Saturday, January 30, 2010

Will Penn State be one of the STARS?

The American Association for the Advancement for Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE...what a mouthful) is starting to pilot its STARS (Sustainability Tracking, Assessment and Rating System) program. According to AASHE, the program's goals are:
  • Provide a framework for understanding sustainability in all sectors of higher education.
  • Enable meaningful comparisons over time and across institutions using a common set of measurements developed with broad participation from the campus sustainability community.
  • Create incentives for continual improvement toward sustainability.
  • Facilitate information sharing about higher education sustainability practices and performance.
  • Build a stronger, more diverse campus sustainability community.
I am both very excited and a tad worried about this. I am excited because this might give us some really meaningful information about programs. However, standards and such can turn into some pretty ugly political sticks. I just like to keep in the back of my mind what "standards" adopted from "a common set of measurement" have done to teachers and students in light of the No Child Left Behind act. I'm cautiously optimistic though.

Guess what. Penn State is one of the early sites for evaluation.
As national and global attention to environmental sustainability increases, many in higher education, industry and government are unsure of how to actually quantify and measure progress in this new area. Penn State is taking a leadership role as a charter participant in the STARS (Sustainability Tracking, Assessment and Rating System) program, a new sustainability tracking system developed by the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE). This year, data will be collected in key sustainability "credit areas," spanning student life, curriculum, research, operations, planning, administration and outreach.

"STARS will provide Penn State with a key missing link in our efforts," said Erik Foley, director of the Campus Sustainability Office, "comprehensive baseline sustainability performance data. AASHE developed the tool over three years and tested it on 70 institutions, so we feel it is a well-tested, rigorous tool for supporting Penn State?s sustainability efforts."

As a charter participant in STARS, Penn State will have an improved ability to measure progress, make better informed resource allocation decisions, benchmark performance with other similar institutions and be a leader in the development of sustainability metrics. Early participation also will position Penn State to be an active contributor to the evolution of STARS, which is expected to evolve as universities continuously expand the adoption of innovative sustainable practices.
Read the whole story here. I really hope this goes well.

Friday, January 29, 2010

A song about "development": Gaon Chodab Nahi

This video was forwarded to us from Madhu Suri Prakash in Penn State's Educational Theory and Policy program (and my adviser). The YouTube host explains that "the song describes the present day exploitation of tribal land and forests in the name of development." Development, that chimera of "progress."

Madhu recently went to Bhutan to work with them on developing an integrated educational system for Gross National Happiness instead of Gross Domestic Product. Imagine that: a school system that seeks to help people's conviviality and economic, social, and ecological sustainability.

The Love Police

How's this for some public education?

Moral and Ethical Dimensions of Climate Change

As reported here a few days ago, three Penn State professors gave a talk about the few successes and many failures that emerged from COP 15. Dr. Don Brown, Dr. Nancy Tuana, and Dr. Petra Tschakert went as observers for Penn State. They provided a rundown of the ethical issues involved, generally referring to it as “climate justice,” “climate ethics,” or “the moral and ethical dimensions of climate change.”

386.7 parts per million: the Earth’s current atmospheric concentration of CO2. Based various data sources, that CO2 concentration is ~100 ppm higher than pre-industrial levels of ~280 ppm. Combined with other greenhouse gases (GHG) such as methane, water vapor, and refrigerants, CO2 causes climate change by warming the atmosphere on average. These effects disrupt longstanding climatic forces which in turn disrupt ecosystems – from rainforests to high tundra – which disrupt non-human and human communities which in turn harm an uncountable number of organisms. Climate scientists practically universally agree that industrial humanity has caused this problem and must act responsibly for the biosphere’s welfare, primarily for human welfare (watch this video made by the Rock Ethics Institute).

Politically and economically powerful people must positively answer the moral and ethical call to understand the many problems that we have caused and must work to curb damages, support the poor people who are and will be affected, must develop mitigation and adaptation behavioral and technological strategies, and must conserve much of the natural world. Many hoped that some meaningful action in this direction could come from COP 15, the 19th international climate summit held in Copenhagen, Denmark at the end of last year.

Issues include: How much money has been put in and should be put into adaptation funding and who should control that money? How should we deal with climate exiles such as people who will be displaced by rising sea levels such as people who live in the Maldives, Florida, Louisiana, India, and Bangledesh? How do notions of human rights play into this? What land should be set aside and who should control that land? How much risk should we put on future people? Are we worth more than them? What should their quality of life be?

Most contentiously in the United States, who should be responsible and who should pay? I note that the final question is most contentious in the U.S. because the U.S. is responsible for the emission of 27% of GHGs through history and by most standards of justice, the U.S. would pay for the humanitarian and ecological costs others are forced to take because of our economic "progress." Not that some of those costs are unquantified by current economics and maybe should remain that way. These would call for qualitative changes in life as well such as dietary and consumer habit shifts.

All of those "shoulds" or "oughts" show that these are moral and ethical questions. What is right and wrong and what beliefs and actions ought to follow?

Don Brown, Nancy Tuana, and Petra Tschakert all agreed at the end of the panel on a few things. First, we are responsible and should be acting in ways that are more sustainable. In daily life, we can consume less by just walking or cycling more and driving less. To extend this rather obvious idea, the simple act of slight reduction in the United States can have the effect of drastic change in a "less-developed" country. About 20% of our carbon footprint comes from diet much of which comes from food transportation, effectively equaling the footprint of an entire Pakistani family or Cameroon village. Efficient local food eating can greatly reduce that portion of our footprint as can simply eating less meat.

Second, we should "turn up the volume on the moral and ethical dimensions of climate change." Powerful people will not change policies and practices without pressure. That pressure can be through letters to politicians, phone calls, visits to offices, discussion with our friends and family, changes in buying habits, or activism which could well include civil disobedience. But if this is a justice issue that calls us to be responsible and responsive to the rights of others then we must act responsibly and loudly and clearly call on others. Pump up the volume.

Third, we must educate well. It is my (and I suspect the three panelists') firm belief that as teachers in the Deweyan sense that we need to guide students toward their understanding of their own moral duties and responsibilities by teaching morality instead of teaching about morality. What we do and how we do it in our formal schooling matters. The creation of more sustainable schools will shape behavior and moral sense. This is our place to be what we believe as ecologically-minded educators.

Our road is in front of us and this semester we will be going this way. We will join one another to consider Wendell Berry's work from "solving for pattern" (.pdf) and consider how to use the Center for Ecoliteracy's curricular companion for Food, Inc. We will keep pressing the water bottle issue and open people's minds to greater good through less use and waste in the place where we live.

Join us every first and third Thursday this semester in 134 Cedar Building at 7:30 pm. Be the good we need in this world. Help us raise the volume.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

In Memoriam Howard Zinn

Howard Zinn was one of the greatest historians, public intellectuals, teachers, and activists of the last 50 years. He died January 27th, 2010. He is probably most well-known for his numerous public lectures and books on history that raise our critical consciousness, most notably People's History of the United States.

Our own Jacqueline Edmondson connected me with Truthout's eulogy to Zinn written by former Penn State professor Henry Giroux who is now at McMaster. It's both fierce and lovely.

Contained within it is a kernel from Zinn's autobiography that I think we all hope for.
"From the start, my teaching was infused with my own history. I would try to be fair to other points of view, but I wanted more than 'objectivity'; I wanted students to leave my classes not just better informed, but more prepared to relinquish the safety of silence, more prepared to speak up, to act against injustice wherever they saw it. This, of course, was a recipe for trouble."
But what brilliant trouble it is to enable people to become agents of good instead of reliquaries for the status quo's most prized assumptions and sacred cows. Where would the civil rights movement have gone?

I relish the trouble that recognizes the power of not just standing for something, but moving for it and inviting our students to move for good. That is the path of ecological literacy, ecological justice, and ecopedagogy. It is a path that is not objective but recognizes that the facts of history, science, politics, economics, literature, and art have to serve someone. To follow in Zinn's footsteps would be to have these disciplines serve our good, not to have us serve them nor to have us serve unjust masters. This is "trouble" that comes from people who "believe that addressing human suffering and social issues matter[s], and never flinche[s] from that belief." We should add the Earth's suffering to that.

But in this suffering we can find our greatest meaning and greatest joy. This is not pie-in-the-sky thinking and Polly Anna smiling stupidly in the face of the overwhelming. It is the recognition of constant and chronic suffering, that we are a part of it, and that as we move on this Earth and in our lives in the most economically and militarily powerful nation the Earth has ever had, that we can do something about it where and when we are. As a teacher, we can do great things. Just look at Zinn!

We miss you Howard Zinn. Most of all, we thank you for your great work and shining example. May we be accomplish some portion of your good in our quest for justice.

Hydration stations in the Collegian

The water-bottle filling stations are getting more press in today's Daily Collegian. Best of all, it contains an argument from a university employee disparaging bottled water.

Eco-Action joined forces with 3E-COE, another on-campus environmental group, and OPP to bring the hydration stations to campus. There are multiple reasons to stop using bottled water, OPP spokesman Paul Ruskin said. Bottled water is not guaranteed to be good drinking water, unlike the water from the hydration stations. In addition, plastic water bottles are expensive and contribute to waste. Plastic bottles even drain fossil fuels because of how heavy they are to ship. The university is not planning on banning bottled water, but Ruskin said OPP wants to make another option available.

"Bottled water is convenient, but it's unnecessary," Ruskin said. "In the long term, bottled water is not a good thing."

That's what we like to hear. Even if the change comes slowly, we now have it from the horse's mouth so to speak. Bottled water is not sustainable.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Our water efforts in the PSU Newswire

Here we have it from the source itself: the Penn State Newswire.

University Park, Pa. -- New drinking water filling stations around campus are giving ecoconscious students, staff and faculty another good reason to pack their own water bottles.

The sensor-activated filling stations easily accommodate reusable drinking cups and larger containers. They feature a touchless dispenser with an automatic shutoff timer. The filling stations diminish the convenience of using plastic water bottles that are taking over landfills and littering roadways. Plastic bottles, which decompose poorly, have been the target of numerous ecology-interest groups, including 3E-COE (Environment, Ecology, Education in the College of Education).

The piece goes on to detail some of our efforts including our consciousness raising, water testing in the College of Education, and our collaboration with OPP. It's good to see that our activism has made a difference. What we do matters. As a teacher, that's deeply satisfying.

Good job guys!
UPDATE: Not minutes after posting this I received an email from someone in the library who wants to get the refillable stations there! News can spread fast.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Mmm. Tasty water!

I went down to the Penn State College of Education Chambers Building Elkay water filling station this morning... some water in my coffee cup and drank it......and it told me how many plastic water bottles have been saved by people using this station: 674......and it made me I got some more. That was refreshing. Why would I ever use an Aquafina bottle? I've already used that ceramic mug hundreds of times and that water has virtually no travel cost. And no plastic. Talk about convenience!

Do you want some? I think you do.

Mark your calendars! Panel discussion on Climate Change and Justice

We have the amazing good fortune to have people who can talk substantively about the climate change talks and (in)justice issues that climate change brings to the forefront. I really encourage everyone to go to this talk.

Last fall I served on a panel with Dr. Tuana about sustainability and the need for interdisciplinary work at the Educating for Sustainability Conference. Dr. Brown was the moderator. It was a pretty interesting panel that reinforced my strong conviction that we need to integrate traditional disciplines, examine our assumptions about what we do as citizens and professionals, and evaluate our collected work with conviviality and the common ecological good in heart and mind. Additionally, I have had the good fortune of working with Don Brown (a regular contributor to Climate Ethics) as an assistant for the Pennsylvania Environmental Resource Consortium. Dr. Brown is the current chair. Erik Foley is our new sustainability coordinator at Penn State. I've had several meetings with him and he has quite a job to do - "greening" our university so to speak. I have not yet met Dr. Tschakert.

Check it out.

Film Series might raise Natural Environmental Awareness

This just in from the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences:
The Earth and Mineral Sciences Library Spring 2010 Film Series kicks off on Jan. 20, with a documentary on geologic changes in the Great Lakes. All films are screened at 12:15 p.m. on Wednesdays in room 105 of the Deike Building on Penn State's University Park campus. The films feature a diverse mix of topics related to Earth and the environment.
The schedule is as follows with descriptions of those films that seem most pertinent to our emphasis on social and natural environmental sustainability:
Jan. 20: "Geologic Journey -- Part 1: The Great Lakes" (45 min.)

Jan. 27: "The Hurricane of ’38" (53 min.)
In September 1938, the National Weather Bureau predicted this storm would blow itself out. Instead it began an unexpected sprint north along the coast. Over 600 people were killed. Another 100 were never found.

Feb. 3: "Petroapocalypse Now?" (48 min.)
This documentary asks whether Earth's oil resources are beginning to run out, discusses the accuracy of petroleum reserves estimates and the potentially disastrous effects if oil production falls, and asks what steps we can take to prevent this.

Feb. 10: "Geologic Journey – Part 2: The Rockies" (45 min.)

Feb. 17: "Tornado Glory: Experience the Real Chase" (56 min.)

Feb. 24: "Power Paths" (56 min.)
This documentary follows the Navajo, Hopi and Lakota Sioux tribes, as they find ways to introduce renewable energy projects into their communities through a grassroots movement.

March 3: "Geologic Journey – Part 3: The Canadian Shield" (45 min.)

March 17: "Hurricane Katrina: The Storm that Drowned a City" (56 min.)
Nova takes an in-depth look at what made Hurricane Katrina so deadly and analyzes how this event has resulted in unprecedented destruction for the Gulf Coast.

March 24: "Earth Energy" (46 min.)
Sculptor, aviator, inventor, and filmmaker Bill Lishman is concerned by our dependence on central energy sources and fossil fuels so he takes a journey in search of Earth's renewable energy.

March 31: "Geologic Journey – Part 4: The Appalachians" (45 min.)

April 7: "The Big Chill: A Looming Ice Age?" (50 min.)
This program investigates the likelihood of the biggest climate change in more than 10,000 years.

April 14: "Gold Futures: Open-Pit Mining in Romania" (57 min.)

April 21: "Geologic Journey – Part 5: The Atlantic Coast" (45 min.)

April 28: "Is there Life on Mars?" (56 min.)

Sunday, January 17, 2010

See the PSU Green New Year's Resolutions ran a little greening of resolutions for the New Year. You can join in by going there. They write,
At work, in class or in your living space, the resolutions aim to save us money, make us healthier AND protect our environment by saving energy, reducing waste, saving water, and supporting green business practices (such as local and organic farmers). The Campus Sustainability Office will publish all green resolutions at Watch for the new page! We will feature some resolutions in a Penn State Newswire article in mid-January. For article to be great green story, we need hundreds of resolutions!
Go and do it.

My favorite so far:
I will go tie less this summer to reduce my carbon footprint and the cost of air conditioning Penn State offices. An open neck is a cool neck!
Wise guy. Some relate to electricity use, riding bikes, using refillable water bottles instead of disposables, being more efficient drivers, and losing weight. What will you do?

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Drinking water in the College of Education

Last fall we in 3E-COE performed water tests to ascertain the quality of our drinking water. Our club along with the administration of the College of Education including Deans Monk and Edmondson that if we want to move people away from disposable single-use Aquafina (and others too), then we should know some things about how our water tastes within the confines of the College of Education.

So we did "objective" tests that measured hardness, pH, iron, and temperature to gauge the taste of the water. The results from our Office of Physical Plant (OPP) have come back and some switches have been done.

Steve Maruszewski of our OPP writes, "As it turns out there were only a couple of locations that were found to be of concern and the concern was over temperature and not quality. Two of those locations could not be changed because of the pipe runs, so contrary to our desired approach we had to install water coolers with mechanical refrigeration. In addition the water bottle filling station has been installed on the first floor. Aside from some electrical work associated with one of the water coolers, the facilities have suitable drinking water available at all kitchenettes, drinking fountains and water coolers."

There you go. Drink the water at the College of Education. It tastes good. And, as I learned from the water operations folks at OPP, it's tested several times a day by professional staff who report to operations. Penn State has more people securing and testing water than the entire FDA does for all of the bottled water industry. PSU water sounds good to me.

Drink up.

Attack coal on the triple-bottom line

Take some action for the future triple-bottom line. Work for the health of broader community, for a new economy, and for the natural environment. Let's get the EPA to recognize coal ash as a hazardous waste. You might wonder how it hasn't been for all this time but...well...the power of the coal lobby is amazing.

Coal combustion and its waste products generate some of the worst pollution today. There is no getting around the facts of the matter. It defiles ecosystems. Destroys watersheds. Creates filthy poisonous rivers and lakes. It spits ash into the air. Communities that are built upon its alleged economic benefits live with cancer, emphyzema, and more. [For a backtrack at this blog see posts here, here, here, and here.]

For generations we, as a people, have generally accepted this uglification as "the cost of doing business." It happens over there to those people, too often caricatured as "white trash" in Appalachia, undereducated rednecks who keep choosing that life. If they want to be poisoned, so be it.

Perhaps, no more. I just got the following (paraphrased) in my email.
One of the head attorneys working with the EPA has said that EPA could classify coal ash as a hazardous waste. He met with Lisa Jackson, Administrator of the EPA, who has postponed their decision until the end of January. They are under extreme pressure from the coal industry to compromise the hazardous classification for a weaker "hybrid-hazardous" classification that allows dangerous loopholes. If there were ever a time that our calls and emails could make a difference, the time is now.

There are two numbers to call to press Lisa Jackson to go ahead.
202-395-3080 - Office of Management and Budget
202-564-4700 - Lisa Jackson's Office

Call and say: "I support classification of fly ash as a hazardous waste."

To move toward a more sustainable society and one that not only says it values clean water, air, and soil but one that shows that it values clean water, air, and soil, we need to take this step. Please call.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The Farm School

There is something to be said for names that tell you in simple language what it refers to. So it is with The Farm School. The Farm School is a school that teaches agricultural practices so that students, both children and adults, can "experience first hand what it means to be a steward of the earth."

The school has four distinct programs. Fundamentally, The Farm School allows middle-school students time to work on a farm. Originally, the program allowed middle-school students to work on the farm for 3-5 day stretches during the school year. More recently, the school established a full-time middle school for local children. For its adult students, the school provides a year-long residential training program in organic agriculture. Additionally, The Farm School runs summer programs to provide students with additional time on the farm once the school year officially ends.

There is a multitude of independent schools in these United States, but schools like this really harness the potential that such independence affords. Additionally, the partnership that this school seems to have with nearby traditional public schools is a promising instance of the healthy relationships that could be built between different kinds of schools, different kinds of educators, and different kinds of kids.

You can visit The Farm School here: