Thursday, February 24, 2011

What can America learn from Bhutan?

In their recently released budget proposal, the GOP threw some mean punches to the environment--and ultimately to Americans, who depend on a healthy environment. Here is some of the potential damage it could cause, according to NRDC, Climate Progress and Repower America:

And the list goes on.

America's budget may be in the red, but that does not justify jeopardizing the health and safety of its people and environment. Without them, there will be no economy.

While we can still hope either the Senate or the President will put a stop to this frightening bill, it is quite disheartening to be affronted with such shortsightedness and blatant disregard for the health of Americans and our environment. The paradigm of putting profit before people and the planet (apologies for the harsh alliteration) is clearly not working, and it frustrates me that we seem to remain trapped in it.

This made me wonder, how does a country go about making the environment a budget priority? Is there an existing alternative?

Thankfully, I found one in the tiny Kingdom of Bhutan.

Located in the Himalayas, Bhutan is considered a "developing" country. However, its governing philosophy seems more advanced than that of any developed country, to me. When faced with development pressures back in the 1970s, its then-king declared that Bhutan will not measure its success by its Gross Domestic Product (GDP), but by its Gross National Happiness (GNH). In other words, the country determines its development based on the long term well being of its people--a philosophy no doubt driven by its strong Buddhist tradition.

And to the Bhutanese, happiness includes a healthy environment. As one of the four pillars of the GNH index, the environment is at the core of its national planning; sustainable development, good governance, and the preservation of cultural values are the remaining three. The country recognizes that the well being of its people rests on the conservation of its natural resources, which are, after all, the foundation of its economy.

Haa Valley. Photo: Douglas J. McLaughlin

Half of Bhutan's national revenue is provided by hydroelectricity, which it sends to India. Tourism makes up another large chunk. And the tourists go to Bhutan to bask in its unique natural splendor. In fact, the country is designated as one of the world's biodiversity hot spots, and more than a quarter of its land is a national park or other protected area.

Bhutan's environmental leadership is also evident in the measures its government has taken to explicitly protect its environment. For example, in 1991 the country established the Bhutan Trust Fund for Environmental Conservation--the first of its kind in the world--to ensure financial sustainability of its conservation efforts. Also, its constitution mandates that 60 percent of its land remain covered by forest, and it is one of the few places in the world that has actually increased its forest cover over the years.

Here's a PDF that gives an overview of the environment and economic situation in Bhutan.

Photo: Thomas Wanhoff

Before you begin thinking this might be a utopia, Bhutan struggles with balancing environmental conservation and poverty alleviation, like so many developing countries. In an attempt to solve this dilemma, the country has teamed up with the United Nations' Poverty Environment Initiative. Together, they are achieving some impressive progress:
  • The development of Poverty-Environment Mainstreaming Guidelines to "green" economic development
  • A budget analysis of environment-related public investments, helping to improve their accounting
  • The establishment of participatory local planning and development based on the sustainable use of natural resources
Read this case study to learn more about this effort.

And Bhutan, like any country, has not escaped the everlasting pressures of resource extraction and modernization. For example, while not a significant part of their economy, mining is causing environmental destruction and, yes, unhappiness. Dolomite mining in the southwest of the country is not only leveling mountains, but eroding soils, contaminating water (and thus killing thirsty wildlife that rely on that water), damaging nearby tea plantations, and angering locals.

(Insert heavy sigh)

Shortcomings aside, what I think is most remarkable about Bhutan is its courage to defy a paradigm that it recognized as detrimental to the health and happiness of its people and its environment. Instead of allowing the iron fist of capitalism to swoop in and take advantage of its social and natural resources, it rejected it and came up with a bold alternative. Bhutan certainly presents an amazing model I hope America and other countries can someday emulate.

Excuse me, GOP, don't you like happiness?

Want to learn more about GNH? The Center for Bhutan Studies has a very comprehensive explanation of their GNH Index, and this video, while a little dated, provides an interesting glimpse into the culture.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

The missing feminine mystique of human-wildlife management

Let's return to my series on human-wildlife relations, lest too much time passes since my last related post. As promised, I want to explore a more hopeful way of looking at conflict between humans and wildlife: co-existence. While I don't believe there can be perfect harmony between human and nonhuman earthlings (humans still haven't figured out how to live harmoniously with each other), I do believe there is potential for a positive paradigm shift in our cohabitation.

But what could facilitate the paradigm shift? I am sure there are many approaches to answering this question, but the approach I want to take is that provided by ecofeminism.

Thus far, the understanding and acceptance of ecofeminism has primarily been confined to eco-minded, feminist academic circles. Here is my attempt to throw some of these ideas out of the circle for others to catch. 

What is ecofeminism?

While there are a few camps of thought, ecofeminists are united under the recognition that ecological problems are social and cultural problems arising from a patriarchal society that supports the domination and control of nature. This oppression is linked to the oppression of women, as well as of classes, races and other groups of people dubbed as "different." This othering, a result of patriarchy’s dualism (i.e. human vs. nature), alienates us from nature and from a sense of empathy towards it, opening up space for the fear that fuels our need to dominate all that is "wild."

In its explicit inclusion of animals in this critique, ecofeminism links the oppression of animals to that of humans, claiming that animals are the victims of speciesism under the current patriarchal, anthropocentric paradigm. As ecofeminist Greta Gaard put it, "From an ecofeminist perspective, speciesism is a form of oppression that parallels and reinforces other forms of oppression."

Yes, this could be perceived as a radical perspective, but not one that is outside of reason or possibility. After all, we have let patriarchal oppression rule for so long, why should we see a perspective that embraces inclusion and equity as "out there"? Ecofeminism just seems like a more direct route to co-existence. 

Patriarchy prevents co-existence

Wildlife management has historically been a male-dominated profession with male-dominated constituencies—hunters, anglers, and trappers. (Unfortunately I couldn't find real statistics to prove this, but I think my assumption is safe). While not all men are patriarchal, this gender unbalance allows patriarchy to pervade the philosophy and practices addressing our relationship with wildlife.

The gray wolf serves as a poster child example of this. Throughout American history, the gray wolf has been a symbol of the feared wilderness that must be tamed or destroyed. Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the dominant masculine construction of society was predicated on mastery and control of nature, which fueled the “war on wolves,” causing a near annihilation of the species.

A more recent example was the push by Alaskan sportsmen in the 2000s to reinstate lethal "control" of wolf populations. Hunters were blaming wolves for the declining ungulate (elk, moose, etc.) populations and demanding elimination of the competition. The real culprits, however, were economic changes, climate change and overhunting.

From an ecofeminist perspective, this example symbolizes the stubborn attempt of a patriarchal social structure to reestablish and reaffirm its dominance when threatened. Such struggle for dominance only perpetuates discordance between humans and wildlife.

The missing ecofeminine mystique

Ecofeminists would argue that wildlife management has long been bereft of the feminine “mystique,” which has rendered its practice and philosophy inadequate at meeting the needs of either humans or wildlife in an equal and just manner. Coexistence cannot happen while this persists.

For example, women's voices have been generally excluded from wildlife management. One study showed that women's perspectives have been underrepresented in wildlife attitude surveys. In essence, the study found that surveys are typically either addressed to or completed by the man of the house, thus neglecting opportunities for women to weigh in. Since wildlife managers often use stakeholder surveys to determine their policies, this exclusion of women's perspectives certainly implies the existence of inequality in the citizen participation process of wildlife management.

Furthermore, women are generally the wildlife friendlier gender. As prominent wildlife attitudes expert Stephen Kellert has shown in his research, women are more likely to express greater concern for animal welfare and less support for the exploitation and dominance of animals. Men, on the other hand, are more willing to exploit animals and their habitats, especially for human benefit.

Another study suggested that American women are more supportive of policies that value and protect wildlife, such as the Endangered Species Act, while men are stronger proponents of property rights.

One can therefore deduce that a better effort to include the feminine perspective into wildlife management and policy may facilitate institutionalized co-existence. Applying an ecofeminist ethic could nurture a worldview that views wildlife as our equals and their oppression as behavior to be scorned and eliminated.

*I will fully admit there are many holes in this post that beg for deeper explanation. I borrowed my ideas for this post from a term paper I wrote last year, and I had to leave a lot out. Honestly, I don't think a meager blog post can do this topic justice. But I wanted to at least throw the idea out there, and I intend to return to ecofeminism now and again.

Reading list for this post

Unfortunately, these are all academic papers, so they are not accessible for free to everyone. But if you're interested in learning more about the points I made in this post, here are my sources. For those unfamiliar with academic-style bibliographies, the journal in which you can find each article is italicized and the journal volume number is the one just after the journal title.

Anahita, S., Mix T.L., (2006). Retrofitting Frontier Masculinity for Alaska’s War Against Wolves. Gender and Society, 20, 332-353.

Anthony, M.L., Knuth, B.A., Lauber, T.B. (2004). Gender and Citizen Participation in Wildlife Management Decision Making. Society and Natural Resources, 17, 395-411.

Carlassare, E. (1999). Socialist and Cultural Ecofeminism: Allies in Resistance. Ethics and the Environment, 5, 89-106.

Czech, B., Devers, P.K., Krausman, P.R. (2001). The Relationship of Gender to Species Conservation Attitudes. Wildlife Society Bulletin, 29, 187-194.

Emel, J. (1998). Are You Man Enough, Big and Bad Enough? Wolf Eradication in the US. In J. Wolch & J. Emel (Eds), Animal Geographies: Place, Politics, and Identity in the Nature-Culture Borderlands (pp. 91-116). London: Verso.

Gaard, G. (2001). Ecofeminism on the Wing: Perspectives on Human-Animal Relations. Women and Environments International Magazine, 52/53, 19-22.

Jacobson, C.A., Brown, T.L., Scheufele, D.A. (2007). Gender-Biased Data in Survey Research Regarding Wildlife. Society and Natural Resources, 20, 373-377.

Kellert, S.R., Berry, J.K. (1987). Attitudes, Knowledge, and Behaviors toward Wildlife as Affected by Gender. Wildlife Society Bulletin, 15, 363-371.

Palamar, C.R. (2007). Wild, Women, and Wolves: An Ecological Feminist Examination of Wolf Reintroduction. Environmental Ethics, 29, 63-75.

Plumwood, V. (1992). Feminism and Ecofeminism. The Ecologist, 22, 10.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Helpful links for hopeful environmental job seekers

As a follow up to my previous post, I compiled a list of links I've found helpful in looking for a job in the environmental arena. It also includes a couple I've never used, but recently discovered, which might also be helpful. I am sure there are many more, but these are good places to start. Also, this list has a Pacific Northwest/West coast bias, only because that is the geographic region I know best for job seeking purposes. Good luck!

Other Tips
  • Conduct a search of environmental organizations in your desired location. Sign up for their emails and regularly check their job listings to find out what positions they have open. 
  • When they say it's all about who you know, they mean it. Networking and making meaningful connections with organizations you are interested in (for example, by volunteering) is really the best way to get your foot in the door.
  • Talk to people who have jobs that you think you might like. I found most people are open to giving you at least a half hour of their time (it's also good for their karma). Find out what their work entails, how they got there, and what you should do to get there. It's good to have an idea of what it might be like to work in a particular position or for a particular organization before you pursue such opportunities. It might also save you from someday finding yourself in a job that didn't turn out to be what you thought it would be.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

On becoming a gainfully employed (but underpaid) hopeful environmentalist

The road to becoming a gainfully employed, hopeful environmentalist is long. I speak from experience. While it can be rewarding, it can be equally frustrating. In response to an assignment from my Long Form Journalism professor to write a story as a list, here I offer a step-by-guide guide, alongside a chronicle of my own journey thus far. Despite its hint of cynicism, my hope is that this “guide” has at least a little value as insight for jobseekers.

Step 1: If unemployed and unattached, move to one of America’s liberal bubbles. Examples include Madison, WI; Seattle, WA; the entire state of Vermont; and Portland, OR. But be warned, you are probably not the only hopeful, unemployed environmentalist to move there with dreams of being paid to save the world. And you may wonder, why move to a place that is already relatively environmentally savvy, when you could make more meaningful change in “unconverted” territory? While I won’t discourage that option, if you are just starting out and want to learn the “best practices,” living where they already drink the Kool-Aid, so to speak, might be more nurturing for your blossoming career. At least, that’s what I told myself.

After returning from the Peace Corps, and then from a summer stint as a seasonal worker in Alaska, I decided to follow my passions and head west to Portland, OR. I was ready to blossom into the environmentalist I’d always wanted to be. I was sure my deep-seated passion would be enough to land me a glamorous job at an environmental nonprofit. Little did I know I would soon come face-to-face with my naivety. 

Step 2: Set up informational interviews with employed environmentalists, whose jobs you covet.

Within the first few weeks of landing in my new home, I had spoken to probably a dozen people working for environmental nonprofits, eager for any advice or leads on getting a job just like theirs. The reoccurring advice was to volunteer to get my foot in the door. In other words, swallow your pride, your Bachelors degree and your two years working in the developing world (which you may think looks good on your resume, but probably won’t get you that foot in the door), and work for free.

Step 3: Face it. Take the advice. Start working for free.

And so, I swallowed my pride, my Bachelors degree (it was in German, after all), and my previous experience (now rendered meaningless), and started volunteering at two nonprofits. This was it, my foot in the door. I was meeting people, making connections, and doing meaningful work (in the guise of menial tasks). I would land a real job soon enough. Or so I thought.

Step 4: Attend the local “Green Drinks,” but don’t go with high expectations.

Many liberal bubbles have a monthly social and networking group called Green Drinks. In a sense, it’s the gathering for hopeful environmentalists, especially unemployed hopeful environmentalists eager to make connections that will lead to gainful employment. At my first Green Drinks, I quickly found out that unemployed hopeful environmentalists were pretty much the only people that came to Green Drinks. As we went around the circle introducing ourselves, each of our stories sounded very similar: “I just moved her from [insert East Coast/Midwestern city], because I’m passionate about the environment and I want to make a difference in the world. I am currently unemployed, but I’m here to meet people and get advice on how to get my foot in the door.” This would not be the place to make meaningful career connections.

Step 5: Don’t give up.

Determined not to be disheartened by the month that had passed and my persisting unemployed status, I continued to work for free and apply to every environmental nonprofit job I could find, for which I was even remotely qualified.

Step 6: Land the part-time internship you are probably over-qualified for.

Minor success. One of my volunteer gigs turned into a part-time, paid internship. Sure, the work was not very stimulating, but I was finally getting compensated. Progress.

Step 7:
Don’t give up.

After three months, 12 job interviews, and two near hires (to find out I was both their second choices), I still had no permanent job. Nearly heart broken, I was stubborn not to succumb to my frustration, throw in the towel, and just get a desk job at a law firm. I still had my part-time gig. But more importantly, I still had my passion.

Step 8:
Get hired, but on contract.

Then, eight months into my Portland life, the universe played a funny trick on me. One of the organizations I had interviewed with a couple months prior contacted me out of the blue, asking if I wanted to come work full time-for them. Naturally, I say yes. Sure, it was on contract, but they said it likely would eventually become a permanent position. Progress!

Step 9: Don’t give up.

Six months later, settled into my job and feeling good about my work, the promise of a permanent position had still not been made. Reluctantly, I began to look for other jobs, seeking security, having realized I cannot survive on passion alone. 
Step 10: Finally, land the permanent position…with benefits!

Seven months into the job, they finally offered me the permanent position. I became a salaried hopeful environmentalist…underpaid, but with benefits! Finally, I could put my passion full steam ahead.

Step 11: Figure out that the permanent position you finally landed is not exactly what you want to be doing.

About 10 months into my job, I began to realize it was not how I wanted to use my passion. Sure, I was thankful to have job. But the glamor of it began to fade, and I could feel my passion starting to become jaded by the under-stimulating work that dominated my day-to-day. How could I save the environment with jaded passion?

Step 12: Don’t give up. Make opportunities for yourself.

I was determined not give up on my dream or my mission. I just needed to take the initiative to open opportunities for myself to use my passion effectively. And I did. I took on projects that would certainly lead me to the work that I really wanted to do. Sure, I was now working ridiculous hours for the still crappy salary and letting some of my obligations slide a little. But I was using my real talents, and isn’t that better on the whole? And can’t we just hire interns to take over those tasks that I was always over-qualified to do anyway?

Step 13: Realize that, to be doing what you really want to be doing, you need to go to grad school.

No. I realized working 50+ hours a week is not sustainable. Neither could I manage that many different projects without letting the quality of my work slide. And, no, we can’t hire interns to take over those tasks. So, I realized my only hope for using my passion and talents to save the environment was to finally go to grad school.

Step 14: Apply to grad school. Get into grad school. Leave your beloved liberal bubble for another liberal bubble to attend grad school.

And so I did. That summer, I found myself leaving my beloved Portland and migrating back east for the mighty Midwest—specifically to Madison, WI—to begin grad school.

The next four steps are pretty self-explanatory.

Step 15: Learn more about the world’s environmental problems than you ever knew before.

Step 16: Begin to lose hope that we can get ourselves out of this mess.

Step 17: Start a blog about hope, and hope it gives you hope.

Step 18: Don’t give up.

Note to the reader: This guide is not yet complete. Please check back in five to ten years.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Elephants in the backyard

The following news article is just for pretend. None of the people and places in it actually exist. It springs off of my last post, and is in response to Deborah's related comment. It reflects the opinion of this writer, opinions that are based in real, existing research in human-wildlife relations.

South Dakota town says 'No' to elephants in their backyard
By Jenny Seifert
Published: February 4, 2025

Where the buffalo roam a pod of African elephants are also trying to make their home on the range, but with little success. And their neighbors are angry.

Citizens of the town of Smallville, SD, which borders the elephant's range, are fed up with the elephants. The pod is damaging crop fields and property. A few have even become aggressive toward people and other animals, such as livestock and the recovering herds of buffalo.

"I lost an entire season's worth of corn in just one night to a couple of elephants that trespassed onto my field last summer," said Phillip Johnson, resident of Smallville and farmer.

Another farmer, Joe McDonnell, lost a couple of cattle to a young bull elephant this past fall.

The conflict is the unfortunate result of a trial run of a "re-wilding" project that began ten years ago. Re-wilding, in this case, basically means importing large mammals from Africa and Asia, which are related to those that once existed in North America 13,000 years ago, before humans moved in. With the help of these animals, the conservation biologists spearheading the effort dreamed that North America's grassland ecosystem could be restored back to its Pleistocene state.

"In addition to rehabilitating America's grasslands, we thought the project could improve the conservation of endangered species, such as African elephants, whose populations are suffering in their native range," said conservation biologist Henry Stewart, one of the project's leads.

The African elephant was supposed to fill the ecological niche, or the position and purpose in the local ecosystem, that the woolly mammoth once claimed. The idea was that the elephants would help restore and maintain America's imperiled grasslands by eating woody plants that otherwise dominate grass species.

Thus far, the team is seeing limited grassland recovery and, unfortunately, also some unintended detrimental effects to the ecological web, such as squabbles between the elephants and the buffalo.

"The re-wilding project brought in species that the North American grassland had evolved without since the Pleistocene. The ecosystem simply doesn't know what to do with the elephants," said Daphne White, ecologist and critic of the project.  

The conflict between the elephants and local citizens was also unanticipated.

"We didn't think that the problems elephants have been experiencing with people in Africa would travel over to America," said Stewart.

Human-wildlife relations expert, Miranda Long, still can't believe that the team overlooked the possibility of this conflict. "No matter the country or culture, humans and animals, especially large mammals like elephants, vie for the same resources--land and food. The re-wilding project seems to just be replicating the conflict between elephants and people that has persisted for decades in Africa and Asia."

For example, conservationists are still trying to resolve conflict between elephants and the people of Masai Mara, Kenya. Due to depleted habitat, elephants have been raiding crops and destroying property. Simply put, they are competing with the people for the same limited resources.

Perhaps most disturbingly, across Africa elephants have been attacking people, in many cases killing them, a story which the New York Times covered in 2006. Scientists think that the elephants are acting out like this because of poaching, which causes significant disruptions to their intricate social structure. In other words, the trauma of losing relatives and the absence of certain important social ties are resulting in distressed and confused elephants.

Many conservationists are blaming the opening of an elephant hunting season in South Dakota five years ago for the increased cases of aggressive elephants.

"When it comes down to it, wildlife management is often in reality people management, requiring a continuous negotiation between ecological principles and human values and demands," Long said.

The re-wilding team now hesitates to begin their plans to introduce the African lion to the Plains. Historically, humans have had contentious relationships with large carnivores, and some conservationists fear adding another carnivore to the mix in North America could be disastrous.

"Americans have had a hard enough time seeking a truce with the gray wolf, which makes me very wary of the idea of importing lions too," said Long.

American frontiersmen vilified the gray wolf throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, nearly eradicating them entirely. A cultural change of heart and the Endangered Species Act enabled a successful recovery by the early twenty-first century. Yet, once populations had reached a number large enough to justify their removal from the federal endangered list, the wolves once again faced hatred, mainly from angry farmers and hunters, who saw them as a threat to livestock and game, respectively.

The re-wilding team is still scratching their heads about what to do with the elephants, and the residents of Smallville are demanding that a solution be found quickly.

"We haven't wanted to fence in the elephants, because the team questions how the project would then be any different from a giant zoo or safari park. But it now seems that fencing is our only choice, besides removing the elephants altogether," said Stewart.

Daphne White laments the ecological oversight and failure of the project. "While it was a bold and good intentioned conservation undertaking, re-wilding with animals that don't belong in this current ecosystem is simply an irresponsible science experiment. I think the project could have been much more successful if it had focused on restoring the grasslands with native fauna that have evolved to live here more recently," she said.  

Long believes that Americans need to undergo a fundamental value shift for any ecological restoration efforts to really be successful. "The paradigm of oppressing the needs of nature to make way for human demands, which is exacerbated by the persistent human vs. nature dichotomy, will continue to handicap conservation efforts. I think we'll only be successful when we collectively change how we view our relationship with the other creatures we share this planet with," she said.

* * *
I promise to revisit this issue in a future post, returning to a more hopeful way of looking at conflict between humans and wildlife.