Friday, December 25, 2009

Lead the Green Challenge

Happy Yule! Water in Chambers!

One of the most tangible results of our efforts has arrived. There is now a water bottle filling station in place between 116 and 121 Chambers Building in the College of Education. Use it. As one staff member wrote to me in an email, "I'm sure that countless students, faculty & staff will appreciate your efforts to bring this eco-friendly and healthy service to Chambers Building." Hear here!

Happy Yule! Merry Christmas! Happy Festivus for the rest of us!

Friday, December 18, 2009

Film competition on sustainability

The Rock Ethics Institute at Penn State has a video challenge on sustainability up. Do it!


Here’s the Challenge:

Design a short film about ethics. Focus on an ethical issue or create a film that enhances our appreciation of the importance of being ethical. Make it serious or make it funny. Script it. Shoot it. Edit it. Submit it.

Finalists will be honored at a ceremony in April 2010 during which they will be presented with a $500 award. All finalists and semi-finalists will have their entries posted on the Rock Ethics Institute’s YouTube page.

Let's rethink the social contract

Grad students and faculty at Penn State might consider this.
My first thought for 3E-COE goes something like this: We are interested in water, its use, its distribution, and how to use it to maximize human and ecological welfare. Educational institutions like Penn State relates to educational institutions state that they seek to develop ethical understandings in their future graduates so that they can be effective citizens. Does part of effective modern citizenship mean institutionalizing an understanding of the hydrologic cycle, watershed capacities, and water use? Must the social contract account for the ramifications of how we use water today?

Yes, these are nascent thoughts. Do you have any?

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Would you like some coal in your water?

Coal. It's awful. I am sitting here using a computer fueled by coal. By using the computer I am poisoning my air and water. How do I know we're poisoning our water? Earth Justice has just released a report on The Impacts on Water Quality From Placement of Coal Combustion Waste In Pennsylvania Coal Mines Ash.

At ten of the fifteen mines they examined, they found coal-ash polluted groundwater. This includes "hazardous chemicals including aluminum, chloride, iron, manganese, sulfate and toxic trace elements such as arsenic, selenium, lead, mercury, cadmium, nickel, copper, chromium, boron, molybdenum, and zinc."

Where? Look at the map included here that I ripped from the report itself. Why do I have to poison myself to get electricity?

Thursday, December 10, 2009

What youth do better than anybody

Refuse. Resist. Disrupt. Disturb.

The energy behind the climate change awareness and action movement right now is kind of electrifying. Reports, blogs, and videos are pouring out of COP15 showing that youth have marked climate change as the issue of our generation and, it seems, for generations to come. It is grounding us and elevating our ideals and goals to bring about a revolution that centralizes global human economic, social, and cultural welfare and maximizes non-human life's welfare. We are coming to see a groundswell of systems thinking, ethical awakening, and meaningful action.

And some of that action is to simply disrupt nonsense like that held by so-called climate "skeptics." What that term really means is climate change denialists, people whose entrenchment in the status quo and business as usual places blinders on them. Unfortunately, they have been so heavily funded by big polluters like ExxonMobil, the American Petroleum Institute, Americans for Prosperity, and others that they have gotten a mountain of press in the past. Their glory days have waned. Now they try to hold little counter-meetings at COP15 that deserve no attention, outright ridicule, or a nice shutdown.

Check the shutdown.

I love that Lord Monckton and these free market fighters are calling this "childish." I wonder what they've had to say about the gun-toters at the health care townhalls around the U.S. this past fall. Just a thought. And then the bit about them being "crazed Hitler youth" might be one of the mightier overstatements of all time. If you can't win an argument or aren't getting what you want, make a Nazi reference. It will either win the argument or make you look like a someone struggling desperately for any rhetorical strike. We report. You decide.

Luckily for us, the U.S. delegation is no longer owned by these denialists. Our government is no longer hiding or casting aspersions at reports like the one just released by the World Meteorological Organization saying that 2000 to 2009 was the warmest decade on record, warmer than the 1990s which were warmer than the 1980s. The report also notes other "extreme" weather events consistent with climate science's predictions including droughts, heatwaves, and the third lowest measurement of Arctic sea ice in recorded history. The EPA just released it edangerment ruling, as of yet unenforced, that CO2 and five other greenhouse gases (GHG) present dangers to human health and welfare because of their climate altering natures. It looks as though the Obama administration, unlike its predecessors from George Bush, Sr. on, will do something about the United States' unequal contribution to climate change.

Certainly, if the youth have anything to say and do about it, he will. While the youth sack denialists at Copenhagen, sack the editorial and opinion pages here, talk about it with friends and family, write to and meet with your representatives, senators, mayors, and planning commissioners, your farmers, get the picture.

Refuse. Resist. Rethink.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Why Penn State matters in understanding climate change

I think that this is a fine place to go. Our own Richard Alley.

Climate change curriculum from the William Steger Foundation

The Will Steger Foundation has a climate lesson plans for 9th-12th grade. They write:
These lesson plans build on the Will Steger Foundation’s original six lesson plans on the basics of global warming. The new lessons cover the carbon cycle, target levels for atmospheric levels of greenhouse gasses, cap and trade, carbon tax, new technologies, concerns of developed and developing countries, and how to formulate position statements. In Fall 2009, you can follow along with polar explorer Will Steger as he and a group of young people embark on Expedition Copenhagen, a mission to bring the youth voice to the international climate negotiations in December. First give your students the basic knowledge they need to follow the news coverage of the climate negotiations and the skills they need to make their opinions heard. Then send your students’ statements to the youth delegates headed to Copenhagen and follow the youth delegation’s multimedia blogs.
It is an update to the Education Resource Binder located here, a "K-12 interdisciplinary global warming curriculum [that] is experiential in nature and tied to national standards."

Youth at Copenhagen

Students and youth are among the most vocal critics of business as usual that has led to climate change. There are approximately 5000 youth who have descended on the climate conference in Copenhagen right now. And some of them are from Dickinson College in Carlisle, PA, our fellow members in the Pennsylvania Environmental Resource Consortium.

They have a blog up on what's going on called From Kyoto to Copenhagen. I'm kind of jealous.

In an earlier post they've included an email (kyoto2copenhagen at "with thoughts to pass along to conference participants, or use one of the following campaigns." Email them your thoughts on what we ought and need to do.

PASA Farming for the Future (and schooling for the future too!)

Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture has announced its 2010 Farming for the Future conference. I encourage anyone interested in sustainable and local/regional food to attend. It also provides great opportunities to meet like-minded people and learn some an array of skills from how to talk with and persuade officials to advanced cheese making.
This year's keynote speakers include Michael Reynolds, the developer of Earthship Biotecture, and journalist Lisa Hamilton.

But best of all, is "Sustainable Education: Integrating Sustainability into Your Curriculum: Matt Ray, Fernwood Public School." Cool! Listen to this report on WUVM about Ray and his students' use of a greenhouse and how it develops ecological literacy.

What the Copenhagen/bikes as a schooling tool topic brought up

Yesterday, I wrote a post on Copenhagen and bicycles. It ended with the statement:
Here's a nutty idea: maybe American school children should be given bicycles instead of laptops. Now that would be radical.
This prompted a pretty neat discussion and exposition on the costs and tradeoffs of bikes and laptops as educational tools. I'd like to share it with you because I think it serves a good educational purpose. It shows what kinds of questions we can and should be asking about our pattern of life and some of the ways that we can approach issues of ecological, economic, and social sustainability in general. And this is just about laptops and bikes and the patterns that their production and use create. [Note: Names are changed.]

Jay: Why not both [laptops and bikes]? Why does it have to be one or the other?

Me: It could be both. But I think that the world could be less damaged by bikes than laptops. But it might be an interesting life cycle comparison. Hmm...

Ron: Tough one. Clearly the materials for each come from the same sources. The laptop will use electricity. The bicycle will also use electricity and fossil fuels, in that the engine (human) will require more fuel and most of our food isn't locally produced. Our food also doesn't come in simple packaging anymore, so the garbage footprint isn't ... See Morenegligible for the bike. Most laptops come in cardboard boxes with foam packing and plastic bags. Bikes, as I understand it, generally come the same way. In terms of the pollution footprint of the individual items, the laptop has a larger variety of polluting components, but the bike has more mass. Perhaps the worst component in the computer is the battery (heavy metals), while the worst in the bike is the plastic or tires. The individual components of a laptop are not reusable whereas bikes are built and rebuilt from the components of other bikes. In other words, the computer's lifespan may require that two or even three laptops be purchased and discarded during the lifespan of an average bike. As a tool of education, the computer provides access to a world of knowledge, while the bicycle provides excellent lessons in more sustainable, happy living that in the long run may keep the person alive longer.

This one really comes down to the user of each. My laptop has primarily been used as a tool for education and work. Therefore, it is more valuable and educational to me than a bicycle. I'll also keep and use the same laptop until it kicks the bucket in likely 3 to 5 years (~10 year lifespan). Some students get laptops for recreation and require more capability as media requirements advance, shortening the viable lifetime of the laptop. These users would certainly benefit more from the bike.

The real fight here is teaching students to become more independent of automobiles in general; learning to use cars sparingly. A car, after all, contains more unrecyclable crap and uses more energy and unrenewable resources, more inefficiently than either of these two items.

Nice stuff. I think that one of the things that we'd also have to examine are the conditions of the supply chain and the conditions of material extraction and their associated ecological, social, and environmental impacts. Steel and aluminum frames are easily recycled for sure and their supply chains can be kept more or less domestic (... See Morenationally dependent of course) or regional. Tubes are now easily recycled/downcycled into other things including wallets, purses, etc. Other parts, like rubber in tires and plastic in housing are more questionable. However, the maintenance materials are shifting to more renewable materials with companies like Pedro's.
All this said, the working conditions for bike manufacture may not be ideal or equal. For example, Cannondale closed its last American factory in Bradford. It is now entirely outsourced for cheaper labor to save cost. Though the U.S. has been losing labor credibility over the last 25 years, it is still superior in many ways to Chinese/Taiwanese labor law. Treatment of workers should be examined as well in a sustainability calculation. What is being sustained by riding this bike?

Turn this to the computer and you'll find that metals in computers are mined in conditions in central Africa that are nothing shy of environmentally and socially monstrous. Additionally, a computer cannot be fixed by someone who is not specially trained. I don't mean part replacement. A person with not too much training can swap video cards. But fixing a video card? Nope. Can you learn to true a wheel? Yep. It takes little time and then some practice. Sustaining a computer is quite an industrial endeavor while sustaining a bike is not.

I'd like to see this kind of comparative analysis in a class. That would be awesome. Awesome. Then both tools can be examined and potentially justified or disqualified depending on criteria. Sweet.

Not to simplify terribly, but laptop use is pretty neutral. Sometimes nine year olds will learn about global warming when their parents deny it, sometimes nine year olds willl surf scat porn. On the other hand, using a bike is good for you mentally and physically. I gotta vote bikes.

Ron: Another thing to consider when evaluating laptops (and other techno garbage) is the amount of paper usage computers will reduce over the next 10 to 15 years. I find myself relying more and more on the web and pdf friendly journal databases for my news and the scientific articles that I utilize. While recycled paper could be used in these facets, ... See Moregenerally it isn't. In this respect, the computer may actually reduce consumer/supplier waste in the form of magazines, newspapers, advertising, and junk mail. In turn, this will reduce the amount of wood pulp harvesting and tree farming, allowing for greater preservation of (semi) natural woodland.

As for the acquisition of metals for both these products, there is no argument that the environmental and humanitarian record of producers is poor. China is currently one of the largest aluminum and rare earth metal producing countries in the world. I can tell you that these metals are also available in other geological provinces (US, Canada and Australia) where the humanitarian records are better (though not great).

It's up to the consumer to learn where the products they buy and the materials in those products originate, and choose to buy products that are more environmentally, and human friendly. Perhaps an environment- and humanity-friendly consumerism class at Penn State and other universities is the best option. A class were discussions about the environmental, economic, geopolitical, and humanitarian impacts of popular products are explored, compared and argued. A few field trips to local dumps and guest lectures from folks who explore the Texas-sized garbage island in the pacific, have felt the ramifications of industrial and precious metal and diamond fed conflict in some African countries, and the experienced the effects of outsourced labor on the unemployed US factory worker. This could be a brand new (and much needed) discipline that draws off of many other economic, scientific, and sociological disciplines. Great conversation! Sustainable Consumerism 101.

But can any -ism whose ideological purpose is to consume, be sustained? Should this course actually be named Healthy Subsistence 101? Perhaps Sustainable Consumerism is the path now to a healthy subsistence.

Hear that PSU? Sustainable Consumerism 101 or Sustainable Consumerism?

What do you think?

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Copenhagen, bicycles, and schooling

Since I posted yesterday about the water bottle ban at the Copenhagen Climate Summit, some people I know have been surprised by the encouragement to use bicycles. Copenhagen is perhaps the most bicycle-friendly city in the world. Bike City Copenhagen points out:

Copenhagen is the only city to have been awarded the UCI Bike City label. Copenhagen offers six world class cycling events between 2008 and 2011.

The UCI Bike City concept, developed by the International Cycling Union, is designed for internationally renowned cities wanting to get involved in cycling (from competition to sport for all), as an environmentally-friendly leisure sport and a gentle means of transport.

This can point to a couple of things about behavior and economics:

First, Copenhagen is not exactly a balmy place to live. - temperatures in the winter hover around freezing and still a significant portion of the Danish population rides a bike.Some people kvetch about riding in the cold. Bundle up.

Second, the exercise of getting around is good for your heart, your lungs, controlling weight (which I know from experience is hard in the winter given how much comfort foods sneak into winter diets), and it's invigorating and wakes you up in the morning.

Third, cycling takes little more time than riding in a car and probably less time than riding a bus in many places. For example, my ca. 4-mile commute from my house to my office or vice versa on my single-speed Schwinn beater bike (at right) takes about 20 minutes. The car ride at commute time is about 14 minutes. The bus takes longer than the bike ride.

Fourth, the time on the bike is nicer. I am free with my thoughts, or choose to smile at passersby, try to catch people on hills to campus, and breathe fresh air.

Fifth, it saves a lot of fuel, materials, and emissions. The bicycle is the most efficient vehicle designed by humans. It's GHG emissions reside mostly in its production and upkeep which are infinitessimal compared to every motorized vehicle. The article "Cycling and the Environment" points out, bicycling 960 miles takes the equivalent of one gallon of gas and the 70-100 bikes can be built with resources used for one car.

  • On a bicycle you take up little space, burn no gasoline and produce no waste, and A bike can travel 1,600 kilometres (960 miles) on the equivalent energy of a gallon of gas.
  • Between 70 and 100 bicycles can be built with the resources required to build one car.
  • On a bicycle you take up little space, burn no gasoline and produce no waste, and A bike can travel 1,600 kilometres (960 miles) on the equivalent energy of a gallon of gas.
  • Between 70 and 100 bicycles can be built with the resources required to build one car.
  • On a bicycle you take up little space, burn no gasoline and produce no waste, and A bike can travel 1,600 kilometres (960 miles) on the equivalent energy of a gallon of gas.
  • Between 70 and 100 bicycles can be built with the resources required to build one car.
  • Sixth, even fairly expensive bicycles are fractions of the cost of cars all around. A well-built commuting bicycle like a Redline D440 or similar bike is about $500-600. It has nine speeds, a sturdy frame, is easily upgradeable for disc breaks if you're worried about stopping power (for about another $150), and can easily have paniers, a rack, or a basket put on it so that you can carry bags and things with you. Additionally, the upkeep on a bike should be fairly minimal. Wipe your chain. Test your breaks. Keep dirt and grit out of cable housing. Get it serviced every once in a while.

    By my on-the-fly calculations, the cost of four tanks of gas right now (say 12 gallons at $3/gallon) is $108. That's enough for 4 replacement tubes, 2 tire levers, a hand pump for the road, chain lube, a multi-tool, and a tune-up. Top flight on a solid commuter bike is less than $1,000 for a machine that will last a long time for minimal upkeep cost so long as you basically take care of it. Assuming you don't try to race a commuter bike in the local state forests, you're upkeep will be a new chain and cassette every few years, wheel truing as needed (don't bomb curbs or stairs please), tire, break, cable, and housing replacements, and the like. Once again, 4 or 5 tanks of gas take you through a year. Compare that to what you have to do right now with your car and all of its upkeep and the bike is money efficient too.

    This has said nothing of reused/recycled bikes like those at our local shop Freeze Thaw Cycles. That's even better because it's extending life cycles in a big way with sturdy parts assembled by invested people. You can bring your upfront cost down by a few hundred bucks.

    But how can the Danish do this? Because their transportation infrastructure has been configured a good deal around bikes. Streets have been changed for maximum bicycle freedom and not cars and trucks. Pedestrians have more space and are less likely to be injured. Rush hour is nice to get around. Look at right. All of this enables 36% of Copenhageners to get to work or school by bike with the goal of 50% by 2015 (see here).

    And you know what? On all measures of health, wealth, and well-being, the Danish outscore almost everyone. On my new favorite index, the Happy Planet Index, Denmark has a Life Satisfaction score of 8.1 out of 10. That's higher than France, Germany, Canada, the United States, Sweden, Australia, and Japan. It's tied for happiest with Norway and Ireland. As far as I can tell, the only country that has been measured higher is Costa Rica which has an 8.5. As a side note, Costa Rica has the coolest bike race in the world, the "Ruta de los Conquistadores." Totally insane. But I digress.

    Riding a bike correlates with happiness and health. Danes are invested in being happy, healthy, invested in their communities, and invested in the health of the planet. Not just money. Methinks we have something to learn here.

    Lessons here for schools.

    Exercise? Check. Enjoy the outdoors? Check. Time for reflection? Check. Reduced ecological footprint? Check. A tool for teaching about history, math, physics, material sciences, design, engineering, maintenance, and caloric output? Big checks all around.

    I think we have a teaching tool! Here's a nutty idea: maybe American school children should be given bicycles instead of laptops. Now that would be radical.

    Monday, December 7, 2009

    No bottled water at the Copenhagen Climate Summit

    That's right. This in from Tap It.
    Organizers are trying to make the Copenhagen Climate Summit as 'green' as possible and one of the first things they targeted - bottled water. If that isn't enough to convince you the stuff is bad news, I don't know what is!

    Instead of refrigerators full of bottled water, delegates are being offered ordinary Copenhagen tap water from biodegradable corn starch cups filled from drinking fountains dotted around the Bella Center convention hall.

    They're also cutting down on transportation. There are no special buses laid on. Instead participants will be encouraged to use public transport links serving the venue. Bicycles are also available and high-level delegates are being offered limousines powered by ethanol made from organic waste.

    Copenhagen Climate Summit Opens

    After the basic failure of the climate negotiations in Bali, we have the next round now unfolding in Copenhagen, Denmark. In the coming two weeks, political leaders, ambassadors, scientists, et al will be trying to craft a global framework within which nations can address their role in the emerging climate crisis and hopefully create binding resolutions for caps on emissions.

    To get a full read on this story, you can peruse any number of sites to get different reads on this. BBC. New York Times. The Guardian. Times of India. Der Spiegel. Grist. Treehugger. DotEarth. For great ethical backdrop on why and how these negotiations consider issues of fairness, justice, and action in the face of uncertainty you can go to Climate Ethics. Climate science from climate scientists? Real Climate.

    This summit is creating an enormous and encouraging wave of political goodwill. Of course, there is an army of so-called "skeptics" out there protecting business as usual so that polluting industries and power brokers can keep polluting and ruining the livelihoods of tens of millions of people in coming years. But they are losing power and with concerted action people here and now can, in word and deed, make a difference.

    Vote on this issue and press your representation on it. Change how you use electricity, how you eat, and the way you get around. Teach for sustainability.

    As two of our members have just returned from or are currently living in Sweden, let's use a Swedish ad on climate change to get the point across.

    I'd rather have someone driving that car well.

    Thursday, December 3, 2009

    U.S. Partnership and Facing the Future: Great resources

    I've just come upon some incredible resources. If you are looking for curricula, I think I have just been shown a garden of delights. By joining up with the US Partnership for Education for Sustainable Development I have joined a listserve for k-12 sustainability education hosted by the University of Michigan. I was presented some awesome materials.

    The coolest so far comes from Facing the Future. Their leading statement at the homepage reads:
    Climate change. Population growth. Poverty. Environmental degradation. Conflict. Global health crises. Intractable global problems? We don’t think so. At Facing the Future we believe in the transformative power of widespread, systemic education to improve lives and communities, both locally and globally. Our positive, solutions-based programming is designed by and for teachers, and brings critical thinking about global issues to students in every walk of life. We work within the education system to help teachers help students achieve academic success, while preparing them to create and maintain positive, healthy, and sustainable communities. We provide curriculum resources, teacher workshops, and service learning opportunities used by teachers, schools, and districts in all 50 states and over 100 countries.
    They have a section for downloading free curriculum with some fantastic segments and activities. It includes games, reflective exercises, math instruction, and all sorts of things related to sustainability.

    Having talked with some of our group's members and lots of future teachers, the "How do you teach sustainability or ecological literacy or (insert green buzzword here) when my students are drilled and killed?" I see a lot of frustration. Will this stuff be practical? What if I don't have a school garden to work in and with? How do I use four square walls to teach about the interconnectedness of organisms?

    A lot of people have had the same worries and done something about it. They've made these resources. Use them. Model your lesson plans on these things. You don't need to reinvent the wheel. You need to use good wheels.

    Tuesday, December 1, 2009

    Roots and Shoots

    Since 1986, Jane Goodall, reknowned the world over for her pioneering scientific work with chimpanzees, has become increasingly involved in community organizing and education for the betterment of human, animal, and environmental well-being.

    In 1991, Goodall began working with teens in Tanzania to solve local ecological challenges, like deforestation. At the core of this work was the pursuit of knowledge, compassion, and action, which was manifested in problem-solving, education, and community empowerment. From this work emerged the "Roots and Shoots" program, designed to foster similar education and social action campaigns in communities across the globe. Recently, this program was implemented with students from California's Casa Grande High School to reclaim a local stream. As one part of the project, students managed a hatchery that enabled them to repopulate the stream with fish.

    "Roots and Shoots" (which can be visited here: offers resources for educators and community members who are interested in supporting similar service learning projects with the aim of ecological reclamation and community empowerment.

    I will leave you with these words from one of Jane Goodall's own poems, capturing the "peace of the forest" that so many claim that she possesses.

    "Go out, my child, go out and seek
    Your soul: the Eternal I."

    Also, check out Goodall's recent interview on Bill Moyers' "The Journal," from which the information for this posting came (

    Monday, November 30, 2009

    Reading your way to a better life by eating better through what you read

    A new class has emerged at Penn State that I want to encourage all PSU undergraduates reading this post to take. Eat Your Ecology: Food Writing and Environmentalism - English 297C taught by Kimberly Andrews. As a big proponent of understanding where our food comes from, how it's grown, slaughtered, processed, etc. I can only say that the reading list alone makes me wish I were an undergraduate again. Wendell Berry's Unsettling of America, Michael Pollan's Omnivore's Dilemma, Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation, numerous other hot readings, and some great experiential learning. Check it!

    The course is described as follows:

    This course aims to bring you closer to your food — intellectually, literally, and ecologically. Over the course of a semester, we will tackle questions such as: What, exactly, are we eating? Where does it come from? What are the environmental impacts of the current dietary culture of this country? How do our eating habits map onto other American (or, more generally, Western) ways of life — urbanism, corporatization, consumerism, capitalism? How can we use food, and narratives about food, to look at community development, local and national politics, spiritual enrichment, and ethics? Lastly, what do farmers really do, anyway?

    There will be multiple experiential aspects of this class. You will travel to and work on farms. Every day, you will take note of the kinds of foods you choose to eat and occasionally expand upon those choices in a journal. We’ll take a day one weekend to go foraging — hopefully, we’ll have learned enough to go about finding some beneficial wild foods. Finally, we’ll of course cook a meal together (and we’ll share food constantly in class), using only local, sustainably produced food. Good nourishment for body and mind: that’s the goal of this course.

    Come on. Take it. You get to go foraging. I hope I can just go on one of the weekend trips. Maybe they can join our club for a farm trip or to visit Stone Meadow Farm to make cheese.

    For more contact information, go here.

    Saturday, November 28, 2009

    The wombat knows

    It knows that we are part of something much larger than ourselves - Earth. But we have only one Earth. So let's take care of it.

    This video comes from the Foundation for a Global Community, a group that currently works with Global Mindshift. Together they are trying to make the shift to a global community "unstoppable." Whether you agree with this mission or not, the message of the wombat is unavoidable. To truly live sustainably, we must share equitably with those here now and with those who are yet to come.

    Friday, November 27, 2009

    Unholy sh**! Pork and groundwater

    What do pigs have to do with groundwater? Well (no pun intended), maybe a lot.

    Rolling Stone reports that if you live in North Carolina, Utah, or a few other states, your water's health is compromised by the enormous amount of hog feces routinely spilled into it. Millions of gallons of it, untreated, flows into watersheds where it can make people sick, wreak havoc and reek of putrefaction, wreck local ecosystems, and potentially flow out to sea to compromise sea life. And one company in particular, Smithfield Pork, is the worst of them all.

    How bad? I think the only appropriate term might be catastrophically sh**ty. Check it:

    Smithfield estimates that its total sales will reach $11.4 billion this year. So prodigious is its fecal waste, however, that if the company treated its effluvia as big-city governments do -- even if it came marginally close to that standard -- it would lose money. So many of its contractors allow great volumes of waste to run out of their slope-floored barns and sit blithely in the open, untreated, where the elements break it down and gravity pulls it into groundwater and river systems. Although the company proclaims a culture of environmental responsibility, ostentatious pollution is a linchpin of Smithfield's business model.

    A lot of pig shit is one thing; a lot of highly toxic pig shit is another. The excrement of Smithfield hogs is hardly even pig shit: On a continuum of pollutants, it is probably closer to radioactive waste than to organic manure. The reason it is so toxic is Smithfield's efficiency. The company produces 6 billion pounds of packaged pork each year. That's a remarkable achievement, a prolificacy unimagined only two decades ago, and the only way to do it is to raise pigs in astonishing, unprecedented concentrations.

    Smithfield's pigs live by the hundreds or thousands in warehouse-like barns, in rows of wall-to-wall pens. Sows are artificially inseminated and fed and delivered of their piglets in cages so small they cannot turn around. Forty fully grown 250-pound male hogs often occupy a pen the size of a tiny apartment. They trample each other to death. There is no sunlight, straw, fresh air or earth. The floors are slatted to allow excrement to fall into a catchment pit under the pens, but many things besides excrement can wind up in the pits: afterbirths, piglets accidentally crushed by their mothers, old batteries, broken bottles of insecticide, antibiotic syringes, stillborn pigs -- anything small enough to fit through the foot-wide pipes that drain the pits. The pipes remain closed until enough sewage accumulates in the pits to create good expulsion pressure; then the pipes are opened and everything bursts out into a large holding pond.

    All of this has been tacitly okay'd by governmental inaction over the years. I don't think it's hyperbole to say that this should be criminal. It should not be within one company's or industry's purview to compromise the health and welfare of thousands of people and billions of plants and animals at limited expense for the sake of lining the pockets of a few and providing you or me with a cheap pulled pork sandwich, side of ham, sausages, or hot dogs.

    And you don't need to be a vegetarian to recognize how insane this system of production is when it comes to total health. However, if you are inclined you might want to see the previous post on Peter Singer. But the industrial system pumps pigs full of drugs to prevent diseases necessarily thrust on them by their living conditions. They literally live encased in their own diseases and are held up in abject misery by antibiotics. Of course, these diseases and the drugs run into water tables. Anyone who has followed this blog for the last couple of months will have seen other pieces that deal with agriculture. A few months ago, I posted on chickens and their mass production following a Johns Hopkins study. Similarly, we did a posting on cows in Wisconsin from the New York Times.

    Most of you reading this are current or future teachers. Our schools buy from these companies. What is the message there? What is the lesson to be learned? What does where our food comes from, how it's produced, what its costs are, how those costs accrue, how some costs are hidden, and what we read and don't read on those packages tell us about what we value? Would you be willing to show 11-year-olds this process and then ask them to eat it?

    The questions are, "Should we eat this way? Why? What can you do about it?"

    But this is something we have to face. If we want clean water and want bottled water to go away, then we have to confront the entrenched web of our industrialized economic habits that pollute. They say they pollute on our behalf. Is that really true?

    I want to be unequivocal here. I believe that our diets unnecessarily hurt other animals and poison our water. I think that anyone who reads this post and continues to buy a Smithfield pork chop is deciding to poison someone else's water and water that sustains non-human life.

    I want to say that I am someone like to Smithfield's president's caricature:

    "The animal-rights people," he once said, "want to impose a vegetarian's society on the U.S. Most vegetarians I know are neurotic." When the Environmental Protection Agency cited Smithfield for thousands of violations of the Clean Water Act, Luter responded by comparing what he claimed were the number of violations the company could theoretically have been charged with (2.5 million, by his calculation) to the number of documented violations up to that point (seventy-four). "A very, very small percent," he said.

    I don't "want to impose a vegetarian's society on the U.S." But I do think that we must confront these issues. 2.5 million violations of the Clean Water Act? As I said earlier, this is criminal. Absolutely criminal.

    They have outsourced their responsibility to a corporation that wants to keep us blind because its methods are so reprehensible that people hate living near them (see The Way We Eat). That is my position.

    What's yours?

    Friday, November 20, 2009

    A poem by Mary Oliver

    The Summer Day
    By Mary Oliver

    Who made the world?
    Who made the swan, and the black bear?
    Who made the grasshopper?
    This grasshopper, I mean--
    the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
    the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
    who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down--
    who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
    Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
    Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
    I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
    I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
    into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
    how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
    which is what I have been doing all day.
    Tell me, what else should I have done?
    Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
    Tell me, what is it you plan to do
    with your one wild and precious life?

    Wednesday, November 18, 2009

    Teaching evolution in American classes. What's it have to do with ecological literacy?

    This Thursday, November 19th marks the 150th anniversary release date of Charles Darwin's The Origin of Species. The day will be marked by a number of events across the globe and at Penn State. The Education Policy Studies Association is hosting a talk by political science professors and researchers Erik Plutzer and Michael Berkman called "Evolution, Creationism, and the Battle for America's Classrooms." It will be hosted at 12 am this Thursday in 403 Rackley Building (note the room change from the flier at right). This post will briefly introduce this topic and hopefully show you why the ecologically minded person ought to consider evolution's importance in science and schools. Without evolution, ecology makes much less sense.

    A huge number of people in the United States deny the reality of evolution. Sadly, many of them are creationists and Biblical literalists who push a religious and anti-science agenda in public press and in our public schools. They exert pressure from the top down and the bottom up greatly affecting what can happen in a high school biology classrooms. How?

    In 2004, George Bush sounded off on teaching evolution after a school board instituted a policy that advocated teaching so-called "intelligent design" (ID) creationism in Dover, Pennsylvania. Bush advocated teaching "both sides" (evolution and ID) as if ID were a tenable scientific theory.

    What happened? Nine Dover residents with the help of the ACLU, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, and Pepper Hamilton law firm took the school board to the federal Middle District of the Pennsylvania. That ended in December 2005 with Judge John E. Jones III ruling that ID unconstitutional.

    Why? It is A) a form of creationism which makes it b) unconstitutional. Creationism, as court Edwards v. Aguillard and McLean v. Arkansas both found, is a form of religion. Because of the First Amendment's "establishment clause" prohibition on state-supported religion and the "Lemon test" (which states that policies must have a secular purpose, cannot advance nor hinder religion, and cannot entangle the state with religion) Judge Jones found that Dover School District could not teach ID. Finally, Jones found that ID is not science but is rather a form of religiously-based pseudoscience.

    Jones is not alone in this. As my other blog, Forms Most Beautiful, shows extensively here and here, there is no scientific credibility in ID. The overwhelming majority of scientists in biological and geological sciences recognize evolution as the central theory of biology. Based on the domain-specific agreement and consensus we might think that science teachers teach evolution right?

    Sort of. That's Berkman and Plutzer's work comes in. They published an article in PLoS Biology two summers ago titled "Evolution and Creationism in America's Schools: A National Portrait." It was perhaps the first really nationally representative look at what biology teachers actually teach in U.S. public schools. They write:
    Our survey of biology teachers is the first nationally representative, scientific sample survey to examine evolution and creationism in the classroom. Three different survey questions all suggest that between 12% and 16% of the nation's biology teachers are creationist in orientation. Roughly one sixth of all teachers professed a “young earth” personal belief, and about one in eight reported that they teach creationism or intelligent design in a positive light. The number of hours devoted to these alternative theories is typically low—but this nevertheless must surely convey to students that these theories should be accorded respect as scientific perspectives.
    Their talk today is on this topic.

    Why should we care? As ecologically-minded people, we recognize our interrelationships with other organisms. This of course includes the air we breathe every day being shared with countless other organisms, the water we drink and expel coming through processes that involve billions of other organisms, and the soil we till and cultivate to grow our food being complex thermodynamic and organic processes that we interact with. All of life is a system. It is a coevolutionary system through deep time. The DNA that makes up my body is the same set of biochemicals in every organism on the planet. As the "tree of life" pic here shows, we not only share our current space but our lineage with all of those organisms.

    We share with them. As such, we ought to consider how we treat them. How do we use the resources they use? What do we owe them if anything at all?

    As teachers in a world that must come to a more sustainable future, we don't have the luxury of indulging in falsehoods about how we modern humans have come to be where we are. Part of this understanding entails our evolved natural history. To be ecologically literate means seeing the patterns before us today, the patterns that have shaped us, and what patterns we weave for the future. The science of evolution is part of this. It is worth defending.

    Perhaps Darwin said it best in the closing sentences from The Origin of Species. "There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone circling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved."

    Come to today's lecture. 12 pm in 403 Rackley.

    Penn State's Energy Future

    If you can make it, please do!

    Tuesday, November 17, 2009

    The impact of "No Impact Man"

    This is a guest post by Penn State Environmental Society president, John Stevenson. John involves himself in the major sustainability and natural environmental justice initiatives at Penn State. He is also an extant member of 3E-COE. Enjoy


    I think that No Impact Man by Colin Beavan is the most important environmental book of our generation.

    Other books offer critiques of our current way of life, tackling the lack of community and active citizenship, the gospel of consumption or the way we work. Beavan writes with knowledge of these histories and focused studies, but I think he knew that we needed something else. We needed a personal, accessible, honest narrative about a different way to live, and that’s what he wrote. Upon starting the project, he was not an expert in anything environmental but simply a liberal who complained a lot and did little.

    No Impact Man is not a how-to guide. There are other books out there on how to cook and find local food, reduce your waste and use low-carbon transportation. This is the story of a family’s journey towards reducing their impact on the world, one step at a time.

    Beavan describes his personal strategy and experiences such as the frustration of washing clothes in their bathtub, getting his wife off coffee and having limited hours to work from solar electricity. He also recounts the joys of no-TV, the meditative benefits of bread baking, spending more time with his family and becoming a social hub for his friends. The Beavans break their own rules sometimes, deal with the guilt, and have family disputes, but these only add to their humanity and make it easier to identify with them.

    Beavan also offers up concise descriptions of issues which involve all consumers. These essentially outline his motivation for various lifestyle changes and cover a number of key points about where the American herd is going. The most striking fact to me was that Americans spend 5 work-months per year either in their cars or paying for them. Is this love affair satisfying? Or worth that much time? He covers externalities, the urgency of the environmental crisis and questions the typical definitions of progress and growth, not in an academic way, but in a very tangible oh-my-god-we-need-to-change-the-status-quo-rapidly way.

    I can’t emphasis enough how accessible and straight forward this book is compared to every other environmental or lifestyle book I’ve read. He recognizes complexities and difficult issues like nuclear power, political change and the job transition necessary in coal towns, but he doesn’t get bogged down in them. He goes straight for the heart in discussing the difficulty of individual behavior change and examining our life priorities. Beavan suggests that, “It feels better, we think, to go in the wrong direction than to feel we don't understand our true direction.”

    I would highly-recommend this book to people at every stage of environmental awareness and action. It will teach you something, it’s well documented and it’s a good kick in the rear for us to take the world situation seriously and recognize our personal power. 25 pages of it are available for preview on Google Books. Check it out.

    - John T. Stevenson

    Wednesday, November 11, 2009

    That silly continent of trash

    I just want to follow up on what the news from the North Pacific Gyre garbage "patch." As we've posted here a few times before, a raft of garbage twice the size of the state of Texas swirls in the Pacific Ocean. Innumerable organisms live, feed, and breed there and are affected by the consequences of our actions every day. They are "externalities" to our economy and its waste stream or, in a less pleasant term, "collateral damage" to "business as usual."

    The New York Times has a good piece up on it called "Afloat in the Ocean, Expanding Islands of Trash." It's a solid piece that will fill in what we've learned here. Not to make that silly little garbage landscape feel alone:
    Scientists say the garbage patch is just one of five that may be caught in giant gyres scattered around the world’s oceans. Abandoned fishing gear like buoys, fishing line and nets account for some of the waste, but other items come from land after washing into storm drains and out to sea.

    I know that sometimes we are faced with insurmountable circumstances and wonder, "How will nature survive?" This is a good question and it indicates our ecological consciousness. But we should also note that non-human life adapts. Consider the Trigger Fish that has used a caulking tube for its habitat. It lives now.

    But will it thrive? Can it sustain?

    Tuesday, November 10, 2009

    Why SHOULD you eat what you eat?

    This friday, November 13th, Peter Singer will speak at Penn State on "The Ethics of What We Eat" at 4 pm in 10 Sparks. This presentation will likely flow from his decades of work as a utilitarian philosopher who has focused on how we treat animals. As a utilitarian, he argues that many of the animals that we eat are entitled the rights that many humans are, or perhaps more, because of their capacities as sentient beings.

    To give a simple (but hopefully not simplistic) example, pigs have more developed senses of self than infant humans. Pigs remember who they are from moment to moment, experience intense desires, develop social relationships, play games, can deceive one another, and even use mirrors to find objects. Infants have do not have these capacities. As Flowing from his work in Practical Ethics, Singer argues that a pig might well fulfill John Locke's definition of a person: "A thinking intelligent being that has some reason and reflection and can consider itself as itself, the same thinking thing, in different times and places." Note: a human is not de facto a person though If we are not to kill persons, we should not kill pigs.

    But this is where things get ethically difficult. Neonatal infant humans lack the sense of personhood that adult pigs do. However, we outlaw infanticide. Surely we wouldn't coop infants, allow them to wallow in their own feces, inject them or feed them massive amounts of antibiotics because we force them to live in their own feces. Were such a place discovered, there would be a trial in The Hague for crimes against humanity. But if we use Singer's criteria, factory farms constitute, if not crimes against humanity, crimes against personhood.

    Why should we continue to kill pigs, cows, sheep, and chickens the way that we do? If we do that, then why must infanticide be deemed unethical? To make this even less comfortable, why are the mentally retarded given rights when gorillas, chimpanzees, and orangutans are not? Why is an unborn fetus granted more standing than a living dolphin or orca in a pod? He would argue that at the base of our preferences for humans over other animals is a kind of chauvanism he calls "speciesism" that lacks good reasons and perpetuates suffering on an unacceptable scale. his conclusions naturally lead to vegetarianism and veganism.

    Perhaps from this all-too-brief entry you can see why some have called him "the architect of the culture of death." He pushes buttons effectively. However, he is also one of the world's most vocal advocates for the world's impoverished people because they suffer, in part, because of the exploitation and neglect of wealthy people, nations, and their global organizations. Because we know that billions of people are suffering, Singer argues that we should do much more for them and much less for ourselves by redistributing wealth and resources. To read more on that you can read "The Singer Solution to World Poverty," One World, his newest book The Life You Can Save, a recent interview with D.J. Grothe on Point of Inquiry (listen to others here), and lots of YouTube videos about poverty and cooperation (see two videos below).

    Singer wants us to consider our choices' ramifications in the real world. His philosophy lives in the real world and puts everything in front of us. Why do we eat the way that we do? What are its effects on ourselves and on others, including non-human animals? How does my dinner affect the economic, social, and ecological health of where I live and where I don't? What are the ecological ramifications of eating a $24 steak dinner instead of the same on butternut squash ravioli and a salad? What if I made that butternut squash ravioli and salad from a local farmer's produce and made that dinner at home and gave the extra money to an organization like Oxfam? Which is the better decision. The Way We Eat matters.

    Come out this Friday, November 13th at 4 pm to 10 Sparks and dig into these issues. If you have a Facebook account you can register that you are coming!

    Note in the following his stance on bottled water. Love it.

    Friday, November 6, 2009

    Al Gore on NPR today

    We should credit Al Gore for changing the tone, message, and acceptance of climate change's reality in the American popular imagination and zeitgeist. Without An Inconvenient Truth, we might still be shucked with and shackled by the power broker arguments of Exxon-Mobil and Senator James Inhofe (R-Oklahoma). Some powerful interests, like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, still try engage in denialism of the worst sort and that's a great shame. But Gore changed that and he deserves credit.

    Today, in an NPR interview, Gore called on Obama to be a leader at the Copenhagen Climate Summit this December.

    They feature some material from his new book if you're interested. Here is an excerpt:

    "I know that we waited too long. I wish we had acted sooner. But the outlook for your future is now bright. The wounds we inflicted on the atmosphere and the earth's ecological system are healing.

    "It seems ironic now that our commitment during the Great Transformation to a low-carbon economy was what restored economic prosperity. Once the world embarked on the journey to heal our world and save your future, tens of millions of new jobs — including whole new professions — began to emerge.

    "I ask only one thing of you in return for what we have done on your behalf: pass on to your children the courage and resolve to act boldly and wisely whenever the future is at risk. You will be challenged, as we were. But I know that you will not fail those who come after you, as we did not fail you.

    "The choice is awesome and potentially eternal. It is in the hands of the present generation: a decision we cannot escape, and a choice to be mourned or celebrated through all the generations that follow."

    I applaud Gore for his leadership and his fight. And yes, I think that he should have won the Nobel Prize with the IPCC.

    But I should note that Gore thinks that we "consumers" can make the difference in the "greening" of our "choices," those being consumption choices. I doubt that very much. So long as we are hitched to a "consumer" market that supports a growth economy we are committing ecocide (outlined nicely in Jared Diamond's Collapse, Speth's Bridge at the Edge of the World, or in the writings of Illich, Sachs, and others) which is, to my mind, collective suicide. The alleged efficiency shifts in lightbulbs, faucets, and cars are not enough. They're good.

    But unless Americans change our diets, where and how often we travel and how we get there, what we think is acceptable lighting in the first place, what we think our fair share is, and too many other things to list here, talking about consumers as consumers might not be helpful unless we deliberately make this culture about consuming less. And all that can yield a more abundant and flourishing life for more people.


    If you are interested, Newsweek features Gore on its cover and in a long article in the latest issue. They call him "the thinking man's thinking man." We report. You decide.

    Monday, November 2, 2009

    Eight Reasons

    We usually stay away from the usual updates on the schooling headlines. Race to the Top gets enough press in EdWeek and big media. But you should consider this question.

    The Century Foundation asks, "Should teachers be judged by how well their students perform on standardized test?"

    Take a moment and think about this: If you are a you think it's a fair or worthwhile to asses your pedagogical skills, your content knowledge, and your relationship with your students based on how well they do on standardized tests? Walk yourself around in that for a while. Go read about No Child Left Behind or the PSSAs. Think about being rewarded even more for teaching to the test. Watch the curriculum narrow more.

    You got it. The Century Foundation answers the previous question of whether teachers should be rewarded for student standardized test scores in "Eight Reasons Not to Tie Teacher Pay to Standardized Test Results."
    The U.S. Department of Education has determined that the answer is “yes.” In the proposed rules for the Race to the Top Fund—the federal program that is seeking to distribute $4.3 billion in aid to states that are implementing innovative and ambitious plans for increasing student achievement—Education Secretary Arne Duncan insists that in order to receive these funds, states should be ready evaluate and compensate teachers based in part on how well their students perform on standardized tests.
    For all of Obama's talk last year that indicated he didn't like "bubble tests" he sure seems to be aligning himself with them more and more. Where is place-based education in this? Where is the possibility for rewards for teachers who create good lessons about what matters to their communities and develops real skills?

    If you want to read all of the Eight Reasons click here for the .pdf.

    Wednesday, October 28, 2009

    Let's Look to Antioch

    Antioch University New England, in Keene, New Hampshire, has a program that works in cooperation with schools called Community-Based School Environmental Education (hereafter, and familiarly, CO-SEED) to develop and implement place-based education projects and curriculum. CO-SEED is, more specifically, run by Antioch New England Institute (ANEI), which is a community outreach department within Antioch University.

    The program speaks for itself well enough, so here is what it says:

    CO-SEED, a project of ANEI's Center for Place-based Education is a three-year collaboration with particular schools and their communities to work together to develop place-based learning. By using the local natural and cultural environment as the setting for learning - and involving students in addressing community needs through hands-on service - CO-SEED projects seek to connect students, schools, curriculum, and community.

    As I read more about experiences with place-based education, I have detected a recurring pattern, which you can find recorded by just about any teacher involved with this type of learning and teaching, through which such education becomes a critical and expressive venture for students as a matter of course. The process seems to go something like this: students experience a real-world phenomenon, they ask questions about it (importantly, they ask questions that use words like "what," "how," and, most powerfully, "why"), which results in seeking answers to those questions, which leads to imagining and working toward solutions, which necessarily leads to proposing visions and plans for the future.

    CO-SEED is an organization with which we might consider cooperating as classroom teachers to support specific place-based learning projects as well as for acquiring ideas for implementing such projects on our own. It is important to remember that place-based education only works when students receive the support of capable, trusted, and caring adults (sometimes we call these people "teachers").

    (I think this program deserves a link in the blog under "Educational and Advocacy Resources.")

    Tuesday, October 27, 2009


    How about converting the suburbs and their lawns into self-sufficient places? How about replacing the American lawn with fields of organically grown sustainable food? Without getting too far ahead of myself I'm tempted to say, "Sign me up!"

    The Denver Post reported a couple of days ago on "Agriburbia" (pic at right courtesy of The Denver Post):

    [Matthew] Redmond, co-founder of the Golden-based design firm TSR Group, travels the country preaching his urban farming and development idea. He envisions a future where the nation's 31 million acres of lawn are converted to food production. He sees golf-course greens redefined with herbs; sand traps as "kale traps." He sees retirement homes engulfed by farms and office buildings where workers escape cubicles on farming breaks.

    Redmond, along with his born-on- a-farm biologist turned planner wife, Jennifer, sees an urban landscape like none before.

    "This is where we are all going to go. We need this," said Redmond. "Everyone thinks they are so smart by crafting a 2030 plan for the future. I say we need a $180-a-barrel plan, on how our communities can be self-sufficient when oil becomes too expensive to ship food across the country."

    Self-sufficient. Sustainable. Locally produced. Agriburbia incorporates all three concepts.

    In another article on the Northern Colorado Business Report website, Redmond says, "Up till now, developers just focused on shelter," he said. "We want to address the human need of food the best we can. We believe agriculture is part of the infrastructure of a development." With the price of oil going up and the total unsustainability of our current industrial food system, we can face this very practically. Consider that what we need for personal security: air, water, soil, food, shelter, and other people for community (unless you are a very rare hermitish person). At the most basic level, our living spaces ought to reflect those real needs as well as they can. Currently, they do not because they are propped up by cheap but increasingly expensive oil. Oil that has fueled the transportation and provided fuel, fertilizer, and pesticides for our industrial agricultural sector. With good planning and thoughtful use - sustainable use that thinks about security in and across our places and through time - we could have these agriburbias work. In some sense they are modernized villages from the pre-industrial centuries.

    But that wasn't something they deliberately tried to do.

    I called "Quint" Redmond at his office to ask him a few questions. He's a friendly and very well-spoken person apparently versed in our emerging "green" dialect. But more than that, he seems to be doing what Wendell Berry calls, "solving for pattern." In short, "A good solution is good because it is in harmony with those larger patterns – and this harmony will, I think, be found to have a nature of analogy. A bad solution acts within the larger pattern the way a disease or addiction acts within the body. A good solution acts within the larger pattern the way a healthy organ acts within the body." Agriburbia appears to be a settlement that lives within its region and its integrated in such a way that it fosters total health.

    As Redmond said, "It's the intersection of real estate, development, and agriculture." All of this is being done in ways to reduce a community's footprint in food, housing, and transportation what he calls the carbon triangle because the majority of our daily communal carbon emissions come from those three areas.

    He believes that the prospects for retrofitting suburbia are huge. "The inefficient use of that [suburban] land is really the problem. Suburban density is fine." But the problems emerge from poor land use and infrastructure. "It's a design thing."

    If you think about a community as a huge consumer of calories - whether in food or fuel - then you might start to see suburbia much the way you look at a couch potato just sitting there doing little, consuming huge numbers of calories of potato chips, TV electricity, and home heat or air conditioning while expending few in production. But if we take that couch potato and design his living space such that he can readily dig up the potatoes himself, possibly with his neighbors, and give and share that resources in his community or region, you have changed the equation. Where a lawn sat idle, acting as a passive receptacle for water, sun, and chemical fertilizer that people groom for no instrumental purpose, you might have gardens, fields, orchards, or vineyards that sustain ecological, communal, and economic viability.

    The learning possibilities are incredible. "We don't have one these projects that doesn't have an educational partner." People learn lessons about the world they live in when they are active in a community like this. The real cost of food comes to the fore. But people see that they can feed themselves, their neighbors, and people who live in densely populated cities. "The great irony is that that the industrial farmer has said that we can't feed everyone this way but you can."

    After years of outsourcing our food production to others, Redmond thinks that there is the chance for some awakening in this. Maybe there will even be a reshuffling of social status. In the end, "Farmers will be right up there next to doctors and lawyers."

    If you think about the industrial fractures of American life and our disconnection from those things that sustain us like air, water, and food or even our means of locomotion, a community like Agriburbia seems a step in the right direction. It evokes in urban planning what E.O. Wilson calls "biophilia" because it brings humans and nature together in a more symbiotic relatioship. "You get something that is hugely good and everyone wants to live in."
    [Hat tip to Mike R.]

    Sunday, October 25, 2009

    Accountability for the PSU sustainability movement

    "It is my firm conviction that the great universities of the 21st century will be judged by their ability to help solve our most urgent social problems."
    —William R. Greiner, President, State University of New York, Buffalo,
    Universities and Community Schools, 1994

    Three weeks ago Penn State held its
    Educating for Sustainability conference. I just want to follow up on that and show people a little bit about what came out of it in the form of voluntary commitments.

    We decided on some "Top priorities" as follows:

    1) Multi-pronged marketing (including social networking) to shift the culture, internally and outward to society.
    University-wide Sustainability Council to promote systemic change and culture shift.
    3) Shifting curricula - throughout the disciplines and in the general education core.
    4) Professional development required in sustainability for faculty and staff.

    These four seemingly simple things will take some time to accomplish but we need to not drag our feet. As a group we are part of 1, 2, 3, and 4. We hope to change our culture and its values. If there is to be a council on sustainability, then as a group we need to make sure that our voice is represented and that we participate responsibly. As future teachers we have to be concerned about curricula that we are being taught and will be teaching. Finally, as professional educators, the systems of rewards made available to us and that we develop should reflect our values and good practices that emphasize sustainability.

    In an article I've just read, Ira Harkavy of the University of Pennsylvania wrote:
    If colleges and universities are to fulfill their potential and really contribute to a democratic devolution revolution, however, they must function very differently from the way they do now. To begin with, changes in “doing” will require colleges and universities to recognize that, as they now function, they constitute a major part of the problem, not a significant part of the solution. To become part of the solution, institutions of higher education must give full-hearted, full-minded devotion to the hard task of transforming themselves and becoming socially responsible, genuinely engaged civic universities. To do that well, they will have to change their institutional cultures and structures and develop a comprehensive, realistic strategy.
    And that means, foremost, sustainability. What universities are "doing" right now through
    our curriculum, operations, purchasing, development, missions, and culture is educating the future graduate to be the neediest, most consumptive, wasteful, parasitic organism that has ever lived on planet Earth. I don't say this because I believe people want to be this or that this is the only effect of a college education. But it is the most important ecological outcome that has profound economic and social effects as well. Harkavy's "genuinely engaged civic universities" should use the term "civic" to be a comprehensive environmental term such that the university helps to shape culture that addresses needs and not wants, obligations not entitlements, responsibilities and not whims.

    I think it's our duty to make the quotation that opened this post true. We must judge our institutions by how well they help us solve the greatest problem humanity has ever faced - climate change. So keep your eyes peeled on these matters because we have to move the Penn State juggernaut toward more and more sustainable practices. As part of the conscience here, we have to act as it and hold it accountable.