Environmental appeals should be tagged: “Time done already run out”


A good, smart friend recently pointed out that while the science really does argue that there is no going back to a time before climate change or Arctic ice melt or dying polar bears or ecosystem disruption, Greenpeace, an environmental NGO that I support with heart, hand and wallet, continues a campaign that suggests it’s not too late to fix things.

Note: I don’t believe we’re really taking issue with Greenpeace’s campaign to fight uber-consumptive capitalism and industrial destruction of remaining Arctic resources. Rather, it’s the message which obfuscates and confounds a deeper truth: Time really has run out. We’re past a point of no return.

My friend Michael:

Is this a good appeal, still? Time is not running out, it has already run out. Already released GHGs are forcing the warming that will within a few years likely make the Arctic ice free during the summers. We cannot save the polar bear, or rather, we cannot save the polar bear’s habitat. I think Greenpeace knows that.

Better that we be honest about this and understand the implications, and how serious of spot we are in. To keep using this as a tool to get people on board can have the effect of giving people a sense that a) look people are doing something about this and since the polar bear is “being saved” its working, and that b) things are not all that serious if we can still do things like “save the polar bear.”

I think its better to start being clear about what we have messed up and cannot fix. If I’m not wrong, the Arctic is one of those things.

His point — one that many people have certainly discussed — has been kicking around my brain for the better part of a day.

I do absolutely agree that we need to come to serious terms with reality. Full stop. There is so much that we’ve already broken and we’re kidding ourselves if we think we can fix it. Again, full stop. A realistic picture would be a drowned polar bear washed up on a flooded city waterfront.

But for the sake of discussion… There are two concerns here. The content of the message (bears can be saved) and the goal/strategy of the message (enlist people/donors/members/activists).

The content is wrong. Polar Bears 1.0 cannot be saved. Whatever survives will be a different kind of polar bear (Not-Quite-Polar Bear V2.7.1) in a different place.

It’s the strategy that I’m wrestling with. And I admit that I’ve more often advocated going radical/brutal first. Soft touch isn’t my strong suit.

But I find myself asking, what would a picture of a drowned bear washed up in Sandy-induced flooding with a tag line of “You broke it, you bought it” or “Time done run out already” achieve? Does it move us to the goal of getting people off the bench and into the game?

Source: The Guardian and Ashley Cooper/Global Warming Images

Source: The Guardian and Ashley Cooper/Global Warming Images

It would be the brutal and honest truth, and I hope, would shake some people awake to reality. But would it also risk encouraging others to throw up their hands? Maybe such a message would just convince people to say, “Well, screw it. Smoke ‘em if you got ‘em. Let’s drive Hummers.” After all, humans are much at denial than acceptance.

This is a question we’ve gone round on before, but I’m asking it again. How do we communicate the truth of it?

The truth, at least to me, would seem to sound something like,

“We have screwed the pooch; a lot of people are going to suffer; a lot of natural systems — including humanity — will be irrevocably changed. Things are going to be different, which is our fault, but we have to move forward and work toward adapting to a new normal. This “normal” will ultimately be unstable and not feel very normal. But we must do [insert painful, landscape-changing, status quo-disrupting policies here] until we can achieve some sort of balance in our socio-economic-political relations with our environment. Don’t get your hopes up that we’re going to “fix” much of anything. Remember, we effed things up a lot. The future is going to hurt, but we have to at least try to make it hurt a little less.”

So how does one communicate that and get people involved, when we’re essentially saying that the best we can do is really not much? It seems like an appeal that is tagged “We’re mostly munted” isn’t much of an appeal.

Note: I think that the new distant future, if we succeed, will be pretty nice. Social capital, growing our own food, loving our neighbors, loving strangers, putting down roots, more biking and bowling and sweating, less plastic wrap and fake nacho cheese.

But that’s my version of success, which may not get a lot of people into the game.

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Cod-forsaken fish sticks

Writing about fisheries, hankering for veggie fish and chips

Writing about fisheries, hankering for veggie fish and chips

Interesting story yesterday from Maine. And I’ll get to how it relates to my culinary experiment (pictured above) earlier this year.

The lobster population has been exploding in the Gulf of Maine, which is a productive, protected and generally successful fishery. A problem: A high lobster population means lower prices. Sure, that’s good news for consumers who like everything to be cheap. But it’s bad news for local fishermen charged with protecting and husbanding the fishery while simultaneously paying bills.

The twist: This fishery dilemma dates to an earlier one, the overfishing of cod in New England. Cod eat everything off the ocean floor. Predation of lobster by cod was, according to scientists, an ecological check-and-balance.

What caused overfishing of cod? Among other phenomena, the fish stick. Yes, I’m suggesting that fish sticks constitute a phenomenon. So powerful was the mass-consumptive call for frozen, reheated, generic, white fish that the irrepressibly abundant cod are all but gone from the great George’s Bank. (Climate change may also have something to do with it.)

From Mark Kurlansky’s Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World, A 1950s advertisement from the Glouchester seafood company Gorton’s claimed that fish sticks were the

“latest, greatest achievement of the seafood industry of today… Thanks to fish sticks, the average American homemaker no longer considers serving fish a drudgery. Instead she regards it as a pleasure, just as her family have come to consider fish one of their favorite foods. Easy to prepare, thrifty to serve and delicious to eat, fish sticks, it can be truthfully said, have greatly increased the demand for fish, while revolutionizing the fishing industry.”

And this is how we get the picture above, my tofu-batter-vinegar-shallow-fry earlier this year. The social construct of the fish stick is powerful, indeed.

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UPDATED: Eat your public domain broccoli. Or eat Monsanto’s. They might be nearly the same.

Every time I wade into thinking about corporate control of agriculture, it steals several hours of my life and I usually end up flustered and wrong. Alas, I’ve done it again.

UPDATE AT BOTTOM with a response from one of the scientists involved. As always, there is more to the story. The short of it: The major breakthrough, it seems, would be held in public trust. Corporations will pay licensing fees to use it in their adaptations. Not sure this will ultimately circumvent the market power and hegemony of players like Monsanto, but it’s a start.

Tom Philpott over at Mother Jones writes about the prospect of fresher summer broccoli east of the Rockies. A number of land grant university scientists are trying to make a heat-tolerant variety of broccoli, so we don’t have to always buy it from California. And they want their creation to be public domain.

Smaller seed companies like Johnny’s Selected Seeds are involved. But so are Monsanto and Syngenta. Errp.

The way it works, Bjorkman explained, is that the Eastern Broccoli Project itself owns the breakthrough seed stock; the private partners like Monsanto and Johnny’s license it and cross it with their own broccoli varieties to create proprietary hybrids. “Our goal is to get seeds of better-adapted broccoli varieties out to Eastern growers so that they can grow more local broccoli,” he told me. And working with private players with established distribution networks is the fastest way to do that, he added.

In addition to the partnerships with Monsanto and Johnny’s and the like, the group also plans to place open-pollinated versions of the new broccoli in the public domain—meaning that smaller seed purveyors will be able to develop and market their own strains. Monsanto and Syngenta are obviously participating because they hope to benefit from an emerging market in summer broccoli for Eastern growers, but Bjorkman convinced me that Eastern farmers who want access to the new summer-friendly broccoli traits will be able to get them without having to deal with a big biotech company if they’d prefer not to.

Monsanto and Syngenta are partners but they ostensibly have no control over the science. If the goal is public seeds, what’s their incentive?

Well, corporate seed developers can piggyback, right? Cross the public domain strain with a so-called proprietary variety, gain the breakthrough trait and then market the patented seeds (someday, RoundUp Ready broccoli, perhaps?) in competition with the public domain variety.

Philpott’s post has been lit up by the anti-GMO, anti-Monsanto crowd, somewhat unfairly. But I’ll hazard a guess that the legitimate backlash here exists — ideology and parroting not withstanding — because when you look into the future, this feels a lot like more of the same.

Maybe both varieties exist, but Monsanto and Syngenta also have the extraordinary market control and access to the levers of power that allow them to continue to profit further off what supposed to be a public good — in this case, a specific variety of broccoli that withstands heat.

So… perhaps East Coasters and Midwesterners eat more broccoli, most likely Monsanto and Syngenta continue to make money, maybe fledgling seed companies limp along and I guess that means all is right with the world? Of course, Monsanto and Syngenta also pump money back into rent-seeking, into further proprietary tweaking, into legal wrangling and into spin/manipulation. So we’re no more disentangled from a fundamentally inequitable and self-destructive agro-food system.

An analogy: Give a team of little league-ers and the Yankees the same balls, bats and diamond and tell them to square off in a month. Who do you think wins? Do we call that outcome fair, sporting or right because they had the same rules and the same playground? Is that what we wish to accept?

At a basic level, that scenario is not so far from giving the organic farm co-op (or even Johnny’s of Maine) the same publicly held seeds as Monsanto and telling them to compete on the market. Except that instead of the warm and fuzzies of kids in baseball jerseys, we have another corner of the food system at stake.

Understand, I’m not trying to simply poo-poo this because Monsanto or Syngenta is involved. I support public science. I support locally grown. A public domain heat-tolerant broccoli might be a good thing. But my core argument here, however, remains that this by itself does little to reform an industrial food system. If a corporation can effectively co-opt another public good — and they seem to be good at that — then we’re mostly left where we started.

Here’s a response from Thomas Björkman, a scientist at Cornell, who is part of the team behind this.

Your concern is one that we thought deeply about when developing the proposal for this project. The answer is a bit more complex than you lay out.

First, there will be many varieties developed out of this project. Just this year, before the companies began using any publicly developed germplasm, three companies released five new varieties that are better than what was on the market before. (Better, at least for specific markets and growing periods). When the public germplasm is used by the seed companies we will see further advances and many more varieties. It is not a scenario that makes market control easy. Farmers will buy the varieties that work for their location and market, so the breeders who deliver that will make the sales. Seed companies will all be in competition with each other for the eastern broccoli market.

The source of the really good eastern adaptation is not a public domain variety. That will be in germplasm (collections of different genotypes) developed by my colleagues at USDA, Cornell and Oregon State. Companies that want to use it will have to to license specific materials for use in their breeding programs. This structure also prevents control of essential traits by any one entity. In addition, the licensing fees allow public breeding for the public good to continue.

Also, our goal is the public good, not specifically public-domain seeds. There is one public domain population, developed by the Northern Organic
Vegetable Improvement Collaborative. We are mainly helping get it in
commercial distribution so that farmers can buy quality seed.These days, “public domain” and “public sector” are not the same.

Thomas Björkman, Cornell

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Finals blogging hiatus and “I wish I were here…”

The view from Namchi

In between fevered bouts of studying for Environmental Economics and Environmental Science, I’ve been dreaming of the himalayas. Here’s an old favorite photo.

I’m officially powering down the blog for a while (possibly until after the new year, but I almost never succeed at leaving it alone). Happy holidays to all.

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Footprint, schmootprint… an overconsumer’s confession


Actually, this is somewhat serious. I’m an overconsumer; if everyone on the planet were to live my lifestyle, we’d need several more earths. And yet I don’t own a car, I don’t eat meat, I eat primarily organic and my landlords purchase 100 percent wind electricity. I do fly considerably more than the average person, but even subtracting that carbon output, my lifestyle is still well above the planet’s per capita biocapacity.

While all eco-footprint calculators have serious deficiencies — a finding from my semester science brief (click here for a boring PDF) — the reality is that in America, we use more than our fair share; beyond our personal consumption, our lives are supported by carbon/resource intense infrastructure and government spending, as well as social, medical and commercial services.

Interested in finding out your footprint? Click here for a simplified version from the Global Footprint Network.

I can’t be all doom and gloom — certainly we’ve made some relative strides in recent years, in environmental governance, recycling, personal habits, “green” consumption, reforestation (in parts of the globe). But such incremental eco modernization (Arthur Mol, say what?) does little to offset rising global consumption as more and more countries attempt to mimic a U.S. standard of living (Peter Dauvergne and Gus Speth know what’s up). We see real global warming and resource depletion around the world; denying that is just not an option anymore.

I believe the social scientists who say we face serious limits to growth. We need to make changes, individually yes, but more importantly as a society.

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Fertilize Me: Dead zones of the Gulf

Green cloudy, dead water

Fertilizer runoff from the Mississippi River basin creates a tremendous environmental and economic externality as it washes downstream to the Gulf of Mexico each spring and summer. The water becomes so depleted of oxygen that life nearly ceases to exist a vast swatch of the sea.

Here’s the short explanation: Farmers, being risk averse, apply excessive amounts of fertilizers (namely nitrates and phosphorous) to their land. This invariably washes to the nearest stream or creek which feeds the watershed of the Mississippi River system. This basin covers more than 40 percent of the contiguous U.S.

Once in the Gulf of Mexico, the fertilizers fuel massive algae growth. When the algae die (or are eaten and excreted by zooplankton), their decomposition by bacteria robs the water of dissolved oxygen, which other life needs to survive.

The result: The creeping dead zone visible above in the cloudy, green water.

The problem is rooted in agricultural policy, lack of science and inappropriate property rights/controls. There are economic and social answers, but they won’t be easy. The primary one involves ag subsidy reform and taxes, which would almost certainly anger the farm lobby.

If you want to read more, click here for an economic analysis in PDF form.

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Zombie makeup, dead sea captain, abstract concept

W. M. TRADE, Captain

My costume this year was both esoteric and abstract. Keep in mind that I’m in an environmental policy program. But I’ll help parse out all the levels below.

Continue reading this entry » » »

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Happy Halloween!

I will carve thee yet

Say hello to my deformed little pumpkin.

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Kale chips ahoy!


A week-and-a-half ago, I found a two pound bag of kale for $2.50 at my grocer. That made for good kale stir fry and soup. But as I’ve raved about kale, everyone keeps telling me to bake up kale chips.

So this afternoon, while trying to wade through grad school reading, I also tossed the remainder of my kale bag in oil, shook on some Old Bay and they’re baking away as I type.

Timer just beeped. Now for the tasting.

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A very present help in trouble

Today, marks the tenth anniversary of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. President Obama, at the Ground Zero memorial today in NYC, gave no lofty promises, no cliched pronouncements. He read Psalm 46.

God is our refuge and strength,
a very present help in trouble.
Therefore, we will not fear,
even though the earth be removed,
and though the mountains be carried
into the midst of the sea.
Though its waters roar and be troubled,
though the mountains shake
with its swelling,
there’s a river
whose streams shall make glad
the City of God,
the holy place of the Tabernacle
of the Most High.
God is in the midst of her.
She shall not be moved.
God shall help her
just at the break of dawn.
The nations raged,
the kingdoms were moved.
He uttered his voice.
The earth melted.
The Lord of Hosts is with us.
The God of Jacob is our refuge.
Come behold the works of the Lord
who has made desolations in the Earth.
He makes wars cease
to the ends of the Earth.
He breaks the bough
and cuts the spear in two.
He burns the chariot in fire.
Be still and know that I am God.
I will be exalted among the nations.
I will be exalted in the Earths.
The Lord of Hosts is with us.
The God of Jacob is our refuge.

As we all reprocess different measures of grief and plumb our own emotions, l hope we also reflect on our own troubled times and our place in the world today. And I hope we find refuge.

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