Spring has sprung!

Sam Jaffe

Naturalist Sam Jaffe grew up chasing birds, mucking through ponds, and turning over leaves.  His photographs of caterpillars native to Northern New England are stunning.  Sam created The Caterpillar Lab in 2013 to showcase the amazing diversity of northeastern caterpillars through educational programs, the arts, and sciences.

Learn more:  https://www.facebook.com/TheCaterpillarLab?fref=ts


Junk Plastic = Junk Profit (inspired by a dive in the Azores)

Boyan Slat, an Aerospace Engineering student at the Delft University of Technology, proposes a brilliant solution to remove 99.98% of the 7.25 million tons of junk plastic floating in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in five years … at a profit.  He says, “Please, don’t tell me we can’t clean this up.”



Photo courtesy http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ROW9F-c0kIQ

3Ps: People, Plastic, Planet

As I sit here writing this post, I am surrounded by plastic.  The keys I tap are plastic.  The Auburn Tigers cup holding my drink, the clear sleeves clinging to my fridge, framing pictures of my puppies, the flimsy shopping bags stuffed into the cotton bag hanging from the doorknob, the dog bowls, the compost bin, the spoons and spatulas … all plastic, all within a five foot range.

Junk like this ends up in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a humungous vortex of trash floating between Hawaii and California.   This tangle of detritus is twice the size of Texas, and growing.


Map courtesy http://education.nationalgeographic.com/education/encyclopedia/great-pacific-garbage-patch/?ar_a=1

What is plastic, anyway? It’s a durable, petroleum-based synthetic material used in place of glass, wood, and metals.  I started thinking about plastic and how it permeates every aspect of my life after hearing some feedback about my blog:  “It’s nice, but what’s the point?  What am I supposed to do?”  This is a question that I keep coming back to.  What are we supposed to do?  It depends, I suppose, on how we think about the future.  Now there’s a tangle.

The planet we inhabit has seen many changes.  Relatively speaking, humans are among the newcomers.  Before we mammals ruled the planet, it was the reptilians.  Something major some 65 million years ago, perhaps a giant meteor collision, knocked them aside, clearing the way for us to dominate.  Well, something major is occurring now.  Human civilization is dramatically affecting the earth’s biosphere.   The sixth major extinction is underway.  The ice core data shows that CO2 levels for over 600,000 years have hovered between 180 and 320 or so parts per million and that as CO2 levels rise, so too does temperature.  The CO2 hovering above us is now 395 ppm, and growing.

Everyone’s talking about sustainability:  sustainable agriculture, sustainable business practices … maybe it’s the concept not of sustainability but of durability that has me intrigued.  Plastic is durable stuff – it doesn’t biodegrade, it just breaks down into smaller and smaller bits.  These microplastics cannot be seen by the naked eye.  The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is estimated to be 7 million square miles.  Scientists have collected close to 2 million bits per square mile.  Some of the debris floats; much of the denser stuff sinks.  Microplastics accumulate, block the sun, and threaten the livelihood of the algae and plankton communities below.  These simple organisms are the foundation of the marine food web.


Photo courtesy http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2009/09/photogalleries/pacific-garbage-patch-pictures/index.html

About that question that I keep coming back to … what are we supposed to do?  Democracy is a system where eligible citizens participate equally in political self-determination.  Unfortunately, our system of government is no longer democratic, because the citizens engaged are inherently unequal, with the notable example being the imbalance between individuals and corporations.  In addition, the talking heads at the top have locked horns in argument, a wasteful activity that hinders progress.  We have no time to waste.  Collaborative problem solving must replace endless debate.   This simple concept is the foundation of our future.

© Taryn Fisher 2013

A Sustainable Future

I attended a great talk today.  Al Gore presented highlights from his latest book, The Future:  Six Drivers of Global Change.  Here are Gore’s six drivers:

  1. Economy:  technologically advanced, globalized, with distant and deep supply chains
  2. Communication:  instantaneously enabled by the internet
  3. Political Power:  shifting from the west to the east
  4. Growth:  population and economic
  5. Genetic manipulation:  revolutionary developments in the life and material sciences
  6. Ecosystems:  relationship between humanity and the natural environment

For sure, it’s challenging to digest Gore’s list as a set of stand-alone topics.  Since these topics are all interrelated, they’ve got to be considered holistically.  For the average person, myself certainly included, this is … impossible.  I keep coming back to the question, how can we think about sustainability such that it’s both understandable and actionable?  Humanity must come to a consensus on this, and quickly.  We must row together in order to pull our boat forward.


Image courtesy www.ivyleaguesports.com

One thing Gore talked about today is “winning the conversation.”  To explain what he meant, he used the Civil Rights movement as an example.  A major milestone was achieved here in the States when it became socially unacceptable to speak or behave in a racist manner.   Regarding climate change, the conversation is turning from debate about its existence to debate about how to respond.  This, unfortunately, is where the conversation splinters.

Because there are multiple complex and interdependent variables in play (see Gore’s list) and because the situation is dynamic, the global community must collaboratively develop both a broad perspective about the best long-term strategy as well as a close-to-home perspective about tangible and feasible ways to live and work more sustainably.

Hence, systems thinking is required.  Ideally, by seeing a situation as a whole, new insights emerge and new prospects are envisioned in response to problems where solutions are not easily attained.  According to Daniel Aronson, “Systems thinking has proven its value (regarding) … issues where an action affects (or is affected by) the environment surrounding the issue, either the natural environment or the competitive environment (and regarding) problems whose solutions are not obvious (Aronson, 1996-98).”[1]

So, assuming that we concur with Gore on the six drivers of global change, we must create a vision for a sustainable future.  Perhaps we ought to focus our sights on making nakedly transparent the true costs of growth (population and economic) and on comprehensively analyzing the technical and moral implications of genetic manipulation.  In this way, we can determine a path forward based on an understanding that “Everything that we need for our survival and well-being depends, either directly or indirectly, on our natural environment (EPA, n.d.).”[2]

© Taryn Fisher 2013

[1] Retrieved from: http://www.thinking.net/Systems_Thinking/Intro_to_ST/intro_to_st.html.  Daniel Aronson is the host of the Thinking Page (http://www.thinking.net), a source of information on improving organizational and individual thinking.

Sustainability Redefined

I used to think that sustainability was all about saving the planet.

I’ve come to realize that the planet doesn’t need saving.  The planet’s been around for some 4.6 billion years, it will be just fine.  It is human civilization – as we know it today – that’s at risk.  While homo sapiens have been around for 130,000 or so years, it’s only within the last 12,000 or so years that agricultural settlements emerged, which roughly coincides with the start of the Holocene, an era during which the earth’s systems have experienced dynamic equilibrium.

Since 1775 or so, humanity’s impact on the environment, thanks to scientific and technological advancement, industrialization, and urbanization, has been dramatic.  Our pattern of development and our insatiable habit of consumption are both affecting the biosphere, which is the envelope of natural systems within which we live.  Most of the international scientific community concurs:  our “developed” way of life is changing the rhythms of our global ecosystem.   The days of dynamic equilibrium exist no longer.  The era that we are entering, the Anthropocene, will become an increasingly unfamiliar place.

Smog, not Fog – Beijing, China (January 2013)


Photo courtesy http://www.economist.com/blogs/analects/2013/01/beijings-air-pollution

To complicate things, as world population grows, the number of people living in extreme poverty grows.  The chasm between the “haves” and the “have-nots” is growing as well.  Demand is growing exponentially for a finite and endangered supply of natural resources.  In fact, most wars today are intrastate, not between states, and most are fought over natural resources, water being an example. This does not bode well for those at the bottom of the pyramid.

What’s needed is a concerted effort among people around the world to change how we live.  This concerted effort must include people from all constituencies, including individuals, business enterprises, governments, and a wide array of other organizations.  It must include everyone, black, brown, tan, white, red, blue, fat, short, abled, or not.  The future shape of human civilization transcends all borders, tangible and intangible; so too our efforts must transcend all barriers.

I used to think that if the people of the world, as consumers, could change consumption behavior, then businesses, governments, and other organizations would change in response.

I’ve come to realize that as much as people want to change (granted, some do, some do not), it’s just not that easy.  Let’s assume for a moment that I want to remove myself from the energy grid.  This requires significant intellectual and capital investment.  Or, let’s assume that I want to eat only organic food.  This requires a doubling (or more) of my food budget.  Clearly with these examples I am dramatically oversimplifying things.  That said, my point is that people may want to change consumption behavior, but in order to do so, reasonably obtainable alternatives must exist.

This is where businesses, governments, and other organizations come in.  With this blog, I’ll share with you my thoughts and ideas about the intersections of our existence and my perspective about shaping a future of well-being.

© Taryn Fisher 2013