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NEPA Rollback & Environmental Justice — July 17, 2020

NEPA Rollback & Environmental Justice

When people say ‘let’s not dwell in the past,’ or ‘let’s not get too political,” I often cringe. I certainly see the value in not getting too caught up on some issue to the point where you become stuck, but I also see the harm it causes to not give voice to past injustices. By denying or refusing to acknowledge a people’s history, those in power (those who historically have been white people) create an alternative narrative that erases history and increase their own sense of worth, while at the same time further marginalizing people with less status and wealth (those who historically have been Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC)).

We can only begin to uncover the oppressive structures and systems in place that perpetuate inequality and segregation in housing and education among black/white and rich/poor if we tell the stories of the past with honesty and clarity. Stories are a crucial way we reflect on and chronicle our lives, and they give meaning to our sense of place and place in time. Stories have been used to oppress, but they can also be used to liberate and heal.

Additionally, what policies and history contributes to the disparities we see across black and white communities in NYC and the USA in general? More specifically, why are our communities so unequal in terms of environmental burdens and other social determinants of health? I intent to explore these questions through my next series of posts more in detail. I believe part of it is because systematic racism exists at all levels of society (government agencies included), and the many cumulative effects of the policies enacted by these structures over time has lead to severe social inequities between white and BIPOC communities.

Recent news of President Trump’s plan to continue to roll back environmental regulation, specifically to make changed to NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act). I will briefly outline what NEPA is here, and what the proposed changes mean for social and environmental justice.

NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) was signed into law under President Nixon in 1970, and it established a Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) under the Office of the President, and required that all federal agencies’ projects to undergo an environmental assessments (EAs) and environmental impact statements (EIS), to weigh the costs and benefits of a proposed project to society, the economy, and the environment. NEPA also more broadly asserts that each person has a responsibility to enhance and preserve the environment for future generations, laying a framework for a more sustainable national environmental policy.

While I was an undergraduate student at SUNY Binghamton, I had the chance to take an Environmental Impact Statements class, where we learned how to prepare impact statements and all the components that are supposed to be considered before a federal project can proceed.

One of the main components of any EIS/EA is to consider the cumulative effects of the proposed actions. Rather than just considering the direct effects of the proposed project, it is equally or more important to consider the “combination of individually minor effects of multiple actions over time, or cumulative effects” (Source 1, see below).

From Council on Environmental Quality’s (CEQ) regulations for implementing the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), a cumulative impact is:

“the impact on the environment which results from the incremental impact of the action when added to other past, present, and reasonably foreseeable future actions regardless of what agency (Federal or non-federal) or person undertakes such other actions (40 CFR ~ 1508.7). (Source 1, see below)”

This part of NEPA, when applied appropriately, has been used to assess the cumulative impact of carbon emissions and its effect on climate change, and to address environmental justice issues that arise from the disproportionate implementation of harmful environmental projects in BIPOC communities, like highways and toxic waste facilities construction. (In a future post, I plan to dive more deeply into the history of this in NYC, specifically under NYC’s Parks Commissioner Robert Moses and the construction of the Henry Hudson Parkway and Mosholu Parkway during the 1930’s, which divided Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx, home predominantly to BIPOC, creating 6 segmented parts of this once continuous greenspace) (Source 2, see below).

Development projects across the US have historically left out the input from BIPOC community members, leading to disparities that are cumulatively added to over time. We must protect NEPA, and even strengthen it in this unprecedented time of social inequity and ecological destruction. Rather than dilute consideration of environmental justice issues, these cumulative impacts should be top of mind and priority for those entrusted to run our federal agencies here in the USA.

Thank you for reading, and I hope you follow along as I discover the histories of NYC’s development that led to the segregation we experience in health, housing and education today.

@Hydroponics.NYC
@Matthew_Gerard_

Source 1:

President’s Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ). (n.d.). INTRODUCTION TO CUMULATIVE EFFECTS ANALYSIS. Retrieved from NEPA.gov: https://ceq.doe.gov/docs/ceq-publications/ccenepa/sec1.pdf

Source 2:
SEIWELL, E. (2019, February 19). Van Cortlandt Park Erases History . Retrieved from FordhamObserver.com: https://fordhamobserver.com/38076/features/van-cortlandt-park-erases-history/

Reframe: Sustain Everyone Blog — July 12, 2020

Reframe: Sustain Everyone Blog

As I reflect humbly on the current social landscape, it seems necessary to reframe this blog as a platform where I write about sustainability in terms of social and environmental justice, beginning to expose white supremacy in the past and in today’s systems and structures, in particular, to address the following questions:

1. What policies and history contributes to the disparities we see across black and white communities in NYC and the USA in general?
2. How do/did people in power contribute to segregation in housing and education through overt and covert racist behavior today and in the past?
3. Why do communities of color face higher levels of environmental burdens than white communities?
4. How can we address racial segregation in housing and education on a local and national level?

I hope you follow along on this personal journey of growth and evolution, to look critically at oppressive structures and systems, and consider a path forward that acknowledges our painful history and our own implicit biases, so that we continue to learn and to build better systems with an aware compassion.

@Matthew_Gerard_
@Hydroponics.NYC

NY Harbor, Jamaica Bay, and the Rockaways’ Fight Against Williams Natural Gas Pipeline — March 23, 2019

NY Harbor, Jamaica Bay, and the Rockaways’ Fight Against Williams Natural Gas Pipeline

A couple of weeks ago, I felt the need to stand up publicly and testify at the New York City Department of Environmental Protection’s (NYCDEP) public comment session on the proposed Northeast Supply Enhancement Project (NESE), also called Williams Pipeline for short, which would transport fracked natural gas via the construction of a 23 mile pipeline that “would run along the Staten Island coast and extend out to four miles off Rockaway” (Santino, 2019).

map.jpg *Note the existing pipeline was pushed through and built after Hurricane Sandy, when local residents were preoccupied with the rebuilding of their homes and communities (Source: NYC Surfrider Foundation).

The NYCDEC has to approve a crucial water quality permit before construction can begin. There is a federal law that requires an environmental impact statement (EIS), to look at the impacts to wildlife and human health before moving forward with projects like this. The first hearing was held on 02/26/2019, in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, during rush hour, on a weekday, and in a hardly accessible area if you travel by public transportation from the areas that would primarily be impacted by the pipeline’s construction, such as the Rockaways. Not many from my area were able to attend.

FT.jpg Fort Tilden, NYC. @hydroponics.mh

After public pressure on the NYCDEC to have it in an area where potentially affected residents live, there was a second public comment session held just one mile from my home on the Rockaway Peninsula in the auditorium of Rockaway High School for Environmental Sustainability. I felt the irony of sitting in a school devoted to environmental sustainability, and at the same time protesting the approval of such an unconscionably unsustainable project.

I can trace my interest in environmental justice and sustainability back to my first interactions with the ocean and its wildlife as a young kid. My parents took us fishing on the beaches of the Breezy Point Tip, and I was always fascinated by the diversity of creatures I discovered near the sea. I feel blessed and grateful to have been raised so close to this amazing natural area, having found a place among the seagulls, horseshoe crabs, piping plovers, and other enchanting forms of wildlife early in my life. These places are a home to several endangered animals and plants, and are some of the last wild sanctuaries still found in NYC.

oc An oystercatcher in Rockaway Beach, NYC. @hydroponics.mh

Apart from my personal connection to the land and its people, I do, as a graduate from a master’s program in environmental management and sustainable development, understand the scientific review of the potential risks laid out in the draft environmental impact statement conducted by the NYCDEP. With this educational experience, and growing up in the local community, I felt uniquely obligated to testify at the public comment session on March, 6th, 2019. I will not go into the many risks associated with the project here, but will include some helpful resources at the end of this post if you are interested.

Riis Jacob Riis Park @hydroponics.mh

To be honest, there were challenging mental barriers that almost prevented me from testifying. I remember thinking many times, I could be at relaxing at home in my apartment and warm, not walking in the cold to the bus to attend this public comment session. When walking into that building after a long day of work and tired, I remember the thoughts of inadequacy and doubt flooding my thinking when I walked to into the auditorium. Am I really as qualified as I think I am to speak on this?

Yet, I continued to walk to that high school auditorium, to stand in front of a panel of NYCDEC representatives and over 100 of the residents of the Rockaways and other surrounding local communities. Did I mention how much I hate public speaking? I made it short and to the point, as it took over an hour and a half for them to call my name.

My comment addressed the concerns for human health and wildlife when the pipeline is constructed. There would be dredging of sands and sediments off the coast of the Rockaways and Staten Island that are holding and storing safely the industrial toxins of the last century. This action would release toxins like PBCs, heavy medals, and other industrial pollutants into the water column where organisms live and where people swim. The result would be poisoning of people and wildlife that interact with the waters off the Rockaways/Jamaica Bay.

nana “Exploring with my Nana at Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, NYC, on 12/30/13.” @hydroponics.mh

I tell this story not to show off how great of a citizen and environmental advocate I am trying to be, but to point out that we need to persist over the many barriers (mentally and physically) that keep us from speaking out when we know we are qualified and worthy of doing so effectively.

geese.jpg Jacob Riis Park. @hydroponics.mh

Although the comment period has ended, you can still act to oppose the NESE project (see below:)

“Those interested in helping this cause can visit stopthewilliamspipeline.org, call Cuomo at 877- 235-6537 or text ‘RENEWABLES’ to 69866” (Santino, 2019).

Watch this short clip to learn more about the proposed pipeline:
The Fight Against The Williams Pipeline:

Local News Article:
The Push To Stop The Williams Pipeline:
https://www.rockawave.com/articles/the-push-to-stop-the-williams-pipeline-2/

Here is a link to an amazing (and my favorite) documentary about how NY Harbor and Jamaica Bay is experiencing positive ecological renewal as a result of the past 20 years of cleaning up the bay and environmental awareness generated through local advocacy, as well as explores the impacts of Hurricane Sandy on a local NYC community, Broad Channel (This natural and inhabited area would all be affected by the proposed pipeline):

Saving Jamaica Bay:
https://www.amazon.com/Saving-Jamaica-Bay-Susan-Sarandon/dp/B073X9MRL8

“Life is a garden, not a road. We enter and exit through the same gate. Wandering, where we go matters less than what we notice.” — Kurt Vonnegut

IG accounts:
@Hydroponics.NYC
@Matthew_Gerard_

Empowering Youth to Grow Food: Teens for Food Justice — April 15, 2018

Empowering Youth to Grow Food: Teens for Food Justice

I’m humbled to be volunteering as a mentor to teens at Clinton DeWitt High School in the Bronx with a non-profit organization called Teens for Food Justice (TFFJ). The mission of TFFJ is to create a realistic solution to food insecurity, or lack of access to healthy and nutritious food, by empowering youth to build and maintain sustainable food systems in their community.

IMG_0680 Lettuce growing at Dewitt Clinton High School in Bronx, NYC. @matt_horgan

TFFJ leads a team to train students in Title I schools in the unique craft of urban farming through the “building and maintaining of indoor farms that yield more than 22, 000 lbs. of fresh produce annually at each location” in Brooklyn, Manhattan, and the Bronx (http://www.teensforfoodjustice.org/).

IMG_0681 Cucumbers and a variety of leafy greens and herbs growing hydroponically by students at Dewitt Clinton High School in Bronx, NYC. @matt_horgan

Additionally, these youth-run urban farms are feeding students nutritious and fresh meals in their cafeteria, as well as increasing the food security of the area by distributing fresh produce people in the surrounding local community. There is also a focus on teaching students about advocating for policy on the local, state, and federal levels of government to ensure that funding and other resources are given to increase people’s access to healthy food options.

IMG_0685 @matt_horgan

Moreover, the mentorship program I am participating in has been really rewarding. I help facilitate a wide range of activities aimed at teaching the students about creating and sustaining hydroponic systems, advocating for food justice in the policy setting, cooking healthy and nutritious meals.

IMG_0683 Students participate in a cooking challenge to create a veggie burger, chocolate avocado pudding, and pasta salad. (Secret ingredient: parsley grown in the schools hydroponic farm) @matt_horgan

Finally, the students put on a Leadership Conference at Agritecture Consulting where students presented data they collected from surveys they designed and conducted in the community around their school to see what fresh, healthy food was available to stores and restaurants.

See more about becoming a mentor here: http://www.teensforfoodjustice.org/be-a-mentor-2/

If you would like to support Teens for Food Justice, see the links below!

http://www.teensforfoodjustice.org/donate

Instagram: @TeensforFoodJustice

Written by:

Matthew Horgan
MHorgan279@gmail.com
@matt_horgan @sustaineveryone
@hydroponics_nyc
SustainEveryone.com

A Shirf Towards Ecological Agriculture — February 20, 2018

A Shirf Towards Ecological Agriculture

The way we view the world is often a reflection of the paradigm of the day, that is the deepest set of beliefs and assumptions a culture has about any given topic at any moment in time. Needless to say, paradigms do shift over time to create the unique circumstance we see on a daily basis, and sometimes this happens rather quickly.

IMG_2960
The new shift in thinking seems to be towards sustainable urban food production. Photo taken at AgTechX @matt_horgan

Paradigm shifts: Thinking in cycles not lines

One paradigm of today seems to be the perception of our lives as a series of linear processes. We seem to idolize cause and effect relationships whenever possible in daily life and tend to view most of our experiences through this narrow lens without analyzing the entire picture.

dog.jpg

However, thinking of systems in terms of lines tends to be characteristically more predictable and simpler, while systems as cycles are naturally more complex.

natures cycle2
Nature’s Cycle by Virginia Lee 2001  

Shift towards interconnectedness

A personal shift in assumptions I experienced was while I was taking an ecological agriculture class during my time at SUNY Binghamton. My perception of self shifted from the individual, separate self to a more interconnected sense of identity.

muir

Ecological Agriculture: Nature as model

Ecological agriculture is a term used to describe a type of farming that raised food without any chemical or synthetic fertilizers, to create an agricultural system that mimicked ecological systems that sustain in nature.

Screen Shot 2018-02-20 at 3.26.55 PM.png
By: permacultureprinciples.com

The general trend in agriculture since 1950 has been towards large-scale industrial farms that use synthetic fertilizers and chemical fertilizers, but a recent surge in interest in local, organic produce by consumers is causing a paradigm shift in the way we consume and produce food.

Ecological agriculture can be seen in the increased interest in urban farming in recent years. By incorporating sustainable food systems into the built environment, we can improve food security in urban environments.

Screen Shot 2018-02-20 at 2.32.14 PM.png
Sky Vegetables February 2018 By @matt_horgan

We can also use underutilized spaces, like basements, to produce food on land to support the health and to educate our local communities
An example of a hydroponic food system, and what my neighbor calls a “permaponic system”, is seen below (Top: after 6 weeks/Bottom: the before picture).

before:after.jpg
By @matt_horgan

The potential for ecological agriculture to foster a more harmonious coexistence between human beings and the earth, as well as the practical implications for food security and positive impact on local economies leads me to think that this will become ever more present in our city in the near future.

Screen Shot 2018-02-20 at 2.44.51 PM.png
By @matt_horgan While walking to class at CUNY Brooklyn College, I saw this incredible urban food garden someone created on their front lawn 🙂

I look forward exploring ecological agriculture more on this blog in the future 🙂

A Collaborative Space for Urban Farming — February 4, 2018

A Collaborative Space for Urban Farming

The key to success is collaboration: an idea so simple that it is often dismissed by introverts, like myself. It is easier to stay in my comfort zone than to venture out into new environments.

Recently, I couldn’t help but wonder, who else is asking similar questions as me in NYC?

Screen Shot 2018-02-04 at 10.46.02 AM

Specifically, which organizations, if any, were already established in the realm of urban farming here. I searched the internet ambitiously looking for any NYC-based organizations related to this topic. To put it simply, urban farming is the growing of food within cities, usually incorporated into the built environment. (See below image of my neighbor’s hydroponic system in a basement in Queens, NYC).

Screen Shot 2018-02-04 at 10.48.00 AM

Eventually, I came across a class titled ‘Building an Urban Farm Business Plan’ that is run by AgTechX. The founders of AgTechX, Ricky Stephens and Henry Gordon-Smith, are about connecting individuals looking for opportunities “at the intersection of urban agriculture, technology, and sustainability” (https://agtech-x.com/). The Co-lab they run in Brooklyn provides a space for those of us interested in getting involved in urban farming in NYC and holds classes in hydroponics and aquaponics. Members work to build a more sustainable food system right here in the dense urban jungle of NYC.

Finally, I imagine myself working somewhere at the intersection of sustainable food and education in the near future, and the team at AgTechX is a great place for me to meet people who could, at the very least, point me in the right direction.

See below a picture of hydroponic systems over at AgTecX’s Co-lab in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

IMG_2577 copy

After my trip over to Brooklyn this week, I’m inspired to see a group of dedicated and passionate young people interested in urban farming. In the coming weeks, I am going to explore the classes given by the team at AgTechX with the intention to learn more about the logistics of hydroponic and aquaponics systems in NYC. This will also be an ideal way to connect with like-minded individuals in this emerging field.

To learn more about the collaboration among the urban farming community in NYC visit:
Website: https://agtech-x.com/
LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/company/agtech-x
Instagram: @agtechx
MeetUp: https://www.meetup.com/AgTech-X-NYC-Meetups/

Follow my Instagram accounts for more urban farming/nature photos:
@matt_horgan @SustainEveryone @Hydroponics_NYC

Relaunch: New Blog Name “Sustain Everyone” — February 1, 2018

Relaunch: New Blog Name “Sustain Everyone”

Hello there! I recently decided to change the name of this blog (Sustainable Future through Food) to Sustain Everyone 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.

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.

Follow me on Instagram 🙂 @Matthew_Gerard_ @Hydroponics.NYC

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.

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.