I can build a disappearing house. Well, sort of. Let me explain; I took an activity called Nature as a Second Language at camp, and one of our lessons focused on building an efficient shelter in case we happened to be hopelessly wandering through the wilderness. It was essentially one log propped up perpendicularly against a fallen log. We then lined it with smaller twigs and then dumped leaves on top of it, effectively making an awkward, yet strangely inviting, triangular lump. Built from nature, it would eventually blow over and return to its natural state once we were done with it.
I remembered this particular exercise after reading about Elora Hardy, an American businesswoman living in Bali, her childhood home. The daughter of John Hardy, a jewelry designer turned ecofriendly school builder in Bali, Elora Hardy initially worked as a textile designer for Donna Karan New York (DKNY). Following the opening of her father’s Green School in 2008, however, she left New York to return to Bali. There she worked closely with her father, maintaining the trend of bamboo construction he had used with the Green School. She now runs the company Ibuku, which builds luxury homes out of bamboo.
The notion of building homes out of bamboo struck me as incredibly innovative. Elora notes, “Treated bamboo lasts for decades, but when not needed anymore, these houses—all but the plumbing—will just disappear back into the jungle.” Ibuku has now expanded the area around the Green School into a bamboo-based village known as Green Village. It includes a fitness center, café, and seven homes. The school itself is 100% solar powered and was a finalist for the Aga Khan Award for Architecture. It even boasts a bamboo and glass ATM machine.
So, perhaps we won’t all have the opportunity to travel to an Indonesian country and create a sustainable haven, but I think the takeaway from the work of Elora Hardy is that sustainability, for many people, is a global focus. And who knows? Maybe Duke will decide to build a new wing of classrooms built entirely of bamboo. Well, I can hope.
It was a chilly Monday evening when I finally explored the depths of the C-2 bus route and headed toward the John Hope Franklin Center. Inside the warm, quaint building, Dr. Franco Einaudi spoke to a crowd of scholars, engineers, and environmental activists on the subject of “The science and impact of environmental change.”
The seminar began with each person in the audience introducing themselves, listing their name, year, major, and contribution to climate change (which, as it turned out, could be either very positive or very negative). As we went around the room presenting ourselves to our peers, the diversity in the room struck me. Not only in regards to background and education, but also in regards to environmental attitude. Some guiltily confessed to leaving the fridge open and having long commutes, while others spoke of their compost piles and biking everyday as a means of transportation. However, those who impacted negatively towards climate change, I noticed, often did not have a choice. Individuals were forced to fly weekly due to clinical work, or endure long commutes due to work.
As the confessions began to die down, Dr. Einaudi took the floor and started the presentation with his own contribution towards climate change. He told us of his college experience when he relied primarily on his desk lamp as opposed to turning on the general room light. He then moved on to address the definition of climate change, as opposed to weather or natural variability. He touched upon a few central ideas/questions:
- Why study climate change? How?
- Are humans responsible for climate change?
- What is the impact of climate change?
He included many theories and noted different trends in environmental fluctuations in regards to variables, or forcings, that impact climate change. He noticed how the variables are all correlated, and that global temperature increase takes a considerably shorter amount of time than temperature decrease. However, the exact implications of human impact regarding climate change are variable.
At the conclusion of the presentation, the Q&A presented considerable thought-provoking questions that sparked a series of arguments and debate.
Typing in the policy aspect of environmental issues, there was a shout out to the political race and the lack of urgency regarding the issue of climate change. Climate change is seen to be a large-scale concept that transcends many years. A politician’s term is too short to be truly impacted by climate change, which drives their attention away from the environment and towards issues with more immediate impacts, such as the war abroad and healthcare. The true effects of climate change are shown when an individual steps back and looks at the bigger picture. However, by the time this is understood, it might be too late.
The Q&A concluded with a question relating nature and ethics, which brought in yet another component to the current mixture surrounding environmental analysis. A prime example raised was the issue of building a road through a biological hotspot, such as a rainforest. At first glance, scientists and activists would adamantly oppose to this road, as it would disrupt biodiversity and the pristine wilderness this hotspot embodies. However, on the flip side, the road would allow for many rural, native people to receive supplies from developed countries. The debate further intensified when it was asked if we should be allowed to restrain currently developing countries from indulging in the same environmentally detrimental practices that we, as a nation, went through in order to stand where we are today. Who are we to control their actions and development of a nation as a whole? However, due to our development, we generally have a broader, more rounded understanding of various environmental issues and could use this knowledge to prevent
Is there a point in the past which we could rewind to and where everything would be okay? No. The point is, there has always been some relationship, whether positive or negative, between humans and the environment around us. We cannot change the past, nor would we like to return to the technologically deficient past. Thus, the only choice is to improve our current state of being and look ahead at what we can do to establish an equilibrium between nature and mankind.
(below): Students chat over dinner as Dr. Einaudi prepares for his presentation.
The temperature has finally settled to a more enticing range in the upper 60’s, the leaves are beginning to catch fire (metaphorically, of course), Halloween costumes are being hotly debated, and thoughts of Thanksgiving break are slowly beginning to weave their way into the minds of Duke students. Oh, autumn, you do warm our hearts. My heart, too, fills with that familiar warm and fuzzy feeling, certainly as a result of the aforementioned reasons, but more so because I know that the greatest event of the year is looming just beyond the mountains of food and tolerable 60 degree weather: the ski (and snowboard) season.
Yes, I admit I have an overly healthy obsession with the ski season and all the wonders that accompany it. Until recently, however, I was never perceptive enough to notice anything beyond the fresh powder or the slice of my edges against the corduroy. But for the past few years, I’ve begun to notice the green signs that plaster the poles of the chairlifts at Park City Mountain Resort in Utah. These signs proclaim Park City’s endeavors towards reducing their carbon footprint and becoming more sustainable, most notably that their high-speed, six-person chairlifts are entirely powered by wind energy. This led me to wonder if other mountain resorts were devoting some attention to environmental action. In addition to Park City, I found a few more:
The Aspen Skiing Company
Managing Aspen, Aspen Highlands, Snowmass, and Buttermilk ski resorts, the Aspen Skiing Company adheres to a green building policy and their snow cats run on biodiesel fuel. Following its early environmental initiatives in 1997, the company has offset 100% of its electricity through the use of wind power and other means.
Mt. Bachelor Ski Resort
Located in Bend, Oregon, Mt. Bachelor employs a team of climatologists that compile studies to help the resort reduce its carbon footprint in addition to monitoring the waste and recycling process, petroleum use, and renewable energy. Job applications are completed via email, and the resort utilizes extra cooking oil as biofuel.
Jiminy Peak Mountain Resort
This Hancock, Massachusetts resort has taken great strides in sustainability, perhaps spurred on by the fact that global warming will rapidly decrease its snowpack because of the low elevation. The resort has installed a wind turbine, named Zephyr, which provides 33% of the electricity. In less than a decade, Zephyr will pay for itself. Jiminy Peak also maintains policies on wildlife habitat protection.
Alta Ski Area
As my personal favorite place to “shred”, I am proud of the efforts Alta has put in to maintain its sick (that is, awesome) slopes. It’s created the Alta Environmental Center, which focuses on the protection of vegetation, water, and air. Always inventive, Alta distributes its employee newsletter on the back of employee deposit slips. Alta furthermore provides funds for eco-education programs directed at various groups, from college students to larger businesses and organizations.
So, whenever you may be out on some sunny and blindingly white mountainside, remember that some resorts don’t just provide you with a slope and a picturesque backdrop; many of them have a hand in maintaining and protecting the area so you can continue to shred on snow instead of grass.
By Ben Soltoff
It’s been a good first year for Ecos. We’ve had some really thoughtful posts from an incredible group of writers, and we’ve generally started off strong. Despite our success, I’ve decided to end the year on a note of upbeat pessimism. Here’s some satire I wrote for my Writing Humor class:
The extinction of a species is common in nature and doesn’t require much skill. Even the simplest forms of bacteria manage to die off every now and then. However, a feat rarely accomplished is for a species to get rid of itself. This is a complicated endeavor, involving many interwoven factors, but here I’ll explain some of the basics.
The most important thing is never to work together as a species. If your species happened to evolve in highly organized social groups, with members relying on one another for survival, don’t worry. You can easily use this cooperation as a powerful tool for destruction. Just pit groups against one another, exaggerating trivial distinctions like race, religion, and nationality.
Once you’ve split your species into constantly fighting groups, you’ll need to develop powerful weapons to destroy each other efficiently. The materials readily available in nature won’t be enough to get the job done. While sticks and stones may break your bones, using them to completely eradicate your species could take a really long time. Sharp objects like swords and arrows are a good start but still not enough. What you really need is firepower, such as guns, bombs, and other explosives—the larger the better. It’s ideal to discover immense amounts of energy hidden in all matter and then harness this energy to annihilate your enemies. Under no circumstances should you ever make a concerted effort to reduce the amount of weapons possessed by groups or individuals within your species. Always devote as many resources as possible to your own destruction.
While we’re on the topic of resources, use them as quickly and as recklessly as you can. They’re bound to run out at some point. To start, your technologically advanced groups should settle down and build cities, using lots water and fertile soil. They should also cut down lots of trees and dig up some shiny metals, if that’s what your species is into. Once these resources begin to run out, your groups should go to other places and claim any resources that they happen to find. If other members of your species already live in those places, your technologically advanced groups should get rid of them with weapons and disease. Or better yet, they should systematically oppress them over the course of centuries, creating long-lasting inequality and resentment. It helps to justify your use of resources with dogmatic religious beliefs. Those beliefs can also help out with your systematic oppression of marginalized groups.
Getting back to resources, if other species from millions of years ago have formed rich reservoirs of fuel beneath the ground, extract this fuel as quickly as possible and burn it for energy. This will really speed up your ability to use resources, and it will create massive amounts of helpful pollution. When you’re attempting species-level suicide, pollution is your best friend. It damages your food and water, causes illness, and gets rid of the other species that you depend on. On a large scale, pollution can alter the entire climate of your planet. Because you’ve probably adapted to this climate over thousands of years, rapidly changing it is sure to hamper your species’ survival.
Following all these steps will put you on a fast track to extinction. It will be a difficult task, but try to emphasize the most selfish and careless aspects of your nature. If all goes well, you’ll be gone in no time.
By Catherine Henry
Last Thursday, I had the privilege, along with several other members of the EA Real Food Campaign (including Ben Soltoff), to meet with President Brodhead about our campaign initiatives. President Brodhead was warm and receptive as well as a very well-read and thoughtful individual. Perhaps one of the most poignant moments of the meeting occurred after some of our members discussed running the Real Food Calculator to assess where food at Duke is coming from. Once a professor of English, President Brodhead began to speak about Herman Melville’s great American novel, Moby Dick. He recalled a scene in the novel in which the catch and slaughter of a whale is described in gruesome detail. Why is the whale killed? So that it’s blubber can be used to make oil, which burns with the clearest light. At this moment, Melville stops short and calls attention to the fact that the reader is, at that very moment, reading by the light of an oil lamp which was produced from the blubber of a whale. President Brodhead described the absolute horror of realizing the unrecognized truth in a situation, learning the true value and cost of an object. It is almost impossible to know where everything comes from and at what cost it is made, but when the truth becomes apparent, it can be chilling.
At this meeting, the Melville reference applied to realizing where food comes from, but I had a similar moment of revelation today under a different context. I was involved in the recent production of Ragtime, a collaboration between Duke Theater Studies, Music, Dance, and Hoof ‘n’ Horn. Perhaps one of the most impressive aspects of the show was the behemoth set, two stories high with arches, platforms, and wooden beams. Sunday, April 15th was our last show, and after our final performance, we embarked upon “strike” in which we take down the set. We save as much wood as is practical, for use in further shows. Regardless, we almost completely filled an enormous dumpster mostly with wood which would not be saved. Now, I didn’t specifically enquire where this wood would be going, but I assumed that it would face life in a landfill somewhere. While I was throwing the wood in the dumpster, I realized with sudden clarity—this used to be a tree. This magnificent set that we built for two weekends of entertainment was now torn apart; what was once a majestic living organism was now trash.
Look around your room, the library—wherever you are reading this right now. How many trees can you see? How many mineral and metal deposits? How many underpaid workers in developing countries were involved in the making of all that you see? Let this idea inspire rather than intimidate you.
I’m hoping to research wood recycling options so that, for our next show, we can reuse those trees more effectively.
What will you do?
By Ben Soltoff
Welcome to the new McEarth. The quintessential symbol of globalization and an unhealthy diet is sending its high-level executives to discuss sustainability and nutrition as part of a cross-country “Listening Tour.” This week, they came to Duke, holding a session on Wednesday night at the Fuqua School of Business, hosted by the Duke chapter of Net Impact. When I was offered a spot at the event, my immediate instinct was to decline—I’m much too busy to bother with corporate greenwashing—but a morbid curiosity drew me to accept. What could these executives possibly say to defend their company? Why would they seek input from people who so clearly opposed them?
If anything, the event defied my expectations. The three McDonald’s executives were friendly and approachable, and from what I could tell, they genuinely believed in what they were doing. All three were female and fairly young. They wore pantsuits and sat at the center of the room in tall seats that bore a certain resemblance to the infant highchairs available at any McDonald’s restaurant. The audience was mainly comprised of grad students from Fuqua and the Nicholas School, but I also noticed a handful of undergrads.
The three executives told us their positions (Director of Public Affairs, Director of Sustainable Supply, and Director of Nutrition) and some of their initiatives. Over the past several years, McDonald’s has made surprising efforts regarding nutrition and sustainability. The fast food giant has added a wider variety of “healthy” options, and it has worked to build a more environmentally friendly supply chain. According to one executive, these efforts are a form of “mainstreaming sustainability,” making sustainable practices standard for large corporations. McDonald’s serves an average of 28 million people per day in the U.S., so the smallest improvements make a tremendous impact.
The participants in the session had much to say about McDonald’s practices. Their concerns ranged from production to preparation to packaging. Personally, I stayed quiet. I was conflicted about whether or not to contribute. On one hand, I had the opportunity to express my opinions to one of the world’s largest companies. On the other, I was being asked to legitimize their efforts, allowing them to claim sustainability with a few minor changes. While minor changes can go a long way, in many respects, the McDonald’s model is inherently unsustainable and unhealthy. Serving 28 million meals per day requires a massive industrial food system, and serving each meal in about five minutes requires unsavory shortcuts. America is increasingly demanding an extensive change in its food system—more than a slightly improved McDonald’s. But sweeping change doesn’t happen overnight, and a slightly improved McDonald’s might be a necessary starting point.
Many questions that arose during the session dealt with specific topics, such as lower sodium content, recycled cooking oil, and the accessibility of ingredient lists, but for me, the most interesting parts touched on a larger underlying issue. How can McDonald’s positively influence America’s perception of sustainability and nutrition? The food served at McDonald’s affects consumers beyond a single meal; in some ways, it defines their idea of an acceptable diet. If McDonald’s offers more vegetarian options or smaller portions, then those things become the norm. Yet McDonald’s also runs the risk of alienating its consumer base. This leads to another key question. To what extent is McDonald’s responding to the demands of the public and to what extent is it shaping those demands?
At the end of the session, I was left with more questions than answers. The event forced me to reconsider my view on the role of corporations. For better or worse, sustainability has gone mainstream. Whether mainstream can ever be sustainable has yet to be determined.
By Catherine Henry
In one of my EOS classes, we are studying, quite literally, the history of the world. Yes, as in from 4.6 billion years ago, when the world was just a swirling molten mass, to today. Learning about the world on this sort of timescale can make certain events seem like simple facts. When we learned about the mass extinction at the end of the Cambrian, for example, it had no emotional pull. Today, scientists believe we are on the precipice of another mass extinction, but this doesn’t seem like a mere fact. The thought of thousands of organisms going extinct in the relatively near future is mind-boggling. Unlike past extinctions (for example, the extinction of the dinosaurs), an asteroid or natural disaster is not to blame—we are.
In my writing class, Conservation of Biodiversity, we are currently working on a final project researching an endangered species and proposing a study design to conserve it. Learning about the species I chose (the Tibetan antelope) and the animals chosen by my classmates, I began to realize just how enormous this problem is. We’ve all heard of the plights of the panda and the cheetah, but there are so many animals whose struggles go largely unnoticed and unassisted. The common thread through all of our species, however, was that man has almost always played a direct role in causing the decline. Deforestation, pollution, poaching, introduction of invasive species—all caused by one species on this planet.
What would the world be like without abundance and diversity of life? Once a species is lost, we lose thousands and thousands of years of evolution and natural selection. We may lose the cure to cancer or other diseases. Perhaps more importantly, we lose a little bit of our humanity when we fool ourselves into thinking that we can take natural resources without consideration of other life forms. Man is not yet impervious to the web of life; we are all connected.
We are not yet too late. One person can make a difference. I leave you with an adaptation of “The Star Thrower” by Loren Eiseley, as written by the Starfish Charity:
“An old man had a habit of early morning walks on the beach. One day, after a storm, he saw a human figure in the distance moving like a dancer. As he came closer he saw that it was a young woman and she was not dancing but was reaching down to the sand, picking up a starfish and very gently throwing them into the ocean. ”Young lady,” he asked, “Why are you throwing starfish into the ocean?” ”The sun is up, and the tide is going out, and if I do not throw them in they will die.” ”But young lady, do you not realize that there are miles and miles of beach and starfish all along it? You cannot possibly make a difference.” The young woman listened politely, paused and then bent down, picked up another starfish and threw it into the sea, past the breaking waves, saying, “It made a difference for that one.” The old man looked at the young woman inquisitively and thought about what she had done. Inspired, he joined her in throwing starfish back into the sea. Soon others joined, and all the starfish were saved.”
By Betsy Boxberger
Seemingly overnight, the nation has been rubber-stamped in green. Although green labeling has been practiced since automobile emission standards were implemented in the 1970s, the popularity of “eco-labels” has recently increased. Eco-labels can be included on almost anything. They can regulate agricultural production, measure pollution levels, and alert consumers of companies’ sustainable practices. Food labels include USDA Organic, Fair Trade, and Marine Stewardship Council certification. The US Department of Energy uses Energy Star labels to rate the energy efficiency of appliances. The EPA requires automobile manufacturers to tag their vehicles with fuel efficiency. Eco-labels can also be international; the Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification endorses sustainability in the international timber market.
One of the things I’ve learned in college is that making responsible choices is extremely difficult because with knowledge comes the obligation to consider the consequences of your decisions. Once you learn that the corn you buy is contributing to the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, are you going to continue purchasing this corn? Will you still buy the SUV, knowing that it will emit 300 grams of carbon dioxide per kilometer? These decisions are completely up to you, but they are choices you as a conscientious consumer have to make.
Although green labels make it easy for consumers to make environmentally responsible decisions, they can also complicate shopping. Now when we go to the store, there are an overwhelming number of green labels. Referring to the tremendous amount of labeling on organic products, Michael Pollan called this new genre “Supermarket Pastoral”. So how do you choose on which labels to focus? Is the 70% post-consumer recycled material in this notebook more important than the sugar cane paper in that notebook? Unfortunately, the prevalence of eco-labels has increased the problem of greenwashing, deceptive marketing to make a company seem more environmentally friendly than it is. If we can’t trust green labels to indicate the sustainability of products, how do we make responsible choices? I frequently find myself doing background research to double check the claims I see on products. Inconvenient? Sometimes. Worth the extra effort? Definitely. It’s a great feeling, knowing that you had less of an impact on the globe because of the choice you made.
By Jessye Waxman
“Always have a project. Always have something to be working on; something to look forward to.” This was always my mom’s advice to me. It was November of 11th grade, and I was without a project, so I went to a library computer and sat down to find my next project. About half an hour later I stumbled upon Earth Hour. This is what I found:
It was inspiring, it was doing something, it was something I could be a part of and spread.
For those of you who don’t know, Earth Hour is an initiative started by the World Wildlife Fund to combat climate change. Earth Hour started in Sydney, Australia in 2007 to symbolize the fight against coal-fired electricity, the biggest contributor to global climate change. By getting individuals, corporations, businesses, families, even whole cities to turn off their lights from 8:30-9:30 PM on the last Saturday in March, people could begin to take a stand against climate change. What started as a localized event in 2007 quickly became a worldwide movement, uniting an estimated 1.8 billion people across 135 countries last year.
I have worked on Earth Hour projects for the past four years, each year doing something a little different. This year, however, was my favorite, because this year Environmental Alliance adopted the project, and together with Duke/UNC’s Roots & Shoots, we successfully had our first annual Carbon-Neutral Earth Hour Concert.
Carbon-neutral. Sounds impressive, no? Well, we certainly didn’t want to be contributing to a problem we were trying to fight. Keeping in line with the message of Earth Hour, we wanted to keep our carbon footprint low, so we powered our lights using electricity that we were generating ourselves. With five bicycles, a handful of generators, and a lot of energy from generous volunteers, we fueled our lighting system…Well, at least some of the time (those lights were hard to keep on!). Amid the performances and Earth Hour videos, we included tips on how to lower your carbon footprint even when it’s not Earth Hour. And with the help of Sustainable Duke and the Facilities Management Department, the Chapel lights were turned off in solidarity with Earth Hour.
Our two-hour concert was great, but it was really just the start. Climate change is a big and complex problem, and unfortunately it cannot be solved by turning off and tuning in for just one hour of the year. Earth Hour is a message that individual action can make a collective difference, that how each of us interacts with the world really does matter. Together with the WWF, I encourage you to “go beyond the hour” and make a commitment to continue being environmentally aware: unplugging unused electronics, taking shorter showers, eating “real food,” drinking tap water, or even turning off the lights when you leave a room. Together, we can make a difference.
By Ben Soltoff
We live in a world full of problems. There are big problems, like climate change, financial meltdowns, and ruthless African warlords, and there are small problems, like traffic jams, hangnails, and burnt toast. Normally, the small problems are inconsequential in the grand scope of things. They’re hardly worth mentioning without seeming whiny and spoiled (“What’s your burnt toast to my burnt house?”). But sometimes the small problems are indicative of larger issues beneath the surface. That’s the case with the West Union Coke machine.
This utterly unnecessary contraption is located at the heart of Duke’s campus, within fizzing distance of the West Campus Bus Stop and the Duke Chapel. Its bright, interactive screen beckons passers-by with the promise of “ice cold refreshment sold here,” and spinning soda bottles cry out “PICK ME!” in red speech bubbles. The whole thing is an abomination. Let me outline some of the severe societal failures that it represents:
- Rampant consumerism: The marketers at the Coca-Cola Company have built their brand around the artificial notion that buying stuff makes you happy. They shamelessly propagate this idea in their advertisements, with slogans like “open happiness.” This is the slogan on the West Union machine, and it’s a blatant lie. When you open a bottle of Coca-Cola, you’re not opening happiness; you’re opening a mix of carbonated water, high fructose corn syrup, caramel color, phosphoric acid, natural flavors, and caffeine. That’s it. Equating purchases with fulfillment creates an unhealthy society of consumption, where people constantly buy more and more stuff in a futile attempt to be happy.
- Wasted energy: A long time ago, you could only ascertain the contents of a soda machine from a set of tiny buttons. Then came a revolutionary technology that allowed you to see directly inside the machine. It was called plexiglass. But apparently someone thought that a direct view wasn’t good enough, so they replaced it with a gigantic touch screen displaying 24/7 digital images of various ice-cold beverages. I don’t know how much energy this screen uses, but it doesn’t matter because it’s all useless. Unless the machine is the shameful lovechild of a normal vending machine and an iPad, there’s no reason it should have a screen like that. Saving energy isn’t always easy, but in this case, it is. LOSE THE TOUCH SCREEN.
- Government waste: I don’t know the full story on how or why the West Union machine was acquired, but according to rumors, it came from the budget surplus of a well-funded campus authority. Whatever the story, there was no need to purchase it. Even if the old machine broke, I’m sure they could have found a cheaper replacement. Government spending is a polarizing issue at every level of politics, but almost everyone can agree that our representative authorities shouldn’t be wasting money. While some expenses are debatable, the West Union Coke machine is a clear-cut case of unnecessary spending. If authorities avoided simple excesses like that, many of our tough economic decisions would be a bit easier.
Okay, so maybe I exaggerated in the title. There might be a few societal problems completely unrelated to the West Union Coke machine. But the machine shows a lot of the ways our society is screwed up. It’s not just ice-cold refreshment that’s sold there; it’s the downfall of a slowly crumbling way of life.