Category: Sustainability in the News

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 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.

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“.

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.

The Trick-or-Treating Index

This was a really interesting article on the Grist website last week that I saved for this Very Special Day. The author discusses two recent rankings of cities as related to their “trick-or-treat-ability”: the opportunity for small children to walk from house to house in a neighborhood safely. I thought they sounded quite suspiciously like several “sustainable communities” indices, but they are a festive twist on this sustainability assessment staple.

Zillow developed the rankings using four proxies for trick-or-treat-ability: Home value index (more ritsy homes mean safer neighborhoods and better candy); Walkability (so kids don’t have to be driven door-to-door by parents…. although this has something to do with laziness as well, I suspect); Density (the more doors closer together, the less walking needed to fill up the bag); and Violent and Nonviolent Crime rate (for obvious reasons). San Francisco, Boston, Honolulu, Seattle, and Chicago top this list.

Richard Florida also gives it a shot, including in his index the percentage of kids under 14, median household income, share of adults who walk to work, density, and percentage of “artists, designers, and other cultural creatives” (read: those people not likely to buy a boring costume at a discount retailer…. a group which may have little overlap with people who have kids. But I digress.) His index ranks Bridgeport-Stamford, Los Angeles, New York, Chicago and Washington, D.C. as the best trick-or-treating spots.

Of course, trick-or-treating is probably just as safe and productive (from a kid’s point of view) in the smaller, rural towns of 10,000 – 30,000, where everyone knows each other and older houses form closely-knit neighborhoods around a central downtown core. The house prices may not be high in these areas, and perhaps the neighbors hand out the fun size bars instead of the real deal, but these towns certainly shouldn’t be excluded altogether from this sort of index.

And yes, Houghton MI is a pretty decent place to collect a pillowcase full of candy on Halloween.

Great PNAS article this week for Collapse fans

Well, perhaps I shouldn’t say Collapse “fans”, but rather scholars…. I would assume most people are not rooting for societal collapse!

In this week’s Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Zhang et al. look at specific ecological, economic, and social variables that changed with the global cooling event from 1560 to 1660 AD, a period of widespread societal upheaval particularly in Europe. Previous studies have found that civilizations in the past have been severely disrupted by climate change, but generally there have been insufficient records of most of the social and economic characteristics of these civilizations to study their collapse in detail, other than what we can gather from abandoned settlements and human remains. For more recent preindustrial societies, records indicate that it is most likely the rapid decline in agricultural production that is a proximate cause of the unravelling of a civilization, with climate change implicated in widespread crop failures. Studies like this fill in many details of a general hypothesis of how and why societies collapse, started by Joseph Tainter in the 1980’s and popularized by Jared Diamond’s book Collapse in 2005.

In this PNAS article, the authors look at European societies during both peaceful times and times of upheaval, to determine if the “dark” ages were correlated with climate change and to identify which ecological (e.g., agricultural production), social (e.g., population size, average height), and economic (e.g., grain prices, real wages) characteristics are most vulnerable to this change. They paid particular attention to whether the presumed cause preceded the effect, a detail that has been missing from previous studies due to a lack of adequate resolution in temporal data. They found that variables associated with agricultural production and per capita food supply followed immediately after the start of the global cooling period, with later increases in war, famine, and migration that were a likely consequence of food shortages and spiraling food prices.

Here was one of the findings that jumped out at me: “Grain price could be taken as an indicator and direct cause of conditions of harmony or crisis in preindustrial Europe.” This is a very strong argument for the importance of local and robust agricultural systems to sustainability, and we have already seen riots over food prices in the past few years.

The authors conclude with a bold statement: “Our findings have important implications for industrial and postindustrial societies. Any natural or social factor that causes large resource (supply) depletion, such as climate and environmental change, overpopulation, overconsumption, or nonequitable distribution of resources, may lead to a general crisis, according to the set of causal linkages in Fig. 2. The scale of the crisis depends on the temporal and spatial extent of resource depletion.

Hmmm…. has anyone looked at the Gini Index lately?

The Anthropocene epoch

There is an interesting piece in this week’s Science regarding the discussions that geologists are having at their meeting this week, as to whether the epoch we are in right now should be officially called the “Anthropocene”, and if so, when it should start.

It may seem like one of those nerd debates that doesn’t really matter to normal folks, but this one really does. The article has some excellent graphics and truly frightening statistics to anchor this debate. Consider this: 80% of the Earths’ land area has been altered by humans, and 90% of the biomass represented by mammalian species is currently tied up in either human or domesticated livestock bodies. Think about that…. our bodies and our cows, goats and sheep outweigh all of the lions and tigers and bears out there, not to mention the elephants, whales, and gorillas.

Wow. That one took me a while to process.

So what does this say about our future on this planet, or even the future of our planet? Back in 1986, Peter Vitousek* sounded an alarm regarding our increasingly heavy footprint, estimating that humans soaked up about 40% of the planet’s Net Primary Productivity, a measure of how much sunlight plants convert into biomass. That doesn’t leave much left for the millions of species with which we share this rock. And unfortunately, our fate is tied up with most of those millions; if they go, there is no guarantee that we won’t go too.

*Vitousek P, Ehrlich P, Ehrlich A, Matson P. 1986. Human appropriation of the products of photosynthesis. BioScience 36:368-373.

Mining in the UP

Prof. Richelle Winkler, a new faculty member in Social Sciences, is arranging for pro- and anti-mining speakers to give short presentations on campus regarding mining in the UP. The information for the anti-mining speaker has been set; no firm details yet on the pro-mining speaker (but stay tuned here for an update!)

Current Mining Activities in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula
Date: Thursday, October 13
Time: 12-1:00
Place: Memorial Union Ballrooms B2/B3

Students, faculty, and staff are invited to attend an informal lunchtime discussion with Kristi Mills from Save the Wild UP ( about current mining efforts in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and the organization’s efforts to protect community and environmental well-being. Kristi will offer a presentation and allow time for discussion.  Please feel free to bring your lunch.  This event is being sponsored by the Social Science Department, Program on Environmental Policy, Program on Industrial Archaeology, and Students for a Sustainable Environment.