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Mountain Justice Joins National Group Sunrise, Broadens Goals

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After a busy past year, Mountain Justice is rebranding. They’ve joined Sunrise, a national “movement to stop climate change and create millions of jobs in the process,” according to their website.

“Last year I remember hearing about Mountain Justice just about every week,” said Matt Palmer ’18, who has not been part of environmental groups at Swarthmore. From a campus-wide panel about divestment to a sit-in in President Smith’s office, the climate justice organization was incredibly visible last year. This year, they’re trying something different, but they hope their impact on campus will be even greater.

Sunrise was launched this past June by a group of 12 people, including four Swarthmore Mountain Justice alumni. The founders come from different sects of the climate justice movement, including the environmental organization 350.org and anti-pipeline groups as well as pro-divestment activists. With these varied backgrounds, Sunrise aims to mobilize Americans concerned about climate change and pressure elected officials into action. Swarthmore’s “hub,” or chapter, will remain focused on Mountain Justice’s original mission of getting organizations to divest from fossil fuels while pursuing these broader goals.

“Divestment has done an incredible job in building people power … It’s mobilized thousands of young people across hundreds of campuses, and that’s so exciting,” said Aru-Shiney Ajay ’20, a coordinator for Swarthmore’s Sunrise hub. “But … it’s not enough to just have people mobilized and ready to protest. We also need to make sure that our elected representatives are going to be standing up for climate action; we need to be able to take power at the highest levels of government … And it’s out of this recognition that Sunrise really arose, that while we’ve been doing good work we need to do so much more in order to win.”

Nationally, Sunrise has already made a splash, particularly at one of their #ShineALight events in August. September Porras ’18 crowdfunded her way into a fundraiser to confront Marco Rubio on his donations from the fossil fuel industry. At the event, Porras couldn’t speak to Rubio directly, so she called out in the room.

“Senator, if you really care about young Americans,” she said, “why did you take three-quarters of a million dollars from fossil fuel executives in your last Senate election?” PolitiFact Florida rated Porras’ claim half-true because the number she cited included funds from Rubio’s 2016 presidential run as well.

According to PolitiFact Florida, Rubio avoided the question. He said he was glad he lived “in America where she can say that,” as opposed to some other countries where she could “go to jail. He then called for the U.S. to achieve energy independence.

“It was our kickoff event for Sunrise across the nation,” Porras said. The event was videotaped and is available online.

Although Sunrise’s other actions probably won’t be as dramatic as Porras’ confrontation of Rubio, Porras said her actions were in keeping with the group’s goal of putting pressure on elected officials.

“The point is less to make our elected officials suddenly change their minds about climate change … [and] more to show people how corrupt they are,” said Porras.

To work toward this goal and mobilize young people, Sunrise has planned a full calendar of events both nationwide and here at Swarthmore. This Tuesday they had a watch party in Roberts with a livestream from national Sunrise leaders. Over the course of the semester, they plan on talking to community members about what they love and have to lose from climate change, gathering objects that represent individuals’ concerns. They aim to put these objects in a time capsule and take them to Harrisburg, Pa., when they march on the state capitol in November. That month, they’ll also be marching in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh with other Sunrise hubs, protesting President Trump and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s representation of the U.S. at the Climate Change Conference in Bonn, Germany.

Although they’ll be protesting global events, Swarthmore’s Sunrise hub will still be focused locally.

“Sunrise functions on an intersectionality basis … and they recognize that fighting for climate [justice] in different communities looks different,” Porras said. “I think here, we’re really focusing on fracking in Pennsylvania … and for Swat that would also translate to still working with on divestment, because for us that’s what looks like climate work in our community.”

There are many other environmental groups working on campus, and sustainability and environmental awareness are stated goals of the administration.

Institutionally, Swarthmore College recognizes the importance of addressing climate change,  using natural resources in a sustainable manner, and educating its community to be responsible stewards of the environment,” says Swarthmore’s Sustainability website.

In an email, Sustainability Director Aurora Winslade affirmed the administration’s support of students working to fight climate change, and that the Office of Sustainability has opened a dialogue with Sunrise.

“I am not familiar with the specifics of the Sunrise Movement,” she said, “but I applaud the leadership and engagement of our students and alums in these issues … The Office of Sustainability is happy to work with all students and student groups who are interested in sustainability. For example, sustainability program manager Melissa Tier ’14 recently invited representatives from the Sunrise Movement to present to the College’s Green Advisors.”

Like Winslade, Matthew Palmer ’18 is unfamiliar with Sunrise, but he thinks it shows promise.

“I can’t say I’m familiar with Sunrise,” Palmer said, “but it seems like a really good set of goals and a way to broaden their exposure and provide students with new perspectives. I like that they’re targeting other issues rather than specifically divestment. I think that policy measures and things of that nature might be more effective than trying to lobby the administration for how they invest their endowment.”

Despite their broader focus, Sunrise will continue Mountain Justice’s effort to pressure the administration to divest. They will remain focused on holding the administration accountable along with the rest of the Swarthmore community, arguing for change not only in rhetoric but in action.

“Right now it’s almost seen as enough if someone says, ‘Oh, I support the Paris agreements,’ and they’re hailed as a climate champion,” said Ajay-Shiney. “And we’re saying that’s actually not enough. It’s not enough for the administration to be having a recycling run on campus, it’s not enough for this small carbon tax. We need to address things at an institutional level.”

Cherishing our Crum Woods

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Following my morning routine abroad in Hanoi, Vietnam, I am riding the bus from my host family’s house to my classes at Hanoi Medical University. I am mesmerized by the thousands of motorbikes on the road. At least half of the riders are wearing facemasks to protect themselves from pollution. As I exit the bus, I can’t help but notice how difficult it is to breathe as my lungs feel caked in dust and particulate matter.

While I am smiling as I am transfixed by the motorbikes honking at me to move despite walking on the sidewalk, the traffic and horns are a sharp contrast to the peaceful environment I have come to appreciate in the Crum Woods and on Swarthmore’s campus. At Swarthmore, the smell of Japanese honeysuckle and fresh rain accompany me to class each morning, but in Hanoi, the odors of smoke from street vendors, gasoline from motorbikes, and trash from garbage left on the side of the road overwhelm my senses. Back at Swarthmore, when in need of clearing my head, I can stroll through the Crum and get lost in listening to the rushing water of the creek and the chirping of the birds. Here in Hanoi, I am always aware of the motorbike sneaking up behind me and the street vendors yelling, asking me in Vietnamese to purchase something from their stand. I cannot lose myself completely in my thoughts, or else I will not be able to keep up with the quick pace of this city that is unlike any I have ever experienced.

The outdoor space on Swarthmore’s campus, both inside and outside of the Crum Woods, is a precious resource that has become especially dear to my heart these last two years, and even more so now that I must try and seek solace in an area with little to no actual green space. The Crum Woods provides space for students and community members to meditate, reflect, and get lost in their own thoughts. It provides space for students to become the responsible, ethical, and balanced citizens that Swarthmore’s mission demands its students become. In a study conducted last year through the President’s Sustainability Research fellowship, the three most common words students used to describe the Crum were “beautiful,” “diverse,” and “peaceful.” Students discussed enjoying the Crum Woods because they use it for exercise and retreat from the college’s grueling academic atmosphere. Overall, they offered it relieves some of Swarthmore’s pressure that can sometimes become overwhelming. The Visioning Process Final Report the college published last year also found that better use of outdoor space was one of the top desires of students on campus.

Still, students are not taking advantage of the natural spaces that exist on campus because they are “too busy.” However, what if making time to enjoy the natural resources that we have on campus became a priority? After all, studies show that time spent outdoors can actually make students more productive. According to the Huffington Post, two researchers from Stanford University found that walking outdoors boosts creativity, and researchers from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign found outdoor activity is likely to improve concentration. Lee and Ingold, in their article “Fieldwork on Foot,” describe the value of the outdoors best when they state, “the rhythms of movement are very different and people draw attention to the specific qualities of the outdoors,” compared to the almost static movements of the indoors.

I challenge you, Swatties, to make embracing the Crum Woods and the arboretum, in which you are all lucky enough to live and immerse yourselves, a goal this semester. Make time to take a walk in the woods, to listen to the sounds around you, and to notice how the natural environment actually improves your wellbeing, and perhaps even motivates you to finish your studies. While you’re at it, use events like the Scott Arboretum Tree Planting and Crum Woods Tours to motivate yourself to enjoy and conserve our woods. I challenge you to let the Crum Woods change you the way that the woods have changed me.

It is because of the Crum Woods that I have come to understand the serenity that exists in the world although our fast-paced and routine-oriented lives attempt to tell us otherwise. I’ll never forget the comfort of the woods last semester when I was practically in tears after failing a paper. I was completely overwhelmed when I realized that I had to quickly recover from that paper because I had a biology exam and other readings to complete. I found myself storming into the woods to walk out my frustration. After a few minutes in the woods, my heart began to slow and my eyes began to dry. Hearing a Carolina wren in the distance and watching a squirrel happily scurry up a tree, a small smile spread across my lips. Though academics are important, there is so much more to the world than one paper. The woods are a constant reminder that there is so much more to explore and so much more life beyond stress. It is because of this peace from the Crum Woods that I have been able to reaffirm my own values and discover where I belong in society.  

Of course, as I am away from the Crum Woods this semester, I still wouldn’t trade exploring for Hanoi for anything. There are aspects of Hanoi that I love and that I could never find at Swarthmore. I can’t even begin to describe how astonished I am by the simplicity of life many people follow, eating pho for lunch on a little blue stool resembling that of a four-legged children’s seat from my childhood. I love the vendors who opt for pedalling around a bike to transport their fruit and goods in baskets, content with wearing a rice hat to cover themselves from the beaming sun. At Swarthmore, we complain about having to sit in our dorm rooms without air conditioning, never mind pedalling a bike in the 100-degree hot, humid weather, but that argument is for another article.

Even so, there’s something to be said about valuing a luxury that many of us students don’t fully realize we have on campus. My experience in Hanoi has showed me how lucky we all are to not have to walk around campus with facemasks or smell garbage and toxins every time we leave the indoors. This privilege must motivate us to cherish and protect our woods even more, and we should make a conscious effort to appreciate and care for our natural environment the way it cares for us every day.

You’ve Been Saving Water and You Didn’t Even Know It

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Throughout this school year, you probably saved around 1,122 gallons of water. And chances are you, you didn’t even realize it.

This past summer, I worked on behalf of the Office of Sustainability and the engineering department to research ways that resources, particularly water, could be conserved on campus. After preliminary investigations into water uses on campus such as irrigation, food services, and laundry, I found a large potential for feasibly saving water in shower water usage.

In the spring of 2016, a Green Fund proposal by Shane Loeffler ’16 jump-started a trial run of low-flow showerheads in the field house. After winter break, several low-flow showerheads were installed in the men’s and women’s locker rooms to gage student response. The main concern with the project was student complaints against the reduced flow. The relatively quiet response paved the way for a broad scale implementation of low-flow showerheads in the rest of the athletic facilities and in dorms throughout campus.

Before recommending the relatively small, but nonetheless significant, investment in purchasing low-flow showerheads, I wanted to confirm that low-flow showerheads could indeed save water. There was a concern that lower water pressure would cause students to take longer showers, thus rendering the low-flow showerheads ineffective at actually saving water.

If you lived in Willets over the summer, this might sound familiar to you. I attempted to quietly change half of the showerheads in Willets (as discretely as a girl in a dress with a wrench can get in the men’s showers of Willets). The new 1.5 gallon per minute (gpm) showerheads replaced old 2.5 gpm showerheads, therefore ideally saving 1 gallon of water per minute of shower use.

To test how much water was actually being saved, I first manually measured the flow rates of 1.5 and 2.5 gpm showerheads throughout campus (it turned out that 2.5 gpm labeled showerheads actually delivered an average of 2.22 gpm and 1.5 gpm labeled showerheads delivered an average of 1.32 gpm).

I also asked Willets residents to time their showers over the course of a week in July and record the times on slips of paper. Despite a few minor setbacks (someone stole my homemade data collection shoe box, along with the data, on Day 5 in Willets 2nd North), I was able to collect 111 shower times and determine that there was not a significant difference between students’ average shower times of the two types of showerheads. Therefore, I concluded that the low-flow showerheads could indeed save water.

I spent the next few weeks installing over 200 low-flow showerheads in dorms across campus. I ran into some fairly legitimate challenges to being able to install low-flow showerheads in all showers on campus, like construction in ML, a different showerhead type for handicapped showers, as well as some less impressive obstacles. Despite breaking a sweat, I simply could not get off a handful of the 2.5 gpm showerheads in Mertz and Worth – I like to blame the wrench for that one. Also, I had thought that no one was living in some of the smaller dorms over the summer, but an awkward encounter with a German exchange student in Woolman proved me wrong and prevented me from installing low-flow showerheads in some of the smaller dorms in use over the summer.

With over 200 out of the total 318 showerheads in Swarthmore’s dorms  replaced with lower flow showerheads, as well as all of the showerheads in the field house and Ware Pool locker rooms, chances are, you’ve cut down on your shower water usage without even realizing it.

Much more can be done, though, to promote Swarthmore’s conservation of water. I chose to save shower water through low-flow showerheads because it involved no behavior change on the part of the student. However, behavior change could further save water. I found that the average shower time for Willets residents was 7 minutes and 27 seconds. I understand that the stress of Swat can make standing under a hot shower seem like a daily necessity, but quickening the pace of a shower or reducing the time allowed for the water to warm up can lead to substantial water savings.

There is also room for energy conservation by reducing the temperature of showers. Last year, more energy went to heating showers in Willets than actually heating the dorm. Not only would taking shorter showers work to save energy, but sacrificing a few degrees can further save resources.

Being aware of the environmental footprint of your shower is the first step in working to conserve resources. Even though you’ve been saving water without even realizing it, a shorter shower or reduced temperature can further contribute to the conservation of water and energy that you have already unknowingly been contributing to. It is important for Swarthmore’s campus and students to take responsibility in a global effort to live a more sustainable lifestyle.

Students to march on Washington for climate justice

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On April 29th, Swarthmore students will be marching around the White House, along with thousands of other protesters, for the People’s Climate March in Washington D.C. Although the march is a national event, Mountain Justice, Green Advisors, and the Sustainability Office are working together to send three buses of students to the march and a student convergence the day before.

Indiana Reid-Shaw ’17 was part of a group of students who worked to send students and staff from Swarthmore to the first People’s Climate March in New York City in Sept. 2014. By coordinating with the larger 350 movement, an environmental organization, and getting funding from various departments at the college, the group was able to send 200 students and staff to the march.

“The first PCM was a huge success, and therefore we are using the same tactics to garner interest,” Reid-Shaw said.  

These tactics include advertising on dorm halls, sharing slides with professors, and running an interest meeting along with Mountain Justice. September Sky Porras ’20, a member of Mountain Justice, headed this interest meeting and is leading the effort to bring people to the march this year. Porras believes that, despite negative rhetoric about protests, the march is an important occurrence.

“I think that the People’s Climate March is super important right now. I also know there’s a lot of discourse about whether protests are effective or not. For me personally, I think that protests even though they’re made up mostly of people who are already engaged. First off it lets people feel like they’re doing something and being part of something, and second, leads them to engage with other organizations, … so it’s definitely teaching people how to be leaders in their communities and how to elect people who are good for climate justice. And then of course third, everybody who’s in D.C. at the time is going to see this. So if you don’t think this is a big deal, it’s gonna seem like a very big deal,” Porras said.

The college’s Sustainability Office, while supporting the college’s decision not to divest at odds with Mountain Justice’s recent referendum, is working with Mountain Justice and the GAs in this effort.

“We take seriously our role of serving as a liaison between students and the administration and supporting all student sustainability groups on campus. Thus, we look for opportunities to engage constructively with Mountain Justice, including our collaboration on the upcoming People’s Climate March,” Nathaniel Graf, of the office, said.

Reid-Shaw is also excited about the collaborative effort.

“I am excited about this partnership with Mountain Justice because I get the sense that some people think of these two groups as approaching environmentalism in opposing ways. I think both of our groups’ foci are essential and should work in tandem,” she said.  

Along with the march itself, many students will be attending a “student convergence” on Friday, the day before the main event. At this convergence, various organizations such as 350 will be hosting workshops on both climate justice and social justice more generally.

“It’s going to be a bunch of students, we’re going to be taking those workshops, we’re going to be interacting with other students and other student organizations, I know we’re going to be meeting up with a lot of people who have other divestment movements, so that’s going to be a lot of fun,” Porras said.  

Although the 80 people who have signed up for the march this year are fewer in number than before, there is excitement about the opportunity to learn at the convergence.

“I was actually really excited to see so many people who aren’t super involved in MJ or the GAs already being excited to go to the student convergence, and I was like woah, that’s really cool, because I don’t know if I wasn’t involved if I would want to put myself out there. So I’m really like wow, that’s really great,” Porras said.  

According to Porras, in past years, some of the panelists at the People’s Climate March and convergence have been less than optimal. With the help of Stephen O’Hanlon (year), she looks forward to a more improved experience.

“Apparently … there were a lot of questionable panelists, who were, I don’t know, just very white-centrist ideas … yeah, (this year), it’s not going to be that,” she said.

Reid-Shaw remembers the “contagious energy” at the last march in 2014.

“The energy was contagious at the last PCM in 2014. It was empowering to walk with so many people all with a common interest for climate justice, but for so many different reasons. I talked to a beekeeper, an environmental justice advocate, and an indigenous activist. I remember feeling the power of the people as we marched by Times Square and all of the corporate buildings,” she said.  

However, both Reid-Shaw and Porras believe that the new Trump administration makes this 2017 march, which will be held on Trump’s 100th day in office, particularly important.

“I …  think it’s pretty poignant that it’s on [Trump’s] 100th day in office, and we’re going to be marching around the white house very loudly, so yeah I think protests and specifically this protest being so large, and in DC, and on that specific date, it’s just a very very good way to connect channels of people,” Porras said.

Reid-Shaw agreed.

“On April 29th we will march again, but this time in DC and to the White House to demand climate justice for people of color, workers, indigenous people, immigrants, women, LGBTQIA, young people, and more! As the Trump administration and their fossil fuel allies threaten communities and our future, we need to show up in force in DC to demand a renewable economy that works for all,” she said, “Our goals are high.”

The buses to D.C. have the capacity to hold about 150 people, and look to bring a large presence of students to the event.


Let’s Give a Damn: Trump Game

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We’ve all probably freaked out a little about climate change and President Donald Trump’s outright denial of it. It seems like President Trump has hand-picked a team that will happily sign off the future of our planet to build walls. Or something. And everyone’s playing the Trump Game like, “oh, can he do this?” Can he rip up the Paris Agreement? Can he actually increase coal mining? It’s almost as if I can hear a collective wailing and lamenting about Trump’s EPA picks, and what seems like his personal vendetta against environmental agencies and regulating companies that can be heard all night and day.

So I decided to talk to a couple of different people who have been doing environmental work to see how Trump’s administration might impact their work.

Laura Rigell is a recent Swarthmore alumna who does environmental justice work in Philadelphia, primarily with Serenity Soular. Khai Dao and Roberta Riccio both work in the Environmental Protection Agency. Dao is an engineer working with the RCRA Corrective Action Program, which works in collaboration with facilities with hazardous waste to perform cleanups. Riccio has worked with the EPA for 27 years, most recently with the Water Protection Division to enforce the Safe Drinking Water Act. She works with states and oversees public drinking water systems, ensuring they’re doing the right testing and treatment. Mike Ewall is the founder and director of Energy Justice Network. Full disclosure, I did not actually get a chance to interview Mike Ewall. However, I did meet him last year at a conference, and he wrote something that is relevant and will be quoted.


It was clear that this article had the potential to become very bleak, and so I wanted to start by stating that after my conversation with Rigell, Dao, and Riccio, I am reassured (and you should be too) by all of the great work and people who will continue doing what they believe in no matter what. They’re out there, and they’re fighting! Basically, the apocalypse won’t happen, like, tomorrow.

Rigell, who is driven not only by the reality of climate change, but also by the desire to bring about more racial and economic justice, works with Serenity Soular and seems sure that the local project she is working on is not fazed by the uncertain future.

Serenity Soular is a project based in a place called Serenity House, a community center in North Philadelphia. It started out as a gardening project but has since become a project about creating jobs in the community. Since 2014, Serenity Soular has been focusing on training and helping members of the community find employment at a solar installation company. The training is done by Solar State and in fact, a lot of Swatties have been involved with the project, and you can learn about it through the Lang Center or on Swarthmore websites.

“I want to help us shift to a more just society, one with the focus on climate justice,” Rigell said.

The one concrete thing that Trump’s administration can do that concerns Rigell is the changing of the solar investment tax credit. The tax credit is a 30 percent tax credit for solar systems for residential and commercial use. It is one of the most important federal policy mechanisms to support the deployment of solar energy in the United States and was just recently renewed to continue until 2021.

“If congress retracted it, the solar industry might really crash. It could have a very negative impact unless the cost of solar comes down a lot,” Rigell said.

When I called Dao and Riccio, I had this in mind and hoped to hear more about the policy changes that concerned them. However, at the start of the interview they professionally and politely told me that there were some restrictions that couldn’t allow them to disclose certain information.

“I guess we have to come out with the process for this interview because the current administration…” trailed off Dao.

“We have certain restrictions about what we can talk about. And there’s a lot that we don’t know about too,” interjected Riccio.

Both of them continuously reassured me that although they were initially shocked, they realize that with any change in administration there are protocols for federal agencies.

“I think it was a shock to everybody in general in how Trump took over the government and how it trickles down to EPA too. One of the first things was the limitations to what we could discuss with the media and also postponing decisions on regulations, so that the administration and their people can review what we’re planning to do in terms of our approach and our regulations, the works,” said Dao, “But, that’s common.”

“In retrospect that’s common when administrations change,” chimed Riccio, “That’s to be expected in the beginning. If something is in the works, they would want the opportunity to review it all.”

However, they were definitely shocked about the change in some of the initiatives and missions that they both hold onto dearly.


“I think the biggest shock right off the bat was when it was announced to the media and then confirmed with the EPA that they took out some initiatives that we thought were pretty commonly accepted within EPA, such as climate change,” said Dao.

From what Dao and Riccio were able to share, it seems that everyone is continuing their jobs as usual with their current budgets, but new proposals or initiatives are on pause or slowed down. Within the EPA, there are no more additional hirings or decisions about new managers. However, Riccio believes that managerial positions will be implemented after there is a new regional administrator. As I spoke with them, it was clear that there was a lot of uncertainty, and almost a defeated laughter accompanying it all.

“Honestly, we don’t know what exactly is going to happen yet. I want to say we’re nervous,” Roberta said.

“Right now,” Dao added, “We’re just following the typical protocols with a change of administration.”

Both Dao and Riccio expressed concerns about how certain protocols can definitely set the agency back, undermining a lot of good work that they and their agency have been doing for a while. How exactly that might look however, no one is sure.

“In general, from what we’ve heard from the Trump administration is outside homeland security and the military, the entire federal government is alert,” said Dao. “For us being scientists and engineers, we really hope the administration continues to use data and science to make the decisions — not just politics.”

Dao and Riccio were both hopeful, however, that smaller local organizations or states can rise up and take more of a lead. Dao laughed and called out California, expressing hope that they will take the lead in regulating what is right for their state. Riccio pointed out that local organizations that are not funded by federal agencies, such as Serenity Soular, can and are definitely going to make a big impact.

Rigell from Serenity Soular and Riccio also both commented on the mass public support and protests that have become more and more commonplace. Both are amazed and inspired by the great activism that is occurring on the local level.

“On some levels, I think this is pushing people back to the question: ‘what do I believe in?,’” Riccio said.

“The left gets more organized under Republican presidents, even when facing the same things that they often ignore under Democratic Party presidents,” Ewall reflected. Ewall’s article is definitely much more hopeful than the interview I had with Dao and Riccio. In fact, he points out that Barack Obama and Bill Clinton have both promoted fracking, which “is worse for the climate than coal.”

Ewall writes that resource depletion has more of a say with what energy resource is being used than a president, and thus Trump’s incessant threat about promoting coal is impossible.

“Coal production, in terms of energy value, peaked in 2002 in the U.S. The affordable half of the coal is already used up, and the rest will mostly stay underground, economically unreachable,” he writes. “It’s geology, not a Democratic president, that has a war on coal.”

The EJN have also continued to fight against incinerators in rural Pennsylvania, with two victories in December and January. The EJN is definitely one of the local organizations that can make a huge impact when it comes to bringing environmental justice to local communities.


“We’re hopeful,” ends Khai. “I think common sense and doing the right thing will eventually prevail. I think people in the agency and in the government are going to move forward, and do the right thing, and do their best.”


And no one, not even the President, can stop the people fighting for what is right.

Before It’s Too Late

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It’s time sustainability stopped being “just green,” because it’s not going to be enough.

The idea of this column, “Let’s Give a Damn,” actually came from one of the Environmental Services tech whom my partner — Adina Spertus-Melhus ’17 — and I talked to last semester for our Presidential Sustainability Research Fellowship (PSRF — pronounced pee-surf) project. Rebecca from the night-shift in the Chemistry wing – hey Rebecca! — said: “I love reading The Phoenix,” and, “I know how to recycle better than most Swatties,” and, “I’d love to see a column on sustainability.”

So here we are.

This column is not going to be a place where I spew out tips (or commands) like “Top Ten Things to Make Your Experience in Sharples Sustainable” because I realize I have no place to do that. Nor am I the most exemplary person when it comes down to doing all that I can. Rather, the aim of this column is to try and push forward the conversations on topics of sustainability, which I’m sure are happening all around, and into the public domain here at Swarthmore. My goal is to encourage conversations that are accessible to everyone, and to be opinionated in the hopes that my thoughts make sustainable living more interesting. I will also be writing in conjunction with Ecosphere, Swarthmore’s first and only zine that will highlight all the great projects and environmental groups on campus now. I hope to also get feedback and suggestions on what I should talk about, and thus create an interactive community. Please feel free to comment and or shoot me a personal email.

Sustainability has become one of those topics that has become a “thing” on the individual level. Almost as if it’s either your ‘thing’ or it’s not. I know this because, as I was going through my awkward tween years, some people would say, “Oh she, like, uh, cares about the environment,” and meant it as a comment rather than a statement. Sometimes that comment was made as a joke, and people would giggle. To many, if sustainability is your “thing,” you’re either a new-age-bare-foot-tree-hugging-spiritual-voice-of-the-trees-paganist-wanna-be-vegan with a billion impossible habits that involve something like saving your toenail clippings for later, or you’re a techno-centric-fact-spewing-apocalyptic-prophet-environmental-engineer who lives in a completely self-powered room with a bunch of extremely particular stuff that no one else around you understands. In other words: self-righteous, preachy, and annoying. If you’re not one of these two, then you’re just an annoying, fake environmentalist.

In all cases, you’re varying degrees of annoying. You care about something that is not as important as every other social justice issue.


It isn’t a surprise to me that many people are hesitant when they see large Greenpeace and PETA signs, or when they’re tentative to start doing research and to ask questions on becoming more environmentally conscious. It is a greatly considered topic for a niche group of slightly rebellious people that I often get asked why I not an environmental studies major. “If you care about this, then you should just join the tribe, and shut up about it.” Put it this way: imagine if someone came up to me and asked “If you cared so much about being Asian and your Asian identity, why don’t you major in Asian Studies?” Well, I would look at the person in astonishment and probably wonder how sad it is that caring about something, is just not valued or normal in our current society. As if nowadays if you cared about something it has to be because you were also doing “real work” for it.

Isn’t it sad that I can feel eye-rolls as I say the word “care?”

I understand that it is difficult to empathize with environmental issues because they are so embedded within every aspect of our lives — from everything we use, to what we eat, to where we go to the toilet. Every system has the question of the environment in it. It’s so vast and confusing people are unsure who the environmentalists are even representing and caring about. It sounds pompous to say “the entire planet” and it sounds strange — and is untrue — to say “the trees.” People stay away from it entirely, or they joke about it because it’s easy to joke around with environmental issues — haha, recycling, psh — because, well, no one seems to be getting hurt.

Well, now people clearly and incontrovertibly are getting hurt.

The Syrian Civil War is considered one of the largest wars sparked by a climate change-induced drought. The poor and disenfranchised suffer the most as a result extreme weather disasters. I want to step away from facts and statistics for a moment. My home, Beijing, is infamous for its pollution. That means a lot of different things, but one thing that will never fail to sadden me is that now it is harder to laugh because it takes deep breaths to laugh.

It is time to restructure the norm of being a “sustainability person.” This is an issue that cannot just be “green,” about the “environment,” or for the “green people.” It is a nuanced issue that no one has the right answer to. No one knows the answer, or what is exactly correct. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do anything — in fact, it should mean there’s greater opportunity for everyone to be thinking and acting. It is difficult for a lot of people to grapple with, including myself, is the degree of failure that is unavoidable as we live in our current economic system. The existence of this economic system sets “being sustainable” on an asymptotic scale rather than one of yes or no.

Here is a picture of a horizontal asymptote.Screen Shot 2017-01-26 at 1.10.10 AM

I know very little about horizontal asymptotes other than that the line will never reach a limit, in this case, zero, but will only continuously reach for zero.

Let’s take a moment and pretend that the gap between the line and zero represents the negative environmental impact you have. Let’s acknowledge the gap, and feel a twinge of sadness that we seem to always hurt our Mother Earth. It should not mean we should sit and just sigh and await some, we don’t even know what kind of, disaster. Because now, more than ever, every step in the right direction is necessary and real, even if it’s not perfect. It starts with caring, and does not mean we can’t do anything. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do anything. And caring about the environment, believing that climate change is very much real and that the environment needs to be taken care of starts with just that, giving a damn. Anywhere from “I live an entirely zero-waste existence” to “I watch Planet Earth to appreciate nature” is a question of degree, not validity.

If you think the environment needs protecting, if you think that it is wrong that we profit off the exploitation of the environment especially in third-world countries, and if you think that something needs to be done, then you care. That cure can take any shape and form you want to start with.

As we twiddle our thumbs and watch the new climate-change-denying cabinet take power, let’s all just start with the baby step of saying loudly and fearlessly to a friend, to all your friends on Facebook, to yourself at night, and anyone:

“I care about the environment.”

Because, honestly, it is already a little late.  

Carbon charge to support sustainable projects

in Around Campus/News by

Earlier this month, the Board of Managers put in place a new carbon charge for the 2016-2017 fiscal year budget. This carbon charge will levy funds from academic and non academic departments to support sustainable projects. The goal is to reduce emissions and to promote sustainable solutions as part of the college’s commitment to carbon neutrality by 2035.

A focus group made up of faculty and the sustainability coordinator started planning for the carbon charge in the fall of 2015. After community consultation, the carbon charge was proposed to the Board of Managers Committee on Social Responsibility in December 2015. At their meeting this February, the board voted in favor of the carbon charge and allotted $300,000 of the college’s budget towards it.

The new carbon charge is part of the college’s Sustainability Framework, which outlines building sustainability standards, and a commitment to carbon neutrality by the year 2035. According to Aurora Winslade, Director of Sustainability, this commitment is represented in part by the Environmental Studies program, Green Advisors Program, and the Eco-Charrette two day event last year. As a part of the commitment to carbon neutrality, the carbon charge has wide-reaching goals.

“Over time, the intention is to more closely tie the fee to choices that are made so that we can incentivize behavior that reduces emissions,” said Winslade. “It is also a statement that makes it clear that we take climate change seriously, remain committed to our goal to reach carbon neutrality by 2035, if not sooner, and intend to be among those creating solutions.”

The carbon charge is part of an effort to pursue more sustainable solutions and reduce overall emissions. Swarthmore currently offsets 100% of its carbon emissions from electricity by purchasing Renewable Energy Credits, which supports renewable energy development by representing that one megawatt-hour of energy was generated by a sustainable source. “Swarthmore has been purchasing Renewable Energy Credits since 1999 in a quantity to ‘offset’ our campus emissions.” said Winslade. “This is not a substitute for reducing our emissions, but does help fund projects elsewhere that help reduce emissions, in this case the offsets are provided through wind energy.”

The $300,000 of levied funds in the carbon charge will support projects that reduce the college’s carbon footprint. For example, the fund may be used for energy efficiency or renewable energy projects. The funds may also support research or metering projects that aim to raise awareness of sustainability issues and direct informed decisions. One of the main objectives of the carbon charge is to make people more aware of their carbon footprint and possibilities for  sustainability.

“A primary goal of this new policy is to induce positive behavior change by making individuals’ carbon emissions more apparent and meaningful,” said Winslade. “Over time, as both metering & campus awareness of carbon emissions improve through funded projects, new components of the Carbon Charge structure will be added to better link the levy to actual behaviors.”

One main aspect of the carbon charge design is a .5% levy on all academic and non-academic departmental budgets for the 2016-2017 fiscal year. This levy will increase in the following years. Another aspect of the project, which is yet to be implemented, is a fee for every $40/metric ton of carbon dioxide used in construction.

Although an increased levy will be placed upon all departments, the money will not come from faculty or staff salaries. According to Chair and Professor of the history department, Timothy Burke, the .5% levy will not have a significant effect on the department’s activities.

Chair and Professor of the anthropology department, Sarah Willie-LeBreton, expressed support for the charge despite the effects it will have on the sociology-anthropology department’s limited budget.

“Although we will feel the consequences of the carbon charge, we also see this as a contribution to the overall sustainability of the College that we are glad to make,” said Willie-LeBreton. “At the same time, some of our colleagues in Political Science, Philosophy and Economics urge us to appreciate that budgets and financial investments represent our organizational values. So while we are deeply appreciative that the carbon charge has brought many community members together, we continue to work for Swarthmore’s more robust participation in curbing global warming at mezzo and macro levels.”

Winslade expressed that a main part of the carbon charge design is the creation of a “green-revolving loan fund.” With this the college can effectively loan itself money for sustainable projects and create more capital.

“The Carbon Charge will help us invest in both the research and the projects that will reduce our emissions,” said Winslade. “Many of these projects have financial returns, and it is our hope to be able to use some of the funds to establish a revolving loan fund in which projects that have a payback can be financed from the fund, then repay the fund through the savings so that money can then be re-invested in the next project.”

Min Zhong ’19 believes that the carbon charge initiative is a move in the right direction for the Office of Sustainability. “It seems like it’s a big initial financial investment, but I believe that the board and Aurora has put enough thought into this initiative that it is going to work out well.”

Zhong also critiqued the clarity of the board’s message and its exact initiative. Although their general plan and goals are outlined, the board did not explicitly state  how the revenue will be allocated, or what exactly the fee does for the college in terms of achieving sustainability.

“The plan is still really vague [in terms of] what they are letting us know, so it just seems like there is going to be a lot of spending happening but the consequences of that spending aren’t clear yet,” said Zhong. “It’s difficult to get people enthusiastic about what this new carbon plan will achieve if we don’t have a clear idea of how this policy is going to play out.”

Despite the carbon charge, students have expressed the desire for the college to do more to commit to sustainable solutions and divestment. Abby Saul ’19, a member of Mountain Justice, stressed that although the charge is a step in the right direction, it is inadequate to address climate change.

“Due to the urgency of the climate crisis, it is important that we utilize all the tools at our disposal to fight for our collective futures. The carbon charge is one way to do that — but it is far from enough and is not a replacement for divestment,” said Saul. “Initiatives focused on encouraging sustainability on our campus are important, but when faced with arguably the largest crisis of our times, they are simply not enough.”

Zhong communicated similar sentiments that the board’s new plan is a step in the right direction, but leaves room for more steps in achieving sustainability.

“It seems like the board continues to be in conflict with environmental initiatives from Mountain Justice’s point of view, but it looks like they are making a conscious effort to put out a sensible first step towards achieving a goal that would benefit the whole college.”

Although the carbon charge promotes sustainability and the college’s commitment to carbon neutrality, it does not, according to Saul, tap into Swarthmore’s social capital as part of a larger movement to divest from the fossil fuel industry and take social responsibility for climate change.

“The divestment movement works to not only break financial ties with the fossil fuel industry but also to use Swarthmore College’s social capital as a highly respected institution to stigmatize [the fossil fuel] industry whose prosperity is directly linked to the destruction of millions of lives, the environment, and our hopes for a just future,” said Saul. “MJ will continue to campaign for divestment of the College’s endowment from the fossil fuel industry.”

Swarthmore can align its values with honorary degree recipients

in Op-Eds/Opinions by

This Thursday, three Swarthmore Honorary Degree recipients, labor organizer and anti-war activist John Braxton, linguist, philosopher and political activist Noam Chomsky, and Berkeley sociology professor Arlie Hochschild called on the college to divest its endowment from fossil fuels. On Tuesday, MIT Professor Emeritus of Management Lotte Bailyn added her name to the letter. These three individuals are amongst the distinguished members of society that Swarthmore College has bestowed Honorary Degrees on for their moral, social and scientific contributions to the world. They represent the values we purport to uphold as an institution, and we ought to heed their advice when they call on our college to uphold its moral responsibility as a global leader: “Climate change is without doubt one of the most important moral, economic, and political issues of our time.  We call upon you to exercise intellectual and moral leadership by implementing a plan to divest from fossil fuels over the next few years.” Our institution should join the ranks of these leaders in combatting the greatest threat of our generation by divesting from fossil fuels.

Communities around the globe are facing an unprecedented crisis at the hands of anthropogenic climate change and the rogue fossil fuel industry. Communities of color, those of lower socio-economic means and the global south are disproportionately impacted by the devastating effects of global reliance on coal, oil, and natural gas. Extreme weather, rising sea levels, and air and water pollutants devastate lives, drive global conflict, and bring us closer to the brink of ecological collapse. There is no greater threat to humanity in the 21st century. The devastating effects of inaction now will be placed upon the shoulders of our generation and impact our lives in untold ways. We know what the consequences of inaction are, yet the stranglehold that the fossil fuel industry and its inertia have over our political process threatens to drive us off the cliff. Only a sustained, popular campaign that capitalizes on collective power to tackle the fossil fuel industry can counter the political inertia that surrounds us and drive industry and government alike to act.

The fossil fuel divestment movement offers an alternative: driven by collective action colleges, pension funds and governments around the world are divesting in ever increasing numbers, sending a message to politicians, corporations and financial markets that fossil fuels hold no place in a just and sustainable future. Financial institutions have responded by highlighting the investment risks of fossil fuel stocks if action is taken to curtail fossil fuel consumption, devaluing the industry. Some energy corporations have responded by taking steps to reduce their carbon impact and directly citing the social change that divestment creates as a core reason. But the industry is fighting back. Just this past week, the Supreme Court blocked the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan in a 5-4 decision while litigation pends brought by 27 states and the fossil fuel industry charging that the Environmental Protection Agency does not have authority to restrict total CO2 emissions. The need for action has never been greater. Will our institution sit idly by while the most important political battle of our generation is waged?

We have an opportunity to lead, to live up to our values as an institution and support social justice, but we are wasting it. Every initiative Swarthmore takes to combat climate change rings hollow when we continue to invest in the very industry that drives it. By continuing to invest in fossil fuels, we are actively betting against a just and sustainable future where those stocks will no longer be solvent. Future efforts devoid of divestment smack of nothing more than window dressing in light of the significant financial ties that powerful board members Rhonda Cohen, Harold Kalkstein and Samuel Hayes III have with the fossil fuel industry. They must recuse themselves to maintain the integrity of future discussions on divestment.

The majority of Swarthmore students and faculty support divestment, and now John Braxton, Noam Chomsky, Lotte Bailyn and Arlie Hochschild have added their voices to the chorus calling for change. It is time for our institution to respond to these leaders; the price of inaction is too grave to do otherwise. As John Braxton said in his 2010 commencement speech, “There is a major economic and ecological crisis looming, and the lives of literally billions of people depend on our solving these problems. The curvature of the crisis is exponential and the nature of exponential problems is that they are hard to take seriously until it is nearly too late.”

Members of the Swarthmore community, please join us to rally and hear John Braxton speak this Friday, February 19th at 1:00 p.m. on the front steps of Parrish and deliver a strong message to our board of managers. Swarthmore, please don’t let it be too late.

Works Referenced:

Braxton, John. (2010, May). 2010 Commencement. Speech presented at Swarthmore College, Swarthmore, PA. http://www.swarthmore.edu/past-commencements/john-braxton-70

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