NY Time’s article on the true cost of eating meat

January 27th, 2008

Mark Bittman, of the popular How to Cook Everything books, has written an excellent article on the environmental costs of eating meat, especially in the amounts that the average American consumes.  Oh, and he’s not a vegetarian. 

http://www.nytimes.com/2008/01/27/weekinreview/27bittman.html?_r=1&ref=science&oref=slogin

Some excerpts:

“Americans eat about the same amount of meat as we have for some time, about eight ounces a day, roughly twice the global average. At about 5 percent of the world’s population, we “process” (that is, grow and kill) nearly 10 billion animals a year, more than 15 percent of the world’s total.

“Growing meat (it’s hard to use the word “raising” when applied to animals in factory farms) uses so many resources that it’s a challenge to enumerate them all. But consider: an estimated 30 percent of the earth’s ice-free land is directly or indirectly involved in livestock production, according to the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization, which also estimates that livestock production generates nearly a fifth of the world’s greenhouse gases — more than transportation.

“To put the energy-using demand of meat production into easy-to-understand terms, Gidon Eshel, a geophysicist at the Bard Center, and Pamela A. Martin, an assistant professor of geophysics at the University of Chicago, calculated that if Americans were to reduce meat consumption by just 20 percent it would be as if we all switched from a standard sedan — a Camry, say — to the ultra-efficient Prius. Similarly, a study last year by the National Institute of Livestock and Grassland Science in Japan estimated that 2.2 pounds of beef is responsible for the equivalent amount of carbon dioxide emitted by the average European car every 155 miles, and burns enough energy to light a 100-watt bulb for nearly 20 days.”

Mainstream media still ignores global warming

January 17th, 2008

Glaciers in Iceland

It seems everyday there are more studies and reports coming out on the impacts of climate change–now and in the future (at mongabay we see A LOT of them).  Yet, rarely do these studies make it to mainstream new sources.  Either, the media is still run by science-skeptics or the newspapers, news shows, and online media sources actually believe that Brittany Spears’ latest cry for help, Clinton’s (take your pick: Hilary’s or Bill’s) latest remark on race, or the newest electronic gadget is somehow more important than massive shifting of earth’s temperature, causing desertification, species extinction, ocean warming, new migration patterns, flooding, increased intensity of storms, increased unpredictability of weather, changes in agriculture, and the beginning of struggles over dwindling resources, namely water. 

The newest proof of American media’s unwillingness to accept the seriousness of climate change is the presidential primaries, which have received such a glut of coverage that I actually know how much the candidates have spent on haircuts (unwillingly).  Yesterday, both Moveon.org and the National Resource Defense Council (NRDC) reported that in the primary debates  only three questions out of  2,500 have been related to climate change.  A letter from NRDC states: “they have spent more time talking about baseball, UFOs, and Chuck Norris than they have about global warming”. 

While this is patently ridiculous and gross negligence on the part of the news organizations and their top-brass anchors, it’s not all that surprising.  Global warming is a serious issue, arguably the most serious issue in our world today, and arguably one of the most serious issues human beings–as a species and a civilization–have ever faced, but sometimes America has difficulty with serious issues: we’re after all the culture of video games, reality TV, and our stupidest videos.  In general, we prefer distraction and entertainment to serious debate and thought.  For presidental debates baseball, UFOs, and Chuck Norris are much lighter (distracting and entertaining) fare than a global ecosystem undergoing massive change (although I wonder how the candidate’s policies differ regarding baseball, UFOs, and Chuck Norris).

I do not mean this to imply hopelessness.  I have hope that the next president will be serious about global warming.  I have hope our consumeristic, distracted culture can change in time.  I have hope the next generation may possess the skills to take real time on serious issues (and not just climate change).  I have a lot of hope.  I just wish–sometimes–the America of today could buoy that hope just a little, rather than tying stone after stone to it.    

NY Times Article on Europe’s Hunger for Illegal Fish

January 16th, 2008

Yesterday the New York Times printed an enlightening article on the massive illegal seafood trade in Europe.   It may be time for a moratorium on eating seafood altogether…

The article can be accessed here:

http://www.nytimes.com/2008/01/15/world/europe/15fish.html?scp=2&sq=fish+europe

 An excerpt (by Elizabeth Rosenthal):

“Fish is now the most traded animal commodity on the planet, with about 100 million tons of wild and farmed fish sold each year. Europe has suddenly become the world’s largest market for fish, worth more than 14 billion euros, or about $22 billion a year. Europe’s appetite has grown as its native fish stocks have shrunk so that Europe now needs to import 60 percent of fish sold in the region, according to the European Union.

“In Europe, the imbalance between supply and demand has led to a thriving illegal trade. Some 50 percent of the fish sold in the European Union originates in developing nations, and much of it is laundered like contraband, caught and shipped illegally beyond the limits of government quotas or treaties. The smuggling operation is well financed and sophisticated, carried out by large-scale mechanized fishing fleets able to sweep up more fish than ever, chasing threatened stocks from ocean to ocean.

“The European Commission estimates that more than 1.1 billion euros in illegal seafood, or $1.6 billion worth, enters Europe each year. The World Wide Fund for Nature contends that up to half the fish sold in Europe are illegally caught or imported. While some of the so-called “pirate fishing” is carried out by non-Western vessels far afield, European ships are also guilty, some of them operating close to home. An estimated 40 percent of cod caught in the Baltic Sea are illegal, said Mireille Thom, a spokeswoman for Joe Borg, the European Union’s commissioner of fisheries and maritime affairs. “

Non-Violence and Environmental Action

January 14th, 2008

Humpback Whale

Currently, in the Antarctic seas, Greenpeace’s ship Esperanza is chasing Japan’s whaling fleet.  Japan plans to take 900 minke whales and 50 fin whales for what they claim is scientific study, yet the whale’s final destination is Japanese restaurants and markets. 

Greenpeace believes in non-violent protest.  By chasing the whaling fleet the organization is attempting to interrupt the hunt–the Japanese cannot hunt when on the move–but not to damage the fleet.  Another environmental organization, the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, is also pursuing the fleet, but has selected a more ‘action-oriented’ role, including in the past sinking and ramming ships, though no lives have been recorded as lost due to their actions. 

In the past century non-violent protests have proven, at times, remarkably successful.  The practice was first put in use by Gandhi (but what inspired by everything from Hinduism and Buddhism to Leo Tolstoy), then later by Martin Luther King and the People Power revolution in the Philipines.  Non-violence has been a way for people without traditional means of power–wealth, status, and/or weaponry–to create powerful change.  It is also a largely held moral and spiritual belief; those who practice non-violence believe that violent action is never acceptable and in the end solves nothing, but only begets more violence.  Non-violence may mean non-cooperation with the powers-that-be, it may mean peaceful protests and marches, or direct intervention without violence–this is what Greenpeace is doing by interfering with the Japanese whale hunt without attacking the ships or crew involved.  Non-violence also means that if one should meet violence they should do so without re-acting: turn the other cheek.  Non-violent philosophy is vast and its practitioners diverse: this is only meant as a quick sketch of the philosophy.  

Greenpeace has used non-violence from the beginning of its inception: attempting to save whales (and bringing their plight to the media) and other species, as well as preventing toxins from being dumped into the ocean etc.  Their actions have made them heroes to some, and extremists to others.  Japan has labeled them as ‘environmental terrorists’: a hyperbole if ever there was one.   

I applaud Greenpeace’s actions and its commitment to non-violence.  While the organization is not perfect, and has made mistakes in the past, it serves as a reminder of the power of non-violence to wake people up to injustice.  The difficulty that Greenpeace faces, of course, is that the injustice in not human-to-human, but human to another species and a larger ecosystem.  This requires a leap in ethical views.  Do whales have rights? And if so what are they?  Should ecosystems have rights to protect them from ourselves?  These are questions that require addressing throughout our societies.  Can we really expect to preserve any natural part of our global, to conquer such issues as global warming and mass extinction, if rights stop at homo sapiens and do not extend to the water we drink, the forests that take in the carbon and keep our riverways clean, the innumerable species that share our planet.   

As for the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, while I understand their frustrations and agree with their mission, I do not believe in their means.  Although they have yet to murder any person, their declaration of ‘any means necessary’ (including gloating about sinking ships), not to mention their grotesque use of a Pirate skull on their flag, only harms the cause of environmentalism and protecting species.  By taking the low road, they are proving themselves not dissimilar in means from the corporate and governmental forces they oppose.  

Personally, I believe that non-violence should play a larger role in the environmental movement.  Imagine: sit-ins for endangered species, marches on Washington for sustainable energy, boycotts against unsustainable fishing practices, protests against the coal and gas industries.  By doing so organizations and individuals risk being labeled as extremists (or even terrorists).  They risk being told that they care more about other species than their own, but more and more it appears that our species is just as dependent on the health of the global environment as any other species.    Secondly, can we really reasonably argue anymore that the one species is master of the earth, while all others proves slaves to our whims?  Does human-power make human’s right? 

It appears to me that for the average citizen–who believes passionately in these issues–non-violence may be one of the best ways to affect change, whether it is changing the situation or changing minds.  At the same time, one must attempt actions that are not easily disregarded as extremist and wacko (remember being called ‘green’ used to be a dirty word).  One guy chaining himself to a tree is fodder for mockery and cynicism, a thousand people surrounding a grove marked off for another box store may not appear so nutso.  A million people marching for action on global warming in Washington may just make history. 

Things are changing.  The green movement is no longer only on the fringes.  Perhaps, now is the time for other NGOs (or individual leaders) to look to Gandhi for inspiration.  If the practice of non-violence enmasse can overthrow an empire, perhaps it can also change the way we view our world.    

     

Conservation Forestry Rule Engine Financed by the Carbon Markets and A Commodity Buffer Zone

January 9th, 2008

Malaysian rainforest 

Previously, we wrote “the land dictates the rules, and rural communities are the gatekeepers” [The Jakarta Post, December 2007] regarding how should the nascent forestry ecological service market develop. Essentially, this equates “avoided deforestation” best practices with best practices in natural resources management.

To explain further, a successful avoided deforestation project is a subset of land use, land use change, and forestry. What this means on the ground is that land use, land use change, and forestry can primarily fund avoided deforestation projects along with possible secondary carbon financing. This removes the responsibility of the carbon markets for being the primary source of funds for these large scale transactions. Furthermore, this integrative management technique relays less on new possible developments in on the sub-national, national, and international level as current avoided deforestation management policy driven tools originating from Bali.

Yet, what I have observed in my survey of project developers internationally are the following:

A.      Linear thinking and arrogance by participants will cause project failure.

B.      Inability of ex-pats to understand / participate in local culture.

C.      Inability of locals to bridge societal levels.

D.      Inability of all participants to communicate effectively.

Let me explain. Linear thinking dominates the logic expressed by project developers in the market place today. We have few market participants who are willing to understand how there may be causality and correlation between local nutrition levels and clean water and deforestation. In fact, local communities if they have access to improved nutrition and cleaner water will in plain English “have more to live for” and may “express greater interest in engaging with the sustainable management of their local resources”. I have been told of two projects, both anonymous, where a policy decision coupled with protection of a threatened forest have caused either starvation or malnutrition. These projects are geographically dispersed on two continents.

Next, ex-pats are often times not willing to engage local communities culturally. An anonymous source described unintentionally how little she knew about the local community she was working in when she mentioned that she hadn’t spent an evening communicating with locals on the ground in their village in an informal fashion. The key for project success is trust and confidence garnered by you the project developer through interaction with your local community. This in many cases will not occur in formal meetings since many communities simply want us as project developers to leave as soon as possible without minimal disturbance.

Yet, I have also experienced local individuals’ lack of ability to bridge societal levels. Many local individuals I have spoken to always assume poverty as a rationale for not wanting to engage with their fellow citizens. If your local connection is uncomfortable talking to all members of her community, you may be in for a surprise once the project begins. It the ability of your local project developer counterpart to successfully and effectively communicate with individuals within their society that may decrease qualitatively and quantitatively decrease your risk.

Finally, I have generally noticed a lack of project participants globally to effectively communicate with the individuals that they most need to communicate with. An anonymous project developer I know lost their contract because they couldn’t relate emotionally to their funder’s passion for forest protection and sustainability. These two counterparties clearly communicated regarding technical concerns about GHG and carbon accounting and project scope. Yet, the contract was lost because they didn’t communicate emotionally with their client. This specifically means that by relying too much upon a contract to define a relationship the firm missed the point. We are developing a new market and we have a tremendous amount to learn from each other ­– and this requires sincerity, credibility, and trust.

Gabriel Thoumi is a Masters Fellow at the Erb Institute for Global Sustainable Enterprise at the University of Michigan in conjunction with the Ross School of Business and the School of Natural Resources and Environment. He can be reached at thoumi@umich.edu.

Tasmanian devil populations severely diminished by bizarre cancer

January 8th, 2008

The Tasmanian devil, that iconic marsupial predator of the Australian state of Tasmania, may soon meet its end. A surprising one. Once common throughout the continent, it is believed that devils became relegated to Tasmania sometime after the introduction of the dingo to Australia by Austronesian traders 2,000-3,500 years ago. Now foxes have been intentionally and foolishly brought into Tasmania which is dealing a huge blow to the devil population. However, something else may extinguish the Tasmanian devil before the foxes ever get to it…

An extremely rare (some call it completely new) form of cancer is spreading alarmingly quickly across Tasmania, inflicting Tasmanian devils with rapidly proliferating facial tumors. The end result is death by starvation. The really bizarre part of this is that this is an infectious cancer, probably passed on as Tasmanian devils scavenge the bodies of others. This was determined when it was discovered that the disorganization of the cancerous cells’ chromosomes in multiple individuals all had pretty much identical character, and that a unique marker present in one of the devil’s normal cells was absent in its cancerous cells. This is definitely NOT normal for cancer. And extremely scary. It’s not one of those cancers that arises spontaneously in one individual and stays in that individual; it’s not even something passed genetically from generation to generation. It’s passed ambiently, spreads quickly, and kills in a matter of months. In ten years, it’s killed anywhere between 20% and 50% of all Tasmanian devils living on the island, with about 60% of the island affected. High density populations have a reported 100% mortality rate within 12-18 months. This has elevated its conservation status from “lower risk/least concern” in 1996 to in 2006 being at risk of extinction in the “medium term”.

There are a number of projects being conducted by the University of Tasmania in effort to discover more about the disease/stop it. It’s all pretty expensive, so donations are welcomed. Go to http://www.tassiedevil.com.au/help.html to find out more.

(photo by Menna Jones)

More media coverage of Woodlark Island situation

January 7th, 2008

Woodlark Island Cuscus

The Woodlark islanders struggle to stop Vitroplant Ltd from logging seventy percent of their island for palm oil plantations has received new attention from organizations and media. 

The online organization forests.org has set up an action letter which anyone concerned by the issue may attach their name to have their opinion sent to 12 administrators involved.   Over two thousand people from all over the world have sent protests for Vitroplant Ltd.’s plans.  The link to the letter:

http://www.rainforestportal.org/alerts/send.asp?id=png_woodlark

 These protests have been covered by media in the pacific:

 http://www.mvariety.com/?module=displaystory&story_id=4740&format=html

http://www.rnzi.com/pages/news.php?op=read&id=37298

As well a recent (and excellent) article has appeared in Pacific Magazine updating the situation:

 http://www.pacificmagazine.net/news/2007/12/30/scientists-to-study-island-thats-site-of-proposed-palm-estate

Does cryptozoology deserve its bad reputation? Probably.

January 5th, 2008

Platypus OkapiCoelacanthHomo floresiensis Chupacabra

To almost everyone, cryptozoology does not belong in the scientific world. It relies extensively on anecdotal evidence, is known to fall headlong into hoaxes, and includes Loch Ness Monster fanatics and those people who were convinced that that poor, dead, hairless coyote was a Mexican Goat Sucker. There are thousands of online communities devoted to Bigfoot, some of which organize large expeditions into the woods which, as far as I’ve read, haven’t resulted in anything but the opportunity for these people to get together and impress each other with their expensive night-vision goggles and infrared cameras. And it’s not as if there aren’t new species to be discovered; there are tons of them – mostly insects, plants, and microscopic organisims – but cryptozoology focuses on only the pop-macrofaunal end of the spectrum, leaving the ants and mosses to others, well, more qualified.

That said, the persistence of cryptozoology (and the deep pockets of its wealthier members) has paid off more than once. The okapi, a short-necked, forest-dwelling relative of the giraffe, was regarded by Europeans as an African myth until the British governor of Uganda caught a glimpse of it in 1901.
When the platypus was discovered by Europeans in 1798, the specimens sent back to England were quickly declared fabrications; it took years of ardent persuasion for those in Australia (and fans in Europe) to convice the rest of the world that this strange little egg-laying mammal was indeed real.
The coelacanth, a massive relative of lungfish and tetrapods, was believed to have been extinct since the end of the Cretaceous until one was caught off the coast of South Africa in 1938. Since then it’s come to light that many native communities that line the eastern coast of Africa have for generations used the coelacanth for everything from a source of food to kind of sandpaper.
And then there’s Homo floresiensis, a dwarf form of Homo erectus, the discovery of whose bones on the Indonesian island of Flores in 2003 may have been foreshadowed by references to miniature people in the legends of the island’s natives.

Okapis, platypuses, coelacanths, and floresiensi all had their proponents well before their existence was proven to the world. Of course, so does the Abominable Snowman. Perhaps the lesson here is that real scientists should think about looking for the grain of truth in anecdotal evidence before disounting it altogether, and cryptozoologists should maybe, just maybe, rid themselves of crackpots stop blowing up that grain past any conceivable context.

Tourism puts the Galapagos at risk

January 5th, 2008

Mother and baby sea lions in the Galapagos

A booming “ecotourism” industry is bringing new threats to the Galapagos, reports a feature in the Wall Street Journal.

Unsustainable tourism development, an influx of workers from the mainland, and introduced species are putting endemic biodiversity and habitats at risk.

“The islands’ fragile ecosystem can be easily disrupted, particularly as the increasing number of planes and ships landing in the Galapagos bring foreign species. Whether insects, snakes or feral cats and dogs, the invaders can wreak havoc by destroying plants and other food sources, eating eggs or attacking birds or mammals,” writes Stan Sesser.

While the Ecuadorian government has recently announced measures to control commercial fishing, restrict immigration, and mitigating damage from alien invasive species, its toughest challenge is addressing tourism.

“It’s not a simple solution, because to limit tourism will be to limit income,” Mauricio Castillo, an official for Unesco in Quito, told the paper.

A Rainforest in France?

January 5th, 2008

Colombia rainforest

A study suggests that France was once covered with tropical vegetation, reports LiveScience.

Writing in the Jan. 4 issue of The Journal of Organic Chemistry, researchers report “the discovery of a new organic compound in amber called “quesnoin,” whose precursor exists only in sap produced by a tree currently growing only in Brazil’s Amazon rainforest.”

The researchers say the amber likely dripped from a similar tree that once covered France millions of years before the continents drifted into their current positions.

LiveScience