15 November 2016

My Talk at Riverbend: Aware, Responsible and Caring Citizens

My son Walker, then 2, in his "one square yard."
"Aware, responsible and caring citizens." Yeah, we can use some of those right about now.

Back in June 2016, a colleague at EY reached out to ask me to speak at Riverbend Environmental Education Center, just outside of Philadelphia. 

I jumped at the chance, in part because I love a stage, but also because Riverbend has an important mission: teaching environmental principles to children...through a direct connection with nature, inspiring respect for our natural world and action as aware, responsible and caring citizens. 

Here is the talk I gave, which included a few poems that I added for color:
I want to share with you three stories tonight, each of which is paired with a poem or part of a poem that illustrates a point I’d like to make about why we are here, why we need to know about this place and others like it, and why we should care. Care not just about Riverbend Environmental Education Center and the people it serves, but why we should care about this big blue marble we inhabit.

There was a popular book a number of years ago called All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. For me, I’ve always said all I really needed to know I learned from Gladys Taylor. Gladys was a surrogate Aunt for me, a retired English and Physical Education teacher, who taught me about nature and art and poetry and being active, and also about how to look at the world and begin to make sense of it – years later I realized she was training me to pay attention to the world around me and it has come to inform a lot of what I’ve done in my life and work.
Work that has taken me from the halls of a publishing house to protecting forests, grasslands, rivers, and seascapes with the Nature Conservancy, investing in social entrepreneurs trying to solve the world’s pressing problems, and to helping developing countries provide greater access to electricity that can help improve lives and economies.
I’m not alone in having a pivotal figure in my life that helped me find a path or multiple paths. It could have easily been a parent, teacher or a mentor from another part of my life. But for me, it was a woman who looked after me during my formative years in Rhode Island and summers at her family house in Vermont. I wrote a poem about her influence on me – it’s too long to read here in its entirety, but you can find it in my book, FALLOW FIELD – the poem is called “The Postlude, or How I Became a Poet,” and it opens with this passage, 

I am a child, crawling around in the leaves
With Gladys Taylor while she names the trees,
Parts the grasses, digs into the earth with a gardener’s trowel.
She picks out worms and slugs, millipedes
And springtails, which we see with a “Berlese funnel.”
Busy decomposers working their busy tasks,
Turning waste into energy, leaf litter into soil again.
Gladys names things for me: “That oak,
That maple there, that sassafras, smell its roots.”
“Root beer!” I exclaim,
Her laughter peeling away into the hills. Later,
With Comstock’s Handbook of Nature Study
On the table next to the unending jigsaw puzzle,
Gladys opens to “The Oaks,” reading or reciting:
“The symbol of strength since man first gazed
Upon its noble proportions…” Then she sings Virgil,

         Full in the midst of his own strength he stands
         Stretching his brawny arms and leafy hands,
         His shade protects the plains, his head the hills commands.

Leaves and acorns spread across the table,
Each divided to its source, as if cataloging specimens:
The white and chestnut oaks, red and scarlet,
Every oak in the neighborhood, sketching the leaves,
Tracing and coloring them. Then questions, such questions:
“Where did we see this one growing?” “How tall?”
“Are the branches crooked or straight?”
“Round leaves or pointy?”
And then a game of matching
Acorn to leaf; a most difficult lesson — as difficult
As those jigsaw puzzles for a boy lacking patience
Or attention… 

Now Gladys was a unique person and I, as her protege, was as well. But like I said, each of us can probably think about someone in our lives that had a profound impact on us. It may be one of the things that brought you here, I suppose, because by being here – even if you’re just here for the food – you are showing that you care. By being here you may learn a lesson I hope is not as difficult as matching acorns to their leaves. 

 #
When I had children of my own, I really wanted to impart in them that sense of wonder Gladys had enlivened in me, to pass on her lessons in a way. In my work for many years with The Nature Conservancy, which took me from the Hudson Valley in New York to Alaska, to the desert southwest and the tall grass prairie of Oklahoma, to back here to Pennsylvania, as well as to Indonesia, Ecuador, the islands of the Caribbean, and many other places in between. I was always impressed by the local knowledge, the indigenous knowledge of the people with whom we were working to protect some of the world’s great places.
We’ve all read the reports about nature’s impact on our psyche. We need nature. I need nature, even though I live in a city. As my kids were growing up, I realized that while treks out to the wilderness, camping, hikes in the mountains, etc., were all great experiences for them (and me), it was equally important they learn about the nature in their own backyards, their own city block.
This “one square yard philosophy, that learning about the nature in one square yard, really learning it and paying attention to the connections between species and the ecosystem as a whole, instills a sense of the importance of our own backyards and, in turn, will help us care about the natural world and our place in it and protecting it.
Today, all of us, but especially our children, are consumed by screen time. The average user spends 50 minutes on Facebook a day, according to recent data – and our kids are faced with numerous other social media distractions from Snapchat to Instagram to Periscope, whatever that is. Not to mention Candy Crush, Minecraft, and Angry Birds.
A few years ago, my sons were hooked on a mobile phone game where you rapidly identify corporate logos. I was horrified that they were so good at the game and disappointed I’d apparently failed in my mission to impart Gladys’s lessons. Nothing against corporate logos – some of them are quite good design – but that they could recognize more corporate logos than birds or trees really bugged me.
Yet, one day, walking in Carpenter’s Woods over in Mt. Airy, on the edge of Wissahickon Park with my twins, they got excited about the fallen trees on the forest floor and how they were decomposing. They noted the differences between the bark and the color and the consistency of the “saw dust” as the trees were returned to the Earth. It was a small victory – they still know more corporate logos than birds, I suspect, but what can I do?
#
Several years ago now, I was in India, working for Ashoka, which is a kind of social venture capital organization. One of the Ashoka Fellows I visited there was Kalyan Paul, who had started a very successful environmental organization called Grassroots, in the Indian Himalayas. Kalyan introduced me to some of the people from the village of Ranikhet, where he is based, including the Artisan’s Guild, a group men who were building and installing biogas stoves to repurpose cow dung and eliminate charcoal fires inside their houses for cooking.
And I met craftswomen who had created a profitable business making jams and preserves from local fruits, as well as hand-crafted sweaters and other garments for sale in local shops and around the world through online sales. Kalyan and Grassroots had helped set up this economic activity long before they tackled a single “environmental issue,” such as deforestation, erosion, and invasive species.
When I asked Kalyan what made him successful, he said, “I paid attention. I walked around and listened to the people. Their issues were economic and health-related, and I realized that until I helped them address those issues, and set them on a path towards greater self-sufficiency, I was never going to be able to address the environmental problems – the issues were linked.”
Today, I want to share a bit about my work with EY, which happens to be a sponsor of tonight’s event, so I may as well put in a plug for our work – because I think it’s pretty cool.
Electricity is a big issue on the African continent, as it is in many developing continents and countries, especially access, availability, and reliability. Working with a municipal utility in South Africa, our team helped design and implement a pre-paid smart metering program that addresses three problems the utility had: 1.) collecting revenue from their customers – some of whom wouldn’t pay their bills because they didn’t trust the billing systems; 2.) reducing electricity theft, not just in small villages, but in “gated communities” and even some commercial operations; and 3.) attracting investment to allow them to expand their network and improve reliability.
Now we’re looking at taking this same solution and exporting the idea out of Africa to other countries -- to India, Brazil, Mexico -- wherever there are similar problems this idea can address.
Both the Grassroots and EY solutions were about paying attention to what is going on around and creating opportunities out of the situation, which in turn creates greater value for others. Which reminds me of my poem,
“Opportunity,” 
A wasp wrestles all day
with the false freedom
of a window pane.
Scaling the glass, then slipping
down, buzzing the cracked paint
of the old window frame.
As if thrumming wings faster
will pull it closer to the blossom,
just beyond its reach.
So determined in its struggle
to get in, to wrest pollen from
the exotic flower on the other side.
A spider sets its dinner table
in the corner of the pane—

My mother-in-law once commented about that poem, “I’ve witnessed that scene many times…only you noticed the spider in the corner.” I can probably thank my Aunt Gladys for that.
We can be single-focused, like the wasp, beating our heads against the glass until we’re unconscious or we can be patient and attentive like the spider to make things happen when the opportunity presents itself.
In my experience over the years, I’ve seen the environmental movement make progress being more inclusive regarding people and nature, reaching more diverse communities, and beginning to change the face of conservation by giving others the opportunity to be a part of the solutions.
Places like Riverbend help broaden the horizons of children and bring them into an understanding of the natural world around them – whether it is a nature preserve, a city park or their own back yards.
Make no mistake about it, this is important work, as important as big land conservation or global climate agreements, for it is our children, as caring citizens of the world, who will be tomorrow’s stewards of the lands and waters we need to sustain life on Earth.
And this is important because, as Robert Michael Pyle wrote in his book, The Thunder Tree: Lessons from an Urban Wildland, “People who care conserve; people who don’t know, don’t care.” 

I don't know if I created any "aware, responsible and caring citizens" that night, but I hope so.


Back at the Helm...Because the Planet Needs The Green Skeptic

The Green Skeptic back at the helm.
I've been away too long and look what happens? The lunatics are running the asylum.

Well, my hiatus is over. I'm ready to start blogging again and calling out horse dookey (as Mary Karr calls it) about the environment wherever I see it -- and hoping to learn some new things along the way.

Now more than ever, it's clear to me the planet needs the skeptical view -- on both sides of the coin. So, I'm pledging here to rededicate myself to the mission of The Green Skeptic: "challenging assumptions about how we live on the earth and protect our environment."

Watch this space. 


23 February 2015

7th Annual Mid-Atlantic Energy Technology Forum - Coming up April 8, 2015

The Cleantech Alliance Mid-Atlantic, an organization I co-founded with Kevin Brown of Hobbes & Towne, is hosting its 7th annual energy technology forum, once again in partnership this year with the law firm of Pepper Hamilton. More details to come, but I wanted readers to have this head's up.


The Academy of Natural Sciences 
1900 Benjamin Franklin Parkway, Philadelphia, PA 19103 
Wednesday, April 8, 2015 | 3:30 - 7:30 PM (ET)

Fostering investment and opportunity in energy technology…

The future of energy technology is now. Join us for thought-provoking sessions from experts and thought leaders on trends in venture and corporate investment in energy technologies, and a showcase of leading-edge Mid-Atlantic energy companies that offers a glimpse of what’s to come at the 7th Annual Mid-Atlantic Energy Technology Forum, hosted by Pepper Hamilton LLP’s Energy and Emerging Company Groups, in partnership with the Cleantech Alliance Mid-Atlantic. This much-anticipated event is known for fostering in-depth discussions about the future of the energy industry, the impact of technology on industry growth, and the investment climate, so mark your calendar and plan to be part of the conversation.
Agenda3:30 – 4:00 PM | Registration 4:00 – 6:00 PM | Program6:00 – 7:30 PM | Reception
Ticket Pricing$50 Early Bird (on or before March 10)
$65 (on or before April 7)
$75 (at the door)
 
Call for Energy Technology Company Showcase
We are currently accepting applications for companies who wish to participate in the Energy Technology Company Showcase. Click here to download the application. Forward completed applications by February 27th to Jennifer Kuban at kubanj@pepperlaw.com.

Become a Sponsor
We are currently seeking sponsors to participate in this forum. Click here to download the sponsorship form and please contact Jennifer Kuban at kubanj@pepperlaw.com for more information.


Gold Sponsors

22 December 2014

An Email from Santa Claus to Climate Skeptics: An Annual Green Skeptic Tradition

Back in 2006, I published this email from Santa, which arrived on the night before the night before Christmas. Readers had so much fun with it, it's become an annual tradition. Enjoy!

Happy Holidays!

_______________________

FROM: Santa Claus
DATE: A few nights before Xmas
SUBJECT: My Christmas List
_________________________

This is Santa, writing from the North Pole. Soon I'll be gathering all the toys for all the good little girls and boys and packing them in my sleigh to begin our journey, our night of nights.

The reindeer, however, are starting to complain about hoof-rot. Apparently, they've been standing around in too much slush. This has put me in a decidedly prickly mood this Christmas.

You know me; I'm not a single-issue guy. I believe that as long as you are good, and I mean good for goodness' sake, you deserve some slack on the other stuff. I'm an equal opportunity distributor. I know whether you've been bad or good or just plain evil. You also know I'm not one to discriminate against one group of people or another, believers or non-believers.

But this year is different. This year, I'm making a few changes to my list. I'm checking it twice and have decided that the naughty include any one of you out there who do not believe in global warming. All you climate change skeptics out there, you are on the naughty list this year.

Oh, you know who you are. And I've got one special gift for you: Nothing but COAL. You like the stuff so much -- and it's such a big part of what's leading to climate change -- you might as well have bags and bags of it and nothing more.

Make no mistake. Global warming is happening. You don't have to show me any scientific reports, although some nifty ones have shown up in my email box lately, sent to me from the National Center for Atmospheric Research and the National Snow and Ice Data Center.

No, you don't have to convince me; I'm a believer. All I have to do is look out my window to my back yard, what's left of it! It's a soupy mess out there.

We usually have a good bit of ice up here at the North Pole -- and early. That's important, too; you see, every year the elves and I construct a temporary workshop up here where we make the toys and assemble the other goodies. The earlier the ice, the sooner we get started.

Although I have figured out a way to deliver the entire shipment of gifts on my list in one night, I still haven't perfected the manufacturing process. I can't speed it up. (Some of that I blame on the unions.)  We need all the ice we can get up here for there is no solid ground.

But this year, the ice cover was the lowest it's been in almost 30 years. And at least one of those science groups studying this stuff tells me that, according to their models, by 2040, we'll have mostly open water up here. (They sent me this short animation clip, which sends chills up my spine: Arctic Ice Melt.)

Mrs. Claus has even started looking for Houseboats on Craig's List!

So, dear boys and girls, you better not pout or cry or whine or deny climate change any longer. And I'm telling you why: because climate change is coming to town. Time's a wasting. We need to do something about this now, before it's too late. Or before I have to move all of my operations to the South Pole!

Here's wishing a carbon-neutral Christmas to all, and to all a good night.

S. Claus, North Pole



17 December 2014

10 Favs; 10 Years: Caring, or A New Conservation Ethic

My son Jasper tagging a saltwater croc,
Mexico, January 2005. Photo by the author.

This post originally appeared on The Green Skeptic in October 2005. It clearly demonstrates my concerns about the disconnect between people and conservation and articulates my view of the need for a new conservation ethic.

Over the past several weeks, in the conference centers of Monterey, the wilderness of Yosemite, and the halls of my company's offices in suburban Washington, our talk has been about drawing a closer connection between conservation and people.

We've come a long way, but still have miles to go before we can say we've expanded the boundaries of our own conservation ethic.

I've been thinking a lot lately about conservation ethic. One phrase that keeps coming back to me is Robert Michael Pyle's statement that "People who care conserve, people who don't know don't care." It's a powerful truism and one to which we should pay heed.

Our movement is often accused of being elitist and defeatist and, frankly, those criticisms are far too often accurate. Beautiful photos of pristine places beg the question, "What about the people?"

(Pyle's words came back to me during tonight's playoff battle of the Sox. It was late in the game, my beloved Red Sox had bases loaded and blew several chances to tie the game or take the lead. Johnny Damon was up, surely ready to play the hero. My nine-year old son, who learned to care about baseball -- and my team -- during the 2003 ALCS, was on tenterhooks: would Damon do it? When the Caveman struck out, stranding three base runners and turning the BoSox into WoeSox once again, my son was apoplectic. "Now I know you are a true fan," I told him. "You really cared." I haven't seen him that upset since he learned that polar bears were losing habitat to global warming!)

We need a new conservation ethic that clearly redefines the human + nature equation: that human beings are not apart from, but rather a part of nature. We need to articulate the real connections between conservation and restoration of the earth's natural functions -- also known as ecosystem services -- and their real implications for the people of the earth.

Moreover, that we care about people as much as the earth's other species. Without this, we will sink in a downward spiral of our own making.

Whether we're talking about food, fuel, fiber for clothing or paper or a myriad of other goods and services nature provides, we need to stop "seeing the natural world as a resource for the economy," as James Gustave Speth writes in his book, Red Sky at Morning, "rather than seeing the economy as nested in the natural world."

We have obligations to the world that go beyond our self-interest, to paraphrase Aldo Leopold, and until we own up to this our conservation ethic will ring false for the majority of the world's people. Our new conservation ethic must be as inclusive as it is pragmatic, and as interconnected to the other issues of our time -- poverty alleviation, terrorism, AIDS/HIV -- as to the natural world we hold dear.

We need to remember this whether we're on higher ground in one of this nation's important National Parks, the sterile corridors of an office in northern Virginia, or the cozy confines of that little bandbox of a ballpark that is Fenway.

15 December 2014

10 Favs; 10 Years: What We Talk About When We Talk About Protecting and Saving

This post originally appeared on The Green Skeptic in March 2008, when I was about to speak at the Aspen Environment Forum. It was a pivotal time for conservation and I think some of the strides that my former organization, The Nature Conservancy, and others in conservation have made are reflective of some of my espoused views. There's more progress that can be made, but it's a start.

##

Village children on Batanta Island, Indonesia. Photo by the author.
Everything we think about saving or protecting ecosystems and habitats is wrong.

This week, I'm at the Aspen Environment Forum, where tomorrow morning I'll be on a Panel called "Nature's Place: Saving Ecosystems and Habitats."

For the better part of 15 years I worked with The Nature Conservancy to save some of the world's "Last Great Places" around the world (I left in August; see my posts reflecting on my career at TNC
and here.

I consider myself a conservationist, not an environmentalist. What I mean by that is a conservative and prudent approach to our use of resources that requires us to manage them for the long-term -- for the benefit of people today and for future generations.

The Green Skeptic grew out of an increasing concern about our relationship to the natural world and how we protect it. I am a skeptic in the sense that I believe we need to constantly challenge the assumptions we have about "saving ecosystems and habitats."

In my view, we operate under four basic assumptions:

1. We can continue to "save" or "protect" ecosystems and habitats from harm in perpetuity;
2. We can ignore basic human needs and treat poverty alleviation as a separate issue from the environment;
3. We can entrust protection to governments and corporate NGOs;
4. We can't trust human ingenuity and community to manage its own resources.

First, I need to step back and look at the words we use. (I am a poet, so words matter to me.) Specifically, "protecting" and "saving."

Both imply we need to keep ecosystems and habitats from something. The American Heritage Dictionary defines protecting as "To keep from being damaged, attacked, stolen, or injured; guard." When we use the word protecting in terms of ecosystems and habitats, we are guarding nature from something or someone, presumably humans.

Saving is a little less problematic, as it implies a conservative approach to the future (as in saving seed corn for next year's sowing). Still, the AHD's first definition is "To rescue from harm, danger, or loss." It's not until definition number three that we get to the conservative impulse: "To avoid spending (e.g. money) so as to keep or accumulate it."

The question is not about what we should save, but how and for what purpose.

Is it hubris to assume we have protected or saved anything? We promote the fact that percentages of ecosystems or habitats are protected, but they continue to be encroached upon -- see the Amazon Rainforest for example.

What have we really saved if massive changes from climate change or the drive for much-needed economic development will have significant impact on the future status and makeup of places, habitats, and ecosystems?

Climate change will disrupt many ecosystems that exist today -- much as the Internet disrupted print media, the travel industry, TV, bookstores, you name it. It will change everything.

So the question is what are we really protecting when we talk about protecting ecosystems and habitat? Will the places we select for protection today be the same 10-20 years from now? Probably not.

Ecosystems are constantly changing, either from "external" (human) or "internal" (natural) forces. Change is inevitable and could, in the face of global warming, be dramatic.

Shouldn't we be preparing for the changes and begin to think about how we adapt to some of the most likely changes, those brought on by climate change or economic development or basic human needs, such as for food and energy?

Demand for energy and food will drive economic development for years to come and we can't continue to ignore these drivers to "save" the natural, non-human world.

This leads me to assumption two, which is about ignoring basic human needs. It's irrational for us to think that people in developing countries, many of whose basic human needs are not being met, will care deeply about the non-human natural world.

Yet, we continue to have blind faith in our cause and ignore the needs of real people.

I recently returned from India where the extreme poverty is evident almost everywhere you look. Also evident is a growing middle class that strives for the kind of lifestyle we have here in the west, specifically the US, with its inherent accelerated pace and impacts.

Who are we to say that people in developing countries have no right to the kind of lifestyle we have exported for decades? We can not convince, persuade or cajole or even pay people -- Americans as much as people in developing nations -- to "come around to our way of thinking," and yet this is what I hear whenever I talk to environmentalists.

And we can't ask poor people around the world to forgo the comforts of the lifestyle we have been living, and which they wish to copy, "for the sake of the planet" or to set aside their habitats and ecosystems for the sake of humanity. No country wants to become an ecological reserve for the world, especially if it means it cannot pursue economic prosperity.

Try floating this idea with people who go hungry every night for lack of food or money to buy food and see what kind of reaction you get.

In the end, poor people matter. And the governments of Brazil, China, India, Indonesia and African countries must be concerned first and foremost with the well-being of their people. I'm not saying that human well-being isn't tied to ecosystem health; I'm a strong believer that economic growth is tied to those resources.

I believe we can no longer separate the issue of economic development and poverty alleviation from ecosystem health. We also can't expect that governments whose people aren't meeting basic needs to protect their habitats over the economic well-being of their people.

Which leads me to assumption three: increasingly, we are entrusting protection of habitats and ecosystems with the wrong people. Governments have a mandate to improve the economic health of their country and people.

Yet we continue to have faith that these governments will "do the right thing" and enforce laws protecting their forests or other ecosystems in the face of seemingly insurmountable economic obstacles.

Why do we think that is a good strategy? What indicators do we have that tell us this strategy will succeed where it hasn't in the past? Why do we think that the World Bank program to pay countries to "avoid deforestation" will be any more successful than their previous grand plans?

The same goes for NGOs. NGOs are basically corporations that serve a set of shareholders (donors in this case) who subscribe to a specific idea of Nature and a specific set of outcomes, outcomes that may not necessarily be shared by all stakeholders.

This idea of Nature has for a long time discounted the needs of people both today and in the future. To illustrate this, one only need look at the environmental community's approach to government debt.

Conservation groups (my old employers among them) have promoted using a country's debt as leverage to gain conservation protection. The debt-for-nature swap was an innovation of the past couple of decades and a noble one. But it was also painfully ignorant of the true nature of that debt -- in many cases "dictator debt" incurred by regimes that did not have its people's best interests in mind.

Now that we have a more clear understanding of how that debt was derived, and can no longer ignore its immoral origins, we need to give up or adjust the debt-for-nature swap concept and join the call for debt forgiveness. That will free some countries from having to exploit their natural resources to pay down that debt.

Yet, many in the environmental community continue to push the debt-for-nature strategy, because they can't let go of a good thing that advances their agenda.

How is this different from any corporation -- a sector many environmentalists attack -- that advances its agenda at the expense of people here and abroad? Can we really trust ecosystems and habitats to big government or big international non-governmental corporations?

In the end, wouldn't a better approach be to put our trust in the people and the communities where these ecosystems and habitats are found? They have the most at stake in managing these resources, as their needs and livelihoods are most closely tied to the lands and waters.

I believe human beings are basically good. I also believe that, given the opportunity, communities will manage their common interests and keep each other in check. This is the open-source community approach one finds in social networks and in business models such as eBay.

I also believe that human beings are the most creative and adaptable species on the planet -- just look at the variety of habitats, climates, and conditions we inhabit. Our resilience as a species is astounding. I argue that we need to embrace this resourcefulness and apply it to overcoming ecological shifts, climate change, and loss of ecosystems and habitats.

We need to unleash the power of human creativity to find new ways to "save" those places for future use by both human and non-human species.

Unleashing this human capacity will require suspending our assumptions. We will need to focus more on community-based or "commons-based" management (as Jonathan Rowe of the West Marin Commons in California calls it in a recent essay in The State of the World 2008).

We need a people-centered conservation that addresses the real needs of real people, and to empower individual entrepreneurs and communities to manage their resources cooperatively rather than impose grand plans from Washington.

We need to clearly draw the lines connecting economic prosperity with ecological health and human well-being.

And, finally, we need to unleash human creativity to find new technological solutions as well as new ways of living with nature.

This may, in the end, be our only hope to really save habitat and ecosystems – and, ultimately, to save ourselves.