Creating Environmental Activism One Story at a Time

Story posted April 28, 2008

Sometimes one question unleashes a volume.

In this case, a student in Anthony Walton's Telling Environmental Stories class got to ask it of one of the country's leading environmental journalists, Amanda Griscom Little, who was a guest in the class for a day.

walton class
Students in Anthony Walton's Telling Environmental Stories class meet with journalist Amanda Griscom Little.

"What are the strategies you use to approach an interview?" asked a young man seated across from her in the seminar room. "I mean, how do you direct the conversation? Do you kind of let it unfold?"

Having recently interviewed all 2008 presidential candidates about their energy and environmental platforms, Little's eye lit up: "You want to go in and just get them to lay all their ideas out on the table and give them the chance to breathe freely and listen respectfully. And then maybe agree to disagree, you know?

"Whether I'm talking to Hillary Clinton, Rupert Murdoch or ... to H. Lee Scott of Walmart, instead of going in there with my [environmental] cudgel raised, going in and actually asking questions and listening. Coming in with an open mind and letting them feel understood, is crucial to the art of interviewing. And then you have the upper hand. You can throw in some curve balls.

"You just want them to be off their guard a little bit, because then you'll get something fresh and new."

Read Student Narratives
Students in class

Walton's students took on subjects as wide ranging as wind power, a proposed Maine Woods National Park and Preserve, and a decommissioned nuclear-power plant. Read a sampling of their highly original narratives, and hear what some students said about this unique approach to writing.


It was exactly the kind of interchange Bowdoin Writer-in-Residence Walton had in mind when he invited Little—a Grist.org columnist and regular contributor to The New York Times, The Nation and Rolling Stone —to share her notes from the field with his students. All of whom were knee-deep in research of their own.

Walton's fall 2007 course combined study of environmental literature with development of the students' original environmental narratives, which they critiqued with each other in a writer's workshop format. He encouraged the student writers to use human experience, perhaps even their own, as a lens for examining environmental issues and concerns.

All of this in service of Walton's belief that storytelling is a fundamental way through which people connect. And if students are committed to communicating their passion for environmental policy and action, he said, "they must make those stories themselves equal to the task.

"It is my belief that there are compelling issues that need to be discussed at this time in our society," he continued, "and one of the ways of entering that discussion is by telling stories that allow people from different disciplines and walks of life to understand and communicate with each other-a lawyer, say, and a geologist might have very different frames through which they would tend to view the world, but they will each tend to respond to a well-told tale that has human interest and something at stake."

Too often, observed Little, who spoke to Walton's class before delivering Bowdoin's Tom Cassidy Lecture in Journalism later in the evening, environmental journalists offer a "shrill, moralistic approach to stories."

Amanda Little
Amanda Griscom Little

"Basically, reading environmental reporting is like eating your vegetables boiled with no butter, no salt," said Little, to the amusement of the class. "It's like this bland, predictable experience. And part of it is there's such an expectation of what you're going to hear from your average environmentalist ... which is, bad guys-good guys; polluters are bad ... It's this very purist, preachy approach, which frankly makes it boring to read. That binary good and bad paradigm is shifting, so that a lot of the stories today are about looking at environmental tradeoffs," added Little.

"Look at Walmart," she said by way of example. "There are elements of what Walmart is doing to become more sustainable that are good. They are saying, we will be purveyors of affordable green products ... for less. We'll be the democratizing force for the environmental movement. It's a great marketing scheme. But there are elements that are really problematic: Walmart's social issues, its relationship to unions. And, my gosh, the environmental problems of having these massive big box stores that are covering the ground in asphalt."

So, as a writer faced with these kinds of complexities, how would she begin to write a compelling truth?

"It's very helpful to have a very targeted question that you are asking" said Little. "Will it work to create a hybrid truck fleet at Walmart? Instead of, can Walmart go green? The small example becomes a way in for the larger question. That is the most helpful for me as a reporter. Biting off one chunk at a time."

"Reading environmental reporting is like eating your vegetables boiled with no butter ... It's this very purist, preachy approach, which frankly makes it boring to read."
—Amanda Griscom Little

Walton helped students develop their own chops by giving them a taste of other environmental storytellers, among them Rachel Carson and Elizabeth Colbert (the latter, author of the bestselling Field Notes From a Catastrophe). One of the models he used for creating compelling narratives was Al Gore's movie, "An Inconvenient Truth."

"Look at what he's been able to do with that movie," said Walton. "If you step back and look at it as a piece of rhetoric you can see how he tells a story that becomes an artifact in the world. He was able to communicate a very important issue that needs to be discussed —no matter your final point of view."

This course was an outgrowth of conversations Walton had with Bowdoin faculty members in several disciplines, including environmental studies, all of whom were interested in deepening the College's offerings in writing-centered classes for science students. Although the class included several humanities students as well, Walton said it allowed him to "work with a group of students I might not otherwise meet—science and social science majors, pre-meds, a whole different side of the campus for me.

Little with Student
Lindsay Urquhart '08 discusses ideas for his paper with Little after class.

"There are some amazingly talented writers among those students, and they have an enormous amount of passion," he said. "It was interesting and fun to listen to them talk and argue with each other; by the time we got around the table with this group, we'd heard the view from disciplines as varied as biology, women's studies, and English."

Walton says he sees an acute and growing sense of environmental awareness among Bowdoin students—and this generation as a whole—and says he hopes to help them channel their concern into action. "These are kids who are already good at something, who have a deep feeling for the world and our society, and now want to learn something that will help them take that ability and knowledge to another level of engagement. I have never been prouder of a group of students at Bowdoin."

Read a selection of student narratives.

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