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.

August 26, 2014

Rachel Carson: A Sustainability Pioneer

Tompkins Weekly 8-25-14

By Richard W. Franke

Rachel Carson might never have used the word sustainability, but her well-known book “Silent Spring” sounded a warning that uncontrolled and careless overspraying of chemical pesticides could damage the web of life. Indeed, the very title of her book refers to the first chapter: She describes a fictitious town in which spring arrived but no birds sang.

“Silent Spring” is one of the first popular scientific statements supporting the idea that humans are part of nature, not its conquerors, and that we should use science and technology to maintain or strengthen rather than to weaken or break the strands of the web of life.

“It took hundreds of millions of years to produce the life that now inhabits the earth—eons of time in which that developing and evolving and diversifying life reached a state of adjustment and balance with its surroundings.”

“The balance of nature is not a status quo; it is fluid, ever shifting, in a constant state of adjustment.” “Water must be thought of in terms of the chains of life it supports. …”

“The ‘control of nature’ is a phrase conceived in arrogance. …”

“Future generations are unlikely to condone our lack of prudent concern for the integrity of the natural world that supports all life.”

Carson was one of the first to publicize the accumulation effect, in which very small amounts of DDT sprayed over large areas eventually led to amounts, sometimes hundreds of times larger, in animals higher up the food chain as larger units consumed smaller ones and the DDT became stored in the animals’ fat.

Carson also realized that natural biological processes of mutation make it possible for insects to develop resistance to human attempts to wipe them out with chemicals. This results in more massive sprayings, leading to more resistance and/or the introduction of ever-more poisonous chemicals leading only to further resistance. Carson suggested that insects—because of their short life spans—were likely to mutate more rapidly than humans can invent new chemical killers. Even in 1962, evidence indicated that as many as 140 insect species had become resistant to DDT.

Furthermore, even when successful, destruction of one pest might only result in the expansion of another that had been its prey. One example is the spider mite that sucks chlorophyll out of evergreen needles. When the U.S. ForestService sprayed 885,000 acres of western forests with DDT to control the spruce budworm, the forests turned brown, at first mystifying the Forest Service. Then it was discovered that the DDT had also killed most of the ladybugs that are the natural predator of the spider mites in that area.

By their very nature, chemical controls are self-defeating, for they have been devised and applied without taking into account the complex biological systems against which they have been blindly hurled, Carson states. She notes that the chemical barrage [of pesticides] has been hurled against the fabric of life—a fabric, on the one hand, delicate and destructible; on the other, miraculously tough and resilient, and capable of striking back in unexpected ways.

If we substitute “geology” for “biological systems” or “fabric of life,” would Carson’s warning apply to hydrofracking in the Finger Lakes region? Will geology strike back by poisoning our drinking water as the price of a paltry few decades of natural gas extraction?

The final chapter of “Silent Spring” offers some of Carson’s alternatives, broadly lumped into the category of biological controls. These included male sterilization of undesirable insects, use of natural repellents, lures, ultrasonic sounds to repel certain insects, species-specific bacteria or viruses, importation of natural enemies and restoration of the populations of predators, including birds, bats, spiders and some small mammals that all engage in effective insect control.

Some of these alternatives amount to human interference with naturally evolved systems. Aware of this, Carson explained that any alternatives should be “based on understanding of the living organisms they seek to control, and of the whole fabric of life to which these organisms belong.”

Today we might say that Carson understood the need to maintain biodiversity. But it was not just species biodiversity; it was biodiversity of the elements and the networks and systems of the web of life that she recognized as crucial to the existence and quality of human life. Organic farmers today make use of many of the ideas Carson advocated. Her emphasis on connections among the elements of the web of life also makes Carson one of the first science writers to present to the public a systems view of nature and of our place in it.

Rachel Carson is both ancestor and heroine for all of us struggling to create and leave behind for our children and grandchildren a world of sustenance and beauty.

Richard W. Franke is professor emeritus of anthropology at Montclair State University, a resident of Ecovillage at Ithaca and a board member of Sustainable Tompkins.

August 18, 2014

The Keeling Curve and Global Warming

Tompkins Weekly 8-18-14
By Richard W. Franke

In 1946 the U.S. Navy sent Commander and oceanographer Roger Revelle to the Bikini Atoll in the Western Pacific to study the possible effects of atomic weapons testing on the corals in the lagoon. Among other research over the next ten years Revelle tried to calculate the amount of carbon in the water. Around 1956 he came to a startling conclusion: the complex set of chemicals in sea water was balanced in a way that made it likely that as CO2 molecules were absorbed from the atmosphere, they would push other CO2 molecules back out. Or they would be prevented from being absorbed.

Revelle realized immediately that his conclusion had enormous significance for earth’s atmosphere as well as for the oceans. Back in 1859 the Irish physicist John Tyndall had discovered that CO2 in the atmosphere had the effect of reflecting some solar heat back to the earth’s surface – the “greenhouse effect.” In 1895 the Swedish chemist and mathematician Svante Arrhenius had calculated that while increases in CO2 would indeed have a greenhouse effect, this effect would not be felt for about 2,850 years because most of the CO2 would be absorbed in the oceans. Arrhenius was a genius at complex calculations, but he had made assumptions about the chemical makeup of the oceans that now appeared to be incorrect. Revelle’s studies suggested that the oceans would take up only about one tenth of the carbon Arrhenius had assumed.

Along with his scientific talents, Revelle is considered an outstanding administrator and one who could identify others with promise. One of those was a young chemist named Charles Keeling, whom Revelle helped get funding in connection with the 1957-58 International Geophysical Year to take baseline measurements of CO2 in the atmosphere on top of the Mauna Loa volcano in Hawaii and at a research station in Antarctica.

Keeling had already established himself as a valuable colleague – if somewhat quirky – in May of 1955 by camping with his family at Big Sur and taking a series of CO2 measurements with a device he had himself invented. Keeling’s measurements were nearly as astonishing as Revelle’s ocean chemistry results. While other researchers had found wildly varying CO2 readings in various locations around the globe, Keeling guessed that their instruments were faulty and that they had not been able to control for intervening factors such as winds bringing in factory emissions. Using his newly invented measuring device Keeling showed that CO2 levels in the air around Big Sur, Yosemite, the Sierra Nevada and other locations was a constant 310 parts per million (ppm): at least when taken over a short time period. His results strongly supported the view that there is essentially a single CO2 number for the atmosphere over the entire planet. Among geophysicists and other scientists this was big news.


But Keeling’s greatest discovery was yet to come. In 1960 Keeling reported that his Antarctic site measurements of two full years indicated that CO2 levels in earth’s atmosphere were rising. Amazingly, his measurements showed the increase was almost exactly what would be predicted if Revelle’s calculations about ocean absorption were correct and Arrhenius’ calculations were altered to correct his assumptions about ocean absorption.

Funding problems forced Keeling to drop his Antarctic measurements but the Mauna Loa CO2 readings have continued to this day (with one small funding-induced break in 1964; Speart 2003:37)). Year by year, season by season, Charles Keeling measured the CO2 concentration as it rose from 310 when he began to 380 in 2005, the year he died. Others, including one of his sons, continue the work as do other research stations around the world. The Keeling Curve as it is now known, is one of the most famous discoveries in modern science.

[Source of the Keeling Curve graphic: Wikipedia]

Richard W. Franke writes about the history of sustainability. He is professor emeritus of anthropology at Montclair State University, a resident of Ecovillage at Ithaca and a board member of Sustainable Tompkins.


August 11, 2014

On the March for Climate Change Action

Tompkins Weekly 8-11-14

By Richard W. Franke

Journalist, author and climate activist Bill McKibben and thousands of others are organizing the largest ever climate justice demonstration to coincide with the United Nations Climate Crisis Summit that will take place starting September 23 at UN headquarters in NYC (

The mass march will be the culmination of a week of climate change protest and actions in NYC. Details for the actions will be available on the website ( that will also provide information about the route of the march that is currently being negotiated with the City.

It’s not too soon to make plans to go, however. We in Tompkins County should provide a strong contingent, consistent with our area’s impressive record of actions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions while simultaneously planning as best we can to mitigate the unavoidable consequences of climate change in our area. We have a vigorous county energy plan, a city/town sustainability officer and Sustainability Center, thriving local climate justice and social justice organizations such as Sustainable Tompkins, Building Bridges and many others, active solar buying clubs, three ecovillages, vigorous local food and food justice work, the local community owned Black Oak Wind Farm almost under construction and numerous other small scale initiatives.

Global warming and the ensuing climate change it is causing, however, also require national and international actions on a massive scale. McKibben laid out some of the parameters in his July 19, 2012 Rolling Stone article entitled “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math” ( This article is also linked at To avoid a greater than 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 F) increase in average global temperature, computer models suggest we can release only 535 gigatons (giga=billion) of CO2 into the atmosphere over the next few decades. But 2,795 gigatons of CO2 are in proven reserves of fossil fuels.

How to keep those 2,260 “extra” gigatons out of the atmosphere? Organizations and individuals at all levels have to pull investments out of fossil fuels and reinvest them in low or no carbon energy production. Greater efficiency in energy use is also needed. Technically we know how to do these things. In March of 2013 Stanford University engineering and atmospheric sciences professor Mark Z. Jacobson and 12 other scientists published an article in the academic journal Energy Policy arguing that New York State’s entire energy infrastructure could be 100% powered by wind, water and sunlight by the year 2030 ( Jacobson et al argue that in addition to saving the atmosphere, such an infrastructure would create jobs and improve public health. Recently they have set up “the solutions project” to illustrate how their ideas could be implemented across the entire U.S ( By extrapolation, they could be applied worldwide. Simultaneously with the U.N. Climate Crisis Summit another group, the Sustainable Development Solutions Network, will be issuing a somewhat less ambitious but important Pathways to Deep Decarbonization (

These and other recent studies and reports indicate that many of the engineering and policy choices are fairly well developed and understood. What is needed now is a giant public push. Actually, several. Like the People’s Climate March.

The march also has the potential to help unite environmental and social justice activists who have sometimes felt alienated from each other in the past. One sign of this is the strong support for the People’s Climate March by Eddie Bautista, Executive Director of the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance (, a federation of activist organizations that emphasize bringing greater justice to the poor and to people of color.

Like other mass demonstrations in recent history, the People’s Climate March has the potential to energize and activate people far beyond its street activists and far after the march day. It can help create a cultural mood of activism and it reminds the participants that we are part of something big. I hope to see you there. No, actually I hope it’s so big I can’t find you amongst the tens of thousands chanting and carrying placards on September 21, 2014. Instead I’ll see you at a follow up meeting in Tompkins County to hear your experiences and feelings about how to move forward.

Richard W. Franke writes about the history of sustainability. He is professor emeritus of anthropology at Montclair State University, a resident of Ecovillage at Ithaca and a board member of Sustainable Tompkins.