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Tag: "environment"

Pittsburgh, 1940

[ 65 ] June 4, 2012 |

In 1941, Pittsburgh passed a smoke control ordinance. Retronaut has a good collection of photographs suggesting why it was needed.

Of course, this is also the Republican vision for our future air quality.

This smoke was no joke. It could be fatal, especially given the mountains and valleys of western Pennsylvania that trapped the smog. The most notorious incident was the Donora Fog of 1948, which killed 20 people in a mill town outside of Pittsburgh.


California Fracking

[ 126 ] May 31, 2012 |

The California Senate has rejected a fracking bill that seems like common sense:

Under Pavley’s bill, oil companies would be required to give 30 days notice to land owners whose property line or residence is within 300 feet of a fracking operation. The firms would also have to notify local governments and water boards. The state’s oil and gas agency would then post the information on its website.

Does anything about this seem onerous to you, even if you support lightly regulated production of energy in a manner that has unknown consequences? All the companies would have to do is tell property owners and local governments what they are going to do.

Oh hell no.

Republicans characterized the bill as a job-killing regulation for an industry that employs many Californians. “This bill is nothing more than to slow down oil and gas production in California,” said state Sen. Jean Fuller (R-Bakersfield).

I suspect the issue of public knowledge is the real heart of the opposition. If people know where fracking is taking place, they can monitor it. And the gas industry certainly doesn’t want that.

The Last Days of Appalachian Coal

[ 10 ] May 31, 2012 |

Eric Lipton’s feature on the decline of coal in Kentucky is interesting, though flawed. He tells a heartbreaking story for these coal miners, helping us understand just how deeply people in eastern Kentucky believe in coal. Even if other economic opportunities appeared in the region, a lot of people just don’t want to imagine a world not dominated by coal. Of course, the fact that the coal industry has ruled this area as a feudal domain for a century doesn’t help.

Both Lipton and the Kentucky coal operators are giving environmentalists too much power. The idea that environmentalists can set policy in 2012 is pretty laughable and flies in the face of a huge amount of evidence. Environmentalists can be a useful ally if more powerful players want something to happen. New York and Chicago are moving away from supplying power through coal because Bloomberg and Emanuel want it to happen. Sierra Club lobbying might be making a difference but they are hardly, say, passing national legislation or even state-level legislation on these matters. Environmentalists are an easy target. And by including pollution controls on new coal-fired plants, they have raised the cost of doing business. But environmentalists are an easy target that ignores what’s really going on.

And that’s fracking. The economics of natural gas just make a lot more sense. And for as horrible as fracking can be (and for all the problems we have ignored while just plowing ahead), it is almost certainly better for everyone with a stake in energy than coal, except for the coal miners themselves. Natural gas is tremendously efficient for home heating. It’s less dirty than coal. It doesn’t change the climate as quickly. And it’s just a lot cheaper at the present time. Even if you don’t have the pollution controls on new plants, coal can’t compete with natural gas right now.

And one issue the article elides is the fact that Americans are still mining enormous amounts of coal–but it is increasingly in Wyoming instead of Kentucky and West Virginia. Lipton mentions the overseas market for coal, especially in Asia. But high-quality coal seams are disappearing in Appalachia; after over a century, it is finally drying up. So the ability of Appalachia to transition to an overseas market is limited. The companies know this and they are invested whole hog in western coal.

Ideally, the government would step in here like Bill Clinton did during the spotted owl crisis. Settling the issue more or less in favor of environmentalists, as needed to happen, Clinton also ensured significant federal aid and job retraining programs to people who lost their jobs. But there’s no way that is going to happen in 2012. Loggers in 1993 weren’t any much pro-Democratic president than coal miners are today. But Oregon and Washington also had huge local constituencies who wanted to see old-growth logging on federal lands end and there’s just not that local community in Kentucky and West Virginia lobbying for the end of coal. It’s even more of an insider-outsider paradigm than the ancient forest campaigns proved to be. Even more important is the shrinkage of the welfare state and the overt hostility today to helping even white people, as opposed to the 90s when subsidies for poor white loggers were OK but welfare for black mothers was repealed.

North Carolina Trying to Make Measuring Climate Change Illegal

[ 24 ] May 31, 2012 |

The Tar Heel State is moving up the list of insane states.

There is virtually universal agreement among scientists that the sea will probably rise a good meter or more before the end of the century, wreaking havoc in low-lying coastal counties. So the members of the developers’ lobbying group NC-20 say the sea will rise only 8 inches, because … because … well, SHUT UP, that’s because why.

That is, the meter or so of sea level rise predicted for the NC Coastal Resources Commission by a state-appointed board of scientists is extremely inconvenient for counties along the coast. So the NC-20 types have decided that we can escape sea level rise – in North Carolina, anyhow – by making it against the law. Or making MEASURING it against the law, anyhow.

Here’s a link to the circulated Replacement House Bill 819. The key language is in section 2, paragraph e, talking about rates of sea level rise: “These rates shall only be determined using historical data, and these data shall be limited to the time period following the year 1900. Rates of seas-level rise may be extrapolated linearly. …” It goes on, but there’s the core: North Carolina legislators have decided that the way to make exponential increases in sea level rise – caused by those inconvenient feedback loops we keep hearing about from scientists – go away is to make it against the law to extrapolate exponential; we can only extrapolate along a line predicted by previous sea level rises.

This is bound to protect the endangered Outer Banks tourist industry!

Environmental Inequality and Poverty from Space

[ 47 ] May 30, 2012 |

The number of trees in an urban neighborhood proves a very strong determinant of the area’s income level. This means you can judge income inequality in satellite images.

If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front

[ 104 ] May 22, 2012 |

I recently watched If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front, which came out last year. The film follows the story of Daniel McGowan, a radical member of the Earth Liberation Front. During the late 90s and early 00s, the ELF took to arson as a means of stopping companies and organizations it saw as destroying the environment of the American West. This included timber mills, SUV dealerships, and most famously, a ski resort in Colorado. McGowan was heavily involved in several of these actions and took the leading role in burning the offices of a tree farm the ELF believed was using genetically modified trees. It took years for the police to bust open this case (in fact, most of the arsons remain unsolved), but after nailing a ringleader in Eugene, Oregon, law enforcement arrested the Eugene cell. By this time, McGowan had quit the ELF, moved back to his home in New York, and was working for an organization fighting domestic violence while organizing nonviolent environmental rallies in New York. McGowan was arrested, tried to hold out against taking a plea deal, and finally agreed when he had no option. He was sentenced to 7 years in prison, received a “terrorism enhancement” sentence from the judge and was placed in the “Communication Management Unit” of a federal prison in Illinois, where he receives a single 15 minute phone call a week and a brief personal visit a month. He remains there today.

As an Oregonian who not only grew up in the middle of the spotted owl crisis but who writes on these issues (though not this specifically), I have deeply mixed feelings on the ELF and other environmental radical organizations. Some of these people were deeply committed activists, others were screw-ups who floated into the group because they had nowhere else to go. I don’t think arson was a good tactic, but I’m not opposed to it on theoretical grounds. I don’t see the endgame of the ELF resorting to it, but on the other hand, given what corporations have done to the planet, it’s hard to blame them for viewing radical violence as a logical answer.

It’s also important to place ELF actions in the context of police violence. We are beginning to have honest conversations about police violence again because of the awful responses to activists at Occupy protests. The protestor shot in Oakland, the pepper spraying at Davis, and the violence last weekend in Chicago reminds us that the police will use maximum violence against nonviolent protestors. In Oregon, environmental protestors faced this during the 1990s. The most powerful footage in the film wasn’t of clearcuts or McGowan’s discussion of his past. It was of the police doing horrible things to protestors. Pepper spraying protestors who were chained to objects in the eyes. Rubbing some kind of substance right on their eyeball. Cutting a man’s pants who was in a tree and applying pepper spray directly to his testicles. These are the actions that less fortunate Americans experience from police everyday and we don’t hear about it. Why police culture unleashes such horrible behavior on nonviolent people is probably better left for another post, but if you are an activist engaging in nonviolent protestor and you experience violence, it’s very easy to see why you would think that traditional means of protest are useless. This trajectory of radical activism is hardly unique to environmentalists; watching the film, you could have substituted some of the conversations for radical cells in the 60s anti-Vietnam movement or the Black Panthers.

Without question, the ELF did some really dumb things. They were central to the black bloc that took over the WTO protests in Seattle in 1999, hijacking a well-planned protest to go break some Starbucks windows. They had no right to do that. Attacking small timber companies just seems pointless and stupid. The burning of the tree farm that McGowan helped execute was especially dumb considering that the farm had been sold to a new owner who stopped using GMO trees. If you are going to burn things, you’d better have your information correct!

The film itself does a good job giving voice to all sides. Marshall Curry, who also directed the outstanding documentary about Newark politics “Street Fight,” made the film; in fact, McGowan was working for his wife when he was arrested, providing Curry with an amazing opportunity. At the same time, he gave full voice to those negatively affected, such as the owner of a small timber outfit that ELF protestors burned, as well as the cops who investigated the case. Most of the other activists were unwilling to talk. Only Suzanne Savoie, who accepted a plea deal early on, spoke at length. Curry managed a brief interview with Jake Ferguson, the ELF member who rolled. A heroin addict and drifter, he didn’t exactly inspire confidence that the ELF ever knew what it was doing.

What really made me angry about the film was the concept of “ecoterrorism.” Such a thing can exist but the ELF were not ecoterrorists. They hurt no one. They specifically chose actions that would not cause damage to human life. When a few members did suggest upping the ante to target individuals, the entire group fell apart as most members, including McGowan, refused to even consider such a thing. To compare Daniel McGowan and Suzanne Savoie to Osama bin Laden and Timothy McVeigh insults the intelligence of Americans. Yet the politics of terrorism are so politicized that so-called ecoterrorists get far more attention than right-wing loonies who actually could be terrorists. For example, the museum at the Oklahoma City National Memorial goes into all sorts of detail on domestic terrorism launched by radical environmentalists but says nary a word about the right-wing writers that influenced both Timothy McVeigh and the conservative wing of the modern Republican Party. It’s a sick joke. Burning an SUV dealership is not the same as flying a plane into the World Trade Center. Burning a sawmill is not the same as putting a truckload of explosives under the federal building in Oklahoma City.

And why is Daniel McGowan, a threat to no one, wasting away in a Communication Management Unit? When he gets out next year, will he still be sane? 7 years of almost solitary confinement? Savoie received 4 years in her plea agreement. For the first 3, she could not go outside. Why? What possible reason is there for this? It’s clear enough-these were people the Bush Administration could make examples of and distract Americans’ attention from their failures of stopping real terrorists in Iraq and Afghanistan. One of the prosecutors notes in the film that nowhere in the terrorism laws does it say you have to harm people to be a terrorist. Of course–that’s because the government doesn’t want to define what is terrorism so it can charge anyone under these laws. They are a great threat to our already declining civil liberties.

Anyway, If a Tree Falls is a really fantastic, thought-provoking, and amazingly fair documentary about a controversial subject and I highly recommend it to anyone.

The End of Fish

[ 35 ] May 20, 2012 |

As I’ve said before, we people living today are the likely the last people who will ever eat saltwater fish on a commercial scale. The World Wildlife Fund and Brad Plumer sum the situation up in one chart and one article.

Palm Oil

[ 27 ] May 17, 2012 |

Glenn Hurowitz has an important piece at Think Progress noting that Obama’s decision on whether palm oil should be included in the Renewable Fuel Standard will be the most important decision he makes on climate change this year. He’s probably right and I absolutely oppose the idea of palm oil as renewable fuel. Basically, Malaysia and Indonesia have decided to chop down their entire remaining rain forest to convert to palm oil plantations. We frequently hear about Latin American rainforest being lost for cattle ranches and this is the Asian version. Not only does this make palm oil dirty because of the burning of the rainforests, but you also have the destruction of plant and animal species and their replacement with monocultures. Plus the palm oil industry is a corrupt and immoral as petroleum could ever dream:

Industry giant Wilmar, which has been caught on film cutting down forests in orangutan habitat and expelling indigenous people from their lands, and was cut off from World Bank funding for its abuses, has hired a raft of DC lobbyists in its attempt to pressure the White House to distort the science. The industry’s effort has been boosted by $7.7 million that the Malaysian government authorized last year to spend on foreign palm oil “public relations” work, intended to spread the false idea that palm oil is a clean source of energy. This flood of foreign cash may explain why right wing “think tanks” like the Heritage Foundation are suddenly so interested in forcing American motorists to use palm oil grown in Indonesia under the Renewable Fuels Standard – a standard they have virulently opposed for other biofuels but have suddenly embraced for palm oil. Hmm.

In 2006, I was in Malaysia for a couple of weeks. While I love Malaysia, I found the palm oil plantations incredibly depressing. Riding buses through what was, until a few years before, lush rainforest but was now palm oil plantations really brought home the environmental transformation of agricultural globalization. There’s a lot of money to be made in palm oil; more importantly for Malaysia, that money is concentrated among the elite class. They could diversify into tourism, go the Costa Rica route, but that would neither fulfill the developmentalist dreams of the Malaysian elite nor line their pockets.

Palm oil as a renewable fuel doesn’t make sense from a standpoint of sustainability or environmental stewardship. It does make sense from the standpoint of massive corruption and the concentration of power in the developing world in the hands of a very few local elites and international investors. President Obama will choose where the United States stands on this question.


[ 151 ] May 16, 2012 |

It’s totally absurd to be thinking about who the Democrats will nominate for the presidency in 2016, yet for politically-minded people, it’s almost inevitable. That includes me. I’ve spent way too much time thinking about the different possibilities and who I would support among them (leaning toward Gillibrand at this time, but that could easily change). One person bandied around is Martin O’Malley, the governor of Maryland. He seems uninspiring to me, not to mention that he is Tommy Carcetti. And while I wouldn’t want to overstate the importance of this report showing O’Malley to be a hack for Maryland’s powerful poultry industry, that’s not because it’s not bad, it’s because I don’t think enough people will care. Still, this is fairly damning and certainly doesn’t give me any hope that an O’Malley presidency would accomplish anything positive for environmental or food issues, nor stand up to influential capitalists.

Generations of Environmentalism

[ 13 ] May 8, 2012 |

Lisa Curtis has a provocative essay proclaiming that while she holds environmental values, she is very much not an environmentalist. Why? Because the environmental movement is dying and misguided and irrelevant for the concerns of young people with a social conscience.

The environmentalism of my grandparents’ generation was focused on preserving pristine wilderness, free from human interference. For my parents, environmentalism was all about the legislative victories.

In the 21st century, with 7 billion people to clothe, feed, and shelter, there’s little environment left that we haven’t altered. We’re changing the natural world and we will continue to do so. When the trade-off is between survival and preserving the pristine, survival will always prevail.


At the same time, there are plenty of ways to survive in a more ecological manner. As I found out when I lived in Niger, one of the poorest countries in the world, environmental solutions catch on quick when they fit the needs of the local population. The women in my village loved getting more efficient cookstoves, not because they saved trees but because they saved hours spent collecting wood.

This isn’t to say that we can’t and shouldn’t take care of wild spaces and creatures. But we need to recognize that often the best way to protect wild places is to take care of people in a way that leaves room for the wild as well. There’s a reason that many environmental groups have found that the best way to stop poaching is to employ poachers as eco-tourism guides. When we make the economics align so that survival equals protecting the environment, good things happen for people and planet.

Obviously Curtis is an environmentalist anyway you slice it and I’m sure she actually thinks of herself as such in private. But she makes good points. The environmental movement’s focus on wilderness had value but wasn’t a very sustainable social movement because it didn’t mobilize people where they lived on the issues that affect them everyday. This brand of environmentalism that became prominent in the 80s and 90s opened the door for corporations to carve people away from the popular people-based environmentalism of the 1960s and early 70s because it could say that environmentalists didn’t care about jobs. Even if these industries were using environmentalists as a cover for their own destruction of resources and desire to move their capital investments to exploit cheaper labor forces, the environmental movement helped dig its own grave through some poorly thought-out tactics. In a world of shaky employment, growing population, and declining resources, many young people see the need to feed and house people as more important than protecting caribou herds at ANWR. Since their vision of the environmental movement is the protecting wilderness, charismatic species-focused movement of the last 20 years, it makes sense that someone like Curtis would say she isn’t an environmentalist.

Curtis is wrong however about her grandparents generation. That environmentalism seek to protect wilderness, including seeing the 1964 Wilderness Act into law. But that generation of environmentalism was very invested into the issues Curtis cares about. The Clean Air and Clean Water Acts, the Occupational Safety and Health Act and other legislation championed by environmentalists in the 60s and 70s was all about protecting working-class people from environmental dangers and ensuring their safety on the job and at home. The genius of, say, the Clean Water Act was that it protected both people and non-people at the same time. It was popular because people didn’t want to be poisoned by their water supplies, but if people aren’t poisoned, neither are trout and beaver and osprey–and those species benefited directly from the act too.

That’s the environmentalism we need today.

On a side note, I hate the discomfort young people with the social movements of the past. Saying that she’s not an environmentalist because of the problems of the environmental movement reminds me too much of young women who refuse to call themselves feminists because they associate that with unshaven armpits and bra-burning. You are too an environmentalist. Rather than give up the label, Curtis should fight to make environmentalism what it should be–a movement made up of people trying to protect themselves from the dangers that threaten to poison their bodies and ensuring a better life for our children and grandchildren.

Heartland Institute Crash and Burn

[ 24 ] May 7, 2012 |

I’m really impressed with the Heartland Institute’s aggressive crash and burn policy. Six months ago, virtually no one had heard of this libertarian business front group. Then Peter Gleick got ahold of their internal documents and released them (a hero’s work), demonstrating the cynical way the group sought to discredit climate change. Instead of fading back into the background after this embarrassment, Heartland went public in a huge way, releasing the incredibly stupid and offensive billboards comparing people who believe in climate change to the Unabomber. The harsh reaction to this has caused many of Heartland’s funders to flee, particularly the insurance industry which was working with both Heartland and environmental groups to limit government subsidies to rebuild in floodplains and other high-risk areas (which actually makes some sense).

As we have seen with ALEC, increased progressive organizing against business front groups with extremist agendas is making a difference. I’m a bit skeptical about this as a long-term strategy, as these front groups with their shady funders will just keep reappearing under different names. But it’s hard to see anyone taking anything the Heartland Institute says seriously again.

Environmental Protection and Unions

[ 8 ] April 29, 2012 |

A couple of weeks ago, I slammed United Mine Workers President Cecil Roberts for attacking the Environmental Protection Agency.

I have a piece up at Alternet exploring this issue in greater detail. An excerpt:

It makes little sense for Roberts to side with the coal companies on the EPA or anything else. The companies have little sympathy for the people of Appalachia. A century ago, they ruled the coal country like a fiefdom, murdering union organizers and forcing workers into generations of endemic poverty. It took organizers like Mother Jones and John L. Lewis to pull the companies out of the Middle Ages. In the 1880s and 1890s, coal companies in Tennessee used convicts as slave labor, leading to a major labor uprising in 1891. In 1921, West Virginia erupted into war after workers, tired of decades of oppression, took up arms when a sympathetic law enforcement was murdered by company thugs; over 100 union members were murdered in the weeks to follow. After decades of struggle, conditions for coal miners slowly improved, but the companies never stopped fighting against reforms. Thousands of miners died of black lung disease throughout the 20th century, but the companies refused to recognize the illness or grant compensation to victims until Congress passed the Coal Mine Health and Safety Act of 1969.

The coal companies continue to treat workers’ lives as expendable. Coal mining remains one of the nation’s most dangerous professions. We rarely hear about the miner or two dying each month in accidents, but the death of 29 miners in 2010 at the Upper Big Branch Mine grabbed Americans’ fickle attention. Massey Energy, owner of Upper Big Branch, had a long history of labor violations and was openly contemptuous of safety regulations. Most of the coal industry reflects Massey’s indifference to worker health and safety.

Moreover, the mine companies have sought to reduce employment for decades. In 1920, 784,000 Americans were employed in the coal industry. By 2000, that number fell to 71,000 while coal production has increased. Not only have the companies looked to lay off as many workers as possible, but the certainly don’t care about the people of Appalachia at large. Mountaintop removal mining has destroyed forests and streambeds, remade the region’s geology, dumped toxic chemicals into waterways and rivers, and forced people off their land. Outside of climate change, mountaintop removal is the greatest ongoing environmental disaster in the United States.

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