Category Archives: Living Sustainably

Is climate change mobilization the best we can do?

On September 21st, an estimated 400,000 people gathered in New York City for what is being hailed as the “largest climate march in history.” Organized by the organization 350.0rg and dubbed “The People’s Climate March,” this event drew hundreds of thousands of individuals from around the world, representing a diverse array of organizations and groups affected by climate change, from indigenous groups to labor unions, as well as involving those who think they have some solutions, like renewable energy advocates. Celebrities of all kinds, from actors to politicians, attended the event and brought even more public attention to it. The event already has a wikipedia entry, and the organizers claim that 2,646 “solidarity events” in 162 countries also took place that day.

This kind of social movement mobilization is meant to draw attention to the public outcry about environmental issues, specifically climate change. By gathering such a mass of people together, the event is meant to indicate that there is large scale public concern about climate change and public support for policies and actions that mitigate the environmental damages being caused by our consumption, particularly of the fossil fuels that contribute to changes in the global atmosphere.

Yet therein lies the irony: people used commercial airlines to fly from across the country and around the world to participate in an event meant to draw attention to the damaging consequences of fossil fuel consumption. According to The New York Times, people came “from as close as the Bronx to as far as at least Rome.” The photo slideshow on The New York Times website highlights an art installation of melting ice, obviously intended to draw attention to the melting of glaciers already taking place as a consequence of climate change. Yet did those artists consider the fossil fuel consumption necessary to make their art sculpture? 

It would be complicated indeed to calculate the environmental footprint of “the largest climate march in history” – although I suspect it would be quite large. Even though events took place in other locations, many people choose to travel to New York to participate in the big event. For me, this raises an important question: is mobilization the best we can do? Social movement scholarship suggests that we need these kinds of large scale public events to draw attention to an issue, to demonstrate public awareness and support for social change. Yet, in the specific case of climate change, how can we mobilize without further contributing to the relatively mindless consumption of fossil fuels that has become such an engrained part of our society that we may fail to see the contradiction in flying from California to New York to protest climate change? What if all the people who attended that rally simply gave up the largest contributors to climate change, like fossil fuel powered transportation and agriculture? Can we mobilize with more intention, to demonstrate the possibility of living within responsible limits in the face of climate change? How can we balance the need to mobilize for change with a need to simply, as Ghandi aptly taught, be the change we wish to see?

 


Goodbye glaciers

The US-IALE conference in Anchorage was short but sweet — great science, wonderful colleagues, and new ideas.

However, as picturesque as the setting was, it was deeply unnerving. This winter was one of the warmest on record for Alaska, and indeed for much of the past winter, Alaska was warmer than much of the eastern US. When I arrived in Anchorage, it was at least 20 degrees (F) warmer than Houghton had been, and the trees were already fully leafed-out and blooming. Several wildfires contributed to a haze around the city that marred views and made our clothes smell like a campfire; the fire season started early and is expected to be a severe one, thanks to warm weather and dry conditions in the forests.

My son and I went on a glacier tour…. truly impressive! The blue hues and striations of black sediment made them far more beautiful than I had imagined. As we watched one of the glaciers calving, I wondered if any of those glaciers would be around for my son to show his children; odds are against it. Many speakers at the conference spoke of the difficulty that our “no analog” future presents us when we try to develop management plans for our ecosystems more than a few decades out. While they were talking about the vast reorganization of species and ecosystems that we are likely to see, I thought about how I might describe things like glaciers and tundra to my grandkids….. I am certain that my words, and even my photos, won’t do them justice.


Bringing Solar Energy Technology to Campus

Have you ever used solar energy to charge your laptop or cellphone? Have you ever had the chance to watch a battery’s charging meter go up as it takes in power from the sun? Would you like to learn more about the efficiency and potential of solar electric technology?

A study is about to begin on campus involving solar energy technology. Goal Zero is a leader in portable solar equipment technology, and eight of their systems are now here on campus. Two of these systems are meant for larger scale use (for a family or group housing situation); six of them are smaller, relatively portable, and meant for individual usage. A collaborative project between Dr. Joshua Pearce’s lab and Dr. Chelsea Schelly of the Department of Social Sciences, the goal of the project is to temporarily install these systems into Greek housing, shared student houses, dorms rooms and university apartments so that students can get firsthand experience using solar energy technology. After they’ve spent some time living with solar electricity, participants will be asked about their energy behaviors – how they use and think about energy. This project was recently discussed in the Lode.

Solar electric technology provides one means of decreasing our reliance on fossil fuels and localizing energy production. Participating in this study will provide students with exposure to the latest in portable and small scale solar electricity generation, and will provide researchers with information regarding how technology impacts our energy behaviors and attitudes. If you live in Greek organization housing, share a house with other students, or would be interested in participating as an individual, we’d love to hear from you! Please contact cschelly@mtu.edu.



Dollarocracy and transitions to sustainability

John Nichols and Robert McChesney have a new book out, Dollarocracy: How the Money and Media Election Complex is Destroying America. They discuss the many problems created by the infusion of massive money into our elections, particularly the erosion of locally-produced journalism (replaced by political ads) and the impact of that loss on the ideas that we discuss in our society. In their recent interview with Bill Moyers, I was struck by something that John Nichols said:

“Dollarocracy has the ability to animate dead ideas. You can take an idea that’s a bad idea, buried by the voters — Dollarocracy can dig it up, and that zombie idea will walk among us.”

This has profound implications for the ability of communities and regions to begin their transitions to more locally-based sustainable systems. When we are forced by the interests of wealthy elites and corporate interests to discuss (and defeat) the same bad ideas over and over again, it leaves us no time to discuss the transformative ideas that will lead us to more economically and environmentally sustainable systems. When we have to discuss the solvency of Medicare in every election cycle, we have no time to discuss local heath care cooperatives. When the national conversation about the continued malfeasance of Wall Street distracts us from the benefits provided by our local credit unions, we have a harder time supporting our Main Streets.

National conversations will always be important; we talk about ourselves first and foremost as Americans. However, the volume of national discourse has overwhelmed our local discourse, and we need to focus more attention on our ailing communities and what we can do to strengthen them, especially against the winds of monied outside interests.


Living Sustainably? The case of burning wood

The coming of the colder weather means that the wood stove in my living room has been brought back to life, and I have spent several nights already this fall watching the fire flickering through its glass front. I, like many of my neighbors and I presume many other residents of the UP, burn wood at home as a source of heat. Although there’s another heating source in my home (propane), I prefer to use the wood burning stove. Yet I’ve recently been reading up on the down sides of burning wood, and have been contemplating what it means for living sustainably.

There’s a lot of science out there about the harmful emissions from burning wood. One report claims that it could be as harmful for you as cigarette smoke or as toxic as what comes out of a diesel tailpipe. Apparently, some physicians in Utah have even proposed banning wood burning stoves in the state (although at least one Utah resident is starkly opposed). The Environmental Protection Agency has set emissions limits on wood burning stoves, and recommends using only newer, more efficient, EPA certified stoves. Yet despite concerns about their negative environmental impacts from emissions, people are arguably driven to burn wood for heat for economic reasons – it’s less expensive than other, fossil-fuel derived heat sources.

The appeal of a wood burning stove, for me, goes beyond economic considerations. Burning wood for heat means that the individual or family seeking heat becomes entirely responsible for their own comfort. Instead of having to pay a monthly bill and rely on a system of technical experts, invisible technologies, and far away bureaucracies, burning wood for heat requires that we rely on ourselves. Burning wood as a heat source mirrors, to me, what energy expert Amory Lovins said long ago when contrasting energy systems on the “hard path” and the “soft path” – it puts energy usage into the hands of the user, making us reliant on our own knowledge, experience, and participation.

At least, that’s always been my experience with using wood as a heat source. Perhaps I would feel very differently about it if I’d ever had to pay for wood to burn, instead of relying on resources on my private property. Not everyone is fortunate enough to have access to land with suitable wood to burn, a real issue of justice that I would be remiss to ignore. Nonetheless, when I look at the flickering firelight in my wood burning stove, I can’t help but contemplate how we define, measure, and pursue sustainability. Is it just about emissions calculations? Do issues of ownership matter? I am interested in pursuing alternatives where individuals and communities can take more ownership and be more responsible for the resources we all depend upon – like clean water, healthy food, and enough energy to provide for our needs and comforts. Does the concept of sustainability captures my concerns about social organization or community resilience, or do I need to look elsewhere for a concept that more accurately represents my interest in ‘sustainable’ living?


Open-source 3D Printing Technologies: Toward a Sustainable Future?

At the end of July, I had the opportunity to sit in on a workshop on open-source 3D printing technologies happening here on Tech’s campus. Sponsored the Square One Educational Network, this workshop brought teachers from across the state of Michigan to campus to learn about desktop 3D printers and, most importantly, gave them the opportunity to build their own printer that they took back to their classrooms and students.

Researchers here on campus have shown that open-source 3D printing technologies allow individuals to make necessary things for a fraction of the cost required to buy them; this is incredibly exciting for those of us interested in economic resiliency as well as social equity. Nevertheless, 3D printing technologies have also received a lot of negative attention. In response to the negative media attention 3D printing technologies have received, A “3D Printers of Peace” contest was launched here at Tech (there’s still time to enter!) to encourage 3D printing innovation that is socially beneficial. This is a great way to bring positive attention to this emerging technology. For me, these mixed reports on the potentials of 3D printing technology raise the question: what’s the future of these technologies, and what role can they play in creating a more sustainable society?

After watching teachers build their own printers, observing their interactions with one another throughout the workshop, and talking with them about why they attended the workshop, my tentative answer is this: 3D printing technologies have the potential to empower us to build, shape, and create our own worlds. As students and as humans, we have become used to living in a world where we can’t fix the machines we use everyday or make simple things that we use to live. 3D printers allow us to make things (from replacement parts for your snow blower to a complete chess set) less expensively, and without the carbon required to get most plastic things from point of production to point of consumption. More importantly, they empower us to become makers of things, which has the potential to radically transform the economic and social arrangements in society.  A second thing I learned from the 3D printing workshop is this: the technologies we use in society are embedded in the fabric of that society, they ways we think about and use technologies are shaped by society, and it is important to think about, talk about, and constantly refine our own ideas about technology as we work to apply them to the creation of a more sustainable future .


Botanical Medicine courses in the Keweenaw, Sept. 14-16

If you have ever been interested about the medicinal properties of plants (note that the billion dollar pharmaceutical industry is!), there will be several classes offered in mid-September at the Marsin Nature Retreat Center just outside of Houghton; see the “Keweenaw Peninsula: Plants, People and Planetary Healing” section on the “Special Events – Classes” page.

Also note that the Houghton & Keweenaw Chapter of the group Herbalists Without Borders will be having a potluck at Marsin on the evening of September 17th.


Household Sustainability, for the average Joe

Someone recently shared with me this news story about two men in Ontario who are going “off the grid” this summer as an experiment in sustainable living. They live in a two-bedroom apartment in a community of over 350,000 people, but they have unplugged their fridge and turned off their hot water heater in order to live without conventional electricity. In addition, they have started a garden and a worm composting system and are planning to avoid throwing trash “away” all summer. However, these two aren’t planning to go without their smartphones. A Canadian company called Goal Zero is sponsoring their experiment in sustainability by providing the equipment necessary to charge phones and computers as well as turn on some lights with portable solar power. Calling themselves “Sustainable Joes,” they are documenting their summer experiment on youtube and Facebook, and have a website where you can learn more about their project and their vision.

I find the story of these Sustainable Joes fascinating. For me, it will be interesting to watch them throughout the summer, with several questions in mind. Not everyone can purchase (or would be willing to purchase) portable solar systems ranging in cost from $500 to $2,000. How many companies would be willing to provide these things for free just to get the word out about their product or to demonstrate its feasibility, and how much energy could we save if more households or communities had solar charging stations for our phones, tablets, and e-readers? What will these Sustainable Joes experience as a sacrifice (like cold showers and cold food), what will they experience as empowering (like, as they say, not being a slave to the power outlet), and how could their portrayal of their experiences as limiting or liberating affect how other people perceive more sustainable lifestyles? What kinds of things will these “average Joes” talk about when documenting their experiment as part of their desire to encourage other people: will they talk about money saved or carbon kept out of the atmosphere, will they share only what worked for them or also what doesn’t? What does it look like to live sustainably in the modern world? I spent almost two years without a refridgerator at one point in my life, but have never gone without the Internet.

The Sustainable Joes experiment demonstrates that a more sustainable lifestyle is within everyone’s reach, and that more sustainable household practices can change both our lifestyles and our attitudes in unexpected ways. Perhaps most importantly, they are leading by example, encouraging us to examine our own lives and ask – what could we do to help develop a more sustainable now?


Ironic hypocrisy

For all of the teaching and research I do on sustainability…. living it, measuring it, valuing it…. I am occasionally a very poor example of it. In the past couple of weeks I have traveled to Scotland, Argentina, and Washington D.C.; ironically, those last two trips were meetings focused on the sustainability of carbon-neutral biofuels. Although I am very anxious about calculating my carbon footprint over these three trips (since I’d probably have to stop breathing for five years to get back to something close to carbon neutral), I am going to do it here as a form of very public shaming. I am hoping that it will motivate me to insist on more virtual trips…

Using this calculator, my total carbon footprint for the flights for these three trips was:

Houghton –> Scotland (measuring sustainable landscapes workshop) –> Houghton: 1.18 metric tons.

Houghton –> Argentina (Pan-American sustainable biofuels workshop) –> Houghton: 1.81 metric tons.

Houghton –> Washington, D.C. (NSF Sustainable Energy Pathways meeting) –> Houghton: 0.31 metric tons.

Total: 3.30 metric tons.

That’s roughly the same amount of carbon that a person in the Maldives emits PER YEAR. It would take roughly a hectare of forest a year to sequester the carbon from those three trips.

Yikes.