Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The meaning(s) of sustainability

As with all terms the term sustainability is a multi-meaning word.

Some people see sustainability as 'sustainable development' or the idea of maintaining the current usage of resources, but using renewable resources instead.  That is the idea that we can continue to live, produce, expand and 'progress' in the same manner we have been.  This is a purely economic engineering idea that progress = expanding/developing, combined with the fact we need to save our resource pool so it doesn't dry up.  This mentality is not about saving natural habitat, biodiversity, or the environment in its undisturbed state.  The article, "Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist" criticizes this definition of sustainability and I have to agree with the criticism. 

Another definition of sustainability is the concept that we need to live with the earth/nature/environment and not against or separate from it.  To live in collaboration with the environment were our waste, impact and consumption are balanced by the enhancement, enrichment and addition we supply.  The example that comes to mind is a bird nest.  Birds use the resources (sticks, grass, branches) to construct their nests and once they are done, the nest is reabsorbed back into the resource pool for another creature to use.  I do not think the destruction of natural habitats for renewable energy sources is sustainable.  Afterall, one of the pillars of sustainability defined by the U.N. World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) in 2002 is Ecology (environment).  This view of sustainability promotes changing one's behavior to live more frugally, reuse resources, and finally, create the least amount of waste by converting used resources into other forms of resources (eg. coffee grinds into fertilizer by composting). 

The latter definition is a modernization of the older environmental movement and green bandwagon.  However, I believe it bridges the gap between human 'civilization' and the 'natural' environment to bring humans back into the cycle of the earth.  We need to limit our urban expansion by protecting the unaltered habitat, but we need to reconnect with and manage (not control) the land as well.  By reconnecting to the land we will strengthen our respect for it, and therefore, increase our desire to protect it in the long run.

But what about these renewable energy sources?  Where are they suppose to go if not on the natural land?  How about on structures we already have?  What about reusing land we already have developed but don't use or are trying to replace with these forms of energy generators?  Solar farms on building roofs instead of in the desert.  The main idea here is to use what we already have!  This reduces the new resources needed, reuses old resources preventing new wast,e and still provides the energy (albeit probably less) that we use.  Being greedy has never been so dirty.

Monday, January 23, 2012

An intriquing essay about Environmentalism

I've been reading and reading about sustainability, minimalism, the 'simple life' mentality, 'green' living, 'green technology' and plastic free and non-consumerism blogs.  Some blogs are focused on new technology and news, others on business, while some are personal blogs about living as eco-friendly as possible in different situations.

One blog entry caught me attention about Environmentalism and how it has changed.  I originally found it through The Good Human blog entry called, "Environmentalists need to stop pretending it's ok" which was a more focused critique of environmentalists saying and not doing plus 'greenwashing'.  The essay that was referenced titled, "Confessions of a recovering Environmentalist" published in The Orion is a more personal reflection of the changes in Environmentalism that the author sees.  Almost, is not more, interesting is the discussion that takes place within the pages of comments to the article.  As with most comment sections in blogs you have the BS you have to wade through, but I there are some thought provoking, intriguing and deep discussions that are worth navigating through the BS.

I, personally, think the articles make strong points and bluntly state the hard truths of the future (like the trouble of 'green energy' destroying natural habitat and decreasing biodiversity).  However, I would disagree about the culprit being 'sustainability' or the oversimplification of 'sustainability'.  The Sustainability movement is just the evolution of the Environmental movement for this day and age.  I stand by the idea that changing something to be slightly greener (or more sustainable) is better than doing nothing at all.  I'm not saying that what we are doing is THE solution, but a step towards more and hopefully more effective solutions.  Name it what you want, but any step to decreasing our negative impact, not just carbon, is a step in the environmentally respectable direction.  Also, the whole debate between spirituality versus practical is a philosophical cycle that doesn't go anywhere.  To me, the black/white perspective is limited and unrealistic.  Finally, the idea, romantic or not, of a static Movement is crippling to the flow of time.  Yes, the Environmental movement of a few decades ago is very different than the one today; but why does that make the one today wrong?  To think that the movement today should be like the movement of the past is wishful dreaming at its best, and naively ignorant at its worst.  We can't go back to the past, but we can make sure the FUTURE resembles the ideology or the values of the past.  I personally think the idea of a pristine environment of the past environmental movement helped create the separation of human and nature.  But I don't think the past environmental movement was worse or better than the one today; just different and appropriate for the time.  I would wager that in a few decades from now, the Sustainability movement will seem old fashion, romantic and make us nostalgic like the Environmental movement of the past.  I think the most important aspect of both is the drive to DO something and not just talk and debate about the philosophies of said perspectives.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Cliffnotes version of The 'R' Cycle

In Elementary school you learn to find the key elements of an essay: who, what, where, when, how, and why.

Here are the main elements of the 'R' Cycle:

Who: Everyone. 

What: Actually, everything.  Ok, well, everything that is a physical product or item, and I'm not talking skirt length.  I'm talking about the amount of items one buys.  Many items are now recyclable, but choosing items made from natural elements (like metal or wood) are better than the plastic equivalent is better any day.

Where: In your home, office, car, garage, closet etc.  Currently, you don't have to apply these to internet space, but maybe in the future you will (however, data storage is becoming more efficient and environmentally friendly so buy that extra e-book on gardening!).
There are locations specifically for recycling many different types of materials from plastics, metals, appliances, electronics, and toxic chemicals like paint or car oil.  All one has to do to find these local sites is to search it in a search engine or just ask your local government.

When: NOW and in the future.  In all aspects of your daily life.

How: Start with a small easy item that you buy or use somewhat regularly.  Take a second to think about how much you will use, the alternatives and the actual need of the item.  Do you really need that extra cup or cardboard coffee sleeve when you buy your morning latte?  How about that extra top or pair of shoes?  Even food choices can be viewed in the same way.  Do you need individual packets of cheese or ketcup?  Will you use all of those napkins?  From there you can start applying it to other parts of your daily consumption like having a reusable water bottle versus buying a case of plastic water bottles.  The ways to reduce, reuse and lastly recycle items is rather endless if you take a second to think about it.

Why: This is probably the biggest driving force to implement the 'R' cycle in your own life.  Why does someone change their behavior to live the Cycle?  Some do it to have a small carbon footprint or have a low environmental impact on the the earth.  Other people do it save money.  Still others do it because they just don't have the storage room in their living situation. 

The main reasons people follow the Cycle:
  • Decrease the amount of toxins, waste and pollution produced
  • Save natural resources and energy
  • Decrease their carbon footprint
  • Increase health
  • Save money, and even earn some extra cash
  • Save space
  • Stay more organized with less clutter
The why is a personal reason that varies from person to person.  Some people live 'The Simple Life' mentality which is the extreme end of the Cycle while others try to incorporate the basics into their lives the best they can.  As long as one honestly tries to apply the 'R' Cycle in their daily lives, the planet has a brighter future.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

The Re-cycle

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.

Probably the most widely known eco-friendly sustainable practice today.  Most cities have recycling centers or even curb-side recycling programs and you can even earn a few bucks in certain states.  At California State University, Fullerton every semester the Center for Sustainability (my job) is asked where are the recycle bins.  What's awesome about CSUF is that the recycle program is connected to the waste system so even if a student isn't consciously aware to recycle, the campus does it for them! 

Now I can rattle on about all the different facts about recycling (recycling is good for the planet), but I would rather spend the time talking about the WHOLE cycle not just recycling.  I will dedicate individual posts to each section of the cycle, but for now let's talk about the whole circular resource plan.

All the sections are good for the health of the planet.  We have limited resources and reducing, reusing and recycling the resources extend the overall use of them.  Doing just one is a step in the right direction.  However, none of the sections can stand alone and have the same amount of good planet caring as the whole combined cycle.  Sounds daunting I know.  But all it takes is to start small and slowly it will become so habitual you wont even think about it.  To persuade the masses also starts with you.  Each of these sections saves money, and in this hard economy saving money is a big deal.  Use it.  Tell your family, friends, co-workers, roommates, the person in the seat next to you: save money by reducing the total amount you spend on stuff, reusing what you already have, and recycle what you have to toss.  You can even tell them they can earn a few extra bucks in the process if they really want.  Of course, the other important thing is to do it yourself.  No one listens to a hypocrite.  You don't have to be crazy about it, just taking the steps to become more aware about it.  Start small, with one section and then move to the next section.  It's not like it is going to take long to live the complete cycle, there are only three sections after all! 

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Great ways to start

If you want to start to be more sustainable in your life you need to start with a baseline.  You need to know what you already do this sustainable (good for you!) and what areas could become more sustainable.   A pretty comprehensive 'green' quiz available to determine your baseline is from Practically Green, a website and blog dedicated to educating people about simple easy things (they call 'Actions') to do to be more green.  I took the quiz and I was very impressed with the breadth and thoroughness of the topics.  After you take the quiz they even have a promising incentive program to continue and increase one's sustainable practices.  I highly recommend checking them out and taking 'how green are you?' quiz!

Another great way to jump right in to change your behavior towards a more sustainable lifestyle is take The Simple Living Pledge. I recently learned about this pledge from the blog My Plastic-free Life (formerly known as fake plastic fish) and went to the link she provided to learn more about it.  I had been reading about simple living lifestyles in my research about personal sustainability and wanted to know what exactly it is.  Well, I was not disappointed.  The page on the blog Kanelstrand goes into what a simple lifestyle is, what the pledge is (starts in February and lasts 3 weeks officially), and the best part?  Anyone can do it!  You don't have to have a website, a blog or even an email address to pledge. 

Join me and take this pledge if only for the month of February!

Time to live

Time is an intangible element in life.  Humans are the only creature on Earth that try to quantify it.  This might stem from the idea of giving Time a measurable substance in order to control it.  Controlling time is rather a silly notion.  HOWEVER, we do have control over what we DO with time.  I could ramble on and on about the philosophical cliches about our use of time, but I transgress.

Sustainability is rooted in process of time.    Scientists predict into the future about the resource availability of the Earth in relation to human consumption and replenishment.  Sustainability is the when the consumption value equals the replenishment value.  Right now consumption is greater than replenishment and resource availability in the future is bleak.

But I don't like to focus on the negative doomday's prediction.  Instead, I want to promote change.  Change to become more sustainable in your every day lives.  I don't care if you are in a city, a farm, rich or poor.  I also don't care if you are super green or super ok, yeah...or super anti-environmental consumeristic.  It will just be easier for the super green people to be sustainable.

The one thing in people have in common is their time.  We all have 24 hours in a day.  Most of us are scheduled or busy for most of those 24 hours.  So how on earth are we suppose to change our behavior to be more sustainable while still being busy responsible people?  The simplest hard realization is our dependence and therefore, our responsibility to the planet Earth.  Scholars, religious prophets, environmentalists,  and scientists have been spouting these words for hundreds of years.  But we don't listen.  Why?

To some extent our biology and history.  No I'm not blaming biology, but it does help explain the problem.  As animals, our primitive fundamental behavior is to survive (and procreate but I'll get to that later).  Historically, resources were limited, unpredictable/reliable and seasonal.  Humans are innovated, but are also fundamentally lazy if given that option (what animal isn't?  All I have to do is look at my cat).  Together, we have created methods of harvesting, growing, and transporting resources with very little effort.  In a sense we use resources to move more resources so we can consume large quantities of resources previously restricted to time and space without lifting a metaphorical finger.  Therefore, we have this imaginary concept of everlasting surplus of resources.  Not only is this fictitious idea incorrect, but also the this idea of more is better.  This is where the second animal behavior comes in, procreation or reproduction.  A good non-human example is the Bowerbird (ok, I'm a little biased, I really like these architectural artists of the animal kingdom).  Bowerbird males build these 'bowers' or structures out of plant matter and decorate the bowers with colorful objects like flowers and berries.  The sole purpose of these bowers are to impress a female Bowerbird to mate with him.  Humans have the same mentality.  Throughout history the wealthy have always been dominate.  It is not restricted to mating anymore, but power and influence.  Wealth is measured in resources.  Be it a lot of money or a lot of stuff that costs a lot of money.  Interestingly, the wealthiest in terms of money are rather frugal people, and don't foolishly buy stuff.  Anyway, the ideology of the wealthy (having loads of stuff and the newest stuff) is the heart of consumerism.  That, and not being able to wait which ties into the whole unlimited supply idea above.  It's quite the nasty cycle.

Now how do we stop this unhealthy cycle?  Most people don't have the time let alone the inclination to research alternatives to the brand names.  Not only that, they don't see the value of taking that extra time, which would cost them, to find, make or change behaviors to these alternatives.   AND most of the alternatives are more expensive and don't always work as reliably as the standard products (like rechargeable batteries).

The key to slowing down and hopefully eventually stopping this consumerism downward spiral is finding the Incentive to change.  Some people promote 'simple living' styles, other promote eco-friendly everything.  I think a merging of those styles is the most effective, sustainable and 'green'.  However, neither include incentives for the amount of time, money and changing the current everyday lifestyles besides being 'green' and to some extent saving money.  Going 'green' will only change the people who care about the environment.  Saving money will great in this bad economy, but a lot of the simple living ideas take a LOT of time which most people don't have.  If I had to chose between the two, saving money would probably be the broader incentive.  I guess I feel there is a big philosophical gap between the 'simple living' lifestyle people and the rest of society who just want to save money.  People who just want to save money will buy the cheapest thing they can find, regardless of the how much of it they get (opposite of minimalist thinking) or the environmental impact (opposite of 'naturalist, non-toxic' thinking). 

Government regulation is probably the only truly effective method of changing large masses of peoples' behavior.  That, and making the bad stuff more expensive (yeah, probably not going to happen anytime soon).  So, how do we change government regulations?

A recent example: plastic bag ban in LA county.  In 2008 Malibu was the first city in LA County to ban the use of single-use plastic bags (the ones you get from stores).  Long Beach, Santa Monica and Calabasa have also banned the plastic bags, and more LA cities are starting to follow suit.  This ban is a huge step towards changing peoples' habits to decrease pollution.  The ban didn't just spring out of nowhere though, and would never have passed 5 years ago.  One of, if not the biggest reason this ban was written and subsequently passed in the city legislation is the increase awareness of the alternative option to bring our own reusable bag.  People started TALKING, and not only talking but DOING.  From the conversation started by a few common people, the alternative was implemented.  Those people told and were examples for other people who kept the conversation going.  Soon it reached the companies who started to actually SELL reusable bags (like Trader Joes) making reusable bags 'cool' and 'hip'.  Now it is more common to bring reusable bags in, not to mention some places actually have monetary incentives through ticket drawings if you bring them in!  Once the alternative became more common the legalization of a plastic ban became a realistic possibility.  In this happy ending, cities in Los Angeles have started to ban plastic bags!

The lesson of this story is that with a conversation followed by application enables future government regulations.  Government regulations change people's behaviors, so start talking, but more importantly start acting and make it hip!

Thursday, January 5, 2012

What's in a name?

The Butterfly Effect is part of Chaos theory in physics.  Scientist Edward Norton Lorenz coined the term to explain the difficulties in predicting the weather.  The idea goes: a butterfly flaps it wing in China leading to unpredictable tornadoes in Kansas.  Basically, little events lead to unpredictably large changes.  Now, the term is not restricted to describe weather patterns, but used as a more general metaphor for the impact of an individual on a larger scale.

I've known for a while I wanted to get more involved in sustainability.  Working at the Center for Sustainability for over a year now has taught me more about not only environmentalism, but the economical and social aspects of sustainability.

Sustainability has 3 interlocking categories: Ecology, Economic and Social.  Like the recycle symbol, these categories can only work if all aspects are considered.  Therefore, sustainability is actually different from straight environmentalism or 'green' (even though it is a vital part of the whole solution).  But why is sustainability important?  It is important because without the application of sustainable living and practices, the world will run out and dry up leaving us with nothing.

Hence the name of this blog.  It combines the theory of individual impact and sustainable living to save everything we hold dear.

Flap your wings and change the world.