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)

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.