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Last week’s newsletter was about the need to stop burning things, but there’s at least one area where I know that this advice is a lost cause. That’s at the small blaze at the end of a joint: marijuana stocks are booming in the wake of the U.S. Senate wins in Georgia, which gave the Democrats a majority in that chamber, since investors reckon that Democrats are likely to continue along the steady path toward legalization.
The amount of carbon produced by burning pot is not actually a concern. But it turns out that producing the crop, at least the way that it’s grown by large-scale entrepreneurs, requires huge amounts of electricity. As early as 2012, it was estimated that one per cent of the country’s electricity was used for raising pot. In California, the leading state in production, it was three per cent. An indoor growing facility can have the lighting intensity of a hospital operating room, which is five hundred times recommended reading levels; researchers from the National Coalition of State Legislatures found that a five-thousand-square-foot indoor farm in Boulder County, Colorado, was using 41,808 kilowatt hours per month, while an average household used about 630 kilowatt hours. Many growers apparently pair their bright lights with high-powered air-conditioning in order to “shorten a plant’s growing cycle.” The researchers added—and here I must confess my own preference—that “the energy used to produce one marijuana cigarette would also produce 18 pints of beer.”
Those numbers really are large and mean that, right at the moment when we need to be desperately reducing the amount of energy we use, we’ve found a huge new electricity hog. Yes, that energy can be produced by the sun, but for the foreseeable future the best use of new solar panels and wind turbines is to displace existing uses, not underwrite new ones. One of the first people to write me about the issue was a small-scale solar operator named Naoto Inoue, the C.E.O. of Solar Market, who began building arrays in New England about fifteen years ago. “So many people’s efforts to reduce the carbon footprint is going down the drain because of indoor-grow greed,” he said.
It’s an especially ironic use of power because of marijuana’s history in the otherwise green counterculture and because you can grow it outdoors—in the sunlight. In Vermont, where I live, each resident is allowed to grow six plants, and, although I haven’t taken advantage of the law, I know that six plants turns out to be a lot. Here, pot is the new zucchini, and if you leave your car unlocked when you go shopping you may return to find a sack of the stuff on the back seat. If any commodity could be left as a part of a local gift economy, it seems like it might be marijuana; but here, as in other places, we’re quickly commercializing the trade, in order to reap state-tax revenue. In which case, laws governing its cultivation will be required: Massachusetts is making larger growers use no more than thirty-six watts of electricity per square foot, down from a typical forty to forty-five watts; in Maine, growers can apply for state grants to make their operations more energy-efficient. Perhaps sun-grown pot, like shade-grown coffee, will catch on: last week, a prospective grower in the Berkshires sought local approval for a farm with promises about outdoor, artisanal cultivation.
Inoue’s solution is a heavy carbon tax for growers—with a high enough tariff, the advantage will switch back to outdoor growers. Barring that, new installations should come with their own renewable-energy construction. Barring that, I.P.A.s.
Passing the Mic
About half of all products on grocery shelves contain palm oil, and production has doubled in the past decade. The James Beard Award-winning food journalist Jocelyn Zuckerman has travelled from Indonesia and Malaysia to Brazil and India looking at the vast plantations where the oil palms are grown. Her forthcoming book, “Planet Palm,” is a compelling look at just how much trouble it’s possible to cause with a single plant. (Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.)
Palm oil seems to cause more havoc per ounce than almost any commodity, and yet we’ve barely heard of it. Why is it so bad?
The main problem is its effect on the environment. The oil palm plant grows best at ten degrees to the north and south of the equator. Unfortunately, that swathe also corresponds with the planet’s tropical rain forests. Not only are these ecosystems important for sequestering carbon but they support more than half the world’s plant and animal species. We now know that global biodiversity is declining faster than at any time in human history, with far-reaching consequences in terms of pollination and pest control, among other things. The demise of a single species can lead to the collapse of an entire ecosystem, affecting local communities and ultimately destabilizing economies and governments. The region targeted for oil-palm development also overlaps with much of the earth’s peatlands—soils formed over thousands of years through the accumulation of organic matter—and draining and burning this terrain to make way for plantations sends massive quantities of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Finally, we’re flirting with pandemic disaster. Some seventy-five per cent of today’s emerging infectious diseases originate in animals, and sixty per cent of those can spread directly from them. Over the past few decades the number of such animal-to-human, or “zoonotic,” transmissions has skyrocketed. A third of these new diseases can be linked directly to deforestation and agricultural intensification, most of it involving tropical rain forests. Mowing down these natural treasures doesn’t just push iconic animals like the orangutan to the brink of extinction; it also sends virus-carrying wildlife like bats in search of new habitat, forcing them into closer contact with humans.
Do we really need this stuff to keep our economies functioning—and what about the economies of the countries it comes from?
I guess I’d start by asking whether our economies are “functioning” in the first place. The Labor Department just announced that 1.15 million workers filed for unemployment in the first week of 2021. The World Food Programme says that it will need to feed a hundred and thirty-eight million people this year—more than at any time in its sixty-year history. Meanwhile, the world’s richest one per cent owns forty-four per cent of the global wealth. Let’s also consider where the oil ends up. Some two-thirds of global production finds its way into food, most of it fried and/or ultra-processed. In recent years, rates of obesity and Type 2 diabetes have shot dramatically up, particularly in the low-income countries where Big Food is now focussed on dumping its industrial-palm-oil-enabled junk. What is the cost to those countries’ economies of treating the diseases resulting from these unhealthy new diets? How about the lost income of those sidelined laborers? Yes, the economies of Indonesia and Malaysia, which together account for some eighty-five per cent of the world’s palm-oil production, are deeply reliant on the commodity. But they are also facing public-health crises related to shifting diets. Palm-oil laborers in Southeast Asia, meanwhile, make around seven dollars a day, and studies have found that diets in communities where the palm-oil industry has moved in are far less healthy than those of traditional communities living in the same region. We won’t get into the agrochemicals that poison workers and local waterways.
What are the effective pressure points on the governments that allow this, and the corporations that encourage it? Are there some hopeful signs?
Unfortunately, as in Trump’s America and Bolsonaro’s Brazil, the governments in Southeast Asia tend to be a part of the problem, more concerned about cozying up to industry than protecting the health of their citizens or the planet. The Indonesian President recently signed an omnibus bill that will eliminate critical protections for workers and the environment. Next door in Malaysia, the government routinely spreads disinformation about the palm-oil industry’s environmental and social impacts, and has paid a D.C. lobbying firm some million dollars to counter opposition to it. Here as elsewhere, it’s been civil society and the private sector leading the way. Consumers and N.G.O.s have pushed traders and other companies to sign no-deforestation agreements and have raised awareness about institutional investors linked to palm-oil-related deforestation. Local communities from Cameroon to Guatemala and Papua New Guinea are stepping forward to sound the alarm about illegal oil-palm concessions, are demanding indigenous land rights, and are speaking out about labor and human-rights abuses. It’s a tough climb—there are massive interests at stake, and these people do not play pretty—but I think that, as more folks come to understand what this industry is all about and exactly what’s at stake, there may be room for some cautious optimism.
To see the Biden Administration starting to move on the climate challenge is invigorating, but it’s worth remembering how far behind we are. As the Washington Post reports, new data from the journal Nature Communications on the Antarctic show that the Southern Ocean is warming “faster than predicted,” threatening to erode glaciers from below where they stretch out over the sea. “Like removing a doorstop, the collapse of these ice shelves can free up inland ice to move into the ocean, raising global sea levels and harming coastal communities.”