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March 2011 Archives

The Ins and Outs of Sustainable Living

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Field trip to a wastewater treatment plant? Can't beat that! And that's just one of many experiences students encountered in Living Sustainably in Urban Ecosystems, a freshman seminar taught by IonE resident fellow Sarah Hobbie last fall with Larry Baker, a research professor in the Department of Bioproducts and Biosystems Engineering, and EEB grad student Daniel Nidzgorski.
An associate professor of ecology, evolution and behavior, Hobbie is interested in exploring ways to make urban ecosystems more sustainable. Why not start at the beginning, she thought, by giving young adults a foundational sense of what it means to live sustainably in an urban ecosystem? So she used funding from her IonE fellowship to develop the freshman seminar.
The two-credit course included field trips to a power plant, a LEED-certified campus building, a student organic farm, a wastewater treatment plant  and a recycling facility, providing insights into where food, energy, and other stuff of life come from and where they go when we're done with them. In addition, students used the Household Flux Calculator, a tool Hobbie developed with colleagues. They created snapshots of how carbon, nitrogen and phosphorus cycle through their own lives. Perhaps most important of all, the entire course was deliberately set up to help students develop and use critical thinking skills to last a lifetime.

Participants seemed to appreciate the class, particularly the field trips. "The instructors gave me a better idea of what living sustainably really means and how we can apply it to our lives," one wrote in an evaluation.

 Hobbie and Baker plan to offer the course at least two more times. Learn more here.

Solving a Wicked Problem

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food.jpgBy all rights, an alarm should have gone off, or a gong sounded, or a siren wailed. But for 99.9% of us, the event slipped silently by.  Last year at some point, world food consumption pulled out ahead of production.  In other words, we started eating - literally - a hole in our global food supply.

That historic event is just one of many signaling a need to pay serious attention to food security worldwide, Will Hueston, director of the U of M's Global Initiative for Food Systems Leadership, told the audience at IonE's Frontiers in the Environment talk earlier this week.

Plenty of things are challenging food security, Hueston said: population increase, growth of mega-cities, increase demand for animal protein, fewer people working in agriculture, finite amount of arable land, climate change - to name just a few.

Most challenging of all is that food security is a "wicked problem." That means, Hueston explained, that it's a dilemma so complex that no single entity can understand or address it alone, yet so compelling that we have no choice but to act - even though it's not always clear ahead of time whether any particular action is more likely to do good than harm.

How do you solve a wicked problem?

In this instance, at least, it's not a matter of new knowledge. "We don't need any more new technology to feed the world," Hueston said. "This is not a technology problem, folks."

Instead, he said, we need to use systems thinking, and to collaborate. We need to turn to shared leadership, where scientists and the public work together to define and craft solutions. IF we can develop a new way of thinking about solving problems, IF we can create a culture that values and rewards efforts to pursue and apply solutions together, and IF we can apply all of that on a global scale - we just might find a workable solution.

View the video of Hueston's talk here.

Photo by Giuseppe Bizzarri with thanks to the UN World Food Programme.

Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?

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silverware.jpgGuess who's coming to dinner?

At the University of Minnesota, Crookston, this Thursday it's the neighbors - and sustainability is on the menu.

Dan Svedarsky, director of UMC's Center for Sustainability, has been working to reduce the carbon footprint of transportation, food, and other systems at UMC, In doing so, he realized that the campus can't function as an island. So he decided to bring area residents together with the on-campus community to create a "Communiversity" committed to advancing sustainability in the entire Crookston area.

Enter Sustainability Supper Seminars. Recognizing that most great conversations happen around food, Svedarsky applied for and received an IonE Mini Grant to fund a series of biweekly evening meals and sustainability discussions for anyone interested - on or off campus.

The first of eight biweekly supper seminars, an introduction to sustainability, will be held this Thursday - March 24. Future sessions will focus on

  • international dimensions of sustainability
  • urban ecosystems
  • implementing climate neutrality plans for campuses
  • peak oil implications for planning
  • energy efficiency and renewable energy perspectives
  • local food production
  • faith-based approaches to sustainability

Interested in joining the conversation? Contact Michael Knudson today to make your reservation.

Sneak Preview

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We don't know exactly what Hans Rosling is going to say or do when he takes the stage April 26 at Ted Mann Concert Hall in Minneapolis as the second keynoter in IonE's Momentum 2011 event series. But we do know it will be not only thought-provoking but also highly entertaining!

An international health expert who doesn't mince words when he has something important to say, Rosling has enlightened and inspired millions around the world with his presentations at TED and other prestigious venues. For a taste of Rosling's innovative approach, check out the video above. Then reserve your tickets for his Momentum 2011 presentation, "A Fact-Based World View," here.

Mind Your Own Business

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100_0163.JPGPretty amazing when college students create business plans to help solve environmental and social challenges in developing countries.
Even more amazing when they carry them out.
Most amazing of all: the Acara Challenge. It's guiding and encouraging students from three continents as they work in cross-cultural teams to do both.
Now in its third year, the IonE-supported program brings together students from universities in the U.S. and developing countries to build plans for businesses that address sustainable development challenges such as clean water or clean energy. Teams compete against each other, and the best of the best get funding and a ticket to a summer institute where they shape their vision into rubber-meets-road reality.
Acara Challenge '11 just got underway, with 21 teams from 12 universities in the U.S., India and Mexico developing business solutions for food and water security issues for communities in India and Mexico. Student teams will present their plans to judges in early May. Top teams will win funds to attend the Acara Summer Institute - held this year in India - and get help from volunteer mentors to move their plans toward application. Participating this year are Arizona State University, Cornell University, Duke University, Roosevelt University, University of Hartford, University of Minnesota, Monterrey Tech, K.J. Somaiya Institute of Management, IIT Roorkee, KIIT University, VIT and TERI University.
Does it work? One team from last year, MyRain, has already incorporated and is in the process of installing drip irrigation systems in water-starved communities in north-central India.

  The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author(s) and not necessarily
  of the Institute on the Environment/University of Minnesota.


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