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Implementing the UN SDGs through the private sector

For our “Greenpreneur Series”, which features alumni working in sustainability sectors, Tajrean Rahman (Harvard College ’19) interviewed alumna Meera Atreya. Meera (Harvard College ’09) was a Resource Efficiency Program REP for Kirkland House. She followed her passion for the environment and science, striving to tackle the UN Sustainable Development Goals through the private sector.

What sparked your passion for environmental sustainability?

I have been passionate about addressing climate change from a young age, even donating my allowance sometimes to environmental non-profits. As a teenager, I remember reading a government publication entitled Climate Change: State of Knowledge that was published in 1997, when I was 10. This booklet explained, in simple terms and diagrams, what we were doing to our planet and how we needed to scale back our greenhouse gas emissions to prevent catastrophic climate change.

In the two decades following, I have felt overwhelmingly disappointed in society’s failure to act on something so vital to our very existence. Combining this passion for sustainability with a belief in my own abilities to effect change, I feel compelled out of both interest and a sense of duty to address what I believe to be the most important challenge humanity faces. We need every smart mind on this problem; the effects of climate change exacerbate all other issues: health, security, education, etc.

I feel compelled out of both interest and a sense of duty to address what I believe to be the most important challenge humanity faces. We need every smart mind on this problem.

How did your aspirations evolve over time, especially during your years at Harvard?

To address climate change, I understood that the priority was to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions. This meant transitioning from fossil-based energy to renewable energy. I became especially interested in and fascinated by science, concentrating in Chemical & Physical Biology and enrolling in electives such as “Energy, Technology, and the Environment” and “Atmospheric Chemistry.” Outside of class, I was a Resource Efficiency Program REP, where I helped my Kirkland classmates change their behaviors, and most importantly, I pursued world-class laboratory research. Thanks to the incredible mentorship of Professor David Liu and then graduate student Kevin Esvelt (now a professor at MIT), I developed a love for research and the confidence to pursue high-impact opportunities (my undergraduate research project, culminating in a Hoopes thesis prize, involved using directed evolution towards developing a gene therapy to prevent HIV infection).

How did you pursue those aspirations after graduating?

Because I found my scientific research experience at Harvard so enriching and aimed to generate technological innovations to mitigate climate change, I decided to pursue a PhD. When I was applying to graduate schools, in 2008, it was unclear which renewable energy technologies would really help us wean off fossil fuels. Solar and wind were still far from being cost-competitive. I considered all forms of renewable energy technologies, from algal biofuels to fusion, and landed on bio-energy as the one most aligned with my scientific interests in chemical biology. Although biofuels are not necessarily my “favorite” renewable, my research expertise was well suited to tackling this topic, which I worked on for six years at UC Berkeley as I pursued my PhD.

After earning my doctorate, having realized academia was not the right fit for me, I spent 2.5 years as a management consultant at McKinsey & Company in their London office. This past summer, as a McKinsey Global Social Responsibility Fellow, I worked on the environmental footprint strategy of the firm, helping to drive the company to become “carbon neutral” by investing in carbon-reduction projects to offset their greenhouse gas emissions, to set science-based emission reduction targets, and to purchase 100% renewable electricity in all of their offices. This was a satisfying legacy to leave.

Tell me about the work you’re doing now at SYSTEMIQ.

SYSTEMIQ is a mission-driven B-corporation focused on driving the implementation of the Paris Climate Agreement and the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by transforming markets and business models in three key economic systems: land use, materials, and energy. With its strong focus on alleviating climate change, relevance to my scientific and consulting expertise, and high ambition to change entire systems to be both more sustainable and more equitable, SYSTEMIQ is a perfect fit for me.

I am currently working on a project to help address the ocean plastic crisis. We aim to understand the current flows of plastic waste (e.g., from waste generation to its collection, sorting, and recycling or disposal) across geographic archetypes. Working with experts around the globe, we will provide an evidence-driven analysis of the costs, trade-offs, and impacts of potential solutions to reduce the flow of plastic waste into our oceans.

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The Relationship between Science and Romanticism in Popular Environmental Writing

Alexandru Spiride, College '21Alexandru Spiride, College ’21In The Oxford Concise Dictionary of Literary Terms, literary scholar Chris Baldick defines metaphor as a figure of speech “in which one thing, idea, or action is referred to by a word or expression normally denoting another thing, idea, or action, so as to suggest some common quality shared by the two” (Baldick 134). To give a simple example, the phrase “a rollercoaster of emotions” is a metaphor. One does not actually refer to an amusement park ride when using this phrase: rather, this expression means that an experience has many ups and downs, much like a literal rollercoaster. Metaphors are a stronger way of insinuating connections between two ideas than more direct comparison for two main reasons. They require more imaginative thinking on the part of the writer to ensure that his or her metaphor fits. Yet, they also prompt the reader to form associations between concepts that would not normally be formed. For instance, with metaphor the reader can draw connections that substantiate an argument, understand complicated concepts, and comprehend ideas for which he or she has no existing knowledge. In this way, metaphors offer a simpler way for readers to understand new things. The Romantic poets at the turn of the nineteenth century used metaphors in a new way, namely to resist what they saw as the harmful effects of science on society. In his essay “‘This Green Earth’: The Vision of Nature in the Romantic Poets,” literary scholar M. H. Abrams introduces metaphor in Romanticism as a literary device that “enlarged the expressive possibilities of the existing vocabulary” (Abrams 136). The Romantics believed that the advent of science following the Industrial Revolution was the cause of a major divide between humankind and the natural world. These writers did not have the foundation of vocabulary and knowledge to express their new ideas, so they used literary devices in order to effectively convey their sentiments in a way that readers could understand and relate to (Abrams 136). To reconnect nature and humanity within people’s frames of mind, Romantic writers used metaphor in order to counteract science and bring society closer to the natural world.

The Romantic poets at the turn of the nineteenth century used metaphors in a new way, namely to resist what they saw as the harmful effects of science on society. 

Today, popular environmental writers do not look toward the entirety of the discipline of science as the cause of the separation between the natural world and humankind as the Romantics had earlier done. Instead, they have identified several specific issues that have arisen from a modern separation of nature and humanity, including pesticides, pollution, and climate change. One seminal work of environmentalism – effectively the progenitor of the genre of popular environmental writing – is Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962), which exposed the human activities that harm the environment, especially the indiscriminate use of pesticides in America and their deadly consequences. Carson’s book gave rise to the global environmental movement, and it is still studied today. Another pivotal author in this movement is the British climatologist James Lovelock, who, like Carson, can be regarded as a maverick scientist. In his book, The Revenge of Gaia (2006), Lovelock continues to develop his famous and controversial Gaia hypothesis, which regards the Earth as a living organism with self-regulating feedback loops. To his readers, Lovelock presents himself as a “planetary physician” capable of medically diagnosing the Earth’s problems, especially that of global climate change (Lovelock 1). Through this metaphor of the Earth as a sick patient, Lovelock offers a bleak outlook on the future, claiming that humans have not performed their responsibility of ensuring Gaia’s health and are now facing Gaia’s wrath, but he insists that there is still slight hope for humanity.

Today, popular environmental writers do not look toward the entirety of the discipline of science as the cause of the separation between the natural world and humankind as the Romantics had earlier done. Instead, they have identified several specific issues that have arisen from a modern separation of nature and humanity, including pesticides, pollution, and climate change.

Whereas Romantic writers used metaphor to eschew the use of science, Lovelock and Carson embrace science as evidence for their claims. In The Revenge of Gaia, Lovelock explains in detail the parameters and science that went into his Daisyworld model, a simulation of a planet that contains only black and white daisies in which Lovelock altered the survival requirements of each species in order to illustrate how “Darwin’s theory of evolution from natural selection is [. . .] part of” Gaia theory (Lovelock 24). The Daisyworld model is a kind of metaphor because it is a concept that is meant to represent another idea. Moreover, through Daisyworld, Lovelock creates a simplification of where current scientific language cannot describe the complex intertwined nature of Earth systems science. Therefore, Daisyworld fits Abrams’ definition of metaphor as well. Lovelock then expands on this scientific model and presents a graph of the simulation’s output data, a very scientific approach to supporting his point (Lovelock 33). Similarly, Rachel Carson in Silent Spring implements Romantic metaphor in describing the sagebrush’s “colonization” of the American West (Carson 64). Sagebrush is a native plant of the western United States, among the few that can grow in the extreme conditions in that region. As cattle drives began expanding to the West, there was a push to remove the sagebrush and plant grass for livestock to graze upon (Carson 65). This removal of the sagebrush creates several major problems in the ecosystem, mainly revolving around indigenous animals, such as the sage grouse, that need the sagebrush to live. Nature created a delicate balance in the West, of which Carson shows her awareness through her summary of geological history. Carson recognizes that her target audience would not empathize with or understand the ecological value of the sagebrush. In referring to the sagebrush through a personifying metaphor that evokes agency and personhood, Carson uses human qualities and traits as a way to describe the scientific ecology of the plant so that a layperson reading her book could understand the “tragic example” of the sagebrush (Carson 64). While popular environmental writers are similar to the Romantic poets in their use of metaphor, they differ from them in their perspectives toward science. The Romantics saw science as the cause of the separation of humans and nature, whereas Carson and Lovelock, as demonstrated in the previous examples, heavily rely on science in their arguments and metaphors. This reliance on science brings up an important question: How do Carson and Lovelock balance their use of Romantic metaphors with their heavy reliance on science in their books? I will argue that Carson and Lovelock use science to support the Romantic metaphors in their books with the aim of reconciling humankind with the natural world, in a markedly different way from the Romantics. This issue of the separation between humans and nature has been a vexed question in recent history, ranging from the concerns of the Romantics 200 years ago to contemporary environmental movements. Carson and Lovelock, like other modern popular environmental writers, actively use science, a major contrast from the perspective of the Romantics in the past. With advanced science that reveals more about the inner workings of the Earth’s complex systems, the environmental writers of today, therefore, have an updated perspective on solving this centuries-old issue.

With advanced science that reveals more about the inner workings of the Earth’s complex systems, the environmental writers of today, therefore, have an updated perspective on solving this centuries-old issue.

Rachel Carson’s short opening chapter of Silent Spring, “A Fable for Tomorrow,” is in effect an extended metaphor. She describes an idyllic, almost utopian town in America where “the roadsides were places of beauty, [. . .] the countryside was [. . .] famous for the abundance and variety of its bird life, and [. . .] the streams [. . .] flowed clear and cold out of the hills” (Carson 2). The pastoral ideal she presents is replete with Romantic qualities – rhythmic prose emphasizing the town’s harmony with nature. However, Carson goes on to reveal that all is not well: everything in this town unexpectedly died out with silence replacing the songs and sounds of life. After further describing the desolation, Carson bluntly explains, “[t]he people had done it themselves” (Carson 3). This fable is in effect a morality tale that tells the reader a story to articulate Carson’s concerns for the direction in which the environment is headed. Given this, it might not appear to be metaphor; rather, it seems like an elaborate story. However, this morality tale plays a very similar role to that of the more traditional metaphors present in Silent Spring. It is clear that this fictional fable is an idea Carson uses to convey another concept: the potentially devastating effects of environmental mismanagement. In this sense, this fable fits the definition of metaphor. Moreover, this metaphor is specifically Romantic because Carson’s intent in Silent Spring is to write for the general reader who lacks technical knowledge about science and would not necessarily be interested in the science behind complex scientific processes. Therefore, she is forced to adapt the layperson’s vocabulary to describe new science to her readers. Science provides the backbone of Carson’s metaphor, the substance upon which the metaphor is built. The metaphor of the fable aims to describe the science that her readers need to know in order to understand environmental mismanagement in an intuitive and comprehensive way.

The Verdon Gorge, France. Photo by Martin GreenupThe Verdon Gorge, France. Photo by Martin Greenup

In addition to the metaphorical fable in the opening paragraph, Carson uses other types of metaphor as well. In Silent Spring, Rachel Carson describes the weathering of rock through a metaphor of a chisel: “the chisels of frost and ice split and shattered the rocks” to create the soil (Carson 53). There is an immediate metaphor for the weathering processes of frost and ice, represented by the chisel. Much as the process of weathering slowly carves away layers of rocks over time, the metaphor of the chisel, which is also used to slowly carve into stone, provides the reader with an intuitive understanding for this complex geological process. The chisel could also be interpreted as an implied personifying metaphor given that nature herself would seem to be holding the chisels and splitting and shattering the rocks. Regardless of the interpretation, this personification fits Abrams’ definition of Romantic metaphor, though in a subtler way. Critics may argue that the breaking up of rocks can already be described with words present in the English language, but this claim ignores Carson’s intent throughout Silent Spring. Carson wrote this book for the layperson – for people who were completely unaware of environmentalism to begin with, for people with limited knowledge of science. Thus, she could not stay true to her purpose by using complicated scientific concepts and jargon such as the meteorological process of weathering. To have the science support her claims, Carson had to simplify her language and use straightforward concepts to explain difficult ideas in a manner similar to the definition of metaphor as described by Abrams (136). Through a Romantic personifying metaphor, Carson formed the association for the reader between the easily-relatable image of a human breaking up rocks with a chisel and the obscure science of weathering through ice and the complicated thermodynamic properties of rock. In this way, Carson uses science in order to give substance to her Romantic personification of geology and physics.

Similar to how Carson used personifying metaphors in Silent Spring, James Lovelock represented the complexities of Earth systems science as the metaphor of Gaia, specifically a female personification of the Earth. Lovelock recognized how looking at “a loose collection of separated disciplines” fractured scientists’ understanding of the cross-disciplinary dependencies of the many systems at play in the environment (Lovelock 6). For example, a chemist’s understanding of atmospheric greenhouse gases may overlook a physicist’s knowledge of photon-gas interactions, while a biologist would study gases released by only animals, such as methane. All three of these specialized scientists lose sight of the fact that these relationships are connected by the process of climate change. Thus, this “loose collection” leads to experts with narrower frames of reference. Lovelock identified this issue and came up with the Gaia hypothesis as “the whole system of animate and inanimate parts” (Lovelock 15). His interconnectedness among disciplines is reminiscent of the interconnectedness emphasized by the Romantics between humans and the environment. Lovelock takes this concept a step further, concluding that there is a disconnect among humans that must be resolved before we attack the dissociation between humankind and the natural world. Instead of coming up with a complex set of environmental theories, Lovelock recognized that the most comfortable way for his audience to understand these ideas was through the Romantic metaphor of the interconnected system as Gaia. It could be argued that Gaia is uncomfortable, specifically citing the portrayal of Gaia as “an old lady who has to share her house with a growing and destructive group of teenagers [and . . .] will evict them” (Lovelock 47). The image of the Earth evicting humanity is of course unsettling, but this misses the point. The overall concept of Gaia is comfortable because Lovelock chose personification as his specific form of metaphor. Lovelock’s readers empathize with other humans, know human feelings and urges, and understand the aspects of Earth that allude to Gaia. In describing Gaia as a “patient [who] complains of fever,” Lovelock creates an association which the reader can immediately understand, since everyone has been to the doctor before and understands that there are many complex systems that affect fevers (Lovelock 1). What is comfortable to the reader is this metaphor’s humanity. This makes the Gaia personification stronger and more effective as a literary device, guiding the reader to comprehend the intricacies of Earth systems science through their previously established “old vocabulary” that describes humanity.

Lovelock takes this concept a step further, concluding that there is a disconnect among humans that must be resolved before we attack the dissociation between humankind and the natural world. 

In “‘This Green Earth’: The Vision of Nature in the Romantic Poets,” Abrams considers the plight of the Earth given the current environmental crisis. He muses that “it remains to be seen whether merely to know the facts is enough, or whether it will take a revival and dissemination of some equivalent to the Romantic vision of nature to enable us, in Shelley’s great phrase, ‘to imagine that which we know’” (Abrams 150). On the basis of Silent Spring and The Revenge of Gaia, it appears that popular environmental writers are indeed now leaning in the direction of reviving Romanticism. They look at the duality between humankind and the natural world, as the Romantics did, yet use metaphors together with science as opposed to using them to combat science. Through their literature, the Romantics aimed to “restore the lived world its sensuous concreteness and human values, thereby [making] it possible for human beings to feel that they belonged again in a world from which [they had been] ‘alienated’” (Abrams 135). This alienation is very much present today owing to environmental issues such as climate change, habitat destruction, and pollution, among others. With humanity’s increasing reliance on technology regarding environmental issues, humanity is exposing itself to greater problems that technology cannot yet handle. Carson’s book changed the course of human use of artificial and dangerous pesticides. Whereas Silent Spring became the book that started a movement, it is not yet clear whether James Lovelock’s The Revenge of Gaia will have a similar effect on the issues of today. Nonetheless, both use intrinsically Romantic metaphors to heal the divide between humans and the natural world. These kinds of metaphors have withstood the transition from Romanticism through the modern environmentalism movement, and will likely continue to be paramount in writings about pressing environmental concerns that face the world today.

These kinds of metaphors have withstood the transition from Romanticism through the modern environmentalism movement, and will likely continue to be paramount in writings about pressing environmental concerns that face the world today.

Works Cited

Abrams, M. H. “‘This Green Earth’: The Vision of Nature in the Romantic Poets.” The Fourth Dimension of a Poem and Other Essays. 2012. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2012. 130-150. Print.

Baldick, Chris. “Metaphor.” The Oxford Concise Dictionary of Literary Terms. Oxford University Press, 2001.

Carson, Rachel. Silent Spring. 1962. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 2002. Print.

Lovelock, James. The Revenge of Gaia: Earth’s Climate Crisis & The Fate of Humanity. New York: Basic Books, 2006. Print.

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Understanding the economics of deforestation in the Amazon

Sophia Watkins ’15 is the Founder of Forest Fund, a startup that tests practical solutions to prevent or reverse the loss of Amazon rainforest and the surrounding ecoregions. We asked her a few questions about her experience while at Harvard and her latest project.


Office for Sustainability: What have you been up to since graduating from Harvard? Why did you found Forest Fund?

Sophia Watkins: After graduating, I got a scholarship to participate in the Climate-KIC climate innovation summer school, during which I met my co-founder, Maria Cecilia Oliveira. In the fall we lived together in São Paulo while we sorted out the bureaucratic hurdles of starting a company in Brazil. Since then I’ve been traveling back and forth between South Florida and Juína, our company’s base at the deforestation forefront.

There is a lot of redundancy in the world of sustainability, in part due to the inefficiencies and secrecy inherent to donor courting and grant writing, so I wanted to make sure I didn’t get caught up in that world. I decided to found Forest Fund because I saw a profound disconnect between local realities and the proposed solutions being funded. There are very few organizations acting at the Brazilian deforestation forefront, so I knew I was not contributing to redundancy. I also knew my company could exist with close to no operating costs, which means money and time would be spent on doing. It has been an incredibly freeing and rewarding experience to be able to focus on living and learning and acting in a biome that is so important to the sustainability of our planet. While I am only a rookie in a centuries old endeavor, I am excited to be collecting the understanding and the tools to help write the next chapter. 

It has been an incredibly freeing and rewarding experience to be able to focus on living and learning and acting in a biome that is so important to the sustainability of our planet. While I am only a rookie in a centuries old endeavor, I am excited to be collecting the understanding and the tools to help write the next chapter. 

OFS: How did your time at Harvard influence your pursuit of a career in environmental protection?

SW: David Johnson and the late John Briscoe were incredible mentors to me during my college years. They helped me learn how to address environmental problems with a hard head and a soft heart.

I decided to study economics as my fourth and most international language. My undergraduate thesis is on the cattle industry at the deforestation forefront of the Brazilian Amazon and was made possible through the support of Harvard’s David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies, the Harvard University Center for the Environment, and the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs. As I neared the end of my undergraduate experience I grew frustrated with the disconnect between academia and real pressing problems. I decided to move to Latin America and immerse myself in understanding first hand the “messy data” that too often deters the engagement of the academic world. I have come back to the region where I conducted my thesis research, to better understand the economics of deforestation and unsustainable resource extraction.


OFS: Can you describe the program you are running? What do you hope participants will get out of your program?

SW: This summer program is the synthesis of my experiences in learning how to address environmental problems productively. During the six weeks we will study the past and current economic activities that have shaped this forefront community, while identifying the resulting sustainability issues. Participants will learn how to identify a problem and apply stakeholder engagement, business plan writing, market testing, and pitching to the formulation and presentation of their proposed solutions. Entrepreneurship will be at the core of this summer program, augmented by a foundation in sustainability economics, statistics, and cultural acumen. 

I hope this summer will be a humbling and empowering experience. Humility is critical when addressing sustainability problems as they are more often than not found at the delicate intersections of socio-cultural, economic, and institutional realities. It is important to remain cognizant of our limitations in understanding. However, it is also important to learn how to identify when you know enough to get on with doing. Entrepreneurship is a process of constant learning and the best teachers are the challenges faced along the way. 

Humility is critical when addressing sustainability problems as they are more often than not found at the delicate intersections of socio-cultural, economic, and institutional realities.

While I hope the participants will take away a lot from and grow as a result of this summer program, I’m more excited to find out what they are capable of bringing. The potential of the sustainability solutions found and developed during their time here is boundless—I suspect that their dedicated, thorough, and collaborative work will uncover ideas worth continuing well beyond the program. 

Entrepreneurship is a process of constant learning and the best teachers are the challenges faced along the way. 

OFS: Why did you pick Juína as your base camp?

SW: Juína is where I conducted my original thesis research, a strategic municipality, as it is one of the more developed towns in the region. It attracts commerce from the surrounding municipalities and is a major processing site for the wood and meat industries—home to twenty plus sawmills and the largest slaughterhouse in northwest Mato Grosso.

OFS: What other projects are you working on? 

SW: Forest Fund works across three fronts: Reforestation, Standing Forest Conservation, and Forest Products. We are currently keeping forest standing by working with local landowners who face economic pressure to deforest. We are working with low-income landowners to reforest key river basin regions and improve climate change resilience in our community. We pilot actions in forest conservation and reforestation and are in the early stages of exploring sustainably harvested forest products.

We are working with low-income landowners to reforest key river basin regions and improve climate change resilience in our community. 

OFS: What advice do you have for current students pursuing studies and careers in energy, environment, and sustainability?

SW: Find what your field needs by talking to experts—what skills are lacking? Find what interests you and become an expert, focus, make sure you are ready to bring something to the table if you get a seat. Always question your perspective, your assumptions, particularly if you are working abroad. 

Find what interests you and become an expert, focus, make sure you are ready to bring something to the table if you get a seat.

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Extending Environmental Ethics through Fear

Laura Cegarra, College '20Laura Cegarra, College ’20Individuals must often work toward conclusions and actions in daily life, and to do this they frequently rely on ethical stances to guide their reasoning. When working purely through ethics, people prioritize the objective, rational thought process over subjective feeling and emotion. Because ethics points toward an end without implying means, two individuals can have drastically divergent ethical views, yet still end at comparable outcomes. This divide is clear within the environmental movement. Bron Taylor, an American professor in environmental studies, discusses how ethical stance influences environmentalists’ viewpoints on why protection of the environment is worthwhile. Taylor writes that for “[anthropocentric] ethics, nonhuman life is valuable at most indirectly […while] for ecocentric ethics, human interests do not trump that of all other life forms and the well-being of the biosphere as a whole” (598). Anthropocentric environmentalists believe that the purpose of saving the Earth is to keep life tenable for the benefit of humankind. In contrast, the ecocentric environmentalists reject the idea that humans are centrally important and instead emphasize the Earth’s intrinsic value independent of any benefit to humankind. Regardless of these groups’ differing motivations, their overall goals are the same, namely, a healthier planet maintained through more sustainable methods. Two of the most formative books of the environmental movement – Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962) and James Lovelock’s The Revenge of Gaia (2006) – are each written from either an anthropocentric or ecocentric ethical stance, respectively. Both Carson and Lovelock discuss harmful environmental changes caused by humans and encourage human action to address these changes. In Silent Spring, Carson focuses on the damage chemicals and pollution can cause to the natural environment, framed in terms of the negative effects that this damage could cause the human population. Aligning with the anthropocentric viewpoint, Carson focuses solutions on balancing human interests with concerns for the Earth’s wellbeing. When discussing agricultural pest control, for example, Carson hopes “to achieve a reasonable accommodation between the insect hordes and ourselves” (296). Conversely, in The Revenge of Gaia Lovelock conceives of the Earth as a single being known as Gaia, a self-regulating entity that maintains itself in homeostasis by interacting with the organisms and climatic shifts on Earth. Thus, he adopts an ecocentric viewpoint that favors addressing climate concerns because of the intrinsic value of maintaining Gaia’s balance, not just because this balance allows humans to thrive. Lovelock suggests broad and drastic actions that prioritize the environment, stating at one point that “[h]umankind comes second” (121) in importance to the Earth.

Because ethics points toward an end without implying means, two individuals can have drastically divergent ethical views, yet still end at comparable outcomes. This divide is clear within the environmental movement. 

As writers, Carson and Lovelock aim to communicate urgently crucial information about the environment to the wider public in order to make an impact. Both authors liberally refer to facts and case studies, as would be expected when conveying a logical ethical stance on scientific issues. However, Carson and Lovelock also choose to incorporate emotion, in the form of fear, into their arguments. Throughout their books, the authors frame claims in terms of fears that could directly impact humans. Carson frequently depicts environmental damage through evocative words with strong negative connotations, describing the disappearance of birds in her hometown as “eerie, [and] terrifying” (104). Here Carson has chosen to characterize the loss of bird species in terms of humans’ feelings about the loss, instead of focusing on the negative consequences for ecosystem balance or species diversity. Her word choice is affective, using words such as “eerie” that have clear negative connotations and are often used in conjunction with stories and tropes of horror. Instead of describing the rational downsides of decreasing biodiversity, as in the disruption of food webs, Carson writes with words that are emotionally charged in order to begin priming evocative fear reactions in readers. Likewise, Lovelock warns emotively of the “lethal dangers that lie ahead” (147) if humans do not make significant changes to their lifestyles. Lethality and fear are almost always inextricably tied together in the human mind, as the vast majority of people have some form of fear or apprehension about death. Lovelock uses this fear to connect readers to the future consequences that he envisions, even as he argues in favor of the Earth system rather than the frightened human readers themselves. The overall focus is on Gaia, but Lovelock represents the magnitude of the danger that the Earth system faces in terms of repercussions that humans and other species should fear. It is curious that both authors should choose to evoke fear to make ethical arguments, given that ethics is the result of rational thought and consideration; fear, in contrast, is often irrational and impulsive. Why do Carson and Lovelock choose to evoke fear instead of simply using straightforward fact to convey their logical ethical thinking? I will argue that Carson and Lovelock supplement their rational arguments with fear in order to extend their pure ethics into motivation for action. If rational ethics and subjective emotion are not mutually exclusive as might be believed on first thought, this blending of the two methods of persuasion and argument might point toward ever more powerful ways for authors, scholars, and readers to communicate with each other.

Why do Carson and Lovelock choose to evoke fear instead of simply using straightforward fact to convey their logical ethical thinking? I will argue that Carson and Lovelock supplement their rational arguments with fear in order to extend their pure ethics into motivation for action. 

Both Carson and Lovelock give prominent attention to human deaths that result from – or may result from – damage done to the environment. Invoking a fear of death makes the potential consequences of environmental degradation more resonant, encouraging action instead of passivity on the part of readers. However, the differing scales on which Carson and Lovelock raise fears of death directly relates to their respective ethical stances. In Silent Spring, Carson devotes an entire chapter solely to the dangers that humans face from pervasive chemical use. Carson makes humans the priority, writing that “[a]gainst these carcinogens which his own activities had created man had no protection” (220). The anthropocentric stance on environmental ethics is explicit: the use of pesticides will not only affect the health of other plants and animals, but will more importantly cause extensive disease in humans. While most chapters in Silent Spring discuss several species of plants and animals, “One in Every Four” is devoted entirely to humans. Making humans the sole focus on an entire chapter, Carson displays her belief that humans should be held above other organisms by focusing more attention on them. Continuing her discussion of cancer fears in humans, Carson states that carcinogenic chemicals “have entered the environment of everyone – even of children as yet unborn” (221). Cancer is among the most dreaded diseases for its grueling treatment and high mortality rate. This fear is compounded by an instinctive human sympathy for babies and young children. Carson uses sympathy to connect chemical use to deadly illness in one of society’s most vulnerable subsets, which evokes fears in readers who understand the seriousness of disease. Carson’s anthropocentric viewpoint is clear as she highlights the intense danger to humanity’s fragile members. In sharp contrast to Carson’s serious and concerned treatment of cancer, Lovelock’s brief discussion of the disease is blithely unconcerned. He claims that “any slight reduction [that radiation] may cause in [plants and animals’] lifespans is far less a hazard than is the presence of people” (91). Thus, Lovelock would seem to accept that earlier death for all life on Earth – plants and animals, but also humans – is of no great consequence because it will allow Gaia to sustain her homeostasis more comfortably. According to the Gaia hypothesis as described by Lovelock, the Earth system, known as a single feminine entity called Gaia, is a self-regulating system that responds flexibly to the actions of living organisms as well as to climate changes in an attempt to maintain herself at a comfortable point of balance. Recent human activities, such as the burning of fossil fuels and mass animal agriculture, threaten this homeostasis by surpassing Gaia’s regulatory capacities. Lovelock’s stance on cancer is decidedly ecocentric, as he is favoring the health of the Earth system over human longevity.

Invoking a fear of death makes the potential consequences of environmental degradation more resonant, encouraging action instead of passivity on the part of readers.

Fear of death also serves as a motivating factor throughout The Revenge of Gaia, but Lovelock uses fear on a global scale instead of on a smaller scale, as in Silent Spring where Carson appeals to sympathies and personal worries. Lovelock opens his book by writing that the earth has the power to “take some fraction of a million people to their death […which] is nothing compared to what may soon happen” (1). Not only can readers envision a large portion of the Earth’s population dying through Lovelock’s writing, but his words also indicate the frightening possibility of even more grave consequences and large-scale deaths. Fear comes both from the immediate shock of the widespread death that Lovelock explicitly mentions, and from the implied continuing degradation of human living conditions and population numbers. Mentioning death on such a large scale serves to remind readers of the massive consequences if the Earth’s system is not respected, and implies that action is necessary if widespread death is to be avoided. Instead of focusing on personal fear of death and disease as Carson does, Lovelock uses a wider scope to frame human casualties as one component among many of the damage to Gaia, rather than as the singular focus. The fear instilled comes not from a personal threat to any individual human, but from an instinctive drive shared by many animals to reproduce and protect their young. Lovelock describes human fear as part of this group mentality to highlight that humans are simply one among many species reliant on Gaia. Humans face danger, but the Earth is responsible for the threat, which is caused by “the power of the Earth to kill” (1). The ecocentric viewpoint shines as Lovelock frames the source of death as the Earth system, giving Gaia the importance and control to be able to cause the death of vast numbers of humans. Humans may be the ones damaging Gaia through practices that degrade the environment, but Gaia has active power and holds the final word in this situation, as the response to irreverent human action is ultimately the widespread human demise that Gaia has the ability to bring about. In accordance with Lovelock’s ethics, the fear that humans should feel is portrayed in reference to wide-scale damage to the Earth instead of as a personal effect from more specific, smaller changes. Through an impersonal fear of death, Lovelock shifts focus away from preserving the Earth to protect a human life toward doing so to protect Gaia herself. In his writing, Lovelock keeps fear of widespread loss of life present as a motivating factor to encourage change in environmental practices, but the impetus is the broader preservation of all life and species, not of particular humans in and of themselves.

Both Carson and Lovelock allude to the idea that the coming consequences of environmental damage are unheeded. By bringing previously ignored warning signs to the forefront in their books, both authors make it easier to take note of danger and encourage action through awareness. Evoking fear by exposing unnoticed dangers allows incentivization of action because Carson and Lovelock are able to educate readers on the consequences of their actions in an affective manner that digs into readers’ emotional states. However, the manner in which each author conceptualizes the looming danger reveals his or her respective ethical stance. Lovelock’s characterization of the danger takes a wider-scale look that examines fears people may hold about humanity and the Earth as a whole, while Carson’s description focuses on fears that individuals might have about themselves or their community specifically. In Silent Spring, the fear is personalized so that every individual can imagine the effects of environmental damage directly impacting his or her life. Carson opens her book with a “fable” of an imaginary town that aggregates all of the negative environmental consequences seen around the world so far into one fictitious place. She writes that “[a] grim specter has crept upon us almost unnoticed, and this imagined tragedy may easily become a stark reality we all shall know” (3). Describing environmental degradation as a specter calls to mind the grim reaper, a symbolic representation of death with which all readers are familiar. Already the fear is personal, as each reader can imagine a shadow of the grim reaper over his or her shoulder. Carson’s description of the fable’s doomed town personalizes the conflict between an individual and nature. The town has no unique or identifying qualities; it could be any one of thousands of communities in America and, indeed, around the world. Carson states that there have been actual towns affected by environmental changes, but she uses a generic example instead of a specific case study to show that impacts could reach any reader’s town. Environmental damage can impact any community on Earth, so individuals much each be vigilant themselves if they want to save their own communities. These fears are clearly anthropocentric, as the motivation for avoiding damage to the Earth is the preservation and benefit of existing human society.

Students in Expository Writing visit Walden Pond, February 2017. Photo by Martin GreenupStudents in Expository Writing visit Walden Pond, February 2017. Photo by Martin Greenup

Lovelock’s description of fear’s role in the approaching environmental catastrophes takes a wider and more global look at the issue, but the zoomed-out view still succeeds in drawing attention to unnoticed dangers in order to prompt action. Discussing humankind’s reluctance to make meaningful changes to its interaction with the environment, Lovelock writes that humans “cannot afford to wait for Godot” (13). He is referring to Waiting for Godot, a play by Samuel Beckett that centers on two main characters who are terrified to leave their place in the middle of the road because they believe that a man, who is presumably never going to arrive, will come for them. Like Vladimir and Estragon, Waiting for Godot’s central characters, humankind is reluctant to move from its current position and look forward to the dangerous reality that it faces. Unfortunately, this position is one in which humans continue to destroy the environment to avoid risking the loss of established comforts. In Waiting for Godot, Vladimir and Estragon are simple, disposable characters, without any significance besides their wait for a more important man. Similarly, humans can be seen as unimportant, mere secondary accessories to the central Earth ecosystem, in accordance with Lovelock’s ecocentric stance. Lovelock goes on to write that what is necessary to save Gaia is “that change of heart and mind that comes to tribal nations when they sense real danger” (14). Differentiating between modern societies and tribal nations points to disparities between both groups’ relationships with the environment: tribal nations are generally more connected with and respectful of the natural world than modern societies are. Instinctive fear plays a larger role in tribal societies, and spurs them to real action. Lovelock encourages a shift toward tribal mindsets in order to underscore that the fear that today’s humans should feel needs to be more primitive in order to motivate impactful change, and that current human society, with all of its comforts and accommodations, is of no great benefit or importance.

Describing environmental degradation as a specter calls to mind the grim reaper, a symbolic representation of death with which all readers are familiar. Already the fear is personal, as each reader can imagine a shadow of the grim reaper over his or her shoulder. 

An objection to my argument that fear incentivizes action is that Carson and Lovelock discuss fear to show how it can have negative impacts on the way humans interact with the environment. In discussing widespread reluctance to shift to nuclear energy, Lovelock notes that “although we have the money and the means to prevent the Earth crossing the deadly threshold that will make global change irreversible, we are hampered by fear” (99). Lovelock sees nuclear power as the only fuel source that could save Gaia, but believes that it cannot currently be implemented because of humans’ fears about the dangers of improper nuclear energy production and waste disposal. In the current energy dilemma, fear is a source of stagnation and damage to Gaia, not a spur toward the cleaner energy production that Lovelock strongly advocates for. Carson mentions the negative impacts of human fears as well. Concluding Silent Spring, she writes that humankind has used pesticides to ease fears of crop damage and loss, and in this process of turning “[environmental weapons] against the insects it has also turned them against the earth [sic]” (297). Human fears have motivated the widespread use of chemical pollutants, which are a key focus of Carson’s book, that have serious detrimental effects on the Earth, rather than helping create a more sustainable relationship between humans and the environment. Both authors mention fear as a contributing factor to humanity’s assault on Earth, but this detrimental aspect of fear does not negate the larger message that fear emphasizes in both books. Carson and Lovelock write in an attempt to educate the broader population about coming environmental risks and to encourage action that can prevent environmental ruination. Their use of fear, therefore, tends to be linked to the current state of popular inaction, associating inability to change with damage to the Earth. It is quite feasible for Carson and Lovelock to acknowledge that fear can play a role in discouraging environmentalism without negating the larger influence that fear about stagnation can wield in pushing toward action.

The expected tone of scientific literature is factual and devoid of emotional affect. Emotion and feeling are generally frowned upon in scientific writing, as Carson and Lovelock would be well aware of. However, both choose to include emotion in the form of fear as a prominent part of their books on environmental damage. Fear serves as a powerful motivator and compelling factor for change, so Carson and Lovelock generate fear throughout their books in order to make their arguments more accessible and convincing. Their use of fear attempts to address an issue that Bron Taylor goes on to discuss in his essay on environmental ethics: the disconnect between holding an ethical stance and actually acting in accordance with it. Taylor writes that “environmental ethics is not only about understanding environmental values; it is also about promoting these in such a way that behaviors follow” (607). The difficulty is that while it may be simple to persuade an individual about the correctness of a particular ethical stance, convincing readers sufficiently enough to encourage sequential action may require more effort to foster deeper conviction. Carson and Lovelock choose to address this challenge through the inclusion of fear. Although Lovelock writes that “[f]ear is prevalent only in the pampered and cosseted developed world” (98) to deride some of the fears experienced by individuals living in developed countries, this audience is exactly the target of both Lovelock and Carson’s books. In communicating scientific information to a broad audience, fear is an effective and resounding method for an author to communicate his or her view on the importance of environmental change. Where Carson and Lovelock differ is in the situations and descriptions they include as fear-evoking; the fears they give precedence to directly correlate with the ethical viewpoint that each writes from. In Silent Spring, Carson’s anthropocentric fears create distress on a personal level through fears specific to each individual. The ecocentric fears offered by Lovelock in The Revenge of Gaia keep humanity level with the rest of the natural world and focus on wider alarm about the Earth as a whole. The success of both books and their continued influence display the effectiveness of fear as a motivating technique that still allows each author to frame arguments within a moral structure that identifies with his or her ethical beliefs. Carson and Lovelock have managed to push environmental ethics past pure reasoning by using fear to make their ethical viewpoints concrete and actionable to readers not well acquainted with environmental literature.

The success of both books and their continued influence display the effectiveness of fear as a motivating technique that still allows each author to frame arguments within a moral structure that identifies with his or her ethical beliefs. Carson and Lovelock have managed to push environmental ethics past pure reasoning by using fear to make their ethical viewpoints concrete and actionable to readers not well acquainted with environmental literature.

Works Cited

Carson, Rachel. Silent Spring. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1962. Print.

Lovelock, James. The Revenge of Gaia. New York: Basic, 2006. Print.

Taylor, Bron. “Environmental Ethics.” The Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature. Vol 1. London:

Thoemmes Continuum, 2005. 597-608. Print.

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The One Life and Science: A New Relationship

Sydney Record, College '20Sydney Record, College ’20At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the Romantic poets challenged the traditional view of the relationship between humans and nature. They brought the natural world to the forefront of the literary realm, fostering a more meaningful set of feelings in relation to nature. According to literary critic M. H. Abrams in his essay “‘This Green Earth’: The Vision of Nature in the Romantic Poets,” this led to a new relationship between humans and their natural environment, one of “total affinity and communion” with the natural world, “a living entity in whose life […] all things, human and nonhuman, participate” (130-31). Describing the Earth as a “living entity” fosters a profound connection between humans and nature; humans would not be able to “participate” in the Earth, but rather be its mere tenants if it were cold and dead. As Abrams explains, these “relationships to the natural world [were] unexampled in earlier cultural history” (136). Yet, he also points out that the Romantics did not invent new terms, but rather used “old vocabulary” in order to discuss this new relationship (136). This was made possible by metaphor, which Donald Davidson describes as a form of thought that “makes us see one thing as another” (qtd. in Mikics 180-181). The metaphor of the Earth as a living being draws on the understanding of more familiar relationships, “making us see” the relationship between living beings and the environment as the relationship between two living entities. The Romantic poet S. T. Coleridge named this metaphor, the idea of a living earth, “the One Life” (Abrams 130). Abrams defines the One Life as the idea that humans, the Earth, and everything on it, living and nonliving, all share an “interrelatedness” (131).

The Romantics used this holistic view of the Earth to starkly oppose post-Newtonian scientific thought of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, as Abrams further explains (133). Newton gave rise to the view that everything on Earth was numerable which lead to the idea of “a world consisting, fundamentally, of particles in purposeless motion” (134). Minimizing the Earth to a set of particles removes its sense of vitality as particles convey the sense of inanimate matter. It also divides the Earth into independent components, fundamentally opposing the idea of interdependency central to the One Life. Abrams argues that an essential purpose of the One Life was to “revivify and rehumanize the world” and oppose the alienation of humans from Earth accomplished by science (135). Since the One Life first appeared in Romantic writing in the early nineteenth century, a genre regarded as environmental writing has emerged. This genre consists of works by scientists and environmentalists that argue on behalf of the modern environmental movement. One of its earliest works is Silent Spring by Rachel Carson, published in 1962. In environmental writing, the One Life continues to foster a connection between humans and the Earth, but can now be seen doing so alongside scientific thought. Thus, the relationship between the One Life and science may now have some subtle differences from their relationship at the beginning of the nineteenth century.

The metaphor of the Earth as a living being draws on the understanding of more familiar relationships, “making us see” the relationship between living beings and the environment as the relationship between two living entities.

This complex relationship between the One Life and science can be explored in both Carson’s Silent Spring and The Revenge of Gaia (2006) by James Lovelock, two prominent environmental writing books. In order to call to action for the environment, both authors invoke the metaphor of the One Life, drawing on the idea that humans and the Earth are both living and therefore dependent upon each other. In Silent Spring, Carson shows the deleterious effects of pesticides and the extensive reach of these effects to argue for the cessation of their use. In doing so, she utilizes the idea of the “web of life,” developing the ecological idea of a food web into a concept that focuses on the interconnectedness of all living beings and the Earth. Much like the One Life of the Romantic period, Carson’s web of life is a metaphor, invoking the literal image of a web, in which each component can be traced to another, to illustrate this idea of interdependency. Her proclamation that “in nature nothing exists alone” further establishes that her web of life is an iteration of the One Life (51). Carson supports this statement by demonstrating the mechanisms through which pollution from pesticides is transferred throughout the web. Therefore, Carson uses science to support her idea of the web of life. In The Revenge of Gaia, Lovelock presents his Gaia hypothesis, the view of the Earth as a living, mother-like entity whom humans must care for in order to avoid her wrath. He attributes the failing state of the environment to humans interfering with her self-regulation in order to call for change. Lovelock also acknowledges that Gaia is a “metaphor [that] is important because to deal with, understand, and even ameliorate the fix we are now in […] requires us to know the true nature of the Earth” (16). He states that Gaia is “the whole system – organisms and material environment coupled together […] that evolved self-regulation” (23). This definition explicitly includes the living and nonliving, joining them together into a form of the One Life. Like Carson’s web of life, it also unexpectedly applies science, namely the scientific theory of evolution, to give the Earth qualities of a living organism and is therefore incomplete without science. Thus, both Carson’s and Lovelock’s arguments seem to be a paradox with two ideas originally in opposition, the One Life, which serves to reunite everything the Earth encompasses, and scientific thinking that would seem to divide it, playing key roles together. How can both the One Life, which was in large part a reaction to the prevailing science during the Romantic period, and modern scientific thought work in tandem in popular environmental writing to argue on behalf of the environment? I will argue the idea of the One Life is now dependent on the science that proves the interconnectedness of the Earth. This science serves as evidence of the vigor of the entire Earth by showing that elements not conventionally thought of as alive are dependent upon and can influence those that are, and therefore possess a sense of vitality as well. Thus, Carson’s and Lovelock’s versions of the One Life represent a modern form that fosters not only a feeling of connection, but also an understanding of it. This new form of the One Life, dependent on scientific reasoning, cultivates a more profound connection with the Earth than the One Life of the Romantic period.

How can both the One Life, which was in large part a reaction to the prevailing science during the Romantic period, and modern scientific thought work in tandem in popular environmental writing to argue on behalf of the environment? I will argue the idea of the One Life is now dependent on the science that proves the interconnectedness of the Earth.

One of the first chapters in which Carson’s web of life plays a prominent role is “Realms of the Soil” (chapter 5), in which she demonstrates that the soil is one component of the Earth that is immensely impacted by pesticide use in order to support her argument against pesticides. She begins by presenting the soil as the foundation of the Earth since plants are dependent on soil and animals are dependent on plants and therefore also on soil. However, she also demonstrates that the soil has been made possible by those plants and animals and is therefore dependent upon them as well, calling the soil “a creation of life” (54). She describes the “marvelous interaction of life and nonlife” that led to the formation of soil, in which originally abiotic processes became dependent on organisms such as lichens and “minute insect life” (54). In creating this relationship, Carson fosters a sense of interrelatedness, immediately connecting animals and therefore humans to the soil, an entity traditionally perceived as dead and inconsequential. While creating a feeling of connection that invokes the One Life, Carson simultaneously is presenting a scientific argument. Her logical reasoning is a component of her web of life, demonstrating how energy transfers between organisms connects them. She explicitly invokes this web of life metaphor to further demonstrate the universal reliance on soil, stating, “This soil community, then, consists of a web of interwoven lives, each in some way related to the others – the living creatures depending on the soil, but the soil in turn a vital element of the earth” (56). Describing the soil as “vital” is key to this use of the One Life. This establishes that the “living creatures” are connected to a soil in a way beyond dependence – they are connected because both are alive in some way. Her use of the word “community” demonstrates that her use of the One Life is reliant on science. The word “community” can be interpreted in the more common use of the word, a place for interaction and connection with others, with a largely positive connotation. On the other hand, “community” can be taken in a technical sense, as the scientific term ecologists use to describe a group of organisms living in close proximity and interacting. Therefore, Carson not only creates the impression that animals and the soil are mutually dependent, but also demonstrates that this dependency is because the soil forms a part of the ecosystem, just like any other living being. Thus, Carson’s web of life, where all the Earth is interrelated by being living and able to affect the rest of the Earth, is dependent on scientific concepts that describe biological processes of exchange between organisms and their environment.

Unlike Carson, who presents her view of the environmental issues she aims to combat and then introduces the web of life, Lovelock utilizes his form of the One Life – his Gaia metaphor – from the start of his book. Therefore, Gaia serves as his mechanism to both present what he believes are the key problems facing the environment and call to action. In the first chapter, “The State of the Earth,” Lovelock assumes the role of a “planetary physician,” thereby invoking the One Life by giving the Earth a sense of life much like that of a human patient (1). By using this metaphor which serves to represent the Earth as a patient of its inhabitants, he brings the state of the environment to a level that is highly relatable, because the emotionally charged topic of our own health or the health of our loved ones is something, unlike the state of the environment, that we cannot ignore. While feeling plays a key role in this method of humanizing the Earth, so too does scientific understanding. By using the field of medicine as a frequent point for comparison throughout his book, Lovelock draws on a field that uses scientific solutions to fix scientific problems. Thus, key to understanding the state of Gaia as Lovelock sees it is comprehending that it is also a scientific problem and solution. He concurrently employs his form of the One Life and science through his references to the Earth as a metaphorical patient: “Farming abrades the living tissue of its skin and […] pollution is poisonous to it as well as to us” (2). By stating that humans and the Earth are affected in the same way by pollution, Lovelock portrays that the two are interrelated, making the view of the Earth as a patient part of his use of the One Life. The One Life can also be seen in that he describes the matter that makes up the surface of the Earth as “living tissue.” While this statement does not describe the specific mechanisms by which these practices harm the Earth, it is still draws on medical language to depict the ways in which the Earth is harmed by these practices. This gives a greater understanding of the impacts of humans on the environment and therefore themselves than would be possible without the metaphorical use of medical language. Therefore, Lovelock’s idea of Gaia, a living Earth in need of care and upon whose health humans ultimately depend, is reliant on scientific ideas, especially medical science, in order to be accessible.

While feeling plays a key role in this method of humanizing the Earth, so too does scientific understanding.

Like Lovelock, Carson has mechanisms that she employs throughout her book that contribute to her use of the One Life or, more specifically, her web of life. Multiple times in each chapter, she presents a story of a community of animals, plants, or people, usually in combination, a large majority of whose members died or got sick. She then attributes each event to a recent broad treatment of pesticides. An additional component of each case study is an explanation of the biological mechanisms through which the pesticides accumulate in the environment and the tissues of organisms and are then transferred throughout the web of life. Thus, in presenting the tragic outcomes of pesticide application, Carson creates an emotional reaction that shows the impacts of the interconnectedness of all beings in the web of life. But, she also uses science to promote a comprehension of how the entities in the web of life transfer pesticides from one to another. One of the various chapters in which Carson employs this method of argument is “Rivers of Death” (chapter 9), in which she uses the widespread impacts of pesticide release into bodies of water to argue against this practice. In discussing the impacts of a 1955 attempt to kill the salt-marsh mosquitoes, Carson examines the impact on the defenseless fiddler crabs, whose numbers became scarce after the spraying. She states, “The place of the fiddler crab in the ecology of the world it inhabits is a necessary one, not easily filled” (148). After this, she goes further to discuss how species such as coastal raccoons and “clapper rail, shorebirds, and even visiting seabirds” died as a result of the spraying as they rely on the crabs as their primary source of nourishment (148). She also discusses the mechanism through which poison is transferred from the crabs to the fish who eat them. By describing the ecosystem that was affected by this spraying as a metaphorical “world,” Carson is employing the One Life by creating a sense of unity among all the entities in this part of the Earth. This use of the web of life metaphor in which one ecosystem is represented as an interconnected world is reliant on two fields of science: ecology and physiology. Carson uses ecology to describe the food web connecting the ecosystem and physiology to describe the transfer and collection of pesticides in tissues. Together, these explain how the interdependence of the web of life means that applying pesticides to one component of it will lead to widespread disastrous results. While employing the web of life to case studies greatly contributes to a sense of connection throughout the Earth, it also demonstrates the specific methods through which the effects of pesticides spread, using scientific evidence to explain this connection. Thus, Carson’s version of the One Life is reliant upon not only scientific concepts, but also specific, observed scientific evidence.

Students in Expository Writing visit Walden Pond, February 2017. Photo by Martin GreenupStudents in Expository Writing visit Walden Pond, February 2017. Photo by Martin Greenup

Some statements made by Lovelock may seem to run counter to my argument that he embraces science as a part of the One Life. For example, he claims “Science is a cozy, friendly club of specialists who [are] hampered by the persistence of incomplete world views” (5). But, it is logical that he would try to defend and differentiate himself from the rest of the scientific community, as his Gaia hypothesis is not largely accepted by his fellow scientists. Further, he is rejecting the way modern science views the world, fragmented into fields so disparate that none has the full picture, much like the post-Newtonian scientists the Romantics sought to oppose. Rather, Lovelock uses science to take a holistic look at the Earth, employing scientific evidence to support the interconnected view of the world presented by his metaphor of Gaia. In fact, he employs this evidence in case studies much like Carson does. Like her, Lovelock uses science to demonstrate the interdependence of all entities on Earth by showing human action having an effect on a component of the environment, the environment having an effect on living organisms, and those organisms, in turn, having an effect on people. This sort of chain-effect, or better yet circle-effect, demonstrates that everything on Earth is connected and thus demonstrates the One Life. Also like Carson, Lovelock explains the science behind the phenomena he describes, meaning his form of the One Life, the Gaia metaphor, is dependent on scientific evidence as well. For example, in the chapter “What is Gaia?” (chapter 2) where he sets up his conceptual framework for thinking about the Earth as a living organism connecting everything it encompasses, he gives evidence of how this can be so. He explains how the increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere caused by humans has a cyclic heating effect: “The cause was the failure of the ocean ecosystem” (32). He then goes on to explain how the carbon dioxide led to a small increase in temperature that killed the algae in the ocean, which caused the ocean temperature to increase, which diminished its ability to cool the Earth. By describing an “ecosystem” made up of both living and nonliving components on Earth affecting each other, Lovelock demonstrates that Gaia truly encompasses and regulates all of the Earth. By also presenting the specific course that followed from cause to outcome, Lovelock uses the science behind the issue to describe why and how Gaia incorporates and controls all entities on Earth. Thus, Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis, much like Carson’s web of life, would be incomplete without both scientific reasoning and scientific evidence to support his metaphor.

At first glance, using a One Life metaphor and scientific thought together may have seemed like a paradoxical way to argue on behalf of the environment. Certainly, this viewpoint is bolstered by Abrams’ emphasis on the Romantic, rather than scientific, view of the environment. His perspective, however, is based largely on Romantic poetry. The relationship observed between the One Life and science in Romantic poetry is complicated by the emergence of popular environmental writing. Both Carson’s and Lovelock’s arguments are dependent on representing the Earth as a form of the One Life, but this effect is only attainable with both the metaphorical and technical application of science. Returning to the definition of a metaphor, literary scholar David Mikics states that metaphors possess “a certain literalistic charge,” and therefore call a literal image to mind (181). The scientific concepts put forth by both authors give this “literalistic charge” to their metaphors. For Carson, the image called to mind by her One Life metaphor is the scientific idea of a food web and for Lovelock, the image is a living creature, most likely a woman, with failing health. Both demonstrate that all of the Earth is interconnected, each component able to affect the rest. What allows both authors to compellingly make this argument is their literal use of scientific evidence. Only through scientific evidence of the transfer of toxins is Carson able to support the idea of interconnection present in the web of life. Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis is reliant on scientific support that shows traditionally inanimate components of the Earth can respond to human action and in turn exert control over humans. Nevertheless, the science that is essential to the One Life in environmental writing would not be nearly as strong if it had to stand alone, independent of the One Life. This can be seen in the words of the Romantic poet Shelly, who claimed that we lack “the creative ability to imagine that which we know” (qtd. in Abrams 132). The One Life, whether it be the web of life, Gaia, or another form, provides us with this “creative ability.” By giving the Earth a sense of both vitality and interconnectivity, the One Life makes the issues brought forth by science more pertinent, making it easier to see and understand the far-reaching impacts of our actions on the environment. The One Life also creates a stronger emotional tie to the Earth since it can be seen as living, therefore putting greater emotive force on the call to action on its behalf. While science largely contributes to the understanding of the failing state of our environment and the One Life fosters a feeling of emotional connection to the environment and a desire to act, the interdependency of the One Life metaphor and science mean that each contributes to the understanding and feeling of the need for change. Thus, in environmental writing that effectively argues on behalf of modern environmentalism, uniting the One Life metaphor and scientific concepts and evidence is vital.

While science largely contributes to the understanding of the failing state of our environment and the One Life fosters a feeling of emotional connection to the environment and a desire to act, the interdependency of the One Life metaphor and science mean that each contributes to the understanding and feeling of the need for change.

Works Cited

Abrams, M. H. “‘This Green Earth’: The Vision of Nature in the Romantic Poets.” The Fourth Dimension of a Poem and Other Essays. New York: W.W. Norton, 2012. 130-150. Print.

Carson, Rachel. Silent Spring. 1962. Boston: Mariner, 2002. Print.

Lovelock, James. The Revenge of Gaia: Earth’s Climate Crisis and The Fate of Humanity. New York: Basic, 2006. Print.

Mikics, David. “Metaphor.” A New Handbook of Literary Terms. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007. 180-182. Print.

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Ethical Anthropocentrism: Making Environmentalism Relatable

Joseph Winters, College '20Joseph Winters, College ’20According to British ethicist Alisdair Cochrane in his entry for the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “environmental ethics concerns human beings’ ethical relationship with the natural environment.” “What duties,” he goes on to ask, “do humans have with respect to the environment, and why?” Environmental ethics seeks to prescribe an ethical rationale to environmentalism. In doing so, it must define the relationship humans have with the environment in relatable terms, which—according to some environmental ethicists—is made difficult by the very nature of ethics itself. Cochrane points out that anthropocentrism permeates “all ethics.” “An anthropocentric ethic claims that only human beings are morally considerable in their own right, meaning the direct moral obligations we possess […] are owed to our fellow human beings.” Effective environmentalism, therefore, must pander to human-centric concerns, or so it would seem. John Benson, another ethicist, describes this problem in his book Environmental Ethics: An Introduction with Readings. Ethics, he suggests, has “traditionally […] been most concerned with human beings as subjects and objects of doings,” rather than with the environment (10). This kind of anthropocentric outlook, however, may be seen as a powerful way to assign significance to environmental issues. Put differently, while the relationship between human and nature is abstract and difficult to comprehend, inter-human relationships, by contrast, are not because they are prominent and numerous in everyone’s life.

In trying to legitimize an ethical call to action to protect the earth, environmentalists can and in fact often do employ metaphors and analogies of familiar inter-human relationships to make our relationship with nature more relatable. Donald Davidson has described metaphor—which is closely related to analogy—as a way to “make us see one thing as another” (qtd. in Mikics 180). This can be useful when one idea is abstruse and the other is more concrete. The example provided by literary scholar David Mikics in A New Handbook of Literary Terms is the metaphorical phrase saying that faith can move mountains. “We are meant to think of—to picture—mountains in order to understand the enormous, unprecedented achievement of faith” (Mikics 181). Here, the mountains are the concrete idea that help people understand faith. This same kind of comparative language is useful when it comes to proving the ethical relevance of our current environmental predicament.  Since environmental ethics is a relatively new academic field that did not emerge until the 1970s (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy), it lacks a large vocabulary to lend immediacy or relatability to its arguments. However, we can deal with this shortcoming through analogy. By articulating the importance of environmental conservation through the expressive potential of analogy, we don’t need a whole new vocabulary. Rather, we can use familiar ethical reasoning—for example, the ethical obligations we have in our daily personal relationships—to help readers understand our ethical obligation to nature.

By articulating the importance of environmental conservation through the expressive potential of analogy, we don’t need a whole new vocabulary. Rather, we can use familiar ethical reasoning—for example, the ethical obligations we have in our daily personal relationships—to help readers understand our ethical obligation to nature.

Since the Romantic Era, writers have drawn on the power of analogy and metaphor to describe their unique appreciation for nature. Rachel Carson and James Lovelock have continued this tradition by establishing humans’ duty to the environment along highly ethical lines. Carson was an American scientist and nature writer whose book, Silent Spring (1962), exposed the unintended environmental consequences of chemical use in agriculture. Readers learned about dying bird populations, soil contamination, and declining water quality in rivers. James Lovelock, a maverick British climate scientist, wrote The Revenge of Gaia (2006), taking a much more urgent, dramatic view of the stakes of environmentalism. He characterized the earth as a mother figure, named after the ancient Greek deity Gaia, who would rebel against her inhabitants if they displeased her. According to Lovelock’s theory, Earth is a system that will return itself to equilibrium if upset by human interference. The Revenge of Gaia relies much more heavily on metaphor than Silent Spring does—Lovelock’s entire concept of Earth as a sentient being is a personified metaphor, after all—but both contain elements of analogizing figurative language that help make their ethical arguments more understandable. Explicitly, both books frequently and overtly present readers with moral questions and opportunities for moral judgments. More subversively, however, they do this by appealing to humans’ ethical responsibilities to other humans by analogizing human-nature relationships with familiar human-human relationships. These analogies help readers to recall a recognizable situation—in particular, the wrongness of exploitative human relationships—and apply familiar moral connotations to abstruse environmentalism. As a result, I will argue that ethically anthropocentric representations of human relationships throughout Silent Spring and The Revenge of Gaia can be effective ways of connecting with readers and making environmentalism more understandable.

Explicitly, both books frequently and overtly present readers with moral questions and opportunities for moral judgments. More subversively, however, they do this by appealing to humans’ ethical responsibilities to other humans by analogizing human-nature relationships with familiar human-human relationships. 

Silent Spring ethically engages readers through a particular anthropocentric metaphor that resonates throughout the book, namely humankind at war with the environment. “The question is whether any civilization can wage relentless war on life without destroying itself, and without losing the right to be called civilized,” as Carson asks in the chapter “Needless Havoc” (99). After accusing humankind of being the instigator of an unjust war, the book demands an explanation for this departure from human ethical standards. Obviously, there’s no literal war between humans and nature, not in the traditional sense. But by analogizing our relationship with nature to the phenomenon of war, Silent Spring brings to mind an easily understandable human-human conflict with highly ethical implications—conventional ethics regarding killing are suspended during wartime, creating a complex moral situation. Interestingly, even when war is not explicitly invoked, bellicose language throughout Silent Spring connotes an unjust human-centered relationship in which a powerful antagonist takes advantage of a weaker enemy. “Needless Havoc,” for instance, opens with an elaborate scenario in which “man proceeds toward his announced goal of the conquest of nature,” having “written a depressing record of destruction […] against the earth” (85). Carson describes humans’ “slaughter of the buffalo, […] massacre of the shorebirds, […] near-extermination of the egrets” and our “crusade against insects.” The “relentless war” metaphor, cued by the emotive words massacre,” “slaughter,” and “crusade,” puts us in combat with birds, plants, and the soil, giving environmental relevance to an ethically fraught human conflict. Should moral guidelines be suspended in this human-nature war, as with human-human war? Or, as a war in which the sides are on unequal footing, are humans implicit in breaching ethical guidelines? While these questions have no simple answer and are difficult to understand, it’s much easier to discuss them in the familiar context of anthropocentric war. Here, Carson uses metaphor and analogy to help her audience relate to the questions of environmental ethics, and her accusative tone suggests an answer to those questions: that humans’ war against nature is ultimately unethical, being both deeply wrong and harmful.

…by analogizing our relationship with nature to the phenomenon of war, Silent Spring brings to mind an easily understandable human-human conflict with highly ethical implications—conventional ethics regarding killing are suspended during wartime, creating a complex moral situation.

The Charles River, Cambridge. Photo by Martin GreenupThe Charles River, Cambridge. Photo by Martin Greenup

In The Revenge of Gaia, as well, James Lovelock uses the anthropocentric metaphor of adversarial human relationships to make environmental destruction more applicable to human interests. “We are,” he warns, “unintentionally at war with Gaia, and to survive with our civilization intact we urgently need to make a just peace with Gaia while we are strong enough to negotiate and not a defeated, broken rabble on the way to extinction” (Lovelock 153). Here, Lovelock explicitly equates human-nature relationships with war, as Carson did when she chastised humans for their unjust treatment of the environment. Of particular note, Lovelock’s insistence that we make a “just peace” with Gaia implies that there is something unjust about our relationship with Gaia or the earth, which is strongly reminiscent of Carson’s argument. However, Lovelock’s relatively pro-war stance in The Revenge of Gaia differs from the anti-war sentiment expressed in Silent Spring. First of all, Lovelock doesn’t accuse humankind of being a purposeful aggressor against a defenseless enemy; the war he describes is “unintentional,” and must be fought out of necessity, or else Gaia will destroy us. He calls for a “group of strategists, who, as in wartime, will try to outthink our earthly enemy and be ready for the surprises bound to come” (153). Lovelock’s analogy seems to pit humans against the earth, but it also implies an ethical need to band together in a way that could ultimately lead to an enhanced sense of environmental awareness. By contrast, Carson describes nature as “innocent of any harm to man,” and chastises humans for starting a war against an undeserving victim (99). The interesting thing is that both authors are essentially arguing the same thing: that humans find a way to exist peacefully and sustainably with the earth. It’s just that they do this in radically different ways, either relatively anti-war or pro-war. While The Revenge of Gaia certainly doesn’t advocate war against Gaia, it compels humans to work together to solve environmental problems by calling on the responsibility that members of the same side during wartime have to one another in order to apply ethics to an argument to environmentalism. Carson, on the other hand, rejects war on ethical grounds, convincing her audience that a war on nature is intrinsically unethical.

The interesting thing is that both authors are essentially arguing the same thing: that humans find a way to exist peacefully and sustainably with the earth. It’s just that they do this in radically different ways, either relatively anti-war or pro-war.

Human relationships take various metaphorical forms other than war throughout The Revenge of Gaia to give environmental problems ethical importance. Lovelock uses greed to illustrate humans’ relationship with the environment, painting a metaphor that invokes the ethicality behind unjust human (rather than ecological) relationships. Fuel is burned at an excessive rate, he writes, “for our bloated, energy-intense civilization” (Lovelock 72). The word “bloated” is an interesting one, as it brings to mind gluttony, a human sin. Lovelock goes on to equate the continuation of modern, gluttonous lifestyles with theft from the earth: “We have taken more from the earth than it could provide,” Lovelock writes, and what have we given in return (79)? He accuses us of having a false belief that “Earth is a property, an estate, there to be exploited for the benefit of humankind” (135). At first glance, these phrases may seem to decry anthropocentrism as a selfish way to view the world. Instead, as Lovelock writes, “our task […] is to think of Gaia first” (143). But the effectiveness of Lovelock’s anthropocentric comparisons stems from the fact that they provoke the feeling of guilt. Exploitative human-human relationships are intrinsically unethical, and by illustrating a scenario in which humans are the exploiters, Lovelock implicates his readers in a sort of ethical crime. The problem is less that the earth has been treated unfairly, but that humans are implicit in a one-sided act of unjust treatment. Despite Lovelock’s explicit claim that we must put the earth first, this is simply too abstract to comprehend fully. Instead, Lovelock’s argument really calls for thinking of humans’ relationship to Gaia first. Ethical judgments associated with greed cause readers to evaluate the impact of their actions on their human self-worth rather than on the health of the environment for the environment’s sake. That is, Lovelock makes readers question their innate moral standing, rather than the morality of their actions toward the environment. This reasoning may be anthropocentric, but it highlights the personal importance of Lovelock’s ethical suggestions. The anthropocentrism of this argument does not weaken it—on the contrary, it makes it more potent by giving readers a stake in the ethical question.

Ethical judgments associated with greed cause readers to evaluate the impact of their actions on their human self-worth rather than on the health of the environment for the environment’s sake. 

Carson, unlike Lovelock, doesn’t blame her readers for causing environmental problems. Rather, she highlights an interesting relationship between the general population and a hazily-defined group that is responsible for proliferating the existence of chemicals in everyday life (perhaps this means lab coat-wearing mad scientists, corrupt lobbyists, etc.). Carson’s explanation of this relationship creates a power dynamic in which normal consumers are the victims of a kind of exploitative relationship, “lulled by the soft sell and the hidden persuader, […] seldom aware of the deadly materials with which he is surrounding himself” (174). Instead of trying say humans have done something unethical to the environment, Carson appeals to ethics in this conspiratorial scenario by implying that an unwitting majority of humans are being taken advantage of by some shadowy entity. This representation of a human relationship—an anthropocentric appeal to humans’ sense of justice—is arguably more compelling than any pure biological argument against the pesticide industry’s products. In fact, by never explicitly claiming who is duping such vast swaths of her readers, Carson foments a sense of ethical indignation in her audience. This human unjustness demands a scapegoat, but Carson never defines one, instead using a passive voice to describe human tragedies: “Little is done […] to warn the gardener or homeowner that he is handling extremely dangerous materials,” she writes (174). “So thoroughly has the age of poisons become established” that the “use of poisons in the kitchen is made both attractive and easy” (176). Readers continue with the book, engaged by the ethical scandal, only to find that there is no single perpetrator of these crimes, their outrage mounting as they hear examples of physicians or gardeners who “suddenly collapsed and [were] hospitalized” after being exposed to some chemical they had been made to believe was inane (177). All the while, as readers are drawn in by this description, the importance of environmental preservation as a goal in itself is lost because the focus of Carson’s argument has entered the anthropocentric realm of the ethics of inter-human relationships.

The human relationship between physician and patient is another interesting way to apply, by metaphoric analogy, ethicality to environmentalism. At the beginning of The Revenge of Gaia, Lovelock invokes the ethical responsibility of his role in this kind of relationship: “I speak as a planetary physician whose patient, the living earth, complains of fever; I see the earth’s declining health as our most important concern, our very lives depend upon a healthy earth” (1). Here, Lovelock no longer portrays Gaia as an all-powerful deity, but as a frail, sickly hospital patient. The representation of this relationship effectively creates a nearly universally understandable ethical reason for our responsibility to the environment—we’ve all been part of a physician-patient relationship. A physician is ethically bound to protect the patient, to do no harm. If Lovelock—or, as he suggests later, his audience—is the earth’s physician, there is a clear ethical rationale behind his obligation to protect the environment. Towards the end of The Revenge of Gaia, Lovelock brings the physician-patient metaphor back in a slightly different way: the “first priority is to keep the patient, civilization, alive during the journey to a world that at least is no longer undergoing rapid change” (152-53).  While the roles are slightly changed in this version of the metaphor, it still cites the existence of human life, not a diverse biological community or the health of the environment for its own sake, as the reason for our ethical responsibility. He justifies the need to “treat” the suffering earth by saying that “our very lives depend upon a healthy earth,” and that our first priority isn’t to save Gaia, but to keep “the patient, civilization, alive […]” (1, 152). Notably, this contrasts with the biocentric arguments that appear in other parts of The Revenge of Gaia. This could be because it is difficult to make people feel ethically invested in an abstract human-nature relationship. Instead, Lovelock appeals to the ethical responsibility we have to other humans to indirectly advocate environmental preservation.

Someone might read a biocentric environmental manifesto and set it down immediately if it doesn’t develop stakes that are personal to them. Arguably, readers can’t be expected to save the earth for the earth’s sake unless they’re given a motivation they can relate with. Anthropocentric arguments are often more compelling to the everyday audience than purely biocentric arguments, and are more likely to resonate with readers.

Perhaps Alisdair Cochrane in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy is a bit too bold in claiming that all ethics must be anthropocentric. It might be more accurate to say that it is easier to conceptualize ethical dilemmas in human-human relationships than in abstract human-nature relationships. This is where anthropocentric analogies have helped Rachel Carson and James Lovelock make Silent Spring and The Revenge of Gaia easier for readers to connect with. We are exposed to human-human relationships every day—with our parents, our siblings, friends, teachers, etc. Human relationships have simple and immediate importance to everyday life in a way that environmental causes don’t always have. Relationship with nature—like the relationship between a human and a tree, or more broadly, a human and an ecosystem—might be too far removed from quotidian life to create a sense of applicability. Someone might read a biocentric environmental manifesto and set it down immediately if it doesn’t develop stakes that are personal to them. Arguably, readers can’t be expected to save the earth for the earth’s sake unless they’re given a motivation they can relate with. Anthropocentric arguments are often more compelling to the everyday audience than purely biocentric arguments, and are more likely to resonate with readers. Although biocentrism may be many environmentalists’ claimed goal, it would have a much harder time accomplishing anything without anthropocentrism. In spite of Lovelock’s most explicit denunciations of anthropocentrism, his ethical arguments play out on a human scale. He demands we fight to save the earth—to save ourselves, both literally and ethically. Without a healthy earth, we have no home, and without fighting for our self-preservation, we are morally bankrupt. Silent Spring uses much of the same anthropocentrism. Carson calls for humans to stop assaulting the environment—because it makes us unethical. Both Carson and Lovelock are ultimately able to make environmentalism important not by emphasizing the ethics of man’s relationship with the environment, but by equating environmental struggles with exploitative, greed-based, or war-like human relationships. Choosing to avoid partaking in these relationships is an easy choice, from an ethical standpoint—no one wants to be exploitative or greedy. The choice isn’t whether humans want to save the earth, but whether they want to retain their ethical standing. In this way, the message delivered through Silent Spring and The Revenge of Gaia becomes more multi-dimensional, advocating two things: to save the earth and to better ourselves. Who would choose not to better themselves? By combining environmentalism with anthropocentric ethicality, Carson and Lovelock make an even stronger case for protecting the environment, one that will hopefully be heeded by everyone who reads their books.        

The choice isn’t whether humans want to save the earth, but whether they want to retain their ethical standing. In this way, the message delivered through Silent Spring and The Revenge of Gaia becomes more multi-dimensional, advocating two things: to save the earth and to better ourselves.


Works Cited

Benson, John. Environmental Ethics: An Introduction with Readings. London: Routledge, 2013. Print.

Brennan, Andrew and Lo, Yeuk-Sze, “Environmental Ethics”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2016 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.).

Carson, Rachel. Silent Spring. 1962. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 2002. Print.

Cochrane, Alasdair. “Environmental Ethics.” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. N.p., n.d. Web. 15 Oct. 2016.

Lovelock, James. The Revenge of Gaia: Earth’s Climate Crisis & The Fate of Humanity. New York: Basic Books, 2006. Print.

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Four Tips for Effective Student Organizing

Sanjay Seth, a dual-degree student at Harvard Kennedy School and the Harvard Graduate School of Design, describes his top four tips for effective student organizing, based on his experience organizing the One Harvard Climate Initiative to build professional skills and relationships across Harvard’s schools on the topic of climate change. The organizing effort was partially supported with seed funding from the Student Sustainability Grant Program.

As graduate students, we share responsibility for getting climate change education right. There’s no blueprint for teaching a topic like climate change. It’s complicated – and so is Harvard.

So, this spring, building on coursework for Marshall Ganz’s Organizing course at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, I organized a team of students from across five graduate schools at Harvard to launch the One Harvard Climate Initiative.

As a student organization, our goal is to build professional skills and relationships across schools and organize students to improve the climate change curriculum and cross-school student experience at Harvard.

This organizing effort led to the creation of a new program, the Climate Leaders Program for Professional Students at Harvard, which will provide a platform for students from across Harvard to engage with others who share their interest in climate-related work. So far, our efforts have been well-received and continue into the coming academic year.

In order to encourage others to organize around their own areas of interest at Harvard and other colleges and universities, this case study will share four tips for success in student organizing.’

1. Develop a strong team

Be ready for a lot of meetings. After more than 20 one-on-one meetings with students, administrators, and faculty, I helped organize a leadership team of 8 people from 5 Harvard graduate schools, with a lead for each school that organized their own team of students.

I believe our organizing project was successful, in part, because we took time at the beginning to get the right people in the room – and because I didn’t assume my efforts alone could carry our team.

However, once you get the right people in the room, you have to keep working to get the process of teaming right.

Before we jumped straight into our task list, we each talked about what made us care about this work we were about to start out on. We set aside time to discuss our shared purpose together and what strategies and tactics would be most effective. We mapped out our strategy on a timeline.

It turns out that if you want people to participate actively on your team, offering one’s effort and opinion has to be able to meaningfully impact the group’s direction.

Moreover, at each weekly meeting, we strived toward clean decision making, pre-determined meeting agendas, regular report-outs on progress across campus, pluses and deltas to keep learning as we work, and clear next steps and work assignments. We worked to try to ensure that each team member’s ideas were considered transparently within a facilitated discussion that kept the momentum moving forward.

Meeting culture is pretty important. It turns out that if you want people to participate actively on your team, offering one’s effort and opinion has to be able to meaningfully impact the group’s direction. You can’t be too precious about your own vision, if you want to create a team with a shared vision.

The most important takeaway for building a strong student team, especially when you are organizing across schools, is to start with building relationships between the members of your team, before you try to start crossing things off your to-do list. 

2. Make yourselves visible

As a student organization, the time and presence of students is your strongest resource. Once we had our team together and our strategy forming, we conducted a survey of more than 100 students from 8 schools, to listen to what other students had to say. We held a workshop with around 50 students from 9 schools, to think through approaches to tackle issues identified in the survey. And we pulled together a newsletter that goes out to around 150 email addresses across 9 schools, to keep folks in the loop about progress.

Demonstrate to a wide range of stakeholders that you have a resourceful and effectual organization that is worth joining and supporting.

These efforts allowed us to listen broadly and adjust our strategy, while allowing us to show that we actually have students feeling passionate and organized around an issue. In our meetings with stakeholders, we always brought data from our surveys, quotes from our students, pictures from our events, and several team members to the table.

The most important takeaway for having your voice heard is to demonstrate to a wide range of stakeholders that you have a resourceful and effectual organization that is worth joining and supporting. Be visible.

3. Seek out allies and ask for what you need

Find your allies. As part of our outreach efforts, we received support from the Harvard University Office for Sustainability, the Harvard University Center for the Environment, the Harvard Business School’s Business & Environment Initiative, and many others.  Moreover, by participating in the Council of Student Sustainability Leaders and the Climate Solutions Living Lab, our team had already-existing networks to build upon across the University.

People want to help good ideas find a home…

Once we formed a clear and concrete idea of what would have the highest impact for our students, based on feedback from surveys and workshops, we wrote a proposal and asked for a meeting with Harvard’s Vice Provost for Research. At the meeting, we showed that we believed in our organizing efforts and asked for what we thought would make a difference.

The most important takeaway for making an ask is that, if you have a well-designed listening process for your constituency, you should stand behind the conclusions of that process and ask for what you think is needed. Generally, people want to help good ideas find a home. Don’t start by worrying about being turned down. First, try to give people a chance to say, “yes!”

4. Celebrate your wins

Our proposal was accepted and even expanded upon by our new partners. As a result, this term, we have kicked off a pilot program, the Climate Leaders Program for Professional Students at Harvard in partnership with the Harvard University Center for the Environment.

The program creates an application-based, year-long cohort program with a retreat, workshops, and dinners for up to 40 students from at least 5 Harvard graduate schools with a professional interest in climate-related work.

If you are lucky enough to get a meaningful win for your student organizing campaign, make sure to recognize the progress you made together…

After our proposal was accepted, we held a ‘thank you’ party with around 50 students from 8 schools to celebrate the end of our first campaign and the transition to summer. At our celebration, we took a moment to thank everyone who participated, with special recognition given to members of the organizing team.

The most important takeaway about making progress is that it’s not enough to get a win. If you are lucky enough to get a meaningful win for your student organizing campaign, make sure to recognize the progress you made together, appreciate the time it took to make it happen, and end things well.

Source: Sustainability at Harvard Tools and Resouces Feed
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Building flexible sustainability dashboards

Authored by Harvard Business School Student Sustainability Associates Viroopa Volla, Jaison Jose, and Katie Spies.


When we set out to build a better dashboard to communicate energy, waste, and water usage streams throughout campus, we were targeting a student audience. We first anticipated that availability of the data would be our biggest hurdle, but quickly found that Harvard Business School’s Operations team has access to an ever-improving and immense amount of data at a fairly granular level across campus.

The hurdle instead proved to be (a) the collection, manipulation and analysis of that data today is incredibly manual, and (b) how to display the data in a way that could affect student behavior.  

For this project we focused on (a) an area where we could make a concrete proposal in the allotted span of time, and a necessary prerequisite to solving (b).

In order to track progress toward the Harvard sustainability goals, and more generally to track operations energy, waste, and water usage on a monthly basis, the HBS Operations team currently pulls granular usage data from multiple sources into a common view. The process today is manual: downloading reports from multiple services and public data sources, pulling relevant data into a different structure in excel, manipulating data to assign it to buildings or normalize by heating and cooling degree days, and then comment on abnormalities within the spreadsheet. This process is repeated each month, and select charts are pulled out.

This process has been perfected so that it doesn’t consume many resources and produces data to inform operations meetings, but could yet be improved – and would need to be made more seamless if we are to reach the eventual goal of displaying data to students to inform and inspire behavior changes.

We looked at other data-driven organizations and worked with the Operations team to determine the core criteria for a data system. Ideally, the HBS operations team would have an approach to this data that enables them to:

  • Seamlessly pull data from multiple disparate sources, into a central view (not manually)
  • Provide the entire team access to the database
  • Incorporate comments in a useful way
  • Enable iteration and be flexible for operations to alter views, generate new charts, add and remove data streams

For these reasons, we proposed a move to Tableau and outlined a data architecture that could meet these core criteria.

The Harvard Office for Sustainability uses Tableau to visualize the University's sustainability data.The Harvard Office for Sustainability uses Tableau to visualize the University’s sustainability data.

To use Tableau effectively, we focused on Harvard’s sustainability goals that require well defined metrics. These goals are to become fossil fuel neutral by 2026 and fossil fuel free by 2050, reduce waste by 50% by 2020, and reduce water usage by 50% by 2020.

Based on best practices used in other organizations and the Office for Sustainability, we concluded that there were several metrics that could be emphasized to engage users in an informative and engaged experience. In energy and emissions, what works well is to connect where the pollution is coming from to how much is being emitted using a map with point source values. We can also dynamically rank the emissions by facility size and understand how much is being emitted per square foot of a building. Another way to visualize the data is to look at year-over-year change from building to building and compare year-over-year changes across different type of facilities grouped by type of facility.

In waste reduction, what we’ve seen works well is to tie the economic impact with the waste reduced. For example, ReFED, a non-profit that takes a data driven approach to reducing food waste, created a value per ton chart that shows the financial benefit of reducing waste minus investment and costs per ton of the food waste diverted. The output is a ranking of different ways to reduce food waste based on the value per ton they generate.

Finally, in reducing water usage, several drought prone communities and municipalities have created visually savvy charts that depict how water usage has decreased compared to goals and what are the areas that have not met their goals using box plot charts. These charts show the disparities in different communities and facilities on achieving objectives.

Source: Sustainability at Harvard Tools and Resouces Feed
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Reducing move out waste through Sustainable Supplies Project

Authored by HBS Student Sustainability Associates Tirzah VanDamme, Diana Caceres, Niko Stahl, Ahmed Alimi

Every year, as the new RCs arrive to HBS campus, they face an inconsistent situation when they try to get supplies for their new lives as students. On one hand, RC students need to spend too much time and money buying new supplies and furniture for dorms or apartments. And, on the other hand, just a few months prior, graduating ECs couldn’t get rid of their household goods fast enough, having to discard them and increasing the total amount of waste the University produces. This timing gap of supply and demand leads to an incredible amount of waste and was the spark for our project idea.

That’s how our Sustainable Supplies Project was born. We were originally planning to collect used supplies by the end of the EC year, store them, and then conduct a sale of these reused items, using the proceeds of these sales for donation purposes. Our goal was to reduce waste of outgoing students and decrease costs for incoming students by increasing availability of low-cost sustainable supplies. This project fits within the Harvard Sustainability Plan goal of reducing waste per capita 50% by 2020 from a 2006 baseline, with the aspirational goal of becoming a zero-waste campus.

As we investigated the problem and interviewed various stakeholders, we realized our biggest constraint to addressing the timing issue was storage space over the summer. However, in the process we discovered many other on-going initiatives which address our problems in other ways. These include the annual (back-to-school) Habitat for Humanity “stuff sale” at the Science Center, freecycle events hosted through Harvard University Housing and the Graduate Commons Program, Harvard Student Agency’s (HSA) dorm equipment rentals, and HBS housing recycling/reusing efforts. We realized instead of building a new initiative, it would be more prudent to connect current initiatives to enhance their effectiveness and increase their reach across the HBS community.

We realized instead of building a new initiative, it would be more prudent to connect current initiatives to enhance their effectiveness and increase their reach across the HBS community.

Our current efforts are to that aim. We are connecting:

  • The HSA to HBS Operations, to offer HSA equipment and services to students
  • Graduate Commons Program to the Habitat for Humanity for possible collaboration on donations from freecycles as well as marketing their late-summer sales as an option to buy household items
  • Graduate Commons Program to the Harvard Energy & Facilities for additional Freecycles near One Western Avenue and Soldier’s Field Park 

Through organizing and marketing these events on student friendly channels (housing, Facebook, premetric blog) we aim to increase awareness and participation and to help HBS take a step towards meeting Harvard University’s goal of a zero-waste campus.

Source: Sustainability at Harvard Tools and Resouces Feed
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Increasing sustainable, vegetarian food on the HBS campus

 Authored by Student Sustainability Associates Katie Hsia-Kiung, Carolyn Spalluto, and Lisa Wetstone


It’s likely that you’ve heard of the negative health impacts of eating red meat: increased risks of diabetes, cardiovascular disease, certain cancers, etc. What’s less well-known is the extreme negative environmental impacts of meat consumption. The meat industry is responsible for approximately one-fifth of all GHG emissions worldwide – by some calculations, greater than the global transportation sector. Raising beef requires 160 times more land and produces 11 times more GHG emissions per calorie than staples like potatoes, wheat, and rice.

Why is the meat industry so bad for the environment? Methane emissions from enteric fermentation (cow flatulence) are the main culprit, as methane traps up to 100 times more heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide within a five year period. Furthermore, raising cattle requires forestland and other natural vegetation to be cleared for pastures. For example, cattle ranching is responsible for four-fifths of deforestation in the Amazon rainforest. Cattle also require an enormous amount of feed, but only 1% of the feed that cattle eat is converted to calories that humans eat.

Given the huge impacts of the meat industry on the environment and the recent advances and proliferation of plant-based meat alternatives, we decided to focus our Harvard Business School Student Sustainability Associate project on increasing access to and consumption of sustainable, vegetarian foods on the HBS campus. Shifting to a primarily plant-based diet can result in an almost 50% reduction in climate change emissions. Even without giving up meat entirely, switching from beef to fish or chicken makes a significant difference. We’re passionate about the opportunity to combat climate change by changing our food system, and influencing consumer behavior is at the heart of driving this change. In designing our project, we focused on engaging with our classmates in a meaningful way, with the goal of influencing everyday behaviors.

We’re passionate about the opportunity to combat climate change by changing our food system, and influencing consumer behavior is at the heart of driving this change. I

Initiative 1: Increase awareness of and access to sustainable foods

To encourage the HBS community to incorporate more plant-based protein into their diets, we worked with Restaurant Associate to launch the Menus of Change (MOC) Initiative. Every Wednesday, starting this past February, Restaurant Associates committed to serving only vegetarian dishes in the center line of Spangler Dining Hall. The initial MOC launch was received negatively by some who expected to see meat options when arriving at lunch.

Our first task was to build buy-in from the community. We developed and distributed educational and promotional materials to RCs detailing the environmental and health impacts of meat consumption, coupled with displays in Spangler provided by SSA leadership, to promote the MOC initiative. In addition, we asked our classmates to submit their favorite vegetarian recipes, with three winning submissions to be selected by the Restaurant Associates chefs and prepared in the Grille for dinner each Wednesday night in March. Sections with winning submissions would win a celebratory dinner that evening, subsidized by the HBS Business and Environment Initiative and with free dessert provided by Restaurant Associates.

In addition, we asked our classmates to submit their favorite vegetarian recipes, with three winning submissions to be selected by the Restaurant Associates chefs and prepared in the Grille for dinner each Wednesday night in March.

While the impact may be difficult to measure, enthusiasm and engagement of both the student population and Restaurant Associates around MOC indicated that we were on to something. We received 35 recipe submissions, and had 150 dinner attendees cumulatively across the three winning sections. Furthermore, Restaurant Associates noted an up-tick in positive comments around the MOC lunch offering. A number of students shared heartfelt notes explaining how this initiative gave them a “whole new outlook” when they walk into Spangler each day.

As SSAs, we had the unique opportunity to bridge the gap between Restaurant Associates and the student body to promote change in a way that their team is unable to do. Going forward, we believe student representatives can empower groups like Restaurant Associates or HBS Operations to launch impactful sustainability initiatives through clear, relatable communication and direct student engagement.

Going forward, we believe student representatives can empower groups like Restaurant Associates or HBS Operations to launch impactful sustainability initiatives through clear, relatable communication and direct student engagement.

Menus of Change poster promoting Wednesday lunches and the RC recipe competition

Initiative 2: Reduce Container Waste in Spangler

Our second initiative was not part of our initial project proposal but inspired by conversations with Restaurant Associates. When RA informed us that Harvard Business School consumes the equivalent of seventy 16-ounce cups per student per semester, we realized that disposable container usage is another unsustainable feature of our dining habits that needs addressing.

We brainstormed strategies with RA with a focus on changes that we could test quickly. We considered financial incentives (e.g. a discount on reusable containers or a charge for disposables) but given time and logistical constraints decided to test whether simply rearranging Spangler Dining Hall might drive behavioral change. For example, we replaced the clamshells at the beginning of the salad buffet with china and reduced the number of clamshells on display. We made similar changes to the hot food buffet. Our hope was that, by making disposable containers less accessible, diners might be more inclined to use reusable plates and bowls. Student education was another important aspect of our strategy. We presented to RC sections RA’s staggering data on container usage and widely advertised the goals of our initiative. Finally, with RA’s help, we created signage discouraging the use of disposables unless on-the-go.

RA continued to track container usage throughout the semester and observed a 1.45% decline in usage (since January).  While we see significant room for improvement, we are encouraged by the progress affected by such a small change. Research suggests that charging for disposables might most effectively discourage consumption. However, before imposing financial incentives, we would like to continue to work with RA in the fall to test alternative china/clamshell arrangements. We believe that incremental changes along with strong messaging to the community could make a measurable impact.


A Note of Thanks

We cannot thank Restaurant Associates enough for their support on this project! Todd Mulder, Martha Torres, Chef Todd Young, Chef Camilo Meneses, Chef Mackenzie Davenport, and the team rolled out Menus of Change, hosted section celebrations, patiently allowed us to test different china arrangements, and helped us analyze our findings. Our project would not have been a success without you!

Source: Sustainability at Harvard Tools and Resouces Feed
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