Monday, October 31, 2011

Two catalytic moments

I think it's reasonable to say that because of global warming, I was able to hang with David Orr.  Turns out that I should have still be in Belize but had to evacuate my class ("cut and run", in my vocab!) to avoid a hurricane that was building and bearing down on our remote caye in the Caribbean.  

But stepping back a moment, more and stronger hurricanes are expected because of global warming.  Why?  Because hurricanes form and strengthen over hot water and the Caribbean has been exceptionally hot recently.  Hurricanes are not to be messed with.  While NOAA does a wonderful job trying to predict their tracks, they're somewhat unpredictable and can be devastating (remember Katrina?).  A year before our class, the island we were on had a direct hit from a category 1 and this caused a lot of damage (in addition to washing plastic junk all over the island).  I was told that in 1961 a hurricane hit the island, cut it up and killed people.  Shape of things to come?  You betcha. 

I've already written about the second catalytic event: watching the reef bleach.  I still can't shake the image of swimming over a reasonably healthy coral reef one day and the next swimming through slimy water filled with zozanthellae.  Turns out that we didn't lose the whole reef but two weeks after the bleaching event, the corals that lost their zozanthellae, had not recovered.  Such damage may be cumulative.  Lose a bit this year.  A bit more next year.  Before you know it, no reef.  And this ratcheting down of the reef condition illustrates something called 'shifting baselines'.  

Shifting baselines are seen when we look at something now and use that as our reference for 'natural', 'healthy', or 'quality'. The trouble is if you go back far enough, what we see now is anything but natural, healthy or quality.

What can be done?  Help create that sustainable future I've been writing and blogging about.  Talk about catalytic events you've had.  And, consider sharing them here!

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Insights from David Orr

I had the pleasure of spending some time with Oberlin Professor and Environmental leader David Orr last night.  He's a personal hero, a master of great prose, and always fun to hang with.  Coupla words that will be immediately incorporated into my vocabulary.

Promiscuous chemistry:  We were talking about the problems from what really only can be called a chemical revolution over the past 50 or so years.  Trouble is that this revolution is probably going to kill us.  We have no idea how many of these petro-chemical derived chemicals function alone or together.  We do know that since the rise of plastics and other industrial and consumer chemicals, male sperm counts have declined throughout the 'developed' world combined with a concomitant drop in testes size.  And, there have been major reductions in the age of puberty for girls, and reproductive cancers are more common.

Hope is a verb, with its sleeves rolled up:  David was talking about the ways one can address the current major threats to our environment and civilization.  He said one be optimistic and can ignore the truth and think that others will work it out (which won't happen), or once can be pessimistic which he views as morally repugnant because it involves no personal action.  Rather, he says we all have to work hard and have hope.

Some thoughts for tonight's dinner?

Saturday, October 29, 2011

We are all the 100%

Regardless of where you fall on the current 'occupy' movement, the environmental problems we face will require ALL of us working together to solve.  Sure businesses produce products and the production of these products uses energy and creates waste, but we, the consumers are those that demand these products. And, even if we're not demanding them (do we really need the diversity of products currently created?) we permit ourselves to be duped into thinking we need them.  Thus, all 100% of us are, to some extent, culpable, for the current environmental problems.

Consumption control is the easiest way for us to address this.  Indeed, if you're opposed to a particular business, just don't use their products.  Don't like wall street banks--join a credit union or a bank at a community bank.  Better yet, try to use less.  

Food decisions are a great place to start.  Try to buy less processed food because processed food = additional energy.  Cook your own meals from fresh ingredients.  Your body and your soul will be rewarded.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Fast for 7 billion?

On Monday, 31 October 2011, I suggest we consider having a foodless dinner party.  Foodless?  Why?  

Because it is on this day that the UN will 'celebrate' the birth of the 7 billionth living person on Earth.  7 billion is a lot of people on this crowded planet and rather than celebrating, we should probably mourn and prepare for a future with less.  

7 billion people who hope to have a life that depends on resources (a synonym for 'development' or 'an advanced lifestyle') will further deplete our natural resources, increase the amount of toxic wastes, greenhouse gases, and ultimately, many of these people will suffer.  Of course, as Charlie and I (and many others) have written, a person isn't a person isn't a person.  It's their ecological footprint that matters.  A single person in a developed country has a much greater ecological and carbon footprint than someone living in a very poor country.  Thus, the intention (dare I say 'right') to develop is a double-edged sword; particularly when you have 7 billion people whose lives you're hoping to improve.

And, while in many places energy is much more efficiently created and used, and while there is a bright future for those who can figure out how to develop more sustainable sources of energy, 7 billion creates a huge barrier to equitable sharing of those energy resources and 7 billion creates a lot of waste and stresses on natural ecosystems.

A few years ago the UN predicted that the population would level off in the next few decades.  But now, some current predictions toy with the idea that the world will soon have 10 billion people.  Pause and imagine this for a moment.  10 billion mouths to feed.  10 billion people to warm and cool and clothe and support.  That's even more pollution, greenhouse gas production, and, ultimately, suffering.

So, this weekend over dinner, talk about a world with 7 billion.  And then think about what a world with 10 billion would look like.  Is it a world that you would want to live in?  Is that amount of global suffering acceptable to you?  What can you do to help prevent that?  What can we all do to better help share the resources with others?  Should we really skip a meal on Monday?

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Meatless dinner parties

Melissa Clark, writing in the NY Times, has a nice essay about meatless dinner parties.

Creating competition to stimulate environmental legislation

Here’s a really interesting claim by E. Donald Elliot (  Writing in the September/October 2011 issue of “The Environmental Forum” he claims that
“Environmentalists have made three tactical mistakes of historic proportions since 1990.  First, they have consistently supported Democrats, thereby undermining the competition between the two parties on environmental issues that characterized the more productive 1970 to 1992 period.  Second, they have focused almost exclusively on climate change, thereby sucking the oxygen out of other issues (such as updating our chemical management system) on which bipartisan progress would have been possible.  And third, they made a tactical blunder of historic proportions by taking the position that climate science was beyond debate, thereby abandoning public discourse in the United States on climate science to the antis.”

Discussion topics:
How can we nudge our politicians to focus on issues common to both ‘sides of the aisle’ and important to all of us?  Elliot suggests that we repeal the 17th Amendment (direct election of Senators) to break the cycle of electioneering.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Eating quandries

Belize is one of the few places that still has viable populations of queen conch.  I've been swimming by them every day in the seagrass on my commute to the reef.  Today, I swam down and looked one in the eyes (which are found at the tip of eye-stalks that extend out of the bottom of the shell) before putting out my hand and scaring it back into its creamy brown shell.

Trouble is that conch taste good.  Really good. (Google some recipes for conch ceviche for starters!)
Populations throughout the Caribbean have been hunted to local extinction and they are threatened or endangered all over.  Conch poachers are prosecuted.  Conch conservation is touted. 

So what's the problem.  The problem is I wonder if it's ethical to eat them here.
Conservation is often a very local issue.  What's threatened in one location may be abundant in another.  Consider wolves, or grizzly bears:  less common in the lower 48 US States than Canada or Alaska.  It's legal to hunt these magnificent carnivores in Canada and Alaska, but there's much controversy over hunting them in the lower 48.

So, if you know that a fish (or conch, in this case) is mostly endangered, should you eat it from a place where it is not?  Even this is a more complex problem that it may first seem.  

Consider salmon.  You can't make a general statement saying that eating wild salmon is sustainable because many salmon fisheries are not sustainable.  So, it is a bit of a dilemma about making general statements.

And even here, we're clearly not on a marine reserve where they are protected and consequently  I'm not seeing the small conch in sufficient numbers to tell me that this bays population is sustainable. 

So, will I eat them if our captain gets us some (he's a fisherman in addition to the captain of the boat that takes us here and back)?  Yes, I think I will...but only here.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Power Outage: Using less electricity...

If you've been following my Belize saga, let me report that the train stopped, this time, and fortunately.  The wind came up and blew in colder water which drove down the water temperature to the high 80°'s.  Then it started raining (we're in the middle of a large low pressure system that is leading to periodic downpours and squalls).  This has further cooled the water and the coral bleaching has stopped--for now.

But then again, so has the electricity made by our solar panels!  This morning the power went out.  

The marine lab has both a wind turbine and a number of large solar panels to generate electricity.  As we were introduced to the place by the station manager he told us about their conservation ethic.  There are few lights (all compact florescent or florescent) and no hot water (it's not needed).  Fans are used sparingly.  

We did however bring a lot of iPods, speakers, and computers (all required for research--several of my student groups are doing playback experiments to lizards and birds to study communication and predation risk assessment) and some more fans (to keep us cool) and somehow, for the first time in recent history, used up all the power!

Ironically, we're really doing a good job conserving power (using fans sparingly--OK not that sparingly when it felt like 100°F, but generally sparingly, using few lights) so this is a real wake-up to me and is a wake-up call to the power that computers and fans can use!

Discussion Topic
What, if anything, are you doing to conserve power?  What can you easily do to use even less?  Have you thought about solar panels?  How would they work to help you generate power?  How would you use power if you were generating it all yourself.

Friday, October 14, 2011

What is necessary for people to change?

The word that we use the most in environmental discussion is “change”. People have to change the way they perceive things, change their attitude towards the environment, change the way they use resources, change many things. Change seems to be a magic word. But if things were so easy, we would be living in an almost perfect world.

Changing habits is one of the most difficult things a person can do. Sometimes we don’t change because we don’t want to lose comfort, because we’re quite lazy, or we’re afraid of what can happen. Maybe we don’t change because we are used to so many good things and never tried to live without them.

Irvin Yalom wrote about change in his interesting book Staring at the Sun. The book is about how people perceive death, and how it can change their lives. When people face what Yalom calls an “awakening experience”, they start to see life in a different way. An awakening experience can be the loss of a loved-one, the breakup of an intimate relationship, a trauma, an illness, the loss of a job, retirement, and other situations in which the person seems to lose control of his or her life. To help overcoming this kind of situation, some people start doing what they thought was necessary before, but they never did, maybe because of the reasons written above. Some people donate their time, and money, to help other people and animals, some of them help environmental organizations, some stop eating meat, some get involved in politics, and so on.

We always hear about a person who changed his or her life suddenly because of an awakening experience (to see recent examples of that, click here, and here). No one has any doubt that a way to change one’s life is having a hard time. Being aware of that, we may think: is it really necessary to wait for such experiences to behave differently? Why not start doing today what we always thought to be the best for us, for other people, and for the environment?

Questions for discussion: Do you have something you’ve always wanted to do regarding environmental issues? Are you motivated to change?

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Adaptation or plastic pollution? Not really a question!

All species of hermit crabs must find their shells and the Caribbean terrestrial hermit crabs seemingly prefer the shells from Turbo, a type of snail.  On the remote Caye in Belize where our field course is based there are not many Turbo shells.  But, since the Caye was hit by a hurricane a year ago, there is a LOT of plastic pollution.  

This little fella found a piece of plastic to use as it's shell. 

Adaptive behavior?  Perhaps; as it grows it will shed it for a larger shell which hopefully won't be plastic!

A tragic sign of our times?  Certainly.  The plastic pollution comes from humans after all and marine life is being killed by it.  The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is a result of human trash getting into the ocean and this plastic (and chemical) trash has only deleterious effects on marine life.  

We can do something about this!  Check out the Plastic Pollution Coalition and do your best to reduce, reuse, recycle and refuse plastics when out shopping.  The crabs may not be happy but the rest of the marine life will.

Increasing civility by writing letters

A friend and colleague just found a long-lost letter I had written him when he was an undergraduate and I was working on my dissertation research in Pakistan, which he scanned it and sent to me.  Neither of us remembered our initial meeting in 1988, nor the correspondence. 
Apparently he had asked me about coming to join me as an assistant.  And, in polite prose, I responded about what it would take.  He ended up not joining me and evolved into an award winning tropical biologist.  It’s tempting to wonder what career trajectory he would have taken had he joined me for a summer in Pakistan.
Only many years later, did we reconnect (not that either of us remembered connecting in the first place) and I’m delighted when he comes and teaches at the field station where I spend my summers because we get to hang out.
The striking thing about this letters is how different it is from my typical emails these days.  Now, I typically write early hominid emails; you know, a few grunts and groans, perhaps a pleasantry or two, but not real prose.  Not polite, civil prose.
It has become even worse now that I respond to a lot of my email on a smart phone where typing comes with costs.
Here’s a thought experiment:  what if we slowed down and fully responded to folks with polite letters?  Do you think this would be a way to enhance civility and civil discourse?  I don’t know, but it’s worth a try!

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Coral bleaching: living through a train wreck and being unable to stop it

Have you ever seen a train wreck happen? I’m seeing one right now and it’s terribly sad and a preview of the future. I’m currently teaching my field biology course on a remote marine lab on a Caye off Belize and we’re literally watching the coral bleach. 

Coral, as you might know, has a symbiotic relationship with algae. The colors that coral have result from their algae (called zoozanthellae in the jargon of coral folks). These zoozanthellae are very sensitive to temperature and coral ‘bleaching’ events occur when the zoozanthellae jettison their coral head; something they should not do (imagine the parachute scene from the Woody Allen film “Everything you wanted to know about sex but were too afraid to ask”; Google it if you have to!).

Bleaching is bad: the reef dies if it bleaches and can’t be recolonized by new zoozanthellae. There have been Caribbean-wide bleaching events in the past few decades and some of these have led to widespread destruction of coral reefs. I wonder if we’re about to experience a new one.

I’ve been in the water the past four days. It’s HOT here and the water is warming up. We’ve not had rain in three days and yesterday the water temperature (not just in shallow areas) was over 90°F. This is a magic temperature range because many of these zoozanthellae jettison their coral around this temperature. 

My colleague, a coral reef biologist, pointed out last night that if we didn’t get rain or a wind that would mix in the cold water, we should expect to see a lot of bleaching today. And, while we had a nice sea breeze last night, and the water temperature went down a bit (the air temperature feels like it’s over 100°F), this morning I was shocked to see bleaching coral. Coral heads that were a brilliant yellow yesterday morning are now white. A fan coral, that should be a brilliant purple, is now beached skeletal white.

It’s a compelling sight; made worse because we know what’s going to kill the reef (hot temperatures). We also know what’s going to cause widespread destruction of oceans (acidification). We know that these are a direct result of anthropogenic atmospheric carbon. We know that over-fishing (this will be the subject of another post) eliminates fish populations. We know, yet we continue along our path to a train wreck. Would be fascinating to watch if the consequences were not so profound.

Reefs protect land from storms. Reefs are where fish larvae grow up and thus are important to maintain fisheries. Reefs are going to be the source of new antibiotics that are needed since our current crop of antibiotics is becoming ineffective because of overuse and evolution. Reefs harbor incredible biodiversity; a reason alone for their protection.

Train wreck. Happening. Not very nice to see.

You ever seen a train wreck? Talk about it over dinner. Better yet, discuss ways that we can work together to stop it.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Hardening positions?

In the Fall 2011 issue of The Key Reporter,  Phi Beta Kappa secretary John Churchill wrote about how we perceive opposing views. Evidence suggests that when people are confronted with oppsing views, confirmation bias sets in--we harden our positions.  Churchill then notes that Plato knew all about this and when he wrote (in Book VII of The Republic) that those trained to argue will always become entrenched in their positions and " puppy dogs, they rejoice in pulling and tearing at all who come near them."  Churchill then goes on to note that there is a difference between simple arguing and true discussion where the aim is the pursuit of truth. 

What I learned from this (and I've not had time to read those sections of The Republic), is that we should always be concerned with conformation bias.  We should always question what we think we know (as a scientist I'm supposed to be trained to do this) and we should have the noble aims of seeking the truth.  The challenge is getting the rest of our highly polarized society to think this way.

Discussion Question
How would you frame a conversation to try to avoid confirmation bias?  How, especially at a dinner party, can you create a space where you can honestly discuss things openly and seek the truth?  If this isn't possible, how can we improve our education so as to train the current generation of school children (who will, after all, have to deal with the messes we've created) to seek the truth, rather than becoming more entrenched in an argument?

Friday, October 7, 2011

Is recycled paper better for the environment?

In this nice essay from The Conversation, Tom Rainey asks (and answers) whether recycled paper is better for the environment.  Like many such questions, the answer is 'it depends'.  We must do a better job becoming comfortable with these sorts of answers; much in life is relative and trade-offs are all around us.  Being clear about what those trade-offs are is important.

Steve Jobs and consumerism

I will admit that I sucked my breath in and was shocked and saddened when I heard of Steve Jobs passing.  He revolutionized not one, but many industries. Computers, music, magazines, books and movies will not be quite the same since Jobs' created hardware, software and a vision for easy and elegant access (and of course one where Apple took a healthy cut of the profits).  People with such a vision come along rarely and are genuinely transformative.

I've been an avid Apple consumer since that wonderful 1984 Superbowl commercial.  I saw it and was impressed with the message, but bought that first boxy Macintosh not because of the commercial, but because I really didn't want a DOS machine.  I collected, managed, and analyzed my honors research data on red-tailed hawks in Boulder County, Colorado on that Mac.  I bought a case for it and dragged it was after all a portable computer.  I wrote my honors thesis on that Mac.  In graduate school I upgraded the guts to make it a Mac+ before I started a tradition of using Mac laptops.  I still have that original Mac along with a lot of other Macs (my lab is almost all Mac).  

I bought an early iPod which I mostly used for research--it's a great way to broadcast vocalizations to animals when conducting behavioral experiments. 

When I finally got a cell phone two years ago (I resisted for a LONG time), I got an iPhone.  I share Jobs' obsession with clean design and clean function (I'm a minimalist at heart) and, while I use non-Apple products too, the Apple products 'just work' and they feel great to use. I loved that there is no guide to using the iPhone...that you just figure it out intuitively.

Yet, the consumerism that Jobs' drove so well is killing us.  Our computers, iPhones, and iPads quickly become obsolete (I have quite a collection of old computers and printers, hard drives, zip disks (remember those?)...). 

While this planned obsolescence (or is it just rapid evolution in a desired market?) may be good for the economy and it certainly creates a lot of jobs in China, where much of these products are manufactured, I'm not so sure it's good for the environment.  Between mining the rare earth metals that are required for touch screens, toxic chemicals used in circuit board manufacturing, and shipping these parts and products all around the Earth (to name three parts of the manufacturing process), considerable energy and natural resources are used.  

Does $200 really reflect the ecological cost of an iPhone (heck, you can now get an 'old' 3GS free with an AT&T contract!).  

Does the consumer culture that requires us to upgrade annually or biannually (should I really feel inadequate with my 3GS?), and the planned obsolescence built in to drive more consumerism (why oh why did the Mac OS Lion update kill Rosetta?).  

Does the throw away electronic society really benefit us?  These are tough questions because these products have been game changers.  

Is it better to print books or read them on an iPad?  What if all publishing shifted to ebooks?  Server farms are using more and more energy annually and the electronics required to read them must be regularly replaced and upgraded.  I bet the sum total of that energy, when added up and summed over the lifetime of a printed book, exceeds the ecological footprint of printing a book.

While I am very sad at the loss of true visionary (and at such a young age), more than ever we need other visionaries that will help us wean ourselves away from a culture of consumerism and help us re-focus on those true things that lead to welfare and happiness. Ultimately, I believe that consumerism is not the path to happiness, but stronger social bonds are.

Have a dinner party to strengthen those bonds and raise a glass to Steve Jobs and his revolutionary visions, but talk about creating a new revolutionary vision, a more sustainable one that we all can enjoy.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

The environment (and the world) needs good citizens

Guilherme B. Guzzo is a biologist and teacher in Brasil, with a M.S. in Zoology.  I'm posting this on his behalf.  We met at a meeting in Uruguay and had several wonderful conversations.  I hope he continues to contribute his wise thoughts to this blog.

The environment (and the world) needs good citizens
Guilherme B. Guzzo, biologist and teacher, M.S. in Zoology
One of the most difficult points when we discuss environmental issues is: how is it possible to change people’s behavior in a way that they start to perceive the environment that surrounds them as a vital part of their lives?
Part of the answer relies on the role of schools in the transmission of knowledge. It is really difficult for anyone to act in a certain way if he or she does not have enough information about the problem. But information is not all we need. Robert Pirsig, in his classic Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, stated that, if we want to change the world, we first need to change ourselves. We cannot achieve good results if people do not perceive the importance of doing the right things. Some people may ask “why should I use less water, or save energy in my house?” The question we could address to this people should be “is there any reason to behave the other way?” Even if we don’t know exactly the effects of using a lot of energy in our homes, or of using water to clean our backyard, we should save these resources just because this is the right thing to do.
The role of the families is, in my opinion, more important than the role of schools in creating responsible citizens. Values are grown in the familiar environment. Parents need to understand that what they do and say can have a tremendous influence on their children. That’s why parents should try to do the right things, and habituate their children to do the same. Parenting is not just about feeding the children, giving them material and monetary resources; the essential is to be concerned with their personal development, with personal values.
To be a good citizen is a question that does not concern the life of an individual. Citizenship is a value that societies should appreciate: it is essential for life in groups, and the environment also depends on it. 

Words of wisdom from Jane Goodall

Jane Goodall, the primate biologist, chimpanzee expert, and conservation biologist was recently interviewed by the Huffington Post.  She shares a lot of wisdom, amongst it this gem:

What’s the one thing you know now that you wish you knew when you were growing up?

If you meet someone who disagrees with you -- has a different opinion -- the most important thing is to listen carefully to what they say, and keep an open mind. And maybe you’ll find that you say, "well gosh, I never thought of it like that. Maybe they do have a point there." When I was 26 I got a job at the London Zoo with a documentary film unit. When I got back from Africa after my first trip, there was a press conference at the London Zoo. My zookeeper friends said, "Jane, now you can talk about all these horrible conditions at the zoo." But then, by pure chance, I had dinner with a very wise man who had spent a lot of time in Africa. When I told him about this, I was met with a very long silence. He said, "Jane, why are you doing that?" And I said, "I want to help the chimps." And he said, "You do realize that the head of the London Zoological Society is a very famous and very wealthy man…do you really think he’s going to let you, a young woman without a degree, prove him wrong? You will make an enemy for life." So I said, "What do you think I should do?" And he said, "Just tell me the few things you think would make a difference." So I did, and in a few weeks those changes had been made.

Read more at the Huffington Post interview.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Is grass green?

I don't have any recipes that incorporate grass.  Here's at least one good reason why.  Check out this PBS report talking about how the marijuana growing industry uses a lot of power and may illegally pollute local ecosystem with chemicals no longer legal in the US.