Warming Trends: Nature and Health Studies Focused on the Privileged, $1B for Climate School and Old Tires Detour Into Concrete

A column highlighting climate-related studies, innovations, books, cultural events and other developments from the global warming frontier.

People take picture beneath cherry blossoms near the national assembly on April 09, 2022 in Seoul, South Korea. Seoul's famous Yeouiseoro street is open for people to enjoy the cherry blossom season after two years of closures due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Credit: Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images
People take picture beneath cherry blossoms near the national assembly on April 09, 2022 in Seoul, South Korea. Seoul's famous Yeouiseoro street is open for people to enjoy the cherry blossom season after two years of closures due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Credit: Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images

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Nature and Health Research Ignored Populations That Weren’t White, Western or Wealthy

A growing body of research shows that nature can benefit mental health and well-being. But an analysis of that research reveals that it almost exclusively focuses on white, wealthy and Western populations.

The analysis, conducted by researchers at the University of Vermont, looked at 174 peer-reviewed studies on the connection between nature and well-being and found that 137 of them were conducted in Western countries, like the United States, Australia and nations in western Europe, while 166 of them were conducted in high income countries, including non-Western nations like China, Japan and Israel.

The studies analyzed show that spending time in nature can be therapeutic and restorative; some health experts even prescribe time in nature to patients. But not all cultures see nature in such a transactional way, said co-author Rachelle Gould, an assistant professor at the university. That’s just one reason why more research needs to be done to understand how other cultures find wellness in the natural world, she said.


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“Everybody needs water, you know, and everybody needs protection from storms. And that kind of operates the same way for all people,” Gould said. “But these mental health benefits may not operate the same way for all people.”

Those differences highlight the importance of drawing a distinction between the tangible benefits that nature can provide, like food, she said, and intangible benefits, such as the comfort that the aroma of a pine forest gives some people.

“If we want to understand our dependence on nature, the non-tangible pieces may vary across the world,” Gould said.

Lead author Carlos Andres Gallegos-Riofrio, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Vermont, said this paper is a “call to action” for researchers to “cross the border” and study what is universally true and what is culturally specific in this area of study. 

“Psychologies are different around the world,” Gallegos-Riofrio said. “So we cannot swipe a generalization from one segment of the world to the rest.”


Bag Lady Finds Just Doing One Thing Makes a Difference

When Lisa D. Foster and her family moved from California to Australia in 2005, one cultural difference that stumped her was a question the grocery store clerk asked her on her first shopping trip: “Do you want a bag?”

Foster was accustomed to being asked, “paper or plastic?” before a clerk bagged her groceries. But in Australia, shoppers were beginning to haul their purchases in reusable cloth bags that they brought to the store to reduce waste from paper and plastic bags. 

This moment inspired Foster, a high school English teacher, to start a reusable bag business when she returned to California, helping spark a cultural shift among U.S. shoppers to buy and use reusable grocery bags. She tells her story in her new memoir, “Bag Lady: How I Started a Business for a Greener World and Changed the Way America Shops.”

Inside Climate News recently discussed the book with Foster. This conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

How did the culture around reusable bags in the U.S. evolve after you started your business?

When I started out, I got a hold of a woman at Safeway who told me that 3 percent of Americans use reusable bags and that number had not changed since 1970. She didn’t expect it to change. And when I sold my company [in 2017], my research was indicating that 60 percent of American shoppers were using reusable bags most of the time when they shop. Everyone told me at the beginning, Americans don’t bring their bags back to the store and they’ll never pay for a bag, like that’s European. I can’t tell you how many people said, ‘No, no, no, they do that in Europe. They don’t do that in America, it’ll never happen. 

How did your background as an English teacher lead you to the story that you used to pitch reusable bags to buyers?

The mythical hero story of, you know, change is hard, but when you see it as heroic, and when you see it as inspirational or aspirational. We want to gravitate to that. What a mythical story is all about is making a new culture something desirable and beautiful and aspirational. And so I took those skills, and I wrote the tragic story of a plastic bag and honestly, when I was on the phone pitching store buyers for years, I would tell it like a tragic story. And my storytelling skills were really, really important to my success. And I would end it with, ‘We can solve this problem for 99 cents. I have a new technological product that solves this problem for 99 cents.’

Your friends encouraged you to “just do this one thing” when you were overwhelmed by all the world problems that needed fixing. Is that advice you would pass on to people who want to be a part of the solution to climate change?

My role model really was Rachel Carson. In her book, “Silent Spring,” in the dedication, she says, “this book is about DDT,” and she dedicates the book to the thousand other battles that we need to win to make our environment sustainable for us. And we are those thousand battles, that’s what we are. But just pick one, you can’t win them all, if you’re trying to do too many things, it’s not going to work. It’s hard enough to do one thing, believe me. Pick one thing and do it. Put your whole heart into it. Know that you’ll make mistakes and believe in yourself to recover. I really hope my book will inspire other people to just do one thing.


A New School to Confront the Climate Crisis

Stanford University will open its first new school in 70 years dedicated to educating students about global warming and solving the climate crisis.

The university announced in a news release on Wednesday that the Doerr School of Sustainability will open in September with mechanical engineering professor and renewable energy expert Arun Majumdar as the inaugural dean. 

The school was made possible by a $1.1 billion gift from John and Ann Doerr. John Doerr is a venture capitalist worth over $10 billion who has invested in startups including DoorDash and Slack. He and his wife have supported the online tutoring site Khan Academy and the Climate Reality Project, the nonprofit founded by Al Gore. The gift is the second largest ever given to a higher education institution, according to a compilation by the Chronicle of Higher Education. Additional gifts from other donors bring the total funding for the school to $1.69 billion.

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The sustainability school will absorb existing departments for energy and the environment, and will include a “sustainability accelerator” that will elevate technology and policy solutions to stakeholders who can help put solutions into practice.

“With a deep track record in groundbreaking scholarship and impact, and a critical mass of subject experts and innovators, Stanford is perfectly positioned to make a measurable difference in climate and sustainability challenges,” the Doerrs said in a statement. “This is the decisive decade, and we must act with full speed and scale.”


Old Tires Can Find New Life in Concrete

Researchers in Australia have tested a product that partially replaces the sand in concrete by crushing used rubber tires. They found that the product is a viable alternative to regular concrete and could be an avenue to recycle tires and divert them from landfills.

The researchers from the University of South Australia conducted real world tests on two slabs of concrete. One slab was made of conventional concrete, the other was made with a concrete that replaced 20 percent of the sand content with a product called “crumb rubber,” a material just a few millimeters in diameter made of ground recycled tires. 

The tests were done to assess the strength and durability of the two different types of concrete for use in residential construction, and found that the alternative containing recycled tires was a viable substitute for conventional concrete. The concrete containing rubber was tougher, more ductile, more resistant to cracks and lighter weight, but was less resistant to compression than conventional concrete. 

Co-researcher Professor Yan Zhuge, who studies sustainable concrete, said this research is an important step toward getting crumb rubber concrete out of the lab and into the real world. 

“That’s why the main focus of our research is from lab to slab,” she said. “There’s a big gap there from research to practice.”