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. ūüôā

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 Ni√Īo 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“.

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 ‚Äúeven though it‚Äôs a struggle, my life has been a blessing, because I‚Äôve had the opportunity to work with so many different people and share my story with people.” Her message underscores this year‚Äôs theme ‚ÄúHow Positive Are You That You‚Äôre Negative?‚Ä̬†¬†

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. 


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?

Mining in the UP presentations

Here’s the info on both speakers:

Please join us for a presentation and informal discussion concerning
“The Threat of Metallic Sulfide Mining Expansion in the Great Lakes Region”

Kristi Mills of Save the Wild UP will lead this discussion. ¬†Her presentation will be from the standpoint of a concerned citizens activist group and will cover current and prospective future operations, citizens’ concerns, and the process of organizing against the mines and challenges and opportunities Save the Wild UP has faced.

Date:  Thursday, October 13
Time:  12-1:00
Place: Memorial Union Ballrooms B2/B3
Lunch: Please feel free to bring a lunch

The broader campus community is invited, so please spread the word. We’d like to see this event well attended. ¬†You can find out more about Save the Wild UP at www.savethewildup.org

In a related presentation:
David Anderson from Orvana Resources will discuss mining and community development in the UP from the industry perspective on Tuesday, October 25 from 12-1:00pm, in the Memorial Union Ballroom B2/B3. Please feel free to bring a lunch.

Anyone with questions should contact Prof. Richelle Winkler (rwinkler <at sign> mtu.edu)