The Cushman Clan’s Romp Across the Earth (Spring 2011)

This semester in the introductory, interdisciplinary environmental studies course I co-teach with Chris Brown and Johan Feddema (EVRN/HIST/GEOG 142), we examined the ecological foundations of human civilization over the long term—including our own industrial civilization. Whenever I could, I tried to place myself and my ancestors into this history. We encouraged the rest of the class to do so, as well, by writing a weekly journal focused on current events and participatory activities in the world surrounding us. This blog and the comments that follow is intended to provide a “public forum” for reflecting on our ecological history and our prospects as a species—and for sharing some modest suggestions about how we will “act” on this knowledge.

On my father’s side of my family, my forefathers and foremothers left a path of environmental destruction from sea to shining sea. After depleting the soils, pastures, and forests of Massachusetts, where they attended the mythic first Thanksgiving, the Cushman clan migrated west with swarms of Anglo colonists, causing drastic ecological changes wherever they tarried. Barnabas, his son Silas, and his son Elmer proceeded from the clear-cut forests of Vermont, to the once fertile shores of Lake Erie, to the lead mining district of Wisconsin, to a sod house in the heavily indigenous Dakota Territory, to a health-reform mission in central Chicago, to a chicken ranch on the U.S.-Mexico border, to a suburban house in smoggy Los Angeles—all in the course of three lives lasting from 1787-1927.  It is humbling to realize that they usually did so in the belief that they would improve the new lands where they settled.

The founder of the Cushman family in America, Robert Cushman, gave what is now considered a notorious sermon on the environmental ethics of colonialism before he set sail from England in 1621: “What right have I to go live in the heathen’s country?” he asked. “Their land is spacious and void, and there are few, and do but run over the grass, as do also the foxes and wild beasts. They are not industrious, neither have art, science, skill or faculty to use either the land or the commodities of it; but all spoils, rots, and is marred for want of manuring, gathering, ordering, &c.” He believed it was his God-given duty to take the land from Native Americans like Tisquantum in order to make the continent a better, more righteous place.

As nuclear radiation, tsunamis, and tornadoes troubles the citizens of Japan, Alabama, and elsewhere, I am again humbled by our capacity to disrupt the natural world, as well as by nature’s capacity to “bite back” and stand in the way of our aspirations. I am still living off the debts my ancestors borrowed from the land, sea, atmosphere, peoples, and creatures they pushed aside in accomplishing their dreams. It is tempting to simply throw up my hands and selfishly go about my business—until I stop to think that Camilo, Andrés, and Olivia Cushman Cabrera will inherit this world, as will the children of billions of human families just like mine and quadrillions of other creatures with families of their own.

My children will have to repay this national debt—first and foremost by watching one of our favorite places in the world, Everglades National Park, disappear beneath the rising sea, urban sprawl, and fertilizer run-off. Their children will probably see their great-grandmothers’ suburban home, right next door, follow the Everglades to watery oblivion. My parents and grandparents have already destroyed the glorious flocks of birds that once inhabited this fragile wilderness.

In my life, my family has chosen an area of emphasis to reduce our ecological impact. We bought a house close enough to walk to work, school, the supermarket, the liquor store, and other necessities of life, and we try (although not hard enough) to use the most natural form of transportation—our legs and feet. The President complains about the obesity epidemic in our country. But from living without an automobile in Hungary and Peru and eating much the same (even at McDonalds in those locales), we learned that walking largely determined whether we put pounds on, or took pounds off, whether our children bounced off the walls, or were ready to live within them once we returned home, whether we went to bed tired (and slept well), or tossed, turned, and ached from unused muscle energy. When we travel we use public transportation available to us—even when it slows down the journey to the conference hotel in Houston by an hour (leaving an extra $50 in my pocket). My divorce this semester forced me to sell our car—which on the bright side, leaves even more $ in my wallet and muscle on our legs, and less fat around my waste and carbon dioxide and other junk in the air.

It will take a lot more than this to change the world. These actions only make up infinitesimally for our kind’s contribution to the oiling of the ocean, to the soiling of the stratosphere, and to the changes of the land. But in the meantime, our lives are changed for the better, and there’s one less exhaust pipe firing at our lungs. We’d love to hear your comments.

Gregory T. Cushman
Lawrence, Kansas, 12 May 2011


How’s that New Year’s Resolution Coming Along?

Popular New Year’s resolutions: “Lose weight”, “Be nicer”, “Win the lottery.”  Every year, most of us spend December 31st coming up with clichéd ways to improve ourselves over the next year, and on January 1st, when we finally wake up at 3pm, we swear to ourselves that we’ll see those improvements made.  I mean, we’ve got 365 whole days to make them (and sometimes, 366!), so how hard can it be?

What did you pledge to do differently in 2010?  A lot of people I know have added “Live a little greener” to their repertoire of annual promises.  There is nothing wrong with that, of course.  Half the work of the environmental movement is getting people to remember that they can contribute in their day-to-day lives.  The downside is that when it becomes one of the standard New Year’s Eve clichés, it basically means that most people don’t take it seriously.  Or, like the person who started going to the gym once every couple of weeks and called their resolution to get healthier accomplished, the idea of living in a more environmentally conscious manner gets paid lip-service, and little else.

The idea of going green has been a bit of cliché for a few years.  So many companies have claimed that some trivial change to their products qualify them as “green” that there is even a term for it now (“greenwashing”).  A community theatre I occasionally volunteer at has recently, in a bid to “go green”, encouraged people to drop of show programs in a bin near the entrance after shows if they don’t intend to keep them, so that they can be recycled, while, as I heard someone observe, still serving food with disposable flatware and single-use paper cups.

Examples of people making shallow attempts at going green are well-intentioned.  But then, so are all New Year’s resolutions.  Maybe companies that greenwash are trying to make a quick buck and generate some good PR, but the small steps they take are better than nothing.  Still, baby steps are not the kind of thing one should make their goal for their next trip around the sun.

I’m not going to tell you to include or exclude living greener from your resolutions during the transition from 2010 to 2011.  Rather, I’m asking that if you do tell yourself (and anyone else at the party who asks you what you’re going to do differently while you’re watching the ball in Times Square drop) that you are going to be a little more sustainable in the new year, please try and live up to it.  This is one kind of resolution that can’t be met by going on a crash CFL lightbulb binge at the end of the year.

– Ben

Dreaming of a Green Holiday

The infamous day of retail-shopping mayhem known as Black Friday, and its younger, digital sibling, Cyber Monday, have come and gone.  For many, a good chunk of their gift-purchases have been made, but in the weeks leading up to Christmas (and for some, the last-minute dash during a particularly early Chanukah), there’s bound to be some work left to be done.

It’s true that participating in the consumerist feeding frenzies of this season is a cultural experience in and of itself for many people, but ultimately, it has some far-reaching consequences.  The economic and environmental downsides to constant buying and spending do not vanish during the holidays, just because we consider them a special time.  The plastic that wraps a CD you got still ends up clogging a landfill, all the dishes you clean after large gatherings centered around meals still need the same amounts of water to clean, and those elaborate lights adoring your house still drive up your utility bills, even if they do look cooler than the neighbor’s.

Countless pages have been written, and thousands of bad TV movies produced, about how we need to focus more on spending time with our loved ones during the holidays, and less with the people standing on either side of us in a line at the mall (though they could always make for some fantastic conversation).  How many of us actually heed all of that advice, though?  The winter holiday season, it is true, is blown into the major event that it is because of corporate encouragement.  The image of Santa Claus as we know him today is the result of a marketing campaign by Coca-Cola in the 1930s, though they are quick to insist that his famous red-and-white wardrobe was actually devised by famous cartoonist Thomas Nast decades earlier.

Cynicism aside, the holiday season doesn’t have to be all about expensive presents and cheesy decorations.  In fact, de-emphasizing those things and simplifying the holidays wouldn’t be the worst way to add some more sustainable practices to your life.

There are obvious, well-known ways to cut down on consumption and waste-production over the holidays.  For some people, it’s actually standard practice to forgo wrapping paper when giving presents, instead opting for old newspaper.   You could also consider not wrapping a gift at all, because let’s face it, the mystery of what’s under that thin layer of paper with your name written on it kind of decreases in fun as you get older.

If you still feel the need to compete with your neighbors over who has the most ostentatious display on their front lawn, maybe consider ways to do it that don’t take enough electricity to power Mecha-Godzilla’s morning jog.  At the very least, take some advice from Eartheasy (scroll down to “Lower the impact of holiday lighting”) and string up some LED lights.  That way you can save some energy while still showing off your inflated holiday spirit and making old-timey air-raid wardens spin in their graves.  That same page also has some ideas for how to have a sustainable Christmas tree, if that’s how you celebrate.

Regarding food, don’t forget whatever sustainable eating habits you may have already developed.  Whether you’re making latkes or cookies of varying shapes, don’t skip out on whatever local and/or organic ingredients may be available.  Also maybe consider not baking that extra batch for the chubby home-invader.  Presents or not, people need to stop encouraging him.

Not that you were looking for permission, but go ahead and have fun this holiday season.  That’s what it’s here for (that, and to justify the existence of Hallmark).  But don’t get so caught up in the material and commercial aspects of it that you forget about all those more sustainable habits you’ve been working on.  They’re helpful any time of the year.

– Ben

Save Some Green this Season

Mother Nature has finally remembered that it is getting late in the year.  It’s showing outside, as the leaves are changing to that magnificent reddish-brown shade they take before falling to the ground.  That also means that it’s starting to get chilly outside, an issue with plenty of its own trappings.

The natural instincts for most students as Autumn progresses and Winter starts to rear its frosty head are to turn up the heat and grab some warm new gear.  Still, with many students interested in saving money (and hopefully conserving energy while they are at it), these old habits may need to hibernate this year.

Kansas winters can get absurdly cold, it is true.  Unfortunately, keeping the central heat blasting at all times gets rather costly, especially in the older homes that many students live in around campus.  I once lived in a decades-old house which, during the winter, was unbearably drafty.  This was largely due to the state of disrepair my apathetic landlord had allowed it to fall into.  Heating bills could be horrendous as my roommates and I struggled to keep the place comfortable in the mid-November through mid-February period.  Still, as tempting as it was to crank up the heat and let our wallets take the hit, we found ways to fight off the cold inside.

For my part, I had a hardwood floor in my bedroom, and putting my bare feet on that every morning after getting out of bed was difficult enough, until I found a large rug my parents had stopped using in their house after redoing their floors.  It took up a goodly amount of the open space, gave me something a little less jarring to stand on, and definitely seemed to add a little more insulation to the room.

If you’ve got some extra blankets lying around, or know a place where you can get a couple on the cheap, try hanging them up by particularly thin walls, or windows that nobody actually cares to look out of.  We’ve all got one or two windows in the house that don’t provide a pleasant view, or let in enough natural light, especially during the winter, to be all that practical, so don’t be afraid to cover them up.  Think of it like you’re putting up unusually thick curtains.

If you’re not up to something so DIY, keep in mind that weatherized windows (storm windows, new weather stripping, etc.) can be helpful in retaining heat, and consider asking your landlord/lady about installing them.  It might also be helpful to recommend they look at programs like Efficiency Kansas, which can help homeowners make their properties more energy efficient over the long term.

Another thing to consider is simply how you dress.  Don’t be afraid to keep your house just warm enough that you can be comfortable keeping a sweater or coat on inside.  Similarly, you can always have an extra blanket on hand when you’re sitting on the couch (that is, if you’ve got any left over after the windows are taken care of).  And when you start worrying about winter clothing, it isn’t, as hard as some of your favorite stores will insist to you, that big a deal that you wear the same sweaters, hats, and other warm items that you’ve had for the last few years.  As long as something still works, running out to buy new gloves just costs you more money, and encourages overproduction.

If you do feel like trying a new look, keep your attention focused on second-hand stores where you can potentially swap out clothing (as opposed to throwing things out to make room in your closet), or find a shelter looking for donations.

In summation, don’t just look to stay warm this winter.  There are easy ways to save money and stay green.

– Ben

Announcing the Green Halloween Contest!

Just because the leaves aren’t going to be green much longer doesn’t mean you can’t be.   With Halloween right around the corner, we’d like to see how you dress up sustainably.  Normally, Halloween costumes are bought in stores, worn once or twice, and then stashed in a closet, lucky to be pulled out again a few years later (can’t go doing the same thing two years in a row, can we?).  Given all the plastics and synthetic dyes used to make commercially-sold Halloween costumes, it seems that this sort of practice is really just creating waste and increasing the demand for unsustainable products.

All of which brings us to the challenge.  We want to see how you can scare up a good Halloween costume with nothing but found components.  Whether it be a variation on the classic Bedsheet Ghost or something new, whip something up, and send us a picture by November 2.  Our favorites will go up on this blog, and the best will receive a free t-shirt from Local Burger.

Please include with your submissions details about the materials you used, and where they came from.

For a look into what ideas people have come up with for this theme before, look here:

Happy Haunting!

Our Plastic Coast

Last month I traveled to the Oregon Coast for a vacation with my family.  We stayed in a rental house right on the beach, at the mouth of the Netarts Bay.  Each day, we soaked in views of the the Pacific Ocean, glimpses of Three Arch Rocks National Wildlife Refuge, and the steady Oregon rainfall.  Whether looking out from the giant windows of the house, or strolling along the beach, it felt relaxing and comforting to be in such a spectacular setting.

One afternoon, I headed north along the coast with my camera to capture Mother Nature at her finest.  The tide was going out, so gulls were pecking through the bright green seaweed along the sandy shore.  The seals had hauled out onto the sand bar that was slowly becoming exposed across the bay.  And, the waves were crashing out in the distance and along the coast to the north.  It was a peaceful  scene and a seemingly beautiful afternoon.

On my trip back to the house, I decided to move off the sand and up onto the rocks above the high tide line.  As I did, I was greeted by colorful shards of plastic and scattered garbage left behind by other vacationers or washed ashore.  Mother Nature was suddenly delivering me a dose of reality and reminding me of the many environmental disasters that are a result of our petroleum-based society.  I found a plastic grocery bag snagged on one rock and quickly filled it with with water bottles, bottle caps, Styrofoam, and unidentifiable pieces of plastic.  But there was enough trash to fill that bag countless times.

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I was quietly reminded that, even though I was enjoying time away from work, there was still much work to be done.  There was oil spewing into the Gulf and an island of garbage larger than the state of Texas floating somewhere over the horizon – most of which was composed of these tiny shards of plastic I was finding.  Combing through the rocks, I feared that the seagulls might just drop a little revenge on me as they flew by to feast on whatever else we humans had left behind.

It is easy to distance ourselves from the environmental degradation that is occurring all around us – I did it walking along a beach just a stones throw from where it was taking place – and it can be overwhelming to consider what we could possibly to do to end it.  But as daunting as it may seem, individual actions do make a difference.  Next time you pick up a bottle of water, get your groceries in a plastic bag, or even buy a bottle of shampoo, take some time to think about where that plastic came from and where it might end up when you are finished using it.  Consider that decision not about a product but about what you want for the future of our planet.   After all, personal decisions are what created this plastic coast, and it will take personal decisions to make it go away.

– Jeff

Make a Change and Make a Difference

Thomas Friedman has been a champion for the environmental cause over the last several years. And likewise with his last New York Times opinion piece he cites a friend’s short essay on how we as citizens in a fragile world should use the BP oil spill to change the way we live — the way we consume our energy.  He says it with such an understandable and  straightforward zeal that we cannot ignore the problem and must consider that we are bound by our own actions:

“We need to make our whole country more sustainable. So let’s pass an energy-climate bill that really reduces our dependence on Middle East oil. Let’s pass a financial regulatory reform bill that really reduces the odds of another banking crisis. Let’s get our fiscal house in order, as the economy recovers. And let’s pass an immigration bill that will enable us to attract the world’s top talent and remain the world’s leader in innovation.”

We CANNOT waste the precious time we have. We need to learn to work together for the good of the entire world, and if that is not possible then at least for the good of the citizens of the United States. Currently, we seem to lack the ability to take bold actions that could save the lives of our children (or future children) and reduce the burden that may now rest on all future generations. We discount the future because we live in the present, but we must understand when looking at our kids, our brothers and sisters, or our friends that the future holds for all of us an uncertainty capable of dessimating our lives. That is why, as Friedman reminds us again and again, that “we have to solve the big problems in our control, not postpone them or pretend that more lobby-driven, lowest-common-denominator solutions are still satisfactory.”

In a recent personal experiment I traveled around Lawrence, KS without using my car. Getting around was easy, although a bit more time consuming, but altogether enlightening and beneficial. Now a week later, I have thrown away my parking pass, sold my jeep, and have pledged to travel using my feet, or with the help of a bus, anywhere and everywhere I go.

Of course, working for the KU Center for Sustainability influenced my decision to become more sustainable. Although I am a research assistant for the CFS, I certainly am not required to leave my personal vehicle behind. But because of the time I have spent at the center, I more clearly understand that the energy I consume every day, although seemingly personal, affects everyone else around me. I did not directly cause the Gulf oil spill, but I certainly contributed to (or fell victim to) the culture that enabled such a catastrophe to happen.

Beyond just this blog, the KU Center for Sustainability has done some wonderful things for the KU community. Jeff Severin has spearheaded initiatives to create a sustainable raingarden, encourage student engineered sustainable projects, and educate students, staff, and faculty about how they can be more sustainable among other things. In addition, we should all stand behind future green initiatives as each and every project will benefit the environment — the air, water, and wildlife — and will enrich our lives by conserving what natural resources we have left for our future and the following generation.

I am not telling you to sell your car and walk everywhere, although it is entirely conceivable, I just want you to do something — anything — that would make you more sustainable each day. Because clearly, with the mess that is spreading before our eyes, we need to take action to prevent future disasters. So, “[h]ere’s the bottom line: If we want to end our oil addiction, we, as citizens, need to pony up: bike to work, plant a garden, do something. So again, the oil spill is my fault. I’m sorry.”