Environmental Studies Turns 25

October 30, 2003

Mary Ann Travis
Phone: (504) 865-5714

In the 1960s, Michael Zimmerman, professor of philosophy, had a gloomy prediction for the Earth: The sky would be black and the sun blotted out by pollution in a matter of a decade or two.

environmental "I was convinced the whole planet would be nearly dead," he says.

But that dire forecast did not happen. In fact, at least in the United States, the air is cleaner. Water is safer to drink. Species have been preserved. Environmental regulations have been enacted and have often been effective.
Obviously, "serious environmental challenges remain," says Zimmerman, "but things have become better. I ended up having a different view of the future. Environmentalists need to construct a positive vision."

Zimmerman and Joan Bennett, professor of cell and molecular biology, co-direct the Environmental Studies Program at Tulane, which celebrates its 25th anniversary this year. Zimmerman and Bennett both have been at Tulane for more than 25 years. Two students--one from Newcomb College and one from the College of Arts and Sciences (now Tulane College)--planted the seeds for the program when they went to Bennett's colleague Stuart Bamforth, saying they wanted to study about the environment.

Bamforth, now emeritus professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, says, "On the basis of that, a couple of other faculty and myself started working out a program related to the environment." The program now calls upon faculty in many departments to teach courses that address environmental issues. Bennett says this interdisciplinary approach helps make the environmental studies program one of Tulane's "finer efforts.

When students have a chance to look at concepts from several of the traditional disciplinary perspectives, they come away better educated." Even though she is a basic scientist, Bennett's interest in environmental studies began not with the science of ecology but with the communication of scientific ideas and "how to let people know what's really risky."

Orders of magnitude in risk should be rationally evaluated and communicated accurately to the public, Bennett says. And just as an educated person is expected to have competency in math and writing, Bennett says, "There should be an environmental or scientific literacy among college graduates."

Christine Murphey, environmental studies academic adviser for the past nine years, advises students in the coordinate major who essentially have two majors: one in a traditional discipline and the other in environmental studies. Murphey has seen the number of environmental studies majors grow to the current crop of 60. That number had been holding steady at 50 but jumped with the recent addition of a new policy track.

Students who want a social science approach to environmental issues can choose the policy track, while the "hard" science students opt for the science track. Besides the increase in numbers, Murphey has observed other changes. In the past, environmental studies students often "were overwhelmed with bad news," she says. A "heaviness of information"--about chemical pollutants all over the planet--came at them.

"It seemed to keep getting worse and whatever was done didn't seem to be solving problems." Now, Murphey, too, sees glimmers of hope. Students are both idealistic and pragmatic. Taught by professors from many different perspectives, students "carry around a big picture," she says. And, now, "there is a whole field of environmentalism out there. There are more professional options."

In the mid 1990s, environmental studies got a big boost when it formed a relationship with the Center for Bioenvironmental Research at Tulane and Xavier Universities. In an arrangement similar to that of the Murphy Institute and the political economy major, and the Payson Center for International Development and Technology Transfer and the international development major, the Center for Bioenvironmental Research supports the environmental studies program.

One example of such support is the funding of summer seminars for faculty members to foster the development of "green" courses. The goal, says Zimmerman, is not only to increase the courses specifically available for environmental studies majors but also to offer to liberal arts and sciences students many courses with significant environmental components. The larger aim for Zimmerman and Bennett is to "green" the whole curriculum. The student interest is there, they say. The challenge is finding and keeping faculty members who can teach environmental courses.

Zimmerman says, "I think we've achieved our goal fairly well, but it's always a battle. Faculty move away or maybe lose interest in what they were doing. We're constantly trying to encourage faculty to develop and retain those courses." And keep the sun shining.

Mary Ann Travis can be reached at

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