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Book Review: Andrew Balmford: Wild Hope: On the Front Lines of Conservation Success

[ 4 ] March 6, 2013 |

Who wants to feel less terrible about the environmental problems we face? Who wants to hear some happy stories?

I know I do. Being a scholar of the natural world is not fun, let me tell you. Sure, you might get to go to some cool places from time to time, but the overall story is so bloody depressing. Climate change, ocean acidification, the world’s entire wildlife supply being slaughtered for the Chinese market, overfishing, deforestation, etc. What’s frustrating about environmental degradation is that it is almost all either avoidable errors or manageable problems. Humans often choose not to do the right thing–a form of consumer capitalism that commodifies the natural world but separates us from production processes is the number one reason–but sometimes we figure things out. I think that part of the reason the environmental movement has declined in the United States in recent decades is that it was so successful. We don’t breathe in horrifying smog. Our rivers don’t catch on fire. Banning DDT brought back the bald eagle. People don’t see the environment as affecting their lives negatively so it falls to the back burner, even as climate change causes heat and giant storms. Most of the time, we don’t notice the catastrophic change around us. Still, the U.S. environmental movement shows that we can do a lot of things right if we pressure government and corporations to do so.

The British author Andrew Balmford explores a number of these success stories around the globe
, offering readers useful lessons in how we can make things better. Balmford visits each continent for a different example. He visits a park in northeast India where anti-poaching patrols are trying to save the last rhinos. He goes to a North Carolina forest where new management forms give landowners incentive to save red-cockaded woodpecker habitat rather than eliminate it in fear of the birds being found and development ceased. He writes about the amazingly diverse Bosberg Mountains of South Africa, where the government has invested heavily in removing non-native species in order to bring back water supplies and create work. He discusses a Dutch rewilding effort, efforts to limit logging in Ecuador to provide water for farmers and preserve biodiversity, and lauds the corporate effort by Alcoa to restore its aluminum mining sites in southwestern Australia in order to maintain public support for mining. Finally, he explores the idea of sustainable fisheries in the oceans, although it’s hard for anyone to spin any example of that as a real success story, at least at this time.

The overall lesson is that a combination of government, corporate, NGO, and citizen leadership can restore areas, at least in the short term. A lot of places need pretty significant managing over a long period of time. If you are eliminating non-native foxes and cats in parts of Australia, well, they are going to keep coming. Others, such as the fynbos ecology in South Africa could theoretically return to some state of lesser management if you eliminate non-native plants and allow for a more sustainable fire regime. But in all these places, someone or some group of people has to lead and has to either lock down land or motivate changes in human behavior. Big tasks, both.

I agree that people and even corporations can lead on these issues. I’ve been on two of Ted Turner’s giant ranches in southern New Mexico and they are pretty amazing spaces. I’m really glad they are intact instead of turned into the ranchettes that increasingly dot the West and fragment wildlife habitat. Corporate leaders who see legacy as important might do some good work. But both of these are fleeting. As long as the fundamental and increasingly only goal is to maximize profits, what would keep a conversation program going for long? Glad that Alcoa is doing some conservation work in Australia. A new CEO and it ends. A wealthy individual can donate land and leave a strong will, but if heirs really want to develop or sell land, they might have the lawyers to make that happen so long as the land remains in private hands.

Ultimately, these programs need government leadership. For poor nations like South Africa, it makes sense to combine it with an employment program. In the end, the success of the American land reserve project of the past 100 years has come almost strictly through codifying land management under federal law, whether the limited good oft he United States Forest Service or the truly preserving Wilderness Act of 1964. People demanding government action is probably the best way to save and restore ecosystems. Governments themselves can be problematic of course. There’s a lot of land in Africa, Asia, and Latin America that is designated as national parks, but the willpower and ability to enforce those boundaries is often nonexistent. In these places, NGOs and wealthy individuals can play a vital short-term role. But in the end, long-term land management for sustainability and biodiversity can only be planned by a centralized state. Or at least it gives such plans the best chance of effectiveness.

A lot of environmental writing comes in two basic forms. The first is the jeremiad that tells us how everything is in dire collapse, but then gives us a message of hope at the end, urging us to make things better. This book follows the second path, providing a lot of great and inspiring examples and then giving us a stern warning at the end that everything is going down the tubes. I’m not really sure which is more effective. The problem with the former is the downer stories could turn people off (a frequent criticism of the genre), while the latter may suffer from false hope. We all have to face the reality that things are getting very bad, very fast. If we could leave climate change out of it, the story would just be depressing. With climate change, it is catastrophic for us and everything else.

But hey, you have to try to make things better. Restoring small patches of the natural world is not always that difficult. We’ve done it before and we can still do it. And when we do, they are amazing to visit. Fighting the good fight is the only alternative to utter depression. Plus it can be fun. Andrew Balmford provides us a useful reminder of these points.

A Dot

[ 108 ] March 5, 2013 |

I was really struck by this photo of Venus through Saturn’s rings:

Venus is the dot.

It reminded me of a time, not too long ago I guess, back in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when the sight of our planet from space put our lives in a bit of perspective. A lot of Americans saw this and realized we were this amazing fragile ball floating an endless sea of nothingness.

These images of Earth from space helped spur the U.S. environmental movement of the 1970s, which did so much good.

I wonder if any such image in our media-saturated uberironic brains could make any such impact today. Or would we just tell a joke and write it off as ironic in some vague and poorly defined way. I’m skeptical.

Jeb

[ 46 ] March 4, 2013 |

Jeb Bush flip-flopping on immigration, now saying he doesn’t support a path toward citizenship for undocumented Americans, is a sign that leading Republicans can be serious about winning the 2016 Republican nomination or they can be serious about winning the general election, but they can’t be serious about both.

This Day in Labor History: March 4, 1998

[ 33 ] March 4, 2013 |

On March 4, 1998, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled for the plaintiff in Oncale v. Sundowner Offshore Services, deciding that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 applied to same-sex sexual harassment, and creating a landmark expansion of judicial oversight into the workplace.

In 1991, Joseph Oncale got a job working as a roustabout on an oil rig for $7 an hour. Employed by Sundowner Offshore Services, Oncale was assigned to a Chevron USA rig in the Gulf of Mexico. While on board, Oncale was subjected to severe sexual harassment by his supervisor, John Lyons, and his fellow workers Danny Pippen and Brandon Johnson. Lyons placed his penis on Oncale’s neck and arm. On October 25, 1991, Lyons also publicly sodomized Oncale with a bar of soap in the rig showers as Pippen held him down. Lyons also threatened to rape him. Today, most of us would no doubt consider the soap incident rape, but throughout the case, there seems to have been a steady distinction between the two incidents.

Oncale stood up for himself through this entire process. He complained to his employer, who basically said he was gay (in fact, Oncale was heterosexual) and did nothing. Oncale quit, requesting that his pink slip state that he left because of sexual harassment and verbal abuse. In his deposition, Oncale said, ““I felt that if I didn’t leave my job, that I would be raped or forced to have sex.”

With support from the American Civil Liberties Union, Oncale then filed a suit against Sundowner in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana, saying his rights were violated under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. But there was no precedent to applying Title VII to same-sex harassment. Title VII forbids discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin by all employers with more than fifteen employees (indeed, if your workplace has less than 15 employees, Title VII does not apply. I don’t know anything about the history of this. If anyone does, let me know). Title VII does not explicitly cover same-sex issues, as one would expect in 1964. The District Court ruled in favor of Sundowner. Oncale then appealed to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, which also ruled for the defendant.

The Supreme Court overruled the Fifth Circuit with unanimity based on a previous decision that held Title VII “evinces a congressional intent to strike at the entire spectrum of disparate treatment of men and women in employment.” It decided that Title VII’s protections against workplace harassment applied to same-sex relationships, even if those relationships were not explicitly sexual. Sundowner argued that applying Title VII to this case would create government interference into the workplace in an unprecedented manner that would serve “as a general civility code for the American workplace.” Justice Antonin Scalia, writing the opinion, rejected this, drawing a limited application to the decision: “the prohibition of harassment on the basis of sex requires neither asexuality nor androgyny in the workplace; it forbids only behavior so objectively offensive as to alter the ‘conditions’ of the victim’s employment.”

Not only did Oncale set a precedent for same-sex sexual harassment, but it also expanded the legal definition of sexual harassment to include something broader than sexual desire, so long as it makes a worker uncomfortable on the job. The implications of this did not make many commenters comfortable. Here’s a Jeffrey Rosen piece from The New Republic expressing his concern that the courts were equating sexual expression at the workplace with sexual harassment and urging the Court to stay out regulating workplace behavior. I’m guessing Rosen now really wishes he hadn’t written that. Reading Rosen’s piece sixteen years later shows how long the road has been in the fight against sexual harassment in the workplace. The late 20th century workplace was a space where power was used for sexual advantage and intimidation. Many men thought of making sexual advances on women almost as a right. Today, we slightly laugh about that while we watch the ridiculously lewd office behavior in Mad Men, but of course those sorts of things happened in any number of ways in any number of workplace settings. Creating and enforcing protections for women was controversial and contested in the 1990s. Extending such protections for men at a time when the anti-gay movement was as its peak seemed even more unlikely.

This is the 53rd post in this series. The series is archived here.

Do Not Leave Anything Loose on the Scaffold

[ 41 ] March 3, 2013 |

Got to give it to the Soviets, they did not mess around in showing the consequences of unsafe workplaces.

Of course, like American employers blaming workers for accidents, I have little doubt that the Soviet state could have mandated safeguards on machines that would have prevented a lot of pain and suffering had it had even minimal accountability to the public.

Popping that Popcorn

[ 96 ] March 3, 2013 |

Greg Mitchell reviews Tom Friedman’s column from 10 years ago yesterday in which the Mustache of Wisdom said, “Watching this Iraq story unfold, all I can say is this: If this were not about my own country, my own kids and my own planet, I’d pop some popcorn, pull up a chair and pay good money just to see how this drama unfolds.”

Yeah, that sure was a great movie.

Brothel Menu, 1912

[ 92 ] March 2, 2013 |

Have you ever wanted to see a detailed brothel menu from 1912, with extremely graphic detail about the services provided? Well, here’s your chance.

This might be the most amazing historical document I have ever seen.

Here’s another link if the first isn’t working

One Example of Working-Class Environmentalism

[ 11 ] March 2, 2013 |

Too often, including in the comments at this blog, the idea that labor unions and environmentalists have irreconcilable goals goes unchallenged. But there is in fact significant common ground. Over the Keystone XL Pipeline, the Transit Workers Union, health care unions, and other unions opposed its construction on grounds of both environmental health and the future of the planet. Employers love to say that the Environmental Protection Agency is a job killer. Too often, many unions buy into that rhetoric as well. But not all. A leader on pushing back against job blackmail for years is the United Steelworkers. The USW has long used EPA regulations to push its own interests both inside and outside the workplace. Other unions that used to do this as well were the Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers (OCAW) and the International Woodworkers of America (IWA), which is the subject of the second half of my book project. Unfortunately, those latter unions no longer exist. But the Steelworkers keep up the fight. Here it is with a press release ripping the oil refinery industry for violating EPA standards on safety and the workplace environment.

Part of the problem right now on this labor-environmental issue is that the industrial unions of the CIO were always much more open to making alliances with environmental organizations than the AFL trade unions. But it’s the industrial unions that have been slaughtered by outsourcing, deindustrialization, and globalization, while many of the trade unions, especially in the building trades, remain relatively healthy. So a changing culture in the remnants of American unionism isn’t helping. But the reality is far more complicated than the stereotype of workers and environmentalists being always opposed.

Keystone Approved

[ 163 ] March 1, 2013 |

The Obama Administration Obama Administration’s appointees in the State Department announces its approval of the Keystone XL Pipeline at 4 pm on Sequester Friday. How brave.

Disaster for the climate. Hardly surprised, greatly disappointed. Obama will not go down as a president good on environmental issues.

Entrenched NFL Homophobia

[ 46 ] March 1, 2013 |

The homophobia that flows through the NFL is not just with poorly educated players saying stupid things. It’s central to the whole system. University of Colorado tight end Nick Kasa was asked by a team executive at the combine, “Do you like girls?”

Meanwhile, NFL teams are openly investigating whether former Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o is gay after his bizarre relationship with a nonexistent woman deal.

It’s incredibly depressing and no doubt deeply intimidating for gay players afraid to come out. Not only do they face homophobia from teammates, despite the brave few speaking out, but from the entire structure of the NFL.

The Once and Future Gilded Age

[ 145 ] March 1, 2013 |

This country is so weird.

Sometimes exhilarating and sometimes incredibly depressing, the United States is full of paradoxes. This is a tough week for me. There’s one big thing to celebrate–the renewal of the Violence Against Women Act, with stronger protections for marginalized groups and pressure that forced the House Republican Troglodyte Caucus to cave.

Yet at the exact same time that a statue of Rosa Parks is being unveiled at the Capitol, Antonin Scalia and John Roberts are fulfilling their lifelong goal of repealing the meaningful clauses of the Voting Rights Act, potentially returning us to a pre-Civil Rights era of voting repression, although likely in more sophisticated ways than the ol’ let’s kill black voters routine of the pre-1965 era.

And now we have the sequester.

It seems to me that people are not taking the sequester seriously enough. There’s a reason for that. It’s March 1 and we woke up and nothing significant was different. It doesn’t fit our 24 hour news cycle. Meanwhile, even outstanding publications are all Bob Woodward, all the time. Look at TPM’s page today. It’s embarrassing. Woodward’s a blowhard and it is a legitimate story. The sequester is about 5000 times more important.

The United States, 1911 and 2013.

The real threat of the sequester is that it takes a big step forward in the Republican goal of returning the U.S. to the Gilded Age. Without doing anything at all, the Republicans force the government cutbacks they’ve been dreaming of. They don’t suffer in any way. The people suffer tremendously, but slowly, over time. This is like the frog in the boiling pot of water analogy (even if frogs don’t actually do that). Very slowly, without us hardly noticing, government services are reduced. People normalize those reduced services. National parks are shut down. Small airports basically stop functioning because of air traffic control reductions. Scientific research grants are reduced. Furloughed federal employees stop buying things, creating negative investment that leads to layoffs through the economy. Health programs are slashed. Adios to environmental protections. These things have a negative effect on people’s lives, but we don’t experience them immediately or every day. Just when we need them. Poor person needs an HIV test? Sorry. And they are gone, unlikely to ever come back.

There’s just no reason for Republicans to cave on this. Obama agreeing to the sequester idea because of his faith that some kind of grand bargain could be struck and his belief that Republicans would never allow this to happen was a gigantic miscalculation. Dave Weigel believes this strengthens Obama and the imperial presidency. And it’s possible we reach a point where the Executive Branch simply rules unilaterally because the legislative branch falls into complete dysfunction. Not only is that a terrible thing in the long-term (who wants to see President Rubio ruling unilaterally?) but that process will be slow and painful to transition to anything like an effective government.

Meanwhile, the drowning of government coincides with the disappearance of government supervision over voter repression. It also happens at the same time that the capitalists are just dying to return to 2007-esque housing bubbles and sketchy profitmaking. Dave Dayen’s piece from a couple of weeks ago on Wall Street investors buying up all the homes they can to rent them out strongly suggests the replacement of home ownership with slumlord rentals as the new housing norm in American society. Without good jobs and access to credit and with ever-increasing student debt loads, how will what used to be the middle-class afford a home? No real interest for Wall Street to see this happen, not when they can profit off rental markets. Suzy Khimm with more on this.

All of this leads the American public to feel hopeless about creating change. Only the Democrats could come up with a terrible name like “sequester” to describe this, obscuring the real and scary meanings of this disaster. We just trudge along, seeing that engaging in politics is hopeless and instead try to make the increasingly frayed ends of our life meet, at least for this week or month.

And we march on, without well-paying work, with huge debt loads, without voter protections for historically oppressed groups, without a functioning National Labor Relations Board, with fewer food safety inspectors, slowly back to the Gilded Age.

Letters

[ 105 ] March 1, 2013 |

We have a small M.A. program in history at URI. I sit on the graduate committee. Some of the letters of recommendation I have read are truly appalling in their sloppiness, misspellings, etc. When I write a letter of recommendation for someone, I take that duty very seriously. Someone’s future is in your hands. How professors can write such awful letters is beyond me. I actually find it rather offensive so I’m glad the Chronicle took this on.

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