Archive for April, 2009

New Content – “Writing” Tab

I just added a new page to the site. The “Writing” tab above currently contains all the environmentally-themed articles I’ve written for The Lawrentian, Lawrence University’s weekly student newspaper. I have also been posting many of my articles as blog posts, and I will soon have those posts reprinted in the Writing page as well.

Eventually – as I have time – I’ll be posting other essays and writings I’ve done over the years related to various environmental topics. Keep checking back for more updates!

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Earth Week and Annie Leonard

Happy Earth Day, everyone!

This week, Green Roots: The Sustainable Lawrence Initiative, of which I am a committee member, has been hosting its first Earth Week celebration. This week has consisted of lectures, demonstrations, and activities for both campus and community members centered around fostering a greater awareness of sustainability and the environment.

The first event of the week on Monday was a lecture by Andrew McCann, director of Sustainable Local Food for All Canadians program at St. Lawrence College in Kingston, Canada, on “Food vs. Agricultural Biotechnology.” Andrew’s lecture addressed the non-existent future of conventional, fossil fuel-based food production systems, and expounded on the two other possible food system methodologies for the future: the biotechnology-based system and the local-organic-slow food movement.

Also as part of Earth Week, yesterday, we had the pleasure of having the esteemed Annie Leonard, of The Story of Stuff fame, on campus. The Story of Stuff is a short internet film crafted by Leonard explaining the socio-political systems and factors driving our modern American materialistic culture of excessive consumerism and consumption. (See Leonard’s video here.)

Alright. I cannot reign in my enthusiasm while writing this post any longer. Annie Leonard was phenomenal! She was the most inspiring, energetic, fascinating, knowledgeable speaker on the subject of sustainability and environmental activism I have ever seen in my life! I not only got the opportunity to see her speak in the scheduled evening lecture, but I participated in a Q&A session earlier in the day, introduced her evening lecture, and got to go out to dinner with her afterwards! It was more than 6 full hours of pure inspiration!

(For those of you who missed Annie Leonard’s talk on The Story of Stuff, it was recorded and will soon be available through the Lawrence University website. As soon as it becomes available, I’ll be sure to link to it here!)*

Annie talked primarily about how in today’s world, we increasingly turn to stuff and things as a replacement for human interaction and connection. College students, she said in last night’s address, tend to have “a surplus of friends and a deficit of stuff.” However, as we go through life, she continued, we begin to have fewer and fewer friends and more and more stuff. This results in a three-part problem in society, she says:

“We’re trashing the planet.
We’re trashing each other.
And we’re not even having any fun.”

There is so much more in her arguments, but the crux of it is this: Because of the deterioration of community, we’re buying more and more stuff that we don’t need and is full of toxic chemicals anyways. And in order to pay for this consumption, we’re working more and more, and have less and less time to enjoy ourselves. And, of course, all this stuff we buy uses tons of natural resources, the extraction of which is destroying ecosystems and causing massive ecological crises. So we’re destroying the planet, ourselves, and we’re not even enjoying ourselves in the meantime.

Annie’s thoughts and ideas are essentially the culmination and articulation of things I’ve been stewing over since the start of my undergrad. In today’s world, we are increasingly disconnected from other people and from the ecological reality of our planet. As community deteriorates—perpetuated by urban sprawl, large yards with fences to barricade us from our neighbors, store-to-door delivery of everything from books to groceries, and fear of crime—it becomes harder and harder to even know the name of your neighbor, much less create meaningful relationships. Our daily needs become farther and farther away from where we live and so we increasingly rely on the fossil-fueled car to take us to work, the shopping mall, the internet café, etc. All so we can work more to buy more stuff!

As I said in my introduction to Annie’s talk, modern society often measures how “successful” we are by how much “stuff” we have. This concept—often termed “keeping up with the Jones’”—is not at all unfamiliar to us: how many times has each of us looked at our neighbor’s house or pool and wished we had something “as nice as they did”? We are constantly seeking to prove our worth to those around us by how much we have—do we have the latest flat screen HDTV? Do we have the newest iPod? Is the car we drive fancy enough, new enough, big enough? Even proclaimed “environmentalists” often define their status and commitment to the cause by what they have: do you drive a Prius hybrid, or ride your bike?

But Annie Leonard (not to mention the many others with similar ideas—Paul Theobald, David Orr, Richard Louv, Paul Hawken, Amory Lovins, et al.) is not all about the doom and gloom inherent in the destruction of community and the environment. Ms. Leonard, especially, more than any others I’ve come in contact with, is a true optimist and makes it clear that there are so many things we can do to help.

“One of the good things about such a pervasive problem,” she said yesterday, “is that there’s a lot to be done in terms of solutions.”

We can be more conscious of what we buy and whether we need it. We can send letters, emails, make phone calls and visit our legislators lobbying to get the toxics out of all the stuff we buy. We can get internships, volunteer, or work for the many organizations designed to help develop and implement solutions to these socio-ecological crises. We can talk to our neighbors and figure out how to share things so we don’t need to buy as much stuff for ourselves. We can start thinking about how to redesign the system.

One of the many tools people can use to start making a difference is Wiser Earth. Created by Paul Hawken, Wiser Earth is an open-source, wiki-based networking site for individuals, organizations, resources, solutions—everything dedicated to creating a sustainable earth. I recommend that everyone get connected on this website, and start finding the people in your area dedicated to sustainability and community activism. Then we can connect with each other, get organized, and start formulating plans for how to start the sustainability revolution!

My Wiser Earth page.

Endnote: For those who are hungry to know more about The Story of Stuff and the deeper reasons behind our consumerist society, Annie Leonard is fast at work on a book to accompany the internet version of The Story of Stuff. It is set to be published March 9, 2010, and I can’t wait to read it!

*A further note on the above from 5-12-09: Unfortunately, I have become aware that Ms. Leonard signed an agreement with Lawrence to have her talk recorded for archival purposes only. Meaning, her talk will be on CD in the Mudd Library of Lawrence University, and not available on the web. Sorry! If you are in the area, however, stop by the Mudd and ask the reference librarian to help you track down her lecture.

Eating for Enjoyment, Part 3: A Manifesto on Bread

In the last two posts I have discussed various food philosophies, the meaning of food in society, and our modern pattern of “eat and run.” In this article, I wish to focus on one particular type of food that is common to all humans—bread.

All cultures have some form of it. From pita to tortillas to naan, biscuits to French bread, whole wheat to Wonder Bread, every society in the world takes grain, grinds it to flour, mixes it with at least water and possibly salt, yeast or other things to make what is, for many, a staple food. The variety of breads and foods to eat with bread are some of the reasons it is so appealing to humans. As omnivores, we want a diverse diet and lots of choices, and bread—in sandwiches, dipped in soup or dip, covered in jam or butter, filled with practically anything—certainly allows for diversity.

The air-filled Wonder Bread varieties consumed by many Americans do not even begin to capture the possibilities available. Nor do they taste like what bread was meant to taste like. Even the denser, whole-wheat varieties available on grocery store shelves still are commonly loaded with preservatives to keep them fresh during transport and increase shelf life, and sometimes taste like such.

Furthermore, the bagged, generic sliced bread bought regularly at America’s supermarkets have relegated bread from the position of prominence warm, home-baked loaves had on many dinner tables of the past to the bologna-and-American cheese Wonder Bread concoctions that fill brown bag lunches today. Grocery store bakeries and places like Panera and Atlanta Bread Company have attempted to change this; still, it’s a far cry from French bakers carrying around trays or baskets of warm, fresh bread.

For all these reasons and more, one of the first tasks I have begun on my quest to eat for enjoyment is to take up bread baking. Baking my own bread from scratch has proved much more delicious and preservative-free than store bought varieties, not to mention just plain fun. When I finally, after hours of hand mixing, kneading, rising, and baking, took my first perfectly rounded loaf of whole wheat bread—beginner’s luck—out of the oven, I was so ecstatic, I ran to grab my camera to photo document, and had to have everyone in my house taste the bread immediately.

One of my bread creations, a soda bread made using a recipe from the book Classic Breads, by M. Caldirola, N. Negri, and N. Aru (published 2004 by Sterling).

One of my bread creations, a soda bread made using a recipe from the book Classic Breads, by M. Caldirola, N. Negri, and N. Aru (published 2004 by Sterling).

But there is something in bread making beyond the gratification you get with the final product. There is a process to making bread; you begin with piles of powder (flour, salt, and possibly sugar), cups of liquid of varying viscosities (butter, milk, or water) and one magic ingredient (yeast) and after getting your hands, your pants, and the floor completely covered in flour, you wind up with this product that looks nothing like the ingredients with which you began. It’s energizing to know that I can start from scratch and make something delicious with little more than the energy of my own hands and the oven.

But bread making, despite all the kneading and mixing and baking, ultimately does not rely on human power. Yeast—single-celled organisms from the fungi kingdom, whose invisible spores are in the air nearly everywhere—is the true engine behind bread making. Yeast, when added to the dough, feeds on the sugars in the flour, resulting in the creation of gas, which causes the dough to expand in volume, or rise. The time that elapses during rising allows the ingredients to ferment ever so slightly, cultivating the flavors and textures of what we know as bread.

As I anxiously check under the damp towel every 20 minutes or so as my bread is rising, it’s hard to believe all that is going on and I can’t even see it. What’s further amazing is that humans, somewhere in the course of history, discovered that they could harness the power of yeast to make leavened—or raised—bread. Bread making is relatively simply: you knead the ingredients, let the dough sit for anywhere from a few hours to a day or more, and pop it in the over. The amount of labor required is actually relatively little. It’s unfortunate that more people do not take advantage of the relative ease of making homemade bread, which makes your kitchen smell wonderful, contains no preservatives, and tastes delectable. Mmmm, mmmm…I’m getting hungry just thinking about it!

(This post is the final installment in a three part series on food called Eating for Enjoyment, originally published in February 2009 in The Lawrentian. See all three here.)

Eating for Enjoyment, Part 2: The Meaning of Food

I ended my last post hinting at “what exactly food as a concept means to our human societies in general.” Food means more than just a source of sustenance to human societies. It holds a place in a deeper part of our consciousness. Or it used to.

Traditionally, meals used to be a time when people gathered together, indulging in not only a taste of the Earth’s bounty, but also a sense of community with one another. Special or symbolic meals and foods play an integral role in many religious celebrations and ceremonies, and different types of meals—often seasonally-linked—have been a part of cultures for eons.

Food in America is undeniably linked to our culture, though just how has changed over the past century. A hundred years ago, a meal used to come from the farm your family worked on—the vegetables from the garden, the meat from the cow recently slaughtered, the bread from grain grown in the fields. Families used to come in from a long day and sit down to a communal meal at the kitchen table, exchanging news of their lives and the world.

Even 50 years ago, families gathered at the kitchen table for dinner. Even though the food came from the supermarket, and possibly at least some of it from a box or can, at least the people eating it still engaged with each other while dining.

Today’s typical dinner table looks drastically from these first two scenarios. The food most likely came from a box, or worse, a fast food bag. And the family is likely not sitting down to the table together, but rather eating in fragmented “shifts,” as my family and others like to call it.

Given this upbringing most Lawrence students likely had—where dinner was a fragmented affair between school, sports games, and music lessons—you’d actually be surprised at how well the “family meal” actually holds up at college. Looking around at the cafeteria, you usually see the same groups of friends sitting at the same tables in A, B or C room at around the same time each night of the week. This is the college version of the “family dinner.” Somehow, in our busy lives, we still manage to all sit down together and eat a meal. Granted, mealtime is made easier by the fact that we need not cook a meal, but simply walk through a line and choose our meal from a variety of items. And many of us still have to “eat and run”—to rehearsal, to homework, to meetings.

Still, dinner at college is less about food and more about the company (which is good, given that the food is…well, cafeteria food). We’ve managed to maintain the structure of dinnertime, but the significance of the meal we eat is gone. The struggle becomes, then, how to preserve meaning in what we eat when eating limited options from a buffet line. For many of these foods, we don’t even know their names, much less their contents, method of cooking, or source of ingredients. With the exception of the (occasionally correct) “VGN” (vegan) and “V” (vegetarian) labels, and the “Provided by the garden” labels (now rare in the middle of winter), the food we eat in cafeterias or at restaurants has lost its dimensionality and definition.

Even beyond cafeteria food, much of the food we eat today is dimensionless: what we eat, we view as simply a “hamburger” or a “salad,” without considering the rich stories and layers of meaning behind the food. This is why it becomes easy to ignore the fact that most meat comes from factory farms, where cattle live in cages barely larger than themselves, eating hormones, antibiotics, and corn feed. It’s easy to ignore the living conditions of migrant workers who pick our spinach. It’s easy to ignore the thousands of gallons of fossil fuel burned to ship our food the thousands of miles from its source to our neighborhood grocery stores.

Far from the intimate connection between farmer and kitchen table that we have long since lost, we don’t even have a connection between the drive-thru boy and the passenger seat “table.” Mealtime has gone from being a thoughtful event to a mechanistic necessity.

But there is a larger lesson in this than just to be more thoughtful about what we put into our mouths; the way we eat in modern society is symbolic of the way we conduct our lives in general. We are constantly in a rush, we rarely think through the things we buy and use—be it soap or Burger King—and how they affect our bodies and our planet, and we often ignore those individuals around us and the social relationships that make us human. But, perhaps, if we start to think about our food, it will start us thinking more about other things, too.

(This post is the second in a three part series called Eating for Enjoyment, originally published in The Lawrentian in February 2009. See all three here.)

Eating for Enjoyment, Part 1: A Food Philosophy

It’s almost spring, for those of you who haven’t noticed. And as I spend my last term on a meal plan at Lawrence, making the trek to the school cafeteria two plus times a day, I’ve found myself thinking a lot about food. Thinking about all the good things I’m going to cook next year when I can cook for myself and have my own kitchen: all the healthy, organic produce I’m going to use in all the great homemade soups and breads I’ll make, and how I’ll never have to buy another Chunky canned soup or Ramen noodles again.

Well, given that I’ll be on the budget of a graduate student (in both time and money), living in an apartment that, except with the addition of a kitchen, will likely be worse than my current suite in the newest, nicest dorm on campus, maybe all my food won’t be organic, and I probably won’t have the time to bake a fresh loaf of bread to put out on the windowsill of my apartment every morning. And I may still buy the occasional can o’ soup in a pinch.

Still, having control over the ingredients that go into my food and being able to choose what to cook for dinner every night, and not just have to dip into the troughs that are the cafeteria buffet lines, are things I’ve been looking forward to for at least three years. Cooking what I want will allow me to be more ethical, sustainable, healthy, and satisfied with my food choices.

Part of my food angst stems from field experience this past summer in the Philippines, where we ate white rice with either a) okra, b) eggplant, c) dried fish with 90% of your daily salt allowance, d) canned tuna in a variety of flavors (including marinara, which should be illegal as a tuna flavor), or e) a Filipino variant on the theme of Spam. Eating purely for sustenance and never for enjoyment was a new experience for me, and made me much more appreciative of good-tasting, enjoyable food when it was available. And though I do realize that most of the world does not have the variety of good food available that Westerners are used to eating on a daily basis (a subject for a future post), recognizing and appreciating the variety and possibility inherent in cooking and eating in America has become part of my own personal food philosophy.

Some people are vegans or vegetarians. Some people never eat meat on a Friday. Some people buy only “happy meat” from sustainable farms, or eggs from utilitarian, free-range farmers named Chiara. Some people only buy Oscar Meyer baloney. I vow to never eat simply for the sake of sustenance. As long as I can afford to, and live in a society where there is such a large variety of foods, I will eat only foods I like, foods I enjoy eating, foods that are healthful, and foods that do not harm the environment.

I call it eating for enjoyment. Yes, it’s idealistic, and possibly a bit unrealistic. But so are vegans eating at cafeteria buffet lines. And at least when I start cooking for myself, I’ll have complete control over what goes into my tummy.

This food project of mine has only just begun. I still eat mystery meat and casseroles at the cafeteria. And after a four-year love affair with Ramen noodles, it will be hard to go cold turkey. But, I got recipe books for Christmas, and spent a good part of my spring break experimenting with bread baking. And when I occasionally cook dinner with my boyfriend, even though it still takes almost 3 hours from start to first bite, I enjoy every minute of the cooking.

And if nothing else, I’m learning that when you buy your own ingredients and spend the time and effort putting them together into something worth eating, you think a lot more about where your food came from, how it’s made, and exactly what food as a concept means to our human societies in general.

(A version of this essay is part of a three part series on food and eating that was originally written for The Lawrentian in February 2009. See all three here.)

Bon Appetit to a Low Carbon Diet

Next year, as Lawrence University switches over to its new Campus Center, it will also have a new food service. A company called Bon Appetit will be Lawrence University’s new food service provider. Though I am graduating and so will not be eating this new food next year, I am intrigued by one thing: Bon Appetit’s tag line is “Food services for a sustainable future,” and that next year, Lawrentians will be able to enjoy a more sustainable diet when eating in the Campus Center cafeteria.

Bon Appetit calls its sustainable eating plan a “Low Carbon Diet.” This means that the company not only recognizes the contribution of the food industry to carbon emissions connected to global climate change (in the form of emissions from shipping food and fertilizers to grow food across the world, carbon sinks lost when areas are deforested to make pasture or agricultural land, as well as methane emissions released when wasted food decomposes), but seeks to design its operations in a way that minimizes the amount of carbon emitted in the process.

What exactly does this entail? Well, Bon Appetit launched their Low Carbon Diet campaign in 2007 on Earth Day, seeking to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions from business operations 25% over three years. According to their website, this means several things, including the following:
• Getting nearly all the fruits, veggies, meats and water their operations use from North America,
• Educating “guests,” or diners, on how they can make “low carbon” food choices,
• Reducing food and kitchen waste, and
• Using energy and water efficient kitchen equipment.

With an initial goal of reducing beef consumption by at least 10% in each of their cafeterias, the entire system has decreased consumption by 23% in two years. This year, the company is tackling cheese and tropical fruit consumption, aiming to reduce these figures by 25% and 50%, respectively.

One the aforementioned educational efforts is Bon Appetit’s low carbon diet calculator. This unique and interesting site allows visitors to place various meal items into a frying pan that calculates the contribution of given diet choices to global warming in the form of “CO2 points.” In the calculator, each point equals one gram of CO2 emissions, so that a 2,000-point meal item for instance equals 4.4 pounds of carbon emitted into the atmosphere.

To see what this might amount to in food items, I dragged my lunch from today into the frying pan. My lunch consisted of an Italian sub-like sandwich made at the school cafeteria with turkey, ham, salami, lettuce, tomato, and cheese on bread with chips on the side. So I dumped all this in (or as close as I could get), and it amounted to 1,660 CO2 points, or about 3.65 lbs of carbon emitted into the atmosphere because of my lunch. Doesn’t sound like a lot, but if you assume I eat 18 meals like this a week for 52 weeks a year, that amounts to more than 3,400 lbs of carbon emitted per year. And this likely is a low estimate, because I didn’t include any beef in this typical meal. One 4 oz. steak amounts to 4,793 CO2 points, or over 10.5 lbs of CO2 emitted, just from one small steak!

Obviously, how we eat clearly has a much larger impact on the climate and the environment than we commonly realize. Not only does the distance food travels from farm to plate result in more or less oil-guzzling, carbon-emitting miles being driven cross-country, but conventional industrial farms require large amounts of fertilizer that also must be transported to the farms and then often ends up washing into polluted rivers and streams. The cattle from which the steak you eat comes release manure and methane emissions in amounts far larger than are natural, and the land on which to pasture these cattle often comes at the expense of forests that once acted as carbon sinks.

The latest trend toward food sustainability, including the local and organic food movements, led by writers like Michael Pollan, Mark Bittman, Barbara Kingsolver, Marion Nestle, companies like Bon Appetit, and projects such as the Sustainable Food Project at Yale University, is part of a growing realization that organic, local and natural is better for the health of people and the environment. Bon Appetit is just one of the businesses to recently recognize the prescience of environmental issues, and to take advantage of the market niche for sustainable products.

It only remains to see how Bon Appetit’s new service at Lawrence will taste. And that, alas, as I will be graduating, I leave up to next year’s students.

Sources: The Huffington Post, Bon Appetit Management Company Website, www.EatLowCarbon.org

(A version of this essay was first published in the April 10, 2009 edition of The Lawrentian.)

The Evolution of a Sustainable Mindset

Trips to Northern Wisconsin to fish and swim at my grandparents cottage, digging in the garden in my grandpa’s backyard, family vacations to the wilderness of the American West, nature walks around the neighborhood picking up rocks and sticks, living in a house full of books on science and nature. These are the experiences that shaped my interest in the natural world around me. The more I learned of the natural world through experience, the more I wanted to read about it through books. I’ve always been someone who has loved ideas and books. Growing up, nearly every open wall of my house was filled with bookshelves and books. Year after year, they piled up on coffee tables and countertops. I picked up a new book nearly every afternoon when I came home from school. They were full of new ideas, possibilities, and knowledge. Throughout the course of my high school and college education, as my interest in science solidified, I began to read books on the well-being of the environment and the people who live in it. The evolution of my desire to have a career in sustainability can be traced through several key books I have encountered throughout high school and college.

When I was a junior in high school, I was assigned a final project in American History to examine American environmental history over the ages. As part of this project, my mom gave me the book Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, by Michael Braungart and William McDonough. I was enamored with the way these masters of sustainable design described processes of industrial production where every waste was a resource, and all facets of society incorporated concern for the environment, the economy and society. This “cradle to cradle” production (as opposed to the current “cradle to grave” methodology where materials go from extraction to consumption to waste) and “triple bottom line” of consideration are key elements of a sustainable society, whose definition I also came across as part of this project. The Brundtland Report (also titled “Our Common Future”), born of the 1987 United Nations Commission on Environment and Development (UNCED), defines sustainable development as “meeting the needs of the future without compromising the ability of future generations to meet those needs.” This vision fit directly with the principles outlined in McDonough and Braungart’s book. More importantly, it made sense to me on a personal level. Such a vision aligned with the teachings of my parents, who, while ordering paper and cleaning products from Seventh Generation, told me about the importance of preserving the Earth’s resources for use seven generations from now.

In my freshman year of college, I took a course on International Relations and wrote a term paper making the case for collaborative environmental sustainability in a globalizing world. In addition to reviewing the Brundtland Report and Cradle to Cradle for this project, I also discovered the principles presented in the Club of Rome’s Limits to Growth, the Easter Island story, Lester Brown’s Eco-Economy, Herman Daly’s Beyond Growth, Paul Hawken’s The Ecology of Commerce, and a number of other books on environmental economics, sustainable development, and the future of the social and natural world. The research for this term paper supported my conclusion that sustainability is not just necessary for continued human society but also possible.

This past spring, I picked up a book in my family’s living room entitled The Last Child in the Woods, by Richard Louv. Louv’s research on the importance of “nature play” – time spent in the outdoors – both for robust and healthy mental development in children and for maintaining mental health in adults further solidified what my own experiences in nature as a child had taught me. Playing outside, exploring and discovering the intricacies of nature taught me about how things worked, and developed in me a keen interest in science and biology. Reading Louv’s empirical approach confirmed for me the necessity of preserving natural spaces within easy reach of every person, especially in cities, in order to maintain a healthy society.

At the end of this summer, I heard about community study circles that were starting in the Fox Cities to investigate sustainable development right here in my own community. Using the book The Natural Step for Communities: How Cities and Towns can Change to Sustainable Practices, by Sarah James and Torbjorn Lahti as a guide, these study circles brainstormed possibilities for implementing the Natural Step principles in our community. This book, which discussed the principles and methods for creating sustainable communities, was instrumental in confirming my desire to work at the level of municipal governments, businesses or institutions to implement real change in policies and practices, and to plan to meet a vision of a sustainable world. My experience in this study circle has brought perspective to the academic knowledge of sustainable development I gained from the previously mentioned books and research projects. Through discussion with citizens of the Fox Cities area about the possibilities for a sustainable community, I have become excited about the opportunities for creating sustainable policies and practices in our communities.

My environmental education, through both books and academic research, has taught me that the challenge of creating a sustainable future is not solely about developing practices that prevent the depletion of the Earth’s natural resources; it is also about commitment to more equitable distribution and use of the world’s resources. Developed nations, and those in the upper segments of all societies, currently consume far more than their fair share of natural resources, while contributing to a polluted environment that disproportionately diminishes the quality of life of those in poverty. Sustainable development – whether in a rural village in the developing world or an urban center in America – can help increase the health and well-being of all members of society.

My personal and academic reading continues, and with every new book or article, I become aware of some new aspect, method, or principle of sustainability. I look forward to continued deeper research into these methods, as I develop my own experience and credentials for future use in working with communities, businesses or organizations toward creating sustainable practices and contributing to a healthier earth.

(This essay was originally written for graduate program applications.)