by Andrea Contreras, '19
My relationship with my period began like a pretty average one. I started out with big heavy pads that made me feel uncomfortable, and when I was about 13 or 14 my mom showed me what a tampon was, and I thought my life had been simplified forever. I thought this was the most convenient, comfortable way for me to deal with my time of the month out of all the options available. But then I started spending a lot of time living and working on boats and with scuba diving, and getting my period was the biggest pain imaginable. It slowed me down from what I wanted to do, and I was constantly paranoid about it. Thoughts of toxic shock syndrome would litter my mind, I would have to be running in and out of random bathrooms to change, and I always thought it would leak. And then someone I was working on a boat with showed me what a menstrual cup was, and my life was changed forever.
In the last year SSS has made several efforts to make menstrual cups available to students through an initiative we did with SHPRC, and we have had a few events were we have had conversations about these different options. Last April there was a great blog post talking about menstrual cups and their many environmental and economic benefits the switch can bring, as well as the easy access to these on campus! In this post I want to talk about a few of the more sustainable options available, and how some of these have worked for me. Depending on where you grew up or what your personal beliefs and ideas are you will feel differently, but here is one person’s experience with the surprisingly interesting world of a more eco-friendly period.
So back to when my life changed. I first used a menstrual cup in the summer before my Senior year of high school, right before living on a sailboat for 8 weeks. It could have been just two cycles, but when it comes to these things the world tends to hate me, and I had to prepare for three. I ordered it a few months ahead, and tried it out to see how it would work. For those of you who don’t know, a menstrual cup is a silicon wine glass shaped object that is inserted similar to how a tampon would be. It sits on your cervix, and collects blood. Honestly, the first month or two were pretty scary, learning to use something new that not a lot of people are willing to talk about was an experience that took a lot of trial and error. But eventually you get past the kinks, and it works great. I was able to focus on my work and spending time underwater, because once I figured it out my cup was comfortable, I could barely feel it, it only had to be changed every 10-12 hours, it didn’t leak, and it had a much lower risk of toxic shock syndrome. A little over 2 years later I swear by these, and the best part is it keeps hundreds of pounds of trash off the landfills, saves me money, and I don't have to worry about changing it for a year or two. It’s important to listen to the cleaning and maintenance directions of what you choose, but a really great alternative for me.
Menstrual cups aren’t the ideal alternative for everyone though, just because it worked for me, doesn’t mean it works for someone else. Another product I use regularly during my menstrual cycle are period underwear. These look and feel almost like real underwear, but they are absorbent, and all you need to wear. The most popular brand of these, and the only one I know about are THINX period underwear, and they have sizes and styles available for all menstruators. Different styles hold different amounts, they have products for the heaviest and the lightest days. I really like these, and have never had an issue with them leaking. They never quite feel soaked either, it’s a little weird, but they work. Another similar product are reusable pads, which are exactly what they sound like, pads you are able to wash and reuse over and over. The shape is like a normal pad, and they are changed a few times a day, but instead of sticking like a sticker they have buttons and clasps that help them stay in place. A huge benefit of these is that it avoids the use of cotton that was grown with heavy used of pesticides, over time is less money, and greatly decreases waste produced. If you are not feeling quite this adventurous but still want to reduce your environmental impact, good options are to buy organic pads and tampons and opt for paper, or reusable applicators.
Periods are such a common and natural thing, that have large social, economic, and environmental effects worldwide. A choice that billions of people make every month should have all the options layed out, because it can provide great benefits for individuals, and decrease a lot of harm to our planet.
by Becca Nelson '20
My hands smeared with soil, I bend down and scatter handfuls of seeds over the barren earth. Gold light streams through the oaks on the path around Lake Lagunita. I pat a thin layer of soil over the seeds to protect them. Several other people from my dorm, Roble, help out. As we laugh and talk, I start raking another patch of soil. The air tastes of wet clay and dried leaves. We spread another layer of seeds as the distant foothills flush a deep purple. The seeds float downward as small brown wisps, as thin and fragile as silk. Yet given soft rain and luck and patience, some of these seeds will grow into a vibrant mix of native wildflowers and grasses.These plants will help improve Lake Lag’s biodiversity and provide an important nectar source for declining pollinators such as bees and butterflies. The seed planting is part of my project as a Roble Sustainability Leader, working in collaboration with Stanford Conversation. I am seeking to foster interconnection between the people living in Roble and its surrounding ecosystem.
2018 marks the 100th anniversary of Roble Hall, Stanford’s largest four class dorm. With its Beaux-Arts columns and gothic tendrils of ivy, Roble stands out as one of the most iconic dorms on campus. With its ornate carvings and narrow balconies, Roble endures as a symbol of Stanford’s history. Beyond its old-fashioned facade, Roble has become the locus of an innovative sustainability initiative that is addressing the social and environmental challenges of the 21st century. Roble Resident Fellows Jeff Ball and Becky Bull spearheaded the creation of the Roble Living Laboratory for Sustainability at Stanford (ROLLSS). According to its mission statement, “ROLLSS seeks to help students prioritize actions that are likely to make a meaningful environmental difference.” Another major goal of the program is to cost-effectively retrofit the old and inefficient Roble into a resource and energy efficient building, a challenge that can serve as a model for other buildings in the Stanford community and beyond.
As one of several Roble Sustainability Leaders (RSLs), I help catalyze discussion and action about sustainability. The other RSLs and I are engaged in a variety of projects that seek to encourage sustainability in three main ways: (1) by improving the efficiency of Roble’s building and its relationship with the surrounding ecosystem (2) by encouraging people living in the dorm to modify the environmental impact of their lifestyle and (3) by reaching out to communities beyond Roble and Stanford to encourage dialogue and policy change. I have been really inspired by the passion and ideas of the other RSLs as well as Roble’s Graduate Sustainability Fellow. Their projects include efforts to encourage composting and decrease waste in the dorm, developing an innovative MakerSpace in Roble where people can create and build cool things, and hosting informal discussions about sustainability through dinner and movie events. Roble also holds a series of Hard Earth talks in which graduate student speakers discuss their research and perspectives on a wide range of issues from the economic feasibility of renewable energy to environmental justice.
After returning to campus from winter break, I go for a run around Lake Lag. The jogging path glistens with dampness from recent rains. As I run through the fog, I pass the area along the path where we planted our seeds. Small green sprouts poke out of the soil, less than an inch high. Sustainable changes in resource use, lifestyle, and land stewardship don’t occur overnight but grow slowly like seeds gradually thrusting their way toward the light. An ethical relationship with the places and ecosystems we live in evolves with community action and dialogue. The ultimate innovation of the Roble Living Laboratory for Sustainability at Stanford is its ability to foster a community of people open to tough conversations and new ideas.
by Andrea Contreras, '19
It’s dead week (the week before finals). You feel dead inside. But coffee helps.
To help you get through the week, here is a semi-comprehensive guide on how to drink coffee a little more sustainably. From the dining hall coffee drinker to the one whose name is known by most Coupa staff, hope you enjoy!
Why am I taking your time: From its production to its disposal coffee has an enormous environmental and social impact. It involves clearing forests across the equator, heavy pesticide use, increased erosion of landscapes, unjust pay and working conditions for farmers, and a lot of waste (400 million cups a day in the US alone!). If you are at all like me, and survive off of 4-5 shots of espresso a day, here are some tips to decrease your impact, and still be able to function as a human. Although I do drink a lot of coffee, and try make my way around different spots on campus, this is by no means a complete guide, feel free to share your experiences and tips! Making conscious decisions on an almost daily drink for people around the world can have a huge positive impact for countless individuals.
If you make coffee in your room: Those plastic pods are evil. You know the ones I’m talking about. The single serve contraption may seem convenient, but usually ends up getting pretty pricey, and will sit tidy in a landfill long after your time here. There is good news! They make refillable pods, that are pretty easy to find online, so you can keep your machine, save money making coffee, and be a little less trashy. If you are looking to get your own coffee making machine, opt for some other great alternatives like a french press, or use a (compostable!) filter to make your coffee. When getting coffee beans try to go for some that are local, fair trade, or have less packaging. This makes sure that less carbon dioxide was emitted at transport, that farmers got a greater share of the final profit and were more fairly compensated for their hard work, or that less trash will be produced. There are lots of places a walk or short bike ride away that offer these. Some include Coupa, Blue Bottle, Whole Foods, and Trader Joe’s. You can also opt for reusables, like bamboo or metal cutlery for stirring, and mugs/cups of your own.
If you drink it at a dining hall: This solution is simple! Dining halls around campus tend to be mindful when sourcing the food we are served around campus. If you are super inspired by this post, feel free to send them an email, and ask about where they source their coffee. Not happy? Lot’s of companies around the world are taking steps to improve how this works, look some up at suggest your dining hall or house supply these instead. Another step you can take? Use a reusable mug! While many dining halls do have compostable cups for warm beverages, this is still a product that required intensive energy use and resource extraction that will only be used for a short amount of time. Use they ones they provide, or if you are feeling adventurous, bring one from your own collection!
If you buy coffee from a coffee shop: This is at least a few hundred of you, because I have seen the line outside of Philz. One of the best things to do is bring your own mug! There are tons of designs for these in all colors, levels of leak-proofing, patterns, and temperatures available (not really the iced-coffee season, but you do you). This is super easy to do, just ask the barista if they can use your cup instead, and in many places you can even get a discount! I have personally benefited from these discounts at Starbucks, Coupa, and the campus bookstore, but there may be other locations around campus that do this! Places like CoHo and Coupa will also serve your coffee in ceramic mugs if you ask them to, so if you are deathly afraid of washing dishes this can be a great option for you. CoHo also has some pretty cool christmas mugs that are right in season, and I personally think ceramic mugs just look really cool. Asking places who do not offer reusable mugs if they would be willing to supply this can also make positive change, you have a lot of power as a consumer. Another important thing is to ask your coffee shop where they source their coffee, but there are several places around campus that provide fair-trade and shade grown coffee, which help lower their social and environmental impacts.
Hope these tips helped, and that you will make more conscious decisions while trying to stay awake for one of the worst weeks of the year!
by Sierra Garcia, '18
In less than seven months, thousands of students will move off campus in a mass migration to summer jobs and internships, or in the case of the senior class, to their post-grad lives. Over the course of a just few days, these same students will also condemn tens of thousands of pounds of furniture items to the landfill. Couches, mini-fridges, cushy chairs, futons, mattresses, printers, and microwaves will pile up by the hundreds along the Row and other residential hubs—and many of these items will still be entirely functional, or even in great condition.
SSS and the First-Generation/Low Income Partnership (FLIP) teamed up last year to repurpose the better quality furniture items to incoming freshmen. Our efforts served the dual purpose of keeping over 4000 pounds of ‘waste’ out of the landfill, and providing fifty freshmen with free furniture and other dorm supplies at the beginning of this academic year. The event that we named the FLI (First-Generation/Low Income) Drive will be an annual event and is in the process of garnering official administrative support.
Yet the necessity for the event in the first place speaks to a larger cultural apathy, an overlooked but dangerous obliviousness to the impact of our waste. To be sure, most people would try and sell their furniture or mini-fridge online before resorting to the dumpster, but once the offending item is out of sight it is largely out of mind. Nobody claims to be a proponent of waste, yet the fact that our used items must end up somewhere, and be dealt with by someone, is often ignored for the sake of convenience.
There are several implications of a useable item being thrown ‘away’, or left out on the curb. The item must be transported to a landfill, where it can take up space for centuries depending on the material (in other locations the trash might be incinerated, but burning trash isn’t as in vogue in the US). The disposal also implies that a new version of that item will be made to replace it, in some other part of the world, with other laborers and resources. And for certain things, like fridges or batteries, components like coolant need to be extracted first so they don’t contaminate the air or soil.
An especially salient example for Silicon Valley is electronics waste. Electronics like old laptops contain small quantities of toxic substances, that can contaminate water and soils when concentrated together in a landfill area. The health risks resulting from proximity to electronic waste sites when not disposed of properly are severe (see here for a detailed account of this issue, and how African countries like Nigeria bear the brunt of the human toll for Western electronics consumption.) Outsourcing the disposal of waste to poorer countries is a clear-cut and egregious environmental justice issue. Solving these problems will require fundamental and lasting shifts in how we think about and value stuff--any of the countless things that we use, consume, and toss each day. Most importantly, these impacts cannot be disparate, but must be part of a larger collective shift towards new norms.
Changing behaviors and attitudes is an extreme challenge. Yet I believe that confronting this challenge will be increasingly important in the twenty first century, regardless of technological progress. At Stanford we can design ingenious apps and program away diseases, but I challenge us as a community to shift towards personally enacting the mundane solutions hiding in plain sight.
Rethinking the waste we make can mean making the effort to donate food instead of throwing it out*, ensuring that your mini-fridge goes to a person who can use it instead of the dumpster at the end of the year, or even something as simple as buying compostable cups instead of red solo cups** for your next party. Perhaps in this way, we can individually and collectively work for a cultural shift towards intentionality, and away from who we are now: a society that wastes 40% of its food and deposits, on average, over 2000 pounds of trash per person each year.
It won’t be easy.
*(If you’re interested in this, please consider volunteering with the Stanford Project on Hunger (SPOON) to help redirect hundreds of pounds of food to local people in need each week)
**(Red solo cups are NOT recyclable, compostable, or anything other than landfill-able at Stanford. This is true in many places, including most of the US.)
Environmental Justice Impact
by Charlie Jiang
I’m a 2015-2016 Co-Director of SSS and a current U.S. youth delegate to the United Nations climate conference, COP23, with SustainUS. On Monday, the Trump Administration tried to promote coal as a solution to climate change in their only public event here in Bonn, Germany.
Here’s why we shut it down.
We will likely remember 2017 as the year climate change truly reared its ugly head, far sooner than I imagined. Millions in Puerto Rico are still without power, more than 50 days after Hurricane Maria devastated the island. Vulnerable communities from Houston to the Virgin Islands have all suffered from storms made stronger by warming temperatures.
Yet still, global pledges to reduce emissions to tackle climate change remain woefully inadequate. So-called “Nationally Determined Contributions” under the Paris Agreement are projected to take us beyond 3°C of warming — far exceeding the 1.5°C target vulnerable island nations need to survive. The United States’ contribution in particular falls far short of our obligations given the vast resources at our disposal, not to mention our historical contributions to the climate crisis. The inadequacy of our response to climate disaster was evident even before Trump came to power. Now, by seeking to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris Agreement, the Trump administration has made clear its complete disregard for the lives of everyday people.
These are the global stakes I carried as I arrived in Germany for COP23—the first UN climate conference under President Trump. Our SustainUS delegation arrived to mobilize, to further isolate Trump and demonstrate that millions of Americans and people around the world are moving ahead.
The day I arrived in Germany, The New York Times published a blockbuster: “Trump Team to Promote Fossil Fuels and Nuclear Power at Bonn Climate Talks.” The headline said enough: we knew this was our moment. We know that coal is no solution to climate change. There is no place for a dirty energy source that kills thousands each year through air pollution, poisoned water, and climate disaster.
So over a week, we planned. We reached out to partners, from Indigenous organizers and students from the U.S., to youth delegations from Brazil, the U.K., New Zealand, and other countries spanning the globe. We developed contingencies for every possible way our action could go wrong. We wrote a song.
On Monday, hundreds of people lined up to get inside the event. It seemed every reporter in the conference had eyes and cameras trained on this moment. The stakes for us had never been higher. Our outreach paid off with huge dividends: 150 allies managed to fill 70 percent of the room, while 250 more massed outside the doors. As the panel got underway, we could hear our friends outside chanting: “Climate Justice Now!” Twenty minutes in, as the fossil fuel lobbyist headlining the White House’s event extolled the virtues of coal as an energy source, we started to sing.
“So you claim to be an American / but we see right through your greed. / It’s killing all around the world / for that coal money. / So we proudly stand up / until you keep it in the ground. / We the people of the world unite / And we are here to stay.”
With hands on hearts, we sang for the humanity and futures of millions of people whose lives the fossil fuel industry is threatening. We sang to the tune of “God Bless the USA” because we know we represent the true values of the United States. After all, seven in 10 Americans want the U.S. to stay in the Paris Agreement. After 10 minutes we walked out of the room, leaving the coal lobbyists talking to themselves while we staged a People’s Panel in the hallway outside. At the People’s Panel, hundreds cheered to the powerful stories of Indigenous leaders, young organizers, and Pacific Climate Warriors who embodied the beautiful world for which we fight.
Our disruption was not a one-time action, but rather the latest powerful moment in a years-long effort to build the power we need to safeguard our futures. The fossil fuel industry has a stranglehold on our politics. For decades, they have spent millions to stymie efforts to combat climate change, and now an ExxonMobil CEO runs the U.S. State Department. At the same time, we’ve seen incredible leadership from communities at the forefront of this crisis, from the fight to stop the Dakota Access pipeline, to the powerful and ongoing battle against Chevron’s oil refinery in Richmond, to SSS’s own work to leverage Stanford’s resources to address the Bay Area’s housing crisis with the SCoPE coalition.
This past year has taught me we cannot realize our vision of a just and sustainable future without simultaneously organizing for thriving communities and political victories. It’s time we build a stronger, smarter movement that can bridge the local and global, and that can bring together mass mobilization, community organizing, smart policy, and electoral politics into a coordinated effort to stabilize our climate and achieve a just transition to a clean future.
As SSS Co-Director in 2015-2016, I worked to help us recognize our role, as Stanford students, in building better lives for struggling families across the Bay Area — and the world. At this historic crossroads, our responsibility as a Stanford community is greater than ever. I hope the bravery and dignity hundreds of delegates displayed by taking action here in Bonn on Monday inspires thousands more to do the same back home. For as we sang to the fossil fuel lobbyists that seek to bring us down: We the people of the world unite, and we are here to stay.
by Jazzy Kerber '20
Today is Election Day, so let’s talk environmental policy. What comes to mind when you hear the phrase “environmental policy”? Al Gore? The EPA? Regulations? Democrats? Maybe you don’t think of these particular words, but there’s a good chance that if you live in the United States, you associate environmentalism with the political Left.
Why? Why can’t we accept that no matter how we cast our votes, we all share a planet? Why can’t we trust climate scientists and see that data doesn’t lie? Perhaps we’re asking the wrong questions.
First of all, although 7.6 billion of us “share” the Earth, we don’t all share the same ideas about what nature means, we don’t all experience the same weather patterns, and we don’t all have the same viewpoints and values. Someone living on the beach and someone residing in a city center, a devoutly religious person and an atheist, a financial advisor and a scuba diver will likely perceive the world and its most pressing issues very differently from each other.
That’s not to say I believe every opinion is justified, but one or more sides may have been misled—or even deliberately deceived. And sometimes, data does lie. It’s possible to misuse the scientific method. In this next section, I’m going to draw on some ideas from Merchants of Doubt, a 2010 book by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway. This is not a book review and I don’t intend to endorse or summarize all of Oreskes and Conway’s ideas, but they provide some great food for thought.
Oreskes and Conway, both academic historians, begin their story with a small group of scientists and an organization called the George C. Marshall Institute. Several physicists including Frederick Seitz, Robert Jastrow, and William Nierenberg initially established the George C. Marshall Institute in 1984 to defend Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative against pushback from other groups including the Union of Concerned Scientists. Perhaps fueled in part by this early work, they feared communism and socialism. They also honed their skills in arguing against other scientists and asking TV stations to invite them to debates.
Even before founding the George C. Marshall Institute, Seitz had practiced using his brand of contrarian science to support the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company. When scientists first began uncovering links between cigarette smoking and cancer in the 1950s, the industry panicked and sought research that could produce counter-evidence. Of course, Frederick Seitz was a physicist without experience working on health issues, but he had a PhD and for the industry, that would be enough. The tobacco industry’s paid scientists didn’t need to objectively analyze the smoking-cancer link, anyway. “Doubt is our product,” a tobacco executive himself wrote in a 1969 company memo. The longer people weren’t sure smoking caused cancer, the longer cigarette companies could be certain they’d enjoy high sales. As a result, cigarette companies paid researchers to produce studies demonstrating how many other factors besides cigarettes might cause cancer and obsessing over small degrees of statistical uncertainty in reports from the anti-smoking side.
With a solid background in manufactured doubt, Frederick Seitz and others went on to use the same uncertainty tactics they’d relied on during the fight for tobacco to publish papers questioning whether people could trust climate change data. Again, the papers’ authors had been trained in completely different fields from environmental science, but they had PhD’s and funding. And like tobacco companies, oil companies had plenty of money and a product many people were reluctant to give up. Doubt would be enough.
Types of climate change doubt vary, ranging from “Have temperatures really risen?” to “Would it be that bad if the Earth got warmer?” to “Sure, the Earth is getting warmer, but are humans causing the change?” Sometimes, people who do believe human actions cause global warming also ask whether the costs of environmental regulations could outweigh their benefits. Perhaps part of the struggle to convince voters to support environmentally friendly policies lies in the fact that some people aren’t sure whether the planet is warming at all while others voting for the same candidate are merely skeptical of regulations in general.
The Republican Change of Heart
Republican candidates who prioritize climate action may be having an increasingly hard time. It was actually a Republican president, Richard Nixon, who established the EPA in 1970. Under our current Republican administration, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt doubts that carbon dioxide contributes to global warming and sued the EPA at least fourteen times before assuming his current post as the head of the agency. Essentially, he’s an anti-EPA EPA Administrator. What happened over the past forty-seven years to cause this change?
Merchants of Doubt came out in 2010, well before anyone could foresee where American environmental policy would be headed today, but Pruitt appears to deny climate change using similar logic to that which Oreskes and Conway describe. He says we need to “continue to debate” how humans affect the environment because “measuring with precision human activity on the climate is something very challenging to do and there's tremendous disagreement about the degree of impact.” Pruitt has close ties to oil and gas executives, so his “doubt” can help their businesses.
In 2008, Democrat Nancy Pelosi and Republican Newt Gingrich sat side-by-side and made a commercial stating that we (presumably Democrats and Republicans) can solve climate change together. In 2011, however, Gingrich called the ad “probably the dumbest single thing I’ve done in recent years” and told reporters he doesn’t know whether global warming is really happening, partly because the Earth’s temperatures have always varied from year to year. He too turned to doubt. I’m not 100% sure why Gingrich changed his stance, but perhaps it was to win more Republican votes.
It’s hard to sell environmentalism to a broad Republican audience. For instance, Bob Inglis served as U.S. Representative for South Carolina’s 4th district, a distinctly conservative region, from 1993 to 1999 and from 2005 to 2011. He lost the 2010 race after reversing his position on climate change when scientists he talked to convinced him he’d been wrong to deny warming. When Inglis accepted evidence for climate change and advocated for a carbon tax, he became an unelectable Republican in his district. Inglis feels Republicans are hesitant to change their lifestyles. He probably makes a good point, but other dynamics are at work as well.
Capitalism vs. “The Watermelons”
Some conservatives worry that American environmentalists want to shift the country toward socialism. That might sound crazy if you haven’t heard it before, but it’s well-documented. Fearful conservatives have called environmentalists “watermelons”—green on the outside, but red on the inside. And we should remember that producers of climate change denial material like the George C. Marshall institute specifically feared communism.
The United States has no major history of socialism aside from a few figures like Eugene V. Debs and Bernie Sanders, neither of whom won their presidential races in the end. I say this just to suggest that we take our capitalist history into account when thinking about environmental policy. Strategies that work in Denmark may not work in the United States. This might mean focusing on health in America—a less divisive issue than values or even temperature change—when advocating for sufficient environmental regulations. After all, health concerns convinced a Republican administration to found the EPA in the first place.
We can also emphasize the economic reasoning behind environmental policy. Logical economists do not oppose all regulations. My current econ professor, John Taylor, has worked for the previous four Republican administrations and talks to us about how cap-and-trade policies reduce carbon emissions via efficient bargaining. Other economists recommend carbon taxes, which also generate government revenue. Given this type of reasoning, Scott Pruitt’s general stance against environmental regulations is illogical.
Countries with communist vs. democratic socialist vs. more purely capitalist backgrounds shouldn’t need different environmental regulations (after all, air and water work the same everywhere). Still, the way to enact regulations will have to vary in countries with different political histories. I personally believe the end result—improving people’s health and preserving the Earth for future generations—is most important.
At the beginning, I noted that environmental issues can be inherently political. When voters feel the influence of a policy, whether that’s in terms of tax rate or health risks, we’re bound to see people take sides. Still, when it comes to environmental issues, I believe we need first and foremost to reduce pollution. We need to try to make climate issues less polarizing because the United States has a two-party political system, and the majority must agree (or at least compromise) in order to achieving lasting change.
This is no easy task. Not only does the environmental opposition have money and “science,” but the American political climate does not prime our country to embrace regulations. But ultimately, if our policies help give everyone a cleaner, safer place to live, it won’t matter much who did or didn’t embrace “environmentalism” as a movement.
by John Zhao, '18
Recently, Stanford University announced its decision on prison divestment. The decision made is insufficient and Stanford remains invested in the prison industrial complex, a system of institutions that surveil, police, imprison, and exploit people. Perhaps you are wondering why this is relevant to this blog on sustainability. That is because this is relevant. The prison system - beyond the violations of human rights and dignity - is also a matter of environmental injustice. Environmental injustice manifests in multiple ways within the prison industrial complex.
Prisons often are built on environmentally toxic sites, exposing incarcerated people to environmental hazards. This summer, the EPA updated its Environmental Justice Screening and Mapping Tool to be able to overlay prisons with other sites, such as Superfund sites. One such analysis of prison siting found that “at least 589 federal and state prisons are located within three miles of a Superfund cleanup site [...] with 134 of those prisons located within just one mile.” Thus, incarcerated people are often trapped in facilities that expose them to serious environmental hazards without consent.
The case of valley fever in California prisons also compounds the disproportionate impact that mass incarceration inflicts on people of color, as highlighted in this article by Mother Jones. The fungi that causes valley fever is found mostly in the Central Valley, where 16 of 33 prisons in California are located. Moreover, people of color are more at risk of contracting life-threatening cases of valley fever compared to white people. As a result, the justice system is not only disproportionately incarcerating people of color but also exposing them to life threatening conditions.
Moreover, the prison system often fails to comply with health and safety regulations and subject incarcerated people, surrounding communities, and ecosystems to dire circumstances. Since 2000, 8 of California’s state prisons have been cited for polluting waterways with sewage. Similar cases can be found across the nation. It is not just the prison facilities themselves that are violating these standards; companies that provide services to prisons have also grossly mistreated inmates. Food service companies often prepare highly processed, unhealthy food that fails to provide sufficient nutrition for inmates. Beyond this, companies such as Aramark Correctional Services are notorious for serving unsafe food that have been infested with maggots and rats. This is a violation of incarcerated people’s right to clean and healthy food.
The solution is not to simply make prisons environmentally friendly and safe. Various prisons have made attempts to rebrand themselves as ecologically sustainable. These reforms may improve operations related to energy and water; some even incorporate “green-collar” work and training programs to reduce recidivism. Outside the context of prisons, I would support such initiatives to build up sustainable infrastructure and a green workforce. However, the use of these facilities to imprison people in inhumane conditions should not be ignored; greenwashed prisons are still prisons. That felons can be denied jobs should not be ignored. Incarceration tears people away from familiar environments, throws them into dangerous environments, and - if they do get out- releases them back into society struggling to assimilate. From the perspective of social sustainability, the prison industrial complex pulls people away from families, making it difficult to build sustainable communities.
Prison labor is perhaps the biggest driver of the prison industrial complex. In many cases, the government and private corporations rely on incarceration for a source of cheap labor. Prisoners are often paid far less than minimum wage, often at rates less than $1/hour. The State of California relies heavily on prison labor in order to fight fires in its conservation camps under Cal Fire, saving the state $90-100 million a year. In 2014, when California federal judges ordered a program to release more prisoners early, “lawyers for Attorney General Kamala Harris had argued in court that if forced to release these inmates early, prisons would lose an important labor pool.”
The link between prisons and environmental justice is clear. Environmental injustices compound the damage already inflicted on incarcerate people, through relocation to toxic sites, health and safety violations, and labor exploitation. Environmental injustice will fuel incentive for perpetuating the prison industrial complex and exploitable prison labor. It is hard to imagine that a world that follows the Principles of Environmental Justice would include the prison industrial complex.
Stanford: you do not get to claim to be a leader in sustainability if you remain invested in the prison industrial complex. Listen to SU Prison Divest and divest from private prison corporation stakeholders, prison support industries, and prison labor beneficiaries.
Organization (Bay Area): Critical Resistance http://criticalresistance.org/
Organization: Prison Ecology Project https://nationinside.org/campaign/prison-ecology/
Infographic: Prison and Climate Change https://floodthesystem.net/infographic-prison-and-climate-change/
Readings: Prison Abolition Syllabus http://www.aaihs.org/prison-abolition-syllabus/
by Becca Nelson, '20
This summer, my parents woke up to find a news crew standing in our driveway. We live in a quiet little suburb of Chicago, where this kind of thing never happens. The scene was eerie. The night before, torrential rains had flooded our neighborhood, turning our street into a channel of murky brown water, filled with litter and broken branches. The lights from the cameras flashed off the water, creating jagged shadows. The Des Plaines River, which runs through our neighborhood reached a record high. A couple streets down from where I live, my neighbors were forced to evacuate their homes. Kids floated down the streets in inflatable rafts, laughing and playing, despite the health warnings about entering the water. My neighborhood sits on a floodplain, but this was the second one hundred year flood we had in the last few years. Normally, hundred year floods have a 1 in 100 chance of happening, but their frequency is increasing with climate change.
In the weeks following the flood, I realized how lucky I was. I watched news footage of Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria pounding the Caribbean and Southeastern United States. The hurricanes disrupted the lives of millions of people, including some of my friends and family. Warmer waters in the Gulf of Mexico due to rising global temperature exacerbates the frequency of hurricanes. These natural disasters with their profound social and ecological consequences create an opening for starting a dialogue on climate change. Yet having a thoughtful discussion that catalyzes collaboration and action can be difficult in America’s polarized climate. This summer, I conducted a literature review on how to most effectively communicate and teach about climate change as a part of environmental education research I was doing in Dr. Nicole Ardoin’s Social Ecology Lab. After reading through pages of peer-reviewed journal articles, I learned the following tips about how to more effectively discuss climate change.
Foremost, optimism is far more effective than alarmism in inspiring people to take action. When the effects of climate change are portrayed as inevitable and apocalyptic, people tend to either lose their sense of efficacy in addressing the issue or roll their eyes at what they see as over exaggerated paranoia. I often get overwhelmed watching documentaries that provoke alarm without discussing solutions, thinking about how large my own carbon footprint is and how limited my agency is in tackling climate change. In contrast, messages that focus on how communities have the ability to adapt by adopting concrete actions can instill a sense of hope and urgency.
Besides the tone of the discussion, whether climate change is discussed as a social or scientific problem can also greatly influence people’s response to it. Environmental education researcher K. C. Busch researched how social and scientific portrayals of climate change were presented in the classroom. The scientific discussion of climate change appears to be much more common in schools and emphasizes empirical evidence for climate change and how it will impact the environment globally. Social discussions, however, that portray its negative effects on our society at the local scale are underemphasized in the classroom even though people tend to be more influenced by climate change’s social consequences.
Psychological distance of climate change can also affect people’s level of concern. In other words, people who believe that climate change will threaten their community or similar communities in the near future are more likely to see climate change as an important issue than people who believe that climate change will happen far in the future and far away from where they live. Discussing how climate change will affect people and places at local level can raise more concern than using vague and global terms. For example, the research I did this summer looked at how redwoods can educate visitors at California State Parks about the local impacts of climate change. The devastation from the recent hurricanes hits much closer to home for some Americans than images of polar bears stranded on melting ice floes.
Public perceptions and barriers to feeling concerned about climate change vary demographically throughout the United States. It’s important to understand what perspectives your audience comes from. For example, people in some cases distrust experts who come from outside their community. So imposing a message about climate change on a community rather than fostering an open dialogue can be ineffective. Collective action toward climate change can arise organically from within communities through networks of concerned individuals that spread in a decentralized manner. Stanford biology professor Dr. Deborah Gordon started an online initiative called Land Talk that seeks to empower people all over the world to document changes in weather and land within their own community. The website features stories in which a younger community member interviews an older member about changes within an area based on their personal observations. If you are interested in hearing their stories or sharing your own, you can learn more here.
Ultimately, how we talk about climate change influences the actions we take from lifestyle changes to environmental policy. Watching news footage of my flooded neighborhood was a wake up call for me.
References and Further Reading
Jones, C., Hine, D. W., & Marks, A. D. (2017). The future is now: reducing psychological distance to increase public engagement with climate change. Risk Analysis, 37(2), 331-341.
Scannell, L., & Gifford, R. (2013). Personally relevant climate change: The role of place attachment and local versus global message framing in engagement. Environment and Behavior,45(1), 60–85.
Busch, K. C. (2016). Polar Bears or People? Exploring Ways in Which Teachers Frame Climate Change in the Classroom. International Journal of Science Education, Part B, 6(2), 137-165.
Maibach, E. W., Leiserowitz, A., Roser-Renouf, C., & Mertz, C. K. (2011). Identifying like-minded audiences for global warming public engagement campaigns: An audience segmentation analysis.
Leiserowitz, A. A. (2005). American risk perceptions: Is climate change dangerous?. Risk analysis, 25(6), 1433-1442.
Koepfler, J. A., Heimlich, J. E., & Yocco, V. S. (2010). Communicating climate change to visitors of informal science environments. Applied Environmental Education and Communication, 9(4), 233-242. and tool development. PloS one, 6(3), e17571.
Experiential knowledge paired with trustworthy information necessary for local legitimacy of wind power
by Kira Smiley
The local implications of wind energy are a hotly debated topic worldwide. It seems to be easy to promote wind energy on a grand scale, envisioning the potential it has to generate emission-free energy and mitigate climate change. Unfortunately, all too often arguments sour when talk of wind turbine construction hits close to home. Doubts about how appropriate the construction sites are, along with fears of both personal impacts mixed with those concerning the environment and local wildlife, particularly birds.
These concerns motivated my study of local permanent and seasonal inhabitants in the Finnish archipelago. Funded by the Volpert Scholars grant, I worked as a visiting researcher at the Finnish Environment Institute based in Helsinki, Finland, acting much more responsible and put-together than I felt. After doing a broad ecological survey of the white-tailed eagle nearby wind turbines, I conducted a series of semi-structured interviews on one island with wind turbines and on two without them. The interviews focused on the participants’ perceptions about the impacts of wind turbines on the white-tailed eagle in the Turku archipelago. Not only is the white-tailed eagle a locally important species recognized to interact with wind turbines, but these large and charismatic birds are a point of interest for wind power development throughout Europe.
My findings indicated that experience, or lack of it, strongly affected how participants formed perceptions of wind turbines and their impacts. Additionally, when searching for new information, local residents found it challenging to distinguish trustworthy sources. For instance, if a company or entity publishing or funding an informational article stood to gain from the results, readers were less likely to trust it, regardless of whether they agreed with the message. However, they did tend to show confirmation bias and evaluate sources they did agree with as more trustworthy.
Although often the impact of turbines on birds have been politicized as a key argument against wind turbines, my interviews indicated that perceived bird impacts had no real effect on participants’ views. Instead, concerns centered almost exclusively on personally experienced impacts. Many residents on the island without wind turbines voiced concerns that property values would drop due to view and sound disturbance. However, residents on the island with wind turbines directly contradicted this and said that property values had risen and the sound was noticeable only on very windy days. It was also interesting that despite engagement with the wind-power companies and local authorities taking place, several participants felt their views were not ultimately accounted for in the wind turbine decision-making process.
The results illustrated that misconceptions can often occur due to lack of experience or information, strengthening the need for increased knowledge exchange. We clearly have much to gain from sharing experiences and distributing research-based reliable information. For example, a concise packet of studies on wind turbines including personal experiences might be an effective way to communicate wind turbine impacts to communities that are considering or facing wind turbine construction. Moreover, platforms where locals could share views and communicate with scientists and authorities would reduce biases and support informed development of perceptions from reliable sources. This way, citizens can inform their views with reliable and diverse knowledge bases.
In terms of the experience itself, it was an engaging and amazing opportunity to be able to design, shape, and execute my own research and consult top wind power and eagle experts in both Finland and Denmark. I was able to improve my Finnish environmental and research jargon, and even pick up some Swedish (“I. understand. Little. But. No. speak. Swedish…and I like ping pong and dogs”). Overall, this work was very relevant to the changing wind power situation in Northern Europe, and addressed many of the current concerns people had about fake news. I am excited to continue to foster the relationships that formed this summer and continue to develop my research!
by Jazzy Kerber, '20
“I was elected to represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris,” Donald Trump declared in his speech, announcing that the United States will withdraw from the Paris climate agreement. In reality, Pittsburgh went blue in the presidential election and quickly responded that their city government does, in fact, support the Paris agreement. Aside from these facts, however, the above statement ignores the 195 countries that adopted the accord. In December 2015, representatives of 196 nations met in Paris to negotiate and adopt the agreement by consensus. Before President Trump’s recent announcement, Syria and Nicaragua were the only two countries in the world that did not sign on.
Both Trump’s decision and his announcement of it are more story than substance. “Donald Trump versus almost all other world leaders” is a difficult position to support, but “Pittsburg versus Paris” is an easier pill to swallow (it’s even an alliteration!). President Trump uses narratives like this one to justify choices that make little logical or economic sense. By withdrawing from the global climate agreement, Trump proposes that the United States is immune to the consequences of climate change. Unfortunately, “America first” doesn’t make sense in relation to atmospheric science. We cannot force droughts and storms to the other side of the globe, after all. Nevertheless, President Trump attempts to show that he values America’s economy above all else.
But does withdrawing actually make economic sense? The key goal outlined in the Paris Agreement is “Holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2 °C above pre-industrial levels,” but participating nations determine their own mechanisms for decreasing emissions. The agreement was designed to be flexible in order to accommodate individual countries’ needs. (In fact, a relatively common criticism says the agreement is too flexible.)
What about jobs? To echo a position many economists have already taken, coal is a declining industry, while clean energy production is on the rise. Natural gas has displaced a fair amount of coal demand in recent years. (To clarify, natural gas is not clean energy, but I mention it because Trump often focuses specifically on coal jobs.) Moreover, recent publications show that solar and wind energies are now less expensive than coal power. I would argue that the best way to both preserve jobs and lower emissions might be a plan, similar to the one Germany successfully implemented starting about a decade ago, that retrains large numbers of coal miners for jobs in growing industries. Of course, Donald Trump would probably disapprove of this strategy since it would require a government program.
It is difficult to predict what changes we’ll actually see as a result of President Trump’s decision. Withdrawing from the Paris Agreement is a three-year process, plus we face one year of delays, so the United States won’t officially be out until the end of this presidential term. If at that point Donald Trump is not re-elected, his successor could reverse course and immediately add the U.S. back to the agreement. Additionally, Trump so far has not withdrawn from UN climate agreements like the UNFCCC, and individual states and corporations can choose to continue abiding by emissions standards that align with the Paris Agreement. So far, eleven states as well as Washington, DC and Puerto Rico have declared they will uphold commitments to the Paris Agreement.
Perhaps Trump’s recent action is most harmful to environmental initiatives in a symbolic sense. His executive orders and changes to the EPA have already dialed back the United States’ work against climate change, and by pulling out of the Paris Agreement, he clarifies this intent to the world.
 Hal Harvey, “Economics are Transitioning America From Coal To Clean,” Forbes, March 2, 2017.
 Joshua Zaffos, “Can we learn from Europe’s approach to laid-off coal miners?” High Country News, April 27, 2016.
 Leanna Garfield and Skye Gould, “This map shows which states are vowing to defy Trump and uphold the US’ Paris Agreement goals,” Business Insider, June 9, 2017.
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