Sustainability in a nutshell

Sustainability:

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 Inhabitat.com, or treehugger.com.
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.”

 

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.

Keystone XL: An extra large problem

There is currently a lot of debate surrounding the anticipated Keystone XL pipeline, planned to stretch from Alberta, Canada to the Gulf Coast, a length of nearly 2,000 miles. In DC, investigations are underway to respond to discrepancies in “improper pressures on policy makers and possible conflicts of interest,” according to this New York Times post. On top of the recent Occupy protests, activists took to the streets in DC to make congress aware of the environmental impacts involved in the Keystone XL pipeline. Tar sands excavation for crude oil is a destructive process that emits an excessive amount of GHGs into the atmosphere. It takes two tons of tar sands to produce one barrel of crude oil. The techniques used to excavate tar sands are detrimental to the landscape and the ecosystems located there.

The government is struggling between the interests of the environment and the interests of the people, as seems to be the case quite often. The 2,000 mile pipeline would create thousands of jobs in the United States, in rural areas of the Midwest that desperately need them. But are those benefits worth the negative environmental impacts? You can read some of the debate between these two interests here.

While no definite timeline or conclusion has been set on the pipeline, we expect to hear a statement regarding plans for the Keystone XL in the coming days. Politics has a strong grip on the environmental movement, and this is yet another example of that control.

The Geography of Hope: A Review

The Geography of Hope

            If you are of a sustainable mind, you may find yourself, as I often do, overwhelmed and distraught about the current ecological state of the Earth and the bleak data predicting a disastrous future. Because solutions are not ubiquitous in our day-to-day surroundings, we are prone to forget that success stories exist. In his book The Geography of Hope: A Tour of the World We Need Chris Turner travels around the globe to discover and discuss existing examples of sustainable advances and lifestyles. As a journalist, not a scientist, Turner presents pragmatic evidence for a feasible future of sustainability. His lucid argument for sustainable initiatives is neither condescending to experts, nor cryptic to novices in climate change science.

Aware of the trend that nonfiction science writing can be rather overwhelming in large quantities, Turner organizes his Geography of Hope into ten chapters, each focusing on a particular facet of sustainability. For topics ranging from design to community to energy, Turner gives concrete and specific examples to support his ideas about the push for sustainable life. He doesn’t include fancy renderings of projects to be finished in 2020, nor mass-produced infrastructures. There is a focus on the small and realistic, as those solutions have to potential to become replicable and mainstream. What strikes me most about Turner’s argument for sustainability is the concept of a sustainability archipelago. “Underwater volcanoes” of technology and advancement spew out isolated, but operational, initiatives (Turner 50-51). Over time these individual projects, such as the power-neutral island of Samsø or the solar-powered neighborhoods of Germany, expand into full-blown sustainable landmasses. Turner’s metaphor recognizes the power of individual projects, and understands how these start-up initiatives grow into societal changes and revolution. This approach to sustainability is far more hopeful than demands for absolute abolishment of current societal and cultural habits. Sustainable changes are not coming out of massive scientific research centers but out of small, self-driven communities. As with the advent of handheld Internet capabilities, Turner’s hope is that sustainability will grow and adapt into a concept integrated into everyday life.

I am frequently jaded and dismayed by the gloomy scenarios predicted with regards to climate change. Essentially I begin to feel that the world is ending, primarily by our own fault, and it rests solely in our hands to make things right once again. When staring blankly at scientific data of retreating glaciers, species endangerment, and graphs predicting an increase of somewhere between 2 and 9 degrees Celsius in the next century, I am overwhelmed by negativity. The Geography of Hope is a thorough and holistic approach to solutions in climate change science. Including historical facts, explanations of technology, and colloquially styled musings on the practicality of sustainable living, the book offers much more than simply data or graphical representations of scientific findings. It amasses the whole ideology of sustainability, from social, cultural, scientific, economic, and ecological perspectives.  Turner’s viewpoint is certainly one of optimism, a characteristic that some extremist environmentalists might sneer at. I, however, am feeling much better about the ability of our generation to achieve sustainability should we move with haste towards it.

Turner does a phenomenal job of taking disheartening data and providing not only a slew of solutions, but also the psychological and societal conditions necessary to institutionalize those solutions. Because Turner comes from a journalistic background as opposed to a scientific one, he is able to better understand and communicate the social dilemmas surrounding the science of climate change (Cameron). Oftentimes it can be overlooked in the tidal wave of scientific research and investigation that sustainability is involved in economics, design, homeland security and even war. This generation is not dealing with one isolated field of necessity-driven discovery, but with a force that affects every aspect of life. For example, the small island Samsø has embraced the politics, economics, and manufacturing of sustainable practices in addition to their implementation, creating a sustainable community (Turner). The sheer quantity of specific and existing examples of sustainability leave no doubt or uncertainty in my mind about the possibility of a green present and future. Turner writes like an expert and covers all his bases in a myriad of topics. The Geography of Hope is composed of an astonishing amount of research, based soundly in well-understood thought and supported by countless pieces of evidence, despite Turner’s non-scientific background.

From a political standpoint, Turner has the power to look past the fickle standstill policies and economic biases to present a realistic scheme for sustainability. He most certainly is not shy to criticize the current modes of change in society and faults by which sustainability is hindered. Recycling has actually become “down-cycling” as our products lose value and quality over time until they become waste. He suggests a more holistic approach to production: building and construction with the end in sight (Turner 210-211). He does not weave tales of a picturesque scene of solar panels and wind turbines in the mountains where they filmed The Sound of Music or some happy-go-lucky politicians having a rendezvous over coffee to agree upon some drastic Change Bill. Turner seeks out real time change, the change created by the likes of the Danish farmer Jørgan Tranburg and the green architects dedicated to sustainable design (Turner 44-45). However, in some ways we find ourselves dependent on politics. We need a Martin Luther King Jr., to come in and inspire the masses to make headway. It will take someone proclaiming a message of change and hope, not one of immobility and frightening statistics, to achieve change. Sociopolitically, the environmental movement lacks the momentum to achieve international action. Whether because of doubt, money, or lack of leadership, the movement in practice is largely stagnant, save those of the sustainable archipelago. Chris Turner confidently makes these kinds of igniting claims about sociopolitical stagnation in a way that demands respect and deference from his readers.

The Geography of Hope is a down-to-earth anthology of auspicious sustainable archipelagos. Its pages are not weighed down by heavy statistics or intimidating data, but are filled with stories that contrast the often bleak future with impactful and successful projects. These stories appeal to our emotions, and they create the kind of social change Chris Turner claims we lack in the green revolution (Turner 332). Turner has a mantra, summarizing his point of view on a sustainable future, “Anything that exists is possible” (Cameron). In a culture where climate change is often associated with dismal predictions, Turner offers a literal map of hope, seeking out even the smallest sustainable projects from across the globe. The idea is these initiatives need not be “scalable” or made bigger, they just have to be efficiently replicable (Turner 289). Whether amateur or expert, anyone interested in attainable solutions to climate change, will find Turner’s book full of contemporary success stories.

 

 

 Works Cited

Cameron, Silver Donald. The Geography of Hope. Sunday Herald Column. The Green Interview, 13 July 2008. Web. 30 October 2011. <http://www.thegreeninterview.com/geography-hope>.

Turner, Chris. The Geography of Hope: A Tour of the World We Need. Canada: Random House Canada, 2007. Print.