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Four decades on the front lines of environmental activism


“MIT helped me in many ways,” said Yafei, who taught MIT’s first undergraduate course on environmental issues as a doctoral student. “I learned how to best reach my audience in the classroom,” he said. “DUSP also taught me decision-making dynamics and processes. Last but not least, at MIT, I met the love of my life and my closest colleague, Julia Wondolleck.” Yaffee and Wondolleck, MCP ’80, Dr. ’83, worked at DUSP for two years and married in 1983 at the MIT Church. She recently retired after 38 years teaching at the University of Michigan.

The author or co-author of six books, Yaffee has witnessed countless evolutions and changes during his four decades on the front lines of environmental activism and education. “In the 1970s, issues were more localized and activism was more grassroots,” he said. “It’s much easier to agree on action. Today, as environmental issues expand from local to global, it’s harder to get attention, especially when working across borders. The debate is also more politicized than in the past. Social media fuels Widespread skepticism of science and expertise.”

Despite these challenges — and the very real threat posed by climate change — Yaffe has lost neither his enthusiasm nor his righteous indignation. He said he still finds reason for hope in the classroom every day, every time he, his colleagues and his students play together in the Ecotones, a jazz band he conducts at the Michigan Institute for Environment and Sustainability.

“In many ways, making music is a lot like the negotiation skills I teach in class,” says Yaffee, who plays the keyboard. “You have a lot of dissonant parts and you have to find a process of putting them together so that it comes out as music, not just noise.”

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