Ever have that nightmare where you still haven’t finished your thesis? Former Environmental Protection Agency administrator Lisa Jackson *86 has.
Returning to campus can counteract that “recurring nightmare,” Jackson said, addressing an audience of students, faculty, and community members in Dodds Auditorium April 9.
“I still have that nightmare that it’s the day before my master’s thesis defense. And I haven’t finished it, but I’m really stressed,” she said, the audience laughing. “But every time I’m here, it reinforces that I got the degree.”
Jackson, a chemical engineer who served as head of the EPA in the Obama administration from January 2009 until February of this year, recounted her personal story of how she came to define herself as environmentalist.
Noting that the word “environmentalist” has, in some circles, come to refer to environmental activism for political purposes, Jackson provided her own definition: An environmentalist is someone “who cares deeply about and prioritizes the environment — the environment, not as an outside concept, but more for its impact on our health, its impact on our well-being … and its impacts on our prosperity,” she said.
Jackson recalled learning about environmental issues during her undergraduate years at Tulane, when she first heard of the “soup of chemicals” in the Mississippi River causing problems downstream in New Orleans as well as the government’s inability to adequately respond to large-scale, hazardous environmental problems like the infamous Love Canal in upstate New York.
As an engineering student, Jackson was taught to be a problem-solver. “I remember thinking, ‘It is engineers, chemical engineers … who by and large design processes that make all this hazardous goop, and it will be chemical engineers that design the processes to clean it up,’” she said.
Jackson said there is still much “unfinished business” in environmental work, citing the example of air quality. Today’s air is far cleaner than the air of the 1970s, but Americans must still deal with the health impacts of cross-state air pollution. And improved national air quality measurements don’t necessarily account for areas that are still fatally polluted. Children in Newark, N.J., standing on the corner waiting for a bus face higher levels of pollution than they’d face working in a factory, Jackson said, citing a recent study.
“I’m worried that we might have a tendency as environmentalists to move on to next sexy thing,” Jackson said, adding that a failure to tend to the less-publicized issues “can erode the strength of the environmental movement.”