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CEES Profile: Professor Alan Palmiter

December 1, 2011


One of the strengths of the Center for Energy, Environment, and Sustainability is the way it combines several academic disciplines into one goal — promoting critical thinking and effective action around the sustainability movement.

Professor of Law Alan Palmiter brings a unique academic background to Wake’s sustainability research.  “My way of seeing my role in this is to raise the issue and have people in law schools and other places in the country see that corporate mechanisms can be used to promote sustainability,” said Palmiter.

Corporations need to be a driving force in sustainability says Palmiter. “The solutions are unlikely to come only from the government. We have a pretty dysfunctional federal government and a more dysfunctional international system. So I see real possibilities of business doing something.  Sustainability is in the long-term interests of every business.“

Palmiter organized a symposium last  April on “The Sustainable Corporation” as part of The Wake Forest Law Review’s annual business symposium.  The event took a closer look at business impact and the challenges of sustainability.

“The solutions aren’t just going to be technical. They’re not just going to be policy. They‘re going to be a combination, but [sustainability] calls for people to see both the science and the policy in broad ways.  I think a lot of business people have their hearts in the right place,” said Palmiter, but more needs to be done.  “I approach this as how business law can give corporate actors a chance to do something if they want to. If a corporation wants to come up with a non-toxic plastic container, there’s room to do that within corporate law,” he said.

Corporate law, the relationship between corporate managers and shareholders, could help drive consumer decisions. If people knew the story behind the products they buy and the impact they have, perhaps they would make better buying choices.  “Right now you can find out the fat content of food in the store, but you don’t have any indication of the carbon impact of food or of other products we buy. The corporation, properly focused, can do a better job of letting people know the sustainability impact of their choices. “

Much of sustainability is about improving consciousness and that’s at the heart of CEES and Wake’s student-centered sustainability efforts.

“If every student that graduates from Wake Forest has a sense of the importance of sustainability in his or her personal life, and also in his or her vocational life, then we’ve accomplished our purpose. “

Palmiter notes the University can’t be complacent. There’s a lot of work that needs to be done.  CEES is crucial to Wake’s role in moving the sustainability movement forward.  “CEES has the advantage of consolidating efforts, research and outreach programs.”  For example, Palmiter says CEES will maximize its interdisciplinary role with a new Master’s in Sustainability. The one-year program will be a true intersection of academic disciplines that will give students the benefit of studying sustainability’s meaning and possibilities in law, management, social sciences and physical sciences.

Palmiter has many roles on campus, but his role on CEES provides a way to connect with other professors in other fields who are all working towards a greater purpose. “I really like the people who are part of CEES. Everybody has a strong sense of purpose, and it’s energizing for me to be among them,” he said.