Peter Annin, author of the Great Lakes Water Wars, is the new codirecter of the Mary Griggs Burke Center for Freshwater Innovation at Northland College and director of environmental communication. Here he talks about his career and his decision to leave Notre Dame for Northland College.
Q. Your bio lists you as a conflict and environmental journalist. Did you go looking for conflict or did it find you?
A. That’s a great question. The short answer is the conflict found me. As a young correspondent in Newsweek magazine’s Houston Bureau I ended up getting assigned to a lot of big breaking news events, the most noteworthy of which was the Branch Davidian standoff outside Waco, Texas, which lasted for 51 days and ended in a massive conflagration that killed scores of people. After I moved to Newsweek’s Chicago Bureau, I kept getting drawn into that kind of conflict reporting, including the Oklahoma City Bombing, shooting massacres, and that sort of thing. Over time, because I had covered so many of those kinds of stories, whenever big breaking news occurred, the editors in New York often assigned those stories to me, which meant I was getting on planes flying all over the place. One year, I was on the road for more than six months.
Q. How did you move into environmental journalism?
A. As you might imagine, that kind of “beat” can take a toll, and after many years of covering big breaking news stories, I requested permission to write more about the environment—something that I had always written about between disasters—but this time I wanted to focus on the environment even more. The editors liked that idea and so I wrote a story on the Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico, as well as a piece on environmental recovery efforts in the Great Lakes. I also wrote about wind farms on the Great Plains, forest fires in the Mountain West, drought in the southwest and issues of that sort.
Q. How do the two fit together? Maybe the title of your book, “The Great Lakes Water Wars,” provides a clue?
A. Yes, many environmental issues are contentious and they can often lead to conflict. Water is one of the most contentious issues of all and will continue to be so throughout this century. Many of the students at Northland College today will be dealing with water issues of one sort or another in their careers.
Q. Why focus on the Great Lakes?
A. The Great Lakes are a magnificent natural feature here in the heart of the North American continent. They are globally significant water bodies that I often refer to as the ‘Himalayas of Water’. They play a crucial role in defining the environment, cultures, industries, and societies that continue to grow and thrive in the region. It is important that citizens of the Great Lakes watershed appreciate the global significance of the waters of our region, that they remain up to date on the issues affecting those waters, and that they ensure that appropriate rules and regulations governing the lakes are in place. My book is about the Great Lakes water diversion controversy—the idea that people have contemplated diverting Great Lakes water everywhere from Akron to Arizona. It continues to be a hot topic.
Q. Name your favorite place or experience on Lake Superior.
A. Several years ago my wife and I were wilderness camping on a remote uninhabited island in Lake Superior with our two sons, who were quite young at the time. We were far off the grid, a long way from the ambient light created by villages and towns. Late one night we were sitting on the shore scanning the Milky Way for shooting stars—reveling in the contrast between the darkness of the sky and the shimmering brightness of the stars. I went back to the tent to get something and was making my way down the path without a flashlight when suddenly, off the path, I noticed an extremely faint greenish glow on the forest floor. As I walked deeper into the woods to investigate, I realized it was foxfire, the magical bioluminescent fungus that grows on rotting wood and literally glows in the dark. I went back to camp and gathered everyone to come see this woodland phenomenon that is the object of so much folklore and legend. Our boys had never heard of it, and they were positively fascinated by the mystery of it all. Rotting wood that glows in the dark? It was a great teachable moment reminding all of us that some of the coolest things in the wilderness are best appreciated long after the sun goes down and with the lights turned off.
Q. You’ve been at Notre Dame since 2010. What about Northland College appeals to you?
A. Working with faculty and staff at Northland to help improve environmental literacy and educate the next generation of environmental leaders is very appealing to me. We live in an increasingly urbanized world, where populations are becoming disconnected from the landscape upon which society depends. Northland is committed to bridging that gap, helping people understand those connections and finding solutions that promote economic growth in a sustainable fashion that helps ensure that future generations will inherit a world that has a thriving economy and a healthy environment.
Q. You’ve not only worked as a reporter but mentored other environmental journalists, correct?
A. There has always been something appealing to me in the mentoring/teaching process. Whether it involves working with newsroom colleagues or students on campus, there’s just something about making that connection with people to help them achieve new goals and higher aspirations. It can be very satisfying.