These are unsettled times. In recent weeks I have discussed the "tragedy of the commons" concept with my environmental science class. Today on the morning news, one reporter was in a supermarket showing off the barren shelves. He noted that people should just buy what they need, not all the hand sanitizer or all the soap, because by buying more than you need for the time being, you are putting someone else at risk because they can't get their hands on sanitizer or soap. Tragedy of the commons, sort of. Definitely an "everyone for themselves" scenario playing out in the markets.
People are panicking. This is a time for common sense, not panic. Practice social distancing. Cover your mouth when you cough or sneeze. Wash your hands thoroughly (get under those fingernails and in all the crevices!) and frequently with soap. [Simplified science note: most viruses, including COVID-19 are covered in a layer of lipids. These help the virus to stick to surfaces (think sticky oil on a pan). Scrubbing with soap breaks up that lipid layer so that viruses can be rinsed off your hands with water.] If you feel at all symptomatic or think you may have been exposed, stay at home and definitely stay away from your older relatives and friends, or people who have pre-existing conditions that put them at risk (cardiac issues, asthma, immune deficiencies, etc).
Also remember to take care of your mental health. Keep yourself busy and on a schedule. Read, maybe enjoy some Netflix or similar, exercise, and eat healthy. For exercise, get outside for a walk. Feel the sunshine on your face, it makes a big difference. Many fitness studios are offering virtual classes. I've got a class scheduled for every day this week. It will be nice to see the people I usually see and will take my mind off being stuck at home during the day by myself for three weeks. I'm going to schedule some virtual lunches with friends and colleagues. Lastly, turn the news off. Maybe watch a bit in the morning, but you know it's just going to be the same stress-inducing news over and over all day. That can have a big impact on your psyche.
On a science note, here's a video on how and why novel viruses (COVID-19, SARS) will likely continue to originate in China. With population growth and climate change (see "They're coming" post 8/2/19), we can expect more pandemics in the future. Here are a couple of articles that touch on this: Scientific American and Vox.
A couple of headlines caught my eye this morning, here's one:
I'll address the human tragedy later. The stories about koalas and kangaroos are really tugging at my heart strings. On one island alone (Kangaroo Island), it's estimated that 30,000 koalas have died, and many others are suffering from burns. This video and this one are just a couple of the many sad videos showing the plight of the wildlife. The article that goes with the headline above notes that koalas are not at risk of extinction from these fires, but many other species that are endemic to Australia and some of its unique habitats are. These are organisms that live no where else in the world.
The conservative Australian government is just now acknowledging that climate change has created the conditions that are fueling these fires. Extended drought and extreme heat are prolonging and intensifying fire seasons around the world, Australia is just the most recent tragic example. In the coming decades, there will be some places in the world that will become unlivable because of fires, heat, and drought. People who live in those places now are going to have to move. Combine those populations with the ones that will have to move away from coastlines, and the migration numbers become staggering and almost unbelievable. Not to mention the economic disaster that will unfold for countries that have to support domestic and international refugees and the food shortages that will get increasingly worse. These fires should be a major wake up call for the Australian government and the world that the time is now to take drastic action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. I'm not going to hold my breath though. The question is, how many tragedies will it take? In the meantime, I'm going to continue to do all I can do in my own life and encourage others to do the same.
My hope is that you read the title of this blog post as Oprah would when she is announcing something she is excited about. If you didn't, do that now before reading any further.
OK, you might know at this point that I hate plastics and I love science. The hating plastics comes through rather bluntly, so that is obvious, but the loving science may be a bit more subtly conveyed with the use of facts and figures. Anyways, one of my colleagues recently sent me a link to a story of the teenager that won the grand prize at this year's Google Science Fair. He found a way to bind up microplastics in the ocean with iron compounds and then remove the mixtures with magnets. SCI-ENCE!
I encourage you to read the story. There is still work to do before we go ahead and throw a bunch of ferrous compounds into the ocean and pass giant magnets over it (such as making sure that the ferrous compounds don't do their own damage in the ocean, you don't want to try to solve one problem and then create another....I could talk for days about examples of that!), but I love that a young person is working on tackling this problem using basic principles he learned in high school chemistry. What I love even more is the last line of the article. You'll have to read it for yourself. But if we could get all the young people together on that sentiment, we'd really be able to make some progress.
In what has now become a film classic, the world was introduced to the fascinating lives of emperor penguins. Who doesn't love watching penguins waddle along, heads bobbing side to side with the effort? I love that they look like the longest receiving line at a black tie event, that image being shattered by the ones that get tired of marching and slide along on their bellies for awhile. Then, as if the feat of marching 60-100 miles on what might be some of the shortest legs per body size was not enough, the females turn around after passing an egg off to the males, marching back 60-100 miles while the males endure the burnt of an Antarctic winter by walking around in a massive group huddle for months all while holding their egg on top of their feet. Emperor penguin parents might be the most dedicated in the world.
Now emperor penguins appear to be marching towards extinction. A recent study by a scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute predicts that if climate change continues on the current track, these magnificent birds (which have persisted as a species for approximately 60 million years, p.s. way longer than modern humans have been around, 300 times longer to be exact-ish) could disappear forever by the end of this century. Most people will not be impacted by the loss of penguins. They'll be sad for a bit because penguins are so cute and Happy Feet etc., but they have other more pressing concerns. Of course, penguins don't impact our daily lives, but I believe strongly we have to question the morality of allowing what will likely be a mass extinction event this century, because, newsflash, emperor penguins are not the only species at high risk due to climate change (see my post from 5/14/19 "Biodiversity crisis"). For all those out there who champion the preservation of life, don't you think that should include all life, not just human life?
The good news of course is that the United States is fully committed to the Paris Agreement, making great strides at reducing greenhouse gas emissions, encouraging the development of renewable energy technologies...oh wait, that was a dream I had. In real life, the democracy-undermining, science-denying White House inhabitants started the process of removing our country from the Paris Agreement this week. Of course this is just a formality, they have been wrecking the environment in every way possible since day one of this administration (remember this deregulation tracker?). Now is the time for drastic actions, not "business as usual", and certainly not the time for rolling back the little progress that had been made. I reiterate that every person should do as much as she or he can on a personal level, plus everyone should be encouraging (or even nagging) their elected officials to do everything they can to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Skim through these blog entries for ideas of personal actions you can take. You need to get fired up, because our planet is on fire.
Since composting is going so well for me at home, I decided to carry that over into school. The cafeteria at school already has composting, but I do my best to avoid the cafeteria at lunchtime. It’s a madhouse. So I put a small bin in the refrigerator in the Science Department’s lunch/printing & copying center/makeshift office space (space is at a premium, so we use rooms for many purposes) for food scraps and a separate bin next to the fridge for paper towels and tissues. So far some people are using the bins, but we’re not near 100% yet. I may have to start weekly reminder e-mails. One of my colleagues has started a worm composting bin in his classroom, so we’re competing for food scraps. Not a bad problem to have!
I also put a bin in my classroom for tissues and paper towels. Right next to the tissue box and hand sanitizer. I think it’s really important to model sustainable behaviors for students. Eventually my hope is that these behaviors become routine for them.
Today I did my weekly grocery run and as usual brought a bunch of reusable produce bags. Two of them I filled with brown rice and pistachios from the bulk bins. I wrote in my 7/2 entry that I've started to buy some things in bulk, but didn't elaborate. I've been happy to find that two local groceries (I'm not going to name drop here because I don't necessarily want to advertise for anyone) carry all the grains I like in bulk (and organic!) plus lots of nuts, some raw, some roasted, and nutritional yeast (which I use a lot in "cheese" sauces and on salads for the B vitamins). As a vegan, I eat a fair amount of whole grains, probably at least a serving a day, so that packaging was adding up. Buying in bulk has been easy and I've been reusing glass jars to store the grains etc. in. So it feels like a double win. I also found some glass food storage jars at my local thrift shop, so there has been no need to go and buy new stuff. I'm feeling good about this. It's definitely an ingrained practice at this point (no pun intended).
Side note: In a couple of those other reusable produce bags I put some locally grown organic kale and local peaches. The biggest peaches ever! See picture below in my palm for scale. I love the summer for MANY reasons, but the variety of fresh, local produce is right up there near the top. Eating a plant-based diet is best for the planet of course but buying local stuff is another piece of the solution so that transportation-related pollution is reduced.
“We believe in science. We believe in climate change.” These were statements that US Representative Katherine Clark opened with at a Green New Deal Town Hall last night in Framingham, MA. She and Senator Ed Markey spoke about the Green New Deal and took questions from the audience. Not all the questions were on topic, but it was clear from the standing-room only situation that people are anxious for a change of course in this country.
The theme of science was carried on by Markey. He made it clear that the Green New Deal is first and foremost rooted in science. Science published by our government agencies in the fall of 2018 (over Thanksgiving, with no fanfare from the White House of course) and by the IPCC around the same time, warning of catastrophic consequences (e.g. 10 feet of sea level rise by the end of the century) if we don’t take extreme action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. Markey also made it clear that the Green New Deal was also heavily influenced by FDR’s “Second Bill of Rights” (sometimes referred to as the “Economic Bill of Rights”) which speaks of economic equity for all. A goal of the Green New Deal is to provide jobs, opportunities to increase energy efficiency, and increase environmental quality for all. He provided concrete examples of how to get this work done, including paying for many of the programs by revoking the tax cuts for the super wealthy, which would bring in trillions of dollars. Of the tax cut he said “They didn’t need it. They didn’t deserve it.” So true. Our country has gone into a deficit again, in part due to these tax cuts. I don’t understand why people never remember this pattern: Republican presidents run up the deficit, Democratic presidents tend to end their terms with budget surpluses. But I digress.
One question from an audience member was “The House is passing lots of legislation (about climate change, etc) but that legislation doesn’t make it to the Senate floor for votes. What are you planning to do about this?” To which both Markey and Clark agreed that Mitch McConnell needs to be voted out of office in 2020. He has refused to bring any climate change (or gun control) legislation to a vote (and let’s not forget he refused to hold confirmation hearings for the Supreme Court at the end of Obama’s term...another digression). Markey had a long answer, including that the Democrats will “create a legislative graveyard to run against the Republicans in 2020.” Clark simply summed it up in this way “Ditch Mitch.” (If you want to help on that front, you could donate to the Democratic National Party or directly to McConnell’s opponent, a veteran fighter pilot, Amy McGrath.)
Another audience member noted that animal agriculture is a huge producer of greenhouse gases and one of the most environmentally destructive industries. (I was happy that she got a lot of applause; as you know, I feel that this issue needs much more attention.) She noted that if everyone went to a plant-based diet tomorrow, global warming would stop. Clark and Markey acknowledged the contribution but of course softened the message. Clark said just reducing your meat intake by 20% has a big impact and Markey mentioned the Impossible burger. I wish someone had referenced the recent IPCC report that indicated the benefits of a plant-based diet for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and feeding the world (see the summary in a BBC report).
Another audience member brought up a piece of legislation called “We the People” that will create an amendment to the Constitution that will overturn the Citizens United ruling by the Supreme Court which says that corporations are people and thus can contribute to political campaigns. Markey stated that this was one of the worst rulings in the history of our country. He promised that he would introduce the legislation in the Senate (it’s already in Committee in the House, Clark is a cosponsor). I recommend writing to your legislators to encourage them to support this amendment. Corporations lobby against environmental regulations so that they can make more money. They should not be able to buy the votes of politicians with campaign donations.
Overall, I was glad I went. I learned a lot about my legislators and was heartened to see so many people turn out to support climate change legislation. Now I know a bit more about the Green New Deal so that I can answer student questions about it. I also met some members of “Renewable Natick” who are doing great work on the local scale. Plus, there were some great sound bites:
“There are no emergency rooms for sick planets.” (Clark, quoting Markey)
“Don’t underestimate the power of your vote to change course. We have to change course on this issue.” (Clark)
“If he (Trump) wins, it’s a death sentence for the planet.” (Markey)
“We know the NRA holds the Republican party in a vise-like grip.” (Markey...a few times he digressed a bit to gun control issues, the crowd didn’t mind.)
On the local news this morning I saw a report about the increasing incidence of mosquitoes found to be carrying the EEE virus in Massachusetts. EEE (Eastern equine encephalitis) is a virus that infects the body first and may infect the brain. It has many symptoms and is fatal to approximately one third of people who have the infection progress to the brain. Those that recover could have permanent neurological damage. Scary stuff. Read more about it on the CDC website. Not all mosquitoes carry the virus, but since it’s hard for anyone but an entomologist to distinguish between mosquitoes, you should try to avoid all of them.
Avoiding mosquitoes is getting harder. This is thanks to, you guessed it, climate change. Tropical and subtropical mosquitoes are expanding their ranges north and south as conditions improve for them in temperate areas. Here in New England for example, our summers are getting longer (not astrologically of course, but the warm period is expanded) and our winters are erratic, temperature-wise. We have also been getting more intense precipitation and that trend will likely continue into the future (IPCC 5th Assessment, National Climate Assessment). Longer summers means that mosquito populations can reproduce more often, there is greater hatching success, and higher biting rates (Scientific American). Populations can migrate over those extra generations to new areas. Data shows that the Asian tiger mosquito, known to carry over 30 viruses including EEE, yellow fever, dengue fever, and Zika, are expanding into the Northeast. This tropical mosquito is likely to make it all the way up into Maine by the last quarter of the century.
So, what to do? We can’t stop them from coming. That ship has sailed thanks to our fossil-fueled selfish behavior and refusal to change. Here are some things you have probably heard a million times: avoid being outside during mosquito-laden hours such as those between dusk and dawn, wear long-sleeves and pants (very comfortable in the summer), and make sure there is no standing water for eggs to be laid in. Often the response of local governments is to spray pesticides and encourage the personal use of bug spray products that contain deet. While the EPA deems deet safe to use, I am wary of anything that comes with all these warnings:
Let’s talk about pesticides for a bit. Many pesticides kill helpful insects such as pollinators and mosquito predators. In terms of human health, many pesticides are endocrine disrupters. They cause problems for reproductive systems. Pesticides also tend to bioaccumulate and biomagnify in food chains, particularly aquatic food chains. This could lead to reduced predator populations and increased exposure to pesticides by humans who eat fish. For more on this, see my previous post about microplastics (7/2/19). So needless to say, I’m not a fan of blanket-spraying of pesticides, which is what many towns do when something like West Nile or EEE is detected in local mosquitoes.
Chemical-free alternatives to keeping your environs mosquito-free include putting up bat houses in your yard (if they are still around where you live, bats have some problems of their own...too much of a digression for this post) and saturating your outdoor seating areas with citronella candles and plants that repel mosquitoes like. Plus there are lots of “natural” alternative bug sprays. I’ve tried a lot of the “natural” sprays and lotions and I like Burt’s Bees Herbal Insect Repellent the best. It works well and smells good.
But of course we have to circle back to the Big Picture. We have to deal with more and more mosquitoes and other insect disease vectors because of global warming. Healthcare costs are going to increase, more pesticides will be put into the environment, we might even see the reemergence of malaria in this country. It’s time for drastic action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. For that we need to have a sea change in the political leadership of our country and a sea change in the behavior of individuals. On the politics front, of course we need an administration in the White House next time around that cares about the environment and the future of humanity, that goes without saying, but there are also a lot of old-guard politicians across both parties in the House and Senate that are beholden to fossil fuel companies and other big industries that lobby against climate change action. Those legislators need to be replaced with a new generation of future-thinking ones. People who care more about the future of humanity and the rest of the natural world and less about enriching themselves with money and power. (Side note: the current White House gang has managed to do a lot of damage to the environment on the DL. Fortunately Columbia University’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law is tracking these setbacks. Click here for some depressing shit.)
On the individual level, you all know what you need to do. (If not, see my previous posts for suggestions!) Spread the word. We need more people talking about making change and also showing change through their actions. Change catches on. Think about how many places carry vegan foods now. When I ask if something is vegan in a restaurant now, people know what that means. That was not the case even a decade or less ago. When I was in high school, I was the only vegetarian, let alone vegan, and I got made fun of a few times by some ignorant peers. Now, typically a handful of my students are vegan and a dozen or so, at least, are vegetarian every year, and many more talk about eating fewer animal products for the sake of the environment; keep in mind I only see a small fraction of the school’s population. Change happens. Not nearly fast enough so far, but any progress is still progress, so I have to keep a bit of optimism alive.
I talk about microplastics a lot with my students. This is mostly in the context of marine food chains, including fishes that are eaten by people. Microplastics themselves are toxic but they also act as tiny magnets for other toxins such as PCBs (a known carcinogen), mercury and other heavy metals (neurotoxins), BPA, phthalates, and pesticides like DDT (a carcinogen that also interferes with reproductive systems; banned here, but not in other countries). These toxins are all fat soluble. That means that once they are in your body, they hunker down in your fat cells instead of being flushed out of your body with your water-based liquid wastes. The greater the concentration, the greater the effects. The higher up in the food chain you are, the more of these toxins you have stored up in you. Science teacher moment: on an individual level this is called bioaccumulation (building up in a lifetime) on a food chain level it’s called biomagnification, with the top levels having higher (magnified) amounts built up in them because they eat a lot more.
A study published recently in the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Science and Technology compiled data on microplastics in bottled water, seafood, sugar, honey, alcohol, and air and analyzed that data in the context of average consumption rates of Americans and activity levels (summary here; note that this summary does not report on inhalation of microplastics, only consumption). While the analysis makes a number of assumptions and was not able to include major dietary factors such as grains, meats, and dairy, the results are alarming and, even more alarming, are likely a gross underestimate of the amount of microplastics that enter the human body annually. The average American adult male may ingest nearly 60,000 and adult female nearly 54,000 microplastic particles annually, most of that through bottled water and seafood. Bottled water averages 94 particles per liter, while tap water averages 4 particles per liter. Another very compelling reason to ditch the bottled water habit (see some other reasons in my April 12 post, “#banthebottle”). Of course some towns and cities have to do some work to ensure safe tap water for their citizens, but that’s a whole other story. In terms of seafood, of course, the more you eat, the more microplastics enter your body (bioaccumulation!). What you eat also makes a difference. Big predatory fishes such as tuna and swordfish will likely have more plastics in them than planktivorous fishes such as anchovies (biomagnification!). Consumption is not the only route for microplastics to enter your body. Males may inhale an additional 60,000-120,000 (females 48,000 to 100,000) microplastic particles per year. Many plastics are volatile, meaning that they spontaneously emit particles to the atmosphere or to the liquids they are immersed in. You know that new car smell? Airborne plastic particles. Just one example of thousands.
So, what is the solution? We are stuck with all the plastics that have ever been made (over 8,300,000,000 metric tons of it) so they will remain a problem forever. We need to move away from producing new plastics. I don’t see this happening any time soon, since global production in 2015 was 380 metric tons and the annual production growth rate is high (8.4%; Geyer et al. 2017). We have become a “throw away” society and a society in which both convenience and consumer demand for cheap products are driving product manufacturing and development. Think about the packaging that is on nearly everything now. I’m hard-pressed to find items in my grocery store that do not have some sort of plastic wrapping or container. I’ve been buying a few things in bulk lately to cut back on the plastics that I have to throw away at home, but that is really just a drop in the bucket. We need a whole new system.
Consumers need to start demanding a return to glass bottles and start eating whole, unprocessed foods. Random small example: I stopped buying a particular brand of salad dressing years ago when they went from glass bottles to plastic ones. When I e-mailed the company to complain, I got the response that the plastic bottles were recyclable. Of course, I wrote back about how plastics can only be down-cycled and glass can be recycled forever and then expressed my intent never to buy their products again. I did not get a second response from them. Now I buy salad dressing from Trader Joe’s (all glass bottles!...but many other items in plastic, you can’t ever really win) or mix up some olive oil and vinegar. There are plant-based, compostable alternatives to plastic but those of course are more expensive now because of low demand. Of course, packaging is not the only place plastics are used. Many vehicles today have bumpers made of plastic and interiors composed mostly of plastic. There is plastic furniture. I’m looking across my room at a plastic fan. It’s kind of crazy how many things we use are composed of plastic.
Back to the question of what do we do? For a start (shooting for the stars here) I would like to see federal legislation requiring manufacturers to replace fossil fuel plastic packaging with compostable, plant-based products and I would like to see federal legislation requiring all take out containers, single-use straws and utensils and shopping bags to be compostable. These things exist. They just need to be cheaper for stores, companies, restaurants, and consumers to purchase than fossil fuel plastics. That means we need to create a greater demand for those plant-based products in tandem with taking away the fossil fuel industry subsidies. If plastics were more expensive at the source, the market would naturally shift to alternatives. It’s back to my common theme: money drives everything. You can start by taking small steps like I have to try and cut back on plastic packaging. What you put out in the environment will come back to you in your food, water, or air (karma!). You can also support plastic banning legislation in your town, city, or state and let your federal legislators know that you’d like them to take some action too. Write e-mails, make phone calls, go to town meetings. Collective consumer action is a critical piece.
We reached a new high in May (new high numerically, new low for humanity): 414.8 ppm of CO2 was recorded as the average for May at the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii in May. This is the highest level of CO2 in the atmosphere in human history and for sure over the last 800,000 years or so, according to Antarctic ice sheet data. Despite dire warnings from climate scientists for decades now, we are still keeping on track for the “worst case scenario.” What will be the turning point? When will the majority of people start taking this seriously?
Students often lament that even if they change something in their lives to reduce carbon emissions, it’s nothing compared to all the other people on the planet, all the companies, and all the energy producers. I chastise them for this, noting that if all 7.5 billion humans made efforts to reduce emissions we could make a huge difference and that all the little things you do add up over time. This is true of course, but in a way they are right. What I do is a drop in the bucket. Mostly it makes me feel less guilty about living in the most wasteful country in the world.
We need a cultural shift in personal behavior (like diet, reducing food waste, driving fuel efficient vehicles or not driving at all) and we need a cultural shift in industry. A glimmer of hope on that front: the CDP (formerly Carbon Disclosure Project) just published a report that many businesses are realizing the threat of climate change to business-as-usual, with some expecting to see effects on their profits within the next five years. It’s the concern for their bottom lines that may finally instigate real change and progress in the fight to lower carbon emissions. Extreme weather disrupting supply chains, crop shortages, and future regulation on greenhouse gas emissions amongst other climate-related issues all could total to trillions of dollars in losses. As I’ve said before, money is a big motivator. I wish we still lived in an era in which a consumer boycott could convince companies to change their practices, tuna boycott of the 1980s. Of course that can’t happen because a few companies own almost everything. Boycotting one company would mean boycotting hundreds of products. Probably unrealistic as a consumer movement. We need something big. Maybe the threat to profits will instigate change on a corporate level. There is only so much cost they can pass on to the consumer, right?
Commentary on environmental news/issues plus thoughts and stories about my journey to lower my environmental footprint and raise my voice.
-Another vegan environmentalist