Author Archives: Margaret Overton

BioCool [Alyssa, Mary, Margaret]

Name: BioCool

Power/ability: Turns corn into biofuel in a cost efficient manner. Using corn for good!

Motto: “Fueling the world, one husk at a time”

Form/species: Human

Outfit/appearance: Really buff:

Transportation: Sparkly flying tractor

Weakness: Limited driving range, needs glasses

Sidekick: “Corny”

Villain: The oil industry

Backstory: parents killed by Monsanto


The Rebel Alliance is on Twitter [Final Project Abstract]

Are “rebel” factions of government departments a contemporary form of political activism, or are today’s “rogue” Twitter accounts just novel iterations of a recurring trend in social movements? I review the historical precedent for government groups operating in subversive or counterproductive ways when members disagree with the views, decisions, or goals of the president and his administration. Then I trace the history of the “rogue” Twitter accounts that began to appear following Donald Trump’s inauguration, from their inception to the different identities and purposes that they have begun to forge for themselves. By understanding these activists as part of a long succession of rebellious government employees, we can paint a more complete picture of the complex interplay between presidential administrations and the rest of the executive branch as they are forced to reconcile contradictory or incongruent ideologies to achieve their various objectives.

Good Footprints

Each person, from the farmers to the founders of the movement, seemed to struggle with defining the term “permaculture.” I want to add in my own attempt. To me, the defining characteristics of permaculture are the integration of modern lifestyles, technologies, and structures with certain core philosophies: minimizing waste, maximizing efficiency, balance within the ecosystem, diversity, and overall a sense of harmony and symbiosis within the system. In a word, it’s synergy; it’s the blending of old with new and the reciprocal cycles of life, death, destruction, and creation anew. It means taking what we have now–small yards, depleted soil, miles upon miles of empty rooftops, runoff from streets, and a system that cannot endure forever–and infusing them with life and purpose and energy.

I’m torn between my belief that it takes widespread investment and effort to bring about change and my desire to make a significant impact. But lately, I’ve begun to realize that you can do both. One garden in someone’s backyard can feed a city block; a single rain garden can prevent gallons upon gallons of water from entering sewers and contaminating ecosystems; one roof can do both of these and more. I’m someone who is very grounded in reality, and I tend to be most impacted by documentaries and true stories; I found Before the Flood to be much more motivating than Pumzi. Similarly, I found Inhabit to be incredibly inspiring because it turned a seemingly impossible problem into something that can be approached one step at a time, person by person, through a philosophy and an approach that would be appealing even without an environmental crisis to consider. Instead of discouraging me, it gave me hope and a way to make a difference even if I am alone in my efforts.

Mostly, as I watched, I was overwhelmed by the green everywhere. It must be an evolutionary trait, to be so calm and content just at the sight of leaves, grass, trees, plants– green. Here, finally, is a vision of a way out of the hole humanity has dug for itself. The path runs through every discipline, from public policy to education to engineering to psychology to chemistry to philosophy to urban planning to agriculture to biology to architectural design, and yet it is simple enough that anyone with enough determination can walk along it. I want to live in a world dappled by trees overhead, with each footstep muffled by grass, and permaculture puts the power to work towards that directly into my inexperienced yet willing hands. Rather than focusing on the problems we face, we must begin to look forwards and look around us and see the good that is being done to do “more good” rather than just “less bad.” Ben Falk put it best: what if footprints were something you wanted to leave behind?

Environmental Psychology

Social media is full of suggestions for productive habits to form that are guaranteed to benefit your physical health, mental health, relationships, friendships, parenting abilities, intellect, and the list goes on. But at the same time, a trend has emerged on those same platforms in which everyone shares updates and stories about these supposedly wholesome and helpful habits. As well-intentioned as people may be, the result is still a pivot away from improving one’s life and towards presenting a facade to the public in which you appear to live the perfect life. It becomes more of a burden to keep up with the Joneses than a way to find peace and balance in a busy world.

As a psychologist as well as an environmental scientist, I sometimes take an odd perspective on current issues. I am interested in not only the scientific and ecological factors at play in studying climate change and other problems, but also the way that people respond to different challenges and what the best approaches are to finding solutions. I began to realize the intersection between social media’s fascination with healthy lifestyles/habits and environmental issues during our class activity on Tuesday.

The benefits of going outside and spending time in nature are extremely well-documented (see articles below), but these are usually portrayed as being on a personal, individual level: you are happier, healthier, and more creative.  After walking around Durham and parts of East Campus, I got back to my dorm and felt not only relaxed, happy, and motivated, but also more connected with both the natural world and the people around me. I wanted to see if this was a universal experience, so I did a bit of research and found a study by the University of Rochester that found that people feel significantly more energetic when they spend time outdoors. More importantly, though, they had to be among nature to feel the largest effects, not just simply outside.

This led me to wonder if environmental activists could take advantage of these effects through the social media healthy habits trend that I noticed. It wouldn’t be hard to spread the idea of spending time outside in nature as an extremely beneficial activity to incorporate into one’s daily or weekly routine (especially because the benefits are so numerous and well-supported by research!) However, this is one pop-wellness trend that I think would be more effective if it became integrated into the share-everything culture of social media. I noticed that as I tweeted my pictures, I was more deliberate about observing my surroundings, and I found myself paying more attention to both the details of nature and the trash that was everywhere on my walk. On a personal level, I also felt more connected to the natural world that I encountered- and therefore more protective of it.

Starting the trend (perhaps through the #OptOutside hashtag or some other social media campaign) of spending time outdoors and sharing photographs and stories about this new practice on social media could have numerous benefits, even beyond the personal and psychological. Caring for nature becomes a personal investment, as nature has become part of your own life and you are more attached to it. People will also be more aware of the ecological and environmental challenges faced in their area, and if they care more about nature, they may be more likely to start picking up trash, and as Pope Francis accurately described, such small changes can have large ripple effects. Finally, the social aspect of sharing your experiences with others (in person as well as on Facebook, Twitter, or other platforms) will draw others into the trend, thus multiplying the benefits exponentially as it becomes a commonly-encouraged practice.

Of course, this is an extremely idealistic view of how the world works. Many people do not have the time or the ability to regularly spend time in nature, and others may simply have no interest in doing so in the first place. But I’m an optimist, and if this catches on in just a tiny percentage of people, I think it will be worth it. After all, part of enjoying nature involves being a bit of a romantic, a bit of a dreamer, and a bit of a poet. And we all have a little bit of that inside us.

Some of my favorite photos from my wanderings:

Benefits of nature: South University / American Psychological Association / University of California, Berkeley /  New York Times / Psychology Today / The Atlantic / National Geographic / VICE

Don’t Let Waste Go to Waste


Duke University employs over 37,000 people and its property holdings span 8,691 acres (Duke University’s Office of News and Communication). Consequently, its energy footprint is enormous. In 2013, energy comprised 76 percent of the University’s greenhouse gas emissions, and of its carbon emissions, 50 percent was derived from the purchase of electricity (Sustainable Duke – Energy). Equally large, meanwhile, is the University’s influence on sustainability and environmental policy. In June 2007, President Richard Brodhead signed the American College & University Presidents Climate Commitment and pledged Duke to achieving carbon neutrality by 2024 (Sustainable Duke 2009). The University now faces an uphill battle, as change will need to be swift and efficient in order to achieve this goal.

Duke plans to combine a strategy of emission reduction and carbon offsetting, which will involve “providing successful examples of technologies such as solar PV, solar thermal, biomass and biogas steam production, and hybrid fleet vehicles” (Sustainable Duke 2009). However, while many people have heard of solar power and hybrid car technology, the idea of biomass or biogas is more unfamiliar because it is much less common; according to the American Biogas Council, the United States has just 2,200 sites producing biogas in all 50 states; by comparison, Europe operates over 10,000 (American Biogas Council 2016).

The technology is relatively simple in its design. Organic material—in this case, pig manure—is delivered to a digester system, which breaks it down into biogas and digested material. Solids and liquids are used for the production of fertilizer, compost, and other agricultural processes. The biogas is taken out and processed until it is mostly composed of methane, which is then distributed and used for electricity and fuel (American Biogas Council 2016).

In North Carolina in particular, biogas is becoming increasingly important thanks to the Renewable Energy & Energy Efficiency Portfolio Standard law, which was passed in 2007 (North Carolina Utilities Commission 2008). It requires public utilities to produce 12.5% of their portfolios through renewable energy resources or energy efficiency measures, and as of 2017, 0.14% of this must come from swine biogas. In order to comply, electric utilities must either purchase or develop 284,000 swine Renewable Energy Certificates (equal to 1 megawatt hour of electricity) by 2018 (Maier 2015).

However, the practice of large-scale hog farming translates into less-than-ideal outcomes for residents of surrounding areas. Between the 1980s and 1990s, North Carolina went from fifteenth to second in hog production in the United States, with most of this explosive growth taking place in the “Black Belt”—the eastern region of the state where a large African American population still suffers from high rates of poverty, poor health care, low educational attainment, unemployment, and substandard housing (Nicole 2014). This proximity presents a many-layered problem. Namely, “people of color and the poor living in rural communities lacking the political capacity to resist are said to shoulder the adverse socio-economic, environmental, or health related effects of swine waste externalities without sharing in the economic benefits brought by industrialized pork production” (Edwards & Ladd 2001).

Although some have argued that the geographic distribution of pig farms is purely coincidental, researchers have found that the counties with larger minority populations contained proportionally more hog waste, “even when controlling for regional differences, urbanization level, property value, and attributes of the labor force” (Edwards & Ladd 2001). And this is not a small issue: the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services reported in 2012 that between 9 and 10 million hogs were raised at these farms, resulting in the production of approximately 19.6 million tons of waste annually (NCDACS 2012). This waste is usually stored in vast “lagoons” that are breeding grounds for Salmonella and antibiotic-resistant bacteria in addition to containing insecticides, antimicrobial agents and other pharmaceuticals, and nutrients that can cause widespread pollution and damage to local ecosystems when they inevitably leach into local waterways or overflow during storms (Nicole 2014).

The cumulative effect of proximity to hog farms is damage to one’s health that ranges from mild to life-threatening. Sacoby Wilson, a University of Maryland environmental health professor who has documented environmental justice issues surrounding hog farms in North Carolina and Mississippi, explains that the problem is worse than simply bad smells. “You have exposures through air, water, and soil. You have … inhalation, ingestion, and dermal exposures. People have been exposed to multiple chemicals: hydrogen sulfide, particulate matter, endotoxins, nitrogenous compounds. Then you have a plume that moves; what gets into the air gets into the water. You have runoff from spray fields. These are complex exposure profiles” (Wilson & Serre, 2007).

Fortunately, growing interest in using anaerobic digesters to process biogas at these farms may provide an avenue to combatting these problems. By retaining the waste and putting all parts of it to use, adverse outcomes and severe ecological damage can be avoided, at least in part. The benefits of swine biogas are twofold: first, it provides a fuel source that burns cleanly, and second, it is an efficient use of manure that would otherwise literally go to waste.

The gas produced by anaerobic digestion primarily consists of methane, which is a relatively clean fuel when burned due to its chemical simplicity (Laurell 2014). However, if released in its un-combusted form into the atmosphere, methane is roughly thirty times more potent than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas, making its capture and use increasingly important as the pace of global warming continues to accelerate (Kelly 2014). According to statistics from the Energy Information Administration, hog waste accounts for 11.34% of methane emissions from the agricultural industry—a figure which has increased due to a growth in hog farming since 1990 (Conti & Holtberg 2011). Burning methane results in more energy per unit of carbon dioxide emissions as compared to oil (29% less) and coal (43% less.) In addition, unlike other fuels, methane combustion releases basically no dangerous nitrous oxide, sulfur dioxide, or particulate matter into the atmosphere (Laurell 2014).

Additionally, increasing production of swine biogas gives pig farmers another source of income while using up manure that would otherwise have simply been discarded or potentially washed away in rainstorms and polluted local bodies of water. For example, one farm in North Carolina has 28,000 hogs and a 1.2 million gallon anaerobic tank digester, which processes about 50,000 gallons daily of hog manure, carcasses from pig and chicken operations, and dissolved air flotation (DAF) sludge from nearby animal processing plants. “While a significant portion of the $5 million project was financed by the farmer, [owner Billy] Storms is not worried about the return on his investment. He says he will easily make his money back with the combination of selling the electricity and the accompanying Renewable Energy Certificates… and with payments for taking the DAF sludge from the plants” (Maier 2015). Processing the waste also creates a cycle of benefits for the farmer, as some of the gas that is produced can be kept and used for power on-site. On top of this, waste heat can be used for “heating barns, water, and greenhouses or even used for drying grain” (Maier 2015).

Such systems have seen moderate success when implemented in North Carolina. For example, in 2011 Google partnered with Duke University and Duke Energy to implement such a system at Yadkin County’s Loyd Ray Farms. The Sustainable Duke website explains, “The electricity… is used to support five of the nine swine barns at the farm and the operation of the innovative animal waste management system. From the digester, the liquid waste flows to an open-air basin where the wastewater is aerated to reduce the concentrations of ammonia and other remaining pollutants so that it can be reused for irrigation.” Not only is this system self-sustaining and environmentally friendly, but it also reduced carbon emissions by 2,087 metric tons in just one year (Sustainable Duke – Loyd Ray Farms).

Unfortunately, capturing and processing hog waste will not reverse the adverse health outcomes for individuals who live near these farms. Airborne particulates, unhealthy compounds, and toxic gases will still pose challenges for these communities, and the intersection of socioeconomic status and race in these areas adds another layer of ethical and social obligations to the burden on North Carolina to find a long-term solution. Anaerobic digesters are certainly very promising to avoid ecological damage and reduce dangerous greenhouse gas emissions, but they cannot be the only answer to this extremely complex problem. They will have to be managed extremely carefully to prevent methane emissions, and if the solid waste is used for fertilizing or irrigation, it must be processed adequately to remove dangerous compounds that can be extremely toxic to surrounding ecosystems if they leach into water supplies. Perhaps some technological advancements will be able to improve this solution in the future; however, for now, using swine biogas for energy is still better than letting all that waste go to waste.



American Biogas Council (2016). Biogas 101 Handout. Retrieved from

Conti, J., & Holtberg, P. (2011). Emissions of greenhouse gases in the United States 2009. U.S. Energy Information Administration. Retrieved from

Duke University’s Office of News and Communication. Duke at a Glance. Retrieved from

Edwards, B. & Ladd, A.E. (2001). Race, poverty, political capacity and the spatial distribution of swine waste in North Carolina, 1982–1997. North Carolina Geography, (9):55–77. Retrieved from

Kelly, M. (2014, March 26). A more potent greenhouse gas than CO2, methane emissions will leap as Earth warms. Research at Princeton blog. Retrieved from

Laurell, N. (2014, June 12). Natural gas overview – why is methane a clean fuel? The Discomfort of Thought. Retrieved from

Maier, A. (2015, August 12). Hog wild about biogas. North Carolina Bioenergy Council. Retrieved from

NCDACS (2012). 2012 North Carolina Agricultural Statistics.North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services/National Agricultural Statistics Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture. Retrieved from

Nicole, W. (2013). CAFOs and Environmental Justice: The Case of North Carolina. Environmental Health Perspectives, 121(6), a182–a189.

North Carolina Utilities Commission (2008). Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Portfolio Standard (REPS). Retrieved from

Sustainable Duke (2009, October 15). Duke University Climate Action Plan. Retrieved from

Sustainable Duke. Energy. Retrieved from

Sustainable Duke (n.d.). Loyd Ray Farms. Retrieved from

Wilson, S.M. & Serre, M.L. (2007). Examination of atmospheric ammonia levels near hog CAFOs, homes, and schools in eastern North Carolina. Atmospheric Environment, 41(23), 4977–4987. Retrieved from


When Will the Masses Rise Up?

The science is settled; the consensus among scientists is undeniable. Yet according to Pew Research in 2016, only 48% of Americans believe that global warming is a result of human activity. The poll results go on to show that the campaign of misinformation and mudslinging that has been perpetrated by politicians, oil executives, and other wealthy business interests has permeated the public mind and poisoned perceptions of science and truth.

In class, we discussed whether we thought action would be more effective if it were driven by institutions or the public. However, much of this debate relies on definitions. Institutions can often be restricted to simply the government, or may extend to include large companies, regulatory bodies, even characteristics of the products we buy and the buildings we inhabit. Another meta-problem with the debate was the conflict between what is realistic and what would be ideal, as well as how success ought to be defined.

However, watching Before the Flood brought a new perspective to that discussion by depicting the urgency and importance of finding solutions to temperature increases, ocean acidification, and ice cap melting. We cannot afford to wonder what the best course of action might be in an ideal world, and in acknowledging this fact, the answer to the debate itself becomes clear.

Historically, institutions (be they legal, formal, economic, or even customary) are slow to change and incredibly difficult to alter without the support of the public. The abolition of slavery may have been accomplished by the passing of a law, but the ramifications of Jim Crow laws, segregation, and centuries upon centuries of discrimination and prejudice have left a mark that will take many decades to erase, if not more. Gay marriage was legalized by the Supreme Court in 2015, but this was only accomplished following decades of activism and a growing share of public support for equal rights. Even now, the legal protections of LGBTQ individuals remain shaky at best, and social acceptance remains a lofty goal for many.

In short, the government is not going to do anything about climate change until the cries of the public overwhelm the power of the millions of dollars that are poured into the pockets and SuperPACs of politicians by individuals, lobbyists, and corporations. Citizens will have to be louder than those who would prefer to have the country look the other way so they can continue to profit off of fossil fuels and unsustainable use of natural resources. And even if the institutions decide to listen to the public, change will be slow in coming, and as the documentary depicted in heartbreaking fashion, by that point it may be too late for some people. Individuals must lead the charge to make lifestyle changes on a broad scale because we live in a real and flawed world, not an ideal one. When faced with a challenge as great as the one that exists today, we have to rely on each other to be the change we want to see in the world, not the climate change we must bring ourselves to acknowledge now.




Pew source:

Anthropocentrism and Environmental Dystopias: Sending the Wrong Message?

Reading stories about futures where humans have failed to take action against climate change are often frightening, but whenever I encounter such a fictional scenario, I worry that there is another side of the narrative that undermines its message about the necessity of saving the planet. Most of these stories depict the lengths that humans go to in order to continue surviving even when the natural world is dying. They retreat into cities and compounds contained within glass domes or walls of concrete; they construct fake landscapes that mimic what has been lost; they even flee to other planets in search of a new habitat. These solutions are costly and difficult and accessible only to a tiny percentage of people; yet, they show that our species can afford to continue ignoring the warning signs of our changing environment, only taking action when we are forced to by absolute necessity to ensure our own survival. In other words, a message is conveyed that runs counter to the author’s intentions: we don’t actually need to save the planet because we can find ways to carry on even when it has been destroyed.

This conclusion is not immediately obvious from reading the texts, and it is true that the characters are more likely to be shown as unhappy, unsatisfied, depressed, angry, and unfulfilled in their new way of living. Famine, pandemic, and war are not uncommon in these environmental dystopias. But the idea persists that we are not doomed forever if we do not take steps to reverse the effects of climate change and habitat destruction, and this presents a tricky challenge to authors. On the one hand, too many tales of utter devastation will eventually numb readers to the urgency of the issue; activists will be compared to the boy who cried wolf and taken less seriously because our society is not currently on the brink of crumbling entirely. On the other, presenting so many potential solutions to the survival of the human species allows audiences to relax knowing that we have options for self-preservation even if we fail to save the planet. The death of plants and animals is sad, but it rarely hits as hard as tales of the downfall of human society.

Writers must, therefore, tread carefully when they sit down to depict a post-climate change world. One potential way to avoid undermining their own message would be to begin their story at the beginning, rather than the middle. Start out by showing the path that society took to reach the point of retreating from the natural world and surviving day-to-day through a constant process of damage control and barely-stable coping mechanisms. If readers are dropped into a world where humans have already learned to survive in a way that is totally cut off from nature, they are unable to appreciate the difficult and terrible route that had to be traversed to achieve such a fragile existence. If our fiction makes survival look too easy, we risk creating an audience that lacks a necessary sense of urgency for saving the planet, and as a result, we may be underprepared for the challenges that lie ahead.


Note: Stories like Interstellar and Earth 2100 are particularly effective at depicting the journey from the beginning of the crisis to the “solution,” and consequently are especially successful at conveying the urgency of protecting our planet.

Another interesting point of discussion: If humans can survive despite being totally cut off from the natural world, do we actually need to do anything about climate change at all? Is there any point in protecting the environment when looking at things from a non-anthropocentric viewpoint?

When Fiction Isn’t Enough

I was taken aback when our class was asked about our willingness to make lifestyle changes if we were given a list of concrete actions that would help the environment. Intellectually, I wanted to say that I would absolutely be willing to make sacrifices and alterations, but internally, I knew that a combination of laziness, selfishness, and unwillingness to acknowledge or admit the impact that my tiny life has on the world around me. I remain far removed from the effects of climate change both at Duke and back in Tennessee, and I still struggle with finding a sense of proximity to these issues.

Theoretically, this is when fiction and storytelling becomes most important. Although I may not live out an environmental crisis in my suburban surroundings, I can witness their effects on others on the page or onscreen. Yet even these experiences are difficult for me to truly relate to. I am neither an immigrant, nor a journalist, nor a farmer, and while I can feel sympathy for these individuals and their struggles, at the end of the day, I am unable to muster up the deep connection and sense of responsibility that their tales ought to invoke.

Oil on Water made me feel guilty about the impact of American greed on Nigerians and its ecosystems, but internally, I am able to redirect the blame onto oil companies and large companies rather than myself, a single student. “The Petrol Pump” also induced a sense of concern for an unavoidable future when we have exhausted our oil resources, but again, I perceive the responsibility for finding a solution to be that of scientists and businesses, not myself. And while the world depicted in Pumzi is rather frightening, it is different enough from the world I experience every day that I do not feel the sense of urgency or concern that it might arouse if I felt more of a personal connection to the story.

Climate change and environmental degradation may be a process measured in years, but action and change must occur now if we are to avoid a catastrophic future. Writers, directors, producers, artists, and especially scientists and academics must work together to find a way to catch, and more importantly, to hold the attention of the public. I consider myself to be more interested in sustainability issues than the average person, and even I tend to view such problems as belonging to either a time or a place far removed from where I am today.

If fiction is to be a pathway for spreading messages about the importance of solving climate challenges with adequate speed, it has to start being more direct and vivid in its stories. It should worry less about being artistic or having allegorical messages, and not shy away from the frightening, the painful, and the taboo. It must be willing to confront its audience personally, speaking to them individually and in terms that will strike them with a sense of responsibility and urgency. I need to hear the stories that are brutal, that are ugly, that are inconclusive. But most importantly, they must feel very, very real. In a society where we are too often numb to real tragedy and horror in our media, it is the responsibility of those who want to make an impact on people to find a way to cut through the fog and strike directly at our hearts. Then we may get the message, and I hope it won’t be too late.


Works Cited:

Calvino, Italo, and Tim Parks. “The Petrol Pump.” Numbers in the Dark: And Other Stories. New York: Pantheon, 1995. 170-75. Print.

Habila, Helon. Oil on Water: A Novel. New York: W.W. Norton, 2011. Print.

Dodocutepoison. “Pumzi”. Youtube. Youtube, LLC. 2013