phrase, that’s change we can believe in.
Director, Nelson Institute
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