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The Value in One’s Sense of Place on Earth — July 5, 2015

The Value in One’s Sense of Place on Earth

More than ever before in my life, I see the tremendous value in having a sense of place or a connection to where I live my life. I view this feeling of community and interconnectedness as essential for a person’s wellbeing, yet it seems people today have given up on this idea to an extent. We travel to exotic places for vacations to escape the daily life we created for ourselves, move away for a school or job position, and dream of picking up everything and moving to a new location for any reason. Not everyone has lost their sense of place, but the majority of us now living in cities know very little about the places where they live and have very little attachment to their current places. This has detrimental consequences for the sustainability of any culture or community.

When I moved to Austin, Texas last August for graduate school, I barely gave it a second thought. I was able to move to a state far from home for my first year to study at St. Edward’s University and discover what I wanted from life. It was an obvious choice to go for me. After completing my first year, the program requires a semester abroad in Angers, France, so I will be moving to Angers at the end of the month. Before my studies began here in Austin, I was again away from where I grew up to earn my undergraduate degree in Environmental Studies in Binghamton, New York. Although it was only a three and a half hour drive from home, it was far enough to feel as though I was in a new place. I was truly in a new place. All of the moving around has taken its toll on me though. Don’t get me wrong, I have had some experiences that I would not trade for the world, and I do not regret my decisions. There is, however, something missing, and I believe it has to do with the sense of community (which starts with our connection to place).

Now, why is our sense of place and connection to the land so important? There are many environmental reasons to value the answers to this question, but I like to boil it down to one thing: sustainability. Not just the sustainability of the environment, but also of society as a whole. The natural environment is what we all depend upon on some level, but we also depend on our location to make sense of the social interactions we have among one another. More specifically, our knowledge of where we live, to a large extent, dictates how we think, act, and respond to life’s various and complex situations.

Since the majority of humans live in cities today, we have lost almost all connections to the natural environment. What we accept as “nature” in the city is disappointing and embarrassing. We value development over conservation. Essentially, we value more and not better (as Bill McKibben writes in Deep Economy). The natural world is in trouble, and very few of us are ready to accept that as fact. We eat foods that travel thousands of miles before it reaches our refrigerators and know nothing of the flora and fauna of the places we call home. We do not know how to grow our own food, nor do we know much about the food we buy from the supermarket. We have outsourced many of these things to a few specialists, and this will one day be a major problem. Change is the law of life. If we rely on others for something as basic as food (and water), then we are at the mercy of those in that position of power for our most basic human needs. Ignorance is not bliss.

Beyond the sustainability of the food system and the natural world, we are at risk of losing all connection to one another. The anonymity and individualism that is provided to us by cities can be beneficial in many ways, but taken to an extreme (as we have done today) we can easily destroy our sense of community. This may seem to some as not such a huge deal, but it is for stability of our communities. Humans need to feel like they belong, but we allow ourselves to become so disconnected from one another, as we connect to our WiFi. Technology has made it way easier to facilitate this shift. Many people today do not even know their neighbors and this disconnection from humanity causes unnecessary violent crimes to take place every day. To give you an idea of how big our social problems are, consider this statistic: one in five woman are victims of sexual assault on college campuses today. Violence is pervasive in our culture today; This is how we treat the members of our community. We stay out of other peoples’ business, and sometimes we even ignore the turmoil of those in our own family. This does not come as a shock to me because we live in a world where it is so easy to escape from the reality of our circumstances.

It is not just crime that rises when we lose our sense of community, but also our health more broadly. Obesity is at an all-time high in the United States because we have lost our connection to our place and time. This is a preventable disease of modern society, yet we continue to allow soda companies to fund our sporting activities. The advertising is all over the place for these products, and the main ingredient (sugar) is the leading cause for obesity. If we truly were committed to ending the obesity epidemic, we would rid our communities of these drinks and of the fast food establishments on every other street corner. Similarly, our “War on Drugs” has taken a huge toll on the mentally ill all around the world, which criminalizes and locks up those who would instead benefit greatly from medical treatment. Viewing things like obesity and addiction as personal choices or struggles is only half of the picture. What we choose to value and how we act towards these things defines who we are as a people. I for one do not want to be defined by absentee legislators who have the power to decide what is best for your community. Every place is different, and each place requires a unique stewardship that should be defined by local residents.

With all of this in mind, I am ready to move somewhere and stay there. After I finish Master’s degree in Environmental Management and Sustainability, I am committed to living in a place. I want to build a sense of community and be a steward of the land I live upon. I want to live in a place where I do not feel the need to run away on an expensive vacation to feel peace and serenity. I want to live in a community where we look after one another, as opposed to a place where neighbors compare themselves to one another and fight with each other. We could all afford to turn off our electronic devices and go out into the local community where we live to see what and who needs our help. Everyone has something unique to offer, but we have to find the courage to recognize and believe in our strengths to make a difference in this world.

The Story of the Honey-bee and GMO Crops — May 17, 2015

The Story of the Honey-bee and GMO Crops

Over the past few years, the state of our planet’s bee population has become of increasing concern to many people around the world. The causes, however, have been in place considerably longer than most people realize. Today, genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, are receiving a lot of the blame for the collapse of the honey bee populations in North America. After watching an inspiring TED talk by Marla Spivak titled Why bees are disappearing , Spivak notes the problem for the bees goes beyond GMOs. Though there is hard evidence supporting the role of GMO crops in the decline, the bee populations around the world have been subjected to a variety of stressors since World War II contributing to their decline: monoculture production of food, pesticides, flowerless landscapes, and bee disease.

Honeybees have been praised by human civilizations for their honey as a natural sweetener for thousands of years, but we depend on them today more than ever before. We have increased the area of land devoted to crops requiring bee pollination by 300 percent in the last 50 years (Aizen et al. 2008). In Marla Spivak’s talk on the decline of bee populations, she notes that bees account for pollinating one-third of the world’s food crops. You could see why this might be a problem for a world expecting to be home to 9.6 billion hungry people by 2050, as projected by the United Nations in a report I referred to in an earlier post.

Following World War II, with the advent of synthetic nitrogen-based fertilizers, the practice of monocultures become increasingly more common in the agricultural setting, as opposed to polycultures. Traditionally, crop rotations, composting, cover crop planting, and other sustainable farming techniques were used on smaller farms to maintain and improve soil quality. All of this meant that polycultures were the norm, with many varieties of crops being planted in the same space.  These environments were ideal for bee populations because the bees depend on pollen and nectar from flowering plants to make up their diet.  When monoculture came to dominate the landscape, the ecology of these areas could no longer support such a large population of bees. (I recommend watching the documentary film Food Inc. if you are interested in the various circumstances that led to the domination of large monocultures throughout the United States and how large seed and pesticide companies are now trying to establish monoculture production of food in other regions of the globe, though they are meeting considerable opposition).

At the same time, we introduced a variety of pesticides to enable the monoculture crops to exist and threw away the older, more sustainable techniques used in agriculture. One of the many costs of genetically engineering crops is the game of cat and mouse that is created when pests become resistant to a pesticide. It becomes an evolutionary arms race between the pesticide companies and the pests, ultimately resulting in an increased use of pesticides in quantity and quality. The pests are able to adapt to the pesticides, leading to more and newer classes of pesticides being used on our cops. Also, the monocultures are an agricultural pest’s heaven. The abundance of food to eat, seemingly without any limit, attracts all different types of organisms trying to exploit the food source. This, in turn, has resulted in the use of various pesticides to combat the array of pests, such as insects, fungi, and bacteria. Traditionally, the diversity on small polyculture farms, along with the sustainable agricultural practices of the farmers, kept pests in control with a variety of creative, innovative, and sustainable techniques. Planting of flowers was done to attract beneficial insects, like honey bees, and ward off unwanted organisms. Using compost, instead of synthetic fertilizers, kept the soil full of life. They simply did not spray their crops with such harmful chemicals. The traditional small polyculture farms acted more like an ecosystem, rather than like an input/output software program on your laptop

The important thing to understand is that pesticides range in their class and type because they are used on different organisms to combat specific problems associated with planting anything, but especially in a monoculture landscape. Herbicides, designed to kill ‘weeds’ are detrimental to the bee populations because flowering ‘weeds’ are what they depend on, as I mentioned, for their diet. Even more concerning are the class of neuro-active insecticides called neonicotinoids, which some independent research links to honey-bee colony collapse disorder (CCD). It is important to note that the studies that have findings liking neonicotinoids to CCD are independent, third-party research studies and not industry-funded studies. These studies are different to studies performed by companies, who maintain that they can police themselves by hiring their own scientists to conduct the necessary research into the safety of their products. (I will leave you to decide your stance on industry-funded research. I enjoyed the documentary film Fed Up, which goes into detail on the topic of research on food/diet and industry over the past 50-60 years).

Additionally, the loss of agricultural land and the rapid rates of urbanization is making the landscape flowerless. Although our monocultures are not ideal habitats for bees, they currently are supporting bee populations. The lack of access to non-toxic flowering plants is of major concern to honey bees, since the class of pesticides, mentioned above, called neonicotinoids are found in every part of the plant’s tissue. Other classes of pesticides, still toxic, just coated the outer portion of the seeds, which had a much milder effect on bee populations. The pollen gathered from a corn plant genetically modified for neonicotinoids, for example, is linked to CCD in many studies, which prompted the European Union and seven other countries to restrict their use in 2013 (http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-22335520). Neonicotinoids are fundamentally different from other pesticides in that it is ubiquitous in the entire plant.

Lastly, the disappearance of bees can be attributed to an increase in infection of disease in bees. I will not go into much detail on the types of diseases, pests, parasites, and predators of bees, but I will note that if there is too much stress on any organism, acute or chronic, they will have lowered immunity to fight off infections, less energy to put into defense and maintenance, and be in overall lesser health . This could explain why bees are dying from diseases, pests, parasites, and predators at a higher rate because they are being exposed to so many different stressors, as I have outlined in this post.

In the concluding remarks of the TED talk that prompted me to write on this topic, Marla Spivak says there are two things we can do to help the bees: plant more flowers and stop poisoning these flowers. For me, this means we need more small farms with diversified plantings of crops, flowers, and cover crops, as well as more urban agriculture. Since more than half of us live in an urban setting, it is essential that we advocate our politicians and public officials make room in the budget for green spaces. We need to plant more gardens to help the bees recover from what has been about a 50 percent decline since 1950 (USDA). In 1945 there were an estimated 4.5 million beehives in the United States, and in 2007 the estimation was about 2 million bee hives (USDA-NASS).

A more recent survey conducted by the United States federal government found even larger losses this past year. “Since April 2014, beekeepers lost 42.1 percent of their colonies, the second-highest rate in nine years, according to an annual survey conducted by a bee partnership that includes the U.S. Department of Agriculture” (http://www.cbc.ca/news/technology/42-of-honeybee-hives-killed-off-in-u-s-last-year-1.3072845). What is even stranger about this story is that the bees are noted to be dying at higher rates than expected during the summer time. The growing season is a time when bees are expected to have a healthy survivorship rate because of favorable weather and food abundance. The dramatic decrease in bee populations during the summer cannot be explained without looking for outside causes for their downfall, and I think a good place to start looking is at our food system.

If we want to continue to eat the foods we enjoy at the supermarkets today, we will have to change the way food is produced and consumed by making policies that protect bees from toxic chemicals and that result in the development of more green space. Local, small, diverse farming is what we need to reduce pesticide and synthetic fertilizer usage and increase bee populations. Taking action will not only be beneficial for bee health, but will also contribute to the ecological health of the planet, and consequently, improved human well-being.

For the full TED Talk by Marla Spivak titled Why Bees are disappearing visit: http://www.ted.com/talks/marla_spivak_why_bees_are_disappearing/transcript?language=en#t-380999

Why Community Gardening? — May 11, 2015

Why Community Gardening?

Today, as I look back on my first year in the MSEM program at St. Edward’s University, there is one question my research partner and I kept receiving the most: “Why are you researching community gardens?” For us, the answer seemed obvious from an environmental perspective, but we soon realized this shared understanding we had for food’s role in environmental degradation was the product of taking many classes in our undergraduate education that related specifically to these types of issues. Given that our current degree program required us to design, conduct, and present our own research project, my partner and I sought out to reveal how much these community gardens are capable of producing on the amount of land they have.

Moreover, the issue of food insecurity, which exists when low income households does not have access to sufficient, safe, nutritious food to maintain a healthy and active life year round, is not a topic you will frequently hear being discussed on the daily local or even the national news programs on television in the United States. The severity of this problem, however, cannot be underestimated by those in power today. At the conference on Trade and Development in December of 2013, the United Nations produced a report calling for a 70 percent increase of food production by 2050, as counted by calories, if we are to sufficiently feed the projected human population of about 9 billion people. The advisors to this report urged that we achieve food security by changing the way we produce and consume our food (Trade and Environmental Review, 2013).

With this information about the state our current food system, the project my research partner and I came up with aimed at quantifying the potential yield of community gardens throughout the city of Austin, Texas. Community gardens were a starting point we thought we could use to get a glimpse into what urban agriculture was producing in Austin. The potential yield of a garden is simply the theoretical amount of food the garden is able to produce in a given period of time. We used actual yield data from one of these gardens to make our estimations for the potential yield of the 18 public certified community gardens we studied in Austin.

Furthermore, to accomplish the task of estimating the potential yield for our research project, we had to visit each site to collect the dimensions of each individual plot at the 18 study sites. Having this information, and the total area of the gardens, we were able to calculate a percent utilization measure for each garden. This value allowed us to see how much (in a percentage) of the total land they were actually using to produce food and was used to compare with the actual yield data we obtained from one of our study sites. This actual yield data, though only for one crop type, spanned over four years. We took the percent utilized by each garden to get a more precise measure of their potential agricultural yield. We also used ArcGIS software to create maps overlaying food insecurity with existing sites of urban agriculture in our final research paper. Then we added a layer of “prime farmland” to the map, as well as points that were identified by the city as “eligible” for urban agriculture, which gave us the ability to make recommendations as to where the ideal sites for future development of community gardens are located. Based off of our maps, we identified two primary areas of focus for the city of Austin, Texas. (Feel free to contact me if you are interested more in our methods!)

Ultimately, we presented our findings at St. Edward’s University’s 3rd annual Graduate Research Symposium for the MSEM program, and they were well received by our professor and a few people from the city of Austin who we worked closely with throughout the project. There were some truly amazing people we met along the way, including city officials interested in our data for funding and support, gardeners willing to answer any question we could think of, and volunteers working with the soil. We worked closely with three people from Austin: one individual works at a non-profit organization called the Sustainable Food Center, the second individual works for the City of Austin’s Parks and Recreation Department, and the third works for the City of Austin’s Office of Sustainability. As we were thankful for their ample assistance throughout the course of our project, they were all very grateful to get some field data about the 18 public community gardens we visited and for the maps identifying ideal site locations for future development of community gardens.

Although I am extremely happy with the way our project turned out, I am admittedly not done exploring and discussing the possibilities food will bring us in the future in terms of sustainable development of the environment and of society at large. We have the opportunity to increase local food production, which could have various side effects for the good of humanity. One aspect of community gardening easily overlooked is the amount they contribute to social capital of a community. There were certain gardens we visited where there was clearly designated space for community gatherings and celebrations. These places seemed to be more than just places of food production. Some of the gardens had educational programs, spaces for social gatherings, opportunities for community service, and more. If we had more time, Tessa and I would have loved to study the social impact, as well as the environmental impact of these gardens on a community.