Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Guest Post: Water, Water, Everywhere
by Alexis Winter

Today’s post comes from Alexis Winter, a colleague from The Field Museum and now at UIC, whose background is also in cultural anthropology. A huge thanks to Lexy for contributing the first guest post!

I first began exploring the cultural side of environmental sustainability when I joined Jenny at The Field Museum, helping out with two separate but related projects: the final ethnographic studies engaging Chicago communities in the city’s climate action plan, and the Chicago Community Climate Action Toolkit. This work deeply enriched my understanding of Chicago and broadened my understanding of the concept of sustainability. It was also a lot of fun--such a good time, in fact, that I decided to apply to graduate school in public/applied anthropology, with a focus on environment.

In my search for graduate programs, I found so many university faculty working on fascinating and innovative research projects examining environmental issues through an anthropological lens. Coincidentally, several of the projects that caught my eye all had to do with, in some way or another, water. Here’s a sampling, from schools all across the country:

1. The Community Voice Project: RiverStories (led by Dr. Nina Shapiro-Perl, American University)
Dr. Shapiro-Perl’s documentary film students worked closely with residents of southeast Washington, D.C., who care for the Anacostia, D.C.’s “other” (much more polluted) river, to produce digital stories about their experiences. Rodney Stotts’ story explores the deeply personal reasons he’s grown so attached to caring for the Anacostia and the falcons that live in the area.

2. Politics and Perceptions of Water in Tampa Bay (led by Dr. Rebecca Zarger, University of South Florida)
These researchers want to understand how social factors, especially power relationships and cultural constructions of place, contribute to wetland change. I was drawn to this project in part because of my research for The Field Museum in the Kankakee River Basin, 75 miles south of Chicago, where the river is such a central and powerful component of residents’ attachment to their place. (And I’ve become much more interested in Florida’s wetlands since learning that the Grand Kankakee Marsh, which once covered between 50,000 and a million acres of northern Illinois and Indiana, was called the “Everglades of the North.” A great documentary about the Marsh is screening soon in Chicago--check it out!)

3. Culture and Resource Management on the Chesapeake Bay (led by Dr. Michael Paolisso, University of Maryland)
This is a series of linked projects, some short-term, some long-term, delving into a wide range of topics including heritage, work, gender, climate change, conservation, and invasive species. I’m especially intrigued by their work on harmful algal blooms that caused what local media dubbed “Pfiesteria hysteria.” The researchers looked at the cultural models of environment that various groups (e.g. farmers, environmentalists, fishermen) used to understand the Pfiesteria algal blooms, and how these models influenced the decisions they made in response to the crisis.

It’s been my observation that water--more specifically water conservation--tends not to be top-of-mind for Chicagoans, who live next to the largest surface freshwater system on Earth. In my research for The Field Museum in 2011, I noticed that in discussions of climate change, flooding consistently came up more often than droughts did. (This wasn’t true in all the studies, however: the Museum’s 2010 report on Pilsen’s Mexican community, which Jenny highlighted in a previous post, is a notable exception.)

But with 2012’s drought, the worst in the Midwest in over 50 years, this tendency could be changing. And as Chicagoans begin to think and talk more about water scarcity and conservation, we may want to take a look at other cities around the country and the tools and models they’ve developed for examining cultural beliefs and attitudes around water.

Some food for thought--please comment:
1. Which of these projects stands out to you? How might it be applied here in Chicago--or are there already similar projects underway here?
2. What other environmental issues might not necessarily be top-of-mind in the Midwest, but should be discussed? Why?
3. What creative environmental initiatives are faculty or whole departments in Chicago (or the Midwest) undertaking?

Saturday, February 9, 2013

National Post: "What Does Climate Change Smell Like? Engaging Our Senses for Climate Action"

 For those of you who enjoyed my two posts on this blog on multisensory engagement for climate action, you might enjoy reading the post I have written for the national site, Climate Access, combining ideas from both and adding a bit more. The post went live today:

Also--unrelatedly--I want to share a link to an extremely moving video, posted by the EPA as part of the It Gets Better Project, which provides support to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender teens. My work is all about making connections between environmental, social, cultural, and political issues--and this video is one of the best examples I've seen, not only of drawing literal connections--like the notion that people get thrown away just like goods in our society--but also of the importance of creating an environment in which everyone can be their best selves.

Please share your thoughts on the blog post and the video! 


Saturday, February 2, 2013

Sustainability Gets Personal: Feminist Economics, Happiness, Climate Change, Ben Affleck--and My Son Zack

The last few weeks, I've seen a bunch of colleagues and friends who I hadn't seen in a while, and they have all asked me the same two questions: "How's work coming along? And how are you enjoying working for yourself?" If you follow this blog regularly, you probably know that last August, I left my job at The Field Museum and started working on my own, as a Sustainability and Diversity Consultant. I have told all of them the same thing: Work is great. I'm very busy, with enough paid work to fill a full-time work week, and more. And I'm loving working for myself, because every day is different; I have many sets of colleagues from different fields, all over the city and the country; I get to work only on projects that I really care about; I don't have to deal with institutional politics; and, I get to spend a lot more time with my 9-year-old son Zack.

"THAT'S sustainability!" said my friend Debbie Hillman, while we were having lunch at Noyes Street Cafe in Evanston two Fridays ago, in between the two classes I am teaching now at my old stomping grounds, Northwestern. "Sustainability is all about balance. Write about spending time with Zack for your next blog post." And since I tend to do what Debbie advises, here's that post.

In fact, I had been thinking about my new work situation and sustainability, but from a financial perspective. Earlier this winter, I watched a (not very great) movie called "The Company Men," starring Ben Affleck and Tommy Lee Jones, in which Affleck is laid off from a lucrative job in the shipping industry and struggles to find a new job. In the meantime, his family loses their home, and Affleck goes through an identity crisis and, of course, discovers that there is more to life than working and money. The movie's message is predictable and trite. But it made me realize that my work is all about diversity as a key component of sustainability; and this diversity is just as crucial from a financial perspective as from a cultural and biological one. To put it simply, I felt good that my income now is more diverse, coming from multiple sources. This felt more sustainable for the long-term, because if one job falls through, I have others. It also felt more freeing: like I am more in charge of my life and my destiny, rather than being dependent on an institution or a particular supervisor/boss.

My mind always wanders back up to the bigger picture issues--so I have been trying also to think about my work, Zack, and Ben Affleck as they relate to the question of happiness. This link has been partly a personal question. How much work can I take on, as an independent contractor, without going out of my mind? As more work comes in, should I pay someone to help me with it--even though I'm not yet at the income level I aspire to be at? Will I be happier if I get help and have more free time, or if I work more and can start contributing again to Zack's college fund?

In thinking through these personal questions--and continuing to work with my partners and clients, including UIC, ICA, and now the US Green Business Council-Illinois Chapter, to define what a sustainable community looks like--I have found a few thought-provoking articles and presentations exploring connections between personal happiness, sustainability, and climate change, largely focused on consumption. Check some of them out:

Surprising Facts About the World's Happiest People (Chicago Defender)

I especially encourage you to take the time to watch Juliet Schor's presentation from The Garrison Institute's Climate, Mind and Behavior symposium that I attended last year. She makes the important point that the type of question I am grappling with about how much to work is not just a personal question about happiness, but key to addressing climate change as well--because research has proven that reducing work hours (and increasing them for people who are un- or under-employed) is a
key variable for achieving sustainability, not to mention getting the labor market back in balance.

And then please share your thoughts:
What does sustainability look like in your life?
How do you aspire to achieve more balance--and more happiness?