Weekly Heroes: St. Mary’s Monastery

The Catholic Benedictine Sisters of St. Mary Monastery, Rock Island, Illinois lead beautiful, sustainable lives.

What is sustainable?

1) The monastery is built to minimize energy use.  The building’s temperature is controlled by a geothermal pond.  Large windows funnel sun onto a huge mass to enable passive solar heating.  Their facilities combine form, function, and sustainability.

2) The nuns lead lives of social sustainability.  The monastery used to run a school.  That has, sadly, closed but the nuns today go out into the community to work in education, social services, religious counselling, and other callings.

3) Community is sustainable.  We can all learn from the group reliance these women give each other.

4) They share this sustainability with others with the Benet House Retreat Center.  I have visited there twice to spend time in quiet introspection.  The visit is inexpensive and the nuns provide food and (if wanted) spiritual counselling.

5) Anti-consumerism.  The nuns examine the things they use and do not buy new items unless absolutely necessary.  This is not a privation, they have everything they need.


Visualizing Sustainability

Defining sustainability is one of the most difficult things to do.  And we cannot hope to achieve sustainability until we can define it.  The UN’s definition of meeting the needs for the future and today promises all things to all people.  The Venn diagram of environment, economy, and society is too vague.

Oxfam International has developed a new framework in Kate Raworth’s report “A safe and just space for humanity: can we life within the doughnut”.  This model establishes a baseline, a ceiling, and a good zone.

Too often, humans get ignored in the environmental framework in which sustainability is usually framed.  The doughnut sets a social floor, where poverty and injustice need to be removed in order for true sustainability to exist.  Without education, health, and jobs, society is not sustainable and all people can never share in a sustainable future.

At the same time, through our lifestyles we are overstepping real environmental boundaries.

Including this floor makes one very important (and often ignored) point.  Without these basic necessities, we cannot begin to take care of the environment.  Environmental protection is (largely) the consideration of those in rich countries.  However, growth – the normal solution to end poverty – is not the way to go either.

These envisionings create real possibilities for solutions – sustainability for all people, not just for some.  I know its changed the way I see things, and my students will get this new view next week.

Alienation and control

“Alienation is perhaps the most effective tool of control in America, and every reminder of our real connectedness weakens that tool.” – Tim DeChristopher

I was reading Tim DeChristopher’s sentencing statement today. (DeChristopher is the man who was sentenced to two years in prison for bidding on public lands open to oil and gas leases, when he had no intention of drilling for oil or gas).   Reading this, I was sitting in my little white house not knowing anyone in my neighborhood except Earl and Jan next door.  In fact, I know few people other than my colleagues at work and my students.

Most of us lead lives much like this, cut of from our neighbors, our government, our environment our world.  And through this we give up the very autonomy we are seeking to protect.

We lead our compartmentalized little lives in our own little boxes (out of Ticky Tacky).  I know I do.  This alienation renders us silent.  We see a problem in the world – and need a home that is clean, healthy, and sustainable.  So we do what we can as individuals.  We recycle.  We scale down.  We eat local.  But, as individuals, we will never make change of the scale that is needed.  For that we need to conquer alienation and know the people and world around us.

A community’s worth of actions is needed to create change that can last.  A state’s worth of actions is needed to create something that can do some real goo.  A country’s worth of actions – that that can really start to tackle something big – like climate change or poverty.

So, how do we get from here to there.

Why I might break down and buy a cell phone

I don’t own a cell phone – the idea of a phone following me around everywhere I go is honestly quite scary.  However, today’s smart phones are developing a series of apps that do create things I might want.  If I do buy a cellphone, here are the top apps I will add to mine.  (Plus, I believe, all the ones listed below are free).

The Good Guide

You scan any product in the store, the Good Guide gives you a rating on its environment, health, and societal impacts of the product.  The brief rating links back into a set of detailed background information on the product.  And if , like me, you lack a cell phone – you can always look them up at www.goodguide.com.


The water fountain, as with its friend the public pay phone, is growing harder and harder to find.  The Pacific Institute had developed a crowd-sourced app to find the rapidly disappearing water fountain in its native urban habitat.

Seafood Watch: Sustainable Seafood Guide

This app from the Monterey Bay Aquarium tells you whether the fish you are thinking of buying is healthy and sustainably caught.  Additionally, it has an extra crowd-sourced component that lets you look up where others have purchased sustainable seafood in the area.

Fooducate: Eat a Bit Better

Fooducate makes shopping a heck of a lot easier.  It sorts through all the labels and promises to give any food you scan a clear letter grade: A-F, just like in school.  Again, if you don’t have a phone, you can look items up by hand on the computer.

Weekly Heroes: Free fuel edition

Earlier, I scoffed at the man doing public service by advocating for cheaper gas.  Today, I praise a similar program.

My town, Normal, IL, has positioned itself as an EVTown (Electronic Vehicle Town).  The city has purchased electric cars for its fleet and encouraged others to do so as well.  They have created incentives for citizens to by EVs, and even arranged for them to be able to get cars from Mitsubishi earlier than anyone else.

The best plan – free vehicle charging around town for the foreseeable future.  That means, if one charged entirely at these stations, “one could expect to save $5,400 over eight years driving a total of 64,000 miles.”  That is an incentive that could get people on board – add this to the $7,500 tax credit and the $29,125 becomes suddenly affordable to own and operate.  This is a perfect second car (in a country where every family owns two cars): one car to drive distances and the other to go to work and the grocery store.

My applause to Chris Koos and all the others at City Hall who have worked to create the possibility for real change.

You can find any EV charging stations near you using this Dept. of Energy Map.

The price lies

This week in class, we are reading about energy policy and how, in a democracy, policy has to appeal to the majority of people.  This causes a big problem when the majority of people don’t see there being an energy crisis – when we are having one.  And people want cheap gas so much they cannot see the cost.

We trust that there is a market reflecting supply and demand working in the background of our gas purchases.  Our gas prices have remained somewhat steady (or at least only tripled over the last ten years), therefore we must not be facing any shortages.  In reality, there is less and less oil available every day – it is a finite commodity – a fossil fuel.  And, that oil is more and more expensive to get to.  So, why don’t the prices we pay reflect that?

Lopsided subsidies.

Companies get paid ridiculous amounts from the federal government to drill and mine fossil fuels.  They get paid much less to harness cleaner or renewable energies.  (There’s this pesky myth about large solar subsidies circulating that is just plain false.)  They get paid to drill or not drill from their reserves.  They get paid for not shipping oil overseas to refine it and back to the US for sales (an inefficient process), they get paid for every step of the process.  Good Magazine created this image to illustrate the situation.

This graph is only partial, because it doesn’t contain the costs of maintaining our highway and road infrastructure – and doesn’t contain the military costs of assuring international supply.

Confused values

Low gas prices are considered patriotic, a virtue.  This Valentine’s Day, one man was considered a hero for founding a nonprofit with the intent of getting gas stations to sell gas for less – for $2.14 this holiday.  Never mind the fact that station owner’s profit is only pennies on the gallon.  Or that the $.80 per gallon difference may have made more sense being given to someone who truly needed it.  All that matters is low gas prices so we can continue to drive our cars as much as we want.

Cooperative business structure

Co-ops are back, according to Yes! Magazine.   A cooperative is a business structure where a group of people put their money or resources together and share ownership in a democratic structure.  If you belong to a credit union, you’re part of a co-op.  ACE and True Value Hardware are co-ops, and so is Land o’ Lakes.  We don’t think about them because they are staying quiet and being good businesses.

A standard corporation is charged (by the law) with only one task – to make money for its shareholders.  If it tries to do other things, like establish good working conditions or protect the environment, it can be taken to court and forced to turn back to profits.

“Cooperatives, in their various forms, promote the fullest possible participation in the economic and social development of all people, including women, youth, older persons, persons with disabilities and indigenous peoples, are becoming a major factor of economic and social development and contribute to the eradication of poverty.” – UN Resolution 64/136, 2010

Co-ops have promise not just in the developed world, but in developing countries as well.  They are a way to get people who individually have very small assets to bring them together in order to be able to so something larger – such as a town getting together to roast the coffee beans they grow or process their own cotton.

Today it becomes most important that, cooperatives “are motivated not by profit, but by service-to meet their members’ needs or affordable and high quality goods or services; Exist solely to serve their members.”  They are owned by their members and surplus monies are returned to their members.

Co-ops are one of several potential new business models that can allow people to conduct real business, while staying accountable to their community and world.