Student Activists are Re-Wilding their Campus Landscapes
You’ve probably heard of DDT, a synthetic chemical popularized in the 1940s for killing unwanted insects. Most high school American History courses touch on marine biologist Rachel Carson and her groundbreaking 1962 book titled Silent Spring, which documented the adverse effects of widespread pesticide application—especially DDT. Carson’s work revealed the true and detrimental impacts of pesticides on humans and the environment, lighting a fire amongst the American people. By 1970, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was established to research and regulate chemicals that may harm our ecosystems.
For many of us, though, that is where the ‘pesticide conversation’ ends. With the continued regulatory control of the EPA, it is easy to assume that harmful chemicals like DDT are a thing of the past. We expect that everyone—from the government to chemical companies themselves—learned an unforgettable lesson from the dangerous effects of widespread, unregulated pesticide application in the 20th century. We want to believe that the chemicals on our shelves today have all undergone the proper, unbiased research to deem them safe for the public. Unfortunately, that is not the reality, as the mission of the EPA has been distorted. Practices like the “revolving door,” where high-level industry personnel come to work for the EPA and vice versa, grant industry lobbyists power against environmental regulations. Picking up where Rachel Carson left off, the students behind Herbicide-Free Campus have decided to do something about the use of synthetic herbicides on their campus. We live by Margaret Mead’s famous words: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
Herbicide-Free Campus (HFC) is a national campaign empowering students to create change on their school grounds through collaboration with facilities management teams to reduce and ultimately eliminate synthetic herbicide use on campus. Through HFC, students have access to trainings, individualized coaching, and a network of professionals to support them as they advance the campaigns on their campuses for healthier and safer green spaces.
Synthetic herbicides, or human-made substances used to eliminate unwanted plants, are often composed of chemicals that threaten both ecological and human health. Studies show links between synthetic herbicides and various neurological disorders, including Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s, cancer, and reproductive issues. Glyphosate—a common chemical infamously found in common herbicides like Roundup—has made its way into the news after the WHO categorized the chemical as a probable carcinogen. Hundreds of thousands of Roundup users brought this issue to the mainstream after winning suits against the company producing the glyphosate-based alternative, establishing a linkage to Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, a rare form of blood cancer. Additionally, synthetic herbicides’ impacts on the environment can be devastating, with pollinators and sea life paying the price for the world’s chemical overuse.
Despite research findings from credible independent sources and organizations, the EPA maintains that the chemical is an unlikely carcinogen. Nicknamed “the department of yes” for siding with industries, we cannot help but remind ourselves of the decades that government agencies spent defending DDT before it was deemed a likely carcinogen in the 1970s.
In absence of proper federal action, HFC student fellows are making the change that our communities and environment desperately need. Students are taking steps to limit exposure to these toxic chemicals by advocating for a transition to all-organic green spaces on their campus. Since herbicides are such an intersectional issue, with connections to our food systems, climate change, and racial justice, students with passions across a wide array of areas get involved with their campus campaigns.
On the Ground and In the Weeds
In an effort to establish more organic ecosystems at Emory University, Herbicide-Free student leaders created the “living wall project,” an organically managed community space on campus. The living wall project designated a corner of campus to environmental connectivity and biodiversity, improving community engagement and overall wellbeing. This wall showcases native Georgia plant species and a 112 square foot wall of muscadine grapevines. Through this initiative, Herbicide-Free Emory transformed an underutilized area into a keystone corner of campus; a hidden gem that provides a beautiful outdoor gathering space and productive work environment for students and faculty, enhancing Emory’s connection with nature. Oh, and we get a harvest of organic grapes—it’s a win for everyone.
Herbicide-Free Emory also led a community awareness campaign at their University, putting up signage in organically managed areas of Lullwater Preserve. These signs explained the importance of native plants, showed the significance of community weeding days and linked to Herbicide-Free Campus’s resources describing the intersectional issue of herbicides. Despite push-back from departments on campus, the HFE team worked with their Sustainability Office to create and implement signage that will remain for the next few months. This effort works to connect the Emory community with their environment and exemplify the value of uplifting natural biodiversity.
At Grinnell College in Iowa, students brought the idea for native rewilding to the next level. The College sits on land that was previously prairie, but the school had traded natural biodiversity for herbicide and fertilizer-covered, sprawling lawns. Herbicide-Free Grinnell leaders partnered with the student initiative “Too Much Grass” to propose a rewilding project which would transform previous lawn space into biodiverse sanctuaries for pollinators and native grasses. Through this student-led initiative, 5,000 square feet of space in the middle of the Grinnell College campus has been restored to an organic grassland, 6,500 plants of more than 35 distinct native species were planted, and over 70 students showed up to move the grass which was previously there. Due to the success of the initiative, several more organic prairie projects are in the works.
Although the Grinnell Administration was quick to support this initiative, the botanist consultant suggested a one-time use of glyphosate for the clearing of the lawn prior to the planting of the native grass seeds. Herbicide-Free Grinnell students felt that beginning a rewilding project with the spraying of glyphosate was antithetical, so the students advocated for the use of a sod cutter to take out the lawn. This process took more work and volunteers than a one-time glyphosate spray, but proved that it was possible to transition away from herbicide-reliant management strategies; it just requires a culture-shift and extra effort to make it happen.
Building Communities through Education
One main tenant of the HFC mission is community education. We believe that in order to unify the population against toxic landcare chemicals, we must equip people with knowledge surrounding the issue. For most of our campuses, students have been completely online for the past year and a half, limiting their ability to do on-the-ground work. That has not changed our campuses’ tenacity for furthering their campaigns, though; instead, they modified their strategies to fit within the virtual world, hosting educational events and fostering our student cohorts via Zoom.
At Loyola Marymount University (LMU), students focused on garnering the support of their peers and community members through partnerships with local organizations and educational programming. One of the first events LMU hosted featured sustainable landscaping leaders in the Los Angeles area who discussed the opportunities, and issues, of going organic. Members of this panel included those in the non-profit sector, private sector, educational system, and local governance. Through events like this, Herbicide-Free aims to open the “organic conversation” among professionals, students, activists, and the general community; in creating a channel for landcare workers to share their experiences—challenges and successes, LMU has built a network for sustainable, herbicide-free change moving forward. Another educational event highlighted the work of LMU’s local farmer’s market, where participants could learn about the importance of soil health and how to compost. In total, these panels reached over 150 people in the LA community, a necessary step towards the growth of the Herbicide-Free LMU campaign. Once educated on the importance of organic land management, students feel more empowered to make changes on their campus and participate in events like weeding days, where students support their grounds crew in transitioning away from herbicides by hand pulling the weeds instead.
With the return of students to campus, the importance of educating students about the impacts of herbicide has only grown. As we readjust to an in-person world and reconnect with an environment beyond our quarantine spots, it is more essential than ever to create awareness around the human and environmental health implications of herbicides. Herbicide-Free Campus has partnered with two other organizations located in Hawai’i, Uprooted and Rising and Hawai’i Allegiance for Progressive Action (HAPA), to put on multiple region-specific panels across the nation addressing pesticides and their multifaceted implications for both human and environmental health. These panels will be broadcasted along with the film, Poisoning Paradise, which reveals the struggles of communities in Hawai’i that are used for pesticide testing. Through these panels and documentary screenings, Herbicide-Free Campus and its partners hope to relate the struggles seen in the film to the regions in which our campaigns reside, including the West Coast, the Midwest, the East Coast, and the South. In hearing from local environmental leaders, students tuning into the panels will not only gain an understanding of the issue, but will also hear about what is being done in their region to mitigate the impacts of harmful pesticides.
You can make positive change in your community by joining the herbicide-free movement. If you take away just one thing from this article, let it be that the people have the power. Every shift in our history has started with a few people demanding something better. Since the 1960s, activists like Rachel Carson have pushed against the normalization of toxic chemicals, and we’re here to continue that fight. The use of harmful chemicals on our foods and in our green spaces is still very much alive. Thankfully, students across the country are mobilizing for a stop to the use of synthetic chemicals on their campuses. Through educational events, weeding days, and rewilding projects, Herbicide-Free Campus is empowering the next generation of environmentalists to make wide-scale change in their communities. You can learn more about our Poisoning Paradise screenings and other upcoming HFC events on our website.