I write from the HJ Andrews Experimental Forest in Oregon. I will be conducting sabbatical research for another month in the Pacific Northwest, and I regret that I cannot be with you during this time of turmoil. I will return to campus on December 16th, after having spent a month at the North Cascades Institute, where I look forward to working with grad students interested in field-based education.
Yesterday I learned that students attending our proseminar on Wednesday were concerned about whether they should switch away from majoring in Environmental Studies/Environmental Sciences, given the recent presidential election. This question has weighed heavy on my mind the past twenty-four hours, and, while I tend to be cautious about dispensing career advice, I would like to share a few perspectives.
I first voted in 1972, the year that eighteen-year-olds were extended the privilege of voting for the first time in this country. I was a freshman at the time. That was the famous watergate election, which Richard Nixon won. During his first term Nixon had expanded the war in Vietnam to include a supposedly “secret war” in Laos and Cambodia, and these campaigns were highly unpopular with college students. Most of us had former high-school classmates who had already been drafted into military service, and many of us had lost friends and family members to the war. Nixon’s opponent, Senator George McGovern, ran on an anti-war platform, and was supported by nearly every college student in America. But he lost in a landslide. We were devastated, in part because we considered Nixon’s victory to be something of a death sentence for many people our age, because the war would inevitably continue past the point when we would lose our college draft deferments.
By the time I graduated, however, President Nixon had brought the war to a close, accomplishing something that the two previous democratic administrations had been unable or unwilling to do.
I’m hoping that the Trump administration will surprise us in similar ways. Even if that doesn’t happen, I feel that there are solid reasons for environmentalists like you and me to stay the course.
During my sabbatical I’ve spent time in five field stations that are invested in long-term ecological research. The project with which I’m involved up here in the Andrews, the Spring Creek Project, is funded to extend through 2203. That wasn’t a typo; it’s a 200-year-long investigation. What I’m finding, out here in the field, is a vibrant research agenda that is providing enormous opportunity for recent graduates to gain experience as field technicians and research assistants. And what I keep hearing, over and over as I work with these young people, is something to the tune of, “I can’t believe I’m getting paid to do this work.”
Granted, I would not want to be starting a career with the EPA during a Trump administration. But that’s not where the great majority of the ESS alumnae preceding you have been getting jobs. Rather, they seem to be finding work everywhere from the Sierra club to Tesla. Indeed, I know of a couple ESS alumnae who are working to make the wine industry more sustainable. And, folks, people are not going to stop drinking wine just because Donald Trump was elected president. As a matter of fact….
Finally, I want to share with you my personal perspective on being an environmentalist. I didn’t go into this work because it offered attractive job prospects. Rather, I have always seen my work as a personal response to issues about which I care deeply. My first job, during my collegiate summers, was at a Boy Scout Ranch in Colorado. I taught two merit badges, hiking and nature. I made $35 a week, plus room and board. The pay may have been low, but the job satisfaction was enormous, and that’s become the story of my life. Is my job satisfaction truly enormous? Well, yesterday I hiked a six-mile loop through old-growth forest, solo, hoping to see a spotted owl. Taking that hike was actually part of my job—it’s something I was paid to do, even though I only ended up getting close to a barred owl. And today I get paid to write a blog for some devastated kids I care deeply about.
Hang in there. Cry if you need to. And when you hear Rudy Giuliani complain, as he did yesterday, that you college kids are a bunch of crybabies, go ahead and cry some more because the haters will always be out there, and sometimes they win elections. In the end, however, I’m all the more committed to our present course. I’m not going to become a billionaire, and I’m okay with that. And even if I’m fighting for a losing cause, which I sincerely hope is not the case, I will continue doing what I do because it’s the right thing to do. And knowing that provides me with enormous job satisfaction.
Please join me. It’s the right thing to do, and deep down you already know why. Let’s make a difference together.
Journal of Natural Hist. Ed.
Natural History Institute
Center for Humans & Nature