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Food for Thought

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thanksgiving.jpgBY LEWIS GILBERT

While Nov. 24 was just another Thursday in most of world, many of us in the U.S. celebrated the modern incarnation of our immigrant ancestors' interpretation of the harvest festival. In my corner of the world, the weather was damp and cool and most of the day was shrouded in a gray light that was both enticingly beautiful and a reminder of the winter to come.

By its very nature a harvest feast is not sustainable, if for no other reason than, as we were repeatedly reminded by the eldest member at our gathering, who is Swiss and of the WWII generation, "There is too much food!" But it is meant to be an exception; it is a marker between the seasons and, at its best, an acknowledgment of the subsidiary relationship between human well-being and the varied environments of our planet (tip o' the hat to David Orr).

 Thanksgiving is a cook's high holiday; an opportunity to pull out all the stops, to hone skills and, for me at least, to cook another turkey. I think about sourcing, but I do not really understand the Earth System complexities related to things like growing and selling celery well enough to base all of my decisions on geography. I do know that doing without celery would be a hardship for my cooking partner and her stuffing.

Travel is a common part of the holiday. We had a California contingent with us, and two of our young adults made their annual trek to Missouri to be with their father's family. My sister drove from Maine to Massachusetts to renew connections. Skype makes the world smaller, but it has its limits when it comes hugging your decades-lost cousin or passing the mashed potatoes.

As my memories of annual turkeys have accumulated, the reflective part of Thanksgiving has gained strength. Our elder said beautiful and simple words, made all the more so as this less emotive branch of my complex family spontaneously joined hands around the table. And in another role, I found myself composing reflections for undergraduates at my alma mater.

Along with slowly gained appreciation for roasting nuances, I have also gained appreciation for the role of honest critique and ongoing imagining in the development of wisdom. Wisdom of all kinds will become increasingly important as humans assume increasing influence over the course of Earth's evolution. Where natural systems have dominated the attention of my generation, the attention of future generations will shift toward human systems; where my cohort worked on environment, future cohorts will address sustainability.

Personal choices regarding things like food and travel matter as we strive to improve the aggregate quality of human life on Earth, but I believe those choices should include pragmatism with respect to the course of our individual lives. The wise application of our collective imagination, knowledge and skill to identifying places in the Earth System where leverage can be gained and applied to the greater good must accompany or even lead personal choice as we create the future.

Sustainability success will require leadership, organization and commitment across the generations, and I look forward to serving ever better turkey to future Thanksgiving gatherings and hearing yet-to-be-created tales of life in the future.

Editor's note: Lewis Gilbert is the new managing director of the University of Minnesota's Institute on the Environment. Photo courtesy of Ms Jones from California, USA CC-BY-2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Outburst! Meets Twitter



"Fill your brain for free," the advance publicity said. And that's just what folks did last week as 22 Institute on the Environment resident fellows made lively five-minute "Outburst!" presentations on the Big Question they're addressing, how they're doing it, and what it means for the rest of us.

Watch the archived presentation here - or, for just a taste of the talks and the variety of topics covered, check out this sample of live-tweets from attendees:

Partying with the Institute on the Environment #Outburst!

Jon Foley introducing Outburst! now. Why are we here at Institute on the Environment? To have an impact in the world.

I love how people in computer science are interested in real problems, and want to study / save the planet!

Okediji: the right regulatory framework allows us to capture the value of climate change technology

Now at Outburst! Volkan Isler on robotic systems for collecting data, starting with carp (yes, fish)

New concept - "Environmental nutrition" or environmental science merged with nutrition and health

"2 Billion More Coming to Dinner" film coming soon out of Institute on the Environment and Sci Museum collaboration

Robotic data mules replace graduate students... at least for tedious tasks

At Outburst! James Forester on how movement ecology interacts w/ disease

Costs and time for patenting green technology create imperative for a fast-track system

How can our developing world technology be made available for the "bottom billion" to survive, thrive?

In response to climate change, can we create fast track licensing mechanism for green technology for global south?

Klass: federal laws and state laws need to be harmonized to get our national energy infrastructure in shape.

Banerjee says twitter helps researchers understand public sentiment, find new stories... so I will tweet EVEN MORE

Geoengineering governance? We HAVE NOT thought through the law. At all.

Make law work better for environment and justice? Crazy!

Computer science can help us understand abrupt changes in climate, can help complete large forest ecology database

Household flux calculator - measure your impact on the flux of nutrients in the environment!

Outburst! Is perfect for those of us who are ADD and love learning about everything. AKA most environmental people I know.

We lack mechanisms for cost sharing for smart grid transmission - resulting in our current clunky system

An application of Shekhar's research? Evacuation route planning so transportation plans are sustainable

In Haiti, neighborhoods must be self sufficient, of necessity, and community approach fits culture

How can Midwestern agriculture create new prosperity and public goods by producing more from the same land base?

Spatial Data Mining - great potential for advancing climate science

Membrane filtration or reverse osmosis, important mechanism to get clean water

Neighborhood scale district energy systems part of the sustainability plans at UMore Park

In India, hydrological change, agriculture and the economy are linked, and dramatically impact food security

All water on northern plains (Canada) goes through Lake Winnipeg, a resource shared by 4 provinces, 2 states

Osofsky tells how multidimensional environment and energy governance and justice could be our path for better future

More from Osofsky - environmental justice and the BP oil spill shows we need better legal/ governance structures

Household flux calculator - measure your own flux!

In an area of heavy commercial forest harvesting sits the Wanang Research Area in Papua New Guinea

Air pollution among top 15 global cuause of mortality, estimated to cause 1M premature deaths annually

At Outburst! Jonathan Schilling asks "How do fungi eat and WHO CARES?" Hmmm.

Schilling: Fungi are gutless, toothless and heartless wonders.

Wood-degrading fungi provide lessons for bioconversion, may capture VOCs, methane

Now at Outburst! Alex Klass from law school on how to build out nation-wide grid for transmission of electricity

Nanotechnology widely used now, in 1000s of products. What is it? Engineered and very small

A Minnesota design team works hand in hand with Guanacaste national park staff in Costa Rica - on a coloring book

Why care about transmission? Current system weighed down by waste and makes incorporating renewables difficult.

Threshold: things flip over into a new state. A key element of human-environment systems.

Manson says if "complex" is too complicated for you - think "black swan" instead

Occupational disease risk high in India due to scarcity of infrastructure for enforcement, weak power of labor

Comparing India and China, lessons for rapid industrial growth and occupational health

Now at Outburst! Gurumurthy Ramachandran says "I win the award for longest name" Guess so.

What Does It Take to Assemble a Wind Turbine?

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What does it take to get a 2.3-megawatt experimental wind turbine off the ground? In addition to a 263-foot tower and a REALLY tall crane, it takes a vision that the turbine will make the world a better place, connections to create a critical mass of partners - and investment by those committed to making it happen.

Last month a 2.3-megawatt experimental wind turbine began turning at the University's UMore Park in Rosemount. Centerpiece of the University's new Wind Energy Research Station, which was established with an $8 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy, the turbine will test a variety of innovations to make wind energy more efficient and cost-effective and provide education opportunities around wind energy.

Admirable is the partnership that put it there: The Eolos Wind Energy Research Consortium,  consisting of the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, Center for Compact and Efficient Fluid Power, Syracuse University, Dakota County Technical College, Mesabi Range Community and Technical College, 3M, Barr Engineering, Clipper Windpower LLC., United Technologies Research Center, Lockheed Martin, Micron Optics, Ryan Companies, WindLogics, Xcel Energy, Sandia National Laboratories, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

Equally admirable is the institution that made it possible for the U's St. Anthony Falls Laboratory to assemble that partnership and successfully compete for the DOE grant: IonE's Initiative for Renewable Energy and the Environment.

"IREE was instrumental in helping SAFL establish contacts with the local industry and providing matching funds which led to the University's first major wind energy research award from Xcel Energy," consortium leader Fotis Sotiropoulos, a member of the College of Science and Engineering faculty and head of SAFL, told a legislative review committee last spring. "This award paved the way for the major consortium grant proposal submitted by the University of Minnesota to the DOE to establish an industry/academe consortium on wind energy. IREE's contribution were also critical in this effort by helping the University broaden its ties with major industrial partners who were included in the proposal and providing $400,000 in matching funds. Because of this major award, which was funded in January 2010, the University of Minnesota is now a national leader in wind energy research."

Read more about this new "life-size lab" for wind energy here.

Powering the Dream

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Green technology's time has come, keynote speaker Alexis Madrigal told an audience of more than 300 energy entrepreneurs Monday at E3 2011: The Latest in Renewable Energy Innovation, a daylong conference hosted by IonE's Initiative for Renewable Energy and the Environment. And he should know: as senior editor at The Atlantic and author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology, Madrigal has a unique perspective on green tech's past, present and future.

A big part of today's push for innovation is that the politics of climate change are changing as weather extremes disrupt lives and citizens turn to government for solutions, Madrigal said.

"Climate change is not actually an environmental problem," he said. "It's a human infrastructure problem. We created it, and we're going to solve it." And that means turning not to the stereotypical environmental activists, but to entrepreneurs.

One challenge to making that conceptual shift is that while environmentalism has iconic heroes like Henry David Thoreau and Rachel Carson, green tech doesn't.

Or at least not yet. Madrigal had several to propose: John Etzler a 19th century German utopian who had visions of running the nascent industrial economy on wind, solar and water power. The visionaries who built Lowell, Mass., around water power rather than dirty coal. The imaginarians of the Great Plains, who invented any number of windmill designs to draw groundwater to the surface and slake the thirst of their crops. The people who built our current energy infrastructure. And, most recently, the design-savvy innovators who used the magic of Apple to develop Nest, an intelligent plug-in thermostat with every bit the cool-tech appeal (well, almost) of an iPad.

These heroes set the bar high. But if today's green tech leaders can meet them, we will be well on our way to realizing a truly green economy.

"Energy entrepreneurs, remember: What you do is going to pay off," Madrigal said. "You're on the right side of history."

Check the E3 2011 recap page for more information on E3 2011 and on IREE-supported green energy innovations.

Going for the Gold

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biodiversity_momentum.jpgOn the evening of November 3, IonE's Momentum magazine won ten awards including seven golds at the 15th Annual Minnesota Magazine and Publishing Association (MMPA) Excellence Awards -- an annual event recognizing outstanding achievements in magazine publishing. The awards are determined by a panel of industry professionals with expertise in the areas of editorial, design, marketing, circulation, digital publishing, and more.

Over the past three years, Momentum has brought home a total of 22 MMPA Excellence Awards in categories ranging from feature writing and design to overall excellence.

A complete list of the 2011 awards along with the judges' comments for the gold winners is available below:

GOLD: Best Cover Design (Special Interest Under 60,000) for Spring 2011 issue

Comments: This cover is striking to say the least. There's a really restrained and oh-so-appropriate use of color, contrast, and white space. We felt like that lizard was going to jump right off the page and lick us at any moment -- and we liked it. That's right, we like the lizard, and aren't ashamed to admit it.

GOLD: Best Letter to the Readers (Special Interest Under 60,000) for "Becoming a Climate Pragmatist" by Jon Foley

Comments: It's refreshing to find an editor who isn't afraid of speaking out on burning issues--corporate disclaimers notwithstanding! This column is eloquent as well as persuasive.

SILVER: Best Feature Article (Special Interest Under 60,000) for "Girl Empower" by Emily Sohn

BRONZE: Best Feature Article (Special Interest Under 60,000) for "All Consuming" by David Biello

GOLD: Best Feature Design (Special Interest Under 60,000) for "Water Tight"

Comments: This was a very competitive category. However among the entries, this spread was a standout. A lot of information is displayed in an almost effortless manner and clearly much work went into artfully placing all of the elements throughout the story. The design is clean and easy to read.

GOLD: Best Single Page or Spread Design (Special Interest Under 60,000) for "The Big One"

Comments: There's a tremendous amount of information packed into this ominous little spread, but the data is very digestible thanks to effective design. It's concise but credible, largely due to the designer's ability to represent content graphically and provide a suitable context and easy-to-interpret hierarchy of information.

BRONZE: Best Single Page or Spread Design (Special Interest Under 60,000) for "Planet of the Insects"

GOLD: Best Single-Topic or Special Issue (Special Interest Under 60,000) for "The Biodiversity Issue"

Comments: This issue was incredibly well-designed, written and executed.  The overall theme was carried out in each article.  The visual impact of the illustrations and photography in the magazine was consistent throughout.

GOLD: Overall Design (Special Interest Under 60,000) for Momentum

Comments: The magazine is really beautifully done. We really appreciate the mix of typography and photography alongside absolutely awesome infographics. The visual data points really helped support and enhance the story. The designers did an excellent job of dealing with quiet space - they didn't try to fill up the pages with unnecessary elements. There's a consistency throughout each entire issue, but it's not a boring consistency, as there are surprises peppered throughout the pages.

GOLD: Overall Excellence (Special Interest Under 60,000) for Momentum

Comments: Momentum knocked it out of the park. Great stories, great layout. The design enhances the message so much that I had to flip to the masthead. Creative director Sarah Karnas has a creative vision for every story that enhances the message. We found ourselves engrossed in the content and blown away by the presentation. Well done, this is what every magazine should aspire to.

Talking Transformation

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Tim Nolan has seen about enough of incremental change. Sustainable industrial development lead for the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, Nolan was this week's featured presenter for IonE's Frontiers in the Environment speaker series. Just as the series seeks to go beyond your usual lecture series, Nolan was happy to go beyond platitudes.

Speaking on "Harnessing Sustainability and the Green Economy for Market Transformation," Nolan began by outlining his views of what the green economy and the sustainability movement are all about, then presented what he sees as the "grand challenge": transforming the marketplace. Green is not just about carbon or energy, he pointed out, but many challenges: material, waste, water, toxics, land use, economic disparity , human health and more. The need to deal with all of these things simultaneously, he said, "will ultimately transform marketplace and the way we do business."

Trends that are driving clean and green today, Nolan said, include a push to go beyond clean-ups and remediation to prevention; a growing need for "green" skill sets in fields from engineering to architecture; and new corporate thinking that embeds sustainability into strategy and operations, where it becomes a source of competitive strength. He offered three examples of such new thinking: GE's Ecomagination, which is growing revenues at double the rate of GE as a whole; Tennant Co., where sustainability is central to operations and a source of growth even in a down economy; and the community of Silver Bay, Minn., which is collaborating with the University of Minnesota Duluth's Center for Sustainable Community Development on a a synergistic system for producing food and energy in a closed-loop system.

"We have to look at how to change organizations and institutions to do business differently," Nolan urged.

Want to learn more? Watch Nolan's talk and other archived Frontiers on the Environment presentations here. Then mark your calendar for next week's talk, "The Frugal Future," featuring American Public Media economics guru Chris Farrell. You can catch Frontiers in the Environment Wednesdays at noon during the semester in the IonE Seminar Room on the main floor of the U of M's Learning and Environmental Sciences building, or watch live online at z.umn.edu/ionetalk.

Student Sustainability Symposium


Wonderful!  Amazing! Great opportunity! Exciting!

These are just some of the words people have used to describe the first-ever University of Minnesota Student Sustainability Symposium. Over 40 students from nine different colleges/schools presented posters on their sustainability research.  

The symposium, held October 26, 2011, at the Institute on the Environment, kicked off with a keynote address by Leo Raudys, senior director of environmental affairs for Best Buy. Leo inspired us all with his personal history of sustainability work in both the public and private sectors. He was followed by Clarence Lehman, an adjunct professor in the College of Biological Sciences, who pointed out our lives are but a minute in the life of the earth, but that a minute can be significant in the course of a lifetime.  The keynote address is available here.

posters.jpgThere were easily 100 people in attendance for the keynote and more who came later to view the posters.  The posters were judged equally on three criteria:

  • Did the poster get the message across quickly and easily (i.e., can a general audience understand it)?
  • Was it clear how the research is related to sustainability?
  • Did the poster look appealing and entice the reader to want to spend more time viewing it?

Students from the College of Design swept the awards: Congratulations to Alice Yonke, Emily Lowery and Elizabeth Turner for winning first, second and third place, respectively. These three winners each received a prize; an iPad 2 for first, Kindle Fire for second, and Kindle for third. A list of all poster titles and abstracts is available here.

The symposium was funded by an IonE Mini Grant  Although the event was a one-time grant, it is my hope that the tradition continues. It is a fun and friendly opportunity for graduate students from across the University (including other campuses in the future) to meet each other and discuss their research. Students gain important peer feedback, experience with making and presenting a poster and experience discussing their work to a lay audience. Best of all, the students' diverse and insightful work is an inspiration to us all, that we can and will find solutions to the grand sustainability challenges facing the 21st century.

  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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