The University Record, September 21, 1992

U-M ‘the place to be’ for environmental programs

By Kate Kellogg
News and Information Services

Automobile emissions in California pollute the air in Arizona’s Grand Canyon; pollution reaches the Great Lakes by air and rain from—someplace else? Today, says Garry D. Brewer, dean of the School of Natural Resources and Environment, “there is no ‘someplace else’... there is no ‘away’ to throw things.”

Because global environmental problems no longer have spatial or temporal boundaries, they demand solutions that cross all disciplines and jurisdictions, he said in an address last Thursday in the opening event marking the public launch of the Campaign for Michigan.

Unfortunately, Brewer said, the institutions equipped to produce those solutions are organized around disciplines that seldom overlap. “Yet no one scientific discipline can clean up the Rhine River. Such problems demand many kinds of scientific knowledge and that it be organized in non-traditional ways.”

Whether the problem is water pollution, deforestation or waste deposition, Brewer said, “one point becomes frighteningly clear as we begin to understand the consequences of human activity: we don’t have a lot of time. We’re 5.2 billion strong and counting.”

Certainly the environment is touching every part of U-M and, Brewer believes, the University is meeting the challenge. “U-M is the environmental place to be. It is recognizing environmental problems in complete form and across the board.”

The College of Engineering and Department of Oceanic and Atmospheric Science are at the leading edge of technology designed to gain a global perspective of environmental damage. By monitoring the planet, collecting data via satellite, and analyzing it with computers, “we are looking at what we’ve done to the world and beginning to understand what we must do to fix it.”

U-M also is leading efforts in the new area of conservation biology, the science of “bringing back the Earth,” explained Brewer. Conservation biologists “find out how an ecosystem works and how to put it back together after damage, such as environmental restoration of the Saginaw Bay.” In the related area of bioremediation, U-M engineering researchers are unleashing scientific principles to clean up contamination in high-tech messes, he noted.

The University is attacking the vast issue of environmental risks to human health from a multitude of vantage points—from School of Public Health studies on levels of human tolerance for food contamination to the ways in which risks are communicated and perceived.

“The politics that drive laws are driven by human perceptions of risks—perceptions that are different from scientific observations, and that’s got to change,” Brewer said. “People have relatively little understanding of the things they fear.”

A recent internal report on environmental studies and activities at U-M found 323 separate environmental research projects on campus, Brewer noted. “The University is an international leader in everything we need to know. I don’t know of another place anywhere in the world that can make that claim.”

Brewer described 10 research projects in various units, including his School’s recent $4.8 million grant from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to fund a national consortium for environmental education. Also housed in the School is the EPA-funded Pollution Prevention Center, a collaboration with the College of Engineering and the School of Business Administration.

In the College of Engineering, the Center for Hazardous Substances Research is “taking a basic understanding of genetics and applying it to the decontamination of hazardous wastes,” Brewer said. The Scripps-Howard Program in Environmental Journalism will help improve environmental communication by providing fellowships to working journalists for a year of study in environmental sciences.

The Global Change Project provides graduate fellowships to address global change— from atmospheric changes to human population increases to newly endangered species—within a variety of disciplines, Brewer noted.

Over the next five years, a new venture between the School of Natural Resources and the Environment and the School of Business Administration will offer a joint degree program for MBAs and graduate students in natural resources that proposes “there is much to be gained by talking constructively to each other, rather than screaming in the courtroom.”