Traveling around the Twin Cities and Minnesota this time of year, you may have seen a sign for a community event that read something like, “Booya on Saturday.” Earlier this month, folks at the University of Minnesota got to experience a booya right here on campus. The Boreas Leadership Program held a Big Boreas Booya that brought together current and future leaders from across campus and beyond to share stories and ideas.
A booya is an upper midwestern tradition of community stew, generally held in the fall. “Booya” refers to both the stew and the event. Booyas are often held by churches, fire departments and other community groups.
So, why a booya on campus for an environmental leadership development program?
Only one month into the fall semester there is already an unseasonable chill in the air. But things are heating up in classrooms across the University of Minnesota Twin Cities and Duluth campuses as more than 200 students in dozens of classes begin work on an impressive array of projects with the City of Rosemount, this year’s Resilient Communities Project partner community.
RCP, an initiative of the Sustainability Faculty Network at the University of Minnesota, with funding and administrative support provided by the Center for Urban and Regional Affairs and the Institute on the Environment, organizes yearlong partnerships between the University and Minnesota communities. The partnership is bringing the expertise of hundreds of graduate students to sustainability-related projects identified by Rosemount city staff and community partners. Continue reading
Should we put a price tag on nature? IonE resident fellow Steve Polasky, Regent’s Professor of Applied Economics, Ecology, Evolution, & Behavior, and Fesler-Lampert Chair in Ecological/Environmental Economics at the University of Minnesota, explored that Big Question at this week’s Frontiers in the Environment event. Following the talk, attendees participated in a lively Q&A session. Here are six things we learned:
- Vocabulary matters. There is a difference between valuing nature and putting a price tag on nature. Should ecosystem services be moved into the market? It may be too soon to tell. Should we accurately value nature? Absolutely.
- There has been a shift from old conservation to new conservation. Nature used to be appreciated based on its intrinsic value, but now it is often looked at with regard to the interaction it has with people. The current debate about ecosystems services tends to follow this same tension. Conservationist may agree about general goals, but they disagree about the emphasis and tactics.
- What’s good for nature is good for us. If we don’t factor in the full cost — including ecosystem impacts — when deciding whether to pursue a specific course of action, Polasky said, “we’re robbing nature, but we’re also robbing people.”
- There are valid arguments on each side. Some studies have shown that people are more likely to protect something when it is seen as a commodity, and that including ecosystem services in market calculations help to show how much we truly value them. However, others argue that there are moral limits to markets and that putting things into market terms removes them from the personal realm, thus changing the way we think about them. The way we use the environment to advance human benefit may not be in line with what is best for the environment.
- There are a lot of unknowns. Is there a way to objectively value nature, or does it all depend on the frames we use? Is it a balanced system? Will this be useful in the long term? These questions and more represent real discussions within this debate.
- It’s beyond economics. Economic valuation is only part of the story. Politics, individual decisions, and actions by firms and institutions all play a role in the debate over the value of ecosystem services. Just because something has economic value does not mean it makes sense politically or socially.
Like to learn more? Watch a video of the presentation.
Did you know that humans eat more water than we drink? That tidbit is explained in “Eating Water,” one of four three-minute films that use data and imagery to explain scientific concepts. The films were created by the Science Museum of Minnesota as part of Science on Sphere, a project of the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration that aims to explain complex environmental concepts in easy-to-digest portions.
The films feature three Institute on the Environment scientists discussing their research. Kate Brauman, lead scientist for the Global Water Initiative, explains that water used to produce our food far outweighs how much we drink in “Eating Water: Agriculture and Climate Change.” Tracy Twine, co-leader of Islands in the Sun, a collaboration of IonE and the College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences that monitors the Twin Cities heat island, reveals that the last time CO2 levels were as concentrated as they are now, humans didn’t exist on the planet in “Hot Air: Atmosphere and Climate Change.” And Patrick Hamilton, IonE resident fellow and director of SMM’s Global Change Initiatives, talks about how humans are facing the greatest challenges while also possessing the greatest capacity for connection and innovation to solve those challenges in “The Human Era: A World of Changes.”
As you watch the videos, imagine they are being screened on a 68-inch globe — about the diameter of a compact car — hanging above your head. That’s how they are presented at SMM and more than 100 museums, zoos, universities and research institutions around the world.
Banner photo by Will von Dauste, courtesy of NOAA
Frontiers in the Environment sat down with Patrick Hamilton, IonE resident fellow and director of the Science Museum of Minnesota’s Global Change Initiative, Wednesday for a lively panel discussion on urban development featuring Anne Hunt, the environmental policy director for the City of Saint Paul; Peter Frosch, director of strategic partnerships for Greater MSP; and Mike Greco, program director for the Resilient Communities Project at the University of Minnesota. Here are the five key things we learned:
- Cities are significant. With more than 50 percent of the global population now living in urban areas, creating a sustainable planet will require creating sustainable cities. While cities only constitute a small proportion of land on the globe, their impact on the land and on resources is significant. Moving forward, we must be intentional about our actions as we work to accommodate growing urban populations.
- We need to shift our thinking from “good enough” to “great.” Instead of comparing our cities with ones of similar size and status, we should look at how we are stacking up against the best. Thoughtful comparisons of the Twin Cities with global leaders such as Shanghai and Stockholm will reveal the places where we are lacking and will provide motivation to become great. We should be pushing ourselves to think bigger and strive for the best, rather than being comfortable with “good enough.”
- Opportunities are abundant. The Twin Cities are poised to have a big impact in urban innovations. With an extensive park system and the expansion of regional transit opportunities, Minneapolis and St. Paul already have made a name for themselves in urban development. However there is a lot more that can be done. Luckily, opportunities are everywhere, from expanding bikeways to reclaiming abandoned lots.
- Collaboration is crucial. Significant change will not happen without collaboration of relevant parties. Cities and governments should work with academia, private businesses, non-governmental organizations and foundations to share perspectives and build ideas.
- Look beyond the environment. Sustainability is typically associated with environmental quality, but it is fundamental that social and economic sustainability are included in future thinking as well. In the long run, this will help to create stronger and more resilient cities.
Like to learn more? Watch a video of the presentation.
This week’s Frontiers in the Environment was presented David Letterman–style by Energy Transition Lab executive director Ellen Anderson and Energy Transition Lab faculty director Hari Osofsky, who is also an IonE resident fellow and Law School professor. The pair explored the “Top 10″ key areas of energy transition and the Energy Transition Lab’s role in them.
10. Treat energy as a system. Instead of seeing energy as a technological process, we
need to view it as an intertwined system involving politics, finance and social
9. Bring renewable energy to scale. Given time, technology can improve and prices can
drop. We may be underestimating the growth and potential of renewables.
8. Address the risks of unconventional energy in new energy frontiers. Oil and natural gas in the Arctic could shift the energy focus away from the contiguous United States. With new locations comes new challenges; addressing topics such as risky
procurement (for example, hydraulic fracturing and deep-water drilling) will be
important to the new energy world.
7. Create 21st century utility models. Traditional energy systems reward energy
companies based on their reliability, stability, rates and capital investment. To create a
stronger system, companies need to be given credit for innovation, environmental
performance, flexibility and encouraging customers to use less energy.
6. Stop wasting energy. Conventional energy systems waste a lot of energy, particularly
from waste heat. There are a lot of opportunities to improve upon this if we can
overcome laws that hamper innovation.
5. Capture economic opportunity and use market tools. The energy transition
represents not only an environmental opportunity, but an economic one as well. For
many companies, the cost of continuing with business as usual may be higher than the
costs of taking action on climate change.
4. Think locally and act locally. Since a significant portion of the world population lives
in cities, cities must play a crucial role in the energy transition. University of
Minnesota’s Energy Transition Lab is working to provide tools to help urban centers
make this shift.
3. Education, collaborate and innovate for impact. Planning for the energy transition
now will help guide its future. The Energy Transition Lab is working to help plan
Minnesota’s energy future and use this information to understand and shape the energy
future on a regional and global level.
2. Make progress in a partisan political environment. Pairing energy transition goals
with economic development goals could help create common ground for progress.
Working at a smaller scale where partisanship is less intense than at larger scales may
also provide fertile ground for moving forward on needed energy transitions.
1. Ride the wave: Capitalize on positive trends. Universities value innovation, a vital
tool to solving the challenge of an energy transition. Another bonus? Universities are
full of members of the Millennial generation, 93 percent of whom believe continued
dependence on fossil fuels has weakened the economy and stifled innovation.
Like to learn more? Watch a video of the presentation.
A new exhibit opening Thursday, Oct. 2, in IonE’s Commons Meeting & Art Space pays homage to the earth art movement of the 1960s. Also called land art and earthworks, the movement, according to Wikipedia, was an “artistic protest against the perceived artificiality, plastic aesthetics and ruthless commercialization of art at the end of the 1960s in America.” The exhibit features four prize-winning artworks created in spring 2014 by student groups from the University of Minnesota Art History course “Art and the Environment” (ArtH3434).
The title of the exhibit, 3434, is both practical and intriguing. “3434 was the course number, but it also characterizes some of the works’ experimental nature. Students from all over the University, including mechanical engineering, IonE, some science disciplines, music and studio art, learned about the history of the earth art movement,” says Jane Blocker, the College of Liberal Arts professor who taught the class. “Then they emulated the collaborative style of earth art groups working around the world today by contributing their distinctive skills and abilities to create art in response to an environmental problem.” Continue reading
Our Fall 2014 Frontiers in the Environment event series kicked off last week with a lively discussion about new ways to boost food safety. Here are five things we learned from the presentation by Matteo Convertino, IonE resident fellow and assistant professor, School of Public Health; and Craig Hedberg, Professor, School of Public Health:
- Roughly 1 in 5,000 meals results in a foodborne illness. What does this tell us? We may have come a long way in research, but there is still a lot that we don’t know. Foodborne diseases are the result of dynamic interactions between the environment, agents and hosts, and this complexity provides many challenges in studying food safety.
- Computer modeling is useful for predicting outbreak sources. Traditional work on foodborne diseases focuses on surveillance, with an attempt to identify a problem and act when possible. Computer modeling may help predict threats earlier and provide a more efficient way to approach threats to food safety.
- There may another reason to eat local. Computer modeling has shown that longer supply chains make food more vulnerable to diseases. That means local foods, which rely on shorter supply chains, may be less susceptible to foodborne illness. However, consumer preferences have made changing to a more localized supply chain difficult.
- Uncertainty is good. Contrary to popular belief, uncertainty in modeling and research can be beneficial because it allows a critical exploration of the system. Fluctuations in the environment and supply chains show natural system variability. Learning from this variability will allow for better prediction, detection and attribution over time.
- Enough is not enough. As global population grows, a looming global concern is finding enough food to feed everyone. While this is critically important, it is equally essential to ensure that the food people have access to is safe from disease.
Like to learn more? Watch a video of the presentation.
Plastic is everywhere. It’s in the clothes we wear and the cars we drive. It holds and protects the food we eat and beverages we drink. We can’t get through a day without using plastic in some way, shape or form. And its ubiquity is part of the problem.
“Many plastics are found in single use items, and there are disposal issues,” says IonE resident fellow Marc Hillmyer, director of the Center for Sustainable Polymers and Distinguished McKnight University Professor in the College of Science & Engineering. Most plastics do not easily degrade and thus “can’t be discharged safely into the environment. Moreover, most plastic is not recycled, and there is serious concern about how much plastic ends up in our oceans,” he says. Continue reading
How much do trees vary in the way they suck carbon dioxide from the air and use it to make roots, trunks, branches and leaves? The answer to that question is an important one because it has a huge impact on our ability to predict how destroying or creating forests influences climate change. And the correct answer is a surprising one, according to two related studies published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences this week by University of Minnesota forest ecologist Peter Reich and colleagues in Minnesota, Arizona, Australia, China, Poland and Germany.
Conventional models used to assess the impact of forests on greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere assume that the way trees use carbon to build roots, leaves and trunks is fairly constant across a range of conditions — that is, that trees everywhere devote the same fraction of new growth to each component and that components have the same durability everywhere. However, analyzing massive amounts of data gathered from around the globe, Reich and colleagues documented predictable differences in key properties of forests across north-south climate gradients. Continue reading
Pollinators have a direct impact on human nutrition, especially in the developing world where malnutrition and micronutrient deficiencies are prevalent, according to new research published today in Proceedings of the Royal Society B. The Natural Capital Project study — a collaboration of the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment and Stanford Woods Institute on the Environment — overlapped data of 115 common food crops with data on pollination dependence and micronutrient content and found that, in places like Southeast Asia and Latin America, almost 50 percent of plant-derived vitamin A requires pollination. Read more
Banner photo @iStockphoto.com/hkratky
A 2014 Acara Challenge winner is using his award to pilot his start-up in Uganda. Brice Aarrestad, a student in the College of Design, won the Acara Challenge International Bronze Award for his venture, Help Desk, which aims to address three major issues Aarrestad saw in Uganda: inadequately furnished schools, high unemployment and deforestation. By exporting high-quality, artisan-made furniture to America, he hopes to provide job training and stable employment, support sustainably sourced materials, and provide resources to schools in need.
The Acara Challenge is a competition held each year by IonE’s Acara program to spur start-ups with creative, sustainable solutions that can have impact in the world.
Read more about Help Desk’s work in Uganda.
Banner photo: Help Desk’s Strap Bench prototype on the bank of the River Nile in Jinja, Uganda, by Brice Aarrestad.
University of Minnesota ecologist and IonE resident fellow David Tilman has received a 2014 Balzan Prize in recognition of his outstanding scholarly contributions in ecology. The international award comes with an $800,000 prize, half of which is to support young researchers working with Tilman.
According to a release by the International Balzan Prize Foundation, Tilman received the distinction for his “huge contributions to theoretical and experimental plant ecology, work that underpins much of our current understanding of how plant communities are structured and interact with their environment.”
The Balzan Prize recognizes achievements in the humanities and natural sciences, as well as in advancing peace among humanity. The foundation varies the fields it recognizes each year with an eye to uplifting innovative research across disciplinary boundaries. Tilman was one of four scholars from around the world to receive the prize this year. Past recipients of the award include Mother Teresa of Calcutta and the International Committee of the Red Cross.
The Boreas Leadership Program is gearing up for its fall programming. Boreas is a co-curricular leadership development opportunity at the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment. We invite all U of M graduate and professional students to participate in Boreas programming, which helps students catalyze environmental solutions. The program is idealistic in its aim of helping emerging leaders at the U develop into the world-changers they want to be and world-changers society needs.
The program is also pragmatic in its approach; leadership skills workshops are a core part of the programming. A schedule of workshops is offered each semester in four areas: communications and media, public skills, integrative leadership, and systems thinking and tools. Continue reading
It’s a Saturday morning at the Midtown Farmers Market. Arranged across tables, in crates and under awnings are this season’s colorful bounty of tomatoes and green beans, sunflowers and . . . scientists? Wearing purple shirts imprinted with the slogan, “I’m a scientist … ask me what I do,” several University of Minnesota graduate students are at the market to engage kids and their parents in science experiments and activities aimed at bridging the divide between science and the public. To accomplish this task, the team is facilitating hands-on activities to get market goers talking about gardens and the natural processes that sustain them.
The students were concerned by a study that showed that Minnesota’s racial minorities and women are falling behind in math and science and chose the Midtown market at Lake Street East and 22nd Avenue South in Minneapolis for its diverse ethnic population. They wanted to bring science down from the proverbial ivory tower and make it available to the public. Five Market Science days were planned on alternating Saturdays, each with a different theme, with activities and experiments based on the theme. To fund supplies for the activities, they applied for and won a Mini Grant from the Institute on the Environment.
Build it and people will follow — that’s the nature of roads. In many parts of the world, that fact is having an impact on ecosystems, with increased human access leading to habitat and wilderness loss, fragmentation, wildfires, overhunting and other environmental degradation. With a 60 percent increase in global road expansion predicted by 2050, careful planning of road building is crucial.
In a report published this week in the journal Nature, researchers have offered a “global road map” to steer road expansion into areas that would have maximum human economic and social benefits while protecting areas with high environmental values such as biodiversity, ecosystem services and carbon storage. Continue reading
The Institute on the Environment’s mission is to discover solutions to Earth’s most pressing environmental challenges. Kate Brauman, lead scientist of the Global Water Initiative at IonE, is helping bring this mission to life. Her recent research looking at global irrigation patterns is now being used by Bonsucro, an organization working to use less water in the production of sugarcane around the world. IonE communications director Todd Reubold recently sat down with Brauman to hear the story.
How did you get started in this field?
Agriculture is heavily managed and most of the focus is on the food products that are grown. But at the end of the day crops are still just plants that need water. So when I was working with IonE’s Global Landscapes Initiative team and the data it produces around crop yield, I started asking, “How big a food bang are people getting for their water buck?” In other words, what is the “crop per drop?” Continue reading
This fall, the Institute on the Environment is refreshing our popular Frontiers in the Environment series. We’ll ask some Big Questions and host solutions-focused conversations about the next wave of research and discovery.
Each week, we’ll ask a pressing question such as, “Can we build a more resilient food distribution system?” Researchers and other experts from IonE and the greater University and Twin Cities’ communities will dive into the topic, sharing cutting-edge insights to move us closer to the answer. Continue reading
Who would think a visit to a plant that harvests energy from burning trash and features a smokestack so tall “it seemed to curve in the air” would rank among the highlights of a summer study abroad trip to Europe? A dozen University of Minnesota students, that’s who.
In May and June, I led a group of University students from a variety of majors – art, political science, accounting and architecture, to name a few – on a three-week sustainability tour of Denmark. We spent a some precious days on a small agricultural island in the North Sea, a place of sleepy villages, fishing piers and miles of beachfront that draw Danish tourists. We marveled at the island of Samso, which draws visitors from as far away as South Africa, Japan and Australia who come to learn how an isolated community of 5,000 transitioned to using only renewable energy for electricity and heat. Continue reading