Daily Archives: November 2, 2011

Avatar in the Amazon

Discovering oil in a community is not considered a blessing

For indigenous communities in Ecuador oil has brought nothing but destruction

For indigenous people in the Ecuadoran Amazon, the American film Avatar was more than just an imaginary world. Avatar, which came out in 2009 and was directed by James Cameron embodies a current struggle between the demand for natural resources and its impact on indigenous  communities. Indigenous people from the Ecuadorian Amazon traveled thousands of miles into the capital just to see their story projected on film. For many of indigenous communities Avatar brought attention to the ongoing battle of the oil development and the negative effects it has on their environments. This week I will bring you to the Ecuadoran Amazon basin to a remote northern region known as the Oriente. The Oriente is one of the world’s most catastrophic examples of how oil changed everything.

Now there are only toxic leftovers of oil companies in Oriente. In 1992, Texaco an American oil company left Ecuador and what remained was evidence of foul practices. Despite the company’s ability to invest in modern and innovative technological of oil abstraction, for the 28 years that they were in the Amazon cheap substandard technology was used. Consequently, over 300 billions gallons of crude, 350 oil wells, and 1,000 open waste oil pits, all contribute to pollution and hazardous exposure of toxins in the area. However, this story is not over. During its year of operation Texaco continued to exploit environmental regulations of the United States and Ecuador. This includes the “accidents” of dumping over 18 billion gallons of formation water in nearby streams.  Formation water is a highly toxic and is a byproduct of the drilling process. This is a practice was outlawed in major US oil producing states like Louisiana, Texas, and California decades before the company began operations in Ecuador in 1967.

People claim they are drenched in oil

Indigenous communities claimed they were left with hazardous effects to their health and extensive environmental damages. According to Chevron Toxico justice initiative (the campaign for justice in Ecuador) the people have made an allegation that Texaco and Ecuadorian government did not get consent to drill in the Oriente area. Therefore “las personas no eran conscientes de los efectos de que el petróleo ha traído.” The people were unaware of the effects that oil had brought said Colon from the indigenous Secoya community and indeed there are many.

Texaco’s oil pits made land infertile to grow crops, trees were replaced with oil pipes, and oil runoffs heavily polluted rivers and killed off fish. This left many indigenous people in dire poverty, as they are unable to count on resources they have counted on for years. Exposure to toxins in water and consumption of food from polluted soil resulted in staggering effects on health. The department of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene of the University of London produced a study that documented an  increased rates of cancer among the populations in the areas where Texaco drilled (Yana Curi Report, 2000). Specifically, the study provides evidence that residents in the oil zone experience suffer 30 times more larynx cancer, 18 times more bile duct cancer, 15 times more liver and skin cancer, and five times more stomach cancer (Talbot, 1999). In February of 1999, a community of 500 people where Texaco had operated several wells reported 15 cases of cancer. In another indigenous community it was discovered that, four women, all fewer than 40, reported uterine cancer. It is rare to find a child in the region who does not have some type of skin rash due to exposure from toxic chemicals. Ultimately, many indigenous people have moved away from their own lands, leaving behind what they have owned for centuries and along with their cultures.

Exposure to oil contimination has contributed to the increase of cancer rates

In 2009  30,000 indigenous communities of the Amazon basin organized and got international attention when they demanded 27 billion from the Chevron (inherited the damages after it bought Texaco in 2001) for the damages. Chevron response was the indigenous people claims were “fraudulent.” According to Chevron these claims were not certified by Ecuadorian court and therefore could not be taken into account. The company even went as far as suing indigenous groups who asked for the compensation and asked the Ecuadorian court to reject the research reports that documented pollution in the Amazon basin. Despite Texaco’s extensive efforts to demean claims of pollution, after Avatar many of the indigenous people in the Oriente continue to organize against them. Toxic Tours led by Ecuadorian villages allowed tourist to bear witness  the heavily polluted environment, as a result of the nonchalant environmental practices. The secrete was out and this led to the Chevron case with  30000 indigenous people on one side and Texaco on the other.

Children swim in waters that are surrounded by oil pipes

This case began in United States courts; 18years later has been dragged to its original home in Ecuador and generated more than 200,000 pages of evidence. According to the New York Times, in February 2011 Ecuadorian courts granted the people of Ecuador $9.5 billion — the largest environmental verdict in history — but far less than the $27 billion they were seeking. However, the fight is far from over. Chevron continues to argue that it should be spared liability because Texaco carried out a 40-million-U.S.-dollar cleanup project as agreed to with the Ecuadorian government in 1998. They have put a stop to the plaintiffs from recovering damages through temporary injunctions, which includes Chevron lawsuit of Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act against their accusers, saying they engaged in racketeering and extortion.

And still the Indigenous people wait for justice ……

Plant Cultivation: A Solution to Overexploitation?

Approximately 4,000 to 10,000 plants are endangered worldwide, leaving many of ecosystems, communities and health systems affected. As the demand for traditional medicine increase, many medicinal plants are overexploited through the clipping of their leaves to the gathering of their roots. The unproportionable balance between harvesting of medical plants and the plant’s ability to replenish itself has left humans and animals alike with a diminished source of herbs, and therefore, a loss of potential cures for many diseases (and a loss of food particularly for animals). This has led to people shifting their focus towards plant cultivation, the process of planting, tending, improving, and harvesting of plants in an environment that is not native to. This will lead to the conservation of many endangered medicinal plants as well as the species in its environment. Yet is it possible that cultivation can produce a possible replication of wild medicinal plants as well as maintain large-scale production to supply and sustain its country? Is it possible for cultivation to serve as a plausible solution to overexploitation?

Monoculture of St. John’s Wort

Cultivated medicinal plants and wild medicinal plants are typically never the same, differing in quality depending on various environmental factors. Cultivated plants lack the potency that a wild medicinal plant has–meaning, wild herbs have a more concentrated amount of active ingredients, components that gives the plant therapeutic value, than a cultivated herb. Time is a primary factor, as wild plants grow slower due to stress and competition in their natural environment, allotting more time for the concentration of the active ingredient to increase. With monoculture, which is the planting of one specific kind of species on a large acreage, there is no competition, decreasing the amount of time it takes for a plant to mature and thus decreasing the concentration of the active ingredient.

However, there are scenarios where a cultivated plant may more valuable. Wild medicinal plants growing near highways or growing in contaminated soil lose their value due to the contaminants it may hold in its biological systems. In most cases, due to the wild plant’s potency, medicinal plants are usually harvested from the wild and then sold. But it is becoming clear that potency does not outweigh the disadvantages.

Using wild herbs commercially is unsustainable and unreliable. When certain medicinal plants are in high demand, it is very easy to over harvest and deplete its population in total. This is seen with the American Ginseng, or Panax quinquefolius, that is popular around the world and it is especially loved by the Chinese (as it is very similar to the Ginseng that is native there). American Ginseng’s population has rapidly decreased and is now endangered. The exhaustion of the medicinal plants not only reduces biodiversity, but it also harms the native ecosystem of that particular plant. The allotted time it takes for plants to grow in the wild and the amount that will grow is also undetermined. This makes it difficult for suppliers and companies to make decisions according to the desired amount, time it is needed, and price value. With that said, cultivation becomes a more prominent choice in the supply of herbs.

Cultivation has its many perks that attract many businesses both large and small, such as Lipton, a large tea company that grows its raw material on sustainable farms. Cultivation is a steady source of herbs, in both the allotted time and amount that will grow. It also influences the botanical identification of the plant species, and guarantees that the herb is safe to consume or use in any way, as it is grown in a controlled environment. Most of all, if done properly, cultivation is sustainable, leaving our natural ecosystems safe.

However, the grass always seems greener on the other side.

Though cultivation seems like a legitimate solution, however this is very hard to do. Most medicinal plants have low germination rates, especially if the farmer has no previous knowledge. Some plants simply won’t grow in another ecosystem, particularly if the ecosystem is not similar to theirs. “Herbs are much more picky than lettuce or a carrot”, stated Denise Joy. The low germination rates, as well as the inability for an herb to grow in an ecosystem not like its own causes many problems as a lot of wild herbs cannot be replicated at all and many only are harvested from their ecosystems.

There is still hope though, as there are many new advances in this field. Peter A Canter discussed many biotechnological models that can be applied in monoculture. Stratification, the process of germinating seedlings in its environmental conditions, can increase the germination rate of medicinal plants, and increase ones total supply. Canter even suggested to “genetically transform” plants to control their active ingredients and make them more viable in different ecosystems. However, Joy finds that this is unlikely. “You can use biodynamic and permaculture techniques on plants, but I don’t think you can genetically modify plants.” This is seen with St. Johns Wort, Hypericum perforatum, a plant used to primarily treat depression. “They tried….to get it to produce better and knock out the things it didn’t need, and it didn’t put out any medicinal property”. Genetically modified plants are also looked down upon by many as it is not seen as ‘natural’. According to Gilbette, it also “perpetuate mistakes” by having a “narrow focus on individual parts that disregards the integrity of the whole”.

Teak plantation and agroforestry site by Hiran Amarasekera

Agroforestry is a less controversial technique used in plant cultivation. It involves cultivating non timber forest plants in forest settings, or using both woody perennials (trees), plants and/or animals in agricultural settings. This is the best of both worlds, as the medicinal plants have natural stress and competition, animals to germinate the seeds, and trees to provide shade and certain nutrients to the soil, like the Sugar Maple, Acer saccharum, which concentrates calcium in its leaves, leaving the soil calcium rich, which is advantageous for a plant like the American Ginseng. The trees also provide shade to the plants and serve as boundary markers.

Cultivation can possibly serve as the worldwide solution to overexploitation. Even though it is currently being widely used today, advances are still needed to solve the many unanswered problems of replicating wild herbs on a mass scale.

“Our landscape is disappearing, and we need to do everything to preserve that”, stated Christie from Acres USA. It is plausible to look at plant cultivation as a possible answer to the preservation of the natural landscape, by putting ideas into action.

Inspired Activism

For this week’s post, I am going to stray a bit from the structure of my first  few blog-posts. This change was inspired by a conversation that I had with another student who uses poetry and painting to express her passion for the environment.

Pen and Paper. Photo Courtesy of LucastheExperience/Flickr.

She recently learned about the impact of climate change on coral reefs, and decided to take pen to hand, and write about her feelings on the subject.  Merav is a student and new-found coral reef enthusiast who is eager to put her artistic talent to work, in order to make others aware of the threats to survival that coral reefs face.

In light of this, this post will discuss the different ways in which young people channel their passion for coral reefs in order to make others aware of the threats that reefs face.  The methods that they use are sometimes conventional, but often unconventional.  All are equally important, and all have the ability to bring coral reefs to the attention of a broader audience. From Merav and other inspiring individuals, I have learned that environmental activism comes in many forms: the written, the spoken, the painted, and the danced, just to name a few.

Hyperbolic Crocheted Coral Reef. Photo Courtesy of stitchlily/Flickr. The hyperbolic crocheted coral reef project began as an initiative of two sisters to raise awareness about coral reefs. It uses math, science, and art to create crocheted reefs. It is one of the largest community-based art projects in the world (http://crochetcoralreef.org/about/index.php)

The crocheted reef above is an example of an art-based project that raises awareness about coral reefs.  It is my belief, and my hope, that projects like this will enable the artists to engage the public in discourse about the threats that coral reefs face, and will inspire others to action.

Environmental activism also comes in more conventional forms; forms that are based in scientific education. I spoke with Jessica Pretty, a student of oceanography at Old Dominion University, a SCUBA diver, and an activist for coral reef preservation.  She has been an avid SCUBA diver for many years, and this has contributed to her love of coral reefs.  She sees education as a central component to environmental activism.  For this reason, she decided to get a degree in Oceanography.  She explained the link between her education and her desire to protect coral reefs.

Jessica said, “Coral reefs were some of the first things I got to explore whilst scuba diving. I was inspired to follow the dream of [studying] Marine Science/Oceanography when I realized how our oceans and the life they contain are taken for granted by the human race…the oceans have always given us plenty, but now they are in danger of being decimated by the greed of humanity and I would like to change that.”

By educating herself in a formal environment, Jessica will gain the scientific tools that she needs to work to save the marine environments that she loves.  Her education in Oceanography has given her a broader knowledge of the threats that coral reefs face, as well as a better understanding of why coral reefs are so important.  This in turn, has caused her to advocate for their protection.

Coral Reef. Photo Courtesy of USFWS Pacific/Flickr.

Dylan Vicchione, founder of the organization ReefQuest, proves that ability to act on behalf of coral reefs (or any environmental cause) is not limited by one’s age.  At the age of 12 he founded an NGO, ReefQuest.  He has been honored by the President for his efforts, and has created educational materials that thousands of other students have used to learn to protect coral reefs. Dylan is a prime example of a young person who is taking initiative to save coral reefs.  Young people like him have the power to change the world and to inspire other young people to do the same.  The video below tells his inspiring story!


ReefQuest Promo from IDEAS Quest on Vimeo.


Powerful Poisons Interact to Attack the Industrious Honey Bee

In and of themselves pesticides may not be the sole culprits of Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD).  Could understanding the synergisms between these chemicals help solve the mystery of CCD?

Beeswax Candles--Courtesy of Roberrific/Flickr Creative Commons

The snowstorm is looming. Tom Theobald, Boulder Colorado bee keeper, will retire to his honey house to watch the early winter flakes dance in the cold air.  There, he will be “doing a run of hand-dipped beeswax candles.”  After all, when the power goes out he always reverts to the work of small and industrious insects, the honey bees, whose burning wax will shed light in his cabin.  Theobald can enjoy the process of making beeswax candles and can survive the exit of the bees from his life were his colonies to continue to wane because of CCD. Commercial bee keepers, as he says, cannot–as they are the most affected economically by the decline of the bees.   While one may be able to pinpoint the role of one specific pesticide in CCD,  the mystery of CCD is intensified as the interactions between the many chemical ingredients used in 21st century American agriculture become apparent.

Theobald takes my call on November 1, 2011, just before the storm.   This time we don’t focus merely on the systemic pesticide chlothianidin, but rather discuss the complexity of synergisms, the interactions of various pesticides on the health of the hive and the bee.  Theobald confides that fungicides “only entered his consciousness just recently,”  as part of a larger investigation into neonicotinoids, nicotine-derived pesticides.

As I mentioned in an earlier blog, fungi are crucial to the health of the hive.  They break down the pollen inside the hive.  As Theobald points out, fungicides disrupt the bee’s intestinal flora.  Bee bread is only a partly digested product that needs intestinal flora to be metabolized.  Fungicides, instead, “decrease the microbial diversity of the bee’s food source” according to David Doll, Farm Advisor for the University of California Cooperative Extension.  However, since fungicides, like pesticides, are required for a profitable crop, they become an integral element of the pollination process and therefore pose health risks to honey bees.

According to David Doll, fungicides are generally applied around or at bloom when they will adhere to the pollen. Their application during bloom should, therefore, be regulated.    Unlike Europe that errs on the side of caution, banning pesticides until they are proven not to be harmful, in the US there is, as reporter for the GMO journal Deniza Gertzberg points out, “no accurate and complete picture of what pesticides are used, where and in what amounts, or the accurate measures of just what the maximum exposure is in agricultural or urban settings on blooming plants.”

Jan Knodel, Extension Entomologist for North Dakota State University presents guidelines for reducing pesticide poisoning to bees:

As bees work the hardest during bloom, they will thus inevitably bring back the fungicide-laced pollen to the hive where they will store it to be eaten later or where it is eaten immediately, its nutritional value having been altered by the fungicides.

Theobald focuses on the fungicide boscalid in particular.  Introduced in the USA in 2003, boscalid, the active ingredient in the fungicide emerald, is a respiration inhibitor within the fungal cell.  It is highly successful in fighting fungal diseases in fruits, vegetables and grapes that are used for wine.

In the non-committal language of the EPA boscalid is “practically nontoxic to terrestrial animals and is moderately toxic to aquatic animals on an acute exposure basis.”  However, according to the PAN pesticides database,  “population-level effects on honeybees may occur even if a pesticide has low acute toxicity. […] certain pesticides interfere with honeybee reproduction, ability to navigate, or temperature regulation, any of which can have an effect on long-term survival of honey bee colonies.”

A recent study by James Frazier, professor of entomology at Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences highlights the magnitude of the problem of pesticides like boscalid making their way into the bee’s hives and lacing their food with poison: “on average six different pesticides, and in some cases, as many as 39 pesticides were found in hives across the United States.”   This  study focuses not on one specific pesticide but rather on the presence of multiple pesticides, in fact “98 pesticides and metabolites detected in […] bee pollen alone,” suggesting  the need for research on the synergisms between pesticides that might underlie the demise of the bees.

Theobald echoes the need for research on the potentially lethal synergisms of various pesticides on bees, as he refers to a 2010 report by the Cornell University Cooperative Extension stating the need for such studies, as “some fungicides may affect a bee’s ability to tolerate other pesticides.”

It is not only about chlothianidin.  It is not merely about boscalid.  According to Gertzberg, over 1,200 active ingredients are distributed among 18,000 products nationwide and are now integral to the honey bees’ landscape.  The complexity of the demise of the bees lies in the synergisms between these chemicals.

Environmentalist Art: Literature

So far in this blog, we have explored some of the complications of making environmental/activist art, visited some activist art and artists at Occupy Wall Street and learned about the role of art in protest, and discovered some of the artist and environmentalist activists at Columbia University. We now begin a new series of delving into environmental art, a different medium each post: today we will explore the written word, environmental literature.

ASLE's quarterly journal, ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment, explores the relationships between human beings and the natural world across disciplines. They publish articles ranging from literary scholars to specialists in the visual and performing arts to economists, ecologists, and others.

Authors have depicted the landscape in their writing much as painters have painted the landscape. The Association of the Study of Literature and the Environment (ASLE), the “country’s premier membership organization in the field of literature and environment” (according to their website), lists naturalist authors such as Thoreau, Emerson, and Whitman who wrote deeply about the environment around and nature as a way of most fully experiencing what it means to be human side by side with environmentalist authors such as Rachel Carson and Aldo Leopold who wrote explicitly to warn America about environmental degradation.

The distinction between the environmental activist and naturalist traditions is not just a divide in eras, however; contemporary author Annie Dillard falls much more in the naturalist camp. In fact, she does not even identify with the environmentalist movement. Her personal website states that she is not “an ‘eco-’anything,” nor has she ever been, and she rejects the scientific approach to environmental questions, writing, “We have been as usual asking the wrong question. It does not matter a hoot what the mockingbird on the chimney is singing. The real and proper question is: Why is it beautiful?” Yet her work Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (1974) is a modern Walden, a collection of essays about Dillard’s experiences in nature. Chanel Dubofsky, an author in New York City, was inspired by Dillard’s approach. She said to me,“As a writer, it’s really important for me to be in touch with a sense of wonder, about everything, wherever you can find it. Eudora Welty said that Annie Dillard’s work put forth ‘a sense of wonder so fearless and unbridled.’ I think if we allow it, wonder can save us from our own darkness.”

Other authors do not fit so neatly into one camp. John Caddy is “an aging poet whose spirit is more lively all the time” (Morning Earth). He lives in Minnesota where he teaches environmentalism and shares poetry through his website MorningEarth.org, a resource for earth education which focuses on the connection between arts and ecology. He shares poetry and other art on Morning Earth, including this poem:

October 3

Off the trail a yellow aspen leaf

spins on a spider silk

spins with the breeze

without sound

blinks light

winks bright


each round

Caddy does not see a clear distinction between is roles as naturalist, environmentalist, artist, and teacher. Poetry, to him, expresses his deep appreciation for the world just as learning the ecology does. He lives the principles he teaches and the principles which guide his art.

Morning Earth's Daily image from May 14, 2010. Photo credit: John Caddy

Poet, storyteller, singer and songwriter Kay Grindland has favorite trees that she likes to visit to see the nuances of weather and between the seasons. She has worked as an interpretive naturalist at state parks and nature centers in Minnesota as well as a teacher at Self Expressing Earth at Hamline University. Like Dillard, she works to cultivate a sense of wonder in herself and to inspire it in other people. She writes, “writing or singing is how I teach myself (or remember) how to be in love with the world.”


Everything sings.
Birds do, of course
Even trees

have their own songs.
Wolves make easy
running rhythms.

Water plays in
and back beat drop

No song is ever
Frogs collaborate
with fish

and pond
water. Insects hum

to the beat of bird
Sunrise in spring
is a symphony.

Imagine the
in a forest, in a
inside of you?

If you listen,
you will find one.

If you sing
it won’t be a solo.

These poets and writers, and others like them, do not see a clear distinction between their lives, their art, and their environmental/naturalist values. John Caddy writes, “Humanity [is] not above nature or in conflict with it, but [is] a literal part of Earth, with a body made of Earth. An eco-centric world view recognizes that to injure the natural world is, ultimately, to injure the self.” This attitude of complete connections between humanity and nature parallels the attitude that many of these authors seem to take with regard to their art and their naturalism.

Building a Better Future

As the 7 billionth person was born this week (or so we think), our planet continues moving closer to the point where it will no longer be able to sustain us. We are running out of room and resources. Pollution is causing global warming and freak snow storms. One way to address these issues is to change our interaction with our environment quite literally, through biomimetic architecture.

Mick Pearce

Pearce was born in Harare, Zimbabwe. In 2003 he was awarded the Prince Claus Award for his work in creating sustainable and low-energy buildings. One of his most famous buildings is Eastgate Centre, a shopping center in Zimbabwe that utilizes a cooling system inspired by a termite mound.

A Termite Mound; CCizauskas/Flickr Creative Commons

Termites in Zimbabwe farm their own food. The fungus that they grow can only survive at a temperature between 86.0 and 89.6° F, but the temperatures in Zimbabwe can fluctuate between 37.4 °F and 107.6 °F degrees every day. Over time, termites have developed a remarkable passive cooling system that maintains the temperature right around 87 °F with very few fluctuations. The termites build a system of heating and cooling vents to funnel air through the mound effectively allowing air currents to act as air conditioning.

Eastgate Centre, Harare Zimbabwe; GBembridge/Flickr Creative Commons

Pearce, inspired by this system, decided to apply it to the complex he was designing in order to save costs. During the heat of the day, the material of the building itself absorbs the heat from the sun, machines, and people allowing the temperature inside to only increase minutely. As the day cools, the warm air rises and is vented out through the top of the building (this movement is assisted by fans though it does happen naturally). At night, the cool breezes are “caught” at the base of the building (through spaces in the floor) until the building has reached the ideal temperature to begin the next day. Thus, the building mimics the termite mound’s natural air conditioning.

Because of Mick Pearce’s innovations, the Eastgate Centre uses 10% less energy than a comparable building and the owners have saved over $3.5 million just because an air conditioning plant did not have to be imported. This allows them to rent space to tenants for 20 percent less than in a neighboring building that is newer.

Michael Pawlyn and Magnus Larsson

There are too many biomimetic architects to mention them all, but both Michael Pawlyn and Magnus Larsson have fascinating TED talks that express how important it is for architects to look at the world around them for inspiration.

Pawlyn was one of the architects that designed the Eden Project in Cornwall, UK. These domes, which are in effect large greenhouses whose elaborate structures are inspired by nature, have completely transformed horticultural architecture. He has strong beliefs that if architects look at how in nature processes are efficient with their resources, utilize closed loops, and gain energy from the sun a better, more sustainable world can be built.

Larsson works with sand. Desertification is a major problem in today’s society, but Larsson is trying to look at this problem as an opportunity. He is working on using a bacteria, bacillus pasteurii, to turn sand into a solid building material. Not only would this provide more support to plants, but it could also potentially allow for living spaces to be carved into sand dunes. This would be in stark contrast to life in the desert today where people are often evacuated due to sand dune movement. This project is also cost efficient. As Larsson notes in his TED talk “for a cubic meter of concrete we would have to pay in the region of 90 dollars. And, after an initial cost of 60 bucks to buy the bacteria, which you’ll never have to pay again, one cubic meter of bacterial sand would be about 11 dollars.” (7:37-7:53) Larsson is embracing sand as a new building material and using bacteria as an inspiration for a better future.

Remember Context

Pearce, Pawlyn and Larsson are all architects who bring nature into their work on a grand scale, but architecture is an art form that is always taking into account its surroundings. Todd Rouhe, cofounder of common room and a professor of architecture at Barnard College, points out that in architecture, “context…is one of the most important things…Environment is everything, whether or not it’s even environmental. And I think that one thing that architects can do to acknowledge the environment…is to pay attention to that context and respond to it…That response can heighten the…sense of the environment.” Just as architects must keep in mind context, both natural and urban, when designing projects, so too must people remember our world and our surroundings as we build and grow.

Ultimately, regardless of scale, biomimetic architecture is a crucial way to continue working towards a sustainable future where nature is more than just an inspiration, but also a lifestyle.

Omnivore’s Solution

Vegetarianism seems oppositional to American life; as a culture, we stand fiercely loyal to fast food, barbecues, and steak knives. It is such a part of our national gastronomic tradition that even its proven harm to health cannot deter our meat-eating ways. We have long ignored that saturated fat from animal-protein is connected with cardiovascular disease and certain types of cancer.
But in 2006, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations produced a document that would change the world’s understanding of how our food affects our environment. Livestock’s Long Shadow announced “livestock are responsible for 18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, a bigger share than that of transport”, creating emissions from feed production, cultivation of feed crops, organic matter losses, feed transport, animal production, and product transportation”.

Even still, most Americans continue their meat-based diet because, simply put, they like meat. Regardless of objective arguments for removing meat, or just beef, from the diet, only 3.2 percent of the American population adheres to a vegetarian diet, according to a survey conducted by Harris Interactive Service Bureau for Vegetarian Times in 2008.

But in addition to this small population of strict vegetarians, the Harris study found another 10 percent of American adults follow a “vegetarian-inclined” diet, and another 5.2% are “definitely interested” in adopting a vegetarian-based diet.
For many, meat is becoming a lesser, rather than absent, part of the diet. Al Gore, arguably the nation’s most vocal and visible environmental advocate has said, when asked why he doesn’t adopt a vegetarian diet for the environment, “I’m not a vegetarian, but I have cut back sharply on the meat that I eat”. Even an environmentalist can find it hard to give up meat, but more eaters are seeing that just taking steps in the right direction is an important part of addressing the environmental harm of beef.

As Barnard biology professor and food specialist Hilary Callahan states, “A key and incontrovertible ecological principle is that eating lower on the food chain saves energy and makes more food available for more people. This applies for terrestrial systems (avoid beef, pork, chicken, others) and for marine systems (avoid eating predatory fish)”.

Considering that transporting, processing, producing, retailing, storing, and preparing 1 kilogram of beef, cheese, and pork creates as much as 30 kilograms of CO2 while fruits and vegetables are associated with 2.5 kilograms of emissions per kg of edible end-product, even moderate dietary reassessments could dramatically change the food system’s impact on global warming. Regardless of “vegetarian” or “meat eater” labels, a part-way shift from carnivorous to herbaceous meals could have appreciable impacts.

A variety of organizations, from the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to the Humane society to Stanford University are advocating a new, but practical diet. They invite a wider range of eaters by reporting the environmental and health advantages of reducing meat consumption, while understanding that quitting cold “turkey” can be too much to ask.

This trend, dubbed “flexitarianism” has produced a bevy of cookbooks, including The Flexitarian Diet, The Healthy Hedonist, and Everyday Flexitarian, as well as recognition on The Daily Beast and The Huffington Post.

As Vegetarian Resource Group Consumer Research Manager John Cunningham observes, “There have always been “meat reducers”, people who try to limit meat in their diets even if they are not strict vegetarians, but the emergence of the word “flexitarian” in the last 5 years has created a demographic for vegetarian restaurants and products that marketers are excited about, and has made it socially more convenient to be a vegetarian”

Mainstream eaters are being challenged to eat more vegetables, try cooking just one vegetarian meal a week, or buy sustainably-raised, grass-fed beef. The focus of flexitarianism is to introduce a form of vegetarianism that is easy and approachable.

Painting the White House Green

The White House Kitchen Garden (Lelkund/Flickr Creative Commons)

An Educational Garden in the Most Famous Residence in Country

While many school and community gardens are created in playgrounds, on roofs, and in abandoned lots, today we will be visiting a garden that is most definitely not planted on a vacant property. The White House Kitchen Garden is instead located on the beautifully manicured lawns of the most well known residence in the country. The garden, visible to the general public passing by the White House, is located on the South Lawn. Over the past two years, it has become a symbol of health and sustainability, championing Michelle Obama’s cause of ending childhood obesity.

Despite the enormous popularity of the White House Kitchen Garden, the beautifully kept garden on the south lawn has not always been there. Throughout White House history, there have been various attempts to build and maintain a garden, but one of the only full functioning gardens was Eleanor Roosevelt’s victory garden. The victory garden was planted during World War II in an attempt to encourage others to do the same in order to alleviate food shortages produced by the war effort. Since the Roosevelt’s, however, there has not been a fully functioning White House Garden until the Obama’s came along.

Advocates of sustainable food have been pushing for a White House garden for decades.  In 1995, Alice Waters, the chef of Chez Panisse in Berkeley, CA and founder of The Edible Schoolyard Project, wrote a letter to President Clinton encouraging him to build a garden on the White House grounds in order to help create a demand for sustainable agriculture. “The present administration has the chance to invigorate public dialogue by turning our attention to how food must be at the center of our lives,” she says in her letter. “Talk about it; promote it as part of the schools curriculum; encourage the spread of farmers markets; and demonstrate it with organic gardens on the grounds of the White House and the Vice Presidential mansion.” While Clinton was initially supportive of a White House garden, ultimately, Hilary Clinton planted only a small rooftop garden that did not accomplish Waters’ goal.

Michael Pollan, a writer and activist who focuses on food and sustainability, wrote a letter to Barak Obama in 2008, right before he took office. “Farmer in Chief”, which was published in the New York Times, urges Obama to focus on food.  Pollan urges Obama to create a new victory garden movement, “this one seeking “victory” over three critical challenges we face today: high food prices, poor diets and a sedentary population.” The movement must begin, he writes, with the First Family. A White House garden will create a powerful image – “the image of stewardship of the land, of self-reliance and of making the most of local sunlight to feed one’s family and community.” Kitchen Gardeners, a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting sustainable local food systems, led the “Eat the View” campaign, creating a petition for a White House garden that attracted over 110,000 signatures.

In the spring of 2009, the campaign proved successful when Michelle Obama created a 1,100 square foot garden on the South Lawn. Mrs. Obama started the garden to feed her own family, but also as part of her Let’s Move! campaign to help solve the problem of childhood obesity. The campaign encourages community gardens as “a way to engage members of your community or congregation around healthy, local food.” Mrs. Obama also adds that gardens can serve as an educational tool.

Garden Layout (whitehouse.gov)

And the Obama’s have used the garden for just that purpose. The Bancroft Elementary School, a DC public school located less than three miles away from the White House has been involved in the White House garden from its inception. Fifty students from the Bancroft elementary school helped Mrs. Obama clear a section of lawn and plant the garden in March 2009. Since then, Obama has hosted groups of students at the garden where she speaks to them about eating healthily and sustainably and engages them in planting and harvesting in the garden. The video below is a speech that Mrs. Obama made to students from Bancroft in March, 2010, one year after the garden was started.

The garden, like all presidential actions, is not without controversy. The Obama’s decision to keep the garden entirely organic provoked a response from the Mid-America CropLife Association, who wrote a letter to Mrs. Obama calling for the use of “conventional agriculture” in the White House garden, particularly the use of “crop protection products” (i.e. pesticides). Still, the Obama’s have maintained the plan to keep their garden entirely organic.

October 5, 2011 garden harvest. Michelle Obama harvested vegetables with students from the Bancroft Elementary School (Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy)

Less than a month ago, students from the Bancroft Elementary School again joined Mrs. Obama in the garden for the third annual fall harvest. Once the hard work of the harvesting was over, the students, together with the White House chefs, prepared grilled vegetable pizza.

Peter Ganong, a former resident of Washington D.C. has walked by the White House and noticed the activity in the garden. “I was inspired to see that gardening and a connection with the earth and food was a central part of the image of this white house,” he said. And that is exactly the goal of the White House Kitchen Garden – to inspire the public to connect with their food and the environment.

Finding a Middle Ground: the UN and Dodd-Frank

The UN Group of Experts on the DRC proposes a middle ground approach to both address the side effects of the Dodd-Frank Act and to allow its enforcement. Consumers can still take action, even as large and systematic change is necessary.

Though the Dodd-Frank Act has already been passed, the debate regarding its impact on the Congo continues. Thus, it is necessary to revisit the differing views to determine the appropriate path forward. Two weeks ago I delved into these varying perspectives, but I would like to return to them with a specific letter in mind dated October 21, 2011. It is written by Fred Robarts, Coordinator of the United Nations Group of Experts on the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) addressed to Chairwoman of the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), Mary L. Schapiro.

Mary Schapiro, Chairwoman of the SEC, Photo Courtesy of Sarah Mamula / Flickr Creative Commons

The letter predates an upcoming report from the Group of Experts that will be translated into the official United Nations (UN) languages, discussed by the Security Council, and then released by the end of November. The UN contacts listed on the letter declined to comment on it before the report was published. The timing of the letter—purposely preceding the full report—is of particular importance given the fact that the SEC will soon finalize regulations coming from Section 1502 of the Dodd-Frank Act. The Group of Experts seeks to influence these regulations; they want to ensure the SEC has as positive an impact on the Congo as possible.

The group’s conclusions come from a year’s worth of observations and investigations regarding “the activities of armed groups in the DRC and their sources of funding. The group has also evaluated the impact of due diligence guidelines for individuals and entities purchasing, processing and consuming minerals from the DRC…” Such due diligence guidelines refer to the investigation of a company’s involvement in a particular area of human rights concern.

The content of the letter represents a union of various views. It includes ideas aligning with both those who support the Dodd-Frank Act—demanding businesses stop purchasing minerals from conflict mines—and those who claim a diversification of approaches, especially politically, is necessary. The letter fully acknowledges the “important challenges regarding Dodd Frank” and the perspectives of those who oppose the act. Such “challenges” include the de facto boycott of Congolese minerals that the act has caused. Such an outcome occurred because smelters and electronics companies have, for now, stopped purchasing minerals from Congo—where the conflict mines are concentrated—since formal mine evaluation systems do yet not exist. Companies are compelled to end business with these conflict mines because Dodd-Frank demands they no longer conduct business with these mines. Thus, they have decided to pull out of the Congo altogether until these systems are in place and they know for certain where their minerals come from. As a result of this boycott, the letter speaks of the “increased economic hardship” faced in the Congo as a result of the Dodd-Frank legislation and the sudden lack of funds flowing into the conflict mines.

With this acknowledgment of Congolese adversity, however, the letter goes on to state that terminating or abating Section 1502 it is not the correct path. It advises the SEC to adopt the approach of mitigation, as well as to continue enforcing 1502. Rather than abandon conflict mines altogether, the smelters would reduce the degree to which they buy from such mines, and in the mean time, legitimate mine tagging and tracing processes would be established. The Group of Experts believes this mitigation tactic will reduce the impact of the de facto embargo. The letter sites the success of supply chain tagging already taking place in Katanga, Congo and Rwanda as evidence for possible success of tagging in the Kivu Region—the eastern region of the DRC where conflict mines are concentrated.

"Human Right Council - Special Session on DR Congo Sébastien Mutomb Mujing Representative Permanent of Democratic Republic of Congo ( Concerned country ) addresses during the Special Session on the "Situation of human rights in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo." Photo and Caption Courtesy of UN / Jean-Marc Ferre / Flickr Creative Commons

This approach seeks to find a middle ground. However, it ought not be viewed as a cop-out. Such a strategy tries to establish a delicate balance between maintaining economic stability in the Kivu Region, while also trying to terminate human rights abuses by militiamen.

Even with such an approach, the Dodd-Frank Act still faces extensive blame for causing economic ruin for Congolese in the Kivu Region. David Aronson, whose New York Times article I discussed two weeks ago, as well as Joseph Paul Martin, Director of Human Rights Studies at Barnard College of Columbia University, constitute part of a group of scholars and journalists who have presented such blame. Martin stated in an e-mail, “The [Dodd-Frank Act] will have little impact on the current mineral and human exploitation in the DRC, a system which was established 140 years ago and has been reinforced and expanded over the years since.” Laura E. Seay, assistant professor of political science at Morehouse College, also looks down upon the effects of the Dodd-Frank Act: “In the mines, you can actually pay for things with coltan, so the economy is not entirely a cash economy, but that is all shut down now.”

Contrary to such points of view, the letter from the UN Group of Experts on the DRC goes on to applaud the Dodd-Frank Act for the awareness campaign it has started and that it has forced electronics companies to take responsibility for their impact on human lives. Before the Dodd-Frank Act, there was no legal obligation for companies to respond to the outcome of their Congolese mineral purchases.

The letter concludes by addressing the political changes that, along with these international business efforts, would lessen the occurrence of human rights abuses. It states, “We must keep up the pressure on the DRC authorities to prosecute and punish [the Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of Congo] criminal networks involved in the minerals trade.”

The letter acknowledges the complexity of the conflict and that the solution will not be a simple process. Thus, it suggests a multipart approach to address the issue: both political and economic efforts must be simultaneously present to end violations of human rights—that occurred as a result of environmental exploitation—while also maintaining economic livelihoods.

This multi-solution system is directly relevant to consumer involvement. In addition to pressuring electronics companies to establish mine evaluation systems and to decrease purchases from conflict mines, consumers must also encourage U.S. legislative leaders to support Congolese government involvement.