Friday, May 18, 2012

Spring Reflections on the Good

Tourism and Nature

I’ve been in “the business” officially for around 23 years. My chemistry teacher from high school would have been mortified that my first foray into the environmental field was in industrial chemical policy and regulation. But then again, my colleagues were very gracious in filling in on that steep learning curve and all of a sudden that goofy science made sense in a real world application. And so, I found my nerdyness later in life.

I started out in food.  From an early age, I worked in restaurants and hotels, and then branched out into farms and then a wonderful experience with cooking school where we were verbally assaulted by a Frenchman suitably ill-willed towards American culture. 

I loved the orchestration of bringing a meal to a table, the banter and the good will of a well machined team. But I was also troubled. I was mortified at the amount of edible food we threw out… and not just any food, but prime rib, lobster, and stock bases that had simmered for what seemed like years.

After taking a b-line out to Seattle, I thought I’d give merging those two loves —food and environment—into one business and that’s where I started with my old business partner and friend Missy. It was a tough sell at first. Restaurants and hotels didn’t seem that inured to what we were trying to do but after a while, it made sense to some. Restaurants have the highest per square foot energy costs in the U.S. commercial sector. That’s pretty significant given not only rising energy costs but where that energy comes from- dirty coal sources that lead to acid rain and lung cancer, or dead fish from hydropower.

Paying attention to certain issues also really resonated with the staff- not wasting food, recycling, trying to convince our manager that women should be allowed to wait staff dinners—and it gave us a higher purpose and in a good way, gave us a moon to hang our stars on.

The second story of sorts is about an enormous African American man and the National Seashore in Maryland. When I worked at EPA, I had this complex, wonderful friend who had grown up in the ghettos of Cleveland. One weekend, a group of us camped at the national seashore in Maryland at Assateague and Chincoteague--you know where the wild Spanish ponies and mule deer actually run around free on the dunes and the beach—and practically run you over too. The rest of us had experienced a lifetime of the beach so although the experience was delightful on that sunny, hot Maryland weekend, there was nothing particularly telling about the day.

 I saw James standing at the edge of the water for some time and I walked over to him, wondering if he was just taking it all in or whether he was just sick of our incessant chatter about food. When I came closer, I realized he was crying. Upon asking him what was wrong, he remarked, in broken sentences, that this was the first time in his life that he had swum in the ocean. I didn’t know what to feel- I was at once elated- almost proud that we had brought him to this experience --but also profoundly embarrassed about my life long privileges… at having access to the sea, to have snorkeled, to have breathed the emerald forest and its greens, and to have skied wintry breaths in pristine places.

These are probably common experiences for many of us- clean air, sunlight dancing off the water- - in many cases, Puget Sound.  There are many things we can and do take for granted- clean and available drinking water, clean air, the ability to swim, fish, kayak or collect shells at low tide.

Are we talking about becoming better communities and humans? Indeed.

 It’s about creating opportunity and not taking things for granted. Because the things we take for granted are the very things we rob from the people we love- our parents, our kids and grandkids, our younger friends.

The other issue I wanted to briefly touch on is the underlying subtext that is undeniable in this line of work. Just listen to the news and you will hear it immediately… “Businesses said blah blah blah… environmentalists said blah blah blah. We are counterpoised in black and white.

In the meantime, we’re checking the back of each other’s heads for sixes and as a result, we have been exquisitely positioned to fail because in almost every conversation I hear, it’s about us and them. It’s about businesses that want to destroy the earth and environmentalists that are out of touch and would rather have you out of work to save a seal or an owl.

It’s all very artful, but it’s all very wrong. Think about it for a moment- when you are stressed and seek solitude, what do you look for? The last time I checked no one was seeking out a parking lot, or an industrial complex or grey strip malls. I don’t think anyone is clutching their DVD players close to their chest in time of need.

We sit in our gardens, sipping our favorite libation or play with our kids and friends in the woods or along the shoreline. We all have sacred places and the conditions that our elders told us about- a florabundance of nature that jumped out at us bigger than life itself. Everyone wants safe drinking water and the solace that the outdoors brings to us. We care about our kids where we see skyrocketing rates of asthma. We care about the women in our lives where we are also seeing a dramatic increase in breast cancer.
Protecting the things we love- now that’s something anyone can connect with.

So, then why do we turn to plants, pets and a serene setting anyhow? As it turns out, we have very old genes. Not the kind you wear on your body but the genetic blueprint that makes us … well, us. We co-evolved with nature, all the wild green things, the creatures that give us both elation as pets or frighten us in corners or the wild. Nonetheless, our physical and emotional health is tied inextricably to the natural world of which we are an important part.

This is so much the case that we heal faster when we see natural images- even if they are fake- and our blood pressure lowers when we hold our pets—and our retail sales go up when we plant trees and flowers near our stores.

So when we hurt all the things we love- streams, the ocean, the critters that depend on those systems- we only hurt ourselves and our kids. This environment isn’t just something “out there,” like some parallel universe, but it’s us.

If nature were a company, it would be a design firm. 

Everything in natural systems is lock and key… like a well designed love.  There is absolutely no waste and every single little organism up to the most massive creature- has an implicit signal to do something. Nature gives us oxygen, medicine, food, water for drinking and commerce and industry—it cleanses dirty soil and air and slows the flow of pollutants to water.

It also provides fodder for prose, love and art.

We have reached a point where our manipulation of natural systems and the pollutants we have shoveled into them has reached a point where some declines may not be reversible.

But you know something? We are reversible. We can change our minds, our attitudes, the way we come to the table to address challenges.

So this is a call to bring your vision, the knowledge and feel of the things you love, to bring innovation and change to make the future we want to be. It’s about finding common ground and joy in a different path- it does not mean sacrifice but it does require a willingness to look up and out towards the horizon.

And it may mean holding hands- either literally or figuratively-- with someone you never thought you would.

Heidi Siegelbaum