Daring to Solve the Insoluble | The Evergreen State College

Daring to Solve the Insoluble

Like the rest of Evergreen’s first entering class, I grew up during Vietnam-era antiwar protests and amid rising public concerns about the environment.

Just one year before I set foot on Evergreen’s new Olympia campus, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency opened its doors. Five months later, the first Earth Day teach-ins were held nationwide. By the early ’70s my classmates and I were seeing the evidence that understanding the issues and then speaking out works: By 1971, 60 percent of Americans were against the Vietnam War. The tide was turning. By 1973 Nixon had declared the war over and Congress had enacted the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts that still govern environmental cleanup efforts today. The Endangered Species Act was another product of that time.

Early Evergreeners (we weren’t called Greeners yet) flocked to environmental programs with interwoven disciplines that still resonate today, such as natural history, conservation, ecology, biology, chemistry, math, geology, statistics, social movements, and political history. These programs included The Ecology and Chemistry of Pollution, Evergreen Environment (E2), and Foundations of Natural Science. Faculty included Al Wiedemann, Steve Herman, Michael Beug, Rob Knapp, and Betty Kutter, among others.

E2 1973 group contract at Malheur with Steve Herman (standing, far left) and Devi Sharp (seated, far left).

E2 1973 group contract at Malheur with Steve Herman (standing, far left) and Devi Sharp (seated, far left). Photo by Steve Herman.

Herman and Wiedemann often shepherded their students on field trips to Northwest forests and reserves. One student was Devi (Ukrain) Sharp ’76, retired Chief of Natural and Cultural Resources at Wrangell-St. Elias National Park. She remembers her group’s 1973 trip to Malheur National Wildlife Refuge vividly (pictured above). “We were serious—we got up before the birds and watched them for hours before breakfast. Late evenings found us writing our meticulous field notes. Steve and Al ran a rigorous program that would later help many of us in our professional lives.”

“Sure, you can go live in a little cabin in the wilderness. But I won’t feel sorry for you when the bulldozers arrive at your door.”

Willi Unsoeld

Young outdoorsmen and women also came to Evergreen, drawn in part by its famous mountaineer faculty members, the late Willi Unsoeld and Pete Sinclair. Some students expressed interest in the back-to-the land movement. In one Individual in America seminar, I heard Unsoeld warn, “Sure, you can go live in a little cabin in the wilderness. But I won’t feel sorry for you when the bulldozers arrive at your door.” He laid down the gauntlet: Would we simply retreat to the woods? Or would we fight for a healthy environment for everyone?

Countless Evergreen graduates chose the fight. Herman said dozens of the students he taught between 1972 and 2005 went on to work for state or federal agencies and the National Park Service, “fighting the good fight.” Others started solar energy ventures or political careers or joined environmental advocacy organizations. During Sharp’s 23 years at the National Park Service and U.S. Forest Service she had opportunities to hire Evergreen students. “The jobs I had to offer were demanding and technical and when I saw an Evergreen student, I knew that they had the education. And if they said they knew how to do something, they knew how to do it from experience, not from a book.”

In 1984 Evergreen launched its Master of Environmental Studies (MES) degree program. Its graduates picked up the gauntlet too, working for tribes, municipalities, and environmental organizations in the U.S. and abroad.

Climate Change, the Biggest Gauntlet of All

2012 grads protest the Keystone Pipeline during commencement.

2012 grads protest the Keystone Pipeline during commencement. Photo by Riley Shiery.

Fast-forward 45 years to the present. I’m back at Evergreen, now on staff. All over campus I see signs of energy consciousness: LEED-Gold-certified buildings; a compost heat system in the Mods; electric car-charging stations; LED parking lot lighting; and a new Zipcar pilot program, to name just a few.

Environmental studies are thriving as well. The 2016–17 catalog lists 41 interdisciplinary program options for undergrads, such as Energy Systems and Climate Change, Visualizing Climate Change, and Resource Rebels: Environmental Justice Movements Building Hope.

Greeners test ride sustainable methods of travel

Greeners test-ride sustainable methods of electronic transportation.

Political engagement is also in fine form. This year, students formed clubs to work
on bills requiring Washington state to use more solar energy. Students and staff, along with Evergreen President George Bridges, planned and hosted a symposium, It’s Happening. What Now? Climate Change Research and Action in Washington State. Nobel Prize honoree John Byrne, Ph.D. gave the keynote address.

In April the MES program sponsored a Power Dialogue Carbon Policy discussion featuring state officials who are helping to guide carbon policy. Attendees learned about the state’s plans to decarbonize Washington’s economy. That same month, the MPA Reservation-Based, Community Determined Program held a speaker series at the Longhouse on sustainability issues of particular interest to area tribes.

The Energy Issue

Climate change is too vast a topic for a single 28-page magazine, so in this issue, our writers focus on its energy aspects. Read on to meet some of the alumni, students, and faculty working “upstream” to decrease global warming through clean energy, reimagined infrastructure, and policies to affect positive environmental change.

Faculty member Larry Geri, featured on page 22, hopes readers will come away feeling optimistic. “The critical thing is not to approach [climate change] with a sense of fatalism. I hope people approach this not from a negative perspective, but a more positive one. Yes, the trends don’t look good, but we can figure this out and we shouldn’t get paralyzed by the fear of the scale of challenges.”

Faculty Member Oscar Soule and students visit the Satsop nuclear power plant construction site, early ’80s.

Faculty Member Oscar Soule and students visit the Satsop nuclear power plant construction site, early ’80s.