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.
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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.

Agriculture: Superhero or Villain?

Agriculture.

It’s become quite the buzzword in today’s society. Since the induction of agricultural developments the earth’s population has skyrocketed, as you can see here. And since that time it has allowed us to live longer, live healthier, feed our families, build gigantic cities, wage wars, and much, much more.

So agriculture was the cure to all of our nomadic, hunter-gatherer problems, right?

Unfortunately… wrong.

Our view of agriculture is shifting dramatically. Whereas just 10 years ago the purpose of agriculture was to produce the most yield in the least amount of land, at all costs, we are now paying for that environmental negligence. That isn’t working out so well for us anymore. Our agricultural practices have proved to be everything but sustainable. So now, according to this NPR article, the big question is “Can we feed the world without destroying the environment?”

Undoubtedly, we can feed the world. With all the GMOs and factory-farms out there, it’s possible. But at what cost? CAFOs produce toxins, and most farms run on fossil fuels these days rather than sunlight (a concept you can further explore in  Michael Pollan’s article Farmer in Chief). We are destroying the earth by moving agriculture further and further away from its intended methods and into more and more industrial institutions.

Well, what are we going to do about it? We can increase the cost of cutting down forests, we can pass laws that more highly regulate factory farming, we can buy local, and start researching and understanding the effects of our current agricultural practices. We need researchers publishing about GMOs and the use of fertilizers and pesticides. So here begins the search for a way to feed the world without destroying it.