Water, Water, Clean Water (not) Everywhere

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Cook Strait ferry crossing, New Zealand. Photo credit: Josephine Ensign/2014

The public health (and political) crisis in Flint, Michigan over their contaminated drinking water should be sending out much louder alarm signals throughout our country. Snowmagedden 2016–from a different form of water–is drowning out the dirty water, dirty politics, and dirty failures of our public health system. Note my use of ‘our’ and not ‘their,’ which would make it oh so more comforting and at arm’s length for those of us who are not living in Flint. Contaminated water supplies can happen in our own hometowns, especially with the widespread crumbling infrastructures and a diminishing focus on public health surveillance. Access to safe, clean water is a basic human need; it should be an equal opportunity necessity. But clearly it is not.

For anyone who has missed this part of our national news, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) three days ago issued an emergency order over unsafe public water in Flint, Michigan, and assumed federal oversight of water testing and water treatment in the city of 100, 000–a city where 57% of the population is African-American and 42% of the city’s residents live below the poverty line. This week President Obama declared a state of emergency over the Flint water crisis and has assigned an expert from the Department of Health and Human Services to assist in assessing the extent of lead ‘poisoning’ in children and then recommend interventions. As we know all too well, what with the effects of lead additives to household paint and gasoline, as well as other environmental sources, children’s exposure to lead has devastating effects on multiple organ systems, and especially on the developing nervous system. Lead exposure in infants (including en utero) and children is linked with cognitive deficits (lower IQ), learning and behavioral issues.

In 2014, city and state officials switched from using the nearby Detroit water supplies (which came from the much cleaner Lake Huron) to using the highly contaminated Flint River for Flint’s water, in order to save money. They also failed to treat the water appropriately to minimize lead leaching into the water supply from old pipes. And they failed to appropriately test the household water supplies, ignored residents’ complaints about green and brown and foul-smelling water. And the city and state officials, including public health officials, publicly denied there was a problem, even after Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, a local pediatrician, presented them with evidence of alarmingly elevated blood lead levels in children she was seeing. As reported today in the excellent NYT article, “When the Water Turned Brown,” by Abby Goodnough, Monica Davey, and Mitch Smith:

“Yet interviews, documents and emails show that as every major decision was made over more than a year, officials at all levels of government acted in ways that contributed to the public health emergency and allowed it to persist for months. The government continued on its harmful course even after lead levels were found to be rising…”

People have rightfully pointed out that this is clearly a case of a willful neglect of environmental justice. If Flint, Michigan was more affluent and ‘more white’ it is highly unlikely that this problem would have started in the first place, or at least it would have been more quickly and more efficiently remedied. As the EPA defines ‘environmental justice’ on its website: “Environmental Justice is the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies. EPA has this goal for all communities and persons across this Nation. It will be achieved when everyone enjoys the same degree of protection from environmental and health hazards and equal access to the decision-making process to have a healthy environment in which to live, learn, and work.”

In his characteristic no-holds-barred truth-telling way, filmmaker and Flint native Michael Moore is calling for the arrest of Republican Governor of Michigan, Rick Snyder, claiming he helped create the water public health crisis in Flint. (See this MSNBC interview of Michael Moore by Chris Hayes, January 19, 2016.)

As a public health nurse, this complex and entirely preventable problem in Flint, makes me angry and sad. Not only because of the environmental injustice of it all. Not only for the longterm negative health consequences for the thousands of children of Flint exposed to lead through their town’s drinking water. Not only for the devastating effects on the parents of these children. But also because of how much it undermines any and all heard-earned trust people have in our public health system. That negatively affects the health and safety of all of us.

Prepare to Come About: Reflections on Study Abroad Experience

Auckland Sky Tower. Photo: Josephine Ensign/2015

Was I ever that young? This question came back to me earlier this week as our group of twenty-two university students from the U.S. gathered in Auckland to start our month-long study abroad program. For many of them, this is their first trip outside our home country; their first time staying in an international youth hostel; their first time handling the confusion of foreign coins; their first time having spotty to no wi-fi access; their first time being a pedestrian along busy urban streets where cars drive on the ‘wrong’ side of the road.

I remember my own travels outside my passport zone—outside my comfort zone. I try to remember lessons I learned through my travels, lessons that can perhaps inform my teaching here.

My junior year study abroad program was with SEA Semester, out of Woods Hole National Oceanographic Institute on Cape Cod, Massachusetts. I had just turned nineteen. Sea Semester is a twelve-week intensive course on sailing, oceanography, and all things sea-related. (Not to be confused with the very different but similarly titled Semester at Sea—which is more of a giant cruise ship/party boat traveling to different port cities around the world.)

We sailed on the Westward, a 125’ Topsail Schooner research vessel, to Nova Scotia and Newfoundland. We took nautical science, marine science, and an English literature course on the lore of the sea (including reading Moby Dick). I loved night watch duty on the bowsprit, and was mesmerized by the glittering spray from the phosphorescent algae. I would lean out over the bowsprit and feel myself diving into that flowing luminescence. It was a kind of cleansing, simultaneously a deep relaxation and exhilaration with the white noise of the whooshing bow waves, the cold spray on my face, the briny sea-smell, and the shimmering lights. Obviously, from a nautical safety perspective, I was worthless on bow watch at night.

Near Newfoundland we sailed through huge displays of Northern Lights and followed the migratory paths of blue whales. I was at the helm the day our marine biology professor from Newfoundland spotted a 70’ blue whale off our port bow. “Prepare to come about! Follow that whale!” the Captain yelled. As I turned the ship’s wheel, I felt like yelling back, “Call me Ishmael!”

We spent time in small fishing villages, the houses perched on stilts on the rocky shores of Newfoundland’s deep fjords. The Newfies’ accents were so thick it was like deciphering a foreign language. We traded bottles of rum for cod and moose meat. We hiked up a mountain on the West Coast of Newfoundland to see the MOHO, the mohorovicic discontinuity, the boundary where the Earth’s crust and mantle meet—something only a geologist could get excited about, as it just looked like a thin band of grey mud to us.

Similar to what we are having students do on our New Zealand study abroad program, we were tasked with designing, conducting, and presenting results on a scholarly research project. I remember a fellow student, a psychology major, who designed a questionnaire for all of us to complete, through which he attempted to link personality traits with a propensity to develop sea-sickness. He was so incapacitated by sea-sickness throughout our voyage that we had to help him complete his project. I was fascinated by the inner ear stones–otoliths–of bony fish and spent hours collecting fish from different ocean depths, and dissecting them on our ship’s table at night after dinner.

Did I find my true name through this experience? Did I find my place in the wider world?

The experience deepened my awareness of environmental health and the health of our environment–something we are incorporating into our New Zealand study abroad program. The somewhat limited interactions we had with Newfies, and the more extensive interactions with the land and sea of Newfoundland, have given me a deeper appreciation of people living in more isolated areas of the world. The experience gave me a deeper understanding of books like Annie Proulx’s Shipping News and Wayne Johnston’s The Colony of Unrequited Dreams. The experience gave me a respect for the power of study abroad programs to broaden young people’s horizons.

International Service-Learning: Take Two

Franz Joseph Glacier, South Island New Zealand. Photo credit: Josephine Ensign/2014

As a teacher, I believe in striving to learn from my mistakes. I also believe in the power of international travel and of service-learning. Done well, they can become life-changing, enriching experiences for students. Done poorly, they feed into the Ugly American tourist syndrome.

What follows is part of my self-reflection on a study abroad program in New Zealand that I helped lead in (our) winter of 2014. My essay, titled “Fossicking the Ten Essentials,” was published June 2015 in Traveler’s Tales/Tales-toGo. I’m about to embark as a leader on a ‘take two’ service-learning study abroad program in New Zealand and hope to have learned from my mistakes. I plan to publish a series of blog posts about our progress (while, of course, protecting student identities).

Fossicking the Ten Essentials

Fossicking: An Australian and New Zealand term for “rummaging” and “prospecting,” and specifically for “picking over the abandoned workings” (of gold, precious stones, and fossils.)

The Ten Essentials: A term coined in the 1930s by The Mountaineers Club in Seattle for a list of necessary equipment to take on hikes. Updated in 2003 to the functional systems approach used as the headings in this essay.

~ ~ ~1. Navigation

Using Google Earth instead of a compass or celestial navigation, my current location is 43.4 degrees South and 170.18 degrees East. High noon. Franz Joseph Glacier, at the foot of snow-capped Aoraki/ Mt. Cook, South Island, New Zealand. I’m sitting at the bottom of a huge rock and ice slide at the terminal face of the glacier where its melt waters run into the Waiho River.

The sun is out and there’s no breeze in this deep canyon dug by the glacier. It’s January 2014, high summer here in the land of the Southern Cross, so it’s warm enough to take off my jacket. There seem to be no bugs—no biting flies—no mosquitoes—and no birds to be seen or heard. Feathery waterfalls are cascading down thousands of feet from the sheer cliffs surrounding the canyon. The smell is elemental, metallic. All surfaces my body touches are gritty, covered with the fine glacial flour that turns the river waters to milk, that turns my skin to alabaster, that crunches lightly between my teeth, tasting of bitter iron.

The rocks at my feet are newly fractured, jagged, split open quartz crystals of dazzling white and pale green. I pick one up and gaze into it like a crystal ball, considering its history—considering my history—and considering how it is we came to meet here at the foot of an ancient glacier. Then I become aware of the sound of rocks skittering down from the top of the pile behind me. I will myself to stay, but I turn so I can keep an eye on the rocks. I’m aware of the folly, knowing I could never run fast enough to escape being buried when the rock and ice pile finally gives way. I’m on the supposedly safe side of the yellow rope barrier put up by now absent park rangers. As the sun heats the valley and the rocks begin to fall more steadily, I decide to walk back out of the canyon.

I retreat from the rock pile because I’m leading a group of fourteen young women, college students from Seattle on a study abroad program. I’m responsible for their health and safety for the three months we’re touring New Zealand. I lead them away from the glacier, back into the primeval temperate rainforest of towering tree ferns and vines. The steady din of cicadas and the occasional tremulant trills of bellbirds and tui envelop us.

When we’ve returned to the forest path, I tell the students I’ll meet them back at the van in a few minutes. I duck down a deserted, quiet side path for a few moments of peace—away from the students’ raw enthusiasm, raucous singing, and selfie-picture-taking in front of every scenic view—including the rock pile of the retreating glacier. As I’ve driven them around the South Island in a mini-van, some have taken to yelling out the van windows “Hey cows!” or “Hey sheep!” to scare the herds and then laugh hysterically. Those are the Biology majors, a fact I find ironic. I was a Biology major thirty-odd years ago. Was I ever that young?

On this study abroad program I’m ostensibly teaching community and environmental health, but what I really want to teach is the value of travel as critical self-discovery. Not the navel-gazing, bathetic sort of self-discovery, but rather the sort that leads to greater knowledge of and tolerance for uncomfortable aspects of ourselves and of people we view as “different” from us. I want to expose the students to the deep satisfaction of getting past being picture-taking tourists, instead, becoming travelers, perhaps even pilgrims walking towards the far horizon to arrive home.

It isn’t working out well. So far, halfway into our trip, it’s more like a case study of how not to lead a study abroad program. We’re traveling around so much it feels like we’re never here, in New Zealand. Staying in ten different cities and villages in as many weeks, passing through and ticking off the have-done-have-been-there bragging list of photo-ops, skydiving, and bungee jumping: I feel more like an adventure tour guide (and an emergency room nurse) than a teacher. It’s not helping that we’re staying in youth hostels full of international backpacking nomads who proudly proclaim they have “done Franz Joseph,” they have “done Milford Sound,” they have “done Rotorua,” as if these are all colonial conquests—places and natives and experiences to be possessed and bragged about. But I signed onto this program late and had little hand in its design, so I’m trying to make the best of it.

As we drive and tour and wander, I ask myself: Do we discover more about ourselves through movement or through rootedness to one place over time?

If, as Lucy R. Lippard contends in her book The Lure of the Land, “space” is passing through coordinates and “place” is pausing to make meaning of the space, does it follow that space is to tourism as place is to travel? And if so, what is essential for the work of transforming space into place, tourism into true travel, into pilgrimage?

New Zealand Postcards: Our Carbon Footprint

eco_green_carbon_print_iconThe irony is not lost on me that I am currently teaching an environmental and community health study abroad program in New Zealand while leaving a large carbon footprint. I am even participating in Doom Tourism by driving the students across the Southern Alps to view the Franz Joseph Glacier before global warming melts it away.

In order to depress (and enlighten) myself further, I calculated our combined carbon footprint for the program using the excellent CarboNZero site’s travel and tourism calculator. There are 18 of us who all had to fly here (and back again) from Seattle. We’ve flown from Auckland to Christchurch, then rented vans to drive all over both islands (crossing on the Cook Straight Ferry). Not surprisingly, transport accounts for the largest share of our carbon footprint. Accommodation comes in second, although by staying in these frugal and Eco-conscious youth hostels, we’ve lessened our impact considerably. Then there’s recreation, what with all the museums and parks we’ve visited–not to mention the random bungy-jumping and extreme sport activities students have done during their ‘off times.’

Using the CarboNZero calculator, our study abroad group is collectively leaving a 90 metric ton ‘carbon dioxide equivalents’ footprint through our trip. This translates into us needing to plant 20 acres of trees to enable us to be carbon neutral on our ‘environmental’ study abroad program.

Yes, I could start planting trees like crazy, but perhaps the better ‘answer’ is to start factoring in the carbon footprint costs in future study abroad programs.

*** Recommended Resources:

  • My Ecological Footprint website has a very detailed and informative personal carbon footprint calculator.
  • For a more simplified (but decidedly British) carbon footprint calculator, check out the WWF site.
  • For travel to New Zealand, Air New Zealand has a nifty Carbon Offset Program.