Bare Necessities

Published in Tiny Spoon Issue 5: Ecology in 2020.

If you act like that bee acts, uh uh. You’re working too hard. – “Bare Necessities,” The Jungle Book

I. BIRD

Birds screamed like they knew something we didn’t—maybe some of us knew, and liked to pretend we didn’t. 

I would be annoyed with us humans too; I would shit on someone every time I flew. 

No wonder the cassowaries want to claw us alive. A bird clawing a human alive? you ask incredulously. Cassowaries are five feet tall—that’s how tall I am. Be careful you don’t run into a protective mother somewhere out in the jungle. 

They must be related to Australia’s other huge bird: the emu, the world’s second-tallest bird, after the ostrich. Emus grow to be six feet tall. In 1932, the government of Australia declared war on the emus, The Great Emu War. 

The emus won.

II. MONKEY

We went to Bali for spring break. It was a short 4-hour plane trip away. We were excited, especially because the country is really cheap to visit. 

One day we included the Monkey Forest in our schedule. Our other friends wouldn’t go because monkeys are creepy.

In the Monkey Forest, you have to put all your belongings away. They steal sunglasses, glasses, hats—really anything they can grab and run with. 

I saw a few playing with a water bottle, as if it were the world’s greatest treasure.

*

Monkeys in Costa Rica howl, staying true to their name: howler monkey. These ones didn’t steal from us. They posed for pictures in tree branches. 

My brother caught a photo through a telescope of this one tiny monkey.

I swear in those eyes, I saw the knowledge of deforestation. That monkey was thinking of homes stolen, turned into power lines.

III. TURTLE

Maybe the sea doesn’t count as the jungle. But whenever I’ve been in a rainforest, a beach has always been close by. 

In Bali, we visited a sea turtle sanctuary and held a hatchling in our hands. I posted a photo of a hatchling in my hand with the caption: Welcome to this terrible, beautiful world. 

I thought my words were poetic.

We bought hatchlings to release into the ocean. On the way from the sanctuary to the sea, I rode on the back of my cute friend’s moped, no helmet on. We passed cows, gazing at them as we zoomed by. 

One of our tiny turtles wouldn’t stop turning around and swimming back to shore. As if the turtle was thinking, I’m not ready. 

Did that baby sea turtle know that swimming away from the shore would be swimming into a terrifying future? Only 1 in 1,000 hatchlings survive to adulthood. 

Sea turtles are endangered. Maybe because of all the plastic they’re choking on. Or all the boats that cut their bodies in half. Or the fact that they all have herpes and don’t want to reproduce because of the pain. 

I can’t stop wondering if that baby sea turtle instinctively knew that it would be better to stay on shore than to swim out to sea.

IV. CROCODILE

Once we rode on a boat in a crocodile farm to see the salties up close. 

Salties are the last animal I would ever want to run into in my entire life. They immediately send your body into their signature move: the death roll. It should be called the spin of death. The worst part is, they only eat your arm, leaving the rest of your body to rot. 

One day my friends went to a beach, and the next day we saw on the news that a huge saltie was spotted swimming at the same beach they were swimming at. 

One time on the news we saw the title: Tourist Killed By Crocodile. They only found her clothes torn up at the shore, the rest of her body was gone entirely.

Up close, we could see how huge they were. How hard their jaws snapped when they were hungry. 

Seeing them so close validated my intense fear of them. But it also made me see them as beautiful. They are dinosaurs that can survive anything this Earth goes through. 

I hope at least the crocodiles make it, when if anything really bad ever happens to the rest of us.

V. REEF

How many miles does the Great Barrier Reef stretch across? I guess that’s a complicated question. Do we include only the part that’s alive now, or the parts that were alive in the past? 

Two-thirds of the Great Barrier Reef is dead. And that fraction grows by the day. 

I know the Reef is large enough to be seen from outer space. It’s the largest living organism on the planet. 

Google says the Reef is 1,600 miles long. I’m bad at math or else I would write how many miles two-thirds of that number is. Knowing the exact number would up the drama factor and the shock level. 

But all you need to know is that our seas are too acidic, too warm, too salty, and they don’t have enough oxygen. The ocean soaks up carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and it’s killing the life that lives below the waves. 

I went snorkeling; I was so excited swimming out, but when I looked in my goggles, all I saw was white. The Reef was colorless. 

Six months later, my mom and I went to a healthy part of the Reef. We had to travel on a huge boat to get there, ironically.

I put on sunscreen even though I knew it kills the Reef—the ozone hole above Australia made me burn easily, and I burn bad, and I’m afraid of skin cancer—I felt guilty the entire time.

VI. ELEPHANT

Elephants aren’t in all jungles. They’re not in Australia because of the megafaunal extinction that killed or dwarfed all large mammals on the entire continent.

Luckily, there are elephants in Bali. While we were there, we went to an elephant sanctuary. I think they call them sanctuaries just to attract tourists by fooling us into thinking the facility is beneficial to the animals. 

We researched the sanctuary and it seemed pretty reputable. Hell, even The Crocodile Hunter recommended tourists go there because it is ethical. 

At the sanctuary, the elephants danced like they were happy. They hugged the workers with their trunks, balanced on beams, painted, did math, shot basketballs into hoops, and even more that I can’t remember—or maybe I just don’t want to remember. 

I thought it was cool at the time; I even took videos and posted them on social media. 

Later that night, my friend told me, You know they abuse the elephants to get them to perform those humiliating tasks, right?

I didn’t know. I didn’t read about it. I didn’t think about it. I didn’t consider why that one elephant was chained to the ground by the foot. 

VII. SNAKE

I don’t mind snakes that much. Australia has 8 of the top 10 most poisonous snakes in the world, yet I still chose to study there. I never really saw snakes when I was in the jungle, but I was often tricked by twisted branches. 

I’m not that scared of snakes. I know they don’t want to hurt people unless people want to hurt them. They mostly leave us alone entirely, only looking for small prey they can eat—I learned that in class. I also learned that the most dangerous snakes in Australia are the ones that are an unsuspecting color, like brown or black. The bright, neon-colored snakes are the ones that are harmless.

When my friend brought a python into our apartment, I found that in real life, I am very much afraid of snakes. My roommates and I yelled at Wyatt to get the python out of our apartment.

Holding the snake around his neck, Wyatt insisted, But look, it’s so cool! 

When I slowed down, I realized it did look peaceful. Instead of squeezing desperately to suffocate Wyatt like I once watched on Animal Planet, the snake looked relaxed. Comfortable. Happy. 

VIII. BEE

I never saw many bees in the jungle—except in Costa Rica, where they hovered over our beers and piña colidas—but that’s precisely the problem: they aren’t around much anymore. 

That Black Mirror episode where the government creates electronic bees to pollinate the plants because all the bees went extinct is looking closer to reality as the days fly by. 

African honey bees adapt and evolve very quickly, and they’re essentially taking over many other continents. In ecology, invasive species are seen as a huge negative, but in this case, it’s a positive. 

African honey bees are surviving even in the face of pesticides, climate change, loss of habitat, habitat fragmentation, parasites, and pathogens. The bees really have a lot going against them. 

I took a pollination class in college, and we learned 90% of bees worldwide are dead. The African honey bees, in my mind, are a sign God might exist. 

When we sing “The Bare Necessities” from The Jungle Book into microphones at karaoke—which happens often—I always think of the accuracy of that lyric Baloo sings: If you act like that bee acts, uh uh. You’re working too hard. Bees really do work hard. 

They bring us the bare necessities. The bare necessities of life will come to you. Only if the bees exist. 

They bring us all our fruits and vegetables, adding flavor and nutrition into our lives. They make all the other animals and plants on Earth function; they are the soul of the ecosystem. 

We all rest on the shoulders of tiny, hardworking bees. 

Next time you see a bee, think of all the times they filled your belly with food. Think of what life would be like without them—think of how lifeless this place would be.

5 Reasons to Major in Environmental Studies

Hi. If you don’t know me, I have an undergraduate degree in environmental studies. So why am I writing this post? One time in college, my friend said to me, “What do you do at the Environmental Sustainability Lab? Stare at trees for three hours?”

Honestly, he wasn’t being that dramatic. A lot of people simply have no idea what the environmental studies major is all about.

So I’m here to tell you. Throughout this post, I will be explaining an environmental major to you, while at the same telling you why you should major in it.

Why major in environmental studies?

  1. You will truly get a well-rounded education.
  2. Your brain will become more analytical.
  3. You will learn to research complex topics
  4. You will become more compassionate.
  5. You’ll save the world.

1. You will truly get a well-rounded education.

Environmental studies is by nature is interdisciplinary. Here is a look at the variety of types of classes I took:

  • Environmental sociology (my favorite)
  • Environmental literature
  • Environmental history
  • Environmental geology
  • Environmental philosophy
  • Recreation policy
  • Soil science
  • Climate science
  • Pollinators
  • Climate change policy & advocacy

Even just completing this major was interdisciplinary. The environmental studies major teaches you to think in so many different ways. It forms so many connections in your mind.

Most environmental majors have another subject they’re majoring in too. For example, I was also an English major. Others were also biology, ecology, government, policy, sociology, or artistic majors.

In every environmental class I took, almost every single student was majoring or minoring in other interesting subjects as well—much more so than in my English classes. Environmental majors are just wired to think with a variety of perspectives in mind, and that skill is valuable.

2. Your brain will become more analytical.

You’ll have to wade through a lot of misinformation. Especially because environmental studies (climate change in particular) has become so political. But your professors will teach you to cut through the political lies and analyze the data.

You will also become more analytical because we’re talking about huge, complicated problems that no one really knows the solution to. The problems are so complex, but you will find joy in picking your brain for ideas and listening to the perspectives of your classmates. They will always say something you would have never thought of yourself.

You will become a pro at analyzing data and information. You will never be fooled by environmental conspiracy theories again. And then you’ll be able to transfer this skill to your job when you attempt to help your company solve its problems.

3. You will learn to research complex topics.

Again, you’re going to be learning about topics that have a lot of factors to them. It isn’t black and white. It very much is always in the gray area. You’re going to learn to research, read data, and form your own analysis.

Your teacher is there to help you one day not need them to help you understand. After you learn the skills, you will always be able to research environmental topics on your own. You will know the science, not opinions.

You will learn to think of all sides of the topic as you research. You will dig deeper and deeper, because you know a lot of people have reasons to try to misinform the public (we’re looking at you, big oil companies).

4. You will become more compassionate.

Towards other people, but also towards animals. It was through my environmental classes that I really started to pay attention to human treatment towards animals. I started double-thinking my habits. What choices could I make that would help lower humanity’s negative impacts on animals?

It was through my environmental major that I started to see the value of every living creature. I started to believe they have souls. I started to recognize that humans have decided we’re smarter and better, but it’s not a fact of life.

I truly believe my environmental studies degree helped me grow and made me a better person.

5. You will save the world.

The world needs more people like you that cares about the environment. That sees the sadness in environmental destruction. That wants to fight for the future of humankind. I appreciate you, and so does every other environmentalist and conservationist out there. Please keep fighting the good fight!

What can I do with an Environmental Degree?

Here’s a look at what some of my environmental classmates are doing now:

  • Studying environmental policy and law
  • Sustainability Programs Coordinator
  • Environmental educator

As for me, I write creative nonfiction about environmental studies outside of my day job. And one day, I’ll be writing and taking pictures for National Geographic.

If you’re an environmental major, share what your job is. If you’re an aspiring environmental major, share what you want to do after graduating.

Cheers to you for making a difference.

Is Anthropocentrism or Ecocentrism Better for the Environment?

My senior year of college, in my environmental class about pollinators, our class was having a discussion about whether anthropocentrism or ecocentrism is philosophically better. Of course, most of us thought ecocentrism was a more acceptable form of environmental activism.

I do too, but I raised my hand. I had to interject. My professor called on me, and I shared with my class that I too aligned more with ecocentrism, but we shouldn’t discount the role anthropocentrism plays in motivating people to protect our environment just because we disagree.

Social Indicators Research published “Facilitating Pro-Environmental Behavior: The Role of Pessimism and Anthropocentric Environmental Values.” This research proved that anthropocentrism promotes pro-environmental behaviors just as effectively as ecocentrism.

What’s the Difference?

Ecocentric:

  • Sees human life as a part of nature.
  • Values all life on Earth equally, including plants.
  • Believes every species plays an important role in the ecosystem.
  • Believes all species have the inherent right to live.
  • Nature is important in itself, not just for humans.
  • Believes it is wrong to anthropomorphize—or ascribe human qualities to—animals, because they are living their own unique experience that we cannot comprehend.

Antropocentric:

  • Encourages environmentalism for the sake of sustaining human life.
  • Believes humans are superior to and in charge of the natural world.
  • Especially appreciates the aesthetic value and natural resources nature provides.
  • Anthropomorphizes animals in order to get the general public to care about nature–usually a large mammal. for example, Ernest Thompson Seton’s Wild Animals I Have Known and The Biography of a Grizzly Bear.

Which Type of Environmentalist Should I be?

I don’t think it has to be clear cut and dry in your mind. You can draw from both philosophical thoughts. The division can be harmful. All environmentalists should be on the same team.

Even if you’re an ecocentric, you could benefit from using anthropocentric environmentalist values in order to get other people to care.

Anthropocentrism Made Trump Care

For example, the National Park Foundation posted an article on LinkedIn: “Pretty Pictures Sold Trump on Outdoors Bill, Backers Say.”

The bill would provide funding for national parks. The article quotes Colorado Senator Cory Gardner, the bill’s sponsor: “This is a historic win for the United States.”

Gardner convinced Trump to support the bill by showing him a photo of the Colorado national park.

The bill would fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund $900 million a year. It would provide $9.5 billion to the Department of the Interior for maintenance of national parks.

The article quotes Will Shafroth, president and CEO of the National Park Foundation: “The Great American Outdoors Act provides much needed funding to repair and enhance national park facilities, roads, water systems, trails, and other resources that are essential to the visitor experience.”

Trump said to Gardner, “If you can get this passed, I look forward to signing it.”

Trump. The president that proposed to cut $587 million from the National Park Service and $2.4 billion from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). He also proposed to nearly completely deplete all funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund. This was in February of 2020.

In July of 2020, Trump has completely changed his mind. Why? Because Gardner showed him a pretty picture.

Gardner analyzed his audience and used anthropocentric environmentalism (aesthetics) to make Trump care about nature.

Pretty genius if you ask me. What do you think?

Taking Care of Succulents

Let’s get one thing straight first: you do need to take care of your succulents. If you follow my instructions, your succulents will not only live, but they will constantly thrive with new growth.

Sunlight

The photo above was taken on a warm, sunny day on my porch in Dallas, TX. I mention my location because it definitely gives me an advantage in caring for my succulents; they love the sun. If you live in a cold, cloudy climate, make sure your succulents are still getting indirect sunlight all day year-round.

If isn’t nice and warm, your succulents should not be outside. When in doubt, keep them inside. Leave them in a windowsill or very close to an open window. Try to put them near windows that get sunlight for a good amount of time all day.

Rotate

Every few hours, if you are home, you could rotate which windows your plants are in so they get sunlight for the entire day. This is great to do on weekends when you’re at home relaxing. You can also take this time to observe which window gets the longest and best sunlight, and then leave your succulent in that window for most days. You can also rotate your succulent to different windows on different days.

Another way to help your succulent is to rotate which side of the plant is facing the window. If one side of your succulent faces the window too long, the other side might suffer a bit with the lack of sunlight. Your succulent will also grow toward the window, so rotating your succulent will help it grow straight up, rather than curved toward the sun.

Water

I really don’t know why everyone thinks you don’t need to water succulents. Let’s clear this up. Do succulents need water? Absolutely. You want to not water your succulent? Then prepare to throw it out in a couple months.

How much do you water your succulent? It depends on the time of year, how much sunlight your plant is getting, how hot it is, how fast your plant is growing, and a whole bunch of other factors. I water one of my succulents right now 3 times a week, one twice a week, another once a week, and so on.

You have to learn the watering technique, and then you have to learn to read the response you get from your succulents. Be prepared to change how you water your plant whenever it starts responding differently.

Watering Technique

The basics: make sure your plant has a good drainage system. When buying pots, make sure you get ones with a hole on the bottom of it and a little plate for the water to leak on. If you accidentally buy a pot that doesn’t have a hole at the bottom, put a good layer of rocks underneath the soil so that the plant can let the water leak out. The water needs to have somewhere to go, because succulents like to drain their water out.

Don’t water your succulents with spray bottles. I don’t know why everyone thinks this is how you should be watering your succulents. Water them with a cup of water and make the soil wet. Don’t drown your plant, but you should definitely soak the soil. The soil should be visibly wet.

When your plant’s soil is completely dry, you need to water it again. This is really just about checking up on your plant. It might take one day for your plant to suck up all the water. It might take three weeks. Either way, water your plant if the soil is dry.

If your plant’s soil is dry quickly though, it means it is going through a growth spurt. It’s a great sign.

Dead Leaves

You might think dead leaves are a bad sign. I won’t deny: dead leaves could potentially mean your plant is about to die. On the other hand, it could mean your succulent is about to change and flourish.

Check out my succulent in the yellow pot. It’s probably my favorite one, because it’s grown so much since I first bought it about 6 months ago. It’s a skyscraper now—it’s taller than my sister’s dog, Theo, who is 80 pounds.

It continually grows inches by the day (at least that’s how it seems), so when all the succulent’s leaves fell off, I was nervous. I facetimed my mom, a plant whisperer. I asked, “Is it about to die?”

She told me, “Just keep taking care of it. We’ll see what happens.”

Before these pictures, this succulent had big, soft, pink leaves. After the leaves fell off, the plant became very prickly, almost like a cactus. I’m not sure exactly what type of plant it is; I can’t even tell you the difference between a succulent and a cactus. Whether a succulent or cactus, the plant is thriving.

As you can see, after all its leaves fell off, it actually started growing little arms.

I love how the arms are pink, just like the leaves were. I’m excited to see what this plant will look like as it continues to grow and develop. Will more arms grow on different parts of it? Also, can anyone tell me if it’s a succulent or a cactus?

Soil

There is particular soil that is specifically for succulents. Make sure you look for it when you go to the store. It will say succulents on the bag. Leave your succulent in it’s original, plastic pot for a week or so before you move it into the nicer pot you bought. When you move the plant over to its new home, add more soil and pack it down. Be extremely gentle with your plant while you move it.

Yesterday I facetimed my mom. My huge cactus (or succulent?) in the yellow pot was falling over. She explained to me how plants seem to “eat” or absorb some of the soil, so I have to add more soil to stabilize the plant.

Then, I showed her the plant pictured above. She told me the same thing: that plant needs more soil to straighten it up. Side note: I absolutely adore the pink on this plant, too. Always be gentle when adding more soil.

Plant Food

So you bought a succulent at the store and it’s soil is as dry as the Sahara Desert. You know you obviously have to water it, but while you’re at it, you should put a couple drops of plant food in the water. After that initial feeding, I usually feed my succulents once a month.

We all need food to thrive, right?

Switching Pots

This won’t have to be done too often, usually, but if your succulent is looking a bit too big for its current pot, you probably should buy it a new home. Only switch pots if your succulent starts to look like it’s struggling a bit, and you’re certain it’s too big for it’s pot.

Again, be gentle while switching the succulent from one pot to another. If the roots look all tangled up, break them up a bit so that the plant isn’t strangling itself. That way the roots will grow in new directions.

Don’t worry, you can buy a new baby succulent for the pot that your plant outgrew!

Progress Pictures

You won’t really notice how much your plants have grown if you don’t take progress pictures every few months. You would be surprised at how big and healthy your plant will start to look! Remember, this plant is your new baby. Treat it as such!

Climate Anxiety to Climate Denial

Published in Honey & Lime Issue 6: where do we go from here? in 2020.
You can view this publication online here.

I try hard not to imagine too far into the future. At this point it feels inevitable, and I try to push away the worry and hold onto the parts of the world that bring me joy, the ones that are still here, for the moment at least. 

Katie Palmer’s essay explicitly speaks of the acute anxiety that comes with learning about climate change, the difficulty of writing about a subject that clearly spells out our doom.

 The future of our planet is terrifying to think about. I do not yet know what our lives will look like twenty years into the future, especially for those who are already disenfranchised today: what resources we may have to give up, what creatures may one day go extinct. But as I put together this issue, the beautiful and evocative work of our contributors reminded me of something important. Perhaps the actions of one person may be ineffective on a global scale, but if all of us join our efforts together, and continue to act, speak up, and demand change, then maybe it will be enough to make a difference. This is all I can hope for.

– Excerpts from “Letter from the Editor” by Wanda Deglane in honey & lime

I can’t write poems about climate change. I tried once, in advanced poetry. During workshop, my professor asked one of my classmates what she thought of my poem, since she had been silent during the entire discussion.

“Honestly, I’m just not interested in this topic,” my classmate answered, her voice flat. 

What luxury—to not be interested, to not care, to not know. I wish I had looked at the environmental studies major at my school and thought, “That’s not for me. Next.” 

In reality, I picked my university specifically for the combined environmental studies and English major. When I was a freshman, my English professor tried to convince me to switch to being solely an English major, dropping the environmental half. 

“That’s not an option,” I told him. “I’m going to be an environmental lawyer.” 

But sometimes, I wish I had listened to him. 

In college, I loved taking environmental classes, but as I kept studying, I wasn’t so sure about environmental law anymore. I was still thinking I would move to Washington, D.C. and work on environmental policy. Or become an environmental journalist. Or an environmental textbook writer. 

I didn’t start to regret the environmental half of my major until my senior year. My first semester, I finally got into a class I had been dying to get into: climate change policy and advocacy. 

On the first day, my professor asked, “What do you think is the scariest news in climate change today?”

My classmates looked puzzled, but I raised my hand confidently. “The permafrost melting,” I said, as if the answer were obvious, like the know-it-all I was. “My climate science professor told us last year that it wouldn’t start melting for 50 years. There’s methane in it, which is way more potent than carbon dioxide. The melting permafrost will accelerate climate change, and it will be irreversible.” 

“I agree. Nice job.” My professor looked impressed. In Australia, I had taken a class explaining all the intricate details of the Earth’s climate, so I knew I would ace this class.

Except I didn’t. Not even close. 

I was only a few points away from failing my midterm, and only because my professor went back and added 0.5 points on a few answers. I saw my original failing score crossed out, replaced by another score. I passed only because my professor took pity on me.

I felt like a failure, but every time I tried to study for that test, I would spiral into a panic attack. Tears would fall uncontrollably down my face. I couldn’t catch my breath. My heart would race and my skin would sweat as if I had just finished a marathon. I felt like my chest was going to explode. I couldn’t swallow; my throat felt like it was sealed shut. I would vomit, which made me never want to eat. Sometimes, all my limbs would even go completely numb. Most terrifying of all, I felt like I was going to die right then. 

I was in a really dark place. That semester, I cried to the same professor that tried to tell me to switch to being an English major. 

“You can’t control climate change,” he told me. “You can’t stress what you can’t control.” He mirrored almost the exact same words my therapist had told me. 

As the year went on, I felt like I was getting so much better. I passed the class, barely, but I was still on track to graduate on time. I took less stressful, more enjoyable classes second semester. 

Best of all, therapy was working. I went from having multiple panic attacks daily first semester, to having almost none for the entirety of my second semester. 

But I guess climate change will always be a trigger for me. 

After graduation, I was at my Papa’s camp, nestled deep in the woods. This is the place that fostered my connection to the environment as a child, inspiring me to study it when I grew up. We all sat around the campfire, sipping plastic cups filled with mixed drinks.

Somehow, I found myself discussing climate change with three people, all biased in their own ways: someone who works in the fossil fuel industry, a dairy farmer, and a Trump supporter. 

I knew they were biased, but they thought I was too. How could I be biased, when I had nothing to sell or gain from my perspective? Didn’t they know how much I wished climate change weren’t true? 

No matter my degree, no matter what I learned, or what I said, they would have never listened to me. Ever. 

After they kept arguing with me for way too long, I started crying frustrated tears. “You’re old,” I said. “You got to get old, but you stole that from my generation. We will never get old.” 

Truth is, I don’t know what will happen to us. A huge part of me hopes the climate change deniers win. I imagine myself, 90-years-old, laughing, “You guys were right all along. I was so worried for nothing!” 

The other part of me, the one who knows all the science, can’t handle the depression and anxiety that comes with the knowledge. That’s why I have become a sort of climate change denier myself. I avoid the news. I focus on the pretty scenery nature provides. I fill my car with gas and drive to work. I forget to unplug my chargers. I don’t apply to any environmental jobs. 

Maybe one day I will be mentally strong enough to go for that law degree, or to make a difference in some other way. Maybe one day I’ll be able to at least write one decent poem about it.

Sources to look at if you suffer from climate anxiety:

Climate Anxiety Doesn’t Have to Ruin Your Life

‘Eco-Anxiety’: How to Spot it and What to do About it

With Climate Change Comes Loss and “Ecological Grief”

Biofuels: The Myth of Carbon Neutrality

We deal with myths on a daily basis, but this myth has got to be the worst: that biofuels are carbon neutral.

It’s detrimental to the world if educated environmentalists believe this myth and argue in the favor of biofuels in debates of how we should transition to being a carbon neutral society.

I won’t lie. I believed biofuels were carbon neutral. I read it in my Introduction to Environmental Studies textbook freshman year.

On my final exam, I listed biofuels as carbon neutral next to solar, hydro, wind, and geothermal. I got the answer right.

Let’s back up: carbon neutrality means we do not emit carbon into the atmosphere. Based on our current lifestyles, carbon neutrality seems like an impossible task. We rely on burning fossil fuels (coal, oil, and natural gas) to live our daily lives, including: using plastics, driving our cars, heating our homes, watching TV, using electronics, and cooking dinner on the stove.

We emit carbon into the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels, the remains of living animals and plants long ago. Since it takes the Earth such a long time to produce more fossil fuels, we’re going to run out.

The carbon clock doesn’t predict when we will run out; it gives us a guideline of when we should act as though we did. The carbon clock shows how much CO2 can be released into the atmosphere to limit global warming to a maximum of 1.5°C and 2°C. Right now, it reads we have 25 years to become a carbon neutral society.

Keep in mind how hard, challenging, and slow this shift will be. That’s why environmentalists are urging that every country take immediate action to lower their carbon emissions. Costa Rica has pledged to achieve carbon neutrality by 2021—a really quick shift. The Paris Agreement, which is an agreement between countries to set carbon budgets for themselves, focuses on achieving carbon neutrality goals in the long-term.

The Paris Agreement assigns budgets for every country based on the category they fall into. Put simply, less developed countries get higher carbon budgets to “catch up” with developed countries. Countries that are already developed have the societal and monetary ability to switch to carbon neutral energy sources, which is why they get a lower carbon budget. This is why the U.S. won’t sign it. Since the U.S. is a developed country, it would be included in the countries that would get a lower amount of carbon to emit.

Personally, I cannot imagine our society switching to carbon neutral energy sources, but if we don’t, our planet is in big trouble. I could write an entire book on all the terrible things that will happen if we don’t keep the heating at a maximum of 1.5°C and 2°C. If you want more details, read the Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change (IPCC)’s report on the details of a 1.5°C temperature increase here.

The moral of the story? We need to lower our carbon emissions, and in the future, become completely carbon neutral.

But lowering our carbon emissions is challenging. This is where this debate about biofuels enters the picture. I told you all those facts about why we need to stop emitting carbon, but the discussion of biofuels wades into the how territory of the carbon neutral discussion.

I believed biofuels were carbon neutral until my senior year. In Climate Change Policy & Advocacy, we were given an assignment to read St. Lawrence University’s Climate Action Plan (CAP), a plan our school created to help our campus transition to eventually being carbon neutral. We were told to write a research paper in the form of an email giving advice to those who are in charge of implementing the plan. Our professor planned to actually send our papers, which made the assignment more important and interactive. We also had to present our findings to the entire class.

One goal of the CAP included in St. Lawrence’s Energy Master Plan was to transition to biomass boilers, or to use geothermal energy in combination with solar energy. This plan was defined as a mid-term goal (7-15 years). The biomass boilers would specifically use wood pellets as fuel. At first, I thought: Cool, biomass boilers. Carbon neutral. I don’t know what to argue here.

Then I started wondering. How do biomass boilers work? They can’t really be as clean as geothermal and solar energy, can they? I learned biofuels were carbon neutral, but that’s all I learned. I never learned the details.

On Google Scholar, I searched biofuels. The sources that showed up supported biofuels, as expected. Then I searched: “Are Biofuels Carbon Neutral?”

I dug deep. I started to come across sources that critically examined biofuels through a scientific lens. From the Transactions of the Royal Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene, I found the source, “Indoor Air Pollution From Biomass Fuel Smoke is a Major Health Concern in the Developing World.” In Proceedings of the American Thoracic Society, I found: “Biomass Fuels and Respiratory Diseases.” In Progress in Energy and Combustion Science: “Pollutants From the Combustion of Solid Biomass Fuels.” In Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews: “Biomass Energy and the Environmental Impacts Associated with its Production and Utilization.”

I started to think I was on to something. Reading these sources, I found that biomass fuels are not carbon neutral.

I’ll hit you with some science now.

Biomass fuel contributes to greenhouse gas emissions in several ways: in order to heat the biomass to turn it into fuel, fossil fuels are used; due to the need for biomass to be mass-produced, the transportation of the fuel contributes to emissions; and the production of biomass fuel from wood causes deforestation. Deforestation contributes to 12-18% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, which is equal to or more than the transportation sector, which attributes to 14% of the world’s emissions. These percentages are based off the EPA’s data in 2017.

Not only does deforestation contribute to greenhouse gas emissions, but reforestation is an important aspect of climate change mitigation. Forests absorb, or remove from the atmosphere, 30% of all CO2 emissions every year.

Using biomass fuel from wood would contribute to climate change not only emitting fossil fuels, but also by reducing the amount of COtaken up by forests. 

What’s even worse? Burning biomass fuel from wood releases many harmful pollutants into the air, such as carbon monoxide, free radicals, particulate matter, and carcinogens. Over 200 chemical and compound groups have been identified in wood smoke. Biomass fuel is considered a low efficiency fuel, meaning it does not heat well and produces a lot of pollutants. Let’s do some math here: add the pollutants released when burning biomass fuels to the pollutants that are caused by burning the greenhouse gases to create the fuel.

At this point, it’s better to just use the fossil fuels alone.

The day we had to present our arguments in front of the class, I was nervous. All my classmates were going to the front of the room and agreeing with the plan to use biomass boilers. My face grew redder with each person, and my hands got sweatier. Finally, it was my turn to present. I had my paper in front of me, but I didn’t read a single word from it. Without even trying, I had memorized my entire argument. I was so invested in this topic that this presentation was probably the best I ever gave throughout my 4 years at St. Lawrence.

“This is going to be awkward,” I said, shifting my weight to my other foot, “because I’m going to disagree with a lot of you. Biomass boilers are not carbon neutral, and we should not plan to use them.”

At the end of my presentation, a classmate of mine who had given his presentation before me endorsing biomass boilers raised his hand. He started arguing with me. I don’t remember exactly what he said, but I know I stood my ground, unlike other times I had academic arguments in classes. I knew I was right. I had done the research, whereas he had accepted what he learned in Introduction to Environmental Studies.

Eventually, my classmates and I looked to my professor for his opinion. He said, “I agree with Katie.” I smiled with relief. “I have a huge problem with biomass boilers. They’re not carbon neutral.” He went on to explain how using the farm land to create the wood chips for the biomass boilers would also have a negative impact on the environment.

Why am I telling this story? So you don’t go around calling yourself an environmentalist while believing biomass boilers are carbon neutral. Also, so that you question everything, including the “facts” you read in textbooks. And finally, so that you’re never afraid to go against the crowd to state your unpopular opinion.

You might just be right.

Ecocentric and Anthropocentric Environmentalism: Atwood’s Critique of Specialization

Published in St. Lawrence Review 2019. Pages 62-74.

Margaret Atwood’s novel, Oryx and Crake, has often been described as an eco-dystopian novel, meaning that the novel critiques the way in which society approaches environmental issues by portraying a dystopian vision of a deteriorated planet. However, while many critics realize that Atwood is advocating for a better approach to caring for the environment, it is often overlooked that Oryx and Crake also critiques both the branches of traditional environmentalist thought: ecocentrism and anthropocentrism. By critiquing both ecocentrism and anthropocentrism through the characters of Crake and Jimmy, Atwood is essentially critiquing specialization, even within the realm of environmental studies.

It has been proved that anthropocentrism promotes pro-environmental behaviors just as effectively as ecocentrism.

Ecocentrism and anthropocentrism are two conflicting and heavily debated theories within the field of environmental studies. While both ecocentric and anthropocentric theories have the goal of preserving the environment, the philosophies behind the two differ greatly. According to the Devall and Sessions’ Deep Ecology: Living as if Nature Mattered, ecocentrism is “in sharp contrast with the dominant world-view of the technocratic-industrial societies which regard humans as isolated and fundamentally different from the rest of nature” (65). In contrast, as Devall and Sessions explain, anthropocentrism is the belief that humans are superior to and in charge of the natural world (65). The definitions given here illustrate the common occurrence of ecocentrics depicting anthropocentrism in a negative light; however, it has been proved that anthropocentrism promotes pro-environmental behaviors just as effectively as ecocentrism, it just differs in that it encourages environmentalism for the sake of sustaining human life (Naoko and Kaida 1225). To summarize the difference between these two contrasting environmental thoughts, ecocentrics believe “nature has intrinsic value independent of its direct value to human beings” and an anthropocentric perspective believes that the nonhuman environment should be used as a commodity to sustain the wellbeing of humans (Cocks and Simpson 220). Although neither branch of environmentalism is necessarily better or right, these two contrasting ways of perceiving the natural world are the root of many philosophical debates in the field of environmental studies.

Most modern environmentalists ascribe to ecocentrism, because anthropocentrism is usually interpreted as selfish. However, Atwood’s Oryx and Crake gives us a very different perspective by portraying an eerily ecocentric world in which the boundaries between animals and humans blur. However, before the ecocentric, apocalyptic future, Atwood presents us with a dystopian capitalist society in which anthropocentrism reigns. Atwood critiques anthropocentrism by showing a society in which capitalism fails to recognize or respect the boundary between humans and nature. In an article published in the Journal of Ecocriticism, Dunlap describes Atwood’s method of blurring the human and nature divide through the portrayal of capitalism; Dunlap writes, “human and non-human animal lives are bundled into a single category—all lives are objects whose purpose is to entertain” (5). An example of this is when Crake describes the “Student Services,” where students can essentially order a prostitute; Crake explains, “You can get any color, any age—well, almost. Any body type. They provide everything” (208). This is a particularly good example of the commodification of humans because as Crake says, “female students have equal access, of course” (208). By erasing the often-sexist capitalist practices, Atwood is exemplifying the fact that all human bodies can be commodified for human use, similarly to the way that anthropocentrics believe animals and nature should be. However, through her portrayal of capitalism, Atwood shows readers that the boundary between humans and animals is arbitrary. 

Atwood levels the hierarchy of humans and animals in the novel, making a distinction between the two completely arbitrary.

Similarly, Atwood also critiques anthropocentrism by portraying the lack of distinction between humans and animals in science. According to Dunlap, the “leveling of hierarchical distinctions between animals and humans is even more evident within the scientific world, where all life forms are objects are study and experiment” (5). While an anthropocentric environmentalist might argue that it is ethical to use animals to experiment in order to improve human life, Atwood takes this idea further by portraying a society in which humans experiment on other humans. For example, Atwood describes the “NooSkins for Olds,” which is a scientific project attempting to create ageless skin (55). The experiments on these humans fail, showing the repercussions of perceiving human life, as well as animals and nature, as subjects to be tested on. Another example of Atwood’s depiction of diminished human-animal hierarchies is when Crake is describing his invention, the “BlyssPluss Pill,” and Jimmy asks, “Where do you get the subjects?” (296). Crake responds, “From the poorer countries. Pay them a few dollars, they don’t even know what they’re taking” (296). The society portrayed in Oryx and Crake uses humans as test subjects, similarly to the way in which our society today uses animals to experiment on. By commodifying and experimenting on humans as well as animals, Atwood levels the hierarchy of humans and animals in the novel, making a distinction between the two completely arbitrary.

By portraying a society in which humans and animals are equal in the hierarchy of life in both commodification as well as science experiments, Atwood is critiquing anthropocentric environmental thought. Atwood’s critique of anthropocentrism forces the reader to ask: if we use animals and the natural world to improve human lives, what is to stop us from using human lives in the same way? Also, what qualifies as improvement in human life? Where do we draw the line in our use of the natural environment to improve human life quality? Clearly, in Atwood’s perspective, an anthropocentric environmental perspective is not sustainable.

While Atwood critiques anthropocentrism, she also critiques ecocentrism throughout Oryx and Crake. One way in which Atwood critiques an ecocentric perspective is that she questions the practicality of such a worldview. In a society in which the rich exploit the poor and the men exploit the women, how can humans recognize the intrinsic value of life to animals and plants if they cannot even do so for their fellow human beings? Crake, a character with the goal of enacting his ecocentric vision, decides that the only viable way to make ecocentrism a reality is to execute a mass genocide. Dunlap describes Atwood’s portrayal of the practicality of ecocentrism through the character of Crake:

However, in order to fulfill his ectopian vision—one in which the human reproductive habits responsible for psychological suffering and human-drive power struggles are eliminated and in which human-over-nature hierarchies are collapsed—Crake must first destroy humanity (3).

This is because according to Crake, what defines humanity is its continuous need to dominate. For example, the domination of people due to issues such as race, class, and gender, the consumption of animals, and the territoriality of land (Atwood 305). By getting rid of these “destructive features,” Crake creates a species of humans in which “Hierarchy could not exist among them, because they lacked the neural complexes that would have created it” (Atwood 305). Because Crake wants to destroy the tendency of humans to think in hierarchical terms, even extending to animals; Crake’s genetically modified humans, the “Crakers,” are forbidden to eat meat. Therefore, by leveling humans and animals in the hierarchy of life, Crake is inherently an ecocentric environmentalist. However, the Crakers, who Crake engineered to not have the “faults” of humans, still show the aspects of humanity that Crake sought to get rid of. In the end, the Crakers start becoming more and more human, showing the genocide Crake executed was for nothing. Oryx and Crake shows that while Crake wanted to get rid of the faults of humanity, these aspects of life are portrayed as intrinsically related to the beautiful aspects of human life: religion, art, curiosity, and love. While Atwood’s Oryx and Crake critiques the practicality of ecocentrism, it also criticizes the ethics behind it: readers are not supposed to be okay with Crake’s decision to murder the entire human race, and living in a world with no personal expression or feeling is clearly not the answer.

Crake’s ecocentric philosophy, as well as Atwood’s critique of ecocentrism, can also be seen in the ways in which Crake describes animals and humans in mechanical terms. Often criticized by ecocentrics, a key feature of anthropocentrism is the literary device of anthropomorphism, which is “attributing or recognizing human characteristics in animals” (Warkentin 86). Anthropomorphism is an aspect of anthropocentrism in which ecocentrics strongly reject. Edward Abbey, a famously recognized ecocentric environmentalist, describes his rejection of anthropomorphism:

The personification of the natural is exactly the tendency I wish to suppress in myself…I want to be able to look at and into a juniper tree, a piece of quartz, a vulture, a spider, and see it as it is in itself, devoid of all humanly ascribed qualities (6).

Abbey’s quote illustrates the fact that ecocentrics reject anthropomorphism because they believe it is selfish to ascribe human qualities to nature because it is done for the benefit of humans, not nature. Anthropocentrism is also seen as problematic because it is anthropocentric to believe that nature has human feelings, as well as the fact that humans only seem to care about nature if it is described in human terms. In Atwood’s novel, the character of Crake in Atwood’s novel rejects anthropomorphism, showing his ecocentric perspective, while the character of Jimmy continuously anthropomorphizes animals, revealing his anthropocentric worldview.

Atwood is exemplifying the fact that while ecocentrism is often seen as being a philosophy that elevates animals and plants to humans on the hierarchy of life, it can also be the opposite, which is the devaluation of all life.

The ecocentric Crake goes beyond simply rejecting the anthropomorphism to the point where he continuously illustrates “mechanomorphism.” Mechanomorphism is a phrase coined by Warkentin in the article “Dis/Integrating Animals: Ethical Dimensions of the Genetic Engineering of Animals for Human Consumption.” Warkentin defines mechanomorphism as “labeling animal bodies, and describing behavior, in mechanical terms” (86). Interestingly enough, an ecocentric character, Crake, often describes animals through mechanical terms, yet this method of mechanomorphizing animals often displayed by people who support very non-ecocentric practices, such as genetically engineering animals for human consumption, as exemplified through Warkentin’s article. By portraying the ecocentric Crake as caring less about and demeaning the lives of other animals, Atwood is exemplifying the fact that while ecocentrism is often seen as being a philosophy that elevates animals and plants to humans on the hierarchy of life, it can also be the opposite, which is the devaluation of all life.

Mechanomorphism is a term used to describe an author’s description of animals, but Atwood takes mechanomorphism a step further: Crake mechanomorphizes humans. This can be seen in the way in which Crake attributes every aspect of humanity to biology. Describing heartbreak, Crake asks: “how much needless despair has been caused by a series of biological mismatches, a misalignment of the hormones and pheromones?” (166). Similarly, Crake describes love mechanically: “Falling in love, although it resulted in altered body chemistry and was therefore real, was a hormonally induced delusional state” (193). Crake also describes the creation of art in mechanical terms by claiming that it serves a “biological purpose,” because by making art, a man is amplifying himself, which is “a stab at getting laid” (168). When Jimmy asks about female artists, Crake says that they are “biologically confused” (168). Crake’s continuous method of describing humanity in mechanical terms is supposed to leave the reader feeling uneasy, therefore Atwood’s critique of ecocentrism is clear.

Atwood is showing that although ecocentrism is problematic in ways, there are also positives associated with viewing the world in such a way.

Atwood also critiques ecocentrism by showing how unsettling an ecocentrism is through her portrayal of Crake’s creation of a world in which humans are like animals and animals are like humans. For example, the Crakers challenge the constructions of the human versus the animal (Dunlap 9). Dunlap describes this animal-like human species in Oryx and Crake: “like cats, the Crakers purr; like the rabbits of this world, they glow with the green from a jellyfish gene; like ‘the canids and mustelids,’ they mark their territory; and like various hares and rabbits, the Crakers eat leaves and grass” (9). The Crakers also are similar to animals in the way that they have sex solely to reproduce: “Crake had worked out the numbers, and had decreed that once every three years per female was more than enough” (164). However, while the absence of love is meant to unnerve the reader, Jimmy reflects on the effect of Crake’s creation of humans reproduce like animals: “No more prostitution, no sexual abuse of children, no haggling over the price, no pimps, no sex slaves. No more rape” (165). Clearly, Atwood is showing that although ecocentrism is problematic in ways, there are also positives associated with viewing the world in such a way.

Similarly to the animal-like humans, Atwood also portrays human-like animals, such as the pigoons, a genetically modified pig. Atwood describes, “A brainy and omnivorous animal, the pigoon. Some of them may even have human neocortex tissue growing in their crafty, wicked heads” (235). Similarly, Atwood writes of pigoons, “if they’d had fingers they’d have ruled the world” (267). Atwood explicitly conveys this absence of a distinction between human and non-human in her post-apocalyptic world through Jimmy’s decision to name himself after the Abominable Snowman, the “apelike man or manlike ape” (8). Through Atwood’s depiction of a world in which the human and the non-human are more alike than different, her critique of ecocentrism is clear in that these aspects of the novel are meant to unnerve the reader.

Atwood is exemplifying the fact that sometimes perceiving the world in the way that characterizes anthropocentrism can help humans care more about the natural world.

While Crake is the epitome of an ecocentric environmentalist, the character of Jimmy is Atwood’s representation of anthropocentrism. A quote that illustrates this relationship between these two characters is when Crake tells Jimmy, “Don’t be so fucking sentimental” (344). The character of Jimmy often anthropomorphizes the animals throughout the novel, for example, Atwood writes of Jimmy’s interpretation of the pigoons, “They glanced up at him as if they saw him, really saw him, and might have plans for him later” (26). When Jimmy’s dad tells him the pigoons might eat him, Jimmy says: “No they won’t,” and he thinks, “Because I’m their friend” (26). Another example of Jimmy anthropomorphizing animals is when Crake and his coworker describe the “ChickieNobs,” which are essentially pieces of chicken meat, genetically engineered to have a brain with no function besides “digestion, assimilation, and brain growth” (203). Jimmy’s anthropomorphism of even animals that have been degraded to pieces of meat is clear when he asks, “But what’s it thinking?” (202). Through the character of Jimmy, Atwood is exemplifying the fact that sometimes perceiving the world in the way that characterizes anthropocentrism can help humans care more about the natural world.

Similarly to his anthropomorphism of animals, Jimmy also thinks of humans in a much more humanistic sense, as opposed to Crake’s mechanic way of perceiving humans. Atwood exemplifies this when Jimmy tells Crake, “In your plan we’d just be a bunch of hormone robots” (166). Crake responds, “we’re hormone robots anyways, just faulty ones” (166). We see Crake’s theory that humans are “hormone robots” disproven even through his own creation of the species of the Crakers: they kill fish for Jimmy even when they were told it is morally wrong to do so, they create art, they are curious and ask Jimmy many questions, leaders emerge in their species, and they idolize of Oryx and Crake in a religious way, which are all aspects of humanity that Crake attempted to destroy.

By critiquing both ecocentric and anthropocentric branches of environmental thought through the characters of Crake and Jimmy, Atwood is critiquing specialization.

Although readers are supposed to be weary of the ecocentric thought process that drove Crake to perform a mass genocide, Atwood also conveys that anthropocentrism can also be problematic at times. Jimmy’s character, the most anthropocentric character in the novel, has his own issues, even within his yearning for the continuation of humanity in an ecocentric world. For example, Jimmy looks at the Craker women and realizes that they don’t arouse him in “even the faintest stirrings of lust” (100). Atwood continues, “It was the thumbprint of human imperfection that used to move him” (100). However, while these might seem romantic at first, Atwood changes the reader’s perception Jimmy when she continues, “he’d preferred sad women, delicate and breakable, women who’d been messed up and needed him” (100). This is because Jimmy perceives a “payoff” in making sad women happier: “A grateful women would go the extra mile” (100). It’s clear that the “extra mile” is means that Jimmy would receive sexual favors from pretending he cared about these sad women. Similarly, Jimmy also shows his selfish use of women when he reflects on the fact that he’s told too many women he loves them: “he shouldn’t have used it up so much earlier in his life, he shouldn’t have treated it like a tool, a wedge, a key to open women” (114). Using women for sex is an extension of anthropocentrism, and Atwood’s Oryx and Crake critiques this branch of environmental thought by begging the reader to question the use of other lives for satisfaction, even if the character of Jimmy does seem more empathetic and personable than Crake.

By critiquing both ecocentric and anthropocentric branches of environmental thought through the characters of Crake and Jimmy, Atwood is critiquing specialization, another common critique of the world in environmental studies. Specialization is when a person is an expert in one field of study but fails to perceive the world in general terms. Even Crake, a very specialized character in the field of science, explains to Jimmy:

These people are specialists…They wouldn’t have the empathy to deal with the Paradice models, they wouldn’t be any good at it, they’d get impatient. Even I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t begin to get onto their wavelength. But you’re more of a generalist (321).

Atwood is explicitly illustrating her critique of specialization throughout this quote, but specialization can go even further than only being in one field of study; for example, an environmentalist can be specialized in either ecocentrism or anthropocentrism. By portraying both the ecocentric Crake and the anthropocentric Jimmy as problematic characters, Atwood is critiquing specialization within the branch of environmental studies. Although this novel is often recognized for criticizing the way in which our society degrades the environment, environmentalists who pride themselves on being in the minority who care about the natural world would never suspect that they too are being criticized in Oryx and Crake. Atwood’s novel reminds us that no one has all the answers, and that we should all question our own beliefs and keep an open mind when it comes to attempting to understand the world.

How to Cite this Publication in MLA

Palmer, Katherine. “Ecocentrism and Anthropocentrism: Atwood Critiques Specialization.” St.

            Lawrence Review, 2019. pp 62-74.  

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