The Geography of Hope: A Review

The Geography of Hope

            If you are of a sustainable mind, you may find yourself, as I often do, overwhelmed and distraught about the current ecological state of the Earth and the bleak data predicting a disastrous future. Because solutions are not ubiquitous in our day-to-day surroundings, we are prone to forget that success stories exist. In his book The Geography of Hope: A Tour of the World We Need Chris Turner travels around the globe to discover and discuss existing examples of sustainable advances and lifestyles. As a journalist, not a scientist, Turner presents pragmatic evidence for a feasible future of sustainability. His lucid argument for sustainable initiatives is neither condescending to experts, nor cryptic to novices in climate change science.

Aware of the trend that nonfiction science writing can be rather overwhelming in large quantities, Turner organizes his Geography of Hope into ten chapters, each focusing on a particular facet of sustainability. For topics ranging from design to community to energy, Turner gives concrete and specific examples to support his ideas about the push for sustainable life. He doesn’t include fancy renderings of projects to be finished in 2020, nor mass-produced infrastructures. There is a focus on the small and realistic, as those solutions have to potential to become replicable and mainstream. What strikes me most about Turner’s argument for sustainability is the concept of a sustainability archipelago. “Underwater volcanoes” of technology and advancement spew out isolated, but operational, initiatives (Turner 50-51). Over time these individual projects, such as the power-neutral island of Samsø or the solar-powered neighborhoods of Germany, expand into full-blown sustainable landmasses. Turner’s metaphor recognizes the power of individual projects, and understands how these start-up initiatives grow into societal changes and revolution. This approach to sustainability is far more hopeful than demands for absolute abolishment of current societal and cultural habits. Sustainable changes are not coming out of massive scientific research centers but out of small, self-driven communities. As with the advent of handheld Internet capabilities, Turner’s hope is that sustainability will grow and adapt into a concept integrated into everyday life.

I am frequently jaded and dismayed by the gloomy scenarios predicted with regards to climate change. Essentially I begin to feel that the world is ending, primarily by our own fault, and it rests solely in our hands to make things right once again. When staring blankly at scientific data of retreating glaciers, species endangerment, and graphs predicting an increase of somewhere between 2 and 9 degrees Celsius in the next century, I am overwhelmed by negativity. The Geography of Hope is a thorough and holistic approach to solutions in climate change science. Including historical facts, explanations of technology, and colloquially styled musings on the practicality of sustainable living, the book offers much more than simply data or graphical representations of scientific findings. It amasses the whole ideology of sustainability, from social, cultural, scientific, economic, and ecological perspectives.  Turner’s viewpoint is certainly one of optimism, a characteristic that some extremist environmentalists might sneer at. I, however, am feeling much better about the ability of our generation to achieve sustainability should we move with haste towards it.

Turner does a phenomenal job of taking disheartening data and providing not only a slew of solutions, but also the psychological and societal conditions necessary to institutionalize those solutions. Because Turner comes from a journalistic background as opposed to a scientific one, he is able to better understand and communicate the social dilemmas surrounding the science of climate change (Cameron). Oftentimes it can be overlooked in the tidal wave of scientific research and investigation that sustainability is involved in economics, design, homeland security and even war. This generation is not dealing with one isolated field of necessity-driven discovery, but with a force that affects every aspect of life. For example, the small island Samsø has embraced the politics, economics, and manufacturing of sustainable practices in addition to their implementation, creating a sustainable community (Turner). The sheer quantity of specific and existing examples of sustainability leave no doubt or uncertainty in my mind about the possibility of a green present and future. Turner writes like an expert and covers all his bases in a myriad of topics. The Geography of Hope is composed of an astonishing amount of research, based soundly in well-understood thought and supported by countless pieces of evidence, despite Turner’s non-scientific background.

From a political standpoint, Turner has the power to look past the fickle standstill policies and economic biases to present a realistic scheme for sustainability. He most certainly is not shy to criticize the current modes of change in society and faults by which sustainability is hindered. Recycling has actually become “down-cycling” as our products lose value and quality over time until they become waste. He suggests a more holistic approach to production: building and construction with the end in sight (Turner 210-211). He does not weave tales of a picturesque scene of solar panels and wind turbines in the mountains where they filmed The Sound of Music or some happy-go-lucky politicians having a rendezvous over coffee to agree upon some drastic Change Bill. Turner seeks out real time change, the change created by the likes of the Danish farmer Jørgan Tranburg and the green architects dedicated to sustainable design (Turner 44-45). However, in some ways we find ourselves dependent on politics. We need a Martin Luther King Jr., to come in and inspire the masses to make headway. It will take someone proclaiming a message of change and hope, not one of immobility and frightening statistics, to achieve change. Sociopolitically, the environmental movement lacks the momentum to achieve international action. Whether because of doubt, money, or lack of leadership, the movement in practice is largely stagnant, save those of the sustainable archipelago. Chris Turner confidently makes these kinds of igniting claims about sociopolitical stagnation in a way that demands respect and deference from his readers.

The Geography of Hope is a down-to-earth anthology of auspicious sustainable archipelagos. Its pages are not weighed down by heavy statistics or intimidating data, but are filled with stories that contrast the often bleak future with impactful and successful projects. These stories appeal to our emotions, and they create the kind of social change Chris Turner claims we lack in the green revolution (Turner 332). Turner has a mantra, summarizing his point of view on a sustainable future, “Anything that exists is possible” (Cameron). In a culture where climate change is often associated with dismal predictions, Turner offers a literal map of hope, seeking out even the smallest sustainable projects from across the globe. The idea is these initiatives need not be “scalable” or made bigger, they just have to be efficiently replicable (Turner 289). Whether amateur or expert, anyone interested in attainable solutions to climate change, will find Turner’s book full of contemporary success stories.

 

 

 Works Cited

Cameron, Silver Donald. The Geography of Hope. Sunday Herald Column. The Green Interview, 13 July 2008. Web. 30 October 2011. <http://www.thegreeninterview.com/geography-hope>.

Turner, Chris. The Geography of Hope: A Tour of the World We Need. Canada: Random House Canada, 2007. Print.

 

Advertisements

Basic truths on the acidic future.

You may be full aware that rises in atmospheric CO2 levels can cause glacial melt, increased ocean temperatures, and rising sea levels. And you might even know about the positive feedback loop created by melting permafrost and the CO2 it releases. But, of course, there is another oceanic effect of climate change that seems to get swept under the rug- the rapidly increasing pH of ocean waters.

When CO2 is absorbed in ocean waters, it goes through a chemical reaction forming carbonic acid. As atmospheric CO2 levels continue to increase, oceans are absorbing greater levels of carbon. As a result, carbonic acid accumulates in the oceans, causing detrimental effects to marine ecosystems. We are well informed about the injurious effects of acids on the ocean’s precious coral reefs. Acid breaks down carbonate- the primary compound in most corals. Additionally, marine ecosystems are extraordinarily delicate, with each organism occupying a specific and integral niche. Like ecosystems affected by invasive species, novel acidic waters can destroy entire ecosystems by wiping out a single key species. Because of the frailty of oceanic ecosystems, we are largely ignorant of the effects acidic oceans may cause. In Norway, scientists are performing experiments in a remote fjord to observe some of the potential effects of pH declines (Read about it in Discover’s article found here).
As the quintessential evolutionary quote goes, “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is most adaptable to change.” Whereas this maxim held true with natural fluctuations, anthropogenic CO2 emissions are exceeding the rates at which adaptation can occur- by millennia. Ocean ecosystems may entirely disappear in the advent of wide-spread marine acidity. Researchers continue to investigate these effects to better understand how to prevent them.

The Ozone, disease, and how it is affecting you.

Earlier in the semester we addressed the effects of climate change on organismal migration and demography, if you think back to Lauren Buckley’s research and presentation. We are all aware (or should be) that increased temperatures mean we are beginning to find organisms in brand new environments. Whether they’ve moved up mountains, up states, or up continents, organisms are on the move.

Some obvious dangers associated with these moves include lack of resources, competition for niches, and loss of biodiversity due to invasive species. Something we weren’t exactly counting on is the transmission of disease.
I recently came across a Discovery magazine with an article titled “The O Zone” emblazoned across the front in dramatic type font, accompanied by an artist’s rendering of the future according to climate change (You can read it here).

To sum up the article, diseases once thought to be isolated or regional are popping up in unexpected places. With increased temperatures come the species of mosquito that carry diseases like dengue hemorrhagic fever, and other vector-borne illnesses like Lyme disease, and Rocky Mountain spotted fever. The article quotes scientists from The Lancet  saying, “Climate change is the biggest global health threat of the 21st century.”
Even cases like allergies are predicted to increase in number and severity. Heat-waves pose health risks to elderly individuals, especially.

Climate change is becoming increasingly a holistic problem, encompassing and affected every aspect of our society. From food security, to economic well-being, to entrepreneurship, to disease control: climate change is not just going to affect the scientists who study it. It has become our generation’s challenge to come up with inventive solutions to the multitude of problems we face.

Antipesticidal Resistance: As if “supergerms” weren’t enough to worry about.

We’ve all heard the warnings: finish your antibiotics. My generation grew up understanding the overprescription of antibiotics and the dangers associated with it. Quit your prescription a few days early, and you may be contributing to the slow build up of resistant bacterial strands. We’ve seen super-powerful strands of MRSA and other diseases pop up in hospitals and wreak devastating consequences. Medicines like penicillin are no longer affective in treating many illnesses because the bacteria outsmarted us. And they continue to outsmart us. As we produce new medicines the bacteria will continue to select for resistant strands- building a whole new race of super germs.

It is a pretty simply concept. When an antibiotic is introduced to a colony of bacteria, it will wipe out most of the population. However, a few may survive because of a mutation that gives them the super power of resistance. Bacteria are swift to reproduce. By fission, one becomes two, two become four, four become eight… and before you know it you’ve got a whole colony. Those few resistant bacteria divide and produce lots of resistance offspring. After a while, a whole new strand of bacteria can become resistant to antibiotics, rendering our prescriptions inefficient bacteria-killers.

The same thing is happening in our crops, today. We’ve created these genetically modified plants, but they require heavy use of fertilizers and pesticides. As we dump tons and tons of pesticides on our crops, weeds and other pests may become resistant. This article from The Guardian sheds some light on GM crops and how pesticide use has changed since the small-farmer days. Companies like Monsanto who mass produce the same GM seed for their crops are especially vulnerable to the overuse of pesticides and the rise of “superweeds.” The security of our crops is at stake in these one-species situations. Biodiversity steadies the fluctuations present in single crop industries.
Just like supergerms caused scares when they invaded our hospitals, so, too, might “superweeds” in our crop industries.

Agriculture: Superhero or Villain?

Agriculture.

It’s become quite the buzzword in today’s society. Since the induction of agricultural developments the earth’s population has skyrocketed, as you can see here. And since that time it has allowed us to live longer, live healthier, feed our families, build gigantic cities, wage wars, and much, much more.

So agriculture was the cure to all of our nomadic, hunter-gatherer problems, right?

Unfortunately… wrong.

Our view of agriculture is shifting dramatically. Whereas just 10 years ago the purpose of agriculture was to produce the most yield in the least amount of land, at all costs, we are now paying for that environmental negligence. That isn’t working out so well for us anymore. Our agricultural practices have proved to be everything but sustainable. So now, according to this NPR article, the big question is “Can we feed the world without destroying the environment?”

Undoubtedly, we can feed the world. With all the GMOs and factory-farms out there, it’s possible. But at what cost? CAFOs produce toxins, and most farms run on fossil fuels these days rather than sunlight (a concept you can further explore in  Michael Pollan’s article Farmer in Chief). We are destroying the earth by moving agriculture further and further away from its intended methods and into more and more industrial institutions.

Well, what are we going to do about it? We can increase the cost of cutting down forests, we can pass laws that more highly regulate factory farming, we can buy local, and start researching and understanding the effects of our current agricultural practices. We need researchers publishing about GMOs and the use of fertilizers and pesticides. So here begins the search for a way to feed the world without destroying it.

The Case for Conservation

This evening I attended an eloquent lecture given by John Nolt, a professor of Philosophy at UT. At first glance, it seemed a little odd to me that a philosophy professor was giving a lecture on climate change, but I almost instantly was captivated by his argument. I sat (similarly to Lauren Buckley’s lecture) in a room filled with a majority of graduate students and professors in the department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. This time was different, however. I followed his logic throughout the argument.

In class we have been discussing strategies for persuasion, because essentially, that is the only way we can accomplish any headway in the business of building a sustainable world. A very important medium of persuasion is data. That should be proof enough, right? However, I find that oftentimes data are hard to understand throughout the general public. People are rarely convinced by things they do not understand. Luckily, logic seems to be a universal mode of understanding. No complex graphs, no fancy terminology; just a down-to-earth sequence of thoughts that follow.

John Nolt achieved just that in his lecture this evening. His thesis was an argument as to why we should stop using unnecessary devices that emit GHGs, since it is morally inexcusable.  He then laid his argument out into 5 premises. Each one followed logically from the prior, and charged the individual with the moral responsibility for his own emissions, and for the well-being of posterity.

Following Nolt’s lecture, several audience members asked rather critical questions of his argument, most of which picked at the nitty-gritty details, or topics outside Nolt’s intended scope. None of the comments found any sort of logical fallacy associated with his argument.

In terms of convincing the general public of the harm involved with climate change, Nolt presented a compelling argument. His conclusion though was as such: that since it is morally inexcusable to produce GHG emissions through unnecessary activity, we should simply stop participating in those activities. Nolt’s definition of unnecessary devices included clothes dryers, Hummers, and many electrical commodities of the first world. His solution, then, may seem extremist. Feasibly, people are not going to stop driving their cars to the store, or turning a lamp on in the daytime.

Nonetheless, Nolt’s use of logical argumentation is an excellent form of persuasion in the general public. If scientists want to rid society of the doubt associated with the data of climate change, they must make rational and easily understood arguments to the masses.

Coffee, caffeine, and the men who cultivate it.

When I hit the library last night around 10 pm, my first stop wasn’t the bookshelf… I headed straight for the source of the college student’s liquid gold: coffee.

Coffee has become much more than the average cup of Joe, or even a caffeine fix. It’s become a way of life in many cosmopolitan areas, and of course on college campuses. Coffee is practical, social, and delicious. But the last time you filled your mug, did you think about where it came from?

This article from The Guardian has a lot to say about how green the coffee industry is, bean sources, growing techniques, and the economics of growing your morning cup.
In the context of sustainable agriculture, and natural growing techniques, the coffee industry is moving more and more towards disaster. While coffee beans naturally grow under the canopy of trees, they are now being cultivated on open plantations- using vast amounts of forest land, fertilizers, and irrigation. “Sun cultivation” may appear to produce higher yields, but is the environmental cost worth it? Many coffee producing countries also have the highest global deforestation rates.

What about concepts of industry like Fairtrade? Starbucks advertises Fairtrade coffee, but how, exactly, are the growers of this coffee benefitting from the Starbucks empire? Many coffee brewers today are moving towards a goal of higher profits and stability for third world coffee farmers, and for more sustainable growing practices. As the coffee industry becomes more aware of the consequences of current trade and growth practices, we are likely to see the industry take a greater interest in the livelihood of coffee farmers and in stewardship of the environment.