Sunday, October 28, 2007

Flickr Find: Environmental slideshow

I was looking through Flickr today and I found a great group called "Environment." As you would expect, the group focuses on nature photography, particularly striking photographs (like the one above) that remind people of how much they value their environment. Check out the slideshow here, you won't regret it.

Dr. Green Blog Update: new features

I spent some time today playing around with the blog, and added some cool things to the site's sidebar (on the right-hand side). There's now a poll, a real-time list of environment-related headlines, and a list of some environmental sites that I think are cool and valuable. This is just some of the stuff that I've been thinking about for the site, but I was wondering whether any readers had features that they'd like to see on the blog? I'm open to any suggestions.

Also, keep sending in those questions for Dr. Green, and posting comments. This blog depends on all of you, too!

Thanks for reading. I'm having a great time posting for you all and look forward to hearing from you in the comments!

10 VERY green schools

Ahh, the joys of being a senior in high school. Excitement is in the air as seniors across the country scramble madly to get their applications in on time. As the deadline is just around the corner (Early Decision, that is...), I thought it'd be appropriate to post about a rather unexplored college-related topic: environmentalism on college campuses.
The Sierra Club did a comprehensive investigation of hundreds of American universities and compiled a list of the 10 "Greenest" schools in the country (read the full article here). Oberlin University, Harvard, and the UC system take 1st, 2nd, and 4th places, respectively, and boast such innovations as real-time energy-monitoring systems in dorm rooms and subsidized public transportation. An interesting common trait among the 10 schools is an effort to buy locally-produced food (à la the 100-mile Diet), which has economic benefits as well as considerable environmental ones.

On a related note, I recently heard about something called the Campus Climate Challenge, a program that works with universities and students to both develop greener schools and also to influence environmental policy around the world. The organization has partnered with MTV (remember those "Break the Addiction" commercials?), and has local chapters all over the country. VERY good to know for you seniors out there.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Ask Dr. Green: Planting Trees in Africa

Last week, I received a question from Byaruhanga Denis, a college student at the Makerere University, a prestigious research institution in Kampala, Uganda. He wanted to know "why is it that people in developing countries are reluctant to plant trees
despite the bulk indigenous knowledge on trees/shrubs?" This topic was well beyond my scope of knowledge, but I've done some research and I think I've found an answer to this rather fascinating question.

There are countless advantages to planting trees anywhere, but in Africa, especially, the benefits are quite persuasive. In addition to the absorption of carbon dioxide in the air, trees are invaluable tools in water and soil conservation in the driest areas of Africa; they also help prevent wind erosion. They provide valuable non-wood forest products (NWFPs) like gums, saps, resins, honey, and medicinal plants, which play an important role in local economies. In an area where desertification due to climate change is already beginning to become a reality, the importance of planting trees must not be underestimated.

Unfortunately, as Byaruhanga points out, there is a reluctance among local farmers and governments alike to plant new trees, especially indigenous species. Since many farmers live well below the poverty line, the cultivation of cash crops like cowpeas and groundnuts is much more inviting than planting trees; the issue of farmland tenure compounds the problem--farmers are less likely to plant slow-maturing trees, which are viewed as a long-term investment, when they are unsure whether they will still own the land once the trees have matured. The physical selling of tree seeds and seedlings has proved problematic: large-scale nurseries are impractical, as they require a lot of water, and thus seeds, and especially saplings, have become harder and harder to come by. The misconception that trees will not grow in dry regions without large amounts of water is very widely held in Africa; research has shown that certain species can thrive on very little water, although those species are not very numerous and not very easy to come by. According to Farms, Trees and Farmers: Responses to Agricultural Intensification, by J. E. M. Arnold and Peter A. Dewees, there is an innate reluctance associated with planting trees in many African cultures--some cultures believe that only God can plant indigenous species, while others believe that trees are "'something already there, to be used or managed' rather than to be planted." (Interestingly, many of these cultural restrictions only apply to indigenous species--farmers are free to plant exotic trees.)

Despite all of the many problems faced by African nations today, there are efforts underway to plant trees, especially indigenous species, in African soil. Spearheaded by the U.N. Food And Agricultural organization, the Parklands system works with farmers to plant trees in unused portions of crop fields across Africa, especially in the dry regions. Some African nations, including South Africa, are instituting tree planting programs à la Los Angeles, complete with incentives and distribution programs.

For more information on this topic, check out this report from the European Tropical Forest Research Network.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Finally, a Nobel for Gore

Big news: in case anyone hasn't heard yet, Al Gore was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize yesterday, along with the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (ICCP)! Below is a video of his acceptance speech.

My opinion? Click below.

A few months ago, I wrote an editorial piece for Earthteam entitled, "Why Al Gore Deserves The Nobel Peace Prize." I mentioned all the usual praise used to describe Gore's efforts to combat climate change--his work on drafting environmental policy, his ambitious and symbolic schedule of public appearances and speeches...oh, and that movie. But I stressed in that article--and I still believe this today--that the most important thing Gore has done is effectively presenting climate change as an issue of monumental significance. The simple fact that he has played a part in getting people to talk about global warming, and begin to think about doing something about it before it's too late, is no small accomplishment.

Now that my take on this news has been spelled out in a rather cheesy and one-sided fashion, I'd like to hear yours. Does Gore deserve such an honor? Does he deserve a place among such distinguished past recipients as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Elie Wiesel, Nelson Mandela, and many other human rights activists? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

A Greener LA?

Over the long weekend, I went to Los Angeles with my family to visit UCLA. Overall, the city is as dirty and smoggy as ever, but there's something new in the air here--buzz over the new Million Trees LA initiative. My interest was piqued by the name alone; a million trees? Ambitious...but realistic? Here's what I found out. The campaign is headed by LA Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, and is intended to help transform the city into a "sustainable, green city." Over the next few years, the community (businesses as well as individuals and community groups) will theoretically work together and either pledge/donate to the program or actually plant trees and report their efforts to the city. Any tree counts, whether it's a seedling or a transplant, as long as it's planted inside LA city limits; residential customers of LADWP (L.A. Dept. of Water and Power) can snag up to 7 free trees to plant as they wish.

The initiative was started about a year ago, and although the website mentions a live "Tree Count," I can't seem to find it, so I can't report on how much progress has been made thus far. But I can say that I saw plenty of billboards all across LA, as well as placards in shops and restaurants; clearly at least some Angelinos are taking this seriously. Hopefully some of LA's more famous and affluent residents will pitch in to get the ball rolling--someone like Brad Pitt or Reese Witherspoon or Steven Spielberg can buy a lot of trees, as can LA's big businesses (read: movie studios). Now that it's hip to go green in Hollywood (see Emmy post below, Leonardo DiCaprio, etc), hopefully the program will get the star power it needs to keep it from becoming another failed, cheesy, and half-hearted environmental gesture.

Saturday, October 6, 2007

Something New: Green Thing

As I was surfing the environmental blogs the other day I found this video, which immediately caught my eye:

It turns out this video is connected to a very exciting, innovative new site/organization called Green Thing. What makes Green Thing so great?

The concept behind the Green Thing project is stupidly simple: create a social network (kind of like Facebook, with editable profiles and communication systems) that encourages people to follow a regime of doing at least one "Green" thing per month. For example, this month's Green Thing is to walk. Just walk once. No pressure! The idea is that by providing the community with simple ways to help the environment, those little Green Things will add up to big CO2 savings and social impact. The site helps you track your Green activities and your carbon savings, and share them with other members of the Green Thing community. The best thing about Green Thing? The level of interaction: people can upload and view videos, photos, podcasts, and other content that accompanies each month's Thing, like the video above about the beauty of simply walking on grass. There's a ton of entertaining stuff already, and the site is growing fast.

If you sign up and join the community, you get put on their email list, and Green Thing will send you videos, notifications, etc about each month's activity. It's totally free, and it's definitely worth the effort. Green Thing is unique and really exciting--it makes it so easy and fun to help the Earth. Check it out.

A Case For Car-Free Zones: Think Greek

This summer, I went to Europe for the first time, and it was a completely mind-blowing experience. The architecture, the culture, the food, the nightlife--I was impressed by everything about it. Unfortunately, the effects of global warming are truly inescapable--in Greece, for example, the mercury hovered around 120? during my stay, which made it decidedly unpleasant to do anything but consume massive quantities of gelato and iced coffee on the beach. But even these sweltering temperatures don't compare to the probable long-term effects of Global Warming on Greece and the surrounding Baltic region. I discovered that Greece, and particularly Crete and some of the other islands, is projected to degenerate into arid desert in just a few decades, dooming this amazing country, with its fascinating culture and good-natured people, to a future of difficulty and uncertainty.

So what are the Greeks doing about it? Are they sitting back and watching passively, as many Americans are, while their home is slow-roasted by the sun? Not that I saw. As a people, they rely much less on resource-intensive luxuries like air-conditioning and long showers. They also tend to gravitate toward tiny, energy-efficient cars; SUVs are extremely unpopular. In addition to recently starting an ambitious recycling program and cracking down on air pollution in Athens and elsewhere, the Greek government is taking a stand on Global Warming by banning cars in various locations across the country, from the impossibly crowded streets of Athens to the picturesque islands of the Aegean. I was quite impressed when I witnessed this, especially on one of the islands I visited--you really don't realize how obnoxious cars are until they're suddenly taken away.

As I thought more about this curious phenomenon, I wondered why this couldn't be imported across the Atlantic. There are obvious cultural reasons, most glaringly the highly-evolved capitalist obsession with automobiles here--Americans seem to be surgically attached to their cars. Nonetheless, though, many American cities have taken steps in this direction, specifically our very own San Francisco. Spare The Air days, as well as the huge amount of money and effort the city has put into its public transportation system, have made the city not only greener, but more pleasant to visit. Other urban centers like L.A. and New York are beginning to take similar measures to do their part for the environment. Especially here in the Bay Area, it would seem that designated car-free zones wouldn't be that much of a stretch. Sadly, we as a people are reluctant to take such a drastic step.

So what else would it take? Is it possible for Americans to overcome their cultural inertia and commit to a genuine lifestyle change for the sake of their planet? I think that the seeds of such sentiment have been planted across the country, with the help of Al Gore, John McCain and other environmental loudmouths. It is up to America what they do with those seeds. If enough of us cared enough, we could push our cities to spend even more on mass transit and pave the way for car-free urban centers. To me, it seems like a matter of time until people start waking up, and I hope it'll happen before even car-free zones aren't enough to save the planet.

The Kyoto Protocol: How Far Have We Come?

In Kyoto, Japan, in December of 1997, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) did something remarkable. After much deliberation and bitter compromise, a coalition of over one hundred countries, including the United States, finalized negotiations on a document that set out specific, concrete, inescapable regulations on the future carbon emissions of all signing countries with the express goal of stabilizing the world’s greenhouse gases; called the Kyoto Protocol, the agreement was intended to capture the spirit of change and progressive idealism prevalent during this fateful conference. . Almost ten years later, the effects of this bold action can be seen around the steadily warming globe, with moderate to dramatic emission reductions in hundreds of nations, from Japan to France to Brazil; unfortunately, America is notably absent from the list of signatories who have actually ratified the treaty, and thus is not obligated, nor, apparently, inclined to honor the guidelines set out by the Kyoto committee.

Despite widespread support for the ratification of the treaty since its inception, Washington has carefully sidestepped the seemingly simple decision to support the treaty; the current President has refused to submit it to Congress for its official approval, citing several aspects of the agreement he views as “unfair.” Among the White House’s more commonly used rationalizations is the higher reduction requirements bestowed upon America as compared with China and India, nations exempted from Kyoto but which are independently pursuing aggressive alternative energy policies despite their status as developing nations. The President has stated that although the United States is the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases, the burden of fixing the planet “is a challenge that requires a 100% effort; ours, and the rest of the world's.”

Although the treaty has been criticized by the American political machine for being “flawed,” and although America pledges to be behind efforts to stop Global Warming, very few efforts to pass significant environmental legislation, “fair” or otherwise, succeeded in Washington for several years; indeed, only after Al Gore’s return to prominence did it become passé to dismiss global warming as an unproven anomaly without scientific basis. While much of Europe has mandated that alternative energy be a government sponsored growth industry, and that cars should have an average fuel economy of 43 miles to the gallon, America remains patriotically stubborn, arrogantly aloof to her responsibilities as a world leader.

Interestingly, and perhaps not surprisingly, this is not America’s first time being the odd man out on the world stage. Woodrow Wilson’s Treaty of Versailles was a similarly radical and progressive document when it was hammered out at the end of World War I; with the promising League of Nations, it provided both a glimmer of hope to war-torn Europe, and a possible solution to the ever-growing problem of violence in an increasingly complicated world. Sadly, the treaty was born without teeth, claws, fists, or other means of enforcement of its ideals, since America, who had emerged from the war unscathed as the world’s newest superpower, refused to support it. The League, though well-intentioned, was thus severely handicapped and was doomed to fail; if it hadn’t, if the US had been wise enough and noble enough to do the right thing and sign the treaty, the further conflicts that led to World War II could arguably have been prevented. But America’s judgement was clouded by egotism, much as it is today, and although many Americans believe that they have a duty as privileged and civilized citizens of the planet to do their part to save it, much as many pacifists did in the years after the Great War, the US government, with its close ties to the energy industry and its allergy to conservation spending, has once again sabotaged the planet through ignorance and arrogance..

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