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.
I realize that I may be a little late to the party since all the buzz about this documentary occurred last year. But I finally got around to watching it and I’m glad I did. The personal story made me feel very invested in their discoveries. I will say that it is not a cheery film, but that seems to be impossible when talking about the massive coral die-offs in the last twenty years. Coral bleaching has been in the news recently. Unfortunately, in 2017, the year after the filming, there was another massive bleaching event on the Great Barrier Reef. This is an article about it from the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies: Yale Environment 360.
I did learn some things from the documentary. I learned how bad the bleaching in Florida is. That somehow hasn’t really made it into the news. And my mother, who watched it with me, learned a lot about coral itself. (I happen to have studied coral as an intern at the New England Aquarium.)
Finally, there were some important points made that I’m going to make here as well. Corals are like the trees in a forest (such a great analogy!). When they die, they take away an entire ecosystem. The fish and turtles and sharks leave too. Reefs are nurseries for a lot of fish, so even those fish species who don’t live there might have trouble without a place for their young to grow up. Coral reefs also protect shores from storm surge, so protecting them helps humans as well.
I have recently discovered the immense joy of nature documentaries on Netflix. I had never seen Planet Earth and it turned out that all the hype was correct. It is an amazing series. But it’s really just the beginning. Between National Geographic, The Nature Channel and the BBC there are an incredible number of shows out there. And a lot of ecosystems on Earth that I knew little or nothing about. However, the show I was most intrigued by was Ocean Giants from the BBC. It has the amazing footage of the whales and sharks and ocean creatures that I’ve come to expect.
It also has a lot of information about the scientific research being done to understand these animals better. I always knew dolphins were smart, but I didn’t know that they would understand that a mirror showed them a reflection of themselves. And I find it fascinating that the dolphins would keep coming back to look. Whales in the protected areas in Baja California interact with humans in boats. They seem to go out of their way to interact and enjoy it. In the past they were seen as killers because of attacks on whaling boats. They seem to have forgiven or forgotten now. Ocean Giants really gave me a sense of the personalities of these beautiful ocean creatures. I hope all this research continues an we can better understand and help them as their environment changes.
Before I had heard much about the drought in California, I started reading a book on glaciers. I didn’t know very much about glaciers or what they might have to do with a drought in California. Christopher White wrote a book about his trips to Glacier National Park in Montana and his conversations with people at the U.S. Geological Survey there. It’s called The Melting World: A Journey Across America’s Vanishing Glaciers. What I learned was disturbing and kind of depressing.
The snowpack on glaciers in mountains around the world supply a lot of the world’s fresh water. (According to Live Science, 30% of California’s water is supplied by the snowpack in the Sierra Nevada.) And glaciers are receding. The Sierra Nevada snowpack is the lowest in recorded history. Glacier National Park is on pace to have no glaciers anymore within decades. The lack of water for all the places that rely on snowpack are not the only concerns when studying glaciers and their recession. There are a wide variety of species that rely on glaciers and the tree line on mountains. The tree line is continuously moving up the mountain. The species that live on the coldest top of the mountain are getting crowded out. Glaciers recede and any animals who rely on white as camouflage are losing their ability to hide from predators.
The USGS has some amazing photos that show the difference between the size of the glaciers early in the 20th century and today (such as the one above). They have some wonderful information on their website: Retreat of Glaciers. They also have a link to a better succinct explanation of everything than I could do: Crownscience.org. I found a YouTube video that shows photo evidence of glacier retreat as part of the Extreme Ice Project: Chasing Ice. Glaciers are amazing evidence of global warming. And the retreat of glaciers is a global phenomenon, so it is not a matter of weather (local) but rather climate (global). Glaciers are measurable and thus are a barometer for the effects of climate change.
This is another example of all the information being out there, but not enough people paying attention.
I love shrimp. In fact, I love seafood. I’m very aware of the scarcity of cod in the Northeast U.S. But I wasn’t aware until recently of the devastation that shrimp farming causes. It has caused me to pause a little before ordering shrimp. I read a book on mangroves, which turns out to be all about shrimp. It’s called Let Them Eat Shrimp: The Tragic Disappearance of the Rainforests of the Sea by Kenneth Warne. He is a reporter and it tells of his journey to various places all over the globe that have mangrove forests. It’s beautiful (and kind of sad) that all of the places are facing essentially the same problems, whether they’re in India or South America. Shrimp farms destroy the mangrove ecosystem while bringing no replacement benefit to the local communities who depend on it. I was really glad to hear about that these communities who find food, and materials for building and making fire, and essentially live on the mangrove forests still exist. I hope that all the efforts described in this book are able to save those communities. Shrimp farms seem like capitalism run amok. They take one product, shrimp, and make as much of it as possible in order to make as big a profit as possible, for the one company that owns the farm. They don’t care about the local people, or the local ecosystem.
Mangroves are important, more important than I realized. They are a carbon sink – they capture carbon that otherwise would be released into the air and increase global warming. They protect shorelines from storms. They give safe harbor to different kinds of baby fish as well as a vast number of species including birds and mollusks. Their nutrients feed off-shore reefs. If you’re not interested in the science of ecology, local ecosystems (including the human component) or mangroves, this book may not be for you. But it confirmed for me how fascinating and important I think all of this is.
I have spent a lot of time recently thinking about how I want to make a difference to the environment. Little things that we do everyday are certainly a part of it. Being aware of the impact we have is important and I will continue to write about various ways to do that. But I’m beginning to think that my road to feeling like I’m making a difference lies in a new career. And that new career has to do with the ocean. In fact, I’m back to where I started. I began writing this blog because I was looking into environmental issues and wanted to share what I was discovering. My first post was about my love for the beach which is where my concern for the environment started.
The beach is what I want to study, or rather coastal ecosystems. They are being broadly affected by humans – fishing and littering, by climate change – warming oceans, rising sea levels and they are some of the most beautiful places on Earth. I think I can find a way to help. I’m looking into programs in marine biology. It’s quite a change from theater, but it means a lot to me and interests me. I read a book recently that inspired me. It is called The Death and Life of Monterey Bay and I would recommend it to everyone and anyone. It chronicles all the ways that humans hurt the ecosystem of the bay, but then also tells the story of how the bay has been restored. Change is possible. A lot of what I’ve read has only spoken of the problems that exist, and maybe hypothetical ideas on what to do about them. Monterey Bay is a success story. I hope similar successes can happen elsewhere.
Here are my simplest suggestions as a way to start. Carry a reusable shopping bag and if you must, get a paper grocery bag. Use dishrags and sponges for cleaning the kitchen rather than paper towels. Carry a refillable bottle and ask for tap water instead of buying bottled water. Don’t use disposable silverware or paper napkins, even for parties. Start shopping first at stores that carry used goods. Find out if any grocery stores near you accept compost or look into how you can compost yourself if you have a garden.
Some suggestions from Edward Humes’ book, Garbology:
1. Refuse. Say no to unwanted mail, paper bills, and promotional items.
2. Remember that things that last longer may end up being cheaper in the long run, even if the initial price is higher. You won’t need to throw it out and replace it. For example, better made clothes can be washed and rewashed many times over.
Some suggestion from Garbology, based on Bea Johnson: (This is her blog: http://zerowastehome.blogspot.com/p/about.html)
1. Buy in bulk. It reduces packaging.
2. Refill wine bottles at local events (if you have them).
3. Make your own multipurpose cleaner with vinegar, water and castile soap.
4. Use handkerchiefs instead of paper tissues.
5. When packing a lunch, wrap sandwiches and other food in a cloth napkin.
6. Only recycle paper after both sides have been used.
I have been doing two completely incompatible things for the last month. I have been packing up all my stuff and moving it into storage. And I’ve been reading about American’s love affair with garbage, waste and consumerism in Garbology by Edward Humes. I should start by saying that I have a lot of stuff and that I love shopping. But I have come to the realization that short term retail therapy does not translate to long term happiness. That’s not to say I’ll never do retail therapy again. I’m sure I will. It just means that I’m trying to be more aware of what I buy, how useful it is, and how long it’s likely to take before I put it in the garbage. Waste as a vain attempt to be happier doesn’t make sense.
Edward Humes’ book is great. He clearly feels that our garbage system and our consumer culture are problems that need solutions, but a lot of the book talks about people who are working to find those solutions rather than blaming anyone for the system as it is. I am like most Americans who don’t really think about their trash beyond which day I need to put the bin on the curb. I try to recycle as much as I can. But I was aware that landfills are where most of our garbage ends up. Considering it’s a daily part of my life, that’s not knowing much. On average, according to Edward Humes, each American will generate about 102 tons of trash. I know that a ton is big and so 102 tons is huge, but I found it hard to conceptualize. So here’s a way to think about it:
This elephant weights 6 tons. So we produce trash the weight (not the size) of 17 of those elephants. You can imagine, considering the weight of paper and thin plastic, that the actual size of all of that trash is much, much larger than 17 elephants.
There is a lot I want to say about trash based on Humes’ book, but I don’t want to bore you and I don’t want to lecture you. So I’m going to make a few, succinct points that I hope will keep you thinking about your trash, how much it is, and where it ends up.
A lot of trash, and especially plastic, ends up in the ocean. The biggest spot is in the Pacific and most people have heard about that. What we haven’t heard is that plastic breaks down into tiny little pieces that are now all over the ocean and the beaches of the world. Pieces tiny enough for even the smallest fish to ingest.
While we usually feel like we’re doing a good thing when we recycle, most recycled goods spend a lot of energy being moved from place to place to a recycling center which uses energy to recycle – mostly are downcycled into materials of lower value that can’t be recycled again.
Trash in landfills that can decompose, doesn’t. Food, yard waste, and things that I don’t feel bad about throwing in the trash, actually last a long time in a landfill. They might decompose if exposed to sun and wind, but trapped in the middle of tons of trash, they last decades.
I’m going to follow up this post with one that includes suggestions from the book, and a few from me, about how to create less waste and maybe put a dent in your 102-ton legacy.
In my continuing love affair with my library, I recently took out a book entitled Retrofitting Suburbia: Urban Design Solutions for Redesigning Suburbs by Ellen Dunham-Jones and June Williamson. I did not read the entire book because it goes into technical details about urban design and planning. It did make me think and made me want to share what I’ve been thinking about.
I grew up in a suburb of Boston on a street with no sidewalk but plenty of trees. Most of what they talk about directly relates to my home town. I rarely used public transportation except on the rare occasions I went into Boston – which required a drive to the closest subway station. There is a bus that goes from that subway station, passes not too far from the house and continues to the center of town. I knew no one who used it. It is a town build around people who have children, yards for them to play in, and drive everywhere. I am sure the carbon footprint of the average resident is high. My parents’ neighborhood used to be farmland and was built into a neighborhood after WWII, a time when many similar suburbs were being constructed. Not much has changed, except some additions to houses. Some new families have moved in, but many of the residents are ‘aging in place’ including my parents. I now live in Cambridge, but work at my old high school. Not much seems to have changed for the high schoolers growing up there now. They can’t wait to get their license and partly depend on each other to drive them around. This dependence on cars, or at least gasoline cars, is not sustainable if we want to drastically cut our use of fossil fuels.
There are other ways in which the culture of suburbs doesn’t make as much sense as it used to. For a long time, each generation was expected to be more educated, get a better job, earn a higher wage, live in a bigger house. This was the American dream. It doesn’t apply as well as it used to. More and more households don’t involve 2 parents, 2.5 children, a dog and a picket fence. Single parents, couples with no children and various alternative families are more and more common. Bigger houses surrounded by yards and swing sets may not be what they need. Wages are increasing, but the lower wage jobs aren’t increasing as fast as the higher wage jobs creating greater income disparity and leaving the poor behind. Living near where you work may be more important to these people, as well as having easy (and no car necessary) access to shopping centers. This would mean having housing options for janitors, secretaries, CEOs and managers with or without families all in the same area. That’s not really how suburbs were built, but maybe it’s time to change.
Changing suburbs could decrease our reliance on cars. Heating smaller houses could help cut our fossil fuel consumption. Consolidating workplaces, shopping centers, cutting down on the amount of acres per house could allow us to have bigger parks and wooded areas. It’s possible to imagine a greener, healthier, happy kind of town. Change, however, is inevitably slow, painful and difficult. People don’t like the idea of altering their way of life or the way of life they have dreamed of for their children. But it’s something to think about.
I finally finished The Great Disruption by Paul Gilding although it took me a long time. I’m not sure why it took me so long. It’s a very interesting book with a lot to say about the impact of climate change on other aspects of our world. It’s subtitle is Why the Climate Crisis Will Bring On the End of Shopping and the Birth of a New World.
I have never really understood economics. I felt like I was beginning to by listening more to NPR, especially Marketplace. One of the things they always talk about is how many jobs have been added each month. I always wondered where those jobs were coming from and if they could possibly be permanent jobs. How many more things are there for people to do that aren’t being done? It turns out this is a good question and not purely economic ignorance on my part. Paul Gilding says that to get as close as possible to zero unemployment people need to work less so that more people can work. This will only work if our economy is no longer based on growth – on everyone having more money to spend it on more things. This is a growth economy.
Paul Gilding argues that our economy, a growth economy, cannot be sustainable. The Earth and its resources are finite. The idea that everyone should earn more and spend more and have more things doesn’t work. He says we need – and are going to be forced to switch to – a sustainable economy. The good news is that there is evidence that the richer you are – and the more stuff you have – doesn’t make you happier. So quality of life may actually improve in a sustainable economy rather than a growth economy. I found this hard to accept at first. I think more money will make me happier, but apparently that’s because I haven’t reached the income where I don’t have to worry about making it every month. Once you’re not concerned about money on a regular basis and are able to spend money on leisure activities, having more money no longer matters to your happiness.
Paul Gilding goes through what he expects will happen as our economy can no longer grow and the climate crisis gets worse. He thinks that a crisis or catastrophe will occur and suddenly the world will be forced to confront climate change. We will finally be forced to act. He titled this chapter The One-Degree War. This one degree of global warming means the Co2 concentration needs to be about 350 parts per million. (This number has been advocated by many people, including scientists.) Gilding claims that although it seems unrealistic now, once the world is mobilized people all over will find ways to make it happen. Despite what may seem like a doomsday message – our economy is unsustainable and we are headed for a crisis – he remains optimistic mostly because he believes in the creativity and intelligence of people.