Like a lot of New Yorkers, I want to be green. I cruise my local farmer’s market on Sundays, scooping up knobby apples and pesticide-free amaranth. I buy printed dresses and thick wool sweaters at second-hand stores. My roommates and I have a seltzer-maker bought to keep our recycling bin from turning into a volcano of plastic bottles. I take short showers, bring reusable bags to the grocery store and dutifully screw in energy-efficient light bulbs.
But in truth my environmentalism leaves a lot to be desired. I accidentally leave the reusable bag at home at least half the time. The seltzer-maker’s carbon-dioxide tank is perpetually tapped. I’m sure that starting a compost bin would reduce our kitchen waste by half, but I’m scared to try it: a botched attempt a few years ago produced a garbage pail full of maggots. There’s much more I could be doing to reduce my carbon footprint, and that knowledge leads me to swing wildly between guilt (“I’m never ordering takeout again!”) and denial (“Two orders of pad see yew to go, please.”)
What’s more, even if I received a gold star on every one of my self-assigned eco efforts, there are plenty of smart people out there who would be eager to inform me that none of it makes any difference. “Personal choices, no matter how virtuous, cannot do enough. It will also take laws and money,” reporter Michael Specter writes in the New Yorker about efforts to curb global warming. “Only the right economic policies will enable us as individuals to be guided by self-interest and still do the right thing for the planet,” declares Environmental Defense Fund economist Gernot Wagner in a New York Times op-ed. The likely effects of climate change include food shortages, decades-long droughts, more powerful and frequent hurricanes, the possible extinction of one-fourth of the planet’s plant and animal species, and rising sea levels that would put many of the world’s coastal cities underwater. And I think buying recycled paper towels is going to help? As my Southern grandmother would say, “Goodnight.”
This kind of big-picture environmental anxiety has become so common that there’s even a name for it: ecophobia. Research suggests that attempts to motivate people to take action by painting an apocalyptic picture of the earth’s future “can have unintended effects, leading people to ignore or minimize environmental problems, depending on their perception of individual vulnerability and their ability to take positive action,” writes Diane M. Knight, a professor of civil, environmental and architectural engineering, in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment.
There’s no denying the importance of collective environmental action and sound economic policies. But as long as I’ve got a full-time job as something other than an environmental activist, there’s a limited amount that I can do to bring about those things in my daily life. And if my personal choices don’t really matter, I might as well start eating exclusively off of paper plates. If everyone in the world operated under this kind of logic, however, we’d be screwed, which is probably how we wound up in this mess in the first place.
This is to say that environmental anxiety—no matter how genuine—can also be self-serving. To feel powerless is to let myself off the hook.
The trick, I think, is to push past the sense of helplessness that sets in when I reflect on smog-choked Chinese cities and the now-extinct golden toad. And the best antidote to abstract terror of the future is to find a concrete way to connect with the environment in the present.
Here in New York City, a number of women have found creative ways to engage with and strengthen the urban environment—from rooftop farming in Long Island City to foraging for mushrooms in Prospect Park to campaigning for more breathable air in Sunset Park. I wanted to find out whether these women had ever experienced the kind of self-doubt and passivity that too frequently characterize my own relationship with environmental action.
My environmentally-anxious walkabout began with the Brooklyn Grange. The city’s pigeons and sparrows must experience a bit of a start while winging their way above this two-and-a-half acre rooftop farm: amidst a sea of blacktop roofs stretch lacey arugula, deep-green chard and peppers bright as toucans. Human visitors to the farm’s two locations, set atop prewar industrial buildings in Brooklyn’s Navy Yard and Long Island City, tend to have a similarly startled response, according to Anastasia Cole Plakias, who co-founded the farm in 2009 with partners Gwen Schantz and Ben Flanner.
“When you come up here and see chickens scratching around in the dirt and bees flying in and out of hives and seven-foot-tall tomato plants with branches hanging low under the weight of all the fruit, people are often taken aback,” Plakias says. “But if you have an idea that seems improbable or shocking, with enough hard work you can make it happen.”
Five years ago, the idea of creating an urban Eden would have sounded improbable even to Plakias. Back then, the native New Yorker was a recent college graduate with a desk job in the restaurant industry. One summer, she helped a few friends plant a garden for Roberta’s, a Williamsburg eatery at the forefront of the locavore movement, and was struck by how much she enjoyed digging in the dirt.
“I got bitten by the ‘doing’ bug,” Plakias recalls. “It’s interesting—our current culture values very highly the liberal arts education model of observing, analyzing and commenting on things. And I was quite good at that. But in pursuit of that, I lost sight of learning how to do things.”
Doing things is a Brooklyn Grange specialty. Farmers grow vegetables ranging from strapping kohlrabi to delicate fairytale eggplants, which are then peddled at local markets and snapped up by green-minded restaurants like Egg and Marlow and Sons or boxed off in community-supported agriculture shares. Between May and October, the farm also offers workshops on topics like beekeeping, composting with worm bins, mixing botanical cocktails and using indigo ink, tea and flower petals to create natural dyes.
The farm also frequently hosts educational field trips sponsored by New York City nonprofit City Growers. Children explore the farm and their role in the larger urban ecosystem by planting seeds, testing soil, or grabbing a magnifying glass and identifying nearby insects.
“Giving people a sense of agency over the world around them is the greatest weapon against anxiety,” Plakias says.
Like me, Plakias says she’s often felt overwhelmed by the complexity of the problems stemming from climate change. In a recent Facebook argument about the worrisome spike in honeybee deaths, Plakias and her friends volleyed conflicting yet interconnected theories about root causes ranging from pesticides to monocropping in California. But Plakias’s work on the farm allows her to channel her fears about environmental destruction into a realizable goal.
“I know that two and a half acres, in comparison to the tremendous square mileage of earth that we are watching disappear into the ocean or desiccate in catastrophic conditions, is a drop in the bucket,” she says. “It’s nothing compared to the whole planet. And even to say that we can put these farms on every roof in every city is disingenuous—you can’t. But I do think that being stewards of this plot, however small, makes us feel somewhat impactful.”
That kind of practical, localized philosophy forms the bedrock of the Sunset Park-based Uprose, an environmental justice group founded in 1966. Powered by a stable of roughly 400 multigenerational volunteers, the organization works to bring about environmental changes that will have a concrete impact on the lives of people in low-income and minority neighborhoods in southwest Brooklyn.
“When we advocate for more trees, it’s because the trees are helping our communities, which have high levels of asthma,” says Uprose Executive Director Elizabeth Yeampierre, a civil rights lawyer who has been at the helm of the group since 1996. “It’s different from someone who wants more parks or conservation for the sake of beauty. We like all that, but it’s really about not just quality of life, but livability.”
Some of the improvements for which Uprose is responsible are the kind that seem small but make a big difference. Walking through Sunset Park one afternoon, you might notice a smattering of rooftops glinting white in the sun—the result of the organization’s efforts to help community members reduce energy costs. Volunteers teach neighborhood residents to keep rain barrels so they’ll have a source of water if the power goes out, and they help workers at mom-and-pop auto shops find ways to safely contain and dispose of potentially harmful chemicals.
Other Uprose victories operate on a larger scale. The organization has successfully halted plans for the siting of a 520-megawatt power plant and helped secure a $36 million grant from New York State to clean up a former landfill site in Sunset Park and transform it into a waterfront green space. (The park, Bush Terminal Piers Park, is slated for a grand opening in early November.) And when Sunset Park residents complained that crossing busy Fourth Avenue made them worry about ending up as road kill, Uprose volunteers convinced the city to expand the median strip, giving pedestrians more room to stand and cutting the number of traffic lanes from three to two.
These kinds of achievements give young volunteers the confidence to enter into more David-versus-Goliath battles, according to Yeampierre.
“Success is addictive,” she says. “When our volunteers asked to expand the median, and they got it done, they realized—‘Whoa man, we’ve got power here.’”
Another crucial element of the organization’s success has been volunteers’ deep-rooted understanding of cultural differences in the communities they serve, Yeampierre says.
“We know the Polish community won’t come to protests, because of their histories with wars,” she adds. “But they love tree stewardship; they will come to workshops on that.” When talking to people from Caribbean communities about climate change, volunteers emphasize “coral reefs, not polar bears.”
“If it’s an environmental issue, people say, ‘What does it have to do with me?’” Yeampierre says. “You have to tell the human story.”
My conversations with Yeampierre and Plakias made me think about how taking collective action empowers people, both politically and psychologically, to cope with the magnitude of the problems our planet faces. Their organizations encourage communities to cultivate an environmental conscience by developing a sense of responsibility to a city block or a piece of urban farmland.
But I wondered about how forging an individual rather than organizational relationship with the urban ecosystem might also serve as a corrective to environmental fears. So I turned to Ava Chin, a writer and Queens native who began foraging the city’s parks for mulberries, pigweed and other edible plants in her late thirties.
Chin learned to forage at a time when she was surrounded by loss. Her beloved grandmother was dying, and she’d recently ended a relationship with a man she had thought she would marry. Chin had always planned on having children; as she neared her 40th birthday, she worried that she was running out of time.
“I felt like I needed to find something that was going to sustain me,” Chin says. So she learned to identify flowers, leaves, fruits and fungi that were safe to nibble by trailing a naturalist on guided walks through Central Park and Prospect Park. Then she bolstered her identification skills by pouring over guidebooks like Euell Gibbons’s “Stalking the Wild Asparagus.”
“Once I started to learn about how a lot of weeds and mushrooms had a culinary and medicinal profile, that’s when I realized there was an abundance of things all around me that could sustain me which I had never noticed before,” Chin says. “So I started thinking, ‘What else am I overlooking?’ My vision changed.”
Even in the colder months, the city brims with good wild eating. In the fall, Chin scours the bases of oak trees for ruffled brown maitake mushrooms and plucks golden-capped, gilled enokis from tree stumps. She brushes away freshly-fallen snow to reveal the indefatigable chickweed, a delicate-leaved green that can be strewn into a salad or infused with olive oil for a quick skin salve. And wild garlic, which Chin yanked from her grandmother’s courtyard while growing up in Flushing, Queens, provides a spicy jolt to soups and logs of butter.
“What I love about foraging is that it really does help me and others to have a greater appreciation of the land,” Chin says. “When people think of New York City, they think of it as a place of concrete and steel. But because I’m a forager, I notice that the edible weeds just grow all throughout the city blocks.”
Engaging with the environment has also made Chin more aware of the realities of climate change. “Right now we’ve had a long, extended summer,” she said in mid-October. “I’ve been seeing mushrooms that I generally would have seen in August. That could be a sign of things to come.”
But Chin says that foraging has also helped her to face up to the realities of climate change and feel equipped for a more uncertain future. “I have a couple of theories of what kinds of plants might do well in a wetter environment,” she explains. “And those mushrooms I found, those are edible. Maybe that’s one positive outcome amidst the horrors of global warming. I don’t turn up my nose at food—I eat it.”
It’s probably not a coincidence that Chin’s personal and professional life have taken off since she learned to look for nourishment in unexpected places. In the last six years, she scored a regular gig as an urban foraging columnist at the New York Times, met the man who is now her husband, gave birth to a daughter, and penned a food memoir, “Eating Wildly,” published this spring. To help other New Yorkers build their own connections with the city, Chin also leads occasional foraging expeditions.
Foraging has reshaped Chin’s inner life as well. She says that developing a bond with the natural world gave her space to work through the death of her grandmother and the end of her relationship.
“Walking through very familiar blocks in my neighborhood as well as different parks in the city, and having that kind of solitude, helped me to put things in perspective,” Chin says. “And it was kind of an exploration—both a literal quest to see what I could find—and exploring different aspects of myself.”
The end of my own eco-quest left me feeling inspired—and yet I still couldn’t quite figure out what I personally ought to do to support a piece of the concrete jungle. The problem with trying to decide how to promote a cause you care about is that by choosing one activity you’re necessarily shutting the door to another—and that alternative might be more effective or farther-reaching, or at the very least have better snacks.
But I’ve had some more time to think, and I’ve realized that this bifurcated mentality misses the point. The fact is that joining a rooftop farm won’t solve climate change. Neither will starting a podcast or canvassing for clean energy or remediating a toxic site or plunging into the nearest wooded area in search of wild mustard. Nor would picking any of these options stop me from feeling guilty about skipping the People’s Climate March. But all of these actions can be a part of a larger movement that helps embed the environment—its generosity and its needs—into our everyday consciousness, which can in turn lay the foundation for even deeper change. The important thing is to get our hands dirty.
Editor: Ryan Goldberg
Illustration “The quiet car and other concerns” by Rebecca Triglianos