The Maple

The Maple

There is a faded black and white photograph
Of my father in rompers
Beside a young maple that his father had just planted

Over the decades the maple grew
Five thick trunks
And vast outstretched arms
Cradling bird nests and my father’s children

It became the leafy cathedral of my youth
Long hours spent aloft in favourite perches
The constant hush of the tree breathing around me
Wild strawberries, wild cranberries in the grass below
Lazy dappled afternoons
Cocooned in its hammock with a book
Or flying on its little wooden swing
That my father made for us

When my adult body no longer fit
Through the tree’s elevated passageways
I admired it still, earthbound

My father has left this world
I visited his maple
But it was gone
So I planted a tree for someone else’s child

© Jennifer Publicover, 2016

Flotsam and jetsam, and what our traces say about us…

I found myself in a philosophical mood one Sunday, snuggled at home as a winter nor’easter raged outside. I posted some musings on my Facebook page about the traces we leave behind us in life that are found and interpreted by future generations. This prompted thoughtful responses from friends with expertise in a variety of different areas – archaeology, information technology, music, education, and environmentalism. I felt that this spontaneous thread was of value to share on a more public forum, and so it appears here. My friends’ comments are published with their permission, and I thank them heartily for having contributed to such an interesting discussion. The thread also garnered a number of social media “likes” and supporting comments which are not included here, but they added to the good will and were appreciated as well.

Jennifer Publicover, musician: I wonder sometimes how skewed our view of the lives of our ancestors must be, when archaeologists must out of necessity base their theories about how they lived partly on the garbage that they left behind. The things that we really use in life, we tend to really use until they collapse, whereas (particularly in industrial societies) the stuff that we don't regard as useful or meaningful tends to hang around in great condition for want of use. So I wonder how future societies might regard us today, with our great oceans of garbage, with maybe only a small portion of it having been useful in our lives. I also think about how future anthropologists might evaluate the quality of social information they might glean if they were still able to read, say, online commentary after our contemporary news articles that we make today. Often that type of data doesn't reflect how a society may on the whole view a particular story, as it is sometimes dominated by people with little knowledge in the area of concern, little social awareness, and a lot of time on their hands. On the other hand, the people who do actually know something and have something thoughtful to say tend to shy away from that environment and save their comments for just some occasions when they may be valued. It makes me wonder sometimes what our garbage says about us, and how we've interpreted - or misinterpreted, or only partly interpreted - the lives and wisdom of people before us.

Adrianne Greenbaum, musician: Well said. Not in terms of environment but was discussing last week amongst a few faculty how information is saved digitally and therefore archival information will be studied differently and, say, a composition of music will not be seen as different versions before the final save. By the entire process of work getting easier we miss a lot of the history. As to environment, we have gotten used to this ease of not needing this or that anymore, no need to save and use again or use differently; just get a new one and toss the previous. For those that don't recycle - I recently visited in an area where there is zero attempt - they live an easier life but the recyclers pay for their negligence. I'm rambling unlike you, Jennifer, but you brought out those hidden thoughts so I was prompted. Thanks for the spew opportunity.

David Michels, librarian: There are increasing warnings of a digital dark age as technologies change and we no longer have the ability to access and read the vast mess of digital information we are accumulating. Which reminds me I do need to get my wedding video transferred off VHS while I still can.

David Wimberley, flute maker / environmentalist: I share the sadness in your contemplation. I believe our landfills will be mined for their resources in the future, and not too distant a one. The layers of our wastes spread across the land, sea, and atmosphere of this world such as tiny waste, micro plastics, and gasses will tell a horrific story lingering through ages. Will the story be of having a giant party that trashed the planet and wasted the opportunity those richnesses offered for an uplifted society? Or will it be a transformative era of humanity? Or both?

Becki Dunham, archaeologist: We do have to be careful when interpreting the past based on what gets left behind, that's why archaeological reports first note the facts and findings, and means of extraction, before getting into interpretation, otherwise the whole thing would be a work of fiction. I often think about how little we can understand the values of our grandparents’ generation, let alone the mindset of communities hundreds or thousands of years ago. Written records help a lot but they can be skewed and biased as much as the artifactual record, and heck, lying is nothing new so we need to be careful of that. That's one thing about the archaeological record, it doesn't lie. We can misinterpret it but the objects and features are true. Ethnographic studies help connect physical traces with behaviours pretty well and a lot has been done on that front including the famous Garbage Project that illustrated how our garbage can give a fairly honest representation of our behaviours, sometimes more so than we acknowledge: http://www.nytimes.com/.../we-are-what-we-throw-away.html  Having a good handle on relevant material culture and ethno-research and a good dose of field experience, trained archaeological interpretation can be pretty reliable, yet it’s absolutely not perfect and we can still go off track but I suppose that's the same situation for any research of long-distant things, like palaeontology or astronomy. I'm often amazed at how many and varied material goods are left behind at sites though, we leave more than we think, though we lose a lot of some artifact-types due to preferential decay (thus why archaeologists get excited by bogs or other anaerobic conditions that preserve things well). Prior to garbage collection, all domestic things simply accumulated around the houses, yards, work spaces and in middens, privies, wells, etc. I work at 18th century Louisbourg and there are millions upon millions of artifacts at my work site that give an amazing, albeit imperfect, view of that long-gone community. I usually find the strongest connection with the people not so much by the artifacts alone but by the depositional context in which they're found, and then by correlation with historical records if there are any available (we have thousands of records, but they gloss over the day-to-day stuff that interests me most). Anyway, it's like interpreting the image of a partially completed jigsaw puzzle; the more research we do, or the better preserved the site, the more we can see of the puzzle and the better we can understand things, but we will always need to fill in the gaps, and that's where 21st century thinking can get in the way - we cannot think like they did in the past since they lived in a different world and it's important to be aware of that. I cannot fathom how future researchers will make sense of the modern day given our glut of materials and intangible, biased digital record-keeping - how archival is this direction? Then again, every age is at its technological peak so, like times before, maybe were not so different and will be quite understandable in years to come (ha, they'll probably see us as techo-nophytes). I have no idea if this relates entirely to your train of thought, I'm having some storm day musings too :-)

Jennifer Publicover: Thanks Becki, that’s a really thoughtful look into your professional world. It must be really challenging. It's challenging enough when, say, I as a modern flutist am learning to play on the Baroque flute (think in the time of Louisbourg) and sort of recreating a sound based on what we know of ornaments, tone, etc. from music method books of the day and from the antique instruments themselves, and yet there is the issue of me with my modern artistic biases and need to express something musically while keeping my mind open to a different aesthetic conceptualization, with different ideas as to what was (maybe, by some) considered "beautiful" or desirable in the day. There's always a tug-of-war going on there.  It's almost easier when I'm playing traditional music rather than Baroque music, as the traditional music is still ongoing and evolving creatively, and so I get to go (almost) wherever I want to with it, as long as I'm not marketing myself as someone trying to recreate a historical artifact.

And David Michaels, as convenient as it is to be able to look up digital information so quickly these days, there's nothing like the nice smell of a book :-) . And David Wimberley, for sure, you are posing serious questions that we need to think about for the sake of our future generations.

Richard Zurawski, meteorologist / science educator / environmentalist: We are rushing, I fear Jen, headlong into the rabbit hole of our own making. I have been trying for the past 6 months to curb my garbage and all my purchases. Nothing other than food and gas...necessities to live. Step one. Now I plan to re-evaluate and see what else I can do. I am recycling, have a worm compost, grow summer food in a garden, reuse, trade and barter. But not many are willing to be that inconvenienced. I do this for my own piece of mind, not that I think it will make one iota of difference. I once suggested to my class that they not bring fast food to class, but make their own for their lunches, I was sneered at and told to get a grip, that I had no idea how "busy" they were. sigh...I share the sadness I read in your post....

Jennifer Pubicover: I think in the case of your class, Richard, it doesn't take much time to make one's own lunch and it's a lot cheaper, so that's an angle to reach them, besides modelling the behaviour yourself. The thing that it does require, though, is forethought - and that's the stickler for a lot of people, and our convenience-oriented economy is set up to take our money for the sake of not having to think ahead a bit. So maybe a little growing up is in order, for those particular students. And for a lot of adults too - and all of us get caught sometimes not thinking ahead, so we're all guilty to some degree.

Richard Zurawski: You are a charitable woman Jen... :-)

Jennifer Publicover: Not necessarily, my friend, just willing to recognize that I'm not perfect either - far from it. But at least I try to do the right stuff. I think there’s value in trying.

Life Cycle Assessment, Data Overload, and Knowledge Translation: When Is Enough, Enough?

 

(A Life Cycle Assessment is a method of measuring the total environmental impact of a particular product or service through all of its stages, from gathering materials through manufacture, distribution, usage, and waste disposal. The US Environmental Protection Agency explains it in detail here. It can be used to help consumers make wiser choices for less impact, and it can help industry improve its practices.)

Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) can be a valuable tool to inform consumer choices and best industry practices to lessen environmental impact. However, it can venture into data overload on both ends of the scale, in terms of both research data resolution and in knowledge translation to the public. I contend that some normative judgements are unavoidably made on both ends, and that while such judgements will never be perfect, they are necessary if any practical action is to be taken on the basis of the information provided by an LCA.

There is almost an infinite scope of detail that one could hypothetically capture when performing an LCA of a product or service. One could go to extraordinary lengths in cradle-to-grave research by branching not only into related LCAs for each of its inputs/wastes but also for inputs of inputs. System boundaries for practical study resolution are established to avoid teetering into a bottomless chasm of data. Such boundaries are unique to every study, and may be related not only to study goals but also to time, budgetary limits, availability of data (or data proxies, in the absence of data specific to the given situation) and a pre-stipulated research question that may or may not capture a “full” picture (Horne et al., 2009). Yet, every researcher must ask “When is it enough data, and what is it for?” in order to provide robust responses to inquiries about best practices to reduce environmental impact, and to articulate the limits of what can be said – indeed, species diversity, social impacts, and other issues are either not served or poorly served by a functional unit.

Data overload can happen on the receiving end of the scale as well. Consumers, producers, and governments need robust information on an infinite range of biophysical impact issues, or they risk making unsustainable choices out of ignorance. Some issues are high-profile and politically charged, but many involve mundane, everyday choices — such as whether it is preferable to buy wintertime tomatoes imported from warmer climes, versus from a local greenhouse grower with higher agricultural energy impacts but lower transportation inputs. Or, one could avoid the off-season purchase of fresh tomatoes altogether and finding a nutritional/culinary substitute, which itself might also need an LCA. Without LCAs there would be a dearth of information for the simply hungry (and possibly confused) consumer, yet on the other hand the amount and complexity of LCA information that could potentially be available to him/her could also grow overwhelming and unmarketable, and thus be ignored.

If the goal of an LCA is ultimately to enable us to make more pro-environmental choices, then LCA researchers and environmental educators (in the broadest sense, in any setting) should collaborate to determine some normative standards to help translate findings to the public in a usable way. For example, one could follow the recommendations of Community-Based Social Marketing (McKenzie-Mohr, 2011), which include keeping pro-environmental behavioural goals simple, direct, convenient, connected to the living patterns of the target consumers, and connected to their social networks and the social norms that accompany them. The LCA researcher must bring forth the most impactful components of his/her assessment, and carefully outline what the limitations of the study are to the educator. With the help of the LCA researcher, the educator must decide how to distill the enormity of information into nuggets that themselves can be “consumed” properly and offered in strategic places so as to be easily accessed by target audiences – shoppers, business owners, government, the media, etc. In so doing, the educator defines the desired behaviours, crafts the dissemination message, and hopefully sets off implementation strategies.

Paradoxically, the more information that one has, the more robust the conclusions drawn from an LCA may be; and yet the simpler the information is (or can be presented), the more likely that it can be acted upon. This paradox must be handled very carefully, because public perception of the credibility of the process is at stake, which thus influences public/business uptake of any desired pro-environmental behaviours. It is especially important when considerable time and energy is invested in a establishing a certain pattern of behaviours based on LCA research – because the parameters of environmental impacts from any given product or service can change with time, and it is a challenge to build in the flexibility to adapt behaviours to changing models without again venturing into data overload and potential loss of credibility. Careful planning is thus necessary not only in data capture, but in the capture and retention of valuable social capital as well.

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References

Ford, J.S., N.L. Pelletier, F. Ziegler, A.J. Scholz, P.H. Tyedmers, U. Sonesson, S.A. Kruse, and H. Silverman (2012). Proposed local ecological impact categories and indicators for life cycle assessment of aquaculture: a salmon aquaculture case study. Journal of Industrial Ecology, 16(2):254-265

 

Horne, R., Grant, T., Verghese, K. (2009). Life cycle assessment- principles, practices, and prospects. Collingwood: CSIRO Publishing.

 

McKenzie-Mohr, D. (2011). Fostering sustainable behavior: an introduction to community-based social marketing (3rd ed.) Gabriola Island, British Columbia: New Society Publishers.

 

© Jennifer Publicover, 2015

It’s More Than Just Local: Moving Beyond Food Miles

The following is an adaptation of an assignment that I had written in the Fall of 2013 for a graduate-level Ecological Economics course at Dalhousie University. I offer it as food for thought (pardon the pun). People are welcome to use the information in it as long as they give credit where credit is due, and don't plagiarize.

For the record, I do try to buy local myself. It’s a great place to start for us as consumers who want to become more aware of the environmental impacts of our purchases – but then we look beyond to the wider picture.

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The “Buy Local” food movement draws consumer attention to the greenhouse gas emissions associated with food transport. It also elicits support for local food producers, on the assumption that they make a lighter environmental impact with regard to transport of products to consumers than producers located farther away (Desrochers & Shimizu, 2008). However, there are some flaws in the theory that “local is better”, because the transportation segment of a product’s complete life cycle – from natural resource harvesting through processing, packaging, distribution, consumption and waste – represents only a small portion of its total environmental impact (Ibid.). The “food miles” concept is an attractive marketing tool for its simplicity, but we need to move beyond it to embrace a wider vision of sustainability if we are truly to support food production systems that carry a lighter footprint. We need to do this in a manner that can be easily understood and implemented by the average consumer – which is no small task for environmental educators and food retailers and wholesalers, many of whom have already invested considerable energy in marketing the local food concept.

Proponents of the local food movement cite many advantages to buying local. These include enhanced freshness, greater nutritive value, reduced fossil fuel use and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from transport, support for the local economy, adherence to environmental and quality standards, avoidance of large and powerful food industry players, avoidance of genetically modified foods, and enhanced consumer connectedness to the land, to farmers, and to the community that leads to greater concern for the well-being of all. Local food security is perceived as improved, because more parameters in the system are known and familiar (Desrochers & Shimizu, 2008; EatLocalGrown.com, 2013).

Certainly, for efficiency some foodstuffs must be imported from the climatic zones to which they are suited. Yet, when a particular item is both produced locally and also imported, many local producers cannot compete in price with more distant producers who may benefit from cheaper labour and lower environmental standards (Scott & MacLeod, 2010).

“Buying local” is also easy to market in attractive ways. By appealing to local pride-of-place and community, one can create simple but compelling messages to carry forth into consumer action, of the type that are suggested by such environmental education systems as Community-Based Social Marketing (McKenzie-Mohr, 2011). If food miles were indeed a complete measure of sustainability, they would be well-placed to integrate into social consciousness – and therein lies much of their appeal.

However, Desrochers and Shimizu (2008) critique the food miles concept as an overly simplistic fad that fails to adequately describe relative product sustainability. One of their key arguments was that only 11% of GHG emissions from food production originated with the transportation segment in the United States, whereas a whopping 83% came from food production. The transportation segment accounted for by food miles – from producer to retailer – was responsible for only 4% of total GHGs. In the UK, it was found that the largest GHG emitters from transport alone were trucks (31%) and light vehicles (48%) –  the latter responsible for taking the foodstuffs home from the point of sale and thus beyond the food miles calculation. Efficient bulk transport by sea and rail was associated with low emission rates per unit, and air transport represented only 1% of food miles (Ibid.).

Therefore, if transportation impacts do not carry as much meaning as originally thought, it is extremely important to look at production to work out a more truthful picture of sustainability. As counterintuitive as it may seem, it may make more environmental sense to actually buy those fresh apples imported from New Zealand when local apples are off-season in the northern hemisphere, simply because the methods used to store apples in the off-season to prevent oxidation are quite energy-intensive (Ibid.) – but one has to work out the arithmetic for one’s particular locale and methods, which is tricky to do while standing in the grocery aisle.

In our enthusiasm to support our local economy, we must also always be careful to not descend into xenophobia. The social and economic impacts of a valuable food industry are no less meaningful if they take place in our home province or on another continent, where other people may also struggle to make ends meet and feed their families just as we do. We may more immediately relate to our own community members, but in this modern, connected information age there is no excuse to not validate the condition of “the other” simply because they are farther away.

Having said this, there are many great points worth salvaging from the food miles concept. “Pride-of-place” is an important component of valuing and exercising good stewardship over the environment in general (Orr, 1994). If food security issues have increased public valuation of local natural capital related to food production, and if consumers are motivated to become involved in their own food security, then the food miles concept has nudged us closer to sustainability, even accounting for undesirable detours. If it also helps spur local producers to examine their own practices to meet a general consumer demand for more sustainable food systems, via (for example) the Nova Scotia Environmental Farm Plan (NS Federation of Agriculture, 2013), then this can be regarded as positive as well.

I contend that product eco-labelling systems that account for not just transport but the entire complex product life cycle can and should be developed for as many different types of foodstuffs as possible. This would empower the consumer to make swift, easy, and environmentally effective choices with a more accurate overall assessment than what the simplistic food miles model offers. This is already starting to become mainstream for some products. For example, one sees responsible aquaculture and fishing labels from such NGO/industry partnerships as the Marine Stewardship Alliance, the Global Aquaculture Alliance, and others (Pelletier & Tyedmers, 2008). There is always room for improvement in such labelling systems, including the incorporation of ecological and socioeconomic components (Ibid.). The establishment of parameters for similar labelling of other types of foodstuffs continues to be very complex indeed. Nonetheless, we need to have these important conversations to take a hard look at what practices truly are more sustainable and therefore should be supported where possible.

 

References

Desrochers, P., Shimizu, H. (2008).Yes, we have no bananas: A critique of the "food miles" perspective. Fairfax, VA: Mercatus Center, George Mason University.

EatLocalGrown.com (2013, October 22). Our food crisis began way before Monsanto [Twitter social media message]. Retrieved from https://twitter.com/eatLocalGrown/status/392840112133775361/photo/1

Ford, J.S., N.L. Pelletier, F. Ziegler, A.J. Scholz, P.H. Tyedmers, U. Sonesson, S.A. Kruse, and H. Silverman (2012). Proposed local ecological impact categories and indicators for life cycle assessment of aquaculture: a salmon aquaculture case study. Journal of Industrial Ecology, 16(2):254-265

McKenzie-Mohr, D. (2011). Fostering sustainable behavior: an introduction to community-based social marketing (3rd ed.) Gabriola Island, British Columbia: New Society Publishers.

Nova Scotia Federation of Agriculture (2013). Nova Scotia Environmental Farm Plan. Retrieved from http://nsfa-fane.ca/member-services/environmental-farm-plan/

Orr, D. (1994). Earth in mind: on education, environment, and the human prospect. Washington D.C: Island Press.

Pelletier, N., Tyedmers, P. (2008). Life cycle considerations for improving sustainability assessments in seafood awareness campaigns. Environmental Management 42: 918-931. DOI 10.1007/s00267-008-9148-9

Scott, J., MacLeod, M. (2010). Is Nova Scotia eating local? and if not… where is our food coming from? Ecology Action Centre. Retrieved from http://www.ecologyaction.ca/files/images/file/Food/FM%20July4%20_final_long_report.pdf

Weber, C., Matthews, H.C. (2008). Food-miles and the relative climate impacts of food choices in the United States. Enivronmental Science and Technology 42(10), 3508–3513. DOI: 10.1021/es702969f

© Jennifer Publicover, 2015