The last Chapter of Oil is the Color of my Skin

It is curious that physical courage should be so common in the world and moral courage so rare.
Mark Twain

Your life affects those around you

The chronicle Oil is the Color of my Skin, started with out of pure curiosity. I wanted to know how much the American consumer knows about oil. Oil is the most valuable resource in the world. Almost everything we use or do can be traced back to it. As a consumer myself, I have long to wonder where oil comes from. My venture outside to a local gas station became one of my last efforts to get answers from ordinary citizens like myself, in what seemed to be the most appropriate place; a gas station.

My journey to finding answers began in a BP gas station on 128th street. I spent the afternoon asking pedestrians the same question over and over again. Do you where oil comes from? I became frustrated when most of them replied “I don’t know” or another common answer was the “Middle East.”  My blog Oil is the Color of my Skin intended to address common misconceptions that oil only comes from the Middle East. I understand how the idea of oil coming from places other the Middle East can be quite hard to grasp, as the American media projects the idea that oil only comes this particular region. This blog breaks the barriers between what American consumers may have heard on the news and the other side of the story. Oil is the Color of my Skin, reveals that oil comes from more than just the Middle East, but from places all around the world. Tracing oil back to its origins landed us in two different continents and in seven different countries. We discovered that oil comes from the black markets of Guatemala and Belize, the war zones of Colombia and the Niger Delta, the Amazon in Ecuador, and poverty stricken areas in Angola.

The idea behind following the oil trail and telling the stories of people who have been affected by oil development was to bring consciousness to the American consumer. The problem is that the American culture is one that encourages consumerism. This has blinded Americans about how the way we live our lives affects others around us. We often see the clothes and not the labor that went into making the shirt or Nike sneakers. We see only the oil and not the thousands of indigenous peoples that are displaced each year because oil was found in their communities.

This question about oil became such a profound part of my life.  This summer I had the opportunity to witness what oil development is doing to the indigenous Secoya community in the Amazon jungle. My internship with Esperanza International was over two months period and during that time I never saw so much devastation. Oil companies left oil pits that made the land infertile to grow crops and rows of empty houses of people dying off from cancer. The oil companies replaced trees with oil pipes and were not held accountable for the leaks that ran through the nearby river. The same rivers where people washed their clothes, took baths, and went fishing.

For me this was more than just an unfortunate situation for the Secoya, but it highlights one of our greatest faults. American uses more oil than any other place in the world, even China that is twice its size. Yet we do not realize how the way we live our lives affects those around us. The first problem is the way that we perceive people that are in oil rich areas. We consider these people as burdens that are standing in our way of getting what we really want.  It is this kind of idea that led to inequalities and has caused oil to be more valuable than people’s lives. Prime examples of this are the Afro-Colombian and Nigerian in the Niger Delta, which proves that the notions of human rights exclude these groups of people. Oil is the color of my skin points out that no one’s life should be valued over any other.

The second problem is that Americans have come to just accept things, as the way they are. Part of the reason behind this that we feel we have no ability to change them, but we do. Oil is the Color of my skin encourages a more conscious lifestyle, by letting people know about information that the media never reports on. Oil towns and the devastation that it causes will probably never be shown the news, but it is up to you to do your own research. I encourage you take steps to find out information that the media might not be telling us because you should know the truth.

The most important thing that I want you take away from this blog is that change is possible and little changes do make a difference. I am not asking you to get rid of anything that requires oil, but to determine what a change might mean for you. I could be riding a bike to a grocery store that is three blocks away instead of taking a car or turning of your lights every time you leave. Because small changes do matter and communities a thousand of miles away depend on it.


The Nigerian Pirate Story

Pirates in the Niger Delta fight for the oil wealth to be returned to their communities

Pirates in the Niger Delta have been called everything from a “menace” to “terrorist. Nevertheless, the media only presents one side to the story.  So far this year, the area surrounding the Niger Delta has had a record amount of twenty pirate attacks and eight cases of hijacked ships. The increase of piracy has been attributed to the rise of militant groups in the area known as the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND). Since its establishment in 2006, MEND has been responsible for attacks on oil pipelines and kidnappings. These criminal activities have reduced oil output in the Niger Delta by roughly one-third. The disruption of the oil industry is part of MEND’s overall objective, which is to gain complete control of the oil wealth that people of the oil Delta claim they have been robbed of.

Since the oil boom in the 1970’s, Nigeria’s economy has come to be highly dependent on oil. The United States is the nation’s biggest oil importer, as it supplies over 8% of U.S. oil imports, nearly half of Nigeria’s daily oil production. In 2008, Nigeria made more than thirty-eight billion dollars from trading with the United States alone. According to the Economic Intelligence Unit (EIU), the future looks bright for Nigeria’s economy. It is expected to grow at an average range of 3.5% in the next five years.

Map of location of the Niger Delta

Yet for the people in the Niger Delta where twenty percent of Nigeria’s oil deposits are located, there are no signs of progress. Instead there are signs of retrogression. Oil companies in the area have not brought jobs or money to the communities in the Niger Delta. In fact about 66% of the population now falls below the poverty line of about a dollar a day, compared to 43% in 1985. There is an increased amount of environmental degradation, due to the Nigerian’s government’s failure to regulate foreign oil industries.  As many as 546 million gallons of oil have spilled into the Niger Delta over the last five decades. The increase in oil production has resulted in riverbank erosion, frequent gas flares, and deforestation. as production gets under way, Farms and sacred lands are either acquired for oil and gas development or polluted.

Oil pipes are close to local communities and have caused detrimental effects on the environment

The increase of piracy in present-day Nigeria results from the frustration of Nigeria with the oil companies. One of the main contributions of this is unemployment. Because oil companies hire only a small percentage of people in the Niger Delta, thousands are left without work. Environmental pollutions have also contributed to the unemployment, as fishermen can no longer find fish in heavily polluted areas.  Much of the supporters of the MEND also attribute problems to the Nigerian government’s failure to place regulation on foreign oil companies. Past dictatorships have granted control of Nigeria’s oil deposits to international oil companies, such as Chevron, and most notably, Shell. Because of these laws, regulation of internationally oil companies has been a challenge. Nonetheless the people of the Niger Delta are fed up with oil companies and the lack government initiatives to control them. It is clear that the people in the region have lost trust in the government.  The MEND has taken matters into their own hands to gain autonomy of the Nigeria’s oil. In various attacks on oil companies in the region they have outlined their intentions.  “It must be clear that the Nigerian government cannot protect your workers or assets. Leave our land while you can or die in it…. Our aim is to totally destroy the capacity of the Nigerian government to export oil.”

The MEND militant group is composed of victims of the oil companies, which leave with profits and stripped the Delta of everything. Piracy in the Niger Delta continues and MEND remarks that it will not halt until all foreign companies leave the Delta and no longer deal with the Nigerian government.

Law: the Central Solution or Insignificant Facet?

For centuries, our ancestors have used plants for various purposes: for food, raw material, and for medicinal purposes. However, in our modern times we have deleted our plant resources due to our excessive over harvesting. Currently, more than 60 million plants are harvested without being replaced. This unsustainable harvesting by pharmaceutical companies and local communities are the cause of endangerment and even extinction for many medicinal plants. This then affects the local communities as they lose a source of income.  Unfortunately, the plot thickens—local peoples resort to biopiracy or the poaching or medicinal plants from both public and private lands. This simply provides as more fuel to the disastrous cycle of overharvesting herbs.

Many solutions have been suggested, such as cultivation and wild crafting, to solve this problem. Also, there are cultural influences, such as religion, that fuel local people to protect their lands. Though all of the above are necessary tools to stopping herb overexploitation, they all have deep flaws to contribute to the current problem. This is why it is important to look to the law when these options fail. Laws protect the plants and repel malevolent and selfish individuals from taking advantage of medicinal plants.

International Laws Protecting Medicinal Plants

Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) drawn up in early 1973 is one of the very few laws protecting medicinal plants globally. CITES is a treaty that regulates the international trading of threatened or endangered species. It protects endangered species by establishing specific trading laws that safeguard and sustain that particular species. All imported and exported species must be authorized through a ‘licensing system’. Each country has authorities that oversee this process. This in turn, makes it much harder for poachers to transport and sell their stolen herbs.  However, there are many flaws. CITES does not specifically have a committee or group that enforces this law, making it almost useless as it is not practiced actively. To make things worse, conflicts of interest may arise when deciding if a certain species is endangered or not. This is seen with Peru, Brazil and Bolivia, as they refuse to list the Brazilian mahogany. These three countries now hold 90% of the last mahogany trees in the world. It is obvious that this proves advantageous for them in their timber industries, and will boost their economic output—but it will be at the expense of biodiversity.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Laws in the United States

The United States are very conscious of their harvesting, due to the frequent advocating by many organizations. The United Plant Savers is a non- profit group that help to raise awareness of endangered plants and herbs and distribute seeds to gardeners and companies. Currently, the US mostly cultivates its medicinal plants, decreasing the illegal trade. This is reflected clearly as the United States does not have as many endangered species compared to other countries, such as India and China. Yet, problems still do arise with biopiracy, mostly in National Parks. In the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, commercial poachers arrive annually and steal hundreds of different plants. Commercial poachers take a special liking to the American Ginseng, a severely endangered and popular herb, as many detained poachers with over 1,000 roots in their possession. However, with a lack of total rangers, it is hard to fully enforce laws, leading to many poachers getting away with such a large amount of poaching.

The Endangered Species Act (ESA) is a law that protects ecosystems and endangered and threatened species. ESA is an excellent law that protects endangered species and their ecosystems well, but this act has a fault: it gives states to option to accept or veto the ‘plant’ part of the bill. Unfortunately, many states vetoed the ‘plant’ section of the bill, and currently have no law to protect the plants.  Even worse, each state has different endangered species lists, meaning that one species may be endangered in one state and not endangered another, leading to confusion and possible manipulation by greedy commercial poachers.

The Next Step

As shown above, the environmental laws internationally and in America have as many defects as the other solutions suggested above. Conflicts of interests i.e. Timber industry vs. conservation, could lead to a controversial debate over saving biodiversity or adding more jobs to the economy. It is also important to remember that the individuals who do enforce the law are not botanists, and therefore may not be able to confidently remember and identify each endangered plant. This also contributes to frequent poaching and the endangerment of herbs. Many lawmakers do not find this to be an issue of importance in other developing countries, such as India. Yet above all, with a lack of law enforcers for both the CITES and the ESA, the law itself only an official document, never to be implemented and practiced by the people, and therefore does not serve a purpose. “Mitigating these challenges [of the overexploitation of herbs] and consolidating the gains so far requires the formulation and implementation of comprehensive national policies for conservation of medicinal plants”, stated WHO Regional Director, Dr Luis Gomes Sambo. Without implementation, laws serve no purpose.

It is important that we pressure our lawmakers and force their attention on to this significant problem. With their support, we can increase our number of local law enforcers and have a notably better hold on enforcing the law and protecting endangered plants. Get involved by sending a letter to your local councilman. Awareness is necessary, but it is also important to take action. Please spread the word and help protect the endangered plants in your area.

Ancient Rivers of Prosperity turn into Rivers of Blood and Tears

This week’s post will cover the effects of global climate change on the glaciers of Tibet and how this will effect the populations living downstream.

Tibet is also called the ‘Third pole’ as it contains more than 46,000 glaciers, the source of the major rivers in Asia. In recent years, Tibet has seen a continuous rise in temperatures at the rate of 0.3 degree Celsius per decade, which is twice the global average temperature rise. The Tibetan Plateau is often called the barometer of Asia because its vast highlands warm faster than the oceans, which then raises the temperatures and creates an area of low pressure. This pressure gradient draws in heavy amount of moist air from the Indian Ocean and spreading it out through different regions, making it the driver of Asian monsoon.

(Source: David Breashears) Comparing the glaciers from 1921 to today’s.

A simple visual comparison of the pictures that filmmaker and mountaineer David Breasher took of Rongbuk in 2008 with the pictures that George Mallory took of Rongbuk during his expeditions in 1921 brings to light the significant loss of ice mass in this area. The magnitude of glacier melting can be seen at the Rongbuk glacier on the northern slope of Mount Everest.

Global climate change has sped up the rate of glacial melt.

(Source: David Bearshers) Comparing the image of the same glacier in 1921 to today.

According to the Chinese Academy of Science, glaciers on the Tibetan Plateau are melting at a rate of 7% annually and if the current rate continues, two-thirds of the glaciers on the plateau will be gone by 2050.

The International Center for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), an organization that conducts research on the environment in the Hindu-Kush part of the Himalayas has revealed alarming details on the ecology. According to ICIMOD’s findings, the current trend of melting suggests that the Ganges, Indus, Brahmaputra and other rivers across the Northern India plains would most likely become seasonal rivers in the near future instead of remaining perennial. My previous post on the effects of freshwater deprivation to local communities further explored the impacts.

The formation of glacial lakes as a result of the rapid melting of glaciers on the higher reaches of the mountain ranges continues to pose a serious threat to livelihood downstream. ICIMOD has identified some 8,790 glacial lakes in parts of the Hindu-Kush Himalayas out of which, it has confirmed 204 glacial lakes as ‘likely to burst’. The sudden discharge of a large volume of water with debris would lead to massive floods known as the glacial lake outburst floods.

Around 15 Glacial Lake Outburst Floods have been recorded in the Tibet Autonomous Region alone between 1930 and 2002. They have claimed many lives and properties.

The most infamous floods in Pakistan last year that left 13.8 million people dead and 1,600 dead is directly related to the strong supercharged monsoon jetstreams that form over Tibet. Jean-Pascal van Ypersele, vice president of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), claimed that these floods are results of the rapid global climate change, which has made the most drastic signs of changes on the glaciers of Tibet.

(Source: The Telegraph) The massive destruction unleashed by flash floods in Pakistan.

When glacier melts, it destabilizes the entire surrounding land, posing the threat of large landslides. These landslides sometimes block the river-ways forming unstable lakes. Such lakes always carry the danger of breaking its temporary barriers and causing flash floods downstream. For example, on April 9, 2000, a large landslide Eastern Tibet formed a landslide dam on a tributary of the Brahmaputra River. On June 10, 2000, the dam breached resulting in flash floods which caused the death of 30 peoples and the disappearance of more than 100 peoples. This flash flood in five downstream districts of Eastern India left 50,000 peoples homeless. The total economic loss was estimated at more than 22.9 million USD.

Permafrost covers a large percentage of the Tibetan Plateau. About one-third of the world’s soil carbon is stored in these permafrost regions. With its degradation, due to drastic rise in temperatures, a huge amount of carbon continues to be released into the atmosphere, contributing to global climate change.

A large part of the headwaters of the Yellow River, which supports a large portion of the Chinese population is underlain by permafrost. The melting of the permafrost along with other factors have led to the quick dry-up of the river which often has failed to reach the sea. In 1998 the Yellow River failed to reach the sea for 260 days. Experts have estimated that cities near Beijing and Tianjin could run out of water in the coming five to seven years. In order to fix the huge water shortage problems in its northern plains, China is currently undertaking large-scale diversion initiative to drain water from the Yangtze in the South-to-North Water Diversion Project.

According to Qinghai Province’s Surveying and Mapping Bureau, 5.3% of the glaciers in the headwaters of the Yangtze River has disappeared inside the last three decades. The severe Yangtze drought in 2011 that lasted for 6 months, which was considered to be the worst in 50 years.

(Source: the Guardian) Dried up Yangtze River in Chongqing City.

The Future of Technology: Nature

Today is an age of personal electronics. It is hard to find someone who doesn’t walk around with a cellphone, laptop, kindle, or iPod. We are so connected and dependent on our technology that it can be easy to forget the natural world around us. But even creatures as small and fragile as a butterfly can have a huge impact on technology as we know it.

Screening for the Best

When people look at the screen of their electronic reader or their phone, they are looking at the images and are not thinking of the screen itself. Yet the technology behind the screen itself is what allows people to check their email, watch movies, or read books on electronic devices. Because of how widespread the use of this technology is, a lot of research is being done to find the best color display.

E-ink vs. LCD screens in the sunlight, LPerez/Flickr Creative Commons

LCD screens, liquid crystal displays used in Apple products, were developed in the 1970s and are still used because it is hard to find an alternative that is better in any way besides for efficiency and glare. While the quality of the color and full video on LCD screens is phenomenal, they use a lot of energy and are hard to read in direct sunlight, causing a lot of eyestrain.

An alternative to the LCD screen (and found in most electronic readers) is E Ink. E Ink, which utilizes electrophoretic technology, reflects ambient light and so it does not need power while an image is constant and has high readability in sunlight. In fact, it reports that it is 60% more energetically efficient than LCD screens. However, the screen cannot switch images fast enough or video and while there is no glare from the sun, the screen is not very bright and the screen is slow to refresh. Clearly, the perfect color screen has not been found yet.

The World in Color

Blue Morpho Butterfly, Les/Eco Heathen/Flickr Creative Commons

Yet nature is full of intense and bright colors. For example the Blue Morpho Butterfly is a beautiful iridescent blue and it does not need the energy a LCD screen uses. Qualcomm developed a microelectromechanical system (MEMS) they call Marisol that they have just released as the screen of an e-reader. Using the morpho butterfly as inspiration, the Marisol display uses mirrors to enhance ambient light just as butterflies do. Similarly to E Ink, these displays are environmentally friendly, have high readability in the sunlight and use basically no energy when displaying a stationary image. However, unlike E Ink, Marisol displays can change in microseconds allowing them to screen video. All this from a butterfly.

Though the Marisol display is far from perfect, it is wonderful to see a business so completely embrace the concept of biomimicry in their work as can be seen in Qualcomm’s video below. It is businesses like Qualcomm (and Sharklet Technologies from last week) that make me excited for the future of technology and all that can be done with nature’s help and inspiration.

Nature never stops inspiring and even more display technologies are being inspired by the world around us. Chameleons and squid change the color of their skin to countless different shades and researchers, such as Jason Heikenfeld at the University of Cincinnati, have taken this as an opportunity to create yet another display screen—this time one that can display a wider variety of colors than the Marisol display without causing the technology to get too expensive.

Veiled Chameleon, Walknboston/Flickr Creative Commons

The Novel Devices Laboratory and other laboratories have been working on electrofluidic technology where nature-inspired pigments are electronically pulled throughout the device. This technology, being developed by Gamma-Dynamics, is another exciting alternative to the color screens that are currently commercially available. As the developer Professor Heikenfeld says, “If you compare this technology to what’s been developed previously, there’s no comparison. We’re ahead by a wide margin in critical categories such as brightness, color saturation and video speed.”

Although all of these technologies have yet to be perfected, it is exciting to watch them develop and advance knowing they could not have gotten where they are without nature. As you read this and look at your computer screen remember the butterfly, the chameleon, and the squid—nature has mastered color and, with nature’s help, our biomimetic technology will as well.

Ship Groundings Crush Coral Reefs

Ship groundings, instances when boats crash into and get stuck on coral reefs, are dangerous both to the ships’ passengers and to coral reefs.

A ship grounded on a coral reef. Photo Courtesy of JustinIs/Flickr.

Groundings sometimes occur as a result forces beyond human control, such as stronger-than-predicted tides, but they also occur as a result of carelessness and human error. Given the abundance of sea-faring navigation technology and maritime traffic regulation that exists today, groundings are one threat to coral reefs that can be prevented.  On a basic level, ship groundings harm coral reefs because they physically break or crush them. However, groundings can also have less obvious, residual impacts on the health of coral reefs.

In April of 2010, a large Chinese ship carrying coal became grounded on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.  According to Maria Kamenev, for a TIME magazine article entitled “Grounded Ships Not Great Barrier Reef’s Only Threat,” the enormous vessel “plowed at full speed” into a pristine, protected area of the the Great Barrier Reef. The ship utterly demolished a chunk of the Douglas Shoal at the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park equivalent in area to the size of five football fields.   The result was “ a vast, empty plain of sand where a healthy coral community had hosted a variety of unique plants and animals.”

To further the tragedy, the ship, which left a 3,000 m by 260 meter “scar” in the reef, was carrying 65,000 tons of coal and 950 tons of fuel oil. According to Kamenev’s article, the equivalent of 2,000 to 5,000 liters of heavy fuel oil seeped into the water with the collision.  For video coverage, and more information on this grounding, see the video below.

Sadly, vessel groundings of ships carrying fuels and other toxic materials continue to occur. Often times, these instances are the result of human error, and could have been prevented.  According to Kamenev, The Great Barrier Reef suffered three major groundings in 2010. In the case of the grounding at the Douglas Shoal, it was reported that the ship’s captain “had only 2½ hours of broken sleep over the 37-hour period before the crash.”

Damage sustained by coral reefs as a result of ship groundings is not limited to physical crushing of the reef structure.  Added risks come from materials that leak into the sea upon grounding.  One of these materials is a type of paint often used on the hulls of ships. When shipping vessels crash into reefs, heavy metals and other toxins are often left behind.  This can lead to further damage to the coral that actually survives the initial impact of the grounding.

In their article, “Understanding ship-grounding impacts on a coral reef: potential effects of anti-foulant paint contamination on coral recruitment” Negri, et. al, write, based on a case study of a grounding on a reef off of Malaysia, that “The recovery of reefs from ship-groundings is often very slow and in many cases may take decades (Precht, 1998).”  They argue that “apart from acute and chronic toxicity towards sessile adult invertebrates such as corals, anti-foulant contamination has the potential to impact on the recruitment of invertebrates to the damaged site, therefore slowing subsequent ecosystem recovery.”  Thus, the impacts of ship groundings on coral reefs seem to be greater than the immeditate damage sustained given that contaiments from anti-foulant paints can slow the recovery of the reef.

Small vessel groundings can also cause physical damage to reefs. It doesn’t take an oil tanker to physically damage a coral reef. Coral reefs are so delicate that even small boats can crush and seriously damage coral colonies.  Recreational and professional boaters alike should take care to stay in marked channels, pay attention to maritime regulations, and treat the process of captaining a boat as seriously as one would treat driving any other type of vehicle.

Environmental Art: Sculpture

Storm King Art Center is a unique 500 acre sculpture park in the Hudson Highlands, an hour north of New York City, where the landscape and the art have equal importance as the exhibits are curated and created. The grass, trees, and sky are part of the gallery—the natural environment not only compliments the art, the natural environment is part of the art.

Storm King Art Center South Fields. Sculptures by Mark di Suvero. Photo Credit: Storm King

Site of environmental history

In 1960, father and son team Ralph E. Ogden and Peter Stern established Storm King Art Center as a museum dedicated to the Hudson River School paintings. They began to collect sculptures to place around the outside of the building. When the art center purchased thirteen works by David Smith in 1966, they had an aha moment, realizing that placing the art in the landscape enhances the art and the landscape, and ever since then, art has been placed with its immediate surroundings as well as its far off landscape in mind.

A sketch of the proposed hydroelectric plant superimposed on Storm King Mountain, ca. 1965. From the Scenic Hudson Collection at Marist College

Around that time, however, Storm King Mountain was in danger of becoming the site of a hydroelectric power plant by Consolidated Edison Company. The local community mobilized, creating the Scenic Hudson Preservation Committee and challenging the plan in court. They ultimately won, though it took almost twenty years for all of the battles to be fought. Their efforts inspired the modern environmentalist movement as a multidisciplinary movement of scientists, concerned citizens, journalists, lawyers, and even artists. One of the groups that grew out of the Storm King Mountain Controversy is the Open Space Institute (OSI), an organization which buys land for the sake of protecting it or makes sure that people will not develop land. Storm King Art Center works closely with OSI to protect the lands around the outdoor galleries so that the art’s landscapes will be preserved.

Thomas Cole, The Oxbrow (1836). Thomas Cole was one of the founders of the Hudson River School Artists. Image in the Public Domain

Storm King Art Center is located physically and historically in the middle of this landscape. The Hudson River Valley’s beauty inspired the Hudson River School artists to develop new ways of portraying light in paintings, and the fight to preserve its natural resources began the modern environmentalist movement.

Protecting our “Viewshed”: Landscapes as a Natural Resource

The Storm King Art Center, as Senior Advisor and Counsel Anthony Davidowitz told me, has protecting the “viewshed” surrounding the art as part of its mission. This formulation of viewshed parallel to a watershed emphasizes their point that the landscape itself is a natural resource. They keep track of their viewshed by creating a map that records which views are available from which angles where on the

Mark di Suvero, Beethoven’s Quartet, 2003 Photo Credit: Storm King

property. Part of Storm King Art Center’s mission is to curate “monumental art set against the landscape with beautiful vistas,” as the President of the art center says in a video on their website. They do this by curating every piece carefully in the space and landscape chosen for it. This sometimes involves changing the landscape—moving earth to make slopes, enhancing the soil security through flattening very steep gradients, or (my favorite) planting trees in three sides of a square to create a “maple gallery.” They are, however, always careful to balance the ecological needs with the art’s needs.

Because the landscape and natural environment is as important to their mission as the art, they cultivate a sense of environmental stewardship. For example, as Davidowitz explained to me, they used to grow and bale hay in several acres of the grounds of art center every year as a way of commemorating that the land used to be farm land. They stopped doing this, however, just in the last few years in favor of planting native grasses and wildflowers because they learned of recent research that has shown the negative effects of exotic species on soil composition and overall ecology of landscapes. “Planting local flora and fauna is important to us from the standpoint of environmental stewardship,” Davidowitz shared, “but it also affects the visitor’s experiences of the art.” The art and the environment are truly one and the same.

The Art Impacts the Environment, the Environment Impacts the Art

Maya Lin, a sculptor best known for her work on the Vietnam War memorial in Washington, DC, created a piece at Storm King Art Center called “Wavefield.” The third piece in a series of wave fields, “Wavefield” was built in an eleven acre field on the grounds of Storm King that had previously been a gravel pit supplying material for the Throughway. Choosing that site reclaimed unusable land. The art piece itself, seven parallel waves which form crests and valleys, evokes waves from the ocean but also echoes the mountains and valleys in the distance. You can get lost in it when you walk through it, yet it is an incredibly familiar image from afar. The New York Times reviewed it and created this video:

As she was creating the piece, Lin kept a careful count of all the energy used in the construction and her transportation to the site. She then planted more than 200 trees to offset the carbon imprint of her work to achieve her goal of a carbon neutral installation. As she shared in the video:

“What has been really the exploration for me is that especially within the art I have gotten back to my first love and interest which was science and nature and the environment.”

Andy Goldsworthy, The wall that went for a walk. Storm King Art Center

Andy Goldsworthy, another artist whose work has been featured at Storm King Art Center, has a similar attitude toward environmental art. His media are almost always from nature, and often quite temporary, so he takes pictures of the artwork he makes. At Storm King Art Center, he has created rock walls which compliment the landscape by winding around trees, or simply just winding as in “The wall that went for a walk.” The forests surrounding the art center’s grounds are full of rock walls as it used to be farm land, so constructing new rock walls is an interesting enterprise in terms of history and land use dynamics. Goldsworthy is very aware both of the impacts of his art on the environment and the impacts of the environment on his art, as he says in a quotation on Morning Earth.org:

“Movement, change, light, growth and decay are the lifeblood of nature, the energies that I try to tap through my work. I need the shock of touch, the resistance of place, materials and weather, the earth as my source. Nature is in a state of change and that change is the key to understanding. I want my art to be sensitive and alert to changes in material, season and weather. Each work grows, stays, decays. Process and decay are implicit. Transience in my work reflects what I find in nature.”

Final Word

A visitor’s experience at Storm King Art Center involves multiple senses. The sculptures can be seen and touched; some (especially the metal pieces) can also be heard by hitting them with rubber mallets. The weather is felt by the viewer as well, and it is also felt by the art installation and by the landscape. This reflects the multisensory, interdisciplinary, and unifying nature of nature itself: it cannot simply be seen, heard, felt or thought about—it must be experienced in all of those ways and it connects us all. Therefore the phrase “environmentalist art” should not provoke confusion but should rather feel redundant. The depth of the connection that we feel to the environment, the confusion and moment of transition of climate change, activism and protest can and should be expressed through art and experienced in as many ways as we can imagine.

So, how do I comment on the SGEIS?

Courtesy: New York Department of Environmental Protection

Some simple tips on how to have your voice heard during the hydrofracking debate

While the comment period on the Supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement (SGEIS) and draft fracking regulations, ends on Dec. 12, there is still time to comment and have your voice heard.

In order to become informed about the issues, download the following two documents provided by Riverkeeper:

Fact Sheet on DEC Fracking Proposal

New York’s Rush to Frack Presentation

If you feel that you cannot make a comment on the SGEIS or the draft fracking regulations, there is still the opportunity to attend a public hearing on fracking. While there are only two more hearings left, these hearings are a great way to learn more about the issues and voice your opinion.

Here is a list of the upcoming hearings:

The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) is required to read all of the comments they receive, you’re allowed to comment more than once but most comment before Dec. 12. While these two documents are extremely lengthy, environmental organizations that have read over both documents, such as Riverkeeper and the Sierra Club, have filed detailed comments. For guidelines on what to comment on, here is a document that details the top ten problems with fracking: ‘Top 10’ flaws with the fracking environmental impact statement.

According to Riverkeeper’s website this is how to submit comments:

How to submit comments:
Type out your comments. Whether you submit your comments online or send them in the mail, it will be easier if you type them ahead of time. (The DEC does not accept comments by phone, fax or email.)

Mail your comments to Attn: dSGEIS Comments, New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, 625 Broadway, Albany, NY 12233-6510. Include your name, address, and affiliation (if any).

Submit your comments online: If you prefer to comment online, visithttp://www.dec.ny.gov/energy/76838.html.

Looking at the DEC’s comment page, you’ll see that there are three proposals to comment on. The most important proposal to comment on is the revised draft environmental impact statement (called “2001 rdSGEIS”). You can also comment on the proposed regulations which are called, “Proposed HVHF Regulations.”

Developing Gardens

School Gardens in the Developing World

School garden, South Africa (Hodge flickr/Creative Commons)

While the focus of my research has been on school gardens in cities in the United States, there has also been a movement in the last few decades to establish gardens in developing countries. These international school gardens offer many of the same benefits as urban gardens do – they provide fresh fruits and vegetables to students, they teach kids and their parents about sustainable farming, and they can enhance academic education. This blog will spotlight several organizations doing exceptional work building school and community gardens in the developing world.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization’s Special Programme for Food Security published the “School Gardens Concept Note” in 2004, which outlines the benefits of school gardens. The FAO also created a manual for teachers, parents, and communities, Setting up and running a school garden, which provides simple yet comprehensive instructions as to how to start a garden. Most recently, in 2010, the FAO published A New Deal for School Gardens, suggesting what governments and other organizations can do to promote school gardens, including curriculum ideas for the incorporation of garden learning into schools. These resources are incredibly helpful for volunteers and community members looking to start school gardens in developing regions. In addition to informational resources, FAO also provides grants to organizations, especially through the TeleFood initiative, which provides money for small-scale farmers.

Slash and Burn Farming, Belize (Resa, flickr/Creative Commons)

Plenty International is a non-profit organization created to support economic self-sufficiency and environmental responsibility in Central America, the U.S., the Caribbean, and Africa. In Belize, they have started GATE, Garden Based Agriculture for Toledo’s Environment. Toledo is the southern most region of Belize, and its economy relies heavily on agriculture. GATE “aims to create a replicable model of local sustainable livelihood and environmental benefit based on organic school gardens”. Most of the rural populations use slash and burn style agriculture (to produce crops such as corn, rice, and beans) which uses five more times the land space than traditional gardens. GATE creates model gardens that demonstrate the benefits of organic gardens and sustainable agriculture. The program also seeks to decrease malnutrition by providing access to local, nutrition foods, and by providing healthy lunches and snacks for students in the schools that they work at. Mrs. Joan Palma, principal of the San Felipe School said, “Since the start of the program we have seen great changes in the academic performances of children. We have also observed behavior changes in having a positive attitude about school. The level of absenteeism has decreased. This program really has had a positive impact on the lives of our children in this small community.”

Seeds for Africa operates in Kenya, Sierra Leone, Uganda, and Malawi. The organization provides seeds, plants, trees, and equipment to elementary schools and community groups to help them establish gardens. All of the seeds provided come from Africa, which keeps the plants native and provides business for local farmers. Students are integrated into the process of building and maintaining the gardens planted using these seeds, which helps them learn about environmental sustainability. Like Plenty International, the gardens provide schools with fresh fruits and vegetables for student lunches. Surplus food is given to the families or sold to raise money for the school.

Students planting trees in Kenay (www.seedsforafrica.org)

Students planting trees in Kenya (www.seedsforafrica.org)

Action Aid aims to end the cycle of poverty by making systematic changes to countries and communities in order to help end hunger and poverty. One such change is the creation of a school garden in Nsanje, Malawi. Due to climate change, floods and droughts are getting worse in Nsanje, causing crops to fail. Action Aid has set up gardens in four different elementary schools to provide nutritious meals for students. The gardens also have the benefit of protecting against flooding – over 400 fruit trees and 3,000 tree seedlings have been planted in the gardens. These trees will offer protection against future flooding by providing a barrier that will hopefully reduce damage to buildings. The garden project has also attracted better teachers to the schools and caused an increase in the number of girls attending school.

As the benefits of school gardens continue to be elucidated in urban schools, they also continue to become clear in the developing world. Gardens have the potential to impact many aspects of every day life, and it is my hope that these garden projects will continue to grow and thrive as they work to end the cycle of poverty.

Organizational Organization: Approaches to Addressing Conflict Minerals

While there are many organizations that take on environmental and human rights causes, it is important to understand their unique approaches and how they can translate into action in the field of conflict minerals.

There is a wide array of rights organizations that take on the topic of conflict minerals in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). However, each one has its own unique history and raison d’être. It is important to take a step back in order to truly understand the different approaches and structures of such organizations active in the field.

A previous blog post titled, “Campaigning for Conflict-Free Campuses” highlights the Conflict-Free Campus Initiative (CFCI) developed by the organization Enough Project. CFCI encourages college students “to build the consumer voice for conflict-free electronics, such as cell phones, laptops, and other devices that will not finance war in eastern Congo.” Though this approach appears to be quite effective, it is important to note that not every organization seeks to work with students. Others focus their efforts solely on government lobbying and ground research.

As defined in an e-mail by David Spett, Enough Project Administrative & Operations Manager, the organization was founded in 2007 “on the belief that policy ideas are only as good as policymakers’ willingness to adopt them,” thereby emphasizing the governmental lobbying component of Enough. Enough Project focuses on such American policy advancement—for it is a division of the Center for American Progress; however, it also focuses on mobilizing American citizens. Spett continued, “We aim to combine the policy expertise of a think tank with the public mobilization of an advocacy organization. Our work with college students is very much in line with these core goals, as young people are some of the smartest and most effective activists around.”

Enough Project consciously views college students as an extension of their efforts. By motivating students to act on campuses across the country, they are tapping into already established communities; the organization enables these students to project their voices to a large audience of peers on campus. Whether through social media outlets, campus newspapers, or school-based e-mail lists, hundreds of students can read about conflict minerals in a short period of time. Enough Project utilizes such resources, thereby rapidly expanding its networks.

"After a screening of the documentary, 'The Greatest Silence: Rape in the Congo,' Gayle Smith, Enough's Co-founder John Prendergast, actress Robin Wright Penn, and others, discuss the film's issues." Photo and Caption Courtesy of ENOUGH Project / Flickr Creative Commons

Enough Project addresses the Congolese conflict mineral campaign specifically through its Raise Hope for Congo campaign. This campaign seeks to “fundamentally change the equation for Congo by using The Enough Project’s robust field research, advocacy, and communications to bolster a broad grassroots movement that promotes lasting solutions. [Their] initiatives work to educate and empower individuals to be a part of these solutions to the conflict.” The latter component is an important one to note. While other organizations focus on ground research and advocacy as well, some specifically steer clear of the student empowerment approach.

Jewish World Watch (JWW) is an organization based in Los Angeles that has a very different founding than Enough Project. It was co-founded in 2004 by Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis and Janice Kamenir-Reznik as the “Jewish response to genocide in Darfur.” After the holocaust, many Jews wondered why more people had not stepped forward to try to end that genocide. With this history in mind, the evident question remains: how could the Jewish people now stand idly by while other genocides take place? In reaction to this question, Rabbi Schulweis and Kamenir-Reznick decided they must act, which sparked their decision to create JWW. The organization’s model was to rally synagogues to act as members of the organization. Each synagogue would help educate their communities and encourage their congregants to take action. Since its founding, JWW has expanded a great deal. It “has grown from a collection of Southern California synagogues into a global coalition that includes schools, churches, individuals, communities and partner organizations that share a vision of a world without genocide.”

JWW takes action by partnering with other organizations based locally in the specified region of conflict in order “to develop high-impact projects that improve the lives of survivors and help build the foundation for a safer world,” in addition to “[inspire]…communities to support tangible projects and advocate for political change.” JWW’s local partnerships allow it to specifically meet the needs of those individuals in the conflict area and ensure funding successfully reaches them. While JWW originally just focused on the atrocities in Darfur, Sudan, the organization has since expanded to also address the violence and injustice in the Democratic Republic of Congo surrounding conflict minerals.

Through six partnerships with projects in the Congo, JWW raises funds to address a wide variety issues that impact Congolese men and women as a result of rape and violence. These projects include vocational training for women who have been victims of sexual violence; maternal care and agricultural development for women involved in sustainable agriculture; and burn treatment for Congolese victims of war. JWW also addresses matters in the Congo through their education programs and international advocacy campaigns. JWW runs the Activist Certification and Training program for middle, high, and religious school students in the United States to help involve them in activism at a young age.

Though Enough Project and Jewish World Watch have very different organizational histories and projects, one distinct commonality is that student groups are viewed as holding the potential to bring about immense change. Though these organizations both have effective approaches, there remain several other ways of structuring human rights and environmental organizations. For example, Human Rights Watch (HRW) and Global Witness (GW) have developed very different models.

Human Rights Watch’s “rigorous, objective investigations and strategic, targeted advocacy build intense pressure for action and raise the cost of human rights abuse.” Through on-the-ground, original research, HRW exposes violations of human rights abuses all around the world. The organization uses this research to create in-depth reports that describe the events, responses, and reactions of these violations and abuses. Such reports are used as evidence with which to publicly expose the perpetrators through targeted media efforts. Through this work, HRW seeks to “tenaciously…lay the legal and moral groundwork for deep-rooted change and has fought to bring greater justice and security to people around the world.”

"Jasmine Herlt, Director, Human Rights Watch Canada speaks prior to the screening of 'Last Train Home', this year's opening night film." Caption Courtesy of humanrightsfilmfestival / Flickr Creative Commons and Photo Courtesy of Jacquie Labatt, Jacquie Labatt Photography / Flickr Creative Commons

Rather than rally individuals or students, HRW focuses on systematic governmental change through exposure of violations, as well as on holding perpetrators responsible through international pressure and the challenging of governments. Because of HRW’s local researchers and country experts, the information they have published regarding the Congo is precise and up-to-date.

Global Witness (GW), a British organization that focuses on environmental exploitation, is another rights organization that has a similar model to that of HRW; however, one of GW’s main focuses is on the exploitation of natural resources, as it relates to corruption, conflict, accountability, and the environment—whereas HRW focuses on human rights abuses whether or not they are caused by such utilization of such resources. GW’s “[i]nternational campaigns operate at the nexus of development, the environment and trade. [They] are motivated by a desire to tackle the underlying causes of conflict and poverty and to end the impunity of individuals, companies and governments that exploit natural resources for their own benefit at the expense of their people and the environment.” Therefore, the topic of conflict minerals fits well into their mission, for such minerals are fueling violence and acute injustices; GW’s documentation of the matter fits well within its described area of involvement.

In terms of GW’s strategy, it appears to focus more on interaction with decision makers than with public pressure campaigns, for their unique selling proposition does not center on rallying up large groups of students. Thus, it is evident that organizations like GW and HRW differ from Jewish World Watch and Enough Project, which utilize students as main agents for advocacy work and to gaining support for a cause. That said, each of these four organizations does incorporate legislative lobbying into its work. Each values the need to communicate with government officials and policy makers—whether within the conflict country or abroad—in order to accomplish their missions and bring about change. Though they all take on the task of trying to diminish violence in Congo as a result of mineral exploitation, they each delve into and address the conflict in a unique way. This serves to diversify efforts and the way in which they address the many different components of the issue. In such a complex matter, it is important to see global, multifaceted endeavors working to address the negative outcome of mineral exploitation.