Category Archives: Research

Shirley’s Climate Narrative Project: Written Literature and Voices of Sustainability in China

PHOTO: IOWA CITY UNDER SUNSHINE’S LAST BEAMS

Theme:  Politicized China-U.S. climate relations, translation as an empowering process, a probing into environmental justice movements that are happening in Chinese.

General storyline:

  1. INTRO- sustainability as a holistic conversation, notions of translation, varied philosophies II. ESSAY – Personal narrative III. SCRIPT – Call to action IV. POEM – relations

Interviews/Research: Zhou Jianing, Chen Ko Hua (writers), my parents, UI professor Wenfang Teng, Chinese environmental activist, translators  

Arts Medium: overlaid videos of bodies of water flowing in opposite directions, of China and of Iowa, in between readings of translated literature, and soft voices reading in Chinese

Read more about my project here. 

Refocusing

-A Translation of Bei Dao’s “Random Thoughts,” by Bonnie S. McDougall. Bei Dao is a poet and essayist, who writes in Chinese.

RE: my previous project idea…

Perhaps what intrigues me the most about environmentalism is its intersection with racial identity. That being said, I’d like to slightly shift the focus of my project to something a bit different, but with a parallel theme. 

I’ve decided that my project will now examine the use of literature and other forms of written media to promote the environmentalist cause in China. Literature, art, creative mediums, more than anything, can explicate connectivity between citizens in two of the most pollutive countries in the world — China and the U.S. This will require translating Chinese into English so I can share these texts with the audience here in Iowa.

In 1992, my parents moved here from China to go to graduate school in the Midwest. The voices I learned to love, my first conversations, the books on audio tape I’d listen to before bed, were all in Chinese — it was the language of the world I internalized.

Today, I can’t speak Chinese as well as I could as a child, and I feel much more confident speaking English. Most often at home, my parents will speak to me in Chinese and I reply in English. Translating Chinese is part of my everyday. This isn’t really anything unique or new, it’s how a lot of Chinese-American families communicate.

The act of translation, while personal, can be political as well. Not only does translating increase access to texts for new audiences and disparate eyes, it encourages ideological dialogue across language borders. Much of the discourse surrounding China-U.S. relations today will refer to the deal struck between China’s President Xi Jinping and President Obama, or manufacturing plants due to globalized American businesses, but these only remain within a context defined by China acting as a government or as a state. My project will seek to understand efforts happening on the ground, through literature and media.

I realize that diving into the ongoings of environmentalists in a 3.705 million square mile country is a cavernous task. Many people in China know English, and there is no shortage English media translated into Chinese. The opposite conversion is much more difficult, as Chinese is a extremely nuanced language, as Chinese translator Ming Di tells us, for example, in this interview with Words Without Borders.
I think with the aid of my parents, translators working with the University of Iowa’s Writer’s Workshop, and already translated works, this project will help to amplify the very specific messages of environmental activists and artists, while working hard to preserve some of their original intentions.

Iowa Environmentalism: A Narrative of Identity?

PHOTO: a landscape of my lovely backyard in the spring in Iowa City, IA.

Should I accept the very convenient styrofoam take-out box, handed to me by my waiter? Am I worried about my footprint, or do I need that tank of gas now?  Do I care if my job is environmentally responsible, or do I need to prioritize making a living? Can I eat this hamburger knowing that beef spews methane in excess?

These are the intrinsic questions that affect human behavior on a daily basis — in the contemporary time, these thoughts come as often eco-conscious, but “foiled” by human needs and desires (annoyingly unoriginal).

But how aware are we of the sociological factors that influence whether or not people answer that call to action — change their habits to align with their principles, participate as climate activists, move to manage pollution and waste, or vote to enact regulatory standards, etc?

If we analyze environmentalism using, for example, race as a critical factor, we see that there are many paradigms that associate people’s wants/needs, the natural world, and altruistic duty (responsibility to a broader humanity).

I believe that effective solutions to climate change require investigating these paradigms and seeking multicultural conversation.

For my project, I want to explore notions of environmentalism in Chinese-American immigrant or first-generation and second-gen communities in Iowa. I’ll talk about some stereotypes, some history, some local stories and some unsung heroes…. What I’m hoping will come out of this is a better idea of what it means to have an accessible and inclusive environmental justice movement.

My inspiration comes from an essay by Julie Sze, an Assistant Professor in American Studies at the University of California at Davis. Her full research paper can be found here. She writes in the Peace Review:

The perception of Asian immigrant community activism within the environ- mental justice movement is another example of the gap that still exists between rhetoric and reality. While virtually all of the people and organizations that identify with the environmental justice movement recognize that EJ should be multiracial and multiethnic, far fewer would be able to cite examples of Asian immigrant environmental justice activism. This illuminates the problem of Asian invisibility in progressive multiracial activism, which this essay hopes to squarely repudiate. In reality, Asian immigrant communities are taking the mantle of community activism and of the EJ (Environmental Justice) issues that affect them in their own localities. These range from urban issues to occupational concerns, but in general they are linked through the prism of exclusion based on race, culture, language and citizenship issues, all of which affect the ability of Asian immigrant communities to fully participate and achieve full justice.

While there are numerous studies on Asian American communities in California, there is still an overwhelming lack of similar projects in Iowa or in other parts of the Midwest.

CO2 in Atmosphere down to Preindustrial rates in Greenland


At last, some good news about the environment.

A recent analysis of core samples taken from Greenland’s ice sheet shows that levels of a common form of air pollution have dropped almost to preindustrial levels. Just take a look at the graph below:


This graph of acid content in Greenland ice cores shows how the acidity of the atmosphere rose from the 1950s through the 1970s before declining sharply.

However, these graphs do not account for the world atmosphere and it is unlikely that the USA has close to preindustrial rates.

A Book For The Revolution

Spoiler alert: The free market will not be saving our environment

Two years ago, one of my fellow students at Tufts University participated in a protest with a group on campus called Tufts Climate Action. Him and about 30 others performed a sit-in inside of President Anthony Monaco’s office for 3 days, demanding that the administration consider divestment.

In the aftermath, some of them were served with what was considered the highest degree of disciplinary probation – for occupying a private office – and my friend was given an open judicial hearing. The severity of the backlash, surprised many on campus.

You see, my friend and the others behind him wanted a revolution, a drastic change to the way our school thinks about fossil fuels. Not compromise, but something radical. Which is inherently controversial. This Changes Everything, written by Naomi Klein, a journalist and a member of the board of directors of 350.org, suggests that a revolution is exactly what we need to combat the problem of climate change.

The tagline of this book is “Capitalism vs. the Climate.” She writes “Is it possible without challenging the fundamental logic of deregulated capitalism? Not a chance.”

The history of global warming practices leaves many of the same ideological traces. A key mentality, Klein says, has been “extractivism,” or the feeling of entitlement to extract and use natural resources without cost or consequence. That exploitation, throughout history, has actually been really easy to do, given that these resources are public goods — a quality that enables a profit-maximizing society.

The lucrative-ness of fossil fuels is the reason why Britain’s BG Group plans to invest $30 billion into ultra-deepwater “subsalt” oil extraction, three thousand meters into the Santos basin, it is the reason why Shell is building the largest offshore natural gas facility ever in Australia, more than four soccer fields long, it is the reason why a group of anonymous U.S. billionaires donated about $120 million to “groups casting doubt about the science behind climate change” between 2002 and 2010, as revealed by The Guardian in 2013.

As Klien writes, Investopedia says that a shareholder-assured company is expected to have an equal amount of oil and gas in its proven reserves and in current production — stock prices go up if the company shows they are constantly, relentlessly, and competitively producing.

However, fossil fuels companies, cannot be the only ones to blame. Members of society, Americans, we too are complicit, agreeable to the established world built by neoliberalism. Our everyday behaviors, opinions, and ideas fit into this comfortable and convenient frame of thinking. When we feel too much of a tremor, we turn to “market-based solutions.”  In a chilling conclusion of one of the chapters, Klein writes “Because the truth is that, while contemporary, hyper-globalized capitalism has exacerbated the climate crisis, it did not create it. We started treating the atmosphere as our waste dump when we began using coal on a commercial scale in the later 1700s and engaged in similarly reckless ecological practices well before that.”

Here is an excerpt:

What concerns me is less the mechanics of the transition — the shift from brown to green energy, from sole-rider cars to mass transit, from sprawling exurbs to dense and walkable cities — than the power and ideological roadblocks that have so far prevented any of these long understood solutions from taking hold on anything close to the scale required… Because underneath all of this is the real truth we have been avoiding: climate change isn’t an “issue” to add to the list of things to worry about, next to healthcare and taxes. Its is a civilizational wake up call. A powerful message – spoken in the language of fires, floods, droughts, and extinctions — telling us that we need an entirely new economic model and a new way of sharing this plant. Telling us that we need to evolve (25).

My research with the Climate Narrative Project is ongoing. We, the fellows, want to seek and galvanize solutions for sustainability, and find new ways to communicate the necessity for action against climate change. What Klein reminds us though, is that long-lasting and meaningful answers cannot be found until we recognize that the most effective solution, may also be the most disruptive.

Photo courtesy of Mount Holyoke College

The Story of Little Bluestem

Page 5My final CNP project encompassed writing a children’s book titled “The Story of Little Bluestem.” In an effort to discuss the role of climate change in Iowa, this story told the history of Iowa’s native tallgrass prairie from the viewpoint of one prairie grass, Little Bluestem. My book was aimed at children with the goal of encouraging kids to understand the benefits of prairie grasses in a state where virtually all the land has been groomed to promote the monoculture of corn grass. Iowans may not see the immediate impacts of climate change but our land management is tied to climatic change in numerous ways. There are a few villains throughout the story, the Unsettlers, a green Deere, and industrialized agriculture. However, the story finishes with a hopeful perspective from the Restorers fighting to save the tallgrass prairie. All of the imagery featured in the book was taken travelling around much of the state to capture the heart of Iowa. If possible, I may pursue publishing this book since I was unable to find any children’s books about Iowa’s prairie grasses and its important role in the history of Iowa. I thoroughly enjoyed participating in the Spring 2016 CNP class and this experience was very eye opening on how to better tell the message of climate change to encourage forward-thinking action.

Road Trip Across Iowa

Neal Smith NWFThis weekend I made a trip across Iowa from Johnson county all the way to Plymouth county and back across the top. During my journey I visited 10+ prairie, wetland, and wildlife areas across Iowa. I gathered over 600 photographs, some of which will be used to create the imagery in my children’s book about Iowa’s tallgrass prairies. There are too many photographs to share but I have included one of my favorites from the trip. The current season is a transition period for virtually all prairie grasses in Iowa and it was challenging to find much color beyond golden brown, grey, and tan. Unfortunately, after my CNP final project is presented is when Iowa’s tallgrass prairies will really show their true colors. Nonetheless, I did not let that stop me from photographing what Iowa currently has to offer. One thing that I learned on this journey is how little land is left to remnant, native, and reconstructed prairie in Iowa (beyond the numerical value of 0.1 %). Seeing is really believing (and fully understanding). Driving throughout Iowa, it is easy to see why >92 % of land is devoted to rural cropland. This trip helped solidify my goals beyond completing my CNP project to continue to volunteer and help restore Iowa’s stunning tallgrass prairies.

The link here compiles the prairies in Iowa that you can visit by county and was used in creating my itinerary.

Fire Brings New Life to the Prairie

IMG_6085This weekend I had the opportunity to photograph a prescribed fire prairie grass burn in Solon, IA. One of the folks I interviewed, Liz Maas (Director of Bur Oak Land Trust), invited me to witness and document the action up close. It was a great experience and will become a neat part of my Children’s book for my CNP final project.

Iowa was once covered with over 80 % prairie grasses. To put that into perspective, if we envision the entire planet Earth as Iowa, prairie grasses would have covered more surface area than our vast oceans! However, only 0.1 % of Iowa’s original prairie remain today. What might seem counterintuitive about this is why burn the prairie grass we are trying to save? By performing a controlled area burn of prairie grass it helps eliminate competing invasive grasses, and has occurred in balance routinely for thousands of years to prevent invading tress species onto the prairie. There is more than meets the eye as well with prairie grasses because they have deep root systems that contain upwards of 75 % of the plant’s biomass below the surface. What’s more is that what we see above ground is a 3-10 feet plant but its roots can grow upwards of 10-20 feet below ground! So when the prairie is burned, the remains serve as natural fertilizer for the next generation of prairie grass and encourage growth.

So before you run to throw some water on burning prairie grass, remember it is a vital prairie management method that without a doubt gave (gives) Iowa some of the most fertile soil in the world.

For more on Iowa Prairies check out the Iowa Prairie Network.

Iowa’s Altered Landscape

Dew-coverd-PrairieMy CNP project this semester centers around how the state of Iowa has been transformed to a monoculture of corn cropland from diverse prairie grasses. This transformation has implications rooted in climate change through the alteration of the land in three main ways: (1) changing from a robust prairie grass system capable of surviving climatic change to an “eggs in one basket” approach to monoculture corn, which is less resistant to stressors. (2) Iowa is America’s (and world’s) largest producer of corn as a result of our once fertile soil from the dense root systems provided through prairies that was ultimately tilled up with the advent of the steel plow to now grow corn for ethanol biofuels, which some argue is not the answer to thwart climate change. And (3) a large portion of Iowa’s corn goes to feed the animals we humans eat, which in turn supports the agriculture (meat and dairy) sector (perhaps the largest contributor to potent greenhouse gases known to cause our warming planet Earth). It can be argued that the state of Iowa is the most altered landscape in the US and I hope to build off that to draw conclusions about the future or Iowa’s lands and climate change. One of the ways I hope to inspire and encourage people to take action against habitat and ecosystem loss related to climate change is through connecting with Nature. It is my belief that people in tune with Nature will understand its importance to the success of our species and others in an age where Nature can be the engine to minimize climate change.

For my project I am interviewing four people from different backgrounds. I have already interviewed Julie Decker (Executive Director of Harvest Preserve) of Iowa City about the 100-acre plot of land her organization has set aside for anyone to use who is interested in connecting with Nature (albeit spiritually, emotionally, or physically). My write up will be coming soon. The next three folks I have scheduled interviews for are with Liz Maas (Board of Directors President of Bur Oak Land Trust) to discuss prairie grass and wetland restoration, Dick Sayles (President of the Quad City Audubon Society) to gain a perspective of how Iowa’s native species have been impacted (past, present, and future) by Iowa’s altered landscape, and lastly Jeffrey Landgren (UI graduate student) who is an avid outdoorsman to learn about Iowa’s Nature versus other states.

I will likely do a film for my project but unsure if it will be more of a picture film or a traditional documentary type film. I have also tossed around the idea of doing a fake radio broadcast, news story, or commercial.