An Environmentalist’s Responsibility

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Photo Credit: Treehugger.com

Today, I attended a sustainability workshop.  I walked in after signing in at the registration to pick up a bagel for breakfast.  On the table were plastic utensils, individually wrapped containers of cream cheese, Styrofoam cups and plates, various juices in plastic bottles, and my arch nemesis…bottled water.  My first instinct was to scream, but luckily I remained socially appropriate.

I listened during the meeting presentations and quietly posted to my Facebook and Twitter about my annoyance.  One of my friends said that Styrofoam and plastic at a sustainability workshop is “like bringing a concealed weapon to an anti-gun violence seminar. Come on now, they need to get their act together.”  Funny, but true.  And they did need to get their act together.

When it was time for Q&A, I voiced my concern, frustration and disappointment to the entire group.  The workshop organizer quickly scrambled to say that his organization was required to use the food supplier from the community center that the workshop was held in. A representative from the community center was in the audience and took responsibility for the unsustainable products saying it was “their fault.”

BUT I think it is the responsibility of the “sustainability” group who organized the workshop to work with whatever supplier to make sustainability events as…sustainable as possible. AND if that doesn’t work out, they should move to a new location with a supplier that’s more accommodating.  Think asking for pitchers of water and paper cups instead of plastic bottles, or if the center can provide reusable mugs instead of Styrofoam.  Simple changes, not rocket science.

Us environmentalists, sustainability supporters, renewable energy experts, Big Oil opponents, must always remember that we are ambassadors for the rest of the environmental community.  Bringing our thermoses to work, refusing plastic bags while shopping, bringing reusable bags to the grocery store and using Brita filters in our homes, all make an impression on our friends, relatives and coworkers.  We have an obligation as environmentalists to commit to these small changes, because if we don’t make the effort, who will?

Climate Change Education

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Below is my perspective on climate change education.  I gave this speech at the MADE CLEAR (Maryland and Delaware Climate Change Education, Assessment and Research) Climate Change Education Summit at the University of Maryland on September 19, 2011.  I felt honored to be one of four panelists, and the only undergraduate student, that spoke at the Summit.  I’ve included the YouTube video of my speech too.

Looking back on my childhood, I fondly remember watching the stages of butterfly metamorphosis in the first grade, catching and identifying insects in the fifth grade, and going on nature walks with my camera by eighth grade.  When I reached high school, I took AP Environmental Science, a class where we were able to test the water quality of Black River, the closest body of water to my school in Chester, New Jersey.  I do realize that unlike me, not every child growing up in the United States enjoys nerdy activities, like bird watching.  Can the appreciation that I have for the planet, which seemed to develop naturally, be taught to those who spent their childhoods inside playing video games, oblivious to the ecosystems in their own backyards?

My peers and I grew up in what seems to be the “Pre-Climate Change” generation.  Although climate change has been occurring since the Industrial Revolution, the idea of human impact on the environment did not saturate the media until the early 21st century.  The “Green Revolution” in America will certainly impact the curriculum of the next generation, but where does that leave students my age?  In my experiences at the University of Delaware, I have seen students manifesting the idea of “conspicuous consumption.”  At first glance, a student wearing a hemp necklace, Tom’s shoes and a floral skirt with Nalgeen and canvas bag in hand appears earth-friendly.  Ask that student how much he or she drives around campus, whether he or she consumes local food, or whether he or she pressures congressman to pass renewable energy policies and the answer may surprise you.

Although students my age seem to be coming a little late in the game to the environmental discussion, I have hope for our climate future because of the incredible children that I had the pleasure of meeting through my job at the Hunterdon County Parks Department Summer Nature Program.  Every weekday for eight weeks during the past two summers, I would arrive at Mountain Farm/Teetertown Preserve, to implement the one week program I developed for my third and fourth grade nature campers.

Educators must be discussing some form of climate change awareness, as my eight and nine year old campers are already familiar with “going green.”  My campers could identify our composting bin, were asking where the recycling bin was, and were proudly explaining the organic and locally grown foods that are a part of their diet.  Two summers ago, I discussed global warming, carbon dioxide emissions and the dwindling polar bear population with the campers.  We coupled this discussion with a sustainability game where we brainstormed ways to be energy efficient in each room of the house. The campers surprised me every week; already familiar with “squiggly” light bulbs, biodiesel (one camper recognized “French fries” as an alternative form of energy), and hybrid cars like the Toyota Prius and Honda Insight.

This past summer, I did an activity to illustrate the concept of river pollution flowing downstream.  I drew a river across ten pieces of paper and asked each camper to take a piece.  I told them that they had all become millionaires and could afford whatever house they wanted on the riverfront property.  As I’m sure you can imagine, the children had rather creative ideas: floating trampolines and zoos, roller coasters, helicopter landing pads, and rather eccentric pets.  I had one camper, however, named Adam who drew a simple yellow house, with a fenced in yard for his dog to play in and a swing set for his kids to play on.  When I asked him why he chose to draw his part of the river in such a way he told me, “I don’t want anything I don’t need.”

Now, while Adam is a rarity, it only takes one person with a great idea to make major, progressive changes in our society.  The earlier children learn about their responsibility as a steward of the planet, the more time they have to develop into concerned conservationists and serve as the voice of the future, which is why I am a strong advocate for environmental education being incorporated into the curriculum as early as possible.

Though bringing environmental aspects into the classroom has proven to work efficiently (at least with my campers), there is no better way to learn than experiencing something first hand.  The children at Nature Camp are learning about the environment not in a confined classroom but instead outdoors, which allows for them to be surrounded by the beauty of nature and understand the idea of conservation through their own personal experience.  It is incredibly exciting as a Nature Program Leader to see young girls wearing snakes as necklaces and watching campers’ smiles stretch wide when they find a skull inside an owl pellet.  Having a camper come up and ask if we can check on the swallow fledglings in the barn or having a swarm of children running at me and screaming how someone found a frog or an insect gives me hope for the future.  If these young children foster an appreciation for all things outdoors, they will learn to live sustainably as adults.

The idea of an interactive, hands-on approach to climate change education can be successful for my peers, those of us who were out of the elementary school system before the “greening” of the American media.  Through traveling to the ACPA (American College Personnel Association) Institute on Sustainability in Boulder, Colorado, this past June, I became familiar with Ohio State University’s Buckeye Metro Farm.  What started as an initiative by a few members of a student group has, become a model for climate change education.  Passionate students with a vision were lucky enough to obtain some land on campus property for three plots, totaling roughly an acre of farmland, and a number of grants and support from faculty and staff to make their dream a reality.  One of the plots is even headed towards certified organic.  The OSU Student Farm involves students from Metro High School and local organizations to help plant and sell their products at the Farmer’s Market.  The University’s Dining and Catering Services buys products to use in the campus dining halls.  The Horticulture and Crop Science department offers an organic gardening class taught on the Student Farm.  The department has even created a concentration within the Horticulture and Crop Science curriculum on sustainable food systems due to the Farm’s popularity among students.  It seems to be a well-oiled machine at this point that involves not only the students and the University, but the surrounding community.

The OSU Student Farm can serve as a model for climate change education at the college-level.  Not only are students literally digging in the dirt, they are giving back to the community and have the option of receiving college credit for their experience to boot.

In the end, I am hopeful for our future.  I believe that education is the key to progressing towards a greener American climate: environmentally, politically, and economically.  To quote Baba Dioum, a great ecologist: “For in the end, we will conserve only what we love.  We will love only what we understand.  We will understand only what we are taught.”

Brownfield Redevelopment — A Win-Win for the Economy and the Environment

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Hydrocarbon spillages, solvents, pesticides, heavy metals, tributyltins, and asbestos.  These are all typical pollutants found on Brownfield sites, an abandoned or underused industrial and commercial facility available for redevelopment, often times contaminated by the agents above.

The EPA highlights success stories from 16 states across the nation, but perhaps the most well-known area in the U.S. for Brownfield redevelopment is Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  Copious former steel mill sites have been cleaned up and turned into high-end residential and shopping centers and offices.  Obviously there is risk associated with buying contaminated land, which is why purchasers of Brownfield sites are protected under the federal Small Business Liability Relief and Brownfields Revitalization Act of 2002.  Relief from liability is provided under the Comprehension Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980, also known as CERCLA or Superfund.  The Act was amended to promote the cleanup and reuse of Brownfields, provide financial assistance for that cleanup, and reuse and to enhance State response programs.

The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection has an entire office dedicated to Brownfields, the Office of Brownfield Reuse, and offers up to 75% of Brownfield clean up costs through the Hazardous Discharge Site Remediation Fund.  Americans from coast to coast are developing on Brownfield sites, because of incentives like these and the environmental, social and economic benefits associated with redevelopment.

We learn at a very early age that to do our part to save the planet we must “reduce, reuse, recycle.”  Brownfield redevelopment is the best example of reusing to preserve the earth and its resources.  Not only does remediating a site eliminate contamination and health and safety hazards associated with that pollution, reusing a site increases the productivity of the land.  For every Brownfield acre redeveloped, a minimum of 4.5 acres would have been required had the same project been located in a Greenfield. A Greenfield is an area where there is no need to remodel or demolish an existing structure, so the project is not constrained by prior work.  By reusing buildings instead of building a new one, rural areas can be preserved, thus making air and water cleaner, providing more open space, and maintaining a high quality of life for locals.  Because Brownfield sites often have greater location efficiency than alternative development scenarios, a 32-57% reduction in vehicle miles traveled and air pollution emissions/greenhouse gases is associated with reused sites.  The same site comparisons showed a 47-62% reduction in stormwater runoff.  Different percentages in reduction account of regional variation in development and travel patterns.

It is easy to see the environmental benefits of reusing buildings and sites, but Brownfield redevelopment also offers social benefits.  Brownfield sites are often found in areas of low income.  Walking down the street and seeing abandoned lots and crumpling factory buildings is a constant reminder for residents of the environmental injustice taking place in their neighborhood.  EPA surveys have indicated a reduction in crime recently after the redevelopment of a site, after these eye sores become a source of pride for residents.  Brownfield redevelopment offers other social benefits as well.  With a Brownfield site comes an opportunity and a way to revitalize a region whether the catalyst for change is a new shopping mall, a park or perhaps a community center.

McDonald’s Restaurant heiress, Joan Kroc, has donated over $1.6 billion to the Salvation Army for Kroc Community Centers all over the nation, but only one Center will be built on a former landfill.  Over $70 million is being utilized for the remediation and construction of the Ray and Joan Kroc Community Center in Camden, New Jersey.  On the site of the former Harrison Avenue landfill, the Kroc Center will sprawl across 24 acres near the Delaware and Cooper Rivers as a 120,000 square feet facility.  The sand from bottom of the Delaware River is going on top of a landfill to reclaim the land and reclaim a quality of life for the people of Camden.

Camden is one of the poorest cities in the U.S., with a staggering 34% of the nearly 80,000 residents of the City of Camden at or below the poverty line. The new Center will offer hope to a city with 11.5% unemployment rate, by offering not only career and educational services, but child care for those who need it to jumpstart a degree or job.  The Kroc Center will provide aquatic programs, recreational programs, community services, and spiritual and character development for Camden residents.  Without the Salvation Army, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection and other key players who have pushed the efforts of Brownfield redevelopment, the Harrison Avenue landfill site would sit untouched and unproductive, instead of transforming into a sanctuary.  The positive impact of the Kroc Center will be felt by all Camden residents, creating over 200 jobs during construction and over 150 jobs during operation, and providing physical, spiritual and intellectual resources for years and years to come.

While the social benefits associated with Brownfield redevelopment, like the Kroc Community Center in Camden, are undeniable, so are the economic advantages.  Tax incentives and labor concentration are among the most valuable.  Reusing an existing building brings new jobs to and investments into the community.  Also, the building’s entire infrastructure is already in place.  The site already has access to transportation infrastructure; no new roads have to be built (and paid for), and purchasers of a Brownfield site do not have to pay to connect water, electricity or phone lines.  Furthermore, a study conducted by the EPA Brownfields Program concluded that residential property values increased between 2 and 3 percent once a nearby Brownfield was assessed or cleaned up.  The study also showed that remediating a Brownfield site can increase overall property values within a one mile radius by $0.5 to $1.5 million.

While many see an inverse relationship associated with environmental benefits and economic growth, Brownfield redevelopment proves to be a model for them both…and then some, with the promise of community revitalization to boot, even in the poorest of cities like Camden, New Jersey.

Don’t Trust the Label

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Stainless steel water bottles, reusable bags, and recycling are frequently associated with “going green” or “sustainability” in U.S. popular culture.  However, if asked to define sustainability, chances are, most Americans would falter.   At the Brundtland Commission of the United Nations in 1987, sustainable development was defined as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”  By the 2005 World Summit, it had been determined that sustainable development requires the collaboration of environmental, social and economic needs, known as the “three pillars” or the “triple bottom line” of sustainability.  The phrase, “going green” is now frowned upon by most sustainability advocates because of its emphasis on environmental sustainability and complete omission of the economic and social aspects.

The three pillars of sustainability are colloquially referred to as the three E’s: environment, economy, equity.  After attending the American College Personnel Association (ACPA) Institute on Sustainability in Boulder, Colorado, I learned ACPA describes sustainability as healthy environments, strong economies, and social justice.  Proponents of this interpretation disagree with the common phrase “people, profit, planet” and stress the difference between strong economies and economic growth.  Keith Edwards, Director of Campus Life at Macalester College, proposed that rapid economic growth leads to a cycle of decline, rise, and recession, whereas strong economies exhibit stability, fairness and security.  Only companies that are “too big to fail” have the means to capitalize on the economic highs and lows that come with rapid growth, leaving local business owners at an extreme disadvantage.  Supporting local businesses, especially local farmers, is arguably the most important step toward reducing human impact on the environment, which means that exponential economic growth should be scrutinized.

A term is considered “ambiguous” if vague by accident, but “equivocal” if vague by intent.  The question becomes to what extent are manufacturers able to take advantage of the enigmatic nature of the term ‘sustainability’ to effectively green wash their products?

In a heavily green washed society, we must look past the initial solution towards a solution that is truly beneficial for all involved.  For example, various cosmetics companies boast incorporating “natural” elements in their products.  Sure a seaweed mask sounds organic and earthy, but most transnational cosmetic companies use large machines that completely destroy the ocean floor as they obtain all of the seaweed in the area.  Pangea Organics, an ecocentric body care line, sources the seaweed for its masks from Nature Spirit Herbs in the Pacific Northwest.  These seaweed harvesters hand pick one in four seaweed plants within the area at a sustainable rate of harvest so that the kelp and other organisms can still feed and the ecosystem can still thrive.  Herein lies the issue with the ambiguity of sustainability: consumers must read the fine print.  Sourcing, with transportation and refrigeration costs (both economically and environmentally), contributes to an immense amount of our greenhouse gas emissions, once again showing the importance of local products.  The CEO and founder of Pangea Organics was given the opportunity to immensely expand the company to millions of potential new buyers, but declined the offer because Pangea Organics would no longer be able to source the ingredients for their cosmetics in a truly sustainable way, while still meeting consumer demand.  This business strategy exemplifies the importance of small, local businesses in a society on the cusp of a sustainable movement.

Many earth-conscious consumers look not only for natural cosmetics, but for food that is USDA certified organic.  While this seems initially sustainable, it is important to consider the cost of the USDA organic certification.  In the United States, multi-million dollar agribusinesses comprise only 2.5% of the number of American farms, but make 59% of the total profit of the agricultural sector of the economy (Source: U.S. Department of Agriculture, National Agricultural Statistics Service, 2007 Census of Agriculture, Vol. 1).  In other words, the majority of the farms in the United States are small farms that make less than $1,000 a year and cannot afford to officially certify their products as organic, even if they are not using pesticides or fertilizers.  USDA Organic certification is a lengthy and expensive process; full of inspections, reports, applicant files, and interviews that are reviewed to ensure compliance with the National Organic Program.  Being environmentally informed is going beyond reading the label, it is visiting local farmers markets, participating in community gardens, and supporting urban farming.

I interpret sustainability as a fusion of environmentalism and humanitarianism that provides a foundation for community renewal.  When sustainability is viewed not as a privilege or an obstacle, but as an opportunity for growth, community ties are strengthened, local economies thrive, and ecosystems are preserved for generations to come.

I blog for MEN