Former Utne Reader senior editor Keith Goetzman on environmental issues from climate change to composting.
4/30/2010 5:08:10 PM
It’s easy to avert your eyes from disasters like the Gulf of Mexico oil rig spill, but for people willing to hold their gaze and witness our oil addiction’s worst side effects, there’s plenty of excellent media coverage of this slowly unfolding tragedy. Among our favorites:
The New York Times published an interactive map detailing the wildlife that could be at risk. Audubon’s blog The Perch also covers the wildlife angle, including not just birds but whales, turtles, and sharks.
Agence France Presse (via Grist) reports that Louisiana shrimpers have filed a lawsuit against rig operator BP, accusing it of negligence, seeking millions of dollars in damages for the catch they’re going to lose.
The Houston Chronicle reports that investigators had been noticing more oil rigs having “blowouts” during a procedure in which they cement the walls of undersea wells.
Grist has ongoing coverage—much from Agence France Presse—and commentary, including a piece by Keith Harrington speculating that the accident may lead to a better climate bill. Harrington points out that before Obama approved new drilling, “10 coastal state senators wrote a letter to their colleagues John Kerry (D-Mass.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) pressing the trio to keep expanded offshore drilling out of their now floundering climate and energy package.”
At The Atlantic, Andrew Sullivan writes, “If the Democrats do not use this disaster to advance the energy bill ASAP, they may miss a critical moment to escape the oil addiction even George W. Bush acknowledged in his final years.”
Grist’s Jonathan Hiskes thinks Sullivan has it only “half right,” though: “It is a critical moment that Democrats are insane not to use, but the KGL [Kerry-Graham-Lieberman] energy bill isn’t the plan we need—it’s the least-terrible bill that was believed to have a chance of passing in the Senate. Now, with this ongoing crisis changing the political climate, there should be an opening for a better bill.”
Kate Sheppard at Mother Jones noted that political winds were already shifting: “On Friday, environmental groups, many of which had indicated a willingness to accept some offshore drilling in a climate and energy bill in exchange for components like a price on carbon pollution and a renewable energy standard, were rallying in opposition to Obama’s plan. “We were willing to accept some new drilling, but this changes everything,” said Athan Manuel, director of the lands protection program at Sierra Club. “I can’t imagine there’s going to be any offshore drilling in this bill.”
Sources: New York Times, Audubon, Grist, Houston Chronicle, The Atlantic, Mother Jones
4/27/2010 5:43:04 PM
In the campaign against mountaintop removal coal mining in Appalachia, many of the leading organizers are women. There’s Judy Bonds of Coal River Mountain Watch, whom we named an Utne visionary last year (and who is pictured here with another Utne visionary, Majora Carter of Sustainable South Bronx ). There’s Maria Gunnoe of the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, who along with Bonds has won the Goldman Environmental Prize for her efforts. And, reports make/shift, there are front-line activists like Zoe Beavers, who did grunt work on a ground support crew for tree-sitters at a West Virginia mine site last August. (She was rewarded with trespassing charges.) Make/shift puts the work of these women in historical perspective:
Today’s activists are part of a long tradition. In 1965, Ollie “Widow” Combs laid down in front of the bulldozer readying to strip-mine her Kentucky farm. In the courtroom where she was sentenced to 20 hours in jail, the 61-year-old expressed her desire simply: to go back to her hollow and live out the rest of her life in peace. Contemporary activists take this demand a step further: they don’t want coal-related industries devastating anyone’s home.
Source: make/shift (article not available online)
Image by James Chase, courtesy of Coal River Mountain Watch.
4/26/2010 4:34:01 PM
Industrial pollution in some Chinese villages is so bad that it’s killing off not just residents but the towns themselves. Environment magazine reports on the bleak-and-bleaker conditions in these “cancer villages” such as Shangba in southern China’s Guangdong province:
The river water in Shangba was reported to be so contaminated that aquatic organisms could not survive in the water for more than 24 hours, even when the water was diluted 10,000 times. The water is still very toxic 50 kilometers downstream from Shangba. About 10 people die of cancer each year in this village, whose 2009 registered population was 3,329. The actual number of residents is much fewer, however, as some villagers, especially young people, have been moving out of the cancer villages to work in other places. Many families are in debt due to cancer treatments and are too poor to relocate. They have given up and are waiting to die.
Chinese media have been reporting about the “cancer villages” for several years, and some of the coverage has bled out to international mainstream media such as People magazine and the BBC. Environment researcher Lee Liu dug deeper on the subject, attempting to confirm the credibility of news reports and the extent of the phenomenon. A geographer who specializes in sustainable development, he concluded that, if anything, it “is likely to be more prevalent than has been previously reported.” Why?
Because Chinese media and academic journals are governmentally controlled, their reports tend to be conservative about politically sensitive and negative subjects. However, there have been no reports disputing the cancer-village phenomenon. There is no known national ban on cancer-village reporting, though new cancer-village reports are rare after May 2009. There are reports that local government agencies and polluting factories threatened, harassed, and assaulted investigators and reporters. The government often disciplines and removes newspaper and journal editors who publish politically sensitive and negative reports. … In addition, the traditional Chinese culture continues to identify people with the particular village where they are from. A personal label of “cancer village” would turn away potential investors, tourists, friends, and spouses.
Liu’s incredible report is worth checking out, covering the environmental, political, social, and cultural dimensions of the cancer-village phenomenon and reminding us that for every story we read about an eager-to-green China, many darker tales are perhaps not being fully told.
Image by High Contrast, licensed under Wikimedia Commons.
4/22/2010 3:20:00 PM
On the 40th anniversary of Earth Day, I’m glad to see mainstream media attention turning to the 800-pound gorilla in the environmental movement: corporate influence. Both the New York Times and the Washington Post published Earth Day stories that explore big business’s buy-in to green groups and green marketing, and question whether commerce has co-opted the movement.
According to the Times,
So strong was the antibusiness sentiment for the first Earth Day in 1970 that organizers took no money from corporations and held teach-ins “to challenge corporate and government leaders.”
Forty years later, the day has turned into a premier marketing platform for selling a variety of goods and services, like office products, Greek yogurt and eco-dentistry.
The Washington Post points out that we the consumers are also to blame, having been convinced by many companies that buying their green product is the best way to save the planet. Reports the Post:
This year, a poll conducted by professors at George Mason, Yale and American universities showed that respondents who were most alarmed about climate change were more than eight times more likely to express their concern through shopping for “green” products than by contacting an elected official multiple times about it.
From the anti-consumer bent of the first Earth Day, “we’ve gone to the opposite extreme. We’re too respectful of business,” said Adam Rome, a professor at Pennsylvania State University who studies environmental history. He said that Americans have continued to buy more goods and use more energy in the past four decades—and that, in many ways, American pollution was outsourced, as manufacturing moved overseas.
Of course, there’s always been griping by “pure” environmentalists that business has a suspect agenda—but the debate has gone beyond whether business should be a partner in change to whether it is actively pulling the strings in major environmental groups. Last month, The Nation set off a kerfuffle in environmental circles with an article, “The Wrong Kind of Green,” that called out groups like Conservation International and the Sierra Club for being tainted by corporate ties. (A fiery exchange ensued.) And last year Christine MacDonald’s book Green Inc., which I reviewed in Utne Reader, made a similar case at greater—and quite convincing—length.
It’s a vital discussion, and I for one am glad that it’s finally being had. It seems no great coincidence that on this Earth Day, President Obama took a stern line with our nation’s largest financiers over their irresponsible behavior. Talk about unsustainable: The titans of Wall Street can’t even keep their corporations sustainable in the short term, let alone for the long haul on a planet with dwindling resources. Are they our partners in creating a healthy, safe, and beautiful world? Or our enemies?
Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, The Nation, Green Inc.
Image by mandiberg, licensed under Creative Commons.
4/22/2010 3:04:25 PM
Our library contains 1,300 publications—a feast of magazines, journals, alt weeklies, newsletters, and zines—and every year we honor the stars in our Utne Independent Press Awards. We’ll announce this year’s winners on Sunday, April 25, at the MPA’s Independent Magazine Group conference in Washington, D.C., and post them online the following Monday. We’re crazy about these publications, and we’d love it for all of our readers to get to know them better, too. So, every weekday until the conference, we’ll be posting mini-introductions to our complete list of 2010 nominees.
The following eight magazines are our 2010 nominees in the category of environmental coverage.
American environmentalists would be wise to look to Canada’s Alternatives Journal for cogent, well-informed reporting and commentary on green issues. The official publication of the Environmental Studies Association of Canada puts topics from climate change to local food into clear-eyed perspective. www.alternativesjournal.ca
Audubon rightly believes that if you care about birds, you care about the environment. The Audubon Society’s magazine is a must-read for nature watchers of all kinds, digging into its subjects with a keen eye for both natural beauty and the forces that threaten it. www.audubonmagazine.org
Published by the Society for Conservation Biology, Conservation transcends its modest roots with intellectual depth. From profiling “the mushroom messiah” to asking “Is a warmer world a sicker world?” it gets to the environmental stories that demand our attention. www.conservationmagazine.org
A publication of the Earth Island Institute, the group founded by activist legend David Brower, Earth Island Journal reports from the front lines of the environmental crisis. Its global focus and eagerness for stimulating debate make it a must-read for greens. www.earthisland.org/journal
The footnotes in Environment magazine say “academics at work”—but the stories will have you asking “Why isn’t anyone else writing about this?” This publication covering “science and policy for sustainable development” goes in-depth but never gets out of reach. www.environmentmagazine.org
The Western United States is a key battleground for many environmental issues, and High Country News is your experienced and knowledgeable correspondent from the front lines. Its watchdog coverage of mining, ranching, logging—and simply Western life—is unmatched. www.hcn.org
The quarterly journal of the Natural Resources Defense Council, OnEarth keeps tabs on what’s happening to our land, air, water, and wildlife. It’s a pretty nature magazine, but it also brings a keenly analytic eye to the societal and political dimensions of environmentalism. www.onearth.org
The most literary of environmental magazines, Orion takes a big view, touching on spirituality, philosophy, and the arts in its gorgeous pages. Thoughtfully provocative columnists keep it from drifting off into the rapidly warming atmosphere. www.orionmagazine.org
4/20/2010 10:29:36 AM
Face it, Earth Day is kind of daunting, and I think that’s one reason it isn’t as widely or exuberantly celebrated as some environmentalists wish. Merely acknowledging the tenuousness of our existence on this planet makes us confront fundamental issues of mortality and sustainability and the possible end of the world as we know it. That’s not nearly as fun as the mindless consumptive revelry of birthdays, Christmas, or Halloween.
So my concept for this Earth Day—Thursday—is to keep things simple. I’m going to celebrate the beauty and power of dirt. My inspiration for this personal back-to-the-roots movement is Dirt! The Movie, a documentary that premieres on PBS’s Independent Lens series tonight, April 20, and also recently became available on DVD from New Video.
Of course, dirt might seem like the most boring and mundane film topic you could imagine, and indeed, a procession of soil scientist interviews would send many viewers fleeing. So Dirt!—starting with the exclamation point, it seems—goes out of its way to inject humor and visual effects, with microorganism cartoons and goofy interludes that will keep even younger kids interested. Beginning with the Big Bang and bringing us right up to modern agriculture, mining, and other earth-intensive human pursuits, it does a wonderful job of showing and telling us that “the living, breathing skin of the earth” is a fantastic and fragile resource.
The film takes a turn toward gooey eco-earnestness near the end, and cynics may groan as Kenyan “Green Belt” activist Wangari Maathai tells the tale of one brave little hummingbird trying to put out a forest fire drop by drop. But I won’t be joining them. If there’s one time when I’m willing to suspend pessimism and cheer on the treehuggers, it’s for Earth Day.
Sources: PBS Independent Lens, New Video
4/19/2010 5:14:31 PM
As the ash cloud from the Eyjafjallajökull eruption in Iceland continues to remind people all over the world of nature’s immense power, I’ve been finding more great photographs that document this literally earth-shaking event. These vivid shots from the Icelandic countryside were taken by Julia Staples, a staff photographer for The Reyjavik Grapevine. See more at the Grapevine or on the photographer’s website.
The hooded person pictured above is standing in the ash-laden air. These horses are being herded away from the ash cloud:
Spectacular natural lighting, with a touch of doom:
These ice chunks, rocks, and mud were left behind by the jökulhlaup (“glacier run”) caused by the volcano:
The Reykjavik Grapevine calls this a “super-scientific volcano measuring doodad”:
Source: The Reykjavik Grapevine
Images by Julia Staples, courtesy of the photographer.
4/15/2010 5:27:09 PM
Many veggie burgers are made using hexane, a pollutant and neurotoxin also found in gasoline, Mother Jones reports, citing a recent study by the Cornucopia Institute. Writes Kiera Butler:
In order to meet the demands of health-conscious consumers, manufacturers of soy-based fake meat like to make their products have as little fat as possible. The cheapest way to do this is by submerging soybeans in a bath of hexane to separate the oil from the protein. Says Cornucopia Institute senior researcher Charlotte Vallaeys, “If a non-organic product contains a soy protein isolate, soy protein concentrate, or texturized vegetable protein, you can be pretty sure it was made using soy beans that were made with hexane.”
These veggie burgers are made with hexane:
Boca Burger (conventional)
It’s All Good Lightlife
Yves Veggie Cuisin
While these veggie burgers are hexane-free:
Boca Burgers “made with organic soy”
Morningstar “made with organic”
Superburgers by Turtle Island
The Mother Jones blog post kicked up a lot of comments and questions and led Butler to do a follow-up interview with Vallaeys. The researcher points out that the hexane process is used to make many cooking oils, margarines, and other products. A key question of course, is whether residues from the hexane remain in the food—and Vallaeys concedes that more testing is needed in this realm.
But personally, I don’t need any more testing to convince me that using a gasoline ingredient to soak the fat out of vegetables is a bad idea, and to cut foods that use this process from my diet.
See the full report (pdf) on the Cornucopia website.
While the rest of us are freaking out about our veggie burgers, we might do well to get outraged on behalf of babies, too. Writes Butler:
More worrisome still: According to the report, “Nearly every major ingredient in conventional soy-based infant formula is hexane extracted.”
Sources: Mother Jones, Cornucopia Institute
4/15/2010 4:16:31 PM
I’m a volcano geek, and I have vacationed in Iceland in part because of its powerful geothermal-seismic juju. So I’ve been surfing photo galleries of the great Eyjafjallajökull blasts and marveling like a schoolkid at the magma waterfalls, red-hot-rock fireworks, and towering plumes of ash.
The Yahoo editors’ picks on Flickr are some of the best photos I’ve seen from this natural spectacle.
But I have to say that my favorite is this shot of a farm under the towering ash cloud, which I came across on the blog The Iceland Weather Report. (It originally appeared in the Icelandic publication Vísir.) The photograph was taken by a farmer, Ólafur Eggertsson, who soon had to flee as his pastures flooded because of rapid melting; he believes his 200 cows are safe in a cowshed.
Of course, in Iceland there’s always another blast coming. Iceland Review reports that while Eyjafjallajökull has evacuated farmers concerned, it’s a neighboring volcano, Katla, that really strikes fear into their stoic Nordic hearts.
“I am not afraid of this eruption but I fear Katla,” says one. “It might not happen immediately but it will happen. Then we will be talking about much more power.”
Sources: Flickr, The Iceland Weather Report, Visir, Iceland Review
Image by Hello, I am Bruce, licensed under Creative Commons.
4/14/2010 5:01:51 PM
“Compostable” plastics are being marketed as a green solution to waste and pollution—but our sister magazine Mother Earth News found in an independent test of “bioplastic” bags that many of them don’t live up to their claims. Of five bags tested, none of them were completely compostable in home composting conditions.
Mother Earth News commissioned the test from Woods End Laboratories, which specializes in evaluating composts, soils, and organic wastes. The lab found that some of the bags did break down under high under higher temperatures resembling commercial composting operations—but this is seldom spelled out in marketing claims. Writes editor Cheryl Long:
The bottom line: Most plastic packaging that claims to be “biodegradable” or “compostable” will only partially break down under the conditions typical of most home compost piles.
Check out the full bioplastic bag report online (pdf) and look for an article about it in the June-July issue of Mother Earth News, which goes on sale May 25.
Even though some bioplastics can break down in larger operations, cities that are pioneering municipal composting programs have had problems with the materials, reports the Northern California environmental magazine Terrain. In October 2009, a group touring Berkeley, California’s municipal food and yard waste composting site
... observed employees picking all plastic items—both petroleum– and plant-based—out of the dumped materials. Any smaller plastics that made it through the initial screening were removed later, as the material was sent through a trommel and a sorting station.
Here’s the reason: even if bioplastic items are suited to break down in a commercial facility, they look nearly identical to the petroleum-based plastic they are meant to replace, which makes it difficult for workers at the plant to distinguish between the two. Because of the quantity of waste they are sorting, and the difficulty of identifying the types of plastics that arrive at the facility, laborers remove all plastics, including most compostable bioplastics, which are then hauled off to the landfill along with the other contaminants.
Source: Mother Earth News, Terrain
4/8/2010 11:11:49 AM
Attention firearms enthusiasts: The U.S. government is not going to take away your weapons, as you might have heard. But it is going to make sure that the stocks of new rifles and revolvers are made from legally sourced wood.
The 110-year-old Lacey Act was amended in 2008 to ban the trade of illegally logged wood products. Rules went into effect a year ago for goods including flooring, plywood, sawn timber, and caskets—and now the law’s scope has expanded further. The environmental blog Mongabay reports on the new level of scrutiny:
April 1, 2010, marks the beginning of U.S. enforcement for basic transparency requirements under the Lacey Act for guitars, revolvers, hand tools, pool cues, and certain furniture. This requires manufacturers of such items to declare basic information about where their wood comes from and how it is sourced.
Mongabay notes that the law isn’t messing around: Last year, federal agents raided the Nashville headquarters of Gibson Guitars after being tipped that it was using illegally logged Madagascar rosewood in its instruments. I assume they’ll be even more heavily armed if they approach the headquarters of, say, Smith & Wesson to serve a summons. (I think it goes without saying that they’ll pass a “This Property Protected by Smith & Wesson” sticker on their way in.)
It’s got to rankle many an NRA diehard to think that the weapon he once thought would have to be pried from his cold, dead hands might actually have the tree-hugger stamp of approval on its wood parts.
Image by ~Steve Z~, licensed under Creative Commons.
4/5/2010 11:36:48 AM
The California barn owl known as Molly to her large webcam audience delivered a distinctly unsentimental nature lesson to her Easter weekend viewers: She killed a screaming, struggling rabbit in a grisly episode on Saturday night.
The symbolism of the moment was not lost on her audience, which dwindled from more than 14,000 to less than 5,000 as the Easter bunny met his bloody demise. Regular viewers are used to seeing McGee, Molly’s mate, bring dead rodents every night to Molly and her four hatchlings in their nest box. They are not used to seeing him bring a still-living rabbit for Molly to finish off as the victim emits blood-curdling, human-sounding wails of agony.
Molly’s comment board lit up with reactions to the carnage:
“I wonder if we are really ready for this kind of reality.”
“That burger you ate today had eyes and screamed too.”
“I think that the meat we eat has a pretty bad trip b4 it gets to our dinner table.”
“Stay calm and carry on. We can handle this.”
“Awesome totally awesome.”
“My grandchild is crying.”
“It is no longer ‘warm and fuzzy.’ It’s going to get much worse as the babies get older.”
Yes, the cuteness factor is going to be increasingly challenged as Molly and her four voracious owlets continue their family saga. Perhaps McGee is helping to train the kids to kill their own food by bringing still-living rodents; the other night he brought a live mouse.
In any case, it seems clear that many of Molly’s viewers are learning that nature, while often beautiful and inspirational, can just as often be brutish and shocking. It will be interesting to see whether the banner ads that have recently appeared on the site will stick around if dinnertime at the owl house is always preceded by a macabre struggle to the death.
In other owl news, the remaining unhatched egg in the nest has been pronounced a dud by the webcam proprietor, Carlos. So apparently the hatching is done—and now the real, uh, fun begins.
Source: Sportsman’s Paradise Online
Image from Sportsman’s Paradise Online.
4/2/2010 5:33:52 PM
The Environmental Protection Agency has finally taken a tougher stance on mountaintop removal coal mining, announcing Thursday that it would clamp down on the industry practice of blasting apart mountains and dumping the rubble into mountain streams. It’s not clear whether last week’s colorful protest outside the EPA played a role, but it certainly couldn’t have hurt.
The announcement came as very good news to environmentalists dispirited by Obama’s support earlier in the week for massively expanded offshore oil drilling. The administration’s new automobile fuel efficiency deadline—a fleet average of 35.5 mpg by 2016—also announced Thursday added even a little more spring to the step of greens.
Writes Jeff Biggers at Huffington Post:
… the nightmare of mountaintop removal appears to be coming to the end of a long and tortuous road of regulations.
Lorelei Scarbro, a Coal River Mountain Watch community organizer and resident in West Virginia, declared: “We are so thankful that the EPA is basing their decision on science, environmental justice and the health and welfare of coalfield residents. This is a biggy. This is the beginning of the end for valley fills and mountaintop removal. We are not leaving our mountains.”
Coal River Mountain Watch co-director Judy Bonds was chosen as a 2009 Utne Visionary.
Source: Huffington Post
Image by the Sierra Club, licensed under Creative Commons.
4/2/2010 9:41:44 AM
Berkeley, California, is proving that municipal composting of urban food and yard waste is possible—but the city’s program is also experiencing growing pains, according to “Compost Confidential” in the Northern California environmental magazine Terrain:
Good ideas—like enriching the soil of organic farms with compost made from urban food waste—are not necessarily meshing with other good ideas, like using compostable plant-based plastics rather than disposable petroleum-based plastics. Pesticides approved for use on lawns are persisting all the way through the industrial composting process and contaminating the end product, making it unsuitable for organic agriculture. And the development of alternative composting technologies—namely biogas digesters—is provoking a debate over what food and yard waste should be used for.
In other words, large-scale composting is not as simple as it might seem—and it might not always be as grass-roots as some advocates hope. Terrain points out that “composting is an up-and-coming industry” that corporate waste haulers are eager to get into. Texas-based Waste Management Inc. has invested in British Columbia’s Harvest Power, the largest food and yard waste composting facility in North America.
Other cities are getting into the act. Portland, Oregon, plans to start a pilot food-waste program this spring, according to Sustainable Industries, which also reports that Portland, Corvallis, and Salem, Oregon, already have limited commercial food-waste collection.
In related news, Grist reported on April 1 that McDonald’s ditch a planned composting program “after scientists confirmed that no item on the McDonald’s menu is compostable.” Now that smells funny.
Source: Terrain, Sustainable Industries (article not available online), Grist
Image by John Winfield, licensed under Creative Commons.
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