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  • Winter Gardening

    *AUTHOR BIO Veggies for the Pot, Bounty for the Birds There is no more satisfying time for a gardener than harvest time. Bringing in homegrown pumpkins, squash, apples, and leafy greens are all part of what makes autumn such a delectable season. For many gardeners, all the fun stops when the first frosts start flattening summer plants and turning them into wizened stalks. Luckily, there are a few strategies that gardeners can use to extend the season through the dark and snowy months. Winter Vegetable Gardening Winter vegetable gardening in a northern climate can be tricky, but, with a little creativity, it is still possible to grow some plants right through the winter. Many vegetables can be coaxed into a few extra weeks of life with a little intervention. Kale, cabbage and other greens in the brassica family can be preserved with row cover. This is a light, reusable fabric (available at most garden shops) that is loosely placed over crops to protect them from frost and keep them fresh until ready for harvest. Gardeners can also use row cover hoops to float the row cover over taller crops, like kale and leeks, or protect root crops, like carrots and turnips, from snow. As fall turns to winter, the low light and cold temperatures cause many plants to stop or slow their growth. A cold frame will help extend the growing season for some plants. (There are many online resources for building a cold frame with recycled materials.) A cold frame with solid sides and clear glass or plastic top can create a little haven of spring when placed in a sunny location. Many herbs and salad greens, including arugula, spinach, and some lettuces, thrive when grown in a cold frame. Just a few parsley or chive plants protected from cold and snow by a cold frame—or miniature, bell-shaped cold frames called “cloches”—will brighten up a winter soup or plate of pasta. For best results, growers should make sure they keep the top of the cold frame free of snow, so plenty of light can get to the winter garden. When it’s time to enjoy winter vegetables, wait until the temperature inside the cold frame is well above freezing before harvesting. Winter Gardening For Wildlife The end of summer—and its abundant bounty of flowering plants—can feel like the end of the season for bees and other pollinators. But there are still many ways gardeners can help pollinators through the dormant months. As tempting as it is to keep yards and gardens tidy and free of leaf litter, a pile of freshly fallen leaves is a haven for many beneficial insects. Instead of removing the leaves from a garden or yard, it’s good to find a corner where the leaves can stay undisturbed for the winter or mulched into bare areas to protect the soil. Pollinators will also appreciate undisturbed piles of logs. Butterflies and moths will snuggle themselves under tiny crevices in loose bark. Many species of bees will either create or use preexisting holes in old wood for shelter in the winter. Native bees also appreciate the straw-like hollow stems of plants. It’s easy to create more bee habitat— simply clip off the heads of plants with hollow stems and leave their stalks to winter over. Many perennial plants have hollow stems, including Bee balm (monarda). Leaving the garden a little untidy is one of the best ways to create winter habitat for bees, butterflies, birds, and small mammals. But if one’s goal is to both add some color to the coming spring display and help pollinators, one of the nicest ways to extend the season is to plant some early flowering bulbs. Crocuses can start blooming in late winter and can be planted in flower beds, pots, or in the lawn. To plant crocuses in a lawn, cut the grass short, and then toss a few crocus bulbs at random in the planting area to create a natural display. Use a bulb planter (an old apple corer will work in a pinch) to make small holes to plant the bulbs wherever they land. Cover the holes with displaced turf, and in the spring, check the distinctive, colorful flowers for bees rollicking in the yellow pollen. Let the grass grow long before mowing in the spring, and crocuses will make a repeat seasonal appearance. Overwintering birds can also benefit from a little careful planning and planting. Many birds—including eastern bluebirds and robins—that have an insect-based diet in the summertime need to sustain themselves with fruits and berries in winter. Many species of crabapple will hold on to their bountiful fruit through the winter, providing food for birds. Then, in the spring, these lovely trees reward the gardener with a stunning display of apple blossoms (a good early source of food for pollinators). Planting different kinds of berry-bearing trees and shrubs can add wonderful winter interest to a garden, and also be a lifesaver for hungry birds. Shrubs in the genus ilex, which includes holly and winterberry, provide both food and shelter to wildlife, as well as give a cheery glow to a winter landscape. Many garden centers get fresh stock of these plants in late fall around the holidays. If a new shrub can’t be planted before the ground freezes, consider using it in a winter container display with wintergreen and other hardy berry-bearing plants. One’s container garden will look wonderful right through to spring with minimal care. There are many ways to add beauty and bounty to a winter garden. It’s always worth keeping that good feeling of fostering growth and providing habitat through the cold days until the soil warms and buds begin to break again. With just a few additions and a little planning, both gardeners and their gardens’ residents can more easily weather the colder months. *Mal Cole is a freelance science and nature writer based in Massachusetts.

  • Cleaning Up Plastic Pollution

    Uruguay Meeting Starts Talks on International Treaty The first session of an international effort to control and eliminate plastic pollution on land and sea was held in Uruguay in late November. According to a news brief by Reuters, 2,000 representatives from 160 nations met in Punta del Este for the first International Negotiating Committee (INC-1), which is organized under the UN Environment Programme. The goal of INC-1 was to start the dialogue on a legally binding, international agreement on plastic pollution, including in the marine environment. A second meeting, INC-2, is planned for May 2023, and the goal for completion of a document is the end of 2024. Among the negotiators were representatives from the US and Saudi Arabia. Both are home to some of the world’s top plastic and petrochemical companies. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres urged a crackdown on both plastic pollution and production. "I call on countries to look beyond waste and turn off the tap on plastic," he said via Twitter. UN member nations had agreed in March to develop a treaty to deal with plastic waste. Negotiations are expected to address several knotty issues, such as limits on plastic production, phaseouts of some types of plastic, and whether nations will be required to act or left to their best judgments. The INC-1 had a group of forty nations, including Ghana, Uruguay, and EU members, that called themselves the High Ambition Coalition. Their goal is a treaty with mandatory measures, such as curbs on plastics production. "Without a common international regulatory framework, we will not be able to address the global and increasing challenge of plastic pollution," said coalition member Switzerland in a position statement. The Swiss statement contrasted with that of the US, which prefers country-driven pledges. "The United States is committed to working with other governments and stakeholders throughout the INC process to develop an ambitious, innovative and country-driven global agreement," said a US State Department spokesperson. The US favors an agreement similar to the Paris climate agreement, in which countries set their own strategies and goals. Saudi Arabia seeks a pact “based on national circumstances” that is focused on plastic litter. As expected, industry and NGO views of the negotiations differed. "Although in the minority, there are some powerful opponents of global rules and standards, which risk potentially weakening obligations on countries to take action,” said World Wide Fund for Nature’s Eirik Lindebjerg, who leads the conservation organization’s global plastics policy. "At the end of the day, we hope the committee comes to the same conclusion we do, which is that increasing recycling offers the best solution to reducing plastic waste," said Matt Seaholm, president and CEO of the Plastics Industry Association. Despite such differences, Reuters cited observers who see growing agreement regarding the problem of plastic pollution. "Plastics are not anymore being seen as just a marine litter issue. People are discussing plastic as a material made of chemicals. … There has been a narrative shift,” said Vito Buonsante, policy adviser for the International Pollutants Elimination Network. Source: Reuters, “Countries split on plastics treaty focus as U.N. [global plastics treaty] talks close” by Valerie Volcovici

  • Going Beyond ‘Yellow’ Snow: Contaminants in White Flakes Come from Many Directions

    *AUTHOR BIO As winter snowfalls make their way to the Earth, it’s time for children to cavort in piles of white, making snow angels, snow men, having snowball fights—and chomping on fistfuls of the fluffy white flakes. Eating snow is a time-honored part of winter fun, even though it’s usually accompanied by stern warnings to steer clear of “yellow” (peed-in) snow. Now, a closer look at snowflakes and other winter precipitation may encourage adults and children to consume snow with caution—or not at all. Snow: Not as Pure as It Appears In interviews with NPR, Jeff S. Gaffney, a professor of chemistry at the University of Arkansas, Little Rock, says if snow had an ingredient list, it would be topped by H2O and followed by “various and sundry things depending on where it [comes from],” including compounds and metals such as sulfates, nitrates, formaldehyde, and mercury. Meanwhile, John Pomeroy, a researcher who studies water resources and climate change at the University of Saskatchewan, suggests that it may be best to wait a few hours after the snow begins to fall before anyone starts munching. “Snow acts like a kind of atmospheric ‘scrubbing brush,’” he explains. “The longer the snow falls, the lower the pollution levels in the air, and thus in the snow.” “Snow acts like a kind of atmospheric ‘scrubbing brush,’” Pomeroy explains. Although snow becomes like a giant “net” for pollutants, it is Gaffney’s opinion that contaminants in snow are “all at levels well below toxic.” Not everyone shares that opinion. Parisa Ariya of McGill University, Canada, states in the Huffington Post that, “As a mother who is an atmospheric physical chemist, I definitely do not suggest my young kids… eat snow in urban areas in general.” Ariya headed up the team of researchers whose 2016 study indicated that snow absorbs chemicals from gasoline exhaust, which would include toluene, xylenes and the known carcinogen, benzene. White Salt in White Snow But the issue of contaminants in snowfall extends beyond yards to water bodies and snowfall on roads. Spreading rock salt on icy or snow-covered roads and highways appears to be an easy fix, but it is not without environmental consequences. Rock salts make driving safer but contribute to rusting cars, roadway cracking, and other problems. Although it is said, “as pure as the driven snow,” unfortunately, snow is a catchall for vehicular exhaust particulates, persistent organic pollutants (POPs), trace metals, and chlorides from road salts—this is the downside to snow’s absorbent tendencies. Snow is a catchall for vehicular exhaust particulates, persistent organic pollutants (POPs), trace metals, and chlorides from road salts. Rock salt is essentially the same as table salt—sodium and chloride—but as rock salt melts, snow forms runoff that can make its way into nearby creeks, marshes, and lakes. This toxic chemical cocktail has the potential to reach aquifers, pipes, and waterways where it can be detrimental to humans, flora, and fauna. This also applies to conventional ice melts, which typically include a combination of sodium or chloride with other ions or ionic compounds. Examples include calcium chloride, magnesium chloride, potassium chloride, sodium acetate, and blends of the above. The chloride in rock salts can negatively impact water quality to the point of contributing to algae blooms. Chloride salts are soluble, but they do not really break down and will accumulate at the bottom of water bodies where they affect anything living there. In a story featured by My Champlain Valley, a news organization in Burlington, Vermont, Mitch Vestal, president of Advanced Organics, says that as these particles collect, “we end up with algae blooms[,] and ... that problem gets worse as chloride salt accumulations grow.” At low concentrations, chloride is benign, but when it becomes more concentrated, it can become toxic to plankton and fish. Salt water is more dense than fresh water and changes the way in which water mixes. Salt water’s “heaviness” can result in the formation of saline pockets (meromixis) near the bottom of lakes. These have the potential to create biological dead zones resulting from a “depletion of oxygen … and reduction in the cycling of nutrients.” Chloride can become a permanent pollutant with no easy fix, as removing salt from fresh water is an expensive treatment. Possible Alternatives to Rock Salts Many cities in the United States and Canada are using food byproducts, such as beet juice combined with salt, as deicers. According to The Conversation, “sugars in beet wastewater apparently make it more effective at lower temperatures than salt water or brine alone, lowering the melting point of the ice to below -20 [°]C from –10 [°]C.” As a result, less chloride can be used on roads. Not only does beet juice lower the freezing point of water, it is also sticky and adheres better to the roadways than rock salt. Cheese brine, pickle juice, and even beer have also been used as a deicer. Similar to how dissolved salts lower water’s freezing point, such solutes also do so by obstructing the water molecules from forming their solid structure. A downside of such solutes are their odors, which can be unpleasant. Another negative effect has to do with the surrounding environment: As the organic properties in alternative remedies wash into waterways, they deplete the oxygen in the water, reducing what is available for aquatic life. As the organic properties in alternative remedies [to rock salts] wash into waterways, they deplete the oxygen in the water, reducing what is available for aquatic life. Other natural alternatives to rock salts are being researched. Some insects, spiders, and fish create antifreeze proteins in their bodies. For example, eighteen out of seventy-five species of Alaskan insects indicated the presence of antifreeze proteins, according to one study. In addition, it has been shown that notothenioid fish in Antarctica synthesize antifreeze proteins in their bodies to survive in the Southern Ocean. According to Monika Bleszynski of the University of Denver, “My colleagues and I are learning how to make our own antifreeze compounds through imitation. Our first challenge is to learn how the natural versions work, so we can recreate them. While there’s still much we don’t understand, we are using advanced computer modeling to see how antifreeze proteins interact with water molecules.” Bleszynski is working to synthesize a compound with the hydroxyl group—the same group found in antifreeze proteins and conventional antifreeze (ethylene glycol) for vehicles—to replicate its mechanism of binding with water molecules directly to make it more difficult for water to form its solid structure. And There Are Microplastics… Microplastics are found in water bodies, marine animals, and even the atmosphere, but what about snow? A recent study by scientific researchers at the Alfred Wegener Institute, Helmotz Centre for Polar and Marine Research (AWI) in Bremerhaven, Germany, indicates that microplastic particles are being found in areas as remote as the Arctic and the Alps. The study, published in the journal Science Advances, shows that these microplastic particles are caught up in the atmosphere and returned to Earth via snowfall. A team led by Dr. Melanie Bergmann and Dr. Gunnar Gerdts reported that, “the analyses … conducted on snow samples from Helgoland, Bavaria, Bremen, the Swiss Alps and the Arctic confirm that the snow at all sites contained high concentrations of microplastics.” ​​​So Is Snow Safe to Eat? While there may be genuine caveats regarding snow consumption, there are many scientists who believe there is no need to sound the alarm bells on eating a few white flakes or even an entire snowball. Staci Simonich, professor of environmental and toxic ecology at Oregon State University, agrees that most people are likely collecting snow in urban or suburban areas where pesticide concentrations are likely higher. But she adds: “That being said, I would not hesitate for my children to have the joy of eating a handful of fresh fallen snow from my backyard. ... the pesticide concentrations are low and the amount of snow eaten in a handful is small, so the one-time dose is very low and not a risk to health.” Kate Pugnoli is an Arizona-based freelance journalist and former educator who works with nonprofit organizations.

  • ESG Investing: A Tale of Two Sets of Statistics?

    A recent posting by Jessica Ground—Global Head of ESG at the Capital Group—on the Harvard Law School Forum on Corporate Governance shows that investors are slowly increasing their efforts to support companies that have Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) characteristics. However, a separate posting on the forum’s website by Prof. Lawrence Cunningham—Georgetown University School of Law—draws attention to a sharp distinction between institutional investors’ appetite for ESG-related investing and that of individual or “retail” investors. In her June 17 post on the forum, Ground said that about a quarter of investors continue, as in 2021, to describe ESG as “central to their investment approach (26% in 2022 vs. 28% in 2021).” Cunningham, posting on the forum on June 23, said, “It is well-known that institutional investors vote for environmental shareholder proposals at about twice the rate of individual investors.” According to Ground, investor stances have shifted this year to one of “acceptance” (34% vs. 32% in 2021) and “compliance” (29% vs. 24% in 2021). Cunningham cited a Gallup Poll of 953 U.S. adult individual investors that found most “prioritized the expected rate of return and risk for potential losses over environmental and other issues.” Ground added that the percentage of global ESG investors rose to 89%—up from 84% in 2021. Cunningham stated on the other hand that “less than 2% of mutual fund money is invested in ESG funds.” According to Ground, only 13% of global investors say ESG is a temporary “fad.” Meanwhile, Cunningham cited a survey of 1,228 retail investors conducted by NORC at the University of Chicago and the FINRA Investor Education Foundation in which “individual investors identified environmental aspects of a potential investment as the least important consideration compared to financial, governance, and social factors.” Challenges in ESG investing include inadequate standardization of information and difficulties getting high-quality data. Source: https://corpgov.law.harvard.edu/2022/06/17/esg-global-study-2022/

  • Hot Chocolate!

    *AUTHOR BIO This Global Favorite Can Also Be Environmentally Friendly and Healthful There is little controversy about how good hot chocolate tastes—it is enjoyed all over the world—but there are concerns about how cacao (chocolate “beans”) is grown and processed, as well as how to prepare this rich, luscious drink for optimal health. So, come along for a tour of global “hot cocoa” recipes and examples of environmentally friendly cacao production. Here’s to pleasing health-conscious taste buds and a Happy New Year! Where Cacao Comes From The Mayans called hot chocolate the “drink of the gods” and cultivated cacao trees (Theobroma cacao) and consumed its seeds 2,500 years ago. By the 1500s, the drink had spread from its native Central American rainforests to menus around the world, and cacao trees are now grown throughout the tropics to keep up with demand. Chocolate comes from the seeds within the fruit of the cacao tree. The seeds are fermented and roasted as the first step toward making chocolate. After that, workers mash the seeds into a paste and heat it to create cocoa. Cocoa is the key ingredient in most chocolate products. Another process involves cold pressing the fresh cacao seeds to get raw cacao, which has become popular as a superfood because it is high in antioxidants, minerals, and vitamins. Raw cacao, however, is very bitter, so it is typically added as a powder or as crumbles, called nibs, to other foods. Health Benefits Research finds that most of the health benefits of chocolate are associated with dark chocolate products that have at least a 70% cacao content. Cacao contains antioxidants such as flavanols—compounds found in plants that fight inflammation and protect cells against damaging free radicals. The antioxidants in cacao can increase heart health, balance the immune system, help the body use insulin better, improve brain function, boost athletic performance by increasing the production of nitric oxide in the blood, reduce levels of the stress hormone cortisol, and benefit the digestive system by increasing good bacteria. However, the chocolate-making process removes more than half of the antioxidants in raw cacao. Consumers who want the nutrients and their chocolate too, choose very dark chocolates with 60% to 70% cacao. Raw cacao is a good source of calcium, iron, magnesium, phosphorous, and potassium. In contrast, milk chocolate has far fewer health benefits, and white chocolate is pure cocoa butter with no health benefits (although nobody can deny that the happiness that chocolate provides could be a measured health benefit if used in moderation). Eco-Conscious Cacao Chocolate is a beloved product that comes from an industry that has been plagued by horrific issues involving child labor, environmental destruction, and poverty. As environmental consciousness grows, consumers will seek to ensure that all chocolate comes from properly managed and biodiverse cacao farms. Sustainable chocolate is produced in ways that protect the environment, the people, and the economy. This means that the farming of the cacao trees doesn’t contribute to deforestation or soil erosion, and farmers don’t use toxic herbicides or pesticides. It also means that growers are fairly compensated through fair trade and labor practices, and that child labor laws are enforced to prevent abuse. For detailed explanations of the various certifications on cocoa labels and information on specific companies and their environmental, social justice, and human rights practices, take a look at Green America’s Chocolate Scorecard. For a deeper dive into the serious issues within the chocolate industry, along with myriad loopholes in the certification requirements, see The Ethics of Chocolate from the United Kingdom’s Ethical Consumer website. A World of Goodness Chocolate is enjoyed around the world, where it is available in endless forms and is even a symbol of love. Moreover, as people travel the world, they will find delightful regional variations of “hot chocolate” that are based on culinary and cultural traditions. It may be no surprise that one of the most decadent hot chocolate recipes comes from France. Parisian Chocolat Chaud contains high-quality chocolate, whole milk, cream, vanilla, and brown sugar that results in a melted fudge texture that is thick and indulgent. Cioccalata Calda is another thick cup of decadence. Italians use heavy cream, milk, and then add cornstarch to thicken it further. The result is a pudding-like consistency that can be slurped from a mug or eaten with a spoon. While hot chocolate may bring up a vision of cocoa piled high with whipped cream and sprinkles, it’s not all about the sweetness. In Mexico, hot chocolate gets some extra heat with the addition of chili pepper. Hungarian hot chocolate includes hot paprika, cloves, and white pepper. Similarly, in India, spices such as cardamom, cinnamon, clove, ginger, and peppercorn might be found in a base of white chocolate to create a drink that is like chai candy. But Colombia may take the prize for most unusual hot chocolate: It contains bitter chocolate, cinnamon, cloves, honey, and cubes of cheese. Homemade and Healthy Many people grew up with instant hot chocolate, but it’s quite simple to make a nourishing cocoa drink from scratch and vary the ingredients to one’s liking. Here is a basic recipe for four servings of homemade comfort in a mug: Ingredients 4 cups milk of choice: whole, 2%, or almond milk are common ¼ cup unsweetened cocoa powder 2 Tbsp sugar of choice: maple syrup, granulated sugar, brown sugar, honey Pinch of salt ½ cup semisweet chocolate chips or chopped dark chocolate ½ tsp pure vanilla extract (optional) Instructions In a saucepan, heat the milk, cocoa powder, sugar, and salt over medium-low heat. Whisk until just simmering warm (do not allow to boil). Add chocolate and vanilla and whisk until smooth. Pour into mugs and top with marshmallows or whipped cream if desired. Try different flavors by choosing an extra ingredient such as cinnamon, caramel sauce, peppermint extract, peanut butter powder, or espresso. For an adult beverage, try adding a splash of raspberry liqueur, Kahlua, Baileys Irish Cream, or vanilla vodka. Continue your worldly hot cocoa adventure with these recipes that include unexpected ingredients like matcha tea and red wine (not together, but still!). Or try some from this collection to get some strawberry, coconut, or vegan hot chocolates going. For more grown-up hot chocolate ideas, The Bewitchin Kitchen presents a slew of recipes and explains how bourbon, rum, whiskey, and other spirits can create delicious, spiked hot chocolate. Pick a recipe, make a mug full, and settle in for one of the world’s most soothing treats to warm the heart and soul on a cold winter’s eve. Julie Peterson is a freelance journalist based in the Midwest region of the US who has written hundreds of articles on natural approaches to health, environmental issues, and sustainable living.

  • Carrots or Kale? Study Shows Fetuses Responding to Tastes

    A recent study led by Durham University's Fetal and Neonatal Research Lab, UK, used 4D ultrasound scans of pregnant women to see how unborn babies would respond to carrot and kale flavors after their mothers ate the two vegetables. Which taste did they seem to prefer? Carrots, which are sweet, received more "laughter-face" responses from the fetuses, whereas kale, chosen for its bitter quality, drew more "cry-face" responses. These responses may not be surprising, but what they say about an unborn baby’s future taste preferences and eating habits could be significant, according to the lead researcher of the study, published in the journal Psychological Science. Lead researcher, Beyza Ustun, thinks that “repeated exposure to flavors before birth could help to establish food preferences post-birth.” The researchers are following up their study, using the same now-newborns, to understand how the flavors the babies “experienced” in the womb might affect their acceptance of various foods. They think their findings could support guidance given to mothers about the importance of consuming healthy and tasty foods during pregnancy. Ustun said the study had some highlights for the researchers. “It was really amazing to see unborn babies' reaction to kale or carrot flavors during the scans and share those moments with their parents." Source: https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2022/09/220922103255.htm

  • The ‘Greening’ of Capitalism

    *AUTHOR BIO The Real-World Impact of ESG Policies Thirty-year-old Sam Bankman-Fried, popularly known as “SBF” of FTX crypto currency exchange fame, made headlines when he was arrested on December 11, 2022, in the Bahamas on fraud charges. His net worth was estimated to be more than $20 billion, and he had pledged to donate 99% of his income to charity, including toward environmental causes such as global warming. But FTX, the exchange he led, had declared bankruptcy on November 11, 2022. This news surely rocked those who were excited about the prospects of such massive philanthropy benefiting pressing global problems. Sadly, the FTX case has become an extraordinary example of “an utter failure of corporate controls at every level of an organization.” On the face of it, this case seems to support the strong argument made by Tariq Fancy, BlackRock’s ex-chief investment officer, that the rapid spurt in Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) investing could be as dangerous as offering “wheatgrass to a cancer patient.” The FTX collapse and discussions about crypto currencies bear some resemblance to the debate around ESG investing—that ESG, a well-intentioned initiative to tackle the biggest flaws of free-market economic, can also be accused of providing cover for “greenwashing,” or marketing environmental improvements when little or none exist. Greenwashing is a diversion that can delay urgent action to stem global warming. The recent 27th UN Climate Change Conference (COP27), in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, focused again on the goal of the 2015 Paris Climate Accord (COP21) of keeping the long-term global temperature rise to below 2 °C, preferably to 1.5 °C (2.7 °F). Carbon emissions should be reduced by roughly 50% by 2030 and reach “net zero” by the middle of the 21st century to substantially reduce the effects of climate change. Carbon emissions should be reduced by roughly 50% by 2030 and reach “net zero” by the middle of the 21st century to substantially reduce the effects of climate change. UN Secretary-General António Guterres articulated one of COP27’s major concerns: “We must have zero tolerance for net-zero greenwashing and ensure credible, accountable net-zero pledges.” His admonition relates to the central issue of the ESG debate and ESG implementation by big market players and even nations. ESG’s Evolution The idea of ESG was first elaborated in a 2005 study, “Who Cares Wins,” by lead author Ivo Knoepfel. Then-UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan had brought together CEOs of fifty global financial companies, the International Finance Corporation, and the Swiss government, and together they made a case for embedding environmental, social and governance issues into the way capital markets operate. ESG refers to environmental sustainability-related issues, such as greenhouse gas emissions and biodiversity loss; social responsibility towards gender equality and respect for human rights; and good corporate governance practices, such as having a well-balanced board and a whistleblower policy. Before the rise of ESG-driven impact investing, terms like ethical investing, corporate social responsibility (CSR), the triple bottom line of profit, people, and planet, and so forth, tried to capture the same issues but in a more voluntary framework. Many ideas, such as corporate social responsibility, started out as a voluntary initiative of the corporate sector to support promising social causes but have been subsequently mandated and regulated by governments. Many ideas, such as corporate social responsibility, started out as a voluntary initiative of the corporate sector to support promising social causes. In India, for example, a CSR regulation requires companies of a certain minimum size to spend 2% of their net revenue on CSR activities. Ethical investing uses a negative filter to eliminate investment in specific sectors that have a demonstrable negative social impact, such as tobacco. Environmental, social and governance are three dimensions in which the impact of a company, or any other organization, on our society and the environment can be measured. The same set of parameters can also be used to measure the economic sustainability of a business itself, though detractors say ESG can be bad for the bottom line. In any case, the global climate crisis driving disruptive extreme weather events has obvious implications for many businesses. Traditionally, free market-driven economics demanded only return on investment from entrepreneurs and their ventures and paid little attention to whether the enterprise damaged the environment, abided by labor laws, respected human rights, promoted diversity at the workplace, and followed good governance practices. Those issues tended to be considered as externalities, almost like inevitable side issues in the pursuit of profit. Interestingly, it is not concern for the impact of business and industry on the environment and society alone that drove the adoption of ESG policies. The realization that so-called non-financial ESG factors do ultimately have an impact on the bottom line of a company was also a major driver. Investors and fund managers became interested in ESG reporting and ratings for the same reason. Standards and Regulations In an article published in December 2021, Bloomberg Businessweek exposed what it called the “ESG Mirage.” It investigated 155 companies that were given a rating upgrade by MSCI—the leading provider of ESG-based ratings that form the basis of investment funds offered to the public. MSCI looked at the sustainability of the companies and their profits as affected by their governance practices and socially responsible behavior. But it considered environmental factors such as emissions and impact on climate change only as a side issue. Therefore, many of the companies, including McDonald's, got an ESG rating upgrade, despite reporting an increase in emissions. The article exposed many flaws in MSCI’s rating system and how it has been used to mislead gullible investors. There are other examples of this, such as Tesla's recent exclusion from the S&P ESG 500 fund (Exxon Mobil remained in the fund) supposedly due to poor scores on social and governance metrics. Tesla is undoubtedly one of the most important companies contributing to the environment as the largest maker of electric vehicles and renewable energy storage systems. However, allegations of racism in the workplace, accidents of its self-driving cars, and malfunctions of its batteries resulted in a poor score overall. Tesla is still included in other ESG funds, which again exposes the inconsistencies in the current ESG rating framework. Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) Standards, Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures (TCFD), and SASB Standards are three of the most widely accepted ESG standards and frameworks. The GRI—promoted by the UN Global Compact and its 5,800 associated companies—is the oldest default framework. The TCFD framework provides standard disclosures relevant to their impact on the financials of companies and additional disclosures specific to a particular industry. SASB, on the other hand, is industry-specific and is more geared toward US corporations. SASB addresses the various ESG metrics and provide information that helps investors, regulators, and other stakeholders in decision-making. Input from these varied reporting frameworks and the many rating companies like MSCI can be confusing and often contradictory. There is, of late, a move towards unifying the various frameworks under a common globally acceptable standard. Last year's COP26, held in Glasgow, decided to create an International Sustainability Standards Board (ISSB), subsequently implemented by the reputable International Financial Reporting Standards (IFRS) foundation. A Question of Survival Since the downfall of Soviet Union-style communism, a thriving free-market capitalism has been fueled by Liberalization, Privatization and Globalization (LPG). Whether it will survive in its current form may largely depend on the impact of ESG investing. Major regulatory reforms would be required to avert the most catastrophic environmental consequences of the current open-ended economic growth model. When companies like Google, Amazon, and Microsoft declare goals to become carbon-neutral in all their operations, it has huge consequences for the world's net-zero carbon goal. In an era of trillion-dollar companies dominating the world economy, the impact of their business practices on societies and ecosystems is far greater than at any time in history. When companies like Google, Amazon, and Microsoft declare goals to become carbon-neutral in all their operations, it has huge consequences for the world's net-zero carbon goal. Among the top ESG-rated companies listed on the S&P 500, household names like Microsoft, technology company NVIDIA, and software company Salesforce have achieved MSCI AAA ratings consistently while delivering very good financial performance. Microsoft has been carbon neutral globally since 2012 and aims to be carbon negative by 2030. NVIDIA invests over $25 million in 5,000 non-profits annually while using 65% renewable energy in all its operations. Salesforce has already achieved carbon neutrality when the net sum of emissions and the purchase of renewable energy and carbon credits are counted. A Success Story Despite many associated scandals and flaws, the growth of ESG ratings-driven investment and assets under management remains unaffected ($37.5 trillion and increasing). One clear win for ESG-driven policy outcomes has been the positive change in the gender balance of company board composition in the USA. In 2017, the big three institutional investors, BlackRock, Vanguard, and State Street, took up the cause of improving corporate board composition, which had female participation at an abysmal 13.1% in 2016. It increased by 50% by 2019 to reach a still low but significantly better 19.7%. Such a significant improvement over a relatively short period of time does raise the hope that ESG-driven policies can indeed affect powerful change. Hope A meta-analysis of 1,000 case studies between 2016 and 2020 by the New York University Stern Center for Sustainable Business found a positive or neutral correlation between ESG focus and financial performance, depending on what ESG initiatives were being assessed. It further observed that improved financial performances were more noticeable over longer time horizons; ESG integration was a better strategy than a negative screening approach; and it improved risk management, drove innovation, and helped mitigate economic downturn and social unrest. ESG disclosure on its own does not help improve financial performance. Still, an honest implementation of ESG-driven policy actions certainly produces long-term financial returns while benefiting society at large. Clearly, a more rigorous adoption of ESG-based policies in business management and corporate governance will help save the planet and make the business world more resilient and sustainable in the process, helping the current form of free-market capitalism evolve into a more benevolent version of itself. *Dhanada K Mishra has a PhD in Civil Engineering from University of Michigan and is currently based in Hong Kong working for an ESG-focused proptech start-up. He has a strong interest in issues around environment, sustainability, and climate crisis.

  • Washington DC-area Microgrid Powers Electric Transit Buses

    A new energy project is “up and running” in the Washington, DC, metro area, powering electric transit buses through a solar microgrid system. The project, located in Montgomery County, Maryland, will reduce transit bus emissions, keep buses operating during power outages, and offer power to nearby users during outages. The first phase of the project uses “renewable natural gas-ready on-site generation,” according to an article by Kathy Hitchens for Microgrid Knowledge. Hitchens writes that the county will be able to charge a fleet of 70 electric buses at the depot. The solar microgrid project will reduce lifetime bus emissions by 62%. This reduction is “the equivalent of more than 160,000 tons of greenhouse gases over the next 25 years,” writes Hitchens. The 6.5-MW microgrid project includes 1.6 MW of solar photovoltaic “canopies,” 3 MW of battery energy storage, and over 4.14 MW of charging capacity. Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich said, “We’re well on our way to our goal of an emissions-free fleet by 2035.” Source: https://www.microgridknowledge.com/x-main-features/article/21437365/alphastruxure-montgomery-county-md-microgrid-goes-online

  • Four Eco-Friendly Proposals to Tackle Food Insecurity

    A recent editorial in the journal Nature highlights four policy solutions to potential food shortages exacerbated in part by the Ukraine war. Nature’s editors note that farming contributes 30% of all greenhouse-gas emissions, while “intensive agriculture,” where land is rapidly and repeatedly used for production, contributes to biodiversity loss. It would be beneficial, they say, to “minimize these impacts, while at the same time securing food supplies.” Solution 1. It would help to eat fewer animal products. Why? The World Resource Institute says about one-third of the world’s croplands are used to produce feed for animals. Solution 2. Nudge businesses and consumers to reduce food waste. Why? About one-third of the food that the world produces never gets eaten. According to the Nature editorial, that wasted food “is lost in the production chain or wasted once it reaches households. Improvements in harvesting and storage [and consumer purchasing and consumption] methods could potentially reduce losses.” Solution 3. Encourage crop diversity. Adding more legumes, vegetables, and nuts will improve biodiversity, human and animal nutrition, and soil health. Solution 4. Switch cropland use. Instead of growing plants for biofuel, grow them for food consumption. According to the Nature editorial, “In the United States, some 40% of maize is used to make ethanol. Research shows that biofuels grown on croplands are not as useful in climate mitigation as once thought.” Source: https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-022-00994-8

  • ‘Mindfulness Meditation’ Shown to Ease Anxiety Disorders

    A new study from Georgetown University Medical Center (GUMC) supports healthcare practitioners who want to recommend “mindfulness meditation” to treat patients with anxiety disorders. According to the GUMC study, published in JAMA Psychiatry in November, “mindfulness-based stress reduction was a well-tolerated treatment option” compared to the anti-depressant drug, Escitalopram. The study’s authors note that meditation is both popular—about 15% of the American public tried meditation in 2017—and recognized for its ability to “reduce anxiety.” However, this is the first time that “standardized mindfulness-based interventions, such as mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR),” were compared in a clinical trial to anti-anxiety drugs, they said. The trial—Treatments for Anxiety: Meditation and Escitalopram [TAME]—involved 276 adult patients diagnosed with anxiety from three urban US academic medical centers. Some 208 patients completed the eight-week trial. Participants were randomly offered either Escitalopram or MBSR. The latter was given via two-and-a-half-hour weekly in-person classes, a day-long weekend class during the fifth or sixth week, and forty-five-minute daily home practice exercises. Participants’ anxiety symptoms were reassessed at the end of the trial, along with assessments at twelve and twenty-four weeks after enrollment. The clinician-evaluators did not know which treatment the participants received. They found that both treatment groups saw around a 30% drop in the severity of their anxiety. The study indicates that mindfulness-based stress reduction can be recommended as an effective treatment for anxiety disorders, said Prof. Elizabeth Hoge, MD, director of the Anxiety Disorders Research Program at Georgetown and the study’s first author. MBSR’s advantages include no drug side effects, easy access to the treatment, and economic benefits. “Mindfulness meditation…doesn’t require a clinical degree to train someone to become a mindfulness facilitator,” said Prof. Hoge. “Additionally, sessions can be done outside of a medical setting, such as at a school or community center.” Sources: https://scitechdaily.com/effectively-reducing-stress-and-treating-anxiety-disorders-without-antidepressant-drugs/ https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamapsychiatry/article-abstract/2798510

  • Red Clouds, Rainbows, and Rafts

    *AUTHOR BIO What Can Bangladesh Learn from Its Indigenous People About Coping with Disasters? Bangladesh, as a low-lying country on the Bay of Bengal, is among those nations facing the impact of frequent, damaging floods. Catastrophic weather events are not new to its people—many have learned over the decades how to deal with them. Now their indigenous knowledge needs to be honed to help others facing the consequences of environmental devastation. Predicting Extreme Weather In his paper, Indigenous Knowledge and Practices in Disaster Management: Experiences of the Coastal People of Bangladesh, Dr. Mahfuzul Haque, from the Bangladesh University of Professionals in Dhaka, looks at the kind of traditional knowledge people in Bangladesh have been gathering. Coastal people, for instance, believe that a wind blowing from the southeast is likely to create a storm, while a northeasterly wind could generate a cyclone. Haque’s research adds: “The wind direction is also associated with other attributes, i.e., a rise in sea water temperature, red colored cloud, and the appearance of a rainbow (if it is daytime) implying the formation of deep depression in the sea. … Abnormal behavior of the birds residing in trees is regarded as a signal of rapid storm approach. Also, cloud in the shape of an elephant’s trunk is considered to be a symptom of tidal surge.” An Indigenous person from Rangamati in southeastern Bangladesh, interviewed by sociologist Joydeb Garai’s team for Climate change and cultural responses of indigenous people: A case from Bangladesh, said: “We can understand about the upcoming climatic events by analyzing winds directions, animals’ behaviors, weather conditions and take initiatives accordingly. If the wind comes from [the] west corner and the sky looks dark black, it means that the nor’ wester may occur, if the cloud looks thin brown and wind blows heavily, it means rain may not occur, but if the cloud looks dark brown and no wind blows, it means that heavy rain may come. After seeing these natural symbols, we make ourselves prepared to overcome it.” Coping with the Effects of Climate Change But it is not just predictions that Indigenous people are making; they are also developing ways of dealing with extreme weather events when they do happen. People in flood-prone areas, such as in the charlands (shoal land surrounded by water) in northeastern Bangladesh, cope by building their homes on raised platforms on top of bamboo poles, making sure to reinforce them every year. The foundations of houses are plastered with mud, jute fiber, and husks, which protect the plinth (base) from flood water. They also plant a tropical species of grass, hemarthria protensa, around their homes to prevent waves from damaging them. And they get around on boats and rafts made of banana trunks. One interviewee for the Garai study said: “We build our house in the upper place of the hill that flash flood cannot inundate our house. We also make the floor of the house 3/4 feet high from the soil by bamboos and woods as water cannot enter the house during flood. Moreover, to protect the house from strong flow of wind/cyclones, we plant different wooden trees and bushy jungles surrounding the house as the wind cannot hit the house directly.” Haque explains how charlands, in particular, are vulnerable to erosion, floods, and cyclones: “The people there, almost every year they lose their land, and they shift their house from one shoal land to another shoal land, maybe ten to fifteen times in their lifetime. “But they're not leaving those places, they're staying there because they know the techniques—how to survive in a very unfriendly environment.” Adapting to Maintain Livelihoods The charland people have adapted their crops so they can continue to maintain their livelihoods. Haque’s research states: “Indigenous knowledge in agricultural cropping is the adjustment with respect to crops before and after flooding. Selection of crops is very vital for the charland people. Usually, groundnuts and sweet potatoes are sown at the highest level of the land where the soil is slightly sandy. At the waterfront, the people plant Aman paddy [rice], which is adaptable to high flooding. ... There are also practices like inter-cropping to accommodate the risk of crop failure. The short-term flood sensitive Aus [rice] is sown together with the long-stemmed flood-tolerant Aman in the same field. Normal flooding would give two crops, while a dry year will give a good Aus but no Aman crop; abnormal floods will favor Aman but will affect Aus production.” After flooding, farmers prepare floating seedbeds by placing banana trunks horizontally on the water, covering them with water hyacinth and mud. This is known as baira cultivation or floating gardens. As the hyacinth rots, seedlings are able to grow. In areas where drought is prevalent, such as in the Barind region, farmers use traditional methods to protect fruit trees and other crops. Da jhoro is a way of watering plants by making a hole in the bottom of a bottle or earthenware vessel, pouring water into it, and placing it close to the plant, so that water drips at its base. Influences on Disaster Management Practices Does religion or culture influence Indigenous people’s responses to climate change? Haque does not believe they play a major role, apart from discouraging women from entering cyclone shelters. “There was the question of security and washing facilities and hygiene. Nowadays, special rooms are available for women,” he says. But the influence of religion on their reactions to climate change have been documented by other academics. One of Garai’s interviewees comments: “During climate change extremity, we worship trees and pray (God and Goddess) to overcome it by singing, dancing and performing ritual activities. We also take shelter in the temple as we can save ourselves and our family from [the] evil power of hazards.” According to the research, those in some parts of southeastern Bangladesh “perform different cultural and religious festivals/rituals in their community, which increase their … community feeling to adapt to the adversity.” Preserving Indigenous Knowledge Traditional knowledge is passed to new generations in oral form. Haque says: “These people, their parents and grandparents have been following these practices.” “But this is mostly in the rural community. Urban people don’t understand this language because it’s not the language of science. It’s not communicated to others since it’s not in written form. But there is a growing idea among the policymakers perhaps this has to be recognized, but it is still yet to be accepted.” The contribution of indigenous knowledge to climate change strategies has been acknowledged under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, when the Local Communities and Indigenous Peoples Platform was established at the UN Climate Change Conference in Paris in 2015. But there’s still some way to go nationally. Haque claims: “In Bangladesh we have got something called the Standing Order on Disaster and other disaster management policies as well. But the problem is that we are yet to acknowledge the contribution of indigenous knowledge and practices. It is still at a community level.” The government’s National Adaptation Program of Action, which relates to climate change, tries to accommodate “some indigenous knowledge, but not much.” “The scientists are to be convinced; the meteorologists are to be convinced that indigenous knowledge has a role to play,” claims Haque. “The scientists are to be convinced; the meteorologists are to be convinced that indigenous knowledge has a role to play,” claims Haque. Disaster management is improving, which might lead some to the conclusion that indigenous knowledge is working. The number of deaths from cyclones in Bangladesh has declined. According to a study Reduced death rates from cyclones in Bangladesh: what more needs to be done?, “… cyclone-related mortality in Bangladesh has declined by more than 100-fold over the past 40 years, from 500,000 deaths in 1970 to 4,234 in 2007.” A few scientists are beginning to validate some traditional knowledge. For example, in 2014, those tracking golden-winged warblers in the US found that the birds left their breeding ground in eastern Tennessee to fly four hundred and thirty-five miles away, shortly before over eighty tornadoes struck the area. Meanwhile, some wildlife experts think that animals’ acute senses might help them to detect an approaching disaster before humans are able to. Empowering Local Communities When it comes to spreading local know-how, the Bangladesh Resource Center for Indigenous Knowledge (BARCIK) is at the forefront. It enables individuals to pass on their valuable knowledge. Lakshmi Rani Mandal, who lives in a village in Shyamnagar upazila (sub-district) in Satkhira, in southwestern Bangladesh, is a farmer who is in touch with BARCIK. She has been growing taro seeds for about 10 years but has had to adapt to deal with the climate. She says she used to cover her taro with straw, but the straw would dry and crumble because of the intense heat. When it rained, it would rot and prevent the taro from growing. That’s why she uses water hyacinth instead of straw, which means the soil remains moist for several days. The water hyacinth also acts as a fertilizer. Meanwhile Abdul Jabbar, another farmer, based in the Poba upazila in the Barind region, explained: “We cover the roots of the pulses/trees with leaves and even kachuri leaves to protect them from the scorching heat. As a result, the roots of the tree remain wet during this drought.” In the northeastern haor (freshwater swamp ) area, Nilima Sarker manages to rear livestock and grow vegetables, fruit, and medicinal trees, despite her land being underwater for almost seven months of the year. She creates gardens by hanging pots and other items on her home’s fences and on wooden pillars. Her innovative way of working has led her to become almost completely self-sufficient. *Yasmin Prabhudas is a freelance journalist working mainly for nonprofit organizations, labor unions, the education sector, and government agencies.

  • Treating the Winter Blues—with Nature

    *AUTHOR BIO Are There Natural Ways to Beat SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder)? During the winter, when the days get short and sunlight is in short supply, 3% of the population develops something called Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). This condition goes far beyond just being sad for a day. SAD symptoms include depression, oversleeping, overeating, and social withdrawal, and they can last for as long as five months or until spring rolls around. Those affected by SAD don’t need to wait until flowers bloom to feel better, though. There are many natural ways to make the winter months much more bearable. Go to Where the Sun is Shining People who spend winter days in warmer, southern climates may be helping themselves more than they realize. Research of Chinese travelers showed that those that moved to a warmer climate in the winter found relief for their SAD. This method of treatment has been dubbed “tourism therapy” or “rehabilitative travel mobility.” Get Some Light, in a New Way Many people, however, aren’t able to move when the seasons change. Happily, there are ways to get some of the benefits of a sunny locale. One of the most effective natural treatments for Seasonal Affective Disorder is called “bright light therapy” (BLT). Unlike tourism therapy, it can be done at home for a modest cost. The idea is to sit in front of a bright light for a prescribed amount of time to trigger production of “happy” chemicals (serotonin) in the brain and reduce the production of melatonin, a hormone that makes one sleepy. Regular indoor lights won’t work, even if every light in the house is turned on. Instead, a lightbox specially designed to help with SAD is needed. These light boxes are twenty times brighter than indoor lights and can be purchased online. They feature 10,000 lux of cool white fluorescent light. To get the full benefits, the lightbox needs to be placed within eyesight in front of the user every day for twenty to sixty minutes. The Mayo Clinic recommends doing light therapy first thing in the morning, with the light sixteen to twenty-four inches from the face (or whatever the manufacturer recommends); users should just be careful not to look directly into the light to avoid eye discomfort. Boost Vitamin D Intake Low vitamin D levels have been found to contribute to depression, so make sure that vitamin D levels are adequate. One study found that taking a vitamin D supplement of 100,000 IU daily helped those afflicted with SAD better than light therapy. People who want to boost their vitamin D without taking supplements can get it naturally by eating these foods: Sardines Egg yolk Cod liver oil Salmon Swordfish Beef liver Tuna fish Orange juice fortified with vitamin D Dairy and plant milk fortified with vitamin D Even without increasing consumption of vitamin D directly, increased exposure to sunlight helps get the natural processes going for your body to produce vitamin D on its own. Counseling As with other disorders, counseling can help with SAD. A study found that ninety-minute sessions per week of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) were just as helpful as thirty minutes of light therapy. A counseling session with a nutritional specialist may help, too. Limiting sugars and starches in the diet may help to improve the symptoms of SAD. After all, eating too much of them will likely make a person feel worse. Negative Air Ionization Therapy Negative air ionization therapy has been around for about 100 years and has been found to be as helpful as light therapy. This type of therapy involves using air purifiers around the home that incorporate negative ions to clean the air. Cleaner air seems to positively impact depression symptoms. Negative ion air purifiers can be purchased online or in many home goods stores. Get Moving Exercise has been shown to help with symptoms of depression because it makes the body release endorphins, sometimes known as “happy” chemicals into the brain. So, getting up and moving may help with symptoms of SAD. Yoga has been found by many to be particularly beneficial for those with Seasonal Affective Disorder symptoms. A healthier body helps lead to a healthier mind, after all. Work on Human Contact Connecting with other people is an essential element of mental health—and it’s good to do, even when it feels like the last thing a depressed person wants to do. Here are some ways to make those connections: Text or call a friend Start a meme war in a family group chat Go to the park and say hello to people walking past Chitchat with the checkout person at the grocery store Go to dinner with someone Have lunch with coworkers Volunteer around the community Visit a nursing home and spend time with some people who live there Be Positive A positive outlook is another thing that seems impossible when someone is at a low point, but it can greatly benefit mental health. According to the Mayo Clinic, identifying—and changing—negative thoughts can help: Blaming oneself when something goes wrong Focusing only on the bad things Imagining the worst thing that can happen Making everything either good or bad instead of considering the complexity of the situation Trying to make everything perfect Blaming others for something that is self-caused Thinking of all the things to be done instead of acting on them Magnifying small problems Instead, try these techniques: Examine one’s thoughts throughout the day. Are they negative? How can they be turned into more positive ones? Try to let in more laughter. Watch a comedy show in person or online. Join a funny meme group on Facebook. Have a chat with a funny friend. Find the humor in everyday things. Avoid people who focus on “what’s wrong” in the world and associate with people who are more balanced and optimistic. Be good and nice—to oneself. Try self-encouragement or pep talks. Since most people wouldn’t call other people ugly or stupid, they shouldn’t say mean things to themselves either. Do a social media cleanup. Unfollow accounts of people who are constantly mocking or criticizing others. Follow positive people and accounts that make you feel good. Stop doomscrolling or endlessly flipping through social media feeds or news channels that are filled with negative news. Find things to do that are more pleasant and positive to occupy one’s time. Focus on gratitude. What are some things to appreciate in daily life? *Alina Bradford is a safety and security expert that has contributed to CBS, MTV, USA Today, Reader’s Digest, and more. She is currently the editorial lead at SafeWise.com.

Loving Nature, Healing the Earth


 

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