Monday Spotlight Terry Chapin

Terry Chapin is the recipient of the 2019 Volvo Environment Prize, an award recognizing outstanding contributions to environmental sciences and sustainability. Chapin has worked as an ecologist for decades and is a professor emeritus at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Kyrie Long/News-Miner

It’s a good thing Terry Chapin likes hiking, skiing and being outdoors because it lends itself well to his job.

“Actually, I really enjoy just thinking about things when I’m skiing. So often times, I’ll just think about one topic and just think about it for an hour when it’s all quiet out there,” Chapin said.

Ecologist, professor emeritus at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and the 2019 recipient of the Volvo Environment Prize, Chapin has built a long and varied career on his study of the Earth’s ecosystems. A true lover of the outdoors, he said a lot of the thinking he does for science happens when he’s out skiing, walking, hiking or the like.

The Volvo Environment Prize, now in its 30th year, is awarded to those with outstanding environmental scientific achievements. The jury citation for the 2019 Volvo Environment Prize laureate reads: “Professor Terry Chapin is not only a world-leading ecologist, he is also one of the world’s most profound thinkers and actors on stewardship of the Earth System. Professor Chapin has built a long and productive career that links ecology and ethics in both theory and practice.”

The physical work of his job involves digging into the earth, analyzing carbon levels and looking at the relationship between the nutrients in plants and what’s going on in the atmosphere, but his advocating for Earth stewardship is what won Chapin the award. He said he thinks of stewardship as the shaping of future systems involving people and nature to the benefit of both.

Part of it comes down to individual choices, according to Chapin, such as spending time in nature to appreciate it and thinking about ways to minimize negative impacts on ecosystems. He practices stewardship in his personal life, minimizing travel and purchases, being generally aware of the amount of resources he’s consuming.

Stewardship is as much about connections to each other as connections to nature.

“I think another really important part of this is just talking to people about our role in social ecological systems, our role in the way we relate to nature, so that we have a chance — so that people with different opinions and different perspectives — have a chance to share ideas about how we can do this as well as possible,” he said. “So that everybody has a chance to thrive.”

Talking science

Chapin grew up North Carolina and his given name is F. Stuart Chapin III, but he said his grandmother started calling him Terry when he was young, in order to avoid the confusion of having three Stuarts in one household.

“She just wanted to have everything very clear as to which one was the youngest, the third, and so tertius is Latin for third,” he said. From tertius came Terry, which stuck.

He traveled to California for college, where he initially pursued biology before being drawn to ecology. He taught at the University of California, Berkeley for a few years. While there, teaching ecology to undergraduates, he realized the best predictor of grades was language skills.

What he realized, he said, was “understanding what we listen to has got to be a really important part of being able to be successful in our lives.”

With that in mind, in his lectures, Chapin tried to be as clear and simple as he could. On his exams, he said he tried to make his questions simple and let students decide how much terminology to bring into their answers, while he focused on their understanding.

He wrote a few textbooks as well, keeping simplicity and understanding in mind.

“So then that sort of has been something that’s guided the way I talk and write about science all the time, is I want to be understood,” he said. “I don’t want to explain something in a way that’s totally obtuse.”

When addressing a wider audience now, Chapin has a few steps for speaking with people.

“I try to talk about it in ways that make common sense,” he said, adding that he tries to get rid of scientific jargon, which can get in the way of conversation with broader audiences.

That’s the first step of just trying to talk about things in plain language, he said, while the next is finding common ground, in order to connect with people. He finds stories are useful as well, as they make connections between people’s hearts and minds.

Fostering connections

Chapin has been in Alaska for decades now. He and his wife, Mimi, enjoy playing music together and are part of the Fairbanks Symphony Orchestra. One of Chapin’s sons lives here, while the other lives in Wales.

While at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, he founded the Resilience and Adaptation Program, which helps train future scientists in studying global change. Presently, he enjoys spending time in the Fairbanks Climate Action Coalition and hearing the various ideas people have to offer.

Stewardship, developing those ties with people and nature, runs through Chapin’s whole life. His life’s work revolves around climate change and, even when people may disagree on some levels, he said he tries to find the common things that link them together.

One of his notable experiences comes from when he was president of the Ecological Society of America. Chapin was interested in reaching out to leaders of various religious groups, to start conversations.

“We very quickly got down to certain fundamental concerns and found that we agreed on things quite a bit, then it was easy to move forward and find ways in which ecologists and people of faith can work together,” he said.

In learning about other people’s values and perspectives, Chapin said he found that he and the people he spoke with had very similar driving forces.

“Issues of ethics and moral concerns — a lot of those align very nicely with religious concerns for caring for God’s creation or caring for those people that are less fortunate,” he said. “So I totally subscribe to those values, even though I don’t necessarily come to those from a religious point of view. So it makes it really easy to talk and work together with people that really care about their religious principles.”

Developing good social networks and developing trust between groups helps foster these conversations, Chapin said.

The end goal, after all, is shaping the world to be a better place. One of the things challenging about today’s world, Chapin said, is people feel discouraged and unmotivated to do anything

“But if I’m optimistic and I see reasons to be optimistic, things that I can do that might be helpful, that really energizes me to try and do things,” he said.

The next thing Chapin will be doing is heading to Stockholm, to accept the Volvo Environment Prize in November.

Contact staff writer Kyrie Long at 459-7510. Follow her on Twitter: @FDNMlocal.