Feb 22 2008

Alarmist Language Reconsidered

Published by Patrick under Nature/Culture

In a recent post by Joseph Romm on Grist, he talks about why he called his book on the climate crisis Hell and High Water.

I love the book but think the more we crank up the doom-and-gloom, the easier it is for conservative spinmeisters to peg people concerned about this issue as just a bunch of Chicken Littles. There was a great article about this kind of negative stereotyping on Rockridge Nation a while back, which I discussed in an earlier post.

So why not take the preferred conservative euphemism and reappropriate it? I can actually have a complete conversation with almost anyone if the topic is “climate change.” But as soon as I mention “global warming,”  the eyes glaze over, the disaster fatigue sets in, and that mind is closed to me and my message.

Calling it WORLD-HOT-DEATH-NOW! makes me feel good and gives vent to my moral outrage. But I’m convinced that if I choose to yell, I’m only talking to myself and to others who believe as I do. I am also pushing my conservative acquaintances deeper into their own bizarre counter-stories, such as (actual quote) “global warming is caused by SUV-driving environmentalists.”

There’s a large group of well-meaning, intelligent people, open to new ideas in other areas of their lives, who when it comes to the environment are afraid, don’t know what to do, and so do nothing. We need those people if we want to affect any kind of quick and lasting change. We can’t afford to have them drifting off in the middle of the conversation feeling burned out and drained of the will to act.

I think it’s possible to frame this topic in a more inclusive way without sacrificing any of the facts, impact, or urgency. How exactly to do that is a discussion for another day.

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Feb 17 2008

Evergreen Cities Datapoint

Published by Patrick under Act Locally

Recently I decided to break with longstanding tradition and contact my elected representatives about something of particular interest: the Evergreen Cities bill currently before the legislature. I almost immediately received responses from Representatives Hunter and Eddy saying that they would be supporting the bill, which was very gratifying to hear.

Although I agree with those who say that we should be focusing most of our attention (and funding) on the places of ecological significance that can still be saved, I think there should be rewards for cities and developers who step back from the gratuitous bulldozing of lots in order to make way for new homes. This happened recently on the one-acre lot at the end of my street, and it was difficult to watch, especially considering that I often saw a pileated woodpecker there. This large woodpecker is normally a shy deep-forest bird, and was a very welcome sight in the midst of a 40-year-old working class neighborhood.

 Here are a couple of pictures that give a very general idea of how my neighborhood was transformed by the addition of four zero-lot $850,000 houses.

Trees versus houses: May 2005Trees versus houses: November 2005Trees versus houses: Februaray 2006Trees versus houses: August 2006

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Jan 30 2008

Saving Puget Sound, by John Lombard

Published by Patrick under Nature/Culture

Saving Puget Sound is a refreshing change from the typical book about the environment: it’s hopeful, well-balanced, and realistic. Even better, it’s about where we live.

Given what our region has to offer—a vibrant cultural scene, world-class technical innovation, a healthy economy, and some of the most stunning natural beauty in the world—it seems inevitable that our population will continue to grow.

Author John Lombard, an environmental consultant and former coordinator for King County salmon recovery planning, looks at this situation and asks: does more people mean less nature? His answer: we can not only support growth, but actually improve the overall health of our wild places as we grow.

All we need to do, he says, is set goals everyone can agree on, and then be willing to abandon the piecemeal approach to conservation we’ve used up to now.

Lombard spent two and a half years researching the legal, technical, and public policy issues involved in regional conservation. He talked to fisherman, farmers, and landowners, as well as scientists, academics, and government officials.

Some readers may be put off by the sheer amount of detail, and by the academic-paper format chosen by the publisher. That would be too bad, because what Lombard says is relevant to anyone with a stake in our region’s future. In other words, to anyone who lives here.

One way to get a quick feel for the author’s thoughtful and balanced analysis is to read the Foreword and then jump straight to Chapter Three, “A Regional Strategy.”

Continue Reading »

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Nov 29 2007

Nature and Madness

Published by Patrick under Nature/Culture

Nature and Madness is the provocative title of a 1982 book by Paul Shepard, referred to by some as the “godfather of ecopsychology.” The introduction begins like this:

My question is: why do men persist in destroying their habitat? I have, at times, believed the answer was a lack of information, faulty technique, or insensibility….At mid twentieth century there was a widely shared feeling that we only needed to bring businessmen, cab drivers, housewives, and politicians together with the right mix of oceanographers, soils experts, or foresters in order to set things right.

In time, even with the attention of the media and a windfall of synthesizers, popularizers, gurus of ecophilosophy, and other champions of ecology, in spite of some new laws and indications that environmentalism is taking its place as a new turtle on the political log, nothing much has changed. (Paul Shepard, Nature and Madness, p. 1)

I just love the part about “the new turtle on the political log.” I wonder if, 25 years down the line,  Shepard would still have the same conclusion, with climate change on the front page and governments voted out over global warming (as recently happened in Australia). My sense is that he probably would still be saying “nothing much has changed.”

The book is tough sledding, even for someone with a decent education and a certain tolerance for ambiguity. As near as I can tell, though, Shepard’s main thesis applies even more today than it did in 1982. He traces the development of (Western, European) civilzation by looking at four major evolutionary changes:

  • Hunter-gather societies transition to villages and farms
  • The Judaeo-Christian world view emerges in the dry landscapes of the eastern Mediterranean
  • Puritans search for victory over the messy physicalities of procreation and decay during the Protestant Reformation
  • Crowded cities become the norm, and industrial economies emerge

The thoughtful person, looking at this list, can sort of guess where he’s going with it. Each stage along the way further distanced us from early exposure to the Otherness of animals, plants, and the natural world. From the psychological point of view, Shepard says, a person thus emerges into adolescence without the grounding, the perspective, the intuitive sense of connection provided by growing up in close contact with the wonder and brutality of nature. So it should be no surprise, he says, that we seek to destroy the very thing we have been so cruelly denied.

There’s so much more to say here, but I need to take this book back to the library or they’re going to come and put a lien on my house. Basically what I’m getting from Shepard at this point is: modern society’s behavior can all be boiled down to a case of arrested development. Those somber men in suits, our supposed leaders, who take without giving and then act like they’ve done us a big favor? Totally stuck at a pre-adolescent stage of development.

Well, that certainly explains a lot, doesn’t it? More on this soon.

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Nov 20 2007

On the wall above my computer, part 2

Published by Patrick under Biophilia

Scanned witch-hazel leaf (Hamamelis virginiana)

This fall I’ve been continuing with a little project I started last year: putting plants and parts of plants in the scanner and seeing what comes out. Leaves changing color are particularly satisfying; when I cut out the background they take on a 3D effect, to the point where someone visitng once went up to touch the picture, thinking I’d just pasted the leaf on there. (Here’s the view from my window with the witch hazel tree in the middle distance just starting to turn.) It’s a simple image, but one I haven’t gotten tired of studying yet.

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Nov 20 2007

Rockridge Nation: How Can We Make ‘Green’ an Identity?

Published by Patrick under Nature/Culture

Someone who’s been doing environmental work in the non-profit sector recently suggested I look at George Lakoff’s book Thinking Points–A Progressive’s Handbook–Communicating Our American Values and Vision. What a gift that recommendation was.

Lakoff is a professor of Linguistics and Cognitive Science at Berkeley (see his not-too-bad Wikipedia write-up), and back in the late 70s when I was getting an MA in linguistics, he and former spouse Robin Lakoff were heroes to us for bringing meaning and social context into the dominant linguistic paradigm at the time, Chomsky’s transformational grammar. This makes it all the more meaningful, encountering his ideas again in such a different and far-removed context.

The non-profit think tank he founded has a website, Rockridge Nation, where I found this wonderful post: Ask Rockridge: How Can We Make ‘Green’ an Identity?.  Lakoff’s ideas, and the discussion about how they could be applied to conservation topics, has forced me to re-think my entire approach to conservation writing — in what I think will be a very positive way. For more details, see my post at the end of the comments section for the above-referenced article. And I plan to post some examples written using his approach as well.

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