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A conversation with Tim Faulkner, who covered the “environmental beat” for a decade before stepping off the treadmill

Photo courtesy of Tim Faulkner

Tim Faulkner, former reporter with ecoRI News, stepped away from his job recently after a decade covering the environmental beat.

By Richard Asinof
Posted 5/10/21
A conversation with Tim Faulkner, former reporter with ecoRI News, who stepped away from his job after a decade of covering the environmental beat, captures what is often missing from the daily grind of journalism – and its connection to the lives of not-so-quiet desperation that we live.
What is the position of the new merged entity between Lifespan [including Coastal Medical], Care New England, and Brown] on the proposal to build the proposed facility to burn medical waste in West Warwick, using a controversial technology? Does the Wexford Innovation Center bear any responsibility to invest in the cleanup of Allens Avenue in Providence and support the community-led effort to plant 5,000 trees in five years? Will Gov. McKee speak up about plans by Sea 3 to expand its facility in the Port of Providence? When will the Rhode Island Foundation make racial justice around climate threats a top priority for investment?
The recent visit of Vice President Kamala Harris to Rhode Island began with a stop at Books on the Square, a local independent bookstore on the East Side, where she was joined by U.S. Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo and Gov. Dan McKee – a frequent browsing place for ConvergenceRI.
Among the last books purchased there were Mill Town: Reckoning with What Remains, by Kerri Arsenault, and Floating Coast: An Environmental History of the Bering Strait, by Bathsheba Demuth, an environmental historian at Brown. The books were recommended by Rebecca Altman, a Rhode Island writer who is working on a book about the history of plastics.
The three women writers – Arsenault, Demuth, and Altman – represent important voices charting what is happening to our world, creating a missing narrative. They are books that hopefully will find their way onto the night tables not only of Vice President Harris but also Sec. Raimondo and Gov. McKee.
The stories told by Arsenault, Demuth and Altman have surprising resonance to our lives in Rhode Island: Arsenault’s family journeyed through Central Falls and Woonsocket before finding a home in Maine where a paper factory dominated and destroyed the town and the river that ran through it; Demuth describes the search for energy and wealth that began with whalers from New England ports in the slaughter of bowhead whales; and Altman’s work describers our intimate connection to plastics in a throwaway society.
One more under the radar screen moment: Much ado was made of the fact that the visiting pool reporters had ordered meals from Geoff’s during the Vice President’s visit. A more fascinating story, perhaps, was the fact that Andrew Harnik, the AP photographer on the visit, is the son of Peter Harnik, one of the founding members of Environmental Action, the group that launched Earth Day. Peter just published his history of the rails-to-trails movement in the U.S., entitled “From Rails to Trails: The Making of America’s Active Transportation Network.”

BARRINGTON – Finding the time to talk, in person, reporter to reporter, was always a luxury before the pandemic struck, often captured in brief exchanges in between deadlines, short interludes, much like a Kramer wave from Seinfeld, before moving onto the next assignment.

Now, when all our conversations seem to occur in a socially distant fashion, on Zoom or on Twitter, the opportunity to engage in an open-ended talk, with no specific agenda, is like the unexpected joy of finding a rare plant blooming in nearby woodlands, oblivious to our all-too-busy lives that are always consumed with urgency.

Recently, ConvergenceRI got a chance to walk and talk with Tim Faulkner, while slowly traversing a stretch of the East Bay Bike Path, the pace determined by my limited ability to walk, my stability slowing improving. Faulkner, one of the co-founders of the Barrington Farm School and long-time reporter for ecoRI News, had recently stepped away from the grind of his job after more than a decade covering the “environmental beat” in Rhode Island.

In a breaking news landscape and the unrelenting breaking news cycle that always moves from crisis to crisis to crisis, the knowledge and history – and wisdom – that Faulkner carries with him is, in ConvergenceRI’s opinion, an immense, if untapped, resource.

Such knowledge, unfortunately, does not appear to have much value in today’s political currency, despite the fact that there has been no respite from the challenges Rhode Island faces on the environmental front.

The threats include: A planned expansion of fossil fuel infrastructure by Sea 3 at the Port of Providence; efforts by Sun Pacific to build a facility to burn medical waste using an unproven technology; a surge in microplastics found in our air, our food chain, in our rivers and coastal waters, even in our own bodies; and, of course, the continued climate crisis disrupting any future hope of economic prosperity.

In response, citizens and legislators – and even R.I. Attorney General Peter Neronha, serving as the state’s public health advocate – are finding themselves on the front lines of regulatory battles, hoping that the R.I. General Assembly and governmental agencies do the right thing.

Without environmental reporting providing a counter-narrative, how would we know what was happening to the world we inhabit?

The irony that we were having the conversation while walking along the East Bay Bike Path, one of the most low-cost, innovative investments ever made in improving the quality of life in the Ocean State, at a time when the Governor had convened a Facebook community discussion to explore what 2030 will look like, was not lost on either of us.

Here is what hopefully will be an evolving series of conversations with Faulkner, talking about how the narrative in our lives is shaped by reporting on the world and sea around us in Rhode Island.

ConvergenceRI: How difficult has it been for you to step off the treadmill of news reporting? Is there an urge to jump back on the daily routine of reporting?
FAULKNER: It’s been easy in the sense that I don’t miss the stress of deadlines. But I also feel I haven’t fully stepped off. The writing continues as I complete unfinished stories and begin new ones, but at a deliberate pace that allows room for research and reflection.

ConvergenceRI: Having covered the “environment” for 11 years at ecoRI News, what do you recall as the most important stories you wrote?
FAULKNER: That’s a hard question. I recall a survey a couple of decades ago where Rhode Islanders said their top issue was protecting open space. I believe ecoRI News taps into the sentiment. At its surface, this wish to preserve natural spaces and protect the state’s unique environmental assets is a longing to preserve something tangible in a small place that is dwindling due to market forces and unchecked development. It’s a dynamic playing out around the world, but one that relies on local reporting to explore the dynamic.

The bad news is that we environmental writers are chronicling the decline of open space and environmental protections rather than advancing public discourse about solutions and progress.

ConvergenceRI: How has the environmental “beat” changed in the last decade?
FAULKNER: The beat has changed a lot. Ten years ago it was all planning and aspirations and meetings about how to address the climate crisis, and expand renewable energy. The big stories back then were beach cleanups and ribbon cuttings for small solar arrays. Issues like equity were barely discussed and terms like environmental justice didn’t exist.

Now the renewable energy revolution is underway. A big, new industry – offshore wind – is just getting started in the region and a wholesale transformation in energy and transportation is underway. As are efforts to adapt to a more destructive climate in a just way. There will be lots of infrastructure changes ahead. Roads, buildings, sewer, and waterfronts.

It’s a good time to be an engineer. And, it creates a massive workload for environmental reporters. Unfortunately, a lot of important municipal stories, like solar siting and controversial developments that take time to report will likely suffer.

ConvergenceRI: Having just celebrated the 51st anniversary of Earth Day, what do you think needs to change about what has become an annual holiday featuring clean-ups?
FAULKNER: Every day, of course, is Earth Day. The anniversary offers school lessons and serves as a reminder of environment struggles. But I’m not sure what needs to change to make it relevant and impactful. Maybe they should rename it “Easy-Money-Beats-the-Environment-Every-Time Day.” Something that recognizes how short-term incentives are destroying the environment while promoting the notion that investing in the environment pays dividends much greater than the quick-buck system we have now.

ConvergenceRI: How has your involvement with the Barrington Farm School [a nonprofit group that saved a working farm from redevelopment] changed your perspective about people’s relationship with food?
FAULKNER: People are recognizing that local food is connected to healthy eating. They still want the local, conventionally grown corn and tomatoes, but there is growing desire for organically grown greens and other produce that is tied to the place where they live.

People also want to connect with the process of planting food, growing and making compost to keep the cycle going. We are lucky to have a place where we can offer that to people of all ages and backgrounds. But there is still too much food inequity. And we need to figure out how to share that connection to food with a broader audience.

ConvergenceRI: There are new research studies about the ubiquitous nature of plastics in our world – particularly microplastics – in our rivers, in our oceans, in fish, in ourselves. There is even a new term to describe it: the “plastisphere.” Does it require a new focus of environmental reporting to cover it?
FAULKNER: Yes. It’s all part of the sixth extinction [a concept coined by Elizabeth Kolbert in her 2014 book of the same name] and how we are poisoning ourselves. We know the causes: the chemicals, plastics, pollutants, and the fossil fuel industry that manufactures them. It’s getting mainstream attention, but I guess the reporting needs to spend more time on the powerful forces that shape the counter-narrative.

J. Timmons Roberts at Brown University is doing that and it seems like that effort is gaining traction.

ConvergenceRI: In covering environmental news, it often requires a reporter to get deep into the weeds: reading government reports, attending meetings, analyzing pages of testimony about arcane topics, and then trying to translate that into readable prose. How did you approach those kinds of stories?
FAULKNER: That’s a great question and one of the main reasons I stepped back from reporting. So, I’m hoping you can tell me the answer. Can you check back with me in a year?

ConvergenceRI: We recently took a walk along the East Bay Bike Path in Barrington, which is one of the busiest bikepaths in the region. Now that the state, under the guidance of the Rhode Island Foundation, is considering how best to spend some $1 billion in discretionary income from the American Rescue Plan, how does something like an innovative bikepath emerge as a project worthy of investment?
FAULKNER: Transportation is an area I enjoy writing about but covered less in recent years as other sectors took off. But I expect new modes of transportation will challenge the hegemony of the standard automobile, thanks in large part to battery power.

Autonomous vehicles, hybrid bikes, scooters and skateboards are gaining popularity and acceptance, so having “roads” to accommodate these emerging transit options could really bring about major environmental and health benefits. I’m not sure what role, if any, the R.I. Department of Transportation should play in the effort. I don’t like to bash state agencies, but DOT is criticized by just about everyone who works with them.

ConvergenceRI: How important is storytelling in the art of environmental reporting?
FAULKNER: It’s everything. A compelling story drives change more than any other type of reporting. I believe it’s what most reporters strive for, but storytelling is so hard to achieve because it requires a lot of time, and time is scarce in the news business and news cycle. The good news is there are more and faster ways to tell powerful stories, through print, video, audio, and graphics.

Thanks to the Internet, it’s easy for stories to be told and shared. And issue-focused news websites like ConvergenceRI and ecoRI News are ideal platforms for bringing local, in-depth stories to a captive audience.

ConvergenceRI: What haven’t I asked, should I have asked, that you would like to talk about?
FAULKNER: It’s not really a question, but in order for journalism to thrive and stand out from corporate-advocacy news, there needs to be broadly accepted standards, principles, and tenets for reporters and journalists. And something that holds them accountable when they stray from those standards. I’m not sure how that’s accomplished. But, at the very least, the world needs more trained editors to guide, mentor, and teach reporters.


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