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Archive for August 2014

Phylloxera, wine, and some climate parallels

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Gaspereau_Vineyards,_NS

I picked up a used book at one of my favourite bookstores, Pulp Fiction. It’s titled Phylloxera, which is the name of a bug that almost destroyed the wine industry in the nineteenth century.

phyllorexaIt caught my eye because I’m a nerd, I like learning about insects, agriculture, and, of course, wine. But what surprised me are the obvious parallels with the current climate crisis: the collective denial, the refusal to accept science, the entrenched political positions, it all seems completely contemporary.

From a science point of view, the book doesn’t disappoint: the phylloxera aphid has one of the most complicated life cycles I’ve read about (it mostly reproduces asexually, with only females around, and will sprout wings, but only some times). And when introduced to Europe, the bug changed its life cycle, living undergroud to take advantage of the lack of resistance of the roots of European vines, making it undetectable until the plant was dying.

It’s a great detective story. Guardian reviewer Malcolm Gluck compares the wine merchant Borty, whose imported American vines introduced the disease to France, to the villain Moriarty while in the Sherlock Holmes role is the witty and indefatigable Professeur Planchon, who finally solved the enigma; except that instead of foggy London, the story takes place, in the vineyards of sunny southern France and eastern US.

It’s also fascinating to be immersed in an era when science was fresh and new, fighting traditionally accepted views held by conservative nineteenth century French peasant. The emerging disease of the vineyards was variously characterised as a divinely appointed scourge (because of loose morals – sounds familiar?); a disease transmitted through the bad smells of rotting grapes (Pasteur, and the germ theory of disease, was only emerging); or it was caused by modern contraptions, from the noise and smoke of locomotives, or mysterious emanations from telegraphic wires.

The disease spread slowly, from infected vineyards to neighbouring healthy ones, but also jumped, appearing suddenly hundreds of kilometres away. Eventually, thanks to the work of Planchon and others, the spread of the disease was traced to the invasive pest, and the trade in American rootstock that carried it.

The minucule aphid that caused all the trouble

The minuscule aphid that caused all the trouble

It didn’t help that the foremost entomologist of France, a Professeur Signoret, claimed that the presence of the aphid was merely a symptom of poor growing conditions and could not be the actual cause of the disease. The influential scientist clung to this (wrong) theory his whole life, causing enormous delays in the implementation of effective action against the disease. Sounds familiar?

Further, as long as the disease was mostly concentrated in southern France, Paris was completely indifferent to the plight of the southern growers (the Parisian elite drank only the grands crus from Bordeaux or Burgundy). The economic thinkers of the time were of the laissez-faire school, believing in a market solution, willfully blind to the oncoming – and preventable – catastrophe. (This eventually changed as the bug spread to the Grands Chateaux.) Again, this is eerily familiar and contemporary.

As now, there were the entrenched interests: in this case, the chemical groups selling pesticides of dubious effectiveness, and the railway companies transporting the chemicals, both fully opposed to any solution other than chemical dousing.

What was the solution? Here, there is a happy ending: the realization that European vines could be grafted onto resistant American rootstock without changing the character of the wine produced. In France, Italy, Spain, everywhere vintners went on to a massive grafting campaign, and the industry was saved.

But was it really? Can we be sure that, say, a great Nuits-Saint-Georges tastes the same now as it did before the phylloxera? We can’t, and the book concludes on a melancholy note: do we know what is gone? Have we lost an amazing diversity of taste experiences because of all the obfuscations and delays in applying a known effective solution?

I can’t help but think about our current climate predicament. What are we losing by twiddling our collective thumbs, listening to the skeptical Signorets of our day? And while the climate is already affecting the wine industry, one would wish that this crisis affected only a single industry, like wine, important as it might be…

Campbell, Christy 2004. Phylloxera: how wine was saved for the world. London: Harper Perennial

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Written by enviropaul

August 31, 2014 at 11:29 am

How do you get rid of the body of an environmentalist?

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Coyote in a cemetery (just like the one I saw in Vancouver)

Coyote in a cemetery (just like the one I saw in Vancouver)

How do you get rid of the body of an environmentalist?

Uh, let me rephrase that. I’m talking about myself. What I mean is, say I’m dead, now what?

Not that I’m into morbid contemplation, but still: I’m gonna die at some point, and I’d like my death to be, well, if not organised, at least somewhat prepared for.

What’s an environmentalist to do? A poorly planned death – or, rather, disposal – can have bad environmental consequences. I’m interested in waste management, so looking at death is natural; the only difference being that here’s a dead human body to be rid of, instead of a dead car or computer. But the method used to dispose of my body could be polluting, and I don’t like that possibility. (What would I like to be remembered for? A fish kill, or worse? No, thank you.)

Google “environmental impacts of cemeteries” and you get over 700,000 hits. Ditto for cremation. It’s not just me, and it has created an interesting market.

Is this casket toxic?

Is this casket toxic?

Cremation pollutes the air. This is partly because we, our own bodies, are polluted; for instance, a British study blames cremation for a remarkable 16% of all mercury air emissions (all those fillings!). The other problem is that cremation occurs in relatively small operations, not set up for air pollution control. Also, it’s not just dead bodies: it’s toxic embalming fluids, as well as caskets made of composites which pollute when burned. I was surprised to learn that BC, as opposed to other provinces, has no mandatory air pollution regulations that apply to crematoriums.

So if my body is going to be cremated, I would much rather it be at the Burnaby incinerator – here’s a place well equipped to burn cleanly and has extensive pollution control equipment. There, every pollutant that is my so-called body burden: my mercury, my bisphenyls, my pesticides would be removed. Alas, I’m pretty sure that I’m asking for something not legal.

Cemeteries are no better, though they have advantages. They provide leafy, green areas in the middle of cities, which is

Cemetery in Germany

Cemetery in Germany

great. German graveyards are wonderfully lush with growth (no noisy lawn mowers, please), and seem to embody the idea of returning to nature. But North-American cemeteries tend to be large (and fairly sterile) expanses of lawn, which require chemicals and, in drought-stricken California, irrigation water.

And cemeteries are only as good as what is buried in them; so, embalming fluid, casket varnish, mercury (again), you name it; this all represents risks to drinking water. To name one: arsenic was in common use as an embalming agent in the eighteenth century, and instances of groundwater contamination, as well as risks to cemetery workers, have been recorded.

Burial and cremation are the common options, but there are others. I could ask for a sky burial: my body would be eaten by vultures. But I don’t like the idea of flying my body to Tibet just for that, given the carbon footprint, never mind the legal complications of exporting dead bodies.

Thankfully, there’s new technology: I could ask, for instance, for a new process called resomation. My body would get dissolved in potassium hydroxide at ten atmospheres and 180C, and the (supposedly) benign resultant liquid gets tossed (ceremoniously) in the sewers. In a way, I’d like that: I’d end up visiting the wastewater treatment one last time; I take students on tour there, and it’s always fun. But it looks like a process that is energy expensive (to say nothing of expensive, period).

How about the Promessa process: get frozen solid in liquid nitrogen and then shattered into a million pieces, easy to dispose of. I’m not convinced; if we applied this logic to garbage, we’d say put everything in the grinder and it’ll be fine. (But the idea of frozen corpses is intriguing, still. I suppose if people get tired of keeping Walt Disney in deep freeze, that would work…).

Or I could ask for the carbon in my body to be turned into a diamond. I like the idea: it’s the ultimate carbon sequestration. But on second thought, with the temperatures and pressures required, it think it’d be counter productive.

no toxic chemicals for me, please.

no toxic chemicals for me, please.

How about plastination? Forever frozen in plastic for the edification of the crowds that visit Body World. But I’m told there’s so much demand that there is a waiting list, and I don’t know what toxic materials are released in the process, if any. Pass.

Nah, being an environmentalist, I have to turn to the three R’s, reduce, recycle, re-use. Please do re-use any part of me that still works! I checked at the BC organ donation site, happy to see they still have my info. What about my skeleton? It can’t be re-used, but surely some medical or art school could use it: in other words, recycle it! I found one school in Surrey seeking a skeleton, but I haven’t figured out how to donate mine (google “skeleton donations BC” and you get sites for the Olympic death-defying sport, which is no help).

As for the third R, reduce, well, sorry if I end up not losing weight before I die; not a priority. And don’t try to cut off body parts on the sly; in BC, that would have to be disposed of as biohazard, which is expensive, and a bit undignified.

If I could get composted, replenish the soil, feed the plants, then great. But that’s unlikely; it’s not allowed here, though that may change if enough people ask for it. So, please do what’s the simplest: cremate what’s left of me (side project: I may get a student to check on the local crematoria, see who’s got better air pollution controls). But first remove my mercury fillings if I still have any (keep the gold ones – that would be a souvenir, if anyone wants.). Then use my ashes, maybe to the balance the pH of some garden…

An article in Grist, here, has other tips for a green funeral. But I still like John Prine’s idea best:

Please don’t bury me / down in that cold cold ground
No I’d rather have ‘em cut me up / and pass me all around
Give my knees to the needy…

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JfBdMXhpQnU

Urban Vancouver: Commercial Street

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IMG_1406

There is a street in my neighbourhood that I’m quite fond of, without knowing quite why. It is one of the Vancouver streets that has a totally urban feel, without being in the downtown core. I reminds me of Montreal’s plateau, somewhat.

the Gow block

the Gow block

It’s called Commercial Street, and if it is an extension of its more famous namesake, Commercial Drive, the feel is completely different. My favourite section is the two blocks between 19th and 22nd. The street features a combination of 3 or 4-story appartment blocks, some very recent, some that date almost to the turn of last century. Interspersed in between are a few old houses, as well as light industrial older building. Some look long in the tooth, others (the Gow Block notably) have been restored. Though the buildings are very close to one another – most touch – it’s quiet and very walkable: a Portuguese restaurant, cafes (in particular the Commercial Street Café), good grocery stores (including Famous Foods) a few blocks away.

When I researched the area a bit, I found that this was originally a prosperous area served by the Interurban tramway (on its way to new Westminster); but as the interurban was abandoned, the shops closed, light industry moved in…and then not much happened, until recently, with new residential development.

There’s nothing all that remarkable about the area – except for its feel. The mix of spanking-new stainless steel facades, heritage blocks like the Gow Block, and old small-scale light industry has a grit and unpretensiousness that is pretty unique. That’s probably why I like it so much; it reminds me of the Plateau or Hochelaga in Montreal. It is truly urban.

New and old, cheek by jowl

New and old, cheek by jowl

From a sustainability perspective, this is a winning area: perfect for walking and cycling, being close to Skytrain and buses; the buildings have the right density to promote energy efficiency; and yet it’s still an affordable pocket of Vancouver (relatively speaking), with old-fashioned shops such as tool rental or lighting supply providing local jobs, and space for newcomers (there’s a dog grooming boutique, sign of the times) to start up a business.

Maybe this type of neighbourhood is a salutary antidote to Vancouverism, a trend now often taken to mean tall condo towers parachuted in the middle of a single-family housing neighbourhood. Why do I love this bit of street?  I don’t know, but I wish I’d see more like this in Vancouver: higher density with a real urban feel, but on a very human scale. Maybe, just maybe, with neighbourhoods like these, Vancouverites would agree that densification can be good…

Commercial Street Café

Commercial Street Café

Written by enviropaul

August 24, 2014 at 4:48 pm

Ee-oop, ee-oop (stupid light, will you change?)

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IMG_1387

I’m on my bike, waiting for the light at 10th and Hemlock. There’s another cyclist before me – a young woman, full of nervous energy, she keeps pressing the signal button: an insistent ee-oop, ee-oop, ee-oop.

Above us, from a window in the appartment building, peers the face of a woman. Her expression is more worried than ennoyed, as she pleads: “PLEASE please please stop pressing that button! You have no idea how maddening it can be to hear that all day long!”

Before then, I’d never stop to think about how ennoying that sound can be (and I now keep to single push). But I have since found another expression of this, a note (see the photo above) on a signal at Victoria and 5th.

It’s not just me, then, that finds those things ennoying. Me, I find them patronizing (as well as dangerous) – but I used to think that was just me.

But not so: this is a feeling shared by none other than planner and walkability expert Jeff Speck. In his 2012 Walkable City, he writes (page 184):

Another reliable bellwether [of walkability] is the visible absence of push-button traffic signals. In my travels, it is almost always the cities with push-button crossings that need the help most. I remember when these were introduced during my childhood, and they seemed at the time like a gift. Wow, I can actually control the traffic light. What power! But the truth is quite the opposite. Push-buttons almost always mean that the automobile predominates, as they are typically installed in conjunction with a new signal timing in which crossing times are shorter and less frequent. Far from empowering walkers, the push button turns them into second-class citizens; pedestrians should never have to ask for a light.

That’s right. Pedestrians should never have to ask for permission to cross, nor should cyclists, if drivers don’t. We’re part of transportation, too; and each of us, we’re one fewer car on the road.

Speck, Jeff 2012. Walkable city: how downtown can save America, one step at a time. New York: North Point Press.

Written by enviropaul

August 24, 2014 at 9:56 am

Garbology (a book review)

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6172secGHML._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Just finished reading Edward Humes’ Garbology – it’s a little gem. It isn’t an exhaustive essay on garbage ; rather, it’s a selection of a few choice topics that really throw a spotlight on some aspects of our waste that we don’t often think about.

There is a fascinating chapter on marine plastics and their impacts in the so-called Great Garbage Patch; and while some proposed solutions are outlined the magnitude of the problem is made clear by material that contribute to the problem by their very nature, such as the synthetic fabrics that release small fibers into our waters every time they are washed, or – worse – the cleanser and toothpaste formulations that include plastic microbeads (recently banned by Illinois). There are also chapters on garbage archeology, or on how fine arts use or focus on garbage, including the Artist-in-Residence project of the San Francisco landfill.

But possibly the best parts are found where Humes takes pleasure in skewering opponents of incinerators for their irrational, short-sighted views.
For instance, in the 80’s Los Angeles, the proposal for a Waste-To-Energy facility at Puente Hills that would have been the world’s biggest was rejected after local protests, leading to a landfill instead. Writes Humes:

Puente Hills would have been the site of the largest waste-to-energy plant in the world, capable of swallowing up to 10,000 tons of trash a day…the smokestack would have reached up to 450 feet high in order to make sure emissions blew up and away from the neighbourhoods below…as tall as three Statues of Liberty. That image was enough to alarm the locals…they imagined a towering spire despoiling the foothills and the low-slung suburban skyline. They didn’t know in the early 1980s that Garbage Mountain would eventually rise up higher than any smokestack would have, blotting out a much bigger piece of the skyline without a trash-burning energy plant there to suck up the waste and give them power in return.
The neighbours of Puente Hills thought they had scored a victory, but they only traded a power plant for an even bigger trash mountain…Sanitation officials couldn’t resist a bit of schadenfreude at that, for the neighbourhood opposition to the power plant had left the county with no options but to ramp up trash burial at Puente Hills.

Further in the book, Humes quotes at length from Nickolas Themelis of Columbia University, with respect to WTE:

They [Denmark] are so far ahead of us; our behaviour in the US in this area is really quite irrational.
Recycling’s energy advantage is real and that is often the better alternative, but not always…recycling plastic grocery bags, for example, costs four to five times what the raw materiala are worth. Transportation costs, manpower for sorting recyclables from garbage and contamination problems make recycling a lot of common items of trash too costly or too difficult or both, despite the energy savings…[that’s] why even America’s recycling leader, San Francisco, still sends trash to the landfill in which two thirds of the material is still theoretically recyclable.
The final argument against WTE – that it will reverse gains in recycling – is belied by the history of the technology. (Japan, Denmark, Germany, all countries that rely on WTE have a recycling rate rate better than the US.)
The current practice of burying waste in landfills amounts to burying a billion barrels of oil a year that could be used for much needed energy…the same arguments against WTE used in the eighties are still being used to limit the technology in the US, even though emission controls have advanced…[and] a 2009 study concluded that harmful emissions from landfills were greater than those from modern WTE plants.

And finally, while contrasting public attitudes in Copenhagen with North American attitudes, Humes add:

The output of the most harmful products of incineration, including the main environmental show stopper in the US, dioxins, has been reduced to levels that represent a mere fraction of what the average home fireplace or backyard barbecue puts out.

Humes, Edward 2012. Garbology: our dirty love affair with trash. New York: Avery.

Written by enviropaul

August 21, 2014 at 9:40 pm

George Brossard and his bugs

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George Brossard

George Brossard teasing a scorpion

I’d never heard of George Brossard before coming across this article (in French) in the magazine L’Actualité. But the guy is so amazing that I wanted to blog about him. The world always needs more entomologists, and he’s an entomologist’s entomologist.

The mayor of LaPrairie, near Montreal, was killed by a wasps in a most unfortunate accident, so reporter Marie-Claude Lortie interviewed Brossard about it. He commented on it, but the interview quickly veered into a fascinating life story.

(Yes, wasps are dangerous, but there would be fewer problems if people knew about bugs. When running away from angry wasps, Brossard says, just duck; they can’t see down,they’ll fly right over you. Or shelter in bushes, they don’t like thick foliage.)

Long ago Brossard quit his job as notary public to indulge full-time his life-long passion for insects. The result: over a quarter million specimens collected over 140 countries, the world’s largest private collection. Or so it was: it is much smaller now since Brossard has donated huge numbers of the showiest specimens to the various Insectariums (insects museums) that he has founded, starting with the one in Montreal. This alone would make him a remarkable individual.

But his passion encompasses not only knowing about insects, but discovering their potential for, among other things, a source of food for the world. You can listen to him on video on this BBC recording here. Insects are indeed a great, mostly unexploited, sustainable source of protein.

An indie movie, The Blue Butterfly, with William Hurt, was based on one of the many anecdotes that happened through his insect-collecting life. Here’s his take on the real-life incident that has led to the movie (loosely translated from Lortie’s French):

So then, I was at the opening of the Insectarium and a kid in a wheelchair wants to talk to me…I tell the journalists to shut up because I want to hear him. He says he wants to catch a blue butterfly – here, a morpho – because he’s going to die. So I smack him on the leg and I tell him: hey! Will you stop saying stuff like that, that you’re gonna die!”
Lortie: The rest of the story is incredible. Thanks to the Rêves d’enfants (Children Dreams) program, Brossard manages to take the boy, who has advanced brain cancer, to a butterfly hunt in Mexico. In the jungle, the eight-year old boy, who can’t walk, is carried on Brossard’s shoulders. But somehow the boy regains his ability to walk after catching his cherished morpho butterfly, and realises that his cancer is disappearing. “A scene they never agreed to put in the movie, was when I threw his wheel chair off a cliff. It went down, broke, and a wheel went flying in the air, as if finally freed…”

David, the boy, now an adult, is alive and well. When not collecting, Brossard is active in social causes ranging from help to mentally challenged kids to the creation of a wildlife parc along the shores of the St-Lawrence Seaway, so that city kids can enjoy nature.

So here you go: a true science and nature hero, and Canadian to boot. There are few enough of them, and they are so inspiring, we should treat them like hockey players or something.

A blue Morpho

A blue Morpho

Written by enviropaul

August 16, 2014 at 8:37 pm

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Down the drain: a book about our waters

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drainIt’s been an interesting month in water news. There’s been the pollution of Lake Erie making tap water poisonous in Toledo. There’s been, of course, the on-going saga of the Mount Polley spill. And, closer to home, there’s been swimming advisories. A couple of these were noted by DeSmogBlog (in West Vancouver and Ottawa) because of how it difficult it is to obtain information about these.

Last year Ralph Pentland and Chris Wood wrote a pretty timely book, Down the Drain: how we are failing to protect our water resources, which is quite rich in insights that provide the background behind these issues.

The book is, of course, rife with instances of deplorable water pollution; For instance, they note that there are five times as many records of water borne disease in Canada, per capita, as in the US, and overall three times more than in the UK despite a much smaller population (page 26); or that in parts of the Oldman River downstream from Calgary, all male longnose dace, a type of fish, have disappeared, showing the impact of sewage gender-bending pollutants (page 28).

The book is full of little chesnuts like these, but the key focus is on the role of government, or rather, on the inaction of the government. For instance, where Europe has implemented the REACH program to monitor and phase out toxic chemicals since 2007, there is no comparable program in Canada and toxicity data is lacking for 87% of the chemicals marketed here (about 23,000 compounds identified by Health Canada). As another example, oil and gas exploration drilling are not required to report to the National Pollutant Release Inventory.

The main problem seems to be the complete disregard of the government for diligent monitoring of our water bodies. It has dismissed recommendations from Ecojustice for safeguarding our waters, including vastly improving Canada’s monitoring of water and ecosystems resources, similar to the European Water Framework. To quote the authors:

There is one action, however, repeatedly identified as essential for any subsequent reform, policy, or decision to be effective:…institution of a comprehensive, current, and detailed inventory of our built and natural water infrastructure…This means monitoring water stored in snowcaps and water tables, the conditions and flows of surface waters,, the amounts being withdrawn and returned…these are skills that Canadians excel at.” (page 199)

Arguably the most invidious betrayal of Crown guardianship been the failure to provide for an adequate natural intelligence capacity…Canadians simply cannot know the extent or seriousness of their losses. That, of course, may be one reason no federal government has provided canadians with such an accounting.” (page 212)

It’s not exclusively the government’s doing, obviously; while it is a societal problem, the neglect of water issues by the media (aside from sudden floods) is also remarkable:

One of the most astounding media misses of the past decade was the failure of news outlets to inform Canadians that the most populated parts of their country have been losing water for the past third of a century.” (This is a loss of 3.5 cubic kilometers every year; page 184)

The concept of the public trust is examined in details in the context of safeguarding our waters. Despite the fact that members of the public cannot sue their government for governing, the public trust doctrine claims that governments have a fiduciary duty to protect the common good – and therefore there are grounds for action against a negligent government, and legal standing in court for the public.

If a Conservative ministry believes a whole-scale embrace of free-market remedies can defend national security, let it implement them – so long as it also closely monitors the results and reports them candidly to Canadians.” (page 228)

I have to admit: the book can be a bit of a slog at times. For a more light-hearted and compelling overview of our water quirks and problems, Wood’s earlier book, Dry Spring, 2009, is an easier read. But Down the drain tackles head-on the issues, their causes, and their remedies, and it’s a more important book for that.

Pentland, Ralph & Chris Wood 2013. Down the drain: how we are failing to protect our water resources. Vancouver: Greystone.

Written by enviropaul

August 16, 2014 at 5:06 pm