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Reimagining environmental studies

Spring 2017 | By Meghan Lepisto

Reimagining Environmental Studies

The way Monica White sees it, some of her students may never meet a farmer, and that’s a serious problem.

An assistant professor of environmental justice – a new position for the university when White was hired in 2012 – she shares with students the stories of historic and modern agriculturalists, illuminating the tenacity and resilience of growers across both urban and rural landscapes. Over a spring break, she even led a class to Detroit to give students a firsthand look at the food insecurity plaguing the city, as well as the flourishing food gardens residents have seeded in response.

Patty Loew also seeks to link students to communities outside the academy. A professor of life sciences communication and environmental studies and a Bad River tribal member, Loew co-founded and helps to lead with others from UW the Tribal Youth Media Project, empowering Native American teens with the tools and skills to produce video stories about their tribes. The program provides a boost of knowledge and confidence to participants and helps to preserve and spread Native values, cultural practices and traditional ecological knowledge.

And for Dadit Hidayat, bringing UW-Madison students together with formerly incarcerated men from South Madison provides extraordinary opportunities for both groups. The students see first-hand the injustices and inequities being faced in Madison’s south-side neighborhoods, and the ex-felons gain career training in urban agriculture. This project is part of an ongoing series of environmental studies capstone courses that Hidayat, a doctoral student in Environment and Resources, launched to improve neighborhood access to healthy food through sustainable urban agriculture.

Plain and simple, this isn’t your traditional environmental studies.

Today’s students and instructors view the environment more holistically, says Nelson Institute Director Paul Robbins. They see the importance of connecting with a broader range of places and perspectives and ensuring that many cultures and constituencies have a seat at the table – a departure from past ideologies that often framed people against nature, or worse, disregarded or discriminated against some populations.

“If you go back to the canonical work of Aldo Leopold and Rachel Carson, which I value enormously, you have a field that combines ecological science, ethics and a concern about nature. But environmental studies sometimes operates by framing nature as something out there that needs to be protected and preserved, something separate from culture and separate from people,” says Robbins. 

student with video camera
Through the Tribal Youth Media Project, Native
American teens learn to produce video stories
about their tribes. Photo: Tribal Youth Media

While those original ideas were revolutionary and essential for driving a powerful movement in the 1970s and spurring important policy measures, Robbins believes some of the traditional concepts or tropes of environmental studies – for example, that of scarcity, which posits that society will simply run out of resources due to overconsumption, thus spurring a population crash – have their limits. First, in many cases, these ideas have not been borne out over time, he says. And second, they hamstring the conversation and alienate large segments of society.

For instance, when wilderness or nature is envisioned as something “out there” that must be saved from society, “that means the bad guys are all the people living around wilderness areas,” Robbins says – typically poor and working people whose relationships to those areas are complex and intertwined. “Everybody who lives in cities, all the urban constituencies and working class people are potentially excluded as well,” he continues. “1970s environmental studies isn’t especially inclusive.”

Environmental studies programs around the country are embracing a shift away from these traditional tropes, Robbins says, but these ideas are tenacious, “and even when they disappear, they remain as unspoken assumptions.”

“But if you begin to embrace a more holistic notion of what the environment is,” he adds, “you begin to include a lot of constituencies who have been left out of the conversation.” With this shift, a much greater diversity of both students and faculty will feel at home, he anticipates.

An example: In 2014, professors Robbins, Janet Silbernagel and Tim Van Deelen earned a Hunter Ethics Award from the La Crosse Tribune and Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources for leading a free UW-Madison massive open online course (MOOC). Nearly 6,000 people – many of them hunters – enrolled worldwide, exploring how wildlife management and recreational hunting play a role in the evolving face of conservation and Aldo Leopold’s land ethic.

So what should a more holistic notion of the environment entail? What conversations must be occurring and with whom? And how might this translate to curriculum? To further explore these issues and more, In Common queried a range of faculty, students and alumni, sharing their responses across the following pages.

What does environmental studies need to do to increase it's relevance for a broader range of students, faculty and constituencies?


PAUL ROBBINS, director, Nelson Institute: I think it needs to reframe its problem set, explicitly trying to avoid the word ‘environment,’ and see what happens. This is because the environment is typically presented as a problem, and the problem is typically people. But if you start with an object instead of a problem, I think you learn a lot more. 

By talking about objects, we can still talk about the things we’re worried about, whether that’s asbestos or climate change or phosphorous in the water, but we begin to talk more about relationships. For example, you talk about how we make sure farmers are compensated for managing the land in a way that produces biodiversity, instead of talking about farming as an environmental problem.

That’s an educational approach, but it’s also a research approach, to start with a network of actors and relationships. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t address and solve problems, but it does mean that we can’t predetermine what those problems are. For example, if you make turfgrass lawns your object, you find a complex mix of cultural, ecological and economic entanglements, sometimes leading to rich sustainable outcomes and other times ending in excessive fertilizer and pesticide loading in urban waterways. 

To the degree that the field of environmental studies remains interested in problems, it would benefit from assembling and collecting them from sources other than its own historic, internal community. It needs to ask diverse communities what their problems and values are – the ones they experience in their everyday lives, from securing fresh food to maintaining their children’s respiratory health, to protecting the landscapes they love. In the process, the field becomes more inclusive.


RICHARD HOWARTH, professor and chair, Environmental Studies, Dartmouth College: Across the nation, and at Dartmouth, folks in the liberal arts world are grappling with how to understand the challenges of making the liberal arts exciting, fresh and engaging for new cohorts of students who are coming from a pretty different place socially and culturally. I think we need to really re-envision what the liberal arts can be in the 21st century. Environmental studies provides an opportunity to connect fields that often have been chopped up, carved out and separated from each other.

At Dartmouth, environmental studies is all about taking core ideas from the biophysical sciences, social sciences and humanities and connecting them to understand, confront and engage with the challenges and problems, and maybe the opportunities, we face as a society. It provides a framework that is deep in intellectual content, but that also prepares students for engaging with what’s beyond the academy. Whether they’re working in environmental fields or not, they’re learning core theories and methods. But in particular, they’re learning how those might be applied in re-envisioning how issues in society are structured. That platform can be taken into different professional specializations.

Students can, in this day and age, be relatively focused on credentialing and on the immediacy of what a professional path might look like. But at the same time, engaging with environmental problems requires insights that come to us from fields like philosophy, literature and history.


ANNA GADE, Vilas Distinguished Achievement Professor, Nelson Institute: I am excited about how we might enhance our curriculum in environmental humanities, which up until now tends to mirror the North American humanities in its Anglo and Eurocentrism. Part of that is also the centrality of established narratives of U.S. environmental history, which have counterparts and alternatives globally.

There is a core set of materials, questions and approaches we’ve become quite familiar with, and there’s nothing wrong with having a canon; it’s useful – otherwise we don’t have a discipline. Yet, the story of wilderness can take a lot of space, and it’s important that we maintain spaces for other environmental narratives.

Similarly, I see in the environmental humanities a conversation that clusters around the theme of the Anthropocene, which is an interesting idea that allows representatives from disciplines ranging from geology to literary criticism to engage issues of ultimate ethical concern – how planetary conditions are dominated by human activity. Nevertheless, the Anthropocene, while a totalizing concept, is not a universal one, and is experienced in differential ways globally. It can be opened up to a more pluralistic perspective. 


ALLISON LEIGH SMITH, environmental conservation master’s student: I see diversity as the biggest challenge for environmental studies to stay relevant, exciting and effective in today’s world. I mean this both in attracting a wider array of ages, genders, nationalities, skin tones, religions, et cetera, to the discipline, but also in the way issues about the environment are taught.

I would argue that the social sciences are as important as the hard sciences, especially in light of recent national decisions that put scientific fact on the back burner, and too often we force people to consider themselves as either/or. We need to make the field attractive for artists, biologists, public speakers and glaciologists alike; all have relevant and useful insights to environmental studies and should be listened to in equal measure.

As environmental professionals, we need to be able to connect with people, communicate effectively, and present ourselves in a way that makes people sit up and listen and want to join the cause. The environment doesn’t just affect those of us studying it; everyone has some sort of relationship with nature and we need to help nourish that in them.


SPENCER JASTROW, environmental studies and political science major: To stay relevant, environmental studies shouldn’t just be something you learn in the classroom about faraway places, but something you can strongly incorporate into your everyday experience in your community. Students should take what they learned in the classroom to work with other community members, find middle ground, and work toward a common solution.

One of the downsides of environmental education is that it oftentimes looks down upon those who are directly part of environmentally damaging practices, whether it be types of agriculture or industry. As environmentalists, we need to incorporate their perspectives and try to understand their lived realities in the environment and other systems with which they interact (while considering our roles as consumers). We can be presumptuous in clinging to one set of views as truth without recognizing and respecting the pluralism of the human environment.

In these challenging, changing times, how does environmental studies keep from losing ground?


ROBBINS: A lot of people in the community of environmental studies are concerned about a post-truth environment, where they teach people true things and people don’t believe it, because they read something contrary on the Internet and prefer to believe that. Now, a traditional model of science has no answer to that. All it can do is keep shaking its finger and yelling, “But I have the truth and you don’t.” That has not worked.

What that says to me is we’re in a national dialogue about a failure in the way we communicate with people. It isn’t that we need to do more convincing or yell louder; it’s that you’ve got to engage people in a dialogue about things that matter to them. You have to start with their livelihoods, their aspirations and what they want in the world.


KAI BRITO, environmental studies certificate student: Sometimes I notice this divide between technology and the environment. We’re living in a digital world and I think we need to find ways to make it work. The environmental narrative kind of has this pushback against using technology; you hear stories of “I’m going into the woods to disconnect myself.” But I think there’s a place for technology in the future to work with environmental topics as a complement.


KYLA KAPLAN, environmental studies and journalism major: I think people have a stigma around what type of people care about the environment, what it means to care about the environment, and what it limits you from doing, so one thing the environmental studies major could do a better job of is making sure there’s more awareness that this is an important thing to study and it can overlap with a lot of majors and interest areas. 

In creating a more inclusive field of environmental studies, what do you consider to be some of the most pressing challenges or promising solutions?


ROBBINS: There are two directions you can go simultaneously to create a much more inclusive field. One is you throw your old environmental problems in the dust bin and go through a consultation process of figuring out what a more inclusive community is concerned about, then try to understand the environmental networks in which they’re enmeshed. That is how you’re going to get a lot of people feeling that what’s going on in the academy is relevant to their lives, and they might want to go to school to study that. The other way is to acknowledge that with all the things we’ve historically been worried about as environmentalists, there are a lot of historically underrepresented people in those histories and stories. They’ve just been written out by Anglo scholars who didn’t have access to or weren’t paying attention to their history.

That’s what makes Monica White’s work so great; her point is the whole history of farming is filled with not just people of color, but all kinds of social action associated with their use of the land. Agriculture, local environmental knowledge associated with agrarian practice and those ecologies are universal, but we never talk about them that way.

All the things we worry about, if we ease off our predispositions, we’ll find a more inclusive community in them. But then you’ve got to go pursue it. The stories of people who have been written out of history are buried under the detritus of decades and decades of environmental research that rendered them invisible.

Another answer – and this is what we’ve learned in working with native constituencies – is instead of bringing students here, we should go there. If you go there and provide opportunities, education and dialogue, and solve a local problem or address a local educational need, then people will recognize the campus. They won’t think of it as somebody else’s. You do that first before you expect them to come to campus.


GADE: Besides a diverse student body, we must support more staff and instructional representation on the part of members of communities of color. That must be an absolute priority.

One of the things I really appreciate about what the Nelson Institute has done, especially with building partnerships around education, is to recognize that the goal is to support students in the state wherever they are, including at traditional tribal colleges. To really address problems means working with communities in a respectful and realistic manner. And it’s statewide; it extends beyond the boundaries of the UW campus.


HOWARTH: At Dartmouth, in our interdisciplinary division, two of the stronger programs are Environmental Studies and Native American Studies. So we have a strong presence of Native American students and quite a lot of engagement between those two academic units. One of the people that really helps make that happen is assistant professor Nick Reo.

Nick is interested in the engagement between Native American communities and natural resource managers, and how you take culturally situated, community situated knowledge, and formal scientific knowledge, and bring them together in ways that work from a community perspective. Nick has built a suite of courses that speak to this area of intersection, and that’s been a strong anchor to our program in an important way. It brings new students to us and it’s providing deeper learning opportunities.

Another challenge is to make sure we’re not just covering the bases, but engaging the full cross section of environmental issues, and that means engaging with how environmental issues affect communities of color and people of diverse identities and cultures. At Dartmouth, environmental studies benefits from a close collaboration with geography – a department and a field that are very much concerned with the politics difference as a central aspect of natural resource conflicts.

If you were to envision a hypothetical ideal environmental studies professor of the future, what might they look like?


ROBBINS: In October, we had Jonathan Jarvis here, from the National Park Service, and he was asked what can we do to foster the next generation. His answer was get out of the way, and that struck me as really the point. The most empowering thing I can do is not determine who comes next, but just make sure they don’t look like me.

As much as we’re always talking about getting people here – we’ve got to draw people in – that’s to assume to draw them into what already exists. But actually, why don’t we just get out of the way and let somebody else occupy this building and see what it looks like when they’re done. You know, informed by all the good things that have come before. It’s not a revolution, it’s just a generational shift – and I think the quicker we can do that, the better.


HOWARTH: If I’m involved in recruiting a new faculty member to Dartmouth, I’m interested in several things. One, I want them to be a hard-hitting, fast-moving, fresh scholar in their field – someone who is doing exciting, high-impact scholarship. They might have traditional disciplinary training; they might not. In environmental studies, increasingly we’re seeing this move in the direction of explicit interdisciplinarity.

Partly because of my own experience as a master’s student at Wisconsin and the Nelson Institute, I know the ropes of how to think about energy issues in terms of environmental science, economics, policy, and engineering from a problem-oriented perspective. I was taught how to integrate content and ideas from different disciplines in approaching a certain class of problems. To me, that’s what environmental studies is as a field.

If I were to hire an economist into my department who didn’t know about environmental science and policy needs – the other pieces of this puzzle – I’m not sure what basis they would have to be an effective teacher and mentor of students in this field. They would have a good bit of learning to do.

You need to have both a very deeply grounded understanding of your own home base and intellectual tradition, and also the learned ability to situate that in the broader context. That’s where the new insights arise in both research and in praxis.


ELENA MEDARIS, environmental studies and geography major: An ideal professor that I did have, half of his job was as an academic; his other half was working with farming communities. He would draw on this professional outlook and bring it back to class, so it felt like everything was very situated in a way that a lot of classes are not.


LEIGH SMITH: I think the ideal environmental studies professor will be what the ancient Greeks would call a master of enkuklios paideia; a Renaissance woman or man who knows as much about art and logic as biology and climate change models. This is not to discount experts in any of these fields, because we need them for sure, but I think the liberal arts are increasingly important and will make environmental studies more dynamic and adaptive.


KAPLAN: I think it’d also be good to have more professors of color. Environmental studies definitely gets a rap of being a white topic. It would be good to have different perspectives and more diversity in our staffing.


JORDAN SALINSKY, community and environmental sociology and environmental studies major: I would like to see Nelson Institute graduates – undergraduate or graduate – return as environmental studies professors. These professors might study environmental communication and the role of media, the role of women in worldwide environmental matters, community-based environmental activism, and the environment in current global politics.



As the university works to make the campus community more inclusive – improving the recruitment and retention of historically underrepresented students and implementing new evaluation measures, community-building programs, training and outreach – the Nelson Institute, too, is committed to advancing issues of inclusion and diversity.

In addition to working toward increased inclusion and representation in the institute’s academic programs, and continued engagement with the sovereign native nations of Wisconsin, the institute has led several recent discussions and workshops around matters of race, diversity and inclusion, with continued efforts planned for 2017 and beyond. Anna Gade, a Vilas Distinguished Achievement Professor, leads the institute’s Welcoming and Inclusive Nelson (WIN) committee and shared this update.


GADE: This academic year, we’re focused on workshops open to members of the Nelson community primarily, but other campus community members as well. For example, in September, an intensive workshop challenged graduate students to lead on issues of race. And in February, the Multicultural Student Center is planning to partner with us to host a workshop on race and social justice.

students meet with Carolyn Finney
Carolyn Finney speaks with students and
faculty from the Community Environmental
Scholars Program last April. Photo: Meghan Lepisto.

Carolyn Finney’s visit last year for the Earth Day conference was part of an ongoing commitment on the part of institute leadership to have conversations specifically about race. Issues of diversity can be a wide range of things, but it’s a priority among the WIN committee to make sure racial justice has a meaningful focus and a clear articulation. In that spirit, Lauret Savoy was also here recently, discussing her work Trace, as part of the Everyone’s Earth initiative.

In my time so far in the institute, something that has inspired me the most is the commitment and sincerity of the institute’s outreach to native nations – the Summit on Environment and Health, and a robust strategic plan for specific initiatives with tribal partners across the state.


In September, we held an open conversation to solicit perspectives from our faculty, staff and students about diversity in the Nelson Institute, in the university, and in our campus and noncampus communities more widely. I saw that there are different responses and different ways of seeing how this institution can address these issues.

One kind of response is a challenge to the status quo. Other responses focus on working more with the institutional frameworks we have, such as to focus on diversity in recruitment and strategies for retention for students of color and other members of historically underrepresented groups. I see in the Nelson Institute a range of registers.

At our Board of Visitors (BOV) meeting recently, [BOV member] John Francis reminded our group that it’s important to maintain a space of openness, interdisciplinarity and inclusion; that some of our stories are good; and that to continue to hold this space, for good, may require taking risks. I think that what we have to offer, and what we have to promote and uphold, is a pluralism of intellectual and ethical approaches. Many seek to address environmental issues or “crisis” through discussions about justice and equity. We agreed it was time to get a language for these ethics and to communicate it, because in some measure this is a unique contribution that we have to make.


I have been surprised by how much students in environmental studies are seeking out global perspectives and how genuinely interested they are in contextualizing an American view of environment.

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