Staff Interviews

Eric Sauder

Founder, Executive Director

Malinda: Thanks for talking with me today Eric. Like Franklin, you are also married, and have two young children, right? A young girl and a boy. Why don’t you start by telling me-  what led you to be involved in this line of work? 

Eric: I think some of my first interests in sustainability were in college. I had a chance to spend a couple of weeks on the Ojibwe reservation in Minnesota. One of the experiences I had there was going to a superfund site at Castle Lake, where there had been a paper mill. I toured with Winona LaDuke [Winona is an indigenous American writer, economist, environmentalist, and industrial farmer. She is honored and know throughout the world for her work in indigenous land claims and preservation, as well as her environmental work in sustainable development]. There was a paper mill that had gone out of business a decade before and people were dying in the town of cancer. The carcinogen level in the homes and in the dust was way above toxicity levels. The kids had been swimming in the lake where the paper mill had dumped their waste for years. The business went bottoms up and there was no one to go after for the law-suit seeking restitution for the community so badly affected by the businesses ineptitude. I realized this is just really awful.

I had cared about environmental issues before that, but this was a clarifying moment for me–  to see the impacts of all of these things,  what western life has looked like, and wanted to do anything I could to change that.

I got involved in a lot of different sustainability efforts in under grad. In 2005-8 a lot of that work was in the built environment, that is Environmental engineering and architecture. I worked for a green building company for a lot of years.

I also worked for a non profit incubator, trying to find community and seeking ways to bring these ideas to life, The climate was an emerging interest of mine.

That is about when Drawdown [Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming, edited by Paul Hawken] came out. I got a copy of it right away and was really amazed to see the different categories of solutions. I have always had a deep systems view of the world, and to see where solutions exist and their potential magnitude was transformative for me, especially land, food, and agricultural based solutions. 

That brought me to Team Ag. I was hired as an engineer, but also had the opportunity to start a regenerative ag division at the company. I was trying to bring focus to climate centered ag in the mid atlantic region.

And out of that work is where RegenAll came from

Seeing the value in climate work esp in communities that are both urban and rural, and how we have missed opportunities for real deep collaborations that could build local resilience- respond to climate and make a better world for all of us. 

Malinda: What is your professional title? That is, what kind of scientist are you? I think it is Environmental Engineer, right?

Eric: My degrees are in mechanical and architectural engineering. My current role with Team Ag is closest to environmental engineering, where you are working with water and waste and manure and trying to keep them apart and managed in the best ways possible.

Malinda: What is the difference between environemental engineers, and civil engineers?

Eric: Environmental engineers would be working with waste water treatment plants and storm water. Civil could go into bridges and buildings. 

Malinda: In the work that you’ve done, what have you learned that is encouraging for the future?

Eric: I think one of the things encouraging is seeing how many people are working toward climate solutions. The problem is big but the amount of people already deeply engaged in it is enormous. Paul Hawken describes it this way. He says the largest social movement in the history of the world is happening now, unfolding simultaneously with all the people pulling in the same direction, but not coordinated formally in the ways we would think. We need to coordinate our work better, on the local level, and globally. I like to listen to podcasts and read books that remind me of how deep that network is. 

Malinda: What are some of the seminole books that have shaped you?

Eric:

  • Drawdown of course and Regeneration– also by Paul Hawken
  • How to Save the Planet– podcast
  • My Climate Journey– podcast. This is really good but also pretty dense- a lot of venture capital types of folks- not my first home but that is why I have been trying to listen to it. It is also just really encouraging to hear stories from people focusing on these very specific manufacturing processes- like how to remove carbon from one small thing.
  • The Future Earth by Eric Holthaus
  • The Future we Choose by Christiana Figueres
  • Ministry of the Future (fiction) by Kim Stanley Robinson

Malinda: Anything else you want to share?

Eric: I have chosen to be very optimistic about our future in the face of everything we are up against because I see what we could do. And the future that could be even as climate impacts continue to worsen could still be a very beautiful one- and I want to work so that I don’t ever have to hear a question from my kids, “Dad what did you do when you knew this was what was going on?” I want them to know clearly that I tried.

Franklin Egan

Chief Climate Strategist

Malinda: Okay Franklin. This will be fun because I have just been getting to know you over the past few months myself. I know you live near State College with your wife and two children, a son and a daughter. Tell me-  what led you to be involved in this line of work? 

Franklin: Most recently I had the opportunity to volunteer with the Centre County government in creating our climate action plan (CAP). I found the process interesting and inspiring and felt lots of businesses (and others) would benefit through the process. I am looking forward to helping RegenAll in this work.

To go back a little further, I have really been interested and concerned with climate change since my early High School years. After college,I worked as a plant and soil scientist- and am excited to be working with RegenAll on direct implementation of solutions to moving beyond research and asking the hard questions and helping people to find answers.

Malinda: What is a soil and plant scientist?

Franklin: The work I did allowed me to be involved in a lot of different projects over the course of year. As a doctoral student I was studying ecotoxicology and the effects of herbicides on native plants and wildlife.

I worked with the US Department of Agriculture studying the climate and environmental benefits of pasture grazing dairy systems. I most recently worked for a non-profit farmers organization called PASA Sustainable Agriculture. While there, I helped farmers measure and monitor their soil health.

Malinda: In the work that you’ve done, what have you learned that is encouraging for the future?

Franklin: I would say with PASA I learned that we already have a really robust knowledge and lots of solutions at hand for taking better care of our soil and using farmland as one solution for climate change – to sequester carbon. A lot of the tools and technology and understanding exists, we just have tremendous challenges in removing some of the legal and cultural obstacles that sustain the status quo.

Farmers have a rich understanding of soil health- using cover crops and grazing cycles- all farmers are interested in these things. The barriers are market constraints and land constraints rather than available knowledge and practical solutions.

Malinda: Tell me about carbon sequestration.

Franklin: The soil underneath our feet is alive and it is this wonderful comlex ecosystem, loaded with living and recently dead tissues- roots micro-invertebrates, bits of tissues from cells of plants dead and recently dead- there is a great storehouse under our feet. There is a more carbon in soil, a bigger total pool,  than total in the atmosphere.

Since humans have been clearing land to farm, that is, doing agriculture, organic matter in the soil has been changed. So much carbon has been burned off, worked off, but  we can work to restore carbon in soil again.

Turning land back into grassland- giving land over to nature (back over)- we can restore carbon in soil. Around 10-15% of our human related climate issues could be abated or solved with soil carbon solutions.

Soil carbon and soil organic matter is really important for plants in a number of ways. It improves the ability of soil to hold water (be more spongy), provides resource and habitat for beneficial microbes, and creates good structure for roots to live in and sustains a long term bank for fertilizer.

We need to keep the carbon that is already in soil where it is.  And we need to build more (we have lost too much through agricultural and industrial monocultural practices). 

With sustainable farming techniques we can build up and build back a lot of what was lost.

Malinda: So is this what is meant by carbon capture?

Franklin: Carbon capture is more about taking carbon from the atmosphere and returning it to the soil. It is a different technique, and might be promising, but there is a fear that interest in that technology might be a dead end. It could also allow people to forestall doing the other obvious things.

Malinda: What are some of the seminole books that have shaped you?

Franklin:

  • On topic of soil- Building Soils for Better Crops by Fred Magdoff and Harold Van Es
  • Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything– was really eye opening for me. 
  • I am a big fan of Herman Daly books- For the Common Good, Ecological Economics, Prosperity without Growth: Economics for a Finite Planet. 
  • The Overstory by Richard Powers is a wonderful fictional book for this moment.
  • And of course I have to mention Project Drawdown by Paul Hawken and Amanda Jo Ravenhill.

Malinda: Anything else you want to share?

Franklin: (pause) I guess- Elephant in the room sometimes is – the feeling of climate despair- and all the trends pointing us in the wrong direction. Headwinds and false starts. So you asked me how I got interested in this work. I remember when I first started college in 2000. There were protests on campus trying to get us to sign onto the Kyoto Protocol- and Cornell University signed on to it. But that all flamed out- and every other attempt to create binding solutions has sputtered. It is upsetting and discouraging- and I keep coming back to this idea-  deepening the understanding that it is all solvable.

When I started thinking and learning about climate change, we thought we would have to be cold in the winter, ride bicycles and do without. (and I am all for those things that simplify our lives, and don’t unnecessarily use excessive energy), but at that time, there wasn’t a sense of there being real solutions. For sure our culture uses too much and is wasteful but the broad contours of a world that has a lot of people on it- and a reasonable level of affluence- achievable with technologies we have today- is about building the solutions we have- to use them and to share them.

The question is, How do we balance this idea of working to changing systems verses changing personal behavior?

At times I’ve been serious about taking inventory of my own habits of making reforms and making the right choices- and other times I felt the only way forward was through structural change. What does it matter if I eat meat or not? It isn’t my fault.

One of the greatest tricks petroleum did was to invent the carbon footprint. There was an advertisement from years ago that asked us to think about our carbon footprint. The point of it was to greenwash their image and say they were thinking seriously about the climate. I don’t remember the details, but the ad showed people with rising music behind them looking at their own carbon footprint.

I think it is important for me, as somebody in their professional life trying to help others walk the walk, so I choose to put my resources where my intentions are. 

I think change has to come from the bottom up and top down at the same time- and people’s interests in personal actions- and investment in companies they need to take seriously.

A lot of the personal actions we can take can feel less like sacrifice and more like empowerment. For example, looking at our food waste (one of our biggest levers for emissions).  If we start looking in the mirror and thinking about it, it just might help us to eat more healthy. A lot of good and joyful things come out of that.

When looking at my own life I try to not worry about the little things, but rather  look for the big levers. Perhaps buying energy from a renewable supplier is a bigger thing to do than stopping use of plastic straws. Both are good, but one has a bigger impact than the other. 

Going to our website and plugging into the RegenAll calculator is a great way to look at these things quantitatively. You can look at big meaningful levers and making changes that have the biggest impact. I guess I also see it is bottom up and top down- in that a lot of the things are empowering and add meaning. When you can choose to bike or walk somewhere it is fun, feels good, and produces transportation. You can be doing and making something. I like all that. 

Also would say, I really don’t think trying to guilt others into (or shaming them) making changes is a productive way to go about it. We know that affluence and having access to time and resources makes these changes easier, which just adds evidence to our need to work top down and bottom up.

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