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...