Sustainability Studies Program spends another summer in Madagascar!

Ranomofana National Park

Ranomofana National Park, Madagascar

How did you spend your summer? In late May, Dr. Heidi Hutner, professor and director of the Sustainability Studies Program at Stony Brook University, packed up and headed to Madagascar! There, she assisted with the travel abroad program by teaching alongside Dr. Patricia Wright of SBU’s Department of Anthropology.

On the trip, Hutner and her students traveled all over Madagascar. They visited Dr. Wright at Centre Val Bio, in Ranomafana National Park; where they hiked, learned about lemurs and other animals native to the tropical rainforest, as well as about conservation and sustainability issues. Additionally, they hiked in the Isalo National Park and Anje Preserve, snorkeled off Tuléar, met with the ocean conservation “Reef Doctor,” walked through the Spiny Forest, visited schools and hospitals, and more. Along the way, they saw many lemur species, amphibians, snakes, exotic moths, rivers, waterfalls, and beautiful flora and fauna. They met with many Malagasy people and learned about their history and culture.


Pictured here: Drs. Heidi Hutner and Pat Wright, at Anja Community Reserve, where they saw many ring-tailed lemurs (Lemur catta) and climbed up high for a beautiful view.

Pictured here: Drs. Heidi Hutner and Pat Wright, at Anja Community Reserve, where they saw many ring-tailed lemurs (Lemur catta) and climbed up high for a beautiful view.

Hutner worked with the students on their writing project and will be writing about Wright’s work on reforestation in articles and in her forthcoming book, Inspiring Green Minds. She and students who attended strongly recommend this travel abroad trip, which is offered in both the fall and summer. It offers something for everyone: budding primatologists, journalists, conservationists, anthropologists, or just curious minds. The Madagascar trip is an unforgettable travel experience.

Dr. Heidi Hutner
Professor and director
Sustainability Studies Program
Stony Brook University

Professor Taylor reflects on his summer travels

This summer, Dr. David Taylor, one of our newest faculty members, spent time traveling out west. Below is a blog post he wrote during his experience for the Center for Humans and Nature, a reflection on his experience as a modern-day person navigating a traditionally rugged and natural part of the U.S.

We encourage you to take a read! His work is reposted with permission, below:


Home(page) on the Range?

Seminole Canyon State Park and Historic Site, a few miles from Comstock, TX along the Rio Grande and the Seminole/Presa Canyon

June 3-4, 2015

This past year I took a job at Stony Brook University in Long Island, New York—sorry, I live “on” Long Island, as the locals say, not “in” it. I’ve learned that making a bagel is a fine art, “Howyadoin’?” is one word, and you better have an Express Pay toll tag or $20 in your billfold if you want off the island. My parents had to find Long Island on the map since it’s north of the Mason-Dixon, and more than a few Texas friends offered repetitions of the Pace picante commercial, “New Yawrk City!” Snow is a viable part of winter now, a new experience for me. It was a good year, though, of new friends and a new culture.

Stony Brook is halfway along the north side of the island and is suburban-rural, not the urban Long Island that folks imagine, which is closer to Manhattan. Where I live, the Canada geese honk their way from one river bay to another just above the treeline; white-tailed deer are dangerously plentiful; and the villages along Highway 25A protect their quaint character tooth and claw from big box stores, McDonalds, and additional development. It’s a connected place—folks and critters together on an island, a long one—but an enclosed space nonetheless. Often I longed for open views of unpeopled space, but the forests, quaint villages, and weekend Manhattanites conspired against me. If you want vistas on Long Island, you have to head to a shore and look out onto the ocean. Yes sir, all this has been an adjustment for a newbie New Yorker.

*     *     *     *     *

I’m a Texan. I say that knowing it carries a lot of cultural, political, and land use baggage. I’ll leave any discussion of politics alone since current Texas politics baffles me. (No, Governor Abbott, the U.S. military isn’t about to invade Texas. Sigh.)

Despite the oddities, we Texans with long histories in our state do tend to enjoy open, unpeopled land; it’s part of my parents’ lives in west Texas, part of our genealogy, and part of the way we get by. Red dirt, dry canyons, mesquite, coyotes, buzzards, and good stories (with a fair amount of bullshit added) of what goes on upon the open range are as much the core of my heritage as the three-inch-thick, family Bible my mom keeps on the coffee table.

When my summer break from Stony Brook came ‘round, I told everyone, “I’m heading west, just to see open land.” I dropped off my dog with my parents in Dallas and am now traveling from Texas to Washington and back, camping as often as I can. My two-month route is more about friends and places to visit than timeliness, so the path isn’t direct but a sort of wandering with a loose schedule. The goal was to have some time to hike during the day and read and write in the evenings, mostly at campsites but occasionally, when necessary, a cheap hotel.

I hadn’t really wanted to cut off all correspondence, so I added an autoreply to my email:

Hey all,

I am hiking and car camping the west from May 29-August 1. I should have internet access off and on, but it may take me a day or two to respond–at least I hope I’m far enough away from wifi not to respond quickly.

Have a great summer.


David/Dr. T

I had no idea the irony of that line about WiFi.

My first direction was south and west from Dallas-Forth Worth, visiting friends in the Hill Country and looking over the recent devastating floods along the Blanco River. From there, I headed west to Eagle Pass to visit Carol Cullar, matriarch of all wild things in her area along the Rio Grande. Along the way from Kerrville to Eagle Pass, I lost cell reception, so I also lost Google Maps on my phone to guide me. It was briefly disconcerting, but I knew by heading west, eventually I’d find the Rio Grande and then could drive north or south to my destination.


Strangely, as time passed, it became freeing to see the “No Service” alert on my phone. No calls. No texts that required me to pull over to read. Just good ole west Texas AM radio in English and Spanish, a little norteño music to boot.

*   *     *     *     *

I’m 53 years old. Old enough to have been an adult before cell phones, PCs, and the Internet. As a kid, I spent my summers wandering in the woods by my parents’ house with no access to TV, phone, or game devices. As a college student, I typed my undergraduate and some of my graduate papers on a manual typewriter and did library research the old-fashioned way with card catalogues and reference books, some so old they smelled of animal glue. I’ve hiked and backpacked deep into wilderness areas for a week or two with no GPS, phone, or electronic device with me. Hell, I even thought at one time that sleeping pads and flashlights were for the weak. I have read and heard folks who eschew using computers and the Internet to write, take notes, or store pictures because they say it not only cheapens engagement and commitment to the nonhuman world, it severs our relationship. I understand their thoughts.

My Long Island year was good training for discerning the lines between solitude and loneliness, vistas and cramped spaces, breathing deeply and grabbing the cell phone or waiting for the ding of connection. If I was missing my family and bluebonnets in Texas from deep within three feet of northeastern snow in March, I could send a text, ask for a photo, or Skype my way to connection. I could check the weather in Texas (anywhere in the world for that matter), look on webcams to see places I know, read any local paper from any podunk town I wanted.

All of this was comforting in ways not possible thirty years ago, but it was also a lonely comfort. One morning I had to ride the train to Manhattan for a meeting. On the early or evening trains, every seat has a butt in it, but no one talks to the person next to them, unless they know each other. We all had our phones, ear buds, laptops, and tablets out; some were already working but all were certainly disengaging from their peers. When I arrived in New York, I was explicitly told not to talk to folks on the train or subway—“They’ll think you’re crazy.” Keep in mind, public transportation for a Texan is a really communal idea, but, here, the commuters’ coping mechanism for such a moshpit of humanity is only a finger slide and password away.

*     *     *     *     *

During my brief, enjoyable stay with Carol, she suggested I camp at Seminole Canyon State Park, only a few miles up the road and home to some of North America’s oldest pictographs (dating back to 7000 BC). I was ready for more hiking and less driving, so I pulled in around noon and asked the ranger if there was an available tent site. He laughed, “Yes, you’re the only one here. And likely to be. Our visitor season is November to April. Too hot and windy these days. Take campsite 13. It’s the best protected from the wind.”

Sure enough, up on the hill of designated campsites, only the wind blew for company and it was already a toasty 92. The Canyon Rim trail is listed as only slightly more than six miles, and there was no time to set up a tent or cook dinner, so I backed the car in, emptied my pack of everything but map, water, and wallet, and took off.


The trail isn’t difficult, no real elevation gain or loss, but in early June it is generally hot and windy. A jackrabbit greeted me at the trailhead before sauntering a few yards to the east, probably used to getting a few nuts thrown its way. It’s a good trail, though, and I was the only one traversing it.


This is what I had longed for during the Long Island winter: vistas, heat, and time to slowly take them in alone. So when I got to the shelter for the Panther Cave interpretive site, I sat for an hour looking across the canyon at a pictograph in the shape of panther. I also took that hour for a respite from the sun and a little solitude.


I think finally a lasting winter chill thawed inside me. The trail’s half-mile along the Rio Grande melted the remnants.

This bit of heat will be around and start the fires I’ll make in the snow and cold of February. Likely, too, this same bit of heat will lead me outdoors with my layers of winter clothing and microspikes to walk down to the beach. As cold as the ocean wind will be, the experience will stoke this fire.

*     *     *     *     *

I made my way back in time to set up my tent in the evening, driving the stakes in deep to keep the tent from becoming an untethered blue kite.

I planned to do some writing and editing during my trip, so I also pulled out my laptop and began typing notes and downloading pictures. It was a dusty dusk by then, but the screen glowed brightly in the darkening light. Here, some old essays that need mending. Maybe even a few lines of poetry churned out. Odd, I thought, as the little quarter circles lit up. I have WiFi? No cell service but Texas Parks & Wildlife WiFi? Holy crap! WiFi here … alone … in the boonies … below the meandering buzzards and a curious Harris’s Hawk?



I have to say, I felt baffled. Would I have wanted this experience ten years ago with my young daughter when she and I spent a year camping at no less than nineteen Texas parks? Would she have wanted this virtual connection instead of the books we brought? Would Richard Louv say that such electronic portals are now encouraging “nature deficit disorder”? Would Bob Pyle say having WiFi service is encouraging the extinction of experience with this place?

Damn, I thought, three days since I checked university email. Might as well see how high the work pile has grown. And after thirty seconds of watching the virtual wheel turn round and round, up popped an ugly forty emails waiting for attention. By now, the buzzards and hawk were replaced by a blustery night sky stippled with stars and washed by a full moon in the southeast sky. I wondered then what to do. Should I open them and do work? Should I count the constellations? Should I check the computer to learn more about the constellations in the sky over my head?

*     *     *     *     *

Those of us who value our time in other-than-human places face similar questions all the time. Maybe not quite so stark, but just as significant. When and where do we draw lines about respect and real engagement? When do we sever our work and dialed-in habits and ways and use our actual senses to be where we are? When do we allow the virtual world to deny us the actual? Such temptations may be greater in the city, but now we must confront them in some of the most remote areas in the country, as I was finding out.

There’s a part of me that wants TP&W to cut the connection and make folks just be here. Make those kids who’ll be unhappy with no Internet tough it out until they begin to have fun the way I did. Get a cactus thorn or two in your thumb; bloody both knees by running across a wet trail; let a grasshopper you caught spit “tobacco juice” all over your hand. Experience real things.



But I’m also of that generation that spans the advance of the Computer Age, so I wonder if this isn’t my own jeremiad against a modern, connected life. I must admit over half of my scholarly and personal reading is now done online. I have friends who listen to birdcalls and check their Audubon life list by the power of their phones. I Facebook (yes, that’s a verb), but awkwardly, never really sure how much is too much or too little, and, oh yes, we writers love it as free advertising of our new work.

Most folks who have struggled with similar topics retreat to the discussion of tools, efficiency, and work. Am I using this tool with less energy consumption to do a job better and more quickly? Am I using the tool correctly? Am I becoming addicted to using the tool? It’s certainly one way to approach the question, but I wonder if this indicates the perspective of those of us who remember what it was like pre-Internet. For younger people, it may be more of a viewpoint than a tool. My college-age students’ phones, tablets, and laptops are their library, newspapers, gathering places with friends, and even, in some instances, their initial access to other-than-human landscapes via a thousand hits with information and images.

I can only partly grasp that notion; most times, I will still take a grasshopper spitting in my hand and finding a desert willow close by to wipe it on.

*     *     *     *     *

All this to say I read half of my emails that night. I answered only those folks I knew were waiting on me for some important response. After that, I also chose to close the computer and turn my eyes toward the night skies and look at the horizons lit by moonlight. Over and above the constant wind, I heard swooshes just above my head. Bats, I smiled and leaned back in my chair, my computer safely stashed in its case. And quite honestly, I tried to grasp the significance of such connections, Internet memes and bats darting just above my head. I wish I could write that I came to a better understanding, but I am less bright than the moonlight was that evening.

Two weeks later into my trip, I’m still sorting through my reflections and choices. I wake up in the morning and try to make conscious decisions about my time—hopefully engaged at every turn. I thought writing this essay would help. I have a better understanding of when and why I need time away, but it’s a long trip, so I’m sure I have more to learn.

By the way, I just finished this essay on my computer in a Starbucks in Logan, Utah. Free Internet enabled me to submit it! (Insert smarmy emoticon.) Now I can go hike the Logan River on a trail just outside of town. I won’t bring my phone or computer with me, so I don’t care if it’s in range or not. I’ll get back to you in a few days.

All photographs by David Taylor, except for”Grasshopper on Cactus” (Big Bend National Park, Texas) by Robbie, Creative Commons license 2.0.


Me on the ferry crossing Bahia de CienfuegosDavid J. Taylor, Ph.D.
Visiting Professor of Sustainability
Sustainability Studies Program

New EDP fall course offering: “Risk Assessment and Sustainable Development” (EDP 305)

Drilling rig

A fracking site sits next to two deep injection wells owned by Anterra, a wastewater injection company, in Oxnard, California. CREDIT: Sarah Craig/Faces of Fracking (flickr)


Are hydraulic fracturing (fracking) residual wastes, now being “legally” disposed of in many of the nation’s sewage treatment facilities, posing unknown threats to the food chain, and thus human health and the ecosystem, as “biosolids” (a by-product of sewage sludge disposal) are routinely dispersed onto arable land with little or no oversight by the regulatory authorities?

This is the basic research question being explored by a new course offered for the first time by the Sustainability Studies Program this Fall. Entitled “Risk Assessment and Sustainable Development” (EDP 305), it will meet Tuesdays and Thursdays, 10:00 AM to 11:20 AM.

As the instructor for this course, I am no stranger to risk assessment. During my seven years with Barry Commoner’s Center for the Biology of Natural Systems at Queens College, I was party to numerous critical evaluations of environmental impact statements (“EIS”). There was among my colleagues a very hard-headed view about these documents. One could observe what too frequently amounted to boiler plate narratives that built off of inaccurate data, shaky methodologies and questionable assumptions to generate startlingly precise numerical representations of estimated human mortality that somehow never exceeded the one in a million threshold over the average human lifetime.  To us, it truly appeared that the high-priced consultancy firms employed by corporate developers of trash incinerators or hazardous waste disposal companies had started with their numerical target and simply worked their way back through the equations pre-selecting data that would support the desirable outcome.

This admittedly jaded view of risk assessment informs my direction of instruction but does not define it. Lacking any other truly viable technique for determining the consequences of new technologies and developments that intrude on the ecosystem, we have come to accept the EIS as a standard measure. Thus, we should be vigilant in how they are used, or misused.

We will examine the Final Supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement issued by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation on High-Volume Hydraulic Fracturing in NYS (you can learn about it here). We will also examine the US EPA health risk assessment on land application of biosolids in addition to some of the critical analyses by selected researchers of their methodology (see for example the EPA’s biosolids fact-sheet and “A Critical Review of the U.S. EPA’s Risk Assessment for the Land  Application of Sewage Sludge” by Jennifer M.J. Mathney).

The take-away from this course will be a framework that each student will have developed for appreciating both the potential and the limitations of risk assessment. These are common instruments used in the regulatory process that can both inform and confuse the public. Data can be easily cherry-picked to support pre-determined outcomes, or critically analyzed to illuminate flawed assumptions and weak methodologies. My intention is to demystify what can be a bewildering process.

Those of us who strive to achieve “sustainability” are constantly pitted against those whose ideas of sustainability may be entirely contrary to ours and we end up battling with weapons of data. Whose data are accurate? Whose data are to be believed? The answers to these questions are not often clear-cut. Sometimes though, they are unmistakable.

Lecturer and Director
Sustainability Studies Program


Sustainability Studies Program faculty member co-edits and contributes to new book!

Congratulations to our very own Dr. David Taylor, who joined the Stony Brook University Sustainability Studies Program in fall 2014 as a visiting professor of sustainability. In addition to his role as a professor, Taylor is a writer, and his work encompasses many disciplines and genres, from poetry to creative non-fiction to scholarship and science/technical writing. Yet, at the center of all his writing is the concern for environmental sustainability and community.

61Mbu5wIteL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_This central idea common to all Taylor’s works can be found in a new book he worked on with his co-editor and co-contributor, Dr. Steve Wolverton, associate professor of environmental archaeology at the University of North Texas. The book, Sushi in Cortez: Interdisciplinary Essays on Mesa Verde, is published by the University of Utah Press. In the book, Taylor and Wolverton join an interdisciplinary group of academics, artists and cultural witnesses to explore the landscape and cultural history of Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado, a place distinguished by both its renowned archeological sites and well-preserved cliff dwellings.

The contributors’ highly personal works featured in Sushi in Cortez include poetry, film, environmental philosophy, nature photography, native Pueblo perspectives and archaeology, respond to questions common to humanity, including those about the value of work and life, and of visiting timeworn places like Mesa Verde.

Me on the ferry crossing Bahia de CienfuegosDavid J. Taylor, Ph.D.
Visiting Professor of Sustainability
Sustainability Studies Program

Sustainability Studies Program earthworm research recap, 2014 edition!

During my first semester with the Sustainability Studies Earthworm Ecotoxicology lab, back in January 2012, I had seven brave students working with me. We wanted to examine the effect of acid rain on earthworm health, so we designed and ran the research—and made a lot of mistakes. Some of them were pretty funny. As a primate behavioral ecologist, I didn’t know a lot about earthworms. Who knew that earthworms wouldn’t stay in the containers you put them in? Who knew that fungus gnats from earthworm soils could take over a greenhouse? Well, we know those things now!

With more than thirty students working in the lab each semester, we’ve conducted handfuls of important research. We’ve looked at the effects of substances like fertilizer, Ortho Weed B Gon and Roundup on earthworm health. We’ve submitted a total of six posters to URECA. We’ve helped one student conduct her research for the Honors College, and we’ve participated in the Earthstock Keynote address.

The earthworm students work in groups, run by team leaders. They come to me with ideas, we work though the logistics and hone their hypotheses, and then those students organize the manual labor, data collection and write up. In keeping with that spirit, my current group of students, who are divided into two smaller sub-groups, describe their current research below:

The Cadmium Project

Students sifting soil for use in an experiment.

Students sifting soil for use in an experiment.

The goal of our experiment is to determine how long it will take to breed cadmium-resistant earthworms. We predict that it will take more than 4 months for the cadmium resistant earthworm to sustain a fertility rate that is comparable to those of normal earthworms. Cadmium is a known pollutant that has negative effects on the fertility of earthworms. This substance enters the environment through sewage waste, as well as its use in manures and pesticides. This chemical is known to affect the earthworms by markedly decreasing the amount of cocoons that can be produced by earthworms per reproductive cycle. To test our hypothesis, we are placing earthworms in soil that has had a cadmium solution applied to it in varying amounts. The soil will be tested over a period of 6 months for microbe respiration. Additionally, we will be determining the resulting earthworm mortality and biomass. This experiment has given us the opportunity to raise awareness to others about the potential dangers of using these particular chemicals.

The Roundup Project

At the Life Sciences Greenhouse, we’re testing the effect of Roundup on soil microbial respiration and earthworm mortality, the supervision of Dr. Pochron and with the assistance of Michael Axelrod and John Klumpp. This project is an interdepartmental collaboration between Sustainability, Biology and Chemistry. We want to see if Roundup, a popular household herbicide, affects soil microbial consortium and worm mortality. Since earthworm presence indicates healthy soil activity, we predict Roundup will negatively affect soil microbial respiration and increase worm mortality. Results from this study will help elucidate the effects of anthropogenic herbicide use on soil ecosystems. Working in the lab, we learn to independently conduct experiments through hands-on experience.

Many of the Fall 2014 worm lab students gathered in Stony Brook University's Life Science Greenhouse.

Many of the Fall 2014 worm lab students gathered in Stony Brook University’s Life Science Greenhouse.


sharonsxegall1By Sharon Pochron, Ph.D.
Professor and Earthworm Ecotoxicology Researcher
Sustainability Studies Program

Documenting Cuba’s cultural mission to help protect the environment

José Oriol Gonzáles, the director of Teatro de los Elementos, speaking with Karina Pino of Artes Escencias, Melinda and me.

José Oriol Gonzáles, the director of Teatro de los Elementos, speaking with Karina Pino of Artes Escencias, Melinda and me.

From October 29 to November 5, 2014, my colleagues Professor Melinda Levin (University of North Texas) and Filip Celdander (University of Texas, Dallas), and I traveled to Cuba under a cultural visa given to us by the Cuban Ministry of Culture to collaborate with Artes Escenicas, Cuba’s leading performing arts organization, to film performing arts groups in Cuba doing environmental outreach.

Schoolchildren in Sancti Spiritus after a puppet performance.

Over the week, we filmed Teatro Cabotin in Sancti Spiritus, Teatro de los Elementos in Cumanayagua, La Fortaleza in Juragua, and Teatro de Colaboracion con el Medio Ambiente in Romerillo-Havana. The goal of this collaboration was to explore the use of performing arts as a form of outreach and education. We stayed in small Cuban communities, living with the locals. One community, Teatro de los Elemntos, has an organic farm and the locals there live sustainably. There and elsewhere, we noted the specific community issues locals are addressing and in our filmmaking emphasized their creative responses to problems/challenges with the environment.

Performance of Teatro de Colaboración con el Medio Ambiente in Romerillo-Havana.

Performance of Teatro de Colaboración con el Medio Ambiente in Romerillo-Havana.

Our documentary work is meant to help us better understand the creative process, the daily lives of the artists and community members, and the connection between art, community and positive social change. My colleagues and I gathered over twenty-five hours of film footage of performances and interviews as well as thousands of photos of locations and performances. The products of our research will include published essays and interviews, short documentary films and eventually a longer work on Cuban arts and the environment.

Boats in the Bahia de Cienfuegos.

Boats in the Bahia de Cienfuegos.

Artes Escenicas has already invited our group to return and collaborate more extensively in 2015. This year we will work more intensely with Teatro Cabotin and Teatro de los Elementos, and will also travel to Las Tunas to film Teatro Tuyo and its latest theatrical work, Gris. The director of Teatro Tuyo, Ernesto Parra, explains that the purpose of Gris is to raise awareness of the importance of environmental protection.

Me on the ferry crossing Bahia de Cienfuegos

On the ferry crossing Bahia de Cienfuegos

By David J. Taylor, Ph.D.
Visiting Professor of Sustainability
Sustainability Studies Program

E grant used to boost education, minimize environmental impact

When it comes to being a college student, it’s not always easy to minimize your environmental impact. While use of the Internet and other technologies like e-textbooks has become more common in recent years, most classes still require that you use at least some paper to take exams, complete assignments, write notes and review class readings.

But this past semester, Stony Brook University Sustainability Studies Program professors Dr. Arlene Cassidy and Dr. Anthony Dvarskas created a completely paperless course based on the use of electronics to minimize the class’ environmental impact while maintaining high educational standards and increasing students’ exposure to the use of technology in education.

To eliminate the need for paper printed textbooks, exams, paper presentations, homework, scheduling and other course-related items for their course–SBC 401: Integrated, Collaborative Systems–Cassidy and Dvarskas used an “E grant” (a college grant for the use of technology for educational purposes) to obtain electronic tablets for each student.

The professors also used Blackboard, Stony Brook University’s online course-support platform and email to communicate with students, distributing Internet-based reading material, projects, tests and announcements. Besides communicating with their professors, students collaborated with each other online, sharing data and projects, as well as creating group presentations. Additionally, all scheduling and student/course evaluations were completed online.

Want to learn more about SBC 401?
Drs. Cassidy and Dvarskas describe the course below:

Assemblyman Steve Englebright, also a professor at SBU, discusses the coastal restoration project at West Meadow Beach on Long Island.

Assemblyman Steve Englebright, also a professor at SBU, discusses the coastal restoration project at West Meadow Beach on Long Island.

“The primary course objectives of SBC 401 are to develop a way of thinking about complex systems in present-day society, and to provide the necessary research, communication, and team-based skills to address the complex problems involved with coastal regions. The course is organized as a seminar/research project course. As part of the course, the instructors provide practical training in the skills needed to work in teams to conduct research and communicate the results. The teams of students develop a project related to coastal restoration, collect the necessary data (either from databases or through limited field work), analyze the data, and synthesize their findings into a presentation at the end of the semester.

This fall, the focus of the course was on an issue very important here on Long Island: coastal restoration. Several people in the Stony Brook University community have been and are involved with coastal restoration projects and were able to share their expertise and research with the students. Students also were able to gain on site experience visting two local beach restoration projects; West Meadow Beach and Sunken Meadow’s beaches.”

arlenebioArlene Cassidy, Ph.D.
Environmental Economist, Lecturer and Director
Sustainability Studies
Sustainability Studies Program



Anthony Dvarskas, Ph.D.anthony1 Environmental Economist, Coastal Environmental Scientist, Lecturer
Sustainability Studies Program

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

A partnership grows with Clearwater

Croton Point Park, one of the most scenic places in the Hudson Valley, and located on the Eastern bank at the widest part of the Hudson River, was the gathering place for the Great Hudson River Revival, A Music & Environmental Festival, organized by Clearwater this past June 21, the first day of summer. Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, a dynamic advocacy organization founded and inspired by the late American folk music icon Pete Seeger, has become a friend of the Stony Brook University Sustainability Studies Program thanks to program director, Dr. Heidi Hutner.

Dr. Hutner has seized on the parallel missions of her program and Clearwater as a bridge to turn theory into practice. Not content to simply get her students and fellow faculty aboard the Clearwater Hudson River Sloop for annual sails of the New York Harbor, Dr. Hutner has established a deeper working relationship with Clearwater that has engaged both Stony Brook faculty and students in the vital activism that has been the organization’s hallmark. The Croton Point Park event, which included Green Cities volunteers recruited by Clearwater from throughout the region, also included Sustainability Studies Program students, alumni and faculty. Upon graduating in May, program alumna Shameika Hanson was hired by Clearwater as volunteer coordinator and events supporter, paving the way for other Stony Brook University students to become more closely involved with Clearwater.

At Clearwater's Great Hudson River Revival.

At Clearwater’s Great Hudson River Revival.

Under the management of Clearwater’s Environmental Action Director, the able and experienced Manna Jo Greene, Green Cities volunteers circulated throughout the festival gathering signatures on petitions for causes that ranged from the proposed retirement of the Indian Point Nuclear Power Plant, to opposition to fracking, to stricter control of the transport of hazardous fuels carried by railroads, among others. At the start of the event Ms. Greene’s team members were introduced to each other and given an orientation to Clearwater’s political objectives, an agenda near and dear to Pete Seeger and friends. Together, the volunteers ran an information table and tent. Along with the Green Cities and other tents provided for festival attendees, the public education agenda was complimented by delicious food, fun crafts, spirited music and dance. The whole 508-acre park seemed to teem with the event’s positive energy.

For those who wished to spend the entire weekend at the festival, there were a variety of lodging options available. Hundreds of tents and campsites could be seen throughout the park’s designated camping areas. Folding lawn chairs, portable BBQs, random Frisbee games and separate small gatherings of musicians gave the assembly a party atmosphere as people of all ages could be heard laughing, playing and singing. Vehicle license tags revealed an amassing of folks from a widespread geography. Amidst the fun and festivities though, serious discussions about people and the planet were had. All those who love Pete Seeger and his music could take heart in knowing that Pete’s memory and legacy were at work. Those volunteers with clipboards circulating among the crowds were regularly reinforced by the enthusiasm of those wanting to sign their names.

Thousands of signatures were gathered at the event and the petitions containing those signatures were forwarded to New York’s Governor Cuomo and other leaders in Albany. I had the great privilege of serving as a Green Cities volunteer at Clearwater’s festival. It was an especially great day for me; I attended the festival with my son, who had just graduated from college, and got the opportunity to revisit a much-loved place of my childhood (I was born upstate by the Hudson River, in Troy, and grew up in Nyack and Haverstraw on the opposite side of the river).

Dr. Quigley hoists the sails aboard the Clearwater sloop.

Dr. Quigley hoists the sails aboard the Clearwater Sloop.

The latest event in the Sustainability Studies Program’s growing partnership with Clearwater took place on Friday, September 26. Students, alumni, faculty and friends of the Stony Brook University Sustainability Studies Program took another cruise around New York Harbor aboard the 106-foot, single-mast Clearwater Sloop. For those who have tried it, there is something nearly magical about helping to hoist the sails and man the tiller while learning more about our river ecosystems aboard this marvelous “floating classroom.”

Lecturer and Director
Sustainability Studies Program


Digging for answers

Have you ever heard of “earthworm ecotoxicology?”

Earthworms are one species of animal greatly affected by the “stuff” put onto/into the Earth…since they live in “earth” itself!

Stony Brook University Sustainability Studies Program students and others who are interested have the awesome opportunity to take part in an ongoing hands-on research project headed by Dr. Sharon Pochron.

The project entails taking a look at the effects of potential toxins on the health and survival of earthworms, and conducting experiments to find the answers to a variety of questions, including:

  • Does acid rain kill earthworms?
  • Does Roundup cause earthworms to lose weight?
  • Does the use of fertilizer cause infertility in earthworms?
It’s dirty work, but someone’s gotta do it!

It’s dirty work, but someone’s gotta do it!

Dr. Pochron takes students on who would like to earn one to three research credits, or just serve as project volunteers. Students have the opportunity to select, research, and present their own experiments to the public during Earthstock and to URECA.

In addition, students could potentially get their work published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal! Contact Dr. Pochron if you are interested in being a part of this awesome research!

Can you dig it?

sharonsxegall1Sharon Pochron, Ph.D.
Professor and Earthworm Ecotoxicology Researcher
Sustainability Studies Program