Thoughts on well-being, sustainability and those things that constitute a good life beyond consumption.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Uprisings in Ecuador

A bit of a shock to read CNN tonight and learn of a possible attempted coup on the Ecuadorian government.  My next Ecuadorian post will be about the capital city of Quito, but I wasn't thinking about this type of event!

I did talk to a number of people about how President Rafael Correa Delgado is viewed.  He has a strong social and environmental agenda which is admired by some but of deep concern to others who fear it will bring down the economy even further.  The good ol' environment vs. economy debate, which, of course, is an oversimplification of a much more complex set of issues.

I am in awe of Ecuador's new constitution that includes rights for nature and Correa's challenge to the developed world to pay Ecuador to not drill for oil in the Amazon.  At least in the short term, he seems to be putting the choice of preserving this region of extreme biodiversity and intriguing culture vs. the world demand for oil in the hands of those who want both!

Nature and well-being

For me, nature has always had a healing affect when I am stressed or sad.  But, overall, spending time in nature is very important for happiness and overall wellbeing --a part of one's personal prosperity.  Much has been written on this theme by far better writers than I.  Julie Newton, a scholar from the U.K. put together the following bibliography about wellbeing and nature and I highly recommend that you have a look.  If you google her name and wellbeing and nature, you will also come across a powerpoint presentation by her on "The Impact of Green Spaces on Wellbeing".
Wellbeing and the Natural Environment:  A brief overview of the evidence

Working in academe, it can get rather hectic during the fall semester so I always consider it a luxury when I have a chance to get out and enjoy my favorite season.  Yesterday, ahead of the tropical depression coming through today, I had such a chance and found it incredibly therapeutic.  Below, I share a few images from my two hour walk with my dog Revi through the woods.  Enjoy.

At a time of year when many things are going dormant, there are still signs of new life as seen with these two tree seedlings that have emerged from the forest floor.

The autumn forest floor #1
Autum forest floor #2

Caryopteris (Blue Mist Shrub)

Aromatic aster (Aster oblongifolius)

Aster with silver-spotted skipper

The rare fringed blue gentian - always a treat to find

We think of reds and golds of the turning leaves and the orange of pumpkins in the patch as fall colors, but there are an amazing array of blues/purples as well in the fall flowers.

It doesn't take much to make a retriever happy!

Prosperity at a Superfund site?

The term prosperity has come to mean financial well-being and success (often measured by how much material stuff we can collect or consume).  However, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the word prosper has the following origins:

c.1460, from O.Fr. prosperer (14c.), from L. prosperare "cause to succeed, render happy," from prosperus "favorable, fortunate, prosperous," perhaps lit. "agreeable to one's wishes," from Old L. pro spere "according to expectation," from pro "for" + abl. of spes "hope," from PIE base *spei- "to flourish, succeed." Prosperous is first recorded 1445, originally "tending to bring success;" in the sense of "flourishing" it is first recorded 1472. [prosper. (n.d.). Online Etymology Dictionary. Retrieved September 30, 2010, from website: ]

The words in this excerpt that catch my intention are “render happy”, “hope” and “flourishing” -- words that aren’t necessarily linked to monetary or material wealth.  According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, a synonym for prosper is “thrive” [].  Hence, in my personal characterization of prosperity, I like the broader context of well-being….whether it is a thriving environment, my personal well-being, or whatever.

Yesterday, I spent much of the day evaluating how well things are thriving at the Lehigh Gap Nature Center – a wildlife refuge created from an area of land ravished by 80 years of zinc smelting (see  By the 1950’s, much of the vegetation had been lost and the site looked like a moonscape devoid of life, including soil microorganisms and fungi – things that seem to survive under the most extreme conditions!  Yes, I did say that I went to see how things are thriving at this site, which is part of the Palmerton Superfund Site.  

In 2002, a group of citizens purchased over 750 acres of property within the Superfund designation – land heavily contaminated and damaged by acid deposition and heavy metals (zinc, lead, cadmium, and arsenic).  These individuals had dreams of restoring this land and creating an educational center and wildlife refuge.  Crazy, right?  But in 2003, test plot plantings of warm season native grasses commenced, and against all odds and scientific reasoning, it worked.  The plants grew.  Today, just a few years later, about 400 acres have been converted to a grassland and thriving habitat.  At the above link, you can see some dramatic before and after pictures.  Talk about a story of hope!  

Early yesterday, I went out with Jennifer Lansing of Arcadis BBL (an environmental consulting and management firm) and Dan Kunkle (Executive Director of the Lehigh Gap Nature Center) to evaluate the status of young tree seedlings that had been planted 2 years before. 

Dan and Jennifer discussing the changes that have occurred at the site

Some like the young oak and the back-crossed chestnut (to confirm resistance to chestnut blight) were doing well. 

Many of the seedlings that had been planted, however, had not survived.  This could have been due the contamination, drought, poor soil nutrients or lack of mycorrhizae, or herbivory (or some combination of these factors). 

What I did notice for the first time since I have been going to the site over the past five years was that the moss was not only greening but putting out reproductive structures!

Also, we saw rotting logs!  This might not sound too exciting, but the trees that died from the contamination had been laying on the mountainside for decades since there were no decomposers remaining in the soil.

I was also surprised to see sandwort (Minuartia patula) blooming.  This small plant typically blooms in very early summer and has completed its lifecycle by the end of June.  It is a hyperaccumulator; in other words, it can accumulate very high levels of metals without showing any toxic effects.  To a plant biochemist, this is truly a plant of great intrigue.

Sandwort is a low growing plant - seen here with the small white flowers

The next group of visitors to the site yesterday was from Fort Indiantown Gap/Penn State University.  We are evaluating the possibility of a) managing the grassland with controlled burns and b) using the refuge as a site to reintroduce the endangered Regal Fritillary butterfly.   This rare and beautiful butterfly is found at only two sites east of the Mississippi, one being the Fort Indiantown Gap military base in central Pennsylvania along the Appalachian mountain.

The 8 individuals who came to the refuge today will serve as tremendous resources for advise as how to manage the grassland.  There is a chance that we can establish critical food plants for the larval stage of this insect and we already have the habitat (little blue stem) and other nectar plants for the butterfly.  Wouldn’t it be an amazing story of hope if this once contaminated moonscape were to become a site to save a species?!
As we said goodbye to the “FIG” staff, we saw the first Milbert’s Tortoiseshell butterfly of the season on the asters.  I didn’t get a picture, but you can see one taken by my son at this site .  It is truly a wonderful fall visitor.
The grasslands are beautiful this time of year (and filled with surprises) as seen in the pictures below.

The seeds of the grasses are beautiful and allow for identification!

Joe, from Fort Indiantown Gap

A number of state and federal officials were also on site yesterday to discuss the future restoration work across the river on land owned by the National Forest Service.  The hope is that some seeding of warm season grasses will begin along the Appalachian trail next summer.

I also had a chance to enjoy the fall beauty of the educational habitat (native plant) gardens that we have been working on at the nature center.

I would say it was a day of prosperity at this Superfund site!

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Sustainability, much less prosperity, cannot happen if there are over 10 million illiterate people in one country alone.

The implications of a lack of education, a lack of hope for the future are outlined nicely in the book Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson & David Oliver Relin.

These girls from the Pimampiro region have the good fortune to be able to not only attend school (some with the help of sponsors) but also take their first art classes.
My friend Paul Murtha (of Mountains of Hope) sent this message to me today:

True sustainability is understood when there is a deep appreciation for life and why we are here. Having a clear understanding of the value of human existence provides the clarity that helps generate viable answers for real sustainability.

I think it is a wonderful statement.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Chocolate, sustainability, and some resources of interest

The WorldWatch Institute (with the tagline of “Vision for a Sustainable World; see ) has long been an organization that I have paid attention to because of the great resources that they develop.  In fact, I plan to use their 2010 State of the World Report entitled Transforming Cultures: from Consumerism to Sustainability for my new course in the spring.

Over the past year, I have been following closely one of their blogs about a project on innovations in agriculture that will have importance for reducing world hunger in a sustainable way.

Danielle Nierenberg, a co-director for this project co-authored an op-ed about cocoa farms that ended up in the Harrisburg Patriot this past weekend.

Now, I couldn’t dream of a “good life” without chocolate!  But, more importantly, there are many social and environmental issues related to cocoa production.  The article points out the many links to the chocolate industry that Pennsylvania has.  And I was surprised at the NestlĂ© presence in Ecuador (their chocolate bars available in stores there were much better than the commonly known products in the U.S.).  Cocoa has long been important to South America and there are connoisseurs of cocoa beans much like there are for coffee beans!  The flavor can vary tremendously depending on growing conditions and processing.  Unfortunately, I didn't get to any cocoa farms on my trip; that will have to be for a future visit to Ecuador.  One of the women who I was with in Pimampiro lives in Lititz, PA, which is home to the Wilbur Chocolate Company– not mentioned in the op-ed, but the makers of extremely good powder for hot chocolate. 

Fred Pearce provides an interesting account of the issues associated with cocoa farming in Confessions of an Eco-Sinner:  Tracking Down the Sources of My Stuff (Beacon Press, 2008) — another book to be used in my new course.

What to expect?

I haven’t been to South America previously, although I have traveled to Latin American destinations including Mexico, Costa Rica, and Puerto Rico.  Besides a strong suspicion that I would need to slow down my daily pace, I am not sure what to expect.  My friends that have visited Ecuador go because of the great bird diversity.  Ecuador is about the size of Colorado, yet has almost 1600 species of birds, many of which are endemic to a specific region of the country!  Some travel to Ecuador because of an interest in the Amazon and all its wonders.  Or they go because of the Galapagos Islands – home of Darwin’s finches and the site that had much to do with development of the theory of natural selection.

A poster in the upstairs hallway of a hostel in Quito. 
The diversity of birds is one major reason people travel to Ecuador.

On the airplane from Newark, I started reading The Ecuador Reader (Carlos de la Torre and Steve Striffler, editors, Duke University Press, 2008).  They begin by discussing the relative lack of identity of Ecuador (to the outside world) except for the above mentioned ecotourism destinations.  They note that Ecuador is overshadowed by Peru to the south (characterized as a source of raw coca or the home to Machu Picchu) and Columbia to the north (the source of images of violent drug traffickers and happy fictional coffee farmers like Juan Valdez).

From my brief discussions with Sue and Paul, my destination of Pimampiro is none of the above.  I had seen some of the pictures on their Mountains of Hope website ( and could tell that I would be in the northern highlands region of the country – in the Andes.  Not the lush tropical rainforests of Costa Rica, but rather what appeared to be a rather dry region with mountainsides that looked like patchwork quilts of agricultural fields.  Some images of the Pimampiro region are below, but the trip actually begins in Quito (to be covered in my next post about Ecuador).

A view from Pimampiro looking west.

The town of Pimampiro is surrounded by farming.

Looking north.

Agriculture is an important part of life.  In the picture below to the right,
the tops of greenhouses (for tomatoes) are seen.  The remnant clouds of the
rain showers overnight made for a dramatic backdrop.

A typical street in town.

Why Ecuador? Serendipity

Last spring, I attended a meeting of community supporters of a new charter school in the Lehigh Valley of Pennsylvania called the Seven Generations Charter School.  I was representing 3 community partners:  the Biological Sciences Department and Environmental Studies program of Moravian College (where I work), the Lehigh Gap Nature Center and the Lehigh Valley Audubon Society (I sit on the board of the latter two organizations).  I mention this for two reasons:  1) the educational goals of the school are closely connected to the theme of this blog and 2) that meeting was the reason I ended up heading to Ecuador.  According to the schools website “The Seven Generations Charter School is one in which students from every grade level engage in activities focused on sustainable living, environmental stewardship, and respect for our planet and all living things. We believe that a school with excellent academic standards can also be a place where students learn citizenship and develop the skills to succeed as they improve the overall quality of life in their communities.”  Wouldn’t it be nice if all schools had such a vision!  Check out more about the school at

At the meeting, I met Sue Brown, a very enthusiastic (and innovative individual as I would soon learn) who was a former public school gifted program teacher.  She is now is associated with the Mountains of Hope foundation – described as “a model initiative in education enrichment, cultural exchange and sustainable community development” (see for more information).   In my mind, the concept of a new prosperity is closely linked to the creation of sustainable communities, so this chance meeting was of great interest to me.  A brief conversation that day led me to Sue’s home a few weeks later to learn more about the work she does.  At that meeting, I also met Paul Murtha, the foundation director.

  Sue Brown at the Pimampiro market.
Sue and Paul work in Pimampiro, Ecuador in the northern highlands – an area heavily dependent on an agricultural economy, but apparently also rife with poverty and complex social issues.  Later in the blog, I will explore more about their work, but for now, suffice it to say that they are interested in a) providing educational opportunities to those who otherwise might not have them (especially girls from remote villages); b) promoting cultural exchanges across national borders, c) introducing organic, bio-intensive agricultural methods to the people to improve personal and environmental health; and d) helping to initiate microenterprise opportunities for indigenous peoples with unique talents and culture to share.

Paul Murtha holding a jar of jam from a microenterprise in the Ecuadorian village of San Francisco.
What I heard that afternoon reminded me a lot of the United Nations Millennium Development Goals (see  While these goals are aimed at eradicating extreme poverty world-wide, any solutions to this complex web of related problems, by necessity will lead to more sustainable communities.  The goals are also closely aligned with the report of the Brundtland Commission (World Commission on Environment and Development) entitled Our Common Future that laid the groundwork for the convening of the 1992 Earth Summit, the adoption of Agenda 21, the Rio Declaration and the establishment of the Commission on Sustainable Development (see  In fact, the work of this commission established an early definition for the phrase “sustainable development” – a term that is overly used these days, often in the wrong context.

So my interest in Mountains of Hope should be pretty clear.  By why were Sue and Paul interested in me?  They would like to have a formal affiliation with a college or university.  Because I think that this has tremendous potential for immersion service-learning opportunities for students, I headed to Ecuador to conduct a “site visit” on September 6th, 2010.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

So why this theme?

In Copenhagen last December (2009), I had the opportunity to hear Tim Jackson talk about a report entitled "Prosperity without Growth" from the Sustainable Development Commission (UK) I was enthralled with the concepts I heard. By spring, I knew that my fall 2010 sabbatical would involve not only a project compiling stories of hope as originally planned, but also the development of a new course on redefining prosperity and sustainability.

I recently learned of my being accepted as a 2010 Audubon TogetherGreen Fellow (see Having just returned from a week of training for this and meeting the other fellows, it is clear that I have been given a unique opportunity to work with an amazing group of inspirational people. These seemingly unrelated events (COP15, my sabbatical and this fellowship) seem to be launching me in new directions which I will chronicle in this blog. At the training for the fellowship last week, I had the opportunity to hear Julian Agyeman from Tufts speak about "just" sustainability and was even more convinced about the importance of my course concept. If you don’t know of his work I highly recommend that you look him up.

I head to Pimampiro, Ecuador in two days to investigate a story of hope for my collection, and may not be able to get back to this blog until I return since internet access may not be available. But I am quite certain that I will be writing along the way and will post when I can.