A Working Model to Assess and Improve the Sustainability of Outdoor Education and Recreation
Sustainable Backcountry Travel
Visiting Assistant Professor of Outdoor Education Paul Van Horn
with Anna Bauer, Hilary Bulger, Drew Cramer, Byron Emmons, Joe Graveen, Dave Lardinois, Andrew Rasmus, Paul Sveum, Jessica Swiercynski, Dave Thomas, Carolyn Weber
“We do not inherit the world from our ancestors. We borrow it from our children.”
~Haida Indian saying
Special Thanks to
Connie Burditt, Instructor and Associate Director of Native American Studies
Jorge Conesa-Sevilla, Associate Professor of Psychology
Tim Doyle, Visiting Assistant Professor of Religion and Philosophy
Andrew Goyke, Professor of Biology
Clare Hintz, Sustainable Systems Educator
Derek Ogle, Associate Professor of Mathematics and Applied Statistics
Kevin Schanning, Associate Professor of Sociology
Presented at the Wilderness Education Association’s National Conference
San Diego, California
February 14, 2008
Hilary Bulger, Paul Sveum, and Paul Van Horn
Table of Contents
VI. The ASAP Model
- ASAP 2.0: As Sustainable as Possible (full article)
- As Sustainable As Possible Model (ASAP) (short version)
- As Sustainable As Possible Worksheet
- As Sustainable as Possible (Excel Worksheet with formulas)
- As Sustainable As Possible (blank Excel Worksheet)
The ASAP – As Sustainable As Possible – Model was developed during the fall of 2007 in the Sustainable Backcountry Travel class at Northland College taught by Visiting Assistant Professor of Outdoor Education Paul Van Horn. It started as observations that there is an apparent disconnect between the values and the practices of those involved with the outdoor industry and evolved into a model for assessing and improving the sustainability of outdoor programming.
It has continued to evolve. It was presented at the Wilderness Education Association’s National Conference on Outdoor Leadership in February 2008. A student directed steering committee has been established at Northland College to help guide its outdoor programming to a sustainable future, using ASAP as a basis. This revision attempted to clean up the minor incongruence in the first version caused by eleven authors and to discuss some of the philosophies that influenced the creation of the model, but were not addressed in the actual paper.
To assist us in understanding the complex issue of sustainability, we brought in thinkers from other fields. Special thanks to Connie Burditt, Instructor of Native American Studies; Jorge Conesa-Sevilla, Associate Professor of Psychology; Tim Doyle, Visiting Assistant Professor of Religion and Philosophy; Clare Hintz, Campus Sustainability Coordinator; and Kevin Schanning, Assistant Professor of Sociology for sharing their insight into the cultural, psychological, philosophical, systems thinking, and sociological aspects of this issue with us.
The process of creating a cohesive, comprehensive, and usable model intended to encourage people to critically examine their actions and decisions is a grand undertaking, especially when its basis is sustainability. What does sustainability mean? What does it look like to be truly sustainable? These are difficult questions that do not have easy answers and most people hesitate when asked to define sustainability. The interconnectedness of life becomes very apparent when examining sustainable practices, requiring a broad view.
Systems thinking provided us with the broad view we needed and through this type of brainstorming, we isolated gear, location, and food as three main aspects of outdoor programming that our model would focus on. The eleven students were split into groups and each tackled a category, identifying key issues and alternative solutions for each. When we met for class, we shared our findings and research and worked together on the composition and structure of ASAP.
In this paper there is background discussion on the key issues we identified and potential solutions for each of the three categories. The model has these issues simplified into criteria that, if met, the user is awarded points for. The criteria included are not the only possible considerations, but are, in our opinion, the most relevant and researchable. There are most certainly gaps and we would greatly appreciate feedback from readers as the model continues to develop.
Attempting to quantify something as complicated as sustainability proved to be extremely challenging. The scoring, as far as the percentages and weights, given that each section has a different possible number of points, was something we struggled with. We consulted Derek Ogle, Associate Professor of Mathematics and Applied Statistics, for advice and decided, for now, to accept that while the three categories hold equal weight, changes in one category are not equal to changes in another. ASAP is intended to be used as a tool for improvement and the score from the model is only useful as a comparison, it does not stand alone as a usable measurement.
We used The Natural Step as our working definition of sustainability. The Natural Step is a framework of conditions that must be met for a society to be considered sustainable. Oncologist Dr. Karl-Henrik Robert brought together leading Swedish scientists to develop the framework, grounded in science and natural cycles, in 1989. The four conditions and the brief discussion of each that follow are taken from the The Natural Step Network’s website. The Natural Step is openly published and free for anyone to use.
In order for a society to be sustainable, nature’s functions and diversity are not systematically subject to increasing concentrations of substances extracted from the earth’s crust. In a sustainable society, human activities such as the burning of fossil fuels, and the mining of metals minerals, will not occur at a rate that causes them to systematically increase in the ecosphere. There are thresholds beyond which living organisms and ecosystems are adversely affected by increases in substances from the earth’s crust. Problems may include an increase in greenhouse gases leading to global warming, contamination of surface and ground water, and metal toxicity which can cause functional disturbances in animals. In practical terms, the first condition requires society to implement comprehensive metal and mineral recycling programs and to decrease economic dependence on fossil fuels.
In order for a society to be sustainable, nature’s functions and diversity are not systematically subject to increasing concentrations of substances produced by society. In a sustainable society, humans will avoid generating systematic increases in persistent substances such as DDT, PCB’s, and Freon. Synthetic organic compounds such as DDT and PCB’s can remain in the environment for many years, bio-accumulating in the tissue of organisms and causing profound deleterious effects on predators in the upper levels of the food chain. Freon, and other ozone depleting compounds, may increase the risk of cancer due to added UV radiation in the troposphere. Society needs to find ways to reduce economic dependence on persistent human-made substances.
In order for a society to be sustainable, nature’s functions and diversity are not systematically impoverished by physical displacement, over-harvesting, or other forms of ecosystem manipulation. In a sustainable society, humans will avoid taking more from the biosphere than can be replenished by natural systems. In addition, people will avoid systematically encroaching upon nature by destroying the habitat of other species. Biodiversity, which includes the great variety of animals and plants found in nature, provides the foundation for ecosystem services which are necessary to sustain life on this planet. Society’s health and prosperity depends on the enduring capacity of nature to renew itself and rebuild waste into resources.
In a sustainable society, people are not subject to conditions that systematically undermine their capacity to meet their needs. All human beings have intrinsic needs. The goal of the social system is to provide the opportunity for all to meet those needs, as a precondition to a dignified way of life for everyone. “What” we do and “how” we do it matters. To make decisions which take us toward this goal, in consideration of any policy, product, marketing, or investment, we should always identify in advance the people who are going to be affected, taking the widest possible systems view. We should ask ourselves: “Would we like to be subjected to the conditions we create?” In addition, the manner in which we make these decisions should allow for participation, be transparent, hold actors accountable, and be honest.
The Natural Step Framework advocates the concept of backcasting from sustainable principles, rather than forecasting a specific end goal (The Natural Step Network, n.d.). Especially with the current push to “go green,” many organizations or individuals may have a general feeling that they should “be more sustainable,” which is a difficult place to begin from. So they may set a more specific goal – like installing solar panels (that while for many people may be an appropriate step but is not an end in and of itself and also has inherent problems such as the materials it is made from) – which limits creativity and flexibility. A community practicing backcasting has a future vision of their community in compliance with the four conditions of The Natural Step and will begin taking smaller, specific steps today, continually questioning if they are moving in the right direction. This broad, but scientifically defined end goal allows for a flexible, dynamic, and creative path to sustainability.
This is how we have framed ASAP, which is implied in its name. We know where we need to go, but we do not know exactly how to get there. This cannot, however, be used as an excuse for not beginning as soon as possible with the things we can do to be as sustainable as possible right now, always looking down the road toward a fully sustainable future in complete compliance with The Natural Step. On this journey we need to question current paradigms and critically examine what, why, and how we do what we do as outdoor educators and recreators, as well as in our daily lives.
In outdoor programming this brings up some deeply imbedded practices and trends. There are myriad concerns and they are all interrelated, so the effects of what seem a minor decision ripple around the world. The pros and cons, the values and costs, are difficult to quantify and the true effects can be difficult to research, adding to the complexity. We, as the facilitators of outdoor experiences who deeply love and know the natural environment, should be setting the example of how to walk sustainably. To accomplish this, we need to look closely at our paradigms, trends, and practices, adjusting and changing them to fit in line with the Natural Step.
People’s desire to consume is not a new issue; we have always consumed to survive. Unfortunately, what we are facing now is a consumer-based society that has become addicted to commodities and convenience. The bar has shifted from consumption of what is actually necessary to survive to consumption of luxuries that are thought of as necessities. The results of our over-consumption are not transparent and are degrading the environment on a global scale. Consumption patterns have changed drastically, evolving over time based on the influence of those in control; the few very wealthy that control these systems have created an economy reliant on wasteful consumerism.
Economist J.W. Smith believes that, “Though most societies were efficient for the time in which they were formed, powerful nations disintegrated when too large a share of their labor was diverted to unnecessary tasks. Some societies, such as the European aristocratic structures, needlessly expended labor, resources, and capital to support militaristic elite bent on plundering neighbors and their own workers. Each of these societies became locked into a wasteful system of production and distribution. The United States is also locked into a wasteful expenditure of labor, resources, and industry” (Smith, 1994, p.4).
Just how wasteful is this system? The processes that lead to such disparities in consumption are themselves wasteful and are structured deep into the system itself. Economic efficiency is for making profits, not necessarily for social good, which is treated as a side effect if it is addressed at all. Environmental issues in production-consumption systems have only recently begun to be addressed. The waste in the economic system is, as a result, very deep. Eliminating the causes of this type of waste is related to the elimination of poverty and bringing rights to all, including the natural world, allowing for further equitable and sustainable consumption for all, although that consumption will look very different than our current patterns.
Just what are the products made out of that we purchase so voraciously? Most of our outdoor gear is made of plastics, nylon, aluminum, and an army of synthetics with names that are difficult to pronounce. By being unfamiliar with these materials, we fail to realize what it takes to produce the products we use. Most of the gear we buy is created from non-renewable resources and their extraction processes create harmful by-products, polluting the environment and stripping the Earth of its resources. Production also creates dangerous by-products, which have to be dealt with, which is unfortunately often done in an irresponsible manner. The energy that goes into these productions causes huge amounts of carbon emissions to be released into the atmosphere. As our society has recently discovered and acknowledged the tremendous harm carbon emissions have on our climate, our production and consumption systems must change.
Besides using energy and producing harmful emissions, we must understand the risk of creating such large amounts of non-natural materials. If we look at The Natural Step, we can identify that production of these substances does not lead to a sustainable society (The Natural Step Network, n.d.). Chemicals that are man-made are damaging to the environment in ways we know of and also in ways we have not identified yet. We do not have the technology or the resources to discover all of the effects creating these chemicals will have on the environment, including humans, in the years and decades to come.
Additionally, the gear itself, when we are done using it, often gets discarded as well. A lot of times this happens before the gear has reached the end of its lifespan, which can be extended through repairs, instead falling to new, hip products. From the extraction to disposal, almost all of our gear creates negative impacts on the environment. Why do we continue to buy, and in doing so support the production of, these products if they cause so much harm to the environment and to ourselves?
We continue to buy these products because they are necessary to recreate, or so we are told. Virtually every activity, even those that are supposed to help us reconnect to nature, has been commodified. To walk we need specialized shoes, walking sticks, an aluminum water bottle, and a backpack; for yoga we need yoga mats and the right clothes; and when we get into backpacking, rock climbing, and kayaking, the lists becomes endless. The norm in the industry is to have the latest, lightest, coolest gear, both as educators and as recreators. The influence of the media, advertising, our teachers, our peers, both intentional and unintentional, perpetuates consumerism in the outdoor field.
As leaders in the outdoor field, it is our responsibility to change this trend. We contribute to consumerism and ultimately to environmental degradation when we “dress the part.” When we are in the role of an educator, there is pressure to look “professional.” While it is important that we garner respect and trust, we are doing even more damage by modeling unsustainable behaviors to our often impressionable participants and students. There are many considerations when purchasing gear, but it is our duty to break out of unsustainable patterns.
Rain gear is a good example of how complicated making a sustainable gear decision really is. This is one piece of gear where the synthetic options do seem to consistently meet the needs of outdoor recreators better than natural ones. Waxed cottons, tin cloths, and shelter cloths – all different weights of cotton in different types of coating and available from a number of producers – are the natural alternative. These types of jackets are generally heavier and bulkier than synthetic materials, most are coated in paraffin or polyurethane, and although the potential is there, we could not find any that were made organically or sustainably (American Workwear, n.d.).
What kind of rain gear do you buy then? Are you going to buy a heavy, stiff, old-fashioned jacket that may not be made sustainably, but the base material is natural? Or are you going to buy a light, hip, synthetic jacket? Patagonia is one company working to “take steps to lighten our footprint and do less harm,” but their numbers are still astounding. According to their “Footprint Chronicles” – a feature on their website that tracks the impact of selected specific products – producing Patagonia’s “Talus Jacket,” a “warm, highly breathable, and water-resistant soft shell,” generates 66 pounds of carbon dioxide. This is from its origin as fiber to Reno, NV. At this point this jacket will have traveled 11,170 miles and it still has to get to the consumer (Patagonia, 2009).
So do we really need rain gear? Most of us would immediately answer affirmatively, but is it reasonable to expect to be completely warm and dry all the time? We need to examine our expectations and see if they can be reasonably met while still staying in line with our values and sustainability. Upon examination, we may discover that we are able to lower our personal expectations, but what about when in the professional role? We start to get into concerns about risk management and participant safety, where we need to err on the side of caution, but where do those lines actually lay?
There are many simple ways to begin to approach gear more sustainably. Borrowing or renting is usually cheaper and a good option, particularly if it is a new activity or an activity that you do not often engage in. A lot of gear can be made with some basic skills, creativity, and a bit of tinkering. If you do decide to buy, look for used gear, there are some great bargains on classic – meaning simple and durable – gear out there. Think creatively about the gear you are purchasing, can it serve more than one purpose? A poncho can cover you and your backpack, rather than a rain jacket and a pack cover, and act as a tarp or ground cloth at night.
If you decide that you need to buy new, research the companies you are supporting. Many companies are working hard to improve their sustainability. Support companies that are members of Conservation Alliance, Fair Trade, or EPA Green Power Partnership and that otherwise have practices that address the environmental, human, and economic aspects of sustainability. Do your research and find out where the product was made, what it was made from, what they byproducts were, who made it and how they were treated, how it got to you, if it is easily repairable (including learning the necessary skills to repair and maintain it), and if it is recyclable when it can no longer be repaired.
Recycled materials are materials that are reused for another purpose. Most of us think of putting the material in the recycling bin, but to reuse the material in that manner involves processing procedures that can have harmful byproducts and effects. Recycling can include the direct reuse of a material such as a glass or plastic container or a completely different use such as making a bag out of an old t-shirt. An aluminum backpack frame that is made out of old pop cans is one example of a product that is made out of recycled materials; Patagonia makes fleece out of recycled pop bottles (Anderson, n.d.). When making an item yourself out of recycled materials be aware of the things that go into its creation such as glue, sewing thread, or paint that are not recycled or made sustainably.
Look for materials that are naturally made or made from recycled materials, but be aware that “a company doesn’t just cut a stalk of bamboo and fashion it into a wicking T-shirt. Processing and refinement are required for almost any textile, some less eco-friendly than others“ (Anderson, n.d.). Northland College Visiting Assistant Professor of Outdoor Education Paul Van Horn’s “maxim is that if something bears absolutely no resemblance to the original source, than there's probably more processing involved than we'd like to admit” (personal communication, April 2, 2009).
Many companies inform consumers of their environmental awareness by using little packaging or packaging which is made from recycled materials. Also, packaging may state that the company supports environmental causes or is actively trying to improve its sustainability. While these are good things to look out for, be aware of “greenwashing,” a technique companies use to appear more environmentally friendly than they actually are. If ordering large amounts of equipment, it is economical and more sustainable to order in bulk to lessen the transportation and packaging impact and costs. If you receive magazines for your equipment or clothing, check to see if the magazines use recycled paper and if not, unsubscribe and use the internet as a resource.
The basic idea is to use minimalist thinking to lessen the impact on the environment, which will involve drastic changes in trends, expectations, and practices. We need to carefully examine and adjust our motives, our expectations, and our purchases. Every dollar spent is a vote cast and as leaders in the field, we need to demand sustainable gear.
We raised a lot of questions, like rain gear, that were difficult to answer or that we did not get to within the scope of the class that warrant further attention and consideration. How do you accurately assess the impact of the vast amounts of steps involved in creating a product? How do we consider the regulations in each state or country in determining a final system of assessment? Are there other organizations, like Fair Trade, that certify products? How and where do we find information about companies that are not transparent? Do companies put out or are they required to publish public documents about the specifics of their production processes?
Location lies at the foundation of a good trip, but the type of the location is not the only important factor in determining where to enjoy some leisure time. Some of the major factors in determining locale include the distance to the location, the mode of transportation, the group’s collective knowledge level of ecological consciousness, local practices, and skill, as well as the purpose for outdoor education or recreation in the first place. In dealing with location, keep in mind that many of the considerations are subjective, intangible, and abstract, making it difficult to measure and evaluate.
Our official definition of wilderness, according to the Wilderness Act, is “an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” This damaging definition distinctly separates humans and wilderness and has helped shape the practices in outdoor programming, including the current disconnect between our values and our actions. If we are “visitors,” the thinking goes, and to leave wilderness “pristine,” we must not leave any signs we were there.
This has lead to the championing of Leave No Trace as the ultimate guide to environmentally responsible practices. Leave No Trace has a positive mission and is a helpful tool for beginning outdoor enthusiasts, but as outdoor professionals, we should have a much higher level of understanding. We need to know how to travel in specific areas; what is an appropriate practice in northern Wisconsin is probably not an appropriate practice in southern Utah. This requires knowledge of the area, investigation into impact, and the skills to carry out the determined best practice.
With Leave No Trace as the guide, we fail to see the true impact of our actions. Just because we cannot see our trace does not mean it is not there. Following current common practices, such as using white gas stoves, may leave significantly less visual impact on the immediate area compared to cooking over a wood fire, but where did the gas come from? What kind of impact did the extraction, processing, and transportation of the gas have? Are we leaving a hole in the woods or a hole in the Earth (Sveum, n.d.)? We need to step back from our favorite patch of woods to a broad global view when we consider impact. Understanding your global impact is essential to making better, more sustainable decisions.
Decreasing our global impact does increase our local impact, but we have more control over our conduct then the conduct of oil companies. Understanding the area you are in, knowing the local appropriate practices, and having the skill set to carry out – and in a professional role, to teach – those practices are vital to decreasing local impact. Gaining these skills and knowledge may take time and research, but will ultimately lower overall impact. In the north woods, this includes being confident and competent in tree identification, axe and saw use and maintenance, and fire-building, among others. Other areas will require different knowledge and different skills.
Ecopsychology plays an important role in our purposes for going outside at all. Ecopsychology explores the relationships between existential circumstances such as “nature estrangement” and “nature alienation” that we suffer from as a society and diverse situations where psychological wellness is suggested in varying degrees (Gomes, Kanner, & Roszak, 1995). It can be defined as mankind’s desire to return to nature to stay sane. It resolves to recreate the age-old connection between man and nature, between man and his origins. Upon resolving the connection that spans the concept of the self and reaches beyond human society to again connect with nature, it results in an ecological ego and a sense of ethical responsibility to the planet (Conessa-Sevilla, 2006). It questions the need for society’s masculine, capitalistic, urbanized culture and cultivates ideas of a humble, open-minded, generally rural culture that lives in harmony with the environment.
To use the outdoors to teach others to find their ecological ego should be the pinnacle of reasoning as outdoor educators and recreators. Someone with a developed ecological conscious may be able to find satisfaction and wildness in their backyard. However, if someone has a severe disconnect they may require the grand vistas and humbling mountains we associate with “wilderness” to make a connection, which for most of us is not accessible near our homes. Does this make it okay to unsustainably drive hundreds of miles to facilitate an opportunity for reconnection with nature? How do you compare the true costs of transportation with providing someone with a life-changing experience?
Once a person recognizes why he or she desires to participate in outdoor pastimes, he or she can use one’s knowledge to decide an appropriate place to recreate. Those with greater knowledge of ecological consciousness should focus on the reasons they decide to recreate. Does a person really need to visit untouched wilderness or can he or she achieve the same objective in the local area? If this is so one would not need to travel far or require a remote wilderness area to appreciate the beauty that nature has to offer. Someone who is still developing his or her ecological consciousness however still might require something more remote to feel intone with nature. It is when one realizes that nature can be appreciated on a door step in the middle of the city, that one can truly be at peace with the inner desire for nature, and the need to just go to nature ceases to exist without a purpose. Location can lose its value when full ecological appreciation is awoken, but until then a trip’s location is what remains as the settling factor.
Once a location is decided, the mode of transportation becomes the next consideration, although the two certainly influence each other. There are many modes of transportation, but for the most part they can be categorized into three sections: human-powered vehicles, vehicles powered by alternate mechanical forms of energy, and vehicles powered by fossil fuels. The last category can be divided into two subcategories: optimal usage of fossil fuel and incompetent usage of fossil fuel.
The burning of fossil fuel is one of the main causes for an increase in global temperature. The burning of fossil fuels at high rates causes the buildup of green house gasses allowing for massive holes in the ozone layer which causes more sun to be let in and more heat to be trapped in the atmosphere. The more fossil fuels are burned the more we set ourselves up to cause our own destruction and although vehicles may spell convenience for many, fossil-fuel-burning vehicles also spell long-term disaster. Many companies are working to find a way to accommodate for such an over-use of fossil fuels by creating cars that have higher fuel efficiency.
The greatest way to solve the problem of over-using fossil fuels is not to use them at all. This however will hardly be possible for a long time due to our econo-centric, capitalistic mindset where every reason for living revolves production and consumption. There are many options to combat usage of fossil fuels for driving purposes, but due to monetary and political reasons they are not being pursued. Such ideas as using battery driven, solar-powered, or “veggie oil”-run vehicles should be embraced, not rejected. They do not require fossil fuel, lessening environmental impact. The best method of transportation however would require no extra mechanical parts but only human power to operate such as biking or walking.
Along with setting type and mode of transportation, the distance traveled to reach a certain starting point is also very important because it impacts the intensity of each person’s carbon footprint. Distance is directly intertwined with mode of transportation and the actual destination, which comes down to our purpose, which is again difficult to quantify. It is up to outdoor enthusiasts today to decide whether driving a distance of 25 miles is necessary or whether it could have been biked. This forces us to really examine our motives to go to that destination in the first place. For example, is it really necessary to travel all the way to the Superior Hiking Trail to go backpacking or can a person who lives in Ashland, Wisconsin go out and backpack in the Chequamegon National Forest and achieve the same satisfaction?
What about other activities, such as snowboarding or rock climbing that are location specific? Most of us cannot walk out our back door to a hill to ski or a cliff to climb. How do we compare the true costs of getting to an appropriate site and the values inherent in rock climbing? Rock climbing is a popular adventure education activity because it provides the perceived risk that takes people out of their comfort zone and into a zone of optimal learning. Why do we choose one activity over another? How do we determine an activity’s value and learning potential?
Specific locations may have intrinsic values themselves, without the value of any particular activity, particularly places of religious or cultural importance, or places of exceptional beauty. How do we measure this? Is it possible to quantify the intrinsic and inherent values of places and activities? How do we determine true costs – including the effects of extracting, processing, transporting, and burning petroleum and the effects and byproducts of vehicle production to name a few considerations besides the dollar amount at the gas pump – of traveling to our selected destination?
Some of the activities we engage in, personally and professionally, simply cannot be done sustainably, especially ones that are location specific or gear intensive, like rock climbing. No one that we could find is making sustainable rock climbing gear and harnesses, helmets, ropes, carabineers, and belay devices are necessary to climb safely. Serious climbers often add more gear to this mix, as well as the trendy, mostly petroleum based clothing most of us wear. As with rain gear, there is no easy answer. We can make decisions to climb as close to home as possible. We can discuss the potential of free climbing, but this again, on a professional level, infringes on participants’ safety and is not something most organizations or professionals are understandably willing to do.
When dealing with the location aspect of recreating sustainability, one deals more with personal actions and goals instead of objects like in the food and gear aspects. There is a wide range of intangibles, actions, and understandings that one must take into account when considering location and they are all connected. It is a manner of personal responsibility to make sure that recreational or educational trips travel in a way that promotes minimal impact on the environment but still maintains maximum enjoyment and fulfillment from the outdoors.
Conventional agricultural practices result in severe detrimental effects in and on the environment and in human health and nutrition. The biomagnifications – “the bioaccumulation of a substance up the food chain by transfer of residues of the substance in smaller organisms that are food for larger organisms in the chain” (United States Geological Survey, 2006) – of pesticides has increased dramatically in the animals we eat. The 1987 book Diet for a New America, by John Robbins, cites research studies that “indicate that of all the toxic chemical residues in the American diet, 95-99%, comes from meat, fish, dairy products, and eggs” (pg 315). Pesticide residues are minimal from diets low on the food chain, approximately “1% from grains, 4% from fruits, and 6% from vegetables compared to 23% from dairy products and 55% from meats” (Realities 1989). Pesticide residues are stored in fat cells in animals higher up on the food chain, causing people to become pesticide sinks.
After World War II, farming changed dramatically from what had been common practices for centuries. With the end of the war, the enemy shifted from Germany or Japan to the natural world and weapons and machines were likewise transformed to operate in a different sector of the economy. The tanks became tractors to work the soil while the explosives were made into fertilizers to stimulate growth. Before World War II soil fertility was dependent on manure, crop rotations, and the planting of nitrogen fixing plants, insuring a healthy complex system, but with the end of the war and an enormous surplus of nitrogen explosives, scientists abandoned the small complex farm and created mechanized farms that occupied thousands of acres and were supplied with nitrogen fertilizers. Now, after 60 years of constant misuse, these fertilizers and animal manure have compromised certain aspects of the environment, especially the Gulf of Mexico, where the runoff of Midwestern farms has created an enormous algae bloom – known as the Dead Zone – which effectively uses up the oxygen available for aquatic organisms. Fluctuating from year to year, the Dead Zone, at its peak, is almost the size of New Jersey (Roach, 2005).
The over use of petroleum is prevalent in conventional agricultural systems because it is heavily subsidized. If farmers had to pay the “real cost” of petroleum today’s farms would look very different. Petroleum is extensively used throughout the current agricultural system from the shipping of materials, to the machines that plant, maintain, and harvest, and in the creation of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides.
Our nation’s food supply is dependent on nationwide distribution which ensures that a product is in a store but does not guarantee its quality or taste. The average distance produce travels to reach a Chicago market – a relatively central location – is 1,518 miles (Mason, 2006, p. 135). Most produce comes from California and is transported, largely by truck, throughout the United States on the Interstate Highway System, sometimes traveling as far as 3,000 miles from where it was grown.
Large factory farm implements are employed in conventional agricultural systems to increase efficiency. Tractors that run on fossil fuels such as diesel or propane are used to do daily tasks around the farm and generally run all day through planting and harvesting seasons.
Petroleum based fertilizers are energy intensive. Synthetic nitrogen fertilizers are formed from the Haber-Bosch process by combining nitrogen and hydrogen gases under vast amounts of heat and pressure. The heat and pressure are supplied by electricity and the hydrogen gas from fossil fuels thus changing what had once been a directly sun driven cycle to one supplemented significantly by fossil fuels, a non-renewable resource. “Every bushel of industrial corn requires the equivalent of between a quarter and a third of a gallon to grow it or about fifty gallons of oil per acre” (Pollen, 2006, 45). This is the equivalent of “more than a calorie of fossil fuel energy to produce a calorie of food,” when before chemical fertilizers, farms “produced more than two calories of food energy for every calorie of energy invested” (Pollen, 2006, 46).
The farming practices in the meat industry can hardly be recognized as farming. Beef, poultry, and pork are all raised in large “factory” farms that produce meat in an industrial fashion. The animals are fed a diet of “corn, soybeans, and fishmeal, plus vitamins, hormones, and antibiotics. Such a diet uses massive amounts of water and energy – to grow the feed; water the cattle, pigs, and chickens; and produce the fertilizers” (Steinberg, 2002, p. 190). Feed is bought at a lower price than what it actually cost to grow the grains, again because of government subsidies. This artificially low price allows the factory farms to raise meat without paying for the costs to the environment such as water pollution, soil erosion, lack of diversity, and air pollution.
Cattle are ruminants, meaning they eat grass and have been doing so forever. Feeding these animals corn is going against hundreds of thousands of years of genetic adaptation. Eating corn causes the rumen to swell and pushes against the other stomachs causing pain for the cow and a veterinarian then comes to the farm to release the pressure. Laying hens live in small cages, approximately six inches in diameter, not even allowing them to spread their wings, which are roughly 26 inches (Realities 1989) and hogs regularly bite the tails of other hogs in response to small living spaces. To live in these confined areas with so many other animals necessitates antibiotics and livestock now consume more than 30 times the amount of antibiotics than humans (Steinberg 196). This has unknown health risks for both humans, animals, and the environment.
Through current “free” trade practices peoples all over the world are being systematically extorted. Mega-corporations are able to sell their products worldwide with no protection of human or environmental rights. The violations on human rights include child labor, low to no wages, long hours without breaks, union busting, and harsh working conditions. The most expensive part of almost any product is human labor and by minimizing this cost companies maximize profits, with no care for people who work for them.
Genetically altered foods are a serious health concern and the possible health problems are not fully understood. Some health concerns about GMO’s (genetically modified organism) include food allergies, increased toxicity, decreased nutritional value, and antibiotic resistance to various bacteria (University of Minnesota Environmental Health Sciences, 2003). Researchers put a gene from the Brazil nut into the soybean to increase Methionine production, causing unexpected allergic reactions to soy beans containing this gene (Geo-Pie Project, n.d.). If people can have unforeseen allergic reactions, how many other unforeseen negative effects will GMOs bring?
Many genetically altered foods are tested in open air test plots which has caused uncontrolled spreading in recent years. In August of 2006 a GE (genetically engineered) bent-grass escaped its testing ground in Oregon. The same year a German company was responsible for the contamination of virtually all the United States’ crop of long grain white rice with a GE variety never intended for human consumption (LaDuke, 2006). With this uncontrolled spreading GE plants cross pollinate with wild strains, possibly driving them out, or creating a new unpredictable strain. Heirloom varieties of plants that have been cultivated for generations could become extinct because one GMO gets loose. We are threatening our crops’ genetic diversity, something that will take countless years to get back, if ever.
As our farming practices have become more and more estranged from “real” farming, our effects on the land we depend on has become more and more damaging. In the production of every pound of meat, poultry, eggs, or milk five pounds of topsoil are lost (Vandana, 2000, p. 70-71). This loss of topsoil is caused by modern farming practices that let erosion and soil degradation wreck our most basic of natural resources. Topsoil takes years to create, and when there is no more topsoil for the plant matter to grow on, there will be no more plant matter to make the topsoil. If we continue to destroy our topsoil we will soon realize the true value of dirt. A Cree proverb speaks to this alarming problem: “Only when the last tree is cut, only when the last river is polluted, only when the last fish is caught, only then will they realize that you cannot eat money.”
Sustainable alternatives to conventional agriculture will leave our future with healthy, fertile soil instead of the biologically dead soil conventional systems are causing. Instead of the conventional mindset that we are combating the environment to grow our food, sustainable systems work with nature, employing natural systems to maintain fertility and control pests.
Maintaining fertile soil is easy to do organically, with the aid of compost. Compost is the recycling of natural materials like leaves, grass clippings, and kitchen scraps into organic matter. The finished product is dark black and gives soil that “earthy” smell, like the smell of forest soil. Compost is home to thousands of bacteria, fungi, nematodes, protozoa, and arthropods that feed the plants through their interactions. Manures can also be composted with the addition of a carbon source; these have higher nitrogen levels and are great for heavy feeding plants like corn.
Mulches are laid out around plants to protect the soil microorganisms and help retain water. Mulches also slowly break down and can be thought as a time released fertilizer. Green mulches can also be grown after or before a harvest and tilled into the soil to increase nutrients, like nitrogen, into the soil. Organic fertilizers such as fish emulsion are used to supplement plants and soil minerals can be applied to fields or foliar fed to plants to correct mineral deficiencies.
Insect control can be done several ways in organic farming. Healthy plants will generally not have insect damage so pest damage is probably indicating some kind of deficiency. An organic farmer needs to be attentive and aware of their crops and what is happening around them. Diversity and crop rotations disrupt insect cycles and habitats that encourage predatory insects are essential for a healthy insect population to keep the pest species in check. If a pest does get out of control there are biocides, insecticides derived from plants or other natural materials that are used to kill insects. Biocides are permitted under USDA Organic guidelines, but if one is used it will kill all insects, both beneficial and pest.
Alternatives to petroleum based agriculture are popping up around the country because of demands from consumers. People want food that tastes like food, has more nutritional value, and was raised with good practices. Eating locally produced food reduces fossil fuel use by limiting shipping. Local food has more vitamins and minerals and tastes better because it is picked at its ripest stage. Buying from area farms means the money stays in the local economy, building and strengthening the community. Local food can be bought at from the farm directly, at farmer’s markets, at co-operatives, from a subscription to a CSA (community supported agriculture) program, or even from some supermarkets.
Diverse farm practices are essential for a healthy and productive agrarian system. There are many different kinds of farms that employ natural methods for some or all of their crops. Organic agriculture is the most well known of these, and it currently has standards that have been set by the USDA. There are other farming systems that consider themselves “beyond organic” because the word organic does not mean what it once did. The standards that have been created allow agribusiness to operate a farm very similar to conventional practices, by simply substituting fertilizer for manure trucked in many miles or biocides to control pests rather than pesticides.
Farms that are “beyond organic” use principles such as the soil food web, which uses the microorganisms underneath the soil to maintain plant and soil fertility through adding compost, mulch, and tilling options dependant on the crop. Another example of a diverse farming practice is permaculture, a system of permanent agriculture developed by Australian Bill Mollison, that mimics natural ecosystems while producing food for humans, habitat for wildlife, and increases the soil’s fertility. Biodynamic farming is a type of farming that was developed by Rudolf Steiner in the early twentieth century that uses different compost preparations to increase soil fertility and production. All of these farms work with nature rather than against it to feed humans in a sustainable manner.
Free range, grass, pasture fed meats reflect the “real cost” of raising meat because their production is not subsidized. These animals eat a diverse diet including many different kinds of grasses, legumes, and herbaceous plants that contain different micronutrients which are transferred to the animal and then to the person who eats it. By raising multiple species, fertilizers, pesticides, and antibiotics become unnecessary to have a healthy, productive farm. On Polyface Farm cows are grazed in a paddock and moved daily. After the paddock has sat for a day chickens are brought in to scratch through the manure, spreading it, fertilizing the pasture while fertilizing it with their own manure, searching for parasite grubs to eat, and disrupting the parasite-host cycle.
As with gear, Buying Fair-Trade certified is the easiest way to ensure human rights were met during production. Fair Trade is an international, non-profit, multi-stakeholder association that, among other things, sets standards and certifies products. Instead of impoverishing people in third world countries it empowers them: “Fair trade businesses return 1/3 to 1/4 of profits back to producers in developing countries” (Fair Trade Federation, 2007). Buy purchasing Fair Trade labeled products you can be assured that everyone that worked to produce it was paid fairly.
Most environments offer naturally occurring foods; for us in the north woods this includes blueberries, cranberries, venison, grouse, and a variety of other wild edibles. Hunting and gathering requires some local knowledge and specific skills, but with care these can be developed. Research what is available in your area and in areas you will be traveling in. Another option is to grow your own food in a garden, no matter the size. Again, some knowledge and skills are required, but by growing or harvesting your own food, you put your health in your own hands.
As this is just the beginning of change it is necessary to plan for future changes. By paying attention to what matters to you, you can determine possible options that would be appropriate for your community. At Northland College campus a part of new student orientation is a five or twelve day long trip. Our campus has a small garden and we are working towards providing all of the produce for the Outdoor Orientation trips. We also purchase local cheese for the trips and most of the trips are meat-free. Another possible step toward sustainability would be to lead campus discussions on sustainable food options, and when awareness grows large enough, petition our school to only purchase only sustainable foods. These are some possible options that are appropriate for our community, yours might be different.
As with the other two sections we were not able to come to conclusions on a lot of the questions we raised. Can non-local foods be justifiably purchased? Is it more sustainable to have food travel a short distance in a car or a long distance on a train? What about places where food cannot be easily grown and local food may not be available? How do we balance price, true costs, and the budgets of a family or a program that may be limited? How does the amount of a food factor in – what is the impact of purchasing a small cube of bouillon from Switzerland compared to the impact of 50 pounds of potatoes from 200 miles away? Critical thinking, more discussion, and further research are needed to address these and other difficult issues on our march towards sustainability.
There were many issues we discussed and questions we raised that we were not able to come to a conclusion on. They require further investigation and thought, but when making these decisions it is necessary to think critically, research the impacts and effects, and look for creative solutions. The bottom line is that we need to question everything, always looking at the end goal: sustainability. Do we need it? Why are we going there? What is the value in this activity? Does it outweigh the costs? What are the true costs? Where was it made? What is it made out of? How do we quantify things like learning, place, and sustainability? The list of questions goes on and on. In our model we address some of these concerns in a tangible way to provide a base score that can then be improved upon.
It is worth noting that the initial project was undertaken by eleven students, guided by one professor, during a two credit, semester long course. This is obviously a bigger issue than that. There are many, many questions we raised that need further research, thought, and discussion. There are many other questions we raised that there may not be answers to, yet. We need to remember that sustainability, like this model, is a work in progress. We know what the end needs to look like, but the way to get there is up to us and needs to be creative and dynamic. What are considered good practices today should not and cannot be considered sustainable tomorrow as our knowledge, technologies (for better or worse), expectations, and global conditions change. We need to change our ways ASAP!
The ASAP Model
The model is focused on things that the consumer has control over and what information is readily available. By reading the labels much information can be easily obtained and more should be available from the producer. For the gear and food sections remember that each item of food or gear needs to but put through the model and then the average for each section is calculated. As of now, the amount of each food item, such as a one ounce cube of bouillon or 50 pounds of potatoes, holds the same weight.
1 – Renewable Materials
Renewable materials are grown and harvested in sustainable manner. Be sure to research the materials to confirm that they are in fact sustainable; some production processes may require the use of large amounts of other materials which would make the “renewable” product unsustainable.
2 points – made out of 100% renewable materials or materials that come from an organic producer
1 point – made out of 25% renewable materials and less than 25% of materials are non-sustainable products, such as petroleum based products
0 points – made of primarily non-sustainable products renewable products
2 – Recycled Materials
Reuse is the focus here – recycling material rather than discarding it. Be aware of the production process and other materials used, they may not be recycled or sustainable.
2 points – made out of 100% recycled materials
1 point – made out of 25% recycled materials
0 points – made out of primarily non-recycled materials
3 – Carbon Emissions
Many production processes cause the emission of carbon into the atmosphere. Carbon credits are an attempt to offset environmental degradation, but ideally emissions are eliminated or minimized.
2 points – amount of production of carbon is within or below environmental regulations stated by the Kyoto protocol (Annex 1 country) without the purchase of carbon credits
1 point – company buys carbon offsets
0 points – amount of carbon is well above environmental regulations or is unknown
4 – Distance from Production to Purchase
The transportation of goods is responsible for a large portion of the carbon output of a product. Buying locally not only improves the economy of your community, it also leads to fewer greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
2 points – entire production process and transportation can be accomplished within 100 miles of purchase
1 point – entire production process and transportation can be accomplished within 1,000 miles of purchase
0 points – entire production process and transportation cannot be accomplished within 1,000 miles of the purchase
5 – Synthetic Compounds
Much of our gear contains materials that do not naturally occur. Introducing compounds produced by society directly violates a condition of The Natural Step and should be avoided.
2 points – there are absolutely no materials or chemicals that are produced in the production process
0 points – there are materials or chemicals that are produced in the production process
6 – Accessibility of Company Information
When doing research on a company, it is important that that company’s product information be easily accessible. This also means that the information is clearly stated and does not appear to be an attempt at merely sounding environmentally friendly.
2 points – company exercises public accountability
1 point – moderately to heavy research is needed to find information on the company’s production process
0 points – no information is available on the company’s production process
7 – Fair Trade
Companies that follow Fair Trade standards are more sustainably responsible, environmentally, humanely, and economically. Supporting these companies helps perpetuate sustainable business.
2 points - follows standards of Fair Trade
0 points – few or no regulations
8 – Multiuse
Identifying and taking advantage of gear that has multiple uses will decrease the amount of gear purchased and used. Think outside the box when considering what to bring on a trip as well as when purchasing.
2 points – three easily distinguished and applicable uses
1 point – two easily distinguished and applicable uses
0 points – one use
1 – Purpose
Although purpose is hard to quantify, it is why we are going anywhere in the first place and must be considered. There are certainly gray areas in this criterion, use your best judgment when evaluating.
3 points – educational or cultural purposes
2 points – personal reasons such as fun, exploration, spiritual connections
1 point – no knowledge or reason, just something to do
0 points – out to take advantage of nature
2 – Distance
The distance traveled directly affects the impact on the environment; by minimizing distance you minimize impact. If you are using a form of transportation that is human powered, no matter the distance, award yourself three points.
3 points – less than 25 miles round trip
2 points – 26 to100 miles round trip
1 point – 101 to 500 miles round trip
1 points – 501 or more miles
3 – Mode of Transportation
The mode of transportation also directly affects our impact and is another great opportunity to minimize impact. Choosing transportation that does not rely on fossil fuels or at least is public mass transit greatly reduces carbon emission.
3 points – human or animal powered options such as walking, biking, or horseback
2 points – alternate power source transportation such as bio fuel, electric, or solar
1 point – transportation that uses fossil fuel to the fullest such as busses, trains, planes, or vehicles with gas mileage of 30+ mpg
0 points – vehicles that get less than 30 mpg
4 – Knowledge and Skills
Knowledge of the area you are traveling in and local appropriate practice is critical. With the right information and skills you can minimize your local impact by keeping, when possible, impact local and minimal. This includes campsite selection, heat and cooking methods, water treatment, personal hygiene and bathroom procedures, wildlife, and cultural customs and respect.
3 points – very familiar with area and local practices, strong skill set
2 points – moderate knowledge and skill set
1 point – little to no local knowledge or skills, but a desire and a plan to acquire knowledge or skills, such as a conscientious guide or local expert
0 points – no local knowledge or skills and no desire to learn
1 - Organic
Organic foods are foods that have no pesticides, herbicides, or fertilizers added. These chemicals, often used in food production, are synthesized from petroleum, and therefore unsustainable. Look for USDA Organic and other certifying organizations’ logos when purchasing.
1 point – organic
0 points – not organic
2 - Local
Most of our foods come from hundreds if not thousands of miles away, resulting in petroleum use and transportation-based exhaust. Foods that are grown locally do not.
2 points – entire production process occurs within 100 miles of purchase
1 point – entire production process occurs within 1,000 miles of purchase
0 points – entire production process does not occur within 1,000 miles of purchase
3 - Fair Trade
By buying foods that have they Fair Trade logo you can be assured that the people who produced your food were treated appropriately and earned living wages.
1 point – Fair Trade certified
0 points – not Fair Trade certified
4 - Small Farm
Large corporate farms practice methods of farming that are detrimental to the environment and petroleum-dependant. Small farms generally practice more land-based, sustainable methods.
1 point – grown at a small farm
0 points – grown at a corporate farm
5 - Non-GMO
Genetically modified foods have numerous unforeseen side effects, ranging from environmental dangers to direct health dangers. Foods that have not been genetically modified have evolved to be consumed and have been proven safe by thousands of years of consumption.
1 point – non-GMO
0 points – GMO
6 - Meat
Conventional meat production practices are extremely damaging to the environment and unhealthy for humans. There is no distinct certification for ethically raised meat, so read into where your meat comes and how it was raised. Non-meat products are naturally less intensive to grow.
2 points - No meat
1 point - Conscientiously raised meat
0 points - Conventionally raised meat
7 - Home Grown and Locally Gathered
There are naturally growing foods almost everywhere and even in places where you cannot find food you can likely grow it. Foods that you grow or gather you have direct control over, are local, and are probably organic.
2 points – home grown or locally gathered
0 points – not home grown or locally gathered
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Adide – sends 10% of its profits back in to the community for programs and other environmental efforts (www.adideinc.com)
Backcountry.com – the Green Goat is the newest idea, supporting the minimization of the impacts on the environment to make the finest outdoor products, for “those who strive to make the world a greener place to live” (http://www.backcountry.com/)
Biodynamic Farming and Gardening Association – offers news, events, book suggestions, and general information on biodynamic practices (http://www.biodynamics.com/
Care2 – information on how to change your lifestyle, in particular their transportation section which offers news on alternative transportation and links to other helpful sites (http://www.care2.com/channels/ecoinfo/transportation)
Chammyz Clothing – makes 100% recycled clothing made from wood fiber waste (http://www.chammyz.com/)
Cleaner and Greener – this company focuses their manufacturing process to be eco-friendly and better for the environment by considering emissions and renewable ideas (www.cleanerandgreener.org)
Co-op America – see how you can get involved in stopping sweatshops and learn how to support living green, Fair Trade, and green energy (www.sweatshops.org)
Earth Creation – uses natural clay dies in their organic hemp and cotton products (www.earthcreations.net)
Eat Well.org – tips on finding local food, recipes, jobs, and much more, all focused on a healthier diet (http://www.eatwell.org/)
ExOfficio – is a company that produces products that are from soy plants (www.exofficio.com)
Fair Trade Certified – check out how companies are audited for Fair Trade and what it is all about (www.transfairusa.org)
Hemp Sisters – works with Fair Trade, women, and small businesses of Nepal
International Community for Ecopsychology – describes ecopschology, offers forums and blogs for idea sharing, and links to latest news and literature (http://www.ecopsychology.org/)
Lonely Planet – donates 5% of its profits to projects in developing countries, check out hundreds of books that will help you recognize ideas of sustainable and eco-friendly tourism (www.lonelyplanet.com)
Loyale – the clothing produced is made in the United States and is made of materials like bamboo and organic cotton, they also donate 3% of their profits to Green Corps (www.loyaleclothing.com)
Midwest Permaculture – courses – including specific urban courses – and information on permaculture (http://www.midwestpermaculture.com/)
Milliken and Company – a large, United States based textile company that is an industry leader in environmentally friendly practices (http://www.milliken.com/)
Mother Earth News – billed as “the original guide to living wisely” this website addresses a wide variety of aspects of living, including transportation and food (http://www.motherearthnews.com/)
Soil Foodweb Inc – full explanation of the soil foodweb and how to put this approach into practice (http://www.soilfoodweb.com/03_about_us/approach.html)
Splaff – is a company that has a 100% no waste process for their products (www.splaff.com)
Sustainable Cotton Project – focused on sustainable and organic cotton (www.sustainablecotton.org)
Sustainable Table – information about local sustainable food, food-related issues and how to build community through food (http://www.sustainabletable.org)
Sustainable Travel International – tips on how to travel sustainably, buy carbon credits, links to conscientious travel providers and more (http://www.sustainabletravelinternational.org/)
USDA – information on the National Organic Program, including standards, issues, certifiers, and more (http://www.ams.usda.gov/nop/indexIE.htm)
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