Sustainability as a learning endeavor

More often than not in life, we wait until something ends to look back and reflect. History is just that – a look backwards at what has happened, a chance to comment on the implications of an event or experience. A chance to see just really what have we learned from the past. People wait until they near the end of their lives to write an autobiography. We wait until the end of a war to write into history books the winners and losers. We wait until the end of our schooling to look back and see just what have we learned.

But why should we necessarily wait until the end to reflect? With education in particular, waiting until the end to look back only leaves us dissatisfied with our experience. We think, I wish I had taken advantages of more opportunities in college., or I wish I had known about that in the beginning. It appears we could learn a lot more if we simply took time out to reflect on things during the process. I think the best education can come from constant reflection and thought during an experience. Hindsight may be twenty-twenty, but nearsightedness is better than being blind. Looking while you are in the thick of it is better than not looking at all.

As this first semester of my graduate education concludes, I am taking the chance to reflect on my experiences thus far. As a dual-degree student in the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University, my chosen concentration is Sustainable Development, or Sustainability. “Sustainable development” has always been a favorite pet phrase of mine, since I first came across the term while writing a high school history paper on the current situation of the global environment in the context of American environmental history. “Providing for the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs” is the World Commission on Environment and Development, or Brundtland Commission definition of “sustainable development” I read. While researching global climate change, resource depletion and environmental conflicts worldwide, the idea of sustainable development was a breath of fresh air amidst all the pollution. It seemed to be a solution with real potential to create a healthy, livable planet, an idea with the scope and interdisciplinary aspects needed to focus the ingenuity and creativity of the world on a sustainable future.

Sustainable development has proven thus far to be an interesting subject and context as a learning endeavor. For me, sustainability is a necessity for any future our planet and the human species is to have. This term, I have learned that ecological economists and sustainable developers might say that sustainability is about limits – limits to growth, limits to resource availability, limits to planetary capacity, limits to consumption. But I say, it is also about embracing the a profound challenge and tremendous opportunity that these limits bring. Sustainable development, I think, is about using our immense human capacity for creativity, ingenuity and entrepreneurship to create a sustainable future in which all people can live. This is bigger than the “weak sustainabilist”* idea that all inputs to current economic systems of production can be substituted for with enough innovation and creativity. This is about thinking of a new way to live, about rethinking our individual, consumerist, unsustainable lifestyles, about rethinking the entire socio-economic system in which we operate. It can be done. People are starting to think. Activists, writers, thinkers like Will Allen, Paul Hawken, Anna and Frances Moore Lappe, Annie Leonard, Bob Doppelt, Hunter Lovins, Bill McKibben, even New York Times columnists Nick Kristof and Tom Friedman are thinking this way. Organizations and thinktanks, more than I can list, are thinking and doing this way. It is possible.

But sustainability is also personal. Not only have I begun to attempt to live my own life sustainably in my first semester on my own, but I have also come to realize that sustainability has a more personal meaning for me. If, in my life, I could contribute to creating a sustainable world in which there is abundance for all, I would have lived a life worthwhile. If I could live to see a world where people live in safe, sustainable, healthy and happy communities, where people have lots of meaningful, sustaining relationships, where people eat good tasting and nourishing food grown without harm to the environment, where people engage in worthwhile work that doesn’t degrade the environment or come at the expense of another person, where people live in harmony with nature – if I could live to see that kind of world, I would have lived a good life.

Sustainability for me is not just about overcoming the myopia of consumer culture, or about living on a farm and raising chickens, or about shopping only at thrift stores, or about buying organic vegetables from the coop. Sustainability is more than just living my own life sustainably. It’s about contributing to a sustainable whole. And teaching others about the merits of sustainability.

This is where my final point comes in: the educational opportunities presented by sustainability. Sustainable development and sustainable living provide immense opportunity for educators and people globally to teach creative thinking, community-mindedness, ecological connections – a potent antidote to the business-as-usual philosophy promoted by the corporate world and most conventional educational institutions. If we are to create a happy, livable world for all, we need to start thinking differently, and we need to do it now. Using the concepts of sustainable development and sustainable living as a teaching and learning module in classrooms, living rooms, and coffee shops, at workshops, faith gatherings, and fire circles, on front porches and street corners worldwide will help us begin to care for one another and for the earth. We need to think both globally and locally, to value relationships and social contact more than flat screen televisions and mansion-size homes, to learn to take time to enjoy nature and its awesome beauty and wealth. If we can begin to learn and teach these things, then perhaps we may all live to see a sustainable world.

*A note on “weak” versus “strong” sustainability: These terms are used by people in ecological economics and sustainable development to depict two different views on sustainability. “Weak sustainabilists” hold that the concept of sustainability can be worked into our current socio-politico-economic system via substituting newly discovered resources, capital, technology, and human innovation and labor for limited resources currently used in the capitalistic, production-based system. “Strong sustainabilists,” on the other hand, hold that true sustainability does not come from infinite capacity to substitute, and that there are some resources that are inherently limited on this planet and for which there are no substitutes (e.g. clean air or fresh water). “Strong sustainabilists” believe in a deeper, more inclusive and conclusive concept of sustainability that diverges significantly from the current economic paradigm described above.

Book Review: The Ecology of Hope, by Ted Bernard and Jora Young

Image credit: Indiebound.orgI’ve been meaning to write about this book for a long time. Though first published in 1996, its relevance extends beyond the decade or more since its release. Ted Bernard and Jora Young have written an inspirational manifesto for a sustainable world of all that’s wonderful, resilient, and, ultimately, hopeful in our communities. The book, fully titled, The Ecology of Hope: Communities Collaborate for Sustainability, provides both an outline of the need for sustainable community action as well as an array of case studies from the United States.

The book begins with a brief but eloquent history and critique of the current worldview/paradigm merged into the context of American environmental history. The authors posit that our current worldview is individualistic and not community-centered, and that in order to create a sustainable world we must restructure our thinking to be more other-oriented, to focus more on community responsibility. Like other authors I have mentioned in my posts on community and sustainability, such as David Orr, Paul Theobald, and Wendell Berry, Bernard and Young are part of a growing sustainability movement that expresses the discontent and malaise that we feel with our current world, and works to engage people in their communities and their environment in an attempt to create a positive and sustainable future. This movement, instead of focusing on the negative effects human civilization and our consumer lifestyles are having on the environment and the great peril the earth is in due to anthropogenic climate change, encourages individual and collective action in our own lives to actively change our mindsets, our situation, and our world. In The Ecology of Hope, the authors cite examples of successful engagement and action, where people have worked to create sustainable communities – a holistic, economic, social and ecological version of sustainability.

The kind of collective action, cooperation and consensus these authors cite will be necessary as population grows, the climate warms, and human society exerts greater and greater pressure on our ecological life support systems, coming up against the limits of resource scarcity and pollution. Many authors have discussed the link between environmental scarcity and violent conflict (Homer-Dixon, et al.; a topic for another post), and as we face the limits mentioned above, we will be at an increased risk of war with one another. But building community through collaboration, cultivating a sense of responsibility towards one another, and encouraging communication and connection between human beings on a level that crosses both geopolitical bounds and psychological, perceived differences can allow us to transcend the risk of conflict and rise up like a phoenix from the flames into a just and sustainable world.

The Ecology of Hope is aptly titled. The word “ecology” in the natural sciences means the study of the interconnectedness of all things living in a given place, the study of relationships. In the study of climate change and world systems, this concept of “ecology” and interconnectivity can be extended to the entire biosphere, because we are all related to and interacting with one another and the earth somehow. In sociology and ecopsychology, the concept of ecology is sometimes applied to a community of human beings in a place – the intersection of humans and the natural world in that place. Where the concept of “ecology” is a scientific one, the word “hope” connotes spiritual and emotional ideas . “Hope” is a feeling of change, of progress, of better things to come, of optimism. The phrase “Ecology of Hope,” to me, means the interconnectedness of change, and optimistic phrase that makes me think of people and nature working in harmony to create a better world for all. This relationship component of change, this “Ecology of Hope” will be critical to a sustainable future.

And it will all start with action in our communities.

New Annie Leonard video: The Story of Cap & Trade

Annie Leonard, of the Story of Stuff fame, has launched a new video today called The Story of Cap & Trade. As Copenhagen approaches, and the US policy makers contemplate various options in Congress, this video is a well-timed, practical language debunking of the mythical “solution” cap and trade policies will bring to our climate change woes. Yet another wonderful tool for activists, educators, parents, students, and everyone to help bring the real issue and real solutions to the attention of our lawmakers!

“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.

Yes! Magazine: Building a Just and Sustainable World

Yes Fall 2009 issue cover

Image credit: yesmagazine.org

Last week in the mail, I received the Fall 2009 issue of Yes!, a magazine I’d never heard of, and to which I did not subscribe. However, this magazine may be the best piece of unsolicited mail I have ever received. Subtitled “Building a Just and Sustainable World,” this magazine was filled with articles on building stronger community, retooling our education system to really educate people instead of just schooling them with how to stay afloat in the current everyone-for-themselves world, and inspiring stories of grassroots environmental activism. I don’t think I have ever been so accurately targeted with a piece of junk mail (unless someone secretly sent me a subscription to the magazine).

The Yes! Magazine website describes the goal of the organization to provide “inspiring solution-oriented journalism” and “connections with like-minded people.” If I may be allowed to judge from reading their Fall 2009 issue cover-to-cover, they have clearly succeeded in meeting these goals. The articles published by Yes! cover topics ranging from the holistic alternative education efforts in the place-based education movement, the community revitalization efforts of programs such as Detroit Summer, and the innovative inner life and education ideas of Parker Palmer. This issue is chock-a-block full of inspiring articles filled with real-world solutions to the problems of our communities, our schools, and our environment today.

This issue of Yes! reminds me what is truly important and amazing about our world: the capacity for change in the status quo. Our current, individual-, consumption-based society struggles with creating healthy, mindful, strong individuals committed to their community and the betterment and sustainability of our world. In an educational system and corporate climate based on test scores and competition, we seek to groom individuals for obedience, prejudice, competition, and to remain just far enough removed from the natural world so that we can destroy it without it weighing too much on our conscience. We can change this status quo. We can educate with the aim of cultivating individuals who know how to sustain healthy relationships, are not afraid to voice their own opinions and beliefs or to challenge others’ opinions, are intelligent but also mindful and think before they speak or write. The place-based education movement, with its aim of providing students with relevant experiences so that they are learning for a purpose and not just memorizing facts for a test, uses the community as a classroom and laboratory to encourage individual exploration and also connection with and responsibility to those around us.

These are the values key to creating a society that will work together to transform this planet into a “just and sustainable world:” a belief in lifelong education that comes from within and is nurtured by a vital community, a healthy sense of responsibility to others and to the earth, and a desire to see and create the positive change needed in the world. Yes! magazine tells the stories of change we need to inspire sustainable action in our own lives.

*Post script: My mother has fessed up to sending me the “unsolicited subscription.” Thanks, Mom! Now I can look forward to the next issue of the magazine.

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.