Monthly Archives: April 2014

Happy (?) Earth Day 2014

It’s Earth Day, when politicians wave their environmental flag and we’re all encouraged to make a token effort at reducing our enormous environmental footprint. I think Earth Day has in a number of respects, outlived its usefulness. When it was first celebrated in 1970, the notion of an environmental movement was still very new: Silent Spring was only eight years old, neither the Environmental Protection Agency nor Environment Canada were established (the EPA would be by the end of the year, and EC the next), and it would be at least ten years before municipal recycling programs started to appear. Having a single day around which to promote environmental causes made sense when environmental issues aren’t very visible, but with climate change consistently on our collective radar, I think the focus of Earth Day needs to shift.

Maybe my impression of Earth Day leans too heavily on the “go clean up a patch of river with your class” sort of effort from grade school, but Earth Day is the original in a collection of one-off, isolated efforts designed to raise awareness and, to a lesser extent, make a dent in our collective carbon footprint. I’m dubious of anything whose primarily purpose is to nebulously “raise awareness” rather than actually doing anything [1] — especially considering that environmental issues aren’t exactly obscure these days. Earth Hour (which is of course distinct from Earth Day) is a perfect example of this: having a smattering of people turn off their lights for one hour does bupkis for actually reducing emissions, and the principal awareness it raises is remembering where you put the emergency candles (which is important but not the point).

This model is ineffective and, I’d argue, counterproductive: it proposes a model of small, discrete individual efforts to reduce emissions rather than the sustained, concerted, and substantial efforts actually needed to effectively combat climate change. It drastically undersells the level to which we need to collectively reorganize our lives to make a substantial change in emissions level, and, perhaps most importantly, it puts the onus of dealing with climate change on us as individuals and ignores both industrial and commercial sources of emissions as well as the need for good public policy to encourage those choices.

Let’s consider take the breakdown of Canadian greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from 2012 which I found in this report from Environment Canada: (see also this report [PDF])

Source Emissions in Mt CO2 equiv. Proportion
Oil and gas 173 25%
Transportation 165 24%
Electricity 86 12%
Buildings 80 11%
Emissions Intensive and Trade-Exposed 78 11%
Agriculture 69 10%
Waste and Others 47 7%

Most of these are not things that can be effective tackled solely by individuals acting en masse. The oil and gas industry is the single largest contributor of GHG in Canada, and considering the number and scale of pipelines being proposed for transporting and exporting tar sands oil, it seems wildly unlikely that this number will go down in the foreseeable future. Buildings includes homes, but also businesses, skyscrapers, and all sorts of infrastructure that individuals have minimal power to change. It’s unclear whether constructed structures other than buildings are also included in this number, though I suspect they are, and if that’s the case, there’s an even tinier amount of influence that individuals can wield to change this number. Emissions intensive and trade-exposed includes “metal and non-metal mining activities, smelting and refining, and the production and processing of industrial goods such as chemicals, fertilizers, paper and cement,” and while individuals can reduce their general consumption, I suspect it’s hard for citizens to make much of a dent in this sector.

So that’s 54% of Canada’s GHGs which are highly resistant to change by individuals, and electricity, transportation, agriculture, and waste and other still to consider. It’s straightforward for individuals to reduce their electricity usage, by using energy efficient goods and lightbulbs, not leaving lights and appliances on when not in use, and efficiently insulating their houses to reduce heat loss. However, it’s unclear how much electricity is used by individuals as opposed to the industrial, commercial, and public users, and other efforts need to be enacted to deal with those sectors. Transportation breaks down similarly: it’s straightforward for individuals to drive less (if your city has an efficient, robust, and accessible public transit system, which is not a given), but this number includes commercial and industrial transportation as well, and I don’t know how the number divides. GHG emmisions from agriculture can be reduced in part by people eating less or no meat, but plant crops also emit GHG (via machinery rather than ruminants), and many people are very resistant to becoming vegetarian, let alone vegan. Waste and other includes emissions from landfills, so by consuming less, composting, and recycling, individuals can make a dent in this number too.

So out of the sectors that can be impacted by groups of individuals, which represents about 46% of the total GHG emissions, not one source of emissions is due solely to individual consumption. All are split between individual, industrial, and commercial uses, and most require systemic factors to be favourable before large numbers of individuals can make substantial efforts over a sustained period of time to reduce the amount of GHG they directly or indirectly generate. It’s much easier to get people to retrofit their houses when there are subsidies and public policy supporting them. People are much more likely to leave their cars at home if there is a robust, safe, efficient, and (economically and physically) accessible public transit network. Without appropriate public policy to make environmentally conscious choices realistically accessible to broad sectors of citizens, few people will make those choices on a daily basis.

But even if we all, as citizens, consistently reduce our transportation and electricity usage and start eating tofu instead of steak, we’re shaving off parts of a small part of GHG emissions pie. Pushing individual reductions while ignoring that well over half our GHG emissions are due to industrial and commercial sources of various stripes is a spectacularly ineffective way to deal with climate change. To enact any sort of meaningful change in the oil and gas sector in particular will require concerted and sustained political vision and willpower. To effectively address our outsized GHG emissions (Canada has one of the highest emission rates per capita in the world), we need to drastically reduce not only our individual, but especially our industrial emissions, and that won’t change without public policy, legislation, and a drastically different vision of economic prosperity in Canada. It’s up to us as individuals to do what we can, but we need our politicians and civil servants to set policy that ensures that industry and commercial interests put in their share of the work too.

Happy Earth Day 2014. Let’s go protest some pipelines.

  1. Top of the list of offenders: the pinkwashers “raising awareness” about breast cancer.

Today in Things From Left Field: Health Outcomes of Austrian Vegetarians

This is out of my wheelhouse on the science end of things, but as I’ve been a strict vegetarian for 5 years and almost a vegetarian for at least 5 years before that, I want to weigh in on this study of some health impacts of a vegetarian diet in Austrian adults.

The punchline to the (open access) study is that:

Our results revealed that a vegetarian diet is related to a lower BMI and less frequent alcohol consumption. Moreover, our results showed that a vegetarian diet is associated with poorer health (higher incidences of cancer, allergies, and mental health disorders), a higher need for health care, and poorer quality of life.

(Note that since they found relatively few vegetarians of any stripe to study, vegetarian here includes everything from a vegan to a pescetarian diet. [1])

This all sounds less than stellar for the vegetarians, and I’d wager there’s a number of smug omnivores who read this study and say “hah! See, you *do* need to eat meat, you hippies.” And that hints at what I think is missing from this study: the social context of vegetarianism.

Food is an extremely social thing: eating with people forges and maintains social bonds, and food is central to many traditions, social events, and social structure. What and how we eat is important to our social environment, and meat holds a special place amongst our foods. It’s not the yams, or the cranberry sauce that mentally makes a Christmas dinner a Christmas dinner — it’s the turkey. Meat is the centrepiece of food culture, and eschewing meat is often perceived as eschewing social tradition. I don’t think it’s an enormous leap to consider whether that subtle social distance that often goes along with vegetarianism, especially in a cultural environment that has little vegetarian tradition, influences who becomes a vegetarian or impacts their mental or physical health.


Last year, I went to Vienna to go the EGU meeting, and while the city was lovely, the only place I’ve gotten more strange looks when asking about vegetarian food was France. [2] What vegetarian food I could find was generally side salads or accidentally vegetarian food, and what meagre vegetarian sections on menus I could find had mostly fish and shrimp dishes. There was a farmer’s market not far from my hotel, and the vegetarian falafel stand I found in the middle of it was like a bright beacon of chickpeas after a week of kasespaetzle. While I ate my falafel on the stool beside the stand, no less than three people walked up to the window and asked, large clear sign reading “NEIN FLEISCH” notwithstanding, if they sold meat. They each left (falafel-less) in various levels of confusion or disappointment. Vegetarianism, it seems, is far from a normalized thing in Vienna (and, extrapolating, Austria).

Which leads me to ask, who are these vegetarians surveyed? Are they immigrants from regions with stronger traditions of vegetarianism, and if so, does their being immigrants impact their health? Are they more likely to be people who are drawn to (or were raised with) alternative medicine (which may explain the lower vaccination rate)? Are they people who became vegetarians after they fell ill in an attempt to eat a healthier diet? Do they feel culturally ostracized when the dominant food culture is centred squarely on animal protein? How difficult do they find it to eat a healthy vegetarian diet when so little vegetarian food is available in restaurants and cafes?

I’m also curious what how the participants were asked to quantify their health in social relationships. Is this a question of “how much a part of the broader community do you feel?” sort of question, or is it a “how strong a specific social network do you have?” sort of a question? I can see how being a vegetarian in a primarily non-vegetarian environment could lead to feeling isolated — it’s difficult to feel connected socially if there’s something that obviously sets you apart from the rest of the community, especially if you’re reminded of that every time you try to buy lunch. But presumably not all omnivorous Austrians are actively hostile to vegetarians, so if the question was attempting to answer the second interpretation, then maybe there’s something else going on.

I’d love to see this study repeated in other locations, and among more specific populations, to see how common these results are. I’m not saying it’s a poorly done study — I just have a lot of questions that it wasn’t designed to answer, and I think the wide range of observed negative health impacts among vegetarians leads to a lot of interesting follow-up research, especially with regards to the social and community context in which vegetarians (Austrian or otherwise) live. This study contradicts a lot of other research (some of which is referenced in the paper) that shows that a vegetarian diet is correlated to generally better health, and I hope that that discrepancy, if nothing else, spurs the researchers to keep looking at this.

  1. Call me a stickler, but “vegetarian” means “doesn’t eat animals,” and last I checked, fish are not plants. Pescetarians are not vegetarians in my books, though I’m well aware (not least by the frequency with which fish and seafood dishes are listed as “vegetarian” on menus) that plenty of people think otherwise.
  2. Note than I am not by any stretch of the imagination a renowned world traveller.