Tag Archives: environment

Environmentally-sound agriculture can support farmers and consumers

Agroecology can help fix the food, water and energy challenges that conventional agriculture has created.

© Deborah Jones 2013

© Deborah Jones 2013

By Andrea Basche and Marcia DeLonge
March, 2017

The past several years have been rough for many U.S. farmers and ranchers. Net farm incomes this year could fall to 50 percent of 2013 levels in a fourth consecutive year of income declines that is leading some producers to seek alternatives. At the same time, rural and urban Americans share growing concerns related to agriculture: worries that water pollution will be increasingly costly and harmful, that water supplies are at risk from extreme swings in rainfall, and that global warming due to fossil fuel burning threatens our food system and will necessitate changes in how we farm.

What if all of these challenges could find a common solution? It might just be that they can. In a commentary published this week in the scientific journal Elementa, we contend that agroecology offers a promising approach to solving food system problems while mitigating, water and energy concerns — and propose a way to overcome the obstacles to fully embracing it.

U.S. agriculture has trended for several decades — as a result of policy, economics and other drivers — toward systems that are more simplified over both space and time. This has had adverse consequences for food, energy and water.

Agroecology takes a different approach, applying ecological concepts to create and maintain diverse, resilient food systems. Promising research demonstrates that bringing diversity back to farms can begin to reverse the problems simplification has created. For example, scientists have found that strategically incorporating perennial plants (including food, energy or non-crop plants) into small areas of commodity crops can significantly reduce water pollution and soil loss. Studies also show that using multiple crops rather than a monoculture is associated with improvements in the amount of carbon (important to help soils hold onto more water and mitigate climate change) and nitrogen (critical for plant growth and soil function) in the soil.

If better farming systems exist, why don’t more producers use them, and why aren’t they more encouraged? Among the reasons:

  • Government policies and economics influence many producer decisions that contribute to landscape simplification. For example, biofuel incentives greatly expanded markets for ethanol, leading farmers to replace grasslands with endless acres of monoculture corn rather than leaving them native or planting more diverse crops.
  • Research has also found that the need to focus on immediate cash flow rather than long-term benefits just to stay afloat can make it difficult to adopt more resilient systems
  • Agroecology research is woefully underfunded. This means that up-to-date examples of innovative practices suited to specific regions are not sufficiently available for many farmers.
  • Change is hard and it can take support for producers to get started. It is critical to find peers and peer networks to learn from — and these are rare.
  • Benefits are narrowly defined. When farmers, policy-makers, and scientists focus primarily on simple measures of progress like crop yields, we lose track of the many other benefits of agroecology — including those related to water and energy.

In spite of these and other obstacles, innovators have begun to demonstrate that diversified land management can be good business, from a cover crop seed company in rural Nebraska, to a food hub supporting local diversified food production in western Iowa, to a consulting group helping farmers optimize land management and costs with a “precision conservation” approach. The dire need for economic opportunity in rural America was a major discussion point in the 2016 election, and these examples suggest how a more diverse and sustainable agriculture can help meet that need.

A shift in perspective that recognizes relationships among food, water, and energy systems and new metrics that value co-benefits to water and energy could go a long way toward further advancing agroecology. In fact, recently published research refutes the idea that we must solely focus on doubling crop production to meet future demand. These researchers believe the actual future yield increases needed are smaller and that we must explicitly define environmental goals to match the production demands that always seem to dominate the narrative around food.

Fortunately, we know that solutions do exist, and with agroecological approaches we can solve these multiple challenges at the same time.

Creative Commons View Ensia homepage

Andrea Basche is a Kendall Science Fellow, Union of Concerned Scientists. Marcia DeLonge is an agroecologist with the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Elementa wordmarkThis article was orignally published by Ensia, in published in collaboration with the academic journal Elementa. It is based on “Leveraging agroecology for solutions in food, energy and water,” a peer-reviewed article published March 2, 2017, as part of Elementa’s Food-Energy-Water Systems: Opportunities at the Nexus forum. —  March 3, 2017

 ~~~

Facts and Opinions is a boutique journal of reporting and analysis in words and images, without borders. Independent, non-partisan and employee-owned, F&O is funded by our readers. It is ad-free and spam-free, and does not solicit donations from partisan organizations. To continue we require a minimum payment of .27 for one story, or a sustaining donation. Details here; donate below. Thanks for your interest and support.

F&O’s CONTENTS page is updated each Saturday. Sign up for emailed announcements of new work on our free FRONTLINES blog; find evidence-based reporting in Reports; commentary, analysis and creative non-fiction in OPINION-FEATURES; and image galleries in PHOTO-ESSAYS. If you value journalism please support F&O, and tell others about us.

Posted in Uncategorized Also tagged , |

The terrifying mathematics of the Anthropocene

By Owen Gaffney and Will Steffen,
February, 2017

Here are some surprising facts about humans’ effect on planet Earth. We have made enough concrete to create an exact replica of Earth 2mm thick. We have produced enough plastic to wrap Earth in clingfilm. We are creating “technofossils”, a new term for congealed human-made materials – plastics and concretes – that will be around for tens of millions of years.

But it is the scale that humans have altered Earth’s life support system that is the most concerning.

In 2000, Nobel laureate Paul Crutzen and Eugene Stoermer proposed that human impact on the atmosphere, the oceans, the land and ice sheets had reached such a scale that it had pushed Earth into a new epoch. They called it the Anthropocene and argued the current Holocene epoch was over.

The Holocene began 11,700 years ago as we emerged from a deep ice age. Over the past 10,000 years, the defining feature of the Holocene has been a remarkably stable Earth system. This stability has allowed us to develop agriculture and hence villages, towns and eventually cities – human civilisation.

We use pretty powerful rhetoric to describe the Anthropocene and current human impact. As The Economist stated in 2011, humanity has “become a force of nature reshaping the planet on a geological scale”. We are like an asteroid strike. We have the impact of an ice age.

But what does this really mean? Does it mean, for example, that we are having as big an impact as these natural forces are having right now, or is it, somehow, more profound?

Humans: the new asteroids.
Steve Jurvetson, CC BY

The maths of the Anthropocene

In our recent study, we wanted to find the simplest way to mathematically describe the Anthropocene and articulate the difference between how the planet once functioned and how it now functions.

Life on Earth, the chemical and physical composition of the atmosphere and oceans, and the size of the ice sheets have changed over time because of slight alterations to Earth’s orbit around the sun, changes to the sun’s energy output or major asteroid impacts like the one that killed the dinosaurs.

Cyanobacteria changed the world; now it’s our turn.
Matthew J Parker, CC BY-SA

They can also change due to geophysical forces: continents collide, cutting off ocean currents so heat is distributed in a new way, upsetting climate and biodiversity.

They also shift due to sheer internal dynamics of the system – new life evolves to drive great planetary shifts, such as the Great Oxidation Event around 2.5 billion years ago when newly evolved cyanobacteria began emitting the deadly poison oxygen that killed all simple life forms it came in touch with. Life had to evolve to tolerate oxygen.

Taking as our starting point a 1999 article by Earth system scientist Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, we can say the rate of change of the Earth system (E) has been driven by three things: astronomical forcings such as those from the sun or asteroids; geophysical forcing, for example changing currents; and internal dynamics, such as the evolution of cyanobacteria. Let’s call them A, G and I.

Mathematically, we can put it like this:

It reads: the rate of change of the Earth system (dE/dt) is a function of astronomical and geophysical forcings and internal dynamics. It is a very simple statement about the main drivers of the system.

This equation has been true for four billion years, since the first life evolved. In his article, Schellnhuber argued that people must be added into this mix, but his theory came before the full impact of humanity had been assessed. In the past few decades, this equation has been radically altered.

We are losing biodiversity at rates tens to hundreds of times faster than natural rates. Indeed, we are approaching mass extinction rates. There have been five mass extinctions in the history of life on Earth. The last killed the non-avian dinosaurs 66 million years ago, now humans are causing the sixth.

The rate we are emitting carbon dioxide might be at an all time high since that time too. Global temperatures are rising at a rate 170 times faster than the Holocene baseline. The global nitrogen cycle is undergoing its largest and most rapid change in possibly 2.5 billion years.

In fact, the rate of change of the Earth system under human influence in the past four decades is so significant we can now show that the equation has become:

H stands for humanity. In the Anthropocene Equation, the rate of change of the Earth system is a function of humanity.

A, G and I are now approaching zero relative to the other big force – us – they have become essentially negligible. We are now the dominant influence on the stability and resilience of the planet we call home.

This is worth a little reflection. For four billion years, the Earth system changed under the influence of tremendous solar-system wide forces of nature. Now this no longer holds.

IPCC, 2014: Climate Change 2014: Synthesis Report. Contribution of Working Groups I, II and III to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. IPCC, Geneva, Switzerland

A new reality

Heavenly bodies of course still exert some force; so does the ground beneath our feet. But the rates at which these forces operate are now negligible compared with the rate at which we are changing the Earth system. In the 1950s or 1960s, our own impact rivalled the great forces of nature. Now it usurps them entirely.

This should come as a shock not only to environmentalists but to everyone on Earth. But our conclusion is arguably a modest addition to the canon of academic literature. The scale and rate of change has already been well established by Earth system scientists over the past two decades.

Recently, Mark Williams and colleagues argued that the Anthropocene represents the third new era in Earth’s biosphere, and astrobiologist David Grinspoon argued that the Anthropocene marks one of the major events in a planet’s “life”, when self-aware cognitive processes become a key part of the way the planet functions.

Still, formalising the Anthropocene mathematically brings home an entirely new reality.

The drama is heightened when we consider that for much of Earth’s history the planet has been either very hot – a greenhouse world – or very cold – an icehouse world. These appear to be the deeply stable states lasting millions of years and resistant to even quite major shoves from astronomical or geophysical forces.

But the past 2.5 million years have been uncharacteristically unstable, periodically flickering from cold to a gentle warmth.

The consumption vortex

So, who do we mean when we talk of H? Some will argue that we cannot treat humanity as one homogenous whole. We agree.

While all of humanity is now in the Anthropocene, we are not all in it in the same way. Industrialised societies are the reason we have arrived at this place, not Inuits in northern Canada or smallholder farmers in sub-Saharan Africa.

Scientific and technological innovations and economic policies promoting growth at all costs have created a consumption and production vortex on a collision course with the Earth system.

Others may say that natural forces are too important to ignore; for example, the El Niño weather system periodically changes patterns globally and causes Earth to warm for a year or so, and the tides generate more energy than all of humanity. But a warm El Niño is balanced by a cool La Niña. The tides and other great forces of nature are powerful but stable. Overall, they do not affect the rate of change of the Earth system.

Now, only a truly catastrophic volcanic eruption or direct asteroid hit could match us for impact.

So, can the Anthropocene equation be solved? The current rate of change must return to around zero as soon as possible. It cannot continue indefinitely. Either humanity puts on the brakes or it would seem unlikely a global civilisation will continue to function on a destabilised planet. The choice is ours.

Creative CommonsThe Conversation

Owen Gaffney is an Anthropocene analyst and communicator, co-founder of theFuture Earth Media Lab, and Director of media at the Stockholm Resilience Centre, Stockholm University.  Will Steffen is Adjunct Professor, Fenner School of Environment and Society, Australian National University. This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 ~~~

Facts and Opinions is a boutique journal of reporting and analysis in words and images, without borders. Independent, non-partisan and employee-owned, F&O is funded by our readers. It is ad-free and spam-free, and does not solicit donations from partisan organizations. To continue we require a minimum payment of .27 for one story, or a sustaining donation. Details here; donate below. Thanks for your interest and support.

F&O’s CONTENTS page is updated each Saturday. Sign up for emailed announcements of new work on our free FRONTLINES blog; find evidence-based reporting in Reports; commentary, analysis and creative non-fiction in OPINION-FEATURES; and image galleries in PHOTO-ESSAYS. If you value journalism please support F&O, and tell others about us.

Posted in Uncategorized Also tagged , |

Hunting, fishing, farming biggest threats to wildlife

Cattle Feedlot near Rocky Ford, Colorado. Photo by Billy Hathorn, Creative Commons

Cattle Feedlot near Rocky Ford, Colorado. Photo by Billy Hathorn, Creative Commons

By Sean Maxwell, The University of Queensland; James Watson, The University of Queensland, and Richard Fuller, The University of Queensland 
August 13, 2016

History might judge the Paris climate agreement to be a watershed for all humanity. If nations succeed in halting runaway climate change, this will have enormous positive implications for life on Earth.

Yet as the world applauds a momentous shift toward carbon neutrality and hope for species threatened by climate change, we can’t ignore the even bigger threats to the world’s wildlife and ecosystems.

Climate change threatens 19% of globally threatened and near-threatened species – including Australia’s critically endangered mountain pygmy possum and the southern corroboree frog. It’s a serious conservation issue.

Yet our new study, published in Nature, shows that by far the largest current hazards to biodiversity are overexploitation and agriculture.

The biggest threats to the world’s wildlife
Sean Maxwell et al.

The cost of overexploitation and agriculture

We assessed nearly 9,000 species listed on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species. We found that 72% are threatened by overexploitation and 62% by agriculture.

Overexploitation (the unsustainable harvest of species from the wild) is putting more species on an extinction pathway than any other threat.

And the expansion and intensification of agriculture (the production of food, fodder, fibre and fuel crops; livestock; aquaculture; and the cultivation of trees) is the second-largest driver of biodiversity loss.

Hunting and gathering is a threat to more than 1,600 species, including many large carnivores such as tigers and snow leopards.

Unsustainable logging is driving the decline of more than 4,000 species, such as Australia’s Leadbeater’s possum, while more than 1,000 species, including southern bluefin tuna, are losing out to excessive fishing pressure.

Land change for crop farming and timber plantations imperils more than 5,300 species, such as the far eastern curlew, while the northern hairy-nosed wombat is one of more than 2,400 species affected by livestock farming and aquaculture.

The threat information used to inform our study is the most comprehensive available. But it doesn’t tell the complete story.

Threats are likely to change in the future. Climate change, for example, will become increasingly problematic for many species in coming decades.

Moreover, threats to biodiversity rarely operate in isolation. More than 80% of the species we assessed are facing more than one major threat.

Through threat interactions, smaller threats can indirectly drive extinction risk. Roads and energy production, for example, are known to facilitate the emergence of overexploitation, land modification and habitat loss.

But until we have a better understanding of how threats interact, a pragmatic course of action is to limit those impacts that are currently harming the most species.

By ensuring that major threats that occur today (overexploitation, agriculture and so on) do not compromise ecosystems tomorrow, we can help to ameliorate the challenges presented by impending climate change.

Getting it right

Overexploitation and agriculture demand a variety of conservation approaches. Traditional approaches, such as well-placed protected areas and the enforcement of hunting, logging and fishing regulations, remain the strongest defence against the ravages of guns, nets and bulldozers.

Achieving a truly effective protected area network is impossible, however, when governments insist on relegating protected areas to “residual” places – those with least promise for commercial uses.

Reducing impacts from overexploitation of forests and fish is also futile unless industries that employ clearfell logging and illegal fishing vessels transition to more environmentally sustainable practices.

Just as critical as traditional approaches are incentives for hunters, fishers and farmers to conserve threatened species outside designated conservation areas.

Australia’s Leadbeater’s possum remains threatened by logging.
Greens MPs/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

For nations like Australia, our study shows there is a growing mismatch in environmental policy and the outcomes for biodiversity. Environmental programs such as the once well-funded National Reserve System Strategy and Biodiversity Fund were important in that they helped conserve wildlife on private and public land, and were fundamental to defeating the biggest, prevailing threats to Australia’s biodiversity. But these programs either do not exist anymore or have little funding to support them at state and federal levels.

On top of this, land-clearing – without doubt one of the largest threats to biodiversity across the country – is on the increase because laws have been repealed across the country. Any benefits accrued by previous good environmental programs are being eroded.

If we are to seriously tackle the largest threats to biodiversity in Australia, we need to recognise the biggest threats. This means efforts to reduce threats from agriculture and overexploitation of forests and fish must include durable environmental regulation.

Creative Commons


This article was co-authored by Thomas Brooks, head of science and knowledge at the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. Sean Maxwell is a PhD candidate, The University of Queensland; James Watson is Associate professor, The University of Queensland, and Richard Fuller is Associate professor, The University of Queensland. This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 ~~~

Facts and Opinions is a boutique journal of reporting and analysis in words and images, without borders. Independent, non-partisan and employee-owned, F&O is funded by our readers. It is ad-free and spam-free, and does not solicit donations from partisan organizations. To continue we require a minimum payment of .27 for one story, or a sustaining donation. Details here; donate below. Thanks for your interest and support.

F&O’s CONTENTS page is updated each Saturday. Sign up for emailed announcements of new work on our free FRONTLINES blog; find evidence-based reporting in Reports; commentary, analysis and creative non-fiction in OPINION-FEATURES; and image galleries in PHOTO-ESSAYS. If you value journalism please support F&O, and tell others about us.

Posted in Uncategorized Also tagged , , |

‘Smeary’ Lake Erie — progress, and setbacks

The Great Lakes are no longer a dumping ground for industrial pollution. But farm run-off, aquatic invaders and climate change are once again putting fish and clean water in jeopardy

 

The Great Lakes and the Finger Lakes o New York state from the International Space Station, June 14, 2012, by the Expedition 31 crew. http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/IOTD/view.php?id=78617

The Great Lakes contain some 84% of North America’s surface fresh water, and about 21% of the world’s supply of surface fresh water, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Above, the Great Lakes and the Finger Lakes in New York state seen from the International Space Station, June 14, 2012, by the Expedition 31 crew. Photo: NASA, Public Domain

By Brian Bienkowski, Environmental Health News
March, 2016

EAST LANSING, Michigan—When Dr. Suess wrote his iconic children’s book “The Lorax” in 1971, he took a swipe at the Great Lakes.

“They’ll walk on their fins and get woefully weary, in search of some water that isn’t so smeary. I hear things are just as bad up in Lake Erie.”

If the line doesn’t ring a bell, don’t worry: It was removed after Ohio Sea Grant employees wrote the author to fill him in on the major strides in improving the lake’s health.

Lake Erie and its four great cousins have benefited mightily from cleanup and research in the 45 years since Dr. Suess penned what became his personal favorite. However, from plummeting prey fish populations to poopy Michigan rivers, grave threats to the region’s ecosystems remain, scientists and officials said at the annual Michigan Water Heritage conference held at Michigan State University this month.

Jon Allan, director of the Office of the Great Lakes, made note of the progress since the 1970s. For years we had “our backs to water, communities backed up to waterfront, we dumped our garbage there. How many of you remember those days?” he asked.

In the audience most of the roughly 150 water quality researchers, fisheries biologists, agency scientists, nonprofit employees and others raised a hand.

“Those days were not pleasant.”

Quagga mussels in fish trawl. Lake Michigan, August 2006. Photo NOAA

Quagga mussels, seen here in a 2006 fish trawl, are disrupting food chains in Lake Michigan. Photo NOAA, Public Domain

It’s true industrial waste largely stopped flowing into waters, but other problems percolated: invasive species, farm runoff, sewage overflows and failing septic systems. Quagga mussels are screwing up food chains in Lake Michigan, rivers are bearing the brunt of unregulated farm waste, and Lake Erie, once declared dead in the late 1960s, is once again suffering from large nutrient-driven dead zones.

Craig Stow, a researcher at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration‘s Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory, has spent more than two decades studying the Great Lakes. We’ve “slipped back” a bit recently, he said, saying that Lake Erie algae blooms have been on the rise in recent years. Last summer the largest bloom on record, about 300 square miles, tainted western Lake Erie.

Phosphorous runoff, mostly from farming, especially in Ohio’s Maumee River valley, feeds such blooms in the warm and shallow waters of the western part of the lake. Such blooms can produce harmful toxins and hurt humans and ecosystems. Stopping them will only become more difficult as the climate changes: long-term precipitation trends show bigger, fiercer downpours since the late 1990s; in conjunction, Maumee River discharge has increased. “We’re seeing some really important change in dynamics driving algal blooms in Lake Erie,” Stow said.

Officials are starting to pay attention. Just last month the U.S. and Canada adopted new targets to reduce phosphorous entering Lake Erie by 40 percent. Ohio governor and presidential hopeful John Kasich, beleaguered Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder and Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne spearheaded the effort.

Stow said such efforts are crucial to prevent taking giant steps backward.

“We’re going to be managing phosphorous for a long, long time,” Stow said. “If we don’t develop good adaptive management plans, we’re going to be back in the same position we were in 1980s.”

There is some good news. Western Lake Erie is the only section in all five Great Lakes where prey fish populations—the ones feeding popular predator fish such as salmon and trout feed—haven’t trended downward since 1980, said David Bunnell, a fish biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey.

That can’t be said for Lake Michigan. Last year Bunnell and colleagues reported the lowest catch rate ever for all fish groups—commercially harvested fish, sport harvested fish and prey fish—in Lake Michigan. Salmon populations, too, were down 75 percent from their 2012 peak.

This is worrisome for anyone who remembers the salmon crash in Lake Huron about a decade ago due to vanishing alewife, a staple of the predator’s diet. Salmon still haven’t recovered there.

Nascent research suggests a bottom-up problem in the lakes, Bunnell said: Declining nutrients, due largely to invasive, filter-feeding quagga mussels, break the food chain for creatures like zooplankton, which sustain alewife and other prey fish.

“Salmon need to eat more alewife to get the same amount of calories.”-David Bunnell, USGSA study last year found about 80 percent of larval alewife in Lake Michigan had empty stomachs. And their energy density—how much of a caloric punch they pack—has declined about 33 percent over the past decade.

A crash in salmon stocks could have a considerable impact on the shore and throughout the region: Salmon are a hugely popular sport fish and bring a lot of dollars to the state.

Then there’s the poop problem.

“I’m glad my talk was after lunch,” quipped Molly Rippke, an aquatic biologist with the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality.

Much of Tuesday’s session focused on the Great Lakes. Rippke reminded attendees “all rivers lead to the beach.” And many of those rivers bring poop with them.

Rippke estimated that 50 percent of Michigan rivers exceed acceptable levels of E. coli, a harmful bacteria indicating contamination from feces: Failing septic systems, farm runoff, congregating wildlife and combined sewer overflows.

Rippke and colleagues are trying to tease out causes to better stop the contamination. One thing was clear in their study of rivers: as agriculture increases, E. coli tends to increase, she said. They also found that the more forested land in a watershed, the lower the harmful bacteria levels.

But there is a glaring need for more science—they only sampled 11 percent of rivers in Michigan, a state with 120 major rivers covering 36,350 square miles.

While the conference focused on watersheds, with the city of Flint just an hour away, the issue of safe drinking water loomed large.

About 70 percent of people in Michigan are on a public water supply, Allan said.

“How many of you think that infrastructure is as good as it can be?” he asked the crowd made of mostly of water quality researchers and professionals.

Not a hand went up in the packed auditorium.

Creative Commons

This story was first published by Environmental Health News; view the original story. For questions or feedback about this piece, contact Brian Bienkowski at bbienkowski@ehn.org.

 ~~~

Facts and Opinions is a boutique journal of reporting and analysis in words and images, without borders. Independent, non-partisan and employee-owned, F&O is funded by our readers. It is ad-free and spam-free, and does not solicit donations from partisan organizations. To continue we require a minimum payment of .27 for one story, or a sustaining donation. Details here; donate below. Thanks for your interest and support.

F&O’s CONTENTS page is updated each Saturday. Sign up for emailed announcements of new work on our free FRONTLINES blog; find evidence-based reporting in Reports; commentary, analysis and creative non-fiction in OPINION-FEATURES; and image galleries in PHOTO-ESSAYS. If you value journalism please support F&O, and tell others about us.

Posted in Uncategorized Also tagged , , |

China’s soil as poisonous as its air and water

JONATHAN MANTHORPE: International Affairs
December 19, 2015

"Factory in China at Yangtze River" by High Contrast - Own work. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 de via Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Factory_in_China_at_Yangtze_River.JPG#/media/File:Factory_in_China_at_Yangtze_River.JPG

Real journalism is not free. If you value evidence-based, non-partisan, spam-free information, please support Facts and Opinions, an employee-owned collaboration of professional journalists. Click here for details. Factory in China at Yangtze River. High Contrast/Wikimedia/Creative Commons

I was wrong when I said in last week’s column there is little reliable information available about the extent of soil pollution in China.

Well, half wrong.

In my hunt for facts I foolishly neglected to turn to the work of Professor Elizabeth Economy, director for Asia studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, and among the leading western academics gathering and analysing information on environmental degradation in China.

As Prof. Economy says in one of her latest essays: “Soil contamination has long been the poor stepchild of China’s environmental movement, lagging well behind air and water pollution in terms of government, and even non-government, attention and resources.”

From what is known, it will come as no surprise that the extent of soil pollution in China is as extensive and as deadly as the degradation of the country’s air and water. China is cursed from the beginning because only just over 11 per cent of its land is suitable for agriculture. The material gathered by Prof. Economy indicates that approaching 20 per cent of this scarce resource is now so contaminated by heavy metals from industrial pollution that food produced on it is toxic to one degree or another.

Thirty years of chaotic, corrupt and unregulated industrialization has so polluted China that it is killing hundreds of thousands of its people – by some estimates, millions – every year.

Last week’s column was sparked by the coincidence of Beijing having to shut down most municipal services because of deadly air pollution. The “smog” came, embarrassingly, in the middle of the United Nations conference on climate change being held in Paris. Smog is common in Beijing and in all China’s industrial cities, with the particulate level frequently reaching 80 times the level the World Health Organization considers safe.

I wrote last week that this deadly pollution at home has become the main reason wealthy Chinese give for wanting to emigrate, or at least acquire a safe haven abroad. They look for safe environments in places like Vancouver, Toronto, and other well-regulated countries such as the United States, Australia, New Zealand and countries of the European Union.

Nearly as important for the pollution refugees is the safety of food, and that, as we will see in a moment, is where soil pollution plays a major role.

The irony, of course, is that the people who can afford to flee China are often those who have become rich through the free-for-all industrialization that has destroyed the country’s environment.

As always, the poor are stuck with the mess. I pointed out in last week’s column that pollution and destruction of the environment has become the spark for the majority of the nearly 500 riots and outbreaks of social unrest that occur in China every day. Until recently, it was corruption by Communist Party officials and their relatives and friends in business and industry that drove Chinese on to the streets every day in their thousands.

This seething daily discontent alarms the Communist Party rulers, who with a struggling economy now have little legitimacy in power. The response of the regime under President and party boss Xi Jingping is to tighten authoritarian control of the population and to mount nationalist propaganda campaigns, such as threatening Japan and the imperial expansion to take control of the South China Sea.

Xi’s reconstruction of an intolerant police state is having success. It is unlikely that in the foreseeable future the Chinese Communist Party will become the first regime in modern times to be deposed because it poisoned its people.

Yet it is evident everywhere that the Communists know they are skating on thin ice. As well as air and water pollution, the contamination of soil is not only a massive health hazard, it is undermining China’s efforts to maintain food self-sufficiency. China’s drive to lease or buy vast tracts of agricultural land in Africa, Central Asia and Russia are to meet the pressing need to be able to provide uncontaminated food for people at home.

Not surprisingly, China’s Ministry of Environment Protection (MEP) has rejected requests to make public its data on soil pollution. But Prof. Economy found that officials in the highly industrialized southern province of Guangdong bordering Hong Kong to be more open.

Material published in May 2013 showed excessive levels of the toxic heavy metal cadmium in more than 150 batches of rice imported from other provinces. At the same time, Guangdong officials published the result of studies of soil contamination in their own province. They found that 28 per cent of soil in the Pearl River Delta was contaminated. That percentage rose to 50 per cent in the agricultural plots in the industrial cities of Guangzhou and Foshan.

Later in 2013, in an unusual outburst of frankness, the vice-minister of lands and resources, Wang Shiyuan, said that 3.3 million hectares (eight million acres) of agricultural land is so polluted that planting crops “should not be allowed.” That’s just under three per cent of China’s total arable land, but it doesn’t tell the whole story. Last year the state-controlled Xinhua news agency reported that 40 per cent of China’s farm land is “suffering from degradation.” This description includes the results of over cropping, lack of fertilizers, and erosion as well as poisoning by acidification and contamination by industrial effluents.

Finally, says Prof. Economy, China’s MEP did release some statistics last year on soil pollution. Based on studies conducted between 2005 and 2013, the department found that more than 16 per cent of total land and 19.4 per cent of arable land was contaminated.

The MEP gave little detail about where, to what degree and what types of pollutants were revealed by the study. Roughly in line with the findings of the MEP was a 2014 examination by the National Environmental Monitoring Centre, which found that about 25 per cent of nearly 5,000 vegetable plots tested throughout the country were polluted.

The major industrial pollutants are cadmium, lead and mercury, but Prof. Economy said China also has a problem with antibiotics leeching into the soil. China consumes more than half the global total of antibiotics, and she quotes a study for the Chinese Academy of Sciences as saying more than a third of these pharmaceuticals end up in the country’s waterways and soil. The long-term environmental impact of antibiotics pollution is still a matter of scientific study, but it is established that it leads to the development of resistant strains of diseases.

China’s rulers are undoubtedly worried about the long term impact of soil pollution on the country, its people and the survival of their regime. But they do not seem to have either the will or the capacity to do much about it. Prof. Economy reports that the Beijing government has pledged $US450 million over the next three years to help 30 Chinese cities tackle heavy metal pollution.

However, China doesn’t appear to have the skilled officials necessary to do an effective soil clean-up. The Ministry of Land and Resources says that people skilled in land de-contamination account for only one per cent of all workers in the environmental protection sector. In most countries about 30 per cent of environmental reclamation workers specialise in soil de-contamination. China has only 20 companies experienced in soil remediation and less than 10 are really competent.

It may well be that the popular clamour for action from the government and level of unrest on the streets become so intense that the Beijing regime is forced to take serious steps against soil pollution.

But until that time, my advice is to follow the example of my Chinese-Canadian friends. Examine food labels closely, and if there is any indication the product comes form China, leave it on the shelves.

Copyright Jonathan Manthorpe 2015

Contact: jonathan.manthorpe@gmail.com

 ~~~

Facts and Opinions relies on the honour system: enjoy one story at no charge. If you value our independent, no-spam, no-ads journalism collaboration, please support us. We suggest a minimum of .27 per story, or $20 per year. Click here for details.

Manthorpe B&WJonathan Manthorpe is a founding columnist with Facts and Opinions and is the author of the journal’s International Affairs column. Manthorpe has been a foreign correspondent and international affairs columnist for nearly 40 years. Manthorpe’s  nomadic career began in the late 1970s as European Bureau Chief for The Toronto Star, the job that took Ernest Hemingway to Europe in the 1920s. In the mid-1980s Manthorpe became European Correspondent for Southam News. In the following years Manthorpe was sent by Southam News, the internal news agency for Canada’s largest group of metropolitan daily newspapers, to be the correspondent in Africa and then Asia. Between postings Manthorpe spent a few years based in Ottawa focusing on intelligence and military affairs, and the United Nations. Since 1998 Manthorpe has been based in Vancouver, but has travelled frequently on assignment to Asia, Europe and Latin America.

 ~~~

Related Jonathan Manthorpe columns:

Beijing in smog on Nov. 29. Photo by LWYang/Flickr/Creative Commons

Vancouver’s housing bubble inflated by China’s air pollution

Vancouver’s grossly inflated housing market, the United Nations’ climate conference in Paris and China’s catastrophic environmental degradation are all linked in a circle of cause and effect.

China faces crippling water shortages and pollution

China’s drive for wealth and power is stumbling and could collapse over the country’s lack of water and its gross mismanagement of the resources it does have.

Beijing collides with China’s new community of human rights lawyers

The recent assault by President Xi Jinping on China’s community of human rights lawyers may be too late to insulate the Communist Party against a coming storm. There is a tacit acknowledgement by the party that China’s swelling community of about 300 human rights lawyers, their associates and like-minded advocacy groups have become a serious challenge to the one-party state.

Money flight impoverishes the poorest countries

It’s not just China’s “Red Nobility” and Russian oligarchs who are robbing their countries by illicitly exporting their wealth to compliant and complicit countries like Canada. There is an epidemic of money flight from developing countries, according to a new report from the Washington-based anti-money laundering organization Global Financial Integrity.

Vancouver: not mind-numbingly boring, but vacuously vain (public access)

The flood of vast wealth from China into Canada has not only contorted and distorted the Vancouver housing market beyond redemption, it has changed the sort of community the western Canadian metropolis is going to be for generations to come. In a bizarre piece of absence of mind and lack of attention, it has also hitched the future of Vancouver to the fate of the Chinese Communist Party. Vancouver’s low self-confidence and its destructive vanity have both played a part in these failures.

You might also like:

CHRIS WOOD: NATURAL SECURITY, column

chris1No matter our country, class or inclinations, we’re all equally dependent on Earth’s life support systems. These are everywhere being damaged and run down. Wood explores how the latest science news challenges conventional thinking about human security and our economy, and the opportunities for informed individuals and communities to respond.

State capitalism is back. By  Daniel De Bonis, report

State capitalism, which was considered only a few decades ago a relic of the mid-20th century, is back – with a vengeance. China has already surpassed the US as the world’s largest economy, after purchasing-power parity adjustments. And together, the economies of the so-called BRIC countries – Brazil, Russia, India and China – should be twice as big as the American economy by 2018, according to the IMF. Each of these countries in its own way share an important trait: an interventionist state, whose tentacles spread across economic sectors, exercising direct or indirect control over a good number of enterprises.

Nothing is rotten in Denmark, but China lives in a corrupt time: report. By Deborah Jones, Report

China, Turkey and Angola became increasingly corrupt, more quickly, than most other countries in the world in the past year despite strong economic growth, Transparency International reported. “Bribes and backroom deals don’t just steal resources from the most vulnerable – they undermine justice and economic development, and destroy public trust in government and leaders.”  The biggest falls were in Turkey (-5), Angola, China, Malawi and Rwanda (all -4). The biggest improvers were Côte d´Ivoire, Egypt, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines (+5), Afghanistan, Jordan, Mali and Swaziland (+4).

Explainer: tumult in China’s casino stock market, by Michele Geraci

When I teach stock market investment to my Chinese students, I always remind them that the Shanghai stock exchange should be thought of more as a casino, rather than as a proper stock market. In normal stock markets, share prices are – or, at least, should be – linked to the economic performance of the underlying companies. Not so in China, where the popularity of the stock market directly correlated with the fall in casino popularity.

~~~

Real journalism is not free. If you value evidence-based, non-partisan, spam-free information, please support Facts and Opinions, an employee-owned collaboration of professional journalists.  Click here for details.

 

F&O’s CONTENTS page is updated each Saturday. Sign up for emailed announcements of new work on our free FRONTLINES blog; find evidence-based reporting in Reports; commentary, analysis and creative non-fiction in OPINION-FEATURES; and image galleries in PHOTO-ESSAYS. If you value journalism please support F&O, and tell others about us.

 

Posted in Uncategorized Also tagged , , , |

Facts, and Opinions, this week

In the first of two Frontlines posts this weekend, F&O offers our weekly lineup of eclectic reads and stunning images for your weekend pleasure. Watch for our Focus on Canadian politics, prior to the federal election Monday Oct. 19.

© Michael AW, courtesy of Wildlife Photographer of the Year, Natural History Museum, London.

A whale of a mouthful, by Michael Aw, Australia: a Bryde’s whale rips through a swirling ball of sardines, gulping a huge mouthful in a single pass. As it expels hundreds of litres of seawater from its mouth, the fish are retained by plates of baleen hanging down from its palate; they are then pushed into its stomach to be digested alive. © Click here for more information and our full Photo-essay of winners of the Wildlife Photographer of the Year, Natural History Museum, London.

© Don Gutoski

© Don Gutoski 2015

Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2015, Natural History Museum, London

Canadian photographer Don Gutoski won Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2015 in the annual competition by London’s Natural History Museum.  His image, Tale of two foxes in subarctic Cape Churchill, Canada, portrays a red fox devouring a white Arctic fox, which it has just killed.

China faces crippling water shortages and pollution, by Jonathan Manthorpe, F&O International Affairs columnist

China’s drive for wealth and power is stumbling and could collapse over the country’s lack of water and its gross mismanagement of the resources it does have.

"Factory in China at Yangtze River" by High Contrast - Own work. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 de via Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Factory_in_China_at_Yangtze_River.JPG#/media/File:Factory_in_China_at_Yangtze_River.JPG

Your Smart Home Knows a Lot About You. By Lauren Kirchner, Reports

As the trend toward networked “smart homes” and “connected cars” continues, security precautions are more important than ever. But customers may not always be aware of just how much information their devices are collecting about them in the first place.

 

Sister Rachel Denton views the sunset from a vantage point near St Cuthbert's Hermitage in Lincolnshire, north east Britain September 25, 2015. Denton, a Catholic hermit, rises early to tend to her vegetable garden, feed her cats and pray. But the former Carmelite nun, who in 2006 pledged to live the rest of her life in solitude, has another chore - to update her Twitter account and check Facebook. "The myth you often face as a hermit is that you should have a beard and live in a cave. None of which is me," says the ex-teacher. For the modern-day hermit, she says social media is vital: "tweets are rare, but precious," she writes on her Twitter profile. The internet also allows Denton to shop online and communicate with friends. "I am a hermit but I am also human." A diagnosis of cancer earlier this year reaffirmed Denton's wish to carry on a life of solitude, prayer and contemplation. REUTERS/Neil Hall

REUTERS/Neil Hall

SISTER RACHEL DENTON: Out of the Cave and Onto Facebook. By Neil Hall and Angus Berwick

MARKET RASEN, England — Like any good hermit Rachel Denton rises early in the morning to tend to her vegetable garden, feed her chickens, and pray. But the former British nun, who has pledged to live the rest of her life in solitude, has another routine that sets her apart from her society-shunning brethren – she has to update her Twitter account and check Facebook.

Adios, Buena Vista Social Club. By Rod Mickleburgh, Arts

It was a magical night, mixed with a heavy dose of poignancy, as the vaunted Orquesta Buena Vista Social Club made its final appearance win Vancouver, Canada. There will be no more tours. Many of the aging Cuban music stars we got to know and love from Ry Cooder’s venture to Havana in the 1990’s are no longer with us.

Getting Back to his Country Roots: Kenny Rogers, a Brief Encounter column by Brian Brennan (*subscription required)

Kenny Rogers was having a musical-identity crisis at age 39 when I spoke with him in 1977 before a club gig in Calgary. At that point his beard was already turning salt-and-pepper and the wrinkles were starting to show around his eyes. He was still wearing the Beatles suit of his rock years, not the cowboy clothes that later defined his look as a country-pop superstar.

Last but not least, F&O is pleased to announce that author Brian Brennan, one of our regular contributors to Arts, has published his 11th book. An introduction:

Rogues and Rebels: Unforgettable Characters from Canada’s West, documents the life stories of 32 larger-than-life Westerners – some infamous, some obscure – who threw away the rulebook, thumbed their noses at convention and let their detractors howl. They include such political leaders as Ralph Klein and Tommy Douglas, the suffragette Nellie McClung, who fought successfully to have women recognized as “persons” for the purpose of Canadian Senate appointments, and the mysterious cult leader Brother XII, who convinced thousands of wealthy Britons and Americans to follow him to a small island off the West Coast of Canada to await the coming Age of Aquarius.
For more details, visit Brennan’s website at www.brianbrennan.ca

Published by University of Regina Press, Rogues and Rebels is now available in bookstores throughout Canada and the United States, and  online from international retailers such as Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

~~~

Facts and Opinions is a boutique journal, of reporting and analysis in words and images, without borders. Independent, non-partisan and employee-owned, F&O is funded by you, our readers. We are ad-free and spam-free, and we do not solicit donations from partisan organizations.  Please visit our Subscribe page to chip in at least .27 for one story or $1 for a day site pass. Please tell others about us, and follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

Posted in Current Affairs, Gyroscope Also tagged , , |

Life goes on in rural Newfoundland

FAO-Morreys-sheep-TorsCove-1810

Bringing the sheep back from the summer community pastures on the island at Tors Cove on Newfoundland’s Southern Shore. A practice that has been going on for more than 200 years. Photo by Greg Locke © 2015

 

GREG LOCKE
September, 2015

Bay de Verde, Conception Bay, Newfoundland– Travelling around Newfoundland this summer I began seeing signs of life, culture and a society I thought were lost forever.

The cod moratorium was thought to be the death of rural Newfoundland. The outports are estimated to have been emptied of more than 50,000 people. Boats, houses, property …entire villages, abandoned. Newfoundland and Labrador’s historic cod fisheries attracted local and international fishing fleets for almost five centuries before the Canadian government shut the industry down indefinitely in July, 1992. By then, once-plentiful fish stocks had dwindled to near extinction, and officials feared they would disappear entirely if the fishery remained open. The moratorium put about 30,000 people in the province out of work, and ended a way of life that had endured for generations in many outport communities.

Except … it didn’t.

On the wharfs and in the twine lofts people are living their lives and following the old ways. In Tors Cove, just a 30 minute drive south of the capital, St. John’s,  Howard Morry was bringing his sheep back from the islands where they spent the summer grazing safe from dogs and coyotes. …the way it’s been done for generations.

FAO-WWF_GSL-9742

Community party in a fisherman’s twine loft Bay de Verde, Conception Bay, Newfoundland. Photo by Greg Locke © 2015

In Bay de Verde, fish were caught and parties and feasts went late into the evening. Just like the days in 1990 and 1991 when I spent all my spare time travelling the island documenting a fast disappearing culture. The sun sinks into the ocean, the moon lights the cove and the winding pathways through the village as people gather around the music and laughter from the sheds where coolers full of beer rattle with ice and deep fryers and barbecues sizzle with lobsters, crab and cod fish.

Before you continue: please know that reader-supported Facts and Opinions is employee-owned and ad-free. We are on an honour system and survive only because readers like you pay at least 27 cents per story.  Contribute below, or find details here. Thanks for your interest and support.

Old historic houses, shops and fishing buildings are being restored in once booming places like Bonavista, Fogo Island and Elliston. Towns like Eastport and Glovertown are awash in new construction and service industries.

Newfoundland has been discovered by well-heeled and adventure tourists. They paddle in expensive kayaks alongside local fishermen in the new trendy hot spots.

Sure there is gentrification in the remote bays and coves, but the old ways remain. The new comers learn how to survive from the old timers and the few young Newfoundland people who were not meant to live in the cities of western Canada.

What happens when a government abandons its people? Do they disappear? What happens when the contract, trusts and social bonds between politicians, bureaucrats, scientists and the community its suppose to serve is broken?

In the years leading up to the destruction of the cod stocks, fishermen were warning the politicians and scientists that the fish stocks were disappearing, catches abnormal and erratic. These were not the fishermen with large offshore trawlers — the high-tech fishing factories — but small-boat fishermen living in the villages who fished close to shore, immersed in fish habitat and habits.

Officialdom turned a deaf ear. The message was that stupid uneducated fishermen don’t know anything. They lack biology degrees. They are ignorant of the machinery of politics.

FAO-WWF-Canada_BaydeVerde-NL_GREGLOCKE-1647

Fishermen from Bay de Verde, Newfoundland catching their small allocation of cod fish in Conception bay. Photo by Greg Locke © 2015

More than 25 years later, Newfoundland rural culture survives in small, wise, pockets. They have learned a lot about the politics of Canada’s federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans. More than they would care to, probably. The small-boat fishermen were proved right about the cod stocks.

In recent years those few still fishing are telling the politicians and scientists that cod catches are up, that the fish are the largest seen in more than 30 years.

They want to a return of a small, specialized, sustainable cod fishery for inshore fishermen and fishing communities. They are backed with science and expertise in sustainable fishing from groups as diverse as the fishermen’s union, World Wildlife Fund and independent biology and social scientists. All are working together on plans for that commercially viable, sustainable, community based fishery which the government doesn’t want to hear about it because its model is a fishing industry for a small number of large multinational food companies.

And DFO scientists, bureaucrats and politicians are still not listening.

It’s no surprise that all trust and respect has broken down between Newfoundland’s people, and the government, and scientists. And as the government, politicians and industrial fishing companies continue to abandon rural Newfoundland, it’s nice to see that the old ways are still remembered.

Life will carry on, regardless of the destruction wrought by the interlopers.

Rural-Nfld_GREGLOCKE-1810.jpgRural-Nfld_GREGLOCKE-0535.jpgRural-Nfld_GREGLOCKE-1647.jpgRural-Nfld_GREGLOCKE-0025.jpgRural-Nfld_GREGLOCKE-0934.jpgRural-Nfld_GREGLOCKE-0982.jpgRural-Nfld_GREGLOCKE-1519.jpgRural-Nfld_GREGLOCKE-1865.jpgRural-Nfld_GREGLOCKE-2148.jpgRural-Nfld_GREGLOCKE-0339.jpgRural-Nfld_GREGLOCKE-9597.jpgRural-Nfld_GREGLOCKE-9668.jpgRural-Nfld_GREGLOCKE-9742.jpgRural-Nfld_GREGLOCKE-0288.jpg

 

 Copyright Greg Locke 2015

 

Photographer and journalist Greg LockeGreg Locke is a founder and the managing partner, visual, of Facts and Opinions. He built the Facts and Opinions website, produces F&O’s photo essays, reports for Dispatches, writes and photographs Think magazine pieces, and contributes to the blogs.

Greg Locke has been a professional photographer, media producer and journalist for more than twenty-five years. Locke has covered politics, economics, energy issues, international development and civil conflicts in more than 30 countries including the fall of communism in eastern Europe in 1980′s, civil wars in the Balkans and the conflicts of central and east Africa in the 1990′s. He has published three books and has been a regular contributor to Canadian Business, Canadian Geographic, Time, Businessweek, Macleans and Forbes magazines.

For more about Locke’s work you can visit his website at www.greglocke.com

Related:

Two decades of disaster: Newfoundland’s fishery, by Greg Locke

It’s a cold foggy day in the fishing village of Petty Harbour, Newfoundland. Just 20 kilometers south from downtown St. John’s, it feels much further. There is not much activity or many people out and around the few remaining wharfs and twine lofts that once were buzzing hives of fishing activity ringing the harbour. Today, there are just a few frozen tourists looking to make photos of a Newfoundland that doesn’t exist anymore.

 ~~~

Facts and Opinions is a boutique journal, of reporting and analysis in words and images, without borders. Independent, non-partisan and employee-owned, F&O is funded by you, our readers. We do not carry advertising or “branded content,” or solicit donations from foundations or causes. Please support us with a contribution, below, of at least .27 per story, or a site pass for $1 per day or $20 per year — and by spreading the word.

 

Posted in Uncategorized Also tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , |

Science and “the environment” should not be separated

The Spout on Newfoundland's East Coast Trail near fishing village of Bay Bulls. Photo by Greg Locke. © 2009

Science based on outdoor study of the natural world is easily (and often) overshadowed in the frenzied excitement over gadgets and numbers. Above, the Spout on Newfoundland’s East Coast Trail near fishing village of Bay Bulls. Photo by Greg Locke. © 2009

By Manu Saunders, Ensia 
August, 2015

Does the natural world have any relevance to modern science? Of course it does; but sometimes it seems like that’s not the case. This is a myth perpetuated directly and indirectly through media, policy decisions, academic disciplines, even some science engagement initiatives: that the natural world is somehow separate from science.

Some people assume that any discussion of science automatically includes ecology, botany, entomology and other natural sciences. In some contexts, it might. But, as our immediate surroundings become increasingly engineered and artificial, science based on outdoor study of the natural world is easily (and often) overshadowed in the frenzied excitement over gadgets and numbers. The tangible outcomes and “wow” factor inherent in the physical sciences and technologies (mathematics, chemistry, engineering) have effortlessly commandeered the scientific spotlight.

Just have a look at your favorite online news website. Under what category do environmental stories appear? Are they included under science? Or are they singled out as an unrelated topic?

Out of 14 of the most popular English language news websites in the world (from comScore’s global and U.S. top 10 lists), only three sites (BBC, NBC and New York Times) combine “Environment” and “Science” news stories together under one category. Five sites separate the two as unrelated topics; five have a science category only, with minimal coverage of natural environments; and one site has neither science nor environment news categories.

The power of communication to build and sustain myths, intended or not, is often underrated.

The act of separating science stories on medical breakthroughs and astronomical wonders from stories that cover ecosystems and biodiversity unwittingly enhances the myth in readers’ minds that science and nature are mutually exclusive. Combining science with technology is even more damaging, because it distances science further from natural systems and processes.

Myths as Dominant Ideologies

The power of communication to build and sustain myths, intended or not, is often underrated. In cultural theory, myths are dominant ideologies that are maintained through media and popular culture. So, separating all those sixth extinction and climate change stories from the science category in media simply perpetuates the myth that they are not scientific issues.

Yet, despite the popular portrayal of science as lab coats, space travel, gadgets and mind-blowing math, in reality, science is more closely aligned with the natural world around us. Science is about generating and sharing knowledge about the structure and behavior of the natural world. Technology is about the functional application of that knowledge to produce tangible outcomes.

This distinction goes beyond semantic pedantry. Science is independent of technology; they are not identical and they are not replacements for one another. If we reduce science to a technological sector removed from the natural world, its relevance to society becomes limited. It becomes another “industry” with a finite customer base, shifting its focus from the pursuit of knowledge, which has far-reaching benefits for all, to the tangible, immediate outcomes it can provide a certain sector of society.

What will be the consequences if the perceived connection between scientific endeavor and the natural world continues to weaken?

When this myth is perpetuated beyond popular media, it can have damaging impacts. The current Australian government, for example, spent more than a year without a minister of science at all, before tacking science onto the industry portfolio after public outcry. The industry minister, Ian Macfarlane, even suggested a new approach to scientific research funding, where funds could be awarded to universities based on the number of patent registrations, not the number of published scientific papers. His comments highlight a common misconception — that the vast majority of scientists work on creating and developing products that can be commercialized.

Critical to Understanding Our Place in the World

What will be the consequences if the perceived connection between scientific endeavor and the natural world continues to weaken? Presenting nature study as a pleasant but scientifically irrelevant hobby may have beneficial effects on our health and well-being, but it will damage our understanding of environmental issues and therefore our understanding of science.

Far from being self-indulgent, knowledge of natural sciences is critical to understand our place in the world and manage the environmental, social and economic challenges we face. How can we understand how environmental change will impact an ecosystem — and the human communities within it — if we don’t know what species and ecological interactions make up that ecosystem? How can we achieve sustainable agriculture if we don’t understand the ecological nuances of the pest, pollinator and predator communities that use the agricultural landscape? Technologists don’t create food, fiber and shelter; ecosystems do. But that can be hard to believe in a world where biotech ag and test-tube meat command so much of the spotlight.

So how do we make sure natural sciences share the spotlight dominated by technology and physical sciences? It’s a challenge, to be sure; and human psychology plays an important role. Gadgets and machines do things; their functionality builds on the momentum of the initial “wow” to sustain the audience’s interest. In contrast, much of the contemporary communication about ecology and natural history focuses on the beauty and vulnerability of nature. In a technological society that is increasingly removed from that beauty and vulnerability, this approach can have a hard time competing for public interest.

Everything in nature holds a story we can connect to. And we haven’t even come close to hearing them all.

The key is to communicate science in a way that is engaging and relevant to everyone, a goal that requires multiple complementary strategies, not just one. Ideally, science should be presented as a balance of natural and technological, so that scientists and nonscientists alike believe that ecosystems, organisms and ecological interactions are as essential to science — and ultimately society — as mathematics, engineering and technology.

Studying nature teaches us about interactions, consequences and survival. What could be more essential to all of us? Through natural sciences, we learn how environmental change affected us, as well as other living things, in the past (paleoecology). We learn how some of the tiniest organisms on Earth can make us sick or keep us alive (entomology). We learn that controversial species (such as wolves or dingoes) are a critical part of our local ecosystems (ecology). And we learn that we can’t fully understand the implications of these interactions, unless we identify and classify all the organisms involved (taxonomy).

Nature is useful and functional to you and me, not just as a resource opportunity or a “happy place,” but as a raison d’être. After all, ecosystems and organisms do things too — they are our natural life support system. Bees, flies and wasps pollinate crops and control insect pests so we can harvest food and fiber; wetlands purify the water we drink and mitigate flooding near our homes; birds and beetles scavenge wastes so we are less likely to suffer from disease.

The list goes on and on, because everything in nature holds a story we can connect to. And we haven’t even come close to hearing them all. The latest groundbreaking technology is indeed a great scientific story to share. But the story of how the natural world works — the world we all live in and depend on — is even more engaging.View Ensia homepage

Creative Commons 

Related on F&O: 

Wanted: A new story of humanity’s place in the world, by Philip Loring, July, 2015

Ignorance of science worsens global crises, warn researchers.  By DeborahJones, 2012  (*unlocked)

~~~

*Facts and Opinions is a boutique journal, of reporting and analysis in words and images, without borders. Independent, non-partisan and employee-owned, F&O is funded by you, our readers. Some of our work is behind a paywall because we do not carry advertising or “branded content,” or solicit donations from foundations or causes. Please support us, with a subscription (click here for our subscribe page) or a donation, and/or by spreading the word.

 

 

Posted in Uncategorized Also tagged , |

Wanted: A new story of humanity’s place in the world

The prevailing perception of humans as inherently at odds with nature is not only false, it’s counterproductive

The Spout on Newfoundland's East Coast Trail near fishing village of Bay Bulls. Photo by Greg Locke. © 2009

We belong here, and belonging is a much more powerful narrative for sustainability than isolation. Above: the Spout on Newfoundland’s East Coast Trail near fishing village of Bay Bulls. Photo by Greg Locke. © 2009

It goes without saying that humans are good at causing problems. Climate change, overfishing and widespread environmental contamination from chemical toxicants are all creations of our own making. But are we destined to create such problems? Many people believe so, and argue that our capacity for self-interest, avarice and ecological shortsightedness make us inherently unsustainable as a species. Not only is this way of thinking built on long-disproven myths about human nature and human origins, it also constrains how we think about solutions and alienates us from the rest of the natural world. We need to abandon this belief and not allow ourselves to be defined only by our most recent history. The truth of the matter is that we belong here, and belonging is a much more powerful narrative for sustainability than isolation.

In western society, most people’s understanding of human nature can be traced back to the writings of a handful of social philosophers: Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, John Adams and Adam Smith, to name the core few. Collectively, their respective works create a picture of humanity that is driven by extreme self-interest and in which life before the advent of government was nasty, brutish and short. This picture of humanity is now widely accepted and invoked; former U.S. Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan famously opined, for example, that corruption, embezzlement and fraud are all symptoms of human nature, and that the best we can do is try to keep these to a minimum.

Greenspan’s words mirror how many people think about sustainability: People are the problem and we must learn to limit our impacts. Indeed, the environmental movement and many of today’s most popular frameworks for thinking about sustainability are built upon this basic assumption; the “leave no trace” mantra and the notion of the Tragedy of the Commons, which says that people acting in their own self-interest always do so to the detriment of a larger group and common resources, are two ready examples.

Yet these perspectives are ignorant to the full history of humanity. These early social philosophers lived in a time when people believed that we had been around for only a few thousand years. They had little knowledge of evolution, of human origins, or of our species’ many hundreds of thousands of years of tenure on this planet. Hobbes’ Leviathan was published in 1651, more than 200 years before the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species in 1859 and the first discovery of a Homo erectus specimen, Java Man, in 1891.

Lichen covered rocks and iceberg in Conception Bay, Newfoundland. Photo by Greg Locke © 2014

Humans have a long track record for environmental conservation. Above, lichen-covered rocks and iceberg in Conception Bay, Newfoundland. Photo by Greg Locke © 2014

These social philosophers did not know that human altruism and cooperation have an evolutionary basis, rooted in the success of early subsistence strategies for hunting, sharing and enduring short-term resource scarcity. Nor did they know that members of early tribal societies usually worked less and were more food secure than many people today. Finally, they were unaware that humans have a long track record for environmental conservation, including in areas that sustained dense populations of tens to hundreds of thousands of people, such as the Pacific Northwest region of North America.

All of this is not to suggest that humanity should somehow go back to “Stone Age” living, nor am I implying that prehistoric peoples never behaved unsustainably. Rather, I raise these facts because they contribute to a very different picture of human nature than was imagined by Hobbes and others.

People tend to think of myths as being things of the past — fanciful tales that have been eliminated, at least from secular society, by Western science and Enlightenment rationality. Yet myths are much more than this. Mythologist Joseph Campbell wrote extensively on the power of myths and described them as life-motivating and life-directing concepts that provide people with justification and purpose. Many myths are so powerful and fundamental to people’s worldviews, Campbell argued, that they don’t need to actually be elaborated in story form in order to be widely known and believed.

That we are inherently flawed is such a myth, one that infuses many of our cultural stories, secular and religious alike. We find it in the fall from grace in the book of Genesis in the Bible, in Hobbes’ account of the state of nature and in Garret Hardin’s Tragedy of the Commons. The latter example is illustrative of just how durable this myth can be; many people still believe Hardin’s tragedy is the default outcome in shared resource situations, despite the decades of research by social and political scientists such as Bonnie McCay and Elinor Ostrom that show otherwise.

The trouble is that belief in this myth preconditions how we try to solve problems. We use it to explain away failings in our contemporaries and come to expect the same of ourselves. We focus on limiting and policing our interactions with the natural world, when the real causes of environmental problems, from rapid population growth to resource overharvest, tend to be societal in nature.

This myth of a broken humanity neuters our potential and alienates us from the rest of the natural community. Above,  Newfoundlanders harvest ice bergs for water to make vodka and beer, off Canada's Atlantic coast. Photo by Greg Locke © 2015

This myth of a broken humanity neuters our potential and alienates us from the rest of the natural community. Above, Newfoundlanders harvest ice bergs for water to make vodka and beer, off Canada’s Atlantic coast. Photo by Greg Locke © 2015

Unsustainable population growth, for example, is not simply a biological feature of our species or even a product of religion. It is driven, tragically, by poverty and high rates of infant mortality. Likewise, when people misuse resources for personal gain, there are invariably social and cultural institutions that drive and reward that behavior. Rather than blindly blaming ourselves for these problems, we need to look to the means of success in our societies. Are people marginalized and left with no other choice but to overharvest resources? Does our society protect human rights to ensure people’s opportunities to live secure and fulfilling lives, or does it leave everyone to pull themselves up by their bootstraps at any expense?

This myth of a broken humanity neuters our potential and alienates us from the rest of the natural community. All other species leave a trace, so why shouldn’t we? Surely, we have a great capacity as a species for self-interest, avarice and hate, and there’s no doubt that there are many people who are ideologically inclined to misuse and overuse resources for short-term gain. Nevertheless, we are a social creature by nature, one with a capacity for and long track record of cooperation and sustainability. Sharing and egalitarian social mores were the norm, not the exception, during our hundreds of thousands of years in hunter-gatherer societies. The great biodiversity of the Amazon is a result, in part, of humanity’s footprint. Likewise, the long-term social and ecological sustainability of Pacific Northwest cultures was the product of a land ethic that emphasized restraint and planning on a long time horizon and social norms regarding reciprocity and gift-giving among houses.

The question at hand is what kind of trace we choose to leave. Rather than focusing on how to shield ecosystems from our impacts, we could be experimenting with ways to achieve comfort and security while also promoting biodiversity and ecosystem structure and function. Using livestock to combat desertification and restore grasslands is one example, and the ongoing efforts of people in places such as Madagascar and Haida Gwaii to find win-win solutions that restore and enhance marine biodiversity and support local food security is another.

Meanwhile, protecting human rights such as the right to food and food sovereignty would be a good start to solving the root causes of unsustainability. Ensuring these rights would eliminate many of the aspects of our societies that pit us against one another and give people the space to experiment with more sustainable ways of living.

Regardless of the specific strategies people develop, and I believe they are numerous, we must stop using human nature as a scapegoat for our environmental problems and turn our attention to addressing the societal drivers of unsustainable practices — issues such as poverty, inequity and injustice. For the long term, we need to teach our children a different story of us, one in which we belong and have the potential to thrive and coexist with the rest of the natural world. View Ensia homepage

Creative Commons

contributor-philip-loringPhilip Loring is an ecological anthropologist at the University of Saskatchewan. His research focus is on fisheries, food security and environmental justice. Visit him at his web site, The Conservation of Change.

 

 

 

 

 

~~~

Facts and Opinions is an online journal of select and first-rate reporting and analysis, in words and images: a boutique for slow journalism, without borders. Independent, non-partisan and employee-owned, F&O performs journalism for citizens, funded entirely by readers. We do not carry advertising or solicit donations from foundations or causes. Subscribe by email to our free FRONTLINES, a blog announcing new works, and the odd small tale. Look for evidence-based reporting in Reports; commentary, analysis and creative non-fiction in OPINION-FEATURES; and image galleries in PHOTO-ESSAYS. Some of our original works are behind a paywall, available with a $1 site day pass, or with a subscription from $2.95/month – $19.95/year. If you value journalism, please help sustain us.

 

Posted in Uncategorized Also tagged , |

When will the penny drop at Davos?

 

WEF publicity photo/Michael Buholzer

WEF publicity photo/Michael Buholzer

It’s not unusual for environmental risk to come up at the World Economic Forum, held this month in Davos, notes Natural Security columnist Chris Wood. “What appears to be harder for the high-net-worth and high-power-quotient individuals meeting in the Alps to accept, is that the rising incidence, mounting costs and escalating risk of natural security failures proceed directly from the very system that the World Economic Forum was invented to promote,” he writes in his new column, Davos: Pantomimes of Concern From the One Percent. Excerpt:

The one percent are meeting in Davos, Switzerland, this week—or at least, that fraction of the one percent that retains either a trace of social conscience or an instinct for personal survival that entails more than a private army and a fortified island somewhere.

The World Economic Forum (WEF) is the one annual event at which the rich and powerful gather to consider the prospects for further expanding and entrenching the free market, neo-liberal economy that has made them the masters of their universe and ours. And as in other years, they will consider the threats that haunt their agenda.

The conversation-starter for that discussion is a single, colourful graphic (see illustration, below) locating nearly 30 “risks” to the globalized economy along axes of likelihood and impact. They include low-likelihood, high-impact eventualities like the use of weapons of mass destruction, as well as high-likelihood but low-impact risks like failures of urban planning.

But here’s the thing: of the 25 risks that the WEF planners ranked as either highly likely, or likely to have a high impact (above 4.5 on either scale of zero to six), or both, more than half (13) are consequences of local and global-scale failures of natural security.

Some are straightforwardly so. Water crises, biodiversity loss, ecosystem collapse and extreme weather events, are all direct manifestations of our biophysical habitat strained to breaking point. The strangely neutral phrase, “Failure of climate-change adaptation” is a technocrat’s portmanteau for everything from droughts enduring decades to abandoned coastlines to super-storms to mortality-raising heat waves and cold snaps. Log in first to continue reading Davos: Pantomimes of Concern From the One Percent (subscription*)

Click here for Chris Wood’s Natural Security column page,  or here to subscribe or purchase a $1 site day pass

 *You’ll find lots of great free stories inside our site, but much of our original work is behind a paywall — we do not sell advertising, and reader payments are essential for us to continue our work. Journalism to has value, and we need and appreciate your support (a day pass is $1 and a monthly subscription is less than a cup of coffee). 

Facts and Opinions is an online journal of select and first-rate reporting and analysis, in words and images: a boutique for slow journalism, without borders. Independent, non-partisan and employee-owned, F&O performs journalism for citizens, funded entirely by readers like you. We do not carry advertising or solicit donations from foundations or causes. Thank you for your patronage. Please tell others about us.

Posted in Current Affairs Also tagged , , |