Mountain Studies Institute and Air Quality

Mountain around Silverton, by Heather Ellis

Mountain around Silverton, by Heather Ellis

Devon Dey interviews Aaron Kimple, Project Manager of the Mountain Studies Institute, about air quality in the mountains. The Mountain Studies Institute (MSI) is an independent, non-advocacy, not-for-profit 501(c)3 center for research, education, and outreach. MSI operates its headquarters and a high-altitude field station in Silverton, CO. MSI also has an office on campus at Fort Lewis College in nearby Durango, CO. Their mission is to enhance understanding and sustainable use of the San Juan Mountains through research and education.

Why Bother with Economics?

Sustainable_Business_IconI told a friend of mine I was pursuing sustainable economics, to which she replied, “Oh, you mean spending money on green stuff.”

Her response left me with the sensation we’d just successfully lobotomized centuries of economic thought.  Money is to economics, as humanity is to the sheer weight of the universe, an interesting vantage point, but, ultimately irrelevant.  She did reveal, however, a peculiar vocabulary failure in modern economics, and one that has the potential to render international co-operation, and discourse, utterly mute if not accurately understood. What is sustainable economics, and does it amount to anything beyond trendy PR? 

For a crash course in the cryptic nature of grasping what sustainability is, look no further than how the Global Citizens Center, the international think tank behind the South Korean International Protocol on Climate Change, assessed the issue.

“Environmentally sustainable, based on that our biosphere is a closed system with finite resources and a limited capacity for self-renewal.  We depend on the Earth’s natural resources and therefore we must create an economic system that respects the integrity of ecosystems and ensures the resilience of life supporting systems.”

This is supposed to definitively lead the world to a more conscious and sound future.  Yet it nearly epitomizes design by committee and reads more like a checklist for mission statement buzzwords.  People are led to nod smugly rather than encourage nations to endeavor on a constructive sustainable path.  Economics deal with choice under uncertainty, so to dig down to what differentiates sustainable economics, start with the foundation, choice.

According to economists humanity exists in a limited, self interested, nature.  Directed by the “invisible hand,” humans act in coordination with their values.  Because we are not all knowing, we make decisions that satisfy our individual values often with obnoxious unintended consequences.  Over time, the choices we make and the interests we pursue begin to overlap and order evolves, which economist understand in terms of rules, incentives, actions, and outcomes.

Rules are the expectations, cultures, and traditions of people that bring about incentives.  Incentives are reactions, consequences, and coercion, which civilizations promote to inspire or discourage actions.  Actions are exactly that, the choices you make every minute of every day.  Outcomes are simply what’s we’re left to live with, and in turn they sculpt and adapt the very rules they’re derived from.  These are the functions of economics, far more fascinating than currency alone.  Economic policies tinker with the incentives that construct and constrain the choices people ultimately get to make. 

The outcomes sustainable economists seek are those that limit the uncertainty of the health and resilience of not only humans, but the human habitat, earth, as well.  Since no one can know the epic consequences of each decision they make, sustainable economics wants to build rules that demand greater accountability, transparency, and consciousness when making choices, economic, or otherwise.  The goal is a tipping point, a world-wide “dur” moment when sustainability becomes one of the rules of being human.

– Ryan Riebau

Ryan is a member of the Sustainable Business Team at the Fort Lewis College Environmental Center.  He is majoring in Business Economics at Fort Lewis College.

Obama, Jaguars and the EPA

Environmental Protection Agency Logo

Environmental Protection Agency Logo

It’s time for President Obama to step up and reverse the damage caused by the Bush Administration’s laissez faire approach to wildlife. According to the Los Angeles Times, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has announced their plans to designate habitat for endangered jaguars in the southwest. Habitat protection is the first step to species recovery; migratory and reintroduced jaguars stand a much better chance for survival if their land is protected. Although they were historically common in the southwest, jaguars have all but disappeared from the United States. Public interest in jaguars was sparked last March, when the first jaguar in decades was spotted in Arizona. Unfortunately, the jaguar died shortly after he was captured, presumably due to stress.

Despite this new development, the Obama administration isn’t doing a good job of protecting wildlife, according to the Center for Biological Diversity. With a 5% budget cut for the Environmental Protection Agency, even the best management plans won’t be enforced enough to offer effective protection. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar plans to cut funding to endangered species programs, including listing, recovery, conservation and law enforcement. So even if the jaguars get their habitat designation, no one is going to be there to make sure the habitats are protected. Great plan, guys.

Colorado may never have to worry about jaguars, but we have our own problems with endangered animals. Wildlife advocacy group WildEarth Guardians has given the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service a “D” for their decision not to protect prairie dogs from poisoning on private land. According to the Durango Herald, the Environmental Protection Agency received an “F” for approving extended use of poisons in 11 states last year. Ranchers claim the prairie dogs compete with cattle for food and damage the land with their burrows. However, the rodents are a key member of the ecosystem, acting as a food source for many predators as well as aerating and naturally fertilizing the soil.

Liz Grogan

All Drains Lead to the Ocean

Seagull by Liz Grogan

Seagull by Liz Grogan

“We get into the habit of thinking, this is the world, but that’s not true at all. The real world is a much darker and deeper place than this, and much of it is occupied by jellyfish and things.”

– Haruki Murakami

My goldfish, Kurt and Dave, have requested I write an appeal for the fishes. They may be happy and healthy fish living in a tank on my desk, but they also know there are plenty of other fish in the sea who are not as lucky as they are and need help. You may be asking: what does Colorado, a landlocked state, have to do with the sea?

As any person who’s watched Finding Nemo should know, all drains lead to the ocean. It is surprising what an effect we can have on even the darkest depths of the ocean. Every time we take our cars somewhere, the friction of the road rubs tiny bits of rubber off your tires. Water samples from the oceanic middle-of-nowhere show that rubber particles have made their way through the streams and rivers and into oceans, thousands of miles from the nearest car. Who would’ve thought driving your car could impact the environment thousands of feet below the sea? Heavy metals from abandoned mines, hormones, fertilizers, even oil and waste pollute Colorado’s own rivers every day due to carelessness. If these pollutants go untreated, they eventually show up in the oceans. Colorado River and its tributaries, for example, drain into the Gulf of California, home to a wide range of fascinating and endangered animals, such as whales, sea turtles, rays, and whale sharks. A recent study has determined that due to a number of preventable factors, only jellyfish will remain in the oceans in 40 years. A “jellyfish bloom,” and can result from any number of changes in the environment, including warming waters, cooling waters, overfishing, increased nutrients, and pollution. I think jellyfish are pretty neat, but not nearly fascinating enough to be the only animals left in the oceans. With all those venomous tentacles, I can’t imagine they’d taste very good either.

There are some simple ways to reduce the pollutants in water. The most important thing you can do is make sure you dispose chemicals properly. People carelessly dump all sorts of chemicals down their drains, not giving a second thought to where they will end up. Anything from prescription drugs to pet waste can have devastating effects on the water quality. Even if we do not directly dump chemicals into drains, they can get washed into storm drains the next time it rains. In order to combat heavy metals in the rivers, Senator Mark Udall’s Good Samaritan legislation will amend the Clean Water Act and allow groups to clean up the mines without being legally responsible for the pollutants. You can read more about the Good Samaritan amendment on Senator Udall’s website.

Of course, it isn’t just the oceans we endanger by acting irresponsibly. Colorado’s native species of fish are even more directly impacted by our water quality. Trout can’t reproduce if they are bombarded by hormones. They can’t grow big and strong if all they eat is junk food (overly fertilized algae, as opposed to their traditional diet of insects). They won’t grow at all if poisoned by heavy metals (so far, no studies on the effect of heavy metal bands like AC/DC and Spinal Tap). We (should) already know that we need to protect our own fish – why not go the extra mile (or thousand) and protect the oceans as well?

If you still don’t think there’s enough reason to protect the oceans, fine. You can wait a couple of years for the oceans to rise enough for Colorado to become a coastal state. As for me, I’m not about to face the wrath of my goldfish for being too lazy to protect the oceans.

 Liz Grogan

Crazy Environmentalists

Melinda Markin, 08-09 EC Intern, making cardboard angels.  EC file photo

Melinda Markin, 08-09 EC Intern, making cardboard angels. EC file photo

People are always trying to find ways around “primitive” environmentalism – primitive as in trying to reduce waste and emissions, planting some vegetables, stop killing everything and overall trying to make the world a better place. They’re the “futurists,” the “creative” ones who really think they have the answer. And they’ve come up with some pretty crazy solutions to global environmental issues. The earth is getting too hot? Hmm, I know, let’s pump sulfur clouds into the sky to reflect the sun’s rays out of the atmosphere! Too much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere? Rather than reduce emissions, we can just bury it, or dump iron into the oceans to promote the growth of phytoplankton!

I have a very serious problem with these so called “alternative answers” to environmentalism. Sure, it’ll work in theory, but all we’re doing is fighting fire with fire. Sulfur clouds can reflect the sun’s rays and reduce the greenhouse effect, but have you considered what the large scale effect might be on any organism that uses the atmosphere (such as for breathing)? Or the fact that sulfur is the main component of sulfuric acid, and sulfur clouds might possibly lead to acid rain which damages not only the natural environment but urban areas as well? Maybe it’s not such a good idea to combat problems caused by pollution with more pollution. Burying carbon could have a devastating long term effect on bacteria that live deep under the ground or water and rely on extreme conditions. Many species of bacteria are vital for nutrient recycling – even those that live far away from what most people consider “life.” Underground pockets of carbon could even cause tectonic disturbances, i.e. earthquakes. A boom in phytoplankton growth will throw off the entire oceanic food chain, and extra iron in the water can poison fish and mammals. These quick fixes and short term solutions will only cause more damage in the future.

The solution to global environmental problems doesn’t require sulfur clouds or giant storage facilities underground. We can’t hide from our destruction. We can’t change the world to suit our needs. We need to change ourselves. We need to become less selfish, reduce our carbon emissions, reduce our waste, and give something back to the earth for a change.

Liz Grogan

Water, Water Everywhere, but Not a Drop to Drink

water_drop1Water pollution is a big concern, and has been for a long time.  As the problem of population continues to grow, Americans are being exposed to more unhealthy water every year.  This is a problem that needs to be taken care of, and fast.  There have been many articles written on this topic recently, here are a few that I’ve found showing some of the problems we are having with our water around the southwest.

The Salt Lake Tribune reports that, “Utah is one of 49 states that warn anglers about dangerously contaminated fish in their lakes and streams.”  This is from Robert F. Kennedy, the founder and chairman of a worldwide environmental group network named Waterkeeper Alliance.   It is not only the streams and rivers in Utah that have been affected; it is also the Great Salt Lake.  Utah is the only state in the union that advises people not to eat certain waterfowl due to high levels of mercury in the lake.  Utah is currently looking for a replacement Great Salt Lakekeeper because the last one was let go for not following the groups guide lines for clean water. 

Another article in The Salt Lake Tribune highlights the small community Yerington, NV, located about 75 miles southeast of Reno next to a long abandoned copper mine.  The ground water near this small farming community has concentrations of uranium well over the EPA standards for safe drinking water.  The oil company BP, who now owns the abandoned mine site, claims that the mine has nothing to do with the unsafe levels of uranium and arsenic.  The small population of the town is forming a group to investigate the situation and hopefully get some backing from the government to get the contamination cleaned up.

On a more positive note, the Vail Daily is reporting on a community initiative to keep prescription drugs for entering local streams and reservoirs.  Rather than flushing these unused drugs down the toilet, City Market will be accepting these to be properly disposed.  Different kinds of prescription drugs cannot be taken out of the water through regular water treatment processes, causing many problems for fish populations in the area.  Creating collection sites and a simple marketing strategy is an easy and productive way to take care of this problem. 

Many policies are in place to keep our rivers and lakes clean, we just need to obey them.  There are several companies and individuals that dispose of toxins in a way that is not friendly to the environment.  If these people and companies would look at what they are doing to the environment and stop focusing on their bottom line things would be much better and safer for all of us.  Although there are laws in place, they could be much stricter so we can force these polluters to see the light.  Then we’ll all be able to enjoy our waterways for generations to come.

Royce Johnson

Energy in the Future

windturbineMost people have realized that the future of transportation relies heavily on alternative fuel sources.  The majority of experts agree that at some point we will run out of fossil fuel and will be forced to adopt new technologies in order to continue our ability to travel large distances in a short amount of time.  But where we will go from here?

According to the Durango Herald Colorado State University is experimenting with longer lasting batteries that may allow electric cars to be more efficient and cheaper to drive.  Colorado State University’s batteries are cheaper to make, last longer, and are more powerful than the lithium ion batteries that we use today.  This new battery could allow electric vehicles to travel hundreds of miles on a single charge.  Currently the lithium ion rechargeable batteries used in electric cars cost around $15,000 and can only power a car between 40 miles, for the new Chevy Volt, to 244 for the Tesla Roadster, which costs $45,000.  With this new technology we may see more affordable electric cars that can be driven as far as our modern gas powered ones.

Another method of fueling vehicles is by using Biodiesel.  According to NewWest.net there are many ways to create biodiesel, including using many of the same processes as making paper.  In Missoula, Montana, a paper mill has closed putting workers out of business and has led politicians and business owners to search for a new way to employ workers.  One idea is to convert the paper plant to produce biodiesel.  Whether or not this is a good idea is hard to say but if this does pass it would mean more jobs for people in Missoula as well as a new source for biodiesel in the area.

To prevent our world from falling apart lets continue to look for new ways to power our vehicles and, hopefully, we will be able to break our dependence on fossil fuels.

Ben Rogers