Spring 2012 Frontiers in the Environment

February 8: Can Democracy Survive the Age of Science?

Shawn Otto, CEO and Cofounder of ScienceDebate.org and author of Fool Me Twice: Fighting the Assault on Science in America

We are poised over the next 40 years to create as much new knowledge as we have in the past 400 years. At the same time, our major unresolved policy problems, from climate change to science education to biodiversity loss, increasingly revolve around science, while less than 2 percent of Congress has any professional background in it. As a result, we are becoming increasingly paralyzed at the science gap—the gap between science and democracy. Can democracy survive as a means of self-governance in an age of science?

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February 15: Clearing the Air: Indoor Air Pollution, Health and Climate in Developing Countries

Jill Baumgartner, Postdoctoral Researcher, Global Renewable Energy Leadership Program, University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment

More than half of the world’s population burns solid fuels, mostly wood and coal, in open fires or low-quality stoves for cooking and heating. The resulting indoor air pollution is a leading cause of disease and death—more than malaria and tuberculosis. New evidence also suggests that indoor air pollution contributes to climate change at regional and global levels. Interventions for reducing indoor air pollution (improved cookstoves or cleaner-burning fuels) are straightforward, yet billions will likely continue to depend on wood and coal for decades due to complex socioeconomic and behavioral barriers. Drawing from her field studies in China, Baumgartner will discuss the contribution of indoor air pollution to health and climate, challenges to reducing indoor air pollution in developing countries, and potential game-changing new interventions and strategies.

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February 22: Are we Getting Enough Crop per Drop? Trends in Global Agricultural Water Use

Kate Brauman, Postdoctoral Fellow, Global Landscapes Initiative, University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment.

People use more water for agriculture than for any other activity, yet we know very little about how much crop per drop we’re getting. And water productivity matters a lot when it comes to strategies for increasing water and food security. Can we get more food with less water just by increasing food production efficiency, or will big structural changes be necessary? Brauman will explore the highs and lows of water productivity and suggest where different kinds of interventions might make sense and how big an impact they could have.

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February 29: Putting the “Fun” Back in “Infrastructure”: The Electric System and the Future of Energy

Maggie Koerth-Baker, Science Editor, BoingBoing.net and author of Before the Lights Go Out: Conquering the Energy Crisis Before it Conquers Us

Electricity just happens. Flip a switch, and the lights turn on. The system is reliable enough and invisible enough that it’s easy to spend your entire life not knowing how it works, even though you use it every day. But in an age of limited resources and climate change, ignoring our electric infrastructure is a luxury we can no longer afford. The good news: Infrastructure is fascinating. Koerth-Baker explains how our flawed and surprisingly precarious electric system evolved, how it controls what we can and can’t do to solve our energy crisis today, and what we can learn about the future of energy by studying its past.

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March 7: Conserving Tropical Forests from the Ground Up

Jennifer Powers, IonE Resident Fellow and Assistant Professor of Ecology, Evolution & Behavior and Plant Biology in the College of Biological Sciences and College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences at the University of Minnesota.

The tremendous biodiversity found in national parks in tropical countries such as Costa Rica attracts ecologists and biologists from all over the world. The managers of these conserved wildlands often operate with shoestring budgets and do not have an explicit mandate to facilitate international research. This results in many missed opportunities. For example, researchers often generate useful data for conservation, but these data fail to reach park managers. How can we better connect academic research carried out by international scientists, education and conservation in tropical parks and conservations areas? Powers will discuss a personal perspective on how ecological research can be used to support conservation goals.

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March 14: No Presentation

There will not be a Frontiers seminar on March 14 due to the Spring Break holiday.

March 21: Preparing Students to Grow a New Agriculture: Experimental Curricula at the University of Minnesota

Nick Jordan, IonE Resident Fellow and Professor of Agronomy and Plant Genetics in the College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences at the University of Minnesota.

New innovation systems are needed to help agriculture meet its grand challenges. These systems must integrate the major streams of discovery in agricultural bioscience (biotechnologies and agroecotechnologies) and engage this and other research with private enterprise, civil society and government sectors. The goal is to develop new agricultural systems that meet high standards for performance in economic, social and environmental terms. Many young people hope to find their life’s work in such a new agriculture. How can we help them learn skills, understandings and inclinations they will need to be innovators? Currently, higher education emphasizes mastery of a discipline; we must also enable our students to participate skillfully in situations—such as the new innovation systems—where transdisciplinary thought and action are of the essence. I will describe several experimental curricula at the University of Minnesota that aim to meet these needs for both graduate and undergraduate students.

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March 28: Wind, Transmission and Integration: Policy and Politics of Renewable Energy

Elizabeth Wilson, IonE Resident Fellow and Associate Professor in the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota.

Developing renewable energy resources in the United States also requires developing electricity transmission infrastructure. Across the country, renewable energy resources have been increasing rapidly in recent years, especially wind power. Each state and regional jurisdiction, however, has taken a different approach to connecting new wind turbines to the transmission grid and dispatching electricity from wind. Wilson will explore the policies and politics underlying transmission siting and wind integration.

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April 4: Cradle-to-Cradle – A Design Concept whose Time has Come?

Chuck Bennett, Vice President of Earth & Community Care, Aveda.

Ten years ago Michael Braungart and William McDonough published their book Cradle to- Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, in which they outline a holistic economic, industrial and social framework that seeks to create systems that are not just efficient, but also essentially waste free. The concept is a biomimetic approach to the design of systems, modeling human industry after nature’s processes, and suggesting that industry must protect and enrich ecosystems and nature’s biological metabolism while also maintaining safe and productive technical metabolisms for the high-quality use of organic and manufactured materials. Cradle to Cradle has generated a great deal of discussion and debate over the past decade—much of it very interesting and thought provoking for a variety of reasons. Bennett believes the Cradle to Cradle vision has a great deal to offer the broader sustainability discussion, and will discuss the pros and cons of the framework, citing examples of how Aveda has integrated it into its business thinking and strategy.

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April 11: Your Best Talk Ever: How to Become a Science Presentation Superstar

Todd Reubold, Director of Communication and Public Affairs, University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment.

We’ve all been there, sitting in a darkened room while slide after slide flashes by, thinking, “There has to be a better way!” Guess what? There is! We no longer have to suffer death by PowerPoint. In this informative and slightly irreverent talk, Todd will discuss some of the most common presentation mistakes along with tips for putting together a superstar talk. He’ll also peer into the crystal projector and share some thoughts on the future of scientific presentations and the importance of communicating science.

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April 18: Can We Feed the World, and Sustain the Planet?

Jonathan Foley, Director, Institute on the Environment, University of Minnesota.

In the coming years, population growth, rising personal wealth, increasing meat and dairy consumption, and expanding biofuel use will place unprecedented demands on agriculture and natural resources. These pressures are already overwhelming parts of the system: An estimated 1 billion people are chronically hungry, and agriculture is taking a major toll on biodiversity, land, water, and greenhouse gas concentrations. Humanity therefore faces the challenge of meeting growing agricultural demands while reducing damage to the environment. Although this dual challenge is enormous, recent analysis suggests that tremendous progress toward both goals can be made by: (1) halting agricultural land expansion; (2) closing agricultural “yield gaps”; (3) increasing the water, nutrient and resource efficiency of cropping systems; (4) shifting to less resource-intensive diets; and (5) improving efficiency of food distribution. Building upon these approaches, additional innovations, investments and policy reforms will be necessary to shape a new agricultural paradigm that meets human needs while reducing costs to the planet.

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April 25: Environmental Issues Surrounding the Regulation and Commercialization of Agricultural Biotechnology

Greg Jaffe, Director of the Biotechnology Project, Center for Science in the Public Interest.

Are genetically engineered crops and animals as risky as some people claim? Will they solve the world’s agricultural constraints and lead to more sustainability? Jaffe will summarize the benefits and risks of this technology during the past decade and give his insight into the environmental challenges and issues that face these products in the coming years. He will critique the U.S. regulatory system and challenge policy makers to translate scientific concerns into policy decisions that allow us to commercialize safe products and protect the environment.

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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.