It's Easy Being Green
April 15, 2008 –Edward Barrows, professor of biology, states it plainly: “We’re letting our planet slip a lot, and we’re shooting ourselves in the foot when we degrade our planet so much.” Barrows, director of the Center for the Environment, is leading a charge to change environmental attitudes to benefit the planet. He also brings that charge into the classroom with lessons about how the Earth’s health affects human health. It’s time to start looking at ecosystems as invaluable living museums that can be saved by simple conservation actions, Barrows tells the Blue & Gray ahead of Earth Day on April 22.
Q: What kind of work do you do at the center?
A. The Center for the Environment informs Georgetown University and the surrounding neighborhood about green issues. We promote being more ecological and sustainable. I represent the center on Georgetown’s sustainability committee. Students in Campus Climate Challenge, EcoAction and other groups originated the committee to have a dialogue on sustainability and the greenness of Georgetown’s campuses.
Q: How does your scholarship fit into this?
A. I work on biodiversity and conservation. Biodiversity is not just the number of species in an area, but it’s everything about them biologically – their genetic makeups, their biochemical pathways, their interactions with other organisms and so forth. Biodiversity is a network of biological phenomena, and when people remove important species from a habitat, they harm the vital network.
Q: What is an example of human behavior affecting biodiversity?
A. If someone cuts down a tree in a forest, it’s not just the tree that is going, but also thousands, even billions, of organisms that depend on that tree. Many of them live on or in the tree; others visit the tree and obtain fruit, nectar, pollen and other resources from it. It’s not just lots of wood going down, it’s destruction of a dynamic living plant and its whole mini-ecosystem.
We are having a most regretful, human-caused biodiversity crisis that’s been going on for decades. We’re losing lots of species each year, and we’re losing myriad habitats that we can never restore.
Q: What are some local environmental issues?
A. In the last several decades, Washington, D.C., has lost about 60 percent of its heavy tree cover. The government isn’t replacing trees very fast, and even when it does, it can’t take full care of many of them. For example, along Reservoir Road, there were a lot of small red maples. Unfortunately, I watched a lot of them die in last year’s long drought.
Q: What about nearby suburban areas?
A. Because many people are building large houses and impermeable driveways, much more water comes off properties and surges into drainage systems and then local streams. That water is highly deleterious to streams because it’s so fast and sweeps away many of the beneficial organisms and carries toxins such a pesticides and road oil. This harms the Potomac River and the Chesapeake Bay.
Q: What can people do to minimize their impact on the environment?
A. Many things. Talk with your local lawmakers about passing laws protecting trees, using ecological methods for managing storm water and reducing carbon output. And we can change our perceptions about nature. When I look out at open land, I don’t think of it as vacant and suitable for development. I think of it as producing oxygen, sequestering carbon, helping to filter and produce clean water and serving as a habitat for wildlife.
People should support conservation groups. One of my favorite groups is the Xerces Society, named after an extinct butterfly from California. It’s the only international group that supports the conservation of invertebrate animals.
Q: What green challenges does Georgetown face?
A. We have a lot of older buildings that are hard to manage, energy-wise, because they were built when energy was cheap. They weren’t built to conserve energy, and it’s hard to control temperature in them.
I would like to see a campuswide educational program regarding ecological issues. We’re running hither and yon, and we’re so busy that we’re evidently not thinking about our planet enough as a group. We know there is a green movement going on, and we should recycle and do other wonderful things for GU, but it doesn’t necessarily translate into daily behavior.
Q: Is there a disconnect between the public’s desire to go green and the ultimate action?
A. A lot of us don’t want to be inconvenienced. We want to be as comfortable as possible, so we’ll heat and cool our building more than absolutely necessary. We need to imbue all of our lives thoroughly with wise conservation and do tangible things to make a difference, both large and small steps.