The Big Green Bus
Vehicle for Change

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Sunday, July 21st

July 23, 2013 1:53 am Published by Leave your thoughts

One of the things I’ve learned about the bus is that a large portion of our learning happens outside of the organized events that we plan at every stop. We’ve been amazed at the conversations we’ve had on subways, on farms, in elevators, and on the street. I have been vacationing for the past few days with family friends in Albuquerque, NM, and I’m very pleased that the learning has not stopped in my time away from the bus.

Of course my vacation has allowed me to indulge one of my greatest weaknesses: spending time in used bookstores. Today I went to visit one in ABQ (called Page One, it’s VERY cool!) and when I pulled up directions, I realized that it was a half hour away from where I’m staying, and that in exactly a half hour, renowned British environmentalist Tony Juniper would be giving a talk at the bookstore about his new book What Has Nature Ever Done for Us?. It seemed rather auspicious that he would be there exactly as I planned to arrive, and so I made the drive to Page One and listened to Tony talk.

What Has Nature Ever Done For Us is all about placing economic value on ecosystem services that are often undervalued, such as water filtration in wetlands, or plant pollination by insects. Tony uses a number of stories throughout the book to illustrate the fact that nature and the economy are not separate; in fact, he argues, only when we integrate the economy within the broader biosphere (into a “bioeconomy”) can we achieve sustainable use of resources. During his talk, he provided the example of the economic value of vultures in India. Apparently, vultures played an important role in feeding on decaying carcasses throughout the countryside. Recently, though, farmers have begun to vaccinate livestock with a drug called diclofenac, which is lethal to vultures that then feed on the carcasses of vaccinated livestock.

This has led to a vulture population decline of about 95%. As vultures die off, livestock carcasses have remained un-cleaned throughout the countryside, where wild dogs have begun to feed on them. As more and more wild dogs feed on these carcasses, their populations have exploded. As a result, rabies has become an enormous problem among rural population–costing the country millions of dollars in healthcare costs. Therefore, the price of vultures, which otherwise might not have seemed incredibly important, is worth millions of dollars in the healthcare costs that otherwise would not have arisen.

This is the idea behind economic valuation of ecosystem services: the natural environment is the fundamental driver of our global economy, and by estimating the value of certain services (eg the human health costs of vulture die offs on India), we have clear financial incentive to protect the environment. I am slightly skeptical about attempting to place monetary values on complex ecosystem services, because I think that in many cases it enables “business as usual” practices that have gotten us where we are now. Yet while I believe that what we really need is a shift in the way that we value the environment outside of a generally environmentally-irreverent capitalist system, Juniper explained that we can use economic valuation in very innovative ways to drive policy solutions that will bring us closer to protecting the places and resources that we rely on. I have learned that if monetary valuation of the environment considers local and social contexts, it can be a really important part of the solution for a sustainable future.

This is what I’ve learned today, at a quirky used bookstore in Albuquerque. It just

reminds me that every day of this summer, and indeed every day of the rest of my life, is an opportunity to learn and become informed about the many issues of our time. The key is taking that little bit of extra time and energy to lean in and listen: I’ve found that makes all of the difference.

 

-Katie

Saturday and Sunday: July 20-21

July 23, 2013 12:49 am Published by Leave your thoughts

The last hour of our drive to the Grand Canyon from Las Cruces, NM was one of the most joyful times on the Bus thus far. We were alone on beautiful open roads bordered with changing scenery throughout—dense foilage to wide green meadows to sparse thin trees due to recent fires. Our crew peeked our heads out of the top of the hatches and we felt as though we were flying through the fresh, dry air, basking in the Southwest’s reduction in humidity. For the last ten minutes of the drive through these meandering roads, our whole crew danced to bumpin’ music; our excitement to kick off this two-day vacation could not be contained. We then parked our Bus thirty feet from the edge of the Grand Canyon near the North Rim, just as the sun was setting. We were tucked away in Kaibab National Forest and no one was in sight.

During the daylight hours, we spent our much-needed free time mountain biking along rocky trails, hiking through aspens, napping with the breeze, and getting competitive over card games and Settlers of Catan. In the evenings, we cooked dinners with headlamps, hammocked under the bright moon, watched movies with hot chocolates in hand, and listened to the rain patter against the roof of our Bus. Our crew feels bonded and rejuvenated as we move into the latter half of our summer adventure. This is perfect timing because we need this energy in order to keep up with the fast pace of Las Vegas…here we come Caesar’s!

Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday: July 16 – 18

July 19, 2013 7:49 pm Published by Leave your thoughts

On Tuesday we drove from Austin, TX to my hometown of Las Cruces, NM. We were met by a wonderful reception at one of our hosts’ house, where we met community members and people from the organizations with which we would be working.

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On Wednesday we had a very relaxed morning. We slept in, and then went on a hike around Dripping Springs in the Organ Mountains. We had exquisite views of the area, and the crew enjoyed exploring the desert. Around midday the weather turned and enormous thunderheads reared up over the mountains, chasing us down to the trailhead with waves of rain.

In the evening, we had an event with the Southwest Environmental Center (SWEC), run by Kevin Bixby, at which we learned about and discussed Otero Mesa—one of the last desert grasslands in New Mexico. It’s currently being threatened by oil and gas exploitation and hard rock mining. Not only could these threats destroy the natural habitat of the mesa, but hydraulic fracturing beneath Otero Mesa could also pollute the aquifer that supplies drinking water to all of southern New Mexico.

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On Thursday we drove out to the Chihuahuan Desert Nature Park to learn a little more about the desert ecosystem, what threatens it, and how we can protect it. After getting a guided tour of the park, we helped out with some park maintenance and had a great time hanging out with Paul Harper, one of the staff.

Monday, July 15

July 19, 2013 4:52 pm Published by Leave your thoughts

Our day visiting eBay’s corporate office started off on the right foot with Austin’s famous breakfast tacos, thanks to the lovely employee Emily.  After receiving an awesome tour of the campus and learning about eBay’s innovative initiatives, we facilitated a panel discussion amongst bussers and eBay employees about issues we care about.  I had a particularly interesting conversation with an employee named Phillip about food.  We talked about how there is a disconnect among consumers in America about where their food comes from.  We take from the shelves of supermarkets without understanding the shipment and processing and packaging of the food itself.  This lack of awareness, Philip believes, starts from a very young age.  School cafeterias serve processed meats and pizza, which is an obsession of American food culture that Phillip, who is from Britain, does not understand.  He comments how every day he sees a new pizza place opening in Austin.  If children were exposed to wholesome foods with real nutritional value—such as fresh fruits and vegetables—early on through school lunches, they would begin to understand which foods are healthier for them.  Phillip has jumpstarted this conversation with his own kids, who are seven and nine years old, by explaining to them which foods contribute to them growing outwards and which contribute to them growing upwards.  This simple concept has clicked with his kids, who now know that apples are “up” foods and Cheetos are “out” foods.  Phillip’s wife worked for a food distributing company of natural and organic goods, so his home was always stocked with healthful food samples.  We both acknowledged that eating organic foods is a privilege and certainly not accessible to lots of people.  But the central tenant to our discussion was not that people should be eating organic; it’s just that as a society, we should shift to become more conscious about where food comes from.  We also both recognized that the food industry, especially the meat sector, is very problematic and greatly contributing to global climate change.  But we can’t overhaul the system.  Instead, we must work within it.  The best thing that I think we can do at this stage is to keep consumers thinking actively when they shop and eat.  It’s as simple as paying attention and not letting shiny, colorful packaging override rational thinking.

 

-Krystyna

Sunday, July 14th

July 19, 2013 3:42 pm Published by Leave your thoughts

Like every city, Austin, TX requires a great deal of water and energy consumption to remain a functioning community. In the Southwest— where droughts have been particularly challenging in recent years—water becomes a critical asset to a community. Today the Bus met with Tony Meister at the Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA) to talk about some of these issues and about energy policy as well. The LCRA was founded in 1937 to serve the state of Texas by serving as an electrical supplier, waste water, and water resource management provider (though now they focus primarily on wholesale energy distribution and water conservation). What we learned from Tony painted quite an interesting picture for the community of Austin:

Austin is situated along the Colorado River, however not the Colorado River that most people are familiar with. As it turns, out, there was a typo back in the day that ended up renaming the river from its original name to the Colorado. In any case, Austin is located in about the middle of the watershed that feeds the Colorado that runs in a band from the northwest to southeast corner across the state. At Five different locations (most of which are upriver of Austin) the LCRA has put in dams to promote flooding the river basin to serve as reservoirs. This stock of surface water serves as extra security in times of drought.

This watershed in Texas is mainly fed through rainfall. However, for the past couple years, Austin has been in what is designated as Drought Stage 2 water restrictions (which mainly restricts watering of lawns during the day). At present, many of the reservoir lakes are substantially below normal levels. One reservoir lake, Lake Travis, is 43ft below its historic monthly average, with its surface area so reduced that waterfront homes along its edges now have a quarter mile to the water’s edge from where their docks used to stand. Despite that, particular interests and practices need to be maintained. As it turns out, close to where the mouth of the Colorado reaches the sea, there is substantial rice farming. The pressures of a water intensive crop being grown downstream result in a strong lobby pushing the LCRA to continue to maintain water flows to allow for crop production; exacerbating the effect of drought conditions upstream by consuming a significant portion of their water supply. Other complications for water management include a special species of carp endemic to the area that needs a particular volume of water during the spawning season. Regardless of drought conditions, certain amounts of discharge in these weeks must be maintained in order to protect the species.

In light of the possibility of continued drought conditions, the LCRA is beginning to explore other options to maintain their surface water resources over the coming decades. Austin sits right on top of the Edwards aquifer; a very large deep aquifer that is believed to contain a substantial volume of water. From the sounds of what Tony was saying, it sounds as if there is quite a bit of interest from the LCRA to develop and maintain six deep wells that will resupply the surface-water reservoirs. While this will help to alleviate some of the pressures of water consumption in the coming years, for a town that is growing so rapidly that it has a population doubling time of 20 years, it may not be enough to prevent further drought measures from being taken.

Despite all the water issues, Austin is considered one of the greenest cities in the United States for various standards of energy efficiency, and otherwise. They have committed to being carbon-neutral by 2020, is home to the largest renewable energy seller, and a commitment to maintaining a large array of different green spaces in the city. However, despite the best practices and sustainable mindset held by many who live there, it is impossible to avoid the environmental context that they are living in. Despite the challenging position Austin may find itself facing in coming years regarding water, it is a quirky, vibrant, and young community that has been quite inspiring to engage with!

 

-Patrick

Saturday, July 13

July 14, 2013 1:58 am Published by Leave your thoughts

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Today we held our first event with one of our main sponsors, eBay, as well as got a chance to experience what Austin is like. My only experience with Austin beforehand was hearing that it was “an oasis of blue in a sea of red,” as well as watching the film Slackers. While driving to our event, we passed multitudes of runners — so many that we assumed there was some sort of running event. However, Austin surpassed my expectations and it turns out that hundreds of people out for a run at seven in the morning is a regular weekend occurrence in this incredibly fit city.

eBay and the bus partnered together to do a clean-up of Laby Bird lake which gave us a chance to engage with eBay employees (who are wonderful and passionate) as well as get a feel for the local environment. Additionally, it gave us insights into what eBay is doing in terms of sustainability which ultimately made me proud to have them as a major sponsor. They were the first fortune 500 country to have a LEED gold certified building as well as have their data centers powered by Biomass energy. I’m looking forward to get a better feel for Austin, which put itself on the list of contenders of places I’d be happy to live after College, as well as seeing more sustainability efforts being made by eBay.

-Max

Thursday, July 11

July 13, 2013 7:08 am Published by Leave your thoughts

For our second day of exploration in New Orleans, the Big Green Bus volunteered at the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping address issues of environmental health and justice in Louisiana. The organization works directly with “fenceline communities” — residential communities that neighbor oil refineries and chemical facilities — and provides them with tools to document the off-site impacts of oil and chemical plants. Selena Poznak, the Bucket Brigade’s Volunteer Coordinator, stated that some chemical releases and other accidents have such strong effects on community members that they induce vomiting.  In addition, these plants’ operations may contribute to fenceline communities’ reputations as “cancer alleys” due to high rates of carcinogens such as benzene. Selena stated that  accidents of varying magnitudes occur on average six times per week throughout the entire state.

The Bucket Brigade provides members of “fenceline communities” with EPA-approved “buckets” to take air samples. Community members then send their samples to a California laboratory for analysis.  The organization also manages an iWitness Pollution Map, which anyone is free to populate with location-specific information about sights and smells they observe around oil and chemical plants. The organization primarily attempts to make change by publicizing the detrimental impacts of industrial pollution and the results of its air quality sampling through local media outlets.Trophies created by Krystyna, Gray, and Katie

We volunteered our time to help the Bucket Brigade prepare for and promote a Dance-A-Thon fundraising event to be held on July 27. Half of the crew posted flyers in businesses in the Marigny and Bywater neighborhoods. The other half created trophies for winning dancers by spray painting delicately-arranged toys and trinkets, decorating tip jars for the event, and creating a boat using a shopping cart and  to hold the prizes for the Dance-A-Thon grand prize winner.

I found it interesting that Selena prefaced her discussion with us by acknowledging that oil and chemical industries play a significant and important role in the national economy. Rather than demonizing these companies, she took issue with specific practices that threaten human and environmental health, like chemical facilities’ use of corroded equipment that is prone to leaks and refineries’ continued operation during hurricanes. Selena’s description of the ineffectiveness of the process of self-reporting leaks and spills to the National Response Center was both illuminating and frustrating. The Bucket Brigade provides an inspiring example of how local organizations can use scientific tools and the power of community action to hold large industries accountable for their harmful environmental impacts.

-Lindsay

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