The Pacific Northwest and Canada endured a record-breaking heatwave in the summer of 2021. Cooling and transportation infrastructures buckled under the heat as reports of melted power cables and cracked roads filled the media. Meanwhile, flooding in Europe and China took lives and devastated communities. Climate change continues to dominate regional, national, and international conversations, yet many view the steps toward mitigation as too daunting.
This is especially true for young people; we are the first generation to receive information about human-induced climate catastrophes in the school curriculum, while simultaneously experiencing real-life climate catastrophes. It’s enough to make anyone feel small and powerless in the face of such large-scale disasters.
How can individuals make meaningful change in their communities when feeling overwhelmed by the scale of the climate crisis? The avenues to change are limitless, from the simplest act of picking up trash on the beach to advocating for legislation that protects the environment from corporate abuse. Where to start?
We chose to reach across the nation, creating a group of young people dedicated to protecting human health and stewarding our environment. Together, we’re campaigning for the elimination of toxic pesticides from campus landscapes.
Initiative for Herbicide-free Campuses
Synthetic pesticides are toxic chemicals that pose a direct threat to human and environmental health. Research shows that synthetic pesticides contribute to cancer, neurological disorders, asthma, and many other diseases. Made from fossil fuels, pesticides and synthetic fertilizers contribute to climate change by altering the soil’s ability to sequester carbon, as well as cause algae blooms and dead zones when they reach lakes and oceans. (Editor’s note: The term pesticides encompasses herbicides, insecticides, and other substances used to control pests.)
We began Herbicide Free Campus (HFC) at the University of California, Berkeley in 2017 after we learned that herbicides were being sprayed around the beach volleyball court where we practiced daily. Our first step was simple; we convinced 19 teammates to pick the weeds so that the grounds crew would no longer need to spray herbicides.
Next, working closely with the grounds manager and crew, we successfully conducted an organic pilot project on the two largest campus green spaces. Now, UC Berkeley has almost eliminated the use of herbicides from its campus.
In the four years since its creation, Herbicide Free Campus has worked with students at 20 college campuses in the United States and successfully led a campaign to ban glyphosate-based herbicides from all 10 of the University of California campuses. HFC also worked with a citizen coalition to ban herbicides from every public school in Hawai’i. By focusing on a simple goal — removing toxic chemicals from our green spaces — we are reshaping the health of our environment and our communities.
We began with a step as small as picking weeds with our teammates and it has evolved into a national campaign toward eradicating the use of synthetic pesticides on academic campuses.
Youth activists leading HFC continue to focus on eliminating synthetic pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers and transitioning to organic land care. The HFC student network achieves this through advocacy and hands-on community work days.
When setting out to advocate for the environment, it’s essential to educate the community about why your cause is important and how it relates to them. So, when our usual weeding days and other direct-action events were canceled because of the pandemic, HFC turned to hosting virtual educational events.
Students at HFC Loyola Marymount University, for example, offered virtual events to expand their community’s sustainable land management literacy. Two of these virtual webinars focused on discussions about organic landscape management techniques and the impact of pesticides on soil health.
At Grinnell College, where students could still come to campus, HFC Fellows led the Too Much Grass initiative, which restored a 5,000-square-foot site in the middle of campus to native prairie. Grinnell reintroduced over 40 native species that promote pollination, pest control, and food security for local species. These student activists are disrupting traditional aesthetics and providing their peers with a physical space to experience the power of nontoxic land management.
At Emory University, HFC members discovered a small patch of green space littered with caution signs from a past pesticide application. With the help of Emory’s grounds team and the Office of Sustainability, students transformed the lifeless area into an organic study space filled with thriving native plants. As with HFC Grinnell’s project, the hope is that the transformation of this space will open the door to future opportunities for organic projects on campus.
The Time To Act Is Right Now
Whether we realize it or not, climate change affects every aspect of our lives. Heat index records continue to break. Hurricane season had its earliest start this year. This year’s wildfires are predicted to be even more dangerous than last year’s disastrous season. Despite these catastrophes, scientists have assured us that there are still ways to mitigate irreversible damage through immediate action. The first step for all of us is to look at our local community and think of what we can change right where we are.
If you’re like us, reading this will light something inside of you, as we experienced on the volleyball courts five years ago. By building strategic student movements, spreading awareness, and working with groundskeepers and landscape maintenance departments, HFC provides a structure for students to create real, tangible change on their campuses.
If you are interested in ending toxic chemical use at your school or community park, visit herbicidefreecampus.org or check out the resources we’ve provided below. If community advocacy and grassroots organizing are beyond your capability right now, you can still support this cause in your very own yard.
Check out the Non Toxic Communities site to find all the basics you need to become an herbicide-free advocate. It is a valuable resource for anyone interested in making the world around them a safer, healthier place.
And be sure to start with your own home and lawn. Shockingly, American homeowners use 10 times more pesticides than U.S. farms per acre. To learn how you can decrease your home pesticide use in a way that allows you to maintain your lawn and garden to your aesthetic standards, visit this toolkit from Pesticide Action Network.
About the Authors
Mackenzie Feldman and Bridget Gustafson co-founded Herbicide Free Cal at UC Berkeley in 2017 before expanding this grassroots campaign to campuses around the U.S. Their work is grounded in building student leaders and bridging relationships between student bodies and campus grounds crews. Mackenzie now serves as the executive director of Herbicide Free Campus and Bridget is the director of Student Fellowships. If you are interested in getting involved, contact Herbicide Free Campus.