Category Archives: Uncategorized

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.

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

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

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.

Environmentalists Need Better Music

I was thinking about the impending return of the US Army from Iraq, and listening to one of the best anti-war songs ever.  “Hell Broke Luce” by Tom Waits.  Check it out below:

Yet, for some reason, it’s extremely difficult to find music that’s as driven and angry as that about the environment.  Why?  It’s  not for lack of severity of the issue.  Clearly, war and conflict bring death and misery to millions.  But so does environmental catastrophe.  In fact, as far back as 1994, Robert Kaplan argued that environmental scarcity, worsened in the coming years by population increases, rapid growth in consumption, and depleted resources, would lead to conflict.  More recently, the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), a security-based think tank in DC, echoed Kaplan, indicating that environmental and energy concerns should be a matter of top priority (PDF) given the emerging relationship between natural resources and warfare.

However, short of a slew of angry songs that came out directly in response to Hurricane Katrina (Public Enemy!), environmental music tends to be fairly tepid.  Don’t get me wrong – I like Joni Mitchell’s Big Yellow Taxi as much as the next guy, but I wish the environmental movement had songs that sounded less like polite missives and genteel observations, and more like anger about the current state of affairs.  (And Lord, do not get me started on the horror that is the Counting Crows version).  Indeed, given the link between environmental mismanagement and other sociopolitical areas that inspire fury – racism, classism, inequality – the lack of vehemence is even more surprising.  I’d love to be proven wrong, but so far, driven music is the exception, not the norm.

So, here are two of the exceptions: “DDT” by Suicide Machines (corporate greed and the promulgation of toxins) and “Countdown to Extinction” by Megadeth (rampant biodiversity loss).  Enjoy.


Countdown to Extinction

Another Reason to Hate Expendables 2 Before it Comes Out

Bats Are Awesome

If you’re like me, you remember 2010 as a year of unheralded promise.  That was the year that The Greatest Action Stars on Earth (Lundgren!  Stallone!  Rourke!  Statham!  Even their names sound like punching) promised us the most steroid-driven movie ever.  The Expendables!  Boom!  Killing!  However, instead of wall-to-wall, brightly lit explosions and snappy one-liners (like “Stick around”), we got a dull, turgid, impenetrable affair.

Inevitably, the movie made its money back, and then some, so the Hollywood Machine has decided (sigh) to crank out a sequel.  Why not?  Industry bloat and guaranteed rates of return.  Well, it turns out that, in addition to lowering my expectations to Judge Dredd levels, Expendables 2 (Van Damme!  Norris!),

A Great Site for Some Killin

currently in production, is also coming under environmental criticism.  Part of the shooting schedule takes place near the Devetashka Cave in Bulgaria, which happens to be habitat to 40 endangered bat species, and one of the top 3 bat colonies in Europe.

As of right now, the producers have already paid fines for cutting shrubbery near the cave, and have promised to “…refrain from explosions, car chases and fires near the cave.”  Fair enough.  Hopefully they can also refrain from making a terrible movie.

Middlebury College Solar Decathlon

This is a really fantastic project here.  Very briefly, students at Middlebury College designed and (with the help of contractors) built a farmhouse that is entirely solar-powered, and made with local and/or sustainably produced materials.  See more information here:  Solar Decathlon

The team has taken the farmhouse to DC to compete in an international faceoff of sustainability.  Vote for them in the People’s Choice Awards by going here:  People’s Choice Awards.  Middlebury, represent.