Choices: unless we can live sustainably outside of the market, we all interact with the global marketplace when purchasing goods and services. For the most part, our clothes, food and furniture are common items that we must purchase. We try to choose wisely: eating healthy, supporting good companies and retailers, etc. Consumer goods, such as health care products, cellular phones and even electric bicycles, lawnmowers or automobiles, offer us the option to make informed selections or opt-out completely. What we choose for our personal lifestyles is now a global issue (and has been since the end of the Second World War).
We all know that conservatives in the USA and abroad do not care about the future of this planet. That is a given. I can attack them all day, every day through the next decade, with data, evidence and even moral and ethical concerns, yet nothing will change. But this article, instead, is an indictment of some liberals, fellow travelers and those who proclaim to care about the world we live in. I challenge everyone to assess their choices in this crisis. These days, our choices have severe global consequences. In case you needed a sign: this is the time to re-evaluate your lifestyle choices and develop habits behind your own personal comfort. This is also a sign to press your elected officials to turn their backs on the corporate contributions and special interests that control the world economy. Let me invoke Eldridge Cleaver: “There is no more neutrality in the world. You either have to be part of the solution, or you're going to be part of the problem.”
Can US liberals/progressives/Democrats come to terms with the contradiction between cheap consumer goods and services and the impact of those choices on the environment? Below, some of the contributors believe that there is a positive way forward.
I look at a few recent studies that have appeared in the national and international press to demonstrate that the choices made by consumers have led to environmental devastation all over the world.
Let’s look at four examples:
In the Washington Post, an article by a Mexican-German highlighted the impact of the world-wide desire for avocados on Mexico’s environment, notably the state of Michoacán. The author, Axel Javier Sulzbacher, places his Mexican roots in the town of Uruapan, a major agricultural center with a population around 300,000. The demand for avocados changed in the 1990s, forever changing Uruapan.
U.S. import restrictions on avocados from Mexico were eliminated in 1997. It was then that Mexican cartels — who already ran the state’s illicit drug trade — recognized the lucrative potential of this burgeoning market and competed to dominate the avocado trade as well. The fight for control over plantations turned the farmlands of Michoacán into battlegrounds, and Uruapan, the epicenter of avocado production, was disfigured by violence. In 2020, Uruapan was ranked the third-deadliest city in the world.
Once an ordinary city, Uruapan is now plagued by corruption, violence and terror. The avocado industry, with all its evils, has overwhelmed the town of my ancestors. My relatives now endure daily kidnappings and extortion by the cartels. And for what? So that people in other countries can dip their Doritos in guacamole while watching a football game?
(And you might think I am an angry guy!)
He calls out the consequences of attempting to satisfy the global demand:
Our globalized world enjoys unprecedented abundance. Yet many people neglect to take responsibility for ethical production and consumption.
Some of those ethical concerns?
Indeed, Mexico is one of the few places on Earth where avocados can grow year-round. Yet there are costs to having avocados always in season. Farming them requires 2.4 million gallons of water per hectare each year. Michoacán draws from its supply of recycled rainwater to satisfy this international demand, leaving many of the state’s residents without access to water. The sources of drinking water that remain are sometimes polluted with the pesticides used to grow avocados.
Even the World Economic Forum called out the ‘havoc’ in 2020:
[E]xtensive avocado production has substantial and irretrievable environmental costs and damages. Disproportionately huge demand for the fruit is creating a climate change effect. Forest lands with diverse wildlife have been destroyed to produce avocado, and many more were intentionally burned to bypass a Mexican law allowing producers to change the land-use permit to commercial agriculture instead of forest land, if it was lost to burning.
Here is the part of the story where all-wise xenophobes blame it all on the Mexicans! (Don’t you dare read the comments to Sulzbacher’s Post article without something to keep you calm.)
Is there more? Oh, hell yes:
Shrubs and old trees are often taken down to provide avocado trees greater sunlight, contributing to deforestation and consequently to global warming and climate change. Currently, in Michoacán's avocado-producing area, there has been an increase in temperature and erratic rainstorms. Research by the National Autonomous University of Mexico Campus Morelia identified that the state has a new tendency to be increasingly hot and dry, with less intense cold seasons necessary to maintain the environmental balance, and extended extreme hot seasons with increased irregular rainfall and greater cyclone strength. The loss of forest cover and other climate changes means the rate of arrival of the Monarch butterfly to Michoacán has also dropped.
And water. Don’t forget the water:
Around 9.5 billion litres of water are used daily to produce avocado – equivalent to 3,800 Olympic pools – requiring a massive extraction of water from Michoacán aquifers. Excessive extraction of water from these aquifers is having unexpected consequences, such as causing small earthquakes. From 5 January to 15 February, 3,247 seismic movements were recorded in Uruapan municipality and surroundings, the most important avocado-producing area in the world. According to local authorities, avocado-related water extraction has opened up subsoil caverns that could be causing these movements.
Sulzbacher looks to the US for help:
The United States purchases nearly 90 percent of Mexico’s avocado exports. This means Americans (sic) can do more than just dominate the avocado trade — they can improve it. The United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement — or USMCA, which replaced NAFTA in 2020 — is committed to protecting all life within the territories of the participating countries. Any violation of the agreement is meant to result in serious penalties.
Nevertheless, the United States has not imposed sanctions against Mexico for the inhumane avocado trade. A temporary ban on avocado imports from Michoacán last year, prompted by a threat to a U.S. inspector, demonstrated that it is possible to uphold principles of human rights and environmental protection. However, by lifting this week-long ban without imposing any other restrictions, U.S. trade officials missed an opportunity to enforce international standards, and pressure the Mexican government to do the same.
The United States should reimpose its ban on Mexican avocados.
The author does not address the labor situation at all, although a telling picture accompanies the article: 16-year-old Miguel in Tancítaro is one of “many day laborers.” Although technically not a climate issue, one wonders if child labor actually bothers people in the US. NBC News’ attempt to highlight this issue last summer (some excellent — and harrowing — reporting by Julia Ainsley), including naming company names, seems to have created no movement to elected officials, the press or more than a handful of activists for stricter law enforcement and punishment for the companies. Alas, there is always MTG and Boebert to district the liberals. (Personal note: As a farm laborer from the age of eight through my teens, I find this non-reaction appalling but also indicative of the modern mindset accepted by the vast majority of US citizens of low prices and abundant consumer goods at any price.)
This week, The Guardian examined the palm oil cultivation in Honduras. Palm oil is an edible vegetable oil that comes from the fruit of oil palm trees. Palm oil is in nearly everything – it’s in close to 50% of the packaged products we find in supermarkets, everything from pizza, doughnuts and chocolate, to deodorant, shampoo, toothpaste and lipstick. It’s also used in animal feed. It help makes products spreadable and last longer while remaining odorless and colorless.
Palm oil accounts for about 40% of global demand for vegetable oil as food, animal feed and fuel – about 210m tonnes.
However, cultivation is a major driver of deforestation of some of the world’s most biodiverse forests, destroying the habitat of already endangered species. It also emits greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and contributing to climate change. (Let’s not forget child labor and other unsafe labor practices.)
In places like Honduras, illegal oil palm crops are sprouting up all around the country in state parks and preserves.
In Honduras, oil palm gained traction as a crop in 2014, when the former president Juan Orlando Hernández invested almost $72m (£57m) in loans and grants to incentivise its cultivation. “All one needed was the willingness to plant oil palm, and the rest was served on a plate,” says Pablo Flores Velásquez, professor of environmental investigations at the National Autonomous University of Honduras (UNAH).
The problem is that the extensive cultivation of oil palm has not only proved to be lucrative, but also poses a risk to the environment. “The oil palm presents a serious threat to the biodiversity of the wetlands and the water quality communities depend on,” says Velásquez. “As a monoculture, the installation and establishment of the crop necessitates the complete eradication of the biodiverse area, paralysing the ecosystem completely and permanently.”
In Honduras, these crops – whose harmful effects on the soil can create “green deserts” – account for almost 4% of all exports, mostly going to the Netherlands, the US, Italy and Switzerland, with a value of $334m in 2021. Six large companies control the production, and two claim more than half of all exports.
Besides the environmental problem, illegal oil palm crops are also used by drug traffickers in Honduras and Latin America, supporting laundering and transportation.
According to Frances Thomson, Latin America specialist in the Centre for the Study of Illicit Economies, Violence and Development, agribusiness is now essential to the drug economy, fulfilling multiple roles. “Investment in agribusiness provides a means for legalising the income from drug trafficking. For the traffickers, oil palm crops are also a way of legitimising their presence in the territory and securing physical control over the land required for trafficking routes,” Thomson says.
There is little infrastructure for stopping the cultivation and export in places like Honduras. Too many drug traffickers are better armed that the local authorities (thanks to US-manufactured weapons, sold directly by US gun companies to the very same criminals denounced on Fox News and other conservative opinion sites as the reason for crime in Latin America). With the funds, it is easy to corrupt officials:
One prosecutor in Tela, who spoke on condition of anonymity, confirmed that the corruption of public officials and conflicts of interest are part of the problem. “Many environmental investigations are very specific, and it takes more time for us to make a case. And they usually don’t go well,” he says. “Witnesses are extremely vulnerable. They can be threatened, killed, or paid to keep quiet. If we try to approach people from the community who might have witnessed environmental destruction, most stay silent because of the potential repercussions, and we cannot build a legal case.”
Even with more support from the government, getting to these remote areas is not easy:
In December 2022, President Xiomara Castro’s government established the Third Brigade for Environmental Protection, also known as the Green Battalion. This force is dedicated to work with conservation NGOs and, according to the activists, it is a step in the right direction. However, they say it is not enough.
“They established the Green Battalion but did not consider logistics. That means we had a battalion dedicated to us, but they are based in La Ceiba, two hours away, says Bustamante.
La Ceiba is a beautiful small resort city on the Caribbean. Access to the national park referenced in the article is difficult by land with winding two-lane roads that consistently need repair. The park itself is on a tip of Honduras jutting into the Caribbean that would be easier to access by sea except building a dock would disrupt too much of this unspoiled area. Yes, many cultivators haul the plants out on their backs — at least for a 45-minute hike through terrain that can be rough during the rainy season. Don’t forget about the insects too!
The movement against fossil fuel extraction and consumption over the last fifty years has been commendable. All over the world, people (unless you are in the jet set — I’m looking at you Mick and Keith) have made choices to consume less or even seek better alternatives. However, at this present time, lithium extraction has been condemned by environmentalists as well. I must note that lithium extraction technology is improving each year but is not at a point where switching from a gas-powered lawnmower to a battery-operated version has much of a positive impact for private consumers.
In the past year, notable international newspapers and magazines have investigated the impact of mining for lithium. Just last week, The Financial Times analyzed the situation in Australia.
A struggle for control of the resource has been ignited this year as multinational companies have clashed with Australian mining billionaires over a series of takeover attempts in two of the remotest parts of the state.
The powerful fight over the resources while the rest of the world waits.
John Prineas, executive chair of St George [Mining], said the investments showed that companies in the battery supply chain were following the lead of carmakers such as Tesla in backing early-stage Australian miners. “Big players are taking a position early as it is very expensive to do so after discovery. That’s definitely a positive sign for the future of the lithium industry here,” he said.
The deal frenzy has also come at a time when the lithium price has crashed as much as 70 per cent compared with highs seen last year, as expectations of electric vehicle demand in crucial markets such as China have been lowered. Prineas said the investment in his company showed demand remained robust. “All the talk is oversupply of lithium, but it's not what we’re seeing from the end users,” he said.
Western Australia already supplies about half of the world’s raw lithium and is seen as a stable place to invest compared with parts of Africa, where there has been political instability, and Chile, where the state has moved to take control of lithium projects.
And the world suffers as well. According to to a report by Friends of the Earth, lithium extraction inevitably harms the soil and causes air contamination. As demand rises, the mining impacts are “increasingly affecting communities where this harmful extraction takes place, jeopardising their access to water,” says the report. Last year, euronews.com reported on the negative impact of lithium mining.
Lithium represents a route out of our reliance on fossil fuel production. As the lightest known metal on the planet, it is now widely used in electric devices from mobile phones and laptops, to cars and aircraft.
Lithium-ion batteries are most famous for powering electric vehicles, which are set to account for up to 60 per cent of new car sales by 2030. The battery of a Tesla Model S, for example, uses around 12 kg of lithium.
These batteries are the key to lightweight, rechargeable power. As it stands, demand for lithium is unprecedented and many say it is crucial in order to transition to renewables.
However, this doesn't come without a cost - mining the chemical element can be harmful to the environment.
Flora, fauna… and let’s not forget about the water:
The salt flats in South America where lithium is found are located in arid territories. In these places, access to water is key for the local communities and their livelihoods, as well as the local flora and fauna.
In Chile’s Atacama salt flats, mining consumes, contaminates and diverts scarce water resources away from local communities.
The production of lithium through evaporation ponds uses a lot of water - around 21 million litres per day. Approximately 2.2 million litres of water is needed to produce one ton of lithium.
“The extraction of lithium has caused water-related conflicts with different communities, such as the community of Toconao in the north of Chile,” the FoE report specifies.
Friends of the Earth (in the report linked above) offer an opinion strongly supported by scientists who support this endeavor:
Strong investment in lithium collection and recycling infrastructure and technologies, combined with effective regulation, could result in much higher collection and recycling rates for lithium batteries. Financial incentives to encourage the production of more sustainable devices through responsible product design could facilitate their reduced demand.
Before you judge my motivation for including marijuana/cannabis, let me just note that I don’t care what you smoke or chew or otherwise inject in your leisure time. This is not a moral argument; this is solely based on scientific facts and empirical evidence. Please spare me the trite patois so favored by this subculture. I have no opposition to usage for medicinal purposes. I also oppose harsh penalties for small-time offenses. I do hope that a future of improved cultivation and the end of the illegal market will come soon.
Last year, Mother Jones highlighted the enormous carbon footprint of marijuana cultivation (in an article originally published by Canada’s National Observer):
Cannabis giant Canopy Growth used a lot of energy to grow its pot in 2020. Emissions from the company were equivalent to burning more than 65 million pounds of coal, newly released data shows.
Wow. Coal is bad and weed is… not? Whether cultivation is outdoors or inside, there are extremely negative results:
Research out of the United States has shown there is a close relationship between the emissions of an indoor cannabis production site and the available energy sources on the power grid. That’s because maintaining optimal growing conditions requires a lot of energy to hold a space at the right temperature and humidity levels. Carbon dioxide is often also used to aid the plant’s photosynthesis that helps harvest bigger yields.
Studying more than 1,000 locations across the United States, researchers from Colorado State University calculated the median emissions of growing one kilogram of cannabis to be about 3,600 kilograms of CO2 equivalent emissions. The amount varies from roughly 2,300 to 5,200 kilograms of emissions per kilogram grown depending on location. To put that in perspective, a kilogram of tomatoes grown in a British Columbia greenhouse heated with natural gas emits roughly two kilograms.
Last year, international law firm Clark Hill weighed in on investment in the cannabis industry, identifying the side-effects of cannabis cultivation in seven areas:
- Pesticide misuse
- Land Use and Habitat Impacts
- Waste Management Issues
- Water issues
- Energy use
- Air Quality Impacts
- Environmental, social, and governance (ESG) Considerations
[C]annabis growers and processors face two principal water problems: how to obtain a sufficient supply of water and what to do with process-water discharges. Water resource depletion has been a concern at both outdoor and indoor grow operations. Outdoor cannabis grow operations are estimated to consume approximately 6 gallons of water, per plant, per day.
The law firm also agreed with the Mother Jones’ assessment of energy usage:
Indoor cannabis cultivation operations often require high-level electricity service and infrastructure. Indoor grow uses a variety of heavy-load electric devices, such as UV lights that can be on upwards of 16 hours per day, irrigation systems, HVAC systems, and air filtering to manage humidity and plant organic odors. In Denver, for example, the portion of electricity use attributable to cannabis grow operations doubled in the first 3 years after legalization, approaching 5% of total electricity use for a city with 2.8 million residents.
In addition to high electricity demand, the range of estimates for carbon dioxide (CO2) footprint from cannabis grow operations is especially concerning and significant. It is estimated that cannabis indoor grow CO2 emissions could range from 0.5 to 15 million metric tons per year, which is roughly equivalent to an additional 3.3 million cars on the road.
You can also read the Nature Sustainability study published in July 2021 regarding greenhouse gas emissions. You can also read the California Department of Fish and Wildlife assessment.
Water is a precious resource that fish and wildlife species rely on for survival. Cannabis cultivation can significantly affect water availability. Additionally, cannabis cultivation occurs during California's dry season when water availability is significantly decreased. In many areas, water demand for cultivation already exceeds the amount of water available. As climate change progresses, California can expect increases in water scarcity and drought.
Reduced or altered stream flows can threaten fish and wildlife. Water demands for cultivation can significantly reduce spring flows, which are critical to migrating fish. In addition, loss of spring flows and agricultural water use in summer can quickly reduce water available for fish and wildlife. Reduced stream flows may cause many issues:
- Interference with salmon spawning, migration, and rearing;
- Reduction in sensitive species habitat availability and habitat complexity;
- Loss of watering holes for wildlife;
- Decrease in food supply, food production, and dissolved oxygen for aquatic wildlife;
- Increase in water temperature, disease transition, and physiological stress; and
- Increase in turbidity, suspended sediment, and algal blooms.
The Department of Fish and Wildlife offer a number of documents to assist with best management practices.
But my local dealer is okay, right? After all, he’s pretty mellow. It is a little before my time, but the Jefferson Airplane released a single in 1970 called “Mexico” bemoaning the joint US-Mexican efforts to eradicate marijuana cultivation:
There used to be tons of gold and green
Comin' up here from Mexico
A donde esta la planta, mi amigo, del sol?
But Mexico is under the thumb
Of a man we call Richard
And he's come to call himself king
But he's a small-headed man
And he doesn't know a thing
About how to deal for you
There are millions of you now
I mean it's not as if you were alone
There are brothers everywhere
Just waiting for a toke on that gold
And God knows how far it can go
As long as recreational marijuana remains illegal in many US states, purchasing it illegally feeds into a criminal enterprise that also trafficking harder narcotics including fentanyl. (Please consult stories published by NPR and Rolling Stone, among others, for more empirical analysis of the connection between illegal sales and the international drug trade. But don’t let some dead Colombians or Mexicans ruin your trip.) I’ve never been in favor of supporting cartels but call me a prude.
Water, water, water, water
Just to make it easier for everyone, I have identified one of the major themes of these reports. Yes, we can see and understand deforestation, soil and coastal erosion, rising global temperatures, loss of wildlife and natural habitat, and the impact of extraction activities on this planet. (And most can ignore the child labor crisis as well as forced labor or unsafe labor practices that all of these activities used to bring these products to the marketplace.)
But understanding the global water crisis is much more difficult. (I hear the voice of Newt Gingrich claiming that since he sees palettes of bottled water at Wal-mart, there can’t be any crisis.)
Let me quote UNESCO:
Globally, 2 billion people (26% of the population) do not have safe drinking water and 3.6 billion (46%) lack access to safely managed sanitation, according to the report, published by UNESCO on behalf of UN-Water and released today [22-March-2023] at the UN 2023 Water Conference in New York.
Between two and three billion people experience water shortages for at least one month per year, posing severe risks to livelihoods, notably through food security and access to electricity. The global urban population facing water scarcity is projected to double from 930 million in 2016 to 1.7–2.4 billion people in 2050. The growing incidence of extreme and prolonged droughts is also stressing ecosystems, with dire consequences for both plant and animal species.
Have you ever experience a water shortage? Have you ever spent any time at a place impacted by the lack of sanitary water? World Vision has weighed in:
How are women and girls affected by a lack of clean water?
Women and girls bear the greatest burden of the global water crisis because in the developing world they’re most likely to be responsible for hauling water to their homes.
- They spend an estimated 200 million hours collecting water every day.
- In rural Africa, the average woman or girl walks 6 kilometers — about 3.7 miles — to carry 40 pounds of water every day. This daily task saps her energy for other activities and robs her of the opportunity to spend this time with her family or to pursue school and income activities to improve their lives.
- Girls who attend school until adolescence are more likely to drop out when they start menstruating unless their school has clean water, latrines, sanitary supplies, and support for hygiene behavior change. Helping young women to manage menstrual health is not only about providing appropriate facilities, but also includes addressing social norms.
- At childbirth, the lack of clean water, sanitation facilities, and proper hygiene contribute to high rates of disease and death among mothers and newborns in the developing world. In areas where World Vision works, half of the health clinics don’t have clean water and 84% don’t even have basic handwashing facilities.
As someone who works with UNESCO’s Education initiative in Central America, I have seen communities impacted by water shortages. I have seen the illnesses associated with it — and don’t forget that the health care in these areas is marginal as well. I have heard the families tell me stories about losing children at birth (something told to me by my grandparents about their experiences in Chiapas, Mexico in the 1930s).
The battle for natural resources has been going on for centuries. We still haven’t gotten it right mainly because the dominant groups will never allow it. It can’t be fair and equitable. It can’t ecologically sustainable. It is capital valorization at its purest, most evil form, backed up by the collusion of governments, corporations and drug cartels, with a whole lot of firepower behind it. In the US, citizens have a unique role as the consumers of these resources. What choices will you make to stop the global environmental crisis?
Thank you for reading