Singapore’s Amazing Super Trees

From CNN

Singapore’s latest development will finally blossom later this month, with an imposing canopy of artificial trees up to 50 meters high towering over a vast urban oasis.

The colossal solar-powered supertrees are found in the Bay South garden, which opens to the public on June 29. It is part of a 250-acre landscaping project — Gardens by the Bay — that is an initiative from Singapore’s National Parks Board that will see the cultivation of flora and fauna from foreign lands.

The man-made mechanical forest consists of 18 supertrees that act as vertical gardens, generating solar power, acting as air venting ducts for nearby conservatories, and collecting rainwater. To generate electricity, 11 of the supertrees are fitted with solar photovoltaic systems that convert sunlight into energy, which provides lighting and aids water technology within the conservatories below.

Varying in height between 25 and 50 meters, each supertree features tropical flowers and various ferns climbing across its steel framework. The large canopies also operate as temperature moderators, absorbing and dispersing heat, as well as providing shelter from the hot temperatures of Singapore’s climate to visitors walking beneath.

This is a remarkable achievement, and not surprising coming from Singapore: this quintessential nanny state is known for an authoritarian but highly efficient approach to infrastructure development, environmentalism, and social policy. Of course, that doesn’t mean other countries such as the US couldn’t pull it off, if we as a society were willing to make the investment.

Anti-Scientific Attitudes Threaten the World

Many of the most pressing problems our species faces – such as climate change, food and water scarcity, and energy shortages – require scientific solutions. Only through research, experimentation, and innovation can we are way around these looming catastrophes.

Yet science itself faces an even greater challenge than these global crises – a lack of public and political support. That was the prevailing assessment by scientists from across the world who gathered at an annual meeting in Vancouver, Canada hosted by the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Participants noted that the global public as a whole “does not understand science,” and that science itself was “under siege” by religious and ideological forces. As one attendee starkly observed, “We have a planetary emergency, and very few people recognise that.”

The theme of the five-day meeting, attended by some 8,000 scientists from 50 countries, was “Flattening the World: Building a Global Knowledge Society.”

“It’s about persuading people to believe in science, at a time when disturbing numbers don’t,” said meeting co-chair Andrew Petter, president of Simon Fraser University in this western Canadian city.

Experts wrangled with thorny issues such as censorship, opposition from religious groups in the United States to teaching evolution and climate change, and generally poor education standards.

“We have to plan for a future, considering the risk of climate change, with nine to 10 billion people,” said Hans Rosling, a Swedish public health expert famous for combating scientific ignorance with catchy YouTube videos.

Rosling, pointing to charts showing how human populations changed with technology and how without science the majority of a family’s children die, said it is naive to think that humanity can easily go backward in history.

“I get angry when I hear people say: ‘In the rainforest people live in ecological balance.’ They don’t. They die in ecological balance,” he said.

Indeed, global warming is an indicative example of this issue. Despite an overwhelming scientific consensus, the majority of Americans remain unconvinced about climate change, and skepticism has only grown more over the past few years. Even those who accept the phenomenon nonetheless erroneously believe that we’ll be able to adapt, which is yet another manifestation of scientific ignorance.

The United States is particularly susceptible to anti-intellectualism, and it runs rather deep in our history (ironic, given that our much deified founders were pretty cerebral themselves). Academics and scholars remain just as distrusted as their scientific peers, and many Americans – egged on by pundits and polemists – often see intelligent people as elitist, aloof, and even insidious (especially if they have Ivy League degrees).

Granted, bias, narrow-mindedness, and immorality bedevil even the most intelligent members of our society, as these are universal human flaws. Furthermore, even smart people can be wrong, and the scientific consensus has sometimes needed tweaking, if not outright abandonment. So some degree of measured analysis and critical thinking must be applied to any and all claims – that’s why self-correcting measures such as peer review and re-experimentation have been institutionalized.

But the general public has reached a point of extreme fallibism, in which nearly all the claims made by “experts” are reflexively doubted because of the very fact that they were made by experts. Personal experience, or even mere intuition, are seen as more legitimate, even though they’re each limited by our own cognitive constraints (e.g. our sense can fool us, our life experiences are limited, etc).

Americans and the Modern Food Market

We’ve long been characterized as a nation of gluttons, and we have both a high obesity rate and a highly diverse gastronomy to prove it. With the amount of calories that the average American consumes – estimated at nearly 4,000, about double what is needed – it may be surprising to learn that we not only don’t spend all that much on food, but that we spend abnormally low for a nation of our wealth. Consider this articlefrom MoJo, written by Alyssa Battistoni:

On some level, this is pretty intuitive—food is a basic need, and there’s only so much you can eat, no matter how much money you have. But even among developed countries, our food spending is ultra-low: People in most European countries spend over 10 percent of their incomes on food. In fact, Americans spend less on food than people in any other country in the world. Even we Americans didn’t always expect our food to be so cheap, though: Back in 1963, when Molly Orshansky, an employee of the Social Security Administration, created the nation’s first poverty threshold, she simply tripled the cost of the FDA’s “thrifty” food plan, since at the time most families spent about a third of their incomes on food. So how’d we end up spending just a fraction of that four decades later?

Since most Americans aren’t facing starvation from day-to-day, there’s less focus on budgeting for food (at least if you’re not the 46 million Americans who rely on food stamps to get by). We pretty much take it for granted that we’ll always have some money left over to eat – after all, we never face chronic food shortages, price spikes, or famines with the same intensity and regularity of many poorer nations (including those in the chart).

Plus, we have other amenities to worry about: shelter, automobiles, tuition, utilities, and so on. For most people in the world, not only are basic needs like food the central concern, but they’re largely the only things you have access to anyway (if even that). But where does the US, with its famously diverse market of goods, fit into the picture? How and why have we bucked both historical and global trends?

To find the answer, we have to go back four decades to the 1970s, when rising food prices and technological developments led to a host of transformative changes in the US food system whose effects still determine the way many Americans eat. In response to rising food costs and growing demand amongst the expanding middle class, Nixon’s secretary of agriculture, Earl Butz, turned the country’s agricultural subsidy program—originally instituted to help stabilize food supply and farmers’ incomes after the volatility of the Great Depression—into a support mechanism for the industrial production of corn and soy. Butz’s policy of “get big or get out”—made possible by advancements in industrial food production, including technological developments and an abundance of cheap fossil fuels used to make fertilizer and pesticides—encouraged the consolidation of small farmers’ plots into gigantic holdings and led to the rise of agribusiness in place of the family farm.

The changes Butz wrought are visible in our food supply, too: The amount of corn produced each year in America has tripled since 1970, from 4 billion bushels then to more than 12 billion today. Faced with an abundance of cheap corn, the food industry figured out how to make it into cheap meat, milk, eggs, and sweets. Over time, the cost of things made from highly-subsidized crops like corn, wheat, and soy—things like cheeseburgers and soda—has declined drastically.  While you can debate the merits of local, organic, and seasonal food, and question what it means to eat sustainably, the dominant food production policy in the US is oriented around just one metric: producing calories as cheaply as possible. We’ve gotten so good at producing calories efficiently, in fact, that our problem is no longer that we can’t afford enough food—it’s that the types of calories that are least expensive are the ones that are worst for us.

Indeed, I’m reminded of a study – which I unfortunately cannot find or recall in great detail – that found many obese Americans were as malnourished as an underweight person. We’re consuming raw calories that make us fat – and sick – but otherwise offer no vital nutrition. To make matters worse, the combination of abundance and cheapness has led to excessive consumption (recall the average calorie figure I mentioned in the beginning) and with it, mounting health problems.

Ironically, the effort to produce cheaper food for all Americans has only led to greater costs in the form of healthcare, lost productivity, and even fuel. More perversely, it’s also introduced chronic health problems for the poorest Americans, those who can least afford to address them. Such cheap food is often the only thing low-income families can pay for, even though it costs them dearly in the end.

There are other, far less visible expenses as well.

There are obvious reasons why spending less on food is a good thing—namely, that not having to worry about survival on a daily basis is a pretty basic development goal that we’ve nonetheless only recently managed to achieve. BUT there are also some less obvious reasons why it’s not so great. As Michael Pollan, Marion Nestle, and others who study our food system have pointed out, food is as cheap as it is because the true costs have been externalized—that is, we pay for them in rising obesity ratesenvironmental degradationlax safety measures, and disgraceful labor practices. And if you count the money taxpayers send Big Ag in subsidies—around $261.9 billion between 1995 and 2010—cheap food starts to seem like it might not be such a bargain after all.

It’s only cheap because the system has become so complex and opaque. The average person doesn’t really know from where they’re getting their food, or how it ended up at their grocer or restaurant. In fact, most people don’t even really think about it. Just as we’re not too concerned about our spending habits on food, so too do we miss the bigger picture about the food supply.

In our modern consumer society, we’re accustomed to getting what we want when we pay for it. We expect stuff to simply be available for us, provided by some company or another (and, to a lesser extent, the government). The market, though great in its ample provisions, is nonetheless opaque to most people, its outward simplicity belying the convolution and cost of its products and services.

It certainly doesn’t help that the overwhelming majority of people in the modern world are detached from the various products they enjoy. We no longer make much of what we use anymore, nor do most people grow their own food. Heck, most people live no where near farms, and we treat visiting them as a sort of field trip.

This psychological and physical disconnection can make it hard to notice, much less address, the mounting harm of our consumer market. But our modern society is also good at disseminating more information, and a greater number of people are becoming conscious about their food supply (among other goods) and working to change their habits.

Still, it’s not impossible to buy and prepare good food even on a tight budget. Seeking to bust the myth that fast food is cheaper than cooking, Mark Bittman has argued that making a meal of roast chicken, salad, and vegetables costs about half as much as buying a family of four dinner at McDonald’s, and while Tom Philpott points out that cooking at home requires unpaid labor, making a “fuss-free meal” one that’s hard to refuse, he notes that cooking can be enjoyable work once you know what you’re doing. (For more on how to eat well without going broke or burning out, see Kiera’s interview with the chef and author Tamar Adler.) And even eating out a lot isn’t necessarily a bad thing—spending money at locally-owned restaurants is a great way to put money back into your community. (Though of course it’s harder to find out where your food comes from when you go out to eat without turning into a Portlandia sketch.)

As in most instances, humans must place catch up with their own developments, be they technological innovations or entire economic systems. In this case, people will simply need to find their roots and go back to “traditional” ways of eating: less processed and pre-packaged stuff, and more fresh and homemade meals. Obviously, some junk won’t hurt, but moderation will certainly be crucial – though given the high bar we’ve set as to how much we eat, moderate consumption may be comparatively more extreme.

I see growing pushback against the food system, evidenced by the slew of documentaries exploring the industry, the proliferation of farmers markets and urban gardens, and the increasing discussion people around me are having about eating healthy. I’m confident things will change with time, albeit slowly. People are asking questions and becoming self-aware, especially in my generation. Since the recession a few years back, we’re much more willing to self-evaluate how we do things, how we live, and at what cost to ourselves and the planet.

It should be clear by now that whether we’re talking about iPhonesanthropomorphic stuffed bacon toys, or actual bacon, expecting to get more for less comes at a cost. I’m not suggesting we should take as our model the days when people spent fully a third of their incomes on food; making food more expensive makes it harder for poor—and middle class—people to afford. But I do think it’s worth reevaluating our spending priorities, and wondering why we’re so reluctant to pay a bit more for something so essential. The big question is how we can value food more without turning healthy food into a luxury item or making people who are already struggling to pay their bills worse off.

Another Green Revolution perhaps? Or a subsidy of healthy foods? Whatever the means, it’ll be sure to require considerable social and financial investment by the public – hopefully less costly and difficult than the consequences we’re dealing with from the status quo.

Conservative Christianity and the Environment

Generally speaking, the political right is far less amiable to environmentalism than the left. Of course there are exceptions, and there wasn’t always a political divide when it came to environmental issues. But nowadays, American conservatives are more hostile than ever towards environmental causes: they are more likely to deny climate change, support the curtailment or outright abolishment of the EPA (which was established by the Nixon administration), and oppose policies related to environmental regulations in general.

Again, these are generalizations of a very broad ideology, and there are certainly nuances in each of these debates – for example, some conservatives support environmental causes in principle, but disagree with the way they’re addressed. They may prefer free-market solutions rather than statist ones. We can argue about the efficacy of their proposed alternatives, but at least we’d have common cause.

Unfortunately, many conservatives do oppose ecological considerations as a matter of principle, and they’re especially likely to do so when their conservative politics is intertwined with fundamentalist faith: as most polls have shown, the Christian Right is far less concerned with the environment than their secular co-conservatives, let alone the rest of the population.

No one embodies this better than current (as if this writing) GOP presidential candidate Rick Santorum, who embodies the ascendant social conservatism of his party. While I try to keep my blog postings timeless, and thereby avoid narrowly topical events, I feel that the following example is and will remain relevant for some time.

Columnist James Wood of the New Yorker analyzes Santorum’s views on the environment and in the process makes a larger case about the impact of Christianity (namely the fundamentalist kind) on humanity’s attitude about our ecological role.

If Rick Santorum is so staunch a Catholic, why does he often sound such a Protestant, not to say puritanical, note? His remarks about how President Obama’s world view is just “some phony theology” have received a lot of attention but too little examination. It turned out that Santorum was talking, in general terms, about “radical environmentalists,” and using environmentalism as a synecdoche for everything he abominates in secular progressive politics. “This idea that man is here to serve the earth as opposed to husband its resources and be good stewards of the earth” is, he maintained on CBS’s “Face the Nation,” “a phony ideal. I don’t believe that’s what we’re here to do. That man is here to use the resources and use them wisely, to care for the earth, to be a steward of the earth. But we’re not here to serve the earth. The earth is not the objective. Man is the objective, and I think a lot of radical environmentalists have it upside-down.” That kind of ideology, he complained, “elevates the earth above man.

Put aside theology for a moment. Just intellectually, there are many peculiarities here. According to Santorum, environmentalists and leftists believe in serving the earth, while proper Christians “should have dominion over it, and should be good stewards of it.” The distinction Santorum is working here is between a very narrow definition of service as idol-worship (in which the earth becomes our fetish), and stewardship as responsible husbandry. He means, in effect: “Secularists have made a false idol of the earth, whereas God is the only true object of worship.” (And note that he can make this point only by taking the cherished Christian term “service” and casting secular dirt on it.)

I’m not quite sure why Santorum believes that service to the Earth is mutually exclusive to service to mankind. This is a false dichotomy: we have a duty to both humankind and the planet in which resides. After all, we cannot thrive on a planet where ecosystems are degraded, temperatures are rising, and resources are being depleted.

His claim about environmentalists putting the concerns Earth above humanity is also a straw man. Again, few environmentalists believe in sacrificing our race for the good of the planet. True, many of them do advocate that we make some sacrifices: investing more in government efforts to reign down on pollution for example, or changing our lifestyle habits. But most causes necessarily ask something of us, and I don’t think we’re being self-destructive in trying to make Earth more livable for us and the ecosystems we depend on.

Of course, some of you will point out that Santorum specifically highlighted “radical environmentalists,” not the movement as a whole. But he strongly alluded to the fact that the secular progressive left as a whole, including Obama, fall under the description. The president has hardly been radical in his environmental policies, nor are mainstream leftists. Clearly, Santorum has a very low standard for what he defines as radical.

Also note that, as usual, different Christians will derive dissimilar if not outright contradictory meanings from the same Biblical source. I’ve met my share of Christians who are staunch environmentalists, and who can point to all sorts of Biblical lines that they’ve interpreted to be pro-environment. Even those whose actions are not explicitly grounded in religious doctrine nonetheless see no conflict between “radical” environmentalism and their faith.

Semantics is a big part of this. As Woods points out, Santorum is using the term “service” in his own way, and no doubt his idea of being “good stewards” of the Earth is far different from that of many of his coreligionists, who can and do take the same phrase to mean exactly the opposite: that we should indeed care for this God-given planet, rather than despoil it.

But the views of Santorum and his fellow religious conservatives is not merely the result of political ideological or contrary interpretation. It stems from the very nature of religion as a whole, and Christianity in particular, and the subsequent effect on the human psyche.

Christianity, with its emphasis on the afterlife, has always had a tendency to derogate earthly living as a kind of spectral vanity. And the early Christians, who like St. Paul were convinced that Jesus’s return, and thus the end of the known world, was imminent, had particular reason to treat life as a ghostly antechamber to the joys of eternity. There is a sharp difference between the other-worldly asceticism of Christianity and the life-filled practicality of Biblical Judaism, which has a vague or non-existent notion of the afterlife. It was this asceticism, among other irritants, that caused Nietzsche to accuse Christianity of turning life upside-down—of privileging sickness over health, weakness over strength, the life to come over the life here. “Christianity was, from the beginning, essentially and fundamentally, nausea and disgust with life, merely concealed behind, masked by, dressed up as, faith in ‘another’ or ‘better’ life,” he wrote in “The Birth of Tragedy.” As the secularist might see it, Santorum is the one who has got things upside-down.

….It is there in the works of John Hooper (c. 1500-1555), considered the father of English Puritanism, when he writes that we must “see, know and understand the vanities of this world, the shortness and misery of this life, and the treasures of the life to come.” It is there in John Bunyan’s “The Pilgrim’s Progress,” and omni-present in Jonathan Edwards’s work, notably in “The Christian Pilgrim,” when he writes that the enjoyment of God is the only happiness with which our souls can be satisfied:

“To go to heaven, fully to enjoy God, is infinitely better than the most pleasant accommodation here. Fathers and mothers, husbands and wives, or children, or the company of earthly friends are but shadows; but God is the substance.”

Indeed, this has long been one of my biggest qualms with Christianity, which is its tendency to breed a sort of underlying nihilism among its adherents. Salvation is not predicated on taking care of this material Earth – which is essentially nothing more than testing ground for our souls – or on improving the human condition. Belief and acceptance of Christ trumps all other considerations.

Of course, many Christians do care about this planet and its inhabitants, and do make an effort to help both. But the point is that they don’thave to, and many of their fellow believers seem fatally unconcerned about such “worldly” issues. After all, the fate of their eternal souls is far more consequential than that of this finite, ultimately unimportant world.

Why else would the US, the most religious of the world’s developed nations, also be the most skeptical of climate change, the most tolerant of social inequity, and the most dysfunctional as far as high rates of crime, poverty, teen pregnancy, and the like. Certainly, many other factors are responsible. But the fact that religious piety, for all its purported merits, has not led to greater overall progress on these fronts highlights that negative consequences of being too steeped in transcendent ideologies.

Santorum may claim, as he did in 2008, that “mainline Protestantism in this country … is gone from the world of Christianity, as I see it,” but, with his attacks on “Satan” and “sensuality,” and his apocalyptic or even post-millennial Christianity, he often sounds like an eighteenth-century American Puritan.

Hence a particular impatience with the values of environmental conservation. For the apocalyptic Christian, sights set firmly on heavenly life, the earth might indeed be a finite and transitory thing, what William Blake wonderfully called a “mundane egg.” Man is what needs to be protected, because each of us is a soul, whose eternal fate is up for grabs.

So when Santorum says that we must be good stewards of the earth, there is religious zealotry behind the sweet words. He is proposing, in effect, that the earth is dispensable but that our souls are not; that we will all outlive the earth, whether in heaven or hell. The point is not that he is elevating man above the earth; it is that he is separating man and earth. If President Obama really does elevate earth over man (accepting Santorum’s absurd premise for a moment), then at least he believes in keeping man and earth together. Santorum’s brand of elevation involves severing man from man’s earthly existence, which is why it is coherent only within a theological eschatology (a theology of the last days). And he may well believe that man cannot actually destroy the earth through such violence as global warming, for the perfectly orthodox theological reason that the earth will come to an end (or be renewed) only when Christ comes again to judge the living and the dead. In other words, global warming can’t exist because it is not in God’s providential plan: the Lord will decide when the earth expires. This is Santorum’s “theology,” phony or otherwise.

Woods identifies the crux of the problem that I was alluding to: that religions are generally more concerned with the world thereafter, than with the here and now. Santorum’s view is hardly a unique one, which is precisely why our society has higher rates of climate change denial, among other things.

This sort of worldview is obviously dangerous, for at best, it leads us to be indifferent to the existential plight of this planet, and at worst, abets self-destructive behavior on both an individual and societal level. The world will end anyway, and that’ll be God’s call. So why worry?

In practice, many Christians, even those who prescribe to this worldview, don’t actually act in this way (thankfully). But the fact that such a belief system exists at all is a matter of great concern, as it seeks to gamble away the fate of our one and only existence on the basis of an unevidenced divine master plan.

Synthetic Meat

The BBC has reported on a pretty odd breakthrough: the successful growing of meat in a Dutch laboratoryIn vitro meat isn’t that new of an achievement, despite how radical it sounds; the process was first accomplished a few years ago. But continued progress in this unusual endeavor is nonetheless exciting, for three key reasons.

The first and most obvious advantage is the ability to obtain meat without having to kill anything. It may some day be possible to harvest meat no differently than we do crops – to enjoy its nutrition and taste without abetting the horrific and widespread suffering that results. As a would-be vegetarian concerned about the treatment of animals, I find this aspect most favorable. But I know of many non-vegetarians that have qualms about where they get their meat and how. Plenty of people enjoy animal products but the unsavory consequences.

Second, lab-grown meat wouldn’t be as ecologically devastating as industrialized farming. Many people are unaware of the environmental costs of supporting livestock on such a large-scale. Cattle alone literally produce tons of methane gas and excrement, which not only pollutes the local area but erodes our atmosphere. A lot of space and energy is required to support livestock, which means more deforestation and climate-altering CO2. As demand for meat increasing, especially in the fast-growing developing world, these trends will put even more undue stress on our planet.

Which leads to the third cause for support: the current meat-market is wasteful and inefficient, not only for the environment but for people. The billions of livestock we raise require a lot of water and food that could otherwise go to almost as many people. It’s estimated that enough grain to feed 100 million people goes to feed cows whose meat will ultimately feed only 6 million – in a world rife with starvation, this is a travesty, especially considering that meat is consumed more out of luxury than necessity (nutritionally, we don’t need as much meat, if any, as we do the staple grains we lose to provide it). Fresh water is also in short supply in much of the world, so in aggregate terms we’re competing with our own source of food over dwindling water resources.

Plus, if meat can be produced on an industrial scale, it may go a long way to mitigating mass hunger, assuming the process can be made cheaper and the supply mechanisms are more efficient (we already produce a surplus of good globally, yet malnutrition and starvation persist).

Of course, it’ll probably be awhile until we see synthetic meat on the market. As the article notes, scientists are working on improving the taste so it’s more palatable – as crass as it sounds, sensory stimulation probably guides people’s food choices more than any ethical or nutritional concerns. And if the controversy of GM crops is any indication, there will be a lot of reservations about consuming something that was grown in a lab. Such concerns would be understandable, which is why I hope to see more research and debate on this issue.

Please share your own reactions and thoughts.