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Joe BowersoxJoe Bowersox

Joe Bowersox

Not long after Vietnam War began, a little boy watched Pete Seeger strum a banjo and sing "the world will be a double" on a popular television program. The boy never forgot the way Seeger crooned about the world's population explosion, and from his rural home amid the orchards and pasturelands of Oregon's Cascade mountain range, he watched for himself as fields grew smaller and subdivisions stretched across the horizon.

This vivid impression of the Earth's vulnerability to human progress remained with him through adulthood. Today, Willamette politics Professor Joe Bowersox teaches how public policy and environmental science are intertwined - how, for instance, a housing development is both a political and ecological event. "We can't just be political science or biology majors," he says. "To answer the environmental questions we face today, it's necessary to inculcate both policy and scientific literacy," he says. "These questions are broad and require an interdisciplinary approach."

As an undergraduate at Oregon State University (OSU) in the early 1980s, Bowersox studied languages - German, Russian, French and Japanese - as well as history and political science. The study of language, of course, is not just about communication. It's about culture, and meanings inscribed in both the present and the past. In the background of the nuclear freeze movement and the birth of Reagan-era politics, Bowersox traveled abroad. He saw the death of Germany's Black Forest and the devastating effects of westernized agriculture in Morocco's Atlas Plains. And in post-communist South Korea, he felt his throat burn from air pollution in Seoul.

At a time when the world was poised for nuclear war, Bowersox saw more than just the savage destruction of humanity. "I saw the destruction of the environment," he recalls. "And my concern also probably had to do with the fact that I kept going home to the woods and the Cascades - all of these beautiful places would be the bystanders of a nuclear event."

In 1988, Bowersox began his graduate education at the University of Wisconsin, where Aldo Leopold and John Muir were popular scholars. He entered graduate school intending to study political theory and public policy, but his heart took him back to the issues that were closest to home: the connections between environmental protection and public values.

"Notions of environmental political thought were new in the field of political science," says Bowersox. "I dove into it. I had very supportive mentors, and so I became very focused on looking at legal structures, political legitimacy and policy implementation in the context of environmentalism."

From 1990 to 1993, Bowersox completed his dissertation at OSU, where he also taught environmental policy at the College of Forestry. Upon receiving his Ph.D., he was offered a job at Willamette University. His appointment was part of a broader institutional effort to revitalize the environmental policy curriculum.

Bowersox points out that environmentalism not only raises ecological questions, but also ignites a broader discussion about who ought to govern. History has shown that an authoritarian response to environmental issues does not solve problems. But can democracy succeed?

"Yes," insists Bowersox. "What we see (in the United States) is an immature democracy realizing its issues of governance are much more complex" than previously thought.

With the surge of technological development in the 20th century, man's relationship with the environment became more complicated. Today, toxins in the environment and climate change are matters concerning scientists around the world - and politics guides the response to environmental problems. Bowersox says the biggest obstacle to redressing environmental wrongs is a dearth of scientific literacy in the policy-making process.

As an American Political Science Association Congressional Fellow, Bowersox spent the 2002-03 legislative session in Washington, D.C., working on forestry issues for U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.). After helping to create a research agenda for the Healthy Forest Restoration Act, Bowersox embarked on a book project that chronicles the last 15 years of forestry and fire policy in the United States. This book, which he hopes to finish in the next year and a half, will be his third book dealing with the intersection of environmental issues and American politics. In the meantime, he will continue to share with his students a deep personal commitment and dedication to the environment.

"Part of the goal of a place like here is to produce thoughtful, critically aware and humble citizens," he says. "Humility opens you up to listen to others and reminds you that you can't know everything. There's always something more to learn in life."