From dust bowl to California drought: a climate scientist on the lessons we still haven’t learned
Maanvi Singh in San Francisco April 29, 2021
Photograph: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
California is once again in a drought, just four years after the last dry spell decimated ecosystems, fueled megafires and left many rural communities without well water.
Droughts are a natural part of the landscape in the American west, and the region has in many ways been shaped by its history of drought. But the climate scientist Peter Gleick argues that the droughts California is facing now are different than the ones that have historically cycled through the Golden State.
“These are not accidental, strange dry periods,” said Gleick, the co-founder of the Pacific Institute, a global thinktank that has become a leading voice on water issues in California and around the world. “They’re increasingly the norm.”
Gleick this week spoke with the Guardian about the history of drought in the west, and the urgency of reshaping our relationship to water. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
The California governor has declared a drought emergency in two counties, a few years after the state faced its last major drought from 2011-2017. Are more frequent dry periods part of a new normal?
The last drought was a wake up call to the effects of climate change. For the first time, the public began to make the connection that humans were impacting the climate and the water cycle – affecting the intensity and severity of our droughts.
Since that drought, we have learned some lessons about improving water efficiency, and reducing waste. We had serious conversations about things like getting rid of grass lawns for example. But we still haven’t learned the fundamental message: that these are not accidental, strange dry periods. They’re increasingly the norm.
We better start to assume that the sooner we put in place policies to save water, the better off we are. We don’t seem to have learned that there still is enormous untapped potential for conservation and efficiency despite our past improvements.
If the last drought helped people wake up to a worsening climate crisis, how did other defining droughts reshape our understanding of water in the region?
There were the dust bowl years of the 1930s, when thousands and thousands of people were dislocated from their homes in the western US because of severe drought that decimated agriculture and triggered deadly dust storms.
After drought in the 50s, we started building big water infrastructure like dams and aqueducts in California, in part because we knew that populations were growing in the coastal areas very rapidly and that we had to expand access to water supply. That infrastructure brought enormous benefits, but it came with massive costs that we didn’t appreciate at the time. In particular, it really started to disrupt our ecology.
Following the dust bowl, probably the worst drought we experienced in California was the 1976-1977 drought, which is considered the state’s worst two-year drought on record. That drought really, really showed us, OK, we’re vulnerable to extreme dry weather, despite having built these dams and the aqueducts to help store, conserve and distribute water. It showed us that massive population and economic growth has put new pressures on our water resources. I’d say that was our first real wake up call.
Of course, climate change wasn’t a contributor to the dust bowl in the 1930s. But it seems there are some major lessons we could learn from that period about how badly designed policies can really intensify natural disaster. Back then, it was farmers’ decision to plow up millions of acres of native grassland, and plant water-intensive crops that caused the soil to erode and stirred up the deadly, devastating dust storms that we associate with that drought.
The way we’ve decided to use water in the west has a long, complicated history. Going back to the dust bowl era, until now – at least on paper – agriculture and other industries have far greater rights than anyone else. And that has put an enormous stress on our system, economically.
Sure, during the dust bowl, settlers didn’t really understand some crucial things about soil management that we now understand. And we have learned how to make more food with less water. But we never had a rethink of our system of water rights, and how much of our limited water we should be spending on agriculture versus leaving in the natural ecosystem.
Those were lessons we should have learned during the dust bowl, and, frankly we are still having to learn.
Going back to the dust bowl era, until now – at least on paper – agriculture and other industries have far greater rights than anyone else
During the last drought, we saw the death of about 163m trees, and that dead vegetation helped fuel some of the worst fires in the state’s history. Even though research has found that conditions during the last drought were actually worse than the dust bowl – a lot of people in the west who lived through it wouldn’t describe it as being so bad.
Good infrastructure has insulated a lot of Californians from really feeling the impacts of drought. In the US, most of us don’t directly experience the consequences of drought the way people in other parts of the world do.
How do you measure 100m dead trees and the risk to forest fires that could be attributed to that drought? How do you measure the death of 95% of the Chinook salmon? How do you measure the impact on poor communities who were left without water? We don’t put dollar values on these things, and so we don’t directly see or feel the impact.
I don’t want to minimize the impact of the last drought on particular farmers. But the systems that we’ve built mean that even if some fields have to fallow, we can still keep growing during drought years. Even during a severe drought I can turn the water on my tap and, you know, incredibly cheap, pure water comes out.
But that’s not the case for many disadvantaged communities in the Central Valley, who couldn’t turn on the tap and get water. They’re the ones suffering most directly from the impacts of extreme drought, but they’re largely invisible to many other Californians. And that’s not the case for our ecosystems and fisheries and forests, which are dying out.
Residents in Texas and Oklahoma were recovering Thursday after hail as large as softballs battered portions of the states a day earlier, leaving behind shattered windows on cars and in homes.
In Oklahoma, at least one injury was reported when large hail hit Norman and surrounding areas Wednesday evening, officials said. A National Weather Service spotter reported hail in excess of 3 inches in diameter around 9 p.m. in the Norman area.
A wind gust of 69 mph was measured in the area at 9 p.m. as the storm pushed through.
In all there were 38 reports of severe hail across the two states, according to the Storm Prediction Center.
“Yesterday was certainly a billion-dollar hail loss day across the U.S.,” Northern Illinois University meteorologist Victor Gensini said. “San Antonio and Fort Worth, Texas – along with Norman – were all impacted with large to significant hail. In addition, there was one gargantuan (4 inch) hail report near Hondo, Texas.”
CNN senior meteorologist Dave Hennen said that it would be the second billion-dollar disaster this year in Texas, following the extreme Arctic outbreak back in February.
Hail makes up the highest number of insurance claims each year and can exceed $10 billion in losses annually, according to the Weather Channel.
The storms were part of a sprawling system that brought severe weather and heavy rain to much of the southern and central Plains. In addition to large hail, storms also produced damaging winds and a few possible tornadoes, CNN said.
People of Color Breathe More Hazardous Air. The Sources Are Everywhere.
Hiroko Tabuchi and Nadja Popovich April 28, 2021
Over the years, a mountain of evidence has brought to light a stark injustice: Compared with white Americans, people of color in the United States suffer disproportionately from exposure to pollution.
Now a new study on a particularly harmful type of air pollution shows just how broadly those disparities hold true. Black Americans are exposed to more pollution from every type of source, including industry, agriculture, all manner of vehicles, construction, residential sources and even emissions from restaurants. People of color more broadly, including Black and Hispanic people and Asian Americans, are exposed to more pollution from nearly every source.
The findings came as a surprise to the study’s researchers, who had not anticipated that the inequalities spanned so many types of pollution.
“We expected to find that just a couple of different sources were important for the disparate exposure among racial ethnic groups,” said Christopher W. Tessum, an assistant professor in environmental engineering and science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, who led the study. “But what we found instead was that almost all of the source types that we looked at contributed to this disparity.”
The study builds on a wealth of research that has shown that people of color in America live with more pollution than their white neighbors. Fine particulate matter air pollution, known as PM 2.5, is harmful to human health and is responsible for 85,000 to 200,000 excess deaths a year in the United States.
Racial and socioeconomic disparities in exposure to PM 2.5 have been well documented and have persisted despite an overall decline in particulate pollution. But the researchers sought to get a better grasp of whether these disparities came from just a handful of sources or whether the inequalities could be seen more widely.
They used an air quality model to analyze data from the Environmental Protection Agency on more than 5,000 emission sources collected as part of a 2014 nationwide emissions survey. Then they identified differences in exposure to each by broad race-ethnicity and income groups, based on U.S. census data.
They found that nearly all emissions sources caused disproportionate exposures for people of color, on average, as well as separately for Black, Hispanic and Asian people. Black people were exposed to higher-than-average concentrations from all major emissions groups, while white people were exposed to lower-than-average concentrations from almost all categories. The disparities were seen nationally as well as at the state level, across income levels and across the urban-rural divide.
These findings were consistent with the experiences of communities on the ground, said Robert D. Bullard, a professor at Texas Southern University who has written for more than 30 years about the need to redress environmental racism, who was not involved in the study.
“If you go to communities of color across this country and ask them, ‘What’s the source of the environmental problems?’ they can point you to every one: the highway, the chemical plants, the refineries, the legacy pollution left over from decades ago, in the houses, in the air, in the water, in the playgrounds,” he said. “Empirical research is now catching up with the reality: that America is segregated and so is pollution.”
On Wednesday, the Environmental Integrity Project, a nonprofit group founded by former officials from the EPA, released a separate report that found that 13 refineries across the United States had released elevated levels of benzene, another harmful pollutant, into mostly minority and lower income neighborhoods in 2020.
These disparities have roots in historical practices, like redlining, under which the federal government marked certain neighborhoods as risky for real estate investments because their residents were Black. For decades, residents of redlined areas were denied access to federally backed mortgages and other credit, fueling a cycle of disinvestment and environmental problems in those neighborhoods.
“Communities of color, especially Black communities, have been concentrated in areas adjacent to industrial facilities and industrial zones, and that goes back decades and decades, to redlining,” said Justin Onwenu, a Detroit-based organizer for the Sierra Club. “And a lot of our current infrastructure, our highways, were built on — built through — Black communities, so we’re breathing in diesel emissions and other pollution just because we’re located right next to these highways,” Onwenu said.
The latest research, published Wednesday in the journal Science Advances, shows how that legacy continues to cast a shadow. Emissions from industry, construction and both light- and heavy-duty vehicles were among the sources that caused the largest absolute disparities for Black, Hispanic and Asian Americans.
Particulate pollution from coal-fired power plants, meanwhile, was one of the only sources that substantially affected white Americans more than average. That was explained, Tessum said, by the predominantly white demographics of many coal towns. Coal power plants also tend to have smoke stacks that are many hundreds of feet high, scattering fine particles more evenly across larger areas.
Likely for the same geographic reason, white Americans were slightly more exposed to particulate pollution from agriculture, including from soil tilling and wind erosion. But in California, which produces more than one-third of the country’s vegetables and two-thirds of its fruits and nuts, Hispanic people were disproportionately exposed.
Newer industries can perpetuate these inequalities. A large Latino population in the Inland Empire region of Southern California, for example, near one of the nation’s largest concentration of Amazon warehouses, has suffered from the heavy diesel traffic that feeds the sprawling e-commerce hub.
“These warehouses are being built within feet of existing homes, within feet of schools,” said Cesunica E. Ivey, an assistant professor in chemical and environmental engineering at the University of California, Riverside, who was not involved in the study. “Local voices in those neighborhoods are often drowned out,” she said. “And they can’t just move. You need resources to relocate.”
The coronavirus pandemic, which has taken a disproportionate toll on Black, Latino and other communities, added to the burdens.
“A lot of families have kids with asthma. There’s high rates of respiratory illness. Many people have died from cancer and other types of diseases,” said Vivian Huang, a director at the Asian Pacific Environmental Network, which works with communities that live at the fence line of refineries and other polluting facilities in California. “The COVID pandemic has just exacerbated these immense inequalities.”
One surprising source of pollution that disproportionately affects communities of color, though a smaller source of emissions overall, were restaurants. A recent study that looked at Oakland, California, and Pittsburgh found that emissions from commercial kitchens — mostly from their use of cooking oils — were a surprisingly large fraction of particulate air pollution in those cities. More people of color tended to live nearby and so were more exposed.
Getting a clearer picture of how different sources of air pollution affect different groups of people is important, because history has shown that simply reducing overall emissions does not address racial and other disparities, said Joshua Apte, an assistant professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and a co-author of both the PM 2.5 and commercial kitchen studies.
“When nearly every major source category in the U.S. disparately impacts people of color, reducing sources alone is really insufficient to solve this problem,” he said. “We have to think about where the sources are as well.”
When Einstein gave lectures at U.S. universities, the recurring question that students asked him most was: Do you believe in God?
And he always answered: I believe in the God of Spinoza.
Baruch de Spinoza was a Dutch philosopher considered one of the great rationalists of 17th century philosophy, along with Descartes.
(Spinoza) : God would say: Stop praying.
What I want you to do is go out into the world and enjoy your life. I want you to sing, have fun and enjoy everything I’ve made for you.
Stop going into those dark, cold temples that you built yourself and saying they are my house. My house is in the mountains, in the woods, rivers, lakes, beaches. That’s where I live and there I express my love for you.
Stop blaming me for your miserable life; I never told you there was anything wrong with you or that you were a sinner, or that your sexuality was a bad thing. Sex is a gift I have given you and with which you can express your love, your ecstasy, your joy. So don’t blame me for everything they made you believe.
Stop reading alleged sacred scriptures that have nothing to do with me. If you can’t read me in a sunrise, in a landscape, in the look of your friends, in your son’s eyes… you will find me in no book!
Stop asking me “will you tell me how to do my job?” Stop being so scared of me. I do not judge you or criticize you, nor get angry, or bothered. I am pure love.
Stop asking for forgiveness, there’s nothing to forgive. If I made you… I filled you with passions, limitations, pleasures, feelings, needs, inconsistencies… free will.
How can I blame you if you respond to something I put in you? How can I punish you for being the way you are, if I’m the one who made you? Do you think I could create a place to burn all my children who behave badly for the rest of eternity? What kind of god would do that?
Respect your peers and don’t do what you don’t want for yourself. All I ask is that you pay attention in your life, that alertness is your guide.
My beloved, this life is not a test, not a step on the way, not a rehearsal, nor a prelude to paradise. This life is the only thing here and now and it is all you need.
I have set you absolutely free, no prizes or punishments, no sins or virtues, no one carries a marker, no one keeps a record.
You are absolutely free to create in your life. Heaven or hell.
I can’t tell you if there’s anything after this life but I can give you a tip. Live as if there is not. As if this is your only chance to enjoy, to love, to exist.
So, if there’s nothing after, then you will have enjoyed the opportunity I gave you. And if there is, rest assured that I won’t ask if you behaved right or wrong, I’ll ask. Did you like it? Did you have fun? What did you enjoy the most? What did you learn?…
Stop believing in me; believing is assuming, guessing, imagining. I don’t want you to believe in me, I want you to believe in you. I want you to feel me in you when you kiss your beloved, when you tuck in your little girl, when you caress your dog, when you bathe in the sea.
Stop praising me, what kind of egomaniac God do you think I am?
I’m bored being praised. I’m tired of being thanked. Feeling grateful? Prove it by taking care of yourself, your health, your relationships, the world. Express your joy! That’s the way to praise me.
Stop complicating things and repeating as a parakeet what you’ve been taught about me.
What do you need more miracles for? So many explanations?
The only thing for sure is that you are here, that you are alive, that this world is full of wonders.
Judge gives Corps 2nd chance to offer oil pipeline opinion
Dave Kolpack April 27, 2021
FARGO, N.D. (AP) — A federal judge faced with a motion on whether the Dakota Access oil pipeline north of the Standing Rock Indian Reservation should be shut down during an environmental review is giving the Biden administration another chance to weigh in on the issue.
U.S. District Judge James Boasberg held a hearing earlier this month to give the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers an opportunity to explain whether oil should continue to flow during its study, after an appeals panel upheld Boasberg’s ruling that the pipeline was operating without a key federal permit. The Corps instead told the judge it wasn’t sure if it should be shut down.
The decision not to intervene came as a bitter disappointment to Standing Rock, other tribes involved in the lawsuit and environmental groups. Even the judge appeared to be taken aback when the Corps opted to shrug its shoulders.
“I too am a little surprised that this is where things stand 60 days later,” Boasberg said at the hearing, referring to the three months he gave the Biden administration to catch up on proceedings. “I would have thought there would be a decision one way or another at this point.”
Boasberg said in a one sentence order filed late Monday that the Corps has until May 3 to tell him when it expects the environmental review to be completed and give “its position, if it has one,” on whether the pipeline should be shut down. The Corps said earlier it expected the review to be done by March 2022.
Attorneys for the pipeline’s Texas-based owner, Energy Transfer, have argued that shuttering the pipeline now that economic conditions are improving would cause a major financial hit to several entities, including North Dakota, and the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation located in the state’s oil patch.
Attorneys for Standing Rock, which straddles the North and South Dakota border, and other tribes said in court documents that Dakota Access is exaggerating the economic losses. And no matter what the true figure is, Standing Rock said, it should not come at the expense of other tribes “especially when the law has not been followed.”
The $3.8 billion, 1,172-mile (1,886-kilometer) pipeline was the subject of months of protests in 2016 and 2017, sometimes violent, during its construction. Standing Rock continued to press legal challenges against the pipeline even after it began carrying oil from North Dakota across South Dakota and Iowa to a shipping point in Illinois in June 2017.
Wells dry up, crops imperiled, farm workers in limbo as California drought grips San Joaquin Valley
Louis Sahagún April 26, 2021
As yet another season of drought returns to California, the mood has grown increasingly grim across the vast and fertile San Joaquin Valley.
Renowned for its bounty of dairies, row crops, grapes, almonds, pistachios and fruit trees, this agricultural heartland is still reeling from the effects of the last punishing drought, which left the region geologically depressed and mentally traumatized.
Now, as the valley braces for another dry spell of undetermined duration, some are openly questioning the future of farming here, even as legislative representatives call on Gov. Gavin Newsom to declare a drought emergency. Many small, predominantly Latino communities also face the risk of having their wells run dry.
Drought is nothing new to California or the West, and generations of San Joaquin Valley farmers have endured many dry years over the last century. Often, they have done so by drilling more wells.
However, some growers say they are now facing a convergence of forces that is all but insurmountable — a seemingly endless loop of hot, dry weather, new environmental protections and cutbacks in water allotments.
“I’m proud of our family’s history in this part of the state,” said John Guthrie, president of the Tulare County Farm Bureau. “If not for that, I would seriously consider bowing out of this business.”
The cattle rancher and farm owner said his family has been working the land here for more than 150 years. However, he wonders how much longer that will continue.
Most recently, state and federal allocations of surface water were slashed to a trickle due to less snowpack in the Sierra Nevada — a move expected to force some growers to search underground for additional sources of water to keep their farms from ruin.
Even more frustrating, growers say, is a complex law passed in 2014 — during the last drought — that requires all groundwater taken from wells to match the amount of water returned to aquifers by 2040. Experts say meeting its requirements will mean taking about 1 million acres of farmland out of production statewide.
“Things were tough enough without having to deal with regulations that are becoming more onerous by the day,” Guthrie said.
In recent weeks Central Valley Republicans in particular have urged Newsom to declare a statewide drought emergency, which would allow state regulators to relax water quality and environmental standards that limit deliveries from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, California’s water hub. They were enraged recently when Newsom declared drought emergencies in Sonoma and Mendocino counties only.
Much of Tulare County sits atop groundwater basins that have helped farmers compensate when there was little or no available surface water. But unlimited pumping during the historic drought of 2012-16, and the 2007-09 drought before that, has set off a cascade of events that has proved disastrous.
Large farms drilled to depths of more than 1,000 feet to sustain thirsty citrus orchards and almond and pistachio groves that had drawn hedge funds and big corporations into the business.
“I’m proud of our family’s history in this part of the state. If not for that, I would seriously consider bowing out of this business.”
John Guthrie, cattle rancher and president of the Tulare County Farm Bureau
As farmers punched more wells into the earth, the groundwater table plummeted, drying up old wells and causing the land to sink up to 2 feet a year in some places, damaging infrastructure. Also, as groundwater levels fell, pesticides and nitrates from fertilizer and animal waste leached into the private groundwater supplies of impoverished farmworker communities in such locations as Tooleville, East Orosi and East Porterville in Tulare County and Tombstone Territory in Fresno County.
These and other rural burgs got international attention after wells that had served them for more than half a century went dry or became polluted. Unincorporated areas of Tulare County were hit particularly hard.
As a result, families were forced to forgo showers and dump a bucket of water into toilets to flush.
Cheers and chants of “Si se puede!” — yes, we can — rang out when Newsom visited Tombstone Territory to sign into law Senate Bill 200, the Safe and Affordable Drinking Water Fund. The bill set aside up to $130 million a year for safe drinking water projects.
“The governor did his part by coming out here to listen to our problems before signing the bill. But our problems didn’t end that day,” said Jovita Torres, a resident and community activist.
“I’ve still got dirty water coming out of my tap,” she said, “and bottled water is still being delivered to our community every Friday.”
Her neighbor, Rodolfo Romero, 95, was not surprised.
“What’s happening right now,” he said with a wry smile, “involves climate changes and political forces that are too big to stop.
“The people making important decisions are elected officials and big farmers who have money and power,” he added. “We have no power. So, the way I see it, there is no way to live off our wells anymore. Those days are over.”
Leslie Martinez of the advocacy group Leadership Counsel would not go that far.
“State and county agencies are to blame,” she said, “and must be held accountable for overlooking contaminant plumes due to heavy groundwater pumping and failing to address a basic human right in disadvantaged communities to have reliable sources of clean water.
“They have treated these people like disposable labor,” she added, “which is heartbreaking and wrong, because they helped build this region’s agricultural industry.”
This trend toward more frequent and more severe droughts comes at a time of immense change in agriculture.
Tulare County, one of Central California’s top agricultural producers, was named after Tulare Lake, once the largest body of fresh water west of the Mississippi. Farmers drained the lake dry in the 1930s to transform desert scrub into croplands.
The 4,839-square-mile county just west of Sequoia National Park is the domain of the Tulare County Farm Bureau, which in the 1960s boasted 5,000 members.
Since then, membership has dwindled to a record low of 1,200, the result of smaller growers selling out and consolidation as agricultural production shifts toward larger farms.
This year, with half the county enshrouded in severe drought conditions, ranchers are culling cattle herds for sale months earlier than usual, and farmers are making tough decisions about idling row crops such as lettuce and onions in order to devote precious water supplies to higher-value permanent plantings like almonds and pistachios.
This latest drought has also raised the once-unthinkable specter of croplands yielding to a new future of subdivisions, industrial parks and habitat development.
“If things continue in the direction they’re headed right now, there’s going to be lots of new open space around here and that ground will have to be used for something,” said Denise England, Tulare County Water Commission’s water resources program director.
“In the long term, I’m hopeful our economy might be replaced with something else, perhaps factories or business parks,” she said.
“American people have an important decision to make. Do they want their agricultural food grown locally, or in Mexico and China?”
Dino Giacomazzi, almond grower
That’s not the future that grower Dino Giacomazzi wants to see, but he concedes that change is inevitable.
In 2014, midway through the worst drought in state history, Giacomazzi closed his family’s 126-year-old dairy farm — the state’s oldest — and took up almond farming instead.
“We just didn’t see a path forward in ‘cowdom,’” he said. “We had a very old 400-acre facility in an increasingly regulated world when it comes to air, food and water, and we were facing years of low milk prices.”
It wasn’t a smooth transition, however.
“As it turned out … California farmers planted too many almonds and oversupplied the market,” the 52-year-old said. “Then came the coronavirus pandemic, which raised the price of getting almonds to market out of the country.”
Whiplashing weather patterns due to climate change and state groundwater regulations that are just beginning to take effect are making the future even more uncertain.
“American people have an important decision to make,” Giacomazzi said. “Do they want their agricultural food grown locally, or in Mexico and China?”
Mark Bittman’s warning: the true costs of our cheap food and the American diet
Oliver Milman in New York April 25, 2021
The global, industrialized food system faces increasing scrutiny for its environmental impact, given its voracious appetite for land is linked to mass deforestation, water pollution and a sizable chunk of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.
The implied trade-off has been that advances in agriculture have greatly reduced hunger and driven societies out of poverty due to improved productivity and efficiencies. But Mark Bittman, the American food author and journalist, argues in his new book Animal, Vegetable, Junk that these supposed benefits are largely illusionary.
In a sweeping deconstruction of the history of food, spanning the past 10,000 years of organized agriculture, Bittman takes in everything from Mesopotamian irrigation to the Irish famine to the growth of McDonald’s to posit the rise of uniformity and convenience in food has mostly benefited large companies, fueled societal inequities and ravaged human health and the environment. Al Gore, the former US vice president, has called the book a “must-read for policymakers, activists and concerned citizens looking to better understand our food system and how to fix it”.
The Guardian spoke to Bittman about the book – his comments are edited for length and clarity.
Many people will know you for the cookbooks you’ve written. This is quite a departure, isn’t it?
I think it is the most important piece of work I’ve done. I guess the obituary writers decide that or something. I don’t know. But How to Cook Everything was really important to me and my career. And obviously, it’s done very well. But this was the book I wanted to write, I think, for the last 20 or even 30 years. I can’t imagine doing anything bigger or more important.
You say that the advent of organized agriculture could be one of the most disastrous things we ever did. Why is this?
Jared Diamond is, I think, the first guy to say the agricultural revolution is not all peaches and cream. The population 10,000 years ago was a fraction of what it is now. Agriculture has enabled billions of people to have been alive, and be alive, than would be possible without agriculture. So if you think that’s beneficial, that’s really great.
On the other hand, one could argue that the quality of life did not go up, but went down when agriculture became common. And you could certainly argue that agriculture is damaging to the environment, the public health and so on right now. But that is fixable. It’s changeable. So, I don’t think you could say agriculture, which just means growing food or growing stuff, is a bad thing. It’s just what do we make of it?
The book contains quite a harsh critique of how free market capitalism has caused great problems in our food systems.
Yes. We should qualify, so called free market capitalism, since it’s socialism for big corporations and dog-eat-dog for everybody else or whatever. Yeah, there’s a zillion examples in the book and elsewhere of capitalism and its impact on agriculture. You could certainly argue that agriculture, agriculture slavery and capitalism are all tied together. And that’s something that developed from the 15th to the 18th century.
The fallout includes famine, doesn’t it?
The Irish famine was the first well known one and I guess you could say the first politically caused famine as opposed to more environmentally caused famine. They’re all complicated, but the Irish potato famine can definitely be laid at the feet of the English who had converted most of Ireland’s peasant farmland into grazing lands for both animals, the meat of which was destined to be sent over the Irish Sea.
And then followed famines in Bengal and in West Africa. Of course, Stalin and Mao’s famines, it’s not all the UK’s fault. The famines of Stalin and Mao are very much politically induced. They were about a lack of food, but how they were treated was very much political. Stalin wanted to erase the peasants, Mao wanted to erase the landlords. And they were both successful to some extent. They used food as a weapon.
So where did we go wrong with food?
There was a time that almost everyone farmed and grew food for themselves and their neighbors and or trade, local trade and so on. But at some point, surplus became more important than feeding people. Growing food, or growing crops in order to sell them and make money became more important than growing crops to feed people.
And that process accelerated since 1500, or whenever you want to say capitalism began. To the point where, in the States at least, 95% of crops are basically grown as cash crops. And the question is almost never ‘What is the land telling us we want to grow? What can we grow that will be most beneficial for our community? What can I grow that’s most nutritious that will damage the land as little as possible?’ Those are not questions that are being asked.
Growing food, or growing crops in order to sell them and make money became more important than growing crops to feed people
The questions that are being asked or the question that’s being asked is ‘How can I make the most money possible with this land?’ Sometimes that means just selling the land for development. But often, it means growing one crop at a time. And it’s a crop that’s either directly or indirectly subsidized, like corn or soybeans. And it’s a crop that mostly goes into junk food or animal feed, or even ethanol, which is obviously not food at all.
I really think the enclosure of the commons was a big deal. When the nobility started dictating to peasants what should be grown and how it should be sold and to whom it should be sold. And peasants began to run out of land to grow food for themselves and their families. That was one of the driving factors in the industrial revolution. And we’ve just seen that accelerate.
So if we fast forward to the current situation in the US, how has this history influenced what people eat today?
One of the most damning statistics is that close to 50% of the food that’s available is in the form of ultra processed food. So ultra processed food is what I call junk food. What many of us call junk food. And it means food that contains non-food ingredients; food that your grandmother, great grandmother, maybe at this point wouldn’t have recognized as food.
Food that you can’t cook yourself. Food that you don’t find in your own kitchen in the normal course of cooking and eating. A food that didn’t exist before the 20th century.
The counter-argument to this is often ‘There is so much choice now, why not just choose a healthier option,’ isn’t it?
It’s important to recognize that because ultra processed food is cheap and it’s fast and it’s widely available; people without time and without money, are more likely to buy that kind of food. But everybody eats junk food. And it also poisons the environment for everybody.
The answer is to increase the availability and affordability of real food. It’s not let’s make better personal choices, because they go back to that statistic. And that’s why I think it’s so important that you can only buy, you can only eat what there is. Since actually no one is growing food, we’re all on the market. And if the market is 50% junk food, that’s what people are eating.
This system of food has proved very successful in establishing itself, hasn’t it?
The American diet, which we have to take full responsibility for, is spreading worldwide. It’s spreading worldwide because it’s profitable for big food. It absolutely is engineered to taste good. It hits the pleasure centers in your brain and it stimulates dopamine and so on. If it’s not, strictly speaking, addictive in the way that caffeine or opiates are addictive, it’s very, very close.
What do we need to do differently?
We really have to change agriculture what we’re growing and make a real effort to grow real food. Transport real food, market real food. Have farmers who steward the land. All of those cliches.
But on the other hand, we have to make sure that people have the income or the ability to buy real food. We have a choice. We are subsidizing junk food. It may well be that as societies grow, as populations grow, as societies become more technologically inclined, that it may be that food agriculture just is an expensive enterprise. And needs to be supported by government. It needs to be subsidized.
But we do have a choice between whether we subsidize bad agriculture or subsidize good agriculture. Whether we subsidize the production of junk food or subsidize the production of fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds.
The world is going to have a population close to 10 billion people by the mid-point of this century and those who support the intensification of monocultural farming say this will be the only way to feed this number of people. What is your response to that?
No one’s asking us to feed them. In many cases, people are just asking us to leave them alone. So that, in a way is a PR ploy for big ag: “We need to increase yield forever, so that we can feed the world.” But the world does not want us to feed them. The world wants us to stop stealing their land and stop poisoning them and so on. At least, that’s my perception of the world.
Cheap food has had a terrible impact on public health. As every country switches from a traditional diet to a more American diet, their rates of chronic disease go up. And yet we cannot get government to consider this a crisis
As for producing cheap food that Americans can afford, yeah, that’s a trade off. That’s an industrial revolution era trade off. Workers were paid, it was assumed that women’s labor was free. So you didn’t have to pay workers enough to worry about child care or cooking or any other domestic chores. And then if you made food cheap, you could pay them even less.
So that was a trade off of the early Industrial Revolution. But there’s a price for cheap food. And the price is not only environmental damage and heavy resource use. There are other prices as well. But the one I want to focus on just this moment is the public health costs.
And if you look at a chart of health care costs versus food costs, it’s perfect like this. As food costs go up, healthcare costs go down. And as food costs go down, health care costs go up. So cheap food, that’s a direct correlation. Cheap food has had a terrible impact on public health. As every country switches from a traditional diet to a more American diet, their rates of chronic disease go up. In every single instance. And yet we cannot get government to consider this a crisis.
So we are paying for the food one way or the other, sometimes with our health.
Yeah, exactly. The society is paying the costs. Just like every aspect of food that you want to examine carefully has hidden costs. Economists call them externalities. Hidden costs that aren’t included in the cost of the product. So, Walmart pays its workers badly, you get cheap stuff at Walmart, including food.
And some huge percentage of those workers are on food stamps. You’re also paying for those. You’re subsidizing Walmart employment costs. It’s not just cash, we’re paying with our own health.
What does an alternative to this look like?
I’m not saying we have to go from industrial farming back to farming the way it was in the 1600s by any means. But I’m saying there are steps we can take to reduce the use of pesticides. To make life better for farmers, to improve the quality of soil. To remove antibiotics from the food supply. To teach our children what real food is and so on down the line.
I think some limits on marketing junk food to children, along with teaching children where food is from and what food is about is really important. Because if you’re going to allow marketers to target kids, they will convince them that Tony the Tiger is their friend and that Coke is the best beverage to drink. And that McDonald’s is the most fun place to eat.
If you’re going to let kids become convinced of that then you’re going to have generation after generation of adults who were saddled with food preferences that are dictated by big food. And we all know how difficult it is to change our food preferences. We all know that. Especially in the last year, everybody saw that: “I’m so scared of Covid. I’m so bored with being locked up. I’m going to order in pizza and have ice cream.” Or whatever their favorite childhood food is, we would all turn to that. I saw this in myself and everybody I talk to sees it in themselves.
So, we have to raise generations of healthy children if we want generations of healthy adults. But that means making good food available, affordable to everybody.
Animal, Vegetable, Junk by Mark Bittman is published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Why so many epidemics originate in Asia and Africa – and why we can expect more
Suresh V. Kuchipudi, Clinical Professor and Associate Director of Animal Diagnostic Laboratory, Penn State April 25, 2021
On Feb. 18, 2020, in Seoul, South Korea, people wearing face masks pass an electric screen warning about COVID-19. AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon
The coronavirus disease, known as COVID-19, is a frightening reminder of the imminent global threat posed by emerging infectious diseases. Although epidemics have arisen during all of human history, they now seem to be on the rise. In just the past 20 years, coronaviruses alone have caused three major outbreaks worldwide. Even more troubling, the duration between these three pandemics has gotten shorter.
Shoppers in face masks as they line up at a grocery store in Wuhan, a city of 11 million, in central China’s Hubei Province. The urbanization of once densely forested areas of Asia and Africa have contributed to the spread of these deadly viruses. AP Photo/Arek Rataj
An unprecedented shift in human population is one reason why more diseases originate in Asia and Africa. Rapid urbanization is happening throughout Asia and the Pacific regions, where 60% of the world already lives. According to the World Bank, almost 200 million people moved to urban areas in East Asia during the first decade of the 21st century. To put that into perspective, 200 million people could form the eighth most populous country in the world.
Eventually, extreme urbanization becomes a vicious cycle: More people bring more deforestation, and human expansion and the loss of habitat ultimately kills off predators, including those that feed off rodents. With the predators gone – or at least with their numbers sharply diminished – the rodent population explodes. And as studies in Africa show, so does the risk of zoonotic disease.
The situation is only likely to get worse. A major proportion of East Asia’s population still lives in rural areas. Urbanization is expected to continue for decades.
A family farm in Zambia. Disease in livestock is common, an easy way for pathogens to transfer from animals to people. Getty Images/Guillem Sartorio/AFP
Subsistence agriculture and animal markets
Tropical regions, rich in host biodiversity, already hold a large pool of pathogens, greatly increasing the chance that a novel pathogen will emerge. The farming system throughout Africa and Asia doesn’t help.
On both continents, many families depend on subsistence farming and a minuscule supply of livestock. Disease control, feed supplementation and housing for those animals is extremely limited. Cattle, chickens and pigs, which can carry endemic disease, are often in close contact with each other, a variety of nondomestic animals and humans.
And not just on the farms: Live animal markets, commonplace throughout Asia and Africa, feature crowded conditions and the intimate mixing of multiple species, including humans. This too plays a key role in how a killer pathogen could emerge and spread between species.
Another risk: bushmeat hunting and butchering, which is particularly widespread in sub-Saharan Africa. These activities, as they threaten animal species and irrevocably change ecosystems, also bring people and wild animals together. Bushmeat hunting is a clear and primary path for zoonotic disease transmission.
So is traditional Chinese medicine, which purports to provide remedies for a host of conditions like arthritis, epilepsy and erectile dysfunction. Although no scientific evidence exists to support most of the claims, Asia is an enormous consumer of traditional Chinese medicine products. Tigers, bears, rhinos, pangolins and other animal species are poached so their body parts can be mixed into these questionable medications. This, too, is a major contributor to increasing animal-human interactions. What’s more, demand is likely to go up, as online marketing soars along with Asia’s relentless economic growth.
A matter of time
The viruses, thousands of them, continue to evolve. It’s just a matter of time before another major outbreak occurs in this region of the world. All the coronaviruses that caused recent epidemics, including the COVID-19, jumped from bats to another animal before infecting humans. It’s difficult to predict precisely what chain of events cause a pandemic, but one thing is certain: these risks can be mitigated by developing strategies to minimize human effects which contribute to the ecological disturbances.
As the current outbreak has shown, an infectious disease that starts in one part of the world can spread globally in virtually no time whatsoever. There is an urgent need for constructive conservation strategies to prevent deforestation and reduce animal-human interactions. And a comprehensive global surveillance system to monitor the emergence of these diseases – now missing – would be an indispensable tool in helping us fight these deadly and terrifying epidemics.
Why young people of color are leading the fight to save planet Earth
Beth Greenfield, Senior Editor
As we head into Earth Day 2021 — the 51st anniversary of the worldwide environmental movement, on April 22— one of the best ways to find motivation and inspiration in the fight to save our planet might be to look toward those who are leading the charge: a diverse array of youth activists who understand that the only way to see and advocate for climate-justice issues is through an intersectional lens.
That means “taking account the dimensions of gender, socioeconomic class and race that all ultimately influence how one relates to and experiences the effects of climate change,” explains Aalayna Green, 22, co-environmental education director for Black Girl Environmentalist, a “supportive community of Black girls, women and nonbinary environmentalists.” Understanding those dimensions, Green tells Yahoo Life, “ensures that any climate change activism isn’t going to be automatically catered to one type of person in society.”
Historically, the environmental movement has been a very white one — at least on its face, due in part to a “long-running perception that people of color don’t care about the environment, or don’t have the skills and academic backgrounds for these jobs,” environmentalist Dorceta Taylor, a Yale School for the Environment professor, said in a 2014 interview. That perception “has been debunked for just as long,” according to Taylor, whose landmark 2014 report “The State of Diversity in Environmental Institutions: Mainstream NGOs, Foundations, and Government Agencies,” and a more recent update, called for action on the issue. (See just a tiny sampling of pioneering BIPOC environmental activists in the interactive XR, below.)
Just this week, Taylor and a slew of other environmental experts and a diverse array of young activists came together for the fourth annual New Horizons in Conservation Conference, presented by Yale, to discuss the status of equity and inclusion within the field of conservation. “The media tends to focus attention on climate activism on young white activists in the U.S. and Europe,” Taylor tells Yahoo Life vie email, but the conference “demonstrates that young students of color are engaged in climate activism and are interested in being a part of the solution… Many speakers drove the point home that the climate movement, conservation, and the broader environmental movement cannot be successful if white leaders, policymakers, practitioners do not collaborate with communities and activists of color.”
The event has served to highlight the new force of activists, expanding the understanding of who is affected by climate change and who is actively fighting against it.
“I think BIPOC youth, and youth in general, are leading the movement now,” says James Munn, an environmental organizer since 1990 and now the national campaign director for Greenpeace, which just released a new report, “Fossil Fuel Racism,” elucidating how fossil fuels disproportionately harm Black, brown, indigenous and poor communities. “I don’t think that was necessarily true before,” Munn tells Yahoo Life, “although not because there weren’t Black or indigenous POC youth involved in local fights, but because there was a huge separation between mainstream organizations and the local efforts.”
He adds, “We live in a white supremacist society, and organizations mirror the society they’re in. Hopefully, now we’re mirroring the changes that are happening in society.” That would make sense, he says, when taking into account today’s biggest issues and who they most affect.
“When you look at the current existential crises for humanity, you have racial injustice, inequality — with some making billions throughout the pandemic while many are struggling to just have enough food — and climate change,” Munn says. “And we have BIPOC youth often at the intersection of all three…so they can speak to all of it in a way that others couldn’t speak to it in the past.” And just being young, he adds, is an asset for these activists. “They feel invincible, and you need that to go against Trump or Bezos or Chevron, Exxon, and go, ‘OK, they have a lot of power, but we’re going to outlast and outthink them. We can do it.'”
To mark Earth Day this year, Yahoo Life is amplifying those voices by profiling just a handful of the ever-growing force of bright young activists who are approaching climate justice from an intersectional perspective. In our series of profiles, you’ll meet Wanjiku “Wawa” Gatheru, founder of Black Girl Environmentalist; Kevin Patel, founder and executive director of One Up Action; Amy Quichiz, founder of Veggie Mijas; Nyaruout Nguany, co-founder of Maine Environmental Changemakers Network; Vic Barrett, a campaigner with Alliance for Climate Education; and Xiya Bastida, founder of Re-Earth.
“I think the youth movement is the most inclusive and diverse it has been,” Batista, 18, told Yahoo Life about Gen Z’s approach to climate-justice activism. “Re-Earth Initiative, for example, has activists in over 15 times zones, we translate our information to over six different languages. Our board includes people from almost every continent and we operate in a non-hierarchical way that actually listens to the whole body when it comes to what we’re going to do… In our own youth organizations, we’re modeling the world we want to see.”
Over the last 20 years, as more and more scrap materials were diverted from landfills, recycling rates increased, RTS reported. Still, several factors have complicated and even stalled serious progress. First, the U.S. recycling program is less-than ideal. The single-stream system means that consumers put all recyclables (and anything else they hope can be recycled) into one bin. This has created “imperfect recycling habits” and general consumer confusion about what is and isn’t recyclable. It’s easier on the consumer, but the result has been a contamination rate of about one-fourth of U.S. recyclables, Columbia’s State of the Planet reported.
The mixed-stream of materials in residential bins is subsequently trucked to a waste management facility, where it is cleaned, separated and processed into saleable bales of plastic, aluminum, paper and cardboard. These are the actual products that recycling facilities sell to other countries or to companies for processing into eventual new products, a Miami recycling facility representative told EcoWatch. The more contamination that a batch of recyclables has, the harder and more expensive it is to clean. Higher contamination rates result in a lower price for the product. At some point, it becomes more economical to landfill contaminated batches of recyclables rather than clean them.
In 2018, China threw a wrench in the U.S.’s already-precarious system when it decided to stop accepting most recyclables from the rest of the world. The goods were often too contaminated for proper recycling and would end up in landfills, oceans or polluting the countryside. The U.S. had previously shipped over half of its plastics and paper recyclables to China, and loss of this market meant that recycling facilities had nowhere to sell the increasing amounts of recyclable trash being created daily.
Having been so reliant on the Chinese market and without a federal recycling program, this forced recycling facilities to give cities and municipalities two choices: pay more for recyclables to be processed or send them to the trash, The Atlantic and State of the Planet reported.
In the years since, some states and cities have tried to regulate and legislate their way towards a third option: waste management policies that could work.
Here are some of the innovative local recycling policies:
1. San Francisco
According to the EPA, the West Coast city diverts 80 percent of its waste from landfills – the highest rate of any major U.S. city. A city ordinance requires both residents and companies to separate their waste into three streams – blue for mixed recyclables, green for compostables (including food scraps, food soiled paper and yard waste) and black for trash intended for the landfill. The system helps to protect the integrity of recyclables and allows for the diversion of 80 percent of food waste into compost for local farmers and wineries.
As of 2019, California’s other major city recycled almost 80 percent of its waste, Busted Cubicle reported. LA went from voting against recycling in the early 1960’s to having a goal of recycling 90 percent of waste by 2025 and 97 percent by 2030, RTS reported. Compelled by statewide goals for waste recovery and mandates for recycling, LA used related state grants to build up its recycling infrastructure and better public education surrounding recycling.
In a public-private partnership, the city collects curbside collection and transports it to private recycling facilities. Sub-programs include requiring restaurants to compost their scraps and giving companies tax breaks based on the amount they recycle, Busted Cubicle reported. The report estimated that the local recycling industry added $1.2 billion annually to LA’s economy.
According to RTS and Busted Cubicle, forward-thinking Seattle adopted a mandatory food scrap recycling program in 2009, a zero-waste policy in 2010 and a mandatory commercial recycling program in 2013. In particular, the city hopes to eliminate landfilling and incineration of trash.
As of 2017, Seattle recycled 56.9 percent of its waste, with a goal to reach 72 percent by 2025. A three-year phase-in program for mandatory recycling allowed for better education of residents and creation of processes for effective enforcement, Busted Cubicle reported. Individuals are incentivized to reduce waste because, while recycling is collected for free, residents pay a per-bag fee for regular garbage, The New York Times reported. Individuals are further motivated to reduce waste because smaller trash cans incur a lower monthly rate for disposal. Penalties and even fines are levied against non-compliant residents. Private companies hired by the city to process trash are similarly “handsomely compensated” when they send less to landfills.
According to the city, 98 percent of Boise residents recycle, a credit to their extensive educational programs, Busted Cubicle reported. When China’s recycling ban disrupted the city’s recycling, Boise came back with an innovative recycling initiative for previously non-recyclable plastic films.
In partnership with Hefty® brand bags and Renewlogy, a company that converts plastics into diesel fuel, Boise encouraged residents to collect their plastic films in orange bags provided to them by the city, RTS reported. The lightweight plastics, which include grocery store bags, food packaging and even candy wrappers, are bagged and put into normal blue recycling bins for pickup. At local processing centers, they are sent to Renewlogy in Salt Lake City for conversion into a diesel fuel that has 75 percent lower carbon footprint than fossil fuels at one-third the cost, Busted Cubicle reported.
5. San Jose
Just south of San Francisco, the Bay Area hub committed to 75 percent waste diversion by 2013, zero waste by 2022 and zero landfill or incinerator waste diversion by 2040, Busted Cubicle reported. A three-way partnership for commercial waste management between the city and two private companies has been critical to San Jose’s success.
Republic collects recyclables and organics from more than 8,000 businesses in the city. It processes the former and sends the latter to Zero Waste Energy Development Company for processing into energy or compost, the news report said. Residential curbside recycling continues to improve through various sub-programs including street sweeping, curbside junk pickup and cleanup events.
Colorado’s capital city currently has a low diversion rate – 22 percent as of 2017 with a modest goal of 34 percent by 2020 – but it has an advantage in housing Alpine Waste & Recycling. This cutting-edge waste management company uses technology to simplify single-stream recycling even further. Rather than asking customers to correctly figure out what is recyclable, Alpine finds ways to increase what types of items can be recycled in Denver.
The company has paved the way in new processes to recycle materials that traditionally were confusing or impossible to recycle, including paper coffee cups, juice and milk cartons, styrofoam and large, rigid plastics, Busted Cubicle reported. Their new facility employs state-of-the-art technology to quickly process many tons of waste per hour.
7. New York City
As recently as January 2020, The New York Times reported on “7 Reasons Recycling Isn’t Working In New York City.” The metropolitan “lagged’ behind other major cities, only recycling around one-fifth of its trash, The Times reported. Reasons included lack of recycling and composting bins, political reluctance and fiscal challenges to implementing additional recycling policies and the local culture built around hyper-consumerism, Amazon deliveries and takeout food.
Despite these shortcomings, the big apple makes this list because of a new proposed bill hoping to force manufacturers to pick up the tab for recycling paper, plastic, glass and metal. The extended producer responsibility (E.P.R.) bill would compel manufacturers to pay for the end-waste their products produce, another New York Times article reported. This could incentivize companies to create more sustainable packaging and products to lower fees. The municipality could use collected fees to offset recycling expenses. Proponents could also write in an anti-price gouging provision to ensure manufacturers don’t pass the new costs onto consumers. The profits from such a program would be infused back into New York’s struggling recycling programs, with the goal of upgrading technology and even creating more jobs, The Times reported.
While ambitious and innovative, many of these local programs are still far from reaching their lofty goals. As they work to become sustainable and profitable, the global market for high-quality recycled materials is actually growing, State of the Planet reported.
For the U.S. to take advantage of this, domestic recycling processes must be reformed, the news report emphasized. Whether through better technology at facilities like in Denver and Boise, innovative public-private partnerships like in the three California cities or in precedent-setting legislation like in New York, cities must lead the way in order to modernize and save the U.S. domestic recycling industry.
Tiffany Duong is an avid ocean advocate. She holds degrees from UCLA and the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School and is an Al Gore Climate Reality Leader and student member of The Explorer’s Club.
She spent years as a renewable energy lawyer in L.A. before moving to the Amazon to conduct conservation fieldwork (and revamp her life). She eventually landed in the Florida Keys as a scientific scuba diver and field reporter and writes about the oceans, climate, and the environment from her slice of paradise.