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A & S News

Culture and Climate Change

May 12, 2009

The story below is an excerpt from the Arts and Sciences Magazine story, "Change in the Forecast" by Franci Rogers. The full article is available here.

As an environmental anthropologist, Dr. Sara Alexander studies the human response to environmental changes. She sees "going green" as a trend, but one with a potentially positive outcome.

"Being green is now cool," says Alexander, associate professor of Applied Anthropology and chair of Anthropology, Forensic Science and Archaeology. "Cameron Diaz drives a hybrid because it's the cool thing to do, and that's great. As demand goes up, the prices will drop and more people will be able to purchase them."

Alexander sees the growing awareness about climate change and a downturn in the economy as doubling the impact on society.

"In the U.S., we live in a largely reactive society," she says. "Right now, we're reacting to the trend of being more environmentally aware, and we're reacting to monetary pressures. If you put a monetary amount on something, society responds."

The increased use of public transportation and alternative energy sources are not as much responses to the stress of the changing environment, Alexander believes, as to the stress of the paycheck.

"Look at solar energy, for example. It's been around for years, and the South and Southwest would be prime locations for solar energy use," she says. "It's been around for a long time, but we haven't had to tap into it, so we haven't. We haven't felt an imminent need to do so. Now, with the price of gasoline going up, we're suddenly talking about solar cars. We've had the technologies, and they've been around for years."

Recycling is another trend Alexander has been watching, and she says many areas of the U.S. have been more proactive than others.

"There are some places in this country where you can be fined if you don't recycle," she says. "There's a monetary incentive."

In some European countries, she says, monetary incentives to recycle have been tremendous.

"In the U.S. we probably recycle less than 20 percent of our waste," Alexander says. "In Germany, they recycle more than 75 percent. They have the incentive."

Dr. Jennifer Good, assistant professor of German, says the success of the German recycling program is largely based on the marketplace.

The Der Grüne Punkt, or Green Dot, system was introduced in Germany in the early 1990s. Manufacturers and producers of any product must pay a fee to use the Green Dot symbol on their packaging. The cost of the use of the Green Dot is based on how much material is used in its packaging, how much of it is recyclable and how easy it is to recycle the packaging material. The more packaging, the more the company pays for the use of the symbol. The result is much less packaging and much less waste.

And, Good says, having the Green Dot is a must for consumers.

"Germans only buy products with that symbol," she says. "In the beginning, the things Germans really value got the symbol. It came to represent the very best, highest-quality product, and now it's just a part of how Germans shop."

Good believes that the program is also successful because it is market-driven rather than government mandated.

"There's less packaging, more things are biodegradable and people know nearly everything can be recycled," she says. "If you buy a CD here, is the plastic wrapping recyclable? It is in Germany, and consumers know that."

German citizens are also more willing to recycle, Good says, even though their system is a bit complex.

"Separating recycling is not compulsory for private citizens," she says, "but a recent survey showed that 90 percent don't mind sorting in their own homes. It's just a way of life. And it could become that way in the U.S. as well. We just have to make it part of our lifestyles."

Making informed, compassionate lifestyle choices is something everyone at Baylor who studies climate change hopes to promote. And with so many departments within the College of Arts of Sciences working on their area of specialty, Steve Driese, professor of Geology sees another potential outcome.

"Research and innovation in climate change is something that is just a natural part of Baylor's 2012 initiative. It's about stewardship," he says. "Individual departments may not be able to do the same type of research projects as larger institutions, but working together, we have identified a niche. Baylor has the potential to become nationally and internationally known as the experts in climate change."