Balancing Shock and Optimism in a Time of Declining Attention Span

A pair of brown pelicans (Pelecanus occidentalis) fly in tandem in southern Puerto Rico. Photo by Richard Telford, Copyright 2008.

A pair of brown pelicans (Pelecanus occidentalis) fly in tandem in southern Puerto Rico. Photo by Richard Telford, Copyright 2008.

By Richard Telford

“You can’t leave things like that around for me to see.”

The cover of the Winter 2015-2016 issue of SE Journal. Photo origin: Save-Elephants via Wikimedia commons.

The cover of the Winter 2015-2016 issue of SE Journal. Photo origin: Save-Elephants via Wikimedia commons.

My seven-year-old daughter told me this when I left a copy of SE Journal on the bathroom counter. SE Journal is a publication of the Society of Environmental Journalists, and the issue in question featured an image of a dusty savanna strewn with bloody elephant bones—the aftermath of a March 2013 massacre by poachers of 90 savanna elephants in the central African country of Chad. I felt badly, of course, and flipped the journal over to its innocuous back cover as we spoke, but I did briefly explain the image in simple terms. I thought, and still think, the context mattered. Afterward, I reflected many times on this exchange, as it raised questions for me, both as a parent and as an environmental journalist. Even as I write this now, those questions persist.

The cover for the January 1976 issue of National Geographic, which featured Dr. David M. Lavigne's article, "Life or Death for the Harp Seal." Lavigne considered the possibility that annual Canadian seal harvest might drive the harp seal (Pagophilus groenlandicus) to extinction.

The cover for the January 1976 issue of National Geographic, which featured Dr. David M. Lavigne’s article, “Life or Death for the Harp Seal.” Lavigne considered the possibility that annual Canadian seal harvest might drive the harp seal (Pagophilus groenlandicus) to extinction.

Growing up in the late 1970s and early 1980s, one image of human barbarism against the natural world defined the call for environmental policy change more than any other, at least in my memory—the clubbing of baby seals on Canada’s northern ice floes during that nation’s annual, government-regulated seal harvest. Magazine covers and documentary films featured images of seal pups (the primary target of the harvest, then and now) with large, dark eyes staring innocently at the camera. Then, there were the images of slicker-clad sealers wielding hakapiks, the traditional club with a curved or angled pick blade used to drag the dead and dying seals across the ice. The contrast of these two images, the first of moving beauty, the second of appalling barbarism, is reflective of the quandary within which environmental writers, and environmental advocates more broadly, often must work. Too much coverage of the benign and beautiful, and we ignore the realities of the environmental crisis with which we are confronted. We risk luring the reader or viewer into complacency, inaction. Too much coverage of the brutal and the jarring, and we cause the reader or viewer to turn away, out of disgust or hopelessness or both. The greatest danger in that case is that their gaze does not turn our way again. There, too, we end at inaction, and inaction can be deadly. These are two poles of response that we, as environmental journalists, may elicit, and there are many gradients between them, all of which demand our attention and careful navigation.

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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.

People, Wildlife and the Environment by Norman P. Knott, 1969

By Neva Knott

Scan 1

My dad in the field with a group of Native American Chiefs. 1958.

Today, March 11, 2015, would have been my dad’s 98th birthday. My dad, Norm Knott, worked at the Washington State Game Department (now Washington State Fish and Wildlife) for 30 years, starting there right out of college with a Bachelor’s degree in Zoology. After retiring from the Game Department, he worked for the United Trust Territories in Micronesia and then for the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). I have the privilege of owning his desk. There is one drawer of it I cannot bring myself to empty, the drawer that holds files of his that contain artifacts such as the essay below. In it, he expresses the need for human understanding of ecological principles in making the human world. Here are his words, in honor of his life and in thanks for his teaching me to love the natural world:

Scan 2

The record of my dad’s career at the Game Dept.

August 4, 1969

By Norman P. Knott

In a human society the values are those assigned by the people in relationship to and arising from their needs and desires. Certain of these needs as food, water and shelter, are obvious. Certain of these needs and desires are in-obvious but fully as compelling as those which form a wintering flock of wildfowl into a flighted V, following a chartless path to their summer breeding ground.

The pursuit of the obvious, and the lack of protective recognition of the in-obvious environmental requirements of man has repeatedly placed societies in the position of becoming self-destructive. The prophet Isaiah, in the 19th verse of the 49th chapter of his book, sets forth: “For thy waste and thy desolate places, and the land of thy destruction, shall even now be too narrow by reason of the inhabitants.” If we are to assure that our land not become too narrow by reason of the inhabitants, we must openly and publicly recognize and admit that we, as people, are the end-product of the multi-million-year evolutionary process which caused people to leave their home territories and invade the unfriendly wilderness. To our ancestors and to us, philosophically, nature was and is yet a multi-formed enemy to be conquered and harnessed as a benevolent servant.

We must recognize that in our zeal to master the wilderness, we have developed seemingly endless techniques and mechanical abilities which we have used and still employ with absolutely no thought to, or understanding of, the ecological consequences. We continue seemingly without caring what havoc we wreak.

We must openly admit and bring about open recognition of the fact that the individuals of this society, and hence society as a whole, need and in fact must have, not alone a gross national product, but also an opportunity to hear the spring song of a bird un-caged; water of supply and suitability for toe dabbling or fishing; a deer for seeing or tracking; a beach for the surf to wash; a tall tree for the breeze to whisper in; clean snow for children to put a to tongue.

The sound of the beach wave muted by the burden of used toilet paper and discarded picnic plates may well be the voice of affluence, but even though a muted voice, it calls loudly for us to seek in common endeavor, assurances that this will not become a land of our waste and of desolate places, nor our land of destruction.

When we can stand on the westernmost beaches of this nation, we must know that we cannot follow the creed of Horace Greeley, but rather we must learn to live in balanced harmony and respect with our environment.

Private resource developments are usually of a single-purpose nature and always have a single-purpose goal of financial gain. Government, to properly serve the public it represents, must face the responsibility of formulating and enforcing bold programs of resource management for the retention and enhancement of the human environment. The role of government in resource and environmental management must not be a role of duty.

By omission, present laws and programs of resource management do not reflect recognition of this seeming role. In many respects they serve as a fetter to management rather than permitting administrators to apply their knowledge and experience. In general, resource and environmental legislation is designed to effect the management of single resources for special interest groups. Departmental programs and administrative policies under such legislation are biased for the unilateral approach. There is, usually, only external and defensive interest, purpose and involvement in planning and effecting integrated programs.

When the laws that exist and which have as their purpose the service and protection of the people, are such as to preclude or in some cases make unlawful effective progress toward a common solution of the problems concerning the people, it must be past time to review the concepts which projected society and its laws to this present status. It must be time to review past results and to determine what future values we shall seek.

To approach the goal of better human environment requires both knowledge and understanding. Regrettably, there is probably less knowledge concerning the ecology of man and his environmental requirements than there is concerning cottontail rabbits or pine trees.

Environment has become a popular catch phrase emblazoned on many banners, however, it would appear that there is little understanding of ecological concepts or the reasons for the environmental deterioration of our cities, suburbs, and scenic countrysides.

Fish and wildlife are sensitively adapted products of their environments. If their environments are protected in a manner suitable for their livelihoods, many of the environmental needs of man will simultaneously be met.

Because of the comparative lack of social and artificial interferences, the best way to achieve a basic ecological concept is through the understanding of the relations between wild animals, plants and their environments. Once this understanding is achieved, the relationship of man with his environment is more readily understandable.

It may well be that if the knowledge and skills of the ecologically trained and experienced fish and wildlife personnel of this nation are fully utilized and their recommendations more clearly followed, the benefits to the human environment could become primary. A deliberately accelerated national program of environmental education and wildlife management could possibly gain sufficient time to permit a more detailed analysis and understanding of human habitat requirements.

Of Yoga and Trees

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Rubber tree tapping. Photograph courtesy of wiki commons.

By Neva Knott

This weekend I started a yoga intensive program–not a teacher training, but a 100-hour series on deepening my personal practice. For the intensive, I bought a Jade yoga mat. It was a purchase that took very little consideration, because Jade mats are environmentally sustainable, made in America, and degradable. Also, for each mat purchased, Jade plants a tree through Trees for the Future. All of the things I care about in one purchase: yoga, environmental care and social justice in production, and global promotion of good work, also environmentally sustainable and focused on social justice, with the profits.

Jade mats are made from natural rubber that is, “tapped, like maple syrup, from a tree.” The tree continues to grow and produce, making it a renewable resource, and the tapping a sustainable extraction of a natural resource. Because Jade mats are made rubber, they will degrade when worn. This is a sharp contrast to regular yoga mats, most of which are made from plastics, which don’t degrade. And, in my research, I’ve found few recycling programs for used yoga mats. My Jade made will live out its existence in the cycle of life–it came from nature and will return there.

When trees are left standing and used in a sustainable way, like having the rubber or maple syrup tapped out of them, they remain able to perform ecosystem services. Ecosystem services include provision of habitat, stormwater control, and carbon sequestration.

Not only are Jade mats made of such eco-friendly material that comes from a sustainable natural resource, the mats are made in America, which ensures that they are produced, “in compliance with all US environmental, labor, and consumer safety laws.” This is an encouraging contrast to yoga mats that are produced in China, a country without these same important protections.

The Jade Yoga company promotes several environmental and social causes. The cause specific to the purchase of a mat is tree-planting in Africa, Asia, or Latin America, global regions that have suffered such extreme resource extraction that ecosystem services provided by trees no longer function. In many of these places, there are no trees left.

Jade Yoga partners with Trees for the Future. Jade is a Leucaena-level Partner–this designation translates to donation of 500,000-999,999 trees, a value of $50,000-$99,999. Interestingly, actual Leucaena trees, according to the UN Food and Agricultural Organization, are the most widely used forage trees and “can provide firewood, timber, human food, green manure, shade and erosion control.”

Leucaena_leucocephala_NP

Leucaena tree. Photograph courtesy of wiki commons.

Trees for the Future offers this explanation of their organization:

In the early 1970s, Dave and Grace Deppner served as volunteers in the Philippines, where they witnessed the human tragedy brought on by illegal logging and unsustainable land management systems. Working with community leaders in nearby villages, the Deppners found a way to offer hope. They revitalized degraded lands by providing farmers with tree seed, technical training, and on-site planning assistance. People responded enthusiastically,  joining in to save their homes and way of life.

After returning from their overseas assignments they continued what they had started, communicating by mail with rural community leaders, providing information, seeds, and training materials. Over the years TREES has assisted thousands of communities in planting millions of trees in 19 countries including Ghana, which have restored life to land that was previously degraded or abandoned.

According to the organization’s website, Trees for the Future has developed the following programs:

  • Africa: We have helped plant trees in an incredible range of environments from coastal areas to mountains, restoring soil that had been unproductive for decades or even hundreds of years.
  • Asia: On the islands of the Pacific, the combination of high tides and heavy rains brings great danger to the people of the coastal plains. We are working with local groups in Indonesia and the Philippines to restore tree cover to upland areas, so the land can absorb more water during storms and reduce the likelihood of flooding and mudslides. Other projects in India aim to restore trees to both drought-stricken and flood-ridden sections.
  • Latin America: We are planting trees in Haiti, Brazil, Honduras, and Nicaragua. In 2011, Trees for the Future’s Haiti Program delivered three critical services – tree planting, agroforestry training, and technical assistance – to local farmers in three regions of the country: the Arcadine Coast, Chaine des Chaos, and Gonaives. In Honduras, Trees for the Future planted more than a million trees in conjunction with one of our local partners.

Beyond the immediate provision of ecosystem services and regeneration of renewable resources for human use, these programs are the type of efforts that will assuage global climate change.

Here’s a thought: what if every product you bought came with these types of benefits?

Here’s another thought: what if all the money spent on football fan-ship came with these types of benefits?

There are two ways of production of consumer goods–one that pillages, and one that sustains. My goal is to make more of my purchases the latter.

My yoga teacher asked, during the first class after the New Year, what can you let go of to be more whole? In that moment, I set an intention to let go of simple convenience in favor of finding more companies like Jade Yoga, and to let go of my general daily busy-ness so that I can participate in programs like Trees for the Future.

The Local Yolk–Beer, Backyard Chickens, and the Business of Building a Sustainable Food System

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By Neva Knott

When the environmental movement began in the 1970s, the focus was on protecting and honoring nature instead of depleting it for human consumption. While this same protection of nature is still at the core of environmental advocacy, a new environmental perspective has emerged recent years, a more personal movement–that of food sourcing.

I’ve heard that the easiest way to go green is to green your food source. It’s certainly the most immediate and possibly the most effective.

To eat within your foodshed, to eat the 100-mile-meal, to know your farmer are practices that benefit your health and promote a green triple bottom line–people, the planet, and profits. In graduate school at Green Mountain College, I learned that most food on the American table travels 2,000 miles before eaten, a shocking and disheartening statistic. John Emrich’s new book, The Local Yolk–Beer, Backyard Chickens and the Business of Building a Sustainable Food System, tells stories of the “good food movement,” the alternative to commercial, bland, environmentally exploitive, well-traveled food.

All writers here at The Ecotone Exchange hold Master’s of Science degrees in Environmental Studies from Green Mountain College. John is no exception–he was one of our cohort there. Previously an investment banker, he now runs Backyard Chicken Run, an urban chicken supply business in Chicago, and gathers stories of other entrepreneurs looking join the local food movement. Though I haven’t yet convinced John to join our team at the EE, I did get his permission to share a segment of his book here.

When I first read The Local Yolk, my heart was warmed by the case studies John had collected, putting faces to the ideal of greening your food source. What most impressed and enthused me, though, was John’s explanations of how to make growing and sourcing good food–sustainable agriculture–a profitable venture. Profitability is story not yet told in, and one that is often easily lost in the check-out line when buying organic, local food. With John’s permission, I give you an excerpt from Chapter 17, Tao Theory: Zen and the Art of Investing in Sustainable Food…

“In my prior life, I had owned shares in one of the publicly traded fertilizer companies, so I understood the “bullish case” for fertilizer from the perspective of the chemical companies: a billion or so people in Asia were moving to the middle class and would switch from a rice diet to a protein diet (i.e., a diet with more meat), generating rising demand for the grains to feed livestock and therefore the inputs of chemical agriculture that made monoculture grain-growing viable on a massive scale. At the time I met with the fertilizer manufacturer, the company was forecasting that the United States would become an exporter of corn to China the following year. The future was bright.

“As I tried to put a value on the organic farm, the light bulb went on. The chemical companies’ gain was the farmers’ pain. The chemical inputs of nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium were all either directly or indirectly tied to natural resources that would become increasingly scarce and expensive over time, but farmers had to have them to succeed in conventional agriculture. Moreover, industrial farmers buy seed from a monopoly. The two things that an industrial farmer or farm investor could say for sure were that they had no control over their costs, and their costs were going higher. Farm subsidies are often criticized for being a gift to larger corporate farms. They would be more accurately described as a subsidy to the chemical companies and industrial buyers of grain (food processors). The conventional farmer, big or small, is getting little more than his costs reimbursed over a lifetime of work.

“The sustainable farmer doesn’t have the same exposure to cost pressure. After the sun itself, manure is the ultimate renewable resource, replacing the increasingly costly fertilizers. Yet, because I believed in the secular trend towards organic food, the sustainable farmer would continue to benefit from rising market prices for organic crops (for example, organic grains) over time. I was concluding that sustainable farming was a good business investment.”

John writes on to explain the mechanics of Impact Investing and Micro-Lending, and how these strategies can promote the good food movement while providing economic opportunity and promoting environmentally sound agriculture.

The Local Yolk is a smart blend of case stories, anecdotes, background knowledge, and research. You can follow The Local Yolk and Back Yard Chicken Run on Facebook and can learn more about the book at www.thelocalyolkbook.com.

A Greener Thanksgiving

By Christine Harris

For most Americans Thanksgiving is a day of overindulgence. We eat and drink too much. We travel long distances by car or plane. From an environmental perspective, Thanksgiving is not typically a green holiday. However there are many easy ways that you can decrease your emissions and use of resources and still have a meaningful holiday. Here are a few tips to make your Thanksgiving a bit greener.

American turkeys. Photo by Christine Harris.

American turkeys. Photo by Christine Harris.

Grow your own: In most parts of the country fruits and vegetables can be grown well into the fall. With a little planning many of your Thanksgiving favorites can come right from your own backyard or a plot in a community garden. If it’s too cold to keep the garden going into November, harvest earlier and freeze or can.

Check out your local farmer’s market: If you can’t grow it yourself, buy it from someone else who has grown it locally. You may even be able to find a locally raised free-range turkey at a farmer’s market or local farm.

Public market, Seattle. Photo by Christine Harris.

Public market, Seattle. Photo by Christine Harris.

Limit travel: Thanksgiving is one of the busiest travel days of the year. Millions of us get on the road or in the air to celebrate the holiday with friends and relatives. Consider keeping your Thanksgiving celebration close to home. Technology has given us wonderful ways to connect with loved ones without having to burn tons of fossil fuels. Use face time or Skype to say hi to Grandma instead of making the 300-mile drive. If you are obliged to get on the road, make sure that your tires are well inflated to improve gas mileage. If your family has more than one vehicle take the more fuel-efficient option and carpool with friends and family if possible. Air travel uses far more fossil fuel than driving so if you are flying consider researching options for carbon offsets.

Plan the meal: If you are hosting, have a plan for what you will prepare and what your guests will bring. This will eliminate the possibility of having several of same dish and being left with too many leftovers.

Use what you have: Disposable plates and silverware are convenient, but using dishes you already have saves you money and lessens that amount of waste you produce.

Courtesy of Wiki Commons.

Courtesy of Wiki Commons.

Use natural decorations: If you like to decorate opt for natural decorations you can make on your own instead of elaborate store-bought centerpieces. Collect brightly colored leaves or cut some of that bothersome bittersweet in the backyard to use for homemade decorations.

Rethink Black Friday: One day of indulgence is often followed by another for those who partake in the retail “holiday” Black Friday on the day after Thanksgiving. If you plan to shop on Black Friday go into it with a plan. Figure out what you need and where you need to go to get it and stick to only those purchases and places. Don’t buy things you don’t need just because they are a good deal. If you can resist the urge to shop on Black Friday you can celebrate the counter-culture holiday of Buy Nothing Day instead. Avoid the crowds and spend a relaxing day with family and friends.

What ideas do you have to make this Thanksgiving a little greener?

National Bison Day

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November 1 is National Bison Day. You can get in on the celebration through the Beards for Bison campaign by visiting http://www.beardsforbison.org/ which is organized by the Wildlife Conservation Society.

While I adore all ungulates, next to pronghorn there is no North American ungulate that holds my fascination more than bison (Bison bison). They are an American icon and the largest land mammal in North America. During the months of January through May of 2009, I had the good fortune of interning at the North Carolina Zoological Park in the Northwoods Prairie section. The section includes red wolves, grizzly bears, black bears, elk and bison. The opportunity to work with such a combination of snorting beasts and large carnivorous mammals was indeed a thrill.

There are two recognized subspecies in North America: Plains bison (Bison bison bison) and wood bison (Bison bison athabascae). The historical range of plains bison extended from Northern Mexico to central Alberta. Wood bison range extended from central Alberta to Alaska.

North American bison graze and forage primarily in grasslands and meadows. Their historic range was the widest natural range of any North American herbivore, from the arid grasslands of Chihuahua State in northern Mexico, through the grasslands of the Great Plains, to the riparian meadows of interior Alaska. They can thrive in dry regions or deep snow, eating primarily grasses and sedges when resources are thin. Bison excavate snow by sweeping it away using side to side motions of their muzzle. In the summer and fall, they have a more varied diet that includes flowering plants, woody plant leaves, and lichens.

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In the 19th Century, we nearly lost bison throughout its entire North American range due to recreational hunting, market and subsistence. It is difficult for me to think of bison and not simultaneously replay in my head the scene from Dances with Wolves when the nomadic Lakota Sioux and John Dunbar, on a hunt for bison, come across a seemingly unending sea of dead bison, killed only for their hides and otherwise left to decompose. The numbers of bison destroyed and left to rot were in numbers far greater than wildlife could consume and certainly not fit for human consumption.

Fortunately, conservationists stepped in and took action before all was lost. In 1905, Theodore Roosevelt and William Hornaday founded the American Bison Society (ABS) at the Bronx Zoo to save the bison from extinction. In 1907, Bronx Zoo staff sent 15 bison by train to Oklahoma’s Wichita Mountains Wildlife Preserve to help restore the western Plains’ depleted bison population. In 2005, Wildlife Conservation Society re-launched the American Bison Society, which built a network of bison experts, including ranchers, state, and provincial governments, Native American nations, scientists, and non-governmental organizations from western states, Mexico, and Canada, with the purpose of securing an ecological future of bison in North America over the next century.

But pressure on wild bison populations persists and they need all the public support that can be mustered. Bison are listed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources as Near Threatened in light of its dependence on an ongoing conservation program and the fact that there are only five viable wild populations. There are approximately 19,000 total plains bison in 54 conservation herds (herds managed in the public interest by governments and environmental organizations), and 11,000 total wood bison in 11 conservation herds. Over 90 percent of bison today are under private ownership, raised like cows for bison meat. In fact at the turn of last century, ranchers often interbred bison with cattle to improve their cattle herds. Therefore, cattle genes are now present in many bison populations, and few genetically pure bison herds remain. Current policies and a tradition of fencing ranches discourage free-ranging bison herds in the West.

While bison have been “saved”, there is still much work to do. So sport your beard, real or otherwise, on November 1 and post your photo with #BeardsforBison on social media. Also, go to http://votebison.org/ and cast your vote for bison to be designated as America’s national mammal.

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