Friday, September 30, 2011

My Review of Swamplandia

Juniper Springs Florida.  Photo by
Bob Brinkmann.

I read pretty much anything interesting that crosses my desk and I am not particularly discriminating as long as it is a serious piece of fiction or non-fiction.  When my sister recommended that I read The Story of Edgar Edward Sawtelle, I didn’t do very much research on the book.  I thought it would be a lovely story about a boy and his dog in rural Wisconsin.  I love books about rural Wisconsin and my sister always recommends good books.  Suffice it to say that Edward Sawtelle was not an uplifting book.  In fact, it was a Shakespearean tragedy that was rather shocking.  It was a good book, but not what I expected. 

Something similar, but more positive occurred when I picked up Swamplandia, I thought it would be a lovely book about Florida’s small theme park past.  I am a huge fan of the smaller theme parks in Florida that have fallen by the wayside.  For example, I love Weeki Wachee Springs and its mermaid shows.  And, everyone should stop by the old spiritualist town of Cassadega Florida to see a glimpse into the past of Florida’s unusual early to mid-twentieth century development.

So, it was with great interest that I picked up Swamplandia.  I thought it would be a lovely story about a theme park in rural Florida and the spunky family that ran it.

In Florida, people can be anything
they want to be.  Even a pirate for the
day.  In Swamplandia, you'll find that
the characters create rather strange and
unique realities.
But, it turns out that Swamplandia is a much deeper book.  It is a metaphor for the environment and developmental history in Florida and for much of the Gulf Coast.  I urge anyone with a deep love of Florida to read the book and to think beyond the basic plot into the metaphors present in the story.

I don’t want to give too much away to my readers.  I really want them to read the book.  But suffice it to say that Swamplandia’s characters are symbolic and one should read the book not so much for the plot, but for the environmental issues represented.  In many ways, it is one of the most significant environmental books to come out in recent years.

The New York Times reviewed the book and somehow focused on the weird plot without really getting at the deeper issues represented in the novel.  The review seems so trivial.  Perhaps one needs a strong understanding of Florida to fully appreciate it.  Nevertheless, do not use the Time’s review to make a decision on the book.  Trust me.  Read Swamplandia if you know and love Florida.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Death of Wangari Maathai

Kenyan Nobel Laureate Wangari Maathai died Sunday in Kenya.  She was known for her work on conservation issues in Africa and human rights.  I am reposting this video from the movie Dirt The Movie in her memory.  She was such an inspiration to many and this video shows her spirit and positive energy.  Are you doing the best you can?

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Cultural Ecology in Chile

I owe a big thanks to University of Georgia Ph.D. student Richard Vercoe. He visited my class via skype this week to discuss his work on cultural ecology in Chile.  I highly recommend his video below to anyone teaching the concept of cultural ecology.  He did the research highlighted in the video while working on his masters degree in geography at the University of Wyoming.  His work demonstrated the link between forests and potato farming in a way that is really fascinating.  It clearly brings the concept of cultural ecology into focus.  It was very kind of him to take the time to talk to my students and discuss his field work.

New Superfund Site on Long Island

The EPA designated a new Superfund site on Long
Island in order to protect local drinking water.
Photo Credit:
Long Island has several EPA Superfund sites and one just made it to the list this month.  It is the New Cassel/Hicksville Ground Water Contamination site.  Long Island gets its water from one major aquifer (the Magothy Aquifer) and contamination of its groundwater is a serious sustainability problem.

Water from wells that service 32,000 people was found to be contaminated with a number of organic compounds.  Plus, there are several public water supply wells within 4 miles of the contaminated wells.  Clearly, there is a serious environmental health threat that is of concern to the EPA.

Islands have limited water sources.  Drinking water protection should be a priority for environmental managers.  It will be interesting to see how this project evolves with time.  Long Island does not have serious water quantity problems, but there are water quality issues that are of great concern.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Article in Foreign Policy Gets Organic Wrong

Do locally owned farms and organic produce cause poverty
in the developing world?  I don't think so.
This article in Foreign Policy can only be called bizarre.  It makes a case that the locavore and organic movement is bad for the world’s developing nations.  The author makes a claim that $5 million in US Government subsidies for farmer's markets in the farm bill somehow harm the planet.  In reality, the locavore and organic movement receive few subsidies compared with big agriculture. Indeed, the local food movement is at a competitive disadvantage due to huge government support of big agriculture.

The author claims that genetically modified food is somehow globally more appropriate, even if the crops leave farmers dependent on large corporations for their seed stock.  The author does not mention the unknown long-term environmental impact of genetically modified foods or the linked fertilizer/pesticide/seed systems that are part of the industrial food chain.  There is a reason genetically modified crops are banned from Europe.

In addition, the author makes a claim that it is more energy efficient to ship milk and meat products to Britain from New Zealand than buy the food locally.  Certainly this is true due to labor issues and the nature of milk and meat production in Great Britain.  But, do all foods follow this pattern?  I do not think so.  Plus, do people really want to meat or milk that has been shipped thousands of miles if given the choice between that and local food?  Doesn’t it make Britain more dependent on fragile transportation systems for its food supply?  Isn't it possible that Britain has local sources of protein that are more efficiently produced than the imported meat?

The author also points to the costs of buying organic as harmful to the world’s peoples.  Everyone knows that the costs of producing organic food is higher in some circumstances.  But, the costs of traditional agriculture are highly subsidized as are the impacts such as non-point pollution clean-up and research and development of genetically modified crops and pesticides.  If the subsidies were removed, it would be a more open playing field.  Organic agriculture is not subsidized nearly to the extent of traditional agriculture.  The author neglects to point out that most community sponsored organic farms provide opportunities for low income individuals to volunteer for their share of the food at free or reduced rates.

Thus, it seems as if the author of the article is quite misinformed about the nature of organic and industrial food production and its systems.  I have no doubt that he wishes to improve the situation in developing countries, but I hardly think that a local food market or an organic farm is contributing to the world’s development problems.  The current food movement is not particularly fancy or elitist.  Instead, it is seeking to rebuild local agricultural systems that make sense for consumers and local farmers.  It is building communities around ideas of sustainability in ways that should make development experts pleased. 

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Meatless Monday at Hofstra

I am starting a Meatless Monday campaign at Hofstra!  Please read about it here.  We are hoping to get 1000 students, faculty, staff, alumni, friends, and family signed up during the school year.  Please consider pledging to help us reach our goal (we are counting friends and my readers are my friends and family).  You can pledge in the comments section of the link.

Monday, September 12, 2011

I Support Miss Ecuador for Miss Universe Here's Why

I am so not a sexist, but I do like her message and I am glad that the sustainable development ideas are getting highlighted in the Miss Universe pageant.  Go Miss Ecuador!!

Green Item of the Moment--Cafeteria Trays

Yay for cafeteria trays!  The festival I went to threw
out an equivalent number of Styrofoam trays. 
These trays are in the Google cafeteria.
Mario and I recently attended a wonderful local Italian festival in Port Washington, NY.  For me, the best part of these types of festivals is always the food.  I love fair food, especially if there are options beyond the basic hot dogs and cotton candy.  I have some special fair food that I love (spiral cut potato chips are the tops in my book) and I was excited the find that this fair had food made by a local Italian lodge.  What wonderful new food would we discover?

When Mario and I got to the food tent, we couldn't decide between several options.  We discussed in great detail which specialty to try.  Eventually, we ordered some ziti and meatballs and some eggplant parmesan and paid and went to a table to enjoy.  We weren't really thinking green at this moment--our stomachs were ruling our behavior and we were anxious to dig in.  However, we noticed that our tray was a throw-away Styrofoam tray.  It was the size of a large cafeteria tray.  It seemed so wasteful and I never would have taken it if I would have been thinking.  But, my brain was on the eggplant parm.

So, I give you today's green item of the moment:  the cafeteria tray.  They are reusable, colorful, and last years.  They could also hold a good baked ziti (this is a hint to all those involved with putting on fairs).

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Punting on Smog

A smoggy day in Chicago.  Photo Credit:
I am not sure what is going on right now with the EPA and the President, but it is clear that they are not on the same page.  See this article for background.  In short, the EPA worked with its scientific advisors to develop new smog rules that would improve the air quality in many areas of the country.  The rules would benefit the health of many people, largely in urban areas of the Midwest and Great Plains.  After the EPA proposed the rules, the President rejected them on economic grounds.  This outcome is surprising because they are the same branch of government.

Based on my what I have seen from other administrations, Presidents rarely withdraw rules coming from the offices of the executive branch so late in the process.  Typically direction is given from the top and executive offices like the EPA are supported by the President.  One questions whether or not there is communication between the Head of the EPA and the President on these matters.  In my opinion, the rules should have been withdrawn much earlier if the President had objections.  Many people worked very hard on making sure that the rules were scientifically sound and economically reasonable.  I am sure they are disappointed by the lack of support from the President and had better things they could have worked on that would have made a difference in the lives of others.

It is unclear what is next for the smog rules, but it is evident that politics and economic fear are trumping science in the current political environment. 

Friday, September 2, 2011

I Ran from Irene and Irene Ran into Me

This is what we all found when we came down the mountain
on Sunday morning.

On Friday, August 28, I got word that the area where I live in Port Washington was under mandatory evacuation orders starting at 8:00am on Saturday, August 29th.  I live on the water and it was expected that a 4-8 foot storm surge would come in and inundate many areas of coastal Long Island.  Obviously, with my experiences with storms in Florida, I followed orders and got out of town.

Where was I to go?  I had invites from various friends in New York City, but I needed to take my cat.  I checked some hotels, but they were all booked.  So, I decided to stay with friends in the Catskill Mountains. 

I packed up my truck and got out of Long Island and out of the way of the storm--or so I thought!

The house on the left was carried about 200 m before
getting stuck in trees (click photo for bigger).
Saturday night and into Sunday morning, we received lots of rain in the mountains, but very little wind.  So, mid-morning on Sunday, we decided to head into town to see if we could find any restaurants open for breakfast.  When we came down the mountain road, we found that the road was washed away at the bottom of the valley.  What was a little creek turned into a monstrous stream that was carrying huge trees, lots of large trees, and even a house.  Over 100 people were trapped on the mountain due to the wash out in our area.  Several homes were flooded and there was extensive erosion.

We were unable to get out of the area until Tuesday.  By that time the waters receded and a temporary bridge was put in place.  The area is still without electricity as I write this.  When I made it home on Tuesday, I found that there was a little basement flooding in my house and a little bit of erosion behind the sea wall.  But that was it as far as my damage.
People were back in this house by the time I left on Tuesday.
I was struck how everyone trapped behind the washed-out road calmly dealt with the lack of electricity.  Certainly, there was some evidence of cabin fever, but overall everyone did just fine.  We could see those who had it worse at the bottom of the valley.
This photo shows road crews trying to repair the bridge on
Monday.  That water was down considerably.