Learning to live without plastic

St. Joseph’s Cathedral (Ngong), with a local dump in the foreground. On the right, plastic bags that will take 1000 years to decompose…on the left, out of sight, an equally big pile of plastic bottles.

(January 2, 2018)

#BeatPollution was the hashtag for the third United Nations Environment Assembly in Nairobi in early December. The theme was “Toward a pollution-free planet,” which all the UN member states were supposed to address in resolutions, side events and presentations at the global headquarters for the United Nations environment program.

The devil, of course, is always in the details. While governments agreed on some ambitious proposals in Nairobi, what happens when everyone gets home is the real test.

Pollution most concerns us when it is obvious, local and personal — when you can’t breathe because of poor air quality, when the water is contaminated to the point you can’t drink it, when the ground makes you and your children sick just to walk on it — then, people get upset about pollution.

What is most frightening, however, is when the effects are just as serious, but the pollution itself is not so immediate or obvious.

Take lead, for example. One resolution moved to ban lead in all paints, globally. Too many countries in the world still allow it — and Canada only banned lead in paint in 1990. Leaded gasoline is still for sale, though almost all of it is lead-free these days. Out of curiosity, I took a free blood test to check my own lead levels… and despite living in what I thought was a relatively lead-free environment, my level was 5.9/10. In an adult, apparently it needs to be more than 10 to be cause for concern, but any level of lead in children can cause serious and lifelong cognitive disabilities.

Industrial pollutants can be like this — persistent in the environment, persistent in our bodies, causing (in combination) health problems later in life. The only way to stop this from happening is to stop the pollution at the source.

Plastic is perhaps the worst example. Most of the plastic ever made is still around us — it can take thousands of years to decompose. Yet most of it is for convenience, unnecessary, used to save us time and effort. If we factored in the cost of this long-term plastic contamination of the planet, those throw-away, single-use plastics from fast-food operations (apparently the single biggest source) would cost more than stainless steel.

There is so much plastic in the oceans already that there is no longer such a thing as plastic-free wild fish anymore — and by 2050, there will be (by weight) as much plastic in the ocean as there are fish. It’s not just the big chunks, either — micro-plastics, such as microfibres from polyester clothing, or micro-beads of plastic in everything from cosmetics to toothpaste to who knows what, are already in the water we drink and the food we eat. The byproducts of plastics are certainly circulating through our bloodstreams, in ever-increasing amounts.

Despite this, the piles of plastic waste grow. One resolution started to tackle the issue of marine plastics pollution and to identify the land-based sources and the barriers to cleaning up the oceans. It may be hard for Winnipeggers to get concerned about the subject, at least until the next time you eat fish, but there are roughly a billion people worldwide who depend on the sea for the food they need to survive.

It’s a huge job — how does one clean up an ocean? — but it’s clearly easier to stop the plastic from getting into the water in the first place. We just have to start, and to stop making excuses for continuing to foul our collective nest with plastics we don’t need.

For example — plastic straws. Ban them. Period. Plastic knuckles for coffee cream? Don’t eat at restaurants that continue to serve them, because they can’t be bothered finding another way. Carry your own cutlery for takeout food — and make sure the containers are made of paper or compostable materials.

And those plastic bags, the ones we can’t seem to do without? The ones we tried to encourage people not to use, and then gave up?

For the first time ever, I had to be very careful not to pack anything (like shoes) in a plastic bag in my luggage. Kenya has joined a growing list of countries in Africa to ban single-use plastic bags. Some, like Uganda, have had limited success.

Not Kenya — enforcement is strict and the penalties are severe. With fines of US$400 and/or four years in jail, the government means business.

In the Nairobi airport on my way home, I ran into Judy Wakhungu, Kenya’s cabinet secretary for environment, water and natural resources, and told her how wonderful it was that the Kenyan government was doing something about the problem of plastics pollution.

She said they were serious about cleaning up the problem, and the strict enforcement would continue. She was glad to hear me report that driving through the countryside, this time, past dozens of outdoor markets, plastic bags were nowhere to be seen.

Government regulations can work, if they are applied to everyone. In Nairobi, people walk into the upscale Two Rivers Mall carrying their own shopping bags — because they have no other choice except to put mushrooms in their pockets.

A ban on single-use plastics of all kinds — starting with bags — could be part of a Manitoba climate and green plan.

It only took Kenya six months.

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Desperation agriculture won’t feed the world

(December 14, 2017)

At a United Nations environment meeting in Nairobi in 2013 about “feeding the world,” I got into an argument with several officials when I objected to the theme.

We don’t need to try to feed the world, I said. We need sustainable agriculture, instead.

It was not a popular opinion, despite the long-term disastrous consequences of the 1980s Green Revolution — rapid declines in productivity, soil fertility, arable land in production, and so on. The benefits of intensive agriculture had turned out to be short term, requiring chemical fertilizers, new crop varieties, pesticides and herbicides — all of which increased the costs of farming and required larger yields and higher returns to be sustainable.

When the bubble burst, some developing countries went from being net exporters to net importers of food, and became more food insecure almost overnight.

“Feeding the world” has become justification for continuing current industrial agricultural practices, despite the obviously bad ecological impacts of how we produce our food. In addition, we are essentially farming oil, given the greenhouse gases produced and the fossil fuels consumed in fertilizers, as well as in fuel for our tractors and trucks.

For a sustainable future, we need to choose sustainable agriculture over what I suggest should really be called “desperation agriculture.”

Desperation agriculture is more than industrial agriculture. It includes all those agricultural practices that place other values ahead of sustainability.

Subsistence agriculture can also be desperation agriculture — small-holder farmers trying to be sure they produce enough to feed their families, for now. It would include fishing, hunting — whatever is needed to produce enough food to survive. If this means burning rain forest to graze cattle, slash-and-burn becomes what we have to do. Tomorrow can take care of itself.

Many farmers using industrial farming practices have the same problem — costs are so high that cash crops are essential, every season, requiring fertilizer inputs to enable this constant production while making other more-sustainable practices (such as leaving land fallow) impractical.

Such practice also becomes desperation agriculture, with increasing debt loads that mean constantly being one harvest away from disaster, requiring jobs off the farm to cover the perpetual shortfall in family income. When the bank owns more than the farmer, long-term sustainable farming practices may be a luxury the farm-as-business can’t afford.

Salinity of the soil, soil depletion, vulnerability of mono-crops to pests and disease, water pollution from large-scale animal production — all these things are seen as inevitable, just the cost of doing business.

“Feeding the world” is therefore essentially an ideological stance, something that is used to perpetuate agricultural practices that are short-sighted, ecologically destructive, and that prefer short-term benefits for a few despite the long-term negative consequences for all.

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Green plans on the bus to nowhere

(December 5, 2017)

It has been a busy month on the inter-governmental climate file.

The annual United Nations climate conference (COP 23) just wrapped up in Bonn, Germany, with Canada dodging its previous array of Fossil of the Day awards.

Preparations are under way for the third United Nations Environment Assembly in Nairobi, Kenya in early December, on the theme of co-ordinating global responses to pollution of all kinds.

Whatever the positive spins toward progress, however, the anxiety remains that too little is being done, too late.

Applauding initiatives that are intended to bear fruit by 2030 is like enthusing over the menu for the Titanic’s 10th trip.

To be fair, countries such as France, which announced the end of fossil fuel vehicles by 2040, at least give the impression of caring and trying to make a difference.

Just not us.

Companies such as Volvo, which announced new electric vehicles within the next five years, are trying even harder.

Just not us.

Efforts to improve and expand public transportation infrastructure that allows people to lose their cars but not their dignity are the best way to make a difference in the transportation sector.

Just not here.

You have my theme by now. Other people in other places seem at least to have a glimmer of what needs to be done, and why, to address global warming and the climate catastrophes that are brewing.

Just not the leadership of Manitoba — neither provincial nor municipal.

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