Race, poverty and climate change 

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As local efforts accelerate to grapple with climate change, sustainability and conservation, two nationally prominent environmentalists are lending considerable vision to the conversation: Buddy Huffaker and Jerome Ringo.

Those involved in this sustainability movement are encouraged by current progress, but find that nothing comes easy when dealing with human habit and resistance to change.

Buddy Huffaker has led the Aldo Leopold Foundation as its Executive Director for 14 years. He laments that the conservation community may have trapped themselves into thinking that the legislative progress is the sole way toward action and solutions. He lists the victories of the '70s: the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, and the Wilderness Act.

"This is my opinion on climate change as well," Huffaker told me in a recent phone conversation. "The problem is so big, the scale is so enormous, [we think] we need this big policy approach. While I don't think there's anything wrong with this approach, we A) haven't found the legislative champions who could lead that ... and B) we've lost sight of the little things, the myriad ways that citizens can contribute..."

Huffaker adds, "We haven't put enough effort into engaging citizenry in everyday environmental stewardship. Citizens don't know what they can do. We have more work to do, to connect those dots, to engage people in proactive and productive ways."

click to enlarge Purdue grad Wellington "Buddy" Huffaker IV, Executive Director of the Aldo Leopold Foundation. - SUBMITTED PHOTO
  • Purdue grad Wellington "Buddy" Huffaker IV, Executive Director of the Aldo Leopold Foundation.
  • Submitted photo

One way to connect those dots is to attend the 45th gathering of the Environmental Education Association of Indiana, Sept. 26-28, at McCormick's Creek State Park. Among the workshops, field trips and other events planned for this year's gathering, two keynote speakers will address the theme, "Igniting the green fire."

Both keynote speakers, Huffaker, of the Aldo Leopold Foundation, and Jerome Ringo, former chair of the National Wildlife Federation, are fluent in environmental advocacy and issues of justice, poverty and race.

Ringo is the past chairman of the National Wildlife Federation, the first African American to hold such a prestigious position in a major conservation organization.

We also recently spoke via phone, and began our conversation by discussing race and the environmental movement. In a speech to the 2006 National Black Mayors Conference, Ringo told the assembled that, "the environmental movement in America does not look like America."

I ask him to explain what he meant by that.

"It's clear from the beginning," Ringo states, "back in the 1930s when the environmental movement was first organized, that it was primarily made up of those who could afford to be active in the movement. Primarily hunters and sportsmen... those people that would go out and fish and hang those fish on the wall [as opposed to] people that were fishing to put a fish on their plate."

Consequently, says Ringo, the first conservationists and environmentalists were sports fishermen and sports hunters. Over the last century, the movement evolved to involve more women, but still, people of color and people who lack wealth were absent.

Ringo says that when he took the leadership role at the National Wildlife Federation in 1994, there were 24,000 members. And he was the only black member. And so, he's embarked, he says, "on a personal campaign ... to diversify the movement, and help the movement be more inclusive, especially including the people who suffer the greatest and disproportionate impact from environmental practices. That is, the poorest and the people of color."

The complication, as Ringo puts it, is, "Poor people ... are concerned with next month's rent rather than the depletion of the ozone layer."

Huffaker: A land ethic

Huffaker is a leading advocate for developing an ecological conscience, and he has the perfect platform for his message: the historic Leopold Farm and Shack in Baraboo, WI. Leopold Farm and Shack is named, of course, for Aldo Leopold, whose 1949 collection of essays, A Sand County Almanac, is as foundational an eco-read as Rachel Carson's Silent Spring. Among many other accomplishments, Huffaker lead the foundation's effort to the construct the LEED Platinum Leopold Center as well as served as executive producer of the Emmy Award winning documentary film Green Fire: Aldo Leopold and a Land Ethic for Our Time. There is an Indiana connection for Huffaker; he attended high school in Fort Wayne, and then graduated from Purdue.

After Leopold's death in 1948, Huffaker says, some of his assets were put into a family trust where they sat, untouched. By the 70s and 80s, however, the family realized that interest in Leopold's life and work was actually growing, "So they created a family foundation, and transferred the shack and farm [where Leopold lived and worked] and transferred the rights to his writing."

This larger public appreciation of Leopold began, says Huffaker, "in the 1970s with the first Earth Day. Leopold was well known in the wildlife community, but it wasn't until the seventies, when there was a public awakening and awareness about the environment. As people sought good literature about nature, Leopold was rediscovered."

Huffaker calls the scope of the Leopold Foundation "multifaceted," given the fact the Foundation has stewardship over Leopold's property and prose. Huffaker explains, "We take care of a particular place, and we continue to do ecological research and restoration. We operate much as a nature reserve or a land trust – where there is this place we take care of.

"We also have this universal idea of the land ethic," he continues. "As the executor of Leopold's literary estate, we work very broadly — geographically — to help other people think about what this idea means and how it gets applied in their place and their community."

Ecological restoration is a key component in the Leopold Foundation mission. Huffaker cites some examples: "We continue to manage invasive species. We have a research component where we are trying to document how we combat a species like garlic mustard. We are trying different management techniques and we're documenting the efficacy of our work, so that we are not only trying to improve the health of the land, but understanding how we can do it better."

In addition, says Huffaker, "We helped create an important bird area radiating out from the shack that sits within 10,000 acres of public and private land that is managed and protected for conservation value."

These projects enable the Foundation's charge to educate. He says their main audience includes middle school, high school and beyond. "School groups come from all over the region to learn about the history, ecological restoration, green building, and then we also have an intern program – on a collegiate level."

He maintains, however, that they don't view themselves as a nature center. "There are other sites like those in our community that are better equipped at introducing kids to the flora and fauna. We're the next step. They're beginning to formulate their attitudes and thinking about their responsibilities to the natural world. They are starting to think about things like stewardship and ethics as they relate to the natural world."

Related to this stewardship point, Huffaker emphasizes that Aldo Leopold "hunted and fished his entire life and felt those were important ways to connect to the world. He was keenly interested in how people spent their leisure time and engaged in the natural world.

click to enlarge The Aldo Leopold shack and grounds. - SUBMITTED PHOTO
  • The Aldo Leopold shack and grounds.
  • Submitted photo

"We have an active hunting program," Huffaker continues. "We do engage the hunting community. There is an important and valuable role for hunting in wildlife management but I would also be quick to point out that there are some attitudes and approaches in the hunting community that are troubling.

"It's important to finding that positive role for people to play in the natural world; to bring an ethic and code of conduct to any activity outdoors is of utmost importance."

"Think beyond our lives"

Jerome Ringo cites some progress in the diversification of the conservation moment, noting that the NWF now has a board of directors much more diverse than in the past. In fact, Ringo says, "diversification in leadership is the first step" to diversifying the movement.

I ask him what he says when he's talking to the poor and to people of color about our environmental challenges.

"Education is critical," Ringo says. "I say to them, 'how can next month's rent be your top priority when you're dying of cancer'...." [from pollutants associated with nearby industries]. "Changing environmental policies and making sure there is accountability should be just as important as next month's rent. Because next month's rent sustains your life, but so do clean air and clean water."

Environmental challenges affect us all, Ringo maintains. "We are all impacted ... beyond those who have close proximity to chemical plants and to landfills. The climate change issue is the issue that impacts everyone. We all suffer."

This shared suffering, "gives us the opportunity to come together as one people on one issue. What drives activism is believing that your voice has the ability to change things. We can all be change agents. History has shown us – whether it's been the Civil Rights or the Women's Movement – that when we all come together with one common goal in mind, that there is power in numbers."

Ultimately, he says, he has to "Think beyond our lives ... [to] the grand kids and great grandkids that I may never see. I have a moral responsibility to them."

He adds, "We see a global effort of people from nation to nation recognizing that what they do in their country impacts all the corners of the earth, and making necessary steps to make a real change."

Ringo knows more than most about the impacts of humans on the environment. He lives in Lake Charles, Louisiana, and says he's been an evacuee of Hurricane Gustav, Hurricane Rita, Hurricane Wilma, Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Ike — all since 2005. "I have experienced the impact — increasingly — of climate change, the intensity of hurricanes. I have seen the impact of sea level rise with the erosion of the Louisiana coast where we lose an acre of land every 42 minutes due to erosion.

"I have been at ground zero here in the United States, where my level of activism has risen, because I can see before my eyes what is happening... and I can also see an opportunity to make a difference."

Living near the Gulf of Mexico, Ringo also experienced the ravages of the oil spill from Deepwater Horizon. "It was horrible," he recalls, adding, "I believe that there are enough people that believe there should be a level of accountability for those who destroy the environment. Even those who are advocates for ... 'drill baby drill,' they too suffer the effects of Deepwater Horizon. They too have children and grandchildren."

Ringo is buoyed by his spirituality, saying that, "God gave dominion to man over the earth, not to trash it, but to keep it. And to make sure that the next generation has it better than we found it. America must come to a stronger realization of the value of going green, from an environmental perspective, from an economic perspective — from a better quality of life as a whole. It creates a win-win for us."

He said he is inspired by the work of people like Aldo Leopold, Rachel Carson and Virginia Ball for their commitment to the environment.

"Protecting the land and the water is critical to sustain life," he says. "Preservation and conservation is not just the right thing to do, it's a life thing to do."

click to enlarge Jerome Ringo, former chair of the National Wildlife Federation. - SUBMITTED PHOTO
  • Jerome Ringo, former chair of the National Wildlife Federation.
  • Submitted photo

Green fire

"Green fire" is the name of the Leopold Foundation's Emmy-winning documentary, as well as the thematic focus of the upcoming EEAI conference. Huffaker says that the phrase is "a reference to one of Leopold's most seminal essays 'Thinking like a Mountain' – literally and figuratively about the energy of the earth. Even in the '40s, when Leopold wrote the essay, 'green' was taking on the connotation of the environment and nature. It was Leopold's story of an epiphany of recognizing these complexities of the natural world."

Huffaker illustrates with the following example: "At a time when many thought that if you eliminated predators you would have unlimited game and wildlife of species you wanted, Leopold began to realize that wasn't true. Predators, just like every other species or function in an ecosystem, have a particular role to play and when you remove those there can be negative consequences. Too many deer is really not a hunters' paradise; it becomes an ethical dilemma of deer starving, range degradation, soil erosion and this cascading of problems."

Green fire, then, represents Leopold's increasing appreciation of the complexity of ecosystems. "It's his philosophical shift and his way to invite readers to go on this journey with him to rethink their place in the world and how the world actually operates.

"We use that story and meaning as the packaging for our documentary on [how] Leopold's life and ideas continue to inform conservation today all over the country. We use that metaphor to engage others in this journey to recognize we have an important role to play in environmental stewardship."

I point out to Huffaker that "green fire" sounds like the fire within people that motivates them to become more active in conservation. "I think that's right," he says. "That is many readers' response to that term. It is right and just and it's powerful and Leopold would be pleased."

Huffaker pauses, then continues. "There's no easy solution to this stuff," he concludes. "This is part of the ongoing challenges and dilemmas that the conservation community is going to have to wrestle with, that we as citizens are going to have to wrestle with, and it's going to take more vigilance, more energy, more commitment, more passion.

"The amazing and wonderful things that happen when we do, are the things that keep me coming back, whether that's seeing a flock of cranes flying over or a beautiful prairie flower in bloom. It's those little things that I think we can find so much inspiration and power in."

Jim Poyser is Executive Director of Earth Charter Indiana, a member of EEAI and a former NUVO managing editor.

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Jim Poyser

Jim Poyser

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Jim Poyser is Executive Director of Earth Charter Indiana, a statewide organization that was one of over two dozen nonprofit partners in Greening the Statehouse. A former managing editor of NUVO, he won HEC’s Environmentalist of the Year Award in 2013.

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