Friday, August 31, 2018

Environmental Letters

I found this image while browsing for something to represent the idea of environmental regulations from the point of view of what the regs are meant to protect. It is from a short video in which the Canadian NGO West Coast Environmental Law makes a strong case for citizen participation in the details of environmental protection. 
Environmental Planning
Tom Daniels
Since I was hired to teach environmental geography in 1997, I have taught Environmental Regulations about once every alternate year. It had an even wonkier title when I first arrived, but the simple title to which I changed it reflects the applied (as opposed to theoretical) approach I take in the course.

More than anything else I teach, this course provides students with skills and knowledge that have direct workforce application. It is the course that draws most directly on my non-academic work in geography -- a single year between graduate programs in which I worked for what was then the world's largest civil and environmental engineering firm: Dames & Moore.

Combined with environmental courses in geography and other disciplines, this course helps all students who take it better understand how humans interact with the environment through the nitty-gritty of policy implementation. Some find related employment -- perhaps after some graduate study -- in government agencies or consulting firms. Incidentally, I would love to have more students from our business school take this course, since many firms now integrate environmental compliance into mission-centered positions such as inventory control.

One of those alumni helped me to find a new text for the course, as the one I had been using was becoming both dated and quite expensive (out-of-date textbooks gain value in warehouses faster than most financial instruments). The massive volume by Tom Daniels includes some land-management concepts that I cover in a different course, but most of it is relevant to the scope of this course, which has been the regulations that flow from major federal environmental-protection laws regarding hazardous waste and pollution.

At the beginning of the book is a lengthy -- but by no means exhaustive -- list of acronyms related to environmental planning and protection. These include such favorites as CERCLA, the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act -- better known as Superfund. I sometimes spell it $uperfund, because the mistakes of the past are VERY costly.

The acronyms are many because both the science and the legalities are complicated. This is not because bureaucrats enjoy complexity, but rather because every simple law to curtail pollution will be met with resistance that requires increasingly sophisticated methods to close potential loopholes. The so-called free market and common decency are not enough to make or keep the environment clean.

Enter JetPunk, a great example of how the business of naming companies has changed since the days of brick-and-mortar businesses. Company names related to those of the company's founding owners, its geographic location, or -- heaven forfend -- its actual product or service. Rather, it is trendy -- and a cheap way to signal one's trendiness -- to name a company by mashing together two unrelated words, such as "punk" and "jet."

I first became aware of JetPunk close to a decade ago, when a friend asked me to recommend online geography games for his kids. I enjoy the JetPunk map quizzes and use them with my own students. In fact, they figure prominently in the syllabus of the Advanced Global Thinking course I will begin offering next year. It seemed the perfect vehicle to help my enviro-regs students begin to learn some important acronyms, so I set about making a quiz for that purpose. I soon realized that there are A LOT of acronyms to learn, so I divided them thematically into three quizzes:


These overlap a bit, but serve to give my students -- and other interested learners -- manageable learning objects.

Lagniappe: The Context


This is the first time I have taught the course since the 2016 election, which has led to systematic efforts to dismantle environmental protections of all kinds at the Federal level. For this reason, I am grateful that the Daniels text is organized in a way that includes Federal programs but also details the work of state and local government as well as citizen-led organizations. All were important before, as the Federal programs have been far from perfectly effective, but are even more so in the coming months and years.

Even as I prepared these quizzes, several important reminders were making headlines. These relate to failures to protect the environment and public health even before 2016. In Michigan, a health official faces jail time over the failure to provide for clean water in Flint -- even as thousands of residents remain at risk. In Florida, failure to control nonpoint source pollutants has caused or enhanced dangerous blooms of both red tide and blue-green algae.

Looking at the environment more broadly, a recent report reminds us that in many parts of the world, environmental activism can be fatal. More optimistically, though, journalist Timothy Egan argues that broad attacks on longstanding environmental protections are likely to lead to a "Green Wave" in the November 2018 election. If so, my students will be well-positioned to help rebuild a fractured environmental infrastructure.

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