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.

mammoth
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.

 

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.

Busted Myths of the Electric Car

This morning, I was sifting through The Gazette local newspaper while sipping my morning coffee and came across a particularly interesting article. It tells how Quebec has a goal of having 100 000 electric cars on the road by 2020. This goal seems rather unrealistic at this moment, but I believe that with a little more publicity and education, that goal can be achieved.

The article describes that the lack of electric cars on the road was previously argued to be a lack of supply rather than demand, however this is now proven to be untrue. There is a low demand for electric cars (despite many incentives) mainly because people don’t know much about them and what they do know, is often a series of misconceptions. I quickly realized that I too have very little knowledge of electric cars, so this article encouraged me to do some research that I will now share with all of you. 

The main concern that people have with electric cars is the convenience of charging them. The myth is that the electric car is doomed without prevalent charging stations. The fact is that the vast majority of electric car owners only ever need to charge at home, and a little bit at work, but rarely. According to The Gazette, about 90% of the charging of a personal car will typically occur at home. Quebec is busting this myth by installing more and more charging stations across the province to show civilians that they could charge their electric car (if they had one) at many locations that they go to regularly, such as local arenas and grocery stores. The goal is to give them a comforting and reassuring feeling, further encouraging the purchasing of electric cars. Quebec is also working on installing super-charging stations along highways, making road trips with an electric car just as practical as with a regular car.

Another myth that I came across is that the batteries of electric vehicles will die after only a few years of usage. It is true that areas with extremely hot or cold weather can wear the battery faster than in more mild climates, but it is also true that manufacturers are constantly learning from their mistakes and improving the technology to increase battery durability. They also have made 8-10 year warranties on the battery packs, lightening the burden of a faulty battery.

The question that I found the most concerning is regarding the driving range of an electric vehicle per charge. While researching, I found out that the driving range for one full charge is actually eight times the distance of an average trip. Some models even have options to attach extra battery packs for long-distance drives. In addition to this, the gas tank of the vehicle will kick in and recharge the battery if needed.

Lastly, there is the issue of manufacturing the vehicle itself. The workers driving to and from the factory, the machinery, the facilities and the transport and fabrication of the materials all emit carbon dioxide, meaning that the electric car does have a carbon footprint. However, it is fairly obvious that it is significantly smaller than an internally combusting car. In this video, the two men discuss how the manufacturing emissions of an internally combusting car versus an electric car is 17% and 39% of the car’s total lifetime emissions respectfully. These numbers are extremely misleading, so let me put this into perspective for you. Electric cars have 0 tailpipe emissions whereas cars that use gas emit 20 pounds (9 kg) of CO2 per gallon (about 4 L) of gasoline that it uses. Add this up over the lifetime of the car, and you’ll have a massive amount of CO2. Although the percentages are different, the CO2 emitted in manufacturing is about the same. The percentage for the electric car is only larger because there are no tailpipe emissions to add to the total emissions. It’s basic math; 17% of a massive number is still much larger than 39% of a much smaller number.

I would consider this to be quite the successful post, as I have now educated myself and (hopefully) many others! I will definitely be investing in an electric car when the time comes for me to buy my own, and I will be for sure encouraging many of the people I know to do the same.

 

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.