On April 29, 2018, I attended the Earth Tones Environmental Conference at Valparaiso University, a conference with more than a dozen speaker presentations on topics related to sustainability, the environment, and green energy. What brought me there? My very own sister, who was one of the event’s organizers. In the conference’s main room we were greeted with breakfast and a few tables for students’ displays on environmental science. Among the topics were gardening, food waste, and a visual representation of how a vegetarian diet reduces carbon emissions, pictured here:
The conference attendees were a happy mix of students, staff, and community members. In addition to attending presentations, attendees were encouraged to dialogue about the human relationship with nature. I appreciated the well-rounded approach to environmental thought- we were able to learn about the big ideas and philosophy of environmentalism, as well as practical info about human impact on the planet and what technologies are being developed to curb that impact.
In the middle of the day, around lunch time, there was also a snake show! One of the students had a connection to a fellow who owns many pythons and boas, and even breeds some of them. We had a very hands-on experience with the snakes, which I thought was super fun! Some might see it as a bit off-topic, but people who are passionate about the environment and nature are often interested in animals too.
I don’t know why, but before this conference, I had never given any serious thought to tiny houses. I dismissed them as a weird hipster fad, just a glorified trailer or RV. Presenter Dr. Orozco made it clear, however, that there are many important distinctions between tiny houses and traditional campers or RV’s. Tiny houses are designed to be permanent living spaces that use every bit of space to its maximum potential, and offer an affordable option to people who want to live a simple, low-impact life. They can be made of recycled materials, but the reason that they are such an important tool for sustainability is that they consume so much less electricity compared to full-sized houses.
Dr. Orozco gave a passionate presentation that showed us different models of tiny houses, and their slow but steady growth in the U.S. Right now because of municipal codes, tiny houses must be put on wheels and registered as RV’s, because they are too small to be legally built on a normal-sized lot. Hopefully as tiny houses become easier to buy and keep in the U.S., more people will choose this low-impact option.
Medications in Our Water
Yes indeed, trace amounts of antibiotics, aspirin, and hormones can be found in our drinking water. Though it is certainly cause for concern, researchers haven’t figured out why this is happening, or what it means for the future of human health. Dr. Jennifer Mazan, a pharmaceutical expert, discussed the best way to dispose of medications that we don’t use. The FDA previously instructed the public to flush unnecessary medications, but these recommendations are updated often, and not always in ways that you expect. For medications that should not be flushed, like antibiotics, one can take them to a collection location, which are often at police stations or fire departments (one would need to check their local stations for details). On the other hand, certain dangerous medications, including opioids, should be flushed because if they go down the drain, they will not fall into the hands of children or addicts.
Do Our Individual Choices Matter?
This is a question asked by many beginners to environmental science. At the Earth Tones conference, we were given a primer on human ethics and the environment by Dr. Gregory Jones of Valparaiso, in which he touched on many ethical concepts that affect how we interact with the earth. The title of the presentation was “Western Society’s Obsession and Fear of Scarcity”, which I think covers a lot of ground on its own. He started with a video, an essay reading by Derrick Jensen that cast doubt upon our culture’s proposed solutions to American overconsumption as individual rather than systemic.
Dr. Jones correctly pointed out that if we are serious about changing our environmental ethics, stopping climate change and all the problems that humans create for the earth, we can’t work within the current system. We must pick apart our society’s priorities and our very way of thinking to deconstruct the mindsets that tell us we need everything plastic-wrapped, newly-processed, and disposable. There are countless examples of how society has conditioned us to over-consume our resources in every aspect of life, from food, to fashion, to the power grid. Seeking change in our society’s environmental ethic is the root of sustainable living.
Stepping Up to the Plate
At the end of the conference, the Valpo students stepped into the spotlight themselves. A new University staff member has been hired to kickstart a sustainable initiative at Valpo. She had started the process by doing a campus-wide energy audit to see what buildings can reduce their electricity use. She opened the floor for student suggestions, and we got to hear from the conference organizers about the changes they want to see at their school. They brought up plastic packaging in the cafeteria, better recycling efforts, and their desire for a gardening space. There is a lot of room for more sustainability efforts at Valparaiso, and it was heartening to see the students leading the charge toward making the campus more aware of sustainability efforts, and holding their institution to a higher standard. They set a good example for the rest of us.
Bonus: Here is a very fun nature fact for your enjoyment: