August 16, 2011 | General

Climate Change Connections: Brainstorming A Path To Sustainability

BioCycle August 2011, Vol. 52, No. 8, p. 60
Sally Brown

As a Research Associate Professor at the University of Washington, my focus relates to use of different residuals as soil amendments. On the University end of my job, I’ve had the honor and privilege to be part of a number of committees or activities under the umbrella of the National Academy of Science (NAS). Just recently, a colleague from a former NAS committee suggested I apply to participate in this year’s Keck Futures Initiative (
The Keck Futures Initiative is an annual get together of experts from a wide range of fields who brainstorm approaches to solving a particular emerging problem. This year the topic is “Ecosystem Services: Charting a Path to Sustainability.” So I applied, and in my application, talked all about integrating ecosystem services into urban infrastructure. And I got in and am really happy about this – and not just because it means I get to escape Seattle in November and go to southern California.
At these meetings, the 150 or so people selected to participate divide themselves into groups to tackle particular questions. I just received the list of questions and have been asked to pick my top three. Now I am pretty sure that the people organizing this meeting have not spent a great deal of time thinking about a two bin versus a three bin collection program, or about the true value of a banana peel. However, if you go through a few of the proposed topics with me, you can see how what I write about in this column fits so well into so many of these topics.

The first topic on the list is: How do ecosystem services affect infectious and chronic disease. I write that one off instantly as having nothing to do with my skills or interests. But to be fair I force myself to read the brief description. And I find in the summary that ecosystem services are being recognized to have an impact on chronic diseases in addition to infectious diseases. Ecosystem services linked to human health include food production, water supply and quality, air quality “as well as other aspects of the human-environment interface related to the ways in which human settlements are built, organized, and linked to their natural environments.”
All of a sudden, I start thinking that the Keck people must have read that same report by the Center for Neighborhood Technology in Chicago that I talked about a few columns back where they quantified the health benefits of green infrastructure. Or maybe they had also read some of the literature on benefits associated with community gardens (built with composts) including reduced childhood obesity and increased community strength. It could be they were thinking of sustainable storm water management using composts, or just as likely use of reclaimed water. I decided that this was one option to seriously consider.
Then I moved onto the second question: “Identify what resources can be produced renewably or recovered by developing intense technologies that can be applied on a massive scale.” First thought, no way for me on that. An engineer I’m not. But then as I read on, I realized that they must have heard about Zero Waste or maybe me talking about biosolids. This section starts with a discussion of limited worldwide phosphorus reserves. Recycling biosolids and food scraps provides soils and plants with P. Adding organic amendments to soil for a source of fertility increases soil carbon reserves, averts greenhouse gas emissions, increases soil water storage and can improve plant yields. Plus it is sustainable. I have an article coming out in Environmental Science and Technology about just this.
The write-up goes on about renewable sources of energy to replace fossil fuels. How many articles have you seen in BioCycle about biogas? And when the write-up speaks about the need for massive scale renewable technologies, I found myself thinking of the millions and millions of city dwellers who produce renewable biosolids and organic residuals on a daily basis. So perhaps #2 should be my first choice.
I decided I wouldn’t be able to contribute much to a discussion on the third question, “Develop social and technical capabilities to respond to abrupt changes in ecosystem services.” But when I moved to #4, “Design agricultural and aquacultural systems that provide food security while maintaining the full set of ecosystem services needed from landscapes and seascapes,” I realized that I had another contender for my top spot. Just take one of the concerns here – maintaining adequate flows and quality of fresh water. What two studies do I have going in the greenhouse you ask? Rebecca is looking at use of reclaimed water (water from wastewater treatment plants treated to Class A standards suitable for food crop irrigation) to enhance subsurface flows of water to streams. She is analyzing water quality and quantity as it passes through different soil columns. Dan is about to start a study looking at designer compost blends for use in bioretention systems to enhance water quality in these systems designed to maximize infiltration of storm water into soils.

I’ll skip 5-8, but really want to touch on #9: “Develop a program that increases the American public’s appreciation of the basic principles of ecosystem services.” If you read this column regularly, you’ve likely read about Kristen, my PhD student, who can now officially be called Dr. McIvor. Kristen’s dissertation was about soil education in community gardens. In her introduction, I read that environmental literacy in the U.S. is very low – less than 5 percent of the people in this country can be considered as environmentally literate. As part of Kristen’s research she interviewed gardeners in Seattle and Tacoma about what products they use in their gardens and where those products come from. Tacoma has a well-established biosolids program that has developed a range of products for the home gardener. They compost yard trimmings too, but that is primarily marketed to landscapers.
Seattle is just the opposite. The food and yard trimmings compost is sold and marketed to gardeners (and the DOT, the utility company, etc.). The biosolids compost on the other hand, is primarily sold wholesale. What Kristen found was that the people in Tacoma use the biosolids product and know all about wastewater treatment whereas the people in Seattle use the food-yard trimmings compost and know all about what is appropriate to put in that bin and how compost is made. The Tacoma people knew very little about composting and the Seattle people knew very little about wastewater treatment. When people use the product, they learn about the process. If utilities make a product geared to the residents of their communities from their organic residuals, they will not only find eager customers, but will also start a process of understanding of where that product came from. Environmental awareness in urban areas can come as part of this cycle. You can start teaching people about the importance of ecological processes by teaching them about the products that they help to produce.
I have several weeks to make my final top three selections for the Keck Center conference. And there is a chance we may even get a few days of summer weather here in Seattle, so that southern California won’t sound so nice. But the topics of this conference speak very clearly to what readers of this magazine do, each and every day. And come November, whatever group I end up in, I will make that message clear.

Sally Brown, Research Associate Professor at the University of Washington in Seattle, authors this regular column. E-mail Dr. Brown at slb@u.washington. edu.

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