Sunday, March 30, 2014

Sunday Poetry Blogging-Early Spring

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Early Spring
Harshness vanished. A sudden softness
has replaced the meadows' wintry grey.
Little rivulets of water changed
their singing accents. Tendernesses,

hesitantly, reach toward the earth
from space, and country lanes are showing
these unexpected subtle risings
that find expression in the empty trees. 
Rainer Maria Wilke

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Top Reasons Why Students and Faculty Should Blog Part 4: Defining Yourself to Yourself and Your Readers

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I've had a number of questions over the last few weeks about why I blog.  I suppose I blog more than the average blogging professor and some might find my blogging a bit OCD or excessive.  So I thought I would write the main reasons why I blog in a series.  Today I conclude with today's reason: defining yourself to yourself and your professional community.

When I first started blogging I thought I was someone who I really wasn't.  It took writing my blog to better articulate who I was as an academic and what I cared about as an environmentalist.  In retrospect, I am surprised with who I really am.  This might sound funny, but most of us in the higher ed biz go through life without fully examining the core of our personal and professional ethics and our broader teaching and research mission.  Don't get me wrong, we may think we know what they are. But writing about your field almost every day really gets down to core issues.  

Here's what I've come up with for myself.

I believe that humans have changed the world in the last century in ways that have transformed most major earth systems, including many important biogeochemical cycles. For this reason, I strongly support the term "Anthropocene" for our current era of environmental change.  The evidence is all around us--pollution, habitat destruction, extinctions, etc. in all corners of the world.

I also believe that we are unlikely to change our behavior in significant ways in the coming decades.  We will continue to pollute, change our climate, and degrade the planet unless big changes are made.  As a result, I do not believe that small change will do very much good.  Thus, I do not see the mundane arguments we have on the environment (paper or plastic; hybrid or electric; etc.) all that useful.  We need big changes, such as a breakthrough on energy, to truly change the destructive path we are on.

However, I am also positive about the future.  Yes, we have rough decades ahead with many environmental difficulties (likely social ones as well).  But there are signs all around us of hope.  Here are a few.  1) The world's population growth is likely to slow significantly in the coming years.  This means that fears of Malthusian collapse as a result of overpopulation are overblown.  2) We are becoming much more serious about pollution problems as a planet.  We have been on top of pollution for decades in the U.S. and many other parts of the world are also working hard to eliminate pollution. 3) There is widespread agreement on the problems associated with global climate change.  We understand the problem and are working on solutions.

Based on the above, my teaching focuses more and more on defining the Anthropocene by identifying major earth cycle disruptions.  It also focuses more on big solutions to problems and less on the small issues that we all get hung up on.  It also takes a positive view of the future and urges students to work toward solving our big environmental problems.

If you read this blog regularly, you probably understand my view because the blog helps to define who I am.

I think that this defining aspect of blogging is an important reason to blog.  If you are a Professor of Environmental Science or Sustainability, what does this mean to the world?  How do you set yourself apart from others?  What unique voice do you have?  What do you contribute to the world?  What do you add to the conversation on the environment or to your field?  What can students expect to learn about in your classes?  What can a department expect from you if you are hired as a faculty member?  What is your research or teaching mission?

Defining yourself through blogging will help to communicate who you are to your professional community.  

Friday, March 28, 2014

Top Reasons Why Students and Faculty Should Blog Part 3: Reaching a Broader Audience

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I've had a number of questions over the last few weeks about why I blog.  I suppose I blog more than the average blogging professor and some might find my blogging a bit OCD or excessive.  So I thought I would write the main reasons why I blog in a series over the next several days.  Today's reason: reaching a broader audience.

Most academic writing is read by a very few people.  Indeed, there are probably hundreds, if not thousands, of articles in journals that have been read by less than 5 people.  Why?  Largely because most academic work is very narrow and only a few experts in the area will be interested in reading the piece.  So, if you are a professor or a graduate student who wants to influence thought outside of your narrow expertise area, publishing in journals is not the way to go.  Don't get me wrong, you need to do that type of writing for your career and to drive the research in your subfield.  However, you are not going to reach a broader audience with most of your professional writing.  Thus, if you want to say something to the rest of the world outside of your profession, blogging is a reasonable option.

This blog gets hundreds of hits a day and thousands of visitors a week.  This means that I have far more readers in this space in a month or two than I have for my academic writing throughout my career.  Plus, I reach people all over the world.  Today, for example, most of my readers are from the U.S., Russia, Turkey, Panama, China (which is weird since Blogger is banned in China), Macau, Germany, Malaysia, Algeria, and the Czech Republic. Plus, many find this blog using keyword searches.  Some of the ways that people have found me recently include searches for "sinkholes New York", "early farm maps Manhattan", "1920's animal star", and "best renewables Venezuela".  You never know how people find this space, but they do.

The other thing that matters here is that you build up a body of work that is searchable and archival.  I wrote about this yesterday.   However, what matters here is that once you start to blog regularly, you become an online voice that people seek out.  I have many returning readers who come to this space every day or once a week or two to catch up on the discussion.  The blog becomes a node for information that others find useful. 

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Top Reasons Why Students and Faculty Should Blog Part 2: Archiving Information

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I've had a number of questions over the last few weeks about why I blog.  I suppose I blog more than the average blogging professor and some might find my blogging a bit OCD or excessive.  So I thought I would write the main reasons why I blog in a series over the next several days.  Today's reason:  blogging helps to archive information for latter use.

When I was working on my masters I would spend hours in the library photocopying articles, book chapters, and newspaper reports.  I would take each piece I collected and write a page or two summary of the article and file it for later use.  The Internet has improved the ability to recover this information and most of us have developed a bibliographic system that is useful for our purposes.

Blogging is one way that I archive information that I used to photocopy.  I don't do this with everything useful that I run across.  Most things I bookmark or add directly to my bibliographic list.  However, I do search my blog by keyword for anything I might have written about a particular topic before I write something on the topic or before I start a new lecture.  For example, if you search "energy" on this blog, you will find dozens of blog entries.  I can use this information for teaching or writing projects.  

Next week, for example, I am giving a guest lecture on global climate change.  Prior to developing the lecture, I will search my blog to see what I have had to say about the topic and to see if there is anything I can pull from the materials to make the development of the lecture easier.  This will probably cut my prep time in half.

With time, those of us who blog regularly build up a body of information that is helpful for teaching and research.  I've been blogging regularly for over three years and I have built up a tremendous data base of information on this blog that is searchable by keyword.  Thus, this information is not only useful to me, but it is useful to others who might be looking for information on a particular topic.  It is a portal of information on environment, sustainability, and higher education that is a useful starting point for anyone interested in developing a lecture or research topic on themes of interest to this blog.

If you are a grad student just starting out, you are in better shape than us old timers.  The sooner you start blogging the bigger your archive of information.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Top Reasons Why Students and Faculty Should Blog Part 1: Improving Writing

I've had a number of questions over the last few weeks about why I blog.  I suppose I blog more than the average blogging professor and some might find my blogging a bit OCD or excessive.  So I thought I would write the main reasons why I blog in a series over the next several days.  Today's reason:  blogging helps my writing.

When I was a new academic, I often had writer's block.  I would have all the pieces of an article in front of me, but I just couldn't sit down to write it.  However, years and years ago I stumbled into a talk given by Julia Cameron, the author of The Artist's Way.  She spoke about her work with writers and artists on overcoming creative blocks.  She had a multi-step approach to enhance creative output.  One of the exercises she suggests was the writing "morning pages"which is a 2-page free expression exercise to be conducted each morning to clear the brain.  I started this, along with some of her other exercises, and my writing output improved tremendously.  The blog is an extension of the morning pages.  Since I started writing morning pages, and eventually this blog, my writing quantity has increased tremendously.  So, if any of you are having any writer's block, go ahead and start blogging religiously.  Your output will improve.  I used to shudder at the thought of trying to get a 20-page article written in a week.  Now, it seems an easy chore.

My writing has also improved.  When I was younger, I saw myself as more of a creative writer.  I found science writing dull--I still do.  However, I have broken the chain of technical writing through this blog.  My technical writing is becoming much more interesting than it was.  I think it is higher quality as well.  My readers may not always agree with me given the bumpy nature of the writing on this blog. But there is no doubt that the old adage is true, practice makes perfect.  The more I write, the better writer I become.

So together, I have found that blogging improves my writing quantity and quality.  If you need help with either of these areas of writing, jump in and start a blog.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Rare Florida Keys Sinkhole Destroys Home

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Check out this article from the Miami Herald.  A small sinkhole formed in the Florida Keys while a modular home was being installed.  It wrecked the home and a boat that the home tumbled into.

Sinkholes in the keys are rare, but do occur.  Generally solution of limestone, which is responsible for creating cavernous features in the subsurface, does not occur at rapid rates in saline conditions.  There is just a thin lens of fresh groundwater beneath the surface where solution can occur.  Here, small voids form in the relatively young limestone as aggressive water eats away at the calcium carbonate.  With time, solution features can form that will collapse when weight is added to the surface.  The collapse of the ground over the solution features is facilitated by the nature of the bedrock underlying the keys--it is young and weak.

While it is unlikely that any massive sinkholes will form in the keys like the Winter Park sinkhole, it is entirely reasonable to expect the formation of small sinkholes.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Do baby-boomers prefer eco-friendly funerals?

Photo Credit: Marek Isalski
Death is not something you would think falls under the green movement, but I read this interesting article in the New York Times about baby boomers increasingly using eco-friendly funeral homes.

According to the Green Burial Council, nationwide approximately one-quarter of older Americans are considering back to the basic funerals.

Many of these individuals are drawn to the environmentally friendly practice of having a burial free of harmful chemicals, close to the cultural traditions, and are budget friendly.

A few green options people across the nation are considering:

  • Shroud cremation with remains placed in biodegradable containers
  • Wicker caskets
  • Premortem using caskets as bookshelves
  • Cremated remains turned into reef balls that aid coral reefs grow
  • No herbicides used on funeral grounds
  • Flat native stones 
Though the article cited baby boomers are the ones who desire these type of funeral arrangements, I can see this movement as something for anyone who is environmentally or budget conscious. 

What do you think? Is this something you would consider when times comes to make arrangements? 

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Luxury Environmentalism

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I think gets this story exactly right.  There is a tiny 420 square foot apartment for sale in SoHo for about 1 million.  It is a green apartment with all the modern equivalents of what we like about the green movement:  low impact space, low energy consumption, etc.  But it costs 1 million dollars.  For 420 square foot of space.  Ugh.  Grist calls it out right as a form of luxury environmentalism and I think they hit the nail on the head.

New York City is often called one of the greenest cities in the world because the energy use per person is so low and because they have a number of innovative programs such as their new compost program. They should be applauded for this.  However, it is nearly impossible for most people to afford to live in New York.  So, considering the three pillars of sustainability (environment, economics, and equity), which is truly more sustainable:  the cities where the environmental elites can afford to live or the suburbs which are increasingly becoming the affordable landscapes of the American working class? 

What other forms of luxury environmentalism are you seeing emerge in our current era?

Friday, March 21, 2014

Rachel Carson Quiz

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Since it is the first full day of spring, I thought I would start the season with a quiz about the author of Silent Spring, Rachel Carson.  Answers are in the comments.

1.  Rachel Carson is one of the few players in the history of the American environmental movement without a Wisconsin link.  Where was she born and where did she go to college?

2.  What was the focus of her Master's degree?

3.   Although Rachel Carson was a trained scientist, she is better known for her work in interpreting complex scientific information to the public.  What was her first effort in bringing science to the public?

4.  Why didn't Rachel Carson go on for a Ph.D. as she intended?

5.   Her most successful book prior to the publication of Silent Spring was on the New York Times bestseller list for 86 weeks.  What was the name of the book?

6.  This well-known environmental group brought on Rachel Carson to look at the impacts of pesticides and aerial spraying of pesticides on the environment.  This is often thought of as the spark that led to the development of Silent Spring.

7.   Silent Spring highlights the link between widespread pesticide use and environmental and health problems.  What is the meaning of the title, Silent Spring?

8.   In a sad irony, Rachel Carson had a personal health challenge while she was working on revisions to Silent Spring.  What was it?

9.  Silent Spring lays out a very clear case for the impact of pesticides and other chemicals on the environment.  Why do some feel she was so precise and detailed in her writing?

10.  Rachel Carson died in 1964 before she saw the impact that her work had on environmental policy in the United States.  What two important federal laws relating to water and air could be traced to her writing?

Thursday, March 20, 2014

While We Wait for Spring

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Spring is upon us after one of the most bitter winters in memory for many in the Northeast and Midwest.  My family in Wisconsin experienced a winter for the history books.  Even the Great Lakes froze over completely.  Niagara Falls here in New York turned to ice.  Yet, signs of spring are starting to show up here in my neighborhood.  The ice is off Manhasset Bay and the crocuses are blooming on the Hofstra campus.  

To celebrate this transition, a poem and a bit of Debussy.

While Yet We Wait for Spring
by Robert Seymore Bridges

While yet we wait for spring, and from the dry
And blackening east that so embitters March,
Well-housed much watch grey fields and meadows parch,
And driven dust and withering snowflake fly;
Already in glimpses of the tanrish'd sky
The sun is warm and beckons to the larch,
And where the covert hazels interarch
Their tassell'd twigs, fair beds of primrose lie.
Beneath the crisp and wintry carpet hid
A million buds but stay their blossoming;
And trustful birds have built their nests amid
The shuddering boughs, and only wait to sing
Till one soft shower from the south shall bid,
And hither tempt the pilgrim steps of spring.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Zero Emission Cars?

A traffic jam in New York.  Click for photo credit.
One of the environmental challenges for modern society is the pollution associated with burning fossil fuels for transportation.  Vehicle use has expanded greatly in the last decade.  Around the world we now drive roughly 25% more vehicles than we did a decade ago.  Much of the expansion was in China, Brazil, and India.  In the U.S. we actually have fewer cars on the road than we did a ten years ago.  However, we still have more cars on the road than any other nation--roughly 270 million cars. China comes second with 78 million cars.  Even with the high growth of cars use in other nations like China, we are still the 700 pound gorilla in the room.

Many have looked to electric cars as a clean option to reduce pollution.  Some have called them zero emission cars.  However, I always like to point out that this appellation is not fully true and rings in my ears as a bit of benign greenwashing.  The electricity to produce the energy used in the cars has its source most likely in fossil fuels.  Thus, the cars are producing emissions in power plants somewhere.  However, the power plants are much better at reducing emissions at a major point source than we are in our individual cars.  Thus, these vehicles are more appropriately called reduced emissions vehicles as opposed to zero emission vehicles.  Only if the vehicles were tied to a green electrical sources such as wind, solar, or hydropower would they be truly a zero emission vehicle.

Note: I am 100% behind electric cars, but I just want to be sure that we are all honest about the emissions.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Ireland and Sustainability

Windmills in Ireland.  Click for photo credit.
Many of you are wearing green today to celebrate sustainability St. Patrick's Day.  What you may not know is that there are many sustainability initiatives in Ireland that makes wearing of the green extra symbolic.  From green energy production, to green agricultural initiatives, Ireland is one of the leaders on sustainability issues in Europe.

For example, take a look at this site, a non-profit site associated with Sustainable Ireland.  It provides information on a number of important Irish sustainability initiatives ranging from green building to permaculture.  It even focuses on green fashion.

Ireland also has a Sustainable Energy Authority.  Check them out here.  They are charged with developing green energy projects for the island.  Right now Ireland gets just over 7% of its energy from renewable sources.  That number is likely to increase.

Ireland has also committed to growing non-gmo crops.  They have a strong organic food movement and you can see more about this here.

So as you look into your green local beer this evening, drink one for the planet and all that Ireland's doing on the sustainability front.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Top Tips for a Green St. Patrick's Day

Not being of Irish descent, I've never fully understood the revelry behind St. Patrick's Day.  Don't get me wrong, I've tipped a pint or two during celebrations and I've jumped in full speed ahead at celebrations.  
Chicago on St. Patrick's Day. Click for photo credit.
There is no doubt that St. Patrick's Day seems to be very popular among the college crowds I've worked with over the years.  Do you think it might be the beer?  Here are some suggestions as to how to "green" your St. Patrick's Day celebrations.

1.  Buy local beer for your celebrations.  Microbreweries are popping up all over the place.  If you buy local, you are reducing carbon costs and supporting local economies.

2.  Avoid the corned beef.  Try a vegetarian option for St. Patrick's Day.  Beef is one of the most carbon-intensive forms of protein out there.  Here's a recipe for a grain protein corned beef like recipe. 

3.  Urge your local community to avoid dying the rivers green.  They have been doing this all over the world and it seems to be expanding.  Sure the dye is supposed to be harmless, but why do it? 

4.  Help recycle at parties.  Over the years I've been to many St. Patrick's Day parties with lots of bottles and cans.  Work with the host to ensure that those items get recycled.

5.  Plant something.  St. Patrick's Day to me is always the last icky day of the year in the north.  It is the culmination of the mud season as we transition from a snowy landscape of winter into a green landscape of spring.  It is the perfect time to put out early spring plants in the garden or start some cold sensitive indoor plants for late spring planting.