Amherst Magazine

The Problem-Solvers

By Gregory J. Campeau '11

Late last semester, journalist and author Seth Shulman arrived in a seminar room on the second floor of the McGuire Life Sciences Building.

He was there to talk with 10 seniors about the U.S. military’s environmental impact over time, a subject Shulman has written about extensively, including in his 1992 book The Threat at Home: Confronting the Toxic Legacy of the U.S. Military.

The visit was part of a new environmental studies seminar taught by assistant professors Katharine Sims of economics and Jill Miller of biology. Shulman, a Copeland Fellow at Amherst this year, began by saying that the U.S. military has a long history of dumping large quantities of dangerous chemicals into the ground.

The result? Virtually unregulated environmental destruction across the country and around the world, Shulman argued, beginning on military bases and eventually radiating outward into civilian neighborhoods and public and private lands. (The publication of Shulman’s book led to federal legislation during the George H.W. Bush administration.)

A chilling story, but one familiar enough to the students of Environmental Studies 70. They spent several minutes discussing the problem before launching into possible solutions.

One student recommended suing the military. Interjected Miller with a smile: “But then don’t we ultimately have to pay for that?”

Another student floated the idea of criminal liability for the commanders of military bases.

Shulman nodded. “The best accountability is local accountability,” he said. “Citizen panels have been pretty successful. I think transparency is key.”

Sims, who studies the economics of land use, asked for other solutions.

A few students toyed with the idea of introducing environmental training to the military.

“But the military is a hierarchy,” Miller said: Without the commanders on board, such training would not occur. With the commanders on board, the necessary change of attitude would have already been accomplished.

Another student recommended an environmental protection agency for the military alone.

“That is a novel idea,” Shulman replied, “but then again, the problem in the military is not really different from outside the military.”

Eventually, all in the room agreed that only when environmental consciousness is the norm in general society will more particular problems, like the military’s chemical dumping, disappear.

As the semester waned, the seniors, whose interests ranged from environmental law to offshore wind farms to the genetic modification of food, submitted independent research projects, many of which built upon summer internships with environmental groups. (A number of the internships were arranged with help from the Center for Community Engagement.) Sam Ostrowski ’10, for example, spent the summer exploring deforestation and market-based solutions to land-use problems. Her research project was about “peace parks,” large protected areas, located in territory between nations, that try to facilitate conservation and international goodwill.