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Mad Scientist

Natalie Jeremijenko is engineering a new approach to environmentalism. PLUS: A GOOD Video Feature

Have you recently experienced a heightened awareness of environmental concerns? Common symptoms may include: nausea, depression, feelings of helplessness, and increased fear of the words "polar," "ice," and "caps." While there is as yet no cure for this condition, specialist Dr. Natalie Jeremijenko, of NYU's Environmental Health Clinic, might be able to help. Since the clinic's launch in February, Dr. Jeremijenko, along with her trained assistants, has been addressing the environmental anxieties of its visitors.To be clear, Jeremijenko, 40, has a Ph.D., not an M.D. And the project is run under the auspices of NYU's Art Department, not the School of Public Health. Her credentials as an artist and environ-mental activist, however, are solid. Since arriving in America in 1994, the Australian-born artist and engineer has been producing work that harnesses technology to make people's interactions with the natural world more, well, interactive.\n\n\n
You walk out with a prescription not for pharmaceuticals, but for actions.
When visitors come to the clinic with an environmental health concern-like children's exposure to lead-the clinic's specialists don't simply trot out advice about limiting exposure to paint chips (it's a conceptual art project, not a health provider). "What differs," says Jeremijenko, "is that you walk out with a prescription not for pharmaceuticals, but for actions and … referrals to interesting art, design, and participatory projects." Concern about lead in the neighborhood might call for a prescription for planting sunflowers to detoxify the soil in the park where children play. The clinic then might ask for samples of the flowers to determine how many chemicals the plants had absorbed, while keeping detailed records that are available to the public. "The data is precisely not private-it has to do with the shared space, air, water, and environmental systems we inhabit."Jeremijenko's body of work exists somewhere in the ideological netherworld between the dystopian vision of people glued to computers while the world rots around them and the utopian vision of technology as a panacea. It has included robotic toy dogs whose noses were modified to detect toxins in supposedly-clean former industrial spaces, genetically-identical trees planted around the Bay Area in a statement on biodiversity, electronic buoys anchored near the shore of the Hudson River that glowed when fish pass between them (so bystanders could feed the fish special food that flushed out harmful PCBs), and weight-activated perches that delivered prerecorded soliloquies on avian flu when birds landed upon them.As with all these projects, the goal of the Environmental Action Clinic is not just to help people make better choices for the world around them-it's to show people that environmental problems have immediate effects on their health. "Have you ever noticed the flaccidness of the ‘what you can do' screen at the end of rousing documentaries like An Inconvenient Truth? Translating environmental issues into health concerns makes them more tangible, manageable, and measurable," says Jeremijenko. "How many petitions is a person really willing to sign?"An original GOOD Video presentation:Watch in high definition here.

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