Growing up on a farm near Stafford, Dennis Dimick wanted to be a biologist when he was in fourth grade. At 12, he wanted to be a forest ranger. But the fifth-generation Oregonian discovered journalism as a freshman at Oregon State University, and that launched him on a career that led him to the National Geographic magazine in 1980.
Now National Geographic's executive editor for the environment, Dimick will return to OSU on Thursday to deliver this year's Gov. Tom McCall Memorial Lecture, "Changing Planet: Where Energy and Climate Collide." The free lecture begins at 7 p.m. at LaSells Stewart Center.
Dimick's appreciation for the environment is rooted in his own history and experiences.
Dimick's family came by wagon train to the Willamette Valley in the 1840s. As a boy, he raised purebred Suffolk sheep with his older brother, John.
"In the mid-1960s, we lost the heart of our farm to an Interstate highway (when) Interstate 205, the East Portland freeway, was built across our land," Dimick said. "I was able to see first-hand the ecological and societal price paid by ‘progress.' The water of the creek through our land was polluted; the neighbor's pond silted up and became unusable."
At OSU, Dimick was studying to become a high school teacher of vocational agriculture when he bought his first camera.
"My grandfather was a hobby photographer; had a darkroom," Dimick said. "I got the photography bug from watching him work with a camera when I was very young and then seeing his pictures."
His roommate at Sigma Alpha Epsilon, Chris Anderson (now the publisher of The Oregonian), introduced him to the Daily Barometer editor. Anderson later became editor. His friend and future boss, Chris Johns, now editor of National Geographic, also was a college roommate and fraternity brother.
His time at OSU further shaped his passion for the environment and journalism's role in educating people about the challenges facing the planet.
"The combination of growing up on a farm, raising crops and livestock, and being exposed to the natural world across Oregon and the Cascade Mountains set me up for the kind of work I do today," Dimick said. "The agriculture education was very important. Agriculture is perhaps the most integrated of the sciences: biology, chemistry, soils, animal science, cereals, forages, nutrition, watershed management, economics, marketing. In terms of problem-solving it was and remains a perfect model for integrated thinking about cross-disciplinary environmental issues."
Ten years ago, Dimick read an article in the journal Science on the global carbon cycle and his focus sharpened. "If the world is to understand why our global use of carbon fuels is a problem for all of us, long term, we need to begin by explaining the carbon cycle and helping people understand the impacts of our actions on this key cycle of life," he said.
Dimick believes the media can be part of the solution and part of the problem in educating the public.
"We the people are seen by news media and policymakers as ‘consumers.' That word should be banned. That we are a ‘consumer society' means we are by definition self-limiting, that we are expected to take what is given, that the experts, corporations, and specialists will tell us all what we need and want. We are like cows at the trough waiting to be fed," Dimick said. "The word ‘consumer' does not carry with it the rights, duties and obligations of citizenship. We need to reclaim the mantle of citizenship and with it the obligations that come with. We need to move to a post-consumer society and mindset if we are to successfully confront the future."
"What we try to do at National Geographic is to fill a gap in media landscape of ideas, provide perspective and context into these complex issues in appealing and smart ways, and to provide knowledge and insight that can inspire smart decisions."
Dimick finds inspiration in the words of Wendell Berry. And in the nature near his home in northern Virginia:
"I love watching the changing of the seasons, the leaves coming and going, the weather, the effects of storms, the rise and fall of the streams, this more than anything keeps me connected to the rhythms of nature."