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 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 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.
It has been a while since I’ve written anything and that’s because I’ve been struggling a little bit with my environmentalism. I had always thought I was better off leaving politics to someone who likes people better. I prefer animals. I never thought of myself as an activist. Like a lot of people, I was shocked by the election in November and my concern has not lessened over the past few months. I’ve started to realize that maybe this democracy needs more participation from people like me. I didn’t want this blog to be political, but it seems that environmentalism can no longer be entirely apolitical. While my goal is still to bring you information and make you aware of things you can do in your life, I am not going to shy away from politics. For instance, I believe strongly that we need clean water, clean air and clean soil and that the Environmental Protection Agency has played and needs to play a huge role in protecting those things.
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.
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?
I think everyone finds it challenging to be truly environmental during the holiday season. We light fires, cut down trees, wrap presents in paper and go shopping. I have started making gifts for my friends – this year, flavored olive oil in a reusable bottle. My family still gets whatever they want – although I’m always more inclined to buy useful things. But the season is over, the trees and boxes have been put on the curb and taken away. I wanted to make new year’s resolutions this year, but the ones I could think of were the classics – save money, exercise more, keep a journal. And they’re all unlikely to stick for more than a couple of months. So I heard several people suggest that resolutions aren’t the way to go. One person suggested trying to think of a word that you want to describe your life for this year and use that word as inspiration whenever you need it. One person suggested thinking of small things that you can do often that added up could make a difference – for instance, take the stairs instead of the elevator. I think that’s how I feel about working to become more environmental. Maybe this year is the year to bring bags or recycle paper bags when grocery shopping. Since I think it’s important, periodically I’m going to keep suggesting small ways to make a difference. I’m going to keep reading (mangroves is the next topic) and trying to keep up with everything that’s going on.