Tag Archives: environment

Hurricane Sandy and Climate Change: Is There a Connection?

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As Hurricane Sandy approaches, I thought it would be fitting to discuss the various views about the relationship between the impending natural disaster and climate change. A range of opinions and comments about Hurricane Sandy coming from journalists, scientists, bloggers, and citizens alike continue to flood social media outlets with content in the form of Tweets, online news articles and reports, posts on Facebook, blog posts, YouTube videos, photos on Instagram, check-ins on Foursquare, and more.

An article on Storify by TreeHugger.com expresses one view about this issue by making an analogy that compares Hurricane Sandy and climate change to baseball and steroid use:

From Scientist, Dr. Gerald Meehl:

Think of it like this Dr. Meehl said: “Barry Bonds had a certain average level of home run production in his baseball career before he started allegedly taking steroids. Once he started taking performance enhancers, his home run production increased, and he set the single season record for home runs in 2001. Now he holds the all-time record for the most home runs. If we watched Bonds hit any one of these home runs, would we be able to say that it was directly caused by his steroid use? “No, that’s impossible. But the odds of him hitting one are much higher; his base state has changed.”

So climate change has caused a similar shift of the odds in the atmosphere that will cause more extreme events to occur than if no such alteration existed. But all of this isn’t to say that extreme events occur only because of climate change. Climate change is increasing the frequency and intensity of extreme events, not their presence in the first place.”

In “Social Media and the Environment Online,” Robert Cox writes, “One of the most interesting uses of social media in recent years has been the ability of ordinary citizens to document, report, or even expose conditions on the ground […] Citizens, researchers, and environmental groups are using mobile apps, digital cameras, smartphones, iPads, and online registries to document their observations of the natural world or report environmental problems to others” (186). I have included a couple of posts about Hurricane Sandy in the following:

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Since Web 2.0 allows users to be “environmental eyewitnesses,” who have the ability to report and document news online, the way in which we receive information is shifting away “from a one-way, elite news media to a participatory model of content generation and sharing” (Cox 182). For decades of living in a consumerist culture, in which we sit in front of our televisions and listen to the radio in our cars on our daily commute, we have looked to mainstream media to broadcast the news to us. This caused many of us to be passive receivers of information. To, everything has changed. We are no longer solely members of an audience that takes in information given to us by those in power. Cox explains, “As a result of the ability of social media to document and easily share with wider outlets, more and more citizens, activists, students, and researchers are expanding our awareness of changes in the world that are often out of sight of the mainstream media or environmental officials. Such uses of media broaden our scientific understanding and also enable ordinary citizens to bear witness to environmental dangers in their communities” (187).

Those who would not have normally had their voices heard in the past can now share their views with others online. This sets the stage for pubic criticism of politicians and other powerful figures. Cox states, “With Facebook, , and other social media, the reach of public scrutiny and criticism has accelerated dramatically. This scrutiny has shamed environmental villains, criticized inept officials, and held accountable corporations, governments, and illegal operators for everything from air pollution to destruction of rainforests” (187). In the screenshot of tweets above, two of the five tweets direct criticism towards politicians in relation to climate change. In one tweet, a columnist on her personal account makes a remark about the failure to address climate change in the last presidential debate. In the other tweet, EcoWatch, “an online news service that supports the work of more than 1,000 grassroots environmental organizations and activists worldwide,” tells users to spread the word by retweeting if they believe that politicians should consider prioritizing climate change and offers a link to an article on their site.

Much of the content that environmental organizations, similar to EcoWatch, would like to disperse is largely found on their webpage. Unless this content gets widely disseminated through email, tweeting, or other forms of broadcast, then it is difficult for people who do not specifically seek out this information to see it. Cox brings up the challenges for social media advocacy, “It appears to be important, therefore, for a major news event to be present for the optimal effect of some social media campaigns, for example, a natural disaster, nuclear plant accident, or an oil spill. In other words, if the subject of the tweets is not on the front page, it can be difficult to get mass engagement with social media alone” (197). Whether or not climate change directly links up to the cause of Hurricane Sandy is still being determined and is still a much debated over topic. However, Hurricane Sandy has unquestionably brought to the forefront the disturbing absence of discussion about climate change in this year’s presidential election season. Therefore, while tweeting and other forms of social media have shown to be a terrific tool in highlighting the issue of climate change during Hurricane Sandy, will politicians and citizens alike start to care more about climate change once the storm passes? I certainly hope so.

The Myth of the Green Consumerism: Personal Change ≠ Political Change

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In “Forget Shorter Showers: Why Personal Change Does Not Equal Political Change,” Derrick Jensen gives details on how corporations and government entities, as opposed to the individual consumer, have largely contributed to the gradual destruction of the environment. Jensen writes, “More than 90 percent of the water used by humans is used by agriculture and industry. The remaining 10 percent is split between municipalities and actual living breathing individual humans” (6). Therefore, if all US citizens decreased their water usage daily by twenty percent, the clean water shortage would show little to no improvement. In other words, regardless of how much water each individual tries to conserve on a personal basis, safe, potable water would still continue to run out and we would still have a crisis on our hands.

In “101 Reasons Why I’m a Vegetarian,” Pamela Rice explains how agribusiness practices contaminate water in the US. Rice references a New York Times article about a family in a rural area of Idaho:

The Kudlows drank from a private well at one time but now spend $150 a month on bottled water. They live within two miles of 30,000 feedlot dairy cows. The animals generate as much sewage as a medium-sized city, but, as is typical, treatment of the manure is not required. Bacteria, pathogens, and pharmaceuticals associated with feedlots contaminate the water. Nitrate levels six times those set by the EPA as safe were detected. The federal Clean Water Act remains silent about groundwater pollution, and state agriculture departments tend to side with the polluters. (Rice 4)

Much of US water contamination can be linked directly to water used for industrial agriculture. The agribusiness model of food production continues to contribute to the decline of human health. However, interestingly enough, for decades the government and food industry have made it seem as if consumers were the ones in charge of production and consumption.

Focus on the individual consumer arose with the emergence of industrialization in the eighteenth century. According to Michael Maniates in “Individualization: Plant a Tree, Buy a Bike, Save the World?,” for decades US governmental agencies have continuously emphasized the importance of the individual consumer while maintaining support of big business.  This, in effect, shifts environmental responsibility away from the government and corporations, and passes it on to the individual consumer. Maniates gives a historical context,

The ’80s was a decade in which re-energized, politically conservative forces in the US promoted the rhetoric of returning power and responsibility to the individual, while simultaneously curtailing the role of government in an economy that was increasingly characterized as innately self-regulating and efficient. Within this context, responsibility for creating and fixing environmental problems was radically reassigned, from government, corporations, and the environmentally shortsighted policies they were thought to have together fostered, to individual consumers and their decisions in the marketplace. (39)

President Reagan’s doctrine of personal responsibility, corporate initiative, and limited government further encouraged the notion that American consumption and production lied within the hands of individual consumers rather than corporations and government (40).

Today, the widely held idea that consumers can help save the environment if they make the choice to consume differently continues to spread throughout the world. By adding ethics into the equation, a whole new market of green products allow corporations to make even more profit than before. Until just recently, I admit that I, too, believed that if I purchased eco-friendly products, recycled as much as possible, conserved as much water and energy as I could on a daily basis, and tried to get others to develop similar habits, then together we could make a considerable, positive impact on planetary health. At the age of fourteen, shortly after I had watched An Inconvenient Truth, I remember buying Joanna Yarrow’s 1,001 Ways to Save the Earth (see slideshow above). I thought to myself that I was doing my bit by following the simple advice on the pages of this book made “on paper from sustainably managed forests with vegetable-based inks!”

While mindfulness of the individual does hold significance, this way of thinking diverts attention away from criticism of those in power. Maniates explains, “individual consumption choices are environmentally important, but [consumers’] control over these choices is constrained, shaped, and framed by institutions and political forces that can be remade only through collective citizen action, as opposed to individual consumer behavior” (50). Green consumerism distorts perceptions of our own personal responsibility for environmental problems. The labeling of products as ‘green’ or ‘eco-friendly’ can give off the impression that purchasing these particular products can save the earth. In truth, these labels make consumers see themselves as do-gooders but does little to prevent the destruction of the environment. Once again, this classification lies within business as usual model, which works with corporate interests in mind. The only way to make change towards a more environmentally sustainable future lies within collective citizen action.

Sustainable Agriculture in Russia (A Must Read)

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In 1999, 35 million small family plots produced 90% of Russia’s potatoes, 77% of vegetables, 87% of fruits, 59% of meat, 49% of milk — way to go, people!. Click on the link to read the article.

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Monsanto, a giant agricultural biotechnology corporation, has control over the foods that millions of Americans eat daily. This corporation produces genetically modified seeds, including corn, wheat, soybean, and cotton seeds. These GMOs, or genetically modified organisms, benefit the food industry and remains in line with the business as usual model. GMOs get engineered to withstand direct application of herbicide and/or insecticide, which allows for more overall profit of the food industry. When crops have been genetically engineered, they can grow in rows that stand closer together without having to worry about weeds or insects disrupting commercial agricultural production. An increasing amount of studies done on GMOs show that the consumption of GMOs leads to a range of health problems. Monsanto consistently and effectively silences family farmers, organic advocacy organizations, seed companies, and health freedom activists who question Monsanto’s products and try to stand up for the rights of consumers and farmers.

Similar to the unsuccessful attempts of the Stakeholder Evaluation Group (SEG) to examine the environmental impact of the plan of the Georgia Port Authority (GPA) to deepen the Savannah River in order for large container ships to enter the city’s harbor mentioned by Robert Cox in “Conflict Resolution and Collaboration in Environmental Disputes,” these various groups in line with public interests that try to discuss the rights of farmers and consumers in relation to the production of GMOs get silenced by those in power. In both cases, the industry had greater authority and voice than the stakeholders and stakeholders lacked the ability to address certain topics. In the Savannah River case, the GPA’s representatives pushed the SEG’s concerns to the side by saying that their concerns “had already been adequately addressed and that they were ‘historical issues'” (132). Industry ends up dominating over issues at hand. These cases exemplify “the clash between the technical sphere and the public sphere” (133). An uneven balance of power does not allow for any constructive kind of collaboration to exist.

Analyzing USDA Food Guides

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The USDA’s guidelines on what constitutes a healthy, balanced diet for Americans have changed time and time again over the past century. Most of us recognize one or several of these images because they have circulated throughout mainstream media during their respective decades. Children learn about the USDA approved food guide in grade school. Growing up I remember seeing posters of the 1992 Food Guide Pyramid on bulletin boards of the school cafeteria and in many of the classrooms I stepped foot in. Many of my classmates, including me, accepted this diagram as a visual representation of how to properly formulate your daily food intake. We thought of these food guidelines as common sense that encompassed the “right” way to eat.

Robert Cox’s “Social/Symbolic Constructions of ‘Environment'” in Environmental Communication and the Public Sphere explains how a dominant discourse, or a discourse that has gained a normalized status in culture, can flow rampantly through the public sphere, yet remain invisible in terms of consciousness to most (63). Just as I did as a child, many Americans fall into the dominant discourse of USDA nutrition guidelines. The USDA exercises its legitimacy, or its “right to exercise authority”, through these illustrations because not only does the USDA claim legitimacy of these values but a large amount of the public grants its legitimacy (64). Furthermore, these USDA approved diagrams give Americans an easy, simplified way of looking at their daily nutritional intake that puts types of food into specific groups. Placing kinds of food into categories and labeling how much of each food group a person should have daily can be seen as a “terministic screen”, or the means whereby our language orients us to see certain things, some aspects of the world and not others (62). These diagrams follow directly in accordance with the “business as usual” model for economic growth in the US.

Problems

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Today, only a very small amount of water on Earth is potable. Almost three-fourths of the fresh water available on our planet gets used up in agriculture. In “101 Reasons Why I’m a Vegetarian,” Pamela Rice writes, “Because of increasing meat consumption, global water demand is forecast to go up by 40 percent by 2030. It is important to realize that half of all the world’s cultivated grain is fed to livestock. So, when people hear the word ‘agriculture,’ they largely need to think animal agriculture. Production inputs for a single hamburger amount to 634 gallons of water, 25 times that needed for the equivalent in wheat” (Rice 2). When viewing these facts all together, it is apparent that we have a problem on our hands. However, it isn’t as simple as stating a few disadvantages to the way agriculture production system is run today, and then moving on to trying to find alternative strategies to the current method that would serve as potential solutions to the problem at hand. Due to the largely invisible status of this issue in mainstream media, many people are not fully aware of the problem.

In “Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning,” Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber state, “one of the most intractable problems is that of defining problems (of knowing what distinguishes an observed condition from a desired condition) and of locating problems (finding where in the complex casual networks the trouble really lies)” (159). Defining a ‘wicked’ problem, such as intensive agriculture, is not an easy task. It does not work in the same manner as mathematical problem solving in which a problem is given and a solution is found through carrying out the steps necessary to gain a definitive solution. In order to deal with wicked problems, we must realize how interrelated all of these problems are. For example, not only does industrial agriculture (including both crop and livestock production) expend the bulk of potable water on the earth, but it also engenders land degradation and climate change. Furthermore, there are different levels of a wicked problem. Land degradation and climate change are higher, and therefore, more general problems. A few problems that fit within these two broader problems include forests turning into eroded wasteland, arable land turning into desert, and greenhouse gases that are emitted during livestock production, which have even smaller, more concentrated problems within them as well. This could keep going on and on in many different directions up to the most minute details.

Additionally, it is essential to have “knowledge of all conceivable solutions” so as to be able to effectively “anticipate all questions”  (160). Along with this, we also must take into account the rarity of the majority of people agreeing on the image of a problem and coming up with a concrete model of planning towards a targeted resolution. Rittel and Weber point out, “diverse values are held by different groups of individuals—that what satisfies one may be abhorrent to another, that what comprises problem-solution for one is problem-generation for another. Under such circumstances, and in the absence of an overriding social theory or an overriding social ethic, there is no gainsaying which group is right and which should have its ends served” (169). Our pluralistic society makes way for a constant stream of opposing views to butt heads with each other. There is no easy way to solve a wicked problem whether it be social and/or environmental.