The Latest on the Seagrass

This should have been posted a long time ago, but you can see it now.


Yes, it’s Biodegradable, but that’s Not a Compost Bin

 Thankfully most people I know are sufficiently environmentally enlightened that they would never dream of throwing their empty coke cans out the car window or leaving their energy bar wrappers along the side of a hiking trail. Unfortunately, many people aren’t quite so careful when it comes to disposing of things like fruit peels, chicken bones, or even that empanada that looked better than it actually tasted. The justification for this difference in behavior is that items like the latter three are biodegradable and will eventually break down in the environment. The problem with this argument is that even food scraps won’t biodegrade very quickly in many environments and can cause plenty of other problems before they do.

A cute baby coati. Not the sort of animal many people would like to see run over.
A cute baby coati. Not the sort of animal many people would like to see run over. (Volcán Irazú, Costa Rica, 2008)

Very few people would attempt to defend leaving food scraps on an urban sidewalk, but I’ve seen a lot of those same people throw apple cores or banana peels out of the windows of their car, or worse yet out the window of my car while I’m driving[1]. Not only does this risk getting pulled over if done in the US, but it also risks contributing to the deaths of cute and fuzzy wild animals. If too many food scraps start piling up along the roadsides, animals like foxes and coatis will come and try to scavenge them, and some of those animals will inevitably end up as road kill. Less appealing animals like rats and crows are also attracted to roadside food scraps and this food subsidy can cause their populations to increase beyond natural levels, which is obnoxious both for human communities and for animals like lizards, salamanders, and songbirds, which are hunted and harassed by these voracious mesopredators[2].

This California slender salamander would like to thank you for not feeding the crows.
This California slender salamander would like to thank you for not feeding the crows. (Point Reyes, CA, January 2015)

Attempts at ‘trailside composting’ can also be problematic. While it is probably not harmful if done infrequently in hot and humid environments like tropical rainforests or cypress swamps, it tends to cause issues if overdone or if done at all in habitats less favorable to decomposition. Food scraps left in deserts tend to become mummified and orange peels left above tree line in the mountains tend to freeze-dry to the texture of Styrofoam and probably take just about as long to decompose. Leaving large amounts of food scraps along the trail or at your campsite also significantly increases the odds that the next camper will be overrun by rodents like mice, who carry hantavirus, or marmots, who have been known to amuse themselves by chewing holes in gear. Finally, it is worth remembering that mountains and other wild places are sacred to many indigenous peoples and leaving your picnic scraps at the summit is as disrespectful to indigenous beliefs as leaving chicken bones on the floor of St. Peter’s Basilica would be to Catholicism.

A final excuse used for slinging one’s scraps is that they decompose more effectively in in the natural environment, or even on concrete, than they would in a landfill. Unfortunately this may be true, but that’s justification for composting at home or pressuring the local government to start a municipal program, not for flinging one’s organic trash around like an outraged two-year old. For the sake of wild animals, ecosystems, hygiene, and aesthetics, remember: “If in doubt, pack it out.”

[1] Anyone who does this more than once walks home.

[2] Carnivorous or omnivorous animals, which occupy the middle of the food chain.

Some Women Aren’t Beautiful and That’s Okay

For entirely too long, a woman’s perceived value has been determined by her ‘beauty’, which can be roughly defined as ‘physical traits which others[1] in her society find appealing’. The appeal of different physical traits seems to be determined by a combination of evolutionary biology, culture, and the fickle whims of fashion. Whatever its cause, this standard of evaluation forces half the population, regardless or our character, intelligence, or skills, into the stressful situation of being judged based mostly on something we have limited control over. I say limited; because while women (and men) do have some ability to improve the way we look it is not nearly as straightforward a process as trying to get better at something like math, public speaking, or soccer.

Hanging out in the park with some Guayaquileños. I'm the one in the middle. This picture was posted to assure everybody that I'm not a beauty queen deigning to complement the 'less fortunate'.
Hanging out in the park with some Guayaquileños. I’m the one in the middle. This picture was posted to assure everybody that I’m not a beauty queen deigning to complement the ‘less fortunate’.

Unfortunately, the feminist movement has generally been reluctant to address this issue directly, probably because it will inevitably force some of us to admit that we are not among the beautiful. Instead, there are numerous campaigns to expand the current definition of ‘beauty’ to include a greater range of body types, ethnicities, and ages. While the successes of this campaign are to be celebrated, female beauty is not Lake Wobegon and not everybody can be above average. These campaigns also fail to address the issue of the perceived value of men and women being determined in very different ways.

I’m not naïve enough to claim that standards for male beauty don’t also exist. I know there’s a reason why LL Cool J, Brandon Boyd, and Romeo Santos are considered sex symbols, but Seal, Dave Grohl, and Manu Chao[2] are not. This has not, however, prevented the latter three from being deservedly incredibly successful as musicians and their physical appearances are rarely publicly discussed. Unfortunately, female musicians cannot generally expect the same courtesy. Adele’s weight is the subject of tabloid gossip in spite of the fact it has had no adverse effect on her voice and Dolly Parton’s breasts seem to have eclipsed her musical achievements, including having written “I Will Always Love You”, in terms of recognition.

Unfortunately this double standard is hardly confined to only the recording industry. It has crept into politics, activism, the job market, sports, the visual arts, and apparently computer programming. To fight this attitude we will need to work against it both publicly and privately. When we raise our daughters we can encourage them to take more pride in their ethics and abilities than in how they look in a mirror, we can refuse to get involved in lengthy discussions of a woman’s looks if they are not relevant to her job, and we can encourage others and the media to follow the same practice. This means we must spend some of the energy we currently use telling every woman she is ‘beautiful’ to instead cultivate a world where all people understand that women and men deserve to be judged for what they do rather than how they look. This also means that roughly half of us will have to accept that we are not beautiful, but that we still have many other, likely more important, good qualities. I am Abby Cannon and I am not beautiful[3][4], but I’m brave, adventurous, and smart.

[1] Heterosexual men are not the only arbiters of beauty in a society, but their opinion has historically been perceived as the most important.

[2] Before the angry fans attack, let me clarify that ‘not a sex symbol’ does not necessarily mean ‘ugly’.

[3] Not looking for anyone to dispute this statement. No need for reassurance.

[4] Not looking for advice either. I’m aware that I could be ‘more beautiful’ if I got veneers, wore makeup regularly, started juice cleansing, and traded my jeans and t-shirts for skirts and blouses, but I would rather keep my fangs, save the time and money, eat actual food, and wear comfortable clothes.