Sunday, May 5, 2013

I am NOT an Environmentalist…or am I?

I have never participated in an activist protest. I have never initiated an environmental campaign. I do not grow my own food or only shop locally. Heck, I don’t even own Birkenstocks. Yet, because I major in Environmental Studies, many people take me as an environmentalist. While that may or may not be true, I definitely am not the hippie environmentalist stereotype people like to assume I must be.
More often than not, when anyone outside of the university setting hears my major, they 1. Jump to tell me their own opinion about some environmental issue they disagree with and 2. Warn me that I could be more successful inside an office than that environmentalist dude with the long beard and sandals is up there in that tree.

What they do not take the time to learn is that just because I study the environment does not mean I am pro-environment no matter what that means for society. Looking through my blog it is easy to at first assume I am an environmentalist - the page is green, the content is all related to environmental issues. Yet, I argue that the keystone pipeline should be built and that there are pros to nuclear power. Ideally we would not need a pipeline for oil and ideally we would rely only on renewable energy but I know that we do not live in a utopia. I understand that there is a balance between development and the environment and that compromises must be made. Yes I love trees and yes I believe that our decisions must factor in environmental impacts but does that automatically make me one of the stereotypical environmentalist types?

An Environmentalist is commonly defined as an advocate of environmentalism. So to understand why the environmentalist title carries a negative connotation and stereotypes, we must first look at the components of environmentalism and a history of the environmental movement.

The modern day environmental movement began in the early 1960s. Publications like “Silent Spring” by Rachel Carson and an image of the earth from space portrayed the fragility of Earth and sparked human concern for the environment. Disasters including the Santa Barbara oil spill and Three Mile Island augmented environmental awareness and catalyzed environmentalism – “advocacy of the preservation, restoration, or improvement of the natural environment.” The First Earth Day was held on April 22nd, 1970 and within 10 years, 27 laws designed to protect the environment passed, hundreds of administrative regulations were implemented (Kubasek), and public concern and awareness for environmental issues grew.
During the 70s and 80s, new environmental groups and activists emerged. Reform groups focused on an equal distribution of environmental harms and benefits. Lifestyle activists changed their own ways through organic farming, car share programs, vegan eating, etc. Radical protestors called for a complete change of the system and utilized more extreme tactics.

As compared to reformer demands that called for changes within the existing political system through meaningful involvement and participation in designing policy, radical demands questioned power structures and focused more on violence against people and nature. These activists were known for starting campaigns that often spun out of control and led to arrests, fines, and jail times. Due to fanatical protests rather than media-friendly, non-violent campaigns, radicals often lost respect more quickly. Yet, radical actions were often more memorable and these extreme environmentalists stole media attention.

While supporters of environmentalism are thus by definition environmentalists, the title of environmentalist carries a negative connotation and negative stereotypes. Perhaps this is because the word “environmentalist” brings to mind those radical individuals who participate in extreme actions to save the environment – like tying themselves to trees, setting fire to GMO fields, and other ecotage/eco-terrorism acts. The environmentalist stereotypes perhaps persist due to media portrayal of the vegan, tye-dye wearing hippies who outwardly worship the environment. Some stereotypes include:

Save the environment at ANY cost:

Literally Hug Trees - Tie yourself to a tree so it won't be cut down and don’t let go even when the chain saw comes out…all while wearing tie-dye:

Take your love for the environment to the extreme and use in-your-face tactics to make sure everyone knows what you believe:

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And my favorite of all the stereotypes…rock the good old Birkenstocks, with tie-dyed socks:

I support environmentalism – “an interest in or the study of the environment, in order to protect it from damage by human activities” - so I guess that makes me, by strict definition, an environmentalist. As environmental studies field continues to grow, perhaps students will help debunk the stereotypes and redefine  the environmentalist.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Forcing Consumer Change through a Bottle Ban

After blogger of Politicked Off ranted about bottled water, blogger of MyCogSci proposed some additional ideas about bottled water and possible solutions. Both agree that the superior taste of bottled water, fear of tap water, and convenience factor of plastic water bottles all contribute to the high demand for plastic bottles. Increased recycling, biodegradable bottles, and sale of reusable bottles are the obvious solutions to lessening plastic bottle liter. Yet, another obvious solution that blogger of Mycogsci leaves out, is to implement a ban on the sale of plastic bottles altogether and force consumers to make a change. This may sound ludicrous at first considering Americans purchase some 29 billion bottles every year, but bans on plastics have been implemented all across the U.S. Take for example, the plastic bag ban implemented in cities and grocery stores nationwide. Plastic Styrofoam found in takeout containers has also been banned at the city level. Plastic water bottle bans are not a novel idea either. Many schools and parks have already enacted such prohibitions on the sale of bottled water. According to a National Geographic article:

 Loyola joins at least 15 other schools in the U.S. and Canada in banning bottled water sales, including the University of Vermont, Washington University, DePauw University, and Harvard’s School of Public Health.

Although no entire city has yet to place a ban on bottles, several cities have decreased government consumption. The article also notes:

At least four major municipalities — New York, Seattle, San Francisco, and Chicago’s Cook County — have banned use of government funds to purchase bottled water.

Even in outdoor parks where water is essential for recreationalists, tap water is not necessarily near-by, and bottle convenience is essential, sales of bottled water have been banned. For example, the Grand Canyon National Park passed a ban that prohibits the sale of bottled water, in response to visitors’ complaints to liter in the Park and attempts to promote sustainability. Before the ban, bottles accounted for some 20%of the parks waste and 30% of its recycled materials.  The Park service’s goal is to promote resource conservation while ensuring that the water safety and needs for visitors will be met. The park has put in free water faucets so that visitors can refill their water supply. A similar ban is in place in a couple of other national parks and the total number of visitors is expected to remain the same despite these changes.
The water bottle industry is an obvious critic of these types of bans. In the Grand Canyon ban, the Coca Cola Company is rumored to have delayed a similar ban from being passed in years prior. The company claims they would rather see implementation of more recycling programs instead of a ban on sales. Especially, because the ban only prohibits the sale of bottled water and vendors within the park are still allowed to sell any other bottled drinks. This is a common counterargument against water bottle bans - it is hypocritical to ban water bottles when bottled soda is still available for purchase; after all it is a similar bottle. Yet soda and other flavored beverages are not on tap as water is in almost all locations that sell it.
The national geographic article also points out: “Although the U.S. has among the safest tap water in the world, the U.S. remains the largest market for bottled water.” These bottles are wasteful, clutter recycling bins, and processing/manufacturing/transportation produces greenhouse gas emissions. A more informed consumer about the safety of tap water as well as the many issues with bottle water will hopefully make more informed choices and will be more receptive to a ban. In some cases changing consumer behavior may require drastic moves. 

Friday, May 3, 2013

GMOs and Biodiveristy

Blogger of Politicked Off recently argued that genetically modified organisms (GMOs): “Are safe and they can benefit our global society by providing the world with a stable and reliable source of agriculture, more nutritional food, and vaccines to the impoverished.” First off, we don’t yet know whether or not GMOs are safe. Even PolitickedOff goes on to note that additional research is still necessary. Second, GMOs do not only have potential impacts on humans, they additionally impact biodiversity - not in a positive way.

Why should we care about biodiversity? Human livelihood depends on biodiversity as it provides ecological services, economic opportunities, and plays an important role in the development of new medicines, food, and products.

GMOs are evolved to be superior crops – more pest resistant, herbicide resistant, drought resistant, etc. Their enhanced qualities give them a competitive edge over the crops that have been grown for years. While this means that GMOs can grow when other crops can’t and can yield a larger harvest than can non-modified seeds, it also means that they have power to completely eradicate non-modified species. If cross-pollination occurs, the more robust, modified seed will out-compete the non-engineered crops. Overtime, the spread of modified seeds through increased use and cross pollination can cause extinction of non-modified seeds. In the U.S., this is the case for soybeans, as 90% of all soybeans are the Monsanto type. Public seeds that farmers have saved and replanted for years are now near extinct due to spread of Monsanto seeds by out-competing and driving other crops to near extinction. Decreased variety of crops increases the risk of complete crop failure. For example, if a pest evolves to survive the GMO, the entire crop could be decimated. Just as bacteria can become resistant to antibiotics, pests can become resistant to GMO crops meant to keep pests away. If a pest evolved to resist the pest-resistant soybean GMO and wiped out the 90% of soybeans that are of the modified type, the consequences of crop failure would be numerous.

As GMO research and implementation moves forward, direct impacts on human health should not be the only concern, especially as preservation of biodiversity indirectly positively impacts human health. 

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Bettering the Social Environment: 18 for beer, 21 for hard alc

Most all of my posts are focused on issues of the natural environment. This one tackles the social environment and examines an issue we never seem to be able to solve – underage drinking. The drinking age of 21 years is often debated for its arbitrariness and failure to prevent alcohol related injury. Manipulating this age could have impact on the economy and potentially, hopefully, on health. Blogger mycogsci, argues that lowering the drinking age in California would bring increased revenue to the state via alcohol sales and taxes on alcohol. MyCogSci argues for a legal age of 19 years old, allowing individuals to buy alcohol for a good two additional years than they can legally do so now.

I propose a different solution that has potential to bring both economic benefit and, importantly, health benefit.  Rather mandating that an individual’s first legal sip of any type and any proof of alcohol cannot be until they are 21, the type of alcohol should be considered in the age. Individuals should be allowed to buy and drink beer at the age of 18 and should be allowed to buy and drink hard alcohol at the age of 21. While underage drinking will inevitably occur no matter the law, this tiered regulation could improve the safety of underage drinking and of drinking in general. Individuals under the age of 18 would be more likely to drink beer because they will know more 18 year olds than they do 21 year olds that can illegally buy them alcohol. Underage drinkers and those under the age of 21 can learn the effects of alcohol in a safer way with lower proof alcohol and greater volume before adding hard alcohol with high proofs that can be thrown back with a shot into the mix. Beer drinking rather than hard liquor consumption among the underage population and under 21 populations will also deter binge drinking because it is more difficult to get as a drunk as fast off of beer as it is off of vodka or whiskey, etc. An increased sale of beer also leads to increased revenue in alcohol sales and taxes. While I cannot think of any impacts on the natural environment, implementing a tiered legal age could yield great social benefit. 

Friday, April 19, 2013

The pros and cons of nuclear

Southern California Edison announced recently that one of San Onofre’s “boobs” may be brought back into action. The San Onofre Nuclear plant has been out of commission since the beginning of 2012 due to leaking pipes. While SoCal Edison claims that it is taking an overly cautious approach to re-commissioning the nuclear plant by only bringing one tower back into power generation and operating at only 70% capacity, several environmental groups still oppose the plant. They argue that we can't be sure that the pipes will hold and that the plant is not yet ready to operate.

Uncertainty about safety seems is the hot issue with nuclear. While it is very important to impose strict safety regulations, there is no way can one be 100% positive that an accident will not occur. One would hope that we have learned enough from previous, devastating nuclear meltdown events including Three Mile Island and Fukushima, to take extraordinary caution when it comes to nuclear power. No matter how safe one can guarantee it there still is no absolute guarantee that an earthquake won’t happen and damage the plant or a terrorist attack on the plant won’t bring catastrophe. There will always be a risk and there always be the voices of caution.

Everything has a cost and a trade off - especially when it comes to the environment. And in today’s energy dependent society we have to take some risk to continue the lifestyles we have created. Determining which risks to take is the big question we face, especially when it comes to energy. Energy is central to today’s society, and in comparison to fossil fuel sources, nuclear power is a relatively clean energy source.
Nuclear power offers a promising energy source capable of meeting a high demand with few emissions. Yet spent nuclear waste poses an environmental hazard and nuclear accidents are devastating to human life and to the environment. Let’s take a look at the pros and cons of nuclear:

-clean energy source i.e. few greenhouse gas emissions post construction
-capable of meeting our energy demands
-uranium has high fuel content i.e. a lot of energy per unit mass
-risk of meltdown and/or explosion due to operating error, terrorist attack, natural disaster
-where to store spent fuel rods that are highly radioactive
-CA regulations on once through cooling – previously the plant used ocean water for cooling but recent legislation prevents this type of cooling so the plant will have to implement a new cooling technique
-not using nuclear means continued use of fossil fuels

As in all decisions with environmental impacts it is important to weigh the costs and benefits. Because we are not yet capable and willing to switch to completely renewable power, it may be time to allow nuclear to bridge the gap between fossil fuels and renewables. 

Sunday, April 14, 2013

A Warming Arctic Should Trigger an Exploration Freeze

Warming in the Arctic should be coupled with a freeze on offshore oil exploration.  As Arctic sea ice melts due to warming temperatures induced by human use of fossil fuels, oil and gas companies should be the last ships allowed to enter the new sea ways. Oil giant Shell’s recently failed attempts to safely explore the new territory serves as tangible evidence of the need for a legislative freeze on offshore oil and gas activity in this area. The melting of the Arctic sea ice should serve as a warning against continued fossil fuel use, not as an opportunity to extract more of that beloved oil and gas.
Despite claims of thorough preparation for Arctic exploratory trips, Shell drill ships experienced many troubles likely to face other ships with similar goals. The recent grounding of Shell’s Kulluk drillship on the shores south of Kodiak Island, Alaska provides a cautionary tale of the severity of storms and freezing weather in the area. An extreme weather event ripped the boat free of its tugboat and waves slammed the drillship into the South Alaskan shores. The recovery mission led by the United States Coast Guard for the Kulluk required more than seven hundred people. Had the ship experienced a fuel leak or had drilling started, the story’s ending would have been degrees worse.
If getting to the Arctic weren’t problematic enough, exploration and drilling presents additional hardships. Ships and equipment must be built to resist ice and freezing temperatures. Ships must carry spare parts for necessary repair in case of damage. Unlike drilling on land or other offshore reserves, transportation to the Arctic is limited and the ships’ crews must be able to fix all damage to equipment themselves. Higher wages are necessary to entice workers to willingly face the inherent risks of working in the hostile environment of the Arctic.
Arctic conditions not only present logistical challenges for transportation and drilling equipment but also for spill prevention and for the consequential recovery and clean up missions. If an offshore oil rig in the Arctic were to experience a blowout similar to the 2010 explosion of British Petroleum’s (now coined Beyond Petroleum) Deep-water Horizon rig in the Gulf of Mexico, greater disaster would be inevitable. Leaking oil in the Arctic would cover sea ice, threaten the marine and bird life sustained by the area, and would be exceedingly difficult to clean up. Sea ice would trap the oil making removal nearly impossible; that is if rescue ships and helicopters are even safely able to get in to the remote and storm prone area. Workers on the rig could potentially be killed or stranded for indefinite periods of time due to unpredictable storm patterns. Extreme weather could expedite the spread of oil and halt any rescue mission attempt. Animals in the area, some of which are endangered or threatened species, would suffer from oiled ice and polluted waters. These costs are too great and risks are too high.
            In addition to the costs and risks to the natural environment, the Inupiat Eskimos native to Alaska would suffer from oil companies exploring and drilling near their lands. The waters of the Arctic provide a source of food and livelihood for these people. New exploration activity in the area would likely diminish their resources.
Supporters of offshore drilling argue that the Arctic offers vast new potential for oil and gas companies who are running out of acreage that they are allowed to explore and develop.  According to a United States Geologic Survey (USGS) estimate, the Arctic contains some thirteen percent of the world’s undiscovered oil and thirty percent of its undiscovered natural gas. Yet, extracting these fossil fuels from an area prone to extreme weather and freezing temperatures presents many new challenges and requires funding, time, research, and new technologies. Even if it were to be developed safely, the oil would not be available for use for at least thirteen years. During that time, funding and research could instead go into advancements into renewable energy technologies while currently developed reserves continue to support oil demand.
Today’s fossil fuel dependent society must weigh future energy options against the threats of climate change. While it may be too late to stop production of oil fields already in development and on land where technologies and spill prevention plans (flawed as they may be) have been in place for years,  it is not too late to freeze further exploration efforts in the fossil fuel field, especially in risky and challenging areas like the Arctic.


Monday, April 1, 2013

Species discrimination - only the good-looking are pictured, and saved

Blogger of Doing Good and Doing Well linked to a previous Environmental Examiner post about the media driven misconception that wind turbines slaughter massive amounts of birds. She expanded on the idea of the great influence of the media on the public and urged the media to inspire viewers rather than simply informing the public.

This point can be further applied to the environment when we look at the media’s role in the environmental issues audiences choose to focus on versus the issues we choose to ignore. The media plays a large role in shaping our perceptions of the importance, seriousness, and time sensitivity of environmental issues. Environmental issues that are dramatic and photographable seize media and viewer’s attentions. Images of a flaming offshore oil rig spewing oil into the Gulf of Mexico are a lot more memorable than snapshots of the numerous tanker ships leaking and spilling oil while routinely crossing the world’s oceans. Both are detrimental to the environment yet the latter remains out of the media.  

Further, attention-grabbing images and video footage has the power to  instigate public action on featured environmental issues, while images left out of the media are consequently left out of activism. Take for example the World Wide Wildlife Fund’s annual list of the top ten endangered species to support. Every year cute, cuddly animals take the top ten spots. While this is a good marketing technique – pictures of a cute cuddly polar bear pups evoke awes and garner viewers that send money their way - few people would look at the same picture and see the polar bear for what it is – a vicious carnivore that could eat you alive. Just as few people would look at a picture of the endangered American Burrowing Beetle and say “awe”. Yet endangered insects need help too. These endangered species are discriminated against by looks, left off the lists, and left off of donor’s checks. Take a look at the top five World Wide Wildlife Fund's endangered animals adopted and supported by the public:

1.      Tiger
2.      Polar Bear
3.      Panda
4.      Three-toed Sloth
5.      Emperor Penguin Chick

What about the insects, snakes, spiders, lizards…and all the other not so cute cuddly animals? The cute ones aren't the only species to go extinct and aren't the only species that need saving.

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