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Q. Dear Umbra,

This fall, as part of an environmental ethics course, I would like to create a class blog somewhat along the lines of your column, with students posting questions and answers to environmental quandaries specific to our campus. I wonder if you have any words of wisdom. What sort of education and skills are most helpful to you in researching and writing about environmental questions? What are the most valuable resources you use in answering questions? Thanks for any help!

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Brian C.
Atlanta, Ga.

A. Dearest Brian,

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bike rideDispense with care.Solo with others via flickrAdvice about advice. Meta, I think we say. Happily for your project, my formal education was either haphazard or subpar, and no special degrees or training prepared me to be a mysterious online environmental advice columnist. Whatever word or two of wisdom I can produce owes its existence to more diffuse sources.

I do have an abiding interest in and passion for environmental issues. I like learning new things, and understanding how the world works. An interest is not the same as a skill, but perhaps the germane point here is that your students should find quandaries that engage them, so they have a stake in researching and explaining the problems.

A solid understanding of basic environmental issues and dilemmas is helpful to me. I got some of that via formal education and through jobs in the “environmental” field. So, mayhap ensure your students know which are currently the best basic books on environmental dilemmas. The Union of Concerned Scientists’ Consumers’ Guide to Effective Environmental Choices (which I believe they’re currently updating) is one of my favorites.

The most valuable research resource is Google. Many actual environmental resources have well-developed websites, and quite a bit of significant data is available online. If your students do not already understand how to determine the best key words, run a search, and then filter out a reputable source from the accumulated debris, teaching them this process will be key to your project.

As you are in an academic setting, they will also likely have access to actual live professionals whose work is relevant to the chosen quandaries. These, as you know, are very valuable. Not only are they professionals, but a live conversation is often much more informative than an internet search. On the internet we can of course gather neatly presented facts, but only the ones for which we look. In person our conversations veer in unexpected directions, and we also hear the nuances and passions that lie behind a quandary. I like talking to people.

So, in theory, I think your students just need your support ensuring their basic research, interview, and writing skills are up to the task. There are organizations I go to frequently, and they are frequently mentioned in this space, depending on the topic. A few of my tried and true are the aforementioned Union of Concerned Scientists (mwah!), Environmental Defense, and the public-information arms of the government (such as the EERE and the EPA’s Clean Cars-Clean Air site). Federal sites are sometimes hard to sort through, but their public information is quite useful. Sift through my archives to build a list of other useful organizations.

Hopefully this intangible list describing the intangible skills most helpful to me will assist you. I do have one tangible skill that helps me quite a bit: I took a year of typing in high school and am an incredibly fast typist. That’s right, I wasn’t joking about my partially sub-par education.