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.