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'Drive forward and be inspired'

A student’s pragmatic, optimistic assessment of today’s energy challenges

February 29, 2016

Olivia Sanderfoot has her head in the clouds. Thinking about birds, that is. As an indicator species for environmental health, birds are a valuable ally in inspiring sustainable human behavior, she believes.

Olivia Sanderfoot
Olivia Sanderfoot

“I think people can connect with birds… they bring people joy,” she says. “So in a way, it might be easier to get people on board about reducing emissions or mitigating climate change if they see that the birds they love so much are affected by anthropogenic activity.”

While an undergraduate at UW-Madison completing degrees in biology and Spanish with a certificate in environmental studies, the 2015 graduate earned a Conservation Scholars award from the Madison Audubon Society for her efforts to engage students and the community in bird-related conservation.

Today she continues to study the animals as a master’s student in Environment and Resources, advised by Nelson Institute Professor Tracey Holloway. Holloway’s work at the intersection of air quality, energy and climate inspired Sanderfoot to examine how birds are impacted by atmospheric pollutants.

Sanderfoot also serves as the outreach assistant for the Nelson Institute’s Energy Analysis and Policy (EAP) program, helping to connect students and alumni and publicize their work. The graduate certificate program helps students from any background think about energy in an interdisciplinary way, which Sanderfoot believes has broadened her outlook on important energy issues.

“The alumni that I get to work with are doing phenomenal things; it’s very cool to see what they’ve done since leaving UW,” she says. “And exposure to the EAP classes and capstone projects has given me a lot to think about as I process news about our energy sector and other issues in today’s society.”

Here, Sanderfoot shares some of those reflections.

In Common: As a young, 20-something student of the environment, what energy issues do you think need solving?

Sanderfoot: I would say transportation and the emissions associated with that sector are going to be a huge problem in the 21st century, and we, as a society, need to dedicate resources to reducing these emissions and investing in alternative transportation.

It’s important for our generation to not lose faith in our ability to find solutions to our energy crisis or the problems associated with climate change. We must continue to drive forward and be inspired by human ingenuity.

What do you see as solutions to some of these problems?

I don’t think we yet know what all the possible solutions are. I think we need to, as a society, invest in research in environmental science, renewable resources, transportation technology and so many other fields that could yield an entirely new option.

What advancements would you like to see in energy?

"While we need to approach
energy sustainability
strategically from a scientific
and technological perspective,
on an individual level there
are a lot of things we can do."

One, I think we can invest in more efficient and sustainable modes of public transportation — for example, trains. Allowing more people access to transportation is also important from a social justice perspective.

Second, I’d like to see a more holistic understanding on the part of citizens as to what their personal energy consumption is and how they can take action in their day-to-day lives to reduce their carbon footprint. For example, I recently decided I was no longer going to eat meat because of the emissions associated with its production and transportation.

While we need to approach energy sustainability strategically from a scientific and technological perspective, on an individual level there are a lot of things we can do.

Is there an interesting energy lesson you’ve gleaned from a recent class?

I found my introductory environmental economics course with Corbett Grainger to be extremely useful in thinking about regional and global issues, especially when it comes to energy. I had never really considered many of the financial aspects of environmental movements; for example, what impacts regulations might have on companies, or how economics could actually be a tool to benefit both the private sector and our society and public health.

That’s an interesting idea to me and something I think a lot of people disregard — that finances can be used as a tool to better the environment.