Monthly Archives: April 2014

What Has Happened to Earth Day? by Joe Bish, Population Media Center

Photo from Getty Images.

“It is wrong to bludgeon, beat, eviscerate and burn the natural world to suit the vagaries of human desire.” – Joe Bish (Photo from Getty Images.)

Over the last several years, I have found that few things provoke a deeper sense of cynicism in me than Earth Day. Granted, the first official “Earth Day” took place several years before I made my grand entrance into this world—but even so, during my formative years in the late 1970’s, what was conveyed to me was that Earth Day was grounded in a legitimate revolutionary essence—perhaps 80 parts “protest” and 20 parts “celebration”—that held in contempt the machinations of industrial civilization as it stuffed denuded, dismembered and destroyed parts of the living Earth into its gaping maw.

It’s a deeply ethical thing for me, and I suspect for many others: It is wrong to bludgeon, beat, eviscerate and burn the natural world to suit the vagaries of human desire—and at this point, in the “developed” countries, where mass consumerism mesmerizes an already satiated bourgeois into purchasing ever-more throw-away toys, trinkets and travesties, these “desires” are of such vanity and grotesque proportions as to be almost unspeakable. That this brutal exploitation of the Earth continues moment-to-moment, day after day, year after year—all the while scaling up, as the human-load on the Earth ratchets up by over 1 million people every 5 days—is, at its heart, a senseless and idiotic tragedy.

I can’t in good conscious forfeit the whole idea of Earth Day: after all, all the protests and teach-ins and celebrations were, and to some extent still are, based on love. Love for the Earth, love for the potential of human beings and our relationship with the Earth. Love of life. And, from my experience, there is determination to be found in this sort of love.

So, today, let us observe a moment of silence for this mysterious and knowable Earth. And I hope in that moment some sense of reverence for life, some sense of reverence for non-human species, some sense of reverence for your own self finds you … and, if so, that from this moment onward you will keep that respect and love close to your heart in all your worldly decisions and behaviors. After all, you are the only hope the Earth has.

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If the World Were a Village of 1,000 People by Donella Meadows

If the world were a village of 1,000 people...

If the world were a village of 1,000 people…

This was originally published in 1992. The percentages are slightly out of date because world population has grown so much since 1992. In 1992 world population was about 5.5 billion; in 2014 it is 7.2 billion. However, the concept still holds true.

If the world were a village of 1,000 people, it would include:

  • 584 Asians
  • 124 Africans
  • 95 East and West Europeans
  • 84 Latin Americans
  • 55 Soviets (including for the moment Lithuanians, Latvians, Estonians and other national groups)
  • 52 North Americans
  • 6 Australians and New Zealanders

The people of the village have considerable difficulty in communicating:

  • 165 people speak Mandarin
  • 86 English
  • 83 Hindi/Urdu
  • 64 Spanish
  • 58 Russian
  • 37 Arabic

That list accounts for the mother tongues of only half the villagers.  The other half speak (in descending order of frequency) Bengali, Portuguese, Indonesian, Japanese, German, French and 200 other languages.

In this village of 1,000 there are:

  • 329 Christians (among them 187 Catholics, 84 Protestants, 31 Orthodox)
  • 178 Moslems
  • 167 “non-religious”
  • l32 Hindus
  • 60 Buddhists
  • 45 atheists
  • 3 Jews
  • 86 all other religions
  • One-third (330) of the 1,000 people in the world village are children and only 60 are over the age of 65. Half the children are immunized against preventable infectious diseases such as measles and polio.
  • Just under half of the married women in the village have access to and use modern contraceptives.
  • This year 28 babies will be born. Ten people will die, 3 of them for lack of food, 1 from cancer, 2 of the deaths are of babies born within the year.  One person of the 1,000 is infected with the HIV virus; that person most likely has not yet developed a full-blown case of AIDS.
  • With the 28 births and 10 deaths, the population of the village next year will be 1,018.
  • In this 1,000-person community, 200 people receive 75 percent of the income; another 200 receive only 2 percent of the income.
  • Only 70 people of the 1,000 own an automobile (although some of the 70 own more than one automobile).
  • About one-third have access to clean, safe drinking water.
  • Of the 670 adults in the village, half are illiterate.

The village has six acres of land per person, 6,000 acres in all, of which

  • 700 acres are cropland
  • 1,400 acres pasture
  • 1,900 acres woodland
  • 2,000 acres desert, tundra, pavement and other wasteland
  • The woodland is declining rapidly; the wasteland is increasing.

The village allocates 83 percent of its fertilizer to 40 percent of its cropland – that owned by the richest and best-fed 270 people. Excess fertilizer running off this land causes pollution in lakes and wells. The remaining 60 percent of the land, with its 17 percent of the fertilizer, produces 28 percent of the food grains and feeds 73 percent of the people. The average grain yield on that land is one-third the harvest achieved by the richer villagers.

In the village of 1,000 people, there are:

  • 5 soldiers
  • 7 teachers
  • 1 doctor
  • 3 refugees driven from home by war or drought

The village has a total budget each year, public and private, of over $3 million – $3,000 per person if it is distributed evenly (which, we have already seen, it isn’t).

Of the total $3 million:

  • $181,000 goes to weapons and warfare
  • $159,000 for education
  • $l32,000 for health care

The village has buried beneath it enough explosive power in nuclear weapons to blow itself to smithereens many times over. These weapons are under the control of just 100 of the people. The other 900 people are watching them with deep anxiety, wondering whether they can learn to get along together; and if they do, whether they might set off the weapons anyway through inattention or technical bungling; and, if they ever decide to dismantle the weapons, where in the world village they would dispose of the radioactive materials of which the weapons are made.

Donella H. Meadows was a pioneering environmental scientist, author, teacher, and farmer widely considered ahead of her time. She was one of the world’s foremost systems analysts and lead author of the influential Limits to Growth. She was Adjunct Professor of Environmental Studies at Dartmouth College, the founder of the Sustainability Institute and co-founder of the International Network of Resource Information Centers.

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The Beauty of Native Plants: Designed by Mother Nature to Thrive by Sheryl Eisenberg

LOVE IRISES? Instead of an exotic species, find an iris native to your area. The beautiful specimen above is an Iris versicolor, which is local to me.

LOVE IRISES? Instead of an exotic species, find an iris native to your area. The beautiful specimen above is an Iris versicolor, which is local to me.

The essence of living green is working with nature, not against it. I can think of no better example than planting your garden and yard with plants that are native to the place you live.

The beauty of these species is that they know in their genes how to defend against local pests and diseases, deal with the climate and get by with conditions on the ground. Their ancestors have seen it all—and evolved to cope. As a result, native plants don’t need your daily ministrations to survive. Once established, they don’t even need regular watering.

The same can rarely be said of “introduced” or “exotic” species, which evolved to succeed in other environments. While some naturalize easily (or even take over in the case of invasive plants), most can’t make it on their own. Your help is necessary for their survival—and not just at the start, when all plants need special treatment, but on an ongoing basis.

Natural landscaping with native species is a breeze in comparison. In a year, after becoming established (with care) the plants will practically take care of themselves, saving you time, effort and money. Moreover, you won’t run the risk of exposure to toxic fertilizers or pesticides because none will be needed.

For the environment, there are equally impressive benefits. They include less water waste, less polluted runoff, more wildlife habitat and greater biodiversity. It’s a win-win situation.

So, what exactly are native species and how do you go about finding and choosing them?

In the U.S., native plants are generally defined as species that were in an area prior to the arrival of European settlers. To find out what the native plants are in your area, you’ll need to do some research. Good sources of information are:

Keep in mind the obvious: not every area of a state is the same. Most states include more than one ecoregion where different things naturally grow.

Nor do ecoregions respect state boundaries. For instance, the shoreline areas of Brooklyn, where I live, share more in common, ecologically speaking, with coastal areas of New England than most other parts of New York State.

For this reason, you might want to narrow the field of your search to your particular area and, beyond, to your own property, which may not be typical for your area at all. Whether because of prior development or a unique microclimate, it might be wetter or warmer or rockier or…who knows?

In fact, identifying the properties of your property is, ideally, the first step you would take—before you even think about looking up plants, native or otherwise. The second step is figuring out what you want to do with your property. Only then should you start looking into species. Plant Native offers an excellent guide to the whole process.

PLANT SWAMP MILKWEED to attract monarch butterflies and help sustain them during migration. Widely distributed throughout the U.S. and Canada, this native plant is tall, fragrant and deer-resistant. Milkweed photo: Teune at the English language Wikipedia [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0], from Wikimedia Commons

PLANT SWAMP MILKWEED to attract monarch butterflies and help sustain them during migration. Widely distributed throughout the U.S. and Canada, this native plant is tall, fragrant and deer-resistant.
Milkweed photo: Teune at the English language Wikipedia [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0], from Wikimedia Commons.

Finally, if you have been concerned about the plight of monarch butterflies and bees—or the fate of our food supply should pollinator numbers drop too low—or the decline in songbirds—or the state of our water—consider planting one of these:

You may wonder if, when all is said and done, your native garden will be visually beautiful. Well, beauty, as you know, is in the eye of the beholder. Take a look at these examples (not all planted exclusively with native plants but all naturally landscaped) and judge for yourself. For me, the answer is a resounding yes.

Sheryl Eisenberg is a writer, web developer and long-time advisor to NRDC. With her firm, Mixit Productions (mixitproductions.com), she brought NRDC online in 1996, designed NRDC’s first websites, and continues to develop special web features for NRDC. She created and, for several years, wrote the Union of Concerned Scientists’ green living column, Greentips, and has designed and contributed content to many nonprofit sites. Sheryl makes her home in Tribeca (NYC), where—along with her children, Sophie and Gabe, and husband, Peter—she tries to put her environmental principles into practice. No fooling.

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Can We Prevent A Food Breakdown? 
by Lester R. Brown

"The overriding threats in this century are climate change, population growth, spreading water shortages, rising food prices, and politically failing states.
" -Lester R. Brown

“The overriding threats in this century are climate change, population growth, spreading water shortages, rising food prices, and politically failing states.
” -Lester R. Brown

As food supplies have tightened, a new geopolitics of food has emerged—a world in which the global competition for land and water is intensifying and each country is fending for itself. We cannot claim that we are unaware of the trends that are undermining our food supply and thus our civilization. We know what we need to do.

There was a time when if we got into trouble on the food front, ministries of agriculture would offer farmers more financial incentives, like higher price supports, and things would soon return to normal. But responding to the tightening of food supplies today is a far more complex undertaking. It involves the ministries of energy, water resources, transportation, and health and family planning, among others. Because of the looming specter of climate change that is threatening to disrupt agriculture, we may find that energy policies will have an even greater effect on future food security than agricultural policies do. In short, avoiding a breakdown in the food system requires the mobilization of our entire society.

On the demand side of the food equation, there are four pressing needs—

  • stabilize world population,
  • eradicate poverty,
  • reduce excessive meat consumption, and
  • reverse biofuels policies that encourage the use of food, land, or water that could otherwise be used to feed people.

We need to press forward on all four fronts at the same time.

The world needs to focus on filling the gap in reproductive health care and family planning while working to eradicate poverty. Progress on one will reinforce progress on the other. Two cornerstones of eradicating poverty are making sure that all children—both boys and girls—get at least an elementary school education and rudimentary health care. And the poorest countries need a school lunch program, one that will encourage families to send children to school and that will enable them to learn once they get there.

At the other end of the food spectrum, a large segment of the world’s people are consuming animal products at a level that is unhealthy and contributing to obesity and cardiovascular disease. The good news is that when the affluent consume less meat, milk, and eggs, it improves their health. When meat consumption falls in the United States, as it recently has, this frees up grain for direct consumption. Moving down the food chain also lessens pressure on the Earth’s land and water resources. In short, it is a win-win-win situation.

Another initiative, one that can quickly lower food prices, is the cancellation of biofuel mandates. There is no social justification for the massive conversion of food into fuel for cars. With plug-in hybrids and all-electric cars coming to market that can run on local wind-generated electricity at a gasoline-equivalent cost of 80¢ per gallon, why keep burning costly fuel at four times the price?

On the supply side of the food equation, we face several challenges, including stabilizing climate, raising water productivity, and conserving soil. Stabilizing climate is not easy, but it can be done if we act quickly. It will take a huge cut in carbon emissions, some 80 percent within a decade, to give us a chance of avoiding the worst consequences of climate change. This means a wholesale restructuring of the world energy economy.

The easiest way to do this is to restructure the tax system. The market has many strengths, but it also has some dangerous weaknesses. It readily captures the direct costs of mining coal and delivering it to power plants. But the market does not incorporate the indirect costs of fossil fuels in prices, such as the costs to society of global warming. Sir Nicholas Stern, former chief economist at the World Bank, noted when releasing his landmark study on the costs of climate change that climate change was the product of a massive market failure.

The goal of restructuring taxes is to lower income taxes and raise carbon taxes so that the cost of climate change and other indirect costs of fossil fuel use are incorporated in market prices. If we can get the market to tell the truth, the transition from coal and oil to wind, solar, and geothermal energy will move very fast. If we remove the massive subsidies to the fossil fuel industry, we will move even faster.

Along with stabilizing climate, another key component to avoiding a breakdown in the food system is to raise water productivity. This could be patterned after the worldwide effort launched over a half-century ago to raise cropland productivity. This extraordinarily successful earlier endeavor tripled the world grain yield per acre between 1950 and 2011.

Raising water productivity begins with agriculture, simply because 70 percent of all water use goes to irrigation. Some irrigation technologies are much more efficient than others. The least efficient are flood and furrow irrigation. Sprinkler irrigation, using the center-pivot systems that are widely seen in the crop circles in the western U.S. Great Plains, and drip irrigation are far more efficient. The advantage of drip irrigation is that it applies water very slowly at a rate that the plants can use, losing little to evaporation. It simultaneously raises yields and reduces water use. Because it is labor-intensive, it is used primarily to produce high-value vegetable crops or in orchards.

Another option is to encourage the use of more water-efficient crops, such as wheat, instead of rice. Egypt, for example, limits the production of rice. China banned rice production in the Beijing region. Moving down the food chain also saves water.

Another valuable tool in the soil conservation tool kit is no-till farming. Instead of the traditional practice of plowing land and harrowing it to prepare the seedbed, and then using a mechanical cultivator to control weeds in row crops, farmers simply drill seeds directly through crop residues into undisturbed soil, controlling weeds with herbicides when necessary. In addition to reducing erosion, this practice retains water, raises soil organic matter content, and greatly reduces energy use for tillage.

These initiatives do not constitute a menu from which to pick and choose. We need to take all these actions simultaneously. They reinforce each other. We will not likely be able to stabilize population unless we eradicate poverty. We will not likely be able to restore the Earth’s natural systems without stabilizing population and stabilizing climate. Nor can we eradicate poverty without reversing the decline of the earth’s natural systems.

Achieving all these goals to reduce demand and increase supply requires that we redefine security. We have inherited a definition of security from the last century, a century dominated by two world wars and a cold war, that is almost exclusively military in focus. When the term national security comes up in Washington, people automatically think of expanded military budgets and more-advanced weapon systems. But armed aggression is no longer the principal threat to our future. The overriding threats in this century are climate change, population growth, spreading water shortages, rising food prices, and politically failing states.

We all need to select an issue and go to work on it. Find some friends who share your concern and get to work. The overriding priority is redefining security and reallocating fiscal resources accordingly. If your major concern is population growth, join one of the internationally oriented groups and lobby to fill the family planning gap. If your overriding concern is climate change, join the effort to close coal-fired power plants. We can prevent a breakdown of the food system, but it will require a huge political effort undertaken on many fronts and with a fierce sense of urgency.

Source: Earth Policy Institute. From Full Planet, Empty Plates: The New Geopolitics of Food Scarcity by Lester R. Brown (New York: W.W. Norton & Co.) Supporting data, video, and slideshows are available for free download at www.earth-policy.org/books/fpep.

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