Podcast summary of the “Norman Environmental Primer”

This is a summary of the Norman Environmental Primer that has been shortened for a podcast. It is a work in progress and will likely be modified. Stand by – it will begin shortly! NOTE: A more direct link to the podcast is here.

The Primer, as I will hereafter call it, is a short synthesis of environmental issues that I believe are important for every Normanite to have some awareness of.  The essence of the Primer can be covered in perhaps a few hours; here I will summarize the most important topics in about 20 minutes.

The primer is broken into four main parts.  The first is basic concepts. The second is Global issues every person should be aware of. The third is local issues. The fourth is Action-related items – that is, what to do and how to do it.  Taken together, this material will make the listener more aware of major environmental issues than most citizens.  Presumptuous – yes, but listen and judge for yourself.  I am confident that some of the topics will be new even to people who consider themselves ardent environmentalists.

By the way, this Primer is directed towards people who don’t consider themselves environmentalists.  This is the audience I hope to convince that they too, need to be environmentalists.  Everyone needs to be one.

The Primer starts with three basic concepts.  The first is the notion of the Commons.  A commons is a shared resource that must be managed by everyone.  The air we breathe, the water we drink, the landscapes we enjoy, the noise we hear.  We all shared these aspects of our environment.  No one person can affect a common resource without affecting that of other people.  Most people don’t understand this concept well enough. Management of a commons conflicts with individual freedom. That is a source of much conflict in society today.

The second basic concept is that of Urgent versus important.  Most people are aware of this and most people recognize the problems with always doing what is urgent at the expense of ignoring what is important.  It is easy to put off today the issues of global warming, biodiversity loss, air pollution and countless other environmental actions. This is because if we don’t tackle them today a disaster won’t likely unfold tomorrow.  But eventually, bad things will happen if we never deal with the important, but not urgent items.

The third basic concept of the Primer is not so much a concept, but the topic of how to find reliable information about anything.  Today we can Google almost anything, but how do we know if what we find is reliable?   What sources of information are the most, and least, reliable – and how do we know when we are being misled?  Finding truth in the new era of fake news and alternative facts isn’t as easy as it used to be. Especially if we are actively being misled.

Once we understand the basic concepts of the Primer we proceed to Global issues.  These issues affect everyone on the Earth, not just those living in Norman.  These topics range from those that are well-known such as climate change, energy conservation, and global population to seemingly minor topics like Who does the land really belong to?  Yet all have global applicability.

The Climate change section is discussed first because it is probably the best known global issue today.  There are different components of global climate change, not only the global warming due to greater concentrations of carbon dioxide and methane, but the decrease of ozone via photochemical reactions in the polar regions during the polar winter.  And associated with the increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is a corresponding increase of CO2 dissolved in the ocean.  This acidifies the ocean, albeit slowly, but could have profound impacts on oceanic life.

The next global topic is Pollution of the Environment.  In a sense global warming is a result of pollution of the atmosphere by carbon dioxide from fossil fuel burning.  But the pollution section focuses on topics like air pollution, acid rain, and water pollution.  These have both global and local aspect to them.  Plastic pollution of the ocean is global.  Oil leaks into a neighborhood pond are initially local.  But they become global if runoff from the pond reaches the ocean. Water pollution from a oil well blowout in the Santa Barbara channel off the California coast in 1969 catalyzed the first Earth Day in 1970. 

After discussing the well-known pollution topics I describing the less appreciated topics of noise and light pollution.  Noise pollution affects everyone.  Traffic noise.  Aircraft noise from planes overhead.  Even barking dogs in your neighborhood at night.  Everyone contributes to it.   Light pollution is similar.  Most city-dwellers cannot see the night sky except for the moon, a few bright stars and maybe some planets.  They cannot see the Milky Way.  Many people have never been to a truly dark location at night, or a very quiet location.  Finally, we note the issue of visual pollution.  In many places where we live or drive we are surrounded by advertising billboards, decaying oil wells, or other undesirable features of the visual landscape.  Natural prairie landscapes have been covered with wind farms and their towering wind turbines.  Is this desirable to look at?  How much is a scene of natural beauty worth?  The topic is rarely discussed – though some unsightly man-made features may be visible for many miles. 

The importance of various energy sources is the next global topic that I discuss.  Oil and natural gas are essential for today’s aviation and automobile-focused society.  But we are entering a transition where renewable energy sources are becoming increasingly important, not only for electricity generation, but for powering automobiles.  The economic and environmental aspects of the various energy sources powering today’s society are covered in this section.  I focus on the unrecognized environmental impacts of the oil, gas, and coal industry.  That is, unrecognized if you don’t live in one the states where such industries dominate the local economy.  I do discuss at length the renewable energy sector – especially solar and wind energy and their environmental impacts.  There is no entirely clean energy to be had. I mention the topic of nuclear fusion very briefly – for the distant future and some of the problematic implications of having almost unlimited energy.

Energy conservation is commonly practiced by most people.  We don’t cool our houses in Oklahoma to 65 degrees in summer or heat them to 80 degrees in winter.  It takes lots of energy to do this.  Modern houses use double pane windows and extra insulation to prevent heat loss.  We buy smaller cars with better gas mileage to save money (just not in places where pick-up trucks are needed like in rural Oklahoma or Texas).  We replace old light bulbs with much more efficient ones.  But does all of this make a difference?  It can, and we discuss why in a section on Energy Conservation.

The real elephant in the room for all environmental issues is human population.  Period.  By definition all human-induced change on Earth is associated with human population.  If no humans existed on Earth there would be zero-human induced environmental impacts.  But of course there are many humans on Earth so just what is the best number to have?  This question is rarely discussed. Locally, do we want our town of Norman to become the size of Oklahoma City?  No one I know does.  Just how we manage the global human population will be the issue of this century.  If we want to reduce global warming the most important action any couple can do is to have one less child.  This action dominates all other actions they can do.  There are many subtleties to this discussion. Our Primer covers some of the most important ones.

The subject of Global Food Production is closely related to global population and to many other topics in the Primer.  About half of the Earth’s arable land is under cultivation or ranching to provide food for humans.  This obviously impacts global biodiversity and the access we have to natural environments.  This section, though short, points out some issues with farming in the central US compared with agricultural or ranching strategies elsewhere in the world.  There is much room for improving biodiversity conservation and natural landscapes without greatly reducing agricultural production.  This section discusses some strategies for doing this.

Who cares about nature?  This is a topic discussed in the Primer.  This is only partly rhetorical, because a great many people don’t.  Many people never leave the cities where they are born.  How can they appreciate the natural world if they rarely see it?   This section discusses the differences between adventure and nature tourism, the problem with thinking green landscapes are better than brown ones, and our collective problem with not valuing nature.   

The issue of who really cares about nature leads naturally into the most important issue facing environmentalists and indeed humanity.  It is that of biodiversity conservation.  Biodiversity is what makes the Earth unique compared with any other planet in our solar system.  In this section I discuss the problems facing the protection of the Earth’s biodiversity.  The most important requirement is that the public has an interest in nature.  Finally, we discuss the possibilities of restoring nature to already degraded landscapes.

A recently added section of the Primer discusses the homogenization of nature.  Basically this is the human spreading of plants and animals around the world to places they never occurred.  This is widespread today with global transportation via ships and aircraft.  This threatens many uniquely-adapted species across the world that may not be able to compete with these invaders.  It seems that few people appreciate the scope of the problem.

An important section in the Primer discusses Protecting our landscapes.  Modern construction equipment and mining tools allow for humans to create massive open pit mines for copper or other elements.  These, together with their associated waste piles can be many miles across.  Coal mines can be as large or larger and are transforming the topography in many areas of the world.  Then there are the usual freeway construction projects that can create huge gaps in hills.  Together, these human-made alterations of the Earth’s surface will last for many thousands of years – especially in drier areas.  The original shape of the land is being modified, essentially permanently, and there is no plan or thought being given to restoring it to its original form.  For a local example, consider the sanitary landfills around Oklahoma City.  These hills reach more than 100 feet into the air.  Now extrapolate a few hundred years into the future.  Will there be any places that aren’t within sight of one of these?

Who does the land really belong to?  This seems like a strange topic to discuss in an Environmental Primer, but it isn’t.  Most discussion of this issue centers on native peoples rights, treaty obligations, or current land ownership disputes between states and the US Government.  Should the US Government control so much land in the Western US?  Why not the states?  Who should the Brazilian Amazon forest belong to – indigenous tribes who are living there or the Brazilian government? 

Land ownership disputes, though important, fail to bring attention to an even larger issue.  For example, today, when you own a piece of land in Oklahoma or elsewhere, do you own the animals and plants on the land? What about the animals that cross your land on the way to a nearby river? Or the birds and insects that fly over your property? Or the seeds that blow in on the wind, land on your property, and start to grow?

What gives humans the right to own what lives on the land? Why don’t the deer or lizards own the land? Such questions may appear silly for many of us – but they shouldn’t. Only a little more than 150 years ago humans owned other humans – and a great many people saw nothing unusual about that situation. The issue of speciesism deserves more thought than most people give it.  It is tied to religious views that attempt to separate humans from other animals. These views have no biological justification.

To agitate at least 10% of the American public I decided to add a section on Hunting and Fishing to the Primer.  Are these activities good activities for the environment?  Certainly, it can be argued that people who hunt and fish are more “in-tune” with the natural world than most city-folks.  As such, they appreciate natural landscapes and wildlife, if only to hunt or fish them.  But the issue is larger than that.  The Primer’s discussion notes that the current hunting ecosystem is artificial, where the top predators are now humans and game animals are managed primarily for the benefit of hunters to hunt them.  In some states the top predators, like wolves and mountain lion, are killed so that more marketable game can increase their numbers – and can thus generate more hunter revenue.  Wildlife refuges are places where game animals can find temporary refuge from hunters, so that they can increase their numbers to the point where they can be hunted again either inside or outside of the refuges.  Hunting seasons exist to allow animals to reproduce enough so the hunt can take place every year. Is there a better way?

After covering Global issues the Primer then proceeds to Local issues.  Many of these are not strictly local to Norman, but are applicable to many parts of the world.  For example, the first topic discussed is How do we want to live?  This section discusses philosophical points that affect what kind of environment we want to collectively live in.  Do we prefer competition to collaboration?   Should we all live in small towns or large cities?  And how much quality time is enough?  And just what is quality time? How can we design modes of living if we cannot assess quality time?  And how do we obtain continuing education?  Or is what we learned in secondary school all we will ever need?  It is hard to design the ideal environmental conditions for our living spaces until we know, collectively, how we want to live.

We next cover master plans, which most cities have, to guide their development.  The problem is that most master plans are changed periodically to accommodate changing conditions and as such they are not really “master plans”.  Do we want master plans that never change?  Cities might say no but there are some master plans that most people don’t want to change.  Like what we are allowed to do in our National Parks or wilderness areas.  Most of us want these areas to remain the same – for all time. This is the aim of the US National Park Service and National Forest Service that manage these areas.   But they cannot guarantee that there will be no change in the future.  Witness the struggles over drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska.  If there is enough public pressure to do something in such preserves, it will be done. This is really a global issue.

Towns must consider the relative merits of growing up or growing out.  Suburban sprawl is ubiquitous in American cities because most people prefer not to live in high-rise apartments.  But there is a price to be paid for such living.  We discuss the pros and cons of high and low density living.  It is crucial to our basic urban environmental conditions.  One size doesn’t fit all.

The section on “Growing the Economy” is one of my favorite sections of the Primer.  “Growing the economy” is a favorite phrase of almost every politician.  We hear it in every campaign – by almost every candidate.  But it is nonsense in the long run – since the Earth is finite.  I discuss the problems with growing the economy and how no one really wants Norman to become a larger town than it is. But it will certainly happen because very few understand the concept of the “Commons”.

I discuss the status of Norman’s city parks next.  Are such parks just the space between businesses and homes, or should they be more?  Why do sports venues like baseball or soccer fields dominate most city parks?  Who uses our city parks?  Should they just be for children?  What do adults want out of parks?  Should we have a few large city parks or many small parks?   I have suggestions, but they are biased towards environmental education and nature.

At some point many of us, if we want to immerse ourselves in the natural world, need to know where to find it.  In Oklahoma and many other parts of the world this isn’t easy.  Much land is private in Oklahoma and trespassing is frowned upon.  This section covers accessible natural areas in the state in general terms.  However, I raise the question of whether anything can be done to improve access to nature in Oklahoma.  I present some options for improving access to natural areas.  Some only require changes in management, while others require purchasing land along river corridors.  Though all of these are potentially feasible, the main impediment to a better access to nature in Oklahoma is the lack of public interest.  Some reasons for this are discussed.

At this point the Primer devolves into a few topics that are either very local, like should Norman have trees or lawns, to philosophical topics like should we recycle?  Or just how wild should our cities be?

As topics are added to the Primer they are put into a section called Miscellaneous small topics.  Some of these are very local like what is the best use of the Westwood Golf course in Norman. Others are global issues like wildfires – are they really bad? Other topics don’t seem to be environmental issues, but are, like the importance of travel.

The final section of the Primer covers Action-related items.  These are basic requirements for taking action to make our environment better for everyone.  The first and most important characteristic needed by environmentalists is an interest in the natural world.  This doesn’t come automatically to people who spend their lives in cities.   

How should we teach environmental awareness?  Should it be left to schools?  How will adults learn about important environmental issues?  How can adults keep current as the world changes around them?  This section on how and what to teach is short, but important in the questions it raises.

A third Action-related topic is about communicating among ourselves.  What is the role of newspapers, social media and public lectures in presenting environmental issues to the public.  Must we have “Death by powerpoint”? What is the importance of Zoom presentations.   Is the art of public speaking lost?

Should you take action – or just complain?  Many people complain about environmental issues, but won’t want to take any specific action.  This section of the Primer discusses what everyone can do – at every stage of their life.  It also discusses the difference between proactive and reactive responses to problems.  Should we now identify where to stay safe during a tornado warning – or should we wait until we hear the sirens to think about this?   Should we wait until hurricane-force winds from a landfalling hurricane reach us before evacuating our beach-front home?  And should we do anything now about mitigating future climate change? Or should we wait until we see a clear increase in sea level and perhaps the frequency of droughts or severe weather?

I conclude the Primer with some political action tips for environmentalists.  These tips apply to almost every topic of public interest – not just environmental issues.  Like the notion that every voter counts equally – but not every voter has the same understanding of issues.  And that convincing the most informed voter of something is much more difficult than convincing the least informed voter, so most campaigns simplify issues to a great degree.  Most voters don’t vote, especially in local elections, so convincing your supporters to vote is one of the greatest challenges for candidates.   Public outreach can be a long and frustrating process, but it is essential if you hope to build support for any environmental action.  And you will never know beforehand who you strongest supporters will be.

I encourage the listener to read through each of the sections of the Primer, since this podcast summary barely scratches the surface of the topics that are covered. 

The Primer is written for you!