Resilience in Political Change

by Mio Katayama Owens

I have to admit that there were times I was overwhelmed by the dramatic transformations the United States political landscape has been going through since January and thinking about its implications on the global environment. But eventually, it led me to conclude that resilience is the exact quality I need to muster in myself today, and that the series of setbacks created by the current U.S. administration are only resulting in a stronger personal and professional resolve to better support the professionals who are striving to make a difference.

Even before the inauguration of Donald Trump as the 45th President of the United States in January 2017, there was widely held speculation and concerns about Trump and his supporters’ unveiled threats to dismantle the environmental legacy of the previous administration. Though not perfect, the U.S. made significant strides in the previous eight years to protect the environment through new policies, agreements, and guidelines.

But with each revelation since January, the ominous threats began to turn into a disheartening reality. Scott Pruitt, the man who had sued the Environmental Protection Agency 13 times as Oklahoma’s attorney general, was appointed to lead that very agency. And the former CEO of Exxon Mobile is now the Secretary of State. The list goes on and this new reality forced us to brace for various levels of retrogressions.

At the same time, however, it was the United States after all. Even those who did not necessarily buy into the trite yet familiar American exceptionalism that persisted for the last five decades or so perhaps held some level of expectations that ‘we’ as a nation should be able to uphold a certain level of moral and ethical values, and that the U.S. would continue to assume the role of the ‘leader of the free world’ and whatnot, thus continuing to guide the rest of the world and extend helping hands across the globe.

Moreover, I was somehow expecting that as one of the nations with the highest numbers of nobel laureates in medicine and science, ( and that supposedly spends the most amount of funding in R&D (, that the U.S. would continue to have the abiltiy to accept and uphold scientific facts like climate change.

However, the current administration and certain parts of Washington claim that the science of climate change is somehow misleading or unreliable, and that protection and growth of certain industries weigh more than other ‘minor’ concerns, such as public health. As of late September, the U.S. government has succeeded in or is working toward eliminating over 50 environmental regulations
including methane reporting requirements, anti-dumping rules for coal companies, offshore drilling bans in the atlantic and Arctic, and rules regarding reusable water bottles in national parks, just to name a few. Of course, one of the most significant potential setbacks with global implications is the proposal to withdraw from the Paris Accord.

This seemingly relentless attack on the progress and improvements made by the unwavering hard work and commitment of the researchers, trailblazers, environmental and civil rights activists, and the previous administration is at times beyond discouraging. But rather than taking these deplorable actions as evidence of our society falling apart, or our inability to collectively identify effective positive changes, I’m taking these as a glaring signal that we need to do better. But what is better? How do "we" do better when we already have tens of thousands of committed professionals and others actively working to create more sustainable societies?

For me personally, "better" means channeling my frustrations and deep concerns about the future of the environment into doing my work more effectively. After all, I am in the most strategic place--one of the most recognized and trusted institutions of higher education--and we are in California--one of the most environmentally progressive states in the U.S. I feel absolutely blessed to have the opportunity to manage programs that are designed to directly support the professionals who are trying to make the differences I’d like to see in the world. I’m not a policy maker, scientist, or practitioner, but through our programs, I am here to support the people who are in those positions by working with our world-renowned academics and industry experts.

Whether the professionals in our programs are working on:

-Establishing more sustainable supply chains by responsibly sourcing raw materials,
-Promoting alternative energy production technology,
-Developing more sound and science-based policy,
-Implementing the best possible faunal conservation protocol,
-Identifying ways for various stakeholders to collaborate for a collective sustainable goal,
-Assessing the economic impacts of climate and energy policy,
-Visualizing the impact of drought on rural communities,
-Or creating and promoting the culture of sustainability within an organization,

I get to be there for them to ensure they have access to the tools, the latest science, and most importantly, the inspiration to continue forging their paths.

Part of our improvements will manifest as new programs. We are in fact developing the pilot version of a sustainable business program next spring. When the federal government acts as if organizations’ ability to reduce carbon emissions or utilize resources more effectively does not matter, it takes away the interest and incentive to support these efforts to some extent, unfortunately. But the concrete knowledge, case studies, and innovative ideas that we can share through our programs can function as the guiding tools for professionals to take charge.

Other improvements will take the form of creating bigger platforms for our contributors and alumni to share their voices. For the last several years we have been running the Beahrs ELP blog site, but it is now merged into a different platform, where we can have contributions coming from the participants and contributors of all our programs, including our faculty. We have also been uploading news items and sharing articles through social media and our website, and are now working to update the Beahrs ELP website as a whole to communicate our efforts more effectively and share our information in a more succinct manner. Through these efforts to improve the communications strategies between us, our alumni, contributors, and others, we will be able to showcase a diversity of opinions and emphasize critical ideas, such as the dire impacts of climate change.

In addition to the efforts we are making, I’m delighted to see our alumni working on their own to create more opportunities to further refine their knowledge and skills. This August, Harshad Karandikar (ELP 2016), former WWF-India staff, began his Ph.D. program at the Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management at UC Berkeley. He will be studying under Professor Arthur Middleton, a wildlife ecologist known for the ecology of large mammals, and Professor Claire Kremen, a conservation biologist who had an integral role in the Beahrs ELP. The education and experience Harshad will gain as a graduate student will certainly provide tools and skills to further the field of wildlife conservation not only in India, but also globally.

Another alumnus, who is also expanding her impact to the world, is Binta Iliyasu (ELP 2015), a biochemist from Nigeria. She is invited to be a speaker at the Global Food Summit, an international high-level economic and policy conference we are co-organizing in Berlin, Germany, this November. She will be able to share her experience working to empower girls in Nigeria through her mentorship, and her projects to combat a freshwater parasite problem that is impacting farmers’ ability to produce food in Nigeria. Moreover, this opportunity to speak at the conference resulted in a visiting researcher appointment at the University of Bremen, where Binta will be able to work with Dr. Sørge Kelm, a renowned parasite specialist in Germany. I am absolutely delighted to see our alumni using their connections with our programs to reach the next goals to further their reach.

These two are examples of many, many alumni who continue to work through obstacles and I am always humbled by the opportunity to work with them. Since the presidential election in November 2016, I heard people suggesting that everyone, including our current president, deserves a chance. Now the dust has settled and we are well beyond the point of waiting to see where this is going. I found my resilience through my work and looking forward to supporting others.