Frankenfood?

Day 9 and 10 Blog Post

By now we’re well aware of the effects of western ideals about land ownership. This country was founded on the grounds of land acclamation, “Manifest Destiny,” and the wild frontier. We’ve reached it, right? Geographically, yes, but now what about feeding all the people who are repopulating all the new land, on this continent and on others? The carrying capacity of the earth has been breached, and now there’s not enough affordable food to feed all the mouths, at least by organic standards. But human ingenuity has found a way to overcome yet another problem, and this solution is the creepiest yet – genetic modification. GMOs, or genetically modified organisms, have been around since the 1990’s. Regulation and labeling policies are obscure, so it’s probable that you’ve eaten tons of genetically modified meat or produce without even knowing. The industry depicts these GMOs as a “biological revolution” in that science has altered the culture of our cuisine so much that environmental journalist Michael Pollan calls it a “new paradigm shift.” But which is heavier, the benefits or the repercussions?

Scientists are taking genes from organisms with desirable traits (like resistance to cold or increased speed of growth) and splicing them into the genomes of common crops. The huge agriculture company Monsanto developed its NewLeaf potato that has a gene taken from the bacterium bacillus thuringietisis (Bt) that allows every cell of the potato plant to produce a compound that is toxic to the Colorado potato beetle, essentially making the potato itself a pesticide. This removes the need to spray crops with other toxic chemicals, but since Monsanto patented the Bt gene it also makes every potato they produce technically the intellectual property of the company. This means that farmers can buy a bag of spuds for one season, but if they grow the potatoes from the same offspring they are legally committing fraud and are therefore punishable by law. What are the ethics of cell ownership? Weird, right?

This way of farming is unsettling because it completely changes the human relationship with nature. Darwin’s pioneering studies have shown us that in natural selection species will evolve traits that make them more adaptive to their environment. It’s a very long process and it only happens by chance of mutation. There’s also artificial selection, which when practiced was the first time humans had a direct impact on the continuation of other varieties of life. This is when people cause organisms to breed in ways they wouldn’t in their natural setting; for example most dog breeds and the mule exist thanks to artificial selection. However, genetic modification changes everything. This is the “first time the genome itself is being domesticated – brought under the roof of human culture.” It defies Darwinian rule. Darwin said that “man doesn’t actually produce variability” (in artificial selection) but now he does. The language on Monsanto’s own website is even a little unsettling: “Our breeders work every day to create vegetables consumers want to eat” …create? The scariest part is that we can’t really foresee all the consequences of physically changing the genome of a species and then letting this man-made piece of nature out into “real nature.” The idea is very reminiscent of Ridley Scott’s recent movie, Prometheus.

The weirdness continues. We can’t predict fully what will happen when these genetically modified plants release their pollen into the wild for bees to scatter all throughout the ecosystem. We do know that transgenic genes tend to migrate more readily, creating hybrid organisms fairly quickly, but we have no idea why. “Jumping genes” pose the new environmental problem of ‘biological pollution.” Oil spills are disastrous, but physically they can be cleaned up – biological pollution is virtually impossible to clean up. The organisms with these new genes will continue to grow and reproduce and eventually become integrated into the ecosystem, essentially becoming a new part of nature, and the process is irreversible. Again, remind anyone of Prometheus?

An example of a possible problem we could face is if some insects develop a resistance to the NewLeaf potatoes. What would we do then? Resistance occurs all the time in nature. It’s part of the evolution of life. What happens when the super potato you just invented doesn’t do it’s job anymore? Now you have a useless organism containing manipulated genes that will just have its way in the environment. What’s even weirder is that the NewLeafs aren’t even regulated by the FDA, but rather they’re under the jurisdiction of the EPA because the patented Bt gene renders it a pesticide – a pesticide that will be eaten by tons of people. Another example of GMOs gone awry is the new salmon that have been genetically modified to grow twice as fast as regular salmon. But what would happen if these salmon found their way into the wild? Growing twice as fast, they’d out-compete all the natural salmon lagging behind. This could either decimate the population of their prey and/or cause the eventual dying out of the “natural” salmon, leaving just the super salmon with potentially no food left because they’re functioning at a pace that the ecosystem hadn’t been built on and therefore can’t keep up with. The snowball effect could prove fatal for the super-growing salmon because they’d have eaten all their food, and thus you’d be left with an ecosystem that ends up with no more salmon at all. This is why the Union of Concerned Scientists called for more comprehensive testing of GMO crops before widespread release into the environment. The way genes function to produce traits and evolutionary differences doesn’t jive with the brute-force genetic modification imposed on nature by humans. Stephen Palumbi gives a great metaphor to show this:

“Virtually all genes are orchestrated by other genes, and without such controls, gene expression would be like the whole orchestra playing every note of a symphony at once rather than letting the music flow out one harmony at a time.”

This is why we shouldn’t tamper with the interworking laws that nature has so intricately set up before we even appeared on the scene. This habit of “playing god” that we have will most likely cause more harm than good if left unregulated.

The National Academy of Sciences used its National Research Council to draw up a report on the application of recombinant DNA techniques in agriculture and found five very possible issues: it could pose a threat to human health, a possible disruption of natural environments, threats to agricultural production from more rapid evolution of resistant pests, a disruption of third work agricultural economy, and there’s the principled objection to “unnatural interventions.” Basically it’s a dice toss every time you play with the genetic fabric of life. In an attempt to create a tomato that resists frost, you could end up triggering its mRNA to read the genetic code in a way that produces toxicity in not just the leaves and stem but also in the fruit – leaving you with frost-resistant, enduring, poisonous tomatoes. The scare of “super weeds” is also something to be weary about. The introduction of an herbicide gene into the natural order could cause hybridization that turns out more herbicide-resistant plants that will not only over crowd fields and strangle ecosystem balances, but in time will be ill-suited for the wild because of their dependence on unnaturally high amounts of fertilizer that only cultivars can provide. The real victim, though, is the farmer; who are slaves to the economic machine and to the price determined by the aggregate production of all farmers. Agriculture’s design around the monoculture – vast fields of just one crop – is ecologically backwards as it is. This infrastructural problem is a literal breeding ground for pests who feed on the one crop and makes it really efficient for them to wipe out entire fields. Now imagine if the pest develops a resistance to the genetically produced pesticide? Without the freedom to set their own price, they need to adapt to the whim of the market, and such a technology as this could easily ruin the livelihood of small business farmers. It’s a lose-lose situation for both people and the environment.

It should be noted that some genetic modification is great and necessary for some people. Without modifying bacterial DNA to produce insulin, diabetics in our world would be at a complete loss. However, it’s not likely that insulin-producing bacteria will cause harm in the natural environment if released from labs. So should that be the line? To limit our research and god-playing to the lab and only on innocuous organisms that pose no threat to the giant interconnected web of life? Liberty Hyde Bailey in his The Outlook to Nature said “If nature is the norm then the necessity for correcting and amending abuses of civilization become baldly apparent by very contrast,” and in his The Holy Earth he expands, “To live in right relation with his natural conditions is one of the first lessons that a wise farmer or any other wise man learns.” In looking back at the perfect wisdom that history has to offer, we can see that the destruction of the Native Americans were the “things that once possessed cannot be done without.” Let’s not reach that point, where we become so dependent on living by such artificial means, and the slightest miscalculation could doom the entirety of our species all for the sake of the perfect french fry. With all that science has provided for us, it would mean the most ironic end to the promising organism that we are.

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Keeping it Green in NYC

Day 8 Blog Post

New York City used to have a rich environmental history. Before the Dutch started claiming land away from the Native American tribes that had been inhabiting there for thousands of years, the island of Manhattan (or Mannahatta as it was called by the native tribes) was like a green emerald between the two rivers. It’s interesting for our modern mentalities to learn that the greatest metropolis of today used to be a giant pine forest, with streams running all through the island and marshlands making up most of the downtown area. Teaming with wildlife, like bears, otters, elk, and beavers, the island would have been akin to the greatest of today’s national parks. It’s weird to think that today we need to designate land in special parks for such ecological and wildlife activity to still flourish.

To remind us of the natural ecology and landscape that we so easily forget among the hustle and bustle of modern life, the Wildlife Conservation Society has constructed a cool interactive map called the Mannahatta Project that shows what NYC would have looked like in 1609. Here’s an interesting video explaining the project a little further. Not only is it a testament to our human ingenuity and ability to transform entire islands and landscapes to suit our needs and wants, it’s really interesting to know that under your apartment building was once a stream, or a bear habitat, or even all water. The geological extent of the island of Manhattan is naturally 30% smaller, because the majority of the waterfront (mostly downtown) is completely man-made. The natural history of the city is definitely a fascinating field, and it makes you question the direction we’re going in.

But what’s good about realizing that we have this immense potential to change the face of a landscape is the reverse. That also means we have the potential to change things for the better. In 2007 Mayor Bloomberg announced his PlaNYC idea, “a bold environmental agenda for the city of New York, to make the city a greener place.” PlaNYC calls for improvements that are necessary to meet the needs of our growing population; as well as revamping our aging transportation and infrastructure, and assess new needs from the changing climate and evolving economy. It’s a loaded task that looks to minimize the carbon impacts of existing and future developments while maximizing clean air and water for everyone. NYC ranks 17 out of 25 on a scale of air quality, so a number of traffic congestion initiatives have been implemented to help (such as an increased bridge toll, hybrid fuel buses,  and new green bike paths to cut down on the number of cars in the city). NYC is making great strides in keeping its title as the biggest walking city, with over half of its population not owning a car.

But what about the infrastructural disaster that is the Bronx? New innovations have been taken by groups to restore the ecology of much of what’s left of the Bronx’s green space and natural landscapes. The Bronx River Alliance is working to restore the Bronx River by reducing erosion, bank stabilization, and invasive plant removal. What it’s doing is essentially rebuilding the river to make it inhabitable again. This is aided by georeferencing, or using old maps to show what the landscape used to look like and then layering topography, water systems, and then biology over each other to recreate the naturally occurring landscape. Once life has a foothold in the environment again, then the real healing to the landscape can begin; as biodiversity is the key to any healthy ecosystem. An example of this is building up the shellfish population of the river, because shellfish like oysters and clams are essential to biofiltering the river water, and thus a healthier environment for all the life in the ecosystem. And when the ecosystem is healthier, the wildlife aren’t the only ones who benefit, but the community of people around it benefit as well.

Now what is Fordham doing to create a more green landscape? On their website, Fordham says it “is committed to sustainability as a central consideration in all aspects of its activities including its curriculum, student development and education, faculty and staff involvement, and physical plant operations.” With its main campus located in the Bronx, the university claims it “will endeavor to design, construct and maintain its buildings, infrastructure and grounds in a manner that ensures environmental sustainability. Reaching beyond compliance in areas of environmental concern, Fordham will pursue sustainability best practices in a broad range of areas…” Given the set up of the university, it does have  a pretty green infrastructure. The ram van service that transports students from the Rose Hill and Lincoln Center campuses reduces the students’ need to take other methods of transportation, and each van can hold about 14 people maximum. 23% of the vehicles in Fordham’s fleet are electric. Fordham did sign on to mayor Bloomberg’s PlaNYC in an effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 30% by the year 2017; and since signing on, the university has reduced its overall emissions by 23% since 2005. Another great accomplishment by the university is that all new construction must reach LEED Silver requirements, with two that meet silver standards already and three that meet LEED-EB standards. It would be interesting to find out if the new dorm building at Lincoln Center is LEED certified. Fordham diverts 90 percent of construction and demolition waste from landfills. To conserve water, the university has installed dual-flush toilets, efficient laundry machines, low-flow faucets and showerheads, waterless urinals, and weather-informed irrigation systems. So then why was Fordham given a C+ on its College Sustainability Report Card?

It seems that the weakest grades were given to the shareholder engagement and endowment transparency. The shareholder engagement category examines how colleges conduct shareholder proxy voting. As investors, colleges have an opportunity to actively consider and vote on climate change and other sustainability-related shareholder resolutions. Forming a shareholder responsibility committee to advise the trustees allows schools to include students, faculty, and alumni in research and discussion of important corporate policies on sustainability. What I suppose would be a good way to increase our ratings in this category is to continue our work with the St. Rose’s Garden to promote healthy environmental practices and urban ecology, and publicize the progress to the greater faculty, student, and alumni, and neighborhood communities. The endowment transparency category evaluates the extent to which schools release information about their endowment investment holdings and shareholder proxy voting records. Access to endowment information is useful within a college community to foster dialogue about opportunities for investing in clean energy, and about using proxy votes to encourage responsible corporate practices. I suggest that the university not only, obviously, provide better access to their endowment investments, but also offer more possibilities for green investment. A louder student and faculty voice can move the university to practice more green approaches to college life and community fostering.

It’s Not Just the Polar Bears Anymore

Day 6 and 7 Blog Post

Climate change is not a relatively new concept. You’d have to live under a rock or in a weird commune to have not heard that the earth is experiencing a period of global warming that is negatively affecting everyone and everything on it. You’d also have to be a special kind of bigot to not feel any sort of concern when learning about it.

One person who’s name goes in tandem with climate change is Al Gore. His film, “An Inconvenient Truth,” which probably couldn’t have a better title, explains climate change and its devastating effects. He also clears up the idea that’s been spreading that climate may not be man-made, and that this misconception was in fact completely constructed by right wing government officials during the Bush administration who in email correspondences blatantly said they wanted to “portray climate change as theory, not fact.” 2005 witnessed record breaking heat waves that led to higher water temperatures, which helped trigger the national disaster that was Hurricane Katrina. In fact, we can look forward to stronger, fiercer hurricanes to come due to the warming of the seas. The warmer moisture provides fertile environments for super storms. Textbooks actually had to be rewritten as of 2005 since it was thought that the Southern Hemisphere doesn’t experience hurricane-strength cyclones, until the first technical hurricane in the Southern Hemisphere occurred that year. These eye-opening reflections would have been hard to pass off as mere natural weather patterns to the educated observing citizen.

The collision between civilization and the earth is growing more tense. We’re starting to see the hidden consequences of our blind meddling. Infrastructures built on top of permafrost are crumbling (it’s called “permafrost” because the underground frost is supposed to be permanent, until now). Overpopulation puts incredible pressure on the earth to feed far more mouths than that of the earth’s own carrying capacity for us – which is technically unknown but certainly breached. The stable climatic cycles that have been distributing heat from the equator toward the poles are becoming irregular and out of whack – the consequence of this is yet to be fully discovered, but destabilized ecological cycles have played a part in disrupting the delicate ecological niches of species of pathogens and certain indigenous peoples, leading to the breeding grounds that allowed for global pandemics like West Nile virus, avian flu, and SARS to progress to the levels they’ve reached. A particular 28+ mile wide ice shelf in the Antarctic that that had been observed by scientists using satellite imaging was completely gone within 35 days of observing. Reports from nuclear submarines that conduct research at the poles say that ice thickness has decreased 40% over the past 40 years. And it has been concluded that if the entirety of Greenland or the South Pole melts (both of which are certainly plausible) then the sea level will rise 20 feet. It doesn’t take a scientist to realize that this kind of sea level increase would wipe out entire coastal cities and communities, leaving over 100 million refugees. The truth is inconvenient because we really don’t want to deal with the responsibility that comes with knowing the truth and the repercussions that we must face, whether that be economic, political, or in lifestyle.

(Computer generated image of what NYC would look like after a 1 meter sea level increase)

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was initiated to provide comprehensive scientific assessments of current scientific, technical, and socioeconomic information worldwide about the risk of climate change caused by human activity. It met on November of 2007 in Valencia, Spain and came up with its “Summary for Policymakers.” They established an synthesis report that can be roughly broken down into a list of assessments:

1. Observed changes in climate and their effects

  • Warming of the climate system is unequivocal
  • Natural systems are being affected by regional climate changes, particularly temperature changes
  • Anthropogenic temperature increases and subsequent rising sea levels would continue on an uninhibited for centuries to come due to the positive feedback cycle

2. Causes of change

  • Global greenhouse gas emissions due to human activities have grown since pre-industrial times, with an increase of 70% between 1970 and 2004
  • Global atmospheric concentrations CO2, methane, and nitrous oxide have increased markedly as a result of human activities since 1750 and now far exceed pre-industrial pre-industrial values determined from ice cores spanning many thousands of years
  • The probability that sea level rise, changes in wind patterns and extra-tropical storms, increase in extreme temperatures, heat waves, regional drought and heavy precipitation are caused by natural processes alone is less than 5%

3. Projected climate change and its impacts

  • More intensified warming over land in the Northern Hemisphere, thawing of permafrost, disappearance of Arctic late-summer ice almost entirely by the end of the century, increase in frequency of hot extremes, likely increase in tropical cyclone number and intensity, less subtropical and more high altitude precipitation
  • Ocean acidification due to uptake of anthropogenic carbon since 1750, increasing in pH of 0.1 units in another positive feedback system; negatively affecting marine shell-forming organisms, among other forms of life
  • Altered frequencies and intensities of extreme weather coupled with seal level rise are expected to have mostly adverse effects on natural and human systems
  • Anthropogenic warming could lead to some impacts that are abrupt or irreversible, for example the loss of ice sheets equates to meters of sea level rise, major changes in coastlines, and inundation of low-lying areas

4. Adaptation and mitigation options

  • Adaptive capacity is intimately connected to social and economic development but is unevenly distributed across and within societies
  • There is high agreement on the substantial economic potential for the mitigation of global greenhouse gas emissions over the coming decades that could offset the projected growth of global emissions or reduce emissions below current levels, such as cap and trade, standards, taxes, tradable permits, and voluntary agreements

5. The long-term perspective

  • Determining what constitutes “dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system involves value judgements, however science can support objective information for informed decisions
  • There is high confidence that neither adaptation nor mitigation alone can avoid all climate change impacts, however they can complement each other and together can significantly reduce the risks of climate change

It’s hard to separate climate change from policy, but this is because of all the ethics embedded in the issue. Climate change involves certain people in one part of the world harming people in other parts of the world, and usually it’s those who are at the mercy of the ecology and climate that are harmed at the whims of more industrialized, developed countries. Most of these marginalized people can’t ask their governments for help. For example, there are tens of millions of people in India and Asia who depend on rivers and water systems for drinking, but the glaciers that feed the rivers are threatened by the greenhouse gases produced by nations across the globe. Intensified drought in Africa cuts deeper into an already sore wound, and the small developing South Pacific islands’ entire existence is severely threatened by rising sea levels. In my Environmental Technology Society class, we learned that many of the world’s indigenous populations (composing of 370 million people) have a very similar relationship to earth called the 7 generation rule. This simply means that in every action they take they must be taken with the consideration of how it will affect things within 7 generations from now, and it uses the ancient, non-western, radical idea that we’re borrowing the planet from future people who haven’t been born yet. Ground-breaking, right?

The New York Times article “Climate Change Seen as Threat to U.S. Security” says the National Intelligence Council warned that storms, droughts, and food shortages would result from a warming planet in coming decades, creating numerous relief emergencies. A host of analysts, experts at the Pentagon, and intelligence agencies claim that “climate-induced crisis,” such as violent storms, drought, mass migration, and pandemics, “could topple governments, feed terrorist movements or destabilize entire regions.” Yet there seem to be entire groups of people bent on stifling the efforts of those trying to help, like the Disinformation Campaign. This is a counter-movement to the environmental movement made up of right-wing literature “think tanks” that claim that climate change is a hoax, not human-caused, and make themselves a  nuisance by cherry-picking every “uncertainty” in the current scientific research. There’s healthy, scientific skepticism, and then there’s the Disinformation Campaign.

Rachel Carson was a pioneer of her time when she wrote Silent Spring, an amazing work form 1962 that explains how many of the major ecological disasters of the past two decades occurred directly because of the manufacture, storage, use, and disposal of pesticides or deadly chemical compounds with biocidal components. The book is called Silent Spring because of an effect we’ve been causing to the environments that she’s noticed. The pesticides we spray poison the insects, the birds eat the poisoned insects and die, thus causing their songs during the springtime to fall silent. But Carson describes how it’s not just the birds that are in danger, but also us – at the top of the food chain – who really get the worst effects of biomagnificaiton from this “seemingly harmless” practice of spraying grasses and crops. What that means is that by ingesting produce and animals that eat the animals that eat the produce, we end up ingesting larger amounts of the poisonous compounds than the first animal did. She suggested that we turn to “biological solutions, based on understanding the living organisms (we) seek to control, and of the whole fabric of life to which these organisms belong.” In the middle of her great crusade to end our deluded practice of poisoning ourselves and the earth, Time magazine criticized her book, calling it “unfair, one-sided, and hysterically over-emphatic,” and argues that Carson’s “emotional and inaccurate outbursts may do harm by alarming the non-tehnological public.” I think Rachel Carson is one of the most under appreciated people ever, and having written an entire research paper on her, I’ve really come to love her and everything she’s contributed to our world – a world that seriously needed, but rejected, her help. Her actions are responsible for the creation of the EPA. You could say she single-handedly created the environmentalism movement, but she would never get to see any of it as she died two years after writing Silent Spring. I could go on forever about the blessing to humanity that was Rachel Carson.

It’s another misconception that environmentalism and a healthy economy are not compatible. After publishing an essay criticizing climate change about the minute uncertainties of certain studies, conservative scientist Patrick Michaels tried to downplay the urgency of the issues upon us. Although his cherry-picking of minuscule details isn’t as ridiculous as the Heartland Institute’s claims (that “climate change is a plot to steal American freedom” and a “trojan horse designed to abolish capitalism and replace it with some kind of ‘eosocialism'”), it’s nonetheless not warranted from a scientist unless some sort of political agenda was behind it. In response, environmental scientist Christopher Flavin criticizes Michaels’ critique of the ICPP, commenting “conservatives consider themselves the custodians of values and ethics, but is it ethical to disrupt the natural world without regard to the impact on our descendants or on Creation itself?” Not only is global climate change disrupting the stable patterns and timing of the seasons on which our agriculture and basic way of life depends, but it’s creating extremes in regional weather – tornadoes in New York? Falvin claims that a “real conservative would argue that we should act now to slow the dangerous rise in greenhouse gas emissions rather than having to reduce emissions drastically in the future, which would really disrupt the economy.” His appeal to economics as an incentive to promote green practices is smart, like fighting fire with fire in a battle where the opponent only hears numbers and monetary figures. Other countries already have similar economic practices in place, for example in Spain you have to to use plastic bags, thus encouraging everyone to reuse (not to mention their impeccable waste management system functions much better than ours). He suggests that the market mechanism might be the most efficient way to reduce CO2 emissions, while also moving away from traditional private and public energy monopolies like coal and gas. India and Germany are building numerous wind farms, what are we doing?

To get a good idea of how much emissions just the individual household puts out into the environment alone, you can take the EPA test here. My family’s results were a little over the average household emissions, but the test offers possible alternatives that, if taken into practice, could decrease your emissions.

In July 2001, 178 nations agreed to a weakened version of the Kyoto Protocol that required 38 industrialized nations to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by 5.2% below 1990 levels by 2010 or face tougher goals and penalties. Most all the nations’ leaders present had agreed, except for George Bush. He refused because he said the treaty was “fatally flawed,” apparently at the time preferring the “uncertain science” of a missile defense system. Forging an epic international consensus was certainly called for the collective sense of achievement, despite objections of one country that aspires to be a global leadership. There’s also the argument that David Suzuki makes. “The mother of all battles is environmental,” not military, says Suzuki, who sees a clear imbalance in the distribution of not only funding, but values. Though the U.S. may be a very wealthy country, 1/3 of the federal budget goes to the military. This restricts much needed environmental and social programs. It has been noted by many economic analysts that the demilitarization of post-WWII Japan was a critical factor in its economic recovery and progression to become one of the wealthier nations of the world. In times of peace, $1,750,000 is spent on maintaining the military around the world every minute. This is mind-blowing. The World Watch Institute estimates that it would cost 15% (150 billion) of the annual global military budget to save the planet from environmental collapse. The U.S. spends $300 on the military for every $1 it spends on the environment. That number is disastrously out of whack. The National Research Council of the National Academy of Science says that by the end of the 21st century the average global temperature will be 3°C higher, and that it only takes a 5°C increase to completely melt the north pole. If only a fraction of the global defense budget went toward protecting and reversing environmental practices, we could “reduce the national debt, forgive foreign loans, purchase wilderness, and start creating new kinds of employment.” The answer is simple, at least for me, that we’re putting our money – and our priorities – in the wrong place.

Upton Sinclair once said “It’s hard to get a man to understand something if his salary depends on his not understanding it.” Ignorance is bliss…but only for the ignorant.

It’s the Environment, Stupid

Day 5 Blog Post

First off, I would like to share a post I saw on the “Freshly Pressed” page and arbitrarily clicked on because it looked interesting and relevant. It has everything to do with this week’s lesson and probably sums up all the concerns more briefly than I’m about to attempt, so take a look.

There’s a test that calculates your own ecological footprint by answering questions about your lifestyle choices, and it’s interesting – possibly scary – to see what your own personal effect on the planet is. My result was that it would take 4.1 earths to support us if everyone lived the same lifestyle that I do (I’m convinced it’s all the food). This was a little disconcerting, as an environmental policy major I like to pride myself on my extra awareness and consequently my educated lifestyle choices. But while taking the test you’ll realize that a lot more goes into being green than just recycling cans and using refillable water bottles. It’s our entire infrastructure that needs revamping. The way we get from point A to point B, if we’re not using our own two feet, has an impact; our food selections from the grocery store to fast food have an impact; and pretty much anything we pay money to use or obtain has an impact. And this is where economics becomes an integral part of environmental thought. It’s our dollar votes that encourage poor practices from huge polluting corporations, but it’s the same dollar that – if spent wisely – can promote green practices as well. Fight fire with fire by giving business to environmentally conscious companies, and the laws of economics will cause the “bad” businesses to compete by becoming green themselves. This coupled with tighter regulation seems to be working, but it’s not enough. Awareness in the population is key.

Turning over to more environmentally conscious lifestyle choices may require an extra dollar, but only good can come of it. Conservation biologist O. E. Wilson coined the term “biophilia,” which is the hypothesis that there is an instinctive bond between human beings and all living systems that transcends all cultures, or as Willson describes, “the urge to affiliate with other forms of life.” You’ve felt this any time you enjoyed a walk through a park, took a break from your desk work to look out your window, or felt your own special bond with your pet. It’s no coincidence that gardening is the #1 hobby in America, or that after the 9/11 attacks, NYC parks reported record breaking numbers of visitors. It’s been found that people with apartments overlooking some sort of greenery report feeling healthier and happier in their lives than those who’s apartment windows show concrete or brick (and with socioeconomic statuses factored in). Science has also found that exposure to natural environments for more than 20 minutes allows people to recover from fatigue, boosts white blood cell counts, and reduces the stress hormone cortisol. It’s also been found that immersing oneself in a natural environment is effective therapy for depression, helps keep the blood glucose levels of diabetics balanced, and that kids with ADD function better in green environments. It all goes back to the central theme that we as a species evolved with nature and are an integral part of it. More proof that our economy forces our indoor culture to be increasingly backward.

Since reading economics is basically the same as reading Chinese to me, I really enjoyed the youtube video “Story of Stuff.” The woman explains the entire materials economy and makes it really simple to understand. And, of course, whenever you watch a youtube video of something you really like or support, you can’t avoid reading the back-and-forth argumentative comments between the drek of society (thankfully there weren’t comments about religion or Hitler on this one). But the contentious comments only point to one thing: she speaks the truth and the truth scares people. And people should be scared. The way we’re living now is just not going to work forever. Like she says, “you cannot run a linear system on a finite planet indefinitely.” It just doesn’t work. Remember the golden motto, “everything is connected”? The double whammy is that we live in a culture of creature comforts. We like to make quick fixes for every ailing thing that could happen to us: pills for every little pain, new technology to make chopping that onion take less than the two minutes it takes with a simple knife. It’s ridiculous. We’re so used to hearing people whine about having the luxury of unsustainable conveniences: “I just like knowing that I have the option of buying water bottles if I want to.” There’s no doubt that we’re enjoying the highest standard of living in human history, but it comes at a price. It’s these convenient comforts that have made us not only soft but self-destructive.

EDIT: I was recently outraged while reading for another class. There was a man named Victor Lebow who was a top government economist who after WWII pretty much invented the American consumer culture. Here are his own words from the Spring 1955 issue of Journal of Retailing:

Our enormously productive economy demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfactions, our ego satisfactions, in consumption. The measure of social status, of social acceptance, of prestige, is now to be found in our consumptive patterns. The very meaning and significance of our lives today expressed in consumptive terms. The greater the pressures upon the individual to conform to safe and accepted social standards, the more does he tend to express his aspirations and his individuality in terms of what he wears, drives, eats- his home, his car, his pattern of food serving, his hobbies.”

It’s chilling to imagine that the very tangled webs of culture, politics, and economics that we now find ourselves at a loss in mediating through for a better present and future were all set into motion with one huge and completely deliberate push by this one man.

In 2005 the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment was conducted under the United Nations to determine the effects our actions have on the planet, and it had revealed some distressing information. There were four findings:

  1. Human tampering of ecosystems to meet rapidly growing demands for food, fresh water, timber, fiber, and fuel results in substantial and largely irreversible loss in the diversity of life on earth. And we know that diversity is necessary for continuity of life.
  2. Changes to ecosystems contribute to net gains in human well-being and economic development, but at growing costs resulting in degradation of many ecosystem services, increased risk of non-linear changes, and exacerbation of poverty. And unless addressed, these problems will diminish the benefits for future generations.
  3. The degradation of ecosystem services could grow significantly worse during the first half of this century; and the direct drivers of ecosystem change are habit change, overexploitation of species and natural entities, introduction of invasive alien species, pollution, and climate change. All human-caused of course.
  4. Reversing the degradation of ecosystems while meeting increasing demands for the services can be partially met under some scenarios that would involve significant changes in policies. Also, options do exist to conserve and enhance ecosystem services in ways that do reduce negative trade off and produce positive synergies with other ecosystem services.

Basically what this all means is that we’ve been seriously toying with the environment for the purpose of maintaining a first world lifestyle, and that there are ways we can try to reverse the damage and live in a more harmonious, truly human relationship to the earth.

We’ve been living in this old dream of an ideal lifestyle that prioritizes our ability to acquire whatever thing we want without thinking twice about how it got into our hands. But the lie was hidden from us the whole time, and we lived in ignorant bliss until we started noticing a difference in our neck of the earth. There’s a new dream we should all embrace. This “new dream” should be one that emphasizes community, ecological sustainability, and celebration of non-material values.

Hopefully we can grow up and wizen up as a nation to take on our problems and tackle them with blatant sincerity and enthusiasm. We’d be a race of fools to choose anything else.

The Scarlet Era: Anthropocene

Day 4 Blog Post

Scientists know that there have been six major mass species extinctions on the planet to date. In one of these mass extinctions, the dinosaurs ceased to exist. And each phase of newly replenishing of fauna and flaura, for which is takes on average tens of millions of years to biologically bound back, have been given names (Pleistocene, Triassic, etc). It is widely accepted that what caused the end of the dinosaurs was an asteroid, an extra-planetary cause that could not have been prevented. Due to all the changes that our species has directly dealt onto the planet, there is the notion that we should call this era of time in which we inhabit the “Anthropocene.”

The Anthropocene era is an “informal geologic chronological term that serves to mark the evidence and extent of human activities that have had a significant global impact on the Earth’s ecosystems,” coined recently by ecologist Eugene Stoermer. There is no specific start date, but atmospheric evidence points to the Industrial Revolution; although it can be argued that the very start of agriculture can also mark the beginning of the Anthropocene era. This is as much a celebration of human dominion over the earth as it is a dunce cap. In textbooks, it should be written in as a sober reminder of what we have done. Our textbook, The Environmental Ethics & Policy Book, includes a literal warning to the readers and to the world at large:

“We the undersigned senior members of the world’s scientific community, hereby warn all humanity of what lies ahead. A great change in our stewardship of the earth and the life on it is required, if vast human misery is to be avoided and our global home on this planet is not to be irretrievably mutilated.”

For those who argue that extinction is ok, a natural rhythm of life – it is, but not at the rate that we’re causing it to be. The rate of extinction today is happening 100,000 times faster than what “natural rhythms” in evolutionary processes would normally allow. What this means is that the rate of extinction is surpassing the rate of evolution and growth, and simple math tells us that before long, there will be a LOT less biodiversity on the planet. If current trends continue, half or more of all plant and animal species will disappear forever. But what does that mean for me in my house living my comfortable life indoors? Well, other than permanently severing the ecospiritual relationship that we as a species share with the earth that was explained in my last post, it would mean the collapse of not only precious ecosystems and life forms, but also a crumbling of many of the institutions that we as a culture, society, and a people rely on. Our pharmaceutics depend on biodiversity to create the vaccines that we need; the comfortable climate we’ve been enjoying since our start as a species is directly linked to healthy ecosystems; biofiltration is important not only for the chemical defenses that some plants have that we can use, but for the air that we breathe. Tree hugging is sounding better and better, right?

What’s amazing about life is that all living things are direct descendants of the strange little organisms that lived 3.8 billion years ago. All living organisms are genetic libraries, who’s DNA is composed of nucleotide sequences that record evolutionary events from all across the immense spans of lived time. We evolved into that tapestry of life that had already been so beautifully woven around the planet. If 50% of the calcium that makes up the bones in some species of bears and 60% of the nitrogen that makes the conifer trees of the forests has been isotopically found to come directly from marine life – fish – I believe there is one universal lesson: everything is connected.

Each year we consume 50% of what the earth has produced using photosynthesis; global warming could doom 50 million different species by the year 2050; 70% of the earth’s surface has been transformed for human use. We create plastic, a substance that had never existed before, at an alarming rate and we don’t have a way of getting rid of it (except for this amazing discovery of plastic-eating bacteria – earth fights back?) After learning this I took a closer look at my commute from school to home and it was eye-opening to notice that the only signs of foliage, life other than the human footprint, something other than concrete, was a park I passed by on the train and the lawns in front of mine and my neighbor’s houses. The very ground beneath your feet right now is most likely artificial or man-made. This begs the very current question: does wilderness exist anymore, and is there anything we can do to save what remains? The working definition of “wilderness” (one of those obscure words like “nature”) is “an area of the earth substantially untrammeled or unmodified by human beings.” What’s upsetting is that people will vouch to save the “wilderness/nature” they think is “pretty” or “nice,” but if beauty is in the eye of the (human) beholder, the solution for preserving natural entities shouldn’t be based on aesthetics. Telling this to a society that derives happiness from consumption/thinks food comes from the supermarket is an uphill battle, but one worth every drip of sweat to fight.

We’re the only species that has the ability to destroy copious amounts of life. It took 3 billion years of evolution to create the diversity of life that brought us into existence, and 350 million years to assemble the rain forests in which half of all living things inhabit (VanDeVeer). We’ve only been around for 100,000 years, and in less time than that, we’ve managed to start the onset of events that will, if gone unstopped, bring the whole intricate system to a crashing halt. But we’re also the only species who can save everything. Let’s call this era the Anthropocene; and let’s wear that title as a reminder of what we’ve done, but also as an encouragement to better the life of the one thing that counts most – the earth.

Something New to Put Your Faith In

Day 3 Blog Post

In my opinion, everyone should see this documentary called “The Journey of the Universe.” Brian Swimme interestingly introduced concepts and strings together science with meaning in a way that is not at all preachy or farfetched, but rather suggestive and imaginatively thought-provoking. The documentary-like film philosophically injects spirituality in scientific theory, and offers the “what if” mentality of a reciprocal relationship between all living things. For example, he starts with the loaded notion that “the stars are our ancestors,” and that “life was inevitable” since the start of existence, all while managing to remain outside the realm of religion. Swimme worked with another person who made it his life to teach of the deep connection between man and earth, Thomas Berry, and the two actually made another work called “The Universe Story.” Berry advocated for the idea of “ecospirituality,” which proposed a “deep understanding of the history and functioning of the evolving universe as a necessary inspiration and guide for our own effective functioning as individuals and as a species.”

I think it’s fascinating and, in my opinion, not too off course to think of the universe and our role in it to be absolutely reciprocal. The idea that animate life and the – seemingly – inanimate universe are “woven” together in a dance that produces such amazing biota here on this planet is something we as a conscious people with a collective memory should really try to embrace and remember not to overlook. It really makes you think, what does it mean to be human? Since human beings are about as diverse as any other living organism, if not more complicated due to our ability to create entire cultures, what makes a human a human? Brian Swimme asks us to look at the young of any animal. The way a baby tiger romps around with the rest of his brothers and sisters, or the way dolphins actually play with each other and toy around with other whales and even snorkeling humans point to another agenda that some species have that’s not entirely focused on eat-sleep-reproduce survival. It’s the innocent yearning to just enjoy living. What’s the scientific definition of just having fun? Making happiness out of existing?

We may be the only species that has consciousness of our own consciousness, and now, we find ourself in a world that is ridden with technology. Man has made his mark in more indelible ways than what ever could have been imagined by the man who lived a much simpler lifestyle of just a couple of centuries ago. The scar we made in the earth was put there by our own goodwill; we’ve used the earth as a resource to better our lives, feed our children, convenience ourselves, but in so doing we have done actually the reverse. Overpopulation and climate change are the byproducts of manifest destiny, globalization, “business as usual” in the global economy.

But we’re not the dominant life form on planet earth for our mistakes. What also makes us irrevocably human is also our creation of language. We can reverse a lot of what we’ve done using the same methods that permit us to screw them up. We may be “genetic cousins to every living being,” and that alone is the kind of message our cultures need to be promoting, but what really puts us on top is our manipulation of symbols; in essence creating an entirely other universe that exists within the collective conscious of this one particular species, homo sapien. Our job now is learn how to intermingle the universe inside ourselves with the universe that exists outside our bodies, because one of them might be in more trouble than the other.

St. Rose’s Garden

Day 2 Blog Post

This post is in response to the St. Rose Garden project. More links to find out about the St. Rose Garden located on the Bronx campus can be found here and on the Facebook page.

As a commuter who’s main campus is FCLC, the idea of having access to freshly grown organic produce at a fraction of the price it costs at Whole Foods is very enticing. However, the St. Rose’s Garden is located at the Rose Hill campus. If there were a way to bring the produce down to Lincoln Center – sort of like a “fresh direct” or peapod approach – I’m sure the FCLC students would happily embrace the $16/share idea, and there would definitely be an increase in the amount of student supporters of this initiative.

One problem arises, though; the act of transporting the locally grown produce by truck (or some other carbon-based method of transportation) essentially negates the green initiative of this project. I suppose if students took some form of public transportation (subway, ram van) and brought the food back down themselves then the system would be pretty green; however, getting kids to go up to the Bronx campus for any reason other than having class is a struggle in itself.

In regard to connecting the St. Rose Garden practicum to the reading, “Agrarian Philosophy and Ecological Ethics,” I must say that nowhere else can one see the validity of the statement “the natural environment is intentionally modified by human beings” more. What I mean by that is that in seeing all the work that goes into maintaining an urban garden no larger than a typical suburban backyard, it’s easy to see how interacting within the man-made environment (everywhere you see concrete rather than dirt ground) is, ironically, becoming second-nature. The traditional definition of agrarianism says it’s “a social or political movement designed to bring about land reforms or to improve the economic status of the farmer.” Others, however, place a more moral role on the movement/way of life. One idea that’s interesting to take away from this reading is that “moral codes evolve over time to fit the way that ‘patterns and action allow a given group to cope effectively with the challenges of its environment’;” for example, the old hunter gatherer societies moralized sharing because their lifestyle – the way they interacted with their physical environment – was in such a way that not sharing meant less living. This is key: the environment shapes the moral landscape of society; “norms that are passed down are those selected by the environment by virtue of their capacity to feed people.”

In reading this, it just seemed like human history made so much more sense. The reasons of interaction and mentalities behind every emerging culture obviously sprouted from their relationship to the world around them and beneath their plows. Most economists and philosophers argue that value is derived from human use of nature and natural entities (like rivers, forests, etc.), however environmentalists believe that value is an intrinsic feature of sentient creatures, living organisms, and self-reproducing systems (like species, ecosystems, planet earth itself). The idea of “new agrarianism,” however, is a “popular movement emerging out of various attempts that small farmers and community organizers have made to develop an alternative food system, loosely organized around the notion of ‘land-health’.” And what better example of “new agrarianism” than none other than our St. Rose’s Garden.