Former EPA Administrator Jackson warns of environmental movement’s 'unfinished business'
Former Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency Lisa Jackson GS ’86 sought to dispel popular conceptions that the work of the environmental movement is finished and urged citizens to ensure that recent policy gains are consolidated in a talk in Robertson Hall on Tuesday afternoon.
“I see a lot of unfinished environmental business,” Jackson said. She explained that while the environmental movement and the EPA have made progress toward conserving natural areas and cleaning up pollution in recent years, she said she feels that the federal government must continue to support those affected by environmental problems such as a lack of access to clean drinking water.
Depending on one’s life experience, age, location of residence, income or access to information about the environment, people may see the environmental movement as anything from barely started to well under way or finished, she said. This diversity of viewpoints may make it easy to forget that some environmental problems have not yet been entirely solved, she explained.
“I’m worried that we might have a tendency to move on to the next sexy thing rather than assure people that we stand with them to do the harder things as they work to finish the job that we started,” Jackson said. “It may mean that we’re leaving future environmentalists behind.”
According to Jackson, a tension exists between environmentalists who want to “keep it clean” by emphasizing conservation and those who want to “clean it up” by removing pollution from the environment. Her work at the EPA more heavily focused on this “keep it clean” aspect of environmentalism, she said.
This tension is problematic because it can distract from the problems that still remain, she said. For example, although over 90 percent of Americans have access to federally tested and approved water, the other 10 percent do not, and this is “not an insignificant number,” she said.
Jackson also clarified her position on the term “environmentalist” and discussed her education in chemical engineering at the University.
“Many people hear the word ‘environmentalist’ and automatically think ‘environmental advocate,’ immediately thinking of volunteers or nonprofits whose focus is maybe entirely to advance the ball on environmental issues,” Jackson said.
She said she has never been an environmental activist in this sense, noting her 25 years working in the public sector after leaving the University. Although she said she deeply prioritizes the environment, she explained that she does not consider it as an abstract concept, but rather as an important one for its impact on people’s health and prosperity.
Jackson said she became interested in the environment as a result of growing up in a lower-middle class community that gave her a chance to see the “great disparity” in worker health and safety between the privileged and the less-privileged.
At the University, where she earned her master’s degree in chemical engineering, Jackson said she sought to develop the tools to solve such problems.
“As an engineer, I remember thinking it is engineers, chemical engineers by the way, who by and large design the processes that make all this hazardous goop, and it will be chemical engineers that design the process who will clean it up,” she said.
Engineers are taught to be problem solvers, and the idea that solutions could constitute not only making money in the private sector, but also working in the public sector to improve society, left a deep impression on her, she said.
When the lights in Dodds Auditorium turned off by accident, Jackson evoked laughter from the audience when she said, “Thank you for that energy conservation.”
During the question-and-answer period following the lecture, a student asked whether Jackson regretted her use of a “non-official email account” at the EPA. This was in reference to the revelation that Jackson had used an online alias to conduct offical EPA business.
“It is not an unofficial account,” Jackson said. She explained that the career staff at EPA advised her not to use the username “admjackson” — Jackson’s initial inclination — because people would be able to locate her too easily. As a result, she decided to use “Richard Windsor,” a combination of her dog, Ricky, and East Windsor Township, her previous residence.
“I get very angry at the way politics is done,” Jackson responded to the question. “The difference between fact and ascription of motive is the most base form of our politics today.”
Jackson has in the past been rumored to be a potential candidate for University president.
The lecture, titled “The Unfinished Business of the Environmental Movement,” was a part of the Dean’s Innovation Science, Technology and Environmental Policy leadership program, which brings esteemed environmental leaders to the University for a two- to three-day visit.
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