Former Utne Reader senior editor Keith Goetzman on environmental issues from climate change to composting.
5/28/2010 3:14:25 PM
There’s a lot of talk about sustainable architecture—but one day in the not-too-distant future, sustainability will be an integral part of the practice rather than a special feature. And as usual in green thinking, Europe is leading the way. Both points are the contention of Robert Stern, dean of the Yale School of Architecture, speaking to Environment: Yale magazine:
“I don’t think sustainability is a design aesthetic, any more than having electricity in your building, or telephones, or anything else,” says Stern. “It’s an ethic, a basic consideration that we have to have as architects designing buildings.” American architects, designers and builders are “in an early, slightly naive phase” in coming to terms with sustainability, he says, and “we have to get everybody’s attention.” But they will catch up fast enough, Stern argues, so that “in 10 years we’re not going to talk about sustainability anymore, because it’s going to be built into the core processes of architecture.” Advertising sustainability, he says, will be like an architect getting up in front of a room to “proudly proclaim how his buildings didn’t fall down.”
Source: Environment: Yale
Image by Schlüsselbein2007, licensed under Creative Commons.
5/27/2010 2:11:05 PM
It’s the time of year when many people reach for their sunscreen—but take a look before you squeeze that tube. Some sunscreens may actually encourage skin cancer growth, and others exaggerate their SPF factor or make other bogus claims.
These revelations come courtesy of the annual sunscreen ratings by the Environmental Working Group. Check out the 2010 Sunscreen Guide, in which EWG researchers recommend only 39 out of 500 beach and sport sunscreens—a rather poor showing for the skin-goo industry.
EWG calls out some products for particularly egregious claims in its Hall of Shame. For instance, Aveeno Baby Continuous Protection SPF 55 claims on its label that it’s “mild as water to the skin”—and yet urges parents to stop use and ask a doctor if a rash develops, and to contact a poison control center if it’s swallowed.
The Food and Drug Administration also makes it into the Hall of Shame for failing to regulate the sunscreen industry. “32 years (and counting) after its first draft sunscreen standards,” writes EWG, there is still no final rule. “Until the agency formally issues its rule, companies are not required to verify that their sunscreens work, including testing for SPF levels, checking waterproof claims or providing UVA protection. Nearly 1 in 8 sunscreens does not block UVA rays. Buyer beware!”
Of course, there is an alternative to sunscreen, notes EWG. It’s a pretty out-there solution, but stick with me here: Reduce your sun exposure.
By wearing light, long-sleeved clothing and wide-brimmed hats, sticking to the shade, and planning around the sun, you can stay away from many harmful rays.
Now why didn’t we think of that before?
Source: Environmental Working Group
Image by Graham and Sheila, licensed under Creative Commons.
5/20/2010 12:53:53 PM
As we enter the season of plastic-intensive picnicking—would you like some plastic-bottled water to accompany your meal eaten off a plastic plate with a plastic fork?—it’s worth remembering that our convenience comes at nature’s cost. This video that dramatizes plastic’s toll on the environment, and on wildlife, is shocking and powerful, despite—or because of?—a soundtrack consisting solely of Queen’s bombastic power ballad “Who Wants to Live Forever”:
Take this as a reminder: It’s not impolite to bring your environmental ethic to a cookout. The next time you head out for summer fun that includes eating outside, bring a few extra things—washable and reusable plates, cups, and utensils—and leave your guilt behind.
(Thanks, Fake Plastic Fish and Plastic Manners.)
5/19/2010 5:48:50 PM
A shark without a dorsal fin is like … well, a dead shark. Sharks whose fins have been lopped off simply don’t survive, and yet fishermen relentlessly perform these brutal amputations in order to feed the voracious market for shark-fin soup. Costa Rican marine biologist-turned-activist Randall Arauz recently won the Goldman Environmental Prize for his work campaigning against finning, as it’s called, which has reduced shark populations worldwide by 90 percent over the last 50 years.
Reporter Erica Gies at SF Public Press asked Arauz
what this means:
Q: As a biologist, can you explain what losing 90 percent or more of sharks in an area does to the ecosystem?
A: There’s a very important principle in ecology: biodiversity fosters biodiversity. So if we have many species of sharks, that means we’re going to have many species of animals that they prey upon. Logic would tell us that if we wipe out the sharks, hey, nothing’s going to eat the fish, and fish populations will increase. But it’s totally the contrary. If we wipe out the sharks and reduce their diversity, everything is going to be less diverse, and it will create a major change in the structure of the ecosystem’s functioning.
Recently, on the East Coast of the United States, the sharks were wiped out. And as a consequence, scallop fisheries, which are hundreds of years old, have collapsed. And people wonder, well, what’s the relationship between sharks and scallops? And the thing is, sharks on the East Coast of the United States feed on rays. And rays feed on scallops. So when you wipe out the sharks, nothing eats the rays, so the rays have a population explosion, and they end up eating all the scallops. And people, who lived for many centuries harvesting scallops in a sustainable fashion, all of a sudden have no more fishery because the sharks were wiped out.
Who eats shark-fin soup? Traditionally, notes SF Public Press, it’s been wealthy Chinese diners, but the taste for it has spread to the Chinese middle class and expatriate communities. Shark fin is also used in some vitamin supplements and makeup.
A video about Arauz’s work held a key position at the Goldman prize ceremony in San Francisco on April 19. On the Costa Rican Conservation Network’s blog, correspondent Andy Bymer reports, “Because of the sensitive nature of shark finning and the powerful images depicted in the video, organizers decided to end the ceremony with this environmental exclamation point.” Here it is:
Sources: Goldman Environmental Prize, SF Public Press, Costa Rican Conservation Network’s Blog
Image by Will Parrinello, courtesy of Goldman Environmental Prize.
5/18/2010 2:06:56 PM
Charismatic megafauna such as polar bears, wolves, and whales need advocates—but who will speak up for the sand lance, a diminutive fish that burrows into the seabed? Marine ecologist Martin Robards does, writing in the literary anthology Crosscurrents North: Alaskans on the Environment (Snowy Owl Books, 2008) about the ecological importance of the sand lance, a “keystone species” that occupies an important role in the oceans’ food chain:
Reduced in stature but not importance by their generic name of “forage” or “bait,” these fish are among the unsung heroes of our oceans … a sleek spear-shaped fish with a steely blue back and silver belly, rarely exceeding much more than eight inches and about as thick as a pinky finger.
When the tide goes out in the sand lance’s shallow-water habitat, Robards notes, the fish will burrow down and wait for the water to return—a practice that leaves them vulnerable to savvy predators like ravens, bears, and gulls, who know how to find and dig them up. But when the tide is in, sand lance can fall prey to swimming birds such as puffins and cormorants and to fish such as salmon, pollock, and flounder. Writes Robards:
Living on the junction between land, sea, and air makes sand lance available to more hungry creatures than may seem fair. It also places them in the path of all that is spilled and dumped, and disturbances that can render their precious sand refuges unusable. Although these steely lances that live life on the edge of everything are the embodiment of “littleness,” we need to care about them and their part in the vastness of the oceans. They are the real deal, sustaining everything from the mighty leviathan to murrelets deep in coastal rainforests to farmer’s fields in Europe and Japan [where they are used as fertilizer]. They epitomize everything that is important because, as a keystone species, they cannot be replaced.
Sand lance and their close relatives, which are sometimes known as sand eels or candlefish, live in many of the world’s oceans. They are seldom part of human diets, notes Robards, but he has heard of Alaskans rolling them in flour and spices, deep-frying them, and enjoying a tasty serving of “french fries with eyes.”
Source: Crosscurrents North
Public domain image from National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
5/14/2010 10:56:30 AM
The 1921 Russian novel Dersu the Trapper “is one of the earliest and most powerfully realized examples of environmentally conscious thought in popular literature,” writes Patrick Evans in Resurgence magazine. The book by Vladimir Arsen’ev became a hit upon its publication, enthralling readers with its purportedly true story of a deep nature-based friendship between Dersu, a hunter and trapper, and Arsen’ev, an army captain:
In the story, the persona of the captain is initially placed firmly in the acquisitive “hunting” tradition of shooting wild game, exploiting wild land for the greater good of the empire, and subjugating the natives to imperial command; yet Dersu’s knowledge of the wild forests is so rich that soon the captain in forced to see things differently. Slowly, the soldier relinquishes his killing instinct, only allowing himself and his men to shoot what they can reasonably eat. Increasingly, he spends his time observing nature and soon he begins to despise the advance of civilization into wild areas, seeing it as highly destructive.
The story has held its power over the decades, and was even made into an Oscar-winning film, Dersu Uzala, in 1975 by legendary director Akira Kurosawa. “Today it survives in thirty languages,” writes Evans, “yet outside Russia it remains largely and puzzlingly unknown.”
I read Dersu about a decade ago, after a hardcover English version was published in 1996 by MacPherson & Co. (it remains in print). I was immediately drawn in by the storyline and the vivid descriptions of life on the Russian taiga, but was even more intrigued by the environmental ethic at the core of the tale, especially since “environmentalism” and “Russia” are not typically associated in my mind. Evans is certain that the book still has wisdom to share:
It speaks of a place most of us will never visit, in a language now outmoded. Yet it is time that a new English-speaking readership evolved to champion a long lost but never fully extinguished cause.
Watch the trailer for Kurosawa’s Dersu Uzala here:
Source: Resurgence (article not available online)
5/13/2010 2:31:47 PM
James Cameron is funneling some of his energies into a new role: that of environmentalist and indigenous rights advocate. But he’s finding that this can be tricky territory for a blockbuster director.
Nikolas Kozloff, the author of No Rain in the Amazon: How South America’s Climate Change Affects the Entire Planet (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2010), writes at the rainforest conservation website Mongabay about Cameron’s recent forays into the activist realm:
To his credit, Cameron has sought to address not only fictional struggles in the virtual world but also the real-life plight of indigenous peoples fighting to preserve their ancestral lands from hydropower development. Recently, the Hollywood director toured the Brazilian rainforest in association with Amazon Watch, a Washington, D.C.-based NGO [nongovernment organization] which is performing valuable environmental work in South America.
After meeting with the Kayapo Indians, “real life Na’vi,” as Cameron put it, the director got inspired and has been campaigning for indigenous peoples. Cameron says the Belo Monte boondoggle dam planned for the Amazon is a “quintessential example of the type of thing we are showing in Avatar—the collision of a technological civilization’s vision for progress at the expense of the natural world and the cultures of the indigenous people that live there.”
On a tear in New York, he spoke before a United Nations committee on aboriginal rights and even launched an environmental scholarship at Brooklyn Tech high school. Not content to stop there, he updated the Avatar website to keep fans informed about environmental issues and sponsored the planting of a million trees around the world as part of Earth Day.
Kozloff writes that “Cameron has done more than many other Hollywood directors to bring environmentalism into the mainstream.” This is certainly a more charitable view of the director than many on the left seem to hold. Critical theory heavyweight Slavoj Zizek, for example, recently raked Cameron over the coals in Britain’s New Statesman in a commentary that purported to expose the “brutal racist undertones” lurking under the director’s “superficial Hollywood Marxism.”
Zizek might have been impressed (OK, probably not) to see Cameron checking his allegedly Amazon-sized ego and addressing this sort of critique head-on during his New York tour. Cameron spoke on a panel about indigenous issues at the Paley Center for Media in Manhattan, and Kozloff notes on Mongabay that the director deferred to indigenous representatives in answering many questions.
A smart move, given the climate observed by New York City’s Indypendent newspaper:
While the film was well-received by the largely indigenous audience, Cameron did field some tough questions.
[Mohawk journalist Kenneth Deer] pointed to large Hollywood films, such as Dances with Wolves, Little Big Man, Wind Talkers and Avatar, where the hero who saves the indigenous people is always a non-indigenous person. He asked Cameron why he also chose this narrative, and instantly received a large cheer from the audience.
Cameron responded, “That was one of the backlashes against the movie, that the so-called main character was not an indigenous leader himself.” However, he said that the goal in making the film was not to try to “tell indigenous people how bad things are for them,” but rather to “wake up” people who play the roles of economic oppressors or invaders in real-life. “I understand the white messiah argument,” he said, “but in this movie, I am trying to make everybody a white messiah, for everybody to have the sense of responsibility to help with the problem. I think it is such absolutely courageous how you are fighting for your rights … But it is going to take people from the other side meeting you part way and taking responsibility for what has happened in the past and the way we need to live in going forward.”
Sources: Mongabay, New Statesman, The Indypendent
Image © 2010 Atossa Soltani, courtesy of Amazon Watch.
5/13/2010 10:40:20 AM
Where generals now meet in war rooms, hemp plants once waved in the breeze. The Washington Post reports on the recently discovered “hemp diaries” of a government botanist, Lyster H. Dewey, who tended a USDA hemp farm that was eventually turned over to the War Department for the construction of the Pentagon:
So now, hempsters can claim that an important piece of their legacy lies in the rich Northern Virginia soil alongside a hugely significant symbol of the government that has so enraged and befuddled them over the years.
All thanks to Lyster Dewey.
Just in case there’s anyone who still believes that hemp equals marijuana, it must be noted that the stuff Dewey was growing—albeit with names like Keijo and Chinamington that connote some very kind bud—wouldn’t even get an evidence-embezzling sheriff’s deputy stoned. The government was growing it for practical uses such as ropes on Navy ships and for World War II parachute webbing.
The Post reports that the Dewey’s diaries were found at a yard sale, where a sharp-eyed buyer snapped them up and listed them on eBay for $10,000. The Hemp Industries Association, a trade group, bought them with the help of a benefactor, the scion of the Dr. Bronner’s soap company:
The group has a sugar daddy: David Bronner, president of Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps, which has grown from a $5 million company to a $31 million firm in the past decade since adding hemp oil to its products to “improve skin feel” and produce a smoother lather. Bronner agreed to pay about $4,000 for the trove—an easy call, given his court battles with the Drug Enforcement Administration when it tried to ban food products containing hemp. Bronner was also arrested last October after planting hemp seeds on a lawn at DEA headquarters.
As Bronner tells the Post, “It’s kind of ironic that we dug up DEA’s lawn to plant hemp seeds and highlight the absurdity of the drug war, but you take it back 50 years and that’s what the government itself was doing.”
Source: Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, Huffington Post
Image from the Library of Congress, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Alfred Whital Stern Collection of Lincolniana.
5/11/2010 1:23:27 PM
Some types of environmental action are pretty easy: Compost your food scraps, ride a bike, skip the factory-farmed meat. Others are very hard and in fact potentially life-threatening, such as fighting against gigantic animal feedlots in your own backyard. Rural Michigan resident Lynn Henning is a winner of the 2010 Goldman Environmental Prize for her brave campaign against concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs, a battle that according to the Christian Science Monitor has sometimes been pretty scary:
Henning matter-of-factly recounts a list of harassments and lawsuits against her that stretches back for years: Being chased by manure tankers down the road; having dead animals left in her driveway and car; and having her mailbox blown up.
On Dec. 30, someone shot out the window of her granddaughter’s bedroom with buckshot. The 2-year-old was in the room at the time.
Henning started going up against local mega-feedlots after they began concentrating in the area where she and her husband run an 80-acre farm. There are now 20,000 cows within a 10-miles radius of her home, and every year 20,000 hogs cycle through the area. The impact on air and water quality from the massive manure output has often been overwhelming—literally, if you’re talking about the stench. Henning believes that some of her relatives got hydrogen-sulfide poisoning from the toxic stew.
Learn more about Henning and her campaign in this video:
Source: Christian Science Monitor
Image by Tom Dusenberry, courtesy of Goldman Environmental Prize.
5/7/2010 4:48:59 PM
The sight of open, untrashed green space while exercising is a balm for our minds and bodies, a group of U.K. researchers has concluded. In a study published in the International Journal of Environmental Health Research (pdf), five groups of 20 subjects exercised on a treadmill while watching a series of scenes projected on a wall.
Four types of scenes were tested—“rural pleasant,” “rural unpleasant,” “urban pleasant” and “urban unpleasant.” The subjects’ blood pressure and two psychological measures—self-esteem and mood—were measured before and after the treadmill sessions. The researchers write:
There was a clear effect of both exercise and different scenes on blood pressure, self-esteem and mood. Exercise alone significantly reduced blood pressure, increased self-esteem, and had a positive significant effect on 4 of 6 mood measures. Both rural and urban pleasant scenes produced a significantly greater positive effect on self-esteem than the exercise-only control. This shows the synergistic effect of green exercise in both rural and urban environments. By contrast, both rural and urban unpleasant scenes reduced the positive effects of exercise on self-esteem. The rural unpleasant scenes had the most dramatic effect, depressing the beneficial effects of exercise on three different measures of mood. It appears that threats to the countryside depicted in rural unpleasant scenes have a greater negative effect on mood than already urban unpleasant scenes.
So: Exercise in itself is a good thing. Exercise in pleasant surroundings is an even better thing. The researchers muse on the societal implications of this:
We conclude that green exercise has important implications for public and environmental health. A fitter and emotionally more content population would clearly cost the economy less as well as reducing individual human suffering. … Thus increasing support for and access to a wide range of green exercise activities for all sectors of society should produce substantial economic and public health benefits. Such support could include the provision and promotion of healthy walks projects, exercise on prescription, healthy school environments, healthy travel to school projects, green views in hospitals, city farms and community gardens, urban green space, and outdoor leisure activities in the countryside.
The interesting thing to me is that none of the subjects actually went outdoors—they simply looked at images of the outdoors. If the mere sight of green space makes us feel better, just imagine what it does when you incorporate all the sensory intangibles of the physical experience: a fresh breeze, fragrant wildflowers, wildlife sightings, clouds rolling past, perhaps a beautiful sunrise or sunset. Maybe for their next study, the researchers will get people off their treadmills and onto their feet or bicycles.
In the meantime, I’m going to bicycle home past a mixture of “urban pleasant” and “urban unpleasant” scenes and on my weekend seek out a nice long, uninterrupted stretch of “rural pleasant.”
Source: International Journal of Environmental Health Research
Image by besighyawn, licensed under Creative Commons.
5/6/2010 4:14:27 PM
So many American farmers are spraying Roundup weedkiller on their fields that they may be effectively creating a monster, the New York Times reports:
Just as the heavy use of antibiotics contributed to the rise of drug-resistant supergerms, American farmers’ near-ubiquitous use of … Roundup has led to the rapid growth of tenacious new superweeds.
To fight them … farmers throughout the East, Midwest and South are being forced to spray fields with more toxic herbicides, pull weeds by hand and return to more labor-intensive methods like regular plowing.
The superweed revolution appears to threaten what the Times calls the “Roundup revolution” in which many farmers combine Roundup and genetically engineered Roundup Ready crops. These crops stand up to the weedkiller while most of the surrounding weeds perish—or that’s the idea, anyway. Some farmers told the paper that they’re spraying more herbicide and giving up minimum-till farming, which reduces erosion and chemical runoff.
If frequent plowing becomes necessary again, “that is certainly a major concern for our environment,” Ken Smith, a weed scientist at the University of Arkansas, said. In addition, some critics of genetically engineered crops say that the use of extra herbicides, including some old ones that are less environmentally tolerable than Roundup, belies the claims made by the biotechnology industry that its crops would be better for the environment.
It’s notable that just last week, Roundup maker Monsanto was defending itself at the Supreme Court in a case that involved the weedkiller’s environmental effects. On April 27, SustainableBusiness.com reported:
Today the Center for Food Safety faces off against Monsanto in the U.S. Supreme Court on behalf of farmers and public interest environmental organizations. Monsanto v. Geertson Seed Farms is the first case involving genetically engineered crops that has ever been heard by the Supreme Court.
Lower courts agreed that the planting of Monsanto’s Roundup Ready alfalfa must be stopped because the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) had failed to analyze the crop’s impacts on farmers and the environment. Although it remains undisputed that USDA violated environmental laws, and that it must rigorously analyze the genetically engineered crop’s impacts before deciding whether or not to approve it for sale, Monsanto is arguing that the lower courts should have allowed the planting of the illegal crop to go forward in the interim.
Presciently, the threat of the Roundup-resistant weeds covered in the New York Times came up in an amicus brief filed in the case by the Defenders of Wildlife, the Humane Society of the United States, and the Center for Biological Diversity:
In this case, the significant environmental risks that warrant preparation of an Environmental Impact Statement, and that also implicate respondents’ interests in particular, involve not only whether Roundup Ready Alfalfa would further contaminate conventional alfalfa (as it already has), but also the risk that large-scale use of Roundup Ready Alfalfa will dramatically increase the use of the Roundup pesticide, which, among other impacts, may result “in the development of Roundup-tolerant weeds.”
Source: New York Times, SustainableBusiness.com, The Center for Food Safety
John D. Byrd
, Mississippi State University, Bugwood.org, licensed under Creative Commons.
5/4/2010 3:15:04 PM
Last week, a few alternative and environmental news outlets drew attention to a newly published science book that put the cumulative death toll of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear accident at more than a million—a story that had particular resonance on the 24th anniversary of the reactor meltdown, the book’s publication date. But the story did not bleed out into the mainstream media, and even the progressive website Alternet seemed suspicious, calling the 1 million estimate an “astounding allegation” in its headline.
The number is dramatically higher than the estimate of 4,000 deaths presented in a 2005 report by the International Atomic Energy Agency, the World Health Organization, and the United Nations Development Program—a figure that has often been criticized as being far too low and influenced by the IAEA’s pro-nuclear agenda.
Where is the truth here? It’s an awfully long way from 4,000 to one million—996,000, in fact. If the truth is somewhere in between the two figures, neither one is of much help to people who are trying to decide whether new nuclear plants—such as those President Obama has proposed—are a safe energy source.
The book that raised eyebrows last week was published by the New York Academy of Sciences, a well respected, almost 200-year-old scientific society, so it carried a whiff of academic rigor. But just six days after the book’s publication, NYAS issued an online statement in which it downplayed the currency of the information and distanced itself from it. The statement notes that the book was based on a report originally published online in November 2009, which itself was the translation of a 2007 publication:
The Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences issue “Chernobyl: Consequences of the Catastrophe for People and the Environment,” therefore, does not present new, unpublished work, nor is it a work commissioned by the New York Academy of Sciences. The expressed views of the authors, or by advocacy groups or individuals with specific opinions about the Annals Chernobyl volume, are their own. Although the New York Academy of Sciences believes it has a responsibility to provide an open forum for discussion of scientific questions, the Academy has no intent to influence legislation by providing such forums.
The messages I take away from this not-very-deeply-coded missive are threefold: 1) The information isn’t all that new, so move along; 2) We’re not backing up the scientists, so caveat emptor; and 3) Corporate partners and foundation heavyweights, please don’t cut our funding because you think we’re anti-nuke.
While both studies appear to have credibility problems, the larger question is this: If the United States is going to enter a new era of nuclear power, as a host of observers have predicted, we’re going to have to get a firmer handle on its potential downside in a worst-case scenario. Techno-optimists who believe in the awesome power of science should create a panel of independent medical and public health experts—outside the IAEA—to arrive at a Chernobyl death estimate that both pro- and anti-nuclear forces can trust. Until then, potential supporters of both camps have 996,000 reasons to doubt what they’re told.
Sources: New York Academy of Sciences, Alternet, IAEA
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