No more paper towels.
An environmental history professor hopes we never return to "normal". The Earth needed a break.
Name: Bart Elmore
Hometown: Sandy Springs, Georgia
Current Residence: Columbus, Ohio, but currently quarantining in Free Union, Virginia
Living Situation: Zombie-proof home in Free Union with wife, Joya, and 2 year-old son, River
Occupation: Professor of Environmental History, Ohio State University
Photo caption: I've been spending time on the Moormans River in Free Union, Virginia, paddling with friends, a great social distancing activity!
Can you share a moment from the pandemic where you can recall noticing a physical manifestation of the impact of society’s slowing down?
I think it was when the news reports started coming out about emissions. We started noticing that the air was really cleaner in major cities. For all of the naysayers who say that we could never bring emissions down, I think we’re seeing in this moment that it’s possible.
I think that the pandemic has also started a larger thought process for me about how unsustainable our consumption habits are.
I’ve eliminated a lot of single-use plastic and paper products from my life, but there’s still plastic all around me in my clothes, electronics, my kid’s toys; we’re all literally doused in oil. That dependency is so deep that when we get to another point, like a future pandemic, where we’re really running out of that resource, we would be completely stuck.
The pandemic should remind us that we don’t want to be in these cul de sacs without options; we want to think about how our economy has us dependent on certain things, and we want to be in a position where we don’t have these dependencies.
How has it been for you to teach remotely?
It’s killing me.
If you go back to my PSAT, I put down that I wanted to be a pastor when I grew up. I’m a long way from those ideas now, but with teaching, I got my congregation. For teachers that love teaching as I do, it’s a communal, church-like experience in the sense that you get fellowship and interaction. That just doesn’t happen over Zoom; you can’t have that human experience. It’s devastating for me, and it’s devastating for students as well.
You’re working on a second book, Seed Money: Monsanto's Past and the Future of Food. What does scholarship look like for you when you don’t have access to normal resources?
I’m in a unique position because I got all of my research done in advance. I think I learned a valuable lesson through that: Jump when you can. If you get an opportunity to go somewhere to do research, even if not all of the pieces are in place, it’s worth taking that leap.
It’s been really efficient to take pictures of documents when I’m in the library archives, rather than read them at the time, so that I can access them from home. That was a habit I got into a while ago, but it’s proved to be absolutely essential.
Right now, I’m at the point in my book where I’m about to do a lot of copy editing, like “Is this quote from page 61 or 62 of that book?” That’s going to be an absolute nightmare because I don’t know how I’m going to get access to those books.
You have a two year old son and another child due in August. How are you feeling as a parent about raising young kids amid so much uncertainty?
The Terminator comes to mind; I think of the young kid they’re trying to keep alive so that he can go off to fight The Terminator years into the future. What I mean is that I’ve always had this vision that the next generation is a solution in the ways that we can’t be. I have this profound vision that my kids are going to fight some serious battles. I literally envision them in these protests, fighting those fights.
Do you think that if this pandemic had happened when you were in high school you would have done something different with your life?
I actually set off to study molecular biology when I went to college, and I found history and environmental studies later on. I interned at the CDC in Atlanta, where I grew up, in one of the summers between my undergrad years. I thought that doctors and medical scientists were the people that could save the world. And that’s true, but I think that the humanities are as powerful as scientific research.
Fauci’s problem isn’t coming up with compelling numbers; it’s convincing people that our understanding of the past should inform the future, and their understanding of culture is important.
Our biggest fight isn’t the science, it’s finding the collective will and policies that will work. History has the same power as scientific labs.
What are some environmentally-conscious habits you hope more Americans will adopt as we move through this pandemic?
Transport has changed so much during the pandemic, especially when it comes to bikes. Almost seven years ago now, I started commuting to work on my bike, and I haven’t looked back. Honestly, I can’t imagine sitting in a car (or on a metro) for thirty minutes to get to work. By the time I arrive on campus, I’ve already got the blood flowing and my mind is clear; I’m ready to start the day.
Now, bike shops are actually selling out of their stock as they try to meet pandemic demand. I hope that on the other side of this, people keep biking, realizing that it is a great way to get their exercise while also curbing climate change. If you get in the saddle, you’ll never look at cars the same way again.
One of the other things we’ve seen during this pandemic is a discussion about our food system. We know that the concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) prevalent in the United States are breeding grounds for viruses that may well threaten our health. Finding ways to change our diet and support local food systems is one way we can be a part of the solution right now. Doing so may well prevent us from facing another pandemic down the road that is even more dangerous and deadly than the one we face now.
Photo caption: Another shot of the Moormans River, taken from my kayak.
What do you want to take to the other side of this?
This should have humbled us and made us realize how powerful the natural system is. Without respecting natural ecosystems, these things can happen, and we are just a cog in that system.
People say that environmentalists are tree-huggers that only care about the planet, but I say we’re the ultimate humanists. The Earth has existed for 4.5 billions of years and it will continue to exist long after humans are gone. Environmentalists’ whole goal is to keep humans on the planet; it’s the ultimate social justice platform.
If you’re wondering why the hell I referred to paper towels in the subject line, I’ll briefly explain.
A few years ago, I visited Bart and his wife, Joya, in Columbus. We enjoyed a meal together in their home, and when I washed my hands after dinner, I reached for a roll of paper towels…only to find none. I was aghast! How could one get by without paper towels?! At the time, I had two kids and scoffed at their “hippie ways”. ‘Only when they have children, will they understand!’ I thought.
When I returned home, every time I cleaned up my own kitchen, I couldn’t get Bart’s “Paper Towel Ban” out of my head. This one very simple lifestyle change signaled something larger to me — the power of small decisions.
So, I, too, banned paper towels in our house.
And then…we had a third kid and the pandemic struck. We were addicted again. Hey, no one’s perfect.
But I’m determined that once we use the last roll in our house, that’s it. We’re done (again).