Sustainability in a Human Ecosystem

The world in which we live is out of balance. Climate scientists assert that the ferocity of storms and forest fires is intensified due to global warming, leading to great destruction. Societally, we have deep social and political divisions. Our human ecosystem is riven. As a backdrop, we have a once-in-a-century pandemic that is interfering with the human touch. With intention and a good faith commitment to listen and understand each other as individuals, we can create a social equilibrium that will allow us to work collaboratively and peacefully to meet our important challenges.

As human beings, we have the capacity to empathize and work hand-in-hand toward joint resolution of issues. Arun Ghandi spoke in Foy Hall in 2016, relating lessons and remembrances of his grandfather Mahatma. In his speech, he gave his personal view that peace can only be obtained nonviolently through engagement of the following elements:

· Respect

· Understanding

· Acceptance

· Appreciation

When we respect another, we can grow to understand that person. When we understand their thoughts, perspectives, and values, we can then develop acceptance of them. And when we accept an individual, we will have granted ourselves the joy of appreciating that person.

This is a remarkably simple formula, and it can be used as a template to foster strong, peaceful, and productive relationships between individuals, groups, and nations. With it, we can form bonds of trust. Leah Green employed similar principles beginning in 1990 with the Compassionate Listening Project.

Ms. Green arranged for members of the project to travel to Israel and Palestine that year, to facilitate difficult discussions between residents of each area. Employing deep, nonjudgmental listening techniques, those residents listened to understand and respect one another as humans, rather than as hostile enemies. The Listening Project has repeated this journey 33 times. Peace has not yet come to those communities, but many members have learned to understand, respect, and trust the other. With empathy and a good-faith willingness to understand one another, they are working toward a common interest in peaceful and secure living.

These are techniques that can be used for the betterment of all communities, including ours as the Auburn Family. We don’t always get along or see things from the perspective of another, but by listening to understand rather than to argue, we can learn to respect and work with that other person. In the process, we may learn to accept and appreciate them as treasured family members. Then, our ecosystem will become livelier, stronger, and more productive.


Post contributed by Kevin Coonrod, Auburn University Ombudsperson. The Office of the Ombudsperson is a confidential resource devoted to assisting all university members to navigate through conflict and other difficult problems.

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What is the Connection Between Climate Change & Our Food System? Does What We Eat Really Make a Difference?

Post contributed by Lecturer Ana Plana, ME, Culinary Science, Department of Nutrition, Dietetics & Hospitality Management, College of Human Sciences.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) set up by the World Meteorological Organization and the United Nations Environment concluded in its Fifth Assessment Report: “climate change is real and human activities are the main cause.” Dangerous greenhouse gas emissions, average global temperatures increasing, oceans warming, and sea-level rise; represent just a few consequences of climate change. Yet for many Americans, the topic of climate change remains a generalization. Many simply fail to make the connection between their own daily habits and the increasing global impact on climate change. The problem with lazily looking at the problem in the abstract is that it provides a convenient excuse to not act responsibly. All of us must understand and appreciate the need to adopt new food habits and choices in order to prevent the harsh effects of climate change for ourselves and for future generations.

In April 2019, The New York Times published the article “Your Questions About Food and Climate Change, Answered” By Julia Moskin, Brad Plumer, Rebecca Lieberman and Eden Weingart. This informative article breaks it all down for us. Yes, our food choices affect climate change. The “food system is one-quarter of the planet-warming greenhouse gases.” The food cycle includes clearing the forest for livestock, animal digestion releases methane gas, the usage of fossil fuels to run the machinery necessary to operate the farm, and the subsequent transportation of the meat, all of which contribute to climate change. The article makes four meaningful conclusions: 1) Agriculture is a contributor to climate change, and some foods contribute negatively more than others. Beef is the most significant contributor, and plants, the least. 2) Your food choices (i.e., reducing the amount of animal protein) has a greater impact than the effect of choosing local vs. organic. 3) You don’t have to adopt a vegan diet; changes occur as a result of even minor adjustments to one’s diet. For example, reducing red meat consumption to once a week, or substituting poultry for red meat a few times a week can have a substantial effect 4) Purchase and use only the food you need, will reduce waste tremendously.

Similar findings can be found in other publications. In Barilla Center for Food and Nutrition Eating Planet, states: 

“sustainability of the agri-food chain of production depends not only on the commitment of the farmers, the producers, and the distributors but also -and perhaps even more so – on the individual choices and families, who have such a powerful effect on the entire market and the environment in which we live with daily choices and decisions they make.”  

Barilla Center for Food and Nutrition (BCFN), a research center that studies and develops an understanding of the many complex global issues involving our food system.  BCFN developed a double food and environmental pyramid model to reflect the relationship between the nutritional value of foods and the environmental impact of those decisions. The double pyramid suggests that following a Mediterranean diet, as recommended by many health professionals, will decrease the environmental impact. This diet entails eating without excess, reducing meat and dairy consumption, increasing fruits and vegetables, and eating whole grains.

These are just three examples of research confirming that YES, there is a connection between our food system and climate change, and our daily food choices have an impact on our environment. Reducing your environmental impact by slowly making changes will have a more permanent effect. Start with mini modifications in your diet (lifestyle changes). For example, finish your sauces by blending them instead of adding cream or butter, skip the cheese on your burger, make your burger with beans or pulses instead of meat, have a sustainable seafood night once a week. Bottom line: making a few small changes to your diet will help our environment and your health.


Food For Sustainable Growth, Barilla Center for Food & Nutrition, Eating Planet Food and Sustainability: Building our Future, Edizioni Ambiente, 2016 p. 92 -115.

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Director’s Corner: Humanity’s growing ecological footprint: “the only measure which tracks how much nature we have – and how much nature we use.”

“If we did to our bank account what we have been doing to the Earth’s natural capital we would have been bankrupt long ago.”

~Christina Figueres, former Executive Secretary, United Nations Frameworks Convention on Climate Change

Planet Earth has over eons generated a vast endowment of natural capital, which the World Forum on Natural Capital defines as “the world’s stocks of natural assets which include geology, soil, air, water, and all living things.”

Natural capital is the source of human existence and our capacity for thriving. Everything we do is ultimately derived from the endowment of natural assets generated and sustained by the Earth.

Endowments can last forever if they are managed properly. A fundamental tenant for managing an endowment that needs to last forever is to live off interest generated and avoid dipping into interest-generating principal, and in the case of natural capital, avoid contaminating it as well.

The reasons for this are obvious: spending more than the limits of our income puts us in debt. Reducing the size of an endowment reduces its capacity to generate income; contaminating the stocks of air, water, soil, and other living things weakens the endowment even more. Keep this up long enough and, no matter how large and productive, the endowment will eventually weaken and collapse.

This is the situation we are now facing. Since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, and as the population has correspondingly exploded, humanity has been tapping and contaminating our natural capital endowment at an ever-increasing rate. We are now at the point where evidence is starkly clear that our seemingly immense and inexhaustible endowment is in fact very limited and under extreme duress.

Ecological Footprint Image
Credit: Global Footprint Network

Since 1970, humanity has been accumulating deficits of natural capital. Each year since and at an ever-increasing rate we have taken more resources than the Earth can regenerate, and produced more waste than the Earth can absorb – the most globally damaging waste being excessive greenhouse gas emissions – annually reducing Earth’s capacity to support life as we know it.

We know this because of an accounting tool known as the Ecological Footprint, “the only measure which tracks how much nature we have – and how much nature we use.” The Ecological Footprint was developed in 1990 by Mathis Wackernagel and William Rees at the University of British Columbia and is managed by the Global Footprint Network (GFN).

To draw attention to humanity’s overuse of nature, GFN created Earth Overshoot Day, which “marks the date when humanity’s demand for ecological resources and services in a given year exceeds what Earth can regenerate in that year…. Earth Overshoot Day is computed by dividing the planet’s biocapacity (the amount of ecological resources Earth is able to generate that year), by humanity’s Ecological Footprint (humanity’s demand for that year), and multiplying by 365, the number of days in a year:

(Planet’s Biocapacity / Humanity’s Ecological Footprint) x 365 = Earth Overshoot Day”

Earth Overshoot Chart
Global Footprint Network National Footprint Accounts 2019

The chart to the right shows the inexorably growing natural capital deficit since 1970, as Earth Overshoot Day occurs earlier and earlier during the year. In 1979, Earth Overshoot Day occurred in late October. 40 years later, in 2019, it occurred on July 29.

According to GFN’s Public Data Package, humanity is using the equivalent of 1.75 Earths; and if everyone lived like the average American the estimate is that it would take 5 Earths to support the human population.

Human population – 2.5 billion in 1950, 7.8 billion today – combined with increased consumption and degradation of natural capital explain why we face a climate crisis, why so many ecosystems are under duress, and to a large extent why there is so much societal turmoil globally.

The Global Footprint Network has calculated each nation’s ecological footprint, and offers an ecological footprint quiz that each of us can take to determine our individual footprints. We have the information and tools at hand to understand individually and collectively how much nature we use, and how much nature we can use and stay within the ecological limits that allow life to thrive.

As GFN points out, “The current trend is not our destiny.” We know everything we need to do to reduce our ecological footprint and restore Earth’s capacity to generate natural capital, which are the same things we need to do to reverse global warming and stabilize the climate.

Furthermore, doing what is necessary does not require sacrificing our quality of life. On the contrary, reversing these trends will create jobs and enhance quality of life across the globe. Not doing what is necessary threatens life as we know it.

GFN has identified five key areas of impact and opportunity:

  • Cities: How we design and manage cities
  • Energy: How we power ourselves
  • Food: How we produce, distribute, and consume food
  • Planet: How we help nature thrive
  • Population: How many of us there are

These five areas mirror the solutions to reversing global warming found in Project Drawdown, and in the internationally adopted Sustainable Development Goals. They are in so many ways the same solutions, solutions that offer extraordinary opportunities.

The Ecological Footprint is a practical accounting tool for understanding “how much nature we have, and how much nature we use.” With this ledger, we can be responsible stewards of our natural capital endowment. We can learn to save. Most importantly, we can learn to respect and live within the laws and limits of the finite Earth, the only source of wealth and wellbeing there is. We have no choice. As Donella Meadows reminds us with this sobering observation: “There will always be limits to growth. They can be self-imposed. If they aren’t they will be system-imposed.”

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Counting Carbon

As we watch the calendar flip to a new year, we often find ourselves looking back in reflection while simultaneously making resolutions for how we might make our lives in the new year better.  We take personal stock so we can make concrete plans to build a better tomorrow for ourselves. 

Perhaps, it’s time for us to do the same when it comes to our collective selves and how we’re meeting the challenges and seizing the opportunities presented by climate change.  After all, you can look just about anywhere these days to easily witness the harsh new realities of climate change and how we’re falling short of our goals to avert the most catastrophic consequences of our addiction to fossil fuels. And while we each individually have a role to play in helping to address climate change, the magnitude of the situation requires bold and specific action from governments and organizations.  

In this spirit, Auburn has committed to carbon neutrality by 2050.  But just like we do when we make our personal resolutions, we must first take account of our actions from years past, before we can move forward with concrete actions in the future.  In this instance, that means conducting a greenhouse gas inventory.  

Graphic representing scope 1, 2, and 3 greenhouse gas emissions.
Source: Greenhouse Gas Protocol.

Given Auburn’s size and complex amount of activities, completing an inventory requires the participation of people from across campus.  In fact, our office gathers data from over 15 different campus units and from a range of people within those units who manage and report on various data points.  A few things we collect data on probably wouldn’t surprise you, like electricity, natural gas, refrigerant use, and travel. But we also gather data on a few things that you might not think of like fertilizer use, waste sent to the landfill, and livestock, among others.  We then take all the gathered information and use the Sustainability Indicator Management & Analysis Platform (SIMAP) to generate a report detailing our scope 1 & 2 emissions and a portion of our scope 3 emissions.  

It’s important to note that our inventory isn’t perfect.  First, we aren’t actually reporting on all university-based activity.  Instead, we’ve chosen to focus on the main Auburn campus, which means we’re excluding both the positive and negative impacts that come from university operations around the state of Alabama.  Second, we also aren’t reporting on all sources of emissions for the main campus. Like most institutions, we so far haven’t captured information on all of our scope 3 emissions. Finally, some of the data we collect doesn’t directly align with the way we must enter it into the SIMAP tool, particularly when it comes to travel.  As a result, we have to make some assumptions and in some instances knowingly overestimate our emissions.  

Regardless of these limitations, our inventory does give us a sound understanding of how our choices as an institution, and as the individuals within it, impact climate change.  Such information will be critical to formulating our new resolutions and targets when we look to take further responsibility for building a better tomorrow by updating our Climate Action Plan in the near future so as to move us closer to our 2050 goal.  

Graphic depicting total greenhouse gas emissions of Auburn University by fiscal year.

Graph depicting fiscal year 2017 greenhouse gas emissions for Auburn University by emission category.

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New AU Course on Personal Resilience & Sustainability

Post Contributed by Dr. Nanette Chadwick, Academic Sustainability Programs Director

“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” ~Mary Oliver, A Summer’s Day

Academic Sustainability Programs is offering this semester a new 1-credit course, SUST 4900 Personal Resilience and Sustainability. This course arose out of an understanding among our sustainability instructors that Auburn students would benefit from this type of course offering. In this course, students will interact with each other and an experienced instructor to develop and celebrate aspects of personal resilience in the face of major local to global-scale changes that are confronting human society now and in the near future.

This new course will meet for an hour each week, with the timing to be determined by the schedules of enrolled students. It will focus on What is Resilience?, and will offer training in taking care of ourselves and others on a changing planet, in building community around the intention to live sustainably, resourcing in nature, creativity, and ourselves, and in learning deep ecology and practical skills.

If you have space in your course schedule to take 1 more credit this spring, consider this unique course that will explore individual wellbeing at it relates to the sustainability compass. Sustainability Compass Poster

This course can be used as a free elective, or as elective credits toward the Minor in Sustainability Studies in the area of Environment. It could be combined as an elective with our other 1-credit courses or, with study abroad or other types of credits, to create 3 minor elective credits.

We are excited about this new course offering. Contact the instructor Dr. Marilyn Vogel if you have questions, or to receive a copy of the draft syllabus.

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Director’s Corner: Solar Power & Climate Change–Closing the Emissions Gap

“We are like tenant farmers, chopping down the fence around our house for fuel, when we should be using nature’s inexhaustible sources of energy—sun, wind, and tide.”  Thomas Edison in 1931, as quoted by James D. Newton

On November 26th, 2019, the United Nations Environment Program released its Emissions Gap Report 2019.  The gap the report describes is the one between where greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are, where they are headed, and where they need to be to maintain a stable and safe climate.

In a nutshell, the gap is way too big and it is growing.  According to the report, global temperatures could rise as much as 3.9 degrees Celsius, or 7 degrees Fahrenheit, by the end of the century.  The internationally stated goal for global temperature rise is 1.5 degrees C, or 2.7 degrees F.  The stated absolute upper limit of temperature increase that we can reasonably tolerate is 2.0 degrees C, or 3.6 degrees F.

Areas in the northern latitudes have already seen temperature increases above 2.0 degrees C.

Accompanying the report was a statement released by Inger Andersen, executive director of the U.N. Environment Program. In part, that statement reads: “Our collective failure to act early and hard on climate change means we now must deliver deep cuts to emissions.  We need to catch up on the years in which we procrastinated.”

So now what? I have written before about Project Drawdown, which identifies the top 100 solutions to global warming.  Project Drawdown’s research discovered that humanity is already doing – on a small scale – everything we need to do to reverse global warming and draw down GHG concentrations to a safe level.  We just have to dramatically and quickly scale up what we already know how to do.  Viewed through this lens, Project Drawdown sees the climate crisis to be an opportunity to do things differently and in the process restore a safe and stable climate while creating millions of new and sustainable jobs.

Several ready-made solutions identified by Project Drawdown relate to solar energy.  At least three of them present great opportunities here in Alabama.

One is building more large-scale, or utility-scale, solar farms for large-scale energy users like Auburn University.   According to Drawdown: “When their entire life cycle is taken into account, solar farms curtail 94 percent of the carbon emissions that coal plants emit and completely eliminate emissions of sulfur and nitrous oxides, mercury, and particulates….Currently .4 percent of global electricity generation, utility-scale solar PV grows to 10 percent (by 2050)  in our analysis…. That increase could avoid 36.9 gigatons (36.9 billion tons) of carbon dioxide emissions, while saving $5 trillion in operational costs…—the financial impact of producing energy without fuel.”  And solar energy has become very inexpensive.  Wow!

Another solar solution is rooftop solar for homes and small businesses. If rooftop solar deployment can grow to 7 percent of global electricity generation by 2050, a reasonable expectation, that would reduce GHG emissions by 24.6 gigatons.  It would cost $453.14 billion to implement and save $3.46 trillion net operational savings.  Wow!

Solar thermal, or solar water heating, is a third solution.  According to Drawdown, heating water consumes 25 percent of home energy use and 12 percent of energy use in commercial buildings.  This simple technology has been around for a long time and can be easily installed.  Drawdown’s impact assessment: “If solar water heating grows from 5.5 percent of the addressable market to 25 percent, the technology can deliver emissions reductions of 6.1 gigatons of carbon dioxide and save households $774 billion in energy costs by 2050. In our calculations of up-front costs, we assume solar water heaters supplement and do not replace electric and gas boilers.” Wow!

The Southern Environmental Law Center reports that Alabama ranks 13th nationally in raw solar energy potential, and 8th in potential economic benefit from solar generation of electricity.

What are we waiting for?  Thomas Edison saw the future nearly 90 years ago.

By developing state policies that facilitate the rapid development of unlimited, pollution-free solar energy we can do our part as Alabamians to reduce emissions now, and in the process reap significant economic benefits in terms of lower energy costs and substantial job growth.

One important step is for Alabama to establish renewable energy portfolio standards, something a majority of states have already done. From a November 1, 2019 post at the National Conference of State Legislatures website:

States have been very active in the past year revising their Renewable Portfolio Standards (RPS), which require that a specified percentage of the electricity that utilities sell comes from renewable resources. States have created these standards to diversify their energy resources, promote domestic energy production and encourage economic development. Renewable energy policies help drive the nation’s $64 billion market for wind, solar and other renewable energy sources. These policies can play an integral role in state efforts to diversify their energy mix, promote economic development and reduce emissions. Roughly half of the growth in U.S. renewable energy generation since 2000 can be attributed to state renewable energy requirements.

Twenty-nine states, the District of Columbia, and three territories have established RPS.  Eight states have established voluntary renewable energy goals.  Alabama is one of only twelve states that have neither renewable standards nor voluntary goals.

The Yale Program on Climate Change Communication conducts opinion surveys on climate change and renewable energy and maps the results.  The September 19, 2019, Climate Opinion Map for Alabama reveals that at least half of Alabamians want the governor and local officials to do more to address global warming and a majority of Alabamians support the state requiring utilities to produce 20% of the electricity they generate from renewable sources.

Again I ask, what are we waiting for?  As climate science makes clear, we need to act quickly and on a large scale.  Making the transition to utility-scale and rooftop solar energy will help us do what we must to address the climate crisis while, as the National Conference on State Legislatures says, diversifying our energy resources, promoting domestic energy production, and encouraging economic development.


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Plant Ahead Tree Project: Planting with Purpose

Contributed by Allison Foster, School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences

Coming into Auburn, I had an idea of what I wanted to do but I wasn’t completely sure. My freshman year I took a Conservation Biology Learning Community class and I was exposed to ideas I didn’t really know much about, but I was interested in learning about.

I ended up changing my major to Wildlife Ecology and Management because the people I had met in that major seemed so dedicated and cared about what they were doing. This past summer I was part of a Research Experience for Undergraduates at the University of South Florida, and it focused on Weather, Climate, and Society. We had a variety of guest speakers and one that stuck out to me was Dr. Kim Cobb, from Georgia Tech. Her presentation was about little ways that you, as an individual, can lessen your carbon footprint. She mentioned an organization called Trees Atlanta and I decided to look into it.

I found out that planting trees is one of the best things you can do for the environment. There are so many different ways to reduce your carbon footprint, from the way you travel, what you eat, and what you buy. These are little things that can add up to so much more. Planting trees affects carbon emissions by removing carbon that is already in the atmosphere.

I became inspired to put on something like this at Auburn. I’m so excited to announce that at Auburn, we are having an event called PlanT Ahead where the Auburn community will come together to plant trees. This event will not only impact us locally but will hopefully bring awareness and spread elsewhere.

Learning about climate change can be overwhelming, and it can often feel like there’s no way to help. Small things can do wonders, and that’s why I invite all of y’all to join us in this event and make a difference in your community! Plant Ahead: A Tree Planting Event is taking place at the Mary Olive Thomas Demonstration Forest on January 22nd.

Register to receive pre-event safety details and to get pizza at the event.

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