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

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.

Our Failed Climate Change Defense

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

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.

What’s so Different about Oklahoma’s Fracking?

Image Credit: CREDO
Image Credit: CREDO

This is part one in a three part series on social factors on fracking in Oklahoma

I rather distinctly remember a graduate student at Kansas State asking me about my opinion on hydraulic fracturing during my undergraduate career. He was specifically probing me for an anti-fracking stance. At the time, I was a sophomore in a state that didn’t have any fracking in it so far as I was aware and I gave him the only answer I thought was reasonable: “I don’t know enough to have an opinion.” It was an honest answer. At that time, I was only vaguely aware that it was a practice currently in use. I sort of knew that it had consequences and I sort of knew that I was supposed to hate it as someone being educated in conservation biology.

It’s humbling how an issue can precipitate out of a nebulous state into something so corporeal with a change in location. Over the summer, I moved from Manhattan, Kansas to Stillwater, Oklahoma to begin a Master’s program. Unknowingly, I had moved into a region of the country where an amalgamation of social and governmental issues had left most of the citizens in a cultural crossfire. Data and opinions on fracking were being thrust onto the stage of my academic mind at a dizzying rate. With many of my faculty advisers and fellow students paying so much attention to the social and environmental benefits and costs of fracking (many of them born in the state) the intellectual change was as drastic as breaking through a thin, distancing sheet of ice to be drenched in the mire below. Suddenly my answer from three years ago no longer felt justified but rather an inappropriate and ill-advised diversion.

But as my perspective and opinions on the problem as a relative outsider began to formulate, I found that it did not square with either of the camps in what has become a bitterly polar issue. The depth of the emotion that surrounds fracking is nigh impossible to escape on the streets and in the bars. Broaching the topic can turn a roomful of pleasant southern and mid-west types into a seething, self-consuming mob. I have seen numerous people on both sides of the issue get so heated during community meetings on fracking that they had to be escorted from the room by police. So deeply are the emotions felt that, five minutes into a pleasant conversation with a total stranger, I was all at once told that “people just need to get the fuck over fracking.” Until that point, it had been all pleasant banter. The downturn in our conversation had come when I mentioned that my work involves the effects of fracking on communities.

For much of the country, and for many other scientific editorialists, fracking has become an easy thing to demonize. It has become an issue around which environmentalists can guarantee solidarity. Two weeks ago, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo made official a ban on fracking in his state. It was a move that was supported by roughly half of the state’s citizens and implemented over health concerns regarding the unknown (though sometimes known) toxicity of chemicals used in the process. And while this successful ban has increased the calls from environmental quarters for more bans, the view of this displaced Kansan is a little more sobering. It’s not that I disagree with the ban per se, but the troubling implications that action would have on my new home state are impossible to ignore.

Speaking about the recent New York ban, Cuomo stated that “I’ve never had anyone say to me, ‘I believe fracking is great.’ Not a single person in those communities. What I get is, ‘I have no alternative but fracking.’ ” If this is true, than the view from Oklahoma is strikingly different than the one from New York. There are many land owners in Oklahoma who see fracking as a great thing. And unlike New York, these land owners almost never see any direct benefit from the activity. In Oklahoma, land rights and mineral rights are bifurcated. So while many people in the state have super lateral wells directly under their houses and pastures, they see no financial benefit nor are companies required to get their permission. While some people do choose to lease land and water rights to companies in exchange for financial compensation, hold-outs are frequently threatened with legal action if they do not sign. While these threats are ultimately hollow, antidotal evidence suggests that they frequently work as land owners have limited knowledge and resources to know the law or hire counsel.

And yet, despite this, the presumptive majority of the state is entirely fine with this activity. Many of the country’s top energy companies, companies that frack both the Marcellus shale formation in New York and the various shale formations in Oklahoma, are headquartered in Oklahoma City. As with other states, the taxable revenue and jobs that these companies bring in is often the source of support for their presence and activities. It is estimated by the Oklahoma Energy Resources Board that over a third of the Oklahoma’s Gross State Product is generated by oil and gas activities. They also estimate that the industry has created of tens of thousands of jobs. The OERB also estimates that oil and gas activities accounted for nearly one billion dollars for public funds in 2010. But these numbers are of questionable accuracy. In a move borrowed from coal companies in Appalachia, the OERB is a governmental board voluntarily funded by energy companies. It generates economic data in conjunction with a local college primarily underwritten by those same companies and then uses that data to make governing recommendations to the state legislature on how to best manage themselves. But, unfortunately, many citizens see the activities of these companies as vital, and this holds true even if the OERB’s numbers are incredibly inflated. It is impossible to acknowledge that our state and many of its public services would not be in existence if not for fracking activities.

The final factor that changes the view from that of New York is the social forces that are present in Oklahoma that seem to be lacking in New York. Bluntly put, Oklahoma is an oil state. It is an identity deeply baked into the native citizenry. The halls of the state capital building are lined with paintings and photographs that document this heritage. A large painting outside the governor’s office, depicting three Native American men gathering oil from a spring, is entitled (and I swear this is true) “The Magic of Petroleum.” To many, oil and now natural gas are a huge part of what gives Oklahoma its place in the world. Energy companies know this and run advertisements to reassure Oklahomans of their fossil fuel heritage (another tactic borrowed from coal). While there is a present and growing number of citizens and lawmakers beginning to demand more oversight and accountability, talk of an all-out ban is uncommon. If Andrew Cuomo was truthful in his statement that no one has told his that “fracking is great”, I can change that within five minutes on an Oklahoma City street.

While there are definitely people in the state who would support a New York style fracking ban, more people would say that fracking is their only good option. The majority, though, would hail it as a great thing for the state. Reasons for this opinion aside, it lends a social aspect to the puzzle of fracking in Oklahoma that complicates it beyond the relatively simple action taken in New York. This social puzzle then, is something that I want to explore in two more parts to come in the next couple of weeks because, in a state like Oklahoma, demonization of fracking is nearly impossible. The tactics that have even the slightest chance of ending fracking, then, take serious consideration, study, and discussion. We have to change the culture of our state before we will change its central economic tenets. It’s not something that I feel comfortable saying will never happen, but it is something that will not come about as simply or as cleanly as New York has proven can happen.

You can read part two in this series here and part three here.

On Humanizing Climate Denial

Image Credit: Paul Townsend
Image Credit: Paul Townsend

Imagine you worked at a men’s shirt store, making the world’s most luxurious and stylish shirts. Day after day you stitch together, by hand, plates of fine Egyptian cotton for your clients. Your father did this, as did his father, and his before him; countless generations of clothiers perfecting the art of the dress shirt. The hands of your forefathers guide your fingers as you place stitch upon stitch upon stitch into sleeves and cuffs, chest plates and collars. One day, sitting in your shop you hear the bell over the door ring. The din of traffic on your street grows momentarily. You look up to see a man who you assume is looking to be fitted for one of your shirts. Suddenly, before you can speak, the man rushes over to the counter and throws his body towards you. His vise like hand ensnares your collar and he rips you from your seat dragging you up and over your workstation and towards the door. When you ask him why he is doing this, he tells you that making shirts is bad for the city. He says that for the good of all people you must now become a fitness consultant. You struggle against his grasp but you are still overpowered in every way. This store was not only your life, but it was your father’s and grandfather’s lives. Apparently, without your input, that rich history has been bleached from the tapestry of time and you are powerless to fight it.

Lately, I have been wondering if this is how at least some of the people who deny climate change feel. Fossil fuels are a deep and integral part of the United States’ history. Nearly all of the industries that bore this country from struggling colonial settlement to world super power were either fossil fuels themselves or industries that directly depend on them. Large parts of the American east were built up by the coal those regions produced. Fortunes, and the communities built on its heels, were made off of oil in Texas. The automotive industry, ever a source of national pride, depended on the oil trade for fuel. The steel industry that gave rise to the mighty cities of the nation was dependent on coal. The railroad companies that bound the nation together depended on both steel and coal to move the most important people and the most important goods of their time. This is a deep, deep history and a source of American pride. The entire American dream of being able to start with the shirt on your back and build an empire is spelled out time and again in oil and coal; in steel and train tracks.

But now, people come on to the scene suggesting nothing less than one of the most radical paradigm shifts imaginable. It sounds to those who deny climate change like climate advocates are telling everyone to abandon a ship that has served us for so long. It sounds like a call to dive in to the cold and murky waters of the unknown without a clear sense of direction. It sounds like a terrifying proposition and I wonder sometimes if that is why people are willing to forgo solid scientific evidence and hold fast to an incorrect assumption. Humans have evolved to be afraid of change. If the known is working adequately, why change to something that is unknown and potentially dangerous?

This is why it’s important for climate advocates to be conscientious of how we present data. I feel like I will always be harkening back to Chris Mooney’s Washington Post op-ed about how resistance to many things in science (vaccines, climate change, nuclear power, evolution in schools) is framed as a science issue but is truly an issue of emotion and trust. Telling people in fossil fuel industries that their trade is killing the planet leads to them taking up a defensive stance. People do not listen when they are worried about being dragged from what they have known their entire lives.

If climate advocates want to help the world change, we must realize the magnitude of what we are suggesting. We must then realize that, while the path may look simple to us, to others it is an unnecessary one filled with danger and uncertainty. It is our job not to oppose these people, but to work with them. Not to force their views in line with ours, but to gently guide them onto a better path. Sometimes good science should be presented like a sledge-hammer; shattering preconception and false observation. But other times it is important to realize that when dealing with people there are many competing and conflicting emotions. This may be the greatest challenge of being a climate change advocate. It is undoubtedly a part of the challenge we face.

I shouldn’t have to say, however, that we must face it.