Environmentally Speaking

Before The Flood

Leonardo DiCaprio’s newest film, Before The Flood, is his first documentary, delineating him the growing identity of actor turned environmentalist. After being named the UN Ambassador of Peace for the U.S., DiCaprio took this as an opportunity to increase his credibility and environmental credentials by embarking on a two-year filmmaking voyage in collaboration with National Geographic, in which he travels the globe to see first-hand the effects of climate change. 

The results are powerful.

 Before The Flood reminds us of the tangible, palpable, and all too real negative changes in our environment due to human caused climate change. The facts are crystal clear. We’ve known about this issue since the 1950s, and this film raises the controversial conversation of how politics and big business (namely the fossil fuel industry) have systematically and ruthlessly prevented efforts for this information to be disseminated to the public and dealt with in legislation. Now, over 50 years later, we’re seeing CO2 emissions, sea level rise, drought, deforestation, species extinction and so much more at a level that is unprecedented in our 4.6-billion-year old planet’s history. This film makes it abundantly clearly that something is indeed very, very wrong.

And yet, its pessimistic tone from the start morphs into one of optimism as DiCaprio interviews men and women and companies that are doing something about this. It emphasizes change on a large scale – predominantly the path of renewable energy so as to diminish our dependence on fossil fuel, and on an equally important individual scale with behavioral changes.

This film is important, it’s thorough, and it’s geared toward anyone who is confused about climate change, whether that be what the causes are, what the perpetual issues are, and what the solutions might be.

While I encourage and commend films like this to be made and re-made and talked about until the conversation is as publicized as this stupid election, my beef with the film (pun intended) is that DiCaprio never shares the behavioral changes he’s made in his own life to accommodate all he’s learned. I literally laughed out loud when I read the credit at the end that said the film offset its carbon footprint by “paying a voluntary carbon tax”. With an Executive Producer like Scorsese behind the project, we know your film probably has a flexible budget, so to claim that forking over a little extra cash relieves you of your carbon footprint doesn’t exactly take the film’s message to heart. Those carbon emissions don’t suddenly disappear. What can we do differently to reduce or altogether eliminate our impact?

I was disappointed that when the conversation of diet was brought up in the film, we breezed through it. “Yeah beef has the largest carbon footprint.” “Yeah your diet is probably the fastest and easiest way to make a difference.” “Um, try to eat less beef and more chicken.” Huh? Why do we constantly pacify people’s feelings on this? Here’s the deal: a meat-based diet has a really, really, really big carbon footprint. Dairy has a big footprint too. Transportation of fruits and vegetables takes a lot of water and energy. Eat locally, eat plant-based, reduce your dependency on meat. Yes, this is the most immediate and significant way you can make a difference.

To me this part really hurt DiCaprio’s reputation as the Executive Producer of Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret, a film that argues veganism is the only environmental dietary choice. What does someone like DiCaprio do after learning all of this? Does he stop flying in private jets? Drive less? Eat differently? Do anything? We don’t know. He never says. And that, to me, is a wasted opportunity to inspire people otherwise.

The film is online and free forever, and I think it's our responsibility as residents of this planet to watch it and be informed: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=90CkXVF-Q8M

Which Diet Has the Lowest Carbon Footprint?

Food is the most precious resource we have. With a population of 7 billion people, we have to put the majority of our water, land, and energy toward food production.

In the United States alone, our 320-million-person population uses 22% of our water for public and domestic use, while the remaining 78% of water goes to industry and farming – the vast majority of which goes to irrigation alone. 

We need food. But how can we make sure that we’re growing and transporting it as efficiently as possible? If we’re asking people to make behavioral changes by taking shorter showers, reducing waste, changing their light bulbs, etc. then isn’t it reasonable to ask people to make changes where it has the most impact?

Which diet has the lowest carbon footprint for our planet? Which diet has the greatest benefit to our health? And, how can we persuade people to adopt a different diet or at least modify current habits?

Two years ago I watched a documentary called Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret and was appalled by how cruel, corrupt, and damaging the agricultural industry in the United States is. Once I was educated of this, it induced cognitive dissonance: my environmental philosophy no longer aligned with my behavior. Do I change my beliefs, or do I change my behavior? I chose the latter.

Since then, veganism has helped me understand how complex the world of agriculture and food really is. When you start to become more mindful of what you’re putting in your body and how it got there it forces you to reassess your worldview.

You can imagine my enormous confusion and ambivalence in class when my professor mentioned that in fact, a plant-based diet is not the most sustainable, but rather, a high-fructose diet. Apparently, the cost of transporting all the fruits and veggies takes so many resources that in the end, the carbon footprint was just as bad as eating meat…

To Google! I proclaimed, as I opened my laptop to verify or refute – whichever came first – what was said.  The only thing I could find relating to high-fructose diets was a paper arguing that beet sugar was a more efficient use of land and water than cane sugar, and the rest supported the veganism and vegetarianism were the most sustainable – far more sustainable than eating meat.

However, I don’t think my professor is wrong. I do believe that transportation must have enormous impact on our resources, especially if people on the East Coast want avocados from California to be stocked in the supermarket year-round. Sure, it makes sense that eating nothing but Fritos would likely have a low-carbon footprint (I actually know of someone who did this), and perhaps even lower still would simply be to not eat anything! There we go. Anorexia is the lowest carbon-footprint diet. I’ve solved it. 

But you can see where this argument becomes really annoying. We have to find a compromise between reducing our negative and over-consumptive impact toward the environment as much as possible, without jeopardizing our personal health. We have to still talk in the realm of what’s reasonable.

Eating locally is perhaps the best way to ensure that transportation for food is diminished, while also enjoying a whole variety of foods that are healthy and available depending on the season. The individual can choose whether he or she wants to incorporate meat or dairy into their diet – we cannot regulate that. But, I think some enforcement should be made to eat plants and animals that are locally grown or raised. It’s time to educate people on the impact of their diets and encourage a healthier population and planet along the way. After all, species adapt to their changing environment for the sake of their own survival. Humans are no different.  

Works Cited

Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret. Dir. Kip Anderson and Keegan Kuhn. Perf. Howard Lyman, Michal Pollan. 2014. Film.

Klenk, Ingo, Birgit Landquist, and Oscar Ruiz De Imaña. The Product Carbon Footprint of EU Beet Sugar. Rep. no. 137. N.p.: Sugar Industry Journal, March-April 2012. Print.

Cleanest and Dirtiest Beaches in California

California is home to 840 miles of pure Pacific coastline. With all the research on how our warming climate is changing our oceans from species extinction to ocean acidification to urban runoff to tempestuous waves, which California beaches are doing better, and which, worse?

According to Heal the Bay, an environmental organization which releases a weekly and annual report card on beach cleanliness in California on an A to F ranking based on bacterial analysis. The 2015-2016 annual report card was released pitting the “Honor Roll” beaches (those that received an A+ rating) against the “Beach Bummers” (those that received an F).

Cowell Beach, Santa Cruz

Cowell Beach, Santa Cruz

The ten dirtiest beaches are as follows:

1.     Cowell Beach, Santa Cruz

2.     Clam Beach, Humboldt

3.     Shoreline Beach Park, San Diego

4.     Monarch Beach, Orange

5.     Santa Monica Pier, Los Angeles

Children playing in Marina del Rey's Mother's Beach.

Children playing in Marina del Rey's Mother's Beach.

6.     Mother’s Beach, Marina Del Rey, Los Angeles

7.     Redondo Municipal Pier, Los Angeles

8.     Candlestick Point-Sunnydale Cove, San Francisco

9.     Pillar Point, San Mateo

10.  Pismo Beach Pier, San Luis Obispo

Ten of the cleanest (in no particular order):

1.     Hollywood Beach, Ventura

2.     El Matador State Beach, Los Angeles

3.     El Moro Beach, Orange County

4.     Oceanside, San Diego

5.     Carlsbad, San Diego

6.     Dana Point, Orange County

7.     San Clemente, Orange County

8.     Escondido State Beach, Los Angeles

9.     Port Hueneme, Ventura

10.  Cardiff State Beach, San Diego

The level of contamination is measured by county officials year-round, gathering data during wet or dry seasons. More or less rainfall affects urban runoff levels, sewage, and temperature.

The water samples are gathered at “point-zero” sources, near the mouth – so to speak -- of potential contaminants (sewage outlets, drains, rivers or creeks) so as to make the calculations across the coast as accurate as possible. The indicator bacteria include total coliform, fecal coliform (E. coli), and enterococcus. It is not so much the level of fecal bacteria that would render a beach-goer ill (though higher levels are to be avoided), but rather pathogenic microorganisms attracted by this kind of human and animal waste that might cause viral outbreaks, or spread contagious infections.

Heal the Bay’s Beach Report Card, while a commendable and necessary body of data for all California residents and government officials to help make informed decisions, is restrictive in that it studies almost exclusively fecal contaminants, as well as oil and sewage spills. While these are extremely important environmental impacts to take into account, the research might be improved by also incorporating other factors.

For example, some future research questions might be: do certain areas see more sea life than others? What kind? Why or why not? What are the pH levels of these beaches? Is there a correlation between high population density of certain cities and counties and the overall water quality?

As of right now, that which places a beach in third or fourth place is based solely on a point system. While this is a more objective scientific approach, it might not be one that looks into all complexities of this “wicked problem” of sustainability.

Heal the Bay does mention at the end of each of its reports that the current water quality guidelines set in place by EPA’s BEACH Act in 2000 are what determine government funding to maintain those beaches. Under the current Obama Administration, the newly proposed budget would cut $10 million from this monitoring program. This would gravely affect the quality of the research by forcing government agencies to conduct studies only part of the year rather than full-time, and there would be no more room to test anything other than fecal contaminants.

With something as precious as our oceans, that’s a dangerous gamble to make.  




Works Cited

1) Crowe, Allan, Dr. "Groundwater Flow and Contaminant Transport in Coastal Environments." Wasaga West Beach Association (2009): n. pag. Web. 11 Sept. 2016.

2) Heal the Bay. 2015-16 Beach Report Card. Rep. no. 26. SIMA (Surf Industries Manufacturer Association); Swain Barber Foundation, 16 May 2016. Web. 11 Sept. 2016.

3) Infoplease. "Longest Coastline." Infoplease. Infoplease, 2000-2016. Web. 11 Sept. 2016.