Friday, May 30, 2014

Bhutan Not So Happy About Happiness

A mountain pass in Bhutan.  Click for photo credit.
Since the 1970's Bhutan has been advocating a unique way of assessing their nation's progress by using a "happiness index" developed by the King of Bhutan, Jigme Singye Wangchuck.  The index uses seven broad themes for assessing national happiness:

·        Economic wellness
·        Environmental wellness
·        Physical wellness
·        Mental wellness
·        Workplace wellness
·        Social wellness
·        Political wellness

Each of these themes has quantitative and qualitative indicators that assess national happiness.  Since the 1970's this index has gotten quite a bit of attention as an alternative to more economic assessments of national health such as gross domestic product.  Who doesn't want to assess a country using happiness as a guide?

Many have advocated for this form of national assessment of progress since economic indicators do not really explain the overall happiness of the people.  Or do they?  

Bhutan is backtracking on the overall usefulness of the happiness index as a form of national assessment at a time when many other countries are incorporating a happiness or wellbeing index as a way to gauge their nation.  Just take a look at what Canada has done here in their Index of Wellbeing.  Many other countries have done the same thing.  Take a look at the U.N. rankings of happiness here.  Venezuela, a distinctly unhappy country at the moment, was rated as the happiest in South America using the U.N.'s index.  

Obviously something is wrong with an index that rates a country as the happiest in a continent when the Human Rights Watch produces a 103 page document outlining widespread human rights violations--particularly against students and political dissenters.  Venezuela's oppressive government has lauded their ranking as a form of success at the same time that they are imprisoning political opposition leaders.  Venezuela even appointed a Happiness Minister at a time when there were food lines and shortages of basic medicines, milk, and toilet paper.

Bhutan's new leader, according to this New York Times report is largely abandoning their signature happiness index and is seeking to find more quantitative goals such as debt reduction and unemployment.  

Obviously the happiness indices that are used can be helpful tools in some circumstances.  However, happiness as a means of assessing overall national progress may be a bit too dreamy in reality.


Thursday, May 29, 2014

Canada to Get 90% Electricity from Non-Emitting Sources by 2020

The Chaudières hydroelectric dam in Toronto.
I was doing some research on national sustainability policy today and ran across a fascinating statistic.  Canada's sustainability planning has them on track to get 90% of their electricity from non-emitting sources by 2020.  Right now, they are at a staggering 79% of electricity from non-emitting sources.  Most of this energy is in the form of hydroelectric power (63.7%) and most of the rest from nuclear power (15%).  Wind energy makes up just 0.6% of the electricity produced.

In contrast, in the U.S. we get 19 % of our electricity from nuclear, 7% from hydroelectric, and 3.5% from wind.  Certainly Canada's vast river systems suitable for hydroelectric power development give that nation an advantage for the production of non-emitting energy. But we have a long way to go in the USA.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Google Car

The new Google Car was recently unveiled.  It is a driverless car that allows you to do a million other things instead of driving.  I loved the look on everyone's faces in the video below.  They clearly are thrilled with the experience of travel without control.

I think that this is a wonderful way to save energy.  A driverless car will drive the vehicle in the best way possible to save gas.

I wonder if the car will become a form of a robot that can run errands for you.  Think of the possibilities.  You could send it out to pick up a prescription or groceries.  You just have to tell the store what to order and have a gps censor notify the store when your car robot arrives.  Your preselected and packed groceries can be brought out to your robot car immediately.  A camera on board would let you know if it was safe to unlock the car.  You get the idea....the possibilities are pretty amazing.

Oh robot car, I want you.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Lake Clark National Park and Preserve

Today I continue my series highlighting interesting open access Flickr photos of all 59 U.S. National Parks. In this post we go to Lake Clark National Park and Preserve in Alaska. 

I'll run through all 59 National Parks in alphabetical order. If you have any photos that you would like to share from any national park that I could post, please send them along. Following the photos, you'll find links to previous On the Brink posts on the National Parks. Check them out to see the beauty of the U.S. National Parks as captured by visitors.


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Friday, May 23, 2014

The Katz's Deli Sinkhole

Click for photo credit.
Recently I wrote about the famous Winnipeg sinkhole with its own Twitter account.  Today, I found out that another major urban sinkhole opened up in my neck of the woods in lower Manhattan outside of the famed Katz's Deli on Houston Street.
This sinkhole is yet another urban sinkhole that formed as a result of a broken water pipe.  The break flooded some buildings in the area and caused the collapse in front of the deli.  This was not a natural sinkhole that formed from the collapse of rock after natural solution of soluble limestone.

The Winnipeg and Katz's Deli sinkhole do demonstrate that our modern urban infrastructure is aging and vulnerable to underground pipe failures.  I expect we will hear about more of these collapses in the future in cities all over the world.

For more on the Katz's Deli sinkhole, click here or here.

According to all reports, the Pastrami is fine.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Professional Hangman Player in Hot Water Over Climate Change Denial Tweet

Recently, professional hangman player, Pat Sajek, tweeted the following:

I now believe global warming alarmists are unpatriotic racists knowingly misleading for their own ends. Good night.

Mr. Sajek is clearly a beloved American comedian and game show host who enjoys picking at issues with a sharp stick.  However, compare the two videos and tell me which of these individuals has more compelling arguments on climate change.

His comments, however humorous in some circles, do not really help our country address issues of global climate change.


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Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Top Moments for Hofstra Sustainability Studies, 2013-2014 Academic Year

There are so many great memories from the 2013-2014 academic year here at Hofstra. I picked a handful of photos to show some highlights.  I could have picked dozens more , but I kept it simple.  Thanks to all of my friends, colleagues, and students at Hofstra University who make every day on campus special.


The year started off with Hofstra's Discovery group.  Incoming freshman interested in public service come to campus a week early in a program called The Discovery Program.  I work with students in the sustainability track.  Here we are at the end of a long, hot afternoon after a nature trail cleanup.
Each incoming Hofstra freshman read The Good Food Revolution by noted urban agriculturalist (and fellow Wisconsinan) Will Allen.  The book is an inspiring biography that really got the students thinking about public service, food, race, and environmental protection.
Mr. Allen also dedicated our new student garden on campus.  It was an honor to meet him!
Thanks to funding from the National Center for Suburban Studies, Joanne Norris (a Sustainability Studies BS Major) became the first student garden manager.
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Hofstra is a very special university.  Most classes are capped at 35.  Some classes, particularly the Freshman Experience Seminars, are capped at 15.  I have had the honor and pleasure of teaching in the Freshman Experience program for the last two years.  Here we are on a class field trip in Manhattan at the city's first green skyscraper, The Bank of America Tower.
I had the honor of giving two talks at the United Nations in the fall and was the lead investigator of a team that did a report with the U.N. on national sustainability assessments.
My sinkhole book came out this fall and received quite a bit of press.  Here I was in the CBS This Morning Studio ready to go on nationwide television.
In early December, we hosted one of the most important debates on GMO food ever to be held with some of the nation's leading experts in the field.
The fall also saw the annual, Celebration of Suburban Diversity banquet.  Here I am with my 2013-2014 posse of (back row) Dr. Niedt, me, Taiyo Francis, (front row) Lisa Marie Pierre, Joanne Norris, and Jared Garfinkel.  Lisa Marie was back visiting us after her first year working on her Ph.D. at Arizona State.

January brought us visiting faculty member Wenting Chen.  She is a faculty member at Hainan University in China and is working with our crew on sustainability and tourism.  What a joy it is to have her as part of our team!
Did I mention that I have the best students in the world?  Here we are on one of my patented sustainability tours of campus.  The spring semester is always a busy one, but the efforts and positivity of the students keep me motivated.
Earth Day brought many terrific speakers to our campus.  Here is David O'Connor, the Director of Sustainability Policy Division of the U.N.; Burrell Montz, Chair of Geography at East Carolina; and William Colglazier, Science Adviser to Secretary of State John Kerry.  We always try to bring the best people to Hofstra on Earth Day and this year was another example of excellence!

The spring was a real milestone for our program!  Jared Garfinkel was the first student to graduate from Hofstra with a degree in Sustainability.
The campus was tuliprific this spring in one of the most stunning displays of beauty that I can remember.  It is a delight to work on a campus that is also an arboretum.


I could have added so much more!  Talks at the Geological Society of American and the Association of American Geographers.  My work with the National Cave and Karst Research Institute.  My team's work with the National Center for Suburban Studies.  Student research projects.  Fun times with colleagues on and off campus.

Gracias!

Friday, May 16, 2014

Winnipeg "Sinkhole" Earns Fame

The beautiful city of Winnipeg.  Click for photo credit.
Winnipeg, in the Canadian Provence of Manitoba, is underlain by an ancient paleokarst landscape.  The soluble rocks are covered by a blanket of glacial till and lacustrine clay.  Caves are present at some depth and sinkholes do occasionally form.

One sinkhole has been making all the news in Manitoba--and it has its own Twitter account.

This is the famous St. Mary's Road sinkhole that opened Wednesday.  However, it isn't your normal sinkhole.  This one seems to have formed after a broken storm water drain pipe broke and washed out sediment underlying the roadway.

Sinkholes form naturally after the collapse of a natural void space underground.  These voids typically form in soluble bedrock like limestone.  You probably have been in one of these voids such as Carlsbad Caverns or Mammoth Cave.  Sinkholes are very common in places like Kentucky, Florida, and the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico.

However, the St. Mary's Road "sinkhole" isn't a natural sinkhole at all.  It is a human-made phenomena brought about through the failure of aging subsurface  pipes.  There are lots of examples of these types of "sinkholes" all over the world.  We just had one not too long ago down the road from me in Brooklyn that almost ate a van.

Geologists cringe when people call these kinds of phenomena sinkholes because we all use the term for the naturally occurring sinkholes that form in karst landscapes (landscapes of soluble rocks).

Yet, the term is so widely used for depressions that form from failed pipes that it is time to approve of the term sinkhole for these kinds of phenomena.  I think the geologists in the room will understand that they are not the natural ones.

Plus, these types of sinkholes are the Kardashians of the geologic world.  Everyone talks about them even though they might not have much substance.

What other geologic phenomenon has its own Twitter account?

You can follow the Winnipeg sinkhole at @Wpg_sinkhole

A big thanks to CBC Radio in Winnipeg for having me on the air this morning to talk about the sinkhole and sinkholes in general.


Thursday, May 15, 2014

Peru, Sustainability, and the Challenge Ahead

The Peruvian Andes.  Click for photo credit.
I've been looking at some sustainability data and ran across an interesting statistic that was highlighted by Treehugger here.  Peru is the only country in the world that has a relatively high human development index measurement combined with a low ecological footprint.  Other countries have high human development indices and high ecological footprints (the U.S. for example) and other countries have low human development indices with either low or high ecological footprints.

What this means is that Peru has found a way to have a relatively decent standard of living while minimizing the impact on the environment.  This does not mean that all is sunshine and lollipops.  There are many poor in the country and  plenty of examples of environmental problems.  Roughly about 1/3 of the population has limited access to drinking water and many work as subsistence farmers.  Such is the danger of summarizing a nation with a single index--we sometimes miss out on the details.  The data are useful, but when digging deeper, one finds significant challenges for survival.

Lima, Peru.  Click for photo credit.
It is important to note that Peru is exceptionally vulnerable to climate change--especially in the arid and semi-arid coastal zones and agriculturally productive Andean highlands.  The Peru Support Group provides insight into the challenges ahead.  Some of the issues they note are highlighted below.

All of the research is showing that Peru's agriculture and water resources are vulnerable to even subtle shifts in climate change.

Thus, while Peru is one of the nations that seems to have navigated itself into a sustainability "sweetspot", it is unclear whether or not Peru can continue to limit its environmental footprint as its natural systems change.

Peru will see between 1 and 4 degree Celcius temperature rise according to the Stern Report.  What this means is that melting of its tropical Andean glaciers will accelerate, thereby causing significant flooding and water resources problems.  Plus, Peru gets most of its energy from hydroelectric dams.  If the snows melt and the rains don't come, Peru's energy system will see problems.

Approximately 1/3 of Peru's population lives in Lima, which sits within a desert.  It relies heavily on seasonal glacial meltwater for its water supply.  Lima is already seeing water shortages due to the challenges of supplying 9 million people with water.

While Peru might be in a "sweetspot" now, there are distinct challenges ahead.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Overusing Pesticides, Herbicides, and Fertilizers in Our Yards

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The New York Times published an interesting editorial over the weekend on the overuse of pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers in our backyards.  Many of us use 10 times the amount used by farmers and far more than is needed.  We tend to overdo applications of these chemicals to make sure that we kill the bug, cut back the unwanted plant, or feed our tomatoes.

As a result of this overuse, we pollute our environment. Specifically, our heavy yard applications of chemicals can lead to groundwater, surface water, and soil pollution.  The impacts are already seen.  A study dating back to 1999 showed that even back then pesticides were found in the bodies of nearly every fish sampled.

The best thing we can do is try to use natural pesticides, herbicides, and insecticides.  We also need to get over the very 1950's desire for a green and perfect lawn.

This blog doesn't nag that much on environmental issues, but this is one of those topics that deserves a little reminding every once in a while.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Kobuk Valley National Park

Today I continue my series highlighting interesting open access Flickr photos of all 59 U.S. National Parks. In this post we go to Kobuk Valley National Park in Alaska. 

For more information about the park, click here. I'll run through all 59 National Parks in alphabetical order. If you have any photos that you would like to share from any national park that I could post, please send them along. Following the photos, you'll find links to previous On the Brink posts on the National Parks. Check them out to see the beauty of the U.S. National Parks as captured by visitors.
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The Lost Generation of US Climate Policy

Check out my take on the new US National Climate Assessment here on Huffingtonpost.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Margaret Thatcher and the U.S. Climate Assessment

As most know, the U.S. Climate Assessment report came out this week.  Take a look at it here if you haven't seen it.  It demonstrates that we are already feeling the impacts of global climate change.

In the midst of its release, it was attacked by the climate change denial crowd.

I urge my conservative friends to take a look at this video of Margaret Thatcher in 1989.  In it, she is urging international action on global climate change.  In 1989.  Let me say that again.  In 1989.

It has been 25 years since this conservative leader spoke on climate change.

Since then, North Carolina has banned making sea level rise predictions and national columnists call climate change a superstition.

If you are a conservative, please look at what Margaret Thatcher had to say about the issue.  In 1989.  Then tell me if our country has been served by its leaders who denied the science of climate change over the last 25 years--and those who continue to deny.

I'll have more to say about the U.S. Climate Assessment report soon, but in the mean time, enjoy this speech by Lady Thatcher.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Stanford University to Divest from Coal

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Some important breaking news on the fossil fuel divestment front:  Stanford University just became the largest university in the country to divest from publicly traded coal companies

As my regular readers know, there is a growing divestment movement underway in the country that is seeking to encourage universities and other institutions to divest their endowment funds from fossil fuel companies.  The movement started with Bill McKibbon and 350.org

Those seeking divestment note that the burning of fossil fuels are largely responsible for causing our current challenges with global climate change.  The divestment movement is taking its cues from the successful South African divestment campaign of the late 1970's and 1980's.  It is believed that divestment helped to educate the world about the brutal apartheid system in South Africa and led to change.  Indeed, check out the efforts of one Hofstra alumna in moving forward the South Africa divestment issue on my campus.

Stanford is one of the leaders in sustainability education in California.  Given the prestige and significance of Stanford, I expect we will see many more universities joining the divestment movement soon. 

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Will Allen to Receive Honorary Doctorate from Hofstra

Noted urban agriculturalist Will Allen will receive an honorary doctorate from Hofstra University Sunday May 18th at our annual commencement ceremony.  This year, all incoming students read his book, The Good Food Revolution as part of a common reading program we have each year.  Allen visited our campus last fall and dedicated our second student garden.  This summer, two of our Sustainability Studies majors will attend a workshop in Milwaukee at his urban farm.

One of our Hofstra Sustainability Majors meeting Mr. Allen on campus in August, 2013.

The dedication of the new student garden.


Me and Mr. Allen at the student garden dedication in August of 2013.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Top 10 Hofstra Legends

Some of Mrs. Hofstra's cats.  Courtesy of Hofstra
Special Collections.
Universities always are associated with legends--fantastical tales of the past that may or may not be true.  Hofstra is no exception.  This semester completes three years I've spent at Hofstra University and I thought I would share a list of my Top Ten Hofstra Legends.  In the comments, I'll let you know if the legend is true or false. To stir up trouble, I also included one or two
that I thought would be good legends for the university.  See if you can find them!

1.  Mrs. Hofstra left part of her fortune to her cats.

2.  The New York Jets once had offices in the Medical School.

3.  Mr. Hofstra avoided going down in the Titanic by choosing to go to Canada on a business trip.

4.  Charles Lindberg took off to Paris on his famous Atlantic crossing from airstrips that once were on the residential side of campus.

One of Hofstra's legends.  This is the famed "Hofstra
Tulip".  Photo by Bob Brinkmann.
5.  There is a tulip planted for every student on campus in the campus arboretum.

6.  Robert Moses resigned from the Board of Trustees when the university decided to build dormitories.

7.  Francis Ford Coppola was the first student to direct a major production on the Hofstra campus.

8.  Calkins Hall was once the gym.

9.  The first official team sport at Hofstra was polo, which was first played on campus in 1936.

10.  A secret tunnel connects the north and south side of campus under Hempstead Turnpike.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Sinkhole Warning Ahead


This video shows the site of the only known sinkhole warning that I know of in the world.  It is in Carlsbad, New Mexico.  A large subsurface void is present in the subsurface under the road in this location and could collapse suddenly. Warning systems are in place in case the sinkhole occurs with a goal of trying to protect life and property.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

National Cave and Karst Research Institute

Hello from Carlsbad, New Mexico, the home of the National Cave and Karst Research Institute.  I am the Chairman of the Board of this organization and I am in New Mexico for our annual board meeting.

I thought I would take a moment to introduce my readers to this organization.  You can read about it here.

The organization was started by congress to:


  1. further the science of speleology;
  2. centralize and standardize speleological information;
  3. foster interdisciplinary cooperation in cave and karst research programs;
  4. promote public education;
  5. promote national and international cooperation in protecting the environment for the benefit of cave and karst landforms; and
  6. promote and develop environmentally sound and sustainable resource management practices.  

Roughly 20 % of the U.S. is covered by karst landscapes.  These places have tremendous issues with water resources, land stability, and pollution.  Our organization is trying to lead the way to better understand these issues and organize information in a way that is useful to the people of the United States.

The organization works not only with the U.S. government through the National Parks Service and the USGS, but it also works with the state of New Mexico, especially New Mexico Tech University, and the City of Carlsbad.

To see an earlier post on this organization, see here.