Voices from the Tree promotes campus sustainability dialogue

Feb. 13, 2018, 1:03 a.m.

In November 2016, Students for a Sustainable Stanford (SSS) started the environmental blog Voices from the Tree to promote eco-consciousness on campus. The blog addresses both local issues such as campus food waste and energy use as well as global ones such as environmental housing justice and climate change.  

“We were all excited to create a platform that would give students the space to share their opinions about different intersectional environmental and sustainability issues,” said Becca Nelson ’20, SSS media officer and co-founder of the blog.

Nelson noted that there has been a particularly large amount of political commentary on the blog, especially in the wake of the Trump administration’s efforts to push back on pro-environmental policies in America and abroad.

Recent blog posts have tried to appeal to Stanford students by covering more campus and student-specific subjects. For instance, Andrea Contreras ’19 published a guide to choosing eco-friendly sanitary products, while Spencer Robinson ’20 explored the intersection of computer science and sustainability.

Thinking sustainably

SSS hopes Voices from the Tree will influence the way Stanford students think about sustainability. The writers of the blog believe that students often lack the awareness and motivation to act in eco-friendly ways.

Even outside SSS, other students said that apathy often prevents people from making a sizable impact.

Alexandria Smith ’18, a zero-waste intern with Residential and Dining Enterprises (R&DE), said that in her three years as an intern, changing other students’ behavior has been difficult.

“We aren’t given [an] educational background in sustainability when we come to Stanford,” Smith said. “R&DE is trying through signs and practices in the dining hall and residences to make it more accessible to be sustainable.”

Smith was involved in the initiative to install multi-recycler bins in dorms, which help students to effectively sort out compostable waste, recyclable papers and recyclable plastics. Now, she says, zero-waste interns are shifting their focus to reducing food waste from Row houses to promote “greener” behavior at Stanford.

“Infrastructure will hopefully influence behavioral changes,” Smith said. She hopes that by combating student disinterest in the Stanford community, other schools around the country will be inspired to change the way they think about sustainability, too.

Giving sustainably

Christopher Leboa ’19, co-director of SSS, engages with a long list of sustainability issues on campus. He works for a disease ecology lab, helped push for better sustainability education during New Student Orientation and has urged CoHo and Treehouse to install compost, recycling and landfill bags and bins.

Outside student-centered initiatives like enforcing the use of compostable cups rather than SOLO cups, Leboa says that one of the most important issues that Voices from the Tree and SSS raise is environmental justice.

“Sustainability is thought of as a white, upper middle class push,” Leboa stated. “But sustainability is a social justice issue … if you’re wealthy, climate change is not going to affect you as much as those who are marginalized. [SSS is] trying to work with outside organizations to get [out] our resources and spread them to people that don’t have the same opportunities we have here.”

Sierra Garcia ’18 recently wrote an article in Voices from the Tree titled “Rethinking our Impact: Reflections on the FLI Drive and Waste Culture,” which argues that Stanford students’ wastefulness goes hand-in-hand with resource inequality.

To help combat both social inequity and the “waste culture” Garcia describes in her article, she suggested that students should share resources with those in need.

“Rethinking the waste we make can mean making the effort to donate food instead of throwing it out [or] ensuring that your mini-fridge goes to a person who can use it instead of the dumpster at the end of the year,” Garcia wrote. “Perhaps in this way, we can individually and collectively work for a cultural shift towards intentionality, and away from who we are now: a society that wastes 40 percent of its food and deposits, on average, over 2000 pounds of trash per person each year.”

To address the issue Garcia highlights in her article, SSS runs weekly sustainability initiatives. In one such initiative, the group collaborated with the First-Generation/Low-Income Partnership (FLIP) to donate old furniture to low-income students.

In addition, it partnered with the Stanford Project on Hunger (SPOON) to collect hundreds of pounds of food each week from campus cafes and dining halls and donate them to various local shelters and resource centers.

“We try to work as a partner and push [students] to think and take action,” Leboa said. “A lot of times we’re just fine with the status quo of this beautiful country club we live on.”

Living sustainably

Voices from the Tree also partners with student sustainability initiatives outside of SSS, including the Roble Living Laboratory for Sustainability at Stanford (ROLLSS).

According to Nelson, who is one of 11 sustainability leaders in Roble, ROLLS has a “lofty but attainable” goal to make Roble – a century-old, four-class dorm complex – into a model for all other buildings on campus to follow.

According to the ROLLSS website, [Roble] is colossally inefficient in its resource consumption,” leading to a long-term goal of retrofitting Roble with more eco-friendly infrastructure. Almost a year after ROLLSS was founded, Nelson and her fellow leaders say they have made progress toward their goal.

Nelson’s personal project within ROLLSS focuses on the relationship between the building and its surrounding environment, especially Lake Lagunita, which she described as a “fragile ecosystem” that attracts significant foot traffic from students and visitors to Stanford’s campus.

“Lake Lagunita is one of the few strongholds in the state for very vulnerable species,” said Jules Wyman ’21, another member of SSS. “It’s a really difficult situation because it also holds campus tradition as a recreation site … I think it would be good to prevent people from coming to Lake Lag on rainy nights when salamanders are breeding, for example.”

In her latest blog post on Voices from the Tree, Nelson discussed her recent plant restoration project, in which she planted native Californian seeds in Lake Lagunita to attract more insect life there.

Moving forward, Nelson plans to post educational signs around the lake to inform people about the plant species and to remind them to be respectful of the area and to not disturb the natural flora.

Nelson concluded her blog post by reflecting on the challenge of creating sustainable change on campus.

“[Changes] don’t occur overnight,” she wrote. “An ethical relationship with the places and ecosystems we live in evolves with community action and dialogue.”


Contact Melissa Santos at melissasantos ‘at’ stanford.edu.

Melissa Santos is a sophomore from Los Angeles studying comparative literature. She is the Desk Editor for the Daily's campus life beat and chair of the Community Life and Inclusion Program. Ask Melissa about her love for teaching or her Golden Girls obsession at melissasantos ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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