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.


Needs and wants

In my next class, we are reading about the interaction between consumerism and energy use.   The first step is asking how do wants expand into needs?  In the developed world (and especially in America) we consume piles of stuff and explain most if it in terms of our needs.

Economist Manfred Max-Neef, a Chilean who teaches at U.C. Berkeley. developed a list of basic needs for humans where ever they may be.  These needs are more complex, and more complexly specified than the more familial Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. These needs are non-hierarchical and operate more as an interactive system.

Subsistence – Creation, health, food, shelter skills, work feedback

Protection – security, society

Affection – friendship, family, love

Understanding – curiosity, education

Participation – responsibilities, interaction, community

Leisure – play, fantasy, intimacy, privacy

Creation – skills, work, feedback

Identity – belonging, groups, recognition

Freedom – autonomy, rights, dissent

As humans, we are complex beings, and it only makes sense that our needs are complex.  However, these needs are not tied to consumption of goods.  And, no matter how much we wish it were so, we cannot purchase that many of them.

How are these achievable?  Through community, spirituality, family.  Through developing a rich inner life, and that is one of the hardest things to do.  These needed become a means as well as an end.  Through belonging to a group, I gain responsibilities and friendship.  Through developing skills, I gain autonomy and recognition.  Focus on any of the higher needs brings about the fulfillment of other needs.

After that, we need to do something even harder – translate these deeply personal needs into something that becomes valued by our greater society.  This chart below (from Wikipedia)  shows multiple way of achieving those needs.  Most do not involve things.  Those that do are not necessarily ownable things.  More importantly, many of the ways of achieving these needs involve more than one person.  And that is what we need – more than one person and that allows personal beliefs to jump forward and become societal values.

What risk is enough?

Nulear power arises as a major example of the risk calculation.  Odds are that a nuclear power plant will work forever without any extreme or catastrophic incidents.  However, if something goes wrong, it goes very, very wrong as we have seen at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi.  Today, the plant is surrounded by The Zone, just like in the Russian movie “The Stalker“.

Image from the Stalker

What lesser risks are still acceptable from our power generation?  I’m ready to cede migratory bird puree as a necessary evil – are you?  (I say this largely because more birds have been killed by coal-fired power plants – and cats – than any wind turbines.)   The textbook I assigned my class has a large graphic that measures the environmental impact of various side effects of energy generation from various fuel sources against the severity and likelihood of problems happening (1).  For coal, global climate change impacts rise to the top of the pack as being both very severe and highly likely.  However, the effects of lead, mercury, arsenic, and other discharges are marked as having very marginal effects in neurological health, particularly among children.  However, these effects are highly likely, especially for fish-eaters, and we know how to fix them.

The chart above says don’t eat any caught fish other than mackerel.   Most bought fish look low in mercury, but you should limit your consumption to less than once per week for the first 6.  

We may have to balance these problems when we have limited money and time to fix the problems – but this balance makes me very uneasy.  For coal, I know the authors are trying to bring attention to impacts that are often ignored because of the very high costs for their remedy.  However, it minimizes very real effects that we can (and should) fix right now.  How do we create a fair, just, and reasonable list of priorities to tackle the work that lies before us?

What we do right now is place the burden on the individual.  I need to research and see how much of which kind of fish I’m comfortable eating.  If I own crop or forest land, I have to budget for productivity losses caused by ozone.  I plan my vacation to avoid polluted places like the Blue Ridge Parkway.  I hope I have enough money and power to avoid living near the power plant with its noise, ugliness, and damage to household items through particulates.

Somehow, this individual maximum-utility balancing doesn’t seem to make much sense – it misses the larger scale.  We rely too much on individual change when only societal change can make a difference.

(1) Lee, R. (2002) Environmental impacts of energy use, Chapter 3 in Energy: Science, Policy, andthe Pursuit of Sustainability, Robert Bent, Lloyd Orr and Randall Baker (eds.) Washington, DC: Island Press.

Then and now – the more things don’t change . . .

“In a 1977 speech on energy policy, I observed that, ‘Although many Americans refuse to believe it, there is a serious and continuing energy problem in this country.'” – Lee H. Hamilton

Twenty-five years later, my textbook was published with that quote.  Thirty-fiver years later I write this blog.  Nothing has changed, at least not in terms of creating a societal solution for our “serious and continuing energy problem.”

Why not? Cost certainly has to be a major reason – we Americans have always been reluctant to pay taxes.  Our inability to measure costs in the long term, instead of just next week, feeds into that.  We read an article by Derek Jensen, who accused us of sitting around and hoping that someone will show up with some magic solution.  Both of these are very true.

However –

I believe the major obstacle to solving our energy problem is that we view it primarily as a technical problem, when the solution lay in the realm of human systems.

We can build wind turbines that float in the middle of the North Sea.  We can design expensive new green houses (which buyers may not be able to afford, or where keeping old homes working may be preferable.)   We develop expensive niche technologies that everyday people may never experience.

No wonder going green costs to much!  This is how we measure the cost!

Certainly, reformulating our gasoline blend may save us money and  miles per gallon.  However, to create real change, we must change the way people think.  Here are some ideas:

1) In 1977, Carter put on a sweater and told the American public to tough it out.  In 2012, fashion designers could make sweaters so stylish we all want to wear them.

Sweater by Ullvana on Etsy.

2) In 1979, Carter put solar panels on the White House.  In 2012, towns and homeowner associations could approve installment of solar panels, so residents have the option of installing them.

Jimmy Carter, “The President’s Proposed Energy Policy.” 18 April 1977. Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. XXXXIII, No. 14, May 1, 1977, pp. 418-420.

3) In 1973 and 1978, the Oil Crises caused Americans to flock to gas-sipping Japanese cars – and firmly set Toyota, Honda, and Nissan as major players in the American market.  Today, we could create compact car parking spaces – close and convenient – to reward people who do the right thing.

And that’s not quite what I meant. 

And those are just the small ones.  Here are some big ones – I’m not writing too much about them now, because these are a list of future topics.

4) We could learn to love to live in dense communities again, driven by the many personal benefits of vibrant communities.

5) Public transportation for the rest of us.  This includes Amtrak.

6) Grants, loans, and subsidies to make old homes energy efficient and add value.

7) Programs that show renters and landlords what they can do to save energy – and give the necessary materials for leak sealing, weatherizing windows, hot water heater wraps, and duct and pipe protection.

8) Full bike society includes not just bike lanes, but secure storage and shower rooms at work / school.

9) This includes bike classes for kids as soon as they no longer need training wheels.

10) Local food systems save trans-national and international shipping.

11) Government education that spreads information about the most cost-effective changes a household or neighborhood can make – e.g. solar water heating instead of solar electrical generation.

12) Making it easy to buy sustainable energy from your electric company.  (It took me three years to find BlueStar, my current provider.)

13) Walking school buses

14) Community gardens

15) Block parties (yes, I’m serious)

16) Individual subsidies for negawatts

17) Community-wide sustainable energy purchasing agreements (like businesses do)

18) I could go on, I will go on, in another post . . .

Can’t get there from here . . .

Individual car-based transportation is bad – ok – we’ve all heard that before.  And, I still drive my car everywhere (or have my husband drive me.)  How much of this is me being lazy / busy / personally accountable?  How much of this are factors beyond my control – stuck in a society that demands we drive by not providing alternatives?

Walk Score offers insight into that question – could I walk to the important places I need from my home, if I wanted to? My home scores a very-car-dependent 42/100, even though I live in the older, central part of a community.  Below you can see a more walkable neighborhood:

I found the program to be a bit optimistic – it listed a convenience store as a grocer – but overall the scoring looks correct.

Additionally, you can enter your commute address and receive a comparison for walking, biking, busing, and driving.   (I was completely unsurprised that I cannot get the bus from my home to work.)

What did surprise me is that it said I could bike to work in only twice the time it takes me to drive.  That’s not enough to get me balancing on a bicycle in my work clothes carrying books – but it moves me one step closer to that motorized tricycle that I’ve been dreaming of.

Much discussion is given to building alternative transportation – but more discussion should be given to the structure of our neighborhoods.  If my husband and I could walk to get groceries, to the doctor, or to the credit union, we would probably get there as often as we do Denny’s Doughnuts.

If walkability – whether tied to transportation or neighborhood viability – becomes valuable, change will come.  Already, a number of realtors use this data to sell or rent homes.  As tools like Walk Score allow people to see the value of systemic change, more change will happen.

Recycling conundrums

In my introductory environmental geography class, the information that most shocks my students is that just because you put an item in the recycling does not mean it gets recycled.

How to solve this problem:

1) Ask yourself, should I be using this item in the first place?

Buy for the long haul – glass drinking tumblers are much more durable than plastic ones.

Much of our recyclable material is in packaging – can you buy something with less packaging or substitute your own packaging?  Over the past couple of years, I’ve noticed nearly all my students using refillable water bottles.

Several large entities (like McMaster Unviersity) are incentivizing their students or employees move to sturdier choices.

2) Ask yourself, should I be using this plastic in the first place?

Plastics #3 (vinyl perhaps containing pthalates, reproductive damage), #6 (styrofoam /polystyrene, nervous system damage). and #7 (everything else) all have problems with potential hazardous chemicals.  Additionally they can rarely, if ever, be recycled. Your best bet is to not uses these at all – and to express your preferences with restaurants and other businesses in your life that use them.

3) Ask yourself: is this likely to be recycled?

Clear glass, metal, paper and cardboard, and plastics #1 and #2 are very likely to be recycled.  The others depend on whether or not there is a local market for the items. All recyclables rely on the markets, and if there is no demand for them – they do not get recycled. 

It never hurts to reduce and buy less of even recyclable items.  Still, you could do worse than dump them in your recycle bin and let the recyclers sort them out, because they will be able to evaluate the current markets.  (The worst that can  happen is that they throw them away anyway).  Getting materials in the hands of people who can use them can help build markets, which do not spring fully born from some dead guy’s invisible hand.  Markets take government policy, subsidies, and the actions of private businesses and consumers to become healthy.

4) Are there other ways to get rid of it?

Can it be composted? (At your house or a friend’s)

Do other groups reuse it?

Can you sell it yourself?

Will a local glass-blower take it for projects?

Mack Glass makes Whomping Willows out of rebar, shopping carts, and – of course – glass.

Can someone else legitimately use what you no longer need?

5) Meet your local recycler.

Talk to them, learn what they do and how they do it.  Most of very open and transparent and welcome their customers and their questions.  Our local recycler is Midwest Fiber.  It offers more services than just recycling – such as paper shredding, community composting, and have shown a historic flexibility to tailor their services to the needs of the communities they serve.  (That’s one of the best parts of working with a local business.)

6) Most importantly, remember that any item that hits a recycle bin is a failure of the system.

It’s best to not use, followed by reduce, reuse, and finally recycle.  As a society, we are starting to get systems in place that allow for good recycling – we need to work on getting systems in place that allow us to take on the first three.

I raise my reused canning jar filled with iced tea in your direction – and wish you luck in navigating the complex world of coping with “old stuff”.

What’s better than good?

I remember “grosser than gross” jokes from when I was young (my mother always hated them).  You know:

What’s gross?

Finding a worm in your apple.

What’s grosser than gross?

Finding half a worm in your apple.

There are lots of things that are individually good: electric cars, recycling, composting.

But, what is better than good?

When we work together to create even bigger solutions.

Many of our sustainability solutions are aimed at individual action.  Individual actions can be great – but will only get us so far.  For example, if we rely on individual consumers solving transportation problems, we may end up with a million electric cars on the road.  We will never end up with a dismantling of our wasteful interstate system.  We’ll certainly never hit the even better ideas, such as turning the interstate infrastructure into a public transportation system.

Better than good?  Join together.

Good? Reusable shopping bags.  Better than good? Campaigning for an ordinance banning plastic bags.

Good?  Taking the bus.  Better than good? Working as groups to get our towns / cities to adopt better public transportation systems.

Good? Home compost.  Better than good?  Industrial composting that will actually break down those Sun Chips bags.  (And kudos to Sun Chips for thinking big, even if the first try failed.)

Good? Refilling your water bottles.  Better than good?  Public bottle refill stations that encourage more people to do so.

Each of these real solutions require people working together – better than good.  We can work as governments, neighborhoods, companies, citizen groups, and more.  What unites may of these better than good group solutions is that they are able to create bigger change faster than sitting around waiting for the market to respond.