Wednesday, January 24, 2007

"Reverse Graffiti"

What, you mean you've never heard of "reverse graffiti"? I don't blame you; it's the kind of urban art form that those of us who rarely frequent major cities never get to see. Luckily, the fine folks at Inhabitat brought it to my attention, and I have to say, it's pretty clever.

On those lovely days in early spring when the conifers of the world decide to pollinate all up in our windpipes and windshields, have you ever had some little punk scrawl some kind of a "Wash me!" message on your rear windshield? (My younger brother, bless his soul, is fond of one that laments, "I wish my wife were this dirty.") This is the same idea, taken to a slightly higher plane of expression. The artists involved go to places like roadway tunnels that accumulate a lot of grime from the emissions of our carbon-fueled existence, and selectively clean them so that what remains is a work of art. As you can imagine, it presents a little bit of a quandary for the authorities. Do they arrest the artist for making graffiti, or do they commend him/her for cleaning up the city? This gray area is well-detailed by the above article as well as one it links to, at the "Podnosh Blog," about what implications this has for the "broken windows" theory of policing.

"That's interesting," you say, "But how is this related to the environment? I see the connection with air quality, but is that all?" I'll get there shortly.

Some, such as "Moose," practice art for what appears to be art's sake. However, a Brazilian artist named Alexandre Orion made his environmental message more graphic when he (is there a better word for this?) "tagged" a tunnel in Sao Paolo with hundreds of skulls -- which I (and others) have taken to represent what the automobiles that deposited his artistic medium are doing to the environment and other human beings.

I think there are pros and cons to Orion's approach.

On the plus side, it shows through metaphor what is a very real process that is going on right now, and that has been going on since the Industrial Revolution and especially since World War II. Emissions from power generation, manufacturing, and (as highlighted by Orion) automobiles make a measurable impact on rates of respiratory diseases such as asthma and deaths from these diseases. They are also the major source of the greenhouse gases that are warming our planet, which will lead to even more deaths. "Reverse graffiti" must also be celebrated for its ingenuity, as presented in the articles.

However, I believe that there are downsides to sensationalization of any news story. (Although a topic for another forum, the following problem and others are why I fundamentally disagree with 24-hour TV news in all its manifestations.) When the media report on global warming, it's often associated with images of gloom and doom -- statistics forecasting major deaths, warnings of climate thresholds, and other horror stories. What's often lacking is an optimistic vision, a plan of action we can take to improve air quality and avoid the worst effects of global warming. I ardently believe that we can turn things around, if we start now. But when the media report only the negative side of the story (because doom sells), it turns people off; people get sick of watching news stories on how they're destroying the planet and so eventually they stop listening. That's just terrible for everything on this planet in the long run, because people need to know about this issue. But they need to be informed about it in a balanced way, which includes something about how they can bring about a better future.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Name Change

The poet and naturalist Henry David Thoreau once wondered, "What's the use of a house if you haven't got a tolerable planet to put it on?" It's a very good question, one whose implications run deeper than residential planning. Just as a house would be useless without a "tolerable planet," so would the human race. What are we without the world around us, without the ecosystems that support us and provide us a point of contact with one of the most unique phenomena in the universe -- the diversity and interconnectedness of life on Earth?

Hopefully, with this blog, I'll be able to examine some of the things we're doing to make our planet intolerable, as well as point out things we can do and are doing to help the environment around us.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Simon's Hoodwinking the Nation

I wrote this piece for my American Environmental Issues class. We read Hoodwinking the Nation through the first chapter, and that's ALL I've read, so some misinterpretation on my part is quite possible. At some later point, I may read the book and do a proper review.

In Julian Simon’s Hoodwinking the Nation, the author argues that the media, politicians, and scientists portray environmental problems in the U.S. and the world as worse than they are, or even invent problems that aren’t really there. This is a bad thing, Simon argues, because it will lead to a distrust of the media – the “boy who cried wolf” phenomenon. It’s obvious from the beginning that Simon’s intention is the discredit the environmental movement. He even compares the environmental movement to the Communist Party, since they were both formed to bring about social change. (For a book that shows how the public’s fears are taken advantage of, that’s a pretty low blow.) Incidentally, the foreword to this book was written by someone from the American Enterprise Institute, a think tank supported largely by industry contributions. I’m not saying that Simon advocates what he does because he’s paid to do so; it’s simply interesting to note the kinds of people who want Simon’s ideas to be known.

I have some serious problems with even the short passage of Hoodwinking that we were assigned – through the first chapter. (There are a number of problems with his interpretation of the science or data, as well as minor logical issues, which I will not address in this journal. This will only cover my problems with his main thesis.) Early in the first chapter, he states, “In the 19th century the earth could sustain only one billion people” (7). He goes on to imply that the increase in human intellect leads to an increase in resources, which can support an ever-larger number of people. Simon doesn’t seem to realize that if the nonrenewable resources of the earth are totally used up, no amount of intellect can get them back. Although he doesn’t make this explicitly clear, Simon believes that the human intellect will be able to solve all of the problems we’re faced with today by developing new technology. In that vein, it’s interesting to note that the American Enterprise Institute (of the book’s foreword) is funded in large part by the auto industry, a sector which for some time has been loath to use technology to improve fuel efficiency despite increasing evidence of global warming and an admitted “addiction” to oil. Maybe they have a secret plan to develop a car that runs on intellect alone?

Simon goes on to show some things that have improved with increased human intellect and economic development. Again, there are several major problems with his argument. First, he doesn’t acknowledge that just because things have improved so far, there may be a limit after which our exploitation of the environment will have consequences. Simon cites almost no scientific literature to support his accusations, and when he does, he practices very selective quotation, only citing studies that say what he wants to hear. In one instance of his irresponsibility towards the science, he points out that in the paper industry, new forests are planted to replace the old ones lost, and new forests are created entirely. Here he misses the point that virgin old-growth forest is a completely different, healthier ecosystem than a former clear-cut young nursery. The second problem with his argument that our relationship with the environment is better than ever has to do with the time scale he’s looking at. Sure, things have gotten better since, say, mid-century – with the passage of the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts – but humanity is still having a huge impact on the environment which, in large part, could be avoided with the adoption of new technology.

Although Simon advocates technology as the solution to all our environmental woes, it seems to me that he’s talking about a different kind of technology – technology that would help us cope with the destruction of the ecosystems around us, rather than technology that could help save what ecosystems are left. When I read what Simon has to say, I remember something from Star Wars. I might be making it up, but I’ll continue nonetheless. Do you remember that planet that was basically one giant city? Sure, it’s got a thriving economy and a healthy population – the people of that planet developed technology that allowed them to live like that – but is that really the kind of world we want to condemn our descendants to? Do we want future generations to live in a world where the only nature is the 10 acres of grass and benches that is the municipal park? I certainly wouldn’t want to live in such a world, and I believe we need to do everything we can to prevent that outcome.

Post One

Statement of Intent:

I don't really intend to report on every environmental issue that comes up in my newsfeeds. I'm a full time student, so I don't have the time that sort of up-to-the-minute reporting requires. I also don't have the writing skills; it usually takes me a few tries before I get something that I want the world to see (not that I think many will see this blog, but still). Some of my posts will be short, opinionated responses to current events. Others will be longer pieces, some of which I've turned in as "journals" for my American Environmental Issues class here at Stetson University in sunny DeLand, FL. The content will vary, as will the amount of time in between posts. I'm a student first and foremost, so I'll post when it's convenient and doesn't interfere with my schoolwork.

That said, I hope you enjoy what I have to say, or at least find it interesting or provoking.