Thad Miller is studying for an MPA in environmental science and policy at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs.

Monday, 29 Sep 2003


Greetings to anyone who may be reading this. Since you’ll be getting to know me over the next week, for better or worse, I’ll start off by setting the scene. Who is this person and why is he writing a diary for Grist? Well, I contacted Grist over the summer while I was hard at work at Columbia University, where I’m studying for my Master’s of Public Administration in environmental science and policy at the School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA). I have always enjoyed “Dear Me” as it lets you take a look at the perspectives of policy makers, biologists, environmental activists, etc. So I thought that it might be interesting to give a glimpse into the mind of someone who is just starting out on the path to becoming an environmental professional — interesting for me and hopefully for those who read my entries. This is why I’m sitting here typing away.

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Lately, I’ve been thinking about how I got here and where I am going. This, I would think, is a pretty typical situation for someone who will be looking to start a job next summer. How did I come to be at Columbia studying environmental science and policy? For that matter, why do some of us develop a strong environmental ethic while for others it’s not a priority, and in some cases it’s a nuisance? Why, for every Jeff Sachs or Herman Daly, is there a George Bush or Dick Cheney? All right, perhaps that’s a philosophical/political question for another time. Nonetheless, how do those of us who consider ourselves environmentalists arrive at that point? This was a question that was posed to us in our politics and management class last week. This “re-self-examination” of my stated goals really struck a chord.

Reality is the truth and the truth is as intimidating as it is empowering. Most people attribute their views to their family or community experience. Others point to their education. Still others (myself included) attribute them to a combination of both. Occasionally, there will be the person who has had an epiphany leading to a drastic change in their viewpoint. Maybe someone took John Muir’s advice on a whim and climbed up to the top of a tree in hurricane-force wind and rain so that they might experience the raw force of nature. (If there are any such stories from Hurricane Isabel, please email me!) As for me, it was family vacations to Maine, an interest in marine biology, and education — particularly the reading of The Final Forest by William Dietrich in my first year of college at Bucknell University. I was struck by the serenity of nature and how that serenity masks a complexity of interdependent actions and reactions. As I explored this curiosity and awe, while interested in the science of it, I became enthralled with the notion of finding ways to allow it to run its course and to bring our actions into accordance with nature’s functioning.

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Ask yourself how you came to be an environmentalist. (And if you like, email me with your answers.) It may not be some fantastic story, but it should be interesting nonetheless.

Consider one more question (the last one, I promise): How can we foster the development of an environmental ethic? For instance, inner-city children may not have the benefit of seeing Mount Katahdin or the forests of the Adirondacks. How do we give them an appreciation for the need to preserve the environment? I wonder about these things as I walk to my apartment right next to Harlem. Those who may not come to an appreciation of nature through experience can be taught not only about the pertinent environmental issues of the day but also why they should care about such things that seemingly have no impact on their lives. Indeed, while they may not have visited a forest, there may be examples of poor environmental practices that affect their everyday lives. For example, does their neighborhood have high asthma rates due to local industry air emissions? Such issues involve environmental justice, which is of great interest to me — but a topic for another day.