Category Archives: Conservation

Good Intentions and Hidden Costs

Perhaps More Oversight Needed?

Producers of vegan and vegetarian goods like Alternative Baking Company claim that their products have a better environmental impact than non-vegan/vegetarian goods.  This is an understandable claim, particularly since the environmental impact of the meat industry is well-documented.  Indeed, vegan advocates in general claim that their lifestyle is better for the environment.  As ABC says on its cookie labels: “No single food choice has a farther-reaching and more profoundly positive impact on… the environment, and all of life on Earth than choosing vegan.”

However, this claim is potentially seriously misleading, if not outright wrong.  ABC’s cookies substitute animal oils (like butter), dairy, and eggs with palm oil.  To be sure, ABC now (since August 2013) uses palm oil certified by the RSPO, which is less destructive than the non-certified palm oil that is responsible for wiping out acres of Indonesia’s rainforest.

Firefighters spray water to burning palm oil trees in haze hit Dumai, in Indonesia’s Riau province. Photograph: Beawiharta/REUTERS

But this does not let RSPO off the hook.  Third-party certification like RSPO is primarily a market tool: certifiers and producers have an incentive to get as many people certified as possible, even if it means watering down the stringency of this certification scheme.  And, according to Greenpeace and the Guardian, that is exactly what is happening.  RSPO plantations in Indonesia and Brazil (where ABC sources their oil) are still engaged in rampant deforestation and have contributed to “significant deforestation” in certified areas.  As you can imagine, deforestation in countries like Indonesia and Brazil have tremendous environmental impacts, ranging from a loss in biodiversity, to displacement of rural inhabitants, to land degradation and deforestation, and – of course – increased GHG emissions.

So what’s the upshot?  First, this idea that a vegan/vegetarian diet is somehow, intrinsically, better for the environment is simply not true.  A diet based on the exploitation of pristine rainforest is far worse than a diet based on the consumption of locally-sourced, sustainable animal products.  Second, third party certification should be scrutinized very carefully.  Third party certification is foremost a business model, and like all business models, the primary incentive is to make profits in a defined market.  This is not to say that it can’t lead to better environmental practices, but this is not a necessary outcome, and should not be assumed.

For ABC (and other companies that use RSPO certified palm oil), their choices are clear: either 1) do better research and use vegan oils that are less environmentally problematic than RSPO palm oil; 2) stop assuming that “vegan” = “environmentally good,” and use more sustainable oils, even if they come from animal products; 3) continue using RSPO oil, but remove all claims that this has a “profoundly positive impacts on… the environment.”

Trouble Back Home & International Regimes

Portland Bight Protected Area

Only a few years after successfully resisting attempts to “develop” the Cockpit Country for bauxite mining, the Jamaican Government is apparently planning to sell off some of its most vulnerable and endemic ecosystems to Chinese developers.  This plan, which would likely involve clear-cutting mangrove zones near Portland, is a horrifying idea, as it would severely damage coastal integrity and endanger species on the verge of extinction.  Stunningly, this region was also declared a Wetland of International Importance under the Ramsar Convention in 2006.  Needless to say, the development planned by Jamaica and the Chinese government will entirely undo the intent of the Convention.

Notably, the Chinese company that is behind this push has been blacklisted by the World Bank due to fraud and corruption.  For shame, Jamaica.  Anyone concerned about this – including non-Jamaicans – should sign this petition from

We’ve Forgotten How to Use Weeds

Ironically, Mint is a Weed

I was looking at my pretty unorganized garden – weeds growing wild, absolutely no organization – and feeling pretty grateful that I could still harvest some good from it.  Got some beets up in there, corn coming in good, tons of herbs – basil, oregano, cilantro, mint – represent.  Even got a pumpkin or two coming through.  All the spinach died though, so sad.

Then I started thinking about how we, in the modern world, have absolutely no idea about how to use native plants in agriculture.  Think about it.  Modern agriculture is characterized largely by monoculture farming, which depends on replacing acres and acres of native crops with one species, which then becomes highly vulnerable to pests, disease, and so on.  In order to mitigate against that, we use tons of chemical pesticides and herbicides like atrazine, which leaches toxins into our environment.

But what if we remembered how to use native plants in the way that the First Nations did?  What if we didn’t create an agricultural system that depended on erasing natural biodiversity, and imposing artificial and naturally unsustainable systems on top?  To get a picture of what this would look like, read Tales of a Shaman’s Apprentice by Mark Plotkin.

Here’s a sample, where the author and his indigenous friends, Kamainja and Shafee were walking near the border of Brazil, to encounter a Brazilian peasant vegetable garden:

…Kamainja snickered.  “Pananakiri poy-deh-ken!” he said slowly.  “White man dumb!

“What’s so funny?” I asked quietly.

“Look at that garden,” Kamainja whispered.  “I’ve seen better-looking agriculture inside a leafcutter ant’s nest!” …

“Look at the weeds!” Shafee chimed in.

“I don’t see any,” I said.

“Exactly!  In our gardens, we always leave some behind because it binds the soil in the rainy season. That peasant’s garden is probably cleaner than his house!”

“And another thing,” said Kamainja.  “You look at that plantation and you know the man doesn’t understand the forest.  A well-planned garden should look like a hole in the forest opened up when a gian ku-mah-kah tree falls over.  Small opening in the forest are filled in by fast-growing weedy plants that attract game animals.  When you cut down too much forest, the little plants can’t seed in from the surrounding jungle…”

What a pity we’ve managed to lose all this knowledge.

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.

People, the Environment, and Garrett Hardin’s Eugenics

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.

Notes From the Field: A Prelude

Well, perhaps it will take longer to update than May 14, after all.

In any case, the next few updates will be from the field: for the next three weeks, I will be travelling through southeastern Mexico – through the states of Quintana Roo, Campeche, Yucatán and Chiapas – studying the politics of biodiversity conservation, land use management, and local autonomy over natural resources.

Why do these things matter?  First, as recognized by the Convention on Biological Diversity, Mexico is one of the 12 “megadiverse” nations in the world – 70% of the world’s biodiversity is found in these countries. Consequently, if we want to maintain the world’s natural capital, we should be concerned about what happens there.

Second, like most countries around the world – but perhaps moreso in developing countries – Mexico is under pretty severe political, economic and social structural pressures from international, as much as domestic, forces to promote economic growth. Naturally, the idea that promoting growth in certain sectors will bring ‘development’ to a still underdeveloped country and comparatively poor population is attractive; even if such growth comes at the expense of environmental quality in the short term, it may be in the national interest in the long term. In addition, if you consider that much of the environmental issues in developing countries are linked to poverty – issues such as poor water quality, a lack of adequate sanitation, exposure to preventable diseases – then there may also be an environmental justification in promoting ‘development’ in key sectors.

Of course, the problem is that this idea that developing countries can solve their issues through development should be critically examined. While major economic sectors such as tourism (since I’ll be in the coastal area of the Yucatán Peninsula) do promote GDP growth in the aggregate, it’s not always clear that this growth ‘trickles down’ to the marginalized population who needs development most. Ownership of capital and resources tends to be highly concentrated in the large earners, and aggregate figures may mask real socioeconomic inequalities. In addition, while it would be impossible to escape an environmental impact in any human activity, a lot of this activity is highly ecologically unsustainable. Coastal hotels, such as those that characterize Cancún, are severely disruptive of natural ecosytems. Over time, the precise features that the economic sector depends on – an aesthetically pleasing coastline – are those that are at risk of overexploitation and collapse. Without proper management then, these economic activities may contain the seeds of their own destruction.

In any case, I’ll update when I can – I’m about to board, so the next time I post, I’ll be in Mexico!

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.

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.

Local Facets of the Environmental Problem

Smoke and Gas for Burning Automobile Batteries in 1972

Over at The Atlantic, you can find a sample of 46 photos taken in the 1970s, under the auspices of the then-newly created EPA.  These photos, taken between 1971 and 1974 show domestic manifestations of the global environmental crisis: mountains of damaged oil drums; a virtual blanket of parked automobiles; a fish, twisted and deformed from mercury poisoning; oil wells dotting Galveston Bay in Texas, site of a terrible oil spill in 1990 (bonus: there is a picture here of a couple swimming in the Bay, indicating its history as a site of recreation and nature enjoyment).

See, too, evidence of the racial and class injustice prevalent in environmental problems.  Industrial smog squatting, visibly, on a black neighborhood in Alabama.  A miner’s child, outhouses visible in the background, whose father was participating in a strike against unsafe working conditions, labor exploitation, and exposure to pollution caused by the practices of Eastover Coal Company.

A visual understanding of what environmental harm means, I think, is necessary to understand what the political debate on regulation is about.  It’s not just about jobs, profit margins, and esoteric wonkery.  It is, fundamentally, about life.

Feeding the Food that Feeds Us

Oceanic Fish Farms

Here’s a telling discussion: in order to deal with the fact that certain commercially consumed fish species, such as salmon, have declined precipitously, human society has engaged in fish farming.  In short: commercially consumed fish, such as salmon and tuna, are raised in captivity, corralled and contained on the coast in full or semi-captivity, and fed a controlled diet to ensure maximum marketability.  The problem, however, is that in order to raise salmon and other carnivorous species in captivity, aquaculturalists end up capturing and ‘converting’ lesser fish into fish meal.  In doing so, we end up consuming a greater amount of fish as hidden costs: it takes about 20kg of fish meal to produce 1kg of farmed tuna.

Now, one group of scientists at Southern Illinois University Carbondale is working on a solution to the problem.  Tellingly, the issue is not framed as a matter of reducing consumption, but as a matter of reformulating the produced fish meal so that the quantity of lesser fish is reduced, and substituted by, for example, soybeans and poultry.  As described in this article, one of the scientists argues that “We have to raise more fish,” noting that “…it’s simple economics.

Simple economics.  What a shame.  There are a variety of problems with this attitude – instead of re-examining the nature of excessive consumption (a worthwhile topic, considering the rates of obesity), science is being dedicated towards maintaining the rate of resource exploitation – worse yet, advocating the adoption of engineered and unnatural fish food in the guise of environmentalism and sustainability.  It should be noted as well, that reforming the fish feed process will also likely lead to greater environmental stress in other ways.  Raising fish in captivity, regardless of whether they are fed an unnatural vegetarian diet (to which they have to become ‘accustomed’), places them at greater risk of disease.  To take only one epidemiological study, in a 2007 study published in Science Magazine, projections of the spread of salmon lice indicate that 99% of farmed pink salmon populations could collapse in 4 generations.  This is not even to mention the contribution of unnatural concentrations of fish waste and byproducts of antibiotics to marine coastal pollution, nor the fact that the industrialization of fish production means a greater concentration of capital, market share, and hence wealth among an elite few.  For a more in-depth critique of fish farming, which also has negative impacts on socioeconomic equity, food security, and animal rights, see this study.

Once again, the problem is straightforward – excessive and unbridled consumption threaten ecosystem stability and the natural balance and, not surprisingly, socioeconomic justice.  The solution should be straightforward as well – change the patterns of consumption.  Reduce the quantity of fish consumed – avoid industrially produced farmed fish for sure – and try to live sustainably.  Yet, once again, human ingenuity is being dedicated to maintaining irrational behavior at all costs.