Sustainability

Is Population a Threat to the Environment?

Posted by almayer under Sustainability in the Curriculum

[This is a post from Mayra O. Sanchez Gonzalez, a PhD student in the Environmental and Energy Policy program here at Tech. This was an assignment for our Ecological Economics course.]

Is population growth a threat to the environment? My first answer to that question without thinking too much about it would be: Yes, because more people means more depletion of natural resources to support them. I am sure Paul Ehrlich will agree with me, because the Earth’s capacity to support a human population is finite (Ehrlich, 2009). I also think that the organization World Population Balance may consider me one of its members because they believe that overpopulation “is a root cause of resource depletion, species extinction, and rising poverty” (WPB, 2013). To support this statement they present some news, articles and a global population number updated every second. Another organization that might consider me as part of its membership is How many?. This organization states that “population growth is a root cause of many environmental and social problems” (HM?, 2013) and presents a long list of many issues caused by population growth, as well as a second-by-second tally of the number of people in the world.  At the moment I write this, we are 7,148,513,537 people on this planet, and by the time I finish writing this line the number will change because we gain 140 new babies every minute. These numbers, statistics and information make me feel overwhelmed and motive me to answer yes to the question that I presented before. However, when I start to think more deeply about the relationship between population and environment, I realize that it is very complex and that my answer cannot be simply Yes or No.

It is a fact that more people consume more natural resources, however not everybody consumes the same way. For instance, people from developed countries consume more resources than people from developing countries. One example of this is the United States. The US has only 5% of the population of the world but it consumes 25% of all world energy (Mazur, 2010). Also, sometimes developed countries go to developing countries to consume or pollute their natural resources because they want to conserve their own or because they have almost exhausted them.

It is not just the amount of natural resources that people consume, it is also about the reasons behind this consumption. These are important because they are shaped by different needs, values and beliefs. People from developing countries might consume resources because they need them to survive, whereas people from developed countries might consume resources not only to survive, but also to have more luxuries or feel more comfortable or to have the newest technological device available, such as cell phones, computers and cars.

I believe that the complex relationship between population and environment should be addressed with different strategies. For instance, we should educate people about the connections between the environment, population, consumption, inequity and human rights, considering different social and cultural contexts. We can emphasize women’s empowerment, so that they can make free decisions and can have free access to services such as contraception. We should also create policies that consider the complexity between the population and the environment. Finally we should support the consumption of local foods, goods and services.

However the most important is to start with ourselves by changing our life styles; it is not enough just to read, discuss, write, and think about these issues if we are not able to change the way we live now. We must think and act in a more sustainable way. We can start by adopting the three R’s strategy in our lives: Reduce, Reuse and Recycle. If we are able to do this in our daily life we are definitely contributing to a sustainable present and future for people and the environment.

References

Ehrlich, P. R. & Ehrlich, A.H. (2009) The Population Bomb Revised. The electronic journal of sustainable development, Vol. 1(3), pp. 63-71.

Mazur, L. (ed.) (2010) A Pivotal moment. Washington, DC: Island Press.

Dollarocracy and transitions to sustainability

Posted by almayer under Living Sustainably, Sustainability in the News

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

Posted by cschelly under Living Sustainably

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?

The price of gold and the loss of forests

Posted by almayer under Sustainability Research

“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.

UP Landscapes exhibit at the Beaumier Center at NMU

Posted by almayer under Sustainability in the News

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?

Posted by cschelly under Sustainability in the News

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?

Posted by cschelly under Campus Events, Living Sustainably, Sustainability in the News

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 .

30 years in the blink of an eye

Posted by almayer under Sustainability Research, Sustainability in the News

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……

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

Posted by almayer under Campus Events, Living Sustainably

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

Posted by cschelly under Living Sustainably, Sustainability in the News

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?

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