The Global Sustainability Fellows Program


Can Soldier Flies Solve the Pineapple Industry’s Waste Problem and Costa Rican Food Insecurity?

Pineapples are Costa Rica’s largest agricultural export, and its largest and most lucrative agro-industry. But one of the industry’s major issues is that it produces a large quantity of organic waste, mostly from discarded pineapple leaves. What to do with the waste itself is not the only problem–it also attracts mosquitoes and contributes to contamination and disease.

Professor Irene Alvarado of EARTH University, a member of The Lab’s Advisory Board and a Global Sustainability Fellows Faculty Member, has begun working with one of the largest pineapple farms in the area to resolve the problem with the help of the soldier fly.


Organic waste from the pineapple plantations in the process of decomposition

Soldier fly larvae are marvelous agents of decomposition. What’s more, their pupa are extremely high in protein. Alvarado’s project breeds the soldier flies, which hatch from eggs and become larvae, feeding on the pineapple plantation’s organic waste. When the larvae become pupa, they are harvested to be used as animal feed. Though these pupa can be used to feed chickens and other farm animals, the project is currently focusing on using the pupa as fish feed, experimenting with how to best harvest and concentrate the pupa to create the most nutritious fish diet. The fish themselves are grown in closed containers and water from the containers, rich with nitrogen from fish manure, is being recycled as fertilizer for vegetable gardens (applied to the roots and not the vegetables, to avoid contamination). This closed loop system presents a completely sustainable model for providing a balanced diet for both animals and humans in food insecure areas, while reducing the organic waste from one of the region’s biggest waste-producers.


Harvested pupa, which will be used for fish feed


The project’s fish tanks

Alvarado and her team are currently measuring the results of the experiments to see how they can best scale the project. Currently, they are effectively managing three tons of pineapple leaves per week, and feeding six tanks of fish, but their goal is to process five tons of organic waste daily–the magic number for reducing pineapple plantation waste to zero. This process also has implications for CO2 emissions, as reducing one ton of nonsegregated organic material results in a reduction of one ton of CO2.

“I have hope that we can sustainably resolve this huge problem, which has greatly affected this part of the world,” said Alvarado.

Alvarado also sees great potential in connecting the benefits of this project to the plight of nearby Martina Bustos, a challenged community of Nicaraguan migrants. The Lab and its Global Sustainability Fellows began working with the community in the summer of 2014, a partnership which resulted in “Project Transition,” a plan for a comprehensive, long-term sustainability initiative to be implemented by The Lab in collaboration with EARTH University and the community.

One of Martina Bustos’s major challenges is food insecurity, and many in the community report routinely suffering from hunger. They also live amidst a large, open dump, which they scavenge in order to get by.

“If they can separate their organic waste from the dump, we can use that, and they can use the resulting pupa for raw materials for fish and chicken. They lack water, but we can grow the fish in closed containers and recycle the water and the waste,” said Alvarado. “This can work in arid areas, and it’s easy to replicate and adopt.”

Alvarado was hopeful about the tremendous affect this can have on the community’s well being. “As it says in Maslow’s pyramid, once you take care of hunger, you can graduate to thinking about other things. You can begin to solve other problems.”

The Lab is excited about the potential of bringing this important project to the community of Martina Bustos and other food insecure communities in arid regions, and is proud to support Professor Alvarado’s soldier fly project with a small grant.

Teaching The Lab’s Sustainability Framework Using System Dynamics

A press release from Therese Bennich, Aly Elmasry, Conor Meehan, and Conrad Steinhilber at Loops Consulting:

In order to return meaning to a term that has become increasingly ambiguous in recent years, The Lab has developed a rigorous definition of “sustainability” and a derived set of five core principles, offered as a framework to guide and inform decision-making in the context of environmental and societal issues.

To increase understanding of what these principles are and how they can be applied to real-world challenges, participants of The Lab’s Global Sustainability Fellows Program (GSF), who have since formed the consulting firm Loops, are developing an online education module which aims to demonstrate The Lab’s sustainability framework using the language of System Dynamics. The interactive module, which will be accessible through The Lab’s website and launched later this year, will allow the user to explore the different aspects of The Lab’s sustainability framework through short stories and exercises that demonstrate applications of the principles. The module will also compile reading material and other useful resources for those who want to go deeper into some of the subjects touched upon in the lessons.

Aside from providing deeper knowledge of The Lab’s definition of sustainability, the education module also gives an introduction to systems thinking and System Dynamics, one of the main tools that comprise The Lab’s unique approach to development. System Dynamics is a methodology that uses computer simulation models as a way of analyzing, understanding and managing complex systems, such as economies or ecosystems. Perhaps its most famous application was in the WORLD models, which formed the basis for the groundbreaking book The Limits to Growth.

In this module, the team will be using system dynamics models as a medium for demonstrating ways in which The Lab’s Five Core Principles of Sustainability are interrelated, and for showing how the principles can be used to achieve a state of sustainability on our planet. This module will be used broadly in The Lab’s educational offerings, including the Global Sustainability Fellows Program, as a way to begin working with the Principles and as a crash course in the essential tool of System Dynamics.

Three members of the team at Loops were inspired to undertake this project as a result of their participation in the GSF, which combined theory from The Lab’s sustainability framework with practical applications via a development project with the community of Martina Bustos in Liberia, Costa Rica. During the course of the program, GSF fellows developed systems thinking diagrams with members of the community, which allowed both the fellows and community members to explore how seemingly unrelated issues (whether economic, social or environmental) were in fact strongly interrelated. The diagrams were at the heart of developing a long-term sustainable development plan with the community. These sessions also demonstrated the great potential in using System Dynamics in development work, even with groups who are not otherwise familiar with the tool, and as a way of defining and visualizing transition to a sustainable state.

Work on creating the education module has already begun, and we look forward to sharing the results with you all in the months to come!


From left: Conor Meehan, Conrad Steinhilber and Therese Bennich at the GSF, Summer 2015

Inspiration: Hacienda Merida’s Eco-Bricks

Yam Aisner, a Global Sustainability Fellow from Israel who has been traveling around Central America working on permaculture and sustainability-related projects for almost two years, recently sent this missive from Nicaragua. We think it’s a great example of dealing with a problem from a material, economic, social and spiritual standpoint, and we couldn’t help but share!

Hello dear fellows. I hope that all of you are busy with great things. I wanted to share the story of a hotel owner where I was staying in Nicaragua. He inspired me greatly and made me think of Martina Bustos, and all of you.

I am grateful to have happened upon Hacienda Merida, a hotel on the island of Ometepe, Nicaragua, during my short visa run out of Costa Rica. A wonderful surprise surfaced about the hotel owner, Alvaro. Motivated to provide education for his newborn child and the local people, to reduce the amount of plastic garbage on the streets, and to change the improper garbage management in the area (burning or burying plastic, which contributes to climate change), he turned garbage into a resource by creating an alternative employer/employee exchange system.

Eco-brick is created when a large amount of inorganic garbage in compacted inside of a used plastic bottle. On average, 400 grams can fit into one bottle. Eco-bricks can be used in construction to minimize costs by reducing the amount of cement that is needed to build. To build his first classroom, Alvaro needed 5,000 eco bricks, which is a lot of garbage.


To get those bottles, he obligates his personal staff to bring four bottles each month during the high season of work. Third-party service providers to his hotel guests (massage therapists, taxi drivers, tour guides, etc.) who would usually pay a commission to the hotel for access to tourists are now obligated to pay that commission in eco-bricks.

Since the hotel staff and service providers do not have enough time to make the eco-bricks themselves, a new job opportunity arose for people in the village. They collect garbage from the streets, make the eco-bricks and sell them to the staff and the service providers for 60 cents per bottle. This system helped Alvaro collect 5,000 bottles and build the first class room by 2012.

When there was little Internet access in the village, Alvaro let people use the Internet at a rate of one hour of computer time for one eco-brick. Children used the internet the most, which presented a way to educate the younger generation about eco-bricks.

Today, Alvaro is building his fourth classroom in his kindergarden through sixth-grade school, which offers free education to the village children. The funds that Alvaro needed to complete construction of the school come mostly from his hotel income and from private donations made by tourists who have visited his hotel and decided to help him fulfill his vision.


The school space is also used for community education: English classes for adults and high school students are taught in early evenings. Now it has become hard to find garbage in the village streets and Alvaro is expanding his system to nearby villages, raising awareness of better waste management and creating more jobs.

GSF Pilot Session B

Now that we’ve had some time to breathe, we wanted to share a number of photos from our most recent Global Sustainability Fellows Program Session–the completion of our two-year pilot–which took place over two weeks this past August. This year’s cohort was made up of interested members from the first cohort, as well as a former Sustainability Laboratory Prizewinner from EARTH University. Professor Irene Alvarado of EARTH University and Dr. Mohammed Nofal of University of Colorado, Boulder, joined the faculty. The group returned to the EARTH University campus in Guanacaste, and to the challenged community of Martina Bustos, in order to finish what they started the previous summer: a comprehensive Sustainable Development Plan, developed with the community.

The group worked with leaders from the Martina Bustos community, an informal settlement of approximately 2,000 people that faces significant social, civic and environmental challenges. After performing both regional and community diagnostics, generating a detailed database and facilitating in-depth dialogue sessions, the Fellows delivered a comprehensive long-term initiative entitled “Project Transition” to the community. We anticipate that this project will continue with the help of The Lab, the Fellows, EARTH University, local NGOs and community leaders.

The community itself, which has a large population of Nicaraguan migrants, is plagued by numerous challenges, including poor infrastructure, lack of land rights/titles, lack of opportunities for skill development and employment, and weak community organization.


An average home in Martina Bustos


Water access is a major issue


Burning is the main solution to trash disposal, as there is no trash collection services in MB


Poor schools contribute to the lack of skills and economic opportunity in the community


Many community members rely on “recycling” from the local dump as a source of income

Over two weeks, the Fellows engaged the community in building a common vision for the community to adopt, mapping critical issues the community faced, and identifying leverage points for “transition.”





Fellow Yam Aisner writes: During this past program session, I feel that we made a real connection with the community and I believe that the seed of change and empowerment has been planted in the community members who took part. Working alongside The Lab, the Fellows and the Martina Bustos community members was a fascinating learning experience. I am inspired and eager to continue this line of work, and to discover more tools to contribute to the transition towards sustainability.




Fellow Therese Bennich writes: The process during this year’s session made use of systems thinking and system dynamics. Carrying out a systems analysis helped identify important dynamics at play in Martina Bustos, explaining the current situation facing the community. One important realization was that many of these dynamics are not unique to Martina Bustos. All over the world, issues related to migration and integration are becoming increasingly severe. Therefore, Project Transition could have the potential to serve as a model for community development, not only in Costa Rica but also for communities in other parts of the world. Throughout the process, we challenged ourselves to understand the situation in the specific context of Martina Bustos, but also to see the bigger picture.




Fellow Conor Meehan writes: This year’s GSF session really helped me to see how The Lab’s approach is focused on long-term and systemic change. That Martina Bustos could become a model community in dealing with migration issues was an inspiring prospect; work done on this project could have far-reaching benefits for other parts of the world, and for the sustainability movement as a whole. During the program, I’ve learned that sustainability cannot apply to any person, community, or nation, but can only apply to the planet as a whole. This was a valuable realization for me, one that has significant meaning given the current talks on climate change negotiations.

On the final day of the program, the Fellows, community members, and representatives from EARTH University gathered to present “Project Transition” to the greater community.






Young members of Martina Bustos talking about their vision for their community


Dr. Michael Ben-Eli of The Lab presenting the “Project Transition” document to Maira Armas, the leader of the Martina Bustos Development Association

For now, we are busy finalizing the “Project Transition” document and putting together an implementation plan. Stay tuned.

For EARTH University’s press release on this year’s GSF session, click here.

Teaching Towards Sustainability

On March 13th and 14th, 2015, The Sustainability Laboratory participated in Cooper Union’s Teaching Towards Sustainability Workshop, joining an impressive group of educational innovators from around the country for presentations and discussion. 

From the program:

The workshop sought to begin discussions around the following questions:

Dr. Ben-Eli presented on both the GSF Program and Project Wadi Attir. A fellow from the pilot session of the GSF, Kathy Chiu, also presented about her experience in the program.

Some highlights from other presentations include:

  • David Turnbull talking about Waterbanks, a design for a sports stadium/school in East and West Africa whose very structure allows for the harvest of rainwater. “Its unique structure houses up to eight classrooms for education or microenterprise initiatives, a health clinic, public latrines, and expansive opportunities for agricultural development, supporting the need for food security.”

  • Paul Cawood Hellmund talking about the Conway School for Landscape Design, a 10-month Masters in Landscape Design where students work on real projects for real clients in a supportive, collaborative learning environment.
  • And Pheobe Crisman from UVA’s School of Architecture talking about The Learning Barge, a floating, self-sustaining field station located on the most polluted tributary of the Chesapeake Bay. Built and maintained by UVA students, The Learning Barge provides interactive K-12 and adult education about how the river ecology and human activities are inextricably linked.

The Lab also got to spend some time with our friends from The Buckminster Fuller Institute, Sarah Skenazy (L) and Elizabeth Thompson (R):

The synthesis discussions were lively and enlightening, as educators discussed the best criteria for a transformative sustainability education, the tension between the need for “deep-discipline” education and the need for interdisciplinary learning environments, the limitations of teaching within established academic institutions, the lifecycles of “outsider” sustainability education organizations, and other important topics. For some discussion highlights, head over to the GSF Twitter Page, or search the hashtag #teachingtowardssustainability. 

The Lab looks forward to collaborating with our new colleagues and friends.

GSF Blog Roundup

It’s been several months since students returned home from the GSF. If you’ve been following us on Facebook or Twitter, you’ll know there’s been quite a bit of buzz on the web, generated by students themselves. Take a minute to check out some of the things they’re saying!

Conor Meehan, a GSF participant from Ireland, wrote a blog post on the system dynamics blog Young Modeler, where he collected perspectives from himself and his classmates at the European Master of System Dynamics, also fellow GSF participants, Therese Bennich and Conrad Steinhilber.

The University of Sydney in Australia did a feature on two of their sustainability students who attended the GSF, Damian Walsh and Nicholas Hislop.

Earth University, where the GSF Pilot was held, wrote a short, but sweet little write-up.

Check us out!


Trees For Travel

The Lab Offsets Students’ Travel by Planting 100 Trees

While preparing to launch the GSF’s pilot session, we received a note from Christoph Pfisterer, a student at the University of Konstanz in Germany, who decided not to apply to the GSF because of the harmful amount of carbon released into the atmosphere as a result of students traveling to Costa Rica from all over the world.

Dr. Michael Ben-Eli, founder of The Lab, responded to Christoph by acknowledging the importance of his concern and suggesting that The Lab follow a practice instituted by Ray Anderson, a longtime friend and member of the Lab’s Advisory Board. (You can read the whole exchange, here.) We made the following promise:

“We shall follow the late Ray Anderson and the practice adopted by his company, Interface, in planting trees for travel. According to Interface, an organization with a commitment to carbon offsets, a tree, in its lifetime, will sequester the carbon generated by 4,000 passenger miles traveled on a commercial jet. Accordingly, we shall plant a tree for every 4,000 miles traveled by participants in the program.”

The GSF Pilot Session, which took place in July of 2014 at EARTH University in Costa Rica, drew 20 students from 15 countries, as well as four international faculty members, and two support staff. We looked into every travel itinerary for international travel to the GSF and tallied the miles. Though it was a bit of an inexact science, we came up with a number around 275,000 miles. Divided by 4,000– the amount of carbon sequestered by a tree during its lifetime–we get 68.75. We rounded up to 100 trees for good measure.

We invested in an organization called Plant-It 2020, which plants indigenous trees in non-harvest locations around the world. Of all the countries on their list of locations, there were five that matched home countries of GSF participants: Kenya, Mexico, Nigeria, The Philippines, and the US (and New York, specifically). We therefore chose to plant 20 trees in each of these locations, as a representation of our fellows.

For some of these locations, there is more information available, which we are reproducing here:

Screen Shot 2014-09-17 at 2.56.34 PMKenya

Problem: Massive deforestation
Benefits: Replenishing the forests and increasing crop production.
Where: Large projects throughout Central and Western Kenya. Several tree-planting locations are near the protected forests of Mt. Kenya and Kakamega Forest Preserve


Problem: Deforestation of about twenty particular mountaintops endangers the Monarch Butterfly as their over-wintering home is destroyed.
Benefits: Reforesting these mountaintops helps save the Monarch Butterfly from extinction.
Where: Michoacán, Mexico


Problem: Massive deforestation
Benefits: The planting of fruit and other trees provides food while countering hillside erosion
Species: Leucaena, Moringa, Jatropha, Calliandra, Mahagony and others
Where: Near Mt. Tapulao, Central Luzon; Loobbunga, Moraza, Taugtog, Botolan, Zambales

The Lab is grateful for this opportunity to be proactive about travel emissions, and to participate in this important conversation! 

GSF Pilot Week 2: The Fellows Meet Martina Bustos

Another dispatch from Lee Frankel-Goldwater:

During the second half of the Global Sustainability Fellows Program’s pilot session, the group found itself at EARTH La Flor, for the fieldwork and community development portion of the program. They enjoyed a wildly different climate there than the one at the EARTH campus in Limón: this “Tropical Dry Forest” is a more temperate region, found on the Pacific coast of Costa Rica, in contrast to the “Tropical Rainforest” on the Caribbean side. Here, we encountered mango trees and palms, feasted on by a variety of monkeys, as well as a plethora of bird, lizard, and insect species found in few other places on earth. Whereas perpetual rain was the norm in Limón, a common feature of the wet season; La Flor was filled with warm, sunny days, and peaceful, starry nights.

Our journey in this portion of the program was by far the most challenging, as fellows faced the real, on-the-ground challenges of sustainable community development. After a night’s rest, our first full day in Guanacaste introduced us to families in the village of Martina Bustos, a community of Nicaraguan migrant workers who have fled rougher conditions in their home country seeking better opportunities in Costa Rica.



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GSF Pilot Session: Week 1 – Farms, Theory, and Some Chocolate

The Global Sustainability Fellows have arrived from all over the world, an amazing set of 20 students. The week started with an evening orientation session and dinner, where students learned about the homestay experience they would be jumping into the very next day. Along the early morning bus ride to Limón Province, we were caught in a mile-long traffic jam due to a worker strike, which ended up being an early bonding experience for the group, who have proven themselves to be flexible and open to the variety of new experiences encountered so far.

IMG_0062With a few hours delay, the students began their homestay, while the faculty returned to EARTH Campus in Limón to finalize the next week’s theory sessions. The students returned the next day lit up by their short, but meaningful journey. In the wrap-up session that followed, each homestay group shared a bit of what they learned, as one of their tasks was to openly look at their farm host’s living and work environments, and ponder ways that they might potentially assist.

One group did more than just observed, but spent the night working on new chocolate products and bio-degradable packaging with their hosts, who subsist on cacao farming. During the session they shared some of these tasty chocolates with fellows and faculty and later in the week outlined an entire system of production that might be shared with their hosts to aid in their business growth.

This is a microcosmic example of the possibilities and insights that have arisen during this pilot session. During the course of a four day theory sequence with Dr. Ben-Eli and Professors Schwaninger and Amadei, students wrestled some very large questions in a group context, without any direct limitations placed on the scope of their solutions. These topics included: “Small Steps to Sustainability: Creating a Sustainable Agriculture System for Finca Argentina,” and “What is the Place of the Spiritual Dimension in the Lab’s Signature Approach to Sustainability.” All final presentations displayed the character of the outstanding group.


After tours of the EARTH campus banana plantation, and braving a fair amount of Costa Rican rain, the group took to the road to begin the Eco-Leadership portion of the journey. Led by Dr. BK Singh of EARTH University, we visited an organic pineapple plantation as well as Eco-Termales, a family owned and operated business offering food and hot spring services to locals and tourists. The land and business demonstrates a fully interconnected system with a bio-digestor that provides 50% of the business’s gas needs, a constructed wetland, and a waste composting site, as well as small dairy and full restaurant. We toured the grounds, and met the family matriarch, who we were told is “the spirit behind the entire venture,” enjoying one of the tastiest dinners of the trip, which she had prepared herself.

IMG_0123The following early morning we took a cloud forest walk on suspension bridges, bringing us face to face with the upper level of the forest canopy. The trail exists on grounds conserved by local eco-tourism businesses. We then continued on the bus to the other side of the mountains, greeted by a brilliant sunset. EARTH La Flor is in Guanacaste, a much drier climate than Limon. The Fellows are now entering the second stage of the program, with a week of community development activities to come. The students will be engaging with a local community called Martina Bustos, and working with community members to create a Comprehensive Sustainability Plan, which will be presented to local officials and stakeholders at week’s end.

IMG_0297It’s an ambitious venture, with much to learn and discover. I, for one, am excited to see what emerges.

From Costa Rica,

(photos by Yam Aisner)

Eco-Leadership and Eco-Literacy at the GSF Pilot

Here’s another update from Costa Rica by GSF Assistant Faculty member Ana Laura Dengo Flores, this time about Eco-Termales, a stop on the GSF’s Eco-Leadership and Eco-Literacy segment, on the road between EARTH’s two campuses.

A note on the GSF’s Eco-Leadership and Eco-Literacy activities

The two EARTH University campuses are about 315 kilometers apart. This may not sound like much in terms of distance, but in terms of climate, agriculture, and biodiversity, it makes a world of difference! The Limon campus is located in Costa Rica’s humid tropics whereas the Guanacaste campus is in the dry tropics.

During the GSF pilot, fellows and faculty will get the chance to experience both of these environments while driving from one campus to another. They will also get an opportunity to spend some time in a very different and beautiful environment: the lowlands of the Arenal Volcano.

We recently visited the town where the Arenal Volcano is located to scout the first stop of the Eco-Leadership/Eco-Literacy tour: Eco-Termales Fortuna, a family owned eco-tourism hot springs business. The family of one of EARTH’s graduates owns Eco-Termales, and they have incorporated the concepts of sustainability in every detail of their operation. During the GSF’s summer visit, Herrold Vega (EARTH 00’) will give the group a tour of the site and explain how they have made their farm/hot springs sustainable.


Some examples of what the fellows and faculty will see are:

  • Water treatment facilities
  • A large bio-digestor that provides energy for the restaurant
  • A small milking station
  • A cheese-making area
  • A restaurant that uses food sources from the farm
  • A construction area that uses lumber from the farm

Soapy water treatment

Water treatment facilities at Eco-Termales

The stop at Eco-Termales promises to be a great educational opportunity on how to make the best use of all the resources that a farm has to offer. As a plus, the group will have some time to enjoy the hot springs!


First Group of Fellows have Been Selected!

It is our honor to announce that the first cohort of Global Sustainability Fellows has been selected, with representation from five continents. By the mid-night application closing deadline, the program received applications from 20 countries, including: Australia, Canada, Dominican Republic, Ethiopia, Germany, Hungary, India, Ireland, Israel, Kenya, Mexico, Netherlands, Nigeria, Norway, Peru, Philippines, Portugal, Sweden, Switzerland, and the US.

Quality of the application is such that evaluation and selection for the 20 spots we can offer was a tough process. All candidates were strong, and it was an honor to read about their unique backgrounds. We are looking forward to an amazing program and will continue to update everyone here on the GSF Blog. If you applied and did not get in, or missed the deadline, we urge you to try again next year and keep up with the GSF as we lead our first Summer of this new initiative.

GSF Team

The Travel Dilemma: Flying to a Sustainability Program?

We have now closed our application window and are in the thick of the review process. We are so excited about the strong crop of applicants! Accepted applicants will be notified in late April/early May, and will soon have to make their travel arrangements. Apropos, we wanted to share a conversation we had with a student of sustainability who decided not to apply to the GSF, on principle, since accepted applicants would necessarily have to fly to Costa Rica from all over the world, resulting in a high level of carbon emissions. This conversation represents a debate that has long been raging in the environmental community; we include it here in order to present the GSF’s conceptual orientation, and to spur further conversation.

Dear GSF Team,

As far as I can tell from your website, the Global Fellowship Program in Costa Rica is a great learning opportunity for students across the globe.

As a student in the field of sustainability studies, I might have fit pretty well into the program. But here I am writing you that I am explicitly not applying to your program. With due respect to your organizational effort, I don’t believe this program is actually working towards sustainability.

Why? Students need to take a plane to get to Costa Rica, pretty much no matter where they live on the globe, so it takes our planet quite a few years to restore the damage inflicted on the atmosphere only due to the participation in your program.

Please do not seduce students worldwide with fellowships and touristic resorts and nice theories and a certificate for their CVs – come up with local or digital programs that do not harm our environment by design and show that you actually know how systematic sustainable lifestyles look.

Best regards from Germany,

Christoph Pfisterer

University of Konstanz

Dear Christoph,

Thank you very much for your thoughtful comments.

You do have a point, and we agree that it is important to actively reduce adverse impacts on the planet by cutting down on unnecessary activities which increase harmful emissions.

The point that you make (avoiding flying for meetings, conferences and the like) has been made repeatedly in recent years—in our view, somewhat naively. The implication of that view is a call for collapsing the human experience to local, entirely self sufficient pockets of “sustainable” existence: local communities organized around local resources, local food production, dependency on local currencies, and the like.

We feel, on the other hand, that the next challenge facing humanity is how to design-evolve a planetary civilization, integrating an enlightened global culture and a globally integrated physical infrastructure of metabolic support. The former would be based on universal human rights and deep respect for the integrity and well-being of other life forms and their habitats, while the latter would be conceived as one healthy eco-system that will continuously recycle imperishable chemical elements, emphasize high resource productivity, employ non-depletable, clean sources of energy, and ensure that the byproducts of any one process become the nourishing inputs to other productive processes. In other words, we envision planetary integration and movement of the world’s people, materials, and energy, rather than fragmentation and isolation within local communities.

To this end, we believe that the experience of otherness—other places, other people, other cultures, other ways of seeing the world, directly, rather than digitally—is a crucial pedagogic priority. It is a tool for developing deep understanding about the interconnectedness and specific nature of many of the issues that we face today, and for fostering a culture of universal compassion and tolerance.

A complete disengagement from dependency on our current fossil fuel economy does not seem a viable option other than in isolated small-scale cases. Rather, a staged strategy for using the potential of the current to secure a smooth graduation to the next step in evolution appears, in our opinion, to be a more sound approach. In spite of your genuine concern, we imagine that you, too, may also find it difficult to cut off completely from dependency on processes, services and products which could still be associated with some measure of adverse impact.

And yet, as we said, you do have a point. So what to do? We propose the following:

  • We shall ask participants in the program to travel, to the extent possible, on airlines that have committed to “Eco-Skies” types of programs.
  • We shall follow the late Ray Anderson and the practice adopted by his company, Interface, in planting trees for travel. According to Interface, an organization with a commitment to carbon offsets, a tree, in its lifetime, will sequester the carbon generated by 4,000 passenger miles traveled on a commercial jet. Accordingly, we shall plant a tree for every 4,000 miles traveled by participants in the program.
  • Finally, we would like to post your message, along with this response, on the program’s blog in order to encourage a conversation on the important question that you have raised.

We look forward to hearing from you.


Michael Ben-Eli and the GSF team

Dear Michael Ben-Eli,

Thank you very much for your in-depth response!

I do realize that to actually allow a global consciousness on regulative ideas such as sustainability, peace, justice et cetera, we first need to get connected, and this is kind of difficult via Skype, and easier via real-life handshakes, talks and hugs. I basically agree on most of what you said. However, I remember the words of my history teacher, who said that every time people attempted to reach a goal with means that are not in harmony with the values represented by the goal, the attempt failed (classic examples like waging war to achieve peace, then causing more violence, are numerous). And if we are honest, there are ways to travel more eco-friendly, like ships, cars, etc. Planes are simply the best time-saving machines, a great symbol for both progress but also the machinization of the human scale of speed which outruns the scale of speed according to which planet Earth ticks and reproduces. I am hoping you and your students will find innovative solutions to questions like these in your seminar!

I really like your ideas on how to “compensate” the miles traveled! 

I wish you, your teachers and all students of the GSFP an amazing time in Costa Rica!,


What do you think? Leave us a comment!

Visit to Martina Bustos: There are no “one-size-fits-all” solutions

This blog post was written by Assistant GSF Faculty Ana Laura Dengo, who recently visited the site of the GSF Program Fieldwork with Faculty member BK Singh and Assistant Faculty Jholenny Córdoba Chaves.

IMG_5327Assistant Faculty Ana and Jholenny talking with community members

Greetings! We are so excited about the upcoming summer program in Costa Rica!

We have already started scouting the community where we will be doing fieldwork, and for which the fellows of this program will design sustainable development plans.  The Martina Bustos community was chosen as the site for fieldwork because it exemplifies many of the development challenges that very poor societies face on a daily basis. We hope that this program is not just a learning opportunity for the fellows and faculty (although that is valuable in itself), but also an opportunity to contribute to the positive growth of the community by helping to create a sustainable development plan.

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