Searching for Experts: Douglas Brinkley

Posted by on Nov 23, 2011
Searching for Experts: Douglas Brinkley

During her visit to Rice, Dr. Kristin Shrader-Frechette spoke with a small group of undergraduates about her work and the Cultures of Energy initiative. She told us repeatedly to exercise extreme caution when designing our tentative course syllabus, emphasizing the necessity of working closely with “experts” to cultivate a body of legitimate, worthwhile texts. While we of course appreciate Dr. Shrader-Frechette’s advice, it is a little perplexing. Who are the experts we should seek out? Are they predominantly scientists, or are they mostly humanists? How do we find the experts in an interdisciplinary field which we are in some ways shaping ourselves?

Bewildered, another undergraduate fellow and I have entertained the thought of exploring lengthy lists of faculty members at various universities, hoping to find someone whose knowledge and scholarly output would meet Dr. Shrader-Frechette’s definition of expertise. Looking through countless bibliographies and résumés is, understandably, not my definition of a good time, so I’ve been dreading this hunt for experts. Luckily, without having to do much research–or even having to look past Rice’s hedges–I think I’ve stumbled upon an expert, someone familiar with both academia and the complicated world of energy politics.

Over the weekend, Dr. Douglas Brinkley, a Professor of History here at Rice, made headlines for arguing with Alaskan representative Don Young during a Congressional hearing on oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. In response to his anti-drilling testimony, Young called Brinkley “Dr. Rice” and his statements “garbage.” This provoked in Brinkley an impassioned, somewhat petty retort which called into question representative Young’s educational background and, in effect, the validity of his statements.

While Dr. Brinkley’s headline-grabbing response was humorous (and perhaps correct), the part of his presentation most significant to our interests was his call for policy makers to understand the history of conservationism as it relates to executive power. He called for an end to congressional hearings, and for an executive order from the Office of the President declaring ANWR a national protected zone. To legitimize his claim, he drew parallels to Theodore Roosevelt’s efforts to protect the Grand Canyon.The narrative Dr. Brinkley constructed was nuanced and effective, balancing decades of historical precedent with the urgency of our current climate change situation. In his brief testimony, Dr. Brinkley effectively blended multiple disciplines–policy studies, science, ecology, history, etc.–and produced a clear, concise plan of action. In effect, he examined and attempted to address the interdisciplinary questions of what we call the cultures of energy.

As Rice students and affiliates involved with this initiative, we have the unique opportunity to pick the brain of a scholar–an expert–who is thoroughly acquainted with not only the academics of the cultures of energy, but also the environmental policies that shape how we relate to the world around us. Dr. Brinkley has likely encountered the same questions we are encountering, and he has likely spent much more time thinking about them than we have; he is truly an expert in the field of energy studies. As we begin to plan out the future of the Cultures of Energy project, we should look to Dr. Brinkley’s expertise for guidance.

Jay Becton ’14 is an English major at Wiess College. He is an Undergraduate Fellow at the Humanities Research Center.