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Ecology for Transformation

David Zaks and Chad Monfreda, WorldChanging
Ecology has long been a descriptive science with real but limited links to the policy community. A new science of ecology, however, is emerging to forge the collaborations with social scientists and decision makers needed for a bright green future. Stephen Carpenter and Carl Folke outline a vision for the future of ecology in their recent article, Ecology for Transformation. You need a subscription to access the full article, so we’ll quote them at length:

“Scenarios with positive visions are quite different from projections of environmental disaster..Doom-and-gloom predictions are sometimes needed, and they might sell newspapers, but they do little to inspire people or to evoke proactive forward-looking steps toward a better world. Transformation requires evocative visions of better worlds to compare and evaluate the diverse alternatives available to us … Although we cannot predict the future, we have much to decide. Better decisions start from better visions, and such visions need ecological perspectives.

‘Ecology for Transformation’ offers the perspective of resilient social-ecological systems. Simply put, it recognizes that ecosystems and human society are interdependent, and that they need the capacity to withstand and adapt to an increasingly bumpy future.

Examples of resilient social-ecological systems abound in all kinds of notoriously difficult to manage areas, like natural disaster response and rangeland management. Resilience sounds great, but how do we get there? Fortunately Carpenter and Folke offer a theoretically robust three-part transformative framework:

1. Diversity
2. Environmentally sound technology
3. Adaptive governance
(14 May 2006)

The Greening of Chicago

Eric Ferkenhoff, TIME
Mayor Richard Daley wants to turn the City of Big Shoulders into the most environmentally friendly city in the U.S., and he’s not just blowing hot air
Chicago, a blue-collar city of asphalt and glass and concrete canyons, would seem an odd place for admitted tree-hugger Sadhu Johnston to think he could save the planet. But Johnston, Mayor Richard M. Daley’ s environmental commissioner, believes that cities are actually the answer to the earth’s environmental ills. And with that in mind, he is working to turn Chicago into what he claims will be the most environmentally friendly city in the U.S. — as well as the nation’s center for environmental design and the manufacturing of components for the production of alternative energy.

If it works — and Daley is betting a hefty sum it will, with promises to buy millions in solar panels, for example — the green movement here is expected to yield the city perhaps billions in saved energy costs and new business.”This is way beyond tree hugging in Chicago,” said Johnston, 31, who before coming to Chicago helped dust some of the rust off of Cleveland’s image by serving as executive director of the non-profit Cleveland Green Building Coalition. “This is about quality of life. What we’re talking about is creating a city that exists in harmony with the world, a place that can be a model. Cities have long been hurtful to the environment. Raw materials came in and waste went out. We’ re trying to redefine that relationship, and cities can be models.”

In much the same way that cities like Austin and San Francisco latched onto the boom in the Internet or biotech industry to propel their economies, Chicago is working hard to rev up its manufacturing and capitalize on the growth in green construction and wind and solar energies. But can Chicago, such a muscular city, shake its industrial, broad-shouldered image by showing that cites are not the bane of the environment. Does it deserve, in short, the title of America’s Green Thumb?
(12 May 2006)

The Permaculture Design
A science of securing basic needs through sustainable, ecological methods

John Oberlin, Seeds of Change (Kent State U., Ohio)
Let’s say you want to eat an apple. Simple enough. But how much energy does it take to do just that? If you drive to the grocery store, you’ll need fuel; the Earth uses its energy through geological processes to create that fuel by compressing organic matter for thousands of years. Assuming you pay for the fuel, you’re also using the energy that you put into your job.

The apples arrived at the store much the same way you did — through the use of nonrenewable fuel. You pick out an apple from a bin that some worker has put energy in to organizing. A percentage of the apples will be thrown away because, as a business, the store only puts out the freshest of apples. After paying for the apple, with every step of the process of growing and transporting the apple added to the price, you drive back home, using more fuel. Finally, you have reached your goal! You eat the apple, and its nutrients feed your body.

Alas, the energy keeps moving even after you’ve completed your goal. You then throw the leftover core in the trash. On Monday, the garbage service picks up your core and throws it in a huge pile landfill, and what is left of your apple sits there.

This is an open energy circuit. Although the energy fills certain societal needs like creating food and jobs, in the end, it goes from soil to landfill.

There is a science of design that seeks to understand that energy, recycle it back down to its own path, and secure basic human needs. To modern day people, this method is called permaculture, but it is difficult to say when people began using it. Some take it as far back as the ancient Indian Vedic culture, one of the longest existing cultures. The Vedic culture, like cultures still deeply rooted in religion, traces its existence back to the beginning of time.

Whether God passed these sustainability tools down to some ancient society or not, permaculture (in its modern form) emerged in the 1970s. David Holmgren, one of its founding fathers along with Bill Mollison, has said that permaculture is consciously designing, “landscapes which mimic the patterns and relationships found in nature while yielding an abundance of food, fiber and energy for provision of local needs.”

By its very essence, permaculture is difficult to hold to a single definition. Basically, permaculture observes how energy flows through a system — which can be anything from a backyard garden to a university campus to a city — and then designs a method around the needs and wants of those within the system.
(Spring 2006)
Seeds of Change is a publication for “the Kent State University activist community.”

Paradise Sold:
What are you buying when you buy organic?

Steve Shapin, New Yorker
…just when the organic business has attained cultural legitimacy, a market has opened up for debunkers. “Organic, Inc.: Natural Foods and How They Grew” (Harcourt; $25), by the business writer Samuel Fromartz, is a cultural, political, and economic history of the modern organic industry that is markedly critical of the distance that “Big Organic” has come from its anti-industrial roots in the early twentieth century. “Agrarian Dreams: The Paradox of Organic Farming in California” (California; $21.95), by the geographer Julie Guthman, is a meticulous academic study of the institutional dynamics of the state’s organic agriculture and asserts that organic agriculture, far from escaping the logic of capitalism, has wholly embraced it. And Michael Pollan’s outstanding “The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals” (Penguin; $26.95) is a wide-ranging invitation to think through the moral ramifications of our current eating habits. Pollan undertakes a pilgrim’s progress along modern food chains, setting standards for ethical eating which the industrial approach of Whole Foods and its suppliers fails to satisfy.

Such criticisms reflect growing discontent among many veterans of the organic movement. As one consumer advocate told Pollan, “Organic is becoming what we hoped it would be an alternative to.” This disillusionment is fuelled by questions about quality, sustainability, and business ethics—but it is also, crucially, a matter of ideology and morality. For many who participated in the early phase of organic farming, its subsequent history is a story of paradise lost—or, worse, sold—in which cherished ideals have simply become part of the sales pitch.
(8 May 2006)
Related commentary at Gristmill: How to make Wal-Mart’s organic push not matter.

Have You Reduced Your Dependence on Cars?

Michael G. Richard, Treehugger
We all know that our car-based society* is not sustainable (not to mention dehumanizing). Smaller, lighter cars and hybrids can help us reduce the amount of energy used per kilometer/mile driven and and cut down on air pollution and smog, but these are not a solution in themselves, just a small band-aid on a pretty big wound. A larger systemic change has to take place at both ends: From the top, policymakers have to show vision and take tough decisions, and from the bottom, individuals have to put pressure on politicians and rearrange their own lives around a less car-intensive paradigm. What we want to know is: what are the steps that you have taken, or that you plan to take, to do your part? Please share your experience and opinions with us in the comments.

Update: The Oil Drum has a poll where they ask their readers about transportation. The comments are very interesting and similar to those found here. Check it out.
(X May 2006)

Connecting The Dots On High Gas Prices

Anthony Flint, Planetizen (“The Planning & Development Network”)
… the discussion always comes right up to the ultimate reason we use so much energy — our physical environment and how we live — and then backs away.

…Across the country, innovative policymakers are also ready to level the playing field in terms of government regulation and infrastructure investments, which at least since World War II have heavily favored the creation of highways, gas consumption, and sprawling development. What needs to be done is clear, and really isn’t even all that controversial: change zoning to allow mixed-use development in town centers, currently prohibited (perversely, in most cities it’s illegal to build the kinds of development that more and more people are clamoring for). Cut red tape for urban infill development, which is too often too expensive and time-consuming. Shift investment to transit to make growth functional in urban neighborhoods and older suburbs, just as highways have enabled sprawl.

…Today, establishing alternative development patterns isn’t going to hinge on saving farmland or protecting endangered species or preserving historic sites. It’s going to come down to convenience, quality of life, and the pocketbook.

Anthony Flint, a former reporter for The Boston Globe, is author of This Land: The Battle over Sprawl and the Future of America, now available by Johns Hopkins University Press. More information is available at
(15 May 2006)
Recommended and comments at Gristmill: The built environment.