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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, 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!

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.

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.

Lake Champlain – Almost a Biosphere Reserve

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

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.

Climate Change and the Burden of Proof

Typhoon Haiyan. From The Guardian

In the aftermath of global natural disasters like Hurricane Sandy and now Typhoon Haiyan, one of the questions that has been brought up several times is: are these disasters “caused” by global climate change?  Technically, Gov. Chris Christie was right when he said earlier this year that “[there hasn’t] been any proof thus far that Sandy was caused by climate change.”

For one thing, it’s been so far impossible to prove that a single storm event, like Sandy, Katrina, Irene, or Haiyan is directly caused by warming global temperatures.  While the IPCC reports (PDF) that the average wind speeds in cyclones is likely to increase, and the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences asserts that we are likely to have up to 20 additional hurricanes and tropical storms each year by the end of the century due to global warming, a group of researchers from NOAA, MIT, the Centre for Australian Weather and others have also (PDF) shown that observed changes in cyclone activity may still be within normal variability.  In short, while it is possible – maybe even probable – that humans have changed global storm systems, we cannot definitively show that human activities and anthropogenic warming have had a detectable impact on observed storm activity.  Of course, as the video below shows, Haiyan has been one of the biggest storms ever observed.

So, what does this mean?  If you were uncharitable, I suppose you could continue to claim that, since there is no definitive proof that anthropogenic climate change is causing harm beyond normal variance, that the current global deadlock on fighting global warming is no big deal.  After all, if we can’t prove a causal relationship, we don’t have to justify potentially costly mitigation and adaptation efforts.

Ships washed up in the Philippines

However, the Philippines government has not taken this approach.  On Monday, the head of the Philippine delegation to the UNFCCC, which launches its 19th annual meeting today in Warsaw stated firmly that:  “What my country is going through as a result of this extreme climate event is madness.  The climate crisis is madness. We can stop this madness. Right here in Warsaw.”

For the sake of the Philippines and other vulnerable countries, like the Maldives and Bangladesh, I hope he’s right; that the international society can stop this madness.  We’ll see what turns up this year, as we head once more into an attempt to address one of the most important climate, security, and environmental justice issues of our time.


A Luta Continua

The State “upholds the claim to the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force in the enforcement of its order.” – Max Weber

If you want to see an environmental justice movement in action, there is probably no better place than our northern neighbour – Canada!  Over the past week, First Nations, including the Elsipogtog and Mi’kmaq nations blocked Highway 11 between Rexton and Sainte-Anne-de-Kent to protest shale gas development and fracking on tribally held lands.  This development was planned by American shale gas company SWN Resources.

Based on the history between the Canadian federal government and the First Nations, various indigenous groups have been at least leery of the kind of massive industrial development promised by gas exploration – even if some groups are in favor of development the economic boom from resource exploitation may not be equitably distributed.  And for all, the environmental impact of massive development and extraction is likely to be borne primarily by the First Nations, who will find their lands ruined and unusable.

In a depressingly foreseeable turn, the protest has since turned violent.  The RCMP moved in to take down the Mi’kmaq Elsipogtog barriers, arresting Chief Arren Sock and at least 40 others.  The demonstration of force initiated by the state was met with resistance by the protestors, who threw rocks, and the conflict escalated to the point that tear gas and rubber bullets were fired, six police cars immolated, and reports of a shot being fired by someone “other than an officer.”  The First Nations involved still remain committed to resistance, however, demonstrating that the struggle for environmental justice is not always just an academic enterprise.

It’s a little alarming that this has not made regular news here in the USA.  For regular updates, follow Clayton Thomas-Muller on Twitter @CreeClayton

Not This Again: The Return of Geoengineering

A Model of likely geoengineering solutions

NPR has recently reported on a story that raises old alarms: a group of native people called the Haida in Canada partnered with a businessman to dump iron dust in the ocean to 1) encourage fish populations who thrived on algae, and 2) absorb atmospheric carbon.  It’s difficult to blame the Haida, really, since their local livelihood depends so strongly on fish populations.

But geoengineering is a potentially dangerous idea.  While some social scientists, like David Victor and John Steinbruner argue that geoengineering is a potential necessity, given the fact of global warming, there are a variety of concerns that are likely to emerge: the first is that the science on the impacts of geoengineering, and likely models of future behavior is not there yet.  It is entirely possible that anthropogenic ‘solutions’ may exacerbate environmental degradation in unpredicted ways, if we start changing how ecosystems function.

The second is that, if states and business people adopt geoengineering as a plausible strategy, there is a danger that some actors may adopt unilateral geoengineering solutions which raises major political questions.  How are these kinds of activities to be coordinated?  What happens when (not if) states have different ideas about whether they would be served by geoengineering solutions?  Certainly, the ability of these technological ‘remedies’ to be controlled by the most globally powerful is a cause for alarm among the politically and economically marginalized, for whom this is not an option.

The Trouble With “Expert” Advice

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.