What would you do if you were the very last human being on Earth? Well, Lonesome George (or Solitario Jorge, as he is known locally) is in a very similar situation, the only difference being he is a Pinta Island tortoise (Geochelone elephantopus abingdoni). He’s only Pinta Island tortoise left in the world. He’s estimated to be around 100 years old (he could still live for another 50 years!), resides in the Charles Darwin Research Station in the Galapagos Islands, and when he dies, the Pinta Island tortoise will be extinct. How did this happen? It’s the same old story: Giant tortoises thrived on the Galapagos Islands until humans came along. Then people such as whalers and merchantmen who had to spend large amounts of time at sea began to keep the tortoises (who could go up to 18 months without food or water) on their ships for their meat as an insurance against scurvy. Also, as more people settled on the islands, they introduced foreign species, mostly farm animals. Pigs would eat the tortoise eggs and donkeys and goats would eat all of the vegetation which the tortoises depended on. This resulted in a significant decline of the giant tortoise, almost wiping out some subspecies, such as Lonesome George’s.
There has been a significant effort to keep the species going, to no avail, however. George mated with a female turtle of a similar species, but the eggs never hatched. There’s even a $100,000 reward for anyone who can find a compatible mate for George, although at this point, he’s getting a little old for mating.
Lonesome George is quite a unique case, and he has become an emblem for the increasing endangerment we are putting the world’s species in. Although there has been quite an effort put into the preservation of this particular subspecies, George’s story, among many others, shows we need to start taking more preventative measures to keep the list of endangered species from growing out of control.
Something else which is quickly becoming endangered are these blog posts, and our class for this semester. This course has been so valuable to me; education truly is one of the most important factors in facilitating change. The curriculum, as well as my classmates’ blog posts have opened my eyes to new issues and solutions which I was never aware of, and I’m eager to share my newfound knowledge with anyone who will listen. My carnivorous brother and I recently got into a heated debate on the validity of vegetarianism, and he was forced to alter his stance on the subject after hearing my argument backed by evidence and facts acquired from our class lectures and blog posts… and he’s probably the most hardheaded person I know…
It’s true that the case studies we’ve studied have left us depressed and discouraged, but I think the most important thing I’ve come away with from this class is that humans have the potential for great resiliency and creativity. We’ll all eventually graduate from college, armed with knowledge, prepared to take action, make the right decisions, cast the right votes, etc. etc. etc., to do something about all of these global environmental problems.
Friday was Earth Day, so I headed over to the Underground looking to see how our campus celebrated this holiday. I was met with a great art sale with proceeds going to disaster relief in Japan, live music, including a killer sax player, and tie-dying. Not to bash our campus’ Earth Day celebration; I had a ton of fun; but I’ve been starting to feel like Earth Day has gradually become an empty holiday. I think it’s become more than anything a day in which people acknowledge and sympathize with the idea of environmental sustainability, which, in the end, isn’t going to get us anywhere. As we saw in class, Earth Day began as a revolutionary type event, but it has evolved into basically an excuse for businesses to greenwash. Our country’s mindset on the environment is basically the same as when Earth Day began 40 years ago, but the issues have still been increasing. Climate change already causes around 150,000 deaths annually. So while stopping to celebrate the planet we live on is nice, I really think we need to take this day and use it to spur major change. We’re past the point of just telling people they should recycle more, or planting a tree, or buying a t-shirt made with organic cotton. Earth Day has been a good way to raise awareness, but I think we’re past that at this point. This day should be used to spur political, economical, social changes.
As climate change warms the temperatures of the oceans, and growing populations worldwide increase demand for food, causing an over exploitation of fish, coral reefs are becoming more and more at risk. Coral reefs are a vital component to the ocean’s ecosystem, as well as a huge source of food, and tourist revenue. Because of this, scientists are looking for ways to preserve these fragile reefs. They’ve tried solutions such as freezing coral sperm to prevent extinction, to the use of melanin to strengthen their immune systems. Jason de Caires Taylor, while not a scientist of any kind, came up with an extremely creative idea which puts less stress on coral reefs in the Mexican Caribbean Sea.
The National Marine Park of Isla Mujeres, Cancun, and Punta Nizuc receives around 290,000 tourists a year, which puts a great deal of pressure on the surrounding coral reefs. Jason de Caires Taylor, an artist who is known for his underwater sculpture pieces, undertook a huge project, essentially constructing an artificial reef. Termed as an underwater museum, and titled The Silent Evolution, it is a collection of 400 concrete sculptures of people set on the ocean floor. The purpose is to draw tourist attention away from the natural coral reefs nearby. The concrete also has a neutral PH, which allows for growth of algae and other invertebrates on the sculptures. While this may not be the solution to save coral reefs across the globe, I love hearing about innovative, creative ideas to help fix these ever increasing environmental problems.
“Artists to my mind are the real architects of change, and not the political legislators who implement change after the fact.” -William S. Burroughs
Art has always been an important component of social change, and this environmental movement we are in the midst of is no different. Combining art with activism is an extremely powerful way to get a message across. This eco art comes in many different forms. Back in the late sixties and early seventies, artists, including Robert Smithson and Andy Goldsworthy, took part in the land art movement, in which nature and the environment itself was used to make art.
These artists’ works are a celebration and an appreciation of nature. Many current environmental artists take on a more political tone. One artist whom I find particularly relevant to our past few classes is Miru Kim, a photographer whose series The Pig That Therefore I Am features a nude model posing among pigs. Her artists statement regarding the series explains how similar pigs and humans really are, yet we exploit pigs as a mass-produced, profit-generating raw material. You can see the series in it’s entirety on the artist’s website linked above. Christopher Anderson is another eco-photographer, yet his focus is the exploitation of Venezuela’s natural resources.
An interesting, yet increasingly popular trend among eco-artists is upcycling garbage and using it as a medium. Christine Lee uses used shims, or wedges of wood, to create designs of criss-crossed wood installations. She doesn’t attach the shims in place, so the same wood scraps can be used over and over again for each installation. Mark Langan’s medium of choice is reclaimed cardboard, while Kathleen Egan collects plastic bottles from beaches which are then used to create a huge, sculptural wave form.
One way to get in on the action of eco-art, as well as another popular trend, street art, is moss art, otherwise known as grassiti. Check out how to do it.
…agriculturally speaking, that is. The United Nations recently released a report urging countries to reorient their agricultural systems to focus on more efficient, sustainable, small-scale farms, otherwise known as agroecology. The report several of the solutions we discussed in class, such as increased biodiversity (bringing in a variety of crops, insects, livestock, etc.), as well as agroforestry, which is the incorporation of trees into agricultural systems. The study definitely makes it clear that smaller, and simpler, is the way to go; small-scale farmers using simple farming methods can DOUBLE food production in ten years, most importantly, in poor countries where food currently is not as accessible. Some of these simple methods which have seen levels of success include farmers in Kenya who have planted tick clover, or desmodium, in their corn fields to keep harmful insects away. Also, farmers in Bangladesh have begun to use ducks for weeding.
Looking to small-scale agriculture as the answer may seem not very probable to actually happen, since our perception of our main food source is that of huge, industrial farms. However, 40% of the world’s population are already small-scale farmers. It’s just a matter of really investing in this field and spreading and utilizing knowledge of sustainable practices. It won’t only help our environment by curbing our dependence on fossil fuels and pesticides, but it will also increase food security as well as increase availability of food to poor areas.
A common misconception, one that I believed until class on Thursday, is that cow farts are a significant source of methane. In fact, this misconception is so widespread that a LOT of the articles I found while researching for this blog post talked about cow farts. The truth is, cow farts do not produce nearly as much of methane as cow burps do. Why is this such a big deal? In terms of global warming, methane is actually 23 times more powerful than carbon dioxide, AND according to the U.S. Food and Agriculture Organization, agricultural methane output could increase by sixty percent by 2030. Agriculture is estimated to be responsible for fourteen percent of the world’s greenhouse gases. The reason cow burps are such an issue, is that for one thing, they have bacteria in their stomachs which aid in digestion, which also produce methane, which is then released by burping, and to a lesser degree, farting. Experts estimate dairy cows produce anywhere from 100 to 500 liters of methane a day! So what can we do to curb this methane production? In 2003, New Zealand proposed a flatulence tax, which did not end up being adopted due to public protest. Changing the cows’ diet may be a more popular solution. Instead of feeding cows corn or soy, farmers could replace it with things like alfalfa sprouts and flaxseed, which are more similar to grass, cows’ natural food of choice. A number of farms in Vermont have tried this, and they saw a pretty significant decrease in methane output.
We talked quite a bit about agriculture in class on Thursday, and the need to incorporate new farming methods into our currently unsustainable agricultural methods. We discussed how buying from local farmer’s markets is beneficial. However, not everyone lives in areas where produce is grown nearby. By the year 2050, nearly 80% of the earth’s population will reside in urban centers. As a solution to this problem, urban gardens have grown in popularity. This brings EXTREMELY local produce to city-dwellers who would otherwise gain little exposure to such fresh produce. It also can save a lot of money, which is significant since many lower-income families often reside in urban areas. The transportation of food equates to high energy costs. However, this is quite significantly decreased with locally-grown food, and urban agriculture makes this possible within cities. It’s also very important in the way that it can provide an educational experience to inner-city children who would not otherwise gain exposure to this type of local, sustainable farming.
I know when I think of urban farming, I imagine gardens high above the streets on the rooftops of skyscrapers, like the picture on the left, located in Chicago. However, there are many different methods. If you follow the link in the previous paragraph, it shares the story of an urban garden located on a barge in a harbor! Tokyo has rooftop as well as underground urban gardens. As this trend grows, I hope it can change perception of the modern city from that of a gray, concrete dwelling which acts as a parasite to the surrounding areas which grow food, to a greener, more self-sustainable environment.
Naturally, there are many causes attributed to the massive deforestation that has been occurring within Haiti. Initial overpopulation of the country most certainly accelerated the damage, but what really is at that root of this issue, and basically the majority of the other environmental problems worldwide, is a lack of foresight. Naturally, it would be a lot to expect newly free slaves settling onto their own farms for the first time to think decades and centuries ahead to the consequences their actions may have on the environment. In times like that, it is difficult to expect out of a person more than simply thinking about caring after their own family. However, times are very different now, and yet many people, not just in Haiti, but in the United States and across the globe, are thinking only of themselves and of short-term gain. This becomes particularly worrisome when it is our politicians who are the ones with this archaic mindset. A glaring example would be politicians who have connections with oil companies. In this day and age, we all know oil is a nonrenewable fossil fuel, and it would be in our long term interest to wane off of our dependence to it. Unlike the first Haitians, who must not have known the cycle of rampant deforestation they were helping to start, we have more than enough knowledge to realize the consequences of our actions. It is discouraging to see some politicians still pushing for things such as more and more oil to satisfy short-term gains, when we are perfectly aware of the repercussions in the long run. We have the knowledge and the power to look ahead to the future and make the right decisions to keep our world intact.
So it’s the first post of the semester, and there is plenty to discuss. One topic in particular that we touched on in class is overpopulation. It’s a very tricky issue. Naturally, as a population we strive for advances in medicine, nutrition, and anything to raise the quality of life. While the increased quality of life is far from equally distributed across the world, there’s no arguing that it has gone up, way up, over the centuries, particularly since the start of the Industrial Revolution. As death rates decrease with no proportionate decreases in birth rates, human population grows larger. We have gotten to the point where there are too many people to support with the amount of resources which are available, therefore eventually diminishing our quality of life. It’s pretty hard to imagine this really affecting our lives at all, since food, clean water, shelter, and so much more is readily available to us. However, as our world’s resources are stretched thinner, who it really affects are the huge amount of poverty-stricken people living in developing countries. This video called The Miniature Earth really puts it into perspective. The fact of the matter is that global resources are grossly unevenly distributed. Overpopulation and poverty are huge problems which not only diminish the quality of human life, but also are extraordinarily detrimental to the environment. -Annie