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.
As I wrote in a recent blog post, many “small” towns in Massachusetts are no longer looking so small. Rampant development is destroying our open spaces. Farms are replaced by malls and condos. This is problematic not just for landscape lovers, but for all town residents. While development is often heralded as bringing in short-term income through taxes, it costs the town in the long run. Service costs for new residential developments eat up most of the new tax revenue. Meanwhile, the town must cope with increased congestion on the roads and in the schools.
Fortunately, many town residents are starting to see open space as a public good, as important to quality of life as schools and libraries. In Plainville, a developer wants to build 55 houses on a 103-acre farm on the town’s rural west side. Outcry from Plainville’s residents persuaded selectmen to vote to buy the property. Not only will town ownership keep the space open for public enjoyment, it will also save Plainville from the strain of a crowded schools and roads.
However, all is not saved yet. A town meeting will decide the final outcome.
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-love, 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.
“Projecting forward current land-use trends for much of the United States yields a bleak vision in which protected lands form islands of twenty, forty, or at best a few hundred acres in polluted seas of asphalt or lawn.” —Richard Brewer, Conservancy: The Land Trust Movement in America
Last weekend, back in my hometown for a few days, I drove down a road that has always been lined with forest. Norton is a small town an hour outside of Boston, distinguished from the city by its beautiful woodlands and wildlife. Although not rural, the community has maintained much of its small-town feel. Main Street, one of the busier stretches in town, has two churches, a library, a few schools, and two pharmacies. The rest is mostly residential. While a few developments feature bland McMansions right next to each other and not a tree in sight, much of the town remains wooded. Most of my childhood was spent outdoors playing in these woods–climbing trees, spying on animals, exploring. It would seem that most of the town is already built up, with just enough buffer between houses and developments. I believed this situation was static, until recent events showed otherwise.
Oak Street is a narrow, winding residential road. It goes past farms and woods. It’s a picturesque road, one that hasn’t changed much in the twenty-six years of my life. A few days ago, I was shocked to see this:
A huge swath of the woods has suddenly been chopped down, apparently making way for a new development of condos.
Meanwhile, on the other side of town, Houghton’s Farm is slated for development into an industrial park. The farm has been there since 1959. The town plans to re-zone the land from agricultural into industrial use.
The land is particularly valuable for commercial interests because of its proximity to Highway 495 and Route 123. It is a convenient location for businesses. The businesses will bring jobs and tax revenue to the town.
In a document summarizing the proposed re-zoning, the town claims that about 23% of the land in Norton is permanently protected open land. Interestingly, this claim was put in near the top of the summary, as though to defuse any criticism about accelerating land development.
It is natural that the town Selectmen are interested in generating revenue. However, it remains unclear whether overall development plans for Norton in any way account for the preferences of town residents, and whether they adequately account for the costs of such development. For instance, while new residential developments increase tax revenue, they also introduce substantial costs in the form of increased congestion (which leads to increased road repairs, etc.), increased costs of town services, and strain on the school system.
Additionally, land development lowers quality of life. No one is happy to see open spaces eaten up by new malls and businesses. People living in Norton have often chosen this town exactly because it is a small town. We do not want our surroundings to become too cramped, too citified. Yet it seems that developers have the main say in whether our town becomes more and more city-like, removing our woods and fields while crowding our space. Rampant development will change the character of our town irrevocably.
Goldenrod, with pollinators (bees)
Young juniper trees
Milkweed provides food for endangered monarch butterflies
The Sun Chronicle recently had an interesting article on water shortages in Attleboro. The city came startling close to running out of water last year. The article cited climate change as a possible cause, since shifting water patterns may result in increased drought. Population growth was also a factor.
I found it disappointing that the article focused so little on individual water usage. Climate change and population growth probably did contribute to the shortage, but blaming these factors alone allows individual attitudes toward water use to go unquestioned.
An an anecdotal basis, I’ve observed a casual attitude toward water that is rather troubling. People seem to think of water as something that originates magically from the tap, not a limited natural resource. We use it to wash cars, water lawns, and take half-hour showers. Many of us leave the tap running while shaving or brushing their teeth.
The article didn’t dare suggest that water shortages are a reality, and that perhaps we should try not to use so much. All it said was water bans are unpopular because people like to wash their cars. Then it listed several ways the town is trying to hook up to other reservoirs in case of another drought. In other words: Don’t rethink watering your lawn, you should be able to use as much water as you want! Pawtucket will help us out next time around.
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.
Some updates on what’s becoming a busy and exciting spring:
For various reasons, I haven’t attended quite as many concerts as usual this season. I did manage to make it to a wonderful Handel and Haydn concert last February (Beethoven’s 4th Piano Concerto with Robert Levin; Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony). Handel and Haydn always impresses me. They are a fantastic period orchestra, and a major part of why Boston’s classical scene is so great. Next year I do plan to attend more concerts, since supporting classical musicians is one of my priorities.
I have pretty much stopped writing short fiction in order to focus on completing my first novel. My novel is becoming quite long. I guess this shouldn’t be a surprise, since most of my favorite novels are long.
This year I’ve already read several great books. I was deeply impressed and moved by Han Kang’s The Vegetarian and Fiona McFarlane’s The Night Guest. I also finally got around to reading Megan Abbott’s early novels. Die a Little and The Song is You were both excellent.
I have continued taking graduate courses in environmental science. My goal is to identify specific areas in which I can contribute. I’m starting to think that waste management and land conservation might be good topics of focus for me. Waste is something I find myself thinking about/noticing a lot. It is a large but solvable problem that deserves more press. And land conservation is a subject close to my heart, as I have always loved being in nature and its fragility frightens me. Also, if you conserve land, you get the added benefits of species conservation and ecosystem services.
One of the classes I took last semester was a fascinating course in marine biology. Much of it was wonderful and even entertaining. There are so many weird and remarkable species in the ocean, and learning about them was a joy. Parts of the class were also pretty sad, like learning that most species of albatross are endangered. I came away feeling even more strongly that preserving our planet’s wild spaces and biodiversity is THE primary challenge facing our generation.
Meanwhile, watching videos and documentaries about wildlife has become a serious hobby. Planet Earth and Blue Planet are both excellent. There’s also tons of amazing footage on YouTube. Below are a couple of my favorite videos of sea creatures:
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.