Looking back at 2011 & Looking forward to 2012

2011 was a great year on Sustainability Now. Our mission, from the beginning, has been to bring our listeners and readers news and views on and by local people working on sustainability issues with the hope that we can work better together. In a minutes we’ll look back at our shows to touch on some of the themes.

Before going on, it’s important to note that all of our guests respond to the same question at the show’s start: “What does sustainability mean to you?” Every guest answers it in their own way. Dave Yoxtheimer from the Marcellus Center for Outreach and Research talked about the wise use of resources, the Heinz brothers talked about developing intelligent technologies, and while Rosa Eberly talked about what isn’t sustainable in a democracy. Many people focus on notions of responsibility to people and nature though weighing those responsibilities differently. Some brought up the rights of people and even other organisms not yet born to whom we owe dignity and respect. Others, like Dr. Anrew Kleit think sustainability is basically nonsense and nobody really knows what it means. His near polar opposite, Dr. Donald Brown, said that in some sense it doesn’t matter exactly how we define it because it is “an orienting concept” like “justice or freedom” that gets us pointed in the right direction. With two exceptions, all of our guests work on projects they believe move us in better – i.e. more sustainable – directions.

What themes did we find? Localists. Shale gas. Energy, economy, and the environment. Global action. Higher education.

We have the real localists in our communities and in a few others working on community-level projects. These included Krystn Madrine from the Sustainable Kitchen who talked about local, organic, and sustainable food systems and the mutual service we get from knowing our farmers and caterers. That thinking is right in line with our talk with people from the local Slow Money and Transition Towns movements, both of whom work to create local resilience. But we’ve also talked about the role of media and outreach so that people can learn about these initiatives whether that’s through touring the state on a motorcycle with Going Local author Ken Hull, former Voices editor Suzan Erem, or Janaia Donaldson from Peak Moment TV out of northern California.

Probably the biggest political splash for the localists came from Braden Crooks and Groundswell PA. The group successfully petitioned to have an environmental and community bill of rights and a ban on hydraulic fracturing and new natural gas development up for popular vote on the November ballot. It won with a landslide 72% of the vote. People in State College deeply distrust gas development.

Marcellus Shale issues were, of course, big news. On March 9th, co-host Peter Buckland rode his bike to Harrisburg to meet with Governor Tom Corbett. It was a protest and consciousness-raising ride to draw attention to the environmental impacts of natural gas development in the state and a way to push for better controls on the industry. The spirit of the ride was shared by guest Barb Jarmoska of the Responsible Drilling Alliance who, ironically enough, thinks that drilling isn’t being done responsibly. That sentiment was shared by attendees of the Marcellus Protest 2011 at Penn State in November and Dr. Tony Ingraffea of Cornell University who gave a talk at Penn State on the truths and myths of natural gas development.

But some don’t agree. Dave Yoxtheimer, a certified geologist working at Penn State’s Marcellus Center for Outreach and Research thinks we can do this right. He walked us through the challenges shale gas development brings, but believes that ultimately natural gas is the best bridge fuel available and that, by and large, it’s being done pretty responsibly with smaller negative environmental and human health impacts than other fuels like coal. But people are still worried.

Former Pennsylvania legislator Carol Rubley co-chaired the Citizen’s Marcellus Shale Commission. She found that people across the state were very concerned about their air, their health, their water, their community integrity, and their economic futures. Though quite a few saw opportunities, most believed that natural gas development as it was being done was unacceptable and therefore needed to be regulated more strictly and that its economic windfalls be used to ensure economic, community, and environmental well-being for the long haul.

This brings us to the intersection of energy, economy, and the environment. Our shows on this included how we get electricity, why it’s priced the way it is, how we could use it better, what generating all of that electricity does to the environment and human health, and how it should be regulated. Clayton Barrows walked us through the production and distribution part of the issue. How does burning coal provide electricity that powers your light? Could it be “smarter”?

That physical infrastructure is one thing, but the price of electricity is another. Last year, Pennsylvania began de-regulating its electricity market, something many thought would cause our electricity prices to spike. But they didn’t. Well, how does the electricity market work? Dr. Andrew Kleit and Dr. Anastasia V. Shcherbakova walked us through some of those issues. But the market and the producer aren’t it. Maybe you can work on how much you rely on that producer and reduce the market’s uptake of your money by using software to control your electricity use at home or work. Chris Heinz from Energy Cap does just that.

But the effects of generating all of that electricity are very costly. They generate what economists call “negative externalities.” Burning coal creates CO2. The scale of our coal, gas, and oil consumption generates incredible environmental and health effects that we pay for in other sectors of the economy like medical bills and environmental protection, but that other creatures pay for with their lives.

For Don Brown of Penn State’s Rock Ethics Institute, the ethical models that underlie the energy sector, engineering, and much of scientific and technological progress are dubious. Monetizing the death or illness of children or other species is profoundly immoral. And the costs are mounting as glaciers and ice caps melt, people are displaced, oceans acidify, boreal forests tip or sink, and islands are steadily being covered by rising seas. But it isn’t just CO2 and greenhouse gases. Burning coal releases other toxins into the environment.

Ed Perry of the National Wildlife Federation came on the show and we asked him, “What’s with the attacks on clean air and clean water by the current Republican congress?” His answer was like Brown’s. The current deregulated version of capitalism foisted by the Republicans right now is contrary to 40 years of environmental regulation created by bi-partisan support starting with the creation of the EPA and the Clean Air Act in the 1970s. The “profit-at-all costs” mentality has taken over our politics. “It’s an ideology,” he said. It’s the same one that denies climate change, tobacco’s role in causing cancer, and the denial of the degradation of the ozone layer by CFCs. There are indeed merchants of doubt out there maintaining a divided status quo. But there are merchants of hope too.

Think of this past year’s incredible global political changes and moves by people for self-determination, for happiness, and for restoring or fomenting well-being where there has been so little. Eric Sauder and Spud Marshall of New Leaf Initiative came in to talk about so many of the initiatives they’ve become involved with. One of them is in Haiti where they work with people to foment sustainable solutions for human well-being. In a nation as impoverished and resource depleted as Haiti, this is an invaluable service. And those solutions run from creating better and more responsible building materials to getting money to songwriters. People need art and joy.

On two shows last spring, we hosted students from Iran and Oman to talk about the “Arab spring.” Democracy and self-determination are often seen as pillars in sustainability. Here we had people whose families and friends were in the streets working to change their destinies on an unheard of scale. The hope the Arab spring engendered was amazing.

Luis Caza came and talked to us on the air about Occupy Wall Street. Having gone to the motor of the machine of income inequality, he came back to Penn State and collaborated with other students and community members to bring the message home. In effect, the gross injustice of the financial system had rippled out and ripped apart the economic security of people across the globe and right here at home. They want to change the world by changing the university.

And universities are changing. We talked to people from Penn State and Bucknell on what higher education is doing in light of sustainability. On the operational side, we talked to Lydia Vandenberg and a few staff people from the university about Green Teams, staff and faculty groups changing their daily work to conserve energy and materials, reduce waste, and even have good times doing it. On research, we spoke to Tom Richard, Director of Penn State Institutes for Energy and the Environment about the dizzying amount of research being done here. Whether it’s developing new technology, working out industrial scale composting, or understanding the effects of intense gas development on Pennsylvania schools, there is a lot to learn here. Is that playing out educationally?

Dr. Denise Wardrop of Riparia and member of the Penn State Sustainability Strategic Plan team walked us through the strategic plan. The goals are to make Penn State a living laboratory for sustainability, develop sustainability leadership, and disseminate sustainability into the culture at large. With a new president at the university’s helm, there is a lot of hope it will get some traction.

At Bucknell, a plan has been in effect for a few years now. Dina El-Mogazi of Bucknell University's Environmental Center walked us through their work. A few years ago, their president Brian Mitchell signed the American College and University President’s Climate Commitment. Doing so committed Bucknell to reducing its greenhouse gas emissions and developing educational programs for sustainability and climate neutrality. They are one of the few universities in the country with a general education requirement for sustainability. Every student at Bucknell has to take a class on the intersection of humans and the environment. Sounds good to us.

All of these people are working for a more sustainable world…Almost all of them anyway. So are we. We hope that by bringing these people, their experiences, and their actions to you, that we can work together for more sustainable beliefs, ideas, actions, and technologies. It’s a small thing, but we believe in it.

Now we are in a new year and we look forward to building on these topics. You can look forward to more on community, energy, and environment. Most of all, you can look forward to some really interesting people doing great work.

Hear Mike and Peter run down their favorite parts of the last year from 4-5 pm EST on 90.7 fm, streaming at http://thelion.fm/listen. Feel free to call in (814) 865-9577.

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