Monday, June 5, 2017

Sweating the Small Stuff

This wasn't exactly a glowing week leading up to World Environment Day yesterday. However, while mitigating climate changes we've put in motion requires more globally coordinated action and government intervention (... the atmosphere is the ultimate common pool resource, no?), there are heaps of other environmental travesties that emerge in large part due to our decisions as consumers. World Environment Day's theme this year is about reconnecting to "nature", which is a lovely message with very little depth. Although hitting up green spaces - parks, wilderness areas, etc. - often benefits both human health and encourages positive environmental values, this idea of needing to "reconnect" implies we live apart from nature. The ambitions of this year's World Environment Day seem a bit modest for the scale of the problem, making the proffered actions far less meaningful if not connected to the consequences of our actions during daily existence.

But it's not a huge leap to connect our daily doings with the health of the planet. In Australia - and the UK before that - a pretty nifty three part series about the War on Waste tried to expose the nature of our "Throw-Away Society" and the consequences for the environment. for Oz, the numbers are staggering, ranging from 20% of our groceries ending up in the bin to 6,000 kilograms of fast fashion in the rubbish every ten minutes to 113 take-away coffee cups discarded every four seconds (that's 2.4 million in a day)! But plastics seem to be making the headlines these days.

Australia uses nearly 4 billion plastic bags per year, the majority of which end up in landfill (or inevitably waterways). Some researchers calculated that worldwide approximately 8 million tonnes of plastic waste ends up in the oceans each year. Once some of the most pristine beaches in the world are now littered in plastic debris. While this is an eyesore, a visual reminder of our plastic addiction, there are more hidden and insidious impacts. Almost every seabird on the planet has eaten plastic - which may not always kill the bird, but can't be particularly good for it. But plastics also break down into smaller and smaller particles. These then accumulate along the food chain, similar to other toxins in our environment like mercury in tuna. We don't yet know how harmful all of this is, but we can make sure it doesn't get worse. 

This last week, UQ sustainability challenged staff and students to contain all single-use plastics in a small jar - mine was 350mL to be precise. The idea was to be more aware of our frequent and often thoughtless use of disposable plastics, and to consider steps to take to reduce. Sure, recycling is a good first step, but it's not a guiltless affair. Not every plastic is recyclable nor gets recycled, and even if it does, it takes energy to go from plastic bottle to new plastic something or other.

But the alternatives are hard, because they rely on people changing their daily actions and breaking habits ... and let's face it, even the well-meaning of us just can't be bothered if something seems like too much effort. Making your own shampoo may seem like an impossibility, but there are plenty of low-hanging fruit. Bring a cloth bag or a reusable mug, and don't succumb to the draws of straws or pre-bagged produce. It's just a matter of making simple behaviour changes part of your routine. Easy.

So on this World Environment Day, rather than just "reconnect with nature", try reconnecting with your personal impact on the planet and commit to doing something about it.

In case you're also interested in food waste, it's a favourite topic...
Jingle the Waste Away
Smashing Pumpkins
America the Wasteful

Sunday, May 21, 2017

A Dietary Doomsday? afar it seems like something out of a post-apocalyptic fiction world - a massive vault, bored  into the Norwegian tundra, an icy tomb deep within the island of Svalbard, intended to preserve the raw materials of our agricultural system. In the face of massive global changes in terms of climate, land degradation, diet homogenization, and even conflict, this seed repository houses the world's diversity of crops in preparation from looming crises. Then, this last week, the world's insurance policy for food supply had an unwelcome infiltration of water from permafrost melt in the far north. While various news sources assure us that the vault will be just fine, the symbolism of seeds succumbing to climate change is all to real. A worrying percentage of the world's food comes from a select few crop varieties that do best under a narrow range of climate conditions with adequate fertilizer, pesticide, and water. Modern agriculture has done amazing things, but it also has made sweeping reductions in local understanding of things to grow and how to respond to variability and change. While we may have stocks of genetic variation (ironically housed in melting permafrost...) to help weather the storm, I remain skeptical of the utility when actually confronting needs on the ground. 

Short post, stay tuned for plastics this week. 

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

A Peasant Diet for the Planet

Ok, I admit it, I like charts...
This week I'm eating like a peasant. Now that (or more likely, this post's title) might have rubbed you the wrong way. For some, it conjures up unpleasant images of feudalism, toiling under rich landlords; for others it may have too many associations with colonialism and hearkening to an era where rural people in developing countries were somehow seen as inferior beings. But at its root, the word means country dweller.* And most people living in poverty live in rural areas.

"I'm eating like the average resident of a developing country" would have been a more accurate statement. If you look where my calories are coming from over the course of the Live Below the Line Challenge, it's quite similar - although missing the eggs, fish, and other animal products that do feature in most diets. Cereal grains (oats and rice) comprise nearly two-thirds of my daily 2000 calorie intake, and pulses are a major source of protein. Now take Asia for instance, which houses the majority of the world's poor (and population as a whole). Rice is the staple food, making up 50-66% of caloric intake in the region (with the higher values corresponding to the less economically developed countries). Pulses (e.g lentils) are also staple foods that, although usually contribute only a small fraction of calories, can actually make up close to half of protein intake. Roots and tubers (e.g. sweet potato and cassava) have historically made up nearly half of calories in many African countries, but this begun falling during the Green Revolution.

A familiar picture, my food for five days of Living Below
Now, the ubiquity of such a diet doesn't mean it's the way forward. For one, although grain-heavy diets provide enough calories, they often lack important micronutrients. Often referred to as the "hidden hunger", insufficient intake of vitamin A, iron, zinc, and folate is particularly concerning in children, who can suffer stunting and hindered brain development. While things like home gardens have been proposed as means of curbing such deficiencies, the poorest of the poor also often face difficulties getting their hands on land. Besides being a human health issue, a healthy and diverse diet is increasingly considered a human right. It is also disempowering not to have the resources to choose what to eat, when, and how much.

But there are also lessons to be learned from how the majority of the world's poor about how to eat for the planet. On average people in East Asia and the Pacific consume around 1/3 the amount of meat as North Americans and Europeans, and in Sub-Saharan Africa it's about 1/8th. Eating a primarily plant-based diet is generally acknowledged to have a lower carbon and water footprint than one heavy in meat (especially beef and lamb). According to the World Resources Institute, if the world's top 2 billion consumers reduced their meat and dairy intake by 40%, we could free up land double the size of India and avoid greenhouse gas emissions three times the global amount in 2009. Furthermore in many developing countries, what animals are consumed are eaten in low enough quantities to be sustainably harvested, or domesticated ones serve multiple purposes on the land - livestock can produce milk as well as manure for crops, or fish ponds can provide fertilizer for crops and feed for livestock. At the end of the day, I think a glimpse of a poverty-line diet is taking a taste of moderation that the big consumers in the world greatly need.

So while I miss green veggies (and chocolate), I'm pretty thankful and content with the bounty that even AU$2 per day can bring. Consider expressing your own gratitude, and sharing your good fortune by support this year's Live Below the Line campaign!

* Old French paisent ‘country dweller’, based on Latin pagus ‘country district’ (Wikipedia)

Saturday, April 22, 2017

A Dose of Subdued Earth Optimism

Somewhere in the world it is still Earth Day. Dating back to 1970, this now global celebration marked the heightened awareness of manmade threats to the natural environment. The safeguards introduced at that time - the clean air, clean water, and endangered species acts in the USA - have faced decades of opposition from major industrial interests and now (not even 50 years later) the possibility of scaling back or disintegration. In what many of us would consider a more enlightened age - we have been studying environmental phenomena for decades - it's astounding that there is still this war on nature and the crucial services that it provides and which humanity depends on.*

Fishermen in Ghana negotiate rubbish-ridden beaches
But I would argue that much of the environmental activism comes from a place of privilege (I include myself here), and I wonder how much we are successfully giving voice to those whose health, happiness, and livelihood are much more intimately tied to the condition of the natural environment. Sure, we all suffer if the air is unbreathable, and eventually most everywhere in the world will suffer the negative consequences of climate change, but oftentimes the hardest hit by polluted drinking water or habitat conversion or extensive droughts are those least capable of taking action or raising an outcry.

I bring this issue up on Earth Day, because I'm still of the opinion that the poor and marginalized make it into environmental discussion too infrequently ... and in development circles environmental health doesn't come in as a necessity that underlies food, water, income, and other usual indicators of poverty. A recent article in the Conversation called this issue into focus, introducing the concept of "environmentally-adjusted measures of multidimensional poverty". It suggests that we are actually overestimating the impact of increases in GDP and other econo-centric measures of growth and progress. This is not to say we shouldn't celebrate the strides made in reducing poverty and hunger (or as #EarthOptimism is highlighting, in conservation), but we should also be wary of getting too complacent and continue to strive toward recognizing how interconnected is the wellbeing of nature and humanity.

This blog post is just a week before participating in the Live Below the Line Challenge. If you have a moment, please consider donating to the charity sponsoring this effort to raise awareness and support education.

Live Below the Line 2017 Posts:
Related post: Valuation for Poverty Alleviation (2015) 

* Not to mention an increasing combativeness towards the scientific evidence that supports the importance of the planet's natural systems.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Going Hungry in the 21st Century

Back in 2002, the United Nations decided that by 2015 the proportion of people who suffer from hunger should be cut in half from 1990 levels. We nearly met this target of a basic human right, alongside the other Millennium Development Goals, yet almost 800 million people (over 10% of the world's population) are still undernourished. In the next iteration, the UN set its sights higher with the Sustainable Development Goals, aiming to end world hunger by 2030. While this seems like a no-brainer in this day and age - how many people would argue that people shouldgo hungry?? - there are a number of reasons unrelated to how many calories farmers produce for why we continue to see chronic hunger and malnutrition, as well as bouts of acute famine. This post touches on two factors and specifically famine, as part of the lead-up to the Live Below the Line challenge in May (and I'm also raising funds for the awesome organization Oaktree, so check it out!).

So let's start with what should be a relatively straight-forward and objective topic - weather and a changing climate. Food shortages have been attributed to periods of drought, severe rainfall, and pests for millennia. Rainfall changes might spread diseases that wipe out crops, as prompted the Irish potato famine in 1845. The failure of the monsoon in India has taken blame for famines at the end of the 19th century. And while anticipated overdrawn aquifers and more intense storms may undermine crop and livestock production, our fisheries that feed the world's poorest are at risk from rising sea surface temperatures and ocean acidification. Even countries like Australia, with a particularly vulnerable agriculture sector, are not exempt from the impacts. Yet politically stable, wealthy nations have the capacity - that many other countries do not - to minimize acute events that often cause famines by importing food and sending aid to their affected populations.

This leads us to the topic of conflict, which can be both cause and result of food scarcity. This isn't news; back in the early 1990's, researchers argued that conflict and civil strife were the prime suspects instigating famines. A recent article in The Conversation captures the sentiment that famines don't "just happen", but are driven by particular social and political circumstances.
So enter 2017, where there is "high risk of famine in some areas of north-eastern Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan and Yemen because of armed conflict, drought and macro-economic collapse," according to the Food Security Information Network (FSIN). In the coming year, widespread food insecurity is expected to also pose problems in Syria*, Iraq, Malawi, and Zimbabwe. The region experienced considerable political discontent in the early 2010's, some say spurred on by rising food prices. But here again we encounter the the question of whether food shortages (driven by adverse weather, etc.) provoke conflict or the other way around. An article in The Economist argues that war and violence simmering in these countries made it next to impossible for farmers to cultivate crops to feed themselves and their neighbors, as well as for food aid and supplies to cross border lines. Many of the possible 2017 famines fall into the "avoidable" bucket.

Hunger may seem worlds away for many of us, but it is truly naive to believe that the instability and unrest that is both a contributor and a result of food insecurity is isolated, without far-reaching implications in terms of political security, counter-terrorism, and global food production. In some ways, countries "worlds away" are culpable; for example, the US provided weapons to the Saudis then used to stoke the war in Yemen. It is withdrawing aid to vulnerable regions in Africa. And finally, several countries facing famine are also on the proposed travel ban in the US, a cruel and unfeeling move, but also one way of seeding desperation and resentment. 

It's clear that governments are not working in favour of the health and prosperity of their populations, so its more important than ever that we try to support efforts that are attempting to improve the human condition (and ultimately the environment on which we rely). 

*I should note that most of this post was written before the most recent attacks in Syria, and the situation there has most certainly escalated to nothing short of a travesty, tragedy, and serious human rights violation!