These are a collection of Earth Day articles written by David Mahood. They range in topic from climate change to monarch butterflies. These essays reflect the opinion of the author and are not intended to represent the opinion of the organization as a whole. Reprint rights are granted with author acknowledgement. It seemed perfectly appropriate this first entry to start with something that we must begin to understand in more depth: sustainability.
The myriad of definitions of the term are all variations of the theme of not compromising future generations with our current actions. Okay that is broad, I admit, but it is the essence of the term. Nowadays we hear about the triple bottom line and environmental ethics and sustainable certifications. Still, it doesn’t change a thing about sustainability. If our products, actions or associations compromise the ability of future generations to have the same natural experience on Earth as we have had then we may not be sustainable.
Hmmm, doesn’t that indict all of us? Yes, to a degree. As a result, we all collectively need to be paying better attention. As many of you have heard me say in the past, here we are conducting this never- before attempted lab experiment on the only planet we call home by altering its chemical balance and we still are debating whether a customer will accept a surcharge for converting a hotel to a percentage clean energy? Well I guess I would pay for staying at a hotel or eating at a restaurant that isn’t contributing to my descendants’ demise, wouldn’t you? Don’t feel guilty. Sustainability is compromised by many factors. Population growth in developing nations is as much a factor as recycling rates in America. Agricultural conversion of rainforest in the Amazon is as much of a factor as melting ice sheets in Greenland. But with this knowledge that sustainability is a global issue, do we have a specific responsibility to be sustainable in the U.S.? Yes! Yes, incontrovertibly, and forever. According to the Travel Industry Association, domestic and international travelers spent 700 billion dollars in the U.S. in 2006. This produced 178 billion dollars in payroll income. Sustainability means balancing that economic gain with strict environmental standards and a commitment to social responsibility. After acknowledging that, we can finally get somewhere. Sustainability is all about achieving a balance. Can products be sustainable? Can companies be sustainable? Can people be sustainable? If we recognize that we have to achieve a balance with the personal and business lives we lead, we can then approach sustainability with all of these areas. Consequently, the recognition of this allows us to be discerning with the information that is being marketed. Unless your company’s primary focus is preserving the biological hotspots of the world, you probably shouldn’t be promoting your company as “totally green.” Unless your company is a non-profit with 100% of its earnings going to support a people in crisis, you shouldn’t be marketing your “total commitment to sustainability.”
Now, mind you, I am all for sustainable improvements and the steps toward achieving a balance but let’s be clear about the concept of sustainability, and let’s stop using the term so nonchalantly. Once we truly grasp its meaning, we will find it is the most difficult challenge of our times.
Bonds be Unbroken. Earth Day, 2019
In commemoration of the first Earth Day in 1970, I am paying tribute to this Nation’s settlers. No, not the European settlers, the Indigenous ones. Some of us are old enough to recall a 1971 Earth Day advertisement from Keep America Beautiful starring Iron Eyes Cody, who, in full Native American regalia, famously shed a tear over pollution. It remains one of the most influential advertisement campaigns of all time notwithstanding the fact that Iron Eyes Cody was an Italian American and the commercial was funded by companies opposing a bottle return policy. All of America was originally settled, let’s not forget that, including our current national parks. The decoupling of American Indians and their land was a long and protracted process of subjugation and deceitful negotiations. It’s a stretch to use the term “treaty” to describe many of these transactions.
Western tribes like the Diné (Navajo), Lakota (Teton Sioux), Nimiipuu (Nez Perce), Nde (San Carlos Apache), and Tsėhéstáno (Cheyenne), were forced from their territorial homelands after long, violent struggles. Conflict was inevitable, even likely, due to the vast amount of land covered by nomadic tribes. 150 years later, their descendants are still fighting, but it’s a different battle. They’re fighting for respect, and some are losing. Respect is a pillar of equality. The social, economic, and health disparity between the average American and Native Americans, including Inuits, is startling. Per the U.S. Census data for 2017, The median household income for Native Americans was about 20,000.00 dollars less than that for the total population. But that statistic tells only a part of the story. Compared to all other American ethnicities, Native Americans have the highest rates of unemployment, poverty, suicide, infant mortality, addiction, unsanitary and unsafe water, cardiovascular disease, smoking, diabetes, high school dropouts, alcoholism, and motor vehicular deaths.
The Indian Gaming Regulatory Act of 1988 changed the course for some Indian Nations. The IGRA established regulations for sovereign nations to formalize gambling with the purpose of creating economic opportunities for tribal governments without negative external influence. Smaller tribes with territorial homelands within densely populated areas, have prospered, including the Mohegan Nation, the Seminoles in Florida, the Mashantucket Pequots in CT, and the Mdewakanton Sioux in Minnesota. In some cases, these casinos have breathed new life into depressed reservation economies.
Some of us have developed, designed, or furnished Native American casinos throughout the country, and even more of us visited, dined, or gambled at them based on recent gaming statistics. According to the National Indian Gaming Commission, revenues reached 32 billion dollars in 2017. These figures eclipse gambling numbers from the Vegas Strip by a wide margin. While they are regulated differently, there is no question that gambling is big business. Ever since 1988, Native Americans have had a hand in the game, so to speak. I often wonder what their brave ancestors would think of their tribal lands becoming enormous halls filled with neon-lit slot machines and non-Natives in costume. One Lakota I spoke to, Alex White Plume, is opposed to the idea of Indian casinos. He sees it as another effect of colonialization of Native Americans and he says the monetary benefits don’t equate to infrastructure needs like road and housing repairs that are much-needed on many reservations. He agreed with me that what Native Americans need is more respect, greater appreciation for their way of life, and for people to visit and support their cultural activities and businesses. Perhaps, most importantly, Alex suggested that non-Natives should recognize that forced assimilation brought trauma to many proud Indian Nations and they are struggling with that concept still. Indian casinos and gaming centers are not a logical sequence in the evolution of Native Americans. I suspect the concept is a divisive one for most tribes. And while Alex White Plume is not a fan of Indian gaming, it remains a source of money for a number of tribes. In the end it may not represent the story of their people but hell it may be the closest thing to remunerations they’ll ever get from us.
As we approach fifty years of Earth Day celebrations, let’s do what we can to show some respect for our original settlers. Trading posts were the first buy-local markets, and there are many Native-American-Owned businesses on reservations to this day. Economic equality shouldn’t be so dependent on gaming. And what about those reservations established for larger Indian Nations? With or without casinos, they need our help. The Navajo People have a 42% unemployment rate. Close to half of Alex’s Lakota People on Pine Ridge live below the poverty line. The leading cause of death for San Carlos Apache children between 15 and 19 years old is suicide, and for their parents it’s alcoholic liver disease. A Northern Cheyenne on average lives twenty fewer years than the rest of us.
Our hospitality industry is a well-connected, supportive community of members. I am fortunate to work in such a tightknit industry. I’ve been promoting sustainable practices within this industry for close to twenty years, and for the past ten I have been writing Earth Day articles. Since then, the stakes have gotten a lot higher. The IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) has advised us to limit further global warming to 1.5°C to avoid climate chaos. Sustainability is a mission that many of us have adopted, and it’s no longer a side function of hospitality practices either. But sustainability is like another broken treaty if the poorest of us are the hardest hit. The recent bomb cyclone devastated Alex’s folks on Pine Ridge. Thousands were stranded without drinking water. Lives were lost. Other reservations in the path of the storm had similar experiences–Places already in the clutches of economic despair. There is space for our original settlers outside of the physical and cultural barriers that constrain us. Visit their traditional homelands, attend their cultural events, purchase their handmade goods where possible, and drop a few dollars at the casino. Earth Day is one day in the spirit of goodwill but sustainability is a commitment to all days and all people, and a homeland where they gracefully intersect.
Reluctant Sacrifice. Earth Day, 2018
I recently attended the East Coast premiere of a documentary entitled, The Reluctant Radical. It is a story of one man’s efforts to make people aware of the dangers of climate change and the consequences of climate chaos. It chronicled his many years of imploring others to take action and to better understand the dangers ahead. He, Ken Ward, ultimately became so frustrated that he began a civil disobedience campaign to garner interest and press. This is where the story gets deep. Why would a well-educated, law-abiding, divorced father of a teenager, risk his personal freedom on potentially dangerous publicity stunts to point out the perils of climate change? How does someone arrive at that point in life? Nothing he said in the various interviews were hyperbolic. His research is similar to mine. This film, wonderfully produced and directed by Lindsey Grayzel and co-produced by Deia Schlosberg, who risked their own freedom filming some of these stunts, is a startling reminder that it ain’t easy to get others activated. Here we are forty-eight years removed from the first Earth Day with more urgency than ever. From plastic garbage soups floating in the Pacific the size of entire nations to the critical endangerment of half of all other species to the rationing of water in South Africa, the risks are heightened. It is profoundly sad to me that we have to revert to illegal acts to make people take action in support of protecting future generations. As I write in my book, One Green Deed Spawns Another, “I’ve learned that we’re not all primed to destroy our brothers and sisters but in fact are programmed to nurture each other. Yet, we’re capable of so much more.” So why did Ken Ward make the assessment that his freedom and possibly his life was worth sacrificing for this issue of climate change?
Ken Ward came to the same conclusion of facts that many of us have come to: Our sacrifice for the planet’s well-being is not close to the level needed to prevent the consequences of climate change—some that we are already seeing. It is particularly hard for many of us in the hospitality industry to reconcile this fact. Our industry is driven by comfort, luxury, and not having to sacrifice what many of us do in our own homes. When we recreate and vacation, it is to seek some relaxation and quietude from our hectic work lives. I mean, I don’t want to wash my sheets and dishes either. I don’t want to shiver all winter because we won’t set the thermostat above 67⁰ or haul our compost bin out every Tuesday morning (okay, Maryann does that) or look at the unsightly meters from our solar panels or haul around the ugly orange cord attached to my lawnmower. It is a minimal effort of sacrifice on my part and not commensurate with what has to happen universally. So how do we create buildings and destinations that balance a minimal environmental footprint without sacrificing comfort and luxury? I’ve met some brilliant and talented people in the hospitality industry, I think it’s time to put our individual talents and expertise together and find out how. Consider what service or product or contribution you make to our industry and then consider how would it achieve a zero-impact level? Obviously, that is not possible but how do we get substantially closer to it? This question has to become the driving message behind all of our products and services in the industry. How many of you would be comfortable in a Cape Town hotel today? Well, prepare for it.
One poignant scene from the documentary was when Ken Ward’s latest trial for sabotage for shutting down a pipeline in WA ended in a hung jury. His son, who had to that point been pretty stoic and matter-of-fact about it all, gave his dad a very emotional hug. Many of us are not willing to get arrested or put our freedom on the line. I have friends who are but I’m not. To me we should never have gotten to this point in the first place. If we don’t start sacrificing soon, we’ll have missed the purpose of the first Earth Day march. They marched so maybe, just maybe, we wouldn’t have to forty-eight years later. One thing that is completely intergenerational is that we all want a better life for our children and theirs. When should we start?
For more info go to www.thereluctantradicalmovie.com
Charge of the Climate Brigade. Earth Day, 2017
On this forty-seventh anniversary of Earth Day, I am struck by how combative the topic of climate change has become. From my purview, our efforts seem so underwhelming in light of the recent shift in energy policy here in the U.S. Having recently volunteered to help our local chapter of Citizens’ Climate Lobby, a potent, bipartisan lobbying group committed to a carbon fee and dividend approach to reducing carbon emissions, I discovered how inadequately armed we all are to face off against the fossil fuel industry. Even with the strong bilateral support for the CCL carbon policy, it will be a bitter fight.
“Cannon to right of them, cannon to left of them, cannon behind them, volleyed and thundered: While horse and hero fell, into the mouth of Hell.”¹
Poet, Alfred, Lord Tennyson certainly wasn’t referring to a group of citizens marching in opposition to fossil fuel companies, and while the imminent danger is markedly different, the odds are similar. We aren’t exactly light cavalry running headlong into heavy artillery but considering how slow the response has been to greening our energy industry, our opponent is equally as entrenched. Many of my environmentalist friends tell me that they feel so embattled today—curiously, facing Russian opposition again. And while we don’t have to face off against cannon fire from all sides, we are being opposed, to be sure. The political influence of the fossil fuel companies is at an all-time high. Having Rick Perry, Scott Pruitt, Rex Tillerson, and Ryan Zinke in cabinet posts is example enough. Their ongoing war on the science behind climate change is more than just self-serving, it has become a highly successful political ploy. It is no coincidence that these select individuals hail from Texas, Oklahoma, and Wyoming, considering their states’ deep connections to the fossil fuel industry. Wyoming is the largest coal producing state by a wide margin, for example.²
When an entire economy does not factor in pollution and the industrialization of natural resources, it is founded on a lie. The campaign to pit business against the environment is a tired old tactic of the fossil fuel industry. As if we have no choice but to burn fossil fuels to keep our citizens employed. The job growth suggests something quite different: Solar and wind energy jobs have outpaced the economy by 20% according to a study by the Environmental Defense Fund.³ The muzzling of scientific data and environmental education as well as their spokespersons is just another way that the fossil fuel industry keeps their grip on our economy. We all know that the burning of their product is greatly responsible for the climate crisis we’re in but we are divided by a political chasm heavily influenced by the Exxon Mobil’s and Koch Industries. Eliminating fuel efficiency standards, dumping waste into our waterways, mining federal lands, expanding pipelines to transport oil and gas, approving toxic pesticide use, and delisting endangered species, to name a few, make no common sense to the majority of Americans. None of us voted for those measures to be enacted unless one had a direct connection to the fossil fuel industry. Yet, somehow, here we are watching this all-out assault on the environment, and the renewal of an economy enabled by our deep addiction to the extraction and burning of fossil fuels.
As I saddled up to go into battle by attending my recent CCL meeting, I discovered that Massachusetts legislators are mostly in agreement with the CCL legislative approach. And, overall, CCL’s momentum is slowly gaining traction nationwide; as of now 36 members of Congress have joined the CCL Caucus. Many of them are from Florida–Not a coincidence since they are already an early victim of climate change. They’ve seen the data and they have seen firsthand the consequences. But the numbers are staggering when it comes to halting climate change to a two-degree Celsius level. We’ll have to reach a near zero emissions scenario by midcentury to achieve it. That is a death knell to many of the world’s most profitable companies–and they know that. They aren’t about to tell us the truth about their impact on climate change nor should we expect it. But to know that as many people die annually from air pollution as from tobacco means that fossil fuel companies are as complicit in the destruction of human lives as tobacco companies have been for centuries. Then why are we letting them run our government, we never let tobacco companies have that much political power? If we don’t act now we’ll be in the headlock of fossil fuel companies for decades to come until they are forced to show up in Congress with their tails between their legs. By then we may have waited too long. So, on this Earth Day, I’m going to march in reply–with good reason why.
¹Tennyson, A. T., Provensen, A., Provensen, M., Golden Press., & Paul Hamlyn Ltd. (1964). Alfred Lord Tennyson’s charge of the Light Brigade. New York: Golden Press
² U.S. Energy Information Administration. Which States Produce the Most Coal. (Updated 2017, February 17). Frequently Asked Questions: Which States Produce the Most Coal. Retrieved from https://www.eia.gov/tools/faqs/faq.php?id=69&t=2
³ Crowe, J., Delaney, L., Gessesse, E., Grady, N., Hanley, K., Marchyshyn, A., McKeon, N., Whitehouse, K. (N.D.). Now Hiring: The Growth of America’s Clean Energy & Sustainability Jobs. Retrieved from Environmental Defense Fund website: http://edfclimatecorps.org/sites/edfclimatecorps.org/files/casestudy/the_growth_of_americas_clean_energy_and_sustainability_jobs.pdf
Through Myrtle’s Eyes. Earth Day 2016
Myrtle has survived well into her eighties—no one really knows for sure how old she is. We went to see her the other day, and as Earth Day 46 nears, it made me think about all that she has witnessed in her long life. Myrtle has been around since the Great Depression and survived World War II. She may even have been on a beach for the 1969 lunar landing of Armstrong and Aldrin. Well… Myrtle hasn’t actually seen any of these special events because she is officially a Chelonia mydas, commonly known as a green sea turtle, and lives at One Central Wharf, Boston, MA 02210–the New England Aquarium. Myrtle is somewhat of a celebrity in marine research and conservation circles because it is widely believed that she is the oldest sea turtle in captivity. Sea turtles in the wild don’t often live that long, so Myrtle has truly seen more than her kindred species. Sea turtles are reptiles that have been around since the dinosaurs, and they’ve witnessed much in their 100 million or so years. And Myrtle may know more than we realize as a marine reptile. One expert, Jean Beasley, an octogenarian herself, who founded the Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Rescue and Rehabilitation Center in 1997, said to me recently, “I think most animals are far more sentient than we give them credit for. Yes, they recognize voices. We’ve had turtles that would not eat from someone whose voice they didn’t recognize.”
Myrtle started her mad dash on some Southeastern Atlantic beach at a time when green sea turtles were abundant and dunes were still pristine. Seagrass and green algae dotted the shallow coastal waters, and marine travel was dominated by living, breathing creatures swaying with the Gulf stream currents. By the time Myrtle came back to that same beach to begin motherhood, the ozone layer had thinned, the nuclear age had begun, coastal development was reshaping the beaches, moonlight was outshone by exterior spotlights and neon signage, and life on land was much more confusing. By that time, Myrtle had already beaten the odds of a 1000:1 and avoided the market for her meat, shell, oil, and skin. But, like all female sea turtles, she would never know if her eggs were allowed to hatch.
As Myrtle turned middle-age, she would compete for food with endless barbed fishing lines and massive nets scraping the ocean floor disrupting everything in their path including many of her chelonian friends who wouldn’t live out the day. Her life was made even more confusing with a new type of jellyfish that she couldn’t digest: clear plastic. And unexplained tumors were showing up on many of her closest friends as her ocean home became more polluted. Concerned marine scientists would establish the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Water Act, Earth Day, and ban DDT, aerosols, and ocean dumping, and still her population continued to decline. Citizens of coastal communities would slowly begin to protect nesting sites, as Karen and Jean Beasley did on the Carolina Coast. They would educate others about the odds of one hatchling making it to Myrtle’s age. And back then few sea turtles would get a second chance since rehabilitation hospitals were virtually nonexistent. All of the seven species would end up on the list of endangered species.
Myrtle in her eighties no longer faces the perils of today’s oceans and she gets fed daily; in fact, she gets fed first because she hounds the aquarium divers otherwise. And nowadays she circles the glass enclosure carefree, rests without fear, and monitors the passersby unfazed. Likely she doesn’t know that her former habitat is warming and rising or that her natural food source is dwindling. Possibly, she is unaware that coral reefs are dying worldwide, and that plastic pellets are as common as sand on the ocean floor. Maybe she knows that her daily visitors represent a species that has reached seven billion and has reshaped the planet’s landscape permanently. I’m sure Myrtle would accept freedom willingly but she has been forced into retirement like we all will be someday. In her sagacity as an elder sea-surfer, Myrtle has a lot to say to us on the outside. And I can see it in her eyes as she floats along the glass one last time: Just keep paddling on.
One Green Deed. Earth Day 2015
For the past year I’ve been writing a nature book about preserving our earth, the third big rock in our solar system. We may be clever enough someday to colonize other rocks and spacewalk our species into an interminable future. I seriously hope so. But I am truly worried about this planet: The one celebrated on this day, Earth Day, in 1970. After decades of consuming books, lectures, and documentaries, I’ve accumulated a good deal of knowledge that I felt compelled to share with others, like-minded or not. And along this bumpy road, I met some incredible environmentalists: Scientists, non-scientists, activists, non-activists, writers, and non-writers. Now, forty-five years after the first Earth Day, I’m half way through my book. It has been an extraordinary privilege to reach back out to some of these environmental pioneers and ask them to reflect on the same question: If you had one green deed you would like to see heeded, adopted, and passed on, what would it be and why?
Back in 1997 when I embarked on my quixotic expedition to explore the happenings of our planet and reinvent my career, I was so naive. Chasing environmental windmills is the proverbial act of naiveté, many of us now know. It is a heavy task to convince others that we’re not taking care of our planet. Today, the term global warming has become a joke if you’re a non-believer, and a hot potato if you’re of a different view. To hear non-scientists like me make the case for global climate change stuck in the oncoming traffic of fossil-fuel-derived energy companies is akin to the Monroe Doctrine for Spanish conquistadors. It never mattered to me that I would face opposition to my approach toward how we must care for our planet and its bounty. I still am naive to a degree, better informed but strategically naive.
Well, I decided the problem wasn’t the science, it was the relationship of the science. The general audience shouldn’t be daunted by science, and by no means afraid to participate in environmental conservation. Outside of astronauts, our generation will never have to spacewalk. Outside of the sun going supernova unexpectedly, our generation will survive. I am distraught about compromised survival though. Future generations will inhabit what we were delinquent in managing. That point never ceases to bother me, and that point should be obvious to us all. I mean, if you scroll down on any credible online news site, you’ll see a nature report indicating that yet another alarming milestone has been eclipsed.
I have hosted, participated, and keynoted many environmental discussions since 1997, and I have spoken about sustainability on two continents. I founded a business that espoused sustainability as a fundamental principle. None of this would have been even remotely interesting to anyone except for the passionate environmentalists who I met along the way. The book, One Green Deed Spawns Another, is the parallel story of the circuitous route I took to become an environmental consultant and writer, and the one that brought me in contact with amazing minds, each of whom share their vision for the one green deed they’d like to see universally adopted. Anyone would have been affected as I have been all these years in the wake of this knowledge, and to hear it from so wide a perspective as I have is worth sharing. Therefore, my one green deed is to connect, and, in earnest, one green deed will spawn another.
Earth Day 2014
The One Way Flight of the Danaus Plexippus
On this forty-fourth anniversary of the first Earth Day, I wanted to recognize the state of the Danaus plexxipus, or as we more commonly refer to them, monarch butterflies. Migratory creatures have always fascinated me but few as much as the monarch, which migrates like songbirds. Lately they have been appearing in the news for the wrong reason. They’ve earned attention because of their drastic decline in numbers. Their annual cycle of migration is one that requires the transformation of four generations of the species. The two-thousand mile or more journey of the monarch butterfly from North America to Mexico is one of storybook fantasy. An inner compass steers them to familiar plots of plants year after year much like sea turtle migratory behavior. But their compass has been compromised of late by various sources, one of which may be anthropogenic climate change. Imagine if your chance at becoming a parent was reliant on a very specific set of factors: one region, one plant, one climate. The ecological balance of species survival is so fragile, and we are tipping the scale for these majestic butterflies. For the monarchs, changes in weather disrupt their flight pattern, their food supply, and their eggs. Climate change may not be reversible, but the culling of milkweed plants certainly is. While Mexico has made strides to reduce impact on this butterfly’s Southern habitat, we in the north have not. Our incessant need to eradicate weeds, including milkweed, may trigger the end of a variety of native species, including monarchs. It may also be responsible for the alarming loss of all of our pollinators in the U.S., not just Danaus plexxipus.
Monarchs have been on the decline for a decade now. I’m far from an entomologist but I have firsthand knowledge of this. My uncle, Bob Clark, who owns the family farm in Upstate New York, decided years ago to allow the growth of milkweed on a former grazing field because they enjoyed seeing the monarchs every year. Back then he told me that his field was full of butterflies and that he was going to keep it for that purpose. Last week at a family get-together, I asked him if he still had the field and if they had continued to come back. He just shook his head. “Hardly any,” he said, “I barely saw any last summer and saw almost no signs of chrysalis (pupa stage) on the leaves.” His experience is similar to others. According to official reports their decline in Mexico has reached an alarming state. The occupied area of monarchs has shrunk by over 50% in just two years.*
Nature never ceases to amaze me. Of the millions of species that inhabit our planet, the Danaus plexippus has to be one of the most colorful. As a kid I loved seeing monarch butterflies chase my back throughout the summer. Increasingly we are finding out that relying on single crop production has negative consequences, which suggests we should revisit traditional agricultural methods that support heterogeneous fields. My request for this anniversary of Earth Day, 1970, is for those of us who can to plant some milkweed and put away the herbicides. After all, without species diversity, it becomes very black and white.
* Wines, Michael. “Monarch Migration Plunges to Lowest Level in Decades.” nytimes.com. The New York Times, March 13, 2013. Web. 9, January, 2014.
Earth Day 2013
Oh, Sandy, 2012
“And Sandy, the aurora is rising behind us. This pier lights our carnival life forever. Oh, love me tonight, for I may never see you again.”* When Springsteen penned those lyrics four decades ago, an homage to Asbury Park, New Jersey, he had no idea Sandy would be remembered for the storm that took his words so literally, and would become a reckoning for Coastal Atlantic communities. With almost a quarter of the U.S. population affected by her wrath, how do we preserve a way of life for so many? With damages in New Jersey alone totaling more than 30 billion dollars, many commercial establishments will struggle to return. But, they must return. Boardwalks and Jersey beaches are a link to intergenerational memories and an economic lynchpin for a state with 130 miles of coastline. Sandy will spawn other once-in-a-lifetime storms and intense climatic activity will challenge seasonal industries in the future but sustainable commercial development in the form of minimizing beach encroachment and erosion, night pollution, energy and water waste, and carbon emissions, to name a few, can become the girders of a sunny, sustainable Jersey Shore. Recognizing that we yearn for the ocean, and that escaping the summer heat of our Eastern cities for the shoreline is an annual rite, we will need to rethink our relationship with nature.
Instead of subsidizing rebuilding efforts with diminishing funds, we must build with Sandy in mind. We’ve reached an impasse and simply cannot afford to ignore the impact of changing climatic activity. With taxpayer-based funds supporting the federal flood insurance program, now running in the red, we better start using climate predictors in conjunction with architects and insurers. In a time of political paralysis it would be financially prudent to quit allocating funds for unsustainable building practices. And even if the biggest developers can get flood insurance at a premium, does that afford them the right to gamble on nature. Only Atlantic City would take those odds. Raising sea walls is becoming tantamount to playing Russian roulette with water. We need to respect the tidal push of hurricane waters and build to suit nature. Instead of Insurers raising premiums to cover new structures that may not survive storms to come, we need to design with a better understanding of the consequences of rising water and temperatures so the sandcastles of the future don’t wash up on Main Street.
Asbury Park, like all Eastern beach communities, won’t forget Sandy anytime soon. Coastal developers everywhere shouldn’t either. We cannot place hotels and other commercial buildings in the path of the next Sandy. We don’t know when the next superstorm will come and level beaches along a thousand mile swath we just know that it will come. Let’s be ready next time. Let’s allow nature to emote without tragedy. The Jersey Shore, for one, deserves it. If only Madame Marie were still around.
Earth Day 2012
What Must They Be Thinking?
It is the naiveté of us non-biologists to ascribe human feelings to our fellow species, a phenomenon called anthropomorphism. I do it often because in my child-like wonder of nature I believe that an adult gorilla conjugates emotions in greater depths than we know from scientific studies. Maybe I humanized the protagonist from the powerful novel, Ishmael, by Daniel Quinn, more than was intended by the author. But other than the conservationists dedicated to these critically endangered species of the world, who else is going to look out for them and who else is going to tell their stories? We humans perched at the top of the evolutionary pyramid have made it increasingly difficult for many signature species to coexist. I decided this forty-second anniversary of Earth Day, to offer my implausible interpretation of what three signature species are thinking in today’s precarious times.
The various species of elephants are universally well known as one of the largest mammalian creatures as well as one of the most intelligent in existence. Recently it has been observed that elephants cry at the death of a family member, and the herd will join together in a ritualistic formation as an expression of loss and respect for the deceased. If they can perceive loss in such profound ways, it isn’t hard to theorize that they are well aware that they are now prisoners of a planet they once roamed freely. Intelligent creatures don’t accept enslavement easily, a lesson not lost on Homo sapiens. They must know that sustainability doesn’t apply to them. I don’t want to see elephants resigned to zoos and circuses, and I’m pretty sure they don’t either. So, the next time you see elephants in public lined together, you might wonder if it is a mass funeral.
The state of our oceans is increasingly impaired and the large cetaceans must know it too. Our crude understanding of the songs of humpback whales gives us very few clues. Humpback whales sing complex songs, albeit among males only, and communicate effectively in high and low frequencies. Perhaps these songs are nothing other than whale pick-up lines but I doubt it. In our globalized world of commerce, we have introduced a new invasive species called container ships. With the amount of cargo ships outnumbering remaining humpback populations threefold, these songs must be getting a little desperate. With oceanic pollution and warming temperatures on the rise, the songs of the humpback are the new dirges of the deep: planetary distress signals.
By now I would think that eastern lowland gorillas have about seen it all. As notoriously shy creatures, imagine a habitat as violent as theirs. With humans, a genetic second cousin, slaughtering each other by the thousands and deforesting the rich landscape of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, eastern lowland gorillas couldn’t have worse neighbors. Being squeezed into a shrinking homeland, trapped and slaughtered for meat or trophies or killed protecting their babies from illegal trade, these gorillas of the Congo can’t possibly have found genetic evolution to their liking. Nor can they comprehend our mining of their riverbeds for metals used in our ubiquitous cell phones. I’m sure there is a word for Coltan mining in gorilla lexicon but I don’t think it is freedom of communication. A 30 year-old dominant silverback can’t beat his chest hard enough to ward off this enemy. Further, these remaining 2,500 eastern lowland gorillas don’t need cell phones to spread the news among their band that they’re in trouble.
No one truly knows what they must be thinking but it raises the question. What on earth are we thinking?
Earth Day 2011A vote is heard in the night
This anniversary of the first Earth Day is marked by an act of indignity toward the spirit of the movement, and to those intrepid leaders who rallied millions in an attempt to influence politicians and a government that they mostly distrusted. Forty-one years later, we have reason to distrust them again. One of the critical building blocks of a healthy natural environment is species diversity. Those early environmental activists recognized this and helped establish the Endangered Species Act of 1973. Imagine if you can, every time you pulled out paper currency from your purse or wallet, you saw a picture of our recently extinct national symbol. Or imagine that a bison, a denizen of our former western landscape, was extinct in one of the great mass slaughters of the Cenozoic era. And to think, these are species we actually revered. In a historic, if not inconceivable, sleight of hand, the government has delisted the gray wolf from federal endangered species protection in Montana and Idaho. Since the gray wolf also resides in Oregon, Wyoming, and Washington, I hope someone fully explained the concept of state borders to them since they are not known as homebodies. This act, brought forward by Senator Tester of Montana and Congressman Simpson of Idaho, was attached to the recent budget bill(HR 1473) signed last minute to avoid a government shut-down. How this senseless act is going to significantly help balance our budget has yet to be disclosed.
The idea of delisting a species just reintroduced to the region in 1995 is a cruel twist of fate for those seeking to restore the region’s natural ecosystem. By all accounts their return has had a positive effect on the region including the repopulation of important native hardwood species like aspens. Of course, this wouldn’t be the first time the area rid itself of wolves. Citizens of the region were successful in eradicating wolves early on in the twentieth century. Ostensibly, removing federal protection doesn’t assure extinction for the species but turning over control of the species to states politically dominated by ranchers and hunters, doesn’t bode well for them. Soon, these very hunters and ranchers will be targeting wolves, make no mistake about it. With declining breeding pairs in Yellowstone National Park, where they are still federally protected, one can imagine what will happen in states where they aren’t? Without safe buffer zones, culling of the species could have a permanent impact. And don’t be fooled by reports that wolves are running rampant, devouring livestock at every corner. According to a 2006 report by The National Agricultural Statistics Service, more livestock were lost to domestic dogs and vultures than wolves. Even cattle rustling, yes, cattle rustling, was responsible for five times more cows lost overall versus wolf predation.* So how did we take this giant leap backward? It is another act of politics manipulating science. In a period where scientists are warning of a pending mass extinction of species, delisting gray wolves is an ecological paradox.
It is time for us to march again, to rally again. It is time for us to promote science over politics, to speak out to our elected officials on behalf of those who cannot. To carry the baton of those brave Americans who enacted the ESA into law. On this Earth Day anniversary, few should be howling victory for the delisting budget maneuver pulled by Montana and Idaho politicians. We can hold out faith however that they will encourage their constituents to build eco-friendly straw bale houses now that the big bad wolf won’t be huffing and puffing anymore.
*The National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS), Agricultural Statistics Board, U.S. Department of Agriculture. “Losses of Cattle and Calves: Predator and Non-Predator -Number of Head and Total Value.” May 5, 2006
Earth Day 2010
Earth Day Reflection
Today, the 40th anniversary of the first Earth Day, arrives at an uncertain time for the environmental movement. The initial bipartisan effort, which was the brainchild of Senator Nelson of Wisconsin and others, was a massive outpouring of support for what seemed so simple back then: preserving the planet from pollution and unnecessary harm as a result of unregulated industrial waste. Still, forty years later, it is worth noting that despite all of the public sentiment for cleaner water, air, and land for future generations, we have made baby steps. With the possible exception of the Montreal Protocol, which produced swift and thorough action assuring that our life supporting ozone layer would not erode, we have had few global environmental victories. What many Americans quickly grasped in 1970 has become far more confusing today. Why are we still losing the carbon battle? Why do we still have days of unhealthy smog levels? Why are we still fouling our oceans and waterways? Why are we not preserving our fellow species? Most importantly, why aren’t we all involved in grassroots efforts to bring greater awareness to the multitude of issues facing our planet, Earth?
I think it is time to renew our goodwill toward the environment. Get reacquainted with why we first embraced the concept of sustainability. Let’s not leave this movement in the hands of compromised corporate leaders or risk- averse politicians. Without strong public action, like that of the original footsoldiers of the 70’s, we cannot expect to see radical change. Just think if the new decade created the next Environmental Protection Agency, Clean Air Act, Endangered Species Act, or the next Earth Day.
We are of one political stripe when it comes to the environment. We are of one mind when it comes to what we can achieve for our descendants. Let’s spend this Earth Day reissuing our memberships to bluer oceans, greener grasses, clearer skies, and to sowing seeds one young mind at a time.
April 20, 2011