Week 6: Connecticut



PHOTO: Common Ground High School students Carlos, Andrew and Ariana with their teacher David and Save the Sound’s Director of Habitat Restoration, Gwen.



“In nature nothing exists alone.”   Rachel Carson, Silent Spring[1]

With the chance to take Project Ubuntu into the world of environmentalism, I spent a week with the 19-member staff of Save the Sound and its parent group, the Connecticut Fund for the Environment, which focuses on preserving and restoring the Long Island Sound. The seven days in Connecticut challenged me to understand important environmental questions, to take note of the ways people are making real progress to revitalize the environment, and to ponder how this work fits into the all-important pursuit of building positive community.

One mantra I came across during the week and truly saw embodied was to “think globally, act locally.” The Long Island Sound is a dynamic estuary that combines the salt water world of the Atlantic Ocean with an extensive network of rivers that run down through (mostly) Connecticut.

One significant problem that our species has created is blocking the river access for fish. When fish can’t swim upstream into the rivers of their ancestors, they fail to spawn and the entire food chain is disrupted. Connecticut historically had many mills, which have resulted in around 6,000 dams that block fish river access. The first dam was built across the Connecticut River in 1798 and a dozen years later Atlantic salmon were no longer in the river.

In this way we eliminated 99% of the river herring, which have annually tried to swim up rivers they instinctually found through scent, but couldn’t gain access to. Most of these dams are not even used, so the difference between scientists’ cries and ecosystem restoration is mobilization.

Cue Save the Sound. I visited Wallace Dam on the Quinnipiac River in Wallingford, where STS faced red tape, multiple owners and a mayor who refused to accept funds from the state for a restoration project. Working with local business, managing engineers and engaging volunteers, STS created a way for fish to get upstream in spite of the dam – by building a “fish ladder.” Rocks are placed near the dam to push the fish toward the ladder, and they pass in front of a camera that allows scientists to track progress. Building on the success of this and a concurrent project, they hope to remove two more dams and free up 50 river miles, the entire main stem of the state’s fourth-longest river.

Curt Johnson, Program Director and Senior Attorney for Save the Sound, said their work on river access projects has already helped river herring numbers increase from 80,000 to 280,000 fish per year.  

“It shows that us human beings can really screw things up but we can also restore things if we give mother nature a chance,” said Johnson.

Save the Sound mobilizes resources to make a real difference for key environmental projects. For example, many outdated sewage systems in Connecticut result in rainwater mixing with toxic sewage and dumping into the Sound. STS has managed to get $1.5 billion invested into a Clean Water Fund to fix this problem.

I joined locals in New Haven one day for a trash pickup walk that took us through some of Save the Sound’s work along the West River. On the tour was Jessica Feinleib, an anaesthesiologist who founded Westville Community Green Space, a group that works with Urban Resources Initiative by volunteering to plant trees.

WCGS planted eight trees in 2008 that are now 20 feet tall, has only lost one tree out of the 100 it has introduced, and recently led a volunteer day that planted 1,200 bulbs. “The ripple effect of planting trees in the city is quite large in terms of ecological and energy reduction,” Feinleib said. “The addition of street trees adds $5,000-$8,000 of property value for homes.”

At the end of the walk STS held a press conference in front of tidal gates they had put in place to create a flow of tidal (salt) water into the freshwater river and Duck Pond while protecting against flooding.

Three state politicians joined to pledge their continued support. Rep. Pat Dillon said of Save the Sound’s work on the West River, the largest restoration project in the northeast: “I believe this is the most important project possibly in the country. The strength of our river system and our estuary is non-negotiable. It affects the life of everyone. It benefits everyone.”

The gates address another major goal for environmentalists in the area. Stagnant water has low oxygen levels and presents an unhealthy environment for aquatic life. The West River had been cut off from the tidal water source of the Sound, until STS put in cleverly constructed gates that will allow the flow of water in both directions but will halt the progress after a certain level so as to prevent flooding.

Increasing the salinity and flow of the river leads to dramatic improvements in this ecosystem, and I joined a group of students from New Haven’s Common Ground High School who regularly measure these levels. Ariana, Carlos and Andrew are from low-income areas of the greater New Haven area and attend the charter school. Each week the three students join their science teacher and STS staff in visiting eight sites along the West River to take measurements.

Not only do the participants receive acknowledgement for this meaningful partnership (the New Haven Register was on hand to document), the students have become inspired to pursue STEM work in higher education and employment. Ariana said she hopes to study radiology and forensic science, and Andrew wants to become a veterinarian. Carlos, who takes a leadership role as a native Spanish speaker in the school’s innovative ecologia class (a combined Ecology and Spanish language curriculum) told me, “I love science now. I want to go to college and study environmental or earth science.”

I also met with Jamie Alonzo, Director of Education for the Maritime Aquarium at Norwalk. He is incorporating a program he started at Yale which engages underserved children to visit the beach, develop STEM skills and become educators, communicators, and professionals as employees at the museum.

“Kids live a mile from the ocean and have never been there,” he said. “We want to make science relevant.”

Leah Schmalz, who is Director of Legislative and Legal Affairs for Save the Sound, agreed that increasing access to the Sound for everyone is crucial for creating stewardship and interest in the land. “Kids in Bridgeport don’t even know there’s water nearby because I-95 cuts them off,” adding to the barriers of pollution and expensive fees for visiting the beach, she said.

People from all backgrounds and of all ages have a shared interest in the environment, and Save the Sound seeks to channel individuals into stewards with the ability and desire to effect change.

“Volunteers feel a special connection to the projects … and they can learn more about getting involved,” said Kierran Broatch, Volunteer and Outreach Associate. “I’ve heard time and time again how just a few messages from constituents can make them do something.”

“It comes back to individuals,” said Schmalz. “If they take action it makes a difference.”

Save the Sound is ultimately interested in bringing people together across background and political viewpoint, because the environment belongs to and impacts everyone. Don Strait, who has been the group’s Executive Director for 20 years, recalled that “the early days of the environmental movement were based in anger about what corporations were doing to the environment.

“There was really a righteousness to it,” he said. “Environmentalists at times have been seen as angry and that hasn’t always helped.”

Schmalz has often found legal warfare less effective than building partnerships. “We’re working with the business community instead of against them,” she said. Frequently, restoration projects create jobs on the front end (in construction and engineering), sustainable environmental protection, and jobs on the back end (for the extensive network of fishermen in the area). “It’s a win-win-win,” she said.

But what about the tension that exists when human interests run contrary to environmental restoration, or funds seem to be more urgently required elsewhere?

Strait is convinced that the environment transcends divides such as liberal vs. conservative (regulations exist to conserve) and nature vs. economy (because environmental restoration can be economically beneficial for all). However, the tension that really interests me is the perceived division between science and religion.

Strait conceded that many reject what he called the “scientific consensus” of global warming (“where human society is more fundamentally threatened than nature”), despite the scientific community’s rigorous self-critiquing and pursuit of truth.

As Joseph Campbell[2] established in “Myths to Live By,” science failed to eliminate religion because it assumed religion explained external realities, when in fact myths explain “facts of the mind made manifest in a fiction of matter.”

In my life-coaching training with Whatever Life Throws, I came across a fascinating concept: There is no “right and wrong,” only “does this get you closer to your goal?” This approach removes judgment and seeks to figure out what’s going to work.

I pushed Strait on this as well as how the idea of “objectivity” and “facts” create a sense of righteousness among environmentalists, who themselves are compelled by the research, but exist as subjects that experience the world through filters like every living creature, and how new discoveries make previous knowledge look silly.

He pointed me to Ken Wilber[3] who compiled “Quantum Questions: Mystical Writings of the World’s Great Physicists.” The book posits that science and religion answer different questions. As Strait said, science can tell him about his brain but can’t explain his consciousness.

And it isn’t just the case that these worlds answer different questions – they explore different questions which cannot be answered.

Indeed, Campbell was onto this, and so were thinkers that Wilber assembles such as Albert Einstein. The pursuit of community, then, has to come from a place of humility without judgment. We have to acknowledge the myriad ways individuals experience the world, to appeal to the strategies that benefit everyone, and to allow for the space between human certainty and metaphysical reality in the questions tackled by science, as Rachel Carson appreciated 50 years ago, as well as those of spirituality.


 What do you think? Please share your thoughts in comments on the blog!

[1] Rachel Carson (1962) “Silent Spring.” New Yorker June 16 1962. Available here.

[2] Joseph Campbell (1972) “Myths to Live By.” Viking Press: New York.

[3] Ken Wilber, ed. (2001) “Quantum Questions: Mystical Writings of the World’s Great Physicists.” Shambhala: Boston.

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