Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Singing to the Choir

Miami University's Men's Glee Club
(Which included one of our Conservation Biology students!)

I have spent the last few years thinking about ways we science-types can successfully reach out to non-science types to get them interested and concerned about the biodiversity crisis.  We’re at the beginning of the sixth mass extinction event and we’re missing it because we’re scrolling through our emails and tweeting about our bargain find on unnecessary plastic objects.  How do you capture people’s attention in a meaningful way?  Bill McKibben’s talk and my conservation biology class’s response to his talk has me thinking though about the value of singing to the choir.  I have often worried that all we mostly do in science outreach is sing to the choir.  But, the choir likes music, whether making it or listening to it.  Before most of these students went to Bill McKibben’s talk, none of them needed convincing that climate change was their reality.  They had the basic information.  What they didn’t have, necessarily, was the steps to a solution to a problem so large and overwhelming, or the inspiration to take those steps.  But, at McKibben's talk they received a little of both from a yodeler high on the mountaintop. The choir can use a little inspiration once in a while—and perhaps for people working on and thinking about the fate of biodiversity in the Anthropocene, we forget that we desperately need a little singing (or yodeling). 

My choir (my class…no one would let me in a real choir and for good reason) was inspired by McKibben founding 350.org with 7 undergrads and himself where each student took on one continent to find people committed to reducing carbon dioxide to 350 ppm. One undergrad for one continent!  And it was sufficient!  They were interested to hear about the divestment movement (like Ashley) and how students and “grown-ups” have gone to jail over their protests demanding for energy change (like Caroline). They were moved by pictures of people around the world with their signs for 350 (like Amanda). When Bill McKibben talks, the crowds he draws may in large part be from the choir, but still, I've gotta say, even though we didn't know we were longing for them, we loved the tunes. 

Sunday, April 12, 2015

The End of Nature: Doing it Our Way


One of the interesting parallels that come up again and again with climate change in faculty discussions about the Anthropocene is the comparison with slavery.  I have wondered about the power of fiction to help people see into an experience outside of their own to inspire change—the way Uncle Tom’s Cabin inspired many people to become abolitionists.  I have been hoping for a novel to solve the problem of the public’s apathy toward climate change (which is perhaps less realistic than an award-winning movie—but I prefer a good book!). One of the statements by a colleague in English (I believe) was that slavery was on its way out anyway, because fossil fuels were on the way in, allowing people to replace human energy with oil and machinery.  The silver lining of fossil fuels I guess. Of course, the end of slavery wasn’t the result of just one thing—a book, a change in ethic, changes in laws, up-risings, states leaving the union, a president with a way with words. It was a lot of forces coming together, and it will perhaps be the same in dealing with climate change (not ideal!).

McKibben makes an interesting observation in the way we humans deal with impending necessary change by trying to maintain the status quo despite the sense it may make—this is true in institutions like universities and governments as well as households.  He says:

“…after the crisis of the Civil War slavery was no longer an acceptable method for white Americans to exercise dominion over black Americans.  But rather than convert to new notions of universal fellowship and equality white Americans invented segregation, rigging up Jim Crow laws to ensure that much of the old relationship would persist in a new guise.  And it is of critical importance to realize that now, just as the old methods of dominating the world have become unworkable, a new set of tools is emerging that may allow us to continue that domination by different, expanded, and even more destructive means—that is, we may very well find a way to keep from choking on our cake, only to gag on the icing later.” (Page 128, The End of Nature)

He was talking about our apparent belief that the use of genetic engineering and biotechnology is our solution of getting us out of our climate troubles.  And, it may be part of the solution, but it does not necessarily keep wild nature wild.  Rather, it furthers us down a path of a world altered to human convenience, which is often not to the convenience for the rest of biodiversity.  Our separateness from nature, he says was not “an inevitable divorce, and…consciously or unconsciously many of us realize it was a mistake” (Page 73).  He says elsewhere that we need to consider (and take) a humbler path and I’m intrigued by this humble path, although I like my conveniences as much as the next person.  I have been reading books of Janisse Ray and she has found a humbler path that keeps her connected to the earth and local community while minimizing her consumer impact.  It is a start and seems like a better way to live. So, maybe genetic engineering and biotechnology is our Climate Crow equivalent to Jim Crow, I’m not sure. 

My students said they were surprised when Bill McKibben wrote that he and his wife wanted children, but that they weren’t sure if it was right given that the problem of growing population contributes to the biodiversity loss and climate change.  (They now have one child.)  And I was surprised that they were surprised by this!  How could such considerations not cross their minds?  It’s not that I would advocate the number of children a person should have (well, I might, but not in class), but limiting the number of children one has does seem to follow from what we have talked about this semester starting with human population as the driver for all the conservation issues we are covering.  So, their response suggests that McKibben was right, that we are not going to want to change and that the humbler path will have limited appeal for most—even the students of conservation biology.

We do not like to change and that is worrying. But, regardless, the times, they are a changin’.  Ask Bob, or Bill.  

Friday, April 10, 2015

Bill McKibben at Miami University: The Education of an Unlikely Activist

Bill McKibben looks like he’s been to activist training camp to me—or like he could be running the training camp himself.  Jedi material, even.  But, apparently, he has surprised himself.  Maybe he surprised a lot of people.  He is a self-proclaimed introvert and I suppose society doesn’t expect its introverts to move into center stage, make a fuss, and go to jail for justice.  (Rosa Parks might though.  Or Gandhi.)  But he seems like a likely activist to me.  An ideal activist who was moved by the reality of the data to take a position and build a movement that, with the thoughtfulness of an introvert, could undermine the money that is trying to buy out the potential for reasonable solutions. He is pragmatic and perspicacious. And he gave a great talk with great pictures of environmentalists all around the world. Here’s one from Ghana (from 350.org’s Flicker page):

My students and I have been reading his book from 1989, which is completely relevant 25 years later (although this fact is not ideal)—The End of Nature.  My young, hopeful students were looking despondent and sounding depressed in their blogs.  I felt a pressing need to take their pulses (which I refrained from).  His talk, however, offered the energy and optimism they look for.  Actions that we could all take to be part of the 350.org movement to spread the word that we need to divest from fossil fuels to minimize the damage to the future planet, actions big and small.  Near the end of his book, McKibben says “There is no future in loving nature.” Well, damn it.  Too late.  And it was too late for him, so he did what a person who loves does—he began looking for solutions, and initiating them, even with the knowledge that they may not work.  In The Cloister Walk (1996), Kathleen Norris says that “Maybe monks and poets know, as Jesus did when a friend, in an extravagant, loving gesture, bathed his feet in nard, an expensive fragrant oil, and wiped them with her hair, that the symbolic act matters; that those who know the exact price of things, as Judas did, often don’t know the true cost or value of anything.”  Bill McKibben knows too.  I hope that all of us who are committed to change will make the symbolic acts that have personal and global implications.  It may matter a great deal, so that at the end of the nature we’ve known in the last umpteen thousand years (as a species…I’m not that old), we will be able to begin the humbler path McKibben talks about, where we learn to live within nature’s bounds. 

McKibben said that “The only power to combat money is a people movement…to build a currency of people.”  Money can’t beat a bunch of committed people when there are enough of them.  At least, here’s hoping.