Confronting complexity: 2011 annual meeting of the Association for Environmental Studies and Sciences
Over 500 people gathered at University of Vermont this summer to connect, share, and explore their interests in understanding environmental topics from a variety of perspectives. The interdisciplinary backgrounds included professionals in fields as diverse as engineering, music, literature, and ecology. After presenting about systems thinking and campus sustainability at UVM, I attended other conference sessions and describe a few of them below.
Education for Sustainable Energy
This panel session featured speakers who described different approaches to teaching about energy in undergraduate courses. Some professors focused on the physics of energy production and consumption, while others taught primarily about policy and economic issues. Using hands on renewable energy generation projects on campus, students at College of the Atlantic have gained experience in practical aspects of choosing a site, installing a wind turbine or solar panel, and operating/monitoring the equipment over time. Another teaching approach employed at Unity College involves using system dynamics modeling (i.e. with Stella software) to develop conceptual understanding of energy-related environmental and social issues, for example by constructing a model of how oil extraction rates are based on factors such as prices, proven oil reserves, and economic growth. And experiential learning takes on a different meaning in a course through Evergreen State College that brings students to the Ukraine to visit the actual site of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.
Taking Stock: An Evaluation of PES Programs
The Payment for Ecosystem Services (PES) programs discussed in this session all involved protection or restoration of water quality and carbon sequestration services provided by upland forests in Mexico. The conversation was based on the fact that forest loss accounts for over 10% of global greenhouse gas emissions – a problem being addressed through an international effort called REDD: Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation. How effective is REDD at reducing deforestation? How do regulations influence payment for ecosystem services programs? What institutional mechanisms can be trusted and engaged by all groups, including indigenous communities that derive their livelihoods from the land? Studies were described that show how PES programs can lead to protection of one area but increased deforestation in other areas, with impacts that vary by region and poverty rates. The panelists advocated for better natinoal-level monitoring systems to account for the success and barriers to PES programs. They also discussed community approaches to natural resource planning and governance, including the role that indigenous values can play in understanding the commoditization and valuation of ecosystem services.
Teaching Climate Change Across the Curriculum Within and Outside of the Classroom
This session focused on ways to integrate climate change education across academic disciplines. Professors presented their approaches to teaching about climate change through “wayfinding” frameworks that consider how people move through universities and find their paths, engagement through public art projects, campus greenhouse gas inventories and mitigation strategies, policies based on climate justice, and adaptation based on expected local impacts. I was most intrigued by a presentation of the Oberlin Environmental Dashboard that monitors and influences resource flows through buildings on campus and in the community. This group has used displays of real-time electricity and water use information to create new regulatory feedback mechanisms in the built environment. The information is used to organize competitions between students, compare people with their peer groups, publicize conservation commitments, and promote the use of resource budgeting tools. Some of their findings indicate that people conserve more when their energy use is displayed with an "ambient orb" rather than time series graphs, when information is presented in units of CO2 rather than kWh, and when emotional appeals are used (a likable animated character has been designed to elicit empathy while communicating about environmental impacts). This topic is of interest to the UVM community, as the Davis Student Center building currently has a Building Dashboard, and a project in development aims to expand this real-time display of electricity use to other buildings on campus.