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Blog Action Day, Part 1

We’ve featured Bay Area Schweitzer Fellow Thomas Azwell (University of California, Berkeley) before—and so has the California Academy of Sciences, which posted a fascinating video about Azwell’s work to develop a safe disposal method for the hair mats used to clean up oil spills. (http://www.calacademy.org/science/sia/2009/04/bio-inspiration-hair-mats/).

The concept of sustainability–in his words, “the ability of providing for our current needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs”– was central to Azwell’s service and outreach as a Schweitzer Fellow.

“Plants play an important role in mitigating climate change by sequestering excessive CO2 and other greenhouse gases from the atmosphere,” Azwell says. “They also capture rainwater and hold moisture in the soil, and provide an environment for beneficial microbes, which have the ability to process harmful chemicals which contribute to climate change.”

Believing that the development of community gardens provides both a means to engage people in the production and environmental impact of their food and to increase local vegetation (in turn reducing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere), Azwell helped to develop a curriculum, “Seed to Belly”, that follows the entire food pathway from propagation to consumption and disposal.

“The curriculum provides a framework for community members to learn techniques for seed propagation, plant care, harvesting produce, healthy food preparation, and composting of green-waste, thus promoting an intrinsic motivation to proactively care for the environment,” Azwell says.

That’s motivation has long been intrinsic for Azwell, who is now researching methods for developing and promoting industrial ecology, sustainable agriculture (organic farming), and bioremediation (microbial degradation of toxins). (“I tie these three broad topics together with a single technology, composting,” Azwell says.)

Industrial ecology, he explains, is analysis of material flows in and out of industrial systems aimed at finding ways to make those flows more efficient. His research is aimed at redirecting the green-waste produced by industrial systems away from landfills and instead to composting and/or vermicomposting (earthworm) facilities.

“Diverting green-waste away from landfills reduces the amount of CO2 and other greenhouse gasses released into the atmosphere,” Azwell says. “The organic compost can then be used to replenish soils, build agricultural land and gardens, and even provide a matrix for supporting microbes which breakdown toxins, such as hydrocarbons (fossil fuel or oil).”

Though Azwell’s research is systemic, he believes that individual behavior can also impact climate change. “Actively producing and consuming more vegetables is the single most powerful change a person can make to combat climate change,” he says, adding that “a diet primarily based on the consumption of fresh, organic vegetables will help to offset the release of excessive greenhouse gases into our environment.”

Azwell has found  Albert Schweitzer’s legacy to be deeply resonant with the work he’s doing to promote sustainability. “Albert Schweitzer’s hospital in Gabon, Africa was one of his attempts to apply his core philosophy, a reverence for life,” Azwell says.  “Gardens are my attempt to apply this same philosophy. They help connect people to nature, provide a catalyst for neighborhood and community development, and help protect the environment by conserving natural resources.”