Category Archives: Sustainability Research

Studying household conservation

Faculty from social sciences, engineering, and computer sciences at MTU, in partnership with colleagues from institutions across the US and the Netherlands, have recently been awarded researching funding from the National Science Foundation’s new program on Innovations at the Nexus of Food, Energy, and Water. We will be examining ways to model, communicate, and potentially change consumption behaviors impacting food, energy, and water resources in residential homes. You can read a bit more about the project here. This project involves several opportunities for funded PhD research assistantships, two in Environmental and Energy Policy at MTU (read more about how to apply here), and one social scientist located at Rutgers. We are excited to begin this important work researching ways of changing behaviors and understanding impacts to make our lives at home more sustainable!

Whose pollution is it?

Now that it is summer, I finally have some time to write about papers published this year that have been quite interesting. I’ll start here first with one published by Lin et al. in PNAS back in February that sought to calculate how much of the air pollution that wafts over to the US from China can be attributed to the stuff we buy from them…. that is, the pollution that is produced through the production of plastic do-dads and other things that we import and consume here. The authors looked at sulfur dioxide (a precursor to acid rain), nitrogen oxides (potent greenhouse gases), carbon monoxide, and black carbon (also implicated in climate change).

In total, they found that “about 21% of export-related Chinese emissions were attributed to China-to-US export”, indicating that one-fifth of their air pollution is driven by our consumption of their goods.

As for the pollution that wafts over to the US, Chinese pollution was sufficient to cause at least one additional day of ozone levels that violated US standards from Los Angeles to the eastern seaboard. In particular, a substantial proportion of sulfate pollution measured in the western US was attributable to Chinese exports.

Quite a few years ago, my colleagues and I wrote about the way that international trade can complicate consumption impacts on the environment…. specifically how the international wood trade can hide the link between wood consumption and deforestation. One of the consequences of our increasingly international economies is our growing blindness to how we impact our environment (which is now global as well). Prior to the Industrial Revolution, production and consumption were mainly local to regional; product availability was closely tied to regional weather, soil, and human labor. Prices could reflect these conditions and overall supply, including how that supply impacted the quantity and quality of resources such as water, air and soil. Now that our economy has globalized, we need to find better ways to allow product data and prices to once again reflect the environmental capacity of the system, so that we can better understand the impacts of our consumption. Lin et al.’s paper nicely illustrates why we should care about pollution in China; our environments are as connected as our economies, and negative environmental impacts elsewhere have a way of “boomeranging” back to us.

Development vs. growth

I’m live-blogging this week from the US-IALE conference in Anchorage Alaska….. a lot of great discussions going on here!

Brian Czech from the Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy gave our plenary talk this morning about sustainable natural resource management and ecological economics. He cautioned us to be mindful of the words we use, particularly development vs. growth. Growth implies that an increasing amount of natural resources will be used over time, and the economy will expand. Development, on the other hand, allows for maintaining natural resource use at current levels, but changing how we use them (e.g., more efficiently and effectively).

Just an hour later, a presenter discussed how the Bureau of Land Management sets and works towards landscape management goals for the Prudhoe Bay area, including “sustainable economic development of natural resources”, however it became clear that BLM is really referring to “sustainable economic growth”. Brian was on-hand to point out the vast policy implications of this terminology choice; a very instructive lesson!

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.

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.

The price of gold and the loss of forests

“Everything is connected” is something we say so often in ecology that it often loses its meaning. However, this new study published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences really exemplifies the real world impact of these connections.

Skyrocketing gold prices, driven mainly by speculators, has spurred an epidemic of illegal mining (and consequently deforestation) in the Peruvian Amazon. These mines are dangerously close to a major river system, increasing the risk of mining pollution entering the Madre de Dios River watershed. Mining and deforestation often go together, as we know very well here in the UP.

Greg Asner and his colleagues used remote sensing imagery to detect these mines and measure deforestation caused by them. The images themselves provide a powerful message. Each hectare lost to mining can support hundreds of tree species, and thousands of animal species which depend upon them. The loss of these forests and risks of pollution are difficult to calculate, and therefore difficult to balance against the fluctuating value of the gold retrieved from the mines.

30 years in the blink of an eye

Time, NASA, USGS and Google have joined forces to create a stunning tool to visualize the extensive change that has occurred on our planet at human hands. Dubbed “Timelapse“, millions of Landsat satellite images from the past 30 years have been joined to allow the user to pan across a landscape and witness deforestation in the Amazon, glacial retreat from climate change, tar sands mining in Alberta, mountaintop removal in West Virginia, and urban sprawl in cities like Shanghai, China and Las Vegas, New Mexico (with the accompanying water withdrawal from Lake Mead).

It is often difficult for us to conceptualize and understand the scale at which our natural resource and land use reconfigures our world, but this tool helps immensely. Take a few minutes to check it out……

The meaning of money

I will be teaching a graduate level course in “Ecological Economics” this semester, a field of interdisciplinary economics that is usually classified under “heterodox” economics or, as the French like to call it, “post-autistic” economics. The fundamental principle of ecological economics is that our economy is dictated by physical limits (such as the second law of thermodynamics) and does not adhere to the assumption that different forms of capital are substitutable… there is an insufficient amount of human labor that can substitute for the work done by pollinators like bees, for example.

Along those lines, I’ve been thinking about what money means to us, specifically how the pictures we put on our currency might shape the way we think about what is valuable.

In the United States, our paper currency and coins all have the head of (most often) a President, Founding Father or Treasury Secretary on one side (we do have dollar coins with Susan B. Anthony or Sacagawea on them), and on the other side generally either a pyramid and Eye of Providence and/or an eagle clutching olive branches in one talon and arrows in the other. With these designs I believe we are emphasizing the value of our past, of our country’s “social capital” as a democracy. But aside from the bald eagle (our national bird), our currency doesn’t recognize our natural capital. Does that lead us to devalue it?

What about other countries? Brazil’s currency features memorable rainforest animals on one side… Brazil is a country famous for its Amazon rainforest and the natural capital it represents. Likewise, many of Australia’s coins feature species such as the kangaroo and platypus that are endemic to the country and hold great cultural value. Granted these two countries have dramatically altered their land use and resources – Brazil still suffers from a positive deforestation rate – so a symbolic link between natural and financial capital may be a good first step but not sufficient to promote more sustainable resource use.

One of the most significant conclusions from the ecological (and heterodox) economics field is the realization that selling capital and calling it profit is not good economics. Just as you wouldn’t take $100 from your bank account and say that you made $100 in profit that day, it is unsound economic policy to sell our forests, fish, or other natural capital and call that profit… it is simply the exchange of one kind of capital (natural) for another (financial). I wonder if putting pictures on our money of our natural capital would allow us to make the distinction between capital and profit more clearly.

Sustainable development of the manufacturing industry: casting and forging

This is a guest blog post from Minglei Guan, one of my students in the “Sustainability Science, Policy and Assessment” course this spring:

Sustainability is an important development goal for humanity in modern society. Manufacturing is a central feature of many economic development pathways, and in this sense casting and forging are therefore a necessary focus for sustainable development strategies. Casting (pouring hot metal into a mold) and forging (pressing metal into a certain shape) are two ways that all metal tools and products are made.

The economic issues for the casting and forging manufacturing industry can be summarized as low profit margins with high cost of capital, and market volatility. Low profit margins are common for small manufacturers when they lack an ability to improve their production processes, training and equipment. This issue can result in bankruptcy for small manufacturers, which then negatively impacts society through the loss of jobs. Economic support from government and industrial organizations can help alleviate this issue. For the second issue, the high cost of capital, is mainly driven by the cost of raw materials, labor, and energy. For the casting and forging manufacturing industry, the cost of materials is the most important. Efforts such as waste reduction and improved production methods are good ways to solve the issue, using approaches such as production life cycle improvement and TNS zero waste strategy.  Finally, the market volatility needs to be dependent upon local market requirements.

The casing and forging industries also have a large impact on the environmental dimension of sustainable development. High energy usage, materials resources waste and environmental damage are common to the casting and forging manufacturing industry.  High energy usage and materials resources waste are both resource issues; production life cycle improvement and TNS zero waste approaches can also be used to solve them. Emissions are also a serious problem for the industry. New technologies such as the “CRIMSON” model can be used to reduce emissions from the sand casting process. However, typically either new laws or environmental decrees are needed to limit greenhouse gas and smoke emissions or to filter them before they are released.

Finally, from social dimension, the industry has significant social impacts such as those related to labor costs and environmental damage as it impacts human health. To solve social, environmental and economic issues for the casting and forging manufacturing industry, one needs to considered relationships among these three views. Balanced development for society, the environment and the economy can push the manufacturing industry towards sustainability.

Bad news delivered well

This semester I am teaching a class on sustainability (Sustainability Science, Policy and Assessment), and I am struggling to decide whether I should show probably the most dispiriting and disconcerting documentary currently available on the topic of societal collapse, a very common topic in our class discussions.

Titled simply “Collapse“, the documentary is an interview with Michael Ruppert, one of the tallest lightning rods in the peak oil and sustainability circles. Ruppert’s methodology and conclusions are controversial, but that is not what makes his work so difficult to teach. There is a fatalistic quality to his work; that connecting fact A to B to C inevitably leads us all to D (collapse of civilization), when there are significant unknowns that may make those events truly unconnected and therefore D just one of many possible outcomes.

Indeed, it is the work of groups like The Resilience Alliance that try to understand these different pathways through destruction and renewal, and The Transition Network that tries to prevent D from becoming an inevitable outcome by guiding communities down different pathways.

I suppose I can understand how Ruppert’s history and career could lead him to see the worst in humanity…. his years in the Los Angeles police force surely required him to be open to the worst possibilities…. but hopefully I can teach my students the reality of the challenges we face without losing hope for kinder, gentler pathways through them.