Research by Adelphi faculty is redefining what it means to be green.

by Katherine Lewis

From measuring the impact of human activity on our oceans and bays and the effect of pesticides on nerve cell development to challenging the way we measure environmental impact and exploring the philosophical basis of our relationship with the world around us, research by Adelphi faculty is redefining what it means to be green.

Protecting the Bay

Beth Christensen, an associate professor of environmental studies in the College of Arts and Sciences, takes hands-on learning seriously when she brings students for field work in the marshes surrounding Adelphi’s campus.

“Nothing says learning like standing in mud. It’s always been my goal to get every student in my classes wet or muddy,” says Dr. Christensen, who uses the marshes as a vivid example of our interconnectedness with the environment. “It’s literally in our backyard.”

“That part of the bay is critical. It protects us from storms, from sea-level rise, provides a nursery for 90 percent of all commercial fish and fisheries. Without a healthy bay, you’re not going to get anything but farm-raised tilapia; you’re going to see frequent flooding,” she says. “It’s a serious local problem, and people don’t understand how bad the bay has gotten.”

Using an ocean survey vessel operated by the Environmental Protection Agency, Dr. Christensen and her students are seeking to map and understand the sea floor in Long Island’s Western Bays. Last summer, their research focused on the status of the sewage pipe off of Jones Beach, which carries hundreds of gallons of treated sewage into the ocean each day. By mapping the mile-plus length of the pipe with side scan sonar, they determined it was intact and not leaking. They also measured the sea water and took pictures of the sediment at the bottom of the bay to show, fortunately, no accumulation of organic material, which could disrupt the ecosystem.

Separately, Dr. Christensen works with local nonprofit Operation Splash to research the human impact on different aspects of the ecosystem, starting with the sediments on the sea floor. “After characterizing the area, the next step is looking at the chemistry of the system,” she says. In particular, researchers are concerned with mercury coming from a nearby power plant and contaminants like estrogen from pharmaceuticals and toxic paint chipping off the bottom of boats. They can take core samples and understand the history of the region by testing different intervals within the core.

On a much larger scale, Dr. Christensen’s research focuses on climate change over millions of years. One project looks at the middle to outer portion of the New Jersey shelf, which is underwater now but was exposed 18,000 years ago. She’s investigating how quickly the sea level rose in order to understand what might happen if glacial melting leads to another rise. A second research focus is in New Zealand, where drilling the sea floor gives insight into how the sediments and sea level have changed through history. Dr. Christensen looks at pinhead-sized microfossils to reconstruct the past millennia.

“The ocean and the climate are intricately related. What we see has changed over millions of years,” she says. “We have never seen change on the scale we are seeing now in terms of climate.”

Are New Pesticides Safe?

The development of pyrethroids, a lesstoxic class of pesticides, might appear to be a positive for human safety. After all, aren’t chrysanthemum-based insect killers better than the toxic pesticides of past generations? But research by Benjamin Weeks, a biology professor in the College of Arts and Sciences, suggests that such chemicals still have an effect on the development of the nervous system in an embryo when mothers are exposed. And the perception that they’re all natural might lead to overuse. “If you know something is nasty, you may be more careful,” points out Dr. Weeks, noting that Long Island uses high levels of pesticide relative to the entire country. “Nassau and Suffolk County are the only counties where household use of pesticides is higher than agricultural use.”

The challenge for scientists is to demonstrate harm. If a chemical causes gross birth defects, the damage is obvious. If it lowers IQ by three points and causes a behavioral change, it’s harder to connect the evidence with the cause.

As a result, Dr. Weeks works directly with nerve cells to understand how pollutants impair their growth. He begins with neurites, the tendrils that project from the cell body early in its development, and treats them with the protein laminin to mimic the normal activity of nerve cells in an embryo. From his past 15 years of research on the mechanism, he’s determined the step-by-step development of neuronal cells into bundled nerves when laminin is introduced. In recent years, he’s started to introduce foreign substances such as pesticides to see how they affect each of those molecular events.

His findings: even the less-toxic pesticides significantly reduce the bundling of neurites as well as the time it takes neurites to form. Since nerve cells are the foundation of our brains and nervous systems, this gives important insight into the harm to developing embryos when the mother is exposed to chemicals. His current focus is to find the mechanism by which the harm occurs in order to better understand damage to an embryo’s developing nervous system.

Challenging What We Measure

Mariano Torras, a professor in the School of Business, used to focus his research on measures of development and gross domestic product, and how to incorporate social and environmental impact into the numbers. But recently he’s started to question whether the entire exercise is wrong-headed.

“I’ve grown more skeptical about putting dollar values on everything,” says Dr. Torras, particularly when you consider the severe impact of some human activities on the environment and human health. “The implication is that it’s worth maybe killing off a few people in service of progress.”

He recently wrote an article on the inescapable subjectivity of how we measure wellbeing. Economists have traditionally focused on measures of income and consumption when evaluating the development of a country or group, simply because those are the factors that are easiest to measure. But what makes people happy is so much deeper and hard to pin down: our relationships, our environment, our leisure time, and our physical and mental health.

“You can’t put these in GDP, so economics ignores them,” Dr. Torras says. “I’m convinced that there is a sore need for a new paradigm in economics. We have to move beyond traditional neoclassical economics.”

How We Relate to the Environment

Philosopher Martin Buber’s writings about the I-Thou relationship, a mode of being actively engaged with the world around us, led Graham Henning to examine the interactions of tourists and locals in Okinawa, Japan, and their differing relationship to the environment.

Dr. Henning, an assistant professor in the School of Business, found that Okinawans are losing their traditional connection to the sea and the land because of the influx of American tourists. Indeed, new resorts being built on the beach facilitate the immediate transfer of tourists from the airport to the resort without even connecting to the surrounding community. As a result, Okinawans “are not engaging in these IThou interactions,” he says.

Unfortunately, little scholarship has focused on an alternative to unsustainable development, other than to limit or isolate its spread, Dr. Henning says. His recent paper looked at experiences in nature from a dialogic perspective and approaching experiences as theatrical events, with players, a setting, a story line, and an audience. His future work will examine ideas of freedom and necessity and how they could inform a different view of the environment and the social world.

“There don’t seem to be any good views on how to be more sustainable other than cut back,” he says. “Is there some other basis for doing things in the world?”

This piece appeared in the Erudition 2011 edition.

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