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Entries in pollution (5)


Sustaining Our Health and the Planet: How Local Consensus Helps Get Things Done

In little over a month from now, those of us who are concerned about the health of our planet will be observing Earth Day, on April 22, 2011. Each year, Jan Huston Doble, who blogs at Thanks for Today, organizes a communal cyberspace celebration of this event. Fellow bloggers are encouraged to post a relevant item on their own sites with a link back to hers. Alternatively, readers may leave a comment about sustainability on Jan’s blog. This cyber-event generates so much traffic that several suppliers of gardening products and services are eager to contribute prizes to wining entrants. Yes, there is a contest! To participate in this unique observance, or to read additional thoughtful comments and opinions on the subject, click onto this link.

Preserving the earth and our health is a serious matter. Wherever it is realistic to contribute to sustainability, concerned citizens have been making incremental changes in the ways they conduct their lives. It is surprising how effectively local commerce and communities can rise to the occasion, without assistance from distant federal agencies, where and when there is a consensus among the citizens, that a status quo is no longer acceptable.

In an earnest attempt to preserve our health, our planet and our precious resources, here are a few examples [and there are so many more] of what is being done in some communities in North America:-

  • In order to reduce pollution in the core of the city, municipal officials in Montreal voted to install a bicycle rental program whereby citizens can rent a bike in one part of town, and drop it off at their destination.
  • Massachusetts, along with the states of California and New Mexico, has set targets to reduce carbon emissions. With a program similar to that of Montreal, the municipality of Brookline, Mass. has introduced a car service, using miniature automobiles.
  • There is at least one supermarket chain in North America that has accommodated customers who demand organically grown produce and organically raised cattle and poultry. Those who opt for these foods are the same ones that consume health and beauty aids made with safe ingredients. Decisions are made, about which safe toiletries to buy, only after consulting the Environmental Working Guide website.
  • Some utility providers conserve resources by offering energy at discounted rates outside of peak usage hours. This encourages consumers to run their appliances when energy demands are low.
  • In the Mid West, where water in drought season has become a scarce commodity, some local communities have installed cistern-type collection systems to recycle rain water for irrigation. Here the watering of lawns is regulated through community by-laws. Other home owners are reconsidering the need for resource-hungry lawns altogether. For some, self-sustainable gardens are a viable option.
  • Plants that are invasive and that threaten local ecology have been outlawed in many states.
  • In an attempt to moderate consumption of unhealthy food, New York City banned the use of artery-clogging trans fats and ordered that the caloric value of food be displayed on restaurant menus.
  • Most states ban smoking in public places, both indoors and out, and post signs in rest rooms instructing employees to wash their hands after using the bathroom.
  • In many communities, homeowners have been legislated into re cycling kitchen waste that is later converted into compost, while other refuse is sorted and recycled in order to reduce the size of land fills.
  • An increasing number of gardeners are opting to use organic matter to enrich their soil rather than commercial fertilizers. Also, they are attempting to grow crops for their personal consumption, even on tight little plots in urban areas.

An example, that demonstrates how powerful citizens can be, may be observed in the way that huge, mass market retailers were forced to stop selling milk containing the growth hormone rBST, after female medical problems were reported in girls as young as 8 years old. Usually, too large a number of consumers deliberately disregard publicity about herbicides, pesticides, and other toxic substances found in the products that they use or consume daily. They also tend to ignore the nutritional deficiencies or health risks of certain food products. However, the disturbing side effects of pre-mature puberty in little girls were too serious to ignore and consumers voted with their wallets against purchasing the undesirable milk. That was a rare occasion when the powerful lobbying activities of a chemical company that supplied the growth hormone, were stymied by the actions of a surprisingly well-informed, determined public.

I’m not a big fan of rallies, pickets, protest marches, parades and other boisterous crowd scenes. I suspect that the only benefit from these manifestations is to supply camera crews with fodder for cable news and salaries for the bused-in professional protesters and their organizers. I am also skeptical of the actual net benefits of extreme ranting at the blog level. [Polite ranting is OK :)].

I believe in respectful grass roots initiatives that influence both consumer behavior and the agendas of local officials. Gardeners, farmers, conservationists, and citizens concerned about a large variety of issues that impact our health and our planet need to ensure that their opinions will be heard. In addition to educating the public, and voting with our wallets when we shop, it is important to remain active in our communities to make sure that somebody is listening. Politicians pay attention to their constituents. They also care about the number of bodies that turn out to vote for or against them. In most North American elections, only 35% of the population exercises that precious privilege. For the largest truly democratic continent on earth, that number is too low.


Gardeners and Scientists: - What Can They Do About the Environment, Really?

Each season, more and more people come to realize that our environment and our bodies needs better tending. For most of us, information on these subjects comes from the internet and the media. Very few of us do our own research; we rely mostly upon second-hand information. One would expect that gardeners, farmers, and conservationists to be the best informed on these subjects, by virtue of their connection to the soil and their sensitivity to nuanced environmental changes. But that is not the case.

Many of us, especially those outside of academia, are influenced by information that is anecdotal, that is not always scientifically accurate, or that cannot be easily corroborated. Consequently, there is a weak consensus about the effects that environmental changes and questionable agricultural practices have on the environment and on the health of all living things, including our bodies.

I once asked a scientist-mathematician friend for his opinion about global warming and he replied that he could not formulate one until he examined the data. Without numbers, he said, one cannot know, with any certainty, the extent of climate change and if it requires any action on our part. There was some truth in that because most of the information on that subject had been inferred from observation. Eventually, climatologists mustered up the courage to report that the earth undergoes warming and cooling cycles over time and that perhaps we were experiencing one of the warming cycles. It was also suggested that perhaps human activity was exacerbating this natural phenomenon. However, no reliable, empirical evidence could be supplied for that opinion.

No matter how much we care about the planet, we cannot control the destruction of rain forests in other countries, nor can we regulate world-wide polluters, including those close to home. Furthermore, we are unable to control life-threatening agricultural practices in third world countries, where one is allowed to apply herbicides and pesticides that are toxic to humans, alive or yet unborn. On one hand, there are powerful interests that need to prop up the industrial status quo, which, ironically, helps us sustain an enviable high standard of living. On the other hand there are dedicated scientists who are not yet prepared to connect the dots between environmental issues and health problems, be they real, imagined, false, or hypothesized.

Scientists have an allegiance to the scientific method and the proper journey from observation to conclusion. They cannot climb on the bandwagon of protest because it is morally correct or humanitarian to do so. Not only do they require much more time to discover truth than we are prepared to give them, but also, they risk losing their careers as scientists if they try to whistle-blow prematurely, or to be forthcoming at all. In the meanwhile, they are dismayed to see how people’s emotions, conspiracy theories, and even the convoluted but seductive opinions of scientific charlatans, have created anxiety among the populace. When misinformation is disseminated, it shapes the opinions of some of the most astute among us.

Scientist–journalist, Dr. Joe Schwarcz of McGill University, once informed me that science is tough while hearsay and opinion formulation is easy. Most journalists who write on topics that concern us, subjects for which they usually have no academic credentials, are not willing or are unable to engage in the hard work required to understand the details of science. Science, Dr. Joe pointed out, is in the details and not in the headlines. .

Therefore, without the scientific community’s courageous corroboration, it is unrealistic to expect that organized drum beating will be effective in changing most environmental situations, at least in the near future. For the time being, all that we can do is to take care of our bodies and the environment in our own back yard and hope, optimistically or naively, that one day everyone’s garden will be linked to a national string of safe, eco-friendly mini environments.


Local Farmers and Wal-Mart

Recently, Michele at Garden Rant posted a blog commenting on a Wal-Mart press release, announcing a decision to source food locally. The post is titled ” Everyday Low Prices” and is dated October 15, 2010. Some members of the public have never had anything nice to say about Wal-Mart, so it was not surprising to see how many readers of Michele’s blog greeted the press release with cynicism and posted comments strongly arguing against it. Critical commentors focused on the unwelcome consequences this program might have on independent farmers as well as the negative effect that this retailer has had on small town America.

Regardless of one’s opinion, it is important to recognize that Wal-Mart reinvented retailing for the 20th century world. Consequently, many potential suppliers, who are powerful or flexible enough to take on Wal-Mart, dream of doing business with this organization while loyal customers flow to its doors as endlessly as a river. The significance of the seamless, continuous traffic that makes the company successful is lost on some critics. What needs to be emphasized is that consumers, in a very specific socio-economic level, with precious and often limited disposable income, combined with little free time, can find almost everything needed in this one-stop shopping experience.

Has this marketing phenomenon forced smaller retailers to close? Yes. Has the retailer placed suffocating pressure on suppliers to hold down costs? Yes. Has it homogenized and shrunk consumer choices in the name of efficiency? Yes. Are the stores blight onto our landscapes? Yes. Does this company treat some employees in a heartless fashion? Yes. However, is the public happy to shop there? Yes. We never hear of customers complaining about Wal-Mart; we only read negative opinions generated by social critics. To whom do we think that Wal-Mart listens? Even when scorn is justified, it is the consumer dollar spent that has greater impact on corporate decisions.

I am not Wal-Mart’s designated customer. I shop there only on rare occasions when it is practical to do so. Neither am I a shareholder of that company; I have no vested interest in any side of the dialogue. What I care about is the accuracy of knowledge. In a conversation where controversy is latent,  it is important for participants to see the larger picture; a thorough knowledge of an issue makes it easier to digest and more effective to argue. In this case, it is helpful to understand that Wal-Mart is a formidable international economic force, a fact that is sometimes beyond the comprehension of both its customers and its critics. It has redefined how retail business is done on a large scale and its influence is felt around the globe. Most importantly, it makes some suppliers, its shareholders, and its customers very happy. One should never underestimate behemoth corporations. They recognize better than anyone else that the bigger they are, the harder they might fall. Therefore, they are constantly strategizing to remain successful.

While Wal-Mart has an obligation to make consumers feel as if they are getting the best value for their money, there is also a fundamental need to maintain a positive public image. In an era when so many inhabitants of the world are anxious about the health of our planet, it is good public relations to enhance a press release with such words as “local farmers” and “sustainability. The recent communiqué, about buying food locally, is couched in language that makes it appear as if the retailer is concerned about the earth and local farmers. It would be unwise to draw that conclusion.

Buying produce from local growers has nothing to do with supporting family farms or the sustainability of the land. It has everything to do with the fact that shipping costs are lower when food is sourced locally. Lower shipping costs mean increased profitability. Wal-Mart, like all other businesses, is mandated to make money for its shareholders. And making money is not a crime, not a sin, and not immoral. It is appropriate commercial behavior.

It is also widely held that local delivery, compared to delivery from farms across the continent, requires less fuel and consequently reduces pollution. No one should be deceived into thinking that corporations are in business to play protector of the environment. Benefits of energy conservation and reduced pollution have no designated columns on fiscal balance sheets.

If it is successful in sourcing food locally, Wal-Mart will be able to bring down purchasing costs. That is expected to improve its competitive edge and profitability; something that only shareholders will notice and appreciate. The consumer might not feel a thing. And yet, that scenario can only work if food can be grown all year. Unfortunately, that is not climatically realistic in half of North America unless farmers invest in year-round greenhouses. Investing, with the hope of doing business with a firm as large as Wal-Mart, is very risky, as this retailer needs large quantities of everything it purchases and its terms of doing business are severe. That is a game only the big boys can play. Small, local farmers may get burned.

Some of the readers of Michele’s blog are probably correct in assuming that local farmers will not see real lasting benefits from having their food sold at Wal-Mart. If they are wise, growers will refuse to participate in this venture unless their production is huge and their facilities, highly automated. More importantly, local farmers must be able to endure having their prices squeezed because all of the “middle men”, who are essential in bringing food from farm to store shelf, will also need a slice of the proverbial pie.


Celebrating Earth Day is Two Weeks Away

If we are to continue to survive on this planet, we must find a sustainable way to preserve our natural resources and the integrity of our bodies. Observing Earth Day is a way to remember that all of us must do anything pro-active to protect the planet. Some are well on their way in taking this matter into their own hands. Those that live on arable land, no matter how small, have begun to grow their own produce. Others, who live in dense urban locales, are opting to shop for organic produce and protein by linking up with farmers’ co-ops and farmers’ markets that deliver locally, and sustainably grown, healthy food into the cities.

Wise gardeners have begun using drip hoses, instead of sprinklers, to preserve water where it has become precious, and they are judiciously re examining the use of certain herbicides and pesticides that trickle down into the water tables. For others, composting kitchen scraps and garden waste to reuse in the garden as nutrients for plants, is becoming the reality. Farms, degraded by overproduction, await restoration so that nature’s balance of wildlife and plants may return to preserve the rejuvenated land. Furthermore, we must ensure that the heating and cooling systems of our homes and work places are the most energy efficient that prevailing technology allows.

Driving fuel-efficient cars is still a controversial topic. Few have addressed the question of how much energy a power plant must generate in order to recharge an electric car battery; while the use of bio-fuel to run cars and trucks has created unforeseen problems in the food chain. Another unresolved matter concerns global warming. It is still unclear what portion of the warming of the earth is a natural, cyclical phenomenon and what portion is attributable to human behavior. It is also unclear how much effect humans will have on this natural cycle, if such behavior can ever be modified on a global scale.

What is certain, however, is that human behavior pollutes an earth that is supposed to sustain us. If we are to remain healthy, cleaning up our environment has to start with us, at the community level, because it is unrealistic to expect governments of heavily industrialized nations to lead on this matter. And it has to start now!

Furthermore, nothing will be accomplished if environmentally friendly folk continue to dialogue endlessly only with each other. All of that energy, both human and capital, should be spent on improving the environment where we live, because it appears to be so much easier to introduce new ideas, locally, than at the federal level. For example, in the American Southwest, individual communities are successfully regulating landscape irrigation by capturing rainwater with innovative recycling sewer systems. In California, new standards of emissions will be implemented shortly. This environmentally significant move will take place in conjunction with several other American states and a few Canadian provinces that, jointly, will turn these emission standards into law. This has been accomplished without the circus and fanfare that usually accompanies dealing with controversial issues.

In some parts of the world, the value of life, other than one’s own, remains dismayingly low. In other places, what happens outside the village boundaries is of no consequence to local inhabitants. Therefore, it would be naïve to assume that there will be global consensus on saving the planet in the very near future. In the meanwhile, each of us can do our share to restore and heal that portion of the earth that we appreciate by starting, literally, in our own back yard. Please observe Earth Day on Thursday April 22, 2010 with an act of kindness to the land that surrounds you. To find out what you can do, visit the EPA web site.

This post was created with the encouragement of Garden Bloggers Sustainable Living Project.


Saving the Planet is Not an Easy Task.

Some people believe that humans were placed on earth to be caretakers of the planet and that we are obliged to pass it on to the next generation in the same good condition as we found it. However, it is also clear that our civilization has evolved to a level of sophistication that has done some harm to the environment and any attempt to reverse that harm will create adverse consequences to the advanced economies of countries like our own. There is a real threat that, if we attempt to heal the planet unilaterally, the cost will make us uncompetitive worldwide. As a result, economies of weaker countries will benefit at our expense. That is not an acceptable scenario because we cannot afford to lose any more jobs to emerging nations. Our economy is suffering enough. The threat to our commercial well-being is one of the issues that make the debate about protecting the environment so controversial. Here is an interesting perspective on the subject:

One of my favorite garden bloggers is Benjamin Vogt at The Deep Middle. Not only is he passionate about gardening and the environment but he is also a gifted writer. Recently, he suggesting that we do so little to stop further damage to the environment because we do not have the right language to motivate. He refers to that as not having the right metaphors to inspire others into action. Mr. Vogt observes that we have the right metaphors to incite the population to demand equal pay for women and to demand protection from street muggers but we do not have the right metaphor to communicate the serious consequences of abusing the environment.

In a dialogue exchange with other readers of Mr. Vogt’s blog, I wrote that metaphors do not inspire politicians. America exists because the signers of the Declaration of Independence needed a country free of interference so that they might conduct their business affairs in a profitable and unfettered manner. That set the tone for business and government, a long time ago. Today, a tangible benefit is what motivates movers and shakers into action. Ideologically driven legislation that does not translate into profits for some, or that weakens the commercial competitiveness of others, is enacted rarely because, I suspect, idealism and altruism are not the American way.

The challenge for those who want to prevent the further degradation of our planet is to learn the language of business. Demonstrate how saving the environment will either benefit the economy, or might be profitable for industry, and politicos will perk up their ears and listen. Continue to beat the drum about the woes of pollution or the disappearance of wildlife and only environmentalists and tree huggers will take notice. Here is a portion of the population that, on one hand, is still too small and ineffective to make a difference. On the other hand, it speaks in a voice that does not command sufficient respect; it focuses solely on ideal solutions and ignores the negative consequences these solutions might create. Furthermore, an environmentalist preaching to other environmentalists is not the way to get things done because only a few are listening. Those that care about our planet need to start over by finding a voice that will resonate with Those That Can Make Things Happen. To date, they have not been very successful.