An interview with Dr. Alan McIntosh, Program chair for environmental sciences

This week, The Cynic sat down with Dr. Alan McIntosh, program director for environmental sciences in the Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources. McIntosh has degrees in zoology and limnology, and taught at Purdue and Rutgers before coming to UVM in the mid-90’s.The Vermont Cynic: What are your daily duties as Program Chair?Dr. McIntosh: Well, my involvement with environmental sciences and the school is fairly broad – I teach the introductory environmental science class every semester to about 75 students, so I spend a fair amount of time involved with the introductory course that’s required in the major. As program chair, I’m sort of responsible for making sure the curriculum is running well. We have a half a dozen faculty that teach environmental science courses, and we meet to review whether the courses are the right ones for our student to be taking. I work with individual students and advisors to answer questions about which courses are required for the majors. I also do a fair amount of work with students looking to study abroad, trying to set up research programs for summer research, internships, and those sorts of things, just in terms of chatting with the students, and seeing how those experiences might count back to make sure it’s part of the major and they’ll get full credit for it, et cetera.Cynic: So why environmental science?McIntosh: It’s a great field, I mean – we’re the environmental university, and getting students to think about the science behind issues the run the range from Lake Champlain in terms of phosphorus pollution and exotic species like the zebra muscle, we talk a to about global climate change in Environmental Sciences 1, and that’s become a sort of a crusade for me. I would love to see the university be in a leadership role in terms of reducing carbon emissions and those sorts of things. So it’s really – I really enjoy talking to students who might otherwise not be familiar with a lot of these issues. Your generation – the 18, 20, 22-year-olds – when you’re my age, the world’s going to be a very different place because of climate change. Everything I can do to have students sort of appreciate what the issues are, begin to think about how they may alter their lives, but also how they can demand that society begin to respond, or work toward changes that will lessen the impact of climate change. I really enjoy trying to explain to students the science behind the issues they hear about.Cynic: Why universities? Why not the private sector?McIntosh: The private sector’s never really appealed to me – I support I could work for a consulting firm. Especially this time of the year where everyone’s tired, it’s sort of easy to feel sorry for ourselves, but to me, there’s no better job than being an academic. I mean, the ability to stand up in front of young people and talk about issues you care about – there’s nowhere else you can do that sort of thing and get paid to do it – I think it’s fantastic. The freedom that an academic position has is just unmatchable. I think one of the reasons that I would never really go after a private sector job is the freedom that an academic has in terms of focusing on things that he or she is really passionate about. As a grad student, I immediately began to look for academic jobs, and there was just never any doubt that this was I wanted to do.Cynic: If you were approached by an exceedingly rich philanthropist offering you an inordinate amount of money to solve any problem you wanted to, what would you choose?McIntosh: Climate change. I would take the money and begin to – climate change is a massive, massive issue that potentially affects global economies, global societies, ecosystems are already changing – it is a problem that will be felt throughout the breadth and the depth of the globe. It would be wonderful to be able to bring together the powers that be in the world to begin to discuss this in a manner that would really produce results. The Kyoto Pact was not signed by the United States, China, or India. There are huge issues of equitability and environmental justice related to these sorts of things – climate change is not going to be solved unless the nations of the world show a lot more initiative than they have so far. If you look at some of the recent data on the melting of the Greenland ice sheet, for example, if what scientists fear does come about, sea level rise will be a huge issue. If the entire Greenland ice sheet melts, Manhattan would be substantially inundated – there would be a sea level rise of twenty feet around the world. No one knows how likely that is to occur, no one knows the time frame, but if you think about future generations – to me there’s a huge responsibility to people living now to protect future generations from this.Cynic: Do you read The Cynic?McIntosh: All the time – every week. I just think it’s important to stay up with the – I mean, I don’t know many of the musical groups that you review and stuff, but I’ve always read student newspapers wherever I’ve been. I just think it’s a good way to sort of keep up with what students are thinking about – occasionally I’ll take an article from the Cynic and take it into class and talk about it. I like the eco-column – I feel guilty because I haven’t written one yet, and I really should. It’s a good paper; I think it’s good.Cynic: Are you doing any research on campus right now?McIntosh: What I am doing on campus relates to storm water – I work with the campus planning office, and I monitor the quality of the university’s storm water, so during the summer, whenever we get a storm that produces run-off from any of the surfaces around the campus, that run-off goes into one of five basins. I go around and sample the water to make sure that they are in fact removing the sediments, the phosphorus, the other pollutants. So I am doing some storm water and water quality work with the campus planning office.Cynic: How would you say UVM is doing in terms of living up to its title as the environmental university?McIntosh: We’re well on our way – how’s that? I think it’s fantastic that we now have a policy where new buildings will be LEED certified. We’re also in the last stages of raising a substantial amount of money to green the Rubenstein school building – we’d like to make it LEED Platinum, which is the highest level of green building. We have plans to put solar panels on the roof, we’re going to build a living machine that’s big enough to process all the grey water in this building – all the sink water and everything else we’re going to try to treat internally, and recycle as much as possible. We really want the building to be part of the instruction, so students can observe how the building is functioning as part of their education. So I think we’re well on our way – I don’t think we’re the nation’s premier environmental university yet, but I think the potential is there for us to get to that point. I think for us to truly achieve premier environmental status, we not only have to do things like have green buildings, and good curricula in environmental sciences and studies, but we’ve got to be a leader in some things. One of the things we really need to do in terms of being the premier environmental university is make sure we have all the academic bases covered – we’re just in the process, in this school, of searching for a new faculty member in atmospheric sciences. So I hope that next fall we’ll have a new faculty member on campus in atmospheric sciences, which we’ve never really had before, and that’s a huge addition.Cynic: How do you feel about leaving the future of the world in the hands of your students? Are you worried?McIntosh: I’m very worried. As an older member of the environmental science community, I think we’ve failed in some ways. I don’t think we’ve done a very good job at explaining why people should be concerned about it. If you look at where we are with an understanding of some of the really complex issues like climate change, there’s a lot that we’ve got to do to get folks to realize all of the implications. The price of gas right now is a classic example. If you look at the true cost of gas in terms of all of the impacts on human health and the environment, it probably should cost 10 bucks a gallon or something like that. Politicians have careers where their terms are two years or four yeas or six years – climate change is an issue that’s going to go on for hundreds of years. It’s sort of easy just to let the next guy worry about it. I’m not that pessimistic about it, but something has to happen. There has to be a different way to engage the public about these issues and to convince them that it’s important to take steps.Cynic: What kind of car do you drive?McIntosh: I drive an old Subaru Impresa, and I’m just waiting for it to die before I get my Prias.Cynic: Here’s your chance – you have an audience with the University community – what’s your message to those reading this?McIntosh: There’s been talk about an environmental literacy requirement on campus – I would love to see that happen. I would love to see every University student, staff, and faculty member have some basic exposure to the environmental issues of today – nursing students might take a course in environmental health, business students might take a course in green business. We need to have a University community that has a basic level of familiarity with why these issues are important. Another thing is that the campus represents a community where it may, in fact, be possible to think about things like carbon neutrality where it’s almost impossible to think about how they would do that nationally and in big cities. It wouldn’t be easy here, but campuses have the possibility of getting folks excited about an issue like that. I would love to see the broader UVM community really act as a beacon for the rest of society in terms of how you can lead your lives and begin to move away from carbon, for example. We have to figure out ways that a) wean us from oil, and b) begin to ratchet back on greenhouse emissions. So my wish is that we would find a way to substantially engage students, faculty, and staff – I would love to see UVM be in the vanguard of those institutions leading the way in moving from the way we’ve done things into something that’s going to happen anyway – we should be at the forefront of that. If anywhere, why not here?