Monday, March 6, 2017 Blog

Leadership and technology. A circular plastic economy. Sheep farmers or the Enlightenment. Acidic oceans. Sun shingles. Moving on! The news of my retirement has been…

by Andy Hollis


To paraphrase the perspicacious Donald Rumsfeld, this week’s news touches on “known knowns,” “known unknowns,” and “unknown unknowns.”

Starting with the “known knowns,” Hugh Lane, Jr., chairman of the Bank of South Carolina and one of S.C.’s great conservation leaders, defends the South Carolina Conservation Bank in this Post and Courier op-ed.

The Bank was recently the subject of a South Carolina Legislative Audit Council report that managed to completely overlook the stunning success of this modestly funded ($10 million annually) and modestly staffed (2 people) program.  This year is a critical one because the enabling legislation terminates the Bank in 2018.  The (somewhat) good news is that the House subcommittee responsible for the legislation approved a bill this week with $5 million in funds for the year.   It’s not enough, but it’s a better starting point than zero.

One place Conservation Bank funds have been effectively deployed is on the East Branch of the Cooper River.  This area, bordering the Francis Marion National Forest, is one of the most historically and biologically important in the Southeast.

So, another “known known” is that a residential subdivision between the East Branch plantations and the national forest is a terrible idea.  Fortunately, Berkeley County’s planners and elected officials realized this, and adopted zoning and infrastructure policies to protect the area.

In this article by Lindsay Street with the Berkeley Independent, the subdivision developer has withdrawn his application to build 10 houses per acre on his property.  The newspaper was the first to alert the community, and us, to the pending application – which is a good example of the importance of a vigilant news media. (medium?)

Another “known known” – Sullivan’s Island is fortunate, and insightful, to have protected the maritime forest along their accreting beachfront.  Last fall Hurricane Matthew underscored that point.

Steve Bailey, writing in the Post and Courier, reminds us of the alternative – the bulldozing and development, in the 1970s, of the dunes seaward of what was then the front row of houses on Isle of Palms, along Breach Inlet.  This battle took place between J.C. Long, the legendary developer of Isle of Palms, and the (formerly) beachfront home owners.  Long won, the dunes lost, and the rest is history.

Steve’s point, simply, is that it is foolish for Sullivan’s homeowners to complain about having too much beach and too much maritime forest in an era when 99 percent of the beaches in the world are receding, often taking rows of houses with them.  Steve urges people to celebrate and enjoy the “magical forest by the sea.”

The status and future of the world’s oceans are truly “known unknowns,” at least for those who appreciate their almost unfathomable complexity and beauty, and who worry about what can be done to stem their alarming decline.  Fortunately, the South Carolina Aquarium subscribes to that point of view.  They have organized a conference focused on plastics, with an emphasis on ocean impacts.

This article from the Post and Courier, by Bo Petersen, reports on one group that will be presenting at the conference, (as will the Conservation League), the 5 Gyres Institute.  The Institute, named after the five gargantuan ocean “garbage patches,” believes that we need a “circular economy” for plastics.

That’s an interesting way to saying that plastic products need to be designed and produced to last, not to be thrown away after one use.  (This seems so self-evident as to be almost tautological, but it is not self-evident to companies and lobbyists in the single use plastic bag industry.)

The Institute explains, more tactfully than I am here, that plastic recycling is a joke.  Not only can single use plastic bags not be recycled, they also gum up the works of recycling machinery when they are in the waste stream.

When they are not in the waste stream, they are, at best, eyesores on the sides of the roads.  At worst, they break down into micro-plastic particles that permeate the ocean and the world’s fisheries.  We are today ingesting the residuals of throwaway plastic products when we eat fish and shellfish.

Now the good news… Isle of Palms and Folly Beach have already banned single use plastic bags.  This article in the Beaufort Gazette explains that the town of Beaufort is considering passing a similar ban.  (The City of Charleston formed a committee on the subject, but it was hijacked by the Charleston Chamber of Commerce, which oppose plastic bag bans, and has ground to a screeching halt.)  So, good for Beaufort for moving forward on the important goal of jump-starting the circular economy for plastics!

Meanwhile, the single use plastic bag lobby is working hard to pass a state ban on plastic bag bans.  As Senator Larry Grooms has said, “That’s one too many bans, right?”  Now is a good time to register your opposition to the ban on bans with your state representative and senator.

One “unknown” for some people is well known to me.  Katie Zimmerman, who has worked at the Conservation League for nine years on a wide array of issues, from plastic pollution, to cruise ships, to protecting Captain Sams Spit, has decided to narrow her focus and increase (if possible) her workload.

As this Post and Courier article reports, she will become the Executive Director of Charleston Moves, a bicycle advocacy group we work with all the time, and whose precursor we teamed up with to have the bike lane added to the Ravenel Bridge over the Cooper River.

Nothing unknown about this move!  Katie is a superstar and Charleston Moves is smart and lucky to get her.  If anyone can change Charleston’s designation as one of the worst biking cities in the nation to one of the best, Katie will do it.

Ok.  I’m going to speed things up.  Bo Petersen with the Post and Courier covers the good, the bad and the ugly in these two articles.  The first reports that ocean water is acidifying because of carbon emissions faster than the predictions suggested it would, (a known unknown).

CO2 combines with water (H2O) in the ocean to produce carbonic acid (H2CO3).  We have focused almost exclusively on CO2 as a greenhouse gas, but this phenomenon is just as alarming and just as potentially catastrophic.  A warming atmosphere and acidifying oceans are the Scylla and Charybdis of the industrial age.

But here is some good news about technology…  (Although there is more than a little unknown about it.) In this article from Bloomberg News, Tesla founder and techno-guru Elon Musk says that solar energy-producing shingles, (made by Tesla, of course), will soon be cheaper than “dumb (asphalt) roofs” that just keep the rain out.

This could not come at a better time.  It underscores the importance freeing solar technology from its regulatory shackles, as South Carolina began to do with the passage of the solar energy bill two years ago.

Finally, the “unknown unknown.”  What can we do to save our civilization?  (There is probably some dispute as to whether it needs saving.  Thus the “unknown unknown.”)  The answer may come down to whether David Brooks is smarter than an English sheep farmer.

In this op-ed from the New York Times, Brooks says it is time to recommit ourselves to the values of the Enlightenment – the reliance on science, evidence-based inquiry and clarity of thinking that propelled us to the lofty status we now occupy.  He thinks we have turned away from Enlightenment ideals, to our detriment.  (In his defense, he does admit some of the shortcomings of this world view.)

This all sounds so… rational… until you consider the fact that these same Enlightenment ideals produced the technologies and economies that now threaten the survival of the planet.  There has clearly been something essential missing in our 400-year trajectory of progress.

That something may be a sense of beauty and commitment to place and tradition that has characterized our species since long before John Locke picked up a quill pen.

This op-ed in the New York Times, by an English sheep farmer, probes that point, specifically considering the decline and malaise in rural America and its implications for food and agriculture.

He argues that the pursuit of “bargain basement prices” through ever-more efficient production processes (if you exclude highly subsidized energy inputs) and economies of scale, both products of Enlightenment thinking, have had horribly negative consequence for our communities and our planet.

Our demand for cheap food is killing the American dream for millions of people. Among its side effects, it is creating terrible health problems like obesity and antibiotic-resistant infections, and it is destroying the habitats upon which wildlife depends. It also concentrates vast wealth and power in fewer and fewer hands.

After my trip to rural America, I returned to my sheep and my strangely old-fashioned life. I am surrounded by beauty, and a community, and an old way of doing things that has worked for a long time rather well. I have come home convinced that it is time to think carefully, both within America and without, about food and farming and what kind of systems we want.

The future we have been sold doesn’t work. Applying the principles of the factory floor to the natural world just doesn’t work. Farming is more than a business. Food is more than a commodity. Land is more than a mineral resource.

So what is the solution?  I suspect it is grounded in a love of nature, an ethic of community and a respect of tradition – values that are not essentially incompatible with science and logic, but that we have carelessly brushed aside in our pursuit of cheaper, faster and bigger.

All of this is great food for thought and, one can only hope, for change.

Last and least, the following three links are articles from the State, the Post and Courier and a video interview with Quintin Washington, on my soon to be new role at the Conservation League.  You’ve probably seen them already, or even felt bombarded by them.  But just so you have them all in one place, here they are.

Have a wonderful week!


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