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The Power of Protests January 19, 2017

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This week, the Ringling Brother Circus announced that after 100 years, they are closing their tent flaps for good, come this May. I had a few mixed emotions about that announcement that I would like to share here, especially in light of the upcoming Women’s March on Washington that I will be participating in this Saturday…

The Impact of a Circus

Like many American children, I attended the Ringling circus at least once, probably a couple times, in my life. I am pretty sure I even rode on the back of one of the endangered Asian elephants… a treat for any young kid. While clowns scared me, the animals enthralled me. Aside from the zoo, the circus was the only other place for me to see these amazing creatures up close. It had a lasting effect on me.

But as I got older I came to realize that these wild creatures shouldn’t be put on spectacle for our entertainment. The cramped cages, the stress of moving from town to town, the impact of performing multiple nights a week, the alleged abuses; they all added up to make me dislike the circus.

My First Protest

In college I started an animal rights group at my school. We spent most of our time trying to get more vegetarian options in the cafeteria and educate people about animal testing. It was a rather tame bunch. In grad school I joined the group there (the only grad student in the group, I might add) and was a member of PETA (something I would not continue for long due to their extreme views). Through that group I protested the Ringling Brothers Circus when it came to town.

I was anxious and had no idea what to expect. Would we experience hostility? Would there be violence? I was surprised by what we did experience… the circus performers who I met were cordial and took the time to listen to our concerns. The parents mostly tried to ignore us. Ignorance is bliss, right?! After all, my parents took me to the circus when I was young. It’s almost like a right of passage.

Bittersweet Goodbye

And that is why the announcement of the circus’ closing left me with mixed emotions. I am so very happy that no more elephants, lions, tigers, and other animals will have to live such an unnatural life performing for our amusement. They deserve much better. But I do feel bad for the performers who loved their jobs. I’m sure 99% of them respected their animal co-stars and treated them kindly. And after this March, kids won’t get to experience the magic of Ringling. Thankfully Cirque du Soleil is still around to fill in some of the gaps.

Protests Work

So as I get ready to go to the Women’s March – which I do want to stress is a march, not exactly a protest – I think back to my first protest and how it has left an indelible mark on me. And it’s amazing that it worked… although it took nearly 30 years and much effort to do so. The people taking part in Saturday’s march have many reasons for doing so. Mine are for women’s reproductive rights, environmental protection, and equal pay for equal work, among others. It will be a slow process making progress, but good things mature with time.

 

Why Voting Matters for the Environment October 11, 2016

The title of this blog post may seem like a no-brainer, but I wanted to reiterate the fact, especially as today is the last day people can register to vote in my home state of Pennsylvania. If you haven’t done so already, please, do so ASAP. Your vote does matter!

The economy is one of the most important concerns of US voters and understandably so; most people are not getting ahead, are worried about having enough to send their kids to college or retire, etc. However, there is a less obvious but no less important issue that all voters should have on their mind, and that is the environment and climate change. The simple fact of the matter is, without a stable and well-functioning environment our economy will suffer. Think of all the natural resources our society relies on to thrive: plants for food and medicine, minerals and metals for industry, beautiful beaches for tourism, to name but a few. The diversity and health of our natural world allows us to have myriad businesses that put money in our bank accounts.

But think about what recently happened to Florida, the Carolinas, and Georgia (not to mention Haiti and other Caribbean islands)… Hurricane Matthew. This storm destroyed beaches and the homes crowded along the shores, flooded inland streets and businesses, and grounded aircraft bound for places around the world. The economic impact of that one storm will be in the multi-billions, if not more. Climate scientists expect storms like Matthew to become more common and more serious over the years as a result of climate change. And what is more threatening is that they expect storm surge (what causes much of the damage) to become more of an issue in the future.

Some politicians think that climate change is a hoax, even though the super majority of climate and other scientists are in agreement about its existence and people’s roles in it. Other politicians acknowledge that climate change is real, but think it is not very important in relation to international problems and domestic economic issues. But as I stated before, our economy is intricately tied to the environment. When it is affected by natural disasters like Matthew, or by an oil spill or over-harvesting of a natural resource, that negatively impacts the economy. And international problems like the Syrian crisis could get worse as natural resources dwindle due to over-crowding, bad weather conditions, etc.

Our world is like a web, where one piece is connected to another and another and so on. If you think a heathy economy does not rely on a thriving environment, think again. And if you think all politicians (at the local, state, and national levels) care about these issues, guess again. So be informed and be sure to vote. Our economy and environment depend on it.

 

Sustainability Makes Sense for All March 12, 2014

Sometimes I am amazed by how controversial a seemingly harmless word can be to certain people. I understand why some people don’t like the terms “climate change” and “global warming” – they have become highly politicized and the actual events behind the terminology threatened people’s comfortable way of life. Even I have become annoyed by the abuse and misuse of those terms in the media. But I cannot fathom why the term “sustainability” has such a negative connotation in various quarters of the population. Lately I have had to defend the importance of this term, so I thought I’d blog about it here.

I first came across the negative perception of sustainability in reference to the Agenda 21 movement. Agenda 21 is itself a non-binding, voluntary action plan of the United Nations in regard to sustainable development. However, groups of right-wing and libertarian organizations have used Agenda 21 as an example of the UN’s desire to take over the world. The Republican National Committee adopted a resolution opposing Agenda 21 and their party has stated that “We strongly reject the UN Agenda 21 as erosive of American sovereignty.” Numerous states have passed (or are drafting) legislation barring government participation in the Agenda. The Tea Party calls Agenda 21 a conspiracy by the UN to deprive people of their property rights.

That’s a lot to put on the imaginary shoulders of a non-binding, voluntary document!

I have only read portions of Agenda 21 so I’m not going to defend the document here. What I will do is discuss why even if someone is opposed to the tenets of that document they can and should support sustainability. A compilation of the definitions for “sustainable” in the Merriam-Webster dictionary equate to something that can be used now but still be around for future generations to enjoy. When we practice sustainability we are ensuring that our future generations are not harmed by our actions of today. To me, that seems like a non-partisan ideal.

Through my job I promote sustainable landscape design and management for anyone who deals with land – municipalities, schools, homeowners, business owners, etc. The goal of the program is to show people how they can save money and improve human health and quality of life by rethinking how they deal with the natural world. You don’t have to be a tree hugger to appreciate saving money. And you don’t have to be a doctor to appreciate better health. Anyone can find benefits from sustainability.

I do believe that there is a limit to growth. If we sacrifice the environment and natural resources for ever-increasing economic growth we will reach a point where it all crashes. I don’t believe anyone would want that or have something to gain from it. So if we start to incorporate sustainability into our daily lives we can continue to have enjoyable experiences without dooming future generations. And in the end we may even save some money to put toward things we’ll really enjoy (like vacations and better benefits for employees) while enhancing the aesthetics of our communities.

So when you think of the term sustainability, think of a town where kids walk to school, getting enough exercise to cut the obesity rate dramatically: a town where small businesses thrive, where tree-lined streets clean our air and shade us during the hot summers. A sustainable community is one that will survive the ups and downs of the market, find new ways to compete in the global marketplace and attract new residents because of its desirable homes and businesses. Sounds like a place I’d like to live in!

 

Conservation Wish List for 2014 January 2, 2014

It’s 2014, which means it’s time to create a list of things I hope to see happen (or not happen) in the coming year. I like to think about my sustainability and natural resource conservation dream list… if the sky’s the limit, what could we see take place in 2014? Here are some of my desires, in no particular order…

The Sustainable PA Program will be rolled out to the public and embraced by municipalities across the Commonwealth

New York will keep its moratorium on fracking

Orcas can no longer be held in captivity

Genetically modified foods will have to be labeled if they are sold in the U.S.

More people will embrace the use of native plants in their gardens and yards

Dolphins and whales would not be killed for food or “research”

No new invasive species will enter the country

More municipalities will embrace “green” storm water management strategies like porous pavement, rain gardens and bioswales

Pennsylvania gets a new governor

More climate change deniers are shown the light and start spreading the word about its dangers

When someone abuses an animal they get more than a slap on the wrist

More people decide to live a vegetarian lifestyle or at least cut way down on their meat consumption

Do you have any conservation-related hopes for 2014? If so, let us know about them. Thanks!

 

Staying Motivated in a Political World June 4, 2013

I’d love to hear from anyone who works in an environmental/conservation-based job about how you cope with political issues and inaction.  Think of climate change, sustainable infrastructure, endangered species listing and protection… the list goes on and on when it comes to issues the government (mostly federal, but also at the state level) seems to frequently ignore or drop the ball on.  How do you stay focused and positive?  Where do you get your mojo from?

Some people are leaving work with the state government to return to the non-profit or private sectors, or are at least contemplating it.  Some may be motivated by money, others by a desire to do more hands-on, in the field work.  But some are also frustrated by the slowness at which things advance, or even worse, rolled back.  It’s horrible to lose talented, educated, dedicated folks because of these reasons.  Have you recently left an environmental job because of similar frustrations?  Let me know.

I’d love to hope that things will change soon – that Obama will deny the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, that bat habitat will be protected to try to give them a refuge from white nose syndrome, that more funds will be set aside for climate change adaptation projects – but in my eternal pessimism I cannot hold out much hope.  So please inspire me.  Let me know how you stay motivated to protect our planet regardless of what happens on the Hill.

 

Looking into Novels as Windows into Society February 2, 2012

I dedicate this blog to Mark C., who is constantly pestering me to write more often.  I am willing to take cash bribes to do so, Mark! Just kidding… well…

Anyway, I want to write about a few books I have read over the last couple months, all by the same author – Chuck Palanhiuk.  He is most well known for his book, Fight Club, which was turned into a movie starring Brad Pitt and Ed Norton.  I haven’t read that one yet but once I started with one of his books, I couldn’t put them down.  While they are not intended to be environmental or conservation-related books, there are aspects of that in them, and that’s what I want to focus on in this blog post, along with some other general impressions.

The book that resonates the most with me from an environmental perspective is Lullaby, a book about Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) and witchcraft.  Yes, that seems like an unlikely pairing!  Palanhuik likes to be tongue in cheek with his social commentary.  His books point out the hypocrite in all of us and the potential dysfunctional nature of humankind.  In Lullaby there are two hippie-type characters who constantly point out the invasive plant species taking over the landscapes through which they travel.  They talk about the over-consumption of ever-dwindling goods, especially by Americans.  They are disgusted by the factory farming and eating of meat.  They weep for the Native Americans and how they have been marginalized.

At first I was a bit insulted by Palanhuik’s portrayal of these two characters.  The woman had long ratty dreadlocks, the man liked to be in the nude.  It was a stereotypical portrayal of the granola-eating, tree hugging people that first come to mind when you think of environmentalists.  As a non-hippie environmentalist, I certainly take exception to his descriptions.  But the generalizations aside, these were characters that cared about the planet.  Sure, they might have taken some of their beliefs to the extreme, and were very judgmental about anyone that didn’t hold their views, but they meant well.  The fact that Palanhiuk mentions invasive species in a novel was enough to make me pay attention and get excited.  After all, how many people even know what an invasive species is?

 Lullaby isn’t the only one of his novels that mentions invasive species.  I seem to recall them coming up in two other ones.  But it’s not just the invasive species shout-outs that make me like Palahniuk’s stories.  In Invisible Monsters, a novel about a woman disfigured in a car accident, the vanity and narcissistic nature of our society is put on display.  Palahniuk presents plastic surgery and the quest for ever-lasting youth and beauty in front of our face so we can’t look away. 

Rant covers the spread of disease (in this case, rabies) through a population and the role the media plays in hyping someone up, even if they deserve to be vilified, rather than admired.  From HIV to ebola to Hep. C, Palahniuk runs down the viral messes we have made, both accidentally and intentionally. 

In Pygmy, a story about terrorism against the American way, looked at from the point of view of the terrorist, we see how our culture looks from the eyes of a foreigner.  Wow!  Things I think of from time to time, like the obesity epidemic, mass consumption of cheap junk, watching too much of the boob tube, etc. are dragged out into the light.  The book left me feeling guilty about where I live – at first – but somehow Palahniuk turns what could be a sad tale into a funny, heartwarming love story – at the very end. 

This reads like a commercial for his books, I see, but heck, I got them all out from the library, so you can too.  J  I would be curious to know your thoughts about his novels – does he have especially deep insight into human culture?  Does he see hope in humanity or a downward spiral into oblivion?  Can we learn from authors like Palahniuk and improve society before it’s too late?  Or are we fine as-is?  Those are good questions.

I’ll leave you with a few choice quotes from Palahniuk and his books.  If you want to read more of them, check out: http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/authors/c/chuck_palahniuk.html.  After reading them you might say to yourself, man, is he jaded or what?!

  • Maybe humans are just the pet alligators that God flushed down the toilet.
  • People don’t want their lives fixed. Nobody wants their problems solved. Their dramas. Their distractions. Their stories resolved. Their messes cleaned up. Because what would they have left? Just the big scary unknown.
  • Maybe we have to break everything to make something better out of ourselves.

P.S. A warning – his novels can be graphic at times.  They are PG-13, sometimes R, so if you are easily offended, they might not be for you.

 

My Stance on Marcellus December 13, 2010

I am editor of a quarterly e-zine that deals with wildlife and conservation news and the fall issue’s theme is Energy.  The cover story was on Marcellus shale drilling and, as expected, it brought in many more letters to the editor than any previous article had.  So far most comments have been of the same sort – saying that the article is one-sided and pro-drilling.  We aimed to be as neutral as possible, mentioning some negative impacts to the environment while not directly calling drilling a bad industry.  I had to keep my personal feelings out of it; something that was VERY difficult for me to do.  That is the role of a good journalist, however: to remain impartial.  Yet I was so upset by some of the letters that I had to vent here and share some of my feelings about drilling in the Marcellus shale.  These thoughts in no way represent what my organization thinks; they are solely my own.

I did a lot of research for that article and even visited a few drill sites.  I will be honest, they were not as horrible as I imagined they would be, using my preconceived notions formed from watching “Gas Land” and reading various articles and non-profit organization websites.  But they still weren’t what I’d ideally like to see in a forest.  A lot of trees are cut down to build the pad site, the area is graded with heavy machinery, which will compact the soil (and once soil is compacted it is difficult to fix), and there were a lot of vehicles coming and going through the area.  It’s not a “natural” site, to be sure, and one that shouldn’t be built willy-nilly throughout the Commonwealth.

Friends ask me whether I am for or against drilling for natural gas.  That’s a tough question for me to answer.  The part of me that is a pure conservationist screams, “No! I am NOT for it!”, but the more practical side of me pauses and thinks, “Well, we need energy to power our daily lives. The natural gas question isn’t going away any time soon. Basically, it’s complicated!”  Do I wish we could put solar panels on every roof in the state and grow native grasses for biofuel? YES! In a perfect world we could make much of our energy using alternative sources.  If Germany and other European countries can do it, why not us?!  But in our current democrat fighting with republican world, that isn’t likely to happen, so what else can we do?  Does this mean we must drill for natural gas?  In the short-term, I think the answer is yes.  Is that the answer I like? No, not really, but unless we’re all willing to go back to lighting our homes with beeswax candles and taking a horse-drawn buggy to the general store (ask your kids if they’d be willing to give up their video game systems and tell me how that works!), we have to find some sort of energy source in the U.S. and in the short-term that probably means natural gas.

Am I a bad environmentalist for saying that? Perhaps. I’ve participated in a protest or two in my life but generally I’m not that hard-core and prefer to make change in a more constructive manner.  The Greenpeace-types of the world deserve big kudos for the difficult and sometimes dangerous work they do, but that’s definitely not my style.  I’m the kind of person that watches “Whale Wars” and thinks that sometimes the people are doing more harm than good when they sabotage the Japanese whaling ships, but I digress…

Back to Marcellus. Conservation of our natural resources is, in my opinion, the most important thing we as conscientious human beings can do.  Yes, we have to make money so we don’t starve, but once our basic needs are taken care of I think we have a responsibility to protect our natural world because it’s the only planet we have, our very health depends on it, and once something is destroyed or exterminated we can’t bring it back.  If companies are going to continue to drill for natural gas in Pennsylvania and elsewhere it needs to be done in a very cautious, science-based, enlightened way that takes into consideration the health of our forests, waters, wildlife, plants and people.  This is happening now, but in a piecemeal fashion.  We need more people, not fewer, out there inspecting sites, making sure companies are doing what they’re supposed to. 

So those people who wrote angry or concerned letters about the article, I hear you. I understand where you’re coming from in terms of your fears and worries. Pennsylvania was manipulated and trashed by industries in the past – think turn of the century loggers and coal mining, just to name a couple – and you can’t blame people for expecting the worst.  We need to have those people out there with very strong opinions and keen eyes to keep everyone in line, doing the right things.  I may not be allowed to picket a drill site (unless I want to lose my job), nor would I necessarily want to, but it comforts me to know that there are folks out there who are making sure our resource extraction – not just of natural gas, but of other energy sources and minerals – does as little damage to the environment as possible, until we reach the day when we can power our homes, vehicles and lives with something that does little to impact the Earth.  Keep up the good fight!