The moment the brand hits my skin, I can’t help but think of them. Him cramped in a metal cell, absolutely terrified, the barrel of a gun to his temple. Her crying out as her child is ripped away from her moments after his birth, the third child of hers taken from her this way. And here I lie, face down on the cold earth, my head freshly shorn of its mid-back-length hair, my side literally on fire as the brand melts through layers of my flesh.
I’ve gotten off easy.
Unlike me, they weren’t so lucky. Unlike me, they lost their lives.
In the United States alone, 8.3 billion animals were killed for food in 2012, according to the USDA’s National Agriculture’s Statistics Service. Given this data does not include fish, marine animals, crustaceans, rabbits, other farmed animals, or animals killed for their fur or other “by-products,” this figure is a gross underestimation.
Isaac Bashevis Singer, Jewish Author and Nobel Laureate wrote, “in relation to them [animals], all people are Nazis; for the animals it is an eternal Treblinka.” Theodor Adorno, German Jewish philosopher, sociologist, and musicologist, stated, “Auschwitz begins whenever someone looks at a slaughterhouse and thinks: they are only animals.”
This is a global holocaust beyond the scale of recorded history: In the split second the brand is touching my skin, 263.2 animals in the US and 4,756.5 animals worldwide lose their lives.
It is January 27th, 2013, the day designated by the United Nations as the International Day of Commemoration in Memory of the Victims of the Holocaust. On this day in Iowa City, Iowa, at approximately 8 a.m., I am branded with a steel cattle iron in front of a rusted shed by a desolate railroad track.
On October 2, 2012, three vegan activists in Israel were branded with the number 269 in a public square in Tel Aviv. Having visited an Israeli factory farm and encountered a calf tagged with the industry-given number of 269, these activists had themselves branded in the traditional fire-heated method long employed by the farming industry. The manifesto of their organization 269life, states, “The branding of the calf’s number, chosen by the industry to be ‘269,’ is for us an act of solidarity and immortalization. We hope to be able to raise awareness and empathy towards those whose cries of terror and pain are only heard by steel bars and the blood stained walls of the slaughterhouses.”
I contacted Sasha Boojor, one of 269life’s founders, and discussed the possibility of staging an event in Iowa City. As a resident of Iowa, I am painfully aware that I live in the heart of industrial farming and agriculture. Out of the over 10,000,000 pigs that were slaughtered in November 2012, 2,700,000 of them were killed in Iowa, a total well over two times that of the next highest state.
The center of the United States is the historical source of factory farming as we know it. Born in Chicago in the days of Sinclair’s The Jungle, and “perfected” to a horrific efficiency decades later in Denison, Iowa by Iowa Beef Packers (IBP), assembly-line slaughter is a product of the American Midwest. Henry Ford himself found the inspiration for his automobile factory in the efficiency of a Chicago beef plant.
As with every industry, the faster the line moves, the more product produced, the higher the profit. Only here, “product” is the flesh of living beings, who are “produced” by violent slaughter for profit. The Animal Welfare Act, passed in 1966 and enforced by the USDA, “regulates the care and treatment of warm-blooded animals, except those (such as farm animals) that are used for food, fiber, or other agricultural purposes” [emphasis added]. Coldblooded animals, such as snakes and alligators, are also exempt from the act’s protection.
These are the arbitrary distinctions we make for who deserves safety, for who deserves to live. As a species, we have long drawn hard distinctions between races, genders, classes, and other perceived boundaries within humanity. With time, this hierarchical structure has proved to be arbitrary, abusive, and unjust. How, then, are the distinctions between the human animal and other feeling, sentient animals any more valid, any less arbitrary? Are not they simply the unjust hierarchy of our present day?
The apparent gulf we place between the slaughterhouse and the Holocaust can also be seen as a forced distinction. In his book Eternal Treblinka, Holocaust scholar Dr. Charles Patterson draws connections between our treatment of animals and the Holocaust. He speaks with Holocaust survivors, who tell how their experience of suffering drove them to animal activism.
In the four months of planning for my own branding, I was faced with many challenges. The event was originally supposed to take place in front of the Old Capitol building in downtown Iowa City, now owned by the University of Iowa. Once contacted by the press, the University pulled the permit I had secured in the previous months, stating my event violated their policy against “bodily harm.”
Viewer caution: Scenes in this video may be disturbing.
I also had multiple participants back out of the project altogether. The original individual on board to film the event emailed me one morning saying he was uncomfortable being a part of something during which I would be injured and suffer, and he could not participate any further. There were also legal and real medical concerns that frightened people. In Iowa winter weather, there is always risk of hypothermia and frostbite. And, in all reality, I would be receiving a first-degree burn.
My response to this apprehension and disapproval was, “That is exactly what this event is about!” All the fear and concern for me, for ourselves, for the legal aspects and the possible outrage the event would cause, it was all for an act that is done to millions of animals every day. Why is it so objectionable against the human animal but not them? Their capacity to emote is no less than ours. Does a steer awaiting slaughter not smell the blood and fear of those before him? Does a mother cow not cry out when her child is taken from her moments after birth? Does a baby chick not feel pain as her beak is cut off without anesthesia? Or a young pig as he is castrated while fully conscious? We cannot hear their cries and see their eyes fill with terror and say they are separate from us. Fear is Fear. Blood is Blood. Suffering is Suffering.
I think we should all feel how those who declined to participate and the University officials who pulled my permit felt about this event. Only we should extend this feeling to all the beings who are subjected to this and more every day. What I went through is not even close to a fraction of the horrors the animals experience. I don’t see a distinction between them and myself, save for one crucial difference: I have a choice. I get to go home.
I get to live.
Emily Moran Barwick
Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)
About the Writer
Emily Moran Barwick earned her Master of Fine Arts degree from the University of Iowa in 2012. Read more of Moran’s comments about her branding in the Iowa City Press-Citizen.
Last weekend, climate advocates and activists in more than 180 countries performed in over 2000 showings of what may very well have been the world’s largest production to date: Moving Planet. Billed as “A Day to Move Beyond Fossil Fuels” and built on the backs of tens of thousands of impassioned participants, “energy” was both the central theme and the real star of this show. The production—massive in size and yet purposefully carbon-light—focused on moving our world from dirty energy to clean energy while showcasing the human energy powering the movement.
In keeping with that focus, here in Iowa City, our local production opened with a march and a bike rally, the latter of which consisted of a 3.50-mile route (in honor of the parent production company, 350.org), which featured a brief interlude at The University of Iowa’s Sustainable Energy Discovery District. Passing by the UI’s old coal- and gas-burning power plant (which in recent years has been retrofitted to also burn biomass) and pausing at the university’s new solar EV charging station and wind turbine, the riders reconvened with the marchers in City Park. There they ended their respective journeys and gathered for a celebration at the Riverside Festival Stage.
Looking back, on a day for moving the planet, on a day when all the world truly was a stage, it seems fitting that we staged our local production in a space modeled after Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. To an audience of about 150, our players—educators, entrepreneurs, and elected officials—gave us their monologues, and our musicians sang us their ballads. For those four hours, friends, Iowans, and countrymen lent their ears—and their voices—to a rallying cry for climate change solutions.
And thus concludes Act One. What’s to come in the second and final act? That is yet to be written, and how it all unfolds is entirely up to us. If our work, like the Bard’s, is to stand the test of time, if Moving Planet is to have any lasting effect, we must move from playing at action to becoming agentic actors, fully embodying our roles as climate advocates.
This means not just putting on a show to celebrate the Earth a couple of times a year, but celebrating it every waking hour. This means not only making changes in our own lives, but also working toward the necessary cultural changes and demanding the necessary policy changes. On a more concrete level, this means staying current, continuing to educate ourselves on these changes and speaking up in defense of their necessity, and moreover, in defense of their inherent advantages.
In the U.S., this means contacting our lawmakers to let them know our priorities and writing to our media to spark the discussion. In Iowa, this means attending one or more of the frequent appearances of the presidential candidates and pressing them about climate change and sustainability, asking, for example, how they propose to mitigate the economic, environmental, and human costs of our current dependence on fossil fuels. Wherever we are in the world, this means joining the cause or renewing our commitment to it—seeking out eco-minded individuals and organizations and working together with them to positively effect change.
In this tale, we are both the villain and the hero, both the victim and the victor. Which persona will prevail in the end is yet to be determined. What’s at stake is nothing less than our very survival: “To be, or not to be?” really is the question. Moreover, if we are not just going to survive, but actually thrive, we need to act now, and we need to move quickly.
Moving Planet’s Second Act will determine just what story we’ve been writing here. Will it be your stereotypical Shakespearean drama where everyone dies in the end? Will it be a not-so-funny comedy of errors? A tragedy? Or will it be an epic tale—where the good guys, pitted against seemingly insurmountable challenges, persevere to save their people and their home, and ultimately come out victorious, triumphant, at peace?
A native Iowan, Ryan received his Bachelor’s degrees from The University of Iowa, where he studied psychology, communication, and theatre. He combines this background with his interest in healthcare as a research specialist for the Iowa City VA Health Care System and a communication instructor for The University of Iowa Colleges of Medicine, Dentistry, and Pharmacy.
In his free time he enjoys spending time outdoors, running, cycling, or reading up on wellness and sustainability. He sees personal well-being and planetary well-being as two sides of the same coin.
When candidate Obama came to the Marriott Hotel in Coralville in 2008, an enthusiastic, even joyous, crowd welcomed him to Iowa. I wasn’t a complete believer. But I was, like most in the crowd, infected by the spread of Hope.
Today, I was once again in a crowd of supporters cheering on Barack Obama — now President Obama. This week, he made good on a promise he’d made when he first stumped in Iowa in 2007: He signed into law health care reform.
Since 15,000 people had applied for only 3,000 tickets, I expected that a crowd would be gathered outside of the University of Iowa Field House, where the speech would take place. People representing both the pros and cons of the health care debate stood along the roadside facing the Field House. There was no clear division between them, and I wasn’t always sure from their signs whether they were in favor of the new law or against it.
Health Care for Vets
Two older gentlemen holding a large dove of peace. As this wasn’t an anti-war rally, I was confused by the dove. The man on my right, Bill Wallace, told me they were both veterans. “We didn’t fight for nuthin!” he said. Confused, I asked what he meant by that.
His companion, Dick Shaffer of University Heights, Iowa, said, “A lot of veterans come from the war and don’t have adequate health care.”
Wallace chimed in, “We have excellent health care here at the Veterans Hospital. But we want every veteran to have health care.”
In Support of Health Care
Standing next to the vets were T. Weaver Gullickson and her son, Brian, both holding signs supporting health care reform.
“We couldn’t get tickets, and I wanted to be part of it,” Brian said. “I will exercise my First Amendment right,” he added, holding his sign steady so that I could photograph it.
Next to Brian, Carolyn Anhalt of Washington, Iowa, told a story I hadn’t expected. “I’m in the Shelter House,” she said. “I am in danger in [my] house. So I ran away.” Someone helped her find safety at the local homeless shelter, she explained.
“My friend is a single mom,” Anhalt said. “She told me, ‘The only thing I can afford is food [not insurance].’ I believe everyone is entitled to health care, whether they can afford it or not.”
Don’t Tread on Me
“What do you think about health care reform?” I asked a man carrying a large banner that read, “Don’t Tread on Me.”
“I don’t like it,” he said.
“None of your business,” he replied.
“What’s your name?”
“None of your business.”
“Do you want to talk about why you don’t like the health care law?
So much for that conversation.
Kill Da Bill
Adam Sajewich, a University of Iowa student, was wearing a “Kill Da Bill” sign.
“I don’t believe that we should be giving insurance to the uninsured people who don’t work hard for a living,” he said. (I wondered what he and Anhalt would have to say to each other.)
“When I get out of school, my taxes will be absurdly high.”
He went on to say, “Zero Republicans voted for it, so that should send a message that no one agrees.”
Second-year medical student, Dustin Krutsinger was wearing a white medical coat. His sign read, “Does Obama care cover glasses for the Congress so they can read the Constitution?”
“This is just another thing in a long line of laws that are unconstitutional, coming out of both parties,” he said.
“The fact that Congress is going to make private individuals buy any product from any private company is blatantly unconstitutional.”
“Happy, Happy, Happy”
Inside the Field House, I asked Mae Schatteman, 86, how she feels about the health care law.
“I’m happy, happy, happy!” she said. “The people who didn’t want it will come to the realization a couple years from now that they’ll be glad. And they may need it!”
Her 93-year-old companion, who would only give her name as Eloise, said, “We need it.”
Eloise added, “I’m glad we don’t even have to change what we like. We can keep our own insurance!”
Enter the President
President Obama entered to rousing cheers and applause. He opened his speech with references to local events and the flooding that had devastated the state in 2008. Then he quickly got down to the reason he was here, in Iowa, as his first speech after signing the health care bill into law.
This is the state that believed in our campaign when all the pundits had written us off. This is the state that inspired us to keep going, even when the path was uncertain. And because of you, this is the place where change began.
Three years ago, I came here to make a promise. Just a few months into our campaign, I stood at the University of Iowa hospital right around the corner and promised that by the end of my first term in office, I would sign a health insurance reform bill.
On Tuesday, after a year of debate and a century of trying, after so many of you shared your stories and your heartaches and your hopes, that promise was finally fulfilled. And today, health insurance reform is the law of the land.
President Obama gave credit to the American people for persevering in the fight for health care reform, a fight for coverage despite pre-existing conditions, and a fight against insurance “premium hikes of 40% and 50% and 100%.”
Over the last year, there’s been a lot of misinformation spread about health care reform. There has been plenty of fear-mongering and overheated rhetoric. And if you turn on the news, you’ll see that those same folks are still shouting about how the world will end because we passed this bill. This is not an exaggeration. Leaders of the Republican Party have actually been calling the passage of this bill ‘Armageddon.’
He paused, and surveyed the crowd for effect. Then, with a characteristic wry grin, he said, “After I signed the bill, I looked around to see if asteroids were falling or cracks were opening up in the Earth. Turned out, it was a nice day.” The crowd roared with laughter. He continued,
But from this day forward, all of the cynics and the naysayers will have to finally confront the reality of what this reform is and what it isn’t.
They will have to finally acknowledge that this isn’t a government takeover of our health care system. They will see that if Americans like their doctor, they will keep their doctor. If people like their plan, they will keep their plan. No one will be able to take that away from you.
What this reform does is build on the system of private health insurance that we already have. Will it solve every health care problem we have? No. But it finally tells the insurance companies that in exchange for all the new customers they’re about to get, they have to start playing by a new set of rules that treat everyone fairly and honestly. The days of the insurance industry running roughshod over the American people are over.
The president went on to describe the main features of the health care legislation:
- More “secure and more affordable” insurance for families
- Tax credits of up to 35% for small businesses to provide health insurance for their employees
- Insurance for adults and children with preexisting conditions
- Preventing insurance companies from dropping people who get sick
- No lifetime limits on health care
- Free preventive care
- Young adults being able to stay on their parents’ insurance policy to age 26
- A $250 prescription boost to help seniors who fall into the “donut hole”
- No cuts in seniors’ Medicare benefits
- Free preventive care for seniors, “without deductibles or co-payments”
After outlining the benefits of the new law, President Obama acknowledged that not everyone is happy with it. A young man in the crowd repeatedly shouted out, “What about the public option?”
Mr. Obama stopped and addressed the young man. “We couldn’t get it through Congress,” he explained. “There’s no need to shout. Thirty-two million people will have health care,” he said, and the crowd burst into cheers and applause.
The president went on to acknowledge that the fight is not over.
This is the reform that some folks in Washington are still hollering about. And now that it’s passed, they’re already promising to repeal it. They’re actually going to run on a platform of repeal in November.
My attitude is, ‘Go for it!’ If these Congressmen in Washington want to come here to Iowa and tell small business owners that they plan to take away their tax credits and essentially raise their taxes, be my guest…. If they want to have that fight, I welcome that fight. Because I don’t believe the American people are going to put the insurance industry back in the driver’s seat. We’ve been there already, and we’re not going back. This country is ready to move forward.
And from that point on, we were listening to a campaign speech that was designed more to ramp up the voters for the mid-term elections than to talk about health care reform. Even so, the speech fell on receptive ears, and the assembled crowd cheered and applauded the president’s remaining remarks.
As he worked the crowd before leaving with the press corps tailing him, the crowd stayed intact. It was only after a last round of enthusiastic applause as the president exited the room that the spectators began to file out, too.
As I left the building among swarms of people, I acknowledged that President Obama was right. Though health care reform had been signed into law, the world had not cracked in two, and Armageddon had not arrived. It was a lovely spring day.
Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)
October 24, 2009, in what may well be the largest environmental action yet to occur, 350.org mobilized thousands of people to make a statement about climate change. From the Maldives sea floor to the pyramids of Giza, from the Sydney Opera House to the Eiffel Tower, from a rooftop in Shanghai to the steps of the Old Capitol on the campus of the University of Iowa — across the planet, in 181 countries — we stood, swam, danced, climbed, rode, kayaked, bungee jumped, surfed, dove, sat, lay, or did any number of other creative actions in protest and a plea.
Scientists calculate that the level of CO2 in the atmosphere is currently at 390 parts per million (ppm). They also tell us that the only safe level is 350 ppm or below. We need some carbon in our atmosphere — until the Industrial Revolution it was about 275 ppm — but we’re in the danger zone now, and global warming is causing devastating changes.
Weather patterns show ever-more-powerful and destructive weather systems, such as Hurricane Katrina; the EF-5 tornado that leveled Greensburg, Kansas; Typhoon Morakot; and Tropical Storm Etau. Sea ice is rapidly disappearing in the Arctic Circle to the point that the Northwest Passage is now navigable, albeit not exactly a smooth sail on a tropical sea. Desertification is spreading. We are in crisis — a crisis of our own making — and we must remedy the situation before it’s too late.
In December of this year, leaders of governments, NGOs, and businesses will meet in Copenhagen to discuss the future of Planet Earth — your planet and mine. The topic is climate change, and what we must do to reduce CO2 in our atmosphere.
What Can We Do?
According to 350.org, the actions to take are clear:
We need to stop taking carbon out of the ground and putting it into the air. Above all, that means we need to stop burning so much coal — and start using solar and wind energy and other such sources of renewable energy – while ensuring the Global South a fair chance to develop. If we do, then the earth’s soils and forests will slowly cycle some of that extra carbon out of the atmosphere, and eventually CO2 concentrations will return to a safe level. By decreasing use of other fossil fuels, and improving agricultural and forestry practices around the world, scientists believe we could get back to 350 by mid-century. But the longer we remain in the danger zone — above 350—the more likely that we will see disastrous and irreversible climate impacts.
While each of us can and must take action to reduce our own carbon footprint, without policy change at the highest levels, we cannot do enough to counteract the steady, global rise of CO2. The goal of the 350.org demonstrations Saturday was to tell our leaders — government, business, and NGO — that it’s time to get serious and set limits.
Although some people still insist on denying the reality of climate change, the science is clear. “It is crucial,” says the 350.org website, “that decision-makers at this meeting understand and are held accountable to crafting policy that is informed by the most recent science.” The science they speak of is the limit of 350 ppm.
Taking Part in Iowa
On Saturday, the UI chapter of Engineers for a Sustainable World (ESW), under the leadership of president Jon Durst, organized a 3.5 mile bike ride in the afternoon. At 3:50 p.m., a group of students from the University of Iowa (UI), citizen activists, government employees, children, Blue Planet Green Living volunteers, and even a dog joined the bicyclists for a photo op on the steps of the Old Capitol building on the campus of the University of Iowa. Eco-Iowa City handed out information about the many green activities sponsored by that organization and the City of Iowa City. And ESW sold 350.org T-shirts, designed by engineering student Amanda DeHoedt, to raise awareness and pay for the event.
I asked Durst, a six-year military veteran and nontraditional undergraduate, what motivated him to organize the event. Durst joined the military after the events of 9/11, three days after he graduated from high school. He served as a nuclear technician on a submarine. While in the military, he studied and did a lot of reading about politics and activism. “What needs to happen now in the world is action, to make it more sustainable,” he said, in answer to my query.
When he first heard about the 350.org event on the Colbert Report, he was intrigued. Soon after, Elizabeth Christiansen, Director of the University of Iowa Office of Sustainability, invited the UI chapter of Engineers for a Sustainable World to spearhead an event to mark the International Day of Climate Action. Durst’s response was immediate. He began to mobilize his fellow engineering students and connect with the Iowa City community.
“A city with such an active citizenry, like Iowa City, is ideal to participate in an event to promote strong action to curtail global climate change,” Durst said. He also had a more personal motive for participating. “I wanted to learn how to organize an event such as this, in order to help the future leaders of Engineers for a Sustainable World. Organizing is a skill best learned by doing.”
Durst is quick to give credit to the others who pitched in to make the local event a success. Besides those mentioned above, he thanked Lora Buckman for managing the T-shirt sale, Maeve Clark and Jennifer Jordan from the City of Iowa City, Office of Sustainability intern Sara Snyder, and photographer Linda Dunlap-Edge (who climbed to the roof of a building for photos, despite recent knee surgery).
The Real Work Begins
The many stories and photos from around the world are inspiring. You can view them on the 350.org website and in various blogs, magazines, and newspapers. If you’d like to share your own photo or story with us, please do so in the comments section below or on our Facebook fan page (Blue Planet Green Living).
But all the marches and demonstrations and photos in the world are not going to change a thing, if we don’t back them up with action. Now, the real work begins, as we all make a concerted effort to trim our personal carbon footprints.
We must also lobby our legislators to commit to changes in policy that protect our planet. Have you called your state’s Senators and Representatives to tell them your views on climate change? The Copenhagen meeting takes place in December. There’s no time to waste.
Every day must be Climate Day. Our planet’s future — and each of ours — hangs in the balance.
Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)
Simeon Talley is a student at the University of Iowa, majoring in International Politics. He is also a member of the Roosevelt Institute, a progressive network of campus-based think tanks.
Simeon was selected by the Iowa United Nations Association as a student delegate to the United Nations Climate Change Conference, COP15, in Copenhagen, Denmark, December 2009.
Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)
Today’s post is the first in a series about young ecopreneurs, written by University of Iowa student, Simeon Talley. Blue Planet Green Living is pleased to welcome Simeon to our team of contributing writers, and eager to meet the people he will be interviewing in the coming weeks. If you’d like to suggest a young ecopreneur for Simeon’s series, please let us know. — Publisher
Imagine that you’re a student at the University of Iowa, living not too far from campus. Running late, you find yourself in need of getting to downtown Iowa City in a hurry. Maybe you have a date, and it’s the first date. Or maybe it’s that last class of the day — the only class of the entire week that takes place at night. Regardless, you need to get moving. What are your options?
Driving? That takes too much effort. Walking? You surely won’t get there soon enough. Calling a taxi? After the wait and the expense, that’s completely out of the question. So what are you to do?
Call my friends, Vik and Veena Patel, who operate a pedi-cab service. They’ll pick you up and quickly get you where you need to go — all at no cost to the environment.
They’ll get you there on time for that first date (listen to the bells ringing) or just in time so that you’re not the last person to walk into class (envision awkward looks as you make your way in a crowded room to the second-to-last seat available).
Having previously lived in Texas, siblings Vik and Veena saw that, in some communities, people could catch a ride to and from work in a bike- or pedi-cab. So they did a little research on bicycle laws in Iowa City. After navigating their way through the legalistic language, they decided that pedi-cabs might be feasible in here, too. So, they bought a couple of bikes that had carriages welded to them and began their pedi-cab business. According to Veena, “Business has been good!”
Every Thursday, Friday, and Saturday night, you can find Vik and Veena shuttling students to and from the downtown area. While most of their clientele are students, the community as a whole has responded positively to the new pedi-cab service. Iowa City is a reasonably walkable city and certainly a city friendly to cyclists. Additionally, most students don’t live too far from campus or the downtown area. Vik and Veena’s pedi-cab service has filled a unique niche in getting people to and from their destinations quickly and in an environmentally friendly way.
Separating themselves from their taxi cab competitors, the Patels don’t charge a fee for the rides they provide. They make their money solely through tips from customers.
If your initial reaction was one of slight confusion, you’re not the only one. But Vik sees this “as a way to build relationships and create a loyal clientele.” And it seems to be working. In only a few months, they’ve built a business that is sure to do well and become a consistent community favorite.
Soon Vik and Veena will have to pack up their pedi-cabs and place them in storage, as it’s kind of hard to ride a bicycle in snow. When the weather warms in the spring, they’ll start peddling again.
Every day, there are people right here in our own community — and in yours — who are making a difference while making a living in surprisingly creative ways. Ecopreneurs are involved in all types of businesses, from the fashion industry, to home construction, and to creating more sustainable travel opportunities through eco-tourism. Vik and Veena Patel are two young ecopreneurs who are already making a big impact, and they’ve just gotten started.
“Do you know what happens to the stuff you flush down your toilet? Where does it all go?”
Craig Just asks that question as we drive onto the grounds of the Iowa City waste water treatment plant. Of course, I knew we had a waste treatment plant somewhere, but I didn’t really know where. Until today.
If you live in a city, as I do, chances are the waste from your toilet shoots down the sewer pipes to a treatment system somewhere on the edge of the city limits. Out of sight. Out of mind. And too far away for most people to smell.
At a city waste water plant, the effluent goes through various stages of treatment. And, in warm weather months, it may be chlorinated to kill E. coli and other bacteria, then de-chlorinated before running the cleaned water into a river or stream. Solids are separated, then sold to farmers for their fields, or perhaps incinerated. It’s an expensive, but essential process.
If you live in a rural area or a development that isn’t attached to a city sewer system, your bio-waste products are most likely collected in a septic system. There, the water spills into a leach field while the solids build up in a tank. Eventually, the tank fills, and you pay someone to drain it.
But what if you live in one of the small, unincorporated towns that can’t afford a modern waste water system and don’t have a septic system? What happens to everything you flush down your toilets?
It gets dumped — untreated, unfiltered, unsanitized — directly into a nearby river or stream.
Feel like a swim? Me, neither.
Wetlands Water Treatment
Iowa alone has in excess of 600 unincorporated communities without adequate — or, more often, any — waste water treatment systems. Estimates by the American Water Works Association indicate that upgrading these Iowa communities to the same standard as a facility like Iowa City’s would cost in excess of $1 Billion. (Yep. That’s one Billion dollars. Fat chance of that happening in this economy.)
But that may not be the only option, according to Craig Just, adjunct assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Iowa.
This is a cold, rainy afternoon, with wind tearing at our umbrellas. Yet Just is cheerfully leaning into the wind to talk with a few members of the recently formed RiverCry group. He explains an alternative waste water system that may be a solution to the problem of raw sewage entering the Iowa River from unincorporated areas.
Just and a team of university students have constructed a micro wetlands site on the grounds of Iowa City’s south waste water treatment plant.
“Wetlands provide natural waste water treatment,” Just says. “If you don’t put too much [nitrogen and phosphorus] in, the system works by itself. It’s a slow process, but an effective one, until the numbers become overwhelming.”
Wetlands work well to purify water and break down nitrogen when humans or other animals live in low density. So Just and his students are experimenting to find a way to speed up the wetlands process to accommodate small, unincorporated communities.
They’ve created eight mini wetlands with subsurface flow to treat small batches of raw waste from the Iowa City sewage system. Though it’s too early to draw conclusions (this is a scientific experiment, after all), the process seems to be working as anticipated. And (as a visitor I appreciate this every bit as much as you might imagine), with the effluent entirely below the surface and a foot-high layer of wood chips on top, there’s no smell.
Still, there’s a problem.
Even If It Works, You Can’t Use It
Even if Just and crew do develop the perfect system, they can’t use it — yet. The Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR) prohibits the use of subsurface flow wetlands to treat sewage. But if it works, why not allow it?
“Most subsurface wetlands evaluated [by the DNR] were not using forced aeration,” Just tells the group. Those treatments didn’t meet the DNR’s standards. But in this project, air is pumped through the wetland soil during half the day — a timer turns it on and off automatically. Just explains that the extra oxygen is helpful for one part the process of breaking down nitrogen; a lack of oxygen is necessary for another part.
If the project is assessed to be effective, Just may still have a fight on his hands to get approval for using the system. Asked what happens to the filtered water in his pilot project, he says. “It gets pumped back into the beginning of the waste water cycle here at the treatment plant.” He would be breaking the law if he pumped this cleaned water directly into the Iowa River; remember, the DNR does not approve. (He can’t dump cleaned water into the river, but it’s legal to dump raw sewage? The logic of this escapes us all.)
Just is working to further the project, but there’s just not much funding for something so “unsexy” as applying simple engineering to solve a real-world problem. There’s funding for scientific investigations of a more esoteric nature, but not much for applied science. (This, too, makes little sense to the assembled group.)
“We proposed a test run at an I-80 rest stop,” Just says. Lagoons near the interstate highway treat the wastes from many of these facilities. “We’d like to take what comes out of the lagoons and use our aeration system as the next step in the line.” But that proposal’s future is far from certain.
100 Frames + 2 Wheels = 1 Bicycle
One of the great advantages of this aerated subsurface wetland is that it efficiently removes nitrogen from the sewage. But despite the fact that nitrogen levels are high in Iowa’s rivers (due largely to animal waste from CAFOS and fertilizers applied to farm fields), “nitrogen isn’t the biggest problem,” Just tells the group. “What we should be talking about is phosphorous, but there are no limits for phosphorous in the water.”
“Think of it this way,” he says. “If you have 100 bicycle frames and only two wheels, how many bicycles can you build?” He pauses. “Just one.”
As it turns out, our rivers are carrying a phosphorous load equivalent to those 100 bicycle frames, and nitrogen equivalent to the two tires. “We’re working to solve a tire problem when we’ve got a frame problem,” Just says. The key is to reduce the level of phosphorous. But without regulations, it’s not likely to happen.
What Can YOU Do?
Just’s project is only a few months old, and final results are yet to come. But that doesn’t mean we have to sit back and wait to take action, the group agrees. (But then, we’re here because we’re activists. We like the idea of stirring things up to make them better.)
“What can citizens do to improve our water?” one of the group asks Just.
“Vote to support water improvement,” he says. “Get your legislators to support water quality measures and get the DNR to do its job.”
Good advice for everyone, no matter where you live.
But there’s more, too. If you care about water quality — and you will if you don’t have clean water to drink — get involved.
- Look for ecologically minded groups in your area. Join one. Take on local water issues and make an impact with your time, your talents, and if you’re so moved, your wallet.
- Band together to support candidates who care about water quality more than they care about Big Ag or other special interest groups that pollute your waterways. Find out who the “good guys” are in your state and your community. Support them at the grassroots level, because that’s where change begins.
- Learn what you shouldn’t flush. Things like medicines, condoms, sanitary napkins, cigarette butts, chewing gum, dental floss, cat litter … and anything that won’t biodegrade. In short, don’t use your toilet as a trash can.
- Use non-caustic kitchen and bathroom cleaners, like vinegar and baking soda instead of chlorine bleach. Use phosphate-free laundry detergents, as well as natural dish soaps and hand soaps.
- Refrain from chemically fertilizing your lawn so you don’t add to the nitrogen and phosphorous load in your waterways.
If you live in one of those unincorporated areas that flushes your sewage into the river, walk to the water’s edge. But don’t stand upstream of the sewage pipe; stand as close as you can below it. Watch what comes out. Is this the standard you want for your children and grandchildren? For yourself?
Yes, it is costly to install a huge civic waste water plant, but there are less-expensive alternatives. Craig Just is working on one now. But he’s not alone. Check your local universities to see what research they are doing in your area. Actively search for solutions.
One thing we must not waste is time.
To some students, it’s the little things that make the biggest difference: Getting a student’s promise to be responsible with their computer’s energy. Letting the local Congressmen know of their gratitude. Informing a passer-by of innovative ways to recycle.
They’re all important to the Iowa Student Public Interest Research Group, or Iowa PIRG, a small, student activist group working to solve a large array of society’s most pressing problems.
Iowa Student PIRG is a branch of U.S. PIRG, which is an advocate for product safety, reforming health care, better public transit, and many other issues affecting the public good. U.S. PIRG has state chapters active in 47 different states. State PIRGs began almost 40 years ago. They’re independent and use tactics such as investigative research and grassroots organizing.
Iowa PIRG brings concerned students together to work on hunger, homelessness, global warming solutions, and other issues. Students involved in this organization get great hands-on experience on how to become activists.
I started with PIRG in January 2009. A new semester had just begun, and with that came the need to buy new textbooks. As anyone in college knows, textbooks are too costly for those with limited budgets — the typical student spends an average of $900 per year covering this expense. PIRG decided to raise awareness on this issue.
In mid-January, our group set up an oversized textbook in the Iowa Memorial Union, the center of student life on the University of Iowa campus. Students signed their names along with the amount they spent on textbooks. Many entries were in the $400+ range. While at the table, PIRG informed students of price-lowering tactics that universities can employ, like switching to open textbooks, which are free online. This campaign was featured on KWWL TV’s evening news on January 29, 2009.
During the remainder of the semester, we’ve focused mainly on a wide variety of sustainability issues. During the week of Valentine’s Day, PIRG had students sign heart-shaped cards to send to Representative Loebsack and Senator Harkin. These legislators supported the Economic Stimulus Bill, which pledged a large amount of money toward clean energy, energy efficiency, and green transportation. PIRG wanted to say “Thank You” to these local legislators for their noble efforts, and about 100 students signed Valentines.
Recently, PIRG worked with the University of Iowa Environmental Coalition to promote Power Down for the Planet, which urges students to reduce their computer’s energy use. This initiative promotes ENERGY STAR rated products and the use of Power Management settings.
“One of the primary purposes was simply to raise awareness about ways to save energy used during computing and the importance of doing so,” said Rachel Nathanson, a UI junior involved with the UIEC. “I think we reached some students who hadn’t considered the power usage of their computers and how they can make reductions.”
Universities across the nation competed to get the most student pledges vowing to exercise green computing. Percentage-wise, the University of Iowa ranked third overall but first in the number of campus-wide pledges, at more than 6,000. This total carbon offset would save the UI $157, 815 per year and 1,444,383 kWh per year of energy.
Nathanson sees the benefits promoted by Power Down for the Planet being applied to a broader spectrum by changing the way people think about their use of other appliances. “Practicing green computing will surely help save energy used by computers, but these benefits may extend to energy usage reductions with other electronics as people build habits oriented towards improved energy consciousness,” Nathanson said.
After working with Nathanson and the UIEC, PIRG kept the momentum going by participating in the Expo following the Green Summit 2009, which kicked off Earth Week. Our booth featured a petition asking the state to allocate money toward the Midwest High Speed Rail Network. This would connect Iowa City to the Quad Cities by a 79 mph train.
The Green Summit kicked off its first year this year, the result of an idea that University of Iowa Student Organization Liaison Abbie Gruwell had last summer.
“All of the groups I talked to said they made valuable, personal connections and generated a lot of interest,” Gruwell said. “I believe that it is important for students to not only learn about the scientific, business, and political side of the environmental movement, but also the hard work that happens on the ground.”
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On Saturday, Blue Planet Green Living (BPGL) joined local environmental organizations to participate in a Green Summit on the University of Iowa campus. The event was part of a campus kickoff for Earth Week, featuring speakers and activities for students and the Iowa City community.
Sponsored by the University of Iowa’s Office of Sustainability, the Green Summit was intended as “an academic conference created to empower student environmental leaders and equip them with practical social, scientific, political and business skills to put their passion into practice.”
The morning began with a keynote address by Iowa Senator Joe Bolkcom, D-Iowa City. Additional speakers included: Mike Berkshire, an environmental planner; Alec B. Scranton, University of Iowa professor of chemical and biochemical engineering; Mark Kresowik from the Sierra Club; and Univerity of Iowa College of Engineering professor Craig Just. Just is the coordinator of sustainability programs and sponsors both Engineers for a Sustainable World and Engineers without Borders.
Local green activist, Mike Carberry of Green State Solutions, organized the Expo, which took place on the University’s Pentacrest, following the morning’s speeches. Carberry is known locally as the driving force behind much of the environmental work that gets done in the area. He pulled together both student groups and “progressive local projects.” BPGL participated in the event, taking this opportunity to spread awareness of our own mission, to show that being an environmental activist is “Earth Wise. Money Smart.”
As Expo visitors and exhibitors stopped at our booth, we invited them to respond to the question we ask every person we interview. As Earth Day approaches, we invite you to read their responses and consider how you would answer this question:
“What are the five most important things we can do to save the planet?”
Katie Lynch, Iowa City, IA
• Change the way we farm (eliminate confinement operations)
• Change the way we eat (purchase locally grown foods)
• Support new green technology (wind, power, solar)
• Prioritize conservation (above economic functions) • Increase education and awareness
Paul Christine, Denver, CO
• Educate the populace about the environment
• Support alternative, renewable energy and transportation
• Change the way we produce our food
• Empower to make individual changes such as recycling, etc.
• Encourage greater regulatory power over polluting industries (Paul is the winner of our Blue Planet Green Living shopping bag drawing.)
Elizabeth Cummings and Tom Glorfield, Iowa Farm Life, Ames and Sioux City, IA.
1. Provide ongoing, free public forum re: nuts and bolts of industrialized farming
2. From #1, teach public connections between meat, dairy, and eggs
3. From #2, provide public workshops and tastings of vegan food
4. From #3, provide public info about local food systems and resources
5. From #4, provide public info about urban gardening, seed exchange, and local Community Supported Agriculture (CSA).
Rachel Nathanson, University of Iowa student, West Des Moines, IA
• Reduce greenhouse gas emissions through international collaboration
• Practice sustainable rainforest product development and ecotourism
• Support local, fresh agriculture
• Reduce, reuse, Recycle
• Encourage both grassroots and policy action
Amber Johnson, Engineers for a Sustainable World, University of Iowa, Iowa City, IA
• Walk/bike instead of driving
• Go powerless
• Use alternative energy —no coal or petroleum products
• Avoid creating waste — use recyclable containers instead of throwaway
Angela Gadzik, University of Iowa student, Iowa City, IA.
• Buy local
• Reduce consumption
• Eat Fresh
• Call your legislator
Reid Stamer, University of Iowa student, Davenport, IA
• Drive less, walk more
• Reduce, reuse, recycle
• Make a conscious effort toward species conservation
• Heavy investment in renewable energy
• Reduce/stop water pollution
Linda Yanney, Vista Corridor Recovery, Iowa City, IA
• Live small
• Eat locally
• Teach others
• Grow more plants (flowers and food) and less grass
• Respect and assist developing countries in green industry
Andrea Url, University of Iowa student, Sioux City, IA
• Consume less
• Save energy
• Vote with your dollars
• Recycle everything
• Get involved
Paul August Utesch, LeMars, IA
• Reduce waste
• Spend with more conscious companies
• Travel more economically (by driving less places)
• Use less chemicals
• Recycle everything you can
Abbie Gruwell, University of Iowa student, UI Office of Sustainability intern
• Grow vegetables
• Go camping, enjoy nature
• Call your legislators!
• Socially responsible investing!
Joan Burns, Cart by Cart, Iowa City, IA
• Walk more often, everyday, park your car
• Value people more than possessions
• Support local food growers
• Recycle anything and everything you can
• Carry a reusable cotton bag for all your shopping needs
Jaia Rosenfels, Disability Rights Activist, Iowa City, IA
• Reduce our dependence on fossil fuel
• Save water resources
• Save polar ice caps
• Stop wasting trees- that affects everything
• Stop having so many kids
Greg Johnson, author of Put Your Life on a Diet, founder of Resources for Life, Iowa City, IA
• Live small
• Ride a bike
• Eat mostly vegan
• Use less
• Empower others
Carol Throckmorton, Dietician and Farm-Animal Activist
• Go vegan! And have a garden
• Reuse recycle, decrease consumption
• Decrease energy use at home
• Drive a hybrid car
• Repair instead of replace stuff
Austin Burke, University of Iowa student, Davenport, IA
• Eliminate fossil fuels
• Terminate all non-biodegradable products
• Don’t litter
Constantine Anton, University of Iowa student, River Forest, IL
• Reduce global warming (stop use of fossil fuels)
• Stop cutting down rain forests
• More public transportation
• More conservation lands
• Hydrogen fuel cells or electric cars
Sam Boland, University of Iowa, UI president of Engineers for a Sustainable World, Iowa City, IA
• Be vegetarian
• Don’t drive
• Tell other people to be green
• Be a responsible consumer
• Hug trees
Lauren S., Coralville, IA, age 6
• Use renewable water bottles
• Don’t litter
• Turn off lights
• Don’t leave water on when not using it
Michael Lewis, Iowa City, IA
• No coal
• No nukes
Maureen McCue, Iowa City, IA
• Stop coal
• Stop nukes
• Clean the water
• Ban CAFOs (confined animal feeding operations)
• Support alternative energy- clean renewables
David Lee, University of Iowa, Iowa City, IA
• Reduce fossil fuel dependence
• Increase renewable energy
• Plant trees
• Ban forest burning
• Spread awareness about climate change
Mike Loots, University of Iowa student, Iowa City, IA
• Love everyone
• Ride a bike
• Get out into nature
• Educate others
Nathan Kieso, University of Iowa student, Iowa City, IA
• Reduce dependency on fossil fuels
• Expand recycling programs
• Hold industry and agriculture accountable for pollution
• Encourage adoption and family planning
• Use Green architecture; i.e. solar/geothermal heating and cooling, and non-toxic building materials
Katie Parry, University of Iowa student, Iowa City, IA
• Re-imagine the things you do everyday
• Don’t use take home containers
• Don’t use plastic bags
• Value our natural environment, support restoration efforts
• Carpool, bike, walk
Brigette Fanning, University of Iowa student, Vernon Hills, IL
• Stop cutting trees in rain forest
• Use passenger rail
• Buy locally grown food
• Use power management on computers
• Help conserve water
James Bechtel, University of Iowa student, Coralville, IA
• Think locally
• Reduce waste, be conscious of it
• Learn about our food, water
• Fight to conserve: always be open to change
• Be happy
Katie Fassbinder, Green State Solutions intern, University of Iowa student, Iowa City, IA
• Regulate business emissions
• Protect water/ drinking resources
• Make farming more sustainable
• Educate people!
• Reduce fossil fuel dependence
Ryan Drysdale, University of Iowa student, Iowa City, IA
• No plastics
• No oil
• Factor in economic externalities
• Recycle everything
• Regulate chemicals
Ellie Catton, Iowa City, IA
• Stop driving! Ride a bicycle
• Reuse food storage containers
• Support local businesses and boycott corporations
• Reduce water and power use
• Consider ourselves personally responsible for pollution
Joe and I want to extend our thanks to the University of Iowa, Mike Carberry of Green State Solutions, Abbie Gruwell from the UI Office of Sustainability, and all who stopped by our booth on this dreary Spring day. Congratulations to Paul Christine, winner of the Blue Planet Green Living shopping bag. We’ll be exhibiting again on Earth Day at Kirkwood College in Iowa City.
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As part of the National Teach-In on Global Warming Solutions held at colleges and universities across the U.S., the University of Iowa invited activists and experts to participate in panel discussions. Blue Planet Green Living was privileged participate on a panel with Andrew Saito, a student in the MFA program in play-writing. After a short reading from an original play, Saito read the following essay to the audience. We found the images and the message so thoughtful, beautiful, and powerful that we asked him to share it with our readers.— Julia Wasson, Publisher
Some twenty years ago and half a continent away, my father recounted memories from his childhood in Southern California. He told me about setting plastic toy soldiers on fire in dirt pits in his backyard. He told me about the Red Car, a light rail and streetcar system that crisscrossed Los Angeles from Long Beach to Downtown to Pasadena to Santa Ana. Profusions of Western toads would make regular nocturnal visits to his house, a block from the Los Angeles River, in a neighborhood nicknamed Frogtown. When he would go to the beach, the water was so clear he could see not only his feet, but fish. Yes, fish!
Today, all of those memories are nothing more than that. The Red Car’s last operational line discontinued service on April 8, 1961. This was part of what is now referred to as the Great American Streetcar Scandal, when General Motors, Firestone Tire, Standard Oil, among other corporations, engineered the replacement of light rail and streetcars with buses, to pave the way for broad public ownership and use of automobiles and freeways. In all honesty, I did not shed many tears when GM recently teetered on the brink. We reap what we sow.
Indeed, that seems precisely the position we currently occupy. We are reaping what we sowed, what our parents and grandparents sowed, and what we continue to sow. How many of us drove here? I am flying to Kentucky for spring break. I spent winter recess in Peru. It was long flight. I do not exculpate myself from responsibility, or hypocrisy.
The toads no longer visit Frogtown, and haven’t in years. I had the fortune of seeing one or two here and there when I was a kid, but that pales in comparison with the dozens and, as rumored, hundreds of toads that overran Frogtown in the 1950s. Perhaps they were looking for quarters more comfortable than the concrete channel that replaced a once free-flowing river.
My memories of Los Angeles’ beaches – Venice, Santa Monica, Redondo – are of brown water, parking lots within striking distance of waves, and large metal trash bins strangely reminiscent of oil barrels. Today, we have far more to worry about than just murky water.
The oceans are facing at least a quintuple assault:
- Rising temperatures due to climate change — certainly not helped by the premeditated extinction of the Red Cars and their peers across the nation;
- Acidification of the oceans, again due to elevated and exacerbating carbon emissions;
- The increasing presence of plastic — I’ve read reports of supermarket bags and Barbie dolls appearing on once pristine beaches of unpopulated islands, to mention nothing of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a mass of trash twice the size of Texas that swirls in the waters midway between North America and Asia; in the long run, this plastic will break down to particles so small that they will be eaten by zooplankton, providing them with a fatal last meal, and thus threatening a foundation of the global food chain;
- Other threats include chemical pollution, from pharmaceutical, medical and agricultural sources, as well as petroleum and human waste — we deliberately dump this stuff into the home of blue whales, dolphins, orca, salmon, seaweed, coral;
- And, of course, there’s overfishing, when a human population forty times larger than when Christ lived demands ever more sushi, ceviche, lobster bisque and crab cakes from critically disappearing marine communities.
Let me not mention open-pit mining. Let me not mention deforestation. Let me not mention genetically modified seeds appearing in wild spaces. Let me not mention nuclear waste. Oops. My mind simply can’t keep these things in neat little boxes. Just as my father’s childhood has everything to do with my presence here at the University of Iowa, so do the disappearance of frogs, the rise of the automobile, and the assault on the oceans have everything to do with my life, and with playwriting. In Hamlet, Shakespeare describes theatre as “hold[ing] as ’twere the mirror up to nature.” While theatre has many functions, providing social commentary and an opportunity for introspection is a central one. I am a playwright. I love nature. I love life. I feel broken by the constant war we wage on our home. I feel broken by my own complicity in this war. Thus, I write plays about global warming. I write plays about rivers. I write plays about globalization. I write plays about the ocean. I write plays about life.
Writing plays does not seem like a very effective or practical way to “combat” global warming, as Al Gore puts it. I’m not sure how we can combat something that will continue to affect us for a very long time, even if carbon emissions dropped to zero right now. Carbon emissions need to drop to zero. Right now. Writing plays seems like a terribly indirect way to heal the Iowa River or protect sea turtles or the Amazon rainforest, which has been so generous to me in providing adventure, inspiration, and insight. Oh, and oxygen. Of course, the Amazon has been generous to all of us, in so many ways, asking nothing in return. Let me say that every ecosystem, every animal and plant, mineral, waterway, mountain, and wind current has and continues to be generous. Yes, nature is also violent, but when to the point of self-annihilation? Generosity is an essence of nature, of life, which only asks that we reciprocate, by taking what we need, and giving what we have. When we die, we give our own bodies, our own selves, so that the physical matter that we borrow while living our unique and beautiful, irreplaceable lives, allows some other, or many other, beings the opportunity to live as fully and unforgettably as we do right now.
I suppose my writing, then, is an act of gratitude to the world. It is an act of fear, an act of grief, an act of anger, and an act of hope. Hope that I will become better at living what I write. Hope that we all learn to live in concert with life, and not as obstacles to nature, and therefore ourselves. I have read and studied a great deal about global warming and renewable energies, and somewhat on deforestation, water pollution, desertification, and extinction. I have taken introductory classes on building greywater systems and solar cookers; I have yet to put what I learned in either of those classes into practice.
When I spent several months in the Peruvian Amazon, I felt a burning urge to support reforestation, yet I knew not what to do, nor who to turn to. This is a recurring frustration in my own life, what I view as a gap between thought and action, between passion and practice. I know more than enough, but I find myself having difficulty knowing how to get started. I recycle and compost and commute by bicycle, even in this cold — I refuse to own a car. I refuse to take plastic bags 99.99% of the time. In fact, I reuse plastic bags, generally until they are bedraggled with holes. This feels like scratching the surface. It is. I write plays about nature, and how we’re killing nature, and therefore ourselves. This also feels like scratching the surface. It is.
And it will always be scratching the surface as long as I view my life and actions in isolation. I cannot do everything, despite how much I may pressure myself to the contrary. Self-flagellation and guilt are not helpful, and certainly harm my writing. But apathy and inaction harm more than guilt. I will say that the very American, very modern obsession with individualism profoundly violates nature and life. Nothing exists in true isolation, and the sooner we learn and live the lesson of interdependence, the better for us, and everybody.
I mentioned four stories my father told. Three are now memories, but perhaps not forever. The other is a nightmare. Plastic soldiers. Armies of them. Armadas. Armies of soldiers riding roughshod over Sudan and Somalia, over Afghanistan and Iraq, over Gaza and Guantánamo, over Ciudad Juárez and Chiapas, over Richmond, California and Washington, D.C. An armada of plastic suffocating Los Angeles and Orange County, Beijing and Shanghai, Cedar Rapids and Iowa City, and the Pacific Ocean. We are killing ourselves for the fleeting convenience and ease that plastic provides. Plastic cups. Plastic forks and sporks. Plastic packing peanuts. Plastic bubble wrap. Plastic packages of Cheetos and Doritos, Oreos and M & M’s in vending machines in the UI hospital, a blaring contradiction in the hallowed halls of health. I must say, I doubt that Texas’s plastic doppelganger will prove particularly convenient or easy, now or ever.
Writing these words, I feel rage and despair. But I need to write them, I need to fight the urge to censor myself, to remain polite and politic, to smile and not offend. We are gambling with life itself. No. We are assaulting life, which is more beautiful than any play I, or anyone, will ever write. More extraordinary than any NASA telescope, or any cancer-curing discovery. More inspiring than Martin Luther King’s eloquence or even the Buddha’s enlightenment. Life is what I am, and my life is miraculous, but no more or less than yours, or the grass frozen and dormant, or the jungles of Peru, or the toads in Frogtown, or the bald eagle I saw fly overhead last November; I had never before seen our national symbol fly free. Life is a miracle, so I write in honor of life, to thank it, to defend it, to grieve its illness and to fight for its survival. Our survival.
The human brain cannot function without human lungs, which cannot breathe without the human heart,
which cannot beat without the entirety of the body working in collaborative concert. Beethoven’s 5th Symphony cannot be played by a single musician. This university is far from a one-person operation. Theatre is never the work of the playwright alone. Just as my plays depend on actors, designers, dramaturges, producers, directors and audiences to bring characters and stories to life, so I depend on all of you. So I depend on the Iowa River. So I depend on the Amazon, and the Congo, and the Pacific and Atlantic. So I depend on Arctic ice and wild, unmodified corn in Oaxaca, Mexico, even if its kernels never grace my lips.
Each of us is a collaboration of atoms, of organs, working together for our success. I don’t know about you, but I want a strong heart, and strong lungs, strong hands and legs. I want to work with strong actors and directors. Their strength enhances my own. Let me speak very selfishly now. I pray for each of your health, happiness, and runaway success because it will make this world better for me. I need strong rivers. I need strong forests. I need healthy bats and hummingbirds, butterflies and bees, to pollinate the peaches and pears whose juice I want to drip down my chin this summer. Me. Me. I want a healthful, beautiful planet for me. But in looking in myself, if I quiet my mind and really look, I see rocks. I see lakes. I see my father at five years old. I see you. I see the world.
Al Gore argues that we need a shift in human consciousness. I agree, although that shift needs to occur on a level far deeper than installing solar panels and driving plug-in hybrids. These technologies are helpful, even vital, but alone are doomed to futility. The solution, or rather, point of departure, that I propose, as an artist and writer, very much untrained in science, is that each of us fall entirely and speechlessly in love and in awe with the world, recognizing that nature is beauty, and nature is sacred. Let me fall so in awe that I become appalled by the very thought of dumping toxins in a river, for in destroying a river, I am destroying myself, and destroying God. Let me fall so in awe that I will organize and communicate and sacrifice superficial ease for long-term health and prosperity.
My prayer today, and every day, is that I, and we, can find a way to become worthy of the Iowa River, worthy of the prairie, worthy of the oceans, of the Catskills and the Rockies, of the Grand Canyon and the Great Barrier Reef, of the Amazon, of the Earth. Let us be worthy of being alive. Let us be worthy of being who we are.
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Dr. Makur Jain lives in Lucknow, India, where she earned her Ph.D. in English literature. During the 2007–08 school year, she was hosted by the U.S. State Department as a Fulbright Scholar to teach Hindi at the University of Iowa.
Having an opportunity to compare India and the U.S. gives her a unique perspective on solutions to sustainable living. For example, India is a leader in some areas of environmental innovation, such as using bicycles and small compressed natural gas (CNG) vehicles for transportation.
Since Iowa City is home to the Small House Society, during her time in the U.S., Makur had an opportunity to learn about the small house movement and other initiatives for simpler and smaller living. This is how she first connected with Blue Planet Green Living.
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Elias Simpson earned a bachelor’s degree in English and French from the University of Iowa. He spent a year in France in 2007, and traveled to Prague, Venice, Barcelona, and London, as well as cities in France, including Nice and Grenoble.
Elias has worked for Practical Farmers of Iowa, an organization that supports sustainable agriculture. He has also worked for two small organic farms: Turtle Farm and Small Potato Farm. He has volunteered for the university’s environmental coalition and is a registered member of the Iowa City Bike Library.
He is attending graduate school at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia, where he studies poetry writing and works as a teaching assistant.
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Posts by Elias
Nothing about last Saturday invited me to be outside. The wind blew with a bitter chill. My fingertips froze inside my gloves, and my left foot cramped from the cold. But I was just there to talk and observe; I could leave at any time. The university students, on the other hand, had committed to weatherizing an older couple’s home, and they stayed until it was finished.
What would bring 41 young adults outside for three hours on a bitingly cold weekend, when they had midterm exams to take and papers to write? For that matter, they had football to watch on TV, video games to play, or any number of other activities that wouldn’t require them to shiver in the wind. Yet, these volunteers were attaching weather stripping, putting plastic on the windows, and adding a door sweep in the front entrance of Ben Ploof’s home in Coralville, Iowa.
Across Iowa City and Coralville, 38 other students were donating a few hours of their weekend to winterize the homes of residents who needed their assistance. By Sunday evening, the group had helped 16 families to lower their utility bills, stay more comfortable in the coming winter, and reduce their carbon footprints.
Minor Weatherstripping, Major Effect
Stephanie Enloe, junior co-president of the University of Iowa’s Environmental Coalition (UIEC), is the pint-sized dynamo who organized the project. When her counterpart, senior co-president Eric Holthaus, told Stephanie about a grant from the Iowa Utilities Board, she said, “Hey, I’ll spearhead that!”
After the project was awarded one of ten $500 grants, Craig Just, professor of engineering and faculty adviser for the local chapter of Engineers for a Sustainable World, offered to match the amount. The combined donation allowed students to purchase caulk, door sweeps, window film, CFL bulbs, and insulation pads to install behind outlets and switch plates.
To make sure students knew how to install the materials, Enloe put together a slide show and held training sessions at her home. Then she followed up by emailing a PowerPoint presentation to fellow volunteers. The students were eager to help make a difference in people’s lives and to improve the environment, even a window or door at a time, and Enloe wanted to help them do it correctly.
To find people needing weatherizing assistance, members of the UIEC notified religious groups, school counselors, and the Senior Center. The grant funds were intended to be used for elderly, disabled, or needy families. Ploof heard of the project through his church. “I think it’s a great help,” he said. “It may seem like minor weatherstripping, but it’s major for preventing infiltration from the wind.”
Ploof, whose wife requires continuous care due to a stroke, added, “I really appreciate the service. It probably would not have gotten done [except for the students’ efforts]. It’s needed, and it’s going to help.” He returned the favor by serving the students a warm pan of homemade apple crisp.
The UIEC has a tradition of community activism, including starting a campus recycling program last spring. Working with Dave Jackson at Facilities Management, students conducted a waste characterization study at selected buildings. What they found spurred them to continue: more than 50 percent of the trash was comprised of recyclable materials. And that didn’t include the food waste that could be composted. The group wrote a grant that yielded $14,000 from Coca Cola and the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. With the award, they purchased recycling bins to place both inside and outside of campus buildings.
Student volunteer groups — and classes — are making their green mark both on and off campus. Groups offer green consulting in dorms and Greek houses, volunteers tend a community garden, and classroom projects that take young engineers as far away as Ghana to implement projects that improve sustainability.
When I asked Enloe why she and fellow students are taking such an aggressive approach to dealing with the environment, she didn’t hesitate. “My generation doesn’t have the time to wait for those in power to take care of the urgent problems facing us,” she said. “Climate change won’t wait for us to graduate or get settled. We have to do as much as we can to ensure that the world our children inherit is a safe one.”
With that kind of passion burning within, “those in power” (and the rest of us) could learn a lot by following the students’ lead.
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