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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.

The Value in One’s Sense of Place on Earth — July 5, 2015

The Value in One’s Sense of Place on Earth

More than ever before in my life, I see the tremendous value in having a sense of place or a connection to where I live my life. I view this feeling of community and interconnectedness as essential for a person’s wellbeing, yet it seems people today have given up on this idea to an extent. We travel to exotic places for vacations to escape the daily life we created for ourselves, move away for a school or job position, and dream of picking up everything and moving to a new location for any reason. Not everyone has lost their sense of place, but the majority of us now living in cities know very little about the places where they live and have very little attachment to their current places. This has detrimental consequences for the sustainability of any culture or community.

When I moved to Austin, Texas last August for graduate school, I barely gave it a second thought. I was able to move to a state far from home for my first year to study at St. Edward’s University and discover what I wanted from life. It was an obvious choice to go for me. After completing my first year, the program requires a semester abroad in Angers, France, so I will be moving to Angers at the end of the month. Before my studies began here in Austin, I was again away from where I grew up to earn my undergraduate degree in Environmental Studies in Binghamton, New York. Although it was only a three and a half hour drive from home, it was far enough to feel as though I was in a new place. I was truly in a new place. All of the moving around has taken its toll on me though. Don’t get me wrong, I have had some experiences that I would not trade for the world, and I do not regret my decisions. There is, however, something missing, and I believe it has to do with the sense of community (which starts with our connection to place).

Now, why is our sense of place and connection to the land so important? There are many environmental reasons to value the answers to this question, but I like to boil it down to one thing: sustainability. Not just the sustainability of the environment, but also of society as a whole. The natural environment is what we all depend upon on some level, but we also depend on our location to make sense of the social interactions we have among one another. More specifically, our knowledge of where we live, to a large extent, dictates how we think, act, and respond to life’s various and complex situations.

Since the majority of humans live in cities today, we have lost almost all connections to the natural environment. What we accept as “nature” in the city is disappointing and embarrassing. We value development over conservation. Essentially, we value more and not better (as Bill McKibben writes in Deep Economy). The natural world is in trouble, and very few of us are ready to accept that as fact. We eat foods that travel thousands of miles before it reaches our refrigerators and know nothing of the flora and fauna of the places we call home. We do not know how to grow our own food, nor do we know much about the food we buy from the supermarket. We have outsourced many of these things to a few specialists, and this will one day be a major problem. Change is the law of life. If we rely on others for something as basic as food (and water), then we are at the mercy of those in that position of power for our most basic human needs. Ignorance is not bliss.

Beyond the sustainability of the food system and the natural world, we are at risk of losing all connection to one another. The anonymity and individualism that is provided to us by cities can be beneficial in many ways, but taken to an extreme (as we have done today) we can easily destroy our sense of community. This may seem to some as not such a huge deal, but it is for stability of our communities. Humans need to feel like they belong, but we allow ourselves to become so disconnected from one another, as we connect to our WiFi. Technology has made it way easier to facilitate this shift. Many people today do not even know their neighbors and this disconnection from humanity causes unnecessary violent crimes to take place every day. To give you an idea of how big our social problems are, consider this statistic: one in five woman are victims of sexual assault on college campuses today. Violence is pervasive in our culture today; This is how we treat the members of our community. We stay out of other peoples’ business, and sometimes we even ignore the turmoil of those in our own family. This does not come as a shock to me because we live in a world where it is so easy to escape from the reality of our circumstances.

It is not just crime that rises when we lose our sense of community, but also our health more broadly. Obesity is at an all-time high in the United States because we have lost our connection to our place and time. This is a preventable disease of modern society, yet we continue to allow soda companies to fund our sporting activities. The advertising is all over the place for these products, and the main ingredient (sugar) is the leading cause for obesity. If we truly were committed to ending the obesity epidemic, we would rid our communities of these drinks and of the fast food establishments on every other street corner. Similarly, our “War on Drugs” has taken a huge toll on the mentally ill all around the world, which criminalizes and locks up those who would instead benefit greatly from medical treatment. Viewing things like obesity and addiction as personal choices or struggles is only half of the picture. What we choose to value and how we act towards these things defines who we are as a people. I for one do not want to be defined by absentee legislators who have the power to decide what is best for your community. Every place is different, and each place requires a unique stewardship that should be defined by local residents.

With all of this in mind, I am ready to move somewhere and stay there. After I finish Master’s degree in Environmental Management and Sustainability, I am committed to living in a place. I want to build a sense of community and be a steward of the land I live upon. I want to live in a place where I do not feel the need to run away on an expensive vacation to feel peace and serenity. I want to live in a community where we look after one another, as opposed to a place where neighbors compare themselves to one another and fight with each other. We could all afford to turn off our electronic devices and go out into the local community where we live to see what and who needs our help. Everyone has something unique to offer, but we have to find the courage to recognize and believe in our strengths to make a difference in this world.