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CIS University CIS University Environmental Issues professor Mercedes Otegui “There is no Planet B”

CIS University Environmental Issues professor Mercedes Otegui: “There is no Planet B”

By Ekaterina Panferova

“When I was 19 my parents took me to Wisconsin, and when my father saw the surroundings of Lawrence University, he was like: ‘No way, Mercedes; you’re coming back with me to San Sebastian. I’m not going to leave you in this middle of nowhere,’ and I said: ‘No, I’m staying, I want to pursue this career.’”

The long and diverse way towards becoming an environmental advocate for CIS University Professor Mercedes Otegui commenced “in the place surrounded by empty fields, cows and cheese farms; in the state referred to as the Cheesehead state.”

After four years in Wisconsin, acquiring skills in zoology, botany and microbiology in symbiosis with English, Otegui proceeded to master her knowledge at Duke University, where she studied environmental management in resource economics and policy for two years. 

Afterward, she moved to Mexico for 25 years and pursued a professional career aimed at preserving natural sights and species, working at organizations such as the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). However, according to her: “After a quarter of a century living in Latin America, I decided to move back to my home country, Spain.”

After returning to Spain, how do you view the current state of environmental awareness here? 

When I came back, I saw that, unfortunately, the environment was being tightly intertwined and associated with politics. The environment is not a political stance, it is a fact. It is a reality. It is science at its very best. I do not understand why people do not tend to view it as the emergency that it is nowadays. Species are lost, biodiversity is lost and the limits of the planet’s boundaries are being tipped over. ​​ 

When I started teaching an Environmental Issues course at CIS University, I decided that I was not going to share any personal views on any of these topics. I am presenting solely facts backed up by science. I am not trying to create an anxiety syndrome within my students; I only wish for them to be more engaged and more aware. And now, after being at CIS University for 3 years, I still maintain this approach to teaching.

Which of the existing environmental issues do you think are not addressed enough and that you wish were advocated for more?

Working in Mexico offered me a chance to engage with different cultures. I witnessed a loss of traditional languages and ecological knowledge that is being transmitted orally between generations. The huge wealth of long-established ways of managing nature and sacred natural sites is being erased from the face of Earth, and we could learn so much from the past. It is always a short-term gain versus a sustainable approach.

What did you bring from your experience as an environmental advocate into the teaching field?

The passion, the conviction, the urgency that I try to transmit to my students. We might be in a classroom, but as we speak, a species is being lost. Environmental Issues class is not the class to be forgotten after you get a grade. This is something that we need to take into our everyday lives and pass on to future generations. This is not a hippie green thing – a tree-hugger slogan. It is urgent to act now because we are already late.

Is it possible to create some habits that would bring a change?

Sometimes all that is required is just a little bit of energy and a little bit of motivation. For instance, neutralizing the carbon footprint. When you buy an airplane ticket, almost always you have the option to pay a few additional euros and offset your CO2 emissions during the trip.

What advice would you give students aspiring to become environmental activists or simply valuing the environment? 

I would ask them to look around, to see what is happening outside their echo chamber, to witness the challenges ahead, and to respect the innate intrinsic values of nature. I would advise them just to read the news every day – the environmental news. There is a major tragedy going on around the world. And guess what? It is going to impact your current bubble of well-being. We are all interconnected. So, whatever is happening out there is going to affect you. It might not be today, might not be tomorrow, but it is going to affect you someday somehow. And here is my slogan for them: “There is no planet B.” There is no Mars, there is no Venus… this is it. This is home, period.