This column originally ran on Domemagazine.com.
By Eric Freedman
Earlier this summer, one of our MSU environmental journalism students, Kevin Duffy, wrote a Great Lakes Echo article about a new book on the history of the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge as an illustration of a successful effort to bring conservation to cities.
Also this year, Great Lakes Echo ran an article by student Qing Zhang about volunteer stream quality monitors in the Huron River watershed. Eamon Devlin wrote about a gravel pit dispute in Plainfield Township, while Logan Clark told about the Upper Peninsula’s suitability for cougar habitat and Colleen Otte reported about proposals for new passenger train routes in Michigan.
On the surface, none of these stories addresses the mega-environmental issues that stir debate and passions across the state and nation– climate change, fracking, the feared invasion of the Asian carp into Lake Michigan, deforestation and nuclear power among them.
The Pope’s recent encyclical on the relationships among moral values, consumerism and human-induced climate change seems distant — at least on first glance — from Clark’s Great Lakes Echo story about new state regulations allowing year-round catch-and-release bass fishing or my own articles on recovering colonial-era cannon from Chicken Bone Reef in the Detroit River or a bankruptcy judge’s ruling that allows the sale of a Washtenaw County farm despite the presence of a conservation easement.
Yet they are all connected because by their very nature — pun intended — environmental events connect to broad natural and human activities.
Think about your own news-reading, news-watching or news-listening habits. See or hear the words “climate change” or “hydraulic fracking” and our eyes often glaze over. Those topics are simply too big and daunting for us to wrap our minds around. It’s like a news story about “terrorism” or “poverty” or “disease.” What connects us to such issues are factors such as local impact and impact on our families and ourselves.
Talk about “invasive species” and the problems or potential solutions feel overwhelming. But talk about the cost to your city’s taxpayers to cut down and replace thousands of street and park trees devastated by the emerald ash borer and suddenly “invasive species” hit home.
The same holds true for “global warming.” As journalists, we should be telling you as news consumers about links between rising water temperatures and the fish species that can or can’t thrive in Northern Lower Peninsula streams. The same holds true for “development” — what are the environmental impacts of the transformation of farms and orchards to vacation homes in your part of the state: impacts on traffic, air quality, the availability of drinking water and the proliferation of deer chomping on your flower and vegetable beds? We can say the same about “urban blight” and urban farm projects in Flint and Detroit, and about “alternative energy” and a zoning controversy concerning wind turbines in Clinton County.
I’m not arguing that we should ignore the mega-pictures of environmental problems. To the contrary. What I do argue is that we should see how little pictures — those we see in our own neighborhoods and communities — illuminate our understanding of the mega-pictures and enhance our ability to relate mega-pictures to our own lives.
Eric Freedman is the director of Michigan State University’s Knight Center for Environmental Journalism.