Clemson professor Dr. Gary Machlis speaks at Diverse Perspectives Speaker Series
The future of conservation in America is one of broader political engagement. That was the message of Dr. Gary Machlis, a Clemson University professor of environmental sustainability, at Doane’s Diverse Perspectives Speaker Series event Wednesday.
The professor, who is promoting a book he co-authored last year as a playbook for modern conservationists working in the public sector, held nothing back in taking the current administration to task for its overtly anti-conservationist actions and proposals.
“It is not enough to be outraged,” Machlis said to a sizeable crowd gathered in the Art & Education building. “It’s not enough to be alarmed by the actions of the current administration.”
The Trump administration’s assault on conservation, as Machlis put it, is not only dangerous to the health, safety and prosperity of the American people, it’s also un-American.
“Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness includes clean air and water,” Machlis said to the crowd. “Conservation is a patriotic act.”
Machlis cited a litany of crimes against conservation either perpetrated or proposed by the current administration. These included the intent to withdraw from the Paris Climate Accords, stripping government conservation advisory boards of scientists and replacing them with industry representatives, rescinding protections for national parks and monuments, and more.
Dr. Machlis, who was science advisor to the National Park Service director during the Obama administration, was invited to speak at Doane by Education Professor Linda Kalbach, who introduced him at the event.
“Sustainability is not just an issue of environmental concern,” Kalbach said. “Social and economic standings are equal to environmental ones.”
Kalbach praised the cross-disciplinary approach Machlis brings to the conservation movement.
“These issues impact more than just the environment,” she said. “(Dr. Machlis) expands what we think about when we talk about sustainability.”
Machlis’ speech, titled “The Future of Conservation in America,” took its name from a book he wrote with collaborator Jonathan Jarvis, former Director of the U.S. National Park Service. The full title of that book is “The Future of Conservation in America: A Chart for Rough Water.” Machlis’ prediction for the future of American conservation is that of a choppy political fight.
“American politics is as divided as it has ever been,” Machlis told the crowd. “Populism, with its resentment of science and academic institutions, will likely persist after the current administration.”
Kalbach, in her selection of Machlis to speak, hoped that conservation could be an issue to bridge the political divide plaguing the nation.
“The divide has been artificially created; it serves a purpose for people in power,” she said. “To work together is to not be manipulated. We are far less divided than we are encouraged to believe.”
This was one of Machlis’ key points. Conservation shouldn’t be siloed off in its own corner of the American political debate. It should be united with other concerns. One place where conservation intersects is the field of public health, Machlis said. He called on America’s healers to take a more active role in the promotion of conservation efforts.
“The American Medical Association should add conservation to their mission statement,” he said. “The health community should recognize that healthy people need healthy environments.”
Most important for the future of the conservation movement is for conservationists to act politically, according to Machlis. He called on a new generation of young conservationists to “act, but act smart,” and to run for public office themselves.
“If you believe in this country as Jon and I do, you have faith in conservation’s longterm future,” he said.
Conservation’s importance does not belong in some abstract, unknowable future, according to Machlis. It’s importance is immediately palpable. Machlis cited fresh numbers from Hurricane Florence, which made landfall in the Carolinas on Sept. 14 of this year. That powerful storm dumped 14 trillion gallons of rain on the East Coast, enough water to cover all of Texas four inches deep. And that level of intensity has become normal for hurricanes.
Machlis says the threat of weekly flooding is coming to coastal cities that are nearing full saturation due to increased storm intensity and rising sea levels. He also said that it will be America’s poor and working classes that will feel the impact of climate change the hardest.
“There is a direct line between climate change and economic inequality,” he said.
Machlis admitted that the modern conservationist movement has made some mistakes in its fight for clean air, water, and natural spaces. “The focus of the conservation movement can’t be the scientific community,” he said. “That was a strategic mistake.
“We have to try things and see why they don’t work,” Machlis said, quoting a turn-of-the-Twentieth-Century steel magnate.
Machlis took questions from the audience after his speech. Questions came from academics, future teachers, future politicians and current doctors, and centered around the importance of place, the local imperative of conservation, and the need for increased collaboration across fields to promote conservationist policies.
Doane Professor of Environmental & Earth Sciences Russ Souchek attended the lecture and appreciated Machlis’ message for students.
“He has an extraordinary depth of experience in so many environmental areas,” Souchek said. “It’s good for the students to have him speak here.”
Machlis left them with a plea to get involved in the political struggle for conservation. The most important thing to do as a conservationist, he said, is “to vote, and bring someone else to vote with you.”