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.


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


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.

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.

Tiny houses, or at least small ones

My students started discussing something they had head about online – tiny houses.  One student read about someone who was living in a 94 square foot house.  The group decided that he had gone to far and was just being ridiculous.

I turned the question back to them and asked if they could live in a 1000 square foot house, and almost all agreed that would be quite nice.  The average home size in the US is 2400 square feet.

Our economy is changing some of this.  The housing market currently has 40 million McMansions that can’t be sold.   Meanwhile the market needs 30 million more small homes and 10 million attached homes – homes with smaller pricetags and smaller footprints.

The backlash?  Tiny homes.  Below are 5 floor plan options for the Gifford 99-square foot home by Tumbleweed Tiny House Company.  It can be purchased assembled for $13,999.

My students would never live in this house, but they could learn a few lessons from it.  The first is about efficiency in design – a place for everything and everything in its place.  Three of the above designs “lack” a bed – a space filled with a sleeping loft or a built-in Murphy bed.

Living a small-footprint life doesn’t mean you have to be cramped into this tiny space.  Tumbleweed also has small home designs for sale, such as the 2-bedroom 750 square food Sebastarosa below.

The best thing about a small house is that it makes living simpler easy, and bonds the people inside the house to each other.  It’s hard to hold onto piles of stuff from your past.  It’s hard to buy more than you need.  The space encourages you to prioritize what is most important in your life and include only that.  It also encourages you to live outside as much as your climate allows.

Besides, can you imagine the lot price for this house?

Trading off my TV

We unplugged our TV a couple of years ago.  I wish I could say it was because of some mighty and noble reason, but really I just hated the cable company (Comcast is evil).  Since then I’ve been happier without the TV, but I have moments like today when I really want to turn something on just to watch.  I need some justification.

So – here goes – why it’s best to go without a TV – one item at a time.

1) Pro Wrestling – Go watch this at a bar.  First, your watching it with a crowd cheering things on – much more fun.  Second, the types of bars that put wrestling on the screen have the most interesting types of people in them.  (The first goes for most other sports, the second may just be wrestling.)

2) The Daily Show and Colbert Report are on line anyway, at any time I want to see them, with fewer commercials.

3) News – I really don’t miss CNN or Fox.  I especially don’t miss the coverage of Tom Cruise, Lady Gaga, and whatever woman just killed her baby.  Checking the news online lets me avoid those.

4) Soaps aren’t even on anymore.

5) Reality TV – none of us really ever needed to watch that in the first place.  The only ones I miss are Deadliest Catch and Dirty Jobs with Mike Rowe – and I can get those at the library.

6) MTV and VH-1 don’t play music videos anymore, you can only get those online unless they are top-10 pop videos.

Places to go for TV:

1) Sports – bars

2) News – Dairy Queen, Super Gyros or any restaurant of that caliber.  It’s likely Fox or Headline News covering how a dingo ate someone’s baby.

3) HGTV– my doctor’s office.  They’ll never notice if someone is hanging out for an extra hour to learn about drywall.

4) Big events – Oscars, Superbowl – Someone is going to have a party and if not, cook food and take it over to a friends house, announcing that they are having the party.

5) Cat-sit (or dog-sit) for friends – they have TV.

Things I still miss:

Univision’s Sabado Gigante (sigh)

Driving on into the sunset

I have a car that gets about 30 mpg, which I thought was pretty good for a ten-year-old American car.  There are folks out there who put that number to shame, they are called hypermilers.

What sets them aside of the rest of us, the merely thrifty?  I do the basics – keep my tires inflated right, keep my engine tuned up and running well, I don’t drive aggressively, etc.  These folks take driving much more seriously and engage in a set of behaviors aimed at boosting mileage as high as possible – doubling it or possibly reaching the Holy Grail of 100 mpg.  Warning: some of these driving behaviors are extreme, and I would certainly not attempt them.

Hypermiling ideas.

Don’t speed – really, drive far below the speed limit

Drive a stick

Draft behind trucks (I really don’t recommend this one)

Don’t ever break unless its an emergency (same as the one above)

Weight loss: Don’t carry extra loads, possibly even rip out your back seat

Aerodynamics: Rip the luggage rack off your car and rip off anything else that is getting in the way of the wind, add aerodynamic doo-dads (below) if necessary

Aerodynamic tail from Wired Magazine’s Hypermiling page makes me want some sheet metal and duct tape – the paint is optional.

Stopping: turn your engine off at a traffic light

Accelerate slowly after stops

Purchase high performance after-market car parts

Avoid braking: coast and glide, slow naturally if possible

Ridge riding with a wheel along the white line to the right of the road to reduce friction

Pulse-and-glide:  Accelerate into turns and coast out

Always know your mpg

For lots more ideas and resources, visit Ecotrekker’s Ultimate Guide to Hypermiling

This all looks like a fun and interesting hobby, and we can learn a lot from the hypermilers.  Still, we shouldn’t have to engage in life-threatening behavior in order to get a decent mpg.  The auto industry has known how to increase mileage for years – adopting many of the innovations the hypermilers do: less weight, more aerodynamics, certain types of parts.  The Automotive X Prize is offering large-money prizes for production ready high mpg vehicles.  Real change – for everyone.