Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Social Sustainability Book of the Week

"Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW, and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century." By Randy Shaw

This is an amazing book about early environmental justice efforts by Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers. As Shaw argues, these early movements are not only an often overlooked part of the social movements of the 1960s and 1970s, but they set the stage for our contemporary environmental justice efforts.

See Shaw’s book here: Beyond the Fields

Friday, December 12, 2008

Social Sustainability Site of the Week

One of the key components of social sustainability is changing people’s mindsets. Getting people to think differently is the first step toward getting them to act differently. As Sociologists, one of the things we know is that, sometimes, the best way to create the possibility to think about something in a new way is to radically alter one’s taken-for-granted reality.  It’s like the fish that doesn’t know it’s in water until you take the water away: if we fundamentally disrupt taken-for-granted reality, we can see those aspects of our everyday life that are so ingrained that we don’t even think about them. And, once we are able to look self-reflexively at them, it’s possible to imagine that things could be otherwise.

These are the thoughts that come to mind as we explore this week’s social sustainability site: Karma Kitchen. Inspired as a way to promote the value of a gift economy, several volunteers started Karma Kitchen in 2007. Today on any Sunday, everyone is welcome to eat delicious vegetarian Indian food at Karma Kitchen, which is located at a local restaurant, “Taste of Himalaya.” As with any other restaurant experience, you come in, you sit down, and you are served a delicious meal. But here, when your bill comes, the total reads $00.00. With it, comes the message that you may pay the generosity forward in any way you wish. Receiving that bill is a profound moment: an opportunity to re-examine preconceived notions and expectations. To ask oneself, How can I contribute?

"Run by volunteers, our meals are cooked and served with love, and offered to the guest as a genuine gift. To complete the full circle of giving and to sustain this experiment, we leave it to the guest to pay it forward, expressing their goodness in whatever way they wish. One immediate option is to contribute toward the cost of serving a future guest. In keeping this chain going, the generosity of both guests and volunteers helps to create a future that moves from transaction to trust, from self-oriented isolation to shared commitment, and from fear of scarcity to celebration of abundance."

The philosophy here inspires its participants to think differently about economic exchanges, to think in terms of reciprocity, trust and generosity instead of monetary transactions. Experiencing something familiar (eating out at a restaurant) in a context which has shaken up the usual rules of the game provides an opportunity to look critically at our standard operating procedures and imagine that there are alternatives to our taken-for-granted reality.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Breathing a Little Easier

Asthma is a growing public health concern in North America: it is the leading cause of chronic illness among children and the rates for children are steadily increasing.  It is also an illness which disproportionately effects people in low socio-economic statuses and its symptoms are exacerbated by compromised indoor and outdoor air quality. 

One of the ways this public health problem is being addressed in Seattle is through innovations in the built environment.  In the High Point neighborhood in West Seattle, 35 Breath Easy homes targeted for low-income renters are helping to mitigate the impact of asthma and hoping to reduce asthma attacks by improving indoor air quality.  

Breath Easy Homes include:
  • Airtight construction, insulated windows and an insulated foundation, minimizing dust, pollen and other contaminants that can enter from outside.
  • Positive ventilation to remove stale air and filter incoming fresh air.
  • Hydronic, instead of forced-air heating, reducing airborne particles and organisms.
  • Hard flooring surfaces such as linoleum, replacing carpet that can trap dust and allergens.
  • Window blinds, instead of curtains, to reduce trapped dust.
  • Low-VOC (volatile organic compounds) emitting paints and cabinetry materials, reducing potentially harmful chemicals in the air.
  • A HEPA filter vacuum, efficiently removing dust and other toxins and debris.
  • Landscaping designed to reduce seasonal pollens.

At High Point, residents were chosen to live in the Breathe Easy homes based on the severity of asthma and have agreed to participate in a study that will assess what kind of impact living in the homes has on their illness.  The study is being conducted by King County Health Department and the University of Washington’s Dept. of Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences, School of Public Health and Community Medicine. 

Monday, December 1, 2008

Living Green due in stores in May 09

We are thrilled to report that the copy edits are in and Living Green: Communities that Sustain is now in press. Living Green showcases communities across North America that are living in ways that protect the environment and contribute to social justice.

The green building movement has incorporated the concept of the triple bottom line to assert that sustainable long-term progress in terms of environmental quality, economic development and social well-being needs to be balanced: One aspect cannot be emphasized over another. Yet the factors that best promote social well-being are the least understood. Living Green: Communities that Sustain, identifies and describes the ten mechanisms we found to be most central to a successful sustainable development. These mechanisms are built into communities and enhance social along with economic and environmental concerns. In this book we outline these best practices of social sustainability along with specific examples from our field research.

Through stories of extraordinary communities across North America, Living Green examines the impact living in these communities has on personal health, well-being, and the capacity for pursuing sustainability. It includes interviews with developers, architects, and residents, highlighting personal ideals and efforts to pursue a sustainable lifestyle. The book’s three parts explore:

• How community is central to sustainable living in everything from cohousing to communes (Takoma Village Community Co-Housing, Eastern Village Co-housing, Ouje-Bougoumou, Twin Oaks Commune);

• Communities that specifically integrate green building design components with social justice politics such as racism, poverty, and urban alienation (L.A. Ecovillage, Chez Soi Green Energy Benny Farm, Folsom Dore);

• Housing options geared toward mainstream living that offer individual choices to those who wish to live green (Michelle Kaufmann Designs, Cazadero Nature and Art Conservancy, Dockside Green).

This is the first book in our co-authored Social Green Series. It is being published by New Society Publishers, a publishing house that not only brings to press fantastic books on sustainability and social justice, but operates by those principles itself: it is in its third year of being a carbon-neutral operation. You can pre-order the book now at New Society Publishers. We will keep you posted about upcoming book events this Spring and Summer.