Environmental Almanac

All Invited to Participate in U of I Scholarship of Sustainability Series


Salt Fork of the Vermilion River, currently threatened by reduced flows from UCSD and pollution by a proposed coal mine

Rob Kanter

To engage in the work of conservation can be inspiring and uplifting, especially when the stakes are clear, the issues are close to home and people come together. Witness the formation of the 5th and Hill Neighborhood Rights campaign, which arose after the discovery of soil contamination in a Champaign neighborhood, and Stand Up to Coal, which is organizing the effort to stop a coal mine on the border of Champaign and Vermilion Counties.

Or look at the opposition that’s formed to prevent the Clinton Landfill from accepting PCBs; everyone from local citizens to U.S. senators and the entire range of state and local officials has taken up the banner for protecting the Mahomet Aquifer.

But the work of conservation can also be downright depressing. There seems to be no end of schemes that put private profits ahead of public goods. Who would have thought we’d be fighting to keep the Urbana-Champaign Sanitary District from selling water that supports the life of our streams to a Tuscola fertilizer factory?

And this isn’t even to mention mega challenges like biodiversity loss and climate change. Maybe to make conservation more effective we need to rethink our approach from the beginning.

Eric Freyfogle thinks so. He’s a U of I professor of law who writes extensively about conservation—from a legal perspective, of course, but also with attention to the cultural and economic underpinnings of our current environmental plight. Among his books on the subject are titles including Justice and the Earth and Why Conservation is Failing and How It Can Regain Ground.

Beyond contributing to discussion of these topics among like-minded scholars, Freyfogle also seeks to call attention to them across the U of I campus community, as well as among people from the wider world who are interested in the same questions—and he thinks everyone should be.

Toward that end, he and collaborators Robert McKim, a professor of religious studies, and yours truly, in my role as a lecturer with the School of Earth, Society and Environment, coordinate an annual series of talks each Spring under the title, “The Scholarship of Sustainability.”

The series, which is sponsored in part by Institute for Sustainability, Energy and Environment, is meant to counter the specialization that characterizes work within disciplines on campus. And it opens up broad questions, such as “How should we be living?” and “What would the world look like if we were living well—that is, if conservation won?”

Many of the speakers in the series teach at the UI, and professor Freyfogle himself will address one of the more provocative questions of the series, whether capitalism is fundamentally incompatible with conservation.

Other speakers will be visiting campus. Dale Jamieson, a professor of environmental studies and philosophy at New York University address the ethics of relationships between people and other forms of life. His March 6th talk, "Grass Fed Environmentalism: Living Responsibly in the Anthropocene," will also be part of Ethics Awareness Week on campus, an initiative of the National Center for Professional and Research Ethics here.

[Self promotion alert: I'll be speaking as part of the series myself on March 20th; my talk, "Seeing and Valuing the Natural World," will feature many photographs of east central Illinois wildlife.]

This year’s Scholarship of Sustainability series begins today, so you’ll be hearing this plug too late for the first session. But it runs Thursday afternoons from 4:00 p.m. until 5:30 through April 17 (skipping the week of spring break). Talks are held in Room 149 of the National Soybean Research Center, 1101 West Peabody Drive, Urbana.

Further details about the Scholarship of Sustainability Series are available on the homepage of the School of Earth, Society and Environment http://www.earth.illinois.edu/students/courses/sos.html.