Orangutans and the Fires in Indonesia–an Environmental Tipping Point

By Neva Knott

Orangutans hold a special place in my heart. My father, Norman P. Knott, was a zoologist. In the early 1970s he worked for the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). We lived in Thailand and often dad would take the family with him to other Asian countries he visited for work. It was on one of these trips I fell in love with the orange Great Ape, as did my little sister. We were at a zoo and the larger male orangutan in captivity there was smoking a cigarette, an indelible image etched into my 11-year-old mind.

He was just he first of many orangutans we’d see while living and traveling in Asia.

In a later conversation between my dad and my older sister–she had asked him what he felt most proud of in his life–he said, “Creating protected habitat for orangutans.” My sister was taken aback, as the family folklore goes; she felt slighted that dad put the orangutan above his four daughters in his pride of accomplishment. When she shared this anecdote with me she said, “I said, but you have children.” My little sister and I somehow approve of dad’s heartfelt championship of the funny-looking orange and fuzzy animals we loved so much in our childhood. Truth be told, both of us still do hold them dear.

Source: wiki commons.

I’ve been following the news about the fires in Indonesia since it broke a few weeks ago. After the first few reports, focused on the fires themselves–locations, cause, containment–I began to see pieces about trapped and threatened orangutans. As I planned my next post for The Ecotone Exchange, I decided to write about them, thinking “this is another opportunity to show the power of consumerism and to talk about how we shop matters” (because the fires are a direct result of slash and burn clearing for palm oil plantations). Many of the reports I’d read explained rescue missions to get orangutans out of burning forests and to safety, another positive, I naively thought. Until last night.

My father’s legacy is going up in smoke.

Orangutans leaving burning forest. Original source unknown.

Orangutans leaving burning forest. Original source unknown.

I began my research into the depth of the orangutans’s situation–I always like to go beyond the click-bait information–with a google search of UN-FAO orangutan habitat. I crossed imaginary fingers that dad’s name would pop up, but his work was so long ago, I didn’t expect to see Norman P. Knott in my search results. I did find the recent (2011) report published by the United Nations Environment Programme, “Orangutans and the Economics of Sustainable Forest Management in Sumatra.” The photographs in the report are telling–I hope you click on the link and take them in. Information in these types of reports is always rich fodder, and not the type of information the general public reads, but I’m sure we’d all act and react differently if we had these types details easily in front of us. In fact, sometimes I think my work as a blogger is really that of extraction. The information, based on research, in this report frames the background of the orangutan’s plight in Indonesia:

First and of foremost importance, “With current trends in forest loss, the Sumatran Orangutan (Pongo abelii) may well be the first Great Ape to go extinct in the wild.” In 1900, the population was 85,000. Now, it’s 6,600. This is a decrease of 92 per cent and has landed the species on the Red List. Bornean Orangutans (Pongo pygmaeus) are also rapidly declining in number, down from 54,000, and listed as endangered. Information for the UNEP report was gathered in the Leuser Ecosystem, Aceh, and North Sumatra–areas currently burning.

Orangutans are extremely vulnerable to extinction due to a combination of factors. They have an exceptionally slow reproductive rate–Sumatran orangutan females give birth to just one infant at a time, only every eight or nine years. Indeed, the loss of as little as 1 per cent of females each year can place a population on an irreversible trajectory to extinction; they require vast areas of contiguous rainforest to live in; they are very much restricted to lowland forest areas.

Orangutans are most threatened by fragmented habitat–an issue similar to the one I wrote about last week in my post about Wildlife Bridges. The orangutan’s habitat fragmentation is due to forest loss which results from a combination of road development, expansion of large- scale agriculture, logging concessions, mining and small-scale encroachment. To illustrate the magnitude of forest loss–between 1985 and 2007, 49 per cent of all forests on the island were destroyed. Road development is tied to economic development, but the problem for the ecosystem in general and orangutans specifically is that roads are not planned to maintain habitat. The authors of the report state, “These threats can be directly attributed to in- adequate cross-sectoral land use planning, reflecting needs for short-term economic growth, and a lack of environmental law enforcement.”

Of these, the rapid expansion of oil palm plantations in recent years probably represents the greatest single agricultural threat to orangutan survival in the region. The establishment of many of these plantations has resulted in significant losses in orangutan habitat, since they have been created by converting forests instead of making use of already deforested areas, such as existing agricultural or low current use value land. Of note, one of the drivers of this rapid expansion that exists outside of the consumer market is population increase in Indonesia. In this report, the UNEP explains that 50 per cent of Indonesians rely on agriculture for income, and theirs is a population growing rapidly, so the actual number of persons represented by that percentage is much greater than it was even a few years ago–more people to support washes out as more cleared land.

As I read on into the report, I gained a little hope. I was bolstered by the fact that orangutans have been protected since 1931. Most of their habitat is in protected areas on Sumatra the rest of Indonesia. New regulations–as of the publication of the report–are in effect to make the spatial planning process one that is habitat-friendly. The government seems to want to work for orangutans, “The Government of Indonesia has ratified and integrated into national law many international environmental treaties and conventions (e.g. the Convention on Biological Diversity, Convention on International Trade in En- dangered Species, the Convention on Wetlands of International Importance, the UNESCO World Heritage Convention). Most of these support orangutan conservation at the national and international level. In 2007, the Indonesian government also released its own Indonesian National Orangutan Conservation Strategy and Action Plan (2007-2017, Ministry of Forestry 2009) to protect orangutans and their habitat, which was subsequently signed into law and officially launched by the president.”

Yet, the slash and burn deforestation–a cheap and dirty way to clear land–continues.

National Public Radio reported in “As Indonesia’s Annual Fires Rage, Plenty of Blame but No Responsibility” just a few days ago that much of the deforestation for palm oil is conducted illegally:

“Indonesia’s government has blamed both big palm oil companies and small freeholders. Poynton says the culprits are often mid-sized companies with strong ties to local politicians. He describes them as lawless middlemen who pay local farmers to burn forests and plant oil palms, often on other companies’ concessions.

“There are these sort of low-level, Mafioso-type guys that basically say, ‘You get in there and clear the land, and I’ll then finance you to establish a palm oil plantation,’ ” he says.

The problem is exacerbated by ingrained government corruption, in which politicians grant land use permits for forests and peat lands to agribusiness in exchange for financial and political support.

“The disaster is not in the fires,” says independent Jakarta-based commentator Wimar Witoelar. ‘It’s in the way that past Indonesian governments have colluded with big palm oil businesses to make the peat lands a recipe for disaster.’ Wimar notes that previous administrations are partly to blame for nearly two decades of annual fires.”

All that said, NPR cites Indonesia’s current and fairly new president, Joko Widodo, referred to as Jokowi, to be a man willing to take proactive measure to combat this issue, “The president has deployed thousands of firefighters and accepted international assistance. He has ordered a moratorium on new licenses to use peat land and ordered law enforcers to prosecute people and companies who clear land by burning forests.”

I find it horrific that these land-clearing fires have been part of Business As Usual for so long. The fires in 1997, according to the UNEP report, cost Indonesia 10 billion dollars; this year’s fires, according to the New York Times, cost 14 billion. I’ve read several news reports that the carbon emissions from this year’s are more than what the US in it’s entirety emits. These figures easily refute the economic feasibility argument in favor of clearing forest for palm oil.

From ABC Australia’s article, “Indonesian Fires: Forget the Orangutans, Is the Blaze a Tipping Point for Carbon Emissions?,”:

“The fires in Indonesia are more than just a threat to endangered orangutans. They have shortened by up to two years the window to reduce carbon emissions and avoid runaway climate change, according to one of the CSIRO’s leading climate scientists.

The head of the Global Carbon Project at the CSIRO, Pep Canadell, said the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere may have exceeded 400 parts per million for the first time in 2 million years, because of the 1 billion tonnes of carbon released by the fires in a two-month period.

Dr Canadell said the daily emissions of the Indonesian fires had been equal to the daily emissions of the US, accelerating humanity’s progress along the upward line of global emissions by about one to two years.”

As Take Part reports, there are some ugly outcomes of the orangutans having to flee their habitat because of the fires, “Orangutans have more to fear than just the fire. The flames and smoke are pushing them out of their already reduced habitats and closer to human villages, where the adults are killed and the young apes are sold into the pet trade. In the past week, International Animal Rescue saved one such young orangutan, Gito, who had been kept in a cardboard box and left in the sun to die.”

By now these sorts of events should be taken as a death knell ringing across the globe. It seems humans have come so far from living in caves that we’ve forgotten we are part of nature and its patterns. These fires and the plight of the orangutans is emblematic that we cannot succeed by pulling apart ecosystems, using one part that is economically beneficially and saying to hell with the rest. These fires and the plight of orangutans is another example that large-scale mono-cropping is the days-gone-by way of agriculture; it does not work with such a densely populated planet as we live on today. The UNEP put these words to the root cause of the problem, “The current economic system, which is based on the assumption that most of what is taken from the environment is a public good, or, in other words, that it is “free,” is leading humanity to either overexploit what nature provides or to destroy it completely. This has created an economic system in which one service has been maximized, usually productivity–[such as quick, low-cost slash and burn clearing], at the expense of others.”

Here at The Ecotone Exchange our moniker is Positive Stories of the Environment. Is there anything positive in this mess? I don’t know, but I was compelled to write about it anyway…

In the short term, several animal rescues like International Animal Rescue and Sumatran Orangutan Society are working on the ground in Indonesia to get the animals to safety. Follow this link to a National Geographic photo-essay, “Saving Sumatra’s Orangutans.” 

There are models for better forestry practices (about which I’ve written extensively), and as the UNEP suggests, there’s much already deforested land available to palm oil growers–some in Indonesia, some elsewhere–and realistically, orangutans take up very little space on this planet, yet palm oil can grow many places.

One thing that’s got to change is environmental standards everywhere. Much of what we consume in America is made elsewhere–to a large degree because companies don’t want to adhere to the environmental, non-pollution, standards here. So we outsource our pollution.

Indonesia is home to the Sustainable Palm Oil Platform, an advocacy that trains and certifies sustainably grown palm oil. Another agency, Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, offers similar certification. And several non-profits publish lists of palm oil free products. But palm oil is in everything–I don’t think we can responsibly-shop our way out of this one. Yesterday I thought it might be an option, because so many environmental problems are market-driven (as is this one).

Nor is this a simple issue of saving a charismatic species. Contrastingly, I am looking at the plight of the orangutans as an indicator, I’m looking at them as an indicator of human outcomes. Humans and orangutans share 97 per cent of our DNA. If these Great Apes face extinction from this level of habitat destruction, might not we be next?

This is truly “the horror, the horror.” In Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, this is all the character Kurtz can say after living alongside the atrocities of European colonization in Africa, after seeing how the “natives” are treated by his countrymen. In the movie adaptation of Conrad’s book, Apocalypse Now, the story is set during the Vietnam War and Kurtz’s last words are the same, “the horror, the horror.”

So I don’t know what the positive is in this story–maybe it is the awareness raised around the world. Maybe it’s that the ideas in the UNEP report can now become reality under the leadership of Indonesian President Widodo. Maybe it’s that the connection between a perceived human need for a product–palm oil, and the natural world–the burning forests and fleeing orangutans, and human welfare–health problems caused by smoke and smog from the fires, and economic ruin are made plain so that future disasters will be avoided by better planning.

My father’s legacy is ablaze and I think I’m going to adopt some orangutans as Christmas presents.

Losing Hope

By Neva Knott

earth-from-space

Image courtesy of EPA.gov.

We’ve driven, shopped, and eaten our way into disaster. I am on the brink of loss of hope, ready to give up. None of my beliefs seem strong enough to put into action and my voice sounds miniscule in the drowning cacophony of corporate greed and single-purpose endeavors and snack packaging.

I cannot understand how so many humans deny that we are in a mess. Our life support system is failing. Call it what you want–climate change, ecological disaster, overpopulation, water wars…sum total, the natural processes that allow humans to stay alive on this planet are ruined, and at our own hand, by our getting and having.

I cannot understand the arguments to keep going in this way–to keep waging age-old wars that poison water and destroy the arability of land. To keep chopping down trees that control heat and air quality and groundwater retention. To keep paving ground that filters the water cycle, thereby controls flooding. To keep destroying food source after food source through poisoning with chemical pesticides and mono-cropping and over-harvesting. To keep driving as a right rather than a luxury so that high-risk drilling is the norm.

And here’s the rub–what we get for all that quickly goes into a landfill. The stuff garnered by all of that destruction is stuff, not sustenance.

I have come to the point where I find it hard to write about the positive, because my brain shuts down at constantly being bombarded by the negative. Not so much that it exists, but by the human stupidity behind the destruction. I understand how the media works, how a news cycle takes over rational, critical thinking, and how we all live in a culture of embeddedness. I understand that socio-political change, which is the driver of climate resilience, only comes though a constant push on many fronts to fill the gaps left in the mainstream master narrative. But I also see a lot of hypocrisy and a lack of common sense.

For example, the morning I began working on this essay, I ran across a news story about getting rid of deer in Ashland, Oregon. Too many of them–overpopulation, and they are bothering the humans. The controversy is to shoot them or not. That’s a moot point. These are the real solutions:

1. Conduct urban planning that includes habitat needs of non-human species. When the new housing development happens in what was previously home to deer… Ashland is a small town, and one that has thoughtfully built a unique destination for itself, and a human lifestyle that embraces certain qualities, those we now call make local habit. In the early planning, to protect local businesses, the town had the foresight to say no chains in downtown…it’s that same foresight that must extend to dealing with wildlife. Essentially, Ashland businesses said hey, this invasive species will ruin us if we let it set up shop here–franchises controlled by outside interests will take down our habit…deer now face the same issue.

2. The second issue with deer here in Oregon is due to eradication of predators, wolves in particular. I’ve written a series of essays on the history and science of wolves in Oregon. Let me simplify the issue–they do more good than harm when on a landscape where they belong. They are not a direct threat to humans unless humans go looking for a fight with them. In the whole history of Oregon as a state, there is no documented case of a wolf attack on a human.

The reality is, if we cut down all the places animals live in their natural states, they will come hang out in our yards and ruin our flower beds.

Even when measures are in place with the intent of co-existing with wildlife or at least easing human displacement of them, animals are there as part of the make-up of the planet, as are humans. By design. If we reach back and look at indigenous cultures, there’s much to learn about living in accordance, species to species.

But I’m not writing here today about deer overpopulation. I went on that tangent as an example of lack of simple common sense and the ability of humans to apply a concept (keep the invaders out so we can have a livelihood) to our own needs will using the other edge of that sword (we’re the invaders and now deer are displaced in their sense of livelihood) for all other species.

Common sense in this day and age and in terms of where we are as a species on this planet is this simple: Do my actions add to the problems or are they part of the solution?

Here’s a juncture where I my head begins to explode–there are so many aspects to consider–plastics in the ocean; melting Arctic ice; illegal poaching of rhinos and elephants for their horns and tusks; polluted rivers and decreasing fish runs; GMO foods and Monsanto… But not really. There is one game-changer problem and everything else is a sub-set of it–climate change.

greenhouse-effect

Image courtesy of Australia.gov.

This week, when reading around online, I was reminded of the key word in the climate debate–abashedly, I’d forgotten this word as the new level of the bar, even after having heard the lead climate scientist for National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) speak last spring.

Irreversible.

This is the word used by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in its 2014 report–covered here in the Washington Post.

Climate change IS. The Environmental Protection Agency has this to say about it:

Climate change is happening.

Our Earth is warming. Earth’s average temperature has risen by 1.5°F over the past century, and is projected to rise another 0.5 to 8.6°F over the next hundred years. Small changes in the average temperature of the planet can translate to large and potentially dangerous shifts in climate and weather.

The evidence is clear. Rising global temperatures have been accompanied by changes in weather and climate. Many places have seen changes in rainfall, resulting in more floods, droughts, or intense rain, as well as more frequent and severe heat waves. The planet’s oceans and glaciers have also experienced some big changes – oceans are warming and becoming more acidic, ice caps are melting, and sea levels are rising. As these and other changes become more pronounced in the coming decades, they will likely present challenges to our society and our environment.

The debate of what about it happened at Kyoto in 1997. The deniers are behind the times, stuck someplace with the cavemen who didn’t believe in fire or the wheel, with the people who doubted air flight or the moon walk. Climate change is all around us… it is the biological state of being of planet Earth. What the world’s climate scientists want us to know is that there is no turning back, no escape.

climate_change_health_impacts600w

Image courtesy of CDC.gov.

Every action every person takes every day affects how this thing is going to go. What we’re really dealing with is climate resilience, a concept agencies have been working on and running models to study for some time now–about since Kyoto. NOAA has developed a toolkit to guide Americans in this change of thinking and lifestyle. It’s time for that concept to become the mechanism of socio-political change that might save humans from extinction.

More overwhelm. (Keep in mind, it can be assuaged by common sense and working through some simple biology lessons…)

I have pretty good sustainable living habits, some born of frugality way back in college, some born of awareness and my liberal arts educational experiences, some born of my embeddedness in a “subvert the dominant paradigm” counter-culture, some born of travelling third-world countries as a child, some born of what I learned about the natural world from my father, some born of the waste-not, want-not mentality of my grandparents who lived through the Depression, some born of common sense and my innate understanding of right action.

Lately, though, I have changed or refocused my thinking about my own getting and having. I’ve re-oriented everything I do so that I now look at it through the lens of climate change.

If my actions to get my needs met now require me not to contribute climate change, I have to think about my getting and having of food, shelter, livelihood, social needs, and the kind of work I do. What can I do in my daily life to eliminate carbon, methane, and nitrogen emissions–the main greenhouse gases that cause global warming–in production of what it takes to run my life?

To date, I’ve made these changes:

I drive a car that runs on biodeisel and use fuel produced in Oregon where I live and I drive as little as possible; I eat only organic food and as much of it locally grown as possible; I don’t eat much meat at all, and I what I do eat I make sure is sustainably grown or fished; I avoid plastic and work to minimized disposable stuff, mainly packaging and single-use what-not; I use only eco-friendly home and personal care products and as few of them as possible. These actions have become habits.

What’s new for me is thinking about the clothing I purchase and how much I travel.

Sustainability practices measure sourcing, energy of production, and waste…take these factors into account when thinking about the goods and services you consume and work to reduce harmful sourcing, wasteful energy in production, and wastefulness (disposability) in the life of the product, and you’ll be making great strides minimize your impact and creating climate resilience.

The message from scientists and climate activists is loud–it’s here and it’s real but we can work to slow the progress. The planet has warmed just a degree and a half–I can’t imagine it at the 6.3 F degree increase that is the projection. It’s time to act.

Mitigation of Ocean Acidification

By Neva Knott

I teach at a small college in Washington, Centralia College. Even though we only have 2,600 students, the college has a strong STEM focus. As an extension of the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math programs, the college hosts speakers for the Rising Tide Seminar Series. The speaker for the January 2015 seminar was Dr. Christopher Sabine, Oceanographer and the Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory of NOAA. He opened his presentation at Centralia College with the message that climate change is undeniable and serious, but it’s not too late.

Dr. Sabine gave the following five take-home points:

1. The profound impact of humans on the earth’s climate is “unmistakable at this point”

2. Carbon dioxide released into the climate has fundamentally changed the chemistry of oceans

3. The current amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will impact climate for thousands, if not 10’s of thousands, of years

4. Even though the rate of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has been higher in the past, the rate of increase is 10-100 times faster than ever before in the geological past; this rapid rate of increase has a real, negative impact on adaptation–the ability of species, including humans, to change enough to exist in the changed biotic system

5. That there is a way out

Dr. Sabine’s presentation was largely based on the International Panel of Climate Change Fifth Assessment Report (2013), on which he consulted. The latest findings are that the evidence substantiates a better than 95 percent likelihood of human influence as the driver of climate change. In referencing the work of IPCC, Sabine explained that there are “multiple lines of evidence” to support the unequivocal warming of the earth’s climate system, evidence that he suggested climate deniers can no longer avoid. These lines of evidence are: increasing air temperature; increasing atmospheric water vapor; increasing temperature over oceans; increasing sea temperature; increasing sea level; increasing ocean heat; decreasing sea ice.

The statistics behind these factors are staggering and somewhat unfathomable. Dr. Sabine explained that, as the climate has warmed in the last 40 years, 275 zeda jewels of additional solar energy have accumulated in the earth’s system. To illustrate–one zeda jewel is enough energy for the needs of the entire human population for two years. About seven percent of this accumulated energy is stored terrestrially, on land, in plants and soils. The rest is going into the oceans.

Carbon emissions into the atmosphere are measured in parts per million (ppm). Pre-industrial revolution the atmosphere measured 228 ppm of carbon dioxide, whereas today the measurement is 400 ppm or more.

Dr. Sabine illustrated the increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide with another measurement, the petagram. The current rate of release is right around 10 petagrams per year. The image Sabine offered in order for the audience to wrap our minds around this huge number was this: a 156,500 mile-long hopper car of coal would release one petagram. Thus, the current 10 petagrams would equal that hopper car of coal circling 70 times around the earth at the equator. To further illustrate, Sabine explained that the annual rate of 28,000 square miles of deforestation equals one petagram of carbon dioxide emission.

The culminating effect of the increase in carbon dioxide in the oceans is that the oceanic carbon cycle has been reversed. Pre-industrial revolution and climate change, oceans were a carbon source. Through their natural processes, they released carbon into the atmosphere that was, in turn, taken up by leaves, which then degraded into the soil system, where the carbon was stored. Now, oceans are a carbon sink. This increase is the cause of ocean acidification–because carbon dioxide is an acid gas. Dr. Sabine stated that pH balance is “very important for ocean ecosystems.”

Acidification makes it difficult for organisms to form shells, using reefs to weaken and bleach. In the arctic, shells are dissolving off snails. The Great Barrier Reef has lost 50 percent of its coral over the last three decades. Not only is ocean acidification problematic to marine species, one billion people globally rely on the oceans as a food source, some for 100 percent of their dietary protein.

NOAA has several programs to help coastal communities mitigate the effects of climate change. One of the organization’s goals is to create a “climate literate” public. In addition to these public support programs, NOAA offers a Climate Stewards Education Project. NOAA’s efforts are also linked with President Obama’s Climate Action Plan. The solution to ocean acidification is at once simple and enormous–humans must decrease carbon emissions. The time is now.

Featured image courtesy of wikicommons.

The Spin is on…Finally, America Gets Real about Climate Action

Image

Image courtesy of treehugger.com

By Neva Knott

Today, thankfully, President Obama released his Plan to Fight Climate Change, based on the third National Climate Assessment. I say “thankfully,” because the US in contrast to other first world nations has been hesitant to commit to climate action–ever since the Kyoto Protocol in 1997. Legislatively, our nation’s leaders have favored the monied interests of big business over the concerns of the world. Culturally, Americans have allowed stereotypes and soundbites broadcast by ill-informed blabbers to dominate the conversation about what’s happening to our world as it heats up. As individuals, Americans are hesitant to change our habits of getting and having that, largely, are the cause of climate change.

In my opinion, America to date has missed an opportunity to lead–to be the world leader in response to climate change. So, again, I say “thankfully” today, the spin is on. CNN promoted Obama’s report, Time promoted Obama’s report, The Guardian promoted Obama’s report, The Washington Post promoted Obama’s report. Fox News not only covered the roll-out of Obama’s report, but covered the firm statement by White House spokesman  John Podesta that Congress will not be able to stop Obama’s enforcement of Clean Air Act (1970) regulation of polluters (those big business types who thing this is all some eco-nazi film-flam). On NPR today, I heard a brief report of what America is doing already– two examples: restoring wetlands, adapting to green energy sources. So, the spin is on. News reportage changed today; climate change and the need for action is now part of the mainstream news cycle.

Many of the reports I’ve linked to this post provide easily-digestable and discernible information on climate science. Each publication covers just a bit of a different angle on the issue. In sum, all strongly document the reality of climate change, and our immediate need as a nation and as individual Americans to act.

We’re a mediatized culture; once the spin is on, we’ll begin to act–legislatively, culturally, individually.

Thankfully.

 

Why I Write

By:  Richard Telford

Rich- LI Sound 1973

The author as a budding naturalist, Long Island Sound, 1973

 

I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is man with a gun in his hand.  It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what.  You rarely win, but sometimes you do.

Atticus Finch to his son, Jem, in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, 1960

Few literary models of courage are more affecting than Atticus Finch, Harper Lee’s protagonist attorney tasked with defending Tom Robinson, a black man accused of raping Mayella Ewell, a young white woman, in segregated Maycomb, Alabama in 1934.  Atticus knows, of course, that he has lost the case before it has begun, but on principle, and to instill a sense of fairness and justice in his own children, he accepts the case.  On its face, he loses the case, but there are small signs, hopeful signs, that he has effected the beginnings of profound change.  That change will be long in coming, but it must, Atticus knows, begin somewhere.

The racial divisions of segregated America in 1934 offer an apt point of comparison for the current polarization of views on the present environmental crisis.  It goes far beyond the acceptance or non-acceptance of climate change.  It is evident in the burgeoning floor plans of American houses, in the disposable mantra of American consumerism, in the power of large corporations to purchase governmental influence through highly paid lobbyists, in the invocation of terms like “tree hugger” and “liberal” as pejoratives, in the widespread ignorance of or indifference to the crisis’s scope, and in the accelerated and catastrophic loss of biodiversity worldwide that has led Richard Leakey, Richard Lewin, Niles Eldredge, Elizabeth Kolbert, and others to argue that we are, knowingly or unknowingly, perpetrating the sixth extinction.

Just today, in our local paper, a letter writer declared climate change a “political hoax,” admonishing a previous week’s writer who thought otherwise, “Take your head out of the plastic bag it must be in and start breathing…it will do your brain cells a world of good.”  Such ignorance wears me down, but I think too on the fact that in 2014 Tom Robinson’s case would result in acquittal, if it even went to trial, and I am reminded of the human capacity to change for the better, often in spite of ourselves.  Like Atticus Finch, I take courage from the belief that such change is not completely out of reach.

In his 1946 essay “Why I Write,” George Orwell describes how the advent of the 1936 Spanish Civil War gave to his writing and to his life a purpose that had been previously absent.  He writes, “Every line of serious work I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism, as I understand it.  It seems to me nonsense, in a period like our own, to think that one can avoid writing of such subjects.”  It likewise seems nonsense to me that any serious writer of prose in 2014 can ignore the profound and irreversible changes we are imposing on the world’s natural systems; nor can we ignore our growing emotional and intellectual disconnection from those systems.

Just as the direction of Orwell’s writing changed irrevocably in 1936, I find myself unable, these days, to disconnect my writing from the ecological crisis that surrounds me.  How aptly that crisis is reflected in the materialism and waste of our age, in the largely vacuous social media blitz in which we envelop and lose ourselves. Whereas Orwell wrote in the face of Franco and Stalin and Hitler and Mussolini, potential destroyers of all previously known social, political, and moral order, we find ourselves writing in the face of ourselves, a global citizenry that, often without malice or even awareness, directly threatens the Earth’s natural order as it has previously existed for millennia.  We must inevitably write against an enemy who is, in fact, ourselves.

For Christmas in 1975, when I was six years old, my father gave me a copy of Jo Polseno’s 1973 book Secrets of Redding Glen: The Natural History of a Wooded Valley, which, though a children’s book, is extraordinarily rich with insight.  On the flyleaf my father wrote a short inscription: “A guide for our naturalist.”  Polseno’s story of “a glen where the wild geese fly and the salamanders live” fired my curiosity.  His rich prose and Audubon-styled paintings placed me as an observer at the center of a complex, beautiful landscape; it was a role I innately understood, as is evident in the inscription my father wrote.  As Rachel Carson famously noted, how easily a sense of wonder takes hold of the child’s mind, and how easily we willingly forego it in adulthood.  At the age of forty-two, when I contemplated a return to graduate school to pursue a degree in Environmental Studies, I once again thumbed through Polseno’s book, both for its substance that had moved me so much as a child, and for the inscription in it that expressed such foresight.

In “Why I Write,” George Orwell articulates four “great motives” for writing prose: 1) Sheer egoism, 2) Esthetic impulse, 3) Historical impulse, and 4) Political purpose.  Despite his own profound sense of political purpose in writing, Orwell cautions the reader not to incorrectly conclude that his “motives in writing were wholly public-spirited.”  All writers, he notes, are vain; however, when the writer “struggles to efface one’s personality” from the work, he argues, writing of real value can emerge. It is this kind of writing to which I aspire.  As Orwell did in 1946, I offer my own four motives for writing:

1)      Of necessity: I am unable to stand by and watch the systematic, unchecked loss of the world’s biodiversity.  Though at times I feel paralyzed by the enormity of the effort required to help arrest the trajectory of the sixth extinction, I cannot give up hope.  This is as much a selfish attitude as it is an altruistic one, as I do not care to live in a world resigned to its own doom.

2)      For aesthetic reward:  The act of writing allows me a heightened, sharper view of the world.  It forces more intense observation, a slowing down of time that otherwise rushes past.  Writing strains me to find and fashion language that may, if I am persistent, capture at least an iota of the natural beauty that surrounds me.  Even if I cannot capture it for others, I can see it myself.  Here again is the duality of motive so central to Orwell’s argument.

3)      For posterity:  I am convinced that only through the collective small acts of a caring minority can we arrest the present environmental crisis. Meaningful writing is persuasive, and it is needed to convince at least a portion of the unknowing or indifferent citizenry that anthropogenic climate change is no hoax.  Such writing, at its best, can awaken or reawaken curiosity, can provoke empathy, and can inspire advocacy for the natural world.

4)      For my children:  Gazing at a group of turkey vultures circling in dihedral flight, or a magnificent specimen poplar, or a dew-soaked orb-weaver web stretched between saplings and lit by early morning light, I cannot help but want for my children to be able to see these things too, both with me in the present and long after I have returned to the earth.  Here, I suppose, my motives are once again dual in nature, selfish in that they are framed around my determination  to give to my children a biodiverse and sustainable world, and unselfish in that I would wish these things for all children, and for all people generally.

Alan Paton, in his deeply moving 1948 novel of South Africa, Cry, The Beloved Country, argues that moral conviction is the only foundation upon which we can build a purposeful life and meaningfully address the world’s most grave crises, of which our present environmental crisis is a stark example.  At one point, Paton writes in the voice of Arthur Jarvis, a young, white South African man who cannot morally accept the segregationist polices that would officially become Apartheid shortly after Paton published his novel.  Paton writes, “I shall no longer ask myself if this or that is expedient, but only what is right.  I shall do this, not because I am noble or unselfish, but because life slips away, and because I need for the rest of my journey a star that will not play false to me, a compass that will not lie.”  The belief that the preservation of biodiversity must trump our individual wants is just such a star, and I anchor myself to the conviction that writing with purpose is one way in which that star can be followed.

Naturalist writer Edwin Way Teale, in the final pages of his 1978 book A Walk Through the Year—the last book he would publish in his lifetime—wondered “if the time will ever come when such a book as this will seem like a letter from another world.”  At present, it is hard to ignore the feeling that we are hurtling toward just such a time, but we can mitigate that feeling through deliberate, collective action, through the written word and otherwise.  Such action may not be expedient, but it is right.  In an age of such ecological uncertainty, what other compass can we follow?

FSC products–another action against global warming

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By Neva Knott

All photographs courtesy of the Forest Stewardship Council and used with permission.

Forest Stewardship Council certification guarantees that—from forest to end product—the wood used is grown and harvested sustainably. In a sustainably managed forest, trees ready for harvest are cut and those too young are left standing. This alternative to clear-cutting is important to the planet’s overall ecosystem in that trees cover 30 per cent of global land area, and are the lungs of the earth. Leaf systems clean the air, tree canopies regulate temperature, and root systems moderate water flow. Sustainably managed forests are an important strategy against global warming in that they store carbon emissions.

The certification process guarantees that FSC wood is not illegally harvested, or harvested in violation of indigenous or civil rights, nor is it harvested in forests where conservation values are threatened, or from genetically modified trees. FSC certified logs do not come from rare old-growth and have not been treated with hazardous chemicals.

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While the story so often told is one of a choice between the environment or the economy, the Forest Stewardship Council provides a welcome alternative. In economic terms, sustainable harvesting creates a steady source of revenue for loggers and woodlot owners. In a clear-cut harvest system, once the trees are down, there are no jobs, no money to be made, and no forest left for local use. In addition, FSC makes sure the rightful woodlot owners are making the profit. As is too often the case in many developing countries, large corporations take over forests from indigenous groups or other unknowing peoples, pay a low wage to workers, and take all the profits with them, leaving a clear-cut landscape and a clear-cut economy. Illegal logging is also a problem on a global scale.

Sustainable forestry is one of the best defenses against climate change—global warming. One of the primary functions of trees is to pull carbon dioxide—a greenhouse gas that causes global warming—from the air. Trees then store the carbon so that it does not escape to the atmosphere. An FSC certified forest ensures fewer emissions of greenhouse gases, in addition to protection of water sources and forest-dependent economic systems.

The Forest Stewardship Council certifies public forests, commercial forests, and private, family-owned forests. As of January 2014, 36,156,297 acres of forests in the US are FSC certified. Not only are wood products certified, but paper products as well carry the FSC label. Just look for the FSC symbol:

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Humans are a forest-dependent species and will continue to harvest trees as raw material for many uses. When you as a consumer buy FSC certified products you participate in ensuring there will be forests left standing to function as part of the larger ecosystem, that habitat will remain intact. You will be promoting local economies, and will be making a stand against corruption and pollution. You will be actively working against global warming.

 

Thinking about climate change

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By Neva Knott

I think about climate change daily. It saddens me, to a grave extent, that humans have done so much damage. Now, our way of life is such that it seems we are stuck. But, I don’t buy into that lazy fantasy that we’ll just keep keeping on. Each one of us is a citizen of the world, and with that right comes responsibility. I’ll shoulder mine, and I hope you’ll shoulder yours.

Here are my thoughts today on climate change (by the way, there’s no new information here–but, as a teacher I know people have to hear things over and over again to get the message):

The US is one of the biggest contributors to climate change, yet our national policy about adapting for it is one of the weakest.

Yesterday’s New York Times article was about the reality of it, and that the work now is for society to adapt. Society is people… that’s us, you and me.

Much is being done, but the time of it’s not real, I can’t do anything because it’s such a big problem, I’m not an environmentalist, it’s not that bad, what do I care is over—even if you haven’t yet committed to change.

And I hate to be this blunt, but the cause of climate change is greed. Human greed that manifests in unrestrained consumption.  Since the start of the industrial revolution humans have managed to disrupt the natural systems that keep this planet and its inhabitants alive.

Climate change is the result of unsustainable use of natural resources.  When scientists look at sustainability in a system, they look at sourcing of raw material, energy use in production, and the waste stream—what waste is created in the process, and what waste is created in the use of the end product.

Changing our ways to adapt comes on three levels: the personal, the industrial, and the political. So what can each individual do? There is much you can do. Just change one habit. Then another.

1. Stop drinking bottled water. This is a significant positive step to make because trees are cut down to get to the water that is bottled. The bottles are made out of petroleum bi-product which increases the demand for fossil fuel extraction, the water it then trucked to a processing facility, a lot of energy is used to create the product and bottle it, and it is then trucked to the store for you to buy. You then drive to a store to buy it, drink it quickly, and have a non-biodegradable little bottle to throw away. Much of this type of plastic ends up in the ocean, where it does great harm. In this whole process, not only are forests destroyed—and trees store carbon so that it doesn’t go into the atmosphere as a green house gas—but habitat is destroyed for other species and water is polluted in the process. Yes, water is polluted when the forest is trampled for the spring water to be extracted.

2. Drive less. We’ve all heard this a million times. I was a little girl during the 1970s gas crisis. TV ad even urged people to combine trips and to take other drive-less measures. Today, our mentality is to drive, drive, drive. The American way of life is oriented around the car, but that doesn’t mean we can’t walk a little more or make better choices about why and when we drive. Today’s article in Grist documents that this change is happening, in America’s biggest cities.

3. Eat less meat, especially factory raised beef. Much of the deforestation around the world is caused by agriculture. Of course, we need agriculture, but not on a large and destructive scale. There’s a secondary issue with beef ranching—the amount of methane generated, which is also a greenhouse gas. Americans eat far more protein than is necessary in a day. Smaller burgers and fewer steaks will help the planet, quite a bit actually, and might help with our nation’s obesity problem

4. Eat organically grown fruits and vegetables. The pesticides used in non-organic farming are mostly derived from petroleum and are quite harmful to the earth, the atmosphere, and you. Organic doesn’t cost that much more, and the quality of the food is greatly better.

5. Stop buying too much stuff, especially cheap stuff made in China. Overconsumption is a huge contributor to climate change. Our buying patterns are an opportunity to think of the source-energy-waste cycle, and an opportunity to consume more sustainably.

A week or so ago I was listening to the NPR report on Amazon’s contract with the US Postal Service for Sunday delivery. The commentator made the point that all these companies–the big money companies like Amazon–are simply reacting to what consumers want. That idea alone signals the power we all have in creating change. Even when the problem is as large as climate change, we can vote with our dollars, create change with our expenditures, and make the big industry polluters change.

Thanks for doing your part.

Portland’s Urban Foresters

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By Neva Knott

It’s tree-planting season and the Friends of Trees Crew Leader Training begins, here in this warm church basement that is abuzz with caffeinated chatter. I’m surrounded by people in rubber boots and every variety of raincoat, all of us drinking coffee out of small church cups, eating donated baked goods. On tarps set out around the room are two displays. One has a leafy tree in a black plastic pot, its boughs bound by twine, a pair of two-by- two stakes, a shovel, rake, and a post pounder, a hard-hat. The other display holds all the same goods, except the tree is barren. It’s cold and drizzly outside. Fall is turning to winter soon. These are shiny people, all here in good cheer and with a simple purpose—to plant trees.

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Friends of Trees, here in Portland, Oregon, is an urban forestry program designed to increase tree canopy cover over the city.  With these shovel-in-hand efforts weekend after weekend, the city becomes more lush and leafy. In fact, Portland has the only increasing urban canopy in the nation, a statistic that is colloquially known as the “Friends of Trees effect.”  As awareness of Portland’s model grows, city dwellers elsewhere are beginning to realize the importance of the interface between developed areas and natural spaces. According to the US Forest Service, “in an effort to maintain and improve the public benefits of trees, more and more cities—Atlanta, Chicago, Baltimore, Boston, New York, Los Angeles, Sacramento, Washington DC—are setting tree canopy goals.” Trees are no longer simply aesthetic adornment to homes, but are considered part of the sustainable, green infrastructure of urban development.

A couple of hours are spent sitting inside, learning the procedures to teach our volunteers. Then the volunteer planters arrive, and everyone shares a potluck lunch of warm soups, macaroni and cheese, cookies, and lemonade. Friends of Trees works build community while planting trees—by bringing neighbors together.

As the meal ends, people are divided into small work groups and tromp outside.  Each crew has a set of houses in the neighborhood to visit. At each site, trees have been delivered and the holes for them have been dug. On my crew, I have someone from Environmental Services, a guy who just moved from Las Vegas and is studying horticulture, two young college students, four Hispanic teenagers from a high-school service club, and the homeowner of one of our planting sites. Three hours later, eight new trees are in the ground. Now dirt-covered and exuberant, we laugh and chat our way back to the church, wash the tools and call it a day.

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Urban forestry is a blend of social and scientific necessity. With 80 per cent of the US population living in cities, use of city trees as natural resources takes on a much broader context. It includes safe-guarding against tree loss during development; treating trees as part of the infrastructure of the city; putting in place codes and policies to maximize tree preservation; expansion of private and public urban forestry programs; removal of regulatory obstacles; reduction of the heat island effect caused by development. This, for sure, is a new way of thinking. It’s a fresh approach, and aligned with the science of climate change as well as the ideas behind livable cities.

Portland’s Grey to Green Initiative works in partnership with Friends of Trees. Its concern is the use of the city’s trees in the control of storm-water run-off. The canopy of leaves of the 50-foot-tall buckeye in my yard catches rain as it falls; a mature tree can capture up to 700 gallons a year. The paperbark maple planted on Saturday, not yet as leafy and large as the buckeye, holds onto water that falls to the ground and uses it for root growth. A tree’s root system holds soil in place. In turn, some of the captured water is stored in the soil to replenish the ground water supply.  As well, much of run-off water in cities contains chemicals like car oil and other debris—that gunk you see in the street drains during a downpour. When that water moves through the soil, some of the debris is filtered out.  With water held in tree fiber and the soil, and with the soil stabilized and working to filter out toxins, significantly less run-off makes it into the city sewage system, to the nearby Willamette River, and out to the sea. A healthy urban forest, one composed of the newest to the oldest trees, slows run-off by about 35 per cent; in Portland, this amounts to 500 million gallons of storm water a year. Trees also allow the city to spend less building and maintaining sewage systems. Portland saves $58 million dollars—or 40 per cent of traditional sewage repair costs—per year because of its street trees. Deciduous, or leafy, trees aren’t doing all the work; evergreens actually help even more with storm water run-off, because they have needles year-round. By providing ecosystem services such as storm-water control, urban trees can be used as a cost-saving component of a city’s infrastructure.

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Trees breathe carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gases, most of which—in the city—comes from vehicles. Other sources of the carbon that is emitted into the air by industry, fires, fuel burning, agriculture, and all kinds of human activity. As trees take up COand other pollutants they filter the air—at the rate of 25 million pounds a year here. It takes about 20 trees to offset driving one car for 60 miles each day. The larger and healthier the tree, the more filtration. Think of the old neighborhoods full of maples, cherries, and tulip trees, working hard to help us breathe. And interestingly, researchers have discovered that urban trees begin to store carbon at an earlier age than do rural or wilderness trees.

The economic aspect of air filtration, mainly that of carbon storage, comes in the form of carbon trading. More and more, industries that send the pollutants into the air pay tree growers for the air-cleaning capacity of their trees. Cities are now able to compete in this market. In fact, buyers often pay more for credits that are attached to sustainable projects with local, social benefits, such as urban tree-planting programs.

A full tree canopy provides shade and lowers the overall temperature of a place. In the city, this is important socially—ever step into the shade of a tree on a hot day? Such cooling also works to against global warming. Cooling is particularly important in cities where heat islands occur. The lack of trees and other vegetation combined with pavement, buildings, and other human-made, sealed structures disallow the flow of energy and air. Think of walking on a sidewalk at sundown on a hot day, and passing by a brick or cement building. You can feel the heat wave bounce of its walls. That’s the heat island effect working. A 2006 study of Portland’s July temperatures reported a 20-degree difference between the well-treed Northwest quadrant and an area designated as an urban heat island.

Wildlife fare better in the city when trees provide food and shelter for them. Salmon swim our creeks on the way to the big rivers—Willamette and Columbia and coyotes roam through town. If you live here you are no stranger to the crows, squirrels, and raccoons. The tree canopy keeps river water clean for the fish and helps to moderate water temperature so they can flourish. Fruit and nuts feed many of the 200 species of birds call this city home. Squirrels live in the leafy high-rises. Travel corridors provide safety for larger creatures hoping to sneak from tree patch to tree patch for cover. These habitat resources lower incidents of wildlife encroaching on human habitat; in turn, the city is safer for all species—humans and those with scales, fur and feathers.

All of these ecosystems services add up to a boon for the city. Homeowners also cash in on street tree value. When you drive down a street under its lush canopy with boughs that reach across to make an arc overhead, know that the shade these trees provide lowers energy use, and increase property value by $14,500 per street tree. Storm-water Management credit and Clean River Rewards credit are available on your sewer bill for efforts made on the home front. Crime is lower where there are trees. People walk more in tree-dense areas. Overall livability increases when a city’s canopy is dense.

Forests in the United States are being converted for non-forest uses such as urban development and agriculture at the rate of 1 million acres a year, yet humans need trees to live. City trees provide opportunities. They provide another way for trees to work for us by shaping new economies and new types of forestry jobs. City trees significantly lower the costs of running a city. A tree-planting program costs about $5 per capita. What enthuses me about urban forestry and tree-planting programs is the opportunity for individual empowerment. In all the talk about climate change and environmental degradation it is easy to feel helpless. I have been studying conservation biology for the last two years, during which I’ve come to believe that trees can assuage many of the world’s problems. I volunteer for Friends of Trees and I am hooked.

Saturday morning, and it’s 7 AM. It’s early, but I can’t get my rubber boots on fast enough and get out the door—rain, sun, or freezing cold. I can’t stop global warming, but I can plant a tree.

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The next Crew Leader Training is on November 9, 2013. See the Friends of Trees website for details.