Archive for November, 2007

Answering our Questions by Concrete Actions

Friday, November 30th, 2007

This week I attended M. Bollig talk titled “Rapid Social Ecological Change in an East African Pastoral Community: The History and Political Ecology of the Pokot Pastoralism”. In his talk, M. Bollig described in details the rapid and almost revolutionary transformation of the Pokot community from a non-pastoral lifestyle to a pastoral one and then back again after 200 years to more diversified livelihoods.
According to the oral tradition of the Pokot and corroborated by other evidences, the transition from one communal organization to the other happened in one or two decades and was carried on by the youths against the will of their elders. At least in the case of the first transition, M. Bollig convincingly argued that there had been a main driving factor that caused of the transition: a severe climatic variation. As indicated by the oral tradition, there has been a severe drought on their territory which lasted for about 80 years, between 1760 and 1840. This drought made the maize cultivation impossible and transformed the savannah by changing the previous grass to tree ratios. The Pokot rapidly adapted to their changing world by becoming highly specialized and very successful pastoralists.
Confronted by such a case of rapid cultural and social transformation in the face of a severe change in the natural environment, I think that the question that was on everyone’s mind was whether or not our own civilization could adapt so rapidly to the most likely upcoming climatic changes. And, pushing a step further, whether or not our civilization, which is responsible for most the drivers of climatic changes, could rapidly and preemptively alter some of its basic social patterns to avoid the worst case scenario in terms of climatic changes. Even if it wasn’t the subject of the talk, it did provide some hope on the possibility of adapting to a situation rapidly, but, unfortunately, not preemptively. The case suggests rather that people change their way of behavior only when they are under great pressure and that, even then, the process is not without its opposition, as the case of the protesting elderly suggests. However, one might ask with a bit of hope, is it different if you are confident that you can predict the coming of a catastrophic event? Can we escape the seemingly inescapable circle of collapses followed by reconstructions if we can foresee the factors that will most likely trigger a collapse? Can we then restructure not to have to reconstruct?
I guess that those questions don’t have answers until either the preemptive actions have successfully been taken or it is too late. Not being able to answer them from a purely theoretical perspective might not however be a bad thing, since it could mean that it is now the time for actions, the time to give to ourselves the answers that we want. As Marx said in another context: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.” Replace philosophers by scientists, if you prefer, it is still true today.

Applying GIS to K-12

Tuesday, November 27th, 2007

(written by Intro to GIS student E. L.)

While surfing the World Wide Web for high school curriculum information, I came across a research done by Steve Wanner and Joseph J. Kerski about the effectiveness of geographic information systems (GIS) in high school education. They point out that:

Concrete evidence of the effectiveness of geographic information systems in the curriculum is lacking. Research concerning the effectiveness of GIS technology and methods has been confined chiefly to anecdotal evidence from classroom observation. Experiments conducted in geography and special education courses in Boulder High School, Boulder Colorado, USA, provide some of the first empirical and case study data as to the effectiveness of GIS in teaching spatial and temporal relationships. Preliminary evidence suggests that students working with GIS demonstrate increased use of maps as analytical tools.

As a future teacher, I asked myself whether or not I will ever use GIS software in my classes and if GIS could be part of my curriculum. I strongly believe that GIS technology can be understood and used by high school students in geography classes. This research showed that the use of GIS technology in high school can be highly beneficial for both teacher and students. From my point of view, the only problem that would slow me from using GIS technology in my classes is money. I believe that using GIS in my classes will require extra money and I might not be able to gather the financial resources that will enable me to implement the technology. However, GIS seems to be a perfect teaching tool and a tool that will enable students to understand certain geographic concepts. I hope that GIS in high school is introduced as part of the geography curriculum in Quebec.

If I ever become a geography teacher, and let’s pretend that the Government of Quebec implements GIS in the curriculum, I would first introduce GIS to my students. I would give them a quick history as well as a demonstration of different features related to GIS. A good example would be using Goggle Earth and show the students different location on earth. I could even use Google Earth on a daily basis to assist me in visually showing my students geographic location related to the curriculum or activity that we would be doing in class. Also, I could produce user friendly maps using GIS applications that would enable me to set up class activities, tests and quizzes. Using GIS would certainly enhance the quality of the material that I would present to my students. Furthermore, I would set up a lab in which my students would become familiar with GIS programs such as Arc GIS. I would demonstrate how to use ArcGIS and then I would create simple assignments based on ArcGIS operations. Even though the complexity of my assignment wouldn’t be too high, I still believe that high school students are able to produce maps using the technology. All in all, there are many ways in which GIS can be use as a teaching tool in high school and I hope that I will see the day when I’ll be able to teach it at the high school level.

If you want more information about the effectiveness of GIS in high school, you can visit ESRI’s research web site, which contains all the results about the research discussed earlier. Increasinly, schools are moving towards implementing GIS in their curriculum. You can find information about this in the following websites. Enjoy!

Source: Visited on November 27, 2007

growth of GIS in public health

Sunday, November 25th, 2007

(Written by Intro to GIS student, JvdB)

The benefits of GIS programs are becoming more apparent in public health care. In January 2008 the second semi-annual international symposium on HealthGIS will be held in Bangkok, Thailand. Its primary goal is to offer “a holistic picture of preparedness for combating epidemics and ensuring proper health care”. Previously, over 350 delegates from 22 countries took part in the hopes of planning strategies to combat diseases such as AIDS and malaria and to ensure safer and healthier living conditions.

Because of GIS’s ability to account for environmental spatial factors such as water quality, climate, and pollution as well as socio-economic spatial factors such as water management, proximity to healthcare facilities, and education, GIS analysis can help understand the impact of these factors on human health. An assessment of the spread of diseases over time, the spatial patterns of outbreaks, the population groups at most risk, the availability and access to health care can be made with the hopes of intervention and improvement.

The Public Health Agency of Canada has also been actively using GIS programs and continues to promote their usage. GIS is valued due to the spatial component existing in health data, the value of maps and visual representations with respect to public health data and the ability to correlate a variety of health data with other data such as census and environmental data.

GIS is used at all levels of government, from federal to local, including non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and research groups to coordinate information and research dealing with issues such as disease prevention, emergency preparedness and response and public health planning.

The use of GIS services in public health is growing and being recognized around the world. In addition to Canada and HealthGIS, ESRI is holding a health GIS conference in Washington, D.C. in the fall of 2008, to explore the use of GIS solutions in health services organizations around the world. ESRI also has a newsletter called HealthyGIS.

Should we always think global?

Friday, November 23rd, 2007

Let’s face it: Global scale research seems sexy. Not only is it large in scale, making it seem more important and far reaching, but also may get more publication attention because of the broad focus. I do feel, however, that some topics do not require to be studied at the global scale to be important for understanding global issues.

Take for example a paper that we discussed last week, by Sieswerda et al. (2001). The authors tried to determine the relationship between ecosystem integrity and human health at the global scale. They performed regression analysis relating an index of ecosystem integrity to life expectancy for different countries. The two seemed to be related but when the authors controlled for GDP (a socio-economic component), the relationship between these two variables fell apart. This is not surprising. If two people (one rich, one poor) are placed in a degraded area, the richer person will be able to insulate her or himself from the potential impacts and therefore their health will be less affected than that of the poor person who must rely on their immediate surroundings. In this way it is no surprise that this relationship is not clear at the global level and that the question could have been better examined at a smaller scale.

When wanting to examine patterns at the global scale using large indexes and averages only mask trends at the smaller scale. I would like to suggest that global studies that compile and compare results from many smaller studies offer more useful information than scaling up. For example, the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment tried to assess the relationship between ecosystem services and human well-being at the local, regional, and global scale. They found that the link between ecosystem service provision and human well-being was evident at smaller scales (e.x. the fertility of the soil will impact the well-being of the farmers who rely on it for food provision and income), while the relationship was not clear when using global averages and indexes (most ecosystem services are degraded, while global human well being is increasing everywhere). This assessment is still useful however, because it examined the relationship between ecosystem services and well-being at many levels and found where the relationship held and where it did not, while if it had only looked at global averages this relationship would not be evident. Further, by focusing more locally you may be better able to address differences in climates, cultures, or policies.

I do not mean to minimize the importance of understanding global scale patterns, but I think that the scale of the relationship should drive the scale of the study. If we return to the study done by Sieswerda et al. (2001), it is intuitive to me that the integrity of a local ecosystem will impact one’s health more than that of an ecosystem on the other side of a country. In this way perhaps this relationship should be examined in a series of small studies all of which can be compared to form a global understanding, as opposed to using broad indexes.

Both global and local scale studies can be valid, however, I think that instead of being caught up in the move to think global, researchers need to be more critical about knowing at what scale the relationship they seek to understand acts. This will make the findings more relevant and useful for future study.

More reasons why we (tend to) destroy our planet

Thursday, November 22nd, 2007

While reading old posts, I realized that we identified many reasons or incentives persons may have to harvest or let other harvest from the environment more than what it can sustainably give and to ‘give’ or let other ‘give’ in return more wastes than it can absorb sustainably. We talked about discounting, environmental justice, psychological factors in play when it comes to make some efforts to preserve some species but not others, and so forth. Not feeling very original, I will add two factors to this already long list.

The fist one, I think, is quite similar to the different emotional responses that most of us have toward a ‘cute’ mammal risking extinction or a clear-cut forest scene when compared to the emotional response we have toward a fish risking extinction or a bottom trawling scene. In her talk, Line J. Gordon said that in countries where people where over draining their underground water for agriculture, the general opinion was that water had never been so abundant and therefore that there was nothing to worry about or no planning necessary. As in the case of the line separating the visible above water world from the invisible underwater world, it seems very hard to overcome wide spread opinions or emotive responses which result from individuals own day-to-day experiences and observations. The obvious response is: more information, we need more information! The presupposition is that once people do know what is really happening behind what they can directly observe, their emotional responses and habits will automatically change and they will ask their politician to bring about general changes to redress the situation. I think that the presupposition reveal a certain naivety. I am wondering what kind of information would be required and delivered in what ways to counter the psychological reflexes that we seem to have. Doing some researches (or reading the results of past researches, if any) in psychology and in communication might be necessary to put all the data collecting and synthesis to efficient use when it comes to transforming mentalities.

The second one is tied to the idea that rich people can insulate themselves (at least better than the poor one) from the effects of environmental degradation. This idea, which I no doubt think is true, taken with the idea of discounting gives, I think, a very strong incentive to destroy our planet. Since depleting the environment now often means getting richer and richer through time thanks to our system of interest rates, one can ‘rationally’ think that it is in his/her own interest and in the interest of his/her own children that he/she deplete the environment now (since, anyway, on that line of reasoning, someone else will do it if he/she doesn’t do it), because not only that person is more likely to be able to protect himself or herself from the bad effects of his or her acts, but, through inheritance, to protect his or her children also. On that line of thinking, the “think about your children and grand-children” slogan would not induce an environmentally friendly behavior, but quite the opposite. And this, I think, is quite chilling.

When Business Avoids Environment (Again)

Wednesday, November 21st, 2007

I attended the inaugural presentation of the Peter Brojde Leadership Lecture series last night, as I was interested in both the topic (“Business and the Poor”) and the primary speaker: Madeleine Albright. While I recognize that this was not explicitly an “environmental” lecture, I write about it on this blog post because any general lecture on business and poverty in the modern world must touch on environmental change and degradation, too; Dr. Albright did not fail me in this expectation.

The theme of her presentation was a legal one, in which she provided a rationale for why it should be every nation-state’s prerogative to bring their poorest citizens into the national and global legal realm, to officially recognize their human right to become part of a “formal legal economy.” She posited that we need to “make law smarter,” so that informal acceptance is formalized, so that those living outside the law are drawn into it. My problem with this idea is that Dr. Albright sees legalism as important only in relation to the world’s poor being able to use it as leverage for entrance into capitalist world markets.

She twice cited other elements which are closely associatied with ideas of law and poverty: “the environment,” and “the empowerment of women.” But categorical allusion was as far as she ventured. A woman who heads two companies that deal with ways to eradicate global poverty seemed to only want to pay lip-service to what she sees as entirely separate issues. But I think the missed – or at least failed to cover in her presentation – a crucial point: that poverty and environmental degradation tend to go hand-in-hand. I wrote about environmental justice in my last blog post, and think it directly applies here, as well.

Madeleine Albright is unabashed about her passion for epitomizing and spreading democratic principles; she is an academic, politician, and diplomat who spends most of her life espousing the ways in which the global order needs to change. But she disappointed me in her glossing over ideas of the environment, in her apparent divorcing of what are in reality closely entwined problems. We have engaged in extensive discussion in 650 about what exactly encompasses environmental policy and how it is created and effected. I would be curious to have further opportunities to ask Madeleine Albright, and other figureheads who seek to influence change and create policy, why the disjuncture between wealth – or lack thereof – and environmental degradation is not more conspicuously recognized in public forums.

garbage imperialism

Tuesday, November 20th, 2007

At what social cost do we recycle our e-waste?

Most Americans think they’re helping the earth when they recycle their old computers, televisions and cell phones. But chances are they’re contributing to a global trade in electronic trash that endangers workers and pollutes the environment overseas.

While there are no precise figures, activists estimate that 50 to 80 percent of the 300,000 to 400,000 tons of electronics collected for recycling in the U.S. each year ends up overseas. Workers in countries such as China, India and Nigeria then use hammers, gas burners and their bare hands to extract metals, glass and other recyclables, exposing themselves and the environment to a cocktail of toxic chemicals.

“It is being recycled, but it’s being recycled in the most horrific way you can imagine,” said Jim Puckett of the Basel Action Network, the Seattle-based environmental group that tipped off Hong Kong authorities. “We’re preserving our own environment, but contaminating the rest of the world.”

Don’t think that we reduce the problem because we’re trying to ensure the computers are reused instead of recycled.

“Reuse is the new excuse. It’s the new passport to export,” said Puckett of Basel Action Network. “Other countries are facing this glut of exported used equipment under the pretext that it’s all going to be reused.”

Just because this story is about the US doesn’t mean that Canada isn’t just as bad.

Problems of Scale, Problems of Semantics

Monday, November 19th, 2007

Discussion in 650 last week following the usual seminars turned into an examination of what I see as two major problems with environmental research: size of scale, and the generalizing tendency of multi-disciplinary studies. The first was discussed in class; the second is my own addition. Discussion was based on two seminars and subsequent articles by the seminar speakers: Dr. Soskolne, an epidemiologist concerned with human health as a result of environmental degradation, and Dr. Line Gordon, a researcher from the Stockholm Resilience Centre, pursuing work on agriculture and hydrology. Both researchers are working on projects of global-scale, and this is problematic – namely because the sample population, community, ecosystem, or other unit of study is actually too big to measure with detail or precision; focusing on a small-scale area and expanding the data to reach global proportions is not effective, either. Dr. Soskolne’s article (with others), “Toward Measuring the Impact of Ecological Disintegrity on Human Health” (Epidemiology 12 (1) 2001) most effectively demonstrated the near-impossibility of such endeavours, as the authors’ hypothesis did not match quantitative results, but was assumed to be proven true anyway.
This problem of scale also rears its ugly head in my own field of study: cultural anthropology. In fact, it has become a critical point in the field, and the subject of constant discussion and publication. It stems out of the difficulties with defining the boundaries of a specific culture or cultural group in an era of globalizing modernity. Some anthropologists turn instead to words like “flows,” “hybrids,” and “cosmopolitanism,” in order to explain the changes facing minority groups as a result of the extensive reach of a global economy and its political and social effects. But such words are metaphorical, tentative notions, and in the long-run, ambiguous, and thus open to contestation equal to that of “scale.”
The environmental justice movement is an example of the problem of scale. This movement was borne out of the idea of “environmental racism,” as coined by Reverend Benjamin Chavis, of the United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice in 1981. The term refers to the intentional or institutional racism expressed via the high tendency for toxic waste disposal sites and other polluting industries to be built in minority or coloured communities. The concept has expanded globally, but has taken on a different form, and more generally refers to the idea that neighbourhoods suffering the most intense pollution are the poorest areas. This now also includes the idea that countries of the global North frequently situate their industrial plants in the global South, thus forcing the developing world to bear the brunt of the developed world’s consumption. Concepts of environmental justice and injustice encompass different social processes, and can mean quite different things at different geographic scales. Such scalar ambiguity poses serious challenges for environmental justice theorists and activists working to solve social disparities which may be experienced in local pockets, small communities, but which may originate at larger scales of political and economic decision-making force.
The example of environmental justice plays aptly into the seminars which form the basis of this blog post, as both researchers were dealing directly with the effects of global issues on discrete communities and cities. But I pinpoint a second problem which is not as applicable: the problems with multi-disciplinary studies. This is a brief, albeit significant issue.
Advocates of multidisciplinary studies and collaborations argue that it is limiting to approach studies of global importance, such as environmental degradation, from only one perspective – that it is more productive and obviously beneficial to have anthropologists, ecologists, epidemiologists, and so on, to contribute to one body of knowledge; this ensures, supposedly, that no actors or factors are left out of an equation which could eventually equal formal and effective policy. I firmly believe that a number of varying voices can only lead to positive contributions to knowledge. But the problem I have noticed with this idea is that the people contributing to multi-disciplinary studies seem to possess a limited understanding of whatever field is not theirs; anthropologists tend to generalize about what ecology is, and epidemiologists tend not to understand the aims of anthropology. I realize this is a grandiose claim, but I am documenting a trend, not a rule. And indeed these are inevitable divisions and disparities, but important ones, as they can lead to erroneous research. Thus I posit that rather than encouraging multi-disciplinary studies, we should more actively promote trans-disciplinary studies – studies that supersede faculties, and therefore do away with the need to categorize specific departments or labeling contributors and risk classifying either incorrectly. Perhaps this boils down to a problem of semantics, but I think it a necessary distinction.

advanced metering infrastructure and GIS generate big savings for electricity utility

Sunday, November 18th, 2007

(this begins the first of numerous posts from my Intro GIS students on interesting applications of geospatial technologies. Written by student PT)

The Unitil utility company recently combined GIS with what they call advanced metering infrastructure to better manage and understand their network. The goal of the advanced metering infrastructure was initially to reduce the cost of meter reading in New Hampshire and Massachusetts. This means remotely reading meters as opposed to a visit from the utilities man or woman. According to Colorado Springs Utilities, many utility companies are using automated meter reading “as a way to improve customer service and control their meter reading costs, especially in areas with fenced yards, dogs, landscaping and other issues that make accessing meters difficult or unsafe.”

The concepts behind wireless meter reading are explained here and here. Since the data can be downloaded in real time this not only means faster data collection but also a constant monitoring of the performance of the system (e.g., it gives a utility company the ability to see where outages or blackouts occur).

Thanks to GIS, all the data collected is presented in a way that is hopefully more intuitive and beneficial to understanding the network and the customers’ needs. Not only would the company be more efficient but the data would be organized in way that is more convenient to location-based information sharing. Energy supply issues could be predicted with analytical tools available in standard GIS. This would help determine if there is the need for a larger transformer and give the proper time estimates for when a new business can be added to a given power network. The possibilities seem endless, for example, the history of tree trimming could be created and overlaid on the power line network as a way to enhance vegetation management, again with the help of analytical tools provided in GIS.

recycle your techie toys

Sunday, November 18th, 2007

The UK Edition. My favourite tip: upgrading your existing tech (e.g., repackaging it in an au courant case; using an mp3 player as a hard drive).

Congo pygmies go high-tech to protect forest home

Thursday, November 15th, 2007

Participatory GIS in action.

Using GPS handsets to pinpoint sacred sites and hunting areas, the nomadic forest dwellers are literally putting themselves on the map to protect their livelihoods and habitat against the chainsaws and bulldozers of commercial loggers.

Fighting for the self: the advertising industry against the educational system

Tuesday, November 13th, 2007

My colleagues did a good job at critically reviewing David Orr talk; I will therefore try not to repeat what they already said by following a thread that Prof. Orr mentioned without developing it further. Near the end of his presentation, he mentioned Edward Bernays’ influence on the American society (and by now, on the world) as a piece of the puzzle explaining the ‘failures’ of the educational system and the ongoing ecological crisis he depicted through his talk.
Edward Bernays, for those who might not know, was the nephew of Sigmund Freud. He introduced his thought in the U.S., not to treat patients psychoanalytically, but to control and influence the masses by calling upon their powerful unconscious drives. He called this molding of opinion “engineering of consent.” He is the father of what we now call ‘public relation’, which was a new name for ‘domestic propaganda’ after the First World War, and one of the pioneers of a new kind of advertisement, which aimed at associating an image to a product. From then on, the advertising industry was all about changing the consumer of useful goods into a consumer of symbolic status, into a citizen whose identity was dependent upon (and formed by) what and how much he consumed. Contrary to the consumption of useful and lasting products, the consumption of symbols (also known as ‘positional goods’) can be endless. Promoting products as symbols of identities and ‘life styles’ (another concept of Bernays) became the motor of the American industry and it insured that the demand would always be there for what the industry could offer. Slowly, being a good American citizen became being a good consumer, since consuming an endless number of rapidly changing symbolic goods insured the vitality of the American industry.(1)
With this background in mind, let’s return to what David Orr said about Bernays. He basically said two things: 1) the advertising industry in the U.S. is half a trillion dollar industry; 2) to mold the citizen into a good consumer, it is in the interest of the advertising industry to try to prevent the full development of the self of its consumers.
1) The never ending consumption of symbolic goods, which are already waste the next day, is an extremely environmentally unfriendly behavior. With such a financial power promoting this behavior through advertising, one can wonder what we could do about it (and what would be the cost of doing something, since this behavior is an important economic driver). To say but one thing, the Americans could ask their representatives to stop financing, with their own taxes, the advertising industry which makes them feel unsatisfied with what they already have, since companies in the U.S. can count the cost of their advertisements as an expense to reduce their taxable profits. In other words, this means that public funds pay a part of their advertisements – an example of what has been called a ‘perverse subsidy’.
2) The second point ties in with the question of education. If the powerful advertising industries strive to prevent the development of the self, to maintain it to the level of infantile self-gratification through immediate material consumption, to a level easily influenced through the basic wants and fears of the ‘id’ (to use Freud’s jargon), then the educational system is directly opposed in its aim (when it aims at forming whole persons) to the aim of the advertising industry. There is probably no way of knowing what chances the educational system have of resisting or fighting the opposite tendency, but what we do know, however, is that we must be vigilant to fight and resist the ‘subtle corruption’ of the universities (as Prof. Orr called it) by corporate funding in order to preserve this island of personal development, cultural resistance and critical thinking.

(1) On this, see the very good BBC documentary: The Century of the Self.

Educational Shortcomings

Monday, November 12th, 2007

I also attended the David Orr talk on October 25th, and was impressed by the majority of his presentation. I believe that the overarching purpose of Orr’s talk was to critique the failures of the dominant Western education system. He began his lecture with the following questions: How is the world where it is with all the education (knowledge) we have? Is education a ‘good’ (positive) force? Throughout the presentation, it became obvious that Orr thought that the world was in a dangerous place, and that education has not been an entirely positive force to date.
Orr chose to address why he thinks the world is where it is today, and why education has not been entirely a ‘good’ force, by arguing that there is a lack of environmental literacy among teachers and students alike (especially at the university level). Apparently, the lack of environmental literacy among teachers and students is a large reason for our current dangerous global position. I tend to agree. I believe Orr’s argument would have been stronger, however, if he spent less time on demonstrating our current ecological crisis, and more time on exploring the other shortcomings of the education system. For example, save environmental literacy, one might ask: in what other respects has the education system failed to educate? I can personally think of a number of instances where the system has failed me: from grade two onward I received a healthy dose of mathematics and science, but never a taste of philosophy; I learned the basics of neo-classical economics, but not its basic consequences for people and the environment; I learned snippets of political theory, but not how to question the powers that be. In reflection, I feel quite slighted. What was taught to me, and millions of young people before and after me, were the ‘facts’ of life, unquestioned. Luckily, I learned to be critical. How many people have lost the opportunity to learn to be critical?
Orr did point to further instances of educational failures when he presented a list of paradoxes that have yet to be solved by our current education system (I only recorded four of the five paradoxes he mentioned): as our knowledge base increases, our sense of purpose decreases (I believe Orr was referring to our spiritual decline in the West); as control of nature increases we move dangerously far from sustainability; as wealth increases, poverty increases and happiness decreases (supposedly there are indices that measure happiness); and as military spending increases our level of security decreases. The validity of any one of these paradoxes could be argued. However, I believe that Orr’s intention was not to debate these examples, but to demonstrate that education’s shortcomings do not stop at the environment. It puzzles me, therefore, that he would open this door and not explore it further (perhaps he ran out of time).
I think that Orr should have spent more time on explicitly addressing the questions he posed to frame his talk. This would have allotted more time to examining other failures of the education system as illustrated in his list of paradoxes. With all the emphasis on environmental illiteracy, Orr gave the impression that other educational shortcomings were less important, or less critical, to an understanding of where we are today, and how we got here. And since he asked at the outset how we arrived at this dangerous time with all that we know, it seems logical that he would explicitly recognize the other failures that led us here.

green your iPod

Sunday, November 11th, 2007

For my students in Environment and Society who answered Essay Question 1 in Section A of the last exam on how to reduce the environmental impacts of the iPod, another set of suggestions: don’t throw away your broken iPod, go to the web to fix it.

you’re so chic in that Garmin

Sunday, November 11th, 2007

Who knew that GPS units could be a fashion statement?

Related: Challenges for Garmin

the ecological cost of the death industry

Thursday, November 8th, 2007

I guess you just have to live forever.

More Questions than Answers, Always

Tuesday, November 6th, 2007

David Orr’s highly-anticipated and eagerly-attended lecture at McGill caused me to question his utopian views of education and the environment. He spoke broadly about global change and environmental degradation, and posited that an ecological education should be a prerequisite for convocation from any university, no matter an individual’s area of specialization; the paper that certifies a degree of higher learning should not be obtained without an adequate demonstration of knowledge of macro- to micro-scale ecosystems and the role humans play in their transformations. The details of this prescribed ecological knowledge is more specifically outlined in Parasite Kid’s post below.

In attending similar seminars over the past three months, I have tried to grapple with the fact that the people I have listened to champion the same shift in worldview, necessary for avoiding environmental catastrophe and/or self-extinction as a human species. They fly around the world to speak to audiences like the filled auditorium at McGill, and address the need to turn rhetoric into action, consumption into compromise. And while I agree with the principles embodied by these presentations, I understand why some audiences may have trouble finding credence in a speech given by speakers who do not appear to practice what they preach – who spend more time in the air than they do on the ground.

Perhaps I am being unfair. Perhaps this is the process of my own ecological education: to filter the rhetoric, to take away the main values, and leave the inherent (and likely unintentional) hypocrisy behind. I do recognize the value of Orr’s words, and view such representative figures as necessary for shifting public opinion so that it embraces an environmentalist ethic, an intellectual humility in relation to other species. Perhaps the slight cynicism expressed above is the manifestation of a sort of compassion fatigue.

The term “compassion fatigue” first rose to prominence in the 1990’s in the United States. It refers generally to a saturation of ideas or images to which the public consequently develops a resistance and potential attitude of carelessness or cynicism. I am using the term in this post in both a euphemistic and hyperbolic sense. Demonstrations of the urgency with which environmental degradation must be addressed is preaching to the converted in my case, thus the fatigue I refer to is my own exhaustion at running in circles around the same question: how does one reach the non-converts? But this is the question that keeps figures such as David Orr so full of idealism, passion, perseverance, and fully-booked for speeches. This is, in my opinion, the question that remains unanswered, and the most important question there is today.

Orr’s ultimate ideal – solution, one could say – is universal education (at the post-secondary level). But this is a privileged and exclusive utopia. Further, switching worldviews is not as simplistic an option as Orr and others seem to suggest. Mentalities are ingrained, inherent to individual ways of conceptualizing the world and its systems and cycles. Appreciation of and understanding of the environment must therefore be a cultural prerogative, a Durkheimian “social fact,” in order to effect and ensure enthusiastic change. But I am still not sure where this cultural environmentalist habitus can or should start. Earlier than university, certainly. But at what age? At what scale? From what angle? Questions of such monstrosity are exhausting, as they keep asking for more and more, for answers I can’t find or create.

What you talkin’ ’bout Willis?

Monday, November 5th, 2007

The recent public lecture by David Orr, a professor from Oberlin, Ohio got me thinking about the importance of language with respect to the environment: what we talk about, how we talk about it, and who says it. During his speech, Orr noted that we do not use the right language when we speak about global environmental issues (i.e. climate change). People who speak frankly about the forthcoming scenarios and challenges are seen as “doom and gloom” and therefore society does not realize the importance and magnitude of these future changes. We see the projected outcomes as possibilities instead of realities, which discourages action from being taken. He suggests that perhaps we feel that we can’t handle the realities. We keep people in the dark because it will avoid panic, despair and societal paralysis. Examples from history, he suggests, show that this is not true; if we talk realistically about what needs to be done (“Our Great Work”), people will rise to the challenge and rally to the cause.

I agree with Orr that what we say, and how we say it, is very important. I also agree as he suggests that education is the way forward. For the most part, the majority of the populous does not understand global weather cycles, where our energy comes from, how energy cycles, how much we consume, and how our actions lead to the impact we see. As individuals, we do not take the time to understand these concepts, which allows and encourages policymakers to waffle and be ambiguous in their policies and public statements. We cannot refute or challenge what they say, because we do not know better.

Although Orr points out the importance of educating people (he focuses on students in universities) I think he is a bit too optimistic that issues of global importance would be approached from a perspective like his own. That all professors will encourage students to understand the importance of reducing our energy and material consumption, that professors will highlight the ills of economic growth and current resource mismanagement. He also assumes that the students will gravitate towards the “right” perspective. These are huge assumptions to make. I feel that people are drawn towards others who affirm their beliefs – there will always be an academic that can tell me what I want to hear and have enough evidence to support it. If I would rather not acknowledge that climate change is a serious problem or that a low growth economy is a good idea, I will find someone who has data to support this. I will take classes that enforce my beliefs (heck, I am right now). This discourages us from changing our beliefs or educating ourselves about the real issues.

I appreciate that Orr puts forth solid suggestions about educational reform. The ideas however, seem to preach to the choir. I gravitate to his suggestions because I am attracted to these ideas to begin with. More importantly, how are these ideas received by those who are not attracted to them? If education is the key, how do we ensure students and society get the education needed to take on “Our Great Work”? When we are not encouraged to change our point of view, can Orr’s ideas actually gain footing?