Institute on the Environment Discovering solutions to Earth's most pressing environmental challenges Mon, 12 Oct 2015 14:23:10 +0000 en-US hourly 1 IonE fellow to author assessment on biodiversity in Americas Mon, 12 Oct 2015 14:23:10 +0000 Continue reading IonE fellow to author assessment on biodiversity in Americas ]]> Jeannine Cavender-Bares, an IonE resident fellow and associate professor in the College of Biological Sciences, and Forest Isbell, associate director of the Cedar Creek Ecosystem Science Reserve and an adjunct faculty member in CBS, were selected to participate as lead authors in the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services,  an independent intergovernmental body open to members of the United Nations. Authors contribute to periodic reports on biodiversity, ecosystems and ecosystem services, ranging from regional assessments for the Americas, Africa and Asia to thematic papers and broad global assessments.

Cavender-Bares is a coordinating lead author of a chapter of the Americas assessment on the status, trends and dynamics of biodiversity and ecosystems in the region. Isbell is a lead author of a chapter of the Americas assessment considering drivers of changes in biodiversity and ecosystem services.

“The reports are meant to bridge the gap between what we are producing for scientific knowledge and what’s needed to actually improve decision-making,” says Isbell. Unlike previous ecosystem assessments led by scientists, the IPBES is based on a framework developed by policy experts from around the world.

The IPBES plans to produce a series of reports at regular intervals. Isbell and Cavender-Bares will contribute to the inaugural series. The Americas assessment encompasses North, Central and South America and the Caribbean.

“Our task is to present the science — the status and trends and changes through time — of biodiversity and ecosystems in biomes across the Americas,” says Cavender-Bares, who has done research in Mexico and Costa Rica and collaborated with Latin American scientists for the past decade. Cavender-Bares says that co-teaching a distributed graduate seminar on sustainability with colleagues at the U of M and in Mexico and Brazil, along with recently completing leadership training through a Leopold Fellowship, prepared her to work on the assessment. The Stanford-based program provides leadership training each year to a select group of top environmental scholars from around the world.

“One thing we focused on in the Leopold training is harnessing the collective wisdom of the group,” says Cavender-Bares. “That is very much needed in a highly interdisciplinary report that bridges science and policy and brings together scientists across wide-ranging geopolitical domains.”

“We’re at this sweet spot where we appreciate nature and recognize that there are many values we cannot easily quantify,” says Forest Isbell, “but we also recognize that to the extent that we can quantify some of those values they can improve decision-making. Some of our activities that cause the most harm, like agriculture, also provide huge benefits for people. The challenge is to weigh those costs and benefits.”

Isbell notes that these regional and global assessments highlight the inconsistency in available data. “What we find right away is that there’s much better data in some countries than others. So how much can we really say about the Americas or the planet if we have science well funded and systems well studied in a few places?”

Photo courtesy of CBS

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Soils serve food and much more Fri, 09 Oct 2015 14:21:06 +0000 Continue reading Soils serve food and much more ]]> Soils are the birthplace of food: They provide a substrate, nutrients and water to grow most of the food we eat. They also perform a whole host of other services, including purifying our water and stabilizing our climate. Today more than half of the world’s land surface is being managed for agriculture and forestry. These lands are increasingly under pressure to meet the needs of a growing population.  In many areas, the land and soil have become degraded to a point where they can no longer grow the food and fiber they once did.

The United Nations recognized the essential role that soils play for creating a sustainable future by naming 2015 the International Year of Soils. To inform this program, a team of scientists from a dozen countries — including James Gerber and Paul West, co-directors of IonE’s Global Landscapes Initiative — reviewed the current state of knowledge on how land management affects soil quality. The team’s work was published recently in two major papers in peer-reviewed journals.

“It’s critical to understand how managing the land improves or degrades it,” says West. “Building and maintaining healthy soils provides long-term benefits for both people and nature. Healthy soils lead to healthy lives.”

“A number of global initiatives, including Climate Smart Agriculture and a proposal for the climate negotiations by the French government to increase global soil carbon stocks, are all coalescing now to present the perfect opportunity to value and improve soils worldwide,” adds Pete Smith, lead author and a professor at the Institute of Biological and Environmental Sciences, Scottish Food Security Alliance-Corps & ClimateXChange, University of Aberdeen, Scotland.

The first report, published in June 2015 in the online journal SOIL, summarized the important linkages among soils, biodiversity, climate and other factors for providing direct benefits such as food and fiber, as well as soil’s underlying role in regulating water quality and climate. “Soils provide the foundation that sets the stage for most of life on Earth. It’s crucial to understand these benefits, their current status and trends, as well as how that can be managed. We need to stop treating soil like dirt,” says West.

The second report, published in August 2015 in Global Change Biology, summarized the impact of human activities such as land use change, land management, land degradation and land pollution on soil. Like the previous paper, it identifies gaps in knowledge and calls for additional research to fill them. In addition, it proposes activities and policies to protect soils from human harm in the future. In particular, the authors recommend that the United Nations capitalize on the occasion of the International Year of Soils to create a global initiative aimed at boosting soil health and ensuring the integrity of the world’s soils by making them a key component of future environmental protection and sustainable development efforts.

“This year, countries are making new commitments for the Sustainable Development Goals as well as reductions in greenhouse gas emissions at the United Nations Climate Negotiations in Paris,” says Smith. “Soils are integral to sustainably managing our planet now and well into the future. Managing for healthy soils creates a win-win for meeting these commitments and providing food for the future.”

Note: This research contributes to the Belmont Forum/FACCE-JPI funded DEVIL project (NE/M021327/1), a multinational effort to identify pathways for sustainably meeting food security needs on limited land.


Photo courtesy of Asian Development Bank (Flickr/Creative Commons)

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A new resource on the global food system Mon, 05 Oct 2015 15:21:46 +0000 Continue reading A new resource on the global food system ]]> Is there enough food for the future?

That’s just one of many crucial questions explored in a dynamic new online resource on the global food system, one of the most pressing environmental issues facing the world today. Published by the Institute on the Environment, Environment Reports is a collaboration among an international group of scientists, writers and designers to create incisive narratives about environmental challenges, backed up by cutting-edge data.

The site is intended for use by public and private sector professionals as well as those in academia who influence or educate environmental decision makers. It will provide several primers and useful visuals covering key aspects of the global food system, including projected future demand and yield trends, environmental sustainability, diet, food waste, climate change and more.

The first topic, “Food Matters, has just gone live, with three features on the future of food. A new feature will be published each month. Current features include “Is There Enough Food for the Future?,” “Change Your Diet, Change Our Destiny?” and “Waste Not, Want Not?”

Is There Enough Food for the Future?

  • To feed those who are currently hungry — and the additional 2 billion-plus people who will join us on the planet by 2050 — crop production will need to increase between 60 and 100 percent by most reliable projections.
  • “Business as usual” could lead to a doubling of demand for agricultural production. If the world meets future crop demand as it has in the past, this would mean that annual CO2 equivalents would rise from one gigaton per year in 2005 to three gigatons in 2050. A two-gigaton (2 billion metric ton) rise in yearly CO2 equivalents would be greater than the annual emissions from every car, train and plane in the U.S.
  • Increasing crop production is part of the solution, but can’t be the only one. Just four crops — maize, rice, wheat and soybeans — provide two-thirds of the calories we harvest from fields. In many parts of the world, though, the yields for these crops are not rising.

Change Your Diet, Change Our Destiny?

  • Since World War II, as people — from the U.S. to China, Brazil to India — make more money, expectations for meals have risen. Our personal food choices not only affect personal health, they indirectly affect the health of the planet.
  • The U.S. could feed nearly three times more people than it currently does from the calories produced by major crops.
  • Meat, dairy and eggs greatly affect the world’s present and future food system due to their high need for land. The good news is that simply shifting from one kind of meat to another can dramatically reduce the impact of our diet on the environment.
  • Dietary changes don’t have to be extreme to considerably reduce the impact on the environment. The more feed crops needed to raise an animal, the more greenhouse gases are emitted from the fertilizer (nitrous oxide) and transportation (carbon dioxide) required to grow the feed. In addition, ruminants like cows and sheep emit methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, as they digest their food. Considering all of these emissions together, some meat, like beef, can have up to 250 times the emissions of a plant-based protein like legumes.  Emissions from producing eggs, dairy, poultry, and pork, however, are much lower.



Waste Not, Want Not?

  • Roughly one-quarter of the calories of the world’s food crops are wasted. That’s enough calories to feed 1.9 billion more people the diet the World Health Organization says is needed to be healthy and satisfied.
  • The impact of waste amplifies significantly when we consider the crops that livestock animals consume during their lifetimes. The total cropland used to grow food that is never eaten almost equals all cropland in Africa. Reducing consumer waste of just six commodities in the U.S., China and India alone could save enough calories to feed about 413 million people per year.
  • We could realistically reduce global food waste by half — and people are leading the way. For example, one French supermarket chain responded with an “inglorious fruits and vegetables” campaign, selling imperfect food at a discount and seeing store traffic rise. Supermarkets across Europe are following suit.


Charts and graphs courtesy of Environment Reports

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Acara alumna wins big Tue, 29 Sep 2015 18:59:11 +0000 Continue reading Acara alumna wins big ]]> Why aren’t menstrual cups mainstream?

That question led Elise Maxwell to develop a Web-based business to make menstrual cups — reusable devices that catch rather than absorb menstrual fluid — more readily available to women and provide a safe place to talk about women’s health. In August, Ova Woman won the student division of the MN Cup competition for entrepreneurs — reaping a $30,000 cash prize.

An MBA student in the Carlson School of Management, Maxwell developed her idea for Ova Woman during the weeklong Acara course on launching social ventures. Acara is a strategic initiative of the Institute on the Environment, offering courses, workshops and field experiences to help student entrepreneurs build successful start-up companies that address social or environmental problems.

The business was chosen as a finalist for the MN Cup out of 1,300 entries.

Maxwell says Acara helped her refine her idea by asking, “What is the value proposition?”

“Originally I thought I was going to be creating a new product but I realized I was not going to improve on what’s already out there,” says Maxwell.

Through interviewing hundreds of women, Maxell realized there is stigma attached to women’s intimate products and health. She decided what was needed was a safe place for conversations to take place and to make it easier for women to find the products that are already out there.

Maxwell says 30 women tested the menstrual cup and found that 80 percent of them wanted to continue using it. The Web business grew out of her desire to make women’s intimate health products easy to find and convenient to purchase. Equally beneficial is that menstrual cups are reusable, and increasing their use decreases waste from disposable hygiene products.

Through her participation in the Acara Challenge — a student competition in which Ova Woman took the domestic gold awar­d — Maxwell says she learned how to put together a pitch, make it compelling and tell a story. “For someone without a business background, it really helped me build up confidence. The judges believed in me and that really felt good.”

Carrying the slogan “For aspiring entrepreneurs who mean business,” the MN Cup is a program of the Carlson School and the largest statewide venture competition.

Read more about Maxwell’s experience in her words on the Acara blog.

Photo by BraunS (iStock)

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NiSE director to influence how U.S. buys green Fri, 25 Sep 2015 12:46:54 +0000 Continue reading NiSE director to influence how U.S. buys green ]]> Consumers aren’t the only ones overwhelmed by the growth and diversity of environmental labels attached to the products they buy, from breakfast cereal to furniture. U.S. government purchasing agents also struggle to identify which standards and ecolabels to consider when buying greener products.

Timothy Smith, director of IonE’s NorthStar Initiative for Sustainable Enterprise and an IonE resident fellow, is about to make going green easier for the U.S. government — the single largest purchaser of goods and services in the world. Along with a select panel of experts, Smith will oversee and coordinate a series of pilot tests of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s new draft guidelines advising government buyers on how to take product environmental performance standards and ecolabels into account when making purchases.

Portrait: Tim Smith
Tim Smith, IonE resident fellow, associate professor of environmental sciences, policy and management, and bioproducts and biosystems engineering the College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences. Photo courtesy of T. Smith.

Executive departments and agencies of the U.S. government already are required by executive order to specify products meeting federal standards for energy efficiency, water efficiency, and safer chemicals (Energy Star®, WaterSense®, and Safer Choice). The new guidelines aim to bring into the picture the hundreds of private standards and ecolabels in the marketplace claiming environmental and human health benefits into the picture.

Smith says the pilot implementation has three big goals: to ensure consistency among the product panels; to approve final recommendations of the product panels’ criteria and assessment reports; and to advise the EPA on the pilot’s value, scalability and long-term feasibility. The ultimate aim, he says, is to create a transparent, fair and consistent approach to recognizing high-performing environmental standards and ecolabels and, consequently, environmentally preferable products that meet them.

“Having the opportunity to influence how the government ‘buys green’ is exciting and terrifying,” Smith says. “While the focus of the project is on finalizing EPA’s draft guidelines for the federal government, our work will provide a foundation for making better buying decisions — whether institutional or individual.”

Photo by Photos by Clark (Flickr/Creative Commons)

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Sustainability Education wows Welcome Week Wed, 16 Sep 2015 15:27:48 +0000 Continue reading Sustainability Education wows Welcome Week ]]> On Friday, September 4, more than 2,500 first-year students and University community members ascended the steps of the Learning and Environmental Sciences building to delve into sustainability-related initiatives in the community and at the U. The Institute on the Environment was transformed into “the Pond,” “the River” and the “the Lake,” all centered on this year’s theme: water. Co-hosted by IonE’s Sustainability Education program and University Services, “Sustainability Action!” featured representatives from academic programs, student groups, external organizations and University operations, all eager to tell their stories.

SLGFArriving students were greeted and sent into the Pond, where they were introduced to the many ways they could get involved in sustainability on campus. Representatives from the Higher Education Consortium for Urban Affairs caught the students’ attention and groups such as Students for Sustainability, Engineers Without Borders and U Students Like Good Food kept it as students made their way through the room. Cornercopia Student Organic Farm used colorful cartons of heirloom tomatoes and overflowing baskets of ground cherries to attract attention.

Excitement built as students made their way to the River, where sustainability education studies and other academic programs shared advice on incorporating sustainability into a college education. At a table showcasing a
Grand Challenge Curriculum (GCC) course, Andrew Urevig pitched a class entitled “Can we feed the world without destroying it?” by drawing crowds with a magic ball that showed several different maps related to food production on a local and global scale. MagicGlobeSustainability Education representatives met with students enthusiastic about incorporating the sustainability studies minor into their education. They also handed out stickers and posed the question, “What does sustainability mean to you?” through an interactive art project. Other sought-out groups included the Center for Sustainable Nanotechnology and the Learning Abroad Center

Students then entered the Lake, which provided a space for University Services departments and organizations to show sustainability through a broader Twin Cities lens. IAAUStudents were given the opportunity to answer the question, “What does sustainable food mean to you?” as they made their way past free sustainable swag from the “It All Adds Up!” campaign on campus.

Finally, the hot and sticky day culminated outside at the Water Bar, an art installation serving local tap waters from Minneapolis, Saint Paul and White Bear Lake. WaterBarStudents were given the unique opportunity to taste different municipal waters and learn about the local aquifers, lakes and rivers from which the water came. Volunteers talked with students about drinking water and what we can do to better protect our water resources.




Photos courtesy of Sustainability Education 

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Biodiversity is the spice of life Wed, 02 Sep 2015 18:55:01 +0000 Continue reading Biodiversity is the spice of life ]]> Variety is the spice of life, it has been said. In the plant world, variety, or biodiversity, is the stuff of life, literally influencing the health of natural environments. Due to land use change, nitrogen pollution, invasive species, and climate change, diversity is decreasing in many kinds of vegetation, driving down plant productivity and the ecosystem services plants provide, according to emerging research.

IonE resident fellow Peter Reich, a Distinguished McKnight University Professor in the College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences, has been studying plant biodiversity and its role in ecosystem services such as carbon sequestration, productivity (production of plant biomass) and resilience to disease for 20 years.  He says that “plants — both terrestrial and aquatic — provide about $50 trillion in ecosystem services” and that, without them, none of us would be here.

“This work is important in helping us better understand the value of biodiversity and how it can help us anticipate and build resiliency in the face of climate change,” says Reich, the co-author of three recent studies that found that human impacts threaten ecosystem stability and services worldwide.

In one study published in the April 2015 issue of Science, researchers studied data from 12 multiyear experiments at Cedar Creek Ecosystem Science Reserve and found that manipulation of nitrogen, carbon dioxide, fire, herbivory and water all influence the stability of production through their influence on biodiversity. Study authors, including researchers Eric Seabloom and Elizabeth Borer, co-leaders of the IonE-affiliated Nutrient Network and associate professors in the College of Biological Sciences, found that more diverse ecosystems are more stable, regardless of what influences diversity. Unfortunately, many human drivers of change, such as nitrogen pollution or land use change, reduce stability by reducing biodiversity, in addition to other potential adverse effects.

In a second study, published in the May 2015 issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Reich and colleagues demonstrated the importance of biodiversity to the productivity of boreal forests, and added both practical information about the value of individual species in maintaining productivity and new theory by incorporating ideas from economics into a mechanistic model of how biodiversity influences productivity.

A third study, published by Reich and colleagues in the February 2015 issue of Nature Climate Change, showed that climate warming reduces the growth and competitive abilities of boreal conifers like spruce and fir in the southern part of the boreal forest that stretches across the Great Lakes region and further east and west.  Their reduced abundance would diminish the diversity of these forests, which are likely to become increasingly dominated by broad-leafed species, including invading oaks and maples, as well as the native aspen and birch that are more tolerant of warming than spruce and fir. That diminished diversity is likely to result in the kinds of negative impacts discovered in the two other papers.

Reich notes that “negative impacts of different human influences on plant communities just makes it all the more imperative that we manage forests and grasslands with diversity in mind, to help keep them healthy and providing the services we rely on.”

Reich’s biodiversity research was the basis for a $1.4 million U.S. Department of Energy grant to fund a project that will improve how physiological and functional diversity are represented in models of the global carbon cycle and climate systems. This work involves collaborators at Oak Ridge National Lab, Australia, and Germany, as well as IonE resident fellow Arindam Banerjee, associate professor in the College of Science & Engineering.

Photo by Tatters (Flickr/Creative Commons)

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Grand challenge: reduce carbon and water footprints of industry Mon, 31 Aug 2015 18:47:12 +0000 Continue reading Grand challenge: reduce carbon and water footprints of industry ]]> From cars and personal care products to the food on their dinner table, consumers are increasingly seeking out products that are less harmful to the environment. Many companies are, in turn, responding to these demands by altering the way they make products — from the ingredients going in to the pollution coming out.

But the full impact of a product reflects a complex system that often has hundreds of producers engaged in thousands of processes to put that product into the hands of the end user. Once there, how the product is used and dispatched at the end of its life can have big impacts as well. Even the most well-intentioned companies struggle to identify which changes at what point in the value chain will give them the most sustainability bang for their buck.

Through the Institute on the Environment’s NorthStar Initiative for Sustainable Enterprise, the University of Minnesota is reaching across academic disciplines as well as out to the private sector to develop the tools and processes that will help companies meet the grand challenge of reducing their carbon and water footprints.

NiSE director Tim Smith, professor in the College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences and an IonE resident fellow, leads a team of engineers, economists and environmental scientists who collaborate with industry representatives, environmental nonprofit organizations and policy makers to develop tools businesses can use to make informed sourcing and production decisions affecting sustainability performance.

We asked Smith what NiSE has been working on lately. 

What are some of the biggest challenges NiSE is tackling?

We’re currently focusing many of our efforts on identifying the biggest impacts in product systems, the hot spots where potential improvements might have the largest effect on the system. Sometimes these hot spots are early in the value chain, for example, mining or agricultural production. Sometimes they are in production, like energy-intensive products such as paper, cement or petrochemicals. In other cases, the largest impacts can occur as products are used or discarded, like computers or vehicles. The challenge is that these hot spots are very different from one product system to the next, and from one type of impact to the next. Where a company like General Mills might focus its new product design or process improvement investments will depend on whether they’re looking at yogurt or breakfast cereal and whether they are most concerned about greenhouse gas emissions, water use or solid waste.

Managing a challenge like this while remaining profitable may not seem that difficult on the surface, except for the fact that many of the environmental impacts from that box of Cheerios aren’t under the direct control of General Mills. General Mills doesn’t grow the oats, they don’t manufacture the packaging and they don’t operate the city recycling programs. They do use a fair amount of energy in manufacturing, and they have worked quite hard over the past 40 years to reduce these impacts, but they have a brand to protect and increasingly that means coordinating with their suppliers and customers across the value chain. NiSE is developing new methods and tools that map these value chains and link them to the impacts and the decision-makers in a position to influence them.

One of the tools being developed by NiSE is FoodS3 (Food Systems Supply-Chain Sustainability), where U.S. corn and soybean intensive product supply chains have been mapped, identifying upstream carbon and water use hot spots. Approximately 80 percent of all corn grown in the U.S. is used in poultry, beef and pork production, and in the making of ethanol. So, while much of the corn in the U.S. is produced in the Midwest, it is distributed across the country to animal feedlots and ethanol production facilities. And those animals are transported to processing facilities, often hundreds of miles away, before being packaged under brands you might recognize (Hormel, Smithfield, Tyson, etc.). FoodS3 estimates the likely sourcing relationships between each of these stages in the supply chain and links the factories of downstream brand owners with the upstream locations where significant emissions and impacts to natural resources reside. In short, this tool helps companies see upstream impacts that are typically hidden to them but are important to many of their customers, and better assess where influencing suppliers’ operations might make the biggest difference.

What is your approach to working across disciplines and with external partners?

We work directly and indirectly with mostly large multinational companies, often through existing consortia and networks convened by environmental non-governmental organizations. For example, we have worked to develop methods to identify hotspots in agricultural supply chains with companies like Walmart, General Mills and Cargill through collaborations with the Sustainability Consortium and Environmental Defense Fund. We work with CDP (formerly the Carbon Disclosure Project) on supply chain reporting metrics, piloted by PepsiCo, Philips, L’Oreal, Walmart, Bank of America and Vodafone. Similarly, through the Global Environmental Management Initiative, we have worked with companies like 3M, FedEx, Kraft and Smithfield Foods on a tool for purchasing managers that helps them assess the environmental and economic trade-offs of sourcing strategies across the portfolios of products they buy.

We obviously can’t do this work without engagement from the best scholars and experts in their fields. This work is inherently transdisciplinary, so our project teams draw faculty, researchers and students from engineering, economics, public policy, environmental sciences and public health. We like to think that NiSE serves as a meaningful bridge between disciplines and communities of practice — where at the end of the day, we ask better questions of each other and roll up our sleeves to answer many of them.

What new innovation might we not have if not for these investments?

Most of our work focuses on existing product systems, as opposed to discovering the next new game-changing technology. That said, the work of our team helps to characterize the systems within which new technologies might enter. For example, in some of our work examining the way large industrials use electricity, we have provided important insights into the way new smart-grid technologies and demand response programs (pricing incentives for reducing demand during peak load time periods) might be adopted and the environmental impacts of those decisions. Similarly, another project exploring how future biorefineries manage their production mix of chemical, material and fuel products to meet profitability and carbon intensity goals will likely influence how these technologies evolve.

What would success look like for NiSE? 

The real sign of success, in my opinion, is evidence of the new knowledge we create (and academic research, in general) actually being used by practitioners. To me, that is the Holy Grail of engaged scholarship. This is why we are dedicating so much time and effort toward translating the new methods and knowledge created by our researchers into tools accessible to real users, innovators and makers. As producers seek innovative ways to respond to their customers and their customers’ customers, requests for greater transparency of sustainability performance, new approaches and tools focused on product value chains will be needed.

How can a business sign up to work with NiSE? 

To learn more about NiSE and how to partner with us, please contact Tim Smith or Jennifer Schmitt.

Photo by kirin_photo (iStock)

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Food for thought: The Sustainable Agriculture Project Mon, 24 Aug 2015 15:26:35 +0000 Continue reading Food for thought: The Sustainable Agriculture Project ]]> Amidst uncertainties over how the global food system will respond to climate change, and the potential conflicts and resource scarcities that may accompany it, communities are turning more and more to locally grown and distributed food. The Sustainable Agriculture Project at the University of Minnesota Duluth is one such effort to build a resilient regional food system.

Randel Hansen, IonE resident fellow and assistant professor in the University of Minnesota Duluth College of Liberal Arts, explores how the SAP farm provides both local food and opportunities for students to explore the connections among agriculture, water and energy on WTIP North Shore Community Radio.


IonE resident fellows are faculty with appointments throughout the University of Minnesota system who come together here to share ideas, inspiration and innovation across disciplinary boundaries and are among the shining stars of IonE’s signature approach to addressing global grand challenges.

Photo by Jeanette (Flickr/Creative Commons)

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Drones study has media buzzing Wed, 19 Aug 2015 16:03:15 +0000 Continue reading Drones study has media buzzing ]]> They’re becoming increasingly common, careening overhead at the beach or in the park. I’m not talking about mosquitoes, I’m talking about drones. And a new Institute on the Environment–supported study about drones and bears is creating a lot of buzz in the media.

The study, led by University of Minnesota College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences postdoctoral researcher Mark Ditmer with support from an IonE Mini Grant, found that bears’ heart rates increase significantly when drones are present, indicating a heightened level of stress.

It turns out that bears are not the only creatures to get excited about drones. The story has been shared by such heavy hitters as The Washington Post, National Public Radio, the British Broadcasting CorporationSlate and National Geographic, in addition to more science-oriented news sites such as ArsTechnica and LiveScience.

IonE’s Mini Grant program provides seed funding to help spur new interdisciplinary collaborations at the University of Minnesota.

Photo by Lee (Flickr/Creative Commons)

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IonE fellow to lead global project on sustainable cities Mon, 17 Aug 2015 16:46:43 +0000 Continue reading IonE fellow to lead global project on sustainable cities ]]> What is a healthy city? How does society weigh the conveniences of transportation, readily available water and electricity, and placement of that new shopping center against the environmental impacts of those assets?

With more than half the world’s population living in cities, building resilient and healthy communities has never been more important. Estimates indicate that by 2050, some 3 billion more people — two-thirds of the world’s population — will inhabit urban areas, increasing pressure on water, energy and land resources.

University of Minnesota researchers — including several Institute on the Environment resident fellows — are part of a global team that has received a $12 million award from the National Science Foundation to bring together a unique network of scientists, industry leaders and policy partners committed to building better cities of the future.

“We have to think in new ways about a city’s physical infrastructure to develop sustainable solutions,” Anu Ramaswami, professor in the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, IonE resident fellow and lead investigator and director for the project, said in a press release. “Understanding that these systems are interconnected serves as a foundation for this work. For example, urban farms wouldn’t work very well without thinking about water, energy and transportation infrastructure, as well as people, markets and policies.”

In this video, Ramaswami and several other members of the project team explain how the project will be implemented.

IonE resident fellows Matteo Convertino, assistant professor in the School of Public Health; Julian Marshall and Paige Novak, professors in the College of Science and Engineering; and Elizabeth Wilson, associate professor in the Humphrey School, are co-investigators on the project.

IonE’s nearly 70 resident fellows — faculty with appointments throughout the University of Minnesota system who come together here to share ideas, inspiration and innovation across disciplinary boundaries — are among the shining stars of IonE’s signature approach to addressing global grand challenges.

Read the full press release

Photo by m01229 (Flickr/Creative Commons)

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Grand challenge: build resilient communities Fri, 07 Aug 2015 15:45:16 +0000 Continue reading Grand challenge: build resilient communities ]]> More than half of all people live in cities, a number expected to rise to 60 percent by 2050, according to the United Nations. That means that how we build and manage our urban areas is “one of the most important development challenges of the 21st century,” wrote John Wilmoth, director of the United Nations Population Division, in a recent report.

It’s not surprising, then, that the University of Minnesota has recognized the need to focus on cities in its recently released strategic plan detailing the first of a series of grand challenges it aims to address over the next 10 years: cultivating a sustainable, healthy, secure food system; advancing industry while conserving the environment and addressing climate change; and building vibrant communities that enhance human potential and collective well-being in a diverse and changing world.

Among the tools the University is using to deliver on that commitment is the Resilient Communities Project, an initiative supported by IonE and the Center for Urban Regional Affairs that organizes yearlong partnerships between the University and Minnesota communities, matching hundreds of graduate students to sustainability-related projects identified by the chosen community.

RCP director Mike Greco describes the program and how it is helping build more sustainable cities in this Q&A. 

What are some of the biggest challenges RCP teams are tackling? 

In these community-scale sustainability and resilience projects, the biggest challenge for students is finding appropriate solutions that align with the community context. Their work may be informed by projects and tools used in other places around the United States and around the world, but they need to consider what’s the right approach locally, taking into account the politics, demographics, development pattern, economy and other conditions that make the community unique. For Rosemount, our most recent RCP partner, students worked on any number of environmentally related projects, on topics such as climate adaption, alternative energy, recreation opportunities for underserved populations, and community gardening. Other projects were focused on neighborhood cohesion, student housing, and fire department staffing.  For all of the projects proposed by the community, the overarching goals included fostering resilience in the face of changing conditions and promoting environmental, social and political resilience.

How do transdisciplinary approaches figure into this work?

One unique aspect of RCP is the wide range of expertise we harness across the various classes that we engage to work on community projects. In some cases, multiple courses work on a single project, offering various types of expertise to the community and providing experiential learning opportunities to students from across the U of M.  For example, for a project in Rosemount focused on water reuse and conservation, RCP engaged students in an environmental sustainability clinic in the Law School, an environmental health course in the School of Public Health, and an adult education course in the College of Education and Human Development. For a project focused on exploring opportunities for new nature-based recreation and play opportunities, courses included a research and evaluation course in the Recreation, Park and Leisure Studies program, a liberal studies course on re-imaging arts for public parks in the Liberal Studies program, and a course on operations and management in the Environmental Education program at the University of Minnesota Duluth.

What is the impact on students of this kind of practical, hands-on approach?

RCP creates opportunities for students to work on projects that will give them a professional experience in classes that, in many cases, wouldn’t otherwise offer these kinds of experiences. All of the work is happening in close collaboration with our community partner staff and often engages other community stakeholders. This engagement helps ensure that work produced is relevant and has the potential to inform community decisions in the future.  For example, one of the projects we did with our first partner, the City of Minnetonka, was about stormwater management. The students’ work influenced the city to reexamine their street sweeping program to improve water quality.

Is there a take-home lesson?

We’re about to embark on our fourth partnership and each has been different, based on the projects we’ve worked on, the staff and community members involved, and the priorities for each community.  What’s so interesting is that each community found ways to connect to resilience and sustainability — whether an exurban community like Rosemount or a built-out first ring suburb like North St. Paul. These concepts can be helpful in getting communities to think about the future and the ways that they can shape that future through the decisions that they make now.

Where to next for RCP?

This year’s partnership will be with Carver County. We are excited for this new opportunity, as the county collaboration will include participation by three cities, the community development agency, the school district and the regional transit provider.  This coalition will provide opportunities to engage across a variety of projects and jurisdictions.

Photo © KIVILCIM PINAR (iStock)

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Featured Fellow: Roboticist Volkan Isler Mon, 03 Aug 2015 15:33:33 +0000 Continue reading Featured Fellow: Roboticist Volkan Isler ]]> What is your current favorite project?

Our lab [the Robotic Sensor Networks Lab] is building robotic systems and deploying them in environmental applications. We have developed a network of robotic boats to track invasive fish. We are now developing a team of unmanned aerial and ground vehicles that can do in-field measurements of crops such as apples. Hopefully soon, we will be able to perform other kinds of in-field inspection, such as disease detection.

So far, the success of robotics is mainly in factory settings that can be controlled. Taking them into the field, into an unstructured environment, allows for uncertainties to be introduced. This makes structured and uniform agricultural settings, such as apple orchards or cornfields, ideal for the transition to more natural environments.

Volkan Isler, IonE resident fellow and associate professor in the College of Science and Engineering. Photo courtesy of V. Isler.

What is your greatest environmental concern?

I’m worried about the intersection of biotechnology and the environment. For example, food and chemicals. We don’t know what the chemicals in our food are doing to us. With GMOs most people have a gut reaction for or against. For me, the biggest concern is that I don’t know what they’re doing to us and our children. Until recently, no one was eating food that contained chemicals, but now everything has them and we don’t know their long-term effects.

What is the most interesting thing in your backpack?

Annie’s snack bars, wet wipes and two bottles of hand sanitizer. You can tell we have a preschooler.

What is the personality trait you rely on most?


What gives you hope?

Young people, students. The general optimism and idealism that comes with being young and confident. As humans in general we rely on them to propel us forward. We get grumpy as we get older.

Banner photo by Jennifer C. (Flickr/Creative Commons)

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Boosting nutrients gives a leg up to invasive species Thu, 16 Jul 2015 16:44:10 +0000 Continue reading Boosting nutrients gives a leg up to invasive species ]]> Species invasions come at a high cost. In the United States, the annual cost to the economy tops $100 billion a year and invasive plant infestations affect 100 million acres. While it’s tempting to focus attention on headline-grabbing cases of exceptionally fecund flora such as the kudzu vine, also known as “the vine that ate the South”, basic questions remain about how and whether exotic species are functionally distinct from native species and why they tend to take over when introduced into new environments.

A new study, led by University of Minnesota College of Biological Sciences researcher Eric Seabloom, addresses that gap, drawing on data collected at 64 grassland sites in 13 countries. Published in the July 15 issue of Nature Communications, the global study pinpoints functional differences in exotic and native plant species that contribute to the familiar narrative of out-of-control invasive species.

Seabloom, Elizabeth Borer and colleagues at the University of Minnesota and around the world, tested the responses of both native and exotic species to two fundamental drivers of invasion linked to human activity — the availability of nutrients needed by plants to grow, like nitrogen and phosphorus, and the density of herbivores that are eating plants. They found that species origin matters — where exotic species thrive on added nutrients (e.g. fertilizers), native species decline in abundance and diversity.

“What we found is that if you add nutrients, the only species you lose are the native species,” says Seabloom. “The same is not true for exotic species, which become more abundant when you add nutrients” he adds, “so we are basically giving preferential treatment to exotics by increasing nutrients through our use of fossil fuels and agricultural fertilizers.”

However, if herbivores are added to the mix, it tips the balance back toward light-hungry native species. Grazing animals effectively cut back on shade creating plants and create more favorable conditions for native species to thrive.

The researchers leveraged the global reach of Institute on the Environment’s Nutrient Network, an ecology research network that includes 80 grassland sites in 20 countries, to develop their findings. Seabloom and Borer founded the Nutrient Network as a way of conducting standardized experiments across disparate grassland sites to understand the effects of fertilization writ large.

“The key thing about this study is we collected data in a very standard way from a lot of sites around the world,” says Seabloom, noting that previous studies have provided wonderful, detailed data at a few sites or on a few species, but it is difficult to compare the work due to the different methods. “There are a lot of species involved. We wanted to understand not only which species were present, but their abundance and their response to human disturbance.”

The study was funded by the National Science Foundation and IonE.

Photo by Anita (Flicker/Creative Commons)

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What does climate change mean for Minnesota’s trees? Tue, 14 Jul 2015 18:12:39 +0000 Continue reading What does climate change mean for Minnesota’s trees? ]]> Climate change is affecting weather patterns across the globe — and on our doorstep. As temperatures warm and moisture availability shifts as a result, what effect will these changes have on Minnesota’s trees?

IonE resident fellow Rebecca Montgomery, associate professor in the College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences, talked with WTIP North Shore Community Radio about an ongoing study that is revealing what trees might disappear from Minnesota’s north woods and which are likely to take their place.

IonE resident fellows are faculty with appointments throughout the University of Minnesota system who come together here to share ideas, inspiration and innovation across disciplinary boundaries and are among the shining stars of IonE’s signature approach to addressing global grand challenges.

Photo by Justin Meissen (Flickr/Creative Commons)

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Oil palm plantations & tropical peatland carbon loss Thu, 09 Jul 2015 14:39:21 +0000 Continue reading Oil palm plantations & tropical peatland carbon loss ]]> Draining tropical peatlands for oil palm plantations may result in nearly twice as much carbon loss as official estimates, according to a new study by researchers from the University of Minnesota Institute on the Environment and the Union of Concerned Scientists in the journal Environmental Research Letters.

Peatlands — waterlogged, organic soils — have developed over thousands of years as carbon storage systems. In Southeast Asia, peat swamp forests cover about 250,000 square kilometers, a land area about the size of Michigan. In the past 15 years, peatland forests have been rapidly drained and cleared to make way for oil palm and pulpwood plantations. Draining exposes the upper peat layer to oxygen, raising decomposition rates and soil carbon losses. Most of that carbon is emitted to the atmosphere, speeding up climate change.

Kimberly M. Carlson, a postdoctoral research scholar with IonE’s Global Landscapes Initiative, and UCS researchers Lael K. Goodman and Calen C. May-Tobin designed their research to support site-specific greenhouse gas emissions assessments in tropical plantations. “We wanted to know whether water table depth could be used as a proxy for soil carbon loss in peatland plantations,” Carlson explained.

Major international companies that buy and sell products sourced from peatland plantations have committed to reducing their climate footprints. These companies can now trace a product through the supply chain back to its source. Consequently, specific information about the carbon balance of a producing plantation helps companies and consumers better understand the climate implications of purchasing choices.

The study, a comprehensive analysis of scientific literature on tropical plantation peatland carbon balance, found a correlation between long-term water table depth (the distance from the soil surface to the water surface) and soil carbon loss rate. This finding suggests that peat water table monitoring could help companies more accurately measure their greenhouse gas emissions.

The researchers compared two measurements of carbon loss: subsidence and mass balance. To find the subsidence rate, scientists measure how much the land has sunk over time and how much carbon is stored in the soil. Subsidence models alone cannot inform the global warming potential of peatland drainage.

Mass balance models estimate carbon emissions from the balance of carbon gains such as leaf decomposition and losses such as soil carbon dioxide emissions. With this method, both carbon dioxide and methane — a much more potent greenhouse gas — can be measured, permitting more accurate global warming potential assessments.

Carbon losses calculated from mass balance and subsidence methods differed substantially for oil palm plantations. At plantation drainage depths of 70 centimeters, the annual rate of carbon loss determined from the subsidence method is about 20 tons of carbon per hectare per year. This is almost twice the rate of 12 tons of carbon per hectare per year that the International Panel on Climate Change uses to calculate emissions from oil palm land use. This rate, as put forth in the 2013 Supplement to the 2006 Guidelines for National Greenhouse Gas Inventories: Wetlands, is partly based on the mass balance method.

The researchers caution that additional field studies are needed to reconcile these estimates. “While our calculations take advantage of an exciting set of newly published data, a serious lack of research in tropical peatlands means that such estimates of peat carbon loss from plantation systems remain uncertain, and are frequently based on assumptions rather than empirical measurements,” Carlson said.

Water table depth is only one of many factors, such as fertilizer application, that should be considered when quantifying carbon losses from cultivated peatlands.

Key findings of the study:

  • The lower the water table, the higher the rate of carbon loss.
  • More studies in tropical peatland plantations are needed to reduce uncertainty about the global warming potential of peat drainage.

The authors emphasize that reducing greenhouse gas emissions from peat requires preventing plantation expansion into intact peat swamp forests. “Our findings lend weight to the idea that draining peat soils should be avoided at all costs, due to the impact on global climate,” Goodman said.

The article, “Modeling relationships between water table depth and peat soil carbon loss in Southeast Asian plantations,” was written with support from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, National Academies Keck Futures Initiative, and the European Federation for Transport & Environment.

The University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment seeks lasting solutions to Earth’s biggest challenges through research, partnerships and leadership development. For more information, visit

Photo © Marcel Silvius

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U of M names Jessica Hellmann director of the IonE Wed, 01 Jul 2015 14:41:05 +0000 Continue reading U of M names Jessica Hellmann director of the IonE ]]> Renowned environmental researcher, scholar and communicator Jessica Hellmann has been named the new director of the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment. Hellmann, who is currently on the faculty of the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Notre Dame, will begin her tenure as director of the Institute on the Environment August 31, 2015. She also will join the University faculty as the Russell M. and Elizabeth M. Bennett Chair in Excellence in the Department of Ecology, Evolution and Behavior in the College of Biological Sciences.

“We are thrilled that Dr. Hellmann has accepted our offer to lead the Institute on the Environment,” said University of Minnesota Vice President for Research Brian Herman. “Her scientific background in ecology and extensive research and collaborative work on climate change provide a solid foundation from which to effectively guide the Institute as it addresses the most critical environmental challenges of our future while influencing change at the highest levels.”

Hellmann is one of the nation’s leading researchers on global change ecology and climate adaptation and the research director of the Notre Dame Global Adaptation Index, which assesses and ranks the vulnerability of nations around the world to climate change and their readiness to adapt to climate change. In addition, she leads the climate change adaptation program at Notre Dame’s Environmental Change Initiative and directs GLOBES, an interdisciplinary graduate training program in environment and society, among numerous other high-level academic and scientific appointments. She also founded Notre Dame’s undergraduate minor in sustainability.

As director of the Institute on the Environment, Hellmann will provide strategic leadership for the Institute, an internationally recognized organization working to solve grand environmental challenges, while promoting interdisciplinary research, teaching and leadership across the university, engaging external partners and stakeholders.

Hellmann earned her Ph.D. in biology from Stanford University and served as a postdoctoral fellow at Stanford’s Center for International Security and Cooperation and the University of British Columbia’s Centre for Biodiversity Research. She is an alumna of Stanford’s Aldo Leopold Leadership Program, and a recipient of a career enhancement fellowship from the Woodrow Wilson Foundation. She has been a member of the Notre Dame faculty since 2003.

Hellmann is a frequent contributor to leading scientific journals such as Proceedings of the National Academies of Science, Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, BioScience and PLoS One. She serves on the editorial board of the journal Evolutionary Applications, is an associate editor with both Conservation Biology and Elementa, and serves on committees for the Ecological Society of America, the College Board and the National Academy of Sciences. She contributed to the 2014 National Climate Assessment and has served in numerous other positions that bring her scientific expertise to bear on solving environmental and societal challenges.

A skilled science communicator, Hellmann is routinely called upon by leading media outlets around the world such as CNN, NPR, Fox News, The Telegraph and the Chicago Tribune to provide expert input on topics related to global change and ways to minimize adverse impacts to people and nature.

“The University of Minnesota has extraordinary people and assets focused on environmental scholarship and application,” said Hellmann. “I look forward to building on those strengths to expand the scope, impact and visibility of the Institute on the Environment. Never has it been more critical for researchers to work with society to preserve precious resources, build resiliency to environmental change and identify new solutions to vexing environmental problems.”

Hellmann succeeds Jonathan Foley, who led the Institute from 2008 to 2014 and is currently executive director of the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco.

For media inquiries, please contact Todd Reubold, Institute on the Environment,, 612-624-6140

Photo courtesy of Barbara Johnson (University of Notre Dame)

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Featured Fellow: Food systems expert Randel Hanson Wed, 01 Jul 2015 13:22:57 +0000 Continue reading Featured Fellow: Food systems expert Randel Hanson ]]> What’s the most interesting thing you’re reading now? 

I have been deeply moved by Dipesh Chakrabarty’s work on thinking through the new reality that we humans collectively and differentially face with anthropogenic climate change: this emergent reality engages in new ways the conjoinment of the history of the Earth system, the history of life (including human evolution) on our planet, and the history of industrial “civilization” and capitalism. Each of these histories has its importance in terms of understanding where we’re at today and yet, as he explores, they are intertwining in ways that deeply challenge how our knowledge systems and our disciplinary systems organize how we approach the world. How do we sufficiently grasp the complexity and enormity of this moment in these histories? And how do we create understandings and actions requisite to our time? For me his work is the richest engagement that I’ve come across in exploring these questions. He doesn’t provide the answers, but he is moving the ball compellingly forward in terms of grasping the complexity of our times.

Portrait: Randel Hanson
Randel Hanson, IonE resident fellow and associate professor in the College of Liberal Arts, UMD. Photo courtesy of R. Hanson.

What was your biggest ah-ha moment?

That is a big question and fortunately for me I’ve had many! That may also say something about my starting point: Perhaps I needed many! But one that I had a couple years ago that still resonates involved a walk with John Fisher Merritt around the University land I farm. John is a sage man in the ways that farmers are, knowledge earned by trial and error, by hard work and being practitioners of many domains as they come to know and work with their parts of the Earth. He has managed his “food farm” organically for some 35-plus years and his soil is pretty amazing. He was explaining to me his rotation system and his various uses of cover crops and, although I also work with these techniques, I was suddenly struck with an uncanny understanding of the ways our industrial agriculture works against the grain of nature’s tendencies by suppressing growth/life with tillage, herbicides and pesticides, etc., and how the organic method, with its use of cover crops and other techniques, uses the inveterate nature of life to fill space with more life and works with it,  flooding the space in between the production plants with helping/cover/companion plants, thereby bypassing the need to fight the growth of unwanted weeds, etc.  Like many a-ha moments, in hindsight it comes across as a Simpson moment (DOH) but it was one of those times where perception, sensation and mind come together.

What is your current favorite project?

For the past several years, I’ve been building the Sustainable Agriculture Project Farm on the former/abandoned Northeast Experimental Station, which lies 4 miles north of the Duluth campus. SAP Farm is a 15 acre “land lab” for site-based research and teaching about sustainable practices in food, water, energy, land management, biodiversity enhancement, etc. We work with faculty across liberal arts, science and engineering, education, and human services in building an increasingly dense space for social ecological learning. The idea is to set in motion a bunch of interrelated projects that necessarily bump into each other and thus have to negotiate physical-spatial, disciplinary, institutional and ecological boundaries, forcing us to confront how we divide up the Earth in our various ways and thereby create social learning for ourselves, our students, our institution and our community in the process. We host more than a thousand students a year in varying capacities, and we work with a number of community organizations on site as well as enjoy a partnership with UMD Dining Services, which purchases almost all of the organic produce grown for use on campus and supports labor for the farm. We are currently completing a long process installing a farm-scale wind turbine on site, which integrated folks engaged in GIS, raptor studies, engineering, facilities management and other activities in what at times was frustrating but in the end very rewarding and instructive t’boot. So we’re treating this space as our laboratory, our classroom and (as part of the Earth) our only home, and the question is how to get people to work together to explore sustainable challenges and solutions in experiential ways.

What’s the thorniest question on your mind? 

Given the advancement of our human power and knowledge, we have a lot of thorns among our flowers. For me the thorniest is how to use the power of disciplines without their blinders and the consequent harm of powerful ignorance. On one hand that’s impossible, for every enabling frame necessarily leaves things out of the picture. But it’s not a secret that the disciplinary structure of knowledge and institutions in our present world creates a lot of destructive blind spots in enabling our human powers. Earth systems so in peril don’t operate by disciplinary division. And how to expand our literacy beyond disciplinary silos is really one of the great challenges of our time. We are at a point in history of unprecedented knowledge but all advance of knowledge creates expanding knowledge edges for more questions, not fewer. We have become amazingly proficient at depth knowledge, but the Anthropocene beckons for linking, crossing, intertwining, deepening our knowledge. We quite literally may risk the world with this thorn!

What’s the one personality trait you rely on most often? 

It’s probably my cultivated propensity to be able to talk with any and everyone. I grew up on a farm in a small town and so was acculturated to talk with everyone. Advanced training has lessened this skill: this past week I was flying home from a research trip and sitting next to me was a young man from Wheaton, Minn. He began to talk with me with no hesitation, asking me all sorts of questions. At first I was irritated because I was trying to read some articles, but I regrouped and marveled at his forthrightness, his ability to learn and share knowledge. It was also something I had just experienced widely in Mexico and Cuba. In building the SAP Farm, I have needed to work across all sorts of institutional silos, needing things from administrators, staff, students, faculty, community people, and it’s easy to get locked into one’s cultural/institutional space and shut down from engaging others on their own terms. At times doing so is necessary to get things done, but I try to cultivate an ability to meet people on their own terms. I’m not always good at it, but it usually pays dividends in working across silos!

Photo by jb (Flickr/Creative Commons)

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Conservation and conversation in Costa Rica Tue, 30 Jun 2015 21:05:25 +0000 Continue reading Conservation and conversation in Costa Rica ]]> Can communication improve conservation? That was the goal in early June, when more than 80 biologists, conservationists, students and journalists gathered from around the world for a two-day open house to share ideas and experiences, network, and strategize how to communicate the value of the research and conservation activities going on at the Área de Conservación Guanacaste (Guanacaste Conservation Area) in northwestern Costa Rica.

ACG spreads across 402,781 acres of rain forest, dry tropical forest and cloud forest, as well as a marine reserve in the northwestern corner of Costa Rica. Scientists and ACG staff are engaged in about 150 different research projects there, from studying ants, primates and sea turtles to observing tropical forest regeneration and how it affects water availability to local communities.

The open house was coordinated by the nonprofit InvestigadoresACG (iACG), which was established to lend networking support to the researchers, facilitate interactions among researchers and ACG personnel, and promote science and conservation in the ACG.

Jennifer Powers, an IonE resident fellow and associate professor in the College of Biological Sciences, is a cofounder of the nonprofit along with Jeff Klemens, (Philadelphia University), Salvatore Agosta (Virginia Commonwealth University) and others. We met with Powers on her return from Costa Rica and got caught up on the project.

Give us a snapshot of the event. What activities did people engage in?

It was held at Horizontes Forestry Experimental Station, (Estación Experimental Forestal Horizontes), which is the main restoration and forestry sector of the ACG. There were presentations by ACG staff; researchers from universities in Costa Rica, Canada, Puerto Rico and Wales; and staff from other conservation areas in Costa Rica, in addition to breakout sessions. Some topics were “biodesarrollo,” the concept demonstrating the value of biodiversity to society; forest dynamics and secondary succession; food webs in bromeliads; mapping the extent of fires in Costa Rica; and bat conservation. We took them on a field trip of the forestry station and hosted a barbeque. The main objective was to get dialogues started.

IonE resident fellow Jennifer Powers, left, with Horizontes director Milena Gutierrez.
IonE resident fellow Jennifer Powers, left, with Horizontes director Milena Gutierrez.

What was the genesis of iACG?

My friends and I are passionate about the mission of conserving Costa Rica’s biodiversity in the context of the Área de Conservación Guanacaste. Forming iACG provided us with a platform for addressing what we felt were lost opportunities. Much of the research that occurs in the ACG is carried out by research groups working in isolation from each other and from the core programs of the ACG (e.g. research, education, eco-tourism, restoration). We wanted to provide Internet-based tools and in-person opportunities to bring ACG enthusiasts together. My IonE resident fellowship provided us with the resources and space to grow these relationships and collaborations.

For example, in 2010 we hosted a workshop at IonE that brought together ACG staff from different programs and iACG team members to hammer out a set of shared goals. In 2012 we realized our goal of bringing together the larger research community and ACG staff at our first open house, which took place in Santa Rosa, another sector of the ACG. We are building on that momentum with the second open house, which prominently featured Horizontes.

What was the significance of the open house? 

The value of the open houses is to bring together people from diverse backgrounds and positions with common interests in the ACG. This promotes collaboration among research groups and among researchers and ACG programs and staff. 

What is the most surprising thing to come out of the project?

One of the things that delighted me the most about the second open house was that scientists and staff from other conservation areas came from as far away as the Osa peninsula, as far south in Costa Rica as you can get. I think people realize that something exciting is happening in Guanacaste, and they want to understand it. I hope iACG can serve as a model for other conservation areas. 

What’s next for iACG?

Right now we are just trying to recover from hosting this event in collaboration with the staff at Horizontes and their director, Milena Gutierrez. Our next joint projects, in collaboration with Cathy Hulshof, University of Puerto Rico–Mayaguez, and Federico Matarrita, from Usematics, are to reestablish a list-serv of ACG researchers and interested staff, as well as write some publications about our activities and their impacts.

Photos courtesy of Jennifer Powers.

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Catch up with Frontiers in the Environment talks Mon, 22 Jun 2015 17:36:45 +0000 Continue reading Catch up with Frontiers in the Environment talks ]]> Can art help kids connect with nature? What do sustainability and happiness have in common? How can Twitter help researchers understand resource use? These are some of the questions we tackled in the Spring 2015 Frontiers in the Environment speaker series. University, government and industry experts engaged with attendees in hourlong conversations — and debates — over these and many other timely topics.

We’ve summarized each talk into a quick, easy read as well as archived the videos for you to watch on your own schedule. Review the entire list or peruse these top picks:

Tackling climate change is a global effort requiring action at the local level. Learn what the cities of Minneapolis and Bristol, England, are doing to decrease their carbon footprints in “6 things we learned about cities and climate change.”

Groundwater is a crucial resource in Minnesota and around the world, yet we don’t really know how much there is or how we should be managing it. Water experts from the University of Minnesota, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and the U.S. Geological Survey discussed the issue in “5 things we learned about aquifers.”

The Ebola crisis once again focused attention on the challenges of containing an epidemic in today’s world. Find out what’s happening on the front lines of hospitals in Minnesota and Liberia in “6 things we learned about managing pandemic threats.”

Frontiers will resume in September with more thought leaders grappling with the big questions of the day. Join us on Wednesdays at noon through fall semester 2015. All are welcome!

Photo by Photo Phiend (Flickr Creative Commons)

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Art exhibit: We watch the stream Fri, 19 Jun 2015 10:30:39 +0000 Continue reading Art exhibit: We watch the stream ]]> How do we learn to see the deep interconnections we have with the world around us?

That is the question Jonee Kulman Brigham seeks to answer with her art-led environmental education project, “River Journey: Exploring the Value of the Mississippi River.” Brigham, an IonE resident fellow, sustainable design program faculty member in the College of  Design and a visiting scholar in the College of Education and Human Development, wanted to help youth connect the Mississippi River to the water coming out of their taps at school and at home. Photographs and student reflections of this exploration are the focus of the art exhibit now on display in IonE’s Commons Meeting and Art Space.

We-Watch-Image-downsizeTo grasp the connection between the Mississippi River and their own personal relationship with water, students from River’s Edge Academy in St. Paul traced a path from the water intake station in Fridley to the McCarron’s Water Treatment Plant in Maplewood to the kitchen of their own school. There, they examined the many uses of water in their school and measured their own water use. One student remarked how the Mississippi is beautiful “but it is also used in our everyday lives. We use it to wash our hands, take showers, to cook and to drink. We can help not waste water by turning off water when we are done using it.”

Next, they toured the Metropolitan Council Environmental Services Wastewater Treatment Plant to understand how water leaving their school as sewage is cleaned and treated before being returned to the river.

The exhibit also includes online GIS story maps the students created that will be added in the coming month and linked from the exhibit website. The first of these is completed and is called “River Journey: Following the Flow.”

“While we all have this common, physical, interconnection with the river as a water resource, each student has their own ideas, experiences, and ways of expressing their relationship to the river. I smiled when a student wrote ”…water is like medicine,” or when another commented on the fishing spots. Each student connects in their own way and has their own story of the value of the Mississippi River.” More information can be found at the exhibit web page.

The exhibit is on display through October 12, 2015.

Image courtesy of Jonee Kulman Brigham

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U of M researchers advance natural capital principles around the world Tue, 16 Jun 2015 18:10:28 +0000 Continue reading U of M researchers advance natural capital principles around the world ]]> Key leaders around the world are becoming more aware of the importance of including the value of nature in development decisions — witness the publication this week of a special issue of the prestigious scientific journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on the topic — thanks to the work of The Natural Capital Project and researchers affiliated with the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment.

It is exciting to see ecosystem services becoming more mainstream. We’ve seen some impressive successes as leaders begin to use the science of ecosystem services to make decisions with better outcomes for people and the planet. The next steps are to learn from these successes, to reform institutions so that we provide incentives for the stewardship of natural capital, and encourage widespread adoption of these ideas,” says Stephen Polasky, NatCap project lead, IonE resident fellow, and professor in the College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences.

Ecosystem services — the benefits we derive from the natural environment, including tangible resources such as timber or fish, and more intangible resources such as clean air and water or protection from flooding — have a value. Only recently, however, have land use planners, resource managers and business strategists begun to incorporate this value into their balance sheets and decision making. Ecosystem service valuation can be useful in setting priorities for development that preserve natural capital and promote human, economic and social well-being.

The Natural Capital Project, a partnership of IonE, Stanford University’s Woods Institute for the Environment, the World Wildlife Fund and The Nature Conservancy, is an internationally recognized leader in developing tools, knowledge and practices to help managers, government officials, non-profit staff and others include the value of nature when making decisions. The PNAS special feature, published June 16, includes a series of reports by IonE and other NatCap scientists examining the challenges and solutions for incorporating natural capital into various aspects of land-use and resource planning, including agricultural expansion, development in coastal regions and conservation of tropical biodiversity. Among them:

  • Polasky is the lead author of “Setting the bar: Standards for ecosystem services.” The paper stresses the need for standards that define terminology, acceptable data and methods, and reporting requirements for more rapid integration of natural capital valuation by public and private sector decision makers. “Ecosystem service standards should be tailored to specific use contexts, such as national income and wealth accounts, corporate sustainability, land use planning and environmental impact assessments,” he writes. “Progress has been made in aligning with existing organizations in areas such as product certification and sustainability reporting, but a major challenge remains in mainstreaming ecosystem service information into core public and private use contexts.”
  • Polasky and Bonnie Keeler, U of M NatCap lead scientist, are co-authors of “Natural capital and ecosystem services informing decisions: From promise to practice.” In this paper, Polasky, Keeler and fellow researchers argue that economic systems that reward production of marketed commodities but not the natural capital that supports it hinder our ability to end poverty and achieve sustainable population and consumption while protecting nature’s life-support systems.
  • Polasky is also co-author of “Impacts of conservation and human development policy across stakeholders and scales,” which examines the costs and benefits of the Relocation and Settlement Program of Shaaxi Province in China on government, downstream water consumers and others around the world.
  • University of Minnesota NatCap economist Justin Johnson is a co-author of “Spatial patterns of agricultural expansion determine impact on biodiversity and carbon storage,” which examines forest clearing for agriculture as a major threat to biodiversity and ecosystem services. The authors suggest that decisions about expanding agriculture should consider the impacts on ecosystem services.

The Natural Capital Project team recently met with leaders from business, industry, consulting, non-governmental organizations, foundations, academia, development agencies, government and elsewhere for the Stockholm Summit on Natural Capital in Stockholm, Sweden. Participants discussed “use cases” showing how different regions of the world, economic sectors and major actors were beginning to put natural capital principles into action. The overall goals of the gathering included a focus on scaling up these successful cases and accelerating the uptake of natural capital principles in decision making around the world.

On June 30, the Natural Capital Project will convene a public event in Washington, D.C., to discuss how businesses, governments and others can further integrate natural capital concepts into decision-making. This free, public event, which Polasky will moderate, will feature a panel of leading ecosystem services academics and practitioners, as well as experts from the public and nonprofit sectors, addressing core sustainability challenges of the 21st century and how ecosystem services valuation can help solve them.

Photo © Pamela Moore (iStock)

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Humans are inadvertently fertilizing grasslands around the world Fri, 12 Jun 2015 21:02:53 +0000 Continue reading Humans are inadvertently fertilizing grasslands around the world ]]> Gardeners know how a few key inputs can dramatically change the productivity of plants —timely additions of water and fertilizer, for instance, or the right soil conditions, can dramatically boost plant productivity.

Scientists seeking to understand what determines rates of plant growth in natural grasslands and rangelands have long focused on climatic conditions such as temperature and rainfall. However, in recent years a new suspect has emerged: nitrogen. The growth of fossil-fuel-based industrial activity, transportation and agriculture in recent decades has increased the amount of nitrogen traveling through the water and air around the world. One potential result is that areas that appear to be little impacted by human development and that are not being farmed can actually be fertilized from afar by these excess nutrients.

The Nutrient Network, a global distributed experiment supported by the Institute on the Environment, has just published a study examining this phenomenon in 42 natural grasslands on four continents. Pairing standard methodology to quantify the production (plant mass) at each site with a computer model that estimates atmospheric deposition of nitrogen around the world, the study showed that this fertilization effect explains a significant part of the difference in production across sites. In fact, the amount of nitrogen falling from the sky is a much better predictor of the production of these grasslands than the amount of rain or the temperature at each site.

“In essence, as a by-product of our fossil fuel based lifestyle, we are fertilizing the world’s grasslands,” said Nutrient Network coordinator Eric Lind, a study co-author and postdoctoral researcher in the University of Minnesota’s College of Biological Sciences.

Is this a bad thing? On the one hand, carbon uptake by plants in the form of increased production could buffer the ever-increasing carbon dioxide output from industrialized society, and grasslands are known to store much of their carbon below ground, essentially removing it from the atmospheric cycle. On the other hand, other NutNet work has shown that with the increased biomass comes a decrease in biodiversity of the plants. Because plant biodiversity is associated with stability, long-term productivity, and the diversity of everything from insect herbivores to soil microbes, diversity loss is of serious concern.

The Nutrient Network project continues to grow, and is now at 85 sites worldwide examining these and other questions.

Photo ©

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What happens when food crosses borders? Thu, 11 Jun 2015 14:00:12 +0000 Continue reading What happens when food crosses borders? ]]> If you’ve ever encountered Argentinian pears in your New York grocery or snacked on California almonds while visiting Tokyo, you’ve seen the global food market in action. How will the nuance and complexity of global food trade be affected if some agricultural areas benefit from a warming climate, while others get hurt? Graham MacDonald gave us a sneak preview. He’s a researcher at the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment, where he studies the role of trade in the global food system.

How much of our global food supply is traded internationally, as opposed to being “local” (or at least national)? 

We’re shipping a huge amount of food across borders. This can make it harder for us as consumers to understand how and where our food is produced. It also means that, in some cases, countries are becoming increasingly reliant on foreign land and water resources for their food supplies. Our calculations show that more than 20 percent of the calories produced in croplands are traded internationally. Not all of these calories end up on dinner plates, as imported crops could be used to feed livestock animals or for other nonfood purposes. We estimate that about two-thirds of traded calories enter the food system — that’s enough to feed almost 2 billion people a basic diet each year.

Who are the biggest importers and exporters?  What does each group have most in common?

This depends on what “lens” we use to examine trade. In a recent study, we considered four different measures — trade’s dollar value and caloric content, as well as the land and water used to produce exports.

The United States stands out as a key agricultural exporter, though it also imports a sizable amount of some foods. China, Japan and Mexico are examples of major overall importers. But we see different patterns of food trade depending on the metric used. Agricultural trade’s monetary value is concentrated within the European Union and North America (U.S., Canada and Mexico). For calories, exports from South America (Argentina and Brazil) and Southeast Asia (Malaysia and Indonesia) stand out. In terms of the agricultural lands used to produce exports, Australia emerges as a major player. The irrigation water used to produce food exports really emphasizes Pakistan, India and Thailand.

Figure 1. MacDonald’s research includes examining the land and water resources used to produce internationally traded foods. For instance, China leads when it comes to relatively land-intensive soybean imports (top map), while the hidden flows of irrigation water underlying rice and other cereal crop exports (bottom map) paints a much more complex picture that reflects the environmental context of production in different regions. Source: University of Minnesota Institute on the Environment; BioScience.

Nations don’t always neatly fit as “importers” or “exporters” — countries often trade one food for another, underscoring cross-border interdependencies. This is the case for France, Russia and Indonesia. What’s more, some really large agricultural importers, such as China, import a fairly small fraction of their domestic food supply. Other countries may contribute a tiny amount to global trade totals despite importing a huge fraction of their food supplies.

Broadly speaking, these patterns often reflect the size of each country’s agricultural land base relative to its population. Countries with lots of agricultural land per inhabitant tend to export more, and these exports tend to be of relatively lower-value and land-intensive commodities, such as soy. The opposite is true for countries with less land per inhabitant.

Is the production of biofuel having much of an impact on international food trade?

It’s hard to tease this apart. The implications of biofuels on international food trade are likely more indirect. For example, biofuels could alter the prices of crops such as corn — potentially influencing the types of crops that farmers in major “breadbaskets” like the U.S. Midwest decide to grow, or the ability for poor consumers to purchase imported foods. It all comes back to supply and demand.

What can research like yours tell us about the potential effects of climate change on where food is grown and how it gets to people?

International trade is likely to grow as locations of food production and food consumption continue to diverge. Climate change could have a role in this. Growing evidence suggests that the impacts of climate change on agricultural production will not be universal — some places could see reduced crop yields due to more severe droughts or the effects of year-to-year fluctuations in temperature and precipitation, while others could see longer growing seasons with greater capacity to produce certain types of crops. At the same time, demand for food is changing with a growing global “middle class,” urbanization and, to some extent, population growth.

So climate change compounds this complex story of food and globalization. New food trade relationships could emerge while others that have been around for many years may decline in magnitude.

What’s the one thing you’d like everyone to know about the future of food on a warming planet?

Climate change adds another dimension of uncertainty to global food security. In the long run, it could impact agricultural productivity. From one year to another, I wonder about the “ripple effects” that droughts or other extreme weather could have, especially for the food security of more import-dependent nations. For example, in the past, some countries have restricted exports of staple crops such as wheat in years with severe droughts, which can drive up food prices.

The question is therefore how to build more adaptive capacity into our increasingly globalized food system. More “cooperative” agricultural trade policies could help to alleviate some of this uncertainty for import-dependent nations. Increasing agricultural yields across key importing nations could also help to reduce the amount of food demand that needs to be sourced from abroad. Even simple things like reducing our food waste at home or how often we eat resource-intensive foods such as red meat could help to minimize the pressures on our food systems to produce more and more.

Banner photo by Jed Sullivan (Flickr/Creative Commons)

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Featured Fellow: Epidemiologist Dominic Travis Thu, 11 Jun 2015 13:01:31 +0000 Continue reading Featured Fellow: Epidemiologist Dominic Travis ]]> What’s the most interesting thing you’re reading now?

I like to read 10 to 15 books at a time. Maybe because I’m subject-ADHD and a slow reader, I have many different reading moods. One book I am reading is the locally published Borlaug series (three volumes) by Noel Vietmeyer. It is amazing to see how the father of the Green Revolution had some of his formative years at the University of Minnesota and then to compare to the current culture here — I think the IonE concept follows on that fairly well. 

Dominic Travis, IonE resident fellow and epidemiologist in the College of Veterinary Medicine.
Dominic Travis, IonE resident fellow and epidemiologist in the College of Veterinary Medicine.

What pivotal experience led you to the work you’re doing today?  

When I was in veterinary school, I received an award to spend five months in South Africa and Zimbabwe as an exchange student. It was amazing to see how the rest of the world lives. Especially interesting to me was the connection between people, animals and the environment in developing countries with respect to health, food and water security. I came back spouting to all who would listen about this and, in the ensuing 20 years, the “One Health” or “ecosystem health” movements have come to exemplify these principles in my mind  which is why I am here in the ecosystem health division of the College of Veterinary Medicine.

What was your biggest aha moment?

I co-lead a project that basically provides veterinary and health research services to the Jane Goodall Institute in Gombe National Park, Tanzania. Thirteen years ago when we set this project up, I had the opportunity to “pitch” Jane about how I thought we could work together. Jane was not historically enamored with veterinarians and our dart guns  so I was told — so I was being very careful in my wording. It got to the point where she said, “Stop. Can I just say that what I am hearing is that you think you have a way to help my chimpanzees and the people around the park?”  I said, “Yeah, that is what I’m saying I guess,” and she said, “Great, when do we start?” It struck me that she boiled it all down to that so quickly  very simple and maybe obvious but very instructive at the time. Since then my one measure of success for all projects is, “Am I helping”?  If not, its time to reevaluate.

Who inspires you? 

I am inspired by local people in difficult situations who are trying to take fate into their own hands and better their situation and the situations of those around them  without automatically trashing their environment. Those who are proactive, who have almost nothing and are willing to do it the hard way should be celebrated.

What’s the one talent you rely on most often?

Communication and especially science communication. I am not a gifted scientist but I’ve been told I am a good communicator of science. I think in a world where people rebel against things like climate change and evolution  or even just math and critical thinking skills  this is an important point. The problem is that it is as much our fault as the nonscientific public’s. We are not a society that prioritizes multilingual abilities and science is a language. I’m hoping to focus a lot more on science communication in the future. I believe that science is greatly devalued if we cannot translate it to those who can use it to help.

If you could have a one-on-one conversation with someone you admire but have never met, living or dead, who would it be and why?

I was first a history of religion major in college before I started liking science so this is a big ask. However, I would like to convene a panel with Confucius, Gautama Buddha, Jesus Christ and Muhammad the Prophet and ask them what they think about how their words/teachings are being interpreted and implemented today. History is written by the victors and I’m not sure the victors in the past 2, 000 years have had the fundamentals in mind.

Photo by Diriye Amey (Flickr/Creative Commons)

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University-Rosemount partnership “a gift” Tue, 09 Jun 2015 14:44:04 +0000 Continue reading University-Rosemount partnership “a gift” ]]> During his speech at the Resilient Communities Project end-of-year celebration May 1, Rosemount, Minn., mayor Bill Droste called the partnership a “great gift.”

The University of Minnesota Resilient Communities Project celebrated the conclusion of its one-year partnership with Rosemount during a luncheon at the McNamara Alumni Center.

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, RCP organizes yearlong partnerships between the U of M and Minnesota communities to pursue sustainability-related projects. The partnership merged the expertise of hundreds of graduate students with projects identified by Rosemount city staff and community partners.

In all, more than 400 University of Minnesota students worked on 31 projects. RCP director and IonE resident fellow Carissa Schively Slotterback called the yearlong partnership a great success, adding that by working together the U and Rosemount advanced sustainability and resilience in the community in ways they couldn’t have individually.

Rosemount was named the U of M’s Resilient Communities partner for the 2014–15 school year in a competitive process. The city came up with 40 projects it wanted help tackling over the course of the year. The projects were assigned to various graduate courses.

Projects of note included investigating options for private housing for Dakota County Technical College students, exploring daytime staffing solutions for the Rosemount Fire Department, researching best practices for safe youth driving behavior, looking at alternative energy sources, considering stormwater management opportunities, probing transportation advancements and  exploring the possibilities of an eco-green business park.

Rosemount City Council member Jeff Weisensel said he was particularly impressed with the work done on the DCTC student housing project. The housing is something he would like to see developed in the community, and he expressed hope the project would help find a developer.

College of Design professor Lyn Bruin, who taught the class that investigated the housing project, said her students benefited from the opportunity to work with working professionals. In particular, Bruin said her students worked with senior planner Eric Zweber and staff from the Dakota County Community Development Agency. Bruin said her students learned firsthand about funding resources available for housing. “My students had exactly the experience I wanted them to have,” she said.

Resilient Communities Project manager Mike Greco said getting students practical learning experiences is part of what makes the program so successful. He said the experience adds a lot of value to their educational experience.

Community development director Kim Lindquist said the experience working with students on the various projects was great. While it had practical benefits for the city, Lindquist said working with young professionals also invigorated her. “This would be a great experience for any community,” she said.

In addition to observing the conclusion of its partnership with Rosemount, RCP also celebrated its future partnership with Carver County during the 2015–16 school year.

View Rosemount’s project here.

Photo courtesy of the City of Rosemount.

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Locavolts unite! Mon, 08 Jun 2015 14:38:25 +0000 Continue reading Locavolts unite! ]]> The U.S. electricity sector is responsible for 31 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions — higher than transportation, at 27 percent, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. With that in mind, states and utilities are rethinking how to reduce greenhouse gases while meeting societal needs by integrating solar, wind and other renewable energy into the power grid.

IonE resident fellow and Humphrey School of Public Affairs associate professor of energy and environmental policy Elizabeth Wilson talked with Minnesota Public Radio’s  Tom Weber about her research, new energy technologies and how locavolts — people who support locally produced energy — are influencing development of electricity infrastructure in Minnesota.

Listen to the broadcast.

IonE resident fellows are faculty with appointments throughout the University of Minnesota system who come together here to share ideas, inspiration and innovation across disciplinary boundaries and are among the shining stars of IonE’s signature approach to addressing global grand challenges.

Photo by Chris Hunkeler (Flickr/CreativeCommons)

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Community solar and Minnesota’s energy future Tue, 02 Jun 2015 15:52:34 +0000 0 The outsize role of Earth’s largest lakes Tue, 26 May 2015 17:08:25 +0000 Continue reading The outsize role of Earth’s largest lakes ]]> The Large Lakes Observatory at the University of Minnesota Duluth is the only institute in the country dedicated to the study of large lakes throughout the world.

IonE resident fellow Robert Sterner, LLO director and professor at the UMD Swenson College of Science and Engineering, talked with WTIP North Shore Community Radio about the importance of the Earth’s largest lakes, the mission of the LLO and an upcoming research project aimed at cataloging the ecosystem services large lakes provide.

Watch the lecture here.

IonE resident fellows are faculty with appointments throughout the University of Minnesota system who come together here to share ideas, inspiration and innovation across disciplinary boundaries and are among the shining stars of IonE’s signature approach to addressing global grand challenges.

Photo courtesy of NASA Goddard Space Flight Center (Flickr/Creative Commons)

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Featured Fellow: Anthropologist Mark Pedelty Fri, 22 May 2015 17:59:27 +0000 Continue reading Featured Fellow: Anthropologist Mark Pedelty ]]> What’s your current favorite project?

I am writing a book whose working title is Environmentalist Musicians: Cases from Cascadia for Indiana University Press’s Music, Nature, Place series. It is based on six case studies of musicians working with environmental movements, starting with Dana Lyons and ending with the Idle No More movement, performers who mobilize communities through music. They shared their ideas, techniques and experiences with me over the course of two years.

Mark Pedelty, IonE resident fellow and professor in the College of Liberal Arts. Photo courtesy of M. Pedelty.

What environmental challenge concerns you most?

How do we bring people together to create sustainable institutions, policies and cultures? In other words, in addition to assisting policy-makers and industry, how might we assist environmental movements? I find that particularly important given the University’s public land grant mission. How do we serve a public good when it comes to environmental justice, biodiversity and health?

What’s the most interesting thing you’re reading now?

This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate, by Naomi Klein, Simon and Schuster, 2014.

What pivotal experience led you to the work you’re doing today?

Anti-apartheid organizing at the University of California Los Angeles taught me to realize that it is never enough just to talk and write about something. Theory without practice becomes esoteric and stale. I believe that is true in the arts, humanities, social sciences and material sciences. For example, ecological modeling that perpetually “black boxes” overdetermining social factors (the human factors causing pollution, climate change, etc.) will tell us less about ecosystems than they could if those factors were occasionally brought into such models. Without that, ideological assumptions about “anthropogenic factors” substitute for truly critical, scientific exploration of ecosystems in their greater complexity.

The same can be said of humanistic work, such as “ecocriticism,” when we simply step back and point fingers. I felt like I did that a bit with a recent project, Ecomusicology. Although I was pointing a few fingers backward at the often ineffectual participant observer (me and mine), there was too much in that analysis that was critical of the music industry without sufficient focus on more positive solutions. That is why I undertook my current work in the Pacific Northwest. I wanted to find and then examine model cases where performing musicians have been able to use their art in grounded ways that advance local and regional movements for environmental justice, education, biodiversity and health.

Who was your most influential mentor?

Todd Gitlin. He taught me to focus on solving problems. Rather than adopting ideological trends of the moment, Todd has remained independent, a truly critical thinker. Whether one is an artist, scientist or something in between, that quality of mind aids discovery. As Einstein said, “Common sense is the collection of prejudices acquired by age 18.” Contemporary common sense includes unsustainable assumptions and fantasies, such as the idea that we can expand our population indefinitely without ecological consequences or that unbridled development has no impact on biodiversity or that our relatively utopian access to new products has no consequences for the people who assemble those products, many of whom live in appalling environmental conditions. One of the things that I’ve always liked about Todd is that he challenges common sense when it’s wrong, even if those views are unpopular. Plus, Todd is extremely hard working, another quality that, along with a sense of curiosity, makes new insights possible.

What inspires you? 

The Idle No More Movement. Idle No More began when four friends from Saskatchewan decided to take action against Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Bill C-45, an act that threatened First Nations’ sovereignty rights and greatly weakened Canada’s environmental protections. Although started in the interior, Idle No More is extremely active on the Canadian West Coast in British Columbia. Led by First Nations organizers and joined by many nonindigenous allies, the coalition has opposed development plans that would radically impact the Salish Sea (Puget Sound, Strait of Juan de Fuca and Georgia Strait). Much of British Columbia is “unceded territory,” meaning that indigenous people occupying the land never relinquished their homelands via treaty or other legal mechanism. Idle No More activists are struggling to steward land, water, air, animals and people within their unceded territories, which requires protecting them from the threat of unhealthy and unsustainable forms of development. For example, thus far they have stopped Enbridge and Kinder Morgan from building pipelines to export shale oil from Alberta. They are one of the big reasons that TransCanada and the Koch brothers have fought so hard and spent millions of dollars to get the Keystone pipeline approved. The people of western Canada won’t let it go that direction. One of the most important regulators of greenhouse gases in North America at the moment is Idle No More. Those who think that environmental movements are mere sideshows to the more serious work of science and policy simply aren’t paying enough attention to history or present day developments.

What gives you hope?

Public engagement and activism. As a scholar, I am probably better at studying and writing about public engagement than I am at actually doing it, but when I find myself in places and moments where knowledgeable and concerned people effectively voice their opinions — such as at an Idle No More protest in Vancouver or on Dana Lyon’s Coal Train Tour — things don’t appear nearly as bleak as they do when flipping through the channels.

Photo: Idle No More Solidarity Gathering in Sacramento, by Daniela Kantorova (Flickr/Creative Commons)

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