Kemi Fuentes-George

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

Posts by Kemi Fuentes-George


Ghosts of the Green Revolution

Categories: Corporate Behavior, Green Consumerism, International Relations, Toxics and Chemicals

I’m not hating on Norman Borlaug.  His innovations in improving the yield of agricultural crops through genetic modification and cross-breeding have undoubtedly contributed to curbing hunger and malnutrition in under-consuming countries, particularly in Southeast Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa.

Totally not hating! Look at that smile

But the Green Revolution he inspired has left behind a toxic legacy.  In order to support the new breeds of plants produced, the agricultural industry produced hundreds of thousands of tons of pesticides a year through the 1950s, 60s, and onward.  Unfortunately, it turned out that many of these pesticides contained/contain toxins and persistent organic pollutants.  Things like lindane, aldrin, dieldrin, chlordane, heptachlor, and DDT – carcinogens, endocrine disruptors, bioaccumulators.

While, to the international society’s credit, we did manage to ban the production and use of many of these chemicals through instruments like the Stockholm Convention, we are left with tens of thousands of tons of these compounds, idling in sometimes poorly stored containers worldwide.  Africa alone has 50,000 tons of these now obsolete pesticides, which have occasionally been unintentionally released into communities by leaks and poor disposal practices.

Fortunately, through the help of funds by the World Bank, and with the support of the Stockholm Convention, the international society is starting to get rid of these pesticides in a reasonably safe manner, but this should introduce a note of caution in the rapid industrial production of poorly tested compounds.

Science and Climate Change Policy – Is There Really A Connection?

Categories: Climate Change, International Relations

News from the IPCC

The IPCC, lead advising body to the UN Framework on Climate Change and the Kyoto Protocol, has finally started releasing its Fifth Assessment Report (AR5).  On one hand, I suppose this is a triumph of science.  It’s full of carefully researched and synthesized data on the level of anthropogenic GHG emissions since the late 19th century, the level of sea rise, and the decline in Arctic ice.  The IPCC concludes that global warming is “unequivocal.”

On the other hand, it’s not clear that this is going to make any difference whatsoever to the foreign policy of the laggard developed states – the US, Canada, and Japan.  AR5 does not seem to add any more certainty than that present in AR4, which came out in 2007 (although, since AR4 was criticized for some methodological problems, I might be wrong there).  This may be, as the Guardian indicates, a “landmark report,” but I really don’t see this influencing the 19th Conference of the Parties of the UNFCCC (COP-19), currently scheduled for this November in Warsaw.

We’ll see, but it might be a cold day* in Hell before any of the laggard states change their tune due to science.


*Ironically, due to climate change, possibility of cold days in Hell projected to increase over the next 50 years.

People, the Environment, and Garrett Hardin’s Eugenics

Categories: Conservation, Environmental Rights and Justice, Morality and the Environment, Nature Preservation, Sustainable Development

The Population of Asia


I find this to be an interesting map, because there are a few different ways to interpret the data (which seem pretty accurate), that reflect how you think about people and the environment.  The first is that the population of East and Southeast Asia is massive, and still growing.  Since our environmental impact is a product of our population, affluence (or rate of consumption), and use of technology – or I = PAT for short – we could say that the population of East and Southeast Asia is alarming.

This is a logical connection to make.  As multiple sites show, our 7 billion people on earth are consuming a lot of resources.  Water, oil, and other natural resources are being used at rates that may seem Malthusian.  Therefore, there is a solution that also seems pretty logical: we should curb (or reverse) population growth to slow the rate at which we are depleting the Earth’s resources.  As this handy-dandy video indicates, our population’s exponential growth over the past 200 years is something unheralded.

The problem with this line of thinking (i.e. focusing on population as the source of environmental woes), is that it shifts the blame for the state of the world’s current condition to people who have not historically benefited from its overexploitation.  While it is true that changing lifestyles in China mean that it (and other Asian countries) are consuming more and more, historically and presently, each North American and Western European consumes much more than each Asian.

Garrett Hardin – Secret Eugenicist

Further, this line of thinking may lead to very troubling conclusions.  If we focus on population as the source of our problems, then our solutions should likewise focus on population.  One prominent environmentalist, Garrett Hardin (read in almost every single class on environmental policy and politics) took this logic to its natural, eugenicist conclusion.  In a paper titled “Lifeboat Ethics,” Hardin, noting the problem of a growing world population, argued for cutting off foreign aid to poor people living in Asia.  He observed, as clinically as possible, that “every Indian life saved through medical or nutritional assistance from abroad diminishes the quality of life for those who remain, and for subsequent generations.”

The fact that it is we, living in the industrialized world, that are the primary consumers does not seem to have impressed him at all.  Of course, population is a concern.  And of course Asians (like everybody else, I should add) are consuming more than they did a generation ago.  But let us not lose site of who is responsible for the ‘Non-Negotiable Lifestyle’ that started all this.

The Trouble With “Expert” Advice

Categories: Uncategorized

Kill it With Roundup!


So, the following is absolutely true.  This summer, I decided I was going to start a vegetable garden in my yard, despite having a dubious gardening ethic, no idea what I was doing, and little to no actual tools.  Naturally, I turned to a local expert; a guy who works in agriculture here in Middlebury.  (I can’t say his name, or where he works, because it could be embarrassing – suffice it to say, he should really have known better.  Let’s call him Zeb).

ME: Yeah, so I was thinking of starting a garden.  Maybe a raised bed?  How do I do that?

ZEB: Right, so the first thing you need to do, is clear the ground of grass and weeds where you’re planning to put the bed.  Mark off the area with some string and stakes, then just soak it with RoundUp.

ME: [stares]  Did… did you say RoundUp?

ZEB: Yep!  Just soak it all down.  Spray it right in there, and it’ll clear all those weeds and grass out for ya.  Then, you can put your soil on top of that once they’re all dead, and use that for your vegetable garden.  Easy!

Well, I didn’t particularly want my garden to start off with a chemical assault (it was supposed to be organic!), so I, with no great skill or capability, dug up a small plot, put newspaper over what remained,and went  from there.  But of course, the question remained – what would have happened if I’d used RoundUp in my precious garden?

It turns out (no surprise), that as a herbicide, RoundUp is tremendously tooxic.  One of the main issues is that the studies on the safety of glyphosate, RoundUp’s main ingredient, do not take into consideration the effect of combining glyphosate with the other ingredients, and the resulting chemical cocktail.  For instance, some studies indicate that the “inert” ingredients magnify glyphosate’s potency such that it can affect natal development and hormone production.  Moreover, the term “inert” used to describe ingredients in RoundUp refers only to the fact that they are not usable as herbicides, and is not a pronouncement on ttheir biological impact.  Thus, while glyphosate appears to degrade in the soil relatively quickly, the effect of multiple, potentially toxic chemicals creates a higher risk of poisoning “…not with the active ingredient alone,, but with complex and variable mixtures.”  Personally, I’d rather nottake the chance.  But many people do: RoundUp is the world’s best selling weedkiller, and as long as it remains profitable, it will continue to be produuced for commercial and domestic use.

Water, Water, Everywhere/Nor Any Drop to Drink (Because it has chemicals in it)

Categories: Uncategorized

Rachel Carson and Her Masterpiece

This month marks the 50th anniversary of Silent Spring, Rachel Carson’s popular book pointing out the ubiquity and danger of common chemicals used then, and still used now, in pesticides, herbicides, household cleaners, and fungicides.  While Carson did not argue “…that chemical insecticides must never be used,” she did question the wisdom in their indiscriminate use in commonly used products, particularly since much of the chemicals – DDT, lindane, chlordane, dieldrin – are either endocrine disruptors, carcinogenic, or both.

I thought about this book a lot, particularly after a recent Stanford study that is purported to show that organic produce – produce grown without the use of chemical pesticides and the like – is actually not healthier for you than conventional* produce.  Stanford’s own press release on their School of Medicine website proclaims “Little evidence of health benefits from organic food,” a perspective seemingly adopted also by the NYTimes, NPR, and the Baltimore Sun.  The study seems at first glance to be an excellent tool to criticize the organic food movement.  And, to be sure, there is a lot to critique: organic food is usually more expensive than conventional food, and thus out of the budgetary reach of much of the US population.  Further, some of the proponents can verge on faddism and elitism.  Take this tone-deaf article, for example, which states with a straight face that if “…we can find money for movies, ski trips, and recreational cruises, surely we can find the money to purchase integrity food.”

Choosing Organic Food

But the reasoning of the article raises some unanswered questions.  The study bases its conclusion on these findings: 1) organic food does not have more nutrients than conventional food; 2) organic food has only a 30 percent “risk difference” from conventional food in terms of pesticide chemicals present (although the study itself found that children consuming organic food had significantly lower levels of pesticides in urine); 3) in any case, the pesticide traces of each chemical in conventional food are below levels deemed safe by the EPA.

The first argument seems to me like a strawman.  The purpose of organic food, as far as I knew, wasn’t to provide more nutrients per kilo – it was to avoid the use of toxic chemicals as much as possible, particularly on goods that we consume.  Second, as explained in this article by Mother Jones, Stanford’s calculation of risk from pesticides in conventional food is methodologically suspect.  The finding that conventional food is only 30% more likely to have chemicals than organic food does not make a distinction in levels of chemicals present; in other words, an organic apple with trace amounts of pesticides is counted as equivalent to a conventional apple with multiple, and high-risk pesticides.  Moreover, although the Stanford study argues that the trace amounts of each chemical is at levels deemed safe by the EPA, it does not take into consideration the potentially harmful effect of combining multiple chemicals at once.

The Pesticide-Water Cycle

Third, even if we accept the findings that the chemical levels on the food we consume are safe, agricultural runoff and evaporation means the chemicals used can still enter the water cycle.  In a study by the US Geological Survey, more than half the watersheds and sources near agricultural facilities had levels of pesticides “...greater than water-quality benchmarks for aquatic life and (or) fish-eating wildlife.”

So, the use of the Stanford study to argue against organic food is plausible, only if you’re willing to disregard all of the above.  Personally, since chemicals are everywhere, I’d rather not contribute to the further accumulation of toxic compounds in our ecosystem, and our bodies.

*How hilarious is it that food produced with failing antibiotics, toxic chemicals, pesticides and herbicides is considered “conventional,” while food produced in the same way that we’ve done for thousands of years is given a special denominator?

Whither Republican Leadership on the Environment?

Categories: Climate Change, International Relations

Climate change is back on the radar of the presidential election, but this time as a punchline.  As is probably well known at this point, Romney gave a speech at the Republican National Convention in which he and the delegates vocally ridiculed the idea that climate change is a problem.  The video is available below:

This may seem like yet another example of the GOP, as an institution, rejecting well-established climate science.  For example, the only GOP presidential candidate last year to admit that anthropogenic climate change existed was Jon Huntsman, who never rose about the double digits in support.  And then, of course, even he went ‘squishy’ in his position in a speech at the Heritage Foundation, where he invoked the East Anglia Climate-gate controversy, calling for more thumb-twiddling until climate scientists could get “a better description” of the problem.

Of course, recalcitrance in the face of climate change management is not a partisan issue.  Famously, the Byrd-Hagel Resolution which handcuffs the US Executive branch from committing to any international treaty that does not bind developing nations (and preventing US ratification of Kyoto) is a bipartisan agreement.  But climate change denialism seems to be largely a Republican practice – and this in the face of ever mounting evidence from the IPCC that, yes, anthropogenic climate change exists, and is a threat to global security.

But it wasn’t always so.  One of the most vexing issues in the American political system, is that environmentalism has, in the past, had Republican support.  Some of the lead agencies responsible for managing environmental issues, the EPA, and the Council on Environmental Quality (as well as milestone acts, such as the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts) were created either under President Nixon, not known as one sympathetic to the Democratic Party, or with Republican support.  This local environmentalism was but one part of a growing international environmental movement, as only a few years later, the UN held the Stockholm Convention on the Human Environment in 1972.

Sadly, of course, this changed dramatically in the anti-regulatory climate of the Reagan administration, with the appointment of Anne Gorsuch to head the EPA.  While Gorsuch’s tenure was mercifully brief, and despite later environmental triumphs, such as the ratification of the Montreal Protocol (under Reagan!), the damage had already been done.  Anti-environmentalism and anti-regulation had become such a central plank to the GOP platform, that we are left with the fact that what should be a straightforward debate about cause-and-effect has become highly polarized and prone to gridlock.

It is clear at this point, that a GOP presidency will likely mean a 4-year hiatus on any environmental regulatory progress, if not an outright reversal of what gains have been made to date.  The problem, of course, is that while environmental policymaking is partisan, environmental degradation is not.

How I Single-Handedly Saved the Parque Nacional de los Arrecifes de Xcalak

Categories: Field Work in Mexico, Nature Preservation, Sustainable Development

Field Research is the Best

One of the best things, obviously, about doing field work, is getting the chance to finagle yourself into areas where few people have, or will go.  One of those times, I recounted already, when I headed into the selva de manglar near the Laguna de Mala Noche in Quintana Roo, with a monitoring team from Simbiosis SA de CV.

Yesterday, I headed back to Xcalak, where I was staying for a couple days around selva work; this time, however, I wanted to examine the Parque Nacional de los Arrecifes de Xcalak (PNAX).  What I find particularly interesting about PNAX, is that it is a protected area established by the federal government, due in large part to local pressure by the local population of Xcalak, a small, politically and economically isolated fishing village on the southern-most tip of the eastern part of the United States of Mexico.

Location of Xcalak

Now, we usually think of protected areas and environmental regulation as restrictive, or at the very least, regulatory processes, limiting the kinds of human activity allowed in certain areas.  Certainly, some of the regulations required by the creation of PNAX – the prohibition on the removal and clearing of mangroves; restricted fishing quotas and techniques; limits on the size, location, and number of hotel rooms – have effectively prevented the possibility of the kind of tourism that has brought so much foreign income to Cancún, Playa del Carmen, and the Riviera Maya.  But, you see, that was the point.  While not all fishermen were entirely happy with the federal regulations of PNAX (some were very bitter, for example, about restrictions on the capture of conch and lobster, which would be used in subsistence consumption), all the ones I spoke to were adamant that that kind of desorbitado development was not appropriate, economically, socially or environmentally, for the tiny, underdeveloped fishing village.

Not Much to Do on the Beach in Xcalak

But, anyway, I digress.  I drove to Xcalak, and managed to convince (i.e. pay) the head of the fishing cooperative to take me out to the reefs to take a gander.  You see, the last time I was in Mexico, officials from the Comisión Nacional de Áreas Naturales Protegidas (CONANP) took me out on a reef monitoring trip in the Parque Nacional de Puerto Morelos, and I wanted to see how this section of the reef compared.  Well, in short, it was… incredible.  Simply incredible.  I could go on about the vibrancy of the colours; the movement of the fan corals in the underwater currents; the section of the reef dedicated to the crianza of new corals; lobsters shooting themselves backwards on our approach.  But I won’t.  I will, however, say that on my tour around the reef park, I, with the eagle-eyes for which the Fuentes-George’s are rightfully famous, spotted the accursed Lionfish, the rat of the sea, that invasive species trying to take over our role as the destroyers of ecosystems.  I called Oscar, the cooperative’s head, over, and with a small, spring-loaded spear, he impaled the lionfish right.  Through.  The.  Mouth.

In your FACE, Lionfish!

“In your face, stupid lionfish,” I thought.  “If anybody is going to be an invasive species, it’s gonna be us.”  Oscar said the fish would be taken to CONANP’s Xcalak office, right off the beach, to be tallied.  Thereafter, the spines would be de-venomed, and made into artisanal jewelry, and someone would eat the filleted animal.  I would have liked to eat the stupid fish myself, but alas, it was getting late, and the drive back to Chetumal would have to traverse unlit roads, bordered by mangrove swamps and forest, and I’d rather not do that after sundown.  But, by finding that pendejo fish, I felt pretty happy that I could do one tiny, tiny thing to help keep the PNAX healthy.

The Challenges of Management, or: Nature is Horrible, and Wants to Kill You

Categories: Field Work in Mexico, Nature Preservation, Sustainable Development

Potential Tour Guide/Nature Defender

One of the standard recommendations for attaining sustainable management and conservation of natural resources, is to involve local communities in their management.  In locales as diverse as Botswana, Mexico, and Qatar, the ideas are roughly the same: communities who live near, and depend on natural resources are often those with “lived-in” knowledge about how ecosystems function.  Moreover, by virtue of their proximity, they may be ideally placed to function as de facto watchdogs of environmental management.  This could also be converted into financial gain if, for example, local residents and users could be hired to act as monitors, or tour guides for ecotourists.  The added benefit, of course, is that this process may also contribute to greater environmental awareness – as local users are (presumably) trained as guides/monitors/stewards, they will become more aware of the trophic webs and chains in local ecosystems, and perhaps more ardent defenders.  This article, for example, is but one of many advancing this exact point.

However, it should be said that this idea that local communities can or should be drafted into the protection of environmental resources should come with a caveat: there has to be careful attention paid to adequate capacity-building and support.  Establishing management programs that place additional, inadequately compensated responsibilities on local communities – particularly when they are marginalized - may either be unfair socioeconomically, or problematic environmentally.  The fact of the matter is: monitoring natural environments is Hard Work.

Here’s an example: on Wednesday June 14th, I went out with a group of paid monitors hired by Simbiosis SA de CV in Chetumal, Mexico to monitor the mangrove forest near the coastal community of Xcalak in the state of Quintana Roo.  This monitoring was done, mind you, in support of a law approved in 2007, protecting mangrove zones at the federal level – they have a wide impact on the health of coastal ecosystems, including coral reefs, juvenile fish, and coastal integrity.  The monitors, all three of whom came from an ejido near the politically marginalized municipality of Carillo Puerto were paid about US$20 for a day’s work.  So this is what it entailed:

As soon as we stepped off the road, into the outer zone of the selva, we were surrounded by small armies of mosquitos.  And worse.  Large, ominous flies, about two inches long, buzzed threateningly, waiting to alight and draw blood.  We moved off at a rapid clip, and I saw a veritable cloud of them, hovering behind the man in front, tracking him through low-lying forest: I imagine we all had one. 

Our speed declined rapidly when we got to the first start of the mangrove swamp. The puddles of rank, foul-smelling, foetid, black water were small enough at first – only ankle deep. (I only began swearing when I realized that my allegedly waterproof Timberlands were NOT). Then knee deep. Then thigh deep. And this, mind you, with the swarms alighting when they could, always finding that spot that the repellant didn’t cover. And with half-rotted branches, and putrefying gunk underneath the black, turbid water. And having to climb over and under bone-white roots of the mangroves, tangled together like a corpse’s fingers.  Footing was, to say the least, insecure.

Like This, Only With More Roots

It took us about an hour to get to the first monitoring zone.  At that point, we were all soaked from swamp water and sweat, and stinking.  At that part, mercifully, there weren’t many mosquitos, and few black flies.  However, a gorgeous, tiny golden bug alighted on my knuckles, and only when it flew off did I notice the blood.  Monitoring itself was tedious: you mark a tree (we were looking at species of mangle rojo, or Rhizophora mangle) with a piece of tape, then measure the diameter of the trunk, estimate its height, its cupula size, and count how many propágulos it has.  Over, and over, and over again. “¿Diámetro?” “5cm.”  “¿Altura?”  “3.5m.”  “¿Mande?  ¿2.5 dijiste?”  “No, son 3.5m.”  Etc.  Then it rained.  It poured.  We were soaked again.  Fortunately, this at least broke the heat of the Yucatán in summer.

Now, it was absolutely fascinating.  Bugs, plants, and critters I’d never seen before.  Butterflies broke up the monotony of the green and green over a greener green.  After the rain, flourescent green spots appeared on some of the roots of the mangrove.  Occasionally, geese flew overhead, and we heard the ceaseless moving of iguanas and lizards right out of sight. 

But still, this is not easy work.  5 hours, maybe in the mangrove zone, and two hours through very difficult terrain.  To this day, I don’t understand how we didn’t get lost - you can’t cut paths in the mangrove, because it’s a protected species, and while there were some strung up lines and markers at some places, these were few and far enough between that you could only navigate with an already-present real knowledge of the area.  And if you got injured or lost in this area, you would be effed.  I asked one of the monitors, a young guy from the ejido, why he did this, if he liked the environment a lot, or something?  No, he said, it’s just a job, and he has no idea what it’s for.  A job that pays $20 a day.

Now, these things have to be done, clearly.  But NGOs, project directors, and activists have to be really careful about how community-based management programs are designed.  They can be a source of empowerment and development, but they are additional responsibilities and we should recognize this.

What are We Doing to Ourselves?: The Ubiquity of Chemicals

Categories: Corporate Behavior, Green Consumerism, Toxics and Chemicals

I suppose this was inevitable.  Yesterday was Saturday, and being in  the Yucatán, with no interviews lined up for today, my options were 1) hang around the hostel, and continue working on my paper via notepad and pencil (taking it back to ’92, y’all), or 2) go to the beach.  Only a madman would have chosen number 1.

The Obvious Choice

So: I took a shared taxi to Puerto Juárez, then a $7 ferry to Isla Mujeres.  Lovely beach on Playa Norte – you can walk out 100m, and never have the absolutely crystal water go further than chest high.  But here’s the thing: this is a highly touristic zone, and the sun-sensitive visitors to Mexico also take this ferry all day for sand-and-beach.  I happen to be highly allergic to oxybenzone, one of the most popular ingredients in sunscreen, and all it takes is one brush against, say, a deck chair recently used by a Coppertone-slathered individual, for me to break out in rashes, itching, and suppurating swelling (helpfully alleviated right now by very, very high doses of Benadryl – which also has the side effect of making me high as a kite).

Now, I’ve thought a lot about oxybenzone over the years, having had multiple reactions and exposures to it, despite my best efforts to avoid it (I once unwittingly shared a straw with an amiga that used an oxybenzone-laden chapstick and came off looking like Mick Jagger), and have focused on two things that I find interesting/aggravating.  First, as many of you will find out, it is found in a wide, wide range of cosmetic products – look at anything that has the letters SPF on it, and chances are it has oxybenzone, or its relative, benzophene-3.  Second, it is an endocrine disruptor (see above link).  Now, it’s not the only way to get sunscreen; you can use anything that has inert chemicals, such as titanium dioxide, or zinc oxide and get much, much better coverage.  Problematically, the metallic sunblock is oldschool, and leaves a faint, whitish layer on your skin when you brush it on.  Not very stylish, yeah?  Plus, I am sure that the vast, vast majority of users are completely unaware that oxybenzone is harmful, not just to myself, but to all users, in particular infants and small children.

Spraying DDT in the United States

But this I thought was symptomatic of one of the major challenges to human health: we are surrounded by potentially harmful chemicals every day, ostensibly in the name of convenience.  Eventually, we learn about them, but often only after concerted action against the inertia, apathy, and perhaps active resistance of those who receive some benefits from distributing them.

While we, as an international community, have eventually responded to some of these concerns, banning some harmful but ubiquitous products at the domestic level in the 1970s and 1980s, and by internationalizing the campaign against toxic substances through instruments such as the 2001 Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants, it is still clear that in many ways, our attitudes towards dangerous chemicals hasn’t changed much since the 1960s.  The types of chemicals and products vary, and over time, awareness-raising leads to some civil society challenges to particular compounds, but toxins remain profitable, and information moves more slowly than commerce: hence, the continued ubiquity of harmful chemicals.

A Brief Note from the Field

Categories: Uncategorized

The Development Model of Cancun

Well, one of the potential drawbacks of field research I suppose.  My computer (iPad really) was stolen, meaning I can’t update or write as frequently as I can (living on a budget = avoiding the pay-per-minute internet cafes when possible).

But, a short notice on this computer, borrowed from my roommate at the hostel: the erosion at the beaches is extremely visible.  Walking along the playa in front of the Zona Hotelera, you can see the mini-cliffs and crumbling facades that mark the inevitable signs of disappearing beach.  Of course, this erosion is exacerbated by the fact that all along the playa, the hotels are constructed Right.  On.  The.  Beach.  Interrupting the fragile rejuvenation mechanisms.  Of course, there is little that can be done now, and all the proposed and actual stop-gap measures (trucking in sand, building buffering walls, constructing artificial reefs) won’t do much more than prolong the inevitable.  Especially since there is not a single mangrove standing in the Riviera Maya.

And yet, looking at the massive concrete-and-glass structures, all-inclusive resorts (replete with buffets, all drinks, nightlife, tourist bubble), it is obvious that there is no reasonable solution available.  It’s not as if, for example, the hotels can be picked up and moved.  So there it is – what is to be done?  Perhaps ensure that management in the southern part of the state avoids what Cancun has become.  Monday, I conduct more interviews – if I get access to another computer later, then perhaps more updates.