Monday, February 06, 2006

Wildlife without borders

What got me thinking about Charleston, and what it has to lose, is an interview I had recently with a policy maker who also happens to be an ecologist in the Netherlands. He works with nature policy (hence my meeting him at all), and the topic of conversation was wetland restorations. We were talking about one wetland restoration project funded in the Netherlands for BIG bucks, to the tune of 4 million euros over the last decade. He mentioned Poland, in particular as a new EU member, and we runminated over what that kind of money could do for nature in Poland. Not only does 4 million Euros go a lot farther in Poland, but that money could be spent to conserve areas instead of to restore them. Not only does conservation cost less than restoration-- it can guarantee the protection of species that restoration might not. By this I mean that an area can be restored in hopes that it can duplicate the habitat necessary for certain species, but those species may not re-colonize. In the Netherlands there are no big mammals of interest left in this particular area, but in Poland there exist still some truly wild areas. Or at least areas wild in a way the Netherlands can never be again. Also consider that in Poland, with a population density of 123 people per square kilometer, the pressures that humans inevitably bring to nature areas would be minimal compared to the Netherlands with 395 people per square kilometer.
My interviewee surmised that maybe one day Dutch people would just go to other countries to get their nature. (maybe they already do). It is not too difficult for me to envision a European Union with a division of tasks, industrialization for some, agriculture for some, nature for others. Of course there is one BIG problem with this. In a very REAL way environmental problems don't follow national borders. Though some countries might work hard to acheive a balance, because we all share the same air, rivers, oceans and sediment-- eventually the health of the planet as a whole will be determined by the environmental health of the laggards. Not to mention, wildlife absolutely will not recognize borders. We could neatly encapsulate the environments of Poland and the Netherlands. Have them agree to an exchange the industrialization of one for the protection of the wild areas of the other. Unfortunately that won't influence the fact that some birds use the Netherlands during migration. I doubt they'd be open to a Polish detour. Also I think you'd be hardpressed to find a country, in this era of war mongering, willing to give up any services that might come in handy during a war. Being the "country with all the nature" makes you a pretty easy target, as opposed to the "country with all the rifle factories", or the "country that grows the food".
That is when I started thinking about Charleston, and how it is midrange as far as population density is concerned. I thought they still may have the opportunity to achieve a meaningful balance.

Compare Dutch and Polish national parks here.

Saturday, February 04, 2006

The Charleston Principle

I lived in Charleston, South Carolina, USA for eleven years. I (like most people who have lived in Charleston) plan to go back. I think Charleston is unique in a lot of ways. For being a relatively small southern town, it can be quite liberal- with a large gay community, what can be a really good art scene, lots of academics... nice things that make living in the South bearable. Not ot mention the awesome restaurants. Some of the benefits of let say, Atlanta, without all the BS of traffic, sprawl, etc. It still feels like a small southern town, and the longer you are there the more you realize how small it really is. With good leadership it could continue to be magnificent.
Let's examine what makes Charleston so visually appealing. Ummm, not a big stretch, Charleston has some of the best architecture in the US. Historic preservation laws as we know them began in Charleston. Though you could argue that Charleston is so intent on exploiting the era that made it a tourist destination (pre Civil War/Civil War) that it fails to save some examples of later architecture in the city, it is what it is. Let's agree that it is wonderful that AT LEAST they save some architecture. If the city is not especially broad thinking, inclusive or creative about its love of architecture, so what.
The broad-thinking/creative thing is actually what scares me a little about the low country now. When you think about what they have, it is really because they made the best of a bad situation (the civil war). Not even that they made the best of it, but that it happened, and because it happened and the south (thank god) lost, they were in an extreme economic depression for decades. Then the entire US joined them in THE economic depression of the 30s. Despite any desire they might have had of joining that curve of constant, continual growth, Charlestonians were poor and depressed. Buildings were not torn down and replaced, and years later, lo and behold, they are so old that they are worth something again. Now they're not just "worth something" they are worth a great deal.
I am not writing just about architecture. Not the point of this blog. I am writing all of this with the environment in mind. Now that the south is not lagging behind (well maybe a bit, but certainly not in a post war way), Charleston is starting to sprawl. I say that with a great deal of hope-- because its not just starting to sprawl, it is very definitely sprawling like mad right now.
I guess I wish that in a place like Charleston, where the gains of slow growth are so palpable, local leaders would slow it down. Make what happens there worthwhile, in an economic and an environmental way. Leave the sprawl and the exhaust fumes, the mega malls, the expanses of paved nightmares alone. Mount Pleasant is almost running all the way out to the Francis Marion National Forest now. It won't be long before they meet. Then what? I hate to think of Charleston eventually forming a huge crappy mega city with Columbia and Savannah. Maybe all the way to Augusta, Atlanta and Athens.
Given the option of prosperity, perhaps Charlestonians would have chosen to bulldoze everything after the war. Of course it wouldn't have been that cut and dry, no one would think that was a good idea. Maybe it would have happened in a slow way. That beautiful houses and streets would have been slowly chipped away, the way the green spaces in the area are being chipped away now. And for what? Another movie theater? Another neighborhood? Are all of the other neighborhoods at capacity? I don't know, maybe there is a need for housing in Charleston, but I think for the most part its just development prospecting. Creating houses not because of "need", but only to sell houses. Nothing against profit or development, but this is a quality of life issue.
Charleston is what it is today not because someone had the foresight to create it but because of circumstance. Should what it becomes in the future be left to circumstance. We got lucky last time, we may not be this time.

Sunday, October 02, 2005

Adding insult to environmental injury

You are KILLING me Damien Cave, in today's NY Times article It's not sexy being green (yet). Granted, this is the style section, but please please please stop, Damien. You are approaching the question of environmentalism with all the savvy of a Room Raiders contestant.

Read for yourself:
"According to advertising executives, environmentalists and cultural critics, conservation can become a movement large enough to influence world energy markets only if it becomes hip, fashionable, something that teenagers, chief executives and celebrities from New York to Dallas to Los Angeles can't help but do."

Later the article states:
"The easiest way to make something cool is to get cool people to do it", quoting Denis Hayes, a founder of Earth Day.

Are you effing kidding?

Okay, you might think this bothers me because:
1. I am an environmentalist
2. I thought it was already hip

But I swear this is not the case. Yes, I think I am vaguely hip, but I know I am not REALLY hip.



I hoped that environmentalists had a longer view on life. What happens to trends, people? They FADE.

One of the most brilliant, logical themes in environmentalism or sustainability right now is about reimagining the way things are created in the first place, not trying to find a way to deal with all the leftover refuse. What little I know about this I learned from the book Cradle to Cradle: remaking the way we make things by William McDonough and Michael Braungart.
One example is a textile factory in Germany where, due to carefully chosen dyes, etc., the water leaving the plant is CLEANER than the water entering the plant. I am not kidding.

Granted, I am a big nerd, but I think that is sexy.

Faith Based Conservation

First I apologize for the USA Today link. Now on with the show.

Okay, am I hallucinating, or is George Bush encouraging conservation? In a way I think it is great that the president is saying:

"We can all pitch in by being better conservers of energy"

Unfortunately his whole quote is this:

"We can all pitch in by being better conservers of energy — people need to recognize the storm has caused disruption".

Yes it is true that this 'storm has caused disruption', but the US's energy problems did not begin with the 2005 hurricane season.

Clearly I am not hallucinating, as the George we all know and love reappears immediately. In addition to encouraging conservation, the President will "continue suspension of anti-pollution laws for gasoline and the Jones Act shipping law to help oil shipments in the wake of the hurricane. Both actions were taken after Hurricane Katrina last month hit Gulf Coast refineries hard."

That is more like it-- what I have come to expect from the Bush Admninistration: if you look hard enough every event can be an opportunity for reversing or suspending laws that protect the environment.

Georgia on my mind

What is the Governor of Georgia, the state of my birth, thinking? The Governor of Georgia cancelled school last Monday and Tuesday to save gas throughout the state. This is such a terrible idea on so many levels. My mom (current GA resident) says this will save billions due to the fact that school buses won't be running. Well, buses are in fact EFFICIENT transportation. Carrying 60 kids in one vehicle is preferred to 60 individual vehicles driving to school (that is why PUBLIC transportation is seen as a green thing). Asking all students to take the bus for a week would have been a much better idea. Even better: buy some buses fueled by alternate energy or convert diesel buses to run on fry oil. Why not ask people to car pool? Why not have a day where everyone attends school and thinks of ways to SOLVE environmental problems?

My sister in law (also current GA resident) said that now all working parents have to find something else to do with their kids, and some will not be able to leave them at home unattended. For many this will mean taking their children by car to some other place whether that is daycare, a sitter or a friend's house.
How is Georgia ranking now on test scores? When I attended public schools in Georgia (through 1992) we were among the lowest ranked states in the country. Can Georgia public school students really afford to miss a few days? The Governor is clearly sending the message that school is not that important.

The Governor is quoted in the article as saying: "If all Georgians work together to reduce our demand for fuel over the next couple of weeks, we will have enough market power together to hold prices down...All together we can influence demand over our state."
Why can't our leaders think beyond the next couple of weeks?

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Mercury rising

Sorry for the long delay since the initial post-- I have a good excuse-- I was off having a baby. Now that he is 6 weeks old I thought it was time to get back to saving the planet for him. My first (real) post may not seem to be about the environment per se, but I define environment loosely because I see connections to the environment everywhere I look. For example a NY Times article from 25 June 2005 called "On Autism's Cause, It's Parents vs. Research" by Gardiner Harris and Anahad O'Connor. I will just skip the paragraph about how bad that title is and get on with it.

As a new mother I have become interested in the debate about mercury in vaccinations and their possible link to autism in children. I first heard about this from a friend when we did a report about atmospheric mercury years ago. I read about it more recently in some back issues of the magazine Mothering, given to me by another friend during my pregnancy. Though I don't agree with everything they write it is an excellent counterpart to more run of the mill parenting information. The point is, I still know very little about this debate. The crux is that some lawmakers and parents believe mercury in vaccinations can cause autism in some children. Thimerosal, a vaccination preservative, contains ethyl mercury. The medical establishment denies this possibility, but I have not read the studies they cite to prove their point. As far as the debate is concerned, I am truly underinformed and a bit confused. Some parents advocate not immunizing their children in the meantime, which I think is a luxury of the developed world. Many parents around the globe would go to great lengths to provide vaccinations for their children. This is an interesting debate, but not my point.

In their article, the authors write:
"In July 1999, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Public Health Service released a joint statement urging vaccine makers to remove thimerosal as quickly as possible. By 2001, no vaccine routinely administered to children in the United States had more than half a microgram of mercury-- about what is found in an infant's daily supply of breast milk."

The way this information is presented is completely misleading. I find it irresposible to try to minimalize this toxin by mentioning its presence in breast milk. Hello- mercury is not SUPPOSED to be in breast milk, either. It is only because humankind has saturated the planet with this element that every human on the planet has absorbed it. For most people, once mercury is absorbed by your body it never leaves. This is why women on childbearing age are encouraged to avoid eating certain fish containing mercury. Actually, the only way to reduce the amount of mercury in your body is to pass it on via lactation to your offspring. Effectively tainting what should be the most complete and safest nutrition for the very youngest of our species.

It makes me sick that the only way I can reduce the amount of this toxin in my body is to pass it on to my children.
It makes me sick that my husband and my son, by virtue of lacking the ability to lactate, will never be able to reduce the amount of mercury in their bodies.
It makes me sick that some fish, a great source of protein and omega fats, must be avoided because of the mercury in our water, and it really makes me sick that Harris and O'Connor chose to present this information in such an irresponsible way.

Sunday, August 07, 2005


The authors of this blog have started this web-based forum to attempt to bring attention to environmental issues. We, the authors, met in an environmental studies masters program several years ago, and have a similar philosophy (though we'd never call it that) about the way policy makers deal with the environment. Its not our intention here to produce thoroughly researched, even-handed assessments of environmental policy-- if that is what you are looking for, what are you doing on a blog? C'mon-- go to a library and read an academic journal.
If you have read an academic journal lately you'll know that they are pretty boring, not funny, and that articles can become so specific that they cease to mean anything to anyone but the author(s). This is not to say that posts here will be flighty, meaningless, or based on lies-- but they may have an advocacy-oriented bent. So, please don't tell us later that we're environmentalists. We know.
We should probably just admit right now that we like the environment. We think clean air and water (and a host of other things) are not just pleasant, but also our right. We're tired of money-grubbers using economic arguments (often false economic arguments) to convince people that destroying the environment is a tough but necessary choice. More than anything, we'd like to use this forum as a way to shed a little light on what politicians or scientists or whoever are saying about the environment, and hopefully make fun of how ridiculous they are.