Make No Impact, Leave No Trace

Leave No Trace Impact Nature Paxson Woelber
Image Credit: Paxson Woelber

Those of us that enjoy hiking through the woods, kayaking down rivers, and general spending time in nature hold one philosophy above all others: Leave No Trace.

It’s a simple concept; while you are enjoying wilderness without signs of human presence, take steps to ensure that those who come after you can enjoy nature in the same way. Pack out all of your trash. Minimize impact from camping and fire building. Travel only on durable surfaces where your footsteps will not damage the flora. Respect wildlife and leave what you find. It’s a courtesy to those that will follow you.

But even for those of us that are so careful to limit our impact in the “natural world,” these principles are dropped once we return home. When the view of trees and rolling hills gives way to skyscrapers and city blocks, we mistakenly believe that we have left nature.

The waste we were so careful to minimize outdoors begins to overflow in our trash cans. Litter that we were meticulous to pack away in nature slips from our pockets in the city. Human waste that was handled with extreme thoughtfulness is now whisked down the toilet to an out-of-sight, out-of-mind facility. Consumption that had been kept as low as possible festers to create mounds of wasted resources.

This pattern of behavior traces back to the fallacy that humans are somehow separate from nature; the idea that we can keep the natural world at arm’s length. It’s a long-held fallacy about humanity’s superiority over the natural world; that we are better than it. We are separate from. We are above. It leads us to separate the “natural world” from our cozy homes in our snug cities. Even our language reflects this fallacious concept; being in the “natural world” versus being in “civilization.” As if they were totally distinct and separate phenomena.

Inevitably, that leads to the idea that our actions in the “human world” don’t effect the “natural” one. We begin to decouple the role that nature plays in our lives and the impacts that we have back on it. People begin to unravel the tapestry that holds the entire planet together while simultaneously insisting that there is no tapestry at all.

But, of course, there is. The plastic microbeads that we use in our apartments inevitably find their way into the stomachs of marine life. The palm oil for the cookies that we have sitting in our pantry came from decimated rain forests. The fuel for our cars causes environmental degradation both when we gather it and when we use it.

Nothing we touch or consume is without an impact to our planet. It’s unfortunate that we can be so attuned to this reality when “in nature,” but have it be obscured when in our “normal lives.” Especially because the impacts that we create when “away” from nature always come back around to impact us somehow.

Those plastic microbeads can go from your face scrub to a fish’s body and then onto your plate. The palm oil cookies were made by damaging the ability of rainforests to absorb CO2; of which higher levels means an ocean less supportive of marine life and more severe storm seasons on land. And, of course, mining your car’s fuel damages natural resource economies like fishing and timber while the exhaust it ends up as contributes to surging asthma rates and heat waves.

We need to kill the concept of “the natural world”. As I sit here in this air-conditioned apartment in the middle of a town with paved roads and bustling coffee shops, I am in the natural world. When I drive my car to meetings in Baltimore, I am in the natural world. Boarding a plane to visit family and friends and to eat cookies made with palm oil, I am in the natural world.

I cannot leave it. You cannot leave it.

So we must keep the ideals of Leave No Trace in mind even when our surroundings have traditionally told us not to bother. Because Leave No Trace is about leaving the world as unmarred as possible for others to enjoy hundreds of years from now.

That means knowing our impact so we can limit it. It means fighting for governmental and business practices that make it simple for individuals to take lighter steps through this world. It means adapting our societies to the ways of the natural world and not pretending like we are somehow separate from it.

“Leave it better than you found it,” my parents would tell me. That doesn’t just apply to a campsite or a backwoods trail; that applies to the earth as a whole. Even… No, especially when you are sitting in the air conditioning.

Five Reasons I Love ‘Light Green’

Bike to Work
Image Credit: Grant Samms

Happy “Bike to Work Day!” As many people did this morning, I used my bike pedal to get to work instead of my gas pedal. My reason was primarily environmental: why contribute to climate change when I can make the trip emissions free and enjoy some fresh air to boot?  It’s a tiny thing in the fight against climate change, but I can’t help think that it’s still worthwhile.

These types of actions have been dubbed ‘light green,’ typically by people who think that the effort of encouraging people to bike to work on one day of the year would be better put to use on ‘deep green’ actions they see as more impactful. But I kind of love the ‘light green’ stuff. While we certainty need more effort put into legislative pushes, carbon limits, and pollution controls, there are many reasons that the ‘light green’ stuff shouldn’t be dismissed. Here’s five:

1. It’s something

Sure, the amount of greenhouse gas that I averted by biking to work today will probably be undone as soon as the nearest cow lets one rip, but it’s still something. When you multiply those somethings by the (hopefully) millions of people that chose their bike today, the results start to look meaningful. When you take all the of ‘light green’ actions that everyone takes throughout the year, it starts to add up to something real. Meatless Monday, reusable coffee mugs, hybrid car purchases; individually unimpressive but collectively meaningful.

 2. It’s an entry point

If you are the type of person that considers the carbon impacts of all of your actions, who will go far out of your way to minimize your environmental footprint, and who spends the weekends campaigning for a green overhaul of our society, great. But you are in the minority. While those actions are undoubtedly more impactful than hopping on the bike one day a year, most people need that first step before they can scale the mountain. By organizing and promoting these ‘light green’ days on social media, it gives people who want to start considering the environment in their actions a simple place to begin. “You know how you like to ride your bike for fun and exercise after work? Have you considered making that your daily commute? Well, try it this Friday and see how you like it. It’s good for your health and the planet’s.”

3. It’s ownership giving 

Once you get people that simple first step in the environmental door, you give them a way to say “I did that.” “I contributed.” Once they feel that taking ownership of their personal environmental impact is something they can do, they can start to consider it in other places. “It wasn’t so hard to ride to work, so perhaps I can start carrying a reusable coffee mug with me. And what about this light that gets left on overnight without a good reason? I can flip that off on the way out the office door.” Especially when you give people a platform like social media to be proud of their little steps, they begin to feel that their actions are amounting to larger ones. These people may start small, but some of them will be leading activists in a few years demanding that politicians move our world toward zero emissions.

4. It’s movement building

For every person that posts a picture of themselves biking to work on Twitter today, one potential ally is added for the environmental movement. When that pride is expressed, both online and off, an opportunity to form connections and share resources comes up. When someone posts today that they took their first step, we can be there to reach out and say “Hey! There’s a meeting of cyclists this evening and we are going to encourage the city council to make our town more bike accessible.” Humans are group creatures. If a simple bike commute can lead to social connections, then more and more people can be brought into the fold of the environmental movement.

5. It’s world changing 

In the words of high school cheerleaders everywhere, “put it all together and what to do you have?” A vastly improved world, that’s what. If tens of millions take one step today, the world will change a little. If a million take another step tomorrow, the world will change more. And, day by day, if those who started small, with just something, continue to engage with the environmental movement, the arc of history will bend toward sustainability. Because the story of the environmental movement is the story of saving ourselves. If we change the way we see the world, we can ensure that people will be able to see it the same way in two hundred years.

 

So, I hope you rode your bike today. I hope millions did. This should not be the only thing we do all year, but it’s an invitation to those who have not yet engaged. If only 1000 take up the green mantle who wouldn’t have yesterday, I know that we will still be here riding for centuries to come.

The Environmental Quagmire of Nuclear Power

Cooling Towers
Image Credit: Tennessee Valley Authority

Nuclear power is in a bit of a bind. With powerful fossil fuel lobbies on one side and anti-nuclear groups on the other, some spectators feel that the U.S. nuclear industry is destined to collapse. Profitability issues, ever present safety concerns, and difficulty providing a per unit price on par with natural gas and wind are all looming over nuclear power. But for environmentally minded observers with an eye toward both carbon emissions and ethical, sustainable development, nuclear power has proven difficult to fit neatly into either the good or the bad category.

Catalyzed by the 1979 nuclear accident at Three Mile Island, public opinion started to sour toward the use of nuclear fission for electricity production in the early 80’s. By the time of the Chernobyl disaster in 1986, anti-nuclear advocacy groups had a solidly opposed public to work with. Since 1994, however, the trend line of approval recovered as more Americans found themselves supporting nuclear power to some degree. This past year, however, Gallup records that only 44% of Americans are in favor of splitting atoms to get our power; the first time supporters were in the minority since 2001. Public support is once again flagging.

The specters of Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima still loom large in the minds of a public concerned with safety as well as consistency. All the reassurance in the world seems to make little difference when the results of mishap can be so severe. Many proponents of nuclear power advocate retrofitting existing reactors with newer systems that offer more assurance against incident. Still, the public seems unwilling to fully embrace the technology. Even as some see nuclear power as a solution for climate change, a deep level of distrust pervades.

With nearly one fifth of the United State’s electricity being generated from 61 operating nuclear power centers, those nuclear reactions are a considerable backbone of our energy grid. The newest of these reactors to come online, the Watts Bar Unit 2 in Tennessee, is only months old. It’s the first new operating reactor in the US in 20 years.

The opening of Watts Bar 2 has again stoked debate about nuclear’s role in the nation, and climate change has only complicated this debate. According to the Tennessee Valley Authority, Watts Bar 2 is an effort to meet emission reduction goals that the massive utility set for itself. This climate angle has meant that environmental organizations who have historically been opposed to nuclear’s waste products and fuel mining are finding themselves unable to answer the question of how to replace nuclear’s generated capacity without resorting to carbon intensive sources.

This seemingly unavoidable increase in carbon emissions should all nuclear power be taken offline is a salient point.  When the Fort Calhoun nuclear plant closed for financial reasons, that electrical capacity wasn’t magically replaced by clean energy; cheap natural gas swooped in to fill most of the gap and that meant dirtier energy in that region. As a general response, some proponents of nuclear power argue that bringing a number of the United States’ 38 inactive nuclear reactors back online could immediately get us off much of our carbon based energy. For an industry already averting a sizable amount of carbon from U.S. electrical generation, it’s not a throw-away suggestion.

While many of the arguments, both for and against, seem to live predominantly in the realm of the speculative, there is one concern seen by the public on a monthly basis: rent payer’s bills. It’s an unavoidable fact that energy produced by nuclear reactions is comparatively more expensive. Exactly how much more is difficult to suss out, but the U.S. Energy Information Administration rates natural gas as winning the race for cheap per kWh energy with wind, coal, solar, and nuclear coming in further behind. Even with this uncertainty, most people seem to agree that a utility bill based on 100% nuclear power would be higher than one based on 100% natural gas. Still, some Americans do seem willing to pay more per month to help decrease our nation’s emissions (but the amount may be as little as five bucks).

But for those concerned with the environmental as well as the financial costs of electricity, nuclear power is more difficult to quantify that just in dollar signs. While wind turbines and solar panels are more agreeable than nuclear plants to the average environmentalist, it’s undeniable that the deployment rate of these technologies isn’t quick enough to totally replace the electrical capacity generated by nuclear plants. So a total shutdown of all nuclear plants would mean a jump in emissions.

And that’s the environmental dilemma with nuclear. Expanding our nuclear plants could reduce emissions quickly, but at the cost of higher utility bills when some already struggle and the remote but ever present risk of a nuclear accident. Shuttering these plants, on the other hand, would mean a spike in carbon emissions as environmentalists are in a fatiguing fight to lower them. So, what to do?

To be clear, my opinion on this topic is heavily qualified. While I’m leery myself about a heavy reliance on nuclear power, I’m much more afraid of a future with an out of control climate. While there is always a chance that nuclear power plants may lead to regional calamity, I would rather run the small chance of local catastrophe than the nearly guaranteed chance of a global one. Nuclear waste will continue to pile up and we will struggle with how to secure it, but I would rather live in a world that can at least temporarily contain it’s energy waste than one that puts it directly into the atmosphere. I’m always cognizant of the role of energy costs in social inequality, but I would rather see subsidy programs to help people pay their utility bills than ones to help them evacuate inland. While I would be lying if I said that I was entirely satisfied with the use of nuclear energy for power, the threat from unmitigated climate change is so much larger.

So we should buckle down, subside nuclear plants while we phase out our fossil fuels, and then revisit the topic of dismantling this contentious energy source. I don’t want to see another Fukushima, but I can’t bear to see the U.S. emissions spike that closing these facilities would mean. Hopefully, in the future, we can turn our attention to optimizing our power supplies.  But right now, we need nuclear’s head start on low emissions energy.

Our Forgotten Sustainability Culture

Depression
Image Credit: Robert Hoge

Disposable take-home containers. Single use coffee pods. Fast fashion. Cleaning pads that hit the trash after one room. This type of convenience based consumption has become commonplace in American life. But for many of our parents and grandparents, this pattern of buy, use, trash, buy, use, trash would be beyond embarrassing; it would be treasonous.

By the culture that arose after the stock market crash of 1929, we would all be traitors. To our families, to our communities, and to our country. The crippling financial crisis of the Depression forced all people to think more deeply about the consequences of their consumption. Thrift became both virtue and necessity. Waste could not be tolerated. Sustainability had to be the model.

There was a focus, then, on making the very most of all of your resources. Knowing how to alter and mend clothing became a valuable skill that could ensure you got all you could out of a pair of pants. More families took advantage of the natural resources that surrounded them as they hunted, fished, and collected their own wood for cooking and heating. Simple, filling meals became the norm as a way to limit waste. Community gardens sprang up and people ate what was in season. The first thought if a pair of shoes became worn was of how to mend, not where to buy.

If some of the above ideas sound like relatively new concepts, then you’re in the same place I was when I started researching for this piece. Surely, community gardens and the trend toward local food were ideas that originated with the environmental movements of the 1960s and 70s. The ideas of the makerspace and the “right to repair” are relatively new concepts as well, right? The shift toward simple, non-processed, meals made fresh at home is most definitely a departure from America’s obsession with all things pre-cooked, fast, and easy.

All of these concepts have roots in the Depression era, if not further back in time. The ideas of sustainability then were undertaken out of economic necessity. Today, those same American ideals are being used out of ecological necessity. The movement toward buying locally grown, in-season food averts the monstrous carbon footprint of cargo ships bringing fresh limes, in December, to Boston. Our growing interest in repairing the things that we own, as well as buying quality goods to begin with, gets us away from the ecologically and morally troubling trend of importing cheap stuff made in developing nations. Cooking simple meals at home, our growing interest in “clean” and “natural” food, and a general aversion to fast food avoids the waste impact of all those carry-out meals. Same story with the trend toward reusable water bottles and coffee cups. There is even a movement among intrepid “invasivores” to only eat meat harvested from invasive species as a way to put food on the table while controlling the spread of these animals.

Those living through the Depression may not have been familiar with “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle,” but they did abide by “Use it up, Wear it out, Make it do.” And while I would never hope that those measures of sustainability are necessitated again by economic turmoil, we can use that mentality to address our environmental woes. As our climate changes and our oceans fill with plastic, those waste reduction measures common in the Depression have been rediscovered to fight an environmental crisis global in scope.

So as municipalities pass laws to ban plastic bags and more of us carry reusable coffee mugs, don’t see these measures as a new wave of environmental liberalism. Rather, see them as the reemergence of patriotic thrift. We have become accustomed to convenience and disposability in our recent past, but these attributes are far from the core of our historic American identity. The ideas of consumption that older generations held can leave us personally fulfilled and keep both our individual and planetary homes tidy. The type of self-sufficiency and purposive consumption that we embraced in our past is, thankfully, an idea that we are starting to get back to.

After all, it’s the patriotic thing to do.

NIMBY and the Social Gap Collide

Solar Power and Tractor
Image credit: Alan Levine

Previously, I wrote about the surprising lack of conflict in Woodward, Oklahoma over the introduction of wind energy to a historically oil-soaked community. People in Woodward were already familiar with energy production and that made the new-fangled wind turbines look a lot less alien. I also noted that this introduction was set against a backdrop of the most highly concentrated pocket of climate change denial in the country. Wind turbines there were not viewed as clean energy specifically, but as just another form of energy production. And more production is always better.

~~~

Recently, I packed up all my things and moved halfway across the U.S. One thing that remained constant is that I still live in a rural area. Just like Oklahoma, the Eastern Shore of Maryland is a largely rural, agricultural place. Both are long on history and nostalgia; they scoff at “big city folk” and pine for a less complicated era.

But the introduction of clean energy into both couldn’t have been more different.

Unlike Woodward, my new home of Kent County readily sees climate change as a real and imminent danger immediately needing to be addressed. It’s definitely caused by humans and we definitely need to dedicate legislation and tax money to address it. But when utility scale solar companies recently tried to install a solar array across a number of agricultural fields in the area, they ran headlong in the infuriating enigma that is the social gap. If my new home was so ready to address climate change, why did so many local people line up to oppose the very projects they supported in theory?

The answer many gave was that solar panels just “don’t fit” in the landscape. Ours is a historic, agricultural place and planting a crop of alien power generators would ruin that history. When you ask for specific reasons why solar would be a bad fit for the county, you hear of solar farms breaking up the scenic, rolling hills and making good quality farmland unable to grow food. So while those in Woodward saw wind power’s effect on aesthetics as negative but necessary, those in Kent County see solar’s effect as negative and wholly unnecessary.

That is in fact the very case they made to a judge who rejected a license to a solar development company: this is unnecessary. But, if the county as a whole is in favor of dedicating resources to increasing clean power, then why was this project beaten back so feverishly? The social gap rears its head again. While some would place the blame for this behavior on NIMBY, I would wager that the discrepancy is due to what is missing from Kent County’s history: energy production.

If you have a one-hundred-year history of extracting energy as Woodward does, you are used the presence of the looming contraptions that undertake that work. But without that social familiarity, the introduction seems only to have negative impacts.

Unfortunately, that perception is at odds with the emerging future of our electricity production. Rooftop solar, the grid of the future, home storage, and low-capacity but numerous power generating stations; all signs point to decentralization. Historically, our power has been generated by the gigawatt at stations far out of sight. But our future seems to hold much smaller, more numerous stations that individually generate less power. Where historically electricity has flowed only from the utility to their customers, a two-way street is beginning to emerge.

Right down to the solar panels (or even just shingles) mounted on a roof that create enough power for just one house, the generation of our electricity is becoming a local matter. Interestingly, this idea of reclaiming local production has emerged in Kent County in different arena: food. There has been a push on the Eastern Shore (and, indeed, the world) to take a keen interest in where our food is coming from, to consume as much local food as possible, to eat from farms that are cognizant of their environmental impacts, and to demand a reexamination of our entire food system. So it’s not the desire for positive change that is missing from Kent County, but rather it is the physical manifestation that change takes which is troublesome. While Kent County has the social familiarity with agriculture to encourage the localization of our food sources, it lacks that same familiarity with electricity.

This puts proponents of clean energy in an awkward position. On one hand, the desire of those living here needs to be respected and changes to a place should only proceed with the general consent of the communities that inhabit it. On the other hand, our system of energy production is becoming more local which means that everyone will soon live near (or even in) their local power plant. But, having to reconcile these two factors is not simple in a rapidly changing world.

The days of large corporations building power plants that are unquestioningly deemed necessary is rapidly ending. So, too, are the days of not having to worry about where your electricity comes from. So a hybrid solution must be adopted. As we demand that energy developers become more aware of their impact on the environment, we must also become more willing to live near their operations. We need to train ourselves to see our new, clean power plants not as an unsightly necessity, but as a source of local pride and autonomy. Our new, increasingly sustainable world means more local production of everything. Of clean water. Of food. And, now, of electricity.

Community Solar Can Overhaul Utility Assistance Programs

solar-instalation-us-department-of-agriculture
Image Credit: US Department of Agriculture

Complacency might well be the most insidious force in the world today. The cessation of the attempt; failing to reach further for what is better. Never yearning to remix and remake our world for the future. Or, just sitting back and failing to acknowledge when the changes that are happening around us are recursive for the majority. Where a once blossoming promise has withered at the expense of the many, complacency can be found skulking in the shadows.

The complacency with our electrical supply systems has been holding my attention lately. Not just the physical infrastructure itself, but the financial and policy frame works that prop it up. How we get our power and how much control we have over that process turns out to be a very interesting topic for the future facing citizen.

It’s a popular suggestion that families that cannot afford to keep their homes heated in the winter should get assistance from the government. After all, shivering children should make no one giddy. But the ways in which utility bill assistance programs operate are ripe for a rethink. No matter how the money is distributed, funds for these programs ultimately come from tax payers. It is then given to the utilities to make up for a portion of the bill that families cannot afford.

But something is amiss under the surface. The shift since the 1980s to privately owned utilities means that citizens have less and less control over how their power is generated. Utilities, always with an eye to the bottom line, choose the cheapest fuel mix possible which often means a large proportion of carbon sources. When you consider that the production of fossil fuels is already subsided in the United States to the tune of $4 billion a year, the tax money used for utility assistance programs re-subsidizes those polluting energy sourcing with more public money. And when you consider that this money often comes from pots meant to modernize our energy production, this doubling down on the old is all the more egregious.

There are better solutions to making sure that people can afford to keep their lights on and homes heated. There are solutions that give communities more say in how their energy is produced. Solutions that let town halls, and not board rooms, lead on energy modernization.

Community solar is an idea that has increasingly been seen as a solution to addressing the problems of residential solar power. In short, communities build a solar array either in a field or by using the suitable roof space in town. Those for whom rooftop solar is out of reach are then able to subscribe to a portion of the array’s output. For example, even those who rent small apartments could subscribe to the output of one panel. The energy produced from that panel would then come off of their energy bill as if the panel was on their roof.

This type of system is also of great value to those in need of utility assistance. Instead of using assistance funds to simply pay off part of the bill, those funds can be used in an innovative way by giving families in need subscriptions to community arrays. It grants these families more ownership of their energy sourcing and avoids the double subsidization of fossil fuel companies. Community solar can wrest control away from the shareholder and return it to the hands of those actually flipping the switch.

This arrangement also opens a pathway to greater community cohesion as residents could elect to donate some of the power generated by their subscription to families in need within their own town. Producing power where it is consumed also grants a sense of local autonomy; the sort of do-it-yourself sufficiency that Americans mourn the loss of in the modern-day.

These are the kinds of rethinks that will drive our energy future. As utilities, both private and public, prepare for a decentralization of energy production they set the landscape for local sufficiency. Communities are beginning to demand traceability for their electricity. Doors are being opened to new ways of envisioning how we power our homes. And as we install this new, localized future of ours, we are finding innovative methods to provide for everyone in our communities. Beyond just expecting the government to help those in need, we can preserve both the environment and the humanity of those around us. Community solar is a step we all should dare to take.

Our Failed Climate Change Defense

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Image Credit: Claudia Dea

Let’s talk about legal defenses that should not work. You get pulled over. You get asked if you’ve been drinking. You have. You try to deny it. You conjure up all the rationale and excuses you can find in your ethanol addled mind to explain why this isn’t what it looks like. But when the officer asks you to step out of the car, you, with vapors of gin and whisky stumbling off your tongue, come up with the perfect legal defense: You can’t be drunk because you weren’t paying for the alcohol. “Solid point,” says the officer, and lets you on your way to continue careening down the freeway; endangering everyone that shares the road with you that night.

For the past thirty years, the United States has been employing this same defense as to why it shouldn’t be held responsible for the emissions that we spew into the atmosphere like a debauched club goer. The language should sound familiar. “But China won’t do anything!”  Employed by politicians and everyday people alike, the argument goes how can we be expected to act when our actions will only be a drop in the bucket as compared to the big polluter that is China? Or India? Or Russia? Putting aside that fact that the U.S. still emits far more per capita than China (16.4 kilotons per person to China’s 7.6), a large portion of the United States’ carbon bill is actually paid for by China. This is because the groups that tally up carbon bills use the same method that a bar does: Whoever directly creates the carbon spewing activity gets the tab. But what happens if that activity is slid down the bar to the U.S. who has convinced other nations to buy the drinks? The carbon emitted for all of the TVs we buy, the clothes we wear, and all of the cheap chachkies we mindlessly consume gets charged to China even though we get the physical goods. And, for the record, all of the emissions cause by shipping those good across the Pacific on heavily polluting bunker oil don’t get charged to anyone. They don’t really get tracked or accounted for at all.

In this way, the United States (and, indeed, all developed nations) have found a way to hide a sizable part of our total emissions within other nations ledgers. The demand originates in the rich nations, the items are consumed in the rich nations, but the pollution, including the carbon dioxide, is burdened by the developing world.

Yet we wonder what on earth is wrong with nations like China when they can’t seem to get their air pollution under control. “If only they could be environmentally conscious, like those of us over here, they wouldn’t have to suffer under a hazy smog that is literally choking the life out of them.” And so, confident in our assessment that we can’t do anything until China does something about the pollution that we have put there, we tell ourselves that we might as well wait until they get their act together. After all, it’s only fair. Meanwhile, our world continues its slide into a future where the environment is so chaotic that we can’t fully predict how many (or even how) humans may live on it.

Now, in case you’re thinking “we don’t force this on China. It’s their choice to engage in this type of global trade,” you must remember that this problem of outsourcing environmental consequences while importing physical goods isn’t isolated to one country. The history of globally produced consumerism is clear on the business model: park in the cheapest country with the loosest labor and environmental regulations for as long as possible. When that country decides to improve the standard of living for their people, you move on to the next nation. This migration is easy to track based on who the stereotypical producer of cheap stuff is. Japan, to Korea, to China, and now to Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. The wave of consumerism sweeps from developing nation to developing nation while we hide our pollution in their skies.

But how can consumers be expected to curb this dangerous cycle of climate blame laying? To be sure, the average American consumer has no power in the court of the World Trade Organization. But they do have a wallet, and the solution to rampant, mindless, climate-destroying consumerism can oddly be solved by some of the rallying cries of American capitalism itself. “Vote with your wallet.” “Buy American.” “Shop local.” All credos of the same lawmakers that abhor any attempt to place the needs of the planet before that of the bottom line. But buying local goods cuts down on untracked cargo ship emissions. Buying American ensures that we must bear the pollution burden of our consumption. Voting with your wallet by buying products that are mindful of their impact helps us internalize our personal impact. Alternatively, voting by not opening your wallet for all of those cheap chachkies may be the most socially and environmentally sound vote you could cast.

Personal responsibility. Another rallying cry of the laissez-faire politician. But in this they are correct: when we take seriously the responsibility to balance our consumption with our environmental impact, we can improve ourselves. When we insist that the products we consume are made with the same attention to planetary preservation as we are in selecting them, we can improve our world. And when we tally up this mindful consumption in whole, acting with sober mind and clear understanding, we can save our future.

The Cold Reality of Inhofe’s Snowball Stunt

Snowball
Image Credit: Cristian V.

“The trick is to keep your identity separate from your opinions,” begins one of the most insightful quotes I have heard in some time. YouTube educator and general internet sage CGP Grey continues on to explain how opinions are merely objects in a box that people carry with them and they should be easily replaceable. “If you think that the opinions in the box are who you are then you’ll cling to them despite any evidence to the contrary. Bottom line if you want to always be right, you need to always be prepared to change your mind.”

Elsewhere, on the floor of the US Senate, Senator James Inhofe hucked a snowball at the presiding senior Republican that day. “Here, Mr. President, catch this.”

It had snowed recently in DC and, as is all too typical for the senator from Oklahoma that has both literally written the book on climate change denial and is primarily funded by oil and gas interests ($454,500 in 2014), Inhofe knew that snow meant only one thing. If it’s snowing, how can global warming exist? In an equally predictable response, primarily liberal media outlets picked up the story as an excuse for some easy click bait and an opportunity to (once again) publicly scoff at an enemy of scientific literacy. Within hours the internet was flooded with digital ink pointing out that, yes it may be snowing in DC but, no, that doesn’t mean that climate change isn’t happening. It was an opportunity for them to take a good long laugh at “Senator Snowball1.”

But there is a fundamental flaw in this predicable point-counterpoint argument that these parties always seem to have: they are talking past each other. For the sake of argument, I’m going to assume that Inhofe’s rhetoric is genuine and not completely driven by financial interests and the GOP party line. Even if it is, there are a great many people not in politics but still with deeply conservative Christian convictions with whom Inhofe’s views resonate strongly. The problem with this kind of public debate is that it entirely ignores the source of this kind of thinking. The media and other legislators miss this nearly subconscious cognitive focal point: there exists a natural order and any violation of that natural order is wrong at best and immoral at worst. With this world view then, conservative positions on many issues begin to come into focus. Gay marriage violates the established order of romantic and sexual relationships. Abortion violates the natural order of human reproduction, as does birth control. The idea of evolution violates the natural order of humanity’s relationship with nature.

But these issues go further than just violating perceived and absolute rules for how the universe is ordered. They actively attack the constructed view of reality that deeply conservative people hold. In short, every time climate change is mentioned, discussed, or given any credibility, Inhofe has an existential crisis. It should not be a surprise that his defense of this stance goes back to the Bible. In his mind, if human induced climate change is real, then God’s total dominion over the earth is suspect. If that dominion is suspect, then God himself may be suspect and Inhofe’s entire order to the universe falls apart. Somewhere in the conscious or unconscious mind of Jim Inhofe, giving climate change any credibility is a direct assault on his entire world view.

In this light, then, the reaction of Inhofe and other conservative Christians starts to come into focus. For them, opinions are not carried in a box; they are a deep part of who they are. Because of this, any question or issue that they feel violates these natural orders is considered to be an attack on the very core of their reality. It should be no surprise, then, that these issues are often met with very strong and exceedingly loud opposition. This is where media, primarily those with a liberal spin, start to talk right past Inhofe and others like him. The media is trying to argue the merit of a scientific idea. Inhofe is trying to argue the merit of his personal reality. This is the same story with those that stage graphic anti-abortion demonstrations or school board members who try to strip evolution and climate change out of school text books.

So instead of laughing at the stupidity of a man for hucking a snowball on the floor of the senate, we should look at why Inhofe felt compelled to take up such a desperate defensive stance. What, specifically, about the political landscape surrounding climate change do Inhofe and others find so threatening? Is there a way in which we can resolve these two issues? While it is tempting to say that you can never debate with ardently religious points, I would argue that progress can be made. Look at the Pope’s recent comments about how the big bang and evolution need not be shunned by Christians. He makes it clear that we should not see science as the antithesis of religion. If the highest man in the Catholic Church can reconcile scientific work with his world view, we can find a way to reconcile climate change with Jim Inhofe2. After all says the Pope, “God is not a magician.”

~~~

1Full disclosure: I find the “Senator Snowball” joke hilarious.

2Again, assuming this doesn’t all just boil down to financial contributions.

Where Does Fracking Leave Oklahoma’s Future?

Image Credit: Grant Samms
Image Credit: Grant Samms

This is part three in a three part series on fracking in Oklahoma. Read part one here and part two here.

For the past two weeks, I have written about the state of fracking in Oklahoma and the socio-political quagmire that surrounds the issue. The impetus for all this digital ink was the ban that New York recently placed on fracking in that state. This ban led some to wonder why the same type of ban could not just be placed in Oklahoma. The reasons why that request is, unfortunately, oversimplified and unrealistic were my previous subjects. However, a few people mentioned that I had failed to be critical of fracking and had not emblazoned some of its more demonic implications. This is true. My goal in the past two weeks was simply to be descriptive; to try to explain the situation with as little interference from my own bias as possible. But this week I aim to move away from the descriptive tack I have been taking and become more proscriptive. How can Oklahoma, with all the issues and forces that it contends with, ever hope to ban fracking? My suggestions here will have to be implemented at various times and by a variety of actors. While the ultimate goal of a fracking ban will only reasonably play out in the long term, we can seek better communication and peace of mind for residents today that will build toward a better energy future for the state in later years.

One of the first actors that has to be considered for change would be the industry itself. Energy companies, like Devon and Continental which heavily frack the shale plays in Oklahoma, frequently run publicity campaigns to make themselves appear to be the champions of the state. They often bluster on about how they help the communities that they work in and about all the money they bring to the state. But many of the citizens affected by the work, especially the ones that receive no direct financial compensation, often feel that their communities and daily lives are violently disrupted by the industry. It is common for feelings of resentment and betrayal to be aimed at those companies who residents see as the source of their distress. At public meetings, people have broken down into tears as they describe the legal ability of gas companies, in the right situation, to erect a fracking platform, complete with methane flair, 125 feet from their door and drill under their house without having to obtain their permission or even advise them of drilling activities. Frustrations are frequently aired over the destructive nature of heavy truck traffic on roads and the timing of drilling activities to avoid ordinance enforcement by government overseers. If the industry is sincere in its PR declarations about helping the state and communities, it would limit these behaviors and make itself aware of the true needs of people. In the pursuit of profit, gas companies often ignore the fact that they are operating in areas where human beings permanently reside; human beings who need to be able to sleep and drive to work the next day. This tone deafness to the actual needs of communities has made gas companies the enemies of many, not the heroes. It is not unreasonable for people to expect information about the extent and duration of drilling activities under their land nor for them to expect the roads and bridges on which they rely to be respected by all who use them. This communication and curtesy should become a part of the industry’s best practice lest they see themselves continue to be the enemy of those whose lives they impact.

The second group that we should examine is the role of the state government. While a cynical part of me wants to dismiss the government as being in the death grip of the petroleum industry, there are signs some in government would be willing to vote against the unfettered run of the land that the industry has had. Government hearings about the effect that drilling and waste water disposal practices are having on state residents have started to occur. The Oklahoma Corporation Commission, which oversees petroleum activities in the state, stated in a press release on man-made earthquakes that, while a “definitive link of oil and gas activity to the current major seismic events in Oklahoma has not been established” they are “not waiting for one” to take action. Their steps include mandating an increased amount of well monitoring and increasing the amount of integrity tests that are run on large volume injection wells. Some lawmakers have also expressed interest in proposing legislation that would impact a wide array of issues that arise due to fracking in the state. This kindling of legislative energy to regulate the state’s defining industry is not only a positive shift for the state, but is also an opportunity to seize on for the future. My single most desired action for the government to take would be an interim study on diversification of energy generation and subsequent economic security. While Oklahoma has great potential for clean energy generation, the opportunity is oftentimes used as a way to generate conflict with the state’s energy identity: Oklahoma is an oil state and wind power threatens that identity. But the correct framing could see this improved upon, especially as more and more people are becoming disillusioned with the petroleum industry. While a hearing might seem simply like a bureaucratic time waster, its attention by the government would yield a small amount of legitimacy to clean energy in the state and serve as a starting point for an overhaul. If paired with a PR campaign for the new jobs and new economic opportunity that solar and wind would provide, a clean energy push could be made that would maintain the state’s energy identity. Combined with the possibility of attracting out of state investors and selling excess electricity to other states, an ad campaign about how ‘Oklahoma keeps America moving’ could serve as a transition into a new energy paradigm.

Lastly, the people of Oklahoma itself hold more power than they are often given credit for. Many residents think that they are powerless against the mighty forces of the industry, but the recent small shift in the government’s tune is proving they have some power. The change in government attitudes that I outlined above have been credited to pressure from common people. The city council of Stillwater, Oklahoma is currently and seriously considering a proposal to ban all mining operations (including fracking) within the city borders. That would be a huge step for the state and would be the direct result of constituent pressure. If grass roots resistance to the industry and pressure on government continues to grow, it is not unreasonable to assume that citizens may get their way by sheer force of number. But in this change, it would be important to ensure the debate does not become too polarized. While that outcome certainty is a possibility, there is plenty of ground that the majority of Oklahomans can find in common. Man-made earthquakes have been one of those places. I think that a push toward clean energy framed in terms of economic security and job growth could be another.

Oklahoma is extremely far from the type of fracking ban that New York has put in place. I cannot debate this. However, there is some reason to hope for change. A growing mass of people are demanding more regulations for the industry and more protections from the government. It would be foolish to underestimate this kind of populist pressure. Another thing I cannot debate is the fact that Oklahoma is an energy state. Any push to ban fracking is going to have to take this into consideration. All of the emotion; all of the identity; all of the history will have to be taken into account. But these forces can also be brought to bear to create change. Any ban will have to offer an alternative in its place. That alternative has to be set up in ways that will appeal to energy workers and to the general public. But I hope, as these forces begin to swell, that one day they will be able to overtake the fossil fuel industry in this state. We may see a fracking ban in Oklahoma yet.

When the Facts Cease to Matter

Image Credit: Progress Ohio
Image Credit: Progress Ohio

This is part two in a three part series of social factors on fracking in Oklahoma. Read part one here.

Anybody who follows national politics will know that there are many, many times in which facts do not matter. Emotions and dogma often carry the day more than evidence and reason. In other words, often does the subjective outweigh the objective. While it may be easy to dismiss out of hand this type of blind, emotional reasoning; it is worth noting that its wide pervasiveness gives it power. What must then be considered is whether a person wants to try to convert most people to a method of objective logic to achieve their goal or work through those subjective hazes to reach an accomplishment? Unsurprisingly most organizations and advocacy groups choose the later approach. But it is important to recognize that this level of compromise, the ability to recognize the power of and work in the realm of the subjective, is as relevant in all walks of life as it is in politics.

Often when speaking with community activists or studying industry communications on hydraulic fracturing, I find that there really are six factors that matter equally as much: the objective positives of fracking, the objective negatives of fracking, what the subject thinks are the positives, what they think are the negatives, what they think their antagonists see as the benefits, and what they think their antagonists see at the negatives. Whew! So much for simple right and wrong. But the fact of the matter is that so often important decisions are made with emotion at their core. And while these emotions could be ignored, recognizing why certain parties are saying certain things can lead us to better communication and a better understanding of the total dimensions of our problem.

For instance, a common rallying call for anti-fracking activists in Oklahoma is that the practice should be banned because it creates earthquakes. To break down this argument into the six factors I mentioned above, the objective truth is that, while the actual fracturing of the rock does not lead to earthquakes, the injection wells that are commonly used for the disposal of waste water have been shown in many, many studies to create induced seismicity. While the activists are very much aware of this distinction, the technical inaccuracy of “fracking causes earthquakes” is something that industry has exploited as I will note later. This is one of the central pillars, joined by others such as water contamination risk, air pollution risk, damage to local roads, water usage, and the effects of methane and CO2 on the climate. To the average activist, these aspects all pose very present and realistic fears. When they are combined with the often dismissive attitude of local, state, and industry officials, it leads to a large amount of fear, anxiety, and anger toward oil and gas companies. It is rare that activists will offer up anything positive about fracking. When considering the views of the oil and gas companies, activists often see the companies as pressing forth a litany of false positives while conveniently and consciously dismissing their wrong doings. Under the surface of all of these claims lies a feeling of deep seated injustice. Activists feel as though their government turns a blind eye while the oil and gas industry abuses the state’s land and water and then leaves broken communities in its wake.

On the flip side, the industry sees itself as a champion of the state’s economy. They frequently advertise all the money and jobs that they add into the economy. As I mentioned last week, the claim by the OERB (a government board to propose oil and gas regulations voluntarily funded by oil and gas companies) is that oil and gas is responsible for a third of Oklahoma’s Gross State Product. The industry often expresses the view that the biggest problem with fracking is that people don’t know enough about the process and would recognize how great it is if they only received good information. This, at least, seems to be what they publicly see as the positives and negatives of fracking. But what is actually said behind corporate doors is anyone’s guess. The industry says that activists are just extreme factions that make completely baseless claims and are waging a war to smear the industry and all it does for the state. They often resort to straw man tactics to make their antagonists appear baseless in their claims. Regarding the “fracking causes earthquakes” claim from earlier, industry representatives often say that there has never been a link shown between fracking and earthquakes. While this is technically correct, it assumes that activists are only talking about the physical cracking of the shale when, in fact, most activists use “fracking” to mean the entire process and all it entails. The actual objective facts here though are hard to parse out. While it is undeniable that the industry plays an important role in the state economy both directly and indirectly, all of the data comes from the industry and bodies that they fund. Economic studies have shown that the figures these groups come up with often do not account for costs of their presence with any accuracy. For instance, they often fail to account for the cost of damage to roads and the opportunity costs to the economy caused by their damage. As for the other evidence against their activities, they often find technicalities that make the evidence less absolute. Sort of like how smoking has never technically been proven to cause lung cancer.

In the end, it is harder to take stock of the subtext underlying a faceless corporation’s activities. But if I had to guess, I would say that behind closed doors they are scared and anxious of the activists they publicly dismiss. Recent examples from Denton, Texas and Longmont, Colorado show that grass-root activist organizations can mobilize entire towns in even staunchly conservative places to outlaw one of the industry’s most lucrative practices. It isn’t hard to imagine the industry in a war for the hearts and minds of the people when they need their land and mineral rights.

So by taking into account how differing parties subjectively view a situation and paring that with an understanding of the objective facts, we can start to draw a much more accurate picture of the problem that Oklahoma faces with fracking. Perhaps if this where a dry academic issue the facts would be all that mattered. But this is not academic; it has become a deeply emotional and polarizing social issue. Recognizing this is critical to understanding the deep implications of any suggestion that is made for Oklahoma. But what suggestions can be made when so much hangs in the balance of every decision? Industry wants to proceed unopposed which would not be without serious consequence. Activists want to see that activity severely crippled or outlawed which would also come with a heavy price. So what beginning steps could Oklahoma take to start it toward the goal that any observer of climate science knows it needs to get to? Paths forward into that future will be the subject of the last part in this series to be published next week.

You can read part three in this series here.