Monday, December 21, 2009

The Conservationist's Christmas

I'm pleased as punch with all the terrific and eco-friendly alternatives to gift buying, gift giving, and even gift wrapping that are cropping up both in stores and on the Internet these days. I don't know whether it's a result of increased environmental awareness, the prolonged economic recession, or both, but there are so many alternatives now to the commercial consumerism trend that has dominated Christmases past that it has become hard-- even for those who equate Christmas with presents and presents only-- for people not to consider the impact of their purchases!

When it comes to buying gifts, the options are as varied as the gift givers themselves; there's bound to be something for everybody! For the person who has everything, a donation can be made in their honor to any number of charities. Whether it's a charity that holds special significance for the gift recipient or an organization that puts the money toward a more specific purpose, such as rescuing a penguin or providing seeds for farmers in Africa, the gesture is appreciated and the money is put to good use. While these aren't always the most exciting gifts to receive, I really think it is more representative of the true meaning of Christmas than, say, a Play Station, because you're giving for the sake of giving and helping those in need, even though you're not getting anything (tangible) in return.

Another option would be to purchase fair-trade goods or seek out companies that are pledging to donate a portion of their profits to a specific cause or charity. I managed to do both when I bought fair-trade coffee for my brother-in-law; not only were workers in a far-away country getting a living wage for their product, a part of the proceeds went to feeding orphans as well! Then, of course, are the artisans and companies that use recovered, reclaimed, or recycled goods to make new and one-of-a-kind merchandise. They turn trash back into treasure by making purses out of old seat belts or colorful necklaces out of discarded magazines; the offerings are quite varied, and very creative!

When it comes to wrapping all these environmentally responsible, one-of-a-kind gifts, there are a number of equally Earth-friendly options available. I purchased a number of decorative gift boxes back in January; they already look like they've been wrapped, so I just add a bow and call it a day! Same goes for gift bags... I don't think I've ever purchased a new one of these, I've just repurposed the bags from gifts that I've received!

And for those odd or irregularly shaped items that just won't fit in a box or a bag, consider using butcher's paper instead of traditional wrapping paper (which is not recyclable!). Dress it up by adding a bow, and save a tag by writing directly on the paper! Some people have suggested purchasing fabric remnants and using those in place of wrapping paper; maybe if I'm at a craft store during their after-Christmas clearance sale, perhaps I'll look into it. I've also lobbied for saving and reusing gift tags (the tie-on tags, not the sticky tags-- I'm not that bad!) because it requires minimal storage and will save time when labeling gifts for next Christmas.

So what are you doing in the name of conservation this Christmas? I think my favorite idea this season has been the second-hand Christmas my sister is having with her husband and in-laws. All the gifts have to be a hand-me-down or a "regift", or from a second-hand or antique store or a garage sale. That's one sure-fire way to avoid the mall-- I can't wait to hear what they got! I think if I were to participate in a gift swap like that, I would throw the option of supporting charities or purchasing fair-trade or repurposed goods into the mix; now that would be a conservationist's Christmas!

Friday, December 4, 2009

"Poison Fest"?

Last night, a murder spree of Biblical proportions took place in a six-mile stretch of the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal near Romeoville, which is about 40 miles southwest of the city. The killing was both premeditated and indiscriminate, and the resulting carnage is staggering. I'm talking about a decision by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources to dump 2,200 gallons of rotenone, a toxin that is lethal to-- as some expert on the WGN morning news said (in his best movie trailer narration voice)-- "anything with gills". This drastic measure was taken to prevent the Asian carp from continuing their journey from the Mississippi River into Lake Michigan, which, for the Great Lakes ecosystem (and the commercial fishing industry as well) is a "doomsday" destination.

The Asian carp in question is more accurately known as the Bighead carp; of the five known species of carp in this country, all of them came from Asia. This includes the common carp, which was brought over in the 1830s and is now considered to be a native species. The Bighead carp (along with the Silver carp) were deliberately imported from Eastern China in the 1960s and 70s by catfish farmers and wildlife experts to improve water quality and to control aquatic vegetation. The problem is, these huge fish (with voracious appetites) escaped their enclosures in the 1990s (likely after a flood), and entered a number of waterways in this country, namely the Mississippi River. They're bottom feeders that reproduce freely, and they eat such a ridiculous amount of plankton that it disrupts the entire food chain, established long ago by the many species native to these ecosystems. These carp can range anywhere from 50-100 pounds, and they have an especially disturbing habit of responding to boat traffic by leaping out of the water and slapping their huge, scaly bodies into boaters or fishermen or skiers; a number of people have been injured by these giant, flying fish!

This is just one of many failed attempts to control one biological nuisance by importing a species that is not native to the area, which in turn becomes an even bigger nuisance than the pests it was brought in to control! I'm not in favor of indiscriminate chemical controls, either (like those deployed last night), but I'm afraid I don't have a satisfactory solution to the problem at hand.

So what is rotenone, exactly? According to this article from Reuters, it is a "natural poison that prevents fish gills from absorbing oxygen." It goes on to say that it is "used as a broad-spectrum insecticide and pesticide, kills fish and freshwater snails but does not harm other animals. It dissipates within two days, though authorities plan to introduce a neutralizing agent to speed up the process." More specifically, it is a natural pesticide derived from the roots of tropical and subtropical plants and is used in organic gardening, on household plants, and as flea and tick control on pets. The fish and insects affected by this toxin die slowly, but stop eating almost immediately.

Other sources (which I can't verify, so I won't list here) suggest that it may contribute to mammary tumors and changes in blood composition in pets that accidentally inhale or ingest the stuff, and may possibly be linked to Parkinson's Disease in humans who have had chronic exposure. The sentence that bothered me the most in all of my readings was:
"There is considerable controversy over the use of rotenone to kill non-game fish in water body management areas. One study found that the practice has a substantially harmful effect on biodiversity, in which several populations of the native fish showed negligible signs of recovering stocks, while populations of all exotic species are up."

Invasive species are bad-- I get that-- but the killing of any living creature (an estimated 200,000 POUNDS of dead fish are expected to be recovered within the next couple of days!) on such an expansive scale just doesn't sit well with me, especially since early reports have turned up only one big, bad carp and scads of good, native fish. Surely there's a better way... right?