I recently finished a book call The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert. It won the Pulitzer, among other awards, which might not mean a lot, but it is a fantastic book. It traces the history of mass extinctions on the planet (the most famous and possibly dramatic being the end of the dinosaurs). I didn’t know before reading this book that there have been five such mass extinctions, although I had heard that some scientists now think we are living through (and possibly creating) a mass extinction. I liked this book for many reasons. Kolbert talks about the historical extinctions as well as the one currently ongoing. In fact, the book starts with a discussion of how many frog species are dying. She beautifully weaves the past and the present together. While the book can be considered alarming it didn’t leave me feeling guilty or terrified. Interestingly, it also doesn’t paint scientists in the best light, especially those in the past who refused to accept new theories. While the subject may sound technical and dry, I enthusiastically recommend this book to everyone who is interested in the natural world.
Last August I moved to the Philadelphia area in order to go to grad school. I am going to get a Masters in Environmental Science. But this blog post isn’t going to be about that. This post is about what I learned about living sustainably as I moved into my own apartment.
My apartment, like most places in the U.S., has single stream recycling. My goal was going to be to limit the amount of things I put in the trash, as well as the amount of things that go into recycling. I have handkerchiefs around the house to use and wash, and tissues only when I really need to blow my nose. But the truth is a lot of goes into the trash and recycling is food packaging. And I haven’t solved that.
However, there are certain items in the kitchen that generally go into the trash and then into a landfill I can reduce my use of. Paper towels is one of them, so I went out and bought small cloths and use them instead. In August I came with two rolls of paper towels (bathroom cleaning, cleaning up after my cat) and I’m proud to say I’ve used less than half of one roll.
Finally, I’ve worked hard to reduce my use of food storage that goes into the trash. I have yet to buy ziploc bags and I do have plastic tupperware and I also keep jars and other containers that I can reuse from items I purchase. I have also bought beeswax food wraps which do a good job of keeping produce fresh and covering bowls in the fridge. (Not a complete substitute for aluminum foil which can go in the oven, but close.) I also use reusable ties and clips. Maybe it’s time to look at your kitchen and see what you can replace with reusable items?
I belong to a group called Women Working for Oceans. The mission is education and advocacy in partnership with the New England Aquarium. I went to a members only event this week. It was a Seagrass Restoration event in Essex, Massachusetts. We were led by two guest experts, Dr. Alyssa Novak from Boston University, and Peter Phippen from MassBays Natural Estuaries Program.
The first thing that happened when we arrived was that we were taken by boat out into Essex Bay and deposited on what was essentially a sand bar. Once there we met Alyssa who first explained to us how we were going to be replanting eel grass in the bay. This involved standing in knee high water, leaning over to dig a small hole, burying a small amount of root and then adding an iron staple on top. We asked her about the metal staple; apparently in calm water bamboo is used which decomposes relatively easily, but in this bay the water is too strong. The staple will rust and give iron to the plant. And since they work there a lot they do find them and reuse them as much as possible. Eelgrass provides food and shelter for many organisms in the bay, as described by Save the Bay.
While we were doing that Peter went out and brought back the crab traps that they had set out. So as the tide made our little sand bar smaller and smaller we moved on to the crabs. We had mostly caught rock crabs and green crabs. We counted the rock crabs, and then let them go. But the green crabs are an invasive species. We counted them, measured them, checked their sex and then put them in a big bag. They were going to be given to someone who uses them in cooking. All in all, not a bad day’s work.
Brazil was in the news a lot recently because of the Rio Olympics. A lot of the press around the Olympics was negative, including some environmental issues. However, the closing ceremonies showed that they are willing to deal with the problem, or at least that’s what I saw. While the history in Brazil isn’t great, they are making improvements. Brazil has a history of deforestation, often due to agricultural crops like soy beans. The rainforest has shrunk quite dramatically, but deforestation has declined by 70% in the last decade (see article in The Economist). One of the things that happened was Brazil passed regulations and restrictions, including a Forest Code, and recently studies have shown that they have worked.
Picture from Azo Clean Tech.
Brazil has also started to tap into renewable energy sources, such as wind power. They are revising energy efficiency standards and have become a big proponent of green building standards and certifications (see article in GreenBiz). From what I’ve read Brazil is turning things around. They can’t suddenly make the Amazon rainforest reappear but they seem to be getting onto the right track.
I had the pleasure a little while ago of seeing some photos of coral reefs up close and personal at the Radcliffe Institute at Harvard. It was a pleasure to see the photos, but what is in the photos is not very uplifting. They are pictures taken by photojournalist David Arnold in the same spot as several underwater photographers took as early as 1970. It is called Double Exposure and really highlights how things have changed in the last decades. The website is really worth looking at: http://www.doublexposure.net/about-us/. Here is an example:
The left is 1980 and the right is 2011 in South Carysfort Reef in South Florida. It is really worth going to the website to see all the images and move the center line so you can see the entirety of both pictures and how it has changed.
I think everyone has heard about China’s problem with smog. There are days when people don’t go outside because it is so bad. This is one of the problems caused by the rapid industrialization and the amount of coal plants in China. It is not their only problem. They have water pollution as well and the contaminants are often very harmful to humans. LiveScience has an excellent, succinct article here: China’s Top 6 Environmental Concerns. China, of course, doesn’t want to talk about its environmental problems with outsiders and it doesn’t really like to admit problems to its own people. However, many of these problems affect the economy and that may move the government to act. Unfortunately public health problems have not.
China’s rapid industrialization has also led to an increasing deforestation and overwhelming use of all land resources including water. Having 1.3 billion people isn’t making the situation better. It is the largest emitter of greenhouse gas emissions. However, it is also now investing in renewable energies and has agreed to up their use of them and cut their reliance on coal. The Council on Foreign Relations has an excellent article on China’s relationship with environmental issues: CFR Backgrounders.
I attended a lecture the other day at the New England Aquarium. It was an event put on by Women Working for Oceans, which I have joined. It was on a subject I knew very little about – ocean noise pollution. Scott Kraus, who works at the aquarium, spoke about studies done on right whales that show their stress levels go up with increased ocean noise. Chronic stress causes reduced reproduction rates and lower immunity. The key speaker of the day was Christopher Clark, who works at Cornell and has done a lot of research on the noise in the ocean. As early as the 1960s it was discovered just how far noise travels, especially low frequencies. An explosion off the coast of Perth, Australia was heard on the east coast of the United States. Even small explosions travel for hundreds of miles. Clark kept talking about how the scale is different when it comes to the oceans and large ocean animals like whales. Noise travels different, whales move around a huge area of the ocean.
As far as we know, all marine mammals make noise and hear noise. It is used as a social network among a species, and also for finding food. The noise of a large cargo ship can drown out all the noise made by the animals they are cut off from each other and their ability to hunt. Below, the small dots are whales and large splotches with red centers are ships. (This gif was shown as part of the presentation.)
Source: National Oceanic Partnership Program via NPR
While recent oil drilling off the east coast has been banned, exploration for oil with seismic air guns is still going ahead. I was glad to see representatives of both of my state senators there to hear about this issue. Technology also exists to make engines quieter, but little is being done. This is an environmental issue that hasn’t gotten a lot of attention or press.