Environmental Writing: The Next Generation

May 21st, 2010

By Jan Barry

My explorations of innovative solutions to environmental problems have been on hold since January, as I focused on teaching journalism courses at two colleges, including launching a revived course at Ramapo College of NJ called Environmental Writing.

The original course was called Environmental Journalism; it was created more than 20 years ago by a persistent student, Bob Hennelly, who talked his way into teaching this topic. It was a brash, self-made stepping stone in Hennelly’s career as an investigative journalist whose incisive reporting is a regular feature on WNYC and the National Public Radio network.

I was delighted to be asked to develop a new version of this course at my alma mater, which attracted a good roster of students for the spring semester. To showcase the 15 undergrads’ exploratory writings on environmental issues, I created a class website: Ramapo Lookout.

It includes more than 150 items in various formats, from blog pieces to letters to the editor, news releases and news reports. The work spans weekly assignments on local to international issues we discussed in class — Agent Orange’s New Jersey connections to industrial roots of water pollution problems — and magazine-style feature stories on topics of their choosing.

Some of the most thoughtful writing on potential solutions appeared in journal entries on what the students did for the college’s required experiential learning outside the classroom. For instance, Amanda Valenti wrote a feature story — “Global Warming: Brew Your Own and Other Things You Can Do at Home” — on everyday things people can do to help lessen the human-made impact that scientists say is a cause of global climate change. Then she summed up what she had learned, in a journal entry titled “Experiential: Learning from Global Warming.”

“In addition to doing research for the article, I decided to take my own advice and lessen the impact I am having on the earth,” wrote Valenti, a senior. “I stopped buying water bottles and walk where I can. I also eat less red meat and more vegetables. Coffee has always been a weakness of mine, but after many experiments I think I can make a better cup of coffee than Starbucks. I put my coffee in a reusable thermos and brew it at my house now. Not only have I saved a lot of money these past few weeks, I like to think of myself as an experienced barista now.

“It has been a rather hard task to get others to do the same, but I realized I can only change my own ways and encourage others to do the same,” she continued. “This was actually a great experience and had a larger impact on my life than I thought it would. At first I was just doing research for a magazine article, but it wound up being much more than that. This was a wonderful experience and I am glad I chose the topic I did.”

Fellow senior Sharon Meyer decided to write about various examples of “Corporations Going Green” after noticing how a marketing company where she was doing an internship, EMI Music in Jersey City, switched from using reams of paper to filing transactions on a computer network. She also noticed that UPS envelopes that arrived at EMI were being reused.

“UPS supplies hundreds of companies who do bulk mailing with express envelopes for them to package it in. Those boxes are not easily reusable once they are opened, until now at least,” Meyer wrote. “UPS has designed new envelopes that are actually green in color, and have directions on how to use the seal on the box properly, so that it can be re-used by the person receiving the package. This inspires people who are not so keen on re-using the envelopes to use them again because it is showing them the simple easy way to re-use it.”

Dave Ragazzo, another senior facing graduation into an unsettling time economically and environmentally, decided to focus on New Jersey’s most prominent feature for most residents and visitors: millions of cars on jam-packed highways.

“Being that climate change, or global warming as it is more commonly called, may have a direct correlation to carbon emissions, New Jersey drivers should be concerned that they are possibly causing much of the damage,” Ragazzo wrote. “Unfortunately, the American public does not think about this when they are in stand-still traffic. People need cars to travel every day, so what are New Jersey residents to do?

“Electric cars may be the answer,” he suggested in his feature article “It’s Electric: Can Electric Cars Help New Jersey?

The students also reflected on what they learned from readings in the course, such as Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and related research.

“I felt I learned just as much in Carson’s book about people’s disregard for the environment, as I learned from the criticism she faced after publishing it,” Jonathan Madden wrote in an essay titled “Learning from Silent Spring’s Critique.” “The same attitude where humanity naturally seeks to solve all problems through the easiest solution with no regards to its consequences is what’s harming our environment now. If we all focused on how to solve problems in manners that are both effective and environmentally safe, perhaps we wouldn’t have many of the problems we face today.”

(This article was also posted at Earth Legacy.)

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6 Responses to “Environmental Writing: The Next Generation”

  1. Brian Bagent |

    Jan, you should also teach your students to read with a more critical eye. Rachel Carson is responsible for more human deaths and misery than Hitler. In sub-Saharan Africa, about a million people a year die from malaria (that’s 10X the rate of HIV/AIDS related deaths in the same region). Millions more are regularly debilitated by it. The economic costs are staggering.

    Why? I will be generous and say that Carson embellished the case against DDT. Read the studies yourself – DDT is not human carcinogenic.

    Global warming? More research would be helpful. Are people like me deranged, or do we raise legitimate concerns about the validity of the research conducted to date?

    There are always at least two sides to every story. Any more, it seems as if most journalists are only interested in reporting issues that conform to and bolster their own worldview. That isn’t reporting, that’s propaganda.

  2. Tom Carter |

    Brian, you’re right about the impact of Silent Spring on the scourge of malaria in Africa. From the experience of working for USAID and living in Africa, I’ve seen it up close (as you may have). DDT is nasty stuff, granted, but the millions of deaths from malaria that have resulted from banning it are terrible indeed.

    I think teaching environmental awareness and encouraging students, especially journalism students, to think and write about it is a good thing. There are many issues that have to be dealt with, of course, including the facts of climate change and AGW, the viability of alternatives like wind and solar, the tradeoffs in choices between coal and nuclear power generation, etc. But it’s a pretty clear fact that we have to at least reduce our reliance on oil for a variety of reasons, and we have to preserve and protect our environment, including the wildlife and creepy crawlies that live in it. When smart students, budding journalists, think and write on these subjects some of them will come up with ideas and expose both truths and fallacies that could benefit all of us.

  3. Brian Bagent |

    Tom, DDT isn’t nearly so nasty as Rachel Carson led us to believe. It does undergo biomagnification, but biomagnification wouldn’t be a particular issue if DDT had been used judiciously. DDT persists (meaning it doesn’t degrade into harmless components over a short period of time) for a long time. But if used with the due care that should be given to the application of any pesticide, it wouldn’t reach environmental concentrations high enough to adversely affect such birds as pelicans and falcons.

    A light dusting on the walls of people’s houses every 6 months would reduce the frequency of not only malaria, but a variety of other vector-borne illnesses (sleeping sickness comes to mind) that plague much of southern Africa. Plus, DDT is cheap – the patent expired decades ago. It’s cheaper than people dying, it’s cheaper than the antimalarial drugs currently on the market.

    Even if DDT were carcinogenic, that takes years. The strain of malaria with the highest mortality rate can kill within a week of the introduction of those parasites to the bloodstream/liver. This strain, Plasmodium falciparum, can destroy as much as 40% of a person’s red blood cells in less than 48 hours. It’s a horrible, painful way to die. Too bad Carson couldn’t have died from the same misery she inflicted on the 40 million or so people that have needlessly died from malaria since that book was published and DDT was banned.

  4. Jan Barry |

    Brian and Tom,

    I’ve been traveling since this piece was posted. The students in the class read both “Silent Spring” and critics of Carson’s perspective. I have another take on this. I contracted malaria in Vietnam, despite whatever somebody else was doing or not doing with DDT. When I interviewed many Vietnam veterans years later about Agent Orange, I learned how these various chemicals, DDT included, were indiscrimantly sprayed on base camps, main air bases, on troops in the field. When I asked what safety training was provided, I was told “none.” The problem is getting people to be careful with these chemicals, which was the point that Carson made. She died of cancer, by the way.

  5. Tom Carter |

    Maybe the complete ban on DDT was an overreaction to Carson’s book, I don’t know. It’s pretty clear at this point, though, that DDT properly used could prevent huge numbers of deaths every year. However, this has become such an article of faith for environmentalists that even suggesting use of DDT immediately gets you shouted down.

    Obviously no one intended for millions of people to die because of the ban on DDT. That falls into the category of unintended consequences. Sure seems we ought to be able to do something about it now.

  6. Brianna |

    “She died of cancer, by the way.”

    What does that have to do with anything? Yes, she claimed DDT can cause cancer but that doesn’t mean her cancer came from DDT.

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