Birch-Thomsen, Torben, Bo Elberling, Bjarne Fog, and Jakob Magid. 2007. “Temporal and Spatial Trends in Soil Organic Carbon Stocks Following Maize Cultivation in Semi-Arid Tanzania, East Africa.” Nutrient Cycling in Agroecosystems 79 (3): 291–302. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10705-007-9116-4.
Cotula, Lorenzo. 2013. The Great African Land Grab? : Agricultural Investments and the Global Food System. London: Zed Books.
Greiner, Clemens, Miguel Alvarez, and Mathias Becker. 2013. “From Cattle to Corn: Attributes of Emerging Farming Systems of Former Pastoral Nomads in East Pokot, Kenya.” Society & Natural Resources 26 (12): 1478–90.https://doi.org/10.1080/08941920.2013.791901.
While writing about environmental engagement, I have to tread carefully. I grew up in Los Angeles where I volunteered and organized my high school’s march for our lives walkout. Then I moved to Portland to go to a liberal arts school for environmental studies. Obviously, my experiences with activism and engagement are not universal in the slightest. However, while discussing the idea of taking action, environmental or otherwise, I feel like my life has given me a little bit of insight on what makes people tick.
An important distinction to make is the difference between types of political actions; those carried out by individuals or nongovernment groups like protesting or voting, and actions taken by committees and politicians to get motions passed. I favor direct action myself, but that’s beside the point. The point is that these groups (if they’re smart,) will want to be able to say what they’re doing, how they’ll do it, and why. Often what befalls organizations that fail this step is paralyzation from infighting. What’s sad is that often the infighting is trivial, and ends a movement before it begins.
About the reading, I believe that is precisely what is happening when it comes to California trying their damnest to rehydrate a place that was a desert, and always will be (its actually a chaparral biome, but you get the idea). You have to get the water for the golf courses people of SoCal from somewhere, and since everyone has NIMBY all the time, no one wants to be that somewhere. This is where you run into what is mentioned in the second paper, Clumsy Solutions for a Complex World.
I feel that the idea that current solutions are “clumsy” is a kind of discredit to said solutions. Unless everyone wakes up tomorrow with all the same values and priorities, all solutions will be clumsy, which is ok. We were all taught about compromise somewhere in elementary school, but along the way, we forgot what it was about. A compromise means when two parties are about to go through with action but disagree on some aspect. They negotiate and come to a middle ground, and the agreed-upon action is taken. Compromise is always a little clumsy just because it’s not exactly what either party envisioned. But you don’t love a cat with inner ear problems any less just because it falls off the couch sometimes, right?
In case you don’t know me personally, I’ll tell you now that I have a passion for agriculture. Specifically alternative agriculture for a new era. Specifically aquaponics, which I love with my whole heart.
If you recall my very heated strawberry post, I am generally frustrated with the conversations surrounding the future of food, especially GMOs. The reason people dislike GMOs is that it is a scary acronym like MSG. So here is my scathing hot take on GMOs: as long as GMOs are grown without artificial fertilizer or pesticide, it should be able to label itself as organic.
Shocking, I know. But the truth is that humans have been making GMOs since we started doing agriculture. Corn? GMOs. Wheat? GMOs. Dogs? GMOs. GMOs aren’t new in the slightest, it just used to take longer. Now we can do it quickly and with more options.
However, I would also be lying if I did not have one big problem with GMOs, and that has nothing to do with the science itself, but how it is abused by corporations. Near the popularization of GMOs, during a green revolution, private entities started genetically engineering their own seeds with lots of incredible benefits and then patenting them. The patent makes it so farmers can be sued for growing the crops unintentionally on their fields as a result of natural cross-pollination by local insects. Abuse in the same vein is making these organisms unable to reproduce outside of a lab and then giving these seeds away for free to farmers in impoverished countries. This then makes these farmers dependant on the genetically modified seeds, but unable to harvest them themselves, which means seeds must be bought year after year from the corporation that “generously” gave them away for free. It sounds like something out of a 90s movie starring a group of plucky young protagonists who take down the evil factory farm baron. But in reality, capitalism is just like that.
I’m planning on making some posts about my aquaponics projects after the semester ends, so stay tuned for that I guess!
Listen, I know that my last blog post was also about the intersection between the scientific and the social in environmental studies, but it’s not my fault that its such an incredible field. And you know things are about to get spicy when you type in the name of a threatened species of owl and Google autocompletes with “controversy.” So I am very excited.
Not to be that guy who uses the word layman, but I feel that the layman assumes that conservation happens because it should; we should save the animals, always. Unfortunately, it is much more complicated than that. Let’s say that there are an endemic species of mice in a field that are slowly decreasing in population. The only identifiable reason is that a species of snakes are eating them. They will surely go extinct if nothing is done. So you should kill the snakes? No! They live there too! They just gotta eat! What if you added a different species of mice so the snakes wouldn’t eat the threatened mice? And what, wreak havoc on the population distribution of the entire food triangle? Fools. Not to mention the nearby rural village depends highly on the money brought in by people coming to see these unique mice and buy tee-shirts and eat in diners and stay at motels, so the disappearance of those mice could destroy the town. This brings me to the northern spotted owl.
While the hypothetical mice situation falls close to the predicament of the spotted owl, I use the analogy for simplification, as the situation is more complicated than that, as always. Basically, the northern spotted owl was threatened by habitat loss by logging an encroachment by the barred owl. When logging ended, populations continued to decrease; so in an effort for conservation, a plan was proposed to remove a portion of barred owls to give the spotted owl some room. This did not go over well.
Here is an unfinished list of questions this predicament brings to mind, in no particular order, because I have ADD:
Assuming the fact that humans have had such a broad and incalculable effect on the planet and everything on it, what does the word “nature” really mean?
Assuming nature includes humans and their activities, what would it mean to “let nature take its course?”
Do humans have a responsibility to try to direct nature in a way that we see is “right” or “best?” If so, what would that entail?
If humans do not change their course in destroying the planet at a breakneck pace, will nature cease to exist or will nature entail majorly roaches and rats, being all that’s left?
Should conservation efforts only be focused on organisms that humans benefit from or that we enjoy? Species go extinct a lot, why is the spotted owl any different? We made this world, after all.
I find all of this fascinating and infinitely frustrating because I, for once, do not have a solid opinion on this, as I feel like there are too many questions for me to provide an answer. I feel like we need to think about so much about who we are and what we’ve done and what nature is before we can move forward with any confidence. But we don’t have that time, or money, or interest really. The less cute parts of conservation aren’t very profitable.
A close friend of mine is a sociology major, and while doing the readings this week I mentioned the subject matter to them; how race plays into where people live, and thus the environments they are exposed to, how gathering data in the field can be affected by whose collecting it, etc. As we were talking, I was once again reminded about the broad boundaries of environmental studies, as most of the topic we were discussing fell more into their area of interest than mine, as I tend to hone in on plants. Nevertheless, this area fascinates me, as the intersection between the social and scientific tends to.
While reading Nading’s Dengue in the Landscape, I was struck with the complexities of disease management that I had not considered. The paper goes over the notion of assigning blame to any given person as a vector for disease, and how many efforts to track dengue focuses on the personal action of citizens, and not of broader problems like infrastructure left in the hands of the government. It reminded me of a problem I have with current mainstream environmental activism. Often a narrative is pushed saying that if all of us came together and biked to work and used fewer plastics and ate less meat the planet would be saved. This is problematic because it shifts the responsibility of environmental protection to the individual acts of the consumer; a blatant distraction from the auto industry actively trying to suppress affordable access to public transport or the irresponsible decisions of factory farms or the very fact that people own private jets.
Which brings me to another point about mainstream environmentalism; the ability to follow all the prescribed steps for “helping the environment” is inherently a privilege. Biking or using public transport to work implies that you live close enough to your work to do so, likely in a high-rent neighborhood in an urban area where other people also bike to work. Using less plastic means having the money to go to a farmers market or Whole Foods and putting your wholesale brown rice in your own reusable burlap sack. Eating less meat assumes that you don’t just live off of fast food, since its cheap and filling and readily available in the food desert you live in and doesn’t require you to cook after coming home from you two minimum wage jobs. People who aren’t upper-middle or upper class have little access for participating in environmental change under capitalism because they have to make sure they’re alive first. Worst of all is that these people are also the ones most affected by environmental issues. Water, air, and noise pollution all make neighborhoods less desirable, driving rent down, meaning that these places are inhabited by poor communities. Putting aside the fact that our country doesn’t have socialized healthcare for a moment; there is a reason why people in poor neighborhoods have shorter lives and more health issues. Their homes are literally killing them.
And that’s why environmental justice is so important; because specific groups of people based on race and income are being targeted as exploitable populations, as they often don’t have the resources to go up against oil companies. Environmentalism is for everyone, and it effects some more than others. We can’t ignore it.
This week, for the annual ENVS symposium, we were lucky to have Daryl Davis over to speak about his ongoing quest to answer a question that he’s puzzled over as a black man, “How can you hate me when you don’t even know me?” Which, as a queer person, I have also thought about; what draws someone to blind hatred of a whole group of people?
Davis tackles this question in a way that could be seen as foolish or naive, possibly deadly. He travels the country (in between his gigs as a jazz pianist) meeting and befriending KKK members. Over time he has collected two dozen robes from those who renounced the KKK after befriending Davis, which he views as strides in the right direction. And who am I to argue? I have probably never changed someone’s mind like Davis has. And I think that’s because he’s one of the few people that can do what he’s doing.
Before I state my opinion, I want to say that I have nothing on Davis, he’d done more, lived longer, and I know I could learn a lot from him. However, I would like to say that Davis could not have done this if he was a woman, or gay, or wore something else than collared shirts. Davis is a fantastic speaker, but it should be noted that he speaks in a way that is familiar to white people. If Davis was a young man, say in his 20s, he wouldn’t be able to do what he does. That’s why when people say that Davis’s approach towards eliminating oppression is the way we should all be doing it, I have mixed feelings.
First off, Davis put himself in considerable danger by meeting KKK members. He recounted the story of conducting an interview with a KKK leader when he was almost shot by the bodyguard when the melting ice in the ice bucket made a sudden noise. The oppressed should not be given the burden of changing the oppressor’s mind, especially when that task involves very real threats of violence against their body.
Since this is an ENVS blog, and this was an ENVS symposium, I will connect what I mean back to that. When two people are discussing an issue unless both of them are exactly the same in age, gender, race, wealth, and education, each will hold their own prejudice against the other for their different background and assume their opinion is superior (likely also indicating they consider themselves superior). And thinking that every person is willing and able to have their background involved either implicitly or explicitly in the conversation being had is short-sighted of the personal life.
In Daryl Davis’s documentary on his journey across America, speaking to KKK leaders, he interviews two young Black Lives Matter activist leaders, who refuse to shake his hand. And I understand why. I felt like they knew that they could not do what Davis was doing, provided they were willing to do so, simply because of background and circumstance. So they were hitting the pavement and trying to improve their community directly, which is unforgiving work. They thought Davis was taking an easy stance, fraternizing with the enemy.
I want to conclude by saying only this; what Davis is doing important? Yes. Should we all be doing it? No, because so many can’t. Davis’s method and direct action can co-exist because they must. Davis is one of the few people who could do what he does and people in his position should do the same. But neither of these types of advocacy are “right” or “best”. So don’t be mean about it, Daryl would be sad.
Class was particularly interesting this week, as in the midst of hurricane Micheal we discussed the recently released ICP report, which seemed to contain only bad news; that we are behind in our goal in reduced carbon emissions. And not just that; the report posits that even keeping the global temp from rising 2 degrees Celsius might be too much, and would have unmanageable consequences on the planet and that a maximum of 1.5 degrees should be strived for, which means that things must radically change now.
While nursing all these facts over my morning yerba mate, we were instructed to consider the above image; What did it represent? How did it make you feel?
Most of my classmates commented on the bleakness of the image, how the young child was representative of a generation inheriting a ruined planet. For me, it reminded me of my own childhood of wandering the dry plains in California, looking for plants and bones and fossils. Maybe that’s telling of the planet I grew up in.
I feel that most importantly it should be mentioned that while the report talks of the future, this picture was taken in the present. I feels like it should represent a possible future devoid of life. But we’re already there. The report is talking about something bigger, something worse.
According to the ICP report, we are teetering on the edge of disaster. I knew this, but its something else to point to one specific paper that people might recognize as reputable. We live in such a critical time, possibly the last opportunity to make it so the world can continue to support life, and yet we are at a standstill. To put it crudely, we have the tools to radically curb climate change, its just that the people who would have to take up the responsibility to use those tools are tools themselves. Unless all the shareholders for the top 100 companies responsible for killing the planet all of a sudden make climate change their immediate concern, those companies will still pursue profit above everything (and everyone) else. There needs to be a significant change immediately. I like direct action, but I won’t say more than that, lest I be put on a watchlist.
ContraPoints does an excellent youtube video about what I’m talking about, that mentions the IPC report and hurricanes and is more coherent than I am. It’s a little… vulgar? But its very fun. I’ll link to it here.
This past week was a transition from the perspective of environmental philosophy to that of the strategy of the environmental scholar in analyzing situations and their causes. This week we focused on environmental health, and were introduced to the concept of “situating.” Situating is an analytical strategy that essentially takes one specific scenario, finds each of the actors and effects, and then uses that analysis to apply it to similar situations.
Our in-class reading for the week was a paper written in part by our own Jim Proctor, titled Household-level environmental health in the Ezulwini Valley, Swaziland.” To quote directly from the introduction of the paper, The World Health Organization (WHO) states that environmental health “…addresses all the physical, chemical and biological factors external to a person, and all the related factors impacting behaviors. It encompasses the assessment and control of those environmental factors that can potentially affect health.” Things that fall within the realm of environmental health include access to drinking water, adequate sanitation, hygiene, effects of rapid urbanization on pollution, and climate change. Swaziland struggles with issues faced by most developing nations such as water, sanitation, and health. The study in the paper was conducted after a five-year effort by WHO to improve conditions in Swaziland, which while met with a degree of success, the improvements were felt primarily by those in higher income brackets. Sound familiar?
A considerable amount of focus was put on access to “improved water” which is any piped water. However, improved water is often not safe to drink, even though it is seen as an improvement to wells and streams. Not only that, but Swaziland struggles greatly with HIV, reliance on wood fuel, and lack of adequate disposal methods for solid and human wastes.
I feel like the analysis of the status of Swaziland is itself is evidence of the importance of situating areas before making statements about their condition. Having piped water is an important step forward regarding infrastructure, but that means nothing if that water is not safe to drink. Not to mention that one of the contributions for why that water is unsafe is because of contamination from unmonitored solid and human waste disposal.
The concept of situating I feel also speaks to the interdisciplinary nature of ENVS. So many practices went into the conducting of this survey, including aspects of sociology, resource management, and climate science. Not only is it important, but I find it fascinating.
This baby is the technological sins of humanity. Why don’t you love him, you absolute monster?
All discussion in 160 this week was dedicated to the journal Love Your Monsters, a collection of essays that center around post-environmentalism and the Anthropocene. Already both of these words are alienating to the typical reader, as well as the first year college student. We were asked in class to put our questions about the reading up on the board for discussion, and all I could muster was “What’s going on with all that stuff in there?” which is barely a question at all. I still don’t really know what’s going on, or if I agree with it. Maybe I’m unenlightened, but if that’s what I need to be to get this, let’s just say I won’t be doing any meditating.
There are many things that I do agree with, despite my possibly shallow reading of the text. Yes, humans have always evolved alongside and in conjunction with technology, and we should continue to do so, as is our nature. I also agree that green capitalism is whack, and serves more to reassure the consumer that they can participate in capitalism ethically and sustainably, which is categorically untrue. I also agree that moving forward we must examine the relationship the technological can have with the natural and that those two are not mutually exclusive. Rejecting existing technologies that had unintended consequences on the environment is irresponsible and super uncool. All of this is true.
And yet I have issues with this work. They say we need nuclear energy now, and say that the environmentalist paralysis out of fear of unintended consequence is unacceptable. I do think inaction out of fear will get us nowhere fast, but we know precisely the results of nuclear energy, nuclear waste, which we don’t have any great ideas of how to dispose of. I also feel that there are times where the work gets combative and dismissive of mainstream environmentalists, while also preaching about the innovation of their own ideas. Are they bad ideas? I would say no, if controversial.
Like I mentioned, I am a freshman in college, who took AP Environmental science once. These people have done this with their lives. But it cannot be ignored that if you cannot reach me, someone who is still forming their environmental manifesto in their head and who is ready to listen with an above average scientific literacy in comparison to the layman, I doubt you will reach anyone at all.
The topic of discussion this past week in ENVS 160 was sustainability and its position as a “big word” in the world of environmental studies. In doing the weekly readings, one of the papers struck me, and I would like to spend more time on it here. The article in question was “Strawberry Fields Forever? When Soil Muddies Sustainability” by Julie Guthman, 2018. Two things in this paper really caught my attention, both which relate to my niche interest in aquaponics; first being whether or not foods grown without soil should be able to be classified as “organic”, and the subject of the ever switching importance of the “Quality” of the product versus its impact on the environment.
Now I don’t want to go and dunk on this article, because it’s useful and well-written and makes some excellent points. However, I disagree with the author’s opinion that soilless agriculture should automatically be illegible for the label of “organic.” The common definition of organic food is food grown without pesticides or chemical fertilizers, which is the case for many soilless systems. I would argue that aquaponics could be seen as more “organic” than traditional growing, as this paper lays out all the complicated and expensive ways farmers try to game nature into bigger harvests and more extended soil longevity. There comes the point at which an area of land has been continuously farmed for so long where the original microfauna of the soil- much of which we don’t fully understand- cannot be restored. This process happens over and over again, and yet we continue to focus on how to do the impossible, for real estate reasons.
There is a second mention of soilless agriculture, albeit brief, which references attempts made by farmers to move to hydroponics, but was quickly abandoned due to compromises in sweetness and texture.
I find it hilarious that no one is willing to compromise on the quality of strawberries to do less damage to the environment, but everyone was okay with seedless watermelon. When we started growing seedless watermelon, there were stark differences in taste, texture, and sweetness from the seeded variety, and yet everyone was able to overlook this fact because you didn’t have to spit out the seeds anymore. The same thing happened to bananas! We created a monoculture that was susceptible to disease, and when the banana plague took place, we had to switch to different bananas. And we were okay with that also because we must hate seeds.
What I’m trying to say is, soilless farming is the future, and apparently, people don’t care that much about fruit quality, or at least not as much as we hate seeds.