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Tag: "environment"

Everything in the Oceans Is Dying

[ 13 ] January 16, 2015 |

Today’s installment of this continuing series:

A team of scientists, in a groundbreaking analysis of data from hundreds of sources, has concluded that humans are on the verge of causing unprecedented damage to the oceans and the animals living in them.

“We may be sitting on a precipice of a major extinction event,” said Douglas J. McCauley, an ecologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and an author of the new research, which was published on Thursday in the journal Science.

But there is still time to avert catastrophe, Dr. McCauley and his colleagues also found. Compared with the continents, the oceans are mostly intact, still wild enough to bounce back to ecological health.

Yes, it’s climate change and changing those behaviors, well, that ain’t going to happen. But it’s also the industrialization of the oceans:

Fragile ecosystems like mangroves are being replaced by fish farms, which are projected to provide most of the fish we consume within 20 years. Bottom trawlers scraping large nets across the sea floor have already affected 20 million square miles of ocean, turning parts of the continental shelf to rubble. Whales may no longer be widely hunted, the analysis noted, but they are now colliding more often as the number of container ships rises.

Mining operations, too, are poised to transform the ocean. Contracts for seabed mining now cover 460,000 square miles underwater, the researchers found, up from zero in 2000. Seabed mining has the potential to tear up unique ecosystems and introduce pollution into the deep sea.

The oceans are so vast that their ecosystems may seem impervious to change. But Dr. McClenachan warned that the fossil record shows that global disasters have wrecked the seas before. “Marine species are not immune to extinction on a large scale,” she said.

The oceans are the ultimate in out of sight industrial production because the only people who can get down to see them are those with special equipment. Even those who live on the shore can’t see more than a few inches below the surface. But the companies know what’s down there and they will extract it all, leaving the oceans a giant jellyfish desert.

Book Review: H.H. Shugart, Foundations of the Earth: Global Ecological Change and the Book of Job

[ 5 ] December 28, 2014 |

H.H. Shugart, a systems ecologist at the University of Virginia, has written a book using the Book of Job to frame both environmental change over the long period of human history and how we are transforming the planet’s ecology today. Shugart’s major goal is to bring the insights of religious studies to those of science to create a conversation between scholars of religion and scientists. While I’m not totally convinced there is a particularly useful conversation to have there, Shugart has written a very good book explaining both short and long-term ecological change in plain language while placing it all within a valuable historical context.

The Book of Job is well-known, even among the non-religious, for its story of the plight of a good man who God decides to test by taking everything from him. Shugart points out that this story is actually pre-Biblical, probably adapted from earlier religions to the Jewish context. Some of the Book of Job is God speaking to Job through a whirlwind, asserting his superiority to Job through challenging him on the knowledge of the world. Shugart takes a couple of verses from the whirlwind speech to frame each of his chapters explaining global ecological change over the history of humans.

Take for example Chapter 4, which explores how humans have affected species distribution around the globe, from extinctions to intentional introductions of animals that become pests. Shugart starts the chapter with three verses from Job 39:

Who has let the wild ass go free? Who has loosed the bonds of the swift ass, to which I have given the steppe for its home, the salt land for its dwelling place It scorns the tumult of the city; it does not hear the shouts of the driver.

The ass of the Book of Job was the onager, a now nearly extinct oversized donkey of the Near East. Shugart explores the archaeological evidence on the animals, showing Syrian paintings of onager-drawn chariots from 3000-2800 BCE to demonstrate they were probably domesticated. But the onager exists only in tiny populations today. The horse, an animal originating in modern-day Kazakhstan, replaced it after what seems to have been a genetic mutation leading to its ability to be bred in captivity and its rapid expansion by 2000 BCE. Onagers began to disappear from Sumerian writings around the same time. Today, most of the prehistoric horse-like creatures are either critically endangered, in decline, or already extinct. This was a choice by humans to favor the horse and humans are the ultimate keystone species, controlling the ecosystem in which they live. Whether intentionally or unintentionally, humans have done this for thousands of years. From rabbits in Australia to starlings in the United States, humans have spread species around in order to fulfill their aesthetic desires, creating major transformations in the animal world and ecology at large. If God asked Job “who has set the wild ass free,” Shugart finds similar questions in “who has set the starling free” in New York or “who has set the smallpox free” in Native America after 1492. Whether done by God or humans, rapid ecological change can certainly have such radical and rapid transformation as to make one thing the gods have turned against you. And more broadly, people are transforming a planet they do not understand.

Shugart supplies similar histories and insights to issues including bird migration, winds, climate change, and oceans. Each of these things have long been observed by humans and most if not all civilizations have attempted to understand them. Like people through history, Polynesians attempted to understand the stars, eventually developing navigation systems based around this. They used their ability to read the stars in order to spread across the Pacific. In doing so, they brought new animals to places that created widespread extinction and transforming the plant ecology of the region. Understanding the planet does not just have long-term or deep time implications, but helped shape recent history as well. Both the English and Germans were developing tide prediction machines in the early twentieth century that influenced World War II. Rommel was so certain that he had prevented an Allied invasion in June 1944 because of his understanding of tides that he was in Berlin celebrating his wife’s birthday when it began, dates decided in large part by Eisenhower because Rommel’s tidal defenses meant the Allies needed a low tide with a late rising moon.

In thinking about weather, Shugart notes “It is no surprise that the power to control the weather is a principal dimension of divine omnipotence.” Peoples throughout history have indeed tried to influence the weather and continue to do so today as we try to figure out ways to deal with climate change. In doing so, he provides succinct descriptions of both historical attempts to control the weather (including Congress actually funding some theory that the battles of the Civil War led to more rain) and the science behind attempting to mitigate climate change today. This is useful stuff, not so much for the specialist or even the religious person interested in environmental issues, but rather its greatest value lies in effectively explaining historical ecological change to a lay audience.

This review has largely focused on some of the scientific and ecological discussion rather than the religious side of proceedings, which often get left behind outside the introduction and conclusion to the chapters. I think it is an open question whether the insights of religion really have that much to say to scientists. Is it useful for scientists to understand that their attempts to understand the world have a long history? Sure. I’m not sure what they then do with that however. Perhaps they could reach out more to religious leaders over issues of wildlife protection and climate change to tap into those theological histories, but then we also know that Christian churches in the United States are going to have a, well, varied perspective on these issues as well. In the Book of Job, God knows that humans don’t understand the world. Humans have acted upon the world without understanding it, despite their attempts to do so. As Shugart says, “We must find better answers than we have. Our future depends on it (255).” This is undoubtedly true. Whether religion can help us answer those questions remains debatable, but Foundations of the Earth is at the very least a good primer to the long history of global ecological change.

The Nicaragua Canal

[ 105 ] December 24, 2014 |

It’s hard to imagine a scenario in which the Nicaragua Canal is not an environmental disaster, not to mention horrible for the people, largely indigenous, who will be displaced because of it. But the combination of China looking to check U.S. power and a Nicaraguan government led by Daniel Ortega, who has every reason to stick a thumb in the eye of the U.S., means this is finally happening after being talked about for more than a century. I confess being a bit skeptical that this is going to succeed in the end and if it does, the consequences on the environment will be pretty significant. But it’s definitely fascinating to watch.

Book Review: Hecht, Morrison, and Padoch, eds. The Social Lives of Forests: Past, Present, and Future of Woodland Resurgence

[ 2 ] December 14, 2014 |

For those interested in environmentalism, the dominant narrative of the state of the forests is one of decline and collapse in the face of industrial development. While wilderness protection was won for some American forests in the second half of the twentieth century, around the world, the decline of the rainforest in the wake of logging, ranching, and slash-and-burn farming makes first world environmentalists fear for the planet’s future. In this narrative, forests are largely seen as the victims of humans, despoiled wildernesses that properly should not be centers of human economic activity.

The Social Lives of Forests: Past, Present, and Future of Woodland Resurgence, edited by Susanna Hecht, Kathleen Morrison, and Christine Padoch,
pushes back against this narrative by focusing on forest economies and forest history to argue for a more complex examination of human interactions with the forests. Largely examining tropical forests, the twenty-eight essays that make up this collection situates forests within communities, stressing the necessity of nuanced understandings of their role in regional economies if we want to have a realistic shot of not letting them all go under the saws of industrial logging.

Behind the ways we think about forests is that poor people have an outright negative impact upon them. James Fairhead and Melissa Leach analyze how social scientists have talked about environmental degradation in west African forests to note that scholars see the landscape as degraded. But actually examining the historical advance of vegetation shows this is categorically not true. Using historical photographs and narratives going back to the eighteenth century, they show there is no discernible difference in the level of vegetation for much of the area. Similarly, while the Sahel is often portrayed as encroaching desert because of human activity, Chris Reij argues that Niger especially has actually re-greened the area to a significant extent, with a significant national gain in tree cover over the last twenty years.

Historians have noted how the creation of wilderness has often led to the expulsion of people’s traditional use of that land. That continues today in the developing world. Among many problems with this is that it creates resentment toward those forests and the animals within them. Without a strong government presence, these colonialist parks can’t be properly guarded and thus can actually be counterproductive in the long-term for environmentalist goals. Moreover, while in Europe, as Roderick Neumann states in his essay, has long seen biodiversity woven into history and culture, these very Europeans are conceiving of tropical biodiversity as completely separate from human history and culture.

Several essays discuss the human history and anthropology of tropical forests. Rather than be seen as untrammeled wilderness, it’s important that we understand these forests have long had human involvement. The essay by Heckenberger, et al., shows the “massive forest alterations” people created in the pre-Columbian Amazon, with earthworks, roads, and artificial ponds still observable. David Lentz and Brian Lane explore the long-term effects of an early Mayan site on the forests of Belize today, where trees of economic importance to the Maya are still more common than usual in areas of former population centers than the forest as a whole. Are these forests wilderness today? Does the term even have value? Should the nature/culture divide be broken down? The overarching theme of these essays is yes on the latter question.

When we do think of tropical forests and industrial production, John Vandermeer and Ivette Perfector remind us that most of these forests are fragmented, not fully deforested, which makes a significant difference in how we perceive of environmental problems and solutions. If we see everything through a lost Eden declension narrative, the will to solve problems with the forests that remain become much more difficult. And when people leave the forests to move to cities, they often still rely on the forest for their livelihood, an important issue for crafting forest policy according to Padoch, et al in their essay on the people and forests around Pucallpa, Peru. And in fact, people will need to make a living off the forest and do in creative ways, including minority populations in the uplands of Southeast Asia producing forest tea that they can and do market in a sophisticated manner to discerning rich consumers. Commercialized agricultural is also transforming many forests, including the Laos uplands as Yayoi Fujita Lagerquvist details. This has led to a lot of landscape degradation but understanding the choices farmers have made are important for governments to craft more environmentally and socially responsible policies.

Are there lessons we can learn from these essays for forest management here in the United States? Only one of the twenty-eight chapters discusses the U.S., but I think it’s useful to explore it. Peter Crane, et al write about the “Chicago Wilderness,” or the biodiversity hotspot that surrounds Chicago. Of course, not much of that is in anything close to a pristine state and even the open spaces are often overrun with invasive species. Yet managing those open spaces for both biodiversity and human enjoyment has great potential to bring people and the forest together for a lot of people who can’t make it to the great wilderness areas of the West. That’s what is happening in Chicago by organizations bringing volunteers and children into the wilderness for rehabilitation projects and education efforts. This is also why I like a lot of what The Nature Conservancy does. That organization is I think often unfairly maligned for the compromises it makes with corporations but it goes a long ways to preserve small spots, often near urban areas, that do a lot to promote biodiversity and help urban dwellers engage with the natural world.

To quote Hecht: “As forests become increasingly pivotal in global climate politics, understanding the dynamics of forest transitions, successions, and their social underpinnings—the social lives of forests—is a critical step for whatever resilience we might hope for in the maelstrom of twenty-first century climate change” (113). This sums up the book’s social purpose. If we see forests as “lost” whenever humans work in them, what we lose is the ability to marshal the resources we have to deal with global environmental problems while also giving local people a chance to live.

The Social Lives of Forests
is probably too technical for general readers. The essays range from fairly detailed short histories of forests to heavily data-driven articles. But for those concerned with the long-term sustainability of the global environment, the insights in these essays are very useful.

The Conservation Biology Divide

[ 37 ] December 13, 2014 |

Conservation biologists are currently in another civil war over the meaning of the field. In short, should conservation be concerned more with humans or should it be concerned more with biodiversity? I find these conversations frustrating because they are so either/or. In other words, they reflect the larger debate among environmentalists over the past several decades around wilderness and the role of humans. Are humans strictly destructive and thus nature should be protected from humans or should we just accept the reality that there is no pristine and realize that the rest of the world is probably going to start looking like Europe, with a heavily managed and overpopulated landscape, albeit not one without any green spaces?

As much as I love wilderness, it’s more likely that the long-term answer is accepting human activity in most spaces in some way, even if that does cost some biodiversity. The major reason for this is political. Keeping people out is a short-term possibility but if people don’t develop a respect for environmental values, if those government structures begin to tumble, or are not strong to being with, it becomes really hard to enforce those legal restrictions. Plus, restricting people from land can cause resentment and incentivize poaching and other activities that can have a political angle against the wealthy white people from around the world coming to take their safaris instead of letting me farm this land so I am going to kill the animals they like plus feed my family. The best case scenario here is probably a Costa Rica, where you do have a lot of preserved land and a lot of biodiversity protected and mass deforestation everywhere else.

The Nature Conservancy ends up playing an outsized role in these debates. I like The Nature Conservancy because I think it is vitally important that small spaces are protected for the masses to visit. Yes, TNC works with corporations. No, they are not pure. But there are many rivers of environmentalism and ensuring that a piece of land outside Providence is not developed because some unique plants live there actually has value, both in preserving that biodiversity and in providing green spaces to people. But a lot of conservation biologists loathe this organization for, essentially, being sell-outs.

In any case, even within a single discipline there needs to be room for different methods and goals. It’s not like if all the conservation biologists stand together, the world is going to listen. All the climate scientists are standing together and the powerful just call their science a hoax. Rather, while these debates should exist in a field, I don’t think it’s particularly productive to go to war over them. After all, here I am writing about this and not noting some recent victory in the field of conservation.

Cancer Clusters

[ 29 ] December 12, 2014 |

Paul Voosen has an interesting article at National Geographic that wonders why there has not been more known cancer clusters develop given the nation’s long history of toxicity. There’s no shortage of the skeptic in Voosen and so the article in places reads like someone who really doesn’t believe toxicity may be that great of worry. That concerns me because we do know that toxicity and pollution can cause powerful and horrible things to happen to human bodies. The large historiographies of workplace health, toxicity, women’s bodies, and the history of science plainly demonstrates this in broad terms. But the fact remains that there are not a lot of officially designated cancer clusters as was predicted in the 1970s. Is this because we don’t study this issue enough? Is it because of corporate influence over science? Is it because Americans move around so much? Is it because people respond to outside influences on their bodies in different ways, making it hard to verify? Is it because cancer is just so common anyway that we aren’t really seeing when toxicity causes it? Or is the impact of toxic materials on human health overstated? I am pretty skeptical of the last possibility, but I think the answer to why the cancer clusters haven’t been recognized may be a combination of several of the above factors.

In any case, protecting humans from toxic waste is not something that should be up for debate. It’s important and the resources to clean up the environment and make humans safe are a necessary expenditure. There is far too much clear historical evidence before the environmental laws of the 1970s to make us question that.

Martin Litton, RIP

[ 7 ] December 7, 2014 |

The great environmentalist Martin Litton has died. A radical within what was traditionally a pretty conservative Sierra Club, Litton allied with David Brower to lead the fight to save Dinosaur National Monument from the Echo Park Dam in 1956, a key moment in the rise of American environmentalism. He continued fighting for untrammeled wilderness throughout the rest of his very long life (married for 72 years!). His particular love was the Colorado River and Grand Canyon. That’s a fight that continues to be fought today as some want to turn the Grand Canyon into Niagara Falls.

How to Celebrate Bhopal

[ 35 ] December 5, 2014 |

If you were prime minister of India, how would you celebrate the 30th anniversary of Bhopal, the worst industrial accident in world history? If you are Narendra Modi, you try to recreate it around your country by eviscerating environmental laws and giving chemical companies open season to pollute and kill.

VAPI, India — Factory owners in this city on the western coast of India have been fuming, railing, and arguing for years against a single troublesome number: the pollution index used by the Ministry of Environment and Forests, which identified Vapi as an area so badly contaminated that any further industrial growth there was banned.

They finally got some good news in early June, about two weeks after Narendra Modi was sworn in as prime minister. The new officials at the ministry told them that the pollution index would be revised — and in the meantime, Vapi’s chemical and pesticide factories were again free to expand, and to snap at China’s share of the global chemical export market.

Rightly so, said Harshad Patel, standing outside the plant where he works. The air had an acrid-sweet smell, and reddish-brown effluent was gushing from a treatment plant down the road at a rate of 55 million gallons a day into the Daman Ganga River, but Mr. Patel looked untroubled. “Clean India is fine — we also like clean India,” he said. “But give us jobs.”

Indian industries have often complained that convoluted environmental regulations are choking off economic growth. As a candidate, Mr. Modi promised to open the floodgates, and he has been true to his word. The new government is moving with remarkable speed to clear away regulatory burdens for industry, the armed forces, mining and power projects.

Not surprisingly, Modi is using the same strategy that U.S. corporations want in our nation–devolution to state regulators:

“We have decided to decentralize decision-making,” Mr. Javadekar said. “Ninety percent of files won’t come to me anymore.”

He said the new government was not phasing out important environmental protections, just “those which, in the name of caring for nature, were stopping progress.”

Environmental activists are alarmed at the plan to devolve power to state regulators, in part because state chief ministers have powerful incentives to support industry. “It would be a rubber stamp, because the chief minister would just call the pollution control guy and say, ‘clear it,’ ” said Jairam Ramesh, who served as environment minister under the previous national government. “In the state, the chief minister is the king, he’s the sultan.”

Bhopal for all!

Book Review, Christopher Morris, The Big Muddy: An Environmental History of the Mississippi and Its Peoples from Hernando de Soto to Hurricane Katrina

[ 14 ] November 9, 2014 |

Now that one book is in the can and the other is under review, I have time to read again. So I will review the recent books I get through here on the blog, as I used to do.

Christopher Morris’ environmental history of the lower Mississippi Valley takes readers from the sixteenth century to the present. His central point is that Europeans entered a landscape where wet and dry coexisted, with an ecological balance that supported Native American civilizations, and strove to separate the wet from dry with ever greater technological inputs. In doing so, the French and then the Americans not only rapidly changed the lower Mississippi ecosystem, but also ended up severely degrading one of the most fertile and rich parts of the world.

For both the French and Americans, living in a wet land seemed uncivilized. The constant, if usually low-level, flooding, was akin to savagery and in order to maintain Frenchness or Americanness, separation from nature was required. This led, very quickly, to the building of levees and concerted attempts to dry out the land behind them. For the French, rice culture worked to tame this land and while the Americans continued growing rice, cotton became the economic basis for the ever more vigilance protection of the fields from the river.

But what Europeans found was that water cannot be fully controlled. Damming it, diverting it, channeling it–all of this provided short-term solutions to the water problem, but a force with the power of the Mississippi River strikes back. And when it does, if the pressure is built up because its natural release is taken away by the levees, the damage can be amazing. The most famous flood was in 1927, but the Mississippi has shown Europeans’ efforts to control it futile time and time again. But from the 17th century forward, Europeans sought to engineer the river so that its people could live on dry land without even thinking about the water. This normalized Louisiana and the Mississippi delta as dry land, making floods seem unnatural.

Morris spends most of the book describing these processes. The Mississippi is a young river, having only flowed in its present path for several hundred years. In that time, the river was the home of a tremendous amount of flora and fauna. He details how Native Americans survived in this marshy world, building enormous mounds that remind us of their presence today and thriving off the region’s rich natural resources. They shaped the landscape as well, but lacked the technological ability or capitalist culture to see the river as something that needed taming. After early Spanish and French failures to establish themselves on the lower Mississippi, the French finally succeeded when New Orleans was established in 1718 by Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville landed at Biloxi and walked east rather than get lost in the Mississippi delta as his predecessors had done. The French slowly began changing the valley, a process continued by the Spanish during their brief occupation of the area after 1763.

The real changes came with the Americans. The expansion of cotton meant turning as much of the South as possible to its production. This came at a widespread environmental cost throughout the region, with erosion, gullying, and exhausted soils clear problems by the time of the Civil War. On the Mississippi River, floods could replenish that soil, but the ever-more intensive growth of the levee system determined to keep that land dry meant that replenishing rarely occurred, only when flood events broke through the technologies built up to protect the cotton.

This landscape was of course highly racialized, both before and after the Civil War. Morris discusses how slaves lived on the margins of this wet and dry world. For slaves, the marshes provided some level of relative freedom and independence; the ability to hunt for food gave some slaves a bit of control over their own lives. Some slaves hunted full time for their masters, others killed raccoons, opossums, and birds for their own dinners. But those declining marshes meant disappearing wildlife too. Morris closes one chapter by discussing Theodore Roosevelt’s 1902 bear hunt in southern Louisiana, which led to the capture of a single scraggly bear attacked by dogs that did little more than disgust Roosevelt. That story, the basis for Faulkner’s “The Bear,” says much about the degraded nature of the lower Mississippi by the early twentieth century.

For general readers, Morris’ last three chapters will be of the greatest interest. Here, he rapidly moves into the twentieth century and what he calls a “pathological landscape.” Three centuries of trying to separate wet and dry had created a landscape where tremendous inputs of pesticides and fertilizers were necessary in one of the most fertile spaces on the planet. Mosquito-borne illnesses became worse through this regime, not better, as standing water made malaria and yellow fever plagues common in Louisiana through the 19th century. Chemicals like DDT and 2,4D became crutches for policy makers to avoid the environmental consequences of centuries of river policy. Coastal erosion became a problem before 1900 as the Mississippi River was channeled to the sea, and as the people of New Orleans discovered during Katrina, this can have devastating consequences.

Yet unlike many environmental histories, there is a bit of hope here. Morris steadfastly believes that humans can live along the Mississippi in a relatively sustainable way. Looking at crawfish farming as an ecologically sustainable way forward, Morris shows how it mimics the river’s natural processes, which means more marshes and more wildlife, as opposed to catfish farming or cotton that have caused great problems within the ecosystem. The crawfish farmers also grow rice in this wet landscape, which builds connections between land and water. Rice fields and catfish farms can become water storage areas that help the region manage the floods in a more ecologically sound and sustainable way than higher levees.

Morris also compares New Orleans to Venice, St. Petersburg, and Rotterdam to note that cities and water can coexist if people see the water as natural and plan for it, rather than view it as an enemy to tame. But New Orleans has not moved significantly in this direction since Hurricane Katrina, nor has the federal government. In a state as devoted to capitalism as the U.S., the short-term economic and political gains of levees means that remains the answer to the threat of water. Yet even in New Orleans, new homes on stilts are coming up, a recognition that this landscape can and flood. Even recognizing that is a positive step toward a more sustainable relationship with the river.

But outside of New Orleans, a somewhat different equation exists because declining populations along the delta has reduced the region’s political power and led to real victories for a more ecologically healthy management regime that has included some natural flooding and rejection of some water technology projects. People are beginning to realize the water is necessary and positive steps have begun to happen. Again, the region’s depopulation has played a role; even in post-Katrina New Orleans, nature is taking back parts of the city, with snakes and alligators in brush replacing people and parking lots.

I suppose some readers might want more on the modern Mississippi, focusing on the oil industry and canals that have received a great deal attention in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. But this history provides a deep background on one of the nation’s most important land management and urban planning problems today. Overall, this is an excellent environmental history with important things to say about modern policy choices.

High Fashion Smog Masks

[ 10 ] October 31, 2014 |


I’d laugh at this Beijing fashion show having the models wear designer smog masks if it wasn’t so bloody depressing.

What Causes Deforestation?

[ 19 ] October 30, 2014 |

The global deforestation problem is primarily one of a post-colonial economy, with rich nations importing the raw goods of developing world nations for their own luxurious lifestyles, leaving poverty and ecological catastrophe in their wake:

Four commodities produced in just eight countries are responsible for a third of the world’s forest loss, according to a new report. Those familiar with the long-standing effort to stop deforestation won’t be surprised by the commodities named: beef, palm oil, soy, and wood products (including timber and paper). Nor will they be very surprised by most of the countries: Brazil, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Papua New Guinea, Bolivia, Argentina, and Paraguay.

“The trend is clear, the drivers of deforestation have been globalized and commercialized”, said co-author Martin Persson with Chalmers University of Technology.

“From having been caused mainly by smallholders and production for local markets, an increasing share of deforestation today is driven by large-scale agricultural production for international markets,” said Persson.

This means that much of the deforestation in question is actually driven by consumer demand from abroad.

“If we exclude Brazilian beef production, which is mainly destined for domestic markets, more than half of deforestation in our case countries is driven by international demand,” confirmed Persson.

The biggest importer of these deforesting commodities was China, linked largely to wood products (timber and paper) from Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, and Indonesia, as well as palm oil imports from the latter. The EU was the second biggest importer of the four commodities, due to imports of palm oil from Indonesia, beef from Brazil, and soy from Latin America. India came in third, largely due to palm oil imports from Indonesia.

The U.S. was not a major importer, mostly because it produces the bulk of its own beef and soy.

It is interesting that the U.S. is not a leading driver of this, but that’s only because we have own natural resources to use. Europe doesn’t and for their talk about being more green, which is in some ways true, cutting down tropical forests for palm oil is not exactly a sustainable national ecological footprint.

Obviously there are no easy answers to any of these problems. But problems they very much are indeed.

A World of Dams

[ 20 ] October 28, 2014 |


Plumer has a good rundown of the complexity of dam building around the world
. The world’s rapidly growing demand for energy means that every way we can turn the natural world into power is going to be considered. Given how many of those methods of energy production also transform the climate in horrible ways, hydropower seems smart. But hydropower also has its own major problems. It forces sometimes hundreds of thousands to move from their homes. It drastically transforms aquatic ecosystems, imperiling fish and other species. It may well create unintended consequences that undermine its clean energy reputation. Building dams also reflects power differentials in society as a whole. Thus you have a nation like Chile seeking to dam rivers over the desires of the people who occupy the land, i.e., the Mapuche. So dam building becomes another round in the 500+ year history of colonialism and racism against indigenous peoples in the Americas.

And mostly, we don’t really know what we are doing when we build dams. In the U.S., this led to a lot of bad dams that provided little power but had significant negative consequences for people and ecosystems. That’s almost certainly happening around the world today.

As with all energy questions, there are no easy answers. But hydroelectric is not a panacea either and should be expanded with the kind of caution one would want to see with gigantic projects that will reshape entire parts of the world. Unfortunately, that rarely happens.

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