Science needs to be more holistic – and less detached!

World’s challenges demand science changes — and fast, experts say

The world has little use — and precious little time — for detached experts.

Systems integration means taking a holistic look at all interactions between human and natural systems across the world. Credit: Michigan State University
Systems integration means taking a holistic look at all interactions between human and natural systems across the world.   Credit: Michigan State University

A group of scientists — each of them experts — makes a compelling case in this week’s Science Magazine that the growing global challenges has rendered sharply segregated expertise obsolete.

Disciplinary approaches to crises like air pollution, biodiversity loss, climate change, food insecurity, and energy and water shortages, are not only ineffective, but also making many of these crises worse because of counterproductive interactions and unintended consequences, said Jianguo “Jack” Liu, lead author of the paper “Systems Integration for Global Sustainability.” He also is Rachel Carson Chair in Sustainability and director of the Center for Systems Integration and Sustainability (CSIS) at Michigan State University (MSU).

“The real world is integrated,” Liu said. “Artificially breaking down the real world into separate pieces has caused many global problems. Solving these problems requires systems integration — holistic approaches to integrate various pieces of the real world at different organizational levels, across space and over time.”

Sustainability demands new methods

The paper’s authors, themselves with experience spanning agriculture, biodiversity, climate change, ecology, economics, energy, environment, food security, trade, water, and more, in essence paint a new paradigm of research that crosses boundaries among natural and social science disciplines, as well as other disciplines such as engineering and medical sciences.

Using examples that are both far-flung and tightly intertwined, these scientists show how systems integration can tackle the complex world, from unexpected impacts of biofuels to hidden roles of virtual resources such as virtual water.

The paper’s first illustration wraps Brazil, China, the Caribbean and Saharan Africa into an example of how the world demands to be approached not just for its singular qualities, but for its lack of boundaries over time, distance or the organizational levels humankind imposes.

The rapidly growing food export to China from Brazil destroys tropical forests and changes food markets in other parts of the world, including the Caribbean and Africa. Agricultural practices in the Sahara Desert in Africa stir up dust which enters the atmosphere and floats as far as the Caribbean. That African dust has been shown to contribute to coral reef decline and increased asthma rates in the Caribbean. It also affects China and Brazil that have made heavy investment in Caribbean tourism, infrastructure, and transportation. All these interactions, and the many more that exist in one example, defy borders both on maps and in academic disciplines.

Yet conventional research and decision-making often have taken place within separate disciplines or sectors. The paper notes that one of the systems integration frameworks — human-nature nexuses — “help anticipate otherwise unforeseen consequences, evaluate tradeoffs, produce co-benefits and allow the different and often competing interests to seek a common ground.” For example, the energy-food nexus considers both the effects of energy on food production, processing, transporting, and consumption, and the effects of food production, like corn, on the generation of energy, such as ethanol.

Other systems integration frameworks also bring multiple aspects of human-nature interactions together. Natural systems provide benefits like clean water and food to people, but human activities often inflict harm on natural systems. Considering a variety of benefits and costs simultaneously can help evaluate trade-offs and synergies among them. The environmental footprints framework helps quantify resources consumed and wastes generated by people.

Telecoupling — a way to make sense of a complex world

Many studies on sustainability have focused on one place, but the world is increasingly “telecoupled” — a term which embraces socioeconomic and environmental interactions over distances, sometimes several thousand miles away. For example, the large amount of coal from Australia sold to far-away markets like Japan, the European Union and Brazil affects not only those markets, but has global impacts far beyond. The money and environmental impacts such as CO2 emissions that flow with the coal, along with the mechanisms of transporting and burning the fossil fuel, spill over to countries between the partners.

Acknowledging that everything must be integrated is critical for scientific advances and effective policies, the authors say. So is the engagement between researchers and stakeholders. For example, Liu has partnered with environmental and social scientists to show how policies in China to curb human’s role in deforestation and panda habitat degradation were strengthened by enlisting nature reserve residents to receive subsidies to monitor the forests. The innovations were spurred by careful observation of the push-and-pull dynamics of managing a system to allow both people and the environment to thrive.

The paper says that effective policies and management for global sustainability needs the human and the natural systems to be more integrated across multiple spatial and temporal and awauthors think it is essential to quantify human-nature feedbacks and spillover systems. Science has largely ignored these, but they can have profound impacts on sustainability and human well-being.

It is time to integrate all disciplines for fundamental discoveries and synergetic solutions because of increasingly connected world challenges, Liu said.

“Furthermore, the world no longer has the luxury of the past, when there were fewer people on the planet and resources were more abundant,” Liu said. This will require funding agencies and universities to make more drastic changes to alter the reward mechanisms and transform the scientific community from isolated experts to integrated scholars.”


Story Source: The above story is based on materials provided by Michigan State University.

Michigan State University. “World’s challenges demand science changes — and fast, experts say.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 26 February 2015. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/02/150226144903.htm>.

An open letter to graduating seniors

bannergradsThe end of Spring Semester is the time of year when “change is in the air.”  Days are getting warmer.  We have lots of daylight and we’ve even been threatened by a few late afternoon thunderclouds.  Of course, the annual change of seasons is dwarfed by the significant life change those of you who are graduating college are experiencing.  Leaving college is a big deal – right up there with going to college, getting married, having children, changing jobs or careers, retirement – you know, the big changes.  Transitions.

transitionsThis time of the year, I always think about the last day of my own college career.  I took a final exam in the morning, packed my car to drive home, and was working at my first post-college job that same night.  Pumping gasoline (39 cents a gallon) at a Mobil station a half-mile from the house I grew up in.  Not much progress yet.  By the next week I had a job cleaning bathrooms at a local synagogue.  Not much prestige yet.  But I was making money, which I needed because I was to be married soon and headed for graduate school.

My memory of that last day was all about “so what’s next?”   I didn’t attend the graduation ceremony – I was “moving on.”  You see like many people, I wasn’t very good at “leaving with dignity and grace.”

For those of you graduating college, I want to share a few thoughts on leaving college, …on endings,…on beginnings, and particularly …on that confusing time in between called “the transition zone.”

Transitions

You would think that humans would be good at managing change.  We see so much of it in our daily lives.  There are revolutionary changes occurring in our society, our institutions, and among individuals – changes that seem to come at us faster and faster every year.  Charles Handy’s book The Age of Unreason makes the case that “change is not what it used to be.”

In the past, trends could be analyzed and future directions could be predicted. This allowed for continuous, evolutionary transitions. Today we are faced with mostly unpredictable, discontinuous, and perhaps even revolutionary change.

While some people see this period of rapid global transformation as an opportunity, for others it is a time of painful and reluctant adjustment to a seemingly confusing and chaotic world.  In fact, when faced with the possibility of change most people choose the familiar – the status quo.  Perhaps this is due to fear of the unknown, fear of losing power, status, control, or possessions.

Letting go is frightening: like jumping into a void. Henry David Thoreau spoke about the life of a change seeker when he wrote in his journal on March 11, 1859; “We must walk consciously only part way toward our goal, and the leap in the dark to our success.”

Like a Leap into the Dark

Graduating college can surely feel like a “leap into the dark” even when you know where you are headed tomorrow – a new job, an old job, a vacation, or the uncertainty of heading home to figure out what’s next.  I’ve spoken with many graduating seniors over the past few weeks as I’ve read several reflective essays for those in my Junior Writing class, and I know that leaving this familiar place is satisfying, exciting, sad and a bit frightening.

So I want to share a few thoughts on the process of transitions to help you think about how you are managing this transition out of college.  This will not be the last transition of your life, so you might as well learn how to do it well.

William Bridges book, Transitions, reminds us that all new stages of life actually begin with endings.  Letting go of the familiar is the “beginning of beginning” and requires two things; ceremony and grieving.  The traditional graduation ceremony is an important step in acknowledging that something significant is over.  Not everyone graduating from college chooses to participate in the collective ceremony.  Too bad.  I believe that ceremony is needed whether you loved college or hated every day.  It is over!

Saying good-bye is an important part of the process of letting go.  In some of my classes, we sit in a circle on the last day of class and students are invited to say a few words to the group and than conclude with the words “good bye” thus ending with dignity and grace.

But in general, we are not good at endings.  We are a future focused society always looking forward and moving on to the next thing.  When taken to the extreme, this “treadmill existence” can become pathological.  Some of us leave destruction in our wake – broken relationships, unfinished work or incomplete learning opportunities.  You may recognize this trait in friends – or perhaps yourself.

A Few Gifts

So the first gift I’ll give you today is the knowledge that endings are important.  And saying the words “good-bye” is an important part of the process of moving on.  Try it.

The second gift I’ll give you is the knowledge that there is a little-discussed period of time between endings and new beginnings called the transition zone.  It is a period of time that may be no more than a weekend or may take years, in which you may feel lost, empty and frightened.  This is good.  You see, the transition zone is a real thing.  To avoid it, or to not notice that it is happening is not healthy.

Our culture doesn’t generally value or appreciate the “in-between” times.  Earlier cultures developed rites and rituals to mark these periods.  We just don’t know how to deal with the feeling of emptiness that is quite normal during these periods.  We are somehow embarrassed about not being “productive” and we don’t know what to call ourselves at these times.  You are no longer a college student but you may not yet be a doctor, lawyer, artist, account executive, farmer, teacher or whatever.

During the transition time, nothing feels solid.  Many graduating seniors spend the summer or part of the next year living at home.  Yet that doesn’t feel quite right.  Both of my older sons took this route for convenience and economy.  It is a normal part of the transition time, yet both reported feeling like they didn’t quite belong.  Bridges suggests that we should learn to value this transition period as a time that can give us a unique view on our personal growth.  He offers several suggestions for activities that you might consider to help you appreciate this special time.

Appreciating Transitions

The first suggestion is to find a regular time and place to be alone.  This doesn’t mean laying in bed all day, but rather trying something that you might not ordinarily do – by yourself.  Some people get up early and read, meditate, walk, or just enjoy a cup of coffee in the presence of the early morning birdsongs.  The point is to be as completely unproductive as possible and just notice how it feels.  For me, I do some spiritual readings every morning and in the summer I try to spend a few minutes in my garden just noticing the plants (trying my best not to pull weeds).

The second recommendation is to keep a journal.  The journal should be used to record feelings not to make “to do” lists.  The paradox of this recommendation of course is that this might be a time when “nothing is happening.”  If so, write how you feel about that.  The practice of journaling was one I began during a period of rapid change quite a long time ago.  I now have dozens of personal journals recording what I was thinking and feeling at various stages of life.

The third recommendation is to ponder the question “what would be un-lived in your life if it ended today?”  What is it about you that feels to be core to how you think of yourself, that others don’t know about or you haven’t done yet.  For me, I spent much of my life thinking of myself as a sailor  – but I didn’t sail much.   I was always too busy doing the next productive thing in my career or family life.  After a major job transition some time ago, my brother and I bought a sailboat where I will spent most of the month of June – with family on weekends  – but during the week, alone.

Bridges recommends that you spend time completely alone in a totally new environment where nobody knows you.  This may be the modern day version of a Native American vision quest.  It may be a week or weekend on the Cape or in the mountains.  Don’t bring a book to read, a tablet, or your iPad – and turn your cell phone off for part of the day.  No outside stimulation to distract you from just being you.  This is more difficult than it sounds.  This is a journey into emptiness.  Find a place to walk and notice nature.  Pay attention to details.  Journal about your feelings and thoughts.  And don’t worry about being productive.  Just be. If it appeals to you stay awake one entire night with the only activity keeping a fire going or counting the stars, try it.  And don’t tell anyone what you are doing to avoid the questions and odd looks you will get.

If it feels right, plan your own symbolic acts of emptiness.  One person may sit outside, draw a circle around them self in the dust, and just sit.  Another may write a list of all the things they wanted to accomplish in the past year and burn it.  Another may talk to the moon – and still another may carve a walking stick.  Find a ritual that works for you

This transition will surely not be your last, so it might be useful to practice living in the transition zone before it gets too complicated.  There is more acceptance of “doing nothing” right after college than there is in midlife.  Since over 70% of UMass graduates report that they do not have employment in their area of study immediately after college, don’t worry.  Enjoy it.  When your parent’s friends ask you the inevitable question, “so what are your plans?”  You can respond that your immediate plan is to actively experience the emptiness of the transition zone.  That will usually end the questioning.

You might even be able to teach your parents about this important work.  They have all experienced a transition and if they are like me, well, they may not be terribly comfortable with it all.

Beginning the Next Beginning

And so the final stage of transition is new beginnings.  We generally celebrate beginnings as a time of opportunity.  But we also recognize it as a time of uncertainty.  It is like the first step of a trapeze artist onto a high wire crossing Niagara Falls.  The first step is the most difficult and requires letting go of both the patterns of the past and expectations for the future.

Do you remember the scene in the Disney movie “Finding Nemo’ when Dory and Marlin (Nemo’s dad – the clown fish) are inside the whale trying not to get sucked down the vortex of water that seems to lead to death?  Dory tells Marlin to “let go.”  Marlin struggles to hang on, not knowing what the future will bring.  When Marlin finally lets go, they get shot up through the whale’s spout and find themselves in Sydney Harbor – exactly where they needed to be.

Dori surely new how to “leap into the dark.” 

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Congratulations to all the graduating seniors from the Sustainable Food and Farming program in the UMass Stockbridge School of Agriculture!

A Cultural Benefit to Using Soil as a Growing Medium in Aquaponics

By Kailey Burke, Sustainable Food and Farming Student

Spinach and lettuce at Pettengill in Salisbury, MA
Spinach and lettuce at Pettengill in Salisbury, MA

Aquaculture + Hydroponics = Aquaponics

In this system, fish excrete ammonium (NH4+) waste which passes through media that contains bacteria, which convert

Pettengill Aquaponics System with Koi
Pettengill Aquaponics System with Koi

ammonium to nitrate (NO3-, which is the most accessible form of N that plants are able to take up), plants uptake nutrient filled water, and the rest of the water then returns back to the fish, purified.

Sounds simple enough, but there are many ways to build this system, ranging from an intricate technical system to a low cost setup. One of these variables includes the growing media which provide plants with support, moisture retention, and access to nutrients. It is this variable that could play an important role in connecting traditional farmers to a progressive growing system.

Peas growing in 5 inch pots on a growing table
Peas growing in 5 inch pots on a growing table

The growing media is responsible for housing bacteria and purification, could either be soil or a soil-less material. Though soil is the standard growing medium in most other production streams soil-less substrates can also supply plants with the essential elements through materials such as clay pellets, fiber mats, or bare root systems. Though there have been countless trials showing benefits of soil-less materials in an aquaponics system, and there are certainly systems in which soil-less substrates are the appropriate material to use, there is something accessible and fundamental about using soil… maybe it’s that plants have been evolving for 425 million years to be growing in soil? And, we are only beginning to understand and value the billions of relationships that are interconnected between soil biota, nutrients, and plant ecology.

While it is true that not all fish are able to withstand the water quality fluctuations that soil systems can carry with them, there are a large variety of fish that are able to thrive in these systems – such as tilapia, koi, and catfish. The images below, from Pettengill Farm in Salisbury, MA and Growing Power in Milwaukee, MI show a low-tech, low-cost aquaponics system that uses soil and common greenhouse pots and flats.

Will Allen at Growing Power in Milwaukee, WI with 7000 Lake Perch
Will Allen at Growing Power in Milwaukee, WI with 7000 Lake Perch

In this system tilapia are contained in a tank made of wood and pond lining that sits 4 feet into the ground. This water is then pumped from the fish tank to two 30 foot long growing tables that are pitched at a mere 2 inches. The tables are wood lined with pond liners and have rocks on the tabletops to allow the soil filled pots or trays to sit a bit higher out of the water. The water flows down the table through the rocks, pots, and roots back into the fish tank.

So, why highlight soil as a viable aquaponics media? Well, using soil as a growing medium not only plays an important biological role, but it also plays a cultural role in integrating the idea of an aquaponics systems into appropriate modern day small farms. Using a soil based system, farmers are able to easily integrate and take advantage of the many functions that aquaponics can play, such as; providing thermal mass and temperature stabilization in a greenhouse, water conservation, reduced reliance on outside fertilization, and educational attraction. In conclusion, soil is a language that farmers and gardeners speak, and having this material as the basis for plant growth bridges a gap between the variations of production in an aquaponics system to that of traditional methods.

Nasturtium in the Growing Power greenhouse
Nasturtium in the Growing Power greenhouse
Nutrient solution leaving the aquaponics table returning to fish tank below
Nutrient solution leaving the aquaponics table returning to fish tank below

Spring is at full swing at the UMass Student Farm!

studentfarmSpring is in full swing at the UMass Student Farm!

We’ve had a busy few weeks seeding broccoli, eggplant, peppers and tomatoes. We’ve been selling transplants at the Amherst Winter Farmers Market and the UMass Farmers Market on Goodell lawn and in the Commonwealth Honors College Events Hall Friday afternoons along with some other great student vendors including the UMass Permaculture Initiative and Gardenshare.

Last week we got out in the field at the Agricultural Learning Center to take soil samples and assess our coverstudentstransplanting crop stand. The soil was sent to the West Experiment Station for testing. In South Deerfield , where we plan to do most of our summer production, we are plowing and preparing beds and transplanting onions. Seed potato spuds are cut into sections each containing one budding “eye” of growth and laid out to dry for a few days before planting.

The season has been slow to start because of melting snow and cold nights but now the soil is drying out and the days are getting warmer there’s so much to do!  Everyone got a chance to drive the tractor at South Deerfield as we prepare beds for direct seeding and transplanting.

Last Wednesday we attached the transplanter to the tractor and loaded up our 128 cell trays. Two people sit on the back of the attachment and drop onions into the holes as the transplanter opens them. Others follow behind tucking the plants in. The tractor also holds 100 gallons of water to use as we go, just enough to help the plants get well established.

studentsplanting'Though it’s a slow process we managed to finish four five hundred foot long rows! We estimated that we planted at least 10,000 onions. We can’t wait to give these to our CSA members, make them available to the UMass community through Dining Services and the Student Farmers Market and to the greater community through Big Y.

We’ve also been offered the opportunity to expand to Big Y in Greenfield in addition to their Amherst and Northampton stores.  We’re expanding our summer production this year with a bigger crew, more land, and hopefully we will be growing a lot more food than ever! The hoop house at the ALC will allow us to grow hardy crops like spinach later into the winter months.

Other highlights were our field trips to the Plant Diagnostics Lab and the Big Y Produce Warehouse and Headquarters in Springfield. This year we will be planting a pick your own plot for the first time! CSA members will be able to come to the farm and harvest their own herbs, pumpkins and other vegetables during the Fall.

Another exciting development is the implementation of certified organic chickens on our fields at the Ag Learning Center (ALC) on North Pleasant St.  A lot of planning has gone into our water management plan for the ALC. We’ve also been working on developing SOPs (standard operating procedures) to bring the student farm into line with Good Agricultural Practices and establish a comprehensive food safety plan.

There’s a lot to look forward to in the coming months, CSA shares are still available and we will be holding volunteer opportunities and potlucks!  To stay connected please join our Facebook Group!

If you want to support our project, please buy a CSA share!

Buy a CSA Membership and Share

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Bringing a 1953 Farmall Super A Back to Life

By Peter Hanlon – UMass Sustainable Food and Farming Student

I’m a third generation cranberry farmer, 21 years old and I live for growing cranberries. Ever since I was ten I’ve tried to help out on the bog.  Now I can say that I’ve grown my fair share of cranberries. I’m a hard-working man and it shows in what I’ve done over the years.  But my greatest accomplishment was the 53’ Farmall Super A that I brought back to life.

I got this tractor for Christmas in 2010. It was kind of a joke when I got it – a tractor, what kid at 17 wants a tractor for Christmas? It has a sickle bar mower that can easily mow the ditches of a cranberry bog. I went out and tested it, the tractor was running then.

When I finished sanding, cleaning and repainting the Farmall in the spring of 2011, it didn’t run. It didn’t even make a noise. Back then I only knew a few things about engines.  I replaced the wiring harness and the tractor finally turned over and ran. I thought that was the last of my worries, I was quite wrong.

peterhanlontractor

After that day it didn’t run again until the next spring. The engine seized and I had to fight with the transmission to free it again. So 2012 came and went with only a few good moments with the Super A.  Nothing seemed to work and understanding books and old literature wasn’t helping. Then came the winter between fall and spring semester of my freshman year at college, a turning point for the tractor and me.  I dismantled the transmission case and found that the gears were seized. I knew I had to start there.

In the spring the transmission got fluently moving again and the tractor ran again. What a relief it was. All the hard work had finally come down to me fixing the transmission. Or so I thought. When my father and I got it outside to check it over, the newly replaced oil gauge was running at zero, and the engine was hot. No, not hot, extremely hot. The geared driven oil pump wasn’t pumping oil through the engine. It seemed to have been an internal problem that I wasn’t aware of. When I finally dismantled the oil pan I found the cause of my problem to be the gear on the cam shaft that ran the oil pump, it was shattered. I needed a new cam shaft for a 53’ tractor! Where can you find that, EBay of course. With a new cam shaft and oil pump on its way I decided to get a little help with replacing it. A good friend who is a mechanic said he would help. So with three months gone and the parts finally arriving the fall of 2013 my mechanic and I replaced the cam shaft.

With the cam shaft now in place and the tractor actually running strong the time came in the spring of 2014 to finally mow the banks of the bogs. It was going well till I blew the head gasket. It was the third time I ran the tractor with the mower and it over heated in the hot July air. It took a month to get the part, but I did the engine work myself. I tore down the top half of the motor and replaced the blown gasket with a new one. From that day on my hard work paid off.

Ups and downs make life interesting. I hear people say that they want to give up and quit school, and I have thought that a time or two myself.  But I realize that if I gave up on that Super A Farmall, I wouldn’t have grown into the man I am today. Thinking back on the work I did reassures me that anything is possible if you work hard.

peterhanlontractor3

UMass at the Amherst Sustainability Festival

Thanks to all the students who contributed to the many educational booths that were part of the Amherst Sustainability Festival.  The Stockbridge School of Agriculture was well-represented!

sustfest

Among the UMass groups participating were:

UMass Permaculture

umassperm

The Stockbridge Food for All Garden

foodforallgang

The Amherst Schools Garden Project

Amherst School GArdens Poster 2015 (2)

Spiritual Ecology and Regenerative Systems Initiative

SERSI (2)ECO 597SE – Spiritual & Environmental Sustainability Class

ecospirit

The UMass Beekeeping Club

umassbees

It was great to see so many students active in their local community!

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