Tag Archives: sustainability

What is Sustainability?

This morning I attended a wonderful talk given by Dr. Scott Smith, retiring Dean at the University of Kentucky’s College of Agriculture, Food and Environment during the monthly “First Friday” breakfast event, hosted by the Sustainability Working Group of the college. During his 13 years in office, Dean Smith has overseen/participated in the radical (though he didn’t use that word) transformation of the college, Kentucky agriculture and perhaps even some Kentucky culture. He told some wonderful stories and was very insightful on the rapid KY-wide transition from a “tobacco, cattle and grain” family farm culture with a ~100% male student body (in 1978 when he joined the faculty) to one that is now highly inclusive and diverse, both in its people (60% of the students are women! and with e.g. chefs, economists, etc. on the facility) as well as in the topics and species/crops/products that the college supports and that Kentucky produces. He highlighted the fears of the unknown future that the Kentucky farm community had when he took office on what would happen after the federal tobacco pricing program stopped (in 2004). He said it turned out to be very much about sustainability, organic, ‘value-add’ programs, investment and marketing (e.g. Kentucky Proud, etc.) All concepts which were almost unheard of in his own agricultural education and early teaching days.

I can’t hope to capture all the components and insights of Dean Smith’s talk here. But one particular (and small) question that he addressed really caught my brain and is very aligned with my own recent thinking. The question was “Will there ever be a Department of Sustainability?” His answer: No. Rather, sustainability is an integrated concept in most, if not, all the college’s courses and activities, and perhaps in all of our culture. This is also very true for me. And while he didn’t discuss sustainability in exactly the same way as my own thinking, he did touch on many of these same elements.

Sustainability in my thinking has at least three major elements or themes; or, being the engineer that I am, I’d say it has three “necessary, but perhaps not sufficient, requirements” to be true:

  1. [My engineering viewpoint:] The “system” of input resources, processes and outputs has to be in balance over time. If, over time, an input resource will be depleted, then the system is NOT sustainable (obviously)! If a process produces an output (whether waste or other) that accumulates over time without a place for it to go and for it to become an input (with similar flow rates) into some other process (whether natural or human-driven) then that’s not sustainable either! The “lifecycle” of each resource/element, including also the energy used/produced, must be quantitatively in balance for it to be sustainable. Math is required! Others may label this theme an environmentalist’s viewpoint, but to me it’s the fundamental concept of “systems engineering.”
  2. [Also having a ‘product manager’ mindset:] The economics of any human-driven process must be positive! Without being value-additive, a process cannot be operated for very long. A business case must exist with positive financial gains (math, again!) for those involved. When a process depends upon charity or donations, then it may be helpful (or even necessary) to get started, but it won’t be sustainable over time. And unlike any of the “resources” in #1, the human concept of this thing we call “money” has no law of conservation.
  3. [The social (a.k.a. human) being prospective that:] Any human-driven process must not cause injustice to any of the people involved. Others may use the term morality, or some other wording. And I wish I find a positive wording of that statement, rather than the “not cause” wording here (that software logic mindset again…). This theme (of the three) was not something I had understood as a young engineer (I was oblivious). But as I age (wiser?), it is ever clearer to me that “human resources” is NOT appropriate terminology! Human beings should never be viewed in the same mindset as taken with the other things we call “resources”, whether a component, natural resource, chemical compound, or any animal or a plant species, etc. Justice (not the same as fairness!) must be present in our society and communities, or else they (we!) are not sustainable! In practical terms, injustice is cause for civil unrest which leads to civil disorder which is not at all sustainable (and this is not the same disorder as in Chaos Theory).

Perhaps this third theme is better articulated by the fields of social science, politics (which is what Dean Smith referred to often), or the domain of the liberal arts and philosophers… Or, perhaps, this engineer is still learning new concepts… Which reminds me of the bumper sticker (and the series of books by Henry Petroski) that states “To Engineer is Human.”  Yet at this time, I can only hope that humanity is also sustainable! [Time to balance those equations!]

FSMA public comment deadline extended!

Below is the submission I made last Friday (the prior deadline) for public comments on the FDA’s proposed new farm/food regulations due to the 2011 legislation know as the Food Safety Modernization Act. However the deadline has been extended to this coming Friday, November 22nd. Be sure to file your own comments both here and here! We need to take control of our own food systems! – Jack

To FDA, I am a concerned citizen and strong supporter of my local community markets and farmers. We buy as much of our food from local producers as we possibly can, and prefer those that are organically certified or at least follow organic practices. These proposed rules scare me silly. It appears they are likely to devastate those businesses and the small farmers everywhere who work so hard to provide healthy and fresh food to us.

Specifically, I am worried about:
The manure and compost rules which clearly are in conflict with the current USDA organic standards.
The definition of small farms and how they qualify for exemptions. Using dollars of revenue threshold on all food is too broad and, for certain if you use a dollar amount, then it needs to be indexed to future FOOD prices such that farmers are not forced into the higher category in the future by the continuous march of inflation, labor & energy prices.
The impact of these standards on Aquaponic methods, systems and farmers. This innovative technology is capable of providing local produce and fresh fish from urban (as well as rural) farms with much lower use of potable water. Yet these standards would seem to prohibit it.
The failure of these rules to consider the relative dangers of other farming practices, specifically GMOs, pesticides, chemical fertilizers, and other high energy processes and their impacts (e.g. carbon emissions, dust, soil depletion, water pollution & consumption, allergies, etc) on the health and safety of both the public, farm workers and on the natural environment.

I urge you to modify the rules so that they:
Allow farmers to use sustainable farming practices, including those already allowed and encouraged by existing federal organic standards and conservation programs. Specifically, FDA must not exceed the strict standards for the use of manure and compost used in certified organic production and regulated by the National Organic Program.
Ensure that diversified and innovative farms, particularly those pioneering models for increased access to healthy, local foods, continue to grow and thrive without being stifled. Specifically, FDA needs to clarify two key definitions: first, as Congress required, FDA must affirm that farmers markets, CSAs, roadside stands, and other direct-to-consumer vendors fall under the definition of a “retail food establishment” and are therefore not facilities subject to additional regulation. Second, FDA should adopt at least the $1,000,000 threshold for a very small business and base it on the value of ‘regulated product,’ not ‘all food,’ to ensure smaller farms and businesses (like food hubs) fall under the scale-appropriate requirements and aren’t subject to high cost, industrial-scale regulation.
Provide options that treat family farms fairly, with due process and without excessive costs. Specifically, FDA must clearly define the “material conditions” that lead to a withdrawal of a farmer’s protected status in scientifically measurable terms. FDA must also outline a clear, fair, process for justifying the withdrawal of a farmer’s protected status and for how a farmer can regain that status.

Please reconsider, in better collaboration with the USDA organic standards, and reissue these regulations.
Thank you,

Jack Barnett


The future of …

Last week, I was an invited speaker at the Southern BioProducts and Renewable Energy Conference in Tunica MS. My topic was the Past, Present and Future of Solar Technologies. The organizers found me through my participation in ASES (which I’ve talked about previously) and because I’ve been a member of the board member of the Ky Solar Energy Society for the past 3 years. I was honored to provide a brief overview of solar technologies and some of my personal experiences to the folks there. A great small conference and a great set of people trying to make a better world.

Now, I’m not a leading expert on the current solar research going on in academia [by far], but I have been following the solar industry for 10+ years, and have invested much of my own time, energy and money into becoming educated in the technologies and their applications. We’re purchased multiple solar systems for our home (1 PV system, and two thermal systems installed). I’m an engineer, so I can’t help myself from learning how it works, why, the economics, etc. So I’ve become a solar energy advocate. And yes, I have some biases… because I believe our future depends upon transitioning off of our addiction to fossil fuels and becoming a sustainable civilization, rather than one that dies out after destroying its environment via natural resource extraction (too many examples of that in human history!).

Next week (Sept 30th) the United Nation’s IPCC releases to the public the final draft of its latest (5th assessment) report. I’m no expert on climate change or global warming either. Nor is Mary Anne (she’s an environmental scientist, rather than a climatologist). But as is my usual behavior I have spent time reading and trying to understand the prior 2007 IPCC report (ok, actually I just read the synthesis report, which in itself is >100 pages; the three Working Group reports are challenging academic tomes to read), and I’ll be trying to read and fully understand this latest update too. The new report is just from Working Group I (the other groups and the AR5 summary report are not due out until 2014), which covers the physical science basis for their findings. A condensed version for policymakers has been released in advance.

Given the media’s coverage so far and build-up already underway, I fear for what happens next. Our media-driven society seems to believe the opinion of a random person-on-the-street is just as ‘right’ and actually more important, than the hundreds of career professional experts working in the field from 39 different countries. Let’s please take the time to become educated on the topic, and actual READ the report (even if just the condensed version), rather than listening to just the ‘public opinion’ spewed out so far. I’m at least “95% certain” of certain other biases that are in play here…  – Jack

Everybody Smile!

Ok, everyone, today at around 5:30pm (Eastern Time) today be sure to lookup and smile! Really, really big!

Our picture is being taken by the Cassini spacecraft from orbit. And not Earth’s orbit, but from the orbit of Saturn, which is currently approximately 898,500 million miles (1.446 billion kilometers) from Earth. Therefore it will take the light from our shinny faces over 80 minutes to reach the camera (which is taking a mosaic picture of Saturn and all its rings, while Earth ‘just happens’ to be in the background). For more detail and interesting things about this, see this JPL blogsite.  Ok, yes, we (the whole Earth) will actually be less than one pixel of the final picture, but at least in my opinion we have lots of reasons to be smiling:

  1. In other space news, Luca Parmitano (pic above) is fine!, after having to cut short a planned 6.5 hour EVA (spacewalk) on Tuesday. While performing maintenance outside the International Space Station, his spacesuit started leaking (no, not leaking air, but) water internally, and he was having difficulty seeing, hearing (his headset shorted out), and even breathing due to more than a liter of water accumulating in his helmet.
  2. The global telecom industry seems to be through the worst of the current wave of cutbacks. Much is stilled needed to return to a fully sustainable business, but the pathways and impacts of the transition to IP should now be clear to most everyone.
  3. The US government (though not Congress, as yet) seems to finally get that global climate change requires more and serious action!
  4. The DRBC has again delayed permission for fracking in the Delaware River watershed. And while some people will be getting less money due cancelled drilling leases, there’s hope that this glorious area will stay a great place to live and retire to, and that our drinking water will remain clean and pure.
  5. Our own solar PV system has completed one year of operation, and we had overall a net positive production of electricity over what we actually consumed. We’re cashing a small check from our utility for the excess that they purchased from us!

Lastly, of course, it’s FRIDAY! And the current heat wave will be breaking tomorrow! So only one more night of sleeping with the windows fully open, but while it’s still 78-80F in the house!

Hope you too have good reasons to be smiling this summer. Stay cool, everyone! – Jack

When Building with Straw, Beware of Pigs with Strong Lungs

Sorry to have been off-line for so long, but AT&T has no service where Mary Anne and I attended a week-long workshop on straw bale building techniques. Blue Rock Station is Jay and Annie Warmke’s home and farm (llamas, goats, chickens, fruits and veggies, but no longer any pigs!) in rural eastern Ohio. They, plus instructor Aaron and summer interns Michelle and Jina, had us working on multiple phases of three current building projects. We learned very hands-on about rammed earth foundations using old tires, framing with straw bales, sealing with cob and lime plaster finish coats, plus the nice artistic touches of glass bottle widows, built-in shelving, and using broken ceramics to create mosaics. We got very dirty and very tired, but had a great time! We learned a lot, and met many wonderful people (staff and fellow attendees) who are likely to become long-time friends!


Perhaps, not so surprisingly, Jay and I share a passion for solar energy. He’s the current vice-president of Green Energy Ohio, who I had just learned about last month at the ASES conference. More surprisingly, it turns out Jay was previously the executive director of BICSI, so we had good time reminiscing on the heydays of the telecom industry. Then about 13 years ago Jay and Annie decided to “chuck the whole corporate way-of-life” and moved to Europe for 3 years. They then decided to return to their roots in rural Ohio, where they had previously purchased their dream property: a 38 acre abandoned farm and ex-logging camp on a south facing ridge overlooking a beautiful aspen-oak-maple forest valley. They built their earthship home themselves, and have been farming, writing books and teaching to spread the word to others ever since. Their message is much more than about straw bales or green building techniques. It’s about living sustainably while living richly (and without much money). A great life lesson, especially for me, with my recent exit from nearly 30 years of corporate life and currently searching for my best path forward — Argh! That’s definitely corporate-speak, so I guess I’m not fully weaned as yet!

Thanks to all! – Jack

Good News and Bad News

First, the REALLY BAD news: The portion of carbon dioxide in our Earth’s atmosphere is now trending above 400 parts per million, as measured at the Mauna Loa observatory in Hawaii. The late Dr. Charles David Keeling initiated this research starting in 1958 (when the measure was ~315ppm) and has had the resulting jagged upward curve named for him. The results have been repeated and verified at many locations around the globe. Further measurements of the gases trapped in ice cores (and other methods) have extended the curve backward in time to more than 3 million years ago (i.e. prior to the existence of Homo sapiens).5_2_13_news_andrew_co2800000yrs

The right hand side of the curve demonstrates the problem: At no time known to man has the amount of atmospheric carbon been higher than today. And everyday we humans add further to this by continuing to burn fossil fuels and releasing carbon (and other greenhouse gases) that have been long trapped within the earth or by nature. Without doubt, our global industrial engineering, taking advantage of the high power density of coal, oil and natural gas, has had huge benefits to our civilization over the last 150+ years. (We’d all be challenged to recognize our pre-industrial past as very “civilized” when animal and manpower — often in the form of slavery — were the prime power sources for engineering projects.) We all wish this was sustainable… but not!

The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which was awarded the 2007 Nobel Peace prize (along with ex-VP Al Gore, who is perhaps most responsible for widely publicizing the Kleening Curve), stated in their 2008 report (their 4th assessment; the 5th is due early in 2014) that without mitigation, it is highly likely that average global temperatures during this century will rise between 1-6°C, due to the higher retention by our atmosphere of the sun’s radiant energy. This in turn is likely to cause significant melting of the Earth’s glaciers and polar ice caps, with an estimated minimum of 7m (22 feet) of sea level rise if the Greenland ice sheet melts. Plus the more energetic atmosphere is likely to cause chaotic weather patterns with more drought, as well as much stronger and more frequent storms. Plus ocean acidification and more scary things. Overall, a massive long-term disruption to nature and the environment, and to mankind’s existing way of life, with at least 23% of the global population threatened with loss of its drinking water, food supply and/or living spaces. Without a doubt, further impacts will also include violence between those with and those without, and possibly even global war caused by the arrogant, the ignorant or those in the grip of fear…


The good news? Well, nothing as earth-shattering, but still quite hopeful. Those who know me, will know I’m also a space geek. Yes, I follow the NASA (and other) space programs very closely. I geek out watching a live rocket launch, and have NASA TV in my bookmarks and on my iPhone. Well, today happens to be the departure date of 3 of the crew on the International Space Station (ISS), returning home after nearly 6 months of living in microgravity, scientific research, maintenance and sometimes dramatic repairs (e.g. Saturday’s unplanned spacewalk). The commander of this expedition has been Chris Hatfield from Ontario Canada (the first Canadian ever to command a spacecraft). But he’s also a musician, who yesterday released to the world via YouTube a beautiful rendition of the classic ‘Space Oddity’ by David Bowie (which you may know better by its haunting chorus: “Can you hear me Major Tom?”). This new music video was recorded during his off duty time on the station and includes many beautiful views within the station, and of our BLUE Mother Earth. If you remember, the original lyrics were also quite depressing… Yet in this reversion Major Tom is returning to the Earth from a space station (“a tin can”), just as Commander Chris will be doing this evening.  It’s a Must Watch, whether you’re a space geek or classic rock fan, but especially if you’re depressed about how screwed up the human race is… This gives me hope! Thank you for that, @Cmdr_Hatfield!  – Jack

Growing Local Food in Cities

A few weeks back when talking about food systems and our preference for local and/or organic foods, a few people pointed to the “impossibility” of growing sufficient volumes of such food for the urban masses. Yes, this is a challenge, but I have to disagree on “impossible.” There are well documented examples elsewhere of using brown-fields and rooftops for urban gardening and also commercial scale farming. Many of them use vermiculture (yes, that’s with worms) to quickly turn high volumes of food waste into beneficial compost for these urban farmers.

Last week I got to visit an exciting and new urban food demonstration project happening just a few blocks from downtown Lexington KY. Food Chain is a non-profit that recently took up residence in an ex-bread factory (alongside a great micro-brewery, a new micro-lot coffee roaster, and some other arts studios/offices) that just got their small-scale indoor integrated farm running in the past five weeks. The project is fearlessly led by Rebecca Self and Mims Russell. They soon expect to have a consistent monthly production of 125+ lbs of Tilapia and even more hydroponically grown vegetables, to be available at local restaurants and retailers. This aquaponic method is great example of re-thinking farming, a la (one of my favorite topics) Systems Engineering. All the nutrients needed for the green veggies are conveniently derived from the fish waste by naturally occurring bacteria that covert ammonia into nitrates (see this video of it). The water is fully recycled, with only about 1% daily loss (due to transpiration and evaporation) plus the water content of their harvest. Currently, the main inputs are electricity (for the pumps, space heating and artificial lighting) and the fish feed, plus some daily labor (it’s a farm!), seedlings and the fingerling fish (currently provided by the nearby Kentucky State University aquaculture program). They’re already thinking about how to reduce those inputs, possibly via solar thermal and PV, and using the spent grains from the brewery as a majority (but not all) of the fish feed. I previously visited a similar scale teaching system at Berea College that uses a greenhouse for natural sunlight and passive heating (but therefore also has seasonally variable production volumes).

My forward plan: volunteer my time to help reduce their inputs further (e.g. solar technologies), and expand their outputs to other food products (using that vermicompost), including mushrooms grown on more of that brewer’s grain. Oh, I guess I have never mentioned here that another hobby we greatly enjoy is mushrooming – cooking and eating them, of course!, but also foraging for fungi in the wild and growing some at home. Yes, that’s fun-gi-culture! So it’s sure to be fun!, and I’ll try to keep you up to date on our progress. – Jack

Solar 2013

I attended my first annual conference of the American Solar Energy Society in Baltimore last week. The ASES conference was a roller coaster of emotions and learning for me…

Overall, I see ASES as a strange (but I think healthy) mix of academics, industry and advocacy. I got the clear impression that the technical papers and academic presentations are the core of ASES (and you can see this in their excellent publication, Solar Today). The engineer in me loved these talks, but I was there representing the Kentucky chapter, and therefore I found myself most aligned with the advocacy side. A real insight I gained was how much the US solar industry is suffering, even while installations are booming! In Asia and Europe, where government policies for clean energy are clear and incentivizing rapid increased production, their engineering and manufacturing have already ramped up. With such a large increase in global supply, even with increased demand, prices for solar system components (mostly for PV) have declined by >60% over the past three years. As a result there are relatively few remaining manufacturers here in the US, even though the solar cell was originally invented at Bell Labs (59 years ago this month, and the same year ASES was established). Certainly there are some very innovative US solar companies, and some segments are doing well, such as in financing, monitoring, mounting & racking, and of course local installers. It is mostly the local installers who have created the boom in solar jobs – over 119,000 US jobs and growing at 13% annually. And solar advocacy is likely a primary cause of this, mainly through state by state legislative policy changes, known as an RPS, that require electric utilities to acquire and distribute energy from renewable sources, rather than their historical default of fossil fuels that release carbon and other pollutants into our atmosphere. This was highlighted in an excellent presentation by Kevin Knobloch, president of the Union of Concerned Scientists.


You’ll notice that KY is not one of the 29+ states with an RPS. It’s a hard politically when ~93% of KY’s electricity is produced by burning coal and current electricity rates are 5 to 9 cents per kwhr. But the really scary news is that these very successful policies are now under threat of being reversed by the fossil fuel industry and climate deniers. This is hugely depressing, as has been our efforts in KY to move toward greater sustainability. It was also sad to hear how ASES itself is struggling financially, and that just when national support for advocacy is needed, it may not be in a position to help (there are some positives).

OTOH, I was greatly inspired by many of the people of ASES, lots of highly intelligent and motivated individuals, both the old-timers [thanks to many for sharing your insights and time with me last week] and the many young professionals now driving us forward. The breadth of success stories and innovation in passive, thermal, transportation, modeling, as well as in PV is exciting to me. I found the huge accomplishment of solar in Germany (with about the same solar resource as Alaska) to be inspiring and evidence of what humankind can achieve when there is consensus for action. I also enjoyed the Skype™ presentation by Bill McKibben, president and co-founder of 350.org. Yet also I am troubled by his stark testimony on the lack of consensus here in the US of A – having to be arrested to bring public attention to the issue of climate change seems so last century…

So, taking advantage of my recent efforts to make this blog more visible and interactive [porting to WordPress was another cause for no new posts last week, sorry], I open the floor to all of you. What do you think of solar energy? Why have we not made much progress? Will we soon? What actions have you taken? Or what’s keeping you from taking action? Please let me know your thoughts.180px-Buerstädter_sonnensegel

And remember: when there’s a fuel spill of solar energy,..
it’s called a Sunny Day!  – Jack

Where does your food come from?

Another aspect of sustainability that we have been caring more and more about over the past few years is food. Yes, that stuff that we can’t get by for long without stuffing in our face; that stuff that grows in dirt and compost, and yet produces tastes so extraordinarily wonderful; all that stuff that makes us so highly content and satisfied. A good meal is the second best feeling in all of life! Yes, I’m a closet foodie!

One of the projects I’ve had a lot of fun doing these last few weeks is volunteering at our local food co-op, very appropriately called Good Foods. Specifically we are working a new vision for the year 2020, and I’ve had the honor and pleasure of working with Joel DiGirolamo from Turbocharged Leadership, who is facilitating the process. As part of that, and of course being the systems engineer that I am, we had to define what is the “food system” and our places in that. Well, I’m most impressed with this representation (used with permission):
FoodSystemDiagram640x480I have adopted a specific definition of food, per Michael Pollan: “that which your great grand-mother would recognize.” And mainly because, physically, chemically, etcetera: you are what you eat, exactly!

These days our food of choice comes from local farmers, or is certified organic. We’re not 100% always able to eat this way, and not everyone can afford it. But I want to be made up of exactly that, rather than something chemically or genetically constructed by the big agri-companies. The next time you sit down (or rush-through) a meal, stop and think for a minute about what you are made of? And where do you want your food to come from…? For me the answer is quite dirty!, and also chemical-free!

We should all care more

One of the topics Mary Anne and I care greatly about is sustainability. Unlike some of my engineering student peers, I took extra economics classes in undergrad. I had troubles with a statement made by one of the professors: roughly phrased he said “There is always either growth or decline, never stability” (his main point was that investors can make money from either bull or bear markets). Yet as engineers we always preferred stable states (afterall, statics is much easier than dynamics!), and especially in my field of computer engineering, stable electrical states are mandatory to perform digital processing. Processor speeds are limited by the capacitance of the circuit, i.e. the time it takes for the electrical state stabilize after a state change. Of course in the last 30+ years CPU clocking cycles have gone from the kilohertz range to gigahertz, as semiconductor unit sizes have shrunk.

After I left school and entered the working world, it was the economics viewpoint that became my firm belief. Afterall, prices were always increasing (due to inflation or limited supply), or sometimes decreasing (increased supply, e.g. computers), but never stayed stable for long. But then Mary Anne went back to school for her Ph.D. in Environmental Science at Rutgers. She left the clean world of math and computers to study all those wet sciences: chemistry, biology, ecology, etc. Somewhere in that time (1994-2002) I first learned of climate change and the human-caused increases of greenhouse gases in Earth’s atmosphere. As an engineer, and especially as a “systems” engineer, the large movement of carbon from trapped underground formations into our atmosphere is easy to grasp (burning), and it’s just as easy to understand that the system (Earth’s atmosphere) must change as a result. The positive feedback loops are, perhaps, not as easy to grasp, but appear to be just as real. This is not sustainable for human civilization!

Even as Moore’s Law keeps hanging in there (due to economic drivers), we still know it can’t continue past certain real physical constraints (the size of atoms, if nothing else). And so it is with our civilization’s burning of carbon…

So, now the critical question: How do we humans wish to live in the future?
I vote for a gradual self-directed change, rather than the dynamic (and likely harsh) consequences of continuing the same behaviors as the past 30 or 130 years. Oh, and yes, we very likely need both engineering and economics (and time) to reach that more sustainable state… [Oh, the ambiguity!]