Thursday, April 26, 2012

A really good air-travel carbon calculator

I just stumbled upon a really helpful carbon calculator for air-travel, Atmosfair.  They also offer carbon-offsets (which I can't vouch one way or the other for).  What's particularly nice is that longer flights that fly at higher elevations are penalized for their damage.  And, you can add up your flights and easily figure out your real impact.

pole and line harvested tuna

Some pole and line harvested tuna fisheries are certified by the Marine Stewardship council as sustainable.  I guess I never really knew what this involved until seeing this YouTube video.  Wow!  Quite different from purse nets (which might be dolphin friendly but kill everything else brought up with the tuna feeding frenzy!).

Green Fire

Just saw a wonderful film, Green Fire, about Aldo Leopold (a very influential conservation biologist from the last century), his life, and his creation of a land ethic.  Check it out if you can.  The Leopold Foundation is running screenings and post-film discussions.

Living Room Conversations

I just stumbled upon a blog,  Living Room Conversations, that shares many ideas with Eating our Way to Civility (it's more general).  Great idea!  They have a number of great conversation ground rules for constructive conversations which I reproduce below:

Conversation Ground Rules

Be Curious and Open to Learning

Listen to and be open to hearing all points of view. Maintain an attitude of exploration and learning.

Balance Advocacy and Inquiry

Seek to learn and understand as much as you might want to persuade. Conversation is as much about listening as it is about talking.

Show Respect and Suspend Judgment

Human beings tend to judge one another, do your best not to. Setting judgments aside will enable you to learn from others and contribute to others experiences being respected and appreciated.

Seek Alignment rather than Agreement

Alignment is shared intention, whereas agreement is having a shared belief or opinion. In this conversation, we look for alignment primarily and simply appreciate that we will disagree on some beliefs and opinions.

Be Authentic and Welcome that from Others

Share what’s important to you. Speak authentically; from your personal and heartfelt experience. Be considerate to others who are doing the same.

Be Purposeful and to the Point

Notice if what you are conveying is or is not “on purpose” to the question at hand. Notice if you are making the same point more than once. Do your best to make your point with honesty and depth.

Own and Guide the Conversation

Take responsibility for the quality of your participation and the quality of the conversation by noticing what’s happening and actively support getting yourself and others back “on purpose” when needed.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Organic farming isn't quite as productive as 'industrial' farming

A meta-analysis published in the scientific journal Nature today reports that organic farming is generally less productive than non-organic alternatives.  However, the crop and context matter a lot.  By identifying these discrepancies, it should be possible to improve organic farming's yields.

Here's the abstract:

Numerous reports have emphasized the need for major changes in the global food system: agriculture must meet the twin challenge of feeding a growing population, with rising demand for meat and high-calorie diets, while simultaneously minimizing its global environmental impacts12. Organic farming—a system aimed at producing food with minimal harm to ecosystems, animals or humans—is often proposed as a solution34. However, critics argue that organic agriculture may have lower yields and would therefore need more land to produce the same amount of food as conventional farms, resulting in more widespread deforestation and biodiversity loss, and thus undermining the environmental benefits of organic practices5. Here we use a comprehensive meta-analysis to examine the relative yield performance of organic and conventional farming systems globally. Our analysis of available data shows that, overall, organic yields are typically lower than conventional yields. But these yield differences are highly contextual, depending on system and site characteristics, and range from 5% lower organic yields (rain-fed legumes and perennials on weak-acidic to weak-alkaline soils), 13% lower yields (when best organic practices are used), to 34% lower yields (when the conventional and organic systems are most comparable). Under certain conditions—that is, with good management practices, particular crop types and growing conditions—organic systems can thus nearly match conventional yields, whereas under others it at present cannot. To establish organic agriculture as an important tool in sustainable food production, the factors limiting organic yields need to be more fully understood, alongside assessments of the many social, environmental and economic benefits of organic farming systems.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The real cost of an iPhone...

Love your iPhone?  Want the newest model?  Consider skipping a generation or two.  Check out The real cost of an iPhone.  Better yet, consider the ecological impact of all your major purchases as a thoughtful way to reduce your ecological footprint.

Friday, April 20, 2012

The Last Generation?

Earth Day is approaching and this gives us an opportunity to reflect on our planet’s condition. Unfortunately, the diagnosis is not great, and the prognosis is worse. The biggest environmental challenges we face are that our climate is rapidly changing, we are poisoning and toxifying our environment in unknowable ways, our water sources are polluted and running dry, and the biodiversity that sustains us is threatened from habitat destruction and over-harvesting of natural resources. Experts disagree about specifics, but virtually all agree that the trajectories are dire. So, that leaves us with a social question: what to do?  Regardless of your politics or religion, these issues affect us all. Further, they affect humanity’s future. We would like to ask a provocative question: are we the first human generation that would be satisfied with being the last?

Let us be clear: we are not really going to be the last generation. The question is about our attitude rather than a projection. Humanity will continue. But, it will be a different less humane civilization, for we will be the last generation living under our current conditions. The world will be very different and much less habitable. To imagine what it will look like, look no further than the sprawling urban slums in many developing countries. Many of us will struggle to make ends meet. We certainly will eat less. And, lifespan will decline. Indeed the health problems associated with poverty will be more widespread.

Whether you believe global warming is natural or human caused, what is indisputable is that global atmospheric temperatures are rising. Warming temperatures will result in a variety of problems our future generations must solve. Sea levels will rise, resulting in high frequency of flooding events like the flooding of New Orleans caused by Hurricane Katrina. Weather will be less predictable and there will be a greater frequency of ‘weather events’ like hurricanes, tornadoes, and heat waves. Moreover, drastic changes in temperatures like the one we are currently experiencing are historically associated with an increased risk of war over dwindling resources. As living conditions decline globally, violent conflict becomes inevitable.

Yet, the news on global warming is not all bad. We can still make a difference for our future generations if we quickly and resolutely reduce our use of coal, oil, and natural gas and shift to a very low carbon society. This task certainly seems daunting and possibly extreme at first. However, the point is that we believe that we must try, rather than continuing to ignore the issues or putting off solutions to ‘future technological innovations’. Stopping global warming now will be much more effective than if we procrastinate and deal with this issue further down the line.

We are currently undergoing the sixth, and possibly most severe, mass extinction in the Earth’s history, which is defined as losing at least 75% of the world’s species. There are valid ethical reasons for stopping this extinction event and preserving our natural ecosystems but a good reason is quite practical: we use the earth’s biodiversity to find cures for diseases. Antibiotics, anti-malarials, and anti-cancer drugs come from natural products. Without them, or with a much smaller palate to choose from, we are severely hindering our ability to find new cures for old and emerging diseases.

Here too, we can make a difference by stopping the overharvesting of resources and destruction of habitats that are necessary for species preservation. We can use less, lobby corporations and businesses that engage in ecologically irresponsible behavior, and vote in favor of laws that protect biodiversity and habitat preservation.

So, what’s it going to be? Will we sit by and watch while we destroy our planet? Or, will we do something that can stop this trajectory? These changes (among them drastically and immediately using less carbon, reducing rather than increasing the use of pesticides and other man-made chemicals, saving instead of developing habitat, and conserving the earth’s natural resources such as fisheries) may not, initially, be easy, but they are essential. It really is up to us. Are we really the first generation content with being the last? What will you do to prevent this?

Alvin Y. Chan is a recent graduate of the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at UCLA where Daniel T. Blumstein is a Professor and Department Chair, as well as a Professor at the UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability, and co-author of the recent book The Failure of Environmental Education (And How We Can Fix It).

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Do little steps really help?

The sum total of doing little things to help our environment may lead to little change, argue a group of Australian professors writing in The Conversation, however, much as Charlie and I have argued, we need to make big changes and those big changes will take big action.  Read the piece in The Conversation and discuss, over dinner, what you think.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

CO2 removal; seems less possible

Many of our conservation problems are problems of scale.  It really doesn't matter much if one person, say, eats a lot of meat, but when millions of people do, it creates an impact from raising the animals to feed them.  Similarly, while it seems like a great idea to 'remove' CO2 from the air with yet to be properly invented 'scrubbers', scaling up to remove sufficient CO2 to make a difference is less likely to be successful.  According to an article I just read in 7 April 2012 edition of The New Scientist (and I quote liberally...), two British scientists (Colin Axon and Alex Lubansky) did some back of the envelope calculations to estimate what it would take using existing technology to remove 30 gigatonnes of CO2 (what we now produce annually) from the air.  Filtration alone would require 180 Gt of clean water, 100 Gt of a mineral called olivine (which is more than  12,500 times what is produced annually!).  The olivine would have to be spread 1 cm thick over 3.6 billion square km of dry land (1000 times as much as is available on Earth!).  And the clincher, the industry that would have to be created is 1000 times larger than any existing industry.

Still think CO2 scrubbing is better than eliminating CO2 production? 

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

A Natural Stewardship Amendment

A number of States’ Constitution’s explicitly gives legislators the responsibility for stewardship of natural resources for the benefit of future generations. 

For instance, Article I, section 27 of the Pennsylvania Constitution says:

“The people have a right to clean air, pure water, and to the preservation of the natural, scenic, historic and esthetic values of the environment. Pennsylvania's public natural resources are the common property of all the people, including generations yet to come. As trustee of these resources, the Commonwealth shall conserve and maintain them for the benefit of all the people.”

This is a forward-thinking idea that dates back to the Iroquois, who evaluated their decisions by thinking about what the consequences of an action would do seven generations in the future. This idea should be more widely adopted so that our grandchildren (and their grandchildren) have a future that doesn’t include ecological collapse. On this Earth Day, let’s make a pledge to work towards wider adoption of this simple idea.  Let’s work to create a National Natural Stewardship Amendment. 

Why?  In a line, because we systematically undervalue the future and this undervaluation has led to widespread environmental degradation that threatens the foundations of civilization. 

Sounds extreme?  Just ponder the fact that regardless of our political affiliations or our religious beliefs, we all suffer the costs of a deteriorating environment.  We all suffer from the toxification of our planet.  Rich or poor, we all suffer the effects of endocrine disrupting chemicals and the toxic mix of chemicals now in our air, water, and food.  For instance, widespread production of estrogen mimicking chemicals puts us on a path for our daughters and granddaughters to become reproductively mature at earlier ages, while our sons and grandsons will have lower sperm counts and more feminized genitals and behavior. Cancers and metabolic disorders of all sorts will increase in response to the mix of chemicals that “support” our modern lifestyles.

Regardless of our political or religious beliefs, we all benefit from the ecosystem services that pollinators such as bees provide. Without them, commercial agriculture would stop.  We all benefit from the water filtration and flood and storm control that healthy wetlands, watersheds, and barrier islands provide.  We all benefit from the CO2 reduction provided by an intact forest.  We all benefit from clean water and intact fisheries.

Yet we continue, as a society, to engage in activities that increase the production of CO2 and toxic chemicals, decimate both pollinators and natural habitat, and poison water and destroy fisheries through the destruction of estuaries, the creation of dead zones, and overfishing.  Our focus is clear: maximize short-term profits. But, stewardship requires taking a longer view. 

It’s important to realize that a ‘rational’ economic decision is predicated on a number of assumptions. A key one is how long you want to stay in the game. While modern economists speak of ‘future discounting’ and setting a ‘discount rate’, they focus on decades. By contrast, the Iroquois focused on generations. 

If we value the future, we will take better care of the resources we are borrowing from our children and grandchildren.

If we don’t value the future, we do as we are doing and engage in short-term profit maximization with no regard for what we are leaving behind for future generations.

The time for this shortsighted behavior has ended.  The threats we face in the coming decades require action, and they require it quickly.

An Amendment that requires us to pause and evaluate our actions to consider the long-term impacts of those decisions would force us to discuss the consequences of our actions and be clear about our discount rate.  What is the moral justification for a short-term discount rate?  Shouldn’t we care about a future for our children, and their children? 

A National Natural Stewardship Amendment would cut across partisan lines and celebrate the values that we all share in living in a healthful environment that enhances our lives and protects us from sickness and disease. Ultimately, the Amendment would force legislators to consider the future and welfare for all citizens of the United States, current and future, rather than the welfare of industries that, through industrial lobbyists, already have too much legislative power.  An Amendment would provide a legal basis to ensure that future generation’s rights are protected. It’s the right thing to do now.

The Challenge of Going Vegan

From the NY Times.

Friday, April 13, 2012

sustainable meat?

Interesting OpEd in NY Times by James McWilliams on the Myth of Sustainable Meat.  Probably should read his book!

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Gilding on The Great Disruption

So I’ve done it: I finally managed to finish Paul Gilding’s eye-opening book (and, given how busy I am just now, managed to post this!), “The Great Disruption:  Why the ClimateCrisis Will Bring on the End of Shopping and the Birth of a New World.”  You might remember I referred to Paul’s TED talk a few weeks ago. Well, after watching that, I immediately bought the book and now, while travelling, have finally managed to finish it.

Um:  it makes you think.

In the book, Gilding builds a convincing case that humanity is on a collision course for a Great Disruption in the next 10-30 years.  He argues that our collective ecological footprint is 140% of the Earth’s carrying capacity and that this alone means that we’re living in a seriously, unsustainable deficit.  Indeed, it’s not just this that we’re over-using, but all the major life-sustaining natural resources including water, pollution-free air, ecosystem services, and of course fossil fuels (to name a few).  He argues that we’ve passed the point where we’re going to be able to avoid some serious climate and environmental disruption and he points out that at some point we’ll all recognize—probably through some horrific environmental event—that we’ve got to do something. 

Once this happens, Gilding argues that humanity will mobilize resources and efforts, much as the West did, most recently in World War II, and we will collectively declare war against climate change.  We will lose many millions (or billions) of people and likely more than 50% of the biodiversity on earth. We will suffer great political upheaval.  It will be bad, but, he argues, it must happen because we have done nothing to stop it. 

However, once we decide to act, we will limit the Earth’s temperature rise to 1°C by rapid and wide-scale cuts in carbon use. We will do this under duress because we must; the alternatives are even worse. His war on Carbon will reduce carbon massively over 5 years.  It includes (and I quote liberally from pages 135ff):

•Cutting deforestation and other logging by 50%

•Closing 1000 dirty coal power plants within 5 years

•Rationing electricity, ‘getting dressed for the war’ and rapidly driving increased efficiently

•Retrofitting 1000 coal power plants with carbon capture technology

•Erecting a wind turbine or solar power plant in every town

•Creating huge wind and solar farms in suitable locations

•Letting no waste go to waste

•Rationing the use of dirty cars to cut transportation emissions by 50%

•Preparing for biopower with Carbon-Capture-Sequestration

•Stranding half of the world’s aircraft

•Capturing or burning methane

•Moving away from climate-unfriendly protein

•Binding 1 gigaton of CO2 in the soil

•Launching a government- and community-led “shop less, live more” campaign

After the first five years, there are even more things that must be done to capture carbon and continue to reduce it so that we’re living in a ‘net-zero carbon world’.  Sound draconian; the options are even worse…even more massive human fatalities and increased suffering.

He argues that humans are really good at getting together to change when real change is needed and that our mostly to-date inefficient attempts at international treaties to control carbon will quickly scale up and start working when they have to, but unfortunately, not before.

Yet, his story does not end there.  We will have to reinvent our lives and for this he sees great promise.

I quote from page 185:

“But in telling that whole story, we have a ways to go yet.  It may seem like a fair bit to cope with—the economic crisis of the Great Disruption, followed by the one-degree war and the complete transformation of the global economy to zero net carbon, all happening in parallel to a global realignment of geopolitical power, accompanied by widespread military and social conflict from ecosystem breakdown.  All that, however, is just act one.”

One really good insight from his view of the future is that solar power is equalizing and equitable. Solar power is somewhat uniquely equalitarian:  you don’t need a power grid to have solar power thus it can be an important (and powerful, excuse the pun) way to help folks in developing countries with limited infrastructure.  And, if developing countries don’t have to compete for oil and gas, solar energy will help them develop even faster. 

Gilding also summarizes evidence (that I’ve discussed in the book and blog) about why we’ll need to end consumerism, end a growth-based economy (he notes that even classical economists always viewed a stable future where growth ended and a stable-state economy was created), and make the world a more equitable world by cutting income disparity.  Partly, this will come through those with income having to earn less because the economic system is fundamentally broken. But he paints a promising picture (more time for family, more time to relax, better income equality). 

I’m not sure I buy all of this.  Frankly, it seems to be a group selected argument to hope that we’ll raise up and cooperate, rather than get stuck in a selfish tragedy of the commons.  If major religions can’t get it together now and help end poverty, why will we do it in the future? Gilding says we must, there are no other ethical options, but we’ve ignored massive poverty to date…why will the future be any different?

Gilding makes his living as a business consultant and he’s well versed in economics.  Thus, he develops his argument about how executives should re-focus to capitalize on the total re-organization of our world’s economy. He’s not a quack; this book is worth reading and thinking about. He has the ears of business and economic world leaders.  And he offers promising suggestions on business plans that will make the world a better place.

Discussion Questions
Read this book.  Share the TED talk.  Discuss his thesis.  Don’t believe it?  What does your future look like? How will you prepare for it?  How will we end poverty and income disparity?  How will we detoxify the earth?