Society of Environmental Journalists: Roanoke in October

A picture of a mountaintop removal siteWork co...Image via Wikipedia I get a lot of announcements and offers passing through my email each week as I’m sure you do, and most of it, I don’t give a second thought before hitting the delete key.

But when I learned from a local Floyd Countian about the Society of Environmental Journalists and particularly about their upcoming October conference in Roanoke, I sat up a little straighter. Hmmm.

Not that I’d call myself a journalist. The prospect of participation seemed quite abstract at first. Only a smallish portion of what I write about on the blog and for the two newspaper columns would be called environmental by most folks.

I’d do more of that kind of writing, but it doesn’t match the voice and brand established since 2002 for Fragments from Floyd. When I’ve gone there–and especially if I voice a strong opinion that tipped left or right on the matter at hand, I’ve been scolded. Really.

But the organization and conference looked interesting enough that I researched their membership guildelines, and passed the cut (with my various writing credentials I would not have had in 2002 when the writing started) and am now pleased to be a member.

For the past week, I’ve been enjoying their web resources–which are phenomenal–and my book appears on their “books by SEJ members list” that includes lots of heavy hitters (like former senator Gaylord Nelson, founder of Earth Day and many full-time media journalists and successful freelancers from around the country.) I’m on several SEJ email list-servs, and the exchange is lively, informative and stimulating.

I’ve made plans to go to the Oct 15 – 19 conference (press release is here) even though it will cost some coinage out of that little purse of egg money I was talking about recently, including travel and meals. But here’s the thing: in most writer’s groups I am odd man out among pure academic English Major types, Appalachian writers, or poets. Here, I’ll be a word-processing tree hugger among credentialed tree hugger writers.

So. I’m hoping that my “environmental” focus on natural history education, appreciation and stewardship will fit in with the hard-core work these guys and gals do on the tough issues like mountaintop removal, vanishing resources and global warming. I expect to learn a lot, discover new outlets for the words and pixels, and make a friend or two.

I’m generally not a joiner. But I trust that this time, I have hitched my wagon to an engine that will carry me someplace worth going–or at least the journey will be interesting.

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Mining As If Living Things Matter

Power: to the people. Power–electrical power. It comes at too high a cost when you factor human and forest community destruction of MTR–mountain removal mining–in the debit column. Coal companies mostly haven’t.

But because of the democratizing technologies now in wider use, average citizens have the power to learn, to understand and to have their voices heard, to tell the true cost of MR coal in terms of human health, fragmented communities and buried mountain streams. And it is making a difference. Consider this one major effort by ilovemountains.org to use Google Earth to experience what otherwise might be simply one more abstract catastrophe:

While the site first launched in September 2006, its most recent upgrade this November, which connects coal-burning utilities to residential zip codes, has succeeded in motivating thousands of citizens to write letters. “The reality now is that a lot of people have been calling, and it’s sort of a non-stop rush to keep up,” says Matt Wasson, conservation director of Appalachian Voices, the non-profit overseeing the site.

Google Earth agreed to partner with I Love Mountains and included the site’s National Memorial for the Mountains, the project’s first phase, as part of the Google Earth map software. The Memorial appears on a map of the eastern states as a field of 450 American flags spanning the Appalachian Mountains, each commemorating a ‘decapitated’ mountain. Zoom in close to a single mountain and there’s a step-by-step explanation of how machinery literally scrapes away peaks, and aerial photos of a site the size of Manhattan.

People power. Individual voices have come together–more than 43,000 of them–to say that mountaintop removal mining as it is practiced cannot go on. Yes we need power, but the bigger-hammer approach favored by Mr. Bush and by almost half of those in his party must end. The battle has only just begun.

“The public has clearly spoken: Mountaintop removal is a national disgrace and Bush should not change another rule in order to help Big Coal blow up more mountains and bury more streams,” said Chuck Nelson, a former deep miner and volunteer with the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, the West Virginia citizens’ group at http://www.ohvec.org .

The strong opposition to OSM’s proposed SBZ rule is consistent with the findings of a September 2007 survey sponsored by 700Mountains.org project of the nonprofit and nonpartisan Civil Society Institute (CSI) think tank. That survey conducted by Opinion Research Corporation that two out of three Americans (65 percent) oppose the Bush Administration’s proposed rule “to ease environmental regulations to permit wider use of ‘mountaintop removal’ coal mining in the U.S.” The survey also found that the Bush Administration plan to permit wider MTR coal mining is favored by only about one out of four Americans (26 percent), including just 14 percent of Democrats, 27 percent of Independents, and 42 percent of Republicans. Full survey findings are available online at http://www.700Mountains.org.

Gore’s Nobel Speech: A Tipping Point

Yes, it will take you about 20 minutes of your time. But reading the entire text or watching the video of Al Gore’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech will be worth your investment. (Please consider signing the MoveOn.org petition to be presented by Mr. Gore to the assembled delegation at the Bali UN Climate Change Conference Dec 10 – 14).

It is the kind of historic moment in the life of our planet and species that I hope our great, great grandchildren will look back on and see as a turning point where we–at the eleventh hour–took on the daunting task of looking our demons in the eye.

Or will those future generations, such as they might be, look back on Mr. Gore’s words knowing sadly that too few cared too little to put aside their territorial and ideological differences long enough to avoid following to the death our misguided notions that we live more within our national boundaries than within our common planet’s atmosphere.

Do read or watch; bookmark or copy the speech text page, and send the links along to your children and others you love.

The Gift of a Green Hour

http://www.lhhl.uiuc.edu/adhd.htm

Yes, mom and dad, it might mean turning off your favorite weekend sports show or afternoon soap. It may require that you put off that nap or cleaning the gutters or the 101 other to-do’s you’ve given a little checkbox in the ordering of your daily life. But you could do no better (a possible equivalent might be to read to your child) than taking him or her outdoors for a Green Hour.

We’ve probably missed the mark in our narrow focus on “exercise” and “physical fitness” and organized sports when we should have been looking instead or at least in important addition at promoting pure and plain ol’ play. Some play is physical and burns calories, but some of the best is for the sheer joy of creating adventures and finding patterns and using the imagination outdoors. The latter may be more important than we’ve realized in helping shape our little one’s values and understanding and in the end, their care for our world that they will inherit.

Green Hour is an effort by the National Wildlife Federation to encourage parents, grandparents (and other kinds of grown-up children) to take the time to take their kids out under the sky. I encourage you to join the “Community Corner”–a growing resource of connected adults concerned about the consequences of “nature deficit disorder” on our increasingly denatured kids. See you there!

Missing the Water — Now

The ink is dry on history’s page. When it comes to our relationship to the planet, it is by and large a sad legacy of deferred responsibility, nurtured ignorance, haughty indifference and willful inaction that we leave in the environmental record of our race.

But maybe it is not too late for us to change. Maybe we are beginning to know our limits and consider how we might live within them in a sustainable future. And one of those limits that we will be thinking more about is the planet’s fresh water.

Though we live on what Jacques Cousteau called “the Water Planet”, less than 1% of the world’s fresh water is accessible for direct human use. With the exception of local droughts over modern history, there has generally been enough water. There will not likely be enough any more.

There are far more of us now. Too much good water has gone bad. Worldwide rain distribution patterns are likely to change on a massive scale in our lifetimes. Australia is in the midst of an unprecedented drought even now.

So what does this have to do with us in southwest Virginia? To me this looming crisis suggests that now is a good time to miss the water.

At a recent “Green Infrastructure” meeting at the Floyd Country Store, someone asked an expert panelist: “what is the storage capacity for water in Floyd County’s geological structure?” and “how will that supply hold up to future demands as the county population grows?” The expert’s answer: nobody knows the answer to that.

We just don’t have the studies to tell us. He did say that, because of our hard-rock geology, we lack the limestone caves and rivers that sustain towns along the I-81 corridor to our north. He noted too that in a recent sample of 101 wells, 37 were contaminated by fecal coliform bacteria.

The take-home message is that we need to better at treating water as a multiple reuse resource. And in Floyd County, we should keep in mind that we get no water from outside our plateau-situated home ground. We could begin to think of harvesting water in barrels and cisterns and by creating “rain gardens” to keep more of what we get and then use it wisely.

The world may soon see inadequate water for drinking and agriculture leading to starvation and dislocation on an unprecedented scale. This threat is already looming in places like India and Pakistan where ground water is falling as much as twenty feet per year. In parts of our grain-producing states, the water table has dropped more than 100 feet.

The century-long gold rush for cheap groundwater is almost past, the vein played out. And for all the schemes of empires and regimes, all the machinations and treacheries of cartels and armies of the world for control of oil, in the end it will be water that we come to see as the most valuable and necessary liquid of all.

Suggested Reading:
Water Worries
Emerging Water Shortages