Kemi Fuentes-George

I am a professor in environmental studies and political science at Middlebury College.

Posts by Kemi Fuentes-George


Living and Eating Sustainably is Costly and Time Consuming

Categories: Uncategorized
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

Categories: Conservation, Corporate Behavior

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

Categories: Conservation, International Relations, Nature Preservation, Sustainable Development

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

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

Categories: Green Consumerism, Pop Culture

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

Categories: Conservation

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

Categories: Uncategorized

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

Categories: Corporate Behavior, Green Consumerism, Pop Culture

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:

Lake Champlain – Almost a Biosphere Reserve

Categories: Uncategorized

Sailing on Lake Champlain


I was sailing on Lake Champlain thanks to lessons from Burlington’s own Community Sailing Center, and ruminating on the Lake Champlain Biosphere Reserve.  Although virtually nobody living near the lake realizes this, the Champlain basin is supposed to be a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve – in fact, it is listed as one from time to time.

Normally, listing something as a biosphere reserve requires fairly modest changes – in order to keep an area listed, governments have to take certain steps, like regulating pollution, human access, and providing ongoing research on biological processes in the area.  This would have kept the Lake Champlain region – which is an international basin – linked to international, federal, and local politics.

However, a lack of attention to the concerns of local stakeholders scuttled the project in the early 2000s.  Based on interviews I had with people intimately connected to the initial attempts to get the Biosphere registered, suspicion – particularly among the New Yorkers in the Champlain Basin – about signing over sovereign territory to the UN reigned supreme.  With language invoking UN Black Helicopters, the states of Vermont and New York failed to get traction towards finalizing the effort.  Too bad.  It might have been one way to get faster early attention to ongoing water pollution issues in the Lake.


Ivory and Environmental Justice

Categories: Uncategorized

Elephants, Ivory, and Justice

Guest Poster: Katie Theiss, Middlebury Class of 2014

Poaching and the illegal ivory trade hit record numbers in 2011, with around 25,000 African elephants killed, and levels of trade may be even higher this year, according to GreenWire. Driven by poverty and corruption in the supplying countries, the illegal ivory trade network has been met with increasing demand in Asia.

Poaching is an issue of environmental justice. Often times, communities that have been forcefully removed from their homes by conservation groups in order to make way for protected areas resort to poaching as, first, a reaction against the injustice of being removed from their land, and, second, a reaction against seeing a valuable food resource go to waste. Impoverished communities that lie on the outskirts of protected areas, known as “conservation refugees,” often poach in order to survive.

This, however, is not to excuse the damage done to wildlife by poachers. Animal rights groups estimate that poachers in Africa kill between 25,000 and 35,000 elephants annually, meaning 104 elephants die a day. And, of the 157 poaching-related cases detected in Kenya in the past three years, less than five percent have been prosecuted and only three of those convicted were sentenced to jail. The illegal poaching trade is an international network that brings in 17 billion dollars a year. Because of this, experts warn that Africa could lose 20 percent of its elephant population within a decade.

In the first-ever meeting focusing on the dynamics of the entire ivory value chain, which took place in Botswana on Tuesday, December 3rd, 2013, 30 countries agreed, and 6 countries signed a pact, to take “urgent measures to halt the illegal trade and secure elephant populations across Africa.” All of the major countries involved with the ivory trade agreed to the provisions, including the elephant range states, which are Gabon, Kenya, Niger, and Zambia; the ivory transit states, which are Vietnam, Phillipines, and Malaysia; and the ivory destination states, which are China and Thailand.

An especially key signature on the treaty is China, which buys 70% of the world’s ivory. In fact, a spokesman for the International Union for Conservation of Nature, which organized the summit with the Government of Botswana, revealed that it was China who made the suggestion that the illegal trade should be eliminated and that supply and demand should be reduced.

Interactive Link on Ivory Trade

14 measures will be put in place in order, including the classification of the trafficking of ivory as a “serious crime.” This treaty paves the way for international cooperation on this issue, including mutual legal assistance, asset seizure and forfeiture, and extradition.

This treaty is an encouraging example of governance on an issue that requires a multidimensional and international response. While criminalizing the ivory trade may decrease elephant poaching, it does not necessarily solve one of the root causes behind poaching, which is the extreme poverty and environmental injustices caused to communities on the outskirts of protected areas. It is, however, a start.

The Filibuster and the Environment

Categories: Environmental Law and Policy

Guest Blogger: Dan Hellman, Middlebury College Class of 2014

If you have been awake for any part of the past few years (or longer), you may have noticed there is dysfunction in Washington. This dysfunction reached new bounds this past week as the senate changed its rules in what was deemed the “nuclear option” to prevent filibustering of lower-level presidential appointments. Now, we are clearly in an age where no amount of government dysfunction should surprise us (SEE: government shutdown), and the blame falls to both political parties for their repeated use of brinksmanship and stonewalling negotiations. The symbolic impacts of this change to the senate rules are an important story that has been covered by any number of biased news publications you may wish to read, but left out of much of the analysis is the policy impact. For environmentalists, the decision to circumvent senate filibusters represents a short-term victory.

Obstructionism and failure to compromise led to the "nuclear option" changing the senate rules

Obstructionism and failure to compromise led to the “nuclear option” changing the senate rules

The DC court of appeals plays an important role in the environmental policymaking process. There is a special provision in the Clean Air Act stipulating that challenges to rulemaking skip lower courts and go directly to the DC court for appeals. This makes it extremely important for people interested in new regulations against greenhouse gas emissions or crackdowns on coal-fired power plants. Any rule will inevitably be challenged as too strict by industry representatives, so filling the empty seats with liberal judges would give Obama a major advantage. This court has recently ruled against Obama on issues like their delaying a decision on issuing a permit for Yucca Mountain to become a nuclear waste repository.


As of now, the political makeup of the court is balanced. Democratic presidents appointed four judges and republicans appointed the other four, but this does not tell the entire story. When the caseload is full for the regular judges, the overflow goes to the senior (part-time) judges. Of the six senior judges, five are republicans.  There are three empty seats on the main court waiting to be filled. Obviously, this presents an important opportunity for the Democrats to gain control of an influential court.

1937 political cartoon when FDR was accused of court packing

1937 political cartoon when FDR was accused of court packing


Now, some people have said that by nominating justices to fill these seats, Obama is guilt of court packing.  I am looking at you Ted Cruz.  Though to be fair to the senator from Texas, I should mention that most of the republican establishment is saying the same thing.). They argue that the size of the court should be shrunk down to the current eight members. I am not often one to let facts come in the way of good political theatre, but this is not what court packing is. Just because they want the court to remain ideologically in their favor does not make his nominations invalid. When a Supreme Court justice retires, filling that vacancy is not court packing. It is simply fulfilling a constitutional requirement. If Obama were to expand the size of the Supreme Court to fifteen judges, that would be court packing. This is simply just filling open seats. As a quick aside, if court packing is increasing the number of judges so that the court becomes ideologically balanced in your favor, does that mean that withholding qualified nominations indefinitely to prevent the court from swinging ideologically towards the other side is court unpacking?

Political squabbles aside, the impact of this change to the senate rules is significant. This could eventually be seen as an important moment with regards to Obama’s climate legacy, as any rules he passes will inevitably pass through this court. Looking at the long term we should not expect this change to have any profound advantage to one party or another because each can benefit form the new format when they are in power. But for the moment, we can chalk this one up as a victory for environmentalists.