Environment Environmental Education Thinking

Is loving the local enough?

Recently, the local has emerged on the scene and seemingly into the collective consciousness of urban Canadians (or Torontonians, at least). Evidence the perspective behind such ideas as “the 100-mile diet” what is nearby is better for ourselves and, in turn, when the local improves, so does the world.

I personally have advocated for a kind of environmental education that focuses on meaningful first-hand experiences with the more-than-human. The underlying logic of this, in short, is that in coming to know what is around you, you’ll be more likely to become interested, invested or aware. This kind of attitude is summed-up by Stephen J. Gould in 1993’s Three Little Piggies when he writes:

Yet I also appreciate that we cannot win this battle to save species and environments without forging an emotional bond between ourselves and nature as well—for we will not fight to save what we do not love (but only appreciate in some abstract sense). So let them all continue the films, the books, the television programs, the zoos, the little half acre of ecological preserve in any community, the primary school lessons, the museum demonstrations, even … the 6:00 A.M. bird walks. Let them continue and expand because we must have visceral contact in order to love. We really must make room for nature in our hearts. (p. 40)

I find it to be a compelling argument and want to agree with Gould. The notion of love makes me hesitate a bit, in part because nature has been romanticized to death and I want to move beyond that. I would rather say we say we need to make space for nature in our consciousness and daily lives. Key to my interest in place-based environmental education is an interest in the local. And this focus on the local in environmental education is not exclusive to me. Place-based education has traction in the minds of environmental education researchers and educators.

Underlying the local is a logic of concentric circles of betterment: if we take care of what is near to us, the goodness will radiate out. In a sense, the CBC’s one-million acts of green subscribes to this same kind of logical underpinning. And this notion of localism is compelling. But is it any good?

I do see danger in the local: what happens when one perceives that the integrity of the one’s own local is threatened? In some cases it leads to NIMBY-ism ((NIMBY is short for “Not In My Backyard” )) where, uncritically, “my” local is seen as having primary importance over all other locals. So, a hierarchy exists in these these concentric circles—value emanates from somewhere, and the nexus of value is constructed to be as as geographically proximate to the self as possible.

Val Plumwood echoes similar concerns in Shadow Places and the Politics of Dwelling. Her argument in a nut-shell: if we exist in a culture that creates a false consciousness of the local (which she calls place) then the local, her her words, is a “fake.” Fake because “privileged places are more lovable than other places, so privileged people get more opportunity to love their places . . . because the degrading forms of production go on in other places.” ((Source)) Plumwood goes on to argue that there needs to be an ethic of place rather than simply a sense of place.

This is where it comes back to environmental education, IMHO. How do we go about creating an ethic of place? I’ve been busy lately interviewing birders for my dissertation. What has become evident is that birders do a good job of noticing the here-and-now: being “in place,” as it were, to attend to the world around them. Yet, a trend appears in which some have a hard time with that which is beyond their immediate sphere of awareness. Take, for example, when I asked if they think about the migratory birds they attempt to see in Ontario as they’re overwintering (in Central America) or nesting (in the Boreal Forest). With exceptions, the majority do not. Yet, in the case of migratory bird conservation, it is these distant geographical places that need attention.

I’m just beginning to think and work with these ideas. I certainly don’t have a simple answer at the moment. But I do have directions that I’ll be going. The first has to do with our notions of space: we live with an euclidean worldview of space ((A location in 3-D space that can be pinpointed with an X, Y & Z coordinate)) that emphasizes that which is nearby. Perhaps environmental education needs to do a better job of playing with those notions of space. How would that be done?

Animals Environment

Ah, the cat bib.

Cat BibI’m not sure if it is a well-kept secret or not, but I have a certain distaste for cats, likely originating when I was two and family friend’s Siamese cat crawled up my back as I was singing Happy Birthday. A distressing event.

I’ve never really warmed up to them for many reasons including:

  • the aforementioned Siamese birthday incident
  • the fact that they shit in a box in your house
  • they shit in a box and then cat owners let them walk on kitchen counter-tops, dining room tables
  • the fact that they’ll also shit in sandboxes & garden beds
  • cat parasites affect our personality
  • they’re an ecological disaster killing millions of native birds, herptiles & other small wildlife every year

The best solution for the last point is to keep you cat indoors (sorry about the kitty-litter thing though). Some (unreasonable) people seem to believe that their cat needs to be outside. Luckily, there seems to be something of a solution for those outdoor cats: The CatBib (pictured above).

Link: The CatBib Stops Cats from Catching Birds!

Academia Environment

Surrogate Species: Beavers help Frogs and Toads survive

Researches at the U of Alberta have found that significantly more frogs & toads (5.7 more new wood frogs [Rana sylvatica], 29 times more western toads [Bufo boreas] and 24 times more boreal chorus frogs [Pseudacris maculata]) could be found in the ponds created behind beaver (Castor canadensis) dams when compared to nearby free-flowing bodies of water. Reasons for the amphibian’s success are suggested as the warmer, well-oxygenated water that is created in the new beaver pond habitat.

Dr. Cindy Paszkowski, one of the researchers suggests that:

“The concept of surrogate species in conservation planning offers simple, ecologically-based solutions to help conserve and manage ecosystems”

So, rather than seeing as being pests blocking culverts (the role that beavers are increasingly cast), these rodents can now be seen as important (integral?) to the success of amphibian populations.

Link: Beavers Helping Frogs And Toads Survive

More reading: Recent article from Biodiversity and Conservation on assessing the effectiveness of surrogate species approaches to biological conservation [PDF alert]

Dogs Environment

Corn Plastic to the (?) Rescue

Lee, Katie and I had a discussion a ways back on the use of plastic bags for picking up dog shit. Our chat was along these lines: Given that plastic bags seem to be the easiest way to do pick shit up, and since plastic bags seem to be symptomatic of our “convenience today for a hellish tomorrow” culture, is there such thing as a good plastic bag? Or, putting it another (awkward) way, is there a “less-bad” plastic bag?

We considered re-using those plastic bags that we seem to accumulate through daily living. The cost is agreeable (hidden in the price of groceries for example), but does nothing to address the concern with plastic bags’ longevity. As well, since we shop with re-usable bags now and generally say “no thanks” when offered a plastic bag elsewhere in life, we would seemingly have to take a step back to get our supply.

We also considered bio-degradable plastic bags. At the local “green living” store, Grassroots, we could buy 30 Scoopies bags for $4.50 that are supposed to “disappear” in 18 months (whatever that means). That’s about $ 0.15 a bag. But for someone living in an apartment building, without access to a compost bin, these bags would end up going into the garbage. Hidden under dozens of feet of waste, even the most biodegradable stuff in the world won’t disappear for dozens of years (not enough oxygen down there for microbes to do their thang’).

Right now we’re purchasing 50 small bags for $0.99 at Honest Ed’s, which works out to $0.02 a dump. This is (seemingly) the least-sustainable choice. But here’s some food for thought from the Smithsonian Magazine that seems to defy common sense and perhaps makes our choice of bags a “better” one:

According to a biodegradability standard that Mojo helped develop, PLA is said to decompose into carbon dioxide and water in a “controlled composting environment” in fewer than 90 days. What’s a controlled composting environment? Not your backyard bin, pit or tumbling barrel. It’s a large facility where compost—essentially, plant scraps being digested by microbes into fertilizer—reaches 140 degrees for ten consecutive days. So, yes, as PLA advocates say, corn plastic is “biodegradable.” But in reality very few consumers have access to the sort of composting facilities that can make that happen. NatureWorks has identified 113 such facilities nationwide—some handle industrial food-processing waste or yard trimmings, others are college or prison operations—but only about a quarter of them accept residential foodscraps collected by municipalities.

Link: Corn Plastic to the Rescue