ENVS PhD student Kirsten Vinyeta has just published an important article on how racism and settler colonialism have shaped Forest Service fire science and policy in Environmental Sociology. This article is a chapter of her dissertation work in progress. Check it out:
Kirsten Vinyeta (2021) Under the guise of science: how the US Forest Service deployed settler colonial and racist logics to advance an unsubstantiated fire suppression agenda, Environmental Sociology, DOI: 10.1080/23251042.2021.1987608
ABSTRACT: Over the last century, the United States Forest Service (USFS) has reversed its stance on the ecological role of fire – from a militant enforcer of forest fire suppression to supporting prescribed fire as a management tool. Meanwhile, the Karuk Tribe has always prioritized cultural burning as a vital spiritual and ecological practice, one that has been actively suppressed by the USFS. This article examines the discursive evolution of USFS fire science through the critical lens of settler colonial theory. A content analysis of agency discourse reveals how the USFS deployed anti-Indigenous rhetoric to justify its own unsubstantiated forest management agenda. USFS leadership racialized light burning by deridingly referring to it as ‘Piute Forestry.’ The agency has also discredited, downplayed, and erased Indigenous peoples and knowledges in ways that invoke tropes of the ‘Indian savage,’ the ‘Vanishing Indian,’ and the concept of ‘Terra Nullius.’ It wasn’t until the 1960s – in the context of the Civil Rights and American Indian Movements – that the USFS began contemplating the value of prescribed fire. This research illustrates the complicated relationship between the settler state and Western science, as well as the malleability of scientific discourse in the face of changing social contexts.
ENVS Master’s Student Jessica Brown was recently featured in the Texas State University Alumni Impact Publication for her mission to expand BIPOC access to environmentalism. Read full article here: https://news.txstate.edu/alumni-impact/2021/jessica-t-brown.html
Aimee Okotie-Oyekan, a master’s student in Environmental Studies and Community and Regional Planning, was one of 26 students nationwide chosen to participate in the Places Journal‘s Summer Writing + Editing Workshop.
Excerpt from College of Design interview with Aimee:
The Places Journal recently published Okotie-Oyekan’s essay, “A Tale of Place-Taking,” which examines environmental identity through the lens of the adaptive re-use project of transforming Bellwood Quarry to Westside Park in Atlanta’s Grove Park neighborhood.
“It felt really good to receive the nomination to participate in this writing workshop. I felt seen,” Okotie-Oyekan told the College of Design. “I had been really anxious about my progress on my thesis research, and saw the workshop as an opportunity for a structured experience that would be specifically catered to the progression of my project. What I was not expecting was to be reminded of how much I appreciate good, thoughtful writing. With the facilitation of the Places’ editors, the conclusion of the workshop brought me a framework of understanding my research topic, new connections with like-minded peers, and a renewed enthusiasm for words and their resonance”
Read the entire interview on the PPPM website: https://pppm.uoregon.edu/pppm-student-tackles-place-taking-places-journal-essay
You can also read Aimee’s Places Journal article here: https://placesjournal.org/workshop-article/a-tale-of-place-taking-the-construction-of-environmental-identity-in-grove-park/?cn-reloaded=1
Stacy Alaimo joined the UO faculty in 2019. Her work focuses on the sites where cross disciplinary theory, science, literature, art, and ordinary practices intersect. Her publications include Undomesticated Ground: Recasting Nature as Feminist Space (2000); Bodily Natures: Science, Environment, and the Material Self (2010), which won the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment book award for Ecocriticism; and Exposed: Environmental Politics and Pleasures in Posthuman Times (2016). She co-edited Material Feminisms (2008), edited Matter (2016) in the Gender series of Macmillan Interdisciplinary Handbooks, and edited a special volume of Configurations on Science Studies and the Blue Humanities (2019). Alaimo has more than 50 scholarly articles and chapters published and forthcoming on such topics as gender and climate change, queer animals, anthropocene feminisms, marine science studies, blue humanities, material ecocriticism, and new materialist theory. Her work has been reprinted and translated into Romanian, Swedish, Spanish, Portuguese, Polish, Greek, German, Estonian, and Korean. Several international art exhibits have engaged with her work. Her eco-materialist concept of “transcorporeality” has been widely taken up in the arts, humanities, and social sciences. She is currently working on topics related to ocean conservation, writing a book, Composing Blue Ecologies: Science, Aesthetics, and the Creatures of the Abyss, starting another project on ocean acidification, as well as co-editing a new book series, “Elements,” for Duke University Press. She loves hiking, kayaking, camping, swimming, snorkeling, and scuba diving, and is thrilled to become part of the superb environmental studies program at U of O!
Emily Eliza Scott’s research focuses on contemporary art and design practices that engage pressing (political) ecological issues, often with the intent to actively transform real-world conditions. More broadly, it addresses art and the public sphere, critical approaches to the built environment, visual cultures of nature, social and environmental justice, and the capacity of art to produce non-instrumental forms of sensing and knowing. Prior to joining the UO in 2018, she was a Visiting Professor at the VU University Amsterdam, a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Inst. for the History and Theory of Architecture at the Swiss Federal Inst. of Technology (ETH Zurich), and earned a PhD in post-1945 art history from UCLA in 2010. Her writings have appeared in Art Journal, Art Journal Open, American Art, Third Text, The Avery Review, Field, and Cultural Geographies as well as multiple edited volumes and online journals; her first book, Critical Landscapes: Art, Space, Politics, coedited with Kirsten Swenson, was published by the Univ. of California Press in 2015. At present, she is developing a monograph on contemporary art and geological imaginaries and a coedited volume on contemporary art, visual culture, and climate change. She is also a core participant in two long-term, collaborative, art-research projects: World of Matter (2011-), an international platform on global resource ecologies; and the Los Angeles Urban Rangers (2004-), a group that develops guided hikes, campfire talks, field kits, and other interpretive tools to spark creative explorations of everyday habitats in their home megalopolis and beyond. Before entering academia, Scott spent nearly a decade as a National Park Service ranger in Utah and Alaska.
Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies and Biology Dr. Lauren Hallett joined the University of Oregon faculty in the Fall of 2017. Dr. Hallett is a plant community ecologist whose research spans a variety of ecosystems (including woodlands, serpentine grasslands, working rangelands, and alpine). Her research themes include community assembly, species coexistence, functional traits, ecosystem stability and resilience theory.
The Hallett lab aims to produce “usable” science to improve ecosystem management. This is achieved through a combination of long-term data analysis, population modeling, and field experiments. Her recent publications include journal articles in Ecology, BioScience, Ecological Restoration and the Journal of Applied Ecology.
Mitchell’s research focuses on understanding international environmental treaties and which factors make some treaties more “effective” than others in getting countries to practice environmental protection. His interests include both researching the minutiae of specific treaties and how they are designed and implemented, as well as broader patterns and data on efficacy that emerge from examining hundreds of environmental treaties and protocols that different countries have signed. His inspiration for the work stems from an awareness of the environmental harm that humankind has historically wrought at the personal, local, national, and international level and the sustaining hope that providing his students with proper research skills might contribute to mitigating human-caused environmental damage in future.
For Mitchell, there is an indelible link between research and teaching. As he describes it, reading the works of other researchers broadens his understanding of issues related to treaties, and conducting his own research requires “active, careful, and rigorous thinking about these issues”. But, effective teaching requires identifying ways to communicate his own knowledge clearly and succinctly, which in turn deepens his own understanding of the topic. Thus, research and teaching are part of an “iterative” and mutually reinforcing process.
However, one of best parts about serving this dual role is the ability to bring students into the research process. Here, Mitchell puts it best himself:
“One of the great pleasures of being a faculty member who cares about teaching and research comes from inviting students to do research with me. Over 25 years of teaching at UO, I have invited over 75 undergraduate and graduate students to help me build a database of all international environmental agreements. Those students have helped create a database that now provides the most comprehensive list of international environmental treaties in the world. The most rewarding part of involving students in my research, however, has been the deep friendships that develop through the mentoring process. Students I have worked with have gone on to excellent graduate schools and/or positions in government, nongovernmental organizations, and universities. These students, and my close relationships with them, inspire me by their extraordinary commitment to helping protect the environment that we live in and are a part of.”
If you are interested in learning more about Mitchell’s work, links to his video lectures can be found here; or read his book International Politics and the Environment (Sage, 2010).
For more information about international environmental treaties, visit the International Environmental Agreements Database Project.
“Solving puzzles as part of an interdisciplinary team has been a consistent source inspiration for me,” says Lucas Silva. “The transdisciplinary collaborative spirit observed through campus, and particularly salient in my home departments (ENVS & Geography), is the single most important factor that drew me to UO.” Indeed, Silva exemplifies this spirit of interdisciplinarity through his work and contributions to academia. (more…)
“I was drawn to Environmental Studies by my love for the many landscapes that have cradled me throughout my life, a love that turns to motivated rage when I reflect on the (more…)
Initially Justin Culman was hesitant to become an Environmental Science major. The amount of credits required seemed daunting, but once he realized he could manage a four-year plan with Environmental Sciences and a double major in Geography, he was sold on switching into the program. (more…)
Keyyana Blount has always loved estuaries. Growing up in southern Maryland, her primary education began with the basic ecology of the Chesapeake Bay. During her time at Salisbury University, she completed an undergraduate research internship with the EPA’s Atlantic Ecology Division laboratory in Narragansett, RI on the climate change effects on salt marsh plants. “During this internship,” she says, “I had the privilege of spending many summer days in the beautiful salt marshes of New England. In the field, I realized how dynamic these ecosystems were, and also how vulnerable they may be to climate change.” These experiences encouraged Keyyana to study the potential effects of climate change on coastal wetland ecosystems, and to find ways to protect and preserve them. (more…)
The Environmental Studies Program is very excited to announce that our own faculty member, Katie Lynch, has been invited to join the Oregon Environmental Literacy Program Council. Lynch is currently the co-director of the Environmental Leadership Program, Environmental Education Instructor, and undergraduate advisor to Environmental Studies students. The mission of the Council is to facilitate the implementation of the Environmental Literacy Plan by “creating thoughtful connections with the natural world through education and engagement.” The Council will be responsible for encouraging educational agencies and public schools to participate in environmental education programs. The plan operates in tandem with the “No Oregon Child Left Inside Act,” a bill signed into law in 2009 that encourages students from kindergarten to college to have hands-on learning experiences in Oregon biomes. (more…)
Morgan E. Peach is a recent graduate of the University of Oregon Environmental Studies Master’s Program. While at the UO, his research was primarily concerned with the relationships between soil systems and the built environment and their carbon sequestration potential.
Of his work, Peach stresses that “ecological and biogeochemical dynamics are [constantly] at work…in our everyday environment. Nature is ‘in here,’ in the city or the home, not just ‘out there.’” The disproportionate effect humans have on their environments can be harnessed “through design informed by environmental science” by allowing us to “choose the degree to which our towns, cities, and managed landscapes may function as regenerative, remediating” parts of our environment. These interests are what originally drew Peach to the ENVS graduate program, as it allowed him opportunities to explore concepts in biology as well as landscape architecture.
Upon graduation he joined the Sterling College faculty in Vermont as a biology instructor, and the Red House INC., Fine Homebuilding and Historic Restoration team as a woodworker. Of his career choices he says, “as a carpenter I shape wood into useful forms; as a professor in the Sterling Biology classroom, I discuss the structure, function, and ecology of wood, all of which leads to its prominent place in building systems. There is a fulfilling correspondence between [the two].”
The UO ENVS program has particularly empowered him as a teacher, by providing unique teaching opportunities (namely the ENVS 411 program). The ability to work alongside the “many talented and passionate educators” within ENVS, he says, has given him a plethora of “pedagogical tips and tricks” that he continues to use in the classroom. He has also been inspired by the hands-on educational opportunities offered by the ENVS Environmental Leadership Program (ELP) and Classroom Community Connections (CCC), and regularly seeks to get his students outside of the classroom so they can draw connections between course content and their environment.
This summer Peach will be continuing his own interdisciplinary education at Dartmouth College in Hanover, NH as an Earth, Ecosystem, and Ecological Science PhD student. Peach firmly believes in the benefits of the interdisciplinary education offered by the UO ENVS program, as it helps him “connect seemingly disparate dots, and in doing so draw closer to the imaginative, innovative solutions required in the face of unprecedented environmental and social challenges confronting the 21st-century human community.”
Many students entering the University of Oregon think of Environmental Studies as a potential major from the day they arrive, but Adrian Robins was not one of them. He initially planned on studying psychology, so when he and a friend signed up for an introduction to environmental humanities, it was as a freshman year elective. “I wasn’t expecting what happened,” Adrian remarks. “I had taken a class in environmental science in high school, but reading people like Emerson and Leopold in ENVS 203, and learning about [organizations dedicated to food sovereignty], something about that woke me up and made me want to do more with my life.”
Adrian has since taken the opportunity to not only continue his classroom studies in the field of environmental studies, but to actually visit the field. He travelled to India for a study abroad program, where he learned from subsistence farmers. “I hadn’t really thought about alternate ways of dealing with food before because I’d never had the chance to see subsistence (plus it’s easy to ignore when you go to the supermarket for everything), but there are communities where the crop is everything, and control of that crop is critical.” This perspective has led him to a devoted interest in food sovereignty and the fight to protect it—including some time after his study abroad program with Navdanya, one of the organizations he first heard of in ENVS 203.
Food sovereignty and the importance of crop diversity has also followed Adrian into his thesis work. He is now a senior, graduating in June, and is in the process of gathering information about local seed saving networks. He is interested in the hows and whys that influence which seeds farmers choose to save. A number of crop varieties, he explains “are extinct or going extinct, and it’s a form of biodiversity that I think people don’t really pay attention to. But we’re heading to big changes environmentally, and the only way to ensure that we have food in the future is to have a diverse number of crops that can potentially survive.” Although Adrian initially planned for an environmental studies major, this focus on the applications of ecology to agriculture has led him to pursue a major in environmental science, with a minor in biology.
Many students have a similarly windy path through their college experience, and Adrian enjoys helping them out: he works currently as an Ecopeer, a position he has held for a year an a half, where he has the chance to advise undergraduate peers about the Environmental Studies Program. “It’s a pretty complicate major because we’re so interdisciplinary and it’s a big program, but I think my brain just works well with scheduling and organizing. Plus, I’ve liked my work because I’ve made a lot of connections to my peers in ENVS.”
Now that his undergraduate schedule is mostly set, what is Adrian planning for his own future? It’s a bit early to decide, but he’s considering agriculture-oriented positions with the Peace Corps or—perhaps—applying for a Fulbright scholarship to go back to India. Stop by the main ENVS office to chat and learn more!
Read about other Environmental Studies Program students and faculty members here.
Ezra Markowitz, who graduated from the University of Oregon with a Ph.D. in Environmental Sciences, Studies & Policy, joined the faculty of UMass Amherst this fall as an Assistant Professor, and is completing his first course, entitled “Environmental Decision-Making.”
Dr. Markowitz has always been interested in both psychology and environmental issues, although it wasn’t always clear how to merge them. He entered his undergraduate studies at Vassar College knowing that he wanted to major in psychology, and quickly became active within the school’s student environmental group. However, Markowitz explains that “they didn’t immediately seem to mesh. It wasn’t until my third year that my advisor in psychology told me ‘you know, you can combine those two interests of yours.’”
By the time he began looking for graduate schools he knew he wanted to study sustainability and decision-making, but “it wasn’t really clear how to do that in graduate school because there weren’t many programs available on the East coast. It ends up that the University of Oregon had what I was looking for, so it won out.” In Markowitz’s mind, Environmental Studies’ resources worked well with his professional goals because he was focused in his interests: “I get a lot of prospective graduate students looking at the program, and what I tell them is that it’s a really great place for people who have a good sense of what they want to study. Which is not everybody. But for me, the U of O gave me that support to explore and figure out on my own what had already been done in this new field, and what needed to be done.”
This interdisciplinary training, in which Markowitz drew from multiple departments to round out his education, also prepared him for his experiences after graduating. After defending his dissertation, he spent a year as a postdoctoral research associate with Princeton University’s Research Community on Communicating Uncertainty, where he worked with a group of political scientists, climate scientists, philosophers, and economists on the question of how to communicate scientific uncertainty regarding environmental change problems, both to policy-makers and the public. “It was a perfect extension of being at the U of O, he recounts, “because it was an incredible multi-disciplinary group. We certainly had challenges in terms of how to all talk and work together, but it was exciting. I spent the year running studies and finding that contrary to popular belief, you can actually increase people’s trust in climate scientists and in science more generally by being more open about the uncertainties that exist.”
Markowitz did get the chance to study among peers, though, when in 2013 he was invited to the Center for Research on Environmental Decisions at Columbia University. “For the first time in my life I was around people who do pretty much what I do. Everybody was a behavioral scientist doing environmental stuff, which was cool.” The group does much of its work on individuals’ decision-making under uncertainty, so “it was a nice flow from my work at Princeton.”
His position at Columbia University could have lasted for three years, but Markowitz was browsing faculty job postings and noticed one advertised by UMass Amherst “for something like human decision-making in environmental conservation. So I figured it was a pretty good fit.” It was: after a lengthy interview process, Markowitz found himself with a tenure-track position in a location that he is excited to explore. “I hadn’t applied to many jobs,” he admits, “but this seemed right for me. It’s in a place that reminds me a lot of the Willamette Valley in terms of politics and the physical layout of the valley around the river, with little mountains all around. I really did enjoy my time in Oregon.”
At UMass, Markowitz expects to keep his steady focus on how to blend research with practical application. Not only will he continue to offer consulting to policy groups outside of academia, he remains dedicated to investigations that support smart activism. “I don’t necessarily have the tools to put my findings into practice, but my goal is always for the research that I’m doing to be both practical and applicable. I want to help inform the work that’s happening on the ground.”
Read about other Environmental Studies Program students and faculty members here.
The Environmental Studies Program is excited to welcome Sarah Wald as our first joint hire with the department of English. She is set to begin teaching in both departments this fall, and is also excited to engage with the new ENVS-affiliated Food Studies Specialization.
Dr. Wald’s interest in environmental studies began when she herself was an undergraduate, during the global justice protests against the WTO in Seattle in 1999. The rhetoric of the movement intrigued her: “‘Teamsters and Turtles, together at last,’ was one of the slogans,” she recalls. “I wanted to know why it was so strange to imagine environmentalists and labor activists working together. Why weren’t mainstream environmentalists more engaged with the issues facing working people and people of color?” This sort of questioning triggered her involvement in the field, and she also believes that it sustains her current research, which strives to link Race and Ethnic Studies with environmental cultural studies.
Both inform a manuscript she is currently completing, entitled ‘To the Farmer in all of us’: Race, Nature, and Citizenship in Representations of Californian Farmers and Farmworkers. In it Wald mines newspaper articles, pamphlets, novels, and short stories for twentieth and twenty-first century Asian American and Latina/o voices, asking the questions: what have been the representations of Californian agricultural laborers, how do cultural understandings of nature “shape the racial gate-keeping of the nation,” and “what do these works tell us about the ways we imagine nature and landscape in relation to nation and the ways we racialize that relationship?”
Wald is excited about the opportunity to continue this scholarship at the University of Oregon, and as a professor affiliated with the Food Studies Specialization, she is interested in how a focus on producers of food, rather than consumers, might help develop the sustainable food movement. “Documentaries like Food, Inc.,” she explains, “tell us that we can vote with our dollars. Promoting consumer citizenship has all sorts of ideological consequences that we don’t often consider, though. Emphasizing consumption as the primary way to exercise political power privileges those with more money. If you vote with your dollar, those with the most dollars have the most votes. It also suggests that privatization (rather than federal regulation) is the solution to environmental ills, worker exploitation, and food safety.”
As a result, Wald wants to find a way to prioritize producers’ voices, and she believes that the UO’s focus on collaborative engagement with the food communities of Eugene and Springfield is a valuable tool for getting there. Not only do such partnerships pair activism with academics, they prompt important questions: do we best reduce pesticides by buying organic, or by increasing regulation? What issues are important to consumers, and are they different than those important to producers? Which voices are currently prioritized? “There’s a lot of inspiring scholarship and teaching happening in the program around issues of race and ethnicity and environmental justice,” Wald explains. She expects that this focus meshed with community engagement can be a powerful mix.
Such perspectives will inform her teaching next year, including a graduate course entitled Ecocritical Approaches to Race and Ethnicity and Food Matters. In the mean time, she is currently settling in to the city and is looking for recommendations for hiking and biking close to town. Please join us in welcoming her to Eugene!
Read about other Environmental Studies Program students and faculty members here.
ENVS major Francesca Varela hasn’t even graduated college yet, but she has already published her first novel. Call of the Sun Child became available March 7 through Homebound Publications—a work of young-adult fiction whose protagonist, Sempra, comes of age within a post apocalyptic society that has shut her and her community within a sealed, sustainable dome. In this world, the sun has grown so intense as to force the dome-bound humans to become nocturnal, and the most horrible punishment is to be cast out in exile. Nevertheless, Sempra begins to wonder: what is outside the dome? “When she and her childhood friend, Alden, discover a forbidden book, she begins to question the facility, and, with it, everything she has ever known.”
Call of the Sun Child draws on environmental themes, so it comes as no surprise that Varela engages with the environmental studies community here at the UO. She originally intended to be an English major, but has found that a concentration in ENVS, paired with creative writing, has allowed for broader interests: she has taken classes in geology and restoration ecology, and particularly enjoyed a two week-long class during the summer when she got on-the-ground field research experience.
“I really like to be out in the field, but I also like writing,” Varela explains. “I don’t see the two as separate, and I think literature is important as it gets people interested in environmental issues.” What’s more, she often gets her best creative ideas while she’s outdoors. In the case of Call of the Sun Child, she thought up the first nugget that would become her story about a year before she began writing, while she was looking at the moon. She began thinking about the possibility of a nocturnal society, and the rest of her apocalyptic adventure followed. All in all the book took about six months to write, including one summer vacation.
Moving forward, Varela intends to continue her engagement with both fieldwork and literature. She already has ideas for another book, and after graduation, hopes to find a job with an environmental nonprofit, or perhaps even at a National Park. In the meantime she’s looking forward to her last year of school, her interests in figure skating and violin, and trips to Opal Creek, Mount Saint Helens, and Mount Rainier.
Megan Gleason wasn’t sure what to expect when she showed up at her first meeting with the University of Oregon’s Climate Justice League. She was a freshman new to campus, and attended because an old high school friend took her along; she admits that “I was nervous about going because I didn’t really know anyone there.”
A Junior now, she has been involved with Climate Justice League for three years and credits it with providing not only a means of getting active with environmental issues, but also a community of like-minded peers. Almost immediately, she recalls, “I got to be really good friends with a lot of the more active members of CJL.”
Gleason has since served as Campaign Coordinator for projects with the Climate Justice League, including a project that helped make recycling and composting more accessible on campus. This year, she decided to make a further commitment and take on the role of Co-Director—meaning “instead of organizing campaign events, or what I call ‘on the ground’ work, I do a lot of behind the scenes work, meeting with Coordinators one on one and making sure things go smoothly.” The job has helped her develop practical leadership skills, as she must devote herself to understanding “the nuts and bolts of what it takes to keep a group together, happy, and on the right track.”
As Co-Director of the Climate Justice League, Gleason also found herself as a speaker at the Oregon Higher Education Sustainability Conference. She sat on a panel of speakers with others from PSU and OSU who were working on a campaign that the Climate Justice League had also taken on, called Take Back the Tap. It was an apt time to be addressing the issue: the Climate Justice League had recently pushed a campaign through TBTT, with the support of 85% of faculty and 72% of the student body, to go bottled water-free. It looked like UO was about to become the first public university to make the switch, but just weeks before the conference, “UO President Michael Gottfredson refused not only to pass the policy, but to meet with us to negotiate policy amendments. This decision prompted our campaign to expose the biggest reason the UO said no to going bottled water-free: big money beverage contracts with Pepsi.”
It was a controversial topic, and Gleason was initially nervous to bring it up in front of a public audience. Ultimately, however, she found the presentation to be quite rewarding: “some members of our audience were surprised at our presentation, but I definitely felt a lot of support as I met with people. OHESC is a great place to network and meet people who really want to see institutions of higher education integrate sustainability.”
Moving forward, Gleason expects to graduate in spring of 2015 with a major in environmental studies and a minor in political science. She doesn’t have definite plans after graduation, but law school and graduate school in public policy are on the short list, and she wants to participate next year in the Environmental Leadership Program’s Canopy Connections to get a feel for environmental education. In the meantime she’s taking advantage of interdisciplinary course offerings within the Environmental Studies department, continuing her activism with the Climate Justice League, singing in one of the UO gospel choirs, and reading whenever she gets a spare moment.
Read about other Environmental Studies Program students and faculty members here.
Brook Muller has been interested in green building for a while now. “I remember back as high schooler I got a Sierra Club book called Better Homes and Garbage, which told you how to calculate heat gain and loss and how to make a solar house. I got really excited.”
Muller went on to major in Environmental Studies at Brown University and earn his Masters of Architecture at the University of Oregon, after which he worked as the director of a program in sustainable environments and as an assistant professor at California Polytechnic State University. He arrived as faculty to the University of Oregon in 2004. Through it all he has maintained a commitment to environmental thinking, and often collaborates in his design projects with both ecologists and professors in the environmental humanities. “I was also just on the Environmental Studies department’s English search committee, which was an extraordinary experience given that I’m interested in the poetics of green building. My summer reading list is now twenty summers long.”
Such interdisciplinary collaboration reflects how his interests have grown since Better Homes and Garbage. Although sustainable architecture typically evokes “performance-based propositions” highlighting issues like energy conservation, Muller pushes the concept further: “I feel like when we start engaging environmental issues more deeply it opens up a new set of possibilities for expression within architecture. Buildings have to perform well, but they are also symbolic; they communicate an ethos. I’m really interested in the poetics of environmental design.”
This interest finds expression in his new book, Ecology and the Architectural Imagination, which considers how “designers might gain some measure of ecological literacy, and the opportunities that that opens up.” Architects have always used metaphors to describe their work, and Ecology and the Architectural Imagination highlights a few like the “organism metaphor,” that buildings are bodies. Muller explains that “we are smitten with that idea today and we like evolutionary biology terms like replication and genetic switches. However, my contention is that while we use these terms to create buildings that have adaptable façades that may perform better, we can also be thinking about biology in ways that affect how species are actually going to be able to occupy human-dominated environments.”
As an example of such thinking, Muller remarks that his colleague in landscape architecture, Bart Johnson, “would say that cities from the standpoint of species are like rock outcrops—great for shelf- and cavity-nesting birds, but not necessarily for a whole lot else.” By re-examining the meaning and purpose of our buildings, we have the opportunity to design spaces that support a greater diversity of species. As such, Muller sees his book as “a rumination on how the design process would be affected in positive and exciting ways, if we started to think more ecologically.”
Muller also sees the University of Oregon as the perfect place to explore such possibilities. The university has a deep history in green design and issues of social equity: “in the ‘80s, which was sort of the ‘Ronald Reagan era’ of architecture, when one of his first acts as president was to remove all the solar panels from the White House, we hung to our green building values.” As a result, the U of O remains a leader in sustainable architecture and continues to attract architecture students who are interested in environmental issues. Many of them end up as Muller’s students, and he loves it. “I have two students who were in my architecture studio in the winter who are Environmental Studies minors, and it’s great to see smart, capable students in the department, putting together these kind of connections. They understand the significance of what we’re doing.”
Alayna Linde is a recent 2013 graduate of the Environmental Studies Master’s program, and she is the first to admit to “taking full advantage of the ‘choose-your-own-adventure’ aspect of the program.” With courses in sociology, international studies, non-profit management, and PPPM (Planning, Public Policy and Management), her course load was neither repetitive nor, from the outset, entirely predictable.
From a personality standpoint, she believes that this meshed well with the way she learns from and interacts with the world, given that she thinks her “brain’s default setting is somewhere between one or more disciplines.” Alayna came to the University of Oregon with a Bachelor’s degree in chemistry, but she had also volunteered with an environmental non-profit and was interested in expanding her toolbox when it came to addressing environmental concerns. This ultimately led to degree concentrations in sustainability and affecting social change, with a decidedly non-chemistry lean towards communication work. She believes that her varied academic interests were critical in this development: “even the pursuit of inderdisciplinarity,” she recalls, “can result in good conversations of people listening to other points of view, which I think is a huge part of good communication.”
Alayna know the value of good communication. Her thesis work took her to China with three other ENVS students and the UO Chinese Philanthropic Leadership Association, were she used interviews to examine the use and usefulness of water pasteurization indicators. “Were I to do it all again,” she half-jokes, “I’d devote two years solely to the study of Mandarin, preferably in the community of my intended work, before attempting field research. But I knew that going in!” Such communication hurdles did offer interesting lessons in how to confront them: “I was fortunate to have wonderful Chinese interpreters and friends, and a supportive and motivating support team of advisers and committee members to help me make something of my limited research.”
Nowadays, she puts her skills to work with EnviroIssues, a communications and public outreach consulting firm based in Seattle. As a project coordinator, she supports the outreach work for clients such as the Washington State Department of Ecology, King County Department of Transportation, and Puget Sound Energy. Here again she sees value in varied experiences and a broad background: “At EI, people come from a variety of educational and professional backgrounds. This contributes to a collaborative work environment where you have different voices and perspectives working toward common goals, so I think my time in the interdisciplinary ENVS program was a good primer. Moreover, the critical thinking skills, research techniques, advanced writing, and time in front of a classroom as a GTF demanded of me as an ENVS student have served me very well for my work as a consultant.”
Read about other Environmental Studies Program students and faculty members here.