Tag Archives: environment

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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

Miriam Aniel (LC/Columbia '15) shows Max Tawil (LC/Columbia '15) the new composting bins. The JTS Green Team working with the Eco Reps has initiated the first residence hall composting project on campus!! — with Miriam Aniel and Max Tawil.

Guest Post: JTS EcoReps Take Action

By Eden Becker, LC’17

This year, the JTS environmental student organization, EcoReps, is revamping its eco-friendly objectives. According to the mission statement, “The JTS EcoReps are dedicated to energizing the student body of all five schools towards environmentally conscious initiatives and programming that are by the students, for the students.” This year, with a generous grant from the Jewish Greening Fellowship, a program of the UJA-Federation of New Yokr, JTS created a Green Team to expand its commitment to sustainable operations, environmental education, and building awareness through a variety of programs. Greening interns—Miriam Aniel (JP ‘15) and Nicholas Bruscato (JP ‘14) serve as liaisons between the student and faculty groups.

As far as the student group, Miriam explains, “Right now, we’re in the brainstorming stage—figuring out what green initiatives we would like to focus on, and considering how we are going to rebrand EcoReps to encourage further student involvement.” The group took its brainstorming public on November 21, by holding a school-wide event that outlined EcoReps’ activities and goals. The event served as an incubator for the community’s ideas regarding green initiatives and brought together many students, a majority from List College, who are interested in making JTS more eco-friendly.

Many of the organization’s recent plans center on making JTS residence halls greener. EcoReps created a composting initiative where food scraps are collected from dorms and delivered to local farmers’ markets on Thursdays and Sundays. “We are hoping to further encourage composting through word-of-mouth,” says Miriam. In an effort to increase Jewish engagement with the environment, Eco-Reps also plans to hold a workshop that combines Jewish learning with raising awareness about repurposing and recycling everyday materials.

EcoReps also plan to start a rooftop garden next to the JTS library, which they hope will become a prominent feature in students’ lives. The EcoReps’ initiatives are all seemingly undercut by one foundational ideal, which encourages environmental awareness to be an integral part of Jewish life. For List College students, daily engagement with EcoReps’ small green initiatives can make a big difference.

Miriam says, “We have several exciting things planned for the spring, including a project aiming to reduce our environmental impact in the residence halls, a new EcoReps leadership team, and continued communication between staff, faculty, and students to make JTS the best it can be.”

Pictured above: Miriam Aniel (LC/Columbia ’15) shows Max Tawil (LC/Columbia ’15) the new composting bins as part of a new initiative between the JTS Green Team and the EcoReps to initiate the first residence hall composting project on campus!

 

 

Morgan at the NYBG

Radical Amazement and Environmental Stewardship

“Can you see why this place is my salvation?” I overheard this from a visitor while putting up signs for the New York Botanical Garden’s Kiku poetry walk, and it affected my beliefs about the role of environmental social justice.

Growing up, I knew that the earth – a precious resource that had become a dumping ground by society – needed to be saved in order to ensure our survival and that of the rest of the ecosphere. Like many environmentalists, I focused on global warming and recycling, crucial work that highlights the urgency to take action around our current environmental crisis. But being taught to love the environment is something that’s often lacking in the environmental movement. This is something that strikes me over and over again when I witness awestruck visitors at the NYBG. How we engage with nature is so connected to our dedication to the earth, and to our own personal well-being.

I never really thought of environmentalism as an example of social justice. I’ve always associated the term “social justice” with addressing social issues such as homelessness, poverty, and hunger. But social justice is more than just helping people – it’s also about solving problems caused by society. How those problems are addressed is up to interpretation.

Environmentalism in the Bible is also up to interpretation. From my understanding, in Genesis God commands Adam to be a steward of the land, and not have dominion over it like some critics point out. However, Adam didn’t have to deal with pollution, so when he took care of the land, he just took care of his own land. If Adam lived when people were polluting the land and rivers to their own detriment, how would he have acted? Does stewardship also mean protecting the land from people? I think so. And that, among other reasons, is why environmental action is a Jewish social justice.

I feel that my placement at the NYBG is interesting in the context of the Fellowship in Jewish Social Entrepreneurship. My position as an exhibitions intern is not about addressing environmental injustices -  instead I am teaching about the environment and nature through various special exhibits. Some of the events I have worked on are the Giant Pumpkin Weekend and the Holiday Train Show (an exhibit that opens this week and is going to be great – you should check it out!).

Earlier in my life, education did not seem like a real way to execute social justice, but as I have matured, I realize that if people don’t know about something, they aren’t going to care or act on it. But just providing facts isn’t the way to inspire change, which is why the NYBG and botanical gardens everywhere are such an asset to society. People come to the garden for all sorts of reasons: as a field trip, for bird watching, even to run the trails. I never realized how much of a place of salvation the garden can act for some people. The New York Botanical Garden is a place of environmental wonder, teaching its visitors to love nature. As Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote: “Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement…get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted. Everything is phenomenal; everything is incredible; never treat life casually. To be spiritual is to be amazed.”

One of my Columbia professors says that if everyone loved nature, the environment, and the planet, environmental legislation would pass more quickly. Not only would it be a completely obvious focus of voters, but it would be a primary focus of politicians too because of their own love for the environment. Participating in the Fellowship in Jewish Social Entrepreneurship has helped me connect this sense of amazement to my environmental work, as well as to the Jewish commitment to tikkun olam. It has been inspiring learning from socially and environmentally progressive organizations such as Greyston Bakery and Rocking the Boat about their organizational models and how they foster social good in their individual communities. One day I hope to start an organization of my own, and having learned the importance of radical amazement in achieving social change from the NYBG, I will be sure to incorporate this into my work every day.

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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.