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Leslie Chang's Posts

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Is ‘Twilight’ influencing our environmental imagination?

You thought it was just a horrible teenage fantasy. But no, it's seriously messing with our world.
Summit Entertainment
You thought it was just a terrible teenage vampire franchise. But no, it's seriously messing with our minds.

“Ecological unconscious” might sound like some psychology mumbo jumbo, but hear me out on this -- it’s actually a fascinating concept. The idea is that we all understand nature and the environment in a certain way -- in a way that we might never define explicitly, but that nonetheless affects the way we interact with the world. Whether we know it or not, our ecological unconscious is always there, hanging out in the background. It's sort of like the environmental landscape in your brain, or your internal map of global ecology.

So how is our ecological unconscious formed? Sure, it comes from obvious channels, like our parents, the culture we grew up in, and the wilderness we explored as kids. But, says literary ecocritic George Handley, it also comes from the stories we read, even when those stories aren’t explicitly nature- or environment-oriented. Stories from children’s books, say, or The Lord of the Rings, or the literature you read (wait, Cliffs-Noted, let’s be real) for high school English class.

“If you really want to know what’s influencing people’s environmental imagination, I would wager that it’s popular literature and sacred literature,” says Handley. And yes, please take a deep, calming breath my friends, because Twilight is definitely in the realm of popular literature. But sacred literature influences people’s ecological unconscious too. And for Handley, a Mormon and a professor of interdisciplinary humanities at Brigham Young University, the intersection of faith and ecological unconscious is of special interest.

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Stick a fork in it: The American meat industry is ripe for a restart

fork steak
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We’ve heard it 38,942,038,417 times* before: The system we use to produce meat in the U.S. is really eff-ed up. Feedlots = horror movies, all this carnivory is making us fat, and to make matters worse, meat consumption contributes to climate change. Right, all good arguments for eating less meat.

What we rarely hear is a fair, honest conversation with the actual farmers raising the animals that produce the meat that most of America consumes. That’s what Graham Meriwether wanted to do with his documentary, American Meat. The film explores meat production from the farmer’s perspective -- and not just those who do it the free-range, organic, grass-fed way.

Meriwether initially set out to make a movie just about the alternative farms springing up across the country. He started off by talking to Joel Salatin of Polyface Farm, made famous by Michael Pollan’s book The Omnivore’s Dilemma. But when he started using stock footage of slaughterhouses, something didn’t feel right.

“I think the most important decision we made in the production of the film was not to put any hidden camera footage in the film,” Meriwether says, “because then that set us off on a journey where we got to talk to [conventional farmers], the people that, for the most part, feed most of our country.”

In the end, he was able to get his own footage of what goes on inside a slaughterhouse, but he chose not to include it in the film. We’ve become so distanced from the reality of where our meat comes from, he says, that we just aren’t ready for it.

Read more: Food

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The Anthropocene explained, game-show style [AUDIO]

In 2000, Nobel Prize-winning chemist Paul Crutzen suggested that humans have had such profound and far-reaching impacts on the planet that we have ushered in a new geologic age – the Age of Man, or, as Crutzen called it, the Anthropocene. The idea has been bouncing around the halls of academia ever since, and in the last few years, it has jumped from the ivory tower into popular literature and a few geek-tastic conversations over beer. The notion that humans now run this joint seems to have struck a chord.

Just getting up to speed? The team from the Generation Anthropocene podcast at Stanford University sat down in the recording studio and tried to explain everything in five short minutes. (It ended up taking seven, but who’s counting?) Just for fun, they did it game-show style.

Read more: Climate & Energy

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We can’t solve our environmental problems without business

Andy Hoffman.

“If business isn’t developing solutions to our sustainability issues, they won’t be developed,” says Andy Hoffman. "If business is not part of the solution, there will be no solution.”

Hoffman is director of the Erb Institute for Global Sustainable Enterprise at the University of Michigan. “The reality is that the most powerful institution in the world is business,” he says -- and he’s optimistic that business has the capability to make a huge difference in helping to solve pressing environmental problems.

Hoffman is also interested in how culture and social institutions affect our views on environmental issues. In the U.S., he says, we’ve reached a scientific consensus on climate change, but we still lack a social consensus. In order to achieve a social consensus, Hoffman believes we need to shift discussions of climate change away from the political arena and frame the issue in other ways -- for example, as an issue of social equity. In order to achieve this, we need to find credible spokespeople representing diverse interests within our society.

In this interview, Hoffman and I chat about the role of business in the environmental movement, the cultural challenges posed by climate change, and “light green” organizations versus “dark greens.” Bonus for you Mad Men lovers: We also talk about a picnic scene on the show that demonstrates how culture can change our relationship to the environment.

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Stanford nutrition guru on how to change our food system (without giving up pizza)

Christopher Gardner. (Photo by Miles Traer.)

When you think about a professor at Stanford University’s prestigious School of Medicine, a laid-back dude wearing a tie-dyed shirt and socks with sandals probably isn’t the first image that comes to mind. But professor Christopher Gardner rocks his California casual. At Stanford, he conducts research on diet and nutrition in the med school, and teaches a wildly popular class on food and society. All this, while defying traditional sandal-wearing conventions.

Gardner is refreshingly down-to-earth, and optimistic about the sustainable food movement. And he practices what he teaches -- he grows his own vegetables in a backyard garden, and also recently acquired five laying hens. He champions sustainable food on campus, and spearheaded the Stanford Food Summit in 2010, an annual event that brings together professors, students, and community-based food groups and organizations in a lively forum about food systems issues. Last summer, he also helped to organize a summer camp at Full Circle Farm in Sunnyvale, Calif., where kids learned about vegetables. And then they cooked and ate them. And liked them.

I caught up with Gardner recently to talk about the modern food movement, where it’s headed, and the incredible variety of reasons that sustainable food is an issue that hooks people. We also chatted about effective sustainable food writing, chickens expressing their chicken-ness, reincarnating home ec, and a single, glorious, blazing act of rebellion done through eating … pizza.

Read more: Food