Jeff Lockwood is a kind of Renaissance guy and I've long admired the way he melds science, philosophy, creative writing and observations on the natural--and unnatural--world. I read his book, Grasshopper Dreaming: Reflections on Killing and Loving a number of years ago and was intrigued by Jeff's exploration of how nature can lead us to examine ourselves more closely. We can, and should, learn from bugs!
In today's blog post, Jeff tackles a topic that ought to be near and dear to every writer's heart: free speech. As with every topic he takes on, Jeff doesn't hold back. This is a guy who has been known to ruffle corporate feathers and cause administrators to cringe in ivory-tower corners. He also forces us to think harder than we sometimes want to.
Ultimately Jeff's writing pushes us to get clear on where we stand and what we're willing to fight for. That's brave and important and I admire him for wielding his words in defense of his passions.
I'm reminded of a quote I found a while back:
"Genuine bravery for a writer... It is about calmly speaking the truth when everyone else is silenced, when the truth cannot be expressed. It is about speaking out with a different voice, risking the wrath of the state and offending everyone, for the sake of the truth, and the writer's conscience."
- Murong Xuecun
Upcoming opportunity alert:
Jeff Lockwood will be the Nonfiction Writer-in-Residence at Chadron State College's Story Catcher Writing Retreat, this June 5th through 7th, at Fort Robinson State Park. (Another Wyoming writer, Nina McConigley, will be the Fiction Writer-in-Residence).
For more information on the workshop and to register, visit the StoryCatcher website.
Now on to Jeff's words...
It’s been a year since the release of Behind the Carbon Curtain: The Energy Industry, Political Censorship and Free Speech, and I’m often asked whether there’s been fallout for having challenged the hegemony of the fossil fuel corporations and their political minions in Cheyenne and at UW.
Well, it’s complicated.
My Fellow Citizens
Let me begin with the citizens of Wyoming, given that they are the folks to whom I have a deep, moral obligation as a tenured professor. They agreed to protect my job in exchange for my working hard to find and tell them truths that might otherwise remain hidden. Since the book was published, I’ve given public talks in Casper, Cheyenne, Gillette, Jackson, Lander, Laramie, Rawlins, and Sheridan to more than 500 people. Based on these events I’ve come to two conclusions about my fellow citizens.
First, the people of the state are remarkably civil. Folks have directly but politely challenged my conclusions (e.g., doubting that energy companies are as duplicitous as I contend). In response, I explain that corporations aren’t evil, they’re amoral. Their sole purpose is making money for shareholders. Censorship is the modus operandi of power—conservative or liberal. The respectful back-and-forth has given me hope at a time during which angry rhetoric is so prevalent in the country.
Next, people get it. They see the relation between money and liberty. Folks understand that any community dependent on a single industry will face the brutal realities of being a company town. Economic diversification in Wyoming is not just a fiscal necessity, it is crucial to our liberty. A diversity of businesses sustains a marketplace of ideas.
Students and Youth
I know—young people are citizens. But I want to address the under-30 demographic because this is the future of Wyoming. And in this context, I offer two observations.
This semester I taught a course on censorship and free speech to some really smart students. They read, discussed and wrote papers about freedom (we started with John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty), corporate censorship (yes, we read my book), offense versus harm, and hate speech. They were opinionated and passionate. They were strongly libertarian. All eight of them. That’s as many students as were interested in a course on free speech. That’s a worry.
In my presentations around Wyoming, most of the audience has been 50 years or older. I have a theory (hey, I’m an academic). There are, I believe, roughly two kinds of young people in the state. There are those hoping to stay and wanting the status quo to continue so they have the same opportunities as their parents. These 20-somethings aren’t looking to rock the boat. And there are those planning to leave, who don’t care about socioeconomic inequities in Wyoming as their opportunities lie elsewhere. These young people aren’t interested in fixing a sinking boat. I’m not sure I’m right, but I’m worried.
The Rich and Powerful
The folks with power and money have been eerily silent. At the university, my book launch a year ago was hosted by the Sierra Club. Nobody from the administration attended, to my knowledge. The institution’s only official response to the book was given on PBS’s “Wyoming Chronicles.”
Chris Boswell, vice president for governmental and community affairs, defended censorship based on the assertion that such silencing exists at all universities in deference to those who provide dollars. According to Boswell, “[Faculty must understand that] if you stand on a chair and shake your fist at Cheyenne [then] the legislature, might not… warmly embrace funding proposals for the University of Wyoming. There’s a give and take.” They give funding and take our liberties. The administration’s view is that when faculty fail to self-censor and offend those in power, they can expect to be punished.
Storm Clouds on the Horizon?
With plummeting revenues from fossil fuels, the Governor cut $45 million from the university’s budget in 2017. The administration was told to develop “worst case” plans. I was told that unless alternatives could be found, I’d be terminated along with the entire Department of Philosophy (my primary academic home).
Why would a university eliminate philosophy? We’re small (philosophy is a notoriously difficult subject, so we don’t have hundreds of majors or award plentiful A’s). And we’re dangerous (critical thinking threatens power structures).
Did exposing the collusion of energy executives and public officials paint a bull’s eye on my department? Under pressure from corporations and the legislature, the university has fired scientists and destroyed art—grim stories that are detailed in my book. Was the plan to eliminate my department a warning to those who speak truth to power?
For now, the “solution” is departmental mergers rather than wholesale eliminations. But there is a price to opposing a company town’s corporate master. And recent developments suggest that the institution’s masters are consolidating power in ways that engender grave concerns among the faculty—and the citizens of Wyoming who hope that their university will be a source of truth in troubled times.
This summer, the trustees are slated to vote on a radical change in university regulations that would allow these political appointees the sole authority to, “reorganize, consolidate, reduce and/or discontinue an Academic Program for educational, strategic, realignment, resource allocation, budget constraints, or combinations of educational, strategic, and/or financial reasons.” The Trustees are giving themselves the authority to terminate tenured faculty (See an excellent article on the topic by BetterWyo.org here. View the details of the proposed policy on this pdf.)
Not to be paranoid (although as Kurt Cobain observed, “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not after you”), who might the trustees be targeting? Consider that I called out the new president of the Board of Trustees, David True, for his having failed to declare an unambiguous conflict of interest given his Casper-based oil conglomerate directly benefits from the university’s Enhanced Oil Recovery Institute. Eliminating faculty who challenge those in power might well be strategic.
If you value the integrity of Wyoming’s only university, the academic freedom of its faculty, and the veracity of its scholarship, I encourage you to contact the Board of Trustees before their July meeting and express your concerns on the UW Members of the Board of Trustees website.
BIO: Jeff Lockwood was born in Connecticut and grew up in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He earned a B.S. in biology from New Mexico Tech and a Ph.D. in entomology from Louisiana State University. He worked for 17 years as an insect ecologist at the University of Wyoming, publishing more than 150 scientific papers and pioneering a safer method of rangeland grasshopper management that is now used across the western United States.
In 2003, he metamorphosed into a Professor of Natural Sciences & Humanities in the department of philosophy (where he teaches environmental ethics and philosophy of ecology) and in the program in creative writing (where he teaches workshops in non-fiction).
His writing has been honored with a Pushcart Prize, the John Burroughs award, inclusion in the Best American Science and Nature Writing, and a silver medal from the Independent Book Publishers Association for his recent venture into fiction with a noir mystery based on an ex-cop-turned-exterminator (Poisoned Justice, Pen-L, 2016).
His most recent nonfiction books are Six-Legged Soldiers: Using Insects as Weapons of War, The Infested Mind: Why Humans Fear, Loathe and Love Insects, and Behind the Carbon Curtain: The Energy Industry, Political Censorship and Free Speech.
This latter book has drawn the attention of public officials, environmentalists, industrialists, and educators across the nation. A review in Science concludes: “For those moved to take action by this book, Lockwood advises a mix of courage and caution. His job as a tenured professor at the University of Wyoming is secure; he can and is obligated to speak truth to power no matter how uncomfortable. But each of us must decide what free speech is worth compared with the cost of speaking out.”