Thursday, August 20, 2015

Are You An Environmental Racist?

(PHOTO: Angela Waye)
Think about it: The disappearance of the wild and its wildlife is often attributed to too many people. Who do you think “those people” are? Do they look like you, talk like you, share your values? If they don’t, who are “those people?”

At the root of American environmentalism are the values of a white, aristocratic class that extolled eugenics, elevated Nordic culture and feared the dilution of that culture, according to Jedehiah Purdy in a New Yorker article, “Environmentalism’s Racist History.”

The creation of America’s national parks and forests by the likes of Theodore Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot were guided by a vision to preserve in the wild nature’s aristocratic qualities, “the moose, the mountain goat, and the redwood tree,” writes Purdy. Roosevelt also engaged John Muir, founder of the Sierra Club, “who felt fraternity with four-legged ‘animal people’ and even plants, [but] was at best ambivalent about human brotherhood.”

Purdy: “For each of these environmentalist icons, the meaning of nature and wilderness was constrained, even produced, by an idea of civilization. Muir’s nature was a pristine refuge from the city. Madison Grant’s nature [ a Roosevelt fellow traveler better known for his views on eugenics ] was the last redoubt of nobility in a leveling and hybridizing democracy. They went to the woods to escape aspects of humanity. They created and preserved versions of the wild that promised to exclude the human qualities they despised.”

Recognize anybody you might know? Most likely not. But put another way, how many environmentalists would agree that their environmental values of protecting the wild in the wilderness is in some sense better than those in cultures that clear rain forests, hunt whales, and kill animals for their fins, ivory or gall bladders? If those perpetrators’ skin color is different from yours, some might call you — loosely speaking-- a racist. (racism: a belief or doctrine that inherent differences among the various human racial groups determine cultural or individual achievement, usually involving the idea that one’s own race is superior and has the right to dominate others or that a particular group is inferior to others.)

I say “loosely” because the term these days gets thrown around in heated arguments and polemics. If you spend time saving the whales and ignoring immigration reform, will you be called a racist? If you say, saving African elephants is my issue, not voting rights, will you be called a racist? What happens when a Black Lives Matter activist takes the microphone away from Denis Hayes ala Bernie Sanders when he wants to talk about climate change?

Have environmentalists been racists? I’ve listened to a card-carrying green complain about the people who don’t speak English coming down to the shore at low tide and stripping it bare of the sea weed and limpets. There are California Sierra Club members who have had a hard time dealing with immigration. Good friends deride Canadians for clogging up the local Trader Joes and Costco. The subtext here isn’t hard to figure out (Southeast Asians, Mexicans, Pakistanis, Indians, Chinese) but I’m not sure the speakers felt superior as much as beleagued by a foreign “otherness” that seemed beyond their control.

I’m also not sure how exclusive our cultural value of protecting wild creatures in the wilderness is but much of this country’s wildernesses, parks and environmental laws are the result of environmentalists who are white, educated and not poor. The membership and leadership of environmental organizations are almost exclusively white. The causes, however, are not about protecting wildlife and wild places from other races but from businesses that threaten their destruction. To prevail in those causes like climate change and Arctic drilling and species protection and recovery, the environmental movement needs to expand its constituent base.

To do that requires more than trying to diversify the complexion of their boards and staffs and printing more brochures in other languages. It will required understanding why a phrase like “people of color” rings hollow (the redoubtable Hazel Wolf said, I’m white, that’s all the colors) and why asking the families of Mexican farm workers to take part in a weeding and planting restoration day makes no sense. Show some respect: People who don’t have the economic luxury of being able to save the polar bears don’t need to be educated about polar bears and climate change. And, it’s important to remember when working in a community on environmental justice issues that the organizers get to go home; the community living with the toxic crap is at home.

The strength of the environmental movement is based on the values of protecting wild things in the wilderness and those are the values of its white, educated and not poor members. OK, that’s not necessarily the values of most of the world or non-white cultures in this country. Saving the whales or the polar bear or ancient forests isn’t the environment for the people environmentalists want to reach. The environment for these folks is health and safety: safe water, safe food, safe streets, safe parks.

Are you ready to write the new environmental manifesto that clearly expresses how we protect the wild and the wilderness by protecting and restoring the health and safety of our communities?

The need to do that if the environmental movement is to grow and move forward has been recognized by folks like Scott Miller of Resource Media: “Many organizations, like Resource Media, with their roots firmly in environmental advocacy, now understand that a greener world is part of something much bigger. We have long contended people have a right to clean air, clean water and places to experience nature. Now we are intentional about saying that list includes rights to adequate health care, safety, equity, economic well being and... human dignity.“

Take a moment to read Jedehiah Purdy’s article, and let me know what you think.

--Mike Sato

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Citizen Scientists – Are They For Real?

Citizen scientists (Toby Ross/Seattle Audubon)

Blog Post By Pete Haase

Nowadays, in this business of volunteering in the environmental community around Puget Sound, I see citizen scientists behind every tree and on very beach.

There are often many of them grouped together doing their work.  They might have clip-boards, binoculars, square PVC things with strings in them, laminated cards with all sorts of critters and weeds on them, or a fancy GPS device. They often wear boots and sometimes are even up to their chests in the water.  Sometimes they just sit and watch and make a note now and again.  Other times they stride out like they are measuring with their legs.  You can see their lips move as they silently count.  Sometimes they are planting plants, sometimes they are measuring plants, and other times they are digging them up.  They are even in meetings.  They like eating donuts and drinking hot chocolate and coffee. I think possibly every family has one, maybe even two.  Little school kids can be one and training for it might even be part of the mandatory curriculum.

I’m one.  I know this because several “real” scientists have told me so and thanked me for being one!   Since about 2009, the rather official definition of “citizen scientist,” as agreed to by Washington Sea Grant and the Puget Sound Partnership, is one who “provides rigorous cost-effective data collection for research, monitoring, and management needs.” As an example, a person who knows some birds, can count and keep numbers straight, and can print legibly with pencil on Rite-in-the-Rain paper and participates in the Christmas bird count is a citizen scientist.  So is a person with a head-lamp who goes out at night at low tide and peeks under rocks to count and record the condition of wasting sea stars.  I think you get it. (Cheap, follows directions, has good all-weather gear.)  A worthy expense of time and effort.

But the combining of the two words, citizen and scientist, troubles and confuses me, although I am easily confused often, I admit.  (Frankly, anyone who is in the environmental volunteering business but is not often confused is lying.)

Can a “real” scientist be a citizen scientist, too?  Can a citizen scientist be a “real” scientist, too?  I say it is “no” and “no.”  You are one or the other – period.  This I know, again, because I have been told so often by the experts – the real scientists.  No: real scientists are scientists but citizen scientists are just partly scientists, the part that does grunt work but generally does not do much brain work.  That is odd to me because I know lots of volunteers who once did science as a job but are now retired and volunteer for fun. It seems like they can still be scientists, but I think generally they have to be the common citizen variety, too, maybe just with a bit more experience – the “old timers.” It’s like somebody did not think this term through too well – or it was maybe a committee result.  It is catchy.

I suppose that what makes the difference is mainly a combination of education and experience, the breadth of science work you are currently doing, who you are employed by, and how much you have published.  Miss the mark on any one of them and you are back to (or stay in) the slag heap of citizen scientist.  Why don’t they just call us scientist minions or such?

Do you know any citizen dentists? Citizen lawyers?  Citizen police officers?  Citizen teachers?  No – we citizen scientists belong to our own special guild, proud as we may be for the recognition but forever banned from making up experiments, doing research, posing hypotheses, teasing meaning from data, publishing, or speaking in garbled terms to esteemed audiences.

I think it is time to define a Senior Citizen Scientist - one who can design experiments, think for himself and herself, pose and test hypotheses, etc. There are, I bet, 25 citizen scientists right now for every real scientist, and many of them would qualify. Imagine how much more good work could be done! Senior Citizen Scientist  That IS a catchy name; scary, but catchy!  We need a logo.

[Pete Haase is an energetic environmental volunteer in Skagit County.  He likes being in the field with teams, doing things that he hopes will make a difference.  Much of what he does is citizen science.  Pete also like engaging the public, helping them appreciate volunteer efforts and getting them to add their voices in support of protection and restoration. Pete has been named by RE Sources as a 2015 environmental hero.]

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Old Japanese Pitcher Throws No-Hitter

Hisashi Iwakuma (Associated Press)
Japanese-born Hisashi Iwakuma pitched a no-hitter on Wednesday in Seattle. At 34 years old, Iwakuma is the oldest pitcher since Randy Johnson threw a non-hitter in 2004. That’s according to Tim Booth, the Associated Press sports writer.

I cheered and cheer for Iwakuma and the Seattle Mariners. My friend Michi who was at the game doing play-by-play for Japan TV wrote, “Although I was there for work, I almost cried.”

Did it matter that Hisashi Iwakuma (name notwithstanding) needed to be identified as Japanese-born by the sportswriter? When Mariner pitcher Felix Hernandez pitched his perfect game no-hitter (a much more difficult achievement in facing the minimum 27 batters in a game), Seattle Times sportswriter Larry Stone  didn’t think it necessary to identify Felix by his ethnicity or by his age.

Maybe the presence of Japanese-born major league players is still mezurashi (uniquely interesting) to sportswriters and followers of the game but, as Tim Booth points out, Iwakuma joins fellow Japanese-born pitcher Hideo Nomo in the no-hitter ranks and, as we in Seattle know as we cheered for Ichiro, we didn’t need to identify him as Japanese-born.

Age of ball players reaching some level of achievement seems to be newsworthy, however. When athletes who are very young excel, they are lauded for their discipline and maturity. Older players who perform well, say, an Ichiro or the recently honored pitcher Jamie Moyer, are looked upon as rare examples of physical prowess and endurance. Baseball’s a young man’s game and Iwakuma at 34 is relatively old. Einstein published his theory of general relativity when he was 35.

Since in the Northwest we’re still grappling with how to talk about race and ethnicity, especially after the Bernie Sanders affair last weekend, it’s good that the sport reporting references to Iwakuma’s ethnicity and age stir no controversy.

It did bring to mind, however, my getting a haircut years back at a three-chair men’s barber shop on Roosevelt Avenue in Seattle where the barber (the one with the sharp instruments cutting my hair) got into a discussion with some of the clients about the Mariners playing exhibition games in Japan. “Won’t be much of a contest,” he said. “Those Japanese players just don’t play the same caliber of ball that we do in the States.” To which I demurred, saying that there were players who could play in our major leagues. He countered by going down the Mariner lineup, starting with Edgar Martinez, and worked to even out my sideburns. As he proceeded with the lineup to Jay Buhner, the sideburns kept getting adjusted side to side shorter and shorter until I called a halt and got out of the chair.

I’ve thought about that haircut and the ethnic stereotypes held by that barber when I watched and cheered Ichiro and Kaz and most recently Iwakuma. And I thought about the racial stereotyping that kept blacks like Lloyd McClendon out of managerial positions until recent years. (The end of the haircut story: My next stop was Super Cuts where I asked the cutter to even out my sideburns. I started explaining why they were uneven and she said, “Oh, no, we never discuss politics here,” and I shut up.)

So, does it matter that Iwakuma is Japanese-born? Nope. Anyone who can pitch like Kuma and Felix I want on my team. When they get older and can’t pitch like they do today, that’s another ballgame.

--Mike Sato

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Into The (Sort Of) Wild

I spent parts of this past weekend at Deception Pass State Park with a thousand or more campers. But with the right camera angles, it can still be remembered as a few days in a wildness of sorts. But what was the experience?

I haven’t gone car camping since my college days when we’d set up a tarp or tent a few feet away from the Volkswagen bug. Those were days before reservation systems and then the experience was to try to find places on the coast in the off-season where you could build an outdoor fire in the relative seclusion of a park where there were toilets and trails.

This past weekend was the high summer season so car camping spaces were at a premium; it was good to see people, families and kids enjoying themselves under the canopy of trees, walking the trails and on the beach. Some camps were simply a couple of pitched tents; some sites were covered by elaborate canopies and tabletops with bright and shiny cook ware. The camp sites are thoughtfully laid out but in most spots back up onto each other, which called for a high sense of neighborliness and sleeping in closer proximity to strangers than you would at home.

I’ve forgotten most of my Thoreau and Walden but remember his dictum, “In Wildness is the preservation of the world.” (I’m helped in remembering it correctly by recalling Eliot Porter’s book of the same title.) Quoting Thoreau is like quoting Chief Seattle: you can always find something that speaks to your cause. For Thoreau, the West was the wild and its wildness returned us to our savage natures from which we rose. “….Life consists with Wildness. The most alive is the wildest. Not yet subdued to man, its presence refreshes him.” And yet, “The weapons with which we have gained our most important victories, which should be handed down as heirlooms from father to son, are not the sword and the lance, but the bush-whack — the turf-cutter, the spade, and the bog-hoe, rusted with the blood of many a meadow, and begrimed with the dust of many a hard-fought field.”

There are hosts of contradictions in Thoreau but the take-away is that places that are wild (wilderness) are good because plants and animals there can be wild (wildness). I still believe that and am amazed and disappointed to find so many people at wilderness places where you can drive to— Artist Point, Haleakala, Waimea Canyon, Deception Pass. Even on day hikes, you make friends with people and dogs.  After my early days of car camping, I’d chosen to carry my provisions on my back and hike into the wilderness with the goal of finding places where there weren’t other people—weeklong treks which became the measure of experiencing wildness in the wilderness.

But the wild can be scary. I’ve sat out a lightning storm in a tent on an isolated ridge, been lost in the fog in snow, warmed a hiking partner back from hypothermia, ran out of daylight before reaching a flat spot to throw up a tent. I never felt anything more that relief after these experiences, no celebration of wilderness or of the wild. I recall my work colleague who moved from New Jersey telling me his adventure visiting Vashon Island where it was creepy and he couldn’t sleep-- because it was too quiet.

The wild in the wilderness is scary and I don’t think much of people crowing about testing one’s manhood or womanhood by facing the wild in the wilderness. On the last hike I took up Cascade Pass and Sahale Arm, I collapse with leg cramps and worried for two hours about how I was going to be carried down before recovering. I think it’s a matter of taste, not virtue: go into the wilderness to find the wild if you want but I won’t put down people who drive into the wilderness or car camp. Maybe people can appreciate the trees and the water and the sky more comfortably with other people around. We’ve come this far West and now make Wildness our own.

By the way, the grandkids had a great time. It was all fun and games and nobody got hurt.

--Mike Sato

Friday, August 7, 2015

Sitting on The “Big One.” This Is Your Northwest

How do you think about your own death and destruction? Maybe you’ve seen the disaster movies. Are you in the masses that die or the few that survive? Here’s why I have a hard time thinking about this...

Another ‘wake-up’ call received this summer was reading and reading about Kathryn Schulz‘s article in The New Yorker,The Really Big One” and its follow-up, “How To Stay Safe When The Big One Comes.”

I think of myself as making reasoned decisions weighing costs and benefits either embedded internally or externally. I’m sure these decisions are based on information filtered through my experiences and beliefs the same way old Republican men and testosterone-laden, 16-year old first-time drivers make decisions. But faced with a situation outside the realm of past experience, say a health diagnosis of a terminal condition or a massive earthquake that will destroy a sizable portion of the coastal Northwest, I end up with a kind of brain-lock.

How are you supposed to think about the end of life as you know it?

Local media surely felt a bit miffed that a national publication gained that much public reaction after local media had been covering the stories of the “Big One” for years. Wrote Schulz in her follow-up: “.... the overwhelming response was alarm. ‘Terrifying,’ the story kept getting called; also ‘truly terrifying,’ ‘incredibly terrifying,’ ‘horrifying,’ and ‘scary as fuck.’ ‘Don’t read it if you want to go back to sleep,’ one reader warned. ‘It’s hard to overhype how scary it is,’ Buzzfeed said. ‘New Yorker scares the bejesus out of NW,’ the Seattle Post-Intelligencer wrote.”

Christopher Dunagan in his Watching Our Waterways blog puzzled over, “How did one magazine article generate such a tsunami of public alarm?” and went on to recount his years of reporting on the “Big One.” Local media have also recounted the 10 (or whatever number) essential things everyone should have in one’s earthquake preparedness kit (Washington State Military Department: "Preparedness, training key in riding out the Big One.")

The list sits on my desk.  The trouble with this “What Can You Do” list for “Big One” preparedness is that it’s based solely on the idea that I and my household will survive. In that case I think guns and ammunition should be included in the kit. I don’t want to add guns and ammo in my survival kit. I want to be with my neighbors and my community if I survive the “Big One” because I really can’t imagine surviving alone.

Last Tuesday evening was a national event called “Night Out Against Crime” where neighbors were encouraged to leave their lights on in the evening, spend time outside and get to know neighbors. Thinking about the “Big One,” I’d feel better being part of something like a community-based strategy to put supplies by neighborhood by neighborhood and identifying neighbor skills and resources in which individual household preparedness kits (no guns or ammo) were a part.

I’m still trying to get my mind around my possible demise. I don’t have Dwayne (The Rock) Johnson living in my neighborhood to take me to safety and if I’m in the masses that die in the disaster, that’s that. But the tough part is what happens if I and others survive, and it would be great to prepare accordingly.

--Mike Sato

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Heat and Drought. Is This The New Northwest?

Sockeye salmon (Barry Sweet/AP)
Some summer: Consecutive days of record high temperatures, little rain and low river runoff, rising water temperatures in rivers and Puget Sound... You staying or planning to leave?

In the environmental organizing business we talk about events like oil spills or fish kills or finding toxic chemicals in breast milk as “wake-up” calls that could be communicated in a way that would move people from awareness to action.  In many cases, like a one-day sale, it worked in the short term but could not be sustained in a longer campaign.

You might or might not find the science of climate change compelling but you have to admit if you’ve been here awhile that this isn’t the Northwest that we thought we knew. Maybe next month enough rain will fall and temperatures will moderate so rivers will flow again for returning salmon and toxic algae will dissipate when Puget Sound’s temperature drops. Might even be able to forget about this summer and return to our lives as usual.

That’s human and understandable, and that’s what we’ve been doing for years about carbon emissions and the decline in Puget Sound’s health. Wake up to a crisis event, then go back to our lives as usual. Our government has done it for years, lurching forward and backwards in gridlock.

Last weekend we entertained family from out of town and drove to dinner and plays in Seattle and Skagit County round trip from Bellingham. There was no way those trips could be done on a mass transit schedule and for now, the most rational alternative was to fill up the tank with gas and drive. One day, some day but not today, owning and driving an electric- or hydrogen-powered vehicle or taking mass transit will be a reasonable alternative.

Last month I answered the door and chatted with a young lady working for Puget Sound Energy promoting their Green Power program where, for a few extra dollars each month, I would be buying and using non-fossil fuel generated electricity. I asked her how selling the virtues of the Green Power program jibed with Puget Sound Energy’s Energize Eastside project  which proposes to construct a new transmission line on the east side of Lake Washington so the utility can sell its dirty Colstrip coal power outside the state. I got a polite smile from the young lady and a promise that she would look into it.

My neighbor David this summer had solar panels installed and is rightly proud of the amount of solar energy he is collecting. On a trip to Hawaii this summer, I saw solar panels galore on rooftops; the main problem was the bottleneck created by the local utility’s footdragging in buying back energy generated by individual households.

One day, some day but not today, I’ll have an affordable solar array and wind turbine system with battery storage so Puget Sound Energy is an energy partner rather than an energy purveyor.  One day, some day but not today, there will be rational alternatives that enough people can partake in to reduce individual carbon footprints in a way that makes a difference in moderating climate change.

But why not today? Bill McKibben in a June 29 New Yorker article “Power To The People” finds hope in the results of the energy make-over done for Mark and Sara Borkowski in Vermont. “The numbers reveal a sudden new truth—that innovative, energy-saving and energy-producing technology is now cheap enough for everyday use,” McKibben writes. The take-away? “Why the rise of green energy makes utility companies nervous.”

One of the early slogans in protecting Puget Sound was, “We all live downstream,” meaning the rain that falls in the Puget Sound basin ends up in Puget Sound. This summer wake-up call is that life in the Sound is stressed by low water flows in the rivers and by higher water temperatures. Dead zones due to oxygen depletion, early shellfish harvest closures, toxic algae, fish kills... (‘The Blob’ may warm Puget Sound’s waters, hurt marine life )

This summer’s stress brings to the fore many of the problems of Puget Sound’s health discussed and grappled with mixed success for at least the last 30 years. We now have another in a series of wake-up calls like the past discovery of liver lesions in English sole, an early morning oil spill in the fog, sea star wasting disease, death of an endangered orca whale... After all these years, do you need another wake-up call about the declining health of Puget Sound?

Another wake-up call can’t hurt but the problem is that there really isn’t anything I can do about dead zones or toxic algae or fish kills or liver lesions or ships spilling oil or shellfish disease or a dead orca. I can pick up dog poop and recycle and conserve water but those, honestly, are nice-to-do actions that have very little to do with the real problems of Puget Sound’s declining health. Someone once angrily said in a meeting, “People are the problem with Puget Sound.” I don’t think so. We just haven’t figured out where we fit in solving the equation of Puget Sound’s health.

The state’s Puget Sound recovery goals now include measurements for human well-being and human values in considering the Sound’s resources. ( Healthier Puget Sound depends on healthy people, report finds ) These human values, the result of scientific research, are meant to help determine how money and effort are spent in Puget Sound recovery. If you fix those things people value most, people will be happier. I might be missing something but I’m not sure this puts us any closer to knowing how I will be meaningfully engaged in actions that result in fixing the problem I think most important to fix.

One day, some day but not today, there will be reasonable and meaningful alternatives that I can take to reduce my carbon footprint from my transport and my energy use. One day, some day but not today, there will be reasonable and meaningful actions I can take to remedy the real problems of Puget Sound’s health. One day, some day but not today, my actions and your actions will be measured in a way that shows the power of acting in concert. Until that day comes, there will continue to be wake-up calls that will echo and pass over us as we go back to our lives as usual.

--Mike Sato

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Let’s Talk About Sex For A Change

He/She/He Limpet (Jan Delsing/BioLib)
How about that Bruce Jenner? Makes that trans-sex transformation to female and gets the exclusive and the cover of Vanity Fair which is then picked up by every major and minor news outlet in the world. Reminds me of the time a few years back when the ribbed Mediterranean limpet (Patella ferruginea) was found to be able to change its sex from male to female and back again.

Mr./Mrs. Limpet had neither the vanity nor the desire to try for the cover of Vanity Fair but was described by John R. Platt in a Scientific American blog as nearly extinct and the subject of efforts by scientists to learn how it breeds and reproduces to save it from extinction. (The Incredible Mr./Mrs. Limpet: The Endangered, Sex-Changing Sea Snail)

Most limpet species possess both male and female characteristics and change gender in their lives due to external environmental factors; Patella ferruginea, however, is unusual in changing gender then back again, scientists discovered. When and why still remains a mystery.

The scientists wrote in a paper that, this discovery provides "new direction for research into the mechanisms and factors driving sex change and its effects on the population dynamics" for the species, which may help to inform conservation strategies to keep it from extinction.

Meanwhile, in an attempt to ride the media frenzy on June 1, the endangered smalltooth sawfish muscled in on the news with the discovery that they are resorting to “virgin births” in the wild— perhaps in an effort to survive.

According to The Washington Post, “Female sawfish in Florida estuaries were found to have produced living offspring without the help of a male. Researchers found that 3 percent of sawfish in their study were the result of this unusual reproductive strategy.” (On the verge of extinction, female sawfish resort to ‘virgin births’ to survive)

In rare instances some vertebrate females have been known to switch between sexual and asexual reproduction depending on the availability of a mate. Reproducing without mating is called facultative parthenogenesis where an egg absorbs a genetically identical cell to create offspring about half as genetically diverse as the mother. These offspring often don't survive but enough are around in Florida to be counted.

OK. You read it here and in Scientific American and The Washington Post.

Vanity vanitatum, omnia vanitas.

--Mike Sato