Phil Brick, environmental politics professor, answers questions
What work do you do?
I am professor of politics and codirector of environmental studies at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Wash. I am also the founder and director of an environmental-studies field program, Whitman College Semester in the West, a three-month field tour focusing on the political, ecological, and human dimensions of environmental issues in the American West.
What do you really do, on a day-to-day basis?
I teach environmental politics. For me, this has meant introducing students to the depth and complexity of environmental problems. Students have grown up with The Lorax story as a good-vs.-evil model of environmental conflict. The Lorax confronted corporate evildoers and was right in the end, but he didn’t save the forest. And meanwhile, he was an insufferable, self-righteous little twerp. Environmental problems don’t have solutions per se. They do, however, continually require us to reevaluate how we live our lives, and how we act in concert with others to define and achieve common objectives.
Many people seem to think that the academy is not the place where environmental education — conceived as activism — should take place. Nonsense. If you believe this, your understanding of education is pathetically narrow. Education is not about indoctrination or simply imparting information. It is instead about critical thinking and opening the mind to new possibilities. Education should be a form of activism: good teachers, by definition, inspire their students to reimagine their lives and to act on these images.
Photo: Whitman College/Kalin Schmoldt
What happens in Semester in the West?
Students get the chance to live and study outside for three full months. Our travel route covers every western state, and we meet with a wide variety of activists and individuals who are working on natural-resource issues. I try to get students to meet people they probably disagree with, and to meet people whose commitment to the environment might surprise them. We also spend much of our time in intensive courses in writing and ecology.
What long and winding road led you to your current position?
I have been lucky — I recognized early that my calling was in education, and this has dovetailed quite nicely with my other passion: the outdoors. I did a bunch of guiding for an outfit called California Adventures while in graduate school, and after I got my current job at Whitman, I really missed the opportunity to share outdoor experiences with others. So I started taking students on field trips to take a firsthand look at environmental issues in our region. Eventually, this led me to create Semester in the West, which brings my intellectual interests together with my passion for the outdoors.
Where were you born? Where do you live now?
I was born in Duluth, Minn. I now live in Walla Walla, Wash. The name means “many waters,” but it’s a desert here. That’s why I love the West and Westerners. We’re down with the irony thing out here, let me tell ya.
What has been the worst moment in your professional life to date?
Last fall our Semester in the West group spent two wonderful weeks with Western writer Ellen Meloy. The focus of our work was to develop what Ellen called a “deep map of place,” incorporating that map into our thinking, writing, and ourselves. Just as we were finishing our time with her, Ellen died suddenly. It was like a punch in the gut, and it hit our group hard.
What’s been the best?
The day the first Semester in the West group hit the road in August 2002.
What environmental offense has infuriated you the most?
Who is your environmental hero?
Every year I take my students to visit Bob Jackson and Leo Goebel. They are tree farmers in Wallowa County, Ore. It’s one thing to talk about sustainability and the importance of a land ethic. These guys walk the talk.
Who is your environmental nightmare?
Hard-core property-rights advocates.
What’s your environmental vice?
I ride a BMW motorcycle. Ever since I read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, I have wanted one. It gets better mileage than any eco-groovy Prius, and it is a helluva lot more fun. But you wouldn’t believe the ugly looks I get from my enviro friends. Motorcycles, apparently, violate the very essence of ecological identities.
What are you reading these days?
Doug Peacock, Walking It Off: A Veteran’s Chronicle of War and Wilderness. Meet the real George Washington Hayduke. He’s much more interesting than his caricature in The Monkey Wrench Gang. Also, I’ve just picked up Ellen Meloy’s final book, Eating Stone: Imagination and the Loss of the Wild.
What’s your favorite meal?
I like to eat Republicans. True, they pretty much taste like shit, especially when taken from the social conservative feedlot. But I figure if everyone ate just a little bit each day, the world would quickly become a better place. Although I don’t do it myself, I respect those who believe that if you eat meat, you should be willing to go out and harvest it yourself. Hey, think globally, hunt locally, right? But when you live in a blue state, this doesn’t quite work. So even when you factor in the economic and environmental costs of long-distance food transportation, I still think it is better to eat Republicans harvested from red states.
What’s one thing the environmental movement is doing particularly well?
Ubiquity. There is a lot of nonsense talk these days about the death of environmentalism. Every day, I work with students and people throughout the West whose lives are inspired and animated by environmental ideas. Environmentalists invest a lot of anxiety in what I call a “ledger” approach to environmental politics. Wins are only temporary, but losses are permanent. What we miss in all this are the more subtle ways that environmental ideas are changing lives, knowledge, industrial practices, institutions, and ultimately, landscapes.
What’s one thing the environmental movement is doing badly?
The environmental community has been slow to adapt to the fact that the “political ecosystem” in this country is much more conservative than it was in the 1970s. The environment should not be a partisan issue, but we have let it become so.
Who was your favorite musical artist when you were 18? How about now?
John Prine, then and now. If you hate George Bush as much as I do, check out JP’s latest release, Fair and Square, especially track five, “Some Humans Ain’t Human.”
What’s your favorite movie?
What are you happy about right now?
My beautiful daughter Jackie Xinlan. We adopted her from China a couple years ago, and she’s now about three and a half years old. She is, of course, above average in every way.
If you could have every InterActivist reader do one thing, what would it be?
Find something to do outside that helps you live fully in the moment. You can find it while surfing a wave in a kayak, perfectly still for a split second while 10,000 cubic feet per second of river roars past. Or it might be that moment of flight between telemark turns on a steep and deep powder day. Or the perfect rhythm and hum of crank and wheels on a long-distance bicycle ride. It’s a big, beautiful world out there, so why are you staring at your computer?