The University of Vermont

MORE THAN ONE WAY TO SAVE THE WORLD

Facing global warming and other environmental threats can trigger despair or action. In this issue, we touch base with ten UVM alumni who, through individual initiative or policy change, harnessing the inspiration of the arts or finding better ways to do business, are choosing to take on the fight.

image
photo by Philippe Cheng

SUE DONOGHUE '87
A tree grows in Brooklyn,the Bronx, Staten Island, QUEENS–

When Mayor Michael Bloomberg unveiled the PlaNYC initiative, a thirty-year effort to enhance the sustainability of New York City, the MillionTreesNYC campaign demanded some special notice in the ambitious 127-point plan. Trees are tangible. Planting a million new ones in the next decade is a sum large enough to stir the imagination, small enough to be workable.

"It's one of those rare things. People realize they can directly make a difference in their environment and directly address some of the concerns about global warming that they have," says Sue Donoghue '87. "You can get involved. You can plant a tree."

For the past year, Donoghue has been in charge of overseeing progress and implementation of  MillionTreesNYC and six other PlaNYC initiatives that fall under the umbrella of the city's Department of Parks and Recreation. An assistant commissioner in the department,  she is also a bridge to the mayor's office on the PlaNYC work, which will dedicate $1.2 billion in capital spending to enhance and improve open space across New York City.

One-hundred thousand new trees are in the ground already through MillionTreesNYC, which projects planting 600,000 trees through public means, and spurring another 400,000 through private organizations and individuals. The million–realized through new street trees, reforested parks, and a Trees for Public Health program that will target plantings to six neighborhoods with fewer than average street trees and higher than average childhood asthma rates–will increase the urban forest by 20 percent.

Work in city government is a dramatic change for Donoghue, who previously made her career on Wall Street as managing director of institutional sales at the New York Stock Exchange and as vice president of sales and operations for SunGuard Global Execution Services, before taking time off with her kids. Donoghue and her husband, Dmitri Nayduch '87, have three children.

Building on her undergraduate major in political science at UVM, Donoghue completed a master's at NYU in 2007 focused on public and nonprofit management and policy. When the opportunity arose to work for the Bloomberg administration, she felt it was a ripe era to join city government and a project she could embrace.

Donoghue says a major impetus for her career shift was seeking something more emotionally fulfilling.  "What really led to the change, honestly, was being home and having kids and wanting something that they could really understand and grasp," she says. "If I was going to be going off to work everyday, I wanted it to be something that they could understand and appreciate the importance of."

She has clearly found it in her current work: "I have a job that

is incredibly challenging and incredibly time-consuming, but it's wonderful." Not only do her kids understand what mom does, but they've joined her for the volunteer tree planting days that help drive MillionTreesNYC forward. Donoghue was pleased with another upshot when her nine-year-old son recently wrote a poem about the importance of trees and why people should be respectful of them. "Bells went off," she says. "This is getting across."

More information: milliontreesnyc.org


TRISTAM COFFIN '08
Green Mission Specialist for Whole Foods

Q. Can you give us a snapshot of a day in your working life?

A. My day-to-day work varies tremendously because I am technically the only person who does what I do here in the Northeast region (sixteen Whole Foods stores in the New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut area with ten more in the pipeline). I am bouncing around from store to store making sure Green Mission initiatives are in place and running smoothly. At the store level, Whole Foods is dedicated to reaching zero waste; so I'm working with waste haulers and store employees on composting and recycling programs. I also work with architects on LEED certifications for our new buildings and retrofitting our current locations to be more energy efficient. Basically, I work to ensure that Whole Foods is as green as possible from the time we begin laying the concrete with a high percentage of fly ash for our new stores to educating employees on environmental issues to community and environmental outreach with customers who shop in our stores. 

Q. Sounds like an interesting and important job, especially for a very recent college graduate. How did you land it?

A. I credit a lot of it to experience gained during a fifth year I spent at UVM. During what would have been my final semester, spring of 2007, I went out West to volunteer with a group working to protect the last genetically pure and continually wild herd of bison in the world. That opportunity led into the writing of my senior thesis and extra time at UVM, which I spent working as a teaching assistant in Environmental Studies, traveling to the Dominican Republic, then working full-time as a research assistant for the UVM Transportation Research Center.

That time and those opportunities really gave me the extra experience, diverse knowledge, and most importantly the extra boost of confidence to write a solid action plan and provide what I was told was a great interview to land me the position I am now in.

The interdisciplinary knowledge base a major like Environmental Studies  provides has been essential to my success thus far. Because my job doesn't concentrate on any one aspect of environmental work, having a formal interdisciplinary education in the environment has been extremely helpful. Stephanie Kaza, Rick Paradis, Jon Erickson, Richard Watts, and many others had a tremendously positive influence on me during my time at UVM. I could go on forever about these professors and how they, and the experiences they opened me up to, shaped the person (environmentalist) I am today, but we would be here for a long time.


ERIC SORENSEN'80
Magnificent 7

It sounds like they could be the ingredients of a standup comic's joke. Guy walks into a bar, takes three things out of his pocket–a microchip, a tomato, and a condom. Or maybe they are a question on a standardized test. Library book, clothesline, ceiling fan, bicycle. What do these four things have in common?

No punch line, but there is a simple answer to what these things are doing together. The odd assortment compose the "everyday things to help solve global warming" detailed and discussed in Seven Wonders for a Cool Planet by Eric Sorensen '80. (The volume, released in April by Sierra Club Books, is a rewrite/update of a 1999 Sightline Institute book focused on Wonders for a Healthier Planet.)

Chapter by chapter, Sorensen proves adept at broadening his focus on things such as the tomato, the condom, the microchip to larger, broader issues of eating local, population growth, and the role technology can play in a healthier planet. While a book such as Seven Wonders is, in part, a call to individual action, Sorensen cautions that's just part of the global warming battle. "When you do the individual acts, you give yourself standing to say, 'Look, I'm doing my part. Now let's see government and the tools of technology come to bear on the problem, as well, in an organized way.'"

A science writer, who recently joined the communications staff at Seattle University, Sorensen traces his path in the field to a forestry major in his first year. A line-up of "fairly brutal courses in zoology, botany, chemistry, and the like" gave him a grounding in science. He eventually switched his major to English/Environmental Studies and dug deeply into literature and writing courses. As a daily journalist working for the Seattle Times, Sorensen gravitated to the science beat. "I never shied from stories with atoms or bugs," he says. During those years, Sorensen also developed a habit of eco-consciousness–counting carbon, "tallying how much greenhouse gas we emit through the most mundane of our daily activities"–that finds form in Seven Wonders.


JASON KARAS '89
Low-carbon diet

Some of the citizens of Canyon, Texas, are recycling their old cell phones, swearing off meat two days a week, and spurning bottled beverages. In Watertown, South Dakota, a circle of residents are composting kitchen waste and clippings, and cutting down on idling the car. In Levittown, Pennsylvania, people are airing up the tires at the gas station, walking into Starbucks with their own reusable cups, and drying their sheets on the line.

Taken individually, all of these good, green habits knock carbon emissions back a notch. Taken as a whole, and linked with efforts by thousands more of the like-minded, they keep tons of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. The reach and power of many is plainly seen on Carbonrally.com's Google map, which presents a sea-to-shining-sea portrait of collective commitment–zip code by zip code, green bar graphs display the pounds of CO2 being spared. Though the site is just months old, in November the figure stood at 1,203 tons from 13,999 united rallyers.

Carbonrally.com is the brainchild of Jason Karas '89, a graduate of UVM's Environmental Program, who saw an opportunity to use the social networking power of the Internet to slow global warming. In 2007, he made the leap from working in the mobile telecommunications industry to starting up the Carbonrally initiative. "There are some serious issues that we're dealing with as a society, and the mass market is waking up to this," Karas says. "We saw a need for some real tools that everyday people can use."

"Small actions. Big impact." is Carbonrally's tagline and it's an ethic that shapes the challenges at the heart of the site. As rallyers accept a challenge, a new habit that will shrink their footprint, the efforts are made real by estimates of the pounds of C02 reduced. 

Competition, Karas notes, is also key to Carbonrally. Some rallyers unite in teams by workplace, school, or other affiliations, and as the effort has spread virally, teams have shown up in unexpected places. Musician Otep Shamaya, with 919 members rallied on "OTEP's Green Team," is a Carbonrally force. When NBC put up a $10,000 prize to back campus eco initiatives, supporters of Notre Dame and Syracuse set aside the football long enough to compete in Carbonrally challenges. Turning out nearly two thousand new members this fall, the Irish prevailed. Combined, the two universities eliminated eighty-five tons of CO2.

In September, Carbonrally moved in a new direction when it linked with the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources to create a statewide challenge putting schools in competition with one another. The partnership was sparked when Doug Kievit-Kylar G'90, pollution prevention planner in the agency, read a Time Magazine article about Carbonrally and contacted Karas at his Boston-based headquarters. It was a natural fit as the state looked to build environmental education efforts.

It's been a whirlwind start-up for Karas, particularly during the period when he still had his day job, a three-year-old at home, a new daughter on the way, and was working late at night to get Carbonrally off the ground. "I definitely had limited sleep last spring, but when it's something you're really excited about, you don't feel tired," Karas says. He adds that lots of coffee–reusable cup, 1.25 pounds CO2 reduction per week–also helps.

More information on the Vermont School Carbon Challenge: www.anr.state.vt.us/carbonchallenge/

Join the VQ Carbonrally team: The "VQ Carbon Avengers" are determined to become a Carbonrally juggernaut. Please join us by going to www.carbon rally.com/teams/596 and signing on.

POUND BY  POUND

94.1 Lbs Recycling one cell phone
30  lbs Composting one month
13.2lbs Giving up meat  twice  weekly
1.25lbs Using a reusable coffee cup for one week


image
photo courtesy of Ultra Motor

JOE BOWMAN '01
New way to move

Lined up at the stoplights, bikes often outnumber cars on Joe Bowman's five-mile commute to work from his London apartment. Bowman '01 is among the two-wheeled converts on the street, but he stands out from the crowd on his Ultra Motor A2B, an electric bicycle that he not only rides but champions as a guiding force of the company that makes it.

Lined up at the stoplights, bikes often outnumber cars on Joe Bowman's five-mile commute to work from his London apartment. Bowman '01 is among the two-wheeled converts on the street, but he stands out from the crowd on his Ultra Motor A2B, an electric bicycle that he not only rides but champions as a guiding force of the company that makes it.

The vagaries of an oil economy and advance of global warming are great change motivators, and Bowman believes Ultra Motor is well-positioned to be a player as the world looks for cleaner, more efficient ways to move. At age thirty-two, Bowman is CEO of the multi-million dollar, multi-national Ultra Motor enterprise. It's his latest venture in a wunderkind, globe-trotting career rooted in a place where teenagers unafraid to dream big often start–in a friend's basement with a couple of guitars and amps.

From their subterranean beginnings, Bowman and his bandmates in Somah quickly built a following in the New York area during the early nineties. Several albums and the inevitable van touring followed as they built a fan base in the jam band scene. (Looking back, Bowman describes Somah's music as Radiohead meets Phish–"lots of long guitar and Hammond organ solos.")

"Being involved in music early teaches you a lot of things," Bowman says. "Responsibility and discipline on the one hand, and it also lets you get all that young angst out of your system, so when you want to get serious you know the value of the education and how much the tuition costs."

Somah relocated to Burlington in 1995. Not long after, the band members began to go their separate ways and Bowman came to feel he'd had enough of the romance of "living in a van with four guys who don't smell very good." When he enrolled at UVM, Bowman had thoughts of working internationally and quickly found his way to the study of Russian language and culture. Nearly from his first day on campus, Professor Kevin McKenna would prove to be a key influence on Bowman's  future direction.

Post-UVM, Bowman moved to Moscow where he initially worked with a private equity fund and became involved with investing in technology start-ups. Seeing the opportunity of venture capital in Russia, in 2003 Bowman and two partners established the first venture capital firm in the country. The start-ups they would back included Ultra Motor, a two-wheeler powered with a hyper-efficient motor developed by Russian Vasily Shkondin in the 1970s. Shkondin's motor produces 35 percent more torque from the same amount of power, key to Ultra Motor's line of affordable electric scooters.

Bowman stepped in as CEO of Ultra Motor during a management crisis in 2006 and has remained in the role since. Over the past two years, the company has grown to more than three hundred employees and will top $30 million in revenues this year.

"The best companies are built on really simple ideas," Bowman says. "Ultra Motor recognized an opportunity based on a basic idea." That thought, to paraphrase Bowman, is this: spiking energy costs and rising awareness of climate change are creating a global shift in transportation. The car is no longer the one-stop shop.

Ultra Motor quickly sold more than 25,000 bikes in India. China is projected as another major potential market, and the company released their first bikes in the United States last year. In Europe, Bowman is working with cities to incorporate Ultra Motor bikes into electric bicycle- and car-sharing programs. A pioneering effort is under way in Stuttgart, Germany, with other cities poised to join in.

Bowman has proven himself to be a savvy businessman, and in Ultra Motor he's selling a product that seems bound to make money and make a difference for the planet. He says, "As an educated adult who happened to get into the green tech industry, I find it's very natural and very rational behavior as both an entrepreneur and as a consumer to look at where the world is going and say, 'This has got to stop.'"

More information: ultramotor.com


image
photo by Bruce Forbes

BRUCE FORBES '84
End of the world

Across vast expanses of time and tundra, the native Nenets people and their reindeer herds have been a constant. Measure of the remoteness of their homeland is found in the Nenets word that gives name to the peninsula jutting some 450-miles into the Kara Sea along Siberia's northern coast. Yamal: End of the World.

The challenge of surviving in such a place is abundantly evident, but the Nenets culture has proven tenacious in the face of the abiding forces of nature and the shifting ones of political change. Living as nomads, the Nenets have herded reindeer across the Yamal's permafrost for more than a thousand years. But though they may live at the end of the world, they are far from beyond its reach. Vast stores of oil and natural gas beneath the surface of the Yamal have put the peninsula on the map for Russia's Gazprom oil company, posing the latest challenge to the Nenets way of life.

Bruce Forbes '84 has long been immersed in study of the peoples and lands of the far north. For the past fourteen years, he has been a research scientist at the Arctic Centre at the University of Lapland in Rovaniemi, Finland. (It's a locale that begs a Google map search. You'll find a remote city of some 60,000 about five-hundred miles north of Helsinki as the cold crow flies.)

An environmental studies major at UVM, Forbes first encountered northern studies through geography classes with Bill Howland. Post-UVM, he would study further with Howland while earning a master's in the field from the Center for Northern Studies in Wolcott, Vermont. During subsequent doctoral work at McGill University, Forbes spent most of his summers conducting research at the small Inuit settlement of Clyde River on Baffin Island (about eight-hundred miles due north of Burlington). Days were focused on the natural recovery of tundra vegetation and permafrost soils from human impact. Nights, in the twenty-four-hour daylight, were spent hunting marine mammals with the Clyde Inuit as Forbes studied their cultural ecology. "It was the best interdisciplinary training imaginable," he says.

This dual perspective–considering ecological and cultural impacts together–has characterized much of Forbes's research through the years. Western Siberia was a natural region upon which to turn his focus. "To me, it was the ultimate place to test my understanding of tundra disturbance ecology, while also engaging with an indigenous population for whom the stakes of industrial development could not be higher," he says.

Forbes recently completed a four-year study that he calls his "dream project." Focusing on the Nenets and the Yamal Peninsula, Forbes analyzed "the social-ecological system and its various responses to rapid social and environmental changes." Hydrocarbon development was the key driver of the change, but the research also explored the impact of the warming climate.

Forbes's study reveals a vulnerable people with little voice. While global awareness of arctic peril rises, polar bears and glaciers are far more likely than indigenous cultures to grab the spotlight. And while these cultures and the ecosystems essential to their survival are protected by law in other arctic regions of the world, the Nenets are essentially powerless and without political clout in Russia. Forbes says Gazprom talks a good game–"they've long bragged about what an excellent job they've done in preserving Nenetss' way of life"–but the opposite is true.

As the push for riches beneath the Yamal Peninsula intensifies, Forbes stresses that we are fast approaching "crunch time" for the Nenets culture. Though the ecological impact of rising temperatures intensifies in the far north, it is largely an abstract threat to the Nenets when compared to oil development and the push to surrender nomadic ways for a settlement where, all too often, unemployment and alcoholism become the norm.

"Ignorance is not an excuse to proceed as if it were 1970, or even 2000," Forbes says. "Our understanding of, and our ability to understand, these systems is constantly improving. The real barrier at this point is simple bureaucratic arrogance."

If there is to be hope for the Nenets way of life, it might be found in a section of Forbes's study, a set of principles drafted to govern future development with the Nenets as participants in the process. But a fundamental shift in perspective for the Russian government and Gazprom must happen first, says Forbes. "They would need to come to realize that the continued functioning of such an ancient and unique economy in their midst is something worth preserving."


MARY ELIZABETH G'92
Song for the earth

With the planet in peril–global warming, endangered species, drought and famine–Father Time announces a dark hour and rallies the Kiravanu, the spirits of the world's natural places. Only by banding together can they effect critical change. In September, on an amphitheater stage at Sydney Olympic Park, the Kiravanu sprang into action, and burst into song, portrayed by Australian children in the premiere of Kiravanu, an opera composed by James Humberstone with libretto by Mary Elizabeth g'92.

"Having nearly four-hundred children doing anything in a coordinated way is a wonderful thing to see, but having them in costume and singing and dancing and acting and conveying a message through these activities –" the librettist says, her voice trailing off.

An educator, writer, and musician, Mary Elizabeth put all those skills to work on the Kiravanu project when Humberstone, composer-in-residence at a Sydney school, asked if she would write the libretto of a new opera for him. The collaborators had originally met in an on-line music notation software forum and their two-year collaboration on the project would spin out Vermont to Australia via the Internet.

Mary Elizabeth strove to create a libretto that would be integrated with the K-6 students' education, something deeply cross-curricular spanning environmental studies, cultural studies, zoology, and literature. Her libretto draws on quotations from Whitman, Donne, Shakespeare, Wolfe, and these words from Joseph Conrad's Lord Jim:  "Each blade of grass has its spot on earth whence it draws its life, its strength; and so is man rooted to the land from which he draws his faith together with his life."

Mary Elizabeth says,  "I know from my own experience that the words of novelists and poets can succinctly and

poignantly express some of the keen, deep, and essential feelings that nature arouses in people and that they may not themselves have words to express. And I know that some quotations have stuck with me over time. So beyond the broader arts experience, I aimed to give the performers and the audience some words about the links between people and the environment and each other that they might draw upon after the opera."

Writing from New England for an Australian audience and performers, Mary Elizabeth brought a Vermont sensibility to her work. Water quality in Vermont's Champlain Valley or water scarcity in the Kangaroo Valley woodland familiar to children in Sydney, concerns for and connections to the land span hemispheres.  "I wanted to help them get invested in their own lives, the places they go on vacation, their backyards," Mary Elizabeth says.

There's hope that enlightenment and empowerment can grow from such investment. Someday the Australian kids who brought Mary Elizabeth's libretto to life on stage may show the passion of the Kiravanu in acting to save the places of the world that matter to them most.


image
photo by Sally McCay

GIOIA THOMPSON '87 G'00
Campus commitment

Looking back on her undergraduate years at UVM, Gioia Thompson '87 G'00 says that when it came to environmental issues she was more pragmatist than activist. That might have had something to do with the fact that she was a non-traditional student with a few years on her peers in the Environmental Program. As the University started-up recycling programs on campus, Thompson got involved through service learning in an effort to study how new initiatives were working and could be improved.

"Something like that isn't as simple as put a can out there and expect people to use it properly," she says. "I sought to understand what actually happens on the ground–why it is not so simple to 'just do the green thing.'"

Today, finding how UVM can best do the right thing and "the green thing" is the central focus of Thompson's work as director of the University's Office of Sustainability. The position was created in the wake of President Fogel's 2007 signing of the American College and University Presidents' Climate Commitment, an initiative that drew signatures from 560 higher-ed leaders pledging to significantly reduce their institutions' carbon emissions and create plans for achieving carbon neutrality.

That's an ambitious pledge. Neutrality at UVM means taking into account the collective carbon footprint of a campus that accommodates some thirteen thousand people on school days and has 4.8 million-square footage of buildings to heat, and cool, and light. First step for Thompson and colleagues was to conduct a greenhouse gas emissions inventory. For the study, Nell Campbell, one of three graduate student fellows working with Thompson, looked at patterns back to 1990.

UVM has already taken the lower-hanging fruit with long-established conservation, recycling, and green building efforts that have contributed to the University's consistent rank among higher education leaders in sustainability programs and practices. 

Future changes promise to be a good deal more complex. For  instance, Thompson poses the question of purchasing carbon offsets, a path to neutrality some have taken. But would it make sense to put $500,000 into buying offsets rather than dedicating that funding to conservation efforts on campus? Another question: As new green technologies emerge rapidly, when is the right time for the University to jump in?

As UVM takes on these questions and others, Thompson will bring different voices to the table, harnessing faculty expertise, student passion, and staff know-how. Is carbon neutrality doable for a campus with the size and complexity of  UVM's?

Thompson considers the question. "Yes, but over what period of time?" she says. "What's doable for us here and now is engaging in the conversation, learning, and grappling with the philosophical issues that are fundamental to addressing these challenges."


DON DROPPO, JR. '96
Sound ethics, sound business

Chances are Curtis Packaging played a role in your giving or receiving this holiday season. The Connecticut-based company makes what's known as "luxury packaging"– not your standard dowdy brown carton, but the silky, shiny boxes that cradle gift products like perfume, cosmetics, spirits, chocolates and – golf balls. Titleist is one of Curtis's oldest and best customers.

Though the business has been in his family since 1845, Don Droppo, Jr. '96 never really saw himself at Curtis. He studied business at UVM, but went his own way with work after graduation, spending eight years in the insurance industry. When he and his wife decided to start a family of their own, the draw to return to their hometown in Sandy Hook, Connecticut, was strong, and Droppo took up his father's offer to join the business and focus on marketing and sales.

Droppo immediately focused his attention in another direction–an effort to make Curtis a greener business. He vividly recalls the day he went into his father's office and made his first suggestion for boosting sustainability, a proposal to run Curtis on 100 percent wind-power through renewable energy credits. "He looked over his reading glasses and said, 'Are you – kidding me?'" Droppo says, adding there may have been an expletive deleted. Well-armed, knowing that his father, an accountant, would take some convincing, Droppo rolled out the numbers and the payback.

Droppo, Jr. convinced Droppo, Sr. to sign off on that initiative, and many more to follow, as Curtis has quickly vaulted to the front as a leader in sustainable business practices. They were the first in their industry in North America to use 100 percent renewable energy, go 100 percent carbon neutral, and receive Forest Stewardship Council certification for their products.

While the greening of Curtis Packaging has been good for the environment, it's also been very good for the company's bottom line. Curtis has been well-positioned to serve customers as many strive to green their own operations. Estée Lauder, for instance, has worked with Curtis and one of their suppliers to create paperboard that is 85 percent post-consumer waste to package their Origins brand.

Sales growth at Curtis has doubled across the past four years, now just below $50 million annually. Potential major customers such as Target have come knocking. They've appeared in the pages of Fortune Magazine. Droppo says to expect more of the same as many of Curtis's 188 employees, organized into "green teams," regularly e-mail him with suggestions for next steps. "It's part of our culture now," he says. "It's part of who we are."


JOHN-O NILES '91
Voice for the rain forests

People have been saying, 'Save the rainforest, man,' for years," John-O Niles '91 says, doing his best to lend the right hippie dude inflection to the well-worn phrase. But in 2005, sparked by the catalyst of the United Nations Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, the world started to put significant funding and action behind the bumper-sticker sentiment. As director of the non-profit Tropical Forest Group, Niles built on that opportunity, leading efforts to spur new and better conservation policy and implement programs to conserve and restore forest. Uganda, Nigeria, Mozambique–Niles and his TFG colleagues often focus their work in areas where human conflict has ravaged forests.

Niles makes the complex simple when he call the rainforest "this green, moist sponge that circles the equator" and rattles off the reasons why saving these ecosystems is the right thing to do. As the planet warms, there's one particular reason, Niles says, that has grabbed the attention of world leaders–twenty percent of greenhouse gases are due to tropical deforestation.

Though his rainforest work traces back to before climate change was the hottest issue, that part of the planet has intrigued him even longer, all the way back to his days at UVM. Niles laughs and swears he's not making it up when he describes the post-graduation path he envisioned then traveled with astonishing accuracy.

Sitting on a Buell Street porch, he laid out the plan. First, travel to Alaska and make some money in commercial fishing. Hitchhike across America. Hitchhike across Africa. Get a graduate degree in the San Francisco Bay area. Work on international rainforest issues.

He's made good on every one of those Burlington dreams. The  rainforest work continued to keep him on the road often, racking up visits to twenty-five countries in one recent year. These days, Niles travels a good deal less. He lives in California, where he and his wife, a professor of ecology at the University of California–San Diego, are raising their two young sons.

Niles's eco-advocacy is strongly rooted in his UVM undergraduate years, when he earned his bachelor's in resource economics and was a driving force behind forming the Vermont Student Environmental Program. VSTEP pushed the University to establish its first recycling programs and, among other creative efforts, made a chunky reusable cup hanging off a backpack a ubiquitous UVM student accessory of the era.

"The experience of getting VSTEP going and gaining some successes gave me inspiration to go out and continue the work, more of that confidence that you can make a difference," Niles says.

Whether it's recycling on the UVM campus or global advocacy for conserving rainforests, Niles says "there have always been these perfect storms," times when environmental concerns, economics, and a critical mass of concerned individuals come together to push change. In his work with Tropical Forest Group, the annual UN Climate Change conventions have proven to be pivotal moments when international leaders gather to negotiate the course ahead. Niles and TFG were on hand and making their case when this year's UN event convened in Poland during December.

Niles, who has published several books on climate change and tropical forests and served as an invited advisor to the Clinton administration, brings the dual perspective of a scientist and one comfortable with shaping policy. (He earned his master's in biological sciences at Stanford University and was at work on his doctorate at Cal-Berkeley before taking a leave to focus on advocacy.) Niles is frank that policy and science can be a difficult match. "It's hard to be an academic scientist and have very strong positions," he says. "It doesn't work." However, when talking with government leaders, it's helpful to be packing the credentials of a scientist. "It allows you to make quick, compelling arguments. Having that science sometimes impresses people," Niles says. "It gives you a megaphone."

More information: tropicalforestgroup.org

^ up ^

© 2011 The University of Vermont