by Spencer Robinson '20
Think fast. Think new. Think smart. Think powerful. Think technology. Here at Stanford, a leading research university in the Digital Age, a large majority of the students are focused on development, design and implementation of new tools to solve real world problems. Being a part of the development of ‘the next’ phone application or ‘the next’ computing software is, likely, the dream of many students. At least in my experience, students genuinely have faith in the power of technology to solve the world’s issues— including environmental problems. Indeed, there is merit in this view—the whole science of predicting the effects of climate change, for example, depends heavily upon the use of computer models. However, more education and deeper conversations about the relationship of the tech-industry’s relationship to the environment is well warranted.
Before we admire technology for its ability to solve problems of energy and resource use, we should first consider the tech-industry’s own significant energy and resource demand. A 2013 report released by Northwestern University Faculty Fellow Mark Mills, The Cloud Begins With Coal, states that Information Communications Technology uses approximately 10% of global electricity. A large portion of this is used by data centers which allows for storage and instant access to information. Of course, the Internet is a key part of the global economy today, but the infrastructure of the internet has an impact on the environment that isn’t negligible nor beneficial. It may be convenient to think of “The Cloud” as some abstract, nebulous entity. In reality, however, “The Cloud” is a network of data centers (massive rooms full of energy hungry computers) that take electricity to run, need water for cooling, and require a whole industry of resource-intensive electronics manufacturing to develop. Similarly, although the annual release of new smart phones seems to be a hallmark of technological development and progress, the smart phone industry involves a great network of exploitative and environmentally taxing operations. For example, Apple has over 200 suppliers worldwide that produce the components of its products—the touch ID sensors are from Taiwan, the batteries from South Korea and China, the accelerometer made in Germany, and the gyroscope produced in Italy and France. Despite the carbon intensive process of manufacturing, transporting and assembling devices such as smart phones they are readily thrown away and new ones produced. In 2014, the world generated 42 million tons of these toxic materials with over 80% not properly recycled. Perhaps it’s not a software designer’s responsibility to know about the manufacturing system for the product they are working with, but I still feel like there needs to be more discussion about the technological tools we develop, and their resource and energy costs.
Perhaps more directly relevant to students who seek to design and produce software is the environmental impact that online on-demand services create themselves. Today’s online platforms now have begun to determine how people use transportation and how they buy goods. This has led them to significantly alter consumer behavior and the collective environmental impact of people in our society. The arrival of these online platforms has provided people with the privileges of having consumer goods delivered to their doorstep and taking chauffeured car rides with the click of a button. These developments have made it is easy to say that technology has allowed for greater efficiency— for example, the reduced carbon impact of one van delivering several goods instead of many people driving to shops in their own cars. However, such a priori assumptions cannot always be made about technology. What about how people are buying goods impulsively on amazon? What about people who order products everyday delivered separately? What about the impact of packaging? One research paper entitled Environmental Analysis of US Online Shopping by Dmitri Weidli at the MIT Center for Transportation and Logistics concludes that that though online shopping on the whole has reduced the carbon footprint of most shopping behaviors, not all consumer behaviors that utilize online shopping reduce carbon footprint. There are lots of factors to be considered. For example, shoppers that use public transportation to shop may have lower carbon footprints. Additionally, online shoppers have higher product return rates.
In a world of finite resources where human collective behavior determines the health of our world as a whole, software engineers need to recognize their agency in shaping how resources are used. What are your priorities? Is it to allow your company to satisfy demand in a profitable way? Or could your program influence consumer dynamics and lower the resources use and energy consumption? Do these technological solutions take environmental impacts into account, and couldn’t minor changes in these priorities lead to a large reduction in environmental impact given millions of people are now dependent on these tools?
Rather than framing the development of technology as a consumerist evil, I would prefer for people to look at it as a powerful tool with the potential to help people find amazing solutions to problems of combating human development and poverty as well as issues of environmental importance. I think that the focus on technology as the silver bullet, however, should be taken with caution. Regardless of the power of the tool as a software engineer designs it, billions of other people who use the tool may not use it in the way the designer intended.
With technology at the center of much education here at Stanford, we should consider that although technological tools can be used to help people find efficient and sustainable solutions, they equally have the potential to change human behavior for the worse and intensify our resource and energy use. The tech-industry isn’t the most significant contributor to ocean pollution, global warming, habitat destruction, and other environmental issues. But these issues are the result of the actions of billions of individuals. Technology products now currently connect, influence and empower billions of people worldwide, so those in the tech industry now have the best opportunity to influence the behavior of individuals on a global scale. They are best poised to solve the world’s toughest problems—helping billions of world citizens act in their best collective interest to ration our precious environmental resources in an efficient, equitable and innovative way.
by Jourdann Fraser '20
If I asked you to define sustainability, it would probably take you a couple of Google searches to get at the meaning in the context of environmentalism. However, if I mentioned the word climate change or greenhouse gases, you’d probably know what I was talking about. This is one of the main problems with environmentalism. The important issues we need to discuss take too much technical knowledge to understand, and as a result, people aren’t concerned with those issues. The communication problem is a part of a bigger problem in environmentalism: branding.
For the past eight weeks, I’ve been taking a class called the Language of Advertising. Last week we had a guest speaker, David Placek, the founder of Lexicon Branding Inc., talk to us about the importance of branding. Branding is important in the commercial sense because it creates a predisposition to buy a product in the consumer. However, for the purpose of this argument, we’ll modify this definition to be creating the predisposition to participate in environmentalism. One of the reasons for a problem in branding is a lack of communication between the general public and environmental scientists. When there are clear word associations between complex processes and simple phrases like global warming, it makes it easier for the general public to figure out what the problem is and what needs to be solved. Unfortunately, a lot of complex processes cannot be succinctly explained to people, and therefore, there needs to be more innovation in the words we use to communicate to the general public. One great example of this is the innovation of the black hole. It was not until scientists named their discovery a black hole that the news picked up the discovery and spread it like wildfire.
However, these words need to be clearly defined to the general public. A huge problem with the use of words like climate change and global warming is that a lot of people take these words to mean that if the entire world is warming up, then their specific location must be heating up as well. Using analogies further clarifies what these words actually mean in environmental science. Analogies make a clear picture of complex processes, improving the discussion on what the problems are and how we can fix them.
Another thing that needs rebranding in environmentalism is the feelings towards environmentalism. When people hear the phrases “reduce, reuse, recycle” or “beach clean up,” there is usually a negative connotation that comes with it in the sense that these are chores that need to be done. The feelings about the subject, environmentalism, are not much better. Many people associate environmentalism, with alarming, and pessimistic views about the future. Ultimately, we need to change the ways stories are told about environmentalism. Films like Tomorrow and How to Let Go of the World and Love All the Things Climate Can't Change really inspire people to not look at environmentalism in such a bad light. Rather than warning people of the doom and gloom of the world, we need to tell them what they can do to make a small difference in their community, so that they associate environmentalism with a positive emotion.
Another way to change people’s feelings towards environmentalism would be to change the symbols associated with it. Humans tend to process information based on color, shape, and symbol first. The last thing that we process is text because it is the hardest to process. Therefore, symbolism plays an important role when it comes to what people associate with a product, idea, or campaign. One way to reignite the environmentalism brand and make it more of a brand that people are willing to comply with would be to make it more whimsical and joyful. A great example for change would be to create a symbol for composting in order to make it a more recognizable thing that people could easily do in order to help the environment. Think about how the “reduce, reuse, recycle” symbol has become a symbol for sorting waste. Stanford has a great version of this, in which the different types of waste are sorted by color association (brown for compost, blue for paper, and green for plastic and metals).
Finally, I think that environmentalism has to become more personalized and interactive. A huge problem with sustainability is getting people to care about the issues we face. A large percentage of the population may know about climate change and global warming, however, the way information is presented makes it seem as if the problem is not going to happen anytime soon. The problems the Earth will face is not a tangible part of their daily lives, making it more difficult for people to adopt sustainable practices. If we were to find ways to make information about environmentalism more personal to people’s lives, then people would be more likely to change their daily habits.
Environmentalism needs a new brand that is whimsical, hopeful, interactive, personalized, and easy to understand. Through this rebranding, we can not only reach new people with environmentalism, but we can also hopefully change everyone’s habits for the better.
by Becca Nelson '20
When I was a kid, I used to watch the scraggly trees along the highway rush by through the car window. I would try to imagine what was there hundreds of years ago. I dreamed that a vast forest blanketed where the subdivisions and strip malls now sprawled. A wilderness of thick, gnarled trees, seemingly devoid of people. Growing up, I used to think wilderness and people were separate. Wilderness was the moon-swept forests in Ansel Adams’s photographs, not the Chicago suburbs I called home. This conception of wilderness is perpetuated by the Wilderness Act of 1964, which played a crucial role in protecting areas of biodiversity throughout the United States. The act defined wilderness as a place “untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain”. This definition overlooks the fact that diverse Native American cultures historically lived in these wilderness areas for hundreds of years before being driven off their land by American settlers.
I first realized the extent to which Native Americans historically shaped the landscape, the summer I interned in the Morton Arboretum's Forest Ecology Lab. I was investigating whether thinning the canopy by selectively removing trees was an effective way to regenerate oak seedlings. Oaks play a crucial role in maintaining forest biodiversity. They provide food and shelter for deer, migratory bird species, squirrels, and other animals. Oaks also provide important ecosystem services to people by sequestering carbon. Native Americans maintained the historical dominance of oak species by regularly burning large patches of forests. The oak seedlings are better able to resprout after fire than other tree species. Fire suppression post-European settlement contributed to the decline of oaks.
The goal of oak regeneration research was to restore the forest to a healthier, more natural state, yet these oak forests were originally maintained by people. The relationship between Native Americans and oak forests suggests that people and nature are intertwined with humans playing an integral role in the health of the ecosystems, we call wilderness. In Savage Dreams, writer and activist Rebecca Solnit describes a similar relationship in Yosemite National Park. The Miwok and Awahneechee peoples regularly burned portions of Yosemite and used horticultural practices to maintain a biodiverse mix of meadows, oak forests, and conifers in Yosemite valley. They relied on a variety of plants for food, shelter, and cultural reasons.
The vast expanses of incense cedars that currently fill Yosemite Valley resulted from European fire suppression practices. Hiking through Yosemite, the towering incense cedars gave me the deceptive impression of having stood for thousands of years without human influence. I walked past the sheer cliffs and roaring waterfalls. Ravens soared overhead, and the air tasted sweet with pine. As the steep granite switchbacks obscured other hikers from view, I couldn’t help but imagine Yosemite as remote and beyond human influence. This was an illusion, a mirage as shimmery as the foam from the waterfalls I passed by. Campgrounds, roads, trails, educational signs, streams full of nonnative trout, exoitc grasses, prescribed burns to regenerate oaks and sequoias, and efforts to reintroduce Bighorn sheep to Yosemite tell of an evolving relationship between people and land.
Asserting that wilderness is distant and separate from our daily lives comes at cost. We forget the importance of taking care of the land we live on. We forget how we are a part of the ecosystem, intertwined to the physical landscape and other organisms through complex relationships. Randolph Haluza-Delay, an environmental education researcher, conducted a study in which he took teenagers on a wilderness trip to investigate how the trip influenced their willingness to care for nature in their urban home. The teenagers enjoyed camping in the mountains of Banff National Park. They woke each morning to fresh cedar air and birdsong. At night, they watched the sky fill with stars instead of city lights. The experience gave them a sense of freedom and relaxation. The twelve day backpacking experience, however, did not inspire the teenagers to take environmental action at home, largely because they viewed the nature they experienced on the trip as being entirely separate from their home environment.
Conceptualizing wilderness as somewhere remote from our society disconnects people from engaging in conservation action. The Trump administration’s policy platform threatens the continued existence of diverse National Monuments that support a rich variety of ecosystems. Connecting people to wilderness is crucial to establishing continued support for these monuments and other wild places. Wilderness is not a place “untrammeled” by people. Wilderness is a home, a refuge, a place where land and people intersect. A place of exploration and inspiration.
Haluza-Delay, Randolph. "Nothing here to care about: Participant constructions of nature following a 12-day wilderness program." The Journal of Environmental Education 32.4 (2001): 43-48.
Solnit, Rebecca. Savage dreams: A journey into the hidden wars of the American West. Univ of California Press, 2014.
by Deirdre Francks '20
By this point in my Stanford career, I have learned a fair bit about the history of Silicon Valley. I know the basic history behind the founding of Stanford, have heard the spiel about Hewlett and Packard, and have a general understanding of the rise of technology in the area. I have also learned about the gentrification which has accompanied the rise of tech, an issue which deserves its own extensive post by someone more qualified than me. But recently, I realized that I know very little about the history and climate of this region before it became “Silicon Valley.” What was this region like before the tech boom? Before Stanford was founded?
According the the National Park Service, the Santa Clara Valley formed “quite recently in geological history” as a result of intense mountain formation in the Cenozoic era. For this reason, the valley is sheltered by mountains from the coastal climate, thus giving us mild winters, glorious spring days of warmth, and hot summers. Skipping ahead at least one million years, the NPS reports the first documented humans in the valley to be the Ohlone Indians around 8000 BCE who, along with other tribes in the region, represent some of the earliest inhabitants of the Santa Clara Valley. These tribes were split into small, self-sufficient communities which moved between permanent and temporary villages, fishing, hunting, and gathering throughout the year. Though I can’t possibly speak to the entire history of these native cultures, it is important to note the rich communities from which the Santa Clara population began. Life for the Ohlone Indians changed drastically in the 1700s with the arrival and settlement of Spanish explorers and missionaries. This historical time period includes complex relations between Native Americans and European settlers, subsequent Mexican rule over the region, and eventually the Mexican-American war, but again, I’ll fast forward to after the United States’ acquisition of California when the Santa Clara Valley emerged as an agricultural paradise.
The Santa Clara Valley has another nickname besides the commonly-used and surely more famous, “Silicon Valley.” Fascinatingly enough, the valley used to be called “The Valley of Heart’s Delight” due to its flourishing agricultural production. From around the 1850s until the mid 20th century Santa Clara was one of the world’s greatest fruit-producing regions, making agriculture, along with some lumber and oil production, one of the primary industries in the area. It’s hard for me to imagine that when Leland and Jane Stanford laid the plans for a university they were working with an area recognized around the globe not for its scientific and technological innovation, but for its fertile land and ample agricultural exports. Among its most plenteous crops were prunes, cherries, pears, almonds, carrots, and more. Only around the 1950s did the agricultural presence in the Santa Clara Valley truly begin to diminish. In unison with the rise of the tech industry and the formation of “Silicon Valley,” the dramatic increase in population and urbanization saw the end of “The Valley of the Heart’s Delight.”
From here, the story becomes one of technological growth, population increase, urbanization and numerous other changes to the land and community of the Santa Clara Valley region. Of course, Stanford has played a sizable role in the rise of tech in the Bay Area, making it important to me as a Stanford student to know the history of the region before this institution was founded. From the geological formation of the valley itself to the native inhabitants who came long before the recorded census, the history of the Santa Clara Valley is far from simple. While my research on the Santa Clara Valley is far from complete, I now have a better understanding of the complex history of the land and inhabitants of the region, and an intense appreciation for all that came before Silicon Valley.
"History of Stanford." Stanford University. https://www.stanford.edu/about/history/
“Ohlones and Coast Miwoks” National Parks Service. https://www.nps.gov/goga/learn/historyculture/ohlones-and-coast-miwoks.htm
"Santa Clara "The Mission City"." City of Santa Clara. http://santaclaraca.gov/about/city-history/the-mission-city
"Santa Clara County: California’s Historic Silicon Valley" National Parks Service. https://www.nps.gov/nr/travel/santaclara/history.htm
By Deirdre Francks '20 and Becca Nelson '20
On Friday, April 28th, Students for a Sustainable Stanford hosted Earthfest, an annual celebration of campus sustainability. The festivities were held on the Columbae lawn during a particularly sunny afternoon over Admit Weekend, where current students and ProFros alike could drop in for a snack, live music, and a bit of environmental education. To help with the latter, a number of organizations set up booths to inform students—both current and prospective—about sustainability initiatives on campus. These organizations included Stanford Coalition for Planning an Equitable 2035, Fossil Free Stanford, People for Animal Welfare (PAW), Stanford Gleaning Society, Students for a Sustainable Stanford (SSS), and the Office of Sustainability.
In addition to environmentally-themed booths, the event featured live music from Real People Music, Zach Ostroff, and Camp Youth. Attendees relaxed on couches close to the stage during some musical numbers and took to the open grass for mini dance parties during others. And what’s a celebration without food? Throughout the event attendees enjoyed vegan Cones from Raw Daddy’s stuffed with Thai salad or mango filling, strawberry and banana crepes from J-Shack, and other treats including trail mix and lemonade. No matter the ebb and flow of overall attendance at Earthfest, the crowd around the food table remained constant throughout. Attendees also enjoyed looking at environmentally-themed art created by students, including a giant wave made out of plastic from the ocean by Meghan Shea.
Above all, the mood at the Earthfest was that of relaxation and celebration. While some students chose to explore the many booths, striking up conversations with representatives from various organizations, others chose to simply sit in the grass and enjoy the tasty food, lively music, and beautiful day. It was another successful Earthfest celebration for Students for a Sustainable Stanford.
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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.