Daily Archives: October 26, 2011

The Attack of the Poachers

In my last two articles, I have spoken about the human influence on the over-exploitation of medicinal plants, plants used for health purposes, by uninformed local peoples and herbal companies that sell ‘organic and sustainable’ products. However, there are individuals who know well that they are abusing the plants they harvest or gather and other species who rely on that particular plant. Individuals with the intent to harvest medicinal plants illegally (either because they are endangered or harvesting is not permitted in that area) are known as poachers.

According to the North American Wildlife Enforcement Officers Association, poaching is the “illegal killing or taking of any wildlife”. As the poachers run off with wild medicinal plants illegally, their numbers dwindle against the odds of predators, natural barriers, and the inability to reproduce at a young age. Unfortunately with the over exploitation by poachers, there are many threatened medicinal plants, plants that are likely to become endangered, and many endangered medicinal plants, plants that are on the verge of extinction. A list of the endangered and threatened species can be found on United Plant Saver’s website. The poacher’s contribution has left a scar on many plants and their ecosystems.

With the commercialization of certain herbs, or medicinal plants, these plants have become a commodity that led to increased harvesting. When poachers greedily harvest these herbs, they put pressure on the plants and the plants environment by taking so many at once, not giving the plants a chance to reproduce and raise its population count. Extinction can easily happen as many herbs grow very slowly, and most of the time, their roots are harvested and used for medicinal purposes, leaving the plant without the chance to refurbish itself. “It’s one of those things that’s not going to stop until it’s all gone”, stated Joel Bourne in On the Trail of Poachers. Hydrastis canadensis L. or Goldenseal is a primary example of an endangered medicinal plant over-harvested by poachers. It is a slow-growing perennial herb, commonly found in the woodlands of east United States and southern Canada. It takes about 4-5 years to age before it reproduces, explaining why the population growth is so short and unfortunately, is at least threatened in around 28 states. Nearly half of the goldenseal population in the states of Ohio and Kentucky are extinct through poaching.

The Blue Azure Butterfly that feeds on the Black Cohosh.

The Blue Azure Butterfly that feeds on the Black Cohosh.

Medicinal plants are not the only species affected by poaching. When a particular plant species starts to disappear, the animals in that particular ecosystem of the plant are also affected. The dwindling numbers of herbs leave many other animals looking a new source of food or raw materials for their shelter. When Actaea racemosa, the Black Cohosh, became endangered, the species that feed on it were also affected. Black Cohosh serves as food for the common herbivores in the woodlands (deers, rabbits), and also the larvae of the Celastrina ladon, or the Spring Azure Butterfly. As the poachers over exploited the Black Cohosh, these three species lost a source food. “The plants are important parts of their ecosystems. And plants are more interconnected in their alliance of one another than humans are”, stated by Betsy of the United Plant Savers. .“When you take certain plants out of the ecosystem, you are changing the web of life, and that is generally to the detriment of the beings living there”. This detriment is certainly seen in ecosystems where plants have become threatened and/or endangered.

The poachers serve as an enemy to ecosystems they invade as they pick plants from their habitats. Fortunately, many have found ways to stop them in their tracks.  Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the North Carolina Department of Agriculture marked American ginseng roots with a permanent dye and tag them with electronic tracking devices to catch illegal poachers. But this is not enough to stop poachers. “Some [companies] do not critically examine their sources and could be buying poached products. This would most likely be happening through middle men who are buying from poachers as well as other people”, stated Dr. Laurell Matthews. It is important for companies to monitor the suppliers of their products to avoid buying illegally gathered herbs from poachers. Yet, sometimes companies choose not monitor this.

Since all companies do not monitor how their raw materials are harvested, consumers should keep their eyes on the labels of each product as well as the company’s site. Not buying from sustainable companies will catch the attention of greedy company owners and lead them on the ride side of the track- protecting the medicinal plants from abuse. If one takes Betsy’s words into consideration, the greedy poachers and companies alike will disappear: “Be choosy about purchasing products that say organically cultivated on the label and what not and try to educate the herbal product industry to source responsibly”.

Water contamination due to hydrofracking in Pennsylvania

According to Environmental Protection Agency study, dangers to environmental and public health caused by hydrofracking wastewater are greater than previously expected

Marcellus Shale Gas Drilling Tower: Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

While hydrofracking using the horizontal drilling method, is currently banned in New York, other states, including Pennsylvania, currently use this method to drill for natural gas. Hydrofracking can create major environmental and health problems. These known risks provide a justification to the fears of environmentalists in New York.

Scientists believe that natural gas is better for the environment than burning coal and oil, yet they fear that this new technique for natural gas drilling will harm public health and the environment.  During the process of of hydrofracking, millions of gallons of water laced with dangerous chemicals are injected into rock formations. This creates chemically infused wastewater, which environmentalists believe will eventually contaminate drinking water.

The New York Times uncovered confidential Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) documents, which show that the wastewater being brought to plants has a higher radioactivity than federal regulators believe is safe for these plants to treat effectively. These same documents also show that treatment plants, discharge tainted wastewater into rivers that supply drinking water.

Studies were also found by The New York Times that show that the radioactivity in waste discharged by treatment plants, will never fully dilute in waterways. This water is radioactive because many plants fail to test for radioactivity before discharging the wastewater. The EPA knows this is happening, but hasn’t done anything to fix this problem. With about 71,000 active gas wells, wastewater contamination is a major problem in Pennsylvania. Tests have shown, that the radioactivity in the discharged wastewater can be between hundreds or thousands of times the maximum allowed federal standard for drinking water.

Gas Wells in Colorado Photo Courtesy The New York Times article, "Regulation Lax as Gas Wells' Tainted Water Hits Rivers"

In 2008 and 2009, about half of the waste created by hydrofracking was taken to sewage treatment plants in Pennsylvania. Additionally, some of the untreated wastewater has been sent to other states including New York and West Virginia to be treated. Due to the treatment plants’ inability to remove radioactive substances in wastewater before the water is discharged into rivers, which eventually flow to other states and can cause their water to become contaminated.

While the EPA has certainly been concerned about the water quality, they aren’t the only environmental group that’s worried. Experts in Pennsylvania believe that natural gas is cleaner than coal and oil, but would like to see it harvested in a more environmentally friendly and healthier way. In a New York Times article titled, “Regulation Lax as Gas Wells’ Tainted Water Hits Rivers,” John H. Quigley, former Secretary of Pennsylvania’s Department of Conversation and Natural Resources, stated, “In shifting away from coal and toward natural gas, we’re trying for cleaner air, but we’re producing massive amounts of toxic wastewater with salts and naturally occurring radioactive materials, and it’s not clear we have a plan for properly handling this waste.”

Retiring Grazing to Restore the Grasslands

Official PRC policy recognizes the Tibetan areas as “ecologically degraded” and “economically underdeveloped” compared to the miraculous developments taking place in the Eastern Chinese cities. Building off of last week’s post on modernization projects undertaken by the government in Tibet, this week’s post will further explore and focus on programs that are directly aimed towards the alteration and modernization of traditional nomadic lifestyle on the grasslands.

(Source: Tibettruth.org) Traditional Nomads in the Grasslands of Tibet

As part of “Open up the West” policy, Tuimu Huancao is one of the central ecological program. Tuimu Huancao literally translates as ‘retiring the grazing to restore the grasslands’. It was introduced by the Chinese government in 1998 as a part of an “ecological construction” initiative. It has the most significant impact in Western China around Tibet because 85% of the grasslands are found here.

(Source: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations) The vast majority of the grasslands of China, around 85%, are located in the Tibetan regions.

Tuimu Huancao policy breaks down into three main areas of implementation. The first one is for areas that have been seriously degraded; in this area zones will be created to permanently ban grazing. The second one is for areas that have been moderately degraded; in this area zones will be created to cease grazing for a period of several years (around 3-10). The last one is for areas that have been lightly or not degraded; in these areas zones will be seasonally closed and managed.

This new policy is different from the previous ecological restoration and management policies such as the “Open up the West”, which encouraged investments in building modern infrastructures and ecological construction in Tibet, and the “Four that form a complete set” (Si Peitao), which fenced off grassland regions to control livestock and grazing. Dr. Emily Yeh, Geography of East Asia professor at University of Colorado in Boulder, writes that the Tuimu Huancao is different from the previous two policies because it “deepens the state control over territory”. (Here is the link to the actual Policy published by the Beijing government).

Other environmental policies that extended the Chinese government’s control over land management has resulted in man-made disaster such as the severe Yangtze drought in 2011 that lasted for 6 months, which was considered to be the worst in 50 years. This drought was directly linked to the massive state-led initiatives to build ginormous dams such as the world’s largest dam, the Three Gorges Dam. These dams have drained the natural water sources and then polluted the water preserved in these artificial bodies, “The dam planners had failed to properly gauge the dam’s environmental impact. Two of China’s largest freshwater lakes… have suffered from lower water levels because of the storage of water in the reservoir behind the Three Gorges Dam.” – anonymous Water Official, Shanghai Daily, June 1, 2011.

(Source: Tibettruth.org) These are the fences are built in the grasslands to implement one of the three regional fencing programs under Tuimu Huancao.

I interviewed Professor of Sociology, Tanzin Lhundrup from China Tibetology Research Center in Beijing, which was established by the PRC government to study the economic and ecological situation in Tibet. He began his talk by first proudly mentioning that the state-built housing for Tibetan nomads’ relocation had been completed 80%. When I asked him whether the government had taken the opinions of the locals into consideration, he mentioned that the locals had no voice on the decision making level; instead everything was engineered with the researches done by the scientists, who are government workers. Professor Lhundrup went on to further posit that the scientists knew what was best for the environmental preservation.

Dr. Emily Yeh states that environmental projects in China are justified by invoking a scientific logic that interprets the territory as degraded. By disregarding the public opinion, the state has strongly pushed for the relocation of Tibetan nomads to state-built housing.

These policies have failed to acknowledge Tibetan traditional practices as wise sustainable approaches to preserving the land. As Dr.Vandana Shiva, eco-feminist activist from India, once stated, “the way out of this violent cycle is to deepen democracy – to bring decisions that directly affect people’s lives as close as possible to where people are and to where they can take responsibility.” Initiatives of capacity building and Tibetan agency are the key to protecting the land. The extent of the ramifications exceeds a regional scope. In order for the government to make amends, they must restructure, implement, and dissolve various environmental policies, practices, and institutions before it is too late

Next week’s post will further explore the local nomads’ perspectives and the social injustices unraveling from these housing projects.

(Source: Tibettruth.org)

Rubbish and Reefs

Most of us have heard the horror stories and seen the gruesome pictures of plastic rings and bags that tangle and strangle marine birds and animals.  This is no doubt a problem, but marine debris (garbage in the sea), also poses a threat to coral reefs.

During the eleven years that I have been an avid SCUBA diver, I’ve encountered a number of ‘interesting’ things on reefs.  I’m not talking about interesting fish or dolphins or seaturtles, but rather about things that shouldn’t be there.

Tangled nets and lines in the ocean. Photo courtesy of NOAA/flickr.

From fishing lines and plastic bags, to cans of spray-paint, to tennis shoes and Barbie dolls, I’ve seen quite a lot of garbage on coral reefs.  I have also participated in numerous reef-clean up dives, where divers like myself used SCUBA diving to clean up trash from coral reefs.  Collecting garbage from reefs is harder than it sounds.  Care must be taken to avoid further damage to the reef during the cleanup process. At times, new life has already begun to grow on reef rubbish, and it must therefore be left in place in order to avoid breaking coral.

UNEP (United Nations Environment Programme) estimates that 6.4 million tons of garbage end up in the ocean every year. The exact amount of trash in the ocean is only an estimate, given the vastness of the ocean.  However, we do know, without a doubt, that in many parts of the world, marine debris is harming marine animals and ecosystems, including coral reefs.

What does garbage do to coral reefs?  It breaks them into pieces, and can literally strangle and suffocate the coral. From the EPA, we learn that marine debris harms coral reefs in two ways.  First, it causes physical damage.  It gets caught on pieces of coral and either breaks or smothers these delicate creatures. Additionally, debris harms other animals, such as fish and sea turtles, which make up important parts of the coral reef ecosystem.

Garbage on a Beach in Mexico. Photo Courtesy of John Schneider/Flickr.

The threat of marine debris to coral reefs is constant, but it is amplified during tropical storms and hurricanes, when churning oceans can cause large chunks of heavy marine debris to smash into coral reefs, physically breaking them apart.  Derelict fishing gear, including nets and lines, is one of the most damaging forms of marine debris to coral reefs.  According to the National Oceanic and Atomospheric Administration’s Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center, Hawaii’s coral reefs are under serious threat from marine debris in the form of derelict fishing gear.  NOAA points out that in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, fishing nets and other gear are seriously damaging the coral reefs. These nets are not small nets that people use by hand, but rather massive fishing nets that are used by massive boats to catch tons upon tons of fish for the commercial fishing industry (see the photo below).

Fishing nets collected from the ocean by the U.S. Coast Guard. Photo courtesy of U.S. Coast Guard/Flickr.

Thankfully, NOAA and other organizations are not sitting by idly.  NOAA is working to survey the amounts of marine debris found on the coral reefs, inform the public about the problem, and direct clean up projects.  Scientists at NOAA are also analyzing the types of nets that they find on reefs in order to determine which fishing industries are culpable.  According to NOAA’s website, scientists hope that greater knowledge about the distribution of nets on reefs will help them understand the scope of the problem and will also be useful to help promote policy to regulate marine debris.

Marine debris is also dangerous to scuba divers who can get tangled in fishing nets and wires.  Furthermore, it is NOT what we are looking to see down there!  Think about going to a park, and finding the flora and fauna interspersed with human refuse, and you will get the point.

Sometimes, it seems more difficult to tackle environmental problems that are out of site. Often times, in the case of marine debris, we can visibly see the problem. When we do encounter an errant net in the sea, or a piece of plastic stuck on a coral reef, we can make the effort to remove it. True, we can’t rid the entire ocean of trash on our own, but we can start, one diver, or one person at a time by cleaning up after ourselves when we are on the beach or on a boat or by participating in organizaed SCUBA-based reef cleanup dives.  Earlier this year,150 divers in Clearwater, Florida, removed an astonishing 1500 lbs of marine debris, according to the Bay News coverage of the cleanup event. For those of you who are more inclined to stay on land, beach cleanups are a great way to be involved.  The cleaner our beaches the less likely it is that trash will be washed out to sea.  Let’s work together to keep our reefs clean, for our sake, and for theirs.

For those of you who are looking to jump on in, and take garbage out of coral reefs, here is a useful link from the Coral Reef Alliance with tips on how to properly cleanup of coral reefs: Underwater Cleanup.

The video below shows a diver’s cleaning up marine debris on a coral reef in Florida.  The cleanup was an initiative of the coral reef environmental organization, Reef Rescue.  Check out your local dive shops and reef-advocacy organizations for opportunities to participate in reef cleanups in your area.

Creating Green Leaders

A spotlight on the Columbia Secondary School community garden

The Columbia Secondary School community garden has created nature where there previously was none.

Along the bustling Amsterdam Avenue, surrounded by tall brick buildings, there lies a small haven of green. The sign colorfully decorated flags read, “Columbia Secondary School Community Garden”. The Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science, and Engineering a selective middle and high school in New York City, that opened in 2007 in partnership with Columbia University. CSS is located on 123rd street and serves students who live in upper Manhattan, above 96th street. Last year, students and teachers at CSS started a community garden on a small plot of land owned by the New York City Parks Department. After a year of work getting organized to launch the garden, it is currently flourishing, providing a home for basil, okra, eggplant, lettuce, kale, tomatoes, and squash. During the summer, students came to the garden three times a week. One student said, “I came every week this summer. It was really cool to watch the things that we planted as seeds grow into vegetables that we could eat.”

The garden is located on 119th st. and Amsterdam Ave, at the site of the Croton Aqueduct Gatehouse

CSS has found many creative and effective ways to integrate the garden into their curriculum. For the past two years, during June-term, a month long, experiential hands on learning program, there has been a course of Food and Sustainability. During this intense, month-long course, students learn about the different ways that the food they eat affects the environment. Throughout the month, the garden was incorporated into various lessons and activities. As one of their projects, they created a magazine Fresh! Youth Voices on Food and Sustainability documenting their experiences.

During the regular school year, Meredith Hill has found a way to include the garden in many aspects of school life. Recently, the NYC Department of Education launched the Sustainability Initiative, an effort to encourage schools to become greener. As part of this initiative, they ask that schools appoint a sustainability coordinator and start a Green Team. As the sustainability coordinator of CSS, Hill runs a Green Team elective that meets twice a week for one hour.  Hill’s goal is to train the Green Team to be leaders in sustainability and spread their knowledge and passion to the rest of the school. The Green Team has broken up into five different committees, each with a different focus for how to work towards a more sustainable school. All of the committees work in the garden once a week. Hill’s main goal for the Green Team is that the students take ownership over their projects. She noted that after the committees worked together to come up with a plan for their specific issue, one of the students came up to her and said, “So, now what?” Hill responded that they should implement their plan. “Oh,” the student answered. “I thought you were going to come and tell us to do it.” Hill explained that 7th graders aren’t used to being in charge of something. The Green Team gives students a chance to come up with meaningful projects and implement them on their own, an opportunity that middle school students rarely have.

Basil harvested for the Garden to Cafe event on October 27

One of the committees, the Garden to Café committee, is focusing on bringing the harvested vegetables from the CSS community garden to the cafeteria. In the first event, they harvested basil, eggplant, parsley, kale, tomatoes, and okra with over 20 students and parents. The cafeteria made pesto from the ingredients and handed out samples to the students during lunch. Hill noted that the Green Team was impressed by the response from the rest of the CSS students, especially from the high school students. The next Garden to Café event is scheduled for tomorrow, Thursday, October 27. This week, students harvested eggplant, okra, and basil in the garden. Today after school, the Green Team will be working with the SchoolFood staff at CSS to prepare pesto paninis and pasta. The food prepared will be served on the cafeteria line.  This project is exciting because it is entirely planned and implemented by students. The Green Team students will be an integral part of each step of the process of bringing garden food into the cafeteria, including harvesting the vegetables, preparing the food, and raising awareness in the broader school community about the garden.

As the garden continues to grow and become more established, hopefully other teachers will begin to incorporate it into their academic curriculum. Hill plans to include a gardening unit in her English language arts class in the spring. Other teachers have expressed interest in using the garden in their classes, but few have actually done so. A few weeks ago, a student remarked that there should be a gardened themed school. “And why not?” Hill said, “The garden teaches students to work well together and take initiative. I ask ‘Who wants to do the compost?’ and they all just go and do it.” The benefits of the garden to the CSS community stretch beyond simply teaching students about sustainability and the environment. The garden is teaching students how to be leaders in their community.

It’s Not Easy Being Green

At my urban university where students are informed when they are allowed to sit on the lawn and when they are not, it is often difficult to remember nature. However nature, particularly in the form of trees, is never far. From pop culture (Grandmother Willow in Disney’s Pocahontas) to folklore (Johnny Appleseed) trees are deeply embedded in our society.

Johnny Appleseed Surrounded by Trees SVadilfari/Flickr Creative Commons

Trees have become a symbol of nature at large, and an emblem for the green and environmental movements. Not only that, but trees have been of great inspiration for scientists who are looking to nature for solutions to environmental problems. This inspiration can be used to help us bring more sustainable and green technology to the Big Apple itself.

Returning to our Roots

Researchers at SolarBotanic have gone even further than being inspired by trees, they have created artificial trees that, among other things, harness solar, heat and wind energy and filter the air just as trees do. These biomimetic energy sources can be “planted” anywhere from the desert to urban environments and their realistic designs bring nature’s beauty along with nature’s power. SolarBotanic trees utilize nanoleaves that effectively absorb light waves in both the visible and invisible spectrum. This means that the nanoleaves cannot only transform light into energy like other solar cells, but they can also transform infrared rays (in other words, heat) into energy. This way electricity can be provided to a home or a car straight from a “tree” in your front yard.

SolarBotanic Trees, Rebuildingdemocracy/Flickr Creative Commons, Photo Courtesy of Solar Botanic

Nanoleaves are thin, like actual leaves, so they can blow in the wind while remaining attached to the tree. The movement of the leaf flapping back and forth is mechanical energy, which is harnessed by the SolarBotanic tree, providing even more energy and electricity.

Trees do not merely capture light as energy, they also provide us with cleaner air. The SolarBotanic tree does something similar by using a facilitated transport system modeled after our lungs, another inspiration from nature. In the tree there is an “agent” that separates out the CO2, effectively removing it from the air. SolarBotanic is truly paying homage to the tree, and using an already perfect design to provide a beautiful (and effective) form of alternative energy.

Mother Nature Knows Best

Carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions and global warming are an extremely serious issue in the modern world. We need CO2 for everything from oil drilling to blood banks, but too much CO2 in our atmosphere is poisoning our planet at an alarming rate. The government is seriously looking at carbon sequestration, which involves collecting CO2 from the air (mostly from smoke stacks) and injecting it underground, as a method to reduce carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere.

ZScott-Singley/Flickr Creative Commons

However, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change special report on Carbon Dioxide Capture and Storage, even if the carbon capture and storage (CCS) techniques that are being explored today are 90% efficient, about half of the world’s carbon CO2 emissions will still be released into the environment. Therefore, it is extremely important to find other approaches as well.  Dr. Klaus Lackner and Dr. Allen Wright, researchers at Columbia University’s Lenfest Center for Sustainable Energy, have come up with a remarkable, biomimetic alterative—recycling CO2. They have developed a “tree” made of plastic that absorbs CO2, just as trees do, but 1000 times more efficiently. In addition to its efficiency, the plastic resin that absorbs CO2 when it is dry, releases that same CO2 when it is wet. This means that the industries that need CO2 (for oil drilling or carbonated drinks) can purchase recycled CO2. It is also a possibility that recycled CO2 can be converted into gasoline and then the gasoline emissions can be recollected as CO2. This would allow us to still use our cars but ensure that the net level of CO2 in the atmosphere stops rising so drastically.

Dr. Allen Wright, the Senior Staff Associate at the Lenfest Center, pointed out to me that “observing that plants do in fact perform ‘air capture’ did prove at the outset that it was possible” however he also says that the “pine branch shape” of the resin is “purely coincidence.” As he says, “A pine branch shape worked well for that because the ‘needles’ would compress nicely.  It is not a particularly useful geometry for many reasons.  The term ‘artificial tree’ is use to help people understand what we are doing.  A practical device deployed in the field for air capture will not likely look like anything found in nature…more perhaps like a carousel sitting on top of a shipping container.”

The Carbon Cycle timmeko/Flickr Creative Commons

Recycling carbon is exactly how nature works. CO2 is produced as a byproduct but it is recycled throughout nature (through the carbon cycle). This technology takes nature’s foolproof method or “recycling” carbon dioxide and applies it to the excess CO2 in our atmosphere. As Dr. Wright explained to me, “the goal of air capture is to remove roughly 10-30% of the CO2 in the air passing through the collector, not to produce CO­2 free air. That would put the air exiting collector at a pre-industrial level of CO2.” Therefore plants can still grow and participate in the carbon cycle without being affected by the CO2 emissions people are producing.

This video elaborates on how this plastic “tree” could dramatically change our world.


With sustainable technology like this we can continue to live our city lives while still changing how we interact with the environment.

Biomimicry in the City

New York is a large city with the majority of its greenery confined to parks. Yet the city is making an effort to incorporate green energy and biomimicry into its urban ways and Clean Energy Connections is making an effort to help provide the network to make this transformation possible. On November 3rd, there will be a fascinating panel called Biomimicry in the Big City: Can Nature Inspire Cleantech Solutions?

It is not always easy to remember the trees when you are surrounded by the bright lights and steel of New York City (or any urban environment). But the innovations and inspiration trees provide us can keep our cities—and our world—cleaner, more energy efficient and more sustainable.

Small Bites, Big Goals

America’s first annual Food Day sparks a conversation to fuel a movement

On Monday, sustainable food was celebrated in over 2,000 events in 50 states, produced by grassroots organizers as part of the Center for Science in the Public Interest’s first annual Food Day.

Food Day was an idea launched in April of 2011, when health, hunger, and sustainable agriculture groups came together to create a campaign to change how Americans eat and think. Modeled after Earth Day, Food Day set out to open dialogue and awareness, promoting healthy foods, supporting sustainable farms, challenging agribusiness subsidies, expanding access to food, and reforming factory farms to protect animals and the environment.

Michael F Jacobson, the executive director of Center for Science in the Public Interest, has expectations that this awareness will translate to action, saying “We want to solve the problems to America’s food system,” and then describing the challenges to face: “Diet-related diseases are contributing to several hundred thousand deaths a year, kids are bombarded with junk-food advertising, millions of people are on the brink of hunger, food is grown in a way that uses enormous amounts of energy and degrades the environment, farm policies shower large farmers with billions of dollars and give little support to sustainable agriculture, workers on farms and in slaughterhouses and packinghouses are often treated miserably.”

But Senator Tom Harkin, chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Comittee defined the event more timidly than its organizers, avoiding explicitly defining the American foodsystem’s problems or providing specific plans for action when he said in a press release, “Food Day is designed to further knowledge, understanding, and dialogue about critical topics in food, agriculture, and nutrition—spanning the food chain from farm families to family tables”.

Food Day was launched to start a dialogue across the country about these issues, but has more political aims. As participants convened in farmers’ markets, schools, grocery stores, fairs, and homes, they were encouraged to send their congress representatives a message soliciting their support of the Eat Real Agenda. The message lays out values of human health, equal and wider access to fresh produce, supporting farm laborers, termination of wasteful farm subsidies, and fair treatment of humans, earth, and animals. But, like Harkin and Jacobson, still provides no concrete steps– no bills or policy proposals– to make these changes happen in government.
Food Day Events Across the Country, courtesy of Flickr

The spread of information and awareness must eventually be channeled into action if it is to meaningfully, structurally change American food. As Jacobson of the Center for Science in the Public Interest explains, “Government policies and consumer decisions are both extremely important.  Consumers can choose healthier foods produced in a sustainable way, but it’s hard.  We need government policies to improve the situation for everyone.”

Where will Food Day be next year, on its first birthday? Time will tell if the continued awareness, dialogue, and spread of information will turn into action. So far, as Michael Pollan points out , writing in The Nation, that there is a “marked split between the movement’s gains in the soft power of cultural influence and its comparative weakness in conventional political terms”. He emphasizes that, with patience and persistence, cultural influence does evolve into policy and power. Food activism and awareness is making important grassroots advances: making school gardens, urban farming ventures, and local policy initiatives, but Food Day has a long battle ahead.

This is not to say it won’t be done. Earth Day started as a grassroots conversation, and ultimately contributed to the passing of the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the establishment of the Environmental Protection Administration. Food Day was an exciting beginning; and its celebration each year will remind eaters to keep talking about, keep chewing on, sustainable food, until enough Americans come to the table inspired to make real change.

Waste in NYC: Past, Present, and Future

A history of waste management in New York City and composting’s potential to change the city’s relationship with its refuse.

An overflowing garbage can in NYC. Photo courtesy of ceegee-ceegee/Flickr Creative Commons

It’s no surprise that the most heavily populated city in the world’s most materialistic country has a colorful history when it comes to dealing with waste; while the situation has doubtless improved since visitors dubbed it a “nasal disaster” in 1800, New York City’s streets will probably never be renowned for their olfactory delights.  Small hills of bulging garbage bags lining the sidewalks and trash cans bearing the slogan “Keep New York City Clean” overflowing and surrounded by skirts of rubbish are common sights here – keeping a city of 8 million people from going rotten is clearly no mean feat.

Still, the waste situation in the city has drastically improved.  In 1866, the Metropolitan Board of Health had to ban the “throwing of dead animals, garbage or ashes into the streets,” and after 1872 the city no longer systematically dumped its garbage into the East River – one can only imagine what it would have been like to live here prior to regulations like these.  The city is historically noteworthy not just for its questionable past waste practices but also for its pioneering advances; it can claim America’s first garbage incinerator, as well as its first recycling center.  However, NYC is also home to the world’s largest landfill, Staten Island’s Fresh Kills.  Opened in 1948 and retired after swallowing much of the wreckage of 9/11, it is America’s contribution to the only two man-made objects that can be seen from space, the other being the Great Wall of China.

The DSNY's collection trucks assembled at a center in Manhattan's Meatpacking District. Photo courtesy of BriYYZ/Flickr Creative Commons

New York City’s Department of Sanitation (DSNY) – responsible for public waste removal since its founding in 1881 as the Department of Street Cleaning – is the biggest sanitation department in the world, with a fleet of 7,899 uniformed workers and 2,230 collection trucks.  It manages “over 12,000 tons of residential and institutional refuse and recyclables a day.”  Outside of its jurisdiction lies the commercial sector, which “generate[s] another 13,000 tons of refuse each day” that is then carted off by private companies.  Though the occasional garbage strike sends the city back to 19th century stink levels, the DSNY’s help has transformed it from an aspiring dump to a habitable metropolis.  New Yorkers, however, are clearly still generating waste at an alarming rate, and all of it is has to go somewhere.  As DSNY commissioner John Doherty revealed, “most of the waste ends up in probably a dozen or more landfills in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Virginia.”  The problem, then, has not been eradicated; it has been moved.  Parades of gas-guzzling trucks export thousands of tons of one city’s trash each day, depositing them in landfills for the residents of other cities to deal with.

The best way for New York City to make its way towards true sustainability and to cut back on its modern need to dump on other states the refuse it once threw into its own streets and rivers is to reduce waste at the source.  This is a challenge that may prove even greater than sanitizing a city, but it is one we must undertake.  Because food is – and always will be – such a large portion of what we consume, composting stands out as a feasible solution that cuts down on waste immediately.  At present, though many restaurants recruit private companies to take care of food waste, composting does not make up a significant portion of NYC’s municipal waste program.  According to Natalie Wesson, Project Coordinator for the NYC Compost Project in Manhattan*, the only public collection program – through which leaves and Christmas trees are gathered and composted – has been frozen until fall 2012 due to budget restrictions.  While New York is unlikely to start a more comprehensive composting program anytime soon considering the state of its current one, the DSNY’s “Composting in New York City: A Complete Program History” declares that 55% of the city’s waste post-recycling can be biodegraded, and “[c]omposting represents an important option as the City looks to increase its recycling rate in the face of the closure of its last active landfill and the mounting cost of exporting garbage.”  Though it is unclear when such a program might become a reality in NYC, the city could clearly benefit from following other large municipalities like San Francisco and Seattle in establishing a curbside composting program as the next chapter of its history with waste.

* Funded and managed by the Bureau of Waste Prevention, Reuse and Recycling, hosted at the Lower East Side Ecology Center

Campaigning for Conflict-Free College Campuses

College students across the U.S. are taking a stance and asking their administrations to work toward building a conflict-free institution. Whether they face roadblocks or successes, students are continuing with their efforts to create the most profound change possible.

Large, international humanitarian and environmental crises can often be paralyzing. Upon reading about such a conflict, it can be easy to feel disconnected from a far-flung location ridden by chaos. Where to begin; what stance to take; who to communicate with on the matter. These can all be difficult issues to face. One tactic is to turn to a community you already feel a part of—a workplace, organization, religious institution, school, or family—to discuss the matter and decide on an educated course of action. An example of such communal action has begun to take root at college campuses across the United States and in parts of Canada.

Sixty-two American and Canadian colleges have already come out in support of conscious consumption of electronics. Conscious consumption refers to purchasing electronics from companies that do not buy products containing Congolese minerals from conflict mines. As campuses take action on this matter, support generally comes in one of three forms: a procurement policy, a shareholder resolution, or a statement of general support.

A procurement policy is the strongest level of commitment a university or college can take. This involves the passage of a resolution that states the institution will favor purchasing electronics that come from companies that do not purchase conflict minerals. A shareholder resolution would require the university to vote their shares in favor of any resolution—regarding conflict-minerals in the DRC—that arises at companies they hold stock in. The third option, a statement of general support, expresses the university’s support of conscious consumption and conflict-free electronics in general. Each of these three efforts also acts as an awareness tactic as well.

These three options all pressure electronics companies, whether directly or indirectly, to clean up their mineral supply chains and to only use conflict-free minerals in their products. That said, each of these commitments does hold some noncommittal component. The language of procurement policies remains somewhat vague, allowing universities to express their “intent” to purchase conflict-free products. The shareholder resolution is a somewhat indirect piece of action; it deflects the need to actually purchase conflict-free electronics on campus. A statement of general support, of course, is only committing to releasing a public statement and falls short of taking any action beyond that.

At the same time, each of these steps does build awareness, seek to decrease the purchasing of conflict-ridden electronics, and pressures electronics companies by showing a growing demand for conflict-free products. Students are seeing the publicity and impact of these efforts and are now taking it upon themselves to demand more if universities do not self-impose stricter conflict mineral strategies.

Alexandra Hellmuth, Student and Youth Coordinator for Enough Project’s Congo Campaign, works with college and high school students to develop conflict-free campaigns on their campuses. The Enough Project is a non-profit organization “dedicated to ending genocide and crimes against humanity, and preventing them from occurring in the future.” Hellmuth expressed in an interview that she believes the most influential way students can become involved in the cause of conflict minerals in the DRC is through the Conflict-Free Campus Initiative (CFCI).

As stated on the Enough Project’s Congo campaign website, CFCI is a “national campaign to develop consumer advocacy for conflict-free electronics.” She clarified that the extent of these efforts never seeks to achieve Congolese divestment, but rather asks electronics companies to evaluate the legitimacy of mines. Hellmuth explains, “A main part of our campaign is that we don’t want companies to pull out of the Congo.” This would produce further chaos and economic distress in the DRC, which would work against the objectives of this campaign.

Stanford University’s chapter of STAND, “the student-led division of the Genocide Intervention Network” represents one of the leading college campus forces taking on the conflict-free campaign. Through Stanford STAND’s efforts working with administrators and Board of Trustee members, Stanford University became the first university in the world to alter its investment guidelines to help diminish its funding of the conflict minerals trade in the DRC. Through the club’s efforts, they achieved the passage of a proxy voting agreement, which is the same concept as a shareholder resolution, described above, except for that it does not take initiative to file these resolutions. Stanford STAND’s website describes the policy the university adopted: “The guideline states that the University will: ‘…vote in favor of well-written and reasonable shareholder resolutions that ask companies for reports on their policies and efforts regarding their avoidance of conflict minerals and conflict mineral derivatives.’” Even given this success, though, Stanford student and campus STAND co-president, Clementine Stip, stated in an interview that just because they have achieved this accomplishment does not mean they will back away from this issue; she insisted they must continue to perfect their rhetoric and stance as they now act as a role model for other campuses.

Students at Duke University provide another example of meaningful campus activism. Stefani Jones, Duke sophomore and student senator for athletics, services, and the environment, teamed up with a group of friends to spearhead these campus efforts. While interning for the Enough Project this past summer, Jones decided to bring the CFCI to her campus. In order to do so, she started a coalition of students that is now part of the Duke Partnership for Service, which acts as an “umbrella organization for student-led service organizations at Duke.” Jones explained the importance of establishing this coalition since there is not a STAND chapter at Duke. Her goal was to gain as much student support as possible: “We have been reaching out to different student groups… like human rights and ethics to…investment clubs to our environmental alliance.” Her goal was “to try meeting…all the parts of campus that have either a stake or an interest in stopping the conflict in Congo.”

Jones’ campus-wide support was reflected in the organization of the Eureka Symposium, run through Duke Partnership for Service, which attracted over 120 students. The symposium, which included a presentation by the Enough Project, sought to work with students to teach and develop effective mechanisms for social change.

Students gather at Duke University for the Eureka Symposium | Photo Courtesy of Stefani Jones

Despite the original strength of efforts at Duke—and the original enthusiasm of the administration—Duke advocacy did run into a roadblock. Once administrators discovered that many of their corporate sponsors were electronics companies, they feared jeopardizing their relationship with such companies and backed down from their position of support.

Jones shared her perspective on this setback and the importance of remedying the situation in the DRC, “These corporate interests aren’t as important as the fact of how severe this conflict is. We’ve had a hard time convincing administrators that it is something worth viewing as a serious issue.”

Jones ensured, however, that as she continues to work with fellow students to develop a procurement strategy for Duke, and to establish a dialogue with Board of Trustee members, that she would not stand down to the administration: “we’re not really going to take no for an answer.”

Each of the three campus action options work toward a solution to hold electronics companies responsible for their mineral sources. As discussed last week, this type of activism is just one component of the necessary efforts to address human rights violations being carried out by violent Congolese mine owners who exploit the environment. What is clear is that campus activism is taking root all across the United States and that students are tenacious in their efforts; they are not backing down, and they are fighting for a cause they deeply believe in.

Environmentalist and Activist Art On Campus

What is happening not just in New York City but at Columbia University itself to advance environmentalist and/or art activism? As it turns out, more than I was expecting—and they are new initiatives, too. The Barnard/Columbia Design for America chapter (which launched only two weeks ago) seeks to design creative solutions to environmental and other problems. The Columbia University Activist Art Collective, only a semester old and still working toward official recognition, brings together artists on campus to empower people on different issues.

When Lulu Mickelson first heard about Design for America (DFA), a new national organization that plans to create a nation-wide network of fifty studios in the next five years and started with studios in six schools this fall, she started to brainstorm how to bring this to Barnard and Columbia.

Her application to DFA was accepted, and on October 10th, she and her team hosted a launch event that drew 110 people. She explained to me that DFA is all about creative problem solving. Design is where science meets art, which is why the methodology of creative design is ideal for solving small-scale environmental problems. “It is the science that defines how we need to change the world,” as the first student in DFA’s video (below) explains, “but it is the art that is going to implement it and cause people to want to use that change.”


Mickelson takes a similar approach. She sees design as applied art, much in the same way as physics is applied calculus or chemistry is applied physics. She said:

“Art itself can inspire social change, but it is rarely social change in itself. Design can be the actual, tangible agent for change in a very real and immediate way.”

DFA is currently in the process of setting up a design studio to work on solving problems on campus. They have recently discovered that only 14% of the material in the recycling bins in Lerner, Columbia’s student center, are actually recycled—the rest is contaminated by garbage or unclean containers. DFA plans to address this problem. I look forward to seeing their solution.

The Columbia University Activist Art Collective (CUAAC) is a group of students who collaborate on projects dedicated to inspiring positive change on campus and in our community through art. From their mission statement:

We believe in the transformative power of all forms of art to reinvigorate communities, to function as a tool of self- and community- empowerment, to inspire cross-cultural dialogue, and to provide a common language through which people can meaningfully engage in issues that affect their lives. Our goal is to make art that does not merely reflect the issues of our time, but that is rather in constant conversation with them.

CUAAC’s current project was inspired by the work of Emi Koyama, an activist/author/academic working on intersex, sex workers’ rights, (queer) domestic violence, genderqueer, anti-racism, and other issues. She has created a number of activist posters (warning: explicit language) and images to shape people’s perceptions of gender and able bodiedness. CUAAC is currently working on a series of images illustrating the “Strong, Beautiful Barnard Women” motto that represents Barnard students of a variety of bodies, styles, and expressions. As Liza Roisman, one of the founders of CUAAC, told me:

“Activist art has the potential to change what you think is important. The power of making art is the power of controlling images—what people see carries over to so much more than the art itself.”

CUAAC functions under those principles; they allow anyone to join the organization and they value everyone’s contribution. While so far CUAAC has focused on issues related to feminism, queerness, and ableism, they are committed to environmentalism in theory and look forward to finding ways to implement that in practice.