Center for the Environment Gets Interim Head

Posted: October 5, 2007

Sandra Postel came on board this summer as the Leslie and Sarah Miller Director of the Center for the Environment, taking the place of geology professor Lauret Savoy, who is on leave this year. The directorship is a good fit for Postel, who has spent nearly her entire professional life involved in domestic and international water policy.

Postel was already a familiar face on campus. She has been affiliated with MHC since 2000, when she began teaching a course on international water issues and became acquainted with members of the earth and environment department. Now, she said, she's "getting totally immersed in the life of the campus. The Center for the Environment is all about interdisciplinary approaches to environmental learning. You go out and build networks between different departments on campus. The environment touches just about every aspect of life. So no department here is outside the realm."

Postel studied geology and political science at Wittenberg University and resource economics and policy at Duke University. In 1980, she took a job with a natural resources consulting firm in Menlo Park, California, where she worked primarily in the area of water conservation and policy. Three years later, she joined the Worldwatch Institute in Washington, DC. "They were looking for someone to take on the international water portfolio," she explained. She was vice president for research at Worldwatch from 1988 to 1994 and remains affiliated as a senior fellow. "My niche is in generating ideas and policies aimed at harmonizing human uses of water with the need to protect the health of the aquatic environment," she said.

Postel spent 11 years at Worldwatch before taking a teaching position at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. During her two years at Tufts, she established the Global Water Policy Project (GWPP), an umbrella for her water-related projects and activities. In 1996, she moved to the Pioneer Valley, where she has continued her GWPP work.

She serves frequently as a consultant to groups like the Nature Conservancy and to colleges and universities, including a recent project on freshwater ecosystem services with researchers at Stanford University. Postel has served as advisor to the Division on Earth and Life Studies of the U.S. National Research Council, as well as to American Rivers. She has served on the board of directors of the International Water Resources Association, and on the editorial boards of Ecosystems, Water Policy, and Green Futures. "I'm one of those lucky people who get to make a career out of something they really enjoy and believe in," she said. "It's a gift when that happens."

The center is involved in many programs this year under Postel's stewardship. Its first major public event was a talk by author and food policy expert Anna Lappé, for which Hooker Auditorium was packed. Sunita Narain, the executive director of the Center for Science and Environment in Delhi, India, who won the world's most prestigious water prize--the Stockholm Water Prize--in 2005, will speak at the College this winter.

A new Environmental Leadership Series features lectures by professionals in a range of environmental fields. Speakers also meet with students informally to discuss their work, career paths, and professional goals. "The series involves mentoring as well as a discussion of environmental issues," Postel said. "Students want to know, 'How did you get into this field?'

Elizabeth Kolbert, author of Field Notesfrom a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change (MHC's Common Reading), was the series' first guest. Future guests include Kim Lutz, director of the Connecticut River program for the Nature Conservancy, and Laura Wildman, director of science for American Rivers. They will speak on river ecology and restoration in New England on November 13.

Most recently, Postel has been involved with the College's organic garden on Prospect Hill, which is just finishing its first growing season. Approximately 70 students joined together last week to harvest fruits and vegetables for the College's first Gracious Dinner of the year, highlighting local, organic produce. With Ruby Maddox, the center's senior administrative assistant, she also helped organize "Lick it green," a presentation--and ice cream bash--of MHC's Green Partners, environmentally oriented groups involved in energy conservation, recycling, and other green initiatives. The event's purpose was "to expose students to the array of environmental stewardship activities on campus--and to get them involved," said Postel.

One of Postel's major projects at the CE this year is participation in "Focus the Nation," a climate change awareness program. The one-day event, to be held January 31, 2008, will involve teach-ins, panel discussions, symposia, and other activities on high school, college, and university campuses nationwide, aimed at finding solutions for climate change. She noted that MHC President Joanne V. Creighton has already signed the Focus the Nation Declaration, committing the College to join the effort to fight global warming. "The purpose of the event is to examine the many dimensions of the challenge from different perspectives," said Postel. Panel ideas suggested by the Focus the Nation organization reflect this breadth, including topics such as the psychological issues of denial that the problem exists. "It's truly interdisciplinary. The idea is to bring together disciplines that rarely collaborate with one another in order to reveal the ramifications of climate change from all different angles," said Postel. "We hope to come up with new insights into solutions. We're beyond wondering if it's a problem. Now we need to figure out what we can do."

In addition to her teaching, research, and consulting work, Postel is a prolific writer. She is the author of several books, including Rivers for Life (2003), about the science and policy of sustainable river management. Her first book, Last Oasis (1992, revised 1997), looked at the varied dimensions of water scarcity, including food security and hydropolitics. The book was named by Choice Magazine as an Outstanding Academic Book in 1993 and has been translated into eight languages. It was the basis for a PBS documentary in 1997. Postel's book Pillar of Sand (1999) on the history and sustainability of irrigated agriculture has been selected for course use by more than 130 colleges and universities. She has also written many articles, including one about Middle East water politics that will appear in the November 2007 issue of Natural History.

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Center for the Environment