Monday, February 28, 2011

Texting In Class and Recycled Toilets

I was eating lunch and scrolling through my twitter feed when I ran across a post from Huffington Post College about this study from the University of New Hampshire on texting in class.  It seems that students feel guilty about texting in class, but go ahead and text anyway.

There is no doubt that texting is a modern form of communication that allows quick silent communication between friends and family members.  I text, my friends text, and some of my colleagues text.  My texting is probably just like those texts of my students.  I've texted about setting up meetings or social gatherings.  I've texted informal or funny notes to friends and family.  I've even texted from boring meetings to friends saying I was in a boring meeting.  I would imagine this last text is typically what students are sending from my classes (lol).

I am not a huge fan of texting in class, but it doesn't bother me as much as some of my other colleagues.  In some instances, it can be distracting when it is done obviously or repeatedly.  Students who text continuously in my classes are asked to stop texting if it starts to bother me or others around them.  It is surprising how many students are irritated by fellow students who are serial texters. 

Generally, I find that the more mature students do not text that much and the more immature students text quite a bit.  There are some who text often due to family issues (daycare, car issues, etc.) that fall out of this model.  I typically could care less if someone receives or sends texts during class if they do not do it that often of if they are not bothering others around them.

The world is more and more online and digital and I think that texting is one of the things that comes along with this change.  Access to quick silent communication is a cultural development that makes me : )

In other news, I was impressed by the recycled toilet and bathtub seating in the Boneyard, a bar in Ybor City. It added a shabby chic element to this fun dive bar.  I am glad the tubs and toilet didn't end up in a landfill.  I give the Boneyard two green thumbs up!!

Thursday, February 24, 2011

The Omnivore's Dilemma

I am near the end of Michael Pollan's book The Omnivore's Dilemma and I must state that I was surprised by how much I enjoyed (am still enjoying) this book.  He examines the age-old question, What should we have for dinner?  In doing so, he explores a number of different choices that we can make.  Shall we eat fast food?  Organic?  Local?  Vegetarian?  Or shall we hunt for our food?  No matter the choice, there is no doubt that whatever we do has a direct impact on the environment.

If we eat fast food, we are buying into a complex agro-industrial machine that delivers not so much our fresh meat and vegetables, but laboratory managed and organized protein and vitamins that dulls the senses in terms of our own personal ethics.  Do any of us really want to look inside the industrial killing sheds of the large beef, pork, or poultry producers?  Do any of us want to do the killing?  Do we want to know how the food was handled from the farm to the drive through?

While it may seem logical that organically produced meats and vegetables would be better, the reality is that the industrial scale of organic food production is not all that different from standard food production in most instances.  Instead, the delivery of the feed, the growing of the crops are as much out of The Matrix as is the non-organic food.  The process is different, but the scale is often the same.

Of course, we could eat local foods and make an effort to buy as much as we can from small farmers.  However, such food is typically more expensive than food one could buy at a local grocery store.  Plus the means of getting the food are expensive:  more stops and greater travel distances.  Yet, overall, this seems to be the most ethical and healthy way to eat.

Then, there is the hunting and gathering approach to eating.  This too seems healthy and ethical if one buys into the belief, as I do, that hunting wild animals is moral.  Yet, if everyone took to the woods with a gun, the woods would not be able to sustain our population.

Of course, we could also choose vegetarianism, one of the most moral choices one could make from a food ethics viewpoint.  But here too, we run into the industrial, organic, and local questions as to access, food safety, and cost.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the book was the subtle case the author makes as to the cultural significance of food in our moral lives.  He refers often to the traditional approaches to slaughtering or killing animals in the Jewish or Native American traditions.  With food being more of an industrial product in our society, we are divorced from the sources of food or the moral implications of its production.  Would we eat or waste as much if we took part in the production of the food, if we had to experience the slaughter of animals, or if we had a strong moral connection to food?

In a time when we are debating whether or not Taco Bell's meat contains meat it is hard to find broad moral connections around food in today's society.  Yet, there are those out there making exactly those connections.   Farmers, activists, community farm volunteers, farmers market enthusiasts, and others are participating in the start of a food revolution that has the potential to revolutionize food production in the developed world.

If consumers begin to select this type of food over others, I can imagine that some of the larger agricultural companies will begin to recreate the diversified family farm under a corporate umbrella.  While this may not be a particularly good thing for local farmers, there is no doubt that the emerging agriculturalists are somewhat dispersed and disorganized.  There is opportunity for investment and organizational leadership within this field.

Back now to Pollan's question, What's for dinner?  I can state that the answer has varied wildly throughout my life and I would imagine that is true for many.  Today, my food choices are the product of decades of cultural experiences.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Two Billion Cars

Yesterday I had the opportunity to hear Daniel Sperling, a professor from UC Davis speak about his book Two Billion Cars on the USF Campus.  I thought that his presence on campus was timely given the recent announcement regarding high speed rail in Florida.  His book has gotten a great deal of attention and he has consulted with the government of the State of California and the US Government on transportation policy.

His presentation was interesting in that he discussed how we are creating more and more cars (over 2 billion) and that their impact is quite dangerous to our society.  We are reaching, or have reached peak oil; we are running out of infrastructure; and we are running out of money to expand infrastructure options.  While cars remain a convenient desirable transportation choice, they are a challenge to the environment and to infrastructure.

He suggests several ways out of the current situation.  First of all he advocates improving federal guidelines for fuel efficiency.  He believes that we have the technology to greatly reduce emissions and fuel consumption by improving the technology of cars and developing new fuel sources.  Second, he advocates developing more transportation options such as car sharing, public transit, and jitney services.

My concern regarding transit in Florida is that it is difficult to move discussion away from the car and that there is little political will to change the status quo.  In addition, the infrastructure of our cities (low density developments, great distances between points of interest) make mass transit difficult.  Yet, innovation and bold ideas bring success.  For example, Portland decided to set a goal of having 25 percent of all transit trips made by bicycle.  This goal informed a variety of policy decisions including the building of new bicycle transportation infrastructure.  Indeed, Portland invested the equivalent of the cost of 1 freeway mile of road to build the nation's most impressive bicycle infrastructure in the nation.

There is no doubt that as oil becomes more expensive that some type of change will occur.  The question is what type of change?  Will the car evolve or will we develop new transportation options and behaviors?  Will we redevelop our cities around a less expensive form of transit?

Thursday, February 17, 2011

My Reaction to Florida's Rejection of High Speed Rail


Yesterday, Governor Scott of Florida announced he was rejecting federal funds for the construction of a high-speed rail system in Florida.  For many of us involved with environment and planning, this was not a very positive development. 

Governor Scott
The current US transportation system is based on technologies developed generations ago.  While our system works, it isn’t efficient, it is expensive to maintain, it is dangerous, and bad for the environment.  Other regions of the world have recognized this and moved full speed ahead with innovative transportation projects.  Anyone who has travelled to Japan or Western Europe is familiar with the range of transit options available to their citizens.  Their projects didn’t emerge from nowhere.  They were part of public/private partnerships that emerged decades ago to bring a new generation of transportation infrastructure to the public.

In the US, and particularly in Florida, we have not moved forward with innovative regional transit in any significant way in generations.  The push for a regional high-speed rail system by the Obama administration was a step in the right direction. 

According to the Tampa Tribune, one of the reasons that the Governor rejected the funds is because he was concerned about cost overruns.  He used data from an anti-rail foundation to support his numbers.  In addition, he stated that rail projects inflate ridership.  In his evaluation, he only counted Florida residents and not the 50 million tourists that come to Florida each year.  In short, I believe that his rejection is largely based on philosophical grounds rather than real data.

I can understand the libertarian argument that government should have a limited role in society.  I can also understand the argument that we cannot continue to increase debt in our nation.  However, I think it is unrealistic to expect that a modern high-speed rail system can be built without public investment.  It just isn’t done anywhere.  I think a better approach from a realistic libertarian viewpoint would be to ask how to use the forces of government to move this forward in a way that limits involvement as much as possible.  As far as the debt goes, most of us do not move forward in our own lives with big projects that improve our situations without incurring some debt.  While I certainly am sympathetic to those who argue against this project from a fiscal viewpoint, the benefits far outweigh concerns over the cost.

Societies thrive when they are dynamic, modern, creative, and innovative.  People are moving from the suburbs into more dense urban spaces.  We are driving less and expecting different transit options.  Where would you want to live:  a place with high-speed rail options for regional transit or a place without?

I believe that our Governor got this issue wrong.  While he is certainly staying true to his overall campaign promises, I believe that his decision is not good for our state.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Worm Composting

I gave a lecture to my class on a variety of issues associated with green building and I couldn't help but mention my worm composting system.  I thought some folks would like to see it.  Some pictures of it are below.  I bought the system from Our Vital Earth a local company that sells and markets the systems.  They also raise worms, and compost lots of local garbage.  They sell the worm tea and worm casing as a fertilizer.

Monday, February 14, 2011

A Green Valentine's Day

I asked my students to come up with a list of 10 ideas for individuals who were looking for green approaches to celebrating Valentine's Day.  Here are their top 10:

10.  Shower together.  This is an obvious one.  However, it is not green if you stay in a long time and use up all the hot water.

9.  Break up.  We know that one aspect of sustainability is the reduction of consumption.  If you are not dating or married during Valentine's Day, there is no need to buy anything.

8.  Candles.  Nothing says romance like turning out the lights and having a candlelit evening.

7.  Plant a love tree.  Did I mention that I teach in Florida?  This one is a bit hard in the north.  Do not use lots of power to thaw out the ground to get this one done! 

6.  Pot Luck Super Party.  I love this idea!  Why not share the love and have a potluck with all of your friends and family?  To make it even greener, make it meatless!

5.  Picnic.  Nothing says sustainability like finding a romantic place outside to have a picnic!  Did I mention I teach in Florida?

4.  Grow your own flowers.  Most flowers purchased during Valentine's Day are not grown locally.  Their transport uses lots of greenhouse gases.  So, go ahead and show your love.  Plant some flowers!  Nothing says romance like a garden!!

3.  Go for a tandem bike ride.  For those in the north, there are toboggans.

2.  Farmers market dinner.  Go together to a farmers' market and browse for things to cook together.  You'll be eating local and supporting local business.

1.  Catch and kill night.  A big tenet of the modern sustainability movement is eating local.  Plan an outing by going fishing or hunting with your loved ones and eat what you catch!  For the vegetarians, see 2 and 6 above.