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Leaf Blowers Suck. Here’s Why.

photograph of heavy duty leaf blowers in operation

As I sit writing this, I’m surrounded by the sounds of fall. The gentle whisper of the Autumnal wind, the ominous cawing of crows, and the incessant drone of leaf blowers emanating from at least three adjacent properties. Sure, leaf blowers might be among the most irritating inventions ever created by man, but could we really go so far as arguing that it’s morally wrong to use them? I’m certainly willing to try.

One common starting point for assessing the morality of an action is to ask whether the benefits of that action outweigh its costs. There are, of course, benefits to using a leaf blower. For one, they help homeowners maintain the appearance of their properties. And there’s a lot of fun to be had in wielding a loud, powerful piece of machinery. But there are also costs.

First up, they’re a neighborly nuisance – and not just because of the noise pollution they create. The blasts of air generated by leaf blowers are greater than those found in a Category 5 hurricane, and, as such, are able to kick up large amounts of particulate matter (about 5 pounds per hour). According to the Department of Environmental Conservation, this matter often includes pollen, mold, animal faeces, heavy metals, and chemicals from herbicides and pesticides. This matter can take many hours to settle, traveling surprisingly large distances and blanketing surrounding homes in the process.

But the environmental cost of leaf blowers goes even further than this. Due to the terrible fuel efficiency of their two-stroke engines, thirty minutes of using a consumer-grade leaf blower will result in roughly the same amount of carbon emissions as driving a Ford F-150 from Texas to Alaska. In fact, in California, gas-powered leaf blowers are now a larger source of smog-forming emissions than the state’s 14.4 million passenger vehicles. But while vehicles (arguably) serve an essential purpose, leaf blowers are a mere frivolity. All of this has resulted in an outright ban on leaf blowers in a number of cities in California, Colorado, Illinois, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Texas, and Vermont.

But what does this mean for the rest of us? Should we return to those pre-leaf blower days and pick up our trusty rakes instead? Not necessarily. Removing leaves entirely from your yard – even with a rake – may still do more harm than good. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, more than 10 million tonnes of yard debris went into landfills in 2018 (the last year for which data is available). When this debris breaks down in the anaerobic (that is, zero-oxygen) environment of a landfill it creates methane – a greenhouse gas that’s twenty-five times worse than carbon dioxide. If, on the other hand, those leaves are left on your property, they can do a world of good for your garden. They provide a vital habitat for all kinds of creatures including butterflies, salamanders, insects, chipmunks, toads, earthworms, and even box turtles. Despite the obvious value in preserving biodiversity, many of these creatures also make up a highly beneficial (if not vital) part of a garden’s biome. If the desire to clean up those leaves is overwhelming, then there are better ways of doing this too. Mulching or composting leaves on-site allows for this debris to break down in an aerobic (that is, oxygen-rich) environment, avoiding the production of methane. This also allows for nutrients to be cycled back into the ground, minimizing the need to purchase expensive fertilizers.

It’s important to note that, while the focus here has so far been on leaf blowing, many of the same arguments also apply to our obsession with lawn maintenance more generally. A large portion of that 10 million tonnes of lawn debris mentioned above is merely lawn clippings. Further, like leaf blowers, lawn mowers also come with an enormous carbon cost.

Close-cut grass lawns first emerged in 17th-century England as a mark of wealth and status. Traditionally, landowners sought to squeeze as much productivity out of their properties as possible by dedicating every last square foot to crops or grazing pasture. The rich, however, had such affluence that they could devote large tracts of land to an entirely wasteful endeavor – the growing of a lawn. While the original purpose behind lawns might have been forgotten, its largely wasteful nature remains. There’s an estimated 40-50 million acres of lawn in the continental United States – almost as much as all of the country’s national parks combined. In 2020, Americans spent $105 billion dollars maintaining those lawns, and consumed 3 trillion gallons of water, 59 million pounds of pesticide, and 3 billion gallons of gasoline (the equivalent of around 6 million passenger cars running for a year) in the process. All of this to merely sustain what entomologist Doug Tallamy describes as an ecologically “dead space.”

Law maintenance – like leaf blowing – does far more harm than good. What’s worse, it’s unnecessary harm. There are many alternatives to the traditional lawn that come with lower waste, lower carbon emissions, and lower maintenance costs. So throw out your leaf blower and ditch that patch of wasteful sod in favor of something else. The environment – and your wallet – will thank you for it.

Environmental Impacts of the Fashion Industry

photograph of Louis Vuitton storefront

While the designer for Louis Vuitton was probably hoping their iconic looks would be stealing the fashion hearts of the internet, it was not the powerhouse brand’s upcoming line that was posted all over the news. During the finale of one of the biggest fashion events in the world, Paris Fashion Week, while models for Louis Vuitton were in the midst of the runway, an environmental activist, Marie Cohuet, joined the models holding a sign stating “OVERCONSUMPTION = EXTINCTION.” Outside, more environmental activists from three different organizations were staging their own protest against the fashion industry’s harmful impact on the environment. Louis Vuitton was targeted specifically for its influence in the fashion industry, as well as for the brand’s recent pledge to reduce their environmental impact. The environmental group behind this protest claims Louis Vuitton is not living up to its promises — having committed to have 100% renewable energy in their production and logistics sites, and LED lighting in their stores by 2025. Are these commitments enough, however, to make a consequential impact on an environment that is becoming increasingly uninhabitable every year?

For one thing, Louis Vuitton is basing these objectives off the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement that settled on keeping global warming temperatures below 1.5- 2 degrees Celsius. This range of temperature indicates the difference between surviving the inclement weather we are currently dealing with and experiencing massive climate disasters that lead to unheard of burdens on countries and people. These two worlds look very different, especially depending on the geography of where one lives. Even at 1.5 degrees Celsius, many island nations will cease to exist, as this agreement was largely made based on the concerns of economic powerhouses, such as the U.S., that need not worry about their entire populations being swallowed by rising sea levels- just coast lines. Beyond just ignoring the potential extinction of smaller island nations, the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement are almost definitely unreachable at this point. The few goals Louis Vuitton has set for the brand’s environmental impact are not set to be reached until 2025, which is far beyond what the climate needs in reality from the industry. But, Louis Vuitton is only one brand of many in the industry, so what is the total impact of the entire fashion industry on the environment? And why should the fashion industry be at the forefront of industries limiting their environmental impacts?

Making clothes, is in fact, an extremely resource-intensive process, which consumes mass amounts of water, releases dangerous levels of carbon emissions, and depends on a wasteful consumerist business model. Every year, the fashion industry uses up such a massive amount of water that it could meet the needs of five million people. This is in a world that currently 2.2 billion people do not have safe access to clean drinking water. Furthermore, the industry depends largely upon synthetic materials, which put microplastics into the oceans, reeking negative impacts on an already vulnerable marine ecosystem. In terms of carbon emissions, the industry is responsible for ten percent of global emissions, which may rise by 50% by 2030, if it stays at the same pace. Fast fashion, a quickly growing pocket of the fashion industry, relies on a consumerist model in which one posts an outfit on social media, but then must buy a different outfit for their next post. Their clothes, therefore, are cheaply made and cheaply bought, and eventually end up in a landfill. Many of these clothes end up in an incinerator, which releases large amounts of poisonous gases and toxins into the air. Despite these statistics, the consumption of clothing is expected to rise from 62 metric tons in 2019 to 102 million tons in the next decade. These are environmental impacts that undoubtedly affect human’s health, however, there is a more direct connection to the endangerment of human life and the fashion industry.

Part of the reason fast fashion is able to sell its clothes at such a cheap price is because they do not pay the people in warehouses making the clothes a livable wage. This has essentially led to modern-day slavery practices in the production of the fashion world. Women make up the majority of the 40 million people worldwide that are enslaved in modern slavery networks and the fashion industry, from the workers in the warehouses to the collection of the raw materials, contributes to this network. The complicated supply chains that the fashion industry depends on make it difficult to track where the raw materials have come from and make it easier to hide the connection between a cute top on an Instagram model and an enslaved woman, or even child, in a dangerous factory. These factories and warehouses are often in countries that already struggle economically and therefore have populations of people vulnerable to the cheap wages and dangerous working conditions due to the risk of poverty. This present-day situation can undoubtedly be traced back to the roots of colonialism and the imperialist missions of the “Global North” against countries in the “Global South.” At the root of the fashion industry’s ethical issues lie not only environmental problems, but also complex race and gender issues. After all, the impacts on the climate will be felt first by the most vulnerable populations in the most vulnerable countries, both geographically and economically.

In order to address the mounting problems facing the fashion industry, some brands have turned towards more sustainable methods of making, packaging, and transporting clothes. For example, technology has allowed for companies to use recyclable fibers, which lack the toxins found in other sources. This also requires far less water than it would using the usual cotton material. Oftentimes, however, these sustainable brands can be extremely expensive, carrying a price tag of $550 for a simple white cotton t-shirt. This is simply unattainable for most of the population. One brand, CHNGE has managed to create a brand whose ideology is centered around sustainability, ethical practices, and activism. Their clothing is 100% carbon neutral as they protect hundreds of thousands of trees, they use an organic cotton that saves 500 gallons of water, and use recycled packaging for their clothes that can then be recycled again. They also own the factory that produces their clothing and guarantee fair and safe working conditions for their employees. They manage to do all of this while keeping the price of their shirts around $30.

Whereas brands like CHNGE seem to be taking active and important steps towards offsetting the impacts of their clothing production, it seems other brands like Louis Vuitton are failing to recognize the precarious place the world finds itself in. While individual fashion brands, and ideally the fashion world as a whole, can pledge and promise to decrease their environmental impacts, the impending climate doom does not rest solely upon the shoulders of fashion CEOs. Surely, they have a great responsibility given the impact of the fashion world, but our continued survival is largely dependent upon world leaders to make and enforce the real and necessary changes needed to prepare for the future. While the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement may have been historical in the global community’s acceptance of the need for change towards the climate, that agreement is failing. World leaders, from both poles of the globe, need to work together in a way that the world has never seen before in order to prepare for the worst that climate change is sure to bring.

“Tenet” and Intergenerational Environmental Justice

image of Tenet movie poster

[SPOILER WARNING: This article discusses a number of plot points of Christopher Nolan’s latest film.]

Earlier this month, Christopher Nolan’s highly anticipated new movie, “Tenet,” released on virtual platforms. Tenet includes time travel, weapons of mass destruction, and a stereotypical Russian bad guy. The film follows the story of an ex-CIA agent living in the present who must prevent the destruction of all of human history by future generations. The protagonist’s main mission is to obtain and hide an algorithm created in the future which will enable future generations to reverse cause and effect through a process called entropy inversion. Though the plot tackles many complex concepts, it leaves one relatively unexplored: the motive of future generations to completely annihilate their ancestors in order to reverse the uninhabitability of earth.

Is time travel ethical? If possible, would it be unethical for future generations to interfere with the actions of their ancestors? How should we interpret Tenet’s intergenerational environmental justice?

“Tenet” is by no means the first film to examine moral quandaries of time travel. From “The Terminator” to “Groundhog Day,” time-travel movies, often drawing inspiration from novels, have been steadily present since the 1980’s. These films often give the protagonist the ability to time-travel in order to save the world, re-examine their decisions, or even to remedy their past mistakes. The ethical questions posed by these films often focus on the protagonist’s decision to time travel, rather than the morality of time travel more generally. And usually, those who time travel face potentially grave consequences on their present and their future, depending on the decisions they make. As time travel is currently impossible, and there lie many logical paradoxes within the concept, this question has not been heavily debated. However, for the sake of argument, assuming that time travel is possible and that it is possible to change the past and impact the future, when might doing so be ethical, and when might it not?

If one believes the best moral outcomes from time-travel are positive impacts on the future, time-traveling would be considered morally positive when one time-travels in order to maximize social good for the most people. Though time travel is in many ways, linked to cause and effect and therefore consequences, it could also be considered morally positive if it is a way for society to gain knowledge. Such knowledge could be based on our distant past and ancestors to more accurately understand history. Time travel could also be used, if not to interfere, to solve mysteries, either on an individual or collective basis.

“Tenet” applies time travel to flip the normative narrative of intergenerational justice on its head by asking the question: what if future generations could fight back? Intergenerational justice appeals dominate ethos marketing of the modern environmental movement, especially concerning climate change. At the core of these appeals is the central moral tenant that it is wrong to predestine harm, in the form of environmental destruction, for those who have no agency in this decision. While many see our obstinance to curb climate change and environmental destruction as a deep irrefutable moral harm to our descendants, whether or not future generations have a moral license to retaliate is a different question entirely. Such a question though, is not dissimilar from many ethical questions we currently face in regards to self-defense, retribution, and sacrifice.

“Tenet’”s choice to interplay climate change as the reason for the future’s desire to destroy the past makes the question of its morality far more complex, as it is a reaction to a ruined world rather than an offensive aggression. Future generations fighting back might even appeal to those who view environmental destruction as the defining moral issue of the current age. If viewed in this manner, the “war” occurring in “Tenet” is less between the past and the future, and more between environmental destructors and the victims of this destruction. Those familiar with environmental justice and its modern movements, might see the antagonists as fighting for environmental justice, and see the protagonists as the true wrong-doers.

Of course, “Tenet”’s time travel plot comes with the caveat that future generations are incorrect about “The Grandfather Paradox” and in reality, will cause humans to go extinct if they succeed in obtaining the Algorithm. However, assuming that future generations were not incorrect, and the environment could be “reset” by wiping out the human ancestors, is doing so unethical?

The answer to this question might rely on knowing the full consequences of doing so. Inability to predict consequences is often the dilemma inherently posed by time travel. However, if wiping out human history leads to even greater future human stability and success, those with consequentialist leanings would likely believe future generations’ desire to obtain the Algorithm is moral. However, the unknown consequences of using the Algorithm might be enough for many to argue that destroying human history is not justified. Even in a scenario where humans faced inescapable extinction, wiping out the humans of the past with no guarantee of survival in the future might be too large of a risk to take.

From a retributive standpoint, wiping out the humans of the past might be justified even if it did not necessarily lead to better consequences in the future. If one views the antagonist future generations as activists fighting for environmental justice, one could argue that such extreme actions are justified, as past humans deserve to be wiped out. Some radical environmentalists, such as those in The Voluntary Human Extinction Movement, suggest that one day, humans should initiate their own extinction in order to restore environmental stability. Though many disagree with this stance, the antagonists in “Tenet” are not trying to end human existence, but rather, to further it, by erasing the past. In a way, the core issue at the heart of the film is whether or not our past is worth sacrificing for a better future. The attempt to erase the future envelops many of the same moral wrongs that climate activists take with our current destruction of the environment: robbing individuals of the ability to survive. The actions of the antagonists might also be viewed as self-defense rather than retribution, as they are fighting back in order to undo the wrongs which have occurred.

Lastly, the question of the antagonist future generations decision to wipe out the past, rather than to convince past generations to change their actions, or to focus on wiping out the biggest contributors to environmental destruction, might be viewed as immoral. “Tenet” takes place in modern day, with the future antagonists set many generations in the future. Countless environmental organizations, individuals, and nations have joined forces in the past few decades to combat climate change and environmental destruction in general. Some of us are trying, despite the pushback. In addition to this effort, the question should also be asked: who is truly responsible for the environmental destruction of which future generations now suffer?

It is rather easy to subscribe to narratives which purport that we are all equally responsible for climate change and environmental destruction, but this way of approaching responsibility in environmental collectives fails to recognize both the quantitative differences in our impacts, as well as the existence of economic power and political structures which give individuals relatively little control over their impact on the environment. This is not only problematic in wiping out all individuals in the current era, but also those in the past, who had no knowledge of nuclear arms, climate change, or pollution. The lengths to which the antagonist future generations are willing to go, by wiping out all of their ancestors, punishes pre-industrial humans for the actions of their descendants. Though humans have been committing large-scale environmental destruction arguably since the dawn of agriculture, both the invention of nuclear fission and the rapid release of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere really kicked off the type of long-term environmental destruction which will likely be responsible for the majority of future generations’ grievances.

Should future generations fight back to preserve humans from extinction? If so, who and what should they sacrifice to do so? Though time-travel is not yet possible, it need not be for us to ponder such ethical questions. The best approach to answering these questions can likely be found in turning to the modern environmental justice movement, and the activist ethics employed in fighting for a healthy environment for those in the modern era, as environmental destruction has consequences now as well as the future.

Under Discussion: Can In Vitro Meat Help Fix What Cattle Ranching Has Broken?

photograph of cows in empty arid desert

This piece is part of an Under Discussion series. To read more about this week’s topic and see more pieces from this series visit Under Discussion: In Vitro Meat.

It is now clear that growing edible and delicious meat outside of an animal is not merely the stuff of science fiction. In vitro meat, aka cell-cultured meat, aka green meat, aka clean meat, has arrived. Regardless of how we want to brand it, our meat future could be slaughter-free if consumers express their support for it with their pocketbooks. There are many arguments that support this shift. Concerns about animal welfare are right out in front — our current system of industrial animal agriculture is terribly cruel and inhumane. There are also very compelling arguments related to environmental degradation and sustainability. The ways in which industrial animal agriculture harms the environment are too numerous to name and explain in this space. It will be useful to narrow the scope, so here we’ll emphasize environmental problems caused by cattle ranching.

People that live in rural areas are quite accustomed to seeing cattle grazing in vast pastures. In this setting, cattle seem wild and undomesticated. Their living arrangements appear to be peaceful — they have lots of room to move around, abundant fresh water to drink, and all the grass they can eat. They have the autonomy to socialize with peers or to venture out on their own. They also seem insignificant in the scheme of things. No one would think that the lifespan of a cow, or even a collection of cows could change the course of history. Because we have so much experience observing cows in these serene pastoral settings, many people do not know the life trajectory of most cows, whether they are destined to produce dairy, or their flesh will end up on a plate as someone’s dinner.

Though we may regularly see cows out on the pasture on our evening walks, we may not notice that they are not the same cows from year to year. Many cows do spend some portion of their lives grazing freely, but when they are roughly one year old, they are sold and shipped to Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations — CAFOs. Even before they get to this point, cows make quite the impact. When land is set aside for grazing, it often becomes significantly degraded. Overgrazing diminishes the nutrients in soil. Cow manure is also high in salt and causes high salinity levels in soil. Grazing cattle cause soil compaction, which makes it more difficult for water to penetrate. Ultimately, cattle grazing leads to desertification — the soil becomes dry and infertile. Desertification leads to significant loss in biodiversity. The problem intensifies when tropical rainforests are chopped down to make room for grazing. It becomes difficult if not impossible to recapture what was lost. Preserving the quality of our soil is itself a compelling reason to switch to in vitro meat.

The environmental impact of cattle ranching increases when they are moved to CAFOs. Modern cattle traverse many more miles than their ancestors did prior to the introduction of industrial animal agriculture, but they do so in trucks. When data is reported on the topic of contribution to greenhouse gas emissions, transportation emissions are frequently reported as entirely distinct from the emissions caused by animal agriculture. This fails to take into account the fact that many greenhouse gas emissions caused by transportation are attributable to transporting billions of animals from local farms to CAFOs and then from CAFOs to slaughterhouses.

CAFOs are unpleasant places for many reasons, not the least of which are the horrific acts of animal cruelty performed at these locations. They are also the source of a great deal of pollution. The government has zoning regulations for them because of the harms that they cause. According to the United States Department of Agriculture,

“A CAFO is an AFO with more than 1000 animal units (an animal unit is defined as an animal equivalent of 1000 pounds live weight and equates to 1000 head of beef cattle, 700 dairy cows, 2500 swine weighing more than 55 lbs, 125 thousand broiler chickens, or 82 thousand laying hens or pullets) confined on site for more than 45 days during the year. Any size AFO that discharges manure or wastewater into a natural or man-made ditch, stream or other waterway is defined as a CAFO, regardless of size.”

CAFOs came into existence to commodify animal bodies in order to maximize profits. Tremendous numbers of animals are kept in these spaces and they produce a lot of waste. Members of human communities understand that human waste can potentially make us sick, so over the years we have created and continue to improve upon sewage systems and waste treatment facilities. Animal waste created by CAFOs is not treated as the same health threat. Animal manure from CAFOS frequently ends up in both surface and groundwater and makes other living beings in the area, including humans, quite sick. These facilities are often located near poor communities and communities of color, raising concerns about environmental racism.

The system of industrial animal agriculture also contributes to climate change in two significant ways. The first is that it produces lots of greenhouse gases. The Humane Society, drawing on work from The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, reports that industrial animal agriculture is responsible for

“9% of human-induced emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2), 37% of emissions of methane (CH4), which has more than 20 times the global warming potential (GWP) of CO2, and 65% of emissions of nitrous oxide (N2O), which has nearly 300 times the GWP of CO2.”

CAFOs burn lots of fossil fuels for the purposes of heating, cooling, and ventilating facilities as well as to run farming equipment used in the production of feed for the animals. As manure decomposes, it releases methane, and it stands to reason that facilities that house lots of animals are going to produce a lot of methane. Methane is also produced during the digestion processes of ruminant animals such as cows and goats. Ruminants have multiple stomach chambers that allow them to digest in such a way that they can consume tough grains and plants. Fermentation processes occur in the stomach chambers which produce methane that these animals release into the air.

The second way that our system of animal agriculture contributes to climate change is the role that it plays in deforestation; it contributes to the cause of global warming while also demolishing our planet’s natural defenses. Healthy forests are critical for clean air — during photosynthesis trees and other plants take in carbon dioxide and produce oxygen. Human beings are eliminating forests at an alarming and expanding rate and animal agriculture is the primary cause. Trees are chopped down to allow room for cattle to graze and to grow soy to feed to cattle and other farm animals. The World Resources Institute predicts that only 15% of the Earth’s forest cover remains intact. As a result of deforestation, ecosystems are destroyed, species are pushed into extinction, and greenhouse gasses warm the planet and acidify our oceans. Each of these considerations on its own is enough to justify producing meat in vitro instead.

Industrial animal agriculture also uses alarming amounts of water. The production of beef, in particular, is very water intensive. It takes nearly 1,800 gallons of water to produce a single pound of beef. Many countries suffer from water scarcity. This can happen because of drought, poor water infrastructure, or pollution in water supply. The result of this is that many people and other animals do not have enough clean water to drink and to use in other ways that sustain life and health. When we consider the impact of the water consumed by raising cattle for food, taken together with how much water raising cattle pollutes, it is clear that, if human beings won’t give up eating red meat, producing meat via an in vitro process is much more compassionate and environmentally sustainable.

This argument has focused on beef but raising other animals for food presents related environmental challenges. In an ideal world, recognition of these problems would motivate everyone to become vegetarian or vegan. We do not live in such a world. Due to the efforts of dedicated animal rights and welfare advocates, vegetarianism and veganism are on the rise. Unfortunately, commitment to this lifestyle has not grown as sharply as has the worldwide demand for meat. If we are going to stop these environmental problems before they get even worse, we’ll need another strategy. In vitro meat may be an important part of that strategy.

Water Scarcity and Aldo Leopold’s “Land Ethic”

photogrpah of cattle at the foothills of the Rocky Mountains

On March 2nd, the journal Nature Sustainability published the results of a multi-layered study that explored the effects of human behaviors on water flow patterns in the western United States. Overall, in addition to cities diverting river waters for public use and the evaporative effects of global climate change, the study’s authors pointed to one particularly large culprit responsible for water resources shrinking in the west: the cattle industry. As they explained, the data indicates “irrigation of cattle-feed crops to be the greatest consumer of river water in the western United States, implicating beef and dairy consumption as the leading driver of water shortages and fish imperilment in the region.”

To anyone with a passing familiarity with environmentalist conversations, this news might be unsurprising; the resource-intense requirements of industrialized agribusiness have been well-documented, but this study is the first of its kind to demonstrate an empirical connection between specific business practices and specific, localized environmental effects. But the news fits well with well-known facts: agricultural irrigation accounts for as much as 90% of water use in many western states and at least a third of that is devoted to the raising of livestock – the study’s connection between beef/dairy products and increasing water scarcity problems makes sense. Much of the concern for developing ‘sustainable’ agricultural practices is precisely to counter the looming shortages of necessary resources as various interests and industries continue to compete for ever-dwindling supplies of water, land, and the like.

Solving this puzzle about resource-competition is complicated, particularly given the size of the economic supply chains involved in these industries. As environmental engineer Megan Konar explains, it is not enough to simply scold hamburger-eaters in Florida about the ramifications of their dinner on fish habitats in Colorado, “This is a collective action problem; we can’t leave it up to individual consumers to solve it.” Although it is true that widespread personal divestment from meat and dairy production chains might provoke bigger, structural change, such individual commitments are unlikely to be coordinated into sufficiently powerful statements. Instead, say the study’s authors, organized political action is required.

Interestingly, the temporary solution that the Nature Sustainability study’s authors call for might also be familiar to environmentalists: “offering financial incentives for the voluntary, temporary, rotational fallowing of farmland as a means for reducing consumptive water use.” The notion that, rather than farming via methods known to cause environmental degradation, farmers should be paid by the government to not farm (or to farm in more environmentally-conscious ways), is a long-standing element of American agricultural policy, both specifically regarding western water stocks and generally in a variety of other areas. By providing economic incentives via governmental subsidies, policymakers seek to encourage better farming habits overall.

Unfortunately, it’s unclear that such incentives actually work – or, rather, it’s never been clear that their positive effects last once the money runs out.

Writing in 1949, Aldo Leopold reflected on a five-year policy enacted by the Wisconsin legislature over a decade earlier to pay farmers to adopt various practices designed to rehabilitate regional topsoils; as Leopold explains, “…the offer was widely accepted, but the practices were widely forgotten when the five-year contract period was up. The farmers continued only those practices that yielded an immediate and visible economic gain for themselves.” From this and other examples, Leopold developed his now-famous contrast between ethical rules predicated on economic values and those built on what he called “value in the philosophical sense.”

To Leopold, any sort of policy operating from the assumptions of the former could never truly motivate genuine perspectival change because it cannot cultivate the sort of ethical and aesthetic appreciation of the land as a thing to be valued for its own sake. If natural lands aren’t viewed as valuable in-themselves, then Leopold was convinced that economic debates about their use will inevitably allow for all manner of incremental, self-interested arguments about the ‘usefulness’ of a particular resource to trump the overall importance of the system of which that resource is an inextricable part. Against this, Leopold argued for a “land ethic” that would limit how people could act in various ways regarding natural areas and habitats; much like how we cannot ethically murder one innocent human simply to make the lives of several other people better, Leopold insists that we cannot desecrate natural environments simply for the purpose of making the lives of people marginally better in arguably unnecessary ways.

So, although financially incentivizing western water-users to seek out alternative production methods might function as a temporary stop-gap measure for limiting the current ecological impact of the beef and dairy industries, it is impractical to think that such policies would promote the sort of environmentally virtuous outlook – what Leopold called “the ecological conscience” – that could promote genuinely sustainable practices over the long haul. And, ultimately, this is the same conclusion that the Nature Sustainability study draws: long-term “water security and river health in the western US will depend on the willingness of urban and rural water users to collaborate in design of demand-management strategies, the ability of political leaders to secure funding to implement those strategies, and the willingness of beef and dairy consumers to reduce their consumption or select products that do not depend on irrigated cattle-feed crops health.” That is to say, economic incentives on industries won’t have lasting effects: we all must do our part, individually (via our consumption choices) and collectively (through policy making and other socially-regulative measures), to promote ideal sorts of non-destructive environmental outcomes.

In the mid-20th century, Leopold prophetically warned that “By and large, our present problem is one of attitudes and implements. We are remodeling the Alhambra with a steamshovel, and we are proud of our yardage. We shall hardly relinquish the shovel, which after all has many good points, but we are in need of gentler and more objective criteria for its successful use.” Here at the start of the 21st century’s third decade, Leopold’s call for a “Land Ethic” is as pertinent as ever.

Grassroots Environmentalism and California’s CAPP

photograph of air pollution with cars on highway and yellow smoke in city

In 2017, the Californian legislature passed a bill that led to the creation of the Community Air Protection Program (CAPP). By promoting the development of community emissions reduction programs and collecting data about their success, the CAPP aims to provide practical guidelines for improving California’s air quality. Most notably, the program’s focus is specifically committed to equipping local stakeholders with the tools and resources needed to improve their own communities, providing $15 million in grants to build air monitors and promote outreach. Full reports from the first ten focus districts are expected in October of this year, with additional communities being selected for participation in early 2021.

Although it might seem inconsequential when compared to wildfires, hurricanes, or other headline-breaking results of global anthropogenic climate change, air pollution carries with it a host of demonstrable health and environmental problems beyond mere aesthetic unpleasantries. For decades, smog and atmospheric pollution has been linked to decreased capacities for plants to conduct photosynthesis, to the decrease of wild animal populations as they either migrate or die, and the generation of “acid rain” as atmospheric gases interact with the water cycle, thereby eroding the landscape and further increasing stresses on local flora and fauna. In humans, air pollution exacerbates a variety of respiratory diseases, contributing to the deaths of over seven million people; furthermore, recent studies have linked increased atmospheric particulates to increased symptoms of dementia and cognitive decline, to obesogenic outcomes, and to a spate of negative mental health results. Multiple studies have indicated a link between air quality and skillful performance, such as that of chess players, baseball umpires, and students; one recent report suggests that the installation of relatively inexpensive air filters in elementary school classrooms correlates with increased test scores to roughly the same degree as reducing class sizes by thirty percent. High levels of air pollution even seem to have a detrimental effect on computer operations.

Improving air quality, however, is a complicated task, given both the accessibility of the atmosphere and the high number of stakeholders with potential influence. Industrial factories of all sorts generate tons of atmospheric waste each year, mining operations release numerous atmospheric pollutants as byproducts, and landfill emissions are surprisingly large as organic waste decomposes. But, perhaps unsurprisingly, the single largest human activity that contributes to atmospheric pollution is the burning of fossil fuels, whether in industrial operations or by private consumers – such as in the frequent use of passenger vehicles. According to a 2014 report from the Union of Concerned Scientists, “cars and trucks account for nearly one-fifth of all US emissions, emitting around 24 pounds of carbon dioxide and other global-warming gases for every gallon of gas” – when planes, ships, freight trains, and other forms of transportation are included, that calculation increases to nearly thirty percent of the country’s emissions.

While some have touted various replacements for internal combustion engines to reduce fossil fuel emissions, such solutions are expensive and often not viable options for many; instead, California’s CAPP initiative aims to empower concerned citizens to pursue realistic solutions to improve local air quality. Through town hall meetings, workshops, canvassing, and other active forms of communication, CAPP districts have worked to identify and seek funding to fix specific problems noticed by local citizens, such as the Feather River District’s need for newer school buses with cleaner-running engines, San Bernardino County’s concern to limit truck traffic through residential areas, and the South Coast District’s desire to regulate petroleum refineries more strictly. By maintaining a focus on ground-level concerns, the CAPP program hopes to increase long-term effectiveness of these environmental regulations by fostering participation and support from the communities most affected by poor air quality conditions.

However, given the scope of the air-pollution problem, small-scale action will be insufficient to counter its most pernicious long-term effects; consequently, the Environmental Protection agency has, historically, implemented regulatory measures on a broader scale. Additionally, some states – like California – enact even more strict fuel economy standards to encourage citizens and companies to remain mindful of environmental concerns. However, such regulations inevitably raise the hackles of the industries they are designed to constrain; automakers, in particular, have balked at California’s high expectations for engine efficiency (intended to curb emissions), citing concerns about manufacturing expense and market fairness. The Trump White House has recently made moves to repeal environmental regulations on a large number of industries, including loosening many rules designed to mitigate atmospheric pollution, and the president indicated last autumn that California’s ability to set its own emissions standards will also be revoked in support of the auto industry (state lawmakers have already issued legal challenges against this move).

So, while conflicts over large-scale regulatory measures continue on the federal and state levels, pilot initiatives like the Community Air Protection Program offer a promising opportunity to promote small steps towards improving the air quality for local communities, empowering neighborhoods to make long-desired positive changes to contribute to the massive project of caring for the environment. As with so many other examples, may this be a grassroots-level movement that grows into something far greater.

Is This an Emergency?: Why Language Matters

image of emergency road sign

Last September, the UN Secretary General António Guterres delivered an address on climate change, calling it a ‘climate emergency’ echoing the terminology employed by the prominent climate scientist Prof Hans Joachim Schellnhuber.

The language we use matters a great deal; and itself has ethical implications.

Given the severity of the situation: warnings coming from a raft of recent reports from agencies such as the IPCC and the UN, have scientists sounding the alarm that human society is in jeopardy from the heating atmosphere, the accelerating decline of the Earth’s natural life-support systems, and other forms of ecological destruction, it is manifestly necessary to speak about the situation with an appropriate level of alarm and urgency.

There is a concern that the media have, for decades, failed to adequately report the dangers of greenhouse emissions and the scale of their increase. In fact it seems clear that some of the mainstream media – primarily right-wing and conservative presses – have been chronically under-reporting on the dangers of climate change while deliberately subverting the problem with skeptical reporting.

Many governments have been treating the issue with the same mixture of obfuscation and ignorance. In the past several years some have become much worse, notably America under Trump and the Australian government now under Scott Morrison. Morrison, recently responded to the impassioned speech given to the UN Climate Conference by Greta Thunberg by saying that “the climate change debate is subjecting Australian children to “needless anxiety.”

The first ethical implication of language choice is about truth. If we have any hope of addressing this issue, then the truth must be widely, openly, and adequately acknowledged.

It is the responsibility of government, in its role as sovereign state, to inform its citizens. Democratic governments have this responsibility in virtue of the fact that the people are needed in order to grant authority legitimacy. To function in this role, citizens must have the relevant knowledge to choose the right candidates and correctly instruct them in how to serve the community. (A free press has a democratic responsibility in this regard as well. A free press is only free when its agenda is not set by special interests.)

Recently, The Guardian made a decision about changing some of the language it uses to report on the climate and ecological emergency, introducing: “terms that more accurately describe the environmental crises facing the world.” Instead of “climate change” the new terms are “climate emergency, crisis or breakdown” and “global heating” is favored over “global warming.”

We’ve used the term ‘climate change’ for several decades in reference to what is also often called ‘global warming,’ or sometimes ‘the greenhouse effect.’ But, to many, this terminology makes the problem sounds like a gradual, natural, and passive event. But in reality we are now using it to denote something that has been caused and is rapidly being accelerated by human actions – so is neither gradual, nor natural.

António Guterres told the gathering of leaders in September 2018: “We face a direct existential threat,” adding that we have until 2020 to change our behavior or “we risk missing the point where we can avoid runaway climate change, with disastrous consequences for people and all the natural systems that sustain us.” Given that this is the case, the language of crisis and emergency is not alarmist – it is warranted and necessary.

Professor Richard Betts, of Britain’s meteorological monitoring organization, has called for a change from ‘global warming’, which many have also noted sounds rather too benign, to ‘global heating’ which more accurately reflects the reality of what is happening.

Future life on Earth and future and present human society is now in serious jeopardy. With so little time left to turn the situation around, we are going to have to start acting like it is an emergency, but complacency is still rife, and it is now the greatest barrier to urgent change.

Language has been part of the complacency, and changing the language we use is necessary for action. To combat the problem, we first need to understand our situation, and to do so we must be able to name it. We also need to reorient ourselves in the way we talk about our current predicament to reflect the fact that the effects of climate change are happening now.

The outcomes will be so bad that there is no other mode to adopt than emergency-mode if we are to mobilize in time, and our language needs to reflect that. We can talk about ‘climate change’ and then turn back to topics of ordinary life – we can drift away from ‘climate change.’ But we cannot as easily drift away from an emergency. Once you start talking about an emergency, about breakdown and collapse, then it is much harder to turn away. We are in a crucial moment – a window of opportunity, a vanishing window, we can ill afford to turn back to other, everyday subjects.

We need for our language to be unequivocal about the seriousness of the situation; to help reduce cognitive dissonance and allow us to conceptually make the connections we need to make in order to act. That is why the question of what we are calling this is a moral question.

The analogy of the burning house, evoked by Thunberg in her speech, is apt here:

The building is on fire, and all occupants need to move very quickly or face serious injury or death. If in that situation I merely say to the occupants something like: “it’s getting warmer in here” instead of something more like: “the house is on fire, quick, run for your life!” then I have essentially lied to them through omission and am guilty of moral negligence.

I can say I didn’t at first know it was on fire, or did know but didn’t believe the situation to be serious, it will still be surprising that it has taken so long to reach the conclusion that the building is on fire and we must get out. That is, as soon as one comes to the conclusion that we are in very serious trouble, one immediately wonders how we can possibly be in such serious trouble when we could easily have prevented from becoming a serious problem.

On one view, our language ought to change as the changing situation demands; but one wonders where we might be if our way of talking about the situation (our way of comprehending it) reflected its seriousness from the beginning.

Those are very important questions, and the answers we can provide to them might in the long run have a bearing on our continued survival – but not if we don’t get out of the burning building now.

There seems to be a clear moral duty here for governments, the media, and whoever else is participating in the discussion to tell it like it is – to stop softening the truth. That duty is, I believe, connected with any hope we might have of taking urgent action to mitigate the impending crisis. In one sense our language-choices seems immaterial – this is an emergency, whether we say so or not. But our survival probably depends on our saying so and then acting like we mean it.

The Ethics of Sending Life to the Moon and Beyond

image of space with stars and emission nebulas

It was recently reported that an Israeli organization SpaceIL sent thousands of dehydrated tardigrades to the moon. While the capsule crashed, and thus there is no way to know for sure if they survived, tardigrades are very resilient creatures who may be able to remain alive on the lunar surface in a dormant state. With this admission, a large host of ethical issues have been raised in the aftermath. These include the ethics of sending earth species to foreign environments and the ethics of private space organizations being able to act in space without regulation.

With regard to the issue of regulation, aerospace engineer Natalie Panek and NASA astrobiologist Monica Vidaurri have expressed concern. Viduarri is concerned about the fact that private organizations do not answer to any protections or ethics office. As reported by Vice, she and Panek have urged for more accountability when it comes to private organizations. Mika McKinnon of Vice notes, “while not illegal, the idea that a private company could accidentally scatter living creatures on the Moon within any oversight or even disclosure is unnerving.” To resolve this issue, many have urged for new regulations and laws to ensure that careful conversations are had before further life forms are sent into space.

The issue of sending earth life to foreign environments like the Moon or even Mars is even more complicated. For decades the idea of terraforming or changing a planet or other body to make it more habitable to human life has been considered. Ethically, there may be good reasons to do this, including allowing for more space for habitation, advancing our ability to study space, and because it may help preserve the human species in the long term.

The idea is also problematic. This is partially because we can’t be certain that there is no life in some of these locations. If we seed life to Mars and there is already life that we have not previously discovered, then it has the potential to drastically affect the planetary environment and harm local lifeforms. This can be ethically problematic not only because of the harm we could inflict on extraterrestrial life and extraterrestrial ecosystems, but if extraterrestrial ecosystems are contaminated it could also mean that we lose the ability to answer important scientific questions about the development of life in the universe.

One of the concerns is the possibility of interfering with an environment that we may not fully understand and may wish to study. This raises issues beyond merely interfering with potentially already existing life. A broader issue involves affecting or changing environments in space that do not have life. This concern is raised by Vidaurri who points out, “WE made something on ANOTHER world that we do not fully understand. It has an environment, even if we deemed it ‘barren’ to any life on earth.” If we wish to engage in any kind of terraforming or significant alteration of the Moon or Mars, then we face an inherent risk of contaminating a hitherto pristine environment.

Alternatively, this raises an important question about whether environments, even lifeless ones, have some kind of moral status. For instrumental purposes, preserving a pristine, lifeless environment may allow us to study it better. However, the concern raised by Vidaurri seems to be that an environment, even a lifeless, barren one, may have some inherent moral worth and so interfering with it is morally wrong. Environmental philosophers have considered similar questions.

According to Ronald Sandler, for an environmental collective to have inherent worth it must be goal-directed since otherwise we have no clear way to determine if it has been harmed or benefited. One environmental collective which he suggests may have such worth is ant colonies. However, ecosystems as a whole, he argues, are not cohesive or goal-directed enough to possess inherent worth. If an ecosystem can’t claim to have inherent worth, then it is even more difficult to claim that a lifeless environment does. If it does not, then it isn’t obvious why it is inherently wrong to change extraterrestrial environments like the moon.

This issue is not necessarily new either. In his 1997 book Pale Blue Dot, Carl Sagan addressed the matter. Where life may already exist, he suggests that safeguarding our species by settling other planets may be offset by the danger we pose to such extraterrestrial life. But in the absence of such life, he notes “here I find myself an unapologetic human chauvinist…on behalf of Earthlife, I urge that, with the full knowledge of our limitations, we vastly increase our knowledge of the Solar System and then begin to settle other worlds.”

According to chemistry professor Michael Mautner, seeding the universe with life is a moral obligation. Since life on Earth will not survive forever, he claims that we have an obligation “to plan for the propagation of life” on other planets. He proposes a strategy to deposit primitive organisms on potentially fertile planets in order to help modify their environments and jumpstart evolutionary development. While he has noted the concern about interfering with potential extraterrestrial life that may already exist, he proposes to only target locations where life could not have evolved yet. However, this does not address the concerns of those who argue that it is wrong to modify pristine lifeless environments that may include the Moon.

In a 2009 article in the journal Bioethics, Mautner echoes Sagan’s point and the concern about modifying environments in space. Taking a more pragmatic view, he notes, “Seeding other planetary systems could prevent the study of pristine space but seeding a few hundred new solar systems will secure and propagate life while leaving hundreds of billions of pristine stars for exploration.”

Questions about the moral status of lifeless environments are going to be important as further exploration of space takes place. It joins questions like do we have the right to change environments in space to our liking? and to what extent should we take efforts to protect alien life that we may not even be able to detect? The answers to such questions may not only affect how we behave in outer space, but also on Earth as well.

The Endangered ‘Endangered Species Act’

close-up photograph of black-footed ferret

On August 12th, officials in the Trump Administration announced a set of deregulatory measures aimed at loosening the protections of the Endangered Species Act. Signed into law by President Nixon in 1973, the ESA not only prohibits the sale and/or transportation of species on the ‘endangered’ list kept by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, but also requires all federal agencies to coordinate their activities with the FWS and other regulatory commissions “to ensure that actions they authorize, fund, or carry out are not likely to jeopardize the continued existence of any listed species or result in the destruction or adverse modification of designated critical habitat of such species.” While the ESA currently protects over 1600 plant and animal species, and has been credited with preventing the extinction of the American bald eagle, the California condor, the humpback whale, the black-footed ferret, and the grizzly bear (among others), the roll-backs proposed by the White House may soon prevent the ESA from being applied in a manner that is, at all, effective.

Although the measures have been marketed as “improvements to the implementing regulations” that will help to “increase transparency and effectiveness and bring the administration of the Act into the 21st century,” conservationists have pointed out three key areas of concern. Firstly, new species that will henceforth be added to the ‘threatened’ list (one step down from ‘endangered’ status) will no longer be automatically given the same protections given to species already on the endangered list. Until now, the difference between ‘threatened’ and ‘endangered’ status was essentially just a way to indicate the species population without implying a difference of response, but this weakening will now allow for a difference in behavior. Instead, ‘threatened’ species will not warrant the same level of heightened concern. While Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt defended this move on the grounds of promoting efficiency, explaining that  “[a]n effectively administered Act ensures more resources can go where they will do the most good: on-the-ground conservation,” the proposed amendments to the ESA do not include any additional protections requiring would-be funding for ‘threatened’ species to be diverted to ‘endangered’ species. In practice, it seems far more likely that ‘threatened’ species will not be taken as seriously as they currently are – which will inevitably lead to more of them eventually making their way onto the ‘endangered’ list.

Opponents of the ESA argue, however, that the ‘endangered’ list has been padded with faulty data. Robert Gordon, a senior official in the Interior department, has argued that much of the ESA has been “federally funded fiction” that wrongly listed species as ‘endangered,’ despite their actual numbers in the wild. In a 2018 report, Gordon argued that 18 of the 40 species heralded as having “recovered” as a result of the ESA were never actually endangered to begin with and that it is simply impossible for the ESA to accomplish its stated goals. Some might argue that these numbers indicate the pressing import of conservation measures, rather than a mandate to loosen them. 

A second concern about the Trump Administration’s roll-backs surrounds the ambiguity of the phrase, “foreseeable future.” At present, the ESA defines an ‘endangered species’ as one “in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range,” whereas a ‘threatened species’ is one that “is likely to become endangered within the foreseeable future.” Whereas, historically, “foreseeable future” has been interpreted in broad terms, the new guidelines explicitly indicate that, “The term foreseeable future extends only so far into the future as the Services can reasonably determine that both the future threats and the species’ responses to those threats are likely…. The Services need not identify the foreseeable future in terms of a specific period of time.” By requiring these assessments to be made on a “case-by-case basis” for each species, the administration not only casts doubt on its concerns for administrative efficiency, but subtly allows regulators to potentially ignore the far-reaching effects of systemic issues related to global climate change

Finally, and perhaps most notably, the proposed changes to the ESA delete the phrase “without reference to possible economic or other impacts of such determination” from the Act’s implementation guidelines when considering whether to add a new species to the protected list, effectively allowing human business interests to be weighed on equal footing with the concerns of the endangered forms of life the ESA is designed to protect. Although it adds some language that sounds like a buffer for animal-welfare concerns (in that said economic information can be considered “as long as such information does not influence the listing determination” of a species), it seems like a strange move to explicitly weaken the Act while at the same time applying apparent, though less strict, reinforcement elsewhere. This is especially true given Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross’ comments about how “[t]he revisions finalized with this rulemaking fit squarely within the President’s mandate of easing the regulatory burden on the American public, without sacrificing our species’ protection and recovery goals.” The corporate preference evident in the final draft of the ESA edits lays bare its essence as a public relations patina, instead of the substantive wall of protection for endangered species it was designed to be.

Such a PR move is necessary; a poll from July of last year indicated that four out of five Americans support the Endangered Species Act and only one out of ten oppose it. Despite rampant disagreement about the existential threat of climate change, Americans are unified in their support of preserving animal species. Nevertheless, as Brett Hartl, government-affairs director for the Washington D.C.-based Center for Biological Diversity, said “These changes tip the scales way in favour of industry. They threaten to undermine the last 40 years of progress.” It is not hard to imagine how interests of particular creatures or species – whether in the foreseeable future or beyond – could be discounted when weighed against the possibility of increased profits for larger corporations.

Which means, these deregulatory measures from the Trump Administration are not only concerning in their implications for the government’s continued preference for short-term financial gains over long-term existential stability in the face of climate change, but they pose significant risks for the communities of currently-living creatures threatened and endangered by the actions of human agents. As Christine Korsgaard explains in her recent book Fellow Creatures: Our Obligations to the Other Animals, groups of creatures have value for at least two reasons: firstly, because every individual creature in the species (every token of the type) has particular interests that matter (8.7.1). But secondly, and more broadly, a collection of agents with individual goods of their own constitutes a community that has a shared good of its own (11.6.4). Korsgaard uses the example of a public park with a baseball diamond or an open-air theater as an “essentially shared good” – as something that not only happens to be good for individuals with different-but-overlapping interests, but as something which is only good insofar as it allows for the community to participate in something together (like a baseball game or the performance of a play). Applying this concept to habitats and animal communities, Korsgaard says, “When a species of animals becomes extinct in a given area because of human activities, it is a sure sign that we have been harmful to the point of fatal to those animals’ communities.”

What this means, then, is that even if we grant that the economic interests of corporations and business owners are worth measuring against the interests of wildlife and ecosystems, we are obligated to consider both of Korsgaard’s levels in our calculations. It is not simply a matter of measuring a concern for a small set of animals against the financial interests of a multinational conglomerate, but rather the collective interest of the species against the collective interest of the corporation – a comparison which may threaten to actually come down in favor of the plants and animals on the FWA’s list (provided that existential concerns outweigh simple profits).

A number of state attorneys general (including those from California and Maine), as well as environmental groups, have already promised to challenge the Trump Administration’s revisions to the ESA in court. Time will tell whose interests will ultimately win out.

On Ethically Addressing Climate Change Deniers

"Banksy is a climate change denier" by Matt Brown licensed under CC BY 2.0 (via Flickr).

Rising temperatures, acidifying oceans, melting ice caps, and heightened levels of greenhouse gases are all familiar phrases when discussing climate change. Unfortunately, so are controversy, political debate, partisan animosity, and climate change deniers. Tensions are so high on both sides that many of us are left wondering when science became a partisan issue, and moreover one which causes individuals on both sides to engage in debates which result in little to no consensus.

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Insecticidal Tendencies: Insects as Candidates for Ecological Ethics

A bluebird perched on a barbed wire fence

Our world is vanishing in ways we do not always see or have pressing interest in, let alone regard as having moral or ethical consequence. Two recent studies in France have reported “catastrophic” declines in bird populations in the French countryside, with a total of one third of birds disappearing over the past 17 years and some species seeing declines of 50-90 percent. The culprit, according to researchers, is the large-scale use of pesticides in a once idyllic part of the world now dominated by industrial agriculture and monocultural farming practices (the growing of only one type of crop). We continue to be faced with the image of “silence” Rachel Carson provided us, in her seminal work on the ecological effects of chemical pesticides, in which “spring now comes unheralded by the return of the birds.” While the “indirect” harms that pesticides have on other creatures requires complex analysis, one effect of indiscriminate use is the large-scale destruction of avian food sources, forcing their starvation or migration elsewhere. Germany and France, another study in 2015 found as part of a larger European trend, have lost 80 percent of their flying-insect biomass over the past 30 years. The lesson is, or should be, that causality in nature does not stop where we want it to. Continue reading “Insecticidal Tendencies: Insects as Candidates for Ecological Ethics”

Ethical Concepts in the Age of the Anthropocene

photograph of floating ice in Antartica

We all know, more or less, that Planet Earth is in trouble, that there is an overwhelming scientific consensus that an environmental catastrophe systemic, complex, and more and more irreversible is already underway.

We are facing an unprecedented concatenation of changes to the Earth. Global warming from fossil fuel pollution is causing ice caps to melt and oceans to rise, threatening to inundate many coastal habitats within decades. Climate change is causing more frequent and more extreme weather events in the form of violent storms and severe droughts. Destruction of ecological systems is leading to the collapse of insect and bird populations which are necessary for the pollination of plants including human food crops. Oceans are filling up with plastic waste, and toxic synthetic substances can now be found in every part of the world. A “biological annihilation” of wildlife in recent decades shows that the sixth mass extinction in Earth’s history is underway and it is more severe than previously feared, according to new research.

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Canada’s Indigenous Water Crisis

Photograph of mountains and trees framing a lake

Canada is one of the world’s most water-rich countries. The Great Lakes, shared between Ontario and the US, account for eighteen percent of the world’s fresh surface water. And yet, many First Nations communities within Canada suffer from lack of access to clean water. There are currently 72 long-term boiling water advisories in effect on First Nations’ reserves. Justin Trudeau’s 2015 election platform included ending all such advisories by 2021. As of July 17, 2018, 67 such advisories had been lifted, while 34 had been added. At the same time, residents of the communities whose advisories have been lifted are concerned that lack of overhauling local infrastructure may endanger long-term prospects for clean water. Continue reading “Canada’s Indigenous Water Crisis”