Taking the Slow Boat

photo of crowds on a beach

People sunbathe at Levante Beach on July 22, 2015 in Benidorm, Spain. Photographer: David Ramos/Getty Images Europe

This being Amurrika and all, I started linking to the business press a little more regularly sometime ago, to be aware of how the world looks to those who see everything through the prism of money. Bloomberg Green has some good reporters and this digression on Mass Tourism’s Carbon Impact is valuable:

a model built by and for the masses, one that thrives on low-cost flights, all-inclusive hotel resorts, giant buffets and endless sangria. Spain, the world’s No. 2 destination with 83.7 million visitors in 2019, is a magnet for mass tourism (it’s no coincidence that package tours were invented not far from where I was standing). In total, the industry flew, accommodated, fed and entertained a good chunk of the world’s 1.5 billion tourists last year.

Globally, it was a booming sector before the pandemic, growing at about 4% every year, employing 10% of the world’s workers and representing 10% of global gross domestic product. The enormous cruise ships, fossil fuel-powered planes and the hotels in remote, water-scarce locations make it incredibly carbon intensive too. Total footprint is estimated at around 8% of overall human emissions.

The sector’s climate record before the pandemic was already discouraging. Efforts to lower the carbon footprint have mostly been limited to climate neutrality pledges and headline-grabbing small steps like eliminating mini-shampoo bottles, replacing plastic straws with paper ones and serving sustainable food on flights.

Just calculating the impact is hard. Any serious account should include carbon emitted directly from tourism activities, but also from the whole supply chain, also known as Scope 3 emissions. That would involve food, accommodation, transport, fuel and shopping.

Scope 3 emissions are an important benchmark, and we should be aware of how to think about carbon footprint. As for global travel, I have been an active participant for more than twenty years. I remember at one point looking into the cost/feasibility of traveling to Europe by ship instead of plane for a completely different set of reasons. Considering it again, it still makes sense – and is completely unaffordable vs. comparable flights. The reality of mass tourism is a conundrum – yes, people need to travel, to expand their mindfulness of and about the world. Yes, small communities without other industries need viable economic lifelines. Yes, it creates an environmental disaster in more ways than ten.

Things Fall Apart. Look at the photo up top. Look at what has become of Venice. Without factoring in the true costs of these experiences – cruise ships, quick trips, cheap tour packages – the viability of these this places and practices have already fallen into great peril. They are at risk, even as they continue unchanged. The cruise ship industry is revving their engines, despite the inherent contradictions of scale. We need to re-think broadly. Disperse the destinations. Stay longer, take longer to get there. Yes, it costs more. These experiences already costs more than we think.

The Single Most Boring Things

HSRWe had a European friend over for dinner a couple of nights ago, a visiting scientist and numbers guy who has been here for several months and will soon return to the small Balkan nation where he lives. Beyond our nice dinner and the pessimism about global climate change he shared with aperitifs, there was other food for thought.
He was puzzled, for example, by the complete lack of public transportation options, not just locally, but between our small university town and the international airport one hour away. No way to get there absent private car or a van service, and I shared the feeling of travesty as he shook his head in disbelief.
And the thing is, a great deal of planning is required for us to find ourselves in as such a situation. One has to systematically and persistently downgrade the notion of public commonwealth in every sense to make people feel that public transportation options would be some kind of waste – or, even better worse, an infringement on their liberty. A threat, not just to be discouraged but to be blocked at the earliest sign of gaining even the smallest measure of acceptance. It takes a lot of work, but it CAN pay off: we have no trains.
It occurred to me later that infrastructure has to be one of the most boring things ever. And what that gets us is a terrible transportation infrastructure – not just one in bad shape, but poorly situated to service the most people; fundamentally wasteful of time, energy and resources; and perhaps most importantly, one that absolutely guarantees the most soul-crushing commutes, urban development, and isolation that allows for the development of things like crazy talk radio and xenophobia. Again, Very Boring Stuff.
And there are other boring things, like exercise and diet, which have, when you think about, really just an unfair influence on the state of our health. It’s just not fair. And it’s boring to walk, especially when you could be driving so far!

Food and Where It Comes From, part MCMXIV


Great dinner out last night with Mrs. G, and probably a nice lunch in a little while – two examples of the luxury amidst which we find ourselves. Just order, buy, what looks good? How our food choices got there practically never enters into our thinking, but the Los Angeles Times published some extraordinary journalism earlier this week, an investigation of the Mexican farms that send us all the delightful produce we choose or ignore – all while choosing to ignore something much greater and more fundamentally wrong with this scenario:

American consumers get all the salsa, squash and melons they can eat at affordable prices. And top U.S. brands — Wal-Mart, Whole Foods, Subway and Safeway, among many others — profit from produce they have come to depend on.

These corporations say their Mexican suppliers have committed to decent treatment and living conditions for workers.

But a Los Angeles Times investigation found that for thousands of farm laborers south of the border, the export boom is a story of exploitation and extreme hardship.

The Times found:

  • Many farm laborers are essentially trapped for months at a time in rat-infested camps, often without beds and sometimes without functioning toilets or a reliable water supply.
  • Some camp bosses illegally withhold wages to prevent workers from leaving during peak harvest periods.
  • Laborers often go deep in debt paying inflated prices for necessities at company stores. Some are reduced to scavenging for food when their credit is cut off. It’s common for laborers to head home penniless at the end of a harvest.
  • Those who seek to escape their debts and miserable living conditions have to contend with guards, barbed-wire fences and sometimes threats of violence from camp supervisors.
  • Major U.S. companies have done little to enforce social responsibility guidelines that call for basic worker protections such as clean housing and fair pay practices.

Doing anything differently begins with just knowing. So, just know. There are real people involved in the growing and harvesting of our bounty.

via LGM.

Holy Guacamole

Literal headline from Climate ProgressChipotle Warns It Might Stop Serving Guacamole If Climate Change Gets Worse

The guacamole operation at Chipotle is massive. The company uses, on average, 97,000 pounds of avocado every day to make its guac — which adds up to 35.4 million pounds of avocados every year. And while the avocado industry is fine at the moment, scientists are anticipating drier conditions due to climate change, which may have negative effects on California’s crop. Scientists from the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, for example, predict hotter temps will cause a 40 percent drop in California‘s avocado production over the next 32 years.

We don’t even have a Chipotle – though we did enjoy the excellently local Tlaloc last night. Mmmm… but (“Batman” Voiceover voice): Is this a sign of things to come?

Tune in next week tomorrow right now WTFU.

Nothing for Water

One of my colleagues is being interviewed and quoted widely about this week’s deadly tornado in Oklahoma. As he tries to makes sense of the connections between extreme weather and climate change, I sure hope he can get through to some people who have been, let’s say, stubborn about the whole thing.

But another issue that is bad enough on its own but also brings that broader issues into focus is the draining of the Ogallala Aquifer in Texas. It’s important to remember about global warming and its associated devastations: the Earth will be fine – it’s people that won’t survive, especially difficult without water:

The Ogallala Aquifer suffered its second-worst drop since at least 2000 in a large swath of the Texas Panhandle, new measurements show.

The closely watched figures, published this week by the High Plains Underground Water Conservation District, cover a 16-county area stretching from south of Lubbock to Amarillo. The Ogallala wells measured by the district experienced an average drop of 1.87 feet from 2012 to 2013. That makes it one of the five or 10 worst drops in the district’s more than 60-year history, said Bill Mullican, a hydrogeologist with the district.

“There are some pretty remarkable declines,” Mullican said. One well in the western part of the water district, he said, dropped 19 feet over the year.

The vast majority of Texas is enduring a drought, but the Panhandle has been especially hard hit, causing farmers to pump more water to make up for the lack of rain. That depletes the amount of water stored in the aquifer over the long term, which means future generations will find less water to pump to grow crops.

via LGM. There are a ton of connected issues, of which drought is merely the worst.

Eating Real Food

Is now a marketing slogan.


I was talking with a friend about some of the possible consequences of the popular appeal of Mad Men, that maybe it could subjectively get us to actually hate and therefore begin to try to resist the power of advertising. But, even as the words passed my lips I knew this was a vain hope. It’s terrific art but the network executives behind it are just as clueless about why people like it – and clued in about what people will watch – as the most cynical characters on the show are. Evidence the appalling reality show that mimics it, follows it, appears to be unwatchable and will probably be some kind of quantifiable cultural phenomenon on its own.

Selling back to us things we should already be doing, making the zeitgeist attractive and appealing, is tricky. Because there are a lot of things people already do that many others should embrace for their own and our collective good, but for the streak anti-authoritarianism that runs deeper than the Mississippi – and which is completely at odds with our vulnerability to corporate thinking. We (remember, there actually is no they) can even get people be against clean air and water. We’re helpless before the slick-o ads that pervade. Even the coming presidential campaign is actually a high-concept design contest, starring people in ads who will say they just want honest conversation about our problems. “Were X’s ads effective?” the headlines will read. Such will be the nature of the political analysis. “Wheels with wheels, man!”

So, yes: eat real. Hey better yet, get real. What does that mean? Hey, now we’re back on track! Not sure we need to put such admonitions on t-shirts – though it does bring to mind Marquez’ One Hundred Years, when everyone in the village forgets the names of everything and they have to go around labeling things like ‘chair’ and ‘table.’ Yes, maybe it’s that. Or this:

Material Flow Accounts


According to this article, the number of calories consumed at home in the UK peaked in 2001:

“One thing that’s remarkable is the sheer speed with which our resource use has crashed since the recession,” Goodall continues. “In the space of a couple of years, we’ve dropped back to the second lowest level since we started keeping track in 1970. And although the figures aren’t yet available for 2010 and 2011, it seems highly likely that we are now using fewer materials than at any time on record.”

Goodall discovered the Material Flow Accounts while writing a research paper examining the UK’s consumption of resources. The pattern he stumbled upon caught him by surprise: time and time again, Brits seemed to be consuming fewer resources and producing less waste. What really surprised him was that consumption appears to have started dropping in the first years of the new millennium, when the economy was still rapidly growing.

So of course that’s there and not here, But still, point taken. And we’re oftener than not a decade or so behind the continent on some things.

Our problem will be, is, one of scale. Proportional reductions of consumption will also have to be done to scale – across regions and demographics. Sounds obvious, sure; but so does not feeding bears and they still have to put signs up everywhere. The much bigger problem will be that we will have to decide/believe it’s us, our own selves, who is telling us what to do – and not some librul hippie government whatever. I know. Obtuseness seems to be our sweet spot.

Whistling Past the Gravy

This is a really good point that is also true for the way we/I might and do talk about using less, walking, biking… whatever your particular flavor of enlightened action/activism might be:

But when Bittman says things like this, it gets under my skin:

What’s easier [than political action] is to cook at every opportunity, to demonstrate to family and neighbors that the real way is the better way. And even the more fun way: kind of like a carnival.

Maybe. But cooking for a big family is hard work. It’s not fun for everyone. Food writers (Michael Pollan does this as well) romanticize a past of family meals. But those meals were not easy to make. They were almost always created by women who stayed at home and toiled away at running a household. Even if that situation were desirable today, and many of us would say it is not, it’s not realistic. Most families cannot survive without two incomes and even working two jobs. That doesn’t even take into account single parents. The history of processed food does not inspire one with delicious joy, but it is also a history of technological relief from drudgery. That’s no less true today.

Good to remember that the effectiveness of some of the solutions you might hear about or suggest yourself are just out of the realm of possibility for some people, if not insulting to them. And highfalutin’ advocacy may even work against you and send people right back into the arms of McDo, Exxon, Big Oil, the Kochs, the Tea Party… whomever it may be that is already telling people what they want to hear. You may quite easily and without intent put forth a holier-than-thou solution that turns more people off than on. It’s not a needle (you must thread), but it is sharp. Remember other people’s vulnerabilities. The life you save may be your own.

In a much too similar vein, NPR is pathetic.

Greens and the Next-Bubble

I was passing around this video, via Grist, about ‘what french school kids eat’ to some friends of Mrs. Green this weekend and so I should share it here. Note the child-like presentation from CBS News, which says a lot about what they think of their audience. But also note that this was on CBS News. One of the most poignant philosophical lines in the report is when the chef says, “just because they can’t vote doesn’t mean we should shove crap in their face.” Touche’, mon frere.

Then there’s this article in the Washington Monthly on the Next Real Estate Boom. Guess where it’s going to be, and why:

The baby boom generation, defined as those born between 1946 and 1964, remains the largest demographic bloc in the United States. At approximately 77 million Americans, they are fully one-quarter of the population. With the leading edge of the boomers now approaching sixty-five years old, the group is finding that their suburban houses are too big. Their child-rearing days are ending, and all those empty rooms have to be heated, cooled, and cleaned, and the unused backyard maintained. Suburban houses can be socially isolating, especially as aging eyes and slower reflexes make driving everywhere less comfortable. Freedom for many in this generation means living in walkable, accessible communities with convenient transit linkages and good public services like libraries, cultural activities, and health care. Some boomers are drawn to cities. Others prefer to stay in the suburbs but want to trade in their large-lot single-family detached homes on cul-de-sacs for smaller-lot single-family homes, townhouses, and condos in or near burgeoning suburban town centers.

Generation Y has a different story. The second-largest generation in the country, born between 1977 and 1994 and numbering 76 million, millennials are leaving the nest. They may sometimes fall back into the nest, but eventually they find a place of their own for the first time. Following the lead of their older cousins, the much smaller generation X (those born between 1965 and 1976), a high proportion of millennials have a taste for vibrant, compact, and walkable communities full of economic, social, and recreational opportunities. Their aspirations have been informed by Friends and Sex in the City, shows set in walkable urban places, as opposed to their parents’ mid-century imagery of Leave It to Beaver and Brady Bunch, set in the drivable suburbs. Not surprisingly, fully 77 percent of millennials plan to live in America’s urban cores. The largest group of millennials began graduating from college in 2009, and if this group rents for the typical three years, from 2013 to 2018 there will be more aspiring first-time homebuyers in the American marketplace than ever before—and only half say they will be looking for drivable suburban homes. Reinforcing that trend, housing industry experts, like Todd Zimmerman of Zimmerman/Volk Associates, believe that this generation is more likely to plant roots in walkable urban areas and force local government to fix urban school districts rather than flee to the burbs for their schools.