Archive for the ‘politics and environment’ Category

Earlier this week, in the media build-up to the one-year anniversary of the tragic school shootings in Newtown, Connecticut, Slate’s Dahlia Lithwick wrote a thought-provoking column in which she offers a long tally of incidents from the previous week when schools in America went into lockdown to ensure the safety of the students. A few of these lockdowns occurred in response to legitimate causes for concern, but, in hindsight many of them, maybe even most of them, were overreactions to marginal threats. A domestic dispute in a nearby residence. A bank robbery in the local area. Likewise, writer Lenore Skenazy, on her wonderful Free Range Kids blog, reported last year about a school that went into terrifying lockdown in the days after Sandy Hook because some boys using an umbrella as a prop in a video project about the immune system were thought to be acting suspiciously.

At my school we have gone into lockdown twice that I can think of in the past couple of years. My understanding is that both were prompted by police chases in the general area. And once we evacuated the building because something was making noises in a locker.

Dahlia Lithwick levels the following charge at this lockdown culture:

We routinely terrify and traumatize kids to spare them terror and trauma.

I don’t know that any of my students were alarmed in the least during any of these incidents except for those who needed to go to the bathroom, but Lithwick raises an important point, that there are often unexamined costs to our attempts as educators and parents to make our kids safe. To prevent the abnormal tragedy of school shootings, we’ve normalized turning our school routine upside down on a surprisingly regular basis. Based on the extremely small chance that they might be abducted by a stranger, we make it 100% certain that our kids will miss out on the physical and psychological benefits of walking to school on their own. We no longer allow kids the independence of roaming the neighborhood with their friends, telling them “just be home for dinner.”

I’m not saying that schools shouldn’t be prepared. Lithwick writes, “Let’s agree from the get-go that doing nothing in the face of lethal school shootings is not an option.” When the Atlanta Police Department calls our school switchboard to warn that a suspect in a police chase is headed towards campus, I agree that erring on the side of caution and locking everything down is probably the right thing to do. And I’ve written before about how hard it is as a parent to imagine letting my kids explore the neighborhood woods on their own like I did growing up. When it comes to keeping our kids safe, we may not examine these costs as carefully as we should, but that doesn’t mean these costs are too high. We’ll do anything for our kids.

And yet.

When I read Lithwick’s column, I thought immediately back to a passage in A Natural Sense of Wonder, by Rick Van Noy, where he wonders about the threat of climate change to our kids’ futures:

As a society, we have been good about preparing kids for other kinds of dangers. We have “red alert” days in school when the kids have to duck down and crowd in the coatroom. When I was young, we hid under desks in case of a bomb or a tornado. The principal and teachers are worried about strangers coming in, the man in a dark van driving near the school, but about this heat-trapping blanket in the sky we say very little. Kids study maps and geography, but if sea levels rise as predicted, because of ice melt and heat expansion, the maps would need to be rewritten. The man in the van has been out there all along.

We say very little, indeed. We earnestly guard against tragedies that thankfully have almost no chance of happening to our kids—I have been in faculty meetings where we have had discussion about which classroom wall is best to cower against in a Code Red situation (bullets will pass right through sheetrock, you know)—but don’t talk at all about how to prepare them for the much higher likelihood of serious climate disruption.

It’s not something we talk about as parents and educators. And someday our kids will ask us why.


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Some nights my heart pounds so hard in anger that in the morning when I wake up it is sore, as if it has been rubbing against my ribs—as if it has worn a place in them as smooth as the stones beneath a waterfall . . . I’m trying to get there—to peace, and it’s powers—but I just don’t seem able to. The river keeps falling.

The sound of it, in my ears.

—Rick Bass, The Book of Yaak

Thursday night, at a fine dinner in a nice restaurant, I found myself drawn into talking passionately about climate change, a topic more deadly to polite conversation than politics or religion. To be fair, this was with a group of young conservatives who get together regularly for the express purpose of discussing politics, and the discussion leader, looking to ignite a new discussion thread as the meal was winding down, specifically prompted me to talk about global warming and to share some details about how I have used environmental topics in my classroom. I wasn’t about to go there on my own, but, given the opening, go there I did.

I hope I behaved well. This was a great group of people who were genuinely interested in discussing ideas, open to other viewpoints and articulate about their own, but I was there as a mere tag-a-long, my wife being the legitimate guest-of-honor at this gathering. I thought we had a spirited discussion, found it mentally stimulating, but did I take too much of the floor? Get too inconvenient? I didn’t look at Belinda once I hit full flow, but I imagine she was staring blankly into her lap, thinking “there he goes again.” We adroitly ignored the subject in the car on the way home.

I’d like to think I did some good, that I came across as carefully informed and thoughtful on the subject and ultimately persuasive (albeit on an issue I would gladly be flat-dead wrong about). God knows we need conservatives (speaking broadly here, not pointing fingers at this group) to drop their stance of tribalistic culture-war denial on the issue and join the search for solutions. It gave me hope, made me feel less alone, that Thursday night’s conversation could even happen.

But all day Friday I felt emotionally hung-over. Here’s the problem . . . the flip side to hope is worry. Allowing yourself to feel hope opens yourself to a world of worry. And despair. In terms of our environment, if hope is the belief that tomorrow can be better than today, then hope is a sure road to despair. And so I had lately thought I have abandoned hope, had thought that I have simply accepted the bleak inevitability of our outlandish trajectory (really, the science could not be clearer) and accepted that no amount of earnest caring and response on my part was ever going to do anything more than make me miserable. Letting go of hope has been strangely liberating, has allowed me to get on with my life, enjoy the blessings at hand. Psychologist Daniel Gottlieb recently wrote about the importance of this moment and the power of two words—”what now?”:

After loss or trauma, most of us wish that tomorrow would look the same as yesterday did before all of these difficulties. If we are lucky, we give up hope and say the words that open us to resilience and creativity: “This is awful, and I don’t think it will change. What now?”

Of course, “What now?” is a wide-open question. My answer for many months now has been withdrawal, a conscious decision to live in the moment and enjoy the world that most people around me manage to enjoy. Even if it means sticking my head in the sand, too. You can see it in my lack of blog output over the past year.

But I’m not sure that’s the best answer. It’s certainly the most selfish.

I’m sorry, boys.

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Rayonier was indeed discharging their wastewater into the Altamaha today, but those who know the river well or have paddled it before say that the conditions were far better than what is usually encountered. Presumably the mill was releasing at a much lower volume; in fact the upstream discharge pipe (there are two) didn’t seem to be releasing at all. Nonetheless, what we found was bad enough:

What the video can’t capture, of course, is the acrid smell. Just downstream from the release point, the acrid odor was enough to make your eyes water. And for fifteen miles or more, the smell stayed with us; it was particularly noticeable in the sour breezes blowing across the water or after a passing motorboat had churned the river in its wake.

As expected, we had no interest in swimming or water fights today; I was reluctant even to soak my hat in the river to cool off. Made for a tough day, but I think we’re also better for the experience. It’s too easy for debates about environmental policy to be made in the abstract. Paddling twenty-plus miles on a polluted river brings it all home in a very concrete way.

We have only two days left on our odyssey, and we’re excited to be heading back into cleaner stretches of this great river. I won’t have internet access again until after we finish in Darien, so it will be Saturday at the earliest before I can post again.

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Day four down the Altamaha was predictably terrific. We swam, we laughed, we lounged, we paddled, we ambushed trip leader Joe Cook’s canoe with a perfectly planned and executed water cannon sneak attack. We look at the daily map less and less, no longer so concerned with how far it is to the take-out.

But we go to bed tonight with a bit of worry about tomorrow. For starters, the daily mileage takes a big jump upward—we’re looking at a 22 mile day. That in itself isn’t a big deal (today’s fifteen miles was almost casual), but sadly we won’t be paddling the same river: two miles below tomorrow’s put-in, this beautiful river becomes a sewer, accepting 50 million gallons a day of wastewater from the Rayonier Pulp Mill in Jesup.

According to Joe and others who have run this stretch before, this effluent has to be seen (and smelled) to be believed—”it will seriously make you gag” is the common refrain—and the river doesn’t start to feel clean again for some twenty miles or so downstream. Last year, the Georgia Water Coalition ranked the Altamaha as #2 on its Dirty Dozen list of the most polluted or impacted Georgia rivers (topped only by 33,000 fish being killed after a spill last May on the nearby Ogeechee.). Take a look at these aerial photos from Riverkeeper James Holland to get a visual sense of just how bad the problem is:

I’m struck most by the “two miles upstream” and “two miles downstream” images right around the 2:00 mark. I don’t expect anyone will be swimming or engaging in water cannon wars tomorrow.

But then again, we’re not sure what to expect. Paddle Georgia’s route down the Altamaha has predictably turned up the pressure on this issue, and I imagine the folks at Rayonier are a little nervous to have some 350 river lovers getting a first-hand experience of their waste stream. Evidently we may have some television cameras coming with us tomorrow, and the general expectation is that Rayonier will find a way to take a one-day hiatus from fouling the river. What will we find? Will we still be able to see this river the same way in the days to come?

I have to mention that the Wayne County Chamber of Commerce has been wonderfully welcoming to all of the Paddle Georgia participants. Here at base camp they’ve got a hospitality tent set up, along with a big inflatable water slide/plunge pool combo that the boys have absolutely worn out.  At the last two take-outs, volunteers have helped us haul our boats away from the water, and today they gave out snacks and ice-cold water in reusable commemorative bottles as we came off the river. Rayonier, they have made sure to tell us, has been the chief sponsor of their hospitality efforts. It has made for an interesting dynamic. Will has really been wowed by these efforts, but Andrew evidently has a more cynical bent: “They’re trying to make us feel better about this smell,” he said this afternoon (we took out only about a mile from the mill). I guess I agree with both of them.

Joe Cook reminded us all after dinner tonight that the raison d’être for Paddle Georgia—beyond just having a good time—is to educate us about our rivers. Tomorrow will certainly be educational.

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In my RSS reader this week, I got this uplifting story about current research in Antarctica: Sea Levels May Rise Faster Than Expected. Much of the story speculates on rather scary possibilities down the road and should be taken with a certain amount of skepticism, the degree of warming we might expect in the future being a question rife with uncertainties. Climatologists rely on computer modeling to predict future conditions, and, as skeptics like to assert, perhaps the climate change models are wrong.

But here’s the thing—as long as I’ve been following the climate change issue, scientists DO seem to consistently have gotten their predictions wrong, just not in ways that Fox News will be in a rush to tell you. Over the last several years, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read scientist comments like the one from NASA’s Robert Bindschlader in this particular article:

“It’s caught us all very much off guard,” says Bindschadler. “These are not the ice sheets that I was being taught when I was in graduate school. They are changing at magnitudes and at rates that were thought impossible just 15 years ago.”

Particularly where the poles are concerned, reports of current observable climate change routinely include words like “unexpected” and “unprecedented” and “underestimated.”

I dunno. I’ve written before about the difficulty, as a non-scientist, of separating signal from noise when it comes to a complex, contentious issue like climate change. I think the tendency among many people, myself included, is to assume “the truth is somewhere in the middle” when faced with competing narratives about a given issue. When we hear about uncertainties in climate predictions, it’s comforting (and easier) to think that maybe things won’t be as bad as climate scientists project. The scientists could be wrong.

But it’s important to remember that underestimation could be just as likely as overestimation when it comes to future climate change predictions. Yes, the models might be wrong, so scientists test them by documenting observable changes over time. What’s happening now matters, and we need to pay attention.

For that matter, what has happened in the past matters, too. This detail from the PRI article was news to me:

Scientists like Wanless are studying sediments from past warming periods to find clues as to how quickly sea levels changed. And what they’ve found is the stuff of Hollywood movies—rapid pulses in the 20-foot range, and on a time scale that could be not centuries, but decades.

I honestly don’t know what to do with this information. Am I being alarmist for highlighting it? What do we do when the science is alarming? I’ve always liked the analogy about humankind and the climate that we’re poking a sleeping tiger with a stick, unsure of exactly what it will do. Well, I’m a wee bit alarmed to find what this tiger has done upon waking in the past.

I’ll be in New Orleans this weekend, trying hard not to think about these things (especially there).

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I’m way overdue in putting up a new post and giving an update on the Environmental Writing class that Peyten Dobbs and I are teaching. It has been, without question, one of the most interesting and challenging teaching experiences of my career, and we’ve both admitted to each other that, relatively speaking, we’re a little bored teaching the conventional English curriculum in our regular English classes. (If you’re interested, you can access our class blog here and see what the students have had to say about it.)

At any rate, I’ll write a thoughtful and thorough update at some point, but for now I’ll just say that it’s been exciting for us to go through something of the same learning process as the kids. I’ve followed the climate change issue fairly closely for a decade or so now, but teaching this course has pushed me to dig deeper and question my assumptions, to examine loose ends and fill in the gaps in my understanding, and to follow developments in the scientific arena more closely than usual.

Among other things, watching the science unfold in real time gives one a perspective on the media that you don’t otherwise get.

Yesterday’s big news? Well, I’ll use the headline of the column in today’s WSJ, written by the lead researcher of the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature team (BEST), to sum up the very latest research findings: The Case Against Global-Warming Skepticism: There were good reasons to doubt, until now. The BEST team undertook a series of studies designed specifically to test questions raised by climate skeptics about the validity of global temperature data sets used by climate scientists (regular readers of Nealz Nuze, for instance, will remember breathless revelations about temperature stations sited next to heat sources like airport runways) and came to the following conclusion (in the words of lead researcher Richard Muller):

When we began our study, we felt that skeptics had raised legitimate issues, and we didn’t know what we’d find. Our results turned out to be close to those published by prior groups [of climate scientists]. We think that means that those groups had truly been very careful in their work, despite their inability to convince some skeptics of that. They managed to avoid bias in their data selection, homogenization and other corrections . . . Global warming is real. Perhaps our results will help cool this portion of the climate debate.

Anyway, if you want to know more about these findings, you can read the summary report released by BEST.

What I found particularly interesting and want to comment on, however, is the media coverage of these findings. I first read about it yesterday in The Economist. The Washington Post has reported on it. The New York Times has reported on it. CNN has reported on it. The BBC has reported on it.

And FOX News? Nothing.

We’ve been having an interesting discussion in class over the past couple of weeks about whether or not it was ethical for Peyten and me to create a sense of false equivalence about the science of global warming by giving equal time to “both sides of the story” when the scientific community has reached a remarkable degree of consensus about the issue. False equivalence in the name of “balance” is actually a form of bias, after all. But FOX News doesn’t even seem to reach this level of objectivity. They’ll gleefully report on and hype a single study by a single scientist (one so flawed that it led to the resignation of the editor of the journal that published it) that questions the scientific consensus on global warming, but when a research team—formed in the wake of “ClimateGate” and headed by a noted climate skeptic—releases findings supporting the scientific consensus, there’s not a peep from them.

Fair and balanced? You decide.

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Earlier this week, I gave an overview of the new Writing Workshop: Environmental Writing course that Peyten Dobbs and I are teaching this semester. Today I want to address a pointed concern about our methodology as expressed by a colleague from our Science Department and then echoed by a commenter on my last post. They raise some terrific questions, and indeed we’ve had some of the same questions ourselves.

Physics teacher (and award-winning edublogger) John Burk first pushed back when Peyten tweeted the first writing prompt we used with the kids:

He was quick to point out that scientific understanding isn’t a matter of “belief” but a matter of evidence and investigation:

Soon afterward he expanded on his reservations in an email:

I find what you guys are doing to be very interesting, and it really sounds like one of the most exciting courses in the school. But I also would love to learn more about the decision to show both An Inconvenient Truth and The Great Global Warming Swindle. The self-righteous and professionally trained scientist in me doesn’t think that the facts of GW are something that really has two sides . . . I just worry about the the idea of trying to teach about global warming by pulling out two controversial films staked at opposite sides of the spectrum, since this might heighten the “controversy” students perceive, which might be counterproductive for developing a deep understanding of the subject.

Science journalist and blogger James Hrynyshyn chimed in with more of the same after my last post:

Academics and the media have for far too long given climate denial far too much credit. The simple facts are that 98% of climatologists agree with the basic science of anthropogenic climate change. We’re long past the point where that’s a subject of legitimate debate, so why imply otherwise to your students?

Indeed, when climate science gets taught at our school within our Science Department, there is no “equal time” given to perspectives not supported by the scientific consensus.  So why are we going this route in Writing Workshop? Are we doing our students a disservice?

My initial response to these questions is that we’re not teaching a science course but a writing course, and so an understanding of the political debate and the public confusion around the issue is a part of better knowing both the issue and the audience. Moreover, experiencing and understanding and working through this confusion is great fodder for writing and thinking.

As I responded to Hrynyshyn earlier, this is in some ways as much a course in practical epistemology as anything else, as can be seen in the list of “Guiding Questions” that we’re asking the students to continually think about through their writing:

  • What do I understand about the sustainability debate? What do I have certainty about? Where do I still have questions? What would it take to change my mind about my current stance?
  • How do I know what I know? How do I know this? What are my sources of information? How do scientific facts and cultural values influence my opinion? How do I know who to listen to? 
  • What are the personal implications of this knowledge?

Moreover, the list of “Essential Learnings” that we will use to assess our students has language describing their developing skills in writing, research, discussion, collaboration, and presentation—but no expectations for scientific understanding or environmental ethics. We took this stance partly to diffuse potential criticism; we’re not science teachers, after all, and we can’t weigh in as authorities on a politicized subject. But we also don’t presuppose outcomes of scientific understanding because we want to allow space for authentic “uncoverage” (to borrow a term from Grant Wiggins and Jay Mctighe) precisely because we do care about our students’ having a better understanding of the issues in question.

We won’t simply be showing the two films and then turning the kids loose to go with whatever opinions they may have at that point. Wiggins and McTighe propose five steps toward discovering depth, and that’s the journey that we want to attempt together:

  • unearth it
  • analyze it
  • question it
  • prove it
  • generalize it

When Hrynyshyn asks “why expose students to [sources that dishonestly portray the science], unless you have the resources to fairly critique them?” I have to point out that they do, indeed, have all the resources they need. In today’s world, we all do, anywhere that we have an internet connection. As our students try to sort out the claims and counterclaims of the two films, they can email actual climate scientists for clarification! The problem today isn’t that we don’t have access to information but that we don’t know how (or don’t have the inclination) to dig and filter and sift and evaluate. In this respect, the most precious resource that we’ll be making available to them is time. Our role is not to teach them about environmental issues. It’s the (sometimes long, sometimes messy) process of writing and researching and thinking and discussing that will help them learn.

If we presume to predefine the destination, then we shortchange the process. We’re hoping, by starting with controversy, to supercharge it. But it is, admittedly, a little scary to set a ball in motion without having certainty as to which way it will roll.

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