Saving What Matters: Taking Sustainability Personally

I was asked to deliver a talk to the School of Arts, Design and Media at Nanyang Technological University last week.  As I was preparing, I recorded a rehearsal version of the talk and posted that on YouTube:

This version cut off the bottoms of the slides, which included some important source links and some other information.  That information is visible in this PDF: MM talk to ADM Sept 2015 v4


Dr. Merrill will discuss her research on rainforest apes, how these experiences moulded her views on sustainability, and how everyone’s choices shape the future. She will share her adventures watching bonobos (Pan paniscus) in central Congo, and orangutans (Pongo abelii) in northern Sumatra. She will talk about some of the threats to these endangered primates, and how they connect to the decisions people in Singapore and all over the world make about what to buy and do. She will show why these actions and choices have repercussions that are relevant to the well-being of current and future generations of people everywhere. She will provide examples of how we can make better choices, and explain how these choices can have greater effects because of the way humans have evolved to learn.

Leuser Under Threat Again

And yet another sad but important recent article related to my upcoming talk, this time on the Leuser Ecosystem (where I studied orangutans at Suaq Balimbing and Ketambe research sites in 1999-2000) and the palm oil producer (PT. Aloer Timur) who is encroaching on its lowland forests.

A report produced by Greenomics Indonesia presents evidence from spatial monitoring and field observations that documents the clearing of High Carbon Stock (HCS) forests in a PT. Aloer Timur concession located inside the Leuser Ecosystem. RAN confirmed this destruction in June 2015. At the end of June, Greenomics released another report with photographic evidence showing PT. Aloer Timur had still been bulldozing HCS forests as of June 24, 2015.

From Rainforest Action Network

The Curse of Coltan

Michelle Y. Merrill, Ph.D.:

Planning another of those difficult talks about primate conservation, and came across this summary of the link to coltan mining in the DRC.

Originally posted on Passionist JPIC Australia:

Columbite-tantalite — Coltan for short — is a dull metallic ore found in major quantities in the eastern areas of Congo. When refined, Coltan becomes metallic tantalum, a heat-resistant powder that can hold a high electrical charge. These properties make it a vital element in creating capacitors, the electronic elements that control current flow inside miniature circuit boards. Tantalum capacitors are used in almost all cell phones, laptops, computers, iPads, flat screen TV’s, pagers and many other electronics. The recent technology boom caused the price of Coltan to skyrocket to as much as $400 a kilogram at one point, as companies such as Nokia, Compaq, Dell, HP, Ericson, and Sony struggled to meet demand.

Coltan is mined through a fairly primitive process similar to how gold was mined in California during the 1800s. Dozens of men work together digging large craters in streambeds, scraping away dirt from the surface in…

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Sustainability Strategies Sampler

I had to throw together a presentation for a Sustainability Salon at the beginning of this otherwise-very-busy-with-grant-writing week. Despite its hasty nature, I think there are some interesting and useful things in there. I tried to explain and organize some of the current sustainability mindsets/movements in terms of their visions of the future, whether these were more or less complex, globalized and high-tech, and how extensively they believed social, economic and cultural norms need to change to accomplish sustainability goals.

Sustainability Future Visions M Merrill 24 Aug 2015

I posted the description, with a PDF of the slideshow and my notes, at 24 Aug 2015 Sustainability Strategies Sampler.

Latest article on the Palm Oil threat to the Leuser Ecosystem

A recent summary of the current challenges facing Leuser, where I went 16 years ago to study orangutans, then watched their home being desecrated by the relentless chainsaws.

“Right now, huge swaths of vital forest habitat in Indonesia are being cut, cleared and burnt to the ground to make way for industrial-scale palm oil inyourpalm480pxplantations. These illegal operations produce a cheap supply of palm oil to a voracious international market that is growing at an exponential rate. Demand for this vegetable oil has sky-rocketed in the past decade as palm oil companies have managed to keep consumers in the dark about the hideous crimes being committed against humanity, endangered creatures and the planet.

I hope I have managed to impart even a sliver of the exceptional uniqueness and immense beauty that is embodied by this special place. Only then can one begin to fully understand the weight of loss that is sustained with every single fallen tree. Yet the true measure of this problem extends far beyond the initial insult of deforestation and spreads like a virus into lives of hundreds of innocent people and animals alike. ” ~Heather Rally

Note especially Michelle Desilets’ comment: “May I suggest readers have a look at campaigns by groups such as the Rainforest Action Network and the Union of Concerned Scientists to urge manufacturers and retailers to source only deforestation-free, conflict-free Certified Sustainable Palm Oil.”   This problem is so big and so pervasive that a handful of us tree-huggers refusing Oreos is going to barely make a dent – the companies involved won’t budge without a large, organized push.  So by all means, reduce your complicity, but don’t forget to organize and collaborate for maximum effect.

Climate Scientist Jason Box: “Yeah, the shit that’s going down has been testing my ability to block it.”

Michelle Y. Merrill, Ph.D.:

I find it impressive that an article like this was posted in a mainstream magazine like Esquire. I especially like their web address that went with the article, which includes the phrase “ballad-of-the-sad-climatologists.” I guess it’s good to know we’re not alone with our worries. I find the perspectives expressed (in regards to not getting bogged down in anxiety and depression) heartening and important to cling to in these times of dire beauty, because the work is still worth doing.

Originally posted on Exopermaculture:

An extraordinary essay and photos that demonstrate the difficulties climate scientists have with both climate change “deniers” (especially vicious in the U.S.) and their own tendency to try to “deny” their own deep, conflicted, and depressed feelings about their findings. How can any scientist be “objective” when his or her own person and family are also affected by the subject of study?

Perhaps climate change will be the one issue — its implications so vast that that everything else falls inside of it — that will finally, for good or ill, force humanity to blend left and right brains, intuition and logic, compassion and detachment, self and other, person and planet.

Esquire, via Corbin and Shodo, July 7, 2015

landscape-1436283722-esq080115climate001-scientistWhen the End of Human Civilization Is Your Day Job

Among many climate scientists, gloom has set in. Things are worse than we think, but they can’t really talk about it.


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Little humans on a big planet

Happy Earth Day!  I hope you enjoyed the Google doodle and quiz as much as I did (in my squiddy way, I ‘spose).  You can even get Google to match your donations to the Jane Goodall Institute  and other wildlife charities (Maasai Wilderness Conservation Trust, World Wildlife Fund, WildAid, Zoological Society of London and Virunga Fund), through the end of the month.  Such donations are a small thing, to be sure, but if enough people pitch in where money is being leveraged so cleverly, we can change outcomes for the better.

Google Doodle Earth Day 2015

However, there are some big problems that are not going to be solved by a little donation here, or a shorter shower there. These are great things to do, they’re not wrong, but they’re still not enough.  All indications are that we are tipping over into some serious crisis conditions, and we will not be able to just do the first 10 of the 50 Simple Things… or shop our way out of it. As a recent Union of Concerned Scientists blogger pointed out:

When we focus on the “human activities” that are causing climate change, we sound like we’re laying climate blame on things like using a washer and dryer, driving, flipping a light switch and other day-to-day things many humans in the developed world take for granted and that many humans in the developing world would very much like to do, too.

two-thirds of all industrial carbon emissions come from just 90 institutions...

The problems are big, and the biggest sources of those problems lie in the policies of governments and the actions of big industries.  The people who make the decisions about how much coal and oil is burned to run our economy are the tiny handful of humans with most of the ability to cause (or, one hopes, fix) the problems.  And as Utah Phillips is alleged to have said

The earth is not dying. It is being killed, and the people killing it have names and addresses.

What’s more, those people who bear the vast majority of the responsibility could fit into a small auditorium (or, say, a few dozen board rooms, plus the chamber of the US House of Representatives).

How do we get them to change their evil ways?  Well, that’s where our real power comes in, not as individuals, but as groups and communities.  We need to demand transparency, so that we can make informed choices.  We need to demand accountability, so that those who are most responsible for making the messes are the ones who pay the most to clean them up.  We need to demand justice, for the global billions alive today who did so little to cause the problems, and the coming generations who are blameless, but who would suffer so much if we do not make real changes.  And we need to demand sanity, so that the nearsighted self-interest of a few does not lead to catastrophe for all.  To make these demands, we must come together, share information, and refuse to be silenced.

We are primates that have undergone millions of years of evolution to specialize in social learning and creative problem-solving. The seven-billion-plus humans alive and breathing right now have a lot of potential.  We can do incredible things.  So, let’s decide to do them, together.  We haven’t got time to wait any more.

Observational Learning in Sumatran Orangutans

Observational Learning in Sumatran Orangutans

Okay, now that I’m done ranting, I should probably go hug a tree :-)

Happy Earth Day!