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?

Saturday, March 7, 2009

"Death of Environmentalism"

In the pits of an economic crisis that is impossible to ignore or even play down, it is important to consider the role of environmentalism in America's current situation. Recession or not, global warming and other environmental issues soldier on relatively undeterred by the fall of Wall Street, Main Street, the housing market, the auto industry, employment rates...the list goes on. While the economic stimulus plan has allocated money for environmental issues, many environmental non-profits are expecting to suffer in the next few years due to more competition for fewer grants and decreased individual donations. 

When millions of people are out of jobs, out of their homes, and out of their savings, do environmental issues really deserve the front burner? Especially with a recent gas price reprieve, many are wondering whether we can't just put global warming, land preservation, natural resource conservation, and wildlife protection on hold for a bit, at least until America is back on solid ground. The answer is yes, environmental issues deserve our attention and NO, we cannot wait to act. 

In "The Death of Environmentalism: Global Warming Politics in a Post-Environmental World"(2004)  Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus made it abundantly clear that the issues (which were a relative bother just 5 years ago, compared to the catatrophe they are today) we tend to deal with using a check-list mentality are actually all painfully interconnected and inextricable from each other. In 2009, Shellenberger and Nordhaus's critique of the environmental movement has proven to be brilliant if not for its foresight, then certainly for its accute observations. The environmental movement no longer has the luxury of allowing itself to be just a number on a federal, congressional, senatorial, state, or local to-do list. Unemployment, health care, global warming -- the entire fallout of this economic crisis -- must truly be dealt with in all its interrelated complications in order for America's economy and the global economy to dig itself out of the carbon-concentrated, greed infested ditch in which we, as a nation and as a global community, find ourselves embroiled. 

At the time of its release, this article rocked the environmental movement and its leaders to the core. It seems that no systematic critique of the whole system had ever been so effective since the environmental movement really became a cohesive force in the late 1960's and early 1970's. After all, the critique isn't of the environmental movement since its conception, its of the modern efforts at environmentalism under Clinton, and subsequently under W. Bush that have actually constituted a frustrating, if not quite embarassing, fall from grace. 

The crossroads at which America finds itself quite uncomfortably positioned is no longer which president to elect, we've already taken the first step, but how to effectively move forward. With fewer monetary resources, it's not a question of pouring money into everything, it's a matter of formulating on an all encompassing plan and carrying it out. We cannot improve health care, save the auto industry, and prevent global warming without the leaders of all these sectors working together to ensure fair practice in all efforts, jobs and job security, and decreased carbon emissions throughout. This not a game of environmentalists versus big business versus the public health. This should be a team effort to combat the social ills that effect us all, regardless of collar color, so that we can protect and improve all aspects of our environment, not just the natural one. 

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Elephants vs. Starving Children: Apples to Oranges?

As a supporter of wildlife conservation, I am deeply vested in a non-profit that is seeking funding to provide a baby Asian elephant with a prosthetic foot, to replace the one he lost to a poacher's snare. In a recent discussion about this program and its viability, I was challenged to answer the question, "Why would someone provide funding to save one baby elephant, when there are children starving?"

It's not as though this is an unrealistic or unprecedented question. In fact, it's fairly obvious. Still, the directness with which it hits anyone who is passionate about wildlife conservation cannot be ignored. The obvious answer is that not all funders are interested in granting money to prevent childhood hunger (not that they don't care about it) and that some foundations make it a personal mission to conserve endangered wildlife. Effective in the heat of the moment for certain, but this answer does not approach the deeper question(s). Are humans more important than animals? 

An interesting way to look at it is to switch the original question around to ask, "Why would someone provide funding to save one baby human, when Asian elephants populating are declining rapidly due to habitat loss, poaching, and habitat fragmentation?" Suddenly, that baby human's life seems pretty important to us, in spite of the imminent threats to an ENTIRE species of elephants. Interestingly, humans as a species are far from endangered while less than 50,000 Asian elephants survive in the wild. 

Maybe it seems like a cop-out by my response is: apples to oranges. The question shouldn't be who deserves it more. Both children who want for food and endangered elephants might not be in the predicaments they are in if it weren't for human influence. In the end, they are both in need of aid in different ways but because humans are, essentially, the cause of both problems it is our duty to work to fix both issues. One baby male elephant seems paltry, but less so when you realize the ratio of male Asian elephants to female in the wild is 1:6. If this elephant receives a prosthesis, he'll grow normally and, barring the influence of unpredictable factors, be healthy enough to father children through a captive breeding program. Suddenly, one baby elephant could have an effect on the survival of a species. 

As long as there are programs working to end childhood hunger and there are funders granting money to a cause that requires such immediate action, there is no reason why Asian elephants cannot be protected simultaneously. Is it really our duty to decide who is more deserving, if in fact, there are resources to go around and it is actually just a matter of allocating them effectively? 

Thursday, February 26, 2009

The Lake Source Cooling Dilemma...

For starters, if you don't know what Lake Source Cooling is (I didn't until today), please visit this Cornell University's Lake Source Cooling website to learn the details because in order for me to explain it adequately I would have to plagiarize this website, anyway. 

Public participation plays a crucial role in environmental policy making thank to the stipulations of the NEPA and the Freedom of Information Act. Ithaca, NY has somewhat of a reputation for being enthusiastic (to say the least) public participants and Ithaca's reaction to LSC is a"real-life" example of environmental conflict and resolution (or not). 

A little over 10 years ago, when Cornell first began the campaign to teach the Ithaca community about LSC, as part of the campaign they held many public meetings for concerned citizens to ask questions and voice their opinions. Cornell may not have taken the best approach but really did try to include the public opinion in their planning. While most people in Ithaca saw the incredible benefits of LSC  and acknowledged that there would be very minimal, if any, negative environmental impacts, a small group emerged in staunch opposition. This group aimed to take over most of the meetings with objections and arguments and allowed the meeting organizers very little time to provide useful information. 

Eventually, Cornell received enough public support and the go-ahead from the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC). The condition was that Cornell had to monitor two sites on the lake to see how LSC was affecting the lake and the various forms of life it sustains. Perhaps, it was overzealous, but Cornell offered to monitor not just two, but eight sites in the lake. Unfortunately for them, after a few years of data collection they realized that a lot of the data was redundant and they really only needed to monitor two sites, as the DEC had originally recommended. 

When Cornell proposed to reduce the monitoring sites to two, the LSC opposition was re-ignited under the mantra that Cornell was yet again trying to shirk its duties to the Ithaca community. In an effort at cooperation or negotiation, Cornell offered to give the money it would save (by only monitoring two sites) to the Water Resource Council to put towards creating and carrying out a strategic monitoring system that would cover the sites that Cornell would no longer be monitoring. In no mood to negotiate or cooperate for a variety of reasons, the opposition has not let up and Cornell's proposal is still awaiting a decision by the DEC. 

The question this information raises is, "How effective is public participation?" and "What are the motivations for public participation?" Much of the original concern and opposition to LSC was really useful to Cornell's planners and many community members asked crucial and useful questions. Now, however, there is some suspicion that the current opposition is still fighting just because they like the fight. Those at Cornell must certainly be feeling frustrated by this lengthy conflict and indignant at having such convincing scientific proof of the success of LSC challenged without any hope of resolution. 

The devil's advocate point is this: If there were no citizens fighting against such a huge entity, like Cornell, who would keep them honest? If it was easy for them to implement LSC and they were never questioned or challenged, would the powers that be at Cornell think less thoroughly about future projects. Would they assume just any old idea would fly? 

It's an interesting interplay of checks and balances in our system. As inefficient as public participation can be, if it was easy for people to implement environmental changes they wouldn't have to think so hard about making them as scientifically, economically, and socially airtight as possible. Furthermore, as much as everyone hates that one guy who will just not let it go, perhaps even he has a purpose in a situation like this. Do these people improve and strengthen the very programs they oppose?

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Addendum...Noble Savage

I just wanted to add a brief qualification to my post entitled "Noble Savage?" A friend brought it to my attention that what I wrote could have been perceived as an assertion that Native Americans are not environmental stewards or that Native Americans were not ecologically aware. I did not intend to insinuate, assert, or any other way suggest any of those things as a rule. I merely was echoing and agreeing with Shepard Krech III's argument that we may have over-exaggerated the universality of ecological knowledge among native people in the United States in an effort to create a marketing image to promote environmental stewardship and a pretty picture of a people that European-Americans otherwise oppressed (and in some cases, decimated). 

Hopefully, it is clear that I was trying to relay a particularly well-argued thesis in a book that comments on an issue that we tend to gloss over, accept unquestioningly, or otherwise ignore in our debates about environmental stewardship.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Theory applied to real life...

A few posts ago, I talked about the prevailing view of wilderness as a pristine environment unmolested by humans. I've been consciously trying to erase this notion from my thought process but I just wanted to share a short anecdote illustrating how difficult that really can be. 

A couple nights ago a friend and I were trying to plan a camping trip for after we graduate. She suggested staying in a lodge in a national park very close to where we live. Before I could even think, I blurted out, "Well it's not really far-away wilderness, but it will still be fun." Without even intending to, I succumbed to this ingrained concept that some natural environments are somehow more "wild" than others, that some aspects of nature are more "natural."

When a cultural view has been so deeply embedded in your consciousness since birth, it is unbelievable how difficult it can be to reject it even when you are actively trying to. I guess, sort of like becoming fluent in another language, it will take a while for this new world view to predominate the old one. 

Noble Savage?

This week, the book I've been trudging my way through (not a comment on the author, just a long week) is "The Ecological Indian" by Shepard Krech III. Krech's thesis, which he spends over 200 pages drawing out, is that the predominant view of the Native American as the ultimate environmental stewards and ecological experts who affected no negative outcome on the natural world around them is, well, a farce. 

And, in spite of my love for Pocahontas and the colors of the wind, it seems as though he probably doesn't need 200+ pages to convince me he is right. I mean, after all, almost all of our generalizing stereotypes are false, so just because this one is currently considered a positive one doesn't make it necessarily truthful. In the end, I think, humans are humans and no matter how lightly we tread, we use up natural resources, alter eco-systems, etc and somehow impact the environment. 

What Krech did need 200 pages to do, was flesh out all the reasons why the image that prevails today of the Native American as a Noble Savage, is pretty ridiculous. In actuality, Krech does the greatest service to Native Americans by humanizing them, (service we are historically negligent in providing). For better or for worse, Krech paints a picture of the indigenous people that inhabited the Americas prior to the onslaught of religiously oppressed Europeans as just that, actual people. Not wild animals or colorful tribal savages that make strange guttural noises with their hand flailing over their mouths (typical child's depiction of an "Indian") but actual people that worked the land and created civilizations and social organizations and lived and died just like any other population of humans. 

Novel in its almost obvious simplicity, Krech's chapter-by-chapter demonstration of all the collected research on the indigenous peoples of North America portrays a vast group of different cultures who all treated the environment in different ways, for better or for worse. Some cultures, like the Hohokam, were obliterated, perhaps for their lack of understanding of the environment they lived in, while others live on today. 

I guess a lot of what Krech is getting at, as well as other authors, is that our constant nostalgia for past ways of doing things is actually getting us nowhere in the quest to preserve and conserve the natural world. Often we hold as ecological ideals, people and practices that were far from ideal and only look rose-colored thanks to the haze that history provides. The main challenge here is not to confuse fact with folklore, and to use our past to inform but not dictate our future. 

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Wilderness: Man, Myths, and Legends

This semester I'm intermittently reading a book called Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature, edited by William Cronon, a pretty famous name in the environmental world. Yesterday I read one of his articles published in the book called, The Trouble with Wilderness; or, Getting Back to the Real Nature, and I can't stop thinking about Cronon's argument. 

Essentially, Cronon says that our view of wilderness as the pristine, untouched natural world that is separate from humanity, is not only a human construction (i.e. myth) but it is also hindering our efforts at environmental responsibility. He goes on to argue that anything that allows humans to separate themselves from nature has many negative consequences. First, it propagates the view that some parts of nature are more privileged or more desirable than others and that, therefore, they should be saved at all costs, even human lives. Second, it reinforces disregard for environmental responsibility because we only feel obligated to preserve nature designated as wilderness, but not the natural environments we inhabit in our daily lives. 

This sharp self criticism of the American reverence for wilderness hits me as a sharp blow because I feel that despite my best intentions I am also guilty of regarding wilderness in this way. As an "other." This article has bolstered my desire to be involved with the environmental movement but it has also changed by attitude and approach. The concept of a nature devoid of humans is unattainable and unrealistic. Instead, focusing our strength and dedication on promoting sustainable, environmentally responsible (a.k.a "friendly) life habits will go much farther than promoting the preservation of the idyllic, pristine wilderness that can only exist as separate from ourselves. 

Saturday, February 14, 2009

The Greatest Love Story Ever Told...

Most people, today, wouldn't say they think of a romance when they think of the Walt Disney motion picture Bambi, but at the time of its release this important classic was advertised as "The Greatest Love Story Ever Told." 

No, this isn't just a desperate attempt to link environmentalism 
to Valentine's Day. Actually, I was required to watch the cartoon for class this week and there was a considerable amount of discussion regarding the immense significance of this so-called romance story.

Many regard this movie as the first environmental film ever made. I'm not a film expert so I can't comment on that, but it is hard to deny the incredible impact Bambi has had on our culture. Before Smoky the Bear, Bambi was the one who taught the American people that they could prevent forest fires. Bambi and his forest friends are still images we associate with nature about 60 years after the movie became a box office hit. 

In addition to its innovative environmental message, the portrayal of man in the movie inspired a lot of controversy. Hunters, especially, felt as
though Walt Disney had created a piece of anti-hunting propaganda that was designed to brainwash young minds. While that opinion is certainly understandable, I think that is easy and obvious take home message. Instead, I think the message has to do with man's place in nature. I think it calls into question whether we know how to be in a natural environment without destroying it. While humans have consistently advanced technology to make their "civilized" lives easier, they have just as thoroughly forgotten how to exist harmoniously without its assistance. We have little regard for how our man-made items affect the organisms around us and I think that this short, adorable children's movie brings that reality to the fore. 

Other issues my classmates felt that the cartoon raised included gender issues, sexuality, and the reality of the natural world. The problem with discussing a children's film is that when you hear people start talking about so many serious ideas, it is harder to take them seriously. 
After all, you can always resort to the argument that everyone is making too big of a deal about a kid's cartoon. 

Still, I think that the public reaction to Bambi signifies a shift in American awareness about the environment. Its immense popularity at the time of its release is a testament to its effectiveness at impacting those who viewed it and that is something that can and should be taken seriously. 

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Selfish, Selfless, or Both?

This week has been a bit light on controversial environmental topics so I wanted to take this opportunity to bring up a slightly philosophical question that has been on my mind recently. Essentially: Why do we want to save the environment? or more specifically, Who are we saving the environment for? 

Perhaps I should have waited to post on this question until I had an articulated response or perhaps, the question is simply rhetorical. Because, in the end, does it matter who we are motivated to save nature for, as long as it is being saved? 

As always, it depends. Well first of all, this has actually turned into 3 questions so maybe I should focus my thoughts. With regard to the specific question of "WHO" this is the thought process I've has so far. 

Individually, I think the answer is both. I feel a strong pull towards environmentalism because a) I want nature to be preserved and protected so that the human race can continue to survive. We all depend on the environment for every single aspect of our lives so logically, I would be motivated to protect that which gives me life; b) I want to protect the environment because I think all organisms have a right to survive and carry out their lives and share the planet with us. I guess that is a pretty diplomatic answer but if a major in Human Development has taught me anything, the answer to most questions is "both", it just matter which side is more dominant. This is a big question so there is still a lot more I need to think about. 

As far as the general population of non-environmentalists, my guess is that people are motivated to save the environment because they want to save themselves in some way. Maybe that is a cynical view of the general public but that is where I'm at right now. 

There is definitely more I will have to say on this topic so I plan on coming back to it in a later post. Until then...

Friday, February 6, 2009

"The classic that launched the environmental movement"

The title of this post is a quote taken from the front cover of the 2002 edition of "Silent Spring" by Rachel Carson. Heralded as the seminal piece of work that kicked off the environmental movement as we know it today, this book is basically a must-read for anyone interested in matters relating to the environment. This week, we watched a documentary (sorry, I'm blanking on the name) about Rachel Carson's life and the story of how this important but unlikely bit of scientific writing came about. 

Since I acknowledge that most people aren't taking an environmental communication class and may not have read this specific book, I'll provide a bit of a summary. Essentially, Carson wrote this book to expose the horrible truth about the dangers of pesticides. At the time (1950's-early 1960's) pesticides were all the rage. Not only were they used in vast quantities to increase agricultural production, but the government enacted programs that allowed the spread of pesticides all over the United States. In the documentary we watched, the producers repeatedly showed images of young children being doused by the chemicals while eating and of government vehicles dispatching the potent spray all over suburban neighborhoods to kill annoying pests like mosquitoes, bees, and ants. 

 I guess what shocked everyone in the class, was that people thought DDT and other pesticides were great. They felt as though the government was actually doing something for them: getting rid of nuisance insects. Most Americans didn't even bother to ask what the effects of these chemicals might possibly be. What is especially horrifying is that these chemicals were made from derivatives of nerve gases, yet people still didn't question their safety. 

The concept of pesticides and our willingness to use them shows that no matter how incredible science and technology can be, we must remember to always question new technological advances before we accept them as a godsend. While pesticides/insecticides are great for increasing crop production and controlling diseases, they are really only a very short-term fix. What scientists and our government didn't realize, or probably more accurately chose to ignore, is the biological impact of these products. Aside from the deadly effects on wildlife, especially birds, pesticides led to the proliferation of "super bugs," insects that were somehow evolutionarily protected from these compounds. 

So, not only was the government "unknowingly" poisoning the general population (without their knowledge) but they were helping to create stronger strains of insects that could cause even more damage to agriculture and even more annoyance to the American public. 

This brash assumption that we can simply put down natural biological systems with our technology has gotten our civilization into a lot of trouble. It's unbelievable that even though history shows it is better to work with instead of against the environment, to this day we still can't convince ourselves it is the right thing to do. 

Looking back it easy to pass judgment on the American people by calling them ignorant for not questioning the safety of chemicals like DDT. Still, it makes you wonder how many hazardous chemicals and other technologies we use that we have never bothered to question. Are we really any smarter or less ignorant than they were?

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Flow: For Love of Water

Before I launch into a full fledged discussion of the movie I mentioned in the title of this post, I feel a bit of a responsibility to give a less cryptic explanation of the point of this blog. There is something to be said for refraining from posting when your brain is fried. Of course, I could apply that to now, but this discussion is neither here nor there. In essence, the point of this blog is to provide a venue in which I will discuss some of the environmental issues that come up throughout my studies this semester. I am taking two environmentally related class and a class about the non-profit sector so I will be inundated by material with which to fuel my posts. 

Now that the administrative business is accounted for, I'd like to mention some of my reactions to the movie Flow: For Love of Water, which I saw last night. This 2008 documentary by Irena Salina, drives at the question of whether anyone can actually own water. The film is about an hour and a half long and rife with scenes of third world citizens drinking from horrifically dirty water supplies and equally terrifying clips of the depletion of the world's sources of fresh water. 

My friends and I left the movie feeling as though the end of the world was imminent. Despite the apocalyptic undertones, the documentary brought to light the injustice of the privatization of water by large corporations like Suez and Vivendi. These companies essentially force poor countries into contracts which allow them to control and limit the supply and quality of the water that already destitute people have access to. 

In addition, the movie showcased a small Michigan town's fight with a Nestle water bottling plant that was rapidly destroying all the natural water sources in their region. The concept of bottled water is fascinating because companies like Nestle pump water for free and then sell the bottled water to the general American public and make a mint. Why do we buy what we already pay for? Especially, when there are fewer regulations on the quality of bottled water than there are on the quality of water that comes out of the tap. In addition, plastic bottles are a made of a non-renewable resource and the chemicals that run-off into the water supply as a result of their production add to the pollution of fresh water. 

These are just a few examples of the problems with water that Salina delves into throughout the film. I highly recommend seeing the documentary as soon as possible. If you can't find it at a theater near you, then you should make a point to find it when it comes out on DVD. Either way, you can expect to finish the movie feeling uncertain as to what you should do. 

You feel as though the water situation in the world is a lose lose one. Who does own water, if anyone? Who decides who gets clean water and who doesn't? Is access to water a birth right of all humans? How do we ensure that everyone has access to clean water, while still conserving our fresh water? 

These are just a few of the questions raised by the film, but they all come back to the problem that water is the most necessary requirement for human survival, not to mention every other organism's survival on this planet. How do we become responsible stewards of this precious resource? 

In response to the film, I am going to start by avoiding buying bottle water at all costs and I will probably invest in some type of water filtering system. No water is as clean as you tell yourself it is. No matter what, the importance of being aware of how much water you consume as an individual cannot be discounted or downplayed. I plan on learning more about ways to conserve water as well as support the provision of clean water supplies to third world countries. I'll post whatever I find out...

Saturday, January 31, 2009

I guess I have some explaining to do...

So I'm told that part of what separates a blog (the men) from a diary (the boys) is the unique message each blog has to share with its readership. I'm not promising a message that is unique, per se. The terms "green" and "environmentally-friendly" are certainly commonplace buzzwords employed by blogs, newspapers, and millions of marketing campaigns all across the globe. I'd like to use this blog to figure out what it really means to be "green" and how you know if you are "green" or if it really matters if you are or not. This semester, I'll be learning a lot about the different ways that people communicate about the environment and I think it will be interesting to discuss this topic as inspired by some of the literature I read. In addition, this blog will be a useful example of environmental communication that might shed some light on my own views about the meaning of being green.