A Deeper Focus


Prof. Pete Schwartz on environmental responsibility and the future of green energy

At Ecologistics, we are constantly seeking to engage our community, to- as it says in our mission statement- “foster conservation, restoration, connectivity, and stewardship of ecosystems, watersheds, habitats, and landscapes in harmony with human needs and uses.” We feel blessed to reside in a region where a good number of citizens share these values. It gives us pleasure to feature in our blog individuals who are contributing to the environmental health of our community.

Dr. Peter Schwartz, a professor in the Physics Department at CalPoly San Luis Obispo, is a vital part of our Central Coast activist community. He describes a primary focus of his work: “I’m interested in sustainability in all facets: energy, resources, and collaboration and community building especially with people in developing countries. In what I see as an imminent transition in energy, resources, and information, I am interested in both the technologies and the related societal transitions.”

I recently had the opportunity to interview Pete over the phone about some of his ideas on sustainability and citizen responsibility as they relate to pedagogy, community action, green energy, and addressing climate disruption; he has succeeded beautifully in bringing these ideas home (literally) by designing an efficient, zero-waste household that creates natural energy flows through Holistic considerations and Permaculture.

Pete brings a democratic, egalitarian approach to his method of teaching; after conferring with groups of students, he came up with the following pedagogical techniques for teaching physics: teaching concepts simultaneously, flipping the classroom (students learn material at home leaving class time for discussion and group work) and utilizing self-made and open source science and engineering videos. He emphasized that this wasn’t a top-down decision-making process: “It was necessary to get students to buy into the ideas; it’s not a good to just introduce an innovation without getting student input.”

Though much of the work Pete does relating to sustainability issues goes on off campus, he serves on campus supporting efforts relating to environmental responsibility. He mentioned that though there is a recycling program on campus and he teaches two project-based appropriate technology classes: “I might offer a challenge to my students to work towards zero-waste by initiating an expanded recycling/compost service for the campus.”

Our conversation shifted to bicycle safety and community work when I mentioned that I’d seen a few of his YouTube videos on the dangers of bike lane obstruction in San Luis Obispo. Pete has installed a mini-camera on his bike helmet to document rogue motorists and bike lane obstructions; he works with SLO county bicycle organizations like bikeslocounty.org to advocate for greater bicycle safety.

Another way Pete contributes to the community is by serving on the Board of SLO MakerSpace (https://www.slomakerspace.com), which is a large machine/wood/electronics shop for community use, classes and education programs.

One of the most impressive aspects of Pete’s life, to my mind, is his creation of a zero-waste environment of natural energy flows at his home in San Luis Obispo. He has harnessed his exceptional imagination and skills to create a showcase of environmental sustainability for his family, students, and neighborhood. (Check out Peter Schwartz’s YouTube channel: Permaculture and My House) By the way, you will also encounter on this channel the extraordinary range of Pete’s work: everything from Solar Electric Cooking and Uganda to an explanation of the Doppler Effect.

Finally, I wanted to get a sense of Pete’s views on the future of green energy and the threats we face from climate change. “Collusion and inertia are the two biggest problems we currently face in the politics of energy.”, he said. “I have been quite impressed, however, with the progress that President Obama made in addressing climate change, and with the article Obama recently published in Science magazine arguing that the clean-energy revolution is irreversible, highlighting the economic benefits of cutting carbon emissions and investing in renewable energy.”  Yes, it is quite impressive to realize that Obama was the first sitting US president to author an article in a peer-reviewed journal; he also showed great leadership at the Paris Climate Summit.

Pete added that, “California has improved its economy by going green rather than following the old model of relying on a fossil fuel infrastructure. Our state has really shown leadership with the California Global Warming Solutions Act (AB32).” I asked him what he thought about Stanford Professor Mark Z. Jacobson’s claim that the U.S. can convert to 100% clean, renewable energy by 2050. He responded, “While I support these efforts I don’t think we need to be talking about 100% – that leaves us open to criticism from climate denialists claiming this is too radical or unattainable.” Pete suggested that a better approach is to focus on the low-hanging fruit: aggressively improving efficiency and increasing the obvious and easy renewable energy sources as quickly as possible. For instance, solar electricity is well on the way to being the least expensive way to generate electricity, but there are challenges in its wide scale adoption. If we put forth the effort to overcome these challenges, we will increase profit and reduce environmental impact. There are many such obvious directions to work for. And there’s many such steps, and many innovators to make it happen. Thank you, Pete Schwartz, for a very stimulating conversation.

Ted Hamilton

Ecologistics Board Member/Program Director

Leave a Reply