Sunday, February 19, 2012

Is the Glass Half Empty or Half Full? by Moderator John Hartig

Discussion Topic: Burning Rivers: Revival of Four Urban-Industrial Rivers That Caught Fire

Is the glass half empty or half full?  This is a common expression used by people to perceive situations or events.  It is truly a philosophical question that points out that a particular situation can be viewed either optimistically (half full) or pessimistically (half empty), depending upon an individual’s perspective.  This question is frequently used to demonstrate that in many situations individuals can perceive them as an opportunity or as trouble, depending upon an individual’s point of view.

In my previous post I documented the revival of these four rivers.  However, considerable remediation and restoration work is needed to restore the physical, chemical, and biological integrity of these rivers consistent 
with the goals of the Clean Water Act and U.S.-Canada Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement

For example, in New York’s Buffalo River scientists suggest that recovery of macrobenthic invertebrates is likely stalled without contaminated sediment remediation and habitat rehabilitation.  In Ohio’s Cuyahoga River, scientists have identified organic enrichment, nutrients, bacteria, flow alteration, toxicity, and degraded habitats as the remaining primary causes of use impairment.  Major remaining sources of impairment include municipal and industrial point sources, combined sewer and sanitary overflows, and to a lesser extent natural conditions.  In Michigan’s Rouge River, exceedances of water quality standards continue to be reported and the lower river is plagued by contaminated sediment.  Scientists have quantified that 23% of the Rouge River watershed has been transformed into impervious surface that causes both significant runoff problems and loss of habitat.  Research has shown that watershed health begins to decline when impervious surface coverage exceeds 10% and becomes severely impaired if this number climbs beyond 30%.  The Chicago Waterway System consists of 78 miles of canals, of which 75% are human-made where flow is artificially controlled by hydraulic structures.  It was created to fulfill two primary purposes: drainage of urban storm water runoff and treated municipal effluent; and commercial navigation.  Exceedances of water quality standards and guidelines continue to occur because of its primary intent is to function as a ship and sanitary canal.  In addition, it lacks diverse habitat types found in natural rivers and there is growing public support for ecological separation of the Chicago Waterway System from Lake Michigan to protect the Great Lakes from Asian carp.  Clearly, much remains to be done.

City of Dearborn and many partners restoring riparian habitat along the Rouge River in Ford Field (Photo Credit: City of Dearborn)

My question for you is “Should we focus most on the problems that remain, the progress achieved, or a combination of both?”  And if you believe as I do that we need to focus on both, what is the relative priority between them?  

Many environmental organizations and advocacy groups have historically focused most on identifying major problems and “pointing the finger” at who is likely responsible because that drives action and gets attention.  However, if we exclusively follow that approach, we may be missing an opportunity to bring these parties on board as partners to help solve remaining problems that will require cooperation and partnerships.  For example, each of these four urban rivers is plagued by storm water runoff problems and loss of habitat.  Clearly the solutions to these two problems will require much cooperation and voluntary effort.  I believe that we need to: celebrate the progress achieved in these rivers; identify clearly the remaining problems and remedial responsibilities; ensure that we have strong regulatory and enforcement programs; and yet not lose a unique opportunity to work collaboratively on solving remaining pressing problems like storm water runoff and loss of habitat.  In watershed management of these four rivers, and others, cooperative partnerships are becoming more important and we must not shut the door on this unique opportunity.


Jason said...

so...I think your comments are very clear and you actually answer your own question here and in your very enlightening book. My feelings are - use BOTH glasses to our full advantage.

For example, I feel, as an agency - and even a nation - we are WAY behind on climate change science and worse, on what to do about it. By the time we decide it may be too late for many species and many habitats - especially the many coastal salt marshes we are about to lose. That said, both cups can and should be used. From a conservation agencies point of view - I feel like our cup should always be half empty...we're almost there but so much more to be done. But when working with the public...especially if our goal is to convince them to care about or even fund a project...using the half full cup - saying "look how far we've come, but we have so much more to do" is a more positive and usually more efficient way than beating someone over the head with very dire news.

John Hartig said...

Jason, Another major need is to place a higher priority on environmental and conservation education in schools. It is key to have the next generation better versed in understanding the problems, recognizing what has been done and accomplished, and what remains to be done. We can and must do a better job of this.

Jason said...

John -'ve hit right close to my heart because that is what I do - and how I see and use my "cups." While working within the agency - I tend to always strive to do more and hope the agency moves the same way (glass half empty and work to do) but as an environmental educator..working with school kids and adults of all age..I try to stress the half-full cup...all the great things we are doing and "Hey - you can be part of to in many ways" to help fill up that glass.
I totally agree - if our next generations don't care...our half empty glass will be down to a quarter or less full.

John Hartig said...

Jason, Well said! If we want to motivate and inspire children and adults, we need to stress the glass is half full. Once we have them hooked we can bring out our long list of half empty things. We need to motivate, recruit, equip, and inspire children (and adults) to care for the place they call home.

Anonymous said...

I agree with you both, John and Jason. I would just like to add that if we are to create generations of caring citizens, then it is imperative that we get our youth outdoors. As an environmental educator for 15 years and co-founder of a student environmental organization, I have seen many youth, including troubled and disillusioned youngsters, find peace and tranquility in nature. It is not even a matter of students learning about ecological facts/processes and scientific methodologies, it is simply allowing youth to connect in a free and spontaneous way to the natural world around them during moments of contemplative silence, reflection and self-discovery--critical personal skills/mental exercises that too many youth aren't able to engage enough while being overwhelmed with personal stress, teen angst, pressure to succeed and find a job to help pay the rent, "technological overload," etc...Only through these "educational moments" in nature--I've even seen many youth who previously thought of nature as an "icky and dirty" place filled with "weeds and gross bugs" change their tune after spending months outdoors--can we seriously hope to create the caring citizens required to shift the inertia from apathy, and even contempt, to an attitude of sustainability and protection of what remains of our natural world, as well as restoration of degraded places. Students with adequate nature experiences will have their glasses half-full, and will help create and restore that sustainable world; while those without adequate nature experiences will not just have glasses half-empty and be far less likely to join the sustainability movement, but they will also find their glasses half-full of a poisonous brew from all the years of emotional neglect, exposure to media violence, a frenetic emphasis to succeed at all costs, and a general lack of love for one's self and others, including the natural world...That is why it is so important that there are places, like the International Wildlife Refuge and Southgate Anderson High School's 38-acere Nature Center, where youth can find solace and comfort and escape from the fast-paced techno-world that often overloads their minds with too much anthropocentric drivel to the detriment of all else, including the planetary ecosystems that make even a fast-paced techno-world possible. Unplugging our youth and allowing them to experience the serenity and psychological healing that nature experiences provide should be, in my opinion, a big part of any glass-refilling strategy to save ourselves and our planet from a much diminished global ecology.

John Hartig said...

Tembokangatours, I fully agree that we need to recognize that children require nature and that we need places in urban areas like the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge, Southgate Anderson High School's Nature Center, and the Detroit RiverWalk in Downtown Detroit to engage our youth in compelling outdoor educational experiences that are fun. Scientific evidence suggests that if children are given early and on-going positive exposure to nature, they thrive in intellectual, psycholoigcal, spiritual, and physical ways that their "shut-in" peers do not.