Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Environmental Writing: The Next Generation

My explorations of innovative solutions to environmental problems have been on hold since January, as I focused on teaching journalism courses at two colleges, including launching a revived course at Ramapo College of NJ called Environmental Writing.

The original course was called Environmental Journalism; it was created more than 20 years ago by a persistent student, Bob Hennelly, who talked his way into teaching this topic. It was a brash, self-made stepping stone in Hennelly's career as an investigative journalist whose incisive reporting is a regular feature on WNYC and the National Public Radio network.

I was delighted to be asked to develop a new version of this course at my alma mater, which attracted a good roster of students for the spring semester. To showcase the 15 undergrads' exploratory writings on environmental issues, I created a class website: ramapolookout.blogspot.com.

It includes more than 150 items in various formats, from blog pieces to letters to the editor, news releases and news reports. The work spans weekly assignments on local to international issues we discussed in class--Agent Orange's New Jersey connections to industrial roots of water pollution problems--and magazine-style feature stories on topics of their choosing.

Some of the most thoughtful writing on potential solutions appeared in journal entries on what the students did for the college's required experiential learning outside the classroom. For instance, Amanda Valenti wrote a feature story--"Global Warming: Brew Your Own and Other Things You Can Do at Home"--on everyday things people can do to help lessen the human-made impact that scientists say is a cause of global climate change. Then she summed up what she had learned, in a journal entry titled "Experiental: Learning from Global Warming."

"In addition to doing research for the article, I decided to take my own advice and lessen the impact I am having on the earth," wrote Valenti, a senior. "I stopped buying water bottles and walk where I can. I also eat less red meat and more vegetables. Coffee has always been a weakness of mine, but after many experiments I think I can make a better cup of coffee than Starbucks. I put my coffee in a reusable thermos and brew it at my house now. Not only have I saved a lot of money these past few weeks, I like to think of myself as an experienced barista now.

"It has been a rather hard task to get others to do the same, but I realized I can only change my own ways and encourage others to do the same," she continued. "This was actually a great experience and had a larger impact on my life than I thought it would. At first I was just doing research for a magazine article, but it wound up being much more than that. This was a wonderful experience and I am glad I chose the topic I did."

Fellow senior Sharon Meyer decided to write about various examples of "Corporations Going Green" after noticing how a marketing company where she was doing an internship, EMI Music in Jersey City, switched from using reams of paper to filing transactions on a computer network. She also noticed that UPS envelopes that arrived at EMI were being reused.

"UPS supplies hundreds of companies who do bulk mailing with express envelopes for them to package it in. Those boxes are not easily reusable once they are opened, until now at least," Meyer wrote. "UPS has designed new envelopes that are actually green in color, and have directions on how to use the seal on the box properly, so that it can be re-used by the person receiving the package. This inspires people who are not so keen on re-using the envelopes to use them again because it is showing them the simple easy way to re-use it."

Dave Ragazzo, another senior facing graduation into an unsettling time economically and environmentally, decided to focus on New Jersey's most prominent feature for most residents and visitors: millions of cars on jam-packed highways.

"Being that climate change, or global warming as it is more commonly called, may have a direct correlation to carbon emissions, New Jersey drivers should be concerned that they are possibly causing much of the damage," Ragazzo wrote. "Unfortunately, the American public does not think about this when they are in stand-still traffic. People need cars to travel every day, so what are New Jersey residents to do?

"Electric cars may be the answer," he suggested in his feature article "It's Electric: Can Electric Cars Help New Jersey?"

The students also reflected on what they learned from readings in the course, such as Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, and related research.

"I felt I learned just as much in Carson’s book about people's disregard for the environment, as I learned from the criticism she faced after publishing it," Jonathan Madden wrote in an essay titled "Learning from Silent Spring's Critique." "The same attitude where humanity naturally seeks to solve all problems through the easiest solution with no regards to its consequences is what’s harming our environment now. If we all focused on how to solve problems in manners that are both effective and environmentally safe, perhaps we wouldn’t have many of the problems we face today."