Tag Archives: environmental justice

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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

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.

Environmental Justice Field Trip

Last Friday the Fellowship went on an environmental justice field trip to visit Greyston Bakery and Rocking the Boat. We spent the gorgeous day outdoors and learning from these innovative organizations about how they affect change and address environmental injustices in their local communities.

Environmental justice is the movement that focuses on building healthy communities in the areas most affected by environmental health threats – consistently poor communities of color. Environmental justice activists are committed to increasing accessibility to clean air, green spaces, good food, and green jobs. In doing so, they attempt to redress generations of environmental racism and poverty. To learn more about environmental justice work in the South Bronx, read Fellows’ blog post from last year. 

Founded in 1982, Greyston Bakery was one of the first social enterprises in the country. As the supplier of all the Ben & Jerry’s brownie chunks, their commitment to social good is reflected in their tagline: “We don’t hire people to bake brownies. We bake brownies to hire people.” They serve their local Yonkers community through a number of innovative programming, such as an open hiring policy, workforce development training, and affordable housing. Greyston has a strong commitment to the environment as well – solar panels power the plant, they source fair-trade ingredients, and have implemented green operations such as single-stream recycling and a rooftop garden. Their foundation also maintains 19 community gardens to provide fresh produce to their employees and the surrounding area.

Rocking the Boat is a youth development organization based in the Hunts Point section of the South Bronx – historically, one of the poorest and most polluted areas of the country. They use traditional wooden boatbuilding and on-water education to empower teens and restore the Bronx River. We got to tour their facility and learn about the history of the organization before hitting the water ourselves! Once on our boats, we learned about the efforts that Rocking the Boat together with other local green organizations, such as the Bronx River Alliance, are making to clean up the Bronx River, revive the indigenous ecosystem, and increase community access to the river. (We also developed some mean upper body strength by rowing against the river’s current).

It was inspiring to meet with each organization and learn about the social good they create in their local communities. We look forward to our next field trip – in the meantime, please enjoy our slideshow!

Thanks for a Great Year!

The 2012-2013 Fellowship in Jewish Social Entrepreneurship has come to a close. We wish this year’s fellows – Sara, Ari, Deborah, Sam A, Mirit, Dafna, Ariela, David, Sam S, and Allison – the best of luck on the next leg of their social change journeys! Please return here in the fall to celebrate the work and learning of next year’s fellows. In the meantime, below are some photos from our environmental justice tour of the South Bronx for your enjoyment. We spent a wonderful day hearing from local activists from The Point about their experience greening their community – and helped out on their urban farm.

To learn more about environmental justice issues in the South Bronx, visit The Point - a grassroots organization dedicated to youth development and the cultural and economic revitalization of Hunts Point. Sustainable South Bronx and Rocking the Boat are two other local powerhouses working to advance environmental justice while empowering young people to take a lead in their own community.