Sunday, June 29, 2014

Best movies about Sustainability

Sustainability in popular culture

Whenever a problem assumes threatening proportions for a society, its appearance in popular culture goes up. Books, music, movies, television and painting have always reflected the concerns of the society in which they are born. Be it oppression, slavery, drugs, women rights, war, terrorism – they all find there way into popular culture.  Even our own Bollywood has graduated from smuggling in the 70’s and early 80’s to the non-resident Indians of 90’s to terrorism in the first decade of 21st century!

The works of popular culture spread ideas quickly and influence minds in a way that academic works cannot. Who can underestimate the influence of Voltaire’s works in French Revolution or the pivotal role of ‘Vande Mataram’ in India’s freedom struggle?

I want to do a quick survey of sustainability concerns in popular culture, and I am going to focus on the movies. The first movie I describe is however, a non-fiction work, a documentary. ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ is an absorbing, disturbing and thought provoking documentary film on Global Warming made by form US vice president Al Gore. It won two academy awards in 2006 and a commercial success on the box office! The presents scientific viewpoint on Global Warming and also it present and future effects. One of its purpose is to refute those who claim that effects of global warming will be negligible. In one scene, Al Gore discusses the possibility than a major ice sheet in Greenland or Antarctica might collapse, causing a 20 feet rise in sea levels, flooding coastal areas and producing 100 million refugees.

In the end, Al Gore gives a message for us:

"Each one of us is a cause of global warming, but each one of us can make choices to change that with the things we buy, the electricity we use, the cars we drive; we can make choices to bring our individual carbon emissions to zero. The solutions are in our hands, we just have to have the determination to make it happen. We have everything that we need to reduce carbon emissions, everything but political will. But in America, the will to act is a renewable resource.”

Erin Brockovich is a next item on my list. It’s a 2000 film based on the real life of Erin Brockovich, a legal clerk in California. The movie shows how working as a legal clerk, Erin comes across a case of Water Contamination by Pacific Gas and Electric Company. The residents of Hinkley, California are troubled by various health problems, including tumours and  Hodgkin Disease. She spends a lot of time uncovering the origin of the water contamination, which turns out to be the pollutant hexavalent chromium. Erin convinces her employer and they file a class action suit against the giant company Pacific Gas and Electric. Even though not trained in law, Erin plays a pivotal role in the lawsuit, especially in managing the 634 plaintiffs during the proceedings. The movie exposes the ugly side of big corporations- bribing the residents by paying their medical expenses, destroying key documents and using delaying tactics. Erin Brockovich brought forward the darker side of economic prosperity, in an eminently watchable format. It should be noted that the pollution of hexvalent chromium in Hinkley was assessed once again in 2010 and 2013, and was found to be spreading to wider areas.

A movie based on similar theme is ‘A Civil Action’, which tells the story of a flamboyant, ambulance chaser lawyer whose life changes while working on a water contamination case. His fight becomes a personal one as he refuses to settle out of court and keeps on fighting. He loses all his and his firm’s money and goes bankrupt while fighting the case against big corporations. The case is then taken up by the Environment Protection Agency, a government agency fighting against ecosystem damage. Once again, the apathetic attitude of the industry towards the damage they are causing is depicted in no uncertain terms here.

We are probably the last generation who can do something to avoid the impending calamity of ecological disaster. A movie called ‘The Age of Stupid’ builds this theme to perfection. The story of the movie happens in 2055, when earth is already devastated. Many cities are under water, desert has advanced and eaten cities like Los Angles, fires are consuming parts of world. A researcher find an archive of old recording in a repository somewhere in the Arctic. He watches footage, mostly from the years 2000-2008. What he finds is that ‘those people did not act while there was still time’. The footage he watches is real, taken from interviews and news items. The movie thus switches between fiction and reality. This movie was made entirely from crowdfunding, and is available for free screening for anyone. 

Many movies are being made for children too. Happy Feet is a movie for children, that tells the tale of habitat destruction and melting of ice in Antarctica. Lorax and FernGully are about deforestation. 

The list grows and grows. Wall-E is a movie about waste management. The robot Wall-E is assigned the task of clearing a waste covered earth of future. The Japanese movie Muro Ami is about illegal and unregulated fishing. The horror movie The Happening tells the dark story of the revenge by plants. Anyone who does not know about ecological concerns can probably glance at this list and safely deduce about the growing severity of the problem in the minds of the people. The day is not far when Bollywood makes a movie with an ecological disaster in background. It will be a scary day!

The last movie I want to talk about is of course the James Cameroon director blockbuster Avatar. While being a typical Hollywood adventure flick with lots of special effects, it is really a story of exploitation of the planet, in this case the distant Pandora. It touches the issues of exploitation of earth capital, learning from indigenous people, a planet that functions as an organism (Gaia theory). Native people protect their forests from attacking human beings, a thinly veiled metaphor for the commercial interests destroying ecosystems on earth.

I think that movies is a good medium to propagate ideas far and wide. Recommending a good environmental movie (such as those I have talked about) is an easy and effective way to spread the word.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Ecosystem sciences Part 5 : Flood control

In the last part we came to the sobering realization that stretching ecosystem too far is dangerous for our own future. In this part, I want to introduce another such regulating service of ecosystem- the control and mitigation of floods.

Every year, an enormous amount of rain falls on earth’s surface. The water from rain is enough to cover the entire land area to the height of one meter! Most of this water gets absorbed in soil. Some flows into streams and rivers, and finally to the oceans. When the rain falls slowly, the soil and streams contain the water to normal levels. But sometimes a lot of water falls rapidly. At such times, the soil gets saturated, rivers get full and water level rises in the surrounding areas. This is what we call flooding.
The damage caused by floods throughout the world is enormous. Flood is the most common natural disaster. As many as 40% of natural disasters are floods. The economic loss from floods averaged 190 billion dollars a year in the period 2001-2010. The loss of and disturbance in every kind of life is of course incalculable. The instances of flooding have been increasing in the last fifty years. While there were 51 large floods in the 150 years from 1800 to 1950, there have been 31 floods in the ten years from 2000 to 2009, and as many as 17 floods in the two years 2010-11. We can now easily imagine the value of controlling floods.
Ecosystem is responsible for all the floods that DO NOT happen. As we have seen, the soil is responsible for absorbing most of the water that falls on surface. Because of the various kind of vegetation like grass, plants and trees, the speed of water flowing over soil is reduced, so more water is absorbed, preventing water-logging. The area around a river containing soil, vegetation and small water bodies is called floodplain. The floodplain acts like a giant dampener for the flowing water. It slows down the flowing water and absorbs it. The role of vegetation here is very important. If the vegetation in floodplain is destroyed, for example to build houses, the water speed will be high and soil will be loose. Then the soil will form mud, which will flow with the water. The mud fills the gaps in the earth. This reduces the water absorption even more and makes the flood more severe. It is the vegetation in the floodplain that stops this damaging process. The erosion of soil from deforested land, such as crop planted on hillside, is as much as 150 times that of similar forested land!
The flowing mud goes and deposits in the rivers, dams, lakes and other water reservoirs. This reduces the quality of drinking water and capacity of the reservoirs. India for example cannot draw water from 81 of its most important dams, as the silt deposits have accumulated. The Upper Vaitarana reservoir near Mumbai has lost 22% of its capacity due to silt deposit. We then have to spend big money on desilting the lakes and rivers or increasing the height of the dams. While we pay our taxes and fund these projects, it would be worth while to remember that it is the ecosystem that has saved all the money that we did NOT spend.
So much about the flood control ecosystem service. What the flowing mud carries away is probably the most precious commodity mankind ever had, or will ever get. It is called the topsoil. It is so important that I will dedicate the next part to the various services provided by only the topsoil.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Ecosystem Sciences Part 4: Climate Control

In the previous part of this series we saw that ecosystem provides us various goods like food and drugs. We focused more on discovery of new foods and drugs. I plan to write an entire part on how ecosystem services are important to agriculture a little later. Right now, lets turn to the second type of ecosystem service – Regulating.
The most well known regulating service is climate control. It was not really so popular till a few years ago, when it started to fail in its job. As a rule in this series, I am not writing about how we are destroying the ecosystem, but focusing on what it does for us. But I will make an exception for the climate, because it is a widespread concern, and a good example of how we don’t realize the value of ecosystem till it begins to fail.
First thing to learn about climate is that it has been literally tailor made by our ecosystem, especially the biosphere (biosphere, as you know, is made up of all living beings on earth). Billions of years ago, when the earth was young, there was no oxygen in our atmosphere. It was dominated by nitrogen, CO2 and methane. We would have found it rather difficult to breathe in this paleoatmosphere, as it is called.
Some of the early living beings, called cynobacteria, started using CO2 to make food and release oxygen. In 2 billion (200 crore) years, the oxygen levels rose to current levels or even higher. This made it possible for animals like us to evolve and survive.
Other than oxygen, the most important ingradients of the atmosphere are the Green House Gases (GHG). Yes, you read it right. Green house gases are supposed to the villains. But they are not. They are just like the good guys in movies who get exploited beyond limit.
A lot of energy from the sun falls continuously on earth’s surface. It should usually hit the surface, bounce and vanish in the vast space. This is what happens on most of the other planets. But not on earth. The green house gases (like CO2, methane, water vapour and ozone) absorb the energy that comes packed in infrared rays in sunlight, and emit it in form of heat. This is why the average temperature of earth’s surface is about 14 ⁰C. If the GHGs did not do this, the surface temperature of our earth would be a freezing -19 ⁰C, which would be a good thing for the makers of warm clothes and heaters, but a certain disaster for life in general.
What this means is, if the amount of green house gases in the atmosphere goes up, it will absorb more heat from sun rays. So the temperature of earth will go up. Our ecosystem has stabilized the green house gases and thus the temperature for hundreds of thousand of years. CO2 is a major green house gas. Scientists have found data of CO2 concentrations in atmosphere for the last 450,000 years. It shows that the concentration has always been between 200 and 300 parts per million, or 0.02 to 0.03% for all this time. Oxygen breathing creatures release CO2, agriculture frees up a lot of CO2 from land, natural events like volcanoes and earthquakes also fume large quantities of the gas. But the trees and plants absorb the CO2 from atmosphere. The vast oceans dissolve vast amounts of it. Thus the ecosystem keeps the CO2 in atmosphere nearly constant. Or so it used to keep, till around 70 years ago.
Since 1950, man started burning fossil fuels with particular enthusiasm. Fossil fuels- like coal, oil and gas- emit CO2 when they burn. Additionally, man started cutting down forests in a big way. Deforestation releases CO2 in two ways – the carbon stored in the plants is released as CO2, and the carbon stored in the land also frees up. The emission of CO2 went up very quickly to very high amounts. The ecosystem tried its best, in fact, the absorption of CO2 by trees, plants and land went up substantially in last 20 years. But it is not enough, there is no way ecosystem can absorb all this extra CO2. As a result, the concentration of CO2 now stands at 400 parts per million, higher than any time in human history.
The surface temperature of earth is increasing as a result of increase in CO2 in atmosphere. So far, the rise is mainly in the temperature of ocean. In the last 100 years, the average temperature has gone up by 0.8 ⁰C, and by the turn of this century, it is expected to rise by a further 2.4 ⁰C.
We might not worry about such small changes in our room temperature, but when the average temperature of entire earth goes up, it is a very large scale change. Some of the bad things that are expected to happen are – rise in ocean levels, food and water scarcity, large scale flooding, acidification of oceans and resulting death of marine life and extinction of many species.
This is the story of the climate control ecosystem service, or rather its failure. It might be failing now, but it has been working quietly for hundreds of thousands of years, till we decided to push it to its limits. In the light of this grim knowledge, we might be able to better understand the regulating service I cover in next part – Flood Control.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

On Waste Management - from our guest writer

Today is World Environment Day and I am happy to have a guest writer on Yours Sciencely. My friend Aparna Parsekar is trained in Environment Sciences and has even worked for few years in the field. Following is the message from Aparna to all of us:
On waste management:
It is the duty of each one of us to contribute to the effort of reducing garbage. Here are a few things we can easily do:

1. Carry your own cloth or jute bag when you go shopping.
2. Reduce the use of paper bags. Say no to all plastic bags. Reuse
them whenever it is possible.
3. Segregate the waste in the house. Keep two bins and ensure that the biodegradable and non - biodegradable wastes are put into separate bins and disposed off separately.
Remember the four R’s of managing waste.....
- Refuse things that increase garbage
- Reduce garbage by consuming less and throwing less
- Reuse wherever possible
- Recycle.
On conservation of natural resources-
Here are two news from last few days that should worry us all-
1. Polluted Chembur on verge of loosing its last green lung …Mumbai Mirror 5 June
2. Bandra society kills 80 migratory birds while snipping trees …Mumbai Mirror 5 June
Life on earth depends on resources like soil, water and air and energy from the sun. The atmosphere maintains the right temperature for life to exist on the earth. Pollution of air , water and soil affect the quality of life and harm the biodiversity. We therefore need to conserve our natural resources and use them in a sustainable manner. Our father of the nation rightly said -" our environment can provide for human need but not for human greed”.
- Aparna Parsekar

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Ecosystem Sciences Part 3: Medicines

In the previous part, we read about how earth provides us our food and helps us to create new foods. Just like the crops, Drugs are the gifts of biodiversity to human kind.
Natural remedies have been used to fight diseases from ancient times. Old medicine systems like the Indian, Islamic and Chinese made extensive use of plant and animal derived substances in treatment. The forefather of Western Medicine, Hippocrates, has listed about 400 herbs for their therapeutic use. Apart from the established medicinal systems, local knowledge of medicinal properties of plants has been conserved by common people for thousands of years. As an example, the Korku tribe in Central India relies on traditional knowledge of herbs for treating diseases. They use around 40 different herb in their medical practise. Like the Korkus, around 3.4 billion or 50% of the world’s people are dependent on plant based medicines even today.
Modern medicine uses chemically synthesized compounds as drugs. But an astonishing number of these drugs have been discovered using natural products. Most of the pharmaceutical compounds are naturally occurring in organisms like fungi, bacteria, plants and others. The natural substances removed from these sources are processed and used in making a drug. In some cases, a chemical having the same structure as the natural substance is prepared artificially. Penicillin, the first important drug to be discovered, was isolated from a fungi. Out of the 150 top selling prescription drugs in the US, 118 are based on natural resources. In fact, nine out of top ten best selling drugs are based on a natural product. And this is despite the fact that only 10% plants and 0.1% microorganisms (like bacteria) have been examined for possible medicinal property. Just like the superfood, our superdrugs in future may also be coming from the nature.
As an example, let’s see the story of an important cancer drug. In 1960, the National Cancer Institute (NCI) in the USA started a program to screen 1000 plants a year in search of an anti-cancer drug. In 1963, they found a possible ingredient in the bark of the Pacific yew tree. It took a further four years of research and in 1967, the efforts were rewarded in form of a drug called Taxol (current name paclitaxel). Taxol is used in the treatment of ovarian, breast and lung, bladder, prostate and many other cancers. For twenty years, its production was dependent on the Pacific yew tree. It was only 1993 that production without the tree bark was achieved, but it still uses a microorganism called endophytic fungus.
It is estimated that as many as 40% of all drugs have their origins in natural products. Knowing that the world pharmaceutical market is 300 billion dollars a year, we can quickly link it with the value of the natural ecosystem. New Drug Discovery from natural resources is an ongoing process today. The diversity of compounds found in nature is huge and it provides ‘leads’ for discovering new drugs to the pharmaceutical industry. Sophisticated methods like High Throughput Screening (HTS) are used to screen more than 100,000 substances per week. But it is needless to mention that these efforts are based on the biodiversity in the ecosystem. The variety in nature gives us two of our most important substances – food and drug.
We have seen a few examples of the Provisioning ecosystem service. We have begun to realize that the ecosystems are providing us with goods that are extremely valuable in money terms. In the next part, we turn to the next type of ecosystem service – Regulating.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Ecosystem Sciences Part 2 - The Gifts of Earth

In the first part, we heard that ecosystem provides us with various services that are extremely valuable. Ecologists have classified the services into five types. We start with the first type- Provisioning.
Provisioning is the most easily understood kind of ecosystem services. The ecosystem provides us with lot of goods- such as food, water, clothing, medicines and so on. Take fish, for example. The worldwide production of fish is worth about 200 billion dollars. 20% of the world population is dependent on fish as their primary source of proteins. Seafood is not just for us humans, but our pets also eat food that majorly contains fish.
Grasslands are the source of food for our animals like sheep, cattle, horses, asses and camels. Some of these animals provide labour- such as horses and mules. Many provide useful products like meat, milk and wool. Take the cattle for instance. There are about 1.5 billion cattle in the world today, one for nearly five human beings. About 27% of the world’s land is dedicated to cattle. In 2007, 65 million tons of beef was eaten by the people of the world. The beef and dairy industry is worth more than 200 billion dollars. The livelihoods of millions of people are dependent upon these animals that are fed by the grasslands.
Natural ecosystems in forest lands and woods provide goods like fuel. About 15% of the world is dependent on natural wood to provide energy. In some parts of the word, the dependence on wild wood as fuel is as high as 40%. Apart from wood we use many forest products like fruits, nuts, honey, mushroom, fiber, spices and so on. The value of such goods is difficult to estimate, but is definitely huge.
Croplands provide us a large part of our food including the grains, oils and vegetables. Similarly they also supply us with clothing like cotton and linen and also fulfill our vices like tobacco and wine. But croplands should be considered as human activity. They do not occur naturally. Human beings started agricultural activity about ten thousand years ago, instead of depending on nature for food like other animals. Ecosystem services continue to play irreplaceable part in agriculture, as we will see in later parts. But right now, lets consider a property of nature without which agriculture wouldn't have been possible – biodiversity.
Biodiversity simply means that there are so many varieties of living beings in nature. You take any particular specie of grass, and there will be many varieties similar to it in the wild. Even in the same specie, every individual is different from another, due to genetic variation. This fact helped the development of agriculture. The ancestor of apple in nature did not produce the large and juicy fruits that we eat today. They were much smaller in size and not that delicious. But there were a lot of varieties of pro-apples in nature. Our ancestor chose the variety that he thought was best for consumption and planted sampling of that breed. When the next generation of apples grew, he again selected the best sample. This process, called Artificial Selection, created all the agricultural products that we eat today, like the big apples and long ears of corn.
(See my earlier post on the subject of Artificial Selection -

The root of this development were in the biodiversity. The same biodiversity continues to help us in creating new foods. If we want to create new crops that are more productive, resistant to pests or need less water, we must turn to nature once again. Natural habitats are a storehouse of a vast array of varieties of vegetation, from where our next superfood might come.
We currently cultivate only about 100 species of plants that supply bulk of our food requirements. But there are more than 70,000 plant species that can be used as food. Some of these may be more suitable for us than the current crops. More and more of our usable land is getting salinized (salty) and droughts are becoming a frequent occurrence because of climate change. In this situation, our current crops may not serve us well. We might need different crops that can withstand these difficult conditions and fulfill our growing need for food. Biodiversity is the only resort if this happens.
The advances in biotechnology can certainly help in creating new foods, by combining the characteristics of more than one specie. But the biodiversity itself must remain. The variety cannot be conserved by protecting a few individuals in zoos or botanical gardens. There must be enough population of each specie in its natural habitat to provide the variation. So the next time we hear of a piece of natural ecosystem being lost to development, we must remind ourselves that we may have lost some variety of grass that could have become our next rice or wheat.
In the next part, we continue with Provisioning Services that give us our medicines.