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10 days in Patagonia

March 8, 2010
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They call the region Patagonia, a lyrical name that seems to match its fairy tale beauty.

A part of the nations of Argentina and Chile, Patagonia has ice fields and glaciers in the south and mountains that rise into blue-gray mist in the east. Luscious waterfalls thunder from cliffs into rivers so clean, people drink directly from them. Guanacos browse in virgin fields. The land is “pristine, immaculate,” says University of Michigan senior Matt Raubinger, and much of it is located in Chile, a land so diverse, he says, “They have penguins in the desert and flamingos in the [ice fields].”

University of Michigan students get to go to this place as part of a class. And they get to go there for free.

Raubinger is one of the 18 students who traveled in April to Chile. Another is Mary Lemmer, who describes the journey as “fantastic, unbelievable, life changing.”

The 10-day sojourn to Chile is all part of “Sustainable Energy Development in South America,” a class co-taught by Sara Adlerstein, research scientist and lecturer at the School of Natural Resources and the Environment, and Steven Wright, the Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering in the College of Engineering. (In April, Wright also won a Distinguished Professor of the Year Award from the President’s Council, State Universities of Michigan.) The class is supported by the Graham Environmental Sustainability Institute, which funds the trip to Chile not, of course, for fun, but for serious study of environmental issues in a real-world context.

Students must apply for the class and are admitted as “Graham Scholars.” The applicants come from all academic disciplines. That’s no accident. The Graham Institute was established in 2006 (Wright is its faculty director) to fund multi-disciplinary work in environmental sustainability.

The Institute, in fact, has three criteria for courses it funds: They must involve issues associated with environmental sustainability; the focus must be multi-disciplinary; and there must be an international setting for the study, which, says Wright, is “one of the attractive parts for students. They can actually go and visit the international sites that the courses revolve around.”

This particular class is studying proposals to build large new dams in Patagonia. While the dams could generate hydropower for Chile, the social and environmental costs will be high. Wright says the students are trying to “understand the issues” and determine whether “there may be better ways of generating the energy needs of the country.”

Lemmer is a junior majoring in business administration at the Ross School of Business. Her minor is environmental studies.

“One of my career goals is to start a venture capital firm to invest in clean technology in the Midwest region,” she says. “Learning about sustainability energy in development in South American helped develop my understanding of the political, economic and social implications when implementing energy projects.”

Raubinger, a senior, is a mechanical and industrial operations engineering dual major who also has “a passion for the environment,” he says. He expects to land an engineering job in alternative energy. “I understand what engineering would go on with these projects, but the political climate, what sort of opposition they’re facing from different groups to these projects, has been different from what I would learn in an engineering class.”

Other students in the class are studying public policy, political science, geology and economics, among other disciplines. These varied backgrounds, combined with on-the-ground experience in Chile, make it nearly impossible for any student to rely on old assumptions or ivory-tower theories. The class and their classmates challenge every preconception.

The class was developed by Wright and Adlerstein in 2008. “Our goal,” says Adlerstein, who was born and educated in Chile, “was for students to understand that issues relating to the environment and the conflict with the economy and social aspects are complex, and that it’s very hard to come to any conclusions if you look at things from only one perspective.”

The course splits roughly into three segments. First, for several weeks, Wright and Adlerstein conduct classes or bring in guest lecturers to talk about subjects such as river ecosystems; alternative energy; water policy and law; economics/sustainability principals; non-governmental organization (NGO) perspectives; and hydropower basics. Students, working in groups, also research and make pre-trip presentations about political, cultural and social aspects of Chile.The final segment is further study and final presentations from the student groups.

The middle segment, and the high point of the learning experience, is a 10-day trip to Chile, where students visit proposed hydropower project sites and talk to people representing all viewpoints: people from companies proposing the dams, leaders of major opposition groups, those in the tourism industry, and ordinary Chileans. Students also take classes at the University of Concepcion, located in central Chile, and they visit sites where dams were built in the last decade.

Lemmer learned a crucial lesson in environmental politics from her trip, she says. After hearing from major parties, she realized that “the company is telling whatever is convenient to the person they’re telling it to.” When talking to people worried about workers intruding on their villages, “they said, ‘We’ll have our workers in camps away from you,'” Lemmer says. But those interested in economic development were told that workers and others would be involved in the city and help the economy. “And those are very contradictory. You can’t just take what people say at the surface. You have to really see what they say, what they mean, and what they’re actually going to do. And that was a key insight for me.”

Lemmer, who said the beauty of Chile reminded her of the BBC’s “Planet Earth” series (“Am I really here?” she found herself wondering. “Is the water really this blue?”), came away agreeing with opposition groups and the need to find other alternatives.

Raubinger wasn’t so sure. “It was tough, because I could see from the power standpoint and the energy crisis that Chile’s experiencing that this would be very beneficial, even though there are negative impacts such as the size of the reservoirs these dams would create. But they’re very small in comparison to other projects we studied.

“But the fact that the power is generated so far from where it will be used,” equal to the distance from Georgia to Michigan in the U.S., “”I feel it’s hard to justify it. I guess in all, I haven’t decided whether it would be good or not.”

Adlerstein articulated what everyone could agree on. “I think the trip was great every day. We learned different things and met different people, saw different places, but they were all incredibly beautiful, and the people were very informative, and the discussions were rich.”

The end result, she adds, was especially impressive. “We didn’t expect the students to learn numbers or facts or remember names. We wanted them to see how the issues were so interdisciplinary‚Ķ. That they need to learn about the impact that these projects have on people, on the environment, on the economy‚Ķand to come to some conclusions.” This course and others like it, she says, will create “new professionals that are going to integrate information across different fields. That’s the kind of people we need for the future.”

Sheryl James is a Pulitzer Prize-winning, freelance journalist from Brighton, Michigan. This story was originally published in Michigan Today. Front page photo: Rio Paine

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