Natalie Jeremijenko's Urban Space Station (Part One)


Photo: Mark Mahaney

If I were in Manhattan, my visit to the Environmental Health Clinic might involve a session afloat Dr. Jeremijenko's raft/office on the East River. Under the circumstances, she treated me over Skype, checking my toxics and discussing treatment options, including a pet tadpole and a No Park (an urban parking space-turned-garden). The creator of the Green Light and other therapeutic instruments, Jeremijenko is a relentless synthesizer of technology, art, ecology, and delight. Our creativity, she says, is one of our most powerful tools, because "if we think of our agency just as green consumers, then our agency is only as big as our wallets." Which is just plain boring.


Listen to the podcast of this interview via iTunes, or just click here to listen, right-click to download.

Full text after the jump.

Our music comes from Feist.TreeHugger: Natalie, something you've been working on recently is what you call the Environmental Health Clinic. And in New York City you've held office hours on the East River on a raft that you built from recycled plastic bottles.

I was wondering, could we do a little session right now and see how this works?

Jeremijenko: Well, here's what qualifies you to come to the Environmental Health Clinic, which of course operates like a university health clinic, but people come not with medical health concerns but with environmental health concerns. People who come to the clinic--we call them impatients, because they are too impatient to wait for legislative change and other traditional strategies to address environmental crisis, climate destabilization. So if you are impatient enough, yes, we can do a little session.

TreeHugger: I feel very impatient. What do people typically have on their minds when they sit down with you in the Environmental Health Clinic?

Jeremijenko: First of all, there is a general sense of anxiety. There is not anybody who doesn't feel some kind of egad, which is actually the result of the good work of environmentalists for the last 30 years, who have really had to render environmental issues global enough to be newsworthy. So we know a lot about global warming, global biodiversity loss, and globalized discourse. It's not sufficient to just be concerned about a couple of species of birds going missing from your local park. That's not global biodiversity loss. But this globalized discourse that we have used to describe our environmental issues has the unfortunate consequence of making them not local enough to be actionable. By definition, you can't do anything about global warming or global biodiversity loss.

So the Clinic is meant to change that framework and to figure out monitoring protocols and design interventions and lifestyle experiments that people can do to effect improvements in local environmental health. Measurable, real improvements. And to reframe environmental issues, not just as global issues but as health issues.

So think about your air quality, your water quality and the things that really directly affect your health. If we think of environmental issues that way instead of polar bears in the Artic and rainforests around the tropics, then there are a number of advantages to that.

One is that anything that you do to improve your water quality or air quality or your environmental health, the benefits are enjoyed by anyone you share that air or water quality with, right? So it has an aggregating effect.

The second thing is that it's in your direct interest to do something about it. So it makes it not only much more actionable, but much more measurable and much more doable. So you might be, or probably should be, concerned about your air quality, for instance, because the number one issue that pediatricians spend their time on, in terms of sheer office hours, is asthma and related respiratory illnesses. So this is not just a sleight of hand.

Indoor air quality, for instance, is something that you should be concerned about. You spend about 90% of your time indoors. And indoor air quality is getting worse actually as we make our buildings perform better environmentally. We seal them better. We insulate them better. And the build up of common indoor air contaminants like formaldehyde, benzene, and toluene get worse.

And so what I would do if you were coming to the clinic, we would go through and have a look at what you might be concerned about. We might start off at scorecard.org, which the Environmental Defense Fund puts together. You can put in your zip code and find out who are the big polluters in your area and look at the federal database that they scrape.

Shall we put in your zip code and try it?

TreeHugger: Let's do it. I'm in 37206.

Jeremijenko: 3-7-2-0-6. Davidson County?

TreeHugger: Yeah.

Jeremijenko: Well, let's have a look at your toxics. See how your county's water quality stacks up against others in the US. Well look; how nice. The percentage of surface waters that are impaired or threatened according to this statement, the EPA data, you are in the top 10% of the dirtiest, worst counties in the US.

TreeHugger: Well doc, I'm clearly in a high risk category living in Davidson County in Tennessee and having a high toxicity probability in my water source. What's a lifestyle experiment that might be prescribed to help deal with my anxiety and personal risk?

Jeremijenko: First of all, we have to get a handle on what it is that is contaminating. So I would ask you to kind of get a sample of water that you are concerned about. It might be in your local pond, or lake, or where you like to go for a swim, or even your tap water. And bring it in.

One of the most fun environmental monitoring protocols is the Tadpole Bureaucrat Protocol, in which a tadpole that I give to impatients is put in the water that you share with them to see how they grow and develop. Tadpoles are exquisitely sensitive bio-monitoring devices and tremendously entertaining creatures. As an impatient, I would ask you to raise it in the water sample of concern. And we name the tadpole; they are called tadpole bureaucrats because they are named after bureaucrats whose decisions affect that water quality.

So you can keep it as a pet. And we have some devices for you to facilitate this companion animal for your ongoing observation of this very complex biological phenomenon. We are witnessing an extinction of amphibians and frogs at the moment. In terms of species, it is more serious than the extinction of the dinosaurs. And frogs survived the dinosaur's extinction, right? But they are not surviving whatever it is that we are doing.

So you would raise your tadpole bureaucrat, learn to love it and observe it, keep it beside you as you're emailing, and take it out for a walk at night. And we have a tadpole walker, so that you can take it out walking in the evening, which of course, makes your neighbors ask you what the hell you're doing. Then you would explain why you're raising a tadpole in this water sample, and that you have concerns about it, and they would probably share the same concerns.

So it provides a spectacle and a collective sense-making of what's going on. And the next time you see that neighbor, I bet they'll check in: "How's your tadpole doing?"

TreeHugger: And you get to conjure up the name of your local water quality legislator as well, when you tell them the name of your tadpole.

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