A Scientist Combats Climate Change (A Bit)

Eric Holthaus quit flying to reduce his carbon footprint:

This week marks one year since I last flew on an airplane. To the likely dismay of Fox News, which called me a “sniveling beta male,” my decision didn’t result in a dramatic tailspin of self-loathing or suicide, the ultimate carbon footprint reducer. Quite the contrary: It’s been an amazing year.

My decision was prompted by a science report that brought me to tears. It wasn’t that the consensus statement was particularly new or noteworthy—we all know by now that climate change is one of the biggest challenges we’ve ever faced as a civilization—but that, for the first time, I realized that my daily actions were powerful enough to make a meaningful change.

Folks, we are in trouble if a scientist just now realizes that his daily actions are powerful enough to impact climate change. And chooses to quit flying instead of digging deep enough to discover that if he really wants to make an impact he should also have quit meat.

He comes to many of the right conclusions:

What the math behind climate science is asking for is nothing less than a revolution. Anderson thinks scientists like him should lead by example. “I think we have to start to actually act accordingly with our own analysis. That lends credibility to our work.” This holds true for nonscientist advocates, too, he believes. “Al Gore’s probably got an emission footprint similar to a small African country, and he’s wandering about the planet telling other people that they should reduce their carbon emissions.”

Still, Anderson admits that it’s a big ask to broaden the efforts from a few passionate scientists to broader society. But without that, the chances of maintaining a stable climate are slim. Still, Anderson remains about as optimistic as his research permits him to be.

“I think we will fail, but I don’t know we will fail. There’s a very big difference between those two.” Anderson continued, “It’s likely we will die trying. But if we don’t try, then we will definitely not succeed. I work in this area because I still think there’s a thin thread of hope.”

Well, maybe less than a thread if a dude can write an article about how we need a revolution, how personal choices have an impact, notes what incredible climate hogs Americans tend to be, and somehow misses the most carbon intensive choice he makes every day that he reaches for a bacon burger.

We all need to make changes. And, sure, reducing air travel can make a difference (you should have seen my wife’s face when I told her I thought we should fly only once a year, and explore the area around DC instead of immediately hopping on planes whenever we wanted to go somewhere).

But the most important and impactful first step in this personal revolution, apparently missed by both these scientists, is simple: stop eating meat. (Do that, and you might even be able to fly a little!)

And if everyone did the same, and scientists who wrote articles about climate change followed the numbers wherever they went, then we might have a little more than a “thread of hope.”

Climate and Capitalism

Zachary Karabell offers an interesting critique of Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything:

In fact, capitalism—in the form of multinational corporations—is doing more than many governments and multilateral institutions to stem the progression of climate change. They are doing so because of self-interest, not altruism; the relentless demand for profit is compelling an increasing percentage of the world’s largest companies to take concerted, forceful action. Yes, many companies remain obstacles to action, as Klein argues, but increasingly, more are becoming the agents of rapid and necessary change.

To say that corporations are doing more than governments to combat climate change is not to say much, since governments have proved so incapable of communicating the problem and rallying the public behind policies to address it.

But, sure, there are corporations that are looking to make profits from developing goods and technologies that will reduce carbon emissions. At the same time, there is no question that there is a multitude of corporations, even beyond the carbon energy sector, whose businesses hurt the climate and whose profits depend on fighting changes in their business practices. And Klein is very effective in explaining how that works.

But to me, the real issue is not the behavior of specific companies. It is the structure and nature of the form of capitalism that humanity has developed and celebrated. Klein is correct, I think, that the era of deregulation gave corporations more freedom to pursue business and profits that harm the environment and climate. But the underlying dynamic is a global form of capitalism that relentlessly pursues growth and sales, promotes consumption, and does not hold corporations fully accountable for the external costs to the environment of their business practices and products.

So this shouldn’t really be an argument over whether capitalism is good or bad. Instead it should be an argument about how to reform or reinvent capitalism so that the incentives in play for both businesses and consumers don’t destroy the planet.

The single most powerful reform I can think of would be to hold businesses and consumers accountable for the choices they make, by starting to adding to the sales price of most goods the costs to the environment and climate. That would mean a tax on carbon, and much more. Want to drive a Hummer? Sure, but you will pay extra. Want to eat burgers every day? Go for it, but boy will that get expensive.

Pricing is the key variable that, to paraphrase Klein, can change everything. If businesses had to pay for their impact on the planet they would change how they do business, and carbon-heavy industries would wither away while carbon-friendly industries would grow and thrive. If consumers had to pay for the way in which their consumption impacts the planet, they would change the what they consume and how much they consume.

Of course, getting governments to make this shift is the hard part. Part of the reason that corporations and governments haven’t done a better job of confronting climate change is that their publics don’t really want to make the changes, and fear that change means sacrifice. In this regard, Klein’s argument is vital. Governments and corporations will change when voters and consumers demand it.



Humanity Vs The Planet


This is the most shocking, infuriating, and meaningful conclusion I have maybe ever seen:

The new Living Planet Index report from the World Wildlife Fund opens with a jaw-dropping statistic: we’ve killed roughly half of the world’s non-human vertebrate animal population since 1970.

The WWF data show that the species declines vary by habitat and geographic area. Tropical areas saw greater declines, while temperate regions – like North America – saw lesser drops. Habitat-wise, land and saltwater species saw declines of roughly 39 percent. But freshwater animals – frogs, fish, salamanders and the like – saw a considerably sharper 76 percent drop. Habitat fragmentation and pollution (think algae blooms) were the main killers of freshwater species.

The declines are almost exclusively caused by humans’ ever-increasing footprint on planet earth. “Humanity currently needs the regenerative capacity of 1.5 Earths to provide the ecological goods and services we use each year,” according to the report. The only reason we’re able to run above max capacity – for now – is that we’re stripping away resources faster than we can replenish them.

This is a model, so I don’t know how much faith to have in the specific percentage. But it is the clear and obvious trend, and its implications for life on the planet, that should slap us in the face, wake us up, and get us thinking about how to entirely re-invent human culture, human lifestyles, and the global economy.

The way in which the ever-expanding human presence on the planet is devastating the natural world and the biodiversity that we should be nurturing (instead of destroying) should be the number one preoccupation of humanity. It should be treated with greater alarm than Ebola, Al Qaeda, ISIL, and the Kardashians.

Put the arcane and petty religious disputes aside. Put the shortsighted and endless warring aside. Put intolerance, self-interest, and callous disregard aside. Put rampant self-gratification aside. And focus on the fact that we can’t think the way we think, and live the way we live. Everything must be questioned. Everything must be changed.

The Mystery Of Mark Bittman

I am a fan of Mark Bittman’s thoughtful columns in the new York Times. He often writes about animal welfare and the impact of livestock on climate, and understands better than most the connection between factory-farming, meat-eating, and these issues.

What I find puzzling is that, knowing as much as he does about the catastrophic impact of meat and livestock on both the planet and well-being of animals, he can’t quite bring himself to advocate a vegan diet. Sure, he urges readers to eat less meat, and to avoid factory-farmed meat. But he can’t quite quit meat himself, or make the case for a plant-based diet to his readers.

I know, I know, eating less meat is much better than eating lots of meat. And, yes, Bittman is a proponent of a Vegan Before 6 diet. But just because you don’t eat animal protein before 6 doesn’t really mean you can’t–or won’t–eat plenty of meat. You could have a steak per night on that diet. To me, a Vegan Before 6 approach is a little like advocating to an alcoholic a “Teetotaler before 6” strategy. How do you think that would work?

The impact of this failure to really go where his logic takes him permeates Bittman’s writing, and it makes it kind of frustrating to read. There are few people more eloquent about the negative consequences of our meat addiction for the planet, for animals, and for human health. But he takes himself and his logic right up to the edge of the obvious conclusion (we, the planet, and billions of animals would be much better off if humans transitioned away from animal protein and toward a plant-based diet) and….stops.

A good example is Bittman’s (almost) excellent recent column on last Sunday’s “People’s Climate March.” Once again, Bittman does an excellent job, referencing the views of George Monbiot and the incisive new book by Naomi Klein, “This Changes Everything,” explaining how humanity must address climate change and the scope of the unfolding disaster demands that we change the way our economies and our politics works.

I agree with that. But Bittman also uses the column and the scale of the People’s Climate March to riff on the importance of grassroots action, and the power of the individual. I also agree with that. Then Bittman outlines the various responses the planet can adopt to climate change:

There remain several possible responses to climate change. One is stupidity: “There is no crisis.” (A subset of this is to acknowledge the crisis privately, but deny it or choose to ignore it publicly.) A second is hopelessness: “It’s all over.” (Sadly, many of my friends fall into this category.) A third is blind faith in technology, as if it were easier to modify the power of nature than to change a system that resists not only radical change but even tinkering.

But a fourth is action, a fight to regain democracy (a.k.a. “who is government for?”) and begin to remember quaint little slogans like “the greatest good for the greatest number,” to recognize that the payoff for seriously fighting climate change is not only the survival of our species (and others) but a better society. As Naomi Klein says, “Climate change isn’t just a disaster. It’s also our best chance to demand and build a better world.”

Notice what is missing (again)? Confronting the power of corporations in our politics and changing capitalism would be great. And it is necessary. But what is the single most powerful choice an individual can make right now to address climate change? Yep, you got it. Choosing not to eat meat. You don’t need legislation. You don’t need international treaties. You don’t need a revolution. You just need to make one basic change in your lifestyle. And if enough people had the courage and awareness to make that change, the climate disaster would be dramatically reduced. That seems like a sacrifice worth making.

I plan to get a lot deeper into this argument in the near future. But it is surprising and frustrating to me that even someone like Mark Bittman, who knows these issues inside out, cannot quite bring himsefl to draw the obvious conclusion.

In his column, Bittman quotes Monbiot as saying that with regard to addressing climate change governments “propose everything except the obvious solution.” I kind of feel the same way about Bittman and any number of prominent leaders in the climate and environmental movements.

Zoos Couldn’t Save The Passenger Pigeon

There are lots of interesting lessons (most of them cautionary) in the extinction of the passenger pigeon 100 years ago, and most of them are raised in Carl Zimmer’s excellent story about why it happened and what scientists are doing to try and bring the species back (did you know social media played a role in wiping the passenger pigeon out?).

But here’s a point that really caught my attention:

Soon this technology-driven slaughter was decimating the passenger pigeon. Its decline was so worrisome that Congress passed the Lacey Act, one of the first laws to protect wildlife in the United States. The Lacey Act would eventually help protect many species, but for the passenger pigeon it came too late.

In 1900, the year in which the act was made into law, naturalists spotted a single wild passenger pigeon in Ohio. They never saw another one in the wild again.

For the next 14 years, the species clung to existence in a few zoos. But the birds proved to be poor breeders in captivity. Martha, the last of her kind, was barren.

That history should be kept in mind the next time you hear a zoo or marine park justify captivity and their business model by saying they are helping preserve species that might be threatened or endangered in the wild. Some species will presumably be easier to breed in captivity than passenger pigeons. Some presumably less. That will affect how long a species can “cling” to existence. But the point is that zoos and captivity are not a way to save or preserve a species. That work has to take place in the wild.

And that is completely apart from the question of whether a species can be considered “preserved” or in “existence” if it only exists in a zoo. The difference between a wild passenger pigeon and “Martha” is like the difference between a facsimile and the real, dynamic, thing. Here is how Zimmer describes Martha’s life in the Cincinnati Zoo:

People coming to the zoo to see the last passenger pigeon were disappointed by the bird, which barely budged off its perch. As Joel Greenberg writes in his recent book A Feathered River Across the Sky, some threw sand into its cage to try to force it to walk around. But on that first day of September a century ago, Martha no longer had to put up with such humiliations.

It was a quiet end to a noisy species. As recently as the mid-1800s, deafening flocks of billions of passenger pigeons swarmed across the eastern half of the United States. But they proved no match for humans, whose rapidly advancing technology drove the birds to extinction in a matter of decades.

Martha (and the story of her species), it seems, is well worth remembering.

Quote Of The Day

“I think a question that we’re not asking ourselves is: ‘Isn’t humanity committing suicide with this indiscriminate and tyrannical use of nature?’”

–Pope Francis (from his list of tips to becoming a happier person).

Sylvia Earle Does Not Eat Fish

And here she explains why:

Except for those living in coastal communities — or even inland if we’re talking freshwater species — for most people, eating fish is a choice, not a necessity. Some people believe that the sole purpose of fish is for us to eat them. They are seen as commodities. Yet wild fish, like wild birds, have a place in the natural ecosystem which outweighs their value as food. They’re part of the systems that make the planet function in our favor, and we should be protecting them because of their importance to the ocean. They are carbon-based units, conduits for nutrients, and critical elements in ocean food webs. If people really understood the methods being used to capture wild fish, they might think about choosing whether to eat them at all, because the methods are so destructive and wasteful. It isn’t just a matter of caring about the fish or the corals, but also about all the things that are destroyed in the process of capturing ocean wildlife. We have seen such a sharp decline in the fish that we consume in my lifetime that I personally choose not to eat any. In the end, it’s a choice.

There are few people on the planet who have thought more about that choice, so Earle is worth listening to (though she isn’t quite willing to tell people not to eat meat as well; attention Cowspiracy).

And, since we are on documentaries today, you can hear a lot more about her and her work in the Netflix doc Mission Blue.

Documentary Watchlist: Cows, Pipelines and Dams

One of the interesting insights I came to through my involvement in Blackfish, is that in the age of infotainment and cable-news superficiality, documentaries are filling an increasingly important niche. They are increasingly the best format to learn about almost any subject you choose. Not only are documentaries proliferating as film-making technology becomes more affordable and sophisticated, and as platforms on which to stream and view documentaries proliferate (making documentaries more accessible). But other news sources are becoming increasingly trivial, celebrified, and irrelevant.

So if you want facts, engagement, and inspiration, documentaries are where you should turn.

That’s what I have been doing, and I want to flag three documentaries I have recently seen that are worth seeking out and watching.

The first is Cowspiracy. It tackles an issue that is almost inexplicable, and that is the degree to which environmental organizations and nonprofits avoid educating their communities about the single most powerful choice an individual can make to protect the planet: stop eating meat.

Cowspiracy does a really nice job both explaining why this is so and calling the environmental movement out on this failure of courage. That makes for sometimes humorous, sometimes intriguing, but always enraging and enlightening viewing.

Here’s the trailer:

Cowspiracy Official Trailer from First Spark Media on Vimeo.

And here’s how you can find a local screening. I’m hoping to take my kids to the Sept. 23 screening in DC.

The second is Above All Else, which was recently screened here in DC as part of the long-running and invaluable Environmental Film Festival.

Above All Else is ostensibly about the Keystone pipeline, and the fight put up by some east Texas families whose private property was seized under the principle of “eminent domain” so the pipeline could cross their lands. But it is not really a film about climate change (though that hovers in the background, and helps makes the fight worth fighting) so much as it is a devastating exegesis on corporate power, and all the ways in which a large, multi-billion dollar entity can marshall all the resources of the legal system, the political system, and even local law enforcement to crush the rights and privacy of the individual.

If you don’t already think we live in a corporate oligarchy then this movie will slap you awake. And even if you do, the way in which the film builds your empathy for the families and individuals who painfully and inevitably get run over by the Keystone project and the corporate power behind it will hopefully sharpen your desire to take a stand against the growing imbalance between corporate power and individual rights.

And maybe the twenty-somethings who converge on east Texas to sit in trees and try to stop the shockingly efficient industrial process which clears them will both inspire you and maybe even motivate you to go sit in a tree somewhere too.

Here’s the trailer:

ABOVE ALL ELSE Trailer from John Fiege on Vimeo.

And here’s info about screenings.

Finally, make sure you also find time to check out Dam Nation. It’s a powerful film about how the relentless damming of America’s rivers during the growth of industrialization had devastating consequences for the fish (especially salmon)  and other species that happened to, um, live in and and rely on the rivers. It’s also about the inspiring movement to undo at least some of that damage.

Here’s the trailer:

And here’s info about screenings.

All three of these movies will inform you, inspire you, and (hopefully) energize you. The thing I love about the documentaries that are being made these days is that they are SUPPOSED to do all those things to you. Gone are the days of droning presentation of fact, with a tedious voice-over.

Film is such a powerful medium, it is so increasingly central to how we view our lives and the planet, and we are in such crisis that it is exciting and reassuring to see film-makers everywhere trying to shock and move audiences that are being narcotized and distracted by the pablum and consumerism being spoon-fed by the corporate media.

No one should have any qualms about film-making that aspires to motivate audiences to change how they live, and take action to try and change the world around them. That’s exactly what documentary film-making should be about in this era.

Can Test Tube Meat Replace Dead Cows?

James McWilliams has his doubts:

David Steele, a molecular biologist and head of Earthsave Canadatells me that lab meat “is extraordinarily unlikely to work.” Tens of thousands of calves, he notes, “will have their hearts punctured … to collect the liter or so of serum that can be taken from them.” The claim that lab meat might be propagated with blue algae, he says, “is patently absurd” as “no one has accomplished anything close.” He also notes something so obvious I wish I had recalled it on my own: Cultured cells lack an immune system. As a result, according to Steele, “there will be a need for at least large doses of penicillin/streptomycin.” Preventing the spread of viruses within these cultures “would be a huge additional problem.” And as far as allergies go, who knows?

Daniel Engber, a science writer and editor at Slate, is equally downbeat about the future of cultured meat. He posted a piece earlier this month with a headline declaring lab meat to be “a waste of time.” Acknowledging the ecological and welfare implications of the technology, he highlights what strikes me as a critical point: Lab meat only seems to be “real” when it’s adulterated with food-like substances designed to “improve color, flavor, and mouthfeel.”

In this respect, there’s nothing novel to ponder about the slab of lab meat. It’s a heavily processed, fabricated food that’s essentially no different than the plant-based substitutes that are becoming increasingly popular. So, Engber justifiably wonders: “What’s the point?” After all, do cultured cow cells dressed up to look like real meat “really get us any closer to a perfect substitute for flesh than soy or wheat or mushroom?” Not a bad question, given that the market for lab meat would likely be the same market that currently eats Tofurky (myself included).

You know the meat industry will jump on that infection and allergy point, and scare the bejesus out of any consumer who is tempted to try lab meat.

But I think McWilliams’ point that processed lab meat is not really that different from processed soy gets to the most fundamental point, which I raised yesterday: if the choice it to simply move on from meat and cultivate a new diet and culture around delicious vegetarian and vegan cuisine,  or contort oneself in all sorts of complicated ways to try and find complicated and highly processed (and dubious) substitutes for meat, isn’t it um, easier, to simply go for the veggies?

I know, people will say meat is culture, our bodies crave animal fat, etc., etc., ad nauseum. And that it is not that easy to simply move humanity past meat. But what if eating test tube meat leaves you with a craving for the real thing? What if test tube meat has other health and environmental side-effects? That doesn’t sound like an easy solution either.

To me, the simplest approach–just stop thinking about meat and meat substitutes as food–is the most promising approach. I am amazed at how quickly my body and mind stopped craving meat. And in fact I now, through some strange evolution of my body and its senses, find meat actively unappealing. It just wasn’t that hard.

Moose Mystery

A species in trouble, and no one is sure why (beyond the probability that something we are doing is a proximate cause). And it seems to be an increasingly frequent phenomenon that mostly gets noticed when a large, charismatic species, like moose, is involved:

CHOTEAU, Mont. — Across North America — in places as far-flung as Montana and British Columbia, New Hampshire and Minnesota — moose populations are in steep decline. And no one is sure why.

Twenty years ago, Minnesota had two geographically separate moose populations. One of them has virtually disappeared since the 1990s, declining to fewer than 100 from 4,000.

The other population, in northeastern Minnesota, is dropping 25 percent a year and is now fewer than 3,000, down from 8,000. (The moose mortality rate used to be 8 percent to 12 percent a year.) As a result, wildlife officials have suspended all moose hunting.

Warm, wet weather, and ticks, appear to be involved. It’s a good example of how complex the web of life is and how the smallest things can set of a chain reaction that somehow ends up threatening a large, keystone species, like moose.

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