Ecologically Nothing Ever Really Dies

EcoLogically Nothing Ever Really Dies, Only transformed from one useful form to another...

Monday, March 28, 2011

Sustainable living: Going back to the basics/ Lessons from the past.

Contrary to the notion given off by highly commercialised marketing gimmicks, sustainable living need not cost an arm and a leg. Rather, sustainable living should at the least save us money. The basis of sustainable living is rooted in simplicity and thoughtfulness. In that sense therefore, low income people are in a better position to live sustainably than their more affluent counterparts. Yet, economically and technologically advanced societies with their talk of hybrid cars and nuclear energy would have us believe that drastic adjustments need to be made in the way we live in order to contribute towards a healthier planet. Lessons from our past will attest otherwise.
Let me take you down memory lane to confirm my declaration that lessons in simplicity, thoughtfulness and ultimately sustainable living are found thereof. How many of us remember the days when simply forgetting to switch off your bedroom light or letting the water tap drip would result in serious ramification at the hands of parents? Do we remember the days when every trip to the grocer was made with a recyclable shopping basket or plastic bag? I remember watering the garden only during the early hours of the morning albeit under heavy protest. I also remember the times when the whole family would travel to school, work or church in a single car despite the availability of another vehicle.
These and more actions which were practiced in the past vividly capture the foundations of sustainable living, which incorporate 3 basic principles which are: Reduce, Reuse/Recycle and Save. If we observe these lessons and apply them to our lives today, we will be on our way to a sustainable life.
Let us begin by considering the transport that we use. Three decades ago, being able to drive in Zimbabwe was a status symbol, mainly a preserve of men high up the socio-economic ladder. In this era however, everyone is driving. Gases emitted by cars are one of the biggest contributors to greenhouse gases which are the main cause of global warming. How do we ensure that we reduce the amount of gases emitted by our cars? Since electric cars, hydrogen cars and smart cars are still a long way from becoming trendy in this part of the world, reducing the number of cars on the road and the number of people driving is the most prudent way of cutting down on emissions.
We should begin to consider carpooling to work or to school. If our day involves sitting on a desk or in a class/lecture room, sharing a family car or a friend‘s car is a good way to reduce our carbon footprint (amount of carbon dioxide that we are directly or indirectly responsible for producing and emitting into the earth's atmosphere). Besides, with rising fuel prices and parking costs, it is going to save us a lot of money anyway.
Carpooling may help to improve our interpersonal relationships as well. This drive time can become family time or a time to catch up with friends thereby bringing us closer together. For those of us who drive everywhere including the market or grocery store (which is only 2km away), walking or cycling as alternatives to driving will not only save on greenhouse gas emissions but will contribute to a healthy lifestyle.
We can start to purchase more eco friendly products. Eco friendly products are those which have the least impact on the environment. Back in the day, it was natural to buy eco friendly products although we didn’t necessarily consider this to be a service to the planet. We saved money through buying local produce. What we did not realise is that we were also reducing our carbon footprint by reducing “food miles”. Foreign products don’t only cost more but travel much longer distances to reach us thereby using up more energy and emitting more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
Buying organic foods (foods produced naturally) will also reduce our impact on the environment since other products are likely to be grown with synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. Besides, organic food is much healthier. Choosing to buy energy saving appliances will help to reduce our carbon footprint as well as save us money in the long run. Energy saving bulbs for example use as little as 10kw of power as opposed to the conventional 60 - 100kw and can last up to 6 years. These bulbs will save money on our electricity bill as well as reduce the pressure on our severely compromised national energy generating capacity.
While we strive daily to save money, many of us do not make the connection between resources and finances, forgetting that electric bills and water bills make up a significant portion of monthly expenses. Just because these resources and expenses are necessary, that does not mean they cannot be cut back, or utilised more thoughtfully and effectively. Often times, we act in a wasteful manner, simply out of habit. But habits can be broken.
Saving water and electricity are simple tasks that will not only help promote sustainable living and protect the environment, they can also help reduce our household expenses. We should cut the habit of leaving the water running when brushing our teeth, cleaning dishes, or washing our cars. By simply filling the sink halfway with water, then adding soap, we ensure that no water is lost unnecessarily during dishwashing. When we wash our cars, we could use buckets and turn the hosepipe off. Being conscious of when we choose to water our lawn or garden is also helpful. We should avoid watering during the heat of the day. Watering in the early morning or evening hours is more efficient. Taking showers for shorter periods or using buckets also ensures that we save water.
Thousands of gallons of water are wasted each year, simply because people are too lazy to turn off the tap when doing daily tasks. The beauty of our situation in Zimbabwe is that most of us will find these changes simple to make considering our perennial water shortages. In most cases, we may have already been forced into these sustainable life changes anyway.
Through simple and thoughtful acts like turning the lights off if we are not in the room or taking full advantage of natural light whenever possible by opening curtains during the day, we reduce our energy use and costs.  We should always turn off appliances when not in use. Turning off the T.V, radio and computer and avoiding leaving the phone on the charger over night will significantly reduce the electricity that we use daily.
However, considering the excessive power cuts experienced in Zimbabwe, most of us are usually excited at the opportunity to maximize the few hours that we do have power by switching on every appliance imaginable even those which we do not need. We should try by all means to desist from this behavior. It increases the pressure on our meager energy resources thereby leading to more power cuts and higher electricity bills.
Reducing the amount of waste which we produce and recycling the waste is another important lesson for sustainable living which we can draw from the past. Litter will always find its way into rubbish dumps and landfills. These landfills are one of the major producers of methane, a leading greenhouse gas which contributes to global warming. Collecting newspapers, containers and plastic bags is an effective way of reducing your contribution to global warming. In most cases, there are people, organisations or companies that can make use of what you consider to be rubbish. Most of this material can be recycled into more useful materials like candles (which come in handy during power cuts) or tissues. Some companies may even pay for these materials.
Some of us have clothes which we do not need any more. Instead of throwing these away and generating more waste, give them away. Charitable organisations enable us to freely give away those items which we no longer need or want. Someone can reuse them. Giving items away will reduce the amount of waste we generate and also give us a sense of well being. Using recyclable carrier bags or shopping baskets will also help to reduce the amounts of excess plastic we generate. This will also save us money since plastic bags are now for sale in grocery stores.
Apart from reducing, recycling and saving, we can also take decisive action to restore our natural environment and our planet’s ability to sustain life. One of the most important acts we can engage in is tree planting. The value of trees to our lives can never be overemphasised. While planting a tree is a simple exercise, its value to our lives is immeasurable.  

Trees are the major removers of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. They are therefore one of the most potent weapons against global warming and climate change. Trees also contribute immensely to our health and well being. They remove gaseous pollutants from the atmosphere and produce vital oxygen. Trees clean our water, preserve our soils and cool our environment. The importance of trees is so vast that it would require an entire article. However, in the mean time, why not plant a tree as a symbol of remembering important events in our lives such as birthdays, anniversaries and as a local funeral company would have it, in memory of a departed loved one.
Let us teach one another the simple tips on how to “save” the environment. One person or one generation alone cannot do it. This task needs as many people contributing as possible. Therefore, let us continue the culture of sustainable living through simple acts of thoughtfulness. This will augment and redevelop the basis for a culture that will live for generations to come.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Trees, climate change and health: Part 2

I subscribe to the notion promoted by Brian Swimme and Thomas Berry in the Book “the universe story” where they state that “The well being of the eco system of the planet is a prior condition for the well being of humans. We cannot have well being on a sick planet, not even with our medical science. So long as we continue to generate more toxins than the planet can absorb and transform, the members of the earth community will become ill”. Planting trees is one of the best ways we can ensure a healthy planet for good human health and well being.
I am an advocate of trees because they work every day for all of us to improve our environment, health and quality of life. Trees fight global warming and climate change while consequently improving the quality of our air, protecting our water and saving energy. Planting trees remains one of the cheapest, most effective means of drawing excess carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Since excessive carbon dioxide emissions into the atmosphere are the leading cause of human induced climate change, trees become an important tool for mitigating and curbing climate change.  A single mature tree can absorb carbon dioxide at a rate of 21.6 Kgs/year and release enough oxygen back into the atmosphere to support 2 human beings.
In light of high temperatures resulting from global warming, trees have the ability to regulate local temperatures by transpiring water into the lower atmosphere and shading surfaces. By so doing, trees help to reduce the intensity of heat waves thereby reducing the effects of heat waves on the elderly and people with respiratory and cardiovascular disorders. The temperature regulation ability of trees helps reduce the demand on air conditioning in homes and offices thereby reducing pressure on fossil fuel burning for energy. This can be very helpful in Zimbabwe where energy shortages are acute and a significant percentage of our energy comes from coal.
Trees are a possible solution to the pressure exerted by climate change on water availability and quality and therefore health. Trees reduce topsoil erosion thereby preventing harmful land pollutants contained in the soil from getting into wells and open water sources. They use nutrients like nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium which are by-products of urban living which can pollute water sources. Trees slow down water run-off thus ensuring that water sinks into the ground and our groundwater supplies are continually replenished. This ensures that communities have reliable water supply thereby reducing the risk of hygiene related diseases. The ability of trees to assist water to seep in the ground also helps to avoid the formation of stagnant pools. The incidence of water borne diseases and malaria are thus curbed.
Trees remove gaseous pollutants which contribute to climate change and poor health by absorbing them with normal air components. These gases include sulphur dioxide, ozone and nitrous oxide. Planting trees improves air quality in so doing reducing the risk of exacerbations of respiratory diseases. Trees also have therapeutic value. Planting trees can act as a remedy against the shortcomings of modern life in a world separated from nature. Research has shown that planting trees in different locations creates green spaces which are of value in alleviating stress and depression related to urban living.
For the benefit of our planet and our health, let us all plant trees wherever and whenever we can. It doesn’t cost much but our combined efforts will have a positive domino-effect which will echo for generations to come.

Trees, climate change and health: Part 1

 “The warming of the planet will be gradual, but the effects of extreme weather events (more storms, floods, droughts and heat waves) will be abrupt and acutely felt. Both trends can affect some of the most fundamental determinants of health: air, water, food, shelter and freedom from disease”. This is a statement made by the Director General of the World Health Organisation Dr Margaret Chan during UN led celebrations of the world environment day a couple of years ago. Her statement followed worldwide concerns about the impacts of climate change on the quality of life on the planet.
Coming across this statement only recently, I felt stirred to shed some light on her statement by explaining the relationship between climate change, human health and well being. In the same light, I was challenged put forward my thoughts on how an act as simple as planting a tree can go a long way to alleviate the effects of climate change on people’s health. Since climate change is attributable to unsustainable human exploitation of natural resources, my belief is that human action towards the restoration of the integrity of our natural environment can contribute significantly to alleviating the impact of climate change on human life. I will begin first by explaining the relationship between climate change and health.
The environmental consequences of climate change, both those already observed and those that are anticipated, such as, changes in rainfall resulting in flooding and drought, heat waves, more intense cyclones and storms, and degraded air quality, affect human health and well being both directly and indirectly. Directly through impacts of thermal stress, and death/injury in floods and storms and indirectly through changes in the ranges of disease vectors (e.g. mosquitoes), water-borne pathogens, water quality, air quality, and food availability and quality.
Exposure to heat waves and death or injury from extreme weather is the more common direct impacts of climate change. Although we are in a part of the world (Tropics) where heat exposure is not a noteworthy challenge since we are used to raised temperatures, certain members of our community are less tolerant thereby putting them at risk from increased temperatures. The elderly and those who suffer from cardio-vascular and respiratory disease are less tolerant to high temperatures. This makes them likely to suffer more at the hands of climate change. Floods and cyclones can result in death or serious injuries to people as well. On the other hand, the trauma caused by these events on children may result in prolonged psychological damage. Mental health effects such as depression and anxiety may occur after these extreme events.
Extreme weather events like cyclones, floods and drought also have far reaching indirect effects on people’s health and well being. They result in high temperature, water scarcity and water abundance which are all related to diarrhoeral diseases. After a cyclone or flood-event, rates of diarrhoeal disease, including cholera, may increase, especially in areas where sanitation facilities are poor. Heavy rainfall, even without flooding, may increase rates of diarrhoeal disease as latrines or sewage systems overflow. In Zimbabwe, high density residential areas such as Mbare, Chitungwiza and Tafara/Mabvuku are commonly affected. The cholera outbreak of 2009 bears testimony to this.
Heavy rains lead to increased runoff which may result in the contamination of water sources. Perennial water shortages in Zimbabwe have led to many families making use of wells and other open water sources which are highly prone to contamination as a result of runoff. Water scarcity for personal hygiene and washing of food puts many Zimbabweans at high risk of diarrhoeal diseases and other illnesses related to poor hygiene.
The combination of high temperatures and rainfall resulting from climate change is likely to increase the spatial and temporal distribution of vector borne diseases such as malaria. After an intense rainfall event or a flood event, rates of vector borne diseases such as malaria can increase as mosquitoes breed in stagnant or slow moving pools of water. Viral and bacterial diseases may also increase because virus and bacteria replication rates are sensitive to temperature.
High temperatures and water scarcity can put food harvests at risk while flood events can also destroy harvests. Low food yields may ultimately exacerbate undernutrition and lead to adverse health outcomes (especially physical and mental development of children). As rates of malnutrition increase, populations become more susceptible to other diseases. In Zimbabwe where HIV and AIDS is prevalent, poor nutrition coupled with HIV induced poor immunity levels put a large percentage of the population at risk of death.
Climate change affects temperature, humidity and wind which in turn affect the formation, transportation and dispersion of air pollutants. Climate change may therefore influence pollutant concentrations, which may affect health as air pollution is related to cardio-respiratory health. Exposure to high levels of ground-level ozone, for example, which is formed from the exhaust of transport vehicles, increases the risk of exacerbations of respiratory diseases such as asthma. Respiratory allergies and diseases may become more prevalent because of increased human exposure to pollen (due to altered growing seasons), molds (from extreme or more frequent precipitation), and dust (from droughts).
Addressing the effects of climate change on human health is especially challenging because both the surrounding environment and the decisions that people make influence health. However, given the aforementioned impacts of climate change on health, it is prudent to suggest that activities taken to ensure environmental sustainability and reduce greenhouse gas emission have several potential benefits for health as well.
One of the most gainful and holistic ways of tackling climate change while contributing to public health is through planting trees. While I am in no way suggesting that tree planting or good environmental stewardship can replace the provision of basic services such as primary health care, nutrition programmes, and adequate water supply and sanitation, I believe that completely ignoring the value of a healthy planet on human health and well being is potentially calamitous. I shall elaborate on the value of trees in the fight against climate change and the protection of human health and well being in the coming post.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Improving our planet’s ability to sustain life


I sat through an interesting presentation made by a colleague at an environment and livelihoods workshop last week. Her presentation focused on the harmful effect of corporate led humanitarian action. Her view was that the environmental and humanitarian sectors have been high jacked by companies who have business motives. These companies play around with buzz words like going green, green technology, carbon footprint etc to hype up their products and turn a profit. She reiterated how unfortunate this development is. The commercialization of the environment and livelihoods sector will see the collapse of honest humanitarian work she insisted. She concluded that issues regarding the environment and people’s livelihoods should be led by ordinary people as opposed to corporates.
While I may not be entirely of the same opinion, I am strongly in support of community/people led environmental action. I believe that all people have the inherent ability to do good for others and for themselves by default. However, while most people may want to play a part in ensuring that our planet continues to sustain life for our generation and generations to come, our biggest challenge is the lack of a clear appreciation of what needs to be done and how. Furthermore, we may not have the financial resources necessary, hence the continued involvement of the corporate world in the environmental, livelihoods and humanitarian sectors. I have nothing against companies making a profit (profit is why companies are set up anyway) while contributing to the health of the planet and the improvement of people’s lives. They simply need to find better ways of striking a balance between profit and the planet’s well being.
Despite financial challenges, I am convinced that a lack of money does not excuse us from taking action against the widespread human induced damage to our planet and threat to the lives of people especially the poor. I will demonstrate how ordinary people can take a lead in “saving our planet” despite a lack of disposable income in forthcoming posts. Currently, I would like to shed more light on where our planet’s vulnerability to our actions lie so as to improve our understanding of what threats the planet is under and what we can do to tackle the matter. 
Our life on this planet is supported by the natural environment. The main components of our natural environment are air, land and water. The air (atmosphere) as we may understand is the centre of all our lives. We could not even in our untamed imaginations survive without air. Clean air ensures that we take another breathe and stay alive. Clean air also ensures we stay free of respiratory illnesses like asthma (I bet you know at least one person who suffers from asthma if not yourself). The atmosphere is also responsible for ensuring that our planet maintains a constant average temperature and doesn’t get too warm or to cold. It traps the warmth which is emitted by our planet thereby ensuring our planet doesn’t get to cold, this is called the green house effect. On the other hand, the atmosphere also allows some of the heat to escape into space thereby stopping our planet from getting too warm. Therefore, we owe the livable conditions on this planet to our air (atmosphere).
Our land on the other hand is just as important. The land is where life comes from. Plants and animals which are all necessary for our survival live and grow on the land. The majority of people in low income countries (where most of the world’s poor are found) depend almost entirely on the land to produce food. In Zimbabwe, 70% of the population is estimated to make a living directly or indirectly from the land. For those who work in the manufacturing industry, the majority of our products use plants or crops grown from the land as raw material. Entire economies are sustained by the land. Therefore, we all draw our livelihoods one way or the other from the land
Water is an indispensible component of our lives. For starters, for the normal day to day functioning of our bodies, we need water. No human being can survive for more than 12 days without water. The crops that we grow for food would also not survive without water. Our economies also depend on water. Water is life, every drop counts.
The air, land and the water form an interlocked system which works collectively to sustain all forms of life on the planet. If any significant changes or alterations are made to this system, it affects life on earth as well. For example, the release of a variety of gases into the atmosphere through burning of fossil fuels (oil, coal etc) in industries or day to day energy generation alters the composition of our air and the system. These gases stay in the atmosphere for long periods in so doing accumulating over time. This increases the atmosphere’s ability to trap warmth released by the earth thereby escalating the greenhouse effect and making our planet warmer (global warming). This increased warming has a ripple effect on the rest of the air, land and water system. Climate change is the result of this ripple effect. The climate becomes chaotic and unpredictable resulting in increased incidences of severe weather like droughts, floods and cyclones thereby threatening life on earth. Seasons begin to change. Rainfall begins to vary in terms of quantity and timing thereby making it increasingly difficult to produce enough food for everyone.
This description of where our planet’s vulnerability lies doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of our planet’s defenselessness to our activities. These will be covered in great detail later. However, I hope this improves our appreciation of where the challenges the planet is experiencing lie and open our minds up to discussions into the kind of action we can begin to take to protect and preserve our planet and our lives.
Our indifference will reproduce poverty and underdevelopment. Let’s help improve our planet’s ability to sustain life by restoring the major components of the life supporting system; air, land and water.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Climate change: An opportunity to show your love for family and friends!

I am sure a lot of us have had moments in their life where they are jolted back to the harsh reality that life on this planet is borrowed and we are not promised tomorrow. As fleeting as this feeling may be, when it hits us, it shakes us momentarily to the core of our being. The stark reality of this realization forces us to introspectively evaluate our lives and put into perspective the things that we value the most. In most cases, we realize that what we value the most is family and their well being.
My moment of introspection came about recently as a result of the experiences of two people whose well being I value considerably, my brother and my girlfriend. My brother got involved in a car accident and was bedridden for over a week. My girlfriend on the other had to undergo an operation which although she declared was no big deal, had me worried (She is a medical student… if you have ever been to the hospital or in an emergency situation, you will know that people in the medical field almost always take things lightly while the rest of us panic). These two occurrences got me thinking about the things which are important to me and what others may value in their lives as well. My humble conclusion was that everyone wants the best for the people they love. The people they love are mostly family and close friends. Having realized this, I went on further to think about what it is that everyone who cares about the well being of family and friends could do to show their love.
Countless ideas ran through my mind including, spending quality time with family and friends, and helping each other in times of need, uplifting one another spiritually and many other typical ideas. However, I challenged myself to think a bit out of the box and find long-lasting impactful things we can do for our families and our friends. I asked myself this question “what is one of the biggest unavoidable challenges that the human race is currently experiencing and may continue to encounter for years to come?” While a lot of us may think in terms of war, civil unrest (given the recent trend of civic demonstrations and clashes between civilians and their governments worldwide) and poverty (of which our continent is a leading sufferer), my mind strayed even further.  This challenge to human kind should encompass all these and more. Then it hit me. CLIMATE CHANGE!
Climate change currently has strong impacts on our planet, our families and friends in ways which cannot be ignored. This current challenge encompasses all facets of our lives by taxing our ability to produce food, our health, our shelter through climate change induced disasters like cyclones, and floods, our industries and therefore our economics. By straining these basic human needs, climate change also has the ability to cause civil unrest thereby affecting our politics as well. In that sense, climate change has and will continue to have adverse impacts on the lives of the people we love for generations to come. Therefore, one of the most important actions that human kind can start to take now to demonstrate its love and care for family and friends is to start caring a bit more about our planet. In so doing, we show our care for our families now and those which are to come.
Many of us may think to themselves, but I am just one person, I am not a scientist, a politician or a policy maker, what do I have to offer? Policymakers and politicians have more often than not failed us by putting political ambitions ahead of the well being of the people they lead. Therefore, you are in a better position to fight the impacts of climate change than a politician. You have no voters to entice. All you have is deep love and concern for your family and friends. In my opinion that’s the best weapon you can wield for this kind of a battle.
The battle against climate change and global warming requires heart. Since we have more of that through our love for family and friends, we already have a head start. In coming posts, I will demonstrate how ordinary people can make a difference in the global battle against global warming and climate change. I will also show how our companies, churches, organizations and schools can play a part in this battle as well. For those of us who have heard buzz words such as global warming, climate change, going green, carbon footprint, environmental sustainability etc, and still don’t understand what these are and what their relevance in our lives is, subsequent posts will explain these in a way that will challenge you to action. Furthermore, I will give tips on how we can take action in our daily lives without much cost to our pockets or time.
All we need to do is treat this planet as if it was not given to us by our parents but as if it was loaned to us by our children. “Good intentions never work, action does”.