Sunday, September 28, 2014

Saving the Environment One Yodel at a Time

I gave the keynote talk at the Texas Geohydro Workshop yesterday in Cave Without a Name near Boerne, Texas.  I'll write more about the workshop when I have more time, but it focused on providing hands-on field education in hydrology, geology, and karst science to students and professionals in the field.  My talk was called, "The Karst Ice Bucket Challenge:  Activating the Next Generation of Karst Scientists".  I highlighted how karst scientists have a great deal of expertise on everything from energy to agriculture and how we are in a unique position to address some of the world's major problems.  I also challenged the audience to consider the ethical dimensions of their careers and ensure that as earth scientists that we do not do damage to the earth.

One of the unique aspects of the karst world is that those involved with the science have formed a close-knit community that likes to have fun.  Plus, Texas being Texas, there are some wonderfully quirky characters of all ages.  I wanted to share with you a video of the winner of the hog calling/yodeling contest that took place after my talk.  There were some tough entries, including one very realistic hog call, but the dance that went with the yodeling won it.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Great Experience with the Edwards Aquifer Authority

Click for photo credit.
I had an amazing day yesterday with the folks associated with the Edwards Aquifer Authority where I was the Distinguished Lecturer for their semi-annual lecture series.  I spoke for a full day to a packed house at the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio.

The topics included:

Understanding Sustainability in the Modern World
Geology and the Anthropocene
Water and Sustainability
Sustainability Benchmarking and Assessment
Pollution in America's Suburbs
Sustainability and Sinkholes

I had a terrific reception from all of the geologists, planners, and environmental scientists in the audience.  The San Antonio and Austin area are in great hands.  The professionals in the area are excellent stewards of the environment.  The region is a leader in water conservation and many areas of the world could learn from their efforts.

Perhaps the best experience of the day was meeting folks who overlapped at various universities where I went to school.  I met someone who went to my undergrad institution, UW-Oshkosh.  We had the same professors and were among a small group of alumni who went on school's famous geology field school to the Yukon, British Columbia, Alaska, and Alberta.

I also met alumni from UW-Milwaukee where I did my masters and Ph.D.  It was great to hang out with them for a bit and discuss our old profs.  I also got to visit with a former karst Ph.D. student at USF.

Oh, and I brought the rain!  Here's hoping I broke the Texas drought.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Scenes from the Climate March

Kari Jensen and students from Global Studies at Hofstra.
Photo by Bret Bennington.
The People's Climate March drew 400,000 people to the streets of Manhattan.  We had about 200 from Hofstra and thousands from across Long Island including big contingents from all of the universities (shout out to the ones that I saw from Stony Brook and Adelpi) and major environmental groups.  The Long Island Sierra Club did a great job in getting out the word and funding many of the students' train tickets into the city on the Long Island Railroad.

Some scenes.

On the way.  Our train into Penn Station was packed with students heading to Manhattan.  Once we got to Penn Station, we met up with many other Hofstra faculty and students who came on other trains.  We grabbed a subway uptown to the start of the march--or tried to!  The platforms were packed with people heading to the march.  Some of our group decided to march and others of us worked our way onto subway cars to head to Central Park West.

Christa Farmer from Geology, Environment, and Sustainability.
Photo by Bret Bennington
Lineup.  Like many other big protest events I have been to in the past, this one was a bit of organized chaos.  We got a few mixed messages from volunteers about how to get to the parade route.  However, we pretty quickly found ourselves near 72nd and Central Park, a few dozen meters from the Dakota where John Lennon was shot.  March organizers tried to put affinity groups together.  We were with the youth contingent along with many other university groups.  Around us were students from all over the country.  Seeing the number of young people at the march really does give one hope for the future.
David O'Connor from the United Nations with Hofstra
Geology, Environment, and Sustainability faculty member
Sandra Garren and her daughter.

Size.  The march was huge.  One of the bad things about participating in a march and not watching it is that you don't get a chance to see the diversity of groups involved with the event.  The crowd was so big that it started at 11:30, but our area didn't start moving until about 1pm.  Because we were with the university groups, I largely saw university folks in the march.  However, before and after the march, it was clear that many different types of organizations participated in the march.

Hofstra Sociology faculty member Chris Niedt and his
brother Eric.  Photo by Bret Bennington.
Signs and Costumes.  There were many creative signs in the crowd and many people dressed up.  There were mermaids caught in nets and fatcat CEOs covered in oil.  Signs ranged from basic environmental messages such as "Solar Energy Now" to more complex political messages.

Random Meetings.  What always amazes me about New York is that I run into people I know on the streets.  The march was no different.  I ran into several friends who ran up to me and gave me a quick hello.  It's so nice to have those chance encounters.

It was great hanging out with so many
committed young people.
Photo by Bret Bennington.
Students.  I loved seeing students from all over the country.  I spoke with several different university groups and they were all excited to be in New York at the march.  There is great commitment from the youth of today.  They understand that they are facing a different world than I faced when I was their age and they are very concerned about their future.

The End.  The end of the march was a bit of a dud.  There was no real organized setup for post march rallies, music, or information.  Folks just faded back into the streets of Manhattan. March volunteers at the end of the march shooed us back east after we made our way all the way to 42nd and 11th.  There were a handful of food trucks, but the lines were very long--especially for the vegan foodtruck.  No lines at the meatball truck.

Aftermath.  However, there is a tremendous energy around the issue of climate change right now.  I expect that we will see greater national and international action on the issue in the coming years.  

Hofstra wrote a piece about the climate march here that you can check out.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

"The Fight of Our Times" The Peoples Climate March

Today is the Peoples Climate March in Midtown Manhattan.  We have about 200 from Hofstra University marching (see article here) through the streets of New York to advocate for an international effort at combating climate change.  Organizers expect about 250,000 people including thousands from across Long Island.

The organizer of the march is noted author Bill McKibben.  Below is a little video he put together showing the reason why climate change is "the fight of our times".

See you at the march!

Friday, September 19, 2014

Draft Global Sustainable Development Report

Photo by Bob Brinkmann.
I was one of the contributors to the Draft Global Sustainable Development Report which you can see here.  The United Nations is likely to develop new global sustainable development indicators similar to the United Nations Millennium Development Goals in the next few years.  This report is a precursor to that effort.

There's a ton of information in the report and you can see it was written by lots of different people.  But one of the most interesting tables, from my perspective, is Figure 28 on page 84.  The Figure shows what different countries see as priority areas for any new sustainable development goals.  The top five areas are:  

1.  Food security and sustainable agriculture
2.  Water and sanitation
3.  Energy
4.  Education
5.  Poverty eradication

The bottom five areas are:

31.  Beyond GDP
30.  Tourism
29.  Community culture and spirituality
28.  Corporate social responsibility
27.  Information and communications technology

What is interesting about these results is that many traditional areas of international development (food, water, energy, education, and poverty) remain the greatest areas of concern internationally with sustainability. 

Thursday, September 18, 2014

A Futurist's View of the Arid South and Southwest

A drying lake in Texas.  Click for photo credit.
I'll be giving a series of talks in Texas next week on sustainability and water.  In preparing for the talks, I spoke with some experts in sustainability, economic development, and environmental science as to what they think will happen to places like Texas, Arizona, California, New Mexico, and Nevada in the coming generations as they confront extreme water shortages.  As many know, these places are using water unsustainably.  What this means is that they are using water at a rate that will cause them to run out of easily accessible water in the near future.  They are over-utilizing aquifers and surface water systems.  Some of the aquifers in these areas are nearly empty and many surface water bodies are disappearing.  Here are three possible outcomes we came up with.

1.  Depopulation and Economic Decline in Some Areas.  It will not be long before there will be a breakdown of water-dependent activities.  These include agriculture that requires significant irrigation and industrial activities that require large amounts of water.  Due to the ceasing of some of these enterprises, jobs will be lost.  Due to the multiplier effect of employment, the loss of one of these types of jobs leads to losses of other jobs in the service sector.  This leads to unemployment and broad economic decline and eventual out-migration.  Wetter states on the Gulf Coast can expect to see increases of population as organizations move to take advantage of abundant water supplies.  I am not saying that all of the arid south and southwest will see widespread depopulation, but expect to see economic decline in areas with high employment in water-based activities such as irrigated farms and water-dependent industries.  Some cities will need to aggressively find ways to conserve water or they will have to curtail growth.  

2.  Collapse of Ecosystems.  This is already happening in some parts of the arid south and southwest.  Prolonged droughts and removal of water from surface and groundwater systems has disrupted many ecosystems throughout the region.  This will likely continue.

3.  Growth in water-related jobs.  Given the scarcity of water in these regions, there will be increased interest in finding and managing water and in protecting ecosystems.  There will be greater demand for high-tech application in water resources and greater acceptance of water conservation efforts.  Water management will see greater privatization in some sectors while at the same time there will be greater public control over other sectors to ensure water delivery to the public as supplies decrease.  There will be greater need for regional water management and governance.  New housing developments and suburbs will be built with strict water conservation measures and xeriscaping leading to more jobs in green building and green building technology.

What do you think?  Did we get this right or wrong? What are some other possible future outcomes?

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Defining Sustainability

Click for photo credit.
One of the challenges in the field of sustainability is trying to come up with a definition of sustainability that encompasses the entire discipline.  The field is vast and includes thing like developing technological fixes for big environmental problems like climate change, creating appropriate sustainable development schemes for communities, and developing corporate sustainability planning.  The unifying theme is that all sustainability approaches are focused on improving the present condition so that the impact of humans on the planet is less and that our actions are fairer for all people.

Yet definitions for sustainability are elusive.  While the field is vast, it is also new and still organizing itself.

Many (including myself) use the definition that emerged from the 1980's UN Brundtland Report:  sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising future generations to meet their needs.  While this is a fine definition, it is not particularly nuanced from our vantage point in 2014.  

As a result of this situation, I took a shot at reframing the understanding of sustainability in my latest Huffingtonpost column here.  

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

The Reality of California's Drought

Click for photo credit.
As most of my readers know, California is in an historic drought that threatens agriculture, fisheries, forests, and urban water supplies.  You can read about California's efforts to deal with the drought here.  

However, anyone who has studied California's water supply system understands that this was bound to happen.  California's water management system is among the world's least sustainable examples of infrastructure.  Here's why.

Los Angeles naturally receives about 15 inches of rainfall a year.  This would normally classify it as semi-arid region.  Such places have limited natural carrying capacity due to low precipitation.  However, today, the population of arid and semi-arid southern California is roughly 22 million--all drawing considerable reserves from the limited water supply.  The agricultural center of California, the central valley, receives only 7 inches more--which makes California agriculture highly reliant on irrigation.  Both the urban and agricultural systems of California are out of synch with the carrying capacity of the state and thus are highly unsustainable and vulnerable.

The problem of living in a desert is that one becomes reliant on water from other areas.  California has built a huge network of aqueducts and pipes to bring water from hundreds of miles away. However, when there is a regional drought, these systems break down, leaving the region vulnerable to failure.  That is the condition of the water supply of California right now.

I'll be talking about the California situation as well as many other water management schemes around the world from a sustainability perspective when I give my presentation at the Edwards Aquifer Authority Distinguished Lecture Series in San Antonio Texas next week.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Bill McKibben Quiz

Bill McKibben.  Click for photo credit.
One of the organizers of the upcoming Peoples Climate March in New York City is noted environmentalist and author, Bill McKibben.  Here's a quiz to check your knowledge about this important figure in this history of the American environmental movement.  Answers in the comments.

1.  Bill McKibben's first book, published in 1989, is considered one of the most important early books on global climate change.  What is the name of the book?

2.  Where does he teach?

3.  What is the name of the organization that he started that focuses on climate change and that organized the upcoming climate march?

4.  McKibben was a writer of this column in the New Yorker.

5.  He grew up near this major American city.

6.  What is McKibben's religion?

7.  Where did he get his college degree?

8.  In what state does McKibben live today?

9.  McKibben's wife is also a writer.  Name her.

10.  McKibben has been very critical of a major infrastructure project that connects the U.S. and Canada.  Name the project.

Saturday, September 13, 2014


Nancy Cunard.  Click for photo credit.
When I was in Oxford, England this summer I picked up a few light reading books at a bookstore.  Many of the bookstores were featuring books about World War 1 since we were at the 100 year anniversary.  Plus, there were many books about the 1920's.  Knowing next to nothing about World War 1, I picked up the book 1913 (a book about the year before the war started) and a book about the 1920's called Flappers.
 I'm still reading the first, but thought I would write a brief review about the second.

Flappers focuses on the lives of six very interesting women of the 1920's:  Diana Cooper, Nancy Cunard, Tallulah Bankhead, Josephine Baker, Tamara de Lempicka, and Zelda Fitzgerald.  Each of these women became somewhat famous/notorious in the 1920's for their professional activities as well as their outrageous lifestyles.  Americans are probably most acquainted with Zelda Fitzgerald who became notorious for hosting cocktail parties nude in a bathtub.  As the wife of the author of The Great Gatsby, it seemed a fitting way to live.

The book focuses on a decade in the lives of each of these women as they found their way as leaders of the cultural phenomenon of the flapper movement.  Flappers threw away conventional attitudes about the role of women in society.  They cut their hair and dresses short, smoked cigarettes, drank, danced (most notably the Charleston), got jobs, and took lovers.  This was in stark contrast to the whale-boned and bustled women of a generation before.  The flappers were not content to live a life subservient to their husbands in homes away from the action of the era--whether that action was intellectual discourse or the latest jazz band.

Nancy Cunard, for example, was the heir to the Cunard fortune.  When she moved to Paris from her London home, she spent her nights in speakeasies and her days working on poetry, opened up a press to publish works by intellectuals, and took an African American jazz pianist as a lover.  Her mother cut her off.  Like many flappers of the era, she paid a heavy price for her freedom by becoming an alcoholic, by losing her family, and by losing her fortune.  Zelda Fitzgerald died in a fire in a mental institution and Tallulah was unable to have the family she wanted due to venereal disease.

Yet, some of the flappers maintained success and were able to navigate the dangers of nightlife.  Josephine Baker, for example, used her flapper fame to create a very rich career that spanned decades (check out this clip from the 1920's and this one from the 1970's).  She was given a state funeral in France in 1975.  Tamara de Lempicka's art became the symbol of the art deco movement.

What the book exposes is the price that many of these women paid to break the 1920's glass ceiling of repression and convention.  They remind me of many other later pioneers in the women's movement, gay rights movement, and civil rights movement who had very difficult personal lives while also paving the way for generations to come.

The book is a fun read since it focuses on one decade in great detail.  All six of these women knew each other or at least met.  However, after the 1920's each went in very different directions.  The book concludes with an epilogue detailing what happened to each after the flapper era.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Pesticide Concentration in Urban Streams Increases 53% from 1992-2011

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Yesterday an important study was released on the trend of pesticide concentrations in American streams from 1992-2011.  The authors were staff at the U.S. Geological Survey.  While there is some good news in the study (concentrations of pesticides at levels at risk to human health are down in rural streams), the big news is that pesticide concentrations in urban streams is up 53%.  Plus, while concentrations at levels to cause harm to human health are significantly down in rural streams, pesticides remain at concentrations that can cause harm to aquatic ecosystems throughout the U.S.  The report also acknowledged that many emerging pesticides were not included in the study.  

The main pesticides found in urban streams are fipronil, which is toxic to fish and invertebrates, and dichlorvos, which is used for household insects.

It is interesting that we are seeing decreased levels of pesticides in agricultural streams while we are seeing increased levels in urban streams.  In other words, we are doing a good job at reducing pesticides in agricultural applications, but we are doing a poor job at reducing them in urban areas--where there is the greatest risk of exposure.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Weather Forecast for September 23, 2050

The Weather Channel created a forecast for September 23, 2050.  The new normal.  Come to the Climate March in New York City on Saturday, September 21st, 2014.  Message me for details.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Could the U.S. be a Global Climate Change Hero?

Click for photo credit.
The leaders of China and India will not be attending the upcoming UN Climate Summit in New York on the 23rd of this month. According to this article from The Diplomat, this signals that China and India are not going to participate in any binding agreement to limit greenhouse gases.

This is a fascinating development.  When the Kyoto protocol went forward in 1997, the US was the only major country not to ratify the agreement on binding emissions reductions.  The U.S. opted not to do this in part because the protocol allowed other countries to continue to expand greenhouse gases without any limit.  That is indeed what happened.  Today, China is the number 1 producer of greenhouse gases and India is #3.  The U.S., of course, is #2.  

While it is disappointing that China and India have decided not to attend, their absence provides an opportunity for the U.S. to take leadership on climate change policy in the upcoming summit.  The U.S. very quietly has been making tremendous strides in trying to reduce greenhouse gases by limiting emissions from fossil fuels, by aggressively developing renewable energy sources, and by improving energy efficiency.  

There has not been very much international leadership on climate change policy in many years.  The U.S. could take advantage of India and China's lack of participation on the issue by forging a binding international agreement that seeks to lessen greenhouse gases.

Fingers crossed.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Mount Rainier 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 Mount Rainier National Park in Washington. 

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 of the National Parks. Check them out to see the beauty of the U.S. National Parks as captured by visitors.

Click for photo credit.
Click for photo credit.
Click for photo credit.
Click for photo credit.
Click for photo credit.
Lassen Volcanic National Park
Mammoth Cave National Park
Mesa Verde National Park

Saturday, September 6, 2014

We Belong to a Community Larger than Ourselves

Scott Reich
I had the pleasure of having breakfast yesterday with noted author and entrepreneur, Scott Reich, the author of The Power of Citizenship:  Why JFK Matters to a New Generation.  What really impresses me about Scott is how he is using his life to make the world a better place.  He had a very nice job with a major law firm in New York, but completely changed his life to become an author and entrepreneur.  His book highlights how we need to do a better job with seeing ourselves as part of a larger community.  It is so easy to think of self first while the world crumbles around us.  But, we all can do more in our communities and in society as a whole.  If you haven't read his book, you should.  It will inspire you to do more.

His current enterprise (that he started with his friend, Michael Winik), Our Harvest, focuses on bringing locally sourced food to Long Island consumers.  Our Harvest was founded with the idea that the modern food network system is broken.  Large producers do not care about the quality of the food as much as local growers.  Plus, food is transported great distances through networks all over the world.  At the same time of this great food abundance, there are many in society going hungry.

What Our Harvest does is work directly with farmers, thereby cutting out the middle man (and expenses) to get food directly to consumers.  For every $25 of food sold, Our Harvest donates 1 meal to local food banks and charities.  The costs meet or beat local supermarket produce prices.  Plus, with convenient pick up spots all over Long Island, Our Harvest makes it easy for folks to pick up their bi-weekly order in their neighborhood.

Did I say that Scott is just 30?  He is clearly one of the future thinkers about the future of food in Long Island.  Check out this interview with him below from Book Expo America.  One of the quotes from the interview that sums up Scott's outlook is, "We belong to a community larger than ourselves."

Thursday, September 4, 2014

China to Implement Cap and Trade for Carbon in 2016

A temple in Hainan, China.  Photo by Bob
When the U.S. congress rejected Cap and Trade in the broad American Clean Energy and Security Act (ACESA) in 2009, it set U.S. climate change policy behind the rest of the western world.  Along with cap and trade for carbon, the bill also provided opportunities for the expansion of renewable energy--something that most now recognize as important to our future.

In the mean time, much of the rest of the world is working aggressively to develop alternative energy and policy to reduce greenhouse gases.  China recently announced that they were instituting a cap and trad program for carbon emissions in 2016. You can read about this here.

In the ACESA political landscape, carbon trading was used by opponents to damn the bill.  They called it Marxist, a defeat of free enterprise, and overreaching by the government.  Of course, carbon trading, in my mind, is none of these things.

Here's how it works. National limits in carbon emissions are set based on some set guidelines by area and industry.  If you are in an area that wants to produce more carbon, you buy the right to pollute from an area that is not producing as much as their limit.  What this does is use capitalism as a driving force to promote innovation.  Plus, the carbon markets around the world are usually managed by private companies.

The key here is that the policy makes it economically worthwhile to improve technology in reducing carbon.

What was lost in the national conversation on carbon trading at the time, is that we are already doing lots of pollution trading in this country to great success.  Indeed, it is the main reason why we have seen a decline in acid rain.

Certainly China has to do something to deal with greenhouse gas emissions--they are the largest producer in the world.  Their embrace of cap and trade has the potential to make a big difference.  The question that many around the world are asking right now is: Where is the U.S. on greenhouse gas pollution and global climate change?

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Wisconsin Leads the Country in Crappy Energy Production

I was looking at some data from the U.S. Energy Administration and ran into this interesting statistic from Wisconsin.  The state leads the country in turning animal waste into fuel (natural gas).  Overall, Wisconsin gets 10% of its energy from renewable sources like hydroelectric.  While the animal waste fuel is only a fraction of this total, the potential is there to make it a larger portion of the state's energy resources.  Given that the state gets about half of its electricity from coal, it makes sense to look to greener sources of energy to try to reduce greenhouse gas pollution from coal burning power plants by capitalizing on its abundant animal wastes as a source of energy.

Check out the video below from Canada to see how these systems work.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Florida Far Ahead of California in Water Management

The five water management districts in Florida.
Water must be managed within each region to ensure
long-term sustainability of the aquifers.  Heavy users
are permitted for the amount they can withdraw.
Check out this article from the New York Times about California's water problems.  California is now (finally) requiring groundwater basin management plans and limiting the amount of water withdrawals that can be made by large users.  Currently, California has few restrictions on large users of water, particularly in the agricultural sector.

With California's current drought, pumping is hurting the aquifer and causing salt water intrusion.  Of course, farmers are between a rock and a hard place.  They either have to pump water, thereby doing long-term damage to the aquifer and limiting its use into the future, or they will lose their crops.  It is a short-term vs. long-term outlook at play and a good case study for anyone interested in long-term sustainability of a region.

Florida figured this out a long time ago.  They set up several drainage basin regions that are managed within a governmental water management districts.  These organizations are responsible for ensuring that the aquifers and surface water bodies are not harmed by too much withdrawal.  They permit large water users and work with public and private organizations to ensure that problems do not occur, particularly during droughts.  While the system is not perfect (what system is?), it is far better than the "take as much as you need" approach that California has been employing for generations.  California built an agricultural landscape that is very much out of step from the dry natural environment of the thirsty central valley of California.  In the long term, Florida's water planning is a much more sustainable system that ensures water for farmers and residents that is in step with the local water budgets.