The Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies held a meeting Friday to discuss strategies for promoting environmental protection and national awareness in response to the presidential election. More than 100 students, faculty and staff packed into Bowers Auditorium in Sage Hall for the gathering, with many sitting on the floor.
The meeting, organized by Environment School Dean Gustave Speth and Daniel Stonington FES ’05, focused on plans to more effectively influence environmental policy and reach out to people who might not share the left-leaning politics of many Environment School students — a group that made headlines for wearing miniature power plants on their graduation caps during the Yale commencement speech in 2001 by President George W. Bush ’68, in protest of his energy policies.
After Stonington opened the meeting with a moment of silence, Speth addressed the challenges ahead for environmental activists. He encouraged students to join non-governmental organizations or progressive companies that would help advance environmental protection.
“Go to those places where progress is being made,” Speth said. “There are many doors that won’t slam in your face like so many doors in Washington. The message is to work around the administration — Use this time to build social, intellectual and political capital.”
Speth discussed future challenges under the assumption that most students did not vote for Bush or believe Bush’s environmental policies were effective, though he congratulated those who might have.
“God bless you. You won,” he said, as the audience laughed.
Following Speth’s remarks, the audience was given the opportunity to comment. While some expressed anger about the election and said environmental activists should more aggressively promote their messages, others were more self-critical and suggested activists often have trouble finding support because they are perceived as arrogant and negative.
Ecology professor David Skelly said he thought environmental activists often sound too scolding and ought to adopt more positive messages. He also advised Environment School students to be less quick in making assumptions about those with different politics.
“We need to understand the constituency broadly — to find common ground,” he said. “There are those who voted for Bush, but are deeply invested in the environment somehow, and care about it a lot.”
Though environmentalists may not like to compromise on certain issues, Skelly said, it is better to fight for politically feasible causes. He cited the marine conservation effort as an example of a successful and realistic movement.
Speth said students ought to promote an environmental movement with better public education, grass-roots outreach and a discussion of values.
“We have very little to do with blue-collar America,” Speth said. “We need a real movement.”
But the anti-Bush views expressed at the Environment School meeting do not necessarily represent those of all the nation’s scientific and conservationist communities.
Dr. Gilbert Ross, executive director of the American Council on Science and Health, said he supported the president and thought environmental activists often have unreasonable demands.
“I think nothing that President Bush could do would assuage the activists’ concerns about the environment,” he said.
Ross said he agreed with Bush’s more gradual environmental policies rather than those of activists, who he said commonly distort scientific data to push for immediate action. Bush’s efforts to improve air quality serve as an example of an adequate response to the dangers of pollution, he said.
“They represent a slow progress forward, as compared to the ‘let’s just shut them all down,’ attitude from NGOs,” Ross said.
Jerry Schill, president of the North Carolina Fisheries Association, said he does not think current environmental measures are necessarily adequate but that non-environmental interests must also be taken into account when forming policy.
Schill said activists often overlook the wide-ranging consequences of environmental regulations, which may interfere with people’s property rights and livelihoods.
“I’m not going to say the Bush policy on environmental stewardship is stellar, but he has taken into consideration rights of land owners and those who use natural resources to make a living,” Schill said. “Pseudoscience is also often used in an effort to protect the environment. For every scientist that finds something wrong about the environment, and I’m talking about the Ph.D. intellectual types, there are other scientists who would disagree. There are two sides to every argument.”