Final Post

With this blog, I set out to explore and examine issues related to sustainability, both in the context of the life of a college student and beyond this context. I wanted to choose topics that could be interesting and relevant to anyone, because that’s the best way to spread important information.

Most importantly, I hope I’ve conveyed the importance of sustainability in our everyday lives. Although a global issue, protecting our environment starts with the individual. We can never accomplish our goals regarding sustainability- including carbon neutrality, renewable energy use, changes in agriculture, etc.- without the support and participation of individuals. And when enough individuals come together for the same cause, we have the power to make major changes in legislature and public opinion.

For more issues and information regarding sustainability, I encourage you to simply look around. Sustainability can be applied to nearly every aspect of our lives, so explore your own life, develop new ideas, and spread them to everyone you know. Support green initiatives in your area, and even beyond that if you can. Encourage those around you, and those in charge, to embrace sustainability in their lives and practices. Or just simply visit the website of any major or local newspaper, or watch a TED talk, and continue to learn about these issues. They have never been more important than they are now, and if we don’t meet them with action, they will become issues of a world that no longer exists.


Follow-Up to Sustainable Crafting

In fact, I just came across this on Pinterest:

I see I’m not the only one who has realized the potential for sustainability education on this particular platform! I am very pleased to see someone has utilized Pinterest to spread awareness, and I hope this continues to be the case.

Sustainable Crafting

I have recently become an avid fan of Pinterest, the online bulletin boards on which you can “pin” and share photos and videos of all sorts. Many pins are wedding ideas, hairstyle tutorials, and pictures of stylish outfits. But the most popular type of pin on Pinterest, it seems, are of the diy craft variety. Crafts of literally all kinds show up on pinterest, and I have noticed that many include restoring and upcycling average objects into wonderful decorations or useful tools. Mostly, the inspiration to re-purpose pickle jars and toilet paper rolls come from the fact that they’re inexpensive, and this frugality also supports sustainability in crafting.

One of my favorite craft ideas involves cardboard part of the toilet paper or paper towel rolls. These can be found in every house and apartment in America, and several are thrown out each month. I can’t think of a more sustainable thing to do with these rolls (except not producing them in the first place) than never letting them turning in to waste by instead turning them into wall art. The idea is to but each roll into rings of whatever thickness you want, pinching opposite ends of the rings to form an almond shape, and arranging the shapes in a cool way. Painting is also encouraged. A similar technique can be done using strips from an old magazine. The final product can look something like this:

Another great upcycling project is repurposing condiment jars by cleaning and decorating them. They can be painted, written on, or even used as lights. They can also be filled with the many recipes found for cleaning liquid or skin products and given as gifts.

These recycled paper lampshades are also very cool:

There really is an endless supply of craft ideas involving recycling on Pinterest, and you can probably find a use for just about anything you might otherwise throw away. These little crafts discourage our blind consumerism and suggest that we reevaluate what we already have and try to find a new use for it. This philosophy can and should be applied to many more aspects of our lives than just some fun crafting. But this idea of sustainability comes in a fun, interesting form that can capture the attention of some who may not read headlines about climate change or waste production. With its growing popularity among women of all ages, and some men too, Pinterest has a platform to really encourage sustainable living. Hopefully these sustainable ideas will creep into the Home Design and Living categories soon, spreading ideas about how to live sustainably, and how important making these changes is to our future.


The Green Pope

All movements need a face, a person supporting the cause who already has the respect of the public. Often celebrities become the face of movements, publicly showing their support and encouraging their fans to do the same. Of course, the greater the popularity of this representative, the more popular the movement itself will become. The ‘green’ movement has the support of one such representative, whose popularity is matched by few others in the world. If not liked by all, he is at least known of by nearly every person on Earth, and his support for green initiatives has had great influence over his followers, which number in the billions. I’m talking about Pope Benedict XVI, who has been given the nickname “The Green Pope” for his increasing support for environmentalism.

If anyone were to discredit the scientific proof of climate change, I would expect it to be the devout and faithful who believe the fate of the Earth is in God’s hands. To my surprise, however, Pope Benedict XVI and his predecessor, Pope John Paul II, have used Roman Catholic preachings to encourage environmentalism. Pope Benedict pointed out soon after becoming Pope that “the earth’s treasures have been made to serve the powers of exploitation and destruction.” I can’t imagine a better way to explain the current misuse of the Earth’s resources. Pope Benedict then called on Catholics as well as other denominations and faiths to protect the Earth’s treasures and sustain what was, according to the Catholic faith, created and given to us by God.

Pope Benedict’s environmental action include making Vatican City the world’s only carbon-neutral sovereign state. Solar panels installed on the tops of ancient buildings are a major source of electricity for the City, and trees donated to a Hungarian national park offset the Vatican’s carbon emissions. This is a greatly symbolic step, and hopefully the followers of the Pope consider this a teaching to live by. The Vatican also announced that pollution of the environment is a sin for which repentance should be sought.

Some believe that Pope Benedict XVI’s environmentalism, being so rooted in Roman Catholicism, may actually oppose necessary measures in sustainability. For example, the Pope values human life above all, so may not be on board with a plan to reduce human population or limit environmental resources used to support such a population. However, even if the Pope’s proposed solutions to climate change and other environmental problems are not the most scientifically savvy, the value of the awareness that his support will raise can only help the green movement.

The Giving Trees

On a hillside in Helena, Montana exists a garden that is truly in harmony with nature: a ground of grape and other vines, edible flowers and herbs, medicinal plants, berry bushes, small fruit-bearing trees, all situated happily under a canopy of pine and spruce trees. Marc and Gloria Flora are using their garden to promote agroforestry, or the agricultural technique of incorporating trees into croplands in a mutually beneficial way. I have discussed the benefits of polyculture over monoculture farming techniques, but agroforestry is a little different. This method means strategically choosing and planting trees which offer contributions specialized to suit the crop being grown.

Trees offer a huge variety of benefits for crops and livestock alike. They can provide shade, which keeps the ground cool and moist, which in tern increases yield of both crops and livestock by preventing overheating and decreases the damage caused by drought. Trees also prevent erosion from wind and rain,  and fallen leaves decompose to serve as nitrogen fertilizer. They also provide habitat for important pollinating species such as bees and butterflies, bringing them right up to the crops that need pollination instead of removing them from the area. They are also, of course, a carbon sink. Furthermore, trees grown on a farm can also be sold for timber and replanted for the next growing season.

Agroforestry isn’t a new technique; it has been used in the past and across the world. Peak popularity in the U.S. occurred in the Dust Bowl era when the trees were needed to slow erosion due to wind. It has also been used in desert climate to replenish eroded soil.

One of the main problems with expanding farmland is deforestation; it destroys habitats and releases a large amount of CO2 into the atmosphere. Agroforestry demonstrates that this harmful deforestation isn’t necessary to grow crops, and can even be used to the farmer’s advantage if utilized correctly. It’s just one more example of the increased sustainability of polyculture farming.

Energy Alternatives: Nuclear Energy

The pursuit of a clean energy source is gaining momentum, and has a few contenders. Solar and wind are popular options, and natural gas is on the table. Nuclear power is also among the candidates, but how does it stack up to the other options for oil alternatives?

Nuclear power has become somewhat of a buzzword; the general public has feelings about it, but doesn’t exactly understand what it is. But memories of Chernobyl and the more recent Fukushima disasters give this option a negative connotation- one that nuclear power may not necessarily deserve. To clear up confusion: nuclear energy is produced by fission, or splitting, of uranium atoms, producing heat and steam which turns a turbine and is converted into electricity. The process does not emit greenhouse gases, produces little waste, and is relatively efficient, producing large amount of energy from a small amount of uranium fuel.

Nuclear energy does have some clear disadvantages, however. As the world has witnessed, nuclear power plants can be extremely dangerous. When something goes wrong in a nuclear reactor, the result can be catastrophic, polluting an area with radioactivity that disturbs and destroys life. This can be avoided, though, with great care and attention given to safety. Another disadvantage is that the uranium which fuels the reactors must be mined, which can be environmentally damaging. The proper isotope is also only around 7% pure in its natural form and must be purified and enriched before it can be used, a process which can be costly in both monetary and environmental terms. The final obvious disadvantage about nuclear power is the waste, although small in amount, is dangerously high in radioactivity. An extensive process is required to safely dispose of this waste, which is usually encased in concrete and buried far underground. This disposal process is a clear expense of nuclear energy, and the waste can also become a threat if it is ever disturbed by flood or earthquake, or accessed by terrorist groups who can use it as a weapon.

Whether or not the pros outweigh the cons, nuclear energy is still a nonrenewable energy source; there is a finite amount of uranium on earth, and it cannot be reused. If nuclear energy replaced oil, and our dependence on it grew to match our current dependence on oil, future generations could face a similar “peak uranium” problem. The key to finding a new energy source is actually finding multiple sources, preventing the crippling dependence on future energy that we currently face with oil. Nuclear energy, in my opinion, is a real possibility as an energy source. The zero carbon emissions is a huge benefit, especially now when CO2 concentrations are climbing to an unsustainable level. With utmost care taken to ensure the safety of nuclear power plants, the U.S. could find a reliable energy source, reducing its foreign oil dependency and carbon emissions simultaneously.

You Say Tomato, I Say Pizza?

When the parents of America send their children to school, they trust these kids will be educated. They’ll be taught to read and count, learn the planets of the solar system and the continents on Earth, and hopefully learn some life lessons as well. Parents also trust that this information presented to their impressionable children will be truth and fact. But these parents may be surprised to discover that this education stops at the door to the cafeteria.

A school, especially elementary and middle schools, should be charged with educating not only in the classroom, but extending that education to lunch time. Children should be taught from an early age the importance of a balanced and nutritious diet, and this education must happen in both the homes of the children and the school cafeteria. Meals at home cannot be controlled by schools, but the five meals children eat at school every week can be. This is why I am so surprised, and quite frankly terrified, to hear that Congress has decided that a slice of pizza can be considered as one serving of vegetables.

The reasoning behind this ruling is about as flimsy as that slice of pizza; the tomato paste on a slice of pizza is nutritionally equivalent to a serving of veggies. This may be true, but look at the message this sends to children. If a child is given the choice of green beans or pizza and told that both are vegetables, the choice is obvious, and the child will likely then equate the nutrition of green beans with a slice of pizza. But pizza is not just tomato paste; it’s crust, cheese, and sometimes meat (or in the case of pizza provided to school cafeterias, it’s highly processed, unnatural crust and cheese substitute). Obviously, a serving of vegetables  disguised by chemicals and countless processed ingredients is not as healthy as a serving of the pure vegetable, and yet kids are learning that it is.

Perhaps this misconception can be corrected with a little education later in life, beyond the years of the school lunch, but the acquired taste is not so easily changed. The minds of children are extremely impressionable, but equally impressionable are their taste buds. Feeding kids processed foods instead of fresh teaches them to want only those processed foods; and with little exposure to natural, fresh food, kids develop a distaste for them. So when they start making their own food choices, they’ll surely reach for the freezer pizza before the fresh produce.

The scary thing about this ruling by Congress is that is shows where the true influence is, and where the loyalty lies. Clearly, it is not the health of the nations children, but big food service companies such as Schwan and ConAgra who stand to gain from the continued malnutrition of the nation’s youth. When Congress won’t even defend the nutrition of vulnerable children, it’s hard to know what we can truly count on from our government.

But one thing is for sure: clearly not a soul serving in Congress went to school the day the teacher blew all of our minds with the simple fact that the tomato is actually a fruit.


E-Readers Vs. Textbooks

In the last few years, e-readers have become a very popular way to read. The benefits are obvious: the digital format of a book doesn’t require the resources needed to produce a physical book, which also allows the reader to carry a single lightweight e-reader than several books. Given these benefits, I cannot think of a better application for these gadgets than replacing textbooks in college and high school classrooms.

One major problem with textbooks is that millions each year are replaced with new editions, and the new editions are always preferred by instructors. The now out-of-date texts can no longer be resold to students, and they must all buy a brand new book. Perhaps many of these books are recycled, and some may just sit around without being tossed out, but there is no doubt that many are simply thrown away. This is a huge waste of resources, just ask the 125 million trees and millions of gallons of wastewater used to produce paper for the book and newspaper industries in one year. Textbooks also require distribution to University bookstores or transportation individually to the purchaser. Switching to e-readers would eliminate this transportation, requiring less energy to get the product to the consumer and the GHG emissions resulting from the transportation.

There is,  however, the question of carbon emissions from the e-reader itself, and whether or not they actually improve upon the carbon emissions from book production. A study by the Cleantech Group found that an e-reader will offset its carbon footprint by preventing the production of 22.5 books. Since an average textbook uses at least twice as much material and resources as a regular book, that’s about 11 textbooks. In my 2.5 years in college, I have already exceeded this number of textbooks, so the textbooks I bought for the remainder of my undergraduate studies would be a carbon offset, had I been using an e-reader the entire time. It may be a small offset, but the combined offset of 27,000 students would be significant, and the combined offset of all undergraduates in the U.S. would be even more valuable.

The major potential problem with making the switch to e-readers is economic, not environmental. Students would have to buy an e-reader, which of course costs less than even one semester of textbooks. However, I don’t think the price of textbooks will decrease enough to make up for this purchase. Yes, the digital textbooks will cost less to produce, but in the broken market of the textbook industry, I wouldn’t expect that decrease in cost to be passed along to the consumer. Publishers can now charge outrageous prices for textbooks simply because they can, and they’ll continue to be able to with digital textbooks. So the cost of the e-reader is likely to be an added cost to students. Another problem is that the digital form of a textbook cannot be sold from one student to another, and it’s unlikely that the campus bookstore will buy them back. This eliminates the used book and buyback options that make affording textbooks manageable. These obstacles will probably prevent the switch from happening any time in the near future.


The Impact of a Pair of Jeans

I love it when major companies show initiative in environmental conservation, so I was pleased to learn about the steps Levi Strauss & Company is taking to reduce its environmental harm and conserve of one of the Earth’s most precious resources: water.

As a company whose product is made completely of cotton, it comes as no surprise that Levi Strauss would see the importance in water conservation. In fact, a typical pair of blue jeans consumes 919 gallons of water during its lifetime, including cotton growth, production, and washings. A shortage of this resource would surely drive cotton prices up drastically, making it far more expensive to produce denim jeans, and this cost increase is unlikely to be well-received when it is passed on to the consumer. Levi Strauss understands this risk, so the company has taken steps to reduce its water use and encourage conservation globally.

In an impressive effort to conserve water, Levi Strauss & Company has started a nonprofit organization which teaches rural in India, Pakistan, Brazil, and Africa water conservation techniques. These include the latest developments in irrigation and rainwater capture, which help the farmers use less water to produce the same crop yields. Levi Strauss is also making internal changes toward this goal. New denim features a tag encouraging consumers to wash rarely and with cold water, and some varieties of jeans are being softened with rocks, not water.

Levi Strauss & Company has also joined the Better Cotton Initiative, an international nonprofit organization founded by several major retailers to improve the industry in regards to environmental and ethical issues. This organization has helped reshape cotton agriculture in India as well as other major cotton-growing countries. The new irrigation and growth techniques have proven to grow taller and more lush plants, and yield around 20% more profit with 70% less water.

The initiative and environmental leadership of Levi Strauss has not gone unnoticed by consumers, as evidenced by the fact that their waterless jeans sold much faster than similarly-priced regular jeans. And the company is planning on publicizing its efforts more effectively in the near future. And of course they would; this publicity will give the company a face of environmentalism and conservation, which will appeal to consumers and thus boost sales. The entire initiative is, after all, intended to help protect the company against future water shortages. But, really, the purpose of the conservation doesn’t matter. Selfishly or unselfishly, Levi Strauss & Company (and not alone, I should add- several large retail companies have jumped on the conservation bandwagon for similar reasons) is helping international economies and and protecting farmers from severe weather crop loss by teaching them to grow more sustainably and produce more yield. And conserving water makes a difference, whether you’re doing it to protect the Earth, or to make a pair of jeans.



The Importance of Sustainability Education

The University of Tennessee mission statement and vision declare goals of the university such as enriching the lives of citizens locally and globally, promoting environmental development, and producing ethical leaders. These goals cannot be met without a focus on sustainability. In many ways, UT does fulfill its mission statement and vision. But it is lacking in one major way. These goals will never be fully met if the University does not emphasize a focus on becoming a sustainable school, and more importantly educating its students on this major global issue.

UT has shown leadership in several sustainability initiatives. The renowned recycling program, the signing of the Climate Action Plan, and other initiatives through the Make Orange Green campaign have demonstrated this leadership. But the University of Tennessee is not utilizing its resource for an easy and inexpensive way to have global impact: the thousands of students who graduate from this institution each year. These graduates take their UT education and put it to work in all corners of the world. If they each understood the importance and major issues surrounding sustainability, the impact would be immeasurable.

An emphasis on sustainability education is not only beneficial to the cause, but to the University as well. If UT wants to remain competitive in a changing world, it must educate its students to be successful in that world. A student prepared for success must enter the workforce with an understanding of global issues; with climate change, an impending food crisis, and the threat of diminishing oil supply, sustainability will undoubtedly be one these key issues.

If UT plans to produce successful, knowledgeable graduates, it needs to require every student to take a course in sustainability.  Since sustainability is such a vast topic, it has applications in nearly every career and industry. A variety of courses should be offered, each with a different topical focus. This way each student can learn about sustainability as it relates to their chosen majors and careers. Each college within the University should be responsible for offering sustainability courses which focus on issues relevant to the colleges within that major. For colleges with majors for which sustainability has few applications, a general course should be offered which covers various topics such as climate change, food, and energy sustainability.

Furthermore, the University of Tennessee needs to offer a sustainability degree program. These programs have been growing in popularity throughout schools in the U.S. and internationally, and UT needs to offer a similar program in order to remain a competitive academic institution. Undergraduates have shown particular interest in these programs; Arizona State University’s School of Sustainability had an enrollment of 300 in its first year, and the graduates’ well-rounded knowledge in sustainability and its applications has helped them get jobs. As businesses develop a growing concern for the environment, jobs in sustainability will become more popular. The University of Tennessee should strive to fill as many of those jobs with its own graduates as possible.

This cost of this plan is very minimal compared to other sustainability initiatives, such as an overhaul of the University infrastructure to work towards a carbon-neutral goal or increase efficiency/sustainability. This plan only requires the implementation of the requirement, the accommodation of the classes, and the cost of instruction. However, the impact is immense. The University of Tennessee will produce graduate who have a good understanding of the global issue of sustainability and are prepared for success in a changing world, and they will carry the UT name with them throughout this success.