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Tweeting the New Normal

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The irony was not lost on the 300 or so environmental scientists, policy makers, activists and citizens who gathered earlier this week at the Aspen Institute for three days of solution-seeking around the theme, "Living in the New Normal." Even as participants in Aspen Environment Forum 2012 shared information, ideas and opinions, haze from the forest fires currently ravaging Colorado hung over the nearby mountains. This, more than one participant commented, is the new normal: uncertainty, extremes, unpredictability, unexpected turns of events - all brought on by humans' fiddling with the dials of nature on a grandiose scale.

Of course it's relatively easy to talk about troubles. But that's not what AEF2012 was about. The forum focused not only on defining the new normal, but also on exploring what we ought to do about it. Should we let us take it where it will? Or should we engage? Will we be tossed about like ships at sea? Or will we work to understand the changes taking shape, and shape our own activities to make both most compatible with the preservation of life on Earth?

Perhaps the best way to get a sampling of the conversations is to pull some participant quotes and paraphrases from the Twitter stream (#AEF2012):

If we continue at the present rate of eliminating species, half of them will be gone by the end of the century. - E.O. Wilson

The bulk of the credit for maintaining a planet that works goes to a living ocean. - Sylvia Earle

60,000-90,000 years ago, there may have only been 600-2,000 human beings. We were an endangered species at one time. - Richard Potts

‎‏ We *have* to figure out how to close the gap - to bring environmental externalities into pricing. - Jason Clay

The past is no longer any guide for the future. This planet (w/new climate, biosphere, land use, ocean acidification) is new. - Jon Foley

Abruptness in climate change creates largely unpredictable side-effects. - William Calvin

Eating tuna is like eating something that feeds on dragons. Very high on the food chain. - Daniel Pauly

What happens in the Arctic doesn't stay in the Arctic. - Neal Conan

If you're pro-free market and ignore biggest market failure on planet (CO2), you have a problem. - Gernot Wagner

We have the tools at our disposal to end overfishing. We should start tackling the problem now. - Miguel Jorge

Comparing block to block, house to house, there is 7% greater property value to tree lined streets. - Rohit Aggarwala

In public's eye, pollution is top ocean problem. In reality, it's #3, behind overfishing & climate change. - Ayana Johnson

When you say "climate" it turns people off because they fear they'll have to reduce their quality of life. - Heidi Cullen

Not climate change or global warming, but planetary destabilization. - David Orr

‎‏The future of America is networked resilient communities. - John Robb

Never eat shrimp: either caught with 90% bycatch net, or in mangrove-destroying aquaculture. - Ayana Johnson

We have to be careful about what we can measure and what matters - Daniel Pauly

We need to make climate an economic issue, because it is. - Mindy Lubber

The notion that our emergence occurred during the most violent period of climate fluctuation means that we're able to adapt. - Richard Potts

We need to preserve ecosystems as working systems, for us to learn from and emulate in the Anthropocene. Not keep as museum pieces. - Jon Foley

Don't fish, you have zero fish. Fish too much, you have zero fish. Sustainable fishing is in between. - Daniel Pauly

Smart growth is the greatest technology we have to fight climate change, and its not in any of the books. - Peter Calthorpe

Trawling is like using a bulldozer to catch songbirds. - Sylvia Earle

The past can no longer be a guide to the future.- Dennis Dimick

No farmer is going to invest in sustainability if they don't have land rights. - Jason Clay

Let's celebrate successes in sustainable agriculture - and scale them up. - Chris Reij

U.S. agricultural research budget has gone to hell in a handbasket. - Dan Glickman

‎‏Something that people often miss: resilience doesn't just mean strengthened rule of law, it also means stronger civil society. - Jamais Cascio

We thought the ocean was too big to fail. Now we know otherwise. - Sylvia Earle

Why should unsustainable products cost less? They should cost more because they are subsidized by nature. - Jason Clay

If there's an elephant in the room with the global food system, it's a cow. - Jon Foley

Like to learn more? Check out video of select AEF2012 panel presentations here.

Paul Nicklen: Polar Inspiration

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Few things are as inspirational as people who put their lives on the line for a cause greater than themselves. For National Geographic photojournalist Paul Nicklen, that includes diving beneath sea ice, swimming with leopard seals off Antarctica and trekking across miles of stark Arctic wilderness in -40F temperatures.

His cause? Convincing all of us to care for this wild and precious planet.

Sylvia Earle: Envisioning Sustainable Seas

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National Geographic explorer in residence, deep-sea diver and ocean advocate Sylvia Earle brought a message of encouragement to the Twin Cities in May as  the third and final speaker in the Institute on the Environment's groundbreaking Momentum 2011 event series. Despite overfishing, climate change and other onslaughts, Earle is convinced that if we commit ourselves to the cause, we can help the world's oceans thrive in these uncertain times.

"I, for one, am a hope-aholic," she told a crowd of more than 500 at Ted Mann Concert Hall. "I ask you to join me in that endeavor."

View a 3-minute sneak peek of Earle's talk, "Sustainable Seas: The Vision, the Reality," above, or watch the full 40-minute video. Then check out her Hope Spots website to learn more about how you join her not only in hoping - but in making that hope a reality as well.

Oceans of Inspiration

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National Geographic explorer in residence, deep-sea diver and ocean advocate Sylvia Earle addressed a crowd of more than 500 last night at Ted Mann Concert Hall in Minneapolis, the third and final speaker in the Institute on the Environment's groundbreaking Momentum 2011 event series.

To say her talk was inspirational is an understatement. With lyrical words and stunning underwater images, Earle conveyed not only her passion for what she calls "the blue heart of the planet," but also her conviction that we must - and, encouragingly, can - rescue it from overfishing, climate change and other onslaughts it faces today.

To truly appreciate Earle's message, you'll just have to catch it yourself (see below). But here are a few nuggets to tide you over:

"We now know what we could not know just a few decades ago. ... Now that we know, there's no excuse."

"As long as you can breathe, you can dive."

"A submersible is so easy to drive, even a scientist can do it."

"We just don't know [how many species there are in the ocean]. What we are beginning to recognize is that it matters."

"No child should be left dry."

"We are a part of nature, not apart from it."

"If you want to get perspective, go get a kid. Go out to some wild place and see the future through their eyes."

"The next 10 years are likely to be the most important in the next 10,000."

"I, for one, am a hope-aholic. I ask you to join me in that endeavor."

"We now know that nature is not an option. Nature is not a luxury. Nature is us."

"It's only individuals who do make a difference. ... What is it that each of you has that can change the world around you?"

A video of Sylvia Earle's Momentum 2011 presentation will be available online later this month. Email momentum@umn.edu to be notified when it's posted. And visit the Momentum website regularly for news on Momentum 2012, coming next spring!
Photo by Kip Evans

Sylvia Earle Sneak Preview

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A half century ago, when Sylvia Earle began what became a lifetime of undersea exploration, few people thought we could harm the world's seemingly endless oceans. Today these waters tell a different tale, with massive losses of fish and coral reefs, pollution, and the specter of acidification due to elevated atmospheric carbon dioxide.

On May 12, Earle will present her thoughts on the damage done - and her vision for healing the ocean's wounds - at Ted Mann Concert Hall in Minneapolis. Watch her TED presentation above for a sneak preview of what Earle has to tell us all, then reserve your tickets to see Earle live, with a special presentation by musician Mason Jennings.

Lava planets, dead zones, spider legs and more!

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outerspace.jpgA massive winter snowstorm, three canceled flights and 232 emails later, I finally have a few minutes to write about the recent AAAS meeting in D.C.

If you're a science geek (or in my case, a Star Wars nerd), then AAAS is a must-go event. In between the press briefings, poster sessions and endless reception appetizers, I managed to attend a few of the presentations. Here are some of the highlights:

1) By 2050 nearly all of the large, predatory fish will be gone from the ocean.

I wrote about this in a previous blog entry, but it's worth repeating since the sheer possibility of this happening is astounding.

2) Scientists don't think the media is doing a good job covering climate change. The media doesn't think scientists are doing a good job communicating about climate change.

Somewhat surprising for an academic conference, this session actually got a bit testy. Andy Revkin did a nice job recently summarizing the discussion on his Dot Earth blog. The takeaway for me: the media is doing a pretty good job lately, but most scientists need to continue to hone their communications skills.

3) Kepler 10b is an Earth-like planet with lava oceans.

Who says science isn't cool?! After hearing about all the doom and gloom here on Earth, I needed a break, so I dropped in on a session focused on frontiers in astronomy.

Kepler 10b is a distant planet in a galaxy far, far away with a surface temperature of 3500 degrees Fahrenheit. By comparison, molten lava is 1800 degrees F.

Sounds like something straight out of an episode of Star Trek!

4) Is nitrogen the next carbon?

This session focused on the good (food production), the bad (smog) and ugly (dead zones) of nitrogen. It's a complex topic, though, because nitrogen has in part fueled green revolutions around the world. I was surprised to learn that the average use in the U.S. is 100kg per hectare, whereas in Africa the number is closer to eight.

The takeaway: we need to use nitrogen to feed the planet, but we also need to do so more wisely.

5) We could learn a thing or two from nature.

During a session focused on biologically-inspired design, I learned that studying eagles could help us design energy-efficient airplanes with retractable wings and better understanding the extremely sensitive hair cells on spiders could lead to breakthroughs in sensor technology.

6) Where did all the oil go?

NOAA's Jane Lubchenco reported that nearly all of the oil from the Deepwater Horizon spill has dispersed, but we still don't know the long-term impacts to marine ecosystems. I was also surprised to learn that the total spill - approximately 5 million barrels - was equivalent to 18 times the Exxon Valdez. Perhaps most shocking, though, is how quickly the story has faded from the public discourse on energy.

The AP's Seth Borenstein recently reported on the spill's impact to the Gulf seafloor.

7) The world's population is approaching 7 billion, and then 9 billion by 2050... or maybe 9.5 billion... or is it 11 billion?

No one really knows, but the comment that stood out for me during this session actually came from IonE's Jon Foley.

"Maybe we're asking the wrong question. Instead of asking 'what's the Earth's carrying capacity,' perhaps we should be asking why we already can't feed a billion people today without serious consequences for the environment?"

As the Word Wildlife Federation's Jason Clay concluded, "If we don't get the food question right, population numbers won't matter. We can turn off the lights and go home."

Sounds like it's time to continue the search for solutions!

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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