Sunday, October 21, 2012

Wetlands, fish and RAE on the night of the last Presidential debate

I have spent the day in sessions for the Restore America's Estuaries (RAE) national conference here in Tampa, Fla., around the corner, figuratively speaking, from the Presidential debates and both have been on my mind all day. That is, I have been thinking about the health of and challenges to American estuaries as reflected in the conference and the implications for fish. Many, many innovative and important projects are being implemented around the country despite terrific obstacles. And many are in danger with the threat of a new round of cuts.

While admiring the successes, for example from Low Impact Development (LID- basically permaculture on urban steroids at the service of stormwater filtration), which I took an excellent all day workshop on yesterday, with Larry Coffman, I have also been thinking about the implications of the coming elections, should Obama lose or even if Obama wins again in this debate or ultimately, for the presidency. The reason my thinking has been pivoting around implications for fish between estuaries and the presidency during this conference, has been that I'm about to launch the formal announcement for a new project, Fish Story. Fish Story is a project about how the fate of fish speaks to the environment and people. I believe the team I have assembled for this project can address many of the gaps I've heard about so far at RAE. Those gaps are about what I think only art can supply: framing, connection and context to build a narrative for people that they can use to take ownership pf their own environment.

Fish, are, as I've written in earlier posts here, indicator species. And they are in trouble everywhere in our world. And they are in trouble because of how people think about our environment, a manner of thinking that is also relevant to how we make our decisions about leadership and why so many wonderful environmental restoration projects encounter resistance. I think a lot of that thinking brings people back to a sense of powerlessness rather than empowerment. I suspect many fish feel the same way.

This morning, Majora Carter, a MacArthur fellow, delivered our keynote address.

Majora is a black woman from the South Bronx, NYC, who has been able to leverage her experience to help disadvantaged youth by engaging them in empowering environmental restoration work. Her accounts of her  enormous accomplishments were delivered with modesty, compassion and honesty, qualities I admire greatly. During the Q&A, I asked her about her interest in working with ecological artists. She made the point in response, that it spoke volumes, that ecological artists put the terms environment/ ecology in front of our description of ourselves. I think that's true and a generous observation. I was also further, personally delighted when she said she'd be happy to talk more with me about my new project, Fish Story.

Majora's is a model of leadership and ecological engagement for economically disadvantaged young people that I want to explore for Fish Story in Memphis. That aspect of the project, is something I am also hoping my collaborator, Susan Steinman Leibovitz will particularly pick up on because her expertise is in social practice ecological art. My own expertise is more on the science side. But I am at least as concerned about the young black & brown people in Memphis as the disadvantaged fish in the Mississippi. I'm also not sure there's a real distinction between them, not only as condemned to powerlessness but as systemic indicators of globalized distress.

Majora's position is clear: restoration is inevitable work which either political party must complete because it makes good economic as well as social sense. Because she sees that there is no alternative, she is convinced that both candidates must also see that that is true.

The rest of the day was about restored seagrass beds, the possibility of developing a certificate program for restoration work through the Society for Ecological Restoration (SER) and raising money for restoration projects. In the evening, I studied the poster sessions on display for various projects.

The constant refrain in everything I heard & saw however, was how easy it is to destroy the littoral zone (between land and sea), how hard and expensive it is to repair that damage and how fragile even the modest push back achieved by ambitious restoration projects can be. The consistent subtext in every session was the question of what will happen to our environment, should the Republicans be in a position of power to cut the legs out from under even that modest success by defunding federal agencies such as NOAA. There are two more days to go with RAE for me to reflect on these ideas and what I learn. Those two days will also be the first two days after this last debate.

8:59 PM EST So, the last debate is about to begin. In the past two debates, I noticed that the outcome could be predicted from the body language in the first few minutes. They walked out on the stage very much as equals. How will they walk off and how will that walk be perceived?

O: 48
R: 40
According to CNN.

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