Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Reach for the STARS

As I recorded earlier, SUNY Oswego sponsored its first Citizens Academy for the greater Oswego community this past fall. Starting this January 6th the second Citizens Academy will begin, and it’s very exciting to host a next installment of this important community based sustainability program.

In an earlier blog about the Citizens Academy, I wrote, slightly derisively, about technology, and our consumerist tendencies. In that post, I deliberated on the potential for a “sustainability app” and although no deus-ex-machina solution has appeared to be downloaded yet, another tool has emerged in the context of college sustainability solutions that I’d like to share with you.

This solution, or tool, takes the form of the STARS (Sustainability Tracking, Assessment and Rating System) 1.0 that is advanced by AASHE or the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education. It is a voluntary, self-reporting framework for gauging sustainability progress by colleges.

STARS is the gold standard for tracking sustainability in higher education, and AASHE is the national body assessing sustainability initiatives across campuses. For those of you familiar with LEED certification, STARS is a comparable tool used to objectively assess a college’s commitment to sustainability. (More information on AASHE and STARS is available here: and here:

SUNY Oswego has had a strong and ongoing commitment to sustainability. President Stanley is a signatory of the Presidents Climate Commitment; we have a Sustainability Strategic Plan and a Climate Action Plan; our campus has a variety of initiatives that address sustainability on an ongoing basis.

However, the beauty of STARS for an institution like Oswego, that is working to establish priorities and reporting structures, is that it takes the guesswork out of things. The tool provides a framework to gauge both how an individual institution is doing toward completion of objective sustainability criteria, and how an institution compares on a ratings basis to other institutions who are attempting to make their campuses and cultures more sustainable.

It’s like a Zagat guide for sustainability efforts! Brilliant!

SUNY Oswego had previously used the nascent STARS 0.5 version, and conducted in the summer of 2008 an informal, introductory assessment of how Oswego would fare on the STARS. I’m hoping to post that report soon on the college’s sustainability page here:

Oswego has just signed on to participate in STARS 1.0, and this process requires the college to complete this more formal, yet still voluntary self-report by January 2011. Continue to look for postings on the college’s progress related to its participation in STARS here in the upcoming months.

-Thad Mantaro, SUNY Oswego

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Little Boxes on the Hillside

My commute to and from Baldwinsville takes me past one of the most egregious sub-divisions I have ever seen, remarkable for the bland uniformity of its housing, the ugliness of its setting, and, as always with these "communities," its stark lack of trees. Malvina Reynolds wrote "Little Boxes on the Hillside" in 1962—her black pastoral on the subject of suburban sprawl—yet I guarantee the sub-division she describes looked more appealing than the one I drive past.

In fact, so do some British "council housing estates"—a form of "projects" found in most towns in the country of my birth. A good friend of mine lived for a couple of years in a council estate outside of Brighton, England, when he and his family were starting out. These hurriedly, sometimes shoddily, built communities have bad reputations—the houses are never well-built, cars are stolen—yet even they are platted with small parks, schools, and little shops all within walking distance. Sidewalks are a given and trees are planted. Some estates even have easy access to "allotments" (community gardens).

American-style sub-divisions (I say American-style because this un-walkable, non-communal sub-division model is found in England now) weren't always as poorly planned as they are now. In fact, I live in a sub-division: Indian Springs, just outside the village of Baldwinsville. Built in the 1970s, there are three or four distinct models of houses in Indian Spring, as well as backyards are full of old trees and interconnected streets—no cul-de-sacs here. But some bad development habits had begun to creep in by the time Indian Springs was platted: there are no sidewalks, no parks, no shops. Thankfully, the streets are wide enough for joggers and dog-walkers, but to access a park or shops, you need a car.

The US Green Building Council wants to halt the deterioration of neighborhood planning with its LEED-Neighborhood Development designation, recently awarded to Syracuse's Near Westside Initiative. It's an excellent achievement for the NWSI, putting it well on its way to becoming a shining example of sustainable urban re-development. But at the same time, the criteria for LEED-ND in the general category of "Neighborhood Pattern and Design" show just how far from sensible neighborhood development we've come.

Honestly, some of these criteria really should be in the "duh" category for a neighborhood: walkable streets, street networks, tree-lined streets, access to recreation, local food production, neighborhood schools ...

An old-fashioned (i.e. 19th century) village-within-a-city, the Near Westside has all of the above, and more (mixed-use buildings, access to civic centers). My neighborhood—Indian Springs—has some, but not many. The nameless subdivision I commute past, none whatsoever. Nineteenth century planning, mid-20th century, 21st century ... it's a slippery slope. What will it take for the green movement to convince mayors, trustees, developers, builders, and house-buyers to return to values of community and self-reliance and make our communities "liveable" once more?

—Martin Walls, Syracuse Center of Excellence

Friday, December 18, 2009

Energizing Education

Sustainability requires solutions. Let me tell you about one of SUNY Oswego's signature programs: the Summer Energy Institute.

This program, “Energizing Education for a Better Future,” is designed for Secondary Teachers of Math, Science, and Technology.

Teachers who participate will develop new curricular units on energy and sustainability. Among the topics covered in the institute will be the nature of energy, energy conservation, alternative energy sources such as the sun and wind, nuclear and radiation safety, future energy resources and energy’s connection to politics and social cultures.

Participants will visit a variety of energy facilities in the area. Each participant will build an energy curriculum portfolio that includes handouts, lesson plans and learning activities that can be used in the classroom. The curriculum delivered in this institute was designed using the principles the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) Reform Movement that is being promoted by Congress, NSF (National Science Foundation) and NASA.

The current institute is co-directed by Dr. Alok Kumar, chair of the physics department and Thomas Kubicki of the technology department.

“Because the baby boomers are retiring, there is a shortage of workers for the energy industry,” said Kumar. Bureau of Labor Statistics data indicate that by 2012 there will be nearly 10,000 more energy industry jobs than workers available to fill them.

“We are going to train teachers to teach about energy issues effectively,” Kumar reports. Not only will the institute help to infuse the workforce with new talent, but it will also help the teachers and everyone they teach to become better consumers and citizens in a global economy driven by energy.

“The United States has 5 percent of the world’s population but accounts for 25 percent of the world’s energy consumption,” according to Kumar. “This imbalance forces us to be dependent on other nations, creates a scarcity for energy resources in the global market and weakens the ecosystem.”

Some of the adverse impacts are easily avoidable, he said, through energy conservation, new energy resources and smart energy practices. “This is a global issue that requires local action,” he said.

For more information, visit the Energy Institute’s Web site at: or call the Office of Business and Community Relations at 315.312.3492.

-Thad Mantaro
SUNY Oswego

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Syracuse named "Emerald City"

A Building Boon
by Ilona Kauremszky

GREEN IS THE NEW BLACK, Al Gore tells us. Sheryl Crow supports environmental causes, and hundreds of other celebrities are leaving their green thumbprint on the growing eco trend.

So what does a former industrial town in upstate New York do? Syracuse, quickly earning the accolade as “Emerald City” for environmental breakthroughs, staged a Healthy Buildings Conference for academic researchers and other professionals from architecture, building products and services, engineering, indoor environmental quality, public health, urban planning and environmentalist types.

And the timing couldn’t be better, report city insiders. Like so many manufacturing towns in turbulent times, old businesses have dried up—but Syracuse is using this reality to help bolster a new economy, one of sustainable development. Currently a building boom is under way in and around central New York State, where Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) is big in housing and business developments.

It’s all about the new economy, says David Holder, president of the Syracuse CVB, describing breakthroughs that include a medical biotech research center and the headquarters of the Syracuse Center of Excellence in Environmental and Energy Systems.

“There are all kinds of incredible partnerships blossoming,” he said. “So much of what we have with the Syracuse Center of Excellence and so much of the development of the area is building on that sustainability base, employing different industries that are all about the generation of natural energy and the generation of building developments that can be used elsewhere in building these types of buildings.”

The center will showcase the city’s eco-advances and provide a blueprint for cities across the globe. The site is on reclaimed industrial brownfields, a type of real property, the expansion, redevelopment or reuse of which may be complicated by the presence of hazardous substances, pollutants or contaminants. According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, cleaning up, reinvesting in and redeveloping these properties shift development pressures away from undeveloped land, improving and protecting the environment. Federal officials say “brownfields redevelopment returns non-productive real estate assets to productive use, promoting the economic development of many of the nation’s most economically distressed areas and regions.”

The Syracuse Center of Excellence certainly intrigued Healthy Buildings. HB2009—own by the International Society of Indoor Air Quality and Climate (ISIAQ)—is considered to be the “Olympics for indoor air quality” and is held every three years worldwide. The theme was quite simply that: healthy buildings. Approximately 800 delegates from nearly 40 countries attended HB2009 Sept. 13-17 in Syracuse, N.Y. The five-day conference was held at the city’s acclaimed Oncenter Complex and had six-to-eight daily track sessions in addition to an expo, a conference first.

“We wanted to engage the business community to look at the green technologies that are on the market and to showcase with about 100 exhibitors and also through a series of programs that included keynote speakers, workshops, product and service demonstrations and opportunities for individuals from academia and business to work with the U.S. Department of Commerce and representatives from the Empire State Development Corp. to see what opportunities and resources are there to help build new partnerships with business-to-business and with the academic resources in this country,” said Tammy Rosanio, project manager and assistant to the executive director for the Syracuse Center of Excellence, describing the convention’s three-day Oppex forum where delegates learned about leading research and technology developments and networked with national and global leaders in the fields of indoor air quality and healthy built environments.

About a year leading up to the last Healthy Buildings Conference in Lisbon, the movers and shakers of the Syracuse Center of Excellence researched their case then took the RFP to the ISIAQ and made formal presentations outlining the reasons why Syracuse should be chosen over other undisclosed cities.

“The expectations were high. We didn’t walk in blind. We had actually contacted various members to see what was involved, what was the level of commitment, so that we were both benefitting our members,” said Dr. Suresh Santanam, a member of ISIAQ and deputy executive director of Syracuse Center of Excellence, who took the lead role in securing the bid. “I first presented to the board, then presented it to the general membership and during the process explained how Syracuse was an hour away from major hubs, how this conference could bring a diverse cross section of individuals from the indoor air quality field and how Syracuse and Central New York were experiencing a transformation in healthy buildings.”

Since the start of the Healthy Buildings Conference in 1988 in Stockholm, the U.S. has played host to the conference only twice.

Rosanio knew they had challenges.

“So we ensured appropriate levels of services were available in a mid-sized city for a conference of this size,” she said. “Our community really supported this conference. We even had retired workers from places such as Carrier who wished to volunteer.”

Santanam says that Syracuse’s location in Central New York was another great asset because conference delegates and their spouses were in close proximity to a variety of incentive travel options from wine tours around the Finger Lakes to a visit to Niagara Falls.

According to Rachel Alcaro, CMP, convention sales manager for the Syracuse CVB, the city hadn’t witnessed a conference on such an international scale before.

“One of the challenges is language,” she said. “We had 40 countries participate. To offset the language barrier, volunteer interpreters—mostly students from Syracuse University—were on hand to provide translation services. Along with language barriers, these people are coming from faraway countries, and quite frankly, our local banks are not equipped to handle money exchange to this degree with this variety. We informed the foreign participants prior to their arrival that they should exchange their money to U.S. currency while at home.”

Another challenge for the academic-heavy conference was how to get 800 delegates into a concentrated area.

“Our exhibitors at the Oppex were there mostly to discuss their products and developments, limiting the size of their displays,” said Shandrist Hillsman, HB2009’s meeting planner and president of Ascension Event Management. “The conference scheduling—with its multiple tracks and expo addition—was designed to help alleviate potential bottlenecks around heavily trafficked areas. We had so much going on that people were spread out throughout the conference.”

Still with the tracks comprised of plenary, technical and social programs that each had additional forums and sessions, space was a challenge.

“With the exception of the War Memorial, we used all the space at the Oncenter Complex, which included the Convention Center and the Civic Center Theaters,” Rosanio said.

Another curveball focused on the Syracuse Center of Excellence headquarters, a venue that was still under construction at the time of the conference. For Dr. Santanam, this building was a dream come true and was one of the selling points to secure the conference.

“We talked about having a new headquarters and said this would be available for the attendees to see what we can offer,” he said.

But construction took longer than anticipated, and organizers were not prepared to change their course. Donning hard hats and using safety precautions, tours were scheduled during the conference and open to limited group size.

“About 25 people went with a tour coordinator and tour manager,” Rosanio said. “We also had representatives on site from the various companies involved in the design and construction of the building showcasing their products and ready to respond to inquiries directly on the floor.”

While principally geared to the academic world, HB2009 was not ready to dismiss the corporate significance.

“We looked at companies that we already had an existing relationship, some big some small, a nice representation of companies that are known locally and internationally,” Rosanio said. “These companies [sponsors] are specialists in their field and have an interest in this.”

Local sponsors such as Carrier, IBM and Siemens jumped on the chance to contribute to the conference despite the economic downturn.

“We hadn’t really noticed the economy affecting our sponsors, and in fact, our participant registrations were close to what we had projected initially when we started this project,” Rosanio said.

While the bones of a factory town are apparent, the transitioning “green” city still has hurdles to overcome when alternative transportation is considered, such as delegate transfers. Initially, the idea was to allow attendees the option to walk or bike to the conference.

“We quickly scrapped that, because in Syracuse we were afraid drivers wouldn’t see them,” Shandrist said.
In an attempt to reduce the carbon footprint, scheduled timed transfers to and from the convention center were made.

“We wanted to be as sustainable as possible,” she said, adding that USB flash drives with complete conference documents were distributed as well as using green practices for other conference materials: T-shirts from organic cotton, custom-made neck wallets from 100 percent recycled materials and pre-owned or GREENGUARD certified furniture pieces.

Sandra Baker, vice president of sales and marketing for the Oncenter Complex, added that water was provided upon request for the closing dinner, and no water bottles were available at the conference.

A leader in implementing green practices in the meeting and event industry, the three-venue complex has also introduced a revolutionary form of composting using local upstate worm farms.

“We get these great big bins, and all the scraps from this conference were thrown into these worm bins, taken to the farm and when these scraps biodegrade, the compost returns to us and is actually used in our gardens,” Baker said.

Now that’s a healthy building. One+

ILONA KAUREMSZKY is a weekly travel columnist and the former editor of Corporate Meetings & Events.

What’s New in Syracuse
• When completed in 2010, the 60-room Hotel Skyler will be the first LEED-certified hotel in Central New York and will offer preferred parking for partial zero emission cars along with room-key controlled lighting and thermal comfort among other energy efficiencies.
• Syracuse has several revitalization projects under way which include a US$2.4 million renovation project on the 100 block of West Fayette Street and the multiuse, residential, LEED-certified Jefferson Clinton Commons building in Armory Square.
• Holiday Inn Syracuse/Liverpool, in the town of Salina, underwent a few nips and tucks with the recent completion of a $20 million expansion project that includes an extra 10,000 square feet of meeting space, along with the erection of a 123-unit Staybridge Suites Hotel.

Transportation Tips
• Located north of the city, Syracuse Hancock International Airport is approximately 15 minutes by car from downtown and serves upstate New York with seven major airlines offering approximately 250 daily arrivals and departures.
• Forget about making early morning drives to Rochester or New York City for flights. The City of Syracuse and the Metropolitan Development Association—with help from central New York companies and a U.S. Department of Transportation grant—have created, a new fly program to promote lower airfares departing from Syracuse’s local airport.

Fun Facts
• In 2007, the Go Green Earth Summit named Syracuse the Go Green Large City of the Year.
• Before Dinosaur BBQ sauce, Syracuse’s big claim to fame was salt, and “the city that salt built” was considered one of the biggest salt suppliers in the U.S.
• Don’t be surprised if you walk down a yellow brick road in Chittenango, 13 miles east of the Syracuse airport. Wizard of Oz author L. Frank Baum was born here.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Back to the Future

Sometimes solutions to engineering problems that have been consigned to history make a comeback ...

Last week, Syracuse University, IBM, and NYSERDA opened the Green Data Center on Syracuse University's campus. Thanks to remarkable power generation and HVAC innovations, it will be one of the greenest—possible THE greenest—data center in the world, using 50% of the energy of current data centers.

Considering how persnickety data centers are about heat, cold, and power (they're vast digital orchids, if you will) that's a significant accomplishment. To use another biological metaphor, data centers are cropping up like mushrooms throughout the world—if we don't get a handle on their energy requirements, all the LEED office buildings in the world won't make up for the fact that computers within them must turn to gas-guzzlers to store and retrieve information.

The solution to the GDC's power and HVAC needs was to create DC power on site using natural gas and then to use the excess heat from the DC micro-turbines to run heaters and chillers (also utilizing water-cooling for the servers because that is so much more efficient than cooling with air).

That's a back-to-the-future solution. The SyracuseCoE HQ building is on the site of the old LC Smith typewriter factory in Syracuse, NY. Once upon a time the solution to power needs for that factory was a Corliss stationary steam engine (now housed at a museum in Camillus, NY) that produced DC power. No doubt the steam engine's heat helped out in winter, too!

Many of my blogs so far have been about sustainability solutions that are or should be returning to old values or methods we thought ourselves too modern to continue. I suppose that makes me a bit of a curmudgeon, possibly even a Luddite.

However, innovators should always consider kits of parts that have been discarded. After all, nature does when looking for innovations—I'm thinking of the evolutionary science idea that juvenile traits in some animals are not discarded but retained into adulthood—that is, if they prove a good fit for the environment (what scientists call "neoteny").

So, to complete my biological metaphors for the day, the GDC's leading-edge power/HVAC solution is a kind of engineering neoteny: the GDC engineers (helped by SyracuseCoE-affiliated Prof. Ez Khalifa of SU) went back to the beginnings of heat/power solutions (steam engines, direct current, power-as-heat-source) to find their green solution.

—Martin Walls, Syracuse Center of Excellence

Thursday, December 3, 2009

A “home” by any other name…

In Shishmaref, Alaska, they have a tradition where perhaps several newborn children will be named for someone who has recently died; each child then assumes some of the characteristics of the person who died. If the deceased was a good hunter, then the child will be raised to embrace this legacy. This cultural tradition imparts a sense of connection to the past, and continuity to the future.

I came across this cultural meme, illustrative of the lives of the Eskimo people who live in this part of Alaska where they cling to a meager subsistence along the Bering Land Bridge National Preserve, in an article on CNN online.

The article ( is notable for several reasons: first it attempts to recount these cultural traditions and conditions that threaten a small community of 600 people; and second, for the tenor and character of the online response the article generated. The latter surprised me in its callousness to our shared condition, regardless of one’s belief of the etiology of global warming.

A brief synopsis: the article provides a compelling account of the impact climate change is having upon an older adult couple in this Inupiat Eskimo village: the changes in their lives and community, the death of their youngest son as the result of an accident attributed to changes in environmental conditions, and a remarkable depiction of the cultural destruction that parallels the environmental change.

Houses in this village exist on the thinnest of rocky crusts, on a shore that is separated from the mainland by a mostly frozen inlet. Warming trends have resulted in the erosion of the permafrost causing houses to fall into the sea, and many villagers to relocate to the opposite side of this island. The community is considering uprooting the village to an entirely new site, currently undetermined.

The article explores the difficulties this poses for these villagers and the incipient cultural loss (they have their own traditions, rituals, dances, dialect), and connects it to a larger, phenomenon—a wave of global climate refugees. From the article… “A 2009 Government Accountability Office report found that 31 Alaskan villages face ‘imminent threats’ because of coastal erosion, flooding and climate change. At least 12 are at some stage in the relocation process.” How much of this is directly attributable to human caused climate change and global warming is unclear…and to many of the article’s respondents, unimportant.

Surprisingly, response after response online eschewed human causality or even the possibility of it, instead focusing on the recent controversy: Climate-gate. Apparently, a few scientists have been reported as colluding to prevent the sharing of some information that might contradict evidence for global warming (unfortunate). Critics have cited this as evidence not only of the refutability of climate change data, but also as further evidence of global climate change as a conspiracy to promote global governance, and threaten national sovereignty (huh?).

It’s striking that many people seem ready to believe in some pan-global collusion more readily than to consider that environmental change may be occurring, and to support the need for sustained, dispassionate and non-partisan debate on the causes and implications. This imperative seemed lost on the article’s respondents.

And the Inupiat lesson on cultural continuity in the first paragraph seems lost on these as well, as was the human condition that binds us all, whether we call Shishmaref, Alaska, or Syracuse, NY…home.
-Thad Mantaro, SUNY Oswego

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Nice One, Darwin

I think I have this right ... in scientific parlance, most "theories" are really hypotheses awaiting thorough testing and re-testing, tweaking and revision, until enough verifiable and repeatable experiments have been performed that everyone is damn certain the hypothesis describes an actual fact.

In that case, the hypothesis can truly be called a "theory." And if that's the case, then Darwin's Theory of Evolution is no longer a hypothesis--from the macroscopic level (the fossil record of large animals) to microscopic (the near-real-time evolution of bacteria) to computational models (of human DNA, for instance) to the breeding of domestic dogs, there's enough proof to keep both scientists and lay-people happy. Move on.

That's not true though, is it. Such is the miseducation and politically inspired distortions surrounding "Darwinism" that it's perfectly reasonable for a President who openly questioned the theory to be voted into office twice and for a state school board to allow schoolchildren exposure to quasi-religious challenges to a theory that is as solidly built as the Theory of Gravity or the Theory of Electromagnetism.

Oh, and not forgetting that a former Vice Presidential candidate has gone so far as to confess her sincere belief that the Earth is as old as the Bible says it is (recall that advances in geology were crucial in order for Darwin to develop his hypothesis). "What will happen to the US Geological Survey if Palin wins?" my brother asked me, watching polls of last year's election from his home in London.

So what hope does the hypothesis that "increased human industrial activity will have a deleterious effect on the Earth's climate" have. Today the Associated Press reports that carbon dioxide levels are at 385 parts per million, nearly at a "worst case scenario" of 390 ppm. Scientists have never found evidence of that much CO2 in the atmosphere in one million years. They are not quite sure what's going to happen next, but the majority don't think it's going to be all that.

Scientific illiteracy has grown like a cancer around the Theory of Evolution. It allows and encourages the questioning of pretty incontrovertible scientific data, of the sober and careful assessments of that data by legions of trained scientists, and ultimately of the scientific process itself (although the scientific process/data collection/peer-reviewed assessment apparently is fine when its comes to fighting real cancer).

I fear that scientists such as John Barnes and Stephen Schneider--quoted in the AP story and quite willing to speak openly about "coin-flip odds for serious outcomes for our planet"--will end up being like Max Mayfield and the other meteorologists who correctly predicted Hurricane Katrina's devastation—I'm sure "I told you so" only goes so far with that lot.

--Martin Walls, Syracuse Center of Excellence

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Yeah, they’ve got an app for that…

Well, the first SUNY Oswego Citizens Academy ended on October 24th. Long story short, the program has expanded into the community and there are plans for a Winter/Spring Citizens Academy in partnership with a local non-profit. Also, a student group on campus is planned as well. Generally, I would say it was a success. What follows isn’t really CliffsNotes version of the program, but rather an exegesis of sorts.

In the opening chapter of the Choices for Sustainable Living workbook, used by the SUNY Oswego Citizens Academy group, the question was posed: “If you think of the possibility of a sustainable future, are you generally optimistic or pessimistic?” As the group members described their thoughts on this issue there was, of course, a mix of both positive and negative emotions. Privately I mused…”that’s one of those questions that perhaps there’s no right answer to: you’re optimistic—and risk appearing naïve—or pessimistic, and an Eeyore.”

Further, it occurred to me, considering the arc of the program, and given the constituent elements included—discussions of sustainability, ecological choices, buying (Stuff), food, transportation, community, business and the economy—that it doesn’t really matter what we think or feel about the possibility of a sustainable future. The question, while well intentioned, and probably helpful to initiate discussion—is moot. Change is inevitable, or “resistance is futile” to quote the Borg.

We will all incrementally, be subject to decreases in non-renewable energy resources, and resultant (at first-lifestyle) changes in the way we live. Point. Fact. Given.

So how then to live…

In the final session, group members tackled this, and shared some of the personal changes made as a result of participating in the group. As said before, some folks had embraced the local—buying organic from a CSA. Others made changes in their transportation habits. Others still, are recycling more. My wife and I count ourselves among this latter contingent, making sweeping changes in reducing our contributions to the landfill, now barely one weekly garbage can of refuse (including mostly it seems those disposable diapers, oh well), and everything else recycled in two great blue bins—cardboard and paper products to bin right, and plastics and other recyclables to bin left, just because that’s the way we roll.

But I’m still not satisfied because although these changes are a start, I’m still not sure what’s most critical to do…

There is the proverbial commentary on the difference between the map and the terrain; in this case, we can’t even be sure about the terrain. How much individual and communal and global modifications will be enough, soon enough?

Wouldn’t it be easy if there was just a Sustainability TomTom? “Turn right to reduce your carbon footprint. “ Etc.

No, really, it’s true--apparently, it’s possible now to download a TomTom app to your iPhone, and motor to your destination accompanied by the berating of Mr. T: “No fool, I said turn left!”, or the less directive, but equally menacing/moronic -- Dennis Hopper, Gary Busey, or even Homer Simpson. You didn’t realize your life was missing this essential, post-modern accoutrement, did you?

(Let me pause to ask: how did we ever find our way out of Africa, and across the Bering Land Bridge?) Fatherhood has compelled me into cell phone ownership, but I refuse to acquire a GPS system, no matter how putatively convenient. It’s a slippery slope, buy a GPS and before you know it, you’ll be buying a Kindle!

Until, TomTom, or iPhone, or some other entrepreneur comes up with the Sustainability app, we must proceed on our own. No metaphorical lighthouse, no Lonely Planet, no Zagat Guide. We are charged to figure it out as we go. Thankfully, lots of really smart people are on it.

In closing, consider the following feedback from an anonymous exit survey of the Citizens Academy program. Here’s what our grassroots group had to say:

“I liked meeting like-minded people from the community who I would not have known about otherwise. I enjoyed getting practical suggestions from seeing what others are doing.”
“I didn't know many people who were concerned about our country’s overuse of everything.”
“I liked learning that a lot of things I am already doing are positive and helpful to the problem. I hope to do more.”
“Not just the knowledge from the book, but the sharing of ideas from others and the challenge it brought for me as an individual to change things. I feel like I can do something, not just read about it.”
“The Easter Island reading was so provocative-And I became very fond of all my fellow class members. It was encouraging to see the growing commitment and sense of hope that people revealed as the class progressed.”

-Thad Mantaro, SUNY Oswego

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Al Gore Can Never Win

Which is not to say Al Gore isn't right on issues relating to climate change and sustainability. I mean that he'll never win the trust or respect of the media—and society—enough to be the "game changer" he is sometimes portrayed as, at least by his few friends in the fourth estate.

Gore can write books and give lectures on climate change till he's blue in the face, but look at what happened when it was "discovered" that Gore is investing in and making money from green and clean tech firms he's familiar with. Shock, horror! It's an absurd criticism. Warren Buffet writes books and gives advice about investing, and invests in those very firms he's writing about. Of course he does. Telling the hoi-polloi to invest in firms that you wouldn't touch with a barge pole is tantamount to a crime for a professional investment advisor.

The problem here lies not just in the "meme" (the cultural icon) that Al Gore has become, with all its attending baggage—the notion that he's a congenital liar, a blowhard, a Cassandra, self-aggrandizing: labels used against him in a nasty political campaign he's unable to escape—the problem is in the very idea that every battle needs a "game changer."

This phrase has been cropping up in newspapers and blogs a lot lately, particularly in respect to sustainability and environmentalism. While societal movements need "leaders," a "game changer" is more like a celebrity or spokesperson--less Martin Luther King and more Charlton Heston. A leader like King obviously drew media attention and scrutiny, but he was not a figurehead: he organized and marched and administered, and he collaborated with myriad other groups and individuals. Heston was mostly a publicity stunt for the NRA—albeit very good one.

The trouble with Al Gore being the unofficial leader of the sustainability movement is that he's treated as a celebrity and has become caricatured out of proportion. As good as he is at persuasion, he'll never, ever unite the nation toward sustainable goals the way it must be. So when Gore is found to be investing in green and clean tech, the media snarks—and cannot seem to make the story "Who are these green tech firms and how can you get in on the ground floor by investing in them?" even though the capitalist solution to the climate change crisis is exactly the sort of rallying point the country needs.

—Martin Walls, Syracuse Center of Excellence

Friday, November 6, 2009


George Carlin did this classic shtick about stuff:

“…that’s the whole meaning for life, trying to find a place for your stuff. That’s all your house is…your house is just a place for your stuff. If you didn’t have so much goddam stuff you wouldn’t need a house…

That’s all your house is… it’s a pile of stuff with a cover on it….that’s all your house is, is a place to keep your stuff while you go out and get more stuff.

Now sometimes you gotta move, get a bigger place…why?... too much stuff!

You gotta move all your stuff….and maybe…put some of your stuff in storage. Imagine that, there’s a whole industry based on keepin’ an eye on your stuff.”

This bit used to have me in stitches.

Now that I’m a homeowner, husband and father, I’m convinced Stuff conspires to overthrow the benevolent regime my wife and I have attempted to create in our little slice of paradise. Stuff reproduces on its own in the dark recesses of our basement. Gadgets I can’t remember what the heck they do appear and muster in the night. Family dog-related flotsam and jetsam litter the cubbies and forgotten nooks; books gather mournfully in straining shelves; paper accumulates like Kudzu in file cabinets spilling forth like a Stephen King horror fest.

A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse.

Would that there was a zebra mussel, a Golem to vanquish the Stuff.

And this, despite the fact that my wife and I are rabid, insufferable, militant, anti-Stuff-ites. Honestly. We take this anti-Stuff obsession to a new level, at least on the “getting rid of Stuff side of the supply-demand-cleanse equation.” If there was a bulimia for Stuff, we’d have it. We purge on a quarterly basis, but still have too much Stuff. When people come over, they say…”Wow (tension in their voices) your place is nice, minimalist, but nice.”

And yet, Stuff still plots the revolution.

Maybe it’s because we have an infant. I never knew my life was lacking before we had the “Diaper Genie.” Bibs in all colors of the rainbow (“Daddy loves me” “Mommy’s angel” ) manifest pride, succumb universally to toxic spit-up, retire to the basement, and decamp in stages before shipping out on the down-low to the Salvation Army.

Much of this Stuff we didn’t buy—gifts from generous relatives and friends, to whom we generally bear a great and genuine debt. Maybe it’s being a new parent, but I’m amazed that even at four months, our daughter has outgrown so much of what we were given, so quickly. Looking at next year’s tax return documentation, I’m astonished to see we’ve made donations of probably 250+ items already, of all this Stuff…baby Stuff, the year’s accumulated ephemera, Stuff we thought we’d need to live. STUFF.

Carlin’s wisecracking resonates because it reflects in part our collective, cultural obsessive-compulsivity and hoarding; also, in part--recognition of our own consumerist inertia. Carlin implies we buy the house to put our Stuff in. I think that’s putting the cart before the horse; home ownership seems to condemn us to a life consumed by Stuff because we buy in to the conspiracy of consumption.

Stuff to decorate, Stuff to demarcate (our social standing--leather couches required, never mind they’re cold as ice), Stuff to make our lives simpler and more “efficient” (we need those three TVs, gotta have a TV in the kitchen too!...otherwise we’d strain our neck stretching to watch Giada prattling on in the living room while we’re working on dinner in the kitchen).

But we never think about the Stuff. Where it comes from, what the cost is, how much Stuff we really need. In the culminating session of the Citizens Academy, one group member suggested we end by watching a devastating video called “The Story of Stuff.” You can find the video free for download here:

In this video, the lifecycle of stuff--from third world destruction and toxic nightmare, to hidden costs, to packaging excesses, to landfill folly—is charted…pulling no punches. It’s good, really good, and you’ll find it hard to buy another juice box. Unfortunately, it limits much of the power of its suggestions to a near-footnote at the end. But it’s a critical condemnation, not just of stuff, but of our entire way of life.

It is the counter-revolution.

Ironically, soon after I posted an endorsement on Facebook, applauding the video, a friend emailed me to note that even they have a link on their website where you can purchase “The Story of Stuff,” Stuff.

In this round, I concede, it appears Stuff abides.

-Thad Mantaro, SUNY Oswego

Friday, October 30, 2009

Wrap This Blog!

As I write this--my subject was always going to be packaging, honest--a very large plastic bag is floating around in the wind outside my window on Syracuse University's South Campus. It looks like one of those utterly superfluous bags that wraps a DVD player inside its cardboard box, surrounded by polystyrene peanuts, bubble wrap, or, if the planet is lucky, low-grade paper padding.

If the planet is unlucky, as it often is these days, then no-one will think to pick up this "piece of trash"--or no-one will be able to because a gust of wind just turned it into a balloon--and it will float for miles, possibly to end up in one of the massive ocean trash gyres, to be broken down by the sun and waves into its microscopic, poisonous, and practically indestructible constituent elements.

There were once hints of protest about modern culture's insistence--even reliance--on single-use, unrecyclable, redundant packaging for almost every object we buy. At my mother's local supermarket in Brighton, England, sustainability-minded shoppers objected to apples individually wrapped in cling-film and polystyrene, as if nature's wrappers (you can always peel the apple if you can't wash it) aren't good enough. But what I take to the curb after being a pretty thorough paper/plastic/metal recycler and enthusiastic composter is mostly packaging waste.

An answer might come if sustainability thinking and collaborative problem-solving entered disciplines other than engineering, architecture, environmental studies ... Calling all industrial designers! If society can't do without packaging, at least every package should be firstly re-usable and secondly recyclable.

What if, for instance, bright sparks at Rubbermaid and JVC could work together on a sturdy shipping package for a DVD player that then had second life as a tub container (you know, for all those spare video connectors everyone has) and then a third life as a recycling container for when the broken DVD goes back to JVC for dismantling? In other words, an upscaling of coffee-tin-as-odd-nail-container.

And that's a wrap.

--Martin Walls
Syracuse Center of Excellence

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Don't spit into the wind

As a little boy, I grew up listening to AM radio, flopping around in the back compartment of my parents' station wagon--no seat belt, no air bags, just a single low-fi speaker--singing along to the hits of the 70s. Jim Croce was one of my favorites, and my parents laugh to this day, as they tell stories about me crooning away, knowing the words to all the songs.

Croce’s anthem to revenge and vindication—“You don’t mess around with Jim”—told the story of a bully that got his comeuppance. The refrain goes (sing along if you know it):

“Now they say you don’t tug on Superman’s cape
You don’t spit into the wind,
You don’t pull the mask off an ‘ole Lone Ranger,
And (in the last refrain) you don’t mess around with Slim”

These were the rules; law to a child. They were simple, concrete, understandable (“Hey, Superman’s busy with global concerns—lay off his cape”; “Bully Jim, did Slim wrong”—note to self, be good, stay away from pool halls). To this day, I never spit, and definitely not into the wind.

As an adult, the rules seem less simple, and decidedly more relativistic, especially when we talk about sustainability. If I own an SUV, but drive it many fewer miles than you drive your hybrid, can I lay claim to “green”? Who’s more sustainable: the family with two children that mows with an old manual reel mower, or the D.I.N.K.s who are less stringent about recycling their junk mail (assuming having kids imposes some significant costs to the environment)? Cloth diapers (incurred water resource utilization) v. disposables (landfill utilization)? [For more on this latter conundrum see this interesting link on the idealism and reality diaper debate:]

Perhaps, these comparisons don’t really matter, but the workbook the Citizens Academy group relies on encourages us to begin to apply metrics to our respective choices: a personal, ecological scorecard. Yet, the complexity of all the categories of self-assessment seems more complicated than a multi-million dollar LEED certification process. Where to start?

One outgrowth of said searching, the distillation or “Golden Rule” for the group grew to be the concept that …"we all live downstream.” Choices we make impact everyone in this scenario, including ourselves…a giant, Mobius band, where operationally our downstream returns as our upstream. A karmic, bio-ecological boomerang.

Or, as “Jim” came to see, what goes around, comes around.
-Thad Mantaro, SUNY Oswego

Green Is Brown

I owe the title of this post to Mike Rowe, host of the Discovery Channel show "Dirty Jobs." In his travels around the country looking for "the honest men and women who make civilized life possible for the rest of us," Rowe often meets sustainability entrepreneurs working hard at both large and small scale operations. Rowe's point with "green is brown" is that often the jobs he attempts with these entrepreneurs is a million miles from green and clean high tech or earth crunchy environmentalism. Many of the jobs in the "new green economy" are dirty, smelly, and hard--more like the trench work that was the foundation of the industrial revolution. Green is brown.

The show that premiered on Oct. 20, 2009 had a perfect example. Rowe re-visited a remarkable San Francisco recycling operation that has provided him material on two other occasions, when he showed how this firm is at the cutting edge of composting and of complete household recycling. In the Oct. 20 episode he helped the firm deconstruct porcelain toilets from a disused factory. The bowls and urinals were sent to a crusher that eventually broke them into three-inch chunks. Recycled porcelain can be used to make new porcelain items or added to macadam for roads.

But beyond the "green is brown" stinkiness of the job and Rowe's inevitable toilet jokes was an almost-hidden moment that shows how the new economy is working. The massive, complex, wholly impressive, and absolutely necessary three-inch crushing machine can eat porcelain, stone, and metal. Rowe casually mentioned that one of the engineers he was working with designed and built it--and there you have it: green is brown is problem solving is innovative engineering is the new industrial revolution.

—Martin Walls, Syracuse Center of Excellence

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Whatever Happened To ...

It's surprising how much sustainability has been lost in a couple of generations. Fewer people garden than they did in our parents' and grandparents' days. Clothes and shoes are thrown away rather than mended at tailors and cobblers. When I was growing up in Brighton, England, "rag and bone men" still collected metal scraps for smelting and old clothes for the paper industry. Sustainability—eating local food, making do and mending, recycling everything—wasn't a lifestyle choice, it was life.

One of the strangest "steps backward" I noticed on my last trip home has to do with milk delivery. In my neighborhood there used to be a local milk distribution center—The Dairy, as it used to be a real dairy—from whence every day at about 4 am little three-wheel electric milk trucks would trundle to delivery milk in foil-top bottles and collect washed-out old bottles for re-filling.

Local food, local distribution, re-usable bottles, electric vehicles—sounds like a dream for today's sustainable community movement. Except that my neighborhood, town, country turned away from this model. My mum now gets milk in plastic containers from a supermarket.

No doubt the economic model for this kind of distribution couldn't compete. But that's an economic model that can't or won't take into account the lifecycle cost of milk that is distributed in polluting trucks and drunk from unreusable plastic bottles, or the lifestyle cost of losing a center of community life—not to mention the butt of many British jokes—that is the milkman in his blue and white uniform and his sputtering electric truck.

--Martin Walls, Syracuse Center of Excellence

Be careful which seeds you water…

Over the last two sessions of the Saturday morning Citizens Academy we’ve had ardent discussions about the U.S. consumer culture and food purchasing. Readings described our current economic model, based upon consumer spending, and we lauded local alternatives—Grindstone Farms Organic delivery, Ithaca dollars, the expanding barter network—as well as issuing a lament that derided the confusing and probably confabulated explosion of “digestive disorders” among female yogurt consumers (aggressively marketed probiotics--didn’t yogurt always have probiotics?) that then leapfrogged to the scourge of ED among the mature male population (Who would have “thunk” our national eating epidemic might connect the dots from atherosclerosis to circulatory disorders to ED?!).

The rising tide of contamination in the water supply roiled the collective group stomach, and there seemed to be no sop to the corrupt confluence of hormones, pesticides and herbicides polluting the planet.

Always seeking (and seeing) convergence, I was struck by the recent Ken Burns documentary on the National Park System, and how good and judicious planning (sustainability?) has played a role over time in the formation of this majestic resource. Obviously, some remarkable maneuverings in our collective national history conspired to “water these seeds…”and for the most part, in this example--sustainably—we appear to have “got it right.” In that same film, Frederick Law Olmstead (father of American Landscape Architecture, designer of Central Park) advocated that “in a place as special as Yosemite, ‘the rights of posterity’ were more important than the desires of the present. He called for strict regulations to protect the landscape from anything that would harm it and stressed the importance of making Yosemite accessible to everyone….”

It all begs the important question: “What are the rights of posterity?”

Thinking of this, lately, it strikes me that an element of green-washing has colluded to co-opt our Native American intellectual heritage. Everywhere, we hear the “seventh generation” maxim, and at keynote after keynote some (typically) “majority population” emcee rolls out this tired salvo to perform like a precocious savant for the expectant crowd till the original force is nearly diluted beyond meaning.

Admittedly, it’s a great barometer. But if as some statistics estimate the top ten in demand jobs today didn’t even exist ten years ago, how do we begin to talk about seven generations from now? The Citizens Academy group, while noting the imperative, recoiled from the magnitude of pondering so many years out. The operative question then became collectively, and fundamentally, locally: “What will we each do in this next week…and what will we do today?”

Some members decided to purchase more organic produce, others to eat more mindfully. Others still, to do a better job deciding what they really need vis-à-vis what they really want. Some thought a more frequent trek to the Best Kept Secret for a clothing purchase might stem their collusion with “consumerism.” Others decided—no more bottled water, while a remaining few decided just to learn more about what really constitutes “organic.” All decided to water new seeds…while consciously thinking of the rights of future generations.
-Thad Mantaro, SUNY Oswego

Friday, September 25, 2009

Give me spots on my apples...

Direct citizen action has always been at the heart of broad social movements, but discussions about “sustainability” and “green” are still vague concepts for some community members--something separate from their lives and perceived immediate needs. Others are remarkably engaged, both in terms of individual choices and through local activism—buying locally, modifying the transportation they use, and deciding to embrace ecological diversity rather than “paving paradise”….

“They paved paradise
And put up a parking lot
With a pink hotel, a boutique
And a swinging hot SPOT
Don’t it always seem to go
That you don't know what you’ve got
Til it's gone
They paved paradise
And put up a parking lot

…Hey farmer, farmer
Put away that DDT now
Give me spots on my apples
But LEAVE me the birds and the bees
Don't it always seem to go
That you don't know what you’ve got
‘Til its gone
They paved paradise
And put up a parking lot.”

When Joni Mitchell wrote this song, Big Yellow Taxi, nearly 40 years ago environmental interest was decidedly strong. But such awareness has waxed and waned. Unfortunately, a popular preference against spots has sometimes surged against the concern expressed in what might be seen as her plaintive call (above) for sustainability in the web of our relationships both personal and global, and the felt loss when what we have is truly, finally gone.

Led by that concern—to promote discussion of what constitutes a sustainable community--this semester, in conjunction with Rice Creek Field Station, the Office of Business and Community Relations at SUNY Oswego has sponsored a Citizens Academy on Sustainability. It’s an experiment in fostering community activism that reflects both our college President Deborah Stanley’s signing of the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment and a call from the community itself for the college to promote awareness of sustainability.

The program uses a unique discussion group format with a workbook designed by the Northwest Earth Institute ( About 15 community members meet weekly on Saturday mornings at the Downtown SUNY Oswego location and talk about sustainability topics like ecological principles, consumer choices, buying locally, transportation, sustainable communities, business and the economy, and visioning the future.

Over the course of the next several weeks, through the program’s culmination in late October, I will write here about the discussions in the group, and the thoughts community members have about sustainable living in a small city, in a rural county, in Central Upstate NY.

--Thad Mantaro, SUNY Oswego

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Think Globally, Act Locally

“Think globally, act locally” is a phrase that has been used in the environmental movement for many years now. It has its origin in the town planning of Scotsman Patrick Geddes at the turn of last century. It’s an old enough phrase to be considered a cliché, assigned to the same Earth-crunchy hamper as the peace sign, smiley face, and “Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out.”

A shame, because when it comes to the action required to make our communities sustainable, lower our dependence on fossil fuels, and reverse the effect of climate emissions, the bottom-up “think globally, act locally” ethos could do as much good as top-down protocols and initiatives from governments, such as cap-and-trade and carbon emissions limits.

I’m sure much will come out of the UN climate summit planned for Copenhagen this December. But the debate at these mega-conferences can seem awfully esoteric and irrelevant to our lives. There are still plenty of communities in the US that have no recycling programs, meaningful public transportation, or community gardens, let alone sustainable town planning (where’s Patrick Geddes?!), green infrastructure, or green jobs.

Targeted government intervention in sustainability would be better than vast treaties. That is, legislation along the lines of smoking bans or the American with Disabilities Act: the whole nation is quite used to smoke-free and accessible buildings now. Just one local act that could make a huge difference is the slow phasing out of gas engines for lawnmowers, weedwhackers, and the like. It would be a way for folks could get used to battery engines and for Toro, John Deere, and Bombardier to be thrust to cutting edge of green technology!

--Martin Walls, Syracuse Center of Excellence

Tuesday, July 28, 2009