Reprinted with permission from TomDispatch.
Oil drills and fracking for natural gas cause far-reaching damage to natural environments.
When I was a kid, I was creepily fascinated by the wrongheaded idea, current in my grade school, that your hair and your fingernails kept growing after you died. The lesson seemed to be that it was hard to kill something off — if it wanted to keep going.
Something similar is happening right now with the fossil fuel industry. Even as the global warming crisis makes it clear that coal, natural gas, and oil are yesterday’s energy, the momentum of two centuries of fossil fuel development means new projects keep emerging in a zombie-like fashion.
In fact, the climactic fight at the end of the fossil fuel era is already underway, even if it’s happening almost in secret. That’s because so much of the action isn’t taking place in big, headline-grabbing climate change settings like the recent conference of 195 nations in Paris; it’s taking place in hearing rooms and farmers’ fields across this continent (and other continents, too). Local activists are making desperate stands to stop new fossil fuel projects, while the giant energy companies are making equally desperate attempts to build while they still can. Though such conflicts and protests are mostly too small and local to attract national media attention, the outcome of these thousands of fights will do much to determine whether we emerge from this century with a habitable planet. In fact, far more than any set of paper promises by politicians, they really are the battle for the future.
Here’s how Diane Leopold, president of the giant fracking company Dominion Energy, put it at a conference earlier this year: “It may be the most challenging” period in fossil fuel history, she said, because of “an increase in high-intensity opposition” to infrastructure projects that is becoming steadily “louder, better-funded, and more sophisticated.” Or, in the words of the head of the American Natural Gas Association, referring to the bitter struggle between activists and the Canadian tar sands industry over the building of the Keystone XL pipeline, “Call it the Keystone-ization of every project that’s out there.”
Pipelines, Pipelines, Everywhere
I hesitate to even start listing them all, because I’m going to miss dozens, but here are some of the prospective pipelines people are currently fighting across North America: the Alberta Clipper and the Sandpiper pipelines in the upper Midwest, Enbridge Line 3, the Dakota Access, the Line 9 and Energy East pipelines in Ontario and environs, the Northern Gateway and Kinder Morgan pipelines in British Columbia, the Piñon pipeline in Navajo Country, the Sabal Trail pipeline in Alabama and Georgia, the Appalachian Connector, the Vermont Gas pipeline down the western side of my own state, the Algonquin pipeline, the Constitution pipeline, the Spectra pipeline, and on and on.
And it’s not just pipelines, not by a long shot. I couldn’t begin to start tallying up the number of proposed liquid natural gas terminals, prospective coal export facilities and new oil ports, fracking wells, and mountaintop removal coal sites where people are already waging serious trench warfare. As I write these words, brave activists are on trial for trying to block oil trains in the Pacific Northwest. In the Finger Lakes not a week goes by without mass arrests of local activists attempting to stop the building of a giant underground gas storage cavern. In California, it’s frack wells in Kern County. As I said: endless.
Pipeline projects are springing up across America as fossil fuel companies seek to continue growing their infrastructure.
And endlessly resourceful, too. Everywhere the opposition is forced by statute to make its stand not on climate change arguments, but on old grounds. This pipeline will hurt water quality. That coal port will increase local pollution. The dust that flies off those coal trains will cause asthma. All the arguments are perfectly correct and accurate and by themselves enough to justify stopping many of these plans, but a far more important argument always lurks in the background: each of these new infrastructure projects is a way to extend the life of the fossil fuel era a few more disastrous decades.
Here’s the basic math: if you build a pipeline in 2016, the investment will be amortized for 40 years or more. It is designed to last -- to carry coal slurry or gas or oil -- well into the second half of the twenty-first century. It is, in other words, designed to do the very thing scientists insist we simply can’t keep doing, and do it long past the point when physics swears we must stop.
These projects are the result of several kinds of momentum. Because fossil fuel companies have made huge sums of money for so long, they have the political clout to keep politicians saying yes. Just a week after the Paris accords were signed, for instance, the well-paid American employees of those companies, otherwise known as senators and representatives, overturned a 40-year-old ban on U.S. oil exports, a gift that an ExxonMobil spokesman had asked for in the most explicit terms only a few weeks earlier. “The sooner this happens, the better for us,” he’d told the New York Times, at the very moment when other journalists were breaking the story of that company’s epic three-decade legacy of deceit, its attempt to suppress public knowledge of a globally warming planet that Exxon officials knew they were helping to create. That scandal didn’t matter. The habit of giving in to Big Oil was just too strong.
Driving a Stake Through a Fossil-Fueled World
The money, however, is only part of it. There’s also a sense in which the whole process is simply on autopilot. For many decades the economic health of the nation and access to fossil fuels were more or less synonymous. So it’s no wonder that the laws, statutes, and regulations favor business-as-usual. The advent of the environmental movement in the 1970s and 1980s introduced a few new rules, but they were only designed to keep that business-as-usual from going disastrously, visibly wrong. You could drill and mine and pump, but you were supposed to prevent the really obvious pollution. No Deepwater Horizons. And so fossil fuel projects still get approved almost automatically, because there’s no legal reason not to do so.
In Australia, for instance, a new prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, replaced the climate-change-denying Tony Abbott. His minister for the environment, Greg Hunt, was a particular standout at the recent Paris talks, gassing on at great length about his “deeply personal” commitment to stopping climate change, calling the new pact the “most important environmental agreement ever.” A month earlier, though, he’d approved plans for the largest coal mine on Earth, demanding slight revisions to make sure that the habitat of the southern black-throated finch would not be destroyed. Campaigners had hung much of their argument against the mine on the bird’s possible extinction, since given the way Australia’s laws are written this was one of the few hooks they had. The fact that scientists have stated quite plainly that such coal must remain in the ground if the globe is to meet its temperature targets and prevent catastrophic environmental changes has no standing. It’s the most important argument in the world, but no one in authority can officially hear it.
It’s not just Australia, of course. As 2016 began in my own Vermont — as enlightened a patch of territory as you’re likely to find — the state’s Public Service Board approved a big new gas pipeline. Under long-standing regulations, they said, it would be “in the public interest,” even though science has recently made it clear that the methane leaking from the fracked gas the pipeline will carry is worse than the burning of coal. Their decision came two weeks after the temperature in the city of Burlington hit 68 on Christmas Eve, breaking the old record by, oh, 17 degrees. But it didn’t matter.
This zombie-like process is guaranteed to go on for years, even decades, as at every turn the fossil fuel industry fights the new laws and regulations that would be necessary, were agreements like the Paris accord to have any real teeth. The only way to short-circuit this process is to fight like hell, raising the political and economic price of new infrastructure to the point where politicians begin to balk. That’s what happened with Keystone — when enough voices were raised, the powers-that-be finally decided it wasn’t worth it. And it’s happening elsewhere, too. Other Canadian tar sands pipelines have also been blocked. Coal ports planned for the West Coast haven’t been built. That Australian coal mine may have official approval, but almost every big bank in the world has balked at providing it the billions it would require.
There’s much more of this fight coming — led, as usual, by indigenous groups, by farmers and ranchers, by people living on the front lines of both climate change and extractive industry. Increasingly they’re being joined by climate scientists, faith communities, and students in last-ditch efforts to lock in fossil fuels. This will undoubtedly be a key battleground for the climate justice movement. In May, for instance, a vast coalition across six continents will engage in mass civil disobedience to “keep it in the ground.”
Renewable energy sources are necessary to keep the planet livable for humans.
And in a few places you can see more than just the opposition; you can see the next steps unfolding. Last fall, for instance, Portland, Oregon — the scene of a memorable “kayaktivist” blockade to keep Shell’s Arctic drilling rigs bottled up in port — passed a remarkable resolution. No new fossil fuel infrastructure would be built in the city, its council and mayor declared. The law will almost certainly block a huge proposed propane export terminal, but far more important, it opens much wider the door to the future. If you can’t do fossil fuel, after all, you have to do something else — sun, wind, conservation. This has to be our response to the living-dead future that the fossil fuel industry and its allied politicians imagine for our beleaguered world: no new fossil fuel infrastructure. None. The climate math is just too obvious.
This business of driving stakes through the heart of one project after another is exhausting. So many petitions, so many demonstrations, so many meetings. But at least for now, there’s really no other way to kill a zombie.
Bill McKibben is the founder of 350.org and Schumann Distinguished Scholar at Middlebury College. He was the 2014 recipient of the Right Livelihood Award, often called the “alternative Nobel Prize.” His most recent book is Oil and Honey: The Education of an Unlikely Activist.
Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Book, Nick Turse’s Tomorrow’s Battlefield: U.S. Proxy Wars and Secret Ops in Africa, and Tom Engelhardt's latest book, Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World.
Copyright 2016 Bill McKibben
Top photo: Fotolia/Steve Oehlenschlager
Middle photo: Fotolia/James
Bottom photo: Fotolia/diyanadimitrova
Gas infrastructure will increase tenfold over the next ten years, according to the Clean Air Council, bringing gas pipelines, compressors, metering stations, and power plants to communities around the country. With them come emissions that have increased air pollution in rural areas to levels exceeding urban pollution, resulting in widespread adverse health effects, according to David Brown, environmental health consultant for Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project.
Making such invisible pollution problems visible and measureable to community residents, has become a compelling project for Illah Nourbakhsh, professor of robotics at the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.
“When fracking started, people didn’t know if they were being harmed by their water and air. Their tap water could be set on fire. Their horse’s hair might be falling out. People felt completely disempowered,” he said.
The Pittsburgh area was an early hub of fracking activity, and Nourbakhsh noticed discussions about it all over the city.
“We wanted to allow people to own the data and decide what to do,” said Beatrice Dias, project director at the Robotics Institute. “With air monitoring, an agency usually owns the data and makes decisions.”
Aided by grants from the Heinz and Fine foundations, they invented the Speck air monitor, size of a small clock, to enable people to monitor particulate matter at home. Increased pollutants from the gas industry include large quantities of fine particulate matter, also called PM 2.5, which creates inflammation throughout the body, particularly exacerbating lung and heart disease, according to Harvard Environmental Epidemiology Professor Joel Schwartz. In recent research, he found that even small increases in PM 2.5 levels raise mortality rates from all causes for people 65 and over, the population addressed by the study.
The Speck monitor has the capacity to collect data to be uploaded to the web at www.SpeckSensor.com, with an option to share data publicly and create sources of air quality information within communities and between cities around the U.S. The data is more specific in both location and content than the U.S. air quality index, which reflects a combination of particulate matter, ozone, and other pollutants, says Nourbakhsh.
Indoor readings are affected by both outdoor air and activities like vacuuming and cooking, potentially also providing information about triggers for personal health problems, like asthma, he says. Additionally, the Speck can indicate how well an air purifier is working.
To facilitate community access and collaboration, Nourbakhsh and his cohorts created a pilot public library program in Pittsburgh, donating several Speck monitors to be loaned like books.
“It’s become a popular program that got people involved in community advocacy,” says Dias.
Consequently, Nourbakhsh and Dias decided to launch Speck library programs nationally in 2016, providing the monitors to libraries at a discount.
In Minisink, the monitor was instrumental in identifying relationships between compressor emissions and symptoms experienced by people living in the community around it, when Brown and his SWPEHP colleagues conducted their health survey there. The monitors showed that the compressor tripled ambient levels of PM 2.5 within the 1.5 mile radius around the compressor. Ambient PM 2.5 rose from 6 micrograms (1/1000 milligram) per cubic meter, a typically low rural level, to 17, a level 50% greater than Environmental Protection Agency limits, with intermittent surges to levels 40 times the EPA’s limit.
Nourbakhsh and his colleagues also invented the Cattfish, a small $200 device that can be dropped in a toilet back tank to measure changes in total dissolved solids in well water. Although the Cattfish does not identify what chemicals the solids contain, a TDS increase indicates when contamination occurs, said Josh Schapiro, a robotics engineer at the Robotics Institute, who collaborated with Nourbakhsh on the project.
“The Cattfish provides easy access to well water TDS readings,” he said.
The Robotics Institute group is now working on technology that would monitor smaller particles that penetrate the lungs more deeply, as research published this year showed significant increases in babies with low birth weight, ADHD, and autism when mothers are exposed to high levels of fine particulate matter during pregnancy, Nourbakhsh said.
For information about the Speck library program, contact Sara Longo and Beatrice Dias at firstname.lastname@example.org
The demand for ivory carvings in China has resulted in the deaths of roughly 100 African elephants every day.
Reprinted with permission by TomDispatch.
Maybe baby steps will help, but the world needs a lot more than either the United States or China is offering to combat the illegal traffic in wildlife, a nearly $20-billion-a-year business that adds up to a global war against nature. As the headlines tell us, the trade has pushed various rhinoceros species to the point of extinction and motivated poachers to kill more than 100,000 elephants since 2010.
Last month China announced that it would ban ivory imports for a year, while it “evaluates” the effectiveness of the ban in reducing internal demand for ivory carvings on the current slaughter of approximately 100 African elephants per day. The promise, however, rings hollow following a report in November (hotly denied by China) that Chinese diplomats used President Xi Jinping’s presidential plane to smuggle thousands of pounds of poached elephant tusks out of Tanzania.
Meanwhile, the Obama administration has launched its own well-meaning but distinctly inadequate initiative to curb the trade. Even if you missed the roll-out of that policy, you probably know that current trends are leading us toward a planetary animal dystopia, a most un-Disneyesque world in which the great forests and savannas of the planet will bid farewell to the species earlier generations referred to as their “royalty.” No more King of the Jungle, while Dorothy’s “Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!” will truly be over the rainbow. And that’s just for starters.
The even grimmer news that rarely makes the headlines is that the lesser subjects of that old royalty are vanishing, too. Though largely unacknowledged, the current war is far redder in tooth and claw than anything nature has to offer. It threatens not just charismatic species like elephants, gibbons, and rhinos, but countless others with permanent oblivion.
If current trends hold, one day not so very long from now our children may think of the T. rex and the tiger as co-occupants of a single Lost World, accessible only in dreams, storybooks, and the movies. Sure, some of the planet’s present megafauna will be bred in zoos for as long as society produces enough luxury to maintain such institutions. Even the best zoo, however, is but a faint simulacrum of wild habitat and its captives are ghosts of their free-roaming forebears.
That’s why the Obama administration deserves some credit for highlighting the urgent need to curb the wildlife trade. Its plan calls for using assets of the National Intelligence Council to advance enforcement efforts. Unfortunately, the administration proposes boosting the enforcement budget of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the agency with primary responsibility in this area, by only $8 million. Such an increase would lift its force of inspectors just slightly above the levels of 30 years ago when the illicit trade in wildlife was far smaller.
To grasp the breadth of the carnage now going on, it’s essential to realize that the war against nature is being waged on an almost infinite number of planetary fronts, affecting hundreds of species, and that the toll is already devastating. Among the battlefields, none may be bloodier than the forests of Southeast Asia, for they lie closest to China, the world’s most ravenous (and lucrative) market for wildlife and wildlife parts.
China’s taste for wildlife penetrates even the least visited corners of the region, where professional poachers industriously gather live porcupines and turtles, all manner of venison, monkey hands, python fat, pangolin scales, otter skins, gall bladders, antlers, horns, bones, and hundreds of other items. These goods, dead or alive, are smuggled to markets in China and elsewhere. Meanwhile, an expanding economy enables ever more millions of people to purchase expensive animal commodities they believe might stave off disease or provide the fancy restaurant meals that will impress in-laws and business associates.
To put the present war in perspective, think of it this way: every year, more and more money chases fewer and fewer creatures.
Slaughter at the Ground Level
In a typical forest in Southeast Asia you might encounter a snare line stretching a kilometer or more along a mountain ridge or running down one side of a canyon and all the way up the other. These barriers are waist-high walls of chopped brush, with gaps every few meters. They are hedges of death.
Almost any mammal traveling in this landscape, if larger than a tree shrew (which would fit in a modest handbag), sooner or later will have to pass through one of these gaps, and in each a snare awaits. Powered by a bent-over sapling, it lies beneath a camouflage of leaves and hides a loop of bicycle brake cable — or truck winch cable for larger animals like tigers. The trigger controlling each snare is made of small sticks and can be astonishingly sensitive. I’ve seen snares set for deer and wild pig that were no less capable of capturing creatures as light of foot as a jungle fowl, the wild cousin of the domestic chicken, or a silver pheasant, the males of which shimmer in the dusky forest like bundles of fallen moonbeams.
Southeast Asia, including the Philippines and Indonesia, has the highest proportion of endemic birds and mammals anywhere in the world; it also leads the world in the proportion of species in imminent danger of extinction.
On an expedition to central Laos, my companions and I made our way into a forest distinguished mainly by its remoteness. The Vietnamese border lay perhaps a dozen kilometers to the east, closer by far than the nearest village, four days’ hard march away, where we’d recruited the guides and porters traveling with us. That village, in turn, lay two days by foot and motorized pirogue from the end of the nearest road. The head of our expedition, conservation biologist William Robichaud, the only other westerner in our group of 14, told me that, unless a distressed American pilot had parachuted into the sprawling watershed that lay before us during the Vietnam War, ours were the first blue eyes that had glimpsed it.
Isolation, however, failed to protect the canyons and ridges we surveyed. Evidence lay everywhere of commercial poachers who had crossed the mountains from Vietnam to feed the Chinese market. In a matter of days, we collected wires from almost a thousand snares. In them, we found the decaying carcasses of ferret badgers, hog badgers, mongooses, various species of birds, and several critically endangered large-antlered muntjacs, a species of barking deer, one of which, in its struggle to free itself, had pulled off its own foot before dying nearby.
We camped by fish-rich rivers that had been stripped of their otters and saw the remains of dozens of poachers’ camps, some elaborately equipped with butchering tables and smoking racks. Saddest of all was the sight of a red-shanked douc (also called a douc langur), perhaps the most beautiful monkey in the world, dangling upside down at the end of a snare pole, having succumbed to as slow and cruel a death as might be imagined.
The indiscriminate wastefulness of this massive trapping enterprise is hard to absorb even when you see it yourself. Poachers check their snare lines haphazardly and leave them armed when they depart the area. This means the killing goes on indefinitely, no matter if the bodies languish and rot.
A Unicorn Still in the Wild?
Though we were in that forest in part to remove snares and assess the nature of the ongoing damage, our main goal was to find a unicorn — or actually an animal almost as rare, a creature that might indeed have already moved, or might soon move, from Earth’s natural realms to the realm of mythology. We were searching for any sign of saola (Pseudoryx nghetinhensis), one of the rarest large mammals on the planet. Its very existence, though known to locals, was revealed to science only in 1992, when researchers spotted a strange set of horns on the wall of a hunter’s shack high in the mountains of Vietnam.
Saola proved to be much more than a new species. It represented a new genus, possibly even a new taxonomic tribe, although the jury is still out on that. A kind of bovid, a ruminant with cloven hooves, its nearest evolutionary relatives appear to be wild cattle, yet it looks nothing like a cow or bison. A saola stands a little higher than a carousel pony. Deer-like, but thicker in form, its powerful build helps it push through the densest vegetation. Its muzzle is splashed with camo patterns of white, and its tri-colored tail — white, chocolate brown, and black — blends with similar bands of color on its rump. Its long, nearly straight horns are elegantly tapered, and in profile they seem to blend into a single horn, giving the creature the otherworldly look of a unicorn.
At best, the existing population of saola numbers between a few dozen and a few hundred, making it nearly as rare and hard to find as a unicorn. Even stranger, its disposition, except when the animal is directly threatened, appears to be as gentle as that of the unicorns of medieval European lore.
In 1996, Robichaud spent two weeks in a rough crossroads town in central Laos observing a captive saola. The unfortunate creature did not survive long in the menagerie in which it was held — no saola has lasted more than a few months in confinement and none is held anywhere today — but he had ample opportunity to note that it reacted alertly, even violently, to the presence of a dog outside its enclosure. (Wild dogs, or dholes, are among its natural enemies.)
Eerily, however, the saola was calm in the presence of humans — far more so than the barking deer or the serow (a species of mountain goat) in nearby cages, even though they had been in the menagerie far longer. Captured in the wild just before Robichaud arrived, the saola proved calmer than any domestic goat, sheep, or cow he had known from farms in his native Wisconsin. The captive saola even let him pick ticks from its ears. Local information buttressed Robichaud’s sense of the creature’s almost unearthly serenity. A Buddhist monk from a nearby temple told him that people in the area had dubbed the creature “sat souphap,” which translates roughly as “the polite animal.”
Today, no one knows if the clock of extinction for the species stands at two minutes before midnight or two minutes after. The greatest threat to its survival is the kind of snaring we witnessed on our expedition, which is doubly tragic, for saola do not appear to be a target of the poachers. In spite of its exotic horns, the animal is unknown in traditional Chinese medicine. (Its omission from that medical tradition's encyclopedic command of Asian fauna and flora testifies to its profound isolation from the rest of the world.) Rather, the last living remnants of the species risk being taken as by-catch, like sea turtles in a shrimper’s net.
The Politics of Extinction
The situation may be terrible, but at least there are parks and protected areas in Southeast Asia where wild creatures are safe, right?
Alas, wrong. Our travels took place in an official National Protected Area in Laos where snaring of the kind we witnessed is blatantly illegal. Yet the deadly harvest continues, there and elsewhere, thanks to insufficient investment in protection and law enforcement, not to mention insufficient political will in countries whose overriding priority is economic development. Last year in the protected area of more than 4,000 square kilometers (1,544 square miles) that we visited, a small number of government patrols removed nearly 14,000 snares, undoubtedly a small fraction of what’s there.
The same is true elsewhere. According to the Saola Working Group, a committee sponsored by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, patrols that its members help to fund and supervise in just five protected areas in Laos and Vietnam (including the one in which we traveled) have destroyed more than 90,000 snares since 2011. And yet that, too, is just a drop in the bucket of the wildlife trade.
While the trade’s reach is global, the stakes may be highest in Southeast Asia (including Indonesia and the Philippines). About half the world’s people live there or in the adjacent countries of China, Bangladesh, and India. The region leads the world in the proportion of its birds and mammals that are endemic; that is, found nowhere else. Unfortunately, it also leads in the proportion in imminent danger of extinction, due in large measure to the wildlife trade. Worse yet, no country in Southeast Asia possesses a tradition of effective biological conservation.
Already many forests that once were rich in tigers, leopards, gaur, banteng, and gibbons are devoid of any mammals larger than a cocker spaniel. If the rest of the world truly wants to protect the planet’s endangered biodiversity, assisting the governments and NGOs of Southeast Asia in safeguarding their region’s natural heritage needs to be a global priority.
Large animals like leopards are not the only species at stake. Countless smaller and less charismatic species are also endangered by the illegal wildlife trade.
Critics often point out that the West is hypocritical in urging the East to do what it failed to accomplish in its own grim history of development. Indeed, the present sacking of Asian forests is analogous to the stripping of beaver from western American streams and the subsequent extirpation of bison herds in the nineteenth century. Nevertheless, if the West has learned one thing, it’s that conservation in advance of calamity costs much less than repairs after the fact and that it is the only way to prevent irreparable mistakes. No matter what moral ground you stand on, the facts in the field are simple: our best chance to avert catastrophe lies before us, right now.
Other critics complacently observe that extinction has always been part of evolution and that other epochs have seen similar waves of species loss. New species, they say, will emerge to take the places of those we destroy. Such a view may be technically correct, but it commits an error of scale.
Evolution will continue; it cannot not continue. But the inexorable emergence of what Darwin called “endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful” proceeds at a nearly geological pace. By comparison, our human tenancy of Earth is a fleeting breath. Within the time frame of what we call civilization, the extinctions we cause are as eternal as any human accomplishment.
A Loneliness That Could Stretch to Infinity
The essential conservation task before the world is to protect key habitats and wildlife populations long enough for generational attitudes to change in China and its neighbors. At least in part, this means meeting the war on nature with a martial response. Whether protecting elephants in Kenya, mountain gorillas in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (a cause movingly depicted in the documentary film Virunga), tigers in Thailand, or saola in Laos, one has to prepare, quite literally, to meet fire with fire.
In the case of our expedition in Laos, three of our guides doubled as militia and carried AK-47s. The weapons were not for show. Poachers are generally similarly armed. On one occasion, such a band, traveling in the dead of night, nearly walked into our camp, only to melt back into the forest when they realized they’d been discovered.
Good news, however, glimmers amid the bad. Although the shift will take time, cultural values in Asia are beginning to change. Witness the recent abandonment of shark fin soup by Chinese consumers. The San Francisco-based NGO WildAid reports that sales of shark fins have plummeted 82 percent in Guangzhou (formerly Canton), the hub of the shark trade, and that two-thirds of the respondents to a recent poll cited public “awareness campaigns” against the global destruction of shark populations as a reason for ending their consumption.
Only by rising to the challenge of species protection — not “eventually,” but now — can we ensure that nature’s most magnificent creations will persist in the wild to delight future generations. Only through generous cooperation with Asian partners, boosting both law enforcement and political resolve, can we preserve the stunning, often cacophonous, and always mysterious diversity of a large share of the planet’s most biologically productive ecosystems.
The dystopian alternative is terrible to consider. Uncounted species — not just tigers, gibbons, rhinos, and saola, but vast numbers of smaller mammals, amphibians, birds, and reptiles — are being pressed to the brink. We’ve hardly met them and yet, within the vastness of the universe, they and the rest of Earth’s biota are our only known companions. Without them, our loneliness would stretch to infinity.
William deBuys, a TomDispatch regular, is the author of eight books. His latest, just published, is The Last Unicorn: A Search for One of Earth’s Rarest Creatures (Little, Brown and Company, 2015). His website is williamdebuys.com.
Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Book, Rebecca Solnit's Men Explain Things to Me, and Tom Engelhardt's latest book, Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World.
Copyright 2015 William deBuys
Top photo by Fotolia/artrush
Middle photo by Fotolia/mathess
Bottom photo by Fotolia/Vitezslav Halamka
Big box stores wield such a name for good reason: they are the architectural equivalent of a giant empty box, built to hold a warehouse-full of discount goods and accommodate as many people as possible. They take up large lots of space in central and commercial districts and when a store closes, the sign comes down but there’s still that big box. What is a community to do?
Walmart currently lists 355 former store locations for sale on their realty website. These are the “dark stores” that were probably replaced by larger "Supercenters," leaving communities with a 250,000 square-foot, crumbling husk of capitalism and general aesthetic eyesore. There have been many creative and community-enriching re-purposing projects that take advantage of the deserted box stores, including the especially innovative McAllen Main Library.
Architecture and interior design firm Meyer, Scherer & Rockcastle (MSR), based in Minneapolis and well known for library designs, took on the interior conversion of the project led by Boultinghouse Simpson Gates Architects of McAllen. The transformation from big box to the largest single-story library in America resulted in an intuitively-organized, colorful and welcoming space. MSR also worked to maximize sustainability and reduce energy and water waste. These efforts resulted in a 45 percent reduction in potable water consumption, a condensate recovery system projected to save 180,000 gallons of water per year and a 38 percent reduction in energy usage compared to the national average for libraries.
“Like the building, finishes and furnishings were also selected to keep materials and toxins out of the waste system. Low VOW paints and the use of glue-free adhesive carpet tiles virtually eliminate associated VOCs and odor, providing good indoor air quality. Covering 75 percent of the floor area, the carpet tile contains between 60-80 percent recycled content, is durable, easy to maintain, and easy to replace. When its useful life is over, the carpet is recyclable. Furnishings were similarly chosen for their high recycled content and recyclability. Examples include study chairs containing 80 percent recycled aluminum, which are also 100 percent recyclable, as well as others made from 111 recycled plastic bottles per chair.”
The real test of a project like the McAllen library is whether the space designed specifically for the participation of the community effectively engages the public. In the first month after the opening of the new location, new user registrations had increased by 23 times, and existing accounts were updated at a 2,000 percent rate. The project was also a success for MSR, as the firm received various accolades including a 2013 Institute Honor Award for Interior Architecture and Best of Category in the 2012 Library Interior Design Awards.
Photos by Lara Swimmer, provided by Meyer, Scherer & Rockcastle.
Soon after New York City’s legalization of urban beekeeping in 2010, small operations began popping up, especially in Brooklyn neighborhoods like Red Hook. This was the likely cause of the noticeable increase in bee traffic at Red Hook resident Dell’s Maraschino Cherry Factory. Workers tried to curb the corn syrup theft, but the bees had developed a taste for the makings of the electric-red garnish. Soon enough, a few of the yellow forager bees returned to their hives a redder shade, and hives around Brooklyn started dripping honey infused with Red Dye Number 40.
Though it was sold in small batches, the concoction was reportedly “metallic” tasting and the whole ordeal was a serious annoyance to both Dell’s owner Arthur Mondella and the Brooklyn beekeepers. Mondella solicited the help of beekeeping experts from the National Resources Defense Council and the New York City Beekeepers Association. As winter fell on Brooklyn, bees returned to their natural color and the spotlight on Dell’s faded.
Mondella was a third generation owner of the Dell’s factory, which remains one of the largest maraschino cherry producers in the nation--TGI Friday's and Buffalo Wild Wings are among its most famous clients. Business was allegedly healthy, so it appeared unlikely that a massive marijuana growing operation would be found in a sophisticated lair hidden beneath the factory five years later, though that’s exactly what happened.
According to the New York Times, the underground grow house encompassed 2,500 square feet, the largest operation some investigators said they had ever seen. Authorities had reportedly been tipped off to the underground marijuana business, though the search warrants were executed due to environmental concerns, as it was discovered the factory was illegally dumping waste. Hours into the investigation, authorities found the entrance to the operation in a closet behind steel shelving and a false wall, in a room housing Mondella’s collection of vintage luxury cars. When the marijuana plants were discovered, 57-year-old Mondella went into a private bathroom and fatally shot himself.
At the time of this writing, investigators know very little of the network it surely took to nurture, dispense, and sell the product as well as build and maintain the operation’s underground hideout. The discovery of a copy of “The World Encyclopedia of Organized Crime” in the hidden office has led to obvious speculation of mob involvement. Dell’s might have seemed like an odd candidate for a drug front, but the nature of its (notably aromatic) production process covered the tracks for one of a grow operations dead giveaways—electricity usage. Heat lamps are needed to provide nutrients to the marijuana plants, a system that is often difficult to conceal.
Besides the mystery drug operation, Mondello leaves behind a 5-year-old daughter with his ex-wife, a public shocked that the successful company was used as a drug front, and authorities baffled as to why he took his life over marijuana charges.
Photo by Fotolia/vladimirenezic
Reprinted with permission by TomDispatch.
Here’s a Jeopardy!-style question for you: “Eight different species of whales can be seen in these two American seas.” Unless you’re an Iñupiaq, a marine biologist, or an Arctic enthusiast like me, it’s a pretty good guess that you can’t tell me what those seas are or what those whales are either. The answer: the Chukchi Sea and the adjacent Beaufort Sea, off Arctic Alaska, and you can commonly spot bowhead, beluga, and grey whales there, while fin whales, minkes, humpbacks, killer whales, and narwhals are all venturing into these seas ever more often as the Arctic and its waters continue to warm rapidly.
The problem, however, is that the major oil company Royal Dutch Shell wants to drill in the Chukchi Sea this summer and that could, in the long term, spell doom for one of the last great, relatively untouched oceanic environments on the planet. Let me explain why Shell’s drilling ambitions are so dangerous. Just think of the way the blowout of one drilling platform, BP’s Deepwater Horizon, devastated the Gulf of Mexico. Now, imagine the same thing happening without any clean-up help in sight.
You might have heard about “the sixth extinction,” the way at this moment species are blinking off at a historically unprecedented rate. The Arctic seas of Alaska, however, still are sanctuaries not only for tens of thousands of whales, but also hundreds of thousands of walruses and seals, millions of birds, thousands of polar bears, and innumerable fish from more than one hundred species, not to mention all the uncharismatic sub-sea life that eludes our eyes but makes up the food web — phytoplankton, sea urchins, sand dollars, and sea cucumbers, to name only a few. Think of the Arctic Ocean as among the last remaining marine ecological paradises on the planet.
Now for that oil. Looking for it in Arctic waters happens to be the most dangerous form of drilling imaginable, because no proven technology exists that could clean up a major oil spill in distant ice-choked seas in the cold and dark, under one of the harshest environments on Earth. Even during the brief “summer” open-water season, ice floes remain a constant threat as Shell found out in 2012 when one of its drill ships encountered a floe the size of Manhattan and was forced to disconnect from its seafloor anchor and temporarily halt its operations. Deep fog severely restricts visibility. Storms are not exceptions but the norm, and are becoming more frequent and violent in a rapidly warming region.
Beluga Whales with calves near Kasegaluk Lagoon along the Chukchi Sea coast, July 2006. About 4,000 beluga whales are known to calve along that lagoon. On this day in early July, we saw nearly 1,000 whales with newborn calves within a one-mile stretch. Photograph by Subhankar Banerjee.
I’ve spent much time in the Arctic and, believe me, it’s a forbidding environment for outsiders. In late September, as summer gives way to autumn, ice begins to form in the seas and darkness descends. Any spill that occurs late in the brief potential drilling season would remain untouched and unattended to until the ice melted the following summer. But even if such a blowout occurred in summer, there is no infrastructure in place to respond to a disaster. The nearest Coast Guard station is more than 1,000 miles away. And keep in mind that a disaster of this sort would not remain conveniently contained in the Arctic. As a recent U.S. National Research Council study on responding to an Arctic offshore oil spill puts it, “The risk of an oil spill in the Arctic presents hazards for the Arctic nations and their neighbors.”
Add to this potential nightmare scenario another little fact: Shell has garnered a well-deserved reputation as “the company with the spottiest Arctic record.” In September 2012, it initiated exploration drilling in U.S. Arctic waters with a conditional permit from the Obama administration, only to end a disastrous year in which one of its two drill rigs, the Kulluk, was grounded in the Gulf of Alaska on New Year’s Eve. The other ship, Noble Discoverer, suffered damage after catching fire, while both were fined by the Environmental Protection Agency for violating the Clean Air Act, and the contractor Noble Drilling pleaded guilty in 2014 to all eight felony charges leveled against it for environmental violations and agreed to ante up $12.2 million in fines and community service payments. Because of the damage to its rigs, Shell was forced to give up its 2013 drilling plans. A court ruling in January 2014 in favor of local Iñupiat tribes and environmentalists forced the company not to drill that summer either.
Since then, the price of oil has plunged, sending a shock wave across the oil industry and deep-sixing all sorts of prospective plans planet-wide to drill in Arctic waters: Norway’s Statoil shelved its 2015 drilling plan in the Barents Sea off that country’s northern coast and handed back the three leases it had purchased in the Baffin Bay off the west coast of Greenland. Chevron put its plan to drill in Canada’s Beaufort Sea on indefinite hold. Following the Ukraine crisis and American sanctions on Russia, ExxonMobil was prohibited from working with the oil company Rosneft on a joint plan to drill in the Kara Sea in the Russian Arctic. Even had those sanctions not been in place, the low price of oil would have made such exploration a far less appetizing prospect for the moment.
“It is up to Shell then to keep the oil industry’s Arctic dreams alive,” one journalist suggested and indeed, on January 29th, that company announced that, after a two-year hiatus, it would drill this summer in the Chukchi Sea. Two weeks later, the Obama administration issued its final supplemental environmental impact statement on the site where the drilling would take place, the controversial Chukchi Lease Sale 193, bringing Shell’s plan one step closer to reality.
But before considering the politics of oil drilling there, let’s take a little dive into the Arctic Ocean and the history of its exploitation.
Who Owns the Arctic Ocean?
For more than four centuries, western nations have regarded the Arctic Ocean as an economic treasure chest. The oil harvested from Arctic whales helped fuel the economies of countries in Europe and North America and drove the magnificent bowhead whale to near extinction.
Prayer after a whale hunt. Iñupiat Elder Isaac Akootchook and whaling captain James Lampe offer a prayer to thank the Creator and the whale for offering food for the community, Kaktovik, along the Beaufort Sea coast, September 2001. Photograph by Subhankar Banerjee.
In February 1880, the future creator of Sherlock Holmes, Arthur Conan Doyle, then a 20-year-old medical student, interrupted his studies for a six-month voyage on the Arctic whaler, Hope, as the ship’s surgeon. From his diary we learn that the drive to profit trumped any concern about the possible extinction of the bowhead, or Greenland, whale. “Price tends to rise steadily for the number of the creatures is diminishing,” he wrote, “probably not more than 300 of them left alive in the whole expanse of the Greenland seas.” On another day, he added that, “[T]he creatures…own those unsailed seas.” Of course, those seas were anything but “unsailed” as commercial ships were plying them to harvest whales, so consider that instead Doyle’s euphoric expression of how it felt to him to see the life in that ocean.
Today, to the extent that seas can be “owned,” governments own them and are selling pieces off to the highest bidders — oil companies. Ownership or territorial control for commercial exploitation is, however, only one side of the story of the Arctic Ocean. The magnificent and complex ecology of the northern seas is now being altered by three human-caused phenomena: climate change, ocean acidification, and pollution.
Arctic sea ice is vanishing at an astonishing rate thanks to climate change, which is having devastating impacts on the region’s polar bears and walruses. In the southern Beaufort Sea of Alaska and Arctic Canada, the polar bear population declined by 40% between 2001 and 2010. Meanwhile, in six of the last eight years, tens of thousands of Pacific walruses have hauled themselves out onto barrier islands and tundra along the Chukchi Sea because there was no sea ice left for them to rest on. Onshore, walruses are far from their food sources and young walruses are particularly susceptible to being trampled to death by the adults in the colony.
Sea ice along the Beaufort Sea coast, July 2002. Photograph by Subhankar Banerjee.
Commercial whaling in the region, which started in 1848, ended by about 1921, when petroleum supplanted whale oil as the fuel of choice. With no industrial activity in those waters for more than half a century, the bowhead population slowly began to recover. Whales don’t depend on sea ice the way polar bears and walruses do, so in 2011 the bowhead population in the U.S. Arctic was estimated at almost 17,000 and is increasing by 3.7% per year.
The half-century of commercial calm in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas ended, however, in the late 1970s, when oil exploration began. By the early 1990s, the expensive hunt for oil in Arctic seas had largely failed and almost all leases were relinquished. The second wave of U.S. Arctic offshore oil and gas exploration only started when George W. Bush took office. Between 2003 and 2008 leases were sold on more than three million acres in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas, while generating substantial controversy and court challenges from the tribal Iñupiat peoples and environmental groups. The persistence of this resistance to drilling, along with the recent price collapse, has marked the second boom-and-bust cycle in Arctic exploration. The French company Total, for instance, simply walked away from the U.S. Arctic in 2012 pointing out that offshore drilling there could lead to a “disaster,” and other companies have put exploration on indefinite hold — but not Shell.
Inevitability and Rush
Historically, government-sponsored research on the U.S. Arctic has been driven not by that hallmark of science, curiosity, but by the desire to drill for oil and gas — by, that is, two impulses that are quite unscientific in nature. The first is an oil-company-inculcated urge to transform the decision to drill into a sense of inevitability and the second is an oil-company-sponsored urge to rush the process.
In fact, according to the National Research Council oil spill response study, systematic data collection in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas only began in the late 1970s — in other words, just as the first wave of Arctic offshore oil exploration was revving up. Onshore, the situation was the same: the initial comprehensive study of the flora and fauna of Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge only took place in the mid-1980s, after the Reagan administration made a push to open it up to development — and (irony of ironies) the disastrous 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill was what saved the refuge from industrial exploitation.
While there have only been sporadic studies of the marine environments in question since then, no comprehensive benchmark study for the Beaufort and Chukchi seas has ever been done; nor is there any thorough understanding of how the marine food web works in those seas, or of the population sizes and distribution of any but the sentinel species (whales, polar bears, walruses, and seals). Even the data on them is considered “not reliable or precise enough to examine trends, evaluate influences from climate change, or estimate population-level damage in the event of an oil spill,” according to the National Research Council study.
The first benchmark study of the Hanna Shoal, one of the most biologically productive spots in the Chukchi Sea, only began in early August 2012. At the end of that month, the Obama administration gave Shell a conditional permit to begin drilling in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas. In other words, Arctic science hasn’t been guiding public policy, but rushing to catch up with the extractivist agenda of Big Oil.
Under the circumstances and given the perils of such extreme drilling in such an environment, what’s curious is the rush to inevitability exhibited by two successive administrations. And despite the recent collapse of oil prices, which makes such Arctic drilling prohibitively expensive and unprofitable, it hasn’t ended yet. On January 27th, the White House noted a conservation decision it had made with this reassuring headline at its website: “President Obama Protects Untouched Marine Wilderness in Alaska.” The president had indeed withdrawn 9.8 million acres of U.S. Arctic waters, including Hanna Shoal, from future oil and gas lease sales. Just over two weeks later, however, the administration also issued the final supplemental environmental impact statement for Chukchi Lease Sale 193, which includes blocks of Arctic waters adjacent to and upstream from Hanna Shoal. In such waters generally, “protection” is an exaggeration in any case because, as one senior scientist from the Hanna Shoal study team put it in 2012, “anything that goes in the water at the drill sites may end up in this very productive region.”
Keeping Arctic Resources Underground
The leases the Bush administration sold in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas, Lease Sale 193 among them, generated substantial controversy and met with legal challenges. A coalition of native Alaskan and environmental organizations filed a lawsuit challenging the leases, the government’s inadequate gathering of baseline scientific data, and its unwillingness to appropriately assess what a potential blowout would mean to the ecology of the regions and the life of indigenous cultures there.
As it turned out, the plaintiffs won twice, first in the U.S. District Court for the District of Alaska in 2010, and then in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in January 2014. Following that ruling, the Department of Interior finally went back to the drawing board and, on October 31, 2014, released a new draft supplemental environmental impact statement that acknowledged some of the ecological realities of drilling in Arctic seas. It suggested that there would be a 75% chance of one or more large oil spills (more than 1,000 barrels) if serious drilling began there and that any such spill could have catastrophic ecological consequences. The public comment period on the draft ended on December 22nd.
Nonetheless, this February, the Obama administration issued the final impact statement for Lease Sale 193 and sent the process forward. The Interior Department had by then taken less than two months, including the Christmas holiday season, to consider the more than 400,000 public comments it had received. “The analysis was rushed to cater to Shell’s desire to drill this summer,” Leah Donahey, Arctic Ocean senior campaign director with the Alaska Wilderness League, told me over the phone. Iñupiaq elder and conservationist Rosemary Ahtuangaruak emailed me this: “We are faced with a plan to drill in the Arctic Ocean — Our Ocean, Our Garden, Our Future. With a clean ocean we have our traditions and culture, and our life, health, and safety. We risk all of it with this decision.”
The question, of course, should be: in a country that has, in recent years, opened so many new drilling vistas from the Bakken Oil Fields of North Dakota to the Gulf of Mexico, creating what energy experts now call “Saudi America,” why is there still such a rush to industrialize the Arctic Ocean? Shell has a long history of trying to establish itself as a leader in Arctic exploration and drilling, and despite the inauspicious global situation for expensive forms of drilling, continues to push the process as fast as it can.
This, too, has long been the case. In the fall of 2010, for instance, the company launched a “We have the technology, let’s go” multi-million-dollar ad campaign to pressure the Obama administration to green-light the necessary permits for exploratory drilling in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas. In 2012, having gotten the necessary permits, it had a thoroughly disastrous drilling season, proving beyond a doubt that it did not “have the technology” to deal with the far North. Knowing that, and knowing as well that there is no proven technology for cleaning up a major oil spill in the ice-choked, forbidding, mostly dark environment of the Arctic seas, Shell is nonetheless back again.
Storm over Kasegaluk Lagoon, July 2006. Photograph by Subhankar Banerjee.
As part of an ongoing competition among the major oil companies, Shell is clearly trying to establish itself as quickly as possible as the dominant player in Arctic offshore drilling, just as BP did in the Gulf of Mexico — with results that we remember well from the Deepwater Horizon blowout of 2010. Nonetheless, the Gulf looks like Club Med compared to the Arctic. To let Shell drill in the Chukchi Sea when the price of oil is low and its profits slumping would be a rash act indeed, given that a company under pressure elsewhere has a tendency to cut costs and compromise safety. Shell has already set a precedent. In 2012, the company’s decision to avoid Alaskan taxes resulted in moving its drill ship Kulluk from Alaska to Washington, only to see it grounded along the way.
Some things can be counted on like the sun setting in the West. In the extreme environment of the Arctic seas, a devastating oil spill is one of them if exploration is allowed to continue. The Obama administration, having just opened the southeastern Atlantic Coast to large-scale future oil exploration and drilling, is now poised to let Shell turn America’s Arctic waters into a disaster area. That it will happen sooner or later is a given should the company proceed. That Washington is still considering letting Shell do it anyway should amaze us all.
The final decision about whether to “end or affirm” the Chukchi Sea oil leases will be made on March 20th. Shell still needs approval on several permits before it can head north. The Obama administration cannot approve these permits until Lease Sale 193 is finalized. This may have contributed to the administration’s rushed analysis of that impact statement.
In January, the prestigious science journal Nature published a study adding one more obvious factor to an already grim equation. The development of oil and gas resources in the Arctic would, it wrote, be “incommensurate with efforts to limit average global warming to 2 degrees centigrade.” In other words, at a moment when the planet is experiencing an oil glut, it’s possible that the Obama administration will add yet another potential source of extreme oil to the list of future sources of the greenhouse warming of this planet.
Think of drilling in the Arctic as a future catastrophe in a single enticing package. In April, the United States takes over the chairmanship of the Arctic Council. If it decides to let Shell proceed, how will it present itself to the rest of the Arctic nation states, the indigenous Arctic nations and organizations, and the rest of us? Will it be as the Arctic driller-in-chief, the planet’s warmer-in-chief, or a country committed to climate change mitigation and the conservation of biotic life and indigenous cultures in the midst of the sixth great extinction event in the Earth’s history?
Subhankar Banerjee’s most recent book is Arctic Voices: Resistance at the Tipping Point. His Arctic photographs are currently on display in two exhibitions at the Nottingham Contemporary in the United Kingdom and at the McMichael Canadian Art Collection in Ontario, Canada. He has been deeply involved with the native tribes of the Arctic in trying to prevent the destruction of Arctic lands and seas.
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Copyright 2015 Subhankar Banerjee
From an environmental standpoint, plastic is a huge problem. In America we use 2.5 million plastic bottles each hour and recycle only 27 percent of them. Discarded packaging and other plastic products are huge contributors to things like oceanic trash islands, garbage patches, plastic eating microbes and other dystopian-sounding environmental phenomena. Though there have been continued efforts to estimate just how much plastic ends up in places outside of our disposal infrastructure, like the ocean, we still don't really know how it is breaking down or where the pieces are all ending up. Even when plastic is recycled (and it often isn't) it can’t be completely re-purposed like other materials, so the process is more accurately called down-cycling. The outlook seems bleak, yet production of plastic is actually on the rise, further evidence that we are acting as though plastics aren’t suffocating our earth or infiltrating the global food chain.
The quest for a durable, biodegradable, easily-molded, environmentally-friendly bioplastic seems like a quixotic one, but a team at the Wyss Institute at Harvard University has developed a bioplastic fabrication process that uses a form of chitin, an abundant and underutilized material found in shrimp shells.
“Most bioplastics are made from cellulose, a plant-based polysaccharide material. The Wyss Institute team developed its bioplastic from chitosan, a form of chitin, which is a powerful player in the world of natural polymers and the second most abundant organic material on Earth. Chitin is a long-chain polysaccharide that is responsible for the hardy shells of shrimps and other crustaceans, armor-like insect cuticles, tough fungal cell walls — and flexible butterfly wings. The majority of available chitin in the world comes from discarded shrimp shells, and is either thrown away or used in fertilizers, cosmetics, or dietary supplements, for example.” -The Wyss Institute
Chitin itself is not a new discovery. What the team at the Wyss Institute accomplished was developing a process for the production of what they call “Shrilk” (shrimp chitin combined with a protein from silk) that can be molded into complex 3d shapes without breaking or shrinking. The resulting bioplastic degrades in about two weeks, actually adding nutrients to soil and allowing plant life to grow, like the black-eyed pea grown by the Wyss team in chitosan-enriched soil.
Laboratory development of bioplastics like Shrilk is encouraging, but the product still faces the daunting transition to large-scale manufacturing. So, although burying discarded yogurt containers in our gardens might not be an immediate possibility, it's nice to know someone is working on it.
Images provided by The Wyss Institute at Harvard University.