Creating Sustainable Connections

From the Evergreen campus to the fragile Galapagos Islands, John Pumilio is connecting people with the natural world.

“As higher education leads the way to a sustainable future, Evergreen will be a model.”

Making people part of something is exactly what John Pumilio did as Evergreen’s first graduate fellow to coordinate Evergreen’s Sustainability Task Force. His thesis both measured the carbon footprint of the college and offered a set of steps for reaching “carbon neutrality.” Evergreen is now committed to the extraordinary goals of having zero effect on global warming by 2020, and producing zero waste within the same time frame.

“People don’t want to be told what to do,” says the 2007 Masters in Environmental Studies graduate. “You have to make them part of something.”

“He showed us what impacts we are having on global and regional climate patterns and what we can do about it,” says MES director Ted Whitesell.

Pumilio began his academic career in field biology. One of his first professional projects was the Florida Panther Project.

“People thought I was a hockey player,” Pumilio jokes of reactions to the project name. “We were shooting panthers with tranquilizers, flying over in airplanes, and chasing kittens from their dens. It was an intrusion. My major discovery was that we didn’t need to learn more about the panthers’ biology—their survival depended upon our ability to provide public education and influence public policy.”

His decision to come to Evergreen was based on the conviction that he needed to broaden his biology background and take on public policy and education.

“When you boil down what sustainability is, it is figuring out a way where human communities can co-exist with ecological communities,” Pumilio says. “We have the idea that nature can exist and we’ll put it ‘over there.’  Our whole park system is designed like that and it can’t work.”

The challenges are complex and involve both ecological and social justice issues, Pumilio reflects. “We will have nine billion people to sustain by 2050—three billion more people than we have today.”

John Pumilio

So Pumilio sought an opportunity to integrate public engagement and public policy with his academic studies. Becoming the first graduate fellow to coordinate Evergreen’s Sustainability Task Force provided just the right set of challenges. The Task Force and Pumilio began at the same time with the same charge—define sustainability for Evergreen, and provide guiding policies for the college.

“As higher education leads the way to a sustainable future, Evergreen will be a model,” he notes. “We have a huge sphere of influence—millions of students, billions of dollars spent in the marketplace. Most importantly, students are our future leaders in every walk of life.”

Following an exciting series of conversations throughout the community, Pumilio helped the task force to create a student-centered policy frame for sustainability at Evergreen that focuses on both ecological and social justice.

“John truly demonstrated how effective a graduate fellowship can be in working toward positive solutions to the most critical societal problems we face,” says Steve Trotter, co-chair of the Sustainability Task Force. “He was able to effectively quantify the problems and frame the issues as he engaged virtually every member of our community in determining a bold course fo the college.”

Evergreen’s Sustainability Task Force hopes to make graduate fellowships like John Pumilio’s a permanent reality at Evergreen. The task force is working with the Office of Advancement to endow an “Education for a Sustainable Future” fund that would support future graduate student fellows to assist the college with its sustainability work.

Meanwhile, Pumilio is taking his sustainability show on the road. As a director with Tauk World Discovery, an eco-tourism company, he is working to educate the public about the fragility of such places as the Galapagos.

“A fundamental tenet of ecotourism is to provide the local population with enough income so that they will want to preserve the ecosystem that attracts the tourists,” Pumilio writes in “John’s Travel Log: Gray Shades of Ecotourism,” The Galapagos have gone from being named by the United Nations as a biosphere reserve to being categorized as threatened.

The newly minted MES graduate is a determined optimist, setting about measuring the human footprint on his beloved islands, laying out a hopeful path for their future. He’s also busy developing an ecological footprint tool for use by the travel industry.

“Imagine if people learned how to live in harmony with nature in the Galapagos,” Pumilio writes. “Perhaps this could serve as a model for other human communities—and in the process, help humans figure out a way to share this planet indefinitely.”

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