(Note: this is a long post and if you’d like to skip to the pictures of the aquarium at the end please feel free, but I hope you take a moment to read the whole thing.)
The current trend to be mindful of one’s consumption of food items that are trucked or flown in from thousands of miles away is really exciting. We have been hearing about organic foods and how much better they are for you for years. I have been eating mostly organic for about 9 years now, or as often as I can afford these days. However, this mindfulness about food and its sources is not new, at least, not to me.
Being a Californian carries a certain connotation. I was not raised a hippie however I was raised in a way that most people outside of California would probably think is unusual. My parents are scientists and we spent a lot of our time outdoors, either camping, fishing, hiking and backpacking, sailing and the like. Instead of going skiing in the winter or heading to a beach holiday, we would pack up the car and the boat and drive for hundreds of miles to a camping spot or a lake and that was our family holiday. Every excursion was a natural history, biology or geology lesson. Many of my friends were perplexed at our family’s activities, “You mean you sleep outside? Not even in a tent? Where do you go to the bathroom? What do you do all day?” But to me this was normal, and fun, and I would bring along some friends occasionally and most of them really had a good time. It was unpretentious fun, a celebration of simple pleasures. My mom is an excellent cook, even with camping food, and nothing was finer than cooking a trout that one of us girls caught that day. Of course we always packed butter and slivered almonds, even while backpacking!
At home my mom shopped at the local Co-op, and she was, in her way, what would be called a food activist these days. I remember not eating grapes for what seemed like years because of Cesar Chavez’s efforts to help the farm workers. We did not eat tuna for a while because of the discovery of gill netting which was killing dolphins. The boycott of Nestle was particularly hard because I loved chocolate chip cookies with a passion, especially Mrs. Clark’s Great Cookie (but that’s a post for another day).
We were raised with the perception that Only You Can Prevent Forest Fires, and Don’t be a Litterbug. We conserved water, turned off lights and didn’t use electricity except where needed, and the heat was barely on to conserve energy. We were instilled with the notion that we are custodians of the planet, not its owners.
Today, it is, I think, deemed trendy to be aware of where your food comes from even though it’s sort of built-in to my natural perception and shopping choices. Shopping from local sources means your food is fresher and resources haven’t been unduly expended by transporting the food from far reaches of the planet to get to my plate. Unless you really want and can afford that darling miniature pineapple from South Africa, that is (and it was truly delicious!), the food is better from local, conscientiously raised farms and ranches.
All of this boils down to awareness of the environment, and to a certain extent, to ethics. Is it ethical to eat a tomato raised and harvested by an immigrant worker paid less than minimum wage and denied basic human treatment while in the field? No, everyone should agree that this is wrong, however do we really know what is going on behind the scenes at our farms? We naively hope that everyone is doing their part and treating their employees well but we really don’t know for sure. Ethics and the environment are also a now trendy topic. Littering IS bad, so is throwing out a lit cigarette in a tinder-dry area, but you see this happen all of the time. People are buying Prius cars and recycling but do the corporate czars in China really care that they are polluting the world with their emissions? Sometimes this leads me to a feeling of helplessness, however the only way to make a change is to do and live the best way that you can and observe your ethics.
Ethics and the Environment
My friend Sharon works with the American Institute of Ethics, whose goal is to foster discussion, dialog and debate among people of diverse backgrounds to create a common understanding of the basis of ethical behaviour, a worthy goal and a worthy effort. Last Tuesday week they had a special lecture and reception for their donors, and the topic was Ethics and the Environment. Sharon graciously invited me and a few other of her friends to attend and it was a truly inspiring and insightful evening.
It was held in the Aquarium of the Bay at Pier 39, which I have never visited thinking it was yet another tourist trap. However, I love aquariums, and all natural museums and exhibits of any kind, and I was excited especially to go there and to learn what others think of as ethics as relating to the environment.
The speakers were certainly riveting:
An introduction by John Sequeira, President & Founder, American Institute of Ethics
Jared Blumenfeld, Director, Environment Department of the City of San Francisco
Frank Jordan, former Mayor of San Francisco
Peter Gros, Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom
Also present was the President of the Aquarium of the Bay John Frawley who is interested in ethics of animals in captivity plus corporate ethics.
I was very interested to hear Jared Blumenfeld speak as I really hadn’t heard much about what his department in the City and County does and what was planned for San Francisco. His presentation was extremely informative. He discussed the upcoming new treaty in Copenhagen on climate change and emissions. He defined ethics and the relationship of this to the environment – specifically climate change. In general we have an ethical obligation to do no harm to others. If harm occurs accidentally or unintentionally then compensation should be determined and provided. Those most sensitive to climate change are not causing it, e.g., forest people impacted by clearcutting several hundred miles away from their lands. We may not even know who is being harmed by a corporate decision made in this hemisphere, therefore actions by others far away can be invisible, which is a huge challenge to trigger ethic standards. Global environment problems need to be seen as ethical issues. No global government exists to govern global environment impact and ethical appeals are necessary but not always effective.
San Francisco has made some exciting plans, a 2012 target to reduce emissions by 20%. Composting & recycling is currently at 72% which is the highest in nation. The goal is 75% total composting and recycling by 2012 and zero net waste by 2020. Plans are underway for rooftop solar panels for all flat top buildings to power apartment and office buildings, wind mapping for rooftop wind turbines, wave power generators off Ocean Beach and tidal power generators under the Golden Gate Bridge. San Francisco has the strictest building codes with a target of gold standards for all new buildings by 2012. Transportation causes 50% of all emissions, therefor his department is formulating plans to reduce solo driving. Improvements have been made in the City’s fleet of cars and buses with the fuel itself in vehicles, switching fuel sources to biodeisel or electricity. Hydroelectric power is generated from Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, San Francisco’s water supply, which is used to power our electric bus fleet but environmental impact studies show that deficits in the snow pack creates vulnerability to this power source.
He wrapped up by saying that we can either pay now or pay more later. Inaction now will have definite impact on the future and will be more costly. He and the Mayor have a quest to understand environmental impact on ethical decisions.
A question brought up an interesting point, in that discussions on climate change have been omitting a crucial area of water security and only now are people beginning to look at food security. Many countries are looking beyond their borders for food supplies and there are ethical sovereignty issues on growing food elsewhere. If an outside country owns crop rights in an impoverished country and the people growing the food are malnourished then the ethics of this kind of crop export needs to be reviewed.
The next speaker was former mayor Frank Jordan. He’s on the board of the American Institute of Ethics and works currently for the Gordon & Betty Moore Foundation. Gordon Moore was one of the founders of Intel and donated a large portion of his shares to the foundations whose goal is land conservation. They consistently reevaluate their own moral compass relating to environmental conduct. Some exciting recent projects include salt fields by San Francisco International Airport that have been purchased and are going to be rehabilitated back to their natural wetlands. The Foundation has been partnering with the Peninsula Open Space to purchase open space on the San Mateo coastline currently designated for agriculture. It will now be public open space and agriculture and cattle ranching will still be allowed but no development will ever take place, allowing the public clear open access to the ocean. The Foundation also purchased 8,000 acres near Black Point. This property was formerly owned by an Indian reservation who had planned to build a casino but that development was blocked by voters in recent elections. Now owned by the Foundation the land is bordered by State parkland and a federal land preserve, creating a wildlife bridge and ensuring the land will never be developed. The Foundation has also given $1 billion worldwide to other efforts including space exploration. Another major area of interest is water conservation. Mayor Jordan commented that only 3% of the world’s water is fresh water, and of that only 2% is ice. 25% of the fresh water supply is spent on flushing toilets, how shocking! The world average water use is 3 gal per person per month but in the United States the monthly average is 120 gal.
The highlight of the evening was Peter Gros, Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom‘s spokesperson of wildlife. Dressed in 4 pocket khaki jacket with epaulettes, chinos and polished tan shoes, Mr. Gross is a looming rangy man, deeply tanned with a large mustache. He was interviewed by Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom to help fill in for Marlin Perkins in 1985 when Mr. Perkins was very ill. His tale of his interview process was hilarious and his lovely and supportive wife chuckled along at the story how his first assignment was at Danger Reef in Australia to test shark suits when he “accentuated” his diving experience! He survived, of course, and I have fond memories of watching his adventures on tv.
His current work has been to bring awareness of environmental issues and opportunities to youth. A current project was to improve ethical ecotourism to build sustainable income for locals and build interest and awareness by the public. By encouraging locals to view their environment as an asset encourages them not to sell local treasures and destroy their unique environment. He showed us several fascinating videos on Kodiak bears and the development of a land-use plan to preserve their territory and yet allow logging. The video shot in Namibia on cheetah reintroduction was truly amazing (watch it here). A conservationist has been working with local ranchers to convince them to not shoot cheetahs and by giving them trained sheepdogs, of which the cheetah were leery, prevented the ranchers herds from being depleted by cheetah kills. She has introduced sheepdogs to 900 ranchers thus far and brought them around to her point of view. The training of the cheetahs to hunt antelope was amazing, they use lures to get them into shape and to learn how to hunt and chase down their prey (not sheep!). After viewing this video I am sure glad I’m not an antelope!
Peter’s comments on ethics, the media, and how to disseminate facts and educate youth really struck a chord with me. In these days children do understand and get the message that the environment has issues, but they never hear the good news. He detailed how growth is happening and how we need to make it sustainable. We need to pass along good news, such as the removal of the Peregrine Falcon from the endangered species list, and the growth of the Blue Whale pack to 700 from 70 a few short years ago, and the reintroduction of the Grey Wolf to the Mammoth area after their extinction by ranchers. The message that children need to hear is that it is not too late to make a difference. We have an obligation to evaluate and then report the state of the environment without exaggeration. He has found that many children think it is too late to help the world recover from climate and environmental problems, when we have seen improvements and progress, although, obviously, sustainable progress is essential.
After the speakers concluded their remarks, we were then treated to a private tour of the Aquarium of the Bay by President John Frawley. And what a treat that was, they have a large staff of naturalists on hand to educate the public on their exhibits and an enormous amount of money and time and care has been lavished on their exhibits. They focus on the sea life and environment within the San Francisco Bay and also what is offshore. A new exciting exhibit of jellies had just been opened and they were mesmerizing. I particularly enjoyed the swirling tank of anchovy, and remember seeing the flocks of seagulls stabbing the water when the anchovy run through the bay (and envied them their meal!). They have a huge tubular aquarium with a people mover where we, the humans, move through the tank to view the typical sea life under the bay. I immediately fell in love with a 200 lb sea bass named Babette, what a beauty. It was a special night and I felt privileged to hear the speakers, see the aquarium, and walk away with some new thoughts about ethics and the environment. (I also had to suppress my growing craving for seafood for dinner, isn’t that awful? I always feel that way after visiting an aquarium, and that’s just wrong!)
Moon Jellies and Sea Nettles, from off the coast of the Golden Gate
The tube aquarium, anchovies, a giant sea star
The night exhibit of a Giant Pacific Octopus, Sunflower Star
Me and Pete Gros!!