Archive for the ‘Thoughts and musings’ Category

One of my favorite websites: Project for Public Spaces

The Project for Public Spaces website is one of my new favorite places to go on the web for information about placemaking. If you’re interested in creating community or great spaces for people to live and spend time in, it’s very worth a browse.

Project for Public Spaces is a nonprofit organization dedicated to design of and education for creative and inviting public spaces that foster community and sustainability. The website has all sorts of resources to this end, including white papers, blog posts, and – my favorite part – pictures. They have pictures of both good examples and bad examples of public spaces. While the “bad” examples are most often filled with cars and blank-walled buildings and devoid of people, the good examples are filled with happy smiling people, enjoying the outdoors in all seasons, farmer’s markets, boulevards closed to all vehicles excepting public transit, colorfully-painted intersections closed off to traffic, and many more wonderful examples of people enjoying public spaces.

It’s inspiring, for me, to browse through their photographs, or just stare at the homepage for a few minutes as the pictures flip through automatically. Looking at these great spaces and people enjoying themselves makes me want to make all cities this way – makes me wonder why all our cities aren’t already this way. Wouldn’t we be a happier society if we had public spaces in which to be with one another – strangers and friends alike? Imagine streets in which we actually wanted to spend time in as pedestrians and travelers, instead of wall to wall traffic, dust, noise and pollution? Here is just one of the many examples of great public spaces (that happens to be one of my personal favorite public spaces): State Street in Madison, Wisconsin.

Check out the PPS website!


“Vampires” and Standby Power

Standby Power.

It’s surprising how little people know about the commodity we all use so much of – electricity. Despite pervasive discussion of the issue at my undergraduate institution, Lawrence University, for instance, I have come to the realization that few individuals at my graduate program in Environmental Science know about power “vampires.”

“Vampires” are devices that, when plugged in to the wall electricity outlet, draw power even when not “on” or in use. They are so called, because they suck power and run up electricity bills for households and businesses. It has been estimated that up to 5 or even 10% of consumer power usage is due to these “vampire” electronics. Examples of vampires include your cell phone charger, which draws up to 1 watt of power when plugged in and not charging your phone, and televisions, which draw an average of 7 watts when “off.” Other examples are microwaves, coffee makers, computers, printers, DVD players, stereos, fax machines… the list goes on and on. The website linked at the outset of this post, Standby Power, provides a more complete overview of the topic of standby power, as well as a list of vampires and their typical power draw.

How can you identify vampires in your home? Look for that little blue or red LED light that stays on, even when the device is off. Eliminate vampires by plugging devices into a power strip, which prevents electricity from being drawn needlessly from the wall into electronics. Just this small, easy action can help improve electricity use efficiency, as well as cut your electric bill.

Myopia: Too much discounting can lead to an unsustainable future

In reading a book on nuclear power recently, I came across this passage:

“The international scientific consensus is that a deep geologic repository is the best place to isolate plutonium and other long-lasting nuclear waste. If the DOE [US Department of Energy] can show that such a repository will be safe for ten thousand years, the ideas is that it will be the same for a hundred thousand. But, geologically, it’s hard to predict accurately beyond ten thousand years, which is why Congress mandated a few decades ago that the repository had to be able to isolate waste for that long. A federal appeals court judge ruled in 2003 that a high-level nuclear waste repository should be guaranteed for a hundred thousand years instead of ten thousand. In 2005, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), responding to another court ruling that ordered it to consider the fact that a few radionuclides would outlast that time frame, recommended that accountability extend to a span of one million years.” (p. 268. Cravens, Gwyneth. 2007. Power to Save the World: The Truth About Nuclear Energy. New York: Vintage Books.)

Now, this passage amazes and confuses me for a couple of reasons. First, how can we as a society be so concerned with the fate of generations millennia from now when it comes to them happening upon our nuclear waste, but when it comes to preserving a world with adequate resource stocks and a healthy environment for our progeny, we have a difficult time with it? Mainly, this comes down to discordance in discount rates.

Let me explain. Human beings are inherently myopic, or near-sighted and tending to care about the present more than the future. Of course, this makes sense. We are genetically wired to care more about ourselves than others and more about our current selves than our future selves. The existence of oneself is definite; you know your feelings, thoughts, beliefs, interests are real (at least to you) and they are exceedingly relevant because they are real. The interest of others is a less concrete fact, because we can’t really assess how anything will affect them – we can’t know absolutely what’s best for them. (And, from Richard Dawkin’s The Selfish Gene perspective, who cares about anyone else? As long as we survive, that’s all that matters.) The future is even more indefinite: who knows whether or not I or any one else will be here tomorrow?

Now, most of the time, we generally presume our own existence will continue, at least for a duration of 70 or so years. And, if we have children, we assume their existence will be of similar length, and our grandchildren, and so on. And, honestly, we are not completely myopic, because we do care when it comes down to it about our children and grandchildren. But after grandchildren, or in some cases, great grandchildren, it gets a little more indefinite. This is where the discount rate and future discounting comes in. According to neoclassical environmental economics, the present value of anything – be it dollars, a factory, a forest, or the well-being of our great grandchildren – is less than it’s future value. How much less is summed up by the discount rate. The higher the discount rate, the greater we discount the future, and the less the present value.

For instance, you can think about inflation as taking into account the discount rate of future dollars; so, a dollar in ten years buys you less than a dollar would today. Thus, a rational person offered $100 dollars today or a $100 guaranteed in two years should always take the $100 today. One hundred dollars today could be invested, and at an interest rate of five percent per year, would be worth $105 dollars next year, and worth $110.25 the year after that. Compare this to the alternative of receiving $100 dollars guaranteed in two years, and you can see why people prefer the present over the future. The discount rate, in the above example, is equal to 5% per year. Alternatively, one can compute the present value of $100 received in two years and compare this to $100 received today. One hundred dollars received in two years discounted at a rate of 5% is worth only $90.70*, which once again illustrates why one would rather have the $100 now than in the future.

The number that we give the discount rate (between 0 and 1) determines to what degree we discount the future. A higher discount rate means that we value the future less. A discount rate of 1 means that individuals are perfectly myopic, and the future is entirely discounted and doesn’t matter at all; thus, things in the future are worth next to nothing in present-value terms. A discount rate of 0 means that the future is worth exactly the same as today is, or future value of something equals the present value.

The neoclassical environmental economic application of discount rates and future discounting is to problems of environmental degradation. According to discount rate theories, humans are currently using nonrenewable natural resources at an unsustainable rate because we discount the future highly, and therefore, see little value in preserving resources for future generations to use. We mine ore and minerals, degrade arable lands, and pollute the air and water largely because the discount rates we currently perceive are high. If we were to assign lower discount rates, we would find that the present value of resources used in the future would be higher, and thus worth preserving.

What on earth has this to do with nuclear power and the aforementioned book excerpt? Recall that in the passage, the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission requires any long-term nuclear waste storage facility to be guaranteed safe, secure, and “accountable” for one million years. One million years. By saying this, they are saying that they value the safety of generations of humans living one millions of years from now to such a high degree (meaning, they assign a sufficiently low discount rate) that they believe it is worth a huge present effort to secure and guarantee such a waste storage facility that long.

One more fact: “The estimated cost to the United States of dealing with waste from decades of nuclear activities in ways that ensure the public would receive no more than a very low does for the next ten thousand years will probably total, in ballpark terms, in excess of $350 billion” (Cravens, 2007, p 268; italics mine). Three hundred and fifty billion dollars just to guarantee safety for the next ten thousand years. I don’t think I can even fathom the possible cost to guarantee a long-term nuclear waste repository for one million years.

Stop and digest those last few paragraphs for a moment: We do not value the future enough (the discount rate perceived is high) to preserve natural resources such as fossil fuels, minerals, even clean air and water, but we value generations a million of years in the future so highly (assign an exceedingly low discount rate) that we justify spending an exorbitant, nigh, unconscionable amount of money researching and developing a long-term nuclear storage site that will still be secure and impenetrable one million years from now.

I am not making any position statements about nuclear power here. I’ll save that for another post. I am merely making the point that there seems to be a discord here in the way we value the future. Our collective fear of nuclear power and radiation and its possible effects blinds us, precluding rational benefit-cost analysis. We demand our government make huge expenditures to secure a long-term nuclear repository, yet we do not demand that they make similar investments in strategies to prevent or at least curb climate change and its innumerable looming negative consequences. We damn nuclear power and proclaim the unacceptably (but largely unsubstantiated) high risks associated with nuclear reactor meltdown, terrorists obtaining weapons-grade nuclear material, and cancers due to radiation exposure, yet we barely bat an eye at the (empirically observable) smog generated from fossil-fuel dependent cars, or the smoke, carbon dioxide, and toxins belched from coal-fired power plants.

Human beings are largely myopic, yes. But we are also largely rational. We have been taught to properly weigh the pros and cons in rational decision-making, and choose the alternative where the pros outweigh the cons. However, sometimes in our policies, we can become blinded by our fears and special interests. With respect to the degradation of the environment, this is not only irrational, but also dangerous. With each passing year, we ignore the impending environmental crises, making token actions and statements, but never really facing up to the ecological limits of our planet. It is time to start looking at the costs and benefits again – this time, with the limits in mind -, reassess our priorities and our policies, and reexamine our discount rates. Only once we recognize the need to place greater value on the future – our own future – will we be able to craft policies for a sustainable world.

*For those of you interested in the math, the present value (PV) of anything is equal to the future value at time t (FVt) divided by the sum of the interest rate (r) plus one to the t power, where t is the number of years in the future:

PV = FVt/[(1+r)^t]

Conversely, the future value at time t of anything is equal to the present value times the sum of one plus the interest rate to the t power:

FVt = PV*[(1+r)^t]

For those of you exceedingly intrigued by the discount rate concept, the present value of an infinite future stream of benefits (PVi) is equal to the present value divided by the discount rate:

PVi = PV/r

For more information, the following is an excellent discussion on the concept of discounting:

Harris, J. M. 2006. Resource Allocation over Time. In Environmental and Natural Resource Economics: A Contemporary Approach, 2nd ed. (pp.90-105). Boston, Mass.: Houghton Mifflin Company.

As old as a tree

This afternoon, as I was reading the Peterson Field Guide to Eastern Forests, I came across the fact that the oldest eastern hemlock ever recorded was 988 years old. I have heard facts similar to this about trees over and over again, yet they never cease to astound me. Imagine. Something living almost a thousand years! Think of all the human history that tree has lived through: It was passed by many times by soft-footed Indians. It witnessed the colonization of America by Europeans, and the near extermination of these native peoples. It was covered in soot and ash from the sky during the Industrial Revolution and absorbed the carbon dioxide exhaled by human industry. It has stood up to invasive species; it has resisted logging and agriculture, urbanization and suburbanization.

What I find the most surprising, however, is how anyone could ever want to cut down a tree that is that old, or even a tree that is a hundred years old. As a naturalist (and mortal human being whose predicted lifespan is only seventy or eighty odd years), I can have nothing but tremendous respect for any organism that can live that long. Sea turtles, trees, some boreal and tundra wildflowers, the larvae or eggs of the occasional insect – these things often live far longer than we humans can even begin to contemplate. But something as visible and seemingly common place as a tree living longer than a single human, even longer than some human civilizations, makes even me speechless.

Knowledge of place taken for granted

When you live in a place for a very long time, you can sometimes come to take things for granted. Little things, like knowing where the grocery store is and the best way to get there (even if there’s road construction), and knowing how to find the sugar and milk once you’re in the store, become second nature, and so we don’t even think twice about them day to day. But these many little bits of local knowledge – and the mental geographical map of the place where we live – are truly and vastly more important than we ever consciously realize.

Because I’ve lived in Appleton my entire remembered life, I take the knowledge of where the grocery store is in my home town for granted. So a small task, like running to the corner store to get milk when we run out, is no big deal. Just a quick trip, in and out. The location and layout of the store are familiar to me, the cashiers are my neighbors and friendly, the milk nearly the exact same price as always.

As I contemplate moving to a new place soon, I find myself wondering casually how long it will take me to gather the same knowledge of my new town as I have of Appleton. For instance, how long will it take before running to the store for milk in Bloomington is second nature?


Still, I likely needn’t worry too much. While the Walgreens in Bloomington will be in a different location, its layout will be probably be the same as the Walgreens in Appleton. Perhaps this predictability is part of the reason national chain stores such as Walgreens, Target, Wal-Mart, and others have such success and universal appeal. Apart from their considerable purchasing power, these national chains have nearly the same layout in every town across America, and so they look familiar and appealing no matter where you are. In a fast-paced world, where people commonly move many times in a single lifetime, knowing where the milk is in every single Wal-Mart across the country contributes to the easing of displacement.

In a way, this is a way of bridging towns and cities together by the similarities they possess (though many would argue that having a Wal-Mart in common is hardly a cause for uniting in celebration). However, a supermarket with a common layout and appearance also means less uniqueness is preserved in the smaller stores in the area. Smaller stores serving local neighborhoods, where we meet our neighbors working at the counter, share a conversation with our elementary teacher while reaching for apples, and greet the old widow from the local Rotary Club over at the deli, offer greater opportunity for engagement between individuals than do giant Wal-Mart Supercenters with entire aisles of only bread, that serve sometimes multiple communities, where people rush through the over-sized store in order to get their shopping done quickly.

Should we trade familiarity in space (knowing where the milk is) for familiarity in people (knowing the person behind the deli counter)? Knowing people in your neighborhood, I think (and many experts would agree), leads to healthier, happier people. The more connected we are to one another, the more chances of having extended relationships,* of becoming friends, of knowing we can rely on one another when needed. And the more we recognize others we may need, the more we see the possibility of them needing us, too, making us feel purposeful, included, needed, wanted. The more communal we are with those around us, the more of a community we will have.


Because I believe it is extremely important to know the place we live in, I will likely start gathering bits of local knowledge the moment I move to Bloomington. Indeed, I have already started logging away on a miniature map in my head knowledge from my two visits to the city: where the farmer’s market is, where the university and my apartment are, that there are in fact two branches of the Bloomington Bagel Company. Paul and I will be taking a local paper when we arrive, both for the purposes of learning about our new town and to get the coupon deals in the Sunday edition. The day after we move in, we’ll go knock on our neighbors’ doors and introduce ourselves. I plan to ask people familiar with Bloomington in my master’s program for recommendations for doctors, the best place to get shoes or books, and where’s the best cup of coffee in town. I want to start building connections with those around me, and indeed, as I’ll be so far away from my family, I’ll inevitably need these connections.

I am excited to move to a new place, to have a new city to explore. My mind is like a sponge when it comes local knowledge. We’ll just have to see how long it takes me to navigate the nearest grocery store to find the milk.

[*This term is used in holistic education literature to refer to the encounters occurring between teachers and students in places outside the classroom (for instance, the grocery store). I use it here to refer to outside encounters between individuals of all types (for instance, seeing your coworker at your son’s Little League game, seeing your music lessons teacher walking her dog, seeing the woman who works the deli counter at the gas pump next to you, etc.).]

“The Lawrence Bubble”: Just a PR problem?

(A version of this post will appear in tomorrow’s Lawrentian, but I wanted to post here as well.)

As I am writing this, it is a gray Thursday. I sit looking out over the Fox River, watching the seagulls swoop low over the moving water among the rocks. The white smoke from the paper plants melt into the gray-white sky that is rimmed with trees and smokestacks and radio towers. Though this view I have is far from natural, it carries a rich history that lends a sort of industrial beauty to the landscape.

As my time at Lawrence University comes to a close and I reflect, I regret that I have not learned more about this landscape that surrounds us. Though I am an Appleton native, I have not spent much time at all thinking about the Fox River—its ecology, industry, history—or the greater Fox Valley community during my time at Lawrence. Until this, my last, term at Lawrence, when I have been involved in a project on the history of the Fox River for Professor Monica Rico’s American Environmental History class, hardly a single class I’ve had at Lawrence has integrated this place Lawrentians call home into the academic subjects we learn here.

Lawrentians could easily spend four years here and never truly get to know the community’s history, ecology, politics, socioeconomic demographics, or current issues. Lawrentians joke about the “Lawrence Bubble,” and possibly lament the fact that they rarely get off campus into the surrounding community. We hear how the “townies” dislike the students for having loud parties on the weekends and riding their bicycles down College Avenue on the sidewalks, or stereotype us as being a bunch of snobby rich kids at private school.

Many on campus would make this out to merely be a PR problem—it is only because the surrounding community doesn’t know all the good things Lawrence students do: they don’t get to campus enough to see the “real Lawrence,” and only the bad things that get into the local papers. But is this really true? I argue that the issue of the “Lawrence Bubble” is more than just bad PR; it is also the lack of involvement and positive interaction between Lawrentians and community members.

True, programs like LARY Buddy and Habitat for Humanity do attempt to reach out to members of the non-Lawrence community and create a positive face for the University. Students are regularly encouraged to vote in local elections (though they may know little about the local issues on which they are voting). In the education program, student teachers are required to observe and teach at a local school. The Campus Center will purportedly be available to the community at large as a limited convenience store and for community events when requested. And some faculty, like Professor Mark Jenike through his research on nutrition in area schools, and the aforementioned Fox River project in Professor Rico’s class, are attempting to break out of the Bubble and use the surrounding community for translational research and experiential learning.

But for the large part, these are isolated examples that only reach a small portion of students and the community. There has been no comprehensive, University-wide effort to engage students in the Fox Valley community. If Lawrence is to truly prepare students that are prepared to be both world citizens and also contributing members of a community, it must start with encouraging students to be members of this community. We need to attempt to burst the “Lawrence Bubble” by engaging ourselves in meaningful ways in the greater community.

The Green Roots mission statement reads, “Responsible citizenship…requires…that we act in a manner that cares for the places in which we, and others, live and work. [T]he hallmark of an educated person…must be knowledge of the places we call home, an awareness of their interconnectedness, and an acceptance of our civic duty to act in ways that protect their wellbeing.” In order for Lawrence to truly create graduates that go out into the world with an understanding of “the places we call home,” it is necessary that our curriculum and civic outreach reflect these goals.

We must encourage faculty to use the Fox Valley as a “text” for academic study. We must educate students on the current local issues, so that they can become engaged citizens working toward a better community. We must teach students about the importance of local businesses in sewing together the economic and social fabric of the town. We must bring in more community members to share their knowledge about local and global issues with Lawrentians.

If we can develop students that truly know this place, perhaps they will go out into the world knowing the importance of place and how to live well in a that place, and contributing to strong vibrant communities. Only if we can take care of our own communities will we be able to extend that care into the larger world in the search for a global sustainable society.

(Many thanks to Stewart Purkey for exposing me to many of the ideas present in this article in his class Environment, Community and Education, and for suggestions on a draft of this article.)

Listening to nature

Sometimes it’s important to actually listen to nature once in a while. We can become so plugged in – to the television, internet, movies, iTunes – that we forget what our world actually sounds like.

Tonight, as I finish reading for my class tomorrow, I’ve opened the windows to let the warm early summer breeze in, and I’m listening to the sounds of my world. Seagulls crying over the river, motorcycles buzzing over the bridge, Canadian geese squawking in the brush, trucks and cars humming on the highway in the distance, a dog barking, the wind swirling through the long grass and tall trees. Though most of those sounds aren’t what we would consider part of nature, they’re part of my nature nonetheless. The sounds outside my windows are comforting. It reminds me of falling asleep with the window open when I was a little girl. Or going for a long walk in the late evening, hand in hand with my partner.

It’s healthy to just listen to the natural noises once in a while, instead of always putting on the newest pop tune or the latest radio celebrity gossip. Though music or television can make some lonely people feel less alone, it can also mask the reality of one’s thoughts. Sometimes, I find that too much noise clutters what I’m thinking about, making me simply hum along to the radio, instead of letting new thoughts percolate in my brain.

So, tonight, I’m just letting the sound of the wind through the grasses outside my window and the hum of traffic across the bridge be my company, as I enjoy a rare moment of peaceful loneliness.

Even the industrial silence of the modern town can be healing.