Category Archives: Green Consumerism

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.

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:

Occasionally, Things Go Right

Donghra Villager

One of the challenges I’ve found in talking about environmental justice occurs when justice claims seem to oppose economic ‘development.’  In short, marginalized people around the world too often find their claims about appropriate land use policies and practices ignored or outright dismissed if these claims contradict large-scale industrial development.  For example, in the video below, the Dongria Kondh tribe in India tried to block the onset of open-pit bauxite mining sponsored by the transnational company Vedanta.  The Indian federal government and Vedanta made fairly similar arguments – opposition was ‘irrational,’ particularly since the arguments made by the Dongria Kondh seemed to rest so much on emotional, religious and cultural appeals.  Surely, these should matter little to the possibility of GDP growth, modernization, and capitalist development.  This is something we’ve seen before, including in this country.

However, the Dongria Kondh remained unconvinced: refusing to compromise on their vision of the sacred nature of the mountain, the tribe remained steadfast in their opposition to mining.  As described in this article by the Telegraph, one of the major villages, Lakhapadar, voted to ban mining in a move that was recognized as legitimate by the Indian Supreme Court.

While the Indian villagers are not convinced that this ban is permanent, it still represents a hope that even the marginalized, if supported by legal institutions, can have a positive impact on environmental practices as linked to social justice.

Ghosts of the Green Revolution

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.

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

Never Trust the ‘Win-Win-Win’ Scenario


The Solution to Global Warming

Well, I suppose it’s about time that I started blogging again.  Don’t worry; nothing environmentally bad happened between December 12 and today – or I would have caught it.  Clearly.

On Thursday, I heard an interesting report on NPR.  Climate scientists, such as Durwood Zaelke of the Institute of Governance and Sustainable Development, and Drew Shindell of NASA have suggested a new, effective way to fight climate change: instead of attempting to create treaties or institutions to deal with carbon dioxide, we should focus on reducing our global emissions of soot and methane.

Why Soot and Methane?

The rationale behind doing so sounds very seductive: 1) both these gases have a higher Global Warming Potential (GWP) than carbon dioxide per unit weight – methane is 21 times more powerful than CO2 per weight, while soot (comprised of incompletely combusted carbon, sulfur, organic carbon and other chemicals – also known as “black carbon”) has a GWP of 680; 2) as illustrated by NASA, both methane and soot are potentially harmful to human life – soot, because it exacerbates pulmonary and cardiovascular illness, and methane, as it contributes to ground-level ozone; 3) both soot (despite its carbon component) and methane have shorter atmospheric lifetimes than CO2 – one or two decades, as opposed to hundreds of years.

Consequently, concentrating efforts on soot and methane mean you would be able to discern greater changes in atmospheric CO2e accumulation.  In fact, Shindell was lead author on a paper, published in Science Magazine, that suggests focusing on these two gases would reduce the amount of global warming from the projected rate of increase by 0.5 degrees Celsius by 2050.  This is no small potatoes, considering that the margin of increase recognized by the IPCC as tolerable for human society is a 2 degree increase over current global averages.  Finally, and I suspect this may be a more important development than anything else, combating soot and methane means you’re less likely to confront the industries – transport and energy – responsible for producing carbon dioxide.  Methane primarily comes from agriculture and landfills, particularly in less developed countries, while it is also a byproduct of coal mining.  Soot comes from biomass stoves, burning wood and dung, which again are largely used in developing countries.

So, What’s the Problem?

Not surprisingly, this idea – treating climate change by focusing on patterns of behavior that are not connected to vested industrial interests – has received a lot of vocal support, including among conservative researchers.  “So rather than focusing only on carbon dioxide emissions, where we have to make a tradeoff with energy prices, this strategy focuses on ‘win-win-win’ pathways,” says Jonathan Foley of the University of Minnesota.  “This is an important study that deserves serious consideration by policy makers as well as scientists,” says John D. Graham, former OMB head under the Bush administration.

Obviously, the proposals advanced by Shindell and his co-authors, if funded, would provide immeasurable benefits.  Reduce cardiovascular illness among lower income, biomass stove-using populations; reduce ground-level ozone; mitigate short-term climate change.  But, I worry that the attempt to focus on other gases may present a moral hazard, if policymakers and the public lose sight of the main problem, which remains carbon dioxide.  While soot and methane are comparatively speaking, short term problems, ‘solving’ them as issues without dealing with the main driver of climate change will only postpone severe climatic problems.  Recall that carbon dioxide lasts for about 100 years in the atmosphere.  The catastrophic implications of global warming would thus be postponed until well after our natural lifetimes, but what about afterwards?  Surely we have a moral obligation to consider future generations.

Moreover, there is something deeply unsettling about a policy approach that has implications for future obligations on lower income populations, or developing countries, while treating carbon dioxide emissions in the developed world as a fait accompli.  Zaelke, who worked on the UNFCCC, said this in regards to the new study: “I mean, it’s like picking a fight with the biggest bully in the schoolyard.  You know, you get your lunch money stolen, you get your pants pulled down, and you get sent home humiliated. We’ve made about that much progress with CO2.”  That same article goes on to say: ” Few governments have been willing to endanger development with limits on CO2.”

First, that last sentence is misleading.  The entire EU bloc has been more than willing to restrict CO2 emissions, quite sharply, and has done so even in the face of a global recession.  Rather, a few (but key) governments (you know who they are from following Durban, I imagine) have refused to address CO2, leaving us all with the bag.  Second, if we want to characterize CO2 as a bully, I would hope that we as a global society will eventually generate the courage and determination to confront that bully, rather than acquiescing each and every time.

I’m Dreaming of a Green Christmas

Season’s Greetings!  Here’s a question I was pondering: how can you have a more environmentally friendly Christmas?*  This may be more difficult than it seems.  First, environmentalists are not generally known for their optimism, joyous spirit and good cheer – all of which are presumably necessary for holiday celebrations.  Second, Christmas represents gross consumerism and the purchase of disposable goods (particularly by the richest 20% of the world, which consumes 80% of goods and services), most of which are produced by underpaid labour across the globe – then shipped here – all of this, of course, necessitating the burning of more fossil fuels, and oh Lord, I’m doing it again.

Anyway, yes, we environmentalists aren’t always Grinches.  Here’s how we can all have a slightly greener Christmas:

O Christmas Tree, O Christmas Tree

So, which is better for the environment: cutting down a tree, or purchasing an artificial one?  The answer is slightly more nuanced than you might think.  In fact, last year, PE Americas conducted a Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) of the most common artificial trees and the most common types of real trees to get to the bottom of this and found that the results are mixed (PDF).

In short, artificial trees are reusable, and the vast majority of them are recyclable (which may not be widely known).  However, their manufacture requires the production and use of polyvinyl chlorides (PVCs), which can lead to the emission of persistent, bio-accumulating, and toxic compounds including dioxins and PCBs.  While the risk of absorbing dioxins from your own, personal Christmas tree is low, at the point of manufacture and disposal, the risk is much higher – particularly since, as the LCA shows, much of the artificial Christmas trees are produced in China.

At the same time, if you’re concerned about emissions of GHGs, keeping an artificial tree for longer than 4 years lowers your carbon footprint more than if you bought a real tree each year – particularly if doing so requires shipping the tree for long distances.  Moreover, as agricultural products, Christmas trees often require pesticides, including Roundup and lindane, which is a persistent organic pollutant (POP).

Personally, my preference is to go for the lindane-enhanced real tree.  They smell better than the artificial ones – all piney, and delicious – and if you manage to buy local, they tend to be better than, or even with, artificial trees in terms of GHG emissions.  In addition, by avoiding the production of PVCs, real trees are less likely to contribute to dioxin production.  While lindane is incredibly toxic, dioxins may be the most problematic of the widely-used POPs.

Eat All the Food on Your Plate (but Don’t Pile it On)

No, this isn’t about the starving children in Ethiopia (and I never understood how eating all my food helped the starving children in any way – why couldn’t I just ship my casserole to them instead, huh Grandma?).  Rather, when it comes to Christmas dinner, try to eat less, but eat all of what you take.

In a 2009 study (PDF) carried out by a National Institute of Diabetes in Bethesda, Maryland (and published by the Denmark Institute of Preventive Medicine), food waste has a deleterious impact on the environment.  Wasted food means wasted water and wasted fossil fuels, both in production and disposal.  In addition, producing food we don’t eat requires the introduction and emission of GHGs, pesticides, and herbicides – in addition to agricultural runoff and other forms of pollution.  It’s bad enough that we have to do this for subsistence – it’s downright insulting when we contribute to these processes for no productive reason.  In fact, the study indicates that 1/4 of freshwater consumed in the US goes to the production of food waste, a serious problem considering the water shortages plaguing the Southwest of the USA.

Of course, the solution is not really to eat everything that has been produced on the market – hello, rising obesity rates – but rather, to eat less (but hopefully eat better food).  And eat it all!

Get Good Gifts – or Consider Charity

Get good gifts!  Try to be thoughtful, instead than buying something likely to be disposed, just to have an item under the real/artificial tree.  I personally would like to reinstate cash as an appropriate gift, but also consider donating to a charity in the name of someone as well.  Donating to charity also brings socioeconomic benefits, as well as environmental, considering all the people who are doing without in these trying economic times.

Anyway, hopefully this hasn’t been too Grinchy.  Have a happy holidays!  I leave you with one of my favourite Christmas songs of all time:

*I realize this leaves out all those who don’t celebrate Christmas; hopefully there will not be too many posts that are this parochial.

Engineering Solutions

ICE to see you!

Now that we know that the only thing coming out of the recent COP-17 at Durban is an agreement to agree in the future, and the Zombie Protocol, the question becomes: what are nations going to do to address climate change?  In a move straight out of a Schumacher film, Mongolia is planning to engineer ice shields to keep their capital city, Ulaanbaatar cool – particularly since Mongolia has warmed 3x faster than the rest of the world on average.

While this may or may not work (and it’s very doubtful that it will), it’s somewhat unfortunate that Mongolia, with a mere 15.6 million tons of CO2e (PDF), or 3 million tons per capita is both a tiny contributor to global warming, and particularly vulnerable to the changes already being observed worldwide.  Moreover, while climate mitigation is almost certainly something that countries should be investing in, engineering solutions to global warming is only a small and potentially problematic response to the emerging crisis.

Approaches like this, or other, more complex geoengineering solutions such as (seriously) space mirrors – contemplated by the UN and IPCC, no less – are flawed in that they 1)  take away attention from the root causes of the problem, by not addressing underlying consumption (indeed, they make it easier for richer societies to continue consuming, as long as they pay their way in technological solutions); 2) may cause environmental problems of their own – particularly in doing things like (again, seriously) dumping iron in the ocean; 3) in the words of David Attenborough (yes, THE David Attenborough), are “fascist” – they place too much power in the hands of rich nations.  I mean, controlling the weather is something straight out of a bad science fiction movie.  We’ll keep an eye on things, but hopefully we’ll spend more time investing in ways to cut consumption, rather than punting it down the road.  In the mean time, enjoy these chilling puns!

Thanks for the Shout Out

Worth, Literally, Millions of Dollars!

Wow, this is flattering: my blog has been listed as a useful resource tracking the Durban climate talks.  This plug provided on the Forest Carbon Portal, a website run by the Ecosystem Marketplace, a research organization dedicated to analyzing the benefits of marketizing ecosystem services, including biodiversity, carbon sequestration, and water.  As indicated, their primary goal is to help “…give value to environmental services that, for too long, have been taken for granted.”

They have a wealth of information on forest and carbon markets, including work on REDD.  Check their site out, see what you think, or see the new links provided to their reports in the Research and Resources tab.

Is This Progress?

One Tiny Step Forward…

If you’ve been following the Keystone XL Pipeline development, you probably heard two things that seem like positive environmental developments.  First, the corporation behind the development of the project, agreed to reroute the planned pipe such that it will no longer run through the Nebraska Sand Hills region.  Potentially good news for Nebraskan environmentalists, ranchers, conservationists, who raised concerns about the impact of subterranean oil on the Ogallala aquifer, described as “…a massive subterranean waterway that underlies 27% of the irrigated land in the U.S.”

Nebraskan Rancher in the Sand Hills



Second, the Obama administration and the State Department recently announced that the project would be sent back for review, citing the environmental and socioeconomic considerations raised by the specter of continued oil dependency and dirty extraction.

…And One Giant Leap Back

However, any optimism about these developments should be severely tempered.  While the guaranteed protection of the Ogallala aquifer is a good thing, the obvious question that emerges is, why were they threatened in the first place?  Moreover, a careful examination of the State Department’s announcement on the Pipeline clearly indicates that the delay 1) is primarily to find a less contentious route for the proposed oil; 2) times the final decision-making such that the policy will be determined after the election.  A more cynical person than I would suggest that Obama is primarily trying not to alienate his remaining progressive-environmentalist constituency, while intending to go ahead with it anyway.  But, if the next President is a Republican, well, the possibility of the Pipeline becomes a certainty.

An Eminently Reasonable Man

Take a look at the rhetoric surrounding the issue: obviously, you have industry groups like the American Petroleum Institute stating that the Pipeline will create “…thousands of jobs almost immediately,” something that has to be a concern for Obama given his poll figures as of late.

More colorfully, Rick Perry has pointed out that our dependence on foreign oil, much of it produced by nationalized companies in countries such as Saudia Arabia, places American troops and security at risk.  We strengthen hostile regimes, because we fill up our SUVs with their product.  (Ironically, this is an argument made by environmentalists for reducing oil consumption – inimical to the Keystone XL).

Something Else to Keep in Mind

In any case, despite the superficial progress, there are a plethora of well-reasoned objections, on clearly stated environmental grounds, to the project as a whole – not just the proposed expansion through the Sand Hills.  In the Colbert Report, Middlebury’s own Bill McKibben critiques the whole idea of the project.

Adding Insult to Injury: the First Nations and Injustice

One final point: while McKibben’s argument is sound, it seems as if there was not enough time on the Report to get into one of the more troubling aspects (to me) of the whole production of the Keystone.  Even if we were guaranteed that the transit of oil were safe in the US, oil extraction is severely problematic for the people who live near the tar sands: indigenous and First Nations peoples.

As can be seen in this report by the NRDC (TarSandsInvasion-full [PDF]), the extraction of oil from tar sands is immensely hazardous to the local ecosystems upon which indigenous people depend.  Air pollution, and the seepage of toxins into groundwater, aquifers, and local ecosystems have led to high rates of cancer, asthma, acid rain, and the accumulation of toxins such as cyanide and ammonia.  Not surprisingly, and as is the case in the US, indigenous people in Canada are at the lower end of the socioeconomic totem pole.  It is important to keep in mind, when we think about environmental problems, that some populations are more vulnerable than others.  Thinking about the Keystone XL (and other environmental issues) should raise questions, not just about consumption, local ecosystems, and wellbeing – but also about demographics and social identity.  Who benefits?  Who loses?  Do certain populations lose more?  In so doing, we should oppose environmentally harmful projects, not just on the basis of ecological concerns, but also on the basis of human rights, justice, and socioeconomic equity.