Archive for October 2011

The Trick-or-Treating Index

Monday, October 31st, 2011

This was a really interesting article on the Grist website last week that I saved for this Very Special Day. The author discusses two recent rankings of cities as related to their “trick-or-treat-ability”: the opportunity for small children to walk from house to house in a neighborhood safely. I thought they sounded quite suspiciously like several “sustainable communities” indices, but they are a festive twist on this sustainability assessment staple.

Zillow developed the rankings using four proxies for trick-or-treat-ability: Home value index (more ritsy homes mean safer neighborhoods and better candy); Walkability (so kids don’t have to be driven door-to-door by parents…. although this has something to do with laziness as well, I suspect); Density (the more doors closer together, the less walking needed to fill up the bag); and Violent and Nonviolent Crime rate (for obvious reasons). San Francisco, Boston, Honolulu, Seattle, and Chicago top this list.

Richard Florida also gives it a shot, including in his index the percentage of kids under 14, median household income, share of adults who walk to work, density, and percentage of “artists, designers, and other cultural creatives” (read: those people not likely to buy a boring costume at a discount retailer…. a group which may have little overlap with people who have kids. But I digress.) His index ranks Bridgeport-Stamford, Los Angeles, New York, Chicago and Washington, D.C. as the best trick-or-treating spots.

Of course, trick-or-treating is probably just as safe and productive (from a kid’s point of view) in the smaller, rural towns of 10,000 – 30,000, where everyone knows each other and older houses form closely-knit neighborhoods around a central downtown core. The house prices may not be high in these areas, and perhaps the neighbors hand out the fun size bars instead of the real deal, but these towns certainly shouldn’t be excluded altogether from this sort of index.

And yes, Houghton MI is a pretty decent place to collect a pillowcase full of candy on Halloween.

Great PNAS article this week for Collapse fans

Tuesday, October 18th, 2011

Well, perhaps I shouldn’t say Collapse “fans”, but rather scholars…. I would assume most people are not rooting for societal collapse!

In this week’s Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Zhang et al. look at specific ecological, economic, and social variables that changed with the global cooling event from 1560 to 1660 AD, a period of widespread societal upheaval particularly in Europe. Previous studies have found that civilizations in the past have been severely disrupted by climate change, but generally there have been insufficient records of most of the social and economic characteristics of these civilizations to study their collapse in detail, other than what we can gather from abandoned settlements and human remains. For more recent preindustrial societies, records indicate that it is most likely the rapid decline in agricultural production that is a proximate cause of the unravelling of a civilization, with climate change implicated in widespread crop failures. Studies like this fill in many details of a general hypothesis of how and why societies collapse, started by Joseph Tainter in the 1980′s and popularized by Jared Diamond’s book Collapse in 2005.

In this PNAS article, the authors look at European societies during both peaceful times and times of upheaval, to determine if the “dark” ages were correlated with climate change and to identify which ecological (e.g., agricultural production), social (e.g., population size, average height), and economic (e.g., grain prices, real wages) characteristics are most vulnerable to this change. They paid particular attention to whether the presumed cause preceded the effect, a detail that has been missing from previous studies due to a lack of adequate resolution in temporal data. They found that variables associated with agricultural production and per capita food supply followed immediately after the start of the global cooling period, with later increases in war, famine, and migration that were a likely consequence of food shortages and spiraling food prices.

Here was one of the findings that jumped out at me: “Grain price could be taken as an indicator and direct cause of conditions of harmony or crisis in preindustrial Europe.” This is a very strong argument for the importance of local and robust agricultural systems to sustainability, and we have already seen riots over food prices in the past few years.

The authors conclude with a bold statement: “Our findings have important implications for industrial and postindustrial societies. Any natural or social factor that causes large resource (supply) depletion, such as climate and environmental change, overpopulation, overconsumption, or nonequitable distribution of resources, may lead to a general crisis, according to the set of causal linkages in Fig. 2. The scale of the crisis depends on the temporal and spatial extent of resource depletion.

Hmmm…. has anyone looked at the Gini Index lately?

Mining in the UP presentations

Wednesday, October 12th, 2011

Here’s the info on both speakers:

Please join us for a presentation and informal discussion concerning
“The Threat of Metallic Sulfide Mining Expansion in the Great Lakes Region”

Kristi Mills of Save the Wild UP will lead this discussion.  Her presentation will be from the standpoint of a concerned citizens activist group and will cover current and prospective future operations, citizens’ concerns, and the process of organizing against the mines and challenges and opportunities Save the Wild UP has faced.

Date:  Thursday, October 13
Time:  12-1:00
Place: Memorial Union Ballrooms B2/B3
Lunch: Please feel free to bring a lunch

The broader campus community is invited, so please spread the word. We’d like to see this event well attended.  You can find out more about Save the Wild UP at

In a related presentation:
David Anderson from Orvana Resources will discuss mining and community development in the UP from the industry perspective on Tuesday, October 25 from 12-1:00pm, in the Memorial Union Ballroom B2/B3. Please feel free to bring a lunch.

Anyone with questions should contact Prof. Richelle Winkler (rwinkler <at sign>

The Anthropocene epoch

Friday, October 7th, 2011

There is an interesting piece in this week’s Science regarding the discussions that geologists are having at their meeting this week, as to whether the epoch we are in right now should be officially called the “Anthropocene”, and if so, when it should start.

It may seem like one of those nerd debates that doesn’t really matter to normal folks, but this one really does. The article has some excellent graphics and truly frightening statistics to anchor this debate. Consider this: 80% of the Earths’ land area has been altered by humans, and 90% of the biomass represented by mammalian species is currently tied up in either human or domesticated livestock bodies. Think about that…. our bodies and our cows, goats and sheep outweigh all of the lions and tigers and bears out there, not to mention the elephants, whales, and gorillas.

Wow. That one took me a while to process.

So what does this say about our future on this planet, or even the future of our planet? Back in 1986, Peter Vitousek* sounded an alarm regarding our increasingly heavy footprint, estimating that humans soaked up about 40% of the planet’s Net Primary Productivity, a measure of how much sunlight plants convert into biomass. That doesn’t leave much left for the millions of species with which we share this rock. And unfortunately, our fate is tied up with most of those millions; if they go, there is no guarantee that we won’t go too.

*Vitousek P, Ehrlich P, Ehrlich A, Matson P. 1986. Human appropriation of the products of photosynthesis. BioScience 36:368-373.

Mining in the UP

Monday, October 3rd, 2011

Prof. Richelle Winkler, a new faculty member in Social Sciences, is arranging for pro- and anti-mining speakers to give short presentations on campus regarding mining in the UP. The information for the anti-mining speaker has been set; no firm details yet on the pro-mining speaker (but stay tuned here for an update!)

Current Mining Activities in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula
Date: Thursday, October 13
Time: 12-1:00
Place: Memorial Union Ballrooms B2/B3

Students, faculty, and staff are invited to attend an informal lunchtime discussion with Kristi Mills from Save the Wild UP ( about current mining efforts in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and the organization’s efforts to protect community and environmental well-being. Kristi will offer a presentation and allow time for discussion.  Please feel free to bring your lunch.  This event is being sponsored by the Social Science Department, Program on Environmental Policy, Program on Industrial Archaeology, and Students for a Sustainable Environment.

Michigan Technological University is an equal opportunity educational institution/equal opportunity employer

1400 Townsend Drive
Houghton, Michigan 49931-1295

Michigan Technological University

1400 Townsend Drive
Houghton, Michigan 49931-1295

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