Former Utne Reader senior editor Keith Goetzman on environmental issues from climate change to composting.
2/9/2012 10:55:23 AM
The Nature Conservancy is taking a new stripped-down approach to environmental protection: The green group is teaming up with the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue and online luxury retailer Gilt to raise money for beach preservation in an unholy mashup of sex, commerce, marketing, publishing, and environmentalism.
Why the green tie-in? “Because everyone benefits from pristine tropical beaches. Especially when they’re occupied by gorgeous women in bathing suits.” That’s according to promotional prose about the partnership on the Gilt website, in an announcement that is no longer posted. (Though you can still buy a $1,000 ticket to a New York launch party where you can hang out with the swimsuit supermodels.)
Gilt will be selling Sports Illustrated-themed swimsuits, surfboards, photos, and other merch on its site, with all ecommerce sale proceeds going “to preserve the beaches SI features in its pages,” reports Folio magazine.
Not everyone is sold on the mission. “What’s next for The Nature Conservancy?” wrote a commenter on Folio. “Partnering with porn sites?”
I understand the writer’s sentiment. The Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue has long been an overhyped exercise in sexual objectification and anorexia induction, and I’m not sure why The Nature Conservancy thinks it will benefit from hitching its green message to the marketing machine that cranks out this cheeseball, throwback brand of softcore year after year. The association seems to risk putting off every potential supporter who doesn’t think Mad Men is a look back at the good old days.
Environmental writer Derrick Jensen of Orion already saw this sort of thing coming, having penned a prescient column in the current issue titled “Not in My Name.” Go ahead and call him a killjoy, but I think he pretty much nailed it:
Let me say upfront: I like fun, and I like sex. But I’m sick to death of hearing that we need to make environmentalism fun and sexy. … The fact that so many people routinely call for environmentalism to be more fun and more sexy reveals not only the weakness of our movement but also the utter lack of seriousness with which even many activists approach the problems we face. …
Unfortunately, the notion that activism … has to be fun and sexy pervades the entire environmental movement, from the most self-styled radical to the most mainstream reformist.
Sources: Folio, Gilt Groupe, Orion
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12/19/2011 3:36:24 PM
Did the United States poison tens of thousands of its own soldiers in Iraq with fumes from burning toxic trash? Before you consider it an outlandish suggestion, I suggest you read J. Malcolm Garcia’s moving account in the Oxford American of two American soldiers who made it back from their tours of duty having escaped insurgents’ shells, bullets, and improvised explosive devices—only to die slow, torturous deaths from the effects of garbage torched in open pits by the U.S. military.
Personal stories like those of Billy McKenna and Kevin Wilkins may only become more common in coming years, according to Garcia, since the U.S. military operated at least 23 burn pits in Iraq before combat operations ended this year, including a notoriously noxious one that often literally cast a pall over Balad Air Base.
“The burn pit at Balad consumed about 250 tons of waste a day,” he writes, “exposing 25,000 U.S. military personnel and thousands of contractors to toxic fumes.”
Garcia’s immersive narrative is a humanizing look into a slowly unfolding story that has been reported in bits and pieces for a few years, but hasn’t entirely sunken into the national consciousness, perhaps in part because it runs so counter to a reflexively patriotic, military-booster mindset: We wouldn’t have harmed our own soldiers, would we?
It just so turns out that we probably did. Writes Garcia:
The Veterans Administration states on its own webpage that chemicals, paint, medical and human waste, metals, aluminum, unexploded ordnance, munitions, and petroleum products among other toxic waste are destroyed in burn pits. Possible side effects, the department notes, “may affect the skin, eyes, respiration, kidneys, liver, nervous system, cardiovascular system, reproductive system, peripheral nervous system, and gastrointestinal tract.”
The issue first came to public light in 2008 when the Military Times reported on the use of burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan, spurring Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) and Rep. Bob Filner (D-Calif.) to request a probe by the General Accounting Office.
The GAO looked into it and warned in 2010 that the burn pits violated laws designed to keep service members safe. Pressure mounted on legislators to take up the cause, and despite a general lack of public outrage, the campaign has finally had an effect: Both Missouri Republican Sen. Tom Akin and a bipartisan group of eight senators last month introduced identical bills that would create a registry for service members affected by health problems from burn pit exposure.
The whole sorry saga stands as a stark contrast to the image of an environmentally friendly U.S. armed forces as portrayed by Edward Humes in the new Utne Reader feature “Lean, Green Fighting Machine,” an excerpt from Sierra magazine. Humes describes how the military has greened up its act with energy-efficient innovations such as solar power for remote outposts, hybrid amphibious assault ships, and biofuel-powered aircraft carriers. But he also notes that most military officials are quick to wave away suggestions that environmental concerns drive their actions, instead citing security, efficiency, and monetary savings.
All of those motivations, ironically, hold true in this case. Burn pits in a sense kept troops safe by avoiding garbage convoys; they disposed of trash with relative speed and ease; and they were much cheaper than more sophisticated waste management alternatives. But ultimately, the leaders who instituted and maintained them displayed an aggressive ignorance of basic modern health and environmental principles—a grave lapse for which thousands of soldiers are now paying.
Sources: Oxford American, Military Times
Image by octal, licensed under Creative Commons.
11/17/2011 4:52:27 PM
It’s time to confront our long-held, deeply ingrained belief that water should be forever free, Cynthia Barnett contends in her new book Blue Revolution: Unmaking America’s Water Crisis, which recently came out on Beacon Press.
“The tradition of free water has been fundamental since ancient times—as absolute as free air, or the right to take in mountain vistas,” she writes. But this notion has finally run up against finite supplies and a hard reality: free water encourages waste, in part because, well, it’s free. Agriculture, businesses, governments, and individuals alike have little incentive to cut down on their use. Barnett suggests that “it’s time to at least listen to what the economists have to say,” but don’t expect politicians to lead the charge:
Politicians steer clear of economists … because their answer to water woes is usually “Raise prices,” which voters don’t want to hear. … There is another group of people who don’t like what economists have to say. The idea of putting a price on water is anathema to many environmentalists and human rights activists who feel strongly that water should be free.
Barnett suggests that international water advocates who bring water access to the poor are doing important work, but that U.S. water activists could stand to branch out in their targets in helping to create a new “water ethic”:
American water activists, for the past several years, have locked their sights on bottled water. They decry bottlemania for commercializing our freshwater resources at the rate of some 9 billion gallons a year in the United States. But federal and state governments have handed public water to private interests since the Swamp Land Act of 1850. Challenging America’s water giveaways in twelve-ounce servings is like confronting climate change on the basis of lightbulbs alone. … A water ethic would take stock of all use, including that of the beverage brokers and their unique water trade. Thermoelectric power pulls in 201 billion gallons of water a day. Agricultural irrigation diverts 128 billion gallons daily. U.S. industries tap 18 billion; mining, 4 billion. We also must look in the mirror, at water for public supply—44 billion gallons a day. Free and cheap water in America has cost our freshwater ecosystems—and us—too much.
Look for a review of Blue Revolution in the Jan.-Feb. 2012 Utne Reader.
Source: Blue Revolution
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11/9/2011 9:56:38 AM
It’s been an uplifting several days for anyone who’s opposed to the massive Keystone XL oil pipeline, which had seemed to be rapidly steamrolling toward presidential approval.
First, on Sunday, an impressively large crowd of 10,000 to 12,000 protesters showed up to encircle the White House and pressure President Obama to give the pipeline a thumbs down. On the same day, the Los Angeles Times reported that the administration may now put off the Keystone XL decision until after the election. On Monday, Think Progress reported that the State Department’s office of the Inspector General would conduct a review the pipeline approval process, which has been dogged by accusations of inadequate environmental review and potential conflicts of interest.
All in all, it’s a remarkable turnaround of Keystone XL’s prospects, offering some hope—remember that word?—to environmentally conscious Americans who might have started to think that green activism is no more effective than video-game playing in changing the world.
There may be more than a little political calculus in Obama’s move to delay a pipeline decision until after the election. Last week, Reuters foreshadowed the delay when it reported that some of the president’s advisers were uneasy about the support that a Keystone XL approval could cost the campaign—especially among young, enthusiastic, door-knocking volunteers.
The situation may be a sign that times are changing. Conventional pundit wisdom holds that the environment is a minor player at presidential election time, writes Keith Kloor at the Yale Forum on Climate Change and the Media, taking a back seat to “kitchen table concerns like the economy, health care, and war.” But the current political environment, with Keystone raising a ruckus and virtually all the Republican candidates rejecting climate-change concerns, writes Kloor, has
Juliet Eilperin, a Washington Post reporter, thinking that global warming may yet be a big issue in the 2012 election. Just yesterday, in a talk at Stanford University’s Woods Institute for the Environment, Eilperin said:
“I actually think this is a really interesting moment. It is a moment that is challenging a position I’ve held for a long time, which is that the environment doesn’t play a role in elections.”
She added that climate change “has the potential to become a wedge issue. What is so interesting is whether it will be a wedge issue for the left or a wedge issue for the right.”
Still, for pipeline backers, hope—unlike oil—springs eternal. Reuters now reports that the State Department is considering rerouting the pipeline to avoid ecologically sensitive areas of Nebraska and improve its chances of success. This is despite the fact that “TransCanada said last month that it was too late in the federal approval process to move the proposed path for the line.”
Sources: Inside Climate, Los Angeles Times, Think Progress, Reuters, Yale Forum on Climate Change and the Media
Image by Emma Cassidy and
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11/2/2011 2:49:23 PM
Mongolia has an outsized reputation for vast emptiness, but in fact there are plenty of creatures living there, including 2.7 million people and the 35 million horses, cattle, sheep, goats, and camels that they keep. All those pasturing animals leave a large ecological hoofprint, reports Ronnie Vernooy in Solutions Journal, and climate change is disrupting the weather patterns that sustain the country’s many nomadic herders.
A new program, though, is pointing the way toward a more sustainable future, using the concept of the commons as a way to share resources—in this case, those seemingly endless pasturelands. Writes Vernooy:
The government has begun to respond to the threat to herders and their way of life. In a number of regions across the country, herders, in collaboration with local governments and researchers, and supported by a number of new policy measures and laws, are practicing comanagement, a form of adaptive management that builds community resilience.
The concept has been popularized by the academic and activist H. Ykhanbai. … Ykhanbai was uniquely suited to the task: raised in a herder family in the far-away Altai Mountains, he attended the University of St. Petersburg, Russia, where he studied Garrett Hardin on the “tragedy of the commons” and Elinor Ostrom on collective action. Ykhanbai understood that pastures in Mongolia are a common pool resource shared by many users, while private ownership of livestock allows herders to become real managers of their own businesses. Sustainable management of herds therefore depends on the carrying capacity of pastures and on the interactions between neighboring herders who rely on the same resources.
The Mongolians herders’ tactics include reducing herd size to prevent pasture degradation and desertification caused by overgrazing; moving camps at different times to adapt to weather shifts; diversifying their income; and growing their own potatoes and vegetables. Comanagement pilot projects have been launched in several areas of the country with promising results, and boosters hope the practices may be adapted to neighboring Central Asian countries including Kyrgyzstanand Kazakhstan. And, Vernooy suggests, “China could learn a lesson or two.”
Source: Solutions Journal
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10/26/2011 11:35:33 AM
You don’t have to be a tree hugger to understand Diana Beresford-Kroeger’s message: We had better take care of the trees, because the trees take care of us. The Canadian botanist and author is a tireless student and champion of the forest, yet even she blanches at being called a tree hugger, saying instead that she’s a “tree respecter.”
Beresford-Kroeger’s book The Global Forest, which comes out in paperback in late November, lays out the many ways she respects the trees: as oxygenators, purifiers, healers, habitat providers, even spiritual guides. The book is written in a deliberately spare, mellifluous style—a mantra based on lullaby rhythms, she told me—that combines her Gaelic storytelling heritage and her deep scientific knowledge.
We chose Beresford-Kroeger as a 2011 Utne Reader visionary in part for this rare ability to blend the scientific with the artistic—even occasionally the mystical. Here is some of the tree wisdom she shared with me in a recent interview.
On being called a tree hugger:
“Am I a tree hugger? No. In some senses I understand trees have to be used for civilization. I am a tree respecter. I respect trees. I respect what they’re doing. But personally, I have hugged a tree. Yes. (laughs) I have hugged a tree, and I love trees.”
On science and art:
“All good scientists who have decent, functioning, thinking brains always have art on the side. … In science, you run with a hunch and you think, ah, maybe this will work. And you know, you do the same thing in art.”
On the heart of a redwood:
Image by Christian Kroeger, courtesy of Diana Beresford-Kroeger.
“If you go into the redwood forest and stand breast to breast to those redwoods, there’s something there. My God. There’s something there. And I’m reminded of the ancient Irish thinking that a tree can listen to speech, and of course that’s the legend of the heart—that the speech of the king went into the heart—so I’m surrounded by legends when I go into the forest.”
10/14/2011 11:14:34 AM
Bisphenol A and two other chemicals have been linked to infertility in several recent studies, reports Environmental Health News, adding new environmental concerns to couples trying to conceive.
Researchers looked at the chemicals’ effect on the success of in vitro fertilization, or IVF, in which an egg is removed from a woman’s uterus, grown to an embryo in a petri dish, then implanted back into the uterus.
In one study, Lindsey Konkel reports, women with higher concentrations of bisphenol A, or BPA, had lower peak levels of estradiol, a form of estrogen that helps eggs develop. In another, researchers found a link between blood concentrations of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and the rate at which embryos attached to the uterine wall. Finally, in a third study, women with the highest hexachlorobenzene (HCB) levels in their blood were more likely to experience a failed embryo implantation than those with the lowest levels.
The interesting, and rather alarming, thing here is that two of the chemicals have been banned in the United States for years. HCB, a pesticide, has been banned here since1984, though it is still used in some other countries and may be created as an impurity in the making of other pesticides and chemicals. PCBs, a class of industrial fluids used mostly in electrical equipment, have been banned since 1979, but their persistence in the environment means they still show up in the blood of more than 95 percent of Americans older than 12.
Environmental Health News points out that “causes of infertility are numerous, ranging from hormonal imbalances, to defects of the uterus, to misshapen sperm, low sperm count or low sperm motility in men.” But these new findings are worth considering given what we’ve learned in recent years:
Some scientists now theorize that endocrine-disrupting chemicals in the environment also can reduce fertility. Endocrine disruptors are a class of more than 1,200 chemicals that can mimic or block hormones, including estrogen, the primary female sex hormone involved in pregnancy.
“These chemicals may affect the way hormones regulate many aspects of our bodies, potentially even the ability to get pregnant,” said Laura Vandenberg, a reproductive scientist at Tufts University.
It’s unclear yet whether these findings are unique to the IVF community, or if we are just seeing the tip of the iceberg of a problem that extends beyond this population,” said Tracey Woodruff, a reproductive health scientist in the division of Maternal-Fetal Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco Medical Center who was not involved in the studies.
There’s not much any of us can do to limit exposure to PCBs or HCB; they’re basically everywhere. But it’s clear that avoiding BPA as much as possible is still good policy for any woman who may one day bear children—and, in my view, for those of us who will never bear children as well. If it’s toxic enough to torpedo a pregnancy, I certainly don’t want it in my blood, either. See the Environmental Working Group’s tips on the best ways to avoid BPA in your life.
Sources: Environmental Health News, Environmental Working Group
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