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Forces of Nature

 It may seem unlikely that a college based in the concrete jungle of New York City would inspire a passion for environmentalism, but it is no surprise to alumnae Annie Leonard ’86 (pictured right) and Diane Pataki ’93 (opposite page), two of the environmental movement’s rising stars.

Both women are dedicated to protecting the environment and reversing the trend of global climate change, but with very different approaches. Leonard, an activist whose aim is to educate the public about our unsustainable consumer culture, natural resource depletion, and vast waste-management problem, was named one of Time magazine’s “Heroes of the Environment” in 2008 for her mesmerizing viral Web film, The Story of Stuff. In 2008, Pataki was the recipient of the prestigious James B. Macelwane Medal, which recognizes significant contributions to the geophysical sciences made by an outstanding young scientist. Pataki’s studies of human ecosystems, particularly regarding water, energy, and carbon-cycle dynamics in urban systems have drawn attention to the importance of including urban ecosystems in the efforts to understand global change. Measurement of the impact of urban plants on greenhouse-gas emissions will help to produce greener, more environmentally efficient cities.

For both women, the desire to save the planet began at Barnard.

Annie Leonard“It was a walk from 100th Street to 116th Street that really started me on my career path,” says Leonard. Strolling past shoulder-high piles of curbside garbage along Broadway was a shock to the Seattle native, who was unused to seeing so much waste out in the open. Leonard arrived at Barnard with the goal of becoming a public-lands activist. More specifically, she wanted to be Secretary of the Interior. But if the garbage on the street did not instantly alter her career focus, a class trip to the Freshkills landfill on New York’s Staten Island did. Leonard stood atop the pile of garbage, then the world’s largest landfill and well on the way to becoming one of the highest points on the Eastern Seaboard. “There were couches and books and shoes and food as far as you could see in every direction,” Leonard says. “I’d never seen anything like it. It was like a bolt of lightning struck me.”

The jolt inspired Leonard to start an open conversation about garbage. “Right around the time I was finishing up at Barnard, there was a rush to build incinerators in the U.S.,” Leonard says. “I did my thesis on why we shouldn’t build them in New York City.” Not only do incinerators emit toxic pollution, but the cost to build such incinerators was so great, that their very existence would encourage more and more waste production just to keep them fed. Leonard reasoned the opposite was also true: If incinerators could not be built, there would be motivation to reduce waste creation. “What we hadn’t expected were sleazy guys loading up the waste and shipping it to other countries,” she says. After graduating from Barnard with a degree in environmental science and a political-science minor, Leonard spent time at Cornell University, studying waste issues in city and regional planning. She left Cornell to join Greenpeace International and spent 10 years traveling the globe, including three years based in South Asia, taking a hands-on approach to uncovering the dirty secrets of waste management. She was so hands-on, in fact, that she is still known for sifting through garbage in each new city she visits.

In search of a different organizational model, Leonard joined Ralph Nader’s nonprofit group, Essential Information, which offered her a base in Washington, D.C., to continue her work internationally. She was based in D.C. for five years, until 1999, when she gave birth to her daughter and moved briefly to Chicago. Still affiliated with Nader’s group, she began to help found what became the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives, known also as the Global Anti-Incinerator Alliance or GAIA (from the ancient Greek word for earth goddess). She later moved to Berkeley (GAIA’s U.S. base) to be closer to friends. GAIA is an international network of activists, scientists and others from over 82 countries who are collaborating to find sustainable waste solutions. In an effort to “turn up the volume on the conversation,” Leonard began speaking to various organizations about exploitation, consumption, and waste issues. The speech was such a hit, she took to the Internet in search of a wider audience and, with the help of Free Range Studios, who produced the film, she created The Story of Stuff (storyofstuff.com). The 20-minute film offers an engaging and fact-filled look at our consumer culture of acquiring stuff, a vicious cycle that includes extraction, production, distribution, consumption, and disposal. In less capable hands, the subject matter could easily seem too overwhelming or preachy for the average viewer. But Leonard’s engaging style of storytelling provides a human counterbalance to the serious and terrifying reality of unsustainability. “We thought that if it got 50,000 visits, it would be a success,” Leonard says. The film debuted on the Web in December 2007, and its Web site has since been visited more than 5.5 million times in 232 countries and territories. Leonard is currently working on a book version to be published by Simon & Schuster in 2010.

Walls of garbage lining the street were nothing new to New York City kid Diane Pataki, but the opportunity to get an up-close-and-personal look at natural ecosystems was a novelty. She came to Barnard from nearby Queens ready to study English, then switched to an environmental science major after taking a first-year course with Dr. Peter Bower. “I definitely didn’t become interested in plants and natural ecosystems until I went to Barnard and took classes in biology and botany,” Pataki says. At a campus career fair, she signed up as a volunteer for the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), and ended up working with the organization as a part-time paid intern for two years while still in school. “I learned a lot about environmental organizations as well as the role of science in protecting the environment,” she says.

With her interests leaning more toward the scientific side of environmental defense, Pataki left the EDF and New York to attend graduate school at Duke University. While reluctant to leave the city, she had little choice. “Columbia has a great graduate program in ecology now, but at that time there weren’t that many options to study ecology at the graduate level in New York,” she says. After earning a master’s degree in 1995 and a PhD in 1998, Pataki headed west to study the effects of high atmospheric carbon dioxide on plants at the Desert Research Institute in Las Vegas. She then moved to the University of Utah, to join the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme, a consortium of scientists studying global change. In 2004, Pataki landed in her current position as associate professor of earth-systems science, ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of California, Irvine.

Diane PatakiPataki’s professional focus is on plants and their effect on the atmosphere; specifically, how urban plants affect the local environment in cities. “As a society, we heavily modify and manage landscapes in cities, but we don’t have very good data on how our choices of landscape plants, urban forests, and landscape management affect temperature, local climate, and greenhouse-gas emissions,” Pataki says. Take the example of city lawns. While they can provide cooling to mitigate the “heat island” effect (built-up cities actually become hotter than nearby rural areas), the fertilizing and watering required to maintain such lawns causes pollution, greenhouse emissions, and water waste. Pataki and her research team at UC-Irvine are currently measuring how plants and soils impact greenhouse gases in the Los Angeles area, in an effort to determine how much gas comes from local industry and combustion processes vs. people’s backyards.

In an area where very little scientific study has been done, Pataki is something of a pioneer, and her goal is to link natural sciences to real-world urban planning. “Decision-making by urban residents and policy-makers plays a really important role in what species get planted, how they’re managed, and how they ultimately function,” Pataki says. “I’m trying to work with social scientists and economists to better understand how people make choices about urban landscapes based on values, cultural factors, and economics as well as environmental considerations.”

Pataki continues, “There is a real pressure to find solutions; we do have to work quickly. The longer we wait the more serious the problem is going to be.” She is anxious to share the work. “Science and technology are definitely going to be a critical part of the solutions,” Pataki says. “I encourage Barnard students that are interested in environmental problems to see if science or engineering might be a good fit for them. There’s more of a need for environmental scientists than ever before.”

Pataki and Leonard are both generally optimistic about our ability to turn things around, primarily because we are nearing a point where we will have no other choice. Still, Leonard talks of what she calls “the individualization of the problem”: the idea that change can come if we all carry reusable shopping bags or turn the water off when brushing our teeth. Yes, we should be doing those things, says Leonard, but they will not have the necessary impact. “The changes that we really need are more cultural and political. Implementing all those individual choices is kind of like getting better at swimming upstream. We can improve our stroke but… we need to change the current.”

-Melissa Phipps, photographs by Zen Sekizawa and Dorothy Hong