Tom Hudspeth is Professor Emeritus of the University of Vermont’s Environmental Studies and Natural Resources Program, which he co-founded during an extraordinary 43-year career at UVM. Tom is a three-time SCA member – Olympic (1964), Great Smoky Mountains (1965), and Zion National Parks (1967) – and a former SCA board member.

What is the source of your interest in our natural world?

I had a deep love of nature from exploring the woods and bayous around my home with my brother or alone and keeping turtles, lizards, snakes, a crow, a raccoon, and an armadillo; collecting rocks and fossils and seashells and wood carvings; reading books about national parks; participating in the junior naturalist monthly programs at Houston Museum of Natural Science; and, as an eight-year-old, going on a family vacation to many of the national parks of the American West. 

And SCA was a natural next step on that journey?

As a sixteen-year-old applying to SCA, as best I can recall my main goals were to see a part of the country (Pacific Northwest) and a national park (Olympic) and biome (temperate rainforest) I had not seen before; stay fit, since I was missing summer football practice; and help the NPS by doing service projects. We built an outhouse and constructed a puncheon trail for U.S. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas’s hike along the Pacific coast in support of wilderness areas (Editor’s note: among the hikers joining Justice Douglas was SCA Founder Liz Putnam). But that was the limited extent of my sense of environmental stewardship at that time of my life.

Sustainability is often assessed on a global scale, yet your focus at UVM was largely on individual behaviors…

My scholarship focuses on such behavioral changes by engaging students and communities in creating a shared vision of a more sustainable future and in identifying strategies, policies, and values for transitioning toward the kind of world we really want. My students and I have written Sustainability Stories about individuals and groups who serve as sustainability exemplars or role models for others to follow or emulate in bringing about the transition to more sustainable and equitable communities. These stories help make the concept of sustainability come alive, humanize it, put a face on it. They let people know what a sustainable future could look like…and that there are alternatives to business-as-usual, overconsumption, the “growth at all costs” model that we’re addicted to.

You also used ecotourism as a route to sustainability. Is the magic in experiencing new places, connecting with the people in those places, or something else entirely?

It is primarily exposure to “otherness”—new and different cultures, foods, clothing, religion, customs, approaches to conserving nature; and different animals, plants, and landscapes. When I led UVM travel-study courses to Latin America, we stayed at Ma and Pa-scale ecolodges, where we paid a surcharge that helped conserve and perpetuate the natural and human communities we were experiencing by educating village children, protecting habitat, etc.; and we partnered with the host communities on short-term service-learning projects, most often developing self-guiding nature trails. We contrasted such approaches with conventional mass-tourism (“sex, sand, surf, and suds”) that frequently destroyed habitat, created pollution, and exploited locals.

With your understanding of what’s happening to the world’s climate and what’s not happening to address it, how do you maintain your sanity?

  • Stay informed, and share my knowledge, skills, values/mindsets with others by offering presentations for the Greater Burlington Sustainability Education Network and the Climate Reality Project; engaging with activities of Third Act; and, as a master gardener, help to plant and maintain pollinator gardens and raingardens
  • Seek out and share stories of individuals and groups who serve as role models for transitioning to sustainability and climate resiliency and justice
  • Connect often with nature and with others – seek community
  • Take care of myself (body, brain, heart, soul) by practicing mindfulness, exercising, eating better, getting adequate sleep, allowing myself to grieve (loss of relatives, friends, colleagues, biodiversity—especially herps)
  • Celebrate small victories
  • Practice gratitude and feeling of “enoughness”

What, if anything, gives you hope that we will turn things around before it’s too late?

I gain hope by emphasizing all the positive things that have happened: recognizing that the majority of Americans finally realize that climate change is real and now (but often do not know what they can do about it); realizing how fast the costs of renewable energy solutions have decreased; seeing often how students I had the privilege of working with for 43 years are making significant changes in the world—through NGOs, businesses, work in government, etc. What people and groups are doing right now locally and all around the world to address daunting sustainability challenges is remarkable, but time is not on our side. We must create opportunities for new thinking. Einstein reminds us that “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” We must collaborate even more (including with unlikely allies) to achieve greatest impact.

You devoted your life to mentoring and molding young people. Where do you believe they will lead us?

Given the leadership of Greta Thunberg and others, and the participation of millions of youth in climate strikes, Black Lives Matter protests, marches for social justice and equity, etc., I am hopeful about the future that tech-savvy Gen Alpha will lead us into. However, the technology can be a two-edged sword, and I am concerned about Alphas’ huge increases in screen time and decreases in time spent in nature and as part of social networks; and also about the large increases in anxiety, depression, and suicide among youth since the COVID pandemic.

Tell us about your friendship with Liz Putnam…

Liz and I go way back. In 1967 in Bennington (VT), we provided “voice overs” for a slide-tape program that Duncan Campbell was producing for SCA. The following spring Liz and I presented at a Garden Club of America meeting in Connecticut, and later at alumni events. When I was on the SCA board of directors from 1979-1983, Liz and I were able to socialize at the Annual General Meetings and after conducting board business. In 2006, Liz received an honorary degree from UVM, and at SCA’s 60th anniversary celebration in Grand Teton National Park in 2017, Liz, [her since deceased husband] Bruce, and I had a chance to catch up while going on one of the field trips. I am a staunch admirer of Liz and she is certainly deserving of the countless accolades and awards she has received that recognize her vision, determination, courage, dedication, and boundless energy.  She is undoubtedly one of the very top conservation leaders of our time!

If I offered you single ticket for a time machine, where would you go – back to the past or into the future – and why?

I think there are advantages and disadvantages of both the past and the future. I guess that means I would not make a very good time traveler. I feel fortunate to have lived in the era I have, and to have witnessed the changes in our country and the world….but climate catastrophe (and the many intersectional challenges for which climate change is a multiplier—loss of biodiversity, poverty, increasing inequity, etc. ), attacks on democracy, and ceaseless growth of corporate capitalism in a finite world concern me deeply.

Okay, how about a ticket for a more conventional means of travel?

There are lots of places on Earth that are special to me. Among my favorites are Burlington and Vermont, the Galapagos Islands, and Corcovado National Park on the Osa Peninsula of Costa Rica—all because of the people at these places and their relationship to biodiversity and the land.

Visit the SCA100k page for more information on our ten ambassadors.

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