Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Water Footprints

Next step in eco-awareness: calculating "water footprints."

Food Fight: Grist weighs in

Last week, the NYT ran a provocative op-ed by self-proclaimed "Liberal Curmudgeon," Stephen Budiansky.  In "Math Lessons for Locavores," Budiansky looks to debunk the "misleading and often bogus" statistics deployed to explain why eating locally is environmentally friendlier.  Writes Budiansky:

The real energy hog, it turns out, is not industrial agriculture at all, but you and me. Home preparation and storage account for 32 percent of all energy use in our food system, the largest component by far.

A single 10-mile round trip by car to the grocery store or the farmers’ market will easily eat up about 14,000 calories of fossil fuel energy. Just running your refrigerator for a week consumes 9,000 calories of energy. That assumes it’s one of the latest high-efficiency models; otherwise, you can double that figure. Cooking and running dishwashers, freezers and second or third refrigerators (more than 25 percent of American households have more than one) all add major hits. Indeed, households make up for 22 percent of all the energy expenditures in the United States.

While locavoracity may have acquired something of a self-righteous halo recently, especially among the coastal trend-mongers, some of Budiansky's own calculations struck me as suspiciously ad-hoc, mustered to score points rather than to advance understanding of the pros and cons of our current food system.  Partly it was using the club of "efficiency" to bludgeon the arguments about localism ("The best way to make the most of these truly precious resources of land, favorable climates and human labor is to grow lettuce, oranges, wheat, peppers, bananas, whatever, in the places where they grow best and with the most efficient technologies"); partly it was the smugly contrarian conclusion ("The relative pittance of our energy budget that we spend on modern farming is one of the wisest energy investments we can make, when we honestly look at what it returns to our land, our economy, our environment and our well-being.") that pretends that the interests of land, economy and environment are somehow naturally aligned under industrial monocultures.  In the role of curmudgeon, Budiansky reduces complex and textured arguments about diversity, resilience, seasonality and ecological scale to a choice between virtue and efficiency.

The folks over at Grist have taken up Budiansky's challenge and organized a series of responses, including this one from Elanor Starmer of Food & Water Watch. I'm curious to see how the debate unfolds (nothing in the NYT yet, as far as I can tell); let's hope it generates a bit more light.


Thursday, August 5, 2010

Fish Stories

A review by Sam Sifton (restaurant critic for the NYT) of Paul Greenberg's book Four Fish--salmon, cod, tuna, and sea bass--that are pillars of the global fishing industry. Wild stocks are dwindling fast, and aquaculture poses its own significant risks and challenges.  A telling complement to Caroline Fraser's book on Rewilding.
The New York Times
August 1, 2010    
Photo from NYT

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Fish Stories

A review by Sam Sifton (restaurant critic for the NYT) of Paul Greenberg's book Four Fish--salmon, cod, tuna, and sea bass--that are pillars of the global fishing industry. Wild stocks are dwindling fast, and aquaculture poses its own significant risks and challenges. A telling complement to Caroline Fraser's book on Rewilding, mentioned below.

Friday, July 30, 2010

How the Climate Bill failed in the Senate

Insider analysis from the NRDC on why climate legislation collapsed in the Senate.  Failure has many fathers, success is a virgin birth.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Sustainable Cities

Interesting site (apparently out of Denmark) dealing with sustainable urbanism.  This page includes a sequence of links to declarations, going back to the Brundtland Report, that have developed principles of sustainability in relation to high-density cities.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Two articles

The American Prospect has a cover story on "Why Local Food Doesn't Stand a Chance," by Heather Rogers.  It's an implicit rebuttal to Michael Pollan's NYT piece, which was more optimistic about the chances of extricating ourselves from corporate monoculture.  Rogers, who authored a book called Green Gone Wrong, focuses on the way Big Ag is entrenched in the USDA under Tom Vilsack, and the continuing obstacles to small and sustainable farming.  The story is framed by anecdotes about virtuous organic farmers who still can't make it and are about to leave their land: it's a classic feel-bad story, which I've come to suspect but which is hard to dismiss.  The core thesis is that Vilsack, and the whole USDA structure, still looks at commodity farming and biofuels as the twin pillars of farm policy; the "urban locavore" market is no more than a niche.  There's a whiff of self-flagellation there, despite the fact that there are plenty of battles to be fought (notably--a fact Pollan emphasized--that cheap "fast food" has subsidized the impoverishment of rural America).  The way Rogers sets up the argument, though, suggests that there's a need to think through the idea of "post-industrial agriculture," perhaps along the lines suggested by Hugh Raffles on urban beekeeping.

The other significant article is John Terbrogh's review of Rewilding the World, by Caroline Fraser, an extended explanation of why the return of "top predators" is key to restoring biodiversity.  It's essentially a justification, backed by decades of new research, of Aldo Leopold's insight in "Thinking Like a Mountain," about why wolves matter.  Terbrogh is good on the coming conflict, especially in developing countries, between conservation and meat-farming, and the need to figure out compromises and coexistence.  But as a survey of conservation science, it's fascinating and lucid.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Global Warming Games

Thinking about teaching for sustainability, I've come around to the view that it's going to take all sorts of techniques, tools and contexts in order to indigenize approaches to the environment across the curriculum. So one of the things I'm flirting with is how to use environmental simulation games, models of decision-making and policy analysis that will enable students to witness the effects of assumptions, actions and consequences. Wikipedia has an entry listing "global warming games" that I'm going to start looking into.

At the same time, I'm inspired by some remarks of Michael Maniates, prefacing a book on Encountering Global Environmental Politics. "Muddling towards sustainability," Maniates writes (invoking Kai Lee)

is messy work--it means, at times, coloring outside the lines, in imaginative, unanticipated ways.... This suggests that education for sustainability, rather than training experts and rewarding passive acceptance of facts, should be about reproducing this messiness in the classroom (at least some of the time) in order to acclimate students conditioned by years of sitting in neat rows and raising their hands before speaking....higher education should be training students to patiently cope with ambiguity , to systematically evaluate conflicting expert claims about the state of the environment, to dissect the ways in which competing interests mask risk and highlight uncertainty to their advantage, to cultivate a passion for civic engagement, and to roll up their sleeves and set to work on local and regional causes of environmental decline that sum to global environmental degradation (10)
I like this very much as a pedagogical aspiration, though it's undoubtedly hard to do. A mess can be instructive, but it's always frustrating; teaching can be about tolerating frustration--one's own as well as students'--but there has to be some sort of narrative recuperation towards "the end."

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Making Connections

Walking over to the 4-H building this morning for the first-ever USO Sustainability Conference, I was captivated by what looked like a solar-powered aluminum-frame pirate ship--red sails flapping in the wind, solar panels outstretched to catch the early morning light--parked outside the center. Its relation to the proceedings was unclear--no explanatory signage--but it perched on the lawn as if it had just landed from some extraterrestrial expedition, a cross between the Kitty Hawk and a cyborg. At its heart, drawing power from the solar panels, was...an ice chest, stocked with popsicles.

Turned out to be the Trickster Project, brainchild of Ohio University's Duane McDiarmid, designed to turn up in various out-of-the-way hiking spots in the Southwestern deserts (Diablo Canyon, Antelope Island, the Yampa River), dispensing icy treats to weary travelers. We fell to talking about the place of art in the sustainability conversation, and the necessity of wit, whimsy and humor in enlivening visions of a green future ("It can't all be austerity and efficiency"). What art brings, Duane suggested, was the capacity for self-reflection and self-criticism embedded in an occasion for conversation, a way of gaining ironic perspective on the work of the angels.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Earth, Air, Fire, Water

Earth Day, 2010: Gathered at noontime outside Hopkins Hall, in the shadow of the Constitution Tree (a sycamore, growing in the 1780's), for conversation about "environmental art." I laid out three questions:
  • What roles do you see (let's call it) environmental art playing in the world today?
  • What role can a conversation about environmental art play in Columbus over the next two years?
  • How can art (or: the arts) clarify and support OSU's commitment to sustainability
On the questions, first: "roles" are multiple, running from visual communication and illustration to vehicles of community-formation or renewal to expressions of anger and mourning. The work of art: to release imagination--intuition, empathy, affect, understanding--from its self-enclosure, from its attachment to habits grown meaningless or self-destructive, to glimpse new meanings on the horizon, new mythologies.

Information, Walter Benjamin tells us ("The Storyteller"), is the enemy of wisdom. Traditional wisdom, layered into stories that have gone from hand to hand, tells us "how to go on." Information shocks, leaving us none the wiser; today, we are awash in a rising sea of information, shocked but struggling. Appearing as information," our "environment" appears as an "issue"--already covered, already inscribed in controversy and power. Art can amplify our relation to "the issue," immerse us in, connect us to, facts we (or is it just you?) would rather avoid. And then?

"(Let's call it) environmental art": For some, "environmental art" is a historical label, taking us back to the 1970's, with Land Art and such. Do those labels get in the way? that is: are they part of the meaningless habits that art works to undo? Or might they have a special resonance today, resources for new ways of working? What if they were the ruins of a still-born civilization, a consciousness that never quite emerged? Could we look at them again?

"In the world today:" let's say, the climate for environmental art has changed. Let's say that, in our post-natural world, "the environment" has grown meaningless, even as the degradation of the earth's ecosystems proceeds apace, "Apocalypse as a Way of Life," as Frederick Buell puts it. Eaarth, Bill McKibben calls our "tough, new planet." What roles, what routes can art take? Recall, for instance, how reminiscent Land Art was of heroic modernism, with its extravagant scales. How are we to imagine now?

Like "the environment," "sustainability" is a parking lot, a place everyone uses but few of us linger. We can't do without it, but it's not exactly hospitable to our best thinking. It's paved with information from here to the horizon. So, what if we take it back to the elements? Orient ourselves to the fourfold: earth, air, fire, water? What could art disclose?

In our conversation, Michael Mercil brought up Jonathan Lear's book Radical Hope, subtitled "Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation." Lear's starting-point is a cultural dead-end, the collapse of the Crow nation's way of life: "When the buffalo went away the hearts of my people fell to the ground. ... After this nothing happened." How, then, did they go on? Reinventing themselves, reinventing what it meant to be meaningful. Lear focuses on the testimony of Plenty Coups, the Crow chief, steering his people toward a different way of being, a reinvented tradition.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

On the Idea of Climate Change

Mike Hulme's Why We Disagree About Climate Change is by far the most thorough, engaging and thought-provoking survey of the contests around the global climate that I've read, a welcome antidote to the post-Copenhagen blahs. Hulme is a Professor of Climate Change at the University of East Anglia (home of the notorious "climategate" emails) and an advisor to the EU on climate change policy. But the book is something like a deconstruction of the concept of "climate change," turning repeatedly on the question, "So why DO we disagree" about this vexed topic. In brief: because we study, imagine, value, fear, believe, govern and understand differently.

Hulme takes pains to declare that he's not a climate skeptic--he thinks the dangers are all too real--so it's surprising to see him embrace a constructionist position in the end, one that calls for re-embedding the idea of climate into our "mythic" meaning-making narratives. In particular, he disputes the construction of climate change as a "problem" calling for a "solution:"

If we continue to talk about climate change as an environmental problem to be solved, if we continue to understand the climate system as something to be mastered and controlled, then we have missed the main lessons of climate change. If climate means to us only the measurable and physical dimensions of our life on Earth then we will always be at war with climate. Our climates will forever be offering us something different from what we want.
Rather than placing ourselves in a 'fight against climate change' we need a more constructive and imaginative engagement with the idea of climate change. (360-1)

Whatever we do, Hulme suggests, ACC (anthropogenic climate change) is not going to just go away: there is no end in sight. Let's make it an opportunity to think more deeply, creatively, wisely about life on earth.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Ten Sustainability Trends

The Post-Carbon Institute is in the process of evolving from a virtual to a real-world think-tank, drawing together some of the leading figures in the sustainability movement while making interesting use of new-media crowd-sourcing techniques.  Warren Karlenzig, one of PCI's Fellows, made some start-of-the-decade predictions here.  Among the trends he's watching:  the new biking culture, urban agriculture, drought preparations, resiliency planning, cellulosic biofuels, the use of ICT (information and communications technologies) to enhance sustainable cities.  Columbus has some skin in a number of these games, but my sense is that we're still hedging our bets. 

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Peer Pressure Works

Robert Cialdini interviewed in Grist:

"If we send people in San Diego a message saying the majority of your neighbors are conserving energy on a daily basis, that has more effect than telling them to do it for the environment or to be socially responsible citizens or to save money. If your neighbors are doing it, it means it’s feasible. It’s practicable. You can do it—people like you.

It was very important that we say “people in your neighborhood.” If we said “the majority of Americans,” that wasn’t effective. If we said “the majority of Californians,” that was more effective. If we said “the majority of San Diegans,” that was more effective. But the most effective was “the majority of your neighbors.” That’s how you decide what’s possible for you: what people in your circumstance are able to do.

Monday, January 4, 2010

What's in it for the spooks?

"The nation’s top scientists and spies are collaborating on an effort to use the federal government’s intelligence assets — including spy satellites and other classified sensors — to assess the hidden complexities of environmental change. They seek insights from natural phenomena like clouds and glaciers, deserts and tropical forests." the NYT reports.