Category Archives: culture change

Cultivating Ecosystem Gardens of Health and Hope

This is a talk I gave last week at the conference “Spontaneous Beauties?” World Gardens and Gardens in the World at NTU (YouTube video of practice talk, and SlideShare of PowerPoints).

 

 

Three different approaches are transforming humanity’s relationship to the wider biosphere through innovative ecosystem stewardship, informed by our deepening understandings of ecology and complexity.  Microbiome management promotes human health by cultivating the ecologies of microorganisms in, on and around our bodies, seeking to encourage beneficial symbionts and discourage invasive microbes that can trigger illness. Permaculture is a philosophy of gardening, food production and homestead management that fosters beneficial ecological interactions to cultivate healthy habitats for humans and other species.  Rewilding is a strategy of landscape management that seeks to restore the balance and diversity of historic or prehistoric ecosystems by introducing species to fill trophic niches emptied by local extinctions.  These approaches represent a radical shift of the post‐industrial human role in nature, from one of dominance, produce maximization and pest eradication to one of regenerative alliance and collaborative cultivation.

Keywords: microbiome, permaculture, rewilding, ecosystem, biodiversity, complexity

 

 

Mind-mapping a career path

I’m deep in job search mode, meaning I’m spending a lot of time just looking for something that might fit, and sending out applications.  But there are deeper questions I should be answering: What am I actually supposed to be doing?  What do I want out of my next job?

Complex questions are not always amenable to mere lists.  Mind-maps are  often a better tool for dealing with them.  I started with a couple pencil-and-paper mind-maps, but rapidly ran out of room on my small notepad, and got frustrated with trying to erase and reorganize.  So I decided to try the high-tech approach.  I wanted to compare some of the better rated free mind-mapping tools out there.

MindMup: my qualifications

I organized my qualifications in MindMup, a (sort of) free online tool. It has a nice, intuitive interface, and I like that it allows users to make links between things on different branches (red dashed lines, below).  It did have some glitches when I tried to move large branches and sub-trees on the graph.  Frustratingly, the free version only lets you save and publish very small files directly. It does include an option to save working files to Google Drive, but it appears to only save the latest version and overwrite it, even if you try to change the name and do a “save as”.  When I attempted to edit it down, I nearly lost most of my work, and there’s no “undo”  :-(  Below is a screen-shot of the pretty version, before I started trying to trim it down. Even edited way, way down with no pictures, I couldn’t get the file under 100Kb so that I could print or save and publish within the free version. (MindMup did control fairly nicely for creating the map, and the “Gold” version isn’t terribly expensive at US$2.99/mo, so if you’re willing to pay a little it might be a good choice.)

MindMup_MM_quals

Coggle: my qualifications redux & qualities of my next job

I used the free online tool Coggle to generate a mind map of what I think that next job should look like.  I found that Coggle behaved much better than MindMup on many things, and it allowed me to save a fairly complex mind-map for free.  I re-created and expanded the mind map of my qualifications, and did one on the things I want in my next job.

Why_Hire_Michelle_Y__Merrill_Dream_Job_Characteristics_-_core_theme_SUSTAINABILITY__

XMind: how to search for my next job

XMind is open-source software with a free download for Windows, MacOS or Linux.  It offers different layouts and styles.  It also keeps many of its features in reserve for those who shell out for the ‘Pro’ version. I used it to do a map about ways to look my next job.  I like the many options for map style and the ability to show relationships.  The interface isn’t quite as slick as the others, but it’s still pretty intuitive.  The free version didn’t let me add pictures. What I was able to create I could save easily locally, and I was able to get a link for a share-able version, but it doesn’t seem to load well.

Xmind_MM_jobsearch

List: dream jobs

I did also try the list approach, just for comparison’s sake.  Here’s a list of my “dream jobs” (in no particular order) and some of the reasons I believe I would like them:

  1. Sustainability Pedagogy Specialist for United Nations or a big NGO
  2. Sustainability specialist within Teaching, Learning and Pedagogy program at large university
    • provide faculty professional development training
    • conduct research on EfS, especially within home university and with EfS Asia collaborators
    • some travel to conferences to present research
    • possible gigs at other universities do do faculty development workshops
  3. Faculty in Sustainability Studies Program
    • teach a variety of courses on sustainability themes
    • lots of time in the classroom and working with students
    • may include support for research, publications and/or conference travel
  4. Sustainability Coordinator for Higher Education Institution
    • conduct faculty, administrator, and staff professional development workshops
    • help organize student events, projects and clubs
    • do local community outreach
    • holistic view of institution and its sustainability activities (facilities, operations, purchasing, student life/co-curricular activities, research and instruction)
    • represent institution and present achievements at sustainability conferences like IGEE, AASHE or CHESC
  5. Interdisciplinary Introduction to Sustainability course developer
    • start with re-design of course at NTU, then branch out
    • hop from university to university, working with local faculty to set up core courses and help design programs in interdisciplinary Sustainability Studies
  6. Consultant in Sustainability and Biomimicry
    • reconnect with Janine Benyus, Dana Baumeister, Toby Herzlich and other biomimicry experts
    • direct application of my background in evolutionary and organismal biology
    • work on a variety of interesting design challenges
    • perhaps apply pedagogy expertise to redesign and further development of educational materials

Listing is less satisfying, but it does help to surface and articulate some ideas.  It could have been done in a mind-map, but perhaps that would be more about formatting than actually developing content.

So there you have it.  To sum up the review of the free tools:

  • I had the best experience with Coggle – easy to use and share results for free.  Not as full featured as the others, but I’m happiest with low levels of hassle.
  • MindMup was fun to play with, but the free version is not very useful for keeping and sharing files.
  • XMind required a download and install.  Features were good, but still awkward to share.
  • Mind-mapping with paper and pencils can be frustrating to make changes and can be awkward to share.
  • Listing, on paper or onscreen, still works for some things, but is less fun than mind-mapping.

Now, about that job…?

 

Energy Return on Investment

What every schoolkid (and investor) should know, and why it is time for fossil fuel divestment.

Energy Return on Investment (EROI) is easy to understand: how much energy do you get out (R) compared to how much energy you had to put in to get access to that energy (I) –R:I. EROI tells you how much net energy you can expect to use for other things (driving cars, running generators, etc.). Traditional petroleum (think gushing oil wells) used to have a lucas_gusherspectacularly high EROI, about 1000:1 a century ago [1]. Since the 1970s, the EROI of the average barrel of petroleum has been dropping fast – it is now below 5:1 [1].

“The evidence suggests that the global production of conventional oil plateaued and may have begun to decline from 2005.” [2]

Essentially, we are expending a lot of energy to scrape the bottom of the barrel, digging out very hard-to-get stuff in deep seas (think Deepwater Horizon and its attendant complications), tar sands, athabasca_oil_sandsand “tight” shale oil.  Because we have to use so much energy just to get at that fuel, it only makes sense (from a profit perspective) if the selling price of the resulting fuel is very high.

“We find the EROI for each major fossil fuel resource (except coal) has declined substantially over the last century. Most renewable and non-conventional energy alternatives have substantially lower EROI values than conventional fossil fuels.” [1]

As you may have heard (or noticed, if you fill a gas tank), the selling price of petroleum has recently dropped a lot.  Seems weird, but there are explanations (more on that later). What this price drop means is that a lot of places where it used to make sense to be extracting these fossil fuels, places where extraction companies have invested a lot in exploration and infrastructure to get at the stuff, don’t make sense anymore.  This is part of what is meant by “stranded assets” (more below) and it can lead to things like bankruptcy [3].

So if energy from petroleum is increasingly hard to get, why would the price be dropping now? Some of it may be due to a drop in demand because of the global economic slowdown, in turn related to China slowing the pace of its phenomenal economic growth [4].  Some of it may be due to the production boom from short-lived tight oil extraction and fracking taking place in the U.S., where production is high enough at first, but seems to fall off rapidly after about 15 years at each new site [2].

“Thus, despite the fall in crude oil prices from a new peak in June, 2014, after that of July, 2008, the peak oil issue remains with us, and broad economic recovery combined with the consequences of recent oil exploration and production cut-backs will bring back further major oil price rises.” [2]
The truth of the current situation is even more complicated than the EROI, of course. There is also the climate disruption represented by fossil fuel reserves.  And this leads to the other reason that fossil fuel companies should expect collapsing prices: we don’t want it so much anymore.  If we are serious about meeting the targets that global leaders just signed onto, we can’t even burn the fuel reserves that people have already invested in developing, let alone continue to develop new ones.  This concern was laid out by Bill McKibben in 2012 in “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math,” and is even more relevant in light of the Paris COP 21 agreed ambition to attempt to stay below a 1.5C rise in average global temperatures [5].

When whales get stuck on beaches, helping them back to deeper waters is usually the right thing to do [6].  But when fossil fuel titans are stranded, gasping for profits under the weight of their history, the most merciful response for everyone might just be to put them out of their misery.  A few brief moments of economic pain can spare us all from longer decades of climate and pollution disasters if these beasts are allowed to keep flopping around on- or off-shore.  Sadly, we are past the point of easy, painless solutions now.

“If the oil crisis hits the economy hard, then the prolonged recession that results could dampen the rising demand that everyone projects. If oil prices thus remain relatively depressed for longer than expected, this could hemorrhage the industry beyond repair.”[6]

To hasten the inevitable demise of fossil fuels, there are increasing calls for divestment.

“Divestment is the opposite of an investment – it simply means getting rid of stocks, bonds, or investment funds that are unethical or morally ambiguous.” [7a]

Cities, colleges, foundations and individuals are hearing from activists demanding that they withdraw investments from fossil fuels.  And they are responding, with 517 institutions committed to withdrawing their investments in fossil fuels as of this post [7b].

“For the divestment skeptics who believe I am pushing an environmental agenda at the expense of necessities such as financial aid, let it be clear: The financial argument for divestment is sound, even independent of environmental concerns. The investment literature overwhelmingly shows that fossil fuel-free portfolios have higher risk adjusted returns than those invested in fossil fuel companies, which is understandable, considering the increasing risk of fossil fuel companies’ faulty practices and the imminence of carbon legislation. The San Francisco Chronicle reported in August that California pension funds lost $5 billion due to investment in fossil fuels. ” [8]

If you are so inclined, you might think of divestment as a death penalty for criminal corporations who knowingly perpetrated [9] mass murders [10] in the past and who plan to continue into the future. I generally prefer less retribution-focused imagery, perhaps that of allowing an ill and deranged sufferer the dignity of a quick death, but then again, perhaps that metaphor is less accurate.  Either way, the humane thing to do is to get it over with quickly, before more harm is done.  Keeping fossil fuel extraction on life-support with continued investments is doing no one any good at this point.

Since EROI from fossil fuels will continue to drop, and since there is essentially incontrovertible evidence of harm from the stuff,  why would any sane person invest money in fossil fuel extraction at this point?

Divestment is the rational and compassionate thing to do.

References

(Note: much of the cited information actually came from other primary sources, referenced in the summaries below, because this is just a blog and I didn’t want to take the time to dig for primary sources – not the best scholarship on my part, but still a good starting point for discussion.)

[1] J. Lambert, C. Hall, S. Balogh. 2013.  EROI of Global Energy Resources: Status, Trends and Social Implications  http://r4d.dfid.gov.uk/pdf/outputs/Energy/60999-EROI_of_Global_Energy_Resources.pdf

[2]   M. Jefferson. 2016. A global energy assessment. WIREs Energy Environ 2016, 5:715. doi: 10.1002/wene.179 http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/wene.179/epdf

[3] Carbontracker.org. 2015. The $2 trillion stranded assets danger zone: How fossil fuel firms risk destroying investor returns. http://www.carbontracker.org/report/stranded-assets-danger-zone/

[4] D. Nathman. 2016. Crude Oil Prices In 2016: Made In China?  Forbes.  http://www.forbes.com/sites/dougnathman/2016/01/20/crude-oil-prices-in-2016-made-in-china/#4bc36cb05b23

[5]  N. Scharping. 2016. Half a Degree Makes a Big Difference for Global Climate http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/d-brief/2016/04/22/a-half-degree-makes-a-big-difference-for-global-climate/#.VyWpqjB96Um

[6] Strandednomore.org. 2013. What To Do If You Find A Live Stranded Whale Or Dolphin: An Inconvenient Advice from StrandedNoMore.  http://strandednomore.org/what-to-do-if-you-find-a-live-stranded-whale-or-dolphin-an-inconvenient-advice-from-strandednomore/

[7] N. Ahmed. 2016. This Could Be the Death of the Fossil Fuel Industry — Will the Rest of the Economy Go With It?  http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/35817-we-could-be-witnessing-the-death-of-the-fossil-fuel-industry-will-it-take-the-rest-of-the-economy-down-with-it

[7] Fossilfree.org. 2016. a) http://gofossilfree.org/what-is-fossil-fuel-divestment/ and b) http://gofossilfree.org/commitments/

[8] S. Vaughan. 2015. Divestment Movement Spurs Existential Crisis in Higher Education. http://www.truth-out.org/speakout/item/32926-divestment-movement-spurs-existential-crisis-in-higher-education

[9] S. Hall. 2015. Exxon Knew about Climate Change almost 40 years ago. Scientific American.  http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/exxon-knew-about-climate-change-almost-40-years-ago/

[10] World Health Organization. 2015. Climate change and health.  http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs266/en/

Decolonizing Permaculture

An important, deeply thought, and carefully articulated response to some questions that have been gnawing at me for quite some time.

Unsettling America

Herb spiral built during a permablitz in Micmac country near Presque Isle, MaineThis article was originally printed in Permaculture Design Magazine (formerly Permaculture Activist) issue #98, Winter 2015. Thanks to everyone who contributed to this issue.

By Jesse Watson, originally published by Midcoast Permaculture

Exploring the Intersection of Permaculture and Decolonization

This article is meant as a primer on decolonization in a contemporary North American context, written specifically for permaculture designers, teachers, activists and gardeners. It is offered so that we may think critically and philosophically about “sustainability” and our role in our culture as designers of novel ecosystems.

In this article we will seek to answer the following questions: What is decolonization? Why should permaculture designers care? What is my experience with this topic? We will attempt to make a clear critique of settler colonialism here in industrialized North America, and demonstrate how we can simultaneously be both victims and perpetuators of settler colonialism. As a bridge to the challenge…

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We’ve got goals: the 17 SDGs

Global Goals SDGs

The UNDP’s Sustainable Development Goals took effect the first day of 2016.  I’ll be leading a discussion of these goals at the upcoming NTU Sustainability Salon.  As I see it, the most promising thing about this renewed effort is the intention to interlink these challenges, recognizing interconnections and building bridges between disciplinary silos.

Learn more:

 

 

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The woman who solved economic tragedy

Elinor Ostrom’s on-the-ground research showed how actual people within real, living cultures overcome Hardin’s “Tragedy of the Commons” (more accurately, “The Tragedy of Unmanaged, Laissez-Faire, Common-Pool Resources with Easy Access for Noncommunicating, Self-Interested Individuals”).  Remember that market economies as we know them have only been around for a few centuries (largely coincident with the Antrhopocene) – other socioeconomic systems represent the vast majority of the time that humans have been humans.

Many commons have flourished for hundreds of years, even in periods of drought or crisis. Their success can be traced to a community’s ability to develop its own flexible, evolving rules for stewardship, oversight of access and usage, and effective punishments for rule-breakers. …[T]he rules for appropriating a resource must take account of local conditions and must include limits on what can be taken and how… Commoners must be able to create or influence the rules that govern a commons. … [T]he authority to appropriate a resource, monitor and enforce its use, resolve conflicts and perform other governance activities must be shared across different levels— from local to regional to national to international.

The Political Scientist Who Debunked Mainstream Economics -David Bollier – Evonomics

Happy Holidays?

CGP Grey gives a brief recap of Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel, just in time for Thanksgiving.

Speaking of Thanksgiving, do take some time to get in touch with gratitude for all the good things in your world.  And do consider how many in the world have so much less.  Then remember that the following day is Black Friday Buy Nothing Day, now part of a complete Buy Nothing Xmas (courtesy of Adbusters) — a great way to start down the road to Degrowth.

BND_bg
At the very least, please avoid shopping at “the Dirty Dozen” this season: