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News Front Page Cafe with McKay Jenkins

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Restoring Delaware's watersheds with journalism and craft brew
McKay Jenkins speaks at Front Page Cafe.

​Dr. McKay Jenkins leads a Front Page Cafe at the Dogfish Head Craft Brewery through Delaware's environmental landscape. Photo by Linda H. Russell.

By Sophia Small
Journalism Program writer

Monarch butterflies are going extinct, waste is being dumped into rivers and 80 percent of East Coast forests are gone. Amid a bleak environmental landscape and future, what can journalism, and everyday citizen-scientists, do to conserve a healthy environment?

At a recent Front Page Cafe at the Dogfish Head Craft Brewery in Milton, McKay Jenkins, the Cornelius Tilghman Professor of Journalism, English and Environmental Humanities at UD, joined concerned citizens from a region with plenty of its own environmental difficulties — southern Delaware — to discuss challenges, solutions and how to adapt everyday life to a changing environment.

Jenkins began his talk, titled "The Environmental Humanities: Reawakening the Imagination, Healing our Communities, and Restoring our Watersheds," with an overview of how America unwittingly drifted into its modern environmental crisis. As he explained, the building of highways for homeland security after World War II led to the "unintended consequences" of today, disrupting the previous geography of cities and farms with the introduction of suburbia, equipped with its standard houses and fresh, fertilized lawns. Houses "boomed" everywhere across the East Coast, and, as many joked, "East Coast farms don't grow food; now they grow houses." The American landscape was converted from thick forests into houses and malls.

Consumers often don't know what they're consuming

And the malls, of course, had lots of products, exacting their own toll on human and environmental health. Many products are made with untested chemicals and furnished with slow-to-degrade plastics, often leaving consumers blind to the products they purchase. As Jenkins has explored in his book, "Contamination," Americans have since witnessed unprecedented chemical concentrations in their bodies, as well as a correlating rise in cancer rates.

He went on to discuss the American diet and the accompanying changes in farming, the subject of his most recent book, "Food Fight: GMOs and the Future of the American Diet." The desire for food that is fast and cheap has put intense pressures on farm productivity, leading to the loss of 4 million small family farms replaced by corporate industrial farms growing wheat, corn and soybeans — a large percentage of which feeds the billions of animals consumed per year. High-calorie, low-nutrient food has replaced the previous selections of nutritious foods. Jenkins cited consequences such as "skyrocketing" rates of obesity, diabetes and heart disease.

He voiced concerns about the environmental condition of Delaware and surrounding areas. The industrial farm waste that is dumped into rivers in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, encompassing a range of states from New York to Delaware to Virginia, is highly contaminated. Jenkins showed photos of the damage that was visible even from outer space, such as "dead zones" in the Chesapeake Bay. While everyone has heard of Amazon deforestation, the East Coast of the United States is about 80 percent deforested, leaving few barriers to absorb and block industrial waste draining into the bay.

Those forests left are fragmented and unable support a healthy system. Invasive species such as Japanese honeysuckle, Oriental bittersweet, porcelain berry and mile-a-minute all contribute to the forest deterioration.  Moreover, southern Delaware faces other sources of water contamination, such as leaking septic tanks, and is vulnerable to rising sea levels. 

Journalism is key to solving environmental issues
McKay Jenkins describes bringing his classes out into the world.

Dr. McKay Jenkins routinely takes his classes out of the classroom and into the world. "Everybody likes to get their hands dirty," Jenkins said. Photo by UD Journalism.

At one point, an audience member asked: "Do you ever encourage students to report on what's working?" According to Jenkins, an important part of solving environmental issues involves spreading the word and educating people about both the good and the bad.

To maximize conservation efforts and educate students and communities about these issues, Jenkins has played a major role in bridging the humanities with environmental studies. In his classes, students are taught to appreciate and understand the environment and its "wisdom." After learning about problems facing the environment and why it's worth conserving, they are taken to places such as organic farms, White Clay Creek State Park and on canoe trips on the Susquehanna River to further apply what they've learned.

"Everybody likes to get their hands dirty," Jenkins said.

Jenkins is also a certified "Master Naturalist" in Maryland, a program that is not yet available in Delaware – but thanks to Jenkins, it will be soon. He and his colleagues and UD and the Delaware Nature Society are developing a statewide Master Naturalist training program that will be designed to teach hundreds of Delaware citizens a year in ecological knowledge and environmental restoration work. Anyone interested in learning more about this program can email him directly at mckay@udel.edu.

The event, which was the Journalism Program's first on-the-road Front Page Cafe, was co-sponsored by the Department of English and the Program and the Faculty Senate Cultural Activities and Public Events committee. Front Page Café is also supported by  the Delaware Humanities, a state program of the National Endowment for the Humanities. The Journalism Program thanks The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation for its generous support and the Pulitzer Prizes for their partnership.

Front Page Cafes are always free and open to the public. If you'd like to be notified of future Journalism programs, send a note to journalism@udel.edu.

Story published on 1/29/2019 ; last modified on
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​Dr. McKay Jenkins leads a Front Page Cafe on how we can tackle Delaware's environmental challenges. The evening brought a full house to Dogfish Head Craft Brewery in Milton.

1/29/2019
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Front Page Cafe with McKay Jenkins
 
  • The Journalism Program
  • 207 Memorial Hall
  • University of Delaware
  • Newark, DE 19716, USA
  • 302-831-3870
  • journalism@udel.edu