Towards Sustainable Communities

This week concludes my experience in the SPEA course V515 Sustainable Communities. It has been a great class, jam-packed with a plethora of exciting topics. In this post, I will try sum up some of my personal highlights of the semester.

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Learning to compost, part 5: conclusion

The process of starting a household vermicomposting system has been really fun, rewarding, and relatively painless. The idea of keeping worms in your house may seem daunting or intimidating at first. I think this is the same case when it comes to caring for or managing any living system, such as having a pet or growing a garden. Living things are dynamic. They have needs. They change over time. They may behave in unexpected ways causing you to worry about what if something goes wrong.

On the other hand, a little bit of knowledge goes a long way in dispelling these concerns. And when it comes to worms, its pretty easy to get up to speed on everything you need to know. Resources abound, and after reading a couple short books, I felt like a complete worm expert. Realistically, a simple one-page-guide like this one is enough to get you up and running, because after all, worms are incredibly resilient, low maintenance creatures, with very simple needs.

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Learning to compost, part 4: worm food

In my last update, I wrote about putting together a stacked tray worm bin. Once the container was ready, the next step was to transfer the worms to their new home and start feeding them our kitchen scraps. As we dumped the worms from the bucket into the new larger tray system, we noticed that a large amount of compost had already accumulated over the last year or so. In order to start separating the worms from the compost, we decided to start feeding the tray above. As the worms migrate upwards to the fresh food, they will leave behind the tray of compost for us to harvest.

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Learning to compost, part 3: the worm bin

In an earlier post, I mentioned the small bucket of worms that we’ve had under our sink for the last year and half. At first, I didn’t know much about how to take care of them, and they didn’t exactly thrive. We encountered several different problems with the worms over time.

First, the worms were not able to process our food scraps quickly enough, so we ended up putting most of our scraps in the trash. At one point, we got a pretty bad infestation of fruit flies which was annoying and took some time to get rid of. At another time we found that we had an excess of moisture in the bucket, which caused the worms to crawl up the side and try to flee. Related to this problem, the bin started to smell due to food that was rotting rather than being consumed.

After doing some reading, I’ve learned that all of these problems can be easily avoided by using a proper container and bedding material.

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Learning to compost, part 2: worms

I started my project by reading up on various composting methods. In particular, I wanted to first decide between using a traditional compost pile or bin or using a vermicomposting system. Traditional composting utilizes bacteria and various microrganism as decomposers, whereas vermicomposting is strictly worm-based. In the end, I decided worms would be the superior choice for several reasons.

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Gender and urban space

In her book Redesigning the American Dream, Dolores Hayden makes a compelling argument about the relationship between gender inequality and urban development. Specifically, she observes that the patriarchal Victorian notion that “a woman’s place is in the home” has had lasting influence on women’s access to urban space:

“Because the working woman was no one man’s property…, she was every urban man’s property. She was the potential victim of harassment in the factory, in the office, in restuarants, and in places of amusement such as theaters or parks. While the numbers of employed women and women in active public life have increased, many of these spatial stereotypes and patterns of behavior remain.”

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Kicking off the Energy Challenge

The IU Energy Challenge (EC) is a contest in which campus buildings compete to reduce their energy and water consumption. I helped organize the first Energy Challenge (which included 12 residence halls) as part of my masters’ capstone project in Spring 2008. Since then, the Challenge has been run nearly every semester and has grown to include academic buildings and greek houses. It has been estimated that from 2008-2011, the Energy Challenge saved over $1 million in avoided utility costs. This fall, 82 buildings across campus signed up to compete.

Since I haven’t been involved in the Challenge since the first running, it has been fun, surprising, and somewhat surreal to encounter its ongoing development and presence on campus. This fall, I decided to drop by and check out the kickoff event energy fair that happened on Oct. 21.

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The enemies of climate

Bill McKibben’s recent article in Rolling Stone has left me with new lingering thoughts about the challenges of climate change mitigation. His assessment is not pretty:

“I can say with some confidence that we’re losing the fight, badly and quickly – losing it because, most of all, we remain in denial about the peril that human civilization is in.”

Denial in the political sphere is more than apparent this election year. Many Republicans in congress continue to not only deny the existence of global warming, but are openly and vehemently against science–and this includes many members of the House Science committee. Romney does not officially deny climate change, rather he considers it a hilarious joke. While Obama and other Democrats take the issue more seriously, we still remain far from achieving federal carbon regulation or international committment. McKibben recounts the failure of the 2009 Copenhagen climate conference and notes that Obama did attend this years environmental summit in Rio.

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Wasting water

According to Roseland, “on average, United States water consumption is more than double the average for all OECD countries“. Similar to electricity, household water consumption is often taken for granted because it’s so cheap. But while there is a growing consciousness around the cost of electricity and its connection to climate change, I’d guess that the average consumer is much less aware of the financial and environmental costs of water consumption. Water may be abundant in many parts of North America, but there is significant infrastructure and energy required to treat it and supply it to homes. Roseland points out that one of the reasons water seems cheap, is that in most places a portion of water supply and sewage treatment costs are paid through tax revenues, rather than showing up on the monthly bill.

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Learning to compost

As part of my Sustainable Communities class, I will be blogging about a semester-long project to reduce my personal ecological impact. Over the last few years, I have made a number of conscious changes to live a more sustainable lifestyle (biking instead of driving, avoiding plastic bags, eating local food, turning off the thermostat when I leave the house, washing clothes in cold water, etc). At the same time, I know there are plenty of areas in which I could stand to reduce my footprint further: air travel, meat consumption, using the dryer, clothing and gadget purchases, etc. While these are all worthy targets, the project I’ve decided to tackle first is composting. I must admit the decision is motivated more by practical concerns than eco-conscious ones.

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