Environment, politics fuse in student-led class

When Michael Davies FES ’08 was unsatisfied with the lack of courses focused on environmentalism in politics that were offered at the School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, he did not just sit back and complain. He did something about it.

With a group of like-minded peers, he spearheaded the development of a new course on environmental issues and the political process. Although, at first, the environment-school curriculum committee was skeptical, citing concerns that the class may not be rigorous and unbiased, the course was approved after months of discussions and debuted this semester.

The course, called “Environment and Political Action,” covers issues related to political theory and the relationship between environmentalism and politics. Each week, a different guest speaker leads the seminar on topics ranging from funding a campaign to reaching out to faith-based communities. The organizing students are responsible for choosing speakers and orchestrating the class, although they worked closely with administrators throughout the process.

A total of about 40 undergraduates and environment-school students are enrolled in the class.

The class began to take shape last summer when Davies and Sara Bushey FES ’08, a former DC advocate in policy analysis, decided to put together a string of lectures on politics and environmentalism, Bushey said. The students eventually organized an ongoing speaker series, called “Greening the Vote,” that began last semester, she said.

“One of the gaps that we saw in FES that we wanted to fill was the practical applied aspect of environmental issues in the political arena,” Scott Laeser FES ’08, another organizer said.

As the seminars became more popular — with as many as 50 attending some of the talks — Bushey said the organizers began to entertain the idea of formalizing the lectures by creating a similarly-themed course. She said they discussed it with Gordon Geballe, environment-school associate dean for student and alumni affairs, and then with environment-school Dean Gus Speth.

Speth was supportive of the idea, but cautioned the team against overemphasizing political advocacy, Bushey said, since course curriculum is not legally allowed to show political partisanship.

“Dean Speth was cognizant of the fact that we couldn’t endorse candidates,” she said. “We have to make sure we act within the [nonprofit code]. We can, however, talk about issues.”

Speth’s concerns about the course were shared by others on the curriculum committee, who Bushey said were skeptical and wary of a student-created class diminishing the value of a credit.

“There was a concern among the curriculum committee that the class would be too oriented towards advocacy and not have sufficient elements of academic analysis in it,” Robert Bailis, environment-school assistant professor and member of the committee, said. “You want to keep a distinction between formal instruction and choosing a particular side.”

In order to have the class approved, Bushey said the organizers had to prove to the committee that it would be as challenging as a normal Yale course. They drafted a syllabus, including projected readings and speakers, and submitted it to the committee for feedback. After working closely with the committee and making the recommended changes — such as adding a unit on political theory to provide a stronger academic foundation — Bailis said the course was approved unanimously. The revised syllabus addressed the committee’s concerns about the course’s academic rigor, he said, though he said he could not speak for the realities of class discussion.

Bushey said she and the other TAs — Laeser and Davies — try to avoid partisanship within the class and the speaker series in order to avoid marginalizing anyone. But she said because environmental issues are historically associated with the Democratic Party, the class generally leans to the left.

“Sometimes it’s a struggle for us to equally represent and talk about both sides,” Laeser said. “But we’re open to a broad array of influences and ideas.”

In order to express viewpoints from all areas of the political spectrum, Laeser said future speakers will include a Republican pollster and a former Navy official, who will discuss national security and environmental issues.

Laeser said other upcoming guests include Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger, who co-authored a controversial article criticizing the perceived weakening of the environmental movement.

The class has one section worth one credit and another worth three credits. The one-credit class has about 30 students and only requires attendance at the seminar and completion of readings. The other section has about 10 students, meets outside of the seminar for discussion, and is required to complete four lecture responses and a final paper.