Friday, March 25, 2011

The Hummingbird and the Elephant

This year, Shawn Bingham and I organized USF's environmental film series.  We showed six movies including one we showed last night, Dirt.  The movie focuses on the significance of soils and sediments to the environment, food production, building, and our souls.

However, the best part of the movie had very little to do about dirt. 

Those of us who teach about environmental issues often hear from students who are disheartened by what they learn.  They find environmental problems such as pollution, global warming, or energy production too overwhelming. 

My response to them is to try to do what they can and support others who are doing good things.  But, like many who are overwhelmed, they can become inactive or uncaring due to the magnitude of the issues.

I’ve always struggled with how best to handle this issue.  I am lucky.  I was born on a sunny day and very little brings me down.  I see environmental problems, and my brain moves to solutions.  For others, they see environmental problems and they see destruction and hopelessness.

The movie Dirt addresses this issue directly in a charming sequence that contains animation along with discussion by Noble Peace Prize winner, Wangari Maathai.  Take a look at it.  What do you think?  Are you a hummingbird or an elephant?

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Elizabeth Taylor (1932-2011)

Elizabeth Taylor Rose

I remember. So many dead, so many lost, and so much fear.  It was the mid-1980’s and people were dying all over the world from complications of AIDS. 

The disease had many in a near panic.  Even after it was found that HIV could only be spread through specific sexual conduct or blood transfusions, many did not wish to be near an infected person.  When I was in graduate school I remember overhearing a very talented professor, who should have known better, say that she wanted a secretary removed from his position due to his illness.  Thankfully, he was not removed, and he was able to work until his death.

While there was support from the medical field through research and care, there was scant political leadership at the federal level during the 1980’s.   The president did not say the word AIDS until the magnitude of the disease was way too big to ignore.  In addition, congress passed a law to prevent individuals with HIV from entering the country.  Some spoke of quarantines and criminalization. It was a dark time for our country and for the world.  There was a great deal of community activism, but there was no national voice that captured the attention of our country.

And the disease spread, thousands died, and there was no political leadership to deal with the issue in a thoughtful way. 

In the midst of this, one person spoke up loud and clear:  Elizabeth Taylor.  No one could have predicted this development.

Taylor was a glamour icon, a great movie star, and a talented performer.  She was also flawed in a way that many understood.  She liked men, jewelry, and a good time.  She was deeply empathetic and understood the plight of those who were sick.  She was disgusted by the fear and the moralistic finger pointing associated with AIDS in the 1980’s.

What did she do?  She spoke and raised money.  She was empathetic.  She changed culture. She transformed our country nearly overnight from one that was fearful to one that began the long path toward understanding the disease and developing sound research and treatment.

She helped a great deal.  She shamed politicians for their lack of action.  She was the first major celebrity to touch someone (Rock Hudson) with AIDS publicly and to raise money for AIDS research.  When Ryan White, a 13-year old student with HIV, was expelled from school because of the disease, she spoke out against ignorance.  She spoke before congress to try to gain federal funding for AIDS research.   She started a foundation to raise money to support clinics, research, and individuals suffering with the disease. 

Today, HIV is a manageable illness for many around the world. Efforts continue to conduct research, reduce stigma, and provide care.  Elizabeth Taylor was the unlikely person who lit the spark to make it all happen.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The Meltdown of the Nuclear Option

Crystal River Power Plant, Florida
(photo by L.G. Mills 

One way in which the environmental community is divided is by our favorability for or against nuclear energy. 

Those who are for nuclear energy look to it as a plentiful source of energy that does not emit carbon.  They believe that the only way to sustain our current standard of living in the developed world is to use atomic energy.  They also believe that nuclear power can improve the lives of others throughout the developing world.  Indeed, according to the New York Times, there has been a significant growth in the number of nuclear power plants in places like India and China.

Those who are against nuclear energy believe that the risks are far too great for further development and that existing plants should close.  They are concerned over waste, accidents, and the use of byproducts in weapons.

In recent years, many in the United States started to give nuclear energy a second look.  There are just over 100 operating nuclear power plants in our country.  Most of them were built or planned prior to the mid-1970s.  The viability of the nuclear industry declined after the Three Mile Island power plant discharged radiation in 1979 in Pennsylvania after a partial meltdown.  While nuclear energy provides approximately 20% of our nation’s electricity, it is unlikely that nuclear energy production will increase.

It has been argued that there are new, safer, and smaller nuclear power plants and that the industry is using older technology that could be updated within the context of urban and suburban sustainability.  Due to the lack of interest in new power plants, the nuclear industry has not had an opportunity to explore new power generating techniques using nuclear fuel.

In light of the disaster in Japan, it is doubtful that nuclear energy will see much expansion in the United States.  Indeed, public opinion is likely to move further away from the acceptability of nuclear power. 

I have always wanted nuclear power to work.  I think it was my upbringing in the space age 1960’s and 1970’s.  Yet, I have never liked the big mega-plants.  I always thought that their scale was too hazardous, particularly near populated areas.  Even so, some of the plans that I have seen for small nuclear power plants that can power several hundred homes seem the most plausible future for nuclear power.  The question is whether or not our society will take the risk.

The logician in me looks at the evidence in front of me in Japan, the proliferation of nuclear weapons, and the science behind the long-term storage of nuclear waste and I hesitate.  Might it not be better to invest in harnessing other energy sources that do not threaten future generations?  Isn’t this one of the key elements of sustainability:  to leave the world sustainable for future generations? 

Thursday, March 10, 2011

The U.S. Greenhouse Gas Tarantella

(photo by RayS

I truly feel bad for the EPA.  As part of the Executive Branch, they are beholden to the various political winds that blow when we change leadership in our nation.  Under George W. Bush, the EPA was not particularly interested or politically able to develop policies to manage greenhouse gases.  Indeed, the President did not recognize the reality of the issue of global climate change until late in his presidency.  But, he did recognize it eventually.

I think what most Americans don’t realize is that the EPA has been required to regulate greenhouse gases as per a Supreme Court decision.  To make a long story short, the congress has been unable to develop a comprehensive energy policy in our nation in partnership with our President for the last two decades.  The most recent attempt failed in 2010 prior to the midterm elections when the Senate failed to pass the Kerry Boxer bill. 

Because of the failure of the legislative branch of government to develop new policy around unregulated greenhouse gases, several individuals, states, and organizations have sued the EPA claiming that they were in some way damaged due to the impacts of greenhouse gases and global climate change.  The courts, particularly in the case of Massachusetts et al. v. EPA, have sided with the plaintiffs in recognizing that the EPA is not fulfilling its legislative mandate to protect US citizens from air pollution within the guidelines of the Clean Air Act.

The Massachusetts et al. v. EPA case decided by the Supreme Court required EPA to develop some regulatory guidance for greenhouse gas pollution.

So, if you are a member a congress who does not want the US to change its energy policy at all, you would try to limit the ability of the EPA to regulate greenhouse gases.  That is exactly what is happening currently.  Various members of congress are seeking to remove EPA’s authority and funding to regulate greenhouse gases.

That is why I feel sorry for the folks at the EPA.  Here’s essentially how I see it.  The scientific community urges action to develop a greenhouse gas policy.  Political interests, largely from hydrocarbon energy-rich states, seek to limit government’s role in regulating greenhouse gases.  Because the EPA is told by its leaders not to develop a greenhouse gas policy, they are sued by organizations impacted by global climate change.  Those suing win their cases thereby requiring the EPA to regulate.  Some organizations are unhappy that EPA is now complying with the law, so they urge congress to limit EPA’s ability to regulate by changing the laws and the funding of EPA.

Does this make sense?  By the way, we are the only developed nation in the world that does not have a modern comprehensive energy policy and the only one that does not in some way regulate major greenhouse gases.  I hate to do this, but I have to quote Charlie Sheen:  Winning!

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

International Women's Day

Today is International Women’s Day.  This event has been celebrated every year since the early 20th century.  The themes of the event have changed with time, but the overall goal of the day is to celebrate the various achievements of women.

The U.N. recognizes that the role of women in society indicates various levels of development.  Specifically, in their International Human Development Index, they provide five specific gender related indicators:  maternal mortality, adolescent fertility rate, male/female labor force participation rate, male/female parliamentary seats, and secondary education of women.  When looking only at these indicators and giving them equal weights, one finds that the top ten countries are:  Sweden, Iceland, Finland, Norway, Netherlands, Denmark, Rwanda, Belgium, Germany and New Zealand.  The U.S. is ranked 45th.

When combining gender with a variety of other indictors, such as education, gross national product per capita, and life expectancy, one gets very different results.  Using this broader scale, the UN ranks the US as #4 (after Norway, Australia, and New Zealand).  Clearly, the gender rankings are not given a high weight using the UN system.  You can build your own index on their website.

My Grandmother
In my own family, four generations of women provide a glimpse into the changing world of gender in the United States.  My Grandmother, Felicia Josephine, was born in Poland and came to the U.S. early in the 20th Century.  She gave birth to a number of children and lived in Milwaukee, Wisconsin with her husband and children.  She did not work outside of the home, but instead focused her attention on her family.

My Mother
My mother, Evelyn, shown here on her wedding day, the same day in which the picture of my grandmother was taken, lived with my father and their 6 children (me included) in a small town outside of Milwaukee.  In many ways, they were amongst the first suburbanites who fled the city to live in a small town environment.  My father commuted into Milwaukee to work as an engineer for Allis Chalmers.  My mother worked for a short time after she graduated from high school, but she did not work after marriage and instead focused her attention on her home, her children, and her garden. 

My Sister Sharon
My Sister Patty
Her daughter, my sister Patty, like the rest of my siblings, went immediately to college after high school.  She was the first woman in my immediate family to go to college and she earned a degree in Library Science and education.  She was my Junior High English and French teacher!  Her picture here is one of her school pictures taken when she was a teacher in the 1970s.  She was a successful teacher at Fox River School until her retirement.

My sister Sharon also went directly to college. She and her husband had two children and she eventually earned a masters degree.  Like many families today, she has a higher level of education than her husband.  In this blog is her high school photo.  She has a successful career and is the first woman in my immediate family to earn a masters degree.

My Niece Adriane
My Niece Michelle with Mario and Me
Her daughters Michelle and Adriane have college degrees.  Michelle has two stepchildren and Adriane does not have any children at this point.  Both Michelle and Adriane have moved away from southeastern Wisconsin where their female ancestors lived for three generations.  They have led interesting lives (not that their ancestors didn't) and made choices different from their mother, grandmother, and great grandmother.

The decisions of women in my family mirror those of other women in our society within their generation.  As educational and career opportunities increase for women, they have fewer children.  In addition, women are much more mobile now and are not as closely tied to extended families.

I know that as the youngest of 6 children, I am delighted that I was born!  But, I wonder what my family would have been like if there were more opportunities for my mother and my grandmother?  They were both rather bright women who were rather interesting.  Did having so many children limit their opportunities?  I believe that they were quite content with their choices.  They were part of the broader culture of the early and mid 20th century.  But, what will the future hold for the next generation of women?

Happy International Women’s Day to the women in my family.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Death and the Single Cat

This week there has been a spate of news about extinctions.  For example, we learned this week that the EPA declared the Eastern Cougar extinct.  In addition, many of us who work in the environmental field were not surprised to see this article that declared that we are in a period of mass extinctions.

Alligator on the Hillsborough River near Tampa, Photo by Robert Brinkmann
This news provides an opportunity for us to reevaluate our current culture to see what it is that we do that influences extinction events.  In the United States, we have done a great deal to try to protect animals and plants through the Endangered Species Act.  In some instances, our efforts have paid off.  The American Alligator, for example, was once listed as an endangered species.  Now, I see alligators all the time in Florida.  I remember when I moved to Tampa in 1990, I reviewed an environmental science textbook that stated that the alligator was nearly extinct.  How wrong that book was!  As I read that part of the book, I saw an alligator from my apartment window!

Yet, not all species are so lucky.  Most areas of the world do not protect endangered species in the same way we do.  Yet, we still have extinctions such as the Eastern Cougar in our country.  The laws and policies we have were unable to protect this species.  Such news gives us an opportunity to reflect on what we are doing in our society that could cause such a devastating event.

Florida panther using an underpass near the Everglades
The cougar's range, and the range of all large predators, is expansive.  In eastern North America, we have fragmented our natural landscape.  In addition, suburban sprawl chews up huge areas of land.  Perhaps it is time to recognize that we have sprawled enough.  Some communities have developed growth policies to limit expansion of the urban and suburban landscape in order to protect natural and agricultural regions.  Might this be a logical reaction?  In addition, cars are responsible for many of the deaths of big predators.  Could we be more aggressive in modifying our roadway infrastructure to provide safe habitat corridors for animals?  The photo on the left shows a Florida Panther using a roadway underpass near the Everglades.

Regardless of what we do, there is no doubt that we are in a period of time that will see even more extinctions.  We must continue to protect those we can and we need to change current practices in order to preserve habitat and build connectivity of landscapes.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Sustainability Photo of the Week

I feed my worms in my worm composters today.  I mean to take a picture to share on the blog, but instead, I am sharing this photo I found on FLICR.  It looks about the same as mine.
This photo of worm composting was found on Tom Arthur's FLICKR page (

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The Supreme Court Ducks out of the CAFE and Hails a Cab

One of the most hotly debated items in air quality rule making is the setting of CAFE (Corporate Average Fuel Economy) standards by the Federal Government.  Originally designed to reduce fuel consumption and limit air pollution, the standards have been in place since 1975.

The current standard for cars is 27.5 miles per gallon (mpg).  While some may think this is an unfair standard, I have to point out that this is the worst rate in the developed world.  In Europe, the standards are set at 45 mpg.  It is our nation's goal to reach into the 30's in the coming decade.

(Photo by Pikadilly:
In the midst of this national effort, many states have been frustrated by the slow pace of change on CAFE standards and have tried to enact modifications.  For example, the State of California tried to develop new standards to deal with serious air pollution problems.  This effort was tied up in court of some time until the US Government agreed to modify CAFE standards to make improvements in automobile and truck mpg rates.

Not only were the states involved in pursuing improved vehicle efficiencies, but cities also tried to set guidelines for the types of vehicles that could be on their streets.  The City of New York tried to require that all taxis in the city be hybrid vehicles.  The Metropolitan Taxicab Board of Trade sued the city and argued that transforming the fleet would be a hardship on their industry and that it was not within the jurisdiction of the city to set such requirements.  Currently approximately 1/3 of the cabs are hybrid. 

Details of this case and outcome are posted in this New York Times story.  The bottom line is that the US Supreme Court decided not to hear the case thereby giving a victory to the Taxicab Board of Trade.  The federal government has always maintained that they are the ONLY organization that can set fuel standards for vehicles and the Supreme Court sided with this viewpoint.  Certainly, there are reasons why Federal standards might be a good idea.  National uniform standards make manufacturing easier.

However, this policy seems to hinder innovation.  Many urban areas have sought better mpg results from auto manufacturers in order to make their cities cleaner.  Several cities have unique geographies that concentrate air pollution to dangerous levels.  However, as per federal guidelines, they cannot provide local mpg rules to protect their citizens.  Thus, their pollution management options are quite limited.  In addition, states that seek to improve air quality cannot change mpg rules.  This is quite different from many environmental rules that state that the federal government rates are the minimum and that states and local governments can develop regulations that are tougher than federal guidelines.

State and local governments are increasingly frustrated by the failure of the federal government to effectively have conversations on these important policies that have real-world local impacts.  In addition, with our modern technology and just in time manufacturing processes, it is not impossible to have regional variations in vehicle requirements.  Unfortunately, our one-size fits all approach to CAFE standards hinders local and state governments from developing policies that can improve the lives of their citizens.