This is the second piece in a series about how we talk about climate change as an environmental, social, and psychological issue. Each subsequent installment focuses on a different viewpoint or individual experience as part of the overall discussion. The Introduction and Part 1 of the series appeared in the fall of 2015. For this installment, I interview Dakota Pekerti ’16, an engineering major who attended the 21st Conference of Parties as a student delegate.
For some, the word environmentalist conjures the image of a blazing activist, brandishing a megaphone in one hand and a sapling in the other. This image could hardly be further from Dakota Pekerti, whom it is easier to picture holding a cup of tea than any sort of amplification device (although he has been known to wield a sword). Pekerti is soft-spoken but adamant, drawing people’s crackles of fury into a sustained, steady burn—a quality that surfaces in environmentalists who are in it for the long haul.
Our interview takes place in the back of McCabe Library, a relatively undisturbed corner where we won’t fall victim to extra noise nor produce much ourselves. In this out-of-the-way place, it becomes clear how Pekerti has been behind the scenes of Swarthmore’s environmental initiatives all along. His commitment spans from his role as a Green Advisor to his engineering projects, which involve systems he designs to “not tamper with the process of nature but work synchronously with nature,” promoting sustainability by “redefining food systems.”
Ask him about these projects, and he conjures images of hydroponic systems, which grow plants in water rather than soil. Not only does this make the system’s location flexible, but it allows alternative and creative spatial arrangements for plants, something modern agriculture lags sorely behind in. For example, imagine a library where all of the books are laid flat on the floor, covers facing up. Now imagine a traditional library with its mazes of shelves. Applying this notion to plants, it allows a radical reutilization of space and resources, with plants stacked in newly-imagined structures.
Pekerti’s 2012 homemade hydroponic system. Pictured counterclockwise: basil, basil, basil, and basil.
The concept of Pekerti’s freshman-year hydroponic growing system, a scheme he hatched in his dorm room, is now coming to full fruition as his Senior Design Project, which utilizes a combination of LED lights and photovoltaic cells (i.e. solar panel technology) to give plants longer growing periods by consistently providing suitable conditions. This technology could contribute to future agricultural adaption, since long-term climatic changes and more frequent extreme weather make traditional crop-growing increasingly risky.
While Pekerti is rooting plants in his hydroponic systems, his own roots are in Texas, a state more skeptical towards climate science. He recounts early memories of climate change as science lessons dealt with characteristic nonchalance. “Y’know I’m from Texas, so they didn’t give much credence to the whole notion of global warming,” he explains. “It got maybe a couple paragraphs [in our textbook].” He adopts a tepid tone as he tries to reconstruct the text: “Some scientists may believe that global warming is becoming a thing…”
In a way, Pekerti’s specialty is models: not only engineering models, but models of behavior and action. He has seen attitudes towards climate change that are models of progressive action, as well as those less so. But despite behavioral ranges, Pekerti seeks the overlap: “People can look at the signs, look at the different voices shouting opinions all across the room, they can think what they want about climate change. But the most important thing we should keep in mind is that whatever decisions we make based on climate change are going to affect future generations, no matter what side of the fence you’re on… your actions, whether you like it or not, all support some kind of vision for the future.”
This vision of the future, and who is practicing it, is something Pekerti has seen firsthand at the 21st Conference of Parties (COP21) in Paris, the 2015 global forum for climate negotiations. According to him, the level of global concern at the COP, compared with the U.S. cultures of doubt and denial, was “refreshing and inspiring.” Yet he adds, “Even though there were all these charged emotions and different perspectives on how climate change was affecting different people, a lot of the delegates from developed nations seemed to be very detached and focused on just satisfying their own national interests.”
Self-interest causes major friction in this sphere of discourse. “We’re all in this together, we do share one planet,” Pekerti insists, “and the fact that there are still some countries that are unwilling to compromise, even when all the other countries, all their peers and fellow leaders, are clamoring for change and action, was kind of shocking to me…”
But when he speaks of reasons for hope, he mentions not mighty superpowers but the smallest nations. These are nations who have seen the sea encroach on their livelihood and turned their faces towards Paris with determination. Such countries have contributed the least to climate change, but they bear the brunt of its impacts. An example is Tuvalu, which in pursuit of change, committed to being carbon-free in its power sector by 2025.
“It takes a lot of courage to have to speak up for your entire people and to realize that there’s an imminent threat that—despite your best efforts—may still overcome you because of factors outside of your control.” It is these people who stood out as shining examples at the COP21, with their radical commitments to sacrifice in the name of change. They are the ones whose “positions on the COP should really be applauded.”
Yet even in the face of this hope, Pekerti, who has seen countries big and small come to the table, voices the timeless lament: “Some people just aren’t thinking in the long term still, and they need to be.”
His words are frank and unafraid as he adds: “And to be bold enough to take action and admit to themselves that there’s something wrong here and that things need to change, and the first step towards change is realizing that there is a problem.” He says these words unapologetically. After all, Pekerti is not the one who needs to apologize. But even as this article goes to print, the question of who owes whom an apology for climate change still permeates the air, invisible as carbon dioxide.