• Living Green Technology

The Environment: Looking Towards the Future with UW Professor Kristiina Vogt

Updated: Apr 10

As we enter a new decade, it’s more important than ever to take a look at what we have accomplished and what work still needs to be done in order to preserve the environment. To that end, the Living Green Team is very excited to share our interview with Kristiina Vogt, Professor of Environmental and Forest Sciences at the University of Washington.

Kristiina Vogt, Professor of Environmental and Forest Sciences at the University of Washington

Professor Vogt is an expert on carbon and nutrient cycles at the ecosystem level and has worked around the world. She is particularly intrigued by the role that human and natural disturbances play in controlling processes in ecosystems such as species diversity, land-use activities, social resilience and ecosystem sustainability.

We were able to cover a variety of topics, including the best approaches to preserving the environment here in Washington, how to make the most impact at an individual level, e-waste, and more!

Q: What do you see as the top three emerging priorities or concerns with regards to environmentalism in the coming decade?

The lack of collaboration and inclusion of local knowledge in developing design practices and approaches to respond to environmental problems that impact local communities. This approach does not acknowledge or give credibility to the knowledge held by local or indigenous people who have a history of knowing the land and water.

Science is a part of the environmental decision-making approach. But today’s politics are ignoring science data and gives preference to decisions supporting economic gain and/or status. Scientists don’t make environmental decisions and don’t want to, but science is being ignored today as economic benefits have become the primary priority of decision-makers. Western societies have not developed a decision process where some items are not to be negotiated for economic gain. In contrast, tribes set priorities in their decision process. First, the environment cannot be impacted by economic decisions. This is followed by health, then culture, and finally economics. What this is saying is that economics is important but not when it impacts these other factors. When decision-makers do not develop priorities for what should not be impacted by economic decisions, the environment is not being viewed holistically and will be impacted negatively by decisions. Further, environmental decisions based on science and local knowledge should not change every time there are new politicians working in D.C. It should change when our knowledge changes or our priorities as a community occur.

Education K-16 does not teach or educate youth to think critically and holistically about environmental problems. We need to bring debates back to the classroom so students think about what controversies exist and need to be addressed for each environmental problem. They need to know who the stakeholders are that need to be included in the decision process. For instance, a high school teacher at Granger High used the debate approach to engage her students in the removal of the Elwha Dam. It worked wonderfully well and engaged her students. In a class at UW, we used the same approach to discuss and debate the controversies and stakeholders surrounding wildland fires.

Q: What sort of impact on local ecosystems has the disposal of electronic waste (e-waste) had here in Washington State? Or, more generally, the Pacific Northwest?

Washington State appears to have proactively worked at managing the disposal of e-waste going back to 2006. At the UW and in SEFS (my home institution), there is a process where individuals do not manage the e-waste, but the IT people coordinate this. Most students and faculty do not know where to dispose of or where to recycle e-waste. The computer technicians are knowledgeable on these and have become a distribution node to UW which ultimately disposes and recycles e-waste. We don’t know what process is followed after it leaves our home institution, but there appears to be several rules that suggest there is a well-thought-out procedure.

Q: Conversely, what are some of the most impactful ways in which technology has helped conservation efforts?

Technology allows us to track and make the links needed to view conservation holistically. Technology allows people - especially as it becomes part of the popular culture - to become knowledgeable about conservation issues. The problem that has arisen is that we have too much data - an overload of data - so people don’t know how to critically think about any environmental issue. There are so many conflicting sources of knowledge on any issue. Massive data points, that are not linked or connected, means that we have data but no knowledge to address any environmental problem. Your question about e-waste can be looked at in several ways. If you focus more on how you use a cell phone, you don’t think about the chemicals that are used to build the phone and their environmental impacts. Your focus is more on the utility and what programs you can run on the phone. We don’t think about the cell phone holistically but use a linear and narrow lens. This means you don’t really think about how to recycle your cell phone.

Q: Everyone is juggling busy schedules these days, which can make it difficult to identify efficient ways to contribute to causes. In your personal opinion, what are some of the most impactful things your average person can do to help preserve the environment?

The current approaches that individuals follow, when they want to make a difference for the environment, do not provide a person feedback that you really have made a difference. People forget to continue their new behavior after a while because there is no feedback or verification that what you are doing is making a difference. My father - a medical doctor - talked about getting people to lose weight and he told me that it worked for about a month. But each person went back to their old behavior after this time. This switch to their old behavior occurred despite the fact that they were jeopardizing their personal health.

Yet at the same time, people individually need to think about decisions they make every day and recognize that their decisions impact the environment in multiple ways - from your built environment, your house; your use of technology; how you dispose of your products; what you buy to reduce waste, etc. So it is challenging for an individual to conserve the environment since they need to think about the carbon cycle, which starts with carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, gets fixed by vegetation, is eaten by herbivores, vegetation tissues die and become part of decomposition and microbes, and finally decomposition releases it back into the atmosphere. At each step we impact the pools and fluxes in the carbon cycle. If we cut too many trees without replanting, fewer carbon dioxide molecules are converted to vegetation tissues. If we generate too much dead materials, we impact the growth of vegetation which doesn't grow as well. The vegetation is needed to take carbon from the atmosphere. By burning fossil carbon (oil, natural gas), we are increasing the flux of carbon into the atmosphere. You know the rest.

It takes a community to make a difference for our environment. It can’t be just an agency that manages a resource. It takes a community similar to what Native Americans practiced and learned more than a thousand years ago in their tribal communities. In Washington State, many tribes collaborate on habitat restoration projects for salmon. They are implementing restoration projects even though they no longer own the lands since they lost these lands when they signed treaties with the federal government. They continue to implement habitat restoration projects on their customary lands to improve the environments for salmon survival because they felt they had something to contribute. This decision was based on the fact that it was clear that the land use changes implemented by non-tribal people have altered these environments negatively. Tribes continue to fight for salmon and other cultural resources and know that their long-term lens provides better solutions than today's science knowledge that is still fragmented and not at a landscape level. This is evidenced by tribes being willing to invest millions of dollars on projects to improve the habitat for salmon survival. They use knowledge of salmon and nature developed over several generations to manage their lands for important cultural resources. They are doing this because it’s their customary land and they know they have the knowledge to help restore these lands.

Q: What are some of the best resources and/or organizations to check out to get actively involved in conservation efforts here in Washington State?

Helping K-12 teachers is the most impactful way to mitigate negative environmental consequences while also achieving environmental justice. If we can get materials - supplementary curricular materials - available to teachers, it would go a long way towards mobilizing the general public in critically thinking about the environment and the problems that are occurring in their region. These teachers are educating the future decision-makers but don’t have time to develop new environmental curricula because they are too busy teaching. It doesn’t mean that they don’t want to provide youth the skills and tools to critically think about complex environmental issues. Youth need to learn how to generate new knowledge using science and local knowledge to form their own holistic lens on any environmental problem. Since youth also talk to their parents, it would generate discussions among a broader group of people about the issues they are learning to critically assess.

We need to help teachers to get the tools they need to develop their own teaching tools. They don’t have the time to develop these materials while they are satisfying State Teaching Standards. If this change were to occur, students would transition from memorizing science facts - which they won’t remember the next day - to learn critical thinking and communicating knowledge of the environment using the storytelling approaches of Native people. People learning science through storytelling approaches remember the stories they hear and become better decision-makers for the environment.

Right now, we have several land trusts and other local organizations that are doing a great job of communicating for the environment. But their impact is very localized. The community still doesn’t understand the environment or its complexities and what these organizations are doing. We need to get the public more engaged as decision-makers for the environment. Unfortunately, people interested and engaged in the environment remain a small fraction of our society - a pattern that has played out for centuries. Environmental decision making will not change if a small portion of society continues to be engaged on environmental issues.

There has been a big push for Citizen Science and there are many individuals that are part of these activities. However, Citizen Science is still a top down approach to science, i.e., the scientists form knowledge from the data they obtain from citizen scientists. We need to foster a bottom-up approach to forming knowledge on environmental issues, so it emerges as the dominant paradigm in decision-making. We have already seen the success of the bottom up approach on forming knowledge of environmental issues. These people are the lens that are able to warn that an environmental problem is emerging. They are able to see when a problem is first emerging and when scientists are not aware of the problem. By seeing the problem when it is emerging, it is easier to identify the causal factors causing an environmental problem. When too much time has passed when an environmental problem emerges, scientists study the symptoms so the causal factors cannot be identified. In Germany and Austria, it was people who were part of a group with shared interests in insects that first noticed and made the warning about the massive loss of insects - they called it an armageddon because more than 80% of the insect population had disappeared. Once again, it was the local lens that was critical. It was not scientists who were able to forewarn about these changes. Again, it takes a community to make environmental decisions and to be the ‘canary in the mine’.