Happy Holidays?

CGP Grey gives a brief recap of Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel, just in time for Thanksgiving.

Speaking of Thanksgiving, do take some time to get in touch with gratitude for all the good things in your world.  And do consider how many in the world have so much less.  Then remember that the following day is Black Friday Buy Nothing Day, now part of a complete Buy Nothing Xmas (courtesy of Adbusters) — a great way to start down the road to Degrowth.

At the very least, please avoid shopping at “the Dirty Dozen” this season:


The Smoke of Centuries: Indonesia’s Fires

The fires in Indonesia  burn rainforest trees that have grown and fed and housed orangutans for decades or centuries, and peat that has stored carbon for centuries or millennia.  George Monbiot sums up the recent conflagrationary disaster in Indonesia that Southeast Asia has been breathing:

A great tract of Earth is on fire and threatened species are being driven out of their habitats. This is a crime against humanity and nature.

It is hard to convey the scale of this inferno, but here’s a comparison that might help: it is currently producing more carbon dioxide than the US economy. And in three weeks the fires have released more CO2 than the annual emissions of Germany.

Helicoptering water on to Indonesia's forest fires

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It’s not just the trees that are burning. It is the land itself. Much of the forest sits on great domes of peat. When the fires penetrate the earth, they smoulder for weeks, sometimes months, releasing clouds of methane, carbon monoxide, ozone and exotic gases such as ammonium cyanide. The plumes extend for hundreds of miles, causing diplomatic conflicts with neighbouring countries.

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Though Joko Widodo seems to want to stop the burning, his reach is limited. His government’s policies are contradictory: among them are new subsidies for palm oil production that make further burning almost inevitable. Some plantation companies, prompted by their customers, have promised to stop destroying the rainforest. Government officials have responded angrily, arguing that such restraint impedes the country’s development. That smoke blotting out the nation, which has already cost it some $30bn? That, apparently, is development.

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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…

View original 649 more words

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.