Oct 162013

About a week ago, I wrote a post on my personal blog suggesting the idea of creating a large-scale document at PowerShift. What I have in mind is a vision of the sustainable future we want, in broad enough strokes to allow local diversity and enough details to also include a path for how to get there. I want a document that can serve as a touchstone for the question ‘what do you want?’, endorsed by a giant gathering of passionate youth and others.

The idea got positive feedback, so this post is dedicated to how we might realistically create such a thing. But first, a few background points:

  1. One comment suggested modeling the product after the Holstee Manifesto (I might also use the Self-Repair Manifesto as an example). I like the idea of pulling out the key points, but I want more detail – and while it’s harder, it’s also worth more.
  2. Building on the above, there are lots of key points to start from. I’d suggest the recent PCI/Transition work Climate After Growth (pp 16 onwards), Donella Meadow’s fantastic Envisioning a Sustainable World, and work from the Commons Cluster.  I might also suggest the constitutional chapter of Blue Mars, but that’s not available online.
  3. If we want lots of people involved, I’d point to open source models with some occasional large-scale votes for community approval. This is too large for consensus (IMO), but I’d say 75% approval is a reasonable target.

Without further ado, a recipe. If you want to get involved, we need moderators, so leave a comment listing what you’d like to help manage and/or write, or email me (info (at) pittenvironmental.org). Or just start writing!

Goal: A document that provides:

  1. A coherent vision of a sustainable future, covering social, economic, and political systems, and energy, transport, building, and food infrastructure.
  2. A plausible path for attaining that future for as many of the above aspects as possible.


Open source and over a short time period with a large number of potential participants means easy access is critical. TitanPad is the right answer here – open source itself, no registration or account required, minimal formatting to get screwed up, infinite undo and great revision-saving. There are two vision-only pads to start, one for the socio-economic-political (SEP) aspects, and one for the infrastructure (INF) aspects. These both need moderators – one or two to look over the whole pad, and probably one for each section while it’s being actively written. Moderators play the role of benevolent dictators – they commit a lot of text, steer the direction, have executive authority, but can also be kicked out by the community at any time by just creating another pad.

At some point – maybe Noon on Saturday, maybe that evening – the vision pads will be voted on (open-view G. Form), an initial release needs to be approved, and the text at that point will be stored somewhere more permanent as a reference (a read-only G. Doc). Work will then start on two more pads on the plausible path forward (ToRightSEP and ToRightInf). After some period, a vote will be taken on those pads as well, and the final text from all four pads will be assembled into a single document.

Throughout the process, moderators and others who want to can meet physically to write and discuss and provide others a way to do so. DLLC is a large place with lots of good nooks and crannies, and the bars nearby aren’t bad either.


The biggest challenge is publicity – letting people know that this is happening at each stage is incredibly important. The second biggest is the amount of text that we could potentially write, and the narrow timeframe to get an initial draft done.  The third may be unpleasant individuals or dissenting opinions – but that’s an opportunity for live discussions.

Solving the second challenge is a matter of recruiting lots of passionate people to write at least a little bit, or read and revise, and thus requires solving the first. Solving the third requires good sources, rational people, and perhaps some training in disagreement – I suggest the article ‘How to Disagree’.

Solving the first requires ease of access and lots of voices. The best page to point people to is not what you’re reading, but this page (http://bit.ly/PSManifesto), which has the information on all pads and an introduction for those that want to get involved. We’ll need lots of people to tell lots of other people, but using hashtags for the conference and sticking QR codes (available on the above page) on communal bulletin boards will also help spread the word. If there are large screens, we should get on those. If there are speakers who think this idea is cool, we should get them to tell people to participate.

We can do this – it’s large, audacious, and would be an awesome accomplishment. What else is the PowerShift community about?

If you want to get involved, we need moderators, so leave a comment listing what you’d like to help manage and/or write, or email me (info (at) pittenvironmental.org). Or just start writing!

Dec 052012

For the final discussion group of the semester (and Chris and Seth’s last week at Pitt), we’re going to talk about cities. Why cities? Because they’re the nodes of the world – physical, social, economic, etc. We’ll talk about unique sustainability problems with cities, opportunities, placemaking, the super important aspect of scale, and urban infrastructure. Well, we’ll hit some of these things, and probably some others as well. And, of course, we’ll attempt to tie it into Pittsburgh, because that’s *our* city.

For why cities are important and some recent news, there’s nowhere better than the Atlantic Cities homepage – take your pick of articles (I recommend this one about Barcelona).

For the climate change aspect – why it’s important in terms of cities and how we might make carbon neutral cities, see Alex Steffan’s new book Carbon Zero (posted in its entirety at Grist).

For some ideas about placemaking, see the Project for Public Spaces (who helped redesign Market Square, incidentally).

And finally, some plans:

Oct 252012

Free the Planet member Nikki Luke represented Pitt and environmental concerns at the recent ALCOSAN hearing over the city’s new storm water management system.

From the PPG:

“…More than 100 people who jammed into Alcosan offices on the North Side on Friday. About two dozen people spoke, urging the agency to push for green upstream policies that would slash the amount of stormwater that enters sanitary sewer pipes. Those measures could include such things as rooftop gardens, detention ponds, permeable parking lots and water barrels to catch and slowly release stormwater.

“More environmentally friendly methods of dealing with stormwater have drawn support from three of the county’s top elected officials. Charles Martoni, president of county council, told Alcosan officials on Friday that a green plan for handling stormwater would produce new jobs and improve the appearance of neighborhoods.”

Read more.

Sep 242012

(What’s this – a post that’s not an event? How odd! I’m going to try to post the readings for each week of our discussion group here for curious souls. We meet at 6:30pm in Benedum 341 on Thursdays)

During the once-again successful Climate Change & Contrarians workshop (which I’d love to give somewhere else, if anyone’s interested), we again ran out of time to really delve into some of the responses to climate change. So, for the first week of this year’s discussion group, I figured we could delve into them – mitigation, adaptation, geoengineering, and what combination of them we could or should pursue. I’d put ‘solutions’, but really it’s hard to label any of them as such – they’re really just hopeful responses, and the win condition is ill-defined at best.

Major topics: Global carbon policy, geoengineering, regional carbon policies, regional adaptation, community level responses.

Don’t feel like you have to read all of this – these are some ideas, background reading, and if everyone picks a topic, we’ll probably cover all of them. Orr’s piece is probably a good start regardless of topic.

For global carbon policy, see the Wikipedia article on climate negotiations as a start, and check out the Copenhagen Accord in particular.

For geoengineering (and adaptation), see David Orr’s ‘Learning to Live With Climate Change Will Not Be Enough’, Popular Science’s summary article, and Scientific American’s blog post on whether it’s time to try to geoengineer the Earth.

For regional policies, see analysis on RGGI, info on the WCI, Pgh’s CAP, and Europe’s airline carbon tax.

Regional adaptation – see Sharon Astyk’s notes on adapting-in-place and the lack of adaptation in CA’s Act 52 (googling NC’s sea level study is sad but not particularly informative)

For community level responses, see the Transition Movement, Open Source Ecology, and think about globally shared digital (rather than physical) local networks.

Nov 032011

It’s registration time again! I’ve always forgotten, but I want to post up a list of courses you can take next semester that are related to sustainability – and while there’s a very large list on the forums, I want this to be a list of courses people actively recommend for eco-minded folks. With that in mind, I’ve got three – if you’ve got others (aka, I spend no time outside of Benedum, and so know nothing about liberal arts), post a comment and I’ll add them. This post is likely to be reposted once a year, hopefully growing each time.


CEE 1217 – Green Building Design and Construction – A great introduction to green buildings, and a thorough background in LEED

CEE 1218 – Design for Environment – Think Design for {Reuse, Repair, Longevity, Lightweight, Human Health, Carbon Footprint}. The course focuses on techniques, strategies, and hands-on activities as examples. Excellent for anyone who will ever be near product design.

GEOL 1333 – Sustainability – Ward Allebach’s famed sustainability-on-campus projects course. Come learn how to plan, actualize, and present an effort to make Pitt a better place (and add your piece to our projects library!), as well as hearing from a bunch of great speakers from various walks of life.

If there’s something you think should be on here, let me know.

Oct 042011

So, Governor Corbett has released his plan for regulating/taxing/using Marcellus Shale natural gas. The legislature seems interested in passing something in the next few months in order to compete with WV and OH, so there will likely be some actual action around it.

Some key notes (IMO):

  • The proposed taxes fees (It’s a tax. That’s OK.) are $40,000 for the first year and $10k/year for the next nine. 75% of that would go to drilling counties, and 25% would go to state departments (no word on whether it would be used to fund certain things). Using production models I’ve developed in my research, based on company data, this amounts to a ballpark of 1.4% in the first year (range of 0.8% to 3.4%, depending on production), and 2.2% over 10 years (range of 1.4% to 5.6%).
  • These fees would be set by individual counties, which means they may or may not actually get implemented.
  • The regulation would also expand fines, bail  and liable areas around water sources, though there’s no indication that pre-testing would be required.
  • The final section of the proposal would encourage the use of natural gas in school buses, public transit, and along major highways (whether this is a good idea is also up for a [possibly brief] local debate).
What do you think?
Jan 312011

The Way We See the World product design consultants have created edible cups called “Jelloware.”   The cups are made from a gelatinous extract of seaweed called agar agar.  These cups are tinged with flavor to compliment the drink inside.  The website highlights other The Way We See the World initiatives such as jeans designed with an attached hanging device, allowing the wearers to dry them anywhere, and a line of beauty products called “What the Hella” made in the Yucatan Peninsula.

Jan 262011

Last ESW meeting, Dr. Weiland (our advisor), came to talk about the Natural Step from a thermodynamics perspective. Because of the snow, it wasn’t an in-person talk, but the Skype connection and local slides worked pretty well. One of the big things she started with was the idea that, with respect to matter, the earth is a closed system (with respect to energy, it’s an open and slightly unbalanced system). But that’s not strictly true.

Anyone who chats with me about sustainability will find that I have a few side issues – things I find fascinating and important, but will likely never work on. The biggest of these is overfishing, but my new one is helium.

Quick, where’s most of the helium in the world come from?

If you guessed ‘A government reserve built up from oil and gas extraction back in the 1960’s, you’re right!’ (and you clearly also follow this issue). Turns out, helium is fantastically rare relative to other elements, mainly because it’s a noble gas so it never bonds with other things to make liquids or solids, and it’s lighter than air, so on its own it will tend to move out into space. But we use it for lots of things (kids balloons, for example), and we don’t think about recycling it, except in very large applications like the LHC. But if it tends to leave, we don’t recycle it, it’s not common, and we’re running on a built up reserve, that means it could be yet another serious problem in not too long – even though we don’t normally think of elements as non-renewable resources. (as a side note, the US Gov. is selling it for about the same as it paid for it back in the 60’s – which is why it’s still cheap).

Regardless, the earth is a closed system with respect to most, but not all matter – and that little bit is more widely used and rarer than we may think.

Dec 082010

So here’s a disparity: In a time when organizations ranging from non-profits to universities to the federal government, are pushing alternative means of transportation, particularly public transit, Pittsburgh’s Port Authority is cutting its service – routes, weekend buses, etc. – by 35% come March. There have been protests and letters to the editor, and a lot of people are very annoyed. But here’s the thing: It’s not (really) their fault. While there are arguments about employee salaries and health benefits being too much, those are standard parts of union jobs – and the renegotiation of the contracts last year helped bring those costs down over the long term. PAT has also done a great job looking at how to improve efficiency while still maintaining service to areas which have less riders but badly need public transit – a social justice issue being solved. Their transit development plan (TDP), of which the first few sections have been implemented, was well planned and a great idea for moving forwards.

The current situation is far more systematic than inefficiencies at Port Authority’s level – the state didn’t give them as much money, shorting them by $47 million. The state has a major budget shortfall because the Federal government wouldn’t let them toll I-80, in addition to longterm increases in costs for pensions and health care at the state level – all systematic increases in costs without systematic increases in revenue. Looking at PA and CA and other states (and the Federal Government, dare we say it), you can only get so efficient while maintaining all the services everyone thinks should exist. And in Port Authority’s case, those services aren’t really paid for by you – they’re paid for by state and federal subsidies (which is why privatizing the routes wouldn’t make too much business sense).

Port Authority’s hand was forced – with a $47 million budget shortfall and running out of options to increase efficiency, cutting routes and jobs ends up being the only feasible option. Now, Rendell has made $45 million available for the next year through some other transit programs, and hopefully that will be approved and the route cuts will be rolled back. But that doesn’t solve the systematic problem – the same issue is going to come up next year unless something large changes in revenue streams. Maybe that’ll be tolling I-80 being approved, or a severance tax on Marcellus Gas (I doubt that, though). It’s a hard problem though – because either you cut funding to another program in a more permanent program (feel free to comment on what you’d cut instead, the budget is available here), or you increase taxes and a lot of people yell at you out of a mistaken sense that services shouldn’t cost more. Or you can increase fares and make it more infeasible for hard hit neighborhoods which use transit to do so.

In terms of how this relates to Pitt, here’s a statistic I heard from a bus driver the other day, which seems pretty accurate: While the average person pays ~$2 per ride (which is matched with a subsidy), Pitt and CMU folks pay ~$0.50 per ride, and make up a huge amount of the traffic in the Oakland/Squirrel Hill/Shadyside area. Want to help solve this issue? We as universities should probably be paying more for our ‘free’ bus passes.

Nov 302010

I think we’ve mentioned it more in passing than in detail on this site, but the Marcellus Shale is a Big Issue – as much from a policy and energy perspective as from a public health and activist one. It’s an area where the best practices are changing almost constantly, and a lot of the standard information is only somewhat applicable to the Marcellus (as it comes from Colorado/Wyoming or the Barnett/Fayetteville shales). There’s also a certain amount of spin on both the industry and activist sides – one side omitting certain risks, the other overusing certain anecdotes (which, well terrible, don’t tell the whole story). There have even been Pitt News articles (and comments) about it, particularly with the recent unconventional gas conference and city-wide ban of drilling.

I also write articles for ESW-National, and this month I figured I’d write my own intro/questions for the Marcellus. It could use pictures, but other than that I think it does an okay job addressing the process and some of how to think about it. It also does focus (to the best of my abilities) on the Marcellus, and is hopefully more accurate for that region than some other shale gas overviews. If anyone is looking for yet another introduction, I’d offer this:

ESW November Article: Regional Issues – The Marcellus Shale