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.

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 .

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……

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?

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.

Obama’s Climate Speech

Yesterday, President Obama gave a speech at Georgetown University on the issue of climate change. The biggest news to come from that speech is his directive to the EPA to limit carbon pollution from both existing and new power plants through federal regulations. There are, of course, different opinions about whether this speech and the President’s intentions are a significant step forward, or not. Many are extremely disappointed by his continued ambivalence about the Keystone pipeline, and Americans throughout the country are taking action this summer in support of more radical steps than those outlined in the President’s speech.

I find it interesting that this speech came just days after a detailed article in Rolling Stone magazine declared the inevitable disappearance of Miami by the end of the century. This article caught my attention because, in this year of 2013 and given increases in life expectancy, is it possible that some people alive today could actually experience the disappearance of Miami? Is it possible that some of the college students here could experience it in their lifetimes? Other parts of the world are already experiencing the disappearance of inhabited lands, but an article about the disappearance of Miami hits much closer to home for most Americans – perhaps we have vacationed there, or know someone who lives there or has lived there. Perhaps it is the sheer size and abundance of such a prosperous and modern city that makes the potential of loosing it seem so momentous. Climate change is a huge and multi-faceted issue. It is difficult for me to even think about it without thinking about all of the issues related to social justice and international relations that are inevitably intertwined; add to this the scale and complexity and the potential that it is simply too late to avert, and the whole thing can become quite overwhelming.

For me, the most important part of President Obama’s speech is hidden in two simple sentences; he said: “Don’t tell folks that we have to choose between the health of our children or the health of our economy.  The old rules may say we can’t protect our environment and promote economic growth at the same time, but in America, we’ve always used new technologies — we’ve used science; we’ve used research and development and discovery to make the old rules obsolete.” If the “old rules” suggesting that environmental well-being and economic well-being are inevitably contradictory are truly made obsolete, what kind of innovations and decisions and policies could we pursue? Throwing out these old rules seems like the most significant way to pursue sustainability in this country, opening doors to more consequential change in energy usage, certainly, but also in other fundamental ways that could shift both practice and perspective for the sake of the planet, and ourselves.

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.