by Sierra Garcia, '18
In less than seven months, thousands of students will move off campus in a mass migration to summer jobs and internships, or in the case of the senior class, to their post-grad lives. Over the course of a just few days, these same students will also condemn tens of thousands of pounds of furniture items to the landfill. Couches, mini-fridges, cushy chairs, futons, mattresses, printers, and microwaves will pile up by the hundreds along the Row and other residential hubs—and many of these items will still be entirely functional, or even in great condition.
SSS and the First-Generation/Low Income Partnership (FLIP) teamed up last year to repurpose the better quality furniture items to incoming freshmen. Our efforts served the dual purpose of keeping over 4000 pounds of ‘waste’ out of the landfill, and providing fifty freshmen with free furniture and other dorm supplies at the beginning of this academic year. The event that we named the FLI (First-Generation/Low Income) Drive will be an annual event and is in the process of garnering official administrative support.
Yet the necessity for the event in the first place speaks to a larger cultural apathy, an overlooked but dangerous obliviousness to the impact of our waste. To be sure, most people would try and sell their furniture or mini-fridge online before resorting to the dumpster, but once the offending item is out of sight it is largely out of mind. Nobody claims to be a proponent of waste, yet the fact that our used items must end up somewhere, and be dealt with by someone, is often ignored for the sake of convenience.
There are several implications of a useable item being thrown ‘away’, or left out on the curb. The item must be transported to a landfill, where it can take up space for centuries depending on the material (in other locations the trash might be incinerated, but burning trash isn’t as in vogue in the US). The disposal also implies that a new version of that item will be made to replace it, in some other part of the world, with other laborers and resources. And for certain things, like fridges or batteries, components like coolant need to be extracted first so they don’t contaminate the air or soil.
An especially salient example for Silicon Valley is electronics waste. Electronics like old laptops contain small quantities of toxic substances, that can contaminate water and soils when concentrated together in a landfill area. The health risks resulting from proximity to electronic waste sites when not disposed of properly are severe (see here for a detailed account of this issue, and how African countries like Nigeria bear the brunt of the human toll for Western electronics consumption.) Outsourcing the disposal of waste to poorer countries is a clear-cut and egregious environmental justice issue. Solving these problems will require fundamental and lasting shifts in how we think about and value stuff--any of the countless things that we use, consume, and toss each day. Most importantly, these impacts cannot be disparate, but must be part of a larger collective shift towards new norms.
Changing behaviors and attitudes is an extreme challenge. Yet I believe that confronting this challenge will be increasingly important in the twenty first century, regardless of technological progress. At Stanford we can design ingenious apps and program away diseases, but I challenge us as a community to shift towards personally enacting the mundane solutions hiding in plain sight.
Rethinking the waste we make can mean making the effort to donate food instead of throwing it out*, ensuring that your mini-fridge goes to a person who can use it instead of the dumpster at the end of the year, or even something as simple as buying compostable cups instead of red solo cups** for your next party. Perhaps in this way, we can individually and collectively work for a cultural shift towards intentionality, and away from who we are now: a society that wastes 40% of its food and deposits, on average, over 2000 pounds of trash per person each year.
It won’t be easy.
*(If you’re interested in this, please consider volunteering with the Stanford Project on Hunger (SPOON) to help redirect hundreds of pounds of food to local people in need each week)
**(Red solo cups are NOT recyclable, compostable, or anything other than landfill-able at Stanford. This is true in many places, including most of the US.)
Environmental Justice Impact
by Charlie Jiang
I’m a 2015-2016 Co-Director of SSS and a current U.S. youth delegate to the United Nations climate conference, COP23, with SustainUS. On Monday, the Trump Administration tried to promote coal as a solution to climate change in their only public event here in Bonn, Germany.
Here’s why we shut it down.
We will likely remember 2017 as the year climate change truly reared its ugly head, far sooner than I imagined. Millions in Puerto Rico are still without power, more than 50 days after Hurricane Maria devastated the island. Vulnerable communities from Houston to the Virgin Islands have all suffered from storms made stronger by warming temperatures.
Yet still, global pledges to reduce emissions to tackle climate change remain woefully inadequate. So-called “Nationally Determined Contributions” under the Paris Agreement are projected to take us beyond 3°C of warming — far exceeding the 1.5°C target vulnerable island nations need to survive. The United States’ contribution in particular falls far short of our obligations given the vast resources at our disposal, not to mention our historical contributions to the climate crisis. The inadequacy of our response to climate disaster was evident even before Trump came to power. Now, by seeking to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris Agreement, the Trump administration has made clear its complete disregard for the lives of everyday people.
These are the global stakes I carried as I arrived in Germany for COP23—the first UN climate conference under President Trump. Our SustainUS delegation arrived to mobilize, to further isolate Trump and demonstrate that millions of Americans and people around the world are moving ahead.
The day I arrived in Germany, The New York Times published a blockbuster: “Trump Team to Promote Fossil Fuels and Nuclear Power at Bonn Climate Talks.” The headline said enough: we knew this was our moment. We know that coal is no solution to climate change. There is no place for a dirty energy source that kills thousands each year through air pollution, poisoned water, and climate disaster.
So over a week, we planned. We reached out to partners, from Indigenous organizers and students from the U.S., to youth delegations from Brazil, the U.K., New Zealand, and other countries spanning the globe. We developed contingencies for every possible way our action could go wrong. We wrote a song.
On Monday, hundreds of people lined up to get inside the event. It seemed every reporter in the conference had eyes and cameras trained on this moment. The stakes for us had never been higher. Our outreach paid off with huge dividends: 150 allies managed to fill 70 percent of the room, while 250 more massed outside the doors. As the panel got underway, we could hear our friends outside chanting: “Climate Justice Now!” Twenty minutes in, as the fossil fuel lobbyist headlining the White House’s event extolled the virtues of coal as an energy source, we started to sing.
“So you claim to be an American / but we see right through your greed. / It’s killing all around the world / for that coal money. / So we proudly stand up / until you keep it in the ground. / We the people of the world unite / And we are here to stay.”
With hands on hearts, we sang for the humanity and futures of millions of people whose lives the fossil fuel industry is threatening. We sang to the tune of “God Bless the USA” because we know we represent the true values of the United States. After all, seven in 10 Americans want the U.S. to stay in the Paris Agreement. After 10 minutes we walked out of the room, leaving the coal lobbyists talking to themselves while we staged a People’s Panel in the hallway outside. At the People’s Panel, hundreds cheered to the powerful stories of Indigenous leaders, young organizers, and Pacific Climate Warriors who embodied the beautiful world for which we fight.
Our disruption was not a one-time action, but rather the latest powerful moment in a years-long effort to build the power we need to safeguard our futures. The fossil fuel industry has a stranglehold on our politics. For decades, they have spent millions to stymie efforts to combat climate change, and now an ExxonMobil CEO runs the U.S. State Department. At the same time, we’ve seen incredible leadership from communities at the forefront of this crisis, from the fight to stop the Dakota Access pipeline, to the powerful and ongoing battle against Chevron’s oil refinery in Richmond, to SSS’s own work to leverage Stanford’s resources to address the Bay Area’s housing crisis with the SCoPE coalition.
This past year has taught me we cannot realize our vision of a just and sustainable future without simultaneously organizing for thriving communities and political victories. It’s time we build a stronger, smarter movement that can bridge the local and global, and that can bring together mass mobilization, community organizing, smart policy, and electoral politics into a coordinated effort to stabilize our climate and achieve a just transition to a clean future.
As SSS Co-Director in 2015-2016, I worked to help us recognize our role, as Stanford students, in building better lives for struggling families across the Bay Area — and the world. At this historic crossroads, our responsibility as a Stanford community is greater than ever. I hope the bravery and dignity hundreds of delegates displayed by taking action here in Bonn on Monday inspires thousands more to do the same back home. For as we sang to the fossil fuel lobbyists that seek to bring us down: We the people of the world unite, and we are here to stay.
by Jazzy Kerber '20
Today is Election Day, so let’s talk environmental policy. What comes to mind when you hear the phrase “environmental policy”? Al Gore? The EPA? Regulations? Democrats? Maybe you don’t think of these particular words, but there’s a good chance that if you live in the United States, you associate environmentalism with the political Left.
Why? Why can’t we accept that no matter how we cast our votes, we all share a planet? Why can’t we trust climate scientists and see that data doesn’t lie? Perhaps we’re asking the wrong questions.
First of all, although 7.6 billion of us “share” the Earth, we don’t all share the same ideas about what nature means, we don’t all experience the same weather patterns, and we don’t all have the same viewpoints and values. Someone living on the beach and someone residing in a city center, a devoutly religious person and an atheist, a financial advisor and a scuba diver will likely perceive the world and its most pressing issues very differently from each other.
That’s not to say I believe every opinion is justified, but one or more sides may have been misled—or even deliberately deceived. And sometimes, data does lie. It’s possible to misuse the scientific method. In this next section, I’m going to draw on some ideas from Merchants of Doubt, a 2010 book by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway. This is not a book review and I don’t intend to endorse or summarize all of Oreskes and Conway’s ideas, but they provide some great food for thought.
Oreskes and Conway, both academic historians, begin their story with a small group of scientists and an organization called the George C. Marshall Institute. Several physicists including Frederick Seitz, Robert Jastrow, and William Nierenberg initially established the George C. Marshall Institute in 1984 to defend Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative against pushback from other groups including the Union of Concerned Scientists. Perhaps fueled in part by this early work, they feared communism and socialism. They also honed their skills in arguing against other scientists and asking TV stations to invite them to debates.
Even before founding the George C. Marshall Institute, Seitz had practiced using his brand of contrarian science to support the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company. When scientists first began uncovering links between cigarette smoking and cancer in the 1950s, the industry panicked and sought research that could produce counter-evidence. Of course, Frederick Seitz was a physicist without experience working on health issues, but he had a PhD and for the industry, that would be enough. The tobacco industry’s paid scientists didn’t need to objectively analyze the smoking-cancer link, anyway. “Doubt is our product,” a tobacco executive himself wrote in a 1969 company memo. The longer people weren’t sure smoking caused cancer, the longer cigarette companies could be certain they’d enjoy high sales. As a result, cigarette companies paid researchers to produce studies demonstrating how many other factors besides cigarettes might cause cancer and obsessing over small degrees of statistical uncertainty in reports from the anti-smoking side.
With a solid background in manufactured doubt, Frederick Seitz and others went on to use the same uncertainty tactics they’d relied on during the fight for tobacco to publish papers questioning whether people could trust climate change data. Again, the papers’ authors had been trained in completely different fields from environmental science, but they had PhD’s and funding. And like tobacco companies, oil companies had plenty of money and a product many people were reluctant to give up. Doubt would be enough.
Types of climate change doubt vary, ranging from “Have temperatures really risen?” to “Would it be that bad if the Earth got warmer?” to “Sure, the Earth is getting warmer, but are humans causing the change?” Sometimes, people who do believe human actions cause global warming also ask whether the costs of environmental regulations could outweigh their benefits. Perhaps part of the struggle to convince voters to support environmentally friendly policies lies in the fact that some people aren’t sure whether the planet is warming at all while others voting for the same candidate are merely skeptical of regulations in general.
The Republican Change of Heart
Republican candidates who prioritize climate action may be having an increasingly hard time. It was actually a Republican president, Richard Nixon, who established the EPA in 1970. Under our current Republican administration, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt doubts that carbon dioxide contributes to global warming and sued the EPA at least fourteen times before assuming his current post as the head of the agency. Essentially, he’s an anti-EPA EPA Administrator. What happened over the past forty-seven years to cause this change?
Merchants of Doubt came out in 2010, well before anyone could foresee where American environmental policy would be headed today, but Pruitt appears to deny climate change using similar logic to that which Oreskes and Conway describe. He says we need to “continue to debate” how humans affect the environment because “measuring with precision human activity on the climate is something very challenging to do and there's tremendous disagreement about the degree of impact.” Pruitt has close ties to oil and gas executives, so his “doubt” can help their businesses.
In 2008, Democrat Nancy Pelosi and Republican Newt Gingrich sat side-by-side and made a commercial stating that we (presumably Democrats and Republicans) can solve climate change together. In 2011, however, Gingrich called the ad “probably the dumbest single thing I’ve done in recent years” and told reporters he doesn’t know whether global warming is really happening, partly because the Earth’s temperatures have always varied from year to year. He too turned to doubt. I’m not 100% sure why Gingrich changed his stance, but perhaps it was to win more Republican votes.
It’s hard to sell environmentalism to a broad Republican audience. For instance, Bob Inglis served as U.S. Representative for South Carolina’s 4th district, a distinctly conservative region, from 1993 to 1999 and from 2005 to 2011. He lost the 2010 race after reversing his position on climate change when scientists he talked to convinced him he’d been wrong to deny warming. When Inglis accepted evidence for climate change and advocated for a carbon tax, he became an unelectable Republican in his district. Inglis feels Republicans are hesitant to change their lifestyles. He probably makes a good point, but other dynamics are at work as well.
Capitalism vs. “The Watermelons”
Some conservatives worry that American environmentalists want to shift the country toward socialism. That might sound crazy if you haven’t heard it before, but it’s well-documented. Fearful conservatives have called environmentalists “watermelons”—green on the outside, but red on the inside. And we should remember that producers of climate change denial material like the George C. Marshall institute specifically feared communism.
The United States has no major history of socialism aside from a few figures like Eugene V. Debs and Bernie Sanders, neither of whom won their presidential races in the end. I say this just to suggest that we take our capitalist history into account when thinking about environmental policy. Strategies that work in Denmark may not work in the United States. This might mean focusing on health in America—a less divisive issue than values or even temperature change—when advocating for sufficient environmental regulations. After all, health concerns convinced a Republican administration to found the EPA in the first place.
We can also emphasize the economic reasoning behind environmental policy. Logical economists do not oppose all regulations. My current econ professor, John Taylor, has worked for the previous four Republican administrations and talks to us about how cap-and-trade policies reduce carbon emissions via efficient bargaining. Other economists recommend carbon taxes, which also generate government revenue. Given this type of reasoning, Scott Pruitt’s general stance against environmental regulations is illogical.
Countries with communist vs. democratic socialist vs. more purely capitalist backgrounds shouldn’t need different environmental regulations (after all, air and water work the same everywhere). Still, the way to enact regulations will have to vary in countries with different political histories. I personally believe the end result—improving people’s health and preserving the Earth for future generations—is most important.
At the beginning, I noted that environmental issues can be inherently political. When voters feel the influence of a policy, whether that’s in terms of tax rate or health risks, we’re bound to see people take sides. Still, when it comes to environmental issues, I believe we need first and foremost to reduce pollution. We need to try to make climate issues less polarizing because the United States has a two-party political system, and the majority must agree (or at least compromise) in order to achieving lasting change.
This is no easy task. Not only does the environmental opposition have money and “science,” but the American political climate does not prime our country to embrace regulations. But ultimately, if our policies help give everyone a cleaner, safer place to live, it won’t matter much who did or didn’t embrace “environmentalism” as a movement.
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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.