Mutant Plastic-Eating Enzyme Is Discovered

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PET plastic bottles

Researchers at the University of Portsmouth and the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL) have unwittingly engineered a mutant enzyme that can super-charge the breakdown of PET plastic – the plastic you find in everyday plastic bottles. The research was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) and reported on Phys.org.

Dr. John McGeehan at the University of Portsmouth and Dr. Gregg Beckham were studying the structure of PETase, an enzyme found in 2016 in bacteria in a waste recycling center in Japan. This bacterium had naturally evolved to slowly digest PET plastic.

To better understand how PETase works, the team utilized intense X-ray beams that are 10-billion times brighter than the sun to see individual atoms. They did some tweaking of the enzyme to better understand its structure during their research, which resulted in the mutation.

The unintended result? They inadvertently engineered an enzyme that is much faster at degrading plastic than the one that was discovered in Japan.

“It’s incredible because it tells us that the enzyme is not yet optimized,” said Dr. McGeehan, in an article by science writer Damian Carrington in the Guardian. “It gives us scope to use all the technology used in other enzyme development for years and years to make a super-fast enzyme.”

Professor John McGeehan, University of Portsmouth
Photo: Professor John McGeehan at work in his laboratory. Stefan Venter, UPIX Photography/PA.

 

We Need to Get a Handle on Our Plastic Consumption

Humans consume 50 billion plastic water bottles every year; 30 million of which are consumed by Americans. And plastic bottles and bags are the most prevalent form of pollution found on our beaches and in our oceans.

Every square mile of the ocean has over 46,000 pieces of plastic floating in it. (Source: Ocean Conservatory via the Huffington Post.)

Yet, we only recycle about 28% of the PET plastic we use. This recycled PET is generally used in different products than what is was originally used for, such as clothing, carpets, and even dog collars, flip flops, and sunglasses. Utilizing enzymes, plastic can be recycled back into its near “virgin” form, which means it can be used again to create similar products, reducing the need to create new plastic from fossil fuels, and not to mention – giving us even more reason to recycle it.

Plastic Bottle Pollution in Waterways

 

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Important Stats on Why We Should All Be Eating a Plantbased Vegan Diet

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Farm Animals

You don’t have to look too far today to find an overwhelming amount of data on why we should all be eating plantbased diets. Whether it’s for your health, for the health of the planet, for the next generation who will inherit this planet, or simply for compassion for animals, eating a vegan diet is one of the best personal consumption choices you can make in your lifetime. We’re not alone when we say – humans converting to a plantbased diet as soon as possible could be the salvation for all of us.

Here are just a few stats on how going vegan can save you, your family, and the world:

The Personal Reasons to Go Vegan:

  1. Eating the equivalent of two slices of ham each day (or 50 grams of processed meat) – can increase your risk of cancer by 18%. (World Health Organization.)
  2. Vegans have lower rates of cancer than both meat-eaters and vegetarians. For example, vegan women have 34% lower rates of cancers such as breast, cervical, and ovarian cancer. (Huffington Post, U.S. National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health.)
  3. Women placed on plant-based diets for just two weeks were found to suppress the growth of three different types of breast cancer. Similar results were found for men relating to prostate cancer and prostate enlargement. (Huffington Post, U.S. National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health.)
  4. Vegan diets contribute to greater weight loss than vegetarian, pescatarian, semi-vegetarian, or omnivorous diets. (Obesity Society.)
  5. 55-year-old male and female vegans weigh about 30 pounds less than non-vegetarians of similar height. (Loma Linda University.)
  6. Vegans have a 57% reduced risk of death from heart disease. (The British Medical Journal.)
  7. Vegans have a 68% lower rate of diabetes than meat eaters. (Adventist Health Study 2, VeganHealth.org.)

The Altruistic Reasons to Go Vegan:

  1. Every day, people eating a vegan diet save 1,100 gallons of water, 45 pounds of grain, 30 square feet of forested land, and 20 pounds of carbon dioxide (CO2) – and they save one animal’s life. (Cowspiracy.com, University of Twente, the Netherlands, Scientific American, The Environmental Working Group, Langdon Street Press.)
  2. Vegans produce the equivalent of 50% less CO2 than meat eaters, and they use 0.09% of the oil, 0.08% of water, and 0.05% of land simply by eating a vegan diet. (Cowpiracy.com, ShrinkTheFootprint.com, The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, OneGreen Planet.com, John Robbins – Food Revolution, Earthsave.org.)
  3. Livestock and their byproducts account for 51% of all worldwide greenhouse gas emissions. (Cowspiracy.com, Worldwatch Institute, The Independent.)
  4. Cows produce 150 billion gallons of methane per day, which has the global warming potential of 86-times that of CO2 in a 20-year time frame. (Cowspiracy.com, Philip Ross – International Business Times, Science Magazine.)
  5. Reducing methane emissions would create tangible benefits almost immediately, whereas CO2 can take centuries to dissipate in the atmosphere. (Cowspiracy.com, United Nations Climate Summit, D. Archer, The Long Thaw: How Humans Are Changing the Next 100,000 Years of Earth’s Climate.)
  6. Livestock is responsible for 65% of all human-related emissions of nitrous oxide – a greenhouse gas with 296-times the global warming potential of CO2, and which stays in the atmosphere for 150 years. (Cowspiracy.com, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.)
  7. Growing feed crops for livestock consumes 56% of water in the U.S. (Cowspiracy.com, Michael Jacobson – Center for Science in the Public Interest.)
  8. Animal agriculture is responsible for up to 91% of Amazon Rainforest destruction. (Cowspiracy.com, World Bank.)
  9. For every 1 pound of fish caught, up to 5 pounds of unintended marine species are caught and discarded as by-kill. (Cowspiracy.com, UN Food and Agriculture Organization.)
  10. There could be fishless oceans by 2048. (Cowspiracy.com, Science, National Geographic.)

With that, how about checking out some vegan recipes on UniGuide? Enjoy!

Vegan Recipes

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Is Tuna Good for You?

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Bluefin Tuna
Photo: Bluefin Tuna

The answer is: no. And it’s not good for other people or other species either.

Humans have been eating tuna for a long time. According to the journal New Scientist, people have been deep sea fishing for tuna for 42,000 years. But just because we’ve been doing something for a long time, doesn’t necessarily mean we should keep doing it.

Unfortunately, a lot has happened to the Earth and its oceans over those centuries – notably in the most recent one. There are a number of extremely compelling reasons for why we should stop eating tuna now.

5 Reasons Why We Should Not Eat Tuna

1. Tuna contains mercury, which is toxic for humans.

Eating contaminated fish is the number one cause of mercury exposure in America, says the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC.) And what’s the problem with mercury? Quite simply, it’s toxic to us and therefore causes a host of problems.

According to a study published by the U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health, “chronic exposure, even to low concentration levels of mercury, can cause cardiovascular, reproductive, and developmental toxicity, neurotoxicity, nephrotoxicity, immunotoxicity, and carcinogenicity” in humans. The study found a link between mercury toxicity and heart disease. A study published by the American Heart Association confirmed this. It found that men with the highest levels of mercury increased their risk for heart disease by 60% and their risk of dying of a heart attack by 70%. (Source: PETA.)

Mercury gets into fish when it’s emitted into the air from factories and coal-burning plants, and then it settles into our waterways. Large predatory fish – like tuna – have high concentrations of mercury in their bodies because they eat high on the food chain, consuming organisms and other fish that have absorbed mercury themselves. While the EPA says that adults can eat canned light tuna every three or four days, the NRDC says that children should avoid eating fish altogether and that women of childbearing age should stick to no more than four ounces per week. It begs the question – why eat it at all, especially if there are good-tasting alternatives, like vegan mock tuna salad recipes?

2. Eating tuna is contributing to human slavery. Yep, you heard that right.

Thai Commercial Fishing
Photo: The Environmental Justice Foundation via One Green Planet

In a story by One Green Planet, a report by the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF) stated that “international demand for cheap seafood is driving the degradation of marine ecosystems as well as fueling human trafficking in Thailand.”

How is this happening? Thailand is the third largest seafood exporter in the world, and the drop in fish populations has caused Thai fisherman to resort to desperate measures to reach quotas to make ends meet. Thai fishing boats are now catching only 15% of what they caught 50 years ago. As a result, they’re having to travel further to find fish, and they’re having to resort to illegal fishing practices to do so. All the while, they’re making less money for their effort.

The work is so brutal that many Thai refuse to do it, so commercial fishing companies are relying on more desperate measures to get workers. According to the United Nations Inter-Agency Project on Human Trafficking (UNIAP), 33% of seafood workers in Thailand have been trafficked, and 57% have experienced forced labor.

What does this have to do with the tuna sandwich you just bought at that convenience store? Thirty-nine percent of the wild-caught seafood that enters the U.S. market is illegally harvested in Thailand. And tuna and shrimp are the top two fish that enter the U.S. from Thailand. There’s no doubt that in our global economy, we have to find more innovative and humane ways for people to be treated and to be able to earn a living wage.

3. Tuna fishing still kills dolphins (and other marine life.)

Two Dolphins
Photo: Dolphins in the Atlantic Ocean

Tuna and dolphins swim together. It’s believed they do so because they prey on the same food and also possibly as a defense mechanism against common predators. In fact, many commercial fishing operations will look for dolphins in order to catch tuna. In Japan, commercial fishers kill large numbers of dolphins because they want to destroy the competition for dwindling tuna supplies.

In addition, dolphins and other marine life, including whales, sharks, sea turtles, and others, get killed when they’re trapped in fishing nets from commercial fishing operations. The National Academy of Sciences estimates that at least 100,000 dolphins are killed in the U.S. alone every year from tuna fishing.

4. Tuna fishing kills tuna – and they’re on the brink of extinction.

A study by the International Scientific Committee for Tuna and Tuna-like Species in the North Pacific Ocean showed that “after heavy fishing in the 1950s, the bluefin tuna population crashed in the 1960s, and computer models estimated the current population at only 2.6% of what it would have been around 1900 before large-scale fishing.”

Despite this, the Trump Administration has refused to put the Pacific bluefin tuna on the Endangered Species List. While other types of tuna are used in tuna salad recipes, many of those are included in The Monterey Bay Aquarium’s “red list” in its Seafood Watch Guide.

The red list includes 57 types of tuna that should be avoided because of overfishing and the risk of collapse for not just tuna populations, but the ecosystems of which they’re an integral part. For the most part, the Aquarium only recommends eating tuna that is line caught. Isn’t it easier to just make a vegan tuna salad sandwich and go about your day?

5. Vegan “tuna” salad is delicious.

Vegan Kid

And now the easiest reason to give up eating tuna fish: Delicious alternatives exist! Transitioning to vegan foods involves both a cultural shift and a shift in personal habits – both of which are easier than we might think. When I look back at how I craved tuna fish sandwiches, it all seems very foreign to me. It simply no longer appeals to me. Time heals, and it certainly does when it comes to food cravings.

If you’re looking for a delicious vegan mock tuna salad recipe. we have three of the best in our post:

Be well and enjoy!

By Kristen M. Stanton

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Climate Science: the Experts, the Fans, and the Willfully Ignorant

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I am not a scientist. If I had been good at chemistry, my path would have been clear: I would be zooming around in a Zodiac off the Farallon Islands right now looking for great white sharks, or in a lab somewhere trying to figure out how to save coral reefs from acidification.

Despite starting undergrad as a marine biology major, it became rather clear in my first semester biology class that my destiny was not a career in science. But this doesn’t mean that I don’t freaking love science–in fact, my cerebral ineptitudes in this area probably make me all the more fascinated with it. Listening to a smart scientist explain complex theories in layperson’s terms is like watching a trapeze artist in the Cirque du Soleil catching their partner in mid air: “How in the heck do they do that?”

This is why it confounds me when politicians who share my lack of scientific aptitudes don’t share my awe and respect for scientists who do possess that gift of gray matter. Couple those natural abilities with eons spent hypothesizing, tracking, experimenting, analyzing, and publishing–after earning their PhDs at hard ass institutions–and wouldn’t you think that should engender a certain awe?

I mean, wouldn’t you think–they know their stuff by now? Wouldn’t you think they’d be worth listening to for, say, a half hour, if the whole frigging world was on fire and entire species were dying off by the hour and whole populations of people were about to be displaced and left homeless?

Ok, 20 minutes. You got 20 minutes to hear what an uber-educated and experienced scientist has to say about climate change? How about listening on your lunch break? Afraid it will spoil your appetite? It should.

I am not a scientist, but I was lucky enough to work with a bunch of them–and those studying a branch of science that is right up my alley: Earth science. If you’re wondering what kind of science falls under Earth science, here’s a sample (to use a scientific term), along with a list of the other branches of science.

The three main branches of science:

  • Life science: includes biology, ecology, and environmental science
  • Physical science: includes chemistry and physics
  • Earth science: includes geology, astronomy, meteorology, and oceanography

I had the privilege of interacting with a bunch of super smart, well-educated Earth scientists when I was a marketing director at a company called Picarro, a maker of high-precision scientific instruments that measure gases. Earth scientists were our product developers and product managers, as well as our customers. Picarro has sold its high-precision gas measuring instruments to every major governmental and academic scientific institution in the world, including Stanford University, Harvard University, Beijing University, NASA, NOAA, the USGS, the Russian Institute of Atmospheric Optics, LSCE, and so on.

One project I worked on while I was there was interviewing a documentary filmmaker named Ethan Steinman who produced a film called Glacial Balance, about the melting glaciers in the Andes. The film featured Earth scientists who climbed to altitudes over 18,000 feet to collect ice core samples in order to study changes in the atmosphere that occurred over centuries.

The N.Y. Times wrote a story about the principal scientist featured in the film, Dr. Lonnie Thompson, who is of the generation of scientists who first introduced the problem of global warming to the masses (even though the masses should have paid more attention.)

Dr. Thompson’s analysis of ice cores became “one the most convincing pieces of evidence that the rapid planetary warming now going on was a result of a rise in greenhouse gases caused by human activity.” (N.Y. Times) And Dr. Thompson used Picarro instruments to analyze the ice core samples that he and his team collected.

The technology that Picarro uses is a laser-based technology called cavity ring-down spectroscopy (CRDS). And, no, you will not find a detailed description of this technology on UniGuide, mainly because I could not venture to describe it in any detail…

The one thing I will say about CRDS is that it can measure extremely tiny particles. It can, for example, determine the different number of neutrons in a given element. These differences are called isotopes. How about an example, you might be asking. Ok, here’s one!

Carbon.

Your average climate change denier may not know this, but smart scientists, like Dr. Thompson, who use CRDS technology can precisely measure carbon molecules in the air (including gases trapped in ice cores) and distinguish between those carbon molecules that come from natural causes and those that come from, say, a VW Passat’s rigged exhaust system. (The difference is a different number of neutrons.) They can tell that, yes, there is anthropogenic (man-made) carbon in the atmosphere, and yes, there is now lots of it–in other words, the Chinese government didn’t make this shit up.

I wasn’t a history major either, but it doesn’t mean I’m not fascinated by it like I am with science. One thing about history that I do know is–even after Magellan sailed around the world without falling off of it (therefore demonstrating that the Earth was, indeed, round) there were still people in the government who, despite all the evidence, insisted the world was flat.

So, ok, Mr. Climate-Change Denier, it’s ok if you don’t want to believe Leonard Di Caprio at the Academy Awards when he says, “Climate change is real.” That’s fine. But, please at least believe the 97% of educated scientists who say it is. And please do your job and support legislation, technology, and businesses that will protect your constituents from its disastrous effects.

By Kristen M. Stanton

 

 

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My Biogeography Professor Hero, Dr. Treichel

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When I was an environmental studies major at San Francisco State, I had a biogeography professor named Dr. George Treichel. He had a few distinct characteristics, for which his students loved him. He had been a game warden in Kenya and had dedicated much of his career to the conservation of African wildlife, and he had a treasure trove of anecdotes about lions, elephants, crocodiles, The Maasai–and shooting at poachers, which he would weave elegantly back into our course syllabus. To add to his credibility, I never saw him wear anything other than khaki safari garb. He had had polio, so he walked with those crutches that wrap around your forearms, and he would slowly walk down the aisles of desks in class, with his white hair and ruddy complexion, in his safari shirt with its button pockets, engaging us with his wild, I’m sure embellished, and often hilarious stories.

Professor Treichel was an environmentalist in the true sense of the word. He had spent years living in nature, much preferring its perils to those of urbanity, and he was passionate about all things wild and free and had dedicated his life to protecting their birthright to be so. He held an incurable and contagious delight with all life that inhabits this miraculous planet.

When our coursework focused on local biogeography, and the topic of Southern California came up, he had this to say: “Now many of you think you have been to Southern California, but really, you have only been to yet another human-created shit hole.” Then, pausing for effect at the eruption of giggles, “Oh! Excuse me, I meant hell hole!”

“But let me tell you about Southern California in the 1960s,” he continued. “There was no greater paradise than Los Angeles at that time. You could lie in bed, reach your arm outside your window, and pluck a gigantic, succulent, pesticide-free orange off of a tree, bite into it and spit out the peel, and then squeeze the most delicious nectar of the Gods into your mouth and let it spill down your chin. And then you could feed it to your lover with even more zeal!” He would pause and smile, delighting in his own stories as much as his students did. “And the ocean! Oh, my God! It was absolutely pristine–so pristine, you could drink it, as you fell off your surf board into its luxuriousness! And when you resurfaced, the air was so pure and unadulterated–you could actually breathe it. You could breath the air!”

Of course, he also had an opinion about the San Francisco Bay Area:  “You have never seen the Bay Area like it was in the 1800s,” he opined, as though he had been there in person. “Whales were so plentiful in the sea that you could walk down Ocean Beach and find gigantic whale ribs littering the beach, and shorebirds of every shape and size imaginable; not like these rats with wings you see today called seagulls and pigeons! There were more seashells littering the beach than you could fit into the back of 50 dump trucks.

“The Bay itself was massively bigger,” he continued. “Today, you see yuppies eating and drinking on Chestnut Street, completely oblivious to the fact that they’re no different from poverty-stricken children in India picking through trash heaps in search of food. They are oblivious to the fact that under their yuppie feet are mounds and mounds of trash and human waste!” He was referring to landfill, an invention he considered one of the great scourges of human civilization. “You used to see wetlands for miles and miles, full of the lushest diversity of wildlife, all living in perfect harmony with each other, unlike some of these restaurants you see today that serve pizza, Dim Sum, and nachos!”

Landfill was a topic that Professor Treichel never seemed to tire of deriding. “How many of you have enjoyed a concert at the Shoreline Amphitheater? Did you know the entire thing is built on big heaping piles of human shit, oh, I mean, waste? They were so eager to start making money that the developers opened up Shoreline a bit too soon after they built it. Methane was still actively seeping out of the newly laid turf like small volcanic eruptions of noxious gas! When early concert goers were enjoying their favorite jazz or heavy metal band, it was not uncommon for great wafts of disgustingly foul odors to seep out of the ground and disrupt their listening pleasure!” Then, pausing for effect, he finished, “Of course, they would give the nearest person in a country and western outfit a dirty look.”

Cheers to you, Professor T.!

By Kristen M. Stanton

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Guided by the Bees in My Backyard

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Spring is here in Pacifica and I thought it would be a good use of my time to take a break from UniGuide and go out to the backyard and see what’s going on. I was happy to see lots of bees buzzing around the Pride of Madeira and other flowers, doing vital work and generating immeasurable ROI, just as they have for eons.

I said, ‘Hey! Bees! Wassup?’

And the bees carried on, fully ignoring me, getting pollen or pollinating?

I asked the bees again, ‘Wassup?’

And one of them paused, the one down in the bottom left corner of the photo, and said,

“Can’t you see we’re busy?”

“Can’t you and your people show a little respect and let NATURE do what she’s good at, what she’s done since time immemorial to utter perfection? Can’t you go sign a petition or donate to a bee charity or do something to support us instead of getting in our way?”

I bowed my head in deference and said, ‘Will do.’

Here are some important bee conservation organizations that are worth checking out:

Bee Informed

The Honeybee Conservancy

Scientific Beekeeping

Avaaz

By Kristen M. Stanton

 

 

 

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6 Stats on Why Vegan and Sustainable Living Is Good

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Dolphin in Ocean Plastic Pollution

On average, every four minutes:

  1. 4 people in the U.S will die of a heart disease-related event. (The Heart Foundation)
  2. Americans will spend $2.5 million on diabetes-related healthcare costs, which can be tied directly back to their diet and lifestyle. (American Diabetes Association)
  3. 35,000 farm animals, in the U.S. alone, will be slaughtered for food. (The Humane Society)
  4. 8,000 animals globally will be killed so their skin can be used to make leather shoes, clothing, and accessories. (PETA and Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations)
  5. 444 acres of tropical rainforest will be destroyed are significantly degraded. (Scientific American)
  6. 8 seabirds and 1 marine mammal will die from ingesting plastic trash in the ocean. (NOAA and Ocean Crusaders)

 

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10 Things that Made Me Care About the Earth and Other Species

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An ancient soul and a humbled me, Old Growth Redwood Tree in Montgomery Woods State Park, Mendocino County.

When I read Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan’s letter to their new baby girl, Max, on December 1st, I was aware that I was reading it from my own viewpoint–a set of values developed partly by how I was raised and partly by the unique set of experiences that have made up my life.

This letter, about the hope that Max has given her new parents for the future, received over 1.5 million Likes and over 300,000 Shares on Facebook, in addition to being published by countless other media outlets.

The letter expressed Mark and Priscilla’s augmented sense of purpose to make the world, which Max and her generation will inherit, a better place. And while I know it will take an unimaginable amount of work and collaboration, I am confident that this couple, one of the most powerful in the world, will put a serious dent in things like poverty, disease, and human inequality, as well as continuing to advance human potential with technology.

One of the first comments to the post that I read was from Melinda Gates, half of one of the other most powerful couples in the world. As of June 2015, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation have given over $34 billion in grants to help people all over the world lead healthier, more productive lives.

As I read Mark and Priscilla’s letter to Max, I couldn’t help wondering if the parents of both Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates, two of the greatest technology industrialists of our day, ever took them camping.

Aware of my own biases and values, I searched Mark and Priscilla’s letter hoping to find some mention of some species other than Homo sapiens. Other than a bullet about harnessing clean energy to fuel innovation while protecting the environment, there was no nature, no wilderness, no other species to be found in this letter about making the world a better place.

I realize there is an infinite number of causes in the world. What resonates with one person may not resonate with someone else. I may be fighting to end animal cruelty, but my neighbor on one side is putting all of her energy into ending child trafficking, and the neighbor on the other side is trying to keep the arts in public schools, and the person across the street is trying to put an end to multiple sclerosis.

The Endangered White Headed Lemur, Center for Biological Diversity. Photo: Frank Vassen

What worries me is when the most powerful and wealthy people in the world don’t acknowledge that there is much more to life on Earth than people and technology. For sure, there are tech industrialists who have donated millions to environmental causes through their foundations; the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation and the David and Lucile Packard Foundation are two of them. And I am impressed at the adoption rate that Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffet have had with The Giving Pledge, in which the world’s wealthiest individuals and families donate a large percentage of their wealth to charities.

It makes sense that humanitarian causes get the lion’s share of support from humans. What concerns me is that the human race has shown itself to be amazingly resilient; while, tragically, countless other species we share this planet with have not. Due to human activity, other species of life are dying off at an alarming rate and natural habitats are being decimated. We will lose them permanently unless we collectively take more serious action now. It’s great to be a good humanitarian, but let’s not be speciesist at the same time.

According to the Center for Biological Diversity: “Our planet is now in the midst of its sixth mass extinction of plants and animals–the sixth wave of extinctions in the past half-billion years. We’re currently experiencing the worst spate of species die-offs since the loss of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. Although extinction is a natural phenomenon, it occurs at a natural ‘background’ rate of about one to five species per year. Scientists estimate we’re now losing species at 1,000- to 10,000-times the background rate, with literally dozens (of species) going extinct every day.”

Social Media – One of the Saving Graces of Our Day

But don’t get me wrong. I am eternally grateful for the inventors and dedicated teams of people who’ve developed computers, the Internet, and social media. I can’t imagine my life without them.

I credit social media with the increased awareness of the perils facing our planet and with the rapid acceleration of people adopting plant-based eating habits. Last year, 6% of people said they are vegan, compared to just 2% in 2011. (LatestVeganNews.com) And this number seems to be increasing even faster among millennials.

Social media has been nothing short of a blessing to reduce animal cruelty and suffering. As Paul McCartney said, “If slaughterhouses had glass walls, everyone would be a vegetarian.” Thanks to social media entrepreneurs, like Mark Zuckerberg, their hardworking teams, and animal rights activists, the slaughterhouses suddenly do have glass walls, and everyday people do not like what they see.

But the work ethic that created the social media revolution has caused a new kind of suffering–something I experienced myself and which I can’t help thinking Mark and Priscilla and office workers around the world may be suffering from too: nature deficit disorder.

We are not taking enough time to get outside, take a walk, make sure we bring kids with us, and listen to what nature sounds like in the absence of human noise, maybe dip our bare feet in a cold river. It’s too easy to get caught up in our human world and forget about all the other life on our planet, which urgently needs our protection. And it isn’t just a charity case–it is an awe-inspiring and miraculously diverse world that you don’t want to miss, and certainly, you don’t want your kids to miss.

I will trust that when Mark and Priscilla say they want their daughter to “explore life fully” it means not only human interactions and human inventions, but the full scale of amazingly diverse life that exists on our planet–and which is dangerously at risk of dying. As the most powerful species on this planet, it’s our job to use our inventiveness to nurture and protect it.

“The happiness of the bee and the dolphin is to exist. For man it is to know that and to wonder at it.”—Jacques Cousteau

Here are 10 things that made me care about the Earth and other species:

1. Having pets growing up

Kristen-Age-4-Holding-Sassafrass-300
Me at age 4 with my orange tabby Sassafrass. (I wouldn’t let anyone comb my hair, so it was always short. Rebellious at age 4.)

I grew up with a lot of pets. One such pet was a black cat named J.B., short for “Jet Bomber.” Don’t ask me why we allowed my younger brother, Patrick, to name him. But I must say, except for another black cat I once met named Johnny Cash, I think the name Jet Bomber for a jet black cat is one of the coolest I’ve ever heard.

We also had a guinea pig who was renamed by Patrick as “Paul.” The guinea pig was renamed Paul because when we moved from Houston, Texas to Pelham, New York, our neighbors, a big, gracious, loving, fighting, emotional Italian family, thought it was hilarious that our pet guinea pig was actually named “Guinea.” While it made perfect sense to us to have a guinea pig named “Guinea,” The Marinos notified us that “guinea” was a derogatory name for Italians. Dr. Marino told us that now that we lived in New York, we ought to change that guinea pig’s name.

The thing is, J.B. and Paul, and our many other pets, were my friends–or, more accurately, they were my siblings. They were members of the family. They were one of us. I grew up knowing and feeling that all animals–are one of us.

2. Playing outside – in the dirt, in the rain, in the mud

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Me at age 3, on the shores of Lake Michigan, not noticing it was freezing cold.

Perhaps it was because my mom simply wanted us out of the house, but we were strongly encouraged to play outside at every opportunity. It didn’t matter if it was 20-degrees out or if it was raining. We played kickball in the mud and the rain, and we threw mud at each other. I probably even ingested mud, as well as bugs that were in that mud, and here I am alive today, writing this post.

3. Gardening with my mom

My mom was not a major gardener when we were young, but she did love to put flowers in the ground. This is one of my earliest childhood memories. I was three or four, and as my mom planted flowers outside our house, I sat in the dirt nearby, playing with doodlebugs. It wasn’t the size of the garden that mattered. It was that I was outside in the sunshine with someone who loved me, and I understood that I was a key participant in the creation of something important.

4. Camping

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Family camping trip to Isle Royale in Lake Superior, 1970s. From left: cousin Billy, Mom, Dad, brother Patrick, me, brother Ted, Aunt Anne, cousin Mike, and little cousin Elizabeth on Anne’s back.

My parents didn’t have any money when we were growing up, so family trips were road trips in our old brown Buick station wagon. One trip we took was to Big Bend National Park, near the Texas-Mexico border. My parents also took us to a lot of drive-in movies when we were kids. We loved it because we were allowed to get on the roof of the Buick in our sleeping bags to watch the movies. For road trips, we had a vinyl, metal-framed car top carrier that zipped open on one side. Naturally on this camping trip, my two brothers and I thought the car top carrier would be a perfect place to sleep. The three of us actually crammed into the thing in our sleeping bags. We probably would have suffocated if my dad had zipped it closed. He didn’t. And I remember looking out the opening and seeing more stars in the sky than I ever could have imagined existed.

5. Summer camp that advocates leadership and wilderness training

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Summer camp in the Rockies as a teen, with my friend Ashley.

My more serious camping and backpacking skills were earned at summer camp in Colorado. I know now that it was a gift that my dad valued independence and experiences, and thus sent us to summer camp in the Rockies. Two-week backpacking trips tested my stamina and my character. On one trip, we had to evacuate in the middle of the night because of a flash Rocky Mountain storm. Our counselors feared we had camped a little too close to timberline and that we’d be struck by lightning if we didn’t move to a lower elevation. In order to keep our gear dry and to get down the mountain as quickly as possible, we kept everything in our tents except for our boots and slickers. In the freezing rain, in our underwear, hiking boots, and slickers, we carried our tents down the mountain in teams. As a girl, this was insanely difficult and scary, and some tears were definitely shed. But when we got to a lower camp and back in our tents, and on the trail the whole next day, we couldn’t stop laughing.

6. A NOLS course

I pretty much hated high school. I won’t go into the details here, but I hated high school for the same reasons that a lot of kids hate high school–bullying and boredom. Because I hated high school, I didn’t want to go to college. I was completely uninterested. I wanted to travel and see the world and figure it out on my own. When my friend Brooke told me about a National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) course she was going to take, I was intrigued. I think it was partly due to panic on my parents’ part over that fact that I didn’t want to go to college, but they fully supported my taking the Semester in Kenya course with NOLS. This was one of those critical times in a person’s life when you find yourself at a crossroads, possibly without even realizing it, and you can go one way or the other, and whichever path you take will put you on a trajectory that will impact the rest of your life.

The semester in Kenya changed my life for the better. For three months, we lived in tents. We started on Mt. Kenya, and then went on to the Maasai Mara, then the Indian Ocean, and then the Great Rift Valley. I remember hiking into farmlands at the base of Mt. Kenya, in small groups of four, after spending an entire month on the mountain. We were filthy, tired, and ebullient at what we had accomplished. We had reached the summit of Mt. Kenya and had run into Cape buffalo, leopards, Colubus monkeys, and other wildlife in the mountain’s diverse climate zones. As we hiked through coffee fields, a thin Kenyan woman from one of the farms walked up to us with a big smile. She was carrying something in a small scarf. It was burned potatoes, which she offered to us. It was the best potato I ever tasted. Living in the wilderness made me appreciate humanity in a way I never had before.

7. Supporting a charity that gets at-risk youth into the great outdoors

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Friends and cocoa on Mt. Shasta for the Climbing for Kids charity (me on the right.)

I know now more than ever how fortunate I was to have the experiences I did growing up, even something as seemingly simple as having a backyard to play in. Far too many children do not have the opportunities that I did. This is one of the reasons I raised money for a program called Climbing for Kids, which is part of Bay Area Wilderness Training, a project of Earth Island Institute. Climbing for Kids raises money to get at-risk youth into the great outdoors. Growing up with access to nature made me a better person, and it’s been proven to help countless others.

A study by the American Institutes for Research found that students who get outdoor science courses improve their science testing scores by 27%. In addition, their participation in outdoor education was directly associated with improved conflict resolution and cooperation skills.

In another study, at-risk teenagers who graduated from wilderness therapy programs showed significantly greater use of “adaptive emotion regulation strategies” and significantly less reliance on poor coping skills, such as avoidance and suppressing their emotions. In addition, at the beginning of wilderness training programs,

  • 62% of teens showed moderate to severe disruptive behavior problems, compared to only 11% at graduation.
  • 23% reported moderate to severe anxiety or depression when they started the program, compared to only 5% at discharge.

In short, getting kids into nature is critically important because it gives them better life coping skills.

8. A liberal arts education with courses in science

If I had been better at math and chemistry, I would have been a marine biologist. Instead, I took the liberal arts track, majoring in English and geography. Today, I am grateful that I got a liberal arts education because it taught me how to think creatively and see the world as diverse, yet interconnected. In graduate business school, I noticed I approached problems differently than the  students whose undergrads were in engineering did. And while there is not a day that goes by where I don’t wish I knew how to code like a pro instead of like an anemic hack, my geography degree in environmental studies and my English degree gave me skills in how I view the world and share my perceptions of it.

9. SCUBA diving

Another invaluable gift from my parents was swimming and SCUBA diving. My mom had a near-death drowning experience as a kid, and because of this, she had my brothers and I bobbing up and down in the pool at the Y as infants. She didn’t want us to fear the water as she did, so we learned to swim before we could walk.

My dad is a lifelong SCUBA diver. As a teen, he traveled on his own from his home in West Virginia to the Bahamas just so he could dive. He has a rule that any kid, stepkid, or grandkid who shows an interest in SCUBA diving will get certified on his dime. SCUBA diving has showed me there is a great big world down there –a Technicolor, peaceful, and amazing world in the ocean’s depths. It’s always good to look beyond the surface, because magical things are there.

10. Media that celebrates nature and wildlife

If you can’t get into real nature enough, thankfully today, there are ways to get a temporary fix on your screen. Let’s face it, there is a ton of junk media out there, and we often pay attention to it without consciously realizing we are. I am getting better at changing the channel or clicking away. The more I infuse my life with books, documentary films, and other media about conservation, outdoor adventures, and animals, the happier I am and the more conscious I become.

When I look back, I know I have been extremely privileged to have experienced nature and animals in the way that I have. I don’t want that access to be a privilege. I view it as fundamental human right in the same way that Mark and Priscilla see access to education, healthcare, and the Internet to be fundamental human rights.

It’s hard to value what we don’t know. Time to take a walk outside.

Golden-Gate-Park-Sun-Beam-Roo
Golden Gate Park, San Francisco, with my dog, Roo.

By Kristen M. Stanton

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