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Preview Issue - Obituary/Dedication

William B. Stapp, Ph.D. (1930–2001)


Bill Stapp (1930–2001)Bill Stapp, Ph.D., considered by most to be the founder of international environmental education, passed away May 21 in Ann Arbor, Michigan, following an illness. Stapp, 71, was Professor Emeritus at the School of Natural Resources & Environment at the University of Michigan, where he founded and chaired the environmental education program from 1970 to 1993.

Stapp was the first director of the International Environmental Education Program at UNESCO and helped organize UNESCO’s environmental education conference in Tiblisi, Georgia, where the field of environmental education was first defined.

Bill was an active international consultant, working with countries all over the world. He served on the editorial board of every major environmental education publication at some point and had agreed to serve in an honorary capacity to help this publication get off the ground.

Most of all, Bill inspired people to do things they would never have taken on otherwise. His peacemaking, all-inclusive style cut through clutter, fear, and deeply entrenched positions, and brought people together to accomplish things most had said were impossible. As a global environmental diplomat, he connected students around the world to one another with Internet technologies before anyone had tried. He brought Israelis and Palestinians together to test their shared water sources, creating a model for Middle East cooperation. Even in his last weeks, as he worked from his home, he was quietly and without any mandate other than his own commitment, slowly bringing North and South Koreans together to look at water quality, while around the world, international leaders were making little progress in improving these communications. The dedication he put into bringing nations together was the same passion he brought to teaching, without personal ego or political dogma. When environmental issues were at the height of controversy he would, almost with naiveté, bring to the tension an air of local and global citizenship so moving that others set down their tightly held positions to solve problems. Although he started the programs in environmental education, communication, and advocacy and clearly understood the need and value of these skills, his own disarming style made him a leader of men and women through an unending commitment to improve the lives of people and their environment.

It did not matter whether it was the USSR and USA clashing in Tiblisi or an effort to decrease nutrient loading in local streams by encouraging “American Heritage lawns” (without the use of chemical fertilizers and herbicides). Bill would help people examine the facts and values and make decisions that were often major —without taking any credit or placing any blame. Whether it was helping a student to see things with a broader vision or helping General Motors see its community in a new way, his quiet, guiding presence was always consistent with his message that there is hope if only we would make the commitment!

In 1989 Stapp founded the Global Rivers Environmental Education Network (GREEN) to bring diverse groups of people together to investigate and protect river water quality. GREEN spread to 135 countries and merged with Earth Force in 1999. He published over 20 books on environmental education, water quality monitoring, and multicultural education. Bill was also one of the main leaders behind the North American Association for Environmental Education, organizing the first international NAAEE conference at Lake Louise, Alberta, in 1984. He was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993.

Although others tried to make a name for themselves, Bill never grasped for recognition, developed an ego, or grew pretentious. The recipient of many awards, he always accepted them on behalf of everyone who was involved.

Bill received his B.S., M.S., and Ph.D. from the University of Michigan. He is survived by his wife of 46 years, Gloria, three children and four grandchildren.

While we all must go on without Bill’s inimitable presence, all of us who have known him, worked with him, learned from him, and been inspired by him know that a piece of the positive voice we hear in our heads is his own passionate voice. We have been motivated by him so that if we overcome our environmental problems and make this world a sustainable place, it will be due in part to the critical first stones on the road to success that he laid. The world would almost be without conflict or environmental problems if we would all follow his example.

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