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Tag: "environment"

Priorities

[ 119 ] August 31, 2012 |

Kevin Drum’s piece about the Paul Ryan budget was illustrative not only of how horrible that granny starver is and how much of a professional con artist he is, but also of how the current generation of young(ish) Democrats see priorities. Here is an excerpt:

But it gets worse: He wants to cut all other spending—aside from Social Security and Medicare—by 70 percent. And even that understates things. He’s made it plain that he doesn’t want to see substantial cuts in the defense budget, which means that the domestic budget would probably have to go down to something like 1.5 percent of GDP. That’s a cut of 80 percent or so and it affects everything. It affects prisons, food assistance, education, the FBI, assistance to the needy, courts, child nutrition, drug abuse counseling, FEMA, rape prevention, autism programs, housing, border control, student loans, roads and bridges, Head Start, college scholarships, unemployment insurance, and job training. Everything. Most of these programs would simply disappear, and the ones that remained would be shriveled and nearly useless.

You all can talk about the horrible reality of Ryan’s budget in comments, but I found that list super interesting for what it did and did not include. It’s a pretty good run-down of what people value these days. Some traditional subjects–education, unemployment, etc. Some topics that have only recently galvanized our national interest–autism, FEMA. And then nothing on the environment. That’s what struck me. This list in 1970 or 1980 or 1990 would have likely had 3 or 4 environmental programs listed. EPA. Superfund. Clean Air and Water Act enforcement. Etc. Today, nothing. And that’s pretty indicative of how far the environmental agenda has fallen off the map for a lot of young progressives. Today, you have young people with environmental concerns even running away from the term. That’s both shocking and sad for the planet.

Note that I’m not trying to be unfair to Drum. Such a list could have been drawn up by any number of people and it wouldn’t have included environmental programs.

Unscalable Options Have Little Value

[ 65 ] August 22, 2012 |

I like Tom Philpott’s work at Mother Jones, but this piece connecting Americans’ disposable society and clothing with malnutrition around the world had one point that bothered me. I think in principle the article’s idea is a good one. Our clothing purchases have skyrocketed in the last 50 years, far faster than income growth. We throw away a lot of clothes (well actually I never throw away clothes, much to the chagrin of my wife) and don’t think twice about it. What is the environmental impact? A good question. Cotton grown in India and Africa for American clothing markets has a big impact. Philpott tries to connect that to malnutrition. It’s possible; certainly the world produces enough food to feed all people, especially given the gigantic amount of food that goes to waste. People who idealize globalization have a vision of a smooth running mechanism moving products from place to place so that you don’t have to grow your own food, but that doesn’t really work in the real world. Does growing cotton in Africa directly lead to malnutrition there? I don’t know. It likely plays a role but it’s probably not the whole story. This doesn’t even get into the other environmental negatives of clothing production for the western market such as the desertification of Mongolia to produce cheap cashmere.

Anyway, that’s all fine and good. Philpott goes on to suggest some options:

So what are your options for a guilt-free closet? Vintage and secondhand, of course, are good options, and some major retailers (Patagonia, Eileen Fisher) encourage customers to send back used clothes—then repurpose them or offer them for sale at a steep discount. If thrift stores aren’t your thing, many manufacturers (including H&M) now offer some products made from organic cotton, which requires fewer chemicals and a little less water. But most of it is grown in the same regions as conventional cotton—meaning the farmers still get a raw deal. By far, the most effective strategy is to give up the supermarket sweep approach to clothes shopping and instead buy a few durable pieces. As for me, I’ll be thinking twice next time I’m tempted to grab a cheapo item off the rack at a chain store. Come to think of it, I just might splurge on a spendy wool sweater I’ve been coveting. Considering how long it will last, it might not be so extravagant after all.

Again, the overall point here is good–the real answer is that we should buy less and keep what we have. But I have to say that the thrift store market argument drives me crazy. Not that there’s anything wrong with it in principle. But it’s completely unrealistic and unserious as a real option for most people because there’s just not enough clothes in them to feed the market and because to rush en masse to thrift stores would raise the prices beyond what people who actually rely on these clothes to survive could afford. Yet people who try to reject sweatshops, capitalism, unsustainable practices, and other problems in the modern world run this argument out as an example of how to do things differently time and time again. And it drives me crazy because it is so obviously not scalable.

Now I know that I am not fashionable in my leftism. I despise anarchism. I don’t think corporate campaigns are worth much. I am skeptical of online activism (though the tools obviously have value). I think consensus decision-making is a joke. I think the emphasis on individualism that drives our economic and social lives is great in some ways but also prioritizes individual action within social movements like Occupy over getting things done. I also think these kind of individual decisions to opt out of a system (in this case clothing capitalism) by making some kind of fashion statement (I buy used clothes! Look how fashionable and anti-capitalist I am!) are essentially meaningless. If solutions aren’t available to the masses, probably driven by grassroots campaigns but, importantly, implemented by governments, they probably aren’t really solutions.

To be fair, it’s not like I’m really accusing Philpott of being this way. That sentence of his was just a good launching point.

Food Waste

[ 25 ] August 22, 2012 |

The Natural Resources Defense Council has released a paper detailing the grotesque waste of food in the United States and suggesting common-sense plans to reduce this waste.

Food is simply too good to waste. Even the most sustainably farmed food does us no good if the food is never eaten. Getting food to our tables eats up 10 percent of the total U.S. energy budget, uses 50 percent of U.S. land, and swallows 80 percent of freshwater consumed in the United States. Yet, 40 percent of food in the United States today goes uneaten. That is more than 20 pounds of food per person every month. Not only does this mean that Americans are throwing out the equivalent of $165 billion each year, but also 25 percent of all freshwater and huge amounts of unnecessary chemicals, energy, and land. Moreover, almost all of that uneaten food ends up rotting in landfills where it accounts for almost 25 percent of U.S. methane emissions.

What’s particularly outrageous is that 50% of the seafood in the United States goes to waste. 50%!!!!! These are wild animals, the last wild animals we harvest commercially for food. Some of these species are in severe decline and are becoming endangered. Yet we treat this food so casually as to dump 1/2 of it in landfills. This is outrageous.

Of course, the national appetite for government-led environmental initiatives is now close to zero so I suppose nothing will get done.

Cleaning the Rivers

[ 17 ] August 14, 2012 |

A very good piece on the trickiness of Superfund attempts to clean up rivers. Is it better to clean up the toxic sludge at the bottom of rivers flowing through industrial sites, even though it could stir up those toxins in the short term? Or is better to risk those short-term problems in order to create healthy rivers in the centuries ahead? No easy answers, that’s for sure.

Republican Climate Policy

[ 10 ] August 13, 2012 |

I suppose that maybe this was a misspoken statement, but it certainly seems to fit with the rest of the Republican response to Obama to blame the national drought on the president. Not the response, the drought itself. And who doubts that a certain segment of American society believes the drought is God’s response to electing a black Islamofascist to the presidency?

The Future of Water

[ 46 ] August 12, 2012 |

This story about the siphoning of water from the Sacramento River to the big corporate farms and cities of southern California says a lot about the future of water resources in the West, and the nation more broadly. Water is the #1 issue in western development. It’s a true axiom in American history that those who control water control power. With climate change, the West’s oversubscribed water supplies are more hotly contested than ever. It’s pretty clear to me that over time, the priorities for water are going to be a) cities, b) corporate farms, 3) slightly less corporate farms, 4) the environment. Meaning the environment will get as little as the will allow. And despite the very real power of agriculture, it doesn’t match the power of voters who are desperate for their own water.

Marijuana in the Forests: A Localized Silent Spring in the Making?

[ 35 ] August 10, 2012 |

For this week’s Forestry Friday post I want to follow up on last week’s discussion of drug cartels destroying the forests of Mexico by bringing this story into the forests of California. A team of scientists at UC-Davis conducted a study about recent deaths in the population of the rare Pacific fisher, a member of the weasel family. What they found was disturbing. Essentially, the Mexican drug cartels are using a huge amount of rat poison on their hidden plantations in the Sierra Nevada. The rodents eat the poison, but they don’t die immediately. As predators kill the still living rodents, they ingest the poison into their own system. It builds up and they die a horrible, painful death that turns their internal organs to mush. 79% of the fisher carcasses studied had rat poison in their system.

Of course, fishers aren’t the only animals to eat forest rodents. Like other poisons, it moves up the food chain. The study worries about the impact of poison on other predatory mammals. The effect of this poison upon birds has not been studied, at least to my knowledge, but we can probably make an educated guess about that. This rat poison, which the cartels use in huge amounts (I’ve seen the original report with DEA pictures from raided pot plantations), also washes into streams and affects fish and other aquatic creatures.

Effectively, this poison enters the food chain in ways not dissimilar from DDT and other famous poisons. Of course, this is not widespread enough to truly cause a Silent Spring-type scenario, but on a local level, this rat poison could have an enormous effect on the forest ecosystem.

There are two logical policy moves that would help eliminate this problem. In the short term, the DEA needs to put its resources toward eliminating these cartel operations and away from the easier to find operations on the west coast. Second, we need to decriminalize marijuana. California will eventually decriminalize, over the objections of the pot growers themselves who profit off criminalization, but it has to be nationwide. Otherwise, the cartels still have reason to go into our national forests and tear up the environment in order to provide Americans’ seemingly insatiable demand for the drug.

More detailed info about the state of the Pacific fisher is here.

Unintended Consequences

[ 25 ] August 8, 2012 |

Color me less than shocked that people are gaming the carbon credit system, creating unintended consequences that actually hurts the environment.

Illegal Logging and the Failures of the Mexican State

[ 32 ] August 3, 2012 |

If you haven’t read Karla Zabludovsky’s piece today on locals in Michoacán organizing to fight illegal logging by criminal gangs that is robbing them of their livelihood and traditional ways of life, you really must do so. A few points on this:

1. While legalizing marijuana in the United States would rob the Mexican criminal gangs of a major source of income, the idea that it would somehow resolve the violence in Mexico is absurd. Maybe at one time such a thing might have made a major difference but not now. The gangs have moved into any number of other activities, including kidnapping, extortion, the illegal wildlife trade, and logging, as well as of course smuggling hard drugs. Of course, the U.S. could shut the flow of guns to Mexico but that would violate my rights to have a personal arsenal the size of the Honduran army or something.

2. That locals have to organize to fight these criminals says a lot about the failures of the Mexican government over the last 70 years or so to bring rural communities into state. Effectively, the government has given up any hope of paroling these areas. While the post-revolutionary state did take major steps forward under the Calles and Cardenas regimes, after 1940, it really stalled out. Although Mexico is a fairly well off country by developing world standards, resources never flowed into rural areas and neither did a state presence. The long-time rule of a single party state is the real culprit–the PRI made sure the leaders of these communities bought into the program and that was good enough. There was never much incentive for the state to deliver in these communities.

The “uses and customs,” or usos y costumbres, that some indigenous communities rule themselves under have positive benefits, but it is also deeply complex and fraught with intra-community tensions, as my wife Kathleen McIntyre shows in her dissertation on evangelicalism and religious conflict in indigenous Oaxacan villages.

But while usos y costumbres might give these indigenous communities some power to fight the criminal gangs, it’s absolutely pathetic that they have to rely on this instead of the Mexican police force. This just says so much about the problems Mexico faces. Why does everyone look the other way on all the drug smuggling, the killing of women in Juarez, the illegal logging, and so much else? Because the state refuses to pay cops enough to make it worth their while and because the state never bothered developing the infrastructure that would provide economic options to people. And while I may be a bit harsh on governance in a relatively poor country, the Mexican government deserves a lot of blame here.

3. This illegal logging is both a social and ecological disaster. Ecologically, among other things it severely threatens the future of the monarch butterfly, since even in this central tourist destination, the Mexican state is unable/unwilling to protect the forests the monarch relies upon to survive. Plus you have the survival of many other species placed in peril, from migratory birds to all too rare mammal populations to rare plants. The forests of Michoacán also contain mushrooms the local people rely on for their economy. With those disappearing, the future of these villages is very much in doubt.

On another note, I am starting a new series on the blog that I am calling Forestry Friday. I’ll have a forestry related post each week on some aspect of current or historical forest issues. Why? Because I care a lot about these issues and I hope you will too.

The Problem of the 21st Century

[ 69 ] July 20, 2012 |

Bill McKibben lays it out for us–climate change is the greatest problem of the 21st century by enormous levels of magnitude.

If the pictures of those towering wildfires in Colorado haven’t convinced you, or the size of your AC bill this summer, here are some hard numbers about climate change: June broke or tied 3,215 high-temperature records across the United States. That followed the warmest May on record for the Northern Hemisphere – the 327th consecutive month in which the temperature of the entire globe exceeded the 20th-century average, the odds of which occurring by simple chance were 3.7 x 10-99, a number considerably larger than the number of stars in the universe.

Meteorologists reported that this spring was the warmest ever recorded for our nation – in fact, it crushed the old record by so much that it represented the “largest temperature departure from average of any season on record.” The same week, Saudi authorities reported that it had rained in Mecca despite a temperature of 109 degrees, the hottest downpour in the planet’s history.

Not that our leaders seemed to notice. Last month the world’s nations, meeting in Rio for the 20th-anniversary reprise of a massive 1992 environmental summit, accomplished nothing. Unlike George H.W. Bush, who flew in for the first conclave, Barack Obama didn’t even attend. It was “a ghost of the glad, confident meeting 20 years ago,” the British journalist George Monbiot wrote; no one paid it much attention, footsteps echoing through the halls “once thronged by multitudes.” Since I wrote one of the first books for a general audience about global warming way back in 1989, and since I’ve spent the intervening decades working ineffectively to slow that warming, I can say with some confidence that we’re losing the fight, badly and quickly – losing it because, most of all, we remain in denial about the peril that human civilization is in.

When we think about global warming at all, the arguments tend to be ideological, theological and economic. But to grasp the seriousness of our predicament, you just need to do a little math. For the past year, an easy and powerful bit of arithmetical analysis first published by financial analysts in the U.K. has been making the rounds of environmental conferences and journals, but it hasn’t yet broken through to the larger public. This analysis upends most of the conventional political thinking about climate change. And it allows us to understand our precarious – our almost-but-not-quite-finally hopeless – position with three simple numbers.

McKibben names a clear enemy: the fossil fuel industry and the greed of their executives. I don’t disagree with this, but I think it is a bit more complicated–the person who wants a monster truck that gets 7 mpg is also kind of the enemy, as is the suburban family who wants to commute 50 miles each way to work with an 9 mpg SUV. Of course, this is also too simplistic since we can have conversations about how and why capitalists stoked those demands. But that’s fine, I guess I understand the need to make this argument. Plus there’s no question that early 21st century monopoly capitalism is a huge issue. If the government made a good faith effort to open the energy market to clean innovators, maybe we could make some progress, but as we’ve seen with the Solyndra non-scandal, even the slightest attempts to do so will spark fake outrage among oil’s bought politicians in Congress.

More problematic is the false hope McKibben provides at the end of the article, when he suggests that we should put pressure on the petroleum corporations like activists in the 80s did to the apartheid regime of South Africa:

The fossil-fuel industry is obviously a tougher opponent, and even if you could force the hand of particular companies, you’d still have to figure out a strategy for dealing with all the sovereign nations that, in effect, act as fossil-fuel companies. But the link for college students is even more obvious in this case. If their college’s endowment portfolio has fossil-fuel stock, then their educations are being subsidized by investments that guarantee they won’t have much of a planet on which to make use of their degree. (The same logic applies to the world’s largest investors, pension funds, which are also theoretically interested in the future – that’s when their members will “enjoy their retirement.”) “Given the severity of the climate crisis, a comparable demand that our institutions dump stock from companies that are destroying the planet would not only be appropriate but effective,” says Bob Massie, a former anti-apartheid activist who helped found the Investor Network on Climate Risk. “The message is simple: We have had enough. We must sever the ties with those who profit from climate change – now.”

Yeah, I don’t know. The environmental movement is really concerned that it doesn’t come across as too negative. The fear is that if they tell the unvarnished truth without providing hope that people will just shut off. So rather than give the full jeremiad, screaming from the rooftops about the horror about to change all of our lives if we don’t change our ways RIGHT NOW!!!!, McKibben suggest pressuring students pressuring college administrations to pressure corporations to change their ways. That’d be great if we were talking about social policy. But instead we are taking about the future of life on the planet. Given the very real nature of the crisis, something that during this horrible heat wave and drought most Americans are just beginning to feel (but nothing compared to what it will look like 10 or 20 years from now), the call for traditional types of campaigns that make liberals feel good just feel inadequate. Climate change writers shouldn’t pull their punches. The issue is too important.

Had A Nice Day?

[ 30 ] July 19, 2012 |

No? It was scorching hot and dry, even if humid? Hard to imagine why, given that this week’s drought update shows the nation in officially the worst drought of the 21st century. An amazing 42% of the nation is in Severe Drought and 14% in Extreme Drought, according to the National Drought Mitigation Center.

The full report here.

Personal Experience and Environmental Change

[ 180 ] July 18, 2012 |

As we see during most heat waves, the number of people who believe climate change is happening peaking. During cold spells in the winter, the number dives. This reminds me of one of the biggest problem in creating long-term environmental reform–everybody believes their personal experience in the norm. There’s a Facebook cartoon I’ve seen a couple of people put up recently that tells everyone to shut up because it’s the summer and it’s supposed to be hot. Well, no. Or at least not like this. 2012 is almost certainly going to go down as the hottest year in the history of the United States. Most of the other leading years are also in the very recent past. There has basically never been a heat wave in the history of this country like the current one plaguing the eastern half of the country for the last month.

Never.

But we very quickly internalize this as normal.

This isn’t just climate. I was talking to a environmental scientist friend of mine recently who recalled a conversation with the owner I think of a timber operation. The guy didn’t understand why he needed to comply with stormwater drainage regulations. He said the rivers turn brown anyway. And my friend was like, that’s not natural! It’s the result of logging and erosion and other issues. But if you see it for more than a short time, you can easily internalize it and assume that you are not responsible.

That’s hardly a recent phenomenon. Whites moved onto the western Great Plains in large numbers in the late 19th century. Places like western Nebraska and eastern New Mexico became exciting spots to start a farm. It seemed like a great idea at the time because there was enough rain. Everyone assumed there would always be enough rain. But the 1880s and 1890s were unusually wet decades and when the land dried up, it became impossible to live out there. That’s why you see so many abandoned buildings in these places–they are the homesteads of people from 50, 70, 100 years ago who finally gave up on the land. Plus the farming out there had major environmental impacts, particularly the plowing of the sod to plant grains. When the drought came, nothing grew and the soil blew away, leading to the Dust Bowl.

I’m not sure what you do about this. But it’s really really hard to create policies to fight climate change when we assume our own experiences are normal. Combine this with the right-wing propaganda machine telling everyone climate change is a liberal myth and you have a recipe for doing nothing.

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