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?
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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.