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

Chopping Down Redwoods to Make Wine

California redwood trees 

Two California vintners want to cut down 2,000 acres of redwood trees and replace them with vineyards in the largest woodland-to-vineyard conversion in California’s history. Do I need to explain what conservationists think of this?

Under the proposal, reported by the Los Angeles Times and later tipped by High Country News, two Sonoma County pinot noir growers, Premier Pacific Vineyards and Artesa Vineyards, want to expand their growing operations by slicing into forestlands of Douglas firs and the state’s iconic redwoods. Premier also wants to develop 60 high-end estates—for members of the 1 percent, I assume—on adjacent lands that it already owns on the ironically named Preservation Ranch.

“In exchange,” reports the Times, “the developers promise to restore streams, add more than 200 acres to a county park, plant 1 million redwoods and Douglas firs and make other environmental improvements.”

But environmental advocates aren’t appeased by these offers:

“I don’t see a need for more deforestation to have a great wine economy, because there is a lot of cleared land already available,” said Adina Merelender, a UC Berkeley conservation biologist.

“The big issue for us,” added Jay Holcomb of the Sierra Club, “is that redwoods-to-vineyards conversions are worse than clear-cutting because they are permanent.”

A Sierra Club website that has detailed information about Preservation Ranch suggests that its moniker was a greenwash from the get-go:

The project was named “Preservation Ranch” by its proponents to disguise its essential nature as a speculative for-profit venture which targets the steep, undeveloped redwood and oak woodlands of coastal Sonoma County.

A county official acknowledges that the proposal is “controversial from beginning to end,” so approval is by no means certain. One thing is sure, though: If the deal goes down, the resulting pinot noir, regardless of its flavor profile, will most certainly have a bitter, acrid finish.

UPDATE 11/9/2012: Premier Pacific Vineyards has been terminated as the manager of the vineyard investment portfolio held by the California Public Employees Retirement System, or CalPERS, according to North Bay Business Journal and Wine Industry Insight. It’s unclear how this affects the company’s proposed vineyard expansion in Sonoma County.

Sources: Los Angeles Times, High Country News, Sierra Club Redwood Chapter 

Image by Tim Pearce, Los Gatos, licensed under Creative Commons. 


Mongolians Team Up to Preserve Huge, Grassy Commons

Mongolian pastureland

Mongolia has an outsized reputation for vast emptiness, but in fact there are plenty of creatures living there, including 2.7 million people and the 35 million horses, cattle, sheep, goats, and camels that they keep. All those pasturing animals leave a large ecological hoofprint, reports Ronnie Vernooy in Solutions Journal, and climate change is disrupting the weather patterns that sustain the country’s many nomadic herders.

A new program, though, is pointing the way toward a more sustainable future, using the concept of the commons as a way to share resources—in this case, those seemingly endless pasturelands. Writes Vernooy:

The government has begun to respond to the threat to herders and their way of life. In a number of regions across the country, herders, in collaboration with local governments and researchers, and supported by a number of new policy measures and laws, are practicing comanagement, a form of adaptive management that builds community resilience.

The concept has been popularized by the academic and activist H. Ykhanbai. … Ykhanbai was uniquely suited to the task: raised in a herder family in the far-away Altai Mountains, he attended the University of St. Petersburg, Russia, where he studied Garrett Hardin on the “tragedy of the commons” and Elinor Ostrom on collective action. Ykhanbai understood that pastures in Mongolia are a common pool resource shared by many users, while private ownership of livestock allows herders to become real managers of their own businesses. Sustainable management of herds therefore depends on the carrying capacity of pastures and on the interactions between neighboring herders who rely on the same resources.

The Mongolians herders’ tactics include reducing herd size to prevent pasture degradation and desertification caused by overgrazing; moving camps at different times to adapt to weather shifts; diversifying their income; and growing their own potatoes and vegetables. Comanagement pilot projects have been launched in several areas of the country with promising results, and boosters hope the practices may be adapted to neighboring Central Asian countries including Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. And, Vernooy suggests, “China could learn a lesson or two.”

Source: Solutions Journal 

Image by MAZZALIARMADI.IT, licensed under Creative Commons. 

Diana Beresford-Kroeger Goes Deep Into the Forest

Diana Beresford-Kroeger 

You don’t have to be a tree hugger to understand Diana Beresford-Kroeger’s message: We had better take care of the trees, because the trees take care of us. The Canadian botanist and author is a tireless student and champion of the forest, yet even she blanches at being called a tree hugger, saying instead that she’s a “tree respecter.”

Beresford-Kroeger’s book The Global Forest, which comes out in paperback in late November, lays out the many ways she respects the trees: as oxygenators, purifiers, healers, habitat providers, even spiritual guides. The book is written in a deliberately spare, mellifluous style—a mantra based on lullaby rhythms, she told me—that combines her Gaelic storytelling heritage and her deep scientific knowledge.

We chose Beresford-Kroeger as a 2011 Utne Reader visionary in part for this rare ability to blend the scientific with the artistic—even occasionally the mystical. Here is some of the tree wisdom she shared with me in a recent interview.

On being called a tree hugger:

“Am I a tree hugger? No. In some senses I understand trees have to be used for civilization. I am a tree respecter. I respect trees. I respect what they’re doing. But personally, I have hugged a tree. Yes. (laughs) I have hugged a tree, and I love trees.”

On science and art:

“All good scientists who have decent, functioning, thinking brains always have art on the side. … In science, you run with a hunch and you think, ah, maybe this will work. And you know, you do the same thing in art.”

On the heart of a redwood:

“If you go into the redwood forest and stand breast to breast to those redwoods, there’s something there. My God. There’s something there. And I’m reminded of the ancient Irish thinking that a tree can listen to speech, and of course that’s the legend of the heart—that the speech of the king went into the heart—so I’m surrounded by legends when I go into the forest.” 

Image by Christian Kroeger, courtesy of Diana Beresford-Kroeger. 

Canada’s Shameful Environmental Record

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. 

Judge Can Sentence But Not Silence Tim DeChristopher


Tim DeChristopher is the only person to have been named an Utne Reader visionary while in prison: He’s serving a two-year sentence for disrupting a federal oil and gas lease auction in Utah in an act of environmental protest.

One reason I nominated DeChristopher as a visionary is because he became a hugely inspirational figure to other environmentalists as he wrote and spoke about his principled act of civil disobedience right up until he was led to his cell. But make no mistake: He is in prison mainly because he dared to continue speaking out.

Utah environmentalist and author Terry Tempest Williams writes in The Progressive about the farcical nature of DeChristopher’s four-day trial, which she attended along with a legion of other supporters:

It was a shattering display of politics on the bench, beginning with jury selection. The judge [Dee V. Benson] delivered a lengthy lecture on the importance of impartiality, after which he said to the entire jury pool, “And there should be no discussion between you and the ‘kumbaya’ crowd in the courtroom.” …

But the most egregious remarks were made by Judge Benson himself during the sentencing hearing.

He reprimanded DeChristopher for speaking out after his conviction in March. He stated that DeChristopher might not have faced prosecution, let alone prison, if it were not for that “continuing trail of statements.”

This “continuing trail of statements” is called freedom of speech, your honor, not “anarchy.” The criminal is not DeChristopher but our justice system.

Judge Benson actually stated during the sentencing hearing, “The offense itself, with all apologies to people actually in the auction itself, wasn’t that bad.”

DeChristopher himself, in an August letter from prison published by Grist, showed that he understood all too clearly the connection between his ongoing outspokenness and his sentence:

Judge Benson said that had it not been for the political statements I made in public, I would have avoided prosecution entirely. As is generally the case with civil disobedience, it was extremely important to the government that I come before the majesty of the court with my head bowed and express regret. So important, in fact, that an apology with proper genuflection is currently fair trade for a couple years in prison. Perhaps that’s why most activist cases end in a plea bargain.

Source: The Progressive, Grist 

BPA, Two Other Chemicals Linked to Infertility

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. 

The Electric Car Paradox

Electric car in Sweden

Electric vehicles are creating a lot of promise in the green world, but they don’t necessarily lead to lower greenhouse gas emissions. Consider the cases of China and Sweden, which have both heavily encouraged electric car ownership among their citizens but have failed to enjoy an attendant drop in transportation-sector carbon emissions.

What’s going on here? Firmin DeBrabander reports in Common Dreams on the Swedish experience, in which greener cars are being driven more miles:

Sweden … leads the world in per capita sales of “green cars.” To everyone’s surprise, however, greenhouse gas emissions from Sweden’s transportation sector are up.

Or perhaps we should not be so surprised after all. What do you expect when you put people in cars they feel good about driving (or at least less guilty), which are also cheap to buy and run? Naturally, they drive them more. So much more, in fact, that they obliterate energy gains made by increased fuel efficiency. … Based on Sweden’s experience with green cars, it’s daunting to imagine their possible impact here. Who can doubt that they’ll likely inspire Americans to make longer commutes to work, live even further out in the exurbs, bringing development, blacktop and increased emissions with them?

China is encountering a different problem: Its huge numbers of electric vehicles aren’t leading to greatly reduced emissions because of their power source, dirty coal. Andrew Revkin reports on the Dot Earth blog at the New York Times that “in all but three grid regions in China, electric vehicles produce more CO2 per mile because of the coal source for the power than the equivalent gasoline-powered car.”

The researcher behind these numbers, Lucia Green-Weiskel, takes care to point out that “electric vehicles are still a key (if not central) part of a low-carbon future in any country” and that her study shouldn’t be seen as anti-EV. But she notes that EV development must be accompanied by a move to cleaner energy sources if it is to make a dent in carbon emissions.

There’s a surefire step both the Swedes and the Chinese—and you and I, for that matter—could take to cut emissions: Drive and consume less. Writes DeBrabander:

In its current state, the green revolution is largely devoted to the effort to provide consumers with the products they have always loved, but now in affordable energy efficient versions. The thinking seems to be that through this gradual exchange, we can reduce our collective carbon footprint. Clearly, however, this approach is doomed if we don’t reform our absurd consumption habits, which are so out-of-whack that they risk undoing any environmental gains we might make.

Sources: Common Dreams, Dot Earth 

Image by Håkan Dahlström, licensed under Creative Commons. 

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