In a recent Finger Lakes Times article about Earth Day’s 40-year history, Thomas Drennen, associate professor of economics and chair of environmental studies at the Colleges, recalls his earliest memories of environmental awareness.
“On a family trip to Niagara Falls as a child, Drennen said, he could smell the stench of the foam generated by the falls,” the article notes. It quotes him, “I can still remember the smell today. It was of chemicals. And I remember thinking as a kid, ‘What the heck are we doing?'”
Drennen was the keynote speaker for the event that kicked off the Colleges’ Earth Day celebrations last week. He recently released for public access an educational computer model that illustrates the tradeoffs associated with various alternatives to gasoline. A member of the HWS faculty since 1995, Drennen earned a B.S. in nuclear engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, an M.A. in public affairs from the University of Minnesota, and a Ph.D. in resource economics from Cornell University. In 2006, he received the Hobart and William Smith Excellence in Teaching Award. He is also a senior economist at Sandia National Laboratories.
The full article follows.
Finger Lakes Times
Caring for the Earth
40 years of progress, but still more to do
Amanda Folts • April 22, 2010
Looking back on the 40 years since Earth Day began, several area residents focused on issues ranging from global warming to garbage.
For one Hobart and William Smith Colleges professor, the Earth Week events that precede Earth Day were a piece of his childhood that shaped who he was. Thomas Drennen, professor of economics and environment, recalled talking about the issue in school and planting trees.
On a family trip to Niagara Falls as a child, Drennen said, he could smell the stench of the foam generated by the falls.
“I can still remember the smell today. It was of chemicals. And I remember thinking as a kid, ‘What the heck are we doing?'” he said.
Drennen said there are so many success stories with cleaner air and water that he’s optimistic about the future.
The environmental movement of the 1970s led to the Clean Air and Clean Water acts, Drennen said, adding that they are something many people attribute to the Earth Week movement.
But Drennen pointed out one exception to the environmental improvements: Global warming. More than 90 percent of scientists think there is a problem, he said.
Drennen said he approaches the subject with his students by telling them that scientists say there is a problem, and he compared it to having fire insurance on his house. As an insurance policy, Drennen said he thinks people need to at least try to do something.
The average person in the U.S. consumes twice as much energy as those in other industrialized countries and 10 times the world average, Drennen said. Among the changes people can make are to buy fuel-efficient cars, walk or bike more, use efficient lights and Energy Star appliances.
On a larger scale, Drennen said there needs to be international cooperation that will affect climate change. The U.S. needs to figure out whether it can lead the world in clean energy, because if it doesn’t, China will, Drennen said.
“We should strive to make clean energy one of the things that we export. It’s a huge opportunity,” he said.
The weight of garbage
At Finger Lakes Community College, students planned to take a look at the garbage they produce in one day and determine what could be composted or recycled.
Kim Babcock, sustainability coordinator at FLCC, said that from what she can tell, there have been huge strides made in the environmental awareness effort in the U.S. and the world.
There is a big effort now toward sustainability, she said, but there is a tremendous way to go. There are more people on the planet now than ever, with a population of nearly 7 billion straining the earth’s resources, she said.
But places like the U.S. and United Kingdom have a more significant impact than others, adding responsibility to take only their fair share of the resources, she said.
The garbage assessment FLCC did last year found 800 pounds of trash from one day, Babcock said. About 55 percent of it needed to go to the landfill; the rest could be recovered as compost or recycled.
People can choose to be more conscientious of what they recycle, buy products in recyclable packages and buy in bulk, she said. She also noted that products can be bought without packaging, such as buying a whole pineapple rather than canned.
“It’s just simple daily choices that we have to constantly come back to and say ‘OK, what is the long-term implication of this,'” she said.
It may not seem like a big deal to throw something away, but Babcock said there’s no such place as “away.”
Even landfills, where things are properly disposed of, are taking up space and resources and some items can take a long time to break down.
Doug Knipple, president of the Finger Lakes Zero Waste Coalition, also focused on the amount of garbage generated by people.
Overall, Knipple thinks the state of the planet has gotten worse since the first Earth Day in 1970.
He cited the elimination of one-third of the planet’s natural habitat in the last two decades, saying it was for the specific purpose of extracting materials for consumption.
“Most American consumers are not aware of the environmental cost of the extraction, production and disposal of materials, but it’s quite expensive,” he said, adding that most material goods end up in a landfill within six months of purchase.
In the last 30 years, Knipple said, the amount of garbage that each person produces in the U.S. has doubled, and the average person produces 41 pounds each day.
Knipple said the most important thing is to consume less, which he believes can be just as political as changing habits and culture. He suggests people reduce energy use, waste less and get involved politically.
Some changes can be using cloth napkins rather than paper ones, using high-efficiency light bulbs and purchasing high-efficiency front end washing machines.
“We should buy green, buy local, buy used, but most of all, buy less,” he said.