Traveling to Denton, Texas represented two “firsts” for me. It was my first time visiting the Lone Star state beyond the security perimeter of Dallas/Fort Worth Airport, and also my first face-to-face meeting with a Millennial I met exclusively through social media.
Not long after launching the website this past winter, a gregarious faculty member from the University of North Texas named Keith Wayne Brown happened across the blog and promptly put me in touch with one of his UNT cohorts – Kelli. Hailing from Jacksonville, Florida, Kelli earned a bachelor’s degree in Marine Sciences at Eckerd College. But shortly after graduation, she packed her bags for Denton to pursue a long-harbored passion: philosophy. She now instructs and studies there as a PhD candidate and a teaching fellow. Her subject of expertise is an interdisciplinary blend of philosophy and environmental ethics. Imagine if Aristotelian logic had been built around ozone pollution, or natural resource consumption, and you’ll get an idea of how that marriage looks in the lecture halls.
Strolling around the UNT campus on a blazing Monday afternoon with Kelli, my inaugural question for her – and probably the one most Boomer readers are bursting with – was rather blunt: “Biology to…philosophy? Why? How?”
“I spent the majority of my time at Eckerd just living and breathing science,” Kelli said. “And concurrently, I wound up spending a lot of time with my professors. To a certain degree, I liked talking to them more than I liked talking to my peers. Hearing about their real-life experiences as working scientists was an interesting contrast to the more knowledge-based science that we discussed in class.”
During her senior year of college, Kelli was accepted into Eckerd’s Ford Apprentice Scholars Program for aspiring educators. Required to select an academic advisor for her final school year, Kelli skirted traditional expectations and chose a philosophy professor. “I thought it would be really interesting to work with a mentor outside my major,” she said. “And at first, I don’t think Eckerd knew what do with me!! This was the first time I’d really encountered the term “interdisciplinary.””
No doubt sensing promise in his new mentee, Kelli’s advising professor – Dr. Bruce Foltz – introduced her to a colleague at UNT’s philosophy department who happened to be seeking driven research assistants. Three phone conversations later, Kelli was offered the position. “When Bruce told me about the job, his explanation was that this friend of his was having a hard time finding good research assistants for the coming semester,” Kelli said. “It was almost a year later when I found out that this wasn’t true at all; that Bruce had flat-out recommended me to Bob. So I called him up like, “You! You dirty dog.” He’s an amazing man.”
To Kelli, the prospect of moving halfway across the country and devoting herself to environmental philosophy at an acclaimed university was thrilling. “My parents were definitely concerned,” Kelli said. “For years, I had this plan to move on from Eckerd and become a career scientist with good prospects for the future. And the position at UNT was only part-time, so mostly, my parents were worried about the financial stress it might entail.”
After working out a living arrangement with an aunt based in Dallas, Kelli settled in Texas and started burrowing into philosophy. The following year, she began her MA studies at UNT.
“My first three months here were extremely intense, but so rewarding,” Kelli recalled. “I’d never been around so many professors who were audibly thinking about the ethos of science at all waking hours. It was a really refreshing tonic from the more clinical fact-based approach I’d taken in my undergraduate years and even back in high school. All my presuppositions about the relationship between scientists and the public – or lawmakers – were deconstructed!”
When I asked Kelli what her most stalwart presupposition had been, prior to joining the UNT faculty, she paused for a moment. “I think it’s still the kind of attitude with which scientists approach uncertainty and risk. Whether something is an obstacle or an opportunity. In many ways, I had been trained to fear the subjective for most of my scientific upbringing. And yet, the subjective aspects of policymaking are extremely important. What I’m learning now is that hard scientific facts alone are usually not enough to facilitate smart policy decisions regarding the environment. The final outcome is almost always based on social values or special interests.”
Maybe it was the 99 degree heat of midafternoon Denton, but after hearing Kelli say this, I found it impossible not to reflect upon America’s continuing public squabble over the veracity of global warming: a civil war of chest-thumping between scientific advisors with alarming statistics, and politicians who choose not to listen to them, for a considerable variety of reasons. I was also quieted by the idea of a Millennial like Kelli reconciling uncertainty in a decade that is almost entirely driven by collective anxieties involving everything from unemployment to rising ocean levels. I asked Kelli to share some of the uncertainties that occupy her thoughts these days.
“The biggest challenge I see for most us is moderating our desires,” Kelli said. “The Greeks understood that humans have all kinds of passions and urges, and that not all of those contribute to living well. I think that’s still a problem.”
“Where do you see this problem taking shape right now?” I asked.
“Look at the development of technology over the past 2,500 years,” Kelli continued. “Technology has widened the distance between the satisfaction of the things we desire, and their consequences. I’d argue that climate change embodies that problem. The idea that we can always satisfy desires like keeping millions of cars fueled and on the road; living in the suburbs and driving everywhere. It all comes down to convenience.”
“What else?” I said, eager to hear more.
“Well, if we’re talking convenience, here’s another fixation: coffee,” Kelli said. “Here in Denton, we get coffee from all over the world. It’s grown by people we’ll never meet. We don’t know the conditions under which they work, we’ll probably never know how their lives turn out, or whether they want to be laborers. We invest a lot of trust that the processes by which that coffee is made and transported are sustainable and will get us rich, delicious coffee whenever we want. But the thing is, that’s not a necessity.”
As Kelli continued, the two of us walked into a restaurant on the eastern end of UNT’s campus and – rather ironically – ordered shrimp cocktails for an early dinner. They arrived pink, succulent and juicy, but I couldn’t help wondering where each shrimp had come from before landing in the middle of northern Texas. There was something vaguely unnerving about it. At least, until animal hunger took over for each of us.
Later, mopping up the last of the cocktail sauce with saltine crackers, I asked Kelli where she sees herself taking the winding road of environmental philosophy in 10-15 years.
“In our society, science is touted as a career path towards changing the world. But one of the realities of academic research in science is that most of that research rarely ever makes it beyond academic institutions,” Kelli said. “So when I decided to pursue philosophy, I looked at it as this way of training myself to think well. I thought it could put me in a better position to insert myself into political policy circles, and maybe that will be the arena in which I can make a difference in today’s state of environmental affairs.”
At this moment, an undeniable trend revealed itself in my head. Practically every Millennial I’ve spent time interviewing in the past year has expressed some form of concern regarding environmental affairs. The commonality is accidental – I certainly didn’t hit the road searching exclusively for Millennials left saucer-eyed and speechless after watching An Inconvenient Truth – but not unsurprising. The salient point that most Millennials can’t ignore is that we’ll still be here when the effects of planetary warming take on scarier forms. Softening the blow looks to be our responsibility.
I found that difficult to comprehend, as Kelli and I walked back towards her apartment along sleepy residential plots, locusts buzzing in the trees above. I find it just as difficult at this very moment, revisiting our conversation by way of transcription.
Somehow, I have this strange feeling that as election cycles come and go, I’ll be watching Denton with a curious eye.