People across UK are enjoying plenty of sunlight and great weather. They are reversing into parks and seaside locations to make the most out of this COVID-19 summer. However, it is strictly important that people understand that they need to take their litter home, as claimed by district councils on this article by the Guardian.
The parched lands of Rajasthan, in India, has finally saw an end on the drought of their rivers. This goal was accomplished by the local community, by imitating the ecosystem management techniques of the beavers. Now they face some hostility with the local government, example of when the needs of the public and the politicians are crossing their path.
In another post, we talked about how we were complying with the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. A new study has found that, if we decide to invest in a Green Recovery for our economy after the global pandemic, we could benefit from an additional 0.3 ℃ decrease in global temperature by 2050.
The Republic of Congo managed to pass a new law to reinforce existing policies for the management of its tropical forest, hotspot of biodiversity in the green belt of Africa. The code of changes was developed during the past eight years in partnership with ClientEarth in order to propose new forest management practice that do not interfere with the lives of the many indigenous tribes living in the forest.
Undoubtedly, coffee is one of the most common beverages consumed by human beings daily. The origin of this habit are remote and often forgotten but the pleasure of a hot cup of coffee in the morning has been delighting us for centuries now. Does this drink imply the environment? Let’s find out, as always, together.
From bean to cup
Coffee is a particular plant that enjoys plenty of sunlight. Not surprisingly, it grows only at tropical latitudes, between the tropic of Cancer and the tropic of Capricorn (respectively 23.5° N and 23.5° S). After being planted, the first harvest of coffee beans usually happens after 5 years of growth. During these 5 years, farmers have to look after the plants, make sure pests and diseases are kept at bay, investing money while waiting for their first revenue.
Speaking of revenues, the coffee industry is the second most-traded commodity, after oil. However, out of the estimated $60bn per year generated, 10% is earned by farmers, who often are paid back all the time and risks they took. Investing always comes with a risk: common practices of preventing lose, such as differentiating, do not apply to this sector: farmers can decide to grow different crops, different techniques, but eventually, the only product they will try to sell are coffee beans.
To summarize a very intricated chain from bean to cup, here is the journey of coffee (many intermediate steps have been removed to keep it simple).
Coffee beans are picked and washed
Coffee beans are dried and processed
Coffee beans are graded and stored while waiting for a buyer (often overseas)
Coffee beans are shipped to the destination
Coffee beans are inspected before being delivered to customers
Coffee beans are roasted, packaged and delivered to customers (supermarket, coffee shops, restaurant)
The final product (coffee) is sold to customers
Stages of coffee production: form bean to cup
The social impact of coffee
Before going into the environmental impact of the industry of coffee it is worth mentioning the social impact that this popular drink has. Like in many other industries, the price of coffee fluctuates based on supply and demand. In this uncontrolled market, some unexpected catastrophes have happened in the last century. When supply is low, many farmers from poor countries see an opportunity of making money because of high prices for demand and so they rush into redesigning their farms to dedicate them completely to coffee production.
After a decade or so, once the plants start to produce beans regularly, the demand will lower, and so the price per kilo of coffee beans, resulting in increasing level of poverty in parts of the planet that already have a lower index of GDP. So, as it is often the case, decisions and habits of consumers of one side of the world have strong implications on the quality of life in less fortunate parts of the planet. After a catastrophic fall in prices in the early ‘90s, schemes such as FairTrade developed: their goal is to establish a direct relationship between farmers and retailer so they can get a fairer price for their products and buyers can monitor the production and processes more closely. More about it here.
Environmental impact of coffee
Coming back to the environmental aspect, what could be the major implications for our planet caused by the coffee industry?
Given the long journey from the plant to our cup, it could come naturally to think about the embedded emissions of the whole freight. However, coffee is a product that is (probably) never travelling by plane and it can be stored for a long period of time, therefore it can easily be included in the list of tropical treats that, in a low carbon future, we could keep enjoying.
But, as it is always the case in agriculture, the main issues are recurring and are the following: deforestation, landscape modification, excessive use of fertilizers and pesticides.
WWF estimated that 2.5 million acres of forest have been cleared in central America for coffee farming. The social impact of coffee in rural communities is huge, often is the only source of potential income, therefore villagers in poor countries try to maximise the profits by increasing the number of crops cultivated. To do so, they need the space occupied by the largest carbon storage of the planet: the Amazon basin.
Landscape modification occurs because of the change in the techniques of coffee farming. I had the opportunity of visiting a few coffee plantations in Indonesia and they were all respecting the “old” (more appropriate to say the “real”) way of farming: they let the plant grow in something that resembles a huge group of bushes and they did not clear the way to make space for machines: farmers were walking around these bushes and when the time came they were hand-picking coffee beans. This farm setting not only respected the natural cycle of the plant but also encouraged biodiversity: the plantations are full of insects and animals, that are able to find food and shelter in this thick labirinth. I also believe that such dense vegetation offers also some climate mitigation in this particularly hot belt: I always visited them during the hottest time of the day but when entering the plantation it was easy to notice the freshness, something that resembles a walk in a deep forest on a summer day.
On the other hand, modern plantation, as well as clearing forests to make space for crops, also remove the shade provided by these trees, leaving the plant in full sunlight to encourage and accelerate speed.
The excessive use of fertilizers and pesticides is a direct consequence of biodiversity loss. I do not know which are the potential parasites of coffee plants but I am sure that trough evolution, coffee plants have developed defences against these attacks. And, like most of the plants, the pesticides used by them are insects, fungi or animals that are attracted because they feed on the parasite that is feeding on the plant itself. I really don’t think it is smart to use chemicals to keep away parasites that are attacking the plant only because we removed vegetation that provided life opportunity to natural predators of these pests. The best solution, as always, would just be to let nature be, harvest a bit less but better.
I don’t want to pass the idea that farmers are bad people: they most certainly do that to provide for their family that usually live in unstable and poor condition. In a sustainable future, I see people who don’t need to maximise profits because of hunger by depleting the natural environment: these people will be educated and the food production will be shared more evenly. Once again: we have food, we just don’t share it properly.
Can we change this trend?
But before that, we can still play our part. I will never stop insisting on how much difference we can make as individuals and consumers. DO NOT BUY COFFEE WITHOUT A CERTIFICATE. If it has a certificate, dig deeper, check if the producer is involved in some kind of schemes to help farmers. If we support a sustainable market among unsustainable choices, the future will be made of sustainable products. Do not be scared of spending some extra money on that: when there is a new discovery it is usually affordable by wealthy people. By purchasing these goods, they fund research aimed at making the product more affordable to the general public so producers sell more and more people have this product available. If we spend some more on products that are cruelty-free, do not travel by air and are organic, we will finance this market, hoping it will be the major and more accessible market in the future.
European Safary Company has interviewed Mario Cipollone, team leader of Rewilding Apennines. Plenty of reasons to check this out. First, Mario works with his team, on the mountains of central Italy, across the region of Marche and Abruzzo. Rewilding Apennines is a project that aims to increase biodiversity and preserve species in this fragile area, increasingly affected by human activity. The concept of eco-tourism, in the form of financing conservation projects through sustainable and educational exploration of these areas are a key aspect of how Mario, but many more, are doing their bit to preserve natural beauties.
Have you ever wondered about trees lifespan? How old can a tree “grow”? Hard to say, studies shows how a tree could last longer in deep forests rather than in a public garden, being the own of its kind. However, I found quite interesting the article published on The Guardian about the Methuselah tree, in California, which last week was dated to be nearly 5000 years old.
Countries across Europe, having passed the first outbreak of the pandemic COVID-19, have begun to plan for the future, in order to boost their economies. In the UK, the population is loudly asking for a green recovery, not only to revitalize jobs and incomes, but also to preserve the planet. Apart from the 2030 national and international goals, it appears that the UK population is becoming increasingly aware of the challenges of climate change: why don’t we all start to consider and assess the impact of food production? Can you play your part? Inside track provided a list of 5 thing we could all do together, as well as a recap of the political agenda of the last and next years
Could we possibly achieve net-zero emissions by keeping the power supply stable? Can solar and wind energy fuel an energy intensive planet such as Earth? They could but the transition would be likely to require some time, during which we would be still burning fossil fuels (also to have energy to produce solar panels, what a paradox). However, even though we didn’t grasp yet the exact way, hydrogen could be the answer to our problems. The only one? It could, unfortunately. Carbonbrief, quoting a study made by the National Grid, claimed that the UK can only meet its targets of net-zero emissions by 2050 by switching to hydrogen.
Happy August everyone! Our monthly appointment with the “Book of the month” comes back today.
This month the book I would like to propose is titled Feral – Rewilding the land, sea and human life, by George Monbiot.
The world “feral” may stimulate different reactions in people, depending on what it refers to. For plants and animals, a feral species is one that descends from domesticated species but then goes on living in the wild. Similarly, a feral child is one who was brought up in an environment without human contacts: experiments, brutalities and everything monstrous you can think of make their way into this example.
In this book, the concept of feral is applied to the way we approach and engage with the natural environment. The author does not spare to share moments of his professional and personal life, showing how his career and his passions have made him become a more “wild” human being.
A concept that I think about every day ever since I had the pleasure of reading this book is the “environmental boredom”. George Monbiot explains how his interaction with the natural world made him become “bored” of nature: to explain this, the author proposes a series of example that will show you how, even though living in Wales provides you many possibilities to actively engage with the environment, he soon realised that he needed much more.
I believe many of us will find comfort in these words and reading through the pages will be much like a self-reflection exercise on how we try to lead green-lifestyles but our actual connection to Nature itself is resolved with a few picnics every now and then.
After the initial self-reflection on these themes, the author goes on explaining the concept of rewilding, a concept that lately (probably also because of this book and some other) is becoming increasingly popular, at least in Europe.
In a few words, rather than “managing” an ecosystem, the best way to encourage biodiversity blooms in certain areas would be to let them be and in some cases that would require us to reintroduce some species that have been removed for human safety/needs.
Example for terrestrial ecosystems in the UK is the reintroduction of wolves in the forests. Wolves would keep under control the number of deers, reducing in return their grazing and the consumption of vegetation. All the possible side effects are taken into consideration and some successful rewilding projects with the reintroduction of wolves in Europe are presented in support of the thesis.
Sheep grazing, the importance of beavers, land management, agricultural policy, rewilding of the Sea: you will find everything in this that looks more like a manual than a book, for a vision of a wilder but richer future for our Lands.
Get the book on Amazon (but consider buying it locally)
Get the book on eBay (But consider buying it locally)
Did you miss our previous appointments? Catch up here -> Link.
Climate change is a complicated issue. Its reasons are to be found across different disciplines and become clear only when approaching them with a wide knowledge of multiple topics. This could discourage many of us but is there a way to make this approach simpler? Let’s find out, as always, together.
In case you didn’t notice, the Earth is getting warmer. In 2014, the International Panel on Climate Change published a report claiming that “each of the last three decades has been successively warmer at the Earth’s surface than any preceding decades before 1850”.
The two main factors that influence the temperature of any planet of the solar system are their distance from the Sun and the composition of their atmosphere. The reason why our Planet is getting warmer is that, as a consequence of human activity, we increased the level of Greenhouse Gases (GHG) in the atmosphere, resulting in less sunlight that is reflected back in the space. The increasing sunlight is “trapped” in our atmosphere because GHG make the atmosphere layer’s thicker and so the Earth’s temperature increases.
So far everything seems easy to comprehend. The problem starts when we try to assess which human activities are contributing to increased levels of GHG.
To summarize some of them here is a list of the ones you might be more familiar with:
CO2 emissions (from cars, manufacturers and everything you can think of that requires burning of fossil fuels).
Agriculture and livestock.
The list is much wider, that was just to give you a general idea of what we are talking about. So, considering that each one of these human activities has several implications, how do we deal with them all at once, in order to tackle the main issue?
A solution was provided in 2004 by two American academics Steve Pacala and Robert Socolow. Their idea, named “the carbon wedges approach”, aims to break down a complex subject such as climate change into smaller wedges, all part of the big problem, to deal with them separately. Apparently, the name came up because when representing the idea on a chart, they seem to take down the temperature increase by wedges.
They recognised that each solution would take time and effort, both from institutions and private citizens (which, in my opinion, will always play the bigger part: complaining does not get you anywhere, acting does. I’m trying with this blog, what about you?)
They took as a target the main goal of trying to reduce the Earth’s temperature increase to 2℃ by 2100. They also calculated that each wedge would bring a reduction of CO2 emissions of 1 Gt in 50 years (assuming that emissions rate do not sharply increase in different sectors. For example, if we stop flying but we increase the number of cars in the street without finding an affordable replacement for diesel and petrol, it is not going to be a smart solution).
At a current rate of growth of GHG emissions, if we don’t intervene, by 2100 the Earth’s temperature is expected to increase by ≃4℃. If we apply 7 wedges, reducing in 50 years time GHG emissions by 350 Gt, we would have by the end of the century a situation of +2.7℃, which is the same we would face if GHG emissions wouldn’t increase at all and would stay stable at the current rate.
The approach shows that if we really want to meet our target and limit the Earth’s temperature increase, 7 more wedges are needed, to bring down the emissions to 700 Gt in the next 50 years: in that scenario, the Earth’s temperature would still increase but only by 1-2℃, which according to the scientific community should not lead to catastrophic scenarios.
The mathematic is basic, the resources seem to be available, so what is the problem?
Why do we avoid the problem?
The problem is that we have a lifespan of 60-90 years and we are not able to see or imagine further than that. Why would a middle-aged man care about the next century? Even having children seems not to work on them. The pleas of many young environmentalists of last year did not bring any change, if not in the popularity of a few of them: they got meetings with the UN, a widespread media coverage, they probably made many of their age aware of these issues, but concretely nothing has happened, besides of some more promises or plans that from time to time we hear from national governments.
If we wait that our generation grows old enough to be in the position of making decisions, it would probably take us 20 more years or so, and this will all be precious time that we are wasting.
Also, WE need to make some decisions: enough with videos of polar bears and ice sheets, we all know they are starving because of us, but I would not swap anyone of my species to save a bear if I had to choose: not because I dislike them, simply because my primordial instinct makes me care more for my fellow relatives than other species.
Think about trees: they care about them, fungi, bees and a few insects. They do not fight for our rights, they simply get along with life, and if you would know how much struggle a tree has to go through to fully develop you would stop complaining about not having money to buy a new iPhone.
Coming back to the main point, each one of the wedges represents a problem and must be matched with a solution. I named 4, so here are my proposals for them.
CO2 emissions. Easy but hard. It is probably the easiest of them: we need to leave the fossil fuels in the ground and replace them with renewable sources of energy. And I talk about energy production: an electric car won’t be enough as long as we produce electricity by burning coal. The hard part is that probably the richest and wealthiest corporations of the Planet won’t be really happy to end their business just like that. Should we compensate them by handing them over the monopoly of renewable energy? (In my opinion, no, but that is up to each one of you).
Food waste. This is where you are the only one who can do something. Grocery is a serious thing if you think about the implications. In a sustainable world, you eat only seasonal and locally produced food, with a few exceptions of fruits and vegetables that are not energy-intensive to produce and can be shipped by boat (bananas, pineapple etc). Most importantly, do not throw away food: the World Health Organization provides an extensive list of how to spot food not safe to eat so next time you see a black spot on your carrot, for example, peal it, don’t bin it.
Agriculture and livestock. Another easy but hard task. First of all, we need to reduce the ruminants livestock: check this post in case you missed it. We should abandon monoculture in favour of crop rotation: it could provide less food but also less spread of crop-diseases. Besides, we don’t need to produce more food, we just need to distribute it more evenly and waste less, there’s plenty out there.
Deforestation. Carbon release. Widespread fires. Avalanches in mountain areas. Biodiversity loss. Is there anything else to mention? (There is, the real question would be “Are you that stupid that these are not enough to get it?”).
There is plenty to do and apparently also plenty of time. Let’s be clear: if we don’t do anything, the rivers won’t dry out (at least not by 2100), the ice sheets could disappear to reveal new continents to explore, we will certainly have more severe weather condition. The problem is at the current time we are still on time to fix it: it will come the time when it will be too late and we will be long gone but our kids will be out there. In case you are concerned but still not willing to take actions in your everyday life, I would suggest you not to have children, spare them that sorrow.
Do you have any more suggestions to reduce our GHG emissions? Let us in the comments and don’t forget to Stay Green!
Apple has come forward and hit the headlines of many newspaper by claiming its carbon neutrality by 2030. In another post, we analyzed how the UN nations were performing with their 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, and here a silicon valley’s giant has made its move. Apple claim that will build more efficient devices that last longer, recycle every part of them, switch to renewable energy sources and much more. Will they lead the environmental future, as well as the technological one? Are they somehow connected?
Did you need another reason to be concerned about your carbon footprint? Researchers have confirmed divers’ found from 2011 in Antarctica, a sea-bed methane leak. Methane is a greenhouse gas 28 times stronger than carbon dioxide and any leak into our atmosphere has to be considered threatening. Bear in mind that Antarctica is a very uncomfortable region of our Planet and as of today it remains widely unexplored. Could there be more leaks out there?
How can museums plan for the future, in order to be more attractive to a generation that is decreasingly attracted by it and be more sustainable? Chief Executive of Horniman Museums and Gardens Nick Merriman explored the topic in the Ecologist.
A new study has been conducted on the polar bears food supply, very much impacted also by the ice surface in Poles, increasingly reducing as a consequence of climate change. With this new model, the animal is likely to see its condition reduced to a no-return point by the beginning of next century. Are we still on time to prevent this? Are our effort enough?
Ever since we started to understand the impact we are having on our Planet, many reasons have come to light. Some seemed more obvious than others, but what struck me most at the beginning was the impact that ruminants have on the environment. Are they evil? Let’s find out, as always, together.
Ruminants are mammals that feed mainly on vegetation (wild grass and similar). They comprehend a few hundred different species, both wild and domestic. The reason why we called them so is that their digestive system requires them to chew multiple times. This happens because their stomach is not able to break down at once all the food they eat, and so they belch out some of it and then chew it again and again. This process of continuous chewing of food is called rumination, hence the name ruminants.
Ruminants include a wide range of animals, the most popular being cattle, sheep and goats. Only these animals provide many services to their own bosses, humans: they are source of food, source of dairy products, clothing (at least they used to be), they were used in agriculture (even though our favourite have always been donkeys and mules). Some wild species of ruminants made us somehow soft to them, or probably they were too hard to hunt and kill, and so we let them be free, or captured and kept as hostages in our zoos: examples are giraffes and gazelles (there are some tribal communities in Sub-Saharan Africa who still hunt them, but that wouldn’t make this post mainstream according to the way of thinking “We’re right, they’re wrong”, and so I’ll leave it to each one of you to find out more about them).
Coming back to where we started, are ruminants evil? In particular, are they bad for the environment?
They are, but whose fault is? In case you are wondering, it’s our, mine and yours.
The main reasons why ruminants are not eco-friendly are the following:
When they ruminate they belch out methane.
We feed them on soya.
The impact they have on the soil they graze on.
In another post, we talked about the impact of methane produced by leftovers of food from a corporate event. In that story, we focused on the concept of embedded emissions, which applies to this one as well.
Methane is an embedded emission of ruminants. When they chew, they belch out the cud, which is the part of food their stomach didn’t process yet, and methane. In case you didn’t know, methane is a greenhouse gas which has a much higher impact of more common ones, such as CO2 (the ratio is 28:1, making methane 28 times more effective than CO2 in the same quantity).
There are countless studies that will show you the impact of methane emissions produced by ruminant livestock. I would like to propose one made by Chang, J., Peng, S., Ciais, P. et al. Revisiting enteric methane emissions from domestic ruminants and their CH4. Nat Commun 10, 3420 (2019), available here.
“Livestock production is the largest anthropogenic source in the global methane budget. Enteric fermentation from ruminants dominates this source and accounts for the emission of 87–97 Tg CH4 yr−1 during 2000–2009. Livestock manure management has a smaller contribution. Cattle, buffaloes, goats, and sheep are the main ruminant livestock types emitting CH4 and altogether represent 96% of the global enteric fermentation source”
Another embedded emission of ruminants is what they feed on. In natural circumstances, they would feed on grass. However intensive livestock, especially of cattle, feed the animals on soya, in order to make them grow more and faster.
Soya itself wouldn’t be a problem but, as mentioned in another post, the issue is that in order to meet the global demand of soya needed (which is 7% for human consumption and 70% for livestock feeding) we have to increase the amount of land intended for soya production by clearing forests. The results are stunning: according to WWF, even though the production is ongoing a process to try to reduce deforestation and direct emission of soybean cultivation, the impact is still “greater than sustainable”.
Here we face a two-sided coin. On one side academics have observed that grazing provide benefits to certain ecosystems because the cattle help fields getting ploughed. However, the main view about the subjects is that ruminants, in such a high number, are contributing to the depletion of the fields they graze on, endangering different species and contributing to biodiversity loss.
Honestly, who cares about them right?
Unfortunately, nobody does but the problem is that often certain species that we don’t care about, such a small and sleazy insects, play a vital role in maintaining an ecosystem alive, either by providing a source of protein/food for bigger animals and by removing hostile species from the soil, just to name a few.
On top of that, ruminants deplete vegetation, contributing to the soil erosion on what they graze on. Often, ruminants are seen on hills or mountainsides. The effect they have after few years of grazing in big heirs is devastating: not only they are likely to consume the grass, but by doing so they contribute also in making that mountain slope more dangerous for us (less tress = more avalanche).
How can we make things better? I think the western world should be a role model. Countries such as China are only recently embracing our culture of burgers and fast food, so after having suffered famine for many decades, I would feel uneasy in pointing my fingers towards them. I believe there should be a global effort in trying to reduce the ruminants products (in every form) that we consume daily.
What can we do?
What can we do in our everyday life? I am no one to give suggestions to other people, but I’ll just share what I personally do just to give you some ideas.
Rotate cheeses. I love cheese, but I realised that my shopping habits weren’t sustainable because I was always buying the same cheeses in my weekly shop in the same quantities. One day, opening my fridge, I realised that, even though they are all delicious, I probably didn’t need to have Cheddar, Gorgonzola, Brie, Cottage cheese and Parmesan at the same time (it was really hard to give up on some of them, but I survived).
Ditch fast food. It is a simple but effective rule. If you care about yourself, try to reduce to the minimum visiting your local McDonald’s. I found it quite effective to eat in fast food takeaways only when I get drunk because I wouldn’t be able to cook otherwise. If you realise that even in that case you are still over-visiting fast-food restaurants, then you might have an issue with alcohol and that is something you should think about.
Eat less meat. Once again, I love meat. I am by no means even close in being a vegetarian. But, if you can, try to avoid eating ruminants (lamb, beef) on a daily base choosing instead pork or chicken. Also, make sure the meat you buy doesn’t come from intensive livestock, otherwise, as it is often the case, you would try to solve a problem by creating another one.
In the end, do not get sad. It is our lifestyle that is carbon-hungry, you are simply following the life you were taught to live. Maybe, it has come the time that we reorganize ourselves and pass onto future generations new ways of living, some that would make us enjoy life at his full while not depleting the natural environment. Also, this change should come soon: we are not likely into establishing a colony on another planet before depleting the one we live on, so less Star Wars and more empathy.
Do you have any suggestions for ditching takeaways when you’re drunk? Let us know in the comments and don’t forget to stay Green!
In one post we talked about the impact of our diet on the environment. The Guardian explored the implications that our choices at the supermarket checkout have on the Planet, with focus on some in particular.
The Big Butterfly count has started in the UK! In its 10th edition, people across the country are encouraged to take part in this national survey aimed at assessing the butterfly population. From 17th of July until 9th of August, you can download the app, choose a spot and observe for 15 minutes, then record the species of butterfly and moths you saw in the app.
Climatenewsnetwork examined the situation in South Korea, “one of the most dynamic economies” in the world after the democratic President Moon Jae-in announced a Green New Deal earlier this year upon election. The article presents the goals of his presidency while showing how China, on that side of the world, by keeping investing in coal-fired projects overseas.
Carbonbrief has presented a study about the recent heatwave and fires in Siberia. It was easy to expect, but once again the study concluded that the fires in the Arctic region were another result of man-made climate change, with a ratio of growth 600 fold.
Every time our species has faced a disfunction or an opportunity to improve existing technology, it has been done so. Throughout millennia, our society has grown as a consequence of these improvements, confident enough that we were better than before. Has it always been the case? Let’s find out, as always, together.
From the past…
Our journey today takes us through the fine borders of the concept of benefits. We normally associate this word with a certain action, law, decision, more properly an input, that is intended to improve a given situation. These situations we try to solve are often problematic, therefore our ingenious brains explore possibilities to overcome them.
In my opinion, it is a modern key for the interpretation of Darwin’s theory of survival of the fittest: our constant desire of having a better life is a result of our effort and natural instinct as a species to survive. And so we settled down mastering the art of agriculture. We decided which animals were the best fit to work for us and feed us, giving them in return a sort of “protected slavery”: (I doubt chicken could have survived into the wild by themselves, however, their species thrived simply because we decided to keep them for us). And then we built roads, we mastered the art of sailing, we organised ourselves in more or less efficient systems of societies, we also mastered the skies, and we are now in the so-called Anthropocene, an era of human domination.
Looking back, most of the innovations, both technological and medical, have been carried on in order to solve existing problems. Hunter-gatherers homo sapiens spent centuries studying the growth patterns of plants, before deciding that it was better to settle down next to fertile land rather than roaming around in search for food. Roads have been laid down to improve communications between different tribes, science have more or less always aimed at understanding the natural world. But some of these major discoveries have resulted in some side effects that I believe we didn’t take into consideration when developing them.
This is the rebound effect: it happens when we make a discovery in order to solve a problem and in return we might create a new one, sometimes worst than the one we tried to solve.
…to the present
A typical example is email communication. Before, the fastest way to communicate with someone overseas was mail correspondence. I am not really able to give a practical estimate of the time needed to send a letter to the USA from Europe, or even within the same country. I know as a matter of facts that in the UK, Royal Mail used to deliver mails twice a day, to keep up with the huge demand of letters sent. It seems like another era to me, but it was just the last century.
But then, everything changed: the development of the internet has enabled people, even at his early stage, to communicate instantly from the opposite sides of the Planet. Mind-blowing! Instead of waiting days, if not weeks, for our loved ones to get back to us, we became connected to the whole world in a matter of decades, when PCs landed in every household.
What happened next? I believe we all know. From rich and emotional, we shifted to a poor, sterile form of communication. And it’s not all.
The rebound effect of email communication is not evident, but it works as follow. We knew that we had to reduce paper communication in order to preserve trees, that’s why at the beginning emails felt like the perfect solution. However, by improving the efficiency and speed of our communication, we also improved its volume. Emails are sent via the internet, which is supported by servers placed around the world, powered by electricity. On top of that, the amount of junk, promotions, spam emails we get daily all rely on that electricity production to be carried out while wasting our time when going over to delete them. The electricity involved in the whole process includes also our laptop and phones that we use to check emails and the whole web-infrastructure that couldn’t function without it.
But why is electricity a problem?
It depends where you live. In Iceland, most (if not all) of the electricity used is naturally produced via geothermal energy: everyone who visited this beautiful country must have seen geysers blowing gas from the ground. So, assuming Iceland doesn’t import electricity from nearby countries (which I believe they don’t, given the low domestic demand and no official documentation available), the email revolution would be a great benefit for population and the environment.
But, if we consider Australia, where most of the electricity is produced by burning coal, the most polluting of fossil fuels, then we have a problem. If you think about it, Australia is contributing to damaging itself with these actions. If they want to preserve trees and don’t chop them to produce paper for letters, one of the key steps should be preventing deforestation and taking action to tackle climate change (which triggers huge fires and increase the possibility of severe weather phenomenons). But, if they produce electricity by burning coal (and more coal will be needed in order to produce more electricity to sustain more email communication) they’re just feeding climate change, by producing more greenhouse gases that will activate the feedback loop that we are experiencing right now.
Obviously, the solution is not to come back to paper communication, that would be mad. The solution is to change our energy production system, by shifting the entire world production to renewable sources, like sun and wind.
We will talk another time about the limits of the actual electric energy production, giving you the time to reflect and digest today’s story. For the time being, if you want to share how your life has changed since the email revolution, let us know in the comments and don’t forget to stay Green!
The Guardian’s report on the UK bee’s population and some of its particularly endangered species: this time, our attention is focused on one nomadic species of bee, the six-banned bee. It is believed that this species, who heavily relies on the healthiness of another one, the long-horned bee, is endangered because of the clearing land of wildflowers they both feed on. The article sums up some of the wildflower conservation projects across the UK.
Are fishes responding to climate change? The study conducted by Flemming Dahlke, a marine biologist with the Alfred Wegener Institute at Bremerhaven, has tried to prove that.
Apparently, increasing temperature of the oceans affects adults fishes, which seems to be more susceptible to the heat than during their larvae status. And so, fishes outside mating season are not able to manage temperature above 10 degrees while their mating counterparts suffer the stress of it.