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

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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

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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

Flappers

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.