Necessary Knowledge

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This assessment was part of a several thousand page study on Pittsburgh at the turn of the century. One of the frequently occurring motifs of the Pittsburgh survey is a city coated in soot, dust, and grime.

Henry Plotkin

This grime was inescapable, from factories where workers were directly exposed, to homes where the dust settled inside the walls. The grime was the inevitable outcome of a city that was the steel capital of the world.

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Progressive Era reformers drew explicit connections between the wastes of industrialization and public health in ways that ranged from the graphic exposure of books like The Jungle , to the less-visible work of improving the kind of medical and municipal recordkeeping that we now take for granted. Bureaucratized recordkeeping, such as death certificates, were increasingly widespread by the Progressive Era thanks to advances in increased literacy, the emergence of professions, and the role of the state in controlling public health.

However, early recordkeeping was inconsistent, presenting issues for researchers. The Pittsburgh surveyors reported challenges accessing and making sense of municipal and corporate records. Even then, available records omitted pertinent information, or were illegible. Others investigating public sanitation records noted that while violations were often recorded, prosecutions were rarely initiated. This work was carried out under the charge of a local settlement house nurse named Anna Heldman, whose existing relationships with local families was viewed as a critical asset for data collection Wing, pp.

The surveyors found that there were significant income losses due to sickness from the contaminated rivers. This echoed a problem we continue to struggle with, which is that environmental pollution disproportionately impacts poor communities. But perhaps what the typhoid fever investigators did best was making records visible in ways that humanized the blandness of statistics.

To illustrate the entire year long death toll, the surveyors superimposed a line starting at the courthouse and ending near a filtration plant on the Allegheny River. The line represented an end to end body count of more than 7, citizens who had lost their life to typhoid fever, or according to their measurements, a death toll equivalent to almost 6 miles long. As the field work of the survey started in Butler, p. She grew up seeing the smokestacks along the Allegheny River, where a century later, a bridge was renamed in her honor on Earth Day.

She transformed the US environmental movement through the publication of a book that shook the country and exposed the hubris of unquestioned technology. There she summarized scientific research into information for the public. Before writing her most famous book, Silent Spring, Rachel Carson publish highly-regarded and wildly popular books about the ocean, making her a household name well before she turned her attention to pesticides.

Carson shined a spotlight on the indiscriminate applications of popular post-war insecticides like DDT, which was starting to show up in the food chains of insects, fish, birds, mammals, and eventually within the bodies of humans. A counterweight to corporate boosterism of better living through chemistry, Silent Spring painted a horrifying portrait of lifeless rivers that previously teemed with fish, silenced backyards that used to host busy bird feeders, and agricultural workers who fell in fields.

Carson showed that indiscriminate use of pesticides could not be isolated to a single area or species. Chemical toxins accumulated in the bodies of non-target species with profound consequences. A bird might die from DDT or its chemical cousins by eating contaminated worms, by ingesting DDT itself, or by starving to death as the insects it ate were wiped out during a spraying campaign.

Rachel Carson knew about the dangers of widespread pesticide applications for years. To write Silent Spring, Carson relied on her well-honed approaches of pursuing correspondence with field experts, reading staggering amounts of scientific literature, and working closely with librarians. Carson drew on everything from Audubon Club bird watcher reports to Congressional hearings to federal agency reviews to research studies in international journals of medicine.

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Carson was not the first person to raise the alarm about the danger of pesticides Carson, p. But what set Carson apart was her ability to synthesize many bureaucratic reports and scholarly scientific findings into a form that resonated with the public — and compelled regulatory action. She knew that the accusations she lodged against pesticide practices were incendiary, and she took enormous care in documenting all of her claims, insisting that the publisher include a fifty-page guide to her sources.

What happened to Rachel Carson next was a blueprint of attacks that have been replicated against researchers whose findings turn out to be very inconvenient to industries and their government enablers. When Silent Spring was published, corporate interests came for Carson with a viciousness that feels both dated and alarmingly contemporary at the same time.


She was castigated for her lack of an advanced degree, her suspicious love of animals, and for being just another hysterical spinster. Carson took care in her measured prose to note that she was not opposed to all pesticide use, but that her opposition was to the unrestrained way in which they were used with scant attention paid to existing safety studies. Eight years after Silent Spring was published, Richard Nixon signed a reorganization plan that created the Environmental Protection Agency, consolidating responsibility for dozens of existing environmental laws — including FIFRA — into one agency.

Much of this growth has been due to the expansion of hydraulic fracturing, better known as fracking. Fracking has been around for decades, but it was not widely deployed until the early s EPA, ; Congressional Research Service, a. Fracking is a process where large amounts of water, sand, and chemicals are injected into deep wells to fracture, or crack open, rock formations to release oil and gas deposits.

Many of the rural residents in the Marcellus Shale region have complained that fracking operations have contaminated their water supplies. Fracking poses documented danger to water supplies. But establishing a conclusive link to hold energy companies accountable is difficult because of an absence of industry and governmental records 5. The oil and gas industry claims there is minimal risk, because fracking happens in rock formations below any groundwater supplies.

However, there are many other routes to water contamination, including onsite chemical spills, failures in the underground pipes, and improper waste disposal. Contamination of well water, a common water supply in rural regions, is especially difficult to prove because there are often no baseline water purity records prior to fracking. Furthermore, many industries avoid full disclosure of their fracking chemicals by claiming confidential business information Congressional Research Service, b; EPA, Regulation depends on reliable record keeping.

Regulations mandate what records will be created in order to ensure health and safety. Industries with potentially serious environmental impact are often not regulated until there is significant public outcry. There is often spotty documentation, at best, on early environmental impacts of new technologies, leaving citizens without the information they need to to prove pollution claims. The problem is worsened by regulatory agencies that struggle with underfunding and an inability or unwillingness to exercise their enforcement powers. It is further compounded by politicians hostile to environmental regulation.

This is a huge issue because if you think fracking has contaminated your water supply, you have to start by making a complaint to the DEP, which then triggers an investigation. The findings of the state auditor are similar to what much of the scholarly literature on fracking says — that the dangers to water are known, but no one knows quite how widespread it is because state and industry record keeping is so inconsistent. Although the DEP has recently improved some of its online public records access — including crucial citizen complaint records — finding and making sense of the records is notoriously difficult.

Dissatisfied with the status quo, activists have filed numerous public records requests in order to assemble information in a manner far more accessible and comprehensible to the public. In each of these regional stories, reliable record keeping has been essential to documenting the links between pollution and polluters.

Pollution of air and water disproportionately affects poor communities and communities of color, and yet with all our knowledge about this reality, we have failed to embed the concept of care into the way we approach environmental information and record keeping. What does care look like in an environmental record keeping context? It looks like record keeping that recognizes that impacts to the environment are inseparable to the impacts on our bodies and communities. While I was preparing for this keynote, I ran across an intriguing example of what this looks like in a story from the Allegheny Front, a website dedicated to regional environmental journalism.

The story profiled a local summer youth employment program in which teenagers are working in the predominantly black neighborhood of Lincoln-Lemington on lead poisoning Holsopple, 7. The neighborhood has older housing stock which means a higher likelihood of lead paint, and like many cities with aging infrastructure, Pittsburgh is grappling with serious lead concerns in its water lines.

In , 7. The Allegheny County Council recently passed mandatory lead testing for one and two-year old children, and the law will go into effect on January 1 Deto, The students spent 3 days in Flint Michigan talking to activists and community stakeholders there. She noted that while there was much quantitative data, there was little qualitative detail.

Knocking on doors, clipboards in hand, these students filled in the care-based details that are all too often missing from records that rarely account for how our environments impact our lives. Preserving and making environmental information accessible is essential if we hope to bring any eventual accountability to power, because the legal and cultural context we live in requires documentary evidence in the form of trustworthy data and reliable records.

Methane has even more heat-trapping potential than carbon, and methane leaks are highly associated with fracking. Industry claims natural gas is a cleaner fuel than coal, but methane leaks undermine that claim. I often think about how many libraries have an uncomfortable inheritance of what the Gilded Age steel industry wrought on air and water, and on the bodies of its workers. Andrew Carnegie made his fortune from steel and he made it here in Pittsburgh, and it was his philanthropy to over a thousand communities that nearly doubled the amount of public libraries in the United States.

Environmental information is critical to our ability to meet the challenges that lie ahead, and I believe as information professionals we have an ethical obligation to incorporate environmental care in our professional practices. Should we rewrite our disaster plans to incorporate climate change? Should we put rooftop gardens and solar panels on top of our buildings?

Should we incorporate the environmental footprint of cloud storage into our contracts with digital preservation services? Ideally we would all answer Yes to them — and yet they avoid the critical question of environmental information. People arrive at an ethic of environmental justice through different routes, but at its core, it depends on cultivating a sense of care and duty for the places in which we live and work, and understanding how environmental degradation compounds existing injustices. To ensure that information is preserved so that it can be used by citizens for a safe and healthy environment is the opposite of passively keeping information — it is to assert that preservation of information, preservation of the earth, and preservation of public health, are very closely linked.

In some of those efforts, librarians and archivists played an active leadership role, while other efforts barely had any librarians or archivists present. Why was this? I suspect it is because for many of us, we do not have environmental justice incorporated in our sense of what it means to be an information professional. This information may be invisible to many of us most of the time, but if you like to breathe clean air and drink clean water, you should care very deeply about this.

That space is where we as information professionals most strongly bring our talents. Search my Subject Specializations: Select Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content. Necessary Knowledge Henry Plotkin Abstract This book takes on one of the big questions at the heart of the cognitive sciences — what knowledge do we possess at birth, and what do we learn along the way?

More This book takes on one of the big questions at the heart of the cognitive sciences — what knowledge do we possess at birth, and what do we learn along the way? Authors Affiliations are at time of print publication. Print Save Cite Email Share. Show Summary Details. Subscriber Login Email Address. Library Card.

Essential knowledge about necessary viewing

View: no detail some detail full detail. Chapter 1 Pervasive problems. Chapter 2 The advantages of hindsight. Chapter 3 Moving on. Chapter 4 Towards a solution: constraints on learning. Chapter 5 Developmental empiricism: old wine in new bottles. Chapter 6 Complex causal architectures. Chapter 7 Cognitive science, philosophy and the problem of unbounded culture.

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