Category: Sustainability in the News

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!


Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without

This old quote (linked to both the Great Depression in the United States, and the Shakers) can be difficult to abide by in our high tech world. However, I think these iFixit folks are really on to something here….. free online manuals for repairing anything from smart phones to  automobiles to toasters. Check the site out first before you haul that appliance to the curb…..


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!


Klyftig!

Usually when I read stories about the international waste trade, often it is of the variety of rich countries shipping their electronic and hazardous waste to poorer countries, where the waste is not properly handled and wreaks havoc with human health and the environment.

But Sweden is now importing waste from Norway (and Sweden is paid to take it). It is too expensive to incinerate the waste in Norway and meet Norwegian environmental standards, and the Swedes are so efficient at waste recycling that they don’t have enough waste to burn. Sweden incinerates the waste to produce electricity, and then ships the dioxin-laden ash back to Norway where it is landfilled. Both countries have roughly equal GDP, so I suppose there is no waste trade scandal here, other than to wonder whether the Norwegians really achieve any financial or environmental gains through this exchange.


Heat on the Rails

Although way up here in the UP we’ve been spared most of the punishing heat of this summer, I have had the opportunity to experience some first-hand but little reported consequences of this heat wave. Most strikingly, the difficulty of this kind of heat on our transportation systems.

Roads buckled under the intense heat, with dire consequences for unwary drivers.

Steel rails can warp, greatly increasing the likelihood of derailments. This occured in my childhood home of Glenview on the 4th of July, when warped rails may have caused a coal freight train to derail and then collapse an overpass, killing two people in a car underneath it.

And while I was in Portland, Oregon, two weeks ago for a conference, the extreme heat caused the electric train system to slow to a crawl, due to the threat of warping rails and sagging overhead powerlines. Ironically (and shamefully), the conference involved a lot of ecologists reporting worrying changes in species and ecosystems due to warmer temperatures across the globe; many of us contributed to this problem by flying all the way to Portland to give these results.


Sacrifice Zones

Journalist Chris Hedges recently appeared on “Moyers & Company”, and was interviewed by Bill Moyers about the “sacrifice zones” across the United States where economic, social, and environmental injustice combine to destroy local communities. These are excellent examples of why all three dimensions must be analyzed simultaneously to understand sustainability, and to design effective sustainable development strategies.

See the full interview here.


Loss

Maya Lin, creator of the Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial in Washington, D.C., is developing a lovely and moving web memorial to global biodiversity loss. Moving your mouse to click different dots, you can see single stories of species that have already disappeared, or click yourself into a “wormhole” with a story about once-abundant species now drastically reduced (and – too rarely – on their way back from the brink).

I suspect that for most people, staring at the possible loss of majestic species such as Siberian tigers helps to drive the point home. Stories of flocks of billions of passenger pigeons darkening the North American skies for days succinctly captures the destruction that a million guns can do to even the most abundant of species. But for ecologists, it is the smaller, less grandiose species we have studied that pull on our heart strings. I’ve worked on two species close to the edge (the California gnatcatcher and the Cape Sable seaside sparrow), and if and when they disappear it will be forever (as the failed attempts at saving the Dusky seaside sparrow illustrate). For ecologists, the loss of “our” species inspires a unique feeling of failure among us.


Ostrom (1933-2012): Beyond the Commons

Indiana University announced today that Prof. Elinor Ostrom, winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2009, died today of pancreatic cancer.

Ostrom was a textbook example of why diversity in perspectives and ideas always benefits any profession. At a time when Garrett Hardin’s “Tragedy of the Commons” (when commonly owned resources are unsustainably exploited) was the ruling paradigm of resource management, Ostrom’s studies of resources managed sustainably by local communities pointed out the limitations of the Tragedy paradigm. As stated by the Royal Swedish Academy’s announcement at the time of her award:

“Elinor Ostrom has challenged the conventional wisdom that common property is poorly managed and should be either regulated by central authorities or privatized. Based on numerous studies of user-managed fish stocks, pastures, woods, lakes, and groundwater basins, Ostrom concludes that the outcomes are, more often than not, better than predicted by standard theories. She observes that resource users frequently develop sophisticated mechanisms for decision-making and rule enforcement to handle conflicts of interest, and she characterizes the rules that promote successful outcomes.”

I have been reading the “Northwoods Reader” series by Cully Gage (a.k.a. Charles Van Riper), describing life in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan at the turn of the last century. At that time, land and waterways in the UP were a patchwork of large land holdings by industry and government (federal, state, and local), and small holdings by private individuals and families. However, no individuals would have been able to survive the long UP winters without subsistence hunting and fishing, which often took place locally on lands other than those owned by the individual. There was a well-developed system of socially acceptable behaviors related to hunting and fishing, regarding the time of year, sex, size, and number of individuals harvested. The irrelevance of land ownership with respect to subsistence-level resource use seemed similar to Finland and Sweden’s “Everyman’s Rights”, where the concept of “trespassing” is not directly translatable. (No surprise that this system migrated with the many Finns who settled in the UP). I often can’t help but reflect upon Ostrom’s work when I read passages about the local hunting and fishing practices that the “Lansing bureaucrats” called poaching, a concept derided as naïve at best by the locals.


Teeth from every angle

Ann Gibbons penned an interesting News Focus article in this week’s Science, reviewing research presented at the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center on two Mayan communities on the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico; one that was relatively wealthy and could afford soda and processed foods with refined sugar and flour, and one that was poorer and subsisted on more traditional maize-based foods. Residents of the wealthier village not only suffered more cavities (as one might expect), but far more problems with overbites, teeth overcrowding, impacted wisdom teeth, and other dental issues that often require the services of an orthodontist. It turns out that having lots of food in the diet that is coarse or difficult to chew (read: unprocessed) is important (especially for children) to help the lower jaw grow larger (allowing all those teeth to come in straight and uncrowded), and for adults to scrape harmful bacteria and plaque off of the surface of the teeth.

This special meeting focused on the “Evolution of Human Teeth and Jaws”, and was very diverse in disciplines represented: paleoarchaeologists, anthropologists, dentists, and food scientists. This area is a bit outside of my expertise, but I enjoyed reading about the findings because these interesting questions, and fascinating answers, really do require a multidisciplinary team looking at the issue from many angles. Indeed, it is not only exciting to work in these kinds of teams, but just as exciting to read about the results of others.