Skip to Content
MIT News: Alumni profile

Four decades on the front lines of environmental activism

Steven Lewis Yaffee, PhD ’79

June 29, 2022
Yaffee, PhD ’79 and Wondolleck in ME 1981
Steven Lewis Yaffee, PhD ’79, and Julia Wondolleck, MCP ’80, PhD ’83, in Maine in 1981.Courtesy Photo

“My focus has always been on social change,” says Steven Lewis Yaffee, PhD ’79, a professor of natural resources and environmental policy at the University of Michigan. “On training practitioners to go out and effect change in the real world.”

Yaffee caught the eco bug in middle school in Maryland when he read Rachel Carson’s now seminal book Silent Spring. At the University of Michigan, he studied wildlife and aquatic science as an undergraduate and then earned a master’s degree in policy. At his first job, working on energy facility siting at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, he met MIT professor Lawrence Susskind, who encouraged him to enroll in the environmental policy PhD program at MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning (DUSP). 

“MIT helped me in so many ways,” says Yaffee, who taught MIT’s first undergrad course in environmental issues as a PhD student. “I learned how to best reach my audience in the classroom,” he says. “DUSP also taught me decision-making dynamics and processes. And last but certainly not least, it was at MIT where I met the love of my life and my closest colleague, Julia Wondolleck.” Yaffee and Wondolleck, MCP ’80, PhD ’83, overlapped at DUSP for two years and married in the MIT chapel in 1983. She recently retired after 38 years of teaching at the University of Michigan.

Yaffee, who has written or coauthored six books, has seen myriad evolutions and changes during his four decades on the front lines of environmental activism and education. “In the 1970s, the issues were much more local, and activism was more grassroots,” he observes. “It was much easier to reach consensus on action. Today, with environmental issues expanding from local to global, it’s much harder to get traction, especially when working across national borders. The debate is also far more politicized than in the past. Social media has helped generate a broad skepticism of science and expertise.”

Despite these challenges—and the very real threat posed by climate change—Yaffee has lost neither his enthusiasm nor his righteous indignation. He says he still finds reasons for hope each day in the classroom, and each time he, his colleagues, and his students play together in the Ecotones, a jazz band he directs at Michigan’s School for Environment and Sustainability.

“In many ways, making music is a lot like the negotiation techniques I teach in class,” says Yaffee, who plays keyboards. “You have a lot of discordant parts, and you have to find a process to put them together so that what comes out is music and not just noise.”

Keep Reading

Most Popular

Here’s how a Twitter engineer says it will break in the coming weeks

One insider says the company’s current staffing isn’t able to sustain the platform.

Technology that lets us “speak” to our dead relatives has arrived. Are we ready?

Digital clones of the people we love could forever change how we grieve.

How to befriend a crow

I watched a bunch of crows on TikTok and now I'm trying to connect with some local birds.

Starlink signals can be reverse-engineered to work like GPS—whether SpaceX likes it or not

Elon said no thanks to using his mega-constellation for navigation. Researchers went ahead anyway.

Stay connected

Illustration by Rose Wong

Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review

Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.

Thank you for submitting your email!

Explore more newsletters

It looks like something went wrong.

We’re having trouble saving your preferences. Try refreshing this page and updating them one more time. If you continue to get this message, reach out to us at customer-service@technologyreview.com with a list of newsletters you’d like to receive.