Sustain Everyone

@SustainEveryone

Can traveling the globe ever be considered sustainable?  — November 23, 2015

Can traveling the globe ever be considered sustainable? 

Sometimes I grapple with finding a justification for traveling such long distances in relatively small periods of time for my education. As a graduate student in a program with international components and as an environmentalist, I cannot overlook the tremendous amount of energy it takes to travel to new places. Whether it be going on week long class trips or moving to a new city to study, the transportation environmental costs are tremendous. Despite the expenses associated with traveling, I tend to think it is worthwhile if your travels have a beneficial impact on your local community when you return to the place you call ‘home.’ Still, I ask myself, “Can any form of global travel be considered sustainable?”
For the first time in our species’s history, carbon dioxide has surpassed 350ppm. This greenhouse gas, along with methane and a few others, are contributing to a rapid increase in average global surface temperatures. The major implications associated with climate change are unpredictable weather patterns, increased frequency and intensity of extreme weather events, rising sea levels, more climate refugees, and species extinction on a scale humans have never before experienced in history. The wide ranging impacts of climate change are difficult to comprehend for many, and this is one of the causes of delayed action by politicians around the world. Knowing all of this and still traveling seems to be irresponsible for anyone trying to impact the environment in a positive way.

Yet, I am currently on a bus for the next 6 hours with my fellow classmates from St. Edward’s University, traveling from Angers, France to the north of France to study marine biodiversity. My peers are also astonishingly environmentally aware people who make great strides to have positive impacts on the natural world. Additionally, the people in making decisions for this Master’s degree program in Environmental Management and Sustainability, I assume, are environmentally conscious individuals. So what benefit could be behind this trip to the north of France (and to Angers, France more broadly)?

The educational benefit could not be overlooked in this situation. We will be learning valuable information about ecosystems, sustainable development, environmental pollution monitoring, and more topics that will be applicable to our future goals to help the planet in the career paths we choose to take. Education is our most powerful tool against most of the challenges we face on a daily basis. No meaningful change can arise without knowledge of the right action to take. The objective to become an educated human being, however, is not sufficient to justify such extensive travel.

Furthermore, we must have an intention on taking what we learn from our traveling and applying it to a local community in need of support economically, socially, and/or environmentally. For me specifically, it is not enough for me to learn about ways to build more sustainably and live a lifestyle that benefits the planet. What I learn on my journey ought to be shared with others and put into practice if it has the potential for a great impact on society, the environment, and/or the local economy. This may start on a global scale when traveling to acquire knowledge and new perspectives on the world’s problems, but it should always end on a local scale where these new ways of thinking can be implemented to benefit society and the environment.

On the other hand, the way we travel today is unsustainable even if you have good motives, like environmental education. We require mammoth amounts of fossil fuels to transport ourselves to far away destinations across the globe. The production, maintenance, and use of vehicles and transportation related infrastructure is dependent on a fossil fuel economy. Until it becomes more convenient to travel in a way that does not threaten global health, we will continue to choose to travel via unsustainable means until we can no longer afford the environmental and economic consequences of such actions. There is promise for the future in the realm of renewable energies and sustainable development for travel to become more environmentally friendly, but we must move definitively faster than our current pace if we want to avoid a climate crisis by raising the average global surface temperature above 4 degrees Celsius.

So, can any form of global travel be considered sustainable? Despite being torn between the answer to this question, I would still answer yes. When you travel to another country and experience another culture, you gain a new perspective on everything you thought to be truth. It challenges your most inner convictions. If you have the opportunity to gain perspective on a social, economic, or environmental issue while traveling, this experience can help you in the future when you are trying to solve the complex problems facing the world today in your career. Individually, travel benefits are immediate, but for collective society the benefits might take longer to come to fruition. The act of traveling can induce a kind of expanded consciences, therefore the traveler has an obligation to share his or her experience with the local community to which they belong. The inspiration for beneficial changes may not always start at home, but ultimately and ideally the idea of beneficial change that was gained through international travel should inspire you to go out into your community and have a profoundly positive impact.

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