The Outside Blog

Adventure : Politics

Michael Pollan and Other Eco-Titans On Smarter Ways to Cook, Eat, and Clean

IT'S HARD TO THINK of three more influential masters of holistic environmentalism than Michael Pollan, William McDonough, and Michael Braungart. Their classic books The Omnivore’s Dilemma (Pollan) and Cradle to Cradle (McDonough and Braungart) changed the way we think about food and consumer products—and did it by inviting readers to consider greater possibilities instead of browbeating them into limitations. This month finds all three offering long-awaited follow-ups.

In Cradle to Cradle, McDonough and Braungart—an architect and a chemist, respectively—introduced a manufacturing paradigm of continuous product reuse. No more planned obsolescence! Shutter the landfills! The ideas were ambitious, but some did find their way into the real world—every U.S. Postal Service Express and Priority Mail envelope is now cradle-to-cradle certified.

In The Upcycle: Beyond Sustainability—Designing for Abundance (North Point Press, $28), the pair propose another shift: moving from harm reduction to benefit creation. Where most see pollution, the authors see design opportunities. Why not recover valuable phosphate from human waste? “Stop thinking sewage,” they write, “and start thinking nutrient management.” Turbines too ugly? Use Amtrak’s 14,000 miles of rail easements, the authors suggest, as solar-power corridors. Upcycle’s prose is like a long TED Talk studded with corporate keynote-isms, but the authors have a knack for combining big ideas with commonsense practicality, which leaves readers feeling excited about the future.

In Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation (Penguin Press, $28), Pollan is aiming to spark another revolution. When asked what an ordinary person can do to reform the overindustrialized, calorie-stuffed American food system, Pollan gives a one-word answer: cook. That means a return to scratch home cooking, a pleasurable, ordinary act that we’ve outsourced to corporations in the name of convenience and cost savings. We live in an age of the “cooking paradox,” Pollan writes: the less we do it, the fatter we get. Pollan revives the lost art by learning how to do it well, working his way through four elements: fire (barbecuing with a pit master), water (pot cooking), air (baking), and soil (fermenting with the microbes of the earth).

As in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Pollan is never less than delightful, full of curiosity, insight, and good humor. This is a book to be read, savored, and smudged with spatterings of olive oil, wine, butter, and the sulfuric streaks of chopped onion.

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Daniela Ibarra-Howell on Saving the World's Grasslands

While climate scientists are constantly worrying about the effects of climate change on our planet, one man is doing something to stop it. Allan Savory began work in Zimbabwe studying desertification and has become a passionate advocate for changing the way we see grasslands. I had a chance to talk with the CEO and co-founder of the Savory Institute, Daniela Ibarra-Howell, who is working with Savory to renew our land and maybe even save our planet.

Savory and Ibarra-Howell believe in holistic land management, which involves careful planning, managed grazing, and accounting for the constant possibility of change.

How did you get involved in this movement?
It was a long time ago in Argentina. I was working on desertification control with the United Nations and the Argentine government in Patagonia. All the solutions we had at the time were unaffordable. I went to New Zealand to study more and I met my husband there. He introduced me to Allan Savory’s research.

The work made sense. I went to New Mexico to work on a plot of land with Savory. Then I knew I wanted to work with him.

When did it click that this was the right way to save our grasslands?
It was immediate. As soon as I went through Allan’s research all the pieces fell into place. It wasn’t just about better management, but about planning and understanding the complexity of the environment—natural, cultural, social, and political.

How did the Savory Institute come to be?
About three years ago we realized we needed a better model. We needed a bigger model in order to help our clients become more entrepreneurial, to empower others, and to inform policymakers.

How do you form relationships with the landowners who adopt your techniques?
Our work is completely community-driven. In the U.S. we work with local offices, whereas in Zimbabwe we work with smaller landowners. We learned something along the way. With private land there is more incentive for change because of the commercial interests of the owner. Unfortunately, in many of the countries we work in, there is no access to traditional financial markets.

So in order to work with a community we first find out what they want because inevitably new ways of land management will cause changes to tradition, but it must come with desire for change.

What is it like working in a diverse agrarian society like South Africa?
In South Africa we work mainly with native pastoralists with no access to markets so we have to figure out how to get funds for these people. Can we get commercial partners is always a big question. But we found in many communities that if we find the innovators in a community they will become the agents of change. These people are found in every community.

How do you deal with predation by large carnivores in places like Kenya?
We do no management of wildlife. What we do is try our best to understand its habitat needs. Everything is mapped and planned so that we are not stepping on land used for breeding at certain times of year.

In general, though, livestock do not know what to do when faced with predators, but we are experimenting with portable enclosures, which seem to be effective because lions won’t cross the barriers.

How do you train your clients?
Our training involves lots of different modules on planning, management, living with local wildlife, and sustainability. The more important question is can we execute? Sometimes we find that people understand our system in theory, but cannot put it into action for whatever reason. That’s why we like to create hubs nearby so that they can work with us.

Many areas of the world have already undergone terrible droughts and desertification. How do you start working in such challenging environments?
We will start in areas where work can still be done. In areas like the Horn of Africa and Central Australia, there is no hope without huge investments, but we start on the edges and tweak management to start rebuilding the land.

Australia actually has a huge holistic management culture in place. It’s a hugely pastoralist country and they are very aware of climate change. Our hope is that we can continue to expand to 100 management hubs by 2020.

How is the movement changing?
Producers are facing more and more climate-related problems and we think we are reaching a tipping point. We don’t have to push them; over 25 communities have contacted us to help change the way they manage land. We are sponsoring an international event at our headquarters in Boulder, Colorado, this June to talk about training and the future of agriculture.

Right now we have more demand than we can serve. That is why we want to create franchises in the communities so that they can function locally as opposed to needing our support.

But with the bigger organizations such as the U.N. and large countries, change comes slowly. They are not fluid, but we use large organizations to help us inform policymakers and to show them there are stakeholders on all sides of the issue.

Where is a country that you want to expand to, but haven’t met with success?
We would love to work in China. China is a huge country with lots of grasslands suffering from desertification. Unfortunately, current policies address the symptoms rather than the root causes of the issue just as in other countries. We don’t have enough connections though; we are just getting started in Asia, but if we got an indication that the Chinese government or businesses were interested in working with us we would jump at the chance.

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How a Tiny Southern Town Handles a Turkey Vulture Invasion

Sandy had a fine little life in Shelby, North Carolina. She had a couple of kids and a solid house in which to shelter them and even a lovely little backyard complete with a sandbox and a trampoline.

And then the turkey vultures came.

They’re giant vultures—the size of eagles and with a wingspan that reaches five to six feet—but far more terrifying. Soaring through the sky, they look pretty cool, majestic even, but then they land and what happens next is as disturbing as their gnarled, bald heads.

Sandy and her neighbors have the things roosting on their roofs, crapping on their decks, destroying their sandboxes and trampolines. The birds are screwing up everyone’s garbage and yards. They’re scaring the parents of smaller children and the owners of Chihuahuas. Kids are scared to play out front, and parents are pretty sure they wouldn’t let them even if they wanted to. The birds wreck shingling and tear at caulking, and it sounds entirely possible that they’re trying to rip their way right into your house to come and get you.

Worst of all, the government’s clearly in on it; you can’t even shoot them because the birds are a federally protected species.

It’s straight-up Hitchcockian.

THE INVASION BEGAN THREE years ago. The town of 20,000 near the mountains of Asheville usually gets its fair share of the things—and “things” is really the right word—coming through the area around this time of year, passing through on their migration south. But three years ago they stopped leaving. Of every species of bird that migrates in large packs, turkey vultures are by far the largest.

Kristen Duren, an intern at the Cleveland County Cooperative Extension and a senior at North Carolina State University, has pretty much become the local turkey vulture authority this year. “It’s probably the most unique situation in any educational program that any intern at State has tackled,” says Duren.

Ordinarily, swarms of turkey vultures stop in Shelby for a few months during their migration south. According to Duren, they’ve started staying around because the Shelby winters haven’t been cold enough to keep pushing the birds down to Florida.

“Technically, they have a home range here that lasts several months,” she says, “but when they’re in those large groups, they’re supposed to keep migrating south, but instead they’re just staying.”

After consulting with biologists at the United States Department of Agriculture, Duren’s been doing all she can to keep Shelbyians in the loop about the creatures and how to deal with them. Unfortunately, the truth about turkey vultures is not quite so scary, maybe sort of funny, and most definitely gross.

They’re peaceful creatures who only eat dead things. They’re more dangerous for roadkill than Chihuahas and children. The biggest threat they pose to people is that they are absolutely disgusting. They smell awful. They can spread diseases because of all the dead stuff they eat.

If you try to scare these filthy beasts off by running at them and banging metal pans together or firing guns in the air, all that you’ll really accomplish is setting off their defense mechanism, which is terrible. They vomit, because their stupid brains say this: “Whatever’s scaring you wants to eat you. So, you should vomit because whatever is scaring you will eat your vomit instead of you.” Brilliant, these birds.

You’ll probably get a good laugh out of it, though, because the birds are basically the eagle’s drunk cousin. When they run away from you, they have this hopping, stumbling gait, and for them to take off and fly, they have to furiously flap their giant wings and jump up and down.

Despite all of that, a little research reveals that these things are actually kind of kickass.

“They are a keystone species for the ecosystem, that’s for sure,” says Duren. “They serve a very vital purpose that, you know, I wouldn’t want to do.”

She means: They’re good for the environment because they clean up roadkill. They only eat roadkill and such if it’s been dead less than 24 hours, though. After all, they do have standards.

The Cherokee Indians considered turkey vultures to be glorious. They gave the birds a way better name than “turkey vulture” because of their beauty—which is debatable—and how they’re able to survive without killing anything. They called them “Peace Eagles.” So, yeah. There’s that.

But forget all that, say the people calling Duren to get help.

RIGHT NOW THERE ARE about 300 turkey vultures in Shelby, and they’re all using basically one or two blocks along Peach and Phillips Streets as both a staging area—where the birds all meet up to talk about the different dead things they found—and a roosting area, where they sleep.

“Having 150 vultures in your backyard isn’t exactly nice and pleasant,” Duren says, “and it doesn’t do anything for property values.”

Several homes in the area have been abandoned and put up for sale by homeowners who got sick of the birds, and now they’re sitting vacant because nobody wants to buy a house covered in turkey-vulture feces.

The government will seriously punish you if you actually kill one—or even try to capture one, for that matter. Turkey vultures are protected under federal law not only in the United States, but Canada and Mexico, too. You violate that law in the U.S., you’ll face up to $15,000 in fines and even a six-month prison stay.

So you can’t shoot them, you can’t capture them, you can’t even really scare them ... the heck are you supposed to do?

Thus far the most effective method of battling the turkey vultures has been to hang effigies of the birds upside down in an infested area. Duren has three of them that her office loans out. They look just as ... fantastic ... as the real thing: movie-prop quality and made with real feathers. When the turkey vultures see one of their own hanging upside down like that, they think it’s been trapped or killed or something, and they get scared of the area and stay away.

Duren says their goal isn’t to completely run the birds out of town, but they would like to spread them out and “make them a little less intimidating.”

The vultures have sparked a heated Facebook debate among members of the Shelby community. A lady named Jean said, “I think they are a beautiful expression of life and enjoy watching them fly above my neighborhood.”

“Love these birds!” said Betsy. “We enjoy seeing them in Mama and Daddy's yard.” While Doug added: “The most magnificent soaring bird we have.”

But then, that which flies magnificently must at some point land, and when turkey vultures land they make a magnificent mess. That’s what Sandy pointed out, sharing her story of destroyed trampolines and sand boxes. Hers was one of the only comments bashing the birds, but it was the longest and most detailed, and others who might be able to share her concerns were presumably preoccupied with cleaning up giant bird droppings and patching holes in their roofs.

Even still, said a fella named Maurice, “I’d take them over pigeons.”

However the Shelby townsfolk feel about the birds, it seems they’ve all at least adapted to their presence, and that’s good, because a very special time of the turkey vulture year just began: breeding season.

Brandon Sneed is a writer based in North Carolina who covers everything from blind Army heroes to ... well, turkey vultures, apparently. You can reach him at and @brandonsneed.

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Postcard From Isla Holbox: (Ir)responsible Whale Shark Ecotourism

Waiting in anticipation, I cling to the side of the boat, flippered feet just barely touching the water’s surface, anxious breath further labored by the snorkel mouthpiece. I grow more and more nervous as fins glide slowly toward the boat—fins of “vegetarians,” but whale shark fins nonetheless. Just as I decide to swing my legs back into the boat and call it crazy, the captain yells “now!” and my hands betray me and let go, dropping me into the ocean.

The salty water rushes up my nose, squeezes in the side of my goggles and plunges down my snorkel tube, but before I can even curse, a gaping mouth emerges from the plankton cloud, threatening to swallow me whole. I freeze, at first in terror but then in awe of the school-bus-sized fish before me. My eyes struggle to take it all in: the spots, the size, the billowing gills, the ensuing remora, and then finally the tail, swaying gracefully back and forth as if waving goodbye.

Just as the shark disappears back into the murky water I remember to swim, and I take off to catch up.

So went my swim with the whale sharks off Isla Holbox, Mexico, last summer.

Labeled “ecotourism”—a logical sum of the tourists plus wild animals in their natural habitat equation—the whale shark tourism industry in Holbox has been a substantial source of income for the island community. The predictable aggregation of whale sharks off the northeast tip of the Yucatan Peninsula from May to September brings an equally reliable stream of paying tourists.

But what benefits the tourism industry has brought to the island have come at a considerable cost. Perhaps living in San Francisco has heightened my eco-anything standards, but I would be hard-pressed to call my whale shark encounter in Mexico “ecotourism,” especially as defined by the International Ecotourism Society as “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people.” The current state of affairs does not reflect the principles of ecotourism, at best, and at worst, threatens the welfare of both the whale sharks and the small island community.

As part of my graduate research, I spent three months in Holbox interviewing tour operators and getting a behind-the-scenes look at the industry. I discovered that the whale shark tours were not fulfilling their potential to teach and inspire. Tourists were learning little, if anything, about the species, including the threats whale sharks face from overexploitation and climate change, and were thus leaving the island unlikely to join the conservation effort.

Even worse, the activity itself may be doing more harm than good. A large number of tour operators said that neither operators nor tourists generally follow the regulations designed to protect all involved. My tour experience confirmed this, as my guide—one of the few who spoke perfect English—neither mentioned the regulations nor the fact that we were breaking them. For example, I watched my fellow tourists lather themselves with non-biodegradable sunscreen before dropping into the water just next to the feeding fish. We entered four, sometimes five at a time, joining tourists from another boat already swimming with an occupied whale shark. The boats circled the sharks, often passing right over them—and more boats seemed to come from every possible destination in the Mayan Riviera (it isn’t just Holbox that operates tours).

Equally troubling are the unintended consequences of the whale shark tourism industry for the community of Holbox. Unequal distribution of profits has divided a once united community. Rivalry is pervasive and exists between little operators and big, Holboxeños and operators from Isla Mujeres, and even nationals and non-nationals. One man, a resident of over 70 years, told me that he has watched money turn his formerly “humble” and “kind” neighbors into those who are “corrupt” and “mean.”

To a passing tourist, this hostility is far from noticeable, and my intention is not to deter anyone from visiting what is truly a magical place, nor from having the unbelievable experience of swimming with whale sharks in their natural environment. In fact, there are steps already being taken to remedy the industry’s problems and many individuals are passionately devoting their time to this effort.

But until all is perfect on the Yucatan front, tourists must do their part to be a responsible addition to the ecotourism equation. How?

First, do your homework before you travel. There are some excellent websites devoted to responsible tourism that can guide everything from your choice of country to which operators to employ. (International Ecotourism Society, Right Tourism, SPANA and Turismo Responsable will get you started.) For instance, there is a gold standard when it comes to swimming with whale sharks—a recent study has shown that the tourism industry in the Ningaloo Reef, Australia, has had no cumulative, negative impacts on the fish. For the cost of airfare and a $345 ticket you can cross the activity off of your bucket list with a clear conscience.

Second, don't let the phrase “when in Rome” go to your head. Do only what you would do in your own town, state, or country. If your local park tells you not to feed wildlife, assume the rule applies to wildlife everywhere.

Finally, if there are no operators or signs to tell you how to behave responsibly, trust your instincts. One of the tourists on my boat came back from her first turn in the water with the whale sharks and said she had tried, but failed, to touch one. When asked by another tourist if she was going to try again she said she didn’t think so, that is just didn’t seem right for some reason. Bravo!

Ecotourism is certainly a welcome and growing alternative to less responsible forms of tourism. Yet with an ever-increasing population, maintaining the principles of ecotourism will prove challenging, just as it has with the global whale shark tourism industry. There will need to be a balance between saturation and exclusivity, and the answer will lie in the tour subject’s response. Tourists, above all, must do their part to recognize and respect this response.

Susan Getty is a recent graduate of the Masters of Science in Animals and Public Policy Program at the Tufts University Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine.

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