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A Panasonic Pandora’s Box?

We bought a new television set this week and the stink bugs returned.    No, these weren’t cause and effect.  And normally I wouldn’t mention them in the same breath.  Except that I also started reading William Stolzenburg’s new book, Rat Island, this week.  Will’s a friend and neighbor here in Shepherdstown WV where we both live.  He also happens to be an excellent science writer, the author of hundreds of magazine articles and a previous book, Where the Wild Things Were.  His current book chronicles the sorry history of introduced invasive species on islands, and the resulting ecological devastation.   Brown marmorated stink bugs in the United States might not be as ecologically evil as weasels in New Zealand, but they’re the most conspicuous and annoying invasive species in my neck of the woods this time of the year, and I couldn’t help but make the connection.

We do have some native stink bugs here but you’d never know it.  Sightings are rare and inconsequential and I never even heard the term stink bug until the alien brown marmorated version (Halyomorpha halys) appeared a few years ago.  Native to Asia, they arrived in eastern Pennsylvania sometime around 1998 in packing crates, presumably with products imported from China or Japan.  They’ve been sighted in at least two dozen states since then and given their numbers locally, seem to be overwhelming potential predators and competitors, as alien invasives are wont to do.   In the fall, they descend on houses in hordes, clinging to window screens and doors hoping to find a way inside and hunker down in cozy crevices for the duration of the oncoming winter.  They’re a mere annoyance to me, but they drive my husband crazy and, more importantly, they cost farmers money.  Stink bugs feed on apples, peaches, corn and other crops, leaving ugly brown spots and making them unmarketable.   One local farmer told me he expects to lose half his apple crop to stink bugs this fall.

What’s striking about Will’s new book isn’t just the devastation resulting from introduced species (invasives in general often outcompete native species, and predatory species released on islands can wipe out entire populations), or how ubiquitous they are (invasive species are recognized as one of the top threats to global biodiversity).  It’s how long this has been going on and how often the story is repeated.  Will reveals how paleontologists have traced the movement of Polynesian people throughout the south Pacific over thousands of years of expansion by uncovering the remains of now extinct birds in ancient hearths and middens.  It seems that as they moved inexorably from one island to the next, Polynesians wiped out entire species of uniquely adapted birds that had evolved in isolation, free of ground predators, on each island chain.  Having evolved without them, these birds had no defenses against the new human invaders who hunted them for food and feathers or the dogs, pigs, and rats these people brought with them.   It’s now clear that paradise had been ransacked long before Captain Cook sailed the seas:  Hawaii alone had lost an estimated half of its bird species by the time Europeans arrived.

In turn, the Europeans did no better.  In New Zealand, they released cats to hunt the rats and introduced rabbits for game.  Later, they brought in ferrets and weasels to attack the irrupting rabbits that had grazed the sheep pastures to nubs.   Predictably, the alien predators hunted local birds as well as their intended targets, and each new introduction brought new destruction.  Yet each time New Zealanders failed to learn the lesson from the past.

One can only wonder:  surely the Polynesians must have seen signs that their supply of favored birds was running low.  Once they had opened the Pandora’s box of rats it could never to be contained again.  But could they not control their own hunting for decorative feathers?   In New Zealand, naturalists warned that the birds were disappearing, yet the release of predators continued.  It all seems so reckless and decadent.

Which brings me back to our new television set.   A Panasonic.  From Asia.  Maybe.  It’s a Japanese company, but manufacturing occurs all over the world so we’re not really sure where it came from.  Which is kind of the point.  Raw materials and finished products alike routinely are transported from one ecoregion to another, and creatures inevitably hitch a ride.   Our last television worked just fine until the cable company converted to digital and placed a helpful message on the screen telling us we were obsolete if we tried to tune in.   We thought about getting a digital converter box and rigging up the old set for another few years.  But it already was on its second life, having been rescued from a seeming warehouse of unwanted electronics in a friend’s basement, one of many discarded victims of her husband’s frequent upgrades to the latest models.   Rather than convert, or explore whether our friend’s electronics graveyard was still available for looting, we indulged.

But then I read about the Polynesians.  And the New Zealanders.   And I wondered:  was our consumption in fact overconsumption?  By indulging in something we don’t really need, are we re-enacting what the Polynesians did on dozens of islands for thousands of years?  Okay, maybe that’s a bit melodramatic.  It’s just one television.  Chances are our new TV isn’t giving some voracious stowaway a free ride to a new land of milk and honey.   But still.  Looking at the trend over time, it’s hard not to conclude that we humans like our pretty feathered capes and our high def images more than we like intact ecosystems.  Just as we have for thousands of years, we figure just one more won’t hurt anything, and we’re willing to take that chance.  Again and again.  Just one more time.

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Relative Response

At a family gathering this weekend a relative asked me what areas of environmental action are ripe for progress.  He wanted to know where he should direct his retirement energies.  In other words, how could he actually do some good?  He and his wife live in New Hampshire, and as the opportunity presents itself there every four years, they become engaged in presidential politics.  But with his candidate sitting in the White House, there’s less to do this time around.

There seems to be less opportunity to do anything through government these days.    The Tea Party may be new, but this reality isn’t for U.S. conservation groups.   The euphoria generated by passage of the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, and the Endangered Species Act in the 1970’s has been dampened by decades of rising neoliberalism.  An academic term used mostly by social scientists, neoliberalism doesn’t refer to so-called “big government,” but rather its opposite; the idea that the solutions to society’s problems can be found in the free market.   It’s now become conservative mantra:  Government isn’t the solution, business is the solution.  Whether you believe this is one of the unshakable laws of the universe or not, in a democracy perception is reality.  If enough people believe it, government support weakens and public initiatives fade.

Seeing the writing on the wall, many environmental groups eventually stopped banging their head against it (at least some of the time).  Instead, starting in the 1990’s, many have linked up with interested businesses to identify more sustainable supplies of raw materials and help these businesses produce products in a more eco-friendly way.  One common approach for doing this is through certification schemes, in which independent non-profit groups verify that ecolabeled products are produced in an environmentally responsible (ideally sustainable) manner.  The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC),  which certifies wood harvested from responsibly managed forests, is probably the best known scheme in the U.S.  Today, FSC certified products can be found in many major home improvement stores.   But retailers didn’t embrace environmental awareness easily.  Only after groups such as the Rainforest Action Network, Greenpeace and the Natural Resources Defense Council among others, unleashed banners,  bus tours, and bear costumes over two years of activism  did Home Depot and its competitors agree to favor FSC certified wood.

Since then, certification schemes have emerged for dozens of products, including seafood (the Marine Stewardship Council and Aquaculture Stewardship Council), appliances (Energy Star), and buildings (LEED).  More businesses are embracing this approach, including Walmart, once considered the evil embodiment of laissez-faire retail practices.  Walmart is now a serious player in the sustainability game, working with dozens of conservation groups and others to achieve measurable sustainability goals over the next few years.

But back to my relative’s question:  does any of this make a difference?   I’ve been engaged in various efforts to answer that question over the years as a consultant, and my short answer is, it’s hard to say.  Evidence is spotty and right now we can only have faith in the logic:  If more businesses are improving their environmental practices, it stands to reason there must be some benefit.   As consumers, one easy thing we can do is vote with our wallets and purchase certified products over other brands.

Yet to a certain extent, certification implies that we can have our cake and eat it too – something that flies in the face of logic.  Can we really have low prices (always!) and live sustainably at the same time?   What if we simply consume more and gobble up all the gains?  Neoliberalism notwithstanding, simple solutions rarely solve complicated problems.  Maybe in a few years if the political pendulum starts swinging back the other way,  my New Hampshire relatives will have some additional options for making a difference, and I can give a better answer.

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The Power of Place

My people have always moved.  Place has never been as important as opportunity.  Hence, my maternal grandparents crossed the Atlantic in 1929 to escape the economic collapse that had already occurred in England (only to encounter it a few months later in America when the stock market crashed).  My grandmother was an old hand at immigration by then.  She previously had left Ireland for England, where she met her (gasp) English husband.  A century before, much of my father’s family had arrived in the farmlands of Pennsylvania from Germany, undoubtedly also seeking opportunity.

So I didn’t always get it when people talked about a place being home.  Home is a house where you and your family live.  It could be anywhere.  Its geography wasn’t really the point.  No doubt my upbringing in a (let’s face it) soulless suburban subdivision far from any vibrant urban center or (conversely) beautiful natural setting shaped my mindset.  My parents moved there because that’s where my father’s job was.  Period.  My environmental tendencies came not from a love of the land immediately around me, but an awareness of a larger, amazing world out there beyond the front yard.

It’s different in West Virginia where I now live.  I was reminded of this the other day when I spoke with Bo Webb, a resident of the Coal River Valley in southern West Virginia where his family has lived for six generations. I was talking with Bo about being a speaker at the American Conservation Film Festival on November 3, when we’ll be screening the documentary film The Last Mountain  about mountaintop removal coal mining in West Virginia.   My request wasn’t anything new to him – Bo has become a vocal environmental activist in his retirement. But this wasn’t exactly what he planned on when he moved back to his home state in 2001.  According to Bo’s bio, he served as a Marine in Vietnam and ran a machine shop in Cleveland for 20 years before moving back to West Virginia to reconnect with the mountains of his childhood and live close to the land. (I particularly enjoyed reading about all the food he collects locally:  molly moochers, ramps, wild berries, and ginseng along with turkey, deer and fish.  No, I didn’t know what molly moochers were either).   When mountaintop removal threatened that land (and a nearby elementary school), Bo mobilized, meeting with government officials, working with environmental groups, and helping secure funds for a new elementary school.

Bo and others in West Virginia fighting to preserve the mountains aren’t necessarily unique.  A sense of place has always been an important driver for conservation.  But some of us who benefited from the mobility of the 20th century lost that connection along the way.  Perhaps in the 21st century, when opportunity requires only a broadband connection rather than an ocean voyage, and the geographic coordinates of a (virtual) job no longer matter, the power of place will reignite as a driving force in people’s lives and in conservation.  Critics might fear NIMBYism.  Supporters might hail community.  I tend to focus on renewal:  the rediscovery of something that’s been temporarily misplaced, but never completely gone.

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Hearts and Minds

Sometimes you see things only when you’re looking for them.  Or as a wise friend of mine says “the teacher emerges when the student is ready to learn.”   Perhaps that’s why I keep running into Randy Olson’s stuff these days.  Olson is the Harvard-trained Ph.D. biologist who gave up a tenured professorship at the University of New Hampshire to move to Hollywood and become a filmmaker.  At the time, he was 38 years old – young in the world of tenured academia but old by Hollywood standards, and (I can relate to this) fairly middle-aged to be making such a radical career change.  But as Olson describes in his book “Don’t Be Such a Scientist,” he increasingly became frustrated with scientists’ inability to communicate scientific information – information critical to global well-being — to the public.   Hollywood in contrast, was all about engaging people and he wanted to learn how to do that.   The short answer:  heart and gut, not brain and intellect.

In other words, most people respond to information emotionally and all the data in the world probably won’t move them.  Ironically, scientific studies confirm this.   Chris Mooney provides an enlightening exploration of these studies in Mother Jones, explaining how human emotions drive reasoning and how we’re all masters of denial when faced with overwhelming evidence that contradicts our most treasured beliefs

I’m ripe for hearing this these days.   In recent years I inexplicably have been drawn to new ways of approaching the same old problem, namely, how to save the Earth.  Over a two decade career I’ve worked on staff for a scientific society (the Ecological Society of America), a congressional watchdog agency (the Government Accountability Office), conservation groups (such as the Marine Conservation Institute), and as a consultant to many others.   To varying degrees at each organization, we believed that if only people knew the truth, they’d see the light, and it was our job to share that truth.  But somehow, despite our best efforts, the Earth hasn’t been saved yet.

I first learned about Olson, appropriately enough, through my work with the American Conservation Film Festival (ACFF) in Shepherdstown WV where I now live.   ACFF embraces the reality that the way to engage people is through storytelling, and as one of its film reviewers I screened Olson’s film Sizzle as a possible  entry for this year’s festival.   Unlike the other climate change films I screened, Sizzle made me laugh.  Yes laugh.  I didn’t learn as many facts about the dire impacts of climate change or the scientific consensus about its anthropogenic  origins as I did from other, more documentary-style films.  But, I thought, perhaps climate skeptics would also laugh at the nerdy scientist protagonist and his socially inept quest to alert the world, and be more open to what he had to say.  It’s hard to get defensive at someone who makes you laugh.

Clearly there are limitations to this approach:  yes, emotions engage and sex sells, but sometimes facts and figures are just what’s needed.   Still, as I shift gears mid-career towards writing for a broad audience (beyond policymakers), I try to incorporate Olson’s core lesson into my work and recognize that there are many routes to environmental awareness.  I explored some of these other paths in my recent piece for The Observer,   drawing on readers’ sense of adventure, wonder, and inspiration to tell the story of the mid-Atlantic’s wildest seashore, Assateague.  I had a blast doing it and hope to do much more in additional pieces down the road.

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