Sustain Everyone

@SustainEveryone

Relaunch: New Blog Name @SustainEveryone — February 1, 2018

Relaunch: New Blog Name @SustainEveryone

Hello there! I’m an aspiring environmental writer, who was born and raised in Rockaway Beach, NYC and I’m passionate about finding a healthy way to live sustainably within the natural world. My studies in the environmental field brought me to Upstate New York, Texas, France, Vermont, and Costa Rica. During this time, I grew to see the potential for urban farms to increase people’s access to healthy and nutritious food within cities. More recently, I became fascinated by hydroponic systems and their ability to produce food quickly using no soil, little water, and marginal nutrient inputs. Urban agriculture is an ideal solution for the issue of food security in cities, which is why I see it as more crucial today.

Finally, I recently decided to change the name of my former blog (Sustainable Future through Food) to @SustainEveryone with the intention to explore existing urban farming throughout NYC and to inspire people to become actively engaged in organic urban food production. I hope you will follow along with me on my journey as I discover the beauty of small-scale organic urban farming in New York City.

Follow me on Instagram 🙂 @SustainEveryone @Hydroponics_NYC @matt_horgan

Follow “Tres Piedras Ecolodge Reserve” Blog: Here’s Why — March 23, 2016

Follow “Tres Piedras Ecolodge Reserve” Blog: Here’s Why

Many consider writing to be one of life’s greatest forms of expression. It offers an outlet to portray one’s ideas clearly and effectively to the reader. For almost a year now, I have found pleasure in writing about various topics relating to food and the environment on this blog, Sustainable Future Through Food. I plan to continue doing this in the future, but for the moment I will be focusing my attention on starting and maintaining a new blog called Tres Piedras Ecolodge Reserve. As I am just three weeks into my 6 month long internship in Tres Piedras, Costa Rica, I am realizing the power of blog writing for the outreach goals I laid out in a previous post. Consequently, I will be writing on a new blog page (TPEcolodgeReserve.wordpress.com) to share my experiences living and researching in the wilderness of Tres Piedras, CR. The blog will also serve as a platform for raising awareness for the property where I am doing my research, and eventually it will be available for other researchers, students, professors, and ecotourists to express their feelings, adventures, and experiences here at the Tres Piedras Ecolodge Reserve (TPER).

Here is the first post from the new blog site TPEcolodgeReserve.wordpress.com titled:

Jungle Internship: Tres Piedras Ecolodge Reserve
Often we find ourselves in situations where it is hard or impossible to predict what will be. This condition can easily promote anxiety about our future and what it will bring to us (or what we will bring to it). At the same time, circumstances like this can invoke curiosity and a sense of opportunity. While traveling to Tres Piedras, Costa Rica to complete my last semester research internship of Saint Edwards University’s Professional Science Master’s in Environmental Management and Sustainability, uncertainty and not knowing what to expect became quite familiar to me. Even though I had traveled to Tres Piedras in the past during my Bachelor’s degree (to study tropical ecology for the month of July in 2012, and to volunteer in reforestation efforts for the month July in 2013), I was now going back to the same site to carry out my own independent scientific research project for 6 months in a remote tropical ecosystem with one of my peers, Tessa Rager. The ambiguity of what we were getting ourselves into for the next half of a year was amplified by the fact that my undergraduate university has not traveled to the property for almost three years. Despite all of my uncertainties beforehand and on the journey here, I am extremely content and excited about the prospect of carrying out my research project, as well as helping the new property owner develop an organization that will conserve this (about 150 acre) slice of tropical forest in Tres Piedras, Costa Rica.
As I wrote in a previous post on my other blog site,(SustainableFutureThroughFood.wordpress.com), the property where Tessa and I are conducting our research has an interesting history of students, professors, and environmentalists all using this property over the last 20 years to teach ecology, initiate reforestation in the region, and conduct scientific research studies (among a variety of other projects). Now, a local resident, Maricel, is in charge of the property, and she wants to see this land conserved through the implementation of some sort of ecotourism on the site. This left a lot of room for Tessa and I to brainstorm during out first two weeks here about how to attract ecologically-minded people to this property, which consists of a secondary and primary tropical forest and four cabins on site.
During our first week, Maricel and her family were extremely welcoming and made sure we had everything we needed in the main cabin, which is fully equipped with a kitchen and bathroom. Maricel knew we have our own research projects to carry out and that we are willing to help her with outreach and development of some sort of conservation organization, but I sensed she did not know what to expect from us either. After a few days of adjusting, Maricel, Tessa, and I sat down to find out exactly what would be helpful from us to conserve this land, while at the same time produce some sort of a living to Maricel and her family. This revenue from the property has the potential to keep her, and possibly her family, from having to travel all the way to Dominical (located about 40 minutes by car from Tres Piedras) to clean tourists’ homes.
Thus far, Tessa and I have completed a variety of tasks for the goals we set forth for the property. Before anything, we had to make sure all the trails on the property were cleared of vegetation, as to allow us to move through the forest somewhat easily, to survey the property for ideal sites for our independent research projects, and simply to enjoy hiking in the jungle on our downtime. At the same time, we started a compost pile for our organic food scraps. Our hope is to start building a structure to provide shade for a vegetable and herb garden we would like to create on a part of the property where there is direct sunlight. It is too hot to grow vegetables without some sort of covering for shade, so we plan to use these metal poles that were left on the property by the previous owners and some screen we also found in the shed. Currently, we are working on developing an official website for the property, which we decided to call Tres Piedras Ecolodge Reserve (TPER). The goal is to get the name out there with the intention of providing a place for adventurous travelers to come and enjoy the natural beauty of the tropical forests here. The facilities are already in place, so raising awareness of this place as a spot for ecotourism and attracting people with an interest in this type of experience are our main goals.
One of the major points of interest on the property is the tropical secondary and primary growth forests, both of which are accessible by maintained trails. The forest has a tremendous amount of biodiversity, which makes it ideal for ecotourists, birdwatchers, ecologists, researchers, environmentalists, and anyone else interested in spending time the natural world away from the distractions of big cities. The surrounding village of Tres Piedras is mostly agricultural land, making the property we are living on even more special and more important ecologically. If we can bridge the gap between the current environmental benefits of the forested land at TPER and the potential for socioeconomic benefits to the local residents through ecotourism, there is a huge opportunity to conserve this ecologically sensitive ecosystem.
Moreover, getting here was quite hard without a car, as Tessa and I realized when we decided to venture into the nearest city of San Isidro en General. For this reason, Maricel’s brother offered to pick us up when we arrived on our first day with our heavy backpacking backpacks. To get to the city from Tres Piedras, we have to walk one hour catch the 6am bus at the closest community of San Juan de Dios. Then it is about a 45 minute bus ride until you arrive in the small city of San Isidro en General. Since the bus from San Juan de Dios to San Isidro en General only runs on Mondays and Fridays, we stayed overnight on a farm close to San Isidro to get some rest and visit Tessa’s boyfriend, Victor. He is working and learning about agriculture in the tropics at Finca Armata. The next morning we caught the bus to Platanillo, which is about a three hour walk to Tres Piedras (on a Tuesday when the bus does not run to San Juan de Dios). Luckily there were two people who drove us the majority of the way when they saw us walking along the dirt road. One fact about Costa Rica that becomes particularly noticeable when traveling by foot is that the land is rarely flat because the country is dominated by mountainous terrain. It may sound like a lot of work to get here without a car, but for me the cost in energy is rewarded ten-fold when I return to such a secluded and peaceful tropical environment (though it would be nice to have a car of some sort).
Despite the anxiety and uncertainty clouding my thinking on my journey here, the opportunities that are available to me here at Tres Piedras Ecolodge Reserve are more than enough to keep me busy for 6 months. In addition to quantifying and comparing the biomass (or trapped carbon) in the secondary and primary forests on the property, I will be working closely with Tessa and Maricel to attract visitors to the region through ecotourism in an attempt to conserve the land and create socioeconomic benefits for Maricel and her family.

If you are interested in seeing photos of the site and learning more about us, like us on Facebook “Tres Piedras Ecolodge Reserve” and follow us on Instagram “Tres_Piedras_Ecolodge. Once the website is complete I will update this blog post. Also, follow my new blog page TPEcolodgeReserve.wordpress.com

Can traveling the globe ever be considered sustainable?  — November 23, 2015

Can traveling the globe ever be considered sustainable? 

Sometimes I grapple with finding a justification for traveling such long distances in relatively small periods of time for my education. As a graduate student in a program with international components and as an environmentalist, I cannot overlook the tremendous amount of energy it takes to travel to new places. Whether it be going on week long class trips or moving to a new city to study, the transportation environmental costs are tremendous. Despite the expenses associated with traveling, I tend to think it is worthwhile if your travels have a beneficial impact on your local community when you return to the place you call ‘home.’ Still, I ask myself, “Can any form of global travel be considered sustainable?”
For the first time in our species’s history, carbon dioxide has surpassed 350ppm. This greenhouse gas, along with methane and a few others, are contributing to a rapid increase in average global surface temperatures. The major implications associated with climate change are unpredictable weather patterns, increased frequency and intensity of extreme weather events, rising sea levels, more climate refugees, and species extinction on a scale humans have never before experienced in history. The wide ranging impacts of climate change are difficult to comprehend for many, and this is one of the causes of delayed action by politicians around the world. Knowing all of this and still traveling seems to be irresponsible for anyone trying to impact the environment in a positive way.

Yet, I am currently on a bus for the next 6 hours with my fellow classmates from St. Edward’s University, traveling from Angers, France to the north of France to study marine biodiversity. My peers are also astonishingly environmentally aware people who make great strides to have positive impacts on the natural world. Additionally, the people in making decisions for this Master’s degree program in Environmental Management and Sustainability, I assume, are environmentally conscious individuals. So what benefit could be behind this trip to the north of France (and to Angers, France more broadly)?

The educational benefit could not be overlooked in this situation. We will be learning valuable information about ecosystems, sustainable development, environmental pollution monitoring, and more topics that will be applicable to our future goals to help the planet in the career paths we choose to take. Education is our most powerful tool against most of the challenges we face on a daily basis. No meaningful change can arise without knowledge of the right action to take. The objective to become an educated human being, however, is not sufficient to justify such extensive travel.

Furthermore, we must have an intention on taking what we learn from our traveling and applying it to a local community in need of support economically, socially, and/or environmentally. For me specifically, it is not enough for me to learn about ways to build more sustainably and live a lifestyle that benefits the planet. What I learn on my journey ought to be shared with others and put into practice if it has the potential for a great impact on society, the environment, and/or the local economy. This may start on a global scale when traveling to acquire knowledge and new perspectives on the world’s problems, but it should always end on a local scale where these new ways of thinking can be implemented to benefit society and the environment.

On the other hand, the way we travel today is unsustainable even if you have good motives, like environmental education. We require mammoth amounts of fossil fuels to transport ourselves to far away destinations across the globe. The production, maintenance, and use of vehicles and transportation related infrastructure is dependent on a fossil fuel economy. Until it becomes more convenient to travel in a way that does not threaten global health, we will continue to choose to travel via unsustainable means until we can no longer afford the environmental and economic consequences of such actions. There is promise for the future in the realm of renewable energies and sustainable development for travel to become more environmentally friendly, but we must move definitively faster than our current pace if we want to avoid a climate crisis by raising the average global surface temperature above 4 degrees Celsius.

So, can any form of global travel be considered sustainable? Despite being torn between the answer to this question, I would still answer yes. When you travel to another country and experience another culture, you gain a new perspective on everything you thought to be truth. It challenges your most inner convictions. If you have the opportunity to gain perspective on a social, economic, or environmental issue while traveling, this experience can help you in the future when you are trying to solve the complex problems facing the world today in your career. Individually, travel benefits are immediate, but for collective society the benefits might take longer to come to fruition. The act of traveling can induce a kind of expanded consciences, therefore the traveler has an obligation to share his or her experience with the local community to which they belong. The inspiration for beneficial changes may not always start at home, but ultimately and ideally the idea of beneficial change that was gained through international travel should inspire you to go out into your community and have a profoundly positive impact.

Future Plans for a Conservation and Environmental Education Project in Costa Rica — November 17, 2015

Future Plans for a Conservation and Environmental Education Project in Costa Rica

Often it is hard to focus on the present moment, and it is in our nature to think in terms of the past and the future. After studying tropical ecology for my Bachelor’s degree in Costa Rica for the months of July 2012 and July 2013, I have since been drawn to return to the country.  Likewise, as I mentioned in a previous post, the Professional Science Master’s program in Environmental Management and Sustainability that I am currently pursuing requires for its last semester that each student complete a research internship project, related to sustainability, anywhere in the world. The requirements are broad, but this allows us to actually explore something we wish to pursue as a career. Despite having the opportunity to explore somewhere new to complete my last semester of , my classmate, Tessa, and I are choosing to return to the same small village where I learned and grew a tremendous amount during my undergraduate experience with SUNY Binghamton University in Tres Piedras, Costa Rica.

As I am finishing up my semester in Angers, France, I cannot help but think of the upcoming research opportunity that I am so fortunate to have available to me. In July 2012, I enrolled in a tropical ecology class through my university, SUNY Binghamton University, which was taught a class in tropical ecology in Tres Piedras de Baru, Costa Rica every July and Spring. The property in the village was referred to as the Tropical Forestry Initiative (TFI) at the time, which was owned by a small group of professors and environmentalists. The property was used by professors to teach students, conduct research projects, and carry out reforestation efforts in the region. Unfortunately, SUNY Binghamton no longer brings students to the area anymore, but the TFI property is now in the hands of a local resident who would like to continue using the property for conservation and educational projects. Although Tessa and I will be expected to design, complete, and present our own independent research projects for our degree, we intend to help the new owner of the property with outreach initiatives that could bring student groups back to the area to partake in similar sustainable development projects and in research opportunities to the activities that used to be done with TFI.

The plans for outreach are still in their preliminary stage, as we work with the owner of the property to develop a program. My hope is to provide a site that offers students the ability to conduct their own independent research projects on site, as well as have the opportunities to volunteer on sustainable development projects and provide support for outreach efforts relating to conservation of the property and surrounding ecosystems. Ideally, we could aim to attract graduate students who could perform their research studies on a topic related to the tropical forest on the property. These students would also be willing to learn about and participate in sustainable development projects on and off site relating to reforestation, sustainable food systems, and community outreach.

Although my plans are incomplete and lacking much detail, I have high hopes for what can be accomplished in Tres Piedras, CR. Tropical ecosystems are threatened around the globe, and we need people to start environmental conservation and educational initiatives like this one to mitigate the damage we are doing to our planet. Often there is so much that is presented to us in our lives that we do not make the most of for many reasons. Yet, there might still be great potential for having a profoundly positive impact in taking advantage of what life offers you.

An International Food Perspective — August 12, 2015

An International Food Perspective

Landing in Paris one week ago was a little overwhelming to say the least. I was extremely lucky to be traveling with Tessa Rager, a great friend and classmate. She and I know very minimal French, so awkward miscommunication was becoming part of our daily experience. More so than anything else, I experienced an overwhelming feeling that I had made the right decision. As we moved further and further away from the airport in Paris on the train ride to Angers, this feeling got much stronger. I stared out the window observing all that I could about my new environment.

One aspect of my new environment that I noticed right away was how many farms were outside the city of Paris. It was significant in my mind because this was a sign that food is grown locally here. The French stereotype that they care for their food was soon obvious to me after a few meals. The ingredients are certainly fresh and delicious. After settling into Angers, Tessa and I decided to make some loose plans to travel to Belgium and the Netherlands before classes start here. What we discovered was unexpected, eye-opening, and thought-provoking.

I normally do not like to generalize about any one group of people, or assume any stereotypes because I do not think they are fair. I personally do not fit into many stereotypes, and nature is full of anomalies. This makes me hate generalizing even more because it does not tell the whole story of an individual or community.

While at a lounge/bar in Amsterdam, Tessa and I were enjoying ourselves over a drink after a long few days of travel. We could not help but overhear the conversation happening at the next table between a British woman, an Australian woman, and man (possibly from the Netherlands), all of whom were about my age. The topic: Americans. Naturally, Tessa and I were interested in hearing what they had to say about us. At first, they seemed to be kind of ignorant as to what they were saying, making comments like “Americans are disgusting,” without making any real arguments to back this up (looking back, I wonder if they were intentionally trying to provoke us). The conversation soon switched to the topic of food in the United States, specifically factory farming animals for meat production. This peaked our interest since both Tessa and I are studying food systems in the United States and elsewhere.

The women and man started by talking about the harsh conditions our animals endure before we eat them. The British woman exclaimed “If they (Americans) are going to kill the animal for food, why do they have to torture the animal beforehand?” I couldn’t help but agree with her in my head. The Australian woman then referred to legislation in the United stated that makes it illegal for people to expose the terrible treatment of the animals in factory farms. The first of these “Ag Gag” laws were passed in Utah and Iowa in 2012, making it nearly impossible for whistleblowing to occur on farms. This is extremely significant because many of us do not know about the truly awful conditions the cows, chickens, and pigs endure before they are killed for consumption. I understand the issue that the Australian woman was trying to articulate. With laws like these on the books, large agricultural businesses have essentially silenced farmers in an attempt to keep the masses ignorant to this moral issue. Right after this comment, the Australian girl continued with her rant. She said that “American’s don’t deserve the meat we eat,” and that “we don’t need it.” Granted veganism and vegetarianism are perfectly plausible options for the human diet, but to say that Americans do not deserve to eat meat is implying a sense of disrespect and hatred of Americans or the American lifestyle. This part of the conversation made me very uncomfortable and I am still not totally sure why I felt this way. It is possible I was analyzing the situation a little too much, but maybe she was trying to say that we could easily eat less meat, which is an idea I do agree with because we do not need as much animal protein as we think we do in the United States.

Now, to be completely honest, the people at the table next to Tessa and I did not seem to fully understand the issues they were discussing amongst themselves. This was fascinating and frustrating at the same time because Tessa really wanted to start a conversation about sustainable agriculture and the local food movement in parts of the United States to give them a better image of America. I was animate about not wanting to bother with them and convinced Tessa that it would not be worth the energy (we were exhausted from so much travel and I felt that it would only lead to a conflict). They also said some very offensive and provocative comments throughout their conversation, which gave me the impression that they were living in their own bubble, observing and traveling the world without researching any facts to back up their ideas. I felt my energy would be better put to work on a blog post about the issue, in hopes that my ideas will resonate further than their misguided opinions of all Americans. The Australian woman and the man also said that they buy organic, and the British woman said she was a vegetation, so they seemed pretty pleased with their life choices and had no problem looking down on the American population. The main problem I have with this train of thought is that it does not account for the price difference between non-organic food and organic food in the United States. If you are an average American, you shop at the grocery store when you are not working. The cheaper options are almost always worse for your health and almost certainly non-organic. This might not seem like a big deal at first, but it is a social justice issue because people with money can afford to be healthier than those without enough money for organic food in the United States. I do not think that the people talking next to us were aware of this issue.

To make such a sweeping generalization about an enormous country is irresponsible. The United States is full of people who do care about where their food comes from, how it is treated, and so on. At the same time, there are many of us who do not care. I truly do not think the people sitting next to us in that lounge were aware of the diversity of people in the United States. There is huge variation in opinions of people from state to state, even city to city when it comes to food. The sweeping generalization made by them was at best faulty logic. They did touch on some really critical issues of our time, but they certainly did not have the full picture to make such claims.

At the end of the day, I was very happy to be able to have the experience to hear what a group of people from other countries think of our food system and of us more generally. They frustrated Tessa and me so much because we know way more people who actually do care about their food than people who do not in the United States. I recognize now that we are not the majority, and this was hard to accept. The trend the United States seems to be heading towards a more food conscience society, which gives me hope that current agricultural practices could change drastically in my lifetime.

Why Community Gardening? — May 11, 2015

Why Community Gardening?

Today, as I look back on my first year in the MSEM program at St. Edward’s University, there is one question my research partner and I kept receiving the most: “Why are you researching community gardens?” For us, the answer seemed obvious from an environmental perspective, but we soon realized this shared understanding we had for food’s role in environmental degradation was the product of taking many classes in our undergraduate education that related specifically to these types of issues. Given that our current degree program required us to design, conduct, and present our own research project, my partner and I sought out to reveal how much these community gardens are capable of producing on the amount of land they have.

Moreover, the issue of food insecurity, which exists when low income households does not have access to sufficient, safe, nutritious food to maintain a healthy and active life year round, is not a topic you will frequently hear being discussed on the daily local or even the national news programs on television in the United States. The severity of this problem, however, cannot be underestimated by those in power today. At the conference on Trade and Development in December of 2013, the United Nations produced a report calling for a 70 percent increase of food production by 2050, as counted by calories, if we are to sufficiently feed the projected human population of about 9 billion people. The advisors to this report urged that we achieve food security by changing the way we produce and consume our food (Trade and Environmental Review, 2013).

With this information about the state our current food system, the project my research partner and I came up with aimed at quantifying the potential yield of community gardens throughout the city of Austin, Texas. Community gardens were a starting point we thought we could use to get a glimpse into what urban agriculture was producing in Austin. The potential yield of a garden is simply the theoretical amount of food the garden is able to produce in a given period of time. We used actual yield data from one of these gardens to make our estimations for the potential yield of the 18 public certified community gardens we studied in Austin.

Furthermore, to accomplish the task of estimating the potential yield for our research project, we had to visit each site to collect the dimensions of each individual plot at the 18 study sites. Having this information, and the total area of the gardens, we were able to calculate a percent utilization measure for each garden. This value allowed us to see how much (in a percentage) of the total land they were actually using to produce food and was used to compare with the actual yield data we obtained from one of our study sites. This actual yield data, though only for one crop type, spanned over four years. We took the percent utilized by each garden to get a more precise measure of their potential agricultural yield. We also used ArcGIS software to create maps overlaying food insecurity with existing sites of urban agriculture in our final research paper. Then we added a layer of “prime farmland” to the map, as well as points that were identified by the city as “eligible” for urban agriculture, which gave us the ability to make recommendations as to where the ideal sites for future development of community gardens are located. Based off of our maps, we identified two primary areas of focus for the city of Austin, Texas. (Feel free to contact me if you are interested more in our methods!)

Ultimately, we presented our findings at St. Edward’s University’s 3rd annual Graduate Research Symposium for the MSEM program, and they were well received by our professor and a few people from the city of Austin who we worked closely with throughout the project. There were some truly amazing people we met along the way, including city officials interested in our data for funding and support, gardeners willing to answer any question we could think of, and volunteers working with the soil. We worked closely with three people from Austin: one individual works at a non-profit organization called the Sustainable Food Center, the second individual works for the City of Austin’s Parks and Recreation Department, and the third works for the City of Austin’s Office of Sustainability. As we were thankful for their ample assistance throughout the course of our project, they were all very grateful to get some field data about the 18 public community gardens we visited and for the maps identifying ideal site locations for future development of community gardens.

Although I am extremely happy with the way our project turned out, I am admittedly not done exploring and discussing the possibilities food will bring us in the future in terms of sustainable development of the environment and of society at large. We have the opportunity to increase local food production, which could have various side effects for the good of humanity. One aspect of community gardening easily overlooked is the amount they contribute to social capital of a community. There were certain gardens we visited where there was clearly designated space for community gatherings and celebrations. These places seemed to be more than just places of food production. Some of the gardens had educational programs, spaces for social gatherings, opportunities for community service, and more. If we had more time, Tessa and I would have loved to study the social impact, as well as the environmental impact of these gardens on a community.