Increasingly Higher Temperatures are Leading to Prison Deaths

By Alejandra Jimenez – RHS Intern

“History always repeats itself. We can only learn to hold it differently.” – Ari B. Cofer (Author of Paper Girl and the Knives that Made Her)

In an age where topics of conversation are scrutinized on a scale of least to most political, the subject of prison reform is rarely welcomed. But, as the climate warms, for the good of prisoners, guards, and state and national coffers, we will need to change our prison system. Avoiding such matters may be labeled prudence by some, or complicity by others, but regardless of one’s stance on the topic, the following paragraphs provide insight into the relationship between extreme heat and the realities of the incarcerated, as well as the effects that an ever-changing climate has on the prison industrial complex.

Jaron Browne, communications organizer and author of Race, Poverty & the Environment, explained how in the ways in which we treat the incarcerated, we live in what constitutes an era of modern-day slavery. Ever since the end of the Civil War in 1865, a time shortly after slavery had been formally abolished, prisons around the country have disregarded the safety implications on the people residing within them. This means that inmate cells rarely have air conditioning and have too few windows to provide adequate ventilation and circulation of air during heat waves. They also have little to no access to the natural world. Individuals such as Joshua Hieronymus, one of many inmates who have felt nature-deprived, shared during a 2018 interview with Austin’s PBS, “I can’t even put into words how much of a weight was lifted off me, just being able to get my hands in the dirt.”

In an article by The Marshall Project, New York University clinical professor of emergency medicine, Dr. Susi Vassallo, gave an overview of how bodies regulate themselves in extreme temperatures. Naturally, a person’s body will sweat and dilate blood vessels as part of a self-cooling mechanism. But “when the humidity is really high, the sweat can’t evaporate…It just rolls off your body without cooling it… The cells of the body start to cook and fall apart.” Inmates experience this as they continuously pass out in their cells due to scorching heat, and are found dead, hot to the touch, with body temperatures as high as 109.9 degrees Fahrenheit.

In a letter to PBS science series NOVA, inmate Sherrard O. Williams shared the realities of many convicts from across the country who are left to face the excruciating effects of a lingering summer heatwave. He recalled how inmates “would walk around with soaked wet clothes,” and those who were “locked in a cell 23 hrs. of the day would flood their prison cell floors and lay down in the water.” Writing from first-hand experience, Williams recounted his time spent in solitary confinement- better known to the inmates at the John B. Connally Unit in Kennedy, Texas, as the “devil’s den,”- and feeling as though he “could only sleep for minutes at a time & wake up in pools of my own sweat.”

According to 2017 statistics by The University of Texas Medical Branch and the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, there are an estimated 145,167 people incarcerated in the State of Texas; of which 30,678 are prescribed psychotropic medication and 3,241 are over the age of sixty-five. Featured in NOVA’s article, Dr. Vassallo explained how one of the side effects of such medication is that it makes an individual “four times more likely to die of heat-related complications” as it hinders the rate at which the body is able to self-regulate. International climate expert and 2013 President of the American Meteorological Society, Dr. Marshall Shepherd, similarly stressed the severity of this heightened thermal vulnerability as he posed the following scenario: “Imagine being in a prison environment under a heatwave that’s been lingering for a week or two, and the nighttime temperatures aren’t getting too cool… That’s when you start seeing heat-related trauma.” Being witness to the delirium, agony, seizing, and convulsing that arise from heat-stroke victims, inmates diagnosed with mental health illnesses and comorbidities stop taking their medication, which as a result increases the likelihood of suicide and psychotic breaks. In doing so, not only is the safety of other convicts put at stake but that of correctional employees as well.

Prisoners are among the most vulnerable in terms of limited mobility and social isolation. This has prevented even the most basic forms of adaptation – such as basic temperature control. But being confined within a facility away from society for an indefinite amount of time is the punishment, not subjecting people to cruel environments and conditions. Living in an ongoing and worsening climate crisis, providing an air-conditioned environment to a packed facility is not a luxury, it is a necessity. As Texas inmate, Marc Garrett, said during an interview with Austin PBS, “The conditions of confinement are, at a bare minimum, expected to be livable. Not Marriott or Hyatt Regency. Livable.” Incarcerated individuals should bear the protection of having the quality of their health guaranteed upon both entrance and exit.

Garrett is not alone in this as people like Dr. Vassallo, in touring a minimum-security facility reported, “Standing in that cell… that’s a level of stifling I’ve never experienced.” Head of the state correctional officer union, Lance Lowry, impartially elaborates on the gravity of inmates’ living conditions by declaring, “I don’t have love for these people… but the incarceration is their punishment, not cooking them to death.”

The major problem underlying the policy solutions is the multitude of jurisdictions involved. Kelli Bush, director of the Sustainability in Prisons Project, contended that “The key challenge to prison sustainability is high incarceration rates.” Incarcerating fewer people would loosen tight budgets, decrease incentives for industrial development, and lead to a reduction of the goods and materials produced for the maintenance of prisons, which all require the use of fossil fuels. Achieving equilibrium in the way we go about the evolution of our systems of governance is a defining factor for whether this portion of our history will mirror the conditions of convict leasing in the post-emancipation South or whether it will be made anew.

Resources for further reading

“In the Eye of the Storm: When Hurricanes Impact Prisons and Jails,” Prison Legal News, last modified May 17, 2018, https://www.prisonlegalnews.org/news/2018/may/17/eye-storm-when-hurricanes-impact-prisons-and-jails/. Date accessed, March 2, 2022.

“Locked into Emissions: How Mass Incarceration Contributes to Climate Change,” Sage Journals, last modified November 25, 2020, %20have%20numerous%20implications,significant%20increases%20in%20industrial%20emissions. Date accessed, March 6, 2022.

“Rooted in Slavery: Prison Labor Exploitation,” JSTOR, last modified Spring 2007, https://www.jstor.org/stable/41555136. Date accessed, March 8, 2022.

“Incarcerated People Remain Vulnerable to the Worst Ravages of a Warming World,” NOVA, last modified December 5, 2018, https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/article/climate-change-mass-incarceration-prison/. Date accessed, March 8, 2022.

“Boiling Behind Bars,” The Intercept, last modified February 12, 2022, https://theintercept.com/2022/02/12/prisons-texas-heat-air-conditioning-climate-crisis/. Date accessed, February 25, 2022.

“Cooking Them to Death: The Lethal Toll of Hot Prions,” The Marshall Project, last modified October 11, 2007, https://www.themarshallproject.org/2017/10/11/cooking-them-to-death-the-lethal-toll-of-hot-prisons?utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=share-tools&utm_source=email&utm_content=post-top. Date accessed, February 28, 2022.

“No Justice, No Resilience: Prison Abolition As Disaster Mitigation in an Era of Climate Change,” University of Texas Libraries, last modified December 3, 2021, https://www.liebertpub.com/doi/full/10.1089/env.2021.0020. Date accessed, March 3, 2022

“Thermal (In)equity and incarceration: A necessary nexus for geographers,” Sage Journals, last modified December 3, 2021, https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/25148486211063488. Date accessed, March 13, 2022.

“Texas spent $7 million to fight against A/C in a prison. It may only cost $4 million to install,” THE TEXAS TRIBUNE, last modified August 29, 2018, https://www.texastribune.org/2018/08/29/texas-prison-heat-air-conditioning-cost-drop/. Date accessed, March 24, 2022. 

What is the Green New Deal?

Green New Deal Presser Wikimedia commons

by Hannah Bernier

The Green New Deal (GND) is a landmark congressional resolution that seeks to mitigate the worst effects of climate change by drastically reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the United States. Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Edward J. Markey introduced this resolution to the United States Congress in 2019 in response to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Special Report in 2018 that reported that global warming must be kept below 1.5 degrees Celsius to avoid the worst effects of climate change. This report also predicted that if global warming reaches 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, it will result in a climate refugee crisis, significant ecosystem losses, economic losses of $5 trillion in the United States, and real estate/infrastructure losses of $1 trillion in the US, among other effects. To stop this warming, greenhouse gas emissions must be reduced by about 50 percent from 2010 to 2030, and the world must have net-zero global emissions by 2050. The Green New Deal acknowledges that because the US has been a large contributor to climate change by emitting a disproportionately high amount of greenhouse gases, it has the responsibility to take decisive action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions for the well-being of its citizens as well as the global community. 

The Green New Deal calls for a 10-year economic mobilization at the scale of the New Deal program led by the federal government to cut net greenhouse gas emissions in the US to zero over the next 10 years. However, this is not the sole goal of the GND: it also serves to increase economic security for all people in the US by providing jobs and social safety nets, as well as addressing and dismantling oppressive systems that hurt frontline and vulnerable communities. The Green New Deal includes a set of broadly-defined goals, including fostering clean manufacturing, encouraging the widespread use of renewable energy, reducing pollutants from agricultural activities, generating millions of jobs with a living wage, providing every US resident with healthcare, economic security, clean water, and healthy food. If passed, the resolution would not be legally binding; it is instead a commitment by Congress to the American people to create and implement policies and programs to aid in this economic mobilization. 

The Green New Deal is not without its critics: many see the plan as unrealistic if not harmful. Though some policymakers and people see the Green New Deal as an opportunity for large-scale mobilization, others find the GND too broad and too vague to be a reasonable starting point for addressing climate change. In March 2019 the resolution was defeated in Congress, yet many individual states, cities, and local jurisdictions have begun to implement Green New Deal policies within their own jurisdictions. For example, in September 2020, Tucson, Arizona’s Mayor Regina Romero and the Tucson City Council declared a “climate emergency” and set a goal to become carbon neutral by 2030. Based on the Green New Deal, the City of Tucson has committed $250,000 to a holistic 10-year Climate Action and Adaptation Plan that includes, but is not limited to, using clean and local energy, electrifying the city’s public transit, implementing massive tree planting programs, committing to zero waste by 2050, and investing in green infrastructure. Tucson is one of the 120 local governments in the US that has declared a climate emergency. Many of these local jurisdictions are committing to the values and ideas proposed in the Green New Deal and implementing their own site-specific initiatives. 

The Green New Deal is markedly different from environmental movements and policies of the past. The US mainstream environmental movement–from John Muir’s call for conservation of public land in the early 1900s to the passage of anti-DDT laws after Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring book published in 1962–has for the most part focused on single-issue policies and programs. It has not addressed the larger systems of oppression and exploitation that have caused degradation to land and human health, and only sought surface-level solutions. Also, many policies within the conservation movement disenfranchised Indigenous peoples from their lands and restricted land and resource accessibility to Black people. The Green New Deal is distinct from past (white) environmental movements in that it is holistic, comprehensive, and seeks to dismantle and rebuild systems that exploit people and land. It acknowledges the systemic injustices that have hurt the health and wellbeing of Indigenous, Black, Latinx, and other frontline communities, and has a sustained focus on equity and justice.

The Green New Deal is a chance for the United States to devote significant resources to solving its own dependency on greenhouse gases, and to address its own systemic racism. It is a chance for the country to come to terms with its own reality and to do better at taking care of its people while caring for the entire Earth by reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The Green New Deal is inherently transformational; it includes a mass mobilization of people and resources to address systemic injustices and unsustainable practices that contribute to and are exacerbated by climate change. 

Resources for further reading

House – Energy and Commerce; Science, Space, and Technology; Education and Labor; 

Transportation and Infrastructure; Agriculture; Natural Resources; Foreign Affairs; 

Financial Services; Judiciary; Ways and Means; Oversight and Reform, and 

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Resolution, Congress.gov §. 109 (2019). 

https://www.congress.gov/bill/116th-congress/house-resolution/109/text.

Aidt, Mik. “Climate Emergency Declarations in 1,838 Jurisdictions and Local 

Governments Cover 820 Million Citizens.” Climate Emergency Declaration, 

November 17, 2020. 

https://climateemergencydeclaration.org/climate-emergency-declarations-cover-15-

million-citizens/.

Chatzky, Andrew. “Envisioning a Green New Deal: A Global Comparison.” Council on 

Foreign Relations. Council on Foreign Relations, October 21, 2020. 

https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/envisioning-green-new-deal-global-comparison.

Meyer, Robinson. “The 3 Democrats Who Voted Against the Green New Deal.” The 

Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, March 27, 2019. 

https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2019/03/climate-change-which-democ

rats-oppose-green-new-deal/585802/.

Staff, KOLD News 13. “Tucson Declares Climate Emergency; Council Commits to 

10-Year Plan for Change.” https://www.kold.com, September 11, 2020. 

https://www.kold.com/2020/09/10/tucson-declares-climate-emergency-council-com

mits-implementing-ten-year-plan-change/.

“Summary for Policymakers of IPCC Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C Approved by 

Governments.” IPCC Summary for Policymakers of IPCC Special Report on Global 

Warming of 15C approved by governments Comments. Accessed November 19, 2020. 

https://www.ipcc.ch/2018/10/08/summary-for-policymakers-of-ipcc-special-report-on-glo

bal-warming-of-1-5c-approved-by-governments/. 

All We Can Save

Philippe Dekyvere, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

All We Can Save: The Power of Environmental Community-Building

Certain texts have come to define revolutionary movements. Silent Spring by Rachel Carson catalyzed environmental health legislation in the 1970s, and This Bridge Called My Back, edited by Cherríe Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa, a foundational intersectional third-wave feminist collection show the power of women writers to incite crucial social justice movements. Texts like these have defined the problem, rallied change-makers and community activists, and served as a blueprint for the future. All We Can Save, edited by Ayana Elizabeth Johnson and Katharine K. Wilkinson, now takes its place alongside other revolutionary texts. A collection of essays and poems by women leaders addressing climate change, All We Can Save considers the climate crisis from a diverse array of perspectives and places, and provides a powerful call to heal climate injustices through community and connection. 

The collection flows through a series of eight interconnected themes that the editors address in the introduction: root, advocate, reframe, reshape, persist, feel, nourish, and rise. Each theme highlights myriad ways women are leading their communities toward sustainable pathways. The title of the collection, All We Can Save, pays homage to poet Adrienne Rich, whose message of radical hope I considered in my previous blog post. In her poem “Natural Resources,” Rich mourns the past losses of “all I cannot save,” yet recommits to the cause of reconstituting the world. The women featured in this collection speak of their experiences of climate-related losses yet remain committed to finding equitable solutions.

The activists, artists, politicians, scientists, and citizens who wrote the essays in this collection highlight the ways in which their work is impactful and necessary, and share their visions for a just and sustainable future. Some of the most notable essays include “Indigenous Prophecy and Mother Earth” by Sherri Mitchell, who argues that Indigenous ways of life can inform a sustainable future for all. In “Black Gold”  Leah Penniman describes how Afro-Indigenous farming practices can help reconnect Americans with the land and soil. The essays and poems in this collection don’t gloss over the pain already caused by climate destruction and systemic inequalities, but they also consider how feelings of joy and sorrow can, in this moment in history, serve as catalysts for change. 

The connective thread between all of the works in All We Can Save is the concept of community. Editors Ayana Elizabeth Johnson and Katharine K. Wilkinson wanted to show how communities of care that focus on climate solutions are crucial to creating a just and sustainable society. There is a sense that we already have the solutions we need to solve the climate crisis‒what comes next is harnessing our collective and individual power to implement solutions and mobilize communities. 

In the end, All We Can Save is an invitation to those entering the climate movement, a source of encouragement for those currently working on climate solutions, and a rallying call to cultivate environmental community-building as a source of hope and action. 

Resources for further reading

Johnson, Ayana Elizabeth, and Katharine K. Wilkinson. All We Can Save. 

https://www.allwecansave.earth/.

Johnson, Ayana Elizabeth, and Katharine Keeble Wilkinson. All We Can Save: Truth, Courage, 

and Solutions for the Climate Crisis. New York: One World, 2020.

Kaplan, Sarah. “They Edited a Book about the Climate Crisis. Here’s What They Learned about 

Hope.” The Washington Post. WP Company, August 31, 2020. 

https://www.washingtonpost.com/climate-solutions/2020/08/31/ayana-elizabeth-johnson-

katharine-wilkinson-climate/.

Mitchell, Sherri, and Rivera Sun. “Love (and Revolution) Radio.” Rivera Sun. 

https://www.riverasun.com/love-and-revolution-radio/.

“Soul Fire Farm.” SOUL FIRE FARM. https://www.soulfirefarm.org/. 

Watch, Leah Penniman, Soul Fire Farm director and author of “Farming While Black,” talk with Chris Hedges, author of “America: The Farewell Tour,” about environmental threats, societal breakdown, and how we might come back together as humans. Then, a glimpse of CAGED, a play written and conceived by Hedges’ writing students in a high-security prison in New Jersey. To donate to forward-thinking media, go to www.lauraflanders.org/10Years.

Watch an interview with Leah Penniman https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:American_Decline_-_A_Case_for_Optimism.webm

Adrienne Rich and the Language of Hope

By Hannah Bernier, RHS Intern. October 1, 2020

originally posted to Flickr as Audre Lorde, Meridel Lesueur, Adrienne Rich 1980, from Wikipedia Commons

“What would it mean to stand on the first page of the end of despair?”

This is the question many of us are asking ourselves as we wonder when the U.S. government will take concrete action to address climate change and its many consequences. As each day brings us closer to the critical deadline of global temperatures increasing by 1.5℃ above pre-industrial levels, it is easy to focus on the failures that led us to this point. While it may seem disheartening to do so, the chance to redefine our position within the climate crisis can change despair into a call for action and even has the potential to transform endings into beginnings. Channeling climate anxiety into actions like connecting with climate advocacy groups, adopting sustainable practices, and even creating art can generate  hope and connection. 

Adrienne Rich, whose poetry and essays have become crucial texts in second wave feminist discourse, wrote extensively about finding hope in the midst of despair. She made insightful connections between gender, racial, and environmental issues, and blended her art and activism in a manner that was unusual during her lifetime. Never one to shy away from the complexity found in connection, her work shows how art is a critical form of engagement with people and places. In her essay “Woman and Bird” she describes the richness that can be found in interdisciplinary engagement with the keen observation that “poetry and politics both have to do with description and with power. And so, of course, does science. We might hope to find the three activities‒poetry, science, politics‒triangulated, with extraordinary electrical exchanges moving from each to each and through our lives.”

Rich’s life is a testament to how engagement with social and environmental issues happens on a variety of levels: personal and professional, individual and collective. She worked to reconcile these dichotomies through intersectional explorations of her own identity as a Jewish lesbian woman, numerous speeches and lectures about gender and racial inequalities, and participation in organizations such as the Search for Education, Elevation, and Knowledge (SEEK) program at the City College of New York that created opportunities for groups traditionally underrepresented in higher education. Rich saw how varying levels of hierarchy interacted within educational and social systems, and worked with other activists and teachers to break them down through art and education. Extrapolating these ideas to the current climate crisis, the need for not only interdisciplinary but also intersectional approaches to environmental justice will be critical to lasting solutions.

The work to be done is difficult and serious but does not require isolation. Reframing individual responsibility as a dynamic component of a social ecosystem allows for greater hope and understanding in discussions about climate change. While some, like Rich, have the skill of weaving ideas and disciplines together into emergent forms, others may find their methods of contribution tied to other activities such as healing, building, or teaching. The key, however, is in the recognition that social ecosystems, like their biological eponym, have “extraordinary electrical exchanges” between component parts, and we have the opportunity to engage with them. 

In the poem “Dreams Before Waking,” Rich reminds us of the responsibility to act in order to heal despair when she asks:

What would it mean to live

in a city whose people were changing

each other’s despair into hope?‒

You yourself must change it.‒

What would it feel like to know

your country was changing?‒

You yourself must change it.‒

Though your life felt arduous

new and unmapped and strange

what would it mean to stand on the first

page of the end of despair?

The hope required to make serious change is both an individual and collective effort, a continuous cycle of reflection and action. So how can you turn despair into hope? Read a book, have a difficult conversation, join a movement. Learn, connect, and act. 

Resources for further reading 

Iyer, Deepa. “Mapping Our Roles in Social Change Ecosystems.” Building Movement Project, 

2020. 

https://buildingmovement.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/Final-Mapping-Ecosystem-G

uide-CC-BY-NC-SA-4.0-Handles.pdf. 

Miller, K. R. “Personal Weather: Rereading Adrienne Rich for the Anthropocene.” Michigan 

Quarterly Review. The University of Michigan, September 20, 2016. 

https://sites.lsa.umich.edu/mqr/2016/09/personal-weather-rereading-adrienne-rich-for-the

-anthropocene/. 

Moynihan, Colin. “A New York Clock That Told Time Now Tells the Time Remaining.” The 

New York Times. The New York Times, September 20, 2020. 

rchResultPosition=19. 

Rich, Adrienne, Albert Gelpi, Barbara Charlesworth Gelpi, and Brett C. Millier. Selected Poems, 

1950-2012. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2018. 

Rich, Adrienne, and Sandra M. Gilbert. Essential Essays: Culture, Politics, and the Art of 

Poetry. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2019. 

Savonick, Danica. “Changing the Subject: Adrienne Rich and the Poetics of Activist Pedagogy.” 

American Literature, vol. 89, no. 2, Duke University Press, June 2017, pp. 305–29, 

doi:10.1215/00029831-3861529.

Small is Beautiful: Idea in Context

By Hannah Bernier, Sept. 20, 2020

Photo: Brocken Inaglory, “A small flower,” Wikimedia Commons

Much of the last six months have consisted of turning inward: taking stock of what we have, sitting in the reality of our lives and the environment within which we live. What kinds of systems sustain us? Do we live in a compassionate society, one that values people and the environment? In what ways can we sustain our communities in a time of increased isolation? As the pandemic continues, it becomes apparent that empathy may be our strongest asset and it is one that should be applied in various sectors of our society. It is becoming increasingly clear, for instance, that empathetic economic practices are crucial to supporting health and well-being.

Published in 1973, Small is Beautiful by E.F. Schumacher is a foundational collection of essays about environmentalism, economies of scale, and Buddhist economics. Schumacher argued that Western economics was too focused on maximizing expansion and consumption, and had lost sight of how to create meaning from life and work. Instead, he advocated for a system built on the Buddhist ethic of “right livelihood,” where human well-being would become the foremost economic concern and the consumption of goods should only reach the level necessary to uphold human dignity. 

Others were influenced by his work. Kate Raworth developed the economic model called the doughnut framework in 2017. This model also acknowledged the modern economy’s focus on profit over people, and sets out to find a “safe and just space for humanity,” where social and environmental wellness reach a dynamic balance.  Her “equilibrium goal” provides us with another vision of the future that focuses attention on an economic narrative that can better serve both humans and nature. 

Still others decided to “live their values,” expressing social solidarity and environmental consciousness by deciding to forgo participation in the modern capitalist system. Take the Possibility Alliance in rural Missouri. In 2007 they built a simple living community based on principles like the gift economy, permaculture practices, electricity and petroleum-free living, and social justice. Founders Ethan Hughes and Sarah Wilcox constructed their community around the following mantra: “I don’t want my freedom, comfort, and mobility to require killing, polluting, and exploiting.” Taking the “small is beautiful” idea to the extreme, their lifestyle continues to be an experiment in ultra-local living based on solidarity and reciprocity. 

At the end of his books, Schumacher poses the question many of us find ourselves asking today: “Everywhere people ask: ‘What can I actually do?’ We can, each of us, work to put our own inner house in order.” A crucial part of instilling radical hope into the framework of our communities is remembering that we have all the tools necessary to do so. Our diverse backgrounds and relationship to land mean we can rise to meet current social and environmental challenges in creative and nourishing ways if we commit to doing so. These concepts are not just an ethos to aspire to, they’re an invitation to begin action within ourselves and our communities. Small is beautiful, so look closely. 

Resources:

Osmond, Jordan and Antoinette Wilson, directors. Living a Radically Simple Permaculture Life

Happen Films, 26 June 2018, happenfilms.com/film/creatures-of-place. 

Raworth, Kate. Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think like a 21st-Century Economist

Random House Business Books, 2017. 

Schumacher, E. F. Small Is Beautiful: Economics as If People Mattered. Harper Perennial, 2014. 

Sundeen, Mark. The Unsettlers: in Search of the Good Life in Today’s America. Riverhead 

Books, 2018.

Sustainable Computing: Reframing Our Relationship to Technology and the Environment

By Anushree Biradar, Aimun Khan, Lucy Li, and Annanya Chaturvedi

One of the defining features of the 21st century is our ever-growing reliance on technology. There were 4.39 billion Internet users in 2019, and that number is growing exponentially. As the Internet grows, so does its growing impact on our planet. For some, computation acts as a gateway to worlds that were not previously accessible. For others, it represents a rising fear of globalization and automation displacing their ability to work and earn a living.

The advancements in technology we have seen in the past century have enabled humans to live in ways that previously seemed impossible. Travel and communication have become much faster, and the rise of personal computers has given people the ability to access knowledge from anywhere in the world.

At the same time, tech companies have taken advantage of this new global space to create increasingly positive images of themselves by heralding themselves as advocates of green and sustainable devices while shutting out smaller businesses from being able to have a part in this space. While these advances in tech have allowed us to pursue renewable energy resources and discover ways we can reduce the usage of fossil fuels, energy consumption through the use of personal computers has simultaneously shot up. This isn’t going to go away anytime soon either—as individuals and companies rely more and more on technology for computing power and storage, our dependence on devices will only grow.

However, this isn’t to say that technology is all good or all bad. To be sure, techno-optimism to an extent can cause us to shift the burden of responsibility to technologies rather than our own everyday choices. Yet it also has the potential to promote hope and activism from a technological standpoint.

The invention of green technologies and advances towards sustainable computing, manufacturing, industry, etc. have the possibility of reorienting how we view ourselves in relation to technology and the wider environment around. Importantly, it can help us be conscious of our daily choices and how they contribute to environmental degradation. In the past, technological advancements have helped society but hurt the environment. Arguably, if we can properly harness technology and innovate smartly, it can help steer us towards a more sustainable future rather than the path we’re currently on.

Because of these complexities, rather than framing technology as inherently good or bad, it is more useful to approach the subject from the lens of how different technologies have shaped our worldview and how our orientation towards technology has changed over time.

Analyzing our relationship to technology can also help give us insight into how our relationship to the environment has also changed over time. Historically, technology has been used as a force to further globalized capitalism’s expansion without regard for the environment. However, movements away from pure techno-optimism show that technology’s disruptive ability to challenge status quo ways of life can be repurposed towards more sustainable alternatives to hyper-consumerism.

Our definition of radical hope:

Radical hope is the ability to imagine alternative futures that are dramatically different from the present. Hope is radical in that it uses the past and present to create potential for alternative paths that may not initially seem like options. Those options exist, we just have to look closer. From this point of view, technological progress is a tool used to bring imagined futures to life. The question then becomes: what futures do we want to imagine and progress towards?

Readings:

Constructing a Sustainable Society:

Dargis, Manohla. “‘Who Killed the Electric Car?’: Some Big Reasons the Electric Car Can’t Cross the Road.” The New York Times, June 28, 2006.

Scofield, Jerri-Lynn. “Waste Not, Want Not: Right to Repair Laws on Agenda in Some States.” Naked Capitalism, January 29, 2017.

Stoekl, Allan. Bataille’s Peak: Energy, Religion, and Postsustainability. Univ Of Minnesota Press, 2007. [If this is too long, the last two subsections are the most critical.]

Techno-optimism and Greenwashing:

O’Mara, Margaret. “The Church of Techno-Optimism.” The New York Times, September 28, 2019.

Schwab, Katharine. “Apple, Amazon, and the Rest of Big Tech All Have a Lot to Learn from the Green New Deal.Fast Company, June 27, 2019.

Cawley, Conor. “Big Tech and Climate Action – Real Change or Greenwashing?,” Tech.co, February 18, 2020.

Room for Hope through Technology:

Green Computing: What Technology Services is Doing to Go Green.” University of Puget Sound. Accessed July 23, 2020.

Visser, Nick. “10 Green Technologies That Could Help Revolutionize Our Changing Planet.” HuffPost, May 7, 2015.

From Green Living to a Green Death

By Noe Godinez

We have yet to collectively live a better green life. While we have achieved some small steps towards this noble objective, we should not be confined to a tunnel vision focused solely on our actions during this life. We need to consider environmentally-friendly ways of being dead as well.

Contemporary approaches to burial can be traced to Victorian-style burials where caskets are buried in communal spaces, often within city districts. Prior to this, burials were usually conducted outside the “living” spaces of the city due to health concerns. Even though burials came close to living spaces, we still tended to separate life from death. In nature, death is not the end of the cycle. For example, the leaves or fruits of trees are not wasted. They are still of nutritional use to other plants and animals once they cease to be utilized by the trees.

A riverbank cremation center in India. Photo by Simon Berger on Unsplash.

There is a slow-growing movement for a more nature-friendly approach to burial. The goals of a green burial are to reduce or even eliminate the harmful practices or effects of current burials. Cremations are a primitive version of green burials. They do not require the harmful chemicals or resources of standard burials; however, they do rely on the burning of fossil fuels. While cremation is far from perfect, it goes to show we are capable of greener approaches to death.

One such approach is natural burial. This eliminates the use of coffins, prohibits harmful embalming chemicals, and challenges our current vison of a cemetery. Andy Clayden et al have detailed the positive impact of such an approach. Cemeteries could go from heavily-maintained static areas to spaces that actually provide benefits to the ecosystem. The Capsula Mundi project provides an effective case-study of this approach. This project aims to have burial pods replace current coffins. Bodies are then allowed to decompose naturally, feeding groves of tree planted in their vicinity. In addition to coffin-focused projects such as Capsula Mundi, there is research into other aspects of burial practices. For example, there has been significant work on how to re-think clothing for burials, ensuring bodies are covered in easily compostable, non-plastic, non-metal attire. If we can try to manage every aspect of our life to be greener, it is entirely possible to consider every aspect of our death.

My definition of radical hope:

Radical hope is the desire to obtain the unobtainable once it sparks an interest. Hope is just a lit matchstick and it could only become radical once it falls in the tinderbox. Radical hope is the sudden change that galvanizes the individual to desire an improvement.

Resources:

Clayden, Andy, Trish Green, Jenny Hockey, and Mark Powell. “Cutting the Lawn − Natural Burial and Its Contribution to the Delivery of Ecosystem Services in Urban Cemeteries.Urban Forestry & Urban Greening, Cemeteries as green urban spaces, 33 (June 1, 2018): 99–106.

Michel, Gwendolyn M., and Young-A Lee. “Cloth(Ing) for the Dead: Case Study of Three Designers’ Green Burial Practices.” Fashion and Textiles 4, no. 1 (December 2017): 4.

Qureshi, Huma. “Woodland Burials Are Not Only Eco-Friendly: They’re Cheaper Too.” The Observer, October 7, 2007.

Kelly, Kim. “How To Recycle Your Body After You Die.” Refinery29, April 16, 2015.

Natural Burial.” The Order of the Good Death, Accessed July 23, 2020.

Lovens, Anselma and Visconti, Luca. “Consumer Environmental Legacy: Body Disposal and Innovative Market Burial Practices.” 2018.

Rashmi AS, Vangara Namratha and P Sahithi. “Capsula Mundi: An Organic Burial Pod.European Journal of Advances in Engineering and Technology, 2015, 2(8): 49-53.

Inspiring Collective Action?

By Sarah Freytag, Aimee Morales, Amy Akins

Inspiration can only get us so far. For a novelist, inspiration provides the idea, but without the writer’s hands on the keys every day there is no novel. To achieve any goal, a combination of motive and follow-through are required—environmentalism is no exception to this rule. For this unit we asked how, in regard to protecting and sustaining the environment, we could progress from inspiring sympathy to inspiring action. What are the ingredients in a successful social and scientific movement? How does a movement inspire significant collective action? Does it appeal to a collective conscience or the conscience of every individual? What role do inspirational public figures in the media play, and do they spur on effective action? What can we do to participate in collective action? Because this is a unit of many questions and debates, our unit theme itself is not only a topic but an open challenge to think critically. 

Our Definitions of Radical Hope

Each of us have included our own definitions of radical hope as a means of demonstrating that true collective action begins with an appeal to each individual’s understanding of true hope. This is what makes collective action so tricky – one message must reach not only all but each

Sarah Freytag: 

            Radical hope to me means striving for a better outcome despite the odds. It means persisting with change and innovation, not giving up when things seem dark. It is a continuous awareness that the fate of our world may be bleak, but that we can still resist that fate. 

Aimee Morales:

I believe that people are interconnected and powerful when organized. If we cannot control the world around us, then we can at least control ourselves and our impact on our environment. Radical hope, to me, is an action plan that results in structural change. My plan has three steps. It is customizable, and its main objective is to create opportunities for mindfulness which could then cause individuals to think about their impact on the environment, in turn fostering positive environmental habits. This process begins by reclaiming minority voices. These previously marginalized voices can then assess their daily environments in order to determine which structural institutions have caused them environmental inequalities, through inaction or action, in order to try and hold those institutions accountable. The final step would be to ensure individual voices are heard by those institutions via systematic change of their policies. I live in hope that one day individuals will stand together for the improvement of everyone’s life. 

Amy Akins: 

I believe radical hope lies within the transformation of a heart and mind. For true change to happen, it will take everyone doing their part—whether you’re a student making sustainable decisions in your day-to-day or a CEO doing everything you can to reduce your company’s ecological footprint. Activists can’t force people to make change, but a force within people can make them change. 

How does radical hope play out in our case study?

Radical hope is found in the fact that a 16-year-old girl in school has created an environmental movement which has inspired and called to action people from around the globe. Greta Thunberg has created meaningful hope to enact environmental change—what some call the “Greta Thunberg Effect.” Social media continues to be a critical tool creating this collective movement towards a more sustainable future. With this movement, Greta is doing more for the environment than most adults—a fact she explicitly pointed to in her famous ‘How Dare You’ speech to the UN. Greta is a modern-day example of how to not just inspire, but also call people to action towards a greater good. 

Social Movement/Collective Action Resources: 

Milan, Stefania. “When Algorithms Shape Collective Action: Social Media and the Dynamics of Cloud Protesting.” Social Media + Society 1, no. 2 (July 1, 2015): 2056305115622481.

Rupolo, Marisa. “Social Media and Society: A Generation Transformed and Transforming Consciousness and Culture.” Undergraduate Honors Thesis, SUNY, 2019.

Duit, Andreas. “Patterns of Environmental Collective Action: Some Cross-National Findings.Political Studies 59, no. 4 (December 1, 2011): 900–920.

Greta Thunberg Case Study Resources:

TIME Person of the Year 2019: How We Chose Greta Thunberg.” Time, 2019.

“Greta Thunberg is Leading a Global Climate Movement.” Great Big Story, 15 April 2019. Video available below:

Johnson, Stephen. “The ‘Greta Effect’: Can Thunberg’s Activism Actually Change Policy?,” Big Think, October 1, 2019.

Thunberg, Greta. “How dare you? You have stolen my dreams and my childhood.” UN Climate Action Summit, 23 Sept. 2019. Video available below:

Anxieties & Activism: Using Action To Cope

By Danielle Castillo and Jared Stilwell

While conversations concerning climate change continue to ritually concentrate on the consequences we face and the action needed in order to ensure sustainability, we often disregard the mental health effects that natural disasters and fear-dominated rhetoric pose towards individuals today. Whether it be extreme flooding in indigenous communities in South America or viewing a Facebook post detailing the overwhelming effects of oversea fishing from the comfort of your apartment in California, experiencing symptoms of anxiety and worry has become common in discussions of climate change. Unfortunately, this frames environmental efforts as hopeless and the consequences of climate change as inevitable. It is this model of hopelessness that has caused the mental health of communities around the world to suffer. It is thus more than necessary we include strategies of dealing with despair in conversations of hope towards a sustainable future.

As Maria Ojala explains, worry and anxiety can cripple potential critical actors in climate change movements. If we do not address what is directly stunting action, how can we move forward? This can be more closely observed in India where there has been documented high rates of farmer suicides as a response to crop failure due to extreme droughts (See Padhy, Sarkar, Panigrahi, & Paul, 2015). The effects of climate change extend beyond the immediate environment that surrounds us, we must therefore acknowledge how climate anxiety functions in order to find hope at all.

Ojala further outlines that climate change education has to produce a way to tackle this anxiety. By understanding, learning, and applying coping mechanisms for the preservation of people’s mental health, the hope for fighting climate change becomes viable. These methods include learning how to engage local communities through messaging—as seen with the High Water Line initiative. Even when reflecting on the emergence of young climate change activists it was found that their mental health actually improved as a result of them taking action in order to save our planet (4 Activist Girls). Interestingly enough, by understanding the social, spiritual, and the emotionality of climate change they were able to develop their own treatment to cope with their mental health issues. Emotional reckoning thus enabled activists to find hope both for themselves and for the world at large.

 Our definition of radical hope:

            In order for hope to be truly radical, we need to recognize our anxiety and actively push against its strain. We can do this by gaining an emotional understanding of where we stand in relation to hopelessness. This method of thinking forces the individual to look internally first and evaluate before addressing worldly issues, thus providing an alternative method of mobilization which can be truly radical within itself. In this case, every act you make—from classroom discussions, changing daily consumption habits, to calling representatives to push for local policy change—becomes inherently radical because taking action becomes a form of internal and external healing. Radical hope is the process of acknowledging the symptoms of anxiety and worry, processing how despair fuels you, and choosing to hope in spite of the circumstances. Hope can take many forms, but to radically hope means to believe in the preservation of your life and the life of the world.

Resources:

Kamentz, Anya. “You Need To Act Now’: Meet 4 Girls Working To Save The Warming World.” NPR, January 19, 2020.

Ojala, Maria. “Facing Anxiety in Climate Change Education : From Therapeutic Practice to Hopeful Transgressive Learning.” Canadian Journal of Environmental Education 21 (2016): 41–56.

Cunsolo Willox, Ashlee, Sherilee L. Harper, James D. Ford, Victoria L. Edge, Karen Landman, Karen Houle, Sarah Blake, and Charlotte Wolfrey. “Climate Change and Mental Health: An Exploratory Case Study from Rigolet, Nunatsiavut, Canada.” Climatic Change 121, no. 2 (November 1, 2013): 255–70.

Fritze, Jessica G., Grant A. Blashki, Susie Burke, and John Wiseman. “Hope, Despair and Transformation: Climate Change and the Promotion of Mental Health and Wellbeing.” International Journal of Mental Health Systems 2, no. 1 (September 17, 2008): 13.

Padhy, Susanta Kumar, Sidharth Sarkar, Mahima Panigrahi, and Surender Paul. “Mental Health Effects of Climate Change.Indian Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine 19, no. 1 (2015): 3–7.

Palinkas, Lawrence A. “Climate Coping,” from “One of the most overlooked consequences of climate change? Our mental health.” Environmental Health News, December 2, 2019.

Ro, Christine. “The Harm from Worrying about Climate Change.” BBC Future, October 10, 2019.

Mosher, Eve. HighWaterLine: Visualizing Climate Change. highwaterline.org.

Trendy Environmentalism

By Cameron Ayles, Ajah Davis, Sarah Roytek, and Taryn Shanes

Trendy environmentalism complicates the environmental narrative. Sustainable products have come onto the scene in recent years as ‘green’ and ‘ethical’ alternatives to the products all around us. Companies large and small promote their environmental image as a way to attract customers. The drive to adopt sustainable trends is thus, at least in part, rooted in a deeper interest in expanding the consumer base—a potentially troubling development for the environment at large.

On the one hand, the products consumers prefer to buy and the enhanced reputation of brands and businesses as “good” and “ethical” can further humanity’s sustainability goals. Even the most incremental steps and small habits – foregoing the plastic packaging on produce, opting for biodegradable bamboo silverware, reducing your animal product consumption, or bringing along your reusable grocery bags – can serve as a gateway into more drastic action. Such value-signaling may serve as an indicator to businesses and policymakers that climate change and sustainability play a critical role in spending habits and decisions.

Yet, while this has its benefits, the promotion of sustainable trends can also be deeply detrimental. Trendy environmentalism opens the door for individuals and corporations to write off more structural change or abandon positive progress altogether. For instance, the building industry has seen a surge in sustainable building techniques. From the use of certain building materials to the building’s design, consumers place a great deal of value on sustainability. Over the years, sustainable design and building trends have proven to generate higher returns for real estate investors and building professionals. Thus, in the building industry, as is the case with many corporations, sustainability has at times become a marketing ploy to generate greater profit.

In order to truly induce tangible change, there must be a collective effort on the part of our designers, producers, investors, consumers, and politicians to stay true to environmental trends. From the straws through which we sip to the buildings we build, it is important for a product to respond to contemporary and future environmental and social needs, not just to private capital.

Our definition of radical hope:

Radical hope can be found in the motives and results of trendy environmentalism. If trendy environmentalism results in a greater understanding of the overall problem, then perhaps it will lead to a value shift and long-term change. For example, a teenager who experiences the trendiness of ditching plastic straws might be compelled to understand more about the impact of her choices.

On the other hand, trendy environmentalism can be discouraging at times. For example, when small changes in individual habits (the use of plastic bags, for example) allow an individual to write off greater action—hope isn’t renewed or spurred forward. If a corporation is monitoring their carbon footprint to simply keep up with the competition or win consumer approval, there isn’t much hope in true transformation of values and understanding. In our eyes, hope has the possibility of being lost in both the reasoning behind and the effects of such trends.

Radical hope is made manifest when social and environmental capital take precedence over, or at least align with, profits. Our hope is that future environmental trends, whether that be in relation to the products we use or the places we inhabit, will not be exploited merely for the sake of capital gains, but instead be used to further humanity’s pursuit of progress.

Resources:

1. An Introduction to Trendy Environmentalism

“The Evolution of the Sustainability Mindset.” Nielsen, November 09, 2018

Truelove, Heather Barnes et al. “Positive and negative spillover of pro-environmental behavior: An integrative review and theoretical framework.” Global Environmental Change, vol. 29, 2014, pp. 127-138. Science Direct.

Myers, Todd. “Eco-Fads: How the Rise of Trendy Environmentalism Is Harming the Environment.” Seattle, Washington Policy Center, 2011.

2. Trendy Environmentalism and the Consumer

Toussaint, Kristin. “Metal straws, mason jars, bamboo forks: do you have to buy more stuff to go zero waste?Vox, May 14, 2019.

Goldstein, Eric. “Will Shifting to Reusable Straws Really Make a Difference?NRDC, August 01, 2018.

3. Trendy Environmentalism in the Corporate Realm

Horovitz, Bruce. “From the Rooftops, Big Box Stores Are Embracing Solar.” New York Times, October 7, 2019.

Anderson, Ray. “The Business Logic of Sustainability.” TED2009, February 2009.

4. Trendy Environmentalism, Greenwashing in the Building Industry, and a Call to Action

McGarry, Miriam. “Architects Declare a Climate Emergency But Can They Avoid Real Estate’s Greenwashing Tendencies?Future Failure, February 13, 2020. Failed Architecture.

Waldman, Katy. “In Elvia Wilk’s “Oval,” Earth, Capitalism, and the Human Species Sink Toward Doom.” The New Yorker, May 21, 2019. (Oval is well worth the read)

T-A-L Statement on the Green New Deal.” The Architecture Lobby, 2019.