Saturday, January 25, 2014

Musings: Is environmentalism for the environment... or for humans?

I recently came across a thought-provoking and impassioned article that has harsh words for those of us who consider ourselves to be environmentalists, and ultimately forces the reader to ask the question: “Who is environmentalism for?  Is it for the environment… or is it for people?”  Most of us without a second thought would easily reply “Of course, environmentalism is for the environment!”

However, the author of that particular article provides some uncomfortable insight that illustrates how modern environmentalism has been appropriated to further human exploitation of our planet.  Although the article is written from a much higher and more poetic intellectual level than I will ever be able to attain, I thought I’d attempt to comment on a few of the author’s ideas that kept the wheels turning in my head hours later.

The title of the article: “Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist,” states right up front that author Paul Kingsnorth wants no association with the ideology of current environmentalism. Although once a self-described environmentalist, as the decades passed and the “environmentalist” discourse shifted from the preservation of natural, untouched wilderness to things like climate change and sustainability, Kingsnorth came to see environmentalism being focused more for the benefit of our wasteful, resource-intensive human culture than for the protection of nature.  Environmentalism made the switch from eco-centrism to anthropocentrism. 

Climate Change 

Kingsnorth comments that in order to diminish the carbon dioxide emissions that worsen climate change, humans have to turn landscapes such as untouched desert, wild hills and mountains, and our powerful oceans into sites for solar panel arrays, wind farms, and strings of tidal energy turbines, respectively.  Instead of protecting these natural places, “environmentalists” are defacing them with man-made machines to further exploit the natural environment and support our comfortable lifestyles under the guise of environmentalism. 

 I do not agree completely with this view, though.  I believe the details are taken to the extreme in Kingsnorth’s argument, because in fact solar panels are often placed on rooftops or other already-developed areas instead of untouched wilderness.  And although the issue of climate change is often framed in the context of the threat it poses to humans (I’ve found that this “scare tactic” is sometimes the best way to get people to care about the issue), there are plenty of organizations advocating for climate change action on behalf of our environment and wildlife, instead of for humans.

Although I have to disagree with Kingsnorth’s views on climate change, I definitely agree with his views on sustainability.  


Sustainability has a significant ideological problem.  In any discussion on this topic, the underlying idea is that sustainability is the means by which humans need to use resources so as not to deplete them faster than they can be replenished, so to ensure that they are available for future generations.  One small problem: sustainability usually does not leave room for any non-human entities. The environment? Wildife?  Not included.  Ironically, without the environment and without wildlife, humans themselves could not survive... so it would appear that the idea of sustainability itself is fundamentally flawed.

Consider for example, water rights for a major river.  The rights to withdraw water from the river are divided up between different states, to ensure that the water isn’t being overused and sucked dry faster than it can be replenished by rainfall or snowmelt.  Each state has enough water for its people to drink, its farmers to irrigate, and to use for other, non-essential things such as watering lawns (ugh).  However, at the end of the line, a once-raging river is reduced to a trickle, not leaving enough water for spawning salmon and other wildlife that depend upon it.  Add in a few hydroelectric dams to produce “sustainable” energy, and those poor salmon are really going to have a problem. They will have difficulty reaching their spawning grounds, which will affect the future of their population.  And keep in mind that forestlands upstream rely on dead and decomposing salmon to provide nutrients to the soil.  And that wildlife in those forests such as bears, birds of prey, and scavengers rely on the salmon for food.  So, the environment that depends on the river will suffer while humans in far-flung areas who don’t even know where their water comes from are sitting on their front porches, admiring their freshly-watered green lawns, and retreating into their homes air-conditioned by the cheap “sustainable” electricity produced by the hydroelectric dams.  Is this sustainable for people? Possibly. Is it sustainable for the environment and wildlife? Not at all.  This generic example is just one of many.

It seems that sustainability does not deserve a place under the umbrella of true environmentalism until it gets a serious overhaul.  It is important to take into consideration the needs of the environment itself, because humans are not the only living things on earth that rely on resources such as food, water, land, and air.  Are humans willing to do what is required in order to live sustainably for ourselves, the environment, and wildlife?  Or is our current, human-centered sustainability already pushing us to the fringes of our comfort zone?  At some point, that comfort zone is going to become irrelevant as the environment around us accelerates into devastation.

The overall tone of Kingsnorth’s article is steeped in frustration, and I’m sure that many people—many environmentalists even-- can sympathize.  It is hard not to feel this way as our natural world is further subjected to this human-centered greed that leads to the loss of our beloved, untouched natural areas—and to consider that much of this loss results from so-called environmentalism that purports to save the planet is altogether insulting and horrifying.

The question raised by Kingsnorth’s article is important to keep in mind when considering environmental issues:  is this for humans only, or is it for the environment? Anthropocentric or eco-centric?  Only one answer leads to true “environmentalism”.

Click here to read the “Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist” article by Paul Kingsnorth.  It is a dense and lengthy read that will leave you with more questions than answers, but the questions raised are important ones.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

See America: Reviving New Deal artwork to celebrate our national parks

I love it when art and nature come together. There is currently a great deal of excitement surrounding a new project by the Creative Action Network and the National Parks Conservation Association that unites these two elements in celebration of America's national parks.

Mount Rainier National Park, by Zack Frank

The "See America" project is a campaign for which artists can submit posters featuring national parks, monuments and historic sites, created in the same style as the original "See America" posters commissioned by the Works Progress Administration over 75 years ago.  A goal of this campaign is to inspire today's generation of Americans to visit, appreciate, and reconnect with these national treasures.

One of the best parts of this project is its accessibility - anyone with a talent for art and a passion for nature can create and submit a poster.  Our national parks are for everyone, and so is this project!

Any endeavor that gets people excited to be in the outdoors and to appreciate our national parks is definitely worth supporting, in my book! It is very sad to think that many members of our society-- especially the younger generation-- have never set foot in a national park and connected with the history, breathed in the clean air, and found themselves left speechless by the stunning scenery: to see for themselves why these natural wonders are worth preserving.  It is critical to forge those connections between people and nature to ensure that these places will continue to be protected and available for generations to come. Speaking through artwork as with the "See America" project is an exciting way to accomplish that.

The "See America" posters are available for purchase, and can be viewed here.  The artists have done a great job, and all of the posters are wonderful. I might have to save up my pennies and purchase one poster representing each park I've visited!

Saturday, January 4, 2014

In the news: Does cold weather disprove climate change?

Climate change has been a hot topic in the news media and social networking world lately, but the discourse has been far from productive.  Climate change deniers have gleefully taken the opportunity to point to the unfathomably cold winter storm currently blasting the eastern half of the United States, as well as the story about climate change scientists getting stuck in sea ice in Antarctica (oh, they love the irony of that situation!) as "proof" that climate change is not happening. They've even gone so far as to suggest that the earth is, in fact, experiencing "global cooling".

I think this is a good time to review the difference between weather and climate.

Merriam-Webster defines WEATHER as follows:
"the state of the air and atmosphere at a particular time and place : the temperature and other outside conditions (such as rain, cloudiness, etc.) at a particular time and place."
Key to understanding weather is that it is limited to a particular time and place.  Weather is a short-term condition-- a single point in time.

The same dictionary defines CLIMATE as follows:
"the average course or condition of the weather at a place usually over a period of years as exhibited by temperature, wind velocity, and precipitation."
 As the definition indicates, "climate" refers to long-term weather trends-- the accumulation of weather over a period of time.

Top graph:,                                                                                  Bottom Graph:
 Pictured above are two graphs from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).  The top graph shows two-day temperatures for Seattle, WA:  This is weather.  The bottom graph shows the average annual temperature for the years 1900-2012 for the region in Washington State that includes the city of Seattle: this is climate.  You can see the danger of drawing conclusions from short-term weather systems: according to the graph above, the temperature in Seattle is decreasing.  However, the green trend line shown in the bottom graph clearly indicates that long-term temperature trends relating to climate are increasing.

When climate change skeptics point to the frigid east coast storm and claim that climate change (actually, they use the outdated term "global warming") is not happening, they are referring to weather.  Climate change means that our planet's climate, or long-term weather trends, will change, not the day-to-day weather.

So what is the big deal here? Why does it matter if certain groups of people don't agree that climate change is happening and do not differentiate between weather and climate? 

It matters because climate change is a serious problem that will threaten our very ability to survive in decades to come.  Changing temperature trends and precipitation patterns will affect agriculture and our ability to produce enough food, it will affect our water supply, it is acidifying the oceans and destroying marine species and the industries that rely on them, and it is expected to lead to more frequent severe weather events such as hurricanes, tornadoes, heat waves and floods, all of which will result in loss of life, property, and livelihoods. All of these things are happening now.

It matters because we have a very narrow window of time in which to take dramatic action in order to avoid the worst effects of climate change.  The most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report gravely warns that if we do not act in the next few decades, then our society will be facing a wildly different world in the latter half of this century--a world where merely surviving could be a challenge.  The more people that are skeptical of climate change and drag their feet on action--or worse, choose actions that take us in the opposite direction (drill baby drill, anyone?)-- the more difficult it is going to be for us to actually make meaningful and timely progress on the issue.

It matters because there are generations of human beings yet to be born who do not have a voice regarding how their future home is being shaped.  Are we going to selfishly stick with personal or political prejudices as an excuse not to act on an issue that will affect our children and every generation to follow?  I would like to think that our society can be better than that and rise above our short-sighted, self-involved personal agendas.

It matters because we have NOTHING TO LOSE.  Let's just say for argument's sake that the climate change deniers are correct and climate change is not happening, but we still take action as if it is.  So, we end up creating a world that runs solely on renewable energy (creates millions of jobs, significantly reduces air pollution and the accompanying health problems, protects our environment, makes us more self-reliant, and saves money), is built with more efficient buildings and infrastructure (saves money), relies on locally, sustainably produced food, clothing, and other goods (supports local farmers and business, ensures resources are not depleted, minimizes pollution)... does that sound so awful?

It's time to stop pointing at every freezing weather event as evidence against climate change, and instead become educated about the bigger, more relevant picture: long-term climate trends, which are heading in a warmer, more volatile direction in the decades to come.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Wanderings: First Day Hike at Deception Pass State Park

On the first evening of 2014, I was tending to my slightly blistered feet and achy knees after spending the day pursuing my goal of getting outdoors and hiking more in the New Year.  Despite the abuse taken by my seasonally out-of shape limbs, I thoroughly enjoyed the Washington State Parks “First Day Hike” at Deception Pass State Park. 

North Beach and Deception Pass Bridge
Even in wintertime, it is impossible not to enjoy and appreciate the impressive natural scenery that is so abundant in Washington State.  Having previously visited just the North Beach area, I knew that Deception Pass State Park would offer soothing beach views and deep, quiet forest scenery and was eager to explore areas of the park I hadn’t experienced yet.  And thus… on a mild, overcast January morning, I made the trek north to Deception Pass, along with my ever-supportive husband who is always willing to join me for outdoor adventures.

Upon arriving at the park, we headed toward the West Beach parking area, passing by serene Cranberry Lake along the way, with my husband looking wistfully at the glassy water and wishing he had brought his fishing pole.  After stepping out of the car, I was immediately agape at the stunning view before us: a wide-open vista looking out over Rosario Strait, with the Olympic Mountains jutting out above a bank of clouds in the hazy distance.  

Where does the sea end and sky begin? Looking out over Rosario Strait with the Olympic Mountains in the background

Cranberry Lake
We gathered our gear and snapped a few photos, then departed on the trail toward North Beach.  Walking through the forest and pausing now and then to photograph particularly impressive old-growth trees (okay, I actually photographed every single one. I got a little excited…), we eventually found ourselves gaining elevation and arrived beneath the Deception Pass Bridge.  There were stairs leading up to the bridge, but I had no interest in setting foot on the bridge itself, as dozens of other people were doing, taking in the dazzling view from the stomach-churning heights.  (It’s not that I’m afraid of heights—it’s just that I’m afraid of crowds and someone shoving me off the bridge.  I admit, I do have some irrational fears, but I prefer to think of them more as endearing quirks!) 

Love the forest!

Hubby standing in front of an old-growth tree. Just for reference, he's 6'5"... that's a big old tree, right there!

Towering giant

This part of the forest was very cool: lichens were dripping from the conifers and coating the bare branches of the deciduous trees, making them appear to be coated with green frost.
Heading uphill toward Deception Pass Bridge

Breathtaking views emerge as we gain elevation.

Deception Pass Bridge behind a thin veil of trees

After passing beneath the bridge, we continued along the Goose Rock Trail, which skirts along a bluff overlooking Strawberry and Ben Ure Islands.  We came across very few hikers on the Goose Rock trail, which was a pleasant respite from the more-populated North Beach trail, and it was at this point that my mind could fully settle into the scenery around me.  The sound of my clunky hiking boots was dampened by the fragrant carpet of humus on the trail (that would be humus as in decaying leaves, not hummus as in the yummy spread for crackers… Unfortunately, we did not bring any sustenance along with us on the hike, so I definitely could have gone for some hummus at this point!), and in moments where we paused along the trail to take in the view, it was so quiet and still that I could almost feel the forest breathing; inhaling the damp, salty air and exhaling that sweet, slightly intoxicating fragrance that is so characteristic of Northwest forests.  With water views on one side and old-growth forest on the other, we continued on the trail as long as we dared until daylight began to wane, signaling it was time to turn around and trek back to the West Beach on the other side of the park.

This view of Mount Baker from Goose Rock Trail was a pleasant surprise!

Can't you just smell that damp, clean, forest-y fragrance?

Goose Rock Trail was lined by even more towering trees

More views of the water, which was a lovely turquoise color that day
On the return hike, we skipped back and forth between the forest trail and the beach, enjoying the best of both landscapes. On the last leg of the trail, I bade farewell to the old-growth trees for the final time as we descended toward the beach.  Progress was slow as we made our way through the deep, loose pebbles covering the shore, stopping every dozen yards or so to pick up any perfectly smooth, flat stones we spied – ideal rocks for tossing out over the water to see how many times they will skip! I managed to top out at four skips, but my husband beat me soundly with multiple tosses of eight or more skips. Looks like I have some practicing to do.  At the end of the beach, we clambered up an outcrop of rock, and then continued onto the trail past an amphitheater for a brief jaunt through the woods before emerging into the West Beach parking area, bringing our wanderings full-circle.

So, would I venture out into the woods for another January 1st hike? Absolutely!  Although hiking may not be at the top of your list of wintertime activities, I would highly recommend trying it—even if you’re hiking in the rain!  Not only does it do your mind and body good to get exercise in the great outdoors during a time of year that for many people tends to be more sedentary, but it also affords the opportunity to experience exhilarating scenery completely unique to the winter months.   With the variety of weather we experience in wintertime—rainy, foggy, overcast, or dazzlingly clear and cold—you’re sure to be in for a unique view on any given day.

Just a few tips for short wintertime day hikes that I learned from this experience: as always, use common sense and be prepared! In our excitement to hit the trails, my husband and I forgot to bring a light “emergency snack” along with us, and—believe it or not—we didn’t bring any water bottles with us, either. That’s a big no-no, as hydration is of the utmost importance! When considering clothing, keep in mind that you’ll get warm as you hike, but you should be prepared for unexpected rain or dropping temperatures, so be sure to dress in layers with a waterproof jacket being the outer layer.  It’s also a good idea to bring along a fully-charged cell phone in case of emergency.  Lastly, keep in mind that daylight hours are short this time of year, and your hikes should be planned accordingly.  As we were leaving the trail, my husband and I passed by several people who were just beginning their hike, even though it was late afternoon and the daylight was already growing dim.  To ensure a safe hiking experience that you can enjoy to the fullest extent, plan on starting your hike in the morning and keep track of time to ensure you arrive back at your vehicle well before dark.

Our First Day Hike at Deception Pass was the perfect way to start 2014-- a year which will hopefully be filled with plenty of outdoor adventures!

I don't usually hug trees... but when I do, it's a giant old growth behemoth that I cannot get my arms around!