Fall 2012 Frontiers in the Environment

September 19 – Sustainable Development: “What Would Aristotle Do?”

John Sheehan, Institute on the Environment

Sculpture of human figuresThese are troubled times for sustainable development. This summer’s Rio +20 Summit ended with a resounding thud. We have come to an impasse. Why is it so hard to move forward on sustainable development? Sheehan contends it’s because we have lost the ethical vocabulary needed to do so.

The ethic of sustainable development requires a re-engagement in “The Great Conversation”—humanity’s timeless struggle with the great ideas of moral philosophy and science. Sheehan will rekindle the conversation that started with Aristotle and continues today in the writings of proponents of sustainable development such as Garrett Hardin, Stephen Schneider, Amartya Sen and E.O. Wilson. We are at an impasse. This, according to Aristotle, is an opportunity, “for the resolution of an impasse is a discovery.”

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September 26 – The Big Blank Spot on the Map: Exploring Alaska’s Wild Frontier

Debbie Miller, Alaskan author and naturalist

Alaskan mountain rangeAlaska author Debbie S. Miller recently traveled more than 600 miles by canoe and on foot to explore the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, the largest tract of public land remaining in America. Her new book, On Arctic Ground, is the first to describe this vast and wild reserve in the northwestern corner of Alaska. Miller will present images and natural sounds that reflect the beauty, history and array of wildlife she discovered on her journey. She will also discuss industrial threats to the area, and how the public can help develop a strong management plan for the reserve, including alternatives that will protect several special areas. Books will be available for purchase following the talk.

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October 3 – What Do You Do When You Can See It All?

Paul Morin, Polar Geospatial Center University of Minnesota

Polar satellite imageFive orbiting telescopes now collect more than 1 billion square kilometers of images of Earth. Polar scientists are beginning to cope with and use this observational gold mine. It is now possible to count every penguin, map every crevasse and create a geologic map without ever visiting an outcrop. Morin will describe the Polar Geospatial Center’s experience in mapping and monitoring 60 degrees of the Earth’s latitude with fewer than two dozen staff.

This talk was not recorded.

October 10 – Design + Community + Sustainability: Accelerating the Transformation

Virajita Singh, Senior Research Fellow/Adjunct Assistant Professor, Center for Sustainable Building Research, College of Design

Portrait: Virajita SinghIn our era of social networks and global connectedness, a new way is emerging to plan and act sustainably. Using design as the driver, it engages intergenerational citizens from communities in networked partnership with the University and local governmental agencies to take sustainable action. Singh will share examples from current projects in greater Minnesota and the Twin Cities and introduce Design Thinking—a concept that uses design for breakthroughs with systemic problems—as a powerful tool for sustainable transformation of communities.

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October 17 – From Muscles to Molecules: A Revolution in the Earth System

Lewis Gilbert, Institute on the Environment

EarthImagine what Earth looks like from beyond our planet’s boundaries. Imagine that you could have watched the evolution of our whole planet over the past 1,000 years or so from a distance sufficient to see the planet as a whole. This framework would extend our current perspective by embedding earthly activities in the context of at least the solar system. From this perspective, individual intentionality would disappear, and the outcomes of collective human activities would become central. It would be like the difference between watching the ant colony and watching individual ants. By zooming out, we could observe how a single species came to dominate many aspects of the planetary system and how the carbon dioxide content of Earth’s atmosphere recently started rising rapidly.

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October 24 – Climate Change in Cities: Adaptation, Mitigation and Innovation

Patrick Hamilton, Director, Global Change Initiatives, Science Museum of Minnesota

Urban solar PVCities are experiencing more, and more intense, extreme weather associated with global climate change. They need to begin adapting, but also need to remain incubators of climate change mitigation innovations. Individual cities can innovate to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, but these efforts will not shield them from climate change and will always be a tiny piece of total global emissions unless their efforts are widely emulated. Yet cities will intimately experience the expensive, local manifestations of global climate change and will be, in a sense, first responders. What kinds of climate change might cities need to cope with? Can some adaptation and mitigation complement one another? How do we keep the innovation engines of cities operating under conditions of growing climate stress?

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October 31 – Toward Active Transport in Minnesota: Insights & Ideas From a Statewide Survey

Ingrid Schneider, Professor, Department of Forest Resources and Director, University of Minnesota Tourism Center

bike laneActive transport incorporates physical activity into the daily routine and offers numerous health and environmental benefits. While biking for recreation is extremely common, biking for transportation is much less so. Understanding differences in participation between recreational and commuter cycling provides a foundation to increase commuter cycling and boost public and environmental health. Schneider will explore differences in perceived bike safety and transportation attributes among three types of commuters, and suggest ways to increase and promote bicycle commuting.

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November 7 – City Slicker Plants: Consequences of Urbanization for Plant Diversity

Jeannine Cavender-Bares, Associate Professor, Department of Ecology, Evolution & Behavior

Urban plantUrban areas harbor more plant species than rural areas. However, urban plants in the Twin Cities come from fewer plant lineages than their country cousins. They have a narrower, more homogenized genetic base and are less likely to thrive under climate change and other environmental perturbations. City plants also harbor traits that favor their spread into new habitats unsupportive of pollinators such as bees and butterflies. Human-caused changes in diversity and function of plants in cities relative to natural areas may impact the ability of plant communities to adapt and provide ecosystem services in a changing environment.

Watch the recording – Due to technical difficulties, the slides were not included in the recording. 11-7-2012 City Slicker Plants Slides (PDF).

November 14 – Climate Change Impacts on Ecosystems: The Big Picture and a Few “Zoom-in” Forays

Peter Reich, Regents Professor, Department of Forest Resources and Resident Fellow, Institute on the Environment

Storm damage homeClimate change is altering the face of our planet, a home already massively re-engineered by humans for agriculture, water, transport and human settlement. Climate change will act in many ways at once, modifying not just average conditions, but increasing the frequency of heat waves, droughts and major storm events, and triggering floods, fires and biotic disturbances as well. These impacts will almost certainly cause changes, many adverse, for natural and human ecosystems, and have the potential to cause substantial, and perhaps catastrophic, change for human society. Reich will provide a brief overview of these issues and describe his own work on this topic.

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November 28 – A Story of Social Entrepreneurship

Acara Co-director Julian Marshall, Assistant Professor, Department of Civil Engineering in the College of Science and Engineering

Portrait: Julian MarshallHow do students transition from classroom learning to global impact? Most are unsure of how make this leap. Acara’s series of classes helps students create their own path to global impact. The process involves creating a local solution to a global grand challenge. Aspects include global collaboration, overseas or domestic field study and coursework, venture development and design thinking, and identifying a self-sustaining solution. Acara is multi-disciplinary and open to students of all majors; we work on the global problems and local solutions that students identify. Acara has two missions: education and impact. Marshall will talk about Acara’s educational approach, impacts beyond the classroom, how students engage with Acara and how experiences like Acara fit within a traditional university degree.

Original title: What Is YOUR Story of Global Impact? A Collaborative Approach to Solving Global Grand Challenges

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December 5 – Getting Bees Back on Their Own Six Feet

Marla Spivak, MacArthur Fellow, Department of Entomology

Bee on flowerColony collapse disorder, the syndrome causing honey bees (Apis mellifera) to suddenly and mysteriously disappear from their hives, first captured public attention 2007. Since then, the story of vanishing honey bees has pervaded everything from ice cream marketing campaigns to plots for The Simpsons. The untold story is that these losses are a capstone to more than a half-century of losses beekeepers have faced since agricultural practices changed after World War II. The larger story still is that other bees are also suffering, and in some cases their fates are far worse. Spivak will review current research on bee health and discuss ways everyone can help bees get back on their own six feet.

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The opinions expressed in Frontiers in the Environment are those of the speakers and not necessarily of the Institute on the Environment/University of Minnesota.