Seeing the Extremes

Regardless of where you live, chances are the weather has been anything but the norm.

Dangerous wildfires in California. Inches of snow in the Deep South. One extreme to the next. And who knows what might be coming.

Plenty of people are probably giddy that temperatures have been abnormal for this time of year, generally leaning toward the warmer side. Where I live, it’s just now getting to the expected 20-30 degrees each day. While it was nice to not be freezing as many days walking to class, in the back of my head, I’m antsy about feeling extra warmth because it comes back to a sole reason why it’s happening in the first place.

Climate change: the phrase we’re now throwing out into the forefront, something we should have done much earlier. We’ve known about this trend long enough, have seen the signs. Except how much are we listening and changing accordingly?

As I write this, the wildfires around Los Angeles catalyzed by the Santa Ana winds are starting to die down, but the damage left behind is devastating. Collectively, over 175,000 acres of land have turned to ash. That means thousands of structures destroyed and even more people evacuated. Even with as many firefighters available to help, it’s still not enough as they face conditions never seen before.

The snow raging through the Southeast and onto New England has led to record numbers not seen in decades. South Texas most notably saw snowfall last Thursday, an occurrence extremely unusual, especially since not too long ago we were talking about Hurricane Harvey and all the severe weather that left these same people at risk of displacement.

Prior to last year, we weren’t able to scientifically link climate change with any specific weather event. New research from the National Academy of Sciences suggests that’s no longer the case: scientists can now determine with some confidence the degree climate change influenced some extreme weather events.  Extreme heat and extreme cold are the easiest to attribute to climate change, followed by drought and extreme rainfall. The effect of climate change on weather events like tornadoes and wildfires can be especially difficult to assess because of the many variables that come into play, including factors beyond weather.

Since the earth has naturally cooled and warmed over its history, you might say this should be no different. But the climate change we’re experiencing and causing is at a rapid pace. This leads to extremes in air pressure which, in turn, leads to extremes in weather patterns typical of the last few years.

So what should we expect moving forward? Well, a lot more of this if we keep up the pace. The overarching weather pattern responsible for the contrasting extremes between the coasts is known as the North American Winter Dipole. It is fancy term to describe abnormally warm conditions in the West and cold conditions in the East. Under such a pattern, the jet stream, the super highway for storms that divides cold and warm air, surges north in the western half of the nation, and crashes south in the eastern half.

But the severe weather isn’t isolated in the States. From the polar icecaps melting, to 2010’s mass flooding in Pakistan, to heatwaves in Australia, to every other abnormal condition on any continent, when we continue to trap carbon dioxide, we’re trapping excess energy that has no means of release besides the global jet streams.

So how can we move forward from here? The answer is obvious, and it’s the same answer we’ve been hearing: cut carbon emissions. Globally, we need to meet the goals we’ve set and not be blinded by hopes of big money in harmful industries like coal and oil. We need to continue promoting reusable energy. Individuals need to focus on their daily routines to ensure they are avoiding excess waste.

At every scale, we need to take climate change seriously. It’s not something we can just put on the back burner and eventually get to. There are lives at risk. If not now, then soon. With the extremes we’re seeing, it’s harder to then predict and prepare for the worst, but this preparation is only alleviating the harms we’re causing rather than proactively addressing those causes.

Let’s take care of those in the line of natural disaster and extreme weather. But let’s also take care of the environment obviously angered by our actions.

Take care, and keep the faith. -Allie


Day 12: Sustainable Farming #GIG2017

Being as environmentally conscious as possible can seem quite complicated, especially if we see how our current practices are working just fine. But we deserve more than “just fine.” We need to appreciate our own health and the health of the planet.

What a narrow subject for today’s time of gratitude. I myself am not overly knowledgeable about the inner workings of what makes agriculture sustainable.

I am, however, grateful for the growing number of options widely accessible to choose more consciously smart options when grocery shopping, and the greater awareness we have about our habits and how to make necessary tasks more sustainable.

We can look up the many documentaries and information out there about how corrupt mass production of foods and textiles can be, the immense damage it causes to our environment. From the waste left over to the health of nearby soils and water sources, there are plenty of ways to go wrong.

Again, I’m not a farmer, nor do I have any agricultural background to discuss these topics from. I’m grateful for some of my friends who do know more about this industry and are open and welcome to discuss them. We might have different views, but it’s beautiful when seemingly opposing opinions can still come together and have engaging conversation.

Anyways, the golden question here is, what is sustainable farming? The goal of sustainable agriculture is to meet society’s food and textile needs in the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. Practitioners of sustainable agriculture seek to integrate three main objectives into their work: a healthy environment, economic profitability, and social and economic equity. Every person involved in the food system—growers, food processors, distributors, retailers, consumers, and waste managers—can play a role in ensuring a sustainable agricultural system.

Since the second World War, we’ve seen a dramatic shift in what agriculture looks like. Rather than a plethora of family farms, many of which produce and take care of the individual family running it and/or the local community, agricultural activity has soared and has become the industrial-sized practice we see today. This is all thanks to new technology, mechanization, increased chemical use, and a push for capitalistic ideals in all areas of life.

Despite the increased production, the land and people have suffered from this swift transition. Prominent among these are topsoil depletion, groundwater contamination, the decline of family farms, continued neglect of the living and working conditions for farm laborers, increasing costs of production, and the disintegration of economic and social conditions in rural communities.

The process to change our current ways and go back to a philosophy that values every single thing involved in agriculture doesn’t happen overnight. We can’t just flip a switch and expect a whole new mindset that everyone agrees with. In fact, we need a interdisciplinary approach that incorporates everyone, from farmers, researchers, consumers, and politicians to refocus our attention not on how much and how quickly we can streamline farming, but how to make farming beneficial for every single factor at play.

Common practices involved to tote yourself as sustainable agriculture include the following: rotating crops to promote biodiversity specific to your geography; planting “cover crops” during off-seasons to ensure the soil doesn’t stay bare and vulnerable to the elements; using integrated pest management that totes mechanical and biological controls to keep pests away without relying heavily upon pesticides; and utilizing more eco-friendly ways in the farming process that conserve water, avoid excess pollution, and use renewable energy sources.

We cannot see the land as something created strictly for our business mentalities. Economically, it makes sense why we should only grow the highest selling products, devoting large chunks of land to a single crop, and using the easiest and cheapest ways to grow and reap the most benefits as possible. But the environment is not here for our economic gains. We’re here to cherish the beauty and gifts surrounding us. We’re here to converse what we have so more people, plants and animals can all enjoy these gifts, too.

I’m grateful that we see growing abundance of organic options in supermarkets across the country, as well as greater promotion of local farmers and farmers markets. I’m grateful for the locally grown produce straight from family farmers who take great pride and care of their land. I’m grateful for the innovators out there who continue seeking out better, more sustainable ways we can be even more conscious of how we treat the land and what is healthiest for not only us, but every living thing.

I’m grateful for my hope in humanity, that we can do our best for nature, soak in the information we can about what is right and wrong when approaching agriculture. It’s necessary for the food in our kitchens and clothes on our backs, but if we support the large-scale companies exploiting the planet, what gratitude is that showing? What kind of people do we want to truly support?

Take care, and keep the faith. -Allie

Heart Against Palm

This photo from The Guardian is one of many depicting the harsh reality that is the palm oil industry.

You eat a healthy diet. You pay attention to what ingredients are in packaged products. But do you know where some of this ingredients come from? Even those that, on the surface, don’t look too harmful?

Maybe an ingredient isn’t too bad for your personal health, but to the health of the planet and every living organism, it could be very detrimental. And that’s where the debate over palm oil comes in.

First off, what is palm oil? As the name implies, it’s a type of edible vegetable oil derived from the palm fruit, grown on the African oil palm tree. Oil palms are originally from Western Africa but can flourish wherever heat and rainfall are abundant. Today, palm oil is grown throughout Africa, Asia, North America, and South America, with 85% of all palm oil globally produced and exported from Indonesia and Malaysia.

This gives an overview of where we can find and harvest palm oil, but that doesn’t give the full picture. Not only is palm oil bad for the areas where it’s produced, it’s also one of the leading causes of global warming. The fastest and the worst deforestation rate in the history of humankind is taking place in the tropical forests of Indonesia, where, as mentioned earlier, is the main exporter of palm oil. The clearing and burning of forests for more and more palm oil facilities releases massive amounts of greenhouse gases.

The environment is further affected by the waste produced in this industry. A palm oil mill generates 2.5 metric tons of effluent for every metric ton of palm oil it produces. Direct release of this effluent can cause freshwater pollution, which affects downstream biodiversity and people. Also, burning is a common method for clearing vegetation in natural forests as well as within oil palm plantations. The burning of forests releases smoke and carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, polluting the air and contributing to climate change. Fires in peat areas are particularly difficult to put out. The smoke and haze from these blazes have health consequences throughout Southeast Asia.

Not to mention that as much as 80 percent of the land-clearing in Indonesia is also illegal. As a result, shady production facilities are rife with human-rights abuses. Likewise, the diminished habitat hurts orangutans and Sumatran white tigers, both of which are facing extinction. Oil palm production also leads to an increase in human-wildlife conflict as populations of large animals are squeezed into increasingly isolated fragments of natural habitat.

So besides all of this information about the environment, it doesn’t look like anything too crazy. Heck, it’s plant-based! A vegetable oil! So it must be okay, right? Palm oil has become more prominent in packaged foods because it allows companies to market their products as “0 grams trans fat.” Those are the fat molecules that raise your cholesterol. However, in one study, people who were put on a diet rich in palm oil for about five weeks saw their LDL cholesterol rise. This is very similar to what happens on a diet high in partially hydrogenated oils, the ones that actually contain trans fats. There’s basically no benefit of having one type of oil over another. Either way, it spells trouble for your arteries.

We can put some blame on Indonesia and other countries in Asia and South America for contributing to the problem, but Americans are the ones creating the initial demand and business. First off, palm oil offers a far greater yield at a lower cost of production than other vegetable oils, so it makes the demand more sensible through a capitalistic mindset. U.S. imports of palm oil more than doubled between 2005 and 2012. Last year the country imported about 2.7 billion pounds. This is about 380 million gallons, which is is enough to fill more than 500 Olympic swimming pools and is more oil than BP spilled in the Gulf during the Deepwater Horizon disaster.

That was an (oil) spill of information there. (I had to.) What can we do to prevent further damage and stop supporting the palm oil industry? The thing is, the extent of palm oil usage in daily life is astounding. You can find palm oil in everything from foods, to soaps, to cosmetics, and much more. Just from reading ingredient labels, you might not be able to catch every trace of palm oil. When in doubt, do your research. Become a conscious consumer who chooses products not just based on fancy claims or packaging, but by the values the brand and company stands behind. There are many online resources where you can learn what brands don’t use palm oil. And perhaps even more powerful, speak out and teach others about this issue. As much as we discuss climate change and becoming more sustainable, there are still topics we overlook, or we choose to overlook them because there’s so ingrained in a conventional lifestyle. But to truly make a lasting impact supporting the world as we know it, we have to stop digging underground, stop chopping down landscape, and start preserving and protecting the valuable life surrounding us.

How much have you heard about the effects of palm oil? Did I leave anything out in my research? I’m here to continue learning more and hopefully encouraging others to do the same.

Take care, and keep the faith. -Allie