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Chasing bunnies

By Liz Bloomhardt
Published September 1, 2011

I started the day out in Page Auditorium, surrounded by first-years who were eagerly introducing themselves and comparing the size and location of their dorm rooms. Many of them had a green book with white writing splashed across the cover: their summer reading assignment.

In an attempt to follow-up on my column last Spring about the book, “Eating Animals,” by Jonathan Safran Foer, I attended both sessions of the author’s speech to the first-year students, then sat with a FAC-led discussion group after each lecture.

The unprompted discussions surrounding the book may have reached deeper and more complex places than those I observed. Yet, the gist of this book’s impact was clearly evident and it ran the spectrum.

Some members of the Class of 2015 were uncomfortable, bored or otherwise turned off by the book. Some didn’t finish it, or claimed to have been unmoved. On the other hand, approximately 60 to 70 percent of the freshmen I spoke with said they had altered their eating habits significantly, had tried for at least some time to be vegetarians or had become full-fledged vegetarians.

It would therefore seem that Foer was extremely successful in his argument. I agree with him from an environmental perspective, Foer has the facts in his corner. Factory farming is bad, and that’s not even getting into the health or animal welfare issues associated with consuming meat.

But what bothered me most all day were the things Foer did not talk about. Foer’s seems to assert that the best way to address the problem of factory farming is to become a vegetarian. Though I understand space in the book was limited, this is simplistic. In a sense, it is the opt-out method. The book not only does nothing to address the factory farming issue culturally (a word Foer never uses), it also under informs.

One student in each question and answer session asked Foer why he stopped shy of veganism, that is, before fully personally confronting the factory farming of all animal products. Time, and that he’s not perfect, was the general gist of the response. The answer hardly seemed satisfying, although certainly, as he also pointed out, it was more approachable than an academic or logical explanation.

He also did not talk about the sourcing of the alternative option he presents, namely vegetables and the attendant issues related to their industrialized production. While arguably less impactful than animal product production, industrialized vegetable agriculture should be no less of a concern to the truly engaged and thoughtful eater.

Those who entered Foer’s discussion were presented with a local way to get further involved: a bookmark with the website: http://sites.duke.edu/food/

As the sun was nearing the treetops, I was headed toward one such center for engagement (also described on the website), the Duke Campus Farm, a sustainable, organic, demonstration farm with the motto: farm to fork, student to student. Foer’s choice to remain silent about vegetables wasn’t going to stop me from learning about them.

In the space of a three hour “workday,” I learned a lot—like how to prune basil, pick corn and what was making the tomato plants look dead but still productive (blight). I also learned about corn smut, a fungus that attacks the corn kernels making them appear engorged.

While I was harvesting your Marketplace meal of last Friday (no smut included), I also bonded with my fellow farm workers, who were a bit more practiced and knowledgeable. I eventually found my cherry tomato picking rhythm, but I would probably not cut it in a competitive work environment.

And then there was a rustling under the leaves of the sweet potato patch. A bunny. It was impossible to see unless it moved. The others came with sticks and a strong conviction that the bunny must go, but whether to relocate it or kill it was an open question. For several minutes we puzzled through the ridiculous notions that the bunny would go lightly into the proffered bucket for relocation, or when prompted, opt for a ride in the snare tarp instead of escaping under it. Meanwhile the bunny had other plans entirely, and it elusively outmaneuvered the big sticks, buckets and tarps making a clean getaway back the way it came.

So it was that the day’s literal and philosophical puzzle boiled down to that age old question: To kill or not to kill the bunny? And, how?

Liz Bloomhardt is a fifth-year graduate student in mechanical engineering. Her column runs every other Thursday.

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Two Gardens

By Liz Bloomhardt

Published August 26, 2011

 

Last spring I decided it was time to get my hands dirty and plant a garden. A proper garden, in the ground.

For several years I’ve achieved what I considered moderate success with a tomato plant or two on the porch. Add to that the hop vines, grown in whiskey barrels, that did nicely in their third year, rewarding us with enough hops for a batch of homebrew, and I felt ready for the big time.

To set the mood: the poetically mouth watering pages of prose describing asparagus, for one, in Barbara Kingsolver’s “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle” and a timely article in the New York Times suggesting several online seed retailers. A peek outside at the unsightly new retaining wall on a seemingly abandoned worksite in the backyard plus the history of two years of cursory attention by the landscapers and it’s no wonder my patience for progress had worn thin. I was eager with anticipation to start digging, cultivating, nurturing … or at least to just start by ripping out the damn hedges that were half dead anyway!

But before I ever picked up a shovel, I busted out the graph paper and a pencil and I walked around the house in April with my sketch pad and measuring tape. I jotted notes and made lists. I consulted the online catalogues of seeds while visions of terraces and stone paths and lush greenery danced into being in my mind.

As with any beginning gardener (if I can call myself that) my imagination was brimming with possibility, nevermind the lack of know-how needed to get there.

And yet, already, this vision I had created on paper and in my mind was my first garden. Let me explain.

In his book “Second Nature,” Michael Pollan describes his own garden as “actually two, one more or less imaginary, the other insistently real. The first is the garden of books and memories, that dreamed-of outdoor utopia. … The second garden is an actual place. … Much separates these two gardens, though every year I bring them a little more closely into alignment.”

My beautiful, magical, well-behaved, bug free, gorgeously edible, imaginary garden (with NO mosquitos) is not what happened this year. Despite watering and weeding and careful if clumsy cultivation, some of my seeds just never came up. Rather than failures, I’m calling these endeavors educational, because at the same time, a few of my plant selections, some with fantastic flowers and fruits, have taken over!

As in the garden, also in life. Nature, wild or cultivated, is often an apt metaphor if one takes the time to consider it as such, and as the summer wore on, this seemed especially true.

Again, let me explain. Several years ago, I embarked on a path through graduate school, but let’s call it life for generality’s sake. I did my homework, completed applications, talked to professors, students and mentors and became increasingly excited about returning to the academe for a professionally transformative experience, all the while cultivating in my mind the shape of my future.

When I got here, to Duke, I embraced my new environment, explored subjects I wanted to learn more about and got involved in ways I had never been involved before. I was, if you will, planting seeds of possibility. Some of those seeds have germinated and flourished, both in my mind and my work. Others have underperformed my expectations. Of the underachievers, I can speculate on the cause: too much sun, not enough, an intolerable pH balance … but regardless of the reason, what’s important is that I recognized the time to record the results, and iterate toward the future. Each new year, a new opportunity to plant anew.

Completely tearing up the roots of last year’s plantings that didn’t quite work is a near impossible task in the garden and in life. I got most of the root ball of that awful hedge out of the ground but only after much sweating and hacking. And after filling in the crater it left, I’m certain that shrub has left a deeper history in that spot than I will ever fully appreciate.

The same is true in life, although at times it seems easier to collect the blooms, or in my case a masters degree, create a meal, and till the stalks and roots back into the soil to nourish the next endeavor. Memory serving as the soil, a foundation made richer by experience.

It’s safe to say that both of my gardens, vegetative and professional, are still very much a work in progress. However, even though it will certainly take two years before the asparagus is ready for its first real harvest, I already feel confident I’m moving closer into alignment with that future self I hold in my mind.

Lix Bloomhardt is a fifth-year graduate student in mechanical engineering.

Earth Day, 2011

Another year, another pollen storm, (some tornados in NC!), another Earth Day!

Unfortunately, from my little perch on the branch of sustainability awareness, there isn’t a whole lot of Earth Day going on in my usual publication, The Chronicle. That’s pretty disappointing, especially considering the amount of stuff that’s going on campus, both in and out of the classrooms, and the importance of the issue generally in the wider world. Instead of touching on the BP oil spill, the national and local political dialogue, or the groups holding events all month, the paper is in full senior mode, celebrating four years at Duke, getting nostalgic, and even a little hard hitting of campus culture issues – but more the kind that are undergraduate centered. While equally important, sometimes it’s a good time to look outside ourselves and our bubble.

Yesterday I attended an Earth Day celebration organized primarily by graduate student groups and likely largely attended by the same. It wasn’t on the Plaza or the main quad, it was down near the LSRC and the Nicholas School. I did the ceremonial bike ride, and hung out, watching Nic School professors get dunked in the dunk tank, eating earth friendly food, and getting a little sun to brighten my mood and complexion. Hard not to be a happy earth optimist under the circumstances!

So, while I don’t recommend The Chronicle for Earth Day coverage, there are plenty of publications to get your inspiration fix. From the Huffington Post green page, with their startlingly huge fonts imploring you to ‘Get Involved’, to Duke’s Sustainability Page, which has a full listing of Earth Month events, there’s lots to go around. It’s also an important time in our political dialogue to be educated on these issues and vocal about the impacts of compromising on our shared natural resources.

Happy Birthday Earth! Here’s to many more!

By Liz Bloomhardt
Published April 8, 2011

The sitting U.S. president was too busy launching a reelection campaign to meet for this column, but I did stop by the Allen Building where the president of Duke University, Richard Brodhead, agreed to let me into his office. What follows is an account of our conversation, edited for clarity and brevity.

Green Devil: Can you describe the process you went through in deciding to sign the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment [in 2007, also signed by nearly 300 other colleges and universities, that set in motion the drafting of Duke’s Climate Action Plan and the commitment to reaching carbon neutrality by 2024]?

Richard Brodhead: You start by asking the question, does this university believe in sustainability? Yes. Do we believe that humans have an impact on the environment? Yes. Do we believe, therefore, that over time humans should alter their behavior so as to show greater respect for the environment? Yes.

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Eating animals

By Liz Bloomhardt
Published March 25, 2011

The Duke community is having a food awakening, and next year’s incoming class of freshmen are getting a front row seat at the table.

The latest in a long line of food-related events, debates and campaigns on campus was the selection in February of Eating Animals, by Jonathan Safran Foer, as the summer reading assignment for the incoming Class of 2015 at both UNC and Duke.

Having snuck a copy of Foer’s book into my own stocking at Christmas (next to a copy of Lunch Poems by Frank O’Hara) I took the opportunity over Spring break to do a little reading. Unfortunately, I didn’t really feel like any lunch after reading Foer’s book. It may be an easy read, but Eating Animals is an emotional sucker punch.


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Eco-Olympics for all

By Liz Bloomhardt
Published February 25, 2011

Every Duke student who has lived on East Campus since 2002 has heard of Eco-Olympics. I say it’s time to spread the competitive energy and engage the rest of campus.

In its current form, Eco-Olympics is held every Fall for several weeks. It pits freshman dorms against one another in a competition that awards points for energy reduction, events attendance and recycling. The winning dorm gets T-shirts and ice cream.

The campus-wide version will require some tweaking to this model and a new name, but it offers the following benefits: a) It will build community spirit. b) It will engage non-residential populations. c) It will provide incentive to participate in existing programs. And d) it will put real data into the public domain.

Let’s look at each point.

Mundane activities like recycling your office paper, turning off the lights or commuting to the office aren’t necessarily fun by themselves. Right now, you might be inclined to do them out of habit, because it’s convenient or because you derive satisfaction from doing things that are socially acceptable and encouraged. Now, if you get a group of friends or colleagues together, these activities can become a bonding experience. Get yourself a rival, and the passion to achieve naturally gets kicked up a notch. An Eco-Olympics for all of Duke should provide both the “Kumbaya” kind of community building and the kind of community bonding that only rivalry-leading-to-positive-social-change can build. Plus, this would be a program we could totally brag about!

Next, Duke University is composed of some 15,000 undergraduate and graduate students, only about 10 percent of whom are freshmen living on East Campus. That means there is a significant, untapped population just waiting to be engaged.

At a graduate student retreat in January, students in a roundtable discussion on sustainability from such schools as the Fuqua School of Business and Sanford School for Public Policy were like, “Yea, I would want to compete against other schools at Duke, but I also need to know that my actions are making a difference.” Staff members want in, too; I know they do, and well, fine, we can let the professors play as well.

Which brings me to the next point: incentive. This is not about grades, but about points, and it runs both ways. On the competitor side there is also glory, a sense of moral righteousness and camaraderie (we’ll get to prizes in a second). On the University side, the competition would highlight existing programs like carpool incentives and award points for enrolling members. It could also measure tons of trash diverted to recycling programs or percentage reductions in energy or water use due to conservation measures or changes in behavior.

Finally, and most importantly, the real data that is already being tracked by the service sectors of the University would be used, displayed, digested and owned by everyone.

It’s time to open the floodgates and let the data out!

Facilities Management is migrating its data to a user-friendly platform that will have limited access and that should be out of beta in a couple months. This data could be easily mined and stripped of cost-sensitive information for display on dashboards across campus. (On a side note: Dashboards are not new, and it’s a shame we don’t have any yet. Let’s get on that.) The competition data can also be available through an online portal so users can interact with it.

Some work will have to be done to migrate other data streams—like waste and recycling tonnage—to the existing metered utility data, but this is an investment worth making if Duke is serious about all aspects of sustainability. And I think we are.

The detractors to this egalitarian proposal might mention that Sustainable Duke already engages the community by sending out Green Devil Challenges to members of the Duke community who have signed the sustainability pledge. I counter: These challenges are voluntary and do not measure action, but they are a good start and should be included in the competition.

Despite the myriad benefits of a University-wide Eco-Olympics, this program will likely cost money. We should evaluate the associated costs, with the understanding that we will reap the rewards of the investment with positive publicity (hard to quantify monetarily), decreased operating expenses and lower cost of offsets in 2024, the date set for carbon neutrality. The community is also likely to learn a great deal in the process. Knowledge in the service of society….

But wait, there’s more; I haven’t gotten to prizes yet. They should be good—more than, but also including a trophy—certainly more than T-shirts and ice cream. That is all. Discuss.

Liz Bloomhardt is a fourth-year graduate student in mechanical engineering. Her column runs every other Friday.

Gold STARS for Duke

By Liz Bloomhardt
Published February 11, 2011

Do you remember elementary school when teachers and parents gave out little gold star stickers when you did well on a test or completed your house chores? Sometimes they were red or green or blue or silver, but gold was always the best. Well, it turns out we don’t seem to lose interest in garnering those little tokens of accomplishment just because we grow up.

So it is with warm apple pie enthusiasm I tell you now that last week, Duke got a gold star for sustainability. I only hope we hang it on our collective, proverbial fridge because it’s not without merit. We should walk by this gold star every morning for at least a week and like it so much we want to earn more. Since this is 2011, and we have to adjust for inflation, materialism and the marital market’s preferences, platinum is now the best kind of star. Gold ranks second.

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