A to-do list: 239 ways (and counting) that Trump has hurt the environment. Let’s fight back!

I’ve had a hobby for the last couple months. I just finished my PhD in Earth Science, but on the side I’ve been making a to-do list. For the last two years, I’ve been watching the ways that President Trump is attacking the environment I study and my colleagues that study the environment. It was becoming difficult to keep track of all the ways that his policies have hurt the planet, so I started a list of things he’s done, with dates, sources, and agencies responsible included. As environmental voters, need need to cross items off this list as soon as we can.

I have categorized 120 actions as “ugly.” These are malevolent actions which I, an environmental professional, conclude will cause permanent damage to our planet’s lifeforms, both human and non-human. Some ugly actions are intended to purge the government of environmental professionals and scientists who cannot be easily brought back when Trump is gone. Their loss will take decades to undo.

119 actions are classified as “bad.” These are actions we can likely reverse when we vote in representatives who are responsible stewards of the environment. Unfortunately, Trump’s administration has likely moved the window of what was acceptable to Republicans in terms of environmental damage. I am worried that this is the new normal if we as voters to not register our displeasure.

12 actions are “neutral,” with implications that are unclear.

A sadly small 22 actions of the Trump administration can be classified as helpful to the environment. I am happy to add more if they are pointed out. These are glimmers of hope to me. They are a sign that some aspects of the machinery protecting our environment are still working despite attempts from Andrew Wheeler, Ryan Zinke, Scott Pruitt, Rick Perry and others who seek to permanently lobotomize the government’s ability to regulate harm against the environment.

I would note I probably would have several dozen more entries on this list if I included Mick Mulvaney’s proposed budgets here. Every year, he basically proposes firing all environmental scientists from the government and defunding most of the means we have to regulate pollution from corporations. So far, Congress has resisted 99% of his crazy proposals, but talking heads on Fox News and other conservative commentators have become increasingly vocal that they will not tolerate a budget next year which doesn’t include significant cuts to research and environmental protection. So next year, we may witness irreplaceable programs get put on the chopping block. Researchers may get laid off. And these educated professionals will leave the work force never to return if that happens.

I believe that as a whole, this list represents a crime against our world by an administration that was not elected with a popular mandate. The voters who elected them will be hurt by many of these actions. As soon as we have the means to, environmentally conscious voters must begin pressuring our representatives to undo these crimes against the planet. Our children are depending on us to reconstruct the mechanisms needed to rein in pollution, stop climate change and study humanity’s place in the environment. I will be keeping this list in mind when I vote in the future, so I thought I’d share it and update it. Please feel free to comment with any items I may have missed and I will update the spreadsheet.

People (and frogs!) before cows

It was hard not to feel irritated as I opened the homepage of East Meadow Action, a grassroots group recently formed to defeat the development of Student Housing West (SHW), particularly regarding the Family Student Housing project on East Campus. The group has its heart in the right place. They believe that the field at the base of campus is a setting deserving of preservation, and are trying to prevent the building of new student housing to achieve this goal. I’m writing this to counter a number of points brought up on their site about the planning and design of SHW. I feel qualified to discuss this matter because I’ve been serving as a graduate student rep on the planning committee for the project since its early days last summer. From the start, I’ve been dedicating my efforts to keeping the project economical to ensure lower rent and as dense as possible, to prevent campus from sprawling into land needed by wildlife. I’m sorry to say that East Meadow Action’s efforts to defeat construction will harm both students and the environment if they succeed.

Student Housing West is an enormous planned development on the West side of campus designed to house ~2600 undergraduates, 200-220 graduate students, nearly 140 apartments for student families and a childcare facility. Well, it was initially planned to be on the west side of campus, beginning below Kresge College and continuing down the hill to the current site of Family Student Housing. That was the site university administrators provided for developers pitching their concepts for the project in an extended series of meetings last summer. We selected one developer, Capstone Development Partners, because of their proven track record of student housing construction and management. I personally voted for them because their plan had the highest goals for sustainability and the team made it clear that they would work to adapt to any contingencies which would surely arise during the future planning process.

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The red-legged frog. Apparently Californians ate them to near-extinction, no joke. From Wikipedia.

It turned out that their promised adaptability was put to the test when we were informed that nearly half the site would not be usable for construction. It turns out that a very cute and endangered species, the Red-Legged Frog, uses that corridor for their annual migration from the northerly forests to the grasslands near the Arboretum. Capstone suddenly had to work with half the space that they had initially anticipated for the 2800 students destined to live at West Campus. In addition, it meant there would be no housing prepared for current families living in Family Student Housing (FSH) when it was torn down to make room for the new development.

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Aerial view of the two sites. Source: UCSC CHES

This news could well have killed the project. SHW would not be built in time. Students would be left to fend for themselves and find housing in town on Craigslist. But members of the planning committee discussed another site for the new FSH, one which I have long personally considered a waste of space: the “meadow” near Hagar and Coolidge Drive. As an environmentalist and earth scientist, I bristle at the suggestion that the field at the base of campus is some kind of natural grassland. This space is heavily damaged; if it was left alone, it would return in a few decades to being redwood forest much like North Campus. But it hasn’t been left alone. It is instead a haven for domestic cows which graze and trample the space year-round. The animals, while endearing, continuously roam mowing every blade of grass to a stub, happily emitting methane on a prime piece of real estate.

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The cows declined to comment on their thoughts re: Family Student Housing.

Perhaps the current ongoing environmental review of the site will find that the land is needed by some sensitive species other than domestic cattle. If that turns out to be the case, then I will shut up and the project will probably need to restart at the drawing board. But some of the “alternative sites” that East Meadow Action assures us are available on campus (but never get specific about) seem far worse to me. Some possibilities include the forested land north of campus or the trailer park on the Northwest of campus. Both of these places seem much worse candidates to pave over to me in terms of ecological value (redwood and oak woodland) or their need for people (the trailer park is some of the most affordable housing on campus and much beloved by the students living there). I would much rather pave over cow pasture than a forest or someone’s home.

When I read through the website of East Meadow Action, I am struck that the centerpiece of their argument is the aesthetic value of lower campus as open space. I confess that I find this extremely irritating. It’s irritating to me because aside from being an advocate for conservation of sensitive species like the red-legged frog, I am also a student who has to get by living in this town, and I don’t have the luxury of worrying about aesthetics. When they mentioned Ranch View Terrace as an example of “building done responsibly”, my opinion was sealed. Take one look at the floor plans described for the single family homes of Ranch View Terrace, “a large housing complex set back from the road and mitigated by vegetation and topography.” How exactly are we going to house 2500 students in single family homes, artfully hidden behind trees? East Meadow Action is not motivated by environmentalism. They’re motivated by the same Not In My BackYard mentality that is choking the development of dense housing in town. We are in a housing crisis and their ocean views are a luxury that we can’t afford.

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East Meadow Action’s ideal for student housing.

I agreed to be SHW rep because I want to make sure future graduate students will have an affordable housing option on campus. I currently am “lucky” to spend 40% of my stipend on rent in town. When I first came to attend grad school here I had to deal with Craigslist and ended up paying over 60% of my income for the first two years I lived here. Students are pursuing extreme solutions. I know people considering living in the woods, or in unzoned bedrooms in town that are another source of tension with the community. It will only continue to get worse as rents rise in the coming years.

Right now, all we can do to remedy the issue in Santa Cruz is pass rent control ordinances and increase supply. SHW is the best project we have to increase supply and do so ensuring maximum density. I want UCSC to continue to be a forest campus, which necessitates not chopping down trees. I am trying to ensure that students have an affordable housing option on campus. I want student families to have guaranteed housing that comes online right when their previous outdated complex is torn down. The sentimental affection that some may feel for the aesthetics of a cow pasture strikes me as the privilege of a comfortable and vocal minority. I value the croaking of frogs and the laughter of children over the yammering of NIMBYs and, yes, even the mooing of cows.

Dan Killam

Fourth Year PhD Candidate, UCSC Earth and Planetary Sciences

University of Southern California ’12, BS Environmental Studies

Graduate Representative for Student Housing West

Why funding science makes America stronger

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As a PhD candidate in the last year of my doctorate, I’m currently applying for postdoctoral positions, and running into a lot of difficulty because the fellowships that were previously available are on ice (NOAA, EPA), dead (USGS Mendenhall), or are so selective and prohibitive in their application requirements that they are effectively a lottery (NSF). These fellowships are would support my living and research costs for 1-2 years and allow me to continue my work after graduate school while I look for faculty positions. Right now, I have a front-row seat watching the death of a generation of AMERICAN researchers before they even get started. We can’t get support for our work, and there are not enough privately-funded grants to cover the gap, and there never will be. So many of my peers are giving up and entering the private sector or going abroad.

You might think this is the point in my essay where I assert to you that funding science is the *right* thing to do and produces knowledge which improves the human condition and is the greatest thing that our species can aspire to, yada yada yada. While all of that is true, if you’re reading this, you likely already agree. What you might not be aware of, however, is that science is a smart investment of public funds in the short term. Science is a powerful engine of economic stimulus. Every researcher takes part in an enormous amount of economic activity which produces multiple dollars of payoff for every dollar of AMERICAN federal grant money invested.

Let me give you an example with my research work, which is small potatoes compared to the big labs, which apply for grants that measure in the millions of dollars. I am an isotope biogeochemist. To conduct my work, I require the use of immensely complex machines called mass spectrometers. These devices cost somewhere between the cost of a low end BMW ($45,000) and an Italian supercar (hundreds of thousands). The companies that make these (Thermo-Fisher, PerkinElmer, etc) are multi-billion dollar corporations which employ thousands of skilled workers in AMERICA and depend on the sale, support and upkeep of machines like these to make a profit and provide AMERICAN jobs. The sale of scientific equipment is their bread and butter, so the grant money that I spend running samples on the mass spec is going right towards employing other highly-educated AMERICAN workers. The same goes for the scanning electron microscope that I use, the micromill (the little robot I use to drill my shells), and the vials and everyday supplies I use. All are manufactured by AMERICAN companies.

At my local level, I am not doing the day-to-day work of running the mass spectrometers. My department employs highly educated technicians, some with PhDs of their own. They do the day-to-day work of keeping these engineering marvels running and helping us do our research. I will be writing another blog post soon about these unsung wizards of science, but know that behind every talented researcher you know, there are at least a few talented technicians that enabled them to do the science. And all of those people depend on research money to be able to do those jobs, and are paying taxes, so many of those tax dollars go right back into the AMERICAN Treasury.

The university where I study is the top employer in the county. Universities are the top employers in many counties and even states nationwide. My school makes jobs and generates economic activity which transformed Santa Cruz from a sleepy vacation town into an engine of research and development. Behind the technicians and researchers that do science, there is a vast ocean of administrators needed to do paperwork, administer grant money, interface with the community and assist student needs. All of those people are generating economic activity in their communities, buying food, gas, and living their lives, contributing to a strong, fluid AMERICAN economy. Research is the lifeblood of an economy that cannot easily be automated or outsourced away from AMERICA, but only if we provide the federal funding to keep the machine running.

What I’m trying to articulate to you here is that funding science is not just a feel-good use of your tax dollars. It is a necessary use of your tax dollars. Right now, science is withering away in AMERICA. I can name ten researchers off the top of my head who are throwing in the towel and leaving the field or going abroad because they can’t get funding here. And the discoveries they would have made and the economic activity that they would have generated is happening in CHINA, and EUROPE, and increasingly in ARAB countries, INDIA and the developing world. We need to immediately bring AMERICAN scientific funding back to its historical proportion of the federal budget at least, and hopefully ramp it up if we intend to continue to be the world’s biggest research economy.

I am not begging and wheedling you to fund science for my sake. I will be fine. There are lots of jobs that I can do, and I’m looking into doing these jobs abroad if I can’t find the support I need in AMERICA. But if you believe that AMERICA is great, you should be aware that a lot of that greatness is thanks to the economic stimulus brought about by basic research. Please keep that in mind when you vote, call your representatives, and even when you’re just talking about politics.

Back on social media!

I had taken a break from logging into Facebook/Twitter/Reddit for the last couple months because it was stressing me out. I was feeling inundated by political news that were making me feel overwhelmed and not in control of the information I was processing. So I disconnected for a while and my mind began to feel a lot clearer. The battery life on my phone also improved by at least 3x.

I realized that while I appreciate and respect the views of the people I follow, as a collective the news they were sharing was crowding out my own personal views on the issues. I seriously felt like I was being radicalized after being subjected to a firehose of competing political opinions. I was worried I was contributing to that problem and doing the same thing to other people.

But I like using Facebook and Twitter to keep in touch with my family, friends and colleagues. It is valuable to me to see pictures of your pets, news about whether you’re safe from the latest natural disaster, and links to your latest paper that’s headed straight to my references folder. So I’m back on FB/Twitter for those things, but I’ve set some strict rules for myself.

  • Only can log in on my computer. The phone makes it too easy and compulsive to log in frequently and scroll through. And I have to log out immediately after viewing, with only one login per day permitted.
  • No more than one post per day on any of the networks.
  • No more than one political post per month.
  • No replies to anyone that I don’t personally know.
  • No Reddit. I actually haven’t missed that one at all.

I hope I can find a way to engage and stay in touch with you all while not crowding out real life! Talk to you soon.

In grief for the America that was

I used to have pride in being American. I’m grateful for all the opportunities and privileges I’ve had being a citizen of this storied democracy. I held onto hope when my countrymen doubted the citizenship of my president. I held on when we elected a fraudulent, undignified xenophobe to succeed him. I held on when we left a climate agreement out of spite and began rolling back environmental protections left and right. But today, I don’t know if I can do it. I don’t really feel like part of this place anymore.

I’m still trying to figure out my career. If I stay here after grad school, I’ll be a more inward looking person; thinking about my own life, friends and family. But I’m looking into leaving. I don’t really feel like I can be part of this shared enterprise anymore. It’s really out of exhaustion more than anger. I’m tired of this feeling of grief. It’s analogous to the feeling I’d have after losing a loved one, when I just want to disconnect. The country I grew up in is no more, and it may be time to move on.