Friday, May 22, 2009

Lessons from New Zealand: A Conservation Primer (Part 1 of 3)

It seems all too easy to throw your heart, soul, and energy behind conservation. In theory, at least. Sure, we talk about the value judgments conservation is inevitably entrenched in. But I think it is safe to say that it was not until this past semester in New Zealand that all twenty-two of us who participated in this study abroad program truly realized the complexities of the (perhaps) blindly praised art of conservation. These moral dilemmas certainly were not resolved upon the conclusion of our studies, each of us emerging with some sort of internal conflict concerning the issue.

Our program was biology-focused, with courses on the biogeography, conservation, and cultural heritage of New Zealand, and life in extreme places (namely, Antarctica or geothermal sites). Most of our learning was on the road as we circled the entirety of not only the North Island and South Island by bus, but also a few Subantarctic islands via Russian icebreaker. We were never without a well-informed brain to pick, as countless professors from Victoria University in Wellington followed along giving lectures on roadside stops or post-dinner pajama lectures in the hostels. From the moment we stepped off the plane, issues of conservation were readily apparent. As we all passed through biosecurity, most of us had to have our well-used hiking boots scrubbed to remove any caked-on mud that could hold seeds of plants yet to be introduced to NZ. This is when I realized that they take this sort of thing pretty seriously around here.

The land of Aotearoa was, in essence, the perfect place for the core of conservation to be confronted. A few basics about the country must be established first. New Zealand has known a long history of isolation and lack of human settlement. Having been fully separated from the rest of Gondwana (that is, Australia, Antarctica, Africa, and South America) for a good 60 million years due to the development of the Tasman Sea, mammals simply missed the boat. This allowed for the biota of the landmass to evolve without the usually dominant mammals. Furthermore, New Zealand’s isolation as an island also allows it to maintain much of its unique flora.

It is pretty easy to see the enormous gaps that are left in the biosphere, and the fauna of New Zealand also took note. It is often said that New Zealand is a case study of what would happen if birds ruled the world. You will find dozens of flightless species, many of which could not be considered “street-smart” in any way. They are often ignorant of the threat any mammal, human or non-human, could pose. Another important factor in New Zealand’s story is that it was the last major landmass to be settled by humans. It was not until around 800 years ago that the Maori people, quickly followed by Europeans, came onto the scene. And with them, of course, came all sorts of mammals (rats, livestock, possums, stoats, cats, dogs, etc.), and a full menu of eager plants, whether intentionally or not. It is not hard to see how New Zealand’s quirky natural history primes it to be a fantastic case study for conservation.

One of New Zealand's quirky and well-adored birds, the kiwi.


Thursday, May 21, 2009

Life in the Real World: An ENVS Alumnus' Experience

After graduating from Lewis & Clark, things were a little bumpy. I worked as a research assistant (RA) for the Environmental Studies program and helped out with the Mellon Foundation-sponsored faculty workshop in southern Oregon. The job was pretty great – I biked to campus two or three days a week, did some research, worked on a bunch of online stuff, and got a mini-vacation down to Canyonville’s Seven Feathers casino. After my RA position ended, I worked at a tamale stand at various farmers markets around Portland. I enjoyed myself, and got to eat plenty of fresh food for free, which helped out with expenses. This job also ended, and I started to feel a little desperate about paying the bills, as well as finding a job in my field. I had been applying to environmental education positions with every non-profit I could find, and hadn’t gotten a single response. I was on and Craigslist every day, and the job postings were starting to dwindle. It struck me that I had graduated college at a very bad time.

In desperation, I finally landed a job as a receptionist at a high-end day spa in downtown Portland. It was awful. I had to wear all black, talk in a soothing whisper, and I wasn’t allowed to wear shoes. It basically felt like a cult. After two of my paychecks bounced, they decided that they had to downsize, and I was laid off. And that is how I became an unemployed college graduate.

Feeling totally defeated and ashamed of my perceived failures, I moved back to San Francisco to live with my parents. At first, I had a hard time with the fact that I couldn’t "hack it” in Portland. However, I began reconnecting with my old friends, and realized that there were a lot of things I wanted to be doing. I worked part time doing construction with my father, and spent my free time riding my bike around, taking a ceramics class, doing yoga, and singing karaoke. I have to admit: living rent-free can have its perks!

I eventually found an internship with an environmental non-profit in Berkeley called the David Brower Center. I basically just started showing up once a week and doing whatever job they needed someone to perform. I figured that it would look good on a resume, and maybe by a stroke of luck I would be able to make enough connections that I would be recommended to another organization six months down the line. Instead, the Brower Center decided that they needed another staff member, and created a position for me. I am officially the “visitor and tenant services coordinator.” Kind of a long title for what is basically a really busy receptionist position. This time, however, I’m a receptionist at a place that I love.

I am happy to say that I am now, finally, working in my field. It ended up being a great idea to move back home, and although I miss Portland, it just wasn’t working out for me. I know I’ll always be able to come back to visit, and now the Environmental Studies program has one more alumni in the Bay Area. If anyone is interested in contacting me, I would be glad to help out with any internship or job recommendations that come my way. Email me at

Posted by Kelly Rogala, ENVS '08

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Ecotopia/Ecopocalypse Spring 2009

This spring semester, I had the opportunity to take a fascinating Environmental Studies Topics course taught by post doctorate fellow, Dr. Evan Berry, called Ecotopia/Ecopocalypse. While I had originally enrolled in this class with the prospect of expanding my knowledge of green utopias and sustainable communities, I have instead gained the ability to synthesize my Environmental Studies coursework within the structure of literary utopian and dystopian societies, an ability that has greatly contributed to the development of my concentration and possible thesis topic. Before I officially declared as an Environmental Studies major in mid-March, I would often describe my concentration as either "Sociology/Anthropology" or "Sustainable Communities," but could never fully develop a coherent topic or justification. Fortunately, this semester, I also took Jay Odenbaugh's "Philosophy and the Environment" and Jim's "Situating Environmental Problems and Solutions" coincendently with Ecotopia Ecopocalypse. In Jay's class, I took a particular interest in deontological ethics and Mark Sagoff's consumer vs. citizen argument, while I was drawn to the Eco-socialism, Ecological Citizenship and Grid Group theories in Jim's Environmental Studies core class. However, the combination of latter interests did not have much substance until I began drafting my final project for Ecotopia/Ecopocalpyse. Throughout the semester, Evan has assigned us over 8 utopian novels, which we discuss extensively in class with regards to utopian authoritative structure, military, family, gender, among many other topics. Within these analyses, I primarily focused upon utopian social structures and personal obligations, where elements of my interest in sustainable communities, environmental ethics and radical theories finally began to unify into a intelligible academic topic.

In March, I proposed my Environmental Studies concentration, entitled "Community, Individuals and the Connected Environment," where I was able to situate the topics of social structures, social psychology, environmental attitudes and community obligations within (1) a focused study and possible thesis topic as well as (2) the cross-cultural examination of ecovillages and cohousing neighborhoods. Although I am frequently reminded of the impracticality and complexity of ecovillages as a tool to foster responsible environmental attitudes and actions, I am convinced that only through a thorough study will these arguments be verified. Ecotopia/Ecocalypse has shown me that the utopian vision of a tightly-knit community has been in the minds of scholars and authors for centuries, and thus the foundational ideals of ecovillages may provide some insight and inspiration to environmentalists as we try to overcome our environmental crises and reformulate a more ecologically responsible society.

Within the various novels that we analyzed in Ecotopia/Ecopocalypse, I found that there are particular social structures associated with the author's formulation of dystopias and utopias. Using Grid Group Cultural theory and deontological ethics, I was able to analyze these different social structures with focus on the different forms of personal obligations that entailed of each society. I did a similar study in Jim's Situtating Environmental Problems and Solutions class, using Grid Group Cultural theory to theorize the environmental attitudes developed within the tight group bonds of egalitarian communities, such as ecovillages. In both the Ecotopia/Ecopocalypse project as well as the Situating Environmental Problems and Solutions synthesis, I have tried to find connections between strong interpersonal bonds and ethical commitments to community and ecological health. These studies have helped me to develop a theory about egalitarian communities and their associated personal obligations and environmental attitudes that I hope will serve as a foundation for my concentration and future research on ecovillages. Given the focus topic of my major and interests in intentional communities, I am tremendously fortunate to have had the opportunity to take Evan's class. In addition to giving substance to my Environmental studies interests, Ecotopia/Ecopocalypse has also provided me with the ability to see the religious undertones of current environmental problems and solutions.

Evan Berry will be leaving us next year to teach at American University in Washington, D.C. Although my peers and I are sad to be parting with Evan after such a short time together in Ecotopia/Ecopocalypse, we are all grateful for his incredible insight and provisions on our studies of environmental discourse and wish him the best of luck on his future endeavors.