One thing I’ve learned in my sustainability classes is that sometimes “green” solutions aren’t always so green. By solving one problem, you might be creating another. It’s essential to evaluate entire lifecycles and supply chains to determine whether one solution actually has less environmental impact. Here are a few examples:
1) Electric vehicles: Because electric vehicles don’t require gasoline, they might seem like a good way to lower carbon emissions. But it all depends on how the electricity is generated. In a country where most electricity is generated by burning coal, you’ve defeated the purpose. If the electricity is generated from solar and wind power, the electric vehicle is actually powered by a sustainable energy source. However, things get even more complicated. This article points out several other factors that affect the overall environmental impact of the electric car, such as the rare metals that are acquired through destructive mining practices. Only a detailed analysis of each stage of the car’s production, use, and disposal can reveal whether electric cars are actually an improvement.
2) Artificial Christmas trees: I was glad when my parents bought their first artificial Christmas tree, thinking it would prevent the cutting of real trees. Several years later, this artificial tree had shed most of its needles, and my parents decided to throw it out. That was when I had a horrible thought: where do all the disposed artificial Christmas trees go? It turns out plastic trees in landfills aren’t the only problem. According to this New York Times article, fake trees often contain polyvinyl chrloride (PVC), “which produces carcinogens during manufacturing and disposal.” Moreover, you’re not actually doing harm by cutting down a real Christmas tree. They’re grown as a local , sustainable crop, providing jobs and tree cover.
3) Recycling: For the environmentally conscious among us, it’s reassuring to toss a plastic bottle or container into the recycling instead of trash. But there are some uncomfortable truths behind recycling: it’s expensive and consumes a lot of energy. Some of it ends up in the landfill. Much of our plastic waste isn’t recyclable in the first place. And, as pointed out in Cradle to Cradle, a game-changing book by William McDonough and Michael Braungart, recycling doesn’t solve the root problem. It still relies on our society’s default product lifecycle: take resources, make a product, and dispose of it (“cradle to grave”). Recycling slows that process down by a step or two, but it doesn’t alter the overall arch. A better answer would be to shift our products toward a circular model, where waste is designed out and every element of a product, even its packaging, can be put toward productive use.
This semester I took a fantastic class about land trusts and land conservation in the United States. One of the final readings was especially unsettling. It’s called “The illusion of preservation: a global environmental argument for the local production of natural resources” (1). The author, Mary Berlik, argues that the United States indirectly causes significant deforestation around the globe. The reason? Many forests in the U.S. are protected, but Americans still consume huge amounts of lumber and wood products.
Berlik takes Massachusetts as a case study. Massachusetts is one of the most densely populated states, yet it also has a large amount of forest cover (2). This forest is the product of new growth, coming after a period in the 1800s when Massachusetts was clear-cut for agriculture. Although logging continued into the 20th century, the volume of timber harvested has steadily decreased.
Twenty-first century Massachusetts residents hold strong environmental values. Anti-logging attitudes are among their cherished beliefs. Meanwhile, U.S. imports of lumber have tripled over the last several decades. Between 1965 and 1997, the average American home size increased by 44%. Approximately 15% of wood consumption in the country is used for home construction. The result is this: Massachusetts harvests much less wood per capita that Japan, Switzerland, France or Germany, yet it consumes more than all of them—not just a little more, but more than twice the per capita consumption of its closest comparison, France.
Massachusetts residents resist timber harvest in their own state, but their demand for wood means the products have to come “from somewhere.” These “somewheres” are countries around the globe. The United States imports hardwoods from tropical countries, which are often home to fragile ecosystems and great biodiversity (3). Exacerbating the problem is the fact that these countries often have fewer environmental protections. They may also have less advanced equipment, which cannot process lumber as efficiently and leads to wasted product. In short, the “not in my backyard” attitude leads to greater environmental devastation elsewhere. Berlik has some strong words on this subject:
Notably and hypocritically, the protectionist attitude often fails to address the link between high levels of domestic consumption and the unavoidable impacts this imposes on the global environment, especially beyond US borders. In addition to the tangible issue of whether humankind can live sustainably within the earth’s ecological limits, there is an environmental question of whether the burden of natural resource production should be placed on remote and oftentimes fragile landscapes, and the intriguing sociological question of whether affluent citizens might alter their patterns of resource consumption if the environmental consequences of this behaviour was apparent in their own backyards.
It’s not quite as simple as allowing sustainable harvest on Massachusetts public land. Much of the forested land is privately owned. Local regulations complicate the issue, with different towns having varied logging regulations. Finally, and perhaps most significantly, anti-logging sentiments run high.
Reading this, I wondered how many people equate “logging” with “clear-cutting.” It is possible for a forest to be sustainably managed, such that most growth is left standing and only certain trees are harvested. Education about global wood production and sustainable forestry could change this situation, since Massachusetts residents are already inclined to care about the environment.
Even if the state increases its wood production, it will not make much progress unless consumption drops. This is the fundamental problem. Getting people to consume less is very, very hard. Consumerism and overpopulation are the root causes of most environmental problems. Overpopulation can be addressed through poverty alleviation, education of women, and availability of birth control—not easy tasks by any means, but concrete objectives that have been studied and observed to work. Consumerism is trickier. How to you get people to stop buying things—without forcibly reducing wealth or abridging freedom? That will have to be a topic for a future post.
1. Berlik, Mary M., David B. Kittredge, and David R. Foster. “The illusion of preservation: a global environmental argument for the local production of natural resources.” Journal of Biogeography, vol. 29, 1557-1568. Blackwell Science, 2002.
2. At the time of the paper, 62% of Massachusetts land was forested. I assume the percentage has gone down since then. Massachusetts is undergoing rapid development. In my once-quiet hometown, new developments are springing up all over the place. Which leads to another question. Could sustainable lumber harvesting add value to the otherwise “valueless” tracts of land that are marked for development? It would provide revenue without leading to the strain of population growth.
3. The United States imports softwoods from Canada, which presumably does not have as much environmental impact as imports from tropical countries. However, Berlik does not offer a breakdown of hardwood/softwood percentage in U.S. wood consumption, nor an analysis of how increasing sustainable timber production in various states would address this. It seems the most important question is whether the U.S. could supply its own hardwoods. Supplying its own softwoods—assuming the logging operations are well-managed—could increase sustainability, since it would decrease shipping distance.
Lovers of northern landscapes may have seen pictures of the Trolltunga in Norway. It’s a literal “tongue” of rock that overlooks stark cliffs and shining water. Many pictures of the Trolltunga feature an individual hiker solemnly gazing upon the scenery.
As a hiker and nature-lover, I have dreamed of visiting Norway. I want to see the fjords and experience endless summer nights. After learning about Trolltunga, I thought it might be the perfect hiking destination.
Then I did some more research. A quick search online reveals dozens of the cutesy photo-op people have invented for Trolltunga. There are yoga poses, group jumps, newspaper readers. A rock band staged a rehearsal there.
I started to wonder how many people actually visit this place. It turns out that only a few honest photographers show what the scene really looks like. The landmark is too famous for only one hiker to be present at a time. In reality, a large crowd waits at the base of the tongue while each individual gets their chance at an epic photo.
I experienced a similar phenomenon while traveling to Western Brook Pond in Newfoundland. It’s an inland fjord that is featured in all the Newfoundland tourism photographs. The scenery is stunning–or at least it should be.
In reality, it’s the most crowded place in all of Gros Morne National Park–probably because of all very same tourism photos. Not only is it crowded, there is a cafe built right at the end of the fjord, as well as a noisy tour boat that blasts its commentary on loudspeakers as it motors through the water.
A few signs near the cafe helpfully inform you that the rare, fragile ecosystem of the inland fjord is now threatened due to boat traffic.
This is not to say that we shouldn’t expect crowds. I have no more right to enjoy a place in solitude than anyone else who scheduled their vacation on the same day. Everyone wants to see beautiful places. As the population of the world increases, it’s a simple fact that there will be more people everywhere, even in scenic, isolated spots.
And yet it still feels like there’s a disconnect between our photographs and our reality, one more insidious than a few prettified tourist brochures.
Ward Reservation (Andover and North Andover, below): Trails lead through hills and fields. This reservation is especially gorgeous in the autumn. One hill has a skyline view of Boston. Managed by The Trustees.
Great Meadows National Wildlife Refuge (Concord): Trails run around the perimeter of a wetland, where you can see numerous bird species and muskrats. Managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Harold Parker State Forest (North Andover): Explore a large landscape of lakes and forests. Managed by the state of Massachusetts.
Appleton Farm (Hamilton and Ipswich, below): This beautiful farm features trails along fields and hilly cow pastures. Managed by The Trustees.
Middlesex Fells Reservation (Malden): This reservation is very easy to access from the city. Rocky hills make for a dramatic landscape. Managed by the state of Massachusetts.
Ipswich River Wildlife Reserve (Topsfield, below): This large reservation contains meadows, woods, and marshes. In the marshes you can spot birds, muskrats, and several beaver dams. Managed by Mass Audubon.
If you enjoy going to places like these, it’s worthwhile to contribute to organizations like Mass Audubon or The Trustees. These groups are responsible for most of the land reserves in Massachusetts. Purchasing a membership helps give them the financial support they need to continue protecting land and species in our state.
Avoiding plastic bags is one way to reduce your personal contribution to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. But planning grocery trips is hard enough for a busy person, let alone remembering to bring those reusable bags. Here are a few tricks that help me to remember my bags:
If you drive:
-After a shopping trip, if you’re bringing multiple loads of groceries inside, empty your first bags immediately and then bring them right back to the car. Put them in the trunk and you’ll have at least 1 or 2 for your next shopping trip.
-Alternatively, if you’re bringing in plastic bags, take your reusable bags out to the car when you’re going back for the second load.
-At any time that you’re going to the car but not grocery shopping, try to throw a bag in the backseat.
If you walk:
-Put the reusable bags by the door, or even hang them on the doorknob on the day before you go grocery shopping.
-Alternatively, put your bags in a backpack/purse ahead of time. Or put them on the same hanger as your coat.
Over time, once you develop the habit, it becomes easier to remember your reusable bags.
I’ve decided that the reason we don’t care how much we throw out is twofold. 1) It doesn’t cost us anything–upfront, at least– and 2) We don’t actually see it. We just put it in the trash or recycling bin and then it’s taken away forever.
Except that it doesn’t really go away. The recovery rate for plastic recycling is still dishearteningly small. Most of it goes to the landfill, where it takes hundreds of years to break down, and a lot of it ends up in the ocean.
More plastic is produced than ever before, and we’re running out of places to throw it away. It’s clogging our waterways and even ending up in the food chain–fish eat it when it breaks down into smaller pieces, and then we eat the fish.
This is a situation that clearly needs regulating. Otherwise, companies will continue to produce massive amounts of plastic because it’s convenient and cheap. These companies are not forced to pay for the cost that plastic is imposing on society.
Want to know just how much plastic we’re throwing out? I saved all my plastic waste for a week to get an idea.
Then I separated out what could be reused or recycled and what could not. Guess which pile was bigger?
That’s for just a single person, one week. And I’m someone who at least attempts to buy products that use less packaging. Sorry, kids–the pile on the right will be around for you and your children to deal with.