Greening Up: Grasping at Straws
“The whale represents all living creatures. They’re so precious, they’re so wonderful, just like this universe is, like this planet is, and like you are. We have to never forget that. You’re part of it. We’re here for a reason and that’s to make sure this universe stays beautiful and wonderful and brilliant. And it’s so important to remember how precious life is.” – Charlie Haden
On Song for the Whales, legendary jazz bass player, composer and political activist Charlie Haden imitates whale vocalization with his bow and bass, starting the music in motion.
Song for the Whales was Haden’s passionate plea for protection of the natural world. It first appeared on the album Old and New Dreams in 1977.
Subsequently, it was recorded as a duet with pianist John Taylor on the album Nightfall released in 2011.
A 12-piece orchestra live version was recorded by Belgium Public Radio at the 2011 Jazz Middelheim Festival in Antwerp and released in 2016 on the Impulse album Time/Life (Song for the Whales and Other Beings. Haden spoke the words above to the audience after playing the tune.
Charlie Haden – who died in 2014 at 76 – was a jazz musician with a loving concern for social justice and the environment.
Haden collaborated with pianist-composer Carla Bley in 1969 to form the Liberation Music Orchestra, which blended experimental big band jazz with world folk music, including songs of the Spanish Civil War. He periodically reconvened the Liberation Music Orchestra, producing albums as jazz protests against racial and political strife in South Africa and Latin America as well as events like the Vietnam War and the invasion of Iraq.
Interviewed in 2006 by Amy Goodman on Democracy Now!, Haden said: “When you’re a sensitive human being and you see the things that are going on around you that aren’t human, you know, you have to speak out and do something about it.”
He said he felt it was his duty as a musician to bring beauty back into the world.
“It’s up to people in the arts, the painters, the writers, the composers, the dance troupes, everybody, the actors, the people who write poetry,” Haden told Goodman. “You know, it’s up to us to try to make a difference in this world and try to make this planet a better place to live for all the human beings and stop the cruelty and the devastation that’s going on, you know, and have a great place.”
“The whole underlying theme for the new music…is to communicate honest, human values, and in doing that to try to improve the quality of life.” – Charlie Haden
Even though Obama was in the White House in 2008 and there was no Republican to reproach or rake over the coals, Haden wanted to make another orchestra album about the trashing of the environment, a subject he was deeply into.
“For Charlie, the environment was always a political issue,” Ruth Cameron Haden, Haden’s wife and co-producer said. “We wanted that to be the focus of this orchestra recording, which we knew would be his last.”
“Time/Life: Song for the Whales and Other Beingswas inspired by concern at global ecological destruction, and to that end the music has a pervasive melancholy colored by the LMO’s signature lyricism, and broken up by stirring collective and individual passages,” says AllAboutJazz.com.
I’ve been listening to and thinking about this album for the past few days. As heat records are broken around the world, ice is melting in both the Arctic and Antarctica, seas are rising and warming, and it is apparent that whales are not the only species that are endangered.
What about those millions of other species with which we share the planet?
Seattle bans plastic straws and utensils
It appears the plight of one turtle may be shifting our attitude toward the ubiquitous single-use plastic straw which can take up to 200 years to decompose.
In 2015, a researcher with the Leatherback Trust removed a 10 cm (4 in) plastic straw that was entirely embedded into the nostril of an olive ridley sea turtle. A YouTube video of Nathan J. Robinson removing the straw has been viewed more than 10 million times.
Another video of a plastic fork being removed from the nostril of another olive ridley sea turtle has been viewed more than 8 million times.
Over 260 species, including invertebrates, turtles, fish, seabirds and mammals, have been reported to ingest or become entangled in plastic debris, resulting in impaired movement and feeding, reduced reproductive output, lacerations, ulcers and death, according to the Plastic Pollution Coalition.
On July 1, Seattle became the largest American city to ban the use of plastic straws and utensils. The city’s ordinance now requires all food service businesses to provide compostable or recyclable food serviceware.
As part of a suite of waste reduction initiatives adopted in May, Vancouver will become the first Canadian city to ban plastic drinking straws and the distribution of polystyrene foam cups and containers, as well as restrictions on disposable cups and plastic shopping bags. The new rules come into effect on June 1, 2019.
A statement released by the city said 2.6 million plastic-lined paper cups and two million plastic bags are thrown in the garbage in Vancouver every week.
500 million plastic straws used every day
Seattle was not the first U.S. city to ban straws; Fort Myers, Florida instituted a ban on plastic straws on February 4, 2018.
A week after the ban on plastic drinking straws and utensils took effect in its hometown of Seattle, Starbucks said that by 2020 it will be using straws made from biodegradable materials like paper and specially designed lids. The company already offers alternative straws in Seattle.
Other businesses have announced bans. McDonalds will ban plastic straws at its U.K. and Ireland restaurants. Bon Appétit Management, a food service company with 1,000 U.S. locations, announced last Mayit will phase out plastic straws. Alaska Airlines will be one of the first airlines to phase out plastic straws and stirrers.
Bartender Kelsey Ramage is spearheading an initiative to make alternatives to plastic straws common in the world’s bars. Along with bartender Iain Griffiths, he started Trash Tiki, a roving cocktail pop-up that teaches fellow bartenders how to bring sustainability to the bar – and have a little fun with it.
It is estimated that 500 million plastic straws are used every single dayin the U.S. A 2017 studyestimated 4 to 12 million metric tons of plastic waste generated on land entered the marine environment in 2010 alone. And a study released in 2014 estimated that 5 trillion plastic pieces weighing over 250,000 tons were afloat in the world’s oceans. Many more tons have already sunk to the bottom.
The Plastic Pollution Coalition says unless things change, plastic waste will outweigh fish in the world’s oceans by 2050.
Humans need to understand our impacts
The plastic straw is not an absolute necessity. After all, better alternatives exist so changing our behaviour regarding plastic straws and other plastic food serviceware shouldn’t be too hard.
But the plastic straw is just the tip of the iceberg (so to speak) when it comes to understanding humanity’s impact on planet Earth.
In an essay in the book Living in the Anthropocene: Earth in the Age of Humans, George Luber writes “Today, almost a third of Earth’s arable land has been converted to cropland or pasture, more than 90 percent of monitored fisheries are harvested at or above sustainable yield limits, about half of annual available freshwater is appropriated for human use, and species extinction rates are more than a hundred times greater than has been observed in the fossil record.”
We are just beginning to understand more “about our impacts, and our impact’s impacts” as Elizabeth Kolbert says in the book’s foreword.
As the Global Footprint Network states, we humans are using 1.7 Earths and this year, Earth Overshoot Day (the date when all of humanity have used more from nature than our planet can regenerate in the entire year) falls on August 1st, two days earlier than last year.
Humans are exhausting Earth’s resources
This year’s date is the earliest date since ecological overshoot started in the early 1970s. For instance, in 1970 Earth Overshoot Day fell on December 29. This date comparison reveals how quickly humanity has been overusing the planet’s resources over the past 48 years.
Another comparison: Earth Overshoot Day fell on September 30 in 1997; humans have moved the date two whole months in just 22 years.
The costs of this global ecological overspending are becoming increasingly evident around the world, in the form of deforestation; fresh-water scarcity; soil erosion; biodiversity loss; and the buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, leading to climate chaos and more severe droughts, wildfires, and hurricanes.
“Our current economies are running a Ponzi scheme with our planet,” says Mathis Wackernagel, CEO and co-founder of Global Footprint Network. “We are borrowing the Earth’s future resources to operate our economies in the present. Like any Ponzi scheme, this works for some time. But as nations, companies, or households dig themselves deeper and deeper into debt, they eventually fall apart.”
“It’s time to end this ecological Ponzi scheme by design, not by disaster. It’s time to #MoveTheDate.” Wackernagel adds. “This is critical if humanity is to thrive.”
Reversing the trend
The current trend is not our destiny; we can reverse it. If we moved back Earth Overshoot Day by 5 days every year, we would return to using the resources of less than one planet by 2050.
The Global Footprint Network offers many solutions. For instance, replacing 50 percent of meat consumption with a vegetarian diet would move the date of Overshoot Day by 5 days; reducing the carbon component of the global Ecological Footprint by 50 percent would move the date of Overshoot Day by 93 days.
Calgary was one of the first cities to develop specific Ecological Footprint reduction targets. (The Ecological Footprintis the only metric that measures how much nature we have and how much nature we use.)
In 2005, Calgary participated in one of the first Ecological Footprint studies focused at the municipal level, in collaboration with Global Footprint Network. The analysis found that Calgary’s per capita Footprint exceeded the Canadian average by more than 30 percent, at 9.8 global hectares per person. If everyone on earth had the same Ecological Footprint as the average Calgary resident, we would need five Earths to maintain that level of resource consumption.
As a result, reducing Calgary’s Ecological Footprint was selected as one of 114 targets that were set as part of imagineCALGARY, the City of Calgary’s 100-year sustainability vision. Calgary aims to reduce its Footprint to the national average of 7.25 global hectares per person by 2036.
Canada has a long way to go
But Canada’s Ecological Footprint is not one any other country should emulate.
According to the Global Footprint Network, Canada does not have a country overshoot day – the date that Earth Overshoot Day would fall if all of humanity consumed like the people in that country – to be proud of.
GFN calculates Canada’s country overshoot day as March 18th, the fifth highest in the world, trailing only Qatar (Feb. 9), Luxembourg (Feb. 19), United Arab Emirates (Mar. 4) and the United States (Mar. 15).
So while banning plastic drinking straws is a good idea, it is only the first step to make our country and our planet truly sustainable.
We are faced with a gradually escalating, often invisible form of environmental danger.
Once it is explained to us and we understand it, we need to give ourselves the energy to invent a new form of existence on this planet.
We are in a marathon and we cannot slacken our pace.
“I just see myself as a human being that’s concerned about life.” – Charlie Haden
Charlie Haden, in the 76 years of his life as a musician, witnessed the world around him degrading and landscapes disappearing. Through his music he has warned us of the villainy of our political systems and the ongoing crimes against the environment.
So thank you Charlie for your messages of hope, your calls to action, and your discouragement of cynicism. You are one of my heroes and why I write this in hopes of a just and sustainable future.
Michael Jessen is an eco-writer and sustainability consultant living at Longbeach near Balfour, BC. Michael can be reached by email at email@example.com