Sustainability

Posts under the ‘Sustainability Research’ category

Saying goodbye

Sunday, February 9th, 2014

Conservation biology is an often-dismal discipline. For every story with a happy ending, there are hundreds with a tragic one – and often beyond that, thousands that end without us ever knowing. The loss of species that endear themselves to us is always a particularly difficult goodbye.

The monarch butterfly is swiftly approaching a sad fate. Robbed of its critical food supply (milkweed) by industrial agriculture in the midwestern region of North America, fewer monarchs are able to reproduce and migrate back down to its wintering habitat in Mexico. This year, surveys of Mexican forests have recorded the lowest number of returning monarch butterflies since these surveys began. The monarch migration is a fantastic spectacle; these butterflies migrate thousands of miles in spring and fall. Their large size and colorful markings make them familiar to most, and hence their declining numbers are likely to be noticed. That is the good news.

In this conservation case, everyone can help. Planting milkweed (the native species to North America, not tropical species such as Asclepias curassavica) in your front and back yard will help replace the feeding stations that the butterflies have lost with agriculture, and allow them to build up their numbers. Large populations help the butterfly persist through late springs (which disrupt their breeding schedule) and extreme weather events that can kill them outright.

For more information on monarch biology and how to help, you can visit the Monarch Watch webpage.

The price of gold and the loss of forests

Wednesday, October 30th, 2013

“Everything is connected” is something we say so often in ecology that it often loses its meaning. However, this new study published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences really exemplifies the real world impact of these connections.

Skyrocketing gold prices, driven mainly by speculators, has spurred an epidemic of illegal mining (and consequently deforestation) in the Peruvian Amazon. These mines are dangerously close to a major river system, increasing the risk of mining pollution entering the Madre de Dios River watershed. Mining and deforestation often go together, as we know very well here in the UP.

Greg Asner and his colleagues used remote sensing imagery to detect these mines and measure deforestation caused by them. The images themselves provide a powerful message. Each hectare lost to mining can support hundreds of tree species, and thousands of animal species which depend upon them. The loss of these forests and risks of pollution are difficult to calculate, and therefore difficult to balance against the fluctuating value of the gold retrieved from the mines.

30 years in the blink of an eye

Monday, August 12th, 2013

Time, NASA, USGS and Google have joined forces to create a stunning tool to visualize the extensive change that has occurred on our planet at human hands. Dubbed “Timelapse“, millions of Landsat satellite images from the past 30 years have been joined to allow the user to pan across a landscape and witness deforestation in the Amazon, glacial retreat from climate change, tar sands mining in Alberta, mountaintop removal in West Virginia, and urban sprawl in cities like Shanghai, China and Las Vegas, New Mexico (with the accompanying water withdrawal from Lake Mead).

It is often difficult for us to conceptualize and understand the scale at which our natural resource and land use reconfigures our world, but this tool helps immensely. Take a few minutes to check it out……

The meaning of money

Wednesday, June 26th, 2013

I will be teaching a graduate level course in “Ecological Economics” this semester, a field of interdisciplinary economics that is usually classified under “heterodox” economics or, as the French like to call it, “post-autistic” economics. The fundamental principle of ecological economics is that our economy is dictated by physical limits (such as the second law of thermodynamics) and does not adhere to the assumption that different forms of capital are substitutable… there is an insufficient amount of human labor that can substitute for the work done by pollinators like bees, for example.

Along those lines, I’ve been thinking about what money means to us, specifically how the pictures we put on our currency might shape the way we think about what is valuable.

In the United States, our paper currency and coins all have the head of (most often) a President, Founding Father or Treasury Secretary on one side (we do have dollar coins with Susan B. Anthony or Sacagawea on them), and on the other side generally either a pyramid and Eye of Providence and/or an eagle clutching olive branches in one talon and arrows in the other. With these designs I believe we are emphasizing the value of our past, of our country’s “social capital” as a democracy. But aside from the bald eagle (our national bird), our currency doesn’t recognize our natural capital. Does that lead us to devalue it?

What about other countries? Brazil’s currency features memorable rainforest animals on one side… Brazil is a country famous for its Amazon rainforest and the natural capital it represents. Likewise, many of Australia’s coins feature species such as the kangaroo and platypus that are endemic to the country and hold great cultural value. Granted these two countries have dramatically altered their land use and resources – Brazil still suffers from a positive deforestation rate – so a symbolic link between natural and financial capital may be a good first step but not sufficient to promote more sustainable resource use.

One of the most significant conclusions from the ecological (and heterodox) economics field is the realization that selling capital and calling it profit is not good economics. Just as you wouldn’t take $100 from your bank account and say that you made $100 in profit that day, it is unsound economic policy to sell our forests, fish, or other natural capital and call that profit… it is simply the exchange of one kind of capital (natural) for another (financial). I wonder if putting pictures on our money of our natural capital would allow us to make the distinction between capital and profit more clearly.

Sustainable development of the manufacturing industry: casting and forging

Monday, May 6th, 2013

This is a guest blog post from Minglei Guan, one of my students in the “Sustainability Science, Policy and Assessment” course this spring:

Sustainability is an important development goal for humanity in modern society. Manufacturing is a central feature of many economic development pathways, and in this sense casting and forging are therefore a necessary focus for sustainable development strategies. Casting (pouring hot metal into a mold) and forging (pressing metal into a certain shape) are two ways that all metal tools and products are made.

The economic issues for the casting and forging manufacturing industry can be summarized as low profit margins with high cost of capital, and market volatility. Low profit margins are common for small manufacturers when they lack an ability to improve their production processes, training and equipment. This issue can result in bankruptcy for small manufacturers, which then negatively impacts society through the loss of jobs. Economic support from government and industrial organizations can help alleviate this issue. For the second issue, the high cost of capital, is mainly driven by the cost of raw materials, labor, and energy. For the casting and forging manufacturing industry, the cost of materials is the most important. Efforts such as waste reduction and improved production methods are good ways to solve the issue, using approaches such as production life cycle improvement and TNS zero waste strategy.  Finally, the market volatility needs to be dependent upon local market requirements.

The casing and forging industries also have a large impact on the environmental dimension of sustainable development. High energy usage, materials resources waste and environmental damage are common to the casting and forging manufacturing industry.  High energy usage and materials resources waste are both resource issues; production life cycle improvement and TNS zero waste approaches can also be used to solve them. Emissions are also a serious problem for the industry. New technologies such as the “CRIMSON” model can be used to reduce emissions from the sand casting process. However, typically either new laws or environmental decrees are needed to limit greenhouse gas and smoke emissions or to filter them before they are released.

Finally, from social dimension, the industry has significant social impacts such as those related to labor costs and environmental damage as it impacts human health. To solve social, environmental and economic issues for the casting and forging manufacturing industry, one needs to considered relationships among these three views. Balanced development for society, the environment and the economy can push the manufacturing industry towards sustainability.

Bad news delivered well

Tuesday, March 5th, 2013

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.

The new Pointillism

Thursday, January 24th, 2013

Brandon Martin-Anderson would have made Seurat proud; using US Census Bureau data (and a very large server), he recreated US and Canadian population patterns by representing each person as one dot.

What really struck me on this map is how the gridded road network in the Midwestern US dictates population settlement pattern, while natural features (such as the interior valleys in California) drive population settlement elsewhere. Of course major cities are obvious, but obvious too are the millions of people on the Florida coast who are at great risk of sea level rise from climate change (as well as more intense hurricanes).

What do you see?

Ninth Floor Farms

Thursday, September 20th, 2012

Michigan Tech has launched itself into the urban ag movement with an aquaponics set-up in the ninth floor greenhouse in the Dow. Established by Robert Handler (in the Sustainable Futures Institute) and Nancy Auer (Biological Sciences), the farm is producing basil, tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, and more than three dozen tilapia (in the large blue bins with the mesh on top). The water from the fish bins (filled with fish poop) circulates to the planted containers, where the plants use the fish fertilizer to grow. The water trickles through the soil, leaving through the bottom as clean water that is then circulated back into the fish tanks. Given the great success of its inaugural year, I can envision a steady flow of fresh, local veggies and fish appearing in the campus dining halls in the near future.

Prof. Nancy Auer and Dr. Robert Handler discussing the aquaponics system at Michigan Tech

All of this has happened before

Saturday, July 14th, 2012

Although summers are quite busy, usually I try to find the time to read several books that have been occupying the corner of my desk during the academic year. I have finally read a book on my “meaning to get to” list for years: “Prehistoric Native Americans and Ecological Change,” (Cambridge University Press), by the professors who taught me landscape ecology, Paul and Hazel Delcourt.

Originally published in 2004, the book combines archaeology and paleoecology to describe how landscapes in North America were changed by human societies long before Europeans arrived. Ecologists especially have always believed that pre-European societies had little lasting impact on ecosystems in North America. This belief underpins many conservation biology targets for habitat and species restoration. However, the Delcourts describe thriving human societies in Ontario, southern Illinois and Eastern Tennessee that used fire and forest harvesting to support their agriculture-based societies, dramatically increasing nut-bearing trees and pioneer species (such as ragweed) at the expense of species adapted to mature forests. These changes, made at increasingly large scales, may have also increased herbivore species such as white-tailed deer that thrive in early-successional and edge woodland habitats.

The book is framed by Panarchy theory, and explains how these changes, when they reached a critical proportion of the surrounding landscape, created greater disturbances (such as floods) that likely led to the area being abandoned by these societies, long before Europeans arrived on the scene. These events are a reminder that humans, like all species, alter their environments. Sometimes these alterations are beneficial in the short term, but often they are detrimental in the long term. Even with small-scale disturbances (such as slash-and-burn agriculture), if the period allowed for ecosystem regeneration is too short, soil fertility can decline and ultimately the practice becomes unsustainable.

Of course, the lessons we gain from the distant past (14,000 to 500 years before present) are limited in their applicability. North America is now home to over 400 million people, almost two orders of magnitude larger than it has ever supported before. It may be that the agricultural and settlement practices of even the most sustainable of these early societies would be completely unsustainable today. But what we can learn is that our impacts will certainly be available for study for a long, long time.

Loss

Saturday, June 30th, 2012

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.

Michigan Technological University is an equal opportunity educational institution/equal opportunity employer

1400 Townsend Drive
Houghton, Michigan 49931-1295

Michigan Technological University

1400 Townsend Drive
Houghton, Michigan 49931-1295
906-487-1885

See a Problem?

Email the Webmaster

Protected by Akismet | Blog with WordPress