Archive for the ‘environment’ Category

Palm Oil and orangutans

September 2, 2009

In a quick little, but important news item that caught my eye, it seems that 20,000 orangutans were killed/poached or removed from their natural habitats in Indonesia over the last 10 years, all illegally, without one prosecution. According to the article, fewer than 50,000 of the endangered animals remain (of the Bornean variety, only 7,300 of the Sumatran orangutans).

International trade in orangutans is forbidden under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), and orangutans are protected in Indonesia, where it is illegal to kill, capture, transport or even injure one of the rare apes.

And yet, the killings continue. “The problem is, the law is never enforced, largely because the Ministry of Forestry has never shown any interest in serious wildlife or habitat protection,” says Sean Whyte, director of Nature Alert.

As to why so many orangutans have been killed, it basically boils down to one word: greed. It’s not the orangutans themselves that have commercial value. Rather, it’s the land that they live on, which is being burned down to make room for massive (and often illegal) palm oil plantations. Palm oil is a common ingredient in many processed foods. Around 90 percent of the world’s palm oil comes from Indonesia and Malaysia.

Processed foods? Well, that’s o.k., right? Not exactly. It doesn’t look like processed foods are healthy for you either, but that’s a different story.

What about the palm oil plantations? From the Scientific American article:

The palm oil plantations are “miles and miles long,” he says. To make matters worse, “it’s a monocrop that destroys the soil. When satellite imagery is taken of the region, you see scorched earth where the forests have been destroyed.”

Hardi Baktiantoro, director of the COP [Center for Orangutan Protection, puts that into context, with the following prepared statement: “The palm oil industry must be one of the worst, maybe even the worst, environmentally damaging industries in the world.”

Granted, I’d like to see some numbers that support Baktiantoro’s claim, but I suspect he is not far off. So, orangutans are destroyed to plant an environmentally damaging crop, largely to make foods that are likely not healthy for us. This doesn’t sound like a winning situation to me. Granted, there are probably people whose livelihoods may depend on the plantations, but with work, environmentally safer work could be found or created.

In the meantime, how can you help? As the article suggests, check the ingredients on the food you buy and stay away from palm oil. Cadbury’s has already promised to remove palm oil from their chocolate due to consumer pressure from Europe. We here in the U.S. can have certainly have an impact if we put our minds to it. The orangutans will thank you. That is, I’m sure they would if they could track you down and, well, speak.

Thanks for not using palm oil

Thanks for not using palm oil

Stimulating park

August 17, 2009
Joshual Tree National Park early spring

Joshual Tree National Park early spring

The picture above is from a little trip we took to Joshua Tree National Park a couple of years ago and shows a few of the Joshua trees for which the park is named in the foreground. Really a wonderful trip. The U.S. has a pretty extensive national park system that covers a wide array of unique scenery and habitats. As Obama just underwent a whirlwind tour of a few national parks, I figured it would be interesting to see how the national parks fit into Obama’s picture. The national parks received 589 million dollars in stimulus from the stimulus bill. That was for roads and some infrastructure. There is also 146 million for trail maintenance, etc., etc.

One question the GOLP earlier raised were concerns on what good funding the parks under a stimulus package would be? The idea is that you pretty up the parks, or what have you and then you are done; what has been done to help the economy?

Our national parks were largely neglected under Bush, so, every little bit to get our parks back up to snuff is a good thing. There are all sorts of opportunities for maintenance of buildings, roadways, etc. This is work which, albeit temporary, could help keep people employed long enough to last out the effects of this recession. As an example, check out the projects planned for the Great Smoky Moutains. The work being drawn up there means jobs. In the end, all of us benefit from having a well maintained park system housing some of the true wonders of our planet.

Run, maybe?

June 13, 2009
Cougar maybe from Chino Hills State Park

Cougar maybe from Chino Hills State Park

A new study of 185 cougar attacks suggests that in some circumstances it may, in some circumstances, be better to run when encountering a mountain lion out on the trails, provided of course you don’t go stumbling around on uneven terrain or rocks looking like a wounded animal. You might as well ring a dinner bell for the big cat. So what do the numbers say? From the article:

half of the 18 people who ran when they were attacked escaped injury. The study also found, however, that those who ran had a slightly higher chance of being killed in an attack—28 percent (five) of those who fled died as a result of injuries, compared with 23 percent (eight) of those who remained motionless during big cat attacks. About 39 percent, or 28 people, who moved away slowly when approached by a mountain lion escaped without injury.

On the other hand, people who froze were the least likely to escape injury when a mountain lion attacked. Only 26 percent of them escaped. They also had the greatest frequency of severe injuries: 43 percent of those who stood still in the face of a lion were badly injured compared with 17 percent of those who fled, according to the study.

So there’s some pretty complex risk analysis to undertake when encountering a cougar. Well, let’s see, if I run there’s a slightly less risk of serious injury, but a slightly higher risk of death if things go awry. Thirty nine percent chance of getting away by moving away slowly. What to do? “Wait a minute guy, I’m figuring out my options here.” One thing of course, is that we don’t know all the specifics of all these cases, but I suspect that letting the cougar know you are aware of its presence and walking away slowly, especially if the terrain is uneven, might be the best bet. It certainly looks like just remaining motionless is not the best option.

A detailed listing of cougar attacks in California can be found here. The 2004 attacks (or attack, it looks as though one of the deaths may have been a heart attack) occurred behind the backyard of a friend who used to live there, and where we had previously hiked. My friend had probably seen one of the mountain lions on a previous hike where he was alone. My friend saw the cat on a hill, watching him. He slowly backed up and got out.

I have not had any encounters myself. The closest encounter I’ve had in California was staring down a coyote in Chino Hills State Park where I occasionally do some trail running. The above picture is from the Chino Hills State park web site, so there are also mountain lions there as well. Other mammals in the park are here.

Of course, we are visiting and encroaching on their home. This was their home before humans even got here. Statistically, it is still very rare to be attacked by a cougar, but one does need to be aware of their presence when in their home and be smart.

The blue legacy

January 19, 2009
Coral reef gleaned from google.

Coral reef gleaned from Google.

Well, we’ve come down to the last day of Bush’s Reign of Incompetence. I don’t know about you, but I’ll have a small little party at the house to celebrate. Eight years of misdirection, secrecy, lies, and extremely bad choices. But there was one glimmer of hope. At least one pearl amidst the muck. The Decider’s decision to set aside 3 large national monuments in the Pacific ocean. I’ve blogged about this upcoming decision before. It is great news that this has been signed into law.

There are quite a few environmentalists who state that this does not make for the the years of neglect and outright havoc wreaked by this administration on the environment. Very true. But it is, at least, something positive on which we can build. Something perhaps that Obama can use. In fact, not too long ago, a plea went out asking Obama to stop eating fish. He really could use the Presidency as a bully pulpit to call attention to the plight of our oceans and to effect changes to reverse the course of destruction of the oceanic environment.

I know you’re wondering what you can do to leverage these beginning steps towards preserving a blue legacy and to have healthy oceans. One of the simplest things of course is to minimize use of plastic and to recycle otherwise. The oceans are full of the stuff, also discussed here. The other is to minimize the amount of fish you eat and to use the Marine Steward Ship as a resource into deciding what fish to eat that are coming from sustainable fisheries. Be sure to check for the MSC blue label when buying fish.

Fish are a healthy source of protein (when not laced with all the pollutants we’ve dumped in the oceans, of course), but if we’ve killed them all off, that’s not going to be very helpful. I hope we’ll see some more leadership from Obama in this area. I realize that he’s got a lot on his plate and am realistic about just how much he can accomplish, but the power of the bully pulpit to influence public thinking is something he could do right now.

Energy conservation and taxing gas

January 15, 2009

Well, we have some good news about Americans. A recent survey indicates that we Americans are concerned about and motivated towards energy conservation. These are the results of only 2164 and I don’t know how the sampling was done, but it does seem encouraging nonetheless. The reasons for the motivation are two-fold. Cost savings (especially in this economy) and a moral obligation to do things such as reduce the contribution to climate change. From the article:

While saving money is by far the most common reason why people take energy-saving actions — including insulating their attic, caulking and weather-stripping their home, setting their thermostats to more energy-efficient levels and buying a more fuel-efficient car — large numbers of respondents said they were also motivated to reduce global warming, by the desire to act morally, and by taking energy-saving actions that made them feel good about themselves. By more than a 2-to-1 margin, respondents also said they believe that making changes to reduce their energy use will improve — not diminish — the quality of their lives.

The main barrier to towards taking positive steps is the start up costs. I can supply a personal example. I carpool right now, but would rather take the train to reduce dependence on gas and oil and to not have to sit in traffic. However, the train is considerably more expensive than just carpooling and so unfortunately the financially sound decision is to keep using the car. On top of that, the other member of the carpool does not have convenient access from the train station to work, so at least one person has to drive anyway.

One interesting idea one of my family had was related to gas prices. The idea was a flexible gas tax. When gas prices are lower, as they are now, a higher tax rate kicks in, with money going towards infrastructure and mass transit. When prices go up, the rate automatically falls accordingly. This would have the benefit of keeping what people pay for gas relatively stable (I don’t know, say around $3.00 /gallon) and provide incentive to use less (effects on pollution, some on oil supply, traffic, etc.), either through driving less, carpooling, or mass transit. One problem with this idea is that when gas prices are high, less money will be coming in from this source towards mass transit. That’s something that would need to be addressed. But overall, I think this tax idea is a pretty good starting point on which to base some discussion on stabilizing gas prices, providing incentive to use less, and raising money for infrastructure. Maybe we should send Obama this idea. Any thoughts from readers?

In which I support Bush

December 30, 2008

Back from vacation, so I thought I’d renew my blogging activities with a cold hard smack. I support our President. Oh, he’s done a terrible job, lied to get us into an unnecessary (and very expensive) war, tirelessly sought to undermine our civil liberties, wreaked environmental havoc across the land, sullied our national standing in the eyes of the world, showed no leadership in energy policy, displayed total incompetence when it comes to economics, education, world affairs, handling disasters, and leadership in general. The catastrophe which has been Bush’s Reign of Incompetence will require years for recovery. But other than that, he’s been great!

One place where this administration has the potential of actually doing some good though, is in regard to the oceans.

Read on!

Hazardous news

December 13, 2008

The LA Times had an interesting story today in the science section today. Apparently the EPA, under the direction of Bush, is exempting an estimated 118,500 tons of hazardous waste annually and allowing industry to burn the waste as fuel so it doesn’t count as hazardous waste. From the article:

Susan Bodine, the EPA’s assistant administrator for solid waste and emergency response, said in a statement that the rule eliminated unnecessary regulation and promoted “energy recovery” without sacrificing human health or the environment.

But Ben Dunham, associate legislative counsel for the nonprofit advocacy group Earthjustice, said that “everything about this rule-making was flawed,” including “the logic that says, ‘If you can burn it, it’s not a hazardous waste.’ ”

That’s pretty much the extant of it in this report. Sounds like no big deal, right? The waste gets burned, it’s gone, and nobody gets hurt, right? That is one of the problems with science reporting in mainstream media. There are many unanswered questions here. What sort of waste will get burned? What will be the residue left after burning? It also stands to reason that some of the byproducts of burning is going to be emissions into the air. What sort of emissions?

Of course it turns out one can get a little more information about this online. The Earth Justice site also has a little story about this here. From this article:

“Everything about this rulemaking was flawed,” said Ben Dunham, Associate Legislative Counsel for Earthjustice. “From the backroom industry request for the rollback, to the process that hid the identities of the facilities from affected communities and ignored data showing increased toxic emissions, to the logic that says ‘if you can burn it, it’s not a hazardous waste.'”

The agency justified the new rule by claiming that emissions from burning waste are not “likely” to differ from emissions from burning fossil fuels. But EPA offered no data to support that claim in their proposed rule, and admitted that some emissions could be higher.

“Many of these wastes are already being burned for fuel by licensed, trained, and closely regulated professionals in incinerators designed to eliminate toxic emissions,” Dunham added. “This rule allows hazardous waste generators — including many with terrible environmental records — to simply throw their hazardous waste in the company boiler.”

Admittedly, a group called Earth Justice might be considered somewhat biased, but the statements made seem entirely reasonable. The EPA has even admitted that some emissions may be higher than fossil fuels. Looking at the pdf link has a little more information. Out of 173 tests, 32 showed more toxic emissions than the worst fossil fuel boiler, with emissions including benzene (a known carcinogen) and toluene.

Now I do happen to think this is a very bad idea, but just another in a string of very bad ideas coming out of the Bush administration. But whether or not you agree with that, I think it is reasonable to ask why we are not seeing more media coverage of something like this. Plus the coverage we have is very sparse and lacking any depth. This just got slid way under the disproportionate coverage of the Illinois governor, cabinet selections, etc. (yes, those things are important also, but don’t need to be every story). This deserves wider public discourse and is just one example of why we need to work at more effective communication and public scientific literacy.

Bag plastic

December 11, 2008

There is a little matter which I haven’t seen too much discussion about recently, so I thought I’d throw this out there.
A plea has recently been shouted out concerning the use of plastic bags. We read:

If you love the outdoors, and I really mean this, you’ve got to say no to plastic bags. Plain and simple. It is totally out of control.

Trillions of plastic bags are used annually worldwide. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reported that Americans discarded more than 3.3 million tons of polyethylene bags, sacks and wraps in 2005. Of those, only 5.4 percent were recycled.

You can see why there’s an island of plastic trash the size of Texas floating in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

From a 2004 article, we read:

Macdonald, who is also an underwater filmmaker, said he has seen
albatross parents fly huge distances to feed their young a deadly diet
of plastic bottle caps, lighters and light sticks.

“The sheer volumes of plastic in oceans are staggering,” he said. In
recent years Algalita researchers have sampled a huge area in the
middle of the North Pacific, and found six pounds of plastic for every
pound of algae.

About 250 billion pounds of raw plastic pellets are produced annually
worldwide and turned into a tremendous variety of products, from cars
and computers to packaging and pens.

A more recent story on plastic pollution can also be found at The New York Times.

When I lived in Germany for a while, at first I did find needing to bring my bags for groceries quite the hassle. But, you know, I got used to it and it became the most automatic and natural thing to do. We are on a personal level, resurrecting that habit here in California when we shop, to keep away from collecting so much plastic (in addition to minimizing buying water and other juice bottles). Habits can be picked up by the general public from example, and we can hope that the cumulative effect will eventually have some positive impact. So that is a little something anyone can do to help with the environment. BYOB! Bring your bags!