The word sustainability is in jeopardy of losing its meaning to overuse. It's a political term, a sales pitch, and an approach to routines that are clear and close to all of us. We apply it to daily life as well as to our most urgent needs and intractable problems. Questions about sustainability belong in all of those places, but when a principle becomes a buzzword, it loses its teeth. Several events this summer helped me see cause and effect relationships and tangible examples that underlie what it means to "be sustainable".
In June, I learned about the potential of vertical farming – a relatively new movement in agriculture that a lot of people have already been giving credit for changing the future of food production. Wyoming happens to be the birthplace of two vertical farming companies – one in Laramie and the other in Jackson, where I spent the first month of the summer.
I participated in a new course that matched students to a local organization in Jackson Hole. Before my group and I worked with Vertical Harvest (a local greenhouse that employs people with disabilities), I was indifferent to indoor agriculture. It seemed like a viable solution to growing food in frigid or urban areas – Jackson is essentially both – but I was biased toward outdoor agriculture, and hesitant to embrace technology as THE answer to food availability. I was suspicious of arguments for more separation between humans and the environment, more linear thinking that overlooks our interdependence with other organisms, and more building that assumes we can eventually win control over nature. After spending a month with the visionaries behind one vertical farm, I realized I had been misrepresenting what it means to engineer a solution.
Vertical Harvest is supposed to mirror several overlapping controlled ecosystems, but even indoors, “control” has been a hard nut to crack. Still, the farm is producing more food all the time, in a place where growing vegetables would have otherwise been impossible. The greenhouse requires great amounts of energy, and delivers nutrients to the plants in solution instead of soil, so it’s not a closed system. Instead, it’s a work in progress, an attempt to recreate processes in nature while ideally lessening the impact on natural ecosystems. The experience taught me that while it is not productive to wait for some faceless technologist to “fix” big problems, it is irresponsible to write off the potential of engineering and design.
For more on vertical/indoor farming, check out these links:
And, some challenges to the idea:
https://landinstitute.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/Land-Report-097.pdf (p 25-27)
At the end of July, I moved out of my apartment, a routine which forces a lot of us to confront all of the stuff that we have, no longer want, and don’t know what to do with. It is easy to talk the talk when it comes to buying less and making a plan for how to keep what you do buy out of the landfill. But those principles are put to the test when you have to lay a hand on everything you own to get it from one place to the other, particularly if you’re trying to pull off the move in just a couple of days. This summer, I felt a familiar urge to pare down and to pare down quickly, and I wasn’t willing to do great contortions to repurpose what I wanted to be rid of. I joined my new roommates’ yard sale and put some furniture on Laramie Upcycle (a Facebook page locals use to buy/sell stuff), but most things went to Goodwill or the dump. For both of those drop-off sites – the thrift shop and the landfill, I realized my attitude was about the same.
Places like Goodwill give people the chance to divert their waste and buy wares at affordable prices. But they don’t eliminate the mentality that allows us to buy and dump, buy and dump, without sweating the processes of production and disposal. We leave it to the people sorting in back rooms to make decisions about what is sellable and what has to be warehoused or thrown away. And then there are the broken things we don’t have time or energy to repair, and electronics or chemicals, the disposal (or recycling) of which takes enough effort that we end up holding onto them until the next time they surface from the bottom of a junk drawer. I know that I want to be more intentional about fixing and mending my things, and more systematic about recycling the hard stuff responsibly. All of that takes time and sacrifice, and being reminded of that during this summer’s move was humbling. Being less wasteful requires us to recognize that convenience is seductive for a reason – we all have things to do and many of us live within systems that make it easy to throw things away. But maybe I didn’t have to cleanse my apartment of all of those things at once. So being less wasteful also requires us to accept some degree of messiness into our lives.
If you have any ideas/questions for reuse, repair, and recycling, leave a comment below! And here’s a blog post about people using repair as a social occasion (warning: this website might be a black hole for waste nerds):https://discardstudies.com/2017/05/08/community-repair-a-pop-up-alternative-to-the-throwaway-society/
If that sounds appealing, check this out: one of the members of the Sustainability Coalition has been working hard on a proposal to implement a fix-it space on campus. Comment if you’re interested!
August was a big news month and not-so-eventful on the personal front. I have already written a lot, so I’m going to pass the rest to someone better. Neena Satija wrote an article last year about how climate change plus rampant development in Houston put the city at risk. Her reporting from six months ago is an informative reminder that we do have choices when it comes to preparing for storms, and that “natural disasters” do not exist without people.
Here is the article: https://projects.propublica.org/houston-cypress/
I'm still learning, so if you have thoughts, questions, challenges worth sharing on any of these topics, please leave a comment or send us a message on Facebook!