Friday, May 12, 2017

On Environmental Ethics (5/12/2017)

In a LinkedIn group I am a member of the question came up: “Can an environmental consultant who works for industrial companies or land developers be ethical?”  My answer was a resounding yes. 
In my classes I use an example that goes like this:

During my consultant years, I was sitting behind my desk and Mike the head of our planning group walked into my office.  “Jan, can you attend a meeting next week with a client?  We are going to show him this new sub-division we have designed for him here in Virginia Beach.”  “Sure Mike, can I see the plans, so I can prepare myself a bit?”  Mike returns to my office in a few minutes with the plan.  “Mike, I have been on the property next door, and it has a lot of wetlands.  I want to bet this property probably has wetlands, as well.  I have not done a wetland delineation for this site, shouldn’t we do one?”  “Oops ...  OK Jan, why don’t you go and take a look.”  I go out the next day with my equipment and GPS, find a lot of wetlands on the site, survey them and stick them on a map.  The next day I walk into Mikes office.  Mike goes: “Oops.  Can you make them go away?”  I say: “Sure Mike, lots of money.”  At this point light bulbs go on above the heads of the students in my class.  They are paying attention now, I teach mostly government officials and I now work for the government.  He is finally going to expose the non-ethical corrupt industry of land development that he used to be part of, here it comes, they think!  But I tell my class: “No, when you are working with wetlands, the permitting and mitigation process is time consuming and very expensive and it is better to avoid it.  But if they want to build it the way Mike wants to propose it, the process will cost a lot of money for mitigation and permitting”  That is also what I tell Mike.  And the story continues from there, there was nothing unethical in my proposal.  Mike calls the client, asks for a a for more weeks of time and redesigns the site to avoid the wetlands.

I am proud to say that I have always been ethical in the work I have done.  Often my clients have done a little bit more for the environment than the laws and regulations required they should (thanks to me).  I have tried to show them the beauty and the importance of the resources.  In one case, I found the largest water oak in Virginia on a client's property.  A photo of my client under the tree made it in the local newspaper.  You bet that oak and the surroundings was saved, whether that client was ethical or not.

Ethics is defined as the moral principles that govern a person’s behavior or the conducting of an activity.  As a study it is the discipline that deals with what is good and bad and with moral duty and obligation (Merriam Webster Online Dictionary).  That is a mouth full, isn’t it?  Here you get to the argument of what is is!  Or what some people think is good or bad may differ from other people.  

There is a whole branch of philosophy devoted to ethics so it is not something I can contribute to; I am just a naturalist, biologist and trainer.  But I can try to live ethical or at least as ethical as possible.  This is what ethics studies:  "What would a person do or how would she/he react under a specific circumstance?"    

But I want to get back to environmental ethics and my job.  An argument can be made that I helped my clients check that box either on an application for a permit or maybe in the back of their conscious saying: "Yes, they have done their environmental due diligence."  I am not even talking about the best thing for the environment.  Like with Mike in that example above, I may have saved a few wetlands, but that subdivision still got build, birds, snakes, and turtles lost their home, the environment was still impacted.  As a consultant with sincere love for the environment the Serenity prayer was my escape hatch:

"Please give me the SERENITY to accept the things I cannot change, the COURAGE to change the things I can and the WISDOM to know the difference!"

That Serenity prayer kept me going, I could not change the outcome, but I had the courage to make a little bit of difference.  That made me feel better.

Even in my current job; I teach people and companies to follow the laws and the regulations.  It makes me feel good, when I get back to my motel room or back home, I feel satisfied; I ticked off those boxes of being a environmental steward, good for the environment.  But does it really help what I do?  I don't know.  I have often said and written that I would feel great that on any specific day in one of my classes of 40 individuals I have 1 or 2 people either change their attitude towards nature or actually become enlightened.  That's when I feel successful.

Often this is what we in the environmental movement need to look for.  No, we cannot stop a project but we can make reduce or minimize the environmental impact of these projects.  Those are our small ethical victories, save the world one turtle at a time.

We cannot stop development and that is not what my job is about.  We just need to make sure that it is done sustainable, responsibly and according to the laws and regulations.  Here my colleague Don and I are inspecting a building site.  We did not find much wrong here.

Monday, April 24, 2017

And we march on (4/24/2017)

And so the Nation marched for science, scientists, science funding and last but not least for Earth Day.  Yes, we marched as well.  No, we did not go to Washington DC this time but we marched in Norfolk.  Our very lame excuse was that the march ended up at the O’Conner’s microbrewery, which brews some of my favorite beer, like I needed an excuse to visit their tasting room again. 

Marching down Granby Street in Norfolk in the name of Science, Curiosity and Earth Day!
Get-together after the march at O'Connors microbrewery
Whatever my excuse was guys, marching and letting our voices heard was important, and maybe showing up in Norfolk was more important than doing so in DC.  Here we could show that the concern was nationwide, as it should be.  The concern is even more urgent so close to the Chesapeake Bay.  Science should not be a partisan thing; neither should be a concern for mother earth, or as I have called it in a previous post: our Blue Marble.  What concerns me is all this talk about future generations when we talk about saddling future generations up with economic debt, but very few want to address the fact that we are saddling future generations up with environmental debt. 

As I mentioned in previous posts these discussions are not new.  Malthus (1798) predicted that we would have to deal with over population and the resulting man-caused disasters (see my previous post about that <here>).  Others claimed it is our world and we can do with it what we want.  Western man’s dominion of nature is as old the bible itself.  But it was Francis Bacon (1561-1626) who articulated this when he claimed that we needed to use science and technology to reclaim our “dominion over creation”; something we had lost when Adam and Eve were "kicked" out of the Garden of Eden.  As I wrote in a May 11, 2016 blog post, John Locke took this a few steps further, and asserts that nature itself has no intrinsic value, but that nature only gains value when we work it.  

This is completely contrary to some of the work I did some 20 years ago which was called "natural resources damage assessment" or NRDA.  One of the questions asked in NRDA is about what the enjoyment of nature is worth to you (the public) personally.  It was particular important in cases like oil spills.  The question became how much enjoyment did that take away from you, because you could not spend time on that beach, or fish?  This goes into the equation to calculate the amount of fines that are being assessed to companies that damage the environment like BP when the had the spill in the Gulf.  If we would follow John Locke's logic the ocean may not be worth anything, or for that matter neither would the Chesapeake Bay.  Or maybe since we are mining it we have dominion over it and we can pollute it to our heart's content.

I think this strange logic is still out there, 500 years later.  Or is it 2000 years later?  Some people still think we can do to the earth what ever we want.  They think we own it.  There is still this thought that any problem can eventually be solved by science, a somewhat Baconeque point of view.  

Instead of seeing nature as a subordinate or worthless, we should have a sense of awe and wonder over nature, and a belief that we humans are part of it.  This is why we were marching this past Saturday, not only to solve these issues by science but to understand the issues (and maybe help with a solution).  By understanding them we maybe able to avoid worsening some of them or avoid starting new ones.  

On a final note, what encouraged my wife and I the most was that during our walk, some of the walkers were actually picking up garbage and eventually deposited the garbage in a dumpster that the found on our route.  They were actually cleaning up the environment as we walked, leaving the world a better place.

Speeches before the start of the march in Norfolk, just an interesting juxtaposition showing that science is apolitical

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

How do you live your life? (4/12/2017)

I have been following a blogger with the name of Mark Mason for a while. He is a self-proclaimed thinker, writer and life enthusiast. His latest post hit home; he titled it “Life is a Video Game--These are the Cheat Codes.” While Mark drops a lot of F-bombs in his article(s), more than I have ever dropped in my entire blogging career, it still got me thinking.

Mark tells us that in his opinion our life as a video game has 5 difficulty levels:

  • Level 1 – Find food; find a bed to sleep in at night
  • Level 2 – Know you’re not going to die
  • Level 3 – Find your people
  • Level 4 – Do something that’s important and valuable to both yourself and others
  • Level 5 – Create a legacy

No, I am not dead yet.  But who the hell am I and am I really doing something that is important and valuable to myself and others, or am I creating a legacy?   (Actually, I took this selfie by accident after biking on the New River Trail, but I kind of like it).

That is what got me wondering, “at what level am I?”  This is exactly why this article hit home.  But first, I somehow agree with Mark’s assessment of these levels.  There may be small steps in between, or detours, but when you look at it, these are important levels.

Most of us have no problem reaching Level 1; although walking through downtown Richmond and seeing some of the beggars and in the morning, or when I see this guy sleep in the doorway of this abandoned building.  At that point you just can’t escape the feeling that even some people can’t reach that level for one reason or another.  It is sad that we have no safety net for them and we can't even help them to the next level.  Some people argue that they don't want help, and who knows, some may not.

Level 2 is where things may start breaking down already; many people and particular kids in the inner city are not sure if they are going to survive to make it to the next day or to adulthood.  There is so little future for them and maybe this is why they will join gangs and don’t give a shit about life.  They somehow try to cheat this Level and go to Level 3 and try to find their people in gangs and groups, but actually these groups will most likely drop them like a hot potato (and kill them) when they become a liability or when they are no longer needed.  Not really true friends.  But then what do you do when you have no future or really never think you will be able to attain Levels 2, 3, 4 or 5 in your lifetime?  This is why the “Black lives matter” movement is so important, that should give them more hope and more genuine support you need to get to Level 3.

Last week when I was teaching, there were these four guys who were horsing around with each other.  It was so much fun to see them joke with each other like what appeared to be true friendship.  I fed on that and it made my teaching fun.  They obviously reached Level 3.  But there are also so many fake friends; it reminds me of the “Sopranos” where friends were expandable and you could easily fit them for concrete shoes.  Good, true friendship is hard to find, and from what I understand we guys have a more difficult time with it than women do.  However, it really is that Level 3 where a lot of people get stuck, in my eyes; they never get past that level. 

Even here at work, you see that too many people can never get past Level 2 or maybe Level 3.  They seem to come to work and go through the motions; play the social butterfly; try to please everyone; write reports for reporting sake; worry about writing a good report or looking good to their superior; kiss up; play the politics; you name it.  But in the end the only reason they do it is maybe to be accepted; noticed; fill in something they are missing in their private life or maybe when they grew up; be the boss’s favorite and hopefully get that promotion and a raise.  In the end they think they are doing this for themselves, but at what satisfaction?  In my eyes they compromise their entire lives away and are not genuine to themselves and to others.  They go through the motions in life, make fake friends, and make sure that they don’t miss that bus in the evening to take them home where they can veg out and watch TV or play video games in order to block out the miserable life they lead at work.  When push comes to shove, they have not done anything valuable for themselves, for their friends, for society or the community at large; although they keep trying to convince themselves that they did.  Many people live a life of denial. As Joni Mitchell once sang, they could have been more.

But even in the classes that I teach.  Granted, all these people have to take my classes to get recertified.  However, I make them as fun and interesting as I can, and I get a lot of reviews that tell me I am doing a good job at that.  But I also have a lot of people who sit in the back of the class and as I think about it: just browse porn site on their phones, and don’t pay attention to me what so ever.  They go through the motions because their supervisors tell them they have to take these classes.  They have no ambition to ever make it to Level 5 and maybe not even Level 4.

As Mark writes, Level 5 is making sure that your life mattered when you are dead.

At the end of his blog Mark writes the following (and this is a direct quote):

Good luck Player One. Remember, the game of Life is designed to be complex and confusing. The difficulty is not winning, but knowing what winning itself means. Because that’s the real challenge: deciding what our own life is worth and then having the courage to go out and live it.

I have tried to live my life to the fullest. When we were younger, my wife and I were out there in development work living and working in Africa, Asia and the Middle East, sometimes at difficult circumstances (at gunpoint and under floods as I have described in previous posts). We were taking risks and putting ourselves out there; we were already living in Level 4. Even now, every time I teach, I have decided that I have a successful day and leave a legacy when I am able to truly educate, enlighten and motivate one or two persons in the class of 30 to 40 people that day. For the rest, I am trying to fight for what I believe in, write that book and live a good life. Don't worry, I am not trying to show off, there are times that we all digress and there are times that I only live in Level 1 or 2.  But at least at times I have been up there and it sure feels nice up there.

So again, at what Level am I?  I really don't know, but I'll do my darnest to reach Level 5.  What Level are you and at what level will you be by the time you die?

Thursday, March 23, 2017

My past travels in Nepal, weather extremes past and present (II) (3/23/2017)

As promised and trying stepping away from my anxieties about current-day politics, a trip down memory lane today. On the 12th of January this year I was prompted to write about an extreme weather event we were experiencing here on the east coast of the U.S.A. and that made me reminisce about a snow storm that I experiences in Nepal <click here to see that post>. That episode made me think of the comic book of my youth called “Tintin in Tibet.” But I never saw the Yeti, also known as the abominable snowman.

Well the weather extremes this year did not stop from occurring with that one event. In February we had 80 degree (27 degree Celsius) days and now in March we have seen snow (actually parts of the East Coast have seen one of the worst snow storms ever) and it has been very cold.  It has been a crazy year in many aspects.

But let's step away from that and as promised talk about our stay in Nepal (1981-1983).  Yep, that was a long time ago; it was way before many of us were talking about global warming or climate change, although we Europeans were somewhat aware that it was imminent, having been alerted to the possibility by a 1972 report published by the "Club of Rome."  But again, I digress.  

It was our first monsoon season 1982 (10 years after the publication of that report) and in our naivety we decided to stay in the country through the height of the rainy season.  Hearing this, our best friends planned to visit us, not knowing what we were into.  Well, monsoon means rain, and a lot of it!  When our friends left after two weeks they had seen one fleeting glimpse of the Himalayas (probably 15 seconds long), when during our trek (or hike) the skies finally opened up and they saw the Machapuchare or the Fishtail, a sacred mountain in Nepal.  Except for the hike through the foothills they really wondered if there were really 27,000 feet (8000 meter) plus mountains back there.

This is a picture I took of the Annapurna massive, with Annapurna 1 (26545 ft., the 10th highest in the world) sticking up.  You can barely make out Machapuchare to the right, the fishtail is just sticking out of the clouds.
Another view of the Annapurnas from Pokhara.  Machapuchera is now in the foreground and is blocking the view of Annapurna 1.  To the far left is Annapurna South and far right Annapurna 2.

During that monsoon season we had seen our share of landslides already, but we decided to take our best friends (who were visiting from Holland) to the village where we lived part of the time.  For us who were used to hiking it usually took us 2 days to hike to our home (eventually we could do it in 10 hours; we were in killer shape), but with them the trek took us 3 days.

The first night out we stayed at a local hotel (hut and you sleep on the floor on a mat in a communal room, so the word hotel is a bit of a stretch).  As usual in the monsoon, it started to thunder and rain.  And it rained and rained.  We went to sleep and around midnight we were awoken by other guests by the words "Pani auncha" which can be translated as "water is coming."  We got up and stepped out of the hut and the rushing water was over our knees in the village.  So what do you do?  It is pitch black outside, rushing water down the streets and they tell you the water is coming?  It is already there, darn it! So it will probably be rising even higher and the only thing you can do is to make a run for it.  Our first instinct was to rush down stream with the water.  After a few steps, a person in the next hut tells us not to do that but to go up stream.  Easier said then done.  There are no paved roads but stone paths with steps that are now covered with knee-deep rushing water, you cannot see where you step and where the path is, it was a struggle.  Finally after some time we get to an area where the water is less high.  A good Samaritan sees us and invites us into their home and we all huddle around the fire drink hot tea and wait for the storm to subside and the water to go down.  Eventually we do sleep some there and by morning we go back to the hotel pick up our stuff and get on our way, tired but safe.

A picture of the Annapurna during the monsoon
What happened was that the village was at the mouth of a valley and this storm got stuck in the valley and dumped so much water in the watershed that evening and it all came rushing out.  Obviously, this had occurred before, because the people knew to go upstream and not downstream, where flooding would have been worse.  Our friend died a number of years ago and we saw him a few years before his death, but he still remembered those words "Pani auncha" and we reminisce about them. 

A typical monsoon day in Nepal, cloudy and heavy rains 
For us it was just a foreboding of what was to come during our trek to our home in the village, and I will write more about it in a subsequent post.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Dog-hairs in the woods (3/16/2017)

Walking in the woods behind our house this past Friday, I realized that I wasn't exactly "forest bathing."  Daily life and politics came rushing back to me while I was still looking and trying to enjoy nature (truthfully I will always enjoy nature, even when distracted), but this time I did not gently push these thoughts back as I am supposed to do; I did not tell it “some other time please.” 
I found this word on and it really describes who I am, the essence of me (at least when I am not on the water on my kayak or my sailboat) 
Why didn’t I?  I was walking my regular trail with the dogs; on one side was a “dog-hair” stand of pines on the other side a more mature forest.  What does that mean, a "dog-hair" stand?  

When we moved into our neighborhood, now 17 years ago, and we walked that area, the trees were freshly planted.  At that time we could literally look over the tree canopy to the other side.  They were very dense, so dense that you could barely move through them.  That became increasingly clear when the trees got bigger.  The trunks were so close together that you had to move sideways between the trees to get through the stand of trees.  They were as close together as the hair on the back of a dog, hence the words "dog-hair" stand!

Slowly some of the trees started to die off; they died from the lack of light and room for their roots and branches to grow.  Now the trees are relatively large; I would think at least 30 feet.  They are still dense and the trunks are thin and spindly.  A forester would say that the stand is ready for a thinning cut.  They thin the forest out to reduce the competition, reduce the number of trunks per acre (or hectare) and this allows the remaining trunks to thicken and the trees to thrive.  It is called forest management.

The "dog hair" stand of trees in the woods behind our home.  This stand is maybe 20 years old and ready to get thinned.
If foresters do not thin the forest, forests and all types of vegetation in general, does this on its own.  We ecologists know this as the self-thinning rule, and we even have a fancy mathematical formula for it that I will not bother you with.  But what happens is we get a lot of mediocre plans first a lot of trees dying, spreading of diseases in the woods, maybe even a higher likelihood of forest fires, all together a potentially unhealthy situation.

Actually we ecologists may find it more natural, but for foresters it is a terrible situation.  Foresters want to produce board-feet, poles and wood that can be used to make lumber, paper, and other useful things.  Herein lays the rub and this brought me back to daily life and politics: this whole conflict between two philosophies in the management of these woods.  The trees are marked up by a forester and ready to get their first thinning cut.  Walking by there made me think about these foresters imposing rules on the forests and only by imposing their forestry rules can they make them grow quickly, create a more prosperous forest and probably a more diverse forest.  While if we ecologists stand back and let things go without human-imposed (management) rules, nature may eventually get there too, but who knows with how many casualties in the meantime, and probably less useful lumber for the foresters.

The trees in this "dog-hair" stand are all fighting to capture the light and not really investing in infrastructure (or the trunk) to support them (and us).  If left unchecked there will be many casualties and those remaining will produce mediocre wood.
So what is good and what is bad?  In the old days I would have said that any human intervention in nature was necessarily a bad idea.  However, things have changed.  We humans have impacted nature so tremendously, that most philosophers, scientists, biologists and ecologists now tell us that we have entered the Anthropocene or the geological period during which we humans impact the earth’s geology and ecosystem more than they impact the humans.  The Wikipedia article I reference here is fascinating to read, it tells me how future geologists will be able to read the rocks and tell what went on in our time.  In other words, we have impacted nature so much by bringing in exotic plant species, encroaching the area and living right next to them, having removed all the predators that would hunt the deer, suppressed the wildfires, that we probably need to manage these woods, otherwise we really do not know what the results will be.

But back to my walk; I was really upset about what is going on at the EPA, the Department of the Interior, NOAA, the Department of Education and so many other government agencies at the moment.  I like to compare it with the "dog-hair" stand that I was walking by (and really, that's what I was thinking about).  Without management (read regulations) that "dog-hair" stand will develop into a forest, I am not worried about that.  First very poorly, without any understory, it will be very susceptible to fire, a lot of small trees will die and only a very few big ones will survive, and the quality of the wood of those trees maybe very poor.  Kind of like a society without regulations, the rich and the powerful will get richer and damn the poor and the weak.  With management (regulations) we thin the forest sensibly and it will thrive (oh my god, birth control), the remaining trees will grow good and create good wood that we humans can use to build our homes, furniture and make our paper products from (now he is preaching socialism). 

I strongly feel that like that forest that need management our country needs sensible regulations, health care and education.  The cutting of programs and deregulation is not going to work for everyone, just like that "dog-hair" stand,  In 1798 Malthus wrote about an eventual over-population that would result in famine and disease that would cause the end of human civilization.  Many conservatives have always counter-argued that human inventiveness would keep up with the population explosion (I am oversimplifying here).  I don't know, but why even argue?  Some scientists say we are close to reaching the carrying capacity of the earth or the number of people that the earth can support.  Why turn our future generations into that human "dog-hair" stand on earth and put them all at risk?  I believe we can avoid this, but not in the spirit of less regulations and everybody for themselves, but instead with more education, better healthcare for everyone, science, a cleaner environment and empathy.

And that is what I sometimes do when I walk in the woods, I think and brood, and then I ramble.