Sunday, December 14, 2014

Institutional Sustainability

The U.S and China recently signed an environmental agreement that could potentially change the rules of engagement between world super powers. The agreement is a form of rehab between the worlds number one and two green house gas emitters(45% of the worlds emissions combined), and a promise to sponsor each other in their respective recoveries. Like so many rehab scenario's, the road to sobriety is bumpy, and demands clear goals and firm commitments. The motivation behind the accord is the 2015 climate summit in Paris were world leaders will finally hope to adopt binding agreements between nations on reducing CO2 on earth, and seriously dealing with climate change and the dependence of fossil fuels. The U.S. and China hope to inspire developing nations(India)to not only reduce their carbon emissions, but help develop and utilize sustainable technology.Some scientist say even if the U.S. and China meet their goals, the earth's temperature is doomed to rise another 2 degrees and the die has already been cast. Others say the worlds dependance on oil is too great and the weening could have negative effects on global economies. The real test will be how this agreement plays out in the institutions of the U.S.(capitalism)and China(communism). Capitalism and Communism both have components that could make or break the world view of sustainably. China and the U.S. are home to some of the largest and densest cities on earth, and these cities will house the systems designed to help reach the goals of the historical agreement.
When you mention the word institution, it usually is followed by a negative word(racism,sexism,discrimination...)or negative association(jail,rehab,marriage...), however, the systematic order and rigid enforcement of discipline may be exactly what is needed to accomplish goals like getting clean and becoming sustainable. The institution of capitalism is ruled by the free market and democracy. The current state of democracy in the U.S. has promoted sustainability as high end luxury item designed for affluent liberals living in progressive metropolis's. Choice is a key component to capitalism and has stifled efforts institutionalized sustainable efforts in the U.S. Politicians on both sides of the U.S. government isle balk at CO2 emission regulations claiming they are job killers and the economy will suffer if we switch to renewable sources of energy. Some republicans closely associated with U.S. coal and oil industries deny climate change all together and manipulate statistical data to convince their constituents that sustainability is just another form of government encroaching on 'civil liberties'.
China is under communist rule which is the ultimate definition and manifestation of Institution. Its still hard to see through the iron curtain, but China's quest to be a major player on the world stage has forced it to become more transparent to the rest of the world. China is the worlds number one polluter, and the world has taken notice. The U.S. has used fossil fuels to achieve economic prosperity and world dominance in the past, and China and other countries have used that formula to follow suit to become on par with the U.S.Now the rules are changing, and sustainable technology could be key to social and economic leadership in the future. Communism cuts through the 'red tape' associated with U.S. institutions, and some say the sustainable choices we in the U.S. make could easily become laws enforced through daily practices in China. Some daily practices in China are influencing the governments attitudes in ways that are more democratic than some would admit. Images of Beijing citizens wearing masks to combat its legendary pollution is not look China wants to promote globally and pressure within by local communities to clean up the air is mounting. China is learning that you must struggle in order to progress as a nation, and the environmental struggle behind the iron curtain is getting louder.
Some say the U.S. China agreement doesn't mean much in terms of stopping the Earth's temperature from rising significantly(two degrees) in the coming future, and it wont curb the burning of fossil fuels by other countries enough to stop the current effects of climate change. However, it could start to spur the much needed environmental institutionalization the planet needs in order to stop and potentially reverse the harm CO2 burning has on our atmosphere. Humans have proven for thousands of years that for better or worse, developing and enforcing societal rules through governmental programs and regulations is a sure fire way to produce change and results on a massive level. Whether it's a Prime Ministers vision of China, or a Presidents vision of America, both nations have used their respective institutions to prosper, fail, and compete. I hope the citizens of each nation inspire their leaders and governments to use their competitive natures to spur positive institutional changes that involve sustainable infrastructure based on renewable energy systems. Falling oil prices may hinder the efforts to break the dependency on fossil fuel energy systems, but the more nations invest in and utilize environmentally sustainable systems in municipalities and government institutions, the more other nations will do the same. Superpowers of the world love to keep up with the Jones's, and if the Jone's swap thier martinis and Cadillac's for smoothies and Prius's, well you get the picture.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Urban Human Species Management

I recently attended a conference at the University of Washington's Center for Urban Horticulture on how to prevent, detect, and control "invasive" plants in designated "natural areas" throughout the country. The sponsors of the conference were a combination of doctors, those earning their PHD, and those working in the specialized environmental field of invasive plant control. These people decide how trees and plants are categorized and regulated by government agencies and environmental organizations. The keynote speaker of the two day event kicked it off with a forty five minute speech debunking the contemporary notion that peoples attitudes toward their natural environment reflect their attitudes toward each other. Some environmentalist have compared the preference for native plant restoration and aggressive invasive control with American xenophobic politics and Nazi Germany. The Speaker was clearly offended by the comparison and even went to so far as to make the argument that anthropology and ecology are as different as art and science.He explained how ecologist work with scientific facts based on environmental behavior, anthropologist work with facts based on human behavior and the two disciplines shall never meet. The rest of the conference was filled with speaker after speaker giving detailed examples of how human behavior has impacted their efforts to control "noxious" species in natural areas around the country. The event highlighted the resistance of people in the ecological community to acknowledge human influence. Many well intentioned environmentalist conveniently omit the human aspect when making plans regarding the environment. From municipal leaders to university ecologist, many environmental planners have a hard time dealing with issues regarding human behavior. Human being impact on the environment is extreme, destructive, and hard to control. Humans are intelligent and also have powerful political rights that make them harder to control than plants and animals. A common solution to this by some environmentalist is to deny human influence all together. If they don't acknowledge it, then its not there.
On the one hand I understand the Speakers frustration. No one wants to be labeled an environmental racist, and Hitler comparisons will never help your case one way or the other. I work in urban natural area restoration which is the intersection between ecology and anthropology. I have learned the language of both disciplines and its fascinatingly ironic to me how easily one language translates into the other.I'm not a well respected scientist, and I have not earned a PHD(yet). However, based on my observations, I can draw direct correlations between how human beings and plants are classified and managed in their respective environments.
There are basic plant classifications and criteria that ecologist use to determine which plants are necessary to build a 'sustainable' environment, and which plants are hazardous to the health of the environmental 'community'. I'm fascinated by the similarity in the language used to classify plants and the language used to classify people. Not only is the language similar, the attitudes and actions that support and enforce environmental species control mirror the policies that affect the behavior of humans in the environment. Here are a couple of examples, draw your own conclusions.
Specimen Species:' a plant grown for exhibition or in the open to display its full development as distinguished from one in a border or other planting'. These plants are literally the cream of the crop designed to stand out from the rest. They are usually born and raised in green houses designed to mimic an environment that is perfect for their best development. Although they are designed to physically reflect the best of their species, the environment they are most acclimated to is completely manufactured and remote from the environment of those who develop and live in the natural native environment of species. Native Species: 'is a term to describe plants endemic (indigenous) or naturalized to a given area in geologic time...This includes plants that have developed, occur naturally, or existed for many years in an area... Although some types of plants for these reasons exist only within a very limited range, others can live in diverse areas or by adaptation to different surroundings'. We all are products of our environments, and the evidence of where we come from are reflected in a variety of ways. Some people are so influenced by their environment of origin that it would be hard for them to live anywhere else. Others not only can survive in foreign environments, but take on characteristics that reflect the culture of their adopted environment.
Non Native and Invasive Species: 'An introduced, alien, exotic, non-indigenous, or non-native species, or simply an introduction, is a species living outside its native distributional range, which has arrived there by human activity, either deliberate or accidental... Non-native species can have various effects on the local ecosystem. Introduced species that have a negative effect on a local ecosystem are also known as invasive species... Not all non-native species are considered invasive. Some have no negative effect and can, in fact, be beneficial as an alternative to pesticides in agriculture for example... In some instances the potential for being beneficial or detrimental in the long run remains unknown'. How plants behave in their native environment cant always predict how they behave when they are introduced to a new one. Some plants develop bad reputations(deserved or not) that affect the entire species(for better or worse), humans are no different. We have all heard the rhetoric around people 'invading' the United States bent on exhausting the resources and permanently altering American culture. We are left with the complicated issues of native preference, cultural preservation, diversity, and invasive control.
The next couple of blogs will look closer at the intersection between Ecology and Anthropolgy, and the connections between how each discipline manages their respective species. I believe the two equally influence each other, and we can learn more from acknowledging the points were they meet, instead of the constant interdisciplinary pissing contest environmentalist love to partake in.

Monday, September 1, 2014

'to Bee, or not to Bee' that is the urban question?

It's the time of year when you, or someone you know has been stung or 'attacked' by bee's. There are all kinds of insects in the Hymenoptera (Ants, Bees, Wasps and Sawflies)Order that we come in contact with, most of which we label as pests. However, Bees (Anthophila Apoidea), in particular Honey Bees(Apinae Apini), are valued for their pollinating abilities and sweat nectar. Some progressive urbanites are starting to introduce more bees into their environments, and have taken up the ancient art of bee keeping. This practice has a long history and its current resurgence is a well intentioned effort towards sustainability,but it is starting to have unintended side affect that could be harmful to bees and their future populations.
There is a common misconception that Bees,Wasps and Hornets are basically the same, their not. There is a whole host of diverse characteristics among these insects, but one difference that separates them is what they eat. Honey Bees are vegetarian, Wasps carnivores. Bees attack the flowers and plants in your yard, Wasps attack your picnic lunch and what smells good on your grill. They all have strict orders to protect the queen, and if anything we do(smell funny,where a certain color, disturb the hive)seems threatening, they will defend with their lives.
Honey Bees are pollinators, they move pollen between flowers and ensure the growth of fruits and nuts. We mark the fruits of bee labor in spring with blooming flowers, summer fruits and berries, and big round pumpkins in the fall. These functions, along with honey making , make bees less of a pest and more tolerable to live with. The products we use to get rid of the pests we don't want to live with are becoming less toxic to us and more toxic to bees.
Neonicotinoids(pronounced neo-nih-CAH-tin-oids) are a class of neuro-active insecticides chemically similar to nicotine. Development of these insecticides started in the 1980's and have proven to be relatively safe for use around humans,animals, and in the environment. Nicotine based pesticides seem to be less harmful compared to previously used organophosphate and carbamate insecticides. Good for us, not necessarily for bees. Researchers are starting to make a direct link with the use of neonicotinoids and Colony Collapse Disorder(CCD)in the U.S. and In Europe. Nicotine appears naturally in a variety of plants and trees in our environment, and breaks down in a relatively short amount of time. Neonicotinoids can be sub lethal or lethal to bees depending on the amount of exposure. Some bees are exposed out in the environment, others are exposed at home. Some commercial beekeepers rely on feeding practices known as "feedlots" in their hives. These practices use high fructose corn syrup and sucrose to feed thousands of bees in commercial hives before they moved into fields and orchards. These mass feeding practices make it difficult for the bees to detoxify and easy to spread toxins to other bees and their feeding sources. Neonicotiniod exposure to bees can cause sub lethal effects such as impaired learning behavior, short and long term memory loss, reduced fecundity(fertility and reproduction), and altered foraging behavior and motor activity.
So what can a the average person do to promote human and bee urban sustainability? -Identify the insect: Figure out if its a bee, or a wasp, or whatever... and know how it will impact your environment(pest or pet). -Watch out for hives: Hives are everywhere. When you come across one, determine whether or not it is hazardous. If its not, leave it alone. If you do need to remove it, be careful!!! If you use chemicals, think about how they affect humans, animals, and the environment. -Plant native plants and flowers: Native plants attract native bees that are acclimated to survive and thrive in our environment. -Go Organic: Not all honey is created equally. find out how the honey you use is made and support products that are produced through environmentally sustainable methods.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Grow Room To Table

Some people don't find a lot of daylight between gardening and farming, and attribute both to outdoors. Modern urban residents are bridging the gaps between farmer/gardener, and are redefining the way we think of agriculture/horticulture. Indoor gardening is the latest in the trendy green movement. It takes an old idea, updates it's technology, and uses it in modern applications. Indoor gardeners of the past were mainly relegated to greenhouses and conservatories designed for the affluent. These gardens were mostly filled with exotic species of plants from remote places around the globe, or acclimated natives that need protection from harsh winter climates. With the invention of residential climate control systems, and the growing number of urban nurseries, more and more people are becoming part of environmentalist call an urban farming movement. Half the people on Earth live in cities, and nearly half of those – about 3 billion – are hungry or malnourished, and the world is getting more crowded: by mid-century, the global population will grow from 6.8 billion to 9 billion, the U.N. predicts.To feed so many people may require expanding farmland at the expense of forests and wilderness, or finding ways to radically increase crop yields. The symptoms of climate change, and America's urban nutrition crisis is helping take the urban farming movement to the next level. The former indoor horticultural hobby is quickly turning into a business that may help feed urbanites in a more sustainable way, and help fight the battle against climate change at the same time. Indoor or Outdoor, the difference betwween gardener and farmer, is the difference between garden and farm. The systems the two work in use the same theory and practices, only on different scales, farming usually being on a larger scale than gardening. However, twenty first century technology promises to bring the large scale of outdoor farming indoors. The ability of man to mimic nature artificially is being played out in the Netherlands by a private research company called PlantLab. Gertjan Meeuws and three other dutch bio-engineers have taken the concept of a greenhouse a step further, growing vegetables, herbs and house plants in enclosed and regulated environments where even natural light is excluded.For more than a decade the four researchers have been tinkering with combinations of light, soil and temperature on a variety of plants, and now say their growth rate is three times faster than under greenhouse conditions. They use no pesticides, and about 90 percent less water than outdoors agriculture.In their research station, strawberries, yellow peppers, basil and banana plants take on an eerie pink glow under red and blue bulbs of Light-Emitting Diodes, or LEDs. Water trickles into the pans when needed and all excess is recycled, and the temperature is kept constant. Lights go on and off, simulating day and night, but according to the rhythm of the plant – which may be better at shorter cycles than 24 hours – rather than the rotation of the Earth. The Dutch researchers say they plan to build a commercial-sized building in the Netherlands of 14,000 sq. feet, with four separate levels of vegetation by the end of this year. After that, they envision growing vegetables next to shopping malls, supermarkets or other food retailers.Meeuws says a building of 1,075 sq. feet and 14 layers of plants could provide a daily diet of 7 ounces of fresh fruit and vegetables to about 140,000 people. Plants only need specific wavelengths of light to grow, but in nature they must adapt to the full range of light as a matter of survival. When light and other natural elements are manipulated, the plants become more efficient, using less energy to grow. While modern technology threatens to improve on mother natures efficiency, there are still questions about the repercussions for messing with her work. The Midwest is America's heartland, and was historically is known as the central food provider for the U.S. Due to globalization, industrialization of food systems, and the increasing diversification of dietary tastes, American commercial farms have vanished, and the U.S Agricultural industry is less diversified and increasingly environmentally unsustainable. People in cities across the country are using technology to transform baron urban environments into new age farmland. Entrepreneurs have taken up residence in vacant buildings that have high ceilings and plenty of space. Often, these are called “vertical” farms because, within the buildings, farmers build tall structures with several levels of growing beds, often lined with artificial lights. With so much vacant space available the cost of the property is often cheap to buy or rent. FarmedHere LLC in suburban Chicago, is attempting to take indoor warehouse farming to the “mega farm” level, in a region of the country known more for its massive hog, corn and soybean farms than for crops of boutique greens.The company, based in Bedford Park, Ill., is finishing the first of four phases, with plans to expand by the end of next year to 150,000 square feet of vertical growing space.Already, it says it is the largest vertical farm in the country, a claim experts who monitor the field believe to be true. The farm supplies local grocery with fresh basil, arugula and other greens, including Whole Foods and Mariano’s Fresh Market locations.The biggest stumbling block for facilities like these remains the amount of power and electricity needed to run the lights that help the plants grow, and heating these massive spaces.Some growers are experimenting with solar, wind and methane as ways to generate the power. Others are supplementing artificial light with natural greenhouse or window lighting.Dickson Despommier, a retired Columbia University microbiologist who wrote the book “The Vertical Farm: Feeding the World in the 21st Century,” says powering farms is still the biggest hurdle for the industry, one that many farmers are often reluctant to talk about publicly.he’s anxious to see large indoor farming models in Japan that use both artificial and natural light. He says entrepreneurs in Germany also are experimenting with flickering lights that use less power but still emit enough light to grow plants. Despommier says “In another two or three years, this will shake out, and we’ll see which systems work, and which don’t.” The future of the Agriculture is moving from outdoor to inddor. Food that historically has been grown in rural environments on acres of land horizontally, may soon be growing vertically in buildings located in some of the worlds biggest cities. The perfect crop field could be inside a windowless building with meticulously controlled light, temperature, humidity, air quality and nutrition, in a New York high-rise. This could have a huge impact on future urban building design, and how living spaces in commercial and residential are prioritized(kitchen,bath,bed,grow-space,etc...). Kitchens in the future could be designed to produce the food we eat, along with storing and cooking it. The same fruits and vegetables that currently are grown on acres of land and sometimes travel thousands of miles in order to get to your plate, could be grown in what amounts to small office space located somewhere in your home. Our current global food system is environmentally unsustainable and in many ways insecure, and it looks like people in cities are implementing systems to breakdown, and reinvent human food production and distribution. I think Gertjan Meeuws says it best "In order to keep a planet that's worth living on, we have to change our methods,"

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Better Urban Homes With Gardens

Spring has sprung, and many people are starting to plan there annual garden. There are two classifications of gardens; Indoor or Outdoor. Outdoor residential gardens have historically been the norm because of they connect people with there natural environment, provide exercise and recreation, and provide and/or supplement food to the community at large. Indoor gardens are becoming more and more prevalent, particularly in the urban environment. The lack of space, rising food prices, and growing concerns regarding nutrition, are forcing urbanites to combine food production practices of the past with state of the art technology.In the next coming weeks, I will explore the current Indoor/Outdoor urban garden evolution, and discuss the systems being implemented in our cities. In the meantime, here are some examples of modern gardens in urban landscapes