Author: almayer

(Time) frame of mind

Last week I attended the 2012 Trans-Atlantic Research & Development Interchange on Sustainability (TARDIS) workshop, in lovely Seggauberg, Austria. The theme of this year’s workshop was “Time and time frames for sustainability”, and the attendees did not disappoint on the theme. Much of the discussion visited two main issues:

  1. How do we manage our systems for sustainability if we can’t predict the future?
  2. How do we identify and correct the mismatches between the rate at which catastrophes occur, and the rate at which humans and political entities can respond to them?

While we came a bit closer to understanding these two issues, sadly we did not solve them. While it was encouraging to see the diversity of approaches that have been attempted to arrive at a solution, we seemed to be constrained by solutions that wouldn’t feel like a “shock doctrine” approach to the status quo…. individuals to societies tend not to respond politely to this approach, even when it might be the fastest way to a better quality of life.

One interesting sidebar was the notion that while Western cultures tend to think of time linearly (it only flows in one direction, usually towards progress but occasionally over a cliff), Eastern cultures think of time as cyclical or circular. It occurred to me that this also may simply be a function of the time frame; if systems evolve as the Panarchy folks advocate, then a very short-term view of a system in the process of maturing or reorganizing may seem linear. Take a step back for a longer-term view, and you may see that the system does follow a cycle, with a systemic reset every so often to clear the system of dysfunction. However, step even further back, and a progressive system of cycles may emerge. Of course, there may be a step further back than that, as our five previous global mass extinctions remind us.

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Scrip times

It seems that when money gets scarce, new forms of money emerge to fill the gap. One town in Greece has developed a local currency called the TEM to help them maintain their economic systems against the tide of collapse in that country; I would expect many other towns to follow. Although scrip systems are more common in depressions, there have been other systems (such as Ithaca Hours in Ithaca, New York) that have been developed and used more to support local business than to weather economic storms. Supporting local businesses provides a “multiplier effect” for circulating local dollars: as they pass from citizens to businesses and back to citizens, each dollar does more “work” locally (if you will) than if national or multinational businesses are frequented (while the labor is local, the profits are sent elsewhere and rarely invested locally). The EPA put out a great manual over 20 years ago on this issue, and it is still relevant today.

If you had to (or wanted to) develop a local currency, what would it be called?


Walking is so pedestrian

This recent article in Slate on the amount of walking that Americans do relative to those in other countries could not have been more timely for me (and thanks to Grist.com for bringing it to my attention!). I read it while in Newport, Rhode Island at a professional meeting (the US-International Association for Landscape Ecology, of all things) and it really struck a chord.

Always the cheapskate, I found a hotel that was almost one-third of the price of the hotel where the meeting was held, and it was only about a mile away: an easily walkable distance. I like to build these sorts of walks into my day, especially when I’m at a conference that involves a lot of sitting in dark rooms for hours on end. The morning walk ensures that I am awake for the presentations, and the evening walk allows me to reflect back on what I’ve learned.

However, although the walk looked straightforward and perfectly safe on the web, it was considerably less so in reality. At least a third of it involved walking in a grassy/sandy ditch while cars sped past on a two-lane road (and I was not the only walker using this route), and the rest of the way included narrow sidewalks littered with street signs, fire hydrants, and other impediments (I suppose I should include dog poop here as well). Marked and posted pedestrian crossings across two busy county roads were few and far between.

It seemed odd to me that a tourist-based town was so difficult for pedestrians, especially given that the town was settled far before automobiles were invented (some of the old houses in the historic district dated back to the 1700’s). Most likely, the space once devoted to pedestrians and horse-drawn carriages was given over to automobiles, with not much thought given to their inherent incompatibilities. Walkability is often emphasized in conversations regarding sustainable cities, and now I have a very personal understanding of this issue.


The value of money

I found a small bit of time over the weekend to read Mark Boyle’s recent book, “The Moneyless Man: A year of freeconomic living” (2010, One World Publications). He succeeded to live for a year without spending or exchanging money; all of his needs were met through bartering, growing or building things himself, riding his bike (or occasionally hitchhiking), or using the cast-offs of others. Although he acknowledged the role that money plays in a market system (regardless of whether it is capitalist, socialist, communist, or other), he felt that money has become disassociated with this central role: to help make the trade of goods and services more efficient. Instead, money has become a end goal to itself; to accumulate as much as possible.

The book is an interesting read, and has a good deal to contribute to communities that are interested in supplying more goods and services locally, and for those looking to simplify their lives. Unfortunately some of his methods are illegal in some (or all!) parts of the US (e.g., dumpster diving, collecting wild edible plants and mushrooms on private property), but the illegality of these methods does give the reader an opportunity to wonder why these laws are necessary.

The book brought to mind the documentary “Once upon a time in Knoxville“, about a sort-of planned community within spitting distance of my old haunts in southern Knoxville during my grad school days. There, one enterprising man has built an entire neighborhood of houses out of discarded materials, and rents the houses out. Sadly, the house I rented (presumably not made from recycled things) was quite a bit worse than the houses he had put together! But perhaps I couldn’t have expected much for $200/month…..

If nothing else, Mr. Boyle provides the reader encouragement to take some time off from “the rat race” (if even for a long weekend) and contemplate what exactly is needed versus what is a want masquerading as a need. That is certainly something most people in developed countries could do on a regular basis!


How small can you go?

I’ve always been fascinated by “alternative” living spaces, even if I couldn’t imagine living in one myself.

Previously I’ve been interested in homes made from shipping containers and other repurposed items, but lately these links have been arriving to my inbox fast and furious.

I found out that my Knoxville neighborhood in my grad school days was literally in spitting distance to an entire neighborhood of homes from repurposed things… although I did have my suspicions. 🙂

And now I think I’ve seen it all…. a high-end condo built on the design theory of an Airstream.

What do you think: could you live in 160 square feet?


Losing a global carbon sponge

A paper published last week in Nature reviewed a growing body of evidence that suggests that a profound loss of forest cover in the Amazaon would have worrying consequences for the rest of the planet.

In “The Amazon basin in transition“, Davidson et al. describe how the impacts of agricultural expansion and climate events such as El Niño can conspire to destroy even more forest through drought- and fire-induced deforestation. When trees die or burn, they release carbon into the atmosphere. If more trees are destroyed than grow to replace them, more carbon is released than is absorbed; the Amazon sink becomes a source. According to the article, the Amazon rainforst currently sequesters roughly 100 billion tons of carbon, an amount equivalent to the carbon release from a decade’s worth of fossil fuel use.

Currently forest cover has been reduced to about 80% of its original area; the article suggests that if forest cover approaches 40%, a critical transition from forest to savanna may occur, given feedbacks between tree cover and precipition (see our summary in Science). If this occurs, we might witness what happens with the lost of “the lungs of the planet“.


The Economics of Happiness

Green Film Series Thursday Night
“The Economics of Happiness” will be shown at 7 p.m., Thursday, Jan. 19, in G002 Hesterberg Hall in the Forestry Building. Part of the Green Film Series, the film will be followed by a discussion led by Assistant Professor Daya Muralidharan (School of Business and Economics). The series is free, but a $3 donation is requested.


Save some for the birds

In last week’s Science, a group of researchers pooled data on marine ecosystems around the world to measure the impact of fisheries on marine birds. They found that once fish and krill populations dipped below 30% of their maximum, bird populations began to suffer. Said a different way: if we want penguins, puffins, terns and kittiwakes, we’re going to have to leave them something to eat.

The study reminds me of Peter Vitousek’s famous piece (BioScience 36:368) on “Human Appropriated Net Primary Productivity” in 1986. He estimated that humans use about 40% of all of the biomass produced by plants in a given year; this claim has been supported and refuted about a dozen times since then. Postel et al. have looked at  our appropriation of water as well (estimating that we use over half of the available runoff globally). Since everything needs to eat and drink, it then becomes less surprising that we are witness to such startling losses of biodiversity (well…. perhaps we are more than just “witnessing” it!).

The difference between the “one third for the birds” study and these predecessors is policy relevance: it is probably better to know how much we can take before we do irreparable damage, than to simply know how much we are taking. Let’s see if others can follow suit with biomass, water, and land area.

Happy New Year!


Sustainable “gown towns”

Professor David Orr has been a long time scholar of sustainability, and is now putting thought into action. He has spearheaded “The Oberlin Project“, an ambitious endeavor to make Oberlin, OH a self-sustaining community: socially, economically, and environmentally.

“Gown towns” are those small towns that have a college or university that tends to dominate the social and economic activity of the town. Small towns like Oberlin OH or Miami OH (Miami University of Ohio) can seem to be more of a service station to the faculty, staff and students of the academic institution than a stand-alone community, especially for those citizens who live and go to school there. Even larger cities, such as Knoxville TN, can be dominated by their universities sometimes (especially during football season… go Vols!). For these towns, it might be quite a challenge to build lasting business and arts districts when at least half of the population is seasonal and transient (i.e., the students). However, many of these towns are close enough to a major city to allow them to be dependent upon them for certain services and sectors; Oberlin (just 40 miles from Cleveland) is no exception.

Now here’s my humble opinion: Houghton/Hancock MI might superficially seem like yet another “gown town”, ripe for new ideas about self-sufficiency and sustainability. However, I’d argue that we are quite different than the gown towns of Oberlin and Miami in one very critical respect: we are over 200 miles from the nearest city (Green Bay, WI). Our remoteness may have forced upon us a self-sufficiency that is rare among gown towns. We are probably not any more or less sustainable than these other towns (and so we have a lot to learn from The Oberlin Project), but I’d argue that at least we’ve got most of the components we need to get there.


HIV and AIDS awareness event tonight

Just copying and pasting an email here:

This is just a reminder that:

The African Students Organization is partnering with Global City, Houghton High School Model United Nations Club, International Club, National Society of Black Engineers, Masters in Business Administration Association and Society of Intellectual Sisters to host an HIV/AIDS Awareness event  tonight Tuesday, November 29 featuring international HIV/AIDS activist Hydeia Broadbent as the guest speaker.  We are excited to  have a wonderful role model like Ms. Broadbent on our campus and we are looking forward to hearing what she has to share with us tomorrow.

We hope that you will be able to join us as we come together on November 29 in celebration of life and recognition of the accomplishments that have been made over the last thirty years with the advent of anti-retroviral drugs, as well as look forward and discuss some of the challenges pertaining to HIV/AIDS that we still face today in the global society of the 21st century.

                                                                                       Location : Michigan Technological University DOW Building Room 641
                                                                                                     When : Tuesday November 29, 2011 @6PM
                                                                            This is a FREE event & refreshments will be provided by the Center for Diversity and Inclusion
 
The program will begin with a jeopardy game to see what you know about HIV/AIDS, followed by a presentation by guest speaker Hydeia Broadbent :

Ms. Broadbent was named by Ebony Magazine as one of the 150 Most Influential African Americans in 2008. She was born with HIV and was not expected to live past the age of 5. Through her numerous appearances on television shows such as Oprah, radio shows, prominent publications such as the New York Times and events, she has become a beacon of hope for those living with the virus and an active voice of reminder to the rest of the importance of responsibility and accountability. Having lived her entire life with the virus, at 27 Hydeia is one of the youngest international HIV/AIDS activists. In her own words she says “even though it’s a struggle, my life has been a blessing, because I’ve had the opportunity to work with so many different people and share my story with people.” Her message underscores this year’s theme “How Positive Are You That You’re Negative?”  

This event is sponsored by the Biomedical Engineering Department, Center for Diversity and Inclusion, Chemical Engineering Department, Institutional Diversity, Graduate School Government, Undergraduate School Government, Women’s Fund, Housing and Residential Life and this event is supported by the Parents Fund of the Michigan Tech Fund.