World Water Day: connecting us to nature and outlining the changes we need today

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The world’s waters are in peril and I wrote this post to share my experiences of today in celebration of World Water Day. Today I had the amazing opportunity to attend World Water Day at my university. I even got a fancy name tag and everything. Overall, it was a great day of learning about the amazing water research my colleagues are doing and to share new innovative ideas on how to deal with the world’s water crisis.

The day began with The Water Song interpreted by UW’s Indigenous Students’ Society. This song represents the cultural importance of water to Indigenous communities in Canada. For Indigenous peoples, water is seen as a living thing, a spiritual entity that emits “life-giving” forces. With this, comes the duty and responsibility of its protection and respect by all. This song resonated with the crowd throughout the day, to remind everyone that water scarcity and pollution are not solely ecological and health issues but are merely small parts of the broader holistic perspective recognizing that everyone and everything on Earth are deeply and fundamentally connected and interrelated.

The Water Song fit extremely well into the theme of the day, The Answer is in Nature, A2_POSTER_WWD2018_EN-01which is all about utilizing natural solutions to help solve the world’s water crises. The Keynote speakers,  Tyler and Alex MifflinThey are the stars of their own TV show The Water Brothers, which looks at various environmental issues through the lens of water, aiming to increase the accessibility and understanding of these issues.

With 60 percent of the world’s lakes and 20 percent of the world’s surface freshwater, Canada is among the most water-abundant countries in the world. Such a fortune, comes immense responsibility that should be followed by examples of protection, preservation, conservation and care. However, Canada is one of the world’s biggest water wasters, consumers and polluters. This was described by Mifflin as The Myth of Abundance which is the idea that we have so much water, we do not need to worry about its quantity or quality, when actually the opposite is true.

In Canada, we may seem very far removed from the current water crisis in Cape Town, however the reality is that it could happen anywhere. Many human activities have disrupted the stability of the Earth’s water cycle to the point of creating a “preferred” water economy, wherein water use and consumption has little to do with natural cycles, but actually has a lot to do with the way humans have modified local ecosystems to meet demand for their desired activities. Water management in Capetown was based on the  more stable climatic conditions of the past, however, human induced climate change has fundamentally altered the water cycle to the point where Capetown’s water management systems simply do not work anymore.

This brings me to my main point, why should we, as Canadians, in the country with such abundant freshwater sources, focus on water issues?

Water is in everything we eat, drink, wear and consume. Our eating and consumption habits connect us to the water challenges all around the world. The water on Earth today has been on Earth for hundreds of millions of years. We share the the water on Earth with all other life forms on the planet now and in those in past and future generations. We are not “running out of water,” per se. With so many people and other living things on the planet, we are running out of ways to provide everyone with the water that they need to live and thrive.

“No water, no life. No blue, no green.” – Sylvia Earle

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California is facing many issues with water scarcity due to periodic droughts related to climate change and the destabilized water cycle. Canadians have high dependence on California for winter produce, therefore, much of what goes on down there, affects us up here. To mitigate the water crisis, Californians were told that the best course of action was to take individual actions such as taking shorter showers and watering their grass less etc. These are all good things, that definitely have a positive impact on water conservation, however, the agricultural industry is actually responsible for 70 percent of freshwater consumption. It was those agricultural lobbyists that were encouraging other people to use less water so that they don’t have to.

The truth is that the water crisis is global issue that implicates everybody. To ensure availability and sustainable water management and sanitation for everyone on the planet, we have to think bigger than just taking a shorter shower. For instance, think about your own food choices, eating 10 hamburgers consumes the same amount of water as taking 365 showers. By eating less meat you are inherently are saving more water. We must take these individual actions, but we also must put pressure on governments to put adaptive and sustainable water conservation policies in place. These have capacity to make even bigger differences on even larger scales. When people raise their voices, that’s when changes are made. This is why the Mifflins are so passionate about using use their TV show and media presence to engage and educate people who care and have potential to work toward making the changes that are needed in the world.

 

Photos of the Week (December 26th)

Tropique Nord 2017 (Montréal).

I am sorry for the late post! I wish you all a very happy holiday.

Bringing Back the Woolly Mammoth

The de-extinction of the woolly mammoth is an interesting topic came up in class last week, and it was difficult for me to understand why anyone would want to spend so much time and so many resources on this. It seems like a lost cause right? It’s been gone for 10,000 years, is it even possible? Why bother bringing them back when the world is so different now and their habitat (the mammoth steppe) is completely gone?

The reason that the tundra is the desolate and relatively un-vegetated land that it is, is because the grazers that used to inhabit the land are gone. Grazers are key to maintaining grassland because they stimulate the growth of the plants and turn and fertilize the soil. The woolly mammoths were a major contribution to the grazing of the mammoth steppe and the general balance of the ecosystem at the time. Without them, the ecosystem underwent great changes, eventually reaching a new equilibrium. This is just a small example of the dynamic equilibrium of the Earth, everything is interconnected and things are always changing.

Research shows that even after being extinct for 10,000 years, re-introducing the woolly mammoth to the Tundra will convert it to the grassland/steppe that it was during the Pleistocene (the time of the woolly mammoth). Why would we want to change this landscape? If the Earth is always changing and reaching new equilibriums, why would we disrupt this? To answer this, is not simple, and involves some background explanation.

It is commonly accepted that we have entered the geologic period known as the Anthropocene, defined as “the period during which human activity has been the dominant influence on climate and the environment.” The main issue facing the tundra is permafrost thawing and is most likely human-driven. It is a simple feedback (when isolated): increased CO2 in the atmosphere increases surface temperatures which increases permafrost thawing. This permafrost contains CO2 that has been frozen in the soils for many years from the decaying of plant material. Therefore, thawing permafrost will release more CO2 into the atmosphere, increasing surface temperatures, thawing more permafrost and so on.

The third (current) phase of the Anthropocene is defined as humans realizing the damage they have done to Earth System, and are in a panic trying to find the quickest ways to repair the damage. At the onset of global fossil fuel use, the true effects of the intensive exploitation of these resources were not known. However, science has advanced greatly since then, and we have begun to notice trends in certain things such as the massive rate of increase of atmospheric CO2 and surface temperatures. Once these damages were realized, a sudden urgency has overcome the population to try and reverse these damages however possible. The possibilities of what we do next are as follows:

  • Business as usual, continuing on, developing at the same rate and not making any changes to our way of life to reduce environmental impact;
  • Mitigation, which consists of taking drastic measures to prevent any further damage to the Earth by developing alternative (greener) sources of energy and changing our consumption patterns, acting in a more sustainable manner;
  • Geo-engineering, that is, developing intensive methods of reversing the damage we have caused. This is basically further manipulation of the Earth System to undo the damages we have caused by manipulating the system.

The re-introduction of woolly mammoths to the tundra is an example of geo-engineering. It involves modifying the balance of an entire ecosystem to reverse the damage that we have caused to it. As crazy as it may seem, it could actually work. It involves producing new, genetically diverse and fertile mammoths from tissues that are tens of thousands of years old. Bioengineers have been focusing on modifying the genome of Asian elephants to match that of the woolly mammoth. The adaptations that it will acquire include extra fat and fur to enable it to survive in the cold tundra climate, essentially turning it into a modern-day woolly mammoth.

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Changes to the Asian elephant to become a wolly mammoth

What exactly could bringing back the mammoth steppe of the Pleistocene do? Quite a bit actually. Mammoths are said to be the keystone species of the ecosystem trying to be revived, meaning that it is an organism that plays a crucial role in how an ecosystem functions. When using an ecosystem approach, we can recall that aspects of an ecosystem are interconnected and everything affects everything. Putting mammoths in the tundra is not JUST putting mammoths in the tundra. As mentioned previously, the re-introduction of grazers to the tundra will convert it to grassland (the mammoth steppe). The grass will insulate the permafrost, decreasing the rate of thawing, and thus the amount of CO2 being released into the atmosphere. In addition, all the new vegetation will remove CO2 from the atmosphere. More vegetation also means more life and higher biodiversity. Increasing biodiversity increases resilience in ecosystems, decreasing the likelihood of future extinctions and drastic changes from catastrophic events.

Not considering any of the ethics behind the de-extinction of the woolly mammoth, it is sounding like a pretty good idea right now. From a more realistic perspective, it is perhaps not the greatest and most practical idea.  It requires a tremendous amount of research, money and resources, going toward something that may not even work. There has been no actual success in de-extinction so far, the closest example to a success being the Pyrenean Ibex in 2009 that died after 7 minutes from lung defects. All this effort could be going to saving many other species from extinction or ecosystem restoration, which has a much higher success rate and could be more useful.

This leaves us with the main question, is it really worth it? In theory, bringing back the woolly mammoth is not a terrible idea at all, and if it is possible, it has potential to do great things. There is also a large chance of complete failure and tremendous uncertainty to the chain of effects. Whether it is really worth it or not, at this point, just seems to be a matter of opinion.

 

 

The Whole is Greater than the Sum of its Parts

This week’s blog post will be a little more phiosophical, dealing with a topic that’s been debated for a very long time, animal rights. I’ll be taking some well-known opinions that we have been analyzing in school and extending them to whole ecosystems. Enjoy!

The issue of animal rights is no new concept. Animals are deeply integrated in our modern lifestyles to the point where interactions with them are inevitable and occur on a daily basis. Decisions regarding how each individual human interacts with non-human animals are made each day by the consumption of cosmetics, food and other objects (Korsgaard, 2009). On a broader scale, the Western world faces problems of overconsumption and many unsustainable practices that are wreaking havoc on the Earth System. Human population is growing at an alarming rate, leading to the destruction of habitats and ecosystems that are vital to the functioning of the Earth System. The question at hand is that if we have moral duties toward non-human animals, then what are our moral duties regarding the whole ecosystems to which these species belong? We need to look at the whole, and not just the parts.

Korsgaard’s views can be extended to ecosystems in general. She argues that the difference between humans and non-human animals is that humans understand the implications of their actions and can therefore evaluate situations and make decisions about whether or not to act on their emotions, instincts and desires. In other words, humans have the capacity to self-govern. It is natural for life to prey on life, however our human nature obliges us to hold ourselves to higher standards than nature has given us. If we are considering ourselves superior to animals in this sense, then we should not act savage like them, we have duties to respect them (Korsgaard, 2009).

Extending to ecosystems, Korsgaard’s views and reasoning can give insight as to why it is our duty to respect and protect whole ecosystems. Korsgaard argues that it is a uniquely human characteristic to have the capacity to recognize the implications of one’s actions and base our decisions as to what is right and what is wrong on that (Korsgaard, 2009). Through this, we have the duty to protect the ecosystems to which the species that we owe moral standing to belong. Ecosystems, are just that, systems. All components interact, and everything affects everything. By disrespecting and destroying the physical environment, we are disrespecting and destroying every other component of the ecosystem, including the non-human animals. If we as humans are able to realize this we can evaluate our actions that cause destruction to habitats and ecosystems. In order to respect the parts, we must preserve and respect the whole.

Finally, Korsgaard argues that it is difficult to treat animals rightly, as their harm is deeply embedded in our lifestyles. She also states that is this is no reason to not try harder to do so, and this can be applied to whole ecosystems as well (Korsgaard, 2009). Our culture is built heavily around the destruction of the environment and the modification of the Earth System that it is extremely difficult to change one’s lifestyle to treat animals and ecosystems rightly, having no negative impact. If we use this inconvenience as an excuse to continue on with our unsustainable practices, then we are not moral and we cannot advance. The Earth as a whole, has given us life and allowed us to become what we are. We realize this as humans, and thus it is our duty to respect and protect the whole, if we wish to respect the parts to which we owe moral standing.

 

 

Korsgaard, C. M. (2009). Facing the animal you see in the mirror. The Harvard Review of Philosophy, 16(1), 4-9.

 

Some Interesting Perspectives on Water Usage

In class this week, we had a long discussion about daily water usage. My profs, both being hydrologists, had quite a bit to say about the topic, and brought many interesting facts and questions to the table.

The main one being, how much water do you use per day? This website is a great way of seeing how much water your household uses. It is customizable by area and all the appliances that are used in the house, as well as their specific frequency/intensity of use. It also give great insight about which places your household can save water.

I was astonished to find out that one toilet flush uses between 5 and 20 L of water. It made me seriously consider trying to save some flushes here and there. Next, showering can take anywhere between 20 and 80 L, how crazy is that! This fact got me thinking about something I saw on Facebook the other week: The Smart Showerhead. It monitors how many liters of water you use in the shower and it notifies you with different colored lights. For instance, it turns green once you have used 10L, then purple after you’ve used 50L. It even connects to your smartphone, to keep track of all the water you use in all your showers.

Dishwashers only use about 4L per day (per person) whereas cooking and hand-washing dishes uses 25L per day per person. All that and other daily water uses, comes out to an average of 162L per day per person, and this is only direct water use. This means that all the water that went into growing, transporting and processing all the plants and animals that compose your daily diet is not included. Once this is included, daily water usage shoots up to 2000L per day.

       To add to this, the clothes you wear and leisure items that you use also use water. For instance, a pair of jeans takes 8000L of water to produce, 1L of beer takes 7L of water and 1 kg of paper takes 320L of water. There is literally water going into just about everything, which makes a lot of sense considering it is basically the universal solvent and the only substance found in liquid form on Earth other than Mercury. It is also the major constituent of living things and is composed of the most common element in the universe (hydrogen). It makes a ton of sense why this stuff is in everything. Which leads us to the question of how much of this should we concern ourselves with?

            To start off, if we are going to use things like clothing, computers and books were going to have use some water. The question here is how much is too much? I’ve looked around and there seems to be no clear indication of what is an “OK” amount to use, but the main idea in the literature is that whatever we are using, it needs to be reduced.

How do we reduce our water consumption? Of course it is impossible and unrealistic to consume no water other than drinking water, this is not the point I am trying to make. I’m getting more at the low-impact lifestyle. How to live a desirable life while making the lowest environmental impact possible. To start off, from this list,

hidden water use

eating meat appear to be the worst thing you can do when it comes to wasting water. Secondly, buying used clothes (or used-anything) will also lower your water footprint, as it eliminates some demand for new products, thus saving some water in manufacturing there. Thirdly, take shorter showers. No one really needs more than 5 minutes in there. As I mentioned last week, we must be willing to trade some element of convenience for the sake of leading more sustainable lifestyles. Lastly, have a beer and not a book (I hope you caught my sarcasm)!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Change is Happening is Costa Rica

I’ve always had a strong opinion against zoos and aquariums, which is why this article really put a smile on my face and nearly had me dancing around the room because finally, I see change happening. I had my first realization about how terrible zoos are the last time I visited one. It was about 7 years ago in Quebec City when I saw a polar bear, who was obviously ill and/or having a psychotic episode. Who could blame the poor guy? Living in a box that is a tiny fraction of his regular habitat, staring at four walls all day, no interactions with other animals…  I would go nuts too. That was the day I was officially boycotting zoos for life. 

The documentary “Blackfish” is also a great example of why aquariums are awful too. It demonstrates how Orcas living in places like SeaWorld and other aquariums acquire strange and violent behaviours when they’re kept in captivity for too long. They are naturally non-violent creatures, but once locked up for a long time, and exposed to unnatural conditions and intense training, they become violent toward humans and each other. Keeping them in such small spaces is simply not natural, and it’s absolutely disgusting how we are harming these innocent animals just so that we could look at them behind a wall or cage bars. It’s all for money obviously, and it is absolutely wrong to harm wildlife just for our enjoyment and financial benefit.

Referring back to the above article, the argument in favor of zoos is that they save species from extinction. Well I could see how that could be, but at the same time, the polar bears (for example) would probably have a better chance of survival if they’re happy in their own habitat, with no human predators than staying in a cage for their entire life and not being physically or mentally strong enough to reproduce. Conservation of wildlife, in my opinion, is best done through the creation of protected areas, natural parks and hunting bans, not locking them up in cages.

The other argument for zoos is that they are good for research purposes. How accurate can the results of these studies be if the animals aren’t allowed to roam freely and follow their natural patterns? If a study about orcas was conducted at SeaWorld, I would seriously question the validity of it. They are not behaving as they naturally would, it’s simply an inaccurate depiction.

I have a true appreciation for the line “We don’t want animals in captivity or enclosed in any way unless it is to rescue or save them.” Assurance of their well-being is certainly key to conservation, but in no other way can captivity be justified in my opinion.

The elimination of zoos is the movement of the future. I think all countries should follow in Costa Rica’s footsteps and ban all zoos and open up more natural parks and protected areas. This way, people can still enjoy the wildlife, observe it for what it truly is while the animals also enjoy they’re lives.

A Common Future

Before I begin a very intense rant, I think it’s important that you watch this video. 

Okay now that you’ve done that I suggest you take a five minute break until you’re able to close your jaw that I know is hanging open right now. If you’re jaw isn’t hanging open right now, it’s either because you’ve seen that video a billion times or you’re what Andy Revkin would refer to as a “climate ostrich” meaning that you’re in denial of man’s impact on this planet. It could also just be that you’re simply not aware. That’s okay too. This is what I’m here for.

Let me start by saying that the video is not an exaggeration. The speed at which all it occurs may be a little fast, but nothing else is exaggerated. It all starts quite small, with one insect and some snake boots, but quickly escalates to alteration of the Earth’s systems, destruction of many ecosystems and mountains of manmade, trivial objects collecting and polluting the planet. The ending is probably the most impactful of the whole video. The man collects all these objects and then suddenly everything goes quiet. Now that he has wiped out just about every living thing on the planet, he doesn’t know what to do with all these things. He just sits around on his throne, staring at the mess he made. What did all those things really bring him in his life? All he did was destroy the very thing that gave him life: the Earth (the aliens were so appalled by his behaviour that they essentially killed him). 

This is what we call unsustainable living and overconsumption. It is a lifestyle that cannot be maintained over a long period of time. Here on Earth, there exists two worlds: the developed world and the developing world. Here in the developed world, we have problems of overconsumption, and hold 20% of the population and 80% of the world’s wealth. This is an unrealistic standard to hold the rest of the world to. If all 7.4 billion of us consumed this way, I’m pretty sure the Earth would implode or something. The developing world holds 80% of the population and 20% of the world’s wealth and experiences problems of deprivation.

These two worlds are two separate extremes, neither are sustainable or appropriate, but they do have one thing in common: the future. Both worlds need to develop further (in different ways) in order to reach a sustainable middle ground, a point of convergence. They both need to work toward, the same, more sustainable future, one that does not over-exploit the planet’s natural resources, and one that leaves the Earth in better condition than found.

In order to reach this point of convergence, change needs to occur in both worlds. This cannot be done by changing the systems and substances of the Earth, the very thing that contains us and allows us to live, but by changing the human role in it. The environment cannot be managed appropriately without first understanding and changing the cultures that are embedded in it. This topic in and of itself could compose dozens of posts, but I’ll leave it at this. We don’t need to change nature so that we can live in it, we need to change our ways of living so that we can live with nature and use its resources in a non-destructive manner.

Back of the Envelope

I started this semester with what I would consider to be a very interesting class, but I couldn’t seem to make the connection between the goals of the course and the theme of this class.  It was three agonizing hours of “back of the envelope calculations”, which are rough calculations using common knowledge that can be done on the back of an envelope. I mean, sure, it’s interesting, but I don’t see how the rough calculation of how many dentists are in the Greater Montreal Area is relevant to Earth system modelling. 

There were some questions in our assignment that were quite striking. They addressed real-life environmental topics. The first was “how many pairs of shoes can be made with one cow?” My first instinct was to write “None. Make your shoes with something else” because I’m a strong believer in animal rights and veganism. But my classmates and I went ahead and somehow came up with answers ranging from 6 to 40 pairs. Regardless of what the real number is, just think about this: picture a cow and a class of 40 people. If they all had one pair of leather shoes, that’s (potentially more than) one cow. This means that to give everyone in Canada one pair of leather shoes, we would need at least 900 000 cows. I’m not trying to push my views on anyone, but just keep that image in your mind, and take into consideration that these shoes don’t last very long. 

The next question would have been incredibly interesting if I was allowed to do some research first, but we were only allowed to use our brains. It asked what area of watershed is required to meet the water needs of Montrealers. From what I know, the area of the island seems to be large enough. This assumes a yearly consumption of 300L of water and 40 cm of runoff, which in my opinion is on the low-end of consumption and the high-end of precipitation. Don’t be fooled by these numbers, because most of this water is not even usable because a lot of it is snow, or doesn’t fall in useful places. We are fortunate enough in Montreal that we have other water sources, but this does not mean that we should be careless with our water consumption. Here is a link to a list of over 100 ways that you can reduce your household’s water consumption. I cannot stress enough the extreme importance of depleting freshwater sources on Earth today. We should almost treat water as if it were gold or platinum; not expensive, but very precious.

This last question left me in a state of panic for a moment. It asked how long it would take for the livable surface of Earth to be covered in two metres thick of garbage. Just the thought of that actually happening was terrifying enough, but then I had to go ahead and attempt to estimate it. I started by looking at my own garbage production, imagining my daily waste sprawled out on the floor, and worked from there. I used a vague estimate of how many Canadas could fit into all the land on Earth since that’s the only country I roughly knew the area of. It came out to be 56 000 years. Although that may sound like a lot of time, that’s also an insane amount of garbage, meaning that that’s actually a very short amount of time. The rate at which we, in the developed world, produce waste is incredibly quick, hence why the term “overconsumption” is often used to describe our way of life.

I’m just about ready to go on a full-blown rant about overconsumption and deprivation on Earth, but I think I’ll save that for another post.

These back of the envelope calculations are simply fascinating, but after doing them, I really wish I could know the real answer! They really got me thinking about my own water consumption and waste production. Although I might think that it’s really not all that much, I now know that I should really consider the population as a whole having the same or similar impact. Just a small reduction from each person can have exponential results. I don’t live alone here on Earth, and neither do any of you. I’ll leave you with that, and all the above striking numbers up there in hopes that it will also get you thinking and consider your own consumption.