Anne Kapuscinski: A Concerned Scientist

by Abbey Cahill | 1/28/16 8:47pm

Environmental Studies 3, “Environment and Society: Towards Sustainability,” was my first class at Dartmouth. My daily walk to class was the only time which I’d ever happily walk from my dreaded River cluster dorm all the way to the Life Sciences Center.

Although I was interested in the topic, I was initially a little bit wary of the class. I think that I expected the curriculum would consist of putting depressing timestamps on earth’s future: X years until all the polar bears die; Y years until we have no clean water; Z years until fresh fruits and vegetables are a whisper of the past.

I felt like I might walk out feeling defeated and guilty for my existence on this planet as a fuel-burning, resource-consuming, waste-producing and toxic human being.

I was wrong. Instead, each class left me feeling energized. We learned about leverage points — places in a system’s structure where change can be best implemented; we realized how important it is to establish an economy that fits in a finite biosphere; we wrote papers on exciting opportunities for sustainability transitions and presented them to one another.

The class was taught by environmental studies professor Anne Kapuscinski , whose optimism and excitement about sustainability were contagious.

“It’s your future, a future of flourishing,” Kapuscinski told me of sustainability. “A future where we’ll be able to actually avoid dangerous climate change.”

She also emphasized to me that sustainability, a main focus of her work, is more than just a buzzword.

“Many people think of it as just being a catchall term for simple things like recycling and solar panels,” Kapuscinski explained. “Those things are parts of sustainability, but actually, sustainability is a much bigger idea than that.”

In her class, we used the term “flourishing” as a different word for sustainability. The ultimate goal is for life and civilization on our planet to thrive indefinitely. Kapuscinski argued that it’s not that different from big, general goals like world peace and love.

Right now, though, we are quickly depleting the resources that we depend on to survive. We’re using up fresh water much too fast, we’re polluting the water and the air, we are undergoing the largest extinction of biodiversity, and we’re experiencing an alarming climate change problem.

“We have all these problems,” Kapuscinski says. “And yet, there’s a growing sense that humans can do better than that.”

We sat talking in Kapuscinski’s office in Fairchild, where I’d come to interview her about her role in the necessary global shift towards sustainability. The room was flooded with natural light, a stocked bookshelf with a rolling library ladder filling one entire wall. Kapuscinski sat across from me. Her earrings had dangling miniature globes and a blanket was draped over her chair.

Kapuscinski explained that she been greatly inspired by her work with the Union of Concerned Scientists, a highly respected non-governmental organization that was founded in the 1960s by some assistant professors at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. They felt that policymakers were not paying adequate attention to what the science said about the potential devastation and the management of nuclear weapons. So, they decided to form the UCS with a mission to bring the best scientific knowledge into the policy arena.

Since then, the USC’s areas of expertise have expanded, and in addition to its Nuclear Security program, it now includes programs on food and the environment, climate and energy, clean vehicles and the Center on Science and Democracy.

Back in May, Kapuscinski was elected as the first female chair of the UCS Board of Directors.

“They are known to be honest brokers about the science,” says Kapuscinski, who attended the COP21 Paris Climate Conference as a member of the UCS delegation this past December.

The sheer number of people at the Paris conference was astounding, Kapuscinski said. The actual treaty negotiations were obviously center stage in terms of media coverage, but what many people didn’t realize, Kapuscinski marveled, is that 40,000 people came from all around the world to hold additional side events.

Kapuscinski said that at the event there was a display of stationary bikes that you could ride to recharge your smartphone and business stands with innovated products like solar powered sound systems for concerts. There were also booths for larger scale initiatives, she said.

One display in particular caught Kapuscinski’s eye. An organization called the Great Green Wall Initiative, devoted to re-greening the Sahel Desert in Africa.

Years ago, one farmer in the Sahel decided to dig deeper pits around his crop plants and put manure in them. His manure had seeds for trees in it, and the trees began to reforest a small area. Other farmers began to copy him, Kapuscinski said.

And a decade or so later, scientists from the developed world were looking at satellite images, and they discovered that a large section of the Sahel was looking much greener than before.

Kapuscinski described how impactful the initiative has been, and her personal admiration for and fascination with it.

“Now that has grown to a multinational initiative to try to spread the reforestation even more, and those people had a booth at the COP21. That’s just such a tiny drop in the bucket of everything that was going on,” Kapuscinski said. “It really brought tears to my eyes.”

As it turns out, another little drop in the bucket is happening right here on our very own campus at Dartmouth. When Kapuscinski was hired as a sustainability sciences professor in 2009, she said she was especially excited to teach at a school that places such emphasis on the liberal arts.

“I was very excited about coming here for many reasons, one being that I really believe strongly in liberal arts education,” says Kapuscinski, who received a liberal arts education herself.

The liberal arts education at Dartmouth soon provided Kapuscinski an exciting opportunity. One of her responsibilities when coming here was to create a sustainability minor that would fit in with the interdisciplinary values of the institution. The goal was to bring together courses across multiple disciplines and unite them under the umbrella of the sustainability minor.

Kapuscinski pulled out the sustainability minor worksheet and walked me through it, gesturing with her pen.

There are four clusters of learning goals, spanning everything from social justice to ethics to creative expression and design, she explained. Student must take classes from at least two of the clusters. There are engineering, anthropology, geography, philosophy, history and even studio art classes that students can take to fulfill the minor requirements.

And students are not just limited to the courses on the worksheet, Kapuscinski said. She encourages them to find additional courses that fit within the learning clusters. She explained that the value of the minor lies in its interdisciplinary nature.

“The opportunities [for sustainable change] lie at the intersection of these arenas of policy, behavior, values, ideas of a good life, social relationships, the environment, our technology and how we interact with the environment,” Kapuscinski said.

Dartmouth also provides experiential learning outside of the formal curriculum for students interested in sustainability. The Dartmouth Organic Farm has become a hub for student organizations and clubs, offering farm internships and hosting class field trips, food-tastings, research and social gatherings.

I talked to Emily Grotz ’16 about her involvement in campus sustainability efforts. She collected sap at the farm for professor David Lutz’s research on climate change.

“They’re measuring the seasonal changes in sap production by the trees, and then trying to see if climate change is influencing those changes,” Grotz said. “This is just one study site that is then compared to a bunch of sites in the northeast.”

Grotz said that one of the highlights of her sophomore summer was a dinner on the organic farm with her sorority, Kappa Kappa Gamma. Through Green Greek Interns in the Dartmouth sustainability office, Kappa was able to go to the farm and make brick oven pizza with locally grown vegetables.

Meghan Christie ’17 also spent some time on the organic farm during her sophomore summer while taking Environmental Studies 25, “Ecological Agriculture.” Christie said it was by far one of the most formative classes in her Dartmouth experience, largely due to its interactive nature.

“It was all experiential, outside learning,” Christie said. “Everything was hands on.”

Kapuscinski is doing some of her own research with aquaculture on the organic farm. She is raising fish in her lab in the basement of the new timber frame barn, and her work often involves students, one of whom was Christie when she was taking “Ecological Agriculture”.

“We spent a whole day with Kapuscinski learning about her aquaculture research,” Christie said. “It was awesome to get to handle the fish and see the systems we had discussed in class finally in practice.”

Kapuscinski said that by taking advantage of specific soil bacteria’s ability to clean up the fish waste in the water, biological filters allow us to recirculate the water and use it to raise the fish again. Its growth in popularity has been explosive and transformative, she said.

“We are currently at a historic moment where for the first time in history, humans are getting as much seafood from farming, from aquaculture, as we are from the ocean,” Kapuscinski says.

Although it is a great way to save water, aquaculture also creates some problems of its own. As it increases in popularity, there is a growing demand for fish feed. Right now, the feed is made from tiny fish called “forage fish,” and if we keep using them, the ocean is projected to run out of them by 2040, Kapuscinski explained. That’s where her lab work looking for alternatives to fish feed comes in.

“So, there is a race underway to come up with alternatives,” she said.

“My lab is working on a very interesting alternative which is to take advantage of a naturally occurring set of organisms called micro algae.”

In the next couple of years, Kapuscinski hopes to start producing her own micro algae right here on the organic farm, using some of the nutrients that are in the fish waste as a fertilizer.

From the COP21 in Paris, to the Sahel in Africa, to our very own Dartmouth Organic Farm in Hanover, there are exciting advancements happening all over the world to move us towards a future of flourishing. Kapuscinski urged me not to underestimate the power and innovation of the snowball effect.

“No change is too small,” she said.

Instead, she remarked, the small changes are actually vital.

“People are rolling up their sleeves all over the world and doing what they can in their homes, in their communities, in their states, and in their nations,” Kapuscinski says. “And there’s tons of opportunities for Dartmouth students to do that.”