Sean Cummings was raised in the great outdoors as the children of Midland School faculty in the Santa Ynez Valley. He’s bringing that nature-centric mentality to his journalism as an intern at the Santa Barbara Independent, where he’s focusing mostly on environmental reporting.
Tell us about your outdoors-focused upbringing.
I grew up as a child of faculty at Midland School and later attended Midland for grades 9 to 12. I absolutely love the place. Growing up somewhere so permeated by the biological world beyond humans left me with a deep sense of love for that world, and I like to think having humanities teachers as parents helped foster my enthusiasm for reading and writing.
I started pursuing my environmental interests as an undergrad at Stanford University in 2015, but ended up leaving the school in the middle of my second year out of a combination of loneliness, distaste for the intense academic culture, and desire to balance environmental sciences with the humanities. I transferred to Whitman College and was instantly happier. I lived in an off-campus house with some great friends, worked in the peer writing center, and graduated in 2019 with a B.A. in Environmental Humanities and a minor in creative writing.
Whitman also gave me my first real taste of journalism through a summer internship with Mountain Journal in Bozeman, Montana, where I got to tour around the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, interview national forest supervisors and environmental educators, and write long-form articles for online publication.
After leaving Whitman, I found work as the Communications Coordinator at the Land Trust for Santa Barbara County. I love the people there, but the job itself didn’t end up being a great fit for me. I left after about six months and moved back home to Midland, where I’m still living now. COVID has made finding next steps a bit difficult, so I’m thankful to the Independent for giving me something so interesting and valuable to do with my time and skills.
You are combining your environmental interests with journalism. Why is that an important combination?
Like so many others, environmental issues are often enshrouded in the languages of formal science and legal bureaucracy, which can be intimidating if not downright inaccessible to a lot of people. The role of the environmental journalist is to bridge that gap — to translate that information into something anyone can understand.
There are a lot of scientists, actually, who are quite good at writing in engaging language for common audiences, and I think we need more of that. Writing about the biological world in overly technical language sometimes causes us to forget the color, joy, and beauty that exists in that world — some of the key things that make it worth talking about in the first place. Journalism and creative writing can help balance that out.
That’s what I’d say generally. In today’s U.S.A., however, there’s another critical role for environmental journalists, and that’s to give science the voice it deserves. The existence of human-caused climate change, for instance, has become a point of controversy in American culture despite overwhelming and long-standing scientific consensus that it exists and poses a real threat.
Yes, there are two sides of this argument — but giving them both equal attention, when in reality it’s 99 percent agreement and one percent uncertainty (if not less) within the scientific community, only serves to further mislead the American public. The responsibility of the environmental journalist is to report on different sides of issues like this in equal proportion to their scientific grounding, to highlight evidence over conspiracy and conjecture, and to explain the difference. Anything less is irresponsible.
What are some of your other interests?
I work part-time at a plant nursery in Arroyo Grande, where I alternate between planting oak acorns and potting baby agave plants. In contrast to the rest of my schedule, it lets me get outside and work with my hands, and I can talk to friends and listen to podcasts while I work (I’m currently bingeing Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History). I’m also taking two classes at SBCC, hoping to bolster my résumé for potentially applying to a graduate program in biological sciences of some kind once the pandemic ends.
Before the internship and classes started, I filled some time during quarantine by designing and building my own tiny six-foot-long teardrop camper trailer, made out of corrugated plastic so it’s light enough to tow with a bicycle. Not sure how practical it is, but it was super fun to build! Other interests include trail running (not so much now with the smoke) and reading. My favorite recent book is The Overstory by Richard Powers.