When do people do best to pull together on the environment? When the stakes are clear and the issues are close to home. Witness these recent examples from East Central Illinois.
When it was discovered that soil contamination from a defunct coal gasification plant was creating health problems for neighborhood residents in Champaign, the 5th and Hill Neighborhood Rights Campaign, with coordination from Champaign County Health Care Consumers, was born.
When it came to light that a coal company wants to start a new mine near the border of Champaign and Vermilion counties, Stand Up to Coal came together, with assistance from Prairie Rivers Network.
And when owners of the Clinton Landfill proposed to begin accepting PCBs, everyone from local citizens to U.S. senators and the entire range of state and local officials took up the banner for protecting the Mahomet Aquifer.
Such battles are difficult because the groups working in the public interest are reacting to plans that are already in motion or harm that has already been done.
And what's true locally is also true on larger scales. Witness the recent poisoning of the Elk River by a now-suddenly-bankrupt West Virginia chemical company and the wide array of environmental ills being caused by the current fracking boom in North Dakota.
Is there not some better way for the work of conservation to get done?
Eric Freyfogle thinks so. He's a University of Illinois professor of law who writes extensively about conservation — from a legal perspective, but also with attention to the cultural and economic underpinnings of our current environmental plight. (If you want to go directly to reading more from him on this topic, see his 2006 book, "Why Conservation is Failing and How it Can Regain Ground.")
Beyond stimulating discussion of these topics among like-minded scholars, Freyfogle also seeks to call attention to them across the UI community, as well as among people from the wider world who are interested in the same questions — and he thinks everyone should be.
Toward that end, he and collaborators Robert McKim, a professor of religious studies, and yours truly, in my role as a lecturer with the School of Earth, Society and Environment, coordinate an annual series of talks each Spring under the title "The Scholarship of Sustainability."
The series is meant to counter the specialization that characterizes work within disciplines on campus and open up broader questions, such as "How should we be living?" and "What would the world look like if we were living well — if conservation won?"
Many of the speakers in the series teach at the UI. Professor Freyfogle himself will address one of the more provocative questions of the series, whether capitalism is fundamentally incompatible conservation. McKim will comment on the evolution of thought on environmental questions that has taken place within some of the world's major religious traditions over the past half-century. Not surprisingly, I'll give a talk about the significance of everyday experience with the natural world — this one accompanied by many photos.
Other speakers will be visiting campus. Perhaps the most widely known speaker for the series is Dale Jamieson, a professor of environmental studies and philosophy at New York University. He'll speak about the ethics of relationships between people and other forms of life on March 6.
Starting this week, the Scholarship of Sustainability series will be offered on Thursdays through April 17 (skipping March 27 for spring break). Lectures will be held in Room 149 of the National Soybean Research Center, 1101 West Peabody Drive, U. Sessions will run from 4 to 5:20 p.m.
Further details are available at the home page of the School of Earth, Society and Environment, http://www.earth.illinois.edu/.
Other events of interest
— "Green Power Up Your Community: Building Renewable Energy through Municipal Aggregation," 7 p.m. Monday; conducted by the Sierra Club Prairie Group at the Champaign Public Library.
— "Dirty Money, Dirty Planet: A Discussion on Coal Divestment," 6:30 p.m. Tuesday; panel discussion featuring representatives from Stand Up to Coal, Prairie Rivers Network and others; hosted by UIUC Beyond Coal and Students for Environmental Concerns; room 213, Gregory Hall, 810 S. Wright St., C.
— "True Cost of Coal"art exhibit and presentation by The Beehive Collective, 4 p.m. Feb. 16 at the Urbana Civic Center, 108 E. Water St.
— "Me to We: Searching for the Genetic Roots of Sociality," 7:30 p.m. Feb. 19; Gene E. Robinson, UI Swanlund Chair of entomology and director of the Institute for Genomic Biology, will use the honey bee and related species to demonstrate how researchers who study the social life of insects in molecular terms have documented mechanisms regulating selfish behavior; hosted by the Center for Advanced Study at the Spurlock Museum, 600 S. Gregory Drive, U.
Environmental Almanac is a service of the UI School of Earth, Society and Environment, where Rob Kanter is communications coordinator. Environmental Almanac can be heard on WILL-AM 580 at 4:45 and 6:45 p.m. on Thursdays.