The Human Factor

Roger Gottlieb, professor of philosophy, likes to conduct a ritual in his class on philosophy and the environment. He gives each student a slice of apple; after they eat it, he asks them to think about every person who helped bring that fruit to them — farmers, packers, truckers, checkout clerks. And he encourages them to contemplate the environmental elements — fertile soil, sun, water — that contributed to the apple’s growth.

by Susan Gonsalves

The exercise highlights the connection between humanity and nature, a bond at the heart of Gottlieb’s extensive and acclaimed scholarship on the longstanding alliance between religion and environmentalism.

“Religious teachings have always had a lot to say about the value of all life,” Gottlieb says. For example, the Torah cites wild animals among the benefactors of crops that grow on their own during the Shmita — the seventh or sabbatical year in the crop cycle when fields are to lie fallow. And it stands to reason, he says, that dumping toxic waste in a forest or field where your neighbors live flies in the face of “Thou Shalt Not Kill” and “Love Thy Neighbor.”

And Social Justice for All?

Roger Gottlieb, professor of philosophy.

Believers in Allah, Buddha, Yahweh, or other divine powers should feel a responsibility to treasure and protect the earth and all its creations, Gottlieb says. But the idea that everyone’s existence is of equal importance doesn’t always translate into the practice of sustainable development, according to Rob Krueger, associate professor of geography and director of WPI’s bachelor of arts program in environmental and sustainability studies.

Krueger’s work focuses on urban and regional sustainability planning and practice. Too often, he says, development and its component of economic prosperity occur at the expense of ecological integrity and, especially, social equity. “True sustainable development can only be achieved when the three factors are balanced,” he says. “Economic development and environmental conservation often come at the expense of people.”

Although environmental integrity may be on the upswing, “disadvantaged people are paying the price,” Krueger notes. For example, some of the materials used to make windows, insulation, and heating and cooling systems for green homes in economically privileged communities are toxins that poison less affluent neighborhoods.

Rob Kreugar, associate professor of geography.

And urban smart growth, an approach to development that expands economic opportunity and protects public health and the environment, can leave inner-city residents with nowhere to turn when redevelopment threatens to take away their apartments and homes, Krueger says. As bankers and the more affluent increasingly establish themselves in revitalized downtowns, the economically disadvantaged are pushed away from their social networks and into less desirable and more polluted parts of cities.

Typically, those most seriously affected include people of color, women, and immigrants, he says, “folks who don’t understand the detrimental effects of development or have the power to fight back.”

Economic development and environmental conservation often come at the expense of people.

— Rob Krueger

Watery Detective Work

Jeanine Plummer, director of WPI’s Environmental Engineering Program.

Jeanine Plummer, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering, is among the researchers striving to mitigate some of those detrimental effects by providing universal access to one of life’s necessities — safe drinking water. The director of WPI’s Environmental Engineering Program, she develops statistical tools that can track the sources of potentially disease-causing microbes in watersheds, information that can help public officials take action to protect the water supply and residents who rely on it. “Safe drinking water is something everyone on the planet needs for quality of life,” she says.

Plummer’s tools can help sort through multiple possible sources of fecal pollution to pinpoint the probable culprits. (Human pathogens can be found in such pollution, which includes microbes that live in the intestine.) For example, she applies a relatively new technique called fecal source tracking, which can help differentiate among a range of fecal sources, including sewage, manure, pets, and wildlife. One test she employs is looking for bacteria that can ferment sorbitol, an additive used in human foods but rarely found in livestock feed. If bacteria can metabolize sorbitol, it means they have adapted to it, Plummer says, by living inside the intestines of a human.

Furnishing scientific evidence that helps point to the sources of fecal contamination can make it easier to build a case for the need for control mechanisms, says Plummer, whose research group is currently tracking fecal pollution in waters in Massachusetts, Wisconsin, North Carolina, and Nevada. For example, homeowners are more likely to implement costly remedies if the evidence clearly flags their land as a source of pollution and if the recommended solutions are scientifically justified. Those solutions can run the gamut, from changing fence lines or moving manure storage sites on a farm to prevent rain from washing fecal matter into streams, to repairing septic systems, hooking houses up to sewer lines, or adopting buffer zones and other zoning measures.

As demands on fresh water grow, new challenges to populations continue to arise around the globe. Plummer, whose research also explores alternative disinfection strategies for water treatment, says her work remains engaging because no single solution will ever be found to rectify every problem. Instead, remedies will vary depending on the places, people, resources, and technology available.

When all is said and done, “the greatest danger facing the global water supply is people taking it for granted,” Plummer says. “I think sometimes there is a laissez-faire attitude, especially in the United States. People don’t think about it when they turn on the tap. They assume the water will come out and it will be okay. But a lot has to go on behind the scenes, all the time, to make that possible.”

Of Faith and the Forest

In October 2011 Robert Kreuger addressed the European Union in Brussels on strategies for creating “smart cities.”

As an advisor in WPI’s undergraduate Global Perspective Program, Plummer has had the opportunity to work with student collaborators on environmental engineering challenges in South Africa, Panama, Ghana, and Costa Rica, where students recently studied sewage treatment, estuary contamination, and hazardous spill mitigation at marinas. Through the Worcester Community Project Center, which Krueger directs, students work closer to home on projects that address social, economic, and environmental concerns. “Science can transfer to activities that serve the community,” Krueger says, noting that undergraduates don’t have to travel the world to be exposed to abject poverty because it exists in local neighborhoods, too.

Working in Worcester’s neighborhoods on their IQPs (Interactive Qualifying Projects), which require WPI students to apply scientific and technical knowledge to address a social need, they’ve learned how to develop green roofs to mitigate storm water runoff and evaluated how to augment the benefits while easing the burdens of a local electric generation plant. Just as important, Krueger says, the projects teach them compassion, civic responsibility, and how to communicate with a wide variety of people.

How people with powerful emotions and deeply contested views can talk to each other and live together is one of the themes of Gottlieb’s Engaging Voices: Tales of Morality and Meaning in an Age of Global Warming, a collection of short stories published in 2011. It is the most recent of Gottlieb’s 16 books. In A Greener Faith: Religious Environmentalism and Our Planet’s Future, published in 2009 by Oxford University Press, Gottlieb provided the first comprehensive look at what the publisher called “the remarkable and historically unprecedented rise of religious environmentalism.”

For example, it chronicles a group of Jewish leaders known as the Redwood Rabbis who took a stand against deforestation in the ancient redwood groves of California and have, since 1995, advocated for the protection of oldgrowth forests through letter-writing campaigns, public protests, and religious ceremonies. More recently, Gottlieb says, Methodist Church leaders fought to convince Home Depot to stop selling paper from old-growth forests and other religious leaders protested Canada’s Keystone Pipeline with sit-ins and other demonstrations.

“It’s a happening thing,” he notes of religious individuals engaged in environmental activism. “This is the real world now. Every aspect of civilization is impacted by the environmental crisis, and religion has distinct gifts it can bring to these movements.”

Gottlieb’s body of work, which also includes more than 100 articles and a just-completed 17th book, has been praised worldwide by scholars and the media who regard him as the leading analyst of religious environmentalism.

Krueger, who helped redefine sustainable development with his 2007 book, The Sustainable Development Paradox: Urban Political Economy in the U.S. and Europe, is completing a new book, Trickle Down Sustainability? The Politics of Smart Growth, about the implications of urban sustainable development for disadvantaged people in the United States. The books draws upon his research with recent WPI graduate Linnea Palmer Paton. Applying critical social theory and using geographic information system (GIS) technology to map census data from 1990, 2000, and 2010, they studied the effects of urban development on 500 U.S. communities.

Recognized internationally as an authority on sustainability, Krueger in 2011 completed a four-month research fellowship in Luxembourg, where he delivered the keynote address at the international conference “Sustainability: Where are we now?” He was also invited to address the European Commission’s annual European Conference on Regions and Cities.

“People need bold, courageous efforts,” Krueger says, “to make true sustainability possible.”

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As a pioneer in the study of religious environmentalism, Professor Roger Gottlieb argued in his 2006 book, A Greener Faith, that “religious people and organizations are among the most committed, and most persuasive, environmental activists.”