Swamp Yankees, The Greatest Generation, and the Nagging Problem of Affluence

An interior view of the author's 1770 home mid-process during rehabilitation. Copyright: Richard Telford, 2010

An interior view of the author’s 1770 home  during the process of rehabilitation. Copyright: Richard Telford, 2010

By Richard Telford

Early in my first year of teaching in northeastern Connecticut, more than two decades ago, I heard a colleague refer to her husband as a “typical Swamp Yankee.” He had acquired numerous lawnmowers in various states of disrepair and was slowly pirating parts from one or another to produce a working machine. It was the first time I had heard the term Swamp Yankee, but it would not be the last. Though it has historically been used largely as a pejorative, albeit a tempered one, I have come to see it as complimentary. In fact, I believe that a Swamp Yankee ethic, as I will try to frame it here, is a potent tool in the fight to mitigate the effects of the environmental crisis with which we are presently beset and likely always will be.

The exterior rehabilitation of the author's home nearing completion. All exterior work, including reframing, sheathing, siding, and finishing was done by the author and his wife. Copyright: Richard Telford, 2010

The exterior rehabilitation of the author’s home nearing completion. All exterior work, including reframing, sheathing, siding, and finishing was done by the author and his wife. Copyright: Richard Telford, 2010

Ruth Schell, in the May 1963 issue of American Speech, published by Duke University, wrote what may be the only scholarly treatise on the term Swamp Yankee. Schell noted that the term appeared to have a limited geographic range in terms of popular use, largely confined to southeastern Massachusetts, northeastern Connecticut, and northwestern Rhode Island, the junction of the three states. In that region she found that a Swamp Yankee was seen as “a rural dweller–one of stubborn, old-fashioned, frugal, English-speaking Yankee stock, of good standing in the rural community, but usually possessing minimal formal education and little desire to augment it.” In communities where the term was most commonly used, she found that the colloquialism “refers very simply to a rural resident of Yankee descent and inclinations, who is of long and, generally, good standing in the area.” The more localized the term, the less focused it seems on education or the lack thereof, and this, for me, is a distinction that matters.

Front Room After

The same interior view as above, following rehabilitation. The brass light fixture at center was retrieved from the scrap metal pile at a local bulky waste facility. The staircase, which replaced a structurally unsound and lead-paint-laden one, was fabricated from church pews that had been removed during renovation from a local church. Copyright: Richard Telford, 2011

Having lived in northeastern Connecticut for the last 22 years, 14 of which have been spent rehabilitating our 1770 farmhouse, I have come to see myself as a full-fledged Swamp Yankee, a term which, for me, has no pejorative quality. For me, the Swamp Yankee ethic boils down to the practice of fully and wisely using all resources, both material and intellectual, and this, I think, becomes more critical each day as we continue to assess and understand more fully the deleterious effect our societal wastefulness has on the natural world and, ultimately, on ourselves. For my family, the Swamp Yankee ethic manifests itself in living frugally in economic terms so that we can live more fully in terms of living close to the land and to each other. We live only on my teaching salary, which allows for our kids to grow up in their own home. Our frugality manifests itself in buying nearly everything secondhand, doing nearly all home repairs ourselves (learned mostly through books), and, perhaps most significantly, in rehabilitating our 1770 farmhouse, which was being considered for demolition before I bought it. In simple terms, we have worked hard to distinguish between what we might want and what we truly need, and we have modeled that way of life for our children. As I note above, the benefits of our Swamp Yankee ethic extend far beyond the economics. Such an ethic rejects the disposability that defines our society, reducing our environmental impact significantly. For us, it is a kind of living governed both by necessity and by the desire to give to our children, and subsequent generations, a more sustained and sustainable natural world.

A United States government-produced propaganda poster promoting the planting of Victory Gardens during the Second World War. Source: United States National Archive, Identifier: 513659

A United States government-produced propaganda poster promoting the planting of Victory Gardens during the Second World War. Source: United States National Archive, Identifier: 513659

Tom Brokaw, in 1998, invoked the term “The Greatest Generation” to recognize the generation of Americans who had lived through the deprivation of The Great Depression and rallied to fight the rising Axis Powers both on the battlefield and through solidarity on the home front. Americans ran scrap metal drives, planted Victory Gardens, rationed basic staples such as sugar and gasoline, and halted commercial automotive production in deference to wartime production; they forewent luxuries in all forms to contribute to a cause on which the survival of civil society as they knew it hinged. In short, they provided an example of sustainable living in a world of limited resources, though their greatest concerns, understandably, did not center on the loss of biodiversity or the changing climate. They demonstrated a selflessness that is largely absent from American culture these days.

Those who challenge the validity of anthropogenic climate change, and even many who acknowledge it, might argue that the present environmental crisis is not comparable to a global war that precipitated the estimated loss of 70 to 80 million combatants and civilians worldwide. I disagree. At present, we are at war with ourselves, pitting consumption-driven self-interest against long-term sustainability. The evidence of this war is all around us, and the casualties are real, though not so easily quantified. According to the World Food Programme, for example, “Some 795 million people in the world do not have enough food to lead a healthy active life.” To what degree is this number directly related to unsustainable agriculture, or to ecosystem changes rooted in anthropogenic climate change, or to government corruption that values self-interest over the environment? Consider, too, the long-term effects of the recent drinking water crisis in Flint, Michigan; or the cascading effects of the loss of polar sea ice due to rising ocean temperatures; or the plastics that comprise the vast majority of oceanic litter; or the widespread, global loss of biodiversity; or the poisoning of groundwater caused by the extraction of natural gas through hydraulic fracturing. How can we quantify the loss of health and life that will occur for generations as a result of these and other manifestations of the environmental crisis we have wrought? How can we fail to see that this is a crisis of unprecedented urgency?

A political cartoon by Theodor Seuss Geisel, or Dr. Seuss, in which he critiques American isolationism at the outset of World War II. In particular, he takes aim at American aviator Charles Lindbergh, referred to as "Lindy" at the bottom of the sign, who led the America First Committee, which opposed entry into he war.

A political cartoon by Theodor Seuss Geisel, or Dr. Seuss, in which he critiques American isolationism at the outset of World War II. In particular, he takes aim at American aviator Charles Lindbergh, referred to as “Lindy” at the bottom of the sign. Lindbergh led the powerful America First Committee, which opposed entry into the war.

Seven decades after the end of the Second World War, though we lull ourselves daily into thinking otherwise, we stand at precisely such a crossroads faced by Brokaw’s “Greatest Generation.” In fact, the long-term stakes are higher. Climate change is not a brutal dictator whose rise to power can be abruptly halted. Nor can accelerated resource depletion, habitat fragmentation, biodiversity loss, or other dynamics of our present environmental crisis be cast in simple terms. Our assault on the environment, whether conscious or unconscious, is omnipresent. Yet it is also largely invisible to those who cannot or choose not to see it, rendering the threat even more potent. It is not just civil human society at stake, as it was in 1939; it is our long-term survival as a species, and the threat will continue for decades, perhaps centuries, or even millennia. It is easy to decry such a statement as alarmist, of course, but doing so ignores the staggering speed with which we are depleting resources and degrading the environment in ways that neither we nor the Earth itself can reverse.

The front cover of Ann Morrow Lindbergh's 1940 book The Wave of the Future: A Confession of Faith. From the author's collection.

The front cover of Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s 1940 book The Wave of the Future: A Confession of Faith. From the author’s collection.

In her 1940 book The Wave of the Future: A Confession of Faith, Anne Morrow Lindbergh, facing the rise of Nazism, Communism, and Fascism in Europe, wrote the following: “In fact, on the average citizen, even more than on the expert, falls the responsibility of decision, in present issues, and the burden of its consequences.” Seventy-five years later, it would be hard to sum up more eloquently the dynamic of our present environmental crisis; we, as “average citizen[s],” cannot ignore the critical role we can and must play in solving complex environmental problems rather than exacerbating them. There is, though, a darker dimension to Lindbergh’s treatise, one that is especially pertinent now. In the closing pages, she writes, “Because of this tradition and this heritage, many of us hoped that in America, if nowhere else in the world, it should be possible to meet the wave of the future in comparative harmony and peace. It should be possible to change an old life to a new without such terrible bloodshed as we see today in Europe. We have been a nation who looked forward to new ideas, not back to old legends.”  Though she seems reticent to state it outright in the 41-page text, it is clear by the end of her Confession that she advocates for an isolationist course. This is not surprising, given that her husband, American aviator Charles Lindbergh, headed one of the most potent isolationist groups in the country, the America First Committee. In the closing pages of her treatise, Anne Morrow Lindbergh argues that, by remaining aloof of the conflict in Europe and by “giving up part of the ease of living and the high material standard we have been noted for […],” i.e. the loss of European luxury imports, America “might gain in spirit, vigor, and in self-reliance.” The hindsight of history bears out the flaws her argument, and the application of that history in the present leads to one inevitable conclusion: such aloofness cannot save us now, just as it could not have done so 75 years ago. We cannot, in our comparative affluence as a society, isolate ourselves from the effects of the present environmental crisis. If we do not face it openly and act on all scales to change course, we are ignorant or willful conspirators in our own demise.

The author's father, third from left, during his duty tour in the Philippines, 1944-1945.

The author’s father, third from left, during his duty tour in the Philippines, 1944-1945.

Our affluence as a society allows us in the short-term to keep at a distance many of the direct effects of anthropogenic climate change that others now face head on—desertification, increased vulnerability to catastrophic weather events, and famine, to name only a few—much as geography allowed America, for a time, to isolate itself from the upheaval fomented in Europe by the Axis Powers. But in both cases, the “distance” from the respective problems was and is illusory. We can only buy our way out of the problems of anthropogenic climate change—and of many other manifestations of the present environmental crisis—for a finite time. The sooner we stop trying to do so, the better. On the individual scale, an ethic forged along the lines of the southern New England Swamp Yankee offers a good starting point. On the societal scale, we must look to Brokaw’s “Greatest Generation” and work to emulate their capacity to look away from themselves and toward the greater good. My father was born in 1926 and later served as a Staff Sergeant in the Pacific Theater of the Second World War, so I grew up surrounded by his contemporaries. I think Brokaw got it right. But for us to emulate that generation and to face the environmental crisis with like selflessness and resolve, we must first see the crisis as a crisis. To do so, we must come to terms with a complex and oft-hidden enemy—ourselves.

 

Advertisements

Orangutans and the Fires in Indonesia–an Environmental Tipping Point

By Neva Knott

Orangutans hold a special place in my heart. My father, Norman P. Knott, was a zoologist. In the early 1970s he worked for the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). We lived in Thailand and often dad would take the family with him to other Asian countries he visited for work. It was on one of these trips I fell in love with the orange Great Ape, as did my little sister. We were at a zoo and the larger male orangutan in captivity there was smoking a cigarette, an indelible image etched into my 11-year-old mind.

He was just he first of many orangutans we’d see while living and traveling in Asia.

In a later conversation between my dad and my older sister–she had asked him what he felt most proud of in his life–he said, “Creating protected habitat for orangutans.” My sister was taken aback, as the family folklore goes; she felt slighted that dad put the orangutan above his four daughters in his pride of accomplishment. When she shared this anecdote with me she said, “I said, but you have children.” My little sister and I somehow approve of dad’s heartfelt championship of the funny-looking orange and fuzzy animals we loved so much in our childhood. Truth be told, both of us still do hold them dear.

Source: wiki commons.

I’ve been following the news about the fires in Indonesia since it broke a few weeks ago. After the first few reports, focused on the fires themselves–locations, cause, containment–I began to see pieces about trapped and threatened orangutans. As I planned my next post for The Ecotone Exchange, I decided to write about them, thinking “this is another opportunity to show the power of consumerism and to talk about how we shop matters” (because the fires are a direct result of slash and burn clearing for palm oil plantations). Many of the reports I’d read explained rescue missions to get orangutans out of burning forests and to safety, another positive, I naively thought. Until last night.

My father’s legacy is going up in smoke.

Orangutans leaving burning forest. Original source unknown.

Orangutans leaving burning forest. Original source unknown.

I began my research into the depth of the orangutans’s situation–I always like to go beyond the click-bait information–with a google search of UN-FAO orangutan habitat. I crossed imaginary fingers that dad’s name would pop up, but his work was so long ago, I didn’t expect to see Norman P. Knott in my search results. I did find the recent (2011) report published by the United Nations Environment Programme, “Orangutans and the Economics of Sustainable Forest Management in Sumatra.” The photographs in the report are telling–I hope you click on the link and take them in. Information in these types of reports is always rich fodder, and not the type of information the general public reads, but I’m sure we’d all act and react differently if we had these types details easily in front of us. In fact, sometimes I think my work as a blogger is really that of extraction. The information, based on research, in this report frames the background of the orangutan’s plight in Indonesia:

First and of foremost importance, “With current trends in forest loss, the Sumatran Orangutan (Pongo abelii) may well be the first Great Ape to go extinct in the wild.” In 1900, the population was 85,000. Now, it’s 6,600. This is a decrease of 92 per cent and has landed the species on the Red List. Bornean Orangutans (Pongo pygmaeus) are also rapidly declining in number, down from 54,000, and listed as endangered. Information for the UNEP report was gathered in the Leuser Ecosystem, Aceh, and North Sumatra–areas currently burning.

Orangutans are extremely vulnerable to extinction due to a combination of factors. They have an exceptionally slow reproductive rate–Sumatran orangutan females give birth to just one infant at a time, only every eight or nine years. Indeed, the loss of as little as 1 per cent of females each year can place a population on an irreversible trajectory to extinction; they require vast areas of contiguous rainforest to live in; they are very much restricted to lowland forest areas.

Orangutans are most threatened by fragmented habitat–an issue similar to the one I wrote about last week in my post about Wildlife Bridges. The orangutan’s habitat fragmentation is due to forest loss which results from a combination of road development, expansion of large- scale agriculture, logging concessions, mining and small-scale encroachment. To illustrate the magnitude of forest loss–between 1985 and 2007, 49 per cent of all forests on the island were destroyed. Road development is tied to economic development, but the problem for the ecosystem in general and orangutans specifically is that roads are not planned to maintain habitat. The authors of the report state, “These threats can be directly attributed to in- adequate cross-sectoral land use planning, reflecting needs for short-term economic growth, and a lack of environmental law enforcement.”

Of these, the rapid expansion of oil palm plantations in recent years probably represents the greatest single agricultural threat to orangutan survival in the region. The establishment of many of these plantations has resulted in significant losses in orangutan habitat, since they have been created by converting forests instead of making use of already deforested areas, such as existing agricultural or low current use value land. Of note, one of the drivers of this rapid expansion that exists outside of the consumer market is population increase in Indonesia. In this report, the UNEP explains that 50 per cent of Indonesians rely on agriculture for income, and theirs is a population growing rapidly, so the actual number of persons represented by that percentage is much greater than it was even a few years ago–more people to support washes out as more cleared land.

As I read on into the report, I gained a little hope. I was bolstered by the fact that orangutans have been protected since 1931. Most of their habitat is in protected areas on Sumatra the rest of Indonesia. New regulations–as of the publication of the report–are in effect to make the spatial planning process one that is habitat-friendly. The government seems to want to work for orangutans, “The Government of Indonesia has ratified and integrated into national law many international environmental treaties and conventions (e.g. the Convention on Biological Diversity, Convention on International Trade in En- dangered Species, the Convention on Wetlands of International Importance, the UNESCO World Heritage Convention). Most of these support orangutan conservation at the national and international level. In 2007, the Indonesian government also released its own Indonesian National Orangutan Conservation Strategy and Action Plan (2007-2017, Ministry of Forestry 2009) to protect orangutans and their habitat, which was subsequently signed into law and officially launched by the president.”

Yet, the slash and burn deforestation–a cheap and dirty way to clear land–continues.

National Public Radio reported in “As Indonesia’s Annual Fires Rage, Plenty of Blame but No Responsibility” just a few days ago that much of the deforestation for palm oil is conducted illegally:

“Indonesia’s government has blamed both big palm oil companies and small freeholders. Poynton says the culprits are often mid-sized companies with strong ties to local politicians. He describes them as lawless middlemen who pay local farmers to burn forests and plant oil palms, often on other companies’ concessions.

“There are these sort of low-level, Mafioso-type guys that basically say, ‘You get in there and clear the land, and I’ll then finance you to establish a palm oil plantation,’ ” he says.

The problem is exacerbated by ingrained government corruption, in which politicians grant land use permits for forests and peat lands to agribusiness in exchange for financial and political support.

“The disaster is not in the fires,” says independent Jakarta-based commentator Wimar Witoelar. ‘It’s in the way that past Indonesian governments have colluded with big palm oil businesses to make the peat lands a recipe for disaster.’ Wimar notes that previous administrations are partly to blame for nearly two decades of annual fires.”

All that said, NPR cites Indonesia’s current and fairly new president, Joko Widodo, referred to as Jokowi, to be a man willing to take proactive measure to combat this issue, “The president has deployed thousands of firefighters and accepted international assistance. He has ordered a moratorium on new licenses to use peat land and ordered law enforcers to prosecute people and companies who clear land by burning forests.”

I find it horrific that these land-clearing fires have been part of Business As Usual for so long. The fires in 1997, according to the UNEP report, cost Indonesia 10 billion dollars; this year’s fires, according to the New York Times, cost 14 billion. I’ve read several news reports that the carbon emissions from this year’s are more than what the US in it’s entirety emits. These figures easily refute the economic feasibility argument in favor of clearing forest for palm oil.

From ABC Australia’s article, “Indonesian Fires: Forget the Orangutans, Is the Blaze a Tipping Point for Carbon Emissions?,”:

“The fires in Indonesia are more than just a threat to endangered orangutans. They have shortened by up to two years the window to reduce carbon emissions and avoid runaway climate change, according to one of the CSIRO’s leading climate scientists.

The head of the Global Carbon Project at the CSIRO, Pep Canadell, said the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere may have exceeded 400 parts per million for the first time in 2 million years, because of the 1 billion tonnes of carbon released by the fires in a two-month period.

Dr Canadell said the daily emissions of the Indonesian fires had been equal to the daily emissions of the US, accelerating humanity’s progress along the upward line of global emissions by about one to two years.”

As Take Part reports, there are some ugly outcomes of the orangutans having to flee their habitat because of the fires, “Orangutans have more to fear than just the fire. The flames and smoke are pushing them out of their already reduced habitats and closer to human villages, where the adults are killed and the young apes are sold into the pet trade. In the past week, International Animal Rescue saved one such young orangutan, Gito, who had been kept in a cardboard box and left in the sun to die.”

By now these sorts of events should be taken as a death knell ringing across the globe. It seems humans have come so far from living in caves that we’ve forgotten we are part of nature and its patterns. These fires and the plight of the orangutans is emblematic that we cannot succeed by pulling apart ecosystems, using one part that is economically beneficially and saying to hell with the rest. These fires and the plight of orangutans is another example that large-scale mono-cropping is the days-gone-by way of agriculture; it does not work with such a densely populated planet as we live on today. The UNEP put these words to the root cause of the problem, “The current economic system, which is based on the assumption that most of what is taken from the environment is a public good, or, in other words, that it is “free,” is leading humanity to either overexploit what nature provides or to destroy it completely. This has created an economic system in which one service has been maximized, usually productivity–[such as quick, low-cost slash and burn clearing], at the expense of others.”

Here at The Ecotone Exchange our moniker is Positive Stories of the Environment. Is there anything positive in this mess? I don’t know, but I was compelled to write about it anyway…

In the short term, several animal rescues like International Animal Rescue and Sumatran Orangutan Society are working on the ground in Indonesia to get the animals to safety. Follow this link to a National Geographic photo-essay, “Saving Sumatra’s Orangutans.” 

There are models for better forestry practices (about which I’ve written extensively), and as the UNEP suggests, there’s much already deforested land available to palm oil growers–some in Indonesia, some elsewhere–and realistically, orangutans take up very little space on this planet, yet palm oil can grow many places.

One thing that’s got to change is environmental standards everywhere. Much of what we consume in America is made elsewhere–to a large degree because companies don’t want to adhere to the environmental, non-pollution, standards here. So we outsource our pollution.

Indonesia is home to the Sustainable Palm Oil Platform, an advocacy that trains and certifies sustainably grown palm oil. Another agency, Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, offers similar certification. And several non-profits publish lists of palm oil free products. But palm oil is in everything–I don’t think we can responsibly-shop our way out of this one. Yesterday I thought it might be an option, because so many environmental problems are market-driven (as is this one).

Nor is this a simple issue of saving a charismatic species. Contrastingly, I am looking at the plight of the orangutans as an indicator, I’m looking at them as an indicator of human outcomes. Humans and orangutans share 97 per cent of our DNA. If these Great Apes face extinction from this level of habitat destruction, might not we be next?

This is truly “the horror, the horror.” In Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, this is all the character Kurtz can say after living alongside the atrocities of European colonization in Africa, after seeing how the “natives” are treated by his countrymen. In the movie adaptation of Conrad’s book, Apocalypse Now, the story is set during the Vietnam War and Kurtz’s last words are the same, “the horror, the horror.”

So I don’t know what the positive is in this story–maybe it is the awareness raised around the world. Maybe it’s that the ideas in the UNEP report can now become reality under the leadership of Indonesian President Widodo. Maybe it’s that the connection between a perceived human need for a product–palm oil, and the natural world–the burning forests and fleeing orangutans, and human welfare–health problems caused by smoke and smog from the fires, and economic ruin are made plain so that future disasters will be avoided by better planning.

My father’s legacy is ablaze and I think I’m going to adopt some orangutans as Christmas presents.

Losing Hope

By Neva Knott

earth-from-space

Image courtesy of EPA.gov.

We’ve driven, shopped, and eaten our way into disaster. I am on the brink of loss of hope, ready to give up. None of my beliefs seem strong enough to put into action and my voice sounds miniscule in the drowning cacophony of corporate greed and single-purpose endeavors and snack packaging.

I cannot understand how so many humans deny that we are in a mess. Our life support system is failing. Call it what you want–climate change, ecological disaster, overpopulation, water wars…sum total, the natural processes that allow humans to stay alive on this planet are ruined, and at our own hand, by our getting and having.

I cannot understand the arguments to keep going in this way–to keep waging age-old wars that poison water and destroy the arability of land. To keep chopping down trees that control heat and air quality and groundwater retention. To keep paving ground that filters the water cycle, thereby controls flooding. To keep destroying food source after food source through poisoning with chemical pesticides and mono-cropping and over-harvesting. To keep driving as a right rather than a luxury so that high-risk drilling is the norm.

And here’s the rub–what we get for all that quickly goes into a landfill. The stuff garnered by all of that destruction is stuff, not sustenance.

I have come to the point where I find it hard to write about the positive, because my brain shuts down at constantly being bombarded by the negative. Not so much that it exists, but by the human stupidity behind the destruction. I understand how the media works, how a news cycle takes over rational, critical thinking, and how we all live in a culture of embeddedness. I understand that socio-political change, which is the driver of climate resilience, only comes though a constant push on many fronts to fill the gaps left in the mainstream master narrative. But I also see a lot of hypocrisy and a lack of common sense.

For example, the morning I began working on this essay, I ran across a news story about getting rid of deer in Ashland, Oregon. Too many of them–overpopulation, and they are bothering the humans. The controversy is to shoot them or not. That’s a moot point. These are the real solutions:

1. Conduct urban planning that includes habitat needs of non-human species. When the new housing development happens in what was previously home to deer… Ashland is a small town, and one that has thoughtfully built a unique destination for itself, and a human lifestyle that embraces certain qualities, those we now call make local habit. In the early planning, to protect local businesses, the town had the foresight to say no chains in downtown…it’s that same foresight that must extend to dealing with wildlife. Essentially, Ashland businesses said hey, this invasive species will ruin us if we let it set up shop here–franchises controlled by outside interests will take down our habit…deer now face the same issue.

2. The second issue with deer here in Oregon is due to eradication of predators, wolves in particular. I’ve written a series of essays on the history and science of wolves in Oregon. Let me simplify the issue–they do more good than harm when on a landscape where they belong. They are not a direct threat to humans unless humans go looking for a fight with them. In the whole history of Oregon as a state, there is no documented case of a wolf attack on a human.

The reality is, if we cut down all the places animals live in their natural states, they will come hang out in our yards and ruin our flower beds.

Even when measures are in place with the intent of co-existing with wildlife or at least easing human displacement of them, animals are there as part of the make-up of the planet, as are humans. By design. If we reach back and look at indigenous cultures, there’s much to learn about living in accordance, species to species.

But I’m not writing here today about deer overpopulation. I went on that tangent as an example of lack of simple common sense and the ability of humans to apply a concept (keep the invaders out so we can have a livelihood) to our own needs will using the other edge of that sword (we’re the invaders and now deer are displaced in their sense of livelihood) for all other species.

Common sense in this day and age and in terms of where we are as a species on this planet is this simple: Do my actions add to the problems or are they part of the solution?

Here’s a juncture where I my head begins to explode–there are so many aspects to consider–plastics in the ocean; melting Arctic ice; illegal poaching of rhinos and elephants for their horns and tusks; polluted rivers and decreasing fish runs; GMO foods and Monsanto… But not really. There is one game-changer problem and everything else is a sub-set of it–climate change.

greenhouse-effect

Image courtesy of Australia.gov.

This week, when reading around online, I was reminded of the key word in the climate debate–abashedly, I’d forgotten this word as the new level of the bar, even after having heard the lead climate scientist for National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) speak last spring.

Irreversible.

This is the word used by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in its 2014 report–covered here in the Washington Post.

Climate change IS. The Environmental Protection Agency has this to say about it:

Climate change is happening.

Our Earth is warming. Earth’s average temperature has risen by 1.5°F over the past century, and is projected to rise another 0.5 to 8.6°F over the next hundred years. Small changes in the average temperature of the planet can translate to large and potentially dangerous shifts in climate and weather.

The evidence is clear. Rising global temperatures have been accompanied by changes in weather and climate. Many places have seen changes in rainfall, resulting in more floods, droughts, or intense rain, as well as more frequent and severe heat waves. The planet’s oceans and glaciers have also experienced some big changes – oceans are warming and becoming more acidic, ice caps are melting, and sea levels are rising. As these and other changes become more pronounced in the coming decades, they will likely present challenges to our society and our environment.

The debate of what about it happened at Kyoto in 1997. The deniers are behind the times, stuck someplace with the cavemen who didn’t believe in fire or the wheel, with the people who doubted air flight or the moon walk. Climate change is all around us… it is the biological state of being of planet Earth. What the world’s climate scientists want us to know is that there is no turning back, no escape.

climate_change_health_impacts600w

Image courtesy of CDC.gov.

Every action every person takes every day affects how this thing is going to go. What we’re really dealing with is climate resilience, a concept agencies have been working on and running models to study for some time now–about since Kyoto. NOAA has developed a toolkit to guide Americans in this change of thinking and lifestyle. It’s time for that concept to become the mechanism of socio-political change that might save humans from extinction.

More overwhelm. (Keep in mind, it can be assuaged by common sense and working through some simple biology lessons…)

I have pretty good sustainable living habits, some born of frugality way back in college, some born of awareness and my liberal arts educational experiences, some born of my embeddedness in a “subvert the dominant paradigm” counter-culture, some born of travelling third-world countries as a child, some born of what I learned about the natural world from my father, some born of the waste-not, want-not mentality of my grandparents who lived through the Depression, some born of common sense and my innate understanding of right action.

Lately, though, I have changed or refocused my thinking about my own getting and having. I’ve re-oriented everything I do so that I now look at it through the lens of climate change.

If my actions to get my needs met now require me not to contribute climate change, I have to think about my getting and having of food, shelter, livelihood, social needs, and the kind of work I do. What can I do in my daily life to eliminate carbon, methane, and nitrogen emissions–the main greenhouse gases that cause global warming–in production of what it takes to run my life?

To date, I’ve made these changes:

I drive a car that runs on biodeisel and use fuel produced in Oregon where I live and I drive as little as possible; I eat only organic food and as much of it locally grown as possible; I don’t eat much meat at all, and I what I do eat I make sure is sustainably grown or fished; I avoid plastic and work to minimized disposable stuff, mainly packaging and single-use what-not; I use only eco-friendly home and personal care products and as few of them as possible. These actions have become habits.

What’s new for me is thinking about the clothing I purchase and how much I travel.

Sustainability practices measure sourcing, energy of production, and waste…take these factors into account when thinking about the goods and services you consume and work to reduce harmful sourcing, wasteful energy in production, and wastefulness (disposability) in the life of the product, and you’ll be making great strides minimize your impact and creating climate resilience.

The message from scientists and climate activists is loud–it’s here and it’s real but we can work to slow the progress. The planet has warmed just a degree and a half–I can’t imagine it at the 6.3 F degree increase that is the projection. It’s time to act.

After the Bridge–Let’s Continue to Block Drilling in the Arctic

By Neva Knott

It’s been just ten days since Greenpeace activists dangled from the St. Johns Bridge across the Willamette River here in Portland, working to block Shell Oil’s icebreaker, the MSV Fennica, on its way from dry dock back to the Arctic to drill for oil. The image below is now iconic, having appeared in media pretty much everywhere.

Streamers float in the wind under the St. Johns Bridge In as activists climbed under the bridge in an attempt to prevent the Shell leased icebreaker, MSV Fennica from joining the rest of Shell's Artctic drilling fleet. T According to the latest federal permit, the Fennica must be at Shell’s drill site before Shell can reapply for federal approval to drill deep enough for oil in the Chukchi Sea.

Photograph courtesy of Greenpeace.

According to reportage in Portland’s Willamette Week, Greenpeace arrived as a surprise. Local activist groups 350 PDX, Backbone Campaign and Portland Rising Tide had planned to put boats in the water to block the Fennica from departing, but had no idea of Greenpeace’s plan. The bridge activists descended in the pre-dawn hours and the other groups and concerned citizens launched at dawn. All in all, the Fennica was unable to leave.

gpbridge4Photograph courtesy of Greenpeace.

The action lasted 39 hours and was truly a peaceful protest. Details of it can be found on the Greenpeace website, local commentary can be found at Willamette Week, and several photos are on Alternet.org. In the end, the Fennica was court-ordered passage, but the direct action made an impact. The spokesperson for Portland Mayor Charlie Hales’s office remarked in the WW, “…the protesters had done a tremendous job of getting their message out…” and Jessica Moskovitz of Oregon Environmental Council was quoted to say, “You need moments that focus everybody’s attention, and that’s what Greenpeace does.” Of course, Greenpeace followed the action with a petition to President Obama, who recently approved, and defended his decision to allow, Shell’s drilling in the Arctic. 

There’s been enough media coverage of the events at the St. Johns Bridge. I’m writing to extend the conversation beyond the huge direct action–because there is much more to do, and several aspects to consider (which I’ll cover soon in future posts) about Shell drilling in the Arctic.

300px-Chukchi_Sea

Image courtesy of wikipedia.

But first…what’s the problem with Shell drilling in the Arctic? With Shell as a company, at least in environmental terms?

Drilling in the Arctic is a climate change game changer of devastating proportion. Treehugger reports that, “Northern Alaska is warming at twice the rate as the lower 48 [states].” Drilling will only accelerate warming. Additionally, there is the risk of a spill–along the lines of the BP oil spill in New Orleans in 2010, which changed that ecosystem forever. Greenpeace, in Top 10 Reasons Why Arctic Oil Drilling Is A Really Stupid Idea, enumerates: It’s extremely dangerous; our climate can’t afford it; relief wells are harder to drill [and necessary in terms of spill mitigation]; oil recovery is near impossible in ice; there isn’t nearly enough spill response capacity; nature is even less capable of absorbing oil there than in lower latitudes; the local wildlife is very vulnerable to oil; it’s hugely expensive; we don’t really need to–given that “car makers are perfectly capable of making only fuel-efficient vehicles.” Possibly the biggest reason not to enact this environmental damage is that it provides only…

A three year fix – the US Geological Survey estimates the Arctic could hold up to 90 billion barrels of oil. This sounds a lot, but that would only satisfy three years of the world’s oil demand. These giant, rusting rigs with their inadequate oil spill response plans are risking the future of the Arctic for three years worth of oil. Surely it’s not worth taking such a risk?

Shell has aggressively pursued drilling in the Arctic. As the world’s biggest company, Shell has pull–part of the St. Johns Bridge story is how quickly a judge ruled in their favor. The recent analysis of climate change polluters summarized by The Guardian lists Shell as one of the 90 companies that caused two thirds of man-made global warming. Shell also has a horrible environmental record, as you’ll see reported by manufacturing.net and Oil Change International. In a well-sourced article on wikipedia, Shell is named a “high priority violator” in terms of pollution violations against the Clean Air Act. And there’s the rub–once again big money is allowed to leap over laws. The company seemingly operates from the stance that might makes right.

Why? Because we live in a market driven society. This problem is that simple. Shell and companies like it do what they do because they make lots and lots of money–for themselves and stockholders.

Such favor is extended because the dominant belief is that Shell is filling a societal need, providing a benefit, by damaging the ecosystem/geographic region known as the Arctic. Change the need and change the game…

oil1

Image courtesy of University of Oregon.

The US is the world’s largest oil consumer. If most other countries–some large, some small, some industrialized, some not–can consume so much less, we can. This is where we, individuals who function in the market-driven society as consumers, come in. First step–drive less. Second step–change your fuel sources; for example, I use Oregon-produced biodiesel in my car and wind powered electricity for my home. Third step–stop buying petroleum-based products… and the list of them  is long, and sort of scary, considering one I saw was novelty candy.

I’ve written a handful of pieces in the last few months that tie to changing purchasing habits to help the environment. If face of companies like Shell, it’s really the only boots on the ground way to affect change. Big actions like dangling off a bridge are truly important to raise awareness, but then we must–each and every one of us–act to manifest that awareness as change.

Our consumer habits are our weapons of immediate action, other actions are also effective–please sign the petition to stop Shell from drilling, and please contact your Senator; several are already putting pressure on President Obama to protect the Arctic.

Sustaining the Ocean that Sustains You: More than Celebrating National Oceans Month and World Oceans Day, Things We Can Do

Sunrise and sunset are always inspiration times to have a quiet moment on the coast. Photo courtesy of Kirk Keeler Photography.

Sunrise and sunset are always inspirational times to have a quiet moment on the coast. Photo courtesy of Kirk Keeler Photography.

Regardless of where you live, land locked or ocean side, each day you touch, use and take in water that is part of a large planetary cycle. This cycle connects you to the weather, watersheds on land and ultimately the oceans.

As the world took time to celebrate World Oceans Day on Monday, June 8 and a United States Presidential Proclamation declared the month of June to be National Oceans Month, we have the opportunity to use these events as a timely reminder that the ocean affects each of us, where we live and the resources we all depend on. It is the perfect time to explore the ocean’s impressive influence and employ some easy, yet powerful, choices that ultimately invest in the ocean’s long-term health and functioning.

We rely on the ocean and the services of its water more than one might expect. For example, it is connected to fresh water resources, food supplies and weather, in ways which may not be evident.

The Earth’s oceans account for about 70 per cent of the planet’s overall surface. Of the water on our planet, only about 2-2.5 per cent is considered fresh water, with less than about 1 per cent  available for us to actually consume. Remarkably, our bodies are also made of a significant amount of water, about 60-70 per cent, so our dependence on fresh water is undeniable—and ultimately this comes to us from the ocean.

The ocean serves as the major weather and climate regulator of the planet. Its currents and temperatures affect the trade winds, as well as the cycles of El Nino (characterized by warm, wet winters on the North American continent) and La Nina (characterized by cold, dry winters on the North American continent). The cycling of temperatures and currents in the ocean play a critical role in the weather patterns experienced in locales around the world.

Snowfall in the Sierra Nevada mountain range, where seasonal variation plays a critical role in California's water supply. Photo courtesy of Shauna Potocky

Snowfall in the Sierra Nevada mountain range, where seasonal variation plays a critical role in California’s water supply. Photo courtesy of Shauna Potocky.

Weather plays a critical role in the supply of fresh water on the landscape during a season, translating into snow pack, rainfall and fresh water availability. Water availability directly affects human usage: agriculture, water storage, hydroelectricity generation and much more. In addition, water availability affects ecosystem health, with an overabundance leading to flooding or saturation issues and a deficit leading to drought and scarcity.

The ocean also has a huge influence on where people live and on food sources. Much of the human population lives along coastlines and the ocean provides one of the most important protein sources worldwide.

Even in landlocked areas, people are still intimately connected to the ocean via the weather and watershed functioning, which then affects food supplies such as agriculture. Most rivers flow to lakes or tributaries that eventually make their way to the oceans; thus, activities upstream have a direct effect on aquatic ecosystems. If a river makes it all the way to the ocean, it will affect the ocean ecosystem itself. Thus, people living inland also have a direct effect on water quality and ocean health.

Sea otters are a celebrated sighting on the coast of California. Photo courtesy of Kirk Keeler Photography.

Sea otters are a celebrated sighting on the coast of California. Photo courtesy of Kirk Keeler Photography.

It is true that the ocean is facing significant pressures and our dependence on them for regulating weather, climate and supplying food cannot be undervalued. The media is constantly relating stories of oil spills, crashing fish populations, pollution issues and much more. So with such dire stories, what is working? Where is the inspiration to make things better or sustain healthy systems?

Right here. These are some great examples of what is working and choices you can make to create a cascade of positive change:

Seafood Watch: Knowing that the number one source of protein on the planet comes from the ocean should inspire people to make good choices to maintain the world’s fish stocks. Understanding sustainable fishing methods and which fish are good choices in the market place seems daunting, but it doesn’t have to be. You don’t have to research the natural history of fish and where it comes from to make a great choice for your next seafood dinner—the work has been done for you and that makes choosing sustainable seafood easy.

The Seafood Watch program has complied the latest information to make your choices easy as well as effective. Simply go to the website, get the app or download a card for your wallet or refrigerator. It takes the guesswork and research out of making an informed decision for the ocean. There are cards specific to various locations and sushi information as well. You couldn’t be more set up for success for your next seafood dinner date.

Marine Protected Areas (MPA’s): Essentially these areas protect critical habitat in the ocean, giving them special protections, similar to a national park or wilderness area on land. These protections allow biological hotspots to either recover from impacts or be protected from potential pressures. Long-term monitoring of MPA’s has shown that, when these areas are protected, they provide benefits that reach beyond their boundaries, essentially overflowing into surrounding areas. Currently about 1 per cent of the ocean is protected, so there is significant room for growth. Consider supporting MPA’s via your local National Marine Sanctuary or talking with representatives in your area to implement a new MPA and create the space for long-term ecological benefits.

Oiled Wildlife Care Network: The reality of today’s global economy is that oil is not going away any time soon. With economic pressure to keep up the supply and demand of oil, the threat of oil spills will continue to haunt the world’s coastlines. Spills can be truly disastrous. Today, there are networks of wildlife experts who strive to directly and immediately address the needs of wildlife during an oil spill—and you can become a volunteer and learn first-hand, from them, how to make a difference. Working an oil spill is stressful and emotional work, but it is also powerful and rewarding. Washing birds or marine mammals can directly impact their ability to survive such an event. It will also make you look at oil in a completely different way, a change in perspective could ultimately benefit the whole planet.

Banning plastic bags: Many communities have come to grips with the issues surrounding the use of plastic bags. Unfortunately the wide-spread use of plastic bags and their convenience has led to their wide-spread distribution in the environment as trash. Often plastic bags end up in watersheds then find their way into the ocean, and once there, find their way into the mouths of birds, turtles and whales. Luckily, many communities have taken steps to ban plastic bags and educate consumers about their impacts as well as sustainable alternatives. Foregoing the use of plastic bags will help make major strides in protection of watersheds, oceans and the wildlife associated with these ecosystems.

The ocean plays a critical role in all of our lives, whether we live along a coastline are live in an inland community. Photo courtesy of Kirk Keeler Photography.

The ocean plays a critical role in all of our lives, whether we live along a coastline or live in an inland community. Photo courtesy of Kirk Keeler Photography.

As the world celebrates World Oceans Day and the United States acknowledges National Oceans Month, let’s do something more–let’s really value the ocean for the significant role it plays on the planet and its amazing effect on each of us. Then consider what exactly you will do to restore and protect our ocean resources, from protecting fish stocks, eliminating plastic pollution or reducing oil consumption.  What will you do to sustain the ocean that sustains you?

One of the World’s Largest and Oldest Sustainability Projects

After the difficult winter of 2015, many of us have our hearts and minds transfixed on outdoor gardening activities. In my gardening research, I came across a huge success story in the world of sustainable living. I hope this information will inspire you, as it has me, to begin using a fertilizer brand for your lawn, vegetable and flower gardens that comes from the oldest recycler in the United States.

Over more than 85 years, the City of Milwaukee has undertaken one of the world’s oldest and largest recycling projects. In 1913, the City of Milwaukee created a sewerage commission to clean up the city’s waterways. By 1919, The Milwaukee Sewerage Commission’s laboratory formally adopted a new process for responsible recycling of biosludge. By 1921, all municipal sewers were connected to this system and processed in a central location at Jones Island, on the shore of Lake Michigan. In 1923 construction began on the first large-scale activated sludge plant in the world.  In 1925, the Sewerage Commission concluded that the disposal problem they faced could be solved by producing and marketing fertilizer. In 1974, the Jones Island Wastewater Treatment Plant was named a National Historic Engineering Site by the American Society of Civil Engineers.

Jones Island in 1926. Photo courtesy of the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District and Michigan State University Turfgrass Information Center

Jones Island in 1926. Photo courtesy of the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District and Michigan State University Turfgrass Information Center

Specifically, this new sewerage treatment process was the production of solids – the microbes left over from the treatment process and there was one problem. There were 50,000 – 70,000 tons of dried microbes left after the process and no one thought it responsible or even prudent to dispose this volume of waste and potential valuable resource in the landfill.  So the Sewerage Commission joined forces with the University of Wisconsin College Of Agriculture, where Professor Emil Truog and O.J. (Oyvind Juul) Noer began investigating uses of activated sludge as a fertilizer.

Noer determined that the average nutrient analysis of the material was 6.2 percent total nitrogen, with 5.17 percent being water insoluble nitrogen (83% WIN); 2.63 percent available phosphate (P205) and 0.4 percent soluble potash (K20). In his literature review, Noer found that the available nitrogen generally resembled so-called high-grade organic nitrogenous fertilizers and gave superior growth results compared to manures and chemical fertilizers of the time.

Noer experimented with field crops and vegetables and on golf courses, the use of this organic nitrogen fertilizer and found it superior and one-third the cost of other fertilizers commonly used at the time. Also, there was no danger of burning the turf even with over-application and it produced a dark green dense turf without causing excessive top growth. Noer knew he had a commercially viable product when word traveled throughout several golf clubs.

12723-D

Courtesy of the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District and Michigan State University Turfgrass Information Center

Following are examples of how Milorganite has adopted to market changes over the years. In 1926, most of the Milorganite was sold in bulk, but by the mid-1930s it was also packaged in 25, 50 and 100 lb. bags. In 1955, packaging changed to offer 40 and 80 lb. bags and again in the 1970s as 20 kg bags were introduced with the movement to metric in the U.S. Today, Milorganite is sold in a distinctive 36 lb. bag and a 5 lb. bag exclusively for the retail market, 50 lb. bags for the professional market, and reusable bulk bags for large area applications.  The blending market continues to be important as other companies find the nutrient analysis to be a valuable addition to their products.

Milorganite continues to help fund many important research projects at universities across the country including projects that study nutrient leaching and run-off, the effects of different fertility regimes and sources on irrigation requirements, and the effect of Milorganite phosphorus in the environment.

Milorganite summarizes its success as follows:

  • Since 1926: 9.5 billion lbs of waste diverted from landfill to re-use
  • $308 million dollars generated, providing tax relief for residents of Milwaukee
  • 8 million tons of Milorganite sold
  • Milorganite is regulated by the EPA and complies with the most stringent requirements
  • Milorganite uses alternative energy sources such as solar, landfill gas, and digester methane.
  • The Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District (MMSD) is leading the nation in “Green” solutions.

For more information and to determine where to purchase, you can visit Milorganite’s web site. You can watch this video to learn more about the product as well.

7 things to know about California’s drought

Grist

This story was originally published by Mother Jones and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

There’s been a lot of talk lately about the drought in California, especially since this past week, when Gov. Jerry Brown introduced mandatory water cuts for the first time in the state’s history. So what exactly makes this drought so bad? And what are people doing about it? Here are a few important points to keep in mind:

Drought is the norm in California. How bad is this one? There are always wet years and dry years, but the past three years have been among the driest on record — and state officials worry that 2015 will be even drier. Last week, for the first time in the state’s history, Brown imposed mandatory water restrictions, requiring all cities and towns to cut their water usage by 25 percent. Though agriculture…

View original post 832 more words