Electric cars are not the solution to the world’s problems

Science fiction author and Scottish nationalist Charles Stross opines:

“I’m going to suggest that American automobile culture is fundamentally toxic and aggressively hegemonizing and evangelical towards other cultures, and needs to be heavily regulated and rolled back.”

Not to belabor the point, but while electric cars may help us address climate change, they still emit toxic substances (tires spewing microplastics into the environment, for example), and they also enable habitat destruction. Even when it comes to climate change, their carbon footprint is not zero.

(Why mention that Stross is a Scottish nationalist? Because that means he apparently hasn’t bought into the American mythos.)

Not only climate change

The BBC reports that toxic chemicals in the environment are just as big a threat as climate change:

“Chemical pollution has officially crossed “a planetary boundary”, threatening the Earth’s systems just as climate change and habitat loss are known to do. A recent study by scientists from Sweden, the UK, Canada, Denmark and Switzerland highlights the urgent need to turn off the tap at source. Many toxic chemicals, known as persistent organic pollutants, or POPs, don’t easily degrade. They can linger in the environment and inside us – mostly in our blood and fatty tissues – for many years.”

A couple of years ago, I heard a talk by Dr. Stuart Weiss, a field biologist in the San Francisco Bay Area. He identified five major threats to the life-supporting systems of planet Earth:

1. Global climate change
2. Land use change (including deforestation and habitat destruction)
3. Invasive organisms
4. Toxication (including solids, like plastics, as well as chemicals)
5. Overpopulation

I would add one more — nuclear war — for a total of six major threats to earth’s life-supporting systems.

Upper middle class Americans have focused on climate change as the major environmental threat. But even if we solve the climate change problem, any combination of the other five threats would also lead to a “great extinction.” This is why having everyone buy an electric car is not going to fix looming environmental disaster. My guess is that major systemic change is needed, probably involving replacing capitalism with an economic system that is not a-moral (or immoral).

The biggest environmental threat in California?

Here’s another environmental threat to keep you up at night:

“Nitrogen deposition and pollution is [a] more acute threat than climate change. … [But] few people are paying attention.” — Dr. Stuart Weiss, Chief Scientist of Creekside Science.

Weiss’s key paper on Bay Area nitrogen deposition, written while he was at Stanford, has a great title: Cars, Cows, and Checkerspot Butterflies: Nitrogen Deposition and Management of Nutrient-Poor Grasslands for a Threatened Species (Conservation Biology, v. 13 no. 6, Dec. 1999, pp. 1476–1486).

I’m listening to Weiss talk to the California Naturalist class I’m taking right now. Weiss makes some interesting points: Smog does an amazing amount of damage, not only to human lungs but also to non-human organisms. Non-native grasses are big contributors to the increase in pollen in recent times. Free-range cattle on California grasslands can keep non-native invasive grass species under control, providing habitat for endangered species as well as reducing allergens.

Air quality

The poor air quality has been getting me down. On Friday, the Air Quality Index was well over 200 in our area — that’s into the “Hazardous” range. I stay in the house as much as I can, and we have a room air purifier running all the time. But of course I have to leave the house to go to work, and to run errands, and when I do go outside it tires me out.

Whine, whine, whine. Yes, the air quality is poor, and my ongoing recovery makes me feel a little more vulnerable. But I’ve got nothing on the rickshaw pullers of Delhi. The poor air quality we’ve had here in the Bay Area for the past week and a half is not much worse than the usual poor air quality in Delhi. Most of the rickshaw pullers live on the street, so they can never go indoors for respite. They may have to work eighteen hour days. They may have inadequate amounts of food. And there is a bitter irony in their situation, according to a rickshaw puller named Himasuddin: “As a rickshaw puller, I hardly contribute to pollution. Ours is a clean way of transportation. But it’s ironic that we are the worst affected from the toxic smog.”

Here in the Bay Area, rain is forecast for later in the week, and that will end our unusual period of hazardous air quality. I will have experienced minor inconvenience for two short weeks. All I can say is, thank God for strict laws against air pollution.

Principles behind Sunday school Ecojustice class

Here are some of the principles behind the Ecojustice class taught at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto (UUCPA) for the past five years.

Ecojustice class is a Sunday school program for gr. 6-8. Ecojustice class is a learner-centered program, with a flexible curriculum that can follow the interests of the teens and the teachers. We have a firm commitment to making the class as hands-on as possible — an emphasis on doing, rather than discussion. Rather than just projects done by one individual and intended for themselves, our projects tend to be done as a group and intended for use by the class, congregation, or a wider community. Ecojustice class can best be described as a “emergent curriculum,” meaning we’re often making it up as we go along; nevertheless, we have evolved some pretty firm organizing principles which may be of use to others.

Our definition of “ecojustice”:
A sign is posted in the classroom which gives our definition of “ecojustice”:

Ecojustice =
— humans treating other humans with dignity & respect
AND
— humans treating other organisms & the whole ecosystem with dignity & respect

If teens ask: “Why can’t we just say ‘Ecojustice means humans treating each other and the rest of the ecosystem with respect’?” — we can explain that white environmentalists have been criticized because they worry more about non-human organisms than they worry about humans who have a different skin color. So we want to make sure we always remember that environmental action cannot be separated from human justice.

Basic class plan is the same every week:
I/ Attendance & chalice lighting (typically indoors)
II/ Check-in (typically indoors)
III/ Reading (typically indoors)
IV/ Project for the week (most often outdoors)
V/ Closing circle (often outdoors)

Reading: Each reading is related in some way to ecojustice. We adults can read the reading, or ask the teens if one of them would like to read it. Then maybe have a brief conversation about what the reading tells us about ecology, ecojustice, or the natural and human worlds.

Project for the week: Projects may last from 1-4 weeks. Teachers pick projects based on their interests and abilities. We try to include a conversation with each porject about why we are doing the project: “what does this project have to do with ecojustice?” This can take place while we’re working, or as part of the closing circle.

Closing circle: During closing circle, have the teens say one thing they learned, or one thing they’re taking away from this class. End with the UUCPA unison benediction (used in all classes); the unison benediction is posted in classrooms in 4 languages, reflecting languages spoken by people in our congregation (English, Spanish, German, Hindi; working on a Mandarin version).

Topic areas:
We relate any project that we develop to one of seven topic areas. Those topic areas are listed below, along with sample projects that we have either completed or plan to carry out (in parentheses).

1. Food
Tire Garden — based on the UUSC Haiti tire garden project
Ongoing Gardening — digging, planting, weeding, watering, etc.
Cooking projects — using, e.g., organic ingredients

2. Energy
Rocket Stoves — based on a design by Larry Winiarski
Solar Cooking — using various solar ovens (solar s’mores esp. popular)

3. Water
Rain Barrel — installed a rain barrel; use the water to irrigate the gardens
Clay Pot Irrigation — low-water use irrigation method
(Bucket Drip Irrigation — low-water method for irrigating garden)

4. Waste
Composting — assembled two composting bins; maintain them
(Build a composting toilet)

5. Habit and Shelter
Wildlife — “tracking pit”; invertebrate observation; building birdhouses
Native Plants — tour of church’s native plant garden
Habitat for native pollinators — making “bee houses”
Support local homeless shelter which stays at our church in Sept.
(Using Natural Herbs — planned visit from a local herbalist)
(Natural Dyes — tie-dye using redwood cones and fennel)

6. Earth and Air
Disaster Plans — making a personal “go-kit” in case of wildfire evacuation
(Global climate change project — but how to make it hands-on?)

7. Toxics in the Environment (new category added in 2018)
(E-waste)
(Phytoremediation — using plants to remove toxics from the soil)

More info about each of these topic areas is below.

Update, June, 2022: See the updated curriculum online here: http://kj6zwr.org/ecojustice/. The curriculum has been completely restructured, based on several years of teaching.

Continue reading “Principles behind Sunday school Ecojustice class”

In addition to global climate change…

In the United States, there’s this stereotype that different human populations worry about different environmental catastrophes. College-educated white suburbanites, so the stereotype goes, worry more about global climate change — perhaps because they are more aware of how much energy it takes to power their many automobiles, and to heat their large homes. Communities of color and working class whites, so it is said, worry more about toxics in the environment — perhaps because people of color and working class people are more likely to be exposed to more toxic substances in the places they live and work.

College-educated white people have tended to be dismissive of the threat of toxics in the environment, at least in comparison to the threat of global climate change. Global climate change has the potential to cause another “great extinction” and to decrease human chances of survival, whereas toxics in the environment don’t have the potential to do as much damage.

But I think we all should start worrying more about toxics in the environment.

According to a BBC article titled “Pesticides linked to bee deaths found in most honey samples,” a recent study published in Science shows that neonicotinoids have been found in three quarters of honey samples from around the world (from every continent except Antarctica). The widespread presence of neonicotinoids is especially troubling, because they were found in places where the chemicals have been banned for several years.

When asked by the BBC to comment on the article, Dave Goulson, professor of biology at the University of Sussex, said: “Entire landscapes all over the world are now permeated with highly potent neurotoxins, undoubtedly contributing to the global collapse of biodiversity.”

The collapse of biodiversity is bad enough. But consider, too, that if we humans kill off major pollinators, there’s a potential cascade effect that could drive many flowering plants towards extinction. So if you’re looking for a cause of the next “great extinction,” or if you’re just looking for another reason to lie awake at night and worry — look no farther than toxics in the environment.