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Tag: "environment"

Everything in the Oceans is Dying

[ 36 ] December 12, 2013 |

I assume anyone paying attention to what is happening to the ocean ecosystem also drinks heavily.

Wolves

[ 42 ] December 5, 2013 |

The West has reinvigorated its war on wolves and the Obama Administration has sadly capitulated to Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming, in what is yet another example of its poor policy toward public lands that originated with the Salazar appointment to Interior and has not improved at all. This is been one of the weakest performances for progressives in the entire administration (along with education policy) and an area where the administration has almost total control to set policy (unlike say, closing GITMO which we can say is disappointing but where the president is highly constrained by Congress).

Wyoming classifies wolves as predatory animals that can be killed by any means and without limit in more than 80 percent of the state, and in parts of Idaho, there are no limits for when or how many wolves can be killed. Not to be outmatched, Montana nearly doubled the bag limit on wolves this year, extended the hunt season to allow killing of pregnant females and refused to listen to pleas by park biologists to create a safety buffer just outside the park’s boundaries to protect straying research animals.

These hunts are a throwback to the not-so-distant days when wolves were ruthlessly persecuted and nearly wiped out from the entirety of the lower 48.

Today wolves live in only about 5 percent of their historic range and have less than 1 percent of their former numbers.

Despite these dismal figures, the Obama administration has proposed to remove protections for wolves across most of the country. With numbers going down from hunts and protections gone, wolf recovery that is broadly supported by a strong majority of the American public, has cost taxpayers millions, benefits ecosystems, and is a tremendous Endangered Species Act success story will be flushed down the drain.

Awful. But this hasn’t received much political pushback, which is another piece of evidence to me of the decline of the environmental movement, which today is as weak as it’s been politically since the 1950s.

Environment and the Border

[ 2 ] December 3, 2013 |

Michelle Chen provides a useful overview of the intertwined environmental and humanitarian disaster of American policies toward the Mexican border. She covers several important issues. To excerpt from her introduction:

The parts of the border that take the form of an actual, physical barrier are an intrusion on the landscape, an eyesore to many — and to millions, a deadly obstacle to overcome. Elements of the local environment, from deserts to the Rio Grande, have been trampled, polluted, criss-crossed by truck convoys, occupied by federal agents and factories, and traversed by migrants following well-worn and perilous trails. And each phase of commercial development and economic exchange has also left an ecological mark, from the bustle of tourists to the churn of the maquilas to the paths trod by migrants following smugglers.

Just as immigrant rights activists see the border as a violent social barrier, environmentalists see the border fence as an assault on the integrity of regional ecologies. The border environs is both a symbol of global environmental changes — transnational movement of people and natural resources, climate change, the wave of urbanization that is sweeping wild lands worldwide — and a symptom of acute environmental impacts — the footprints of stampeding livestock, baking asphalt slicing through desert, and a dense network of dams and pipelines tapping the veins of increasingly parched riparian habitats. In the border zone, life is disrupted by the armature of the state.

Selenium

[ 31 ] November 16, 2013 |

This is not an acceptable decision from the EPA during a Democratic administration:

Today, the Environmental Protection Agency allowed the Kentucky Department of Environmental Protection to change how toxic selenium pollution from mountaintop removal mines is measured for the purposes of determining compliance with the Clean Water Act. Selenium, which causes significant biological damage to fish native to the waters of Appalachia, is a toxic pollutant discharged from valley fills into rivers and streams below mountaintop removal sites. The EPA-backed changes to how Kentucky measures selenium pollution allow the state to rely on an impractical and complicated test of tissue samples from fish rather than the current practice of directly sampling the water discharged below mountaintop removal mines and other selenium sources. EPA’s capitulation gives a free pass to industry and will allow unacceptably high levels of selenium pollution to continue flow into Kentucky’s waterways.

If anything, Obama’s EPA should be cracking down on coal mining and making it harder for the mountaintop removal industry to destroy the mountains and ecology of Appalachia. There is no good reason not to directly sample the water. None. Except that the coal industry doesn’t like it. Because ultimately this isn’t about the poisoning of fish. It’s about the poisoning of people. If the fish are poisoned, the people probably are at higher risk as well. Of course, one expects nothing else from the coal industry; it’s spent the last 125 years treating the people of Appalachia like feudal serfs. But for the Obama EPA to actually weaken testing rules, that I don’t get.

Here’s some background on why this all matters:

Current selenium limits in states like West Virginia have helped the Sierra Club and other nonprofits force coal companies to hand over millions of dollars in fines and cleanup costs, but those standards are based on older EPA water criteria and guidance that hasn’t been revised in nearly a decade. New data has suggested less stringent requirements would be adequate and the EPA has said it is updating the acute and chronic freshwater ambient water quality standards for selenium, though the agency has yet to act.

Kentucky is now trying to move ahead while the agency drags its feet, having developed its own criteria with help from the EPA and submitted it for federal approval. The proposal would require that high selenium levels be present in fish tissue before triggering a violation, and it would likely be emulated by neighboring states if it gets the green light from the EPA.

In taking the initiative, Kentucky is hoping to put more regulatory control in its own hands on an issue that has been litigated frequently in other states like West Virginia, according to Crowell & Moring LLP partner Kirsten L. Nathanson.

“The environmental groups have been driving enforcement through lawsuits,” Nathanson said. “Kentucky is trying to find an instructive solution to these issues and avoid some of these ad-hoc enforcement actions by taking affirmative control of its regulatory program for selenium.”

Industry has always preferred state-led regulatory programs because the states are far easier for industry to control than the feds. Politicians come cheaper and they tend to be much friendlier to local industry.

A very disappointing decision.

Lowering Biofuels Standards

[ 35 ] November 15, 2013 |

The corn industry’s hustle to force us to turn it into fuel may have reached its peak. Normally, one might not look well upon the EPA lowering a standard that could theoretically burn something more environmentally friendly than fossil fuels. But ethanol is not only not particularly environmentally neutral, it’s a terrible use of land and comes with a whole set of additional problems. So at least in this case, the EPA ruling in favor of the oil industry is not per se a bad thing. It’s not exactly a good thing either of course. It’s more like a situation where every option stinks.

Learning to Live as a Civilization

[ 148 ] November 15, 2013 |

There’s a certain kind of environmental writing that drives a lot of people crazy. This is the jeremiad that tells us the world is failing, we are at a tipping point, civilization is doomed, etc. In principle, I don’t have a particular problem with the style, after all I do my share of it. Some say that sky is falling writing drives people to do nothing, stop listening, or give up hope, but I don’t know that there’s any real evidence supporting the assertion.

But I do have one very large problem with how these essays are usually written. They tend to erase inequality and differences between people, as if the writer is just discovering that things are bad in the world, a revelation the world’s poor would not find surprising. Take Roy Scranton’s essay in the Times about how we need to learn to die as a civilization, for dying is what our civilizing is doing as we take no action to mitigate climate change. It’s long and I’m just going to excerpt a couple small parts:

The human psyche naturally rebels against the idea of its end. Likewise, civilizations have throughout history marched blindly toward disaster, because humans are wired to believe that tomorrow will be much like today — it is unnatural for us to think that this way of life, this present moment, this order of things is not stable and permanent. Across the world today, our actions testify to our belief that we can go on like this forever, burning oil, poisoning the seas, killing off other species, pumping carbon into the air, ignoring the ominous silence of our coal mine canaries in favor of the unending robotic tweets of our new digital imaginarium. Yet the reality of global climate change is going to keep intruding on our fantasies of perpetual growth, permanent innovation and endless energy, just as the reality of mortality shocks our casual faith in permanence.

The biggest problem climate change poses isn’t how the Department of Defense should plan for resource wars, or how we should put up sea walls to protect Alphabet City, or when we should evacuate Hoboken. It won’t be addressed by buying a Prius, signing a treaty, or turning off the air-conditioning. The biggest problem we face is a philosophical one: understanding that this civilization is already dead. The sooner we confront this problem, and the sooner we realize there’s nothing we can do to save ourselves, the sooner we can get down to the hard work of adapting, with mortal humility, to our new reality.

The choice is a clear one. We can continue acting as if tomorrow will be just like yesterday, growing less and less prepared for each new disaster as it comes, and more and more desperately invested in a life we can’t sustain. Or we can learn to see each day as the death of what came before, freeing ourselves to deal with whatever problems the present offers without attachment or fear.

If we want to learn to live in the Anthropocene, we must first learn how to die.

The problem here isn’t that Scranton’s unaware that the poor exists. He mentions food crises, Hurricane Katrina, etc. The problem is that he doesn’t seem to understand that regardless of whether we are going to live or die, we are not going to do so together. As environmental writers do way too often, he leaves the power dynamics of society outside of his essay. There’s a lot of money to be made off climate change. A lot of new industries will develop, whether mining the newly accessible Arctic or providing water or who knows. The rich are going to be OK. They will move to higher ground, the poor will be left to lower ground. The rich will have air conditioning (and access to water if it becomes truly scarce). The poor will not. The rich will have homes that have a better chance of withstanding large storms. The poor will live in substandard housing that will kill them when the hurricane comes through. Of course, race, class, immigration status, and nationality will play a major role in determining who will be OK and who will not.

Essays like Scranton’s erase environmental justice from the definitions of the movement. If we aren’t going to center the power dynamics of capitalism, race, gender, and global inequality in our adaptations to climate change, it means that environmentalism remains a movement of the rich and the white, disconnected to the material concerns of the world’s majority.

In other words, if we are going to die as a civilization, it might be a good idea to live as a civilization first. Because while things for the poor will get worse when the impacts of climate change grow, they are pretty bloody bad right now. The sky isn’t falling for them with climate change. The sky never rose on their lives in the first place.

Today in the Sixth Extinction

[ 35 ] November 4, 2013 |

Goodbye to the western black rhino.

Drought

[ 94 ] October 22, 2013 |

There’s no reason to think that the United States is more drought-immune than ancient societies that were destroyed by it:

More than 3,200 years ago, life was abuzz in and around what is now this modern-day Israeli metropolis on the shimmering Mediterranean shore.

To the north lay the mighty Hittite empire; to the south, Egypt was thriving under the reign of the great Pharaoh Ramses II. Cyprus was a copper emporium. Greece basked in the opulence of its elite Mycenaean culture, and Ugarit was a bustling port city on the Syrian coast. In the land of Canaan, city states like Hazor and Megiddo flourished under Egyptian hegemony. Vibrant trade along the coast of the eastern Mediterranean connected it all.

Yet within 150 years, according to experts, the old world lay in ruins.

Experts have long pondered the cause of the crisis that led to the Late Bronze Age collapse of civilization, and now believe that by studying grains of fossilized pollen they have uncovered the cause.

In a study published Monday in Tel Aviv: Journal of the Institute of Archaeology of Tel Aviv University, researchers say it was drought that led to the collapse in the ancient southern Levant.

Before we talk about our technology and etc., let’s remember that these societies lasted a whole lot longer than the United States has. There’s no reason to think that we are somehow immune from drought-related collapses just because of more advanced technology that can move water around. Not to mention that the intensive engineering of water comes with a whole set of additional problems.

Coalition Building

[ 20 ] October 4, 2013 |

I have a piece up at Labor Online about the difficulties of meaningful coalition building between the AFL-CIO and other progressive organizations. An excerpt:

But of course the American union movement is diverse and fractured. Some unions have embraced the relationships with the NAACP and Sierra Club. But others, particularly in the trades, are somewhere between wary and hostile. Laborers president Terry O’Sullivan has been particularly outspoken in his anger over the Sierra Club’s opposition to building the Keystone XL Pipeline. O’Sullivan has both accused environmentalists of betraying labor for opposing the pipeline and publicly castigated unions who do not have a direct stake in the pipeline to shut up about it. International Association of Fire Fighters president Harold Schaitberger warned about the federation becoming “the American Federation of Progressive and Liberal Organizations.”

We might bemoan these attitudes but we also have to take them seriously. It’s worth thinking more deeply about the mechanics of what these alliances might look like. How should the federation respond when stopping a environmentally disastrous construction project will cost members jobs? Should unions without a stake in employment oppose another union who does have that stake? Does the fight for a sustainable climate take precedence over a few hundred or few thousand union jobs? These are really hard questions to answer.

In my own book-in-progress on timber worker unions and environmental issues in the Pacific Northwest forests, there is one potential lesson. In 1978, Redwood National Park was expanded, despite protests from the timber industry, the United Brotherhood of Carpenters (who represented most of the timber workers in northern California), and the California state AFL-CIO. Yet in the final bill, the Sierra Club and organized labor worked together to create the Redwood Employee Protection Plan. REPP offered up to six years of direct government benefits for any worker who lost a job because of redwood forest protection. It served as a lifeline to workers in a dying industry. REPP had its problems, including discomfort with such generous provisions from the Carter Administration and outright hostility from Reagan. When it ended in 1984, most of the major players considered it a failure. I don’t have space to explore the details of the plan or its problems here. But I do think that both labor and environmentalists can look to REPP as at least one case where two potentially powerful movements allied (even if it was an alliance of begrudging convenience) to create an unprecedented federal program for American workers while also protecting an ecologically special place.

On Our New Overlords

[ 26 ] October 2, 2013 |

In our continuing chronicle of jellyfish taking over the planet and replacing humans as the dominant species, we have jellyfish attacking Sweden and shutting down a nuclear reactor. The Soviets couldn’t stop western Europe’s nuclear regime, but what are the Soviets compared to jellyfish? Nothing.

Meanwhile, the South Koreans are trying to fight the jellyfish. It seems to me that is just going to make them angry. I wouldn’t want to be in Korea when the jellyfish strike back.

Extinction

[ 9 ] September 27, 2013 |

Once again, humans are a disaster for almost every other species on the planet.

Environmental Linkage

[ 13 ] September 26, 2013 |

1. More on climate change destroying the ocean ecosystem and the rise of jellyfish as our new overlords.

2. Support for fracking declines in the United States. This is useful given our embrace of the technology without anything close to the proper research as to how it will affect water supplies, not to mention create earthquakes. But where there’s profit to be found, you can forget about caution.

3. The Louisiana sinkhole caused by mining corporations using the state as a dumping zone has gotten worse and has no signs of stopping.

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