Wild Green
Former Utne Reader senior editor Keith Goetzman on environmental issues from climate change to composting.

If That Toilet Paper Is Brown, It Must Be Green

Chipotle napkin 

It’s hard to enter a store these days without being visually assaulted by labels, logos, and signs that appeal to our environmental consciousness. It turns out that there’s an even more powerful way for marketers to signal an environmental product to shoppers: Make it brown.

The Wall Street Journal reports that Dunkin’ Donuts and Target’s in-store cafes have switched from white to brown napkins, while Seventh Generation even adds brown pigments to its eco-friendly diapers “to drive home the environmental message.”

And Cascades Tissue is about to enter a new frontier with its U.S. rollout of a beige toilet paper called Moka. It might be a hard sell for fussy Americans, though. Writes WSJ:

Consumers in regions outside of North America are more accepting of recycled toilet paper and more readily embrace colored or fragranced rolls. Kimberly-Clark’s local brands sell apricot-colored paper in the U.K., green in Poland, “sunny orange” in Switzerland and “natural pebble” in Germany, the company says.

It’s a different story in the U.S. When Cascades pitched its Moka toilet paper to distributors at a recent trade show, “faces showed disgust” at first, says [Cascades marketing director Isabell] Faivre. “Then they would feel the product and it was, ‘Oh, wow, that would be perfect,’” for customers who want softness, but also want green credentials, she says.

Let’s not kid ourselves, however: Most Americans prefer bleached-white, super-cushy toilet paper, and the vast majority of the stuff we buy is highly unsustainable. As of 2009, 98 percent of the toilet paper sold in the United States came from virgin wood, according to Allen Hershkowitz, a senior scientist for the Natural Resources Defense Council, as reported in The Guardian in a story that explores “the tenderness of the delicate American buttock.”

As Hershkowitz put it:

“Future generations are going to look at the way we make toilet paper as one of the greatest excesses of our age. Making toilet paper from virgin wood is a lot worse than driving Hummers in terms of global warming pollution.”

Christophers Mims at Grist has a solution: Stop using the stuff. I’m going to let him make the case:

The solution is straightforward: Do away with T.P. Think that sounds unsanitary? Not as unsanitary as our current approach. This is how a friend put it: What if I pooped on your arm and you wiped it off with a paper towel. Is it clean now?

There’s nothing even weird about the idea — lots of cultures don’t share our freakish obsession with sticking paper up our bums. The French invented the bidet in 1710.

Sources: Wall Street Journal, Guardian, Grist 

Image by CorruptKitten, licensed under Creative Commons. 

Beaches, Babes, and Conservation: What’s Wrong With That?

Swimsuit model 

The Nature Conservancy is taking a new stripped-down approach to environmental protection: The green group is teaming up with the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue and online luxury retailer Gilt to raise money for beach preservation in an unholy mashup of sex, commerce, marketing, publishing, and environmentalism.

Why the green tie-in? “Because everyone benefits from pristine tropical beaches. Especially when they’re occupied by gorgeous women in bathing suits.” That’s according to promotional prose about the partnership on the Gilt website, in an announcement that is no longer posted. (Though you can still buy a $1,000 ticket to a New York launch party where you can hang out with the swimsuit supermodels.)

Gilt will be selling Sports Illustrated-themed swimsuits, surfboards, photos, and other merch on its site, with all ecommerce sale proceeds going “to preserve the beaches SI features in its pages,” reports Folio magazine.

Not everyone is sold on the mission. “What’s next for The Nature Conservancy?” wrote a commenter on Folio. “Partnering with porn sites?”

I understand the writer’s sentiment. The Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue has long been an overhyped exercise in sexual objectification and anorexia induction, and I’m not sure why The Nature Conservancy thinks it will benefit from hitching its green message to the marketing machine that cranks out this cheeseball, throwback brand of softcore year after year. The association seems to risk putting off every potential supporter who doesn’t think Mad Men is a look back at the good old days.

Environmental writer Derrick Jensen of Orion already saw this sort of thing coming, having penned a prescient column in the current issue titled “Not in My Name.” Go ahead and call him a killjoy, but I think he pretty much nailed it:

Let me say upfront: I like fun, and I like sex. But I’m sick to death of hearing that we need to make environmentalism fun and sexy. … The fact that so many people routinely call for environmentalism to be more fun and more sexy reveals not only the weakness of our movement but also the utter lack of seriousness with which even many activists approach the problems we face. …

Unfortunately, the notion that activism … has to be fun and sexy pervades the entire environmental movement, from the most self-styled radical to the most mainstream reformist.

Sources: Folio, Gilt Groupe, Orion 

Image by Mark Sebastian, licensed under Creative Commons. 

First Environmentalism—Then Socialism!

Capitalist Hummer 

To the power brokers of America’s right, climate change poses a dire threat to business as usual. Environmentalism, in fact, is seen by many of them as a stalking horse for an even more sinister force: socialism. Progressive thinker Naomi Klein expertly dissects this dynamic in her Nation article “Capitalism vs. the Climate,” explaining why the average modern conservative is terrified silly by the prospect of confronting human-caused climate change:

Responding to climate change requires that we break every rule in the free-market playbook and that we do so with great urgency. We will need to rebuild the public sphere, reverse privatizations, relocalize large parts of economies, scale back overconsumption, bring back long-term planning, heavily regulate and tax corporations, maybe even nationalize some of them, cut military spending and recognize our debts to the global South. Of course, none of this has a hope in hell of happening unless it is accompanied by a massive, broad-based effort to radically reduce the influence that corporations have over the political process. That means, at a minimum, publicly funded elections and stripping corporations of their status as “people” under the law. In short, climate change supercharges the pre-existing case for virtually every progressive demand on the books, binding them into a coherent agenda based on a clear scientific imperative. …

Climate change detonates the ideological scaffolding on which contemporary conservatism rests. There is simply no way to square a belief system that vilifies collective action and venerates total market freedom with a problem that demands collective action on an unprecedented scale and a dramatic reining in of the market forces that created and are deepening the crisis.

Klein’s essay is well worth reading for anyone with an environmental consciousness who’s trying to understand why saving the planet sounds so damn scary to some people. I would say it undermines everything they believe in, but as Klein makes abundantly clear, they don’t believe in much of anything except preserving their own privileged, comfortable lifestyles.

After reading Klein’s piece, I didn’t have to go far to find someone willing to buttress her argument from the other side of the spectrum. James Delingpole, the London Telegraph reporter who set off the whole ridiculous “Climategate” imbroglio that allegedly exposed the climate hoax—but in fact did nothing of the sort—is now trotting out a book, Watermelons, apparently meant to capitalize on his hero status to climate-change deniers. He tells the libertarian magazine Reason, apparently without a trace of irony:

I call the book Watermelons because they’re green on the outside but red on the inside. After the Berlin Wall came down, the communist movement, the global leftist movement, was left in a bit of a quandary. They pretty much lost the economic argument. They needed somewhere else to go, and global warming has become the great proxy issue. It enables them to achieve many of the same aims as before but under a cloak of green righteousness. This book, although it is about global warming, is about something in fact much, much bigger than that. It is about a global takeover by fascism, communism, call it what you will; their aims are much the same. It is about control.

So, let’s review. If you’re concerned about the future of humanity and the natural world, and you accept the scientific experts’ consensus that we’re rapidly degrading the planet, and you believe we need to take immediate corrective steps, you’re basically a control freak trying to resurrect communism. Wow. I’m going to go for a walk in the woods and try to wrap my head around this one. Care to join me, comrade?

Sources: The Nation, Reason 

Image by scottfeldstein, licensed under Creative Commons. 

Logging the Wilds of Latvia

Latvian forest 

Europe’s great forests are largely gone, but there’s one often-overlooked country where lynx, wolves, moose, and wild boars still roam under dense tree cover: Latvia. Jeremy Hance reports in Mongabay on the Baltic nation’s richly diverse forests, and how they’re being endangered by an alarming logging spree during these strained economic times:

Facing tough circumstances, the country turned to its most important and abundant natural resource: forests. The Latvian government accepted a new plan for the nation’s forests, which has resulted in logging at rates many scientists say are clearly unsustainable. In addition, researchers contend that the on-the-ground practices of state-owned timber giant, Latvijas Valsts meži (LVM), are hurting wildlife and destroying rare ecosystems.

LVM’s lumber used to carry certification by the Forest Stewardship Council, or FSC, but FSC booted it from the program in 2010, Hance reports. LVM is attempting to regain full certification, but many biologists are worried that its loggers are rapidly chipping away at Latvia’s incredible biological heritage. The country, at the crossroads of western Russia, Scandinavia, and Eastern Europe, is teeming with more wildlife than many people might realize:

The nation has the highest population densities of lynx and beaver in the European Union, and not long ago the highest density of black storks. The country is also home to wild boar, red fox, capercaillie, black woodpecker, white-backed woodpecker, and moose, and a few resident bears. In fact, unlike much of Europe, Latvia still retains self-sustaining populations of historic top predators, including 500-1,000 Eurasian wolves.

I visited Latvia in 1990, but it was a tumultuous political time preceding the breakup of the USSR, and I didn’t venture far from the tension-filled capital of Riga. I’d like to return one day to roam much deeper into the Latvian wilderness—if it stays wild, that is. Writes Hance:

It may not be long till the great forests of Latvia start to look like those of Western Europe: fragmented and fractured. Some forest species—like the lynx, the bear, the capercaillie, the moose, beaver, black storks, and the wolf—could vanish for good, while others may hang on in a pathetic state. In which case Latvia would have lost not only its splendid wildlife and ecosystems, but also its deep historical and cultural identity.   

Source: Mongabay 

Image by Adam Jones, Ph.D., licensed under Creative Commons. 

A Good Old-Fashioned Death-Defying Expedition

Siberian gulag graveyard 

The modern wilderness expedition is typically a heavily sponsored, satellite-uplinked, closely tracked affair, with the expeditioners often just a distress call away from rescue. Magazine stories chronicling these canned adventures often rely on dramatic overstatement to punch up their otherwise predictable narratives, so it’s a breath of fresh air to read an expedition account that truly takes you to the edge of adventure and to the limits of human endurance.

“Crossing Kolyma” is the understated title of Russian Life magazine’s incredible story of two men’s 10-month, 2,000-mile trek through remote, far eastern Siberia in 2004-2005. Author Mikael Strandberg and his travel partner Johan Ivarsson set off on their journey with a fair bit of hubris, intending to live off the land by hunting and fishing and, having been “born, bred, and still living in the Scandinavian outback,” to outperform the legions of city-born adventurers who have left the short history of polar travel “a record full of frostbites and death.”

Their main aim for the trip was a cultural one, “to widen the western world’s knowledge about the Russian and Siberian way,” writes Strandberg, who is keenly aware of the region’s history as the site of Stalin’s infamous gulags. Their trip, however, soon turned into a fight for survival and sanity as they endured impenetrable forest, a typhoon-driven flood, menacing bears, frostbite, and frozen stove fuel at temperatures as low as -70 Fahrenheit.

Mikael Strandberg in SiberiaHere’s a typically bleak scene from mid-journey:

“That’s more frostbite,” Johan despaired through his facemask. “That means I’ve got it on every finger.”

He was having another bout of diarrhea. It was the third time in an hour he’d had to squat and drop his trousers. And his three sets of gloves. On every occasion he had experienced that burning feeling followed by numbness in one of his fingers. The first stage of frostbite. I could barely make him out in the eternal darkness of midwinter and I shivered violently. The way I had every day since we’d left the settlement of Zyranka four weeks before, in the middle of November.

“I think we’d better move on,” I whispered.

I exhaled, coughed and heard the familiar tinkling sound of my breath turning into a shower of ice crystals. In Kolyma they call it “the whispers of the stars.”

Strandberg and Ivarsson ended up spending a month “thawing out” in the Yakut settlement of Srednekolymsk, then forging on to their final destination in Ambarchik Bay.

Amazed by Strandberg’s account of this epic trek, I tried to find out what he’s up to these days. His website reveals far more about the personal aftereffects of the Kolyma trip than he lets on in the magazine story:

Siberia changed my life completely. And it ruined it. It was the best time in my life. It had everything I have ever dreamt about. The enormous taiga and the extreme cold gave me and my partner Johan Ivarsson unlimited freedom. We hunted and fished to survive. We met the best people on earth, the native Siberians. It felt like I had finally understood. Also, I felt like it doesn’t matter one bit if I die now. I have seen all. Returning home was a disaster. It completely ruined my life for the next three years. A tragic divorce with the worst of consequences. I faced bitterness, hatred, shame and personal ruin.

Strandberg wouldn’t be the first high-stakes expeditioner to find the transition back to “normal” life challenging. Perhaps the psychological toll of Kolyma was greater than he ever let on, and perhaps the lingering memory of the Siberian cold is what set him on his next great journey: a camel trip across Yemen.

Source: Russian Life (article not available online) 

Image copyright Mikael Strandberg; used with permission. 

It’s Time to Come Together to Reject Compromise

Nature Doesn't Compromise sign at Copenhagen

We ought to put aside our extremism and come together to find common solutions, goes the conventional wisdom—and you can see where that kind of thinking has gotten us.

Well, it’s time to reject this middling middle-of-the-roadism and take a stand, writes Paul Starr in The American Prospect. For the “fanatics of the center” are just as dangerous as the fanatics of the margins. They “believe so deeply in the spirit of compromise that their commitment to it is uncompromising,” he explains. “Every time Republicans move to the right, Democrats are supposed to be willing to find common ground by moving further to the right, too. Civic virtue positively requires it.”

Starr singles out for particular ridicule the Americans Elect third party, which would back only bipartisan presidential tickets, and their most supportive pundit, Thomas Friedman, who last July wrote a breathless column about how Americans Elect will “let the people in.”

Don’t buy what he’s selling, writes Starr:

The history of climate policy and health-care reform is instructive. On climate policy, moderates in recent decades urged Democrats to support a market-oriented approach known as cap-and-trade in the interests of compromise. On health-care reform, they also urged Democrats to accept a market-oriented approach—private health-insurance exchanges and an individual mandate—for the sake of bipartisanship. But when Democrats adopted these approaches, Republicans abandoned them and insisted that they were tantamount to socialism. … Instead of winning over conservative support, compromise has done nothing to discourage Republicans from moving to the right—and nothing to prevent the fanatics of the center from saying that Democrats are equally responsible for political gridlock because they haven’t compromised more.

“I don’t think you go to the middle,” Newt Gingrich recently told Fox’s Sean Hannity. “You bring the middle to you.” That’s not only good strategy; it also describes what conservative Republicans have succeeded in doing over the past 30 years. If Democrats are to reverse the political momentum on the right, they need to bring the middle to them.

Source: The American Prospect 

Image by boklm, licensed under Creative Commons.  

Are Farmbots the Future of Agriculture?

Lots of people think that farming has gotten too industrialized. But there are others who believe it’s not nearly industrialized enough—such as the Iowa inventor who envisions armies of robots growing our food in the future.

Discovery News reports on David Dourhout’s new Prospero, a six-legged farm robot that works in teams to plant and fertilize crops. Scuttling across the land like oversized, high-tech crabs, the group of intercommunicating robots resemble an alien invasion more than a farm crew. Watch them at work in this video:


Dourhout, who based his Prospero design in part on the swarming behaviors of insects, birds and fish, believes that robotic farming will help ramp up food production for a heavily populated planet. He “hopes the next step will be to create more advanced robots that can weed, fertilize and harvest the crop,” writes Eric Niller at Discovery News.

Count me among those who are skeptical that large-scale robotic farming is the answer to our pressing food-supply needs. While I understand that not every tomato and strawberry can be lovingly hand-picked by an organic farmer in a bucolic setting, it seems equally a stretch to think that complete robotic automation is the future of farming.

The popular science press seems perpetually entranced by the prospect of a heavily roboticized future, to the point where my own response to such stories has become automated. When asked “Should robots grow our food?” I have the same answer as I do to the question recently posed on the cover of Discover: “Should robots run airport security?”

Source: Discovery News, Discover 

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