Archive for February, 2008

There’s nothing like a passion for gardening to sharpen your awareness of environmental change.

Gardeners need to know when the last frosts end; the number of ‘cooling days’ available to fix their apples; when the soil will be warm enough to plant the summer vegetables – and plenty more – if they’re to garden in any kind of traditional sense.

Here at EarthQuaker we admit to such a passion, although not without a little discomfort. To garden, after all, is to deliberately alter nature.

Gardeners help save plant species and heirloom varieties and offer wildlife sanctuary, to be sure, but they’re also a major conduit for invasive plants, bugs and pathogens. And the desire to grow varieties that your local climate wouldn’t support without added water and fertilizer is all-too hard for the serious gardener to resist.

That’s one reason why we admire radical ungardeners, who appreciate nature but do very little to alter it.

It’s also a reason why some gardeners seem to be looking forward to global warming with what could only be described as relish.

Take the January issue of the Royal Horticultural Society’s magazine, the Garden. Its theme is ‘Gardening in a Changing Climate.’ While the issue devotes much space to the negative impact of climate change on native British plants and animals, its editors are also clearly interested in exploring the ‘upside’ of Global Warming. Along with ‘possible losers of a changing climate,’ the magazine lists possible winners that it knows its readers are itching to grow — beautiful bougainvillea, striking agave, tasty figs.

So here’s another reminder that while climate change is destabilizing, it will also benefit some people in some concrete ways.

And with that comes the realization that any efforts to seriously slow that change must convince those ‘winners’ of the need for change as much as those of us it devastates.

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It’s always struck us EarthQuakers as odd that golfers have long been allowed to portray their sport as beneficial to the environment. Golf course owners are adept, for example, at receiving tax breaks, on the grounds that they protect ‘green’ space.

For sure, the first golf courses were relatively low impact. They were carved out of temperate coastal ‘links‘ areas, most of which was left untouched, and with the turfed tee and putting-green areas watered by natural rainfall.

But as the game has spread around the world, and as the idea of what a course should look like has changed, the typical course has become a voracious consumer of water and a reliable vector for vast amounts of inorganic chemical run-off in the form of fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides.

So we’re cheered, here, by the news that in America golf is a game in apparent decline. Or it’s at least over-extended itself. The NY Times reports this week that “Between 1990 and 2003, developers built more than 3,000 new golf courses in the United States, bringing the total to about 16,000.” Now, it turns out, many are going bankrupt as Americans lose interest in playing the game.

The report cites people’s general busyness, changing family values and a culture less interested in exercise as reasons for the change. Another factor, though, may be that more and more Americans are recognizing that to be on a golf course is to be in only a simulacrum of nature — and one that too often directly threatens nature, to boot.

Is it time, we wonder, to scale down golf’s global footprint? Let it stay, perhaps, on those sandy coastal bluffs, where it can co-exist quite nicely with the native flora and fauna. But let those thousands of other courses earn their tax breaks, finally, by reverting back into space that’s truly green.

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As befits advocates of ‘slow’ living, here at EarthQuaker we’re just now working our way through last year’s New Yorker magazines.

Back in May, Steven Shapin reviewed books about technology and innovation. One interesting point he discusses is the connection between technology and maintenance.

The importance of maintenance becomes even clearer if we take a global view. . . . as things get older they tend to move from rich countries to poor ones, from low-maintenance to high-maintenance environments. In many African, South Asian, and Latin-American countries, used vehicles imported from North America, Western Europe, and Japan live on almost eternally, in constant contact with numerous repair shops. Maintenance doesn’t simply mean keeping those vehicles as they were; it may mean changing them in all sorts of ways—new gaskets made from old rubber, new fuses made from scrap copper wire.

It’s a perspective that’s both refreshing and almost completely alien to American consumer culture. The dollar costs of a repair in the US (if you can even find someone to do it) relative to just buying a new version of whatever you broke means that repair is something most Americans never consider for a huge range of goods.

While Shapin’s main concern is to show what thinking about maintenance does to our concept of innovation, it impacts our wider understanding of consumer culture, too.

If we used an environmental lifecycle accounting model to price all goods, for example, repair would become much more economically attractive.

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The NY Times this week manages to put a uniquely patronizing spin on the growing awareness among middle class American parents that they could be living more environmentally-friendly lives.

” Move over, Tupperware. The EcoMom party has arrived,” says Patricia Leigh Brown in the piece. And that’s basically all she has to say.

The idea that parents are working actively for a better environment on a local as well as a national scale (the real news in the piece) is interesting. But Brown’s framing does everything it can to diminish what she reports. Try this:

Perhaps not since the days of “dishpan hands” has the household been so all-consuming. But instead of gleaming floors and sparkling dishes, the obsession is on installing compact fluorescent light bulbs, buying in bulk and using “smart” power strips that shut off electricity to the espresso machine, microwave, X-Box, VCR, coffee grinder, television and laptop when not in use.

It’s dispiriting to see mothers’ concerns reduced, once again, to questions of shopping and ‘the household.’ And it’s a shame Brown buys into, rather than questions, gender stereotypes. Okay, so this is what a group of mothers are doing. But is that in concert with, or in defiance of, what the men in their lives are doing? Who knows? That question is only addressed in an utterly uninformative and hoary ‘battle of the genders’ quote towards the close.

Like so much of the piece, it’s essentially played for laughs. “Where there is ecoanxiety, of course, there are ecotherapists,”Brown jokes elsewhere. She ends finding an ‘unsisterly’ bitchiness behind the dialog between the mothers she meets. Well, that’s them summed up, then.

The tone of the story suggests that editors at the Times have a long way to go before they are troubled by ‘eco-anxiety’ themselves.

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The UC Santa Barbara-based National Center for Ecological Synthesis and Analysis has published in today’s Science a “Global Map of Human Impact on Marine Ecosytems.”  You can see the map here.

“We still understand very little of the ocean’s biodiversity and how it is changing under our influence,” says the report, which represents an effort to address that lack of understanding.

Over 40% of our oceans are heavily afected by human activity, the report finds.   “And few if any areas remain untouched.”

The analysis highlights areas where a failure to change what we are doing will cause ever deeper harm.  But in reaching for a positive angle on a pretty sorry story, it also points out that the mapping project can help identify areas where we might be able to continue activities that have relatively little impact.

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Two stories in today’s UK press remind us that Global Warming can be spun as either positive or negative — especially if you live on an island known for long periods of gloom-inducing sunlessness.

“Climate change may kill thousands in UK by 2017,” worries Reuters.

Meanwhile, the BBC tells us that, “Global warming ‘may save lives.'”

Both headlines refer to the same report — from the UK Department of Health.  While more people will survive in warmer winters, the report predicts, more will also die in summer heat.

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Have we entered a new geological epoch? the Christian Science Monitor asks today. Says writer, Robert Cowen:

Geologists wonder if they should add a new epoch to the geological time scale. They call it the Anthropocene — the epoch when, for the first time in Earth’s history, humans have become a predominant geophysical force. Naming such a new epoch would also recognize that humans now share responsibility with natural forces for the state of our planet’s ecological environment.

A group from the Stratigraphy Commission of the Geological Society of London are making the case for the name change this month.

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Natalie Angier writes in the NY Times today about the creation of synthetic microbes. But as interesting is what she reports about new research into the breadth of microbial life on our planet.

She quotes Dr. Craig Venter, of the J. Craig Venter Institute.

“From our random sequencing in the ocean, we uncovered six million new genes,” he said, genes, that is, unlike any yet seen in any of the mammals, reptiles, worms, fish, insects, fungi, microbes or narcissists that have been genetically analyzed so far. With just that first-pass act of nautical sequencing, Dr. Venter said, “we doubled the number of all genes characterized to date.”

We still don’t know what life really amounts to on our planet.  We keep finding lifeforms surviving in places and circumstances that we previously thought utterly unlivable.

Hearteningly, perhaps, that suggests that, even if we kill off ourselves and all the mammals, reptiles, worms, fish, insects, fungi, microbes or narcissists on the planet with us, life will survive.

But that’s not to justify our doing it, of course.  Indeed, it reminds us that we can’t know the full impact that our planet-altering lifestyles (including the creation of synthetic life forms) are having — since we still know so little about so many of the lifeforms with which we co-exist.

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One issue EarthQuaker cares a lot about is our collective consumption of material objects — especially the kind that get lumped together in the category ‘products.’ How we think of, purchase, use and discard the objects that are sold to us commercially is — after all — a fundamental determinant of our impact on the world.

And asking hard questions about the patterns of thought, habit, and economics that determine our relationships with products is very much part of our plan here.

But we don’t plan to be reductively contra the very idea of products. We like our computers well enough, for example, as well as our bicycles and our attractive new cedar tool-shed-cum-earthquake-kit-storage device.

We don’t long, in other words, for a world without products. We do, however, long for a world that is smart about products (and yes, it could include smart products). And we long to attain those smarts ourselves.

All of that’s also a long justification for why you’ll find some links categorized to your right as ‘stuff’ — they take you to places where you can find — yes — products. But these are places that sell, for the most part, cool eco-friendly things (like our wonderful plastic bag drying rack from Lehman’s, for example). And no, we make no money from the links.

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The New York Times reports today on the extraordinary impact that charging a 33c tax on plastic bags has had in Ireland. The bags are now all but gone from the country and no-one, it seems, is complaining.

Significantly, buying a plastic bag hasn’t been made illegal in Ireland. But soon after the tax came into effect some five years ago, says the article, “carrying them became socially unacceptable.”

It’s a useful illustration of the power of state fiscal policy to encourage environmentally beneficial behavior without having to go so far as banning anything. What Ireland did is arguably preferable, for example, to San Francisco’s decision to ban plastic bags outright.

The experience also points to the potential power of taxation to change environmentally-destructive behavior on a wider scale. A popular candidate tax is a universal carbon tax, as proposed by the likes of Noble prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz. As the comments in reply to Stiglitz’s Guardian article suggest, though, he’s not convinced everyone and there remain enormous barriers to getting all nations and all non-state actors on board.

The plastic bag story gains poignancy, however, when read with Dominique Browning’s affecting op ed in today’s Times about a trip to see retreating glaciers in Patagonia. Here’s how she starts the piece:

“THE most striking thing about the drive out of El Calafate on the way to the Patagonian glaciers is the trash. Sheer, flimsy, white plastic bags, tens of thousands of them, are strewn across acres of land. ”

Let’s hope at the very least that people in Ireland will soon start talking to people in Argentina . . .

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