Category Archives: Eric

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“Who Cares?” Environmentalism on a Human Scale

Faces blasted with shrill air, ankles clad in snow and ice, many around the nation this winter witnessed a seeming reversal of climate scientists’ insistent, most dire warnings. Many a blogger and political cartoonist lampooned the predictions of climate science, pointing to the hoarfrost as evidence that global warming is, if not a hoax, then far less pressing a concern than we’ve imagined. In some ways, the climate debate has become so ingrained in our cultural psyche that such quips can read as harmless jokes, the bone-shivering cold an irresistible target when we have come to expect record highs. Yet, at heart, these peanut-gallery protestations point to a deeper dynamic operating at the center of our society’s “climate debate.” The punchline of many a cartoon-strip from this January plays on the notion that direct, layman observation counters the absurd and abstract arguments of distant scientists. Beyond the polar vortexes, this notion has appeared time and again: in the debate over fossil fuel consumption, the operation of coal-fired plants, trash runoff into oceans, and beyond. Somehow, climate change remains of little to concern for almost half of Americans and invisible for 23% of the country’s population.[1]

This is, of course, an issue of scale, both spatial and temporal. While human lives and environmental degradation both proceed each day, the human scale is tied inevitably to what we can perceive directly. We sense changes either over short intervals or through distinct comparisons to past events (when we say, for example, that this winter is colder than last). Similarly, our senses only entitle us to a small window into the complex web of Earth’s natural systems. The instruments and methods that uncover these processes must abstract and quantify data in order to present them. As a result, there is a seeming fissure between how we live and how our planet operates on its largest scale.

At present, catastrophes seem the only way to bridge this gap on a large, public scale. Hurricane Sandy brought to New York City a sense of green urgency, and in its wake the Mayor’s Office has introduced a number of sweeping initiatives intended to reduce the city’s environmental impact. NYC Recycles appeared in April, 2013, and in December the city introduced a ban on the use of Styrofoam food packaging. These initiatives are laudable, but their arrival only after the hurricane points to a dangerous mindset that goes hand-in-hand with our general attitude towards climate change.  Rather than act to prevent disaster before it arrives, we only react viscerally to crises. Given a catastrophe on a larger scale, such a strategy is far from tenable.

Our crisis-minded approach and the immense scale of climate change are linked. How futile does recycling a cup seem when 1,000 new coal-fired plants spring up in China each year? The lack of large-scale impact of green efforts thus far can seem daunting and, yes, disheartening. Yet, seeing individual action as minute, incremental, and only effective in the aggregate is a fundamental misunderstanding of the essence of environmentalism.

Certainly, the big picture remains important, and efforts in that arena shouldn’t cease. The end-goal of green activism and action, though, is to ensure the continued, self-sustaining health of our natural systems and environments. This goal has clear large-scale implications, but it also facilitates a reorientation of environmentalism as we imagine it. Ultimately, we are the beneficiaries of a cleaner, healthier planet. Conversely, environmentalism need not be only an abstract, global concern. Instead, we might imagine several scales, descending from global to personal, each characterized by their own sets of actors and actions.

What would personal, individual environmentalism look like? First, it would still be a lifestyle connected to larger-scale work. Recycling and turning off unneeded lights aren’t bad ideas. But, in order to be personally rewarding, more needs to happen on an immediate, observable level. One approach may lay in a combination of self-sustainability and the beautification of one’s own environment. In suburbs, gardens and ground cover can replace lawns. In cities, rooftop or window gardens are personal and communal endeavors. Both serve as examples of work that bring one into contact with the natural world. These allow one to view climate not as a variable on charts but as an element in life.

A lingering question is the value of this personal investment versus the returns of such activity. Global Green, where I intern, models a profitable, market-driven approach to environmentalism on a regional and national level. They show businesses that waste recovery and sustainable products are, indeed, valuable. Yet, what of the individuals at the end of each supply chain? Do such initiatives simply leave them disconnected to the greater issue at hand? Looking to a personal model, need monetary reward be the primary motivator? Though I applaud Global Green’s model, I’m left wondering how best to engender broad, personal investment in the environment.

Eric is a participant in our Fellowship in Jewish Social Entrepreneurship spending the year creating short films for Global Green USA and the Coalition for Resource Recovery. Read his previous post here.


[1] http://www.weather.com/news/science/environment/more-americans-dont-believe-global-warming-happening-survey-20140117

The fall semester has come to an end and we want to thank our fellows for their amazing work! As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said, “we pray through our feet.” This year’s fellows have been marching for change through the important action, reflection, and connection they’ve engaged in through the Fellowship in Jewish Social Entrepreneurship. We look forward to next semester as these JTS changemakers continue to pursue justice.

Check out photos from our semester here:

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Filmmaking to Save the Planet

We often think of environmental consciousness and sustainable living as an amalgam of gallant wind-farms, sleek hybrid cars, and perhaps a few melting ice caps. Certainly, recycling is also on the mind, and post-consumer waste products have increasingly become a regular sight from tissues to coffee cups. All of this is admirable and arguably a step in the right direction. They move individuals towards lifestyles in which consumption produces resources instead of waste. On the other hand, critics of such behavior might contend that individual action cannot consequentially impact the immense systems of production and supply that tend to generate waste on the large scale- hazardous or otherwise.

Though not entirely true, such criticism has some merit. New York City alone generates and exports 15,000 tons of waste daily, which finds its way to distant landfills. This translates to a number of negative side-effects, including $450 million a year in disposal costs and the air pollution from trash-hauling trucks. Clearly, this problem exceeds the capabilities of the individual alone.

My placement organization through the FJSE is Global Green’s Coalition for Resource Recovery (CoRR). The Coalition a solution to this problem through waste diversion, a strategy that looks for methods in which wasted resources might be integrated as materials into new or existing supply streams. This covers a range of familiar areas, including efforts to turn commercial food waste into nutrients via composting. Another large-scale effort focuses on commercial food packaging, wherein the Coalition has worked towards replacing wax-lined good crates with a variety more easily recyclable.

I’ve noticed thus far that the strength of the organization lies in its broad network of affiliates and interested parties. In our efforts, such as those addressing commercial food packaging, the Coalition engages companies from all points in the supply line and across the country. For example, New Orleans Fish House, a seafood supplier, recently showcased the use of a new box produced by another CoRR company: Interstate Resources. The Coalition includes paper mills that specialize in turning the waste from such boxes into further resources.

As the Media and Communications Intern at CoRR, my primary work has been to help document, on video, the organization’s recent successes and developing work. The ultimate goal of this work is not archival. Rather, Global Green hopes to create several, short documentaries to showcase their work to its various sub-organizations (CoRR included). I feel that such communication is vital for this organization and environmental initiatives in general. In my experience, the lack of widespread mobilization around the environmental crisis is due in part to a dearth of communication with the general public. The complexity of such a large-scale issue easily swallows any human story, if allowed to. I aim to highlight the human work at the heart of change at CoRR. In doing so, I hope that the public can grasp more effectively the scope of the problems we face as a consumptive society. More importantly, however, I don’t want to disparage anybody. Instead, I want to communicate that individual actions, if enacted in concert with those of others, can indeed affect great change.

Though there’s not much to show as of yet (our primary project this year is still in its adolescence), there’s quite a bit to read and learn already. To learn more about NYC’s unique capacity for waste-turned resources, visit  “NYC Opportunity”  on CoRR’s website. As an example of just part of our search for better boxes, you can check out an early field trip we took to test some out at a nearby farm. Finally, you might not be a packaging tycoon or restaurant owner, but you can still enact your own waste-diversion programs. Beyond paper and plastic, e-waste is a resource waiting to be tapped, even by the CoRR. NYC’s Department of Environmental Conservation hosts an E-waste Recycling guide here, for your perusal.