Category Archives: Natural Resources

For New Years Day, giving credit where credit – the good and the bad – is due

I source and update the information for my Status of Plastic Bans Worldwide from many places. (Just last week I added an entry about UK schools being strongly “encouraged” to stop using single-use plastics.) But one of the most useful sites for my updates is EcoWatch and, for their end of the year wrap up, they posted “2018: A Year of Fighting Plastic Waste.” In my own end of the year post last week, “EcoOptimistic News for the End of an Environmentally Crappy Year,” I included single-use plastics as one of the leading topics, so obviously I agree with them.

Embed from Getty Images

There was plenty of news on other environmental fronts, as I wrote in that post. Most notably, climate change took a beating under our rogue president, but that beating, as I’ve been noting in several posts (here and here), has engendered a backlash in which other institutions (local governments, NGOs, businesses and even the military) have been taking up the mantle.

Similarly, the rapidly increasing awareness of the scale of our plastics problem has resulted in a correspondingly rapid escalation of attempts to address the problem. Hence my continuing tabulation of the bans and taxes worldwide on single-use plastics – and my desire to acknowledge EcoWatch for their reporting.

On the flip side, George Monbiot writes in The Guardian: “We won’t save the Earth with a better kind of disposable coffee cup.” In it, he touches on two points. The first is one that I try to make in all my classes and involves taking a step back to see if you are asking the right question. Regarding disposable coffee cups, he writes:

[S]ome people asked me, “So what should we use instead?” The right question is, “How should we live?” But systemic thinking is an endangered species.

The version of this I usually pose in my classes asks: if you were tasked with challenging the plastic waste generated by toothbrushes, what would you do? The usual answers are to make it of recycled plastic or biodegradable plastic or design it with replaceable heads, etc. But the “right” question to ask, instead, is: is there a better way to clean our teeth? This opens up a different realm of possibilities in which, maybe, we don’t need toothbrushes at all.

The second point Monbiot makes is a “structural” one. In the case of plastics and many other materials, the solution to waste, we’re told, is to recycle. But as I and others have written, this puts the responsibility in the wrong hands, purposely shifting it from corporations to consumers, i.e. us.

Writing this weekend in The Guardian “The plastic backlash: what’s behind our sudden rage – and will it make a difference?,” Stephen Buryani goes into some depth about the origins of this:

Following the failure of legislation loose alliance of oil and chemical companies, along with drinks and packaging manufacturers, pursued a two-part strategy that would successfully defuse anti-plastic sentiment for a generation. The first part of the strategy was to shift responsibility for litter and waste from companies to consumers. Rather than blaming the companies that had promoted disposable packaging and made millions along the way, these same companies argued that irresponsible individuals were the real problem. This argument was epitomised by a 1965 editorial in a US packaging trade journal headlined “Guns Don’t Kill People”, which blamed “the litterbugs who abuse our countryside” rather than the manufacturers themselves.

This was memorialized in the famous “Crying Indian” television commercial in which the supposed Indian (he was actually Italian) sheds a tear about littering, saying “People start pollution; people can stop it.”  Corporations may be considered people, but that’s obviously not whom the makers of the commercial were referring to.

Monbiot continues his point:

This represents the mistaken belief that a better form of consumerism will save the planet. The problems we face are structural: a political system captured by commercial interests, and an economic system that seeks endless growth. Of course we should try to minimise our own impacts, but we cannot confront these forces merely by “taking responsibility” for what we consume.

He casts a much wider, more foundational outlook:

One-planet living means not only seeking to reduce our own consumption, but also mobilising against the system that promotes the great tide of junk. This means fighting corporate power, changing political outcomes and challenging the growth-based, world-consuming system we call capitalism.

Disposable coffee cups made from new materials are not just a non-solution: they are a perpetuation of the problem. Defending the planet means changing the world.

While this would appear to negate much of what we are doing, the more profound questioning leads to EcoOptimistic responses that look at how to not simply address a problem in short-term, limited ways, but instead to change things – concepts, systems, thinking (i.e. systems thinking) – to get to the core and truly address causes.

Putting the cost of recycling onto manufacturers is a response to this. In England, there’s a proposal to force retailers to pay the cost of collecting and recycling packaging materials. Germany has had a version of this since 1991, and it’s getting expanded. (The EPA had a webpage about packaging regulations employed by other countries but – no surprise – it’s been removed. You can find some of it preserved by the Internet archive Wayback Machine.)

You could look at this as a New Year’s resolution for us: challenge ourselves to challenge the others who create problems by selfishly shifting responsibility. Many of us make resolutions to go the gym more often. The problem is that, aside from rapidly letting the well-intended resolution fall by the wayside, it doesn’t really address the causes of the problem such as fast food (which is largely a creation of big business) and sedentary lifestyles, which are in part of product of suburban sprawl (sitting in cars) and in-home entertainment. You could make an argument that cars, television and single-use plastics are a result of consumer demand, but what created and then encouraged that demand?

We Need to Dispose of the Word Disposable

I’ve often written here [1, 2, 3, 4] about how word choices can affect how we see things. Problematic connotations can sometimes arise by stigma and sometimes by subtle associations. A classic environmental example is how we refer to global warming. In the 90s, the Republican strategist Frank Luntz encouraged rebranding it as climate change because it seemed less frightening and would therefore make it less of an issue. (The irony is that it’s actually a more accurate term. But because it minimizes perception of the problem, as Luntz desired, many of us prefer to call it something more emphatic like climate disruption.)

In a similar vein, years ago, before the advent of LED lights, when improved fluorescent lights were the most energy-efficient technology, I wrote in a guest column in a lighting industry magazine that the word “fluorescent” had too many negative associations with its older, uglier versions. So, to get people to come around to the newer, more pleasing fluorescent bulbs, I wrote that they needed to be renamed.

The impetus for this current thought about words that can have misleading connotations occurred as I was sitting in a waiting room that had a coffee station. In need of caffeine – I had forgotten my coffee travel mug – I grabbed a cup. As I finished making my fix, I looked at the counter and saw the disposable Styrofoam cup, the disposable “K-cup” coffee pod and the tiny – you guessed it, disposable – milk container. My “garbage guilt” set in.

Those little ketchup squeeze tubes are another pet peeve. My order of fries inevitable needs a half dozen or more of them. They make a messy pile of garbage that can be neither recycled or composted. Plus they get all over your hands. They’re a rare example of something both disposable and inconvenient.

The litter atop that coffee station caused me to ponder the word “disposable.” For many people, disposability connotes convenience (finger-coating Ketchup pouches aside). You don’t have to bring stuff – containers, utensils, plastic bags – with you and you don’t have to worry about cleaning or taking care of them. Just toss it. No problem. Disposability is seen as a positive thing, reinforced by the “able” suffix.

The word makes the use of disposable things and the resulting garbage seem OK. They’re meant to be guiltlessly thrown away because that’s how they’re designed and perceived.

When I advocated for renaming fluorescent bulbs, I couldn’t come up with a replacement term. I’d like to do better here, especially as single-use plastics are being increasingly recognized as a major problem. (The issue is being addressed in part by bans and fees – see my “Status of Plastic Bans” list – but even then, there’s pushback by both users and producers.)

So, how can we retitle disposability? My first thought was an obvious one. Just call it what it is: “landfill.” But that doesn’t work as an adjective in front of “cups” or “bags” (or with the current fixation on straws).

Next, I attempted to channel Stephen Colbert’s coining of “truthiness” with “disposiness.” But I’m not as clever as Colbert and it didn’t feel like it solved the problem.  There was, though, some, er, truth to it as the garbage never really gets disposed of. It’s still here, just relocated. When we throw things away, there is, as Bill McDonough is fond of saying, no “away.”

I’ve concluded that our new term needs to have that suffix “able” in it, but with a prefix that drives the point home. Garbagable? Trashable? Wastable? They still imply, though, that because something has the ability to be thrown out – e.g. it’s trashable – it’s OK. The word needs to communicate that single-use stuff that doesn’t decompose or effectively recycle is NOT okay. It’s wasteful and it’s a problem so it needs to be discouraged. But I don’t usually advocate for guilting people into environmental action. That’s been repeatedly shown to not work. Better to play upon self-interest and desire. “Wasteful” (I rejected “wastable” even though I like creating new words) heads in the right direction – who wants to be wasteful? – but still doesn’t quite get us there.

We need to somehow say you really don’t want to do this. Not an admonishment that you shouldn’t do it.  And it needs to be “sticky,” meaning the word will attach itself to the item the way disposable does.

I’m reluctantly left for the moment with “garbagy.” But it still doesn’t fully meet my criteria. Plus, the English language being what it is, you wouldn’t be sure how to spell or pronounce it.

Maybe I should ask Colbert.

How green is my lawn

Or, what exactly is it we’re trying to do?

I recently moved from a semi-tiny apartment to a house (don’t ask). Included in the package is a relatively small lawn. Despite its smallness, it bothers me for at least two reasons. The first is personal; I grew up in a pretty large and definitely suburban house with a typically large lawn. It was before the days of lawn services, so it fell to my teenage self to mow the acre of really hilly and only sometimes green expanse. That, by the way, is one of the (many) reasons I vowed to never become a dweller in the supposedly idyllic ‘burbs.

I know many will disagree with this aversion, but let me have my rant.

My second distaste for lawns came about as I became increasingly (and I hope not obnoxiously) a proselytizing environmentalist.

In my classes, as I describe the goals of sustainability, starting from the 3Rs through the triple bottom line and beyond, I use lawn mowing and lawns as an example. I first show a picture of a lawn mower and ask the class how, if they were tasked with making it greener, they would go about it. I get the obvious answers regarding fuel efficiency and recycled materials.

But then I push them further and, usually with some prodding, get them to think about lawns themselves rather than lawn mowers. I do this by asking them to take a step back and question what it is we’re really trying to do. A pedagogical goal of  mine is getting my students to question assumptions and thereby arrive at more sustainable solutions. So, the answer, in this case, is that we are trying to create landscapes around our buildings. But, I ask them, are lawns the only or best way to go about this?

Because we take lawns for granted, they often seem to be the only approach. That means it takes a conceptual leap to get past traditional lawns.

So the question becomes not how to make a more environmental lawnmower, but how to landscape more environmentally. Lawns are nice for picnics, Frisbees and dogs (or dogs catching Frisbees while devouring our picnics). But that doesn’t justify surrounding our houses or, even more egregiously, suburban office buildings with innumerable acres of non-indigenous (virtually all lawn grasses are not native to North America), unnecessary and – here’s the big point – resource intensive artificial carpets.

This whole topic came to mind the other day when the blog Earther posted “Lawns Are an Ecological Disaster.” The article provided supporting data for what I’d been saying for years:

  • There are 40 million acres of lawn in the US, nearly half the total acreage of our major crops
  • We collectively spend more money on landscaping – primarily on lawns – than on foreign aid (roughly $50 billion dollars)
  • We use 580 million gallons of gas each year for lawn mowers.
  • We apply 67 million pounds of pesticides – many carcinogenic or untested – to lawns each year.
  • 30% – 60% of municipal drinking water is used for lawn watering

Image credit: David Bergman

Nor is this new news. Elizabeth Kolbert, among others, wrote about it in depth in the New Yorker back in 2008.

There are yet more issues with lawns, but, hey, this blog is about EcoOptimism. In the class discussion, we eventually get around to the alternative of indigenous planting, though it usually takes, as mentioned above, some prodding. I show them landscapes of wildflowers, xeriscaping and edible lawns.

An edible lawn. Image credit.

An office surrounded by wildflowers and indigenous grasses. Image credit: David Bergman

I also startle them a bit with images of goats, rather than lawnmowers, keeping grass to acceptable height.

Nature’s lawn mower. Available, of course, from Amazon. Image credit

This alternative to lawns can take some getting used to. When I recently tried to convince some clients to plant wildflowers in their small urban front yard, they said the pictures I showed them looked like weeds in the Southwest. (They also wanted paving instead of a lawn because it was easier to maintain.)

Many of us think of lawns as being part of nature and therefore something desirable. But unlike forests, lawns are carbon positive. (This is an unfortunate term and unintuitively means that something – grass in this case – emits more carbon into the atmosphere than is removed.) They are also “monocultures.” Forests and other ecosystems are diverse, with their many plants and animals creating self-sufficient, resilient regions. Lawns, on the other hand, can’t exist without being created and maintained – at great natural and financial expense – by humans.

Looked at this way, getting rid of lawns is, as we like to point out here, win-win-win: ecologically, economically and, harking back to my childhood lawn mowing nemesis, a time-saver.

 

The Distillery: February 2, 2018

We can all use some positive news these days, especially on the environmental front in which science is considered evil, denial is an alternative fact and the EPA is now what I’m calling the Environmental Destruction Agency. And while I don’t want to gloss over the issues – there isn’t enough paint in the world to do that – I offer here The Distillery, a weekly (or thereabouts) selection of posts to help offset the PTSD of our current nightmare.

The posts I pick will be “real” in the sense that they aren’t pie-in-the-sky wishful thinking, as fun as those can be, but are evidence of EcoOptimism.


The theme here: good news disguised as bad news

From ThinkProgress:
January 4, 2018

2017’s costly climate change-fueled disasters are the ‘new normal,’ warns major reinsurer

and from The New York Times:
January 4, 2018

2017 Set a Record for Losses from Natural Disasters. It Could Get Worse

And the “Bomb Cyclone” wasn’t even in 2017, so we’re off to an inauspicious start. But there’s optimism here ….

Photo: U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Ben Bloker

EcoOptimism’s take: On the face of it, this doesn’t sound like an EcoOptimistic post, but it in fact emphasizes the economic incentive to mitigating and adapting to climate change. Insurance companies – especially reinsurers, the ones who insure the insurance companies – have been concerned with this for a while. The Times article references Munich Re, but Swiss Re has also studied the potential costs of covering insurance losses due to climate change and has been ringing alarm bells.

Arguably, since politicians (American, that is) aren’t onboard, it may be the business world that spurs, finally, US action. Ironically, politicians cling to the belief that environmental action is bad for business.

And if the business case for climate action doesn’t work, maybe the military case can…

From Ecowatch:
February 2, 2018

Climate Impacts Nearly Half of U.S. Military Bases

Photo: Michael Lavender / U.S. Navy / Flickr

EcoOptimism’s take: The US military is a surprisingly staunch advocate for adaptation to climate change. Though Trump ridiculed Obama for saying so, climate change is a national security threat that could both create or exacerbate geopolitical and affect military readiness. This post, though, emphasizes the potential direct cost of climate change. As a military policy, it might even have Trump’s ear and bring him to his senses. But maybe that’s my EcoOptimism speaking.

China is going to stop accepting plastic for recycling, so…

From Ecowatch:
January 15, 2018

America Needs a Plastics Intervention. Now’s the Time.

photo source: Scrap Monster

EcoOptimism’s take: So China’s going to stop taking the world’s plastic waste for recycling. That problem, though, creates the impetus for better recycling, plastics that are more recyclable, and/or plastics bans here and elsewhere. And, of course, to stop shipping our problems elsewhere.

A new twist to “Read My Lips” and taxes…

From Evolution News:
January 27, 2018

Would a Beef Tax Reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions?

Photo source: Evolution News

EcoOptimism’s take: : Taxes are bad, right? Not if they discourage consumption of things that aren’t good for us or the environment – and meat is both. Think about, for instance, taxes on cigarettes or alcohol. Or sugary drinks, as is catching on in some places. (Though NYC’s proposed tax didn’t survive a lawsuit. On the other hand, the city’s proposal for congestion pricing which, arguably, is a tax, is getting some traction after a false start.)

Now if we can only institute carbon taxes. Or if not that, maybe at least an increase in the decades old gasoline tax, which has been 18.4 cents since 1993. That means it’s actually decreased significantly due to inflation.

But taxes are bad, right?

 

The Distillery: January 6, 2018

We can all use some positive news these days, especially on the environmental front in which science is considered evil, denial is an alternative fact and the EPA is now what I’m calling the Environmental Destruction Agency. And while I don’t want to gloss over the issues – there isn’t enough paint in the world to do that – I offer here The Distillery, a weekly (or thereabouts) selection of posts to help offset the PTSD of our current nightmare.

The posts I pick will be “real” in the sense that they aren’t pie-in-the-sky wishful thinking, as fun as those can be, but are evidence of EcoOptimism.


For the new year, let’s celebrate some renewal – in the form of reforestation. You probably knew that trees are one of the best methods of reducing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. (Other than not putting it there in the first place.) Though it’s not all good news, here are some posts illustrating just how effective they can be.

From Yale Environment 360:
October 17, 2017

“Regreening the Planet Could Account for One-Third of Climate Mitigation”

photo: CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 CIFOR

EcoOptimism’s take: A Treehugger.com post on the same report put a different spin on it “Restoring nature is climate equivalent of stopping burning oil.


But just to make sure our EcoOptimism is not blind to reality….

From Earther:
September 19, 2017

“But… Tropical Forests Now Have a Serious Carbon Footprint Problem”

EcoOptimism’s take: All this tells us is that it’s even more important to maintain or, better yet, increase the size of forests and rain forests in particular.

 

The Distillery: December 22, 2017

We can all use some positive news these days, especially on the environmental front in which science is considered evil, denial is an alternative fact and the EPA is now what I’m calling the Environmental Destruction Agency. And while I don’t want to gloss over the issues – there isn’t enough paint in the world to do that – I offer here The Distillery, a weekly (or thereabouts) selection of posts to help offset the PTSD of our current nightmare.
The posts I pick will be “real” in the sense that they aren’t pie-in-the-sky wishful thinking, as fun as those can be, but are evidence of EcoOptimism.


Our end of the year Distillery is newsworthy updates to some recent – and not-so-recent – posts.
And here’s hoping that 2018 will bring us more EcoOptimism. (Because, well, 2017.)

On intergenerational rights (Original Distillery post date: 12/5/17. Original EcoOptimism post date: 4/1/13)
From Grist.org:
December 12, 2017

Trump’s lawyers tried (and probably failed) to throw out the kids’ climate lawsuit


Image source: Our Children’s Trust/Facebook via cbcradio

EcoOptimism’s take: Despite first the Obama administration’s efforts and now Trump’s, this groundbreaking lawsuit continues to move forward.

On a related note, a different approach to environmental rights:
From Thinkprogress.org:
December 22, 2017

The radical movement to make environmental protections a constitutional right

Alleghany National Forest.
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons, Panoramio/Diego González

EcoOptimism’s take: You’d think that the right to a healthy environment for those who are alive NOW, would be a more straightforward concept than the intergenerational version. According to this post, though, it’s currently a constitutional right in only two states, Pennsylvania and Montana. But it’s being used to challenge pro-industry, anti-environment legislation.

On the economic benefits of addressing climate change (Original EcoOptimism post “Surprise: Environmentalism Actually Boosts the Economy,” date: 1/19/2015)
From the Los Angeles Times
December 12, 2017

California’s cap-and-trade climate program could generate more than $8 billion by 2027, report says

Source: Flickr

EcoOptimism’s take: The premise of EcoOptimism is that good environmental policy is good business, or to steal from the famous line about General Motors, “What’s good for the environment is good for the country.”

On the movement by local governments to take the lead in climate action (Original Distillery post date: 11/17/17)
From USA Today
December 5, 2017

Obama praises mayors as ‘new face’ of leadership on climate change in Trump era

From CityLab
December 5, 2017

Lab Report: Obama Calls Cities ‘The New Face of Leadership’ on Climate Change

credit: Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

EcoOptimism’s take: Damn, we miss him

The Distillery: August 14, 2017

Triangles_Distillery_Text-smr

We can all use some positive news these days, especially on the environmental front in which science is considered evil, denial is an alternative fact and the EPA is now what I’m calling the Environmental Destruction Agency. And while I don’t want to gloss over the issues – there isn’t enough paint in the world to do that – I offer here The Distillery, a weekly (or thereabouts) selection of posts to help offset the PTSD of our current nightmare.

The posts I pick will be “real” in the sense that they aren’t pie-in-the-sky wishful thinking, as fun as those can be, but are evidence of EcoOptimism.

August 7, 2017

From EcoWatch:
Costa Rica Wants to Become World’s First Country to Eliminate Single-Use Plastics

EcoOptimism’s take: Only a fraction of plastics gets recycled. The rest of this persistent scourge ends up in the oceans and distant beaches or, at best, in landfills to live on virtually forever.

They’ve even been found in the deepest place on Earth: the Marianas Trench.

And in case that’s not nasty enough, bear in mind this doesn’t take into account the resources (oil!) and energy required to make them.

Marine debris on Kamilo Beach, Hawaii. Credit: Algalita.org

Marine debris on Kamilo Beach, Hawaii. Credit: Algalita.org

August 9, 2017

From ThinkProgress:
America’s Wind Energy Industry Passed a Major Milestone

EcoOptimism’s take:  in 2016, wind energy passed the generating capacity of hydroelectric power became the nation’s top renewable generating source.

For all the talk naysaying renewable energy – it’s too expensive or too unreliable because “the sun don’t always shine, the wind don’t always blow” – it’s now the most rapidly growing and inexpensive form of energy. More efficient solar cells and new types of batteries will only further the trend, and the renewable energy industry is already creating more jobs than fossil fuels are.

Credit: Department of Energy via ThinkProgress.org

Credit: Department of Energy via ThinkProgress.org