Guest Voices: Eric Hollinger changing the world one step at a time

Today’s featured guest voice Eric Hollinger talks about the small ways in which we can affect change in our working environment, our local communities and the world at large. He reminds us that every action counts, no matter how small.

The Earth matters, like it or not, to all of us, and in more ways than most are aware.  We all come from the earth and will return to it and we depend on it for our daily existence.  As humans we tend to think ourselves above or somehow independent of nature and we find ourselves thinking of the environment as something we might like to help with “when I can find some time” or “if I get a bit more money and can afford to donate.”  We forget that everything we do throughout our day has an impact on the environment and therefore how we do what we do can have greater or lesser impacts on the world around us.  From the little things like leaving our computers on overnight, flipping on a light switch, or choosing steak over salad for lunch, the cumulative effects of all our little acts as humans, billions of times over each day, have made this period in Earth’s history the Anthropocene, the age of humans, and changed our planet irrevocably.

Eric Hollinger on a dig in Illinois

Eric Hollinger on a dig in Illinois

Recognition of the scale of the challenges facing us and our planet now and in the future can be overwhelming.  It is beyond my power to save the world so why worry about it, right?  But acknowledging that our acts or inactions accumulate, they add up, they do make a difference.  Awareness of our place in the natural world leads us to an awareness of our responsibilities as borrowers of its resources.  What we do matters.

I’m a Supervisory Archaeologist in the Repatriation Office of the National Museum of Natural History’s Anthropology Department.  My job is to work with Native American tribes, Alaskan Natives and Native Hawaiians who request the return of human remains, funerary objects and sacred objects from the museum’s collections.  As an archaeologist, I am used to working with the evidence of past peoples, held and sometimes given up by the earth.  We know that what people do and how they live leaves marks, big and small, in and on the earth.  For some past societies, there are barely stains in the soil, or a few chips from stone tools, to reveal that they were ever here.  Others have moved mountains and rivers, deforested entire regions, and left monuments so massive they are visible from space.  Now, more than ever before in human history, how we live results in material byproducts and changes to our water and air that will far outlast our brief time here.

Secretary Clough and Rick Potts discussing a compostable cup made from corn-based plastic at the Smithsonian Staff Picnic.  (Photo by  by Rick Fary)

Secretary Clough and Eric Hollinger discussing a compostable cup made from corn-based plastic at the Smithsonian Staff Picnic.
(Photo by by Rick Fary)

Working in a Natural History Museum you would think this understanding would be always on our minds, but when we spend all our time looking at the forest we can forget that we are one of the trees.  I can recall having lunch with visiting tribal representatives in the museum’s cafeteria and they said “Why are you are serving us food on a Styrofoam plate?  Of anyone, a natural history museum should know better.”  I realized then that I didn’t have a good answer for them and I vowed to better understand why it seemed that we were not practicing what we were preaching.  I began with that cafeteria by asking them why we couldn’t change to reusable dishes or at least compostable serviceware.  I applied my training as a research scientist to picking apart the answers I received and trying to identify better options.  I became an advocate, advisor, assistant, and an agitator, working to try to reduce the environmental impacts of our own Smithsonian operations.  Today, with cooperation from the restaurant contractors and support from the museum administration, the museum’s cafeteria uses almost exclusively compostable products and has a composting operation that diverts 200 tons per year and saves money by doing so.  With many other eco-friendly steps, the Natural History Museum’s restaurant operations are now certified by the Green Restaurant Association as a 3-Star Green Restaurant.

Now, in my spare time, I try to work with all the Smithsonian’s museums and research facilities to help them with sustainability challenges.  I like to get hands on to study the problems and get all the facts possible so administrators can make informed decisions before implementing changes.  I may spend a Saturday volunteering in the dish room at the National Museum of the American Indian so I can understand what the staff has to do to separate their compostable organics and recycling efficiently.  Or I may travel to New York to help the Cooper-Hewitt conduct a waste audit to see if they can improve their recycling rates.  Or I may take a week off to help the Folklife Festival run the largest composting and recycling program ever attempted for a public event on the National Mall.  As an archaeologist, I often joke that it’s my job to dig through other peoples’ trash, and although it’s usually thousands of years old, the principle is the same with modern trash; we can learn about human behavior by studying disposal practices.  Often, increasing recycling or composting can be just a matter of small adjustments to our behaviors.  The little things add up.

I’ve come to realize that my own actions, big and small, do matter.  And as I accept more personal responsibility for my actions and what I have the power to influence, I recognize that the Smithsonian Institution also has a responsibility, through its practices both big and small, to try to minimize its impacts on the environment and help improve things where possible.  The Institution is good at educating through exhibits, public programs and published research, but our staff and visitors can learn as much about being good stewards of the earth by watching how the Smithsonian conducts itself  as by listening to what we are saying.  The Smithsonian must be seen as walking the walk as well as talking the talk or the respect held for the Smithsonian will dry up. The Smithsonian, as well as all of us  individuals, must show that we understand Earth Matters.

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