Friday, January 1, 2021

What's the Year, Again?

It’s my last Thursday in the office before running off on holidays for two weeks. Things have been pretty quiet in the Land Down Under, since Melbourne managed to quash its outbreak with a 112-day lockdown. The Aussies don’t mess around when it comes to public health. So when two new covid cases crop up in the Northern Beaches suburb of Sydney, they make headlines immediately. 

Don't worry, I got it!

Friday begins with a 40-minute walk laden with a big pack on my back, a daypack on the front, and a couple of canvas bags with hiking boots I need to return, half a cauliflower, and a hungarian chili plant. While news continues to trickle in, the number of cases in Sydney growing to 28, I attempt productivity. My train leaves for Sydney at 5pm. We are heading to Tasmania for a grand adventure on Sunday. But by the time I make it to G’s house, other States have already banned anyone from the Northern Beaches from crossing their borders.

Now, the infected suburbs are not particularly close to the central part of Sydney, but I still mask up as I bravely enter a crowded shopping centre to return the shoes. Hardly anyone has a mask on, but until two days ago, there had been no COVID-19 cases in the community. Saturday ticks along at a leisurely pace, with a bit of packing and prep. And then it happens. Tasmania announces a mandatory two-week quarantine for anyone traveling from the Greater Sydney Region … in effect midnight. We’re supposed to be flying in less than 24 hours. The next few hours are a blur. Should we cancel? Should we quarantine? Why won’t the airline website let us cancel? All the trains back to Canberra are booked out for tomorrow? Did we eat dinner yet? 

Sunday morning sourdough blueberry pancakes and virtual coffee club with friends overseas feels normal, relaxed. It’s early, but we have a plan. We’ll head back to Canberra on the first train on Monday morning, and work while waiting out the two weeks before being able to travel to Tasmania. Easy. I’m already packed. Too easy. We head out for an early evening cycle to the beach, just to breathe in the sea spray before heading inland once again. The calm of the little bay. The playful splashing and swimming. Ding. Hey Rachel, A friend just told me that ACT is closing the border to Greater Sydney, at midnight tonight … apparently hotel quarantine, even for residents. Shoot. It’s already 7pm, a 3 ½ hour drive to Canberra, and we have no car. Do we try to hire a car? Not likely. Can we get the bus back tonight? Too late. Should we take the train tomorrow and just quarantine? Assuming the train still crosses the border… Should we stay in Sydney? What if there is another lockdown? For how long? Can we borrow a car?

Two hours later I’m driving back to the house from a friend’s. It’s the first time in over a year I’ve driven an automatic. It feels funny. Smooth. Too easy. We throw everything in the car. We can make it back by 1am. That should be OK, right? Who will be at the border at the strike of midnight? Did we eat dinner? No. It takes a solid hour to emerge from the dancing lights of the metropolitan area, my glasses doing no favours responding to the lights. Then it’s smooth, monotonous, Simon-and-Garfunkel-filled driving back into the desolate capital city. We roll in bleary-eyed. Breathe out. 

That weekend felt like a microcosm of the ups-and-downs year. While Australia has remained pretty far out of the pandemic fray, it is in no small part because of this decisive, yet abrupt action (and a generally willing population). I’ve had friends in the US argue that they have more cases in one hospital than all of Australia. Yet this has been paid for with long and stringent lockdowns, the emotional roller coaster of knowing a border could shut at any moment, and the uncertainty of when we’ll be able to leave the island to see family.

Ah, the serenity!

2020 has been mentally and emotionally exhausting for everyone. It seems like a lifetime ago that we sat on the eve of the new year and decade. At the time, a raging fire season was the peak of our worries. But pandemic woes have overshadowed most everything else in 2020, including our environmental consciousness (though, perhaps exacerbated any election year stress). For one, the Trump administration has capitalised on the distraction to accelerate environmental deregulation, plow on with an ecologically damaging border wall, and open up protected federal lands to drilling and mining. Unsurprisingly, this year will see an uptick in waste generation - from just over a billion tests worldwide, countless masks and materials for PPE, packaging from online shopping, and the shift to take-away meals and drinks. That paper also mentions the potential negatives of constant sanitiser and disinfectant use on ecological communities! On the positive side, researchers are finding that reduced travel has potentially contributed to improvements in air pollution and water quality around the world. And, it has raised a bit of awareness that biodiversity loss can lead to the rise of zoonotic diseases … now we just to do something about it!!

So to end this long post, for this long year, I just want to acknowledge that it has been challenging no matter where you are in the world. But there have been bright spots*, and it’s important to keep those in sight! Here’s looking to a more sane, less eventful, and restorative 2021. Happy New Year!

Take a peek at the preceding decade:

Another Decade Bites the Dust - 2019

Another Year in the Books - 2018

The Sun Sets on 2017

The Best of Times, The Worst of Times - 2016

Another Decade, Another Degree - 2015

One Hodge-Podge of a Year - 2014

New Year's Resolution - 2013

A Year in Food - 2012

New Year, Empty Fridge - 2011

A New Year's Resolution - 2010

It's a New Year! - 2009

* Did I mention I finished my last (fingers-crossed) bit of higher education, and received my PhD this year?

Sunday, December 13, 2020

Not Your Grandpa's Planet

Wow, this post has taken a long time to go live. In part, it’s because I’ve felt a bit paralysed by how much has happened and changed in the intervening 18 months. I started writing this musing back in February 2019. My grandfather would have turned 100 at the end of that month. And it was hard to wrap my head around - how different life was a century ago and the change he must have seen during his 95 years. In 1919, the world’s population was hovering around 1.9 billion people, much of the world had just finished the “War to End all Wars” and formed the precursor to the United Nations (the League of Nations), the 19th Amendment that legalised women’s right to vote was ratified by the US congress (and went into effect in 1920), and the first transAtlantic flight was made. But times have changed. We now have 7.7 billion people occupying a globalised planet, with technological advances previously only dreamed about in science fiction. 

But perhaps the adjustments my grandfather would have had to make during his 95 years are actually not quite as astounding as the anticipated ones for my generation. While the world was a very different place 100 years ago, how quickly those shifts are happening seems to have increased. Change is a natural progression over time, with both positive and negative aspects. So while examining the changes occurring around us can be interesting, perhaps a more informative barometer in society are the rates at which these changes are taking place. The rate - in this case, some measure of the scale of change over a set period of time - gives a sense of how the changes we're experiencing in the here-and-now compare to those say 50 or 100 years ago. It is also useful when thinking about how people respond and adapt.

While I’d like to say entering a new decade in 2020 prompted this post, rate of change is actually something I started thinking about while in Indonesia. The shiny new subway system in Jakarta was set to open a month later, and I was astounded by how much development had occurred in the city over the past couple of years. Going back home to Seattle only reinforced these thoughts, as the city has been undergoing rapid development in the last half decade, with increasing wealth and population driven to the region. We see this around the world, with
completely new cities being built and existing ones reaching scales never before experienced in human history.

But it’s not just about the rate of development. In fact, one might argue that pales in comparison to the impacts of rapid progress of technology and subsequent impacts on society, the economy, and the environment. The phenomenon, the “Law of Accelerating Returns”, refers to exponential advances in technology, completely reshaping the world as we know it, and suggests it may be difficult to even imagine where we will be in 100 years. I think Tim Urban in an article on ‘Wait, but Why?’ about artificial intelligence (AI) articulates the issue well. He muses that “while 1500 and 1750 were very different, they were much less different than 1750 to 2015. The 1500 guy would learn some mind-bending shit about space and physics, he’d be impressed with how committed Europe turned out to be with that new imperialism fad, and he’d have to do some major revisions of his world map conception.” But to see the same extent of change as between 1750 and 2015, he might have to go “all the way back to about 12,000 BC, before the First Agricultural Revolution gave rise to the first cities and to the concept of civilization”.

Finally, it’s worth noting that one-hundred years ago, the world was just emerging from a global pandemic (H1N1 influenza strain), which killed around 50 million people and infected a third of the world’s population. While in some ways
it seems like we haven’t come very far - COVID-19 is still raging a year in, politics and misinformation also counter productive efforts, and scientists race to find a “cure” - there are some key differences that make today an entirely different beast, largely due to technology. Social media, virtual communication tools, and widely accessible internet resources mean that we’re more connected than ever, in isolation. But it has also opened the door for an unprecedented reliance on technologies that are advancing at warp speed (check out The Social Dilemma). 

Sometimes I wonder, as we absorb such massive changes so quickly, what are the long-term consequences? Are such enormous shifts desirable? And if not, what can be done to slow things down? While it may be that only time can tell, it may be necessary that we may not have that time.

Sunday, March 29, 2020

Climate In the Time of Coronavirus

“wisdom comes to us when it can no longer do any good.” - Gabriel García Márquez, Love in the Time of Cholera 

Full disclosure, I haven't actually read Love in the time of Cholera (GGM of choice at uni was One Hundred Years of Solitude). But what I really wanted to write about right now, was the environment in these trying times of SARS-CoV-2 and its disease counterpart of CoViD-19. The scale and spread of this pandemic have increasingly dominated headlines since late January, when the cases in China began to make the international news. Yet during this time, there has also been concern that the all-consuming nature of dealing with a pandemic has already eclipsed some current natural disasters and may distract from making meaningful progress towards addressing another existential threat - climate change. I'll start with the negatives, and end on a slightly more optimistic note.

Locust Swarm
Locust Swarm in Madagscar. Source: Laika ac
Yes, cancelled meetings and the prospect of economic recovery are likely to derail negotiations and international coordination on climate action, but Mother Nature is letting herself be known in other ways that are just not getting the attention they deserve. And while COVID-19 and complications has already killed over 30,000 people globally, it is important to recognise that persistent challenges like hunger have profound impacts on far more people annually. Climate-change-exacerbated disasters this year have already undermined the ability of residents in many countries across the low latitudes to meet their food and livelihood needs.

In the last few months, locust swarms - the worst seen in 25 years - have decimated crops in parts of Africa and the Middle East. Why are locust swarms more severe under climate change? The likely culprit is a combination of higher CO2, warmer temperatures, and heavier rainfall from cyclones stimulating plant growth and ensuring both favourable breeding conditions and food supply for these little hoppers. Numbering in the billions, locusts can consume 80-100% of the crops in an infested region, furthering undermining food security for tens of millions of people.

In other news, Vietnam's Mekong Delta has experienced extreme drought and salinisation, putting the country's major rice growing region at risk. In contrast, more extreme rainfall has caused flooding and landslides in Brasil. Finally, closer to my current home, people in Australia are still recovering from the bushfires late last year, which burnt nearly 25million hectares of forest and displaced thousands of people. And, on top of all this, the Great Barrier Reef is bleaching ... again.

Although all this makes the world seem like it's falling apart, having a pandemic force the global cogs to a grinding halt has some ancillary benefits. For one, economic slowdown and fewer vehicles seem to have reduced levels of air pollution in some major cities and regions, such as Beijing, China and Lombardy, Italy. On the climate change mitigation side, people are traveling less on both air and land, and emissions have consequently gone down. In the last two weeks, commercial air traffic has plunged 40% from 2019 levels, and airlines continue to cut international routes!

Working from home on those paper revisions
However, the effects on both air pollutants and greenhouse gas emissions are directly tied to the lock-down circumstances we as consumers currently find ourselves in. A researcher at Yale suggested that the longer CoViD-19 sticks around, the deeper into recession the global economy will fall. This usually corresponds to lower emissions, but also potentially less investment in alternatives to fossils fuels. That said, I do wonder if the current adoption of certain key behaviours - such as "telecommuting" and more awareness around food supplies and waste - might in fact act as a catalyst for shifting behaviours more permanently. If anything, we are testing the boundaries of virtual work, teaching, and socialising environments.

Going back to Garcia-Marquez's all-too-apt warning, in the case of the climate and our environment, we can't afford to wait for hindsight. The loss of lives and damages to communities because of this virus are tragedies. Yet, and perhaps even moreso to avoid further such loss and damage, I think we are confronting an unparalleled opportunity: to build a more conscientious and resilient society, and to embrace some drastic shifts in how humanity currently operates. The question is, will we take the plunge soon, or wait until the wisdom comes to us ...

Friday, January 3, 2020

Another Decade Bites the Dust

We’ve finally reached that fabled year of 2020. This has seemed a far distant marker for so long, often serving as a benchmark for reaching ambitious targets or achieving technological advances. Yet, it simply marks another one of Earth’s orbits around the sun. As such, expecting earth-shattering changes to suddenly manifest seems a bit unreasonable. That said, the issues we’ve explored in this blog have indeed evolved over that time. I wanted to take a quick look at a few big topics of interest in 2019, and reflect a bit on what is still a challenge and where we’ve made progress since 2010.

A smoky sunset in Southeast Queensland
Deforestation, biodiversity loss, and fires, oh my!
My Munchable Musings was largely founded on the concerns over connections between deforestation, biodiversity loss, and food production systems. And while I’ve written a fair bit about drivers of forest loss (e.g. oil palm) and conservation of biological diversity, fire has not featured prominently on the blog in the past. But this year, forest fires across the world have made headlines, repeatedly. The Huffington Post even called 2019 the Year the World Burned, citing massive fires in Australia, California, Brazil, Indonesia, Russia, and Lebanon. Global Forest Fire Watch estimated that in 2018, around 3.6 million hectares of tropical forest was lost to fire, an area the size of Belgium (though, note, that this year over 4 million hectares of forest have also burned in Australia alone). 

The implication of these losses are not just the immediate effects on habitat, species, property, and air quality: burning vegetation releases carbon dioxide (and other greenhouse gases) into the atmosphere, contributing to climate change and elevating fire weather conditions; humid forest fragmentation and loss influences local precipitation and can possibly cause a shift to more arid ecosystems like savanna; and forest habitats often take decades to recover, leaving wildlife without a home for the intervening years. If you want a rundown on the year for tropical forests, Mongabay has put together a pretty comprehensive retrospective post on the topic. Although fire has been a common part of many of these landscapes, a combination of poor policy decisions, destructive land use practices, and climate-change-induced higher temperatures and drier conditions have pushed fire from a concern to a catastrophe in the last decade.

Climate marchers start young!
Climate strikes and climate emergency
On a related yet separate note, climate change has also steam-rolled its way into the public consciousness this year. Changes in climate - including increased global average temperatures, more intense extreme weather events, and shifts in rainfall timing and intensity - have been projected, refined, and communicated with increasing urgency over the last few decades. Ten years ago, the Cancun Agreements were established at the 16th UN Framework Convention on Climate Change conference, which set the groundwork for financing of climate projects in developing nations and highlighted adaptation. And while the world may have briefly rejoiced at the end of 2015, when the most ambitious agreement was made in Paris, international climate policy has merely limped along (not to mention a slightly disappointing UNFCCC this year). In the past year, however, we’ve seen a massive rise in public outcry over climate inaction, catalysed by none other than a Swedish high-school girl.

While I still worry that, on the whole, we are doing too little too late, I feel inspired and more optimistic by the fact that climate strikes spear-headed by youth have grown rapidly in the last year. The last two Fridays of September marked massive climate marches across the globe, trying to elevate the issue to the emergency it deserves. It was also such a contrast to the levels of energy and urgency at the first climate change rally I went to back in 2013. There were 35,000 people marching through the streets in Washington, DC. On 27 September, in Montreal, half a million people took to the streets. So despite some critical political incompetence, I think there is hope that the tables are turning and change can happen quickly. 

How to feed the world
The first two topics in this post mostly focus on problems, but this last one could be considered solutions-oriented: plant-based diets. Now, understandably, this blog has sat in the vegan camp for the last decade, but I have discussed meat and the impacts of livestock on the planet at length before. The crux of the issue is that raising livestock (especially those bovine belchers…) contributes substantially to greenhouse gas emissions through land clearing for pasture and feed production, and natural ruminant gut processes. Mid-decade, we started to see a growing number of researchers calling for a reduction in meat in people’s diets or even complete global transitions to vegetarianism in response to environmental and health concerns. But I think the biggest development in the last year or so, is the rise of mainstream fake meat products and the stir they’ve caused on the global stage.

We are well passed the age of Garden Burgers and Tofurkey deli slices that characterised my teen and university years as a vegetarian. With the development of more passable meat substitutes, like the Impossible Burger and Beyond Meat, fast-food chains and even meat giants like Tyson have embraced the trend and rolled out plant-based options. The Economist chalked up some of this proliferation to a shift in lifestyle and the associated high demand for vegan products among Millennials; however, the total vegetarian and vegan population remains woefully low (less than 5%). Despite strict meat-free diets remaining firmly in the minority, there has been conspicuous speculation about the consequences of the world going vegan (not all of which are positive - e.g. negative impacts on developing countries). But that’s what is a bit confusing to me; this is not an all-or-nothing affair nor does it seem likely that the entire world is trending toward plant-based. But better meat-free options mean that people have choices, which make it easier to reduce consumption if not necessarily eliminate it. And for high-meat-consuming developed countries, like the USA and those in Europe, this is what really matters.

Hopefully, that brought this post back to a positive note. Since I’ve been completely remiss about blogging this past year, I don't have much to rehash from a year of posting. But, since I just submitted my PhD thesis, keep an eye out for more musings in 2020!

Catch up on the last ten years… 

Sunday, July 28, 2019

Missing the Forest for the Trees?

If you pay any attention to environmental conservation issues, you've probably heard of the big bad three: agriculture, logging, and mining. Most of the blame for habitat destruction and degradation, and biodiversity loss, is placed on these industries (and there's even a Nature Comment piece telling us this is the case ... but also hunting). Discussions naturally turn to how we can stop such harmful activities in places that have been deemed areas of high conservation value. We create national parks and protected areas, restricting the extent and intensity of these activities, policing the borders for infractions. We get companies to sign onto zero deforestation commitments. Sovereign nations sign onto treaties, conventions, agreements, that say they pledge to save X% of land, set aside Y% of coastal areas or the exclusive economic zones in marine systems. 

This may get us somewhere - though the evidence we're actually conserving things is limited at best. But to me, it seems that we are treating little cuts and scrapes, when there's actually internal bleeding. We can keep bandaging our wounds, but the deeper issues are not going to get better on their own, and they will probably end up killing us in the long run.

Ok, that's pretty melodramatic! How do my mediocre medical analogies relate to conservation? Well, for one, agriculture is a major driver of forest loss and land cover change, and so we do things to keep agriculture out. But this is a proximate cause. We have agriculture because there is demand for livestock feed, for oil crops to use in processed foods and beauty products, for food to sustain a massive and growing population despite astounding amounts of waste. These ultimate driving forces are part of bigger societal challenges and forces of globalisation; conservation does not happen in a bubble.

I'll elaborate on this shortly, but you might be wondering what prompted this serious musing. Well, the 29th International Congress for Conservation Biology just wrapped up, where over 2,000 natural and social scientists and conservation practitioners came together to inch along towards solving some of our major conservation crises. It was the question after I presented on community forests that caught me off-guard: is it fair? Who are we to demand that communities take on responsibility for conservation? Now, this was definitely not the message I was going for, but the question struck a chord and got me thinking about how much conservation redirects responsibility. While likely not conscious, this tendency might have roots in colonial legacies, but it also mirrors other environmental justice issues. For instance, the countries emitting the highest levels of greenhouse gases are not the same as those most vulnerable to climate change and least able to adapt. The nations that are the most to blame are also not stepping up and drastically reducing their emissions (but we sure are suggesting how other countries should develop). Many of us, in the west-centred conservation field, focus on trying to fix what is "broken" in other places, while side-lining the major role we play in breaking it in the first place. 

Curtis, et al. 2018. Science.
So let's come back to our big bad three; I'll focus on agriculture, which is the single largest culprit. Expansion of crop and grazing lands has been estimated to account for over a quarter of forest loss, and up to 80% in tropical and subtropical forests (and Queensland is no exception). The Union for Concerned Scientists published a report a few years ago that put the microscope on the industry: beef and dairy cattle ranching (about half the deforestation in South America) is the largest driver; soy production has doubled in the last two decades for livestock feed and oils; area under oil palm has skyrocketed in Southeast Asia to supply processed foods needs and biofuels; and finally timber and wood products still drive about 10% of deforestation globally.

We know that the bulk of this forest (and savannah!) loss occurs in South and Central America, Africa, and Southeast Asia. While beef consumption is apparently often in the same country of production, consumption of animal products generally positively relate to a country's GDP. China, the USA, India, and Brazil may be the largest consumers of soy, but Mexico, The Netherlands, Japan, and Spain also sit among the top importers. Palm oil's biggest consumers are China, India, and the EU (none of which are major producers).

It's not that nothing is happening to address these activities. There are initiatives through the IUCN and CBD to build a business case for conserving biodiversity. Sustainability standards for industry and finance are increasingly visible. And individual companies adopt corporate social (and environmental) responsibility policies. However, these industries will always be pulled toward profit and filling global demand. Government regulation can stymy rampant expansion, but it can't curb everything without shifting consumption patterns.

I don't have answers. Yet what seems to be missing in conservation is acknowledgement that proximate drivers of habitat and biodiversity loss aren't the root causes, and that we need more serious discussion around the deeper issues of consumption more generally. There needs to be more conversation like the one at ICCB in 2015 on countering capitalistic conservation. Perhaps we need to interact more with the Degrowth and Circular Economy communities. Regardless, business as usual is not going to get us where we need to be.  

Related posts:
Jingle the waste away (December 2016)
What is natural? (February 2015)