Is the university a biosphere?

(not to be confused with a Bio-Dome, which I can say with a fair amount of certainty it is not)

Depending on how loosely you define a biosphere, yes. Merriam-Webster says that a biosphere is “the part of the Earth in which life can exist” or “living organisms together with their environment.” In reference to the first definition, Florida Gulf Coast University is a part of the biosphere but, barring a particularly interesting apocalypse which leaves the entire world uninhabitable except for a few hundred acres off of Ben Hill Griffin in Estero, it will never be a biosphere itself. However, that definition is a bit pedantic as there’s no reason to limit biosphere to “of the Earth.” If we find an inhabitable planet surely we’ll refer to its biosphere so since there’s nothing inherently Earth-dependent I think the second definition is more apt. In this case, FGCU is definitely a biosphere. The students and administrators of our university have done a great job in making sure to find the best possible balance of allowing organisms to live naturally in their environment with the human intrusion necessary on a campus. A few years ago I visited one of my friends who was attending Northwestern and their campus is night and day compared to ours which goes for the vast majority of universities around the nation.

(I didn’t ask, but this doesn’t look LEED certified to me)

In addition, we absolutely change the environmental impact of our community through education. By making colloquium a required course, FGCU exposes students that never would have even considered taking it (me) to environmental issues they should be concerned with, the writing and arguments of many prominent environmentalists, and small things that they can do in their everyday lives that help the environment. That focus on the “micro” is the best way FGCU changes the environmental impact of our community because every person that decides to do something environmentally harmful (littering, wasting electricity, etc) because obviously their action isn’t going to change anything on a global stage which is what the people on TV and such are always talking about is ignoring the effect it has on their local environment.

Surely the university has had harmful effects on the environment. Over the last 20 years it turned a swamp, natural environment into a fairly good-sized university. That doesn’t happen without some displacement of native species and changes to the surrounding environment as a whole. However, I think FGCU does a good job of trying to offset these harmful effects by not only investing in the future through education but through tons of little things it does right now: LEED certification, bear-proof trash cans, prevalent recycling cans, the preservation of trails, and so on.


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Blog: Plan B Ch. 10/Earth Charter

Chapter 10 may be my favorite chapter of Plan B 4.0 and favorite reading of the entire course. Instead of being full of rhetoric and sensationalism it’s grounded in reality and suggest practical steps we can take that are actually plausibly possible.

It’s hard to narrow down the chapter to one quote but the portion on tax shifting was by far the best part, in my opinion. “Cutting income taxes while increasing gasoline taxes would lead to more rapid economic growth, less traffic congestion, safer roads, and reduced risk of global warming – all without jeopardizing long-term fiscal solvency.” (pg 246) This plan would appeal to the left by increasing gasoline taxes which will help the environment and to the right by offsetting that increase in taxes with a decrease in income taxes. The danger with this plan is that the left doesn’t get on board because the gasoline tax is one of the most regressive taxes we employ. Raising it would hurt the poor more than the rich. However, taxing is most efficient when the tax is localized – people who use more gasoline are releasing more CO2 into the atmosphere and by making them pick up more of the tab we’re disincentivizing the wanton use of gasoline and therefore reducing externalities – so a system more similar to Cap and Trade may be more palatable politically.

dog-and-otterWhy can’t we be friends?

Principle 1 of the Earth Charter says that we should “[r]ecognize that all beings are interdependent and every form of life has value regardless of its worth to human beings.” (1a) This is straight out of Aldo Leopold’s reading about The Land Ethic: “One basic weakness in a conservation system based wholly on economic motives is that most members of the land community have no economic value. Wildflowers and songbirds are examples. […] Yet these creatures are members of the biotic community, and if (as I believe) its stability depends on its integrity, they are entitled to continuance.” (pg 65) While I still strongly disagree that the assertion that a songbird has no economic value is wildly incorrect, the point as a whole is a good one. A person who values fellow people depending on what they can do for him would be considered cold and cruel, the same should be true of a person who views other living things that way.

Why can’t we be friends?

Principle 2 of the Earth Charter says that we should “[p]romote the development, adoption, and equitable transfer of environmentally sound technologies.” (7c) This reminded me of when Lester Brown said “Raising irrigation efficiency typically means shifting from the less efficient flood or furrow systems to overhead sprinklers or drip irrigation, the gold standard of irrigation efficiency.” (pg 223) This might seem like something that only a large corporation or act of Congress can change, but each individual person can do their part to incentivize the use of more environmentally sound technology by voting with their dollars and buying from companies with good environmental reputations and not buying from companies with poor environmental reputations.

The color of your skin don’t matter to me

Principle 3 of the Earth Charter says that we should “[e]radicate poverty as an ethical, social, and environmental imperative.” (9) Again, Lester Brown has an entire chapter dedicated to this titled ‘Eradicating Poverty and Stabilizing Population.’ One of the ways he suggests we can do this is by massive debt forgiveness for developing countries: “A few years ago, for example, when sub-Saharan Africa was spending four times as much on debt servicing as it spent on health care, debt forgiveness was the key to boosting living standards in this last major bastion of poverty. […] The year after the Gleneagles meeting [where the heads of the G-8 industrial countries agreed to cancel the multilateral debt that a number of the countries owed to the World Bank, the IMF, and the African Development Bank], Oxfam International reported that the IMF had eliminated the debts owed by 19 countries, the first major step toward the debt relief goal set at the G-8 meeting. For Zambia, the $6 billion of debt relief enabled President Levy Mwanawasa to announce that basic health care would be now free.” (pg 189) This is an example of exactly the type of action that Principle 3 encourages. On balance, that $6 billion does far more good in Zambia then it ever could in Britain, France, or the United States.

As long as we can live in harmony

Principle Four of the Earth Charter says that, “…peace is the wholeness created by right relationships with oneself, other persons, other cultures, other life, Earth, and the larger whole of which all are a part.” (16f)  David Orr talked about the same thing when he said “at some level of alertness and maturity, we respond with awe to the natural world independent of any instinctual conditional conditioning. […] [Albert Schweitzer] described this response as ‘reverence for life’ arising from the awareness of the unfathomable mystery of life itself. […] Schweitzer regarded reverence for life as the only possible basis for a philosophy on which civilization might be restored from the decay he saw throughout the modern world.” (pg 194-195)  I think there is certainly a correlation between a person respecting his or her fellow people and that person being environmentally responsible.  And furthermore, having a ‘reverence for life’ can only assist you through your life as you face ethical dilemmas.

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Blog: Plan B 4.0 Ch 3

In contrast to the previous chapter this one was rough reading as we returned to the doomsday predictions.

One of the more audacious parts was “For instance, a landmark 2009 study by a team of scientists from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology concluded that the effects of climate change will be twice as severe as those they projected as recently as six years ago.” (pg 58) Dire, indeed, but ultimately meaningless without context. What will be twice as severe? Will the planet warm 0.07 degrees Celsius instead of 0.035? Will the oceans rise 0.5 cm instead of 0.25? Those are bad, yes, but not doomsday-level doubling. On the other hand, if100 million hectares of crop land fail instead of 50 million that could be catastrophic. Doubling is a relative term and you need context for it to mean anything.

Another alarmist part that made me laugh a little was “If the Greenland ice sheet were to melt entirely, it would raise sea level 23 feet.” (pg 61) No doubt that would be calamitous. But is that a realistic outcome? Brown goes on to say that the Arctic is warming faster than any other part of the planet, but provides no follow-up on how much of the Greenland ice sheet is likely to melt or what conditions would likely have to be met for it to melt completely. Without either of those that statement is essentially a fun fact that boils down to “There is a lot of ice in Greenland.”

A musk ox enjoying the cold of the artic.

As the chapter continued I thought it got a lot better and I thought the part about the plant pollination process was particularly interesting. “The most vulnerable part of a plant’s life cycle is the pollination period. Of the world’s three food staples – rice, wheat, and corn – corn is particularly vulnerable. In order for corn to reproduce, pollen must fall from the tassel to the strands of silk that emerge from the end of each ear of corn. […] When temperatures are uncommonly high, the silk strands quickly dry out and turn brown, unable to play their role in the fertilization process.” (pg 70) I think this is a major effect of rising temperatures that ought to get more attention. We always hear about the ice melting and super hurricanes or whatever but if staple crops are starting to fail to be pollinated that has much more immediate and dire consequences for us as a species and our planet as a whole. Between the increased difficulty in pollinating, the water wars described in a previous chapter, and inefficient irrigation methods he will describe later in the book it seems to me that our food supply is the weak link that will cause us harm long before rising sea levels and such does.

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Blog: Plan B 2.0 Ch 2

I really enjoyed this chapter because it, for the most part, presented facts, figures, and statistics and let the magnitude of them speak for themselves with just enough commentary involved to keep the chapter from reading like an excel spreadsheet. I much prefer this style to, say, Rachel Carson’s style of primarily style with a little substance.

A perfect example of this was on page 45 when Lester Brown said, “[…] Sudan’s population climbed from 9 million in 1950 to 40 million in 2007, a fourfold rise. Meanwhile, the cattle population increased from 7 million to 41 million, an increase of nearly sixfold. The number of sheep and goats increased from 14 million to 94 million, a near sevenfold increase. No grassland can survive such rapid continuous growth in livestock populations.” Those numbers would be persuasive presented alone and with that last sentence to summarize the list of figures it’s a convincingly-constructed argument. Brown certainly had the opportunity to go full sensationalist (declaring something like 99% of all life in Sudan will die in the next week if we don’t act within 7 hours and 17 minutes) like so many authors of previous readings but didn’t and his argument was stronger for it.

Something I disagreed with was “there is the option of producing automotive fuel from fast-growing trees, switchgrass, prairie grass mixtures, or other cellulosic materials, which can be grown on wasteland. the technologies to convert these cellulosic materials into ethanol exist, but the cost of producing cellulosic ethanol is close to double that of grain-based ethanol. Whether it will ever be cost-competitive with ethanol from grain is unclear.” (pg 50) Actually, it is pretty clear. Brown spends the preceding two pages discussing how “[t]he price of grain is now tied to the price of oil” (pg 49) and talking about how the rise in oil prices have driven up the price of grain. If we take him at his word then the cost of producing cellulosic ethanol will lower over time, since the technology exists, and the cost of grain-based ethanol will rise over time due to the supply of easily obtained fossil fuels diminishing and at some point cellulosic ethanol will be more cost-effective. What Brown should have said is “When it will be cost-competitive with ethanol from grain is unclear.” That minor point aside, I agree with the spirit of that section of the chapter as a whole in that I don’t think our government should be subsidizing the production of ethanol.

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