Ouachita Baptist University hosted renowned speaker and conservationist Dr. Mark Van Putten on March 31 during its spring 2011 Birkett Williams Lecture Series. Van Putten’s lecture highlighted the importance of teaching conservation strategy inside and outside of the classroom, highlighting the university’s role in protecting the natural environment and creating a sustainable society.
“One of the most rewarding aspects for me of my career in conservation … is to come to know and admire so many conservation heroes who give so generously of their time to save their little piece of the planet,” Van Putten began. “If only we can harness that collective commitment of people to save the places they know and love, that’s how we’ll eventually save the planet.”
Van Putten has more than 25 years of experience in natural resource conservation, environmental policy-making and non-profit management from the local to international levels. He spent 20 years on the staff of the National Wildlife Federation (NWF), America’s largest membership-based environmental group, serving seven years as president and CEO. He is also the founder and current president of ConservationStrategy LLC, a consulting firm located in the Washington, D.C. area that focuses on environmental strategy and organizational development.
Drawing from his experience, Van Putten addressed challenges universities face in regard to being “environmentally literate.”
He stated that reports summarizing Roper Opinion Polls of American knowledge of the natural environment found consistent patterns of “environmental ignorance.”
“Only 1 to 2 percent of all Americans can be considered environmentally literate,” Van Putten said, adding that there was little difference between average Americans and government and business leaders. “It is critical that Ouachita Baptist University and other universities embrace the challenge of ensuring that all graduates are environmentally literate.”
Van Putten addressed how to train environmental citizens, noting that “with knowledge comes responsibility to engage and heal the earth.” He also spoke of simple concepts such as habitat and migratory patterns that need to be taught in society to ensure environmental literacy and stewardship. “In our high tech society surrounded by modern conveniences, most of us no longer understand that our fate is still tied to the health of the natural environment,” he pointed out.
“Universities must take responsibility for the sustainability of their operations and business practices,” Van Putten continued. “This institution, like all institutions, is only as good as its people. It’s the people who will tend the garden of creation and pass on the sense of stewardship. It’s clear this is a place made up of many such people. A place that nurtures and encourages its students to take on careers of service and citizenship.”
Van Putten commended Ouachita for the way it incorporates its disciplines to teach environmental stewardship and for its commitment through its mission statement to continue in its endeavors to strive for environmental literacy.
Van Putten was hosted by Ouachita’s J.D. Patterson School of Natural Sciences. “Mark is recognized as a visionary leader with proven strategic thinking and planning skills and has a concrete record of turning long-term goals into ongoing, organizational reality,” said OBU professor of biology Tim Knight. “I agree … that Christians should get off the sideline and participate in the environmental discussion.”
Van Putten is a noted speaker on a variety of environmental concerns, with some of his recent presentations including “A Purposeful Journey: The Quest for Sustainability at the Modern American University” at Rutgers University, “Confronting the Global Water Crisis,” at the Environmental Film Festival and “Water, Sanitation & Health: New Models, Visions & Linkages” at the Interaction Forum. He was recently named one of 30 American “Clean Water Heroes” on the 30th anniversary of the Clean Water Act and served on President Barack Obama’s Department of Interior transition team. Van Putten has also held board membership with the Audubon Naturalist Society, the Environmental Education and Training Institute of North America and the Energy Future Coalition advisory board.
Ouachita’s Birkett Williams lecture series was established in 1977 through a gift from the late Birkett L. Williams, a 1910 Ouachita graduate. His generous endowment established the lectures as an opportunity to extend the concepts of a liberal arts education beyond the classroom by bringing outstanding scholars and public figures to Ouachita’s campus.
By Whitney Crews