Week 11: Environment & Society Part 2

Environment & Society Part 2

I thought the second half of this book was structured very differently from any other books we’ve had all semester. This section looked at nine critical and examines each of them in turn using a sample for each approaches. Each chapter begins with a short history of the object followed by a discussion of ways in which the the object present a “puzzle” in our current society and then presents a different, opposing point of view. The authors provide many points of observation for exploration, rather than problems in these chapters in two parts. First, while many parts are obviously linked to problems with human involvement, not all human relations with non-humans are problems. Second, this structure allows room for people to think seriously about how different things in our world have their own unique characteristics. This gives opportunities to break away from the environment as an undifferentiated generic problem. In this way, it allowed me to not rank the problems in order of importance but how each topic has their own level of attention due to certain concerns that we do not always associate them with.

Chapter 9

This chapter focused on carbon dioxide, and how in our natural cycles was not a problem due to photosynthesis for plants as well as the carbon cycle from animals. In the history of the carbon dioxide, it states “living things have the ability to influence the biochemical characteristics of the Earth, often in ways that change the conditions to which they must adapt in order to survive.” Which is a textbook-like quote that shows that we must adapt to the environment we have created due to our actions. The carbon dioxide puzzle states: carbon is everywhere and in a constant state of flow, which makes it hard to capture, pin down and isolate which makes its impacts often distant in time and place from its sources, and that carbon dioxide is extremely sensitive to our economic activity, which makes our transition to a cleaner alternative to carbon dioxide-emitting fuels extremely difficult, or as the authors described as “like an operation on conjoined twins rather than a mere amputation.”

Chapter 10

This chapter focuses on the trees, a perennial plant with a woody structure that have 100,000 species worldwide, and encompassing a quarter of all living plant species. Trees have a complex relationship with humans, as trees has been present on Earth long before humans, as they are fundamentally symbolic for people, there are also a very materialistic part of human history. There are ways to replace what we have removed from our environment, unfortunately it takes years to decades to get a tree to get to its original state. By 1980, it was estimated that almost a fifth of the world’s forest was lost over a relatively short period, mostly due to deforestation by humans. The puzzle of trees states that: trees reveal many things about human activity (agricultural revolution, urbanization, and industrialization) as well as how overall tree cover and composition of forested areas have been transformed dramatically by human activity. This also included how trees are so engrained in our market and political economies.

Chapter 11

This chapter focuses on the wolves, and how as a species carry cultural significance and how the public’s perceptions as well as the negative connotations they carry. In earlier times, wolves were domesticated and essential towards hunting and companionship versus present day how humans value the wolves enough to allow them to thrive (such as they’re threatened species but we have some conservation teams working on bringing them back) as well as the social constructions that accompany the wolves.

Chapter 12

This chapter focuses on the use of uranium and the way humans have abuse this metallic element. This radioactive heavy metal has a violent history for the use of nuclear technology, such as the Manhattan Project: a research and development undertaking during World War II that produced the first nuclear weapons. It was led by the United States with the support of the United Kingdom and Canada. As a result, the United States dropped a nuclear bomb on Hiroshima, Japan that resulted in a radioactive fallout killed approximately 150,000 people. Currently, the nuclear focus splits in two directions: continued development for nuclear arms, but much went towards “peaceful” applications (ex. nuclear power plants). To use as “long-lasting” power, we must be wary of the nuclear fuel chain, the process of changing mined uranium to electricity and described as the “cradle-to-grave” cycle that results in all of its by-products. The resulting electricity produced a significant amount of the world’s electricity usage, which they consider “relatively” clean. However, producing nuclear fuel and power follows a grave risk, pollution, and toxic-waste products that is produced at every step in the chain (if you count it would be at least 9 steps) and the threat of worst-case scenarios.

Chapter 13

This chapter focuses on tuna, and how our need to feed many people. One of the ways to fish these tuna species are caught by “Purse Seine” fishing: an effective fishing method for species that school near the surface with a large net that encircles the target catch, and after which the bottom of the net is drawn tight, thus confining the catch in the net. This style of fishing poses a threat to the surrounding organisms in the water, as well as the mammals (such as smaller whales, dolphins, turtles, etc.) that need to breathe and ultimately drown. Our value for the fish changes over time in society: including evolving tastes, technological developments and evolving right and wrong ideas that can change the way we harvest and eat tuna.

Chapter 14

This chapter focuses on lawns, and the associations of a lawn means. Lawns are not a very old cultural phenomenon, but have become a valuable for aesthetic purposes during the Columbian Exchange. This “curb appeal” have both environmental impacts as well as benefits. Some impacts include: chemical inputs and fertilizer runoff are bad for the surrounding ecosystem, that can ultimately have impacts on human health, as well as the extremely high demand for water during the summer months that increases the urban heat island effect. Alternatively, green lawns can decrease this urban heat island effect as well as absorption of carbon, although minuscule in comparison if living in a city. The turfgrass monoculture of lawns raises many questions that have not been considered due to the pure aesthetic and cultural purposes they serve in our society.

Chapter 15

This chapter focuses on bottled water and how the essential liquid is marketed commodity of bottled water for resale and consumption at distant sites as a recent phenomenon. “Spring water” was perceived to have health benefits of hot springs in Europe. Later, many descriptive words to fresh water were given labels to these bottled waters as “artesian,” “mineral,” “purified,” and ‘fortified” that are now considered elite, certainly expensive and began the reliable way to receive modern municipal tap water. Between 2002 and 2007, global consumption of bottled water grew from 34 billion gallons annually to 49 billion, representing a 7.6 percent annual increase over this five year period. This also represents the massive growing economy. Just in 2007 alone, the United States amounted to more than 11 billion dollars, which puts bottled water the number two sales position for all beverages marked, behind only carbonated soft drinks. The rise of bottled water consumption, in both wealthy and poorer countries, arises a perception that traditional and municipal water sources are compromised to attempt to keep up with the demand. To try to meet the demand, more than 30 million tons of plastic entered the municipal solid stream in 2007, less than 7% of which was recovered in recycling efforts. One quote that really spoke to me in this chapter was, “Despite being wrapped in an image of good health and clean living, bottled water has negative environmental implications.” And not to make the bottled water industry sound worse, but a quick google search shows that over 68% of the fresh water on Earth is found in icecaps and glaciers, and just 30% is found in ground water. Therefore, only 0.3% of our freshwater is found in the surface water of lakes, rivers and swamps.

Chapter 16

This chapter focuses on french fries and the monoculture, globalization and increase distance between food production and consumption of a single species of potato. These crops were essential to feed massive groups of people during many famines, but skipping forward to 1872, when American horticulturalist Luther Burbank developed what we recognize as the standard Idaho potato, the Russet Burbank. Wild potatoes are inedible, bitter and toxic, which makes is why we have monocultured the spud to mass produce into french fries. In 1921, frying potatoes was a popular method to quickly cook food that led to the emergence of new types of dining styles: drive-through and and fast-food restaurants, which exploded with popular demand. In 2000, worldwide exports of frozen potato products (90% being just fries) valued at almost 2 billion dollars. Mass production of these potatoes prove to be difficult, as they require uniformity in shape and size, as well as the insectification of cultivation, with widespread environmental implications, fertilizer and pesticides. This expectation of such homogeneous french fries leads to heavy processing of the potato in fast-food production, and what people are willing to avoid ethical precautions for production of easy-access greasy fast-foods.

Chapter 17

This chapter focuses on e-waste and our advancements in technologies that is leading us towards a “digital divide.” The category of e-waste comprises mostly of household and corporate machines at their “end-of-life” or EOL. While electronics make up under 2% of municipal solid waste, they are an area of concern for environmental groups since their “impacts are disproportionate to their volume in landfills.” Which means that, for example, the discarded electronics comprise of heavy metals in landfills (the US has 70% of the heavy metals in landfills made up in discarded electronics) and is rapidly growing part of the waste stream. Due to the way that electronics function, these products are made with materials that are hazardous to dispose of and process, often called hazardous waste. The statistics of disposal of e-waste are difficult to obtain and compare due to countries, states, provinces and municipalities categorize items differently and the varying methods for measuring measuring or estimating the amounts of e-waste they manage. Due to the rapid advancements of our technologies, people often do not consider the major environmental impacts associated with it, and can be broken down into three generalizations. First, technology innovations leads to the consumption of novel goods, often without consideration of how they will be disposed, or at least safely. Second, countries such as the United States, Europe and developed countries are the primary consumers of advancing technologies, consumption in other areas are growing, and as products reach their EOL, the anticipated overall amount of e-waste produced globally will rise. Third, technological innovations also lead to shorter life spans for electronic goods as people often jump at the next opportunity to get the best tech of the time that will work best with current software and operating systems, which puts a growing burden on e-waste globally. And lastly, as companies claim to “phase out” a particular hazardous chemical, other materials are often used in place and may also include toxins.

In return of the concerns above, we still have to address the growing problem of our current e-waste that is building up in our landfills. The Global North saw a disposal cost of hazardous materials being multiplied by a factor of 25 in the 1970-80s. In order to try to bring this cost down, the Pollution Haven Hypothesis came into view. This “haven” was a theory that holds that some countries might voluntarily reduce environmental regulations in order to attract foreign direct investment. This means that other countries looking to reduce labor costs and export their negative externalities of their production at a cheaper price targeted these “haven” countries. To prevent countries taking advantage of these “haven” countries, the Basal Convention was created in 1992. Since this convention, it has been ratified by 172 countries. The US signed the agreement in the early 1990s but did not ratify it, which posed a significantly difficult for tracking electronics and other hazardous waste, since it was the world’s largest producer of both. Since the effect of the Basal Convention, many firms and countries have shifted from exporting e-waste for disposal to exporting e-waste for recycling. This convention was also enacted to prevent the “spatial fix” – sending hazardous to other regions – of wealthy countries to try to even out the trade in e-waste and the environmental justice that it raises. E-waste is a byproduct of mass consumption societies in which technological advances combine with planned obsolescence to encourage demand.

Current Event

The warming Arctic temperatures increasingly allows sunlight into the waters below to allow phytoplankton blooms. As a result, 30% of the ice-covered Arctic Ocean have warmed and increased prevalence of meltwater pools on top of the ice that allows more light to pass through than bare or snow-covered ice. This creates an “undersea Arctic greenhouse” beneath the ice.

Read more here: https://www.sciencenews.org/article/thinning-ice-creates-undersea-arctic-greenhouses

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