As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
For a while I wanted to be a wildlife biologist. I liked being outdoors and sighting or tracking wild animals (which were much rarer and shyer then than now, and shyer in West Virginia than in New York City, where yesterday I saw a large raccoon lumbering across Central Park in late morning on his way to get a drink).
What was the most transformative course from your undergraduate education?
I’m not sure I can choose one. I took what I think was the last course John Rawls, the political philosopher, ever completed, in spring 1994, and it left a very intense impression on me: that it was possible to think systematically about the justice and injustice of the social order and learn from long-dead thinkers in doing so. I also took a tremendous amount from the yearlong core seminar for my program, Social Studies. We read, more or less, whole books, from Thomas Hobbes and Adam Smith through Max Weber and Jurgen Habermas. It was a very traditional kind of great-books education in some ways, and it was also a very serious schooling in a tradition of thought in which certain questions persisted but were transformed over time—how social order arises, how it changes, how to assess it as good or bad.
What was the best advice you were ever given and who gave it to you?
I feel I haven’t received a lot of explicit “advice” in my life, which is maybe odd, and that what I have received isn’t necessarily on-point for this sort of conversation! But my really great undergraduate teacher always insisted that when you are trying to understand someone’s thinking, it is all too easy to show what’s wrong with it—at least to your satisfaction—but that you don’t really gain much from that after a little while. The real thing is to figure out what someone gets right, especially someone you’re inclined to disagree with, and then to try to take account of that inconvenient point in your own thinking. I don’t always succeed at this, and sometimes I fail badly, but it’s still my ideal.
You’re a professor of law specializing in constitutional, environmental, and property law, as well as legal theory and law’s intersection with social and political thought. What is your favorite part about your job, or what has been your favorite course to teach?
It changes all the time. The diversity of activity in the job is part of what I prize in it. Sometimes I love teaching an advanced seminar on theoretical issues in law and democracy. Sometimes the best thing is to be teaching the hard core of property law—how to write a conservation easement that will stick—or working on a legal argument about whether the President can strip protection from national monuments on public lands. Teaching is consistently very important. It’s often not easy, but I’ve always felt a calling to it.
You’re also the author of six books and a frequent contributor to several major publications. Do you have any upcoming books or projects you’re excited about?
I have a little book due out this fall. It’s called This Land Is Our Land. It’s about the ways that landscape, nature, and environment are involved in the political and cultural divisions of this polarized moment, and how they might figure in an ideal of a more just and democratic society—what I called a commonwealth.
Why do you think Phi Beta Kappa and a well-rounded liberal arts and sciences education are important in today’s society?
The thing is that we’re living in a time of slow and sometimes invisible emergency. On the surface, many lives are going along manageably, even successfully. But ecologically, the conditions for our survival are eroding under us. And there’s so much fear—of our economic futures, of gun violence and ideological violence, of the other side getting power in national or local politics. Traditions of thinking that look behind surface appearances and everyday habits and help us connect our own experience with a more complex, longer-term, and more unsettling reality—those traditions are very important resources now.
What is your favorite cultural excursion or experience in your city?
We’ve just moved from Durham, North Carolina, where I had learned many things: where to gather chanterelles and morels, where to pick persimmons and pawpaws, where the Haw River opened into shallow rapids that were good for wading and cairn-piling. I think it’s fair to say that I feel disoriented in New York City. I go into Central Park a lot, and I mean to go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and spend an hour in one room, looking carefully and without hurry. That’s the ideal I’ve had for years of living in a city with great museums. But I haven’t found the time, which I guess is the other side of city living.
What advice do you have for young Phi Beta Kappa members?
Honestly? It totally depends on the person. But I guess a few things are general. Read a lot. Read old things, and things by people whose experiences and perspectives are very different from your own—but also look for things by people who seem to say what you had been trying to say. Find ways to be involved in politics, because it needs you, these days it needs all of us. Try to have a sense of deep time—that life is hundreds of millions of years old, the planet is billions of years old—and also of the emergency we’re living in now, and do your best to hold those thoughts in some kind of balance with each other.
Don’t despair. Don’t pretend there aren’t reasons to despair, but still find ways not to.
Behind The Key Archive