The Real Tree-Hugger’s Manifesto

Day 27 Blog Post

Moving on from a look at interspecific justice and interactions between species, we now look at a more stringent approach to an environmental ethic: Paul Taylor’s biocentric ethic, in his The Ethics of Respect for Nature. In this he makes the “biocentric egalitarian” claim that all living things have equal inherent worth in that each living being is a goal-directed system pursuing its own good. He develops a sort of Kantian approach by giving two concepts, one being that “every organism, species population, and community of life has a good of its own which moral agents can intentionally further or damage by their actions,” and that we consider all living beings to have inherent worth. From this, Taylor develops the principles of moral consideration and intrinsic value. The principle of moral consideration holds that “wild living things are deserving of the concern and consideration of all moral agents simply in virtue of their being members of the Earth’s community of life.” The principle of intrinsic value states that, regardless of what kind of entity it is in other respects, if it is a member of the Earth’s community of life, the realization of its good is something intrinsically valuable. Basically, Taylor is expanding the moral community to all things that are alive; and as good as this sounds on paper, it might be one of the most drastic, or hard to actualize, theories that we’ve looked at.


His biocentric outlook has four main components: 1) humans are thought of as members of the Earth’s community of life, holding that membership on the same terms as apply to all the nonhuman members; 2) the Earth’s natural ecosystems as a totality are seen as a complex web of interconnected elements, with the sound biological functioning of each being dependent on the sound biological functioning of the others; 3) each individual organism is conceived of as a teleological center of life, pursuing its own good in its own way; 4) whether we are concerned with standards of merit or with the concept of inherent worth the claim that humans by their very nature are superior to other species is a groundless claim and, in the light of elements 1 and 2 and 3 above, must be rejected as nothing more than an irrational bias in our own favor.

Callicott comes under fire for his “environmental fascism” that places the benefit of the ecological whole over the ecological individual – sacrificing a couple of deer for the benefit of the community that is avoiding overpopulation. But Taylor is almost the opposite. He differs form Callicott in that his more individualistic rather than holistic approaches total ecosystems as only mattering because individuals find their good within them, but since the entire ecosystem is not driven toward a goal-directed end, it’s consideration is beneath that of the individuals that make it up. This seems somewhat silly to me. I can appreciate what he means in saying that as our understanding of living things increases with the studies of biology and ecology, then so does our interactions with other organisms and empathy for their lives and ends in themselves. But the entire construct of life itself on the planet is based on the symbiotic relationships between living and non-living things. This means that some species use others in mutual ways to the benefit of both. Sometimes it’s more one-sided, as with any animal that eats another, but ecologically sustains the energy system of life.


I do agree with his denial of human superiority. No where in the natural world are we given privilege over anything else. The privilege we think we have is completely self-constructed, so in theory it doesn’t really count in relation to the way we treat other living things. But I see what Taylor is ultimately saying here. Rather than lower ourselves or lower insects in a hierarchy of ecological importance, we must consider (sounds like Singer’s language) the lives of all living things as equally important. This obviously comes under attack when we think that the picking of a flower is as harmful as killing a person, and ecologically it might be a little too purist to follow through and put into any kind of law. I mean, it’s not like we can photosynthesize for food…

sun person SS

I personally believe that people like Leopold, Callicott, and Taylor are all etching closer and closer a picture of an environmental ethic that ultimately needs to be a more ecologically-based. An approach that develops a proper ethic of human treatment toward nonhumans is necessary. After all, we are animals, we do not live apart from the planet’s ecosystems. Our own ecological niche must be examined to determine our role on the planet so that we can make ours as smooth a fit as the others.


Everything Comes with a Price

Day 16 Blog Post

We have seen what a non-anthropocentric approach to environmental policy looks like with Leopold’s land ethic. His polar opposite comes in the form of William Baxter’s “anthropocentric libertarian free-market environmentalism,” which is a long way of saying that we humans should do what we want as long as we’re fulfilling what we want. If protecting the planet is what we desire, then we should pursue it, but only because it is what we, as members of the species of homo sapiens, want. He starkly claims that his “criteria are oriented to people, not penguins,” and that, “Damage to penguins, or sugar pines, or geological marvels is, without more, simply irrelevant.” At least he’s honest.

Baxter is very blunt about his argument. He says that nature cannot communicate its wants and needs to us, it is “ammoral,” and it has no moral consciousness; thus the principles of his libertarian free-market approach is basically the whim of the selfish needs of the human race, and maximizing our consumer demands as efficiently as possible. In this view, moral standing can only be given to conscious, rational humans; whom are also the only inhabiters of the moral community in his view. An environmental policy based solely on economic grounds requires well-defined property rights that allow decisions to be made about the use of property as well as evaluation of trade-offs with competing ends. Other than his placement of selfishness on a pedestal, Baxter’s lunacy also takes form in his belief that “ought” questions are meaningless when applied to nature because of its said lack of moral standing. Seeing as how all life is intertwined, this poses a problem.

Economic reasoning is extremely influential on policy making due to its practical, realistic, and precise formal approach. But the main defense of the market mechanism as a major player in policy making is its appeal to efficiency. Before the first thoughts of regulation, this typically anthropocentric view has lead people and governments to wreak havoc on the natural environment. If an industrial waste killed off an entire species in a forest, is it a pollutant? Traditional anthropocentric policy would have said no, as no humans would be in concern. Many economists often insist that they’re impotent to say whether the rules are “good” or “right,” and that to put a value judgement on the chips as they fall is a purely emotional response. However, the whole implicit commitment to the value of aggregate human happiness and want satisfaction suggests that evaluative assumptions are integral to economics. So what do we do when economic machines churn out negative externalities like water and air pollution? We can either persuade the people, corporations, and nations to voluntarily stop polluting, coerce them by attaching criminal penalties and/or public standards to polluting, or use a different form of coercion by placing taxes or charges to units of pollution, or require the possession of legal rights to pollute in a cap-and-trade system. The first is usually denied to have much or any effectivity in our society dominated by, ironically, Baxterian selfish corporate forces. The second and third propose a coercion to get people to do the right thing, and imply the cooperative efforts of realizing property rights. However, the talk of property rights is something that needs to be clearly laid out.

What is a property right? The concept of having property in something may be understood to mean having some combination of rights with respect to the thing owned. For example, to have a property right on something can mean having the right to use it, the right to exclude others from using it, the right to transfer the property to someone else (including the right to own it as property), the right to be compensated for its use by others, and even the right to destroy it. Now to claim that something has moral standing is to suggest that it is not subject to be owned in any full-blown sense. What does this imply when we think about how we as a species are depleting the natural resources that we technically share? Garrett Hardin’s famous essay Tragedy of the Commons challenges our treatment of the commons along these lines.

The Tragedy of the Commons claims that valuable natural resources are held in common, and that unrestrained access to the commons often leads to overuse and exploitation, proving destructive to all of us as a people. Privatization is discouraged because it allows for the use, consumption, and ultimate destruction of the natural resources that happen to be arbitrarily located within a company or nation’s political borders. John Locke saw property as something that you acquire through mixing your labor with the object, allowing it to become yours. But doesn’t the infringement on property rights caused by misuse of the commons deserve rectification? For example, acid rain is a violation of many property rights (private owners do not directly consent to having their foliage poisoned), and has caused a loss of $5 billion a year to Germany’s timber industry.

Hardin even explains why Bentham’s utilitarian principle of the “greatest good for the greatest amount” cannot be realized. Mathematically it’s impossible to maximize for two variables at once, and in maximizing population you must minimize the work calories required to sustain that population. This actually becomes his thesis: the “‘population problem,’ as conventionally conceived, is a member of the class of problems that have no technical solution.” “Population naturally tends to grow exponentially,” and in a finite world this means “the per capita share of the world’s goods must steadily decrease.” It’s pretty simple. A finite world can support only a finite population, so population growth must eventually even off at zero to accommodate for all the energy that goes into supporting the optimum population size. Ecologically this is understood as the carrying capacity, and right now our global population is way above the carrying capacity. When this happens to non-human species, it becomes a game of survival of the fittest in competition for food; however, our society is constructed in a way that would never allow for such hunger games (at least in ours).

Without getting too esoteric, we are nothing more than energy materialized in matter. Unfortunately we don’t produce our own energy like plants, so we need to eat. We derive our energy from other means in the form of work calories obtained from the metabolism of food. This is the amount of energy essential for doing anything above just sustaining life. Currently not all people have access to work calories (enough food to get up and move), which means they get by at the bare minimum. But this isn’t just the case with feeding people. The umbrella problem is the acquisition of energy in general. Our pursuit of coal is not only pollutive, but finite as well. Since the dawn of industrial acquisition of goods from the common, the oceans of the world have suffered under the credence that its “inexhaustible” resources will be there to supply us, and this is simply not true. We’re “fouling our own nest” with sewage, chemicals, and radioactive wastes in our grounds and waters, and noxious and dangerous fumes in the air. We’re adding to the problem without limit, as we’re taking away the common resources needed by everyone. We’re burning the candle of the earth at both ends.

As stated above, Hardin’s central concern is that the freedom to breed is intolerable. In calling attention to the damage that innocent actions by individuals can inflict on the environment, he says that “to couple the concept of the freedom to breed with the belief that everyone born has an equal right to the common is to lock the world into a tragic course of action.” Tragic, he means, in the sense that we are unintentionally causing the problems that will lead to our destruction. Hardin proposed a “mutual coercion mutually agreed upon,” as no perfect system of policy will be tolerable by all. This goes along with our recognition of the necessity of reform. He points out that restrictions on disposal of domestic sewage have widely been accepted in western civilization, but we’re still struggling to close the commons to pollution by automobiles, factories, insecticide, fertilizers, etc. Perhaps because these other pollution methods don’t directly appear as a burden to us as sewage management does (think of which you’d give priority to), and only until the pollution becomes so bad will we make as strong infrastructural commitments to their maintenance.

The way I see it, isn’t the fact that we have gotten to a point in civilization where we need to divide shares of the commons mean that we’re running the planet too fast? We’ve actually gotten to the point where as a species that has evolved with the earth we can now count and predict that we’re in danger of collapse. It would seem so unfathomable, but the reality is that our culture of consumption of resources is being adopted by other people. It would appear that a real golden age of modern humanity can only happen when the growth rate drops to zero – the perfect balance of constant birth and constant death. We need to start thinking with the common good in mind. We biologically cannot afford to deal with any company or nation’s selfishness as Baxter would have. We’ve enjoyed living beyond our means, but now that the rest of the world wants in on our lifestyle, plus the same for their kids, something’s gotta give. The cruise was fun, but now we’re stranded in the middle of the ocean, and there aren’t enough snacks for everyone. The truth here goes beyond one of inconvenience, it’s just scary.

Money or Leaves, Which is Greener?

Day 13 Blog Post

In today’s day and age the need for sustainable environmental policy is invaluable. The problem is we need to agree on a political, and thus value, method that encompasses the widest range of interests, while also being reasonable to the ecological conditions that we face. What this means is that some toes will get stepped on.

The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment assessed the consequences of ecosystem change for human well-being. From 2001 to 2005, the MA involved the work of more than 1,360 experts worldwide. Their findings provide a state-of-the-art scientific appraisal of the condition and trends in the world’s ecosystems and the services they provide, as well as the scientific basis for action to conserve and use them sustainably.The MA planed to use valuation as a tool that enhances the ability of decison-makers to evaluate trade-offs between alternative ecosystem management regimes and courses of social actions that alter the use of ecosystems and the services they provide. This usually requires assessing the change in the mix of services provided by an ecosystem resulting from a given change in its management.

The importance or “value” of ecosystems is viewed and expressed differently by different disciplines, cultural conceptions, philosophical views, and schools of thought. There are four major frameworks for evaluating ecosystem goods and services.

One is ecological value, which is based on what the natural sciences tell us and takes an anthropocentrically neutral stance. Ecosystems have value because they maintain life on earth and the services needed to satisfy human material and nonmaterial needs. A source of value has been articulated by natural scientists in reference to casual relationships between parts of a system, for example “the value of a particular tree species to control erosion or the value of one species to the survival of another species or of an entire ecosystem.” Globally, different ecosystems and their species play different roles in the maintenance of essential life support processes, such as energy conversion (photosynthesis in plants to give us oxygen), biogeochemical cycling (nitrogen fixation for planting and agriculture), and evolution (we’re here because of it). Indicators of ecological value are species diversity, rarity, ecosystem integrity (health), and resilience. This makes ecological valuation probably the easiest form of valuation because all these things can be empirically studied, measured, and proven.

The economic utility-based value is a form of economic anthropocentrism that looks to quantify nature, and thinks that knowing how to treat nature will be easier if we put a price on it. It is entirely utilitarian in theory and is based on the fact that human beings derive utility from ecosystem services either directly or indirectly. Two aspects are stressed. One, such a utilitarian approach bases its notion of value on attempts to measure the specific usefulness that individual members of society derive from a given service, and then aggregates across all individuals, usually weighing them all equally. The other is that utility cannot be measured directly, and therefore looks to measure all services in conveniently well recognized monetary terms. Motivations for our use of the economic valuation of ecosystems is to assess the overall contribution of ecosystems to social and economic well-being, to understand how and why economic actors use ecosystems the way they do,  and to assess the relative impact of alternative actions so as to help guide decision-making.

The problem is that many ecosystem services, like enjoying forests, boating on the seas, and climbing mountains, are not traded, and hence their values are not captured in the conventional system of national accounts as part of total income. These tend to be underpriced or not priced at all, leading to the inefficient and often unsustainable use of resources. This is why the utilitarian says valuation can help establish ecosystem values that allow correction of a country’s national accounts, also known as “greening;” and thus help reveal policy and institutional failures and benefits, as well as creating markets or improving incentives. But the Millennium Assessment plans to use valuation primarily for the rationale of assessing the impacts (gains and losses) of alternative ecosystem management regimes. The concept of total economic value (TEV) is used here to refer to the value of ecosystem goods and services that are used by humans for consumption or production. The TEV is separated into use and non-use values. The use value we derive economically is composed of direct use values (consumptive uses like harvesting food products, timber for fuel or construction and nonconsumptive uses like recreational and cultural amenities like watersports) and indirect use values, which would be inputs for production of final goods and services, like water, soil nutrients, and pollination, and other services like water purifications. There are also option values, which posit that many ecosystems services when not being used still hold value for preserving the option to use such services in the future, and so provisioning and regulation ensue. Then there are the non-use values, also known as existence value or conservation value. Although the utilitarian paradigm has no notion of intrinsic value, humans do ascribe value to knowing that a resource exists, even if they never use that resource, and many people do believe that ecosystems have intrinsic value. This is where there is partial overlap between the valuations. However, quantifying the biophysical relationships of the ecosystem is never simple and requires quantifying a chain of causality, which then requires collaboration between experts of various fields.

There is the sociocultural value of nature, which makes up a large gray area that mixes culturally anthropocentric values with non-anthropocentric values. It is important to realize that ecosystems are valued outside of their contribution to human well-being. It’s also important to keep in mind that some ecosystems are closely associated with historical, national, ethical, religious, and spiritual values. Think of the ethical importance of the rain forests of South America, the misty mountains of China, the bald-headed eagle of America. These things provide cultural services in their collective welfare of their societies. Even though the mentioned examples all serve anthropocentric ends (people are the ones who care about these things), it can be said that these ecosystems, landforms, and animals are also important in themselves – and that’s where the gray area between utilitarian and intrinsic value exists. It is proposed that the valuation of ecological goods and services should therefore result from a process of open public deliberation, and not from the aggregation of separately measured individual preferences, creating a deliberative or “group” contingent valuation process and uses hypothetical models and payment vehicles. However, I personally think that education on the importance of the ecosystems would be necessary before such heavy decision-making is put in the public’s hands. Regardless of whom the ecosystems in question are important to, these principles demonstrate how anthropocentric and non-anthropocentric values toward the environment are both important and mandate its protection.

And then there’s the intrinsic value of nature, which is non-anthropocentric and uses moral extentionism to see non-human beings and entities as valuable in their own right. The notion of nature’s intrinsic value is familiar to many of humanity’s oldest religions and cultures, but not so familiar to our modern rational choice society, which is based largely on economic valuation. It can be seen in the indigenous North and South American, African, and Australian cultural world views as well as in major religions of older European peoples, Middle East, and Asia. In some Native American worldviews, humans are on equal footing with animals and plants, born from the Mother Earth and Father Sky – we are related to these other aspects of nature and thus we all have intrinsic value. The presence of the Brahman – the essential oneness of all being that exists at the core of all natural things – is an example of the intrinsic value of nature in Hinduism. The moral imperative of ahimsa or “non-injury” that the Buddhist tradition extends to all living things is another example of intrinsic value expressed in these cultures.

It is important for decision-makers to assess empirically the actual ecosystem-oriented values – intrinsic, sociocultural, and ecological, as well as utilitarian – of those affected by ecosystem-oriented policy and decision. It’s interesting to note the two main traditions of modern secular ethics in western culture are counter opposites of each other. Utilitarianism, whose principle is the aggregate “happiness” or greater balance of pleasure over pain, and Kantianism, whose principle is to further the ends of humanity, but to also keep in mind that anything that is beyond a price has dignity. Being that human rights are principled on dignity and intrinsic value, many non-anthropocentric ethical theorists have adopted the intrinsic value paradigm. The principles of the differing worldviews, traditions, and religions are the cruxes of where they oppose each other. Aldo Leopold, creator of the land ethic, thought that everything deserving of human “love and respect” has intrinsic value, especially “biotic communities.” In Judeo-Christian thinking, people have intrinsic value on the principle that they were created in god’s image, and this perception of the difference between us (humans) and them (wilderness) is what has caused all of our cultural conceptions to date, as well as attributing the highest amount of intrinsic value to human life.

In modern democratic societies, we ascribe value through the parliament or legislature. It is only relatively recently that we started to ascribe intrinsic value to nature. The U.S. Endangered Species Act of 1973 gave absolute legal protection to listed endangered species, thereby giving them dignity comparable to the dignity that is accorded human life. Another bit of progress in undoing our tradition of selfish speciesism is the safe minimum standard (SMS), which is the economic equivalent of socially recognizing intrinsic value and subsequent protection. The SMS approach starts with a presumption that “the maintenance of the healthy functioning of any ecosystem is a positive good.” The rule is to maintain the ecosystem unless the opportunity costs of doing so are “intolerably high,” requiring burden of proof. The quantitative threshold to which the opportunity cost must rise to warrant violating the SMS is left as an open empirical question, allowing for the ever-beneficial furthering of scientific exploration and knowledge about the environments in which we inhabit so that we may intelligently protect everything in them.

Thoughts? The Millennium Assessment focuses heavily on the economic valuation of ecosystem goods and services, and probably because we inhabit a world where that’s the paradigm we’re in. It claims the purpose of economic valuation is to make the disparate services provided by ecosystems comparable to each other, using a common metric. But this is very difficult both conceptually and empirically. In the end, it’s great that considerable thought is going into the protection of ecosystem goods and services, for whatever justification, and if we can bring about a better looking planet from all of this thought and regulation, then perhaps we’ll realize what justification reigns supreme.


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.

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.

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.