Music & the Environment
Seeing as the theme for this set of blog posts is about technology and its relation to the environment, I would like to focus on as aspect of technology we might not imagine has anything to do with the environment: music. In addition to being an environmentalist, I’ve always been really into music and its cultural impact, especially music of past decades (the entire decade of the 90s was the musical peak of humanity). I am quite far from an expert on this topic, but I thought it’d be fun to take a look at historical trends in some of my own favorite environmentalist songs as well as the sustainability of the music industry as a whole.
Joni Mitchell wrote the song “Big Yellow Taxi” in 1970, several years after the release of Rachel Carson’s groundbreaking novel Silent Spring. The song, repopularized in 2002 by Counting Crows (my personal favorite version) talks about the loss of ecological diversity, deforestation, and denounces the use of DDT. Silent Spring brought the issue of DDT — a synthetic chemical commonly found in insecticides and widely used in the agricultural industry at the time — into the everyday concerns of the public at the time, and the novel is largely credited as one of the main factors that ushered in a new era of environmental concern. The founding of the EPA in 1970 soon brought about the official cancellation of DDT use in pesticides in 1972. While Joni Mitchell didn’t singlehandedly solve the DDT issue, her song did reflect the most pressing issues the public felt at the time and can be used as another medium of historical analysis.
Now, we’ve started consuming music digitally, with the rise of services like Spotify or Apple Music, and CDs are slowly becoming a thing of the past. While the decline of records or CDs may strip us of some much-needed nostalgia at times, the environmental impact of this transition is surprisingly beneficial — consuming music digitally reduces the carbon footprint of that music by as much as 40-80%. Much of the CO2 output in the music industry comes from transportation, whether it be to the store to buy a CD or to the studio to record. However, the overwhelming contributor to the carbon footprint comes from putting on live shows or festivals, with equipment being hauled from place to place, the fans driving to the venue, and the vast amounts of waste inevitable produced from a large-scale production like that. Festivals like Outside Lands and Lollapalooza have adopted measures to move towards zero waste, so looking into the “greenness” of music festivals before choosing which ones to attend could help to create more environmentally friendly policies in the industry. Overall, connections between music and the environment are everywhere, whether it be the message of a song or the ways in which that song is produced and consumed. Sustainability is always attainable in every aspect of life! Listen for environmental themes in your favorite music, pick up some trash, ride a bike to the record store, and be conscious of your impact.
The State of Our Oceans
The oceans on our planet are in a horrific state due to the mass production of plastic. There are 1.5 million pounds of plastic that are dumped into the ocean every hour, which amounts to 14 billion pounds of plastic being dumped into the ocean every year. The fundamental problem with plastic is that it never disappears. It remains on our planet forever and unlike other natural things on the earth, it doesn’t decay. Most people think that when they throw away their plastic bottle that it is gone forever because it is no longer their problem. However, these plastics end up in a stream, which ends up in a river, which eventually finds its way into the ocean. There is no where in the world that you can go anymore without finding plastic. The saddest thing about an ocean filled with plastics is that it isn’t just large pieces that are floating in our ocean. The plastic that fills our ocean continually breaks up with time because of ultraviolet light, ocean wave action, and salt and creates millions of microplastics. These microplastics create an ocean polluted with a sort of “plastic fog.” Additionally, toxic chemicals stick to these small pieces which essentially creates poison pills for animals. In some places there are more microplastics than plankton which means our sea life is consuming more toxic plastics than real food. Since much of the marine life that eats these microplastics are eaten by humans, microplastics and all of the toxic chemicals inside of them are ending up in our own food chain and in thus in our own digestive systems. The ultimate and saddest part about microplastics is that we can’t just go into the ocean and pick up these plastics. They’re tiny, microscopic pieces that would be physically impossible to filter out ourselves. The North Atlantic has more than 3,440 tons of justmicroplastics. Interestingly enough, more than 90% of seabirds have eaten plastic at some point in their lives. In one specific bird they found 276 pieces of plastic that amounted to 15% of the bird’s body weight. That would be equivalent to a human having twenty pounds of plastic in their stomach. This hopefully gives you an idea of how serious the problem of plastics in our ocean really is and how vital it is that we start reversing our pattern of human behavior. However, there are some things we can do to reverse this pattern. New technology means that plastic can now be converted into energy. In Europe there are 15 million tons of end-of-use plastic that end up in the landfills every year. Cynar, a waste to fuel company designed a machine that turns end of life plastic like candy wrappers and snack packets into diesel. Using a heating process called Pyrolysis, which is the application of heat to chemical compounds like plastic, to cause decomposition, it turns an environmental problem into a valuable commodity. Each machine can process about 20 tons of plastic daily, making about 18,000 liters of diesel, or the equivalent of 113 barrels of oil a day. For so long we have thought of the ocean as a place to dispose of things that we do not want close to where we live. However, it is time for us to understand how vital the ocean is to our ecosystem and how connected we are to the ocean, regardless of how far away we live from it.
Food System and Technological innovations
As my education permits me to learn more and more about the food system and the technologies and practices that move it forward, I feel I gain a deeper degree of appreciation for each plate of food that is put in front of me. With this blog post, I’d like to stray from an editorial piece, and instead explore a gratitude practice that revolves around our food. For as long as I can remember, my parents have encouraged me to think about the processes and people that enable us to receive each component of our meals. For example, my mom would always thank the farmers who grow our produce, the truck drivers who deliver from the field to our stores, and the workers who stock the grocery shelves. Through courses like environmental science, biology, and edible education, I have been given a broader lens through which to view the processes and people responsible for the production of our food. Now, when I look down at a plate of food, I am able to thank the sun for inputting the ultraviolet radiation into the troposphere that is necessary for plants to photosynthesize and turn this energy into sugars. I am able to thank the mycorrhizal fungi that have formed symbiotic relationships with vascular plants to allow the plants to draw more nutrients and water from the soil. I am able to thank the farmer, probably a migrant worker, who labors over the fields and knows exactly the right time to pick the crop at its peak ripeness. I am able to thank the workers who risk their safety while operating dangerous machinery that process and package our food. I am able to thank the scientists and researchers who are striving to discover more sustainable, environmentally conscious ways to fix nitrogen, grow crops, and deliver food. Now, I challenge and encourage you to bring this sort of awareness to the table next time you sit down to enjoy a meal. By brainstorming processes and people that have contributed to bringing us the gift that our food is, I hope we can recognize our dependence on others and the Earth. May this recognition of our dependence unify us and allow us to experience a deeper degree of respect for our fellow humans, and also for Mother Earth.
Electronic waste, or e-waste, is becoming a huge problem all over the world, especially in third-world countries. Although new technological advancements have benefited how we live today, most disposed of technological products have been left for many third-world countries and waste management services to treat. For example, toxic components such as Mercury, Cadmium, Lead, and more effect human health by causing birth defects, brain, heart, and kidney damage. Moreover, this waste is exported to developing countries because it may be cheaper than the companies having to treat and recycle themselves the product themselves. Rather than these countries having an efficient system to handle this waste, for the most part these countries have toxic dump yards of e-waste, in which the people living there often scavenge. This not only has negative health effects to the people living in the area, but also to the environment. People in these areas may not be aware and are often not educated about the effects that e-waste can have when in close contact with hazardous substances.
Ultimately, the weight of responsibility for this growing amount of e-waste should be placed on the producers of these products. Businesses should be required to handle old products and reduce this waste themselves. This would reduce this waste from getting to developing countries and destroying the environment. There should be a new system in which products released out into the world will have minimal detrimental effects on the environment in both the long and short run. Additionally, there should be ways and research of how this waste is recycled and disposed of so that it can be stored properly. Not to mention that its disposal should happen be in a fair manner. Likewise, the responsibility of reducing e-waste falls heavily on the consumer. It is reassuring to see the EPA encourage recyclers to become credited to safely recycle and manage electronics. The next time you decide to throw technology out, I challenge you to learn how to dispose of it properly and make the right choice.
The Environment as Technology
As it has been mentioned, the theme of our first Epsilon Eta blog post series is technology in the environment. Approaching this theme from the point of view of a landscape architecture major, I was inclined to flip the theme on its head. The environment is a technology. In the words of Janine Benyus, a leader of the biomimicry movement, “We live in a competent universe” (Benyus). Nature’s systems and all of the organisms within them, live in an interconnected coordination that has persisted for thousands of years without threatening the livelihood of its own existence as humans have now done in a relatively short period of time. We also greatly benefit from environment as it provides a plethora of ecosystem services. These benefits flow from nature to humans for free, yet often we don’t recognize this value (Sukhdev). This issue has been dubbed the economic invisibility of nature by Pavan Sukhdev who has worked to lift the vail of invisibility by estimating the monetary value of these crucial services through a project called TEEB (The Economics of Ecosystem and Biodiversity). Simply put nature is good at what it does, therefore we must treat it as our utmost important technology to both learn from, emulate, protect, and restore.
The concept of “the environment as a technology” is exemplified by the landscape architecture and urban design studio SCAPE founded by Kate Orff (she just became the first landscape architect to be awarded the MacArthur Foundation ‘Genius’ Grant). One of their largest ongoing projects, Living Break Waters (which is in the process of being implemented), aims to harness the biological power to oysters to buffer and protect New York City’s coast line. This project looks back at the ecological history of New York City’s harbor which once was a fertile estuary environment that was home to trillions of oysters which formed reef like structures (FitzGerald). These oyster agglomerations filtered large volumes of water and protected the coastline by breaking up waves and slowing water velocity. By the mid 1800’s oyster populations had been completely depleted by New York’s markets and other export markets (FitzGerald).
Hurricane Sandy brought new attention to sea level rise and opened up new funding avenues for costal protection projects. The federal government’s Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force held an architecture design competition and chose SCAPE’s “oyster-tecture” design. 60 million dollars was awarded to implement Living Breakwaters off the coast of Staten Island. The design can be described as a “necklace of offshore breakwaters” made up of rock and eco-concrete upon which oysters will be seeded and continue to grow, forming these reef like structures (FitzGerald). These structures will help to reduce costal erosion, build up beaches, slow down water (the shell texture increases water friction), and break up waves, while also creating essential habitats for fish and other marine life. This project aims to recreate a portion of what once was a natural protective barrier provided by the environment. It is using nature as a technology in order to reinstate an environmental service that will help to save money and lives as storm intensity increases in the future.
Pledge Brian Blankenship addresses the problem of Desertification
Over dinner last week, my friend and colleague mentioned the work of Allan Savory and his theories on fighting desertification with cattle grazing. His approach, which he nicknames, “holistic grazing,” claims to be a carbon negative method of raising cattle in areas impacted by desertification such as the Sahel and the Great Basin Desert in the United States. In theory, the use of cattle and livestock to mimic ancestral herds of migrating grazers that were once more prevalent in these impacted habitats is supposed to clear dead grasses that would otherwise slowly oxidize, whilst also providing fertilizer in the form of dung and urine. Allan’s TED talk boasts impressive results in the change of ground cover over the course of a single year.
For years now I have been acutely critical of cattle as a major contributor to global warming, but the matter-of-factly style that Allan presented his findings made me put faith in their ability to change it. Everything he claimed lead me to believe that his “holistic grazing” land management strategy was an economically viable solution to global warming. I was unsurprised, however, to find strong criticism to his work.
As it turns out, there is little scientific basis to his claims. The most obviously criticism is his methodology. No where does he record any information about the size of the herds, the time they spend at a location, the intervals between grazing, etc. that are essential to producing a replicable experiment. That, however, does not necessarily concretely discredit the merit of his work.
Other critics argue that Allan Savory fails to consider that every desert develops its own assemblage of crusts of lifeforms that attached to the surfaces of soil. While some crusts may have adapted to large herds of nomadic grazers, many have not. Introducing non-native species of ground cover as well as non-native presents additional environmental challenges.
Until we can see hard evidence pointing towards the reintroduction of nomadic grazers in select habitats as beneficial to the fight against desertification, I think we should continue to seek alternative methods.
Elon Musk Won’t Save Us
Elon Musk just sent a flaming red tesla soaring into space. Complete with an anatomical dummy aptly named “Spaceman”, the Tesla Roadster was catapulted from the top of Space X’s Falcon Heavy, the largest private spaceship ever built, straight into the asteroid belt.
While the real test was to see if the 224 foot Falcon Heavy would successfully lift off, the red car, on its way to Mars’ orbit, seemed to have a more symbolic meaning: don’t worry about the now, when one day you too can pilot a $101,500 hot tamale past our decaying earth to your four bedroom new home (complete with pool and sun nook) on Mars. I mean, not now, but, you know, in the future.
Musk’s goals and visions, to save humanity and progress through technological advancement and weird invention, are nothing new. From early Walt Disney’s Tomorrowland to Tony Stark’s Iron Man, powerful men and their futuristic inventions have always been lauded in American culture. Their “brilliant minds” have provided a squeaky clean view of a future where everything is a weird silver color and Mars is the newest extension of your gated community.
These creators and their technologies fall into the circular paradigm of the “techno-fix”, a concept often used in the environmental community to describe the belief that a future technological or engineering breakthrough will solve our current societal and environmental ills. While the “techno-fix” inarguably looks good on paper, it produces a static society. In other words, there’s no point legislating a system to reduce carbon emissions because one day Musk, or Bezos, or Gates will come up with some new form of tech that will solve the problem.
This type of reliance on a “techno-fix” is also a fixation and over-reliance on privatization. The first people that will get to ride in the Falcon Heavy, according to Musk, are not scientists, astronauts, or engineers, but “anonymous tourists”— two individuals that have probably paid somewhere between 60 and 80 million for a shirt jog around the moon.
Similarly, The Boring Company’s (CEO Elon Musk) plan to build a tunnel by that whisks passengers, in their own vehicles, across Los Angeles in a number of minutes will actually increase traffic on the defamed 405 freeway according to law of induced demand, which states that increasing the supply or space of something (roads) will simply make people want them more.
I wish this wild-eyed saviorism was relegated to just Musk, but he’s just be the tip of the iceberg. The most dangerous example of the “techno-fix” is geoengineering— the planetary wide process of “manipulating” natural processes to reverse climate change and other ecological processes. The methods of geoengineering are incredibly diverse, ranging from the relatively cheap process of pumping sulfur dioxide into the air to block the sun’s radiation to installing a 100 billion dollar mirror in space.
Yet, the who’s and how’s of geoengineering can be complicated. Most of this research is done by the “geo-clique”, a group of mostly well-off white men who hold their conferences in a Downton Abbey esque house somewhere in England and the implications of geo-engineering are murky at best. A few will be in charge, the rest of us will be affected, and we still haven’t really changed our behavior that led us here in the first place.
The thing is, we already have the types of technology needed to “fix” environmental problems, and we’ve had them for a while. A study at Stanford University in 2015 concluded that we could easily make cities such as San Francisco or Los Angeles run on 100% renewable energy by the year 2050. Yet, anyone who reads the news could tell you this clearly not going to happen. Our “techno-fix” is here, but we just keep waiting and waiting for “something better”— something that doesn’t force us to change our values and lifestyles.
Our environmental values have to shift away from depending on wealthy billionaires to save us and towards building an environmental movement from the ground up. We have to abandon the view that we are separated from our environments, able to manipulate and abuse them on a whim before leaving Earth with a final wave goodbye in our newest, coolest Tesla. This shift in values isn’t an easy task, and it might be more difficult than launching a rocket into space, but it is the only way towards a future that is both clean and equitable compared to the one bent on technological individualism set out by Musk. Why look up towards Mars, or down at the tunnels beneath Los Angeles, when the “fix” we need is not a techno one, but a human one.
March 15, 2019: a worldwide walkout. Activists from 112 countries and six continents, mostly young, demanding immediate policy change to address climate change
Just the day before in Washington, D.C., young people had proven their ability to mobilize and come together in protest. The second annual March to End Gun Violence was a success – the streets of D.C. turned into rivers of students. A whopping 3,500 students flooded the route from the White House to the Capitol.
So, where were these young activists the next day?
The climate change walkout was no such spectacle. One of the few students from my high school (I am from DC) who attended the walkout in Washington D.C. described it as “insanely small, especially compared to the gun control march.” She even went so far as to say, “It looked sad, especially because it [climate change] is such an important issue.”
The general consensus is that climate change exists and is a prominent issue. But when it comes to addressing this issue, it seems that some communities of young people are lacking in passion and agency. This may be a result of the overwhelming nature of the issue; where do we even begin? I have been told by many that the ultimate doom that we are headed towards in the face of climate change is not something that can or should be addressed by a walkout. I have been told that a walkout will not change anything in the larger sense. This argument is fundamentally flawed. The solutions to climate change run parallel to those for the problem of guns, an issue for which taking to the streets in protest seems to fit just fine. The solutions lie in legislation. The gun control walkout specifically pushed for the passage of Senate Bill 42, which calls for stronger background check requirements for firearm purchases. Policy change is the driving factor for mitigation, for both gun violence and climate change. We have a little over a decade to drastically redefine our way of life to avert a crisis, the crashing and burning of the human race as we know it. The root of the problem lies less in the individual than in the powerful industries that cover the globe. Research by “Carbon Majors” (https://www.cdp.net/en/articles/media/new-report-shows-just-100-companies-are-source-of-over-70-of-emissions) found that over 70% of greenhouse gas emissions can be traced back to a mere 100 active fossil fuel producers. Governments have the power to regulate the behavior of profit-seeking corporations, and change the system to minimize their impact. Government can make a huge difference in the realm of climate, just as it can in the realm of gun control. To rally for specific government actions in a walkout is a huge step towards change, just as the March to End Gun Violence proved. And don’t forget Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old climate activist from Sweden who leaves school to sit outside the Swedish Parliament every week, begging politicians to do something. Her actions spurred a global movement, and her voice is now being heard by world leaders everywhere. She is proof of the effectiveness of protest in the climate justice movement.
If it was not mistrust in the effectiveness of protests, then what else could have been holding back these young activists? The lack of action may be due to blind spots. Many communities have not been visibly hit by climate change. We continue living life just as we always have, with climate change in the backs of our minds. In other communities around the world, however, climate change is now. Its results are everywhere, affecting the everyday lives of people all around the world. A hurricane grown huge from the additional warming driven by greenhouse gases has not destroyed our livelihood. Our property is not being eaten away at a rate of 2.3 meters a year by an ocean that refuses to freeze, as it is in Alaska. In Shishmaref, the sea wall is now where two houses and a road used to be. We do not go outside to forage for food only to find the Earth bare, as the Sakha and Even tribes of Siberia have for the last five years. We do not feel the urgency to act upon what we do not see in our everyday lives. As Greta Thunberg once said, “We cannot solve a crisis without treating it as a crisis.”
As an intern at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, I was given the privilege of interviewing three climate researchers from around the United States. Each of the scientists have published numerous research papers, ranging in topic from sea surface temperature prediction to the effect on Arctic amplification on mid-latitude summer circulation. Each of these interviews offered new perspectives, but they all had in common one thing: a strong desire to further the world’s understanding of our planet’s climate. The story of one researcher in particular stood out. When asked about how he comes up with research ideas, he shared what he called a “hobby” of his. When he was a student, he took it upon himself to sit down for five to ten minutes every day, and simply think about climate problems. He would contemplate what the current most important question was, and also what it may become in five years. Every week he would, and still does, update himself on new publications which focus on climate science in order to keep a close watch on the trend of the field. We should all follow this example – it is an admirable representation of what it looks like to truly care.