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Symposium held at GVSU tackles important theme of Women and the Environment

March 29, 2012

A symposium was held at the downtown campus of GVSU today around the broad theme of Women & the Environment. The event was organized by the GVSU Women’s Center in collaboration with the West Michigan Environmental Action Council.  

After a luncheon, the day was divided into 3 themed panel discussions. The first panel discussion dealt with the theme of women entrepreneurs and the environment. The first panelist to speak was Deb Steketee with the Aquinas College Center for Sustainability.

Steketee began by saying she wanted to present some recent trends that could have transformative outcomes. The first was the idea of bio-mimicry, where what we produce can be more sustainable if we mimic natural systems. Other trends were Green Chemistry, sustainable business and women led organizations.

All of these trends were underlined by the fact that women were at the forefront, but what seemed somewhat disingenuous was that most of the emphasis was on business and less about substantive ecological change. One of the women highlighted was the late Wangari Maathai, the amazing Kenyon woman who challenged capitalist power in her country and promoted climate justice. Juxtaposing Maathai with some of the female entrepreneurs seemed a bit contradictory, since what Maathai did and what eco-business owners do are very different things. Maathai was about movement building and calling for a radical shift in how we operate in the world, whereas most eco-businesses promote lifestyle changes through green capitalism.

The other speakers during the first panel was Angela Topp, the owner of the local business Tree Hugger and Renae Hesselink, Vice President of Sustainability at Nichols Paper & Supply. The panel was set up in a Q&A format that was moderated by Shelley Irwin with WGVU. Both Topp and Hesselink spoke about their business practices of trying to be more sustainable. Topp emphasized recycling and helping people make daily purchasing decisions that would make a difference in the world.

At one point Irwin asked Deb Steketee how sustainability could impact the global business world. Steketee said she believed that there is tremendous potential around products that cater to what she referred to as Lifestyle markets.

Angela Topp mentioned a news story she heard about the palm oil industry, which was clear cutting forests to plant palm oil trees that would be used in marketed products and that this could result in the extinction of orangutans. She went on to say that not purchasing those products would make a difference and that it was the little things that general do. Topp did not address the strategy of collective resistance of the palm tree industry to be able to clear cut forests to begin with.

The first panel ended by each of the participants talking about what they see as priorities for the future. Topp did say that we need to hold companies accountable for the waste they generate and that the US should do what Germany did, which was to have source point recycling, where the industry is responsible for waste and packaging that come with the products people buy. This kind of policy was attempted in the US in the late 1960s but was undermined by the National Association of Manufacturers who instead promoted their own campaign known as Don’t Be a Litter Bug, which put the emphasis on what individuals did with waste.

The second panel of the day dealt with the theme of food and farming. Again, this panel featured three presenters: Dr. Kirsten Bartels (GVSU), Katie Brandt (Groundswell Farm) and Dr. Wynne Wright (MSU).

Kirsten Bartels began the panel by talking about the classes she teaches at GVSU on food. Dr. Wynne Wright with MSU talked about growing up on a family farm and how she wanted to get away from it as fast as possible. Katie Brandt is a farmer at Groundswell Farm and talked about starting a farm with another woman and that they currently have 150 members in their CSA.

One question asked of the panel was, how does food production impact women? Dr. Wright said we have to look at social markers and social location. Many people often see women’s involved with food as just preparation, but women often play the role of maintaining culture through food. Wright also said that women are the persons who do most of the food prep work in the food service industry, particularly women of color or immigrant women.

Katie Brandt talked about the environmental and health benefits of farm to table eating. She encouraged more people to get involved in growing some of their own food and getting to know area farmers. It isn’t easy to start your own farm, but there is a growing demand from people to eat locally grown food. She also talked about a project they started which was to invite people to share meals on the farm with other farm workers who could share best practices.

Another question asked was how do we stop hunger worldwide? One panelist said stop participating in the current global food system. Another panelists said that hunger is a function of distribution not availability. Bartels focused on the waste of food in the US and how so many more people could be fed with the waste we generate.

It was interesting to note that no policies were discussed, like the Farm Bill or the importance of challenging the current agri-business system that is based on profits and the expense of public health and environmental integrity.

The last panel of the day explored the topic of Environmental Health Impact Gayla Jewell (Grand Rapids Medical Education and Research Center), Dr. Julia Mason (GVSU) and Courtney Myers-Keaton (Program Manager for Healthy Homes Coalition of West Michigan) were the three panelist for this session.

Julia Mason emphasizes the point that if we are going to do anything it really needs to be a collective response and no so much what we can do as individuals. This was a refreshing point to hear since most of the presenters put the emphasis on individual behavior and purchasing power.

One question addressed to this panel was how are minority communities disproportionately impacted by environmental degradation? One panelist said women of color are more likely to come in contact with hazardous waste and toxic dumps, because of where they live and that is a form of environmental racism. The Environmental Justice movement has done a great deal in the last 20 years to point out the race and class disparities for communities of color, which are subjected to worse environmental conditions across the country. An environmental justice movement would require us to think more systemically about the system. Julia Mason said too often the current environmental movement is trendy and disproportionately attracts people of privilege, so we need to figure out how to address environmental issues that takes into consideration systemic change that truly promotes justice.

Courtney Myers-Keaton addressed issues like lead poisoning in homes, radon exposure and asthma triggers. She also addressed issues like child exposure to mice, cockroaches and other unhealthy dynamics in the homes of many who live in rental properties throughout the city.

Gayla Jewell talked a great deal about how we all have toxins in our bodies because of what we have been exposed to. For women it is worse because of all the beauty projects, cleaning products and other basic things like bottled water that women are disproportionately exposed to.

Julia Mason again emphasized the need to push for collective change and policy change. Challenge water contamination at the source instead of just finding ways to filter your own water.

One woman said she doesn’t want to give money for more research for breast cancer, because they keep spending money on research instead of prevention. Julia said that we need to put the emphasis on prevention and look at the industries that are the ones responsible for making us sick to begin with, which many times are the ones offering some kind of pharmaceutical cure.

There was a great deal of information shared during the 3 panel sessions at the forum. However, the format made it difficult for people to probe further or to spend much time discussing tactics and strategies to make important changes in the world. It is also worth noting that all nine panelists were Caucasian women, which certainly spoke to issues of privilege and limited the discussion around women and environmental justice.

One Comment leave one →
  1. steve d permalink
    March 30, 2012 2:07 pm

    Thanks for reporting on this. Many topics in this that need to be spoken about. Point source pollution, environmental racism, farms to tables…thanks for doing, what at times must seem like the thankless task of keeping track of these events and reporting on them.

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