Monday, August 31, 2009

Our own Alex D'Urso in Inside Higher Ed

Our own Alex D'Urso was featured in a story on plastic water bottle reduction in Inside Higher Ed earlier this year. For some reason, I don't think we ever posted it. Well, here is the opening. You can read the rest at the first link.
Habits die hard.

“A concern for some people is they can’t imagine what they would do without bottled water,” said Alexandra D’Urso, a Ph.D. student in curriculum and instruction at Pennsylvania State University who’s involved with a new campaign to ban bottled water on campus. “It’s hard to believe that we’ve gone from a point 15 years ago when no one carried a plastic water bottle, that now no one can imagine how we would live without them.”

To borrow from John Lennon, imagine. That’s what student and faculty activists are asking on a number of college campuses where efforts to cut down on the use of bottled water, or restrict its sale -- all for sustainability’s sake -- are gaining momentum.

And on that last point, I've been talking to people at Food and Water Watch and the momentum is really gaining. This October 14th, we'll be part of a Take Back the Tap day of action on which students, faculty, and staff at colleges and universities around the U.S. will be lobbying their institutions to drop single-use bottles. As our own Jared pointed out last semester - Refill! Not Landfill! And as Alex said, it is hard to believe that we've gotten to this point.

This issue connects to my last post - that there are a web of considerations in our commodity production and purchasing decisions that have simply been ruled out of bounds by narrow profit interests. It is high time to claim and act upon virtues that recognize and promote broader and better interests.

The teetering boreal forests

Well, I guess it's good that Penn State's Eco-Action, MBA programs, along with Greenpeace's Kleerkut campaign worked together to get Kimberly-Clark out of the business of cutting from pristine boreal forests (see here as well). Problem is, homo economicus has encroached on these forests so much that it might be too late.

Science Daily reports,
The world's last remaining "pristine" forest -- the boreal forest across large stretches of Russia, Canada and other northern countries -- is under increasing threat, a team of international researchers has found.

The researchers from the University of Adelaide in Australia, Memorial University of Newfoundland in Canada and the National University of Singapore have called for the urgent preservation of existing boreal forests in order to secure biodiversity and prevent the loss of this major global carbon sink.

The boreal forest comprises about one-third of the world's forested area and one-third of the world's stored carbon, covering a large proportion of Russia, Canada, Alaska and Scandinavia.

If you've seen Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth or have been following conservation reports for the last few years, you've heard about the "drunken forests." These are the boreal forests where the permafrost has melted and turned to mud. The large conifers tilt, sink, and fall from their own weight and lack of soil integrity to hold them up. So the problem, like so many others with climate change issues, is complex and difficult.

When I read things like this I can't help but wonder about the incredible nearsightedness of our economic systems and be baffled at the way that the simple language of the profit system we have in place simply places some questions out of bounds. The question, "Should humans cut down boreal forests to make tissues?" never crossed their minds. The "should" of that question comes from a moral concern not just for the forest as a thing that might have intrinsic value (something a lot of environmentalists might believe) but also as a thing that has instrumental value to other organisms - from the moose that wander these forests to the lichens at the trees' bases - and to humans as producers of oxygen.

The problem is that the ethical concern is simply excised from our talk about tissues. "How can tissues be an ethical matter?" As soon as an ecologically sensitive person sees a tissue - or any mass-produced commodity - they ought (uh-oh! another ought!) to wonder about the ecological and social impact of that commodity and evaluate its potential impacts on the natural environment(s), the human social or cultural environment(s), and the economic environment(s). What this means, ethically speaking anyway, is that our economy's speed and growth might actually need to slow and retract.

I have a bit of trouble now wondering how a nation that is "the most educated in the world" simply does not ask questions like this about its own practices. How can "educated" people believe that it is in their own "enlightened self-interest" to have an endless growth economy when it's very clear natural consequence is the contraction or death of the very systems that sustain them? That might be a begged question. I've assumed that the answer is that we can't be "educated" and "enlightened" if as a people we are willfully committing ecocide.

Be that as it may (because I am prone to doom and gloom), I think it's worthwhile applauding Kimberly-Clark for responding appropriately. But note that they only did this because of an enormous amount of public and business pressure. They did not do this because of their own ethical concerns; they did it to prevent more profits from bleeding. Now, if we can just "educate" people in primary, secondary, and higher education to understand that economic actions ought to really be ecological, social, and economic. Perhaps, as future teachers with sustainability in mind, this can be part of what we do.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Walking for climate change awareness

Greta Brown is a real public educator. She doesn't work for a public school or any other public institution. She's a Unitarian minister who has decided that climate change poses such a threat to us that she must go out and try to convert the masses to wake from our ignorant slumber. She blogs for adults and for children. That's not so different in the digital age.

Now she's walking really really far to explain to as many of us as possible what's at stake. The New York Times has an interesting story about her here. She faces no shortage of problems ranging from talking with fundamentalist religious people who deny climate change to people, out of sincere kindness, offer her single-use plastic bottles that are themselves a waste. It's a testament to the magnitude of the problems we face.

Friday, August 28, 2009

What's wrong with Fiji bottled water?

Let's just keep this one easy. It comes from a military dictatorship that steals water from its own people. Mother Jones has a great story up on it.
THE INTERNET CAFÉ in the Fijian capital, Suva, was usually open all night long. Dimly lit, with rows of sleek, modern terminals, the place was packed at all hours with teenage boys playing boisterous rounds of video games. But one day soon after I arrived, the staff told me they now had to shut down by 5 p.m. Police orders, they shrugged: The country's military junta had declared martial law a few days before, and things were a bit tense.

I sat down and sent out a few emails—filling friends in on my visit to the Fiji Water bottling plant, forwarding a story about foreign journalists being kicked off the island. Then my connection died. "It will just be a few minutes," one of the clerks said.

Moments later, a pair of police officers walked in. They headed for a woman at another terminal; I turned to my screen to compose a note about how cops were even showing up in the Internet cafés. Then I saw them coming toward me. "We're going to take you in for questioning about the emails you've been writing," they said.

And that's just the beginning.

For reasons too long to enumerate and explain here, we too often think of our economic decisions as separate from our moral decisions. In the United States we often think in terms of things like "freedoms" and "inalienable rights" and the like. But when it comes issues tied to our pocketbooks, what we eat, and what we drink, we too easily outsource moral decision making to people whose vested interest is solely economic - profit-oriented or interested in job creation for example - and do not think in terms of social and/or environmental interests. And those decision makers - read Fiji water "producers" - deliberately hide those moral questions from us because if people knew what was happening, they would, or at least could, "vote" differently with their wallets.

And here we have a great example of the sham of the "choice" involved in part of the disposable plastic water bottle industry. Not only does it waste enormous amounts of petroleum in its fabrication and shipping; not only does it take water from the place where it has helped create and sustain an ecosystem; not only does it steal water from the people whose culture has been built on, around, by, and in conjunction with that water; it also does all of that with the threat of the gun and yours and my money. When we buy this water, it makes hypocrites out of those of us who believe in and say we practice rights and liberties because we steal the rights and liberties of all of those Fijians who have no sovereignty. It makes a public hypocrite of Barack Obama for sure.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

More disturbing news about plastic

The quest to rid the world of single-use plastic water bottles brings with it an awful lot of bad news. We know that plastics seemingly last forever. They never break down. Right?

Wrong. And it might be worse than you think.

National Geographic has a new story out discussing how plastics break down in ocean water. The plastics in the 7 million ton garbage raft in the Pacific gyre (see video below, this NG link, and pic at right from Algalita Marine Research Foundation) is actually breaking down and its side effects are remarkably awful.

The Japan-based team collected samples in waters from the U.S., Europe, India, Japan, and elsewhere, lead researcher Katsuhiko Saido, a chemist with the College of Pharmacy at Nihon University in Japan, said via email.

All the water samples were found to contain derivatives of polystyrene, a common plastic used in disposable cutlery, Styrofoam, and DVD cases, among other things, said Saido, who presented the findings at a meeting of the American Chemical Society in Washington, D.C., today.

Plastic, he said, should be considered a new source of chemical pollution in the ocean.

As the plastic breaks down, it releases BPA (among other things) into the water, a substance know to damage animals' endocrine systems. In humans, BPA exposure "may be connected to abnormal penis development in males, early sexual maturation in females, an increase in neurobehavioral problems such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and autism, an increase in childhood and adult obesity and type 2 diabetes, and an increase in hormonally mediated cancers, such as prostate and breast cancers." Hundreds of rodent studies have shown that "BPA-exposed animals have altered development of the male and female reproductive tracts, mammary tissues, the immune system, the fat tissue, and the thyroid...[and] altered brain development, increased aggression in adulthood, abnormal play and sexual behaviors, and decreased maternal behaviors."

But now that we know that the plastics are breaking down, we understand that it isn't just a surface water problem, but rather that the the chemicals are sinking down affecting lower water as well and also moving outward with currents. For example,
Once Styrofoam, for example, breaks down, the tiny polystyrene components start to sink, because they're heavier than water, Moore said. "So it's likely that this styrene pollutant is prevalent throughout the water column and not just at the surface."
Additionally, the unknown level of chemical contaminants that some plastic containers originally contained (pesticides, herbicides, oil, etc.) compounds an already bad problem. Animals ingesting plastic become sick and "plasticized." If another animal eats that animal and others like it, the concentration goes up. The more predatory/higher on the food chain we go, the more "plasticized" the animal can become. As one of the scientists in the article suggests, that's bad news for us. We are, in effect, poisoning ourselves through an incredibly labyrinthine process not unlike the way that we poisoned ourselves and innumerable raptors with DDT as Rachel Carson pointed out in her classic tract Silent Spring.

We might think, "I don't live near the Pacific Ocean. So who cares?" The "who cares" part is exactly the issue though. This isn't just a localized plastic problem for the Pacific when we know that plastic recycling rates in the U.S. are only about 20%. As a mass-consumer society, we are a part of this system. And the way to effect that change is to change it here and now. So dump the single-use plastic bottles and bags.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Sierra Club rates universities...guess what?

Penn State isn't even on the Sierra Club list. I have to admit that this is rather flabbergasting. But be that we've been simply left off the list, it's nice to see what the criteria for evaluation are. I mean, we do have one of the biggest composting programs in the country, several LEED certified buildings, community garden plots, the Center for Sustainability, some of the best environmental science programs in the country through several colleges and departments (except we do have major shills in those same colleges for unsustainable practices), a proactive Office of Physical Plant, and more.

None of that is to say that we don't need to improve. But we aren't even on the list. Who was this evaluator?

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Sustainability degrees increasing in popularity

Wow. We are on a rising tide.

USA Today reports today that "college students are flocking to sustainability degrees." The article spotlights (very briefly) how MBAs at U Penn can pick up a degree that incorporates environmental studies, Harvard's design program is emphasizing sustainability, Arizona State has a School of Sustainability that has just graduated its first class, and Bucknell has incorporated a requirement "that explores the human connection to the environment."

Every couple of weeks I get email from the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education informing me of the incredible goings on in sustainability and higher education. Things are changing really fast and, I sincerely hope, for the better. From the Ponderosa Project and Piedmont Project, from our own Center for Sustainability, Rock Ethics Institute, and Penn State's membership in the Pennsylvania Environmental Resource Consortium, to the plethora of other projects around the country, we are seeing so much happening. And now, finally, big media has noticed.

Now let's move our school!

Monday, August 10, 2009

Green Careers through the Center for Sustainability

The Penn State Center for Sustainability is launching a new way to get connected to the emerging "green economy": Green Careers.

And guess who's invited? Us! As participants in an engaged student organization, we'll be included in the goings on and have a way for people within and without Penn State to see what we've been doing. The big site launch will come this fall and we are also invited to host a table on Wednesday September 2nd. See you there.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Gardens are popping up everywhere

I've heard and read some awesome and disparate reports about green spaces, community gardens, and school gardens popping up all over the place. Just two that I've encountered in the last couple of weeks come from Flint, Michigan and Talledega, Alabama.

Flint's auto industry ties slowly corroded the whole city. Politicians and residents are looking into tearing down abandoned lots, relocating some residents, and making the bulldozed lots into places where people can grow flowers and veggies and beautify their town by helping nature reclaim large spaces. In essence, the town will flourish by shrinking. NPR reports:

One way residents are filling the city is with community gardens. One of them is managed by Harry Ryan, a retired electrician and real estate agent who lives in Flint's old east side. Just across the street from his home, where five houses used to stand, the land bank has helped him plant a sprawling community garden, which provides free fruit and vegetables to this part of the city.

Ryan says growing food one of the benefits of a plan to shrink Flint. "I look at it like this: Something has to be done with this abandoned land. So, I think, [in] every transition there are going to be negatives, but look at the positives. This was a junk pile," Ryan recalls.

"Now people are eating from it. I know there are complaints, but we do not have the 230,000 people [anymore]." (picture reprinted from NPR)

Pretty neat stuff. Where the human industrial economy has failed, nature's economy can reclaim.

And children can obviously benefit as I'm sure Zach can tell us from this summer's work. But in the deep South in Talledega, Alabama, a minister has seen fit to develop community gardens to help children learn self-sufficiency. The Daily Home reports that Reverend Sherman Green has set up a garden in cooperation with the "Cooperative Extension Service and Coosa Rural Development office" to teach children "how to grow a fruitful garden using new, innovative methods [and] the basics of business and entrepreneurship."

Perhaps we are seeing a recalibration occurring and its time to pitch a real proposal to our College.

Teachers + Children + Gardens = Self-sufficient Communities