Green is the New Orange

My university held an event yesterday evening with the purpose to educate students and promote a number of “go green” initiatives on campus.

In our sustainability class, we talked about how to effectively initiate making a difference. Does it really matter if one person recycles? Should I harp on my roommate for leaving her diet coke bottles in the trash can? Is it worth it to take the stairs?
I think everyone could agree that a difference is only made when a movement starts. UT is taking strides to make going green a campus-wide activity, something for the whole student body to rally around. And they are making it pretty darn easy.

Here are a few of the initiatives that stood out to me:

One program that I currently take advantage of is “The Mug Project.” At almost all coffee/beverage retailers on campus you can fill your own mug for only 99 cents. Talk about getting my coffee fix. The Mug Project aims to cut down on waste by encouraging the use of reusable containers.

Additionally, UT has its very own Farmers’ Market every Wednesday on the Agr. campus. This gives UT students and other Knoxvillians an opportunity to buy local and buy seasonably.

There were even bicycle-powered smoothies, local ice cream, a Nissan Leaf, a clean water initiative, and maybe coolest of all, UT’s futuristic looking alternative energy car.

Change happens on college campuses. Take the civil rights movement, the end of Apartheid, political campaigns, and equal rights movements. When driven young people come together, big things happen.
So watch out, world. UT is making progress towards a greener future.

The answer to so many problems: Education.

See the National Geographic Article Here

Current global population: 6,963,329,878 and rising.

There are also currently a myriad of projected population estimates. These predictions range from 9 to 12 billion people by 2050. You can read all about the UN’s projections here.

When talking about population growth, there is a consensus that the fastest, most effective strategies to slow the  impending population growth is control of the birth rate. Developing countries are notorious for high birth rates- with an average of 5 children or greater, while more developed countries range from 1-3. So how do we reduce our current growth rate and prevent global shortages of food and resources?

As one of my favorite authors Dr. Sharon Moalem would say:
“In a word?”

It really is a win-win-win situation. When populations become more educated (especially women), both in academia and in pregnancy prevention, the growth rate decreases. Women who are in school have less children, and can support their children better. Win number one. As an effect of population decline, more resources are available to more people. Smaller family size means more opportunity for everyone, and less food insecurity. Win number two. And, as if we needed more reasons to support education, these smaller families will be able to contribute more fully and efficiently to society, causing what is known as a demographic bonus (which you can read about here). More educated, well-fed children will one day enter the workforce and truly make a difference. Win number three.

Earlier this week I talked about some mission opportunities I got to be a part of in the townships surrounding Johannesburg, South Africa this summer.
One in particular comes to my mind every day, and has a special place in my heart: Come Back Mission. I could spend hours talking about it, but let’s focus on what this has to do with education and sustainability. Come Back is educating an entire community of people in Heavenly Valley, Eldorado Park. They have HIV/AIDS seminars, drug prevention and intervention, technology classes so that people can become prospective job applicants, and so much more. They are teaching women how to sew and run a business, and they run a preschool out of a storage container. Their main objective is called the Nomsa Women’s Empowerment project. Come Back is doing some incredible things: I even got to meet and pray with Trisha, Heavenly Valley’s very FIRST high school graduate; she is setting a precedent for her community.

And, most recently of all, Come Back Mission has bought a farm over an hour away from the Heavenly Valley community. Their goal is to remove women from their current situation, where education is hard to come by and men often leave families of 6 or 7 children to fend for themselves, and take them (and their children) to live, work, and learn on the farm. Talk about empowerment.

Harvest at Come Back Mission Farm 2010

This is just one of many real life stories about how organizations are making an impact on communities, and making our world more sustainable.

P.S. Just this week, the Heavenly Valley Preschool got a makeover– and they are looking to expand. Exciting news! You can see the progress here!

Alternative Agriculture

This summer I had the incredible opportunity to spend some time in the townships surrounded Johannesburg, South Africa. While visiting, we had the opportunity to see (and even assist) some incredible agricultural solutions taking place in some of the poorest areas of the country.

In some of the areas we worked, the ground was parched and little grass grew around the small tin homes. However, the people were doing something incredible: growing door-sized gardens. Just inside the barbed wire surrounding each miniature plot of land, there was a garden of perhaps 3-4 rows of vegetables. Lettuce heads and even corn grew behind these little homes, giving families a source to fresh produce they may not have otherwise. In some townships, there are larger community gardens cared for by several families.

Another project we learned about was “sack gardening.” In particular, we visited a small ministry feeding 300-450 children daily, basically out of thin air. A unique way they gather food is by having each child recycle a food sack (previously for potatoes or corn or rice) and use it as a pot. Filled with soil, the children can grow their own bag of kale, a vegetable that provides many nutrients they may not usually have in their diet.

Small projects, when adopted by an entire community, can really make a difference in the health, and food security of an entire population. Just a door sized garden, or kale grown in a sack can have a tremendous impact on poverty levels and nutrition.

Boomsday or Doomsday?

If you live around here you probably went to celebrate Labor Day with our annual, epic, scintillating fireworks show: Boomsday.

Boomsday is the largest Labor Day fireworks show in America, and you can bet Knoxville takes great pride in it. This was my very first Boomsday and honestly I didn’t know what to expect! It was sprinkling, but we trekked down to the riverside to watch the fireworks shot off the railroad bridge. As soon as the show began, a huge waterfall of sparks rained down from the bridge (an effect I found out later is usually at the end of the show… oops). While everyone else was mesmerized by the fireworks rising into the sky, my initial thought was… those fireworks are dropping straight into the river. That is probably sign #471 that you are a student in a class focusing on sustainability. Not only were sparks flying into the river, but a huge cloud formed over the crowd, and who knows what sorts of chemicals were floating through the air.

When I got home from Boomsday (which was spectacular, I must say), I started googling the environmental effects of fireworks. Seems to me like fireworks are so much a part of our culture, that they haven’t been brought up as an environmental issue.

One article I found broke down fireworks by chemical, explaining the possibly toxic effects of each. For example, Cadmium (which can produce a wide variety of colors) can infect waterways and travel up the food chain, causing lung, kidney, and stomach problems. Barium (produces green fireworks) is classified as “Extremely Poisonous” and can cause radiation levels to rise. For a full write up on many of the chemicals involved in fireworks, see this article. Some chemicals can cause disease in humans, and others can disrupt the delicate balance in aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems.

I doubt Boomsday will cause a massive breakout of cancer or skin disease, but we should certainly think about how our highly-flown, booming traditions are affecting the world we inhabit.

Lauren Buckley- Climate Change Scientist Extraordinaire

Last week I had the wonderful pleasure of hearing Lauren Buckley of the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill give a lecture on her research. As I walked into the auditorium, I took a seat in the center and grabbed my notebook, anticipating some note-taking in my future. I soon found that the audience was mostly EEB majors, graduate students, and biology professors. So I prepared myself for what was to come…

Lauren began her powerpoint, and I kept up as best I could. She lost me with some of the terminology, and the more complex graphs. But by the end of the hour-long lecture, I’d gathered a few things, despite my lack of understanding.

One topic that is central to the research done by climate change scientists all over the world- no matter what organism or pattern they study- is the technique of hindcasting. Scientists develop models for the purpose of forecasting changes in temperature, or population, or any number of ecology related measurements. We, unfortunately, don’t have any data from the future to test these models. Instead, scientists use the same models that predict future changes to hindcast, meaning we take our model, and project it into the past. The exciting news is, we often have data observations for the past! Scientists compare the actual data from the past and the model’s hindcasting. Voila! If the data supports the hindcasting, we have a powerful, accurate model.

Lauren, for example specializes in lizard population dynamics, and how physiological traits can affect demography of a species.

One of the models Lauren uses (which of course is supported by hindcasting) is called a Mechanistic Range Model. Start with a biophysical model of let’s say… air temperature. The air temperature in a specific region may be changing. Lauren and her team then measured the potential body temperatures of their lizards, who vary in physical traits- testing the thermal limits of the organism. Can lizards function when it is __ degrees? By combining the environmental and bodily temperature, scientists can make predictions about the lizard’s activity and foraging time. Lauren and her team concluded that the physical traits which differentiate the lizards can have an affect on the organisms. Thus, the organisms respond differently to climate change. This can affect their population dynamics and demography.

Lauren Buckley, and other scientists, use hindcasting to make their work applicable to the future. Not only can we predict climate change with these models, but we can do something to change the predictions.



Glacial Melt: It’s kind of a big deal…

Glaciers are melting all over the world, from Alaska to Greenland to the Andes and the Rockies. As these massive blocks of ice shrink year by year, the world may face greater consequences than seal level rise…

As this article points out, over 1 billion people in Asia are dependent upon rivers formed by glacial melt. In case that number isn’t shocking enough, there are approximately 312,119,789 in the United States according to the most recent census. If the glacial rivers in Asia disappear, a population equal to three times that of our entire country will be forced to look for alternate water sources in winter months. Not only will a shortage of water lead to agricultural failure, but can also induce political strife. Many wars have been fought over resources, and most did not end well.

Perhaps the most saddening aspect of this sequence of events is the innocence of the people themselves. Let’s be honest. How large of a carbon footprint can a Nepali herdsman with no electricity, no car, and no roads create? I can assure you the air is clear of smog around the peak of Shivling in the Himalayas. While the remainder of the world continues to burn massive quantities of fossil fuels, increase production levels, and consume resources, others may pay the initial price.

The same things are happening right in our own backyards. The glaciers of Alaska and Montana are receding at an unprecedented rate. Not only is water on the line here, but also wheat crops, and other agricultural endeavors. Shortages like the ones seen already in East Asia can drive prices up, and affect the global economy.

PBS filmed a special called “On Thin Ice,” which aired a couple years ago, tying in both scientific research, human populations, and the economics of climate change. Scientists conducted research in the Himalayas recording just how quickly these massive glaciers are retreating, and how melting is affecting humanity. Science often can be perceived as a separate and removed set of problems, with scientists in white lab coats recording data in a laboratory. But climate change affects more than the Earth itself, it affects people. I especially like this PBS production for its emphasis on the human aspect of climate change. Branccaccio and Anker bring a personal perspective to the data of climate change science.

You can watch a short clip of this PBS documentary here, or the full version here.