Category Archives: Sustainability in the News

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.

National Climate Assessment rolling out now

Ignore the beautiful but dysfunctional interactive website, and instead go straight to downloading the highlights  or the full report. The documents are a treasure trove of data, documenting all of the changes in our climate that we have already witnessed and what is likely to come. The report offers data and projections by region, sector, and response strategies.

Unsustainable wealth

An academic paper and a book are emerging that have made two large bangs in the world; both examine the sustainability (or lack thereof) of wealth inequality.

As reviewed in Common Dreams, a new paper in Perspectives in Politics by Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page, “Testing Theories of American Politics“, use a robust dataset to test four different possibilities of how our governance system is currently working. They find very little support for the forms of democracy that we commonly think we have, and instead find that our system most resembles an “Economic Elite Domination” and “Biased Pluralism”. In these systems, laws and policies are shaped by those who have the most resources in society, not the majority. Given the most recent Supreme Court decision that further reduced spending limits on political races, I fear that we’re seeing our system travel through a positive feedback, where fewer limits on money in politics begets more money for those who have it, who then have more to spend on further reducing political spending limits.

Thomas Piketty’s new book (at least new translation from French to English), “Capital in the 21st Century”, likewise uses data to demonstrate how capitalism inherently drives wealth inequality when the rate of return on capital exceeds the growth rate of an economy. Rave reviews by Paul Krugman in the New York Review of Books and by Nick Pearce in the New Statesman reflect the excitement that Piketty has empirically demonstrated what we have all intuitively understood for decades: concentration of wealth into a few families is due to system dynamics, not to the talent or intelligence of the wealthy. Indeed, concentration impedes progress of both individuals and societies. Just as unfettered money drives democracies towards oligarchy, wealth unfettered by taxes (to suppress return rates on capital below the growth of the economy) allows a positive feedback of wealth begetting wealth to form without any productivity to show for it. We are experiencing the outcome of this system dynamic: increased speculation and volatility in markets as more capital seeks higher returns, and stagnant and/or declining wealth in lower classes while wealth explodes in the upper 1% and 0.1%.

These two studies illustrate not just what we are experiencing, but why we must put the brakes on these feedbacks. The concentration of wealth and its influence on our democracy are self-reinforcing. These feedbacks pull us away from the democratic society we aspire to be, where we each have an equal chance to reach our potential and have an equal say in how the rules are made.

Saying goodbye

Conservation biology is an often-dismal discipline. For every story with a happy ending, there are hundreds with a tragic one – and often beyond that, thousands that end without us ever knowing. The loss of species that endear themselves to us is always a particularly difficult goodbye.

The monarch butterfly is swiftly approaching a sad fate. Robbed of its critical food supply (milkweed) by industrial agriculture in the midwestern region of North America, fewer monarchs are able to reproduce and migrate back down to its wintering habitat in Mexico. This year, surveys of Mexican forests have recorded the lowest number of returning monarch butterflies since these surveys began. The monarch migration is a fantastic spectacle; these butterflies migrate thousands of miles in spring and fall. Their large size and colorful markings make them familiar to most, and hence their declining numbers are likely to be noticed. That is the good news.

In this conservation case, everyone can help. Planting milkweed (the native species to North America, not tropical species such as Asclepias curassavica) in your front and back yard will help replace the feeding stations that the butterflies have lost with agriculture, and allow them to build up their numbers. Large populations help the butterfly persist through late springs (which disrupt their breeding schedule) and extreme weather events that can kill them outright.

For more information on monarch biology and how to help, you can visit the Monarch Watch webpage.

Why Confusing “Weather” and “Climate” isn’t Funny

[This is a post from Brad Barnett, a Ph.D student in the Environmental and Energy Policy program here at Tech.]

Last week Senator Jim Inhofe (OK-R) took a(nother) public stand against climate change science. From the Senate floor, Inhofe argued the recent polar vortex-induced freeze that affected the United States is proof climate change is a hoax. His rationale: it’s cold outside. Inhofe insisted the wave of frosty weather is evidence that global warming just isn’t happening. If it was, surely we wouldn’t be experiencing such chilling temperatures.

Inhofe is known to be a vocal opponent of climate change science and is often written off by many as another willfully-blind right-winger. His most recent comments were ridiculed because of his oversimplification of a very complex topic and resulted in the creation of the hashtag #InhofeLogic on Twitter (which led to a lot of hilarious tweets). And while much of the online world snickered at Inhofe’s tirade, the senator isn’t alone in confusing weather with long-term climate trends and subsequent opposition to climate change. And that’s no laughing matter.

Senator Inhofe and many other highly visible climate change deniers point to short-term frigid temperatures as evidence that global warming isn’t occurring. This is a fundamental misunderstanding (or misrepresentation) of climate change. The definition of “weather” is simply “the state of the atmosphere at a place and time as regards heat, dryness, sunshine, wind, rain, etc. On the other hand, “climate” refers to “the weather conditions prevailing in an area in general or over a long period.” Climate change scientists point to long term temperature increase trends as proof that the planet is warming. And while the recent polar vortex felt extreme, scientist say these deep freezes are occurring less frequently than they did in the past providing further support of climate change.

Despite the overwhelming consensus among the world’s scientist that climate change is occurring, a portion of the American public just doesn’t believe it’s real. According to an April 2013 study conducted by the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication, 37% of Americans still don’t believe climate change is happening. Even more concerning, the percentage of Americans that do believe it is occurring decreased by 7% compared to a previous study, and the researchers mostly attributed this to the colder winter of 2012-2013. Scariest of all, less than half of all Americans (49%) believe that climate change (if it’s happening) is caused by human activities.

While it’s certainly a positive sign the majority of Americans believe climate change is real, the decline in public belief coupled with the frigid weather creates a troubling environment for policy makers who support policies to curb climate change. The climate change debate became such a hot topic last week that the White House released a video starring President Obama’s chief science advisor explaining how climate change works. Senate Democrats also publicly announced last week a new task force to advance climate change mitigation policies. What this suggests is that climate change believers on Capitol Hill are concerned that they are losing the battle of public opinion to climate change deniers. Combine this with the growing abundance of cheap shale natural gas accessible by hydraulic fracturing and petroleum from shale rock, climate change and energy policy in the United States is at a crossroads.

Educating the public (and elected officials) on the difference between temporary weather and climate trends would go a long way in removing a critical barrier to strong climate change policy. While it may seem like a very small measure, eliminating this source of confusion may help the public (and some senators) understand that global warming isn’t a joke.

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.

UP Landscapes exhibit at the Beaumier Center at NMU

A new art exhibit, “U.P. Mosaic: A Working Landscape and its People” will open this month on the Northern Michigan University campus. Although the information is not yet up on the Beaumier Upper Peninsula Heritage Center‘s webpage, you can find details about the events on opening day (October 26th) through the Marquette Monthly magazine. The exhibit will run from October 26 through January 15, 2014, and will be open 10am to 4pm Monday through Saturday.

Happy new semester! Happy planet?

As we move ever closer to the beginning of the fall semester, I am struck by something I read recently about how we think about – and measure – aggregated well-being. My hope is that all students can feel happy and secure in their experiences here at Tech, as I hope for happiness and security for all human beings. But how do we measure conceptions of well-being? At a national scale, “Gross Domestic Product” (GDP, for example US GPD) is a pretty typical measure, which considers the total sum of economic activity. But, as a recent article in US Today highlights, GDP is a measure of total economic activity. It doesn’t differentiate between wealth concentration and wealth distribution or “good” versus “bad” expenditures (such as the economic exchanges that happen in when we work to recover from national disasters). Furthermore, it by definition cannot consider any type of exchange that is non-economic, such as a mother’s care for her child,or the non-economic value that comes from growing vegetables in your yard, or myriad other things. GDP certainly can’t consider ecological impact, which others have attempted to capture in the ecological footprint measure.

The article presents an alternative means of measuring aggregated well-being, called the Happy Planet Index (HPI). The website for HPI says it’s about “measuring what matters” – “the extent to which countries deliver long, happy, sustainable lives for the people that live in them.” This measure includes life expectancy, as well as a nation’s ecological footprint, and the resulting data in terms of ‘who’s happy’ (i.e. which nation’s score best using this alternative measure) may surprise you.

I’m not ready to say the HPI captures everything that matters, and leaves out everything that doesn’t, when it comes to considering aggregated well-being. Yet I do think it’s important for us to ask ourselves, what does it mean to live well, at both a personal and a social scale? As we embark on a new semester, and for some an entirely new chapter in life, can we ask ourselves: what makes a happy student, a happy campus, a happy person, and a happy nation – and can we work toward promoting happiness and well-being in a way that is intentional and holistic, filled with purpose to promote everything that matters and forget everything that doesn’t?

For all of you: Happy new semester, and happy planet.

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 .