It would be fair to say that the level of environmental awareness among the general public has never been higher. In the five decades since Rachel Carson published her seminal book "Silent Spring," launching the creation of the modern-day environmental movement, issues like air pollution, organic food, deforestation and climate change have leapt to the forefront of the public agenda. With an increasing demand for energy, land, food and water from a growing population, these issues are not going away anytime soon.

If we have any hope of passing on a livable world to the next generation, we need to figure out how to live more sustainably as a society. This is a comprehensive struggle requiring legislative, corporate, organizational, scientific and individual action. We need to tune up our food system, distribution channels, energy production and transportation networks to run in a truly green way (no net-negative impact on the environment and no harm to human and community health). We need to produce consumer goods with less energy using materials that can be recycled or composted.

Luckily for us, humans are good at solving problems, even if they are of the self-made variety. Through the power of human ingenuity, scientific pursuit and technological advancement, we have been able to figure out how to send a person into space, how to beam information clear around the world, and how to vaccinate a child against crippling disease. We can harness solar and wind energy to create electricity to light our homes and harvest the burps of microscopic algae to formulate fuel for our cars.

We have been able to do all of these things because of people like Rob Sanford, a professor of environmental science and policy and the department chair at the University of Southern Maine (where I am studying computer science and environmental science). Sanford, or just "Rob" as most of his students call him, has inspired thousands of students to dedicate their careers to the pursuit of better environmental science and policy. His former students are out in the world helping find greener ways to create electricity, more effective methods to move cargo around the world and cheaper ways to clean water.

Rob grew up in upstate New York with his six siblings on a 400-acre dairy farm. His father was an engineering professor who maintained a well-stocked library while teaching his children the art of canning food and smoking meat. A nine-month road trip with his family in a homemade RV when he was in high school solidified Rob's love of nature, which shouldn't be surprising given that the family hit every national park in the lower 48 on the trip.

After a stint in the military, Rob returned to university and earned a masters degree and a PhD in environmental science. He worked as an environmental regulator in Vermont before moving to Maine to help start the Department of Environmental Science at the University of Southern Maine. Rob very kindly took time out of his day to share his thoughts on the following topics.

Rob Sanford in class

MNN: Does the world need saving?

Rob Sanford: No. From an environmental standpoint, the planet doesn’t care if humans are here or not — and geologically, we’ve only been here for the blink of an eye. I think the world does just fine with or without us. As soon as we start to feel like we need to do some saving, that put puts us in the role of saviors, which seems a little too presumptive for my taste, to put it mildly. The real issue is how things add up in the aggregate, on an individual basis — do we want to make our lives more sustainable? And we have to answer that for ourselves. My answer for myself is “yes, absolutely” because we all need ideals and to strive for them. And that is what I try to do from many perspectives: energy, resource use, personal, ecological, economic, etc. I do think the real way to bring change about is through education. So that is one reason why I work as an educator (my dad always said my other reasons were that I was too weak to work and too nervous to steal — I guess I get my sense of humor from him).

What are some of the biggest changes you've seen in the field of environmental science education over the course of your career?

Perhaps the biggest change is that when I started out, environmentalism and strong environmental values were not yet a mainstream thing, and environmental legislation was really just beginning. Now these are a part of who we are. I was among the first generation to get a PhD in Environmental Science, rather than, say Conservation Biology. It seemed to me that in the early days, there were two primary groups with an environmental interest. In some ways they seemed like opposites — the “hippy movement” of liberal-thinking intellectuals, and country folk who had a culture of efficiency necessitated by a hard-scrabble existence. As a kid, I recall pulling metal junk out of the river and taking it to the scrap metal dealer for money. We picked up bottles from the roadside and returned them for deposit. I was a little too young for the “love generation,” but I gained environmental values from living on a farm and from my family. I see the same thing in my children, especially my daughter. It is gratifying to see that environmental values are now a core of American culture. I like to think that a person does not have to be a Democrat (or Republican) to care about the environment. Largely, it seems to me that environmental awareness and value is a matter of being able to take a long-term view of things and to think in terms of sustainability (which I note has become something of a buzz word these days). 

Rob Sanford mugshot

How should politics and environmental science work together?

Political science is a component of environmental science. When our department was created at USM, its founding advisory group of professors was from biology, chemistry, geography-anthropology, geosciences and political science. I think this is pretty cool because many other environmental science departments arose out of one field or parent department such as biology, and therefore reflect their originating disciplinary bias to some degree. Environmental science as a field is practiced largely in the realm of environmental compliance, such as in the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Action, National Environmental Policy Act, and various state and municipal regulatory equivalents. So this means politics supplies a context for environmental science. Further, living in a democracy is a responsibility, and we need to know what is going on and to be involved so that the decisions we make as a society are informed and beneficial.

What are some things that the media could be doing to improve coverage of science issues?

Controversy sells. This tends to polarize issues. But many issues do not benefit from polarization if one wants to solve them. You can always find someone to say something on one side of an issue and someone for the opposite side, and that makes news. Things that are not controversial among scientists, like evolution, and climate change, tend to be presented as unresolved or in dispute. We can find a small percentage of the population who thinks the Earth is flat and that the moon landing was faked, or that ghosts are real (and this is perhaps a larger percentage) but does it serve anything beyond mild entertainment to present such things as controversial or as things science is uncertain about? I think environmental and scientific things should be covered because they are important to our lives even if they are not controversial or divisive. Every day we should be reporting on air quality, water quality, hunger, biodiversity, energy usage, and things like that in addition to war, politics and popular culture. Every day we should be learning about scientific advancements and academic achievements at least to an equal measure that we receive information about, say, sports. All students in our department take a course in environmental communications because we need more involvement with the media.

What personal project(s) are you most excited about right now?

I always seem to have a lot of irons in the fire. I am finishing up a book on environmental history — how to “read” rural landscapes. A student is helping me this semester to set up a GIS base for looking at riparian buffer protection. Another student is helping me to determine a way to measure ecological literacy of students. Some environmental archaeology I was involved in is currently featured at the Maine State Museum (Malaga Exhibit, until May 2013), and I am trying to get more resources for my department because enrollment is growing. This is great because we continue to get our students into environmental jobs. Eventually we will have a huge network of alumni doing good environmental things.

Who is one person doing good in the world (besides yourself) who we should know about and why?

I would have to give what might seem a rather generic answer and say probably the person next to you. So much goes on under our noses that we miss, especially if we are not focusing on the positive and are looking at the forest rather than the trees. Environmental changes happen one little bit at a time, and the best way to work towards that is probably to just reinforce the good little things that happen all around us. It is all relative, and incremental change can add up to something big. Edward Abbey always said to save half your energy for yourself, so we need to do what sustains us. Positive reinforcement and appreciation at the local level can have a butterfly effect that helps sustain us, others, and can lead to greater things. I might add that whenever I can take the time to find out what my colleagues do at work, I find they are doing amazing things with their students and in their research. The same is true for my students, who often have jobs, kids, and other responsibilities while working toward their environmental science degrees. It makes me wish we were not always rushing so headlong from one thing to another and could have more time to acknowledge and celebrate achievements. We should all know more about our neighbors and see what they do that makes them individuals.

Below, I invited Rob to come up with and answer his own question.

This is tough to do after using my brain to answer all the other questions. But I have to laugh because whenever I interview a job candidate I ask “Please answer a question we did not ask you but should have.” I guess I would have to answer the question of why is it important to have environmental literacy?

And the answer would be “because we cannot afford not to.” A correlated response would be because if we don’t, other people will continue to make decisions for us, largely via the default of simply doing nothing. Yes, perhaps the world doesn’t need saving, and the planet doesn’t care if we are here or not, but we care. The more educated and literate we are, the more we can turn our caring into informed action. And the more we stand a chance of stemming the latest mass extinction of species, the change in climate, and the decline in environmental quality of resources that should be conserved for our children’s children’s children. The more we do these things, the better our own lives will be.

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Want to read about more innovative people? Check out The Leaderboard, a series of interviews with people whose ideas are changing the world for the better.

Shea Gunther is a podcaster, writer, and entrepreneur living in Portland, Maine. He hosts the popular podcast "Marijuana Today Daily" and was a founder of Renewable Choice Energy, the country's leading provider of wind credits and Green Options. He plays a lot of ultimate frisbee and loves bad jokes.

Why environmental science matters
Meet Dr. Rob Sanford, department chair and professor of environmental science at the University of Southern Maine.