The Activist Student
Alumni profile: Eric Dannenmaier
By Bill Noblitt
What was Eric Dannenmaier thinking when he left Drury after only one semester to go traveling across the country? Didn't he know a move like that would slow his graduation, keep him from academic achievement, move him into a lower paying job?
He didn't consider that.
He wanted to see more of the country. So he quit Drury and moved to Austin, planning to transfer to the University of Texas. But to do that he had to establish residency in the Lone Star State so he wouldn't have to pay out-of-state tuition. That would take a year. So after a few months of part-time work he decided to travel across the West – from Mexico to Canada – a trip that included hitchhiking along the coast from California to Washington and back again.
Dangerous at 18? You betcha. But did Dannenmaier care? Not only no, but hell no.
After all, life's an adventure. Partake and enjoy. Let the future take care of the future. Your moment is now. Traveling gave him plenty of time to think. Your imagination runs away with you when you're alone and walking under a night filled with a zillion stars. What does the universe care? you ask yourself. A trip across the great American desert gives you time to imagine an Earth that might become sand and barren hills. While traveling back through the Midwest in early fall, he took a detour to Springfield and Drury to visit friends and family. The dean saw him on campus and asked why he dropped out.
"I was bored," he explained.
The dean said: "we'll give you your scholarship back if you return."
And it's no wonder the dean encouraged him to return. The year Dannenmaier entered Drury he had scored in the 99th percentile on the ACT, so he was a top academic recruit. Someone this smart might easily get bored at any university. Although he says Drury challenged him, he had wanted to see a different part of the country. He had found his first semester a bit tedious, but the dean said he could move past freshman requirements and jump into new subjects. This was more interesting than a return to part-time jobs in Austin while waiting to qualify for in-state tuition. Besides, he liked Drury, and he had friends and a supportive community there—so return to Drury he did.
His move from traveling the country to being deeply involved with sustainability issues is not that far a leap. This was work he started after his return to Drury and work he has done since he graduated. The spark that created Dannenmaier's passion for sustainability took place in a Drury classroom. The spark roared to a fire as his sense of adventure turned in the direction of a new passion: the environment.
It all started when Dannenmaier decided to take a class in ecology with professor Stephen Jones in the biology department. "I absolutely loved it. This was not long after I had returned. Jones was great. The subject was great. I decided to double major in biology and political science, with a special emphasis in environmental studies.
"As part of the major, I took genetics from professor Laura Bond. She was phenomenal. I worked my butt off and got a B+. It was the worst grade at Drury that I really worked for. And professor Ruth Bamberger in political science. I loved her courses. She became a mentor."
He was hooked. Today, Dannenmaier's still hooked.
His vita shows a man well traveled, and he admits visiting and working in more than 60 countries. He is a graduate of Boston University Law School, Columbia University Law School (Kent Scholar) and Oxford University (with Distinction), and has published widely on environmental rights and environmental democracy. He was also the Bretzfelder International Law Fellow at Columbia University in 2006-07 and directed Tulane University's Institute for Environmental Law and Policy 2001-05. He served as Legal Advisor for the Environment to the US Agency for International Development from 1996 to 2000, working through the Center for International Environmental Law in Washington and the University of Miami's North-South Center. He was visiting chair of natural resources law at University of Calgary in Canada in 2001.
The Studious Activist
The seeds for his passion for the environment were planted early in life. Being the son of a Drury professor, Dannenmaier remembers as a child watching the Gemini missions in the university's CX, and he was filled with wonder. His wonder took off with the moon mission. "There was a sense of achievement brought on by the space race," he recalls. "It was the whole idea of exploration, of using science to advance humankind's knowledge."
The university became his playground. The ivy on Stone Chapel's back door made it a wizard's entrance into another world. He and his brothers played among Drury's many trees with imagination. He remembers something else as well. "I remember a protest on campus when all these trees were cut down to build Smith Hall in 1966. On one of the trees, a sign was hung that said: 'We spit on those who cut down our beautiful trees.'" That image stayed with him.
As a senior at Drury and student body president in 1980, Dannenmaier learned firsthand how the university prepares its students for the real world. He became deeply involved with a new environmental group, Citizens for a Radioactive Waste Policy, which opposed the impending construction of the first nuclear power plant in the state. They gathered petitions to place a referendum on the statewide ballot for November 1980 (Proposition 11) that would have required demonstrated safe waste disposal and a decommissioning bond for any future nuclear plant in the state. "We weren't against nuclear power per se. We were just concerned about what would be done with the waste. Over time the plant would produce waste which would remain radioactive for hundreds of years, and the plant itself would become radioactive – and no one had a plan to manage the waste safely and permanently."
These times were fun but hard. He took an overload his senior year and became the nuclear waste organization's chief spokesperson in the southwestern part of the state. Since he didn't own an "operable car," others in the organization always provided him with a loaner so he could attend speaking engagements.
Dannenmaier learned a hard lesson in life from this experience. It happened when the citizens' group sought equal television time under federal law to counter the utility industry's well-financed media campaign against Proposition 11. The group consulted a lawyer to urge local TV stations to grant equal time under the law, but the attorney explained to them "yes, broadcasters should do this, but we would have to sue them to make them do it and by the time we won, the balloting would already be over."
It was an "ah-ha" moment for Dannenmaier. "I had wanted to be an environmental scientist because I wanted to be deeply involved in working for the environment, but I realized that I couldn't always protect the environment in that role. It doesn't do you any good to conduct research and provide evidence if you can't get a company to do the right thing." From that moment, he wanted to be a lawyer who would make a difference.
The Well Respected Environmentalist
Dannenmaier went on to law school after Drury, practiced in Boston and Washington, D.C., and then began working in developing countries where environmental and economic interests often clash. He has worked for more than 15 years in the international field to support environmental conservation and sustainable development based in Washington and later New Orleans. In 2007, he settled into the role of law professor at Indiana University in Indianapolis, but he remains active in overseas projects. His research is focused on international development and democracy, and his work just this past year has taken him to Cairo, Geneva and Marrakech.
He's so respected in his field that he's been quoted by Newsday and The New York Times on such environmental disasters as Texaco's alleged shoddy disposal of oil into streams and rivers and more than 600 open pits in the Ecuadorian Amazon from 1974-1990. The lawsuit has gone to U.S. and Ecuadorian courts and has become a bellwether case in international law.
"Companies have for years used low environmental standards in the third world as a legal defense for practices they know would be unacceptable in their own countries," Dannenmaier was quoted in the Times article. "This case may cause that legal defense to crumble."
A ruling for the plaintiffs "would be a wakeup call to corporations that have been, or continue to be, lax in developing countries," he's quoted in the Newsday article about the case.
Dannenmaier makes it clear, however, that environmental responsibility isn't about stopping development in our country or others. "We just need to minimize harm," he points out. "It's our obligation to our fellow citizens and to future generations."
So how do we create international law that encourages sustainable development? "We have to do it in a way that keeps costs down while harming the environment as little as possible. It's cheaper not to put toxic waste in the water or air in the first place."
Dannenmaier gives the example of car seat belt requirements approved in 1966. "Congress required seat belts because of the injury costs of not having them in our cars. The insurance companies lobbied to make that happen. We have to pay a few dollars more to be safer." Dannenmaier also believes the economy and the environment are connected in ways some fail to recognize – that environmental protection is a sound economic choice.
The Activist's Angels
At the same time he was spokesperson for Proposition 11, a senior with a credit overload and student body president, Dannenmaier also was on Drury's presidential search committee. He traveled with then Vice President for Development Judy Martin Thompson to Washington, D.C., where they met with Jim Fisher, a Drury board member and president of the Council for Advancement of Education, to talk about the presidential candidates. On the plane back to Springfield, Thompson asked him: "What are you doing after graduating from Drury?"
Dannenmaier told her he wanted to go to law school but that he couldn't afford it. Quite frankly, he couldn't even afford the application fee. His grandmother was going to help him with the fees, but she became ill and was hospitalized.
He told Judy: "I haven't had time to work this year with all my other activities. In fact, I've been avoiding my landlord because I haven't paid my rent in two months."
She pulled out her checkbook and wrote him a check to cover his rent and law school application fees. She also contacted some of Drury's trustees who arranged a loan to help cover the cost of law school. He was surprised, and extremely grateful. He now calls her one of the angels who helped him at Drury and in life.
Thompson remembers Dannenmaier as the great compromiser on Drury's Presidential Search Committee. "I was very impressed with Eric," she says now. "Sometimes when trustees would lock horns over this or that presidential candidate, Eric would say: 'Let's step back a minute and analyze the situation.'"
That investment paid off—for Drury, for Dannenmaier himself and for the environment. Activism doesn't die after college. It just takes different forms.
Ask Dannenmaier, the activist student.