By Becca Nelson '20
When I was a kid, my parents would take me on night walks. We would walk through the quiet, suburban darkness to a local park, which had a trail around a small lake. Our flashlights would bob along the edge of the water, looking for bullfrogs. We’d listen to the thrum of cicadas in the birches overhead. But one of my favorite animals to search for was up above. I would stare up at the night sky, a dark indigo ocean swept with wakes of stars. If I was patient, I would find a couple of flapping, dark-winged forms bobbing through the sky—bats. They would flitter in graceful arcs above the treetops as sleek blurs of motion. To me, they epitomized all the hidden mystery of summer nights. Nights when the park was free of barking dogs and shouting swimmers and screeching tires. Nights when the manicured park blossomed into a vast, unknown wilderness.
Tracing the trajectories of swooping bats in the park became a tradition. I took the bats for granted. I assumed every summer the shadows of bats would pass over the park, just as every summer my mother’s tiger lilies bloomed and the mornings filled with birdsong. But in future summers, the sky may rest empty because of a widespread disease: white-nose syndrome. Discovered in New York around 2006, this disease is killing unprecedented amounts of bats across the eastern and mid-western states and it continues to spread westward. This past year, a case was reported as far west as Washington State.
White-nose syndrome is caused by an invasive fungus that’s scientifically known as Pseudogymnoascus destructans. This fungus is psychrophillic, which is a fancy way of saying that it loves cold temperatures. This allows it to thrive in the cold caves where large groups of bats hibernate in the winter. The fungus commonly appears as a white fuzz on the noses of the bats, hence the name white-nose syndrome, as well on other parts of the body. The fungus disrupts the bat’s ability to stay hydrated and store fat for energy, causing the bat to wake from hibernation in midwinter and starve.
In her Pulitzer Prize winning book The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, journalist Elizabeth Kolbert describes her experience visiting caves of hibernating bats. In one Vermont cave, she was horrified by what she found: “The ground was covered with dead bats; some of the ice knobs I noticed, had bats frozen into them.” Researchers estimate that white-nose syndrome has killed over 5.7 million bats in North America. The disease can wipe out entire roosts of bats and has already infected 11 of the 47 bat species found in the United States. Among those impacted, include two endangered species: the gray bat and the Indiana bat. Besides these 11 species, the pathogen has been detected on several more species, though its impact is unknown.
Bats are more than just fascinating silhouettes that add drama to a summer sky. They play an important ecological role through eating insects. They save American farmers over $3 billion dollars every year by eating large quantities of crop pests. They also eat insects that would otherwise harm human health, pollinate both native plants and crops, and help disperse the seeds of native plants. Protecting bats from white-nose syndrome is important both ecologically and economically.
So far, there has been no established cure for the disease, but ongoing research looks promising. In 2015, 75 bats were successfully treated for white-nose syndrome using a bacterium with antifungal properties. The bacterium was being studied for its ability to prevent mold from forming on supermarket bananas. The researchers then used it to inhibit the growth of the white-nose syndrome fungus.
You can help the bats by not disturbing local roosts, monitoring bat species in your area, decontaminating any gear you use around caves and mines, or creating bat-friendly habitat. Many species of bats prefer wetlands and forested areas near streams. Keeping some dead trees in place, minimizing light pollution, and building a bat house for roosting bats can transform your backyard into a bat oasis.
The role of bats in insect suppression suggests that a diverse range of groups from conservation biologists to farmers would benefit from curing the disease. This issue is nonpartisan but overlooked. Its most haunting signs are hidden in the deep, dark recesses of caves, obscuring it from public knowledge. Working together to tackle the white-nose syndrome may help stakeholders find common ground on other more polarized environmental issues. Hopefully, such efforts will fill the night skies of future summers with beauty and mystery.
Kolbert, Elizabeth. The sixth extinction: An unnatural history. A&C Black, 2014.
By Sierra Garcia '18
If you could save 640 gallons of water in an instant – which is the amount of water you would waste by leaving your shower running for over ten days straight – would you do it? Most people would say yes. Yet most people don’t make this choice, or countless versions of this choice, when they face it each day in one of the most basic questions we ask ourselves: what do I want to eat today? 640 gallons is the typical water footprint of one quarter-pound hamburger - one of the highest of any food item.
I won’t go into the ethical or health reasons for eating or abstaining from meat here - I will focus strictly on the environmental side of the issue. For example, lamb, beef, and pork have some of the highest carbon footprints of any foods (cheese also has a high carbon footprint, as do poultry and certain fish). 98% of the water footprint of meats is used to produce the crops that make up the animals’ feed. Even for protein, meat is environmentally inefficient; the water footprint of a gram of protein from beef is six times higher than producing a gram of protein from legumes like beans, lentils, and peas. There’s no getting around the fact that eating less meat is far more impactful than any other everyday aspect of your life.
Those numbers are pretty damning, but your stomach insists that bacon can’t be that bad for the environment, right? There is undeniably something unnerving about the thought of cutting back on meat for people who want to help reduce carbon emissions, but consider eating meat a natural and deeply personal aspect of their lives.
The truth is that giving up meat is intimidating. Take it from someone who used to devour pork tamales, chicken stir-fry, and pepperoni pizza: it can be a downright scary decision to consider. Does helping the environment mean refusing to eat Grandma’s prized honey ham recipe at Christmas? Does eating meat make you a fickle environmentalist?
Some people decide to buy organic or local meat, satisfied that they can be a socially responsible consumer without changing their lifestyles. Unfortunately, this strategy is riddled with holes. Labels like “organic”, “natural”, or “free-range” are notoriously unreliable. Even an ethically trustworthy source may not have a better environmental impact than traditional brands. There’s no getting around the fact that raising an animal requires a lot more space, water, and resources than other food sources. And fashioning the meat consumption conversation around organic products automatically excludes people who can’t afford to buy ‘better’ meats for the planet. In environmental terms, eating ethically sourced or local meats is often little better than self-serving a pat on the back.
What options are left? A lot of environmentalists become vegetarian. This is a great option for the environment, but one that most people are unwilling to adopt. More often, people will simply continue eating meat. This is a terrible option for the environment, but one that people are likely to continue to choose since conversations about the environment tend to exclude discussions about eating meat. How can we tackle this environmental elephant in the room in a way that encourages people to make meaningful change instead of feeling attacked or discouraged?
My solution is being what food fad magazines have labeled a ‘flexitarian.’ Basically, you become a bad vegetarian. The concept is a familiar one in dieting—many people will limit their intake of a food instead of cutting it out altogether, to set themselves up for long-term benefits and success. For me, it was surprisingly easy to almost never eat meat after I got started. Aside from reducing my footprint, it makes me a lot more conscientious on the rare occasions when I do eat meat. I savor it, and acknowledge the high environmental cost of my meal.
Understandably, this philosophy on vegetarianism may sound wishy-washy to dedicated vegetarians. However, it’s hard to deny that it is more palatable for many omnivores interested in combating climate change and other environmental problems. Educating people about the environmental impacts of eating less meat can be ineffective when put into all-or-nothing terms. Going vegetarian is a lifestyle commitment, but deciding to skip meat for an individual meal or day of the week is a more manageable goal. It’s empowering to realize that such a simple change in your own life can have such a large impact on your own environmental impact.
There are several ways to start practicing this less-conventional eating style. Try starting once a week with a day dedicated to all-vegetarian meals. Lots of families and organizations choose ‘Meatless Mondays’ as the flagship vegetarian day of the week. Some people start with giving up or reducing beef consumption, since this is by far the most environmentally costly meat (alongside lamb, but fewer people eat lamb regularly). Even a small reduction in meat consumption adds up to a difference in your personal carbon footprint. If you want to see this for yourself, try any online carbon footprint calculator and experiment with your footprint. For most people, eating less meat is on par with flying less, switching to a more gas friendly car, or powering your home with renewables.
Becoming a ‘bad vegetarian’ is not a perfect solution. For low-income families, meat (and especially fast food meat) is often the most accessible protein option. There are social and cultural factors that influence diet, and these can make eating less meat more difficult for many people, even if they are genuinely interested in helping the environment. However, the benefit of ‘bad vegetarianism’ is that your encouraging, burger-loving mom or ‘I could never be vegetarian’ friend might be willing to try it. And in the long run, small changes in meat consumption mindsets on a large scale could have a larger environmental impact than converting a few devout vegetarians.
“Meat Eater’s Guide to Climate and Health.” Environmental Working Group. CleanMetrics.
“Water footprint of crop and animal products: a comparison.” Water footprint network.
“Showerheads.” Watersense. Environmental Protection Agency.
By Jonathan Fisk, B.S. ‘16, M.S. ‘17
When I think of sustainable living, I not only think of reducing emissions, or conserving resources, but living in a way that cares for the environment around us. Sustainability not just in reducing how much we take in the environment, but increasing how much we reciprocate and give back to it. We all benefit from the environment around us, so it’s our responsibility to be responsible stewards to show respect for the land we’re on. However, this personal, local focus for sustainability is often not reflected by mainstream environmentalists and environmentalist movements; because of the exotification of regions such as Latin America, Southeast Asia, and Sub-Saharan Africa, Western environmentalists often neglect their own backyards.
That begs the question: who will be left to focus on the environmental issues, especially environmental justice issues, in the West? After all, we are far from being free of environmental issues. The water protectors are still fighting at Standing Rock. Flint, Michigan is still without clean water. Standard public education continues to fail to teach students about their local environments. Extensive monocultures are depleting our agro-biodiversity, and will continue to do so as companies like Monsanto continue to dominate the seed and crop industry. You would be hard-pressed to find a place in the West, especially in the United States, that doesn’t have environmental justice or sustainability issues.
But it is so much easier for us to point our fingers away from ourselves. To be drawn to regions depicted as exotic or in dire need – the ‘other’. When we look in the mirror, though, we see that the imagined differences dissolve, and we’ve simply turned a blind eye to our own backyard.
We, as environmentalists, decry the massive deforestation in Indonesia and Brazil for agro-business; yet we are quick to forget the massive deforestation that occurred along the very coasts of the United States, and the lasting effects.
We grieve over the recent reports that giraffes and cheetahs are nearing extinction from habitat loss; what about the near extinctions of our own bison and raptors, or the extinctions of countless other species in the U.S. from habitat loss (many of which we’ll likely never even know about)?
We stigmatize and condemn China’s industries for their contribution to pollution and greenhouse gases, but who are they producing for? Are we changing our own production and consumption habits to truly put our wallets where our mouths are?
We stand against the displacement of Indigenous groups in the Amazon; how much do we know about the land we’re occupying? If you’re not on your original lands, whose land are you on? How have you been allying with them, and fighting for the restoration of their sovereignty as well?
This is all not to make light of the situations occurring elsewhere. Effort does indeed need to be paid to those causes. However, the way we are currently fighting against these issues is based on an outdated, colonialist model of the West acting as the moral and environmental high ground, instructing other regions on how to change in order to appease our own ideals. Who are we to tell others how to develop or conduct themselves sustainably when we continue to allow atrocities to occur around us? When we have such violent histories of destruction, of people and the environment, for the sake of development and economics? When we continue to live in cognitive dissonance, driving the very economic pressures that fuel the industries and degradation we speak out against?
What we, as environmentalists and stewards, must do is listen to the voices of those in other regions, amplify their words, and ally them in the ways they ask us to. What we must do is reflect on how we conduct ourselves, and reorient our focus in the process. What we must do is assure that those we have left largely without support or who are fighting arduous but much-needed fights, again, such as those in Flint and Standing Rock, are equipped with the resources and advocates they need. What we must do is truly exemplify what sustainable societies can be, rather than focus on telling others what we want it to look like.
Our backyards might not be as appealing as these more ‘exotic’ regions, but they are where work needs to be done. These are the areas we are most intimate with – have the most connection with, and should have the most knowledge about – so why should we continue to neglect them?
By Jazzy Kerber '20
The federal government may seem distant and unreachable, but you do still have a voice in policy. Whether you want to see changes in your hometown or disagree with an executive order, contact your representatives. Montesquieu once called public apathy the greatest danger in a democracy, and it’s important to remember that you have great power as a constituent to make your voice heard. Politicians need your votes, so they have an incentive to hear you out. Read on for simple political action ideas:
If you want a very direct impact or a personal response to your request, contact your city government. Think about small actions that connect to a larger cause you care about. For example, as part of a class project, I recently wrote to the mayor of my hometown explaining why and how I believe we should expand our composting program. I visited my city’s website to understand the current program, and then I talked to people back home to find out what resources they knew about and how much they composted. Afterward, I compared the system in my Chicago suburb to what I’ve observed in California and thought about possible changes. Here is a copy of the letter I wrote to my mayor:
You probably understand your own city’s policies and their impacts well, so you can be specific about what you want to change. Your local government is also more likely than the state or national government to read your entire letter and actively respond to it.
Each state has a Governor, Senate, and Assembly - go to your state’s Secretary of State website to find who your representatives are and their contact information. If you live in California, you can find that information here.
First, make sure you know who your representatives and senators are based on where you live. Do a quick web search to check what their policy positions are and decide who you’d like to reach out to. You should also research what committees your representatives sit on and how their opinions are similar to or different from your own. Keep an eye on current events and bills being passed through Congress, and decide when and who to contact.
If you choose to write, find a “contact” tab on your chosen representative’s website. Remember that the Senate and the House of Representatives serve as a “checks and balances” tool for many of the president’s proposals. In your email (which is much faster and more efficient than snail mail), tell your representative what specific policy you support or oppose and briefly explain why. Stay factual, courteous, and concise. Also, use your own words--form emails are often deleted.
An email is not the only way to connect with your representatives, however. Phone calls may be an even more effective approach. Staffers keep track of call volume on specific issues and use the records to tell members of Congress how their constituents feel. Check out 5calls.org to learn more about efficiently contacting your government. Thesixtyfive.org also offers sample scripts that you can use if you want to speak against any of President Trump’s actions. For example, they offer this text for climate change:
“My name is <______>. I'm a constituent concerned about Trump's record of denying climate change. I ask that <Senator/Representative ______> publicly condemn Trump's threats to repeal the Clean Power Plan and withdraw from the Paris agreement. I want the <Senator/Representative> to refuse to compromise with Trump if he appoints climate change deniers.”
You’ll notice that this call is short, but specific. Use a similar structure if you create your own wording. Keep in mind that your call will go to voicemail if it’s outside East Coast business hours, but if you leave a message, your opinion should still be tallied when the office reopens. You can even call every few days to make a bigger difference in the records.
I would also recommend downloading the “Countable” phone app, which offers clear summaries of the most important people and issues in current politics and helps connect you to your representatives on the questions that matter to you. Another strategy is to meet with your representatives in person. Invite one to coffee (you have nothing to lose)!
You have one voice, but you can and should use it! The more individual citizens participate in politics, the greater the chance that our words will make a difference. Civil engagement is key to a healthy democracy. This participation includes getting educated on the issues, voting, discussing events with a variety of people, and contacting the government. To ignore your role in politics is to be part of the problem, but you can choose to be part of the solution instead.
By Spencer Robinson ‘20
In the last installment of his three-part blog series, Spencer Robinson connects Stanford’s dining system to that of nearby communities like East Palo Alto, and investigates what SSS’s own food project group is doing to bridge the gap in food access.
I rush into Ricker dining hall at the last minute and give a cheeky smile to the staff member who swipes me in. Catching my breath, I’ll grab a plate and hurriedly heap onto my plate my favourite dishes before the the staff take the full trays of steaming supper away. Pause. Full trays? At the end of dinner? You might think it a pity to discard all the carefully prepared dishes away. Fortunately, Ricker is actually one of several contributors of food donations on campus along with other dining halls and cafes, as well as some student events. SSS’s Food Group is working to institutionalize a more environmentally efficient and socially just way of using surplus food. To investigate more details of food redistribution on campus, I interviewed Erin Pang; one of the project coordinators of SSS’s food group to learn more about her motivations, current projects, and future aspirations.
Erin told me that several members of the Food Group have a personal connection to their work. A few of the members have worked in homeless shelters before, providing meals for patrons there. For instance, Ella (one of the team members) had experience growing and distributing fresh produce to people of lower-income communities in Brooklyn where fruits and veggies were lacking. Erin shared that “food is such a fundamental need for humans to live,” and there is certainly something special about sharing a meal with someone who needs one. Along with other socioeconomic inequalities come inequalities in access to healthy food. Feeling dissatisfied with “the stark contrast” in terms of food access here at Stanford compared to that in East Palo Alto among other neighborhoods, Erin got involved. Erin partners with Chris LeBoa to run SSS’s food project group, and their largest program is to recover unused food from Stanford’s dining halls and cafes and redistribute it to communities in need.
The Food Group works with SPOON - the Stanford Project on Hunger - in their food recovery program. SSS does a lot of the coordination with dining hall managers and cafe managers, while SPOON provides volunteers on a more consistent basis. Though daily collection of food on campus is difficult, the Food Group regularly takes donations from Ricker, Wilbur, Stern, Schwab and Branner dining halls; and the Russo, Law School and the Faculty Club Cafés. In the future, the SSS food group hopes to institutionalize the system so that all leftover food from the dining halls is donated without student involvement, perhaps by having one of the food bank programs come to Stanford to collect the food itself. Paid staff or interns working regularly on organizing food donations would certainly increase the amount of food that we donate as a campus.
Something else that Food Group does is to develop and distribute flyers and informational booklets about how to better manage food waste. They also do dorm waste trainings to try to change waste behavior by education. Reducing waste is far from intuitive and both student behavior and dining hall policies could do with some change after some consideration of the importance of using our food privileges responsibly.
While the dining halls and cafes are the places that create the most food waste, Erin pointed out that it would also be good for leftovers from student events to be donated. To that end, Food Group has been cooperating with the ASSU and the Office of Sustainability to form guidelines to encourage student organizations to donate food. Some faculty events already follow a set of criteria to reduce waste. Generally, any foodstuffs left out for less than two hours can be brought to the Haas Center freezer to be donated.
Yet the SSS Food Group’s aims span beyond their actions on campus. Erin wants to address the “root causes” of a lack of food access. Her plan is to learn more about the difficulty of food accessibility, and work to fill that “need gap” in cooperation with Collective Roots and other non-profits. Currently, Food Group goes to work days at Collective Roots to maintain their gardens. However, they are also working on an infographic to spread information about where healthy and affordable food can be found in East Palo Alto. Erin also expressed interest in starting community gardens at schools and expanding the network. While the gardens here at Stanford are here for aesthetic purposes, research, and supplemental food for some dining halls, in East Palo Alto they are primary source of fresh produce for many people.
Clearly, there is still a lot to be done about expanding access to healthy and sustainable food. But I’ve found it inspiring how such a small group of students have built connections with other student organizations and determinedly worked to execute their initiatives and make impactful change.
The issues I’ve discussed in this three-part series include problems with the access, distribution and wasteful disposal of food. Working to combat these problems involves consideration of both environmental and social issues because they are inextricably linked. My hope is that the stories of compassionate and motivated individuals working in nonprofit organizations, in retail restaurants and in student organizations have managed to inspire you to reassess your role in this local food system at Stanford and in its surrounding communities.
By Spencer Robinson '20
In the second installment of his food sustainability blog series, Spencer Robinson explores how the management of Stanford’s Russo Cafe is minimizing food waste and donating it to local communities.
I follow Chris LeBoa, one of SSS’s food project coordinators, and his cart into Russo Café and the staff greet us warmly. They all know him well and are happy to see him. Minutes later, Chris and I get to work. My nose is overcome by the exotic, sweet-smelling flavors of the vegetable stew that we pour into aluminum food trays. The smell reminds me that it's a good thing that someone else will have the chance to enjoy this. Chris and I are there to collect that leftover “food waste” as a part of SPOON--the Stanford Program on Hunger. I came to investigate the role of our cafes on campus in food waste and interviewed Chad, the current manager for Russo Café, as well as Melissa, one of the café’s employees.
Stanford has a total of 11 retail cafes that provide meals for us on campus. Russo Café is open for lunch from 11am-2pm everyday of the work week. I learned from Chad that quite a bit of work goes into planning food production at the cafés on campus. According to Chad, Russo “tries not to produce more food than necessary.” The café has a two-week rotating menu and the management team looks at figures of sales of specific food items for past weeks to help them determine how much food to make for the future. Salmon, for example, is one of the more popular options at Russo, so they know to make a lot of it. One of Russo’s assets is the flexibility of the chefs in the kitchen - they can cook up more food in real time if there is higher demand during lunch hours. Moreover, produce is ordered on a daily basis so all that is ordered is usually used for that day. Chad also noted that a lot of the staff have established careers here and thus also have an incentive to make sure that the café is being profitable. Since food waste results in higher costs, reducing waste is best for the café from a business perspective. This is in huge contrast to Chad’s previous job at the Santa Cruz boardwalk. There, he found that employees were a lot more wasteful because they weren’t as concerned about costs to the restaurant. Needless to say, excess food thrown out also incurs environmental costs due to a waste of water, land and energy to grow, harvest and distribute it.
Nonetheless, it’s impossible for Chad to predict exactly what and how much food that their customers will eat. What adds complexity to the problem is that Russo Café produces food for 3 additional locations on campus: The Law School Café, Alumni Café and Forbes Family Café. Understanding how much food should go where and for what costs is a larger issue. Most of the kitchen is used by Stanford Catering, and Chad thinks they probably produce more waste since event organizers prefer not to run out of food for guests. One more layer of complexity is that there are restrictions as to which food can be donated - often it has to do with the temperature conditions that a portion of food has been kept under. But overall, food waste increases costs to the cafés, so they seem to do all they can to minimize it.
Melissa informed me that SPOON started collecting food from Russo approximately 4 months ago. Before SPOON asked them to participate, Melissa said “We tossed it and it was a shame because it was a lot of food”. Now their leftovers are being put to better use. When I visited, we collected approximately 2 trays of stew, 2 trays of salad, a few small trays of sides, and a few chickens. We collected all of their food waste that day. Compost is of course one way to recycle nutrients, but SPOON’s donation seems to be a more equitable and socially responsible choice. SPOON collects food from Russo, Law School Café, the Faculty Club and several Dining Halls on Campus, including Ricker and Wilbur. They store it in the Haas Center’s freezer and then it is transferred to the Ecumenical Hunger Program in East Palo Alto which annually provides food for individuals and families with limited funds to buy food.
Russo Café’s cooperation with SPOON is an important step in the right direction in terms of social justice. According to the National Resources Defence Council, 40% of food goes uneaten while 1/8 of Americans still struggle to put enough food on the table. The terrible wastefulness in our food system is shockingly apparent. How does it make sense for so much food to be thrown away if there is still a large portion of the population that needs more choices (especially more healthy choices)? A lot of the food we collected from Russo such as their salads, soups and sandwiches are great food options to donate because they do indeed provide healthier options which are needed to reduce problems of poor life expectancy and high obesity rates, as described in my previous blog post.
My hope is that this food donation program continues to extend to all of Stanford’s dining establishments. It is a practical way to share the nutritious healthy food options accessible to us on a daily basis. Its beyond question that we, as individuals, and food services providers, should do whatever we can to make what is a shame to throw out, a joy to give.
By Spencer Robinson '20
In the first post of a 3-part series on local food sustainability, Spencer Robinson investigates the work of an organization in East Palo Alto called Collective Roots.
As you enter the dining hall and grab your plate, you’ll probably stroll around, turn your head, check the labels on the dishes over head. There are a myriad of options: fruits like pears and persimmons, protein foods like turkey and tofu, vegetables like golden beets and broccoli --its clear that the variety of fresh choices prepared for us by RD&E staff is a privilege. Outside the walls of the Stanford “bubble”, however, this diversity of wholesome, healthy food isn’t something you can heap thoughtlessly onto your plate. Just a few miles away, East Palo Alto is what the USDA labels a “Low Access” community in terms of food. Food access isn't just about having enough food—it’s about ensuring access to nutritious options for all the diverse food groups in a healthy diet. The lack of healthy food options is what justifies the classification of East Palo Alto as a food desert. In order to help improve food access, an organization called Collective Roots® , established in 2000, runs a communal garden and other programs for the “growing, sharing and eating” of nutritious foods. To get an idea of the value of growing healthy foods in a community like East Palo Alto, I interviewed Najiha Al Asmar who works as the nonprofit’s Manager of Community Initiatives.
First, Najiha further defined the concept of a food desert. A food desert is a place, especially in an urban area, in which there isn’t steady access to nutritious food. This is very true in East Palo Alto. Up until 2009, there were no supermarkets there at all. Now the situation is marginally better - there is now one supermarket (Mi Pueblo) for the 30,000 residents in the area. Convenience stores don’t really help to improve food access because they mostly sell nutritionally poor, processed foods. Lower incomes are part of the problem. Here, 13% of the population participates in the national Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) - compared to just 1% in Palo Alto. And ack of access to healthy food in East Palo Alto contributes to long-term health problems. Here, the life expectancy is just 62 years - 7 years below that of the rest of the county.
Collective Roots has been a strong agent of change in East Palo Alto by providing programs through which local residents have been able to increase control over their own food access. Collective Roots strives to create, in Najiha’s words, a “healthier, stronger, more connected community” of people in East Palo Alto. They do this by “empowering the people to grow their own food, or be able to purchase it”. Their farmer’s market brings farmers to the community to sell their fresh, organic produce to residents. They also have an incentive program, First Check, in which they allow each household to buy $20 extra of produce a month if they spend $20. Moreover, Collective Roots provides the opportunity for residents to start their own garden plots in either the communal gardens or in their own backyards. The group also conducts “Growing and Sharing” educational workshops for gardening and nutrition education. The organization provides tools, seed sharing programs and compost to help everyone effectively grow more of their own produce.
Collective Roots is making a large impact on the community. Gardening is a social activity, so kids work with their parents and volunteers to maintain the family crops. Given that over half of elementary school kids in this community are overweight or obese, it is evident that growing and eating fruits and vegetables and learning about their benefits could go a long way in improving long term health. Najiha emphasized the importance of fostering an appreciation for healthy foods in kids, in order to stop the cycle of limited food choices and poor health. She sees a lot of community members come in consistently to work in their gardens so it’s become a social gathering place. There is also a lot of cooperation and help from various parts of the community. “About a third of the whole operation here is volunteering,” Najiha told me. “Without them we wouldn’t be able to do a lot of our programming.”
The rewards of the program have been tremendous. Najiha has been personally moved by how happy and healthy people look working in the garden. People are “humbled and proud of what they’ve grown” because the growers are able to share the fruits of their labour with family and friends”. To Najiha, “Seeing people connected has been the most rewarding thing.”
It should be noted that Collective Roots still faces many obstacles in East Palo Alto. Problems involving low food access go along with problems of income inequality, environmental injustice and race. “East Palo Alto is in the heart of Silicon Valley, but a lot of these community members are working two, three jobs because they are lower income and also minorities so being able to outreach and getting these community members involved has been a struggle,” Najiha explained. Not all the community members have time to maintain the gardens. Moreover, “a lot of people don’t actually have access to internet or other technology that we on the outside have access to.” This makes mass emailing and texting somewhat less ineffective. So instead Najiha and her staff often go door to door or use flyers to spread the word. as well. This is apparently “beneficial in the fact that we’re able to be more personal”. Najiha considers it a challenge but also a blessing.
Given the problem of the divide, I asked Najiha if she had any advice on bridging our communities together to overcome some of these barriers. Najiha would love for volunteers to come to gardening workshops and spend more time just working alongside the gardeners with their family plots. Commitment and exposure seem to be the best remedy. Just being there and working with the families in their own gardening plots, learning about their experience and passing on that awareness is a great step.
When I volunteered at Collective Roots in November, I got a taste of awareness and engagement with the community. I worked with some fellow SSS members, Najiha, a volunteer from a nearby tech company and an old couple who had a garden there. We did simple but respectable manual labour - moving concrete rubble and turning over the compost heap. It was nothing spectacular, but it was truly refreshing for me to work outside alongside other people in the area and know that I was playing a small part in preparing the community garden for other residents to grow healthy fruits and vegetables.
Students can come build and install planter boxes, work on the community gardens, manage the compost pile, and more. Official work days are Thursdays and every other Saturday starting in the spring. Go to http://www.collectiveroots.org/volunteer/ for more details.
By Deirdre Francks '20
In these last few weeks before the new presidential term begins, emotions are running high. For many, these include feelings of confusion and despair. The past eight weeks have yielded countless news articles, opinion pieces and statistical analyses about the election of Donald Trump and its implications for the future, but it is impossible to predict exactly what is to come. I am deeply saddened by the outcome of this election, especially as cabinet appointments are announced, angry tweets are sent, and the impact of a campaign led by hate and ignorance comes to fruition in communities across America. I am devastated, yes, but not without hope and purpose.
I must admit, this sense of purpose I feel has not been without falter, for in the few days immediately following the election I felt powerless. It was hard to comprehend that the past eighteen months - the ludicrous campaign, nomination and eventual election of a politically inexperienced television personality– were not a dream, nor some kind of sick joke soon to be revealed. Some portion of the American public (a little less than half, it would appear) had spoken, and they wanted Donald Trump to leave his tower for the Oval Office. On election night I felt a crushing sense of dread. What would become of reproductive rights, immigration laws, climate action and so many other pressing issues?
On November 9th, in the midst of much despair, I attended a screening of a documentary called “Racing Extinction.” After 24 hours spent contemplating the future of the climate under a Trump presidency I was hardly in the mood to watch a documentary confirming my deepest fears about the natural world. Sure enough, I sat through footage covering the heart wrenching bleaching of coral reefs, illegal capture and trade of precious wildlife, and emission of carbon and methane captured on camera. My spirits sank as the film constantly stressed the importance of regulating and restricting those activities that take a serious toll on our planet. When the narrator directly urged the audience to vote for environmentally-friendly candidates my eyes welled with tears– a blend of despair and rage. If only it were that easy to elect candidates who will fight for climate justice.
My thoughts throughout the majority of the film were bleak; if we don’t start making serious moves to reverse climate change how will we ever change course? Do I really have the willpower to study and work on climate issues when the field is so depressing? As so many of these thoughts swirled in my head I wished desperately to be anywhere else besides watching what seemed to be a climate doomsday film.
But then something in the documentary gave me the most important reminder I could have received in that moment. When faced with pessimism about humankind’s capability to change, cinematographer and marine conservationist Shawn Heinrichs, the man behind the film, invokes a proverb; “Better to light one candle than curse the darkness.”
As with any kind of activism or social struggle it’s so easy to feel that there will never be enough progress made, never enough voices heard. For every tree planted, how many are clear-cut in the Amazon? With each climate policy introduced, how many legislators and their constituents are quick to oppose it? It can be disheartening to feel that conservation efforts will never sufficiently offset humankind’s consumption. In this mindset I have often been guilty of surrendering to pessimism.
But then I am reminded that this is how movements are strengthened and progress is made. One hundred years ago, women were on the verge of gaining the right to vote in the U.S., an accomplishment preceded by a long and tumultuous struggle, and now we cannot imagine a world without this liberty. Fifty years ago, gay rights activists did not expect to see the legalization of gay marriage in their lifetime, but that did not stop them from taking action and ultimately achieving a Supreme Court victory. I dream of a time when climate awareness and protection is simply ingrained in societal behaviors; when environmental policies are commonplace and conservation efforts universal.
We can each light a candle, every day, by making the extra effort to advocate for the planet. We can do it by starting a conversation with someone who wants to learn about climate change, or just by skipping a trip to the mall in favor of a jaunt in the woods. When faced with an issue as grand and complex as climate change focusing on all that has yet to be done can be daunting. Why not instead focus on each victory? And when disheartened by the struggle of climate advocacy under a new administration, let us seek to illuminate the darkness. The incoming administration, whatever their stance on climate change and protecting our planet, cannot overpower the light that we create.
By Becca Nelson '20
The drop is dizzying. Steep sandstone cliffs plunge hundreds of feet down to the desert below. I perch on top of the rimrocks, looking down at the baked desert. I am breathless from hiking in the Arizona sun. Heat shimmers. Sun shards cut the cliffs. The sky is too blue and piercing. Vertigo grips me. The desert is blurry, heat-warped, disorienting.
It’s been years since I took that hike, but a similar sense of vertigo has overwhelmed me recently. It’s a deep, visceral feeling that unbalances me as I sit writing at my desk. This time, it’s not Arizona’s stark beauty that spins my thoughts, but the task at hand: writing about climate change in a polarized America. How can I make a gradual and often distant crisis seem palpable and urgent?
I was forcing climate change into the traditional paradigm of environmental communication. The Cuyahoga River in Ohio going up in flames in 1969 due to pollution. The corpses of DDT-affected birds littering the pages of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. Smog-filled sunsets coloring Los Angeles. These powerful images saturated environmental action in the 1970s, shoving people into action. Yet water pollution, pesticide overuse, and air pollution were tangible, localized issues compared to the challenge and scope of global climate change today. It’s difficult to communicate what global warming will look like when the nuances of its localized impacts are uncertain.
This difficulty gave me a sweeping sense of vertigo, as I walked into the Roble seminar room for the final lecture of my Hard Earth class. The class, Earth 126X, was a one-unit course that consisted of a mix of lectures on tough environmental dilemmas given by Stanford graduate researchers. The final lecturer, however, was not a grad student, but journalist and Stanford Law School lecturer Jeff Ball. He also happens to be the Resident Fellow in Roble.
Walking into the coffee-scented seminar room, I felt tense yet excited about the lecture’s topic: the election and climate change. Mr. Ball began the lecture in a way that surprised me. He talked about how regardless of what we thought about Trump or climate change, he was going to burst our “bubbles”, the comfortable ideological paradigms with which we insulated ourselves.
I’ll confess I was a little smug about my personal bubble bursting. I’m planning on pursuing a career in conservation biology. I already know a lot about climate change. What it is. How it works. Why it’s a huge problem. Why people may or may not believe in it. What actions have been proposed to mitigate it. How could my “ideological bubble” be popped? My preconceived notions were all too comfortable, like the big cushy chair I reclined in as I listened to the lecture.
Several of Mr. Ball’s points unsettled and dislodged my beliefs. For the past several weeks, I had been dreading what climate policy would look under President-elect Trump, who nominated climate skeptic Scott Pruitt to be head of the EPA. Mr. Ball showed a projected graph of rising carbon emissions by different regions of the world. The United States only appeared as a slight increase on the graph. The huge projected increase in carbon dioxide emissions is for developing parts of Asia, Africa, and South America. This made my prior concerns seem small from a broader global perspective; the way the saguaros seemed toy-sized from that mountaintop I hiked up years ago. I realized that despite my awareness of climate change, I still struggle to grasp its vastness. I think Mr. Ball is very correct in arguing that global warming is the most difficult environmental issue the world has faced.
He also asserted that the behavior of climate skeptics is more rational than it appears. From the comfortable and largely liberal confines of the Stanford bubble, I struggled to understand climate deniers and people who didn’t see climate change as a priority. Mr. Ball explained how this lack of climate action and empathy is due to a lack of incentive for changing individual behavior. Hypothetically, if I cut my individual carbon footprint to near zero by living self-sufficiently in the Sierra Nevadas, building a tent, gathering all my food, and avoiding cars and planes, my actions would have no tangible impact on net climate trends. This lack of individual efficacy in shaping the climate crisis undermines personal action by creating cognitive dissonance. It’s anguishing to walk around dreading climate change but feeling like you can’t take concrete action to stop its effects.
Instead, Mr. Ball said that advances in renewable energy technology could create economic incentives that pull people toward climate mitigation behaviors. This technological shift would accompany a global change in environmental policy and lifestyle. During the lecture, we discussed implicit subsidies for carbon emissions through frequent plane travel, highway building, suburban sprawl, and globalization.
Mr. Ball ultimately argued that it is ineffective to focus on changing individual behavior instead of shaping technological and policy on climate change. He also mentioned that they often use scare tactics that alienate people or employ visuals of distant glaciers melting and remote tides rising. These images only scratch the surface of a complex, intangible process. Paradoxically, when the local effects of global warming are clearly palpable for the average American, it will be too late for mitigation.
This lecture stirred something inside me. It shifted the paradigm at which I approach climate change communication. Sitting in the seminar, I felt a flame spark within me, melting the ideological bubble of writing about climate change in the same way I would write about more physically tangible environmental issues like pollution and DDT. I tried to write climate change into a sexy and urgent issue when in reality, it is gradual and complex; a revolution in slow motion. Dramatizing climate change into a Hollywood-style crisis oversimplifies the real drama that crawls slowly and obscurely behind the scenes of our daily lives.
After the lecture, I asked Mr. Ball about his writing approach and he told me strives for the “gray areas instead of the black-and-white”, the full complexity of climate change and the technological and policy shifts it is fostering. In my writing, I was struggling to simplify global warming into something easily approachable when really it’s not. Debates about whether global warming exists, whether climate change is important or not are intellectually flat. They create friction through polarized sides that lose the issue’s complexity.
Biking home from the lecture, I was gripped with a rush of exhilaration. The spindly treetops, the light off the rain-washed pavement, the half-moon flashed by me sharp and vivid as I pedaled. I felt a dizzying restlessness inside, a churning and evolving of ideas. The vertigo I felt about climate writing wasn’t something to simplify and flinch away from. It was something to embrace with curiosity and joy.
Standing on that rimrock elicited a dizzying, almost painful joy within me. The wind tossing my hair, I gazed down at the desert below me. The sheer view revealed to me the beauty and vastness of the desert from a new perspective. And now, as I lean back at my desk, I smile with excitement at the task before me. I let the preconceived and oversimplified bubble roll away like scraps of sandstone churning down a cliff. I open my mind to climate change’s beautiful and dizzying complexity.
By Jasmine Kerber '20
The title “Tipping Point for Planet Earth” caught my eye this summer as I browsed options for Intro Seminar classes. “How close are we to the edge?” the course inquired, and I wanted to know the answer. 97% of scientists agree that humans have harmed the environment, but there are still plenty of climate change deniers in the general public. Even those who agree that we face a climate problem are often uncertain about the details and severity of the situation. Are we talking about an approaching apocalypse or some minor inconveniences? I decided to take the class to find out.
My introsem professor, Elizabeth Hadly, works in the biology department and is also the Faculty Director of Stanford’s Jasper Ridge Biological Reserve. In addition to her academic accomplishments, she brings guest researchers, her dog, and baked goods to class. Professor Hadly and her husband, Anthony Barnosky (also a Stanford professor), published their book “Tipping Point for Planet Earth” in 2015 as a compilation of their years of fieldwork and research, and as a call to action for governments and citizens. Signing up for this course has been one of the best decisions I’ve made at Stanford so far. Through our discussions, I’ve realized that many of the world’s most pressing problems are linked to climate change.
I’ve understood for a while that humans have enormous power over Earth’s fate, but this course helped me see that we can influence the world in both positive and negative ways. If we continue to deplete our resources at the current rate, we will permanently harm the planet. However, we can also change the world for the better if we’re willing to recognize the issues we face, work to change bad policies, and cooperate with each other.
One of the most important things I’ve realized is how climate change affects humans on many levels. When our actions push the planet into imbalance, people will suffer just as much as animals and plants. Natural resources, for instance, are inextricably tied to global conflict. During a recent class, we discussed how wars over the control of natural resources are growing more common. The oil-rich Middle East provides clear examples. Syria, for instance, has large crude oil stores, which interests the U.S. government. As a result, when Syria’s president Assad allied himself with Russia instead of the United States, the U.S. government had an incentive to try to depose him at the expense of his country’s stability. The war that followed led to large-scale emigration that further complicated international relations. It’s terrible but amazing to realize that oil played an important role in this multi-faceted conflict. If we continue to consume natural resources at the current rate, we’re bound to see similar situations arise. On the flipside, smarter energy solutions might decrease international conflicts. I had not thought about the problem this way before coming to Stanford.
Climate change will also affect access to food and water, both of which are constrained by the Earth’s growing population. For example, much of Asia relies on gradual, seasonal runoff from melting glaciers for their water supply. If these glaciers disappear, the world’s most populous continent will lose one of its most important water sources. This point from Professor Hadly’s book struck me because the glacier problem is rarely presented this way. Many people have seen photos of polar bears stranded on floating chunks of ice, but how often do we link these images to water shortages on land? Those who see drought, forest fires, and other water-related problems firsthand know that this is a serious issue, including here in California.
I absolutely believe that endangered species, decreased biodiversity, and other frequently-discussed environmental issues are incredibly important. However, we cannot forget that people are in danger too. I found myself thinking that if all citizens could take my class, they’d each find at least one reason to care about climate change. This not only an issue for certain segments of the population. It is not just a problem for hipsters, for vegans, or for polar bears. Climate change is a problem for everyone, and we all need to be part of the solution. Luckily, if we recognize the common dangers we face, we can do so.
Note: These conclusions are my own, but Professor Hadly’s class provided me with interesting information and got me thinking about new topics.
If you’d like to learn more about environmental issues, try an introsem! If you want to satisfy WAYS requirements while doing so, visit https://iearth.stanford.edu
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This is a forum for students to share their writing on intersectional environmental topics, curated by Students for a Sustainable Stanford. Writers of all backgrounds, abilities, and perspectives are welcome.