The food fighter

America’s food system is broken, filled with foods that are making people and the environment sick, said an alumna of the Stony Brook University Sustainability Studies Program.

And she said that she’s determined to change all of that. Kathleen “Kat” Furey graduated with a BA in Environmental Humanities in 2012, focusing in the areas of food sovereignty, studies and politics. Since, she said she’s been working to ensure all Americans have access to healthy, sustainable food.

“My mission in life is to make the world a cleaner, healthier and happier place for generations to come, and that starts with food,” said Kat.

As a child, Kat grew up in a small farming community in Ohio. The kind of community, she said, “where you would go to one farmer for cheese and milk, another for your grains, another for fruit, another for vegetables, another for meat and so on.” She said that her mother would cook healthy meals for her family from the real, wholesome ingredients grown locally, right in their community.

Ohio, Kat's childhood home state.

Ohio, Kat’s childhood home state.

After leaving her Ohio hometown for a stint in the entertainment industry in California, Kat followed some “twists and turns” in her life, which led her to Long Island, New York. Remembering her farming roots and realizing the need for a food revolution in America, Kat decided to commit to follow her heart and receive a college education in a field that would enable her “to help both people and the planet.”

That’s when she discovered the Stony Brook University Sustainability Studies Program.

“It was truly the perfect fit for me,” said Kat. “I cannot believe where my education has taken me today.”

Kat is now education and media director of the Label GMOs California Grassroots (the National Labeling Coalition). In addition, she serves as the education and media director of GMO Free NY. Besides just GMOs, she works as senior media producer at Augustwolf Productions, a California-based media production group, helping to head up Energize Schools, a statewide campaign to bring clean energy to California schools.

And, as for current Stony Brook University Sustainability Studies Program students, Kat had this advice:

“Go for what you really freaking want and you can get it!”

Kat giving a Earth Day 2013 lecture in Grand Central Terminal.

Kat giving a Earth Day 2013 lecture in Grand Central Terminal.

An interview with Kat Furey
Sustainability Studies Program ’12
Environmental Humanities Major

A Fire in the Distance: How I subconsciously found my way to Sustainability Studies.

Several years ago, I found myself sitting in the back of a Dodge conversion van on hour four of the eight-hour drive from San Antonio to El Paso. It was about 2:30 in the morning and everything outside the window was pitch black. You see, being from New York, I’m not used to these vast expanses of highway with completely nothing: no lights, no buildings, not even many other cars passing by in the opposite lane…just darkness. Suddenly, among the bright stars of the west Texas night, something caught my eye…a fire in the distance.

It looked so lonely just burning out there on the plateau. What was it? What was burning? It wasn’t a vast fire, but a small concise flame, like a torch. Then there was not just one fire, but dozens, scores. I remember being almost mesmerized by the long rows of flames jumping and dancing around in the night, like something out of a beautiful nightmare.


Then it occurred to me: we were driving through Texas oil fields. Suddenly these fires took on a new meaning of malevolence. These flames, which were the flares on the tops of oil wells, went on for miles and miles. I’ll never forget that feeling of suddenly realizing how mankind was basically stabbing the earth to death and draining its blood. That was the first time for me. The first time I really understood that something was really wrong. The strange part about it was how stunning those flames looked in the night…

This was my first time ever being in “The West.” I entered Texas driving along the Gulf Coast region from Louisiana with three of my buddies, where we had seen areas that were in complete disrepair from Hurricane Katrina. I began putting the pieces together in my mind. This was before I had ever really studied environmental issues and phenomena, but I knew there was some sort of relationship. It made perfect sense to me at the time that the Earth was sort of fighting back because we were stabbing it with all those oil wells and making it bleed.


Maybe I should take a step back about now and explain why I was in the middle of Texas in the first place. You see, I dropped out of college. Yes, I dropped out of college to pursue my dream of being a guitar player in a band and touring all over the country. So that’s exactly what I did. I was always sort of rebellious and did things my own way. I dropped out of Suffolk Community College because I had no idea what I was doing there or what I wanted out of an education. It felt like I was just spinning my wheels with no real direction. All I knew was that I wanted to hit the road. Sure, I told myself that one-day I would go back to school, but I had no idea when, or what for. All I was focused on was touring with my band. Little did I know was how playing guitar in a punk-rock band would become one of the most profound experiences of my life that would ultimately bring me to Stony Brook University as a Coastal Environmental Studies major.


So I pretty much lived in a van for a while and saw the entire lower forty-eight states. I was completely blown away by the vast expanses of the west. From the enchanting deserts and tall cacti of the southwest, to the snow-capped Cascade Mountains of Washington State. I had no idea how much absolute beauty and wonder there was out there. The thought of destroying these magnificent landscapes to drill for oil, or build pipelines, or build parking lots, absolutely appalled me. But what could I do to prevent further exploitation of these great landscapes? We were just a bunch of dirty, sweaty, twenty-somethings who basically left all we had back home to play music and see the country. Little did I know that everything I saw on that tour would build the foundation of my Environmentalism.


The following spring when back home in Long Island, I was out surfing at a semi-remote South Shore beach with some friends when I saw some strange splashing a few meters away from me. Of course the first thing that pops into your mind when you’re sitting on a surfboard in the ocean is “shark,” but luckily that was not the case. Staring at me from this relatively short distance was an adult Harbor Seal! He was actually really cute, sort of like a dog/cat face with long whiskers and big dark eyes. His head was about the same size as ours with gray and white speckles. Then a few seconds later, a second seal appeared! They were barking at each other playfully and just as curious about me as I was about them. They didn’t seem very afraid either. I’m sure they could tell that they were clearly better swimmers than me and had no reason to be afraid. But still, I had never seen seals in person before in all my years surfing on these beaches.


This was another pinnacle event in my development as an environmentalist. I began to question what had changed on these local beaches for there to be seals now and not before? I did a little research on my own and found that the ocean water quality had improved over the past decade via different legislation pertaining to what was allowed to run-off into our local waters. As the water quality improved, the small fish came back, which were followed by bigger fish, which in turn were followed by the seals. It was all making perfect sense to me at this point. Between my experiences on the road and now my up close and personal encounter with marine mammals, I had decided what exactly I wanted to return to school for: Environmental Science.

That night I went online and looked at the different programs offered at all the different local colleges and universities related to the environment. There was only one that really grabbed by attention: “Coastal Environmental Studies” at Stony Brook University. I emailed Dr. Michael Sperazza, the program’s director, to set up a meeting. We discussed the major and what I wanted out of my education and here I am today. My ultimate goal is to continue pursuing my passion for traveling by working in the fields of coastal zone management and sustainable infrastructure development throughout North America, South America and the Caribbean (I decided to minor in Spanish to help me with the latter).

It’s important that we all spend our time pursuing something that we are passionate about and makes us happy. For me, I am very content with the path that I have chosen. Although unconventional, it makes me who I am. It’s our experiences that help shape who we are, and in turn, help direct us towards a course of study. Then we can take our education and experiences together and unleash them upon the world to make a difference for real positive change. That, I would say, is the true essence of the Sustainability Studies program here at Stony Brook University.

Justin at the beach.

Justin at home…at the beach.

By Justin Fehntrich
Sustainability Studies Program ’16
Coastal Environmental Studies Major
Spanish Language & Literature Minor

Upcoming talk: Narratives of environmental danger and disaster

Check out this upcoming talk, featuring two of our very own Stony Brook University Sustainability Studies Program professors, Dr. Heidi Hutner and Dr. Christopher Sellers! This semester Dr. Hutner and Dr. Sellers are co-teaching an environmental history course, “Perspectives on Sustainability.” 

DATE: Thursday, December 4, 2014
TIME: 4:00 p.m.
LOCATION: Humanities 1006
(Holiday party to follow)


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5 lessons on being green today

Melanie, right, at Earthstock 2012.

Melanie, right, at Earthstock 2012.

I am not a mad scientist, though sometimes science makes me mad. Every day we are bombarded with terrible statistics that show how modern culture, in one way or another, is destroying the environment. We have plastic greed, oiled hearts, radioactive smiles and bumper stickers that read, “Go Green.” So, for a while I questioned if there was ever a way to be “green” while still enjoying the conveniences of our modern culture.

The following are the FIVE fundamental lessons I believe to be most important for beginning that journey…but before I get to that…

Let’s talk shopping! No, seriously. Entering a store can be overwhelming and knowing which product to purchase is trés difficile. DO NOT support the ill conscience of a company. Do a little research on labels and companies you are partial to. It will only take a few minutes and it is going inside/on your body so I’d say it’s worth the time. Ok, now time for the lessons!

Lesson 1: Short and simple: read! Where is your food coming from? Pick the local option. This not only supports local business but reduces travel emissions. And don’t forget local beers and wines! They can be hidden treasures (if you’re legal). Next, what are the ingredients? If you can pronounce them all and have an idea of what they are, that’s a great start. If the label states “NON-GMO,” then it’s a go! And please remember to not waste your waste. Recycle EVERYTHING, including the carton your non-gmo vegan butter spread came in–and–your food waste as well. Toss it into a compost pile. If you go out to eat, bring home all your restaurant leftovers. If possible, I wrap mine in a napkin rather than the plastic carton; this way everything, napkin and all, goes into the pile. It’s simple and easy to make a compost pile and wonderful to watch as your waste gives back to you in a few short months.

A quick potty-training story. I’m not really interested in your bowel movements but rather, how you clean up the mess. Warning: Do not attempt with strangers. Growing up, my closest friend would always use TOO much toilet paper. Every time she “went,” she would wrap her hand up like a snowman and then proceed. It drove me insane. I would tell her to use less and she would tell me to mind my own business. Yes, I understand I was being a little intrusive, but I’d just have to get tactful. When she would run out of paper, I would ration her the amount I felt appropriate. Now, she uses significantly less. If it is the result of my clever ways, I’ll never know, but at least I got her thinking about it. These days, I follow my fiancée around when he washes the dishes or brushes his teeth. I’m like a little water troll in our house which leads us to our second lesson.

Lesson 2: Use less. Use less water while doing the dishes, brushing your teeth, washing your face and taking a shower. I absolutely understand the allure of long, steamy showers and splashing your face with too much water like they do in the movies–how they keep all the water in the sink, I’ll never know–but let’s be practical, keep the tap on a low flow. And just like toilet paper, don’t use so many tissues, or an excessive amount of paper towels. Invest in cloth rags, or better yet, recycle your ex’s T-shirts.

Alright, before we wrap this up, it’s time we talk about bags. Get it?

Lesson 3: Use them more than once! Bags don’t immediately become infectious once they are used. Clear them out and use them again. Sometimes it is inevitable that the things we purchase will come in, or with, a bag. Make the best of it. A bag’s usage span tends to be 15 minutes before it hits the landfill or the ocean, where it will sit for more than 20 years. Until plastic bags are banned or companies like Ziploc invest in eco-friendly plastics [which already exist] do your best to wean off their disposable convenience. ALSO you will not be a crazy bag lady/man by saving every plastic bag you get because you “forgot” your reusable one, just keep them in the car.  I typically save the plastic bags until I have a trunk full and then bring them to the nearest store that offers a recycling program.

Lesson 4: Leave no trace. Upon leaving a room, turn off the lights. Unplug your computer. Unplug the charger. Turn down the heat. These are simple and once you get the hang of it, it becomes habitual and saves your electric bill as well as our air.

Now, we all know that feeling when we’ve met someone who believes climate change isn’t an important issue. Or, that fighting for the Earth is a moot point. Sometimes, I pretend I am whacking sense into them with my yoga mat. But to avoid being a bully, I’ve learned a discussion with someone who doesn’t quite see eye-to-eye is a more plausible approach. Yelling will get you nowhere.

And that brings me to the mighty,

Lesson Five: Speak with confidence and grace. Do not yell. People don’t respond well to yelling…think about it: Do you? Instead, arm yourself with knowledge and fire with clarity. Everyone has their own cause to live for. They may not always parallel our own, but that is okay. As long as you act with your heart and soul you have a better chance of reaching theirs. The most wonderful and powerful thing we can do is use organized thought to teach someone about our role in our environment. 

P.S. Don’t discuss the environment at a bar. It’s just like talking religion or politics.

From the environmental novice to the advanced eco-activist, making a difference begins with these five steps. Though this discussion could go on infinitely, this is a blog. And the modern reader wants to keep things short and sweet. So keep it classy, keep it sexy, and most importantly, keep it green!

Melanie Magdits, Sustainability Studies Program grad!

Melanie Magdits, Sustainability Studies Program grad!

By Melanie Magdits
Sustainability Studies Program ’13
Environmental Humanities Major
Today, Melanie is pursuing her MBA in Sustainability and Environmental Compliance at Southern New Hampshire University.

Graduate research opportunity!

Northeastern University researchers in the field.

Northeastern University researchers in the field.

Attention Stony Brook University Sustainability Studies Program seniors and alumni: 

The Ries and Grabowski Labs in the Department of Marine and Environmental Sciences at Northeastern University’s Marine Science Center (MSC) is currently seeking a graduate student interested in conducting federally-funded research on the impact of ocean acidification and warming on sea scallops, to begin summer/fall 2015.

Research will include ship-board investigations of sea scallop populations on Georges Bank coupled with laboratory experiments investigating impacts of thermal and pH stress.

Sea scallops are highly impacted by ocean acidification.

Sea scallops are highly impacted by ocean acidification.

This opportunity affords access to newly acquired state-of-the-art analytical equipment at the MSC, including a laser ablation inductively-coupled plasma mass spectrometer for trace element analysis, a powder x-ray diffractometer for mineralogical characterization, and a scanning electron microscope with energy dispersive spectrometry and electron backscatter diffraction for micro-imaging and elemental/mineralogical mapping of scallop shell ultrastructure.

The selected graduate student will receive interdisciplinary training in carbonate geochemistry and biomineralization, global ocean-climate change, fisheries ecology, and ecosystem management, and will have the opportunity to develop their own PhD project under this wide umbrella while helping investigate the impacts of ocean warming and acidification on sea scallops. The graduate student will be based at Northeastern University’s Marine Science Center, located on the shores of Massachusetts Bay on the Nahant tombolo (13 miles north of downtown Boston).

The renovated MSC features a state-of-the-art flow through seawater facility, direct access to classic New England rocky shore intertidal study sites, an in-house SCUBA program, and small-craft research vessels.

Highly motivated and creative individuals with strong writing and analytical skills are encouraged to apply. Interested individuals should apply to Northeastern’s Department of Marine and Environmental Sciences’ Ph.D. program via this link.

Applications are due December 15, 2014. Please direct specific inquiries to Profs. Justin Ries and Jon Grabowski.

Good luck!

Beyond environmentalism: marching toward climatism

People's Climate March, NYC, September 21, 2014.

People’s Climate March, NYC, September 21, 2014.

Over a month out from the People’s Climate March, while many dwell on what it did not or will not do, let me venture a hopeful prediction, from the longer vantage point of the historian. With a size of surprising, historic proportion, it showed climate activism may well have broken out of the mold of its “environmental” predecessors, established half a century ago.   That’s a good thing, not least for those who think of themselves as “environmentalists.”

As has been noted, the closest things we’ve seen in recent decades to the as many as 400,000 drawn to New York City on September 21 were the rally against the Iraq War not long after 9-11, the Million Men and Women marches of the 1990s following in the tradition of civil rights, and a 1982 gathering in Central Park to protest Reagan’s nuclear build-up.   Thematically, however, a better historical touchstone is the first Earth Day in 1970, still in many respects the high-water mark for popular demonstrations on behalf of the environment in this country.

Unaided by the organizing facility of modern social media, and without a United Nations summit to target, Earth Day 1970 centered much less on New York City than did the Climate March.  A Union Square event, while its single biggest, drew only 20,000 people at its peak moment. And the first Earth Day happened almost entirely inside the US, compared to the 162 countries that reportedly hosted events this September 21.

Inside America, however, the first Earth Day mobilized far more people—some 20 million according the organizers–across a vaster array of places, not just cities but suburbs.   Through a host of smaller changes, but nowhere more so than through this event, the much older cause of “conservation” cracked apart, revealing a newer and stronger movement, more massive and popular, just then becoming known as “environmentalism.”  Though convened by a senator (Gaylord Nelson, D-Wisc) and led a national organizing group (Environmental Action), Earth seemed to nearly “organize itself” (Nelson’s words), especially around the largest and most sprawling of cities.  First and foremost of its achievements was to confirm just how widespread and active was the constituency for what was then a newly woven tapestry of concerns, “the environment.”

A similar transformation may be happening right now. The unexpected success of the People’s Climate March signaled how, as with the outpouring of the first Earth Day, whole new veins and modes of activism had already been flourishing. From what I saw, the climate movement as a whole is also forging an identity for itself that looks historically novel, precisely by how it is breaking with what we for the last half-century have called “environmentalism.”

As a college professor at Stony Brook University, I saw suburban roots to participation in the climate march, reflected in my train car heading into the city from Long Island, that were comparable to those of the first Earth Day, but in some ways more expansive.  Of the two buses that left from Stony Brook University that morning, one of them, predictably, was sponsored by the Sustainability Program. The source of the other bus was more surprising, given how little environmentalists and labor have gotten along: the local chapter of SBU’s staff and faculty union, the UUP (Union of University Professionals).  I myself took a 9 a.m. train from Huntington to get to the rally. Within my car, two church groups, Unitarian and Presbyterian, may have outnumbered the Sierra Club contingent.   Remarkably, given the long-standing reputation of environmentalism as a “white” cause, a significant slice of those were black or brown–a microcosm of those represented in the march itself, it turned out.

What had inspired so many people to give over their Sunday to a downtown protest?   Those I knew who responded were long since convinced of the reality and dangers of climate change, even though many had little inkling of the writings of Bill McKibben or Naomi Klein. They were largely frustrated with politics, not just on this but on other fronts.  It is difficult to over-estimate how Superstorm Sandy fed their willingness. Two years prior, we all knew people whose cars or houses had been smashed by wind-felled trees; talk had swirled as well about the planetary trends it might reflect and portend.

Once we’d found our way out of the train, into my city, and in the midst of the march itself, I continued to be struck by the mixture of ages and races, and now by marchers’ tacit dialogue with their Earth Day predecessors. Some imagery and sloganeering might just as easily have festooned the signs back in 1970, especially that concerning the planet, “the earth.”  What I didn’t see, hardly at all, was any talk about “the environment.”  That omission—hard to see unless you were looking for it—hinted at the novelty of what was afoot in the flow of thousands down 5th Avenue.  Partly this absence emanated from the top down, since organizers had foisted traditional “environmental organizations” into their own ostensibly small corner of the march’s map.  But older talk about “the environment” was also simply drowned out by all else the many placards and slogans now had to say.

Over the last decade around New York, a host of more localized concerns and groups have mobilized around a new bevvy of “green” causes: banding together to rebuild after Sandy, campaigning for locally grown and organic food, and fighting against fracking.  At the People’s Climate March, they found welcome and common cause with those pushing for divestiture from fossil fuels, as well as those from more far flung locales, those rebuilding on the Gulf Coast after Katrina, those from island nations and from other communities on the “front line” of environmental change.  In an earlier era, “the environment” had gained traction because of how it linked so many issues long considered separate, from pollution to wilderness preservation. Now “climate” may have proven itself sufficiently capacious to serve as an entire movement’s umbrella.

Less noted in prominent accounts of the near protean mix of people and causes that was the People’s Climate March, one other departure from environmentalism of the 1960’s and 70’s was also clear to me. The sheer diversity of marchers seemed coupled to how, in a big way, so many had recast their cause, as not just about the planet but about “justice.”  That word hardly ever issued from the pens of Rachel Carson, the writers of Sierra Club newsletters, or even from McKibben in his 1989 The End of Nature. But on September 21, no word echoed more ubiquitously across the banners and cries of climate marchers, outside “climate” itself.

Leaders of environmental justice movement undoubtedly feel vindicated: after thirty years of struggling to get environmentalists to take equity seriously, justice has now become this new movement’s go-to lingo. But framing this movement as one for climate justice accomplishes a good deal more than welcoming environmental justice advocates into its front ranks.

Justice, after all, is a term with which all sorts of faiths are deeply familiar and engaged; it invites an involvement from religious communities that an older environmentalism rarely was able to attract. Climate justice also bids a welcome and resonant call to many other groups and activists who have long seen their own fights as against social injustices: movements on behalf of labor and minorities and women, for prisoners’ and LGBT and housing —much of the gamut of left-leaning social activism in our time. In its plan, at least, the People’s Climate March invited, and reserved places for, all of these groups. Justice, on which environmental movement of the 1970’s was nearly mute, became the ethical and rhetorical vehicle by which marchers envisioned, at least, uniting the most aggrieved of modern society into a shared cry for action against climate change.

Unlike the first Earth Day, the lack of receptiveness to the March’s message among  many politicians and their constituencies means that we can hardly expect it to spur either Congressional action or a more effective UN treaty—not any time soon. There is a more attainable outcome, though: like the first Earth Day, to inspire and energize a new generation of the like-minded who can build on its momentum.

Whether the March itself actually drew in all it invited, whether its surprising breadth and energy can be sustained or surpassed, the next months and years will tell. What is clear is that with the People’s Climate March, what we have long called environmentalism has shaken itself out of grassroots torpor.  And in so doing, it may well have already become something else altogether; a new movement—shall we call it climatism?—has arrived to claim its own day in the sun.

Dr. Christopher Sellers, Professor of History at Stony Brook University.

Dr. Christopher Sellers.

By Christopher Sellers, Ph.D.
Professor of History
Stony Brook University

Dr. Sellers is currently co-teaching SUS350, Perspectives on Sustainability, with Dr. Heidi Hutner of the Sustainability Studies Program.

Post originally appeared on The Energy Collective Column, November 4, 2014. 

Photo Credit: Climate Activism and Changing Attitudes/shutterstock