Tag Archives: Local sustainability

Bringing Solar Energy Technology to Campus

Have you ever used solar energy to charge your laptop or cellphone? Have you ever had the chance to watch a battery’s charging meter go up as it takes in power from the sun? Would you like to learn more about the efficiency and potential of solar electric technology?

A study is about to begin on campus involving solar energy technology. Goal Zero is a leader in portable solar equipment technology, and eight of their systems are now here on campus. Two of these systems are meant for larger scale use (for a family or group housing situation); six of them are smaller, relatively portable, and meant for individual usage. A collaborative project between Dr. Joshua Pearce’s lab and Dr. Chelsea Schelly of the Department of Social Sciences, the goal of the project is to temporarily install these systems into Greek housing, shared student houses, dorms rooms and university apartments so that students can get firsthand experience using solar energy technology. After they’ve spent some time living with solar electricity, participants will be asked about their energy behaviors – how they use and think about energy. This project was recently discussed in the Lode.

Solar electric technology provides one means of decreasing our reliance on fossil fuels and localizing energy production. Participating in this study will provide students with exposure to the latest in portable and small scale solar electricity generation, and will provide researchers with information regarding how technology impacts our energy behaviors and attitudes. If you live in Greek organization housing, share a house with other students, or would be interested in participating as an individual, we’d love to hear from you! Please contact cschelly@mtu.edu.



Wendell Berry: Writing the Poetry and Economics of Ecological Responsibility

[This is a post from Katie Snyder, a PhD student in Rhetoric and Technical Communication here at Tech. This was an assignment for our Ecological Economics course.]

As far as I can tell, there’s not much conversation between economists and poets of late. This is unfortunate, in a way, because both are so closely attuned to the inconsistencies of human emotion. Economic news reporters, for example, will discuss “nervousness” in the market, or “optimism,” as if “the market” had feelings of its own. Poets, at the same time, are deeply concerned with emotive experience, adhering to schemes of rhythm and sense.

But it’s hard to find someone who can engage intelligibly in economics and poetry at the same time — harder still to find someone who can articulate a meaningful relationship between these two in the context of current ecological crises. Maybe there are more examples than one, but Wendell Berry is the best I can think of at this point.

Berry, now 79, is a poet and farmer, among other things. A graduate of the University of Kentucky, and winner of myriad writing prizes and awards, he’s taught and farmed and served as a local activist for most of his life. His writing is lovely and unexpected. Read, for example, “The Peace of Wild Things.”

Last spring Bill Moyers interviewed Berry as part of an ecologically-themed conference at St. Catharine’s College, located outside Louisville. The interview aired in Oct 2013 on Moyer’s program, and highlights the pragmatic and humble logic of Berry’s perspective.

Berry argues, for example, that it should be little wonder that the industrialized world finds it increasing difficult to keep human beings “employed.” He says that one of the two goals of industrialization was to replace people with machines, and points out that we’ve met this goal quite successfully—though politicians are loathe to make that connection. Berry says its his job, because he has “no power,” to call out this kind of inconsistency.

The suggestion that he has “no power” should be clarified however, because he believes that “the people” have power if they choose to take it, and that ecological damage can only be reversed in local and long-term schemes developed by communities who are devoted to their land. It is out of this commitment to rehabilitation and reclaiming that he advocates for the 50-year farm bill.

The bill proposes to move away from monoculture and return more crop diversity and more people to rural lands. Berry admits this proposal would take patience … and faith … and hope. But he is adamant that we must try. Even in the face of impossible odds he says,

“We don’t have a right to ask whether we are going to succeed or not. The only thing we have a right to ask is, ‘What’s the right thing to do? What does this earth require of us if we want to continue to live on it?’”

And while these are philosophical and spiritual and ethical questions, Berry points out that they are also very pragmatic economic questions. Toward this end, he is intensely critical of modern capitalism. He argues that its “natural logic” is to take as much as you want, by whatever means you can devise—and this logic is simply unsustainable.

Berry’s love for, and obligation to, nature plays out in his economic perspectives as much as in his poetry.  He says his writing gives an account of “precious things,” most of which are now in danger of falling away. His hope is that we can again begin to see the world in terms of its preciousness—its sacredness—rather than simply in terms of its immediate economic value.


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.


Living Sustainably? The case of burning wood

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?


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.


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 .


Food in the UP neighborhood

And finally a foodie post from my current haunts…. the UP Food Exchange website is up and running! Make it your first stop for information on local food news, farmers and markets, as well as an online market to increase agricultural connectivity across the three UP regions (Western, Central, and Eastern).


More urban farming news from my old haunts

This time it’s news from Cincinnati that one of the oldest community gardens in Over the Rhine would have been bulldozed for housing development. The “Eco-Garden” is a lovely garden that I used to walk by frequently on my way to downtown from Clifton, so it is very good news indeed that it has not only been spared, but incorporated into the city’s redevelopment plans for Over the Rhine.

While Over the Rhine is one of the poorest neighborhoods in Cincinnati, it has deep cultural roots that include food and urban ag. I spent most of my Saturday mornings at the historic Findlay Market, which was open year-round thanks to a major improvement about 8 years ago to enclose the main stalls in a four-seasons building. Before that project, Findlay Market definitely required a bit of stoicism for winter shopping, but it separated the committed from the fair-season shoppers.

Farmers Markets are quickly returning to cities around the country, after decades of lagging interest. It is quite an impressive achievement for Findlay Market to have withstood the test of time. And now it appears, happily, that the Eco-Garden will too.


Chicago’s new Urban Farmer program

Grist.org published a segment last week on Chicago’s new urban farmer program, aiming to train up to 100 farmers each year on how to establish an urban neighborhood farm, both from the agricultural as well as the business side.

Many contracting or otherwise struggling urban cities in the US are looking to agriculture as a solution for vacant lots and unhealthy diets, from Pittsburgh to Detroit to Los Angeles. (You know it’s a trend when the New York Times has an entire online section dedicated to it.) Farming (or even gardening) on a vacant lot can be challenging, from polluted soil to poor drainage to pest infestations, not to mention ordinance violations. But as experience with these transformations grow, lessons learned from converting many thousands of acres of brownfields into greenfields could help localize our food system and provide much needed urban employment. It’s also a great way to immerse children in the food system, allowing easier access to gardens (to participate in growing their own food) and a natural way to get to know others in their community.

Personally, I’m glad to see the change of heart in my native city; let’s see if the suburbs follow suit and relax their landscaping ordinances that prohibit gardens in front yards.