December 11, 2009

by Gregory Campeau ’11

Wednesday afternoons, the second-floor seminar room in the McGuire Life Sciences building, whose large windows look out on the brilliant HolyokeRange, becomes a hub of discussion about the past, present and future of the Earth around us.


The senior environmental studies seminar, a new course this year, meets there. Ten students, with interests ranging from environmental law to offshore windfarms to the genetic modification of food, gather weekly for three hours with economics professor Katharine Sims and biology professor Jill Miller to talk about the environment in a fundamentally interdisciplinary way.

In addition to participating in discussion-based seminar meetings on topics such as ecological footprints and youth organizing in environmental justice, the undergraduates pursue independent research projects that deal with environmental debates, policies and problems.

As part of the seminar’s concept, the majority of the seniors spent last summer working as interns for organizations addressing environmental issues. Those internships, many of them arranged with help from the Center for Community Engagement, are providing valuable real-world perspective for the topics that are being explored through discussion and research in the classroom this semester. And most of the students are incorporating themes from those experiences in their coursework for the seminar, Sims said.

Carmella Guiol ’10E, for example, worked for a summer camp in the Pioneer Valley called the Farm Education Collaborative and is now writing a paper exploring garden education programs and food security in urban areas.

Sam Ostrowski ’10 is studying “peace parks,” large protected areas located in territory between nations that aim to facilitate conservation and international goodwill. In the summer months she worked on a project exploring deforestation and market-based solutions to land-use problems.

“I’ve taken many science courses, and contemplated majoring in chemistry or biology,” she said. “But I’m also a tree-hugger at heart, and have been active with environmental groups on campus.” Seeing how the more pragmatically inclined students in the course view environment issues is interesting, she added: “But that’s what makes environmental studies and the issues so fascinating.”

On a recent Wednesday meeting, the seminar welcomed acclaimed journalist and current Copeland Fellow Seth Shulman as a guest discussant. The focus was on the U.S.military’s negative environmental impact over time, a subject Shulman has written extensively about as a journalist and researcher. In fact, the main texts for the session, which the seniors read and came to class having strong opinons about, were Shulman’s, including his groundbreaking 1992 book The Threat at Home: Confronting the Toxic Legacy of the U.S. Military.

The discussion began with some information provided by Shulman: The U.S. military has a long history of dumping large quantities of dangerous chemicals, including cancer-causing propellants, into the ground. The military has historically not been subject to federal environmental standards that private corporations must abide by.

The result? A virtually unregulated environmental destruction across the country and around the world, beginning on bases and eventually radiating outward into civilian neighborhoods and public and private lands. (Interestingly, the publication of Shulman’s book led to federal legislation during the first Bush administration requiring the military to follow environmental laws.)

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

One undergraduate 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.”

“I also think there’s a false dichotomy drawn between the military protecting the nation and protecting the nation,” he continued. “The two goals aren’t necessarily at odds.”

Sims, who studies the economics of land use, then asked the students if there are any other creative solutions to the problem.

A few of the undergraduates toyed with the idea of introducing environmental training to the military. If soldiers know the impact of dangerous practices, they reasoned, perhaps they’ll be inclined to stop dumping propellant in the ground.

“But the military is a hierarchy,” Miller pointed out. Unless the commanders were on board with the idea, that sort of training would not occur, she said. And in that case, the necessary change of attitude would have already been accomplished.

Guiol recommended an environmental protection agency for the military alone.

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

Eventually, the experts and students agreed that a general change in culture, outside the military, is the solution. Not until environmental consciousness is the norm will more particular problems such as the military’s chemical dumping cease to plague the environment.

Achieving that level of environmental awareness certainly won’t be easy. But the undergraduates, professors, and experts who are taking part in this semester’s seminar are learning how to develop the skills and aptitudes to rise to the challenge.