American University Professor Discusses Future of Environmental Policies

Paul Wapner
Paul Wapner

On Feb. 24, Paul Wapner, director of the Global Environmental Politics Program and associate professor in the School of International Service at American University, discussed the practicality and future of environmental policies. His lecture, part of the Levitt Center’s 2010-11 Speakers Series on Sustainability, discussed a serious question: what if we live in a world unredeemably affected by humanity?


Wapner grimly informed his listeners that any human can put at least one thing on their professional resume: “Changed ozone layer.” But he expressed optimism for the future of environmentalism. He believes humans can change the way they interact with nature by not acknowledging nature as a separate sphere from humanity, but as something humans actively interact with.


Wapner defined nature as an ever-changing social construction. Perceptions of nature have evolved over the years. Centuries ago, humans looked to the wilderness with fear and intimidation. Now, people look to the wilderness for refuge. Views on the natural world also vary across cultures, complicating international environmental action. Today, people often view nature as a separate sphere from human nature—a sphere that is to be exploited or preserved. Wapner believes it is necessary for humans to articulate a common environmental philosophy that creates an active relationship between themselves and the natural world.


The concept of nature as a separate entity is hard to sustain since humans are so entrenched in the environment. Wapner described how conservation biologists believe the world has entered a sixth mass extinction because of humans “mastering” their environment through pollution and irresponsible land use. A more controlled method is needed besides simple “conservation” and preservation policies that simply declare land untouchable. “We need to harmonize ourselves with the natural world,” Wapner remarked.


This harmony comes from not simply leaving the environment untouched and preserved, but by “getting in” the environment by planting trees and cultivating land. Wapner elaborated on the relationship between humanity and the environment using a metaphor of a parent raising their child: parents want to behold their children (the environment) and mold them—but not too much or too little.


Already, humans have proved their ability to take environmental action. Wapner used changes in whaling policies to express his optimism for the future success of environmentalism. Before, the US Navy used whales for military practice; today, all forms of whaling are outlawed in Japan. “We have learned that to be a human being is to let other things be as well,” he said.


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