FOLK on campus for Global City

Tonight (Tuesday 25 September) at 6pm….. sponsored by the Global City student organization:

Global Citizens! Join us for the first Global City presentation of the 2012-2013 school year!

Tomorrow night, Tuesday, September 25, 6:00-7:00 pm in Fisher 138.

Linda Rulison and Catherine Paavola, members of the grassroots organization FOLK (Friends of the Land of Keweenaw), will discuss the local environmental issues which led to FOLK’s creation over 20 years ago. Their current initiatives and foci not only concern the environment but also involve human rights and social issues, topics which are concerns of people worldwide.

For more information, see the abstract below. Pizza and sodas will be provided! If possible, try and bring your own cups so we can cut down on waste.
FOLK is an active all-volunteer organization dedicated to maintaining a healthy Lake Superior bioregion. Our goals are to educate the public and support activities which recognize the inherent worth of our forest, our land and our watersheds. Please contact FOLK for information on how to join.

Jutting 80 miles into Lake Superior’s cold deep waters, the Keweenaw Peninsula is the jewel of the Great Lakes. A land of small farms and historic towns, clean air and tall pines, clear water and rugged shoreline, the Keweenaw is an area of unparalleled natural beauty. However, it’s beauty and tranquility has been threatened; this is the story of a group of citizens that have united to meet that threat and to always protect the quality of the Keweenaw.

In 1989, the James River Corporation proposed the construction of a 1.2 billion dollar bleach kraft pulp/paper mill near Keweenaw Bay in Michigan’s Western Upper Peninsula. If allowed to be built the mill would consume the equivalent of 80 clear cut acres of forest and discharge 41 million gallons of dioxin-laced waste effluent into Lake Superior each day. This threat to the Lake Superior watershed jolted local residents into action and gave birth to Friends of the Land of Keweenaw or FOLK. In less than a year, the tireless efforts of many caring citizens prevailed, culminating in the withdrawal of the mill proposal. These efforts included, Investing in the Keweenaw’s Future – Moving Towards Sustainable Development, a progressive report which introduced the concepts of sustainability that are now widely accepted.

Today, FOLK continues to be a diligent force working together with other state and national organizations to protect and preserve the ecological integrity of the Lake Superior Watershed. FOLK has spent considerable effort dealing with local land issues.

To read more about FOLK, visit their website: http://www.folkup.org/index.php

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!

Ninth Floor Farms

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

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.

All of this has happened before

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

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.

Keeping up with the Jones’

In this week’s Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Easterlin et al. have published a study on changes in “life satisfaction” (a.k.a. happiness) in Chinese villages during their economic transition over the past several decades. One might predict that as the Chinese have increased their incomes, they would become happier.

But as this study and a growing body of research demonstrates, money really can’t buy happiness. Prior to the conversion of a state economy to something resembling a market economy, Chinese life satisfaction was highest. As the country began its economic transition in the mid-1990’s, life satisfaction declined, possibly due to the increased level of uncertainty in many people’s lives. After 2000-2005 life satisfaction began to increase, but only for those in the upper income brackets. Even for those in the highest income brackets, life satisfaction has not yet approached what it was before the transition.

Over the transition, China had moved from one of the most egalitarian societies in terms of wealth distribution to one of the least. Although it is possible that the poor were left even poorer by the transition (or at least their economic stability declined), the results suggest that it is relative wealth that creates a decrease in life satisfaction. When you are surrounded by individuals as poor as you, the poverty doesn’t sting quite as bad. This phenomenon has been found often in past studies, suggesting that we humans can be a ferociously jealous lot.

This study (and others like it) has two implications for sustainability.

1. For a majority of people, “life satisfaction” is at the top of their list of characteristics of a sustainable life, right up there with adequate food and water, shelter and clothing, family and friends. Therefore, if researchers in sustainability science can figure out a way to accurately measure this characteristic, they can then use it to measure the current sustainability of a community, region, or nation, and help inform policies, programs and activities that might help a community move towards sustainability by increasing their general life satisfaction. For a long time, per capita Gross Domestic Product (GDP) was used as a proxy for this characteristic, but now a measure of income or wealth inequality called the Gini index has also been added to better capture this notion of happiness, mainly due to studies like Easterlin et al.’s.

2. Since excess consumption in luxury items (i.e., those things we want but don’t need) is one of the main drivers of resource depletion, studies like this one reinforce the lesson that happiness (and therefore sustainability) is unlikely to reside in things but rather in community and one’s place in it. The applied side of sustainability efforts often focus on replacing luxury consumption with activity and community work (e.g., volunteering, local governance, etc.). Indeed it was not long ago when this idea was prevalent in America; Victory Gardens (and war rations), the Peace Corps, and other activities that emphasized community contributions over consumption received popular support. Many of these new sustainability movements (e.g., Transition Towns, the Slow Movement) are actually repurposed efforts from previous eras to increase the life satisfaction component of our lives.