Find Your Tribe: Community is Key

Some of you may or may not realize, but this is my 18th reflection written for the Sustainability LLC class. Now that’s a lot of reflecting over my past 3 years of major sustainability-themed events/learning that has happened in my time at Mason thus far. But recently, I have been considering more so what sustainability is in the broader scheme of things. How does it come to be? What are the best methods in which it can be attained? Because throughout my 3 years of taking the LLC class along with other environmentally themed classes, you kinda get the gist of how humans are destroying a lot of the planet’s resources, health, and well-being. But now I’d rather think of solutions and hope rather than the negativity that surrounds the field of environmental work.

Which brings me to the impact that the Sustainability LLC has brought me. I think in a lot of ways, we are part of that solution. When you live in a community that has so much passion towards helping the planet and the exchange of knowledge in how to do so is frequent, one can’t help but start to engrain these ideas into your mind and soon implement them into your life. Humans are such social beings, and community based learning is the fastest and most effective way to learn and adopt lifestyle changes. I found a home within the Sustainability LLC my freshmen year and coming from a school that didn’t have that kind of community concerned about the environment, it’s completely refreshing to find my tribe through the LLC.

By having a community like the LLC, I have become so much more aware of how I can make a greater impact on campus. This is through the semester-long projects, the guest speakers, and the service trips that we have taken. I have become knowledgeable about so many entities that incorporate sustainability on campus and in the NOVA/DC region. While I already have stretched my efforts thin in what I can personally be involved in through sustainability on campus, I enjoy telling others how they can simply reduce their impact or get involved on campus. I often wonder what people are really doing in their daily lives to make a difference. You know the cheesy saying “Be the change you wish to see in the world”? Well how many people can really say that they are contributing to that goal each day or each week? I think the members of the Sustainability LLC are those change-makers by educating themselves on these issues and taking what they know into the broader community. And knowing that your tribe has your back, supports your goals, or even joins you in creating that change, allows you the confidence to move forward and thrive.

So I thank all the Sustainability LLC members, past, present, and future for the inspiration they have given me through their passion, the knowledge they have bestowed me, and the wonderful memories we have spent together on and off Piedmont 2nd. We are/can be the change-makers of this campus and beyond. Go out and make a difference together.

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Help Yourself, Serve Others

In my Introduction to Environmental Policy class, we watched a documentary titled Burning the Future: Coal in America. And I have seen documentaries touching this issue before but it basically talks about the coal mining industry in West Virginia, its huge influence, and the impact it brings to the communities that have been living there for generations. I have known about the problem of mountaintop removal for many years now but it was another wake-up call to see this documentary of people who don’t live that far away from us and to see how they suffer every day because of the coal companies. They are destroying natural landscapes that have been there for thousands of years, all to contaminate the drinking water sources of these rural populations. And it brought the thought of the fear that I would feel if I had to live somewhere like that. Their homes that have been passed down through generations are nearly under attack. It comes in the form of coal ash that intrudes their breathing air and surrounds their homes. It comes in the form of the contaminated water flowing out of their faucet, forcing them to haul water from safer sources, most likely paying premiums on them. It even comes in the form of blasts heard from the destruction of their homeland. Their livelihoods are changing because of these coal companies that don’t even provide much employment to the residents in those areas.

If there is one environmental issue to ever focus on, it has to be this one. We always hear about how developing nations are in need of clean drinking water and they need our HELP. But actually, living right next to the state in where the same injustice is occurring, we have no excuse in turning the other way. Cleaner technologies need to be invested in now to drive these old coal industries to bankruptcy. Our government must not allow these companies to set their agenda for them and not address these citizens’ concerns. Our closest neighbors are suffering and each and every person should be making their grievances to be heard about it. However in the world of environmental justice, or any social justice, we must not act as their saviors. We don’t know what it is like to have water inaccessible to us, to have our simplest form of sustenance to be taken from us. We don’t know what it is like to wake up from the blasts of our backyard landscape, or find your home covered in ash. This is why we must have a mindset of SERVING a community, not helping. We serve them because they know what is best for their home, not us. And as an environmental advocate, it is not about job security for this field. You want to see a day where you no longer have to serve this community because they brought themselves up thanks to their hard work and dedication. From the documentary, we see how strong these justice leaders are in these rural areas and they are not giving up. We can all bring awareness, we have nothing to lose. This is how these issues can be set on the political agenda.

Burning the Future: Coal in America- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kQPYKD4WGew

 

Eco-Ninjas Beware!

I recently read a post from my favorite, and possibly only one I follow, sustainability blogger: Sustainability In Style. She made a post regarding the repentance and averageness of the same old ways people are told to be more eco-friendly; such as using reusable bags, turning off the lights, and recycling. These things are easy to advertise, simple to do, and most even have financial incentives now in some states of the U.S. These are the things most people are bombarded with and this is what only comes to mind when some people think of modern environmentalists. So she wanted to outline some other uncommon ways people can be more sustainable in their daily lives.

I personally related to one of them immediately as I had an experience very similar to the one she was describing. It was about refusing extra packaging or unnecessary items that an ‘Eco-Ninja’ might not want. For instance, at GMU we have a big number of fast-food places that automatically think you want to take your food to-go even though there is seating available at the space. One time at Panda Express, I asked to have the order for dine-in, not to-go, yet they put my food in a Styrofoam container, in a plastic bag, with plastic utensils to boot. I was very frustrated as all this plastic was to waste and I didn’t even have a choice! Styrofoam is one of the worst kinds of plastics and it can no longer be recycled because of the food content. I didn’t need a bag since I was going to dine-in. And I intended to eat there, so I brought my own reusable silverware. All of this could have been avoided if I had a say in my own meal.

This made me think about the multiple systems that are put in place for us as humans, where things are automatically done for us. It is sad to think that this had become so automatic for them to use this unnecessary plastic for every customer, regardless of their potential to make more eco-conscious decisions. And this also upset me for the lack of choices our society and its set systems have for us. We have become easier to manage and control through these set systems to continue the ‘status quo’ that unfortunately means degrading our environment as well. For those who are already more eco-conscious, it is appreciative when we have more of a choice as to what we actually receive with our products bought. The provider may think of it as a nicer gesture to provide these things, but then when I refuse the extra, I don’t want to be looked at as odd for my decision as well. Do I actually need this receipt? No. Do I really even need a straw with this drink? Nope. More choices in how people can experience services may just make people think more about what they really need, rather than automatically getting the environmentally degrading option.

Sustainability In Style blog post: http://sustainabilityinstyle.com/top-tips-to-be-an-eco-ninja/

 

Time is of The Essence (De-convenience Your Life)

As I try to strive towards the more sustainable lifestyle over the past few years, I learn to pick my battles. I have become more educated in the externalities and negative ecological impacts involved in our everyday actions and choices. There are those times when I have to consciously choose whether to follow the path of convenience or that of more time & effort. The American society and what is expected of us leads to adopt a life of fast pace. It is funny how it is a life of doing more but only those actions that may lead us to assumingly more money. However it also leads us to a life of doing less, the actions that may be better for our actual well-being. Fewer actions that require our bodies, more actions that require machines. This is how sustainability is severely crippled in our country and the modern era.

For example, do I choose to use the dryers or use a drying rack? Do I choose to use the elevator or take the stairs even though I am carrying things or might be running late to something? Do I use paper towels when cleaning or reusable rags to wash? Obviously the more sustainable options have been laid out in these scenarios but when one has more things that occupy their time, they make these choices harder. But how we usually occupy our time ends up being for some way to make money or be part of some systematic tools that have been laid out for us through this society. These are things that include going to school, committing to other obligations like clubs or jobs that will ‘look good’, to get a job, to make more money. And at the end of it, you don’t feel happy anyways as you remember you were just rushing towards making more money for you to live a more comfortable life with little considerations towards the actions you could have been doing in your everyday life that would have made for a more fulfilling impact.

I challenge those to de-convenience their lives. In ways, you will learn the effort it takes to do some actions, you will become more mindful, and appreciate those things much deeper. By doing this, you make the invisible, visible again. Our society’s processes and procedures shroud a curtain over how things are done to make us abide by the unsustainable systems. We do because that is all we know. But when you figure out how to do things, make things, instead of just ordering it with free shipping online or walking into a fluorescently lighted Wal-Mart, you see what really goes into precious processes that have been taken for granted if obtained otherwise. However with the pressure from society to do so much so fast, if you fail, you are seen as left in the dust. So I am left to choose, with the two lifestyles pulling me in two different directions.

Yet we can’t look at sustainability as a sacrifice.. Actions that are good for the Earth, are also good for you. Because we are a part of it, we have to be to live. Even when you are doing these actions as a community, you take more pride in it. It doesn’t seem as hard to decide on which path to take if those around you can help you on your goals. Sustainability is really more so about simplifying things. “The hardest thing to do is simplify your life, it’s so easy to make it complex” as said in the documentary 180 degrees South. And from the words of Gandhi, “Live simply that others may simply live”. By living ‘simply’, you see how things work, the effort put into it, and how it affects others and the planet from first-hand experience.

As Seen By Ranger Em

During this past summer, I had the pleasure of working at Leesylvania State Park, a local State Park right in my hometown of Woodbridge, Virginia. While applying, I had a couple of options of where I would like to be placed for a position in the park. One was working in the park store, and the other was Maintenance Ranger. So instead of being cooped up in a building all day, I decided I wanted to be outside all the time and work hard as a Maintenance Ranger. Judging by some of the questions they asked me in my interview started to worry me. Asking me about my experience in electrical and plumbing work was zero to none, but I said I was willing to learn. Luckily, I ended up not having to do anything like that while employed there.

Most of my work included cleaning bathrooms and changing trash bags during the weekends since that was when it was most busy. And during the weekdays would be our hard working days of weed-whacking, mowing, cleaning boat launch ramps, pressure washing, mulching, weeding, and picking up PLENTY of litter off the ground. Working there really gave me the idea of how much work is really put into maintaining a park that no one really ever sees. From what I thought, a park is how it naturally is, letting nature take its course. While for trails, that may be truer, but for the more public land and picnic areas, there is a lot to take care of as more people use them. Every weekend would be packed with people, no parking spots left and every picnic area filled to the brim. While I was glad to see more people being out in nature and using it for recreation, it seemed like it still didn’t make that connection of protecting it while there. While picking up trash on the shoreline of the Potomac River that the park sits on, I found all kinds of things just left there to be washed away, including diapers even! This is really no wonder why I heard that you could only eat a couple of fish from the river a year or else it might adversely affect your health due to the bio-accumulation of chemicals in your body from the fish that are caught there. Yet I see numerous fishermen coming back week after week to take home some food for their family. There are more implications towards why they do this action. Maybe they do this because it is cheaper and cannot afford safer, healthier food, but it is hurting their family in the long run.

Another aspect that was emphasized to me while working there was the abundant waste of food and packaging. Picnics and parties are the biggest waste generators and what’s worse is that it’s in a park, where trash can destroy habitats, wildlife, and natural cycles. I have seen perfectly good food being thrown away or whole cans of soda or water being left like trash. Plastic packaging is a serious epidemic. I couldn’t count how many little plastic straw wrappers I have had to pick up there. I even found packaging for a limbo pole once. I can’t even imagine why anyone on Earth would first off BUY a limbo pole, nevertheless have packing for one. And don’t even get started on recycling, it is a joke! The park’s initiative in having recycling bins and waste diversion stations was a great idea, but people don’t have enough sense to know what they’re putting in what, so the streamline gets highly contaminated and it’s all ended up being thrown away in the end.

….But I digress..

Working at the park was sometimes a real heart breaker in terms of seeing humans and their utter ignorance towards their actions and the very same environment they come to for enjoyment. Even some of my co-workers shared that ignorance as they litter themselves, even if they might be the same person picking it up a week later when they’re assigned to do that. I think this is because they see how much trash is around, which makes them think there is no point anyways but to do the same. This is most discouraging to see that even the people who need to clean up for other people’s actions, don’t change their behavior as well. In the end, I really did enjoy most of the people I worked with as well and gained a lot of insight to different aspects of park operations. Yet people who work for parks should be hired to have more education and appreciation for natural settings to lead others in example through behavior and implement programs in the park that will make people consider their impact more.

Future Green Ambassadors?

As I was thinking of a new project idea for this class, I wanted to try and start up something new for George Mason University. It would more so be focusing on the cultural/social aspect of being more sustainable as a university. And this would affect not only on-campus students, which is where most projects fall under since it is easier of a scope and to advertise towards.

My idea was to create the position of a ‘Green Ambassador’ for all Registered Student Organizations (RSO) at Mason. This person would be kind of like another executive position of the RSO. This person would then be responsible for ‘greening’ any events that an RSO does. They would go through some kind of informational meeting to learn about different sustainability initiatives on campus and access to different resources that can help their RSO have more sustainable habits. This would be either for meetings, events, etc. that the RSO holds. For example, the officer with the Green Ambassador position could provide reusable cups at meetings, could coordinate having recycling bins at events held, or give insight for different service opportunities for the RSO to do in the gardens on campus. A staff member of the Office of Sustainability could be in charge of holding those meetings and passing on information to them.

On and off campus students are part of RSO’s, so this would be reaching more students. This positon could even be made mandatory so someone from an RSO has to at least hear the information about sustainability resources at one point. This will help students as well by giving them an opportunity to have a leadership position that can go on their resume. And as I personally have seen, there are more environmental-focused major students out there than I thought as I move up higher into my core classes. Obviously not all are part of the LLC on campus, but they are still interested and passionate about sustainability. And they definitely have other interests/activities around campus that they are involved with. This way they can combine those interests while educating others around them. And peer education is much more trusted than authority education.

The problem I have with this is that I think the Office of Student Involvement would be very set in their ways with how RSOs are set up, so they would not be open to the idea of adding a new position, especially towards sustainability. I think I would need to scope the position in a way that would benefit them more. Thoughts?

But again, I think the scope of this project is extending eco-conscious ideas to more students, giving other students an opportunity to test their leadership abilities in their field, and as the implementation of more sustainable practices in different entities grow, the culture of sustainability can start to thrive as well.