It’s All About the Little Things

A friend and fellow student in the Global Field Program wrote this handy guide to making small changes that can make big differences for the environment. Check it out!

Sunflowers & Cephalopods

Whenever there is talk about taking care of the planet, phrases such as “Saving the World” are often used – which can be pretty daunting.

Oakland Nature Preserve

There is no doubt that we as humans, require a global fundamental shift in our actions, beliefs, and perceptions (Reddy et al. 2016), if we are to even attempt to mitigate and possibly reverse the effects we have had on the environment. However, doing this does not need to be as scary as everyone (and my previous sentence) makes it out to be.

Conservation issues tend to be presented in their entirety, which usually is caused by a culmination of many actions (Reddy et al. 2016). Instead of presenting each conservation issue in its entirety and expecting people to be able to change their behaviors accordingly – each of the larger issues, such as climate change and deforestation, should be distilled down…

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Little Steps, Bigger Impacts

What a difference a week can make! I often end up eating on the run. Sometimes I pack a snack, but often I end up patronizing a favorite food truck or grab a salad from somewhere like Honeygrow or Sweetgreen. In the past I’ve reused utensils from a food truck multiple times. More often than not, I’ve lost or broken the utensil and ended up having to grab a plastic fork or spoon from supplies lying around the office, essentially offsetting my own efforts. In the spirit of progress, I decided to order a set of portable utensils by Numu Goods and keep them in my backpack. The set comes, as seen above, with a spoon, fork, and chopsticks—all rolled into a handy carrying case. They are made out of organic beechwood, which is supposed to be more durable and harder than bamboo (I read many reviews complaining about bamboo forks splitting). I’m happy to report that since the set arrived, no plastic utensils have touched my lips!

Sunday Dinner and Food Prep

I’ve also found that just starting this action plan has made me think twice while meal planning. I was out quite late Saturday night, and it would have been very easy to justify ordering Sunday night delivery from any number of local restaurants. But just thinking about not cooking made me feel pretty guilty. I decided to use the opportunity to try a new grocery store that opened up fairly close to where I live. It’s called Sprouts Farmers Market, and people have been raving about it ever since it opened. While I wasn’t blown away by the selection, I did manage to pick up organic cauliflower, kale, and sweet potatoes. Unfortunately, the source or location wasn’t listed, so I have no idea how far my veggies had to travel to get to Philadelphia.

Brown Rice “Buddha Bowl”

While reading about invasive species for this week’s homework, I roasted both the cauliflower and sweet potatoes in coconut oil, stir-fried tofu and a zucchini that had been sitting in the produce drawer of my refrigerator and with ginger and sesame oil, blanched the kale, and made brown rice. I laid everything out, made a quick Thai red curry sauce, and my boyfriend and I put together brown rice bowls for dinner. On Monday, I reworked the sweet potatoes, tofu, and zucchini into a hash that I seasoned with Sundry Mornings JHC Spice Mix. We had that with tomato soup and a toasted “Philly Muffin” (like an English muffin—but square). Philly Muffins are made by the Philly Bread Company, which sources heirloom grain directly from the farmer and mills on site. They’re also really tasty!

Monday Remix

All in all I’d say that my Sustainability Action Plan is off to a solid start (I’m giving myself a generous 5 out of 10). I’ve cooked more, ensured that “emergency plastic” will no longer be a problem, and am trying to meal plan more effectively. Next week I’m hoping to present some of the information I’ve gathered from reading about the sustainability of various diets.

Is My Veganism Sustainable?

Back in October I wrote that I had recently enrolled in a new degree program, and right now I’m deep into my second full semester. One of my courses is Issues in Biodiversity. In addition to doing a lot of reading and writing, we have all been tasked with designing a personal Biodiversity or Sustainability Action Plan for the semester. Some of my cohorts are elementary school teachers, and they’re devising wonderful projects that involve their students, such as planting a pollinator garden or creating compost for a community garden.

The assignment directions note, “Making a behavior change that positively impacts sustainability can be done simply through your choice in which products you buy, or how much you use your car.” As someone who doesn’t own a car, is an all-weather bicycle commuter, shops at farmers markets for a lot of my produce, carries all my groceries in my backpack, keeps my thermostat set at 65-67 degrees in the winter, and refuses to install central air conditioning, I jokingly said to some classmates, “What? I have to give up more?” But the idea of making a personal change struck me as a terrific challenge.

Some of My Vegan Cooking

Lately I’ve been coming across articles claiming that veganism was less sustainable—less eco-friendly—than several omnivore diets. In some cases, the conclusions were based on false comparisons, like imagining that vegans lived solely on exotic foodstuffs with high carbon footprints (avocados, for example) and pitting them against omnis subsisting on locally grown organic meats and vegetables. Still, I found these articles to be somewhat troubling. Cowspiracy (2014) contributed to my decision to go vegan. Since its release, critics have debunked several facts presented in the documentary, especially the percentage of global greenhouse gas emissions produced by industrial farming. Nevertheless, it still seemed—at least to me—to make implicit sense that eating a plant based diet was more environmentally sustainable than one including animal products.

For my Action Plan, I’ve decided to investigate the sustainability and carbon footprint of my diet and see how many positive changes I can make. I’ll be blogging about my discoveries, the changes I make, and posting recipes here. This blog will also be linked to my Instagram account, so that people who like my food photos will have the opportunity to learn more about the ecology of their diet. Wish me luck!

Photo of desert landscape en route to Baja, Mexico

Gaining Perspective

This past January I made an impulse decision to apply to a graduate program I’d recently discovered. Although I regularly juggle multiple interests through work, volunteering, hobbies, and travel, I’ve often wished I could do more to make a difference in the world. One day, while cycling through Chanthaburi, Thailand as part of Bike for Elephants 2018, I learned about a program that suddenly made my aspirations seem possible.

Group photo
Earth Expedition Baja I – photo by Jessica Seevers

Fast forward to June, and I’m hiking through 107-degree heat with eighteen other eager minds studying ecological field methods in Baja, Mexico. We were all first-semester students in Miami University’s Global Field Program, an innovative graduate program that combines summer field coursework with online learning during the school year. 

One reason the GFP appealed to me is that I’ve always loved travel. My experiences abroad have introduced me to extraordinary people and practices, shown me new ways of appreciating the world. But because we would be studying desert ecology—sleeping outdoors, abandoning the comforts of home, and being the only people wherever we went—I didn’t expect those sorts of revelations. I honestly didn’t know what to expect.

Photo of Rancho San Gregorio
Rancho San Gregorio

One of our first assignments required us to map our location, Rancho San Gregorio. My map resembles a pre-Renaissance doodle: there is no world beyond a few structures, everything is two dimensional, and each building is front-facing, albeit from multiple points of view.

In addition to lacking perspective, my map is also bizarrely scaled: the gardens and open spaces have been minimized, the central building (seen in the photo above) is oddly compressed, and the cacti are wildly misproportioned. I’m not really sure what drove me to make such odd choices, but I believe my college art professors would not be impressed.

photo of hand-drawn map
My map

The significance of scale is a theme to which we returned time and again. In one learning activity, we read about the relationships between the area of a habitat and the number of species inhabiting it (Gotelli, 2008). We then used this concept of species-area relationship (SAR) to estimate the minimal sample area needed to characterize the local ecosystem, a sort of scale model for biodiversity.

The process we used is called the relevé method. Four teams measured out initial 5×5 meter square areas (quadrat) and then expanded them to 10×10, 15×15, and so forth. Each team identified and counted species within their quadrats: cardon, boojum, ocotillo, creosote … the total number of species increased with the size of the quadrat … until it didn’t. Once each team expanded their squares past 25×25 we rarely found any new species. We had found our minimal sample size.

Photo of me with a giant cactus
Me, pointing to scarring on a cardon (Pachycereus pringlei) – photo by Samantha Lee Arner

Why is this important? Imagine looking at a small corner of a meadow. You might see a cluster of flowering clover. While this could make for a beautiful photo, it doesn’t capture the meadow as a vibrant community of plant life. In fact, that clover might be an island surrounded by a sea of wild grasses. Examining random plots of the right sample size would give you a much better sense of the meadow’s species richness.

Although I am back in Philadelphia, I’m still thinking about scale—especially in terms of time. This semester I’m studying our city’s green spaces and interviewing people involved in greening the city. One person enthusiastically listed many things street trees bring to a neighborhood: shade, beauty, habitat. But another person claimed, “Trees are easy.” He explained how street trees provide a form of immediate gratification. And while that isn’t a bad thing per se, street trees can give residents a false sense of how green our city really is, which might make us less willing to support efforts whose effects we might not see for decades.

Photo of neighborhood tree planting
Street tree planting in Philadelphia – click for source

Many early cultures used a technique called hieratic scale in their visual arts. With hieratic scale, the most important figures appear the largest. Looking back—my map of the ranch, a close up of a flower, and greening a sidewalk—all these employ a form of hieratic scale. My map, for instance, reveals both my awe of cacti and my inability to distinguish much beyond man-made structures. The sudden popularity of trees suggests that we urban dwellers have difficulty investing in things we cannot see or touch.

My GFP cohorts and I are hoping to join a network of individuals engaged in conservation efforts around the world. My wish, of course, is to help the elephants. But I suspect that I’ve been looking at elephants as if they were clover, and I were strolling past the edge of that meadow. While the clover might seem sparse and precious to me, the meadow is not my home. If it were, the clover might appear abundant, maybe even a nuisance. If I want to make a real difference someday, then I will have to learn to accept multiple truths, embrace multiple perspectives.

References

Gotelli, N. J. (2008) Island Biogeography. In A Primer of ecology (pp. 154-177). Sunderland, Massachusetts, USA: Sinauer Associates.

Handbook for collecting of vegetation plot data in Minnesota: The relevé method. (2013). Retrieved from https://files.dnr.state.mn.us/eco/mcbs/releve/releve_singlepage.pdf.

 

photo of lunch buffet

PAN Vegan Pledge – Chef Lenka, Queen of Cashews

photo of lunch buffet

During our fourth Saturday meeting (at the end of week 3), we were treated to a second cooking demo, this time by vegan Chef Lenka Zivkovich. Pictured above are some of the wonderful treats she prepared for our lunch: veggie hummus wraps, bbq jackfruit sandwiches on mini bagels, and cumin-spiced carrot “meatballs” ringed with crostini. When we entered the kitchen, much of what you see above had already been prepped in the interest of time. One think that I found particularly wonderful about both Chef Lenka’s and Miss Rachel’s demos was that although both work as professionals in the cooking industry, they provided us with easy and low-cost options. Both of them passed around ingredients with which we might not be familiar (like canned jackfruit), but they also used items they had picked up at the local Trader Joe’s (like raw cashews and barbecue sauce).

photo of cashew fruit
Cashew Fruit! source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/angiud/4646618700

Chef Lenka devoted most of her discussion to, you guessed it, cashews. And I just couldn’t resist, the photo above is of a cashew fruit – the stem-like growth on the underside of the fruit is the nut. Lenka first made a thick and creamy custard of cashews and water in a blender. She explained that the cashew to water ration could be altered to produce a variety of basic products. A 1:2 ratio yielded a creamy custard that could be flavored with a little vanilla and used as the “batter” for french toast. Since Chef Lenka offers a wildly popular vegan brunch at a local restaurant, you know this recipe is winner! If the water content is increased to a 1:3 ratio, the result is a vegan substitute for half and half. Lenka made us a quick smoothie with this creamy base, bananas, and spinach.

photo of lunch table

One of the amazing things about the pledge meetings is that there are always surprises. Local sponsors have donated wonderful items, such as the tempeh wraps above from Hip City Veg – and mentors have taken it upon themselves to make additional dishes like the gorgeous salad above or the tempting desserts below.

photo of dessert table

One of the biggest surprise treats came when our organizer mentioned that Chef Lenka had offered to create a late afternoon Happy Hour for our group at Plough and the Stars, where she works. Not only did I immediately sign up for the event, but I emailed some of my vegetarian and “veg-curious” friends to invite them.

photo of Chef Lenka

When we arrived, Chef Lenka welcomed us and explained what she had prepared. She had organized the dishes on a beautiful buffet table and portioned everything small so that we could try a bit of everything. The dishes included inventive items like a “crabcake” made of both artichoke and palm hearts and a savory grilled watermelon.

photo of buffet table

Some of my favorite items included (pictured below, clockwise from the left) a truffled mushroom bruschetta, the “double-heart crabcake,” a mini kebob with king mushroom, mock chicken, and fresh papaya, and a fried “shrimp” with a creamy sriracha sauce.

close up of small plate

Although the buffet was so bountiful, Lenka had one more surprise in store for us: her celebrated raw, vegan creme brulée. Not surprisingly, she used a cashew base. But the dessert also included hints of coconut and vanilla. She browned the raw sugar topping on site with a portable torch and brought the custards to us herself.

photo of creme brulee

The happy hour left us all completely sated, and we vowed to return to Plough and the Stars for one of Chef Lenka’s prix fix vegan dinners once she returns from a well earned summer vacation.