bare feet in the sand

the beauty of nature in a consumer economy


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Chasing Coral

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.

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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.

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Women Working for Oceans

I recently attended a wonderful event at the New England Aquarium.  It was co-hosted by Women Working for Oceans, W2O, a group I recently discovered and am excited about.  The event started with a display in the lobby showing the finalists’ designs for how Boston can build its waterfront to be resilient to sea level rise and storms.  Some of the designs were really creative – things I never would have thought of.  Then we went into the IMAX.  The speaker who was the most interesting to me was Ellen Douglas.  She talked about Hurricane Sandy.  I didn’t realize that things could have been so much worse if it had just hit at high tide instead of low tide.  Here is a map of the difference the tide can make.

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Ellen Douglas is the main author on a a report called “Preparing for the Rising Tide.”  After talking about the past, she moved on to the future.  She talked about the projections of what will happen with sea level rise in Boston.  She showed maps of what areas will flood and how often.  These maps are similar to the one above that shows the flood depths.  Then she showed ideas of flood walls – some that are benches until needed, berms, things that would help in the next storm.  I’ve read a bunch about sea level rise but it somehow seemed even more real when looking at pictures and maps of a place I know.  The second speaker was Robbin Peach from Massport.  It was good to hear how much has been going into protecting the transportation infrastructure in Boston.  Do you know if your city is prepared for the next big storm and sea level rise?


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Mangroves and shrimp

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.

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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.

Here is more reading (from the websites where I found the pictures), if you’re interested:  Mangroves in Ecuador and Mangrove Hub


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Is Suburbia Sustainable?

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.


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The Great Disruption by Paul Gilding

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.