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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.

French Hospitality — September 14, 2015

French Hospitality

People often come together for a meal for various occasions. Moreover, food is often the perfect way to experience a new culture. Shortly after moving to France, I met someone I now call my boyfriend. This is totally new to me, but I am learning so much from Matthieu. I was extremely grateful to be invited to his sister’s surprise birthday a couple of weeks ago on his aunt and uncle’s farm. The farm is situated about 40 minutes outside the city of Angers, in Cheffes, France. They raise cattle for dairy and meat, corn, rabbits, and chickens (among other things).  Despite my fascination with the agriculture, I was captivated by his family’s welcoming nature towards someone who can barely speak a full sentence of their language.

When we arrived at the farm, about 30 of his family members and friends greeted us. To say I was intimidated is an understatement. I was nervous, not only to meet my boyfriend’s entire family, but also I was afraid to interact with people who speak a completely different language than me. I wondered if I would unintentionally offend someone, yet this was not the case at all. Since I had already met Matthieu’s parents the previous week, his mother was quick to introduce me to her siblings, cousins, and countless other family members and friends. Although we could not say more than a few words to each other, they seemed to be happy to meet me. I felt a sense of belonging and was honored that they let me be a part of this special occasion.

At the beginning of the party (around 9pm), we drank some red wine, which was followed by some champagne. Matthieu’s sister, Margaux, was extremely surprised and pleased to see all of her family and some of her close friends at her aunt and uncle’s house to celebrate her 18th birthday. Matthieu and Margaux are about a year apart in age, and their relationship reminded me so much of my relationship with my sister Alexa. Being so far away from home and watching them interact made me miss Alexa greatly. I was still so happy to be in the presence of a wonderful family celebrating such a joyous occasion, even though I missed my own family.

As the night progressed, we sat down for a fantastic home cooked meal: paella (see picture above). I have not eaten a better meal in France till this day. Followed by a birthday cake and other delicious desserts, we drank a tasty, strong after dinner pear liquor called “Liqueur de poire.” There was loud music and a place for people to dance. Nearly everyone sang and danced until the early hours of the morning. If I learned one thing that night, it was that the French know how to eat and drink (and party). Matthieu’s family was warm and friendly towards me and made me feel like I was part of their family. Above all, they seemed to genuinely enjoy each other’s company, which was refreshing to see.

The next day we awoke around noon. I immediately went to explore the farm in the daylight with Matthieu. I saw the rows of corn, the cattle roaming in their paddocks, the rabbits eating in their cages, and the chickens. It might sound mundane to some (Matthieu grew up around all of this so it was nothing new to him), but I was in awe at the diversity on the farm. There were pear trees and a home vegetable garden as well as two baby calves that were born two days earlier. They were, by far, the cutest animals on the farm. I had Matthieu to help me talk to his aunt about the farm. He translated for me as I asked some basic questions about their home. They raise the cows primarily for milk production, so generally they do not keep the male calves (which meant one of the two baby cows I saw were going to be turned into veal). I did not get a chance to ask them about their specific farming techniques, as Matthieu was exhausted from having to be my translator the night before. Their farm, however, was breathtakingly beautiful and full of life. I felt at peace there and not at all out of place. I am thankful to have had this experience with Matthieu and his family.

Another thing I learned on this trip to the countryside was that the French do not like to say quick goodbyes. After exploring the farm in the daylight, whoever remained from the party sat down to eat a late lunch and to continue celebrations for Margaux’s birthday. We ended up staying until the about 6pm, after many of Matthieu’s family members helped with the cleanup from the party the previous night. Once the house was back in order, we said goodbye to his family in the traditional French way of two (or sometimes four) kisses on each cheek. It may have seemed like a long goodbye, but when I think back on it I believe the reason it was not a quick goodbye was because no one wanted to leave. Their family is very close and they did not want to say goodbye or leave without helping clean up. I felt this was truly thoughtful of them and so adorable.

I do not normally write blog posts that are this personal, but I am glad to be able to share my wonderful experience with others. With an approaching research internship that I must complete next semester (which could take place anywhere in the world), the future of me and Matthieu’s relationship is far from certain, yet I am still so happy to have met such an incredible and thoughtful human being. I am trying to live in the present moment and enjoy our time together without letting the future ruin today. We can never know what could happen in the future 🙂

“Tomorrow is tomorrow.
Future cares have future cures,
And we must mind today.”

– Sophocles

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.