Social Anthropology and Rural Economic Development

By Ed Meyer

For more than three decades, I’ve made a conscious effort to stay far away from the divisive diatribes so typical of arguments regarding public lands and the environment. When I’ve been ambushed in a meeting and forced to listen to the well-practiced public lands rhetoric repeated for the thousandth time, an image comes to my mind. It’s an image of the Dugum Dani warriors from the New Guinea highlands that I recall from the University Utah where I was studying social anthropology.

Keep in mind that I was taking anthropology classes thirty years ago so my memories are blurred by time, but here’s how I remember films I watched back when you still had to wind film onto projectors. It seemed like the women did all the work in the Dugum Dani villages. They raised sweet potatoes and tended pigs while the men got ready to go to “war”.  Since the men didn’t wear anything except a “koteka” (look it up for yourself at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Koteka because I’m not going there), preparations seemed to most involve a lot of chest thumping and a little face painting. However, in the late morning or early afternoon, the men would go to a canyon where they yelled at men from another tribe and shot arrows that never seemed to hit anything. The technical term for this is “ritual small-scale warfare and here’s how Wikipedia describes it:

Ritual small-scale warfare between rival villages is integral to traditional Dani culture, with much time spent preparing weapons, engaging in both mock and real battle, and treating any resulting injuries. Typically the emphasis in battle is to insult the enemy and wound or kill token victims, as opposed to capturing territory or property or vanquishing the enemy village.

If you are interested in learning more about the Dugum Dani, you may want to visit http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dugum_Dani.  As an aside, the ritual battles I saw in college in 1972 have become much more serious as the primate Dugum Dani have come in contact with the outside world and now are being sold high powered rifles.

I’ve certainly circumnavigated around my point which is that pretty much everyone embroiled in the battle over public lands remind me of the Dugum Dani warriors mocking one another, insulting the “enemy”, rattling arrows and firing ineffective volleys at one another.  To me it has always seemed so wasteful and counterproductive. So I chose another route that focused directly on trying to help people at the community level.

(Pictured: Abraham Maslow)

But now I’m retired and want to propose something that was not politically appropriate when I was a state employee. Before I make my proposal, I want to go back to my anthropology training and dredge up from my ancient lessons the theories of a guy named Abraham Maslow. He proposed something now known as Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs in his 1943 paper A Theory of Human Motivation (I expect all of you sociology students are groaning about now). Mr. Maslow was a pretty boring guy so let me summarize how his concept relates to rural America and the public lands debacle.

Maslow said that people need to take care of a whole host of needs before they will focus on an area he called “self actualization”. In terms of rural America, you have to make sure you provide food and shelter for yourself and your family before you will be willing to consider more lofty goals like protecting the environment. So when you are forced to give up a job in a sawmill or a mine that pays a family-sustaining wage in exchange for turning bed sheets in a motel, you won’t be receptive to ideas like protecting wilderness areas. If you want be really bored, visit http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maslow%27s_hierarchy_of_needs.

So here, based on Maslow, is my idea and my challenge to the environmental community. Rural people will never embrace protection of the environment and tying up public lands until they have family sustaining jobs. So you can fight them until hell freezes over. You can keep filing lawsuits draining your budgets and those of people living in rural America or you can invest in an alternative strategy. If you don’t want rural people to continue their efforts to obtain family sustaining, natural resource-based jobs, then you need to find a way to substitute environmentally sensitive jobs that pay a family-sustaining wage.

Think about it. Thousands of companies professing to be environmentally conscious are contributing to environmental movements. What if instead of doing this they invested in rural communities adjacent to public lands by providing “clean jobs”.  What this would entail is a willingness to sustain a loss for a few years as the new rural employees are trained and gain experience. In some cases, there might even be an ongoing loss since many rural communities are isolated, but the growth of information-based jobs should counterbalance the cost of isolation. It is my experience that, once a rural person’s family needs are addressed, they are more willing to consider environmental partnership to address mutual needs.

Of course, this isn’t likely to happen. Environmental organizations don’t sustain themselves by solving environmental problems. Rather, it’s in their interests to sustain problems for generations if possible.  But prove me wrong. If you have an idea about an environmentally clean company who wants to provide jobs next to sensitive public lands, call me in Kanab. My name is Ed Meyer and my number is in the phone book. Next month I’ll let you know how many calls I’ve received.

“Degrees to Nowhere”?! – I Beg to Differ!

By Stephanie A. Malin

Given last month’s blog topic – and recent comments by Utah State Senator Howard Stephenson that degrees such as sociology, psychology, and philosophy are “degrees to nowhere” – my blog this month focuses on the vital role played by humanities and social sciences in higher education. As a PhD Candidate in Environmental and Development Sociology, and as an instructor of undergraduates at Utah State, I feel I have a personal and professional stake in showcasing the value of knowledge imparted by sociology, philosophy, psychology, and other social sciences and humanities.

First, as a sociologist, I want to clarify what it is that I, and we, do. Sociologists study how people behave in groups, from small-group interactions to institutions to entire global systems, like economic and political structures. Many of us trace the emergence and development of social movements in these contexts and tie them to historical trends. We also analyze power structures to better understand the impacts of growing inequality, effects of environmental pollutants, or shifts in labor markets. Sociologists try to represent marginalized voices while recording massive social changes occurring in the face of globalization, rapid technological progress, shifting political structures, and environmental degradation. Thus, I fail to understand how sociological knowledge – which records empirical social change and offers theoretical explanations for patterns emergent in society, so that we may form more equitable policy – can be framed as frivolous or less important that any of the “hard” sciences. Clearly, Sen. Stephenson did not pay attention in his sociology course(s), or as a leader navigating constituents through a particularly difficult historical period for our country, he would have a greater appreciation for what the discipline imparts…

All humanities and social sciences offer additional “training” in college that gives people a sense of historical context, cultural literacy, and challenges our students to think critically about the world they will soon be entering as adults and, yes, workers. Yet, advanced education should not just prepare our students to find meaningful, lucrative employment, but also guide students who are still shaping their ethical codes and oftentimes political and social outlooks. I believe this is one of the greatest gifts we are given as college instructors, to encounter students at a time when many of them are forming their worldviews as adults. Thus, classes offered in a university setting must teach not only technical knowledge, but social and political awareness and critical thinking capabilities as well. These latter skill sets make people more capable workers and more informed citizens.

For example, in my Sociology of Environment course, we study how to become more media literate consumers. I have students analyze historical trends in advertising and media ownership, their own consumption patterns, and related environmental impacts. Through in-class discussions and exercises, outside interactive assignments, and current readings in environment and economics, students in my class learn how to critically analyze sources of their information in an information-saturated world.

I also teach an upper-level Social Statistics course. Believe it or not, many sociologists know how to do math, even statistics. Some of us even do fancy things like Structural Equation Modeling and other complex statistical techniques in research programs attempting to understand global issues like HIV/AIDS rates, patterns in the global recession, or trends in income inequality in the US. In classes such as Social Statistics, students learn skills enviable on the job market for a business, accounting firm, or even agencies such as the Census Bureau or local criminal justice systems. A female student in my summer 2010 Statistics class graduated in August but – in this employment climate – had already been hired full-time as a researcher for the Cache Valley branch of the National Children’s Study. According to her, her statistical skills earned her this job. While anecdotal, I have abundant examples of similar situations, as I know my fellow Sociology instructors do. This evidence directly counters Senator Stephenson’s argument that degrees such as sociology are ‘degrees to nowhere.’

Finally, I assert the above illustration makes a strong case that cuts made to higher education funding – and where they are targeted – are premised on a misguided understanding of what a university does and what sort of vital skills are valued in today’s job market. Of course, technical and engineering degrees provide important skill sets. But higher education is not a zero-sum game; the value of science and engineering degrees does not negate the value of social science or humanities degrees or courses. Instead, they should complement one another, helping create well-rounded, articulate employees and citizens. After all, employers value critical thinkers and articulate communicators, especially in the longer term, whether they run an engineering firm, financial institution, or natural gas extraction operation. Instead of providing students with “degrees to nowhere,” social scientists and humanities practitioners help cultivate students who will earn more over the course of their careers (eg., see Cooper, hardnewcafe.usu.edu), while enriching our economy and society with articulate communicators, critical thinkers, and proactive citizens.

Call for Abstracts – Climate Change

The Western Rural Development Center is soliciting articles for its June 2011 issue of Rural Connections. The topic for this issue will be challenges and opportunities facing the rural West relative to climate change and climate change policies.

Abstracts Due: Friday, March 4, 2011

Click here for the details.

Overview
The EPA says, “The extent of climate change effects, and whether these effects prove harmful or beneficial, will vary by region, over time, and with the ability of different societal and environmental systems to adapt to or cope with the change.”[i] The Center is interested in understanding challenges and opportunities facing the West’s rural communities as they relate to climate change. Furthermore, the Center wants to share this information with its stakeholders to increase awareness of the region’s activities and to build the capacity of Extension and communities by providing them with relevant and timely information.

The WRDC is not interested in arguments for or against climate change, rather the WRDC is interested in sharing with its stakeholders the research and community and economic development activities that are underway in the region to address currently changing climates and how these changes are bringing economic opportunities and/or challenges to the West’s rural communities.

Sub-Topics
The topic of challenges and opportunities facing the Rural West as they relate to climate change and climate change policy is broad in scope and allows for submissions from a wide range of sub-topics including but not limited to the following topics listed in no particular order of priority:

  • Climate change policies and how they are impacting business/job growth in the West
  • Impacts of Climate Change on Agricultural Production
  • Impacts of Climate Change on Natural Resources
  • Impacts of Climate Change on National Security
  • Innovations in Climate Change Technologies Manufactured in Rural Communities

Click here to read and download the complete Call for Abstracts.


[i] US Environmental Protection Agency.  Climate Change – Health and Environmental Effects.  Retrieved February 3, 2011, from http://www.epa.gov/climatechange/effects/index.html


A Teachable Moment

“Perhaps the rebuilding of the body and spirit is the greatest service derivable from our forests, for what worth are material things if we lose the character and quality of people that are the soul of America.” (Arthur Carhart, 1919-1922)

When I was student teaching as part of my undergraduate program in Michigan I taught Jr. High Science and Conservation Education. I was fortunate to study with Dr. Bill Stapp—an amazing outdoor educator who sadly passed on in 2001. He left behind an amazing legacy of environmental educators. It was during this period that I learned about teachable moments . . . most likely from Dr. Stapp. Teachable moments are those windows of opportunity that present themselves with unanticipated events. Often these opportunities go unnoticed. When they are recognized as an invitation to share understanding, knowledge, or experience, magic can happen. People become more open to new ideas and learning than they otherwise might have been. As a researcher I’ve seen this happen with an upswing in the adoption of community preparedness and defensible space activities following wildfires.

This past month Forest Service employees experienced a teachable moment . . . and the delivery was much different from the usual (and some would say much too frequent) required on-line training. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell suffered a heart attack on January 5. Fortunately he recognized the symptoms and quickly took appropriate action. As word spread throughout the agency, employees across the country requested information about heart attack symptoms. The Chief’s right coronary artery had become blocked.  After a stent was placed in the artery, he was soon resting at home and in the days that followed agency employees became much more aware of how to recognize the signs of heart attack and the importance of taking quick action.

Heart health is a research interest of mine, especially in terms of the disease prevention and rehabilitation benefits of spending time in nature. Arthur Carhart, a landscape architect, recreation planner and a forester by training, experienced first-hand benefits from spending time in the forest. Recent studies support Carhart’s declaration (above) about forest benefits, finding that as little as 15-30 minutes a day in a natural setting contributes to improved health.  Spending time in nature (see the September 2010 issue of Rural Connections; Volume 5, Issue 1 – 10MB PDF) can reduce blood pressure, cholesterol and stress, increase immune system function and improve outlook on life—each is related to heart health.

A new report just released by the American Heart Association projects the annual cost to treat heart disease to triple by 2030, increasing from $273 billion to $818 billion (in 2008 dollars). Cases of heart attack and stroke are projected to rise about 25 percent, with 40.5 percent of Americans having some form of heart disease, up from 36.9 percent today. What if getting more people out into the forest more frequently could help reduce those figures? Research suggests this is possible. The Forest Service and other public land management agencies, including state and local parks and recreation departments, have an important role here.

A University of Michigan study recently found that those who spent time walking in nature had reduced stress and improved capacity to pay attention. Recreating on public lands is one way to spend time in nature, another way is through volunteering.

In December I participated in a strategic planning meeting for the Forest Service’s Volunteer and Service Program.  I was energized and inspired by the passion that Forest Service employees from across the country have for this important program. The Volunteer and Service Program promotes opportunities for people to assist the agency in fulfilling its mission of caring for the land and serving people.

I used to think that volunteer programs were merely a cost effective way to get work done when funding to hire employees or contractors was inadequate. While this is often the case, after interacting with volunteers myself and reading the research findings of others, it is clear to me that the benefits of the volunteer program go far beyond what is accomplished on the land with a variety of benefits accruing to the volunteers themselves. Providing volunteer opportunities is truly serving the people.

According to the Corporation for National and Community Service 61.8 million Americans across the country, including 8.2 million young adults between 16-24 years old, contributed 8 billion hours of volunteer service valued at $162 billion in 2008. Even through the recent economic downturn volunteerism has continued to grow. Volunteering is part of doing business for both non-profit groups and government agencies and part of a healthy lifestyle for Americans of all ages.

My personal interest in volunteer programs was piqued a few years ago when several Forest Service volunteers that I was interviewing impressed me with what they described as their desire to “give back”, “share what we know”, and to experience the “aha moments” that come with the experience of introducing children and inner city children and adults to the wonders of nature.  The volunteers I spoke with—all Baby Boomers and many retirees—described their desire to stay physically, mentally, emotionally and socially active and engaged in their community through sharing their expertise, knowledge, and passion for nature and special places.  Studies have shown that good health is the most important factor contributing to a happy retirement. The retirees I interviewed seemed to have figured that out for themselves.

Benefits of volunteering include reduced stress and depression, a greater sense of well-being, purpose and meaning, and longer, healthier lives, especially for adults 65 and older—a group that is growing.  Totaling over 76 million Americans, Boomers, including all those born from 1946-1964 and making up over 40 percent of the population, have begun to retire. This pool of potential volunteers represents both an opportunity and a challenge.

Volunteering is a healthy thing to do. Volunteering in nature compounds the health and well-being benefits experienced by volunteers. The Forest Service, along with other resource management agencies, provides a variety of volunteer opportunities and experiences that can contribute to the improved health and well-being of volunteers.  Thus, in addition to contributing to stewardship and restoration of the land, supplementing education and interpretation programs, accomplishing trail and campground maintenance, participating in research studies and other volunteer efforts volunteer opportunities contribute to improving human health and reducing health care costs.

I can’t think of a better win-win opportunity. The challenge will be whether the Forest Service and other government agencies can raise to the occasion presented by this large—and growing larger by the day—pool of potential and eager volunteers. I’ll be revisiting topics of health and nature, volunteering and baby boomers in future blogs. For now how about sharing your favorite teachable moments?

Linda Kruger is a social scientist with the U.S. Forest Service, Pacific Northwest Research Station in Juneau, Alaska.

p.s. — February is Heart Awareness Month. Here are some additional resources for understanding and maintaining heart health:

February is Heart Awareness Month (www.medicinenet.com)

10 Myths About Heart Disease (yourlife.usatoday.com)