Friday, January 29, 2010

Passion and compost: a viral mixture

Passion is contagious, and it seems everywhere on campus and in the community there’s excitement over sustainability activities. Several very interesting programs are in the works and the dynamism of the folks involved is wonderful to experience.

Let me introduce you to two SUNY Oswego students—Grace M. and James C. Grace and Jim serve on a student led organization called Students for Global Change. They’re helping to organize the Campus Composting Initiative (CCI) -- a working subcommittee of this umbrella organization. The CCI is working with campus administration, staff and faculty to develop a pilot program to begin composting on campus. Previously, SUNY Oswego students have completed theses on best practices in college composting; through an integrated campus workgroup, students are now taking leadership to identify pilot strategies to decrease compostable contributions to area landfills, and to recapture that material for either on-site composting, or sale to a third party for processing. There’s even discussion of a bio-digester—probably beyond the scope of our campus’ capabilities right now--but exciting stuff, just the same.

The second iteration of the College sponsored Citizens Academy on Sustainability is in high gear, meeting weekly on Wednesdays at the Oswego YMCA Armory building. Led by June M., a City of Oswego Tree Steward and community activist, and mentored by me through my role as Assistant Director of the Office of Business and Community Relations, the Citizens Academy has developed into a focal point for community sustainability activity.

At the most recent meeting on food and sustainability, there was ardent discussion of a local vision for a community garden project that would include development of the growing space itself, educational outreach to area elementary schools, a pilot school lunch program utilizing the harvest, a community based agricultural initiative to return produce to needy members of the community, even a proposed Salsa manufacturing enterprise that would integrate teens as the primary entrepreneurs (based on a similar program a group member had seen in Buffalo). A site exists already on college property at Fallbrook, but there has been additional discussion of sites in the City at each of the four corners so all residents could have easy access to a suitable plot to grow their own produce.

June M., mentioned above, has been so energized by the passion of these group members that she’s hoping to implement a third Citizens Academy with support from the college in neighboring Fair Haven in late spring. Our office has pledged support for this program.

Finally, on March 11, the Office of Business and Community Relations will host the next public issues forum on sustainability focused on Environmental Stewardship. Ten local and regional environmental organizations will speak with attendees about current activities and sustainability concerns. Participants will take part in a roundtable program where they’ll have the opportunity to speak with representatives from all ten organzitions. For more info on organizations presenting, and how to register, see the Office of Business and Community Relations website at http://www.oswego.edu/about/centers/cbcd/events.html.

-Thad Mantaro, SUNY Oswego

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Movin' On Up!

The Syracuse Center of Excellence is moving offices this week, from our shared building on Syracuse University's South Campus to our shiny new Headquarters Building at 727 East Washington Street in downtown Syracuse.

For those of you who know Syracuse, it's the new building at the intersection of the I-81 and I-690 flyovers, which has been variously described as the spaceship from Battlestar Galactica, a boat (possibly one that is sailing down an imaginary Erie Canal), and a parking lot (especially before the fa├žade went on).

What will take place there? Well, its function as the new offices for the Syracuse Center of Excellence and our friends at the Environmental Finance Center is only a small part of future activities. Mostly the building will function as a "living laboratory" so that scientists and technologists can do research and testing into products that will make built environments (that is, houses, offices, schools, even whole neighborhoods and cities) more energy-efficient and healthier.

Buildings must become more energy-efficient. Older buildings consume vast amounts of energy, even if folks are good about turning off CFL bulbs and computers--heat escapes because of poor insulation, poor windows, and so forth. Inefficient heating and a/c compounds the problem. Researchers and technologists at the SyracuseCoE HQ are investigating many ways to solve these problems, with the goal of making buildings consume a lot less energy (and use alternative energy, such as geothermal) or even give back to the grid if they can generate energy with solar panels, small wind turbines, etc.

Buildings must become healthier, especially schools. There is a clear link established by researchers between productivity (in schools, read test scores) and the quality of indoor environments. Temperature, humidity, chemicals in furniture and carpets, and dust can all affect our health. In extreme cases--such as with black mold or formaldehyde--poor indoor air quality can makes us very sick. Researchers and technologists at the SyracuseCoE HQ will investigate indoor air quality, its relationship to productivity and health, and they will test devices that will make buildings healthier. Some of these devices will be tested on real human subjects at the HQ, even the staff of SyracuseCoE!

There so much more going on at the HQ--more than I can write about here. I encourage you to come to our Community Open House on March 6, 2010 to learn all about the building and what will take place there. For more information, visit http://syracusecoe.org/hqbldg/dedication.aspx.

--Martin Walls, Syracuse Center of Excellence




Monday, January 18, 2010

The Meme Train

The word "meme" was coined by the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, author of The Selfish Gene. Just as "selfish genes" can be said organize the world in order to survive and reproduce, so do—in this metaphor—bytes of cultural information: fashions, urban myths, pop songs, advertising taglines, etc. The miniskirt is a meme; "crocs in the sewer" is meme; Do-Wa-Diddy is a meme; "Where's the Beef?" is a meme.

The prevailing idea that train travel is so slow and boring that it simply cannot compete with other modes of long-distance transportation is a meme.

I encountered this selfish nugget of opinion trying to reproduce itself (or, to follow the metaphor's logic, I suppose it was acting in self-defense) last week when I was preparing to travel by train from Syracuse to Manhattan to give a poetry reading. The reaction of several people, when I told them I was taking the train—by far the most sustainable transportation option I had—was essentially, "Why bother? It's slow and boring. Fly."

Actually, I found that the train journey competed very nicely with air travel, driving, or riding a bus. The following is my attempt at some "meme therapy" to try to counteract an insidious and prevailing myth, one that has stymied the evolution of passenger trains in this country for years ...
  • Time—5 hours almost exactly from Syracuse (long term parking $5 flat fee) to downtown NYC. By plane it's: drive to the airport early and pre-flight rigmarole (1 1/2 hours); in flight (1 hour); after flight at JKF (1/2 hour); and subway to downtown (1 hour)--so, by air to my same destination is 4 hours.
  • Door-to-Door—That's 5 hours to get you from Syracuse, NY to 32nd and 7th, the absolute heart of downtown Manhattan. Not even British Rail has a station in what would be Piccadilly Circus in London.
  • Space—Leg room is better than a car, plane, and bus. You can walk around anytime you wish.
  • View—Follow the Mohawk River and then the powerful Hudson. See, as I did, 3 bald eagles. The New York Central is one of the most beautiful train rides in the world.
  • Price—Just about $100 return, which competes with Jet Blue but not the Greyhound (or Caz Limo's service, which is popular around here). You pay the same for a couple of tanks of gas in the car, but what about parking?
  • Service—Well, I was impressed with the quality and price of the food vendors in Penn Station. The bagel place at the bottom of the stairs at the 7th Ave entrance is fantastic. An everything bagel with a schmeer of lox spread? Oi!

—Martin Walls, Syracuse Center of Excellence

Thursday, January 14, 2010

In the greenlane...

This past week, I had the opportunity to hear about a product provided by the company, Ecology and Environment, Inc., called “Greenride: Mobility Management Solutions.” John Moore, the college’s Director of Engineering, and I participated in a webcast about the program and specifically, about the Greenride Connect component that provides a web-based carpool matching program.

As the college considers its participation in STARS--and the implicit transportation management components that form part of the tracking--exploring methods to manage the information and activity is critical. The company, Ecology and Environment, provides solutions through its Greenride program that include fleet and business trip management, vanpool management, and personalized weather and traffic reports, however, in this presentation we heard only about the specific management program that oversees carpool or ride-sharing management.

Through this program, commuters can find carpool options and other smart commute options tailored specifically for them, based upon information they provide to a web system. The way it works is that a potential student, staff or faculty member that commutes to Oswego from say, Baldwinsville, would register their individual information. They would input the days they want to commute to SUNY Oswego, the times of departure and return, and their flexibility with departure and return times (15 minute, 30 minutes, one hour, etc). The program would then match them with other commuters hoping to travel roughly the same route, with roughly the same departure and return plans.

Commuters are matched with those with similar transportation needs/plans, and through a secure email system are able to communicate with each other to arrange carpooling. The college, institution, or group of local institutions can partner to pay for the costs associated with the program, and are allowed a certain number of subscriptions per service fee. The college or collective can choose to incentivize the program leading to greater participation, or can allow commuters to opt in as they see fit. There is a tracking interface that provides reports allowing the institution(s) to report out on miles saved, carbon dioxide equivalents saved, money saved, total number of commutes saved, etc.

The program also provides an administrative hub that allows for employee tracking, cluster mapping to encourage usage, incentive management interface, and a variety of charting and reporting outputs all that will facilitate institution reporting and management objectives.

According to the company, the outcomes include “reduced vehicle miles traveled, congestion, GHG emissions, energy consumption, fuel costs, reduced need for costly parking, lower churn and higher employee productivity, greater personal satisfaction of contribution to helping the environment, saving money, improving personal fitness.”

We plan to continue to explore this and other transportation management solutions as we advance the institution’s participation in STARS, and attempt to impact CO2 emissions.
-Thad Mantaro, SUNY Oswego

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

The Long View

I have read two books recently that, although on quite different subjects, share underlying themes about sustainability and "the long view" (looking both deep into the past and into the future). One of the books is the Clock of the Long Now by Stewart Brand and the other is The Ascent of Money by Niall Ferguson.

The Clock of the Long Now is about a project to build the world's slowest computer--a super-slow astronomical clock--to embody the idea that sustainability begins with taking a long view of our past and our future and adjusting current activities in accordance. The slow clock, and an associated "library of civilization," aim to be massive tourist attractions on the scale of Mt. Rushmore, a way to help shift our cultural perspective away from habitual short-term thinking and historical amnesia.

The "Long Now" is a phrase coined by British musician Brian Eno. It refers to the idea that in some cultures the word "now" refers not to the immediate moment, as it does in our culture, but to a day, a year, or even 10 generations backward and forward. In Central Upstate New York, the Haudenosaunee nations might say their long now is seven generations backward and forward—the commandment to think of the effects of present actions on the seventh generation hence is written into their democratic constitution, and "seventh generation thinking" is a fundamental element of their culture.

If we (somewhat arbitrarily) define a generation as 25 years, then seven generations back puts us at about 1835, when the Empire State was expanding and the Erie Canal was coming into its own. The financial instruments (stocks, bonds, etc) created to pay for C19th empires--and the necessary gunboats, soldiers, engineers, bureaucrats, and infrastructure--are the subject of The Ascent of Money. Niall Ferguson wishes today's financial "Masters of the Universe" had a long now going back to the mid-C18th or mid-C19th, or at least to the mid-1980s!

Ferguson explains that historical amnesia is rife in the financial world, not just for the financiers and regulators who repeat mistake after mistake (thus allowing the Savings and Loans crisis to return as today's Credit Crunch) but for ordinary citizens who struggle with financial literacy and who always prefer making a quick buck over the slow return of compound interest, stock portfolios, and boring 30-year mortgages.

Of course, the sustainability movement has a mountain to climb if it wants to lengthen the now of our culture from "asap" to "anything from 1835 to 2185." But thinking about this problem did make me think of several living cultural institutions (i.e. not museums) in which long now thinking does feature ...
  • Sports, especially baseball—the history of this game is very much sanctified and tradition is appealed to, especially when players and teams transgress. (In 1835, baseball was evolving as its own distinct sport and the first true baseball games were being played.)
  • Colleges—again, these are often "living museums" of history and tradition that always need to think for the long term. (To be pedantically accurate, Tulane University was one college founded in 1835.)
  • Music—esp. Classical music, but any old form that is kept alive as a living institution: blues, jazz, folk, chant. (Felix Mendelssohn is just one Romantic composer at the height of his powers in 1835, whose music is still played regularly by symphony orchestras.)
But how can we leverage the habits and processes of this long now thinking and transfer them into areas such as building practices, finances, land use, energy independence, and resource exploitation?

—Martin Walls, Syracuse Center of Excellence