“I hate talking about what I’ve done. I’ve always thought that my work spoke for itself.” Speak for itself it does. Even John Dernbach’s reaction to an inquiry about his accomplishments exemplifies his down-to-earth nature … pun intended. Dernbach is Elizabethtown College’s 2011 Peace Fellow, and he recently presented a lecture, “Green Peace,” on Nov. 9 and 10 at the Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies’ Bucher Meetinghouse.
Annually, a fellow is nominated to take residency at the College for a period of time, typically a few days. He or she is invited to speak on a topic that falls under the umbrella of peaceful existence. This residency is made possible through the Elizabethtown College Alumni Peace Fellowship. During his stay, Dernbach presented his ideas and opinions on sustainable development efforts in the United States, but more importantly, spoke on the correlation between peace, sustainability and the environment, a relationship that the peace committee intended to highlight this year by choosing a Peace Fellow well versed on the topic.
Dernbach was named one of three distinguished professors of law at the Widener University Law School in 2008, where he still teaches. A few of the topics he covers in his classes include property and environmental law, international law, climate change and sustainability, all subjects in which he displays distinct expertise. Combining his passions for the environment and law, he worked at the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Resources (now the Department of Environmental Protection) for a total of nearly 15 years. While working in government, he drafted four nationally-recognized reforms that mandated recycling laws. In 2006, he worked on an amicus brief to the Supreme Court on behalf of 18 other scientists, which was a landmark case for climate change legislation in the U.S. His expertise has also allowed him to publish a textbook on legal writing, which was just released in its fourth edition. In the text, he essentially created an alternative method of legal writing.
While pursuing his Bachelor of Science degree, Dernbach wrote an environmental column for the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire’s student newspaper. Having a background in journalism significantly affected his life work, and of writing, he said that it’s like “osmosis—if you breathe the air long enough, you’ll get it.”
Among his extensive involvement in other environmental efforts, he leads Sustaining America, a project that incorporates sustainability experts from various disciplines and reviews development efforts in the United States, ultimately making recommendations for future action.
Aside from the personal interests Dernbach has woven into his fruitful career, his passion for peace is one of the main reasons he was named Etown’s 2011 Peace Fellow. Dernbach explained that his friend and Etown alum Charlie Wilson informed him that the peace committee was searching for someone who truly understood the relationship between peace and the environment, a concept that Dernbach has adapted into his life work. “Without peace and security, none of the rest of development and functioning society is possible,” Dernbach said. He recalled an instance where he conversed with a student from Baghdad who couldn’t go to school unless there were peaceful times. Just walking down the street while at war was potentially fatal—there were (and still are) bombs, soldiers and shootings rampant in Third World countries. This reality resonates with Dernbach, who maintains this perspective to keep the world’s need for peace in mind.
The depth of Dernbach’s character is truly extraordinary, and is seen as he discusses the greater purpose of life. Dernbach recalled an anonymous quote he heard in childhood: “I shall pass through this world but once. Any good, therefore, that I can do, or any kindness that I can show to any other human being, let me not defer or neglect it, for I shall not pass this way again.” He stated that he has always tried to live his life accordingly. Dernbach noted that his life has taken him in many directions he never thought he’d go, but by following personal interests and passions, success, in whatever capacity, was found. “I think when your work and life are animated by love, there’s something powerful driving that. Larger than you or I,” he said.
Dernbach’s life has been an exemplary weaving of passion with interest and purpose. His life work has led him to great success, all while supporting a positive movement for the environment. His talents in the fields of law and government have acted as catalysts to some of the great work he has achieved. Dernbach came to Etown with the intent of helping students grasp the relationship between peace, security and sustainability, and seems to have succeeded at doing so. “My hope is that I provided that explanation. What I’ve seen here is the commitment of the faculty and of the students making a difference in the world. Just seeing that has been one of the best parts of the experience,” he said.