In a state known for its inspiring landscapes – its beauty, how its residents both embrace and rely on it for sustenance – University of Oregon faculty, staff and students bring that same passion and fervor toward studying our environment and tackling the biggest challenges facing it.
With a main campus arboretum serving as a backdrop, and a satellite campus close enough to the Pacific Ocean that sea spray fogs its windows, Ducks across numerous disciplines have long been researching environmental issues in innovative ways. Earth Day, April 21, is an opportunity to celebrate that work but also a time to remember that in many ways, every day is Earth Day at the UO.
“If you look at basically every corner of the institution, we have not only some strength in the environment, but a signature strength,” said Patrick Phillips, provost and senior vice president.
The breadth ranges from the School of Law’s environmental law program, ranked 10th nationally, to the Lundquist College of Business’s third-ranked MBA program for sustainable business. From the School of Journalism and Communication’s Center for Science Communication Research to numerous programs and initiatives in the College of Design – Biology and the Built Environment Center, the Sustainable Cities Initiative, School of Architecture & the Environment’s Design for Spatial Justice Initiative, and economic resilience through the Institute for Policy Research and Engagement – to name just a few. To the west, there’s the Oregon Institute of Marine Biology’s critical work better understanding Oregon’s offshore areas and coastline.
That’s on top of the Environmental Studies Program, one of the most established, foremost initiatives of its kind, and the Environmental Leadership Program. In all, the university offered more than 40 classes during spring term that included a component about the environment.
The university also launched two significant efforts this year: The Pacific Northwest Just Futures Institute for Racial and Climate Justice and the campuswide Environment Initiative.
The latter formally brings together all of the programs and scholarship underway at the university, coordinating and amplifying faculty research with an emphasis on elevating environmental and social justice initiatives.
“This has been decades in the making, and it’s not from any central mandate,” Phillips said. “This is what the faculty have been doing. It’s organic. All I have done is to say, hey, everybody is doing this separately, let’s do it together.”
The initiative also aims to shine a light on the environmental research, teaching and community engagement that have long been among the UO’s core strengths and values, said Adell Amos, the inaugural director of the campuswide effort and the Clayton R. Hess Professor of Law at the UO School of Law. Amos brings her own research and national service in the area of the environment and water to the efforts at the UO.
“My goal is for us to be one of the most recognized public institutions in this space,” Phillips said. “And it’s mostly just because it’s all there. We’ve already made these historical investments. The faculty care about it. Students care about it. Our staff care about it.”
It’s a natural fit for the flagship university in a state whose residents are known to embrace the environment, Phillips added.
“It’s always just been part of our DNA,” he said.
Also new is the Pacific Northwest Just Futures Institute for Racial and Climate Justice, which has its roots in the UO’s Center for Environmental Futures in the College of Arts and Sciences. Funded by a $4.52 million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the institute is a regional effort with Whitman College and the University of Idaho. It is part of the largest initiative to fund race and social justice issues in higher education in the history of the country.
“The magnitude of this resource celebrates the legacy of applied, community-engaged scholarship, which is at the heart of the work of multiple UO faculty and staff dedicated to understanding the influence of race and inequality in our built and natural environments,” said John Arroyo, professor of planning, public policy and management and director of the new institute. “The Mellon Just Futures grant allows us to scale this critical work, not just on the UO campus in Eugene but beyond to UO Portland and across the Pacific Northwest with our partners in Idaho and in Washington.”
The institute particularly elevates the environmental justice component into the discussion, Amos added.
“This institute represents the vital intersection between environmental protection and questions of equity and justice at the forefront of our work to address climate change and the transition we face,” Amos said.
“I’ve heard many people say, ‘I don’t think race and climate are connected,'” Arroyo added, “which is part of the problem and one of the reasons why climate and environmental lenses require an explicit justice framework. Centering communities of color, and low-income communities, is essential because the climate issues of our time illuminate legacies of racism and socioeconomic disparities, especially among the most vulnerable frontline communities.”
Stephanie LeMenager is on the institute’s steering committee and is a professor in the English department and Environmental Studies Program, and she helps bring the humanities into the program.
“It’s a really important time for the humanities in relation to environmental studies, because as we move into a rapidly climate changing planet, life is changing,” LeMenager said.
One of her current research projects is with environmental studies colleague and history professor Marsha Weisiger on public lands in Eastern Oregon to understand local-level experiences with environmental change.
“What do you need when that kind of geologic- and atmospheric-level transition is happening?” LeMenager asked. “You need cultural innovation, cultural imagination, cultural practices or rituals to get people psychologically through this.”
The Environmental Studies Program dates back to 1976 and was one of the earliest efforts on campus on the environment. Today it includes 29 core faculty members from 17 departments and three colleges, spanning the social sciences, humanities, natural sciences and College of Design, and 108 affiliated faculty members from every college on campus.
“This is one of the most interdisciplinary environmental studies programs in the country, with stronger representation from the humanities than almost any other program,” said Mark Carey, history and environmental studies professor in the Clark Honors College and the program’s director. “To have this breadth and depth truly sets the UO apart and allows us to teach and do research across a huge range of angles and perspectives, helping us approach topics in incredibly diverse and creative ways.”
One of the faculty members bringing a social sciences perspective to the program is professor Kari Norgaard, who is also part of the sociology department.
“Looking at human social structure is looking at values, looking at institutions and how we each relate to the natural world,” Norgaard said of how the social sciences fit into the program.
One aspect of her work is looking at Indigenous fire practices, collaborating with members of the Karuk Tribe on the Klamath River in California, and how those can be reintroduced after more than a century of fire suppression.
Lucas Silva is another member of the Environmental Studies Program. His lab’s work focuses on soil, plant and atmosphere interactions, and among his findings was discovering the world’s oldest peatland.
Among the projects his lab is working on, he’s collaborating with environmental studies and biology colleagues Krista McGuire and Scott Bridgham on ways to reduce carbon dioxide levels.
“It requires coordination across forestry, agriculture, restoration, rangelands and conservation,” Silva said. “The core of our activities has to do with bringing those different sectors to the table and to identify the things we don’t know yet that could be game changers.”
Many UO faculty membes also are studying the environment right outside the door.
Josh Roering, head of the Department of Earth Sciences and a core faculty member in environmental studies who extensively researched the Eagle Creek Fire in the Columbia Gorge, is now looking at the McKenzie River Valley after last summer’s Holiday Farm Fire devasted the area.
His lab is mapping the terrain using laser technology and adding rainfall measurement devices throughout the valley corridor to better understand and prepare for landslides.
“We’re using state-of-the-art knowledge to give people there as much decision power as they can based on what we’re learning in the gorge and elsewhere,” Roering said.
Another local effort is underway by earth sciences colleague Matt Polizzotto. While he is also trying to solve a global problem with the pollution of groundwater that affects 150 million people worldwide, he also is trying to get at the source of increasing zinc levels in local waterways.
“This becomes more and more important especially because how we manage water and how soils function is changing because of human pressures and because of climate change,” he said of his work.
At the School of Law, its longstanding Environmental and Natural Resources Law Program also emerged organically, said Executive Director Heather Brinton: The academic focus was driven by faculty leadership and expertise and student passion.
“So much of this is place-based, and the state of Oregon is considered a leader in these areas and has a longstanding tradition of creating innovation around sustainability,” Brinton said. “So it makes complete sense that her flagship university would also carry that same culture and characteristic.”
On campus, the Office of Sustainability not only looks for ways to minimize the campus’ carbon footprint but also does community outreach, co-curricular and educational opportunities for students, and support for faculty research and teaching.
“We’re trying to be that hub for campus, that convener and that connector for all of these different sustainability aspects of the university,” said Sarah Stoeckl, the office’s program manager.
A key piece of the puzzle is preparing scientists, communicators, and students to take this whole body of work and explain it in a way that generates impact. That’s where the School of Journalism and Communication’s Center for Science Communication Research steps in.
“We can do the science, we can understand the technology, we can do policy, but at the end of the day, if we’re not shifting attitudes or the way that we approach our work together, we’re not going to get anywhere,” Phillips said. “And that’s really how we’re going to change society.