How Much Is Your Coastline Worth?

I recently saw this demonstration of how mangroves protect shorelines from erosion.

It’s incredible how Mother Nature has developed simple tools to support biodiversity, even against the powerful forces of ocean waves. Unfortunately, we haven’t been the best stewards of these natural gifts.

WWF reports that more than 35% of the world’s mangroves are already gone. The figure is as high as 50% in countries such as India, the Philippines, and Vietnam, while in the Americas they are being cleared at a rate faster than tropical rainforests.

I am reminded of the case of Louisiana’s coastal ecosystem, presented in the Al-Jazeera investigation The Disappearing Delta. Louisiana’s bayou, dubbed one of the fastest-disappearing land masses on the planet, has experienced nearly 2,000 square miles of land erased from the state’s map in the last century. Mike Tidwell summarizes the destruction:

“An area of land the size of Manhattan is subtracted from south Louisiana every 10 months – it turns to water. A football field every 30 minutes. An area the size of Delaware since the 1930’s. It’s just astonishing how much land has disappeared.”

This destruction is caused by the fossil fuel industry and their continuous exploration for more product. The clearing of vegetation along coastal habitats leads to rapid erosion, scarring the landscape forever.

Ninety-nine percent of the Isle de Jean Charles, an island once 11 miles long and five miles wide, is now underwater. “[Jean Charles was] destroyed purely by oil and natural gas,” local resident Preston Mayeaux says. “The big deep canals brought in the saltwater intrusion, then they abandoned the canals. And when they abandoned the canals system… the saltwater goes in and out in and out, killing everything, all the vegetation.”

Beyond the environmental destruction, the government now has to pay the price of awarding this precious land to oil and gas exploration. The state’s Coastal Protection and Restoration Agency (CPRA) is now trying to rebuild land with sediment from the Mississippi River in a $50 billion plan to restore the coast. The only problem? Louisiana doesn’t have that kind of money. “We can’t protect everyone from everything, and there’s an inherent vulnerability living with the coast,” says Jerome Zeringue, head of the CPRA. “Louisiana is doing what it can to participate and protect this valuable resource, but it’s a national issue and a national concern. And we need national interests to support us as well.”

But who’s responsible for the damage? The investigation goes to the disappearing wetlands at Venice gas fields, where Chevron and other major firms have operated for decades. “The oil companies should be involved in [restoration efforts]. They benefited from Louisiana, and the people of Louisiana benefited from the oil companies,” said coastal restoration expert Ryan Lambert. “It’s all a circle. You can’t just blame the oil companies. They need to come to the table and help.”

Baton Rouge attorney Don Carmouche is pursuing a several lawsuits against oil, gas and pipeline companies in two Louisiana parishes. In Plaquemines Parish, an area heavily reliant on the industry for jobs, Councilman Byron Marinovich supported the legal challenge as a way to fund sorely needed restoration efforts. “What we need to do is start building these coasts back so we don’t have these super hurricanes coming through here like Katrina,” he says. In December 2014, he lost his re-election bid to an industry-supported candidate. Not surprisingly, the elections race in Plaquemines Parish was influenced by an organization known as LOGA, or Louisiana Oil and Gas Association.

Meanwhile, as Louisiana’s oil industry battles lawsuits onshore, the industry is shifting focus to offshore deep water drilling. Reporters went to the Gulf of Mexico to explore a new frontier for exploration, known as offshore fracking. “The industry has kept pretty silent about the amount of fracking that’s going on, and the federal agencies charged with issuing permits and enforcing environment laws have not revealed very much information,” says  Jonathan Henderson of the Gulf Restoration Network.

“We’re talking about fracking that is basically along the entire Louisiana coast,” said Miyoko Sakashita of the Center for Biological Diversity. “It’s in shallow water, near communities…Some of the fracking was actually permitted in the Mississippi Canyon, where the Deepwater Horizon accident was.”

It’s a real shame that the American authorities did not learn from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, which released 4.9 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico as a result of the gross negligence and reckless conduct of British Petroleum. Instead, the US government continues to give leases to a fossil fuel industry making record profiles while performing extremely risky drilling and exploration. Risky for the coastal environment and everyone who depends on it.

In addition to the vulnerabilities that climate change brings to coastal communities around the world, the destruction of mangrove forests and other coastal habitats by industry, especially fossil fuel companies, leaves people at extreme risk. The costs are far too high. As seen in Louisiana, companies will destroy habitat and then leave the cleanup to the rest of us, while they’ve made incredible profits. People employed by these companies will be left jobless once they leave. Governments will cut social services to pay for the cleanup of corporate greed. We all lose.


Rethinking ‘Reduce, Reuse, Recycle’

Growing up as children, we were all told to “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.”

Collecting glass bottles, aluminum cans and plastic containers was easy to do and felt good. And since it was in line with this simple three-word chant, it seemed like we were doing the right thing. Unfortunately, this chant has not curbed the growing consumerism found in rich, Western countries.

rrrOne reason is that it equates a reduction in the consumption of products with recycling products. These are two very different actions. The easy-to-recognize ‘green triangles’ that are found at recycling facilities and on most products themselves further this inaccuracy.

We have become societies that rely on both to take care of our needs and any associated costs. We have removed ourselves from the debate.

A decision-making hierarchy is needed to change the shopping habits of consumers. Here’s one example of that idea:

  1. Reduce consumption of products.
  2. Reuse these products until they are unusable.
  3. Recycle once they become unusable.

To think about this, let’s look at the fashion industry.

Greenpeace provides an overview of the water depletion, pollution and waste that our fashion choices produce:

  • First, there’s water consumption. 2 billion pairs of jeans are produced every year, and a typical pair takes 7,000 litres of water to produce. For a t-shirt, it takes 2,700 litres of water to make just one– that’s the amount of water an average person drinks over the course of 900 days!
  • Secondly, there’s the dyeing process of which 1.7 million tonnes of various chemicals are used; not to mention the hazardous chemicals like PFCs that leave a permanent impact on our environment.
  • And what about the clothing that doesn’t make it to market? An estimated 400 billion square meters of textiles are produced annually, of which 60 billion square meters are left on the cutting room floor. Each year over 80 billion pieces of clothing are produced worldwide, and after its short lifespan, three out of four garments will end up in landfills or be incinerated. Only a quarter will be recycled.

According to Plenitude: The New Economics of True Wealth by Juliet B. Schor, Americans for instance, consume three times as much as their ancestors did fifty years ago, and they buy twice as many items of clothing as they did twenty years ago. In 1991, the average American bought 34 items of clothing each year. By 2007, they were buying 67 items every year. That’s a new piece of clothing every four to five days!


Thinking beyond “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” (Source)

Recycling torn textiles or donating clothes to secondhand retailers does nothing to address these fundamental environmental issues. Fast fashion and the garment industry also causes severe labour rights abuses, especially towards women.

Consumers, especially people who purchase with extreme frequency, need to evaluate the true costs of their purchases.

Let’s look at another example, one that is small is size but has a big impact: the plastic water bottle.

A hundred years ago, Leo Baekeland invented Bakelite, an inexpensive, nonflammable, versatile, and popular plastic, which marked the beginning of the modern plastics industry. In the podcast “How Oil Got Into Everything”, NPR reports how Baekeland’s process put oil into everything we use today: our sneakers, our clothes, and the computer or phone that you’re looking at right now.

It was a discovery that has had far-reaching, negative consequences in the decades that followed.


Plastic has been a tool for increased industrialization and progress, while also fueling climate change and environmental degradation. It’s been a blessing and a curse. Nothing illustrates this more than the plastic water bottle.

Americans buy an estimated half a billion plastic bottles of water every week. Even with widespread recycling, an estimated 2 million tons of plastic water bottles end up in landfills every year. To counter this, cities like San Francisco have introduced bans on the sale of single-use plastic water bottles on city-owned property. These political steps are useful but must follow a change in consumer perception and action.

Multi-national bottling corporations, like Pepsi and Coca-Cola, backed by lobbying groups, like the International Bottled Water Association, have been marketing bottled water as better than the incredible low-cost alternative: tap water. This is nothing but a sales pitch. In San Francisco, like most cities in North America, an estimated one third of bottled water is repackaged tap water.


The solution is to invest in a water bottle, filled with tap water. Cities and municipalities need to invest in clean drinking water with adequate water fountains.

You don’t have to recycle when you reduce your shopping habits.

Subliminal Activism: Photographs by Edward Burtynsky

“I wish my artwork could persuade millions of people to join a global conversation about sustainability.”

– Edward Burtynsky

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Through his aerial images, Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky has indeed persuaded many people, including myself, to join the conversation on environmental sustainability. (Edward Burtynsky’s artist website here. Photos above from 1, 2, 3, 4, 56, 7 sources.) The man-made industrial landscapes he photographs evokes awe from the viewer at the force and scale of destruction our species is capable of inflicting on the environment. Nature – the land, air and seas – is essential for human survival. However, nature has been fundamentally transformed in modern times, as Burtynsky reveals:

“Nature transformed through industry is a predominant theme in my work. I set course to intersect with a contemporary view of the great ages of man; from stone, to minerals, oil, transportation, silicon, and so on. To make these ideas visible I search for subjects that are rich in detail and scale yet open in their meaning. Recycling yards, mine tailings, quarries and refineries are all places that are outside of our normal experience, yet we partake of their output on a daily basis.

“These images are meant as metaphors to the dilemma of our modern existence; they search for a dialogue between attraction and repulsion, seduction and fear. We are drawn by desire – a chance at good living, yet we are consciously or unconsciously aware that the world is suffering for our success. Our dependence on nature to provide the materials for our consumption and our concern for the health of our planet sets us into an uneasy contradiction. For me, these images function as reflecting pools of our times.”

Our times are defined by hyper-industrialization. Industry is extracting commodities – oil, stone, etc. – to produce products – electronics, vehicles, etc. – at unprecedented rates. Burtynsky’s work and corresponding books below capture these themes on a global scale. No nation or people is immune from his lens and the questions it ultimately poses.

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Industry functioning within capitalism caters to the wealthiest segments of society, which has historically been the colonial/imperial powers of Europe and North America, while impoverished regions suffer the majority of the consequences. The planet is buckling under this rate of change and will have a difficult time adapting to over seven billion equally hungry consumers. Worst of all, we, as a species, are slow to do anything about this. Burtynsky reflects:

“Like all animals, human beings have always taken what they want from nature. But we are the rogue species. We are unique in our ability to use resources on a scale and at a speed that our fellow species can’t.”

The environmental movement has been fighting for decades to raise the public’s consciousness about the concerns of air and water pollution, over-fishing, deforestation, waste and, most recently, climate change. Success has been mixed but hasn’t reached a tipping point of public backing. Burtynsky shines a light on one of the reasons why:

“I think the environmental movement has failed in that it’s used the stick too much; it’s used the apocalyptic tone too much; it hasn’t sold the positive aspects of being environmentally concerned and trying to pull us out.”


Edward Burtynsky standing in front of his work at the Art Gallery of Alberta, 17 September 2010

Green politics has emerged as a real alternative, including political parties, to the political economy that has gotten us to this point. It questions the environmental degradation and uneven development created and maintained by global industrialization. It posits social alternatives to a worldview built on a finite resource: oil. It blends ecological respect with social justice and participatory democracy. At its core, green politics can use the imagery of Burtynsky to re-think what future we all want:

“You need to have an inquiring mind. You have to ask questions (…), not accept what is given, but say: ‘Why is it so?’ And it is in that kind of asking that you begin to get behind some of the issues that allow the world appear the way it does. So if you just accept the world the way it is and don’t question it I can’t see how you can go far creatively.”

Burtynsky has moved into the medium of film as well. In 2013, Burtynsky released Watermark, a documentary he co-directed with Jennifer Baichwal. In 2006, Baichwal had made Burtynsky the focus of her film Manufactured Landscapes.

Manufactured Landscapes highlights footage compiled from a trip to China where Burtynsky visited factories which Western society has come to rely on for most of its appliances, including a factory that produces most of the world’s supply of clothes irons, which is one kilometer in length and employs 23,000 workers. The film also features the Three Gorges Dam, which, along with being the largest dam in the world, has uprooted more than one million people and flooded 13 cities, 140 towns and 1350 villages since the beginning of its construction in 1994.

Watermark features water use practices around the world, including multiple scenes in China and the United States, as well as segments shot in eight other countries. In China, the film chronicles the building of the Xiluodu Dam and flooding of its reservoir. Unlike most documentaries, these films feature very little commentary, which allows viewers to take in the images and try to make sense of what they’re seeing, while at the same time the film “tries to shift our consciousness about the world and the way we live in it”.

In all, Burtynsky forces us, as humans, to resolve whether we will prioritize our environment, which sustains life, or industry, which consumes it. As Burtynsky notes:

“We come from the nature and we have to understand what it is, because we are connected to it and we are part of it. And if we destroy nature we destroy ourselves.”