Princeton’s Climate Crusaders
Saving the Planet, One Issue at a Time
By Anne Levin | Photography by Jeffrey E. Tryon and Charles R. Plohn
The relentless news of rising temperatures and extreme weather conditions can make us feel powerless in the face of global climate catastrophe. For those in the Princeton area, smoke drifting down from wildfires in Canada, and devastating floods just across the Delaware River in Bucks County, Pa., have been especially distressing in recent months.
But there is reason for hope. Several dedicated individuals have been working for years — some for decades — to slow the trajectory of climate change. Their focus is local, but their commitment is global. These local crusaders are serious about taking action to cultivate resilience and generate hope for the future.Here, seven of them respond to questions about their backgrounds, how they got involved, and what they consider the most pressing environmental issues facing us today.
As the executive director of Sustainable Princeton, Christine Symington leads a mission to inspire local residents to adopt sustainable practices. At the same time, she and her colleagues at the 10-year-old nonprofit hope to make Princeton a climate-conscious role model for other communities.
Being prepared for hazardous conditions before they occur is a key focus. “We have great organizations here that are stewards of our public properties,” says Symington. “But we feel there is a need to focus on making these properties more resilient. One way we are trying to build community resilience is through our STAR neighborhoods program, which fosters connections between neighborhoods to implement sustainable actions.”
Raised in Levittown, Pa., Symington worked for 15 years in financial services technology, commuting from Princeton Junction to Manhattan. But her heart was in environmental issues. “So, I quit,” she says. “I started volunteering at Sustainable Princeton in 2013. Eventually I became a part-time, and then a full-time member of the staff.”
In July 2019, Princeton Council adopted a Climate Action Plan that was shepherded by Sustainable Princeton. The goal of the plan is to cut carbon emissions in half (from 2010 levels) by 2030, 65 percent by 2040, and 80 percent by 2050 — while promoting social equity, economic stability, environmental quality, and enhanced public health and safety.
Results are promising so far. “There is a growing awareness that climate change is a global issue, but there are things we need to do in our own communities,” Symington says. “And there is definitely more of an awareness that sustainability is not just about recycling. It’s about many other things — the built environment, transportation options, and the economy, just to name a few.”
The coming addition of several affordable housing complexes in Princeton presents a challenge. “We’re still a town that’s going to grow,” says Symington. “We can’t stand still and ignore the fact that we need to build more affordable housing, while at the same time reducing our greenhouse gas emissions. We have to figure out a way to not let sustainability be a block to making the town more diverse. The answer isn’t to not build anything. We have to upgrade our existing buildings in a way that doesn’t make it harder to afford to live here — finding ways to make our town more acceptable to more people, in a way that still minimizes our impact.”
In the small town outside Chicago where Wendy Mager grew up, evening rides through the countryside and family picnics in the local park were frequent activities. “I was outside all the time as a kid,” says Mager. “I grew up in an era where kids could do that.”
It makes sense that Mager gravitated naturally to the nonprofit Friends of Princeton Open Space (FOPOS) after moving to Princeton in 1978. Founded in 1969, FOPOS acquires open space for preservation, protecting natural resources; maintains accessibility to trails; and provides environmental education. Mager was named president of the FOPOS board in 1992 and has continued in the position ever since.
Mager studied journalism at Michigan State University, and then earned a law degree from the University of Michigan. In the mid-1980s, she was able to represent FOPOS, pro bono, in a Mount Laurel case involving a proposed affordable housing development on a large piece of land at the top of Cherry Hill Road, where she lived. As a result, the forest on the Princeton Ridge was spared, not developed, and affordable housing was built in another location.
“The development plans were greatly scaled back, and a lot of the land was preserved as open space,” Mager says. “It was made to be a much less devastating event from an environmental perspective.”
Under Mager’s lead, FOPOS continues to lobby for preserving open space. On almost any given weekend, groups of “land stewards” organized by FOPOS can be found at the Billy Johnson Mountain Lakes Nature Preserve, getting their hands in the dirt.
“People are realizing how precious their natural environment is to them, especially since the pandemic, when huge numbers were coming to the parks,” says Mager. “And young people, thankfully, are becoming much better informed. They are much more flexible in being willing to change the way they operate so they can maintain what we have and our beautiful earth.”
A major concern has been the problem of invasive species. “We have brought in these invasive plants and messed around with the balance of the animal species, so that the natural system that has sustained humans for a long time is way out of whack,” says Mager. “It is a very big challenge for nonprofits and land trusts and for the state, now, to try and manage the parks and open space to counteract invasive species. And there is a huge over-population of deer who are preventing plants from regenerating and munching them to death.”
Jim Waltman was working as a lobbyist for the National Audubon Society in Washington when he got a call about a job at The Watershed Institute in Pennington. Since he signed on as the organization’s executive director in 2005, the nonprofit has nearly tripled its staff and budget, and built a new facility for its public events, tours, and educational programs.
“I inherited a wonderful organization that is very strong and important,” says Waltman. “And environmental policy at the state and local levels has gotten much stronger since then. Quite a few municipalities have adopted strong measures to deal with stormwater, which is crucial.”
The Watershed Institute’s mission is simple: To keep water safe, clean, and healthy. “We work to protect and restore our water and natural environment in central New Jersey through conservation, advocacy, science, and education,” reads its website.
Raised in Princeton and educated in the town’s public schools, Waltman wasn’t particularly concerned with nature. “I was in band, ran track and field — pretty much a total geek,” he says. “In college at Princeton, I was exposed to classes on biology and behavioral ecology. Then I lucked into this investigation in the Galapagos Islands, spending eight years studying natural selection in Darwin’s finches.”
He did more field research in Venezuela, and assumed his career would be centered around research and academics. “I took a breather and went to Washington for an internship at the National Wildlife Federation, which I thought would be a little respite,” he said. “I was surprised to be bitten by the political bug. I got enthralled and spent 15 years there.”
Upon landing at The Watershed, Waltman made education a priority, which it remains today.
“I think about the thousands of kids who have come through on tours, and the adults who come back and tell us their career is devoted to preservation or education or something related, and they say ‘I got my start at The Watershed.’ That’s really powerful and I’m proud to play a role,” he says.
The effect of climate change on water issues — from flooding to harmful algal blooms in oceans and freshwater — is particularly concerning to Waltman. “You’re basically feeding and cooking these organisms that are around at some level naturally, but then they explode,” he says. “It can become quite dangerous for people and pets. Climate change is here, and it is projected to be quite frightening.”
Equally crucial is the need to preserve forests that sequester carbon and provide stormwater benefits. But Waltman’s biggest concern is about mental health.
“It’s a problem that we as a society are not fully grappling with,” he says. “An important role that The Watershed Institute plays is in educating people about these big, scary issues, but also doing it with joy, and connecting people to nature. We’re providing the therapy of nature to children, teenagers, and adults. There is this issue of climate trauma, and young people are growing up without hope. So more and more, I think that is part of what we do.”
When Princeton Council passed an ordinance restricting the use of noisy, gas-powered leaf blowers in October 2021, it was Councilwoman Eve Niedergang who led the charge. The governing body’s liaison to the Princeton Environmental Commission (PEC), Niedergang worked with Sustainable Princeton, the Board of Health, and the organization Quiet Princeton to get the legislation passed.
“I don’t have a background in science. I came to this more as your average person who was very concerned about environmental mitigation and the challenges to the environment,” she says of her ever-expanding role in the town’s efforts to battle climate change.
Raised on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, Niedergang studied Middle Eastern history at Princeton University, worked at Educational Testing Service (ETS) doing history and social science tests, and had her own consulting firm before shifting her focus to environmental issues. Seven years ago, she became the volunteer coordinator for The Watershed Institute.
“Even though I’m not in a scientific role, you cannot be there without absorbing scientific information,” she says. “I have learned so much about flooding issues, the preservation of native species, and all the big things you want to do to maintain not just the natural world, but for people to survive. We really do rely on the natural world.”
After Niedergang was elected to Princeton Council in 2018, acting as liaison to the PEC was a natural fit. “That has been another opportunity for me to learn from people who are more educated and have a stronger background in science,” she says. “I have been really lucky to have those opportunities.”
Not surprisingly, stormwater control is one of her biggest concerns. “We were really lucky in Hurricane Ida [September 2021] that nobody here died,” she says. “One person was rescued on Rosedale Road, but people died in Hopewell. Controlling stormwater is key to building resilience and protecting our environment.”
Niedergang also promotes the preservation of open space that is particularly environmentally valuable, citing the mature forest of the Princeton Ridge, where stormwater is naturally absorbed. Carbon emissions concern her as well.
“Princeton is on a path to address this with the Climate Action Plan, and so far we are meeting the plan’s goals,” she says. “But this is a worldwide problem.”
The Princeton Environmental Commission advises the town on a list of issues including open space preservation, recycling, solid waste management, composting, and alternative transportation. Chairing the group for the past three years is Tammy Sands, whose unique experience includes trauma care, environmental law, and emergent care.
A registered yoga teacher and Reiki healer, Sands is the founder of Lightness of Being, which “strives to bridge the gap between the health of people and the health of the planet as well as provide agency for the equity and empowerment of ALL living entities,” according to her website.
She came to Princeton in 2014 with her wife and three children and joined the PEC in 2017. “I’ve always been connected to the land,” says Sands. “I grew up in the endless mountains along the Susquehanna River in a small town, Tunkhannock, Pa. It was very, very rural. It was my haven where I explored the mountains, creeks, and the riverbanks to make art out of things from nature, and also to connect spiritually.”
Sands’ involvement in environmental issues — locally and globally — has shown her that people react instead of act. “To some degree, I can understand it,” she says. “But as someone who has been innately connected to nature, it is difficult to witness this unfolding in a manner where we’re repeating our mistakes. As a society, we can’t continue to be unconsciously using modern practices that stifle our ecological sensibility.
“We also can’t ignore or dismiss Indigenous cultures, not just here but around the world. They may not have the academic degrees, but they have such innate knowledge and it kind of gets dismissed. We’re consuming Mother Earth herself, and not paying attention.”
A man of multiple talents, Steve Hiltner is a writer (the blog PrincetonNatureNotes.org), musician (clarinet, saxophone, piano, composition, and the Sustainable Jazz Ensemble), and actor (McCarter Theatre’s Onstage Ensemble, Climate Cabaret). But it is his work as a naturalist and environmentalist for which he is best known.
Hiltner is the president of Friends of Herrontown Woods, which he founded a decade ago to restore trails and preserve the legacy of famed mathematician Oswald Veblen. He has been the natural resources manager for Friends of Princeton Open Space, a member of the Princeton Environmental Commission, chair of the town’s Shade Tree Commission, and a board member of Princeton’s Mountain Lakes House. If there is an environmental issue on the agenda at a municipal meeting, Hiltner is often among those to speak during the time devoted to public comment.
The son of an astronomy professor at the University of Chicago, Hiltner grew up in Wisconsin, “a little enclave on the outskirts of a small town,” he says. “It was a little bit like the Institute [of Advanced Study], I suppose. I had woods on one side of me and an observatory on the other. Environmental issues were pretty clear to me growing up.”
Hiltner’s many fields of interest intersect around nature. “I like to steer nature but allow it to be able to express itself,” he says. “In theater, for example, I started seeing nature as a character. In combination with science, it helped me to understand our relationship to it. Nature doesn’t care about us at all, but it is extremely generous. It will still give to us no matter how much we exploit it and abuse it.”
It is the lack of regulation of carbon dioxide that Hiltner finds the most pressing environmental issue.
“Ours is a very safety-conscious culture, yet the law still says we are free to radicalize the weather and destroy our collective future,” he says. “That legal and regulatory signal drowns out any environmentalist’s attempt to sway people through educational outreach. This is true both locally and globally. People change when they must. If required to stop abusing nature, I believe people would rise to the occasion — and be better people for it.”
Tom Szaky became fascinated with the idea of entrepreneurship when he was an undergraduate at Princeton University. He knew that he wanted to start a business — he just needed an idea. By the end of his freshman year he had found it: waste.
Szaky, who grew up in Hungary and Canada, left Princeton in the middle of his sophomore year to start TerraCycle, which is focused on the collection and repurposing of hard-to-recycle waste. He started with a system that took food waste from the University cafeterias and fed it to worms, whose subsequent eliminations made potent plant food. Using repurposed soda bottles with spray tops, Szaky had created a product that transformed waste.
TerraCycle originated in 2002 in an office on Nassau Street. Now at much larger quarters in Trenton, the company has operations in 21 countries and some $100 million in revenue. Along the way, Szaky has written four books on the subject and lectured at Princeton University, the Wharton School of Business, Harvard Business School, Yale University, and NYU Stern School of Business.
“Waste is a big issue filled with all these fascinating anomalies. It is the least explored industry out there because it’s gross, smelly, and nasty,” Szaky says. “But it’s filled with stuff to elevate, and not just something we want to throw away.”
TerraCycle has pioneered ways to recycle products and packaging that would otherwise go to landfill or incineration. Cigarette butts, lab waste, used coffee capsules, dirty diapers, and used chewing gum are among items that would otherwise have no path to be recycled. In 2019, the company launched a circular reuse platform called Loop, enabling consumers to buy products in packaging that can be used again and again. Its newest division is centered around innovation, involving solutions for collecting and processing complex waste and integrating it in new production.
To Szaky, it’s all about consumerism. “The one unifying thing to every environmental product in the world today is that we vote for it by purchasing things,” he says. “We have to have a very fundamental meditation on our relationship with consumerism. It is only about 70 years old as a concept, an innately modern thing we have become very attracted to. It doesn’t matter how much we recycle, reuse, or switch from fossil fuel — if we continue to consume at this rate, there is nothing we can do to stop it.”
“We all buy things,” Szaky continues. “We vote with money all day long. Whatever we buy will appear, and whatever we don’t buy will disappear, even more so in a place like Princeton, because of the wealth. It has to be driven by the people who have the easiest ability to purchase. And it doesn’t mean live in austerity. It might mean we focus on finding that one clothing item you’re going to love and repair and spend a lot of money on. There are many ways to solve this, and still not destroy the economy.”