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Sustainability at Wake Forest

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Collective Action & Wicked Problems

Thursday, May 22nd, 2014

Stan MeiburgBy Stewart Rickert (’16)

Stan Meiburg, Deputy Regional Administrator of EPA Region 4 for 18 years and prominent Wake Forest alumnus, recently announced his retirement, marking the end of a 37-year career with the EPA.  He worked on a host of issues ranging from The Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990 to public financing strategies for water and wastewater treatment facilities.

In a recent conversation with us, Meiburg discussed the misunderstanding many Americans have about sustainability, and their lack of awareness about what we can do to escape a growing web of seemingly intractable problems. In Meiburg’s view, the most wicked of these problems is climate change.


Q: Diffuse problems are sometimes lumped together under the term “wicked” problems. We think of wicked problems as persistent, complex, and relying on interconnected variables for a solution. What is a wicked problem from your perspective?

A: To me, the best example of a wicked problem is climate change. I also consider the use of chemicals in the environment to be a particularly persistent wicked problem. Many trends unite these problems, but two stand out: 1) they are big, and require collective action; and 2) results take a long time, and people don’t see immediate benefits from their actions. For example, if you drastically reduce your personal carbon footprint, the climate doesn’t immediately change. But just because you don’t see an impact doesn’t mean there isn’t one.

Q: Since people can’t always see the results of their efforts, how do you make them aware that what they are doing is valuable?

A: For us at the EPA, it was always about education. We knew we were doing a lot, and we wanted to make sure that the public knew why we were acting, and what they could do to help. Notwithstanding all of EPA’s legal authorities, we depend on voluntary, collective actions to help us out of environmental holes we’ve dug for ourselves.

Q: When you say collective action, what do you mean?

A: Collective action is the aggregate of many, many little things. Little things like choosing to walk or bike instead of drive, composting and recycling materials, and turning off the lights (or using motion sensors). By doing little things, we make an impact—and we help promote big things, like designing buildings and neighborhoods that promote such behaviors. By doing little things, we give our neighbors and friends examples of actions that they, too, can take. Above all, I encourage people not to despair; it takes time before we can see the impact of our actions. A motto to still go by is from the first Earth Day in 1970: think globally, act locally. And the country is so much cleaner now than we were then!

For some noteworthy practical tips from Stan Meiburg check out these that have been excerpted from a 2009 keynote address.

Toxic Drift Discussion with Pete Daniel

Friday, March 7th, 2014

toxic driftAs part of the History Department’s Engagement Series, we had the pleasure of meeting Wake Forest alumnus and distinguished historian, Pete Daniel. Dr. Daniel’s work covers a panoply of important cultural and historic issues from farming to civil rights and environmental degradation.

During our discussion of his book Toxic Drift: Pesticides and Health in the Post-World War II South., Dr. Daniel posited that our history with pesticides stems from the idea that nature is not good enough. This idea sparked an interesting interdisciplinary discussion that called up concepts from economics, literature, history, ethics, and civil rights. The breadth of the discussion should not have been surprising given that Daniel is a strong proponent of the liberal arts tradition and sees great value in thinking about issues across disciplinary divides.

Where are they now: Jeannie McKinney

Tuesday, December 3rd, 2013

After nearly three years, the events that followed the March 2011 Tohoku earthquake in Japan are still impacting the lives of 83,000 nuclear refugees. The effects of the tsunami that followed the earthquake, and the damage to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear facility, linger in the form of radiation and now increased atmospheric pollution from a return to fossil fuel-based energy sources. For Jeannie McKinney (‘10), the disaster rekindled her passion for clean energy sources that don’t carry the same risks as nuclear power generation.

McKinney, who graduated from Wake Forest University with a BA in East Asian Studies, left the states to teach English in Hokkaido, Japan. Although always interested in learning about and experiencing other countries and cultures, she also held an underlying passion for the environment. She could not have predicted just how quickly her passion would translate to environmental conservation work until the Fukushima nuclear disaster.

The small farming community of Kuriyama, in which McKinney was teaching, felt the reverberation from the earthquake that occurred roughly 300 miles away, and in more than just the literal sense. “I watched as locally grown produce proudly displayed in the grocery stores was slowly replaced with foreign imports, as more and more Japanese food products were found contaminated with radiation. I, myself, promised my family that I’d switch to Australian beef and chicken, just so they would worry less,” she said.

McKinney was troubled that she may visit the town years later to find it damaged with dirty energy projects and overdevelopment.  To try to prevent this, when she returned to the states, she volunteered with the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy (SACE) in her hometown of Knoxville, TN. Now, as the Communications Coordinator and Webmaster for SACE, McKinney handles all electronic communications for the non-profit, which advocates for clean energy programs and policies and opposes nuclear and coal-generated power.

“Our entire culture of development and technological growth is built on the fact that we think we have endless amounts of energy to sustain it all, but fossil fuels and high risk energy sources have limits. We’re poisoning our atmosphere by burning them, and I know firsthand just how disastrous ‘clean’ nuclear energy can be,” stated McKinney.

Determined to continue to fight for what she believes is the right path for America’s energy future, McKinney plans to attend graduate school for environmental public policy in a few years. “Wake Forest gave me the opportunity to have a broad and diverse education, allowing me to test the waters with many different areas of study and helping me to learn about the world from various perspectives.”  In her past position as English teacher abroad and her current one as a clean energy advocate, McKinney both exemplifies the local and global opportunities that stem from a Wake Forest education and personifies our motto Pro Humanitate.

 By Hannah Slodounik, Program Coordinator

Where are they now: Emily Bachman

Monday, November 4th, 2013

Emily Bachman (’13) was a prominent contributor to Wake Forest’s sustainability efforts throughout her four years as a student. She served as the president of the Student Environmental Action Coalition (SEAC), a shift leader and summer intern for Campus Kitchen, a regular volunteer in the Campus Garden, an intern with ARAMARK, where she worked to support sustainability in dining, and a semester-long intern with the Winston-Salem Sustainability Resource Center. In addition to her ambitious extracurricular activities, she completed a major in history with a double minor in environmental studies and anthropology.

After graduating last spring, Bachman took some time to travel. She spent two weeks in Israel with Birthright (accompanied by former fellow sustainability intern Sanders McNair) and six weeks driving across the country exploring several cities and national parks along the way.

Post-excursion, Bachman landed in Brooklyn where she is serving as the AmeriCorps Volunteer & Special Projects Coordinator for Rebuilding Together NYC. Rebuilding Together NYC is the New York City affiliate of a national nonprofit that is located in over 200 cities across the country. They are a “safe and healthy housing” organization, serving low income, elderly, handicapped, and veteran homeowners. They focus on critical home repairs including accessibility modifications for the physically disabled, and rebuilding after Hurricane Sandy. Additionally, Rebuilding Together NYC focuses on energy efficiency upgrades and weatherization to lower energy consumption in homes. She is also working on an independent project incorporating sustainable landscape design, including rain barrels and native plantings, into the organization’s future projects to support stormwater retention.

In the coming years Bachman plans to attend graduate school for a degree in Sustainable Urban Design and Policy and to find a career that allows her to pursue “city planning through a sustainable lens.” She says that being able to see different cities and compare the strengths and weaknesses of their designs while traveling has helped further develop and affirm her aspirations.

She says that her liberal arts education fostered her passion for sustainability and prepared her for post-collegiate life. “It taught me to think critically and holistically. My liberal arts education allowed me to explore my interests from a variety of perspectives and to understand the many different causes and potential solutions to the social and environmental issues we face today.”

What inspires you to be sustainable?

For as long as I can remember, sustainability has mattered to me. I value human life and I do not like the idea of people suffering, now or in the future. I understand that the way human beings, especially in the western world, are living today will cause suffering in the future. Rather than wait for the consequences and begin to react when it is too late, we should work immediately and proactively to develop sustainable lifestyles.

What is the biggest issue facing our generation?

Apathy. It is so obvious that we are doing things so wrong and that we need to change, but because most people are not confronted with the impacts of their unsustainable lifestyles directly on a daily basis, they are apathetic. They don’t care and they continue with the status quo. Not enough people are passionate enough.

What is your number one tip for living sustainably?

Don’t buy what you don’t need – I try to remind myself of this constantly, especially now that I am on an AmeriCorps stipend.

By Andrea Becker (’16), Staff Writer

Where are they now: Shelby Buso

Tuesday, August 27th, 2013

Shelby Buso ('02)

When WFU alumna Shelby Buso (’02) started her undergraduate career at Wake Forest University, she assumed she was embarking on a path to veterinary medicine. However, after earning a degree in anthropology, minors in environmental studies and Spanish, and a Juris Doctor and Masters of Environmental Law and Policy from Vermont Law School, Buso found herself on an alternative professional path. Now, as the Assistant Director of Transportation & Sustainability at Midtown Alliance – a nonprofit membership organization that has been the driving force behind the revitalization of Midtown Atlanta since 1978 – Buso works to cultivate sustainability in an urban context, working more with policy than animals.

Buso’s initial pull towards veterinary medicine stemmed from her innate affinity with animals and nature, which her coursework in Environmental Studies at WFU allowed her to explore. “I find my solace in nature and cannot imagine doing anything with my life that doesn’t involve preserving it,” Buso said. Internship opportunities with The MacKenzie Law Firm and ReefTeach, Inc. while attending WFU guided her work and passion. After graduating, Buso realized she could combine her areas of interest by working in environmental law. To test whether or not it was a path to which she wanted to commit, she obtained a paralegal certificate and worked as a paralegal for three years before attending Vermont Law School. During her graduate work she was involved in numerous student law organizations, studied abroad in Spain and Italy, and completed a semester in practice at the United States Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA) in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

“At the beginning of my legal career, I believed I could make the most difference by preserving wildlife and large public lands,” Buso reflected. Upon graduating with a JD and Masters of Environmental Law and Policy, she moved back to Puerto Rico and worked as a law clerk. When Buso decided to move back to Atlanta a couple of years later, she knew she wanted to focus more attention on environmental policy and started working at The Clean Air Campaign. Atlanta’s interconnected environmental network allowed her to smoothly transition into her role at Midtown Alliance where she is able to continue her life’s pledge to preserve nature.

In her time at Midtown Alliance, Buso developed and co-authored Greenprint Midtown, a local sustainability action plan. One outcome of the plan is the development of the Midtown EcoDistrict. Working to join the collective of current EcoDistricts, which includes sustainability hallmark cities Portland and Seattle, Midtown Atlanta is implementing initiatives of its own to create what the organization describes as “a neighborhood of the future.”

Although her professional path has taken some twists and turns, she still believes her work contributes to conserving the nature she values. “Creating a sustainable infrastructure for people to thrive in, both professionally and personally, has given me a sense of purpose beyond the one I felt in the wilderness,” she said.

To this end, Buso has already worked on many programs that advance the goals of Greenprint Midtown and Midtown EcoDistrict: engaging property managers and building owners in the Atlanta Better Buildings Challenge, coordinating the installation of the first public space recycling program in the City of Atlanta, and creating a sustainability initiatives recognition program. Buso also manages Midtown Transportation Management Association, which works to increase the use of alternative transportation to and from Midtown.

Considering last April marked her one-year anniversary at Midtown Alliance, saying she has been productive would be putting it mildly. Still in the beginning stages of implementing Greenprint Midtown, Buso will have just as much to balance moving forward. She always finds the hard work worth it: “Being able to walk the streets and see work I influenced being done first hand is an experience that I feel lucky to enjoy.”

By Hannah Slodounik, Program Coordinator for the Office of Sustainability