Barry Lopez believes we are on the verge of global upheaval — in the way democracies function, in the way economies work, in the way countries cope with unprecedented numbers of refugees and the effects of climate change.
But he also believes that Notre Dame students are “unusually qualified to do something about it.”
A renowned essayist, fiction writer, and former Department of American Studies faculty member, Lopez received his bachelor’s degree from Notre Dame’s College of Arts and Letters in 1966 and a master’s degree in 1968. He returned to his alma mater last month to give a lecture on sustainability — and to offer his encouragement to current students.
“You have the preparation to become exemplary people,” he said. “People who inspire others to do the right things. And you have come to a place for your education that can teach you how to do this.”
Lopez is the author of Arctic Dreams, for which he won the National Book Award in 1986; Of Wolves and Men, a National Book Award finalist; and eight works of fiction. He also has two published collections of essays and contributes regularly to a variety of U.S. and international publications.
Looking back at his time at Notre Dame, Lopez said the most important subjects he studied were philosophy and theology.
“The importance of this coursework, although I did not see it until many years later, was not erudition. It was instruction in how to navigate in the world. It was the foundation for what, upon reflection, seem to be the most important things anyone in college can learn no matter their major — to be discerning and to be discriminating.”
“The importance of this coursework, although I did not see it until many years later, was not erudition,” he said. “It was instruction in how to navigate in the world. It was the foundation for what, upon reflection, seem to be the most important things anyone in college can learn no matter their major — to be discerning and to be discriminating.”
For more than 30 years, Lopez has traveled extensively to remote and populated locations around the world. The opportunity to immerse himself in other cultures — with Eskimos in the high Arctic, with aboriginal people in the Tanami Desert, or with Kamba people in northern Kenya — continued his education and filled a “missing piece,” he said.
“I apprenticed myself to people and to landscapes,” he said. “Writing about these places and their denizens, using the framework that I learned here at Notre Dame about the epistemological differences of the people, about aesthetics, about metaphysics and logic, became my way in the world.”
Lopez has received numerous fellowships and awards for his writing and has spoken and read at nearly 100 universities. He has also served as the Welch Professor of American Studies at Notre Dame, the Glenn Distinguished Professor at Washington & Lee University, and the Visiting Distinguished Scholar at Texas Tech University.
In his lecture, “The Writer and Social Responsibility,” Lopez said that enacting policies for sustainability is only a first step in the process of learning how to take care of ourselves in an era of global climate change and dwindling natural resources.
He asked students to consider what it is we are striving to sustain — levels of consumption, the populations of diverse organisms that support human life, or a particular economy or form of government.
All of these approaches, he said, compare to sailing a ship without a rudder.
“What is the rudder that guides the design of strategies for sustainability, whatever the goal might be?” he said. “It is ethical behavior.”
Again, he emphasized that students at Notre Dame are well equipped to navigate these waters, to shape the life they really want, and to make a lasting contribution in uncertain times.
“We have an unprecedented opportunity as graduates of this University,” Lopez said, “with our education and our social networks and our embedded sense of what constitutes ethical behavior, to make a difference.”
The lecture was co-sponsored by the Department of English, the Creative Writing Program, the Institute for Scholarship in the Liberal Arts, Notre Dame Research, ND Energy, the Minor in Sustainability, the Environmental Change Initiative, the Office of Sustainability, the William P. and Hazel B. White Foundation, the College of Arts and Letters, and the Graduate School.