Tag Archives: adaptation

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.


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.


Cozy living

First, apologies for the long hiatus…. the last month or so of the semester is always crazy.

I was going to write a reflective post on all of the sustainability-related events in 2012…. most notably, the lack of any sort of societal collapse as predicted by the Mayans and others (although as Jon Stewart remarked, perhaps the Mayans were not the best ones to be predicting collapses). However, as I sit here in my drafty post-mining poorly-insulated Yooper home, trying to warm my toes in front of a space heater, the only thing I can think about is how much nicer a tiny cottage with a pot-bellied wood stove might feel just about now.

Coincidentally, as I looked through my inbox, the latest edition of Grist has an entire article devoted to Living Large in Small Houses. While the thought of no mortgage and a forced reduction in junk (timely after the post-Christmas gift binge) does sound nice, what I found really engaging was the farm cottage in Vermont that stayed cozy all winter using less than a cord of wood.

I used to rent a log cabin even smaller than that when I was a grad student in Knoxville TN. It had a tiny kitchen, tiny bathroom, one small family room (where the wood stove was) and one other room that I used as a bedroom/den. Off the back was a giant porch with a view of the forested “holler” below, full of huge magnolia trees and tulip poplars hiding a Civil War-era fort within it. Due to the complete lack of insulation in the walls, I typically went through a cord of wood each winter, which wasn’t a big problem due to a microburst storm my first summer there that brought down 5 or 6 massive trees in my backyard. It look less than five minutes to find a forestry student with a chainsaw, and then I had years of wood to split and use. I look back on those years very fondly…. the house was small, easy to keep clean, and the heating system was very effective and simple to operate (open door, put wood in, throw in lit match, close door).

Maybe someday I’ll get back to that sort of living….. with the emergence of a huge diversity of tiny house blueprints, perhaps I’ll build it myself.

Happy New Year!


Hands-on Learning

I just came across an interesting post in The Chronicle of Higher Education by Scott Carlson regarding the need/desire for college students to learn life skills and trades in addition to more abstract or technical knowledge. A few colleges are already requiring their students to learn wood-working, machining, farming, and other skills, and from this article (and my own experience) it seems that students might really need to learn the basics as well (cooking and cleaning).

I would whole-heartedly agree with this shift. Back when I used to teach a first year Perspectives class (“Developing a Sustainability Mindset”), one of the assignments required the students to organize a potluck with their friends, and write about where the food came from (that is, what country or region, to estimate food miles), where the recipe originated, and the story behind the choices of dishes that the students made. In many cases, the lack of cooking knowledge overwhelmed the assignment, as many students were steaming rice or cooking pasta for the first time. That was certainly a shock to me, and represents a pretty profound shift in just one generation in American culture. I don’t remember a single friend of mine in college (male or female) who couldn’t master at least the “boil only” foods, and pop popcorn and cook cookies as well.

Many of the “Transition Town” and other relocalization movements rely on a wealth of DIY knowledge in their communities, but this assumption may need to be checked. If younger citizens do not know how to establish a garden or produce staples like clothing and cookware (not to mention build and maintain equipment), the transition to more localized production systems and economies might be made significantly more difficult.

Clearly we all have some educating to do!


Gen-X and the future

A while ago I finally carved out some time to read a book written by the two professors responsible for my disciplinary focus in landscape ecology: Paul and Hazel Delcourt. Their book, “Living well in the age of global warming: 10 strategies for Boomers, Bobos, and Cultural Creatives,” provides advice for people nearing retirement on how to adapt their finances and living arrangements given forecasted changes in ecosystems and the climate in the United States. It is a read that is as insightful and quirky as my former professors.

(For those of you wondering what a “bobo” is…. it’s a bourgeois bohemian, of course (!). “Cultural creatives” are those who are generally highly educated, engaged in “creative” professions, and tend to have less materialistic goals.)

While I really loved the approach that Paul and Hazel took to develop this kind of advice, I have to say that I felt the advice would serve Generation X (born roughly between 1965 and 1981) quite poorly. Much of the advice is based on how the amenities of different regions will be affected by changes in climate and species ranges, particularly from the viewpoint of real estate values. The book was written in 2001, well before the 2008 collapse of the housing market, and so much of their advice is moot at this point. But as I said, it is certainly a clever approach to the issue.

I have been thinking off and on about what sort of advice I would have for my fellow Gen X-ers, that cynical, sarcastic bunch sandwiched between the Boomers (who will likely suck Social Security dry) and the Millennials (who hate our current dour demeanors, and will certainly hate us as bitter, complaining elderly folks). Generally, Gen X-ers seem to be far more at ease when working individually, although we do spend a good chunk of energy on maintaining and growing our networks (personal and professional). It also seems that we have a propensity for the DIY activities (regardless of whether we are any good at them). This translates into a generation who may “downsize” and disappear into small towns and rural areas, with good soil and plenty of water, grumbling about all the things we miss about the big city until we visit our children in the big city (when we will grumble about the traffic, the pollution, the deterioration of infrastructure, etc.)

Of course, actually applying science to these hunches like the Delcourts did… that will require much more than the hand-waving that I’ve done here. Let’s see if this child of the Slacker Nation can actually pull that off… stay tuned!