24 April 2017

The Illusion and Reality of Isolation

Lonesome George in 2006.
The human mind sees loneliness amidst connection, and that illusion carries concrete consequences.

On a living planet, we think we're alone. Surrounded by marvels of nature, we believe everything on Earth exists for our consumption, not for its own sake. Such thinking makes us feel isolated, and as in the case of Lonesome George, it sometimes leaves other creatures facing a harsh and real loneliness.

Lonesome George, the last of a subspecies of Galapagos tortoise, died in 2012. However, today's presentation about George for this year's Earth Week at the University of South Dakota caused me to reflect on the real nature of loneliness and isolation. The presentation discussed how human activity led to the extinction of several subspecies of tortoise in the famed archipelago that inspired Charles Darwin. Centuries of hunting and careless importing of invasive species that preyed on tortoises and destroyed their habitat shoved the reptiles to the brink. By 1971, only George remained of the subspecies on Pinta Island. He lived out the last 40 years of his life in a sanctuary, facing a loneliness so real we can't fathom it.

In constructing an isolation from the rest of nature, we create situations in which we act like we are the only ones on Earth. We take what we want, and we act without thinking about the larger impacts on the web of life. And so we sentence animals like Lonesome George to the experience we fear most: sheer separation.

Despite our tendency to feel alone and act like we are, perhaps in remembering Lonesome George, we can recall our true connection to the other pieces of nature and take real action to protect the shared fate of all life on this planet. In that way, maybe we can also preserve a symbolic connection for that solitary tortoise in place of the real bond we severed.

25 March 2017

Headed in the Right Direction

Anthropologist Elizabeth Kapu'uwailani Lindsey once said, "True navigation begins in the human heart. It's the most important map of all." Compass Outdoors, a new outdoor gear and apparel company based in Washington state, embodies those words.

Before going any further, in the interest of full disclosure, I know one of the company's co-founders.

Following in the footsteps of companies like Patagonia and Klean Kanteen, Compass Outdoors places environmental ethics at its heart. The company logo, which consists of a compass pointing toward the Pacific Northwest's iconic Mount Rainier, gives the sense that Compass Outdoors knows what's important to it and where it's going. Looking more closely, the company has the stated objective of, "Using business to help create awareness and support for environmental issues." Such ethics influence the business model as well with five percent of each purchase going to support the national parks.

The launch of the company Web site last Wednesday marked the first step in Compass Outdoors' journey toward its core vision. The initial offering of six products, including an insulated bottle, a shirt, and hats will soon expand with additional items. To see the current selection, click here.

Compass Outdoors also plans to pursue a better environment by carving a path beyond simply selling products. Its Web site will expand in the future with a companion blog that spotlights environmental issues by featuring individuals working to address those concerns. Such issues did put the company on its path after all.

Knowing what Compass Outdoors set out to achieve and the reasons at the heart of that objective makes me excited to see where the company goes. It's clear they have a good navigation system.

25 February 2017

The Shredding of Our Moral Core

According to Immanuel Kant, "We can judge the heart of a (person) by his(/her) treatment of animals." In a more general sense, that behavior, along with how people treat the environment, probably also says something about the heart of a society.

It is with a heavy heart then that I have watched recent environmental policy coups play out around the United States. For example, as this article from BuzzFeed describes, the Republican-controlled US House of Representatives recently passed legislation to reinstitute the barbaric killing of wolves and bears on wildlife refuges in Alaska. The approved tactics include aerial shooting and killing pups and cubs in their dens. To say nothing of the fact that these activities would take place on wildlife refuges, the inhumane legislation reveals those supporting it as sadistic, sociopathic, and bereft of conscience.

Morally corrupt as it is, the wolf-bear policy displays a cunning level of strategy. Targeting wolves and bears proves a clever tactic for unraveling the threads of human concern and environmental policy. As apex predators, those species indicate the health of the ecosystems in which they live. When they're wiped out, proponents of environmental exploitation can more easily make the case that extracting resources will not damage an ecosystem anymore than it already is. Additionally, as charismatic megafauna, wolves and bears generate public concern, and people rally to save them. In short, these species are critical to environmental preservation, and it is no accident legislators are targeting them.

We see the reasons for using bears and wolves as strategic targets in environmental policy proposals and decisions across the country. Stripping the species of their federal protections takes the first step in breaking down the systemic mechanisms that foster, institute, and enact our environmental ethics. Eliminating key reasons to protect the land opens the door to proposals that allow for expanded environmental exploitation. For example, we've already seen a proposal to permit oil and gas drilling in national parks and renewed efforts by Democrats and Republicans in the state of Alaska to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Ultimately, taking federal government out of the picture puts our environment in the hands of private interests, which is exactly the point of these policies. One of the best (though most egregious) examples of this process comes from Oregon, where a state board led by Democratic State Treasurer Tobias Read voted to sell off the Elliott State Forest to private interests. Covering the story, Men's Journal calls the sale "the natural conclusion of a land losing federal protection" and "a bad sign for America's public lands." Throwing away our heritage of conservation and our responsibility to future generations, the board sold the forest for short-term profits.

In the place where our moral and environmental ethics once found their footing, a corporate callus now resides, an indifference to anything other than consuming resources and making money. That's how, according to Greenpeace, the public relations firm for Energy Transfer Partners, the company building the Dakota Access Pipeline, ended up writing the letter in which the Republican governors of North Dakota, South Dakota, and Iowa asked the Army Corps of Engineers to approve the pipeline.

At their heart, these actions by our elected officials represent a bipartisan, corporate attack on the core of our society and the shredding of our moral and environmental fabric.

11 February 2017

Now Presenting: The Search for Alternative Voices

In our attempts to respond to nature's signals, we clearly need the help of new voices, and I recently gave a presentation on how critical rhetoric allows us to identify these alternative perspectives.

Much of my research in environmental communication focuses on rhetoric, especially one approach to rhetorical criticism called critical rhetoric. When I was asked to deliver a presentation for the Humanities Research Forum Series at the University of South Dakota, I brought together several papers in which I had employed critical rhetoric. Below, you can view the Prezi I used to present my presentation aids for the talk:



Critical rhetoric challenges power by deconstructing meaning and identifying and advocating for marginalized voices. That focus makes it particularly useful as environmental communication scholars pursue new ways of articulating the relationship between humans and nature.

The Prezi above addresses several key aspects of the presentation I gave on critical rhetoric's potential. First, it explains the value of laying out environmental discourse about the human-nature relationship on a continuum. Part of the continuum addresses discourses found in newspaper coverage of global warming. These discourses include nature-as-out-of reach, nature-as-antagonist, and nature-as-co-present, the latter of which represents an important alternative perspective that challenges its more dominant counterparts. Next, the continuum adds components through an analysis of the Web site, The Featured Creature. Together, the discourses from the newspaper coverage and The Featured Creature provide a fuller picture of the human-nature relationship. 

The presentation also discusses how an analysis of The Nature Conservancy's Liquid Courage Web site suggests that elements of physical distance can be added to a public participation model to enhance research into environmental communication. Liquid Courage demonstrates the value of physical-distance elements in our relationship with nature.

As our environmental issues grow more complex and the urgency to address them increases, critical rhetoric presents us with an important tool in finding the voices that can help us respond to environmental signals.

03 January 2017

A Whole New Light

Now, you don't see it; now, you do.

Our physical environment heavily influences what things we see and how we see them. My experiences at the Billy Frank Jr. Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge demonstrate this fact well.

The most recent of my trips to the refuge possessed a much different character than the previous two (the second of which I blogged about two years ago). Back on my first trip in 1994, rain dominated experience, and in 2015, a thick fog enclosed the refuge. As a result, my family and I had limited visibility both times, drawing our focus to things close at hand. When my mom and I returned four days ago, clear skies, sun, and miles of scenery treated us to many new sights and experiences.

Out in the open, in the context of the Nisqually Valley and the extended Puget Sound, the refuge and the recent work to restore it took on even greater significance. It truly represented the meeting place of mountain and marine ecosystems--the destination of the Nisqually River, which begins at Mount Rainier. In that light, the work to remove the dykes that had dominated and reshaped the estuary for a century meant so much more. Seeing the sun shine on the larger natural processes working freely once again at the refuge proved quite satisfying.

Besides highlighting the larger importance of the refuge, the clear day revealed sights and things I've never seen before. For the first time, I saw the Tacoma Narrows Bridge from that vantage point. I also documented my first sighting of a peregrine falcon--a bird I was drawn to as a child and waited years to see in the wild.

American wigeon at the Billy Frank Jr.
Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge.
The final revelation offered by the sunny day at the refuge involved ducks. As an amateur bird-watcher, I have experienced difficulty committing ducks to memory. For some reason, other than mallards and wood ducks, they all seem to slip into one general image in my mind. I think one reason for this difficulty is that unlike songbirds, I am not around ducks all the time. However, because of the open scenery and the many ducks at the refuge last week, I was able to identify and become familiar with four species, including the American wigeon, the green-winged teal, the common goldeneye, and the bufflehead. I can say that they are more than just ducks to me now. I can see them for the individual species they are.

When the light changes, even familiar places give us more to see.

26 December 2016

Falling into It

Arriving at the intended place can inspire unexpected journeys.

I knew last summer that I wanted to visit Mima Falls on my winter break. Tucked away in a forest of Washington state's Thurston County, the falls and their relatively easy hiking trail seemed like a nice way of unwinding from the fall semester, so I penciled them in as a reward before classes even started.

Long-exposure shot of Mima Falls.
On December 16, with the easy path and perfect weather, my mom and I reached the falls according to plan, but once there, I found myself going somewhere I hadn't anticipated. The modest falls wouldn't challenge Niagara or Multnomah, but they sit within a cozy setting, and because of their relative smallness, they aren't as heavily visited as their more famous counterparts. Together, the quiet place and the welcoming falls inspired me to experiment with long-exposure shots on my camera.

The long-exposure pictures of the falls represented my first real attempt at such photography. No strong desire to do it had previously overcome me, but Mima Falls brought out the urge. Although far from perfect, the pictures left me with a smile and a drive to take my long-exposure photography further in the future.

Like the best of destinations, Mima Falls urged me on to future adventures.

02 December 2016

Lead the Money

"Follow the money." We've all heard that before, and it has a lot of value as an idea, but after we follow the money, we must also take the next step and lead the money.

Following the money helps identify the source of the problem. In the case of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), following the money points to corporate influence on government as the problem. Of course, corporate influence reaches well beyond this issue, but DAPL provides a clear example of how to take the next step of leading the money.

Simmering for months, the DAPL issue and the protests around it have drawn much attention recently. Intended to carry oil from North Dakota east, the pipelines's route passes Native American land and moves under the Missouri River, threatening water supplies. Tribes in the area led the protests against DAPL, the construction of which began before all permits had received approval. Within the last month, law enforcement protecting the pipeline escalated tactics to deal with protesters. As you can see below, police officers employ tear gas and water cannons in freezing temperatures on the protesters. According to a Grist report, police blew off a woman's arm with a concussion grenade.



The fingerprints of corporate influence appear all over DAPL. Despite the escalating use of force by police officers, the Obama administration has refused to step in and protect the protesters or halt the pipeline. Together with the recent decision by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to approve an expansion of the Kinder Morgan Pipeline through British Columbia, DAPL shows the influence corporations have (even on leaders who say they are committed to addressing environmental issues like global warming).

If we were to stop after following the money, we would not be able to address the problem. Luckily, however, DAPL has prompted renewed efforts to lead the money. This YES! Magazine article discusses how people are divesting from the banks that fund DAPL. Divestment hits back at corporate influence by retaking control of our money. Rather than bank with big, corporate banks, people move their money to and do business with credit unions and community banks.

For me, the DAPL divestment represents the continuation of a movement that began in response to the economic collapse in 2008. I joined a credit union in 2007 because it had the best rates on car loans. Following the economic collapse, which came about largely because of corporate banking malfeasance, I moved all my money into the credit union.

Individuals looking for alternative sources for credit cards can also play a part in this divestment. Many credit unions have their own credit cards. Another alternative comes from Beneficial State Bank, which is a B Corporation whose credit cards support nonprofit groups, including the Sierra Club. For more information on Beneficial State Bank's credit cards, click here.

With corporations exerting so much influence on our elected officials, leadership on social change issues must come from us, and leading with our money gives us a great power to create that change.

27 November 2016

In the Heat of the Polar Night

As the lights go out for the winter in the Arctic, something strange and terrible stirs.

Despite the onset of polar night (24 hours of darkness), temperatures in the Arctic have soared to 36 degrees Fahrenheit above normal. Additionally, Grist points out that Arctic sea ice has hit an all-time low for this time of year. The video below explains both issues:



We already know that global warming disproportionately affects the poles. Put simply, the Arctic and Antarctic will experience a greater degree of warming relative to other parts of the planet. Some estimates put the polar temperature increases at 12 degrees warmer than usual. This most recent news from the Arctic suggests those predictions might prove optimistic.

The stunning 36-degree increase over normal temperatures, and the equally shocking flatlining of sea ice production indicates a major change has come to our planet. We've already heard whispers of it in storms, droughts, glaciers, the oceans, and more. However, it's rumbling to life right now in the Arctic. We don't have to wait to see if this is a big moment. We know it is. Natural cycles, badly warped by human influence, have shifted into a startling new force and altered our world in dramatic ways.

In the polar night, that unfamiliar force stalks us, and when the lights come on and we open our eyes, we'll find ourselves confronted by its horrific visage.

20 November 2016

Under One Roof

In Tesla's vision of a sustainable future, everything comes together under one roof.

Best known until now as a maker of high-end electric cars, Elon Musk's company moved us last month toward what he called a "seamlessly integrative" way of life. Teaming with another Musk venture, SolarCity, Tesla unveiled home and vehicle options that combine to fuel a completely solar-powered way of living.

As you can see from the video below, Tesla and SolarCity bring together car and battery technology with an innovative new approach to roofing and solar panels to revolutionize electricity generation and consumption. 


The solar roof provides the key to Tesla's integrative life. For the most part, the car and battery technology already existed. Tesla simply revealed advanced forms of its previous power-storage batteries. However, by integrating roofing and solar panels and connecting them with a home battery pack and an electric car, Tesla gives people a smart, purposeful, and function power system. The system can power an entire life with sustainable energy and empowers people by putting the solution to their energy needs under their own roof (or more accurately, in their own roof). For more information on these products from Tesla, click here.

These latest advancements from Tesla have blown the roof off both the way we think and the way we consume energy.

11 November 2016

One Bird, One Voice

I am one bird. I am one voice. That is all. That is enough.

For many, the 2016 election brought frustration, fear, anger, and sadness. I too felt some of those things during a Democratic primary in which what was fair, right, and smart seemed disregarded. Watching the Democratic Party's insiders control the process tore at my sense of fair play and stabbed at my core values. However, by the end of the election, I felt much different because, for the first time, I took to heart the understanding that I am one voice.

During the summer, I stepped back from the election and concentrated on enjoying the things most important to me: nature, family, and home. Outside of the political whirlwind, I discovered peace in being a single voice. I realized that all I can do is do my best, be informed, and make sound decisions. I can't control others or let my life hinge on their decisions.

Because of my hard-won, new perspective, fall 2016 went much differently for me than any general election since I became a voter. After a few months of living with that perspective, I realized that half of October had passed without my becoming drained or overwhelmed by the general election. When the results came in, I was cool and calm in the knowledge that I had done my best.

Rather than dwelling on the negative, my mind gravitated toward what I thought had been the best parts of the election. At the top of that list, sat a bird. During a primary rally in Oregon, a female house finch landed on Bernie Sanders' podium in a powerful moment of hope and life. The bird later became known as Birdie Sanders. If you never had the chance to see Birdie in action, you can watch her below:



That bird, that podium, that moment: That is the image I choose to take from this election, and given my personal breakthrough over the summer, it's not really surprising that it came back to me in the end. With it, I will walk away from the 2016 campaign holding on to the two most powerful things I know: nature and my ideals. They give me my heart, my joy, my indomitable spirit, my unbreakable will, and my sense of direction. They are who I am and what I do. I leave the rest to others and those others to their own choices.

I am just one bird, and all I can do is use my single voice in the hope of making the planet a little better in my own way.