Elizabeth Sawin

Elizabeth Sawin is a mother, biologist, and systems analyst. A member of Cobb Hill Cohousing, she lives on an organic farm in Hartland, Vt. She works at the Sustainability Institute, a think-do tank founded by Donella Meadows.

Community and sustainability go hand in hand

Some years ago, I was part of a group that set out to create a community where we could work toward living with less impact on the environment. One of the first steps we took was to write down a list of principles to guide us as we worked to turn our vision into reality. At the top of the list were “community” and “sustainability.” (The others, if you’re curious, were “unity,” “beauty,” and “equity.”) The village people: Cobb Hill community members. Photo: Cobb Hill Cohousing. As I was one of the chief drafters of these principles, I took them …

What we don’t know about the toxic chemicals in our bodies

Scientists call the accumulation of chemical contaminants (such as PCBs, mercury, and pesticides) within a person’s body the “body burden.” Body burden is just a number, a concentration in parts per billion or micrograms per liter. But the term calls forth an image, too, of a body bent over and struggling beneath a heavy load. When scientists start taking about body burden, I think about real bodies — my own and my children’s. Thanks to a new report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, we have a better sense than ever before of the body burden of …

On staying sane in a mad world

A Czech friend of mine sent me an email during the recent NATO summit in Prague as American fighter jets stood by and riot police filled the streets. “Sometimes,” she wrote, “I feel as though the world has gone mad.” Her words spoke my own thoughts so clearly it was as though I were reading a message I’d sent to myself. Quiet riot police. Do you sense it too — the recklessness of this moment? How can people talk this way — as though deep Earth penetrating nuclear weapons, unmanned drones, and stockpiles of smallpox virus are any more of …

It’s time to end the race to the bottom

Here’s a simple game that makes a not-so-simple point. Stand in a line, with several friends. Each of you hold your right index finger out in front of your body. Now place a long stick across all of your fingers, balanced upon them. Your collective goal is to lower the stick to the ground. There is only one rule. Each finger must remain in contact with the stick at all times. If anyone’s finger loses contact with the stick, you must raise the stick back to the starting level and begin again. According to Dennis Meadows and Linda Booth Sweeney, …

Altering the market to promote sustainable farming

The Aug. 16 issue of Science magazine features an ominous headline: “Dead Zone Grows.” To the right of the headline is a map of the Gulf of Mexico with an irregular green stripe hugging the shoreline. This is the Dead Zone, an area of the gulf where oxygen levels are so low that most marine organisms — including crab and shrimp — cannot survive. A primary cause of the problem is fertilizer runoff from farms in the Mississippi River watershed. The runoff stimulates algae blooms. When the algae die, they sink to the bottom and decompose, using up oxygen in …

A back-to-school lesson in consumption

Kindergarten is starting next week, and the worn-out old sneakers from last spring are pinching my daughter’s toes. No shoes fit at our favorite used-clothing store, and no neighbors have the right pair of outgrown sneakers to offer this season. There is no avoiding it. One morning, as early as I can manage, I load Jenna and her little sister into the car. We are going shoe shopping. I thought we were getting an early start, but this is “Back To School Specials Week” and the store is crowded. We stand before the display rack, immobilized at first by the …

Building a green community in the Green Mountain State

At 9:30 at night the phone rings. It is my neighbor Lorie, who asks me if I’d mind stepping out onto my porch for a minute. I think I know what this is about. Up the hill on Tom and Lorie’s porch there are candles burning on tables covered with the scattered remains of dinner. Children are lounging in laps. Someone is strumming a guitar. I don’t know if they can see me, so I call out to them. The guitar gets louder. People begin to sing. It is my birthday, and my neighbors are serenading me. A Cobb-hilled together …

A primer to help fight despair

Just now despair lives close to the surface in many people I know, and leaks out at surprising times. Taking a walk with my neighbor Phil, a bottle of milk in his arms, my daughter on my back, I’m thinking how warm the spring day feels when he stops suddenly and speaks. Maple leaf sag. “We had a friend over this morning, an expert in landscaping. I mentioned that we were thinking of planting a sugar maple tree. He told us that maybe we shouldn’t, because climate change could make it impossible for sugar maples to live in Vermont in …

Thinking beyond the bottom link

My four-year-old daughter spent the afternoon at a local science museum the other day, exploring an exhibit on biodiversity. She returned home full of determination, found a pencil and paper, and composed a letter. Now she distributes copies to friends and strangers alike. The letter begins:   From Jenna to the world:Please stop making all this pollution. It’s making all the animals sick and die. The fish can’t live if the coral can’t live and the polar bears can’t live if the fish can’t live.   Approaching the problems of polar bears and coral reefs by writing a letter to …

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