Tag Archives: pollution

Talking trash on Valley Public Radio

I continue my contribution to the series “The Moral Is” (see my previous essays in the archives) on Valley Public Radio with another essay to be broadcast during this morning’s Valley Edition between 9-10 AM (rebroadcast at 7PM). Tune in online here if you get the chance. The audio will later be available in the archives, and I will post a link here when it does. In the meantime, I am posting the text of my essay (slightly expanded and linkified) below.

I wrote this essay during Thanksgiving weekend, that celebration of American cornucopia which is now increasingly marred by the ever-earlier manufactured rush of Christmas shopping, with Black Friday this year starting on Thursday, i.e., on Thanksgiving! As Jon Stewart later noted, Christmas is now eating other holidays, egged on by a marketing push in an economy wedded to ever-increasing consumption of goods, damn the environmental consequences.

Interestingly, a short while after I sent my essay in to the series editor, the Fresno City Council voted (closely, 4-3, after a heated debate) in favor of a measure pushed by Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin to outsource the city’s garbage collection to a private company, ostensibly to save money and get revenue from the company to balance the city budget. Ironically, a few days later, National Geographic lauded Fresno as “a city serious about recycling”, since it now keeps 73% of its trash out of landfills, making Fresno number 1 in the nation for recycling. Shortly after that, the garbage outsourcing measure passed a second round of voting by the same margin, so the city is one step closer to losing its nationally leading recycling program. I haven’t seen much discussion in the local media about what happens to the excellent recycling program, nor how the city plans to make sure that the private contractor will maintain quality of service. We will see how it all shakes out, I suppose, but the outlook is not very good, and the city leadership’s shortsightedness is disappointing if predictable.

All of this adds to the context within which I happened to write this essay, intending to make broader points about our garbage-spewing consumer culture. So here is my essay:

Can you imagine ever running out of garbage?

Maybe it has something to do with the second law of thermodynamics, the one about how entropy or the amount of disorder in a system will always increase. Or maybe it is this time of year, between Black Friday and Christmas / Boxing Day, when we are constantly exhorted to go out and buy things, things we may or may not need, but things we should want, because they are bright and shiny and cool, and offer momentary happiness in sharing gifts, or because this is how we are supposed to help businesses stay in the black, and help the economy! Accompanying all this jolly holiday consumption, of course, is a growing mound of garbage from all the packaging and the gift-wrapping, and the unwanted or rejected gifts that end up, eventually, in our landfills. It is hard to imagine us running out of garbage!

These days we are running out of many of the earth’s natural resources, ranging from oil and other fossil fuels, to drinking water, to even the fertility of our soils. In this time of scarcity, if there is one thing that we are in no danger of exhausting, surely it is our supply of garbage. So how can we run out of the stuff? And what would that even mean?

Well, as it happens, the country of Sweden is running low on garbage lately, so much so that they import it from neighboring Norway—and get paid for taking it off Norway’s hands! So efficient have the Swedes become at recycling and composting all of their household waste that only 4% of it ends up in landfills. As a result, they simply aren’t producing enough trash any more!

Wait! Not enough trash? Not enough for what?

For generating energy, of course!

According to a recent NPR story, Sweden runs one of the most successful waste-to-energy programs in the world, generating one-fifth of the nation’s district heating, and powering a quarter million homes. But now, because its citizens have become so conscientious about minding their own household waste, Sweden has to turn to other countries for garbage. Isn’t that a nicer problem to have than the litany of more depressing environmental challenges we face these days?

Why don’t we all do this? Kill two birds with one stone: reduce the amount of waste going into landfills and reduce our need for fossil fuels in the process.

Indeed, Fresno County is now entertaining proposals for a new garbage-fueled power plant. And, Fresno is already recognized as a national leader for its recycling programs. It also has the distinction of being the birthplace of the modern landfill: the pioneering design of the Fresno Municipal Sanitary Landfill, a National Historic Landmark, set the standard for municipal waste management in 20th century America. Now Fresno can lead us again as the 21st century standard-bearer, by turning our trash into energy!

Dungbeetles Canthon simplex rolling a ball of dung.
Nature’s recycling crew at work, because in natural ecosystems, everything is recycled

In nature, there was never such a thing as garbage until humans came along, because any waste produced by one species is consumed by another in the circle of life. Our industrial civilization, paradoxically efficient and wasteful, broke the circle, and this may be the first time that a single species has generated too much waste for ecosystems to handle. 

We must close the circle again, and soon, before our planet is dead and covered in giant trash heaps.

Skyscraping towers of garbage on a desolate earth, as seen in Wall•E

A planet running short of garbage? Why, that’s how ours was not too long ago, and how it can be again if we put our ingenuity to solving the problems we have created.

For The Moral Is, this is Madhusudan Katti

Using deep-sea bioluminescent bacteria to illuminate pollution in estuarine waters

Promising tale of a new approach developed by Dr. Edith Widder to detect and monitor pollution in estuaries and marine ecosystems. Also illustrates how basic science – in this case, exploring the wonders of the deep dark ocean – can help shed light on the very applied problem of pollution. Do read the story accompanying this video in the New York Times.

To be a bird, oh to keep on singing, in a noisy urbanizing world

Among the many ways we are transforming the planet and its habitats for other species, one that is only now receiving some attention is that of sensory pollution. This is when we pollute the environment in such ways as to interfere with the sensory perception and communication systems of animals – i.e., dull their senses in potentially important ways. While much attention has been paid—and justly so, ever since Rachel Carson’s clarion call—to the wide variety of chemical pollutants we’ve introduced into habitats all over the world, we haven’t really paid much attention to the sensory effluvia that come in the wake of modern civilization. Two common ways we mess up the sensory systems of animals are by interfering with the visual and auditory channels of communication: e.g., increasing turbidity in water makes it difficult for fish to see and communicate with each other using visual signals (color patterns, changes to and movements thereof); increasing noise from our cacophonous machinery on land and in water makes it difficult for animals to talk to each other. We are a flashy, noisy, brash, uncouth, species indeed! No consideration for the sensibilities of our planet-mates…

But that may be changing. Sensory pollution is getting increasing attention from biologists in recent years, as exemplified by a symposium on the topic at Behavior 2011, the joint meeting of the Animal Behavior Society and the International Ethological Conference, being held at Indiana University this week. I wish I had been able to attend, especially for this symposium, because I’ve been thinking about and trying to study the effects of urban noise on bird song and behavior for some years now. Although I couldn’t travel to the meeting, I’m happy that my lab was well represented – see below!

After co-authoring the first comprehensive review of urban bioacoustics (i.e., the study of how animals use sound; in cities), then moving to Fresno with this job, actually measuring the effects in wild birds, and testing some of the theoretical ideas outlined in our review was one of my first priorities. Easier said than done, though – especially for a naive faculty member coming to grips with the nature of teaching and the student body at an institution like CSU-Fresno! Between my increasingly heavy and chaotic teaching load, and several unreliable graduate students, it became rather a stop-start project – more stop than start for several years. That all changed a year ago, however, when two eager new graduate students entered my lab, already interested in birdsong and very keen to tackle the subject of urban noise. Over the past year, Jenny Phillips and Pedro Garcia have been studying the effects of noise on the songs of two species (seen above) that occur in urban and rural areas around here: the White-crowned Sparrow, winter visitor to the valley from northern breeding grounds, and the House Finch, year round resident in these parts. An interesting opportunity to compare what noise pollution does to the songs and singing behavior of two rather different species: one migratory, the other sedentary, one singing to claim territory and warn competitors, the other warbling in the spring to attract mates!

Today, Jenny and Pedro presented the first results from their research as a poster at Behavior 2011. Having helped them analyze their data and design the poster over the past few days, I’ve been something of an anxious parent this week, wondering how they are doing out there on their own, even as I followed the #behav11 hashtag on twitter to see what I was missing! A short while ago, a tweet (of course) informed me that “…they did a gr8 job!!” Phew! Not that I expected anything less…

If you, like me, missed the whole meeting, allow me to share their poster here, starting with this abstract:

Jenny Phillips, Pedro Garcia, Lauryn Moles & Madhusudan Katti 
California State University, Fresno, United States

Many animal species are dependent upon vocal communication to mate and defend territories. Selection will favor individuals that produce vocalizations that transmit best in their environments. The sensory drive concept suggests that environmental conditions, such as ambient sound, will influence the evolution of vocal behavior. Thus, background noise levels may have a profound effect on communication. We study how urban noise affects the cultural evolution of birdsong in two species: the migratory white-crowned sparrow (Zonotrichia leucophrys gambelii) and the sedentary house finch (Carpodacus mexicanus). These two species are ideal study organisms because they each have one song type, are territorial, and are easy to identify. We recorded songs and ambient noise concurrently across the Fresno-Clovis Metropolitan Area (FCMA) and in outlying rural areas for comparative analysis of acoustic properties, in particular the frequency and temporal structure of songs. Because song influences fitness via phenotypic and genotypic mate quality, understanding how song changes in an urban environment may allow us to predict species adaptability in a changing world.


And here is the full poster – leave a comment if you have any thoughts on this ongoing study:

Download this file

The plight of the Condors: the ghost of DDT past!

Ah, the sad saga of the California Condors. The poor ugly bastards just can’t catch a break, can they? Driven extinct in the wild, brought back up in numbers in captivity, released back into the wild – only to catch lead bullets again, and also it seems, DDT! Again!! The more things change, the more they stay the same? Or do they actually just get worse?

But, wait a minute, didn’t they ban DDT use decades ago in the US, after the alarm raised by “Silent Spring” (which I just referred to in my previous post) back in the ’60s? Egg-shell thinning due to DDT was discovered then as a cause of declines in many a raptor population. As a result, yes, they did ban DDT here (although it continues to be used elsewhere in the world). So how come the eggshells of Condors re-wilded in the Big Sur area are thin again? It seems they’re getting DDT now from the sea, via bioaccumulated deposits in the fat of sea lions whose carcasses the Condors feed on on the beaches of the central California coast! And where do the sea lions get it from? Why, the fish, of course? The fish, you protest – but we never sprayed DDT into the ocean, did we? Well… actually, we did – rather, the Montrose Chemical Corporation, then the world’s biggest manufacturer of said pesticide, apparently just flushed its untreated DDT waste straight into the ocean! Those were the glory days of the plastics and the green revolution, when they thought the oceans could absorb all of our wastes no problem. If only. Turns out, the DDT just settled down underneath the waves, on the Palos Verdes Shelf off of Los Angeles, near the breeding grounds of the sea lions. And it has been seeping into the marine food chain ever since, building up in the tissues of predators like the sea lions. Until the Condors came back to scavenge on their carcasses – only to get a fresh dose of that old familiar nemesis that pushed their parents and grandparents off the brink several decades ago. Funny how the shit we invent in our industrial/technological hubris never seems to really go away, eh?!

Read more on this sad turn of events, in the New York Times. It reminds me again of my youthful objection two decades ago to spending millions to bring this single (not-really-charismatic) species back from the brink. I remember wondering how and where they were hoping to put the Condors back into the wild if they never addressed the root causes of their decline in the first place! I never got a good answer then – just more technological hubris about the potential for captive breeding to save the species, with the blindly optimistic assumption that somehow the habitat would be found for re-release if the birds’ population could be built up again in captivity. The same desperate optimism fueling other captive breeding programs and “frozen zoo” schemes even now. As if breeding, or the inability to do so, is the main problem all these creatures suffer from in the wild.

When are we going to move away from these technological fixes, these band-aid solutions, and start addressing root causes, in our own economy and society, technology and behavior, that are pushing all these species into the extinction vortex?

So that kid from “American Beauty” went to film school, met Werner Herzog, and created this…

… an elegaic entry into the apparently growing genre of films tracing the lives of plastic bags! Remember this one I shared here recently? Will there be an aisle for these plastic biopics, these films about Earth+Plastic, in the video stores soon? Oh wait… I forgot – there won’t be any video stores soon! But the plastic bags will likely still be here, long after we are gone as well…

[vimeo http://www.vimeo.com/12497654 w=500&h=283]

And in case you don’t remember the youthful precursor of this poetic film, here’s a reminder, from one of the classics of cinema at the turn of the last millennium: American Beauty.

[Tip o’ the hat to Anthroguy]

What I would have the US (and other G20 govts) do to protect biodiversity

A few days ago, I noted a call for concrete actions that G20 nations can take to protect biodiversity, made by Guillaume Chapron and George Monbiot through the Guardian. Ever since a friend alerted me about this call on twitter, and nagged me to respond, I’ve been scratching my head and mulling over options that fit the criteria (scientifically supported; concrete action achievable over reasonable timeframe; with significant political costs). Given the list of G20 nations (which include both my home country of India and my current home, the US) and the huge amounts of damage they are causing to biodiversity individually and collectively, I could think of a number of things that must be done, and that fit those criteria. As I’m sure most of you can as well. So which one to pick? And which one was not likely to be picked by too many others (assuming there would be redundancies)? 

After going back and forth over this (with a brain slowed down by a severe cold/fever over the weekend), and reading a bunch of papers and websites, I finally submitted my suggestion a short while ago. It is a concrete legislative action based on solid scientific evidence that can have far reaching positive consequences for biodiversity, if only the politicians can muster up the will to stand up to the vested interests lobbying against this action. And it is also one action that doesn’t seem to have been submitted by anyone else on this list of suggestions on the Guardian website!
I thought of writing a separate blog post detailing my suggestion, but in the interest of time—and of catching up with other things that have piled up while I’ve been in bed—I’ll defer that, at least for now. Instead, you can read my complete response to the questionnaire below the fold. And please let me know your thoughts.

Attenborough on Plastic Oceans


The trouble with plastic: it just ain’t plastic enough! Especially in the biological sense:

plastic |ˈplastik|nouna synthetic material made from a wide range of organic polymers such as polyethylene, PVC, nylon, etc., that can be molded into shape while soft and then set into a rigid or slightly elastic form.• informal credit cards or other types of plastic card that can be used as money he pays with cash instead of with plastic.adjectivemade of plastic plastic bags.• looking or tasting artificial long-distance flights with their plastic food she smiled a little plastic smile.(of substances or materials) easily shaped or molded rendering the material more plastic.• (in art) of or relating to molding or modeling in three dimensions, or producing three-dimensional effects.• (in science and technology) of or relating to the permanent deformation of a solid without fracture by the temporary application of force.• offering scope for creativity the writer is drawn to words as a plastic medium.• Biology exhibiting adaptability to change or variety in the environment.

Pete Seeger singing about the BP Oil Spill

On July 23th 2010 Pete Seeger performed live at a Gulf Coast Oil Spill fundraiser at The City Winery in New York City. There, he unveiled to the public his new protest song about the BP oil spill entitled “God’s Counting on Me, God’s Counting on You.” Backing up Pete’s singing and banjo picking is the singer/songwriter James Maddock on acoustic guitar. All proceeds of this concert went to the Gulf Restoration Project. The show was produced and hosted by Richard Barone. The video was edited and mixed by Matthew Billy. 

You can find the lyrics of the song on commondreams.org.