AMHERST, Mass. – Craig Nicolson is intrigued by the big ideas that have changed the world. As director of academic sustainability programs in the College of Natural Sciences, he wants to see students at the University of Massachusetts Amherst change the world. That, he says, requires them to know whose ideas have already been influential and why.
On Tuesday, April 2 at 6:30 p.m. in the Campus Center Auditorium, Nicolson presents “Silent Spring and the Gift of Good Land.” The talk places two authors in conversation, he says, comparing the far-reaching impact of Rachel Carson’s 1962 book “Silent Spring” with the essays of author-farmer-novelist Wendell Berry, whose “influence is very significant, but not nearly as widely known.”
Sponsored by UMass Amherst’s Commonwealth Honors College, Nicolson’s talk is part of an annual series of lectures related to the honors course “Ideas that Changed the World.” In it, students examine books and other works that have profoundly shaped world views. The course and associated lectures are meant to be exemplary for students who have the potential themselves to achieve outstanding things.
Rachel Carson, who died in 1964, was a biologist and author often credited with sparking the modern environmental conservation movement. “Carson was writing against the chemical industry of the 1950s and ’60s which portrayed itself as changing—even saving—the world, but ended up having the opposite effect. The [industry’s] damage would have been worse without Carson,” says Nicolson. Berry’s essays compel people to recognize the Earth and life itself as a gift entrusted to humans and which requires proper stewardship.
Nicolson asserts that a comparison between the two authors is worth consideration. “You don’t always have to make a big splash to solve problems like climate change,” he says. “Ideas also need to thread their way through the culture.” For the last 50 years, Berry has crafted a thoughtful case for the meaning and value of sustainability and Nicolson considers him a role model for many in the environmental field. Carson’s work is a clear example of how ideas can lead to important political action. Her book is widely believed to have helped spur the formation of the Environmental Protection Agency and the passing of the Endangered Species Act.
Nicolson’s talk is named the Daffodil Lecture on Sustainability and the Environment to reflect its focus on UMass Amherst’s leadership in sustainability research, teaching and efforts. It is supported by the Kathryn and Paul Williamson Lecture Fund.
Nicolson has been conducting research, teaching, and leading interdisciplinary programs at UMass Amherst since 1998. He established and now directs the university’s master’s degree program in sustainability science. This new program is a growing field of study for students who seek to understand how to bring about greater environmental, economic and social sustainability.
Nicolson’s own research focuses on the sustainability of ecological-social systems, addressing questions of how ecosystems change through time and how people interact with natural resources. After working on Arctic system science for 15 years, he now works primarily in two domains: sustainable urban systems in Boston and water resource management in New England and Africa. He regularly collaborates with teams of scientists and stakeholders and generates computer simulation models to develop a holistic understanding of complex ecological systems.
Nicolson was educated in South Africa, earning an undergraduate degree in civil engineering and a doctorate in engineering, both from the University of Witwatersrand. He also completed a National Science Foundation postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Minnesota.
The lecture series continues on Tuesday, April 23 at 7:30 p.m. in the Student Union Ballroom with the lecture “The Tenacity of Lost Objects” presented by UMass Amherst professor of English Noy Holland.