Sustainability in a nutshell


1: capable of being sustained

: of, relating to, or being a method of harvesting or using a resource so that the resource is not depleted or permanently damaged
Sustainability isn’t a luxury anymore. It’s not just about quality of life, recycling, or green space. It is an all-encompassing issue that is affecting not only the environment, but also our economy, our policies, and our daily lives. Big changes are not just necessary but imperative to the longevity of life for all. As our global population has now exceeded 7 billion, we are coping with even more complex affairs; it has become a juggling act between a large population, food supply, and a healthy environment. We can’t keep all three.
Climate Change science is not all doom and gloom, however the media may portray it. I think the problem of sustainability, and the cause of such societal stagnation is the absence of the individual. You’re right, no single person can stop climate change, no one person can save the polar bears, or the forests, or the millions of starving people around the globe. There are, however, significant and viable solutions on the individual level. The importance lies not in corporations but in communities. While one person may not be able to make a tremendous difference the world, a whole movement of individuals can make a world of difference.
I hope that in the future, more emphasis is put on realistic, pragmatic, individual solutions. The primary step is awareness. The facts of climate change alter from day to day, and developments are fast approaching.
Of course there are the current Durban Climate Change Talks.
And there are numerous other ways to stay educated about contemporary environmental issues. The Guardian Environmental page has numerous blog posts and articles daily covering the science and the politics of sustainability. You can read about sustainable architecture and design on, or
I posted earlier in the semester about some sustainable development programs I experienced first-hand in Benoni, South Africa this summer. You can follow the progress of the farm at the Hadassah Centre for Women, and the John Wesley Community Centre in Etwatwa.
Sustainability is a global effort, and we should all feel a sense of social responsibility for keeping our world green. Whether recycling, composting, executing green design, or using alternative modes of transportation we can each make a significant impact on the health of our planet.

A Mandela Point of View

The Climate Change talks opened in Durban, South Africa this morning, as Jacob Zuma of South Africa offered a wise word of advice: “Change and solutions are always possible. In these talks, states, parties, will need to look behind their national interests to find a solution for the common good and human benefit.”

Zuma has high hopes for the conference and the potential changes that can take place once these talks close. One debate topic of the Climate Change Conference this year is the Kyoto Protocol that I touched on briefly yesterday.

The United Nations defines the Kyoto Protocol as such…

“The Kyoto Protocol is an international agreement linked to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. The major feature of the Kyoto Protocol is that it sets binding targets for 37 industrialized countries and the European community for reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions .These amount to an average of five per cent against 1990 levels over the five-year period 2008-2012.

The major distinction between the Protocol and the Convention is that while the Convention encouraged industrialised countries to stabilize GHG emissions, the Protocol commits them to do so.”
(You can find all the information from the United Nations right here.)

If the biggest two emitters (the US and China) don’t ratify the Kyoto Protocol, it may be a lost cause. It seems a little unjust since the emissions caused by the most developed countries are causing floods and droughts in developing countries across the globe. As the talks continue, it is my hope that leaders like Zuma take a strong stand for the Protocol and that all the nations involved will reassess the importance of renewing national emissions goals. Like Zuma said, it will be impossible to effect change globally if all nations do not work together for the good of every single one of the 7 billion.

We’ve got two weeks of Climate Change talks to change the world. Here we go.

In the words of great South African activist Nelson Mandela, “It always seems impossible until it is done.”


Durban: Looking towards the future

The Guardian (UK) recently put out a series of blog posts called “The Road to Durban.” Tomorrow, climate change scientists, delegates, and government officials from all represented UN countries will open discussions about current climate change issues. They will discuss the dying Kyoto Protocol, the Bali Action Plan, and hundreds of other climate-related issues. The only way climate change can be mitigated, and plans set into action to repair damage already done, countries are going to have to cooperate. In the hustle and bustle of this big-time conference, it can be easily over-looked how climate change is affecting small isolated populations all over the world.

Less than 400 miles away, just outside Johannesburg, the mining industry is poisoning communities through unregulated toxic waste. One very stubborn woman, Mariette Lieferink, is standing up for the communities that can’t stand up for themselves. Children can be found throughout the community playing in yellow dust- the product of toxic waste in the area from mining operations. They could be inhaling and ingesting remnants of gold, cadmium, uranium, cobalt, copper, zinc, and other heavy metals. As rain waters rise with the advent of more extreme climate change, toxic wastes become more widely spread. All inhabitants of this area risk cancer and radiation poisoning, and simultaneously lack the healthcare and medicines to counter the deadly effects. Lieferink is battling the corporations, fighting for enforcement of pollution and toxic waste laws.

Hopefully, the Climate Change Conference in Durban this week can settle some issues regarding climate change that will affect not only policy, but also the implementation of sustainable practices. Small communities deserve the protection and health standards set by intergovernmental officials, and can be heavily affected by climate change. I will be interested to see what decisions and agreements are made in the coming weeks by government officials from around the world, and how they plan to benefit the constituency.

It should be called excessive-giving…

Thanksgiving is definitely a hectic time of year for the grocery store community. I was surprised to see that Kroger was open all night, even on Thanksgiving Day, for all those last minute details for the perfect Thanksgiving feast. The average person consumes around 3000 calories on Thanksgiving, and 12 million turkeys are sold by Butterball alone every year, the majority sold around Thanksgiving. That’s not to mention how much pumpkin, stuffing, and cranberries. I cannot even imagine the infrastructure needed to supply that much food to grocery stores around the country. Thanksgiving, for most Americans, is the opposite of sustainable in the way of food sourcing.

I was happily surprised to find out that my cousin had purchased a local turkey from a farm in East Tennessee that he’d had shipped to a local market. He also contributed some delicious local purple potatoes and sweet potatoes. While we obviously weren’t able to feed our whole family solely on food from our backyard, I felt better about our excessive feast knowing that some of it was supplied locally. There are ways to be sustainable, even in the Holiday seasons like Thanksgiving and Christmas. Buy meat from local distributors, get your friends gifts from small vendors, or better yet, make them. (Confession: I’m a crocheter.) The Holidays are an especially important time to pay attention to sustainability, both in food and energy.


Here are some other fun facts about Thanksgiving

Food Facts About Thanksgiving

3,000: Calories are consumed by the average person at Thanksgiving dinner.

12: Million turkeys are sold by Butterball each year.

675: Million pounds of turkey are consumed each year.

50: Million pumpkin pies are eaten at Thanksgiving.

350: Approximate number of pounds the largest pumpkin pie ever made weighed. It used 80 pounds of cooked pumpkin, 36 pounds of sugar, 12 dozen eggs, measured 5 feet in diameter and took six hours to bake.

40: How many million green bean casseroles are made.

100: Age of some of the oldest cranberry beds—and they’re still producing!

72: Millions of can of Ocean Spray Cranberry Sauce purchased each year.

565: Number of times a line of all the cranberries produced in the U.S. would stretch from Boston to Los Angeles if you lined them all up, end to end.

Or find them here



The Good Samaritan: More Than Just a Biblical Story

An issue was brought up by a fellow classmate of mine this past week regarding a lack of food donation by massive food distribution companies, like the ones seen in our campus dining halls. The obvious reason for avoiding food donation of leftovers the risk of potential injury and lawsuit. However, my classmate brought to my attention a very interesting law commonly referred to as “The Good Samaritan Law.”

“The Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act promotes food recovery by limiting the liability of donors to instances of gross negligence or intentional misconduct. The Act further states that, absent gross negligence or intentional misconduct, persons, gleaners, and nonprofit organizations shall not be subject to civil or criminal liability arising from the nature, age, packaging, or condition of apparently wholesome food or apparently fit grocery products received as donations.”

Source: USDA

This piece of legislation is absolutely necessary for the transport and donation of food that can supply thousands of soup kitchens and other non-profit food organizations. It is important that excess food be either composted or donated, but the latter is certainly more beneficial to society as a whole.

I hope that the university and other institutions take this piece of legislation and run with it, as it would benefit all parties involved.

For more information on this bill see:

The USDA’s “A Citizen’s Guide to Food Recovery”

CalRecycle’s article here

or his EPA article “Feed People– Not Landfills”

Why not be green?

To those who partake in the world of sustainable research and living, I think there has been a consensus that while big ideas and drastic changes make the fastest and most progressive achievements, they are not the only way. Small, simple ideas that can be implemented in thousands of individual homes or communities are gaining credibility.

Let’s be honest. We can’t all have solar panels on the patios of our one-room apartments, and we can’t all afford to send our current gas guzzling cars to the recycling center and invest in a brand new Prius or Leaf. We certainly can’t grow and produce enough food to feed our families on top of white-collar, 40 hour per week jobs in the city.
I think this feeling of powerlessness is what keeps your average Joe from attempting sustainability and taking on the task of saving the world. But this is a misconception. While we certainly aren’t all white-coat scientists, each member of society can take some simple steps to become more sustainable. 

Here are some simple, pragmatic, and yet highly effective home-based solutions to sustainability.

  • Recycling is a no brainer these days. I grew up recycling, and I don’t think twice about where my Coke can is headed. As recycling becomes more readily available, society is catching on to the simple idea of reusing packaging. Recycling, however, is  only one form of material reuse.
  • Composting is another simple way to divert landfill waste, while greatly reducing GHG emissions. Composting can be implemented on a large scale, for example at a university like UT, or it can function quite well on a household scale. Compost goes to the backyard, and soon you’ve got some very fertile soil to grow all the vegetables and flowers you please.
  • Many of the simple things we use daily are not only detrimental to the environment, but they are nearly useless. Movements like Be Straw Free, The Mug Project (<– Right here on UT’s campus!), a shift to energy efficient lightbulbs, and home composting are educating people and changing the way we look at our daily amenities.
  • Other sustainable household ideas include investing in energy star appliances and well-insulated windows. How about growing your own vegetable garden? Some ways to drastically reduce your carbon footprint are to limit your meat consumption, and buy local meats and veggies. Take those reusable bags to the grocery with you.
  • And of course when it comes to transportation, how about taking the bus? Or riding your bike?

There are many simple ways to save the environment, but it will take a whole movement of people participating. You don’t have to sell your car in turn for an electric one; just drive less. It’s the social responsibility of every member of a community to commit to sustainable living. In so many cases, it is cheaper, easier, and healthier to live by green standards; why wouldn’t you?

So solar.

On my way to Asheville, North Carolina today, I looked over on the side of the interstate to see mile after mile of fields. However, one took me by surprise. It wasn’t full of cattle or hay, but rows and rows of shining metallic solar panels. These so-called solar farms and scattered across the country, producing comparatively small amounts of energy to power little businesses and communities.

Something very alluring, at least aesthetically, about solar energy is its infinite nature. The sunlight is producing absolutely massive amounts of energy: the energy is there, we just have to develop technology and infrastructure to harness it. We don’t have to go looking for deeply buried reserves of solar energy, it is abundant, free, carbon-neutral, and unlimited. We couldn’t ever use all the energy the sun is emitting.

Additionally, new advances like 360 degree panels are reshaping the way we harvest solar energy: making it more efficient, and therefore more affordable. Mirrors can also be used to reflect more light during different parts of the day onto solar panels to collect photons. Scientists are hard at work making panels more efficient (currently the best panels are still only 20% efficient) and more affordable. Some solar power is even created by using mirrors to make steam from water. Photovoltaic energy is difficult to capture, but worth the effort and money.

For more on solar research and development see this article on improving solar technology or this clip about solar farming and energy stockpiling from Discovery.