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Politics and the mighty Mississippi

river_politicsWhat better way to learn about the Mississippi River than to spend some time in it? In the summer, Augsburg political science professor Joe Underhill teaches students about environmental issues and policy-making using the river as his classroom. Underhill’s aim is to get students to explore the effect we have on the environment as well as how the environment affects us. He also hopes students will explore their personal and political decisions and how those decisions impact the world now and later.

Augsburg’s Minneapolis campus is just blocks away from the largest river in North America — the Mississippi. Underhill emphasizes that the cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul were founded in this particular location because of the industrial and commercial potential of the river and the falls of St. Anthony. He adds that over the years, our life and work has greatly impacted the river ecosystem.

The Environmental and River Politics course explores national and international debates about the politics of the relationship between humans and the natural world. Through trips to sites along the river, including a canoe trip on the river, and visits to local environmental organizations, students examine environmental problems and how those problems are manifest on campus and in the city.

Matti Minasie, junior biology and environmental studies major, says the course has helped her “see the environment through the political lens” and has given her a better understanding of how politics has and will shape the environment. “We have changed the river so much in terms of ecology and its natural flow, it’s sort of scary how much power we have given ourselves in determining what’s ‘best’ for the river and the economy,” she said.

The course outline examines wetlands loss and degradation and how to prevent or reverse damage, the relationship between climate change and stormwater run-off patterns, industrial contamination of groundwater, as well as fishing and recreation on the river.

Students also learn about the environmental history of Augsburg College through a research paper titled “From Rural to Urban: The Environmental History of Augsburg College, 1872-2005.” The paper, written by a group of students in the fall 2006 U.S. Environmental History course, explores Augsburg’s relationship to the environment, coming to the conclusion that the college has “…the knowledge, technology, and philosophical ability to create permanent change within a society that is slowly recognizing the importance of environmental awareness. Second, the institution must make long-term, ecologically-minded commitments in an era of increasingly environmentally alert students, faculty, staff, and community.”

For more information on environmental stewardship at Augsburg, go to

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