That question I get asked by dinner dates

Believe it or not, this is a global warming post of sorts. Inevitably, when someone new finds out what I do for a living, the question eventually gets asked, “So, is that global warming stuff really as bad as they say?” Never mind that I’ve always worked on water issues. But of course, I couldn’t help but have an opinion – most environmental scientists do. It’s pretty much our job to convince everyone that yes, it really is as bad as they say, possibly a lot worse. Anyone who works in the field knows this by now; the evidence is overwhelming and more is coming in all the time.

Of course, by the time you get through explaining this, people aren’t necessarily that comfortable with you anymore. And it’s not just dinner dates. I’ve had this conversation with my broker, my dentist, taxi drivers, airplane seatmates, family members, etc. They’re not uncomfortable with me because I’m unusually rabid about it. It’s more that I really know how bad it is and the certainty of that is unsettling. I can cite any number of examples of things that can go wrong, any one of which will cause major disruptions of life as we currently live it. Environmental scientists live with this stuff all the time, and its a hard time to live in because of that. It’s very difficult to have any real long-term plans (such as making plans for retirement) and there is a renewed sense of urgency about living life well now.

Environmental scientists often wonder why the public (never mind the government) doesn’t take this as seriously as it should. Psychologists are actually beginning to study this, and it has to do with something I’ve suspected for a while. People just feel overwhelmed by it. It carries the potential for life as we know it to change so drastically that many of us may not live through it. In the face of that, most people just can’t bring themselves to think about it. They feel helpless, and do nothing. Or do little things sort of generally in service to the environment, which doesn’t come close to what is actually needed. There’s a kind of denial deeply rooted in fear that just couldn’t exist if people were willing to look in an unbiased way at what we know.

I understand that it’s hard to accept that their kids may not have the opportunity to live in the world they’ve known, especially in affluent countries like the USA, where we cannot continue to consume what we do and still solve this problem. The despair of a truth like that would be untenable. In my ungracious moments, I think some others just don’t care and live high now because they know they’ll be dead before this really hits the fan. For all these reasons, I have come to doubt very much that any actions that rely on the government or the public will be effective enough to make a difference.

People in these conversations sometimes seem curious as to how I can live with this apparent truth and not be consumed by hopelessness. In my case at least, I feel very lucky to have had the life I’ve had. I live each day as best I can, try to make what contributions I can, and enjoy my life – I know all too well that it may not always be this enjoyable, whether for environmental or health reasons. I don’t see why we can’t live with our eyes open, and make each moment more precious because of it.

And if some brilliant entrepreneur saves us all from our folly, wonderful. I have no idea whether that will happen or not; it’s one of the many unpredictable factors in this whole situation. Part of me thinks it would be better if we could just learn to control ourselves, but IMO, the chances of that happening in time are slim to none. Which is NOT a good reason not to try.

And in the meantime, points to anyone who asks me that and makes it through the ensuing conversation with their comfort level intact. I’ll start with my broker, who actually got that it changed my investment strategy and went with that. Now if only my dates could do the same :)

Quiet doings in Obama-land

Watching the news from Florida last week, it was pretty much all about presidential appointees (which has been disappointing, though it was nice to hear him say he screwed up), and the economic stimulus plan – which isn’t going nearly as bipartisanly as I would have hoped, though thank you to the Senate for trying harder than the House and showing a tad more wisdom on that.

But what really strikes me is what nobody’s hearing about. I do read the EarthJustice blog, because I’ve done some legal work for them over the years. They’re tracking the Obama administration very closely, and he and his people have been doing serious things for the environment and continue to do them almost every day since they’ve been in office. These aren’t really getting reported in the news, but it’s just a reminder to me of why I wanted to elect this guy. He actually cares enough, in the midst of all this other economic and political stuff, to make sure these environmental issues are taken care of.

A partial list in just the first two weeks of office:

– Ordered the EPA to re-review CA and other states’ request for higher fuel efficiency standards for vehicles
– Directed the Dept. of Transportation to finalize its own long-awaited federal fuel efficiency standards
– Ordered the EPA to release its long-stalled report on dioxin toxicity
– Removed the federal government’s support for a case before the Supreme Court allowing higher mercury emissions from power plants, which may hopefully lead to it being dropped
– Directed DOE to create energy efficiency standards for dozens of household appliances
– Cancelled 100,000 acres of oil and gas leases near pristine wilderness in the West that were pushed through at the last minute by Bush
– Sent representatives to the international global warming conference in Poland to work constructively for solutions
– Has put all of Bush’s last-minute environmental directives on hold for review

Just reading about this makes me feel a lot better. Finally, it feels like someone up there cares. Makes me wonder what all else he’s up to that isn’t getting reported in the news…

Recently read on the side of a yogurt container…

I’ve been buying mostly organic these days, whenever I can. I’m kind of an inveterate label reader, as I like to know what I’m eating. I was curious what this was sweetened with, being organic (it turned out to be fruit juice). So I’m reading along, and I find this odd bit:

FDA Required Statement: “No significant difference has been shown between milk derived from rBGH-treated and non-rBGH-treated cows.”

Note that this yogurt cup had made no claims about anything regarding rBGH-free dairy products, other than that this yogurt had none, sensibly leaving the decision about whether that’s important up to the consumer. Apparently the FDA feels no such even-handedness is required.

I mean, think about it. Who is the FDA protecting here? The only people who could benefit from such a statement being added to all organic diary containers would be large dairy companies who don’t want organic products to out-compete their non-organic products in the marketplace. It’s not as if the hormone-free dairy product might have some hidden danger we can’t foresee; the rBGH is logically more likely to have a possible danger, whether or not we know it.

The scientist in me immediately started to pick apart the statement, too. “No significant difference” means what, exactly? We know the hormones do show up in the dairy products. So that can’t be what they mean (many would consider that a significant difference). In the nutritional content? Well, that isn’t what most people are worried about. In the environment? Hormones used by humans in various forms are showing up in increasing quantities, making fish biologists worry what that might be doing to natural mating and spawning cycles. Never mind your three-year-old.

Hrm. Do you feel safer yet?

Eat this fish

The other day, a friend asked me why I said he should not buy farmed salmon… not to mention shellfish from Asia, etc. I had some answers for him, but it’s a complicated subject. If you’re interested in eating sustainably, seafood is becoming a more and more difficult and confusing prospect, even though it’s healthy and low on the food chain, and therefore would generally be a more desirable form of protein.

So, I was really happy to see this guide to sustainable seafood, developed by a reputable source, the Monterey Bay Aquarium. It has local guides for various areas, a searchable database, and explanations for each rating. You can look up any fish or shellfish you like and find out which types are the best choice, which are good alternatives, and which to avoid – and a detailed explanation of why.

So for example, Alaska-caught wild salmon is in the “best choice” category. Washington-caught wild salmon is in the “good alternative” category – and farmed salmon from anywhere in the world, along with Atlantic salmon, are in the avoid category.

In case you’re wondering, farmed salmon are a major problem because:
– When they inevitably escape from their pens, they compete with wild salmon for food and spawning areas, and dilute wild species with inferior genes, producing salmon that are less able to survive in the wild
– Salmon rearing pens generate mounds of fecal waste on the bottom filled with excessive organic material, antibiotics, and pollutants
– Farmed salmon have parasites and diseases (from being raised in such close quarters) that can spread to wild fish
– Antibiotics used to prevent the above diseases are ultimately released to the environment and contribute to the spread of antibiotic resistant diseases
– It takes three pounds of wild fish to feed one pound of farmed salmon. Yes, they grind up fish and feed it to fish that don’t eat much fish. So in other words, for each farmed fish, three wild fish are lost. Not a good trade.
– Farmed salmon are pale and tasteless compared to wild salmon, like so much artificially grown food.

Is it really worth the few dollars you might save?

Random carbon-reducing thought

Someday I’m going to collect all of these somewhere… This one goes back to our food again, a continuing theme this year. We’ve talked about all kinds of ways to reduce the carbon footprint from food consumption, including eating low on the food chain, eating local foods, using cloth grocery bags, and limiting bottled water consumption. Here’s an even simpler one:

Don’t waste food.

That’s all – simple to say, simple in concept, harder to do. Every bit of food and drink that we buy costs energy to grow, process, package, ship, and sell. Even if we eat a steak, at least we’ve eaten it – and gotten some value for that energy that’s been used. When we don’t even eat it or drink it, all that energy is wasted and garbage is created for nothing at all. Only in this western world of over-consumption could such a thing really even be possible, not to mention done every day without a second thought.

When you’re not starving or lacking for money to buy food, and there is a massive abundance of food all around you, there is a tendency to forget how important this is or to take the extra time to make sure that whatever you buy will be used. Example – at a recent staff meeting that would go through lunch, most of us brought our own lunches. One group showed up with donuts and pastries to share – a nice gesture, right? But we all eat pretty healthy and a lot of them didn’t get eaten, and no-one wanted to take them home because we all knew we’d eat them if we did. They were thrown out, since the meeting room had to be clean when we left. It probably would have been better not to bring them and to let staff buy their own in the cafeteria if they wanted them.

Our busy schedules contribute also. I don’t know how often I’ve bought groceries that I didn’t get around to using, and had to throw out because they went bad. This is especially true since I started buying more vegetables. It’s harder for single people to use up all that comes in a package (a loaf of bread for example). My horribly busy work schedule has resulted in a lot of food getting thrown out, which is really sad and wasteful. So now I am really focusing on learning how to freeze things (yes, if you’ve never done it you have to learn what works and what doesn’t). In this situation it is really important to be careful what and how much you buy in the first place. Which takes recipe planning and careful shopping, which takes time. Knowing that it’s contributing to global warming to throw stuff out may actually give me an incentive to work on this more.

Make it a challenge to look around your kitchen and see what odds and ends of things can be used up. You know all those sauce bottles in your refrigerator door? How many of those stay there forever and then get thrown out because when you want to use it, you’re not certain it’s still good? A little bit of planning might help there too. Each of those little bottles takes a lot of energy to create.

So as your parents always said – “clean your plate” and don’t put too much on it to start with :) Learn to make casseroles with odd bits and ends, freeze leftovers and portions of raw foods before they spoil, buy in smaller quantities that you will actually use, plan your meals, and if you really have to throw something out – compost it!