Four decades on the front lines of environmental activism

“MIT has helped me in many ways,” says Yaffee, who taught MIT’s first undergraduate course on environmental issues as a doctoral student. “I learned how to best reach a classroom audience,” he says. “DUSP also taught me the dynamics and decision-making processes. And last but not least, it was at MIT where I met the love of my life and my closest colleague, Julia Wondoleck.” Yaffee and Wondolleck, MCP ’80, PhD ’83, overlapped at DUSP for two years and were married in the MIT Chapel in 1983. She recently retired after 38 years of teaching at the University of Michigan.

Yaffee, who has written or co-authored six books, has seen countless evolutions and changes during his four decades on the front lines of environmental activism and education. “In the 1970s, the issues were much more local and the activism was much more local,” he notes. “It was much easier to reach a consensus on action. Today, as environmental issues expand from local to global, it is much more difficult to gain traction, especially when working across national borders. The debate is also much more politicized than in the past. Social media has helped create widespread skepticism about science and expertise.”

Despite these challenges—and the very real threat posed by climate change—Yaffee has lost neither his enthusiasm nor his righteous indignation. He says he still finds reason for hope every day in the classroom, and every time he, his colleagues and his students play together in the Ecotones, the jazz band he leads at the Michigan School of Environment and Sustainability.

“In many ways, making music is similar to the negotiation techniques I teach in class,” says Yaffee, who plays keyboards. “You have a lot of dissonant parts and you have to find a process to bring them together so that what comes out is music and not just noise.”

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