Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Landmark or Landfill?

Critics have been standing up quote forcefully to alert both politicians and the public to the fact that the Waxman-Markey bill, now referred to as the American Clean Energy and Security Act (ACES), is not as much of an environmental success as many involved in the movement think it to be. Organizations like Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, and the Breakthrough Institute, as well as politicians like Dennis Kucinich have all pointed out that the bill may actually do more harm, in terms of mitigating climate change, than good.

Yet, hundreds of environmental organizations, have shown strong support for the bill even though many willingly admit that this "landmark" legislation needs a little (or a lot) of work. From their perspective, it is such a big deal that a bill like this has even been written, let alone passed the House, that they support it hoping they can fight to improve it later.

This approach is reminiscent of a dilemma discussed in an earlier post about green-washing. Specifically, is something good just because it brings attention to green or climate issues no matter the actual message or does the message truly matter?

In this case, the debate is about something much more dire than messaging, it is about policy. Suddenly, public perception of environmental issues is not the only thing at stake, but actual legislation that will define our carbon emissions trajectory for the next few decades and dictate our competitiveness in the renewable energies sector.

If you were planning to build a new home, you wouldn't knowingly construct it without enough rooms or amenities just so you could have a 4 walls and a roof to go back and improve upon later. You would design your house to meet all the needs you know of at the time and include all the most up-to-date technologies to make all the time and effort worthwhile. Most people don't build something, planning to retrofit it later.

So then why would we pass legislation that we already know full well needs to be retrofitted. While the symbolic gratification that this climate bill provides for those who have dedicated their lives to climate issues is meaningful, it is crucial not to give up true efficacious policy for a bill that barely looks good on paper, let alone in practice.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Recycle Mann: An Undercover LiveBlog Endeavor

Recycling is a hot-button topic in the environmental world. In a culture that values convenience and disposability, many people are not thrilled about putting the effort into recycling their waste. Still, more and more establishments are popping up that encourage their customers to recycle. One such establishment, is Manndible Cafe, a coffee and food provider to hundreds of exhausted, famished students every day. With an emphasis on serving locally grown, organic products, Manndible is an environmentally-minded coffee and goody oasis. As part of their environmental mission, Manndible has extensive waste management facilities with separately labeled beens for trash, recycling, compostables, and paper in two separate locations within their relatively small space. This liveblog is dedicated to finding out whether students at a liberal arts school actually make use of compost and recycling facilities when they are literally right in front of their faces. The customers do not know they are being watched...

4:56 pm - Girl with orange dyed hair actually makes the effort to drop her coffee cup, cap, and napkin in all the appropriate bins. This may not be as revealing as I expected!

4:58 pm - Business is a bit slow so I took a peek in the closest waste drop location and their appears to be some compostable items in the trash can. Gasp!

4:59 pm - Starting to wonder if my time would have been better spent watching the Flyers' playoff hockey game. People are making purchases but not a whole of disposal occurring. Thank goodness for ESPN gamecast!

5:00 pm - It's shocking to think how much waste we create just by "dressing" our coffees.  Sugar packets, stir sticks, cups, caps...It definitely adds up. I'm sizing up the coffee bar to see if people are just throwing their waste blindly or putting remnants in the right place.

5:02 pm - I just watched a girl look at all her options, throw something in the compost bin then throw a recyclable container right in the trash. Much of the plastic here is compostable but even if she got it elsewhere, it is certainly recyclable. It makes you wonder why she took the time to think about it then throw it in the general trash can anyway. 

5:05 pm - Got a bit distracted by a conversation with a friend. I've been scanning though and haven't seen much waste disposal. My friend is self conscious because she knows I am watching her to make sure she throws away her straw wrapper appropriately. 

5:07 pm - The line is building up. This could get interesting...or not.

5:07 - 5:09 pm - I just watched a girl throw all of her compostable items that are markedly not recyclable into the recycling bin. This is so frustrating. At least throw it in the trash if you are going to do it wrong, so that you don't contaminate the recycling bin. What's even more frustrating is that all the signs for each bin clearly show which items belong there. People can be so apathetic. Interestingly, she is now buying more items that she will undoubtedly dispose of incorrectly. Perhaps I should offer recycling reform school?

5:10 pm - Maybe people know I am watching them. This place is unusually empty. It is a Sunday...

5:11 pm - Sitting in a cafe is making me quite hungry but I am trying to limit the carbon footprint of this assignment to just the CO2 I'm breathing out and the energy to power my computer. Therefore, no packaged food for me! A guy noticed me watching him and then proceeded to throw his compostable napkin into the recycling bin. Is he blind? 

5:13 pm - Decidedly, all the workers here think I have a serious staring problem. Oh well. It would add a little excitement if I got kicked out...

5:15 pm - People are really good at blocking where they put their sugar packet refuse. Difficult to say where they are throwing empty packets and stirrers...

5:16 pm - It is nice to see that a good percentage of the customer base at this cafe brings reusable coffee mugs...SUCCESS! I am sitting right next to one waste location and a girl just threw all her waste away correctly. She put trash items into the trash and save her napkin and plate for the compost bin. Some people can read picture signs! Great news!

5:18 pm - More good news. A girl just carried her plate and utensils to the waste location, stopped read all the signs, then deposited them in the compost bin. She returned with a napkin and composted that, as well. This is definitely encouraging. 

5:20 pm - A girl and guy (not friends) simultaneously stood and read the signs at the location nearest me. The guy deposited his collection of trash in each of the appropriate, separate bins and then the girl followed suit. Normally, I would suggest the influence of peer pressure but the girl looked to be considering her waste options before the guy walked up. 

5:21 pm - Girl blows her nose and throws the napkin in the compost bin. I assume snot is compostable. Gross, though.

5:23 pm - It's emptying out in here and I am getting hungry. I think it useful to know that, although there are some oblivious/ignorant people in every bunch, there are an uplifting number of people who are willing to read the signs and dispose of their waste appropriately. It really only takes a few extra seconds to discern where your coffee cup and lid go, and it's nice to see that some people take the extra to second to educate themselves. Especially when the information is directly in front of their faces. Have a nice night and remember your three R's and C (compost). 

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

EARTH...the movie

One week from today, Disney will release its latest feature film entitle "Earth." Created in partnership with the BBC'ers who put together the hit documentary series, "Planet Earth," the purpose of the movie is to relate the life story of three different animal families. Using incredible footage and the commanding oration of James Earl Jones, it is no coincidence that the film will be released on Earth Day. Having recently discussed this movie with someone who saw the movie at a pre-screening, it is difficult to predict how it will be received. According to this source, the animals were cute and the scenery was pretty but the producers neglected to make any real statement on current, controversial environmental issues. 

Although I will wait to pass judgment until I see the latest Disney installment for myself, it does raise some interesting questions about Disney's obligation to produce socially responsible or educational material. Based on the discussion of "Bambi" a few posts ago, it seems clear that Disney movies have the capacity to make an impact. "Bambi" influenced the discourse on white-tailed deer and wildlife conservation in general, and continues to do so years after the movie was released. With the production of "Earth," it appears Disney has another opportunity to make a significant impact on the public's environmental discourse. Bearing in mind Disney's ability to target a range of age groups, are they obligated to disseminate a strong environmental message that could potentially incite real change in public opinion? If the movie really does fail to make a statement, has Disney copped out? Have they shirked their social responsibility?

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Saving the World

There are many approaches that people use to act environmentally friendly or to advocate for environmental issues. There are lawyers who fight for environmental justice in courts; there are environmental educators who focus on instilling environmental ideals in children; there are "lifestylers" who employ environmentally friendly habits in their daily lives; and there are environmental organizers and activists. There are many other approaches but these are certainly some of the most commonly used ones. So, the question becomes: Is there a best way?

Intuitively, it seems to me that "it depends" or "both" is the unavoidable conclusion. Largely, it depends on the issue you are dealing with and feasibility of achieving particular goals. I will use recycling as an example. Environmental educators have the opportunity to make a big impact on children and their future recycling habits. If kids grow up recycling as part of their everyday routine, it will not feel so difficult to continue throughout their lives. They may become lifestylers who recycle for the rest of their lives. 

Current lifestylers may be recycling effectively and that is commendable but they are not necessarily influencing other people to recycle. Organizers, however, may create campaigns to put pressure on local and state governments to ensure recycling through government programs and funding. If recycling is available and mandatory, whether citizens are lifestylers or not, they are obligated to by law. Even more importantly, it is obvious to recycle because it convenient and services are readily available. 

In this case, it seems that the organizers and activists that put pressure on government officials to make change are the most effective but it is possible to see that different issues would be dealt with effectively by other approaches. So, even the "it depends" answer seems like the easy way out, it is actually the most practical way of dealing with diversity of environmental problems that our country and our world faces every day. 

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Into the (man-made) Wild

When most Americans want to go somewhere "wild" or take a trip into the "wilderness" they often head for national parks like Yosemite or Yellowstone. What most people don't know (or choose to ignore) is that these supposedly pristine, scenic landscapes have the stamp of human engineering all over them. Thanks to Frederick Law Olmsted's version of Adam Smith's "invisible hand," it's difficult to discern the human influence in famous national sites like Yosemite or Niagara Falls. Yet, Olmsted and other lanscape architects since often contribute a lot of planning efforts towards the "wild" places Americans hold dear. 

If the majority of Americans were cognizant of the amount of human influences in our nation's wild landscapes, would it change how they value national parks and other publicly owned natural lands? Should it change? Do we enjoy national scenic landscapes only because we think they are "wild" or because we enjoy our time in them? 

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Earth Hour 2009: The Recap

Live blogging would have been more conducive to describing my experience with Earth Hour 2009, however, since I am still a little green (excuse the pun) when it comes to blogging I did not realize that I should blog about the event while it was actually happening. Thus, a retrospective account.

First, click the link to gain some background information on Earth Hour, since that will be more efficient than my explanation. Currently, the website is a little slow to update the results of what happened last night, so I can't really expound on the global impact. In my little corner of the world, Earth Hour 2009, was just that...little. 

Based on the website it seems as though Earth Hour received a lot of international attention, however, it did not seem to get a lot of press in the U.S. When I approached my 18 housemates about participating in the event, all but two appeared dumbfounded. I found out about through WWF updates sent to my email inbox and that seemed to be the case for my other friends who were also in the know. 

Furthermore, during the actual hour in contention there did not seem to be a lot, if any, participation on a campus that is regarded as one of the most green-minded in the country. Still, we soldiered on and dutifully turned out all the lights in our large four-story for an entire hour. That is, all the lights except the T.V. As the house organizer of the event, I granted permission for the T.V. to remain on because we have a rather influential contingent of college basketball fans (myself included) that simply could not miss the Villanova-Pitt game. 

Unfortunately, with the T.V. on, my good intentioned effort to support Earth Hour seemed a little anti-climactic. Basically, we were just watching basketball in the dark with lots of little tea lights on the floor threatening a fire hazard. On a positive note, we probably saved a ton of energy because our house is usually lit up like Christmas!

Earth Hour's good-intentioned effort, like my own, may prove to be a bit anti-climactic. With the mission of presenting a global "vote for Earth" to the world leaders at the Global Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen this coming December, it is difficult to predict how an event that happened in March will influence international policy. 

On the other hand, global support for the effort in any capacity shows a growing awareness of global warming that is crucial to effective policy changes. The more people who join the movement, the more likely it is that world leaders will take notice. 

Although Earth Hour 2009 was a bit of a flop in my own house, it is worth hoping that it is impactful in December, when it really counts. And, in retrospect, it wasn't exactly a failure for me either. Motivating 18 people to turn their lights out on a Saturday night (with the exception of the T.V) is both a personal achievement and a demonstration of support for efforts to prevent global warming. 

Monday, March 23, 2009

Something is better than nothing...isn't it?

Examples of environmental communication seem to be more visible now than ever before. Commercials, TV shows, documentaries, cartoons etc. are all carrying interesting environmental messages. But "interesting" is not the same as "effective" or "accurate." When viewing/hearing environmental messages, it is worthwhile to keep in mind the motives of the media. Do the media truly care about what is "green" or do they care about what is newsworthy?

Much like the old adage - there's no such thing as bad publicity - some would argue that no matter the motivation behind it, any form of environment-oriented communication is a good thing. Even if it is inaccurate. Unlike a celebrity seeking publicity, however, environmental issues do not just need attention, they need the right attention. It is risky to assume that any message which motivates people to support environmentalism is always positive, regardless of the accuracy of the information. The danger is that people may unknowingly do or buy things that they think are environmentally friendly, but in actuality are not. If people falsely believe they are living environmentally-conscious lifestyles they may be lulled into complacence about the true state of environmental issues. 

A great example someone brought up in a debate recently, was the proliferation of "eco" shirts that proclaim an environmental message on a person's clothing. Ironically, these supposedly "green" shirts are often made from materials not produced organically or only a small percentage of their make-up involves an organic material. So people buy these shirts thinking they are purchasing environmentally-friendly clothing when they might actually be promoting the very environmentally-unfriendly practices they oppose. 

In the case of environmental issues like global warming, toxic emissions, wildlife conservation/preservation, etc. false information is almost as bad as no information at all. These issues are not celebrities, they are real problems affecting the environment and human communities. If environmental messages do not accurately describe the situation, how will anyone be able to fix it?