Maria Alessandra Woolson

Those who went to Sugarbush’s Future of Snow panel on February 22 were reminded of the dire scientific evidence behind climate change. Various graphs, maps and charts told the statistical story of increasing extreme weather events, rising CO2 emissions, plummeting biodiversity and disappearing winters. The science is clear: Climate change is happening. But why aren’t we doing more to combat it?

Maria Alessandra Woolson, professor of Latin American studies and sustainability at the University of Vermont, has an idea. “We need a transformational change,” she said, during an interview at her home in Warren. Woolson believes that responses to the challenge of climate change must equally involve perspectives from the ecological sciences as well as the arts and humanities.

In her classes she teaches students to study Latin American novels and art through the lens of ecocriticism, analytical framework that aims to pull apart the nuances of human-environment interactions. “In my Spanish classes, I pick a novel that’s either going to be either transformational or provocative, with sustainability at its core,” said Woolson. By introducing students to environmental issues through novels and artistic works, Woolson shows how environmental issues are intrinsically linked with other societal conflicts.


 “The extractivism of the ’90s was very alarming to a lot of artists in Latin America,” said Woolson, referring to the rise in natural resource extraction imposed by multinational companies in South America in the 1990s. “So, you see a lot of novels and art that refer to the problem, systemically. They don’t talk about the environment as an isolated problem from geopolitics or social discrimination. It’s entirely tied to those other issues.”


Woolson believes that examining art through an eco-critical lens can help people cultivate a sustainability-oriented mindset and develop empathy toward environmental issues. “An image, an artwork or a book can mobilize the emotions in us. A good writer can get you emotionally tangled with a character to highlight the most important things about that person’s relationship with nature,” she said. “To open oneself up to analyze that relationship and to value that it … that takes a lot of work. I call that empathy.”

With full native command of Italian and Spanish (she was born in Italy and raised in Argentina, where she lived until she moved to the U.S. permanently in 1987), Woolson knows how easily things can get lost in translation. However, it wasn’t until after she had completed her graduate work in biology and started working in the private sector as a biologist that she became fixated on breaking down the translational barrier between scientific and public discourse.


“I felt very confident with the work I was doing,” said Woolson, referring to her work as a biologist for a multinational enterprise. “But all of a sudden, I realized it did not matter how accurate my report was. It did not matter how cutting edge the research was, because the reality of it was, unless there was an audience that wanted to listen to the report, wanted to read it and wanted to engage with it, it was useless. The report could have taken months to put together, but the reception of the report … whether it was translatable across cultures, across languages … whether the group of people was interested in hearing from the science or not. … That’s what mattered the most.”

In other words, Woolson discovered that high-quality scientific research alone was not enough to mobilize the people to act on it. The scientists needed to convey the information in a way that was understandable and the receptors of the information needed to have empathy for the topic. As an example, Woolson told a story of politicians disregarding scientific data-based recommendations for building a dam between Paraguay and Argentina. “There had to be some very serious statistical and scientific data put forth in order to make a sound decision about this dam. At the table when things were decided, there were only politicians. None of the reports of everything that had been studied was brought to the table for the decision making. That happens so often in policy.”


This situation led Woolson to believe she needed to strengthen her linguistic ability in transcultural dialogue, as a proponent of science. “So, when I write I still want to be accurate, but I’m also thinking about who’s going to read me and how do I engage them? That’s the reason I investigated interdisciplinary studies, because I experienced this miscommunication firsthand,” said Woolson. “It’s not the sum of different parts; it’s the dialogue across those different parts that matters most.”


Eventually, Woolson transitioned to graduate studies in Spanish. She received a Ph.D. in Spanish from the University of Arizona. She has taught at both Middlebury College and UVM. Each year, in her quest to improve the interdisciplinary dialogue around sustainability, Woolson is increasingly impressed with the environmental empathy of her new students. “The combination of teaching language and thematically framing the class in the context of sustainability is very relevant to the current generations. The freshmen that come into UVM – I’m pleasantly surprised with the amount of knowledge they have on sustainability and environmental problems when they come in. They already have a language to talk about that. They’ve been exposed in high school.”

And what do these humanities-oriented students do when they graduate with the tangible skill of Spanish and the less-tangible skill of seeing the world through an eco-critical perspective? Lots of things. “One of my former students is in law school at Yale, studying to be an environmental lawyer,” said Woolson. “Another one became a teacher, a wonderful high school teacher. One is living in the Spanish-speaking Canary Islands and doing whale research. And another one, she’s an editor in Mexico and New York. She works for Penguin Books,” said Woolson. “One of my old students expanded a nonprofit to fight food deserts in Los Angeles. He got hundreds of people to volunteer their time on weekends and go around collecting fruit from parceled out orchards by giant highways and collecting food from the supermarket before it expires. That’s sustainability at its core!”