Wednesday, May 29, 2013

"Sustainability is illegal."

I find law fascinating, and I would love to write about it more.  But for this blog post, I would rather you spend your time listening to Thomas Linzey, Esq., co-founder and executive director of the Community Environmental Defense Legal Fund, which intends and works on "Building sustainable communities by assisting people to assert their right to local self-government and the rights of nature."  In the audio clip below taken from the fantastic radio show Making Contact, Linzey talks about ways to morph the current regulatory and property rights framework of environmental law to one that affords nature rights and better protects the rights of citizens in the face of ever-growing corporatization and pollution.  As it stands however, according to Linzey, "Sustainability is illegal.  The hammer comes down on you when you attempt to actually to prohibit something in the interest of building sustainability in [a] community."

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Guest blog #28: Scott Wagnon's thoughts on population

(My last post generated a lot of activity on Facebook.  I also received an email from my labmate Scott Wagnon, whose detailed response to the post is below as a guest blog post.)
I feel as if Darshan downplayed the role population plays on environmental issues.  Where I wholeheartedly disagree with the unnamed professor (and I know Darshan does, too) is that race is a factor in the interconnection between the environment and population.  Environmental impact is something that is caused and felt by all age, race, gender and socioeconomic demographics.  I know and recognize that certain slices of the demographic pie contribute and/or are impacted more significantly than other slices, as Darshan mentioned in his post.  
From any perspective, it is just and right to advocate on behalf of people whose rights have been impacted, whose voice cannot reach a broad audience, or whose voice may not have the same impact as ourselves as wealthy, "educated" people.  But the simple fact remains that we--all of humanity--cannot have tens of billions of people consuming a few resources, as much as we--all of humanity-- cannot have a few people consuming tens of billions of resources.  Population control via family planning through various birth control options, abstinence, and education (see Darshan's post on the "entitlement" of having children, and the short discussion generated); increases in efficiency; and reduced consumption of resources are three equally important ways to reduce the impact of the choices we make.    
Those of us, such as Darshan and myself and likely you, who have been empowered with the means to make and enact such choices, should especially look at every aspect.  As Darshan pointed out in his post, wealthy, "educated" people--us--often consume the most.  (On a side note, I use "educated" because I wonder how smart we really are based on certain decisions that we make as a society... having to look no further than our collective treatment of the environment.)  If we--the large consumers, including myself :/--choose not to have large families, use less resources, and use resources more efficiently, we're fostering a culture where the environment is valued not as a commodity, but as something for all of humanity to enjoy.  We live in a finite world, so barring our expansion beyond this beautiful planet, all of humanity must always remain mindful that Earth can only sustain a finite population at even the smallest necessary levels of resource consumption.  We are all effectively one family altering our common home, for better or worse, through the choices we make.  I hope we all continue to make better choices.
~Scott Wagnon

Friday, May 24, 2013

Thoughts on the population issue

I just returned from a trip to the US National Combustion meeting in Utah, which was perhaps my last hurrah in combustion for the foreseeable future.  Here is the beginning of a conversation I had with a professor who shall not be named at the Sunday evening reception:
My advisor: This is my student, Darshan.  He just graduated a little while ago.
Unnamed professor: What are you doing now?
Darshan: Traveling, and then headed to the US Environmental Protection Agency in August.
Unnamed Professor: What are you going to do there?
Darshan: I will be working on issues of environmental justice and sustainability both within and outside of the EPA.
Unnamed Professor: To be blunt, the issue about environmental justice is just about a bunch of black people having too many children and choosing to live in polluted places. 
Perhaps one of the most insightful thoughts I have heard about the population issue in a long time comes from a 2008 conversation that Jeff Goodell had with James Gustave Speth, published in Orion Magazine and Change Everything Now.
Goodell: ...And you can say--as you do--that we consume too much, and that our economic system has become a slave to the idea of an ever-expanding GDP.  But you could also just say, "Look, there are too many people on the planet--"
Speth:  Well, I think a lot of people believe that.  I actually have a law, Speth's Law, and it is that the richer you are, the more you think that population is the world's problem.  But the scale of the impact is really derived from the phenomenal amount of economic growth in rich countries, not from the phenomenal population growth. 
Several facts bolster Speth's claim.  In case of climate change, for example, the majority (~60%) of historical emissions of greenhouse gases has occurred in just the handful of industrialized countries in the US, Russia, Germany, UK, Japan, France, and Canada.  Sticking with climate change (an issue laden with environmental justice issues), much of the greenhouse gas emissions in industrializing nations such as China are caused due to emission from the production of objects for industrialized countries.  Even though the populations of China and India are increasing, the slowly increasing population of the US and the decreasing populations of Western Europe still have much greater ecological impacts.  (I suggest taking a look at this [and this!] incredibly cool interactive graphical tool to visualize how the poorest are most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, and how blaming population increases in industrializing countries is misleading.)

Enough about climate change broadly.  Let's get into the specifics of population.  I will not deny that the world and many nations face massive challenges of population.  But blaming population growth occurring today for past ecological degradation that has caused injustice today is to deny culpability, to shrug off any responsibility for our actions.  There is no way to buy most electronics or textiles or food that has been manufactured or produced without degrading impacts.  Our electricity comes from coal and fossil fuels, which require mountaintop removal and tailing ponds and people to cut down forests.  By buying what we do, by using energy and electricity the way we do, we link ourselves to socioecological injustices of pollution and degradation elsewhere.  Environmental injustice is about people being socioeconomically or politically forced into living in degraded places, most times to serve the wants of the rich and powerful.  It is built into and a necessity of our economic and policy structures.  The population growth occurring all over the world only serves to expose these injustices. 
As you expect (and while I am sure he had to work hard to be where he is), the unnamed professor is not a poor person.  He is a rich and now privileged person living in an industrialized country.  I am, too.  All in all, the per capita emissions of greenhouse gases in industrialized countries, the demands of heavy metals and plastics and chemicals, are still several times higher than those in industrializing countries.  Therefore, individual action to reduce ecological impacts on the part of people living in industrialized countries is the equivalent of several people in industrializing countries doing so.  Population is part of the issue, but individuals are, too.

Monday, May 13, 2013

The jagged edges of the Keeling Curve

This time it made the headlines.  Something as vague and intangible as an invisible, odorless gas is encapsulated in a concrete number.  400 parts per million, a level of carbon dioxide not seen for the past three to five million years.

The number is in fact not intangible.  It is very real, real because sea levels are rising millimeter by millimeter, submerging island nations such as the Maldives and heavily populated coastlines.  The number is real because the summer of 2012 was the hottest summer on record in the United States.  The number is real because of the acidification of oceans and coral bleaching; because of drier forests fueling larger fires; because of the ever-shrinking amount of polar ice; because entire villages in Alaska are needing to be moved because of thawing land, to the tune of $380,000 per person.  

In spite of all of this very real evidence of the effects of climate change, nothing new is being said that can wash away the line that have been drawn in the sand that divides the "believers" from the "skeptics".  (If you don't "believe" in climate science, perhaps you might question your beliefs in most any science that you rely on in your daily life.)  Perhaps it is time for a new story about climate change, a new story that connects old facts.  Perhaps our sole focus on the emission of greenhouse gases as a technological deficiency is distracting us from the real issues; framing climate change as a “carbon” problem is “possibly the greatest and most dangerous reductionism of all time: a 150 year history of complex geologic, political, economic, and military security issues all reduced to one element.” [1]

As a postdoctoral researcher, I wonder if Charles Keeling thought about the symbolism of his scientific endeavors in the thin air of Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawai'i.  The jagged edges of the Keeling Curve are symbolic of the sharp divides and fractures in our politics, and under our feet in the fracked Marcellus Shale.  The jagged edges show how cruelly we continue to cut and lacerate this earth, just as is being done in the forests of Canada to access tar sands.  The curve is symbolic because not only does it show that carbon dioxide levels are rising, but that also our hubris is, too--the hubris of thinking that we may be able to engineer ourselves out of this problem.
From The Scripps Institution of Oceanography
[1] Thomas Princen, “Leave It in the Ground: The Politics and Ethics of Fossil Fuels and Global Disruption” prepared for the International Studies Association International Conference, MontrĂ©al, March 16-19, 2011; to appear in State of the World 2013.