Word on the street from München to Michigan: Environmental Research Abroad

By Nicholas Phoon and Alexandra Auhl

The UNSW IES international research internship bloggers bring you their initial research experiences from their bases in Munich, Germany and East Lansing, USA.

While Nic is partnering with the Blue Mountains World Heritage Institute to bring you the latest on sustainable tourism, Alex is with Clean Water Action bringing you insights on fracking.

In two very different environments, the bloggers have found one common problem – In a world of vested interests, how do you find unbiased, peer-reviewed publications when your research relies heavily upon secondary sources?

Over to Nic now for – Should hanging up a bath towel on a shower rail earn a hotel an eco-friendly stamp? And later, Alex for – Clean Water Now – Why do we place this vital resource at risk?

The sustainable hotel, Bangkok Tree House. Photo by saltwatercureseverything.com
The sustainable hotel, Bangkok Tree House. Photo by saltwatercureseverything.com

Should hanging up a bath towel on a shower rail earn a hotel an eco-friendly stamp?

Being at the start of a research project to explore the links between hotel sustainability schemes and hotel guests’ perceptions and expectations has been a fascinating journey so far. Travellers are increasingly realising that where they choose to tuck themselves in at night can have a genuine impact on the environment. Hotels have been quick off the mark to recognise this, and are actively making efforts to woo eco-minded hotel guests.

However, defining the research target for this topic is a lot more complicated than one might think. The apparently simple idea of focussing on sustainability in hotels has suddenly been complicated by the terms “green travel,” “low carbon travel,” “eco-tourism,” “organic,” “eco-friendly,” and “sustainable tourism.” Are they interchangeable terms used for sustainability focussed hotels or do they refer to other specific market segments?

Topic refinement has been the first challenge encountered. Also, when looking for peer-reviewed literature to understand how hotels develop and measure their green credentials, another challenge was created. There is no shortage of information out there on sustainable hotels and all the wonderful initiatives that they are undertaking. However, can hotel guests make informed decisions when literature that is often produced by the hotel industry itself may be self-serving or biased?

Some hotel guests want to do the environmentally responsible thing by staying at a hotel claiming to hold sustainability certification. However, what and how much do hotel guests really understand about the 150+ sustainability programs out there? The fact is hotel sustainability schemes are different and often have different emphases.

Also, how well do these program goals align with their own expectations and values? Some guests may feel that they have done their part for the environment by hanging up their bath towel to use another day instead of it disappearing down the laundry chute. Others want to know about the hotel’s greenhouse gas emissions and carbon footprint, renewable energy usage, waste management efficiencies, and sourcing of food and raw materials. Our IES partner, the Blue Mountains World Heritage Institute, will hopefully gain some insights from the findings. http://www.bmwhi.org.au/

A few years ago, I read a piece from a leading hotel review website about a sustainability focussed hotel in Fiji which brought a little chuckle. It received one negative review amongst all the positive reviews, which reinforced the importance of matching hotel marketing efforts and guests’ expectations and values. The hotel accommodation consisted of traditional thatched ‘bure’ huts surrounded by forest, built directly on loose sand. The guest whilst seeking the eco-experience, expressed horror at seeing a procession of ants marching across the living area sand floor, consequently bombing the hotel with the lowest 1 star rating. You just cannot please everyone!

What is wrong with us anyway? … And we were here first!
What is wrong with us anyway? … And we were here first!


Clean Water Now – Why do we place this vital resource at risk?

The view from Phyllis and Bernard Senske’s stone home in Rapid River Township, near Kalkaska, Michigan. The burning flare from a fracking well is approximately 1000ft from their home in Northern Michigan. Photo by Jacob Wheeler, Bridge Magazine.
The view from Phyllis and Bernard Senske’s stone home in Rapid River Township, near Kalkaska, Michigan. The burning flare from a fracking well is approximately 1000ft from their home in Northern Michigan. Photo by Jacob Wheeler, Bridge Magazine.

Arriving in Lansing, Michigan, from Sydney, Australia, during the changeover from Winter to Spring is like being plunged into an ice bath after a long time next to a dry fireplace. The ‘lake effect’ snow that makes Michigan unique carries over into the Spring-time.

A bus trip from Lansing to Detroit reveals to the casual observer the abundance of water in a State surrounded by the Great Lakes –an interconnected system of lakes, rivers, streams and aquifers.

It is this vast system that Michiganders like Mary Brady-Enerson and Nic Clark from Clean Water Action (CWA) are seeking to protect: http://www.cleanwateraction.org/

On first meeting Mary at the Clean Water Action office in Lansing, MI her key message was this: “Really, we should be called Clean Drinking-Water Action, because that is what we are working on here in Michigan.”

The prolonged drought in California – America’s food bowl – is on everybody’s mind.

Within days of commencing at CWA, reports surfaced about the severe water restrictions in Sao Paolo, Brazil, with water rationing bringing out the worst in people: http://www.theguardian.com/cities/2015/feb/25/sao-paulo-brazil-failing-megacity-water-crisis-rationing

Since we understand the realities of water shortages, why do we continue to place this vital resource at risk?

In NSW, successive governments on both sides of politics have threatened drinking supplies by granting licenses to coal and gas companies in water catchments.

However, Australians have the benefit of foresight – they can learn from the experience of Americans from Texas, Pennsylvania, California and Michigan. The prevalence of fracking in America has driven community and government concerns over drinking water contamination and unprecedented seismic activity for the past decade.

In 2010, the landmark US Supreme Court decision, Citizens United, opened the floodgates for political donations from the oil and gas lobby- an industry which has placed gag orders on children and health professionals to ensure they remain silent about the risks of fracking.

Furthermore, the oil and gas industry has plenty of cash to hand out research grants to universities. This makes the search for unbiased peer-reviewed papers tricky. Nonetheless, some valuable research is surfacing from Michigan University’s Graham Sustainability Institute: http://graham.umich.edu/knowledge/ia/hydraulic-fracturing.

This state-specific research comes at an important time for Michigan. On 1 December 2014, Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality (the DEQ) requested ‘primacy’ over Class II injection wells, which are used for the disposal of wastewater from the fracking process. It would take over enforcement from the federal EPA. The implications of this change will be the focus of the research internship.

Why is this change concerning?

There is lack of funding and human resources at the DEQ. Michigan’s Governor, Rick Snyder (R), has a poor environmental record and a history of making cuts to the DEQ’s budget. In terms of fracking, Michigan is considered ‘open for business.’

These are testing times for Michiganders, but community action groups have their energies focused on making the public aware of how these changes will affect water resources. And power to them – people are ready for clean drinking-water action.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Alex Baumber says:

    Two quite different topics there, but both very interesting. Nice images too, although the Bangkok tree house appeals to me a bit more than the icy Michigan gas flare (no offence Alexandra).

    1. Alex Auhl says:

      I would rather the tree house for an eco-friendly holiday too.

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