By Becca Nelson '20
There’s a tower of redwoods, their trunks stretching into the sky. Their canopies meet at a distant green infinity. Shafts of silver light filter through Muir Woods. There is a silence that is deepened by the smallness of sounds. The slight burble of the creek, the soft trill of a wren, the hush of my footsteps. There is a stillness that holds the weight of history. I walk amongst coast redwoods that are hundreds to thousands of years old. Leaning against an immense trunk, I hear the redwood’s ancientness in its quiet muttering. I struggle to imagine the thousands of sunrises that spilled light onto this tree’s needles, the innumerable birds that sheltered in its branches, the countless ferns it shaded, all the deer that bounded underneath. I brush my hand against bark blackened from ancient fires, jagged lightning scars from storms, thick crusts of blue lichen. I feel small and transient in its shadow.
Redwood history is interwoven with human history. Hundreds of years ago, the Coast Miwok walked through these woods and gathered redwood slabs, called kotcha, for their conical homes. Perhaps they carried them to their settlement at what is now Muir Beach. Perhaps the Miwok’s songs echoed off the redwood trunks. These redwoods survived the axe of the Spanish missionaries, the saws of American pioneers. They survived a growing lumber industry, becoming one of the last pockets of old growth redwoods remaining. Of the original 2 million acres of old growth redwood forest in California, over 97% has been altered. In 1892, the Bohemian Club, a San Francisco social society, erected a 70-foot Buddha statue amongst the redwoods. The statue has long since disintegrated to wind and weather, yet these trees endure. These redwoods shook with tremors from the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. An earthquake that toppled buildings and destroyed much of San Francisco. Yet they endure. Politician William Kent donated Muir Woods to the government, and President Theodore Roosevelt declared it a national monument in 1908. In 1945, United Nation delegates walked amongst these trees, holding a ceremony in memory of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. They contemplated the history that the redwoods witnessed as they contemplated world peace.
The redwoods continue to grow, as seemingly immutable pillars against a swirling tide of changing ecological and social conditions. The future of the redwood ecosystem, however, is complicated by climate change. Redwoods rely on the upwelling of coastal currents that generates fog for their survival. Climate change will impact these fog patterns and consequently redwood forests. The Trump administration’s proposed budget cuts funding for the National Park Service, which manages Muir Woods National Monument. The administration has taken a stance against climate change mitigation policies, further hindering redwood conservation. As I climb over the gnarled roots of redwoods, I wonder if this ecosystem will adapt to a warming planet. As global warming changes nutrient cycling, will these deep roots still nourish the tree?
Redwoods provide important ecosystems services to people, including through carbon sequestration and recreational value. They are the iconic species of a biodiverse and unique ecosystem with its own intrinsic value. But beyond economics and ecology, redwoods play a role in American culture. They are praised in patriotic songs like Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land”. Many towns, institutions, and companies are named after redwoods or use its image. In fact, the coast redwood tree appears on the Stanford logo and has become our mascot. Redwoods inspire the over two million people who visit them annually at various state and national parks.
This summer I will be visiting these parks as part of a research grant I received through the Stanford Earth Summer Undergraduate Research Program. I will be interviewing park visitors about redwoods and climate change. My research will apply redwood ecology to the realm of social science. I am investigating whether redwoods can be effectively used as a flagship species to inspire people to adopt climate change mitigation behavior. Such behavior includes making lifestyle choices to reduce one’s carbon footprint as well as supporting global warming mitigation policies. I will search for patterns in how people’s attachment to redwoods and their attitude toward global warming are interconnected. I hope to use the relationship between redwoods and people as lens to study the broader relationship between land and people, between climate change and American culture.
As I finish my hike, I glance up again at the redwoods. I find the leafy point in the sky to which their trunks converge. The shadows of redwood leaves ripple over me. I take a deep breath of cedar-scented air. The sheer vastness of trees, the blanket of prehistoric ferns and horsetails, the stillness, the silver light distinguish redwood forests from other forests. The peace of this forest outlives landscapes and societies. It will outlive you and me. I imagine history from the height of a redwood. Perhaps only a force as immense and ancient as a redwood can witness history with objectivity. Each year becomes a wooden monument, a ring etched into an old tree. Each tree becomes a living history book of concentric rings. Natural history and human history ripple together in the endurance of redwoods.
By Deirdre Francks '20
A few weeks ago I stumbled upon a headline from the New York Times that gave me pause. The headline read, “Why Young Girls Don’t Think They Are Smart Enough.”
Unfortunately, I– like most people who consume any news media– am no stranger to headlines like this one. It can be exhausting to read study after study confirming the many ways that girls are socialized differently than boys; to behave differently, to think differently about the world, and perhaps most importantly, to think differently about themselves. Researchers have long been exploring how socialization contributes to the gender disparity in many fields, notably in STEM and politics, and how girls may be socialized to consider their own intelligence. What separated this article from the rest was a single word: enough.
The NYT article describes a study of 96 children between the ages of five and seven, through which researchers found that by the age of six girls are significantly less likely than boys to associate their own gender with brilliance. When the young participants were shown four pictures of children– two male, two female– and asked to identify the character most likely to do very well in school the six year old girls picked mostly girl characters. However, when the prompt was altered to identifying the character most likely to be “really, really smart” the girls picked mostly boy characters. Similarly, when shown two unfamiliar board games and told that one was for really smart children and the other for children who try really hard, the researchers found young girls to be significantly less willing than boys to play the first game.
This is where the word enough comes into play. The important distinction to draw from this study is that young girls recognize that females can perform well in school and be smart if they work hard, but they are unlikely to associate their own gender with inherent brilliance. To this point, the authors of the paper write, “women are underrepresented in fields thought to require brilliance – fields that include some of the most prestigious careers in our society, such as those in science and engineering. It may be that the roots of this underrepresentation stretch all the way back to childhood” (Cimpian & Leslie).
What really gets me about this study is that if I’d been one of those participants, answering those questions as the age of six, I would likely have answered the same way.
Somewhere in the depths of my childhood closet, tucked in the pocket of a tattered, middle school binder, there is a clip-art style drawing of a white man in a lab coat with frizzy hair, round glasses, and a beaker in hand. The prompt scribbled at the top reads, What does a scientist look like? As Paula Denise Johnson writes in her dissertation on girls and science, “when students are asked to draw a scientist, the vast majority of their drawings are of white men. Lurking behind these drawings is the disturbing myth of the math “gene.” This is the erroneous, but strongly held, perception that there is a genetic or biological basis for gender differences in STEM” (Johnson, 29).
When I drew this interpretation of a scientist I was in seventh grade, taking the highest level of math offered and excelling in science, yet thoroughly convinced that science and math were not for me. I certainly didn’t consider pursuing a career in either discipline. It seemed to me that STEM careers were reserved for those with inherent scientific intelligence, a quality I felt I didn’t possess.
This feeling continued throughout high school. Every time I squeaked out of a math or science test with a good grade I chalked it up to my rigorous study habits, but when I failed to find an answer on a problem set or got a test back with one too many red marks it was further proof that I just didn’t have a “STEM brain.” By the time I made it out of second-year calculus I was ready to bid adieu to high-level math and hopefully transition away from STEM classes in college.
The conviction I held that told me I didn’t belong in STEM, that I wasn’t born with a “STEM brain”, is not a viewpoint unique to me. In their paper “Why Do Women Opt Out? Sense of Belonging and Women’s Representation in Mathematics,” Good et. al. investigate the sex differences that lead women to disproportionately drop out of mathematics. Their conclusion states that “students’ perceptions of 2 factors in their math environment—the message that math ability is a fixed trait and the stereotype that women have less of this ability than men—[work] together to erode women’s, but not men’s, sense of belonging in math” (Good et al, 700). When it comes to math and science, girls underestimate their own abilities and often doubt their belonging in the field as a whole.
What can be done to heighten girls’ sense of belonging in typically male-dominated fields? Promisingly, Good et al. found that when women were given the message that mathematical ability could be acquired and was not an inherent trait, they maintained a higher sense of belonging in the field and were more likely to pursue a career involving math. Furthermore, researchers have found that when girls have access to female mentors and/or role models in female-sparse fields, the girls are more likely to be optimistic about such a career for themselves (Lips).
Fortunately, before I completely swore off math and science I began to see indicators that gave me more confidence in my ability to excel in those fields. Around the time I was finishing high school I started noticing many women in climate science who inspired me, mostly by virtue of being really, really cool and passionate about their work. My concern for the environment, coupled with a newfound sense of inclusion in the field, made me more open to a STEM-focused major than ever before. When I came to Stanford and saw clusters of women at the Stanford Earth meet-and-greet, eager to tell me about the experiences in the field and the research they had pursued, I was ecstatic. I remember thinking, these women are so passionate and capable. Why shouldn’t I do that? This shift in my mindset helped me overcome the notion that I need to be brilliant in order to pursue environmental science, or that I lack some necessary “smart” gene required of all scientists. And to those six year-old girls, I want to say yes, you are capable, passionate, and smart enough.
Cimpian, Andrei, and Sarah-Jane Leslie. "Why Young Girls Don't Think They Are Smart Enough." The New York Times, 26 Jan. 2017.
Good, Catherine, et al. “Why Do Women Opt Out? Sense of Belonging and Women’s Representation in Mathematics” (2012). Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
Johnson, Paula Denise, "Girls and Science: A Qualitative Study on Factors Related to Success and Failure in Science" (2004). Dissertations. Paper 1114.
Lips, Hilary M. “The Gender Gap in Possible Selves: Divergence of Academic Self-Views Among High School and University Students” (2004). Sex Roles.
By Jazzy Kerber '20
The New York Times recently called a carbon tax proposal “a rare Republican call to climate action.” How does the plan work, and will the U.S. government respond? At Stanford’s February 23 Carbon Tax Panel, Stanford economics professors Frank Wolak, Mark Thurber, James Sweeney, and Hillard Huntington explained the concept of carbon taxes, contrasted this method with cap and trade programs, and discussed whether a small-scale version of a carbon tax could work at our school.
Why implement a carbon tax?
Right now, there are two main techniques to financially incentivize emissions reductions: carbon taxes (which Ireland, Sweden, and British Columbia use), and cap-and-trade programs (seen in the EU, Quebec, California, New York, and Massachusetts). The U.S. federal government has not adopted either program yet. The professors at the panel, however, believe we should. Substances that harm the environment are negative externalities, or “public bads” that affect everyone in one way or another. So, according to professor Frank Wolak, “Let’s tax the things we don’t want people to do.”
In a cap-and-trade system, the government sets a maximum permitted amount of carbon emissions and distributes “emission allowances” to companies and individuals. Those who emit less can sell their extra allowances to others, keeping net emissions at or below the capped amount. The market demand for buying and selling these allowances determines the price of carbon. According to the panelists, the main issue with cap-and-trade is price uncertainty—market fluctuations affect the price of carbon, which is usually tricky for businesses to handle. Professor Thurber explained that if prices became extremely high, politicians might decide to change or eliminate the whole program.
A carbon tax, on the other hand, places a fixed price on carbon that Professor Wolak describes as a sort of sales tax based on the carbon content of what you purchase. Under a carbon tax system, saving money incentivizes environmentally responsible decisions. For example, if we have two identical shirts and shirt 1 is produced in a highly polluting factory, it costs more than shirt 2, which is produced without causing much pollution. Ideally, people also make greener investments when they know that carbon has a stable price attached to it in the future.
How would a Stanford carbon tax work?
A Stanford carbon tax pilot program would likely follow a model similar to one Yale is currently testing. Through the program, participating buildings across campus get a current carbon emissions screening, then receive a performance target aimed at reducing the university’s overall emissions. Buildings pay a penalty if their emissions are too high and receive a monetary reward if they surpass the target. Across the whole university, revenue could end up neutral. (On a national level, another option would be to make money, then put it towards infrastructure or other needs. Stanford would probably just test the system without changing overall university spending.)
Professor Frank Wolak notes that since Stanford is a well-known institution, implementing a program like this one could attract outside attention and perhaps inspire other organizations to follow suit. He acknowledges, however, that reducing Stanford’s carbon footprint can only make a small difference to the environment. The main goal of a carbon tax pilot program would be education and outreach to promote a larger-scale solution.
Could the U.S. really adopt a carbon tax program?
The professors acknowledged that the current administration does not prioritize lowering federal carbon emissions, but Professor Wolak hopes they might see a carbon tax as a way to raise money for the infrastructure improvements President Trump promised. It’s also a good sign that several prominent Republicans, including former Secretaries of State James Baker and George Shultz, endorsed the program, even if they face opposition within their party at the moment. Professor Huntington suggests that right now, the most likely route to a carbon tax is through a larger tax code revision. Still, we should note that a carbon tax cannot adequately reduce U.S. emissions without the help of federal regulations.
The more municipalities and institutions that financially incentivize low emissions, the bigger the difference carbon fee programs make. If one country drives up the prices of polluting goods and services while another does not, people can simply turn to imports to save money. If more institutions, states, and nations implement carbon taxes (or even cap-and-trade systems), we can take huge strides towards making environmentally-smart decisions affordable and desirable.
By Kate Wang '20
A forlorn polar bear stands on a small piece of ice drifting in the water. Lonely and starving, the polar bear wistfully stares into the camera, deeply saddening most viewers. This image has become universally recognized as a symbol for global warming, climate change, and the conservation movement as a whole. How did people come up with this animal, one that can be fairly dangerous to humans, as a symbol that evokes sadness and pity?
The link between polar bears and climate change grew in popularity during the Bush administration’s decision to list the bears as threatened instead of endangered under the Endangered Species Act. Though they recognized that the decreasing number of polar bears was due to habitat loss, the administration refused to acknowledge that the melting ice caps were directly influenced by human-caused rising global temperatures and did not include legislation to help protect the habitats. Outspoken environmentalists, angered by the administration’s actions, publicized the plight of the polar bears were, sending it on its way to becoming a climate change icon.
One reason the symbol of the polar bear became so well-recognized is the emotional appeal of the situation: sad, lonely, starving, perhaps even with cubs. A bear is a characterizable figure that people can sympathize with. A pathos-filled image like this is far more successful in catching the general public’s attention (especially those with little knowledge about climate change) than perhaps a graph of rising global temperatures or a more technical, scientific figure that many people might not understand.
This connection opened pathways for communication about climate change. Organizations and educational groups could use the image to grab the attention of their audiences to help raise awareness about and educate people about climate change. For instance, magazines like TIME and Newsweek and organizations like the World Wildlife Fund use these alarming images to convey their messages about climate change as seen below.
While the symbol of the polar bear draws attention to global warming and helps build an understanding that the Earth is experiencing rising temperatures and sea levels, it creates a very narrow image of the problem. Although global warming is a huge component of climate change, there are also many other changes to the environment (like harsher weather patterns, drought, and the chemical makeup of our atmosphere and oceans) that are equally as important to consider.
This incomplete representation of climate change creates opportunities for misunderstandings and, for people whom this imagery is an introduction to climate change, doesn’t provide a holistic view of the problem. So while the image of the polar bear can help people understand that there is a problem, it doesn’t necessarily help them understand what the problem is. As a result, these people cannot make fully educated decisions about their climate change beliefs and more importantly about how they can take action to help solve the problem.
Because the polar bear is only associated with one facet of climate change, it is easier for climate change skeptics to criticize arguments made from that point of view. For instance, the polar bear symbolism represents the problem as global warming, and as a result, ice caps melting and seas rising. However, somewhere else in the world, the effects of climate change could manifest themselves in more extreme weather resulting in stronger and colder snow storms. Thus, the generalization to global warming can have a negative effect on the argument for climate change as a whole.
I believe that the image of the stranded polar bear has played an important role in opening the conversation about climate change. It has acted as a stepping stone to help people engage in questions about global warming and its implications. Although it has limits in the scope of the message it conveys, it begins a conversation that can ultimately deepen and evolve into the well-rounded dialogue that is necessary in bringing people together to mitigate climate change.
By Emma Hutchinson '17
On Tuesday night, we were honored to host Dr. John Holdren as the speaker for the 5th Annual Stephen H. Schneider Memorial Lecture in CEMEX Auditorium. Dr. Holdren is one of the nation’s most accomplished science figures, having worked in academia on science, technology, and the environment before moving into government positions. Most recently, he served as Chief Science and Technology Advisor from 2009 to 2017 under President Obama, the longest term in the history of the position. With the change in administration, he has now returned to his professorship at Harvard University.
Dr. Holdren began his talk by placing science and technology in perspective with government, giving the audience a taste of his vantage point inside the Obama Administration. Federal government is the biggest supporter of R&D for science, and policy for science includes budgeting and making rules regarding private sector R&D funding. And this support applies vice versa as well: “Science and technology are essential to meeting every challenge that we face in this country and in the world,” he said, “and they’re also important as a fundamental characteristic of human nature, that we revel in discovery, we revel in invention and expanded understanding.”
On his specific role in the White House, Dr. Holdren described the position as a coordinator between different governmental departments and agencies on science and technology issues. He emphasized the importance of having someone with a “responsibility of distilling and interpreting for the president” what he or she would need to know to make sound decisions: “You’ve got to have a person responsible for ensuring that the president and the heads of the other White House offices have the insights from science and technology that might be germane to the policy issues that are on their plates.”
In his inauguration speech, President Obama promised to “restore science to its rightful place,” and he began by appointing exceptionally qualified scientists to head numerous federal agencies and upgrading Dr. Holdren’s position to “Assistant to the President,” which his predecessor under George W. Bush did not have. This specific title made it possible for Dr. Holdren to send memos and make appointments with the president, greatly increasing his access and priority within the Administration. The Office of Science and Technology policy tripled its staff, and President Obama invited more scientists than sports teams to the White House. Dr. Holdren told the audience several anecdotes of President Obama meeting with science fair winners, delaying his other appointments so he could meet every science teacher in attendance, and firing a marshmallow canyon, “to the great dismay of the Secret Service.”
President Obama also placed early emphasis on improving STEM education and access to science. Dr. Holdren recounted Obama saying that “You’re not going to win with half your team on the bench; we have to do better at inspiring, engaging, teaching, and mentoring for these groups that have historically been underrepresented.”
Dr. Holdren then listed many of the major environmental accomplishments during the Age of Obama, including the first interagency task force for climate adaptation, the Climate Action Plan, the US-China Agreement, and making the Paris Agreement possible. He also mentioned the acceleration of U.S. leadership on renewable energy – during Obama’s tenure, we increased American wind power by a factor of 3.5, and solar power by a factor of 30.
In the spirit of Dr. Stephen Schneider, the namesake of this annual lecture, Dr. Holdren then gave an update on the state of the climate change problem. Dr. Schneider was a beloved professor, mentor, and friend at Stanford, and one of the best climate scientists and science communicators of his time. Dr. Holdren knew Dr. Schneider for many decades up until his death in 2010. Dr. Schneider’s widow, Dr. Terry Root, was also in attendance at the lecture.
Dr. Holdren informed the audience that global emissions have been flat for the last few years, but that CO2 concentrations are still rising. 2014, 2015, and 2016 all shattered temperature records, and we can already see the results of climate change in impacts like drought, wildfire, heat waves, and coral bleaching. “One of the questions that occupied Steve Schneider is how we know when we’ve gotten to the point where anthropogenic interference in the climate system is dangerous,” Dr. Holdren said. “We are way past dangerous today. The evidence is clear…the question is not can we avoid dangerous; it is can we avoid catastrophic.”
In his last section of the talk, Dr. Holdren predicted what Trump might do around science and technology policy. Trump’s policy agenda is a “prescription for deep cuts in every aspect of discretionary spending other than defense and infrastructure,” he said. “Sustaining support under the likely budget cuts is going to be very, very hard.” Dr. Holdren acknowledged that Trump’s plan are likely a “catastrophe for climate science” and that it is difficult to feel hopeful at this time in history: “Make no bones about it, we have a big challenge ahead of us. The light at the end of the tunnel is an oncoming train.”
But Dr. Holdren quickly turned to a more optimistic and hopeful tone, encouraging the audience to keep moving forward: “Don’t be discouraged or intimidated. Scientists and technologists should keep doing their work and communicating their findings and the implications for policy. I know that’s what Steve Schneider would be saying if he were here today.”
Dr. Holdren said that the federal government would likely move backward on these issues, so that means that it is the responsibility of civil society, academia, and state and local governments to step up and make progress on climate change, scientific discovery, and environmental justice issues. He encouraged everyone to dedicate some of their time to engaging in the political process, and also spoke about the important role of communication: “We all need to get better at telling stories…We have to learn to bring climate change to where people live and work.”
To conclude his talk, Dr. Holdren turned his attention to the students in the room: “Students’ voices can be as loud as anybody’s…If our young people become energized and engaged and active, they’re going to be an immensely powerful force.”
We are immensely grateful to Dr. Holdren for his comprehensive and engaging talk, to Dr. Terry Root, Meghan Shea and Ashley Jowell for organizing the lecture, to all of the student volunteers and planners, and to Dr. Stephen Schneider, whose memory continues to inspire us all.
By Jourdann Fraser '20
Organic, fair trade, free-range. It seems that in the last decade our culture has become obsessed with ethical consumerism, a form of social activism in which consumers buy from brands that try to minimize their impact on the environment. This can include buying organically producing food, making their clothes in worker-friendly factories, and providing animal welfare services. I was intrigued by this cause and decided to do some research of my own to learn how to shop more ethically. What I learned left me disheartened.
In general, ethical consumerism seems like a great way of giving back to the environment: by buying from only from companies that practice ethical standards, you are not only supporting that way of producing goods but you’re also practicing a more sustainable lifestyle. At least that’s what ethical consumerism is on the surface. But if you look deeper, you realize that your individual buying decisions may have little or no effect in the way major businesses produce their items. Ethical consumers believe that by buying ethically and boycotting stores that don’t participate in ethical production they’re making a huge difference in the practice of businesses. While this may be true on a micro-level, this type of thinking is ineffective in helping solve the root of the problem.
One reason is because there is a monopoly in the production of goods overseas. Companies usually hand over supplier decisions to huge conglomerates that don’t regulate the factories overseas. Unfortunately for the companies, they are unable to fully regulate the suppliers of their goods, resulting in a discrepancy between how the companies want their clothes to be produced and how it is actually being produced. One way to fix this problem would be working on actually solving the problems overseas instead of pointing them out. A great example of this is in Brazil where they have inspectors that visit different factories and write summaries about the problems in each factory and how they’re addressing them. These problems could include updating outdated machinery to reduce the amount of workers’ accidents or relocating farmers to prevent them from polluting the shore.
Another issue is the fact that consumers who can’t afford ethical products have no choice but to buy from unethical companies. Boycotting from a major consumer like TJ Maxx may seem like the way to participate if you have the means to buy from other companies that produce more ethical products. However, a lot of these items are expensive for middle- and low-income individuals, with clothes ranging from $30 to $100. This makes ethical consumerism unavailable to them. What ethical consumers should actually focus on is making the practice more affordable and accessible. Vintage stores may be the solution to this as they provide a way for consumers to purchase affordable clothes that are no longer doing any harm to the environment. Ethical consumers also need to realize that a change in the way businesses operate doesn’t only come from consumers’ spending habits. Thorough political advocacy and education, ethical consumers may have the ability to have stores be held accountable for the things they do to the environment.
Fast fashion is the third culprit of ethical consumerism. Fast fashion has been on the rise since 1960s. Prior to the 1950s there used to be around 2 fashion seasons per year - now there are around 52 fashion seasons. As a result, workers overseas don’t have time to plan out what they have to produce, making them practice unethical standards to keep up with the increasing demand. What ethical consumerism should focus on is consuming less so that you putting less pressure on the factory workers to make clothes.
Overall, even though ethical consumerism seems good in practice, it can actually be detrimental. I’m not saying ethical consumerism is a bad thing in and of itself, but it can be more useful and better for the environment if we actually try to make change not based on capitalistic measures, but on human measures.
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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.
Welcome to our blog!
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.