Environmental Studies Professor Designing a Sustainable Discipline

January 12, 2009

Peter SchwartzmanNot many professors of environmental science focus on both life in the city and in the wilderness. But Peter Schwartzman says we need to be thinking about how communities can better function in relation to nature. "We have to take ownership of our place and our responsibility to it. Our country is over 300 million now. If we destroy the land around us, we aren't going to be able to even feed ourselves."

Schwartzman is an associate professor at Knox and Chair of Environmental Studies since its inception as a major at the college in 2000. He teaches a variety of interdisciplinary science courses in the fields of climatology and natural resources as well as social science courses in the areas of environmental justice and science and technology studies.

But it is the popularity of his Intro to Environmental Studies class that has environmental studies majors like Clint Moore '09 and Nora Nelson '09 steering first year students to the field. "Taking intro to environmental studies from Peter Schwartzman is a must," they chorus.

His Background
At 23, Schwartzman says he didn't even know environmental studies existed. He attended a small college in Southern California, Harvey Mudd College, and had planned on becoming a scientist. "When I got to grad school, I studied science and technology studies. It is a social science that examines the history, philosophy and sociology of science. Then as would happen, I went to some extra talks on climate change and global warming. I later researched these topics and inadvertently found environmental studies as a discipline." Schwartzman continued his graduate work at the University of Virginia doing a Ph.D. in the atmospheric sciences with an emphasis on dissecting climatic change. "Another year as a post doctorate and I was hooked on environmental thinking."

He came to Knox fresh out of grad school and says he was looking for a place "where I could live it."

Now, after ten years, he says, "I live Knox." Schwartzman is very pleased how things have gone. "We have a lot of students now majoring in environmental studies, students winning Fulbright Awards, and students getting doctorates and coming back to teach. The future looks very bright." He also says he sees a shift. "It is slow, but sustainability is now a household word. People understand it, and this is a good sign."

On any given weekend you can find Schwartzman, with family in tow, involved with the Knox community. During the summer, he says he does not travel much, partly because of his environmental principles. "But I feel like I can do a lot here. I tell people I can't imagine a better job for me. I also feel obligated to give back to the society in a way. I love being here so much, and I love the students and the activities of this college. I really respect it, and I admire all the things that people do here. "

Schwartzman describes himself an idealistic, optimistic, global citizen. He grew up just outside metropolitan Washington D.C. where there are countless languages spoken and many varieties of food, "But, Galesburg has a lot of diversity as well, and some of the family ties that exist in this community are really important. There are roots here that newcomers like me can tap into. And now I am creating my own roots."

Schwartzman uses the word "community" often and he continues to cultivate that idea through his outreach to the Galesburg community.

In 2008, Schwartzman and a band of volunteers started a community center. He says that he established The Center, located just a few blocks from campus on Cherry Street, so the Knox College community and the Galesburg community could join efforts to contribute to a better quality of life for all.

After months of exhausting weekend work with volunteers adorned in dust masks and tip toeing through broken glass, rusty nails, and clumps of plaster, The Center opened in February of 2008. "It wasn't pretty stuff. There was stuff coming off of the walls, and we got dirty, but interaction between people can accomplish a lot. I think we all recognize we have to work together to solve problems, and this takes Knox into the community."

Spreading the Wealth
Schwartzman is also a member of Knox's Presidential Task Force on Sustainability. At the beginning of 2008, the task force was created by President Taylor but was largely motivated by students working on environmental issues within the student senate. "They created a subcommittee and this created a tremendous interest that worked into the Green Fee. Now, students contribute every year into a fund to do sustainability projects on campus," he says. The Presidential Task Force serves as a committee to discuss ways the campus can become more knowledgeable and proactive about environmental matters.

Schwartzman has been a board member for the Western Illinois Nature Group (WING) for more than six years and was active in the purchase and development of land for a nature preserve/youth camp, now called Blackthorn Hill, in neighboring Warren County. "It allows people to enjoy nature. If kids are going to respect the land, they need to explore the beauties of it."

But Schwartzman now probably spends more time working on The Center. And it seems to be working. "The heart and soul of any successful organization, city, or group is a collaborative spirit." He refers to Knox students, faculty and staff as "change agents" in the community. "These are the people who can really make things happen," he says.

The people at The Center enjoy working with business and civic leaders and students to add to the strength of the community through workshops, debate, the arts and public service initiatives - an attitude Schwartzman echoes in his own actions.