A tiny ray of hope

Those of you who read this blog know that I often post on issues related to global warming and the environment. In general, I think most environmental scientists have a pretty pessimistic view of the state of things to come and the challenges we’re going to be facing over the next 50 years, largely due to the magnitude and variety of impacts related to global warming, along with many unrelated issues.

One of the scary things that hasn’t really gotten into the public consciousness yet is the acidification of the oceans. The CO2 we’re adding into the atmosphere is counterbalanced somewhat by the ocean, which acts as a giant reservoir into which some of the CO2 can dissolve. Unfortunately, when it does so, the oceans become more acidic. The amount of CO2 that has been added to the oceans has already started to tip the balance, and there are measurable changes in pH. This process also reduces carbonate in seawater, which makes up coral reefs and the exoskeletons of small organisms important at the base of the oceanic food chain.

I know you’re still waiting for the ray of hope, so here it is. There’s a fascinating short article in Science (Mar 30 2007) which describes an experiment in which a variety of corals were exposed to more acidic ocean water, to see what would happen. The fossil record suggests that corals have survived periods of global warming in past geologic history, but no-one was quite sure how. It turns out that in fact the corals do lose their skeletons, and the little critters inside have their soft bodies exposed.

Astonishingly, they can live that way. They seem to grow and thrive perfectly well, as long as they are attached to a hard rock that doesn’t dissolve. We would still lose the coral reefs and all the structural diversity they provide, but the living beings in the coral would survive. And the research showed that once things get back to normal again – the critters build their little exoskeletons and the coral rebuilds itself. !!

I for one found this pretty amazing. Of course there are still 900 other things that can and will go wrong, but it’s just such a relentless tide of bad news that it’s wonderful to see one little part of the ecosystem that can adapt.

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Food Diversity

There’s an interesting thing about working in the environmental field – you’re really forced to look at environmental data seriously, and evaluate your own lifestyle. I already do some of the things that Al Gore recommends, such as driving a hybrid vehicle (and working at home so I don’t drive much), using long-lasting fluorescent lights, landscaping my yard so it doesn’t use much water, etc. But clearly, there is more I can do on the carbon budget – so I plan to go look that up, calculate what I use, and see if I can’t work on reducing it.

But the issue of food is one that frequently comes up, and which I’ve been thinking about more lately. We live in what is possibly the most interesting time in history for food diversity, and I LOVE food. Love eating it, love cooking it, almost as much as, well… you know ;)

Next time you go into a grocery store, really look around and think about what you see. At the Central Market near where I used to live, I could buy emu meat from Australia (excellent and very healthy), fresh seafood from Japan, Korean kimchi, African spices mixes, Indian curries, berries in winter from South America, and organic just about everything. This store didn’t bother with an organic section – organic food was everywhere. You could fill up your cart with it. And this is a basic chain grocery store in the Seattle area.

We have access to so much incredible food now, due to global distribution and niche marketing. Probably more than anytime in history – but enjoy it while you can, because the future looks grim. By the time I’m really old (and the women in my family live to be 90-100), I am fairly certain much of this food will be a distant memory.

In my copy of Science today were two articles illustrating what I’m talking about. One was the study of global fisheries that you’ve probably already read about. Still, it’s worth repeating – 91% of global species in coastal areas have declined to less than half of their former abundance, 38% (including fisheries) have collapsed to less than 10% of their former abundance, and 7% have gone extinct in the last 100 years. The decline and collapse of global fisheries is increasing at an alarming rate, with fishermen putting out greater effort and getting less catch. At the current rate of decline, it is projected that ALL global fisheries will have collapsed by 2048. ALL. Just what are people going to eat??? That’s only 40 years from now!

This is not the first report like this by reputable scientists. You may recall a similar sounding of the alarm by NOAA a few years back. But do you think this is affecting people’s behavior? Of course not. At a recent convention of fishing nations, most pushed to eliminate the use of bottom trawling on the high seas, because it destroys the bottom habitat along with catching the fish. Several prominent fishing nations (e.g., Japan) opposed it, and treaties on the high seas require unanimous agreement. Japan is a wealthy nation that depends on fisheries to feed its people. I can’t help but wonder what they think they’re gaining.

The other was a review of a new book called Six Arguments for a Greener Diet. This book pretty much overwhelms the reader with data supporting why one shouldn’t eat meat, the reasons being 1) health benefits, 2) reducing foodborne illness, 3-5) improving the quality of soil, water, and air, and 6) reducing animal suffering. Now these arguments are nothing new, and worthy of consideration. But one really stuck in my mind – it takes 20-30,000 gallons of water to create just 1 pound of beef.

Think about that for a minute… Let’s say we’re having a back-yard barbecue for our friends, and serving up hamburgers. Maybe we buy 4 lbs of ground beef for our summer party. That’s an incredible 100,000 gallons of water!!! Imagine if we got a bill for all that water use from our local water company – it would cost a fortune. Certainly we would change our ways to avoid paying that much. But since we never pay for this water usage, we don’t think about it. Now you might be tempted to say that you’re paying for it in the price of beef. To which I say, nuh-uh. Compare the price of a pound of beef to the price of 25,000 gallons of water if you had to buy it from your water company, and you’ll see right away that the beef farmer is getting that water essentially for free – through water rights to his local river or groundwater. Water rights that are in increasingly short supply…

And that’s just one impact of eating beef. I won’t go into any more – you get the picture. I’m not a vegetarian or a vegan, and I do love food. But increasingly I’m thinking, we need to eat at the bottom of the food chain to avoid a lot of these types of impacts. If you want to eat meat, eat a shrimp, not a cow (you couldn’t possibly conserve enough water to make up for eating any amount of beef). If you want to eat a fruit or vegetable, eat one grown close to home, not one that has to fly in an airplane to reach you (LOTS of carbon emissions there) – even if that blackberry from Nicaragua is organic. If you want to eat a fish, learn something about where it comes from and whether the fishery is sustainable. All of this will go a long way toward ensuring that there is still some diversity left for us to enjoy in our 80s, much less for future generations and populations who have limited food supply choices.