All posts by Alexandra Goldsmith

About Alexandra Goldsmith

Senior at American University pursuing a BA in Print Journalism and a minor in Justice and Law. Part-time Barista at the Davenport Coffee Lounge.

Higher Education and Lower Emissions- How Washington D.C. Universities are Taking Sustainability Seriously

By: Allie Goldsmith

WASHINGTON- As record high temperatures, devastating natural disasters, and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) rollbacks break headlines, optimism about the nation’s environmental prospects has reached an all time low. In the higher education sector however, private institutions are reflecting their millennial constituents’ affinity for sustainability by making the environment a top priority.

In the Washington D.C. area specifically, colleges like George Washington University (GW) and American University (AU) have responded to student feedback and are acting to minimize their environmental impact by developing initiatives that reduce carbon emissions, better manage waste, and promote ecosystems.

“At GW, the sustainability office was created because of student energy and student support,” said Kimberly Williams, the Stakeholder Engagement Associate at GW’s Office of Sustainability.

“There are young people across the country that care deeply about the environment and climate change, and they want the institution that they’re living at to be taking action and doing its part”.

Since launching in 2008, GW’s sustainability office has incorporated several initiatives into its operations to address these concerns, including sustainable energy projects, ecofriendly campus grounds keeping, and waste management initiatives.

Two years ago, GW partnered with Capital Partner’s Solar Project, which aims to reduce carbon emissions for institutions by providing solar power from offsite locations.

“GW embarked on an effort to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by getting a portion of its energy from a solar farm,” said Williams. “Through this project, GW is now 50 percent solar (powered).”

GW co-owns this solar farm with AU, which is located south of Elizabeth City, NC., and covers 287 acres of land. The farm works to abate approximately 84,900 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent and provides power for GW, AU, and GW University Hospital. This equates to removing about 17,900 cars from the road.

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AU has also made generous strides in reducing its carbon footprint and better managing waste. AU aims to become carbon neutral as early as 2020, and has reduced its carbon emissions by 52 percent since 2005.

After partnering with the Capital Partners Solar Project, AU relies on offsite and onsite solar power for 100 percent of its electricity, said Hannah Debelius, the Outreach and Communications manager at AU’s Office of Sustainability.

Debelius said to counterbalance emissions from sources that cannot be otherwise directly diminished, such as study abroad travel, AU purchases carbon offsets.

“Because we aren’t looking to reduce the amount of students that study abroad, we purchase carbon offsets,” said Debelius. “These are essentially projects that do good for the environment in the same amount that we have a negative impact.”

Through a carbon offset program that works with local women in Nairobi to sell more efficient wood burning cook stoves, Debelius said AU has already completely offset study abroad emissions for this year.

“We really want the solution to match the problem,” said Debelius. “Through this program, women in Nairobi have more opportunity to go to school because they aren’t collecting wood, and they’re helping the environment as well.”

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While GW and AU have made considerable accomplishments in the name sustainability, both institutions still face considerable setbacks.

Williams noted the challenges GW’s urban campus poses for sustainability efforts, namely the limited space for large-scale sustainable infrastructure like solar paneling and its affect on student awareness.

“Because Capital Partners Solar Project is an offsite solar farm, every day as students are walking around, they aren’t seeing that physical representation of our energy source,” said Williams. “As a result, many of our students don’t actually know that we are 50 percent solar (powered).”

Zach Dobelbower is the Associate Director of Energy and Sustainability for Washington D.C.’s Department of General Services (DGS), and said another one of the biggest challenges D.C. faces in making infrastructure sustainable is balancing the need for renewable energy with energy efficiency.

“Renewables are only one half of the equation,” said Dobelbower. “And from my perspective they’re less important than efficiency.”

Dobelbower said that improving the energy efficiency of buildings in the D.C. area reduces the need for renewable energy sources like solar power, which ultimately lowers bottom line costs.

“If we’re able to improve the efficiency of a school by 20 percent, that all of a sudden means the 100KW solar system that was intended to cover 5 percent of the load is now covering 10 percent of the load,” said Dobelbower.

In other words, higher efficiency in buildings means a lesser need for the renewable energy, which unlike efficiency requires a great deal of funding to implement.

Williams also said that while social media outreach and training within the GW community helps inform students about sustainability efforts, GW’s urban location makes it difficult to control waste produced by external members of the D.C. community.

“The fact that we’re not quite as much of a physical bubble as other campuses might be is challenging,” said Williams.

“There are folks from elsewhere in the city that get off at the Foggy Bottom metro stop and go to the State Department or the World Bank, and end up walking through and across our campus.”

Debelius also mentioned waste and the challenges it poses for AU’s sustainability efforts.

“The challenge with waste is that the way we do things on campus might differ from how students might have grown up disposing of their waste,” said Debelius.

Because many students don’t grow up composting and recycling the way AU’s campus does, it is challenging to get student’s to adhere to this new way of trash disposal, said Debelius.

Elissa Baum is a junior at AU, and said that while she attempts to be mindful when she goes to throw away trash on campus, she’s often distracted or too impatient to deliberate which bin is correct.

“I think students are in such a rush most of the time, they don’t want to take a moment to think about whether or not their coffee cup is recyclable,” said Baum.

“Also, all it takes is one person to contaminate an entire container of recycling, so I think that makes it even tougher.”

Another culprit of carbon emissions in the U.S. is the agricultural industry, which colleges and universities rely heavily on to feed their large student bodies.

About 40% of American universities source their cafeteria food from large private companies such as Aramark and Sodexo. These companies are preferable to universities because they can increase revenue for schools by raising meal costs for students.

While great for universities, contracts between large food corporations and universities can discourage the use of local food producers, and exacerbate the negative environmental impact of factory farming practices.

John Zechiel is the co-owner and founder of Washington’s Green Grocer, an online grocery delivery service that provides high quality, locally grown produce to customers in the local D.C. area.

Zechiel said locally sourcing food is important for a multitude of reasons, but primarily for concerns related to food safety and food security.

“Small farmers are better farmers than the big companies who use lots of chemicals, and most small farmers are organic growers,” said Zechiel. “Also, sourcing locally means your food is fresher.”

In the event of a national crisis, said Zechiel, there runs the possibility that food can’t be delivered across the country, which also suggests a need for local sources food.

“Should anything happen in the country, such as a plague or a bombing, and for some reason Florida and California can’t get their food to us, there needs to be food available on the east coast,” said Zechiel.

While Zechiel stressed the need to make locally sourced produce more available, he also emphasized that large scale farming, when done organically and with food safety concerns in mind, can be favorable to small local farming.

“To feed the country we need to produce so much food, that even if everyone wanted to eat locally, it simply would not be possible,” said Zechiel.

“Within 50 or 100 miles of D.C., for example, we simply don’t have enough small farms to feed D.C., so we need those factory farms to feed people.”

Universities like AU and GW understand that while fresh, safely grown, nutritious food is important, they still have to feed thousands of students on a daily basis.

AU’s partnership with Aramark for their dining services has aimed to incorporate quality and locality into its food service as best it can.

For instance, the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE), which functions as the predominant rating system colleges report to in order to assess their own sustainability, has rated AU at a gold level currently, said Debelius.

“In order to achieve that level, we have to submit what percentage of food purchased on campus is organic or local, or comes from a small business or small farm,” said Debelius.

AU and Aramark also work together to compost all food waste that occurs in food prep. “If they’re peeling potatoes or chopping up pineapple, all those leftover scraps get composted by a local composting company,” said Debelius.

While also reliant on a large food service company, Restaurant Associates, for the majority of its cafeteria dining, GW has taken several steps to ensure local organic food is available to students.

GW partnered with The Real Food Challenge in 2014, a national, student-led initiative aiming to provide healthy, sustainably grown, local and fair-trade food to colleges and universities.

GW has also made it easier for students to access local produce by incorporating into their meal service the option to sign up for community supported agriculture (CSA). Through CSA, students are delivered locally grown fruits and vegetables on a weekly basis, said Williams.

Universities like AU and GW both accredit their environmentally driven students for helping them make sustainable choices, and said that they will continue to strive towards sustainable goals.

“We love it when students are coming up with more creative ways to be more sustainable and pushing us to do better,” said Williams. “The student energy that is driving us forward has been a big part of the story here at GW.”

Budget Caps Prevent Bipartisan Bill from Passing in House Rules Committee Hearing

WASHINGTON – The House Rules Committee held a hearing Monday evening to discuss a bill that aims to provide additional funding and resources for all branches of the military, but budget caps and a lack of Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approvals have prevented the bill from passing.

Congresswoman Liz Cheney said arbitrary attempts to control the nation’s increasing debt have stopped the bill’s passing, despite a vote of 344 to 81 in support of the bill.

“Our most important constitutional obligation is to fund armed forces,” said Cheney. “Fundamentally, we’ve got to make sure they have the resources to do what we’ve asked them to.”

Known as the National Defense Authorization Act For Fiscal Year 2018 (NDAA), the bipartisan bill has garnered wide-spread support in the House and Senate, and would provide over $600 billion in defense funding.

Among the bill’s enactments are to ensure troops receive adequate health care while overseas, help military spouses meet the financial expenses required to relocate, and make permanent the survivors benefit plan.

Committee members agreed that raising taxes and appealing the Budget Control Act of 2011 are among the most important caveats to passing the bill.

Adam Smith (D-WA), ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee, said as a matter of national security, it is essential the government receives a sizeable increase in funding.

“We need to find a way to resolve this issue so we can defend national security,” said Smith. “If we are trying to scrape up funds, it does not make sense to cut taxes.”

A lack of FDA approval for crucial medical resources has also prevented the bill from passing. For instance, a French-made drug called freeze-dried plasma is essential to clotting blood so soldiers don’t bleed out on the battlefield, but has yet to receive FDA approval.

While House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry (R-TX) said the FDA and Department of Defense (DOD) have reached a consensus about the wording in this section of the bill, the drug cannot be administered until the FDA approves it.

Congresswoman Louise Slaughter (D-NY) said the government should be focusing funds towards medical resources like this instead of spending on military machinery such as aircraft carriers.

“If more soldiers lose their life over this (lack of access to health care), that is a real tragedy,” said Slaughter.

Congressman Doug Collins (R-GA), said inefficient military recruitment tactics should also be addressed in the bill, and that the government’s volunteer protocol may work to the military’s disadvantage.

While acknowledging Collin’s complaint, House Armed Services Committee Chairman, Mac Thornberry (R-TX) said 70% of citizens are deemed ineligible to enlist based on circumstances such as obesity and other medical conditions, and that recruiting and retaining troops is a difficult task.

The Committee agreed that the NDAA would provide essential funding the military needs in order to uphold its many responsibilities, and that the U.S. military deserves better resources and funding for serving their country.

“I think it’s important to send a message to the men and women that risk our lives for us, that congress is with them,” Thornberry said.

How Washington D.C. Food Industry and Organizations are Addressing the Farmland Crisis

WASHINGTON – If you’ve ever seen a bumper car sticker that reads ‘No Farms, No Food,” you’ve heard American Farmland Trust’s (AFT) tagline. Organizations like AFT are the reason more local food businesses are looking to reduce their carbon footprint and operate sustainably by sourcing their produce locally in the DMV area.

Headquartered in Washington D.C., AFT is an organization that focuses on promoting environmentally sound and sustainable farming practices and ensuring farmers stay on the land.

“We loose about 40 acres of farmland an hour,” said Amanda Cline, Manager of Membership and External Relations at AFT. “This message is central to why we need more farmland and why we can’t be reckless with the land we have left.”

Cline said soil health and water quality are the two most important factors in farming, and that poor farming practices, ones that involve contaminated water run-off and nutrient-lacking soil, both have a negative impact on sustaining farmland and growing produce safely.

“The biggest threat to farmland is development, like poor urban sprawls and the endless creation of suburbs and strip malls,” said Cline. “Ninety-one percent of fruits and 77% of vegetables are grown on farms that are on what we call the urban edge. They’re being pushed up against housing subdivisions. They (developers) expand the neighborhood and we loose a lot of our fruits and vegetables,” said Cline.

This means almost all fruits and vegetables are being grown near urban areas that don’t foster fertile, nutrient rich soil.

Some local businesses are taking steps to address this issue. For instance, if you’ve ever eaten a taco from Chaia, a self-proclaimed ‘farm-to-taco’ Mexican-inspired restaurant in Georgetown, you’ve promoted AFT’s mission statement by encouraging safe and sustainable farming. Chaia sources all of its ingredients from local farmers, and offers only vegetarian options to customers.

“We like to say we’re changing the world one taco at a time,” said Chaia co-founder, Bettina Stern. Stern emphasized the role locality plays in enhancing how food tastes, and also its influence on supporting local farmers.

“First of all, foods are best eaten in season. The flavor and the abundance and the cost effectiveness of eating food in season is important to us,” said Stern. “But it’s also community. It’s working with the folks who live and breathe and contribute to your local economy, and we love partnering with producers and farmers who we actually come face-to-face with.”

While restaurants like Chaia attempt to craft food that tastes good and promotes a healthy environment, grocers are also attempting to provide locally grown produce.

John Zecheil is the founder and co-owner of Washington’s Green Grocers, an online delivery service that specializes in making organic, locally sourced food available to nearby consumers.

Zecheil emphasized the role meat consumption plays in harming our health and our environment. “We need to stop eating as much meat as we do,” said Zechiel. “Your body can only process about 4 ounces of protein a day, which is a piece of meat about the size of a deck of cards. After that, the nutritional value of that meat is just waste.”

Zechiel also said the resources needed to feed animals is costly and inefficient. “An animal, to get that piece of meat on your table, requires about 27 pounds of feed. It’s an incredibly inefficient way to eat and get protein into your body”.

While farmers rely heavily on policy change to ensure over-development does not infringe on farmland, Cline said there’s still more to be done in terms of regulation.

“Policies on the state and federal level aren’t necessarily doing enough,” said Cline. “When farmland is protected through an easement, it is protected forever. One hundred or one thousand years from now, someone couldn’t develop that land over, but only 37 states have policies that specifically outline that.”

Cline said if she could advise local businesses looking to reduce their environmental impact, she would tell them to think local before anything else.

“I’d say to purchase local whenever you can and make local family farmers a priority rather than focusing on the bottom line,” said Cline. “When farmers are able to sell directly to consumers through farmer’s markets or restaurants purchase food directly from farmers, farmers have a better chance of staying in business.”

American University Zero Waste Club President, Claudia Bailey Encourages Students to Hold themselves Environmentally Accountable

WASHINGTON – American University student and zero waste club co-president, Claudia Bailey, 20, said the way to improve environmental sustainability is not through policy change, but by individuals making small decisions every day to lessen their environmental impact.

“My biggest concern about the environment would be apathy,” Bailey said. “When people say ‘someone else will fix it’ and ‘it’ll be solved later’, it’s a really dangerous mindset to have from an individual standpoint all the way up to governmental standpoint.”

As co-president of the zero waste club, Bailey oversees plans such as the club’s composting initiative, project move-in and move-out sales, and other initiatives aiming to reduce student waste on campus.

Bailey said her goal for the zero waste club is to have a student-run thrift store up and running before she graduates, an initiative Bailey wrote a business plan for herself and received start-up funding from American’s Kogod School of Business.

“Having a physical location on campus where students can buy used items at discounted prices, which helps out a student budget and reduces the amount of waste we send into landfills, I think would be a great lasting legacy that I could leave on campus for other people.”

Bailey said that while the government should work towards large-scale solutions to improving the nation’s sustainability efforts, it is also our job as citizens to work toward environmental awareness as individuals.

“If you don’t do anything about a problem, the problem won’t automatically fix itself, which is why people on a college level should be working on small scale solutions and our government should be working on large scale solutions.”

Growing up next to chicken farms on the eastern shore of Maryland, Bailey said she was privy to the impact pollution has on the environment from a young age.

“When I was growing up I got to go out on boats on the Chesapeake, where I learned about the oyster pollution, and how the crabs were doing in the bay,” Bailey said. “I was always learning about how the nitrogen run-off from chicken farms would get into the water and pollute it.”

Bailey accredits her environmental passion to her eleventh grade environmental studies teacher, who she said inspired her to pursue sustainability in college.

“She taught me that ‘talking trash’ is cool, and that if you want to go pick through trash every Tuesday, that’s ok,” Bailey said.

In high school, Bailey served as president of her school’s ‘eco’ club, where once a week during lunch time, she and the rest of the club would sort through bags of trash to separate compostable and recyclable items from waste.

Bailey said to limit her own waste now, she uses a compost bin that zero waste provides as part of their free opt-in program, and said because of this she only has to take her trash out once every two weeks.

“I’m also just conscious of what I buy,” Bailey said. “I prefer not to buy things that are in single-use packaging because that’s just another way of generating waste.”

Bailey said she would tell people looking to reduce their impact on the environment to take small, consistent steps.

“I would tell them that making small changes really does make a difference,” Bailey said. “I think there’s a narrative in this country that it’s harder to be more sustainable, and that small actions won’t actually make a difference, but they do.”

Bailey said the United States’ withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, a United Nations agreement that regulates each country’s greenhouse gas emissions, shows little promise that the current administration will act on environmental concerns.

“The U.S. government currently is taking steps backward in environmental activism,” Bailey said. “Donald Trump’s leadership on climate is not the kind of person we should have inspiring the next generation.”

Bailey said that if people viewed the environment as less of a political issue and more of a human issue, maybe the world could reach a consensus about how to approach improving it.

“I think we need younger people in government, who are actually concerned about how their future will look when they have to live it, and I think we also need more people to understand that the environment is not as political an issue as it seems to be,” Bailey said. “At the end of the day we all need to drink water and to breathe air. If you’re missing that, you’re missing the point of what the environment does for you.”

 

[REVISED] Sebastian Barry Talks Gay Acceptance and Parenthood in New Civil War novel, Days without End

By Alexandra Goldsmith

Booker Prize winning Irish novelist, playwright, and poet, Sebastian Barry only knew one sentence about his ancestor, Thomas McNulty, when he decided to write a novel about him. His newest fiction novel, Days Without End, is an account of how McNulty, a Civil War soldier and former Irishman, finds solace and intimacy in another soldier during the tragedies of war.

“In my effort to retrieve my ancestor from the dead cold hands of history, and because I only had half a sentence about him,” Barry told his audience at Politics and Prose Bookstore, “I had to concoct a biography for this man. And that’s what you can do with a book. When you don’t know anything about someone you can only give them the little things out of your own life.”

Barry’s novel explores the national and personal identity of Irishman McNulty, who travels to America in search of new beginnings in the 1850s after losing his family to the Irish famine.

The novel is written entirely from McNulty’s firsthand perspective, a decision Barry said he made to counteract Ireland’s tendency to edit history to appeal to the public eye.

“This isn’t written in grand English. This is written in the broken mouth, broken back, and broken hearted English that Thomas has achieved in his life,” Barry said.

Barry said his motive for writing Days without End was to capture the fear, anger, and desperation struck in the hearts of foreign civil war soldiers, who could only acquire American citizenship through serving for the union army in the Civil War. Barry noted that in leaving their homeland, foreign soldiers also left behind their identities, or “the books” of their lives in a sense.

“These were young men who lost everything behind them in Ireland. Their entire narratives, the books of those individuals were rescinded and canceled. So maybe what explains the extraordinary scenes of violence in the Irish-American story in that time was how incredibly angry those men must have been,” Barry said.

For historical accuracy, Barry references in his book the severe starvation and famine that affected soldiers during the Civil War, an aspect of warfare he found jolting. Barry read a passage where McNulty goes buffalo hunting, a life-risking task soldiers often performed to provide provisions for hungry troops.

“Blooms in my head the picture of the troopers roasting her and cutting great steaks out of her, the blood running down the meat,” Barry read as Thomas McNulty. “And now we have drawn a bead on that cow, and I fire, and the lovely orange flame shoots the bullet forth, and the burning black steel is absorbed into her shoulder. My heart swells. My pride explodes in my chest. Down, down she goes, a blaze of gust and power, and she takes fifteen feet to reach a stop. Must have pierced her heart. That’s a dead buffalo.”

Days without End is a Civil War novel, but it is also a personal story of parenthood, acceptance, and love, drawn largely from Barry’s own experiences. Inspired by and dedicated to Barry’s son, Toby, who came out as gay to Barry at the age of 16, the novel narrates McNulty’s relationship with his lifelong lover and companion, John Cole.

“Writing this book happened as a sort of answering of a signal from my last child, Toby, who was going to university at the time. One night my son came into our (Barry and his wife’s) room after months of being unhappy and said, ‘the thing is dad, I’m gay.’ And if a big hand had reached in and taken lead off my back, I could not have felt freer. And he looked free as well.”

Barry described his relationship with his son after this discovery as both transformative and informative. Barry said the notion in Ireland that gay people should be tolerated as opposed to welcomed was a harmful viewpoint and a disfavor to all humanity. He aimed through his novel to dispel the taboo nature of being gay and instead celebrate it as a timeless, wholesome, and perfectly decent way of life.

“These two men are in love with each other in a way that’s hard to describe now because the word ‘gay’ didn’t exist then,” Barry said. “What they are is sort of originals.”

Parenthood is also a recurring theme in Barry’s novel. In fact, he refers to the title, Days without End, as a phrase (often used by McNulty) to describe a time in life when one’s in the throes of early parenthood and acclimating to being depended on. “They are the high days of your life,” he said. “They are the paradoxical time.”

Barry read a passage about Wynona, a young girl McNulty and Cole rescue and take in as their own during the war, who often awakens from nightmares. “Sweet little face, cool as a melon when you hold it in your hands and kiss her forehead,” Barry read as McNulty. “You could expect a child who has seen all that to awaken in the night, and she does. John Cole is obliged to hold her trembling form against him and sooth her with lullabies. Then he lies on her bed and she pushes in tight against him like you might imagine bear cubs do in the winter hide. Tight in like John Cole was that bit of safety she is trying to reach, a harbor.”

These tender moments echo Barry’s experiences with his own children, and serve to soften the blow of the novel’s civil war carnage.

Barry’s book has been lauded for its historical accuracy and honest portrayal of humanity during the Civil War. Through his use of tone and language, Barry said he aimed to portray McNulty as a real 1850s Irishman turned American.

“It is my belief as a writer after forty years,” Barry said, “ that if you can discover the syntax of a person, the person can be made to reappear in the world. Just as they say that our brains are full of a hundred trillion synapses, and there’s no such thing as color and sound and we just have receptors that interpret various waves, I think similarly with a novel you can do something to the synapses in the brain and bring that person before you in a way that is as real or maybe more real than supposed reality.”