Thursday, November 15, 2012

Environmental Psychology and the Quest for Eutopia Lecture 3 Part2/4; Toward a Mercy Sustainability Center

 Video of this part of the lecture found here:

Transcript below:

Part II: Sustainability Initiatives in Our Region

My proposal is that we create not just a Sustainability "Think Tank", but, as David Randle, who is on the adjunct faculty with the USF School of Global Sustainability, would call it,  a Sustainability "Do-Tank".

  Are there any institutions in the New York area that are doing anything similar? Besides the polytechnics (or even including the polytechnics) it is hard to find any colleges or higher education locations that are actively teaching non-specialized students how to understand the STEM topics involved in actually building things like back-up power systems, tri-fuel engine conversions, tri-fuel refrigeration systems, treadle pumps, solar hot water systems, biogas systems, photovoltaics, small wind generators, charge controllers and inverters and other electronic component based systems, walter filtration systems, open-source tools, environmental sensing robotics, micro-hydro generators, composting systems, aquaponics and hydroponic systems, healthy food production systems, modular low-cost housing systems, fuel-cell stack creation, etc.

It is hard to find any sustainability programs in the New York area that go beyond encouraging liberal arts students to become verbally and textually literate about sustainability; hard to find programs that actually train their students to get involved in hands-on solutions and innovations that can help create a sustainable or emergency management infrastructure. There are more and more eco-degrees appearing (see but there seem to be gaps between the more esoteric Environmental conservation degrees like those offered by Cornell University, the Environmental Engineering Degrees offered at colleges with strong math and science programs, and the “green collar job” training programs offered by two year colleges.

Besides doing my own research, I put out feelers to the 1000 + members of the social media groups I'm involved with dedicated to sustainable development technology. The most interesting response was from Warren Weisman, the owner of a company called Hestia Home Biogas in Eugene Oregon. Native to Alaska, and formerly in the military, he has been in the sustainability business for decades. He wrote,

Unfortunately, most “sustainability” programs at US schools are dedicated exclusively to “market-based solutions” such as solar panels, hybrid cars and LEED building which at best are energy saving technologies and at worst are pissing on a flat rock.”

The discomfort that Warren has with the type of training available in most schools is echoed by development workers overseas who are dismayed by the lack of practical applied scientific knowledge that most Americans who want to be involved in relief efforts seem to posses. It is also echoed in the record of winning science fair and engineering awards from around the world – according to the OECD the US ranks 25th in math and 17th in science among 31 countries surveyed.
According to

The competitive edge of the US economy has eroded sharply over the last decade, according to a new study by a non-partisan research group. The report found that the U.S. ranked sixth among 40 countries and regions, based on 16 indicators of innovation and competitiveness. They included venture capital investment, scientific research, spending on research, and educational achievement.7 The prestigious World Economic Forum ranks the U.S. as No. 48 in quality of math and science education.”

We know this is a crisis, but I believe that many schools have been going about addressing it in the wrong way, by assuming that the path to learning math and science is more math and science classes. It is my belief, having been a science educator for decades, that the best way forward is to focus on teaching problem solving in general and sustainability technology training in specific and use math and science as tools to create meaningful interventions for disaster prevention and relief.

As Warren pointed out, merely teaching students about “market-based solutions” does not strengthen the real scientific aptitude of our youth. At Mercy we can do much better by teaching students how to create new solutions and new markets. That would be a fairly unique approach for a non-University and non-technical college.

I attended meetings with the Santa Rosa Junior College in California when they were beginning their “Green Collar Job Training Programs” in 2009, called “Sustainable SRJC” thanks to the Stimulus and Recovery Act; I also visited technical and trade schools in Los Angeles that were moving in this direction, with programs like “Boots on the Roof: Training for the Renewable Energy Industry”, but they often leave out much of the theoretical and academic sides. Most programs, like the 6 day Solar Thermal Boot Camp are short programs with a practical outcome (install a domesstic hot water system) geared toward “contractors looking to add solar-thermal systems to their existing career offerings.”

Again, this is all focused on 'market-based' solutions, not on creating innovators.

The school with a program most like the kind of Sustainability Center that I envision for Mercy is MIT. I helped Amy Smith's famous “Engineering for Sustainability” students via a video-conference when they built their biodigestor in Nicaragua and co-presented with Jose Gomez-Marquez at Google this summer. They are training their students in exactly the approach I've outlined for Mercy. But of course they are an engineering school which has been teaching social entrepreneurship for more than a decade, with students taking away top prizes in areas like sustainable energy and medical robotics (see where students are reported to have developed ways to turn corn cobs into concentrated cooking fuel and created a simple turbine made of car parts and plumbing supplies).

Besides trade schools, do we know of any hands on environmental technology programs in a traditionally liberal arts school?

One of the big problems is that we have created a society of narrow specialists and lost much of the general practical knowledge for self-sufficiency. Most of it is common sense, but a veil of anxiety epitomized by the slogan “we are professionals, please do not try this at home” keeps many people from attempting to learn how to construct and implement even the simplest real-world applications of sustainable technology.

Our education in sustainability mostly relies on normative encouragement to “re-use and recycle”, to try and consume less, to buy from 'green' vendors etc. Sustainability education in much of America has become consumer oriented and passive rather than pro-sumer based and active. It is filled with discouraging admonitions aimed at getting students to engage in “avoidance behavior” and which often results in feelings of guilt and being trapped that can turn into hostility toward environmental movements as the 'doom and gloom' message either leads to paralysis or renewed patterns of wasteful consumption that feel inevitable. .

But while many programs in environmental science that talk about the dream of sustainability have over-stressed the negative aspects of human behavior, all over the world there are programs that act on sustainability through workshops and classes that teach people how to build and operate and install and maintain and invent or innovate solutions to our problems. These active, hands on programs have inevitably created tremendous feelings of optimism and engagement. The fact is, and I say this as a practitioner with several decades in the field, in slums and villages around the world, the answers are not only simple to understand, but are simple to implement, at least on home and community scales. As Buckminster Fuller famously said,

It is now physically and metaphysically demonstrable that the chemical elements resources of Earth already mined or in recirculation, plus the knowledge we now have, are adequate to the support of all humanity and can be feasibly redesign-employed [...] to support all humanity at a higher standard
of living than ever before enjoyed by any human...There is no energy crisis, food crisis or environmental crisis. There is only a crisis of ignorance.”.
The Mercy Sustainability Center can address that crisis of ignorance and, to paraphrase the old adage, not just give people a fish, but teach them how to fish (and this at a time when many schools are simply teaching people about fish in the abstract, without even showing them what a fish really looks, feels, smells and tastes like.)
With the current economic and environmental crises afflicting New York, the last thing we want to see is New Yorkers experience the same deprivations and losses that are so common in so-called “third world countries”. The irony is that many developing regions are already putting programs like the one we are describing here together to improve their lives in the face of these grave challenges. The hope is that we can learn from the resourcefulness and experiences of these areas, like Barefoot College, and bring this education to our own shores so we can continue our dream of liberty and justice for all.

Most importantly, taking our cue from India and Israel, creating and stocking and running such a center should not be very expensive.

It does not rely on sophisticated machinery or equipment. The entire point is for students to learn how to solve environmental problems using available low cost materials, many of them found as trash. Only in this way can students learn how to recover quickly in times of disaster or how to help people in impoverished regions.

Hi-tech, while exciting, doesn't have much of a place in such a center except in so far as the students would be trained to retrofit the existing buildings and operations on Mercy's campus with technologies that could lead not only to the greening of the campus but to significant financial savings that could be ploughed back into the center and the school at large. Examples are replacement of inefficient lighting and HVAC systems, insulation and windows, more efficient induction motors, and all the other components of an LEED certification retrofit. Students would learn this and not only help turn Mercy into a green campus, but prepare for jobs in the water and energy and waste management efficiency improvement industries.

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