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Profile: Ben and Jaina Moan
Melissa Hatfield Riggs

In Good Hands

The beginning of each academic year is always an exercise in patience. As I stop for yet another young student stepping into the street with eyes straight ahead and cell phone glued to his or her ear, I sigh. The thought of “Generation Me” running the world in my old age is not a comforting one. Baby boomers learned how to look both ways in kindergarten, I think smugly. And in college we were protesting war, standing up for civil rights, and introducing Women’s Liberation. The work may not be finished, but boomers changed the world.

But let’s be fair. “Millennials are still under 30,” I say doubtfully. “Maybe I should trust them.” Perhaps you can say that every generation, in its own way, saves the world. After all, my parents’ generation stood up to Hitler. And even if Gen Xers “need their toys,” I happen to know a number who did well in the dot.com revolution. They helped develop and refine Internet technologies, then set up family foundations to support wonderful causes.

So what, I muse, will millennials choose, or fall into, as their gift to the world? Because I have come to know Ben and Jaina Moan, I have begun to wonder seriously if perhaps the Millennial Generation will be the ones to save, not the world, but the earth.

 

“I think our generation and the generation directly behind us have no choice but to deal with resource and consumption issues now." —Jaina

Ben and Jaina Moan

Actually, Ben and Jaina are in their late twenties, so they teeter on the edge between Xers and millennials. But they are definitely of the 21st century in their energy and outlook. They are high school sweethearts who married in college, and both are NAU graduate students, hold NAU undergraduate degrees, are children of NAU faculty, and were raised in Flagstaff. They chose to stay at NAU for graduate study, Jaina says, because of the opportunities they saw for interconnecting with people from many disciplines. “NAU’s graduate community is small enough to cross interdisciplinary boundaries and get to know people you wouldn’t in a larger university where students are more confined to one program.”

Growing up in Flagstaff, an environmentally aware community, had something to do with aiming their interests.  “Even as a kid, I wanted to go into geology,” Ben says. “I always wondered how that mountain got there, how that canyon formed. When I was a high school sophomore, a local hydrogeologist wrote a letter to the Daily Sun editor talking about a new development where the houses were going to have onsite waste water treatment and water pumped from a fairly shallow aquifer. He was concerned about waste contamination of the drinking supply, and I found it fascinating that in the U.S., in the 1990s, we would still have to worry about something that basic. I knew then that I wanted to go into water resources.”

“My last year in high school,” Jaina recalls, “I worked with the Verde Watershed Watch Network, collecting water samples and aquatic invertebrate samples at the upper end of Oak Creek. You stir up a bunch of sediment upstream and others downstream collect what you stirred up in a net. When you put that in a jar and hold it up and see everything squirming in there, you say, ‘Oh, wow, there’s this whole world that I never realized was there, and I want to learn more about that.’”

 

“As I understand it, it would take five planets to sustain us if we all lived and consumed as Americans do. We can’t all live this way. We have to find a balance.” —Ben

Ben earned his B.S. degree in geology and took positions as a research specialist at the Colorado Plateau Isotope Laboratory and the Colorado Plateau Analytical Laboratory. He didn’t especially intend to go to graduate school, but he’d noticed that some of the professional positions he was drawn to listed engineering degrees as first preference. He has been taking engineering classes as a non-degree graduate student and will apply this fall for the Master of Engineering program.

“I’m getting into engineering to understand designs for water systems and technologies behind water use,” Ben says. “In the long-term, my interests are in management, but I would like to have the technical engineering background to really understand the different technologies available. Eventually I’d like to be part of policy decisions where you take the best technology available and require that that it be used because it’s more sustainable and has less environmental impact.”

Jaina holds double bachelor’s degrees in biology and chemistry born of her interest in stream ecology. She has been a research specialist with the Ecosystem Ecology Lab, Colorado Plateau Stable Isotope Laboratory, and Colorado Plateau Analytic Laboratory. Graduate study for Jaina came from her desire to understand how science fits into the development of public policy and the programs that impact everyday people. “I’ve been getting more and more involved in energy policy. While environmental policy can be focused on natural and native species conservation, I’m more informed in areas like clean air, clean water, where we get our resources, how we subsidize them and use and conserve them, and the policies we’ve developed like the Clean Air Act that will mitigate some of our environmental problems.”  To advance her interests in policy, political science, and law, she is pursuing a master’s in public administration and working as an intern for Coconino County’s Sustainable Economic Development Initiative.

 

“Most people in the world still go out and collect their water by walking to a well or reservoir, filling up a jug, putting it on their head, and walking home to their family." —Jaina

Jaina and Ben Moan in Yua

Jaina and Ben’s drive to influence environmental policy was impacted profoundly by their experience with the NAU chapter of Engineers Without Borders. In 2006, EWB-NAU was awarded a project in Yua, Ghana, a village that lacks access to clean water, sanitation facilities, and electricity. Child mortality in Yua hovers around eight percent, due largely to preventable waterborne illnesses. Ben and Jaina were a part of the 5-member initial assessment team visiting Ghana in summer 2007 for water-quality testing, GPS mapping, and meetings to forge a strong relationship. The community welcomed them warmly. (See pictures and video.)

“Traveling to Yua was an overwhelming experience for me,” Ben says. “The welcoming ceremony, where hundreds of people from the community came out to sing and dance, was more than I ever expected or could quite absorb. It is incredible to see people who possess so little materially compared to those of us in the U.S., and yet they seem very happy. The children in particular seldom fuss and are always smiling and curious. There is, however, a sense of urgency in the community. Many of them do not have much of a formal education, yet they know that even within Ghana many people have a higher standard of living. They struggle to feed their children during the dry season, and they are eager to work toward solutions to waterborne illness.”

Ben and Jaina Moan

In summer 2008, clean water flowed in Yua. The second team had drilled two wells: one hand-operated for the local medical clinic and one solar-powered at the local market water plaza. The team also installed lighting at the local junior high school and explored ways to improve rural medical facilities. EWB-NAU will pursue continued infrastructure improvement projects over the next three years. Ben is this year’s EWB president, and Jaina is a former treasurer. They remain heavily involved with planning, organizing, and fundraising efforts to help make these continuing projects possible.

 “What drove me initially to become involved in EWB was my interest in how people live and how they feel about it,” Jaina says. “Most of the people we met in Ghana are giving, happy people. The more that you work with people, the more that you realize we’re all the same: we all want to take care of our families, we all want health and happiness. When you get right down to it, you can remove the running water and electricity, and you can still have health (hopefully), but definitely happiness."

 

“Humans are very innovative, but I honestly believe that we’re facing issues on a scale that most of us aren’t ready to deal with." —Ben

It is clear to Ben and Jaina that hopes for a healthy and equitable world community are irrevocably tied to environmental concerns. ““If we don’t deal with consumption and resources issues, change will be forced upon us, and we need to get ready for that,” Jaina says. “We just can’t consume the way we have been—it has to change. Hopefully with that change there will be less war and a better standard of living for people throughout the world. It’s really not excusable that roughly one third of the world doesn’t have access to clean drinking water. I think it’s hard for most Americans to fathom what people have to do just to survive because everything’s so easy for us.”

Ben concurs. “Wars are sometimes about ideology, but most wars are about resources. Americans have gotten to the point that we feel entitled to use resources as we do, but the fact is that we cannot use resources at this rate and continue to have population increases. Americans are paying a huge price for this level of consumption, the planet is paying a price for it, and the people of the world are definitely paying a price for it.”

 

“I want to travel the world without fossil fuels in 2020.” —Jaina
“That’s how you do it.  Set a date and do it.” —Ben

In an ideal future, Jaina will attend law school and then practice environmental and resource law while making time for human rights volunteering: she mentions Lawyers Without Borders and Amnesty International. Ben foresees a career in watershed management and work for a public agency, perhaps the Department of the Interior. In the long-term, he hopes to hold elected office to facilitate the push toward sustainability.

As I listen to them speak, I am impressed. I don’t think I’ll be grumbling about the younger generation and passion and purpose anymore.  The world may be in good hands after all.


—Melissa Hatfield Riggs, Graduate College

 

(Those who want to make a contribution to EWB-NAU work in Ghana can go to
www.ewb-nau.org/Donate.html. To become involved, contact Benjamin.Moan@nau.edu.)