University of Minnesota
University of Minnesota

Different Ways to Know a River

Eastman-FtS-2milesbelow.jpgThe other day I was reading the paper and was attracted to a headline by Minneapolis author Greg Breining.  I’ve followed Breining’s work off and on for a couple of years, and he interviewed me once for a story.  I expected that he would have something intelligent to say on the subject.

Photo courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

Well, he did, and what he had to say kind of got under my skin.  I won’t elaborate on the whole argument, but in his piece, Breining follows an argument laid out by Stewart Brand that sees two distinct types of environmentalists.  Romantic environmentalists, the “birds, trees, and bunnies” swooning “at One with Nature” crowd has been heavily influenced by Walden and other literary works.  (Let me be clear:  I’m paraphrasing Breining’s argument here, not concentrating on the details.)  The other kind of environmentalist, the one Breining is more sympathetic to, is the scientific, technologically oriented thinker who is concentrating on real solutions to the earth’s problems.

OK, I thought, so far, so good.  I share Brand’s sense that the romantic environmentalists too often seem to suggest that we can “return to Eden.”  But this line caught me up short:  “Unless the can-do of scientific bent can wrest control from the
romantics, environmentalism might produce beautiful art and literature,
but it has no relevance to our future on earth.”

No relevance?  I beg to differ.

One response arguing with brand and Breining is relatively simple:  it takes both kinds of thinking, both forms of knowledge, to address environmental problems.  We need scientists as well as poets and artists (and designers, planners, and engineers also, while we’re at it.”

In terms of river sustainability, there is clearly a need for the scientific understanding that tells us the water quality of a river, how concentrated the pollutants are now, and what level we should strive for.  Most scientists, though, will tell you that establishing policies that will get us to those goals is not their work, but the work of policy makers.  And here’s where the poets and artists come in.  Poets and artists, working in whatever media and genre you choose, shape our narratives of ourselves, our images of who we are and who we might become.  Rachel Carson and Aldo leopold, two giants of 20th century environmentalism, were both scientists, but it was the quality of their prose that spoke to us most deeply.

Our program has been saying for some time that river managers of the future need to have three sets of skills and bases of knowledge.  They need to know something about science and about the implementation frameworks of planning, policy, and design.  We do pretty well at teaching young people out of those disciplines.  But we have to do a better job of engaging the public, of speaking to people who are not “river rats” about the importance of rivers in our lives.  This work, which brings budding hydrologists into discussion with public artists, and has ecologists talking to historians, is much harder.

So my question is:  how do we bring more diverse knowledge to river managers? Can we ask people to know more, and about more of the human dimensions, as we face the rivers of our future?

Is it important that “romantic environmentalists” have a place at the table with the technologically savvy, or are the poets and artists, ultimately, irrelevant to our future?


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  1. Mark GormanOctober 1, 2010 at 12:38 pm

    It’s nice to see this issue raised and questions posed. The successful watershed management teams that I have seen in action over the years have included all “at the table” to the benefit of everyone who is cooperatively working together.

  2. Mark GormanOctober 1, 2010 at 1:13 pm

    Okay, I’ll add one more thought, along the lines of passing on the results of a recent study that I’ve been seeing in headlines lately. It relates quite well with the whole scientist – artist and left brain – right brain issue~
    Study: To build a smart team, recruit people who are socially sensitive rather than chasing down intellectual stars

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