Wild Green

Former Utne Reader senior editor Keith Goetzman on environmental issues from climate change to composting.

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3/17/2010

Snow leopard and paparazzi

If that photo of a snow leopard looks just too perfect to be natural, it probably isn’t, Ted Williams writes in Audubon magazine. Many wildlife photographs, he reports, are now taken at game farms where captive animals are basically hired out as models; that’s even what the industry calls them.

Williams visits one such operation, the Triple D in Montana, which has wolves, cougars, and snow leopards among its talent. While he praises Triple D’s owners for treating its animals well, the muckraking author of Audubon’s “Incite” column nonetheless questions the underlying premise of their enterprise:

Images of Triple D’s snow leopards are proliferating like Internet pop-ups. In 2008 one even received first place in the “nature” category of National Geographic’s International Photography Contest. Animals like snow leopards are in desperate trouble, but why should people believe this when they see sleek, healthy snow leopards every time they walk into a bookstore or open a “wildlife” calendar?

Not all game farms are as ethical as Triple D. Williams notes that life is “hard and brief” for many captive animals, and some of the operations illegally traffic in endangered wildlife. Moreover, plenty of farm operators are happy to conceal the conceit that photographs of their animals are being passed off as amazing shots from the wild.

For publications that feature wildlife photography, the phenomenon means wrestling with ethical issues—or not. Williams cites hunting and fishing magazines, a.k.a. “the vast hook-and-bullet press,” as eager and shameless traffickers in nature fakery:

Battery acid is splashed on captive fish to make them leap frantically. I talked to one genuine wildlife photographer who has quit submitting deer photos to hook-and-bullet publications because he can’t compete with all the photographers who rent or own penned deer bred for freakishly large antlers. One such mutation, appearing on the covers of countless hunting rags, had four owners, the last of which bought him for $150,000. For years the ancient beast was kept on life support with medications and surgeries.

Many other publications that cover wildlife and wish to keep their natural cred—among them Audubon, Sierra, Natural History, Smithsonian, Defenders of Wildlife, National Wildlife, and a more careful National Geographic—either don’t use captive shots or clearly identify them when they do. To Williams’ credit, he acknowledges that even Audubon has a checkered past, quoting former editor Les Line: “The earliest issues of Audubon [circa 1903] tried to pass of photographs of stuffed birds as live ones. That’s minor compared to what’s been happening since.”

The print edition of the March-April Audubon shows a photo of a captive Arctic fox that almost fooled Audubon’s now-wary photo editors, who considered publishing it last year. Among the giveaways in this “anatomy of a fake”: The creature is much heavier than a wild fox and has that “just-shampooed look.”

Source: Audubon

Image by MacJewell, licensed under Creative Commons.



7/28/2010

The Utne Reader's Surly Big Dummy

You may have seen or heard tales of cargo bikes, the specialized pedal-powered machines that can haul much more than your average bike. Perhaps you’ve spotted one loading up with groceries at the co-op or tooling around town with some kids on the back, or maybe you’ve come across one of the many YouTube videos or Flickr pics of plucky riders hauling large and unwieldy items on their sturdy rides.

Over at the Pacific Northwest alt-news outlet Sightline Daily, Alan Durning recently posted an impressively thorough rundown of these “human powered pickup trucks,” which range from pretty conventional bikes with extended and beefed-up back ends—like the Utne Reader’s new Surly Big Dummy, pictured above—to more farfetched designs with monikers such as longjohns, box bikes, and cargo trikes. Durning’s article covers custom-designed bikes for carrying specialized loads from beer kegs to mail to soup, and includes great shots of folks lugging screen doors, flower seedlings, and, on moving day, what appears to be all their worldly possessions. He writes:

What’s clear from all the inventing and tinkering and experimenting in cargo bikes is that we’ve yet to reach the limits of muscle-powered urban transportation.

I doubt that cargo bikes will ever amount to a substantial share of freight hauling even in cities. The motor is an amazing technology, and hauling large loads is where it makes most sense.

Still, cargo bikes seem destined to fill a small but growing niche in our communities. Unlike electric bikes, they fit perfectly into North America’s existing bike culture (macho, anti-auto, lighthearted). They extend options for car-less and car-lite businesses and families. …

As our neighborhoods grow more compact, mixed, and bike-friendly, and when we put a price on carbon, cargo bikes are likely to grow steadily in numbers and uses. They are likely, in fact, to become commonplace—symbols and reminders of how human power and human ingenuity are chipping away at an unreliable, climate-changing, and ocean-endangering petroleum supply.

Here at Utne Reader, we’re proud to be part of the trend with our new staff Big Dummy. We intend to take it out to events such as concerts, film festivals, and book fairs, bearing Utne Readers and conversation, and put it to work hauling everything from burritos to the giant stacks of books and magazines that we plow through. I’m not sure we’ll change the world, but we’ll save a little gas, get some fresh air, and tone our thighs nicely.

Maybe we can even reach out across partisan lines and give Rush Limbaugh a lift somewhere.

(Thanks, Grist.)

Source: Sightline Daily



10/14/2011

Pull-top can 

Bisphenol A and two other chemicals have been linked to infertility in several recent studies, reports Environmental Health News, adding new environmental concerns to couples trying to conceive.

Researchers looked at the chemicals’ effect on the success of in vitro fertilization, or IVF, in which an egg is removed from a woman’s uterus, grown to an embryo in a petri dish, then implanted back into the uterus.

In one study, Lindsey Konkel reports, women with higher concentrations of bisphenol A, or BPA, had lower peak levels of estradiol, a form of estrogen that helps eggs develop. In another, researchers found a link between blood concentrations of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and the rate at which embryos attached to the uterine wall. Finally, in a third study, women with the highest hexachlorobenzene (HCB) levels in their blood were more likely to experience a failed embryo implantation than those with the lowest levels.

The interesting, and rather alarming, thing here is that two of the chemicals have been banned in the United States for years. HCB, a pesticide, has been banned here since1984, though it is still used in some other countries and may be created as an impurity in the making of other pesticides and chemicals. PCBs, a class of industrial fluids used mostly in electrical equipment, have been banned since 1979, but their persistence in the environment means they still show up in the blood of more than 95 percent of Americans older than 12.

Environmental Health News points out that “causes of infertility are numerous, ranging from hormonal imbalances, to defects of the uterus, to misshapen sperm, low sperm count or low sperm motility in men.” But these new findings are worth considering given what we’ve learned in recent years:

Some scientists now theorize that endocrine-disrupting chemicals in the environment also can reduce fertility. Endocrine disruptors are a class of more than 1,200 chemicals that can mimic or block hormones, including estrogen, the primary female sex hormone involved in pregnancy.

“These chemicals may affect the way hormones regulate many aspects of our bodies, potentially even the ability to get pregnant,” said Laura Vandenberg, a reproductive scientist at Tufts University.

It’s unclear yet whether these findings are unique to the IVF community, or if we are just seeing the tip of the iceberg of a problem that extends beyond this population,” said Tracey Woodruff, a reproductive health scientist in the division of Maternal-Fetal Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco Medical Center who was not involved in the studies.

There’s not much any of us can do to limit exposure to PCBs or HCB; they’re basically everywhere. But it’s clear that avoiding BPA as much as possible is still good policy for any woman who may one day bear children—and, in my view, for those of us who will never bear children as well. If it’s toxic enough to torpedo a pregnancy, I certainly don’t want it in my blood, either. See the Environmental Working Group’s tips on the best ways to avoid BPA in your life.

Sources: Environmental Health News, Environmental Working Group 

Image by Steven Depolo, licensed under Creative Commons. 



3/5/2010

Foodmakers are having a tough time finding alternatives to bisphenol A, the chemical that’s been implicated in health issues and is used widely in the wares sold in your grocery store. The Washington Post recently described the frantic rush to find BPA alternatives among major food makers, who use it in container linings, but didn’t find any of them who wanted to go on the record about it:

Major food companies declined to talk publicly about their efforts to find a replacement for BPA linings. “We don’t have a safe, effective alternative, and that’s an unhappy place to be,” the source said. “No one wants to talk about that.”

The Food and Drug Administration has put off a decision on BPA to study it more, and it’s possible the agency will eventually ban the substance. To hear one WashPo source tell it, this isn’t the main issue—food makers are simply trying to preserve their slice of the market:

“It doesn’t matter what FDA says. If consumers decide they don’t want BPA, you don’t want it to be in a can that consumers don’t want to buy,” said one source at a major U.S. food company who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

But the unspoken subtext here is the threat of legal action: As Utne Reader reported last November, BPA may become a major cause for plaintiffs’ attorneys, and companies that stick with the chemical despite steadily mounting evidence of its harmful effects stand to lose not just market share but possibly millions of dollars in damages.

Source: Washington Post



7/14/2011

The Plant diagram 

A growing number of beer makers are incorporating green practices in their brewing operations, but a couple of brothers setting up a brewery in Chicago are setting their sights even higher, reports the Chicago Reader: They’re aiming for a zero-waste facility.

The key is that the New Chicago Brewing Company is not a freestanding operation but part of The Plant, a former meatpacking facility that is being renovated to house a bunch of symbiotic businesses under one roof. One makes pickles, one makes kombucha tea, and one is an aquaponics operation that will produce tilapia, greens, mushrooms, and herbs. The Reader reports:

The idea is to turn the whole compound into a zero-waste facility. The heat for brewing New Chicago’s beer will come from an anaerobic digester, which uses bacteria to convert organic waste—produced in the building and by neighboring food businesses—to biogas (and sludge, which becomes fertilizer). The gas is then cleaned, compressed, and run through a high-pressure turbine (repurposed from a military fighter jet engine) to create electricity and 850-degree steam. The brewery, in turn, will produce spent grains—which can be used to feed the tilapia, grow mushrooms, and feed the digester—and carbon dioxide—which will be piped to the plants in the building to make them grow faster.

Sounds like a great idea, though it has a ways to go yet. The brothers, Samuel Evans and Jesse Edwin Evans, don’t expect to be brewing beer till March 2012, and The Plant’s website shows pretty clearly that the facility is a DIY work in progress. But Samuel Evans figures that ultimately their production costs will be “insanely lower—like 75 percent lower” than a conventional brewery.

Once they’re up and running, New Chicago plans to produce 12,000 barrels of beer in the first year, to be sold to city bars and liquor stores. The Evanses also hope to sell beer on-site in a tasting room and to help aspiring brewers make and market their own concoctions.

It’ll be up to beer aficionados to decide how stellar the suds are. But if the Evans brothers realize their ambitions, New Chicago will help set a new standard for sustainable breweries—and others businesses too. “Nothing leaves our brewery except beer,” they write on the New Chicago website. “Imagine if that were true for all production businesses.”

(Thanks, @simransethi.)

Source: Chicago Reader, The Plant, New Chicago Brewing Company 

Diagram by Matt Bergstrom. 



3/23/2010

EPA mountaintop removal protest

While the health care bill was being hammered out, a different sort of political drama unfolded in Washington at the headquarters of the Environmental Protection Agency, where environmental activists camped out for 32 hours to send a strong message to administrator Lisa Jackson: End mountaintop removal coal mining. The protest didn’t attract many prominent headlines in the shadow of the health care fracas, but like Obama and the Democrats it got the job done.

The protesters’ “purple mountains majesty” tents, built around tripods on which protesters perched, attracted just the sort of attention they were looking for, according to the blog It’s Getting Hot in Here, which publishes “dispatches from the youth climate movement”:

Almost every person who passed through our ‘Purple Mountain’s Majesty’ and underneath the banner “EPA: Pledge to End Mountaintop Removal Coal Mining in 2010” has been incredibly encouraging of our action. EPA employees, tourists and DC residents all demonstrated their support on the issue.

In addition to the many comments from EPA employees that “we are doing a great job” and “please keep doing what you’re doing,” Lisa Jackson personally tweeted her response. Administrator Jackson said in her tweet: “People are here today expressing views on MTM, a critical issue to our country. They’re concerned abt human health & water quality & so am I.”

Sure, it’s just a tweet, but parsing Jackson’s no-doubt-carefully constructed missive is telling. As Jeff Biggers notes at Common Dreams, she uses the acronym MTM, for “mountaintop mining,” a term favored by the coal industry over the more specifically descriptive MTR, for “mountaintop removal.”

EPA tripod sitterAlso, Jackson’s focus on human health and water quality sticks to the agency line on this issue. Biggers notes that an EPA spokeswoman yesterday said the protest was “based on a fundamental misunderstanding of EPA’s role” and explained that the EPA does not regulate the mining industry, but is only “responsible for ensuring that projects comply with the Clean Water Act.”

“Except,” notes Biggers, “it’s the mining industry that isn’t complying with the Clean Water Act.”

At GristJoshua Kahn Russell writes that actions speak louder than tweets:

At this point in the battle to end mountaintop removal coal mining, the question isn’t about whether Administrator Jackson is concerned about the issue. The question is what is her agency going to really do about it? …

Based on Jackson’s statements on March 8 at the National Press Club, it appears that the EPA is seeking ways to “minimize” the ecological damage of mountaintop mining rather than halt the most extreme strip mining practice. A paper released in January by a dozen leading scientists in the journal Science, however, concluded that mountaintop coal mining is so destructive that the government should stop giving out new permits all together.

One of the chief goals of the EPA protest, which was organized by the Rainforest Action Network, was to get Jackson to accept a citizen-guided flyover of mountaintop removal sites in Appalachia. We’re still waiting for her to tweet her RSVP.

Sources: It’s Getting Hot in Here, Common DreamsGrist 

Images by Chris Eichler, courtesy of Rainforest Action Network.



10/23/2011

Canadian tar sands protester 

As I read OnEarth magazine’s no-holds-barred story condemning Canada’s past and present environmental record—billed on the cover as “Blame Canada: Our Rapacious Neighbor to the North”—I thought, wow, Canadians are going to be mad at the American who wrote this. Then I realized that the author, Andrew Nikiforuk, is a Canadian himself, and so are many of the harshest critics quoted in the piece.  

Which makes the story a particularly tough pill to swallow for any Canadian who still harbors the illusion that his or her country is a beacon of environmental enlightenment. Sure, Canada has sensible gun laws, universal health care, gay marriage, and a refreshing lack of religious fanaticism—but, writes Nikiforuk:  

Although Canada pretends to be a Jolly Green Giant, it is actually a resource-exploiting Jekyll and Hyde. Whenever global demand for metals and minerals booms, Canada takes on a sinister personality. And whenever export markets shrivel, the country temporarily retreats into a kindly figure with memory of the misdeeds of his alter ego. But for most of Canada’s history, the nasty Mr. Hyde has dominated the nation’s economic life as a hewer of wood, a netter of fish, a dammer of rivers, and a miner of metals.  

Well, then. Canada’s current earthly plunder is of course the tar sands of Alberta, but Nikiforuk makes the convincing case that this is just the latest in a long line of environmental transgressions, tempered by a brief spell of admirable anti-climate-change moves, as one expert tells him:  

“Canada used to be a leader in climate-change policy and action,” says Andrew Weaver of the University of Victoria, one of Canada’s leading climate-change researchers. But that was before it became America’s number-one oil supplier. Now, Weaver says, “Canada has an ideological agenda all built around the export of one resource.”  

Furthermore, it would be bad enough if Canada were simply destroying its own environment, but the country’s reach extends far beyond its borders thanks to the global nature of 21st century extraction industries, Nikiforuk points out:  

When not digging up their own backyard, Canada’s energetic engineers and drillers are busy abroad, with almost half their investments concentrated in Mexico, Chile, and the United States.  

It’s easy to take this blame game too far; we Americans are of course culpable in any environmental destruction committed to feed our insatiable needs for energy, food, and products. But perhaps it is time to see Canada in a more nuanced light.  

One U.S. green activist, writes Nikiforuk, “ had a benign view of Canada as a forested country with funky rock bands such as the Barenaked Ladies.” This is much too narrow a view; to be fair, she should have remembered that along with Neil Young and Arcade Fire, Canada has also given us Celine Dion and Nickelback.  

Source: OnEarth 

Image by jonathan mcintosh, licensed under Creative Commons. 



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