Category: Uncategorized (Page 1 of 2)

Aquaculture – Is it Really the Answer?


Joshua Berg


Aquaculture – Is it Really the Answer?


According to NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association), aquaculture is the rearing, breeding and harvesting of plants and animals from marine environments of all types.[1]  This method of food production has become increasingly popular in recent years, as increased demand for seafood worldwide has triggered the heavy industrialization of the aquaculture industry. Ideally increased aquaculture would lessen the stress on natural fisheries that are threatened by overfishing and other factors.[2] However, this rapid evolution of the industry has created unforeseen consequences that need to be addressed, as the industry shows no sign of slowing growth.


Over the past 30 years the production of certain fish, shrimp, clams and oysters worldwide has more than doubled in its harvest weight almost exclusively due to aquaculture.   As catches in marine animals raised in aquaculture increased as expected, catches of wild caught species remained the same.[3]  This trend is concerning as one of the main reasons for investing in aquaculture facilities is to lessen stress on the ocean’s endangered fisheries. Let’s discuss the reasons as to why aquaculture has not achieved the main goal of lessening stress on the ocean’s fisheries and whether or not aquaculture is a viable and sustainable method of seafood production.


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Total Aquaculture Production by Region from 1980-2011

Aquaculture facilities vary greatly as a multitude of factors contribute to what equipment and location is best suited for a specific site. There is also little government oversight of aquaculture facilities around the world due to the rapid expansion of the industry.  This lack of regulation has had its share of detrimental impacts on the environment consequently putting increased strain on the wild fisheries many aquaculture operations intend to protect.  The world’s leaders in aquaculture predominantly located in Asia, have yet to strictly enforce industry standards.[4]  As a result many vital habitats along coastal areas have been destroyed.  Specifically mangroves and coastal wetlands have been exploited by aquaculture have been transformed into to breeding ponds for various species.  However, these areas consequently lose their ability to provide essential environmental services such as flood control and nutrient filtration.  The loss of these services damages the wild fisheries located in the proximity of aquaculture operations and once again places additional stress on the wild fisheries.


One of the most concerning consequences of aquaculture that can occur if facilities are not managed properly is the escape of non-native fish and the contamination of wild fishery gene pools.[5]  Many breeds of fish and mollusks raised via aquaculture are genetically modified or different than their wild counterparts.  The mating of native and non-native species has occurred as aquaculture’s presence has increased. A clear example of this escape and contamination of wild fisheries can be found in the case of the Atlantic Salmon.  Atlantic Salmon is major farmed species of salmon worldwide and while they are supposed to be highly contained in aquaculture, it has been found that nearly forty percent of wild caught Atlantic Salmon were initially bred in an aquaculture.[6]  This decreases genetic variability in the Atlantic Salmon making it more difficult for the species to evolve when natural conditions change, therefore making the species more susceptible to disease and other natural disasters.  Despite these negative consequences of aquaculture there are positive benefits as well.



Aquaculture Facility in Asia

The United States currently ranks 15th worldwide in the amount of seafood produced through aquaculture, leaving significant room for growth in this industry.  If growth in this industry follows the increasing demand for seafood, it is estimated that by 2025 there could be between 180,000-600,000 American jobs created.[7] These jobs would be located primarily in coastal regions that are currently suffering from declining fish stocks.  In addition, the seafood industry currently has a deficit of $6 billion dollars second only to oil.[8]  Increased aquaculture would lessen America’s dependence on foreign economies stabilizing the domestic seafood market and potentially creating an additional export.


With both positive and negative consequences of aquaculture creating a difficult crossroads, it will be interesting to observe how the United States will implement aquaculture facilities around the country.  Regardless of aquaculture’s future success, or lack there of it is crucial to keep in mind that there must stringent regulations placed on operators in order to ensure the smallest amount of collateral damage to wild fisheries.  I believe that if aquaculture operations are managed responsibly and proactive measures are taken such as preventing fish escape and producing fish feed sustainably that aquaculture can successfully reduce stress on wild fisheries.






[3] Naylor, Rosamond L., and Rebecca J. Gouldburg. “Effects of Aquaculture in World Fish Supplies.” Issues in Ecology (2001): 1-12. Print.



[6] Naylor, Rosamond L., and Rebecca J. Gouldburg. “Effects of Aquaculture in World Fish Supplies.” Issues in Ecology (2001): 1-12. Print.



Ag Alternatives: Embracing the Weeds and Urban Agriculture

Tess Harper

The often-misquoted Henry David Thoreau once said, “in wildness is the preservation of the world”. However, in today’s ever growing, urbanized, technology-oriented world, how are people still able to hold onto this fleeting sense of what is wild?

Traditionally, wildness, often associated with wilderness, has been considered to be synonymous to “free from human influence”. According to Emma Marris in her controversial book Rambunctious Garden, this tendency gives a limited scope to the way that we define the wild, and really nature, around us. Further, she postulates that this way of thinking about the environment will continue to foster man’s ignorance and degradation of his surroundings. The argument for a more liberal characterization of the traditional definition of “wild”, to include abandoned city lots, highway median and roofs, would aid in creating a collective consciousness of the green space around us and the omnipresence of nature. Wildness can ultimately be found in your own, urban, developed backyard.

 Upon reading Marris’ book and her push for innovative conservation solutions, my thoughts immediately fell to the prospect of urban agriculture ventures. Although not a substitute to the hundreds upon thousands of acres of highly managed (and eroded) farmland in the Midwest, urban gardens can serve as a small step in the direction of eco-consciousness.

A city surveyor inspects an urban garden that lies near a elevated subway rail in Brooklyn, NY.

The push for “eating local” is at the forefront of the sustainable food movement that has quietly begun to sweep the nation. [i] This newfound awareness for food production and policy in the U.S has resulted in a surge of farmers markets and local food producers as well as consumer demand for their products, with “local food” sales estimated to be a nearly 7 billion dollar industry. [ii]

Urban agriculture seems to be the lovechild of innovative conservation solutions and American’s growing appetite  for locally harvested produce. For one, the increase of green space in cities in and of itself helps to decrease run off and increase shade in certain locations. [iii]Further, these added green areas could help to combat the “heat island” effect that currently plagues many cities through evapotranspiration that will effectively help mitigate high temperatures.[iv]

However, more in alignment with Marris’ argument is the fact that urban gardens help people reconnect with nature and their surroundings. By encountering gardens intermingled amongst skyscrapers, it becomes easier for people to intertwine the two and see the “wild” in their everyday lives. Further, people become more aware of where there food comes from. By producing fruits and vegetables on city roofs and abandoned lots, these ventures successfully limit the number of “food miles” between the consumer, you, and the sourcing of food as well make people more aware of the environment around them.

With population sizes increasing and with 6 out of 10 of us predicted to be living in cities by 2030, the adoption of more innovative agricultural solutions is a necessary step in cities all over the world. [v]  Again, although it is not a complete alternative to the traditional food system, urban ag is a viable supplement to our current industrial food sourcing model. What’s more, implementing these small farming ventures supports both sustainable agriculture as well as the expanded definition of nature in our everyday lives.

An urban agriculture venture in Seattle, a city that is taking initiative to implement urban ag friendly policy.

Through policy innovation and the implementation of urban agriculture infrastructure by nonprofit organizations and municipalities, our cities can move towards this model. For example, localities can help to aid in start up costs, a deterring factor for many average-income citizens, and incentivize urban agriculture by providing access to grants and low-interest loans.[vi]

Cities also have the power instill urban-ag friendly zoning laws, that allow for the protection of designated land from redevelopment while also encouraging farmers and gardeners to invest in infrastructure development. Through smart urban planning and land use codes, Seattle, for example, has created the opportunity for people to grow food in their yards for sale, host chickens, and build greenhouses in certain residential areas.[vii].

Local governments can and should create food policy councils to work towards the inclusion of local producers, urban farmers included. By creating a Department dedicated to communities or neighborhoods, these government bodies can start working to create community gardens, and community kitchens, both of which could be particularly impactful in low-income areas.

There are an unlimited number of steps that local governments can take to support urban agriculture. This sort of permeating change that will be needed to restructure our nation’s current food system starts with us – city and suburban dwellers who have a stake in where our food is produced. By holding our local legislators accountable on this issue, urban agriculture has the chance to flourish and change the future of urban planning and how we view our surroundings.

Urban roof top garden time-lapse








An Island Divided: What the World Must Learn from Tragedy on Hispaniola

 A faded castle amidst a dry and desolate landscape: my last image of Haiti still sears like a hot burn in my mind.

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Traveling over roads that were nothing more than rutted ditches and dried creek beds, we were heading for the Haitian border. Our plans to fly out of Port-au-Prince that morning had been derailed by news that Aristide, Haiti’s former ruler, had decided to return from exile. Hoping to avoid election turmoil and possible violence in the Haitian capital, we decided to attempt a dusty, daring escape out through the Dominican Republic (DR) instead.

I had witnessed desperation in Haiti: arid soils, food scarcity, disease, malnutrition, and polluted drinking water. However, driving into the forested mountains of the DR, I finally realized what Haiti had truly lost. It had lost its green: the green of life, the green that meant water and food and hope.


In the late 1600s, France took over the western part of the island of Hispaniola from Spain, dividing the island into what is now Haiti and the DR.1 Like a science experiment gone wrong, the border now demarks not only linguistic differences, but also an entirely different quality of life. In 1960, both countries experienced essentially the same rainfall patterns and enjoyed the same geography, availability of natural resources, and land productivity.2 The countries had nearly the same per capita real GDP.2 However, by 2005, the Dominican Republic’s per capita real GDP had increased threefold, while Haiti’s had plummeted.2 Now, the average person in the DR can expect to live a full ten years longer than their neighbor in Haiti.3,4 The percentage of the population below the minimum level of dietary energy consumption is 44.5% in Haiti, compared to 15.4% in the DR.3,4 The probability of dying under the age of 5 per 1,000 births in Haiti in 76, while in DR, the number is less than half of that.3,4 The DR has become a magnet for tourism, while Haiti has become a social, political, and economic tragedy. What happened?

In 1950, forest clearing for plantations and wood exports in Haiti had largely ended, but wood harvesting for charcoal continued.5 A mere thirty years later, forest cover had diminished from 25% of the total land area to a meager 10%. It decreased again to 4% of the land by 1994.5

Across the border, the Dominican Republic initially suffered from deforestation as well. Tree cover plummeted from 75% of the land in 1922 to 12% by the 1980s.5 However, massive reforestation programs and a conscious shift to alternative energy sources (besides charcoal) allowed the trees to rebound. The nation established thirteen national parks and restricted access to important forest reserves.6 Today, forest covers 28% of the country.5

So what was the connection between the dying children I held in my arms in Hinche, Haiti, and dusty landscape that they lived in? What was the relationship between the tropical forest and the avocados in the fruit markets of the DR? Why would I leave one country in tears, and the other with memories of bachata music and Corona beer? The answer is simple: trees bring life.

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Forests prevent soil erosion. Sturdy trunks slow winds. Roots hold the soil in place and improve soil permeability. They allow water to percolate into underground aquifers, decreasing surface water runoff. Leaves lessen the impact of heavy rains and reduce flooding. Dead trees, leaves, and bark add organic matter to the topsoil, completing nutrient cycles and replenishing the land. Forests act as natural buffers as well, slowing floodwaters and shielding the coast from hurricane surges. In 2004, Hurricane Jeanne killed more than 3,000 people in Haiti, while the DR lost nineteen.5 While other factors undoubtedly contributed to these numbers, the ability of forested coasts and watershed areas to mitigate hurricane damage is undeniable.  

The UN estimates that “50% of the (Haitian) topsoil has been washed away into the ocean” and that damaged lands have become “irreclaimable for farming purposes”.5 Although nearly 60 percent of the Haitian people work in the agricultural sector, the country still must import nearly half of its food. Even so, nearly 30% of Haitian children endure chronic malnutrition.7


While Haiti has also suffered from serious political strife since 1960, environmental degradation remains one of its greatest challenges. We cannot continue to view environmental policies as counter to economic growth and human happiness, but as necessary to achieve them.  Climate change and an ever-increasing population mean that decisions have to be made now. And the time to think sustainably has come.

Media Facing a New Form of Climate Debate

Last month,, a blog once a part of the New York Times, began publishing its first articles. Founded by statistician and author Nate Silver, the blog aspires for a new form of objective and data-driven journalism.

However, the blog’s first ever article on climate change has environmentalists worried. The piece, “Disasters Cost More Than Ever – But Not Because of Climate Change,” focuses on recent increases in the financial costs of natural disasters. Roger Pielke Jr., the author and a professor of environmental studies at University of Colorado Boulder, concludes through statistical analysis that the upward trend in natural disaster costs are driven by increases in wealth. [1]

This is not too surprising a conclusion. For example, as we develop more and more expensive beachfront properties, we should expect hurricanes and floods to have a higher price tag. [2]

Hurricane Sandy cost an estimated $65 billion.

Hurricane Sandy cost an estimated $65 billion.

So what’s so controversial?

As the title of his piece suggests, Pielke goes on to assert that in particular climate change has had absolutely no impact on these recent increases in disaster costs, all of which instead can be attributed to the increases in wealth.

“In the last two decades, natural disaster costs worldwide went from about $100 billion per year to almost twice that amount…Indicative of more frequent disasters punishing communities worldwide? Perhaps the effects of climate change? …[A]ll those questions have the same answer: no.”

First of all, anyone with a scientific or statistical background should cringe over the definitiveness of that phrasing. Political pundits eagerly make such bold claims, but not scientists. Scientists back up every claim with an appropriate measure of uncertainty. The difference may seem nitpicky, but for a for a website portrayed as being rigorous and data-driven, it is unacceptable.

Pielke then goes on to say, “When you next hear someone tell you that worthy and useful efforts to mitigate climate change will lead to fewer natural disasters, remember these numbers…” Through his simple data analysis he claims to have proven that climate change has no effect on the frequency of disasters, something an entire body of ongoing research has not.

Predictably, environmentalists and the broader public were quick to jump on the piece, with 80% of the page’s comments being negative. Even climate scientists joined the fray, describing the piece as “deeply misleading” and “surprisingly sloppy.” [3]

In response to the negative press, Nate Silver defended Pielke’s academic credibility but admitted, “[T]hese claims shouldn’t have been included in the story as offhand remarks. These things reflect a poor job of editing on our part.” He then commissioned a rebuttal article from Kerry Emanuel, a professor of atmospheric science at M.I.T. [4]

In his response, Emmanuel criticized several of Pielke’s methods and assertions, including the use of GDP to make claims about climate change as well as Pielke’s analysis of a relatively low amount of data.

Nate Silver defending his blog’s controversial first piece on climate change.

Nate Silver defending his blog’s controversial first piece on climate change.

Many have criticized the media for portraying a controversy over the fundamental science of climate change when they should instead shift gears and focus on the specific impacts and solutions. The debate at highlights some of the issues that can arise when the media does make that change.

As a journalist, how do you report on this (important) topic when the debate lies in minute details and scientific methods above the heads of everyday readers? Moreover, should scientists only publish their results in peer-reviewed academic outlets, or can they bypass this process and report their findings directly to the broader media (as Pielke appears to have done)? [5]



[1] As approximated by GDP

[2] Of course, this (inaccurately) assumes we do not at the same time develop better mitigation technologies.

[3] Pielke wrote an additional response to these scientists defending his claims.

[4] Although I believe publishing Pielke’s article was a mistake, Silver’s response has made me respect the blog even more. Silver posted a response to the criticisms on the blog and even commissioned a rebuttal piece from a well-known climate scientist. This demonstrated incredible journalistic ethics and sets it apart from any other news media I follow.

[5] If you were paying attention, you’ll know the answer is not a simple yes or no!

Major Farms Cause Major Harm, But Sustainability Is On The Rise

The current models of agribusiness and meat production are detrimental to the environment. There is very little profit margin in selling food, so to maximize profit big businesses aim to maximize production. Technological advances and a profit-maximizing mentality have led the industry to adopt harmful practices. Let me give you a brief overview of what I consider to be some of the most pressing issues.

First, in order to maximize their crop yields with minimal effort big agribusinesses utilize synthetic chemical fertilizers. These fertilizers provide the plants with the nutrients they need, but they have two major faults. They convert the soil into an environment that is impossible for certain microorganisms, integral to the health of many plants, to live. The result is a vicious cycle that requires the use of more chemical fertilizer in the growing of future plants. [1]

This may not be so bad if runoff water did not collect the fertilizers as it passes over agricultural land. Through the system of streams and water pathways the runoff eventually end up in large rivers. These rivers dump water full of fertilizer into the ocean. Just as the fertilizer provides nutrients to land plants, it also feeds algae. Huge algal blooms occur in these spots that have high concentrations of fertilizer. When the algae dies and decays it creates hypoxic (low oxygen) zones that are uninhabitable for most living organisms. This can and does destroy entire marine ecosystems as exemplified by the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico. This dead zone is approximated to cover 5,840 square miles. [2]

Another tool that agribusinesses use to maximize production is monocropping. It can more profitable for farms to produce a lot of one crop rather than lesser amounts of varied crops. This streamlines harvesting and the application of pesticides and fertilizers so that they can be carried out by machinery rather than by hand. Monocropping lowers labor costs, but planting huge fields of genetically similar (or in some instances identical) has its repercussions. This is harmful to biodiversity because it creates a space in which fewer species and varieties of both planted and naturally occurring plants can grow.[3] Rotating plants can replenish the soil of certain nutrients and lessen the need of the synthetic fertilizers that I previously discussed.

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Monocropping and the lack of biodiversity that it entails make entire farms more vulnerable to pests. Due to the genetic similarity, if one plant is vulnerable to a specific pathogen or insect then so will all the others. This means that if a pest, fungus, or pathogen infects one plant it can easily rip through and kill an entire field of crops. [4]

Different plants’ roots grow to different depths in the soil. Root systems that include varied depths make it more difficult for pests to travel from one plant to the next, so it mitigates the damage a pest can do. Varied depths also limit competition between plants for nutrients in the soil. If they are taking up nutrients from different depths then more is available to each one promoting growth.  These are all reasons that polyculture (planting varied crops) produce higher yields and healthier ecosystems.[5]

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The last, and debatably scariest, issue that I want to discuss is actually a problem in meat production, not crop farming. That issue is the prodigious use of antibiotics in raising livestock. An astounding 80% of the antibiotics produced in the U.S. are administered to livestock. This is because the animals are unhealthy. Oftentimes in large meat operations they are kept in overcrowded and filthy conditions. It is also common to feed farm animals feed rather that they are not physiologically equipped to digest. These feeds increase fast weight gain rather than provide animals with nutrients they need to be healthy. Due to the feed and poor living conditions the animals need to be pumped full of antibiotics. As bacteria interacts with antibiotics strains that are only resistant strains remain, and this results in the evolution of more antibiotic resistant bacteria. These bacteria, and antibiotics are often present in the meat that humans consume. The bacteria can be a major health concern for people. Once infected humans have no way to battle antibiotic resistant bacteria.  Also, over consumption of antibiotics by people increases the risk of other similar resistant strains developing in and infecting humans directly. [6]


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Farm animals in the U.S. produce approximately two trillion tons of waste annually. This waste contains huge amounts of undigested antibiotics and dangerous resistant bacteria. These contents are picked up by runoff water and enter the water cycle. Contaminated water is detrimental to natural processes and organisms, and is eventually consumed by humans. [7]

Though there are many harmful effects of these conventional practices, a trend of smaller sustainable farming is growing. So there is hope! This is easy to see from the statistic, “U.S. sales of organic food and beverages have grown from $1 billion in 1990 to $26.7 billion in 2010.”[8] I will not go into detail, but some examples of increasingly popular and beneficial practices are biodynamic farming, permaculture design, aquaponic systems, polyculture crop rotation, and humanely pasture raising antibiotic-free animals.










Limits to Growth Revisited: Are Economic Growth and Environmental Regulations Compatible?

Greenpeace, a prominent environmental protection group, has declared that economic growth must cease altogether to ensure environmental sustainability [1]. When amendments to the Clean Air Act aimed at reducing acid rain were proposed, “the electric utility industry warned that they would cost $7.5 billion and tens of thousands of jobs” [2]. And, in the midst of a prolonged jobless recovery to the Great Recession, certain politicians and pundits are highly critical of any additional environmental regulations on similar economic grounds.


The “Limits to Growth” report predicted a collapse in economic output and natural resources as pollution increases [10].

Claims like these are not uncommon in the public discourse surrounding environmental policy and regulation, and beg the following question:  Is sustained long-run growth compatible with regulation aimed at protecting against environmental degradation and the depletion of natural resources?


As an aspiring academic economist, I view the importance of growth as self-evident. Economic prosperity is a near-necessary condition for the advancement of human welfare, but so is environmental health. Hence, if the two are incompatible, important tradeoffs must be made.


This is not to say that GDP is a perfect metric for human welfare, as Greenpeace seems to suggest is the dominant view in the economics profession (it is not) [3]. But, as first put forth in Lipset’s (1959) modernization theory, which has received inconsistently but generally positive empirical support [4, 5, 6], sustained GDP growth often brings with it societal characteristics – such as democracy and political openness – that we hold in high moral regard [7]. Even in the short-to-medium run, prolonged unemployment is understood to have substantial economic costs (through, e.g., job-market hysteresis) and be dehumanizing along non-economic dimensions (see, e.g., Amartya Sen’s “capabilities” theory of welfare).


Nor is this to say that environmental health should be valued solely through its services to human production and welfare. Even if methods and criteria for carrying out such non-market valuation were widely agreed upon (to my knowledge, they are not), it seems clear on both intuitive and philosophical grounds that environmental health should be “valued” for its own sake, if it can be “valued” at all. But, thinking in purely economic terms at least provides a lower bound on the level of environmental protection that should be instituted, and is therefore, I believe, a useful starting point.


How, then, can we intelligently address the question at hand? Careful economic theorizing provides an internally consistent way to attack the problem, so let’s see what this literature has to say.


Much theoretical work on joint economic and environmental dynamics is based on variants of the neoclassical growth model, in which agents’ key decision is how to invest in capital goods. Since capital growth drives output growth in this model, the key endogenous variable is the after-tax rate of return on capital (the real interest rate), which determines incentives to accumulate. The somewhat pessimistic conclusion of these models is that, since regulations such as carbon taxes drive down the real rate, there is a fundamental tradeoff between environmental quality and economic prosperity.


I favor a view of the world that both better captures the production dynamics in industrialized economies and largely eliminates the tension between environmental quality and continued economic growth. A recent paper by Acemoglu et al (2010) [8] determines the optimal environmental regulations in a model of directed technical change. Without delving into the taxonomy of endogenous growth theories (which posit that firm-level innovations drive aggregate output growth), models of directed technical change capture the intuitive and realistic idea that firms can be incentivized to undertake qualitatively different types of innovation.


This paper shows that, if we take the idea of directed technical change seriously, immediate interventions – in particular, an optimal combination of carbon taxes and research subsidies for “green” technologies – are optimal, and continue to be optimal even at “high” discount rates. Importantly, these interventions need only be temporary. The intuition is that the policy instruments direct innovation toward the “green” production sector, and that after a certain duration, this sector is sufficiently large that firms will choose to undertake green innovation and production even in the absence of taxes and subsidies. Robust growth survives in the long run.


Is this view too optimistic? Perhaps, but it provides yet another argument that carbon taxes are the way to go.


The bottom line? If we have faith in industry’s capabilities to innovate, immediate and decisive – but temporary – regulatory measures can reconcile continued growth with environmental health. Carbon taxes are a powerful instrument to this end, if only political incentives could align with their implementation – an event that may not be likely in the near term [9].





[4] Barro, R.J. (1999). “The Determinants of Democracy.” Journal of Political Economy.

[5] Benhabib, J., Corvalan, A., Spiegel, M. (2011). “Reestablishing the income-democracy nexus.” NBER Working Paper.

[6] Murtin, F., Wacziarg, R. (2013). “The Democratic Transition.” Journal of Economic Growth.

[7] Friedman, B. (2006). The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth. Vintage.

[8] Acemoglu, D., Aghion, P., Bursztyn, L., Hemous, D. (2010). “The Environment and Directed Technical Change.” Working paper.


[10] Meadows, Donella, et al (2004). The Limits to Growth: The 30-year Update.

Survivor: Easter Island

Easter Island is a small island in the Pacific that has achieved worldwide fame for its giant Moai statues, giant human sculptures erected on the island circa 1300 CE. Weighing as much as 86 tons and standing as tall as 33 feet, the Moai are akin to a Stonehenge of the South Pacific, unexplained monuments of a primitive civilization. [1]


Moai surveying Easter Island Source:

Moai surveying Easter Island

The Moai are not, however, Easter Island’s only mystery. Archaeologists and anthropologists have also struggled to explain the collapse of the island’s civilization in the sixteenth century. Scientists and historians have put forth a range of theories on the island’s downfall. [2]

The traditional narrative, as told by Jared Diamond, is one of manmade ecological collapse. According to Diamond, the agrarian inhabitants aggressively cleared the island’s trees with slash-and-burn techniques to make room for farms and did not stop until it was too late. With the trees vanished lumber for canoes and huts and protein the form of birds and other wildlife. With too many people and too few resources, the islander civilization caved. [3]

The second narrative, on the other hand, paints mankind as resilient in the face of ecological collapse. According to anthropologists Terry Hunt and Carl Lipo, while Easter Island’s inhabitants did indeed clear large tracts of forested land for farming, an invasive species of rat was equally responsible. Without natural predators, the rats quickly multiplied and assisted the islanders in clearing the trees by eating seeds and sprouts, thereby preventing reforestation . The islanders, however, made the most of the situation by developing innovative farming techniques and eating the rats until they succumbed to diseases brought by European settlers. [4]

Rats like this one became the islanders' main source of protein  Source:

Rats like this one became the islanders’ main source of protein

While both these theories are interesting within the context of Easter Island, they are even more poignant, as Robert Krulwich argues, when expanded as allegories to contemporary global environmental challenges, primarily those associated with climate change. [5] Obviously deforestation on a tiny South Pacific isle is not a perfect analogue for global climate change, but the two theories of Easter Island’s downfall reflect two different ways of conceiving of the relationship between human civilization and the environment.

Diamond’s is very much an environmentalist paradigm that highlights the inextricable link between human civilization and the environment. In his narrative, environmental resources are central to the existence and advancement of human civilization and the extent to which mankind can consume is constrained by environmental limits.

Diamond’s narrative also underscores an important but terrifying truth about human myopia and inaction in the face of environmental overexploitation. As Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert notes, humans are hardwired with a primal threat assessment mechanism. According to Gilbert, the threats with which primitive man was faced were immoral, imminent, instantaneous or intentional, and individuals best equipped to recognize and respond to those threats were more likely to survive and reproduce. Our threat-identification system hasn’t evolved much since then, so humans still respond most viscerally and decisively when a threat fulfills one of Gilbert’s four criteria. [6] This is why the deforestation of Easter Island (if you believe Diamond’s account), the unintentional and gradual byproduct of farming efforts, did not stop until collapse was ensured. This is also why politicians could enact sweeping policy reforms in the wake of the 9/11 attacks (which fulfilled all four of Gilbert’s criteria) while climate change, which is not instantaneous, imminent, intentional or obviously immoral, has yet to be addressed through decisive political engagement or meaningful public policy.

The second account of Easter Island’s collapse reflects Cornucopian sensibilities. Cornucopians stake their faith the boundless human capacity for innovation to overcome the finitude of the environmental resources. [7] In the second narrative, innovation was indeed the islanders’ salvation, allowing them to outlive the island’s ecosystem until European settlers arrived. The irony, of course, is that according to this narrative, the island’s ruin was the islanders’ salvation. The same rats that destroyed the ecosystem sustained the islanders until the Europeans arrived.

Today we have our own version of rats in the form of geoengineering technologies. Geoengineering technologies, including cloud whitening and ocean fertilization, have the potential to alter the environment so that it can better meet human needs. The risk is that these technologies are largely untested. At worst, they could cause severe ecological damage and compromise environmental resources essential to human civilization. At best, geoengineering will have no ecological impact, but will irreversibly transform the natural world into an extension of human society. [8] Once “the rat is out of the bag” as far as geoengineering is concerned, it’s out for good.

Geoengineering promises bold but risky methods for adapting to climate change Source:

Geoengineering promises bold but risky methods for adapting to climate change

Regardless of which story you believe, Easter Island paints a sobering picture of the challenges of climate change mitigation and the limits of adaptation. The environmentalist narrative in particular paints a bleak picture of our planet’s ecological future. If the inhabitants of a small island could not restrain themselves from overconsumption of a critical resource, what hope does modern society have of overcoming a far more complex environmental crisis that will require political collaboration and collective action?

I find the more optimistic narrative, of survival in the wake of ecocide, more troubling. The utter ruin of our planet’s ecosystem is a troubling thought, one that is easy to sugarcoat by placing faith in future scientific innovation and its capacity to limit climate change. But just as Easter Island’s rodent infestation proved a detriment and a salvation to the island’s human inhabitants, any solution that science presents to climate change will likely be imperfect and require some sacrifice.

Both narratives seem to agree on this lesson: as humans place an increasing burden on natural resources, we should not do so in the hope or expectation that science will deliver a panacea. Because even if a solution to climate change presents itself, it will likely demand uncomfortable compromises.

Works Referenced

[1] United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Office [UNESCO]. (n.d.)“Rapa Nui National Park.” UNESCO. Retrieved from

[2] Ibid.

[3] Diamond, J. (2005). Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. New York, NY: Viking Press.

[4] Hunt, T. & C. Lipo. (2011). The Statues that Walked: Unraveling the Mystery of Easter Island. New York, NY: Free Press.

[5] Krulwich, R. (2013, December 10). What Happened On Easter Island — A New (Even Scarier) Scenario. National Public Radio. Retrieved from

[6] Gilbert, D. (2010). Global Warming and Psychology. Address at Harvard University, Cambridge, MA. Retrieved from

[7] Layzer, J.A. (2012). The Environmental Case: Translating Values into Policy. Washington, DC: CQ Press.

[8] NPR Staff. (2013, October 20). To Fix Climate Change, Scientists Turn to Hacking Earth. National Public Radio. Retrieved from

Sustainable Arctic Offshore Drilling?

  • July 2012: Shell’s Oil Noble Discoverer drill ship’s anchor dislodges and drags ashore in Dutch Harbor, Alaska
  •  September 2012: Caught off guard by sea ice, Shell is forced to emergency halt drilling one day after beginning
  • September 2012: In a test conducted in Puget Sound, WA, Shell’s Arctic oil spill containment system is “crushed like a beer can”
  • November 2012: Noble Discoverer’s engine “backfires” and causes large fire.
  • Dec. 31, 2012: Shell’s Kulluk drilling rig grounds offshore Kodiak Island after repeatedly losing its tow line during a fierce storm
  • Today: Exploratory Offshore Arctic Drilling continues in the Arctic

 BSEE photo of damaged containment dome on board the Arctic Challenger

     Noble Discoverer being dragged onshore                      Crushed dome from containment test

Despite repeated attempts to obtain Arctic oil and repeated potentially dangerous complications due to extreme conditions, human activity in the Arctic continues to increase rapidly. In fact, in just the past couple of years, six of the eight countries that control land in the artic, the United States, Russia, Norway, Canada, Denmark and Iceland, have given energy companies permission to begin oil and gas exploration. Why? Because according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the Arctic Circle could contain at least 22% of the world’s undiscovered oil and gas deposits. Although this seems like a great opportunity for industry, the question of whether this oil can be extracted safely and sustainably remains up in the air.

Unfortunately for the Arctic, even without the presence of offshore drilling, this pristine and untouched environment is already being threatened due to climate change. Emissions of greenhouse gases are continuously raising the temperature of the arctic environment, causing significant melting of sea ice. This has detrimental impacts on the Arctic terrestrial animals, such as the polar bear, that rely on sea ice for survival. Arctic drilling further perpetrates this melting problem because with more drilling comes more emissions, as well as emissions from transportation vessels bringing workers and supplies, continuing the cycle of global warming and consequently melting ice.

Many environmentalists are arguing that Arctic offshore drilling will only further degrade this fragile Arctic environment. Regardless of precautionary measures, offshore drilling in any location has inherent risk of causing an oil spill because of the challenges of building underwater infrastructure. In order to prevent this from happening, governments have established emergency response plans if a potential blowout were to occur, but responding to a blowout after it occur is often too late when it comes to preventing ecosystem damage.

That being said, the oil industry claims that they can drill in the Arctic safely. In their perspective, arctic drilling is much less risky than drilling in other existing locations, such as the Gulf of Mexico, because they are drilling in wells that have significantly lower pressure and are at much shallower depths. These are relevant factors because if a blowout were to occur, the oil would leak into the water much slower, and the shallower depth would allow the rescue team to get to the pipe in less time.

However environmentalists counteract these arguments by pointing to two characteristics of the arctic that make a potential blowout particularly concerning. The first being that because of the low air and water temperature, oil does not break down the same way it would in a temperate environment where there is significantly more bacteria. Additionally, because of the large amounts of sea ice, oil from spills tends to gather around and under the ice, where it can remain for decades. Studies have shown that as a result of these two factors, the best technology to date would only able to recover 10-30% of oil released in an Arctic spill, leaving more than 3/4 of oil to remain in the ecosystem for years. This impacts the animals living in the water, as well as the indigenous people who rely on these animals for hunting and survival.

So after looking at both sides of the argument, the big question is: what amount of risk is allowed to exist for Arctic offshore drilling to be considered sustainable and safe? In my opinion, the answer should be absolutely no risk. It seems that regardless of precautionary measures and rescue plans, any amount of oil spilling into the arctic inflicts a great amount of harm on the Arctic environment and the species living there. The only way to drill sustainably would be to create a way that would guarantee absolutely no blowouts, and from what I can see, this seems nearly impossible. Unfortunately, this leaves a classic decision for our politicians and world leaders: prioritize our economic interests or prioritize our already dwindling environment? We’ll see how we proceed.




Sochi 2014: Why The Sustainability Record Matters

Like millions of other Americans, I’ve been overall enthralled by the athletes’ abilities and the venues’ beauty at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.  Regretfully, the splendor has made me forget about the toll of the games on the surrounding environment.  In my mind, the International Olympics Committee (IOC) most likely has lofty goals concerning international cooperation, human rights, and, of course, sustainability.  I imagined that the organization worked hard to promote these values.  Unfortunately, I was dismayed to learn that this last pillar – sustainability – has been all but ignored during the Russian games.

When Russia originally made a bid for the Olympics seven years ago, President Vladmir Putin promised a list of environmentally friendly measures: zero waste, heavy investment in alternative energy, restoration of endangered species to the surrounding areas, and the first carbon neutral Games in history (1).  However, none of these targets have been realized and some have even worsened.  For instance, the environmental group, Environmental Watch of the North Caucus (EWNC), has charged that construction in Sochi has severely damaged the surrounding lands (2).  EWNC has also accused Russia of illegal dumping, blocking brown bear migration routes, and limiting access to drinking water for native residents (1).

What was Russia’s response to these accusations?

Instead of addressing the problems, the government chose to suppress the faultfinders.  Environmental activists, such as Yevgeny Vitishko (a member of EWNC), were arrested for criticizing the ecological impact of the Winter Olympics.  Vitishko was taken into custody right before giving an environmental report on Sochi and was sentenced to three years in prison (2).  Another EWNC member, Suren Gazaryan, is now living in exile in Estonia after releasing a statement on ecosystem loss and hazardous conditions present in Sochi due to poor and rushed construction (1).  His statements have been supported by other academics.  Natalia Prudnikova of Altai State University backed Gazaryan, noting that there was a “serious threat of destruction of the most valuable and natural complexes” of the Caucasian reserve (3).  She explained that any clearing of trees for downhill ski or snowboarding would damage the unique biodiversity and habitats of the Western Caucasus, a UNESCO World Heritage Site (4).

Of course, I understand that the Olympics hold mostly entertainment and monetary value.  So why should the IOC even care about how the Games are conducted?  Why does the construction (and destruction) matter?  Why should Russia put the environment first?

My answers are honor and precedent.

For Russians, Sochi is a source of pride.  Being chosen as an Olympic venue, a stage for the entire world to watch, instantly grants the nation renown.  Already mired in controversy over human rights issues, Russia should attempt to uphold its reputation by ascertaining that its Olympics has a clean record all around.  Unfortunately, it seems that the government has already lost favor with some members of the IOC.  Former IOC member, Els van Breda Vriesman, has been outspoken over the fact that she (and other committee members) would not cast their votes for Sochi today, predominantly due to the environmental devastation that has occurred there (5).

It is also important for each Olympics Games to be an exemplar model for what will come four years down the road.  If construction at Sochi had not disturbed surrounding ecosystems and the planning committee had implemented greener policies, future Olympics may be planned in the same way.  Admittedly, Russia’s initial promises were impressive and have already inspired future countries to include similar goals in their bids for upcoming Olympic Games.  Already, South Korea has promised to invest in technologies such as rain and wastewater recycling and renewable energy sources for a carbon neutral 2018 Winter Olympics (1).  Hopefully, they will follow through.

Finally, IOC turning a blind eye to Russia’s lack of responsibility is shameful.  IOC has avoided directly addressing sustainably problems because it asserted “environmental complaints put forward by NGOs needed to be considered against [Russia’s] local context” (5).  However, it is in the Olympic Charter to uphold sustainability values.  In 1994, IOC adopted the environment as its “third dimension of Olympianism” (6).  It is unfortunate that only a decade later, the same organization has allowed the haste of production and presentation to overcome accountability and quality.  While the Olympic Games are about the sports, they are also about the principles we value.  We applaud the hard work and dedication of athletes, so the Olympic organizers should practice the same in adhering to their own tenants.  Like the competitors, every Olympics is another chance for IOC to ostentatiously show off what means the most to them.  As Dr. Allen Hershkowitz of the Natural Resources Defense Council cites, only one-tenth of the populations pays attention to science.  Two-thirds watch the Olympics (1).  As far as Sochi 2014 goes, a green message was not delivered.


Volunteer Tourism in Wake of Disaster

3.11.11-Breaking news hits the media: a 9.0 earthquake strikes the eastern shores of Tōhoku, Japan. A subsequent tsunami and nuclear meltdown devastate the prefecture, halts the nation, and grabs the attention of billions around the globe. Over 20,000 people are reported dead and/or missing under the massive amounts of rubble, and we’re reminded about the shear power of the environment.  Natural disasters quintessentially represent the power nature has over us. At little or no warning, the earth can instantly overcome regions of the world. In regards to how we respond to natural disasters, a growing industry, volunteer tourism, has arisen. Technology and globalization has moved the world to assist each other in times of need. Though in this wake of increased humanitarian aid, what have been the effects on how we look at and strive to mitigate catastrophe?


Crisis calls our attention and you can’t look away. 24-hour news surveillance and instantaneous reports bring an event happening on the other side of the globe to the palm of your hands. We attach ourselves to this sort of media and addict ourselves to the nearly identical news articles in search of new information on the tragedy. Technology has brought us to a whole new proximity to the source of devastation and charges people react. Through social media and other news outlets, people now more strongly respond to disaster, calling for change and an urge to personally participate. Individuals now solicit friends to donate, and NGOs call for volunteers, making people feel more involved in the recovery stage. Volunteerism, as such, has become an industry.

The volunteer tourism sector offers many positives and is understandably very popular. People can travel across the world, see new places, and embark on rewarding selfless adventures. Participants see volunteering as win-win situations-they offer free labor and in return receive a sense of self-gratification.  Although the industry itself is not dishonorable, there are negative effects of international volunteerism.

For one, inexperience tends to be quite high among volunteers. The highest rate of volunteers abroad is below 24 years old[1]. This is in part because college students make up a majority of this group. They for one have the time to volunteer, and secondly have access to such programs. Though as a consequence, the core of many volunteer group is comprised of young people who do not necessarily have the skills or expertise to asses and manage projects. Volunteers don’t always know the language of where they’re serving, and their presence can end up being a burden more than asset[2].

The topic of volunteerism is a bit tricky. Here at Duke we love to volunteer. For example, the DukeEngage program sends students around the world on a variety of humanitarian and environmental projects. Though the objective of DukeEngage is to provide an experience rather than a most effectively means of service, many relief organizations work off of this model. It’s Not Just Mud (INJM) for example is an international grassroots NGO based in Japan that recruits international volunteers for its programs. Their projects provided aid after the great East Japan earthquake through a core of international recruits. They cleared rubble, built homes, and helped rebuild the community in northern Japan. There is physical evidence of their contributions, however is this really the best model to provide assistance on? Probably not…

After 3.11, Americans, like myself, saw what was happening in Japan and wanted to volunteer. It was through Facebook campaigns and dramatic live news coverage that lead me to really want to go to the scene, see it for myself, and volunteer. The drive eventually got me to Japan, and I interned with a relief organization for a summer. I appreciate and value the experience I gained through my volunteer work, however I do not believe that I effectively really contributed to the relief effort. My time was appreciated, however the money spent to get me to and live in Japan could have put to better use. Rather if that money was given to a Japanese aid organization to help dispatching local volunteers, more work could have been done.

This is an issue that does not only relate to the 2011 Japanese earthquake, but relates to every natural disaster globally. It is not that volunteer tourism organizations are doing anything inherently bad, it’s rather that they’re selfishly sending volunteers for the purpose of the volunteers’ personal experience. These organizations will not cease to exist, however it is important to consider the gains and losses attained when dispatching a volunteer from abroad. When disaster strikes in the future, how will you support the cause?



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