marijuana legalization

Why Does the Environmental Movement Ignore Carbon-Intensive Indoor Marijuana Cultivation?

As noted at the end of the previous post, many anti-environmentalists no doubt view hypocrisy over carbon-intensive indoor marijuana cultivation as evidence that environmental politics is not really what it claims to be, as it is apparently more concerned about advancing a broad political agenda than it is about greenhouse-gas emissions per se. This view is widely encountered in a variety of eco-skeptical blogs and other media outlets. One common refrain runs as follows: “I’ll take global warming seriously when the people who say it’s a problem begin acting as if they believe it.”

Al Gore Energy ConsumptionEvidence that prominent environmentalists often act as if they are not very concerned about carbon dioxide emissions comes from a variety of sources. Most often mentioned are the personal lifestyles of noted eco-activists, with critics pillorying Al Gore for the gargantuan energy demand of his Nashville mansion and Bill McKibben for the prodigious air millage that he racks up. Some of these criticisms seem somewhat unfair to me, such as those leveled at McKibben, whose political activities require frequent flying. Others, however, hit closer to their targets, such as those focused on the head of the Sea Change Foundation, Nathaniel Simons, who commutes from Berkeley to San Francisco on a gas-guzzling, 1,550-horsepower, 54-foot luxury yacht.

But such personal matters are not really central to the allegation that the Germany New Coal Power Plants mapenvironmental movement does not in practice prioritize greenhouse-gas emissions. More important is the fact that most green activists steadfastly oppose many carbon-free technologies, including nuclear power and hydroelectricity. Indeed, the most fervent environmentalists typically regard these power sources as anathema, and thus hope to dismantle existing dams and reactors. Yet as Germany’s energy transition demonstrates, denuclearization has been associated with rising CO2 emissions, the increased mining and burning of coal, and surging residential electricity costs; even deforestation has been heightened by rapidly expanding biomass combustion. Likewise, the environmental movement as a whole loathes natural gas derived from fracking, which many experts think has significantly reduced carbon emissions by replacing coal; according to a detailed recent report by the Breakthrough Institute, “the growth of natural gas generation, along with reduced electricity demand, is responsible for the vast majority of reduced emissions in the US power sector since Germany Biomass Map2007.” Even many of the carbon-sparing transformations that environmentalists celebrate in theory are more often than not opposed in practice. While urban intensification may be lauded in recent environmental writings, try getting new high-density housing developments approved by the municipal authorities of such eco-friendly cities as Berkeley, San Francisco, or Palo Alto. The same goes for wind power, which tends to be supported only when it is installed in others peoples’ backyards, and even then the appalling bird and bat mortality as well as the rural industrial sprawl entailed by windfarms give many activists second thoughts, and for good reason.

Instead, almost all environmental faith is placed in solar power, which is currently unable to provide anything near the level of electricity required by modern societies. Solar power’s biggest problem is its failure to flow when the sun is not shining, which occurs significantly more than 50 percent of the time in most places. When this Energy storage optionsimpediment is pointed out, the typical green response is to emphasize energy-storage technologies, which often entails abruptly switching to a mode of technological optimism and extolling new storage devices that are supposedly just around the corner. Here again it is difficult to deny the charge of hypocrisy. To begin with, all forms of energy storage cause their own environmental problems, which are often severe but are almost always overlooked. Lead-acid batteries, the typical choice in off-grid solar systems, are especially problematic. As noted in EC&M:

During normal operations, SLABS [stationary lead-acid battery storage systems] have their own Pandora’s box of environmental compliance, enforcement, and liability concerns. Batteries (whether sealed or flooded) present a potentially large remediation and liability expense in terms of sulfuric acid and lead. Since sulfuric acid and lead are extremely hazardous, the potential of a hazardous material spill exists anywhere you have SLABS.

But ignoring the eco-hazards of energy storage is only the beginning, as mainstream environmentalists tend more generally to regard technological optimism as the height of naiveté. Green activists often revile as cornucopian fools those who think that a wide array of existing and forthcoming technologies will allow continuing economic growth without destroying the planet in the process, while lauding as planetary saviors those who see solar salvation in some yet-unrealized energy-storage technology. Here again, the paradoxes run deep indeed.

 

 

Given these inconsistent attitudes, it is perhaps understandable that many anti-environmentalists would conclude that anthropogenic global warming is more a smokescreen than an actual focus of concern in and of itself. But the reality is more complicated than that. Most environmentalists, I am convinced, are genuinely concerned about climate change, and for good reason. Their attitudes and actions are hypocritical not because they partake in a grand conspiracy to mislead the public, but rather for much more mundane reasons stemming from basic human mental proclivities and assorted shortcomings.

 

Most all of us, I am convinced, are inclined to see the world in somewhat Manichaean terms, dividing opposing groups into the “good guys” and the “bad guys”. We are predisposed to overlook the sins and omissions of members of our own side, and particularly by ourselves, just as we tend to magnify those of our opponents. Double standards, in other words, are omnipresent across both the political spectrum and the globe. Such a predisposition was no doubt adaptive in earlier times, when small groups of humans competed with others in existential struggles. As such, the tendency is difficult to overcome, and attempting to do so can be quite disconcerting. It can also be politically costly. Coalitions are not enhanced when one looks with an unjaundiced eye on one’s own friends and allies, calling them out when they betray supposedly shared ideals. Expedience thus calls for willful ignorance in this regard. Such are the unfortunate facts of human nature.

 

We should thus not be surprised that the Humboldt chapter of Earth First! is untroubled by the local industrial-scale cannabis operations that are extirpating the fisher and more generally wreaking havoc on nature. Many members of the chapter probably derive some of their income from these same operations, which hire trimmers and other workers by the score during the autumn harvest. By focusing their environmental outrage instead on logging companies and other suitable targets of the opposition, they spare themselves both troubling political infighting and cognitive dissonance. Such a dynamic is not quite so clear in the case of large environmental organizations and indoor cannabis cultivation, but the basic pattern still holds. For the Sierra Club and 350.org, energy companies make fine enemies, but indoor marijuana growers fit uncomfortably within this category. Even the largest growers are not multinational corporations but are rather individual operators—although corporatization does seem to be the wave of the future. More to the point, most pot growers no doubt embrace the same overarching political position as the environmental movement, and would thus be counted as allies in the most general sense. Support for marijuana legalization and normalization is likewise mostly* associated with the political left, and as such drawing attention to the problems associated with it could help the political right. As an entirely inconvenient truth, the carbon-spewing reality of indoor cannabis cultivation is all too easy to ignore.

 

But the psychic underpinnings of such inconsistent behavior probably goes a good deal deeper than simple self-interest and political benefit. Perhaps I am naive, but I think that most people generally want do good—as they conceptualize what “good” is—but they often imagine that doing so is a fairly straightforward thing. As a result, most of us seem to balk at the Utilitarian ethicsnotion of intrinsic trade-offs and positively recoil when faced with utilitarian calculations. Nuclear power, hydropower, and fracking all cause considerable environmental damage; as a result, one should not be surprised that they provoke forthright opposition from the green community. By the same token, photovoltaic power seems wholly benign on first glance, and is thus unsurprisingly embraced without reservation (the waste-streams of Chinese PV plants, however, might elicit second thoughts). It would be marvelous indeed if rooftop solar panels could supply all the power that we need, and as a result many would leave it at that, preferring not to grapple with the limitations of the technology. Wishful thinking, in other words, can be too comfortable to deny.

 

I encountered this kind of blinkered utopianism in a particularly stark form many decades ago at a family dinner, an event that permanently changed my thinking. A close relative beloved for her kindness and compassion opined that she was completely against all new development, opposing housing construction, road building, and everything else. Such activities, she went on, displace wildlife habitat and are therefore simply unacceptable. A few minutes later, she announced that she was opposed to all immigration restrictions; anyone ought to be able to immediately move to the United States and settle anywhere. To exclude would-be immigrants, she explained, was morally abhorrent, as all people, and especially the poor and needy, must be accommodated. When I ventured that there might be a contradiction between her two statements, she looked at me with blank incomprehension, stating simply that “Immigrants don’t need much room; they don’t live in big new houses.”

 

This conversation made a particularly deep impression on my teenage mind because at the time I shared my relative’s basic beliefs about both development and immigration. But I could not go all the way with her, as the trade-offs were just too glaringly obvious. Ever since then, I have determined to take a questioning, skeptical, and hard-headed approach to all political issues, leaving me with a surfeit of doubt and uncertainty. The ethical highroad, I have concluded, is seldom obvious and is almost never a straight path. At some level, cold utilitarian calculations are necessary, and as a result one must be willing to countenance a certain degree—and often a significant degree—of harm in order to achieve what one hopes will be a greater good.

 

Righteous Mind Book CoverMy thinking about such issues has more recently been influenced by Jonathan Haidt’s path-breaking work, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. As Haidt demonstrates, moral judgments flow more from intuition than from rational reflection, and stem largely from six basic six moral foundations. Perhaps the most important of these is sanctity, coupled with its inverse, degradation. Haidt contends that this ethical pillar is more pronounced on the political right than on the left, but here I part company. The bestowal of sanctity seems to me to be one of our most deeply embedded traits, and as such it cannot simply be deleted by abandoning traditional religious beliefs. For the most ardent environmentalists, who tend to be either secular or unconventionally spiritual, the Earth itself is the ultimate font of sanctity. As such, it can seem essentially blasphemous to examine key environmental issues under the heartless lens of utilitarianism. Fracking, for example, entails the injection of toxic chemicals deep into the veins of Mother Earth, and is thus not a suitable issue for compromise regardless of what environmental audits might uncover. Much the same could be argued in regard to both genetic engineering and geo-engineering proposals designed to forestall global warming

But if we take this line of reasoning, we encounter yet another a paradox. Indoor marijuana farming is the kind of activity that would seemingly generate a degree of moral repugnance on the part of those who sanctify nature. One would expect organic marijuana cultivation to be celebrated and high-tech cultivation to be reviled. And indeed, that is precisely what I find when I interview small-scale, outdoor marijuana growers. Some of them are particularly repulsed by the increasingly popular butane-extracted cannabis products such as “shatter” and “earwax,” the production of which they liken to meth-cooking. Yet when it comes to the broader environmental community, we oddly find no similar concerns, as demonstrated by the previous post.

 

Haidt's Moral FoundationsConsidering such issues, I still find the environmental movement’s nonchalance toward indoor marijuana cultivation perplexing. One possible additional explanation is the fact that growing under artificial light is hidden away from public view. Concealment is indeed crucial to the entire endeavor, as marijuana is still illicit in most U.S. states and remains highly illegal as far as the federal government is concerned. Carbon-intensive cannabis cultivation is easy to ignore, in other worlds, because it is difficult to see. More important, different moral modules—in Haidt’s sense—come into play, such as that of liberty (versus oppression). When those on the left think about marijuana, they often focus on its very illegality, which many view as a basic assault on personal freedom**. As a result, how the drug is actually produced becomes insignificant. Marijuana moved indoors in the first place because of police surveillance, which is seen by many as a deep threat to civil society. Those with a more anarchic bent, moreover, tend to valorize a degree of subversion, and thus support all methods of marijuana growing as a way to tweak the noses of authority-oriented conservatives. (“Authority/subversion” is another one of Haidt’s moral foundations, and he regards respect for authority as being more pronounced on the political right than the left; again, I am not convinced about this political distinction, as it seems to depend mostly on whether the authority in question is viewed as legitimate.)

 

As a result of such complex human predilections, I would not expect rank-and-file environmentalists to grapple deeply with such contradictions as those inherent in indoor marijuana cultivation. I would expect much more, however, from the movement’s intellectual leaders. Unfortunately, I don’t find it there either. When I read the most celebrated climate warriors, writers such as Bill McKibben, Naomi Klein, and Naomi Oreskes, I see few inklings of critical self-reflection. Instead, I find almost pure Manichean politics based on a world-view in which the “good guys”—those selfless greens devoted to saving Mother Earth—are all but incapable of doing anything bad, while the “bad guys”—those evil energy companies and their paid-off minions—are all but incapable of doing anything good.

 

Does the environmental movement as a whole have the capacity to honestly address such issues and engage in the self-reflection necessary to break free from rampant hypocrisy? Perhaps. Here’s one small way to put it to the test. In a few years, California, one of the most environmentally oriented states in the union, will almost certainly fully legalize marijuana. When it does so, will it take into account the environmental damage generated by indoor production? Or will it follow the lead of Washington state and focus instead on taxation maximization and regulatory oversight while ignoring environmental consequences? If California takes the former route, my faith in the environmental movement will be partially restored. But I will not be holding my breath.

Most environmentalists want to institute an over-arching carbon tax in order to internalizes negative atmospheric externalities. Such a proposal is of course highly controversial, as environmental skeptics claim that it would unduly damage the economy. Regardless of such dissenting voices, I would suggest that a steep carbon tax on soon-to-be-legal cannabis cultivation in California would be a fitting place to start. Such a tax would certainly benefit the small-scale, environmentally responsible marijuana growers in the Emerald Triangle. The final post on this series will examine what they are doing to minimize both their carbon footprints and their environmental impacts more generally.

 

*Libertarians, who generally lean somewhat more to the right than the left as far as the conventional (if exhausted) political spectrum is concerned, tend to more strongly support cannabis legalization.

 

**Ironically, many of these same people would like to ban tobacco. Here a different moral module, that of “care vs. harm,” comes into play, which of course was invoked as well when marijuana was initially outlawed.

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Unnecessary Environmental Destruction from Marijuana Cultivation in the United States

cannabis legal status mapOver the past several years, the campaign for marijuana legalization has surged ahead in the United States. Colorado and Washington have voted for full legalization, and a number of other states now allow the consumption of medical cannabis. Yet the U.S. federal government still regards the substance as a “Schedule 1” drug, more dangerous and less useful than cocaine or methamphetamine. The position of cannabis in American society is a deeply charged issue undergoing a sea change in the court of public opinion.

drug harm graphMarijuana legalization advocates make strong claims. By most objective measurements, cannabis is less harmful than alcohol from both a social and a medical perspective. But those who favor legalization would be advised not to overstate their case. As is true in regard to any substance, marijuana generates problems. Perhaps its most severe drawback is environmental damage, an inconvenient truth that is usually overlooked by legalization supporters. Consider, for example, the graph on the left, recently posted by the renowned blogger Andrew Sullivan. Sullivan is a proponent not only of marijuana legalization but also of its judicious use, as reflected in his book, The Cannabis Closet. Although I am persuaded by most of Sullivan’s arguments, I think that he erred in posting this graph, which purports to show the extent of damages imparted by various drugs. Are we really expected to believe that alcohol is more harmful that heroin, cocaine, or methamphetamine? It would seem that the purpose is to shock rather than inform.

Although I am tempted to break down the graph and criticize its various components, I will confine my attention to one feature: the environmental damage of cannabis production. According to the figure, such costs are almost negligible, as can be seen in the inset illustration (which I have modified to highlight cannabis). In reality, the environmental damage imposed by marijuana growing is massive.

The most extreme form of environmental degradation associated with the cannabis industry stems from indoor cultivation. Growing indoors requires not merely intensely bright lights, but also extensive ventilation and dehumidification systems. The result is a gargantuan carbon footprint. According to a well-researched 2012 report:

The analysis performed in this study finds that indoor Cannabis production results in energy expenditures of $6 billion each year–6-times that of the entire U.S. pharmaceutical industry–with electricity use equivalent to that of 2 million average U.S. homes. This corresponds to 1% of national electricity consumption or 2% of that in households. The yearly greenhouse-gas pollution (carbon dioxide, CO2 ) from the electricity plus associated transportation fuels equals that of 3 million cars. Energy costs constitute a quarter of wholesale value.

Colossal energy use is not the only environmental drawback of indoor marijuana cultivation. Plants in such artificial environments are susceptible to a variety of pests and pathogens, often requiring heavy doses of biocides. Spider mites are a particular problem for cannabis producers. In order to prevent mold infestations, growers maintain low humidity levels, favoring mite proliferation. And as noted by the Wikipedia, “[their] accelerated reproductive rate allows spider mite populations to adapt quickly to resist pesticides, so chemical control methods can become somewhat ineffectual when the same pesticide is used over a prolonged period.”

Growing sun-loving plants in buildings under artificial suns is the height of environmental and economic lunacy. Outdoors, the major inputs—light and air—are free. Why then do people pay vast amounts of money to grow cannabis indoors, regardless of the huge environmental toll and the major financial costs? The reasons are varied. Outdoor cultivation is climatically impossible or unfeasible over much of the country. Everywhere, the risk of detection is much reduced for indoor operations. Indoor crops can also be gathered year-round, whereas outdoor harvests are an annual event. But the bigger spur for artificially grown cannabis appears to be consumer demand. As noted in a Huffington Post article “indoor growers … produce the best-looking buds, which command the highest prices and win the top prizes in competitions.” In California’s legal (or quasi-legal) medical marijuana dispensaries, artificially grown cannabis enjoys a major price advantage, due largely to the more uniformly high quality of the product.

Journalists have been noting the environmental harm of indoor marijuana cultivation for some time. Unfortunately, few people seem to care. In 2011, the San Francisco Bay Guardian reported that environmental concerns were leading some consumers to favor outdoor marijuana, but any such changes have not yet been reflected in market prices. In the cannabis industry, as in the oil industry, ecological damage does not seem to be much of an issue.

dead fisher marijuanaBut even if indoor cultivation were to come to an end, the environmental harm of cannabis cultivation would not thereby disappear. Outdoor growing usually relies on heavy applications of chemical fertilizers, which can easily pollute waterways if not done correctly. Total water use is pronounced as well, which is an issue in the dry-summer cultivation areas of California. The most serious eco-threat, however, is posed by the rodenticides used to combat wood rats. These poisons endanger not merely rodents, but also the carnivores that prey upon them. In far northwestern California, the fisher (Martes pennanti)—rare to begin with—has been put in serious jeopardy by backwoods cultivators.

Cannabis can be raised in an environmentally responsible manner, as it often is by individual growers. Healthy outdoor plants suffer little damage from insects and other invertebrates. Mammals seldom eat the leaves, and wood-rat gnawing causes only minor damage in most areas. The highest yields, moreover, are obtained by those who avoid chemicals in favor of compost, manure, and biochar (buried charcoal). The liberal use of biochar, moreover, can actually generate a negative carbon footprint, as it involves sequestering carbon in the soil. Biochar is also one of the best long-term agricultural investments imaginable; the tierra preta soils of the Amazon, made by indigenous peoples before 1500, have maintained their fertility for centuries in an environment otherwise characterized by impoverished soils that cannot retain nutrients.

Cannabis production by stateGiven these advantages, why is organic cannabis cultivation in general, and the use of biochar more specifically, not more widespread? One crucial issue, which holds for organic farming the world over, is the amount of labor required, which is considerable. But equally important is the lack of consumer demand. In the cannabis market, relatively few buyers consider environmental costs, focusing instead on quality and appearance. And even those who do care about ecological consequences are thwarted by the impossibility of certifying sustainable production. Perhaps carbon-negative biochar-produced cannabis could command a price premium in some markets, but consumers have no way to know if such methods were actually used.

California top cash cropsThis situation is more than a little hypocritical. Both legalization advocates and the environmental community simply give a pass to some of the most environmentally destructive agricultural practices found on Earth. Pot consumers themselves tacitly support hyper-destructive “farming” by their eagerness to pay a premium for indoor product. Yet these same groups tend toward green politics, and many of their members are unforgiving when it comes to “non-sustainable” practices used by other farmers. Self-interest usually generates some level of moral blindness, but here it seems to be particularly pronounced.

California Precipitation Emerald Triangle MapIf cannabis cultivation in the United States were to move in an environmentally benign direction, California’s leading position would be greatly enhanced. California is unquestionably the top marijuana producer in the U.S., and the crop is without doubt the state’s most valuable. In his masterful 2010 Field Guide to California Agriculture, geographer Paul F. Starrs estimated the value of the California cannabis harvest at between $19 and $40 billion: if the former figure is correct, the crop is worth roughly half the value of all other agricultural products in the state; if the latter figure is accurate, then its value exceeds that of everything else combined. Due to climate, top-quality outdoor cannabis is difficult or impossible to produce in other states. Low humidity is required during the long maturation period in September and October; otherwise, mold infestations can rage out of control. Owing to its Mediterranean climate, California has favorable conditions, although in the prime growing counties of the Emerald Triangle, located in the wettest part of the state, mold is still the growers’ bane. As a result, cultivators welcome the Diablo Winds, warm dry easterlies that periodically blow in the autumn months. As is always the case, geography matters.

(Note: much of the information in this post was derived from interviews with cannabis growers, persons who understandably prefer to remain anonymous.)

 

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