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Tag: "environment"

Earth Day

[ 79 ] April 22, 2013 |

Today is Earth Day, also known as the one day a year Americans pretend that they care about the environment.

In 1970, Earth Day seemed like the beginning of a radical change in American life.

To say the least, it didn’t turn out that way. Even though the 70s saw a number of crises that seemed as if it might create radical transformations in Americans’ relationship with the environment, particularly the two oil crises and rising gas prices that began to spur government investment in alternative fuels, the nation quickly backed away from anything more than cosmetic changes to the national lifestyle. Today, it seems that hardly anyone cares. Polls show less concern about the environment than in 1970. Climate change is a backburner issue that drives virtually no political agenda.

That’s not to say real gains weren’t made. One problem the environmental movement faces is that the visceral causes of environmentalism in the 60s were mostly solved by the early 80s. Our rivers don’t catch on fire anymore, we don’t see smoke belching out of smokestacks, and we mostly live lives relatively distanced from the downsides of industrial nature (although there are obvious exceptions to this, such as West, Texas). Of course, much of this comes from the fact that we have outsourced industrial risk to Asia and Latin America. I am just old enough to remember the anti-littering campaigns of the early 80s. Woodsy the Owl made a big impact on people of my generation. Who really litters these days? So things look clean and we don’t choke so we don’t worry about it much.

But the environmental movement also faces the fact that for a lot of Americans, accepting the idea of limits is anathema to the national psyche. Atrios asks today why Americans drove so much between the mid-80s and mid-90s, when the miles driven exploded? There are a number of answers to that question. Exurbs (people commuting 100 miles from South Carolina to Atlanta for work–1 way), SUVs, very cheap oil, enough economic activity to fund driving vacations, etc. But at the heart of it all was Americans rejecting the limits of the 1970s and embracing Reagan’s America of no limits, big rhetoric, and big manly vehicles that kept us safe from the blahs when we drove from our lily-white suburbs into those dangerous cities to work.

It’s possible that some environmental factors are improving, particularly the rapid decline in young people’s driving rates, although that’s largely for cultural than environmental reasons. If the U.S. becomes more like Europe, that’s good. It’s less good as the rest of the world becomes more like the U.S. But you take what you can get.

Nonetheless, it’d be nice if Earth Day was something more than a one-off event once a year with less meaning for the average American than Labor Day.

The End of Fish

[ 61 ] April 8, 2013 |

It’s a good thing the Chinese don’t eat fish because this would be a problem:

However, over the past few years, fishery resources in the river have witnessed a severe decline, with the river’s ecological system currently on the verge of collapsing, according to Zhao Yimin, head of a fishery resource office with the Ministry of Agriculture.

According to statistics, the Yangtze River used to have some 1,100 species of wild aquatic animals, including more than 370 fish species of which 142 were unique to the river and some 20 had been categorized as endangered animals.

In recent years, however, the amount of fish has sharply declined, with particular species, such as the shad and blowfish, not spotted for several years.

This is believed to be the result of excessive fishing, the construction of water conservancy projects, water pollution and unregulated drainage.

Currently, most fish caught in the Yangtze River are only six months-old and some are even less than two months old, leaving them with no chance at any offspring.

Oh wait, you mean fish is central to Chinese food? And that this is really just a somewhat worse version of a worldwide phenomenon? Oh dear.

Once again, our children will think of most fish as they do the passenger pigeon. We will have to explain to them what a “fish” is. There will be some examples in the Museum of Natural History.

Pierce on Climate Change

[ 75 ] April 7, 2013 |

Pierce pretty much sums up my feelings about Obama’s clear support for the Keystone XL pipeline and the broader failure of this nation to do anything at all about climate change:

This is the argument we get from the oil companies, the extraction industries, and all the politicians they have sublet over the past 40 years — that environmental concerns are the province of the liberal elites, as though small farmers are not being killed by drought, small businesses being killed by what’s killing the small farmers, and small homeowners along both seaboards being killed by increasingly massive storms. The interested parties have done a good job selling this bag of manure to the American people. To see a Democratic president making essentially the same argument — And that’s what he’s doing here. He’s not just assessing the lay of the land. — is more than simply distressing. It’s downright mortifying. Climate change is the single biggest crisis the world has faced since, well, ever. It is moving toward irreversibility at a frightening rate. (And if the president approves that damned pipeline, the acceleration may go into the red zones.) It touches everything, including people’s personal economies. And there is a huge propaganda apparatus in place to convince the public that the problem doesn’t exist at all. And this is awful, too.

This really can’t be overstated. If climate change isn’t the greatest challenge we as a human race has ever faced, I don’t know what would be. From a national perspective, we could call it our greatest problem since slavery and I’d be OK with this. We could call it our greatest crisis since World War II and I would disagree. Climate change is a far greater threat to the United States than our enemies in the 1940s.

And we do nothing except make it worse.

The Smell of Rain

[ 14 ] April 2, 2013 |

I’d always wondered why rain smelled so good after a dry period. I first noticed this in the summer growing up in Oregon, when it doesn’t rain. Then in September it would rain and it would always smell like this. And then it always smelled that way in New Mexico. Love it. Now I know why.


[ 12 ] March 31, 2013 |

A must-read story on the problems with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, focusing on glue poisoning in a North Carolina furniture factory. The article describes OSHA as “the watchdog agency that many Americans love to hate and industry often faults as overzealous.” I’m not really sure about the former part of that formulation, but the latter is certainly true. And therein lies the problem with OSHA. When it was founded, it had real potential to regulate the workplace environment. Organized labor took advantage of OSHA’s existence to empower workers on the shopfloor, pushing for new regulations, testing of air quality, right-to-know laws on chemicals, and all sorts of things. One chapter of my book is about how the International Woodworkers of America became one of the nation’s most proactive unions when it came to OSHA.

But the election of Reagan in 1981 effectively ended OSHA’s potential to reshape the workplace. Suffering from industry complaints, reduced funding, and regulatory capture, OSHA just does not have the ability to enforce all these regulations. Too few inspectors, too little money, too much industry pressure.

And let’s be clear–industry has been completely fine with their workers getting sick and dying all the way to the 19th century. From the days of Alice Hamilton and the first health reformers around 1900 going until 2013, industries have denied their culpability in workplace illness, blamed workers for their own sickness, influenced politicians to not fix problems, and eventually moved the factories to China in order to continue profiting off of workers’ destroyed bodies. Sometimes, workers suing companies could force some change–corporate support of workers’ compensation legislation in the 1910s happened because successful lawsuits worried industrial leaders. So this is not an issue just of the present–it’s an issue of poorly regulated capitalism. Looking over this history, it’s kind of amazing that OSHA was created in the first place, but the political will simply hasn’t existed over the decades to force industry to make workplace health a priority. We can’t even imagining creating laws that would force American companies to have safety standards in factories abroad that would comply with American laws–but there’s no reason we shouldn’t fight for this.

Drought’s Rippling Effects

[ 10 ] March 30, 2013 |

When you rely on fully industrialized waterways for transportation, the effects of drought on industry that don’t obviously rely on rain (like agriculture) can still be quite devastating. Such as the auto industry.

How Florida Gulf Coast University Was Created

[ 28 ] March 29, 2013 |

Florida Gulf Coast University has come to the nation’s attention in the last week due to its 2 unlikely upsets in the NCAA Tournament. This attention has also caught the attention of reporters and environmental organizations, who have explored the sordid tale of its creation. Both Miles Grant at the National Wildlife Foundation and Tim Murphy at Mother Jones have the story.

Essentially, Florida politicians and a rich developer with ties to both agribusiness and real estate wanted to build a new university outside of Fort Myers that would spur development and make a small group of people very rich. The problem–it is a swamp with critical habitat for the disappearing Florida panther. When environmental restrictions looked like they might get in the way, Senator Connie Mack got on the phone and started yelling at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to get the project approved.

Basically, the rich and powerful get what they want. Environmental sustainability is easy to swat out of the way.


[ 107 ] March 29, 2013 |

Turns out that if you industrialize an animal and then expose them to tremendous amounts of chemical pesticides, terrible things can happen.

I know that the Green Revolution and our faith in technology has worked in the short term to feed a lot of people. But without some pretty significant changes, the most important link in the chain of vegetables, fruits, and nuts is about to break. Colony collapse disorder is a major threat to the world’s food supply. We’ve known about it for years and the likely connection between the disorder and pesticides has been suggested for almost as long. Yet we have done nothing to limit our pesticide use. After all, powerful chemical companies say they can’t be the problem! Now the bees are dying faster than ever.

Friends of Coal Miners

[ 30 ] March 25, 2013 |

Who are the real friends of coal miners? Like in the timber wars of the 1980s, an exploitative industry and its lackey politicians have claimed that the industry looks out for the miners against those evil environmentalists, while at the same time engaging in land management and labor policies that make workers’ lives worse. Given a declining industry due to overexploitation of the resource and because of a lack of economic alternatives for scared workers, this political move has been very effective both in logging towns of the Northwest and Appalachian coal country.

But in both places, activists have pushed back against the false choices of industry versus environment. Here is an outstanding letter from retired UMWA organizer Carl Shoupe about the lies of the coal industry to the people of Kentucky.

Since I’ve been around coal all my life, I guess I should be pleased when our “leaders” say they are Friends of Coal. But lately, I’ve been wondering, which part of coal they’re friends with.

Peabody Energy and its new company, Patriot Coal, are trying to weasel out of paying health and pension benefits promised to thousands of retired UMWA miners. Have you heard any objection from these Friends of Coal in our marble palaces in Frankfort? Those miners earned their benefits with their sweat and their blood, but now Peabody wants to dump them like they’re just more overburden.

These politicians may be friends of coal, but they’re not friends of coal miners and their families. These miners and their families are being robbed of their retirement and benefits.

My friend Truman recently spent a week hooked up to a hospital ventilator. Like thousands of others, he suffers with black lung, caused by working in underground mines filled with coal dust. Today, the number of severe black lung cases is on the rise again, affecting workers on strip mines and below ground. And yet Congressman Hal Rogers has led efforts in Congress to block rules designed to protect miners from that awful disease.

Another friend of mine had to move with his daughter away from the homeplace where his family has lived for over 200 years. Toxic runoff from mountaintop removal was poisoning him and his family.

But his state representative, House Speaker Greg Stumbo, stood up at an Environmental Protection Agency hearing about water pollution and insisted that anyone who wants to save the mountains should just “go buy one.”

The speaker may be a friend of the coal companies, but he’s no friend of coalfield families threatened by mountaintop mining and poisoned water.

Coal companies and politicians of both parties who are beholden to coal money are not the friends of workers. At the very least, political progressives should be aware that environmentalists are not the enemies of coal miners. The enemy is the employer who has zero concern for the aftermath of coal mining and the long-term effects of coal dependency on Appalachia.

Light Pollution

[ 29 ] March 20, 2013 |

This piece on Hong Kong’s out of control light pollution is a good reminder of one of the least controlled means of pollution. While maybe it isn’t as damaging as water or air pollution, humans have made evolutionary adjustments for night and constant light could potentially have long-term damage on human health. In the short-term, the absence of night can be devastating for many animals, as we may well be seeing in the Hong Kong area with fireflies and other insects.

Wise Words

[ 27 ] March 19, 2013 |

I thought it useful to reprint part of Senator Gaylord Nelson’s speech from the first Earth Day, in 1970:

I congratulate you, who by your presence here today demonstrate your concern and commitment to an issue that is more than just a matter of survival. How we survive is the critical question.

Earth Day is dramatic evidence of a broad new national concern that cuts across generations and ideaologies. It may be symbolic of a new communication between young and old about our values and priorities.

Take advantage of this broad new agreement. Don’t drop out of it. Pull together a new national coalition whose objective it is to put Gross National Quality on par with Gross National Product.

Campaign nationwide to elect an “Ecology Congress” as the 92nd Congress–a Congress that will build bridges between our citizens and between man and nature’s systems, instead of building more highways and dams and new weapons systems that escalate the arms race.

Earth Day can–and it must–lend a new urgency and a new support to solving the problems that still threaten to tear the fabric of this society….the problems of race, of war, of poverty, of modern-day institutions.

Ecology is a big science, a big concept–not a copout. It is concerned with the total eco-system–not just with how we dispose of our tin cans, bottles, and sewage.

Environment is all of America and its problems. It is rats in the ghetto. It is a hungry child in a land of affluence. It is housing that is not worthy of the name; neighborhoods not fit to inhabit.

Environment is a problem perpetuated by the expenditure of tens of billions of dollars a year on the Vietnam War, instead on our decaying, crowded, polluted urban areas that are inhuman traps for millions of people.

If our cities don’t work, America won’t work. And the battle to save them and the end the divisiveness that still splits this country won’t be won in Vietnam.

Winning the environmental war is a whole lot tougher challenge by far than winning any other war in the history of Man. It will take $20 to $25 billions more a year in federal money than we are spending or asking for now.

Our goal is not just an environment of clean air and water and scenic beauty. The objective is an environment of decency, quality, and mutual respect for all other human beings and all other living creatures.

Our goal is a new American ethic that sets new standards for progress, emphasizing human dignity and well being rather than an endless parade of technology that produces more gadgets, more waste, more pollution.

Are we able to meet the challenge? Yes. We have the technology and the resources.

Are we willing? That is the unanswered question.

Establishing quality on par with quantity is going to require new national policies that quite frankly will interfere with what many have considered their right to use and abuse the air, the water, the land, just because that is what we have always done.

I reprint this because it so encapsulates what environmentalism should be and what it has been in the past. Notice the sheer humanism of this speech. The focus is not just on wilderness but on people–on engaging the poorest of American citizens in the fight for a better environment. At its height, environmentalism was a movement about the air we all breathe and the water we all drink, as well as the wilderness that only some of us get to and the animals that most of us don’t see. There’s lots of reasons why the people-oriented side of environmentalism fell apart ten years after Earth Day–the two biggest being that Reagan shut off federal access to environmentalists and generational changes that emphasized the consumption of public lands through recreation over the war on poverty. We still suffer for this today, in a world where many Americans don’t see climate change as a major threat, or at least something they have to worry much about.

Of course, there are advocates working on an environmentalism of the poor, especially in the environmental justice movement, but there’s also real separation between that version of environmentalism and what most of us think of when we think of environmentalism. That’s a problem that everyone knows exists but no one has much of an idea how to fix.

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.

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