The Washington Post reports on some new research coming out of the DC metro area that suggests that geese, bears, deer, livestock, and other wildlife are major contributors to rising levels of bacteria in the Potomac and Anacostia Rivers.
The article contends that the high percentages of bacteria are the result of “unnaturally high populations of deer, geese and raccoons living in modern suburbs and depositing their waste there.”
Of course one of the reasons that there are “unnaturally high populations” is because low-intensity suburban sprawl destroys prevailing ecological systems and certain species are better able to adapt than others. Curiously, these species are the ones tagged by the article as the “wildlife” responsible for the high levels of pollution.
Thus, it doesn’t seem entirely accurate to talk of “wildlife” waste as something emanating separately from human activities. In fact, high populations of one of the more polluting species–non-migratory Canadian geese–are apparently decendents of geese brought to the mid-Atlantic region as hunting decoys.
The distinctions between “wildlife” and human behavior are not quite so clear.
The Christian Science Monitor has a pretty basic article today on environmental challenges facing the United States as the nation’s population reaches 300 million people.
The article mentions such things as the rising amount of farmland being changed to development and the fact that new land development is rising at a rate twice as fast as population. These issues are significant, but in framing the issue as one of simple population increases, it obscures the real challenge: how the nearly 300 million Americans live and the ecological processes that support this particular way of life.
The problem is less the raw number of people and the rate of population growth; rather it is the fact that per capita consumption of ecological space far surpasses that of other countries. The article does mention the “ecological footprint” of the US, but doesn’t unpack the global processes that undergird our practice of mass consumption. Instead, it goes on to talk about federal environmental legislation enacted a year ago and fails to mention the fact that many of the important enviornmental protections have been eroded by lax regulatory enforcement and redefinitions over the past several years.
The article does have a telling graphic, however, that compares the US to other countries’ ecological footprints:
According to the tech website, Cnet, a European Commission task force on the environment has announced a voluntary program spearheaded by Nokia which will encourage cell phone consumers to unplug their phones once they are fully charged.
The seemingly insignificant practice of leaving a cell phone plugged into a charger after the phone is fully charged is a prime example of a cumulatively collossal waste of energy. The Cnet article indicates that if 10% of the world’s cell phone users unplugged their phone upon full recharge, enough electricity would be saved to power 60,000 European homes.
Under this scheme, the cell phone manufacturers will develop alerts on the phones which will give an indication when a phone is fully charged.
The significance of this step is hard to determine, but it represents a common practice on the part of large industrial producers of polluting commodities: developing voluntary changes in corporate practice in order to stave off governmental regulation.
In his post-Presidency days Bill Clinton has established a high-profile humanitarian effort called the Clinton Global Initiative. The purpose of the initiative is to bring together global power-brokers annually who pledge to develop a particular project that will contribute to resolving a pressing social problem. If you don’t follow through on your commitment, you don’t get invited back the following year.
It may not be sufficient enough to solve all of the world’s problems, but the results-based approach is rather ambitious. This year one of the issues the CGI is tackling is climate change and today, Sir Richard Branson–the head of the British-based Virgin conglomerate–pledged $3 billion to address global warming.
The sum is staggering. However, Bronson’s pledge is to invest the money in one of his own start-up companies, Virgin Fuels. The company has been in the works for several months with the goal to expand research into cellulosic ethanol. Branson has a distinct business interest in the development of biofuels, as his airline company could benefit greatly from lower fuel costs.
Whether this initiative will really be able to solve global warming is debatable. Ethanol is currently highly subsidized and requires a significant amount of energy & water intensive inputs. Furthermore, Bronson’s supposed “philanthropy” within the context of the Clinton Global Initiative is suspect given the fact that he was going to invest hundreds of millions of dollars anyway into this project.
Nevertheless, I expect Sir Richard to be invited back to New York next year.
In the interim, Friday is the last day of this year’s meetings and there is an interesting session on “Cities of the Future” featuring Jaime Lerner, the former mayor of Curitaba, Brazil–a city known for innovative sustainable urban development schemes. Today featured sessions on “Building a Sustainable Future” featuring Al Gore and “Energy and Climate Change.”
Follow the links above to view archived video of the sessions.
The Chicago Tribune today reports on the growing numbers of people in poverty in Chicago’s suburbs. According to the article:
The recent census figures show the poverty rate in suburban Cook County rose to 8.2 percent in 2005, up from 6.4 percent in 1999. The figure was 5.3 percent in 1989.
The article attributes the rise to the search for affordable housing by low-wage earning, immigrant families. Chicago still has a higher proportion of its population in poverty than the suburbs, with more than 18% of its families living below poverty. However, the rising number in the suburbs indicates that the issue is becoming more regional.
Wal-Mart scored a victory here in Illinois this week as the Chicago City Council failed to uphold Mayor Daley’s veto of the big-box minimum wage law that was aimed at the country’s largest retailer.
The company’s problems continue elsewhere, however. In Hercules, California–a bedroom community in the suburban Bay-area county of Contra Costa–the city is continuing its pursuit of undeveloped property owned by Wal-Mart as part of its redevelopment efforts.
In Hercules, the effort to stop Wal-Mart is motivated less by the company’s notorious labor practices than by the potential impact a large store will have on issues of community identity, environmental impact, and civic design. Hercules has been at the forefront of California communities in embracing the New Urbanist town planning framework. New Urbanism argues for mixed-use and pedestrian friendly development–pretty much the antithesis to what Wal-Mart’s generally bring to a community.
Wal-Mart has owned a desirable piece of property on the town’s waterfront for a number of years, but has been unable to get approval to build its store due to its failure to meet development restrictions that were in place prior to the company’s acquisition of the property.
Given Wal-Mart’s recalcitrance, the city is now trying to pursue a forced acquisition of the property by using its strengthened eminent domain powers. This should be an important case to follow, as Hercules’ approach could be followed by other communities seeking to challenge big box development.
The latest outbreak of E.coli has been linked to bagged spinach produced by the ironically-named Natural Selection Foods, based in California. Given the nature of E. coli and its ability to quickly and quietly infect proximate food, there may still be other products infected by the deadly virus.
The current problems facing Natural Selection Foods, which sells its produce under both its Earthbound Farm Organic brand and through the private brands of companies like Trader Joe’s, is a good example of the ways in which the organic foods industry has changed over the last couple of decades.
Moving from a rather insignificant percentage of food production to a large segement of the marketplace in relatively quick order, contemporary organic production has become more like industrial agriculture–mono-cultural, large-scale, and increasingly consolidated. These characteristics undermine the integrative, ecological understandings of organics that many consumers still see as the major advantage of these products over conventionally-produced foods.
The New York Times has a good article today on how these tensions are being experienced in the organic dairy industry as Wal Mart gets more involved in selling organic products. It seems that their main supplier–Aurora Organic Dairy–arranges its dairy operation more on an industrial model. It confines its cows, gives them a diet dominant in corn-feed rather than the more natural grass, and milks them with great frequency. The Wisconsin-based watchdog group, The Cornucopia Institute, filed a complaint earlier this year with the US Department of Agriculture charging that Aurora is not compliant with organic standards.
The food blog, The Ethicurean, has a nice review of a recent book by Samuel Fromartz called, Organic Inc., which looks at the development of the organic movement into a large-scale industry.
The Wall Street Journal reports on the recent endorsement by the World Health Organization–the United Nations public health arm–for the use of the insecticide DDT as a way to prevent the spread of malaria in Africa and Asia.
DDT was sprayed extensively throughout the United States during the 1950s without a real understanding of its environmental consequences. Rachel Carson’s popular book, Silent Spring, was published in 1962 and made an argument that DDT’s use contributed to declining bird and fish populations and constituted a direct threat to human health. The book made quite a splash and, some argue, was the impetus for the US government’s effective ban on the use of DDT some years later.
The insecticide has been legal throughout the world, however, and many poor countries have used it as a short-term cost-effective measure against malaria-spreading mosquitos.
Malaria kills approximately 1 million people per year, but the long-term ecological effects of the insecticide’s widespread use are often ignored by cash-poor governments.
With the WHO endorsing the indoor use of DDT, international lenders such as the World Bank will likely provide more money to DDT projects. Ignored in the embrace of DDT, however, are other policy alternatives, such as eradicating mosquito breeding grounds and developing a malaria vaccine. These alternatives would generally cost more, but they would likely be effective and not have as many detrimential ecological consequences.
Former Chicago Tribune reporter, Merrill Goozner has an interesting interview with Janet Hemmingway, a British expert in tropical medicine who recent received a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to develop alternative insecticides. The Gates Foundation has also put money toward developing a malaria vaccine.
The issue pressing–particularly in parts of Africa. Not only are their hundreds of thousands of people dying due to the disease, but the widespread use of DDT could also threaten African exports, as important importers like the European Union have restrictions on importing commodities that come into contact with DDT .
For several years now, Toronto and other Ontario municipalities have been exporting large amounts of their municipal solid waste to Michigan. The international garbage trade is longstanding–perhaps the most infamous incident took place in 1986 when a barge called the Kihan Sea picked up hazardous incinerator ash from Philadelphia and sailed around the world trying to find a place to dump it before convincing the poor country of Haiti to accept the shipment.
The incident was highly publicized and raised questions about which countries should take the responsiblity for waste they have produced. Generally the more developed countries of North America and Europe were the exporters.
In the early 2000s, with small Ontario communities rejecting expanding or constructing landfills to accomodate the Toronto metropolitan area’s garbage, the provincial government looked south to Michigan for an outlet. For Michigan, a declining manufacturing sector and the need for jobs and revenues contributed to an acceptance of the expansion of a dump 30 miles southwest of Detroit.
Once it became publicized that Toronto was shipping 73,000 pounds of solid waste to Michigan per day, many citizens of Michigan became upset and demanded action from state leadership.
However, because the North American Free Trade Agreement insures that the borders between the US and Canada are open for the exchange of goods–including garbage–there has been little that state politicians could do. International affairs is the purview of the federal government and critics argue that restrictive trade laws dealing with one particular state are potentially unconstitutional.
In the absence of federal legislation, last week Michigan’s Governor, Debbie Stabenow, signed an agreement with the Ontario’s Premier, Dalton McGuinty to phase out municipal waste from the Greater Toronto Area.
This doesn’t stop all of the trash flow–private haulers and certain categories of commercial waste are exempt from the agreement. Nevertheless, it is a unique agreement but questions remain about its long term viability given the fact that it is not legally binding.
Today’s Financial Times has three notworthy artiles on the general theme of sustainability and agriculture. The first two chronicle the problems of certifying “fair trade” coffee. The fair trade movement emerged over the last decade or so as a way for consumers from developed, Western countries to purchase goods originating from less-developed countries that insured that workers received a fair wage and that the products were produced in and environmentally sustainable manner.
Fair trade can be thought of as an alternative to corporate-dominated globalization which relies on lax environmental and labor rules to produce cheap goods for Western consumption. The main problem uncovered by the Financial Times investigation has been that it is very difficult to actually insure that “fair trade” products are actually produced fairly. The fact that the production of crops like coffee occur in small, isolated places makes it easy for producers to skirt the fair trade guidelines by planting in sensitive environments and paying workers less than the minimum wage.
Since consumers have little independent means to verify the efficacy of the certification process, there is little incentive on the part of coffee retailers to insure their coffee is produced fairly. An exception to this is the Chicago-based Intelligentsia, which had cut its ties with the farms investigated by the FT several months ago.
In the FT Weekend section of the paper, they print a review of two recent books by the journalist Michael Pollan (The Omnivore’s Dilemma) and Princeton bio-ethicist Peter Singer (The Way We Eat: Why Our Food Choices Matter) on the problems of our dominant industrial food systems.
I have yet to read either book, but Pollan has written interesting work in the past questioning the corporatization of the organic movement and arguing that local food systems are more environmentally sustainable. Singer looks at ethical issues of eating, which would not only include the rather brutal treatment of animals in the production process, but also how the ways in which we eat contribute to systems of ecological and social exploitation.