Tag Archives: environmental activism

“Windfall – the Booming Business of Global Warming” by McKenzie Funk

This book (another grab from the “new arrivals” shelf) overwhelmed me. I am woefully ignorant about business and finance, and my ignorance increases with scale. Most of what Funk discusses is global in scope.

Funk is a journalist, and it is harder for me to evaluate his work than, for example, that of a scientist like Richard Primack (author of Walden Warming, see this blog, June 23, 2014). I feel like I need to enlist my local cast of experts about this book, and worry that in some subject areas, I don’t know anyone.

If you decide not to read this book, you should at least look at the seven-page epilogue, entitled “MAGICAL THINKING”. Towards the end, Funk states, “Climate change is often framed as a scientific or economic or environmental issue, not often enough as an issue of human justice.” Good point.

Funk divides climate impacts into three categories – melting (problems of the Arctic), drought and sea level rise. Four chapters are devoted to each of these subjects.

The warming of the arctic puts Canada in a position of incredible strategic importance. Canada will “benefit” in many ways (longer growing season, open Northwest Passage, etc) but I put “benefit” into quotes because so many complications can be foreseen. One is sovereignty. Will Canada become the 51st state of the US? What will happen if our perceived interests diverge? Will the US “let” Canada chart an independent course?

And what about Greenland? I was barely aware of it as a country. I thought I was doing well to have some acquaintance with Iceland! Will Greenland become an agricultural state? A major source of strategic minerals? A tourist Mecca? We can safely assume it will emerge from obscurity.

On the subject of drought, I found Funk’s chapter on the Sahara most interesting, because he considers both desertification and human migration. Are the Africans currently trying to get to Europe “climate refugees”? Under what circumstances will the countries of Europe decide to admit “climate refugees”, and how will they be integrated? Will the richer Northern countries help their poorer, more southerly neighbors (like, say, Malta) that often receive the largest number of undocumented refugees? Can workers from Africa fill important needs in the US or northern Europe?

Many questions, few answers…

In his chapters on “the deluge”, aka sea level rise, Funk considers some technological fixes that might allow adaptation to climate change. One is genetic engineering of insects (starting with the mosquito) to inhibit malaria and dengue, and keep the tropics livable. Most surprising (to me) and actually, maybe somewhat feasible is the introduction of sulfur dioxide into the upper atmosphere to mimic the cooling impact of volcanic eruptions. This is referred to as the “Mount Pinatubo” proposal, because of the cooling which followed Pinatubo’s 1991 eruption.

I recommend this book because most of us need to think and act “bigger” on climate change.


“A Fierce Green Fire: the Battle for a Living Planet” – a documentary history of environmentalism (part 1)

I didn’t see this film, but a friend offered the following discussion (very slightly edited):

The film “A Fierce Green Fire” (by Mark Kitchell, 2013) was shown on April 25 at an event organized by two municipal “green” committees, followed by a discussion led by a professor in a local college’s Sustainability program.

The movie organizes  environmentalism into five historical phases: (1) land protection following the loss of California’s Hetch Hetchy Valley (1902), leading to the Sierra Club’s entrapment to approve Glen Canyon Dam in the 1970s, (2) awareness of deadly pollution – by DDT (Rachel Carson ‘s “Silent Spring”) and the toxics in Love Canal – 1970s, (3) ecological lifestyle alternatives promoted by the Whole Earth Catalog and proponents of renewable energy sources, and including Greenpeace activism, to which I would add Callenbach’s “Ecotopia” (1975), (4) globalization: mostly efforts to save Amazon rainforest by organizations large (World Wildlife Fund) and small, and (5) opposition to Climate Change by the likes of 350.org.  There were close-up interviews of many current players and survivors.

There was much to discuss, but I’ll concentrate on one issue that bothers me exceedingly.  Several people bemoaned the difficulty of recruiting young people into political activism.  A proposed explanation is the difficulty in CONNECTING with young people – since they have lost the ability to read/listen/study: an effect of media overload, media dumbing down and the technological poisons of background music, electronic games, texting and face-booking.  I certainly recognize this disconnectedness in my college students: they have lost whatever interest students of my generation had in taking notes in lectures, and their attitude toward the history of my subject (genetics) borders on disgust.

I propose this insight: my undergraduate major was Philosophy and Science, and my senior thesis was titled “The Influence of Immanuel Kant on Physiology.”  In his “Critique of Pure Reason” (1781), Kant proposed the existence in the brain of a priori organizing capacities such as space and time.  Noam Chomsky’s Universal Grammar would be a recent proposal for such an organizing capacity.  

My suggestion is that the brain LACKS an organizing capacity for history.  It’s an acquired taste, and only rare people have it – and have the capacity for it.  Human evolution may even have opposed it, since survival often required instant and instinctive reactions to dangers that would have been delayed by historical reflection.  If a capacity for appreciating history is problematic, then so is the capacity to plan for the future.  Thus the problem of Environmental History.

Possibly related is the blandness of recent history.  Technology may be roaring ahead, but great upheavals that engaged most of the public (world wars, depressions, natural disasters) have not occurred in the lifetimes of most people living today.  So the disturbing events that might gravitate people toward a consciousness of impending climate (and other) disaster aren’t happening.  We’re like the frogs in a gradually heating kettle of water.

“Bag It – is your life too plastic?” – a documentary film about pollution and the environment

I admit to having put the screening of this film onto my calendar out of a sense of obligation. It was organized by friends. I’m “supposed” to support our local student environmental group. Despite vigorous promotion, the audience was relatively small, and consisted (I think) mostly of people already on board with various environmental causes. People like me…

Sometimes “preaching to the choir” is a good idea. For me, this film clarified the issue and filled in some gaps. I was convinced to take the “problem” of plastic more seriously. The impacts of plastic on marine life are very severe. Plastics that are recycled are generally NOT  returned to their original use, but emerge as lower level products. Repeat recycling of plastics is probably not taking place. (This is in decided contrast to, for example, steel or aluminum, which can be repeatedly processed for high quality uses.)

The movie came out in 2010. By now, an update would be helpful. Some important changes had already taken place and were included, particularly the decisions by major toy makers to remove certain chemicals from their products. 

Parts of the movie are preachy, and it has become more and more clear that telling people to give things up is not going to advance the environmental movement, which needs to stop calling itself that, anyway. (Any social movement needs a new “handle” after 25 years.) Nagging is a turnoff. Better to emphasize health and quality of life. And avoid cliche! “Our grandparents were happy without plastic.” Duh. They were also happy without polio vaccine and window screens. No choice!

Is my life “too plastic”? Looks like most of the plastic in my trash is food packaging… I wish I had more options – I have fond childhood memories of returnable glass milk bottles. 

“Bag It” is too long at 74 minutes. I’m afraid my attention wandered. Two of my friends wrote comments on this subject. With their permission, I will post them shortly.