The Ecological Imagination: A Conversation on Art + Environment with Mitchell Thomashow and Ben Champion
By Paulina Jenney
The sixth in a series of conversations shared with the University of Arizona Institute of the Environment’s Proximities.
In our ongoing series of cross-posts with Proximities, Terrain.org features a conversation between Mitchell Thomashow, former Unity College president and author of The Nine Elements of a Sustainable Campus, and Ben Champion, the University of Arizona’s director of sustainability. The conversation took place after a visit this spring that Mitch had with the Art & Environment Network at the UA’s Institute of the Environment. The conversation was curated by UA student and Terrain.org blogger Paulina Jenney.
As Director of the University of Arizona’s Office of Sustainability, Ben Champion is committed to student engagement through sustainability initiatives and to advancing the UA’s performance as a leader in higher education sustainability. The Office of Sustainability facilitates the UA’s efforts to support a vibrant and sustainable desert Southwest by bridging relationships across campus and partnering with southern Arizona community organizations to engage students, scholars, and campus operations in critical environmental and social grand challenges of the region. Prior to joining the UA in July 2014, Ben was Director of Sustainability at Kansas State University from 2008 to 2014. He also earned his doctorate in geography in 2007 from the University of Oxford and received a bachelor’s degree in chemistry and environmental science from Kansas State University in 2002. At KSU Ben was awarded a Udall Scholarship for environmental leadership and a Rhodes Scholarship. In his off-time, Ben is a foodie and an avid cyclist.
The Ecological Imagination: A Conversation
Paulina Jenney: Who, or what, comprises the ecological imagination?
Mitchell Thomashow: The ecological imagination is a way for people to expand or broaden their awareness of their relationship to the earth. The creative imagination is such an important way to perceive spatial and temporal variation, and to really understand global environmental change, you have to travel vast areas of space and time. The strategic pertinence of the ecological imagination is to offer a venue for bringing various people together to think about global environmental issues.
Paulina Jenney: So who are those types of people on the professional spectrum? Artists? Policy makers?
Mitchell Thomashow: My impression is that over the past ten years, there has been a complete transformation of the job landscape, and these changes, including many new professions, are stimulated by new communication technologies. These professions, including social entrepreneurship, media innovation, game design, infographics, and social marketing include many people in their 20s, 30s and early 40s. Typically, these folks have values that include the importance of conservation, environment, and sustainability, but they’re not necessarily actively engaged, either politically or professionally, in those issues. These are very interesting people who have tremendous talent, insight, and vision. They use their imagination everyday in their work, so I’d like to find ways of tapping into that great imagination to promote understanding and action regarding global environmental issues.
Ben Champion: So what we need is for students to be prepared for continual revolution in the job market. Instead of being prepared for a specific job, one must be prepared to understand societal context and to be prepared to find the innovation solution that those systems need at any given time. And what Mitch has identified are the early movers in that reality. Part of their capacity to embrace ecological imaginaries is that they have to engage in innovation in their own role in the economy. It’s an innovative role to begin with.
Mitchell Thomashow: For many years in the environmental studies field, there was not necessarily a specified career track for students. We had to work with our students to help them identify and create occupational niches. Most of our students would find work because they understood how they could implement new ideas and projects in a variety of institutional settings. This is crucial to any educational program. The successful innovators, risk-takers, are often the people who understand how to create opportunities for themselves. They have the courage, confidence, and vision to change institutions.
Paulina Jenney: I think among people my age, there’s a great amount of fear about having that kind of drive. We’re seeing our arts and humanities programs being cut, our street art gets covered up, and on top of that, we have to think of the future in terms of catastrophic predications about global climate change. How do you think we face that fear and instill confidence in young people?
Mitchell Thomashow: You need thoughtful, consistent and wise mentoring. Often this emerges from the home or family. Or it comes from peers and teachers. The best mentoring comes from community engagement, where you encounter the dynamic challenges of everyday life, and hopefully work with diverse groups of people from a variety of backgrounds.
Ben Champion: It’s rare to find someone who just has the innate courage to get out there and immediately begin doing amazing art. It’s usually a personal progression that they have to go through. The university is a place where you begin to take those initial steps and experiment a little bit, then hopefully progress and have the confidence to make a bigger impact. From a sustainability officer’s perspective, I have to ask the question, “How do we catalyze that from a university context?”
Mitchell Thomashow: There’s a case study I’d like to bring up. The University of San Diego has a fantastic electronic waste center that is engaged in the community. It’s helped many people realize that they can recycle their electronic waste. They learn about sustainability by virtue of recycling their old computers and televisions. I have an ongoing consulting relationship with USD, and I’ve suggested they consider an imaginative mural either outside or inside the facility. They love the idea, they’d like to do it, but there are a lot of institutional reasons why they haven’t been able to get it done. There are really amazing things that you can do through the sustainability programs at an institution to use art and move the imagination forward if you’re willing to take a risk. Some institutions are more willing than others. Eventually USD will find a way to utilize community art in their sustainability program.
Paulina Jenney: In this case, it sounds like the ecological imagination is combining practical problem solving in the form of the e-waste center, and public engagement in the form of the art space. Would you say it’s one more than the other? What does the ecological imagination reach for?
Mitchell Thomashow: There are two elements to this. One is strategic. In all of my teaching and consulting, I remind people that sustainability is a response to a planetary emergency: we’re in the early stages of a mass extinction, we have dynamically changing oceanic and atmospheric conditions, we have plunging levels of biodiversity. It’s great that sustainability teaches us how to save energy and save money, but the bottom line is that sustainability has a biospheric context. The ecological imagination is a strategic approach to broadening awareness of this challenge. The great naivety of environmental education has always been that “if they only knew what we know, they would act as we do.” But that doesn’t work. It presumes that environmental educators have all the answers. We have to broaden our constituency by understanding how people who aren’t inherently drawn to environmental work think about the future of the planet. We need their insights and talent. They might not be driven by the same motivations that drive so-called environmentalists, but we need them because we all share this planet together. Art is the device and the imagination is the faculty through which we get access to these insights.
Ben Champion: I think it takes a tremendous amount of imagination to escape the gravitational pull of our contemporary culture that is based in an economy that is extractive and exploitative and the dimensions of social organization that are unequal. It’s not just the larger planetary emergencies, but also the emergencies of southern Arizona. It is, “How do we create a new economy and culture for southern Arizona that is reconciled to the needs of this place?” That vision is not articulated. We have all these little pieces, people working on water harvesting and sustainable foods, renewable energies and transit, but the vision of how that fits together into civil society is not there. That takes imagination.
Paulina Jenney: A lot of what we’ve been talking about has been really focused on community and cities and urban environments, but the ecological aspect still remains at the heart of it all. How do we establish connections with the natural world and then bring them into the community? For example, Mitch, in Bringing the Biosphere Home, you talk about Barefoot Global Change Science as a potential academic course. Can you talk a little more about that?
Mitchell Thomashow: Perceiving global environmental change should be fundamental to all education. Schools should become laboratories and community centers for exploring the biosphere. You can do this in urban and rural environments. Every school and community is a living substrate of ecological relationships. How else will communities deal with adaptation and resilience unless they understand the natural history of their communities? The idea of barefoot global change science is that you equip citizens to perceive, understand, internalize, and activate this approach.
When people work and play together they expand their understanding of community. For example, I find that the most “bonding” experiences in my life come from serendipitous, creative, community moments. Seemingly innocuous activities like street basketball games, musical improvisations, or community street art projects have great integrating power. The ecological imagination proposes that we use various forms of narrative and artistic expression to bring diverse communities together. We need ways to bring people together doing things that they really enjoy doing while giving them freedom of expression. The most sacred dimension of freedom is the unfettered creative imagination.
Paulina Jenney is the communications assistant for the University of Arizona’s Institute of the Environment, and a junior double majoring in environmental studies and creative writing at the UA. Paulina serves on the UA Campus Arboretum Advisory Board and has taught bilingual arts and literacy outreach programs in schools across Tucson for the UA Poetry Center. As a Flinn Scholar, she has traveled to Asia and South America, studying and writing about sustainability in a changing global climate. Paulina’s blog series, Notes Across the Andes, can be found at Terrain.org.