Eat Good Food. Be Kind. Tell the Truth.

How a Lobster Dinner Can Change Everything
by Jack Beuttell -- January 4th, 2012

Administrator Jackson serves it up. Photo Credit: Duke Photography.

Administrator Jackson serves it up. Photo Credit: Duke Photography.

re: environmental law, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, and mixing beer with lack of sleep.

The spring semester is a week away, and grades have been issued for all of my classes with one exception: Environmental Law.  Preparing for the law final was a personal test in crisis management for two reasons:  I read approximately 10 percent of the assigned readings (which is a great a recipe for success in a class taught by the Socratic method), and the final exam accounts for 100 percent of my grade.  You might expect me to be smarter than that, but my mother isn’t surprised.

As it turns out, LAW 235 was my favorite of four classes this fall.  And it didn’t become so until the last few days of the semester when I began to synthesize my class notes into a painfully long, but digestible form.  Clear themes emerged from my 70-page accounting, leaving me with the impression that policymaking is the real battleground for the environment.  So it was serendipitous that EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, a leader in the world’s environmental epic, would be speaking at Reynolds Theater two hours following the end of my law exam; surely she would bring some valuable new insights.

Perhaps it was the lack of sleep or the effect of the two celebratory beers I flushed down at the Armadillo Grill beforehand, but it was humorous the number of references Jackson made to the topics on which we had just been tested: non-attainment, point sources, the tailoring rule, fracking, etc.  Each time she mentioned the Clean Air or Clean Water Acts my classmates and I would grin at each other in reference to our (temporary) knowledge of the matter.

I met Lisa Jackson last year when Hines received the EPAs highest award for energy management.  It was a very brief encounter, but it was clear then that she is an accessible person with a great sense of humor.  Unfortunately, during her visit to Duke much of that was muted by political overtones, making for a very predictable and uninspiring message.  She went out of her way to describe why the environment is “above partisan”.  Even so, she couldn’t resist the urge to weave politics into her discourse, admitting at one point that “[EPA is] not immune to politics.”

This was a disappointment to me.  I don’t doubt that she has deep personal convictions on the environment, but that someone at her level of insight was tethered in speech by the same political strings that limit our elected officials was—not surprising—but disappointing.  We were hungry to learn, and she served up a platter full of vague and flavorless greens.  It was as if she was obeying the boundaries of an invisible firewall between government insiders and the rest of us.

As the buzz of my post-exam high and the two Shiner Bocks gave way to complete physical exhaustion, I settled into the same realization that Jim Salzman produced for me in class: the fate of the environment will be dictated not by academicians or their students who end up as project managers or even directors of NGOs.  Sure, we can generate new information, reframe the discussion, and make meaningful progress at a certain scale.  But the frameworks for sweeping change, the scaffolding of a new environmental regime will more likely be negotiated over a lobster dinner and a bottle of Pinot Noir in the customary ways of Washington.  Good luck, Ms. Jackson.


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