Water, Water Everywhere? Maybe Not

Not That Much, Really!

I am consistently taken aback by this picture, courtesy of the US Geological Survey, showing all the water in the world. When thinking about the Earth, the common knowledge that water makes up 3/4 of the world’s surface suggests this massive, almost limitless expanse that boggles the mind. And to some extent, that’s true. Stories about sailing, particularly in the nightmarish Southern Ocean, only barely capture the vastness of the medium, which can stretch (or seem to stretch) to eternity. Certainly, one wrong move in the ocean can mean eternity for the hapless adventurer.


However, by abstracting out the entirety of the Earth’s water, we have to be confronted by something sobering – our water resources are incredibly finite. Though they stretch for thousands of miles, and can swallow us puny individuals whole with the savage indifference of nature, the oceans are not actually limitless. Even less so are our freshwater resources, as the graphic indicates. Those tiny spheres are the sum amount available to humanity to live on and with. Thus, when we contemplate our human practices of dumping tons of plastic in the oceans, or contaminating our scanty freshwater supplies by fracking, (to say nothing of oil spills, like the Deepwater Horizon) we should realize the absurdity of the situation. Throwing pollution into our water is hardly a way to make it disappear.

Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time

Where Have All the Posts Gone?

So, I have not, despite appearances, abandoned Ye Olde Beste Environmentalle Politics Blogge of All Time™, particularly since it is the Beste Environmentalle Politics Blogge of All Time™. However, I have been doing other writing.

For one, my totally nifty book, which has taken up the bulk of the last year, is now available from MIT Press, so make sure you get your copies now.

Super Nifty!

Second, I’ve been writing things on Salon.com, such as a recent article on the structural racism of Flint’s water crisis (bad!), and reflections on the college-led divestment campaign (yay!). Nevertheless! I shall return to blogging because… well, how could I not? More anon!

From Acid Rains, to Acid Seas

So, it turns out that in a few years, swimming in the ocean is going to look like this:

Okay, maybe not that bad.  BUT: we are acidifying the ocean.  You see, carbon dioxide, in addition to being a pesky greenhouse gas (and the baseline from which we calculate the greenhouse gas effect of other substances) also lowers the pH of saltwater once it is absorbed.  Turns out as well, that we’ve known about this for quite some time.  Holla atcha boy, Svante Arrhenius, who discussed how carbon dioxide becomes “carbonic acid” in the 1890s.

Svante Arrhenius, Looking All Baller with a Cane and Everything

While this acidification is imperceptible (so far, ah ha ha ha) to humans, not so for marine life.  You see, there are a range of calcifying organisms including corals, mussels, shellfish and so on, that are integral to coastal wellbeing.  As this study by researchers from the NRDC indicates, regions that depend on coastal capture for subsistence and economic health like, say, everywhere, are likely to suffer as these calcifiers become more vulnerable to changes in oceanic pH, pollution, predators, overfishing, and the like.

I'm showing what's happening to the US, since, as we know, it's the only state that matters!  USA!  USA!  USA!  U! S! A!

Socioeconomic Vulnerabilities in Alaska

What’s even more frustrating about this problem is that some of the solutions proposed to deal with climate change may exacerbate acidification.  See, climate change can be addressed by focusing on gases other than carbon dioxide.  For example, you can lower methane emissions, or HFC-23, which will do nothing to address acidification.  Worse, one of the proposed methods of fighting climate change – iron fertilization – essentially stimulates the ocean to absorb more carbon dioxide in order to take it out of the atmosphere.  While this would create a new sink for atmospheric carbon (yay!), it might cause the ocean to acidify even faster than it is now (boo!).  It certainly doesn’t help that, for at least the past 10 years, various interests have been promoting iron fertilization as a tool to generate carbon credits under the UNFCCC and the Kyoto Protocol.

A Graphic Representation of OH MY GOD WE’RE ALL GONNA DIE

Right now, the policy discussions on ocean acidification are still fairly new.  There are some policymakers in the US that have been involved in events like the Third Symposium on the Ocean in a High CO2 World, such as Sam Farr (D-CA), but the problem of ocean acidification is still in the early stages on the political agenda.  So, how will we deal with this problem?  Will we design climate change mechanisms that focus on reducing and removing carbon dioxide?  Will we focus on ameliorating the effects of acidification on coastal ecosystems?  Will we cut pollution on the coast?  Time for some CAUTIOUS OPTIMISM, SON!

Look for me to present some of my research on this topic at the 2015 APSA Annual Meeting.  San Francisco, what!

Living and Eating Sustainably is Costly and Time Consuming

Spinach Kale Smoothie?  Spinach Kale Smoothie!

Mini Harvest of Greens

There are a variety of arguments about eating organically and sustainably that make it sound like an unqualified good.  Organic produce is good for the environment, it may taste better (although this might just be eco-massaging), it may be healthier for you, depending on which pesticides are used in “conventional” food, and so on.  The conclusion seems so obvious, then!  Eat organic, thou heathen!  It’s good for the earth, good for your health, (probably good for your BMI and battle against obesity) and you will therefore be a better, more moral person!

Leaving aside the fact that eating organic as a consciously moral act may may make people more prone to casting moral aspersions against those who don’t (i.e. turn them into jerks), there is a good reason that organic, sustainable food consumption is still a niche activity: it’s just more expensive: labour, costs of production, crop rotation – all of these things add up.

And it’s certainly not as easy as planting a garden, either.  The USDA and non-governmental movements, like those in San Diego heavily promote gardening as a food source to people looking for sustainable eats.  The problem is (speaking as someone who is gardening right now), gardening takes time.  A lot of time.  Crops may take anywhere from 50 to 90 days to come to maturity, and that depends on tending, weeding, fertilizing, sowing properly, and harvesting.  That’s a long-ass time to wait for a tomato salad.  And that assumes you even get any harvest.  How many okra plants have I killed?  How many beets have I attempted to transfer, before going straight to direct sow?  And let’s pour one out for my dear, departed watermelons.

Not to say it can’t be worth it – those lovely greens at the top are spinach and kale from my garden that I got this morning, and turned into a most baller smoothie.  But the only reason I can do this, is because I have the time and money to invest in tomato stakes, seeds, and compost.*

By all means, eat organically if you can.  But in the sustainable food movement there’s sometimes a little too much judgment or patronizing against those who don’t.


*If you’re one of the lucky few who have the time, energy, and finances to garden, I strongly recommend using the following book.  A wealth of information.

Good Intentions and Hidden Costs

Perhaps More Oversight Needed?

Producers of vegan and vegetarian goods like Alternative Baking Company claim that their products have a better environmental impact than non-vegan/vegetarian goods.  This is an understandable claim, particularly since the environmental impact of the meat industry is well-documented.  Indeed, vegan advocates in general claim that their lifestyle is better for the environment.  As ABC says on its cookie labels: “No single food choice has a farther-reaching and more profoundly positive impact on… the environment, and all of life on Earth than choosing vegan.”

However, this claim is potentially seriously misleading, if not outright wrong.  ABC’s cookies substitute animal oils (like butter), dairy, and eggs with palm oil.  To be sure, ABC now (since August 2013) uses palm oil certified by the RSPO, which is less destructive than the non-certified palm oil that is responsible for wiping out acres of Indonesia’s rainforest.

Firefighters spray water to burning palm oil trees in haze hit Dumai, in Indonesia’s Riau province. Photograph: Beawiharta/REUTERS

But this does not let RSPO off the hook.  Third-party certification like RSPO is primarily a market tool: certifiers and producers have an incentive to get as many people certified as possible, even if it means watering down the stringency of this certification scheme.  And, according to Greenpeace and the Guardian, that is exactly what is happening.  RSPO plantations in Indonesia and Brazil (where ABC sources their oil) are still engaged in rampant deforestation and have contributed to “significant deforestation” in certified areas.  As you can imagine, deforestation in countries like Indonesia and Brazil have tremendous environmental impacts, ranging from a loss in biodiversity, to displacement of rural inhabitants, to land degradation and deforestation, and – of course – increased GHG emissions.

So what’s the upshot?  First, this idea that a vegan/vegetarian diet is somehow, intrinsically, better for the environment is simply not true.  A diet based on the exploitation of pristine rainforest is far worse than a diet based on the consumption of locally-sourced, sustainable animal products.  Second, third party certification should be scrutinized very carefully.  Third party certification is foremost a business model, and like all business models, the primary incentive is to make profits in a defined market.  This is not to say that it can’t lead to better environmental practices, but this is not a necessary outcome, and should not be assumed.

For ABC (and other companies that use RSPO certified palm oil), their choices are clear: either 1) do better research and use vegan oils that are less environmentally problematic than RSPO palm oil; 2) stop assuming that “vegan” = “environmentally good,” and use more sustainable oils, even if they come from animal products; 3) continue using RSPO oil, but remove all claims that this has a “profoundly positive impacts on… the environment.”

Trouble Back Home & International Regimes

Portland Bight Protected Area

Only a few years after successfully resisting attempts to “develop” the Cockpit Country for bauxite mining, the Jamaican Government is apparently planning to sell off some of its most vulnerable and endemic ecosystems to Chinese developers.  This plan, which would likely involve clear-cutting mangrove zones near Portland, is a horrifying idea, as it would severely damage coastal integrity and endanger species on the verge of extinction.  Stunningly, this region was also declared a Wetland of International Importance under the Ramsar Convention in 2006.  Needless to say, the development planned by Jamaica and the Chinese government will entirely undo the intent of the Convention.

Notably, the Chinese company that is behind this push has been blacklisted by the World Bank due to fraud and corruption.  For shame, Jamaica.  Anyone concerned about this – including non-Jamaicans – should sign this petition from Change.org.

Soylent is Not Made From People – But It Still Looks Terrible

Eat Up!

One of the putative benefits of Soylent, the brand new food substitute getting coverage in the NYTimes, Slate, and so on, is its environmental impact.  Soylent is a nutritional drink, designed in 2013 by wunderkind and tech advocate Rob Rhinehart to solve the problems associated with food.  In short, it takes too long to prepare, is too expensive, and takes too long to consume.  In the video below, Rhinehart explains in more detail what Soylent is all about:

Soylent solves all of that.  It provides (in theory) all the necessary nutrition you need in an easy-to-make drink for (potentially) less than the price of eating out or cooking yourself.  Since it can be stored, it contributes to less waste; it does not require as much carbon emissions per milligram of protein as, say, factory-produced beef; and can be produced with all-organic ingredients.  Environmentally speaking, what’s not to love?

And yet, I can’t quite get behind it.  For one, what we eat is not simply dictated by necessity, but is a part of and influenced by our culture.  We eat not just to input energy into a machine, but because the act of eating affects our mood – we place different signifiers on things like spiciness, texture, and so on.  While Soylent is customizable, it’s not clear that it would ever approach the diversity of human gastronomy.

And, c’mon, what kind of a psycho would willingly replace this with Soylent?:


Second, I’m not convinced that Soylent is necessarily always the cheaper option for everyone.  It may be only $3 per package, but that’s substantially more than it costs to make a pot of rice and beans (baller, if you do it right), or to buy an order of koshari in Cairo.

Finally, while Soylent’s claims to promote a good environmental impact are somewhat admirable, the environmental problems it putatively addresses can and should be addressed by other means.  Why do we allow factory farms to overproduce poorly managed cattle and butcher them in appalling conditions?  Why do we allow agricultural producers to mass clear land and plant monocrops?  Why do we have all of this food waste, and over-processed crap?

Ultimately, Soylent seems like another unnecessarily hi-tech solution based on consuming our way out of problems we created by consumption.  It speaks more to something gone horribly wrong in our society: so many people feel so hammered by time and life constraints that even the act of eating has become one more thing to shove aside in the mad dash to… wherever.

We’ve Forgotten How to Use Weeds

Ironically, Mint is a Weed

I was looking at my pretty unorganized garden – weeds growing wild, absolutely no organization – and feeling pretty grateful that I could still harvest some good from it.  Got some beets up in there, corn coming in good, tons of herbs – basil, oregano, cilantro, mint – represent.  Even got a pumpkin or two coming through.  All the spinach died though, so sad.

Then I started thinking about how we, in the modern world, have absolutely no idea about how to use native plants in agriculture.  Think about it.  Modern agriculture is characterized largely by monoculture farming, which depends on replacing acres and acres of native crops with one species, which then becomes highly vulnerable to pests, disease, and so on.  In order to mitigate against that, we use tons of chemical pesticides and herbicides like atrazine, which leaches toxins into our environment.

But what if we remembered how to use native plants in the way that the First Nations did?  What if we didn’t create an agricultural system that depended on erasing natural biodiversity, and imposing artificial and naturally unsustainable systems on top?  To get a picture of what this would look like, read Tales of a Shaman’s Apprentice by Mark Plotkin.

Here’s a sample, where the author and his indigenous friends, Kamainja and Shafee were walking near the border of Brazil, to encounter a Brazilian peasant vegetable garden:

…Kamainja snickered.  “Pananakiri poy-deh-ken!” he said slowly.  “White man dumb!

“What’s so funny?” I asked quietly.

“Look at that garden,” Kamainja whispered.  “I’ve seen better-looking agriculture inside a leafcutter ant’s nest!” …

“Look at the weeds!” Shafee chimed in.

“I don’t see any,” I said.

“Exactly!  In our gardens, we always leave some behind because it binds the soil in the rainy season. That peasant’s garden is probably cleaner than his house!”

“And another thing,” said Kamainja.  “You look at that plantation and you know the man doesn’t understand the forest.  A well-planned garden should look like a hole in the forest opened up when a gian ku-mah-kah tree falls over.  Small opening in the forest are filled in by fast-growing weedy plants that attract game animals.  When you cut down too much forest, the little plants can’t seed in from the surrounding jungle…”

What a pity we’ve managed to lose all this knowledge.

A Biosphere That Works

Serenity and Public Use

I mentioned the failed attempt by Vermont and New York to establish a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in the really remarkable (and international!) Lake Champlain area.  What makes this failure sting even more (to me, anyway) is the fact that right across the border, Quebec has one of Canada’s first recognized Biosphere Reserves at Mont St Hilaire.

A great place to visit – I took my class there in Fall of 2012 – it offers both academic insight and relaxation.  It’s managed by McGill University, and if you want to take a trip there, the staff has been, in my experience anyway, very helpful and informative.  Go there!  You might learn something.

Admittedly, the stereotype about Canadians is that they’re polite and non-confrontational, so the skeptic might say, “well why wouldn’t they be more likely to adopt a UNESCO Biosphere designation?”  And true, unlike New York and Vermont, Canada did not have to deal with cross-cutting jurisdictions in setting it up.  However, like anywhere else, establishing rules about access and use in the Reserve did create some tensions with surrounding communities and the city of Mont St. Hilaire.  In order to keep the Biosphere designation, the managers at McGill and the City had to agree to ban logging and extractive activities in the core, and limit foot traffic.

However, as this report shows, regulatory limits plus consistent outreach has led to, at the very least, a modus vivendi between the Reserve and the surrounding communities.  One hopes that the efforts of local groups like the Lake Champlain Committee can do as good of a job at convincing actors here of the environmental and cultural importance of our own potential Biosphere Reserve.

In Search of a Socialist Lorax

He Speaks for the Trees

I just read The Lorax to my kids again (and did funny voices to boot, which made my wife visibly cringe).  Everytime I do, however, I think about this really stellar and well-written article by Maniates called “Individualization: Plant a Tree, Buy a Bike, Save the World?”

The article itself – very accessible, especially for an academic piece – gives a great description of an underlying problem in an otherwise sweet little book.  (And I specifically set up storytime with this book to encourage the kids to take care of the earth).  The short version (read the whole thing!) is that Seuss’ fable presents the solution to environmental crises as occurring through the aggregate of individual action.  In other words, if committed people can motivate themselves to plant trees, take care of them, and make the right purchases, the world will get better.  Noticeably absent from Seuss’ tale, however, are things like polluter pays laws, and regulations that would have stopped the Once-ler from destroying the Truffula forest in the first place – or at least held him legally and financially responsible after he did.

Not picking on Seuss, though.  It’s a nice book.  But we should be aware that individual action, especially in a market economy, will only have very limited effect on systematic environmental and political problems.  In the meantime, enjoy the video: