Former Utne Reader senior editor Keith Goetzman on environmental issues from climate change to composting.
1/27/2012 4:55:00 PM
To the power brokers of America’s right, climate change poses a dire threat to business as usual. Environmentalism, in fact, is seen by many of them as a stalking horse for an even more sinister force: socialism. Progressive thinker Naomi Klein expertly dissects this dynamic in her Nation article “Capitalism vs. the Climate,” explaining why the average modern conservative is terrified silly by the prospect of confronting human-caused climate change:
Responding to climate change requires that we break every rule in the free-market playbook and that we do so with great urgency. We will need to rebuild the public sphere, reverse privatizations, relocalize large parts of economies, scale back overconsumption, bring back long-term planning, heavily regulate and tax corporations, maybe even nationalize some of them, cut military spending and recognize our debts to the global South. Of course, none of this has a hope in hell of happening unless it is accompanied by a massive, broad-based effort to radically reduce the influence that corporations have over the political process. That means, at a minimum, publicly funded elections and stripping corporations of their status as “people” under the law. In short, climate change supercharges the pre-existing case for virtually every progressive demand on the books, binding them into a coherent agenda based on a clear scientific imperative. …
Climate change detonates the ideological scaffolding on which contemporary conservatism rests. There is simply no way to square a belief system that vilifies collective action and venerates total market freedom with a problem that demands collective action on an unprecedented scale and a dramatic reining in of the market forces that created and are deepening the crisis.
Klein’s essay is well worth reading for anyone with an environmental consciousness who’s trying to understand why saving the planet sounds so damn scary to some people. I would say it undermines everything they believe in, but as Klein makes abundantly clear, they don’t believe in much of anything except preserving their own privileged, comfortable lifestyles.
After reading Klein’s piece, I didn’t have to go far to find someone willing to buttress her argument from the other side of the spectrum. James Delingpole, the London Telegraph reporter who set off the whole ridiculous “Climategate” imbroglio that allegedly exposed the climate hoax—but in fact did nothing of the sort—is now trotting out a book, Watermelons, apparently meant to capitalize on his hero status to climate-change deniers. He tells the libertarian magazine Reason, apparently without a trace of irony:
I call the book Watermelons because they’re green on the outside but red on the inside. After the Berlin Wall came down, the communist movement, the global leftist movement, was left in a bit of a quandary. They pretty much lost the economic argument. They needed somewhere else to go, and global warming has become the great proxy issue. It enables them to achieve many of the same aims as before but under a cloak of green righteousness. This book, although it is about global warming, is about something in fact much, much bigger than that. It is about a global takeover by fascism, communism, call it what you will; their aims are much the same. It is about control.
So, let’s review. If you’re concerned about the future of humanity and the natural world, and you accept the scientific experts’ consensus that we’re rapidly degrading the planet, and you believe we need to take immediate corrective steps, you’re basically a control freak trying to resurrect communism. Wow. I’m going to go for a walk in the woods and try to wrap my head around this one. Care to join me, comrade?
Sources: The Nation, Reason
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1/25/2012 4:44:27 PM
Europe’s great forests are largely gone, but there’s one often-overlooked country where lynx, wolves, moose, and wild boars still roam under dense tree cover: Latvia. Jeremy Hance reports in Mongabay on the Baltic nation’s richly diverse forests, and how they’re being endangered by an alarming logging spree during these strained economic times:
Facing tough circumstances, the country turned to its most important and abundant natural resource: forests. The Latvian government accepted a new plan for the nation’s forests, which has resulted in logging at rates many scientists say are clearly unsustainable. In addition, researchers contend that the on-the-ground practices of state-owned timber giant, Latvijas Valsts meži (LVM), are hurting wildlife and destroying rare ecosystems.
LVM’s lumber used to carry certification by the Forest Stewardship Council, or FSC, but FSC booted it from the program in 2010, Hance reports. LVM is attempting to regain full certification, but many biologists are worried that its loggers are rapidly chipping away at Latvia’s incredible biological heritage. The country, at the crossroads of western Russia, Scandinavia, and Eastern Europe, is teeming with more wildlife than many people might realize:
The nation has the highest population densities of lynx and beaver in the European Union, and not long ago the highest density of black storks. The country is also home to wild boar, red fox, capercaillie, black woodpecker, white-backed woodpecker, and moose, and a few resident bears. In fact, unlike much of Europe, Latvia still retains self-sustaining populations of historic top predators, including 500-1,000 Eurasian wolves.
I visited Latvia in 1990, but it was a tumultuous political time preceding the breakup of the USSR, and I didn’t venture far from the tension-filled capital of Riga. I’d like to return one day to roam much deeper into the Latvian wilderness—if it stays wild, that is. Writes Hance:
It may not be long till the great forests of Latvia start to look like those of Western Europe: fragmented and fractured. Some forest species—like the lynx, the bear, the capercaillie, the moose, beaver, black storks, and the wolf—could vanish for good, while others may hang on in a pathetic state. In which case Latvia would have lost not only its splendid wildlife and ecosystems, but also its deep historical and cultural identity.
Image by Adam Jones, Ph.D., licensed under Creative Commons.
1/20/2012 2:51:10 PM
The modern wilderness expedition is typically a heavily sponsored, satellite-uplinked, closely tracked affair, with the expeditioners often just a distress call away from rescue. Magazine stories chronicling these canned adventures often rely on dramatic overstatement to punch up their otherwise predictable narratives, so it’s a breath of fresh air to read an expedition account that truly takes you to the edge of adventure and to the limits of human endurance.
“Crossing Kolyma” is the understated title of Russian Life magazine’s incredible story of two men’s 10-month, 2,000-mile trek through remote, far eastern Siberia in 2004-2005. Author Mikael Strandberg and his travel partner Johan Ivarsson set off on their journey with a fair bit of hubris, intending to live off the land by hunting and fishing and, having been “born, bred, and still living in the Scandinavian outback,” to outperform the legions of city-born adventurers who have left the short history of polar travel “a record full of frostbites and death.”
Their main aim for the trip was a cultural one, “to widen the western world’s knowledge about the Russian and Siberian way,” writes Strandberg, who is keenly aware of the region’s history as the site of Stalin’s infamous gulags. Their trip, however, soon turned into a fight for survival and sanity as they endured impenetrable forest, a typhoon-driven flood, menacing bears, frostbite, and frozen stove fuel at temperatures as low as -70 Fahrenheit.
Here’s a typically bleak scene from mid-journey:
“That’s more frostbite,” Johan despaired through his facemask. “That means I’ve got it on every finger.”
He was having another bout of diarrhea. It was the third time in an hour he’d had to squat and drop his trousers. And his three sets of gloves. On every occasion he had experienced that burning feeling followed by numbness in one of his fingers. The first stage of frostbite. I could barely make him out in the eternal darkness of midwinter and I shivered violently. The way I had every day since we’d left the settlement of Zyranka four weeks before, in the middle of November.
“I think we’d better move on,” I whispered.
I exhaled, coughed and heard the familiar tinkling sound of my breath turning into a shower of ice crystals. In Kolyma they call it “the whispers of the stars.”
Strandberg and Ivarsson ended up spending a month “thawing out” in the Yakut settlement of Srednekolymsk, then forging on to their final destination in Ambarchik Bay.
Amazed by Strandberg’s account of this epic trek, I tried to find out what he’s up to these days. His website reveals far more about the personal aftereffects of the Kolyma trip than he lets on in the magazine story:
Siberia changed my life completely. And it ruined it. It was the best time in my life. It had everything I have ever dreamt about. The enormous taiga and the extreme cold gave me and my partner Johan Ivarsson unlimited freedom. We hunted and fished to survive. We met the best people on earth, the native Siberians. It felt like I had finally understood. Also, I felt like it doesn’t matter one bit if I die now. I have seen all. Returning home was a disaster. It completely ruined my life for the next three years. A tragic divorce with the worst of consequences. I faced bitterness, hatred, shame and personal ruin.
Strandberg wouldn’t be the first high-stakes expeditioner to find the transition back to “normal” life challenging. Perhaps the psychological toll of Kolyma was greater than he ever let on, and perhaps the lingering memory of the Siberian cold is what set him on his next great journey: a camel trip across Yemen.
Source: Russian Life
(article not available online)
Image copyright Mikael Strandberg; used with permission.
1/6/2012 3:51:30 PM
Lots of people think that farming has gotten too industrialized. But there are others who believe it’s not nearly industrialized enough—such as the Iowa inventor who envisions armies of robots growing our food in the future.
Discovery News reports on David Dourhout’s new Prospero, a six-legged farm robot that works in teams to plant and fertilize crops. Scuttling across the land like oversized, high-tech crabs, the group of intercommunicating robots resemble an alien invasion more than a farm crew. Watch them at work in this video:
Dourhout, who based his Prospero design in part on the swarming behaviors of insects, birds and fish, believes that robotic farming will help ramp up food production for a heavily populated planet. He “hopes the next step will be to create more advanced robots that can weed, fertilize and harvest the crop,” writes Eric Niller at Discovery News.
Count me among those who are skeptical that large-scale robotic farming is the answer to our pressing food-supply needs. While I understand that not every tomato and strawberry can be lovingly hand-picked by an organic farmer in a bucolic setting, it seems equally a stretch to think that complete robotic automation is the future of farming.
The popular science press seems perpetually entranced by the prospect of a heavily roboticized future, to the point where my own response to such stories has become automated. When asked “Should robots grow our food?” I have the same answer as I do to the question recently posed on the cover of Discover: “Should robots run airport security?”
Source: Discovery News, Discover
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.
12/2/2011 4:52:22 PM
Some fallacies die long, slow, hard deaths, and it appears that’s what’s happening with the happy, comforting, brainless mantra “Growth is good.” The ongoing global economic recession and looming environmental catastrophe have finally caused a significant number of people to question just how we think we’re going to economically grow forever on a crowded planet with finite resources.
British economist Tim Jackson, author of the 2009 book Prosperity Without Growth, explains in a Q&A with OnEarth executive editor George Black that this previously unmentionable notion is gaining currency even among some forward-thinking business leaders:
You say in your book that “questioning growth is deemed to be the act of lunatics, idealists, and revolutionaries.” Is that more true or less true now than when you wrote it in 2009?
Both. It’s more true in the sense that there’s a ferocious backlash against those who question the quasi-religious fervor about getting growth back. But at another level there’s this really interesting thing going on, with a whole spectrum of people beginning to question the assumption that it’s desirable, from ordinary people who have always been uncertain about why things must expand indefinitely to groups that have previously been obsessed with the idea of growth, like the World Economic Forum in Davos. It continues to surprise me that my book has had such resonance among business leaders. I was trying to say that it’s a real dilemma to structurally reorganize your economy. This isn’t an easy thing, and there are no off-the-shelf solutions. But we have to go into that place, no matter how dark and counterintuitive it seems. And I think that’s something the more visionary CEOs respond to, actually enjoy to some extent.
Image by Sunset Parkerpix, 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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