Celebrating our giant green friends on Love a Tree Day

According to various sources, today, 16 May, is Love a Tree Day. Not an officially sanctioned day like Arbor Day, for example, but any day drawing attention to trees has to be a good thing, right? Also, the problem with Arbor Day is that it’s a localised event, celebrated on different dates around the world, so there’s no single date for us all to get together and sing the praises of the mighty tree.

Until Love a Tree Day, that is.

So, this is a good time to again remind ourselves why we should all really go out every day and hug the trees around us; why we should feed & nurture them; and why we should not let an opportunity go by to plant a tree.

While today is a reminder to love all trees, let's also use it to celebrate the diversity of trees out there. And to remind ourselves of those trees that need particular protection from potential extinction. Pictured here is the beautiful Aloe dichotoma, or quiver tree (kokerboom), indigenous to Southern Africa. Different subspecies of the tree have been rated as 'vulnerable' (A. dichotoma), 'endangered' (A. ramossisima) and 'critically endangered' (A. pillansii) respectively on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. (© All Rights Reserved)
While today is a reminder to love all trees, let’s also use it to celebrate the diversity of trees out there. And to remind ourselves of those trees that need particular protection from potential extinction. Pictured here is the beautiful Aloe dichotoma, or quiver tree (kokerboom), indigenous to Southern Africa. Different subspecies of the tree have been rated as ‘vulnerable’ (A. dichotoma), ‘endangered’ (A. ramossisima) and ‘critically endangered’ (A. pillansii) respectively on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.
(© All Rights Reserved)

I’m sure you don’t need convincing of the value of trees. They support life by producing oxygen and absorbing carbon dioxide. They release groundwater into the air to help maintain a healthy ecosystem. They help reduce soil erosion and create a soil climate conducive to microorganism growth. Shade trees around buildings can greatly reduce air conditioning costs. Trees are a key provider of food products (fruit, nuts etc) supporting humans and animals. Thousands of products used in daily life are made from wood.

Trees also happen to include some of the oldest, and largest, living organisms on the planet. The giant sequoia tree (Sequoiadendron giganteum), for example, can weigh over 2000 tonnes and live to be older than 3000 years. That is pretty damn impressive, so say the least.

To go into detail about the value and importance of trees would go way beyond the scope of a humble little daily blog post. Suffice to say, they deserve your care, love and respect.

Support local tree planting initiatives. Support your local Arbor Day. Heck, make every day Love a Tree Day.

Earth Day: the face of climate change

Today, Monday 22 April, is Earth Day, a day of worldwide activity around the theme of environmental protection. The idea for earth day was suggested by John McConnell at a UNESCO conference in 1969. His proposed date was 21 March, the first day of spring in the northern hemisphere. However, at the same time another Earth Day, focused on environmental education, was initiated by US Senator Gaylord Nelson, and held on 22 April 1970. This subsequently became the accepted date for the day. The famous American cartoonist Walt Kelly, creator of the comic strip Pogo, created the promotional poster for the first Earth Day, featuring the message “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

We have met the enemy, and he is us. (© All Rights Reserved)
We have met the enemy, and he is us.
(© All Rights Reserved)

Initially a US only event, it was expanded to an international event on it’s 20th anniversary in 1990. Earth Day 1990 was celebrated in 141 countries, involving an estimated 200 million people, and was an important unifying event in the international environmental movement. Ten years later in 2000, Earth Day took another step forward, becoming the first Earth Day to be extensively organised via the Internet. A huge success, the day featured actor Leonardo DiCaprio as its official host, and involved participating events in a record 183 countries.

This year, a wide range of activities are again being planned around the world, with a focus on climate change. The effects of climate change are becoming more and more apparent each year – while the concept may have felt remote, vague and theoretical not long ago, it has reached the point where we can no longer sit back and make it out to be a rumour or conspiracy theory, or a distant future generation’s problem.

To underline the fact that climate change affects us here and now, and that every person, as an individual, can take steps to do something about it, the Earth Day Network has initiated a campaign entitled “The Face of Climate Change”, with the premise that each of us represents a face of climate change, and it’s up to us to decide whether our faces will be those of the villains or heroes in the climate change picture.

As part of the campaign, they are organising a collaborative ‘global visual mosaic’ around the theme, with the idea being that people can upload photos illustrating aspects of climate change from around the world. Photos can illustrate effects, causes or solutions of climate change, and should ideally include a human face and a sign that reads “The Face of Climate Change”. To take part, and to show your role in the global climate change picture, upload your photo here.

To quote the Earth Day Network, “Together, we’ll highlight the solutions and showcase the collective power of individuals taking action across the world. In doing so, we hope to inspire our leaders to act and inspire ourselves to redouble our efforts in the fight against climate change.”

Happy Earth Day, everyone!

Celebrating water cooperation on World Water Day

It’s a big week for the environment, with yesterday’s International Day of Forests followed today by World Water Day.

World Water Day is celebrated on 22 March each year, to focus attention of challenges facing freshwater, and to advocate for the sustainable management of freshwater resources. The day was first celebrated in 1993, making this year the 21st anniversary of World Water Day.

In 2013 the day is dedicated to the theme of cooperation around water.

Water - a precious, yet increasingly scarce resource.(© All Rights Reserved)
Water – a precious, yet increasingly scarce resource.
(© All Rights Reserved)

The importance of sustainable freshwater management, and cooperation around water supply and availability quickly becomes apparent when we look at some of the current facts and medium term future predictions. Currently, worldwide, 783 million people do not have access to clean water and almost 2.5 billion do not have access to adequate sanitation. Given the anticipated growth in the world population, food demand is expected to grow by 50% by 2030, while the demand for renewable energy from sources such as hydropower may rise by up to 60%. All these growths, together with an anticipated decrease in water availability in many regions, will lead to ever-increasing competition for water between the different water-consuming sectors such as the energy sector and the agricultural sector. Changes in diet (for example a shift from a starch-based diet to more meat and dairy) places further pressures on water availability, as producing these foodstuffs typically require more water.

The only way to possibly address the above situation is through multinational water cooperation. Many of the largest freshwater basins around the world are shared by more than one country, making sound cooperation critical. Food production and consumption (which can be equated to ‘virtual water’) is also shared across borders, again requiring responsible management and cooperation practices.

Water cooperation includes the sharing and exchange of scientific knowledge, management strategies and best practices, which are all fundamental to achieve sustainable development and protect the environment.

This is not just an issue that needs to be addressed at national, governmental level. Sound water management and cooperation is required at all levels, and as stated on the World Water Day website, “A general engagement, both individual and collective, is required for disseminating knowledge and the awareness of the value of water cooperation at local, national and international scales.”

Celebrating a good night’s sleep

Today, 15 March, is World Sleep Day, an annual event to celebrate healthy sleep, and to call attention to important issues related to sleep, including sleep problems and disorders. The day is organised by the World Association of Sleep Medicine (WASM).

A good night of sleep - just what the doctor ordered.(© All Rights Reserved)
A good night of sleep – just what the doctor ordered.
(© All Rights Reserved)

A good night’s sleep is critical for a healthy body and mind. Yet, sleep deprivation is becoming more and more common – a trend that robs millions of people of the necessary rest and rejuvenation offered by adequate, quality sleep. Sleep deprivation is harmful to the body’s metabolism and endocrine functions, and may increase the severity of age-related chronic disorders.

Conversely, researchers agree that adequate sleep has numerous benefits – it improves energy levels, boosts productivity and sociability, and increases overall wellbeing. Quality sleep can also strengthen your immune system and improve your memory. It helps you metabolise sugar, thus helping to fight diabetes, and it can help prevent hypertension, heart disease and stroke.

Your environment has a major impact on sleep quality. Factors like temperature, noise, light, bed comfort and electronic distractions (TV, computers) all affect one’s ability to get a proper night’s rest. As far as noise is concerned, intermittent sounds (cars honking or revving, alarms going off, etc) are said to be more disturbing than even rather high levels of continuous noise. As such, many city-dwellers suffer from chronic sleep deprivation – a condition that affects their moods and can have numerous detrimental health effects.

To improve your sleep, consider the following suggestions:

  • Make your bed inviting – invest in comfortable pillows, good quality sheets etc.
  • Turn out the lights – darken the room and eliminate possible light with curtains or shades.
  • Turn off the TV – ideally keep TVs, computers, cell phones and other electronic devices out of the bedroom.
  • Turn down the volume – turn off all electronics, close the door, block out external noises using heavy curtains.
  • Adjust the thermostat – try to maintain a temperature that you are comfortable at; not too warm or too cold.
  • Protect your bed – keep your bed a sanctuary for sleep and sex only; it is not an office or recreational space for the family.

With that, all that’s left for me is to wish you all a happy sleep!

Alice Hamilton, pioneer of industrial disease and toxicology

Today is the birthday of Alice Hamilton (27 Feb 1869 – 22 Sep 1970), an American pathologist and pioneering toxicologist, known for her research into industrial and occupational diseases.

Many workplaces are fraught with disease risks resulting from the presence of industrial poisons.(© All Rights Reserved)
Many workplaces are fraught with disease risks resulting from the presence of industrial poisons.
(© All Rights Reserved)

Hamilton started working as a special investigator for the US Bureau of Labour in 1911, where she got involved in field investigations of mines, mills, and smelters. Initially she focused on lead poisoning, but later extended her research into other industrial poisons including arsenic, carbon monoxide, picric acid and aniline dyes. She compiled statistics on worker mortality and morbidity at various sites over time, documenting the industrial poisons that caused the workers’ deaths.

By actively publicizing the dangers of industrial toxic substances  to workers’ health, she made a meaningful contribution to improved, safer working conditions for American workers.

In 1919 she became the first woman appointed to the faculty at Harvard Medical School. Here she continued her research into toxicology and occupational health until her retirement in 1935. After retirement she served as a medical consultant to the US Division of Labor Standards, and retained her connections to Harvard as professor emerita. She lived to the ripe age of 101.

Caring for wetlands takes care of water

Today, 2 February 2013, is World Wetlands Day, the first of the big water celebrations of the year forming part of the 2013 United Nations International Year of Water Cooperation.

The 2013 theme is ‘Wetlands and water management’. The slogan is ‘Wetlands take care of water’, which succinctly positions wetlands as a key component in environmental water management programmes, and explains why taking care of wetlands form an essential component in the delivery of sustainable water management. As stated by Anada Tiega, Secretary General of the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands, “It is well recognized that access to a clean and adequate water supply is critical for human survival. Less well understood is that wetlands, as defined by Ramsar, are fundamental regulators of water regimes. Without adequate management of wetlands from the mountains to the sea there is no water of the right quality and quantity where and when it is needed.”

A wetland, dominated by wire rush and sphagnum moss, between Lake Manapouri and Lake Te Anau in the Southern Otago region in New Zealand. The unique wetlands in the Te Anau area were used for the 'Dead Marshes' scene in Sir Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings movie.(© All Rights Reserved)
A wetland, dominated by wire rush and sphagnum moss, between Lake Manapouri and Lake Te Anau in the Southern Otago region in New Zealand. The unique wetlands in the Te Anau area were used for the ‘Dead Marshes’ scene in Sir Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movie.
(© All Rights Reserved)

The role of wetlands in water management is well explained in the ‘Wetlands Take Care of Water’ information leaflet, available online in PDF format. Given the importance of wetlands in regulating water regimes, one of the worrying facts stated in the booklet is that “Impacts from changes in land use, water diversions, and infrastructure development continue to drive the degradation and loss of wetlands.” It is because of this that there is an urgent need to communicate the importance of wetlands as an essential element of water infrastructure – they are water providers, serving as water filters and purifiers. To continue supplying filtered and purified water, however, they need a continued input of water to maintain the system, and if water is dammed up or diverted for other uses, these critical components in the earth’s water system dry up and disappear. To address this within the wider water crisis facing the world’s growing population, “There is a need to place water at the heart of the green economy and to recognise that working with wetlands as water management infrastructure can be a cost-effective and sustainable way of meeting a diversity of policy, business and private objectives.”

Do you know where your nearest wetland is? And when last did you pay it a visit? Take today to appreciate these wonders of nature. Learn about them, and share your knowledge with those you know. The more people know about and understand the critical role wetlands play, the better the chances that these natural water purifiers may be maintained for future generations.

Finding that elusive variety on Seed Swap Day

Today, the last Saturday of January, is Seed Swap Day. Since the day originated in the US, it makes sense that it takes place this time of year – the ideal time for our Northern Hemisphere neighbours to get the range of seeds, bulbs etc you need for that vege patch you’re planning, or to ensure your spring garden is a feast of colour.

Here in the Southern Hemisphere the time is not quite ideal – its approaching winter, and heading away from the growing season for most veges, flowers etc. Still, the concept is so good that it’s worth mentioning, even if we end up doing a ‘Southern Seed Swap’ later in the year, around August perhaps. Or perhaps now is the time for a winter swap (brassicas, asian greens, celery and other winter crops).

Harvest quality seeds from your vege patch this year - it's all the currency you need to source great seeds from your next seed swap.(© All Rights Reserved)
Harvest quality seeds from your vege patch this year – it’s all the currency you need to source great seeds from your next seed swap.
(© All Rights Reserved)

The whole principle behind Seed Swap Day is that people get together regionally to swap seeds from their previous year’s crop. Why buy expensive seed from commercial seed companies every year if you can source fresh seeds & bulbs from neighbours in exchange for seeds from your prize veges? Not only do you effectively get seeds for free, but its often the only way to get your hands on some rare and unusual varieties not easily available commercially. And best of all – by swapping locally, you can find seeds and bulbs from plants that are well acclimated to your climate.

Can’t find a seed swap near you? Well, maybe that’s the universe telling you this is your time to take action – pick a date, arrange a venue (perhaps a local school or church hall, or even your garden for that matter), and start getting the message out to neighbours and the wider community. Most community papers also provide space to advertise local events.

If you want to seriously get into seed saving and swapping, it’d be worth your while to learn more about best ways to store and keep seeds and bulbs. There’s some good information sources available online – check out the online Vegetable Seed Saving Handbook, for example. It’s a good idea sharing this with other interested people in your area too, to increase the knowledge base in the region over time, and to ensure everyone can bring good products to your local swap.

OK, yes, it means a bit of effort from your side, but the rewards will be so worth it. And you will have that great feeling of knowing you did something really good, promoting environmental sustainability and local economic development.

So let this year’s Seed Swap Day be your call to action. And best wishes for an abundant vegetable patch and a luscious garden!

It’s Bird Day, time to celebrate our feathered friends.

The 5th of January is Bird Day. Strictly speaking, it is National Bird Day, an America-based celebration, but why should the celebration of birds be limited to our US friends? So let’s just make it international, shall we?

Here in New Zealand we have a fairly small diversity of bird species, many of which are water birds. Even within this limited range, we have some very interesting and uniquely amusing species, such as the kiwi, tui, kea and my personal favourite, the decidedly odd pukeko. Wider afield, a dazzling array of birds can be found (almost 10 000 species worldwide), so it’s little wonder that people can get completely engrossed in fields such as ornithology and bird watching.

The pupeko - when it's young, it's all feet. It is only as it gets older that it's body starts catching up with the feet (well, sort of...). (© All Rights Reserved)
The pupeko, or Purple Swamphen of New Zealand. When it’s young, it’s all feet; it is only as it gets older that it’s body starts catching up with the feet (well, sort of…).
(© All Rights Reserved)

Bird Day is a time to celebrate the beauty and uniqueness of birds everywhere. And, perhaps more importantly, to focus attention on the plight of the feathered ones – currently no less than 12% of the world’s bird species are facing the prospect of extinction within this century. That’s more than 1000 species of birds destined to disappear from the face of the earth unless something is done about it.

Being sentinel species, birds are considered to be an important barometer and indicator of the health of our ecosystems. So, given the number of bird species facing extinction, it should serve as quite a serious warning regarding the state of our environment in general.

From the most common to the most exotic, birds have always fascinated and inspired humankind. What are the chances that the Wright Brothers, and all other humans obsessed with flight, would have gotten anywhere at all without the example provided by birds?

So take some time to celebrate our feathered friends, and make the effort to find out what you can do to avoid the extinction of many birds species around us. Happy Bird Day!

Celebrating mountain life on International Mountain Day

Today, 11 December, is International Mountain Day. This is an awareness creation opportunity to focus attention on the giants in our midst, the mountains of the world. What makes this year special is that it is the tenth anniversary of the International Year of Mountains, 2002.

Mountains are a critical part of our ecosystem – whether we live at sea level or up in the highlands, our lives are connected to the mountains, in more ways than we may be aware.

Mountains cover approximately a quarter of the earth’s surface. They are key for collecting freshwater, they support a rich diversity of fauna and flora (in climates ranging from tropical rain forests to permanent ice and snow), they impact on our weather and climatic conditions, and they are home to more than a tenth of the world’s population. Yet, as stated on the Food and Agriculture Alliance of the United Nationswebsite, “environmental degradation, the consequences of climate change, exploitative mining, armed conflict, poverty and hunger threaten the extraordinary web of life that the mountains support.”

The Drakensberg mountain range between South Africa and Lesotho - home to many, source of ecotourism and important influence on the climate of the region.(© All Rights Reserved)
The Drakensberg mountain range between South Africa and Lesotho – home to many, source of ecotourism and important influence on the climate of the region.
(© All Rights Reserved)

International Mountain Day supports sustainable mountain development, promoting environmental sustainability of mountainous regions, and also mobilising resources to improve the livelihood of mountain communities. To this end, the theme for 2012 is ‘Celebrating Mountain Life’. People living in mountainous areas often face treacherous physical conditions – avalanches, landslides, earthquakes, eruptions, and floods. While they have adapted to the conditions, employing low-impact, risk-resilient land-use systems, they often remain politically and economically marginalised, lacking access to basic health and education services. Sustainable mountain development is key in improving the livelihood of the isolated communities living in the mountains. Achieving this requires a holistic, integrated approach taking into account water, biodiversity, tourism and infrastructure development.

While I am unsure what we as individuals can really do to contribute to this cause, at least a day like International Mountain Day reminds us of the importance of these splendid landforms, and should at least increase our appreciation and understanding of the complexity of the political, economical and environmental issues faced in sustainable mountain development.

World Soil Day and the promotion of soil security

In 2002 the International Union of Soil Sciences (IUSS) declared 5 December as World Soil Day. Soil may not be glamorous, but it is a key component of our natural system, and a critical contributor to food, water and energy security through its role in mitigating biodiversity loss and climate change.

Soil - a very undervalued resource.(© All Rights Reserved)
Soil – a very undervalued resource.
(© All Rights Reserved)

Soil is vital to grow our food, to keep our livestock alive, and to keep our forests growing, which in turn keeps our environment healthy. On a human time scale, soils is a non-renewable resource, so sound soil management is extremely important. Sadly, despite this, soil is not high on most environmental decision making agendas – it is not a topic that makes for striking news headlines or wins elections.

Another factor pushing soil further down the agenda is increased urbanisation – with an ever growing percentage of the world population living in cities, soil is becoming less and less of a reality to most people.

World Soil Day aims to address this situation, by trying to raise the profile of soil and make people aware of the role it plays in a range of ecosystems.

Secure soil is the basis of a secure environment. In the words of American novelist and conservationist Wendell Berry, “The soil is the great connector of lives, the source and destination of all. It is the healer and restorer and resurrector, by which disease passes into health, age into youth, death into life. Without proper care for it we can have no community, because without proper care for it we can have no life.”