Students, faculty, librarians and scientists gathered at Lauinger Library and the Reiss Science Building Feb. 18 and Feb. 19 to partake in datarescueDC, an attempt to preserve federal environmental data in the event that President Donald Trump’s administration deletes it.
The two-day event was organized by DataRefuge, a project aiming to seed, sort, harvest and store environmental statistics and information that scientists believe to be at risk of elimination under Trump’s new environmental policies.
Experts spoke on the subject and received further training prior to participating in Sunday’s amassing of data.
Assistant professor in the McCourt School of Public Policy Raphael Calel spoke on the shifting attitudes toward environmental issues found throughout American history.
Calel said the arts and literature, such as the influential novel, “Silent Spring” by Rachel Carson play a large role in molding public opinion and influencing the implementation of new federal environmental regulation.
“She painted an unforgettable picture of a world where birds had all died out and spring would come without birdsong,” Calel said. “Her book caused a national outcry and then, over the next decade, one book after another followed, building public awareness and a public movement for environmental issues.”
Calel also said citizen-driven movements have the potential to influence environmental legislation, drawing on the policies of the Nixon administration as an example.
“Nixon, who was no environmentalist, still felt like he couldn’t stand in the way of this movement. When he became president, he passed some of the most important environmental laws in the country’s history,” Calel said. “The Clean Air Act Amendment, the Clean Water Act Amendment, created the first enforceable water quality and air quality standards, and the list just goes on.”
Calel said that because of public opinion, environmental issues during the Nixon administration remained a high priority despite the numerous scandals and conflicts in which the country was involved.
“Remember that this was not a calm period in American history politically. It was the Vietnam War, Watergate, oil embargo, but environmental issues remained at the top of the legislative agenda because of sustained pressure from the public.”
Calel was disappointed at the United States’ diminishing role as a global leader in environmental policy as a result of regressive legislation and inaction. Calel said that, although victories have been made on a variety of issues, little progress has been achieved on other pressing matters, including rising atmospheric carbon emissions and carbon dioxide.
Calel said, that although in the recent past the public has prioritized economic growth over environmental protection, that trend has reversed.
“Since the recession, the polls have showed that the public favors economic growth over environmental protection. But in the last three years, that has flipped back again,” Calel said.
Calel said citizens have more power to influence change than what anyone would have imagined in the past.
“I just want to reiterate that we are not powerless. If anything, the problem is we are more powerful than our parents and grandparents ever imagined we would be,” Calel said.
Public Interest Technology Fellow at New America Denice Ross advocated for the project’s potential for democratizing data. Ross said she is dismayed at the federal government’s attitude toward the larger issue.
“I am a true believer in the power of data, and it breaks my heart seeing what’s happening right now at the federal level,” Ross said.
Ross further pointed to the conflicts that arise when citizens are left to collect data for themselves. Rose cited the example of post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans, where residents had to move from house -to-house to collect information about property conditions for aid purposes.
“It’s quite a burden on residents who are trying to rebuild their houses and their communities and their schools — to also have to collect data to help inform the recovery,” Ross said.
Ross said such situations can further reinforce socio-economic disparities.
“Those with greater resources and time and privileges to do this type of data collection have better data than neighborhoods where people are struggling more and don’t have the gift of extra time and resources,” Ross said.
Founding Director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Penn Program in the Environmental Humanities Bethany Wiggin said there are still weaknesses in current methods of data storage and presentation.
“Data has a social life, and the people who are appointed to make access to that data can also turn off the access to that data and make it go dark,” Wiggin said. “We thought, ‘it’s not just in the internet, and the internet’s got it.’ It could go away.”
During the weekend, partner events were also held in Boston, Boulder, Colo., Haverford, Pa. and at the University of New Hampshire.
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