Signs of Sustainability

We have a long way to go, but we're making progress. Here are some signs that we are moving towards sustainability.

July 28, 2014

Quantifying the Greenhouse Effect

Tompkins Weekly 7-28-14

By Richard W. Franke

The Irish physicist John Tyndall discovered the atmospheric warming capacities of water vapor, methane and carbon dioxide in 1859. Tyndall realized that the amounts of these gases were small compared with oxygen and nitrogen— the main elements of earth’s lower atmosphere—but he also guessed that they most probably influenced the overall temperature of the earth at its surface.

Tyndall also guessed, correctly it now seems, that ancient climatic oscillations from warm period to ice age and back were at least partially the result of changes in the amounts of these gases in the atmosphere over time.

This left a question he could not answer: Just how much of an increase in, say, C02 would lead to how much of an increase in temperature? Tyndall’s work thus fell short of one of the key elements of science according to the famous historian of science Joseph Needham—the application of mathematics to nature.

This task was taken up in 1894 by the Swedish chemist Svante Arrhenius (1859-1927). Arrhenius was a child prodigy in math. His Ph.D dissertation was sufficiently beyond the ability of his faculty readers that they gave it a low mark in 1884, but some of its main arguments won him the third Nobel Prize given in chemistry in 1903.

Arrhenius worked for the Nobel Institute for several years after helping to found it in 1900.

In chemistry, Arrhenius is known for the Arrhenius equation. Scientists had long known that chemical reactions occur faster at higher temperatures. Chinese scientists had worked with the effects of heat for centuries and that research lay at the basis of their discovery of gunpowder a bit before the ninth century.

Arrhenius, however, figured out how to quantify the effects of increases in temperature on “activation energy.” His equation brought about a remarkable new understanding: chemical reaction rates increased exponentially with increases in temperature. Much of modern industry is based on this knowledge.

On Christmas Eve 1894 Arrhenius began working 14 hours per day on an attempt to calculate the mathematical relationship between the level of CO2 in the atmosphere and the temperature of the earth at its surface. In December 1895 he announced his results to the Swedish Academy of Sciences: if CO2 levels were to increase 2.5 to 3 times their [then] value, earth’s temperature in the arctic would increase by about 9 to 11 degrees Celsius (16.2 to 19.8 degrees F). This became known as the “hot house theory.”

Extrapolating his findings upwards and downwards, Arrhenius was able to account for then known ice ages and the warming periods between them. He was also able to estimate that the average earth surface temperature would be about 20 degrees Fahrenheit without the hot house warming gases instead of the current 57.2 degrees (14 degrees Celsius).

But what would cause an increase or decrease in any of these gases in the atmosphere?

Here Arrhenius made another major contribution by noticing that the smoke rising from industrial factories, railroads and power stations was increasing the levels of C02 in the atmosphere. Along with this important observation, Arrhenius gave a flawed estimate of the rates of change; he thought the oceans would absorb the industrial CO2 for hundreds of years and that earth’s climate would become only very gradually warmer. It would take the observations and insights of an American scientist in the 1960s to alert the world to the real speed and quantity of CO2 in the atmosphere. His name was Charles Keeling and his discovery is called the Keeling Curve. Look for a report on it in a future Signs of Sustainability article.

Richard W. Franke is a resident of Ecovillage at Ithaca and a board member of Sustainable Tompkins

July 21, 2014

Tompkins Food Web Launches Online

Tompkins Weekly 7-21-14

By Alison Fromme

A bowl of juicy red strawberries sat on my kitchen table. I plucked one from the pile but stopped short before popping it into my mouth. Worm holes marred it, and I held it up for my husband to see. “Share and share alike,” he said.

That was about 10 years ago. I had just started buying food directly from an organic farmer, and bug-eaten strawberries were a new experience for me. So were slugs in my salad and worms in my corncobs.

The occasional critters made me cringe, but I usually didn’t mind. I had already jumped on the local food bandwagon. I was convinced that food was the thing that could make people care about the environment. I had a hunch that local food was good for the local economy. It was fun to eat weird veggies like kohlrabi.

And yet, some uncomfortable observations started bugging me in a whole different way. I wanted to buy organic pastured eggs at the farmers market, but winced at the price. In my kitchen, I struggled with the extra work of processing and cooking food from scratch. I volunteered as a “Big Sister” and saw my “Little Sister’s” family puzzle over food aid that came in odd forms, like a five-gallon bag of pizza sauce and a 50-pound bag of popcorn. I learned that some farmers themselves need food assistance.

Here in Tompkins County, our farmers produce an amazing abundance of food: $60.1 million in milk, dairy, grains, beans, meat, and vegetables are produced on 100,000 acres of our land every year. We have farmers markets almost every day of the week. And yet not everyone here has access to this abundance. Thirty percent of children receive free or reduced school lunches. Twenty five percent of adults here are obese

Improving our food system in terms of health, sustainability, and justice, requires that we pay attention to the successes and struggles within our community. Last year, the nonprofit GreenStar Community Projects began hosting in-person networking events to do just that: bring diverse voices together to start identifying critical needs in our community. Communication within the food system quickly emerged as a critical need by the many people who participated in the events.

To help unite the conversations among foodies, farmers, food justice activists, policymakers, and others, I’m joining forces with GreenStar Community Projects to create an online county-wide news and networking site, tentatively called “Tompkins Food Web.” The website we envision will be more than just a website – it will facilitate conversations, bridge the gap between online and offline efforts, and serve as an open access archive of successes and struggles in our food system. It will also feature the needs of underserved and underrepresented people, offer a variety of voices, perspectives, and opinions, and support transparency and truthfulness in the food system by following a journalistic code of ethics.

Storytelling, “news you can use,” and conversations are the heart of this online effort. The site has the potential to build and reinforce real-life relationships and foster a deep understanding of what’s wrong with our current food system – and what it takes to make it just and sustainable.

I did end up eating the imperfect-but-tasty strawberry that I held in my hands almost a decade ago. Today, that strawberry reminds me of all the uncomfortable observations and stark contrasts in our food system that continue to nag me. I don’t know all the steps required to create an equitable, sustainable, and healthy food system, but I’m going to start by paying attention. I hope you’ll join me.

If you’d like to support the creation of Tompkins Food Web, submit content, or learn more, please contact Alison Fromme at


July 14, 2014

Village Responds to Need for Fresh Food

Tompkins Weekly 7-14-14

By Sara L. Knobel

Did you know that Groton is a food desert but not for long – efforts are underway to make this a thing of the past! Mitigating the food desert in Groton is truly a community effort.

The Groton Public Library and the Groton Central School District with support from the Village of Groton are working together to make fresh food available to everyone in the Groton community. This is in addition to the local food pantry that is only available every other Saturday and one Tuesday a month and cannot keep up with the need in the community and due to storage does not handle fresh food often.

Because of this need for fresh food – the library in collaboration with Buried Treasure, an organic CSA farm in Groton, started Healthy Tuesdays. This program runs every Tuesday at 6 p.m. at the library. Buried Treasure stops after the Ithaca Farmers Market and drops off fresh produce to give away for free. In addition the library is a Neighborhood Food Hub through the Friendship Donation Network (FDN). Have extra produce in your garden or CSA, donate it to a food hub – there are eight hubs throughout Tompkins County including one in Groton. The library also receives food donations each Tuesday from FDN for our Healthy Tuesdays. This past winter we had potatoes and apples every week to give away. So stop down to the library on a Tuesday and pick up some fresh produce – this program is free and open to all.

The next step in our progression was the formation of the Growing Groton committee. This committee oversees the community/communal garden, where we all work together on the garden and we will all reap the benefits. The garden has been planted and is growing. The produce from this garden will benefit the Groton community – we plan to share the produce with the senior center, the food pantry, the school, and Healthy Tuesdays at the library. Stop and take a look at all the veggies just starting to sprout up. The garden is located across from the high school, right next to the Tennis courts. Find us on Facebook – look for Growing Groton. And the library was recently awarded two grants specifically for the community/communal garden. The first grant is the Whole Community Project – Food Dignity Mini-grant of $2,370 to purchase materials for the garden. The second grant received is a Sustainable Tompkins Mini-grant in the amount of $500 to purchase lumber and compost for the raised beds. The garden is open to all – you do not need to be a gardener to help – all ages and experience are welcome. In the near future we plan to have a family area right next to the garden with informal get togethers – good food – good people!

The Village also has the Groton Farmers Market located right by the senior housing. The market runs on Tuesdays from 3:30 to 6:30 p.m. starting on July 1 and running until September 16. And starting on July 15, Cornell Cooperative Extension (CCE) will offer a Cooking Matters for Teens series from 3:30 to 5 p.m. and ending on August 19. To sign up for this class, email Lindsay at

For the first time in Groton, we have subsidized CSA (community support agriculture) shares. This program is supported by CCE’s Health Food for All (HFA). A qualifying low income family can purchase a share from Buried Treasure (or other participating farm) and only has to pay half the cost of the share – this amounts to under $15 a week for a huge box of fresh picked produce – a remarkable deal. We have three families taking advantage of this fabulous deal – one participant has been amazed at how healthy they are now eating and trying out new food such as kohlrabi.

On July 22 @ 6:30, we continue our monthly food awareness series with the award winning documentary “MORE THAN HONEY” which looks at the fascinating world of bees – “If bees were to disappear from the globe, mankind would only have four years left to live,” Albert Einstein. This is a film on the relationship between mankind and honeybees, about nature and about our future.

For more information on any of the programs mentioned – email Sara at or call 607-898-5055. Find us on Facebook too.

“The first supermarket supposedly appeared on the American landscape in 1946. That is not very long ago. Until then, where was all the food? Dear folks, the food was in homes, gardens, local fields, and forests. It was near kitchens, near tables, near bedsides. It was in the pantry, the cellar, the backyard.”
― Joel Salatin, Folks, This Ain’t Normal: A Farmer’s Advice for Happier Hens, Healthier People, and a Better World

 Sara L. Knobel is library manager at the Groton Public Library