April 30, 2007
59, Number 29
April 30, 2007
Blue and gold make green
by carol clark
Blessings come in unexpected ways when your namesake is an obscure Irish saint. Just ask Ciannat Howett, director of Emory’s sustainability initiatives, who was named after a medieval martyr of Dublin. (Believe it or not, Ciannat is pronounced “key-nut.”)
In her previous job as director of the Southern Environmental Law Center in Atlanta, Howett often lobbied for environmental law in the Georgia Capitol.
“A couple of the legislators regularly referred to me as ‘Peanut,’” she says. “I never corrected them because I thought, if your name is the biggest cash crop of Georgia, it couldn’t be too bad a thing.”
While her family cherishes its Irish ancestry, Howett is deeply rooted in Atlanta and the Druid Hills neighborhood where she grew up. Her father was John Howett, who taught art history at Emory for 35 years.
Her vision for sustainability at Emory draws from her childhood, when she lived near Peavine Creek and the University was practically her backyard.
“I have great memories of riding my bike around campus,” she recalls. “The rolling hills and all of the streams flowing through here were irresistible for a kid.”
From campus, she could pedal over to Horton’s, a five-and-dime located in the space now occupied by Druid Hills Bookstore. “They had penny candy and yo-yos and tops that spun around. Remember those? And they also had weird stuff like surgical gloves and cleaning products, all stacked up on these really high shelves. It was a fascinating place for a kid to explore,” she says.
She saw her first movie, “The Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler,” at the neighborhood cinema that was once part of Emory Village, but has since burned down.
For Howett and other kids lucky enough to live nearby, the Emory campus and environs were a peaceful, leafy wonderland that they could safely roam at will.
After attending Fernbank Elementary and Druid Hills High School it was a small step to enroll at Emory, which Howett and all three of her sisters did.
Howett majored in English, planning to become a college professor like her father and her mother, who taught landscape architecture at Georgia State University. But one year, Howett came down with both meningitis and hepatitis and had to take summer courses to make up for lost time.
“I was lucky enough to have a class with Homer Sharp,” Howett says. “He was a professor at Oxford College, a biologist, and a completely captivating person. He knew every square inch of the natural world of Georgia, what stream flowed into, and which Native American tribe used it. They say that one professor can change your life, and he’s that one for me.”
From then on, Howett knew that she wanted a career that involved conservation. After graduating, she worked for two years as associate director of alumni giving and director of the Emory Parent Fund before enrolling in law school at the University of Virginia, where she took electives in environmental studies.
While other law students remained buried under books in the library, Howett was monitoring hermit crab populations in the marshes of Chesapeake Bay. “I was thrilled to be chest-high in the mud, collecting specimens for the graduate students in marine ecology. It made my law school experience so much richer,” she says.
Howett went on to work as an environmental attorney for a Washington D.C. law firm before landing a coveted job as a senior lawyer for the Environmental Protection Agency in 1996. “It was a dream job,” says Howett, who focused on pollution caused by industrialized hog farming operations.
When the administration changed, however, so did the atmosphere at the EPA. Her boss, Eric Schaeffer, resigned as director of EPA regulatory enforcement after publicly stating his view that the Bush administration was weakening enforcement of the Clean Air Act and other laws. Howett felt similarly discouraged and left the agency in 2002 to become director of the Atlanta office of the Southern Environmental Law Center.
The SELC job put her on the leading edge of movements in Georgia for better air and water quality, and other conservation measures in the state.
“Few people know that right off the Georgia coast, just a stone’s throw from St. Mary’s, is the only calving ground on the planet for the Northern Right Whale,” says Howett, who worked for tighter boater regulations to protect the endangered animals.
The estimated 350 surviving Northern Right Whales, rarest of all the great whales, spend their summers in Cape Cod, where they are celebrated and protected. But when they swim south and enter Georgia’s waters, the Northern Right Whales become anonymous and more vulnerable, Howett says.
“It’s unfortunate, but a lot of people aren’t educated about the wonderful and unique eco-system that we have here,” she says. “We have more salt marsh on the Georgia coast than anywhere else on the Atlantic seaboard, but we don’t have a culture of environmentalism.”
Howett jumped at the chance to become Emory’s first director of sustainability in 2006. It’s a job that draws on many of her passions, and the University is like a second home to her. In fact, two of her sisters work at Emory: Catherine Howett is associate director of the Carlos Museum and Maeve Howett is an assistant professor in the school of nursing.
“We joke that our blood runs blue and gold,” Howett says. “My family has a lot of loyalty to this place.”
She lives in Decatur with her husband, Cullen Marose, within biking distance of campus, although biking is no longer the idyllic experience of her childhood. “I get scared sometimes by the traffic,” Howett says, of the days she cycles to work. “Houston Mill Road is especially scary. We all know that has to change.”
Howett is not daunted by the University’s ambitious sustainability goals, such as a 25 percent reduction in energy use on the campus by 2015. “I’m proud of Emory for setting a high bar,” she says.
She believes that education is the best way to get students, faculty and staff on board with the sustainability plan. Awareness creates change, she says, adding that an important part of Emory’s sustainability plan is to help spread that awareness in the wider community.
“If Emory is a clean and green oasis, but the surrounding community and city are allowed to denigrate environmentally, then we will have failed,” Howett says. “We have to get beyond our gates. Scientists tell us that we have 10 years to reverse climate change. We’ve got to take this seriously.”