Top Ten Things I Will Miss About my Corner of the West – Installment #2

By Stephanie Malin

Taking up where I left off with Installment #1 of this two-part series (so official sounding!), I’m going to dedicate this blog – one of my last with the WRDC, for now at least – to sharing what I will most miss about the West as I venture to the East Coast for the next two years.  Having adopted the West as my “home region” years ago, I now feel a deep ambivalence about leaving.  I know the move to Brown is an amazing opportunity, a wonderful chance to collect new experiences, and an adventure that must be embraced quickly given its temporary nature.  On the other hand, I’m saying goodbye to a landscape that fills me up, a community I’ve come to think of as home, and a group of people I love.  I tell myself all new opportunities happen when they do for a reason, and I know my husband and I will love our northeast adventure and then find our way back to our “home region” sooner than later.

Without any further (sappy – sorry!) delay, I share below the top five things I will miss about my corner of the West.

5) The Unique Aroma of Logan Canyon:

An odd thing to miss, perhaps.  But I will miss in nonetheless.  This has hit me several times in the last few months, since this decision was made, usually as I would exit Old Main in the evenings and take a deep breath of fresh canyon air.  Utah State University sits in the foothills of the Bear River Mountains, nestled in among the green-to-brown, sometimes blue landscape.  The winds from the canyon occasionally whip onto campus – especially during Logan’s notoriously snowy winters – but most of the time, there is a pleasant, light breeze that wafts into the valley, passing campus on its way.  It’s made its way through Logan Canyon from Bear Lake, brushing over the sage brush, off of glistening Logan River, and through the aspen trees.  The canyon smells like a deep, comforting cinnamon to me, a smell that brings instant comfort because deep breaths of it have gotten me through tough courses, comps, and some serious bike rides and hikes.  It is a lovely combination of juniper, sage, river, and wilderness that I will always love…and wish I could bottle.

4) Wildlife in Abundance:

Grand birds of prey can be seen during a daily bike ride.  Moose often amble down the mountainside from Tony Grove.  Majestic elk descend from the tallest heights during winter and feed in the valleys.  Bighorn sheep create surreal silhouettes along the ridgeline.  The Tetons, only a few hours away, boast wolves, grizzlies, wildlife galore.  I will miss driving thirty minutes from home and seeing antelopes in the distance and eagles high up above.  The West has treated my husband and I to a wonderful wildlife show while we have been here, made even more varied by Utah’s unusual and multi-faceted terrain.  In ten hours, we could go from seeing lizards to bears….Amazing!

3) The people, both serene and rugged:

The people we have met here have made the West feel like home.  We were fortunate to encounter people from around the world who called Logan their home temporarily, and living here brought us together.  The camping, hiking, biking, and other recreational opportunities created an atmosphere in which we all bonded around our love of those past times.  Outside our immediate circle of friends from USU, my husband and I met several families native to Utah or the West, families that opened their homes to us.  Through them, and in visiting rural communities for my research, I’ve learned that Western folks are largely an interesting combination of serenity and ruggedness.  The remote landscapes of rural Western communities lend people relaxed and contemplative demeanors, even as they make a living in extractive industries, ranching, or entrepreneurial endeavors.

2) Being in the thick of energy issues:

I love studying impacts of energy extraction and development, from individual-level experiences to community-level social movements.  For the next two years, I will continue to study these issues, of course, but I will feel further away from the “hotbed” of many of these controversies.  I have met memorable characters in uranium towns, have been fascinated by fracking’s outcomes, and lament the oil spills that currently plague our rural communities.  The West is the stage upon which our energy future will play out, and I plan to be back to observe it firsthand!

1)The mountains:

I grew up outside of Chicago.  While the city is gorgeous and its outskirts are pretty, green, and full of beauty, the terrain is flat as a pancake.  Our middle school clubs used to take “skiing” trips to large hills, and our young minds were blown.  I longed for mountains even as a young girl and living at 4,500 feet for six years has been a dream come true for me.  For me, the mountains exude an energy that is unparalleled…except for the surge of it I feel at the ocean.  Perhaps the coast won’t be that bad, then….

Thank you, WRDC and all of our stakeholders for letting me share the West with you for the past several years….I look forward to sharing it with you again in the future.

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Top Ten Things I Will Miss About My Corner of the West – Installment #1

by Stephanie Malin

As some of you may know, I recently completed my dissertation at Utah State University, and I will be heading out to Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, in about a month to start a 2-year postdoctoral fellowship in Environmental Ethics.  Crazy.  I still have not wrapped my brain around all of these changes, though I am trying to for the sake of my own sanity and that of my husband, who is accompanying me and making many sacrifices along the way.  One huge sacrifice for both of us is leaving a community that we have called home for some time; a place that has many of the amenities and natural traits we long for in a permanent residence.  Frankly, we are bummed to leave the West and, for me at least, bummed is putting it mildly.  Though I grew up outside Chicago, becoming a ‘Westerner’ has long been a goal of mine; thus, this move feels a little strange.  My heart keeps screaming “Excuse me, but don’t you know we’re heading in the wrong direction?!  That’s East, dear….You’ve always wanted the West!!”.  I know the move is temporary, and we are determined to end up back out West (especially if one of you fine folks out there in the Internet ether needs an environmental sociologist in a couple of years!).

In honor of this move, and my love of our adopted home community and region, I’ve decided to enumerate the ten things I’ll miss the most about the West.  This month, I will share with you five of them….and keep you in suspense until next month for the rest of my favorites in the West.

10) Acquisition of Excellent Lung Capacity:

My husband and I love to hike, snowshoe, camp, just be outside in general.  Living in Logan, Utah, we are situated at a nice 4,500 feet above sea level, nestled in the Bear River Mountain range.  When we hike, it is often through these mountains, with some of our trails requiring 2,000 or even 3,000 feet (if we’re feeling especially ambitious) in elevation change.  As you hikers out there know, those elevation changes can be grueling, and they can often be required not once but twice as you ascend the mountains, descend to take in a beautiful lake vista or other site, and then return the way you came.  As a result of this high-elevation hiking regimen, we have developed some terrific lung capacity.  The thin mountain air has made me a pro at hiking here, and I can feel my lungs filled to the brim when we return to sea level.  I will miss the chance to expand my lungs, though I think muscle/organ memory will kick back in in a year and 10 months or so, fingers crossed.

9) Mountain Streams:

Even when living in humid, sometimes swampy Missouri, we loved camping next to streams, lakes, and rivers, canoeing and swimming in them when we could.  The Current River in southern Missouri became a favorite.  But the West introduced us to a whole new echelon of beautiful lakes and streams, cascading down from mountain peaks.  I’ve often been tempted to drink from them, they seem so clean, so cool and refreshing.  Though my background in environmental justice and mining pollution reminds me this could be a decidedly bad idea, the fact that I can see the bottom of the river bed as the water whisks by it makes this impulse more than fleeting.  I will miss the crystal clear streams, their babbling as they rush by our camp site, and the welcome touch of their water on my bandana or hat in the middle of a particularly grueling hike.

8) Lack of traffic:

We just returned from our first trip to Rhode Island, to Providence, where Brown is located.  And they have a little thing there called traffic.  A lot of it.  I’m not a fan of driving in the first place, but the sparse traffic in my corner of the West has made the task a little less dreadful.  Now, I know many Westerners deal with their share of traffic, especially our city dwellers and various California residents, so you are not forgotten.  But, my goodness, the East boasts real traffic and it is everywhere!!  We deliberately chose a place within walking distance to Brown so that this traffic may not become a daily battle.  I hope it does not.  Wide, well-paved, and sparsely-traveled roads of Logan, I will miss thee….

7) Camping on Public Lands:

Often, summer camping for us includes choosing a spot on BLM land, setting up our tent and camping gear, and then heading off onto yet more public lands for hiking, sightseeing, and exploring.  The camp sites are free, as is the exploring, and nothing can beat this scenario.  I love that we can access some of the most beautiful places in the West, tread lightly there for a few days and nights, and not have it put a dent in my graduate student pocket book.  I will belabor this point next month, I’m sure, but I just may get arrested back East for trespassing.

6) My Fellow Outdoorspeople:

Not to say that easterners are not also outdoorsy, or have the capacity to be, but most Westerners have outdoor activities in their blood.  They were raised on four-wheeling, camping, hiking, and being outside on those accessible public lands I mention above.  I’ve learned in my time here that this creates a culture that is highly aware of their relationship to the land (even if it’s not called this or interpreted this way).  Back East, the network of interstates, private lands and buildings, and the abundant populations make cultivating a relationship to the land a little different for Easterners, I’m being reminded.  I look forward to learning about the East Coast, its natural pockets and gems, and I’m sure we will meet people with a strong land ethic and connection to the natural world.  But, my fellow Westerners, I will miss the comfort that many of you have with being a lonely little dot, or two or three, in a vast expanse of wilderness.

I’ll be thinking of my next five list items over the next few weeks.  If you were to leave the West, what would you miss the most?

Memorial Day Traditions in the West – This Year is Tricky

By Stephanie A. Malin

“Sooner or later, Utah is going to heat up. It will be like filling a thimble with a fire hose.”
Randy Julander, the federal government’s premiere snow survey expert in Utah, discussing what’s going to happen when higher temperatures arrive and begin to melt the state’s ever-increasing snowpack.
– Utah’s Deseret News

Triple A estimates that 35 million Americans will travel this weekend, kicking off their summers with road trips, camping, picnics, or hours on the beach.  For those of us in the West, however, recent weather patterns and a late spring – perhaps the result of climate change’s global weirding effects – will make some traditional activities more challenging to execute this weekend.  Across the West, flood warnings from melting snowpack, early wildfires, high winds with dust storms, and even late-season snow require regional travelers to tinker with their Memorial Day traditions and expectations.

My husband and I are big campers.  We like to head about twenty minutes down the road to Logan Canyon, where we have a few favorite spots to set up camp and sleep in the canyon for an evening or two.  The spot we frequent the most possesses just the right mix of amenities to make camping there a treat.  A large, level area for the tent, chairs, and even parking; a sizeable fire pit with a six-foot-tall boulder that projects the fire’s glow as the sun recedes; babbling and bubbling of one of Logan River’s side streams as it runs just south of our sleeping spot; and a vista that includes looming limestone cliffs and even the occasional deer.  Yes, perfect, for us at least.  Typically, we begin camping at this spot at about this time of the year, with Utah’s cold nights giving way just enough to make it bearable to sleep outdoors.  We don’t necessarily fight the Memorial Day weekend crowds but take advantage of our teaching schedules and pounce on the spot shortly after the weekend concludes and the canyon empties out a little.

This year, though, those plans have been complicated.  In anticipation of this tradition, we recently headed into the canyon to check in on our spot, say hello to our home-away-from-home after a long, snowy, chilly winter.   However, as we pulled up, we saw that camping will not be an option, at least not this week.  The babbling, bubbling side stream had risen well beyond its banks; the fire pit was too damp to nurture a substantial fire; and the ground throughout the area – though still level and lovely – was wet and would remain too damp to allow comfortable tent camping.  Aside from our spot’s damp appearance and the rising river, the weekend will bring with it at least two days of unusually substantial rain, according to our local meteorologist, putting a final nail in the coffin of our tradition.

Camping will have to wait, it seems, and perhaps longer than a week or two.  While spring rains have been common in Utah for my six years here, the amount of rain we have gotten this spring exceeded our normal levels of precipitation, combining with quickly melting snowpack to create flood concerns in Cache and Weber Counties.  Breaking with the norm, there have been more rainy and cloudy than sunny days.  Other areas throughout the state have seen similar flood concerns and late-spring rains and even snows combine to fill their canyons and camping spots.  Though this could certainly be a fluke – an odd weather pattern that will prove to be an anomaly and nothing else – observers like Randy Julander suggest that such anomalies may become the norm in typically arid states like Utah.  In fact, scientists such as Julander suggest that climate change may be impacting weather patterns to such an extent that they have termed these shifting patterns ‘global weirding.’ Global weirding refers to increased flooding in normally arid regions, increasing intensity and duration of storms (as we see in the Midwest’s recent spate of tornadoes), increased intensity and duration of wildfires, and affected growing seasons and agricultural outcomes.

While this observation doesn’t necessarily explain our camping spot’s unseasonable appearance, when combined with other serious weather and natural events across the West, it is hard to ignore the pattern.  Fires and floods ravage Colorado’s Western Slope, wildfires have already sparked to life in Arizona, multiple sites of flooding plague Montana, and rain and even some snowstorms have doused the West Coast.   This Memorial Day weekend, as people throughout the West search for their customary camping spots and enact their traditions, it seems likely that they may encounter flood damage or even remaining snowpack.  Executing traditions, it seems, may be trickier this year for the outdoor enthusiast.  How has your weekend or early summer been impacted?

The West’s Silent Spaces

By Stephanie Malin

Having just completed my dissertation, I feel a little lost. Strange, I know. I longed for this day while I sat staring at mounds of data, a computer screen, and the ticking clock. I am certainly doing more cleaning, organizing, and cooking than I thought humanly possible, and my work out routine is back to normal. Thinking back on the writing process, though, I’ve realized that one of the things that got me through the process – aside from my patient husband, insightful major professor, and encouraging parents and family – was the southern Utah landscape.

In the middle of writing ‘The Beast’ (as I affectionately termed my dissertation), my husband and I celebrated our tenth dating anniversary. Though I knew taking a break might be risky in terms of finishing on schedule, I also knew Matt and I needed to take time to enjoy the milestone. Thus, we decided to head down to one of our favorite haunts in southern Utah – and indeed, one of our favorite places in general – Capitol Reef National Park. Given our love of petroglyphs and anything archaeological, we decided we would also hit Horseshoe Canyon and the Great Gallery. Looking back on this trip from a place of new-found calm, I now know that not only did these silent spaces help Matt and I recognize our anniversary; the red rocks, towering cliffs, and ancient rock art also inspired me to get through one of the most challenging periods of my academic training.

On the way to Capitol Reef, we first stopped at Horseshoe Canyon to walk the trail that ends with the Great Gallery. As you may know, the journey to Great Gallery is as much the destination as the ancient rock art itself; once off the highway, we took off down the 32-mile dirt road. This was our second trip to this surreal place, and we knew the road has unpredictable, shifting sand dunes, washboards that shake your car violently, and a sense of isolation and adventure unparalleled even in remote southern Utah. As we bounced down the road and made it to the rim of Horseshoe Canyon, we stepped out into a wind storm, sand stinging our faces and eyes. Descending down the cliff side, we met up with the roughly-marked path winding along the canyon bottom, towering tan cliffs on either side. With no one else in sight and four panels of rock art to observe, we were in heaven.

Once we reached Great Gallery, however, each of us had to stop, sit, and stare. You can feel this place’s special energy and silence as soon as you round the last bend before the Gallery appears, ghostly dark red and brown figures looming high above you, six-foot tall beings watching you from a different time or planet. The figures look like large mummies or elaborate warriors, though trying to identify them or attach meaning distracts from their mystical quality. So we sat there in silence. Taking it in. Breathing deeply. And wondering to ourselves what inspired people thousands of years ago to create these magical, mysterious images. All the anxiety of writing a dissertation, of an impending move, of all the looming uncertainty were whisked away in that moment of silent desert stillness.

Once in Capitol Reef, after a bumpy drive back to the main road, we completed our customary hikes and delicious, gourmet dinners at Rim Rock Restaurant. This time, though, in honor of the special occasion, we did something we never have – we hired a local guide to take us on a backcountry tour of Cathedral Valley, where you can see the Temples of the Sun and Moon. Our guide arrived early in the morning, in a weathered Land Rover, a tall, stoic, reserved cowboy named Brian. He forded a river for us, taking us deep into the backcountry on a 60-mile loop. Brian described the landscape as he saw it, giving us insights into the park that we never had before, and amused Matt and I with stories of local residents and his own escapades in the area over the years. Once we arrived at Cathedral Valley, we knew we had reached another special, silent place. The sun peeked out, illuminating the Temples and accentuating their brilliant red. Even in the whipping wind, I took a deep breath and felt the silence, surrounding me for miles and miles. Any lingering worry slipped away, and I allowed myself to just feel connected to the landscape – at once alien and deeply comforting.

On our drive out of the area, I felt refreshed, full of life and love, and ready to tackle the long haul ahead. Without these silent spaces and their soothing energy captured in my imagination, I doubted I could handle the task. With them clear in my mind, though, I could push through the stress, self-doubt, and worry and complete the daunting task ahead.

The West is full of these silent spaces, the spaces that bring peace, encourage introspection, and cultivate self-awareness. What are yours? Please share!

Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant and Rural Western Communities – The Unexpected Connection

By Stephanie A. Malin

The recent earthquake and tsunami in Japan have captured international attention, which now lingers on the nation as Japan struggles to control and contain repeated disasters and tense moments at its six-reactor Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant.   I focus on this series of events for this month’s blog because these nuclear accidents may have unexpected impacts on economies in remote rural pockets of the American West.

Even as the Fukushima Daiichi workers struggle through tense moments, in southwestern Colorado, Energy Fuels’ Piñon Ridge Uranium Mill (PR Mill) has been given approval by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPH&E) to receive and process radioactive materials.  Local communities like Nucla and Naturita are populated with many people in vocal support of the mill for the jobs it will likely provide, with the most vocal being residents possessing fond memories of the last uranium booms.  Though a few licenses must still be acquired before construction can begin, the CDPH&E’s approval in January of the PR Mill holds significance and substantive meaning, given Colorado’s status as an Agreement State in which state-level institutions such as the CDPH&E give final approval on the mill equivalent to that granted by the federal-level Nuclear Regulatory Commission.  Company leaders and local residents remain confident that ground will be broken by 2012 and that the mill will provide at least 65 full-time, benefitted jobs.  This assurance remains, despite a lawsuit brought against the CDPH&E and Energy Fuels by regional environmental group Sheep Mountain Alliance (SMA).

Politically, state-level approval of this mill signals that perhaps US sentiments regarding nuclear power have shifted for the first time since the late 1970s.  Since that time – when the Three Mile Island incident left Americans largely skeptical of siting new nuclear facilities anywhere near their own communities – not a single nuclear reactor has been built or waste repository location approved.  Even the Piñon Ridge Uranium Mill, if constructed, will be the first uranium mill built since the end of the Cold War.  Residents of communities near the mill that I have interviewed and surveyed see the mill as one of the best chances for the area to reclaim its economic and cultural glory days as a uranium production powerhouse.

Current events at the Fukushima Daiichi Plant may, however, pose a palpable threat to this possible local-level economic resurgence; a bigger ‘threat’ than even the hotly-contested SMA.   As an international audience watches radioactive steam releases, explosions, and a public terrified of radiation exposure, the uranium market has been dealing with its own unpredictability (eg., see http://www.cbc.ca/fp/story/2011/03/16/4451889.html).  Uranium prices and worldwide demand have halted as the Fukushima Daiichi drama unfolds.  China, one significant source of demand for processed uranium – even from the PR Mill – has announced it will slow down its plans for nuclear expansion in the country.  With about 77 nuclear reactors either in the planning or construction phases, even a temporary moratorium on China’s nuclear reactors deeply impacts the global uranium market.  For example, a large Canadian uranium corporation – Uranium One, Inc. – was supposed to join with another Russian-owned uranium corporation, ARMZ, to take over another resources firm.  However, that deal has been halted by ARMZ.  Last week, the price of uranium also fell from about US$66 to US$55.  If prices for it fall below US$40, uranium becomes much less profitable to mine and process, even for experienced outfits like Energy Fuels in southwestern Colorado.

It remains to be seen if this market change is temporary, or if the Fukushima Daiichi disaster will have the same sort of impact on construction of nuclear-related facilities as did Three Mile Island and Chernobyl.   As rural Westerners in communities like those around the proposed PR Mill watch and pray for Japanese well-being and safety, I wonder if they also think a little of their own futures and well-being.  It may be that the fate of Fukushima Daiichi helps decide the fate of rural uranium communities where recession has been reality since the early 1980s.

“Degrees to Nowhere”?! – I Beg to Differ!

By Stephanie A. Malin

Given last month’s blog topic – and recent comments by Utah State Senator Howard Stephenson that degrees such as sociology, psychology, and philosophy are “degrees to nowhere” – my blog this month focuses on the vital role played by humanities and social sciences in higher education. As a PhD Candidate in Environmental and Development Sociology, and as an instructor of undergraduates at Utah State, I feel I have a personal and professional stake in showcasing the value of knowledge imparted by sociology, philosophy, psychology, and other social sciences and humanities.

First, as a sociologist, I want to clarify what it is that I, and we, do. Sociologists study how people behave in groups, from small-group interactions to institutions to entire global systems, like economic and political structures. Many of us trace the emergence and development of social movements in these contexts and tie them to historical trends. We also analyze power structures to better understand the impacts of growing inequality, effects of environmental pollutants, or shifts in labor markets. Sociologists try to represent marginalized voices while recording massive social changes occurring in the face of globalization, rapid technological progress, shifting political structures, and environmental degradation. Thus, I fail to understand how sociological knowledge – which records empirical social change and offers theoretical explanations for patterns emergent in society, so that we may form more equitable policy – can be framed as frivolous or less important that any of the “hard” sciences. Clearly, Sen. Stephenson did not pay attention in his sociology course(s), or as a leader navigating constituents through a particularly difficult historical period for our country, he would have a greater appreciation for what the discipline imparts…

All humanities and social sciences offer additional “training” in college that gives people a sense of historical context, cultural literacy, and challenges our students to think critically about the world they will soon be entering as adults and, yes, workers. Yet, advanced education should not just prepare our students to find meaningful, lucrative employment, but also guide students who are still shaping their ethical codes and oftentimes political and social outlooks. I believe this is one of the greatest gifts we are given as college instructors, to encounter students at a time when many of them are forming their worldviews as adults. Thus, classes offered in a university setting must teach not only technical knowledge, but social and political awareness and critical thinking capabilities as well. These latter skill sets make people more capable workers and more informed citizens.

For example, in my Sociology of Environment course, we study how to become more media literate consumers. I have students analyze historical trends in advertising and media ownership, their own consumption patterns, and related environmental impacts. Through in-class discussions and exercises, outside interactive assignments, and current readings in environment and economics, students in my class learn how to critically analyze sources of their information in an information-saturated world.

I also teach an upper-level Social Statistics course. Believe it or not, many sociologists know how to do math, even statistics. Some of us even do fancy things like Structural Equation Modeling and other complex statistical techniques in research programs attempting to understand global issues like HIV/AIDS rates, patterns in the global recession, or trends in income inequality in the US. In classes such as Social Statistics, students learn skills enviable on the job market for a business, accounting firm, or even agencies such as the Census Bureau or local criminal justice systems. A female student in my summer 2010 Statistics class graduated in August but – in this employment climate – had already been hired full-time as a researcher for the Cache Valley branch of the National Children’s Study. According to her, her statistical skills earned her this job. While anecdotal, I have abundant examples of similar situations, as I know my fellow Sociology instructors do. This evidence directly counters Senator Stephenson’s argument that degrees such as sociology are ‘degrees to nowhere.’

Finally, I assert the above illustration makes a strong case that cuts made to higher education funding – and where they are targeted – are premised on a misguided understanding of what a university does and what sort of vital skills are valued in today’s job market. Of course, technical and engineering degrees provide important skill sets. But higher education is not a zero-sum game; the value of science and engineering degrees does not negate the value of social science or humanities degrees or courses. Instead, they should complement one another, helping create well-rounded, articulate employees and citizens. After all, employers value critical thinkers and articulate communicators, especially in the longer term, whether they run an engineering firm, financial institution, or natural gas extraction operation. Instead of providing students with “degrees to nowhere,” social scientists and humanities practitioners help cultivate students who will earn more over the course of their careers (eg., see Cooper, hardnewcafe.usu.edu), while enriching our economy and society with articulate communicators, critical thinkers, and proactive citizens.

Sociology of Environment – Not Your Normal College Course

I love teaching college students.  Absolutely adore it.  Mid-January is here, and for me this means a new academic semester has begun and teaching resumes.  This time around, I have the pleasure of teaching Sociology of Environment and Natural Resources.  My 40-some students and I discuss some of the potential reasons behind environmental degradation – overpopulation, overconsumption, global production systems.  We also spend a quarter of the class learning about and analyzing global environmental justice case studies.  After units on climate change, energy policy, and agricultural systems, the end of the course focuses on potential solutions and student projects.

Having taught this course before, I’ve learned the basic rhythms of a course wherein students think not just about an abstract subject matter but something different, something bigger and yet more personal.  Instead of teaching statistics, for example, I’m asking them to question their orientation to the natural world.  Thus, this is one of the few courses in which students feel compelled to analyze their behavior and grapple with whether those behaviors should change.  More than any other course I’ve taught, this one is the most challenging and rewarding.  Challenging because, especially at this particular university, I encounter many students who are quite conservative and think of environmentalism as a strictly political issue (and, at that, a liberal one of which they want no part).  At the same time, teaching this class generates tangible rewards; when worldview barriers are overcome, breakthroughs for students can be life-altering.   About 30 of the 40 students will think about what they read and perhaps reduce their consumption temporarily or think about driving less and biking more.  But in a smaller portion of the class, I can watch deep-seated philosophical changes take place, something I have yet to experience in other classes of mine like Social Statistics or Social Psychology.

A vivid example comes to mind.  One student in the last session of this course began the semester with his head firmly planted on the desk.  He showed up for class most days, but within about ten minutes his head would be buried in his crooked arm.  Yes, he was that student that, for instructors, creates worry and unease, even when the rest of the class may give you their undivided attention. Despite my gentle urging, this behavior continued on through February and into March.  In March, we began reading about environmental justice cases around the world.  Stories of communities touched by toxic contamination from extraction activities and production facilities.  Many times, people in affected communities will notice their contamination, resultant illnesses or ailments, and begin long-term grassroots activism to fight the extraction, the facility, or at least get basic answers for their families and neighbors.

These stories, in turns out, brought my sleepy student back to life.  During those class periods, and for most of them that followed, this particular student transformed before my eyes.  He became alert, engaged, and inquisitive, often staying after class to ask questions or discuss a particular case study.  Through those conversations, I learned this student was from a town in Utah where coal mining was the main economic activity.  He described being raised in a community where a strange silver dust covered most cars, homes, and park equipment.  He also described a debilitating condition he had, in which the discs of his spine were being slowly crushed, for reasons no doctors has been able to explain.  He told me that many of his neighbors and family members suffered from similar and other ailments.  Apparently, the coal processing plant near his home discharged methyl mercury, and people in his community noticed widespread health problems that many residents, according to my student, saw as related to coal processing.  The case studies we were reading and the class discussions my student shared with peers moved him so deeply because they seemed to describe his own experiences as they unfurled.  He encouraged his mother to join with some of her neighbors to conduct a health study and get access to grant monies for further research, and by the time the class ended, the Utah Department of Health was looking into the local claims of illness and chronic conditions.  Any concrete outcome may take many years, but the beginning seems encouraging.

While events such as these are certainly not common, I begin each semester with the hope that Sociology of Environment will change my students’ perspectives on the natural world.  At the very least, I hope it transforms environmentalism from a political issue into a deeply personal and broadly human issue for them.  From my experience, this happens the most fluidly and meaningfully in a classroom where we can all interact and where organic discussions can develop (this may even be a topic for a future blog).  Though each class has its distinct personality, here’s to hoping that this semester sparks critical thinking and a new environmental ethic for my students.  I will keep you posted….