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Surval Blog: Reasons to Care

19 August 2019

We were delighted when Survalienne Mariana Lebrija (Liberal Arts / Swiss Gap Programme Class of 2017) got in touch at the start of summer to catch us up on what she’s been doing since leaving Surval. Currently a student at McGill University in Quebec, Canada, Mariana had seen online that Surval had a new Sustainability Club, and was eager to share her recently awoken passion for Sustainability with the students in the club, and in Surval as a whole. Mariana has been volunteering for the Sustainability Coordinators in the Wilton Public School system, and wrote the reflective essay below as part of her volunteering: “My recent passion for environmental issues has me wishing I had been better informed and gotten involved earlier on.”

Mariana had been accepted for a summer course at the Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment at Oxford University in England, and shares her experience here.

Read on to discover how Mariana was stirred into a newly awakened desire to do what she can to protect our planet and inspire others to do the same...

“The sea level is rising…”

… For years, this seemed to be one of the only phrases I associated with global warming. I had learned in school that the climate was changing, but, to my eyes and ears, the source of this change was still contested and its significance largely shrugged off by those around me.Even in contexts in which climate change was presented to me as a pressing issue, all I seemed to understand was that our planet was getting warmer: the sea level was rising, but I still made no connections between this mantra and aspects of my daily life. 

Oddly enough, however, I do remember being struck by a presentation from my early years of school about idling cars. To this day, I can still picture the projection of a cartoonish vehicle producing clouds of gray smoke into its surroundings. On another occasion, a field trip to a local environmental center introduced me to the idea of composting for the first time - mealtimes on that day stood out to me for the emphasis the crew members placed on reasonable portion sizes, which they reinforced by weighing each table’s food waste when we finished eating.

Though I can honestly say that these two memories stayed with me for a long time and made me sensitive to both pollution and waste, I went years without truly understanding either of their consequences on a climatic level. Idling was bad because it made the air dirty. Throwing out food was bad because it was wasteful. 

Ice caps were melting and sea levels were rising, but what did that have to do with anything? 

It was not until my second year at university that I would finally wake up to my passion for the environment. This passion often manifests itself as both frustration and hope, because I am troubled at how slow I myself was to realize my own values and want to act on them; and thus feel especially driven to evoke change in others.

It still shocks me that, for twenty years, I could glance over climatic facts and statistics, misunderstanding them as topics that only concerned the most passionate scientists. I had always heard the term “tree-hugger” in a sort of lighthearted context that seemed to catalogue earth lovers as a very specific type of person, one who loved playing in the mud and climbing trees. 

At university, I slowly came to see that environmental issues concern every human being - even people who believe themselves to be detached from the outdoor world play a specific role in our changing climate and should have every interest in preventing this phenomenon. 

As simple and obvious as it sounds, I had to internalize the fact that we all live on one planet. A project I completed in my international development class exposed me to the intricate links not only between humans and the natural environment, but also between separate populations of humans themselves, a dynamic that would open my eyes to a reality I had no idea I was taking part in.

In a nutshell, my project analyzed the Pacific Island Nation of Kiribati as a case study on development issues with a specific focus on the environment. Through my research, it became immediately clear that one of the main problems for the Kiribati people concerned the rising sea levels: their low-lying nation is under threat of sinking. This gave me a clearer idea of how rising sea levels could pose a real problem for real people, a fact I could genuinely sympathize with. 

Still, though, how did this issue concern me specifically?  

The rising seas represent a seemingly natural process, but at the root of this change I came to find much more: the expansion of water molecules, which causes the sea level to rise, is linked to warmer temperatures. These warmer temperatures obviously correlate with the presence of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, which heat our Earth. And where do these greenhouse gases come from? 

The answer to this question concerns all of us, because it is all of us. The cartoon vehicle from the elementary school presentation didn’t just represent the source of dirtier, unpleasant air, but also the warming of this air. This warming not only threatens islands such as Kiribati with higher waters, but also many inland nations that feel consequences in different forms including extreme storms, droughts, and wildfires. 

Though it may not come as a shock that our cars play a role in warming our planet, I was really surprised to learn of the contributions that come from something many of us take for granted: our food. 

Huge amounts of energy are used to produce many of the things humans eat, including meat and other products of industrial agriculture, which lead to a hotter climate. Most appalling to me, however, are the effects represented by the food scale I so clearly remember from our environmental field trip. 

Yes, food waste in itself represents an irresponsible and perhaps gluttonous aspect of many of us. Worse than this moral dilemma, though, is the role of food waste towards the very problems I’ve been discussing. I had no idea that, in a landfill, food can take decades to fully decompose. Moreover, that the process of decomposing produces methane, which accelerates warming even more than carbon dioxide. At the incinerator, excessive amounts of energy are spent on burning water-based material that could have gone back to the Earth.  

It is easy to think things disappear when we throw them away, as garbage bins feign an infinite appetite for our trash. In truth, though, there is no "away": there’s simply "elsewhere". Piles of wrappers, bottles, and “disposable” products are ceaselessly redirected to facilities where they are transformed into either pungent mountains or dark clouds. 

So, yeah, I wasn’t personally responsible for shoveling buckets of water towards Kiribati’s coasts, but the amount of time I had probably accumulated sitting in a parking lot with my car running and the way I had disposed of my food my entire life were playing a huge role. I soon came to realize that virtually all my choices and day-to-day actions could be traced to causing some type of environmental harm, from my consumption patterns to the amount of lights I leave on at home.  

People all around the world have similar habits that are quickly contributing to a global catastrophe that too many of us are blind to. But this essay is not about apportioning blame - I fully acknowledge my own participation in such deeds that have become standard routine. Instead, it’s about encouraging each of us to recognize the weight of our individual actions and realize our own power to be part of change: as much as we presently contribute to harm, we can use the same force towards positive change, and we can become part of the solution.

I could agonize over the amount of water bottles I’ve thrown away or even recycled, knowing all too well they may have ended up in an ocean or piled onto a landfill. Instead, I choose to carry a reusable bottle with me at all times, feeling good every time I refill it and spare the world a plastic one. When I shop for groceries, I choose the most sustainable ingredients to feel connected to our planet and reduce demand for harmful practices. I strive to eat everything on my plate, to reduce waste to a minimum, and to dispose of what I must in the most responsible way.

It is true that most environmental conversations ring with a bitter tone, usually leaving people disgruntled with either the state of affairs or the environmentalists themselves. However, I try to actively choose hope over despair in my efforts to change the environmental attitudes and overall lifestyle of myself and those around me. 

We all live on one planet, so our individual deeds will be felt around the world, for better or for worse. Most importantly, we only have one planet, and we must do everything we can to keep it healthy. 

I urge those around me to open their eyes to the problem, see themselves in the solution, and begin to affect change through their everyday choices. Small drops can amount to an ocean and, together, I hope we will keep the sea levels from rising.

Read more articles by Surval students on the issue of sustainability and the environment:

Rubi's World Oceans Day Assembly

Ana Fer Assembly: Why We Need to Fight Climate Change

Surval Blog: Upcoming Visit from POW Switzerland

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