Most academic conferences we attend are actually the annual meetings of particular academic associations – the American Political Science Association, American Chemical Society (ACS), etc.—and most of these have been meeting for decades (the ACS was founded in 1876). So it is a rare opportunity to be able to attend the founding meeting of an academic association, which I was able to do back in October. The University of Wisconsin, Madison hosted the first annual conference of the Association of Environmental Studies and Science (AESS), which was started in 2008 to “serve the faculty, students and staff of the 1000+ interdisciplinary ‘environmental’ programs in North America and around the world.” One of the goals of the new association is to build bridges between the different social science, natural science, and humanities disciplines that study the environment, and the conference was their first major attempt to do so.
As I learned during the main conference dinner, Wisconsin has a fascinating environmental history and rich legacy in environmental research (Aldo Leopold’s shack, for example, is near Madison), and so it was a fitting place for the first AESS meeting. But the campus is not the easiest to get to – I ended up flying through Milwaukee and taking a two hour bus ride because there was no reasonably priced direct flight available. But once I arrived, I found the town of Madison to be very nice – quiet and quaint, although also quite cold. On the third day of the conference, we woke up to find it snowing, and this was the beginning of October! It will be hard indeed to take a job back East…
The conference’s morning keynote speaker was none other than Jane Goodall, the legendary chimpanzee researcher, speaking to the group via a web-based videophone from a research camp in Costa Rica. After a few technical glitches, she spoke eloquently about environmental issues and the need for continued strong environmental research. It was a nice beginning of the conference, and reminded us of the urgency of ecological conservation.
The conference itself was organized into 9-10 concurrent panel sessions, which included topics such as environmental education, measuring environmental quality, religion and the environment, marketing and the environment, and environmental risk (click here to see the full schedule). A good percentage of the panels dealt with the nature and development of interdisciplinary environmental studies and science programs, and the best ways to prepare students for a “green economy.” But others were more focused on specific environmental topics, and there was a good mix of disciplines represented, from ecologists to economists to sociologists to business scholars to critical theorists. This range demonstrated the diversity of ways of studying environmental issues, and the challenge of effectively bringing them together.
I presented a paper as part of a panel on “environmental law and policy,” which was a sort of microcosm of this dual challenge and opportunity. The other panelists included a professor of law who spoke on the history of environmental law, a professor of international relations who talked about the intercontinental transport of air pollutants, and a graduate student in public policy who presented on the diffusion of automobile emissions standards internationally. My own presentations was on eco-labels and environmental ratings of products and companies. On the surface, it is difficult to see a common theme in these talks, but as the panel progressed, we identified several interesting connections that provided valuable perspectives on each of our areas of interest. I had long and helpful conversations with two of the other panelists afterwards, and I look forward to staying in touch with them in the future.
In terms of my own presentation, the biggest challenge was cutting it down to a reasonable length for 15 minutes. I had a lot of preliminary data and ideas I wanted to discuss, and it was like pulling teeth to take things out. But ultimately I was able to find a couple key points to focus on, and I think that very much helped the presentation. My advice to anyone having similar difficulty – try to identify the most interesting complexity to present, but don’t present all of the complexity. And getting feedback from colleagues on campus before you go can also be a huge help.
In addition to meeting my fellow panelists, I also connected with several other interesting people at the conference. They included professors from other UC schools and from around the country, including both large universities and small colleges that I had never heard of, but that have some very innovative environmental programs. They also included other graduate students, including four from the University of Wisconsin, UC Berkeley, Stanford and Princeton who were working on topics closely related to my own interests.
All in all, it was a great opportunity to meet people in this diverse field, and hopefully make connections that will last far into the future. I certainly felt like the conference was a success, and hope that the Association is able to build on the momentum. The next meeting is in Portland; for anyone who is interested, you can check out the association’s website at http://aess.info.