Archive for the ‘Energy’ Category

Social Learning Summit 2011: Going Green on the Social Web

This past weekend, The Social Media Club of American University hosted a profoundly educational event on my (alma mater, American University’s) campus, the Social Learning Summit. It was the first of its kind to take place at a university and ended up being hugely successful, in my opinion.

When Alex Priest reached out a few months back to see if I would be interested in speaking, I was honored. I joined a panel focused essentially on the question, “How can social media be used to communicate science with the public?” or…simply put,  “How can social media make science cool?”

Fellow panelists and I (@ProfRubega, @GreenAU, @starfocus, @JLVernonPHD) ended up touching on some fantastic points, from the non-profit perspective, to the professor’s perspective to the agency perspective.

While jotting down some notes during the panel, I found the following to be the most interesting which stood out to me as the ways different groups/organizations/individuals best utilize social media in their communications around science :

  • The viral nature of the Internet: Good vs. evil – The ability for things to go “viral” on the web is exactly what some companies are looking for, particularly nonprofits that don’t often have the means for the paid media to get messages out there. But for some, particularly pharmaceutical companies, this can have a negative edge in that in can keep companies from engaging with certain groups, e.g, if a biopharma company doesn’t want to put out a message that could be misconstrued by investors, so they end up avoiding all outreach with advocacy groups in general, for fear that one message might spread very quickly, to the wrong audiences.
  • Just try it and see if it works vs. baby-step approach – It should be obvious where pharmaceutical communicators fall more often than not: definitely in the baby-step approach category. But for (some) nonprofits and most educators, the idea of diving right in and trying a novel way of using social media to get students engaged (Professor Rubega actually assigned her students to “tweet about the birds around them” and ended up encouraging them to connect dots and explore their environment in ways she had never seen before), is actually the best way to get over the hurdle of fear and see faster results. Sometimes success can come in a sprint, and sometimes in a marathon.
There are definitely some ways that nonprofits, agencies and educators alike can all learn from one another. For example, all science-based organizations, from biotechs to nonprofits advocacy groups to universities, need to use approaches that make the science more personal and relatable. They also should remember that at the end of the day, the earned media that can often result from social media outreach is outstanding from an economic standpoint. However I thought the points above were important reminders that the reality is, the blanket approach cannot and will probably never work if you really want to accomplish your intended educational or communications-related goals.
In the meantime though, it’s inspirational to learn from each other, because perhaps it’s just the kind of insight we need to overcome our own stumbling blocks in the future.

What many environmentalists haven’t learned: economics says personal action drives change

Lester Brown, if you ever read this, it is not meant to be a personal attack. I find you to be an exceptionally influential person in the field I care so deeply about. However, I felt compelled to use what I noticed about your visit to AU to talk about an issue that I have wanted to express for a while, and that is the importance of personal responsibility and individual action and how those coincide with one’s future aspirations.

I wrote this blog entry a couple weeks ago

…but never posted it because I wanted to cool down and look back on what I wrote a little later to see if I was just fired up or if I was maybe on to something.

And I think I was on to something.

The purpose of the following entry is not to bash the Baby Boomer generation, although it does hint at that in places. It is not to say, “Hey! You got us into this mess! You help us figure it out!” Far from this, it is meant to serve as a way to empower members of my generation, it is meant to help us understand that we each, in our own lives, hold more power than any corporation and any politician does. We have a wallet, we have knowledge, we have the freedom to use both as we wish. But most important of all, and forgive me for sounding trite, but we have each other.

As Barbara Kingsolver said in her commencement address to Duke in 2008, during what I consider the greatest piece of advice that someone could give our generation:

“You can be as earnest and ridiculous as you need to be, if you don’t attempt it in isolation. The ridiculously earnest are known to travel in groups. And they are known to change the world.”


And so this a variation of what I had written that night, when I came home downtrodden and–I’ll admit, almost near tears (OK, maybe I was just having a rough week…):


Lester Brown and the Dasani bottle and why I got so mad

Last night, I heard Lester Brown speak on campus. For those of you who don’t know who he is (I didn’t until the event) he’s the author of over 50 books on global environmental issues, he’s the founder of the Worldwatch Institute, the Earth Policy Institute, and basically the inventor of the term “sustainable development,” (evidently, a legacy he wishes to renounce, saying that we have a “language problem” in this movement and instead should use the phrase, “saving civilization.”)

And guess what? He’s 86 years old, which is pretty impressive.

But here’s a couple other things about his talk:

  1. He drank from a McDonald’s cup during the first half of the presentation.
  2. He drank from a Dasani bottle the second half.
  3. He quietly slipped away to take a cab home (he lives in D.C.) after answering three questions out of swarms of students who were dying just to shake his hand.
  4. He appeared to have done so partly because his books, which were meant to be at the reception after for people to buy, never arrived. (Which appeared to have been some sort of dealbreaker?)

(First, let me just say he isn’t the first environmental activist who I have seen speak who does all of these things, so I’m not singling him out. I am merely using him to make a point. And yes, I am sure he was just given the Dasani by someone at KPU or whoever. But if you were speaking on such a topic, wouldn’t you have said, “Sorry, I have my own bottle–mind refilling it at that water fountain?”)

These four seemingly innocuous actions stood out to me more than anything he said throughout the hour he spoke.

We, (and by we I mean the younger generations, say, everyone under forty or so)—we, the ones born into the “Age of Irony,” are the ones that quite literally must change things. We must pick up the pieces of the broken systems our grandparents left us with. Our lives, and most certainly our children’s lives, depend on it, according to statistics. A couple such statistics:

“By 2025, there will be no glaciers left in Glacier National Park.”

“Our population may only stabilize before 10 billion people because at that point the mortality rate will begin rising steadily due rising levels of hunger.”

I could rattle off others, but you’ve heard them all before.

Brown raised a point in his talk about how economists need to learn ecology. He said, “The World Bank uses all kinds of economic models to predict and explain trends. Why haven’t they looked at our growing population and asked, ‘How will we feed these people?'”

I don’t disagree, but there are also way too many ecologists out there who don’t understand basic economics. And I mean, basic. They might understand advanced economic theories. But they don’t seem to understand the concept that communities bound by solid belief systems, even just one, can change things. Living by a principle, when that principle is shared by a group, can change things. We’re currently seeing an example of this in one New Jersey community who is setting a precedent with a group of businesses who are pledging to stop selling and using products that have the endocrine-disrupting chemical triclosan in them (OK, maybe I used this for-instance because I wrote the press release and pitched the press conference that announced this to the media…) But, this is just one for-instance. There are countless others.

We can use a basic law of economics to create social change and influence more environmentally beneficial behaviors. It’s quite simple:

  1. people refuse to buy products that harm the environment
  2. they tell their friends
  3. issue campaigns promote education even further
  4. companies must create products that don’t harm the environment
  5. those that fail to evolve based on consumer demand can’t keep up in the marketplace.

The environmentally-conscious companies thrive, the environment thrives, humans thrive. It’s basic economics and it’s basic environmental morality.

If you participate in the easily avoidable actions that are driving our problems (ahem, drinking bottled water), you are subscribing to the idea that your actions don’t mean as much as some other person’s. In reality, it is the sum of our individual actions that drive change.

It’s easy for people like Lester Brown to stand before an audience of twenty-somethings and say to them, “Look at these problems which were set on course over a hundred years ago! They must be fixed! Here is this puzzle, please solve it and while you do, I am going to tell you about all the statistics of this dire situation.”

And yet, with a Coca-Cola bottle in hand. Talk about taking Ghandi’s everlasting, “Be the change you want to see in the world,” and just tossing it right in the garbage.

How can the leaders of this movement expect to inspire us to change if they are still doing the same old messy things? And perhaps more importantly, how can we expect the people who scream, “You’re a crazy fascist for threatening to take away my bottled water” to take this movement seriously when its leaders are drinking bottled water as they speak before us, preaching principles of conservation?

Final point: This wasn’t all just about a Dasani bottle. If you thought that it was, I apologize for not having been able to make my point clearer through this extended metaphor of sorts.


My take-away message

I submitted a speech to AU’s School of Communication for our commencement ceremony a couple months back. I wasn’t chosen but they seemed to like mine and a couple others enough to have our messages up as runners-up (take a look if you love that mushy stuff…self-promo #2…reaching my limit, aren’t I?).

But, here is what my advice would’ve been more like if my speech didn’t need to be SOC-oriented:

“Don’t think about thirty years from now in terms of where you will be career-wise. Don’t think about which organization you will be working at, trying to fix our broken world. Instead, think of the organizations that will have wrapped up their work because there is no longer a need for them. Dream up a world where there is no Worldwatch Institute, because our commonly held beliefs finally came to unite us, so we were compelled to take up different efforts on our own, to watch out for the world and each other in our own lives, no longer requiring an institute to facilitate. Imagine a world where we don’t need organizations to rattle off statistics. Imagine there were no statistics to report.

Even better, imagine living out these statistics…

  • living modestly, in a neighborhood where you grow most of your food within a few miles
  • being part of a community that is self-sustaining because that is what makes people happiest and because that is what makes the most sense
  • having a child who learns about what your generation endured and how it was able to turn things around
  • writing a book, and then having it available online (or whatever the current technology called for! On the current “iPads”?)
  • being part of a generation, a community, that was constantly learning to evolve.

And imagine how much better life would be.”

I know we’re not there yet, remotely, but these “far-fetched” dreams are important. They keep us positive and positivity restores our faith that what we do, here and now, actually matters. It all matters.

How positively overwhelming that is. How positively empowering, too, right?

Bill McDonough’s “Cradle to Cradle” redesigns how we think about sustainability

Rewriting our design assignment

“And to use something as elegant as a tree?
Imagine this design assignment:
Design something that
makes oxygen,
sequesters carbon,
fixes nitrogen,
distills water,
makes complex sugars and foods,
changes colors with the seasons,
and self-replicates.
…and then why don’t we knock that down
and write on it?”
~ William McDonough




Here is what Bill McDonough proposes is our ultimate design assignment.

Circles & triangles

Last night was a bit of a “full circle moment” for me, not only as a student learning about environmental issues and sustainability, but as a citizen of the world. I got to meet a hugely influential person in my life, Bill McDonough, author of Cradle to Cradle (co-authored by Michael Braungart). I first read this book when I was 19 years old and staying on Nantucket with a family I nannied for. I went in a bookstore in town with the kids and they were giving away copies of it for free.

Hm. I thought. Well, that’s interesting. And I’m not one to turn down anything that is free. This book was also so smooth, pretty, different from other books (it’s made of polypropylene paper, is 100% recyclable, is more durable, has pages that don’t wrinkle/tear, and iswater-proof). I read it in three trips to the beach and ever since then, I’ve been interested in sustainability. I had never read anything like it before. It taught me the backstory of why we are where we are today (a rudimentary concept—the industrial revolution brought us here—but at the time, I knew next to nothing about this.) But it also made me think. It made me look around and see the way we do things and ask myself, “But wait, why don’t we do it this way, and then we don’t have to this problem or that problem AND we get this benefit and that benefit.”

Basic case in point: You can carry your groceries home in reusable bags, because they reduce unnecessary waste and buildup of plastic in our landfills and ecosystems. But you can also carry your groceries home in reusable bags, because carrying heavy objects over your shoulders makes your life easier and prevents loaded plastic bags from cutting off the circulation in your fingers as you carry them.

Just that story of how I came upon this book sort of mirrors exactly what Bill is all about: for me, a free book changed my life. Cradle-to-cradle design isn’t about making things more expensive or more difficult or less fun or less aesthetically pleasing or less loving. It’s not even about creating equitable and ecologically friendly ways of doing things in ways that fail to promote economic growth. He believes in the importance and power of the economy, equity, ecology as they can co-exist and work together. This is a relatively well-known concept in the field of development and the first thing we talked about in my Environment & Development class this year, but it’s not a balance often achieved in design.

Benefits of a cradle-to-cradle approach within food systems


  • More local agricultural jobs, less power concentration in hands of CEO’s/more in hands of people => more jobs, more money in the hands of people
  • More vibrant local economies => less hunger, less sickness, less violence
  • More vibrant local economies => more vibrant cultural activity => thriving people


  • Less soil nutrient depletion and erosion
  • More places for species to live and thrive, instead of less
  • Less waste, less use of packaging, less transportation/fuel needed, less carbon dioxide emitted => more up-cycling => best use of natural resources => healtheir ecosystems => survival of all species


  • Better food security and food access due to independence from industrial food systems elsewhere & less disparity between the have’s of fresh, local food and the have-not’s with processed, unhealthy foods
  • Better tasting, healthier, less processed, more nutrient rich, less pesticide/harsh chemical-laden food
  • Healthier people => happier people

Drawbacks to a cradle-to-cradle approach within food systems

Yeah. Cost-benefit analyze that one. Which is sort of the whole idea. If there is a drawback, it’s not really cradle-to-cradle design.

“The God is in the details”

The really fabulous thing for me and other American University students, is that Bill is the architect that designed our new School of International Service building. And he did so in a way that combined these three benefits, saying that, “the God is in the details.” Meaning that all of the parts that make up the whole of this transparent, innovative, progressive building, “where people can dream,” are working together in their own way, in a good way, to make things “more good,” instead of “less bad”. From the 100% recyclable carpeting and other building materials to the waste management system, from the rain collectors and solar panels on the roof to the underground parking garage that gives priority parking first to cyclists (and has shower rooms available for them), then motorcyclists, then hybrid vehicles, and last, other vehicles.

I had a few questions I would have loved to ask Bill, but I chose something specific, “Are there any plans in place to evolve other buildings on campus?” The short answer from the dean was basically, “There sure will be. We need funding first.” Which gets back to that triangle corner of economy. If it’s not economically viable, it doesn’t fit the cradle-to-cradle design question:

But the economic viability aspect is also a huge asset to cradle-t0-cradle design, and to agribusiness in general, simply because this is what businesses and corporations are solely interested in. So in order to convince them, all the “cradle-to-cradle minded” designer needs to do is convince them that they will save money, or that they will be able to make more money, and then they are basically obligated to embrace it. It would go against the basic law of capitalism not to.

Cradle-to-cradle is the sort of design model that we need to use for our food production AND our food waste upcycling in our cities, because one cannot exist in a well-designed system without the other. Local food production via green roofs, composting in homes and buildings, using that compost on the green roofs of the homes and buildings–this isn’t rocket science, it’s just, as Bill would say, interesting.

In one of my next entries I will go over some of these “details” in more detail, and talk about how they can work together to encompass sustainably designed and developed food systems within cities and habitats for humans and all other life.

Evolving design

The most important thing to remember is that that doesn’t mean cradle-to-cradle design is ever perfect. In fact, McDonough recognizes it is not ever perfect. Really, design must be constantly evolving as different methods and technologies become more economically viable and approaches are made more equitable while still remaining ecologically beneficial. What works now will have to work better in the future.

Just like all organisms must evolve to survive, so must humans, and so must the systems that we create and rely on.

After all…

“Sustainability takes forever. And that’s the point.” – William McDonough

Making connections: sustainable development panel a success

OK so I have been meaning to post about the health care bill for, well, since it was passed. But a lot has been going on. Some not very fun things have been going on. Everything is a little overwhelming and this blog has been taking the back burner.

Photo Credit: Phillip Ochs

Photo Credit: Phillip Ochs

Photo Credit: Phillip Ochs

However, I have also been busy with things that are great. Over the past week or two, a couple classmates and I planned and executed a fantastic panel discussion with John Wanda, founder of the Arlington Academy of Hope, Nicole Hewitt of the Institute for Sustainable Communities, and Andrea Bachmann, who organized an alt break trip to Colombia. The best part about the event aside from our three amazing speakers, was the connection that one of the students in the audience made with John Wanda about solar ovens. Recently, there was a tragic landslide in Uganda that buried over 400 people. These sorts of landslides are often a result of flooding in areas that have been deforested. The areas have been deforested largely because there is no electricity, and electricity is used to power ovens. One student shared information about solar ovens, which use the power of the sun to heat up an oven to 200-350 degrees, making for a sustainable method for heating food without having to deforest. We are going to see if we can organize something on campus with a solar oven cook-off.

Photo Credit: Phillip Ochs

Very exciting developments. I love passionate people. And I love the power of conversation. It was a really beautiful thing to see those connections happening.

Stay tuned for my HCR post soon 😉

List: Why Valentine’s Day is awkward for me and bad for the planet

Here’s a fun post for today, because it’s almost V-Day and I know that makes some people depressed. (Not me.)

Now, I don’t like to be one of those people that thinks Valentine’s Day is great when I have a boyfriend and thinks it’s stupid when I don’t. Because I am not that kind of person. I’ll be honest, Valentine’s Day has always been a little weird for me. And I have no shame, so here’s my story.

One Valentine’s Day, when I was probably in about third grade, my older sister, who was about 14 at the time, was watching as I made my Valentines for the class. She looked at my photo of the class and pointed out this boy named Spencer, who was the kid in class with a year-round cold who looked like he never saw the light of day. She really wanted to send him a Valentine, from her. So I said OK. And I don’t know if I realized this beforehand or not, but she had written, “Love, your secret admirer” on it–so the next day when everyone took out all their valentines, there’s Spencer with his “Secret Admirer” valentine, which just so happened to be on the same Mickey & Minny Mouse valentines set as the rest of mine were. So for the rest of the year, everyone in the class thought I had a crush on the kid with the perpetual stuffy nose.

In high school, I think I went on one date for Valentine’s Day. To a pizza place I believe? I assume so, as there are no other kinds of restaurants in the town I grew up in. I don’t remember much, but it was most certainly awkward.

My freshman year of college, I received two dozen roses from no one. As in, no one signed the card. I was so excited, until I found out my boyfriend at the time didn’t send them. I asked him over and over again to tell me if he had sent them, for real. He hadn’t (and looking back, I don’t know why I didn’t believe him, the schmuck.) Then, sophomore year, the exact same thing happened, different colored roses this time. Only I was single, so I was even more confused. But oh well! Anonymous roses, how romantically frustrating. Then, last year, my Valentine’s Day was effectively spent saying good-bye to my boyfriend at the time, as I was leaving for Australia literally the next day. So very bittersweet and again, awkwardly emotional.

In conclusion, Valentine’s Day just never works out for me. And I would argue Valentine’s Day goes beyond just putting me in awkward situations, it really does much more of a disservice to the environment than if we were to celebrate February 14th as another regular day.

Oh, Cupid, how bad art thee for the planet and its people? Let us count the ways…

  1. Wasteful use of paper – According to the Greeting Card Association, (let’s just pause for a moment here, THE GREETING CARD ASSOCIATION!? Is that REALLY necessary?!)…ahem, excuse me. According to the “GCA,” over 1 billion Valentine’s Day cards are sent worldwide each year. I don’t know how many trees would have to be cut down to produce 1 billion cards, but I bet heaps. And yes, I just checked, the GCA really does exist. And they have a “.org”
  2. Purchasing/supporting of blood diamond industry – Men often want to propose on Valentine’s Day (can you say “unoriginal”?). And I am going to venture out on a limb and say if you are the kind of guy that is going to choose Valentine’s Day to propose, you probably are going to buy your little future Mrs a diamond ring. Now, let’s talk about this for a second, because I have always been really pro-engagement ring and pro-diamonds, and my sister’s boyfriend is always saying how it’s an antiquated tradition and blah-blah women don’t need to sell their ring anymore if their husband dies because women have jobs and are independent. Well, I always just thought he was cheap, but turns out maybe he was just being progressive. I like this piece, because it suggest alternatives to buying a new diamond ring that are less wasteful of the energy it takes to dig up diamond. Not to mention, ever seen Blood Diamond? Yeah, enough said.
  3. Shipping of all those Valentines gifts – Like chocolate. Who would have ever thought about this statistic, but apparently someone figured out that 1,233 locations produced Valentine’s chocolate in 2007, and $14.4 billion is how much it cost to ship all that chocolate. We shouldn’t be eating all that chocolate anyway! Obesity-related medical treatment is costing our nation an extra $147 billion every year!
  4. Roses have to be shipped from far away – People always want to send roses on Valentine’s Day. Which sounds fine, except that most roses are grown in and transported from South America, Africa, and Southeast Asia, which means they are far from local, and you might as well just fly to Buenos Aires for the same carbon footprint you’re making when you buy them. And I don’t know about you, but I would rather fly to Buenos Aires than get some stinky flowers that are going to die in three days. However, there are ways to purchase local organic flowers domestically, which I think is great, but likely much more expensive. In fact, in 2008, $24 million was spent on domestically produced cut roses in. GAWD, we could just not buy roses for each other and donate what we would have spent to Haiti! Or, just do something that is free. Which brings me to my next point…
  5. Unintended pregnancies – People always want to “make whoopie”–as The Newlywed Game would say–on Valentine’s Day. And of course, then they get pregnant and before you know it, we are overpopulating the world. And there are too many people in this world and we are using up resources faster than we can replace them and this is very bad. I sound sarcastic, and in fact I am sort of joking, but I am being totally serious about this problem. If you don’t believe me, you should read the book, Maybe One by Bill McKibben, which I haven’t read yet but I eventually may. It is a book arguing for people to have less children, like maybe just one. There is actually a much larger movement, known as the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement, which I should mention I DO NOT support, but it is something worth reading about. Their basic M.O. is, “Phasing out the human race by voluntarily ceasing to breed.” Though, it would do wonders for the condom industry if it ever caught on (which it won’t).

OK, I hope everyone enjoyed reading my fun little “Cupid is killing our planet” post as much as I enjoyed writing it.

What are you up to this Feb 14? Whatever it is, I hope you’ve been comforted by these facts. Or at the least by my ability to out-awkward any Valentine’s Day story you may have.

Snowmageddon got us good.

It has been one heck of a snowy week, and really, a snowy winter for Washington, DC in general.

Take a look at the pictures I took yesterday during the snowstorm (affectionately termed “snowmageddon,” “snowpocalypse,” “snOMG,” etc. in the Twitter world.)

Sorry folks, ‘snow newspapers today.

Roomie-bestie, Jen

Woman skiing down Connecticut Avenue. Not something you see everyday.

The Post couldn’t deliver print newspapers Saturday because of the snow. I took this Saturday, but you see that the Friday paper is still in the machine.

Again, not something you see everyday: sledding down Connecticut.

For whatever reason, the snow isn’t making me as irate as it used to. I am from Cape Cod, Mass. So I grew up with this much snow basically every winter, no big deal. In fact, on the Cape, if we got 2 feet of snow, we would typically still end up having school. After a while, I began to absolutely loathe the snow. But, what is irritating me about the weather here in DC this winter is that there are a lot of people pulling out the ol’ “What happened to global warming?” card. I’m not just talking about your everyday average idiot that doesn’t know what they are talking about, I am talking about the professional idiots that don’t know what the are talking about.

Check out this (poorly made) video from the Virginia GOP. It basically tries to frame the recent snowstorm as more evidence that global warming isn’t “real,” and therefore more incentive to prevent Obama’s proposed cap-and-trade program from getting through.

Now, if I am being totally honest, I don’t think the cap-and-trade program is perfect. I actually much prefer a carbon tax program. I think it would be a better way to encourage research and development in more sustainable energy technology and would hurt consumers much less financially. However, there will be a price, for everyone. We’ve got a huge hole to crawl out from here.We can either pretend nothing is going on and keep on digging ourselves deeper or do something about it. A carbon tax program would hit companies where it hurts–their pockets. And it will cost consumers too, which again will help to change consumer habits and spending–we will buy more energy-efficient appliances and turn the heat down and buy more fuel-efficient cars, etc. Humans are adaptable. We will figure out how to minimize our financial burden, and consequently minimize the environmental burden on the planet. I don’t think it will be easy at all, but “easy” is what got us into this mess to begin with.

Furthermore, this video encourages the already existing confusion about what global climate change even is. Climate change is NOT about waking up one day and feeling like you are in a sauna. It is much more complex than this, and there are a lot of symptoms of gradual climate change. This Web site is especially helpful and informative. There have been more and more recent phenomena that point to climate change, including but not limited to: ocean warming, sea-level rising, heat waves, droughts, fires, spreading disease (which breeds because of the increasing temperature), earlier arrival of spring, flooding and heavier snowfall.

Furthermore, and perhaps most importantly, if you look out your window and there is snow on the ground, you are seeing WEATHER. It is the winter time, it is supposed to be cold and snowy. So regardless of which way you look at the storm, it is either a possible pocket of evidence for climate change on a grander scale, or it is simply weather.

It is irresponsible, misleading, conniving, and completely asinine for these politicians to try to convince us to “just look around” and know global warming isn’t happening. There are situations across the globe providing evidence for climate change, and maybe this is just one more piece. But one thing is for certain: one isolated snow storm is certainly NOT evidence against it.