Monday, May 30, 2011

The Drug Wars and Biodiversity

cocaine, poppy, drugs, biodiversity, rainforest

I heard a disturbing report on NPR this morning about how the Mexican drug war is now spreading into central America, particularly into the northern Peten region of Guatemala, which includes the site of the fantastic Mayan pyramids at Tikal. Guatemala draws fewer tourists in a year -- about a million -- than Yellowstone National Park can draw in a summer month. Here is a recent article from the Guatemala Times that describes Guatemala's efforts to draw more eco-tourists, a niche that Costa Rica has carved out to modest success.

As the NPR article points out, news of shoot outs between drug gangs, even if they are not directed toward tourists, is a sure way to drive tourists away. This removes much needed revenue from local people who could be leading tourists on jungle treks. Drug cartels are also "cutting clandestine airstrips in the Guatemalan jungle", which causes habitat fragmentation and ultimately species loss.

While I don't see an ad campaign that says "Cocaine: It's Killing the Planet" anytime soon, perhaps we in the US should recognize that our consumption of cocaine has far-reaching consequences from ruining individual lives at home to communities and environments not far away.

Here is an article about how cocaine cultivation has been ravaging the Columbian rainforest.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Endangered Species Day

The winter semester here at Boston University has just ended and this weekend the seniors will be convocating. Here, and in many other universities in the U.S. and Canada at this time, I suspect graduates will be hearing about how they can take what they’ve learned and go out and conquer the world. Graduation is a happy occasion, but I wonder how many graduates will be hearing about how an economy based on perpetual growth is unsustainable, how our present population growth is unsustainable and how the high rates of species loss, unless rapidly reduced, will doom us all. Ugh. Who wants to hear that?

But what message do we want to hear, at convocation or anytime? Personally, I would value hearing or seeing no message at all for a while so that I can think about what I do value. Think about all the times during the day when you are bombarded with ads about stuff to buy. There is stuff advertised on buses, on Youtube, in your inbox and your favorite website. (Some websites I can barely read the articles anymore because it keeps moving on me as different ads load.) Stuff to buy everywhere. Buying stuff, it would seem, is supposed to make us happy.

What is the cost of all this stuff? What is the cost of valuing stuff more than personal engagement or a walk in the woods?

I'm teaching Astronomy 101 starting next week and one thing I've always valued about an astronomical education is the perspective it gives. I know where we are in space and time.
We're in a large spiral galaxy, 3/4 of the way out to the edge and we're about 4.5 billion years old, in a universe that's just under 14 billion years old. It took 2500 years of science to be able to write that sentence. Another that has been just as hard won is: we're one of 10 million or more species who have evolved from a common ancestor over about 3.8 billion years of life on the only planet known to have life in the universe. (I'm watching some episodes of Carl Sagan's Cosmos again after many years, and Sagan, of course, was a master at helping us understand perspective.)

We share this planet with literally millions of other species and despite the hundreds of other planets discovered around other stars, we're still unique in the universe. We have abundant and varied life.

There's a new documentary called The Call of Life: Facing the Mass Extinction and I've got a short trailer and a long trailer for you below. Both versions feature provocative questions about the societies we live in and what we value. Today (May 20) is Endangered Species Day and World Environment Day is coming up on June 5. Check out the trailers below. Tune out of the perpetual bombardment to buy and instead think about what you value. There is still abundant life on Earth -- we need to start educating ourselves on how to value it.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

The Economics of Happiness

economics of happiness, ecologist, biodiversity

I stole this entire post from The Ecologist, a catch-all for environmental news from the Guardian newspaper in the UK. This looks like a timely and provocative film (we just had a forum about food security in our Biodiversity course) and it would be great to have a screening in the Boston area.

Here's is the description from The Ecologist:

A sneak preview of Helena Norberg-Hodge's epic documentary which examines how 'going local' is a powerful strategy to help repair our fractured world - ecosystems, societies and individuals

Economic globalisation has led to a massive expansion in the scale and power of big business and banking. It has also worsened nearly every problem we face: fundamentalism and ethnic conflict; climate chaos and species extinction; financial instability and unemployment. There are personal costs too. For the majority of people on the planet life is becoming increasingly stressful. We have less time for friends and family and we face mounting pressures at work.

The Economics of Happiness describes a world moving simultaneously in two opposing directions. On the one hand, government and big business continue to promote globalization and the consolidation of corporate power. At the same time, all around the world people are resisting those policies, demanding a re-regulation of trade and finance—and, far from the old institutions of power, they’re starting to forge a very different future. Communities are coming together to re-build more human scale, ecological economies based on a new paradigm – an economics of localisation.

The film hears from a chorus of voices from six continents including Samdhong Rinpoche, the Prime Minister of Tibet's government in exile, Vandana Shiva, Bill McKibben, David Korten and Zac Goldsmith. They explain that climate change and peak oil give us little choice: we need to localise, to bring the economy home. The good news is that as we move in this direction we will begin not only to heal the earth but also to restore our own sense of well-being. The Economics of Happiness restores our faith in humanity and challenges us to believe that it is possible to build a better world....
Definitely sounds like a film worth keeping an eye out for!

Friday, May 13, 2011

The Outermost House

Henry Beston, nature writing, Outermost House, biodiversity
I've just finished Richard Ellis' book, The Empty Ocean, about how we are plundering the oceans in a war that we've been waging over the last 400 years. Needless to say, we're winning. It's not the sort of book you can plow through in a few sittings because the depressing facts about this or that species being annihilated keep getting to you, whether it be cod or tuna or turtles or whales or seals... but Ellis is a fine writer and does his own illustrations, which enhance the text, and his storytelling is good enough to keep coming back to.

Ellis uses quotes from other writers to great effect and I am enormously grateful for him for turning me on to Henry Beston and The Outermost House, published in 1936. This, I've now found out, is a classic of nature writing, and details, according to the subtitle, Beston's year on "the great beach of Cape Cod".

Beston is an amiable companion and there are many intimate moments in the The Outermost House, but here is the quote that Ellis excerpts, which is what made me seek out Beston in the first place:

"We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals... We patronize them for their incompleteness, for their tragic fate of having taken form so far below ourselves. And therein we err, we greatly err. For the animal should not be measured by man. In a world older and more complex than ours they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the earth."

The semester here at BU is over... go and get caught in the net of life and time and read The Outermost House. This book really should be better known.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Ecolympics Prize Winners

Prizes, prizes, prizes! We've been drawing lots, and making people happy with a chance to pull from our prize barrel. Like last year, if you claimed the highest points, (above 200 points, and 100-200 points) you qualified for the best prizes. If you didn't win one of those, you still qualified for our other prizes. Here's the list of winners and their prizes -- congratulations to all:

Elise Phalen -- Planet Earth DVD

Jenna Dee -- Planet Earth DVD

Silpa Sadhujan -- $50 Gift cert to Taranta in the north end

Danielle Chudolij -- $50 Gift cert to Taranta in the north end

Jenn Greene -- $50 Gift cert to Ten Tables in JP

Ashley Jones -- $50 gift pass to the New England Aquarium

Kyna Hamill -- Wine-tasting for two at The Fireplace

Lisha Kaluza -- Eco-friendly yoga mat from

Aberdine Donaldson -- Eco-friendly yoga mat from

Caitlin Flynn -- $25 Gift certificate to Greenward Eco-boutique

Sarah Goodyear -- $25 Gift cert to Veggie Planet in Cambridge

Meredith Withelder -- $25 Gift cert to Taza Chocolate

Rachel Atcheson -- 2 large pizzes from Peace o' Pie

The following people won copies of the terrific and inspiring "50 Simple Things You Can Do to Save the Earth": Margo Godersky, Marli Gordon, Christina Teng, Jennifer Gilbert, Kalani McDaniel, Mallory Morales, Olivia Watts, Michelle Kwock, Sophia Fregoso and Jenna Rizzen.

Three people won copies of the nutrition book, The China Study, generously donated by the publisher: Sarah Tompkins, Jennifer Saigal and Maddy Lee. Congratulations!

Two copies of The Happy Herbivore went to: Jordan Rosenthal and Chloe Skewis. Have fun with your vegan explorations!

Six ever-useful Chico bags went to James DeCamp, Christina Brinster, Michelle So, Jennifer Kaizer, Deep Shah and Raphael Addante. Way to go!

And finally, a yummy Equal Exchange Fair Trade Chocolate Bar went to Kacha Brandonjic, Chelsea Gagliano, Amelia Sagan-Mucha, Chloe Gummer, Alexandra Knowles, Ally Hughes, Zack Johnson, Katherine Storer and Phoebe Rosenthal. Well done!

Drop by CAS 119 to pick up your prize!

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Photo Contest Winners

Now that classes are winding down we can finally start giving out our prizes. Tough deciding on the photo contest! We had trees in all kinds of different environments and at many different times of day. Our first prize is a $25 gift card to Trader Joe's, which we hope gets used for things like fair trade or organic goods, but the winner can spend it on whatever she likes and our second prize is
a triple chocolate bar set from Taza Chocolate -- direct trade chocolate (yum!). Because the judging was so difficult, we decided to award two more photos an additional Equal Exchange fair trade chocolate bar each. Thanks to all who entered.

Here's the first place photo, which we liked for its overall composition -- trees framing trees:
a classic picture of New England in the Fall by Yue Huang -- congratulations Yue!

Our second place photo is by Valerie Belding, a spooky black and white shot from Undara, Australia -- congratulations Valerie!

Our third place photo is a placid, calming scene, very close to home at Walden Pond from Silpa Sadhujan -- congratulations Silpa!

And our fourth place photo is a colorful impressionistic shot that seems to be from the middle of a forest by Danielle Chudolij -- congratulations Danielle!

Thanks to all who entered -- it was a tight race right to the end!

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Two short films about orangutans and palm oil

MacQuarrie Byrne films teamed up with students at Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Tennessee to make some short films about the present biodiversity crisis under the project title, Sixth Extinction in Motion. Here are two brief public service announcements about orangutans and palm oil, both reminding us that we as consumers can regularly vote with our dollar and make positive rather than negative changes in the environment. The first is by Maya Irvine and the second is by Sophia Chan.

Orangutan PSA from Maya Irvine on Vimeo.

6th Extinction: Orangutans from Sophia Chan on Vimeo.