Saturday, January 17, 2015

2014 Breaks Heat Record, Challenging Global Warming Skeptics

In case there was any doubt at all that our planet has been set on a perilous path due to our excessive CO2 emissions, this latest report showing that the planet's climate was the hottest on record last year, should convince even rabid global warming deniers (But of course it won't).

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Where Have All The Animals Gone?

According to a new report from the World Wildlife Fund 40 percent of the world's wildlife species, and 70 percent of river species, have disappeared from the face of the earth since 1970.

Human beings have truly have become the planet's most dangerous specious--a threat to virtually ever other species on the planet.  The problem is that, even if you don't care about wildlife diversity, the disappearance of such large numbers of the planet's animal populations should be wakeup call.  Our planet is on life-support and getting sicker by the year.  Will the end result be a mass extinction the likes of which the human race has never before experienced?  One seeks to be hopeful, but our lack of collection action in protecting endangered wildlife doesn't bode very well for the future...of animal or ourselves.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

On the Utility of Animals

Ecologist Richard Conniff has written an interesting opinion piece addressing the question of whether animals are only important because of their utility to human beings:
As a teacher of ethics, I know full well the temptations involved in appealing to utility to make the case for wildlife preservation.  But making the value of wildlife contingent on human needs, I believe is a self-defeating proposition.  As Conniff observes, once you start resorting to the issue of utility, you end up getting into debates about what is more important to human beings, and economic development will trump wildlife preservation just about every time.
As far as I'm concerned, the best arguments for the protection of non-human species are aesthetic and moral.  Our interactions with animals in the wild--whether we are talking about the bald eagle flying overhead or the rattle snake slithering across our path--is that an appreciation for the majesty of nature in all its forms makes the human soul more beautiful and harmonious.  This may sound like an antiquated kind of argument--one that an ancient or Medieval thinker might make--but I think that the argument still holds today. 
The philosopher St. Bonaventure once said of St. Francis of Assisi, "In beautiful things, he saw Beauty itself."  When one can come to see the divine reality played out in the lives of creatures in the wild, then one will come to see the divine reality in all living things.  To the extent that these creatures are viewed simply as means to our own petty human ends, to that extent have we robbed nature of its inherent divinity.  And that makes it much easier for us to ignore the threats that are facing animal species around the planet.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Why Own If You Don't Have To?

The Millennial Generation has its collective issues--overuse of technology, self-absorption, and poor human interaction skills--but the members of this generation have virtues that we can all learn from as well.  One of the unintended consequences of coming of age in a time of economic insecurity is that many of Millennials are forgoing the dubious pleasure of owning in favor of renting.  

Home and car ownership among this group is noticeably down.  But younger Americans are not stopping there: new  economies around the United States are springing up to take advantage of young American's new-found desires to rent music, tools, household, and even clothes.  

Needless to say this trend doesn't sit well with corporate America which would have us all buy new things all the time--especially things that we don't actually need or even want.  But the new rental economy might be just the thing that the planet needs after decades of excessive consumption and the environmental degradations associated with our manic need to own just about everything.

So while I'm still not quite sold on all the behavior traits of the Millennial Generation--put down that damned cell phone for just a second, will you!--in this particular area, perhaps the Millennials might actually be setting a trend that all of us would do well to follow.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Blog Temporarily Suspended

Due to work that we are currently doing on other sites, posting on EcoBlog will be temporarily suspended until Fall 2014.

If you are looking for stimulating things to read, why not try one of the following sites instead:

  • Wisdom's Haven - our philosophy and ethics blog, focused on some of the most important questions that human beings face in life.
  • The Sophia Project - one of the largest repositories for free resources in the field of philosophy and ethics on the web.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Sustainable Happiness

It's seems to be a self-evident truth that all human beings want to be happy in life.  But it also seems to be the case that we Americans have some seriously screwy ideas about happiness that may in fact get in the way of our own long-term happiness.  In particular, we seem to think that real happiness is measured almost exclusively by our present economic conditions (stuff + now = happiness).  Happiness is typically linked to GDP (Gross Domestic Product), a measure of how much we are producing and consuming at a given time.  The presumption is that the higher the GDP, the happier the people of a nation must be.  Americans have one of the highest GDPs in the world, so naturally, we must be among the happiest people in the world, right?

But what if the very lifestyle that we are living in the present is a threat to our long-term sustainable happiness and well-being?  Imagine that we Americans are like heroin addicts.  An addict needs his fix all the time in order to be happy, but the approach that he takes to achieving this happiness (abusing drugs) all but ensures that he can’t sustain his happiness in the long-term.  What if our happiness is like the happiness of the heroin addict?   In fact, using GDP to measure a people’s happiness is like asking a drug pusher whether an addict is happy while he is dwelling in a drug-induced state.  The addict may think he’s happy, and the pusher would say he’s happy, but would anyone of sense really believe that this is sustainable happiness?

Fortunately, there’s another way to measure the happiness of people rather than simply by using GDP.  Nic Marks of the New Economics Foundation has developed what he calls the Happy Planet Index.  Marks takes for granted that things like a person’s present perception of happiness and his or her life expectancy are important criteria of happiness.  But he also takes into consideration the impact that an individual’s lifestyle has on the planet when determining whether that individual’s happiness is ultimately sustainable.  The formula he uses for making this determination looks like this:

  • Experienced well-being:  people around the world are asked to describe on a scale of 1-10 their experienced state of well-being, with 0 representing the worst possible life and 10 representing the best possible life.
  • Life expectancy:  based upon the 2011 United Nations Development Report.
  • Ecological Footprint: basically examines how much of the world’s resources are used by individuals in different nations to sustain their lifestyles. 
Here’s the way Marks explains his approach to happiness during his 2010 Ted Talk.

So, if instead of thinking about happiness purely in terms of the ability to consume in the present, we think about happiness in a more sustainable way, how does the United States rank compared to other nations of the world?  The Happy Planet Index has a nifty traffic light score to rank individual nations:  green (good), yellow (middling), and red (bad).

As you can see, the results are radically different depending upon which criteria for well-being we are looking at.  But if we’re really concerned with sustainable happiness, we need to look in particular at the HPI map.  As you explore this map, consider which are the best countries to live in for sustainable happiness and which are the worst.

I’d like to propose that what Marks says about the happiness of different countries applies to the happiness of individuals as well.  Think about your own life, for example.  Do you perceive yourself to be living a happy and healthy life?  If you do, that’s terrific, but, as Marks points out, you also need to consider whether your happiness is ultimately sustainable.

To determine this, take a few moments and complete the following Ecological Footprint survey.  Try to answer the questions to the best of your ability, and, if you’re uncertain about the answers to any of the questions, just make the best educated guess possible.

At the end of the survey, see how many hectares it takes for you to live the lifestyle that you do.  1.9 hectares would be ecologically ideal, but anything under 2.5 hectares would indicate a more or less sustainable lifestyle.  What was your score on this survey?  How many planets would it take to sustain the kind of lifestyle that you live if everyone on the planet chose to adopt it?

The question that we all need to ask ourselves in the end is whether the perceptions we have about our own happiness correspond with the reality of whether or not our happiness is ultimately sustainable.  Marks seems to suggest that, if there’s a real dichotomy between the two, our happiness is based upon delusion—a delusion that I would argue is similar in many ways to the delusion an addict would have about his own happiness.  At the very least, becoming aware of this dichotomy should make you start to ask some very fundamental questions about the validity of our Western, materialistic notions about happiness in a world characterized by an ever-increasing scarcity of resources.  

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Worse Than We Could Possibly Have Imagined

Those who took the time to study climate data objectively always said that we were putting the future of the planet at risk because of the amount of CO2 that we were spewing into the atmosphere.  We knew since the 1970s--if not earlier than that--that our CO2 emissions were raising global temperatures and the effects of this warming trend would lead ultimately to rising sea levels and more unstable weather patterns around the world. 

We knew all this, and yet collectively we did very little to try in a serious way to curb our wanton CO2 emissions.

But now the latest scientific data indicates that the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has reached levels not seen in at least three million years.  You heard it right.  That's 3,000,000 years. 

In other words, we're failing miserably as a species to address the single most important issue facing our planet today.  We selfishly thought, perhaps, that climate change was a problem that the next generation would have to deal with, because the more dire impacts of climate change wouldn't be felt for some time.  But the new data indicates that climate change is our problem and it has to be addressed right now.  Actually this problem really needed to be addressed thirty years ago, but our selfish human tendency to want to live as though there were absolutely no consequences  to our voracious exploitation of the earth's resources got in the way of sensible action that could have been taken on this issue.

We can certainly blame conservatives, who have spent the last twenty years acting as shills for the gas and oil industry and who have spread doubts about the reality of climate change.  But most Democrats have lacked the courage to act decisively on this issue when they controlled the White House and Congress.  President Obama may have mentioned the dangers of climate change once or twice in the five years that he's been President, but he has been too timid to even raise the issue of a carbon tax--the most effective way to control carbon emissions.

Let's not forget that we Americans have been the largest emitters of CO2 for some time, even if the Chinese are now surpassing us.  It's our consumptive way of life that is the cause of the problem. But rather than trying to live in greater harmony with nature, we have instead gleefully spread our American style of consumerism to the rest of the planet. 

I wish that I could say that this new milestone will be exactly the kind of impetus that our elected officials need to begin working to place caps on carbon emissions, but I know almost for certain that this won't be the case.   Human beings are certainly capable of acting cooperatively and rationally when their interests are in jeopardy, but it takes our species a long time to get around to doing what's right.

And time right now is a luxury that we simply don't have.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Renewable Energy: The Time Has Come

In an really interesting article in this weekend's New York Times, Elisabeth Rosenthal takes issue with the idea that the United States needs to be dependent fossil fuels for the foreseeable future.   In fact, we could probably transition quite successfully to clean, renewable forms of energy like solar and wind power  if there was the collective political will to do so.

Right now, the United States is falling behind the rest of the developed work in the development of renewal forms of energy.  This keeps us hostage to Big Oil and to the petty dictators in the Middle East who control much of the world oil supplies.  As Rosenthal points out, it doesn't have to be this way.

If we were as committed to funding research in renewable energy as we are funding research on new weapon systems for the Pentagon, we could be completely energy independent by mid-century.

A missed opportunity, for sure!

Monday, January 21, 2013

What's in a Flush?

To be human means to love, to experience regret and loss, and to aspire to transcend the existential limitations of our mortal being.  It also means—more prosaically to be sure—having to eliminate the liquid and solid wastes that have built up in our bodies as a result of the process of consuming food and drink.  In the not too distant past, people would have eliminated such wastes in an outhouse (basically a big hole in the ground with four walls placed around it), in an open field or stream, or by simply throwing such waste out of the windows of their squalid tenement apartments.  Only in recent history have human beings had the luxury of evacuating their food waste into toilets and flushing these waste products miles away from where they are living.

None of us, I’m sure, would like to return to pre-toilet days.  And, provided our toilets are connected to modern sewage treatment systems, the consequences of our modern methods of waste elimination are convenient for society and much more beneficial for local ecosystems than simply disposing of our waste products in whatever hole in the ground we are able to find. 

But, in our effort to forget that being human also means having to piss and crap, we have created a system to dispose of solid and liquid waste that is so inefficient, so wasteful of the most precious resource that our planet provides us, that we literally commit an act of ecological evil every time we flush our toilets. 
Before you think that I’m exaggerating, consider these facts:  If you live in a home built before 1994 (the vast majority of homes in the United States), each flush of your toilet consumes 3.5 gallons of water.  The average person in such a household, therefore, wastes 19.5 gallons of water per day and 7,135 gallons of water per year simply flushing their toilets.  If the typical household includes four people, that household, then, is responsible for wasting 78 gallons of water each day and 28,540 gallons of water each year.

Consider further that water is our most precious natural resource; that we human beings are made up of over 50% water, and without a clean, steady supply of this precious liquid, we simply couldn’t survive as individuals or as a species.  Finally, consider the fact that many parts of the world—and many parts of our own country—have been experiencing severe drought conditions as a result of climate change.  It has been suggested that water will become such a contested commodity in the 21st century that the wars of the future may very well be fought, not over access to oil, gas, gold, or silver, but over access to a reliable supply of potable water. 

And most of us are content to waste 3.5 gallons of this “liquid gold” every time we relieve our bladders!

The solution to this problem doesn’t involve having to squat in our backyards (the neighbors probably wouldn’t appreciate that very much anyway).  The easiest solution is to replace older toilets with more efficient models that waste less water.  New toilets have a tank capacity of 1.6 gallons of water—more than enough to flush away whatever comes out of our bodies. Better still, European-style toilets are made with dual flush options, so less water is used to flush liquid waste than solid.  If money is an issue, a free solution is simply to put a 1 or 2 liter soda bottle filled with water into your toilets tanks, which will reduce the holding capacity of the tank and automatically use less water.

The most important thing that we can do, however, is to stop thinking about water as a free resource with no consequences attached to its use.  While there is a constant amount of water on the planet and in our atmosphere, making waste water potable enough to drink requires building enormous water purification systems that are energy intensive (Singapore has been experimenting with this).  Even in a country as wealthy as the United States, building enough purification systems to “reclaim” all of the water we waste flushing our toilets would be prohibitively expensive.   The solution then is conservation, not reclamation.

This demands that each of us develop a new relationship with water that recognizes just how precious this resource is. If something is truly precious to us, we wouldn’t consider simply flushing it away without any further thought. 

I used to take a group of students to West Virginia as part of our Appalachia Project every summer. The two Catholic nuns who were in charge of our group spent a significant part of the students’ orientation educating them about how important it was to live in harmony with the local ecosystem. They then went into a lengthy discussion—much to the student’s dismay, I’m sure—about their system for flushing the toilet. The students were instructed that, if they absolutely had to use the toilet in the house (as opposed to using the outhouse), they had to follow the following rule: “If it’s brown, flush it down; if it’s yellow, let it mellow.” It took the students quite a while to get used to this system (their natural inclination, of course, was to flush immediately regardless of whether the waste they produced was brown or yellow), but eventually they got into the routine. The students probably didn’t continue this practice when they returned to “civilization” (as they called it), but for a while it certainly did make them conscious of an issue they probably never gave much thought to before. 

So, the next time you feel compelled to eliminate waste products from your body, you may want to consider if the flush you are about to produce is, in fact, absolutely necessary (if it’s yellow, could it stand to mellow for a while?), or, at the very least, whether that flush is wasting much more water than necessary to achieve your desired goal of getting what you eliminate from your body out of your house with reasonable efficiency.

Then we can discuss just how much toilet paper you absolutely need to wipe your posterior before you even consider flushing the toilet. But that’s a topic for another post.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Finally A Useful Christmas Advertisement

Here is the Ad Busters' Christmas Campaign which we thought so insightful that we printed it in it's entirety (something we rarely do on this site): 

Attention Shoppers!

As our planet gets warmer, as animals go extinct, as the humans get sicker, as our economies bail and our politicians grow ever more twisted, we still find ourselves lurching to suck from the breast of the capitalismo machine. This is our solace, our sedative – consumerism is the opiate of the masses.

We're in a state of “pathological consumption,” George Monbiot explains, “a world-consuming epidemic of collective madness, rendered so normal by advertising and the media that we scarcely notice what has happened to us.”

For those of us who do notice it, who decry it, abstain, and try to eschew capitalism ... Christmas is the one time where we suddenly absolve ourselves of this stance, as we feel compelled, by a strange and powerful force within, to join in the momentous, orgiastic ritual of America's consumerist cult.

As we max out our credit cards, we hope we will become America's economic heroes – saving the nation from the fiscal cliff. But instead, we plummet further into a complicated recession, and as our spirits sink once again, the economists coo into our ears that there is a way out – consume more, they say! This is the paradox of our addiction – filling the void only to fall deeper into it.

The call to consume less – where it is heard – is denounced as pedantic, naive, authoritarian, even insane.

Decide for yourself where the insanity lies. Four out of five Americans are on Adderall, Ritalin or Prozac. One in three are obese. People in the Congo are massacred to facilitate our latest smart phone upgrades. America, Europe, Canada, Australia, we are all living 5 planet lifestyles. If you still need a reason to stop consuming – consider that manufacturing and consumption are responsible for more than half of the global carbon dioxide emissions. And if we heat up just 4 degrees more, we will witness a total and irreversible collapse of human civilization. We're killing ourselves – and even as the denial about global warming is slowly breaking over us, we still choose – sheeplike – to join the throngs in the malls. Without significant rituals, we clamour to participate in the only ones we have, like the Christmas shopping binge, driven by our desire for meaning – of which our culture is devoid.
It's not the "fiscal cliff" you should worry about ... it's the culture, stupid! We are hanging by a nail onto our collective sanity – a cultural cliff hanger.

Buy Nothing Christmas gets to the heart of this matter. Reclaiming the ritual of this magical season – consciously and deliberately – is a radical, emancipatory choice. As Christmas approaches, can you find the strength to break the addiction, to wake up from the nightmare ... will you be brave enough to plant the seed of a new way of being? Make your life a demonstration, a defiance, a piece of art, a heroic journey. Start this Christmas – dare to gather your friends and family together and vow to do it differently this year.

And from now until the New Year let's have a steady stream of revellers marching around New York's Times Square – the iconic centre of global advertising – holding up #BUYNOTHINGXMAS signs for the whole world to see.

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