Daily Archives: October 19, 2011

Oil is the Color or my Skin

Oil and Cultural genocide

“We grew maize beans, rice. We built our homes communally. We built a health center, a room for meetings, a little school, two houses to train health promoters, and a communal kitchen for gatherings. We had three launches, two with motors; and an electric plant that functioned from 6 to 9 PM and for two hours during the day it provided refrigeration in the communal store…the little we had we had achieved with many years of work and sacrifice. The work in the jungle is very hard. Now we had to abandon all that was our life…because of the persecution and killings that the soldiers carry out; they attack us as if we were at war” Reginaldo Aguilar

Why must you take everything for oil?

This week I am going to take you to Consuelo and El Arbolito Peten, Guatemala. A place that was once highly populated with indigenous populations now remains a ghost town with little communities left. Entire populations were ravished of their lands after the discovery of nickel and oil in the area in 1976. Before this no one paid much attention to these communities. They were referred to as the “selva” or in English “the jungle”. The selva was a place where the uncivilized Garifuna and Maya indigenous communities lived, now it is dominated by oil reserves.

Guatemala is located on an old geological belt where 75% of the world’s oil reserves can be found. In 1981 President Lucas Garcia announced that the government had granted permission to allow the extraction of 8,000 barrels per day. A 10-inch pipeline was built eastward to the Atlantic coast, which transports the oil. In the first six months Guatemala oil exports totaled 390,000 barrels. Oil reserves in Guatemala have been compared to those of Alaska.

According to Oil watch Mesoamerica, Guatemala is a place where there are a poorly hidden black markets for buying and selling oil. The oil companies that established themselves in Guatemala include Guatemala Limited, Compañía General de Combustibles, Petro Latina Guatemala Corp. (Peten) and Petro Energy S.A, all work under complimentary conditions. These oil companies have very little environmental or governmental regulation. Perenco, is an independent Anglo-French oil and gas company with a headquarters in London. This company has greatly distinguishes itself from the rest of the group, with policies that upholds an environmental friendly business that focuses on sustainable development. As quoted directly from Perenco website “wherever we operate, every effort is made to improve the quality of life while preserving traditional cultures and values”. However, what they forgot to include is the fact that they support their own monopoly by owning 98% of the concessions in Guatemala, they have widespread political power, and have participated in oil and cultural genocide in the western part of Petén. Induced by a plan to start oil development and in the process wipe out indigenous populations in the way. Does this seem environmental friendly to you?

To date there has been more that 70,000 Guatemalans who seek asylum in Mexico and other part of Central America. This was the after the Guatemalan government’s plan to develop the country in 1976, involved indigenous people being kicked off of their of their land. After oil was discovered in their areas, land values significantly increased. Not only because of the oil, but because an infrastructure of roads (most importantly the main east/west road), communication networks, and hydroelectric power plants have connected this one-time impenetrable area to the rest of the country. In addition a $30 million airport, all became apart of the governments plan.

However, many places like the indigenous in Peten stood in the way by refusing to give up their land to oil companies. Instead they were handled with force by the Guatemalan military, which were backed by oil companies and recieved $85 million dollars of militant support from the United States. The objective was to use fear tactics or do whatever necessary to occupy the territory. Many indigenous people were tortured and even killed by the military. Over 1,901 people from 19 communities had sought refuge in Mexico after battling the dense jungle and crossing the Usumacinta River, which separates the countries. They left their homes and life behind them. The government got what they wanted and as the people fled oil production began.

Today the indigenous communities continue to battle with oil companies. Recently, in September 2010. Perenco condemned the lack of consultation with the 37 settlements located in Laguna del Tigre about Perenco’s extension, a procedure that is called for by Convention 169 of the International Labor Organization (ILO). Perenco’s plans consist of extending oil refines and having their own protected pieces of land. Most of the land Perenco wants is called Laguna del Tigre, which is the home to many indigenous and peasant populations. The oil company has already paid off the government officials to evict the people from their homes.

Perenco argument is that they have a right to evict these communities, which are in protected areas that they own. The indigenous communities refuse to go and claim that “the government established the Protected Areas law—without informing nor consulting us.” “Now we are not even allowed to participate as a population, or even just communities, in the administration and development of these protected areas, something, which the same law is supposed to allow for. The only option it gives us is to abandon our land.” This is proof of Pereco’s political abilities to sway the government in getting what they want.

The Guatemalans in Laguna del Tigre are aware that standing their ground comes with a price. Countless of the bloody deeds have already been carried out by “Perenco’s hit men”—as Robert Arias called them in 2006 in his La Hora column, after the murder of Mayco Jonatán García—against those who have denounced the company. The oil companies always wins and still many indigenous people remain displaced from the land that their people have owned for centuries. For Guatemala cultural genocide is a reality of the past and it continues to haunt them in the future. In Guatemala there is a saying “el petróleo es como sangre”. This mean is oil is the same as blood.

The Eastern-Modernization of Western China

This week’s post will elaborate on the history behind the modernization plans spearheaded by the Beijing government throughout the western provinces of China for the past three decades, which then directly leads to the widespread environmental and social justice problems Tibetan traditional society is facing.

Today, the global media ubiquitously discusses about the miraculous rapid growth of the Chinese economy under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping inside the last three decades. This growth is actually centered mostly in the Southern coastal cities like Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Shenzhen. If you take a look at the earnings across the different Chinese provinces per capita in the website linked in the end of the post, you will notice that while the Southern provinces with its heavily manufacturing based economy, prosper as the richest ones in China showing drastic signs of alleviation, the provinces in the Western parts of China, Xinjiang, and Tibet, have not made any significant economic improvements in the past three decades.

(source: PRC government) In the photo above, the green indicates the areas covered by the Han Chinese, the Eastern Provinces, who make up 95% of the population in China. The yellow and pink colors indicate the areas occupied by ethnic minorities, the Western provinces of China.

According to Beijing government’s population distribution statistics, Western provinces of China make up 75% of the ethnic minority population, mainly consisting of Uighurs, Mongols, and Tibetans; these areas also include 85% of the grasslands of China.

(source: PRC government)

In order to have the Western provinces ‘catch up’ to the Eastern provinces, in 2006 led by then-Premier Zhu Rongii, launched the Beijing government launched a campaign called Xibu da kaifa, ‘Open up the West’. This was a huge initiative taken up by the government to get the Western frontiers populated by ethnic minorities of China, Xinjiang and Tibet, to catch up to the rapid modernization that was taking place especially in the rest of China. The rest of the post will be mainly focusing on the modernization taking place in Tibet.

The Beijing government’s initiative mainly involved heavy investments in the development of infrastructures such as hydropower plants and transportation. In the name of modernization, traditional cities have been razed and replaced with “modern” ones. Also, while the official State rhetoric mentions the increase of employment opportunities for Tibetans, these jobs are service sector ones directly linked to building modern infrastructures and that do not have much mobility and and are sustainable.

The most controversial of these infrastructures is the railroad built from China to Lhasa, Tibet, because it severely harmed the natural ecosystem by directly running through breeding grounds and the migration patterns of animals such as the endangered Tibetan antelope.

(Source: winner of the 2007 PRC government's photo competition) Note: this photo gained National popularity in China because it showed that the natural grassland ecosystem of Tibet and modern technology can coexist peacefully; However, the photo turned out to be a hoax and the natural ecosystem of the Tibetan grasslands is seriously threatened by these modern human interventions.

In addition to heavy investments, the government also provided many economic incentives such as advertising for job abundance so that Hans from the rural parts of China would migrate to the Tibet. Dr. David S G Goodman, Chinese History professor at the University of Sydney, interpreted this mass migration of Hans into western China as similar to “internal colonization”, in terms of subjugating the locals and having the dominant power favor its own people.

(source: tibetphotos.info) This photo was taken in Lhasa, which is the cultural capital of Tibet. As a viewer can notice in this photo, all the shops of Chinese characters instead of having the traditional Tibetan letters. This shows the huge influence of the dominant Han culture over that of the local Tibetans.

In 2003, Beijing released a statistic, revealing that Tibet’s GDP was 28% higher than it was in 1978. While the government’s initial formal intention for the modernization of the West was to “reduce the socio-economic inequalities and to ensure the socio-political stability in these non-Han areas,” in reality according to an article by BBC, the Han Chinese migrants dominating the economy are the ones who reap major benefits from these growths.

2001, New York Times article quoted then President Jiang Zemin stating “Some people advised me not to go ahead with this project because it is not commercially viable. I said this is a political decision, we will make this project succeed at all costs, even if there is a commercial loss”.

The quote from former President Jiang is significant because it reveals that even though on the surface level the intention of heavily modernizing Tibet may have been for socio-economic advancement, in reality, it was for the political incorporation of Tibetans and other ethnic minorities into the dominant mainstream Han society. This then sets the pathway for the Tibetans to abandon their traditional lifestyles in the grasslands. Dr. Emily Yeh, Professor of Geography at the University of Colorado in Boulder, further elaborates on this point by positing that the future grassland management law of Tuimu Huancao, literally translated as “retiring the grazing to the grasslands,” is supposedly the sustainable development component of the “Open up the West” policy in Beijing’s rhetoric. Tuimu Huancao policy will be further explored in my next week’s blog post and it will elaborate on how it is the main source of grassland degradation and its social affects on the traditional Tibetan nomadic lifestyle.

(NOTE: All the statistics the author mentions in this article will be available in detail on the official People’s Republic of China government’s National Bureau of Statistics of China’s webpage)

Reefs Reduced to Rubble

What can a glass bottle, some kerosene, and a little fertilizer destroy? For one thing, a coral reef.  Blast fishing is a destructive fishing method that is practiced in many parts of the world.  In Southeast Asia, it has been responsible for the destruction of many coral reefs, and as a result, has negatively impacted vital parts of certain economies.

A Reef Destroyed by Dynamite Fishing. Photo Courtesy of Flickr

Blast fishing is a technique whereby fishermen use dynamite, cyanide bombs, or homemade explosives to stun or kill fish for collection. Fisherman blast coral reefs because large numbers of fish congregate around them.  The blasts are indiscriminately destructive. They stun the fish desired by the fisherman, kill other species, and physically turn the reefs into piles of rubble. Though blast fishing has been outlawed in many places, it continues to be practiced.

The long-term impacts of blast fishing are both environmentally and economically devastating. Indonesian waters boast some of the most beautiful and bio-diverse coral reefs on the planet.  According to the Reefbase Reefs at Risk database, Indonesia has the largest diversity of reef fish in the world, and it’s coral reefs help support a marine fisheries industry that, in 1997, resulted in 3.6 million tons of marine fish production.

The World Resources Institute estimates that blast fishing results in a net economic loss of $570 million annually in Indonesia, and as much as $1.2 Billion in the Philippines. Economic loss comes mainly from the depletion of marine fisheries.  The destruction of coral reefs contributes to the depletion of marine fisheries. With the destruction of reefs, comes the destruction of the ecosystem that supports fish populations.  When coral reefs are destroyed, the number and diversity of fish that the ecosystem can support decreases.  Healthy coral reefs provide food, shelter, and breeding grounds for fish, but when the physical structure of a reef is demolished, it cannot perform these functions.  Thus, blast-fishermen devastate the very ecosystems that sustain the fish populations that they rely on to sustain their livelihoods.

Blast fishing also harms the reef-based tourism economy.  If reefs are reduced to rubble SCUBA divers no longer have reason to visit, and even a small blast here and there can scare tourists away from SCUBA diving in an area.

Chart from World Resources Institute "THE ECONOMIC LOSS ASSOCIATED WITH CORAL REEF DEGRADATION"

The World Resources Institute argues that healthy coral reefs can contribute about $1.6 billion U.S dollars per year to the Indonesian economy. As reefs are  destroyed by blast fishing, this economic potential decreases.

Fortunately, there is some hope for reefs that have been blasted.  The long-term ecological impact of blast fishing on coral reefs is a question of major concern.  In the short term, blast fishing is clearly destructive, but in some cases there is evidence of recovery. In their article, “Recovery From Blast Fishing On Coral Reefs: A Tale of Two Scales”, Fox and Caldwell show that certain reefs areas that suffered acute blasts recovered from damages.  However, those that were extensively blasted did not recover. They write,

“Rubble resulting from single blasts slowly stabilized, and craters filled in with surrounding coral and new colonies. After five years, coral cover within craters no longer differed significantly from control plots. In contrast, extensively bombed areas showed no significant recovery over the six years of this study, despite adequate supply of coral larvae. After extensive blasting, the resulting coral rubble shifts in ocean currents, forming unstable ‘‘killing fields’’ for new recruits.”

Thus when areas are extensively blasted, an inhospitable habitat for new coral growth results, and reefs, even are unlikely to recover.

Ultimately, governments and citizens need to act in order to save coral reefs from blast fishing.  Unfortunately, the regulation of blast fishing, even in places where it has been outlawed, has proven difficult.  According to a paper published by the Conservation and Community Investment Forum, attention has been drawn to the problems that blast fishing causes, but Indonesian authorities are often unresponsive because regulation is expensive, and because political will to fight against blast fishing is lacking.

Thankfully, a lack to will to stop blast fishing is not universal. The video below is an uplifting story about collaboration between the NGO Seacology and members of an Indonesian community, to restore a reef destroyed by blast fishing.

When Being 100% Organic Isn’t Enough

Everyday an herb is used-both from the wild and from cultivated crops to make a 100% organic product. But how many products are both natural and sustainably harvested?

Every time a plant (in particular, an herb) becomes extinct, we lose plant diversity and a blueprint to the scheme of nature. We lose oxygen. A source of energy. A potential cure. Many herbs become extinct from reoccurring over-harvesting. However, this over harvesting is not by a member of the local community, but rather a local worker for a big herbal company, a famous tea company, or even a small herbal shop in the outskirts of town. Yet, many of these companies state that they are environmentally- friendly. Are the herbal companies aware of the harvesting practices used by their workers? Are they aware that being 100% organic isn’t enough?

In search for these answers, I went to a famous herbal shop called ‘Flower Power’ at 9th street in Manhattan, NY. It sold many different things such as bulk herbs, herbal tinctures, essential oils, flower essences, and even a line of all natural skin care products. All of these products are organically and sustainably grown. However, as I asked more questions, Flower Power seemed more organic and less sustainable.

Herb Pharm- Oregon, USA

At the store, the representative was happy to tell me where each product was found. She confirmed that the tinctures were from Herb Pharm, a well known, organically certified, and sustainable farm located in Williams, Oregon. Herb Pharm is aware of the dangers of overharvesting, and thus harvests herbs in a sustainable manner. They state, “Our strict protocols assure proper identification of plant species and optimal time of harvest, and insure conservative harvest yields and habitat protection in order to facilitate conservation of these valuable plants for future generations.” Therefore, the tinctures at Flower Power are proven to be environmentally friendly. But is this the same for the other products in the store? “All of our bulk herbs are sourced from United States…from a couple different organic farms and wildcrafters. The raw materials for the oils [made here] are from different countries”, the representative stated. This answer left me with more unanswered questions: What exactly are these farms called and why weren’t they named? How are you sure that (or how am I sure that) the organic farms, the wildcrafters, and the manufacturers from different countries are harvesting the herbs in sustainable ways? However, the representative and store owner were not able to answer my questions.

This raised a concern. If local shops cannot answer these questions, will larger companies be able to answer them? I had continued my search for answers with the company Herbalife.

Herbalife is a “global nutrition company” whereas the purpose of their products is for “[the] general health [of an individual] and [for the individual] to lose weight”. All their products are 100% organic and their raw materials are purchased from manufacturers in the U.S., Europe and Asia. These manufacturers buy raw materials that “conform to Herbalife approved specifications” and have obtained a “Certificate of Analysis” which is, according to a herbalife representative, a report that verifies that the raw materials are from a “a natural source of products”- meaning it was wildly harvested. However, this “Certificate of Analysis” does not include how the raw materials (in particular, the herbs) are harvested, and if the ecosystem is taken into consideration when the harvester decides the amount of herbs to gather.

From speaking with the Flower Power and Herbalife representatives, it seems that the focus tends to be more for the welfare of the people rather than the plant- or on being organic rather than sustainable. This is seen by many herbal companies in the US such as Monterey Bay Spice Company and Stash Tea who emphasize that they are organically certified yet does not state any type of sustainability or protection against the abuse of herbs. Many of the laws and practices around the world also influences this ideal: most of the countries that has an approved law for herbal medicine tend to use the same regulatory and manufacturing requirements applied to pharmaceuticals. Pharmaceutical regulatory and manufacturing requirements do not take into consideration the negative consequences overharvesting has on the environment. This is shown with the Current Manufacturing Practices (cGMP), which focuses on the “manufacturing, packaging, labeling, or holding dietary supplements to ensure quality…”, yet there is no focal point towards the gathering of the raw materials- the most important step to remember if we are to maintain biodiversity. If the goal for becoming 100% organic was to make ourselves and our world healthier, then aren’t we failing at this duty if we are not being sustainable? If we want to consider the welfare of our people for future generations, what better way can we do that than sustainably harvesting to save our plants from extinction?

Although it is important that herbal companies make sure their products are 100% organic and safe, the importance of being sustainable must also be kept in mind. Despite many of the companies doing otherwise, and the laws that influence it, there are many herbal companies that remember the importance of biodiversity and take an active stand to protect it. Flower Power’s supplier, Herb Pharm, keeps the environment in mind by wildcrafting, while another company, Herbal Sage, does not purchase endangered herbs from suppliers. As seen, it is not impossible to be all natural and sustainable, yet it is an important task for current and future herbal companies to achieve.

Organizations believe hydrofracking regulation is rushed

Riverkeeper opposed to state’s process

Photo courtesy: Riverkeeper, http://www.riverkeeper.org


Although hydrofracking has proven to be a controversial issue, New York State is undergoing the process to legalize it. As a result, the state must regulate the new industry. The way in which New York is engaging in this process is being criticized and opposed by a number of environmental organizations. One such group is Riverkeeper; founded in 1966,  Riverkeeper advocates for clean water in New York City.

While hydrofracking itself is controversial, the process under which New York is considering it has also proven contentious. On July 1, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo sent a memo to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) ordering them to release this draft, even though it was incomplete. “That draft was not available for public comment and it was missing the community and economic impact sections,” noted Mackenzie Schoonmaker, a staff attorney at Riverkeeper. On Sept. 7, the DEC released a fully revised Supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement (SGEIS) for public comment, which will end on Dec. 12. In the midst of this controversy, the DEC has also decided to create hydrofracking regulations. The DEC didn’t anticipate having to release these regulations on Sept. 28. Even though environmental groups wanted them to release the regulations, they did not want them released until after the SGEIS was complete. The comment period for these regulations will also end on Dec. 12.

They’ve identified the problem as: “the state’s rush to frack.” The organization has used this name because of the short public comment period (96 days) on a 1600 page document, and because of the concurrent 75-day comment period on the draft regulations. Schoonmaker said, “[Riverkeeper believes that] by putting out the regulations before the Environmental Impact Statement is complete we feel that DEC is really robbing the public of an opportunity to have their comments on the Environmental Impact Statement and inform the regulations.” In the July 1 version of the SGEIS, the DEC acknowledged that this is a problem. Schoonmaker stated, “They essentially deleted this language entirely from the September version and decided they were taking the all at once approach instead.” She continued, “In addition to not being what the law intended, it’s problematic because it puts a pretty heavy burden on the public, [which] is now forced to comment on the Environmental Impact Statement and regulations, which are lengthy documents, at the same time.”

Schoonmaker summed up the organization’s position on hydrofracking, “Riverkeeper’s position is we’re demanding fracking regulations that are promulgated the proper way that is after the SGEIS is finalized. We want [the DEC] to fully prevent any potential harm to human health and the environment. And [we] are prepared to stop any fracking before such regulations are [in place] and backed by regulatory enforcement personnel.”

Oceans: Save the 99%

The Ocean as Inspiration

I first heard of biomimicry when I was visiting the Monterey Bay Aquarium this summer. After spending the day enchanted by the colors of seahorses, mesmerized by the foreignness of jellyfish, and playing with starfish, I settled down in the movie theatre for a break. The movie introduced me to the term biomimicry and thus began my fascination with nature as an inspiration for technology.

One technology highlighted in the film was the Mercedes-Benz bionic car. Bionics is another name for biomimicry in technology and was given its name in 1958 by an officer in the American air force.

Biologists and engineers collaborated at the Mercedes-Benz Technology Center (MTC) to find a new, innovative shape for a car that would, among other things, be more aerodynamic and would increase the car’s gas mileage.

Boxfish AMody/Flickr Creative Commons

Surprisingly, the boxfish with its angular, cube-shaped body was found to be more aerodynamic than animals such as the dolphin and their streamlined shape.

It turns out that the boxfish has the ideal shape for a car, a shape that has emerged after millions of years of evolution. The box-like, rigid shape of the fish both protects it from getting hurt by collisions or high pressure and it also causes vortices in the water to form, which stabilize the fish and ensures it is not “blown” off course.

When applied to cars, the boxfish’s shape resulted in one of the lowest drag coefficients ever tested. Because of this the bionic car’s fuel consumption is 20% lower than other cars.

Bionic Car: Mercedes-Benz Researchers Used the Box Fish as Inspiration for a New Energy Efficient Car

Not only that, but the boxfish’s hexagonal scales are also utilized in the bionic car. These “scales” are lightweight (the weight of the car decreases by 30%) but the structure of the car is much more stable and rigid (about 40% more rigid). This means that the bionic car is energy efficient, environmentally friendly and still extremely safe!

A Whole New World

There is still so much to learn about the ocean, but already it is incredible to realize the multitudes of problems the ocean can solve as we learn more about its mysteries. Researchers are inspired by everything from bull kelp as anchors to whale fins as wind turbine blades.

One of my favorite sources of inspiration from the ocean is cephalopods (such as octopi and cuttlefish). Cephalopods have the incredible ability to camouflage themselves. Watch this video (an excerpt from David Gallo’s, a famous oceanographer, TED talk) to see a breathtaking example.

This octopus (and other cephalopods) can camouflage because of three main reasons:

1) Chromatophores: These are sacs of pigment (color) directly connected to the octopus’s nervous system that allow it to change its own color almost instantaneously.

2) Papillae: These allow the octopus to change the texture of its skin.

3) Leucophores and Iridphores: These allow the octopus to affect how light is reflecting off of itself, perfecting its optical illusion.

Octopus CCaviness/Flickr Creative Commons

This vanishing act is not merely a youtube phenomenon. As scientists learn more about how these underwater magicians do what they do (even though cephalopods are color blind), there are a lot of potential applications. Biodegradable video screens for electronic devices, non-toxic paints, and possible military applications are just some of directions engineers and designers can take this biological inspiration.

How To Protect Our Oceans

Unfortunately, we live in a world filled with water pollution and lack of respect for the oceans that cover 71% of our planet.

71% of Planet Earth is Water

Despite the fact that the majority of our world is water, only 1% of the ocean is protected, in contrast to the 12% of land that is protected.

Groups like the Marine Conservation Institute, Oceana and MarineBio were created to increase that number.

MarineBio is an organization that remains politically neutral while working to protect our oceans. David Campbell, the founder and director of MarineBio, stresses that the ocean is “where we look to see what the condition of our planet is. We can clean up the land in some places but until we address what is going on with the ocean with pollution…and the climate and CO2…we’re not getting anywhere.” Even though in the past ten years ocean protection has improved, Campbell emphasizes that “science has been saying for a long time that we need to start paying attention to the ocean. We have just begun.”

By protecting the ocean, these groups are also protecting biomimicry. They are ensuring that the ocean, a muse of technology, is still able to inspire us as the world progresses. As Campbell said when asked about what we can learn from the ocean: “Pretty much everything.”

Burying the Problem: Waste Management in the U.S.

What does waste management look like in the United States and how does composting fit into the bigger picture?

Do you operate on the blissful “out of sight, out of mind” principle, believing that to throw something “away” is to vaporize it?  It’s difficult not to, considering how simple waste disposal seems to be – all the average American has to do is haul their garbage outside and wait for it to disappear.  If you carry your thoughts out to the curb with you, however, and allow them to be carted off, following the path of the pizza boxes and the Styrofoam cups, you will quickly realize that all that waste must end up somewhere.  That somewhere – for all refuse that does not make it into the recycling or the yard waste – is usually either a landfill or an incinerator.

Photo courtesy of sepponet/Flickr Creative Commons

Landfills are essentially gigantic repositories of waste where it’s compacted and buried, day after day, until no more will fit and the site is retired.  According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), there are 3,091 active landfills in the U.S. and more than 10,000 no longer in use.  The average American is responsible for about 4.6 pounds of waste per day, about 55% of which ends up in a landfill.  Though landfills are usually lined with many layers – such as clay and heavy plastic – meant to protect the surrounding environment from waste and any liquid that may leach from it (known as leachate), the EPA has acknowledged that “even the best liner and leachate collection systems will ultimately fail due to natural deterioration.”  In other words, the waste – which when compacted is almost entirely cut off from oxygen and the microorganisms necessary for decomposition – isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, and eventually – whether in 30 years or in 300 – the protection systems will fail and the toxins within will seep into the environment.  Even if we discount future pollution, the Earth does not possess unlimited acreage for us to transform into graveyards for the dregs of our material life, so the less waste that ends up in landfills, the better.

Garbage incinerator in Newark, NJ. Built in 1990, it runs 24/7 and can burn up to 2,300 tons of garbage a day. Photo courtesy of Genista/Flickr Creative Commons

Another 12.5% of our waste is incinerated.  While recently European countries like Denmark have taken advantage of improved waste burning technology to reduce pollution while generating heat and electricity from the combustion of waste, the U.S.’s 87 waste-to-energy incinerators are all more than 15 years old and do not match up in either efficiency or safety.  While health effects stemming from incinerators have not been widely investigated, it is known that the combustion of certain materials found in the waste stream can lead to the release of toxic chemicals like dioxin, which according to the World Heath Organization “can cause reproductive and developmental problems, damage to the immune system, interfere with hormones and also cause cancer.”  The Committee on Health Effects of Waste Incineration, in their book Waste Incineration & Public Health, admits to having “a substantial degree of concern for the incremental contribution to dioxins emissions from all incinerators on a regional level and beyond.”  Though incineration has the potential to generate significant amounts of energy safely, the U.S. system would need to be revamped in order for it to become an attractive option.

According to the EPA, the U.S. produces upwards of 34 million tons of food waste per year, which constitutes over 14% of the entire waste stream.  In 2009, less than 3% of that food waste was recycled, meaning that compostable waste “now represents the single largest component of M[unicipal] S[olid] W[aste] reaching landfills and incinerators.”  Composting efforts – aside from returning nutrients integral to plant life to the soil – divert mass from the waste stream, reducing the overall amount that ends up in landfills and incinerators.  New York City’s Barnard College has already taken the first step towards reducing its waste, its on-campus BioX composting machine taking leftover food from the dining hall and “eliminat[ing] the need for putting it into the waste stream,” says Waste Management professor Peter Bower.  However, if we want to make a real dent in the waste stream – both on the small scale of the college and the large scale of the country – we will need to amplify efforts to recycle food scraps and raise awareness, encouraging people to reduce refuse at the source.

Dietary Debate and Misconceptions of Vegetarianism

A diet with clear potential to benefit the environment is still highly contested when it comes to nutrition.

American farmers require 10-16 pounds of grain and 2,5000 gallons of water to produce one pound of beef; and with the same inputs, could grow “16 pounds of broccoli, 25 pounds of potatoes, enough soybeans for three pounds of tofu or enough wheat for nearly five pounds of whole wheat bread”, according the Sierra Club.

And compared to a vegetarian diet, an average meat-inclusive diet required 2.9 times more water, 2.5 times more primary energy, 13 times more fertilizer, and 1.4 times more pesticides, according to a study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. The greatest contribution to the difference? Beef.

The environmental arguments for a plant-based diet seem clear, but eaters have resisted this lifestyle for a number of reasons. For many, it is just a matter of taste: beef is hard to give up. But others, even nutritionists, are hesitant to declare plant-based diets a healthy alternative to those that rely on meat for protein.

provided by USDA

Several members of the Department of Agriculture’s Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, that influential board of nutritionists behind the food pyramid and its recently updated reincarnation, “Choose My Plate”, have recently discussed advocating the American public increases plant food consumption toward vegetarianism; but researchers at the American Society of Nutrition, the organization that publishes America’s pre-eminent nutrition journals, challenged the prudence of such a suggestion, claiming insufficient literature on the health risks of vegetarianism.

In David R Jacobs Jr,Ella H Haddad, Amy Joy Lanou, and Mark J Messina’s “Food, plant food, and vegetarian diets in the US dietary guidelines: conclusions of an expert panel”, the American Society of Nutrition researchers concluded more research should be done to create a firm scientific base for plant-based diets before the Dietary Guidelines Committee officially endorses meat-free diets.

Barnard biology professor Hilary Callahan argues that this reluctance is unfounded and doesn’t reflect the scientific nutritional knowledge to date: “Really, in our society, where almost everyone has more than enough food, quantity and variety, there is no reason to be concerned about this issue. Even if following a vegan diet, there are plenty of nutrients include protein and the full complement of amino acids”

Calahan labels concerns such as those voiced by the American Society of Nutrition researchers as “a huge and unjustified fixation in US of a vegetarian diet being ‘deficient’”, going on to say that it is “this focus on protein-combining or protein-complementing that makes a vegetarian diet seem difficult to follow”

And this misunderstanding is of particular concern to those who hope vegetarians can help have a positive impact on the environment: “health” is the main reason 53% of America’s vegetarians choose their diet, according to surveys completed by Vegetarian Times. But without the expert backing of the country’s top nutritionists, scores of potential vegetarians may be shying away from the lifestyle.

The Vegetarian Resource Group’s John Cunningham sees the nutritional benefit of vegetarianism is “not really a controversy,” citing a medical study titled “American Dietetic Association Endorses Vegetarian Diets”, published by the American Dietetic Association.

And not only are the keys to a healthy vegetarian diet very similar to recommendations for diets that include meat, vegetarians, on average, have lower average body mass indexes, lower cholesterol, and lower incidences of cancer, and are less likely to die of ischaemic heart disease.

Yet the American dietary guidelines fail to reflect the evidence that an environmentally friendly vegetarian diet can be healthy, if not healthier, than the diet currently suggested. The American Society of Nutrition found that the public had an even less complete understanding of vegetarian diets than academic and research communities, but in withholding their endorsement they appear to be, in part, culpable. Though emphasizing that “information must be transmitted to the public”, the place to start might be at the American Society of Nutrition.

Learning to Grow

How school gardens help children learn and grow

(http://extension.oregonstate.edu/mg/botany/growth.html)

In schools, community gardens have the potential to make tremendous impacts on students’ lives, both in the classroom and outside of the classroom. Gardens can be used as part of the academic curriculum, where students can learn about plant biology or historical farming techniques; or as an extracurricular, teaching students a practical skill while at the same time giving them something to do after school.

School gardens have been around since the 19th century. In the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, many schools had gardens in their school yards. They became an integral part of the war effort during World War I, providing a source for local food. In the 1990’s the school garden movement made a comeback, led by, Alice Waters, a famous chef in Berkeley, California. In commemoration of the 25th anniversary of her restaurant, Chez Panisse, Waters founded The Chez Panisse Foundation supporting an “education program that uses food to nurture, educate, and empower youth”. In 1995, in collaboration with the King Middle School in Berkeley, the Chez Panisse Foundation built a garden in the school yard and created a curriculum that was integrated into the academic curriculum, using both the garden and the kitchen. The organization has since changed its name to The Edibile Schoolyard Project, with sites around the country.

Based on the success of the Edible Schoolyard Project and other school gardens in California, in 2006, the California government passed the California School Instructional Garden Act, providing $15 million in grants to sustain existing school gardens and develop new ones.

The success of the school garden movement has spread outside of California. In New York City today, there are 120 registered school gardens, and an estimated total of 400 school gardens across the city. GreenThumb, a program of the New York City Parks Department, oversees the community gardens in New York, providing resources and materials to gardens in the city. Andrew Barrett, the School Garden Operations Associate at GreenThumb, points out the benefits of gardening through experiential learning. “Gardens are important because they get kids outside and working. The benefits of being able to not just sit in a classroom and learn about plants but actually go outside and see them grow are enormous.”

Mayor Bloomberg in the school garden of PS29 in Brooklyn with Rachael Ray (Photo: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/daniel-bowman-simon/the-rise-and-fall-of-scho_b_689486.html)

Despite the proliferation of school gardens, not everyone supports incorporating gardens into school curricula. In “Cultivating Failure”, published in the Atlantic in January 2010, Caitlin Flanagan argues that gardening takes away from academic time. She points out that there is no concrete evidence that gardens help students meet state standards for English and math. In addition, she criticizes school gardens for putting students from low- income families to work with manual labor. “Does the immigrant farm worker dream that his child will learn to enjoy manual labor, or that his child will be freed from it?” her article says. She adds that school gardens are using the school as a forum in which to advance a social agenda, which she believes is inappropriate. Barrett admits that there are challenges of race, class, and culture in using gardens in schools. “There might be some Latino immigrants who don’t want to work in gardens because they don’t want the stigma of being associated with migrant labor,” he says. But Andrew also notes that Flanagan is making an assumption that all immigrants are from rural areas when, especially in New York City, many immigrants are from cities and have never worked in agriculture before.

The overall response to the school garden movement has been tremendously positive. Thousands of teachers, principles, politicians, and business people support school gardens and make efforts to continue to grow and improve the garden curriculum in schools. Their support allows children all over the world to connect with the environment, their food, and the land.

Dodd-Frank Hits the Congo

Though Section 1502 of the Dodd-Frank Act seeks to create a more globally responsible corporate America, there is now evidence of negative consequences from this legislation. What is the next step for consumers when activists and economists take opposing sides?

Last week I discussed the various steps the United States government, both national and local, had taken to prevent American companies from purchasing conflict minerals from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). While such government action appears to be a positive step forward, many journalists and economists are taking a stance against efforts like the Dodd-Frank Act. They are focusing on the fact that, as a result of this Act, smelters have begun to embargo Congolese minerals in order to be absolutely certain they do not purchase raw materials from conflict mines. Because these smelters currently have no way of evaluating which mines are conflict-free, they have stopped purchasing Congolese minerals altogether. They want to ensure they respond to the demands of electronics companies regarding social responsibility. After all, electronics companies are the ones purchasing mass quantities of minerals from smelters.

These electronics companies have acted largely as a result of consumer and activist demands, asking they solely buy minerals that have come from conflict-free mines in the DRC. In turn, smelters’ decision to purchase minerals from other countries—such as Canada, which they are certain has conflict-free mines—has caused economic hardship for many Congolese citizens who depend on mining to sustain their livelihoods. This unfortunate outcome, however, cannot simply be blamed on human rights activists. In overall advocacy and consumer education efforts, they have not only pressured the government to pass legislation such as Section 1502 of the Dodd-Frank Act; activist messages have also—for years—advocated for coupling this legislation with on-the-ground aid in Congo.

"President Obama Signs the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act President Barack Obama delivers remarks and signs the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act at the Ronald Reagan Building in Washington, July 21, 2010. (Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson)" Photo and Caption Courtesy of Nancy Pelosi / Flickr Creative Commons

David Aronson, a journalist and blogger focused on Central Africa, wrote an article for the New York Times called “How Congress Devastated Congo.” Aronson openly criticizes the Dodd-Frank Act in his article and describes the detrimental economic effects it has had on local Congolese—many of who depend on the activity of the minerals trade for their income. In an interview, Aronson explained the premature nature of the Act stating, “The problem with Dodd-Frank is entirely that [the U.S. government] put the restrictions in place before the mechanisms [to identify legitimate mines] were ready.” He explained the proper course of action would have been for the government to have spent “another extra couple of years to…certify the mines and the minerals as being clean” before enacting legislation such as Section 1502. With regard to human rights organizations, Aronson criticizes them for advocating for what he thinks is a faulty solution. He believes such “groups should have focused their advocacy on…clean[ing] up the evaluation system before restricting trade.”

Mine certification tags: As smelters leave the DRC, other efforts seek to establish legitimate mine evaluations Photo Courtesy of Sasha Lezhnev / Enoughproject.org / Flickr Creative Commons

Naama Haviv, Assistant Director of a Los Angeles based non-profit, Jewish World Watch (JWW), that seeks to combat instances of genocide and mass atrocities, commented in an e-mail regarding the perspective of individuals aligned with Aronson’s beliefs. Haviv clarifies, “The push for conflict minerals legislation always included a push for alternative livelihoods programs in the short term—in fact, Dodd-Frank also required the State Department to put a plan in place to support the development of a conflict-free supply chain politically and economically on the ground in Congo.” Thus, it is evident activist groups were fully aware of the economic implications of this restrictive mineral purchasing legislation, as well as what actions would remedy the negative side effect.

Mineral certification paperwork: An evaluation process that must be well established in order to bring smelters back to the DRC Photo Courtesy of Sasha Lezhnev / Enoughproject.org / Flickr Creative Commons

Thus, as a consumer, one may be asking which side to take and whether or not to continue pressuring electronics companies to be responsible for their supply chains. It appears a conscious conglomeration of both sides is necessary. Just because the U.S. government has responded to longstanding activist pressure does not mean the problem is solved. At the same time, simply because certain negative results have come from the Dodd-Frank Act does not mean, in the long-term, it will be solely harmful. In fact, because of these negative repercussions in the Congo, consumers now face the need to advocate even more strongly for “alternative livelihoods programs in the short term,” as Haviv describes. This is a complex matter with a complex solution; however, activists—and economists—can still create definitive change through targeted advocacy for a practical solution. It is in smelters’ best interest to eventually return to the DRC to increase their access to mineral supplies, thus driving down prices; however, it is not realistic to depend on them to establish their own mine evaluation systems based on their currently uninvolved response to the matter.

Daniel Hamermesh, Professor of Economics at The University of Texas at Austin, suggests Americans ought to “do something to mitigate the impact of our well-intentioned legislation on small producers in the Congo.” Such action is possible, starting from the consumer level. Consumers can write to government representatives expressing that the current outcome of the Dodd-Frank Act is only one portion of the solution, for local livelihood protection programs must too be utilized to solve the current Congolese economic stress.