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Humanities can steer environmental change

Climate change and other environmental issues may seem like problems for the sciences, but at least one social activist believes they are problems for the humanities, too.

Camila Thorndike studied Environmental Humanities at Whitman College, and now hopes to apply her unusual education toward resolving major global challenges.

Thorndike is spending the summer in residence on the Sheldon Jackson campus as a Sitka Fellow.

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Since graduating in 2010 Thorndike has been working for Imagine Greater Tucson. When she talks about her work, the idea of Environmental Humanities starts to sound less and less far-fetched.

“What I do professionally is try to bring groups of people together from all different types of geographies, demographic perspectives and sectors to look at what it means govern ourselves.”

Thorndike says this is about how to live well in a place – a core value of literature and philosophy, and a means of bringing about change as important as science.

Thorndike’s mother is a Chilean, who grew up in – and eventually escaped – the Pinochet dictatorship. Her father is a fourth-generation Oregonian. The family has been rebuilding ties in Chiloe, one of the largest islands in the country’s archipelago. Thorndike would like to focus her work there, but not as an outsider.

She thinks effective change has to come from within.

“There’s a group called Chiloe Como Vamos that I’d be looking to collaborate with. It creates a gathering place for citizens to come together and define what it is about living there that they value, and act on it.”

Thorndike’s bio for the Sitka Fellows program is full – as you might expect – of abstract language like “ecosocial preservation” and “culturally attuned conservation.” But the merger of the Humanites and conservation is not just about the mind, it’s also about the feet.

One of her projects is to improve bike lanes and routes in Castro, the capital of Chiloe.

“People of any generation or political viewpoint can get involved and say, Hey, this is all of our land, this is our community, and how can we make it work for all of us instead of just automobile drivers.”

Thorndike says it’s important to make the process accessible, and to make a statement that invites people, rather than pushes them away.

Are better bike lanes on an island in Chile a route toward solving global environmental problems? Thorndike thinks so. She was the baccalaureate speaker at her college graduation. Her speech was called “We are not going to change the world.”

Thorndike has had a couple of years to reconsider.

“It just really grates on me and a lot of my peers who are working in this field, that expectation that it’s on one person’s shoulders or one generation’s shoulders. And so what I realized leaving school is that you’ve really got to dedicate yourself to at least trying. That it’s not just going to happen.”

Thorndike says it’s time for all hands on deck. There is probably no issue, in her view, that is not ultimately an environmental issue.

“It isn’t going to go on, the way that we’ve been living – even the natural cycles that we have – unless it’s a focal point. So to try, and to try with all of your heart, I think is what’s demanded of us.”

Camila Thorndike is one of eight Sitka Fellows in residence on the Sheldon Jackson campus. The program runs through August.

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