Understanding Place Week 1: Temporal Scales

This week we have thought about how observing and experiencing place through different time scales can help us care for places, and in turn, work towards positive social and environmental change. Students of the Understanding Place class should post a comment here, each briefly describing a chosen place that they know well, and then reflecting on the importance of temporal scales in their understanding of that place.

SoE Summer 2017, here we come!

 

The SoE is off to a great start! Twenty-four students have arrived and are already delving deep into their classes with returning faculty; participating in workshops on communication styles and teaming; and having lunch with practitioners like Middlebury’s president, Laurie Patton. We took a great hike up Snake Mountain and are looking forward to the exciting, integrative weeks to come.

The SoE heads to D.C.!

I’m excited to announce that we’re adding something new to the School of the Environment’s schedule for this summer.  For one week during our six-week session, we will all be going down to Washington, D.C., to supplement our curriculum and leadership training program with visits with environmental leaders, organizations, and agencies to explore first-hand the strategies for … and challenges of … leading in a time of political change.  In addition, we will engage closely with Frank Sesno and his team at Planet Forward, an organization based at George Washington University with the mission of moving the environmental narrative of the planet forward (hence the name) with evocative storytelling and communication.

Alumni from the MSoE’15 will remember Frank Sesno as our keynote speaker and one of our guest practitioners. He is currently the Director of The George Washington University School of Media and Public Affairs and the creator and host of Planet Forward. He was formerly CNN’s DC bureau chief, as well as anchor, interview host, and White House correspondent. He was the long-running host of CNN’s Sunday talk show Late Edition, and he remains a frequent guest host for CNN’s Reliable Sources.

Together with folks at Planet Forward, the MSoE faculty will help the students in this year’s program confront the question, “How can you lead in a time of change?”  In fact, the political transitions we see in the U.S. today call upon all of us to recognize that leadership and strategies for environmental engagement must be responsive to dynamic political and cultural environments, and the question of how to lead in a time of change will frame our entire program this summer.

Our week in D.C. is included in the overall session and will not require any additional costs for the students.  We will depart from Middlebury on Sunday, July 16th, and return on Saturday, July 22nd.  This is the 4th week of our session, giving us plenty of opportunity to prepare in our classes beforehand and to follow-up with what we learned afterwards.  We will be staying in the dorms at George Washington University’s Mt. Vernon campus, and we’ll take advantage of the facilities at the GW School of Media and Public Affairs as well as Middlebury College’s own office complex on K Street.

It is not an exaggeration to say that Washington, D.C., is one of the global capitals for environmental policy and engagement.  The opportunity to integrate this experience with the traditional MSoE curriculum is amazing!

I’ll be posting more about this trip as details are confirmed.  But I can guarantee that the week will be amazing!

Thank you, Martin Bridge

Martin Clark Bridge, a regular participant in the MSoE as an environmental artist, did us a huge courtesy this last summer by allowing us to reproduce his painting Permaculture – Principle 1 for the 2016 MSoE t-shirt.  This is part of his series on permaculture, with each painting representing one of permaculture’s twelve design principles.  Principle I — Observe and Interact — perfectly captures one of the implicit goals of the Middlebury School of the Environment, so it was a perfect choice for our 2016 t-shirt.  What makes this particularly noteworthy, though, is Martin’s generosity in sharing the painting with us simply because (in his words) “I believe in what you are doing.”

And by that, he means that he believes in all of the students, those of you who have made a commitment to becoming agents of positive change in the world, who observe what needs to be done, and interact with the world to make it a better place.

So we say, “thank you, Martin.”  Check us out saying it, each in our own way from the summit of Snake Mountain.

Fighting back from Trump Country: Religion and Environmentalism in Appalachia

From Joe Witt: At first glance, the southern Appalachian areas of West Virginia, Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee might appear to be prototypical “Trump country.” Rural, religiously conservative, predominantly white, and economically depressed, the region seems like fertile ground for Trump’s so-called populist revolt.  Indeed, Trump won the Appalachian states of West Virginia and Kentucky with 68% and 63% of the vote, respectively, largely on a promise to “legalize coal.”  Taking his cues from local politicians, Trump deployed a familiar narrative:  the ongoing decline in the coal industry was not due to international market forces, competition from cheaper forms of energy such as natural gas, or a general reduction of reserves following a century of intensive mining. Instead, the “war on coal” was caused by excessive environmental regulation foisted upon an unwilling people by distant and aloof political elites.  In Appalachia, where many claim that “coal is king,” such narratives have become commonplace and many still see a revival of the coal industry through the removal of environmental protections as Appalachia’s only hope for revival.

Despite this high level of support for coal in the region, though, there remains a strong, local resistance movement to the industry. It may be tempting to see Trump’s victory in Appalachia as reflecting a broader disconnect between rural, working class whites and a broader nation that misunderstands their needs and concerns. While certainly worthy of further investigation, such accounts might also uncritically support a conservative narrative equating the working class with anti-regulation, anti-environment and xenophobic policies, masking the times that the poor and working class have forged complex alliances with other stakeholders to fight for environmental justice, worker’s rights, and against corporate power.  Appalachia may indeed be “coal country” for some, but it has also been the site of do-it-yourself style community organizing and long-lived resistance to economic and environmental exploitation. The radical spirit of organizers and educators like Mother Jones, Myles Horton, and Don West lives on in the work of Judy Bonds, Maria Gunnoe, Larry Gibson, and numerous others who continue to fight for environmental and social justice.  Against a seemingly overwhelming emphasis on coal as the key for Appalachia’s future, these activists and numerous other community members work toward more equitable, just, and environmentally-sound futures for the region.

This spirit of resistance is particularly evident in the 21st century movement against mountaintop removal surface mining.  Appalachians have opposed the social, economic, and environmental damages of surface mining for decades; but in the early 2000s, this long-lived resistance entered into a new phase, particularly with the instigation of the Mountain Justice Summer direct action campaign.  The anti-mountaintop removal movement brought together many diverse stakeholders—retired miners, clergy, educators, youth, elders, scientists, and activists—who, through their tensions, negotiations, and collaborations helped to bring mountaintop removal to international attention, revive civil disobedience and direct action tactics in a post-9/11 political environment, and forge a strong, creative, community-based movement for justice and economic revitalization.

Before starting as an Assistant Professor of Environmental Humanities at the Middlebury School of the Environment, I was fortunate to be able to engage in this movement, both as a participant and a scholar. As I observed the movement grow and change over about a decade, I discovered that these activist efforts were frequently grounded in specific religious and ethical commitments to the place and people of Appalachia.  Evangelical Christians, Catholic social justice activists, American Indian religious practitioners, and numerous other advocates of nature-revering spiritualities worked together to develop and advocate for a collective vision of the region, rejecting utilitarian economic arguments supporting coal mining in favor of the affective spiritual and ethical values of place.  In their critiques of the coal industry, Appalachian activists deployed what Indian environmental historian Ramachandra Guha called a “vocabulary of protest.”  They not only challenged a specific mining practice, but also the ethical systems in which that practice was based, offering new visions of a post-coal Appalachia that moved beyond capitalist exploitation toward more localized, just economies and ecological sustainability.

While the struggle against coal and its damages in Appalachia is ongoing, the case of the 21st century anti-mountaintop removal movement provides important lessons about effective community-based collaboration to address pollution, injustice, and climate change.  Despite internal tensions and conflicts, the story of the movement demonstrates the power that local communities can harness against seemingly indestructible corporate forces. In an age of unprecedented threats to the environment, to the poor, marginalized, and disenfranchised, and to democracy itself, stories like these of resistance, dissent, and resilience in light of oppression, exploitation, and totalitarianism have become all-the-more important.

More information about these issues can be found in Religion and Resistance in Appalachia (University Press of Kentucky, 2016). See also: http://www.kentuckypress.com/live/title_detail.php?titleid=3878#.WIuJQ9IrKUk.

 

 

Seeking Beauty, and Expressing Struggle

Today’s post comes from Joan Grossman, filmmaker and producer, who most of you know as one of the key faculty members of the Middlebury School of the Environment:

As a documentary filmmaker, traveling for work is often the most authentic way to experience a place, if not the most pleasurable. Sometimes, as filmmakers we may be seeking beauty, but often we’re looking for something else that expresses the strange, unexpected struggles that underly our survival on this planet. This last year I traveled across the continent, from New York to Alaska, on a series of trips, as the American producer on an Austrian film about a Russian woman in New York, trying to walk home, heading for the Bering Strait.*  The film is an unusual hybrid of unscripted fiction and documentary, and was inspired by a true story from the 1920s. Our version is contemporary and takes much poetic license. Along with being a story about a lone woman on an epic, existential journey, it is also a story that slices through North America at this particular juncture in time. We were not making an “environmental” film per se, but we were working in some extraordinary places that also happen to be environmental flashpoints. 

A facility owned by Syncrude Canada north of Fort MacMurray, Alberta, where tar sands – also known as oil sands – are refined into synthetic crude oil. The emissions are so severe they can create localized weather systems. Photo: Joan Grossman

One of the most striking places we filmed at was the encampment at the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North Dakota, where Native Americans and their allies are resisting the Dakota Access Pipeline, slated to carry oil across the Missouri River just north of the reservation.The river is the main source of drinking water for the reservation and millions more downstream. It had been deemed too risky for the pipeline to cross the river at the state capital, Bismarck, 40 miles north, where the population is largely white.

The encampment had established a site where ceremony, music and organizing were taking place all day and into the night, along with an ad hoc infrastructure to care for and feed hundreds – soon to be thousands – of people every day. We were at Standing Rock in August, just as it was becoming a big international story. Among other things, we filmed statements by tribal leaders as they arrived in a steady stream of support, bringing together the largest number of tribes ever. For Native American cultures, respect for the natural environment is a guiding principle, and that was a powerful message to hear over and over again. I became acutely aware of how Standing Rock was tying together the crucial issues of our times – racial injustice, climate change, and the influence of corporate interests on our politics and economy.

Native American reservations are some of the poorest communities in the United States. Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, which encompasses parts of the Badlands, where we also filmed, has a per capita income under $4,000 per year, and 60 percent of the people do not have electricity and running water. Life expectancy is the second lowest in the Western hemisphere, after Haiti. While these statistics are bleak, the gathering at Standing Rock has energized an indigenous environmental justice movement that is gaining global support, although they clearly have a big hurdle ahead with the Trump administration determined to go forward with the pipeline.

Later, in Canada, we went to Fort MacMurray in Northern Alberta, to film at the tar sands, or oil sands, as they are referred to locally. Last year, Fort MacMurray was engulfed in a devastating wildfire that was fueled by a hotter, drier climate. The fires spread dangerously close to the oil sands operations and shut everything down. As we approached Fort MacMurray we drove through miles of burnt trees that stretched as far as the eye could see. The oil sands region in Alberta has one of the largest oil deposits in the world. It is also one of the dirtiest energy sites anywhere. The extraction of oil from the thick mixture of bitumen-covered sand requires enormous inputs of natural gas and chemicals. The controversial Keystone XL Pipeline was built to carry the synthetic crude that is produced in the oil sands, and while the pipeline was halted by an opposition movement, it is now also getting revived under the Trump administration. The area is one of the most dystopian places I have ever seen. Driving north of Fort MacMurray toward the mining operations, we were hit by a pungent, acrid smell among massive installations that produce a level of emissions so high they can create their own weather system. We experienced a strange artificial snowfall there.

We ended the production in Anchorage, Alaska, where we intended to film wintery scenes. It was November, when snow and ice can be expected. But snowfall has diminished considerably in recent years. With climate change, Alaska and the Arctic are warming at a faster rate than other parts of the world. The first few days we were there it was warm and sunny. The sunshine turned to drenching rains, and we filmed our character walking through heavy, foggy rainfall, which could have been almost anywhere.

This last year was an interesting time to be crossing the country, particularly as the only American among a European film crew, partly seeing it through their eyes. The election was on everyone’s mind and we had many conversations with people along the way, whose politics we disagreed with, but with whom I sometimes found a surprising amount of common ground. Chances are I wouldn’t have had these kinds of encounters if I the work hadn’t taken me to places I might otherwise never had visited – such as former coal towns in Pennsylvania, or the prairies of rural Nebraska. In any case, I was reminded of how big the country is, and how little we talk to each other outside of our like-minded bubbles.

The project still has a long editing process ahead with almost 200 hours of material. It’s an enigmatic story; no one knows for sure if the original character made it back to Russia in the 1920s. In the film, too, there are more questions than answers. Stay tuned.

* The film, Lillian, is directed by Andreas Horvath, and will be completed sometime in 2018.

Carbon neutrality at Middlebury College!

All MSoE alumni are aware that Middlebury College set for itself a goal of becoming carbon neutral by the end of 2016.  The campus sustainability and renewable energy tours we include in the curriculum emphasize the initiatives that we launched in pursuit of that goal.

And you are all probably aware that we officially reached that goal with the certification of the carbon sequestration on our land that is now guaranteed through the creation of a permanent conservation easement on Bread Loaf land in the Green Mountains.

This is a big achievement, and there are so many narratives related to leadership and environmental engagement wrapped up in this overall story that it’s hard to know where to begin.  First of all, the goal itself was the product of a student group who not only dreamed it up but conceived the college trustees to adopt the vision based on an equal mix of passion and a compelling plan for accomplishment.  Never doubt that you — as individuals or as a small group — can bring about change.

Each step along the way, described quite well in a recent article written by Nathaniel Wiener for our friends at Planet Forward, was its own massive undertaking, involving technology (the biomass plant), educational outreach (energy efficiency), creative ideation on energy diversification and resiliency (solar and biomethane energy infrastructure), and land conservation and law (carbon sequestration on permanently conserved forestland).  Each is a story all on its own (which I hope to describe in the future), but taken together indicates that large goals can be achieved through the combination of several smaller steps.

Now that carbon neutrality has been achieved here, the obvious question is “What comes next?” Carbon negativity?  Local food systems engagement?  Fossil fuel divestment?  Zero fossil fuel use?  The possibilities are great.  And for any one of them, we know from experience that there is a path forward to success.

Pop Goes the Green, Curt Gervich’s new blog

The MSoE’s own Curt Gervich has launched his new blog, called Pop Goes the Green.  He describes it as “a blog aimed at exploring the intersections of pop culture and the environment from political, scientific, economic and cultural perspectives.”  Because of course.

The first post is provocatively called “Donald Trump, Van Halen and the Rock-and-Roll of Environmental Policy.”  This is, perhaps, the first time ever that the names “Donald Trump” and “Van Halen” have been used together in the same sentence.  But knowing Curt, it won’t be the last.

The post begins …

“No matter your opinion of Donald Trump’s politics, it’s clear that America’s new lead singer knows how catch the ear of the American public. The soon-to-be President plays Twitter like Eddie Van Halen plays his Frankenstein Fender. Both revolutionized their instruments. Both will be emulated by political and rock-and-roll wannabe’s for years to come.”

Go check out the rest.

Ask More, by Frank Sesno

It’s exciting to see that past-MSoE practitioner and lecturer Frank Sesno has a new book out, titled Ask More: The Power of Questions to Open Doors, Unlock Solutions, and Spark Change.  Sesno, a former senior correspondent for CNN and current director of Planet Forward in Washington, D.C., joined us in 2015 as a practitioner-in-residence and also delivered the MSoE public lecture that year on the power of stories to inspire and motivate.  Frank’s passion is transforming both individuals and society at large through changing our capacity to create compelling narratives — both spoken and visual — of solutions to today’s challenges related to peace, justice, and the environment.

The following text is taken directly from the book’s website.  Check it out!!

“What hidden skill links successful people in all walks of life? What helps them make informed decisions, inspire creativity, and forge stronger connections?

The answer is surprisingly simple: They know how to ask the right questions at the right time.

Questions help us break down barriers, pinpoint solutions, and explore new ways of doing things. But few of us know how to put questions to work in a truly effective way. Author Frank Sesno aims to change that with Ask More, a guide to unlocking the power of inquiry that’s both intriguing and instructive.

Sesno, an Emmy Award-winning journalist, has spent decades questioning global leaders and everyday people alike. He draws on his formidable interviewing skills and experience to break down the art of inquiry into eleven useful categories of questions, each designed for a specific purpose.

Ask More is packed with illuminating interviews and stories from dozens of leaders who have used these questioning techniques to innovate and excel. By the end of the book, you’ll discover what to ask and when, what you should listen for, and how each different type of question will move you toward your goals.

Among the insights you’ll find in Ask More … 

  • Colin Powell shows how strategic questions can define a mission and forecast success – or failure.
  • Turnaround expert Steve Miller employs diagnostic questions to get to the heart of a company’s problems.
  • NPR’s Terry Gross digs deeper with empathy questions.
  • Journalists Anderson Cooper and Jorge Ramos explain how they use confrontational questions to hold people accountable.
  • Creative questions drove a couple of techie dreamers to imagine Uber, and a young mayor to challenge history.
  • Karen Osborne asks mission questions to help nonprofits raise awareness – and money.
  • Dr. Anthony Fauci posed scientific questions to help crack the HIV/AIDS mystery.

In an age of instant answers, fly-by facts, and relentless clickbait, Sesno makes a powerful case for the value of observing carefully, listening intently, and asking more. He reveals a roadmap to inquiry that will change the way you question – and that might even change your life.”

Jay Forrester, the father of systems thinking

Jay W. Forrester passed away on November 16th at the age of 98.  Few of the readers of The Stream probably have heard of Professor Forrester directly, but all of you who have followed the curriculum that is promoted by the Middlebury School of the Environment will know of his work and influence.  Professor Forrester, an electrical engineer who had insights and interests in both computer science and organizational management, provided the initial intellectual groundwork for the field of system dyna18forrester-obit2-master315mics modeling, the basis for systems thinking.

In his own words, system dynamics “uses computer simulation to take the knowledge we already have about details in the world around us and to show why our social and physical systems behave the way they do.”

Consider the power embedded in this simple idea for how we can protect and restore the environment.  “Knowledge about the world around us,” not in terms of what we wish were true or choose to ignore, but what is actually true.  The actual changes in carbon dioxide concentrations, heat retention capacity of CO2 molecules, health consequences of PCBs and lead, ecosystem consequences of phosphorus and nitrogen … and so on ad infinitum.  “Show why our social and physical systems behave the way they do,” and thus revealing the true leverage points (to borrow a term from Donella Meadows) for bringing about lasting change and sustainability.

As we say repeatedly within the MSoE curriculum, systems thinking is a tool for exploring and understanding how any system works and can be changed.  John Sterman at MIT explained it as such in Forrester’s obituary in the New York Times: “Simulations of dynamic systems are now indispensable throughout the physical and social sciences.  Not just in management, but also, for example, in astrophysics, biology, chemistry and climate change. Jay developed the first model that treated interactions of population, the economy, natural resources, food and pollution in the context of the world as a whole. The work was counterintuitive and controversial, and it launched the field of global modeling.”

We stand on the shoulders of those who came before us.  And we also build a better world with the tools that others crafted.  Our debt to Jay Forrester runs deep.

His complete obituary can be read in the New York Times from November 17th.

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