Also see: My History in Environmental Education | Selected Clients | A Positive Outcome | Recommendations
If future generations are to remember us with gratitude rather than contempt, we must leave them more than the miracles of technology. We must leave them a glimpse of the world as it was in the beginning, not just after we got through with it. — Lyndon Johnson, president of the United States
"Chris, thank you for coming to Plumas County, CA, nearly 20 years ago. That walk in the woods changed my thinking about forests."
"Thank you very much for the presentation you gave to our youth at the 4-H Wildlife Stewards Summit. It was both informative and insightful. Using their bedroom as an analogy for their shelter was an excellent means to draw them into your presentation. I greatly admire the way your mind thinks. Your insights are both interesting and out of the box. The world needs folks like you."
Oregon State University
"We have the privilege again this year  to have in our midst a remarkable speaker, Chris Maser, who was also present in Bouctouche, NB in 2000—and whose magnificent work has inspired many of us in the past ten years."
President, Southern Gulf of St.Lawrence Coalition on Sustainability
Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada
"A quick note to let you know what a great pleasure it was to meet you, and to have the opportunity to talk with you during the recent PNW-ISA [Pacific Northwest Chapter of the International Society of Arboriculture]-conference in Tacoma, Washington. The energy and caring that inhabits your work, and that you brought to the conference as well, are important components of arboriculture that aren't often discussed or exemplified."
ENVIRONMENTAL EDUCATION: UNDERSTANDING THE PIECES IN TERMS OF THE WHOLE
All we humans do in life—ever—is practice relationships. Practicing relationships is the sum-total of life (every life), be it the life of a bacterium that sickens you, a spider, a flea, elephant, or whale, a primrose, grass, or tree. Even a mountain is a practice of relationships between the forces that build it up (volcanism, plate tectonics) and the forces that inexorably wear it down again (wind, water, ice, and gravity).
THE RIPPLES WE CAUSE
Each thought (be it that of a meadow mouse or a human), each act (be it that of a grasshopper or a hippopotamus) is the cause of an eternal effect. I say "eternal effect" because each cause creates an effect that becomes the causes of another effect, ad infinitum.
To understand what I mean by cause and effect, imagine you are filming a pebble dropping into a pool of quiet water. As the pebble hits water, concentric rings radiate outward from the point of contact, becoming wider and more diffuse the farther from the epicenter they travel. If the pool is large enough, and the lens of your video camera strong enough, you could capture the visual disappearance of the rings, but not their ultimate dissipation because they continue to exist in every ring they touch, that touches other rings, that touches other rings, etc. Now, if you play the tape backwards, you would see the diffused rings coming together, getting visually crisper and spatially closer as they approach the place where the pebble struck the water's surface.
The foregoing is a simplistic view of cause and effect in that the point of contact between a pebble and the water is the initial cause of the rings, which are the effect of the pebble's impact with the water's surface. But each ripple is the cause of another effect as it spreads out from its creative epicenter. In this sense, each cause is the author of a never-ending story that began with the first cause, the first story teller—the Transcendent Mystery that gave birth of the Universe, the first cause of the first never-ending story ever told. From that day to this and beyond, the first never-ending story continues to unfold.
For example, a female wolf spider, carrying her silken case full of eggs, is walking across the surface of the pool, when she is startled by the first ring from the first pebble you drop that strikes the water, and so runs to "safety" at the water's edge, where she is eaten by a pregnant frog. Now, some of the atoms that once composed the spider and her offspring will become part of the frog's body through the ageless, atomic interchange and thus become part of the frog's eggs as well. When her eggs hatch into tadpoles, there is a bit of the spider and her babies in each of them. Moreover, some of the tadpoles will die, and the atoms they had borrowed through the atomic interchange will become part of a grass growing along the water's edge. The grass, in turn, is eaten by a meadow mouse, that is eaten by a snake, that is eaten by a hawk. Other atoms from the spider and her babies will hop away in the form of frogs that metamorphosed from the surviving tadpoles to partake in adventures unknown and stories forever unfinished.
While the foregoing is a simple story, to more clearly visualize what is really happening, put a new tape into your video camera and film a hundred pebbles being dropped into a very large pool at difference places and different times within a two-minute period, as well as from various heights above the water. Watch their rings intersect again and again and again. Playing the tape forward and backward will give you a better, mental image of "reality." This image, however, is confined to horizontal rings on the water's surface in a single scale of space and time, whereas reality is a dynamic continuum of intersecting rings going simultaneously in all directions through all scales of space and time—each a never-ending story that is the author of another never-ending story and so on and on and on….
THE RIPPLES WE CAUSE ARE A NEVER-ENDING STORY
We introduce thoughts, practices, substances, and technologies into the environment, and we usually think of those introductions in terms of development. Whatever we introduce into the environment in the name of development will consequently determine how the environment will respond to our presence and to our cultural necessities. It is therefore to our social benefit to pay close attention to what we introduce into the environment because each introduction is the beginning of a never-ending story of irreversible causes and effects with no possibility of returning to the original circumstance. Put differently, once we introduce something into the environment, its effects not only ripple forever through time and space but also are forever out of our control.
The things we introduce into the environment represent both our sense of values and the conscious self-discipline with which we behave. After all, values—often competing values to which we give no conscious thought—shape the contours of our lives, which raises the question of how one goes about calculating the risk of something that has never before happened and, by our reckoning, is unlikely to occur in the future.
As society develops new technology, draws on the resources of the Earth, and generates unprecedented quantities of unintended industrial products, such as toxic wastes, the above question is being asked more and more frequently because we must understand, as best we can, what the effects of our activities will be on the sustainability of our environment as a whole. Some people would throw their hands up and say that such predictions are impossible, but that is not entirely true. There are critical questions to ask, all based around the notion of "what if": What can go wrong? How likely is it? And what are the consequences? Can it be remedied? The answers are given as probabilities, which is the language of uncertainties, and learning how to quantify the uncertainties is a critical part of assessing risk.
Many people do not find the probabilities reassuring, however, despite how low the probabilities may be. I am one of those people because no matter how low the probabilities may be, I know how ignorant we are collectively when it comes to the synergistic effects of interdependent living systems. My doubts are not based on fear, however, but rather concern for the expressed surety of our human knowledge. Nevertheless, every decision has a risk attached to it, and the more we can understand the potential risks of our proposed actions, the better off we will be.
Making people more comfortable with the probabilities is a matter of changing the terms of the debate: How safe is safe? or How much risk is acceptable? These are often thought to be illogical questions by those who think of themselves as "objective." To them, the only answer that makes sense is: It depends on the alternatives available and on the benefits to be gained by making a certain decision.
To me, however, the above questions are completely logical because, as asked, they simply point out that the people who ask them are frightened and do not know how to frame the questions in a way that addresses their fears. In addition, they are questions of value, including things likely to be lost, such as some long-cherished, often an intangible component of one's lifestyle, which is far more complicated to deal with than the simple, traditional, linear questions asked and favored by scientists, engineers, economists, and often politicians who can at best measure only tangible effects.
Nevertheless, the best possible assessment of potential risk requires participation by the public, despite the fact that human emotions often "muddy the waters" for those invested in simple "yes"/"no" answers based on a direct cost/benefit analysis of some conceived outcome someone deems desirable. That said, whatever we do depends on the immediate value we perceive the act will net us.
To illustrate, I was once retained to act as an "expert witness" for a group of people who were protesting the tactics of relentless political pressured by officials from an absentee-owned energy company who were determined to situate the electrical-generating plant in the midst of a neighborhood in which the company intended to pollute not only the air but also a local creek (Laughing Creek), which emptied into a river, that emptied into a lake (the municipal water supply for a large city), that ultimately emptied into the Gulf of Mexico. In this case, the officials of and lawyers for the absentee-owned energy company acted strictly in their own, narrow interests with a single objective—get the energy plant built, despite the desires of local residents and regardless of any and all social-environmental consequences. I, on the other hand, was engaged to act as a systems-thinker on behalf of the citizens (present and future) who would be affected in unseen, and progressively negative, environmental ways by the plant's operation.
As an expert witness in years past, I had learned that the most powerful defense against individuals who would foreclose social-environmental options for all generations through myopic thinking and without good cause is a series of relevant questions to which they must respond. I say this because the one asking the questions is in charge and the one(s) having to respond to the questions are the ones on the defensive. Therefore, the scientific and social questions I posed before the court are the kind I think need to be asked in every assessment of risk when introducing something into the environment—because a healthy environment is part of the global commons and thus everyone's birthright.
A battery of scientific questions need to be asked, if the potential, biophysical effects of a given action are to be ascertained. The purpose of the questions is to assess both the possibility and the probability of whether or not certain, negative, environmental consequences will result from of a proposed, economically motivated action. Such questions are necessary because an apparently good, short-term, economic proposition may prove to harbor potential, long-term, detrimental, environmental effects that some future generation will have to live with, pay for, and recover from. By this, I mean a good, short-term, economic decision may, in fact, turn out to be a bad, long-term, ecological decision, which therefore is a bad, long-term economic decision—to which delayed, social-environmental costs are always attached, costs the present generation is passing forward to those of the future.
The following questions were therefore important with respect to the Energy Company's proposed energy-producing facility on Laughing Creek because a stream is a sinuous, continuum of habitats that transports water and all its ingredients, both good and bad, downstream while recognizing neither human boundaries nor human measures for its containment—as every major oil spill has abundantly demonstrated:
1. How can the "affected area" of Laughing Creek be limited to one mile downstream from the Energy Company's facility, when that mile is an integral part of a continuous, interactive ecosystem that will, through cumulative impacts, affect all aquatic and terrestrial life that lives within it, drinks its water, and/or uses its vegetation as food—especially during periods of drought?
2. How will a daily discharge of 290,000 gallons of 95-degree F. water from the Energy Company's facility affect the physical configuration and stability of the Laughing-Creek ecosystem, which has evolved to cope with periods of high water and low water? Has this been researched? If not, why has no research been done? If so, what are the results?
3. Will the channel become destabilized by a daily discharge of 290,000 gallons of 95-degree F. water? Will the critical instream habitats form by dead wood and sandbars be swept away? Will the stabilizing vegetation of the banks be able to retain its life and grip on the soil with so much hot water? Has this been researched? If not, why has no research been done? If so, what are the results?
4. How will altering the flow affect the aquatic life, which has evolved to cope with periods of high water and low water? Has this been researched? If not, why has no research been done? If so, what are the results?
5. Will the discharge of 290,000 gallons of 95-degree F. water from the Energy Company's facility be in a steady stream or in pulses that increase during hours of peak electrical generation and decrease during slack times of electrical generation? If the discharge of water from the Energy Company's facility is in pulses, how will that affect the ecology of Laughing Creek—as outlined in questions 2 and 3 above? Has this been researched? If not, why has no research been done? If so, what are the results?
6. How will a daily discharge of 290,000 gallons of 95-degree F. water from the Energy Company's facility affect the micro-plants and animals that form the basis of the food chain that feeds the aquatic invertebrates that feed the fish and frogs that, in turn, feed the raccoons, herons, eagles, and so on—especially during hot weather and/or drought when the dissolved oxygen in the water is already low and will be further decreased by the addition of so much hot water? Under such conditions, will there be enough dissolved oxygen for the survival of the indigenous fish? Has this been researched? If not, why has no research been done? If so, what are the results?
7. Assuming that fish and amphibians can live in such hot water, which is improbable, how will a daily discharge of 290,000 gallons of 95-degree F. water affect the survival of their eggs? Has this been researched and addressed? If not, why has no research been done? If so, what are the results?
8. What will be the cumulative effects of the chemicals dumped into the Laughing Creek ecosystem from a continual, daily discharge of 290,000 gallons of polluted water—especially during drought when everything in the water of Laughing Creek concentrates into a small per-unit area, and wildlife come to drink the water? Has this been researched? If not, why has no research been done? If so, what are the results?
9. Where will the chemical pollutants concentrate in a drought-stricken Laughing Creek ecosystem?
in the clay of the bottom and the banks?
in the vegetation that uses the water for survival?
in the aquatic and terrestrial animals, including livestock, that use the vegetation and/or water for survival?
Has this been researched? If not, why has no research been done? If so, what are the results?
10. Water is one of the vital ingredients of life and draws animals, such as deer, livestock, birds, and bats, as well as many other species, from long distances—often more than a mile's radius, especially during drought—because there is no substitute for water. This necessity for water can greatly over-tax a stream system as small as Laughing Creek during times of drought, which means that all the plants and animals would have available to drink would be hot, polluted water. How would this circumstance affect the Laughing Creek ecosystem and the livestock and wildlife (including amphibians, reptiles, and fish) that depend on it for fresh, healthy water to sustain life? Has this been researched? If not, why has no research been done? If so, what are the results?
11. Would any of the discharged chemical compounds from the Energy Company's facility cause diarrhea in deer, cattle, and other mammals if they were to drink the discharged water in Laughing Creek? If so, could the loss of body fluids through diarrhea cause such dehydration in already-thirsty animals to the point of killing them—especially during a drought, when all they would have available to stave of dehydration would be the hot, polluted water of Laughing Creek? Has this been researched? If not, why has no research been done? If so, what are the results?
12. What is the biophysical fate of the various chemical compounds discharged from the Energy Company's facility once they enter the aquatic ecosystem of Laughing Creek?
How toxic to the ecosystem are the chemicals? Has this been researched? If not, why has no research been done? If so, what are the results?
Is arsenic, which is used as one of the ingredients in most control agents, such as insecticides and rodenticides, present? Is arsenic cumulative in animals' bodies? If so, what form is it in? If so, how does arsenic move upward in the ecosystem through the food chain? If so, how does it affect the food chain? Has this been researched? If not, why has no research been done? If so, what are the results?
How biodegradable, in fact, are the chemicals in the discharge from the Energy Company's facility? Has this been researched? If not, why has no research been done? If so, what are the results?
Have the "active" ingredients of the chemical compounds discharged from the Energy Company's facility been tested for their toxicity to the Laughing Creek ecosystem and its food chain? If not, why has no research been done? If so, what are the results?
What recombination can and might the "active" ingredients make with the chemical compounds already in the Laughing Creek ecosystem? Could they become more toxic than the chemical compounds discharged in the effluent? Has this possibility been tested? If not, why has no research been done? If so, what are the results?
Have "inert" ingredients in the chemical compounds in the discharge from the Energy Company's facility been tested for their toxicity to the Laughing Creek ecosystem and its food chain? If not, why has no research been done (after all, there's no such thing as an inert substance in any interactive system)? If so, what are the results?
What recombination can and might the "inert" ingredients make with chemical compounds already in the Laughing Creek ecosystem? Could a recombination become more toxic than the chemical compounds discharged in the effluent? Has this possibility been tested? If not, why has no research been done? If so, what are the results?
How biodegradable, in fact, is a potential recombination? Has this been researched? If not, why has no research been done? If so, what are the results?
Where in the ecosystem do the discharged chemicals from the Energy Company's facility accumulate—especially during a drought? Has this been researched? If not, why has no research been done? If so, what are the results?
What are the synergistic, biophysical effects (positive and negative) of the chemicals' concentration? Has this been researched? If not, why has no research been done? If so, what are the results?
13. During floods, how far from Laughing Creek does the water go? Does it collect in low areas? How long does it stand? Do the plants in these flooded areas take up more chemical pollutants than they would otherwise do? Has this been researched? If not, why has no research been done? If so, what are the results?
14. Assuming the plants of flooded areas absorb greater amounts of chemical pollutants from the discharged waste-water, how does the consumption of the contaminated vegetation affect livestock and wildlife? Has this been researched? If not, why has no research been done? If so, what are the results?
15. How far will the discharged chemical compounds from the Energy Company's facility be transported downstream through the Laughing Creek ecosystem? At what distance in miles will they cease to have a negative effect? Has this been researched? If not, why has no research been done? If so, what are the results?
16. At their farthest detectable point:
What other chemical compounds will those discharged from the Energy Company's facility recombine with (those discharged by communities along the creek) on their journey downstream from the point of discharge? Has this been researched? If not, why has no research been done? If so, what are the results?
How toxic will a potential recombination be? Has this been researched? If not, why has no research been done? If so, what are the results?
How will a potential recombination affect the micro-plants and animals that form the basis of the food chain that feeds the aquatic invertebrates that feed the fish and frogs, that, in turn, feed the raccoons, herons, eagles, and so on—especially during drought when the water is already low and will concentrate wildlife and all pollutants into a small unit of area? Has this been researched? If not, why has no research been done? If so, what are the results?
I find the social questions people most often ask are based on legitimate, human concerns, and, sometimes, outright fears of the unknown. I also find that people with vested economic interests often give glib, unsubstantiated assurances that all is well and that any and all concerns are obviously emotional and unfounded. In fact, it is surprisingly common for people who stand to gain economically from a given project to treat those citizens who voice their doubts about the social-environmental safety of the project as being absurdly emotional and thus over-reactive.
Such was the behavior of the Energy Company's officials and lawyers when the people who lived along Laughing Creek wanted to know: If the polluted water is taken up by the plants my animals eat, will the health of my livestock—and therefore my health and that of my children—be affected by the pollutants the Energy Company wants to dump into Laughing Creek?
The behavior of the Energy Company's officials and lawyers was the same when the people in the city asked: Since Laughing Creek drains into the lake from which we get our drinking water, will the pollutants the Energy Company wants to dump into Laughing Creek affect the quality, and hence the safety, of our drinking water?
Both questions were, I think, reasonable and needed answering, despite the fact that they may have been asked in an emotional way based on fear. But then, human values are based on fulfilling our, perceive emotional needs. Such needs include the drive to complete an economic endeavor that will garner money for someone when that person's perceived emotional requirement is based on the sense of security brought by having more money.
In the latter case, however, the person(s)—who seeks economic gain despite probable, negative, social-environment outcomes—must be accountable for answering relevant questions concerning the potential consequences of their actions. Because such accountability is to be taken seriously, I posed the following questions before the court:
1. With long distance-transport of air pollutants and their ability to alter habitats, such as that of the endangered red cockaded woodpecker, the Energy Company is also altering the long-term habitat for people. Does the Energy Company have the people's permission—adults and children—to add pollution to the air that alters the health of the plant communities that constitute the quality of the habitat in which wildlife and people must live, considering that they would be adding to the potential irreversibly of the negative, cumulative effects that present and future generations must endure? Is a good quality of habitat in which to live the inherent birthright of every human being—or is it not?
2. Does the Energy Company have the people's permission—adults and children—to add pollution to the air everyone must breathe, considering they would be irreversibly adding to the very long-term negative, cumulative effects that all plants and animals, including humans, must live with? After all, clean air is a global commons and therefore everyone's birthright.
3. Does the Energy Company have the people's permission—adults and children—to add pollution to the air that can exacerbate global warming and alter the local pattern of precipitation, considering that they would be adding to the negative, cumulative effects that all generations must live with? After all, clean air, which protects Nature's regime of local precipitation, is part of the commons and so everyone's birthright.
4. Does the Energy Company have the people's permission—adults and children—to add pollution to the air, which then pollutes the soil that grows their food and affects the water everyone must drink (water needed for life itself, water for which there is no substitute) and thereby add to the negative, cumulative effects that all generations must live with? As with air, healthy soil and clean water are part of the global commons through successive generations of children and so everyone's birthright.
5. Does the Energy Company have the people's permission—adults and children—to add pollution to the stream, lake, bay, or Gulf of Mexico, considering that they would be irreversibly adding to the negative, cumulative effects that all generations must progressively live with because the Gulf and the ocean, of which it is a part, have no outlet and so concentrate not only the amount of toxic chemicals but also their increasing toxicity? I ask this because both the Gulf and the ocean are part of the marine-commons and their biophysical health is everyone's birthright.
6. With the aforementioned biophysical constraints to environmental health and the people's birthright of the commons, who bears the burden of proof that no harm shall be done—those citizens who would protect the quality of the environment or those who would pollute it?
With the above example in mind, I think we would be well advised to make the best possible use of what we know about assessing risks, provided we do not become enamored with the outcome as a "sure bet." Betting on, negotiating, the most knowledgeable probability of the outcome is all risk assessment is! The danger that underpins the "bet" is our certainty of our uncertain, ever-changing knowledge—our ignorance of our ignorance, as it were. In the end, that ignorance too often negatively affects the quality of our human habitat, as well as that of all nonhuman creatures. In other words, how we think determines our actions and the outcome thereof.
OUR THINKING DETERMINES THE QUESTIONS WE ASK, AS WELL AS THE OUTCOME OF OUR ACTIONS
A simple act by the very people who moved to Phoenix, Arizona, to find relief from their allergies has placed Arizona among the top ten percent of states in pollen count during the season of allergies. Before urban sprawl began consuming the desert, the area around Phoenix was a haven for people who suffered from allergies. Doctors in the 1940s and 1950s sent patients there because the dry air was virtually free of pollen. But many of those people also brought with them their nondesert plants, which subsequently matured and now fill the air with pollen during the spring of each year.
In addition, the dry climate causes pollen grains from non-indigenous plants to stay aloft and ride the air currents, wafting in every zephyr. They are not washed from dry desert air as they are in non-desert areas that experience spring rains. Thus, the allergy sufferers themselves irreversibly turned their own haven into their worst nightmare by not identifying and protecting the very environmental value that brought them to Phoenix, Arizona, in the first place—air virtually free of pollen.
SHIFTING OUR THINKING THROUGH ENVIRONMENTAL EDUCATION
Thus far, our management of the world's resources has been to maximize the output of material products, putting into operation the notion that potential economic gain from converting raw materials into dollars is the only value, while minimizing the monetary costs of protecting the environment. In so doing, we not only deplete the resource base but also produce unmanaged and unmanageable "by-products," often in the form of hazardous "wastes." In unforeseen ways, these by-products, which in reality are unintended, undesirable products (e.g., nuclear wastes), are altering the way in which our biosphere functions.
Because of unforeseen and usually undesirable effects from many of our introductions, we must shift our thinking from managing for particular short-term products to managing for the long-term health of our mutual environment as an overall outcome of our decisions and actions.
In light of the above discussion, we must become innovative, daring, and focus on controlling the type and amount of the processes, substances, and technologies we introduce into an ecosystem. With prudence in our decisions about what to introduce into an ecosystem and how to do so, we can have an environment of desirable quality to support a chosen lifestyle and an environment that can still produce a good mix of products and amenities, but on an ecologically sustainable basis.
If, for instance, we ensure that all possible material introductions we make into the environment are biodegradable as food for organisms like bacteria, fungi, and insects, then our "waste" would become their nutriment. In addition, if we use solar- and wind-based energy instead of fossil fuels, and if we recycle all nonrenewable resources in perpetuity, we will shift our pattern of thought from one that is ecologically exploitive to one that is ecologically friendly and sustainable.
Waste that threatens the environment and human life, rather than sustaining it, must be relegated to the linear, materialistic economics of the 20th century. The 21st century must begin the era of balances in which we employ humanity's two ways of thinking—the cyclical thinking of aboriginal peoples to maintain ecological harmony in balance with the linear thinking of our industrial society to produce the goods and services we humans require. This means that an ecologically sound environment must become the measure of economic health in which the welfare of our home planet—in the present for present and the future—takes precedence over our individual materialistic wants.
In the end, we must understand and accept that it is the cumulative effects of the collective thoughts, practices, substances, and technologies that we introduce into the environment that determine the way in which the environment will respond to our presence and our social necessities over time. Such an understanding requires sound environmental education in order for people to see how their motives, thoughts, decisions, and actions affect the never-ending story of this magnificent planet spinning miraculously in space.
The writing is a little difficult to discern, so I have reproduced it here: Dear Chris Maser, I appreciate your coming to tell us about ditches. I never thought how cool and important ditches could be. I thought they were just mud, rocks, and a lot of water. Now I know that they are part of a river that flows into an ocean!
IF YOU WANT TO KNOW MORE, READ:
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Only when the last tree has died, and the last river has been poisoned, and the last fish been caught, will we realize we cannot eat money. — Cree Indian Proverb
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