This is what a victory looks like!

17 Nov

I have been an environmentalist for my whole life, but I’ve only become an activist this year. Bill McKibben and Gus Speth inspired me to dive headfirst into the Tar Sands Action movement to stop the Keystone XL pipeline from Alberta to Texas, from getting arrested during my first week living in D.C. to attending State Department hearings to helping encircle the White House six bodies deep. It seemed like a really long shot at first, and then like it would be a slow progress, and all the while pipeline approval seemed more inevitable than anything else…until one week ago, when all of a sudden it wasn’t so inevitable anymore. The State Department announced it will be re-reviewingTransCanada’s environmental impact statement for the convenient period of at least a year, bringing the final approval to a time just after the next presidential election.

As Bill McKibben said, “um…we won.”

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“Arresting Fear With Hope” Published in SAGE Magazine!

14 Oct

SAGE Magazine, a student publication of the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies with a new and bold online presence, published a version of my essay today.   Here’s the link: Arresting Fear with Hope: Protesting the Keystone XL Pipeline.  If you’ve read my essay published earlier on this blog you won’t notice many differences, but check out the wonderful SAGE and its great mix of literature, policy, art, and ideas.

How to be a competent locally based conservation practitioner

6 Oct

So I’m reading this book edited by David E Naugle about conservation and energy development, and up comes this list in chapter 12 about key traits for hiring competent locally based conservation practitioners for working with a local community on landscape-scale approaches to conservation. You must “be aligned with core [organizational] values like integrity and excellence, be composed, deal well with ambiguity, drive for results, be interpersonally savvy, learn on the fly, be partnership oriented, have patience, perseverance, and political savvy, size people up well, and be a strategic thinker.”

Fortunately for me I’m not a locally based conservation practitioner, because I feel like I do about half those things reasonably well on my best days. This list highlights how hard it is to put conservation into practice when you’re not just a biologist or a government person telling people what to do–you’re a part of the community, leading from behind, listening and staying put for years.

I imagined what it would be like if I were to go to my first community conservation meeting in a small Western town, up in the Rockies, with people already committed to conservation and ready to begin a partnership. What do you think, would it be effective to start by standing up and saying:

“Hi everyone, I’m an overeducated treehugging Easterner here to work on landscape conservation. I’m 20 years younger than you and I stink at hunting and fishing but I love backpacking and kayaking. The good news is, the other 99.999% of our DNA is the same, and I feel as deeply connected to the place I come from, the Florida Everglades, as you do to the Front Range. I don’t want anyone telling me what to do when I’m in the woods and I ache when the woods get hurt. I want that landscape to be there for my children and I want my children to enjoy it and see it as their landscape, conserved but not preserved. I like bacon for breakfast and have a hard time getting out of bed some mornings. I look forward to meeting you all and talking conservation around the conference tables and politics over coffee. Thanks.”


Blue sky, reddening leaves, crisp chill in the air…

16 Sep

It’s autumn!  Yesterday’s equinox brought a cold, drizzly rain to Washington, DC, culminating with a pink and blue sunset complete with semi circle rainbow across the sky.  Then this morning dawned bright and misty, with a snap in the air and green leaves with just a hint of blush on their tips at the tops of the trees.  A brisk bike ride to work cooled the arms and warmed the legs.

Welcome, Fall!


Arresting Fear with Hope

2 Sep

My mother says I was never afraid of anything as a child.  I would run laughing into huge waves on the beach and climb trees so tall it made my brother dizzy to try and follow.  I am fortunate enough to have a family and personal safety net that means I do not fear the lack of food or a roof over my head.

And yet I live every day with fear, a deeply personal and also political kind of fear that is at the same time a bit laughable in the light of day and devastatingly realistic.  Climate change threatens my future and the people and places I love, and the physics of the atmosphere mean that there is no way to undo the damage we have already caused–all we can do is wait to see what the effects will be.  I find this terrifying, and even more so that our country has been so helpless (and in denial, and backwards, and corrupted) in response to the threat.

I usually deal with this diffuse sense of fear and helplessness in self-consciously quirky ways, like practicing survival skills and learning first aid, navigation, and other useful post-apocalyptic strategies.  I also try not to think about it too much if I don’t have to.  Last night, however, I did think about it, and I talked about my fear.

Syncrude Aurora Oil Sands Mine, Canada.

Syncrude Aurora Oil Sands Mine, north of Fort McMurray, Canada. Photo credit Elias Schewel via Flickr.

At Saint Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Washington, DC, over one hundred people gathered for a four-hour peaceful action training to prepare for a demonstration the next day.  We had come from all over the nation: California, Texas, Colorado, Massachusetts, Nebraska, West Virginia, even Alaska.  Some were from DC, of course, but it was astonishing how many had come from so far away.  They had come for one purpose: to protest the Keystone XL pipeline and the increased tar sands mining and burning it will facilitate.

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The Science of Survival: Sit down and have a snack!

22 Aug

It’s very easy for us to get lost in the woods. Science has discovered that people are constitutionally incapable of walking in straight lines when they don’t have markers they know how to follow:

A Mystery: Why Can’t We Walk Straight? from NPR on Vimeo.

So it’s helpful to learn how to track and trail, and how to use natural features as “handholds” so you have a sense of how you fit in the landscape. The technique ranges from dead-simple to highly complex, beginning with the easy part: pick a relatively distant, immobile feature (mountain, bump in the landscape, really big tree on the horizon) and determine which direction you want to go, relative to it. Now, as you travel, just keep that feature in sight at about the same angle to your body as it was when you picked your direction. So if you think you should go straight ahead and there’s a distinctive mountain top off to your right, keep it to your right as you walk. Remember to reassess periodically and pick a new feature, or you will manage to walk in a beautiful circle all around that mountain…

When I teach my wilderness skills and survival classes, I always say the number one thing to do if you get lost or find yourself in a frightening situation is: “sit down, and have a snack.” You need to get out of the cycle of self-doubt and settle your judgement, as well as boost your energy for the challenging decisions you’re about to make as you try to get found or simply stay safe. And if you’re sitting down, you’re resting and you can hydrate, check your map, rearrange your gear, or clean the dirt out of your boots. These are all useful survival activities! Now science comes along to support my advice:

The brain, like the rest of the body, derived energy from glucose, the simple sugar manufactured from all kinds of foods. To establish cause and effect, researchers at Baumeister’s lab tried refueling the brain in a series of experiments involving lemonade mixed either with sugar or with a diet sweetener. The sugary lemonade provided a burst of glucose, the effects of which could be observed right away in the lab; the sugarless variety tasted quite similar without providing the same burst of glucose. Again and again, the sugar restored willpower, but the artificial sweetener had no effect. The glucose would at least mitigate the ego depletion and sometimes completely reverse it. The restored willpower improved people’s self-control as well as the quality of their decisions: they resisted irrational bias when making choices, and when asked to make financial decisions, they were more likely to choose the better long-term strategy instead of going for a quick payoff.

via Do You Suffer From Decision Fatigue? –

So while it’s no substitute for the many other things you should know how to do or for pure common sense and survival instinct in terms of getting through a sticky situation in the woods, just remember that science backs it up: when in trouble outdoors, first thing to do is sit down and have a snack.

Reviving Dead Stuff

9 Aug

Last week I attended the National Conference on Ecosystem Restoration (NCER 2011) in Baltimore, MD.  It was a four-and-a-half day conference, with about 700 attendees, almost all of whom gave presentations or posters.  It was packed, exhausting, and exhilarating!  It was great to meet so many people in such an amazing field: the field of bringing dead stuff back to life again.

I think there’s a lot of communicative value in the concept of ecosystem restoration, and a lot of room for political maneuvering and public support.  Storm Cunningham of REVITALIZ made this point in a workshop, and I agree with him: people love fixing dead things.  It’s so much easier to sell the idea of making some dirty, brown place green again and see that transformation than it is to rally uninterested citizens around contributing money or taxes for preservation of a place they never go to anyway.  So here’s the question: can revitalization, renewal, and restoration be tied to climate change somehow?

I think one of our best bets in this regard may be in coastal area restoration, where regaining some of the lost functions of the ecosystem will make shorelines more resilient to extreme weather, sea level rise, and saltwater intrusion into aquifers.

A design firm's vision for the restoration of the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet, or "MRGO".

Thoughts on a laundry line

27 Jul

How does this:

lead to this: ?

And how is this:

related to this: ?

Many people have very skewed perceptions of how to conserve or save energy. Understandably, I think. Many of us have heard for years that we should turn off light bulbs when we leave a room, or use CFLs, or turn our computers off at night. Which we should! But it turns out “green fatigue” is a real thing, and just as research has shown that our we can wear out our will power (“self control is a limited resource”), we can wear out our desire to do right by the environment. This is especially true when we underestimate the power of our actions, and lose desire to further reduce our carbon footprint after, say, changing out all the lightbulbs. If a little more environmentally aware, it’s easy to bargain with yourself. I do this all the time: for example, I tell myself, “well, it’s OK to drive downtown today instead of bike, because I didn’t eat any meat over the past few days.”

Mean perceptions of energy used or saved as a function of actual energy used or saved for 15 devices and activities. The diagonal dashed line represents perfect accuracy. Inset: Individual regression curves for 30 randomly selected participants. (Attari et al 2010)

Shahzeen Attari and colleagues published a study last year examining the disconnect between consumers’ perceptions of how much energy a certain action uses or conserves and how much that action actually uses or conserves. It turns out, unsurprisingly, there’s a big gap, as shown in the figure excerpted from their paper. We are pretty accurate at estimating the energy use of low-ticket items, like replacing bulbs or unplugging electronics, but really bad at estimating the potential savings from line-drying our clothes and finding alternatives for big-ticket appliances like central A/C, dish washers, and space heaters. Note that the figure is charted on a logarithmic scale…meaning that the big ticket items are thousands of times more energy consumptive than the smaller ones.

Their findings, combined with the green fatigue concept, show a part of the reason why it’s so hard for us to reduce our overall energy consumption: if we perceive that unplugging our desktop computer is just as good for the environment as line-drying our clothing, any sensible person would do the much easier one. But in reality, turning off the clothes dryer is about 30 times more energy conserving than unplugging the computer. With green fatigue, we do the easy one, genuinely think we’ve done enough, and then…stop there.

That’s where the flooding comes in. False certainty about energy use means we’re not in control of our energy-driven carbon emissions, which are contributing to higher and higher levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. The planet is heating up and more heat in the oceans and atmosphere means more severe weather events of all kinds, from this summer’s global heat wave (and last summer’s too, for that matter) to flooding in the midwest, Australia, Pakistan, and elsewhere around the world. The current concentration of carbon dioxide-equivalent gases in the atmosphere is 391 parts per million, and scientists have said we need to get back below 350 ppm to avert climate catastrophe.

So let’s line dry our clothes. It takes longer, it’s true. I’ve been doing it for the past two years (except in the dead of winter) and I hate hauling clothes around. But it gets me outside, it keeps me in touch with the weather. I don’t have to save as many quarters for my coin-op basement machines. I talk to my neighbors more. They call me if it looks like rain and I haven’t noticed yet.

As a matter of fact, it’s time to go do some laundry right now!

A Tale of Two Boots (Part 2)

20 Jul

Culture Clash or Delicate Balance?: A Week in the Maine Woods.  Or, “A Tale of Two Boots”

This essay was written by my mother, Daniella Levine, on July 16, 2006 after a few days of hiking on the Appalachian Trail with my brother and me.

A Story in Two Parts: Part One describes our family, against the backdrop of an amazing adventure and terrain. Part Two describes a shifting culture and community against a backdrop of our family’s growing relationship with the place and the times.

Part Two 

Buddy chatted on, about the lumber industry, how many rescues he had effected, how he had snuck into the trail on numerous occasions leaving mysterious notes, baffling the hikers. He bragged that he could find anyone anywhere along the 100 Mile Wilderness, one way or the other.

He had grown up in these hills (part Native American we later learned, and adopted by those of European descent), learned to drive on the lumber roads, hiking the trail. He knew every nook and cranny. He was a trail whisperer. He had joined the military, been involved in a truck crash in Tennessee (the driver fell asleep at the wheel), broken his spine, and ended up with two fused and three artificial discs. Strong pain medication left him listless and confused. He proceeded to Motrin in massive doses, which burned out his stomach. He has difficulty with foods today, but is drug free, because he “just did not like the way the drugs made me feel.” He discovered massage therapy, and now skis all winter with his stepsons and step grandchildren, his greatest joy and release. The snows are receding, thanks to global warming, but he has a favorite place that still gets pretty good snow. He can no longer hike. He moved back to Monson, his childhood home and went to work for Mr. Shaw.

The founder of Shaw’s Boarding House, a thriving Monson business, died a few years later, after building a national reputation as the “not to be missed” way station for the hiking community. Dawn, the new owner, persuaded Buddy that she could not run the business without his prowess as cook and shuttle-driver. Before she even bought the business, she had Buddy write down all the details he had learned working for “Old Man Shaw.” Buddy’s breakfasts were famous up and down the trail, and he was a key component of the business’ success.

The lumber roads are marvelously smooth, and we fly along at 45 mph. Buddy explains the different lumber extraction methods as we drive by: clear cut, select cut. His father still lumbers the old fashioned way, tree by tree, well into the winter. He rates the different companies along the route, which are more concerned about the community, which just want to leach and plunder the land to maximize profit.

I am busily massaging my foot which has gone numb. Buddy suggests a massage. Continue reading

A Tale of Two Boots (Part 1)

15 Jul

Culture Clash or Delicate Balance?: A Week in the Maine Woods.  Or, “A Tale of Two Boots”

This essay was written by my mother, Daniella Levine, on July 16, 2006 after a few days of hiking on the Appalachian Trail with my brother and me.  The idea was that my brother (Ted Cava) and I would through-hike southbound from Maine to Georgia following our respective graduations, Ted’s from high school and mine from college.  Our parents came along to see us off and to join us for the first week on the trail, crossing the “hundred mile wilderness” on foot.  

Daniella is a great writer and directs a wonderful organization that envisions and advocates for social justice and equality in Miami, FL, called Catalyst Miami.  Ted is now a recent college grad and aspiring actor in New York City.  My father, Rob Cava, also appears in the story.  He is a physician at a practice called Miami Medical Consultants.

A Story in Two Parts: Part One describes our family, against the backdrop of an amazing adventure and terrain. Part Two [to be posted next week] describes a shifting culture and community against a backdrop of our family’s growing relationship with the place and the times.

Part One

Our children are extraordinary. Please forgive a mother for starting this way. I could just write this as a story about them, their clarity and insights, their love for the land and nature, their sensitivity, perceptiveness, generosity, clarity and focus. However, instead, so as to not be so OBVIOUSLY a bragging mom, I will describe our experience in the Maine woods through a broader lens, putting our little hike into the context of the local people and their lives, the economical transformation of the region, the search for meaning of fellow hikers, and the importance of community as a building block for social change.

It all started with our daughter, Eliza Cava, so that would mean it really started with her parents (and their parents before them and so on), who raised her to care about the land, people, accomplishment of personal challenge and endless discovery. Eliza has just graduated from college with a degree in environmental education. She loves academic learning, but she loves experiential learning and connection to nature too, and after 15 years of formal schooling, she was ready to get outdoors. She decided that a 2000 plus mile trek on the Appalachian Trail from Maine to Georgia was just the ticket. She persuaded her intrepid younger brother, Ted (also known as Edward or Teddy), to join her, and he met the parents’ requirements to first complete high school (hurray!), get into college, and then to request a one year deferral of admission. His university cooperated in all specifications, so the partnership was formed. Continue reading