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)

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Pies and Procrastibaking

No new pies! These have been on the blog before...
I'm not going to lie, it's been a while. If you thought things were bad while I was finishing my masters, the five month hiatus we've just experienced might have you reconsidering. Although the blog may lie neglected while 99% of my writing energy goes into thesising, the baking has prospered. Some may call it "stress baking" (I do at times), but the term I find most appealing at the moment is "procrastibaking". The former suggests that this enjoyable past-time is stimulated by periods of anxiety, but I find that makes up only a small percentage of the driving forces behind my baking activities. More often, it is for one of three reasons: 
  1. as ritual or routine - I start a sourdough loaf every Friday night or Saturday morning and then relish the wafting aroma of bread fresh out of the oven as the sun rises on Monday morning; 
  2. to express gratitude, affection, and other warm fuzzy feelings - exhibit A: for a while, my sister would find in her mailbox a little tin of homemade shortbread cookies in late January for her birthday. Even if they were slightly stale, they were baked with love...; or
  3. to slow down, meditate, and avoid other less gratifying tasks - feeling the flour, sugar, and oil come together between my fingers often is both relaxing and much more tangible outcomes than typing away at a computer.
My housemates are hilarious...
The last reason captures the essence of procrastibaking. Interestingly, recent research has linked procrastination to emotional barriers rather than an inability to manage time well. While, I'd like to think procrastibaking doesn't go quite as far as the "self-harm" described in this New York Times article, putting "short-term mood repair over the longer-term pursuit of intended actions" seems to fit. Procrastination is a classic case of discounting and distancing - that presentation or thesis chapter outline (or job search...) are future self's problems. Plus, baking is almost always going to be a lot more fun! 

But perhaps it's not fair to associate baking with procrastinatory behaviours, which have such a negative reputation. For those of us who love some nice science to back up our whims, there has also been a recent bit of research suggesting that baking has positive psychological effects and can improve mental health. According to a couple psychology studies, baking can be seen as a little act of creativity that promotes positive emotions, or even a form of mindfulness and meditation, which can help manage symptoms of depression. Apparently, a cake can also be worth a thousand words; baking for others often communicate messages in ways that words can't, particularly during difficult situations, like after the loss of a loved one. 

So, baking justified. As such, maybe it's not too great a leap to convey the joys of baking pies and feeding them to people. It's been nearly five years since my last pie post. This seems like an egregious state of affairs. And so, in celebration of celebrating my birthday with pie (for the fourth time, apparently), I will leave you with favourites from the last ten years.

A Patchwork of Pies
Chocolate Garden Pie (and reminiscing about dirt cups) - September 2015
A Classic Pumpkin Pie (and some seed saving) - February 2014
Spiked Rhubacot Pie (and a birthday pie party) - July 2013
Cardamom Peach Pie (with some food musings and a pie contest) - December 2012
Mushroom Spinach Quiche (and a previous pie party) - March 2012
Rhuberry Peach Crumble Pie (and some history) - July 2010

Past Birthday Posts

Sunday, February 10, 2019

These Feet were Made for Walking

Worth noting this is from a NZ meander, not Brisbane
It was about a month ago. I finally made the leap and ventured on my first bushwalking trip using only public transit and my feet. It only took the nearly three years I've been living in Brisbane. Now, while I love sharing a good wander with a few moderately adventurous, low-key individuals, this little experiment was toute-seule. That meant I had a fair bit of time for thinking - after the work-related list-making and self-reflexive soul-searching, my mind started wandering to an apt topic: the act of walking.

Walking is such a simple, pedestrian activity for many of us, that day-to-day we don't tend to consider what incredible experiences we have at the tips of our toes. By all means, walking can take on considerable, even spiritual, significance. Consider El Camino de Santiago in Spain (and southern France), which sees upwards of 200,000 walkers (now not quite the religious bunch of yesteryears). While ultimately the goal is to reach holy sites, the journey itself is a central part of the experience. 

Unlike many forms of transport, walking requires patience and persistence (where you've pushed past the point of exhaustion) to get from A to B. There isn't the immediate reward, and sometimes it can be hard to stay motivated when there is no end in sight. However, once you've arrived, oh, that is an achievement to revel in.

It's more than that, though. If you think about it, walking is quite empowering.* Place one foot and then the other, propelling yourself forward with determination. And feet can take you to places you can get to no other way, or along routes that are themselves sites to see. Scrambling up creek beds or inching along narrow cliff-side tracks. But also down narrow alleys in old cities, or winding through bustling marketplaces. Walking to reach some place can make you realise that it is, in fact, possible to trust your feet. And I can't count the number of times those very same feet have surprised me with the feat of covering large distances.

Finally, I wanted to give a nod to urban walking. Not every place is designed to make walking enjoyable, easy, or safe. But yesterday, navigating my way around Jakarta jalan-jalan kaki, I got to thinking about how walking cultivates a very different perspective of the city. Rather than a taxi, a bus, or in some places underground rail, going by foot puts you right in the thick of life. You pass through the calm, tree-lined streets (yes, they exist) and the chaotic commercial thoroughfares. Not saying I care much for Jakarta, but I appreciate the experience.

I'm going to end on a quote from John Muir, which I think captures the greater nuances of the words we use to describe movement (here in the context of the word "hike") -
“I don't like either the word [hike] or the thing. People ought to saunter in the mountains - not 'hike!' Do you know the origin of that word saunter? It's a beautiful word. Away back in the middle ages people used to go on pilgrimages to the Holy Land, and when people in the villages through which they passed asked where they were going they would reply, 'A la sainte terre', 'To the Holy Land.' And so they became known as sainte-terre-ers or saunterers. Now these mountains are our Holy Land, and we ought to saunter through them reverently, not 'hike' through them.”
Thanks for listening to my rambles ... perhaps it's time for another ramble! 

BONUS: One of my favourite (related) posts - An Ode to Chacos
* I realise that walking is not always possible, so please don't take this as a judgement in any way. It is one thing that I take great joy in, but understand that others do/must find satisfaction with other forms of transport and movement.

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Another Year in the Books

That's a wrap. So long 2018. One of my favourite traditions on New Years is to read over the past year's blog posts. Now, in the last few years, there has been a lot less to read than during My Munchable's early years (say, 2009-2013). But despite the confusing speed with which 2018 flew by, there was a lot of substance to cover.

It wasn't the most uplifting of years, between all the political, social, and natural disasters. An early post from last year discussed the significance of rain under climate change. Then mid-way through 2018, the best scientific minds gave the world a demoralising climate change update (so I wrote down some food for thought). Even followed adhoc, the climate-related news from the last year was pretty overwhelming. Cobbling together these developments in tweet form, we see hurricanes and fires (again), political inaction and youth protesters, and some pretty dire projections. Unfortunately, all that bearing of bad news hasn't resulted in the kick-in-the-pants we seem to need.

If climate change hasn't gotten you down enough, some of the violence and social injustices might. Border walls and mass shootings made headlines with regularity. My first post of 2018 discussed indigenous rights and conservation in Australia, and I published the first chapter of my PhD looking at social justice in conservation. This was the seventh year I've Lived Below the Line, and so did some reflecting as usual, including on how we define what is poor. There is obviously a long way still to go for a socially equitable world...

... but, at least there is baking to set things right in the meantime..

For my part, there was lots of (too much ... 4.5 months away) travel. Two trips to Indonesia for my PhD project sparked some musings on the benefits of travel, trials and tribulations of interviews in research , and unsurprisingly chocolate! More recently, the annual visit home involved "slow travel" with a Grand Tour of the USA by rail.

Now, 2018 was by no stretch of the imagination one of the more notable years. Like any year, there were ups and downs (though there seemed to be more downs). I'm hoping that 2019 will sit a little higher up on the roller coaster!

Read Years Passed

Friday, November 30, 2018

Slow Travel: The Grand Tour

Maps of the US seem to be all over the media recently, a little patchwork quilt of reds and blues - a repeated reminder of the divisions between urban and rural, between coastal and central, between ethnic groups or income levels. But it’s one thing to see the maps of the country’s political inclinations, and quite another to get one’s head around the sheer vastness of these here United States.

Union Station in Washington, DC
I’ve written this from a train. This visit home, I decided to cut out the air travel and catch a few locomotives. Now, this isn’t an earth-shattering decision on my part. My move back home after college was by train. And I had crossed the country twice before, traveling from Washington, DC to Seattle. However, this was my first trip linking together so many rail rides – committing to a full loop (sorry southeastern US…), a “Grand Tour”, shall we say. It meant factoring in a solid 8.5 days in-transit. Inevitably, that makes you stop and think about how big the country is, how different each place is, and how many people call each home.

Just a quick history lesson – while the US wasn’t the first to pioneer railroads, it replicated and expanded upon the technology to an unparalleled extent. During the mid- to late-19th century, trains were the ultimate movers of people and products – capable of covering great distances quickly and relatively efficiently – but they were much more than that. As the name of the route from Seattle to Chicago – The Empire Builder – suggests, trains were also means of asserting national sovereignty and uniting geographically disparate regions. Railways served this purpose in countries like Italy and India, connecting a collection of autonomous city-states. In the US, railways helped assert the notion of manifest destiny and supported rebuilding in the post-Civil War reconstruction period. Between 1855-1871, the US government operated a land grant program for new rail companies to expand west (eventually totaling 730,000 sq km), encouraging settlement and development. Notably, the first transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869 by the Central Pacific and Union Pacific Railroad companies (note the link to my alma-mater…), running from San Francisco to New York City. Fortunes were made and lost in the rail business, and economies rose and fell.

With the expansion of motor vehicle and airplane use in the mid-20th century, trains became the less preferred method of moving people. Today, they still significantly contribute to US freight transport, most noticeably for heavier cargo traveling long distances. For instance, rail makes up 15% of US-North America transboundary freight transport (by value, second after trucks). But passenger rail has lagged behind other developed nations. While not surprising given how the country’s transportation network developed, the missed opportunity for the US to lead in rail innovation still saddens me.

Heading north in Central Oregon
Tears aside, there is much to be said from my Grand Tour. It took me across over 7,500 miles of the United States, including a southwestern route I had never been on before. Although I had vowed to use the time for an uninterrupted writing retreat, much of the daylight hours found me distracted by the landscape flying past. Here’s a brief overview:

Leg #1: Los Angeles to Oakland (12 hours)
My first time on this stretch of the Coast Starlight, I was surprised by how popular this route was, not to mention the number of vocal first-time train travelers. Filled with beautiful coastal views complemented by the rolling Central Valley scenery, the routes from LA are notorious for delays, not least because freight is king.

Leg #2: Oakland to Seattle (21 hours; 1,377 miles from LA)
During the winter, you lose all the northern California landscape to the night, but wake up to Oregon’s high desert with the dawn light. This remains my favourite route, perhaps because it invokes those comforting feelings of coming home. It’s also a pretty vibrant leg, with many passengers getting on and off for the shorter trips between San Francisco and Portland (or somewhere in between) and Portland to Seattle.

Skirting Glacier National Park as day breaks
Leg #3: Seattle to Chicago (45 hours; 2,206 miles)
This ride would be amazing in the summer, with some of the most impressive alpine window-watching! The tracks start along the Seattle waterfront, with views of the Pacific for the first hour or so. East-bound you miss the journey across the Cascade Mountains this time of year, but you catch the majestic peaks of Glacier National Park as the sun comes up. Looking at a map, it is also particularly interesting to see how the tracks skirt several Native American reservations, including: Colville, Blackfeet, Flathead, and Fort Belknap. It is a subtle reminder of the region’s tearful history.

While Montana takes an entire day to cross, the majority of which is comprised of sparsely populated prairie (there are less than 7 people per square mile in the state). North Dakota flew by under the cover of night. As the second day broke on Minnesota, we had a reminder of heightened border security, when a patrolman came onboard to ask passengers’ nationalities. Not to sound like a broken record, but people really do use the train! This seemed to be mostly short-hauls, and I expect the train is more convenient for some more rural areas, where major airports are hours drives away. The demographics leaned slightly older, some of whom I overheard discussing their dislike of flying and prefer to avoid the hassle of airports if they have time. Ehem, #32goingon70

Along the Mississippi is apparently the best place to spot eagles…
Leg #4: Chicago to New York City (20 hours; 959 miles)
Chicago is the hub that nearly all cross-country routes go through, and this time proved trains to be oddly reliable: with some snowstorms hitting the northeast and flight/bus cancellations, the trip was packed with people who had opted for the train.

Leg #5: New York City to Washington, DC (3 ½ hours; 226 miles)
Much better than the bus. Period.

Leg #6: Washington, DC to Chicago (18 hours; 764 miles)
Passing through Chicago again, with a few hours to catch up with a friend (or family).

Leg #7: Chicago to Los Angeles (43 hours; 2,256 miles)
As my first time on the Southwest Chief, this leg of the journey was fascinating and quite a contrast from the northern routes. Deserts, canyons, and glimpses of the Rockies – after that first night, it soon became clear we were not in Kansas anymore (which we crossed while sleeping). There were also little reminder of the strong industrial ties to railways – passing offshoots to mines and cars full of coal, destined for ports or other parts of the country.

Coal cars in Colorado
After spending over 160 hours on trains in the span of five weeks, I made it back to beginning, to leave you with a few final thoughts on taking the slow travel option. 1) This was definitely a lesson in Geography, a refresher in neighboring States and overland distances, while tracking that little blue dot inch along my phone’s map. 2) I’m continually surprised at how quickly the time flies. While three days seems like a long time to get from point A to point B, in the scheme of things it isn’t. And when you travel this way, everything tends to feel just a little bit less urgent. 3) Opting for the train has to be more than low-carbon travel. In Europe, there is really no comparison: the default electric high-speed rail produces about a tenth (or less) of the greenhouse gas emissions of flying. However, this is ‘murica! Amtrak trains emit about ~0.45lb CO2/passenger mile (the NE corridor is at 0.37lb CO2 because it runs on electricity rather than diesel), which is comparable or slightly higher than a non-stop long-distance flight (though taking a coach is by far the greenest, though perhaps less enjoyable, option). While sometimes it is the more carbon-friendly option, there are also plenty of other reasons to go via rail (did you see that mountain?).

On that note, anyone interested in a combined rails and trails trip? Until then…

Shameless plug - more photos from the Grand Tour on Instagram.
Credit: Points with a Crew Blog