Monday, January 13, 2014

What Would Jeff Corwin Do?

"What would Jeff Corwin Do?" 

That five letter question has become a mantra around our house over last few years. It all started back in November of 2006. The girlfriend of a friend was attending Northwestern University at the time and we were told there would be a free talk being given on campus by none other than former Animal Planet television show host and wildlife conservationist, Jeff Corwin. For those of you who may not know him, Jeff Corwin was the host of a popular program on the Animal Planet network, titled The Jeff Corwin Experience, which ran from 2001 to 2003. Later on Animal Planet Corwin would go on to host another program in 2005 called, Corwin's Quest. Corwin became known for his engaging manner and good looks, after all he was voted one of People Magazines 50 Most Beautiful People in 2002. It was Corwin's infectious enthusiasm for wildlife, that made his programs such a big hit amongst viewers during the early days of Animal Planet.

Excited to see Jeff Corwin speak live, we headed up to Evanston, Illinois to Northwestern University. After struggling with traffic and finding a place to park, we found ourselves sneaking into the auditorium about 15 minutes after Corwin had taken the stage. Fortunately for us, he was only just getting warmed up. What was to follow over the next hour or so was a talk that would come to change our lives in ways we never could have imagined at the time. It's easy for people to talk sometimes about how a book has changed their lives, or how a single event has made a lasting impact. I'd never really felt that I'd ever experienced any one thing that had that effect on me before. It wasn't until months later that we found Corwin's words had had a lasting impact on us.

Over the next hour or so, Corwin regaled the audience with stories of life behind the scenes of his show, The Jeff Corwin Experience. He talked animatedly with the same enthusiasm and sense of humor he brought to his show. Whether he was talking about the possibility of being stomped to death by a forest elephant,

or looking frantically around in tall grass for a venomous snake while remaining totally still.

As the talk turned from the light-hearted fare of television programming, Corwin began to describe how he himself, had begun to take a more critical look at his place in the world and ultimately his own impact on the environment. For the duration of the rest of the talk, he spoke about things individual people could do to affect real changes on the environment. I'd had a seminar class in college titled something like, "Studies in Ecology: Problems in the Environment," or something like that.

The gist of the seminar course was how much of what we do as humans in a developed world is unsustainable in the long run. From our reliance on massive monoculture food crops to the worlds ballooning population, it became obvious that as we begin to exceed the carrying capacity of the planet we also continue to promote many unsustainable practices. Everything from how we treat produce to withstand lengthy trips to market to the bottled water we drink and the over-packaged products we buy were discussed. Corwin spoke of many of these issues facing our growing population, echoing many of the concepts I learned years earlier in that college class but had all but forgotten or chose to ignore.

At the time, my opinion of Jeff Corwin was largely based on his work as a television personality for a wildlife show. I knew that he had a bachelors degree in biology and anthropology and that he also had a masters degree in wildlife and fisheries conservation. I mostly remember Corwin's show being mostly based on observing wildlife and as I recall there was little talk of conservation of species or what we as the viewers could do to help with conservation efforts ourselves. However, during the talk Corwin made good as a conservationist and began to explain how individual people could make choices that could indeed affect the environment positively. I don't know what it was exactly, but something about Corwin's talk clicked. What he said, meshed with what I'd learned a few years earlier. Maybe I was more in a frame of mind to begin embracing how to live a more sustainable existence with a lower impact on the environment.

One thing in particular from that talk has stuck with me all these years. Corwin spoke about recycling and reducing our reliance on packaged foods as one of the easiest ways of lessening our impact on the environment. When packing a lunch, he told how he would reuse ziplock baggies by washing them out until they literally fell apart at the seams. Until then, even though we recycled our glass and plastic, we routinely threw away things such as ziplock baggies that had only been used once. Cardboard boxes that contained our cereal or crackers were crushed and thrown in the trash when empty, rather than being recycled. The simple comment that really brought the message home was Corwin's take on how we need to think more about almost everything we do and what impact it will have on our environment.

The example he used was one of a granola bar. I'm paraphrasing, as I remember what he said all these years ago but it went something like this:

"So, take a granola bar. For the 200 or so calories that you get, this little bit of energy that maybe lasts you two or three hours, you now have this mylar plastic wrapper that you'll just throw away. For that small amount of calories and little bit of energy, you have this wrapper that will persist in a land fill for the next 1000 years, not to mention all of the energy that was used to produce it and ship it to you."

Every now and then someone asks you if someone has changed your life, or a book you've read has changed your life. I've never really felt that anything like that had happened to me. I'd never really read many books that I felt changed my life or gave me a new outlook. The same went for people I'd met. I'd never felt as if I'd met anyone who I could go back to and say, "Hey, yeah! My interaction with that person changed my life!" I didn't realize it at the time because it seemed like such a small thing, but with that one simple, real world example, Jeff Corwin planted a seed that would grow and continue to influence my decisions to this day.

We still struggle to reduce our packaging, but we have shifted to eating more meals made from scratch, getting away from the excessive and wasteful packaging of much of what is available in grocery stores today. In a continuing effort to reduce our impact and live more sustainably, we now recycle every imaginable thing that comes into our house, even the foil and plastic containers our take-out food comes in. If it can be recycled, it goes into bags to be taken to our single-sort recycling bins provided by our waste haulers.

There have been other things we've read, programs that we've watched on television since then that have continued to influence our outlook and our drive for sustainability in our lives. However, it's that talk by Jeff Corwin all those years ago that seems to have made the initial connection. Call it an epiphany, or the proverbial light bulb going off over ones head, or whatever. Today virtually every consumptive activity we perform is influenced to some degree by the thought processes now irrevocably altered by that one talk. I no longer buy imported beer, preferring to purchase craft brewed beer made here in the states, rather than shoulder the carbon footprint associated with beer that has to be shipped thousands of miles before it arrives at the store.

We buy our cat food from producers based here in the U.S. rather than factories that produce food in Thailand and ship it halfway around the world. We rarely drive our car anymore, going to the grocery store by foot or by bicycle, and if we do use the car we try to run as many errands as possible to make the usage of fuel the most economical. We've begun to look at electronic subscriptions to our favorite magazines to help further lower our carbon footprint and reduce the amount of material we recycle. We read Michael Pollan's thought provoking book, In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto which in turn has inspired us to try to eat healthier and more sustainably. When produce starts to go out of season and the labels begin showing that it comes from farther and farther away, we stop buying certain things. During the winter we'd rather buy more expensive apples that are cold-stored by local growers than pay for cheaper apples shipped from  somewhere like New Zealand or Chile.

From that initial talk we jokingly developed this mantra of, "What would Jeff Corwin do?" Every now and then, we have to remind ourselves of the mantra. Sometimes it just seems easier to throw out a jar rather than rinse and scrub it out, but our environmental consciences get the better of us. We still struggle with some things. My addiction to granola bars keeps me throwing away those persistent wrappers, but I've taken steps towards learning how to make my own granola, thus getting the mylar monkey off my back. We're slowly getting better. It's an ongoing process. We still need to remind each other to recycle things, or maybe not buy a certain product due to concerns about packaging or sourcing. We remind ourselves to try to live more in harmony with our environment, and to try to minimize our impact on it. To this day, all these years later we still ask each other, "What would Jeff Corwin do?" Well, he'd wash that foil take-out container and put it in the recycle bin. That's what Jeff Corwin would do.

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