Sunday, November 15, 2009

Learning From COP15

The UN Climate Change Conference upcoming in Copenhagen Dec 7-18 has already spawned a lot of activity, activism and reflection, including the International Wake-Up call sponsored by and the Bill McKibben-inspired Oct 24 Day of Action sparked by  Both of these actions were largely directed at political leaders and governments, urging them to sign on to binding and equitable emissions targets at the conference.  Most of the coverage of the conference has been pessimistic, and leaders have now officially announced that no agreement would emerge from the meeting. (Andrew Revkin at DotEarth suggests, somewhat paradoxically, that there may be a bright side here, since it will free up those actually involved in the negotiations--as distinct from national leaders--to address some of the tougher questions). 

The lack of a binding treaty has got to be disappointing, but it may be worth exploring a different angle.  The format of the international conference developed in the age of newspapers and mass media: a centralized "summit" event, designed to focus all eyes on the actions of world leaders.  That ceremonial framing was always a bit misleading (there were always "backstage" negotiations), but as the complexity of world issues, and the number of actors involved, increased, the conceit of a single "event" making news--let alone History--started to seem pretty threadbare, unconvincing even to those committed to reporting it.  Disappointment became part of the expectation, and cynical observations began to be built into the parade ("Look, the emperors have no clothes!").  In this scenario, all the associated hoopla is literally beside the point, a "pretext" doomed to irrelevance.

But what if the associated hoopla were--or became--the main event?  What if the parallel organizing enabled something unforeseen to emerge, an alternative mode of cooperation that bypassed the official channels of representation?  The model here is the World Social Forum, which developed out of anti-globalization protests, as a counterweight to the World Economic Forum held in Davos, Switzerland.  (The latter was never an official gathering, but still....)  From protest to coordinated action: there is already a People's Climate Action network in place in Copenhagen alongside the official conference, designed partly to defuse and partly to harness grassroots activism/protest (Disruptive protest is expected, but PCA is trying to channel creativity).  From negotiation to open-ended conversation:  all sorts of initiatives are linking up, or in, or to, this network, outpacing the leadership and starting to learn from, and inspire, each other. 

Such activism doesn't lend itself to traditional media "coverage" and definitions of "news."  Rather than letting itself be passively "covered," it seeks to use media to enhance involvement.  It is relatively uncoupled--for both good and ill--from the narratives of interstate relations, and the imagined communities of nations.  It has been theorized in academic terms as "global civil society," and envisioned in leftist circles as "the multitude."  Both phrasings inherit overtones of the political spaces they mourn (the corridors of power, the streets of cities), but those spaces box in what is better considered as emergent practice. 

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Connecting the dots--finally.

Preview of a paper from the Post-Carbon Institute that starts to draw urban planning implications from the conjuncture of the financial crisis and climate change.  It's obvious, really: suburban sprawl is a bubble, inflated by burning fossil fuel and financed by the home-ownership dreams of the American middle class.  Given the entrenched synergy between corporate power and the consumer economy, we'll be spending some time struggling to preserve or reconstruct some of these spendthrift patterns:  despite the GM and Chrysler bankruptcies, car ownership will likely continue to be a badge of adulthood, at least for American teenagers.  But the financial implosion has also created some room for rethinking and reworking, edged perhaps by despair (there's a bit of the survivalist tinging the Transition movement) but also buoyed by social hope.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Testing the Waters

Here's why we need strong, independent newspapers, capable of sustained investigative reporting.  Sunday's NYT has a major (as in 3 full pages) article about the deteriorating state of our rivers and streams, after almost a decade of lax enforcement of the Clean Water Act. 

The Times obtained hundreds of thousands of water pollution records through Freedom of Information Act requests to every state and the E.P.A., and compiled a national database of water pollution violations that is more comprehensive than those maintained by states or the E.P.A. (For an interactive version, which can show violations in any community, visit

In addition, The Times interviewed more than 250 state and federal regulators, water-system managers, environmental advocates and scientists.

That research shows that an estimated one in 10 Americans have been exposed to drinking water that contains dangerous chemicals or fails to meet a federal health benchmark in other ways.

Those exposures include carcinogens in the tap water of major American cities and unsafe chemicals in drinking-water wells. Wells, which are not typically regulated by the Safe Drinking Water Act, are more likely to contain contaminants than municipal water systems.

The scary hook--illustrated by a front-page picture of a kid whose teeth have been corroded by water full of heavy-metals from mine slurry--is West Virginia, where EPA regulators have been regularly intimidated and even fired, in the name of a more "cooperative" relationship between industry and government.  But the whole report, including the searchable database, is a great public service, allowing us to see local trends and larger patterns.  Alongside the data, it includes state-by-state responses from the EPA to the Times requests, variously reasonable and defensive in the spotlight.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

The Global Food Chain

The Nation has a new issue on the politics of food, including this challenging review by Brent Cunningham of two books about food aid and famine in Africa. Cunningham argues that the "good food revolutionaries" (Pollan, Schlosser, Alice Waters, etc.) need to think hard about what it will take to confront Big Ag, whose fortunes are built on arguments about the need to feed the world. Even apart from what cheap calories have done to the American diet, the books document the way food aid subverts agricultural markets in Africa, and so undermines the continent's ability to feed itself.  During the Ethiopian famine of 2003, millions of tons of locally grown grain--unsellable during previous years bumper harvests--rotted in warehouses even as millions of tons of American surplus was flown in.  Why? Because, by law, US food aid cannot be in the form of cash, only commodities.

This requirement, Cunningham argues, speaks volumes about the entrenched power of Big Ag, and the challenge that the local food movement faces.  Another eye-opening moment: why it's so hard to undo government subsidies:

The legislation behind farm subsidies had been structured to make it unusually hard to undo. Unlike many laws, which automatically expire on a predetermined date, the laws underlying subsidies weren't programmed to end. Instead, if Congress didn't craft and enact a new farm bill every five years or so, the law reverted back to the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1938 and the Agriculture Act of 1949, which contained even sweeter payments to some farmers.
The point is that global agricultural markets go back to the 1950's, and have structured farm policy in the US for half a century.  Developing more sustainable growing, buying and eating habits will be the work of decades, even if we take seriously Michael Pollan's recent argument that taking on Big Ag is a public health issue: so much of rising health care costs are attributable to chronic conditions (like diabetes) rooted in obesity.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Is Consumerism Dead?

McClatchy News Service (via HuffPost) offers this overview of the fallout from the  Great Recession: credit to be tight for years, maybe decades, to come, signalling the end of consumer-led economic growth.  Even forecasters for the US Chamber of Commerce are expecting growth rates in the neighborhood of 2%, much lower than the "average" rate of 3 -3.5%.  The reason? The effective shutdown of the securitization market, those exotic packages that bundled sub-prime loans into attractive, ostensibly "risk-free" investments, thereby freeing up all sorts of credit. 

"I think this financial panic and Great Recession is an inflection point for the financial system and the economy," said Mark Zandi, the chief economist for forecaster Moody's "It means much less risk-taking, at least for a number of years to come — a decade or two. That will be evident in less credit and more costly credit. If you are a household or a business, it will cost you more, and it will be more difficult to get that credit."
A lot depends, however, on whether this tightening of credit--and the prospect of continuing high unemployment--gets coded as deprivation and a threat to the standard of living, or as a potentially welcome opportunity to strengthen the common wealth and to work with the tools of conviviality.  In other words, we'll have to see whether social-networking technologies can support genuine community, or whether they're offshoots of market research and the virtual mall.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Going Greener

The NYT reports this morning that some LEED certified buildings--including the Federal Building in Youngstown--aren't as green as advertised.  The reason? Certification is based on design and construction, rather than on actual carbon-reduction performance.  You can collect green points by including native landscaping and bamboo floors, but up to now you haven't had to track how energy-efficient the building actually is.  The rules are changing, though; new buildings are going to have to provide energy bills for the first five years of operation, with the possibility of having their LEED status revoked or downgraded.  The standard should be continual monitoring and retrofitting as technologies evolve.

Meanwhile, on the retrograde side of things,  the Dispatch reports that business and building groups are opposing EPA efforts to protect streams and wetlands, even as 477 acres of wetlands and 106 miles of streams have been lost since 2006.   The builders prefer being allowed to buy into mitigation banks, often located miles away from the sites they're filling in; when they do mitigate on site, the replacement wetlands are often shallow and unvegetated, decorative rather than functional.  Oddly enough, although opposition to the new EPA regs goes back to 2006, a VP for the Home Builders Association cites the "economic depression" as a reason not to move on them now.  If not now, Mr. Squillace, when? 

I guess I should feel good, though, that Delaware County--one of the fastest-growing counties in the US over the past decade--held a "GreenWise" fair over the weekend, teaching kids how to recycle and homeowners about organic lawn-care products.  It's good to promote rainbarrels and provide information about how to dispose of dead batteries; I wonder, though, whether understanding land-use patterns and wetlands lost to overdevelopment would have put too much of a damper on the festivities. 

This past Saturday, I did attend the opening of the long-awaited Grange Audubon Center on the Whittier Peninsula, a spectacularly reclaimed brownfield site, cheek-by-jowl with the Columbus Auto Impound Lot.  Kudos to Heather Starck and crew for seeing it through.

Friday, August 28, 2009

A Cold Look at a Warmer Future

Seven Myths About Alternative Energy: A bucket of cold water on dreams of a painless transition to green.  Urgency means that we need to make decisions now, and efficiency is our best hope for direct and measurable impact. 

Monday, August 24, 2009

Turning Point 2030

John Beddington, the chief scientist of the UK, looks to a series of trends converging in 2030, foretelling a global crisis.  Commenting scientists don't dispute the trends, although they note that the date is rhetorical and the convergence represents a worst-case scenario.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Some progress

Looks like conditions in the Ohio River may be looking up.  Of course, as one comment points out, it may just be because the industrial economy is declining (someone's silver lining, anyway).

Monday, August 10, 2009

After GDP

A good op-ed in the NYT this morning by Eric Zencey, arguing that it's time we dispensed with the idea of a Gross Domestic Product as a plausible measure of the national economy: "it’s a deeply foolish indicator of how the economy is doing. It ought to join buggy whips and VCRs on the dust-heap of history."

Central to Zencey's argument is that GDP has a built-in perverse incentive to replace "natural-capital" services (sunlight, wetlands, fertile soil) with "built-capital services" (electricity, dams and treatment plants, fertilizer).  The latter are counted as adding to GDP, the former taken for granted (or written off) as "free," i.e. non-productive.  So if I care for the land I add nothing to GDP, whereas if I pump depleted soil full of chemical fertilizers, I've supposedly added to the nation's wealth, by engaging in an economic transaction.  

In summing all economic activity in the economy, gross domestic product makes no distinction between items that are costs and items that are benefits. If you get into a fender-bender and have your car fixed, G.D.P. goes up.

A similarly counterintuitive result comes from other kinds of defensive and remedial spending, like health care, pollution abatement, flood control and costs associated with population growth and increasing urbanization — including crime prevention, highway construction, water treatment and school expansion. Expenditures on all of these increase gross domestic product, although mostly what we aim to buy isn’t an improved standard of living but the restoration or protection of the quality of life we already had.
 "Natural capital" is a bit of a misnomer, however, since nature includes values irreducible to economic calculation (ethical and aesthetic values, for instance).  GDP is deeply flawed, Zencey points out, but abandoning it poses difficulties of its own:

Several alternatives to gross domestic product have been proposed, and each tackles the central problem of placing a value on goods and services that never had a dollar price. The alternatives are controversial, because that kind of valuation creates room for subjectivity — for the expression of personal values, of ideology and political belief.
More evidence of the limits of purely economic thinking: in order to get values right, we have to be able to make substantive judgments, decisions about what's good.  These look "subjective"--someone has to make them--even if they're grounded and reasonable.  What we need, then, are social and political structures and processes that can develop these evaluations: a culture of environmental citizenship. 

Friday, August 7, 2009

Environmental Citizenship as Sense-Making

Thursday's NYT had a piece on the hot job prospects for statisticians, consequence of escalating computing capacity. It included the following intriguing quote:
“We’re rapidly entering a world where everything can be monitored and measured,” said Erik Brynjolfsson, an economist and director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Center for Digital Business. “But the big problem is going to be the ability of humans to use, analyze and make sense of the data.”
In other words, we can generate cascades of data tracking changes in everything: what we don't know is what to make of it. The new statisticians can refine algorithms to search for hidden patterns, to discern occult correlations and intricate loopings. But without the capacity to grasp what we're monitoring, and why, the data streams remain tantalizing and opaque.

The openness to inputs from a variety of sources needs to be complemented by a repertoire of patterns, a metaphoric toolbox for arranging and organizing data. Let's call the work of using those tools environmental citizenship.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

The New Skepticism on Climate Change

From Sharon Begley of Newsweek, via Orion.

In an insightful observation in The Guardian this month, Jim Watson of the University of Sussex wrote that "a new breed of climate sceptic is becoming more common": someone who doubts not the science but the policy response. Given the pathetic (non)action on global warming at the G8 summit, and the fact that the energy/climate bill passed by the House of Representatives is so full of holes and escape hatches that it has barely a prayer of averting dangerous climate change, skepticism that the world will get its act together seems appropriate. For instance, the G8, led by Europe, has vowed to take steps to keep global warming below 2 degrees Celsius by reducing CO2 emissions. We're now at 0.8 degree. But the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere is already enough to raise the mercury 2 degrees. The only reason it hasn't is that the atmosphere is full of crap (dust and aerosols that contribute to asthma, emphysema, and other diseases) that acts as a global coolant. As that pollution is reduced for health reasons, we're going to blast right through 2 degrees, which is enough to ex-acerbate droughts and storms, wreak havoc on agriculture, and produce a planet warmer than it's been in millions of years. The 2-degree promise is a mirage.

Friday, July 31, 2009

Gone Fishin'?

I've been on Cape Cod for the past few weeks, and realizing just how much has been written about this narrow spit of glacial till jutting into the North Atlantic.  From Thoreau's walks to Henry Beston's The Outermost House, to the Brewster-based essays of John Hay (especially his book The Run, about alewives) and Robert Finch, modestly passing by Mark Kurlansky's Cod: The Fish that Changed the World and Annie Dillard's oddly ecstatic novel The Maytrees, the literary waves keep on rolling in.

 A recent installment is Tim Traver's Sippewissett, a set of essays about the salt marsh just north of Woods Hole (home to the Oceanographic Institute), the site, since the days of Louis Agassiz in the mid-19C, of pathbreaking research into the eco-systemic functioning and contributions of salt marshes.  Traver grew up going to a marsh-facing summer house, spent some years as a commercial fisherman, and now writes as a conservation-minded science-journalist: the book juggles the different perspectives lightly, meditating on how they might come together: "How can different ways of knowing places--through science, through memory and history, and through self-discovery and spirit--become synthesized into stewardship, which is the work of sustaining the world?" (13).  How does caring about a place translate into caring for it?  How can the different demands of the soul be satisfied? or even brought to speak to one another?

In spite of excellent science, the oceans are going to hell in a handbasket, and it's the journey from good science to good management and policy--a minefield of unexploded stakeholder ordnance and political razor wire--that gets us every time (24).
So, as Travers discovers, we know more and more--down to the microbial level--about how the delicate web of micro-niches woven together in the salt marsh, the feeding- and breeding-grounds, the filtering and purifying functions, help sustain the health of the oceans, but find that fish stocks and marshlands continue to decline. 

Comes now a report in the NYT--with credit to NPR, which may yet save the world--about overcoming the barriers (or rather: the differing premises) between ecologists and fisheries managers:

In a research paper in Friday’s issue of the journal Science, the two groups, long at odds with each other, offer a global assessment of the world’s saltwater fish and their environments.

Their conclusions are at once gloomy — overfishing continues to threaten many species — and upbeat: a combination of steps can turn things around. But because antagonism between ecologists and fisheries management experts has been intense, many familiar with the study say the most important factor is that it was done at all.

They say they hope the study will inspire similar collaborations between scientists whose focus is safely exploiting specific natural resources and those interested mainly in conserving them.
Turns out the two fields have different understandings of what "depletion" means in relation to "sustainability," based, it seems, on different starting-points and assumptions about population-cycles.

Dr. Hilborn said he and Dr. [Boris] Worm now understood why the ecologists and the management scientists disagreed so sharply in the first place. For one thing, he said, as long as a fish species was sustaining itself, management scientists were relatively untroubled if its abundance fell to only 40 or 50 percent of what it might otherwise be. Yet to ecologists, he said, such a stock would be characterized as “depleted” — “a very pejorative word.”

In the end, the scientists concluded that 63 percent of saltwater fish stocks had been depleted “below what we think of as a target range,” Dr. Worm said.

But they also agreed that fish in well-managed areas, including the United States, were recovering or doing well. They wrote that management techniques like closing some areas to fishing, restricting the use of certain fishing gear or allocating shares of the catch to individual fishermen, communities or others could allow depleted fish stocks to rebound.
It's good to hear that US waters count among the "well-managed areas" (there's a good crop of lobsters on the Cape this year, oysters are making a comeback, and, I hear, the whales are feasting on abundant krill).  Elsewhere, though, the conflicts between market-values and sustainable management are much sharper: witness the recent news that Chile uses 350 times more antibiotics (718,000 lbs) in its farmed salmon than Norway.  The information was released by the Chilean Ministry of Agriculture following a request by the environmental group Oceana.

As I discovered, Oceana also offers some helpful hints for sushi lovers.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Rivers in the news

Monday's NYT had a couple of revealing articles about the fate of waterways. One was an account of efforts to rethink Bombay/Mumbai's perennially vexed relation to the water, thanks to a couple of UPenn-based landscape architects, Dilip da Cunha and Anuradha Mathur. Their book-and-exhibit project is called Soak: Mumbai in an Estuary: "Ms. Mathur and Mr. da Cunha ... said they set out on their work in part to provide an alternative interpretation of Mumbai — to have it be recast as an estuary where salt and fresh water coexist rather than as an island that has to be protected from the water."

Their findings show that a series of natural features like mangrove swamps and interconnected creeks once protected and shaped Mumbai, just as the bygone swamps of the Mississippi River delta once protected New Orleans. But those defenses were weakened over the years, dating to the days of British rule, as swamps were filled in, land was reclaimed from the sea and creeks were narrowed or diverted.

The historical maps and documents show little appreciation for those long-lost natural features. Most old maps make no mention of swamps, which were often labeled simply as “badlands.” There are few images of the trees and plants that made up these areas.

Moreover, boundaries between land and sea were never drawn as they existed during the monsoon, when the wetlands of the estuary expanded, only as they stood during the summer or winter. “The monsoon was seen as foul weather,” Ms. Mathur said. And “all of the planning is based on fair weather maps.”
Mathur and da Cunha have a series of fascinating suggestions for how to deal with an estuarial landscape, short of trying to restore it to its primordial status. Needless to say, their proposals have not yet had an impact on official planning in Mumbai, where proposals for flood control continue to dominate.
From abundance to scarcity: the other article reports on the drying-up of the Euphrates in Iraq, consequence of a prolonged drought and up-stream damming projects by the governments of Turkey and Iraq.
Strangled by the water policies of Iraq’s neighbors, Turkey and Syria; a two-year drought; and years of misuse by Iraq and its farmers, the river is significantly smaller than it was just a few years ago. Some officials worry that it could soon be half of what it is now. The shrinking of the Euphrates, a river so crucial to the birth of civilization that the Book of Revelation prophesied its drying up as a sign of the end times, has decimated farms along its banks, has left fishermen impoverished and has depleted riverside towns as farmers flee to the cities looking for work.
The water-shortage exacerbates Iraq's cultural and political identity-crisis. In a region where massive hydro-projects--from Nasser's Aswan dam in Egypt to Saddam's draining of the marshlands--have always been testimonies to political power, the current scarcity testifies to the weakness of the Iraqi state, both internally and in relation to its neighbors. Any effort to think through the future of development in the region has to be linked to reworking the hydro-regime.

Encouraging post-script: I'd just finished this post, when I glanced over at my blogroll to discover this gem on Dot.Earth: "A River Runs Under It." "A community’s relationship with its waterways is a reflection of its stage of development.," Andy Revkin writes, spotlighting worldwide efforts to daylight buried streams.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Friendly Whales

Sunday's NYT Magazine brings a bit of wish-fulfillment: the story of a group of whales in Baja California who seem to be encouraging humans to study them.  The whales come in close for a careful look, give scientists a ride on their backs, and generally seem to be welcoming a human presence.  The writer, Charles Siebert, goes so far as to use the term "forgiveness" to evoke the sense of emergent, restored interspecies trust.  There's also a nice description of apparently spontaneous outbursts of ecstasy on the part of human observers--bursting into song, or tears, on contact with the whales. 

Friday, June 19, 2009

Collaborative Urban Design Strategies

Thanks to Joe Recchie for pointing me to this link, for the C.L.E.A.R Village project. It looks to be something of an open-source design project to develop a sustainable community over the next five years. It includes an open lab, a forum for public critiques and discussion, a blog linking to and commenting on other sustainable design projects and a host of other interactive features. A fascinating experiment.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Sustainable Consumption

Boston's New Dream Foundation is one of the most consistently informative and interesting green organizations around.  Rather than cause-oriented activism, they take a big-picture approach, seeing the need to change deeply ingrained habits and practices (rather than "awareness" in general).  Drawing on the work of scoiologist Juliet Schor, NDF offers fine-grained analyses, thoughtful commentary and practical advice.  One of their recent studies looks at Americans' patterns of consumption, and tries to think about what more sustainable consumption might look like. 

Meanwhile, Andrew O'Hagan in the London Review of Books takes a look at three recent books about car culture (mostly in the US) and explains why governments--not just the US, but world-wide--are deeply reluctant to let the carmakers go under. In O'Hagan's view, the issue is much more than economic, but goes to the heart of modern (male) identity, especially as its been made in the image of Americanism:

"In American fiction, a great number of epiphanies – especially male
epiphanies – occur while the protagonist is alone and driving his car.
There are reasons for that. One may not have a direction but one has a
means of getting there. One may not be in control of life but one can
progress in a straight line. When your youth is over and definitions
become fixed, even if they are wrong, it might turn out that the
arrival of a car suddenly feels like the commuting of a sentence. It
may seem to give you back your existential mojo. That is the beauty of
learning to drive late and learning to drive often: it gives you a
sense that life turned out to be freer than it was in your childhood,
that time agrees with you, that your own sensitivities found their
domain in the end, and that deep in the shell of your inexpensive car
you came to know your subjectivity."
O'Hagan is not an apologist, merely honest about the deeply visceral experience of highway driving.  (Not one I share, incidentally, but I can appreciate the perspective).  That sense of personal power is a key promise of modernity, and not easily restrained or displaced.  The private automobile is one of the linchpins of the current consumption regime, which perhaps suggests how much work a serious transformation is going to take.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Environmental Citizenship at OSU

Last year, we've had a small group of people interested in promoting environmental citizenship at Ohio State University meeting periodically to share notes and ideas about what OSU is doing, could do or should do about advancing the cause. The composition of the group has changed from time to time, but it's been gratifying to start making connections and to see how much work is actually going on.

We'll be meeting again this Weds to take stock of this year's activities, and to look forward a bit, perhaps to lay some plans for what things we can do together. I sent out an invitation with these questions:

--What has been the most satisfying development at OSU this year, in the area of environmental awareness/citizenship?

--What would you like to see happen over the next year or two?

--How can our group best support the work you want to do in this area?
I hope these can kick off a good conversation. I'm also inviting anyone who can't make the meeting to leave comments below.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Experiments in Sustainability

We all know getting to sustainbility is going to take creativity, innovation, experimentation and research--not just on isolated topics, but in ways of life.  What better role for artists than to explore the cultural--physical, psychological, aesthetic, political--dimensions of new life patterns. 

The NYT reports on The Waterpod,
an experiment in sustainable aquatic living.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Humanities and Sustainability at FGCU

I was down in Florida over the weekend for a conference on the Humanities and Sustainability at Florida Gulf Coast University in Fort Myers. It's a fairly young institution (founded mid-1990's), with a commitment to sustainability built into its mission statement. One way they've found to realize that commitment is a required junior-level course ("Colloquium") on sustainability, with a common syllabus. So roughly 2500 students a year are enrolled in 30-40 sections of the course, covering some of the basics of environmental awareness. Some of the sections are locally-focused (conservation); others more global (climate change); some science-intensive, others political.

FGCU also has a Center for Sustainability and Environmental Education, whose director, Peter Blaze Corcoran, was involved in drafting the Earth Charter back in the 1990's. The Earth Charter and its uptake have become central to a number of courses, as students are asked to discuss its language and concepts--ethics of care for the earth--as well as being introduced to the global civil society movement that acted as the matrix for the Charter, after a more nation-centered approach faltered. The genius of this is that it brings students to think critically about both the international legal framework of the UN and alternatives to it, as well as concepts like sovereignty and "national interest" that underpin right-wing critiques of the UN. The Earth Charter also serves as a document in a course on "eco-spirituality," involving not only critical consideration of the premises and process but also contemplative exercises (silent meditation, walking, focused visualization) that elaborate on the practice of care.

I'll admit that eco-spirituality makes me more than a little nervous; Bron Taylor, who gave the conference keynote, claimed that a naturalistic spirituality and reverence for life is entirely compatible with science, except for the part about enthusiasm, which sidles up to proselytzing. But in explicitly foregrounding ethical practice (even in the form of contemplative practice) and care, it fills in a palpable gap in my thinking about environmental citizenship: the affective, moral dimension that gives juice to rationalist argument and responsibility. As one of the participants said, care is transitive; it can't just be the self-directed emotivism ("I care") that comes too easily to late adolescence. An ethic of care is a virtue-ethic, one of character and sacrifice.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Columbus Local Foods Panel

Excellent panel on local foods down at the Columbus Metro Club today, featuring Michael Jones of Local Matters, Catherine Girves of the University District, and Liz Lessners, one of our great home-grown restaurateurs.  Moderated by Amalia Liebestreu, the Sustainable Agriculture coordinator for Governor Strickland's Food Policy Council (good news: you can now get an Ohio Sustainable Agriculture license plate).

The panel covered the gamut of local food issues, from the statewide foodsystem (Amalia's office has undertaken what it apparently the first systematic study of a state's food systems in the nation) to community gardening (Cathy Girves has a network of 12 community gardens throughout the University District, ranging from median plantings to farmer's-market plots).  Among the key points: the importance of human capital, i.e. passionate and committed advocates, with enough savvy and connections to get things done.  Cathy emphasized the importance of volunteers linking up with established non-profits, to avoid city worries about the vanishing volunteer syndrome. 

Michael talked about the importance of building demand within the city, so that farmers can be sure there's a market, especially for smaller-scale specialty crops.  Restaurants fit in here, but also special requests at the supermarket, which is increasingly attuned to local produce as cheaper and fresher (fewer shipping costs).  He also described the VeggieVan project--the green-foodie answer to the ice-cream truck. 

There was a clear sense that there's a lot going on in Columbus, and someone mentioned how impressed the editor of Organic Gardening magazine was by all the initiatives.  By comparison, there's this account of San Francisco.  I think we come out pretty well, although there's miles to go before we're fully localized.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The Struggle to Consume

Readers of Sunday's NYT were--I speak from experience--surprised to confront a two-page in-your-face ad from Harley-Davidson  "We don't do fear.  Screw it. Let's Ride"--all wrapped in an American flag.

It's a rhetorically cunning strategy, tapping post-9/11 populist defiance to beef up the prospects of a luxury-market item as down-home as a Hummer.  What it says, among other things, is that consumerism won't go down without a fight, that--at least for the marketing and PR departments--it stands for Americanism, the death-defying, don't-bother-me freedom to buy.  Given that Harleys are already associated with denial and mid-life indulgence, partaking of the same cowboy self-image that brought us the financial crisis, it's probably not surprising that they would take this road. 

In the same vein, the NYT reports, the "first great song of the bailout era," John Rich's Shutting Detroit Down.  A bit more authentic, perhaps--a bit more grief, not quite so much swaggering denial--but no less attached to an image of consumer sovereignty.  There will need to be some mourning, some working-through and readjustment, before less consumption is not encoded as "lower standard of living," deprivation and a loss of freedom.  

 Cornell economist Robert H. Frank, long a critic of excessive consumption (he wrote Luxury Fever back in the 1990s) has a suggestive article in The American Prospect on what "post-consumer prosperity" might mean.  Sensible as it sounds, though, it will take a while--and quite a few cultural struggles--before it translates into common sense.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Encyclopedia of Earth

Here's another interesting site: the Encyclopedia of Earth. A combination of on-line reference, science-education and activist portal, it's edited by some people at Boston University and boasts an impressive-looking community of scholars and writers.

I found the EoE while searching for ways to think about bioregionalism in Ohio. There's not much out there. Like some other powerfully suggestive concepts, it seems best adapted to particular regions--like the Pacific Northwest--where the distinction between different regions is sharply marked: geography itself there seems to call forth conceptual work. Elsewhere, the gradations are subtle and somewhat arbitrary: what should count as a bioregional marker? An encyclopedic mind--one that wants to have everything covered--would look for a uniform labeling system, by disembedding our knowledge of bioregions from our lived awareness and embodied practices. To be effective, I think, there must be something directly compelling about our vision of the earth: it may be refined by experience, but it has to be grounded.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Sustainability Myths and the Green Agenda

Thanks to Maria Manta Conroy for pointing out this Scientific American article, the Top Ten Myths About Sustainability.  Among other things, it points out the difference between being "green" and working on sustainability--probably a key distinction for defining what responsible environmental citizenship might entail. 

Sustainability is not an identity-category, for one thing, so while it might involve lifestyle choices and decisions, it's necessarily a social goal, only achievable collectively and by being embedded in institutional decision-making.  Sustainability originally comes out of the development agenda of the Brundtland commmission, meaning that global justice issues are rather more significant than a green reading might allow. 

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Food and Fuel--the gathering revolutions

The door to significant change in the American food system is starting to open.  As the NYTimes reports, between the new White House vegetable garden, the new Agricultural Sec'y's surprising openness to organics, and Congressional interest in local initiatives, a critical mass seems to be gathering.  The Danton of the Food Revolution, Michael Pollan, worries that the movement may not be quite ready to take advantage of the moment, and it's unclear whether the economic winds are favorable or the contrary, but after years of percolating, there looks to be something promising brewing.

Of course, the promise is punctuated by an even bigger question mark about how to make the transition from a carbon economy to a more sustainable, diversified energy system.  As usual, Ohio sits squarely in the middle of this national question, with Sherrod Brown puzzling about how to square a commitment to the future with the realities of the state's dependence on cheap energy, i.e. coal.  The Dispatch's Jonathan Riskind has been following the Senator's deliberations as well as efforts to persuade him, and reported on Friday that the Environmental Defense Fund has weighed in with a website detailing the Ohio companies that stand to benefit from a serious investment in green technology.  That's pretty savvy, but Brown's worry is whether companies looking to reduce costs wouldn't move out more quickly than the new companies could ramp up. 

There's an interesting parallel with the food debate, too.  The NYT article quotes a spokesman for the National Corn Growers Association: "We think there's a place for organic, but don't think we can feed ourselves and the world with organic.  It's not as productive, more labor-intensive and tends to be more expensive."  (Jeffrey Hollender of Seventh Generation remarks ruefully: "The idea of the true cost of food? That's the last thing consumers want to hear right now.").

That's the argument from scale:  organic (and alternative fuels) can't "feed the world."  The local can't be global.  Pollan's response--and it's not clearly worked out yet--is to think regionally.  Meanwhile, at a moment when we're facing rising unemployment, the idea that a process is "labor-intensive" is not necessarily a strike against it.  The new Census of Agriculture reports more than 100,000 NEW small farmers in the past decade, and Vilsack wants to help them grow into regional networks.  Is there a parallel in the energy field?

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Tom Friedman says, Enough.

NYTimes columnist Tom Friedman has long been one of globalization's great cheerleaders, riding to the commanding heights of punditry with catchy titles like The Lexus and the Olive Tree and The World is Flat. More recently he's been turning a shade of green (more in nausea than out of a sense of conviction, I'd say).  Even so, it's remarkable to see him raising some fundamental questions about the whole growth model in his March 8th column:

Let’s today step out of the normal boundaries of analysis of our economic crisis and ask a radical question: What if the crisis of 2008 represents something much more fundamental than a deep recession? What if it’s telling us that the whole growth model we created over the last 50 years is simply unsustainable economically and ecologically and that 2008 was when we hit the wall — when Mother Nature and the market both said: “No more.”

We have created a system for growth that depended on our building more and more stores to sell more and more stuff made in more and more factories in China, powered by more and more coal that would cause more and more climate change but earn China more and more dollars to buy more and more U.S. T-bills so America would have more and more money to build more and more stores and sell more and more stuff that would employ more and more Chinese ...

We can’t do this anymore.
When the prime exponent of economic coupling--the prophet of what Niall Ferguson called "Chimerica"--sees the writing on the wall, there's reason to think we're at or close to a cultural tipping point.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Green Networking

A basic premise of Web 2.0--social networking--is that certain tools and techniques become more valuable the more people use them. When only a few people had email, you couldn't count on reaching anyone and its uses were limited. Once it became widespread--a default option--the possibilities and importance increased. Facebook, MySpace, Ebay, Twitter--all examples illustrating this expansion.

Greenies and environmental groups have been trying to figure out how to operate through these new media; Grist, for instance, is doing a great job building communities around environmental issues. A somewhat newer initiative is WiserEarth, which has some unique features, including map-based searching that identifies groups and agencies in a particular area. Enter your zipcode, for instance, and there's a Googlemap pinpointing, by street address, a whole range of activist institutions. WiserEarth also has interest-areas and discussion groups that allow you to follow out topics, connect with others and learn as you go. It's a Creative Commons initiative, so open to all. It should be better known, larger and more valuable.

Saturday, February 28, 2009

No-Flush Future?

I think this falls in the category of oddities rather than serious proposals, but if there's a push to rethink indoor plumbing and the treatment of human wastes, there may be more room for change than we usually assume. 

consider that since at least 135,000 urine-diversion toilets are in use in Sweden and that a Swiss aquatic institute did a six-year study of urine separation that found in its favor. In Sweden, some of the collected urine — which contains 80 percent of the nutrients in excrement — is given to farmers, with little objection. “If they can use urine and it’s cheap, they’ll use it,” said Petter Jenssen, a professor at the Agricultural University of Norway.

A friend’s grandmother remembers the man coming round for the buckets 60 years ago in Yorkshire, which were then sold to the tanning industry. The flush toilet ended that, and no one — my friend’s nan included — wants outside privies again. “Any innovation in the toilet that increases owner responsibility is probably seen as downwardly mobile,” said Carol Steinfeld, of New Bedford, Mass., who imports NoMix toilets into the United States.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Efficiency vs. Resiliency

I've written about Thomas Princen's critique of efficiency-thinking in the name of self-restraint or sufficiency.  Sufficiency involves not pushing systems to their economic or ecological limits, and limiting patterns of exploitation and consumption to within moderate, sustainable ranges.

Here's another perspective on alternatives to efficiency: resiliency, redundancy, and diversification.  Chip Ward argues that efficiency-measurements are the conceptual armature of monoculture--the logic of specialization that allows for controlled-variable parameters.  Ideas about resiliency (e.g. crop rotation that allows time for soil renewal) assume longer-term planning horizons, figure on the occurrence of catastrophic events, and consider ways to ensure sufficient slack in the system to allow it to bounce back. 

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

OSU Starts to Move Towards Green

Good news from the CIO's office at OSU: an initiative to cut power usage by 30% within the year.  They're also publicizing a variety of other activities and initiatives, including the Earth Hour on March 28.  Get the word out!

Friday, February 13, 2009

FLOW up for RiverNetwork Grant

My local watershed group--the Friends of the Lower Olentangy Watershed, led by the wonderful Heather Dean--is in the running for a grant from the RiverNetwork and MillerCoors (yes, they're finally concerned about preserving water quality--now if they can get people to pick up those cans!).

The proposal is for a collaboration with the First UU Church in Clintonville, to build a stormwater management demonstration project, including substantial rain gardens (Franklin County has an ongoing rain garden initiative called CORGI).  The UU has a large site, fronted by Panera, with a large parking lot, so this would be highly visible and could have a great effect.

In typical Web 2.0 fashion, they have to mobilize to get the grant: go to the RiverNetwork site and look for the MillerCoors grant window.  They're up against seven other projects.  Vote for FLOW--and pass the word along to friends.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Urban Life Bites Back

No one said (though we all hoped) it would be easy.  The BBC is reporting that Paris' popular bike-rental program Velib ("bikefree") is in trouble.  Although it has had over 42 million uses since its inception 18 months ago, the bikes themselves are taking a beating, with more than half of the 15,000 getting stolen.

Hung from lamp posts, dumped in the River Seine, torched and broken
into pieces, maintaining the network is proving expensive. Some have
turned up in eastern Europe and Africa, according to press reports.

Since the scheme's launch, nearly all the original bicycles have been replaced at a cost of 400 euros ($519, £351) each.

Various videos have appeared on YouTube showing riders taking the bikes
down the steps in Montmartre, into metro stations and being tested on
BMX courses.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Geo-engineering (yes, it's what you think)

The Gristmill has a breathtaking but informative piece on geoengineering by a futurist named Jamais Cascio. That's large-scale human intervention with the goal of reducing global warming. There are, apparently, two major types under consideration: albedo management (which deals with the earth's reflectivity) and carbon management. Cascio sees these as last-resort, inevitably controversial and rife with unintended consequences--but probably in the cards. Yikes.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Food Deserts and Sustainable Agriculture

Greg Plotkin has an informative discussion of food deserts and how local agriculture initiatives can help address the issue, at the Sustainable Food blog over at (Note: a different site than the official Obama website).

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Bush Legacies, Obama Choices

Today's NYT has a run-down of the policy landscape Obama has inherited--land, air, water and climate change. The summary of Bush's major conservation achievement is telling:

When Mr. Bush designated as national monuments almost 400,000 square miles of ocean, reefs, atolls, seamounts and surrounding waters, Elliott Nourse, president of the Marine Conservation Biology Institute, called his action “statesmanlike.”

The monuments, set aside in 2006 and 2008, are home to thousands of species of rare plants, birds and fish. But perhaps their most important characteristic is that they contain few exploitable resources and just about nobody lives there, so there were no major political or commercial objections.

In other words, do what's easiest, and kick the rest down the road (Kyoto, air pollution, clean energy, etc). That's "statesmanlike"?

Friday, February 6, 2009

Open Forums on Environmental Science

Environmental Sciences Task Force open forums

Faculty, researchers and graduate students are invited to attend one of three open forums to help define future directions for the environmental sciences at Ohio State. The forums are sponsored by the Task Force on the Environmental Sciences, an initiative that came out of the doctoral review assessment process. A summary of its efforts to date will be available before the forums, to be held: Wednesday (2/11), 3-4 p.m. 333 Kottman Hall; Monday (2/16), 3-4 p.m. 1080 Smith Lecture Room, Physics Research Bldg; and Thursday (2/19), 8-9 a.m. 104 Aronoff Lab. Registration is requested. Contact: Susan Reeser, 247-7413

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Green Jobs and the Consumer Economy

Dave Leonhardt, the NYT economics correspondent, had a long article in Sunday's magazine exploring the dimensions of the economic crisis and Obama's efforts to address it. Along the way, he had one of the best explanations of how the consumer economy drives investment decisions towards short-term profits and away from long-range investments such as infrastructure. Elsewhere, Leonhardt says, the government keeps its eye on the long term, putting money into bullet trains and broadband; in the US, antipathy to government spending has blinded us to the ways private consumption depends on the common wealth. Privileging individual consumption overburdens the commons, both natural and social.

Leonhardt also reports on the difficulty we're going to have in transitioning from the consumer economy to a green-investment model, which will take nothing less than recalibrating our time-horizons and, consequently, our individual and social expectations.

Sometimes a project can give an economy a lift and also lead to transformation, but sometimes the goals are at odds, at least in the short term. Nothing demonstrates this quandary quite so well as green jobs, which are often cited as the single best hope for driving the post-bubble economy. Obama himself makes this case. Consumer spending has been the economic engine of the past two decades, he has said. Alternative energy will supposedly be the engine of the future — a way to save the planet, reduce the amount of money flowing to hostile oil-producing countries and revive the American economy, all at once. Put in these terms, green jobs sounds like a free lunch.

Green jobs can certainly provide stimulus. Obama’s proposal includes subsidies for companies that make wind turbines, solar power and other alternative energy sources, and these subsidies will create some jobs. But the subsidies will not be nearly enough to eliminate the gap between the cost of dirty, carbon-based energy and clean energy. Dirty-energy sources — oil, gas and coal — are cheap. That’s why we have become so dependent on them.

The only way to create huge numbers of clean-energy jobs would be to raise the cost of dirty-energy sources, as Obama’s proposed cap-and-trade carbon-reduction program would do, to make them more expensive than clean energy. This is where the green-jobs dream gets complicated.

For starters, of the $700 billion we spend each year on energy, more than half stays inside this country. It goes to coal companies or utilities here, not to Iran or Russia. If we begin to use less electricity, those utilities will cut jobs. Just as important, the current, relatively low price of energy allows other companies — manufacturers, retailers, even white-collar enterprises — to sell all sorts of things at a profit. Raising that cost would raise the cost of almost everything that businesses do. Some projects that would have been profitable to Boeing, Kroger or Microsoft in the current economy no longer will be. Jobs that would otherwise have been created won’t be. As Rob Stavins, a leading environmental economist, says, “Green jobs will, to some degree, displace other jobs.” Just think about what happened when gas prices began soaring last spring: sales of some hybrids increased, but vehicle sales fell overall.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Re-regionalizing Food

Talking recently with Michael Jones of Local Matters, I realized once again how counter-intuitive our agricultural policies have been for the past forty years or so. (dating, for convenience sake, from Agriculture Secretary Earl Butz's advice to American farmers: "Get big, or get out--the starting point for Wendell Berry's polemical classic, The Unsettling of America).  Michael reminded me that, policy-wise, food is a "specialty crop;" what most farmers produce are commodities, links in an industrial supply-chain.  In fact, until quite recently, the Ohio DoA didn't have anyone on staff working on sustainable agriculture. 

Turning that around is a key part of the sustainability challenge, leveraging social needs and public goods out of the great conceptual glacier that is Economic Growth.  Over at the Gristmill, Tom Laskawy has an interesting discussion looking at the infrastructure for local food and why "food miles" isn't necessarily the critical tool we need, since locales still need to be linked:

But as we explore ways to reform industrial agriculture and its
reliance on fossil fuels in food production, more, smaller farms
inevitably come up as an alternative -- and for that sort of system to
work, they would need to be proximate to population centers. Speaking
of the food miles argument, it's likely that, using our existing
infrastructure, exclusively procuring produce from farms within, say,
75 miles of urban centers would cause the transportation component of
agricultural carbon emissions to go way up. 
On the bright side, Tom reports that a major organic farm in Florida, long accustomed to shipping to the Northeast, has re-opened a greenmarket in the Miaimi area to respond to local demand. 

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Enough Work (Sufficiency Part 2)

Thomas Princen's book The Logic of Sufficiency tries to develop some of the concepts we'll need in order to slip the stranglehold of the growth machine.  There's a critical element--a hard look at the rhetoric of efficiency and the political work it does--and a constructive one--figuring out how self-regulation at a social level might rein in fantasies of infinite consumption.

Among the ideas Princen offers is the concept of a 'working rationality."  Inspired by"the backward bending supply curve for labor," in which, traditionally, workers labored only as much as they wanted (rather than according to the demands of a time clock: hence the great old tradition of Saint Monday), Princen wants to break out of the straitjacket of "consumer sovereignty."  The idea, Princen argues

rejects the neat consumption-is-good/work-is-bad dichotomy..[and] allows individual consumption to follow work, not drive it.  It would be an economy where individuals optimize between work and consumption, where choice is, in the first instance, made by individuals themselves in the context of their broader commitments--family, neighborhood, nation.  A working rationality would, in short, build in limits in work and hence, limits in consumption.  It becomes one more step to make those limits congruent with ecological rationality. ... a working rationality puts a brake on excess throughput of material and energy ...that brake is released when workers specialize, resource groups exceed a manageable scale, and sovereign consumers rule (130).
It looks like the aim is to undo Adam Smith's division of labor, and return the figure of the self-employed artisan--be your own boss--to the center of the economy.  This resonates with other proposals to return the economy to a more human scale, although Princen is working on conceptual innovation rather than utopian blueprinting.

But this description, at least, sounds all too individualized: insufficiently sociological or political.  Choices are relational, and while there ways to steer individual choice--see the work in behavioral economics summarized in Sunstein and Thaler's book Nudge--the connection between policy and individual decisions is deeply problematic. 

Saturday, January 31, 2009

Geographies of Power

N&S's Breakthrough Institute has a piece noting the challenge posed by the "Technology Fifteen"--mostly Midwestern Senators (our own Sherrod Brown gets the lead photo), from coal-dependent states--to climate legislation. They're commenting on the same NYT article I linked below, pointing out how the "green economy" agenda really has to kick in.

Less is the new more

Last Saturday, I mentioned that energy companies have traditionally priced their products like other commodities--trying to sell more, offering discounts to large consumers, etc. How to turn that business model around, so that there's an economic incentive to conserve?

Well, today's NYT reports on efforts in Sacramento to use status competition to encourage conservation among domestic consumers, by letting them know how they stack up against their neighbors.

Last April, it began sending out statements to 35,000 randomly selected customers, rating them on their energy use compared with that of neighbors in 100 homes of similar size that used the same heating fuel. The customers were also compared with the 20 neighbors who were especially efficient in saving energy.

Customers who scored high earned two smiley faces on their statements. “Good” conservation got a single smiley face. Customers like Mr. Dyer, whose energy use put him in the “below average” category, got frowns, but the utility stopped using them after a few customers got upset.


Competition among homeowners is still rare, but is becoming more widespread. In Massachusetts, the BrainShift Foundation, a nonprofit that uses games to raise environmental awareness, recruited towns to compete in a reality series, called “Energy Smackdown,” which is shown on a local cable station.

At the start of this year’s season, 10 families from Cambridge, Medford and Arlington formed teams and competed against one another in conservation categories that included waste, heating fuel, electricity and food. Patty Nolan, 51, who lives in Cambridge with her husband and two children, agreed to participate because, she said, although family members thought of themselves as “environmentally conscious,” they knew they could be doing more.

But her motives shifted after eight months of trash weigh-ins and comparative meter readings.

“At the beginning, the competition wasn’t what interested me,” Ms. Nolan said, “but then when we lost a challenge to Arlington by one pound of carbon, I realized I really wanted to win.”

This still isn't quite the shift we need: it's still about individualized savings, rather than pricing mechanisms. But it does move towards making consumption levels a social project.

Friday, January 30, 2009

JFF: GreenWalls and Vertical Gardens

Check out French landscape-art designer Patrick Blanc's Vertical Garden--the next step beyond green roofs. These are to ivy-covered walls what Jeni's ice cream is to Dairy Queen. Blanc has planted the facade of the Quai Branly anthropology museum in Paris, and it's spectacular: a (green) thumb in the eye of high-modernist sterility. I'd love to see something similar on Columbus's City Center, taking green urbanism to new heights. I got this image from the Landscape+Urbanism blog --thanks.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Sustainability and the Commons

Alongside principles of sufficiency, the toolkit for environmental citizenship should include a concept of the commons. Economists and environmental studies majors probably learn about this idea through Garrett Hardin's paper on "The Tragedy of the Commons." Many probably come away thinking it's also the last word on the issue, even though a lot of work has been done since then, including the Creative Commons response to the "intellectual property" enclosures. But there's obviously a lot more to be done to make the concept vital and relevant to a society built around ideals of individualized consumption.

Proposals for expanded notions of service, whether on the local/state level (Gov. Strickland yesterday called for including a service project as part of graduation requirements for Ohio high schools) or at the national level (e.g. in Obama's inaugural, or in Robert Reich's column in the American Prospect) are steps towards a renewed appreciation of the commons. Another useful tool are the games and models developed by the Sustainability Institute, including the Fish Banks game discussed by Peter Senge in The Necessary Revolution. By getting players to confront the consequences of competitive and collaborative strategies, such games may help us loosen up the bias towards self-seeking maximization, the default strategy of the last three decades.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Sustainability: A Big Idea

"Sustainability is a "big idea," a global concept that has arisen to meet a contemporary challenge, one unlike anything humanity has faced in the past: global ecological crisis. ... For those of us deeply concerned about environmental trends, especially those entailing irreversibilities, the task is not to get the right definition. It is to continually refine the idea to meet the threats, especially the novel threats, those like overpopulation and overconsumption that human society has not faced in the past...and does not fully face now. The central task is to take what is self-evident at two extremes of scale--the limits of ever-expanding activity for the individual and for the planet--and to locate limits in human organization"(31)

Thomas Princen, The Logic of Sufficiency.

Princen develops the principle of sufficiency--enough--against the idea of efficiency, driver of endless growth and limitless consumption. It is a principle of self-regulation and satiety, linchpin of a conception of ecological rationality.

The book as a whole sets out to develop and defend this conception, and performs a valuable service in theorizing what "self-regulation" might mean when scaled up from individual to society. Among the key points I've identified so far:

"human decisions must be framed in a time scale that spans many generations of humans" (32)

"Decisions aimed at sustainable practice must, on a daily basis, from the individual to the collective, from the citizen to the polity, be risk averse with respect to the biophysical underpinnings of life. The long term as indefinite future is a necessary ingredient, and thus a first-order criterion of ecological rationality" (33)

The third defining feature of sustainability is decision making that aims at the intersection of the biophysical and social systems. Conservation, preservation and pollution control [three plausible ways of conceptualizing environmental goals] have typically treated the environment as "out there." ... But when the environment "out there" is brought "in here," when decision making is as much about managing human behavior as it is about managing biophysical dynamics, questions of excess become legitimate. (33)

"Change is inherent in complex adaptive systems. But to have integrity, to be self-sustaining, systems must find that middle ground, that in-between position of enough--but not too much. ... A system has integrity, resilience and adaptiveness when each factor varies within a comfortable range, only rarely exceeding that range." (35)

"systems must have built-in mechanisms of restraint to keep in the safe range, to operate in the middle ground. Such mechanisms depend on a system's ability to store and channel information" (36).

Bringing the environment "in here"--and making human behavior part of the definition--is key to gaining a sense of sustainability as a social project.

Today, tomorrow, and the long haul

Lots of environmental news today.

Top of the list is Obama's decision directing the EPA to allow California and other states to mandate tougher-than-national emissions standards. The NYT's "Room for Debate" section has a number of experts commenting on the decision, including this interesting point from William K. Reilly:
Only California has the right to seek such waivers to set stricter standards than what federal laws require. It has to demonstrate, however, that it has seriously studied an issue before it seeks such waivers, and indeed California has been the most pioneering and imaginative state in seeking ways to reduce air pollution. In fact, it has more people than E.P.A. does working on clean air issues — not only in Sacramento but in Los Angeles and elsewhere around the state.

This news comes on the same day that a paper dispells hopes that global warming would be reversible, even if we cut CO2 emissions immediately.

Because of the way carbon dioxide persists in the atmosphere and in the oceans, and the way the atmosphere and the oceans interact, patterns that are established at peak levels will produce problems like “inexorable sea level rise” and Dust-Bowl-like droughts for at least a thousand years, the researchers are reporting in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

... The researchers describe what will happen if the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide — the principal heat-trapping gas emission — reaches 450 to 600 parts per million, up from about 385 p.p.m. today. Most climate researchers consider 450 p.p.m. virtually inevitable and 600 p.p.m. difficult to avoid by midcentury if the use of fossil fuels continues at anything like its present rate.
So drought is on its way, as are rising ocean levels. Questions about resilience, and proposals for adaptation, are going to be arriving on policy-makers desks in fairly short order, requiring whole new orders of expertise, democratic tact and political skills. Arguments about relevant scale--local, regional, national, hemispheric--are in the offing, and will need to be in every planners toolbox.

But it's the time-frame that raises the most interesting challenge: scientists may be able to extrapolate "for at least a thousand years," but it's hard to see how that can be a humanly relevant time-scale. Theorists of sustainability have made a good case that the welfare of "future generations" should be a factor in decision-making, against the utilitarian assumption that only living individuals can have preferences. But how many generations? Is it plausible to stretch policy decisions out on the rack of centuries? Tribal societies could embody social memory in a council of elders, who could act as intermediaries between the ancestors and the unborn: longevity as a measure of the horizon of relevance. Science breaks with this human measure, however, and opens unimaginable perspectives: a thousand, ten thousand, a hundred-thousand years out (or back) are easily programmable.

The German sociologist Ulrich Beck is, to my knowledge, one of the few people to have thought about this challenge, under the label "risk society." The basis of policy, Beck argues, is no longer knowledge but probability: all significant decisions rely on models and extrapolations, based on contestable assumptions and variable parameters. There are trade-offs--not between goods, but between unknown and perhaps incommensurable sorts of risks. This has to change our practice of deliberation.

From time to space: meanwhile, back in today's news, the NYT reports a rift within Congressional Democrats about how fast to move on climate-change legislation.

There’s a bias in our Congress and government against manufacturing, or at least indifference to us, especially on the coasts,” said Senator Sherrod Brown, Democrat of Ohio. “It’s up to those of us in the Midwest to show how important manufacturing is. If we pass a climate bill the wrong way, it will hurt American jobs and the American economy, as more and more production jobs go to places like China, where it’s cheaper.”

This brown state-green state clash is likely to encumber any effort to set a mandatory ceiling on the carbon dioxide emissions blamed as the biggest contributor to global warming, something Mr. Obama has declared to be one of his highest priorities. Mr. Obama has said he intends to press ahead on such an initiative, despite opposition within his own party in Congress and divisions among some of his advisers over the timing, scope and cost of legislation to curb carbon emissions.

Once again, it's the coasts against the heartland: California (Barbara Boxer, Henry Waxman) and the East Coast pushing for stronger regulations, coal- and manufacture-dependent Midwest states proposing a go-slow approach. Already, Detroit is complaining that they'll have to cut back on their largest, most profitable models in order to meet the new standards--the same line they've offered for the past quarter-century.

Monday, January 26, 2009

OSU Green Build Policy

Ohio State strives to become benchmark for green building

Ohio State is leading the way in sustainability in higher education by creating a Green Build Policy that will set the bar for green design and construction. The principles and practices governing campus building now includes conserving resources and incorporating green design principles, while balancing initial and long-term operating costs. In the future, all applicable projects over $4 million will have U.S. Green Building Council Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design silver certification, at a minimum. The Nationwide and Ohio Farm Bureau 4-H Center was the first campus building to receive LEED certification. Read more >

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Sustaining Cleveland

A serious case of site-envy: Cleveland's GreenCityBlueLake site looks to me a like a model for generating an inclusive green vision for a city/region as a whole. There's a clean look to the site, with a list of categories ranging from arts and culture through economy, energy and education, all the way down to water. Each of the dimensions seems to have--or be generating--its own community, with participants committed to developing a common vision of how to move the area towards sustainability. The site serves a coordinating function--hosting discussions, reporting on initiatives and developing plans.

No doubt it helps to have a partnership with an established institution like the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, which helps stabilize what was initially the work of a non-profit organization called EcoCity Cleveland. There's also, clearly, a dedicated group of activists who know how to work together. But it leaves me wondering whether we can develop something comparable for Central Ohio: a site/group that would promote analysis of regional policy issues from a green perspective.

does sponsor a Central Ohio discussion group, to which a number of folks from MORPC contribute, but it's incredibly austere and uninviting and hasn't, in my experience, generated significant discussion. Surely, though, there's enough informed talent around here to come up with a comparable effort.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Debating Strategies for Reducing Carbon Emissions

How best to move quickly to reduce carbon-emissions?  Today's NYT has an op-ed arguing in favor of a cap-and-trade system (whereby industries would have quotas for emissions, which they could sell to each other as they cleared the bar) and against the "renewable portfolio standards" (which Ohio and other states have adopted), mandating that a certain percentage of energy production come from renewables by a certain date.

Portfolio standards emerged because the Bush Administration blocked action on a national level, and states could direct their investments to support renewables.  A cap-and-trade system requires a national--if not a worldwide--market, and the Times also reports that the European Commission will ask the US to move in that direction.

Here's what J. Wayne Leonard says:

A renewable portfolio standard is said to be needed for creating and
improving renewable energy technologies. In practice, however, it does
little to reduce carbon dioxide emissions and makes energy production
excessively expensive.

Coal-fired power plants produce more
than 83 percent of the electricity sector’s carbon dioxide emissions.
But because coal is cheaper than natural gas or oil, it is the least
likely to be displaced by solar or wind power.

Natural gas has
a relatively low carbon content. But it is likely to be the first to be
displaced by renewable sources of energy because it is more expensive
than coal. That means that even a renewable portfolio standard as high
as 20 percent would reduce emissions by only a small fraction of what
is needed to lower the risk of catastrophic climate change. 

I don't know enough to evaluate the arguments offered, although "excessively expensive" sets off my
skeptic-o-meter. Strategically, the push for cap-and-trade moves the
struggle to Washington, terrain that favors industry, and I wonder
whether the targets wouldn't be set too low.  On the other hand,
uniform national standards would sweep in states that haven't moved towards greener energy.

But what should energy cost? For years, critics have pointed out that utility companies--energy and water--price their products like other commodities, so that the more you consume, the less you pay (volume discounts).  Turning that model around--so that customers would have an incentive to conserve, rather than waste, energy--would be a key step in getting price-incentives right.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Leadership Changes in the Movement

Gristmill's Kate Sheppard reports: "The Sierra Club announced today that long-time executive director
Carl Pope is stepping down. He'll be taking on a new role as chairman
of the Sierra Club, focusing primarily on climate change. 

This makes the Sierra Club the third major green group currently in
search of new leadership. John Passacantando, who lead Greenpeace USA
for eight years, stepped down
on Jan. 1 to start a green investment consultancy. Longtime
environmental activist Mike Clark is currently serving as Greenpeace's
interim executive director as the group seeks a replacement. Friends of
the Earth U.S. is also searching for a new president, as current president Brent Blackwelder is planning to retire.

Food and Ag

Nice overview of the politics of food policy and agricultural subsidies over at the Gristmill. I wonder whether the OSU Students for Food Sovereignty are tuned into this issue.

From Greed to Green

From Green America, via the New American Dream blog (see the link to the right),
six green-economy solutions to today’s economic mess:

1. Green Energy—Green Jobs
A crucial starting place to rejuvenate our economy is to focus on energy. It’s time to call in the superheroes of the green energy revolution—energy efficiency, solar and wind power, and plug-in hybrids—and put their synergies to work with rapid, large-scale deployment. This is a powerful way to jumpstart the economy, spur job creation (with jobs that can’t be outsourced), declare energy independence, and claim victory over the climate crisis.

2. Clean Energy Victory Bonds
How are we going to pay for this green energy revolution? We at Green America propose Clean Energy Victory Bonds. Modeled after victory bonds in World War II, Americans would buy these bonds from the federal government to invest in large-scale deployment of green energy projects, with particular emphasis in low-income communities hardest hit by the broken economy. These would be long-term bonds, paying an annual interest rate, based in part on the energy and energy savings that the bonds generate. During WWII, 85 million Americans bought over $185 billion in bonds—that would be almost $2 trillion in today’s dollars.

3. Reduce, Reuse, Rethink
Living lightly on the Earth, saving resources and money, and sharing (jobs, property, ideas, and opportunities) are crucial principles for restructuring our economy. This economic breakdown is, in part, due to living beyond our means—as a nation and as individuals. With the enormous national and consumer debt weighing us down, we won’t be able to spend our way out of this economic problem. Ultimately, we need an economy that’s not dependent on unsustainable growth and consumerism. So it’s time to rethink our over-consumptive lifestyles, and turn to the principles of elegant simplicity, such as planting gardens, conserving energy, and working cooperatively with our neighbors to share resources and build resilient communities.

4. Go Green and Local
When we do buy, it is essential that those purchases benefit the green and local economy—so that every dollar helps solve social and environmental problems, not create them. Our spending choices matter. We can support our local communities by moving dollars away from conventional agribusiness and big-box stores and toward supporting local workers, businesses, and organic farmers.

5. Community Investing
All over the country, community investing banks, credit unions, and loan funds that serve hard-hit communities are strong, while the biggest banks required bailouts. The basic principles of community investing keep such institutions strong: Lenders and borrowers know each other. Lenders invest in the success of their borrowers—with training and technical assistance along with loans. And the people who provide the capital to the lenders expect reasonable, not speculative, returns. If all banks followed these principles, the economy wouldn’t be in the mess it’s in today.

6. Shareowner Activism
When you own stock, you have the right and responsibility to advise management to clean up its act. Had GM listened to shareholders warning that relying on SUVs would be its downfall, it would have invested in greener technologies, and would not have needed a bailout. Had CitiGroup listened to its shareowners, it would have avoided the faulty mortgage practices that brought it to its knees. Engaged shareholders are key to reforming conventional companies for the transition to this new economy – the green economy that we are building together.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Forcing the Spring

Warming shifts stand out among data, 2 studies find
Thursday, January 22, 2009 3:19 AM
Chicago Tribune
CHICAGO -- The news might seem welcome in the middle of a long, cold winter: Scientists have shown that the start of spring has moved almost two days earlier in the past 50 years.

But scientists say the finding, one of two papers released yesterday on climate change, actually is a warning sign. Together, the studies bolster the argument that the planet's temperatures have shifted significantly during the past half-century, with many of the potential consequences likely to be negative.