The History and Development of AESS

I.   Purpose

The United States currently has more than 140,000 formal associations, with more than 23,000 of them organized at the national level.  In higher education, professional associations exist for almost every field imaginable – from anthropology to zoology; from abstract art to Zoroastrianism.  And yet, thousands of faculty members at U.S. colleges and universities lack a professional association to represent the academic field that most deeply engages their interest.  Strange, you say, that such a large group should have missed an opportunity to erect one more academic “silo” — accompanied by a flagship journal, annual conference, and a newsletter chronicling the progress and professional accomplishments of its devoted members.  The reason perhaps lies in the unique nature of the field of environmental studies and sciences.

In recent generations, it has become increasingly evident that natural and social systems—from local to global scales–are interconnected. How people think about and use natural resources in one place can affect not only local neighbors, but natural systems and people around the globe. It also has become increasingly evident we need a better understanding of the vast, rippling complexities of nature and human relationships in order to avoid doing harm to them.  Academic “silo-ism”, when it alienates subject knowledge from its wider context, is antithetical to this possibility.

The first Environmental Studies and Sciences [ES&S] programs aimed to open doors between disciplines encouraging discoveries about Earth’s and humanity’s interdependencies that could not be made otherwise. But for more than four decades after these programs had been launched, there was no professional society dedicated to serving this community––a community consisting of the thousands of faculty members from diverse backgrounds associated with one of the nearly 1,500 ES&S programs and departments in American higher education. Thousands more faculty members housed within traditional disciplines and professional associations also do work that is oriented toward the shared mission of AESS, making them additional candidates for a faculty-based association.  To this must be added a growing number of students who seek involvement as pre-professionals in college and graduate school programs.

The Association for Environmental Studies and Sciences (AESS) was created in 2008 to provide identity, collective voice, and continuing education for these individuals.

Beyond the obvious needs for community and identity, AESS serves other important purposes:

  • enlarging our capacity for cross-campus collaboration, mentoring, and shared scholarship;
  • creating a collegial process for speaking, networking, publishing, and conference development;
  • developing professional and accreditation standards;
  • supporting  the career development of members, especially junior faculty;
  • providing professional advice on important matters of environmental policy and management.

AESS encourages excellence in research, teaching, and practice in environmental studies and science. It assists members in discovering like-minded colleagues at other campuses. Conversely, it also facilitates encounters with other colleagues who hold different viewpoints and professional orientations. Enlarging and strengthening the community of scholars and scientists with whom we interact is arguably the most important benefit the Association offers. It allows us to learn more efficiently from one another about new developments in a range of interrelated fields.

Environmental scholars and scientists inevitably discover that the challenges we face transcend the disciplinary knowledge many of us practice.  As E. O. Wilson observed, “The fragmentation of knowledge and resulting chaos are not reflections of the real world, but are artifacts of scholarship.”[2]  A major aim of AESS is to encourage interdisciplinary understanding of environmental science, policy, management, ethics, history, and all of the other vital contributions of traditional disciplines in order to better understand that real world and humans’ relations with it.  The Association was envisioned from the start as a community of environmental scholars and scientists, not a confederation of disciplines.  Our ranks include microspecialists, synthesists and enviro-generalists. Fundamental to our embrace of higher education is the notion that broad advances in environmental knowledge that benefit both humans and the rest of nature require disciplinary, interdisciplinary, and transdisciplinary approaches to research and learning.  Moreover, they require humility about what we know and don’t know, both as individuals and as representatives of disciplines. For it is only through learning communities of the type proposed for AESS that we can achieve “whole system” environmental education and the creative synthesis of new knowledge that promotes a healthier Earth.  Such a synthesis would truly mark the coming of age of ES&S as a professional society.

II.  History

The impetus for the creation of AESS came from faculty members at the University of California, Santa Barbara, led by Bill Freudenburg and Bob Wilkinson.  Seeking a forum in which to examine interest in forming a national professional society, they organized the first-ever “Environmental Summit” at Santa Barbara’s UCSB campus, Feb. 23-25, 2006.  The Santa Barbara summit quickly attracted over 250 participants from seven nations, almost all of whom supported the idea of developing a professional society for ES&S.

Following the Santa Barbara summit, an unofficial steering committee was formed to continue discussions and planning for the proposed association. The initial group consisted of Bill Freudenburg (UCSB), Walter (Tony) Rosenbaum (Florida), David Blockstein (NCSE/CEDD), Bob Wilkinson (UCSB), and Monty Hempel (Redlands), with additional help from Maya Fischhoff (Michigan State), Rob Bachman (University of the South at Sewanee), Debra Davidson (University of Alberta), and the New York Summit planning team: Steve Brechin, Rick Smardon, Sharon Moran, and Brenda Nordenstam (Syracuse University and SUNY ESF). Tony Rosenbaum was asked to take the lead in exploring the possibility of a new journal to serve the ES&S community.

The heavy presence of Syracuse faculty reflected the fact that Syracuse was willing to put in the effort to host a second summit, following up on the success of the Santa Barbara meeting.  The second summit was held in upstate New York in June 2007, co-hosted by Syracuse University and the State University of New York’s College of Environmental Science and Forestry.  In a special plenary meeting, a strong majority of participants voted to support the development of a new, independent, faculty-based association that would embrace both “environmental studies” and “environmental sciences.”  Following the Syracuse summit, two more volunteers were added, to the informal steering committee — David Hassenzahl (UNLV) and Stephanie Pfirman (Barnard).

The next question had to do with deciding how to structure the new organization.  At the Syracuse meeting, there was considerable support for the idea of continuing to work in cooperation with the National Council on Science and the Environment (NCSE) and the Council of Environmental Deans and Directors (CEDD).  With the speed ordinarily associated with all-volunteer organizations, discussions went on for several months; ultimately, by late in the fall term of 2007, essentially all of the parties involved had reached consensus that the sensible thing to do was to take an “adaptive management” approach.  We would begin the process of setting up an independent organization, which would provide the most realistic possible answers to the understandable questions from NCSE/CEDD about the number of likely members, potential resource burdens and opportunities, and the like.  This informal agreement was presented at the annual winter meeting of NCSE/CEDD in Washington, D.C., in January 2008, where it won strong approval.

Taking the next step, Bob Wilkinson and Bill Freudenburg talked the Environmental Studies Program at UCSB into serving as an initial business office — helped immeasurably by the fact that one of their colleagues, Greg Mohr, was willing to serve a term as the founding treasurer, and Bill was willing to serve as acting Secretary.  The fledgling Association published the first of its quarterly newsletters in Summer 2008, which constituted its formal launch.  By the end of 2008, it had nearly 500 members.

III.  Developing a new professional organization

Over the next two years, the Association developed into a full-fledged, broadly based professional association.  In August 2009 it adopted a Constitution and Bylaws and held its first elections.  Kimberly Smith (Carleton College) was elected to a two-year term as President, Bill Freudenburg as Vice-President and President-Elect, and David Hassenzahl as Secretary.  Greg Mohr continued to serve as Treasurer.  The first elected Council consisted of Lamont C. (“Monty”) Hempel, Stephanie Pfirman, Stephanie Kaza, David Blockstein, Tony Rosenbaum, and Shirley Vincent.  The Association held its first professional conference, entitled “Environment: The Interdisciplinary Challenge,” in Madison, Wisconsin, from October 8-11, 2009.  The new officers and Council members took office immediately after this conference, and the President promptly began staffing the seven standing committees.   The next election, held in Spring of 2010, brought to the Council Phil Camill, Julianne Warren and Sarah Carvill, all of whom took office after the second annual conference, “Many Shades of Green,” held at Lewis and Clark University in Portland, Oregon, from June 17-20, 2010.

Also during 2010, the Association began looking for a publisher for its planned flagship journal, the Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences. Under the direction of Tony Rosenbaum, editor-in-chief, this journal provides AESS members with peer-reviewed, interdisciplinary coverage of the leading research and professional issues confronting our society.  In June of 2010, the Association signed a contract with Springer Science+Business Media, LLC, to publish the journal, with the first issue scheduled to appear in March 2011.

Initially, the Association relied entirely on volunteer labor.  But during the summer of 2010, the Council decided that the Association needed more administrative support. Accordingly, in August 2010, the Council negotiated an agreement with the National Council for Science and the Environment (NCSE).  Under this arrangement, NCSE serves as “Secretariat” for the Association, hosting the institutional office and provide administrative support, as well as strategic advice and other professional services.

IV.  Current Status and Future Plans

The Association was off to an excellent start, but the Council anticipated that it would soon need to formalize its legal and tax status.  Accordingly, early in 2010 the Association began working toward incorporating as a nonprofit corporation and seeking tax-exempt status.  At the request of the Council, the President proposed a resolution to incorporate at the annual business meeting during the Portland conference.  The proposal met general support, so the Council held a special election on this proposal to solicit the views of the entire membership.  On July 13, 2010, the membership overwhelmingly voted in favor of incorporation.   The Council drafted Articles of Incorporation and Bylaws, which were adopted as the interim governing documents of the Association at the Council meeting on August 26, 2010.  The Council filed formal Articles of Incorporation in the District of Columbia in February 2011.

Sadly, our President-Elect and founding member, Bill Freudenburg, passed away in December 2010.  But Bill left us with a vision that will continue to guide our organization: to serve the thousands of students, scholars and professionals who are working to bring into being a just and sustainable future.

Recent Updates

In 2012, the Association contracted its first regularly paid employee. This person shared duties with the National Council of Science and the Environment but also provided much-needed programming support for the Association. Beginning in 2014, the Association sought to expand and create an AESS-specific position. A program coordinator was hired fall of 2014 and supports the Association through member management, marketing and communication, technology and infrastructure improvement, and advisory. In 2017, the AESS staff position matured into a managing director role, still part-time, taking care of all day-to-day operations. Overtime, AESS transitioned to independently manage staff and resources, and in 2018 the formal relationship with NCSE as Secretariat expired.

The desire to grow the organization has been a goal since inception. After strategic planning and research in 2015, the Board approved a memorandum to facilitate membership outreach and growth. Part of this plan has been implemented by way of constructing a new webspace and expansion of membership benefits. Another aspect of this refreshment stage involved a rebranding exercise through logo redesign and mission statement review.


Our logo was designed by Jodi Wroblewski. Ms. Wroblewski is a Buffalo, NY based designer who specializes in web and print design. She worked with the board to develop a logo that encapsulated the dynamic nature of the Association. Design choices were thoughtful and systematic, after considering all aspects of the Association. The final Board-approved product seeks to represent numerous aspects of the Association:

  • An infinity symbol is used to represent the desire to continually connect across disciplines. As the loops remain open, so does the Association remain welcoming to all and so does the Association continually work to improve diversity. The symbol shows how we seek to maintain connections and foster collaboration globally.
  • A simple face profile is used to represent that our organization is made up of men and women who are students and professionals, all with varying backgrounds, experiences, races, ethnicities, etc.
  • The earth is used to represent the interdisciplinary nature of our organization across environmental studies and science disciplines. As a globe, it also represents our international body of members as well as members’ concerns within their respective ecosystems and geographies everywhere.

Our new logo shows anyone at a glance that we are an association for people and for the planet, but it also implies that we are dynamic and collaborative on a global scale.

At a Glance

2006 – First-ever “Environmental Summit” organized by Bill Freudenburg and Bob Wilkinson and held at Santa Barbara’s UCSB campus. Unofficial steering committee formed.

2007 – Second summit held in upstate New York, co-hosted by Syracuse University and SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry. Plans to form a new organization began.

2008 – AESS formally launched as an Association. First newsletter published. Membership swells to nearly 500.

2009 – Constitution and Bylaws adopted. First elections held. First professional conference held in Madison, Wisconsin.

2010 – Second annual conference held at Lewis and Clark University in Portland, Oregon. Plans underway to develop flagship journal. Agreement with NCSE formed to serve as “secretariat” for AESS. Founding member Bill Freudenburg passed away.

2011 – First issue of JESS published. AESS files for formal Articles of Incorporation in the District of Columbia. Third annual conference held at the University of Vermont in Burlington, Vermont.

2012 – Fourth annual conference held at Santa Clara University in California.

2013 – Fifth annual conference held at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

2014 – Sixth annual conference held at Pace University in New York City.

2015 – Seventh annual conference held at the University of California, San Diego. Website revamped and logo redesigned.

2016 – Eighth annual conference held at American University in Washington, DC.

2017 – Ninth annual conference held at University of Arizona in Tucson, AZ.

2018 – AESS launches as the official conference website. Tenth annual conference held at American University in Washington, DC.

2019 – Diversity committee unanimously approved as ad-hoc committee and developed an official charter. Eleventh annual conference held at University of Central Florida in Orlando, FL.