7/30/2009 11:22:09 AM
Edward Abbey is a hero to many modern-day environmentalists: He’s a font of aphoristic wisdom, a forebear to lots of front-line activists, and a spiritual mentor to lovers of the desert West. But was he also a sexist and a racist? In the July-August issue of the radical environmental journal Earth First, a writer dubbed S@sh@ (EF writers often use pseudonyms) answers soundly in the affirmative:
One quick look at Edward Abbey’s Monkey Wrench Gang exposes the racism and sexism that poisoned the movement throughout the 1980s. Its transparently patriarchal depictions of gender stereotypes show up throughout the book and are even more pervasive in Abbey’s disturbing diary, Confessions of a Barbarian.
Even if you aren’t as incensed as S@sh@ is by Abbey’s use of gender pronouns, and even if you don’t buy her outrageous claim that Abbey’s patriarchy basically killed him, it’s harder to argue with her case on his racism. She quotes piecemeal from an Abbey passage in Confessions, but in the interest of letting ol’ Ed speak for himself, here’s the whole eyebrow-raising section, which it must be noted was written in 1963, in the midst of the civil rights movement:
According to the morning newspaper, the population of America will reach 267 million by 2000 AD. An increase of forty million, or about one-sixth, in only seventeen years! And the racial composition of the population will also change considerably: the white birth rate is about sixty per thousand females, the Negro rate eighty-three per thousand, and the Hispanic rate ninety-six per thousand.
Am I a racist? I guess I am. I certainly do not wish to live in a society dominated by blacks, or Mexicans, or Orientals. Look at Africa, at Mexico, at Asia.
Garrett Hardin [the author of Tragedy of the Commons] compares our situation to an overcrowded lifeboat in a sea of drowning bodies. If we take more aboard, the boat will be swamped and we’ll all go under. Militarize our borders. The lifeboat is listing.
Well, there’s not much ambiguity here. Abbey’s views would fit right in among today’s vigilante border militias, white-power groups, and right-wing talk-radio haters.
Close readers of Abbey know that he had plenty of rough edges, most of which he took no pains to hide. But his flagrant racism is indeed a major strike against sainting the man as some sort of green prophet.
S@sh@ knows she’s messing with an icon and even grudgingly gives Abbey his due. But she also ultimately takes to heart his advice to “resist much, obey little”:
These quotations are difficult to inscribe within this journal—like the Earth First! Journal itself, Abbey’s writing has done much to inspire the environmental movement to direct action. We should recognize his contributions. To be sure, he was not alone in his oppressive beliefs; it was a different time, and they pervaded and hampered the whole EF! movement. … [But] Remember, the revolutionary presence that drove Abbey and his minions away created space for the philosophical introductions of eco-feminism, deep ecology, and bio-centrism. We should never return to the petulant and puerile egoism of certain old traditions.
Source: Earth First (article not available online)
Image by msn678, licensed under Creative Commons.
7/28/2009 10:25:36 AM
For years, the animal rights movement has pushed for a court ruling that would grant animals the legal standing to sue. Currently, animal right activists cannot represent animals in court. If such a ruling passed, these activists could sue restaurant chains and farmers on behalf of cows waiting to be slaughtered, for example.
Some feel that the possibility of animals achieving legal standing is heightened with the appointment of President Obama's regulatory czar, Cass Sunstein. There are few benefits to animal standing, writes Wesley J. Smith in the Weekly Standard:
...Animal standing would do more than just plunge the entire animal industry sector into chaos. In one fell swoop, it would both undermine the status of animals as property and elevate them with the force of law toward legal personhood.
But Mother Jones paints Sunstein and the issue of animal standing with a less hyperbolic brush, first with her own words, and then with those of a former colleague. Here’s Sunstein in 2002:
I believe that it is excessive to ban experiments that impose a degree of suffering on rats or mice if the consequence of those experiments is to produce significant medical advances for human beings.
And here’s a University of Chicago colleague of Sunstein’s:
…What Sunstein is asking is that humans be able to go to court as advocates for animals who are being ill treated, when that treatment violates existing law. So it is not a radical move; it is a move that solves a problem: We pass laws against animal cruelty, and then we have no mechanism to ensure that these laws will be enforced.
Source: Weekly Standard, Mother Jones
Image by Sunfox, licensed under Creative Commons.
7/27/2009 4:04:59 PM
You’ve probably heard about Alaska ex-governor Sarah Palin’s support for aerial wolf and bear hunts—and along with it the conventional wisdom that she was simply doing what gun-totin’, predator-hatin’ Alaskans wanted. In the July-August issue of Audubon, contentious veteran columnist Ted Williams deflates this notion, noting that Palin’s brand of predator control was guided more by an anti-science stance and pressure from the trophy hunting industry than by the will of Alaskans.
In making his case, Williams notes the natural resistance of Alaskans to opinions from “away,” but talks to several well-informed Alaskans who hunt, fish, and consider Palin’s wildlife management ideas to be ill-founded at best. For instance, here’s Mark Richards, co-chair of the Alaska chapter of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers:
“Never has political meddling been so blatant and detrimental to the future of our system of wildlife management as it is under the Palin administration. I have a letter from Palin shortly after she took office, claiming she wanted to manage wildlife based on sound science. It’s complete bullshit. What she is doing is not even close to science or sound management.”
Williams surely would have been cheered to know as he wrote his column that Palin would soon resign. Unfortunately, it will take Alaska longer to roll back her predator policies than it took her to derail the McCain campaign.
Image by peupleloup, licensed under Creative Commons.
7/24/2009 3:28:04 PM
A growing number of health experts are questioning the benefits of putting fluoride into tap water, Natural Life magazine reports. The United States has been fluoridating tap water since 1945, but studies now indicate that fluoride may be associated with certain forms of cancer, kidney disease, and (strangely) dental problems, according to Natural Life. The article cites the Environmental Working Group and the Fluoride Action Network as its sources.
Maybe Brigadier General Jack Ripper, from Doctor Strangelove, was right:
Source: Natural Life (article not available online)
7/21/2009 9:49:07 AM
It’s hard to think of a consumer-product industry that’s less green than the one that makes recreational vehicles. Its very existence is predicated on using large amounts of fossil fuel to lug around small numbers of people and lots of luxuries, and signs of environmental enlightenment are scarce: Living simply and living large are inherently incompatible.
So I was intrigued to find a reference to “going green” on the industry website RVeNews. What could this mean? Had the manufacturers that gave us the Weekend Warrior, the Land Yacht, and the Tsunami suddenly seen the light? Perhaps they were ready to downsize their models, incorporate solar panels and worm composters in their designs, and pay reparations to Pachamama for past misdeeds?
Well, not exactly. Here’s how RVeNews blog contributor Carl Sconnely sets it up:
I’m sure everyone has noticed how many companies over the last five years have been jumping on the “Going Green” advertisement bandwagon. They change out a few light bulbs, drop a couple recycling bins around the office, and eliminate most of their paper use.
Recently, however, appeal within the United States to “Go Green” has paled as concerns have shifted more toward economic stability. In a recent poll by Pew Research Center, only 41 percent of respondents considered protecting the environment to be a top-level issue, in comparison to 56 percent last year.
If “Going Green” isn’t making as big of a marketing statement as it once did, why should your dealership bother?
If you’re thinking that the answer is something like, “Because our great-grandchildren would want us to,” “Because there won’t be any scenery left for RV travelers to enjoy if we don’t,” or simply, “Because it’s the right thing to do,” you’ll be sorely disappointed. It turns out that Mr. Sconnely has a different sort of agenda. He’s the president of a firm that sells software to help RV dealers save money by reducing their paper use—a noble goal, no doubt, but hardly the sea change that this dinosaur of an industry needs.
How about you? Can you think of good reasons why the RV industry should go green, and what that might entail?
Image by Ildar Sagdejev, licensed under Wikimedia Commons.
7/17/2009 4:05:28 PM
With its economy tanking, Newton, Iowa, decided to reinvent itself as a center for green jobs. The town once relied on the Maytag Corporation for some 4,000 jobs, before its competitor Whirlpool bought the company in 2006, and cut some 1,800 jobs. Residents and local government officials decided to aggressively court renewable energy companies to inject some economic life back into the town.
Today “Newton has become something of a green-collar hub,” Audubon reports. One company that makes wind turbine blades for General Electric now employs some 318 people in the town, and hopes to bump that up to 500 by the end of the year. A biodiesel plant and another GE contractor moved into the town, too. According to Audubon, Newton’s success gives the lie to the split between the environment versus the economy that many politicians promote. Barack Obama, in fact, used the town to promote his green jobs plan when he visited there on Earth Day. Obama is quoted by Audubon, saying, “The choice we face is not between saving our environment and saving our economy. The choice is between prosperity and decline.”
7/15/2009 2:43:39 PM
Young men waist-deep in liming baths, or dragging hides from chromium baths with their bare hands, or covered in carcinogenic dust. This is how leather is made. At least in the Indian state of Jajmau, where illegal tanneries work with the agents of international retail empires to keep the world's markets and malls stocked with leather goods. Photographer Alex Masi has done an incredible job of documenting the abhorrent working conditions in the tanneries, and he is damning in his critique: "The misconduct of the Indian capitalist elite, a complicit government, and unethical foreign companies ought to be exposed to international consumers with the goal of redressing the violations through persuasive economic and political pressures." Masi's slideshow is as good a place as any to begin this process.
7/14/2009 4:49:03 PM
The economic crisis taught many people not to trust the financial markets. Today, an increasing number of people are trying to rely more on themselves. After years of being written off as a unrealistic pastoral ideal, Phillip Longman writes for Foreign Policy that “the self-sufficient worker once again has a chance, whether as a farmer growing vegetables for local consumption or as an open-source software developer who makes a living in his basement office.”
These new “yeomen,” as Longman calls them, are not just “starry-eyed yuppies yearning for a simpler life of heirloom tomatoes and muskmelons rooted in worm castings.” They’re productive workers who may be able to upend the industrial agricultural system and redefine work-life balance. This new breed of workers will be able to spend more time at home, giving their children the skills they need for the world. Longman writes, “The neo-yeomen won't only be more efficient laborers—they'll also be happier parents, giving their societies a clear Darwinian advantage.” But if the U.S. government wants to encourage this new breed of worker, it should probably guarantee them some health care first.
Source: Foreign Policy
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7/14/2009 4:46:17 PM
Environmentalists, especially of the veggie persuasion, are quick to point out that meat accounts for nearly 20 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. Reducing consumption, giving meat up even one day a week, is the easiest way to reduce your carbon footprint, Rajendra Pachauri, chairman of the U.N.’s panel on climate change, said last fall.
But not all meat is created equal, Lisa Hamilton writes for Audubon. Some methane production is unavoidable (file this fact under “cow burps”), but “animals reared on organic pasture have a different climate equation from those raised in confinement on imported feed,” asserts Hamilton, author of Deeply Rooted: Unconventional Farmers in the Age of Agribusiness.
In large-scale farming confinement systems, manure flows into (disgusting) lagoons, where its decomposition releases millions of tons of methane and nitrous oxide into the air every year. “On pasture, that same manure is simply assimilated back into the soil with a carbon cost close to zero,” Hamilton writes.
What’s more, grass-fed livestock can be an essential player in a sustainable set-up. Manure revitalizes soil (in lieu of chemical fertilizers or shipped-in compost), and grazing encourages plant growth. Hamilton also points to Holistic Management International, an organization that proposes managed, intensive grazing as part of a climate change solution.
“In order for pasture-based livestock to become a significant part of the meat industry, we need to eat more of its meat, not less,” Hamilton writes. “So if you want to use your food choices to impact climate change, by all means follow Dr. Pachauri’s suggestion for a meatless Monday. But on Tuesday, have a grass-fed burger—and feel good about it.”
Sources: Audubon, Holistic Management International
Image by pointnshoot, licensed under Creative Commons.
7/14/2009 12:21:57 PM
Conservationists in the Ngorongoro Crater, a Tanzanian National Park, are searching for a compromise with the area’s native Maasai tribes, whose survival and longstanding traditions depend on killing lions.
The park’s protected lions are crossing Ngorongoro Conservation Area (NCA) borders and killing Maasai livestock during dry seasons. The Maasai orchestrate “revenge killings” in retaliation. Ceremonial group lion hunts are also a Maasai rite of passage.
But, “the resulting death rate threatens two of the four prides in the NCA,” writes Cheryl Lyn Dybas in the July issue of The Scientist:
Maasai graze their livestock in open pastures during the day, when one to three herdsmen—who are often very young—protect the cattle against lions. Cattle losses to lions could be reduced if adults rather than children served as guards. Another solution: replacing wooden barriers with chain-link fencing in village corrals.
Source: The Scientist, Maasai Association
Image by Frederic.Salein, licensed under Creative Commons.
7/13/2009 4:22:25 PM
An ever-expanding army of ATVs is destroying the wilderness as we know it! Not so fast: The Wildlands CPR blog digs into the numbers behind this conventional wisdom and reports that, actually, sales of all-terrain and other off-road vehicles have been declining since probably 2003. ATV advocates haven’t been keen to trumpet this slide as loudly as they hailed rising sales. Why? Wildlands CPR fills us in:
For years proponents of motorized recreation have claimed that the “explosive growth” in the sale of all-terrain vehicles and other off-road vehicles supports their demand that public land managers designate extensive motorized trail networks.
Here in Minnesota, home of Utne Reader, that’s exactly what has happened. Citing rapidly rising ATV sales, industry-backed ATV advocates have pressured the state Department of Natural Resources into creating a large network of expensive state-maintained trails funded by motorists statewide even as the agency fails to enforce existing trail rules and prevent habitat destruction.
The news of declining sales doesn’t make tales of environmental damage by ATVs any less real or alarming—but it does offer hope to those of us who feel that mud-running, root-ripping motorheads are trampling the last bits of wilderness on our public lands.
Source: Wildlands CPR, Star Tribune
Image by eron_gpsfs, licensed under Creative Commons.
7/10/2009 8:49:06 AM
You’ve used a toilet today. We both know it. You did your business, flushed, washed your hands, and forgot about it. And why not? Your waste has been whisked away to who-cares-where, and so long as you don’t have to see or smell it, there’s no second thought to think.
The distance we’re able to maintain from our feces allows us the luxury of forgetting, but four in ten people—that’s 2.6 billion—have no sanitation, not even an outhouse or a pit. There is no choice but to squat in fields, alongside roads, or near doorsteps, a practice known as “open defecation.” This lack of access forces those affected not only to see, smell and walk amongst their own feces, but also to face the health consequences wrought by contaminated food and water. According to Rose George, journalist and author of The Big Necessity: The Unmentionable World of Human Waste (Metropolitan), one gram of human feces can contain 10 million viruses, 1 million bacteria, 1,000 parasite cysts, and 100 worm eggs. Community sanitation advocate Kamal Kar estimates that those living in places where open defecation is common inadvertently ingest more than ten grams of fecal matter every day, and the consequences are clear. Children face the greatest risk; playing in the mud can lead to deadly disease. George highlights statistics that are difficult to stomach: A child dies every 15 seconds as a result of diarrhea—90 percent of which can be attributed to fecal contamination—and the number of children who’ve died of it in the past decade exceeds the number of people killed in armed conflict since World War II.
For those who survive childhood, issues of dignity and risk to personal safety compound the health risks—especially for women and girls with no access to sanitation. The New Internationalist has reported that in the name of modesty, women in India often wait until darkness falls to venture to the fields and forests, risking snake bites, scorpion stings, and sexual assault. Daylight hours are spent holding it in, leading to an increased risk of urinary tract infections and chronic constipation. George writes that the education of young girls in South Africa is severely limited by the capacity of schools to provide privacy and clean toilets. When menstruation begins, educations often end.
These sobering facts are perfect fodder for celebrity advocacy and fundraising—so why isn’t Bono hawking Project(brown) totes and baby tees? An initial investment of $95 billion could achieve universal sanitation by 2015, George writes, and would save $660 billion in averted health costs and increased productivity. George believes a celebrity advocate would do wonders for global sanitation and has hope that Matt Damon will lead the charge. “Damon has started to talk about school latrines, which is great news,” George told Salon. "It’s inevitable because he does a lot of great work on clean water.”
The truth is, governments and NGOs can install shiny new taps in village squares all they like, but access to clean water is temporary at best without effective sanitation. The United Nations dedicated 2008 as the International Year of Sanitation, but it was also the International Year of the Potato. This kind of thing will never be enough, and due in no small part to the broad swath of cultures affected by the problem, one-size-fits-all solutions won’t be enough either—solutions will have to be tailor made. Stanford reports on a research project in Tanzania that aims to determine the most effective ways to convince people to alter their hygiene habits. With expenses like food, clothing, and cell phones to contend with, health considerations alone are not enough to compel those with limited incomes to invest in latrines. “When you ask people about the importance of [water] treatment,” says researcher Agnes Lwitiko, “they say they know, but it’s expensive and my grandfather and grandmother didn’t do it that way.”
Sanitation may be short of snappy phrases fit for bumper stickers, but if we want to save lives, we must break the silence on shit. Somebody get Matt Damon on the phone.
Sources: New Internationalist, Salon, Stanford
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7/9/2009 5:11:26 PM
Sit down on a porch with someone from the American South and you’ll learn why the region is renowned for its storytelling tradition. In the book Something’s Rising: Appalachians Fighting Mountaintop Removal (University Press of Kentucky), authors Silas House and Jason Howard tell the story of mountaintop removal coal mining through the voices of 12 Appalachians who’ve been directly affected by this devastating practice. Each subject is introduced by a vivid profile, and then House and Howard get out of the way and let them speak. Studs Terkel, no slouch himself in the oral history realm, has called Something’s Rising “oral history at its best,” and I have to concur: Although I was familiar with the mountaintop removal issue, these personal accounts brought it home for me in an incredibly powerful new way. I recently spoke with House and Howard about their book, the growing movement against mountaintop removal, and the outlook for the future.
This book is largely an oral history. Why did you choose to let your subjects tell their stories in their own words?
Howard: We chose to go with oral histories because we felt that the art of storytelling is something that mountaintop removal is destroying. Mountaintop removal isn’t only destroying the land and water and trees and animal habitat and mountains and things like that; it’s also destroying peoples’ lives and Appalachian traditions and culture. For generations, these mountains have sheltered us and provided us with stories and protection. The storytelling is something that’s been lost today because as those mountains are leaving, our culture is leaving, too. It’s becoming more homogenized. So it’s a political statement in doing that. It’s also a tribute to people’s words.
House: We wanted to allow people to tell their own stories in their own words, without any filters whatsoever—without turning them into sound bites—so that it can all be put into complete context for the reader. There is a real storytelling tradition in this region, and we think that really comes through in these oral histories. It’s just our way of saying, look, this is another thing that could be scraped away forever if we don’t stop this.
One of the ongoing threads in the book is the social pressure against speaking out on this issue. There seems to be an unwritten rule in Appalachia that you don’t criticize the coal industry. Can you tell me a little bit about where that comes from, and whether it might slowly be changing?
House: That’s what happens when you live in a mono-economy, and the coal industry has been really good at creating a mono-economy. [We live in a] place whose natural resources are coal, timber, natural gas, and tourism. Well, getting out the coal, the gas, and the timber destroys your chances of tourism. And so you’re completely dependent on an environmental economy.
The coal company has been really smart over the years, saying over and over again, “If it wasn’t for us, you all wouldn’t have anything,” when in fact, there are other parts of Appalachia that are so blessed that they didn’t have coal, and they have survived and become more prosperous than the coal areas. I mean, you take a section of Appalachia like western North Carolina where there’s no coal, and it survives very well on tourism. That’s the main source of income, and it works very well for them—and it’s much less destructive than coal mining.
Howard: It comes from years and years, almost a century now, of being, for lack of a better word, brainwashed by the coal companies. The coal companies came in here and have used up our people, used up our resources—the resources have been shipped out for years. … You can go back and look at the fight for unionization in the ’30s and ’40s, which was a really bloody fight, and the coal companies tried to stamp that out. They had company towns, which were closed societies in and of themselves. They paid the miners in scrip, which wasn’t hard cash money. It was just a token, and that token could only be spent at the company store, which was owned by the company. The schools were owned by the company, the churches were owned by the company—so you had that whole mentality of just things being dominated by corporations.
And that legacy is still alive and well today in the mountains. So people’s feelings about coal are complicated: One the one hand, when you have your great-grandfather smothered by black lung, that has an impact on you. There’s a certain level of resentment there. That was my great-grandfather on my mother’s side. On my father’s side, my great-grandfather was a union organizer, and he was murdered in the coal mines. So there’s that side of it, that people feel like the companies just chew you up and spit you out. But then there’s the other side that, you know, you sort of realize that coal has sometimes allowed families to rise up out of poverty or at least ascend to the middle class. So it’s complicated, and there are all those pressures that are still alive and well today.
House: When you’re told something for 150 years, it gets in your DNA. You start to believe it, and it’s hard to get around that mindset after more than a century of being told that, which is what’s happened in this region. And to some extent, [the coal companies] have made that come true—they’ve made it so that it is hard to get other kinds of economy. I mean, who wants to come in and set up a big factory to employ a bunch of people when people from the company don’t want to come to a place that looks like a war zone that’s torn all to pieces and people are being killed left and right on the roads by overloaded coal trucks, et cetera? The only people that are benefiting from it are the corporations.
Howard: In the early 1980s, President Reagan was preparing to go to the Soviet Union for a visit, and when he got there, he went to Moscow and he saw these grand boulevards where people were out cheering. Actually what had happened is that the Soviets, in preparation for his visit, had put up all these false fronts on their deteriorating and decaying buildings—so Reagan didn’t actually see the real Moscow.
And I think that scenario is exactly what is happening in Appalachia today. The coal companies like to put up those big fronts for people, saying, oh, look, we provide jobs, we provide wealth, we provide health care. Don’t worry about that slurry pond up the road—it’s not going to break. Don’t worry about the stream that runs by your house; don’t worry about the blasting—it’s all OK, we’re going to take care of you. And people have bought into that for far too long. Luckily, now a lot of people are waking up and are realizing that that’s not the case. So it is still complicated, and it is still hard at times for people to stand up and speak out against the coal companies, but they’re doing it. So that’s good. It’s progress.
You guys aren’t just carpetbagging journalists. You both have Appalachian roots and coal miners in your family tree, don’t you?
House: Right. We’re both from central Appalachia and are both grandchildren of miners, and we grew up very much immersed in the world of coal mining. Both of us have very close family members who worked in the mines, we both have lived very close to mines. We’ve seen it from every angle. If you’re an Appalachian, you always have a love-hate relationship with coal, but it just became more and more obvious to both of us that this was wrong—and we felt it would be morally wrong to sit by and not say something about it.
Did the fact that you’re Appalachians grant you some access, perhaps make it easier to get inside these stories?
Howard: I think it did, because with the legacy of the coal industry—with people coming in from outside the region and exploiting our people and our resources and then turning around and leaving—some Appalachians are at first leery of outsiders. We didn’t have to go through that because we both have been raised in the mountains and we spoke the language, we knew the shorthand, and we knew the culture, inside and out. So I think that people were more open and free to say what was on their minds.
How did you come to team up on the book, and what did you each bring to the project?
Howard: I met Silas at a writer’s workshop about four years ago, when I was living in D.C. I’d gone to school up there and was working and was in the process of trying to move back to Kentucky. I had watched the anti-mountaintop removal movement from afar, and I moved back shortly after that workshop and got really involved. We began traveling together and working on songs together. We were both in a band called Public Outcry that went around and sang against mountaintop removal, which opened up a whole new audience.
We were seeing so many ordinary people—quote-unquote ordinary—who were fighting back and who were very courageous and brave and who deserved recognition. And so it was born out of that—out of attending community meetings and rallies and marches and singing—that we decided the book needed to be done. And we are both different types of writers. Silas is more known as a novelist, although he’s done a lot of really great nonfiction, so he brought a lot of storytelling elements to it. Whereas I am totally a nonfiction writer. I’m a journalist who’s written extensively for lots of different magazines, and I’m also a creative nonfiction essayist. So all of those things blend, and we sort of balance each other out. I also have a political background, having gone to school in Washington, D.C. and worked on Capitol Hill for a government agency and on some campaigns. So I knew that side of the issues.
Silas, you’ve gone from being a novelist to being an activist of sorts who has spoken at rallies. What’s it been like to come out of your literary shell and be part of a grassroots movement?
House: Well, it’s certainly not something that I wanted to do or ever saw myself doing. It’s just something that I felt like I had a responsibility to do. I’m still not comfortable calling myself an activist. I think that I’m just a citizen who’s saying what he believes in, and that’s about it. I think that’s all that any of us can do—and what we should all do.
It’s interesting that you bring up that you were in a band together, because I want to ask you about music. Appalachia has a strong musical culture, and in your book you interview two musicians, country artist Kathy Mattea and folk singer Jean Ritchie, who are involved in fighting mountaintop removal. What’s the role of music in this movement?
Howard: Well, the role of music in the anti-mountaintop removal movement is growing by leaps and bounds. First, in Kentucky, it started out being just totally a writer’s movement, and then a lot of artists got together and said, OK, we were successful with getting writers on board to get the word out about mountaintop removal—so let’s go to musicians. And there are a lot of different bands and solo artists out there who are singing about it. Public Outcry, the band that we were in, was one of them. Now you have two really amazing musicians from Kentucky who are getting really big names nationally: Ben Sollee and Daniel Martin Moore, who has teamed up to record a whole album to raise awareness about mountaintop removal, and it’s being produced by Jim James of My Morning Jacket, which is a huge band.
I think that music reaches a whole different demographic than writing. You can get people out to a live show or concert who maybe wouldn’t read an op-ed or a letter to the editor or go to a rally or a protest. Music is sort of comforting. It allows people to stay within their comfort zone, and I think a lot of artists are realizing that and in the process are challenging people in a back-door way.
House: This is a fight where the people are up against huge corporations. These huge corporations have coffers overflowing with money, and all the people have are words and music. That’s all we have to fight this fight, and I think that the words and the music are winning so far—and I think that’s an amazing thing, that music and the arts are that powerful. I think that you can take a song and get somebody to understand something that they may have never understood before. You take a song like “Which Side Are You On?” which was written in the 1920s and was basically saying, are you on the side of the people or are you on the side of these big companies? It was written in a coal camp in Eastern Kentucky in the 1920s, and since then it’s been used all over the world in all kinds of social justice movements. And it changed the world. So it’s amazing what a three-minute song can do, or what a piece of literature can do. As for myself, those are some things that I know how to do, so that’s the only way I have of fighting back: telling stories or singing songs.
I see the anti-mountaintop removal movement has had some allies from the entertainment world lately. The actress Ashley Judd spoke at a rally, and the Coen brothers made a parody of a clean coal TV ad. Is it encouraging to see a little help coming from Hollywood?
House: Yeah. In our culture, people listen to celebrities, and I think these celebrities who are getting involved are getting involved not because they want to toot their own horn, not because they want any more spotlight on them—it’s just that they, too, are citizens who are standing up for what they believe in. So I appreciate them for that, and it’s good that people who are more widely known are stepping up to the plate and saying this is wrong. There are lots of people within the country music world who are getting more involved, too, which is an amazing thing because country music depends a great deal on people who wouldn’t normally identify themselves as environmentalists, I don’t think. They would probably identify themselves as conservationists, but not as environmentalists—so that’s a great thing.
Religion plays into this, too: Some of the people profiled in your book have gotten involved in the movement in part because they believe it’s a sin to destroy God’s creation. Do you find that spiritual approach to be a powerful force in the movement?
House: I definitely think it is. The main thing is that a lot of churches in the region are sort of backwards in their way of looking at environmentalism, and they have this attitude of, well, it doesn’t matter anyway because, you know, God’s going to come back and set everything right, so there’s no use in us spending much time on fighting things like this. But then you have churches within the region who are saying, no, we have to be stewards of the land, and we have been charged to do this in the Bible—it’s clearly set out in the Bible that we are to be stewards of the land and to protect it. And so it is a real moral issue for lots of people, and they’re getting more and more involved in the fight and standing up for the land—and also speaking out against the greed. Because that’s what this is—it’s an issue of greed. There’s absolutely no reason a company would do this unless it was just to make a bunch of money. They’re certainly not doing it for fun. They’re doing it because it’s the easiest way for them to make a huge amount of money as quickly as possible. So I think that a lot of churches are stepping up and pointing out that this is wrong, and that it can’t go on—it’s not morally right.
Howard: We’re seeing more and more churches and pastors and priests and laypeople getting involved. A couple of years ago, we went on a religious leaders’ tour in Kentucky. It was a very hot day, and we hiked up to the top of this mountain and looked over at this valley fill that was right under us. The coal company saw us and started blasting, and the sirens went off and everyone sang “Amazing Grace”—so it was really powerful and ironic. But on that trip there was a nun who accompanied us, and she was in her 80s. On that hot day, she was so persistent in climbing to the top of that mountain. I just remember sitting and looking at her struggling to cross little ditches and to grab hold of trees to pull herself up, and I just marveled at her. It was just like her faith was pulling her along.
And that’s just one story. Appalachia is a spiritual region, and there are lots of people out there who are like that nun, who just hate what mountaintop removal is doing to creation.
Are you hopeful that things are changing under the new administration?
House: I think it’s been more hopeful than not. The Obama administration is doing so much better than the Bush administration. This is not a partisan issue. I mean, the Clinton administration wasn’t much better on mountaintop removal than Bush the second. And so it’s not about party, but I do think that Obama is thinking things through in a much better way, and he’s getting educated on the subject as much as he can, and that’s really all we can ask of a president. It’s certainly more than Bush did. He didn’t try to get educated at all—he just did everything he could to make it as easy for them to mine as possible. So I think things are much more hopeful than they were.
Howard: I’m cautiously optimistic about the new administration. We have a few troubling signs, like the whole debate over who will be the Office of Surface Mining director. But by and large, the Environmental Protection Agency has finally got its teeth back after eight years of being reined in and of utter corruption. They have announced that they will be looking at and reviewing these mountaintop removal permits with the strictest standard, and that they will be following not only the letter but the spirit of the law. We of course would like to see a total ban on mountaintop removal, but I’m a realist and I know that we’re not there yet. Coal is still here, and it’s something we’re going to have to transition away from, and that’s going to take time. But I am hopeful.
Mountaintop removal foes have held several big marches and engaged in civil disobedience in recent weeks. So the battle goes on.
House: It does, and I think it’s going to heat up. There’s going to be more civil disobedience, mainly because when you sit by and you watch the law uphold laws being broken, sometimes you have to break the law to bring attention to that. People’s lives are at stake here. And it’s not just about creeks and owls and trees—and all those things are important—but it’s even more so about human beings. It’s about children and people who don’t have clean air to breathe—and we’re talking about the water. I mean, of all things to mess with, you don’t ever, ever mess with the water. It’s mind-boggling to me that we’re having to put forth bills that protect our water.
Have you engaged in any civil disobedience on this issue, or do you have plans to?
House: I have to some degree, but yeah, I plan to. I’ll do what it takes to protect my children. And that’s what I think it’s about—this is a matter of life and death, and we just have to do what we have to do to protect the place and the people.
Images of Silas House and Jason Howard courtesy of
University Press of Kentucky
; billboard image courtesy of
Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition
7/8/2009 9:43:21 AM
Finally: Garden guidance for those of us who don’t have big, sunny, plant-friendly backyards. The Baltimore-based magazine Urbanite offers gardening tips for difficult city lots (scroll down a bit for the article), suggesting what to grow in each of four funky urban yards: the shady yard, the all-concrete yard (a.k.a. the “no-yard yard”), the hilly yard, and the “rowhouse strip.” With handy illustrations! It's a nice reminder of how flexible urban gardening can be.
The image at left is a typical Baltimore rowhouse strip: "It's long, thin, and hotter than hell in the summertime," Urbanite writes, but there's still plenty of potential.
(And while you're at it, consider turning your old bike wheel rims into a support for climbing plants.)
Image courtesy of Kimberly Battista.
7/7/2009 12:04:23 PM
You wake to tiny red bites along your arm and panic overwhelms you: You have bedbugs. Before calling pest control, The Atlantic reports that you could consider employing a bedbug dog, trained to sniff out the critters and their eggs.
Bedbugs’ tiny size, and their ability to survive more than a year without food, make them a tricky pest to purge. Now that nasty pesticides like DDT have fallen out of favor, pest control companies are using more “environmentally sensitive”—and admittedly less mighty—methods to control the bugs. Dogs can thus save time, headache, and unnecessary treatment by accurately deciphering pest problems before taking action. In fact, The Atlantic reports that “A controlled experiment by entomologists at the University of Florida found that dogs were 98 percent accurate in locating live bedbugs in hotel rooms.”
For more on eco-friendly bug killers, read about pest control with a conscience from Utne Reader's January-February 2008 issue.
Source: The Atlantic
Image by Pink Sherbet Photography
, licensed under Creative Commons.
7/7/2009 11:20:56 AM
Twenty years after the Exxon Valdez spilled millions of gallons of crude oil into Alaskan waters, the disaster continues to wreak havoc on wildlife, according to a 2009 report from the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council. The Animal Welfare Institute reports that more than 16,000 gallons of oil remain in the environment.
On the growing list of likely extinctions attributed in part to the spill is a small AT1 population of orcas, which has inhabited the area for thousands of years.
Source: Animal Welfare Institute
Image by jimbrickett, licensed under Creative Commons.
7/7/2009 10:52:00 AM
Solar panel startup companies are struggling in the current recession, according to Sustainable Industries. Startups, some of which are sitting on genuine innovations to make solar panels more efficient, can’t find the funding they need to get off the ground. Prices for solar panels have dropped precipitously lately, which is great news for everyone except for the startups that were banking on high prices and increased demand. Some of the companies have begun laying off workers, while others are radically shifting their business plans in order to survive.
Source: Sustainable Industries
Image by Mike Weston, licensed under Creative Commons.
7/6/2009 5:18:29 PM
Canadian lawmakers are looking ahead to a time when smoking bans will extend to all public sidewalks and outdoor places, reports Spacing. Canada has some of the toughest anti-smoking laws in North America, but the unintended (although perhaps foreseeable?) consequence of the bans has been a glut of smokers in open-air spaces.
What’s the harm of smoking in open air? Spacing points to secondhand-smoke research conducted in Finland that found air in outdoor cafes to be 20 times more polluted than the stuff people breathe on the sidewalks of traffic-heavy streets. Nasty. “I absolutely see a time in which there will not be any smoking in all public spaces,” Toronto city councilor Pam McConnell told the magazine.
South of the border, cities in various U.S. states, such as Minnesota and California, have already banned smoking at parks and beaches. Berkeley introduced a sidewalk smoking ban in 2008.
Source: Spacing (article not available online)
7/1/2009 12:57:54 PM
Visitors to the Rising Sun Farm in River Falls, Wisconsin, are greeted by a sign stating: “Our Farm is Clothing Optional. Welcome.” The farm, profiled by the online culinary magazine the Heavy Table, produces some 40 different items and 125 different plantings. It also features an unmanned store where shoppers use the honor system to pay and fill out their own hand-written receipts. The farm’s proprietor, Roger Browne, explained the benefits of nude farming:
Without clothes we can usually work comfortably in even the hottest weather. Practical advantages include absence of binding, sweat-soaked clothes, less laundry, and a lower risk of heat exhaustion. Even when hot, humid weather hits it can be quite joyful working nude when it would be miserable working clothed.
Source: The Heavy Table
Image courtesy of Judd Spicer / Heavy Table.
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