Miami According to Helvarg

January 15, 2012



SEJ declared an invasive species by South Beach club owners


MIAMI — Environmental journalists are only the latest invasives to spread across south Florida, threatening native species including slash grass, poisonwood, mosquitoes and real-estate agents. This raises one of those complex questions we as reporters are forced to grapple with: is sea-level rise that may soon overwhelm Florida a problem or a solution? Things are so exotic here I encountered my first endangered species at the airport — Beth Daley, a newspaper reporter. At one point Occupy Miami protesters appeared across from the Intercontinental Hotel, where I figured some rich people must be staying. As it turned out it was just a bunch of U.S. and Latin journalists trying to imitate the fabulous Miami lifestyle of a Gloria Estefan or a Jeff Burnside.

The welcome dinner speakers’ roster Wednesday included Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar, who illustrated the Obama administration’s commitment to conserving energy with his low-impact talk that was also an example of recycling. Taking on the role of Jerry Springer, Jeff got five Cousteaus to appear on stage together for the first time. Jean-Michel handed batons to the younger generation and to Jeff’s obvious discomfort they failed to hit each other with them. I can understand the anti-GMO banner at the protest rally as the Cousteaus are obviously a genetic experiment gone right. Not to say they’re unusually attractive, but Florida’s last flamingo was reported to have fled the state shortly after their appearance. There was also a live feed from Antarctica that was cool, though the easiest way to experience climate variability was to walk into the hotel, where the air conditioning was calibrated to stun manatees.

Carl Hiaasen was a hoot (and wrote Hoot, too!), though I’d have to disagree with his claim that an Everglades python could take down presidential candidate Michele Bachmann. Between those two invasives, I’d fear for the snake.

Thursday’s investigative field trips included scuba diving, sport fishing, shark tagging and riding around in airboats. I opted to study the impact of humidity on a highly chlorinated body of water from my poolside recliner. Luckily my roommate Bill returned from his tour jazzed at Miami’s garbage-to-energy plant. Thank goodness there are a few enviro-journalists who remember that sometimes you just have to stop working and have some fun by visiting a landfill or toxic waste dump or analyzing an EPA spreadsheet.

Thursday evening I got to see predatory mammalian behavior, watching reporters cruise the exhibition hall for pens and notebooks before hitting the hospitality suites for booze and food. With some 1,000 attendees this year, the Exhibition Hall had everyone from the Sierra Club to the American Petroleum Institute, Texas Tech (host of next year’s conference/dust storm) and, no bull, the Fertilizer Institute.

Next morning at 7:00 a.m. (ouch) our conference co-chair launched the panels, what he called the “basic meat and potatoes,” of an SEJ conference — though these were more fish and chips. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Dr. Jane Lubchenco reported oceans are 30 percent more acidic than a century ago. Keeping it acidic, an AP reporter asked why she was such a lousy communicator, to which she responded with a snappy 12-minute rejoinder. In honor of the “Fish Fight” follow-up session, the hotel kept the temperature set to assure the fish wouldn’t defrost. There was also some talk of depletion of forage fish like the sardine and the anchovy, though I can’t see them becoming a big story. In keeping with our ocean theme, lunch bags provided by the hotel also maintained the same ratio of plastic to food as there is plastic to phytoplankton in the Pacific gyre.

Friday’s SEJ annual meeting included 15 board members seated behind a long red table and an election in which three candidates successfully ran for three positions. Apparently the reason the Cubans cancelled the post-conference trip to the island is they thought we were mocking their Politburo.

Friday night’s network dinners were great except for “Science, Denial & Global Warming,” as half those who signed up didn’t think it was really happening.

Saturday’s sessions were all good. I learned, for example, that the U.S. Congress is very concerned that if Cuba starts drilling for oil off Florida, why can’t we? The afternoon mini-tours included kayaking near the proposed port dredge site, though I thought a wider range of perspectives might have included a Jet-Ski rental option. Others got to tour the Golden Shadow, a 219-foot yacht/research vessel run by a Saudi Prince with its own nine-passenger float plane and ... I’m sorry, why exactly did Occupy Miami target the low-paid journalists?

Saturday night started at Eden, a South Beach restaurant where we got to eat tasty sustainable seafood while squeezed together like sardines, I mean forage fish. I think the panel of ocean experts standing up front might have been talking about marine noise pollution but I couldn’t really hear.

From there, we headed over to the eco-fashion show at Setai Hotel club. The bartender told me they only use sugar from Mauritius (off East Africa) in their mojitos. I assume this is to protest the environmental impacts of Florida sugar. I have to admit it was the best $21 mojito I ever drank. After the SEJ Awards, a string of models sashayed down the catwalk through the palms, pillars and pools wearing heels adapted for sea-level rise and eco-fashions that minimized the use of cloth. Still I had to wonder if the silver metal halter and platter-sized collar on the bald 6’2”, bat-winged model had come from a mine using voluntary or mandatory mechanisms for environmental protection. After Mark Schleifstein and Dan Fagin did their own stroll down the catwalk, we did a quick retreat to the beach before the Tony Montana look-alikes in the VIP couch zones got the wrong idea.

Of course there’s nothing to end a night in South Beach like an 8:30 a.m. writers session at Fairchild Tropical Botanic Gardens, where last winter’s freeze killed all the invasive iguanas, which fell out of their trees like over-ripe green-skinned mangoes. Now I understand that Carl Hiaasen’s books are actually narrative non-fiction.

But the bottom line is the SEJ conference wasn’t just about the glitter, glamor and ocean sports of south Florida. It’s about dedicated journalists educating citizens on some of the most serious and challenging issues facing the planet today. Proof is that next year’s conference is in Lubbock, Texas. Lubbock of course is the home of Buddy Holly, prairie dogs, Texas Tech and Flat. This year Moon over Miami. Next year Moo over Lubbock.

David Helvarg is an author and longtime SEJ gadfly who’s just released Blue Frontier — Dispatches from America’s Ocean Wilderness, as an updated 10th anniversary edition e-book (which sounds better than online, out-of-print paperback).

* From the quarterly newsletter SEJournal, Winter 2011-12. Each new issue of SEJournal is available to members and subscribers only; find subscription information here or learn how to join SEJ. Past issues are archived for the public here.

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