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Tag: "environment"

Brazil Mining Disaster

[ 13 ] 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.

The Need for Aggressive, Anti-Corporate Environmentalism

[ 33 ] November 3, 2015 |


Above: Scoop Jackson, sponsor of the National Environmental Policy Act and probably the greatest environmentalist senator in U.S. history.

Joshua Galperin has a good essay arguing that we need an aggressive environmentalism that seeks transformative solutions to environmental problems instead of what he sees as the piecemeal corporate-friendly environmentalism his students favor today. This is a useful counterpoint to the unexamined cliche that apocalyptic environmentalism turns people away from doing anything at all. People say this all the time but I have never seen a single study that suggests this is actually true.

The need for an aggressive environmentalism that demands widespread corporate behavioral change is threefold. First, the planet and the people who live upon it face enormous challenges, especially climate change. Tweaking corporate behavior around the edges won’t solve that problem. Second, any study of social change in American history strongly suggests that only calls for radical change lead to the struggles that create even moderate change. Third, if you want to create the mass political movement that moves politicians to pass the legislation that encodes these, even relatively moderate demands, you have to touch people’s hearts and get them working for a goal. Moderate environmentalism fails on all three of these levels. Richard Nixon was no environmentalist (and I hate, hate, hate that Galperin cites him as one, not to mention a person who cared about nature, which is just untrue but the cliche that Nixon was a great environmental president has become so widespread that it’s more useful to use him as a rhetorical device to claim environmentalism can become bipartisan than to swim against the current) but he faced a desire for environmental legislation so widespread that transformative legislation was passing the House by votes like 372-15, in the case of the National Environmental Policy Act that there was no point in a veto.

Galperin’s characterization of environmentalist students is not true of all but does largely vibe with my experiences over the past decade:

My students are extraordinary, but many see themselves as “corporate social responsibility consultants,” “ecosystem service managers,” “sustainability leaders,” “industrial efficiency experts,” maybe “clean energy entrepreneurs” — not environmentalists. They avoid that label because they associate it with stalled progress on the issues they care about. But this reinvention is a losing strategy.

I think this is partially a result of the emphasis on apolitical “service” and “leadership” at both the high school and college levels that actually serves to channel potential activism into working with corporations or service organizations in ways that don’t challenge the status quo, an emphasis that becomes stronger when the potential for a job at the end of college in a weak employment market for good jobs is out there. But there are real problems with this kind of thinking, as I stated above. He states this is a “desperate environmentalism,” one that assumes corporate power over the world and hopes that maybe we can work with them to make changes since we can’t challenge them.

What do we need instead?

The environmentalists of old insisted on transformation not marginal gains. The Clean Water Act aimed to restore the integrity of all the nation’s waters by eliminating water pollution. Now we quantify whether such improvement is economically efficient, and we politely ask whether an industrial facility might consider reducing its discharge. Perhaps, desperate environmentalists suggest, such a reduction would improve the bottom line by reducing some costs. Suddenly, economic efficiency moves from being one in a collection of cultural values that drive decisions to the only relevant value.

And the ratchet turns in only one direction. Having conceded so much to conservative approaches, desperate environmentalists cannot advocate what is now a radical idea of the past: Government should force polluters to reduce pollution for the sake of healthy natural systems and human enjoyment.

The problem is, desperate environmentalists strive for a mythical conservative embrace but cooperation from the right is unrealistic. As they move right in an attempt to meet their opponents, the opponents will not, at some undefined threshold of compromise, consent to new policies of protection. Rather, desperate environmentalists could continue to erode their position until environmentalism grows unrecognizable.

He then cites the once-Republican idea for cap and trade that today is hated by Republicans as an example of this bait and switch. What we really need is largely what we need for violations of labor rights–demands for corporate accountability, new laws that create that accountability, and an aggressive regulatory state that assumes corporations are probably guilty and seeks to catch them rather than becoming subject to regulatory capture. We need legislation that puts hands in the power of citizens and workers to hold these corporations accountable and we need to use the tools we have now and the tools we can create to hold the corporations accountable wherever they operate, including outside U.S. borders. And while this sounds utopian, note that the Investor State Dispute Settlement courts already provide a framework that we can build from, even if they exist to promote strictly corporate interests at the present and that we have successfully regulated corporations before and we can do so again. There’s plenty of historical evidence to suggest that these are attainable goals. But we have to stop thinking we are going to work with corporations to make those changes, especially on environmental issues. Because they are not our friends and will fight it the whole way.

A Defense of Thoreau

[ 58 ] October 28, 2015 |


Kathryn Schulz attempts to destroy Henry David Thoreau’s reputation, calling him, not without accuracy, a libertarian, anti-social crank and fraud who didn’t even live the anti-social life he was espousing, who had no feeling for the suffering of others, and who romanticized poverty. Even if we take all this as true, and none of it is entirely untrue, there are still concrete reasons why we may lionize Thoreau, not so much for his words (after all, we have mostly all read some Thoreau but for most people it’s been awhile), but for what he represented and why it resonates.

No one ever claimed Thoreau was an easy man to like and she says much about him personally that is correct. But who cares? How many artists are weirdos who you really don’t want to know? Many. Sometimes that gets romanticized and excused to where you end with defenders of Roman Polanski. That’s bad. But Thoreau was harmless at the worst. I really don’t care that the man was a crank. Hell, Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote a whole book on raising children after forcing his partner to give up all their kids to orphanages where they almost certainly died. Does that mean we shouldn’t read Émile? I don’t think that would be a good idea. On some of the more specific critiques:

But “Walden” is less a cornerstone work of environmental literature than the original cabin porn: a fantasy about rustic life divorced from the reality of living in the woods, and, especially, a fantasy about escaping the entanglements and responsibilities of living among other people.

What Schulz never mentions here, and I think this is the most important point to why he endures, is that this was happening at the same time as the Industrial Revolution. All of a sudden, our entire relationship to nature was transformed, especially in Thoreau’s home of Massachusetts. We can trace the first Americans romanticizing nature, in writing at least, to the writings of the Lowell Mill Girls, who grew up knowing nature one way on the farms and soon learned about nature in a whole other inside the factory. All of a sudden, they start talking about the need to return to nature. That’s hardly disappeared in the 150 years since Thoreau died. The return to nature has a lot to do with the sights, sounds, smells, and physical experience with modern work. Even after the factories begin declining, the beauty of the outdoors is an antidote to our sterile office environments, but to some extent, seeing the natural world this way is conditioned by people like Thoreau and John Muir laying the groundwork for us. That’s why Thoreau endures, primarily.

Some other points:

“Walden,” in consequence, is not a paean to living simply; it is a paean to living purely, with all the moral judgment that the word implies. In its first chapter, “Economy,” Thoreau lays out a program of abstinence so thoroughgoing as to make the Dalai Lama look like a Kardashian. (That chapter must be one of the highest barriers to entry in the Western canon: dry, sententious, condescending, more than eighty pages long.) Thoreau, who never wed, regarded “sensuality” as a dangerous contaminant, by which we “stain and pollute one another.” He did not smoke and avoided eating meat. He shunned alcohol, although with scarcely more horror than he shunned every beverage except water: “Think of dashing the hopes of a morning with a cup of warm coffee, or of an evening with a dish of tea! Ah, how low I fall when I am tempted by them!” Such temptations, along with the dangerous intoxicant that is music, had, he felt, caused the fall of Greece and Rome.

I cannot idolize anyone who opposes coffee (especially if the objection is that it erodes great civilizations; had the man not heard of the Enlightenment?), but Thoreau never met an appetite too innocuous to denounce. He condemned those who gathered cranberries for jam (“So butchers rake the tongues of bison out of the prairie grass”) and regarded salt as “that grossest of groceries”; if he did without it, he boasted, he could also drink less water. He advised his readers to eat just one meal a day, partly to avoid having to earn additional money for food but also because the act of eating bordered, for him, on an ethical transgression. “The fruits eaten temperately need not make us ashamed of our appetites,” he wrote, as if our appetites were otherwise disgraceful. No slouch at public shaming, Thoreau did his part to sustain that irrational equation, so robust in America, between eating habits and moral worth.

Welcome to the Transcendentalists! This sort of thing was hardly unique to Thoreau and I’m surprised Schulz doesn’t know this. This is same period and nearly the same place as the Mormons, the Shakers, the first American vegetarians, the Burned-over District, the rise of abolitionism, the temperance movement, the Seneca Falls Convention, etc., etc. Remember, the Mormons don’t drink coffee either and never have. Such stances were common. The rise of industrialization and the transportation revolution completely transformed life in the North. That led to a whole variety of new social movements, some of which seem mainstream today, but were all considered pretty freakish by a lot of people in the 1840s. Thoreau is not some unique crank operating on his own. He’s one of many people freaked out by the Industrial Revolution and engaging in an intellectual milieu expressing these changes in all sorts of unusual ways. It’s unfair to pick on Thoreau here without placing him in context.

In reality, Walden Pond in 1845 was scarcely more off the grid, relative to contemporaneous society, than Prospect Park is today. The commuter train to Boston ran along its southwest side; in summer the place swarmed with picnickers and swimmers, while in winter it was frequented by ice cutters and skaters. Thoreau could stroll from his cabin to his family home, in Concord, in twenty minutes, about as long as it takes to walk the fifteen blocks from Carnegie Hall to Grand Central Terminal. He made that walk several times a week, lured by his mother’s cookies or the chance to dine with friends. These facts he glosses over in “Walden,” despite detailing with otherwise skinflint precision his eating habits and expenditures. He also fails to mention weekly visits from his mother and sisters (who brought along more undocumented food) and downplays the fact that he routinely hosted other guests as well—sometimes as many as thirty at a time. This is the situation Thoreau summed up by saying, “For the most part it is as solitary where I live as on the prairies. It is as much Asia or Africa as New England. . . . At night there was never a traveller passed my house, or knocked at my door, more than if I were the first or last man.”

Ah, this tired old war horse. Who cares? Probably the biggest thing you can say to damn Thoreau is that he is inspirational to misanthropes today who go out into rugged nature unprepared and then die, like Timothy Treadwell or Christopher McCandless. Thoreau’s hardly the only bad influence here–if you want a racist awful crank who also could be a pretty great writer at times, see one Abbey, Edward–but far worse than their existence today is that we romanticize those people. Kudos to Werner Herzog for seeing right through Treadwell (and bringing his own fantastic weirdness to make a film about two cranks, including himself) but the Jon Krauaker book and Sean Penn film Into the Wild go way too far in seeing McCandless as a tragic, romantic figure, when he actually rejected the many people who tried to help him and was an idiot who wandered into Alaska totally unprepared for basic survival. He may have had mental problems and OK, the problem is the romanticizing. But isn’t the real story–that Thoreau really wasn’t that distant from society–counter to Schulz’s thesis about him being a misanthrope? And doesn’t it suggest a better kind of getting back to nature than Thoreau himself wrote in Walden? To me, knowing the real story is both amusing and makes him more personable. Visiting Walden Pond, as I did a few weeks ago, does so even more. This is not the wilderness and that’s actually useful. Thoreau writing about ants and loons should have more value to us than Muir writing about the Sierra Nevada. We can watch ants and loons too! We can’t necessarily go to the deepest parts of Yosemite.

But any reading of Thoreau that casts him as a champion of nature is guilty of cherry-picking his most admirable work while turning a blind eye on all the rest. The other and more damning answer to the question of why we admire him is not that we read him incompletely and inaccurately but that we read him exactly right. Although Thoreau is often regarded as a kind of cross between Emerson, John Muir, and William Lloyd Garrison, the man who emerges in “Walden” is far closer in spirit to Ayn Rand: suspicious of government, fanatical about individualism, egotistical, élitist, convinced that other people lead pathetic lives yet categorically opposed to helping them. It is not despite but because of these qualities that Thoreau makes such a convenient national hero.

This seems highly dubious to me. We don’t really make Thoreau a hero in any particularly meaningful way, and we certainly don’t read Cape Cod or The Maine Woods, where his ideas are more fully fleshed out. Thinking of him as a cross between Emerson, Muir, and Garrison is actually pretty right, and let’s not forget that the latter was also a massive crank who had contempt for most other people he actually dealt with and who people hated, and not only for his abolitionism. Yeah, I guess you can draw connections between Thoreau and Rand. You can do the same with Jefferson or any number of other American thinkers. Yes, individualism is a major strain in American culture. But we don’t read Thoreau as a hero because of that.

Overall, this is an interesting essay. And one can not like Thoreau–Schulz presents plenty of good reasons not to do so! But what Thoreau really represents is his time, a man like tens of thousands of other Northerners in the antebellum years trying to figure out solutions to a radically transformed world, a man who could say crazy things that many people disliked, and a man whose writings could have a thicket-like density spliced with great phrasing and simplicity (see his mentor Emerson on that). he also represents a modern response to industrialization, one that resonates with us today. I for one can’t wait until my next trip into the Oregon forests. Should he be a hero, assuming he is? I don’t know, probably not. But is he an interesting and influential figure for reasons that are not entirely negative? Yes. And that’s OK.

Empire of Timber

[ 42 ] October 26, 2015 |


Listen people, you have two choices. You can eat this month. Or you can buy my new book Empire of Timber: Labor Unions and the Pacific Northwest Forests, published by Cambridge University Press, at the modest price of $100. Or $80 on Kindle. Don’t ask me why. Anyway, it it available and I can only say that after working on something that long (12 years since I finished my comprehensive exams and started conceptualizing it), I’m amazed that it is out and a real thing that ended up in my hands today. No words. It will be a much, much cheaper paperback in about a year. This is the description from Cambridge:

The battles to protect ancient forests and spotted owls in the Northwest splashed across the evening news in the 1980s and early 1990s. Empire of Timber re-examines this history to demonstrate that workers used their unions to fight for a healthy workplace environment and sustainable logging practices that would allow themselves and future generations the chance to both work and play in the forests. Examining labor organizations from the Industrial Workers of the World in the 1910s to unions in the 1980s, Empire of Timber shows that conventional narratives of workers opposing environmental protection are far too simplistic and often ignore the long histories of natural resource industry workers attempting to protect their health and their futures from the impact of industrial logging. Today, when workers fear that environmental restrictions threaten their jobs, learning the history of alliances between unions and environmentalists can build those conversations in the present.

That pretty much sums it up and of course is a theme I have talked about so many times here–that workers and environmentalists are not natural enemies and that an examination of the past elucidates this point again and again.

This picture also includes a union bug timber hammer an old Carpenters union activist gave me during my research, a ponderosa pine cone from Deschutes County, Oregon, and a crack in my wall which may or may not say anything about conditions at the University of Rhode Island.

Worth mentioning as well that you can still of course buy my book from earlier this year, Out of Sight, for the “let’s steal half of Mexico to expand slavery” price of $18.46.

Palm Oil and Deforestation

[ 19 ] October 22, 2015 |


The palm oil crisis continues in southeast Asia, as the widespread transformation of ecologically complex jungles into palm oil monocultures for cooking oil continues, without any repercussions for the western corporations committing widescale extinction for their role in this.

The Indonesian government had zoned the area for agricultural use even though it lies within the Leuser Ecosystem, an area of exceptionally high conservation value due to its resident populations of endangered orangutans, tigers, rhinos, and elephants.

RAN didn’t specify what companies might source from Tualang Raya, but it noted that the three biggest buyers of palm oil from the Leuser Ecosystem region—Musim Mas Group, Wilmar International and Golden Agri-Resources—”have adopted policies that commit to halting forest destruction in their supply chains.”

“We need these buyers to take urgent action to intervene and secure the permanent protection of the priceless Leuser Ecosystem,” the group said.

This gets at the problem with voluntary supply chain management standards. They don’t work. Without government restrictions, fines, and punishments for violators, probably at the U.S. or European level since this is not going to happen at the Indonesian level in any meaningful way, the widespread ecological destruction of the rainforests will continue. It’s yet another example of how the world’s citizens need enforcement mechanisms against the wealthy and corporations up and down the supply chain to hold them operating in extra-legal ways (which includes corrupt national governments granting exemptions to their own laws) outside of national laws accountable. This is necessary for a sustainable future anywhere on the planet.

….See also, palm oil plantations and horrific wildfires.

Environmental News and Notes

[ 44 ] October 8, 2015 |


A bunch of smaller stories on environmental issues that deserve some attention:

1) With buildings collapsing in Oklahoma from the plethora of earthquakes caused by fracking, maybe someone in the state will make the connection and suggest that we need to research these earthquakes before going ahead with the procedure? Probably not.

2) I get that this essay about runners racing on the Grand Canyon trail and throwing their energy packs and water bottles on the trail and defecating around the trail has more than a little bit of the “kids get off my lawn” feel. But the issue is real enough. Are public lands designed for the kind of endurance racing, record setting, and extreme sports that a growing number of people love, even though they can cause real damage and degradation of the land? Or are they for a gentler use? Do societal norms exist on the trail or is it a dog-eat-dog world of extreme individualism? Naturally enough, these questions reflect trends in larger society, as do the sports of choice themselves.

3) Texas water use is totally sustainable. Just keep piping that water to new suburban developments.

4) I’m not sure what Gregg Easterbrook is thinking here. He’s right that we need new environmental legislation to deal with greenhouse gases. But he’s hopelessly muddled in how he thinks that’s going to happen:

But there is a compromise the political world has missed: The Democratic presidential contenders endorse the Keystone pipeline, in return for the Republican presidential contenders’ backing the E.P.A.’s effort to reduce carbon emissions from power plants.

This is a classic compromise in which each side gives something and gets something. The pipeline would help ensure American petroleum security; activists of the left should drop the silly pretense that Keystone is some kind of doomsday device. Carbon restrictions on power plants absolutely must come, and are likely to be good for everyone; activists of the right should stop fighting the future.

If the presidential contenders could shake hands on this compromise — even if any pair of two did so — the nation would benefit, and the stage might be set for constructive revisions of environmental laws following the 2016 election. Peace needs to break out on environmental protection. The presidential contenders can prove they are leaders by taking the first step.

This is super dumb. Even if we accept his Keystone argument (and doing so underplays the symbolic importance of it to popular conceptions of environmentalism; given the role of consumers and citizens in shaping American environmental policy over the last 60 years, one must take it into consideration), in what alternative universe does the Republican Party of 2016 agree to this? They are on a race to the intellectual bottom in denying climate change and hating the EPA. Such an agreement assumes that rational politics would not torpedo a given Republican’s chance to win the nomination. “Activists of the right should stop fighting the future.” Oh, OK. Because clearly the environment is the ONLY issue in which they are doing that.

For Corporations, Sticks, Not Carrots

[ 19 ] October 2, 2015 |


Before this story gets totally forgotten, I want to revisit the Volkswagen issue. For it shows something that I point out repeatedly in Out of Sight (now available for a James Blaine campaign price of $18.84 if you have not purchased it) as well as Empire of Timber. Corporations simply cannot be trusted to self-regulate. It will never work because all the incentive is there for them to cheat. They want to profit and if the government isn’t watching, they will cut corners to do so. The auto industry has shown this for decades. Only sticks will work. You have to punish corporations–and specifically corporate executives with massive fines and jail time if you want corporations to obey the law and take safety and pollution seriously. One estimate has the Volkswagen emissions leading to approximately 106 deaths in the United States. VW will be punished for this, but if we want to stop other companies and other industries from similar evasion of regulations, we simply have to beef up our regulatory powers and funding for regulatory agencies significantly. Otherwise, other versions of this will happen again and again.

Environmental Risk and Race

[ 23 ] September 28, 2015 |


I doubt any readers of LGM will be that shocked that people of color are exposed to toxic environments at rates far higher than whites. But the differential, at least in California, really is awful:

“What’s unique about this study is that we are looking at multiple hazards at once and including factors that make populations more vulnerable to the effects of pollution, such as age and disease status,” lead study lead author Lara Cushing, a Ph.D. student at Berkeley, said in a press release. “Still, it is surprising to see such a consistent and stark disparity by race when it comes to the burden of environmental health hazards. It was a bigger factor than income.”

Risk exposure for Hispanics was 6.2 times higher than whites, and 5.8 times higher for African Americans. Asians and Native American face double the environmental health hazard risks compared to whites.

“The findings indicate that people of color — especially African American and Latino Californians — are much more likely than white Californians to be exposed to both environmental and social stressors that impact health,” said Cushing. “People can’t use this environmental justice screening tool to calculate the probability that they will develop cancer or asthma, but it can and should be used by state regulators and others to focus their efforts to benefit disproportionately impacted communities.”

There’s little reason to believe that results around the country would be significantly different. Would like to see more studies along this line to know for sure.

Solar Suburbs

[ 21 ] September 24, 2015 |


Visions of rethinking suburbs to be green-friendly abound:

These examples point to the potential of what some are calling “solar suburbs.” The concept is a sweeping one—solar panels cover roofs, electric vehicles sit in garages, energy-efficient homes are outfitted with batteries to store electricity, and a smart two-way electricity system enables people to drive to work and discharge power from their electric cars at times of peak energy demand. The government of Australia has embraced this idea for a new military housing development being built near Darwin, where each home will come equipped with a 4.5 kW rooftop solar system, charging points for electric cars, and smartphone apps enabling owners to track their energy use and carbon saved.

This vision bears little resemblance to the suburbs of today — with their big, inefficient homes, two or three gasoline-powered cars in the driveway, shopping malls, and vast parking lots. But advocates say that if all goes well, advances in technology, combined with smart policy, could lower the costs of solar power, electric cars, and batteries and drive a clean energy revolution in the suburbs.

One evangelist for this revolution is David Crane, the chief executive of New Jersey-based NRG Energy, which aims to provide a complete clean-energy solution for homeowners, including electric-car charging and batteries. “Our home solar business is going to be about so much more about than just solar panels on the roof,” Crane said on a 2014 earnings call.

Analysts at the Rocky Mountain Institute, led by Amory Lovins, also see an energy revolution coming. “The technical solutions are there,” says Titiaan Palazzi, a mechanical engineer at the institute who formerly worked for smart-thermostat company Nest. “You could eventually get to suburbs or communities that are net-zero energy.”

Marc Gunther usefully notes in the linked article that this isn’t likely happening soon for the usual reasons–lack of federal investment, untested technologies, dirty energy’s monopoly over electrical grids in many states, etc. But I think more interesting is the idea that suburbs could become green, which I don’t really see. Because actually the vision of these solar suburban planners isn’t all that revolutionary or really all that green. A sentence above reads, “This vision bears little resemblance to the suburbs of today — with their big, inefficient homes, two or three gasoline-powered cars in the driveway, shopping malls, and vast parking lots.” But that’s only partially true. The homes are going to be just as big. The cars are still in the driveway. Shopping malls and vast parking lots are still part of the picture. All of the land management issues and inability to create public transportation because of a lack of density are still central to this urban model. Sure, it’s somewhat less bad for the environment, but it still leaves people living in these suburbs as committing significantly more environmental damage than the average citizen of New York City.

I’m fine with all sorts of attempts to limit our environmental impact on the planet but let’s not overstate the case. The house in the photo above might have those solar panels. But the lifestyle of people living in a single-family home of that size is not going to be available to everyone, nor is it truly sustainable.

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