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Tag: "environment"

Burn Those Fossil Fuels!

[ 69 ] March 13, 2016 |


The world is really getting serious about climate change….

The level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere increased at a record pace last year, US government scientists reported, raising new concern about one of the top greenhouse gases and the effects of global warming.

The measurement came from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii.

“The annual growth rate of atmospheric carbon dioxide… jumped by 3.05 parts per million during 2015, the largest year-to-year increase in 56 years of research,” said a NOAA statement.

Last year also marked the fourth consecutive year that CO2 grew more than two parts per million.

As of February, the average global atmospheric CO2 level was 402.59 parts per million. This is a significant rise over pre-industrial times. Prior to 1800, atmospheric CO2 averaged about 280 ppm.

“Carbon dioxide levels are increasing faster than they have in hundreds of thousands of years,” said Pieter Tans, lead scientist of NOAA’s Global Greenhouse Gas Reference Network.

“It’s explosive compared to natural processes.”

Assuming written civilization survives climate change, our descendants will be interested in 21st century mythology about things called “forests” and “winter.”


Sprawl and Art, Africa and California

[ 21 ] February 20, 2016 |


Sometimes I read about art projects dealing with socially conscious themes and think “wow, this shows a real lack of self-awareness.” That’s how I felt when reading about this:

Nick Brandt has been photographing the grandeur of East Africa’s stoic wildlife since 2001, but during his many trips he has observed a troubling pattern:

“The destruction of the natural world was occurring at an alarming rate — faster than my already pessimistic imagination could have anticipated,” Brandt said from his studio in the Santa Monica Mountains.

His forthcoming series of photos, “Inherit the Dust,” was conceived as his elegy to Africa’s natural world. He came up with the idea of photographing displaced animals in places where just three years earlier they used to roam — but no longer can because of rapid urban sprawl. Factories, garbage dumps and quarries now stand where elephants, lions, rhinos and cheetahs once lived.

To compose his latest photos, Brandt had life-size prints of the animals transferred onto giant panels and erected in situ — once familiar ground where people are oblivious to the giant creatures in their midst. Like ghosts in a landscape.

“It was an effective way of showing this level of present-day dystopia that humans are creating,” Brandt said.

For his ghosts, he selected never-before-published black-and-white portraits including one of his favorite subjects, Craig, a 40-year-old Amboseli bull elephant.

Photos printed in California were shipped and glued to aluminum and plywood frames. The panels, up to 30 feet long and sometimes rising even higher, were loaded onto trucks and driven to their designated sites. As many as 23 men worked in heat that reached 100 degrees to set up and strap down the panels in often rugged terrain. Horizon lines were carefully matched up with the composition of the original photo and contours of the land.

What does the art intend to convey?

Filmmaker and conservationist Dereck Joubert said every photographer-conservationist struggles with the dual desire to show beauty in the wild while protesting what is happening in formerly pristine lands. “What Nick has done is combine the two in a way that sends a visual protest but doesn’t detract from the beauty inside of each wildlife frame,” Joubert said, calling the result a “juxtaposition of celebration and regret.”

Brandt’s “Wasteland With Elephant” depicts an elephant walking through a river of garbage in central Kenya. “Just three years ago, zebras, gazelles and impalas could be seen roaming through these places,” he said.

Sitting in a trash-filled alleyway next to a stagnant pool of fetid sewage, a solemn chimpanzee lowers his head as if mourning the loss of his former home.

Where does this horrible sprawl remind the photographer of?

Brandt compared the “out-of-control development, overpopulation and crowds” in some parts of modern Africa to that in parts of China and India. “I never thought I’d put Africa in the same category,” he said.

And where will Brandt’s art be shown?

An exhibition of “Inherit the Dust” will open March 24 at Fahey/Klein Gallery in Los Angeles and will run through May 14.

Well, it’s a good thing that the art is going to be shown in Los Angeles but he has nothing to say about sprawl in California. Clearly that was environmentally sustainable and totally didn’t destroy habitat for wildlife!

None of this is to say that the massive sprawl of African cities isn’t terrible for wildlife, not great for people, and isn’t something that westerners shouldn’t address. But there are so many assumptions at play in this artist’s work–that Africa is inherently natural and should be maintained that way for the enjoyment of the western mind and tourist, that there’s no need to ask actual Africans what they want their world to look like, and that the problems over there are completely different than our world. So this artist can live in the Santa Monica Mountains and come to Los Angeles all the time where eighteen million people have decimated the environment over 5,000 square miles and he can completely ignore the vast poverty where he lives while talking about the degradation of Africa.

Now, I don’t want to assume too much here. Obviously, some of the problematic framing of all this could be on the reporter and it’s possible the artist does care very much about these issues in California. I don’t want to castigate the man for expressing real concern about real problems. And certainly he is aware of how this pollution affects the people who live in these slums. But there are also some red flags raised that need addressing.

Cowboy Socialism

[ 57 ] February 1, 2016 |

John Wayne

While the Bundy boys and their band of idiots are mostly in jail or have left the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, there are still a few diehards holed up in there. I do worry about these people committing acts of violence, on their own and leadership and desperate. Hopefully this gets resolved very soon.

But the larger issues around Sagebrush Rebellion extremism have not gone away. At the core of the rural western discontent is an ideology of individualism that rolls through the region and its iconic mythical figures from Hank Stamper to John Wayne. The idea of individual white man (or sometimes woman) and hardscrabble families making it on their own from a hard land is deeply imbued in how ranchers and loggers and miners and western farmers think about themselves. What the Bundys and others are pushing is a rather extreme example of it, but the broader phenomena is real enough throughout the region.

The problem with it is that their foundational myth that places them at odds with the government also erases a government that subsidizes almost everything about their lives. Whether the government stealing the land from Native Americans, investing in water projects, handing out timber contracts, never revising a system that allows the government to collect almost no money from mining on the public lands, or allowing ranchers to graze on government land for incredibly below market prices, rural westerners are the ultimate welfare recipients. Our tax dollars are funding their lifestyles, which I don’t per se have a major problem with if said recipients didn’t then commit armed takeovers of federal buildings while ranting about government tyranny. But the government created the modern West so that people like the Bundys could have their lifestyle in the first place.

It’s hard going, and one reason is the cowboy political tradition represented by Ammon Bundy and his pack of revolutionary wannabes, who want to pay zero in federal grazing fees and end the federal ownership of land. Even reformist Western politicians still have to tiptoe around the fact that the federal government is simply an inextricable part of how the West functions and has been since the beginning. That Bundy has confused one of the primary spigots of rancher welfare with a rancher-smashing tyranny is only a wild exaggeration of a typical view, rooted in Western myth and broader American conservatism.

The issue of broader American conservatism is important as well because the oil companies and other natural resource industries are looking to destroy the past century of American environmental law. The same thing that is happening to labor and is happening to civil service exams–the destruction of a century of reform in order to return us to the Gilded Age–will almost certainly happen in the environmental realm if the Republican Party wins the presidency this fall. The Bundys could get their way, not through occupying the Malheur, but simply by having any bog-standard Republican win the presidency.

The Public Lands

[ 62 ] January 27, 2016 |


So the Bundys are in jail, the dude who relied on free labor from foster children on his ranch is dead, and the FBI is pressuring the remaining occupants of the Malheur to leave peacefully. While the death is obviously unfortunate, outside of that, it certainly seems to me that the FBI may have taken too long to act but when they did, they did it in the most appropriate way–off the reserve, away from the offices where everyone was held up. Given that these people believed they could travel freely wherever they wanted and advertised themselves doing it, it wasn’t too hard to find them. Hopefully this stops this “movement” from spreading, as ranchers start getting convinced to tear up their grazing contracts and just let their cows raise hell all over the landscape.

For the rest of us, maybe this is an opportunity to understand what actually happens at a National Wildlife Refuge. What good it is other than a place for birders to go? We know from the recent stories that a lot of these places are multi-use, with cattle grazing on them at very low prices. That this happens at all is unfortunate, but if the ranchers follow the rules, it’s an acceptable compromise. These refuges also undertake all sorts of conservation projects, especially given they are often pretty underfunded by Congress. One major project at the Malheur is ridding public waters of invasive Asian carp, a major problem. Experimenting with what works out here could help this problem nationally. Of course, if the occupiers don’t get out of there and people can’t get back to work, the project could be set back years.

Over the years, the refuge has doused the lake with Rotenone, an aquatic poison, five times. None of the treatments have worked for more than a few years. By the time Beck arrived in Burns in 2009 — she’d moved there from Montana with her husband, who’d returned to work on his father’s ranch — the problem had come to seem intractable. Beck, a longtime federal fisheries biologist who’d researched aquatic invasive species like New Zealand mud snails and whirling disease, had quit her job to relocate to Oregon. Soon after, she turned up at the refuge to volunteer. Two days later, she was hired. Now the carp were her problem.

In the years since, Beck and her colleagues have developed an ambitious carp control playbook. They have installed a bevy of screens and traps to prevent the creatures from moving between water bodies, tracked down their spawning aggregations using telemetry, and experimented with grids that blast eggs and larvae with deadly electrical currents. In 2013, Beck drained 717-acre Boca Lake, creating a smorgasbord of dying carp for pelicans and coyotes, then screened off the lake to prevent future infiltrations. Aquatic vegetation immediately rebounded, followed by bugs, birds and native fish.

Even Malheur Lake, where carp run so thick that their backs create wind-like ripples across the glassy surface, is not beyond hope. A few years back, Beck and other biologists proposed an elegant solution: opening up the lake to commercial fishermen. Hired netters would haul out the carp, which have little market value as human food, and turn them over to Silver Sage Fisheries, a subsidiary separate sister company of Tualatin-based Pacific Foods. The fish would be trucked to Burns, processed into fertilizer, and spread across fields owned by Chuck Eggert, Pacific Foods’ founder. The dead fish would nourish organic hayfields, feed for dairy cows.

“From our perspective, it’s a win-win,” Tim Greseth, executive director of the Oregon Wildlife Heritage Foundation, the nonprofit that helped broker the deal, told me. “We’re restoring the ecology of the lake, putting people to work, and benefiting private enterprise.”

We need way more creative thinking like this that brings together different stakeholders to create a better managed environment. Congress should double the budget for the public lands, precisely so that these programs can be expanded.

Meanwhile, away from the Malheur, the hard work toward unifying public opinion on protecting public lands continues. Here’s a good story on Utah, where environmentalists, local residents, land managers, and politicians are slowly, block by block, moving toward a compromise on protecting some land as wilderness while allowing various forms on access on other lands. I can’t stress enough how hard this is to do, with greens wanting to lock most of this down as wilderness, oil and gas and mining companies wanting it all open to drilling and exploration, and local residents really distrusting those big city liberals who visit their backyards. This is a story from last year, but gets at the point:

Yet for a while, it looked like the Grand Bargain might fall victim to Western politics as usual. Deadlines came and went, and counties remained locked in the same tired battles. Wayne County dropped out of negotiations. A sparsely-populated corner of northeastern Utah called Daggett County was briefly touted as a “model for the nation,” after it became the first to submit an agreement, but then the commissioners who drafted the plan were voted out of office and their replacements reneged. Things were not looking good.

But Bishop remained patient. Now, more than two years after sending the letter, his efforts are paying off. San Juan and Duchesne counties have jumped on-board and are working on proposals. Emery, Summit and Uintah counties have either submitted or are close to submitting proposals. And on April 10, the Grand Bargain got a big boost when Grand County, Utah, submitted its proposal.

Grand County surrounds Arches National Park and the Moab area, spanning 3,694 square miles of mountain-biking, climbing, backpacking, ATVing, desert rat paradise. It’s also one of the most hotly contested parts of the state: Though its economy over the last 30 years has largely shifted from resource extraction to recreation, the county currently has almost no designated wilderness and some 800,000 acres of land open to oil and gas leasing. If a deal can be struck here, where old-school, conservative Utah butts up against more liberal newcomers, then perhaps a Grand Bargain for the rest of the state — and even elsewhere in the West — is also possible.

So what’s in store for Grand County’s famed red rock landscapes? The final package calls for the creation of up to 514,000 acres of wilderness, mostly in the Book Cliffs area, which county council member Chris Baird calls “one of the best examples of what Utah looked like before it was settled by Europeans.” (The final amount of wilderness depends on land swaps with the state. Areas near the Book Cliffs, in Uintah County, could be opened to limited drilling in exchange for wilderness protection in Desolation Canyon.)

None of this is easy. Idiots calling for the end of public control over these lands do not make it easier. Right now, with fireeating Republicans controlling Congress, neofascism dominating the Republican primary, and Republican governors ruling over the majority of states, all of our environmental law and regulatory agencies are under real threat, as Pierce notes here on issues on the EPA and water regulation. Trying to patch together coalitions has to be part of the solution to fight for our environment in all its facets.

Pollution, Past and Present

[ 30 ] January 15, 2016 |


Air pollution, Louisville, 1943

The history of pollution goes back a long time:

First it was wood fires in ancient homes, the effects of which have been found in the blackened lungs of mummified tissue from Egypt, Peru and Great Britain. And the Romans earn the dubious credit of being perhaps the first to spew metallic pollutants into the air, long before the Industrial Revolution.

“We saw the harmful effects of air pollution even in Roman times,” says Mark Z. Jacobson, professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford University, director of the Atmosphere/Energy Program and author of the textbook Air Pollution and Global Warming: History, Science, and Solutions.

The residents of ancient Rome referred to their city’s smoke cloud as gravioris caeli (“heavy heaven”) and infamis aer (“infamous air”). Several complaints about its effects can be found in classical writings. “No sooner had I left behind the oppressive atmosphere of the city [Rome] and that reek of smoking cookers which pour out, along with clouds of ashes, all the poisonous fumes they’ve accumulated in their interiors whenever they’re started up, than I noticed the change in my condition,” wrote the philosopher and statesman Seneca in A.D. 61.

Roman courts considered civil claims over smoke pollution 2,000 years ago, notes Stephen Mosley, a lecturer at the School of Cultural Studies at Leeds Metropolitan University who has written extensively about the history of air pollution. The jurist Aristo declared, for example, that a cheese shop could not discharge smoke into the buildings above it.

The empire even tried a very early version of the Clean Air Act. In 535, then Emperor Justinian proclaimed the importance of clean air as a birthright. “By the law of nature these things are common to mankind—the air, running water, the sea,” he wrote.

Later, smelting to create lead and copper came along, fouling medieval air. Analyses of ice cores from the Arctic reveal that extraction and smelting on the Iberian Peninsula, England, Greece and elsewhere increased lead in the environment by a factor of ten.

Pollution is also with us today, often for the most nefarious and morally bankrupt reasons. Like in Flint:

But emergency managers, particularly the ones appointed by Governor Snyder (a Republican) have been far more focused on cuts for their own sake, particularly crushing unionized public sector workers. The idea to temporarily use Flint River water while another pipeline was being constructed was one of those cost-saving measures.

It was immediately obvious that the water was filthy, and residents loudly protested that it was cloudy, smelled bad, and tasted worse. General Motors stopped using the water because it was literally corroding their machinery. But Snyder and his handpicked head environmental official Dan Wyant studiously ignored the problem — despite internal warnings of lead poisoning as early as July of last year — until an outside scientific study demonstrated extreme levels of lead in Flint children. In late December — over a year after the water switch — Snyder finally apologized and Wyant quietly resigned.

Now Snyder has already been forced to pony up over $10 million to switch the Flint water system back to the way it was before (hooked up to Detroit, basically), and the city is asking for some $50 million more to replace lead pipes. But that’s very likely only the beginning. Flint’s population is roughly 100,000, and several families have already sued state and local officials over the lead issue. It’s unclear so far how badly the city’s children have been poisoned, but it’s a pretty safe bet the state will end up spending tens or perhaps even hundreds of millions on settlements.

And that’s where a moral atrocity becomes an economic self-kneecapping. Aside from the cost of settlements, children are the major portion of the future’s economic capacity, which depends critically on their ability to function normally. Destroying their brains with heavy metals will rather impede their ability to get the jobs and pay the taxes that will get Flint on a sound fiscal footing.

Returning poor Americans to lead exposure is basically the upshot of Republican governance; no doubt Rick Snyder sees the real problem here as the ability of citizens to sue over this. The temerity of anti-government Snyder now begging President Obama for federal relief would be LOL material if it wasn’t so serious and if it all wasn’t part of the drowning government in a bathtub so long as I don’t need strategy of Republicans. See here:

“Mistrust in government is at a heightened level,” Snyder, a Republican, said in a request dated Thursday and released to The Associated Press.

Huh, I wonder why that would be? No doubt Republicans will spin all this as why government doesn’t work and waltz into another couple of terms in the statehouse in Lansing.


[ 46 ] January 13, 2016 |


One of the problems with capitalism is that new products and technologies are introduced to the market without any (or with very little) testing to see how they will impact the environment or people’s health. Thus we have thalidomide, endocrine disruptors, fracking. The burden of proof is not only on those claiming these things are unsafe, but there are millions or even billions of dollars riding on their continued existence. Such it also is with microbeads. These things never should have been introduced because of their massive impact on ecosystems. Products that don’t break down and can be swallowed by pretty much any beast, well what could go wrong?!? But at least we have a president willing to act when such obvious environmental problems are placed before him. And thus President Obama has banned microbeads.

Those tiny plastic microbeads you have been rubbing on your face are now outlawed in the United States.

President Obama signed a bipartisan bill that prohibits selling and distributing products containing microbeads. The bill is intended to protect the nation’s waterways.

A microbead is any solid plastic particle that is less than 5 millimeters and is used for the purpose of exfoliating or cleansing, according to the bill.

These tiny plastic beads have become ubiquitous in hundreds of products ranging from body scrubs to toothpastes. They provide an exfoliating sensation for users and are designed to wash down drains.

But because they are made of plastic, microbeads do not dissolve and may pose a threat to the environment.

In September, a study published in Environmental Science & Technology reported that more than 8 trillion microbeads were entering the country’s aquatic habitats daily. The volume was enough to coat the surface of 300 tennis courts every day.

Of course, the overall system of introducing environmentally destructive products without approval continues every day.

Book Review: Mimi Sheller, Aluminum Dreams: The Making of Light Modernity

[ 28 ] January 3, 2016 |


Depleted bauxite mine, Gánt, Hungary

Mimi Sheller’s history of aluminum is one of the best books I read in 2015. Sheller splits her book into two parts. The first looks at the rise of aluminum, how it became synonymous with modernity and speed, and how we have embraced it in all parts of our lives. The second looks at the environmental and human cost of that modernity, with the massive energy use aluminum requires, the impact upon ecosystems and lives, and how protest groups are linking internationally to fight against this exploitation. While looking at the upside and then the downside of a product might not be an unknown way of structuring a book, Sheller adds in many layers of complexity, asking readers to consider their own complicity in this aluminum paradox, criticizing the too rapid spread of capital that has transformed the world in the quest for aluminum production, and wondering whether aluminum can be part of the solution for our energy and environmental crises, even as it played a large role in creating those crises.

Sheller explores how aluminum became a material not only useful for modernity, but synonymous with the entire idea of it. Innovative designers like Buckminster Fuller became apostles of aluminum, using it for his famous Dymaxion House (which you can see and tour at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn) and of course in his geodesic domes. Aluminum could become a sign of crass commercialism too (Sheller cites the fake tree in Charlie Brown’s Christmas), but even the hippies who criticized much of American material culture loved their geodesic domes. With its beauty, shine, and light weight, it because the material of modernism and speed in our minds.

People knew of aluminum’s qualities back to the Greeks and Romans, but it wasn’t until the 19th century that scientists began to understand how to process it in large quantities. The Aluminum Company of America (ALCOA), with the financier Andrew Mellon as its leading investor, became the dominant aluminum company in the U.S. and in fact one of the nation’s most powerful corporations. That’s because aluminum wasn’t just for zippy new consumer products. The military quickly saw its advantage and did much to increase our national dependence on it. Alcoa became the supplier for that aluminum, used in airplanes during World War II and rockets in the space age, among many other things. It was very expensive to produce, but the government found it so useful that it made enormous investments, especially in dams and military appropriations, to produce and use aluminum.

But all this beautiful design, lightweight materials, and speed has a very dark side. Although one of the world’s most common elements, it rarely exists in pure form and the energy needed to transform bauxite into usable aluminum is massive. As with every other product of industrial capitalism, there has been a worldwide rush by western companies to secure supplies and profit off of the resources of developing nations with little to no concern as to how it affected those people. Alcoa needed huge quantities of bauxite supplies to produce all this aluminum after World War II. Caribbean nations like Jamaica, the Dominican Republic, and Guyana had that bauxite. So Alcoa went into the region and provided a lot of very low-paying and dangerous jobs that spawned labor organizing and radical political activity. Alcoa as well as the consuming companies like GE who wanted to keep aluminum prices low fought against these movements. But Alcoa also sought to take advantage of its investments by commissioning its own steamship to bring tourists into the nations and to its plants, floating advertisements for potential investors, replete with advertisements playing up the decidedly premodern people those investors would see (beautifully reproduced in the book). The sleek aluminum ship used its lightweight property to send tourists around the Caribbean in style, hopefully spurring financial investment in that very modernity. Meanwhile, the conditions in the bauxite mines remained terrible and Alcoa became a symbol of Yanqui imperialism.

There is also a major environmental impact for producing this aluminum. Sheller discusses one dam built in a remote corner of unspoiled Iceland strictly for aluminum that is equivalent to what half the electricity the nation was using before it was built. The Indian company Vendanta has worked with the government to push out indigenous peoples in order to mine bauxite, destroying some of the last relatively unspoiled land in India to do so. The social impact of the global bauxite rush is no better. Sheller talks not only of Vendanta’s exploitation of Indian indigenous peoples, but how it has fueled the Russian oligarchs and poverty and political violence in Guinea.

One can critique the last chapter where Sheller wonders about the present and future. Of course, these sorts of chapters are far more difficult to write than diagnosing problems or charting histories. Sheller argues that we must understand the history and cultural meanings of aluminum if we are to reduce our usage of it, use it more efficiently, and limit the enormous environmental impacts of making it in a climate change era. Hard to disagree with that. But a lot of her solutions really come down just to people deciding to use less aluminum in order that we value it more. This feels a bit half-smelted to me. I obviously agree that consumers need to be more aware of the conditions of production, that placing things in our sight makes us more likely to act to contain the damage. Knowing more about the exploitation of the global aluminum industry could make a difference in building the international coalitions necessary to help create a more equal world. But going from that to telling people to just use less may be morally correct and it may be environmentally correct but it’s also counter to human nature, barring the rejection of capitalism. In other words, if we are really going to use less aluminum, it’s going to take the same government leadership and mandate that created the market in the first place to reduce it. But Sheller doesn’t go so far as to demand government restrictions or really to articulate what role government should play in this transition at all.

It’s worth noting that this book is also quite lovely as a designed object, with thick glossy pages and color imagery throughout. It’s actually pretty heavy for a little book. MIT Press again does a nice job with book design.

But most importantly, Aluminum Dreams is a fascinating and thought-provoking commodity history pulling together different parts of the globe and asking tough questions of the reader. I strongly recommend it to anyone.

This Day in Labor History: December 22, 1988

[ 13 ] December 22, 2015 |

On December 22, 1988, the Brazilian rubber worker, union leader, and environmental activist Chico Mendes was murdered by a rancher named Darcy Alves who wished to clear the Amazon rainforest where Mendes and his fellow rubber tappers worked, lived, and tried to preserve from exploitation and destruction. His assassination showed both the power Brazilian developmentalists have over those who try to conserve forests but also the connections between labor and environmental movements that exist around the world.

Rubber is a South American native crop, but it cannot grow in plantations there due to disease called South American leaf blight that wipes it out when it is too concentrated. Despite attempts by Henry Ford and other to develop plantation agriculture in the Amazon rainforest, it failed and the world’s key rubber production moved to southeast Asia where rubber could grow without its natural predators. With the exception of Ford’s failure, this was basically fine by the U.S. and industrial users of rubber like tire companies until World War II, when Japan overran most of the world’s rubber supplies. This led to a renewed effort to spur production in nations like Brazil, as well as investments in synthetic rubber that eventually did much more to solve the Americans’ rubber needs. But the Brazilian rubber tappers maintained a reasonable market share for natural rubber, which they could only continue with a relatively undisturbed forest. Families began to create traditions of multiple generation rubber tappers. One of them was Chico Mendes. Born in 1944, he followed his father into the forests to work the rubber trees from the age of 9, in 1953. He couldn’t read until he was 18 as the rubber plantation owners did not want schools or an educated workforce. But Mendes eventually received a rudimentary education and became a fighter for his fellow rubber workers.

But the Amazon became desirable for people far more powerful than poor rubber tappers. Cattle ranchers saw this forest as waste that could be cut down and turned into pasture for the vast South American (and to some extent North American) beef market. The dictatorship that came to power in Brazil in 1964 encouraged this investment as a way to bring more money into the nation’s coffers, reward supporters, and pull a region far away from Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo into the nation’s orbit. This investment began in earnest in the 1970s. The dictatorship ended in 1985, but the ranchers sought to use extralegal violence to defend their investments, creating the ironically named Rural Democratic Union to fight against any land reform and to use violence against both worker and environmental activists.

These cattle ranchers and the violence inherent to them was disastrous to Mendes, his fellow rubber tappers, and the forest in which they worked and lived. So he and his rubber tappers’ union, founded in 1975 with Wilson Pinheiro as president and Mendes as secretary, sought to defend the forest and their own livelihood from these ranchers. In this case, the work environment and forest environment were one and the same, with the rubber tappers and rubber trees needing an non-industrial forest to survive. Mendes began organizing his fellow rubber tappers to fight for their future. Using nonviolent tactics, the tappers and their families created human barricades to machines trying to log the forest. He called for large forest reserves, not fully preserved, but there for traditional harvesting techniques for workers, including rubber tappers and nut gatherers. In 1985, with the Brazilian dictatorship finally over, Mendes founded a new union, the National Council for Rubber Tappers, that was a leftist union dedicated not to the modernist ideas of development that led to so many terrible environmental policies from communist governments, but to a politics of both ecological and labor stability. At the National Council’s first meeting, rubber tappers from around Brazil’s forests arrived and came to common agreement about their major problems, including deforestation for cattle and the roads that cut through the forest to make that happen.


This got the attention not so much of North American labor activists but of environmentalists, who saw Mendes’ cause as both a way to build alliances in South American to defend the rain forests they probably had not seen but loved in an abstract way and a way to push back against the commonly held belief by the 1980s that greens did not care about the plight of workers. In 1987, Mendes won the UN’s Global 500 Award for his work protecting the forest. He said, “At first I thought I was fighting to save rubber trees, then I thought I was fighting to save the Amazon rainforest. Now I realise I am fighting for humanity.”

Mendes’ activism in defense of his tappers and his forest was seen as a threat by the ranchers, who believed themselves above the law in a wild area far away from the big cities and administrative bureaucracies of the nation’s highly populated south. Darcy Alves and his father Darly were big ranchers in the forest. Mendes specifically targeted their ranch expansion plans as a major threat to the forest and to tappers’ livelihood because they had purchased land that was supposedly in a forest reserve near where Mendes’ own relatives worked as tappers. As was common for these ranchers, when local residents protests, Alves used intimidation tactics and violence to drive them away. Mendes also personally delivered an arrest warrant to the police in another state where Alves had killed someone in order to expand his holdings, but the police did nothing. When the tappers’ union continued resisting, it led the Alves family to decide to simply murder Mendes, despite his increased international fame. After Darcy killed Mendes while the two policemen supposed protecting him were busy playing dominoes, enough international outrage took place that both Alves men were arrested and sentenced to 19 years in prison. Yet the killings of environmental and labor activists continues in the Amazon, including to the American nun Dorothy Stang in 2005. And while deforestation rates did decline after Mendes’ death in 1988, the recent governments of Lula and Dilma in Brazil, while on the left, have significantly rolled back forest protection and deforestation rates have again risen.

Mendes has become something of an iconic figure in Brazil and there were celebrations and remembrances of him on the 25th anniversary of his death. But the ranchers and developmentalists hold as much sway today as they did in 1988 and violence on these frontiers is still endemic.

Gomercindo Rodrigues’ Walking the Forest with Chico Mendes is an excellent place to start if you want to read more.

This is the 165th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

Brazil Mining Disaster

[ 14 ] November 21, 2015 |


Horrible stuff going on in Brazil. Two mining dams have collapsed in the state of Minas Gerais, creating a slow-moving ooze of toxicity into the Rio Doce that has already killed almost everything within 500km of the dams. The company is a joint venture of Vale, a huge Brazilian iron corporation and BHP Billiton, the South African-Australian mining conglomerate that operates around the world extracting everything from oil to uranium. Of course the mining companies are claiming that this toxic mud is totally safe:

Samarco Mineração SA, a joint venture between mining giants Vale SA and BHP Billiton and owner of the mine, has repeatedly said the mud is not toxic.

But biologists and environmental experts disagree. Local authorities have ordered families rescued from the flood to wash thoroughly and dispose of clothes that came in contact with the mud.

“It’s already clear wildlife is being killed by this mud,” said Klemens Laschesfki, professor of geosciences at the Federal University of Minas Gerais. “To say the mud is not a health risk is overly simplistic.”

As the heavy mud hardens, Laschesfki says, it will make farming difficult. And so much silt will settle along the bottom of the Rio Doce and the tributaries that carried the mud there that the very course of watershed could change.

“Many regions will never be the same,” he says.

Researchers are testing the river water and results should be published over the coming weeks, giving a better idea of the contents of the mining waste.

One cause for concern is that compounds known as ether amines could have been used at the mine to separate silica from the iron ore, in order to produce a better quality product.

According to mining industry research and scientific literature published in recent years, the compounds are commonly used at Brazilian mines, including Samarco’s.

At least some of the compounds, according to the website of Air Products, a company that produces them, “are not readily biodegradable and have high toxicity to aquatic organisms.” They can also raise PH levels to a point that is environmentally harmful.

“There will be serious problems using the water from the river now,” says Pedro Antonio Molinas, a water resources engineer and mining industry consultant familiar with the region.

Brazil has issued a preliminary fine of $66 million and that will no doubt be higher in the end. But Brazil has also gone straight ahead with its modernization program that includes cutting down the Amazon for cattle ranchers and allowing mining companies to do basically whatever they want to. The government might act in a time of crisis like this, but it’s opened itself to resource extraction as its path to modernization, whether the government is right or left. So events like this are hardly surprising. From the link at the top of this paragraph:

The government itself has come under criticism for the sluggish nature of its response. Critics point out it took Rousseff a whole week to visit the region, while the conservative daily Folha de São Paulo pointed out that the state body responsible for monitoring the country’s dams, the DNPM, checked each of them only once every four years.

Despite the importance of mining to the Brazilian economy, the DNPM only has 220 inspectors charged with monitoring 27,293 sites nationwide. Last year, three workers were killed at a dam near the area of last week’s accident.

In 2012, thousands of residents of the town of Campo dos Goytacazes were forced to flee their homes as water starting leaking through a dam. Another breakage at a dam in the north-eastern state of Piauí in 2009 resulted in the deaths of 24 people.

Maurico Guetta, a lawyer for the environmental NGO Instituto Socioambiental , described the close links between the government and the mining industry in a blog post for the organisation: “Could it be that this tragedy would bring any lessons for our governors and legislators? Unfortunately, there seems to be no sign of that,” he wrote.

Vale was one of the major corporate donors to both Rousseff and the main opposition candidate, Aécio Neves, in last year’s presidential elections. Fernando Pimentel, the governor of the state of Minas Gerais and another beneficiary of Vale campaign donations, held his first press conference in the wake of the tragedy at the headquarters of Samarco.

It would be nice if the voters held Rousseff accountable, but given the power of the mining companies, it’s unlikely that there are going to be any successful anti-mining political movements.

Erik Visits an American Grave (VII)

[ 14 ] November 21, 2015 |

This is the grave of Gifford Pinchot.


Like most Progressives, Gifford Pinchot’s legacy is deeply complicated. The nation’s first major forester, a process begun with his father felt terrible for all the damage he had caused to the American landscape, Pinchot fought to place some level of regulation over the nation’s forests. This was necessary because the modus operandi of the timber industry was to cut down every tree and move on, beleiving there was always another forest somewhere else and besides, the best way to use the land was to turn into farms anyway. This ideology became challenged with the disastrous experiment to farm the cut-over forests in the Great Lakes region. The Harrison administration placed the first extremely limited attempts to regulate forestry on the books, but it took until Theodore Roosevelt before some kind of larger attempt at forest regulation came to being. Roosevelt named Pinchot the Chief Forester of his newly created U.S. Forest Service in 1905, after Pinchot established the Society for American Foresters in 1900. He served in that position until getting into an argument with Taft’s Secretary of the Interior Richard Ballinger over the latter being a hack for the timber industry. When Taft fired Pinchot, it was the last straw between Roosevelt and Taft, leading to the 1912 Bull Moose run.

But Pinchot definitely did not believe in preserving forests for forests’ sake. Rather, he wanted their efficient use and replanting. After the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, Pinchot was a major supporter of the plan to dam the Hetch Hetchy Valley in Yosemite National Park to send water to that city. When John Muir and the Sierra Club challenged this, Pinchot and Roosevelt thought of Muir as a loon. Pinchot was all about the greatest good for the greatest number of people. So one assumes that he would be totally cool with us today flooding his graveyard and sending the water to New York City. Have to be consistent after all.

Pinchot, a prohibitionist, also has some responsibility for Pennsylvania’s ridiculous liquor laws. He was governor when Prohibition was repealed and so led his state to create restrictive laws such as the state-run liquor stores and Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board, both of which are still around today. Of course, he’s not responsible for those laws still being so restrictive, but still. He also supported big public power plans while governor, with his pre-TVA calls for major dam systems leading to accusations of socialism.

Gifford Pinchot is buried in Milford Cemetery, Milford, Pennsylvania.


[ 36 ] November 6, 2015 |


Some people don’t like to be wrong. I love to be wrong. That’s because I’m pretty pessimistic about modern politics and even more so about the future. I don’t want to be right about any of that. So when I am wrong, it’s usually a good thing.

This certainly holds for Obama rejecting the Keystone XL pipeline. This surprises me less than it would have 2 years ago, but it surprises me nonetheless. Now, critics of the anti-Keystone protesters say that in the grand scheme of things it’s not that big of a deal. And that may well be true. Obama suggested the same thing in his remarks about it today. But it doesn’t matter much. You never know what is going to be a touchstone for protest. As I’ve said before, “you never know” is pretty much my theory of change. For the climate movement, it was Keystone. Certainly the U.S. was not going to benefit nearly enough from this economically to buck this protest movement in any reasonable way, especially a Democratic president. I’m glad Obama saw this and decided to kill it. This may well not mean that the filthy oil from one of the planet’s worst environmental countries (really for as progressive as Canada can be on many issues, it is utterly abysmal on environmental issues as anyone who follows logging, mining, and fossil fuels knows) won’t get to market. But at least the U.S. won’t be culpable.

What does this say about Obama’s legacy on the environment? I am pretty cautious of judging legacies during a presidency (except for George W. Bush, who was so obviously disastrous) but I think this more or less gets at it:

He’s often ignored the more difficult issue: the supply. He’s even enabled it. Obama approved Shell’s plans to explore for more oil off Alaska’s coast in the Arctic this summer, proposed opening the Atlantic to offshore drilling, and leased public lands for coal mining. Keystone is a small part of the supply equation.

As Obama weighed his decision on Keystone, TransCanada and the rest of the industry have pursued alternatives, including expanding shipments by rail and tanker, filing an application for other large pipelines like Energy East in Canada, and even considering reapplying for a Keystone permit in the next administration.

Meanwhile, the environmental movement has shifted attention to other supply issues. Beyond blocking other proposed pipeline projects from Enbridge and TransCanada, they have targeted Arctic drilling, congressional efforts to lift the U.S. oil export ban, and the administration’s efforts to lease public lands for coal mining.

From a scientific standpoint, Keystone is no more important than any of these other issues. But it was always more important for its symbolism.

Refusing Keystone because of its climate impact makes it more believable that we’ve reached a turning point on tolerating unlimited extraction and development of fossil fuels.

By taking a stand against Keystone, Obama has bolstered his weakest spot on climate change. Environmentalists are hoping that this new outlook doesn’t begin and end with the Keystone decision.

Obama has overall been a decent environmental president, with not too much attention paid to public lands and wildlife issues that have made a lot of environmentalists frustrated with the president and more attention paid to climate change with Keystone hanging over his head. This helps with the latter side of that coin. It’s a good thing. I’m glad I’m wrong about it. And I hope the climate community and unite around a new target or goal to keep up the pressure that Bill McKibben’s did so much to generate.

…..Shakezula’s comment here reminded me of a point I should I have made originally. There’s a strong element on the so-called “respectable left,” one that even often appears around here, that protest is worthless, that’s protesters are basically a bunch of hippies performing a role, and that real change occurs through “serious” policy channels and that protesters should instead be doing “real” work like registering voters and working for, presumably, Democratic candidates. What happened with Keystone should be Exhibit A in why that whole formulation is deeply misguided. The reality is that there are many ways to influence a system. The left needs to work both within and outside the political establishment. Protest can absolutely work. Without McKibben and the movement, the Keystone pipeline would already have been approved. Obama is responding directly to a protest movement on this issue. Those who disdain protest need to remember this going forward.

Water, Chemicals, Bodies, Cancer

[ 11 ] November 5, 2015 |


Beth Alvarado has a lovely and sad essay at Guernica about the cancers that killed her husband and much of his family who lived in a neighborhood on the south side of Tucson heavily polluted by a plume of trichloroethylene, used to clean airplane parts at the nearby airport and industrial airfield. The geology beneath Tucson can store a lot of water, but it also means it’s quite susceptible to chemical contamination.

After his family had lived there for a decade or so, people in the neighborhood started dying. Clear patterns didn’t emerge, but sometimes several people in one family would die. Finally, the city tested the water. Some estimates showed TCE contamination at 1,000 times the federal health standards. They closed wells. There were court cases. Red lines were drawn around the housing developments, housing developments where 75 percent of the residents were Hispanic and low-income; once the developments were red-lined, it was impossible to sell those houses, so people stayed where they were. The cleanup began, but it was already too late. On Evelina Street alone, near the school Fernando’s siblings attended, near Mission Manor Park where they played, and near the swimming pool where they swam in the summers, thirty-four cancer cases were documented. Several families now have only one surviving member.

You don’t have to drink TCE or ingest it. TCE can enter your system through your skin when you bathe. When Fernando’s brother Eugene first saw a doctor for hemochromatosis, a rare liver condition that can be caused by exposure to chemicals, he told the doctor that he had lived in the area of Tucson that was affected by TCE. The doctor said he’d have to have complete exposure, like falling into a vat of chemicals, for that to be responsible for his condition. I did have complete exposure, Eugene said. I bathed in it for decades.

Eventually, they found a tumor growing on Eugene’s liver. He had a liver transplant.

TCE is a volatile organic compound, my friend, an environmental engineer, tells me. TCE wants to rise, it wants to be in the air instead of the water. It enters your body when you breathe its vapors in the air or when you drink water contaminated with it. TCE also enters your body through your skin, especially if you have cracks or abrasions or cuts. The first exposure to TCE, and the first drink of that water, initiates a metabolic process that can result in lymphoma, leukemia, multiple myeloma, and kidney and liver cancers. TCE is thought to act as a metabolic trigger. In other words, if you have a predisposition to a form of cancer, let’s say liver cancer, TCE increases your likelihood of developing that cancer, although it may not manifest for decades.

The effects of these chemicals can take so long to manifest themselves that it becomes very hard to receive compensation from the polluters and most people do not. That most of the people suffering in this Tucson neighborhood are Latino should be expected as the correlation between pollution exposure and race is well-documented and is a classic example of environmental racism.

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