An In-Depth Look into the Environmental Science Courses and Major with Dr. David Stokes

Here at UW Bothell campus we are lucky enough to be so close to nature with the North Creek Wetlands. Restoration of the 127 acres began June of 1998 and in just 22 years we are seeing progress. Ecology and Conservation Biology professor Dr. David Stokes shared his opinion of the campus wetlands. 

“The campus wetlands are a wonderful resource for UWB. In our urbanizing world with its ongoing destruction of natural habitats, we have this bit of wild nature that has been restored—brought back to a mostly natural condition—right here on campus. It’s a place where, if you’re lucky, you might see coyotes, deer, beaver, and otters. In the Fall there are salmon in the creek returning to spawn. And, of course, crows—a spectacular concentration of crows returning to roost in the evenings. The wetland is really a treasure, and the fact that it is the result of a restoration effort makes it an inspiring example of the kind of actions we can undertake to protect and even improve our environment”. 

It’s easy to notice the natural treasures that surround our campus such as trees, crows and the wetlands since they surround us, but it can be hard to see the importance of understanding the relationship between humans, animals and plants. 

Dr. Stokes addressed this importance, “in our urban world, it’s easy to forget that virtually every aspect of our lives is utterly dependent on the environment. Starting with the air we breathe, the water we drink, food we eat, the disposal of our waste, and in many, many, other ways, we depend on the natural environment and the other species with whom we share that environment. Science is only now discovering that the interconnections among species are far more widespread and complex than we have previously recognized, and that those interactions support the ecosystem functions that we depend on. Pollination and nutrient cycling that support our food supply are two well-known examples, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. We need to safeguard the other species on earth for our own welfare. Beyond our own self-interest, there is increasing recognition of the inherent worth of other species, and a growing interest in expanding the umbrella of equity and inclusion beyond humans to those other species as well. The more we find out about other species, the more we are coming to understand how fascinating and truly remarkable they are”.

Our campus provides opportunities to learn more about the relationship between humans, plants and animals, through environmental science classes. While an environmental science major allows students to go further. 

“In short, an environmental science major can be a gateway to a really interesting and rewarding career—a career in which you can feel that you are making a difference in a globally significant way. The environmental challenges we are facing, such as climate change and biodiversity loss, are fundamental existential challenges to human civilization as we know it. That’s big! To make a career of solving challenges of that magnitude brings a sense of satisfaction that is hard to beat. And with the rise of awareness of the social justice aspects of environmental issues, the field is even more relevant than ever. Even if your life path takes you in a different direction, the skills and knowledge you gain in an environmental science major are broadly relevant to all kinds of pursuits. And the environmental literacy you develop will be personally rewarding for a lifetime. I think the courses in the major—a lot of them are field courses—are fun too”. 

For many students that have taken environmental science classes the subject can be hard to handle; all of the negative progression, destruction of forests, and elimination of species is heartbreaking news. Dr. Stokes acknowledged this disappointment in human kind and shared a bit of his personal journey to developing a hopeful outlook into the future, “yes, there’s no getting around the fact that the problems can seem overwhelming. Aldo Leopold said that the price of an ecological education is the pain of understanding the damage that humans are doing to the planet. In my field of conservation biology—the study of the diversity of life on earth—this is a continual problem: How to deal with the relentless series of losses of species, populations, and ecosystems?

If we dwell only on those losses, we become paralyzed. I combat this tendency by focusing on the other side of the coin, which is the amazing opportunity we have to make a difference. Scientists believe that what we do in the next few decades will have a major impact on the future of the earth’s environment and the future of all the species—including humans—that depend upon it. That means that those of us on earth today have a huge responsibility—and a huge opportunity to make a difference of historical and even evolutionary significance.

I also find inspiration in the actions of so many people around the world who undertake heroic measures to protect the environment, sometimes at great sacrifice to themselves. Whether it is protesting deforestation in the Amazon, resisting a fossil fuel pipeline in North Dakota, relocating endangered Tasmanian devils to protect them from disease, or working to re-establish a native predator, the Fisher, to the forests of Washington State, these efforts are truly inspirational—humbling evidence of humans’ capacity for love of nature and willingness to take action to save it.

“Finally, I get outside. I encourage everyone to go to a natural environment and take in this beautiful earth we have inherited. It’s a great way to improve your outlook”. Dr. Stokes also shared a step towards an environment win.”

“There are many ongoing efforts to protect the environment, with specific causes that range from promoting action on climate change, to protection of biodiversity, to protection of forests, from the Amazon, to the Tongass in Alaska, to urban forests and green spaces in our local communities. To me, one of the most significant developments in recent years is the environmental justice movement, which starts from the recognition that marginalized people often bear the brunt of environmental damage. That’s true at the local level—pollution of all kinds is generally worse in poorer and browner neighborhoods—all the way to the global level, where poorer and indigenous peoples are already paying a greater price for climate change. This focus on equity and justice is a welcome evolution in the environmental movement—acknowledgement that literally everyone depends on a healthy environment, and that a program of environmental protection that safeguards the environment for some people but not others is not acceptable”. 

As many have noticed the environment has been a hot topic for years. Environment protection to evolution many areas of science have been scrutinized. Dr. Stokes agreed that environmental science is under attack by responding with, “unquestionably. Environmental science seeks to understand the natural systems we all depend on. The chemical composition of the atmosphere, the rate of species loss, the levels of synthetic compounds in mothers’ breast milk–these are scientifically determined facts. They remain true regardless of your politics, values, or economic agenda, and it is essential that we use that kind of information to address the serious environmental problems we face. When powerful interests suppress, alter, obfuscate, or deny such facts—and we have seen a surge in such disinformation lately—that is an attack on science. Given that we all ultimately depend on the environment for our very existence, it is also an attack on humanity”. 

Though under scrutiny Dr. Stokes reiterates the importance of understanding the environment. “It is essential to understand the science so that we can appreciate the seriousness of the issue and the need to take action, and so that the actions proposed are appropriate, understandable, and will be supported.”

This is particularly important in light of the large disinformation campaign being waged by those who want to prevent action on climate change. Just like the tobacco industry in the 20th century denying the scientifically demonstrated connection between smoking and lung cancer, a major strategy of those who want to prevent climate action has been to cast doubt on environmental science. We need a public that is environmentally literate and can see through the obfuscation, and understand what actions we need to take to protect our future.

However, while understanding the science is essential, it is not sufficient. We need to communicate our understanding to others who may not have the benefit of an environmental education. And we need to take action, both on a personal level, such as driving less, and at a societal level, by supporting policies and politicians who will protect our environment. That’s important at all scales, from the local—why do we not have better transportation options to campus?—to national—why has the US not signed and ratified the Paris Climate Agreement? 

“Most of our current environmental safeguards—protections for clean air, clean water, wildlife habitat and endangered species—were enacted in the 1960s and 70s as a result of a large groundswell of activism—people from all walks of life making their voices heard. That experience shows that we the citizens can bring about change to protect our future, but we will need to fight for that change”.

For those interested or already majoring in environmental science they can look forward to a variety of career opportunities. “Environmental science is by definition very diverse and interdisciplinary, so there is a wide variety of careers in the field. These can range from scientist, field technician, manager, consultant, and educator, all in a variety of settings, from urban to rural, and government, non-profit and private sector. Some of the really exciting areas of growth right now are environmental toxicology, public health, environmental conservation and restoration, climate change impacts and adaptation, and green energy. Increasingly, even businesses and other entities that do not have a primary focus on the environment have a need to address environmental and sustainability aspects of their activities. The diversity of needs means that we will need a diverse work force to respond to the environmental crises we face”.

As University of Washington Bothell students we are lucky enough to experience environmental restoration in our campus backyard. UW Bothell students can take environmental science courses, some led by Dr.Stokes himself, to learn more about the relationship between animals, plants and humans. Students can major in the Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences degree of Environmental Science and enter into a diverse workforce ranging from scientist to educator. Even taking one course a student can explore eccentric views. There is value in the environment and there is value in learning about and from it.

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