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Sustainable Futures 

October 14, 2010

Happy plants and fish come from aquaponics

In August of this year, I spent one of the most inspirational 4-day periods of my life taking a class on a uniquely sustainable way of growing food, known as aquaponics. As a strong believer in local solutions to global problems, I have been interested for years in ways that ordinary people to increase their self-sufficiency. Recently, while researching urban farming techniques, I stumbled across a bit of information about aquaponics and became intrigued. When I discovered that an aquaponics consultant named Max Meyers was teaching a class in Ukiah, near my hometown of San Francisco, aimed at teaching students everything from fish and plant selection to how to build and run commercial systems, I eagerly signed up. It ended up being one of the best time and money investments I’ve ever made.

Aquaponics is an efficient, closed-loop organic food system, combining the best of hydroponics (growing plants without soil) and the best of aquaculture (fish farming). There are fish living in a tank, where they eat and produce waste. Bacteria that naturally thrive in any aquatic system convert the fish waste into valuable plant nutrients. The water, filled with these nutrients, is pumped through some kind of growing medium, usually gravel, clay pellets or a floating raft system, where it can wash over the roots of the plants. The plants absorb the nutrients, cleaning the water, and then the water is pumped back to the fish tanks to begin the process over again. Assuming you have the proper mix of plants and fish, the plants get all the nutrients, water and oxygen they need, making them extremely happy. Happy plants grow quickly, they grow large, and they provide lots of healthy nutrition for the people who eat them. In fact he produce that comes from aquaponics systems is so luscious and healthy that it looks like it’s been airbrushed, or artificially enhanced. They are really quite amazing to see.

Aquaponics is still a relatively new field, and its potential is just beginning to be grasped. Although a lot of research needs to be conducted to really maximize its potential in various parts of the world, the early indicators are incredibly promising. There are a small number of successful, commercial systems in operation throughout the world, including several in the US, as well as thousands of personal and demonstration systems in backyards, basements and schools everywhere.

What’s so promising you might ask. Look at these facts:

• Despite being aquatic in nature, aquaponics uses 90%-98% less overall water than traditional agriculture
• Aquaponics uses 25% of the energy of comparable yield agricultural systems
• Aquaponics does not require healthy soil. In fact you can put an aquaponics system on a cement pad, in a gravel pit, on a rooftop, on a balcony; anywhere there is space
• Aquaponics by its nature is 100% organic
• Aquaponics systems can be built using low tech, local materials
• Aquaponics systems require much less maintenance and care that traditional farming

These compelling facts are what brought me, along with about 50 other attendees, to Max’s class. My fellow students were a fascinating mix of interested hobbyists, permaculturists, urban farmers, engineers and the aquaculturists. Most of them were dedicated professionals, planning on integrating aquaponics into their daily businesses, and this caliber of student really elevated the conversation during the class sessions; almost everyone was looking for practical real world solutions that would improve their businesses and their bottom lines.

Our professor, Max Meyers, is a long term permaculture junky who discovered aquaponics in 2006 and has since developed one of the few aquaponics consulting businesses in the world. Max has clients in several different countries, as well as several systems operating in here in the US. He even brought a small, portable system into class to use as a demonstration model. Max’s energy is infectious, and I think it’s safe to say that everyone left at the end of the week with a more positive and proactive vision of what the future can be. It was an incredibly stimulating course for me and I certainly left with some dreams of my own.

For me personally, aquaponics represents a path to sustainability and self-sufficiency. At the Academy its reach could be much larger, as it’s potentially a way to teach and empower others about natural systems and organic food production. As well as beginning work on my small home system, I’m putting together a proposal to build a demonstration aquaponics exhibit here at the museum. If I can build the proper support and find the funding, hopefully we can use this cutting-edge approach to really empower others to be more sustainable, and to plan for a better future. I’m inspired!

Filed under: Uncategorized — apope @ 9:48 am

August 23, 2010

Climate change and human nature at BC3

Last week I had the opportunity to speak to the San Francisco Business Council on Climate Change (BC3) about the behavioral side of climate change. BC3 is comprised of over 100 Bay Area based businesses that have all committed to reducing their carbon emissions. The Academy is an enthusiastic new member of BC3, and a few months ago I was asked to do a presentation for the group discussing the Academy’s broader sustainability efforts. At that presentation I made a brief mention of fact that the major roadblocks to US carbon emission reductions are behavioral. Several members expressed that they were very interested in learning more about this topic, and so I was invited back to do a follow-up talk.

The premise of my presentation was simple: The biggest barriers to a sustainable (and that means low-carbon) future are psychological, cultural and institutional, rather than financial or technological.

Yes, how we finance the necessary short-term investments (and how we divide the long-term gains) is something we have to figure out; yes, we need massive new R&D to develop better renewable energy and transportation technologies. But the real question is, with more and more scientific evidence piling up that climate change is contributing to climatic instability around the world, and that we are in general taking more resources out of nature than we are replacing, why aren’t we pushing harder and faster to take these steps; why aren’t people demanding greater action from their government and themselves; why is the average American so misinformed and disengaged about something so important as long-term sustainability?

The answers lie within our psychological tendencies as human beings, our cultural values as Americans, and the dysfunctional nature of our biggest institutions. Human beings are not rational; emotions and value systems almost always trump reality, and this means pushing for change by giving out information, accurate or not, will always have a very limited impact. One of my old college professors called it the “dump truck approach”, and boy was he was right when he said it was worst way to convince anyone of anything.

We can’t expect facts to bring us the change we need. We need a new approach. We need to tap onto the expertise of those who specialize in connecting emotionally with others: Salespeople, marketing gurus, human behavioral experts and natural orators. There have been decades and billions of dollars spent on market research to determine what makes people tick, and we need to start utilizing that knowledge ASAP if we wish to create a more effective cultural narrative on climate change, one that is grounded in science but empowering enough to encourage everyone to be part of the solution.

At the Academy we have spent quite a bit of time and energy getting to know our visitors, and we use that information to try and offer programs and exhibits that not only inform people about the science of sustainability and climate change, but also convince them to take action. We have lots to learn, and we are constantly working to achieve better real-world results, but one of our guiding principles on sustainability has become: “Try to connect and talk with, not at, people.”

This was my general message to BC3. I was very honest that I don’t have all the answers. Nobody does. But I think it’s critical that we all keep the tendencies of human nature in mind as we strive to create a better future, and I was excited to be able to bring this perspective to the business leadership the BC3 embodies. I thank them for the opportunity.


Filed under: Uncategorized — apope @ 12:22 pm

July 15, 2010

Links n’ Resources Vol 1

I spend a fair amount of  time researching diverse topics such as sustainable behavior, carbon pollution impacts, ecosystems services, and energy efficiency, and I often come across interesting and engaging resources during my virtual travels.

So I thought it would be worthwhile to regularly publish some of my favorite links. Here’s the first batch, all revolving around climate change. Future links will explore a myriad of topics.

More Heat, Less Light

This article, although quite long, delivers a good historical background on climate change attitudes in the US, and explores new strategies being adapted by educators, policy makers and activists.

Expert credibility in climate change

This is the most recent study on climate change consensus among peer-reviewed climate scientists. It finds that the vast majority of actively publishing climate scientists (97-98%) unequivocally agree that climate change is happening because of human carbon pollution. Although information like this will not often sway skeptics, this is nonetheless a great resource for anyone interested in understanding where the scientific community really stands on climate change.

Jigsaw puzzle vs. house-of-cards

I found this article, which examines two very different climate change science metaphors, to be eye-opening. It helps me wrap my mind around the large gap that separates my viewpoint from that of many skeptics. Understanding the nature and size of this gap is essential when designing programs and exhibits meant to appeal to a diverse audience.

How facts backfire

The barriers to a sustainable future are psychological, institutional and cultural, not technological or resource-based. This study explores one of those barriers by illustrating  just how little facts matter in human decision making. Apparently, once we’ve made up our mind about something, it’s very unlikely we’ll change  it, even when confronted with solid evidence to the contrary. This means that those of us in the business of advocating for sustainable change need to do a better job of connecting with our audiences, rather than simply throwing facts at them. I’ll talk more about this in a future post.


Filed under: Uncategorized — apope @ 4:09 pm

June 15, 2010

An official launch of our Sustainability Made Simple cards


This is the official launch of my Sustainable Futures blog on the California Academy of Sciences website. I’ve been the manager of sustainability programs at the Academy since January, 2008, and in that time I’ve had the good fortune to contribute to the Academy’s internal culture, exhibits, programs, partnerships, special events, operational practices and outreach efforts. It’s an incredibly rewarding job, one that keeps me on my toes and constantly challenges my knowledge of all things ‘sustainable.’

The world of sustainability encompasses a rich web of environmental, social & economic factors, operational efficiencies, cultural values, and psychological and institutional dynamics. There are a million-and-one definitions for sustainability, depending on who you are talking to, each definition invariably giving weight to specific issues which the definer has expertise or interest in. It’s an exciting, somewhat nebulous realm, constantly in flux.

This blog will be similar in that I plan on covering quite a bit of ground. I will of course be covering Academy sustainability efforts, exhibits, programs and upcoming events of interest, but I will also spend a fair amount of time discussing the cultural and institutional barriers we collectively face as we strive to create a better future for ourselves, and I will be publishing regular lists of web-links to blogs, articles, studies and stories which I find compelling. It’s going to be a potpourri of sustainability information, hopefully one that you will find interesting.

For the first post, it seems fitting to use this space to announce the official release of our second batch of Sustainability Made Simple cards, entitled “GREEN GUIDE – Everyday choices you can make to protect the planet’s future”

These cards were released in early 2009 to provide the general public with hints and tips, from a trusted source (the Academy), on living more sustainably. Initially, they were intended to be distributed in our green building and climate change exhibits only, but we quickly began receiving requests for large quantities from other institutions, private companies, government offices, schools and universities. To date, we’ve distributed 100,00 of them so far, thus the need for the reprint.

I would like to add that although the card’s title references protecting the planet, it is in actuality referring to protecting humanity as well, because there is no separation between healthy natural ecosystems and healthy human populations. The two are permanently tied together. This is one of the most important messages we try to communicate here at the Academy, and we named the card specifically to reinforce this point.

So on the right, upper sidebar you will find a download link to our GREEN GUIDE, chock full of changes you can make, from simple to complex, that will have a real impact on your environmental footprint. You can feel free to download this pdf and print it out to stick to your refrigerator, or if you work more in the digital domain you can just keep it in your smart phone or computer as a reference. Hopefully you will find it useful.

If you want a large number of physical copies of this card to hand out, please don’t hesitate to contact me at apope@calacademy.org.

See you next time.

Aaron Pope

Filed under: Uncategorized — apope @ 5:19 pm

Green Guide

Green Guide 2010 Download the Academy’s Green Guide for everyday choices you can make to protect the planet’s future.
[PDF, 69KB]

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