For Many Reporters Covering Climate, Population Remains the Elephant in the Room
By Wudan Yan
In June, New York Times journalist Andy Newman wrote an article titled, "If seeing the world helps ruin it, should we stay home?" In it, he raised the question of whether or not travel by plane, boat, or car—all of which contribute to climate change, rising sea levels, and melting glaciers—might pose a moral challenge to the responsibility that each of us has to not exacerbate the already catastrophic consequences of climate change. The premise of Newman's piece rests on his assertion that traveling "somewhere far away… is the biggest single action a private citizen can take to worsen climate change."
But that's not true. In 2017, Seth Wynes of Lund University in Sweden and Kimberly Nicholas of the University of British Columbia estimated the carbon emissions that various individual lifestyle choices would have. The foremost way to reduce climate change, their report said, would be to have one fewer child (which would otherwise annually contribute an additional 58.6 tons of carbon dioxide, on average in developed countries, according to the researchers' estimates). The runner-ups were living car free (2.4 tons of carbon dioxide per year), and not taking one transatlantic flight (1.6 tons of carbon dioxide per year).
Newman told me that, although he fact-checked his article meticulously, neither he nor his editors caught the error on which he established the premise of his story. (In emailed comments, Newman wrote that not having a child "wasn't in the story simply because it did not occur to me while I was writing the story," though he questioned whether one should consider having a child "a single action." "It's the millions of activities that occur in the life of that human you've created that generate the CO2," he wrote. "To me it doesn't seem fair to compare taking a flight—a self-contained event that occupies only a few hours—with an entire lifetime of carbon emission.")
On the heels of Newman's piece, The Guardian published an interactive story focused exclusively on how much carbon dioxide is emitted per flight. A month on from Newman's story, Quartz published a story titled, "If you care about your impact on the planet you should stop flying." For that story, Quartz replicated a graph from the Wynes and Nicholas study, but failed to include the impact that not having another child would have. When I asked the reporter, Natasha Frost, why Quartz decided to omit part of the data, she said the graphing software couldn't fit the data properly on the graph.
If any article is only talking about flying less, or eating less meat, "it's borderline dangerous and misleading," Erica Gies, an independent journalist who has written about population and her personal decision not to have children, says. "Or the writer is ill-informed, doesn't want to look at the reality, or open themselves up to the personal attack that is writing about it."
If not having another child saves more than 20 times more carbon per year, why aren't more journalists talking about human population in proportion to the climate impact that it can have?
Environmentalists believe that overpopulation is how we arrived at our current climate crisis. To explain the impact humans have on the environment, they use the formula I = PAT: the human impact on the environment (I) is the product of population (P), affluence (A), and technology (T). "Changing population is the one factor—the one that's most movable — that will have the most impact," activist and documentary filmmaker Terry Spahr says.
Environmental activist Bill McKibben, who, in 1999, wrote Maybe One about his decision to have just one kid due to the climate crisis, believes population is not discussed as much because population growth is not immediate and birth rates in America are already at an all-time low. "If indeed we have a decade to make transformative change, there are other things"—such as taking on the giant institutions of the fossil fuel industry—"that are more crucial," McKibben told me.
The issue of population was more widely discussed in the 1970s, after biologist Paul Ehrlich wrote The Population Bomb, a warning that the world population was spiraling out of control. Population growth then led India to implement a program to forcibly sterilize men, and China to introduce its one-child policy.
Around the same time, mainstream environmental organizations in the U.S. such as the Sierra Club, World Wildlife Foundation, and Audubon Society, all embraced policies and platforms that would limit population growth. (The Sierra Club, for instance, believed that the population of the U.S. should be stabilized by limiting immigration.) But they eventually got rid of it. "It got twisted by people," says Spahr. That is, "if you believed in population policies, you were racist, or colonialist, imperialistic, or a believer in euthanasia and all kinds of crazy things." As a result, says Spahr, population control "lost its presence as a real, viable and important part of the conversation."
That backlash can intimidate writers keen to discuss how population and reproductive choice are tied into climate impact. Ash Sanders, who recently published an essay in BuzzFeed about why she chose not to have children, was initially nervous to pitch the story for those very reasons.
Gies wrote her first piece about population control for Forbes in 2011. For a long time, she says, it felt like no one else was willing to write about it.
"I got a lot of shame," she says. "People told me: if you're so concerned, you should kill yourself. And having a child in most cultures is an automatic good, so people hear you criticizing them and their choices when you talk about your own choices." But at the same time, Gies says, she received heartfelt messages from people who felt similarly, supported, and seen.
Although journalists are reaching a consensus on the gravity of the climate crisis, there is no such consensus on how to link the issue of population with climate change—or whether the link should be made at all. Talking about not having children, Frost says via email, raises "complicated ethical questions about the difference between actions where if everyone took them, the world would likely be a better place (like not eating meat), and ones where everyone doing them would make the world worse (like not having children, if you think the human race is a valuable thing to protect)."
David Roberts, an environmental journalist with Vox wrote in a 2017 article that he refused to talk about overpopulation because it was morally and politically fraught. In that article, he explains that discussing things such as empowering women would be an indirect way to get at population. (I.e., if you educate women on family planning and give them opportunities for income, they will opt to have fewer children.)
Gies, meanwhile, says population needs to be discussed directly. "That's the problem: we haven't been talking about it directly," she says.
Spahr says he's seen the conversation about population and climate change become more public over the last five years. Prince Harry recently announced that he and his partner, Meghan, will only be having two children because of climate change (although having two children will merely hit the replacement rate and not actually reduce climate impact). In February, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez asked whether or not it's ethical to have children given the climate crisis.
Given the urgency of crisis, says Sanders, "we need to attack climate change from so many different structural and cultural angles. I don't think population is the silver bullet, but I think it's the one tool we have that we're not talking about enough. I think there are ways to have this conversation ethically that will lead to freedom and choice."
The #planet cannot accommodate the "alarming rate" of human #overpopulation and our unsustainable use of natural resources. Experts agree that human population growth must end quickly for the planet and all of its inhabitants to survive.https://t.co/ntfUk9eH72— InDefenseOfAnimals (@IDAUSA) October 11, 2018
Wudan Yan is an independent journalist in Seattle, Washington. Her work has appeared in California Sunday Magazine, Discover, Harper's, High Country News, The New Yorker, The New York Times and The Washington Post, among others.
Editor's Note: This article has been updated for clarity.
This story originally appeared in Columbia Journalism Review. It is republished here as part of EcoWatch's partnership with Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 250 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story.
- How Would Population Decline Impact the Environment? - EcoWatch ›
- Should You Have Kids Despite Climate Change? ›
By Bill Sullivan
Black licorice may look and taste like an innocent treat, but this candy has a dark side. On Sept. 23, 2020, it was reported that black licorice was the culprit in the death of a 54-year-old man in Massachusetts. How could this be? Overdosing on licorice sounds more like a twisted tale than a plausible fact.
The Root of the Problem<p>The unfortunate man who recently succumbed to excessive black licorice consumption is not alone. There are a smattering of similar case reports in medical journals, in which patients experience <a href="https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26380428/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">hypertension crisis</a>, <a href="https://doi.org/10.5414/cn107011" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">muscle breakdown</a> or even death. Adverse reactions are most frequently seen in people over the age of 40 who are eating far more black licorice than the average person. In addition, they are usually consuming the product for prolonged periods of time. <a href="https://doi.org/10.1056/NEJMcpc2002420" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">In the most recent case</a>, the Massachusetts man had been eating a bag and a half of black licorice every day for three weeks.</p><p>Licorice is a flowering plant native to parts of Europe and Asia. Its scientific name, <em>Glycyrrhiza</em>, is derived from the Greek words "glykos" (sweet) and "rhiza" (root). The aromatic and sweet extract from its root has long been used as an herbal remedy for a wide variety of health maladies, from heartburn and stomach issues to sore throats and cough. However, there is <a href="https://www.fda.gov/consumers/consumer-updates/black-licorice-trick-or-treat" target="_blank">insufficient evidence to support that licorice is effective in treating any medical condition</a>.</p><p>Glycyrrhizin (also called glycyrrhizic acid) is the chemical in black licorice that gives the candy its signature flavor, but it also leads to its toxic effects.</p><p>Glycyrrhizin mimics the hormone <a href="https://www.yourhormones.info/hormones/aldosterone/" target="_blank">aldosterone</a>, which is made by the adrenal glands when the body needs to retain sodium and excrete potassium. Sodium and potassium work together as a kind of cellular battery that drives communication between nerves and the contraction of muscles. Too much glycyrrhizin upsets the balance of these electrolytes, which can raise blood pressure and disturb the heart's rhythm. Other symptoms of excessive licorice intake include swelling, muscle pain, numbness and headache. Examination of the man who died from consuming too much licorice revealed that he had <a href="https://doi.org/10.1056/NEJMcpc2002420" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">dangerously low levels of potassium, consistent with glycyrrhizin toxicity.</a></p><p><a href="https://doi.org/10.1056/NEJMcpc2002420" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"></a>It should be noted that a number of licorice-based foods do not contain real licorice, but use a flavoring substitute called anise oil, which does not pose the dangers discussed here. In addition, despite its name, <a href="https://www.livestrong.com/article/537724-black-licorice-vs-red-licorice/" target="_blank">red licorice rarely contains licorice extract</a>. Instead, red licorice is infused with chemicals that impart its cherry or strawberry flavor.</p><p>Products that contain real licorice are usually labeled as such, and list licorice extract or glycyrrhizic acid among the ingredients. Be advised that some products, such as black jelly beans or Good & Plenty, are mixtures of different candies that contain both anise oil and licorice extract.</p>
Hidden Dangers That Increase Risk<p>Glycyrrhizin has the distinct licorice flavor and is <a href="https://www.urmc.rochester.edu/encyclopedia/content.aspx?contenttypeid=19&contentid=Licorice" target="_blank">50 times sweeter than sugar</a> and has been used in other types of candy, soft drinks, tea, Belgian beers, throat lozenges and tobacco. This can make it challenging to keep track of how much glycyrrhizin has been consumed, and a combination of these products could trigger adverse effects.</p><p>Some people take dietary or health supplements that already contain licorice, which increases the risk of toxic effects from eating black licorice candy. Certain medications such as <a href="https://doi.org/10.5414/cn107011" target="_blank">hydrochlorothiazide</a> are diuretics that cause increased urination, which can lower potassium levels in the body. Glycyrrhizin also lowers potassium levels, further disrupting the balance of electrolytes, which can produce muscle cramps and irregular heart rhythms.</p><p>People with certain preexisting conditions are more susceptible to black licorice overdose.</p><p>For example, patients who already have low potassium levels (hypokalemia), high blood pressure or heart arrhythmia are likely to have greater sensitivity to the effects of excessive licorice. Those with liver or kidney deficiencies will also retain glycyrrhizin in their bloodstream for longer times, increasing their risk of experiencing its adverse effects.</p>
What to Do?<p>If you're a fan of black licorice, there is no need to ban it from your pantry. Eaten in small quantities from time to time, licorice poses no significant threat to otherwise healthy adults and children. But it is advisable to monitor your intake.</p><p>With Halloween approaching, be sure to remind your kids that candy is a "<a href="https://www.heart.org/idc/groups/heart-public/@wcm/@global/documents/downloadable/ucm_305557.pdf" target="_blank">sometimes food</a>," especially the black licorice. The <a href="https://www.fda.gov/consumers/consumer-updates/black-licorice-trick-or-treat" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">FDA has issued warnings</a> about the rare but serious effects of too much black licorice, advising that people avoid eating more than two ounces of black licorice a day for two weeks or longer. The agency states that if you have been eating a lot of black licorice and experience an irregular heart rhythm or muscle weakness, stop eating it immediately and contact your health care provider.</p><p>Some scientists have further cautioned against the routine use of licorice in the form of a dietary supplement or tea for its alleged health benefits. A <a href="https://doi.org/10.1177/2042018812454322" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">review article from 2012</a> warned that "the daily consumption of licorice is never justified because its benefits are minor compared to the adverse outcomes of chronic consumption."</p>
- 10 Foods to Avoid if You're on a Low FODMAP Diet - EcoWatch ›
- 12 Powerful Ayurvedic Herbs and Spices with Health Benefits ... ›
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
Material Revolutions: Shirts Made from Shellfish, Biodegradable Rum Bottles and Reusable Fast Food Containers
In the age of consumption, sustainability innovations can help shift cultural habits and protect dwindling natural resources. Improvements in source materials, product durability and end-of-life disposal procedures can create consumer products that are better for the Earth throughout their lifecycles. Three recent advancements hope to make a difference.
1. Allbirds Shirts Made From Shellfish<p>Sustainable sneaker start-up <a href="https://www.allbirds.com/pages/apparel" target="_blank">Allbirds</a> is known for its thoughtfulness for consumers and the environment. The four-year-old shoe company has become hugely popular by creating comfortable shoes made from responsibly sourced materials like tencel and wool, reported <a href="https://www.fastcompany.com/90565358/allbirds-new-clothing-line-includes-t-shirts-made-from-discarded-crab-shells" target="_blank">Fast Company</a>.</p><p>Recently, Allbirds launched its debut apparel line with garments for men and women made with eco-friendly materials that have a low carbon footprint, the report said.</p><p>Introduced along with the line is a new t-shirt material called "TrinoXO," which is made from wool and discarded snow crab shells from Canada's seafood industry, reported <a href="https://www.cnbc.com/2020/10/20/sustainable-sneaker-start-up-allbirds-is-selling-sweaters-t-shirts.html" target="_blank">CNBC</a> and <a href="https://www.cnn.com/2020/10/20/business/allbirds-sustainable-apparel/index.html" rel="noopener noreferrer" target="_blank">CNN</a>. The shells are the "number two discarded resource on earth," Allbirds claims, reported <a href="https://www.menshealth.com/style/a34427585/allbirds-apparel-clothing-line-review/" rel="noopener noreferrer" target="_blank">Men's Health</a>.</p><p>"Discarded material is the holy grail when it comes to sustainable fibers," Jad Finck, Allbirds head of innovation and sustainability, told Fast Company. "It's far better for the environment than getting raw materials from scratch."</p><p>The shells have antimicrobial properties that keep clothes fresh even after hours of wear, without the need to add "extractive" materials like zinc or silver, Men's Health reported. This allows for longer periods of wear between washes, reducing clothes' environmental footprint.</p><p>"We knew we wanted to be a real brand, and had this vision that we'd be an innovation company first, and a product company second," co-founder Joey Zwillinger told <a href="https://www.vogue.com/article/allbirds-launches-clothing" rel="noopener noreferrer" target="_blank">Vogue</a>. "And our products would solve problems for people in a natural way, and show the world that you don't have to compromise on the planet for amazing products."</p>
2. Bacardi Biodegradable Rum Bottles<p>By 2023, <a href="https://www.bacardi.com/us/en/" target="_blank">Bacardi</a> rum will be sold in 100% biodegradable bottles, <a href="https://www.businesswire.com/news/home/20201021005281/en/Bacardi-First-in-Fight-Against-Plastic-Pollution-With-100-Biodegradable-Spirits-Bottle" target="_blank">Business Wire</a> reported.</p><p>The alcohol giant is collaborating with Danimer Scientific, a leading developer of biodegradable products, to create the new bottles using the natural oils of plant seeds such as palm, canola and soy, the report said.</p><p>According to <a href="https://sports.yahoo.com/bacardi-to-make-100-biodegradable-spirits-bottle-124436841.html?guccounter=1&guce_referrer=aHR0cHM6Ly93d3cuZ29vZ2xlLmNvbS8&guce_referrer_sig=AQAAAE1Wl8ONNdph3ID8reylzGM8dbX575Mk96Jw6z3kHZaGjKCz_UgQgxH0Q1n3RNCzhOMBEZ7fAIf8iiOXLRtY9VVHNZsmb-w1VOJnGlzIbuwhmoBo_KOV4dba8FoWrkgmmwwCyQZnRoTL0Uda6HQ4pE5ewGWh2pwQzjS3gKAe1ynm" target="_blank">Yahoo Finance UK</a>, the new bottle will biodegrade in a wide range of environments, including compost, soil, freshwater and seawater. After 18 months, the bottle will disappear completely without leaving microplastics.</p><p>"Nodax PHA is one of the most promising eco-friendly materials in the world today because it delivers the biodegradability that consumers demand without losing the quality feel they receive from traditional plastic," said Danimer Scientific chief marketing & sustainability officer Scott Tuten, reported <a href="https://www.thrillist.com/news/nation/bacardi-biodegradable-spirits-bottle-plastic-free-packaging" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Thrillist</a>. "The material provides the best of both worlds, and we look forward to working with Bacardí and incorporating PHA into their iconic packaging."</p><p>Bacardi is also creating a sustainably sourced paper bottle, Yahoo reported.</p><p>The manufacturing of both new bottle types will save energy over petroleum-based plastic ones. Bacardi plans to share the technology with competitors to help in the global fight against <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/tag/plastic-pollution" target="_self">plastic pollution</a>, and aims to be 100% plastic-free by 2030, reported Thrillist.</p>
3. Burger King Reusable Fast Food Containers<p>Fast food giant <a href="https://www.bk.com/" target="_blank">Burger King</a> plans to launch reusable Whopper boxes and soda cups by next year. Partnering with TerraCycle's zero-waste packaging division Loop, Burger King will nudge customers to return the specialized packaging for hygienic washing and reuse, similar to how milk bottles used to be returned, reported <a href="https://www.marketwatch.com/story/can-burger-kings-reusable-packaging-change-fast-food-forever-11603392581" target="_blank">MarketWatch</a>.</p><p>"During COVID, we have seen the environmental impact of <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/air-pollution-food-delivery-plastic-waste-2648454324.html" target="_self">increased takeaway ordering</a>, which makes this initiative by Burger King all the more important," said Tom Szaky, TerraCycle and Loop CEO, according to MarketWatch.</p><p>Customers who don't feel comfortable can opt-out of the service, <a href="https://www.abc10.com/article/entertainment/television/programs/the-buzz-burger-king-to-test-reusable-packaging-in-2021/77-f01f1b70-05b7-436d-9971-a7dd6081249b" target="_blank">ABC News</a> reported. Those who are willing to try will be charged a small deposit upon purchase, and when the packaging is returned, they will receive a refund, reported <a href="https://www.cnn.com/2020/10/22/business/burger-king-reusable-packaging-sustainability/index.html" rel="noopener noreferrer" target="_blank">CNN</a>.</p><p>Burger King and TerraCycle are aiming for a container that can be used at least 100 times, reported <a href="https://www.fastcompany.com/90566995/burger-kings-new-whopper-packaging-isnt-greasy-cardboard-its-reusable" rel="noopener noreferrer" target="_blank">Fast Company</a>.</p><p>"The benefit is, you're able to serve your guests without having to create that single-use item in the first place," Matt Banton, global head of innovation and sustainability at Burger King, told <a href="https://www.fastcompany.com/90566995/burger-kings-new-whopper-packaging-isnt-greasy-cardboard-its-reusable" rel="noopener noreferrer" target="_blank">Fast Company</a>. "This product is durable enough to go through the system multiple times, so it's ultimately reducing our environmental impact, and minimizing the amount of single-use packaging that we have to produce as well."</p><p>Burger King has also committed to sourcing 100% of its customer packaging from renewable, recycled or certified outlets, and recycling all customer packaging at its restaurants in the United States and Canada by 2025, reported CNN.</p>
There are many different CBD oil brands in today's market. But, figuring out which brand is the best and which brand has the strongest oil might feel challenging and confusing. Our simple guide to the strongest CBD oils will point you in the right direction.
The ghoulishly named ogre-faced spider can "hear" with its legs and use that ability to catch insects flying behind it, the study published in Current Biology Thursday concluded.
"Spiders are sensitive to airborne sound," Cornell professor emeritus Dr. Charles Walcott, who was not involved with the study, told the Cornell Chronicle. "That's the big message really."
The net-casting, ogre-faced spider (Deinopis spinosa) has a unique hunting strategy, as study coauthor Cornell University postdoctoral researcher Jay Stafstrom explained in a video.
They hunt only at night using a special kind of web: an A-shaped frame made from non-sticky silk that supports a fuzzy rectangle that they hold with their front forelegs and use to trap prey.
They do this in two ways. In a maneuver called a "forward strike," they pounce down on prey moving beneath them on the ground. This is enabled by their large eyes — the biggest of any spider. These eyes give them 2,000 times the night vision that we have, Science explained.
But the spiders can also perform a move called the "backward strike," Stafstrom explained, in which they reach their legs behind them and catch insects flying through the air.
"So here comes a flying bug and somehow the spider gets information on the sound direction and its distance. The spiders time the 200-millisecond leap if the fly is within its capture zone – much like an over-the-shoulder catch. The spider gets its prey. They're accurate," coauthor Ronald Hoy, the D & D Joslovitz Merksamer Professor in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior in the College of Arts and Sciences, told the Cornell Chronicle.
What the researchers wanted to understand was how the spiders could tell what was moving behind them when they have no ears.
It isn't a question of peripheral vision. In a 2016 study, the same team blindfolded the spiders and sent them out to hunt, Science explained. This prevented the spiders from making their forward strikes, but they were still able to catch prey using the backwards strike. The researchers thought the spiders were "hearing" their prey with the sensors on the tips of their legs. All spiders have these sensors, but scientists had previously thought they were only able to detect vibrations through surfaces, not sounds in the air.
To test how well the ogre-faced spiders could actually hear, the researchers conducted a two-part experiment.
First, they inserted electrodes into removed spider legs and into the brains of intact spiders. They put the spiders and the legs into a vibration-proof booth and played sounds from two meters (approximately 6.5 feet) away. The spiders and the legs responded to sounds from 100 hertz to 10,000 hertz.
Next, they played the five sounds that had triggered the biggest response to 25 spiders in the wild and 51 spiders in the lab. More than half the spiders did the "backward strike" move when they heard sounds that have a lower frequency similar to insect wing beats. When the higher frequency sounds were played, the spiders did not move. This suggests the higher frequencies may mimic the sounds of predators like birds.
University of Cincinnati spider behavioral ecologist George Uetz told Science that the results were a "surprise" that indicated science has much to learn about spiders as a whole. Because all spiders have these receptors on their legs, it is possible that all spiders can hear. This theory was first put forward by Walcott 60 years ago, but was dismissed at the time, according to the Cornell Chronicle. But studies of other spiders have turned up further evidence since. A 2016 study found that a kind of jumping spider can pick up sonic vibrations in the air.
"We don't know diddly about spiders," Uetz told Science. "They are much more complex than people ever thought they were."
Learning more provides scientists with an opportunity to study their sensory abilities in order to improve technology like bio-sensors, directional microphones and visual processing algorithms, Stafstrom told CNN.
"The point is any understudied, underappreciated group has fascinating lives, even a yucky spider, and we can learn something from it," he told CNN.
In 'Road Map for a More Sustainable Future,' NY Regulator Tells Banks to Consider Climate Risks in Planning
By Brett Wilkins
Regulators in New York state announced Thursday that banks and other financial services companies are expected to plan and prepare for risks posed by the climate crisis.