Thursday, 24 April 2014

Post 15: Conservation in Hawaii, and Humpback Whales

Marking has concluded; reading the final projects was so much fun. By and large they were well done, and I am pleased with the work the students did this semester. What a pleasure to participate in shaping their learning and experience.

My partner and I took a quick leap half way across the Pacific to spend a bit of time in Oahu and Maui, Hawaii, two of the medium-sized islands. What a blast it was—literally and figuratively: the trade winds made sure they were a steady companion, helping to dampen the heat and on our first day, blew away my light jacket! Between snorkelling a volcanic crater called Molokini, and finding out about the wonders of coral reefs, and driving up 10,000 feet to the top of Haleakala, Maui's dormant volcano, and in so doing passing through at least 3 major ecosystem types (forest, meadow, and almost a desert-like barrenness with flightless moths and carnivorous caterpillars, and a plant endemic to only top 1,000 feet of Haleakala, called Ahinahina, or silver sword), and hiking a 1050 step abandoned trolley line up Koko Head to view the spectacular sights of south-eastern Oahu, we had a really good time.

At the top of Haleakala. The colours were phenomenal.

                                       My photo of the Ahinahina. The sword part wasn't growing
                                       — I don't think it was the season for it. :)
We also got to participate in some of the more casual conservation efforts of Maui. Nearly at the end of the snorkelling experience, free beach clean-up kits were offered on the boat. As the guides pointed out, if only a few people participated in cleaning up the beaches, it would help prevent some of the garbage that harms the water-bound species (especially) of Hawaii, including the endangered green sea turtle, that, for example, mistakes plastic bags for the jelly fish they enjoy snacking on. So, we grabbed a kit, had an immensely lovely wander down Kaanapali Beach on the northwestern side of the Island, catching a brilliant sunset and picking up cigarette butts, beer bottle caps, drinking straws, a lonely water shoe, sand-encrusted jelly beans and gummies, pop bottles, and other lovely things that are left on beaches. We filled out a form to include and drop-off with the bag of garbage, for the research purposes of the Pacific Whale Foundation. They gave us a beautiful and sturdy canvas bag that says, "Save the Whales" on it.

                                        Baldwin beach -- not the one we cleaned up, but this gives a
                                        sense of just how beautiful the beaches were.

I used that bag for my grocery shopping this evening - the first shop back since arriving back yesterday. The grocery clerk packing my bag in the store looked at the bag, saying, "Oh beautiful!" Then she read "Save the Whales," written on the bag, and it was with great sadness that I realized, what a coincidence: the print of the breeching whale on the bag is the same hump back whale that I saw briefly  off the side of the snorkelling boat in Hawaii, and is the same whale species that the current federal conservative government just down-graded for its conservation status here in Canada. The status of the whales were a "threatened" species, but have now been classed as a species of "special concern." This is the whale whose critical breeding habitats just off of Kitimat will no longer be protected; this is the whale that used to pose an environmental problem for the Northern Gateway project. Now, downgrading their conservation status means that is no longer the case. It seems that if the environment doesn't line up with the government, then the significance of the environment can be changed to suit the government's need. So very, very sad. And this was done on Earth Day, no less.

Considering that the Kinder-Morgan pipeline expansion will triple the tanker traffic coming out of the Burrard Inlet, it does not seem to me that the threats to the whales will diminish any time in the future.

Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Post 14: Housekeeping, Catch-Up, David Suzuki, and Support

It's getting to be the end of the semester, and I'm enjoying marking final projects. I'm also finding myself doing the little things that are setting me up to continue this project through the summer: letting Student Aid BC know that I'm still in school (which allows me to not worry about having to resume paying back my remaining student loan debt), registering for the summer semester, and renewing my ethics application, just in case I need to collect a bit more data from particular research participants.

Monday evening I had the most delightful catchup with some of my colleagues. It's so wonderful and encouraging to hear how they're doing on their projects, and to be able to connect in our misery. I continue to hear from others that they feel more negative about their work than their supervisors do. By and large the feedback that they receive from their supervisors is positive, and I have the same experience with my own supervisor. While I have not yet given any written work to him, any time we chat it is a great check in, and I feel more encouraged and excited about my work. My worries about my inadequacies take the back burner for a bit, and completing this master's begins to feel possible again, and it felt the same with Monday's discussion. Thank you, thank you, dear colleagues, for sharing your experiences. (I will note, not all grad students have the same experiences. One fellow is almost finished writing his third chapter, and is well on schedule to complete his degree and defend by around July. Another also mentioned that she was feeling positive about the writing process and while unsure of a timeline to finish, was enjoying the process of doing her writing now.)

                                         Another West Coast beauty: one of the saxifrage species!

Tomorrow morning I get to sit through a practice-run of one of colleagues who I feel most close to, Ms. Jenna Falk. I helped her with the field research and manning the blog for our work, which was early in her degree a couple years ago with the Mountain Legacy Project, and it's wonderful to see her project come together as it has. Her defence is Friday, and I'm certain she will do great!!

The great weather here in town has also really really helped. My mood has picked up, my attitude has brightened, and I feel much more clear-headed about the tasks I've set in the coming weeks.

Being a grad student, I feel so lucky to be able to call on wonderful, intelligent folks for stimulating conversations and ideas exploration and, really, advice, too. My experience of this graduate degree has most thoroughly been enriched by meeting people like Richard Smith and his wife Nancy, who came to Victoria last week for a talk hosted by the Environmental Studies Department and the SEA group and a number of other organizations in town. I read this article by Smith before attending his talk, and well, talk about a conversation starter. Essentially, we keep capitalism, or we keep our planet. (I vote for keeping the planet, though that is a big, big, challenging project, considering the force that capitalism is.)

It's also super great to see others writing about their exciting work, like my colleague Kira Hoffman - a particularly talented woman who will join the list of upcoming great ecologists! I recently very much enjoyed her post and pictures on both her blog and this article.

I'm also volunteering tonight for the talk David Suzuki is delivering on campus. It's moments like these that I have to pinch myself to make sure I realize how lucky I am to meet some of the movers and shakers I've looked up to for a long time. Not that I want to say that I do this blindly -- we're all people and subject to our fears and lapses in reasoning, Suzuki included, but in this project of sharing ideas and making something of this adventure of life, I admire and want to recognize the great contribution of the lifetime of work that Suzuki has produced. I'm looking forward to meeting this wonderful person. I am also grateful to my dad, who years ago gave me one the David Suzuki Reader and made me aware of this person and his ideas; undoubtedly, that gift contributes to my excitement for tonight.

Sunday, 6 April 2014

Post 13: Impact! Conference Pre-Course!

I was away for the weekend in Kelowna for a good friend's bridal shower, and wow—after being away for only 2 days, it's amazing that I feel like I've been a month away from my project! (This is a good thing - I'm excited and charged up for it, and feel like the clearing of mental space was fantastic.)

While I'd packed about three or four books for on the drive and the quiet pockets I thought I'd have (they did not materialize...), I didn't really get to dig into them at all, and instead spent a bit of time trying to complete some of the final project marking, either on the drive or waiting in the Airport. It worked, for what it was.

At the end of May I''m fortunate to have been chosen to attend the Impact! Youth Conference for  Sustainability Leadership 2014. This conference is a bit different than other conferences I've been to, and seems to be more focused on providing us with different ways to think about sustainability, to be inspired by different initiatives, and to essentially take in more information than we give out at the conference. More specifically what I mean by this is that instead of me preparing to bring a poster or presentation to the conference or share the research I've been doing, I'll be participating in workshops and listening to talks, for the most part. I am very excited to go—I'll get to meet Commander Chris Hadfield and almost 200 other delegates that are ecologically, socially, and environmentally motivated and interested in making a difference in the world. As part of the prep for this conference, I've also been asked to complete an online course about sustainability, provided by the Natural Step, one of the collaborators to put on the conference.

Our lovely gorse (Ulex europaeus) along the ocean in Victoria. 

So, late last week I was going through the 1-hr course on sustainability, and perhaps it's because I haven't been closely looking at the ideas motivating sustainability discourse, but I was a little bit troubled to find that a common theme throughout the online course was the idea that "sustainability is feasible if you can make companies understand that it's economically viable for them to do so." So, in that light, a sample case study for sustainability was wondering whether IKEA would manufacture an energy efficient lightbulb for various reasons (including a strong societal push to do so), the main reason why they went ahead for it was because it was financially feasible. To an extent, that makes a lot of sense - obviously it would be a difficult sell to companies today if they went bankrupt trying to achieve sustainability. But, this makes me wonder—how do we address the efficacy of sustainability when companies are encouraged to go for the 'low-hanging fruit', and essentially do things that (yes, save them money in the long run, like, going paperless, or using less energy to run their office buildings) cannot fundamentally change unsustainable business practices? In other words, what do we do with the Exon-Mobiles and the Suncors who can green their offices, but at the end of the day are still responsible for using vast amounts of water in their industrial practices and actively destroy ecosystems and harvest fossil fuels from the ground that contribute to climate change when burned? It seems to me that sustainability has no answers for how to address the complicated big problems like these.

I recognize that the flip side of the 'going for the low-hanging fruit' means that it's possible for people to get a taste of sustainability, and see that it's possible to do some of these (sometimes) simple things, save some money, and help the environment, but I am not sure how far the little projects like this will take us. Undoubtedly the little projects help in more ways that saving some paper and extending the lifespan of a lightbulb (as well, changing the way we think through the life cycles of a product; in the case of the IKEA lightbulb, which contains some Mercury, IKEA developed a recycling program to take back used bulbs and extract the Mercury from them after use.) The little projects should by all means be undertaken and encouraged. Doing these little and simple and easy things also help to positively change the mindset and hopefully contribute to the thinking processes that make us wonder what else we need to do to impact the earth and other non-human species less, and to figure out how else we can share the planet.

I am also glad to see that some of the project ideas in the forums are taking a broader stab at sustainability, like one woman who's trying to see what excitement there is for a farming cooperative in eastern Canada. That is great.

I hope we will be able to talk about some of these ideas during the conference. What happens at the nexus of capitalism, neoliberalism, and sustainability would certainly be interesting to explore, and it seems to me like there are plenty of difficult questions to be asking.

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Post 12: Nostalgia Much? Facing the End of the Term.

As final projects for my class are coming in, I can't help but feel a very sharp sense of nostalgia - the semester seemed to finish up quickly, and it's a relief that perhaps I have been feeling more than my students, who still have a week of classes left, and other reports and final projects due, too.

In the last few weeks of the semester, my role has very much shifted from bringing prepared materials to class, organizing the nature walk for each tutorial, and in general, coming with announcements and other prepared materials (though the announcements, as they were relevant for the class, continued), I had to relax and let go of that sense of needing to run the tutorial. Reality was, I was shifting from leading the tutorials to offering the tutorials as a space for group work time; the restoration design projects the students were working on are not small projects, and the tutorial was a scheduled time during the week where the groups could meet, with all members in attendance (otherwise they couldn't have signed up for the tutorial). So, I wanted to respect that time, and moved between the groups, answering questions, offering advice, and providing suggestions as the conversations arose.

                             Pixie cups, found on a pleasant wander in the Sooke Hills...

Now that the assignments are coming in, it is very much a delight to see how polished the final documents are, and I'm excited to start reading them, but this also makes me realize that I won't see the students together again, and will not be meeting with them, checking in on them, and in general, getting ready for tutorial with them again. Sad Tuesday.

I suppose what I'm saying is that I didn't realize I was as attached to, and invested in their learning experience as I was, and now that it's done, I can look over the last few months, reflect, think about what worked well and what I would do differently for next time, and remember funny times or great moments in class. Two in particular come to mind: the name game that I played with each of the tutorials, and the laughter of having different students make extremely fun noises to go with their actions in the game ('merp' 'honk' 'boop' 'bing'); and another time, when I was trying to be accommodating with the different interests students had for their group projects: I was trying not to simply say, Student X, you need to change groups because Group P is short one person, but I was sort of told of by a quip that "That's what you're supposed to do," implying that I was trying to be too accommodating. Point taken, I suppose, although it worked out by opening the option to the tutorial as well. I suppose the solution would be to frame it differently in the future, by saying something along the lines of, "If no one wants to move voluntarily, then I will select one person myself."
We also had nature walks during all of the tutorials, and the spring time can be a tricky time of year as the trees don't have leaves on them (for some, the most helpful identifying feature) and the bushes, too, or in some cases flowers hadn't yet bloomed, so I realized in the weeks afterwards that I'd misnamed 2 plants! That was fun. But I felt a bit better about the big caveat I always give, which is to 'never trust a biologist' (advice I was given myself in a field school a few years ago).

Anyways. Students. So fun. Teaching is a really heartwarming, encouraging activity, and it was a pleasure to work with the students I had this year.