Ecos: The Environmental Alliance Blog

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To Buy or Not to Buy

By Nari Sohn


Last year, around this time, a bunch of EA friends and I went to Washington D.C. for Powershift. One of the guest speakers was Van Jones, an environmental advocate who once worked for President Obama as a Special Advisor. At one point in his speech he asked, “How many of you guys have smartphones? iPads?” and almost every hand shot up. About 10,000 people. Van Jones was trying to make the point that technology can be a powerful tool in communicating environmental justice issues to the world. But what I really want to talk about is how it appalled me to see so many people with iPhones and Blackberries.

Nowadays, technology advances at amazing speeds. One study showed that Americans change their cell phones every 21.7 months. And many times, those cell phones are thrown away in perfectly good condition.

But have you ever wondered what happens to your old cell phone? Electronic waste (e-waste) now makes up five percent of all municipal solid waste worldwide. That’s about 20 to 50 million tons of waste. And this waste is leaching out harmful chemicals into the environment. Lead, cadmium, beryllium, and brominated flame retardants are just a few of many toxins from e-waste that are known to damage the nervous system, kidney, and brain and to cause cancer and birth defects. These contaminants can enter the soil, air, and water, affecting anyone who comes into contact with them.

What’s sad is that although we in developed nations use more electronics, people in developing countries suffer more severely from them. As these environmental health effects first began to surface, the EU and the US started putting in place tighter regulations on e-waste. It became too costly to recycle electronics. Solution: export e-waste to countries where the laws don’t adequately protect workers and the environment. Exporting harmful waste is illegal by international law. Of course, the US doesn’t follow international law. It’s not surprising that in the US, 50 to 80% of waste collected for recycling is exported. So countries like China and India are receiving piles and piles of our crap. With low standards in place, developing countries are vulnerable to getting exposed to toxins. Essentially, this is the type of environmental justice issue that Van Jones encouraged we talk about using the very electronic devices that cause the problem.

A couple months ago, reports surfaced on poor working conditions in the Chinese factories that manufacture Apple products. This was troubling to many consumers. Isn’t it ironic that we pay China to make our stuff and then pay them to throw away that same stuff?

I’m not suggesting that you should give up your iPhone and iPad immediately. But use your electronics until they stop working. I still use a 5-year-old folding phone that has a battery life of half a day. And, believe me, sometimes I pray that it will just die so I will have an excuse to get a new phone. But then I think about what people will have gone through to make my future phone and the environmental consequence of my old phone ending up in a landfill. I don’t mind my old phone after all.


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Ecological Science Fiction: To Infinity and Walden Pond!

By Annie Piotrowski

Convinced primarily by the “Ecology” part of the title, I enrolled in a “Science Fiction and Ecology” seminar this past semester. I entered the class as a fan of Annie Dillard and Henry David Thoreau—brilliant writers whose works stressed nature’s complexity but never subverted it. Though I enjoyed science fiction, I viewed it in a completely different sphere than ecological writing; ecological writing was like an organic apple, and science fiction was an artificially flavored, phosphorescently colored bite of candy. However, as the class progressed, I became fascinated not only by ecological science fiction’s ideology and delivery but also by its daring. While nature writing often creates a sense of repose and appreciation for the environment, science fiction is unsettling enough to spur its readers to action. Here’s a brief selection of my favorite works:

Swamp Thing

Swamp Thing - It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s a….gigantic living swamp? Bet you haven’t heard that one before! Written by Alan Moore, the famed creator of Watchmen, Swamp Thing relates the story of a swamp that gains human consciousness. Its environmental message is augmented by brilliant images and some of the grisliest metaphors I’ve ever read. For example, Moore’s description of a sunset: “Clouds like plugs of bloodied cotton wool…” Swamp Thing depicts nature’s purity and ferocity to create a visually and emotionally arresting mini-universe. 

Oryx and Crake

Oryx and Crake - If you want to be outraged, challenged, and shocked out of any complacency, Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake is the perfect book to make you jump out of your seat and shake your fist. Oryx and Crake’s world is a roller coaster ride of scientific hubris, extreme narcissism, and capitalism gone mad.  It’s narrated by the last man alive on earth—a pretty evident sign that it doesn’t end in happily ever after. However, in its almost vicious writing style and parallels to current society, Oryx and Crake is the perfect wake-up call.


Ecotopia - Ecological science fiction portrays environmental problems in gritty detail, but even more alarmingly, it often refuses to provide a solution; the answer is that there is no answer. I found Ernest Callenbach’s Ecotopia a nice respite from the harsher mood of works like Oryx and Crake. Writing in the 1970s, Callenbach describes the first journalist’s visit to Ecotopia, a section of the northwestern United States that seceded to form an autonomous, environmentally conscious nation. For modern readers, Ecotopia is a lesson in how we’ve changed (and not changed…) since its first publishing.

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Repair, Reuse, Make Do, and Don’t Throw Anything Away

By Catherine Henry

Over spring break, like a typical college student looking for entertainment, I visited a few antique stores.  One of the things that strikes me every time I go into a store containing vintage treasures is how well most of the knickknacks and miscellaneous items have stood the test of time.  In one such store, I found a few old feed sacks which used to hold grain for horses, chickens, and cows.  My love for sewing and reusing immediately compelled me to buy these feed sacks, as I thought, “What an awesome dress this would make!”  Upon purchasing them from the owner of the store, she jokingly asked if I was going to make a dress out of the sacks, because when she was a child, they had worn such dresses.  She was quite surprised when I informed her that, indeed, that was my plan.

The modern-day feed-sack dress.

So, from a decades-old feed sack, I was able to make something new.  This led me to consider what treasures we are leaving behind for future generations.  Immediately, the grotesque image appeared in my mind of various deteriorating plastic bottles, containers, and toys, no longer functional or attractive.  There will be no feed sacks, only plastic bags.

In researching feed sack dresses of days old, I learned that women used to accompany their husbands to the feed store, encouraging them to buy sacks based on the print.  During that time, the dresses were certainly the opposite of a symbol of luxury, but to my environmentalist heart, there is something beautiful in them.  I find something beautiful in reducing waste and making everything useful.  Why shouldn’t everything be able to serve another purpose?  “Once and done” is certainly not the answer to a world facing a booming population, dwindling natural resources, and overflowing landfills.  I also stumbled upon a quote from the great depression: Repair, reuse, make do, and don’t throw anything away.  How fitting for a modern environmentalist.

This week, try considering how you can reduce your consumption and perhaps begin a better legacy for future generations of antique-store hunters.  Bring along a reusable shopping bag.  Use ceramic plate and metal utensils in your dorm room.  Think about what is going into your trash can—could you use it in some other way? Could someone else find use for it?

I’ve heard tell of a scrap exchange in Durham.  I’m hoping to soon make a trip out there to see what I can scrounge up and make into something new.  I also hear that it’s right across from the Durham Farmers’ Market—sounds like a worthy environmental adventure.

For more information about the Scrap Exchange, visit their website:

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Lessons from Will Allen

By Betsy Boxberger

Will Allen was on campus these past few days, and I was lucky enough to hear him speak in one of my classes. A former professional basketball player-turned urban farmer, Will has done some pretty impressive things. In 1993, he founded Growing Power Inc., an urban agricultural center in Milwaukee, Wisconsin that teaches communities how to grow fresh, nutritious food. Growing Power works to counter the problems of food deserts and food injustices, promoting the idea that everyone deserves safe, healthy, and affordable food regardless of geographic location or economic status. In honor of his agricultural work, he was named one of Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People of 2010.

America’s food industry is becoming a heavily debated topic, especially since the release of Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma in 2006.  Many different problems exist in our current food system, including environmental impacts, health issues, animal welfare rights, and scarcity concerns. Allen’s urban agricultural formula counteracts many of these issues. His compact farm systems are cleverly developed to use resources efficiently, allowing him to grow large quantities of food year-round on small areas of land. For example, during the winter he utilizes piles of compost to trap heat in his greenhouses. He also builds vertically, instead of horizontally, creating multi-level greenhouses. So while his urban farms are intensive, they are not resource-intensive. Their environmental impacts are significantly less than large-scale farms, but they still generate high yields of produce. Allen also focuses on soil quality, employing a sophisticated composting technique that ensures his produce is nutritious.

Many people believe that in order to reduce the environmental impact of our food system, we must return to the farming methods of our ancestors and reject new agricultural technology. Some technologies have caused more environmental harm than good. For example, synthetic fertilizers have made large scale monoculture farms possible, but this lack of diversity is weakening agroecosytems, and over-application of fertilizers is degrading water systems. Yet with the growing global population, returning to old-fashioned, ‘traditional’ farming techniques is not a practical solution. In order to support the world’s population, we must begin growing more food on less land using fewer resources. Proper application of agricultural technology will allow us to better utilize our resources and develop more efficient, biointensive farming systems. Will Allen is not the only farmer who has begun to accomplish this. Harmony Essentials, co-founded by Steve Moore, a researcher at NCSU’s Center for Environmental Farming Systems, is also dedicated to creating a sustainable food system. We can use these sustainable farming models to serve as the inspiration for future agricultural systems. 

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Warning: Vegans Will Beat You Up

By Annie Piotrowski

In my youth, I viewed vegans as sensitive, bespectacled folk, the type of charming people who cultivated their own soy beans while knitting balaclavas out of hemp. In other words, their undeniable crunchiness made them lovable and unobtrusive, like a ukulele song played by a barefooted yoga practitioner.

Despite my attraction to this lifestyle, as an athlete, I thought that surely my muscles would atrophy and I would fall to the ground like a limp noodle if I neglected my daily glass of chocolate milk. A vegan diet, sadly, was not for me. However, in the deepest recesses of my soul, I longed to be part of their exclusive club, partially to save the environment and partially to obtain the superpowers (umm…moral superiority, I mean?)  conferred by veganism. Outwardly, I consoled myself by figuring I could quickly dispatch any vegan in a brawl, over say, perhaps, the correct way to pronounce “quinoa.”

Unfortunately, a disturbing new trend has developed—vegans are not only cooler than me, but they can also beat me up.

Allow me to explain. A recent article in the sports section of The New York Times on vegan bodybuilders has sparked my admiration-and alarm. The article profiles “anti-beef beefcake” Jimi Sitko, who follows a punishing routine of 4 A.M. workouts, bench presses nearly twice his weight, and thrives on tofu. Fellow gym rats, we have lost our edge. No more can we brag about our pull-up record to calm our jealousy over the quirky vegan lifestyle. No, protein will not save us.

Therefore, what option remains? Is it time for collaboration between hipsters and meatheads? One can assume so…

Check out the article for some serious inspiration!

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Why I Really Believe in Real Food

By Catherine Henry

Last weekend, I had the privilege to represent the Environmental Alliance Real Food Campaign at Breaking Ground, the first-ever national conference of the Real Food Challenge.  The weekend was full of fantastic speakers, passionate student activists, and a wealth of information.  However, one of the events that stuck with me the most was visiting the campus farm and garden at U.C. Santa Cruz (which is where the conference was held).  It was the last day of the conference, and after sleeping on a church floor for three nights, I was a little tired and sore.  I woke up with an extra jolt of enthusiasm though because I knew this was the day we would finally get to tour the farm and garden.

For me, this tangibly represented the goal of everyone at the conference – real food, grown fairly and humanely with respect to the environment.  It builds a sense of community.  And it made me wonder—why has our culture fallen so far from real food?  Why do we eat our meals “fast” or in front of a television?  Why has a PopTart become an acceptable breakfast to start the day?  If we are what we eat, why do we choose to be processed and packaged?

The answer to all of those questions goes much deeper than this blog post could hope to cover, and I’m sure ultimately much deeper than I or perhaps anyone would know how to explain.  What I do know, however, is that I believe in Real Food.  I believe that what we put into our bodies, and where it comes from, is important.  I care about the animals on the farms.  I care about the farmworkers, often underpaid, who provide me with the food.  I care about the food workers who prepare our food for us every day, three times a day, at Duke.  I care about the environment.  I care that the food industry is the largest emitter of greenhouse gases of any industrial sector.

So I encourage you: next time you sit down for a meal, consider where your food came from and perhaps where you would like your next meal to come from.  Because it’s not enough that I care.  To use the same quote as Jessye’s post from Dr. Seus’ The Lorax, “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing’s going to get better.  It’s not.”

It’s time to get Real.

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The 100-Mile Diet

By Nari Sohn

Recently, I read a book called Plenty by Alisa Smith and James MacKinnon. Okay, I admit, it was for a class.  It tells the story of a Canadian couple’s commitment to only eat food grown within a 100-mile radius of their apartment. Of course, me being me, I couldn’t put the book down after reading about their sweet and wholesome—albeit challenging and hungry—experience. So here is my one-day 100-mile diet journal.

My first thought was, “I must visit the Durham Farmer’s Market.” So on Saturday morning, since I don’t have a car (I mean, since I don’t want to increase my carbon footprint), I biked myself over to the farmer’s market. The Durham Farmer’s Market is definitely not the biggest market I have ever been to, but it feels very alive. I walked around the entire row of farmers’ booths three times, enjoying the bustling of people and smelling the freshness before actually buying anything. I hadn’t created a shopping list. I figured I would buy whatever looked good. But everything looked good. And many stands had overlapping items, so which squash was I going to take?

     I ended up in booths that seemed the most crowded. I bought myself kale and spinach that were grown at Elodie Farm in Rougemont (16 miles), eggs from Meadow Lane Farm in Louisburg (39 miles), and sweet potatoes and green onions from Roberson Creek Farm in Pittsboro (28 miles). On top of that, I failed to suppress the temptation to get myself a giant bottle of sweet potato beer from Fullsteam, brewed in the building right next to the market. Did I mention that the sweet potatoes came from local sources, too? The bill came out to $25. Perhaps I should mention that the beer alone was $14 (but I’ll get $4 back when I return the bottle!).

     And so I came home and carefully laid the ingredients on my kitchen table. I am not that creative, skilled, or experienced. But baking and cooking have been my hobbies since I was a child. I quickly thought of several things I could make: crispy kale chips, baked sweet potatoes, and spinach omelets. However just as soon as I laid down the pans to get to work, it hit me. I didn’t have any 100-mile salt or oil, two ingredients important for cooking. I did not have time to fetch seawater and boil it until salt crystals could be collected. Besides, I live more than a hundred miles from the ocean.

I ended up making a bland salad for myself: no dressing; just spinach, kale, and boiled egg with baked sweet potatoes on the side. It was okay but definitely not the best. The greens were more fibrous and flavorful than those from Kroger, and the eggs tasted healthy, for the lack of a better word. I also felt healthy. But boy was it bland.

     In the end, finding delicious ingredients for the 100-mile meals proved to be easy, and surprisingly, local crops were not all that expensive. I learned shortly after returning from the market that some Duke eateries, including Food Factory and the Great Hall, sell produce from Duke Farm, located just 6 miles from campus. But I found the cooking part to be a bit more challenging when limited by salt and oil. Had I been a more knowledgeable cook, like James from Plenty, I might have conjured up a better dish with the same ingredients. So I will call this first 100-mile meal attempt a work in progress. As a college student, I doubt I will be able to continue such a strict diet. However, I plan to be a more conscious buyer and cook. It’s nice to know where my food comes from.

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Why Dr. Seuss Will ALWAYS Be Better Than Mass Media

By Jessye Waxman

With the upcoming feature film of The Lorax, I find myself increasingly angered that mass media will once again ruin a most beloved book. Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax is not just about saving trees, nor, as the trailer suggests, is it about getting the girl of your dreams. No, contrary to what mass media would have us believe, The Lorax is not just a children’s story; I believe it is one of the most important books of the environmental movement. 

I would like to share with you all a college essay I wrote that analyzes the wonder that is The Lorax

"Though easily dismissed as a mere children’s book, Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax is actually a quite sophisticated story. Commonly understood to be a simple, if impassioned, plea to protect the environment at all costs, The Lorax instead makes its case for environmentalism by grounding its idealism in a realistic take on modern consumer culture, and it is this realism that offers viable solutions to the ecological crises that endanger us.

"The Lorax tells the story of two extremists: the Once-ler, a greedy industrialist who, in response to the public’s endless demand for his unnecessary “Thneeds,” relentlessly expands his company at the expense of the environment; and the Lorax, the forest guardian who “speaks for the trees” but lacks an argument for his conviction that the forest must be preserved. Neither succeeds in achieving his goal: once the natural world is destroyed, the Lorax leaves in despair; and without the Truffula trees his factory exploits to make Thneeds, the Once-ler loses his business. Seuss shows that it is in industry’s own best interest to respect the environment: reckless industrial growth will destroy not only the environment but industry itself.

"In suggesting that neither strident environmentalism nor unrestrained industrialism is effective, Seuss implies that the only way for capitalism and environmentalism to coexist is through compromise. If each group—environmentalists, industrialists, and consumers—is temperate in its desires and pursues its goals with conscious attention to the legitimate claims of the others, then a realistic compromise among them can be found.

"Though named after the character whose goals, if not whose methods, the author most admires, The Lorax finds its true heroes in its readers, embodied in the book by the young boy to whom the Once-ler tells his tale. Seuss’ sorrowful story pivots on the Once-ler’s interpretation of the Lorax’s final message, a single, cryptic word: “UNLESS.” In the final pages of the book, the Once-ler suddenly realizes that this word offers the possibility of hope:

UNLESS someone like you

cares a whole awful lot,

nothing’s going to get better.

It’s not.

"Telling the young boy to plant and protect the last surviving Truffula seed, the Once-ler instructs the boy, as Seuss instructs his readers, that if we work proactively, not merely reactively, to the issues confronting us—if we care “a whole awful lot”—then, the Once-ler concludes, “the Lorax and all of his friends may come back.”

"For all its reasoned subtlety, the greatest strength of The Lorax is precisely its genre: a children’s book. Simple enough for a child to read, yet sophisticated enough to engage an adult mind, The Lorax can speak effectively to anyone, age eight to eighty. One of the best educational vehicles for the environmental movement today, The Lorax deserves a louder voice.”

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From Point A to Point B

By Ben Soltoff

It’s 1 PM on Monday afternoon, and a swarm of students gathers at the West Campus Bus Stop. During the gap between the late morning and early afternoon classes, hundreds of students embark on the 1.7-mile journey from West Campus to East Campus, and just as many go in the opposite direction.  Duke’s fleet of more than 30 buses manages this route as well as several others across campus. These buses are an entrenched part of Duke’s culture. Riding the C-1 from East to West is as integral to the Duke experience as rooting for the Blue Devils.

Recently, the buses underwent a major upgrade.  The Monday afternoon swarm can now board two articulated behemoths traveling between East and West. Each one resembles two normal-sized buses fused together with a big accordion in the middle. Up to 130 people can fit inside. The new buses, which started running in November 2011, are wrapped with colorful images promoting Duke’s sustainability efforts, especially its commitment to climate neutrality by 2024.  As part of this commitment, Duke plans to cut the greenhouse gas emissions of its bus fleet by 50% by 2050. To help reach this goal, the new buses are hybrid-electric and much more fuel-efficient than their predecessors.  Eight other new buses have been introduced as well. These ones aren’t hybrids, but they run efficiently on ultra low-sulfur diesel.

The upgraded buses are part of a larger effort at Duke to  reduce emissions from transportation, which represent about 27% of the total emissions.  Students are often surprised to learn that the large majority of transportation emissions are not from buses but from air travel and commuting.   Less than 1% of Duke’s total emissions come from the bus fleet. However, when more people ride the bus, fewer people drive cars, and that’s where there are major reductions. I talked to Brian Williams, Duke’s transportation demand coordinator, about this effect.

“A lot of times, people get hung up on the fuel,” he said, “But really, the big impacts are when students are using the bus system instead of driving.”

Brian’s office, Duke Parking and Transportation, employs a variety of methods to get students to use alternative forms of transit.  Brian is most excited about Transloc, an online tracking tool that allows riders to see where the buses are in real time.  The new tool is available on the web and also as an iPhone app. In addition to making students’ lives easier, Transloc will help draw people out of their cars and onto the buses, which Brian believes will reduce even more emissions than the gains in fuel efficiency. Newly installed passenger counters on the buses might eventually verify this claim, but it’s still too early to tell.

Although Duke’s bus fleet stays mostly on campus, it’s also easy for students to travel off campus without owning a car. A program called WeCar allows students to reserve cars that can be picked up at several convenient locations on East, West, and Central. There’s a membership fee for joining the program  (it’s currently waived for the first year) as well as an hourly and daily rate for using the cars. Most places in the Durham area are also accessible via public transportation. The Bull City Connector runs a free route between Duke and downtown Durham every 20 minutes, and many other routes are covered by Durham Area Transit Authority and Triangle Transit. With a card called the GoPass provided by Brian’s office, these routes are free to students.

Brian Williams, Duke’s transportation demand coordinator

In addition to promoting WeCar and the bus system, Brian is an advocate for human-powered forms of transportation, such as biking and walking. His office has made the campus more bike-friendly by creating new bike lanes and increasing the number of bike racks. Based on these changes, Duke has applied for certification as a Bicycle Friendly University through the League of American Bicyclists.  Many students bring bikes to campus or buy them in Durham, but students can also rent bikes for up to three weeks through the Duke Bikes program. Brian himself is an avid biker, and he bikes to work almost every day.

Personally, I’ve never had a car at Duke, but transportation hasn’t been a problem for me. I’m a WeCar member, I ride the bus, and I just picked up my GoPass from Brian’s office. Like Brian, my favorite mode of transportation is a bike. It’s quick, convenient, and a lot of fun. Brian urges students to bring their bikes to campus, especially if those students are environmentally minded.

“For incoming freshmen,” he said, “The biggest impact you can make is bringing a bike instead of a car.”


This post can also be seen on my Duke Admissions Blog. Check it out here.

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The Best Nature the Internet Has to Offer

By Hilary Henry of the main reasons I care about the environment is because, simply put, being outside is great. There’s nothing better than warm, gentle sunshine, a deep breath of fresh air, and an adventure somewhere, anywhere outside.

School, and especially finals, can put a damper on my ability to get outside. This leaves me wandering through Perkins looking for a desk near a window and lamenting the fact that we have to change back to “normal” time in the fall. It’s rough getting out of class when it’s dark out.

The only real fix to this lack of the great outdoors will be Christmas break, but for the meantime, I plan on resorting to the next best option: the internet.

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