Former Utne Reader senior editor Keith Goetzman on environmental issues from climate change to composting.
5/31/2011 2:53:00 PM
All this concern about toxins in plastic toys, baby bottles, breast milk, shampoos—is it partly the result of a bunch of worry-prone uber-moms worked up over exaggerated rumors and dubious science?
No way, reports Judith Shulevitz at The New Republic, who investigates “The Toxicity Panic” and ultimately finds that it’s not a panic at all but a rational response to real dangers. In fact, Shulevitz suggests that by and large, the mothers have been right:
When I first began my crash course on this subject, I assumed the reason quasi-eco-moms like me have spent the last half-decade fretting neurotically about the stuff our bodies come into contact with, rather than about the environment writ large—about what’s in our homes rather than in rivers and lakes and soil and air—is that we’re typical self-absorbed bourgeois parents. Now I know the real reason is that we can see inside our bodies better than ever before, and what we find there horrifies us.
Shulevitz reports that new biomonitoring technology has led to startling discoveries about toxins and their effect on humans, especially endocrine disruptors, the substances at the core of bisphenol-A health concerns. No longer is it always true that “the dose makes the poison,” as the longstanding and overly simplistic scientific bromide goes. Her article is a sobering summation of the current state of toxicity research and regulation—or, rather, the lack thereof.
Ultimately, Shulevitz admits a certain sense of vindication:
In the case of consumer products, if not vaccines, anxious, half-informed mothers like me had inklings about their toxicity that turned out to be justified, if not necessarily right in every detail. Meanwhile, as the tools for gauging the effects of toxicity have become more sophisticated, the previous generation of risk-assessment experts—with their narrow study parameters, insistence on dose-sensitivity, and smug theories about irrational lay people—are looking more and more wrong.
Source: The New Republic
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5/24/2011 4:09:25 PM
How many times have we been told, since the Fukushima nuclear crisis began, that we’re not being told everything? The revelation that three reactors suffered fuel meltdowns soon after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami—a scenario vigorously denied by plant and government officials at the time—only reinforces my view that whatever the technological wonders of nuclear fission, it’s humans that can’t be trusted. The continually shifting “facts” and belated revelations about the disaster have me wondering how nuclear proponents can continually be seduced by the wonders of this “clean” energy while completely overlooking how miserably it’s being managed, and how the cover-ups keep piling up.
Science journalist John Horgan writes in the Chronicle of Higher Education’s Chronicle Review about his on-and-off status as a nuclear proponent, noting that he “jumped on the pro-nuclear bandwagon” again last fall after being convinced of its safety and its low emissions relative to coal.
Fukushima took a bit of the green glow out of him, though: “I was still congratulating myself for my open-mindedness when the tsunami smashed into Japan, which had been a paragon of nuclear competence.”
The past competence of Japan’s nuclear industry is not very impressive when you dig into it. But setting that aside, Horgan’s main point—that Fukushima ought to at least give us pause—is a rare admission for a nuclear proponent. Horgan, who teaches a class in the history of science and technology at the Stevens Institute of Technology, concludes his commentary by noting that he encourages a healthy skepticism in his classrooms full of techno-optimists:
Here’s what I say to my students: I wish I could encourage you to make a career in nuclear power. Given the current limits of wind and solar energy, we need more nuclear generators to reduce our reliance on coal and other fossil fuels and to curb the effects of global warming. But given the checkered history of nuclear power both in this country and elsewhere, I don’t blame the public for opposing new plants, or for not wanting to live as close to one as I do.
This opposition may thwart the nuclear revival in America. If you want to help solve our energy problems, I tell the young engineers in my classes, you should probably look for a more stable industry. In short, I’m staying on the nuclear bandwagon, but I’m not encouraging anyone to join me.
It seems to all come down to who, and what, you believe and trust. Nuclear power is like a religion, and you’re either a true believer or a skeptic.
Rod Adams pushes a hard pro-nuclear line at his Atomic Insights blog and was one of the people who helped usher Horgan back into the pro-nuke fold after they appeared together on a post-tsunami Bloggingheads.tv discussion. Adams spends a lot of time hashing over the technological arguments surrounding nuclear power, but ultimately even his views are largely an act of faith. One of his most telling personal revelations came in a recent comments-field back-and-forth over a blog post questioning whether Nation environmental reporter Mark Hertsgaard is “a nuclear skeptic or a nuclear crank.” Adams wrote:
. . . I am unabashedly in favor of personal mobility, fresh vegetables in the middle of winter, and moderate indoor temperatures even in July and August in the steamy southeast U.S. I like fast boats, cruising back roads with the top down, and flying to exotic vacation spots every once in a while. I think our creator has offered us a technology that makes it possible to both eat cake today and to have some available tomorrow.
So there you have it. Adams is very well-practiced at debunking nuclear-energy opponents with oodles of techie talk, but at the end of the day he believes God wants us to drive deluxe motorboats and convertibles and live lives of comfort and convenience—thus he’s given us the knowledge and power to split atoms. To me, this makes Adams little more credible than the anti-nuke zealot who has a gut feeling, deep down inside, that nuclear power is just wrong.
Source: Chronicle of Higher Education, Bloggingheads.tv, Atomic Insights
Image by Sakucae, licensed under Creative Commons.
5/16/2011 4:20:40 PM
Would you want to go camping, hiking, biking, or trail running with the Koch brothers? Me neither. Well, then, why on earth would you want to do any of those things with the products they help make?
That’s the thorny question that may face many green-minded outdoor recreationists when it sinks in that a host of material brands used in their gear are controlled by the right-wing brothers David and Charles Koch, who have been widely outed as major funders of anti-environment politics and climate-change denial PR campaigns.
Like what materials, you ask?
Like the Polarguard insulation in your sleeping bag, the Coolmax fabric in your running outfit, the Lycra in your swimwear, the Supplex in your windbreaker, and—woe upon woe—the Cordura that’s ubiquitous in the gear world. I own duffels, backpacks, stuff sacks, fanny packs, bike bags, luggage, gaiters, and binocular cases made of the stuff.
Now, it’s no surprise to me that these materials are all made from petroleum, so I had an inkling they weren’t exactly the most sustainable products: Using “dinosaur squeezin’s” to make fabric and insulation is as problematic as using it to fuel our cars. But it pains me to think that the very gear that helps me journey out into inspirational natural settings is tainted because it’s part of a corporate machine that is quite literally and demonstrably destroying the very same natural world.
What’s the answer?
Well, for me, it’s going to start with taking a close look at the “ingredients” in any gear I consider buying and trying my best to avoid Koch-related components. I have considered replacing my well-worn canvas Duluth canoe pack with a lighter, more rain-repellent Cordura-based model—but hey, what’s the hurry? I’ve started to check out new bike commuter panniers as mine wear out, but I’ll look into rubber, hemp, and other materials before I’ll go for a straight-up replacement. And sorry, ladies, but my new body-hugging Speedo purchase is indefinitely postponed.
The sad fact is, you’d have to work really hard to keep the Kochs entirely out of your life—Daily Kos rounded up a full roster of Koch-controlled brands, and it’s dauntingly broad, from Brawny paper towels and Quilted Northern toilet paper to Georgia Pacific building products and Stainmaster carpet. But I’m one of those idealistic types who thinks that individual spending decisions really can make a difference, and if “outdoorsy” people aren’t going to go up against these modern-day barons, who will?
Some folks might claim that politics and commerce should remain separate realms, but the Kochs certainly wouldn’t claim any such compartmentalization. In fact, as The Nation recently reported, Koch Industries has aggressively moved to influence its own workers’ voting decisions in the wake of the Citizens United Supreme Court ruling, which held that corporations hold political lobbying rights akin to human rights.
There’s been a bit of chatter about the Koch-Cordura connection—a question on an REI forum, mutterings in green circles after boycott-Koch lists were posted—but frankly I think a lot of people conveniently avoid thinking too hard about how their gear-store decisions are tied to the planet. (Just like their SUV and air travel and sushi habits.) PR-savvy Cordura, perhaps aware that a storm may be a-brewin’, is running a hip new “Most Durable Person” sweepstakes that’s being co-sponsored and hyped by the Gear Junkie, the gear fetishist’s top online enabler, who in a breathless 30th birthday post in 2007 called Cordura “the fabric of our lives” and “a mainstay miracle fabric.”
Describing it as “a commodity material used by hundreds of outdoors gear companies,” the Gear Junkie noted that Koch acquired the brand in 2004 from Dupont—meaning that nearly all of my Cordura gear, since it predates the sale, is 100 percent Koch-free. Which will allow me to sleep just a little better in my tent at night.
I’ve previously called for the outdoor gear industry to step up and start greening up its act. Many gear companies could start, it seems, by looking at their supply chains and seeing if anyone named Koch is involved.
Sources: Daily Kos, The Nation, REI, Gear Junkie
Image by mariachily, licensed under Creative Commons.
5/11/2011 4:35:41 PM
The steep rise of clear-cut logging in British Columbia and beyond can be traced to a single mechanical innovation, reports Chris Nikkel in Vancouver Review: The feller-buncher.
Nikkel ventures to a B.C. clear-cut site to profile logger Jamie Wiens and see the forest-munching machine, which can both saw down and gather several large trees in one fell swoop:
The feller-buncher is an automated tree feller, and looks to a treeplanter such as myself like an oversized backhoe. Instead of a bucket, mounted at the end of the hydraulic arm are four metal arms called collector arms, which grab the trunk after the saw blade cuts the tree a few inches above the roots. Each collector arm is controlled with its own button, located inside the machine cockpit that overlooks the blade. … The blade is the size of a kitchen table, mounted parallel to the ground, below the collector arms.
“The teeth on the blade go about 200 miles per hour,” Wiens yells above the roar of the engine. “The blade cuts the tree before the driver grabs it, so it’s a hard job to train people to do because the timing needs to be perfect—the first tree you cut needs to be like the millionth tree you cut.”
The introduction of the feller-buncher in the 1970s was so game-changing, writes Nikkel, that “forest-industry eras in the [B.C.] Interior can easily be divided into two categories: before the feller-buncher and after it. After its introduction, clearcuts rose to prominence as the most efficient way of cutting down a forest and turning a profit. By the 1980s, 90 percent of logging was done in the form of clearcuts, and B.C. led the way—not just in Canada, but around the world.”
Wiens tells Nikkel that forestry shows often feature virtual-training video simulations in which people can test their feller-buncher chops.
At this rate, I presume it won’t be long before an iPad user can log the entire Amazon on a feller-buncher app.
Source: Vancouver Review
(article not available online)
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5/3/2011 4:16:05 PM
President Obama’s tenacity in clinging to nuclear power is astounding. With the Fukushima disaster still spewing radiation into the atmosphere and brutal budget cuts on the table, Obama wants to extend another $36 billion in taxpayer-guaranteed loans to the nuclear industry to build new plants—in addition to the $18.5 billion he has already offered.
Writes Nation environmental correspondent Mark Hertsgaard, “As health, education, and other social services are being sacrificed on the false altar of deficit reduction, $54.5 billion is a massive amount of money. Worse, Obama is shoveling money at nuclear energy at the very same time he has diverted funds from renewable energy.”
Hertsgaard sees Obama’s nuclear ambitions as playing into “a larger meta-narrative dominating discussion of the Fukushima disaster here in the United States”:
Yes, Fukushima is scary, the narrative goes, but it is far away, our own nuclear plants pose little danger and, besides, neither our economy nor the fight against climate change can succeed without more nukes. Even the usually sensible nonprofit journalism enterprise ProPublica is publishing articles implying that anything less than a Chernobyl-scale disaster amounts to only “limited” impact.
The supreme tragedy here is that more nuclear power is not only unnecessary but downright unhelpful to securing America’s, and the world’s, economic and environmental future. Countless studies have shown that the enormous financial cost and long construction times of nuclear power plants make them the costliest, slowest way to supply electricity and reduce greenhouse gas emissions (which is exactly why investors demand loan guarantees rather than risk their own money to build new nukes).
Even with Obama’s bully-pulpit backing, the phenomenally bad economics of building new plants are dogging the industry, reports the New York Times’ Matthew L. Wald. One expert tells Wald that he thinks nuclear plant construction will “go quiet” for two to five years, and Wald notes that “of the four nuclear reactor construction projects that the Energy Department identified in 2009 as the most deserving for the loans, two have lost major partners and seem unlikely to recover soon.”
Obama’s strategy is for U.S. taxpayers to take on the risk that energy investors are afraid to touch. Having already committed us to $18.5 billion, he wants to effectively triple our exposure.
“A federal loan guarantee is a little like a parent co-signing a child’s car loan; if the child makes the payments, the parent pays nothing,” writes Wald. But “If the builders default, as happened on some nuclear construction projects in the 1980s, the taxpayer liabilities could run into the billions of dollars.”
That’s a loan I wouldn’t co-sign. Would you?
UPDATE 5/6/11: Apparently, Rep. Ed Markey wouldn’t. The Massachusetts Democrat today released a letter he sent to the Office of Management and Budget demanding answers to several questions regarding loan guarantees for new nuclear reactors and the risk to taxpayers, reports the Nuclear Information and Research Service.
Sources: The Nation, New York Times
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