After teaching at Eugene Lang College for nearly 15 years, Alan McGowan, associate professor of interdisciplinary science, became interim chair of The New School’s Environmental Studies undergraduate program this fall. The News caught up with him to learn about his background, his plans for the coming year, and his thoughts about environmental studies.
New School News: How long have you been active in environmental issues?
Alan McGowan: I have a lot of experience in the environmental movement, having been involved in it since 1969. Back then, I ran an environmental education program for high school students. I have also been involved in the national Earth Day celebration every year since its inception.
NSN: What should a student know when deciding to pursue a career in environmental affairs or sustainability?
AM: Students need to have some science background as well as an understanding and acceptance of the current environmental and climate-change crisis. Writing skills are crucial, as is a passion for the earth. You’ll have to work hard.
NSN: You’re also an executive editor for leading environmental science magazine Environment. What environmental story needs better coverage?
AM: A topic that we at Environment are trying to cover more is oceans. The critical role that oceans play in our lives—from providing food to affecting the atmosphere—is unclear to many people; our current fooling with the oceans is dangerous.
NSN: What were you doing before coming to The New School?
AM: I was running two nonprofits: The Scientists’ Institute for Public Information and The Gene Media Forum. Both organizations tried to improve public understanding of science by writing quality stories about science in the mass media.
NSN: The popularity of environmental studies has exploded recently. What’s at the root of this growth, and what career opportunities can students expect?
AM: Environmental studies has grown in popularity as more students realize the crisis we face. Events such as severe storms and the current drought are connected to global climate change, and such events stimulate student thinking on environmental issues.
There are many employment opportunities, from the expanding number of environmental organizations to the great many government positions—even large corporations are beginning to realize that there is a real problem and are creating positions to address it. Just as important, however, is bringing an environmental consciousness to whatever position one has. If this problem is to be solved, we need environmentally conscious lawyers, writers, artists, and people in all walks of life.
NSN: What can students do while in school to better engage and inform their communities of sustainability movements?
AM: Students can engage with their own school, The New School, as well as communities in which they, their parents, and friends live and work. Becoming politically active, while in school and beyond, is extremely important. In a democracy, people really can influence the course of the future even if it seems as though corporations run the whole show. As Margaret Mead once said, “Never underestimate the power of a small group of committed people to change the world. In fact, it is the only thing that ever has.”
NSN: For those just getting their toes wet with the subject, what’s your favorite book or movie about environmental issues?
AM: There are many good books, but American Earth: Environmental Writing Since Thoreau, edited by Bill McKibben, is as good as any.
NSN: What can we look forward to this year from Environmental Studies?
AM: Look for additional public programming—we have a wonderful event with Helen Caldicott and Bob Herbert coming up on November 8—and a continued emphasis on the issue of environmental justice. Environmental problems affect low-income and minority communities more than they affect the affluent, and all of us who believe in a sustainable society must pay attention to that.