Sustainability

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.

Are Coastal Defenses Enough?

Connor Pisano (MSoE ’15) recently posted on the social media platform Odyssey an essay about planning for the future of New York City in the face of climate change.  He begins the essay like this:

“As New York City’s coastline communities continue to rebuild four years after being decimated by the powerful storm surge of Hurricane Sandy, the biggest question that remains is: what have we learned? The answer, in short, is: not enough.

Regardless of where one falls on the climate change acceptance/denial spectrum, the events of the Superstorm served as a wake-up call, especially to those who live on the city’s waterfront. Whether you were a wealthy, white business magnate living in lower Manhattan or a poor, black family living in a Red Hook housing project, you were made very aware that the city is not as resilient in the face of extreme weather events as we would like to think. We’ve begun to learn, and accept, that we’re vulnerable.

But where we fall short is in identifying what our true vulnerabilities are.”

Check out the rest of the essay to see the kind of thinking that emerges from the Middlebury School of the Environment!

Sustainability Practicum (2016) Prompt #4

In a later chapter in his book Flourishing, John Ehrenfeld says that the question of whether one is optimistic or pessimistic about the future is the wrong question. The right question about the future, he says, is, “Are you hopeful?” Why might that be an important question to ask if you are thinking about engaging with issues of sustainability as a young adult?

And what is your personal response to that question. Are you hopeful? If so, why? From what source or feeling do you manufacture your hope? And if not, what motivates you to pursue an educational path that includes an emphasis on a study of the environment even though you are not hopeful for the future?

Provide your answer as a comment to this post. Remember – your comments are public.

Sustainability Practicum (2016) Prompt #3

We began the class three weeks ago with a broad macro-scale perspective on sustainability, and quickly worked toward a micro-scale perspective, focusing on methods directed at small, targeted goals that address specific vulnerabilities for a specific system. Reflect on the pros and cons of these two perspectives. What do we gain and what do we lose by adopting one or the other of these perspectives? What do you think are some solutions or strategies for addressing issues of sustainability that would allow us to retain all of the benefits without suffering from the negative consequences.

 

Provide your answer as a comment to this post. Remember – your comments are public.

Sustainability Practicum (2016) Prompt #2

SP3We have progressed in this course from discussing sustainability in broad conceptual terms to working on specific planning skills, in particular systems mapping and scenario planning. Reflect – using at least one specific example from the readings, your experience, or general knowledge – on your views of how such planning skills can contribute – or not – to developing practical strategies to promote sustainability.

Provide your answer as a comment to this post. Remember – your comments are public.

Sustainability Practicum (2016) Prompt #1

In class on Monday, we began discussion of sustainability by considering the definition of sustainable development offered by the Brundtland Commission (1987) and how it might be revised to take into account its limitations as noted by such authors as Wackernagel and Rees, Ehrenfeld, and Engelman. We went from this …

“Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” (Brundtland et al. 1987)

… to this …

“Sustainability means living within the Earth’s biocapacity to allow people and nature to flourish while assuring the ability of all future life to flourish.” (MSoE 2016)

There was general agreement that this definition also had limitations, either in interpretability, emphasis, or completeness … as well as its fundamental syntax.

For your first writing prompt, I would like you to critique (in both positive and negative ways) the definition we created. If you believe it needs improvement, then I would like you to offer and justify a revision for consideration by the class. If you believe it is perfect as it is written, then I would like you to justify that position.

Add your critiques, revisions, and justifications as comments to this post. And remember, your posts can be seen by anyone on the Internet. Please put your best face forward in your writing.

Sustainability Practicum Reflection #4

John Ehrenfeld says that the question of whether one is optimistic or pessimistic about the future is the wrong question. The right question is, “Are you hopeful?” Well, are you? If so, why? From what source or feeling do you manufacture your hope? And if not, what motivates you to pursue an educational path that includes an emphasis on a study of the environment even though you are not hopeful for the future?

 

Provide your answer as a comment to this post. Remember – your comments are public.

Sustainability Practicum Reflection #3

We began the class three weeks ago with a broad macro-scale perspective on sustainability, and quickly worked toward a micro-scale perspective, focusing on methods directed at small, targeted goals that address specific vulnerabilities for a specific system. Reflect on the pros and cons of these two perspectives. What do we gain and what do we lose by adopting one or the other of these perspectives? What do you think are some solutions or strategies for addressing issues of sustainability that would allow us to retain all of the benefits without suffering from the negative consequences.

 

Provide your answer as a comment to this post. Remember – your comments are public.

Sustainability Practicum Reflection #2

We have progressed in this course from discussing sustainability in broad conceptual terms to working on specific planning skills, such as systems mapping, human-centered design, and scenario planning. Reflect – using at least one specific example from the readings, your experience, or general knowledge – on your views of how such planning skills can contribute – or not – to developing practical strategies to promote sustainability.

 

Provide your answer as a comment to this post. Remember – your comments are public.

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