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A Biosphere That Works

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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)

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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?

A Brief Note from the Field

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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.

Hiatus Until May

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My Free Time is Like the Ocean's Ecology... Or Something

Due to overwhelming time commitments, this blog will go on hiatus until May 14th.