A Magazine of Theological and Ethical Inquiry from Yale Divinity School

“Environmental Stewardship Should Serve Everyone” - An Interview with Indy Burke

Indy Burke is a biogeochemist, ecosystem ecologist, and, since 2016, the Carl W. Knobloch Jr. Dean at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies. Founded in 1900, F&ES has nearly 400 students, and its alumni network of 5,000 graduates in some 80 countries work on environmental problems at multiple scales – urban, rural, landscapes and lands, managed and wild. Through field work and research projects, students address challenges ranging from lead-contaminated water in Flint to endangered species conservation in China. The F&ES mission is to “provide knowledge and leadership for a sustainable future.” A joint master’s degree with Yale Divinity School trains students who want professionally to integrate environmental issues and religious life, or study ethical dimensions of environmental problems. She spoke to Reflections last month.

Regarding knowledge and passion and F&ES …

Everything we do here aims to have impact on environmental sustainability. We do it both out of curiosity and with a will to have impact: Our students become leaders in sustainability all over the world because they bring their minds and hearts to this work. They come here to make a difference.

If people are going to work in this sphere, they need to bring not only passion but also knowledge and analytical rigor to support the values that infuse their environmental work. If we’re not accurate in our accounts about environmental change, causes, and consequences, it diminishes our credibility.

There’s a growing challenge for universities in this time of really partisan approaches to environmental solutions. As a School, we don’t take advocacy positions – even though many, or probably most of us, as individuals may. We are motivated to advance sustainable solutions, but we must do so as a School in such a way that we maintain our role as a trusted source of information. Distrust of American institutions has been growing; it’s ever more important for us to be trustworthy about the science and policy we analyze and report. We can show the impact of rolling back initiatives – initiatives this White House is trying to reverse – efforts that protect air and water and reduce carbon emissions. And it is true that these rollbacks have dramatic and negative consequences for humans and the environment.

On tracking changes of mind about climate change …

Often, the data we report has the potential to affect public policy in significant ways. Our School’s Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, for instance, conducts research on the cultural factors that shape attitudes about climate change and engages with the public in climate science and solutions. Our recent survey, “Climate Change in the American Mind,” shows that the proportion of Americans is sharply increasing who think global warming is happening and are worried about it. Legislators endeavoring to represent their constituency will likely care about policy solutions based not only upon the climate change sciences, but also on the social science that identifies human priorities in their own districts.

On the need for big ideas today …

One new program that we are launching is the Yale Environmental Dialogue. We invite thought leaders to bring big ideas about environmental solutions to public forums – solutions that involve stakeholders of all sorts: business, farmers, cities, states. We want to explore the role of private lands in conservation. We want to find good economic outcomes that also reduce material waste. And we have 38 more big ideas about energy, food, oceans, and much else. We hope to take this project on the road, presenting it at public forums across the country, start conversations, and generate practical ideas that will find a place in political platforms of 2020. Our goal is to listen, engage, and ultimately increase understanding. Environmental stewardship should serve everyone. We’re getting ideas out there. We can convene conversation, especially if we are looked on as reliable.

Regarding the spirit of optimism and innovation …

Changes in the environment, and in US policies around environmental sustainability, can lead one to be pessimistic or even despair. I find optimism myself in our students. Every student we launch will go out there and make a difference and will teach others how to have impact as well. So the effect is exponential. It’s also encouraging to me that so many of the real leaders in sustainability are coming from business. Their thinking is entrepreneurial and innovative. If business is leading, we’re going to make progress.

Issue Title: 
Crucified Creation: A Green Faith Rising
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