Sunday, May 9, 2010

My (professional) life, ungagged

Nothing is ever totally bad:  Deepwater Horizon has been an unprecedented tragedy, and yet it will go down in history as one of America's great educational turning points.  I describe how and why in the paragraphs below, and this has NOTHING to do with blow-out preventers, by the way.  :-) 

People from all walks of life frequently ask me, "Why do so many American businesses fail to comply with environmental laws?"  (They ask this as a general question, not with respect to BP in particular). 

One of the answers is simply this:  because their personnel haven't been adequately educated as to why compliance is necessary and, furthermore, obviously they can't be trained to put knowledge into practice if that knowledge has NOT been imparted to them in the first place. 

And why haven't they been properly educated and trained?  In part, because a lot of the information upon which the training should be based is off-limits to "for-profit" educators like myself.  "Profit" in my case means the generation of my self-employment salary which probably does not exceed that of many "nonprofit" skilled workers, but legally I'm still classified as "for profit". 

Unlike the public school system as well as both public and private universities, "fair use" protections under U.S. copyright law are NOT extended to us (section of 17 U.S.C. 107 reproduced below; underline mine). 

If we reproduce copyrighted content and other forms of intellectual property as we teach other people about environmental stewardship (and how else do you teach people but by providing them with information??), we're breaking the law and leaving ourselves wide open to career-destroying litigation.  I have been teaching principles of environmental management part time for about a decade now, but I do so in much-reduced capacity because of exactly this legal situation: in many situations, I can't tell my students what's REALLY going on because I can't communicate any illustrations that were originated by others.   (I do self-generate my own content, but there are critical limits as to what I can muster as just one person). 

The fact that we "for-profit" educators operate under an effective gag order might not be so bad, except that WE ARE THE ONLY ONES with the depth of practical experience needed to conduct the type of teaching to which I refer.  Universities don't do this - it's not their mandate and they are correspondingly not equipped to do it; they lack the degree of industrial immersion upon which effective environmental management training must be predicated.  The ability to teach this stuff effectively springs mostly from real-world experience and empirical wisdom, which does not come from books or professorial discourses or the Code of Federal Regulations.  It comes from the people in the trenches, not the people ensconced in the ivory towers and trapped behind desks in the bureaucracies. 

So THEY are not equipped to do it, and WE are not allowed to do it, which means that almost NOBODY has been in a position to really do it the way I think it ought to be done.  Voila --> one significant contributing factor to our situation of persistent environmental ignorance.

But Deepwater Horizon is changing that.  Never before in our history have we had the degree of practical environmental response information-sharing that is happening right now.  And guess what??  Most of it is originating with the United States federal government, and therein lies the holy grail of intellectual freedom:

(Courtesy Wikipedia)
There are THOUSANDS of Coast Guard, Navy, EPA, and countless other regulatory agency personnel involved in Deepwater's spill response, and darned near every one of them carries a ten megapixel camera, either on behalf of their employer and/or for personal use.   We had a trickle of public information originating with NOAA and other agencies during and after Valdez, but the internet did not exist back then, so we had NOTHING like what is being produced now!! 
(Courtesy US Navy)

A lot of those front-line regulatory personnel are Gen X and younger, who cut their teeth on YouTube, Twitter, and Blogger.  They don't need to be told how to communicate across the internet - the production of professional-quality images and journalistic content is as natural to them as breathing.  They are doing it well, and doing it thoroughly.

(Courtesy US Navy)

And as for me, I've won the intellectual property lottery.  Every cloud has that proverbial silver lining.  I and people like me are FINALLY going to be able to show our students more of what happens in the real world without fear of infringement and legal reprisal.  My main challenge now is in cataloging and crediting this incredible, unrestricted information windfall.

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