The Ecological Imagination: A Conversation on Art & Environment with Mitchell Thomashow, Ben Champion, and Paulina Jenney

April 29, 2015
Eric Magrane

As the sixth in an ongoing series of cross-posts with A Journal of the Built + Natural Environments, this Proximities features a conversation between Ben Champion, director of sustainability at the University of Arizona, and Mitchell Thomashow, former Unity College president and author of The Nine Elements of a Sustainable Campus. The conversation took place this spring, when Mitch met with the Art & Environment Network at Institute of the Environment. editor Simmons B. Buntin and I asked Paulina Jenney, a UA student in creative writing and environmental studies and a Flinn Scholar, to facilitate the conversation. Excerpts from that conversation follow. 


Dr. Mitchell Thomashow devotes his life and work to promoting ecological awareness, sustainable living, creative learning, improvisational thinking, social networking, and organizational excellence. Currently he is engaged in teaching, writing, and executive consulting, cultivating opportunities and exchanges that transform how people engage with sustainability, ecological learning, and the imagination. He is the president emeritus of Unity College and the former chair of the Environmental Studies Program at Antioch University/New England. He is the author of three books: Ecological IdentityBringing the Biosphere Home, and The Nine Elements of A Sustainable Campus. Thomashow serves on the board of ORION magazine. He lives in Seattle and in Dublin, New Hampshire.


As director of the UA’s Office of Sustainability, Ben is committed to student engagement through sustainability initiatives and to advancing the University’s performance as a leader in higher education sustainability. The Office of Sustainability facilitates the UA’s efforts to support a vibrant and sustainable desert Southwest by bridging relationships across campus and partnering with southern Arizona community organizations to engage students, scholars, and campus operations in critical environmental and social grand challenges of the region. Prior to joining the UA in July 2014, Ben was director of sustainability at Kansas State University from 2008 to 2014. He also earned his doctorate in geography in 2007 from the University of Oxford and received a bachelor’s degree in chemistry and environmental science from Kansas State University in 2002. At KSU, Ben was awarded a Udall Scholarship for environmental leadership and a Rhodes Scholarship. In his off-time, Ben is a foodie and an avid bicyclist.


Paulina Jenney is the communications assistant for the Institute of the Environment and a junior double-majoring in environmental studies and creative writing at the UA. Paulina serves on the UA Campus Arboretum Advisory Board and has taught bilingual arts and literacy outreach programs in schools across Tucson for the UA Poetry Center. As a Flinn Scholar, she has traveled to Asia and South America, studying and writing about sustainability in a changing global climate. Paulina’s blog series, Notes Across the Andes, can be found at




PJ: Who, or what, comprises the ecological imagination?

MT: The ecological imagination is a way for people to expand or broaden their awareness of their relationship to the earth. The creative imagination is such an important way to perceive spatial and temporal variation, and to really understand global environmental change, you have to travel vast areas of space and time. The strategic pertinence of the ecological imagination is to offer a venue for bringing various people together to think about global environmental issues.

PJ: So who are those types of people on the professional spectrum? Artists? Policymakers?

MT: My impression is that over the past 10 years, there has been a complete transformation of the job landscape, and these changes, including many new professions, are stimulated by new communication technologies. These professions, including social entrepreneurship, media innovation, game design, infographics, and social marketing include many people in their 20s, 30s and early 40s. Typically, these folks have values that include the importance of conservation, environment, and sustainability, but they’re not necessarily actively engaged, either politically or professionally in those issues. These are very interesting people who have tremendous talent, insight, and vision. They use their imagination every day in their work, so I’d like to find ways of tapping into that great imagination to promote understanding and action regarding global environmental issues.

Continue with Ben Champion’s response and the rest of the conversation in