Category Archives: Nature

Plastics in the Time of COVID:

Are Single-Use Plastics a Global Scourge or Necessity?

The answer, on this 50th anniversary of Earth Day occurring during a pandemic, is both. Single-use plastics have always had pros and cons, but the scale has temporarily shifted. Yes, SUPs are a serious problem. It’s tempting to say they should just be eliminated. (And I have, here and here, as well as keeping track of places where they have been.) The evidence of the problem is overwhelming, from heart-wrenching images of animals killed or maimed (turtles and albatrosses especially) to beaches covered in detritus. And then there is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Moreover, there are ways we can eliminate virtually all of our use of SUPs. After all, we did pretty well without them until a few decades ago.

The major exception has been medical applications. Yes, hospitals and doctors’ offices functioned without them in times past, but medical care has changed and SUPs in the form of things such as biohazard containers and IV bags would be difficult if not impossible to replace. And in many cases, finding ways to sterilize used items is simply not cost-effective, which makes their existence even more crucial in this pandemic. No one has seriously suggested eliminating those applications of SUPs.

In fighting COVID-19, those who have reduced or removed SUPs from their lives face a distasteful choice in order to preserve those lives. Plastic bags and disposable gloves surround us, and it’s difficult in this moment to eliminate them from our daily lives, let alone admonish others.

When I received a grocery delivery (yes, we got a delivery slot after a week), it came in a trunk load of plastic bagged items. Compounding this evil was the fact that those bags had – finally – just been banned in New York State, where I live. But it was hard to argue with the appropriateness of the packaging, much of it double-bagged. And we were, if not overjoyed, at least relieved to see our tomatoes and carrots bagged in plastic within the plastic. In fact, thinking of the at-risk elderly parents we are isolating with, we selected produce that was pre-packaged in those clamshell plastic containers or sealed plastic bags in the theory that they had been handled less than loose items.

You could see this as putting ourselves selfishly ahead of the planet, an equation that had been written much differently until now. We could rationalize that it wasn’t actually selfish, that we were contributing to the health of others who, despite carefulness and social distancing, we might put at risk.

In order to partially justify those grocery bags, we sequestered them for a few days so that we could reuse them. They’ve become handy for uses like safely handling the mail.

plastic bags decontaminatimg

sequestering plastics bags so we can reuse them

The question is what our attitude toward plastic bags and take-out utensils will be when this is all over. Will, for instance, that NYS plastic bag ban that took years to achieve be revoked? Will the recent resistance to plastic straws – even though they have little to do with contagion – be lost? Or, will the need to return to normalcy also mean moving ahead with environmental movements that had been becoming mainstream? And another possibility: that we will see climate change for what it is, a slow-moving pandemic. (The bad news: we have a president who has called both of them a hoax.)

Is it “too soon” to start talking about this? Perhaps. But whether the answers are ones that we want to hear or not, it’s important for our own and everyone’s wellbeing, emotionally as well as environmentally, that we think beyond our temporary crisis.

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: April 22, 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.


Here on this anniversary of Earth Day, it seems appropriate to update a topic I first wrote about in 2012 in a post I titled “Planets Are People, My Friends.” It was a reference at the time to a statement by then-presidential candidate Mitt Romney who told attendees at a rally that “corporations are people, my friend.” While the statement was actually in response to a comment about taxes, it also could be seen as being about the infamous Citizens United Supreme Court case that basically said corporations have the same free speech rights as people, and that spending on political campaigns is a form of free speech. That court decision has had a disastrous affect on our elections ever since.

While that Supreme Court case was about establishing the rights of corporations, my post drew a parallel with the equally odd-sounding idea of nature having rights. It talked about movements to give rights to South American forests, a New Zealand River and apes in Spain. Since then the movement has spread further.

From Treehugger
September 27, 2017

“Group files suit to recognize the Colorado River as a person”

EcoOptimism’s take: New Zealand has a river with rights and now the US may get one, too.

From Earther:
April 9, 2018

 “The Colombian Amazon Is Now a ‘Person’, and You Can Thank Actual People”

EcoOptimism’s take: In addition to being about recognizing nature’s rights, this also ties into some EcoOptimism posts including a recent Distillery post on the topic of intergenerational rights, meaning the right of young generations to grow up with a healthy environment. The Colombian Supreme Court case that decided this was brought by Colombian youth.

From ThinkProgress:
April 16, 2018

“Florida kids are taking their climate-denying governor to court”

And also in Teen Vogue:
April 18, 2018

“Florida Governor Rick Scott Is Getting Sued by Teens for His Environmental Polices”

EcoOptimism’s take: More evidence of the growing trend of youth suing their unresponsive government. In this case, the suit is directed toward adamant climate change denier Governor Rick Scott. Scott has also been the subject of another teen-led suit. That one is over gun control in the aftermath of the Parkland High School shooting and has grown into an example of what galvanized youth can do.

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: 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

 

Will 2015 bring legalization of hemp?

Hemp products. Images: screen grabs

Hemp products. Images: screenshots

There was a bit of excitement in the enviro blogworld last year, with posts boasting titles like “President Signs Farm Bill Legalizing Hemp” and “U.S. House of Representatives Votes to Legalize Industrial Hemp.” The legislation, some say, is a byproduct of the legalization of marijuana in some states, even though the two are vastly different with the main difference being that you can’t get high from hemp.

The Farm Bill legislation’s potential impact was overstated. It allowed growth only for research purposes by states and colleges, and even that turned out to be thwarted by the DEA.

The reason the federal government made hemp growth illegal is the subject of several theories. The most often cited is that the DEA can’t see the difference between the two when they are looking for marijuana farms. A more conspiratorial theory holds that the cotton industry, fearing competition, was behind the ban.

Last year brought attempts to finally legalize the potentially lucrative crop. Alas, the hoopla is not quite warranted.

I’ve written before about the fantastic qualities of hemp and how unfortunate – make that ridiculous – that it is illegal to grow in the US. In that 2012 post, I noted a bill that would rectify the situation. The bill was even co-sponsored by a Republican. That legislation failed. 2014 brought similar attempts to legalize a situation that has already been legalized in many states despite the federal ban.

Unfortunately, a Republican controlled Congress is even less likely to pass legislation in 2015. This despite the fact that hemp farming is seen by many as a job creator – which should make it a Republican darling — and, by the libertarian branch of the party, the ban is regarded as unnecessary government regulation.

Image source: relegalize.info

Image source: relegalize.info

As I noted in the previous post regarding hemp, it is incredibly versatile. Until 1619, farmers in Virginia were required to grow it. During WWII, its growth was temporarily legalized because of the military need for products made from it, including rope and parachutes. The federal government promoted a “Hemp for Victory” program.

Currently it is legal to make products in the US utilizing hemp, but illegal to grow the raw material. Much of it instead is imported from Canada, where growing it is allowed.

This blog is about synergistic environmental and economic solutions. In addition to hemp’s value to both farmers and the economy, it is a hardy crop, light in water and nutrient and fertilizer requirements. That qualifies hemp legalization as a perfect EcoOptimism win-win-win topic.

But despite the WWII precedent, despite the increasing understanding that hemp is not marijuana, and despite the combined economic and environmental logic behind legalization, 2015 is unlikely to see positive movement on federal legislation. For that, we’ll probably have to wait until at least 2017 and a new Congress, hopefully with an enlightened President. Not a very EcoOptimistic conclusion, but still there’s hope.

Are Geoengineering Proposals EcoOptimistic?

 

Image source: climatecentral.org

Image source: climatecentral.org

They’re very seductive – proposed solutions to climate disruption that don’t involve carbon fees or changing our modern comforts and habits. Geoengineering – altering the planet instead of altering people’s lives – includes ideas such as creating giant algae blooms in the oceans to remove carbon dioxide (a greenhouse gas) and seeding the atmosphere with sulfur to reflect sunlight. Some proposals even suggest putting mirrors in space. The New York Times just wrote about a more earthbound proposal to use a mineral called olivine to absorb CO2.

At first blush, these might seem like EcoOptimistic approaches: they would supposedly solve the issue of global warming while not harming the economy. (Note that EcoOptimism holds that we can improve the economy while improving the environment.) However, there are some faults with this line of thinking.

Geoengineering comes in two forms: carbon absorption and solar radiation management. Sulfur seeding and mirrors are the latter while olivine and algae blooms are the former. But so is tree planting, so the line between geoengineering and mitigation can be fuzzy.

Tree planting aside, geoengineering is, at its core, incredibly hubristic. It says that we can take the environment that we’ve defiled and fix it by altering the delicate balance of natural systems. The risks are obvious; we don’t know how much sulfur or algae or mirrors or whatever would be needed and miscalculations could be disastrous. The idea goes completely against the precautionary principle, which says “an action should not be taken if the consequences are uncertain and potentially dangerous.” Even if we did know amounts, we couldn’t accurately predict either the side effects or local climate impacts. Which leads, of course, to geopolitical questions.

Large scale geoengineering also builds upon the idea that technology will always come to our rescue. This, too, is problematic as it gives us cover to simply continue business as usual and not deal with the core problems.

From what is perhaps an EcoPessimistic point of view, the best rationalization for geoengineering research is that we’d have a worst case, last resort plan. If we pass that notorious 2o centigrade rise, if we hit runaway global warming, we would have emergency actions available.

But does the pursuit of geoengineering distract from or negate the need for mitigation and adaptation? The Times article tackles this question and makes some interesting points. First, it seems unlikely that the U.S., given the number of politicians who don’t even believe climate change is happening, will support geoengineering. Second — and a more subtle point – as the riskiness of geoengineering becomes more apparent, that may actually increase interest in less drastic paths. “If people realize that the dangers of climate change are such that geoengineering is being considered, they may work harder to avoid the need for it.”

That would be a happy, if indirect, result: geoengineering research as a means to a different end. It just seems unfortunate that we’d need to waste money and attention on geoengineering in order to get where we should be going in the first place.

Does An Environmentalist Have To Be a Treehugger?

photo by David Bergman

photo by David Bergman

Am I biophilically challenged? And does that diminish my eco cred?

One of the talks I’ve given at recent conferences is titled “Nature in Cities/Cities in Nature,” and among the topics I discuss is biophilia. As defined by E.O. Wilson, who literally wrote the book, biophilia is “the innately emotional affiliation of human beings to other living organisms,” our genetically determined affinity as human beings with the natural world.

When I get to the biophilia section of my talk, I get personal. I “confess” that we don’t have any plants in our apartment, that I’m not exactly the great outdoors type (cue the Eva Gabor lines from the old TV show Green Acres “New York is where I’d rather stay. I get allergic smelling hay.”) and I don’t feel deprived if I don’t escape the supposed confines of the city. In fact, my wife and I often feel the opposite when we take a rare excursion to areas where trees outnumber lampposts.

So what to make of the common advice (sometimes admonishment) that we all need a bit of Henry Thoreau in us? (It’s worth noting, by the way, that Thoreau’s sojourn in his Walden Pond cabin was actually pretty short.) How should I react to an article like this recent one titled “Why your career needs a walk in the woods?

In my talk, I find two faults in this idea that you can only appreciate nature and only be a “real” environmentalist if you yearn for cold water showers and mosquito bites. One lies in the hair shirt back-to-the-earth philosophy that many treehuggers identify with and that, simultaneously, many non-treehuggers identify environmentalists with. I see no reason why that’s a prerequisite for appreciating nature.

Is it not possible that I might appreciate a tree or a squirrel MORE because I see them less frequently?  And more still when I see them within the concrete “jungle?”

The other fault is in the presumption that one can only find nature out in, well, nature. Seems a bit of a circular definition. One of the tenets of many environmental concepts is that humanity is not separate from nature and that it’s only when we regard ourselves as something apart from – and perhaps superior to – nature that we get into trouble ecologically.

If we are not separate from nature, then logically our cities are not unnatural. They are no more unnatural than, say, a beaver’s dam or a termite mound. All three alter the previous landscape and put something conforming to the needs of a species in its place. In fact, you could argue that in some ways cities are more natural than a termite mound or a beehive since the latter habitats support only their builders while cities support many organisms beside humans.

Point being that cities are both natural and awash in ecosystems, and one needn’t leave a city to fulfill biophilic or even treehugger-ly needs. So don’t revoke my enviro status in light of my rampant urbanism.

Nature Bats Last and Owns the Stadium

Map by “Shannon1,” via Wikimedia

Map by “Shannon1,” via Wikimedia

What goes around comes around?

It was one of the defining battles of the early environmental movement: would a dam be built across the Hetch Hetchy valley in Yosemite National Park in the early 20th century in order to provide water for post-earthquake San Francisco? Sierra Club founder John Muir, appealing to President (and outdoorsman) Theodore Roosevelt, advocated that the valley should be preserved in its natural condition. In Roosevelt’s other ear, conservationist and founder of the National Forest Service Gifford Pinchot supported “wise use” of resources “for the greatest good for the greatest number in the long run.”

Muir, on the other hand, wrote “”It is impossible to overestimate the value of wild mountains and mountain temples as places for people to grow in, recreation grounds for soul and body. They are the greatest of our natural resources, God’s best gifts. . . .”

In this schism between environmentalists, Pinchot won and the dam was built. To this day, preservationists want the dam removed. The real loser, they would argue, was nature.

The Hetch Hetchy Valley before and after the dam. Images via Wikimedia.

The Hetch Hetchy Valley before and after the dam. Images via Wikimedia.

Well, 100 years later maybe it’s time for payback. A huge fire is currently out of control in Yosemite, and California has declared a state of emergency not just for the immediate area, but for San Francisco, 140 miles away. The reason? The city’s electric and water supplies may be in jeopardy. 85% of the city’s water comes from the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, which may get contaminated with smoke and ash, and, furthermore, there are major electrical transmission lines in the, um, line of fire.

I haven’t read whether the cause of the fire has been determined, if it was natural or human, or whether forestry policies contributed to its spread.  But the potential irony is there. Muir and nature may have lost the initial battle, but the war – which is how some still see our relationship to nature – is far from over, and nature, provider of oxygen and water and a few other life essentials, holds a stronger hand than we do. One wonders how long that “long run” of Pinchot’s wise use is.

Teddy Roosevelt and John Muir at Yosemite

Teddy Roosevelt and John Muir at Yosemite

 

Nature Unnaturally: Wrongest Product Awards nominees dropped from the sky

Having recently returned from a conference in Mexico City, my EcoOptimism topics list is overflowing with ideas for posts. One of them appeared in the seat pouch of my return flight.

The conference topic was “Restoring Paradise,” with a focus on bringing nature back to the city. So it was with amusement that I mindlessly scanned the Skymall catalog while waiting for takeoff and found some, shall we say inventive, ways to reincorporate nature in our lives.

In my talk at Mexico City, I discussed, among other forms of urban greenery, living walls and vertical gardens. But they require so much effort (not). Here’s the answer for the true urbanite, the kind who has genetically evolved without a green thumb:

Faux nature in Skymall

Faux nature in Skymall

Next nominee:

Here in NYC, we don’t often have utility boxes on our lawns, in some cases simply because we don’t have lawns. But we do have the rather disgusting system of putting our garbage out on the sidewalk in  big  black plastic bags. Well, now we can hide them in “natural” elements, if by natural you allow that they can be made of polyethylene.

Added benefit: helps keep rats out.

skymall2c-72

I also spent some time in Mexico City talking about biophilia, the theory that says we all have an innate tendency to focus on life and lifelike processes. Here’s a way to focus on the lifelike aspect without the encumbrances of actual life. Note the presumably Faux Ivy Trellis (see above) in the background.

skymall3d-72

On a separate note, but still related to the Wrongest Product Awards, Lloyd Alter over at Treehugger.com, expounds on the Holstein Pet Treat Maker. He had submitted it a few days earlier for the Wrongest Product Awards, which he linked in his post.  So I’ll officially add it to the nominations, though I’d have to say it’s a tad premature to declare, as his post concludes, “we just won.”

PetTreatMaker

Holstein Pet Treat Maker/Promo image via Treehugger.com

 

The Wrongest Product Awards will go to those products (and their designers) that embody the least amount of redeeming value while incurring the use of unnecessary, often gratuitous, materials or energy.

How is this relevant to EcoOptimism, you might ask? Easy – it shows how extraneous so many products are, often in a “what-were-they-thinking” sense.

Nominations are open. Send yours to ImNotBuyinIt (at) EcoOptimism.com.