We tend to think of fish as dead-eyed, cold-blooded creatures without much compassion. But with Father’s Day still fresh in mind, there’s at least one piscine species whose dads are deserving of respect: the three-spined stickleback. Not only does the male of this species build nests and care for the fertilized eggs, but sticklebacks are also rapidly adapting to a changing climate to keep their broods safe.
Sticklebacks -- not to be confused with picklebacks -- are two-inch bottom feeders that live throughout the Northern Hemisphere. Most species prefer slow-moving water, where the males make nests by gluing algae, sand, and other debris together with a protein substance produced in their kidneys. (The glue is called “spiggin” after the Swedish word for the animal, “spigg.”) Once the nest is complete, males woo mates with a zig-zag dance only a stickleback in heat could love.
If a female consents, he ushers her into the nest, where she lays between 40 and 300 eggs, all while the male pecks at her from behind to stimulate ovulation. (We said they were great dads, not necessarily great lovers.) As soon as she’s finished, the male darts into the nest to fertilize the eggs, then back out again to chase the female away. (The creature named for the pointy fins running down his spine isn’t a cuddler either.) Now a single-dad-to-be, the male guards his nest from other sticklebacks, predators, and erosion until the eggs hatch. He even fans the eggs to keep them oxygenated, which is the stickleback version of going to the store at 3 a.m. to pick up pepperoni rolls and lemon sherbet.
Constant guard duty and oxygen detail is a tall order, but male sticklebacks might soon have to deal with a bigger worry: climate change. Those family-friendly, slow-moving rivers and streams could speed up throughout much of the fish’s habitat, thanks to rising water levels, increased rainfall, and large-scale flooding. Last week, FEMA reported that over the next century, areas in the United States at risk of flooding will surge by 45 percent. Across the pond, Europe is still mopping up after weeks of record floods. All of this is bad news if you’re an animal that makes its home on a riverbed and your building material of choice is the consistency of muck.
But like I said, sticklebacks aren’t your ordinary dad. When the waters get rough, the fish get glueing.
“They need to put more glue into their nests to make them stronger,” says biologist Iain Barber of the University of Leicester. “Sticklebacks appear to be very well adapted to cope with changes in their environment -- and can change their nests and nesting habits depending on the water flow levels.”
Barber warns, however, that producing spiggin requires a lot of the father's energy and making more of the sticky stuff could impinge on his ability to raise multiple broods. Even so, the research suggests sticklebacks are up to the task.
So far, the daddy dynamos appear to be standing up to increased water flow both in the lab and in the wild. The fish’s ability to adapt may be why several variations of the species exist in diverse habitats across the planet. Originally a saltwater fish, many sticklebacks became trapped inland about 10,000 years ago at the end of the last ice age. Now many species -- including the three-spined stickleback – thrive in freshwater.
Unfortunately, such adaptability will unlikely be the norm for many species as the Earth’s climate changes. California, for instance, may lose 82 percent of its native fish. And fish aren’t alone, of course. Polar bears, pandas, right whales, sea turtles, orangutans, and many plant species face similar fates.
This may be the first and the last time you hear about the three-spined stickleback, but while human dads are out this week returning ugly ties, this little fish will be raising hundreds of kids in the face of a global environmental crisis -- with spiggin as his only weapon.
Image: University of Leicester
Last Friday, as Tropical Storm Andrea bore down on the Carolina coast, I sat in the writing shack I’ve built behind my house and watched as the storm moved in. The shack sits on the edge of a salt marsh; soon after I entered, the grasses started thrashing wildly. Then the wind picked up even more, until it began shaking the red cedar outside my door as if it didn’t like that tree one bit. There was a sticky expectancy in the air: something you could probably say, in general, about this part of the country at this time of the year. It wasn’t just that Andrea was coming. It was that Andrea, the first major tropical storm of 2013, was effectively announcing the arrival of another hurricane season -- which is always an anxious time for us here on the Carolina coast.
Mine isn’t the only part of the country in an apprehensive mood. Living in the East, I happen to be spending this summer writing a book about the West. The same morning that I sat in my shack and watched the storm come in, I was typing up notes from a tour I took last July of the scarred land above Fort Collins, Colorado. It was there that I saw entire charcoal hillsides of burned trees, their spindly arboreal remains looking like rows of black skeletons. It occurred to me that while the East readies itself for the season of wind and rains, the West is dreading the advent of wildfire season -- which, if the recent news out of Colorado is any indication, has already arrived with a vengeance.
In both parts of the country, what anxious people are really anticipating is the season of the elemental. We’re living in a time of growing fear of what I have come to call the “Big Primal.” Whether what we fear is a hurricane that’s capable of splintering a home on the beach, a fire that can quickly turn a hillside house to kindling, a superstorm, a flood, or a tornado, we are on edge. Our scientists confirm that we’re not all simply imagining that our weather has gone wild; for them, the warming of the oceans and the rising of the seas are facts, not theories. And these scientists know that what’s coming will be worse.
So yes -- the water is getting warmer, the storms stronger, the deserts drier. This most of us believe. But there is something else occurring, too: an unfortunate and coincidental bit of irony. For just as nature is so aggressively barging into our lives in the form of the Big Primal, our experience of the small primal is quietly leaking out of our lives. The other day I saw an item in the newspaper that got, at least partly, at what I’m feeling. I read that bonfires in fire pits may soon be banned on California beaches. These fires have long been a part of California shore life, but experts are now saying that they’re an appreciable source of air pollution and could cause health problems for nearby residents. I understand the reasoning behind the position, of course. But still I felt a pang at the thought of the bonfires disappearing. In my writing shack I have a manila folder labeled “The Death of Wildness,” and the news clipping went right into it.
Last summer, while traveling through Utah, I was lucky enough to visit with Ken Sleight, who was immortalized as the character “Seldom Seen” Smith in Edward Abbey’s novel, The Monkey Wrench Gang. Ken told me that his favorite times with Abbey were always around the fire. “The worst thing was when they told us we couldn’t have any more campfires down there in the Grand Canyon,” he told me. “Instead, you have complete blackness, where you can’t see people’s expressions. You just can’t have that kind of trip without a campfire. You lose something.” He meant: it’s just not the same kind of experience when you can’t stare into that dance of red, orange, white, and blue.
Later that summer, I got to experience this sense of loss personally on a mostly wonderful eight-day river-rafting expedition on Utah’s San Juan River. It had everything: cliffs of red rock, mildly scary rapids, side canyons like cathedrals, a fox that flowed like quicksilver right up a sheer canyon wall. Well, it had almost everything: campfires are no longer allowed along the river. During a year in which practically the entire West was aflame, I knew exactly why it was considered unwise to start a fire. And yet: yes, something had been lost.
What did it matter that we weren’t able to stare into those flames? Admittedly, it’s a pretty small price to pay for helping to prevent a wildfire. But all the same, I would contend that by depriving ourselves (or being deprived) of a small, intimate experience like that one, we’re robbing ourselves (or being robbed) of a chance to grow in how we think about our larger world. In other words: our communion with the small primal, whenever we can find it, necessarily affects how we engage with the Big Primal, whenever it comes around.
I want to be careful not to overstate things here. But I really do think that one of the things that gets us into the most trouble is when we come to believe that we exist apart from the natural world. This is simple arrogance, of course; but it’s a specific type of arrogance that seems to have infected all of our fevered thinking, to the extent that when we find ourselves faced with a problem like climate change -- a problem born of our technologies -- the solution proposed by many is more technology: shields to block the sun, walls to block the water. It’s the kind of arrogance that drives homeowners in wildfire zones and hurricane zones -- people who may have watched as their houses burned down, or were slammed by the sea -- to choose a stance of defiance over humility. The kind of arrogance that is always commanding rebuild, and never suggesting retreat.
There was a time, not too long ago, when those who erected dwellings in the sorts of places where disaster routinely struck built them with the knowledge that those dwellings would eventually be destroyed. I, for one, certainly knew this when I built my writing shack. That was the whole idea, in a way: to create a monument to impermanence. The shack is flimsy and I know it. So far it has weathered three hurricanes, and the floor is warped from flooding. It’s only a matter of time until a storm takes it out.
So what does it mean, to build something that you know won’t last? What does it do to your thinking, to know that there are forces in charge beyond human forces? While I’ve had it, the shack has helped me invite the small primal into my life on nearly a daily basis. Through its windows I can watch birds, and study the marsh, and observe tropical storms as they roll in. In his book, The Outermost House, the naturalist Henry Beston wrote: “The world today is sick to its thin blood for lack of elemental things, for fire before the hands, for water welling from the earth, for air, for the dear earth itself underfoot.” That, I believe, is what we are most missing.
We may like to believe that we can cordon the natural world off into a separate section of our lives, but that becomes a lot harder to do when boats are floating in your front yard, a twister has splintered your house, your crops have withered, or your whole state seems to be on fire. Those Big Primal events that now seem to be occurring with so much more intensity and regularity are, among other things, opportunities for humility. Not a false humility, but a deep one: one that comes from understanding that we are part of the larger natural world, and one that bespeaks an acceptance of our temporality, not an insistence on permanence. We can’t control the schedule of these Big Primal events. But we can, and should, schedule as much interaction as possible with the small primal -- with bonfires, with the rising and the falling of the tides, with marsh grasses and birds -- or else the artificial gap between ourselves and nature will widen ever further.
As it turned out, my little shack breezed right through Andrea. This particular storm decided to move inland shortly after the first formidable gusts began to pummel its siding. I can express more gratitude now for its fickle-mindedness than I could at the time, since I was too busy stuffing my laptop in a garbage bag and trying to get it up to the house through the rains. Now, one week later, I’m back inside the shack, surveying the damage. Up in the trees a pileated woodpecker lets out its crazed war whoop, a noise that seems to belong more to the jungle than to a salt marsh. The heat has returned after the storm, and for all the spikes of fear that events like Andrea can generate, the atmosphere on the Carolina coast right now feels oppressive in a much more familiar way: summer humidity, thick like pea soup.
I am thankful that Andrea didn’t take out my shack. But I have no illusions that this place will last. This was just the first storm of what will undoubtedly be a long hurricane season. We can expect even wilder weather ahead.
Image: Jason Teale
You’ve likely never heard of Danajon Bank in the Philippines, but this double barrier reef -- one of only six in the world -- has been called the “center of the center” of marine biodiversity in the Pacific. It’s also one of the most threatened reefs on Earth.
Danajon Bank is beset by climate change, overfishing, overdevelopment, pollution, and damaging fishing practices. The region’s fishermen rely on inexpensive, microfilament netting to make a living. And when these nets become unusable, the fishermen typically burn or toss them overboard. The remnant netting, of course, continues to catch fish and other wildlife as it drifts beneath the surface, and it can cause considerable damage to delicate coral reefs. The result is an ecosystem choking under the weight of long, tangled strands of plastic that take centuries to degrade.
As is the case in many areas around the world, lecturing a community about sustainability and conservation is difficult when its members are struggling to feed their kids each night. Most subsist by harvesting seaweed, eating whatever they can catch off the reef, and selling prized species to the pet trade. (Where’d you think your clown fish came from?)
But help is on the way, in the form of … trendy carpeting? A pilot program -- created by the Zoological Society of London, the Project Seahorse Foundation, and global carpet manufacturer Interface, Inc. -- is paying locals for their netting. For 5.5 pounds of the stuff, the coalition offers enough to buy over two pounds of rice -- which can mean an extra meal for a family of five. Interface reconstitutes the mesh into a 100-percent-recycled yarn that’s used to make special-edition carpeting. Dubbed Net Effect, the fishing-net-turned-rug echoes its origins with a design “reminiscent of swirling currents.” The fashionable floor coverings debut this week at NeoCon 2013, North America’s largest design exposition and conference.
“The success of Net-Works means we’ve cleaned up a major source of pollution on the coastline and enabled local communities to make an income directly from their conservation activities,” says Dr. Heather Koldeway, Head of Global Conservation Programmes for the ZSL. “This is a rather unusual but exciting collaboration between conservation and industry.”
“Certainly, these kinds of projects have been very successful,” says Ben Sherman, a public affairs officer for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Sherman tells me that here in the United States, NOAA’s marine debris program works with a company called Covanta Energy to convert old nets into electricity. Covanta is working in Hawaii, so the local needs are a little different from the Philippines, but the programs are two ways to the same goal, healthier seas. “The challenge of marine debris is immense and NOAA welcomes innovative ways to address the problem,” he says. “Both of these projects reflect that.”
So far, the results from the Net-Works program are encouraging. The people are better-paid, better-fed, and less reliant on dwindling sea life. The ecosystem benefits from less pollution and human predation. And faraway hipsters now have a story to go with their new, funky home furnishings, “Oh, this carpet? This carpet is made from reclaimed fishing nets. You know, from Danajon Bank in the Philippines -- you’ve probably never heard of it.”
Images: Remy Mboku, Interface, Inc.
Not long ago I found myself stranded in Williston, North Dakota. You might have heard of it. Despite being the eighth-largest city in the 48th most-populous state, Williston has won some infamy in recent years. It's at the center of an oil boom that’s likely to make the United States a net exporter of fossil fuels in just a few short years, something that was unthinkable as recently as half a decade ago. North Dakota now produces more oil than any state except Texas, thanks to technical advances that let drillers hydraulically fracture (or frack) the Bakken shale formation two miles beneath the region’s surface.
The boom has introduced tens of thousands of newcomers to the area around Williston, jammed the dirt and gravel roads with heavy trucks, littered those byways with windshield-shattering debris, and clouded the air with dust. (Which also chokes livestock, smothers crops, and complicates dinner preparation. “I have to wash my dishes after taking them from the cupboard, they’re so coated in dust,” a local rancher told me.)
I was stuck in Williston because a small rock had punched a hole in the gas tank of my rental car. My plane was leaving Minot -- two hours to the east -- early the next morning. Every repair shop in town was booked solid for a week, and there wasn’t a single car, truck, or minivan available for hire. Fortunately, there was Amtrak. The Empire Builder, bound for Chicago from Seattle, was due into Williston at 7:09 p.m. and would deliver me to Minot in a little more than two hours -- for just $28. Delightful, I thought, and settled down in the small brick train station to wait.
The first bad news came at 6:30. The train would be delayed. For how long? “I have no information,” the stationmaster said as she decamped for the sidewalk, where she would kibitz with the locals and chain smoke for the next several hours. I tried to read but was distracted by the steady stream of young ladies moving in and out of the station bathroom, dressed in low-cut tops, high heels, and slinky leggings. Prostitutes returning to Minneapolis, a fellow traveler informed me sotto voce.
An hour passed, and I went outside to pace. The sidewalk was smoky, of course, and music wafted from the two strip clubs uphill from the train station, which sat on a rotary at the dead end of Main Street. In this merry atmosphere I chatted with itinerant oilfield workers and locals, visiting grandmothers, and the loquacious stationmaster, who told me the Empire Builder’s on-time rate, the previous month, was 0 percent. There was track work, of course, and conflicts with freight trains, but also collisions with trucks carrying oil, gravel, sand, water, and chemicals. The trucks were driven by exhausted young men servicing drill sites and fracking operations. (Developing a single fracking well involves forcing millions of gallons of water, laced with chemicals and sand, down boreholes that stretch for miles. The pressure cracks the shale, releasing oil and chemically polluted water. The liquids and other equipment are hauled in and out in trucks -- thousands a day for every well under development.)
A racket up the street drew my attention. The stationmaster and I watched, slightly amused, as a drunk staggered from one of the strip clubs to his jacked-up truck. Screaming obscenities at an invisible enemy, he flopped backward out his pick-up door onto the pavement, and tried again to mount his own cab. After three attempts, he achieved the driver’s seat and began furiously revving his V-8 engine.
“Watch out if he gets it in gear,” the stationmaster said. “Sometimes the drunks don’t make it around this turn” -- meaning the rotary in front of her station.
Almost as if on cue, the truck lurched, its tires squealed, and the sidewalk loiterers, including me, scattered like chickens. The pickup hurtled down Main Street, gathered speed, jumped the curb, and smashed head-on into the Amtrak building. “What did I tell you?” the stationmaster said, flinging her cigarette to the street in disgust. “Now I’ve gotta fill out a police report.”
* * *
The oil and gas industry employs more than 40,000 people in North Dakota, and in 2011 it generated $2.24 billion in state and local taxes. In Williston, where the population has more than doubled in the last decade, unemployment is less than 1 percent, and even fast-food employees can make $15 an hour. But every boom has an underbelly, and in the Bakken it’s no different. (See “Growing Pains: Scenes from the North Dakota Drilling Boom” and “In North Dakota and Nationwide, A Boom in Health Problems Accompanies Fracking” for previous OnEarth reporting on the subject.) If you can get a hotel room in Williston, it will set you back $200 a night; apartments that used to rent for $300 a month now command $2,000. Traffic has increased, along with air pollution, job-site accidents, highway accidents, sexual assaults, bar fights, prostitution, and drunken driving. Municipalities have more litter and garbage to haul away, and more sewage to treat. Police and other emergency workers are burning out; the new hires -- who get promoted quickly -- have almost zero experience on the job.
For years, western North Dakota counties have complained that not enough of the state’s oil and gas production taxes ($3.4 billion in 2011-2013) were filtering down to the places that have borne the brunt of this activity since the fracking boom began in 2006. But in early May, Governor Jack Dalrymple signed a bill to distribute $1.1 billion over two years -- a tripling of the previous allocation -- to counties impacted by fracking. The money will pay to fix roads damaged by heavy truck traffic, build infrastructure like schools and affordable housing for tens of thousands of temporary residents, and provide law enforcement to protect and police the population.
The money also will be disbursed to hospitals, which face increasing debt from uninsured, transient patients; to centers for the elderly and disabled, which have trouble retaining employees tempted by better-paying jobs in the oilfields; to fire districts, which need more equipment, training, and manpower to address oil-related calls; and to emergency medical technicians, who, as one might expect, are busier than ever. (North Dakota ranks last on a recent nationwide survey of worker safety, with 12.4 fatalities per 100,000 workers in 2011, versus a national average of 3.5.)
Bakken towns are desperate for relief and say they’re grateful for the millions headed their way. But it isn’t enough, many county officials say. Fixing the 500 miles of gravel roads damaged by heavy truck traffic in McKenzie County will cost $100,000 a mile, according to county commissioner Ron Anderson; other projects will have to be put off to pay the tab, he told the Bismarck Tribune. Watford City will get $10 million from the fund, says county auditor Linda Svihovec, but it “has identified $190 million worth of projects that need to take place,” she told the McKenzie County Farmer. And the situation, as regards infrastructure and manpower, is bound to get worse. In April, the U.S. Geological Survey doubled its estimate of the amount of oil available in the Bakken shale and its underlying Three Forks formation. The North Dakota Department of Mineral Resources expects the total number of wells to increase from the current 8,500 to more than 20,000 in the next decade or two.
Williston is far from the only small town, in North Dakota or nationwide, to face energy-related growing pains. Pennsylvania communities that have been heavily fracked for oil and gas from the Marcellus shale report more crime and traffic, and towns in Michigan (the Antrim shale), Ohio (the Utica shale), eastern Montana, and South Dakota (also the Bakken formation) are bracing for similar impacts. Drilling technology continues to advance, increasing government estimates of recoverable oil and gas reserves, while demand from other nations keeps climbing. California is currently debating whether to expand fracking in the Monterey shale, which lies partly beneath the Central Valley, an area already plagued with air and water (quality and quantity) problems (see my OnEarth report “Not a Drop to Drink”). Illinois recently passed what have been described as some of the toughest environmental regulations in the nation to govern drilling in its shale formations. (Editor's note: NRDC, which publishes OnEarth, pushed for a moratorium on fracking in Illinois and, when it failed, was involved in negotiating for the safeguards, which it still believes are insufficient for fracking to begin in the state.) Though the rules may help protect Illinois’s water, they’ll do nothing to protect civil society from an influx of transient workers and their attendant consequences. Should Governor Cuomo lift New York State’s current moratorium on high-volume horizontal hydrofracking, forested and agricultural lands in the state could see 50,000 to 100,000 wells, according to some projections.
The Empire Builder eventually pulled into Williston, four hours late. The toilets were by then overflowing with sewage, and the café car had run out of food (perhaps a blessing in disguise). The prostitutes found seats and almost immediately fell asleep, heads resting on candy-colored sweaters. I stared out the window at the landscape to the south, black and empty but for the regular march of methane flares. With little economic incentive to collect this gas -- it’s worth a fraction of what the oil is worth – the industry burns more than 100 million cubic feet of methane every day in North Dakota, enough to heat half a million homes. (Flaring converts methane to carbon dioxide -- about 2 million tons of it each year in North Dakota, equivalent to what a medium-size coal-fired power plant emits annually.)
As the train rolled across the prairie, I considered the price that North Dakotans were paying to help America achieve “energy independence.” It’s a dream that sounds grand only if you can ignore the global warming pollution created by burning all this fuel, or the fact that we’re tapping a finite resource, or the many remaining technical challenges involved in drilling every possible reserve left on the planet. Based on my evening at the Amtrak station, though, even that dream threatens to leave us waking in a cold sweat.
Image: Karen Desuyo
You know how the story goes: a hypothetical butterfly flaps its wings. The air pressure changes ever so slightly. Winds shift. Fronts collide. And the next thing you know, a hurricane kicks up halfway around the world.
We fall back on the “butterfly effect” every time we mean to say that all life is connected, or that small actions can have enormous consequences. It’s what showed George Bailey the light in It’s a Wonderful Life, and it’s what Dr. Ian Malcolm was stuttering about in Jurassic Park. But new research reminds us that the theory is far more than a Hollywood trope.
In a paper published Friday in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, a team of researchers from the University of Washington shows that decades of drought in Africa were caused, at least in part, by pollutants emitted by the United States and Europe. Throughout the 60s, 70s, and 80s, coal-burning factories spewed sulfate-laden aerosols into the atmosphere with reckless abandon. These tiny particles -- which volcanoes can also emit naturally -- reflect sunlight and produce more reflective, longer-lasting clouds. The increased cloud cover caused temperatures to drop across the Northern Hemisphere, which in turn, caused rain patterns to shift away from certain areas of Africa. These shifts, the researchers argue, contributed to droughts that choked central Africa and resulted in 100,000 deaths between the 60s and 80s.
Meanwhile, with the intention of improving air quality at home, the U.S. and Europe began to restrict coal pollution in 1970 with the Clean Air Act and other legislation. It’s only now, after decades worth of precipitation observations, that researchers have been able to tie the end of the African drought to western legislation. As our factories scaled back production of sulfate aerosols, the pollution’s cooling effect slowly reversed and rainfall in Africa returned to historic levels by the mid-1980s.
If you’re suddenly feeling all warm and fuzzy inside -- “We fixed a devastating drought!” -- the story isn’t over. Aerosols weren’t the only pollutants in the atmosphere messing with the climate. Carbon dioxide has been flapping its wings, too. In a companion study, the research team argues that climate change is affecting the Northern and Southern Hemispheres at different rates, with the Northern warming faster thanks to its greater landmass. Last century's aerosol pollution masked this warming pattern, however. According to the researchers, temperatures in the north remained steady because the aerosol-related cooling balanced out the greenhouse effect created by increased carbon dioxide.
Understanding how each piece affects the whole is crucial to combatting climate change. That’s why NASA plans to launch a fleet of aircraft and satellites this summer to take exhaustive samples of the atmosphere. Their mission is to better understand how air pollution and natural emissions (like those from forest fires) play into atmospheric composition and climate. Ultimately, such information might lead to better policy decisions both for our own country and the global community to which we’re inextricably bound.
Image: Anita Ritenour
Here’s what we were after: a photo of a surfer dude carrying his board onto the subway or light rail. All in all, I thought, a pretty straightforward image for the cover of OnEarth’s summer issue, for a story that was (among other things) about how Los Angeles is energetically committing itself to becoming a mass-transit city. And, I thought: a photo that shouldn’t be too difficult to get.
The photographer I hired, Thomas Alleman, seemed to agree. For the sake of logistical ease, we toyed with the idea of just having Thomas show up at some scenic and well-lit train platform somewhere in L.A. with minimal equipment and crew, and simply letting him put his considerable skills to use. But considering that the cover article would be saying more than a few nice things about Metro, Los Angeles’s transit authority, we opted to ask for the agency’s help.
Thomas made contact with a perfectly nice young woman who assured him that she would be able to assist us. A most impressive stream of correspondence followed: I can say this because I was actually cc’d on all 29 e-mails. Dates were set. Dates were changed. Locations were set. Locations were changed. All the starting and stalling was a bit unnerving, but every time I began to get nervous, I would remind myself that all those e-mails meant that at least things were moving forward.
We had already been told that we could hold our cover shoot on one of Metro’s non-operational rail cars (sitting, at the time, unused in a repair yard) when we encountered our first pocket of unexpected turbulence. Suddenly Metro was informing us that Thomas, his assistant, and even our surfer-dude model would be required to complete a three-hour train safety class. Even as we scratched our heads in befuddlement -- why would photographers and models need to be educated on the finer points of braking technique and train velocity just to take a picture? -- we tried to remain flexible. Sometimes you just have to say: Okay, sure. We’ll do things your way.
More e-mails were exchanged; apparently the time and location for said three-hour safety class were subject to sudden change, too. Finally, training day arrived. That morning, Thomas, his assistant, and the model were having their coffee and getting ready to leave for their 9 a.m. class when another call came in from our friend at Metro -- who regretfully informed Thomas that the plug was being yanked on the whole plan. Apparently, as news of our request had made its way up the bureaucratic food chain, someone at a higher level had decided it didn’t comply with specific Metro protocol regarding photo shoots, after all.
After being re-directed to a gentleman who was, by all indications, more aware of the details making up this specific protocol, Thomas was told that we were more than welcome to move forward with something like our original plan, so long as we were willing to use a replica of a train car rather than an actual one. With what sounded to Thomas almost like enthusiasm, this gentleman let him know that the replica -- the same one used by Ridley Scott for one of his movies! -- could be conveniently delivered to OnEarth’s “studio”(!) on the back of a flatbed truck. (The cost of lending and transporting this fake mode of transportation to OnEarth’s non-existent Los Angeles “studio” -- billable, undoubtedly, to the recipient -- was not mentioned.)
Oh, and one last thing, he told Thomas: the train-car replica was booked by someone else for two more weeks. We had been led to believe that we would be doing our cover shoot in two more days. Waiting two weeks would have pushed us so far past our deadline that we would have been slightly early for the issue of the magazine after the one we were all working on.
Thomas phoned me in New York and spelled out the whole, sad story. Then, with remarkable nimbleness, he pulled off an elegant tactical U-turn, suggesting that we go back to our original idea: just show up and start taking photos.
So the next morning, our intrepid trio drove down to the train station in Redondo Beach, which they had designated as their starting point for a day to be spent riding the rails. They took a series of pleasant, leisurely train trips, making notes about which stations offered the most picturesque settings, and which presented the best possibilities in terms of light. They mentally worked through the logistics of several different scenarios. Then, at about 6:00 that evening -- just as the sun was falling in the sky and the Southern California daylight was beginning to take on that golden, saturated quality for which it is world-famous -- a handful of photographs were taken of a man, a surfboard, and a light-rail train. Everything about the operation was hand-held and utterly low-key; there were no stands or tripods. No trains were delayed. No one was inconvenienced. No one’s safety was jeopardized.
As a matter of fact, our cover shoot went as smoothly and as quietly as … well, as the ride on one of Metro’s light-rail cars. Like the subway, they represent a fantastically creative way to get around L.A. -- and to avoid gridlock, and all of its related headaches, as you do. Because sometimes, to avoid gridlock and headaches, you have to get a little creative.
Below are more great shots by Alleman of Angelenos on the go.
In the multi-level parking garage that sits directly across the street from where I’m typing these words, in the heart of Manhattan’s business-filled Flatiron District, an hour of parking will set you back $27.03. I’m told by the friendly attendant there that he almost always has spaces available. Still, if you’re willing to drive around for a while and hunt for a hard-to-find metered spot on the street, you might be able to zoom your way into one just as its previous occupant is zooming out of it.
To celebrate your accomplishment, you really should treat yourself to lunch. I’d recommend the house-ground wagyu beef cheeseburger with triple crème Brie and caramelized onion aioli at Alison Eighteen, a nearby restaurant -- though at $17, it doesn’t come cheap. Still, with the amount of money you just saved by parking at a $3.50-per-hour spot on the street, you’ll have no trouble covering the lunch bill. And while you’re savoring your $23.53 in savings, as well as the last of your “frites” (they don’t call them “fries” when you’re paying this much for them), ponder this question: What, do you suppose, is the “fair market value” of a one-hour parking spot in this part of town?
Well, you might say, it’s apples and oranges. In the one instance, you’re paying a premium for the supreme convenience of not having to drive around and hunt. In the other instance, you’re being rewarded for your doggedness and independence (or maybe just your frugality) with an hourly rate that’s far more in keeping with the budgets of most working-class and middle-class New Yorkers.
Nevertheless, 87 percent still seems like a pretty dramatic price differential, don’t you think? If forced to give an answer, would you say that the fair market value for an hour of parking in the Flatiron District is smack in the middle of these two hourly rates? Closer to the private garage’s rate? Closer to what the city charges at one of its curbside meters?
These are the kinds of questions that fascinate Donald Shoup, a professor of urban planning at UCLA and someone whom many consider to be the Albert Einstein, Steve Jobs, and John Maynard Keynes -- all rolled up into one -- of what might be called “parking theory.” Shoup’s area of academic specialty is one that doesn’t strike most people, at first, as intrinsically fascinating. But as even a brief visit to the Facebook page maintained by members of his sizeable cult following (aka “the Shoupistas”) will attest, the act of searching for parking is much more than the quotidian, if often deeply frustrating, task we think of it as being.
In the eyes of Shoup and his adherents, searching for parking is nothing less than a microcosm of human economic activity itself, replete with all the weird paradoxes and psychological underpinnings that guide us as we make our way through the marketplace. And just as our individual participation in complex economic systems can be quantified, analyzed, and expressed in the form of revolution-sparking theories, so, too, can our monomaniacal willingness to cruise a mini-grid of city blocks for 15 minutes in search of a totally sweet parking spot. (C’mon, admit it: you’ve done it, too.)
Appropriately enough, Shoup and his growing band of parking revolutionaries are doing what they can to overthrow the old regime, and force cities and citizens to rethink the impact that parking policy has on our communities. In his 2005 book, The High Cost of Free Parking, as well as in various articles and interviews, Shoup has amply illustrated how the lure of free or low-priced on-street parking relative to much more expensive parking in a lot or garage slows traffic, puts stress on local business, and harms the environment. “The combination of low prices for curb parking and high prices for off-street parking increases the incentive to cruise,” he has written.
Take Boston, for example. When the city imposed a limit on new off-street parking lots and garages in 1978, it figured that the result would be less traffic congestion as drivers of single passenger automobiles -- discouraged from paying higher rates for the suddenly scarce commodity of an off-street parking space -- would either carpool or take mass transit instead. But whatever benefits Boston may have incurred were nullified by the city’s insanely low meter-parking rates, which were kept at just $1 an hour until 2011, when they were raised to $1.25.
As Shoup (along with two generations of traffic-weary Bostonians) has observed, Boston’s approach led, in fact, to an unexpected and unwelcome result: congestion on paths to the city became lighter, but congestion in the city became noticeably worse, as drivers cruised endlessly through neighborhoods in search of one of those super-cheap curbside spots. “Everyone would criticize off-street parking operators if long lines of cars regularly spilled into the streets and snarled trafﬁc because the lots and garages were always full,” he wrote. “Cities create the same result with underpriced curb parking, but the cruising cars are hidden in the general trafﬁc ﬂow.”
In one 15-block commercial district that he studied in Los Angeles, Shoup estimated that drivers trolling for a cheap or free curbside spot were responsible for an extra 950,000 vehicle miles driven per year -- “equivalent to 38 trips around the earth, or four trips to the moon.” Although the average search may have taken only a few minutes and covered only half a mile, the aggregate impact that all these rationally self-interested economic actors were having on energy consumption and climate was staggering: together they burned an extra 47,000 gallons of gasoline, and released an extra 730 tons of carbon dioxide into the earth’s atmosphere, over the course of a single year. All in one relatively small commercial area. Feel free to extrapolate, if you think you can stomach the implications.
“When drivers compare the prices of parking at the curb or in a garage, they usually decide the price of garage parking is too high,” Shoup has written. Actually, he maintains, “the price of curb parking is too low.” It turns out that the answer to the puzzling question posed earlier -- What’s the fair market value of a one-hour parking spot in the Flatiron District of Manhattan? -- can and should be determined by using the same method we use to determine most other fair market values: carefully observed trial-and-error pricing. Specifically, Shoup advises, cities should keep raising the price of a curbside parking spot until occupancy along a city block is at 85 percent, which translates to about one out of every eight or so spaces. Price each space high enough, in other words, to ensure that someone who can’t afford to pay any more money for it has just given it up, or is just about to.
Some cities have accepted the challenge, and are gamely experimenting with new demand-responsive pricing schemes in an effort to reduce cruising and open up more spaces. In San Francisco, a quarter of the city’s 28,000 electronic parking meters are part of a new pilot program that’s based on this just-right “Goldilocks Principle” of pricing. Okay with parking in Nowheresville? You might get away with paying as little as 25 cents an hour. Want to walk from your car to the Giants game? You might pay as much as $7 an hour. Rates can vary by block, time of day, and day of the week -- but are never raised more than 50 cents or lowered by a quarter at a single time, and never more than once per month.
In addition, the program’s administrators have made it easy for drivers in search of parking spots to use their smart phones check on availability in certain neighborhoods, steering them away from the most congested ones and toward the least congested ones. But even while San Francisco experiments, other cities can’t seem to break free of older models. In Chicago, Mayor Rahm Emanuel has proposed making street parking free on Sundays in exchange for having Chicagoans pay slightly more during other times of the week. But aldermen on the city’s North Side don’t like the idea: they worry that free Sunday parking in their retail- and restaurant-rich urban neighborhoods will be a business killer, since many business owners rely on the steady turnover that metered parking -- set at the right price, it goes without saying -- encourages.
In Emanuel’s unenviable dilemma, Shoup sees the potential for a teachable moment. If the plan goes through, he told me in an e-mail, “shifting from paid parking to free parking on Sunday will give Chicago a great opportunity to study the effects of parking meters.” To test the validity of the aldermen’s theory, “the city can examine the sales tax revenues for stores before and after the shift to free parking. If tax revenues increase, free parking probably helps merchants. If tax revenues decline, however, free parking probably harms merchants.”
Shoup has studied the issue long enough to know which way things are likely to turn out; you can probably guess what his prediction is regarding the effect of free Sunday parking on merchants’ and restaurateurs’ bottom lines. (Here’s a hint: “Free curb parking in a congested city gives a small, temporary beneﬁt to a few drivers who happen to be lucky on a particular day, but it imposes large social costs on everyone else every day.”) It’s just another way of pointing out, as Shoup often does, that there’s really no such thing as free parking. When we as individuals pay nothing (or next to nothing) for it, parking becomes what economists call a “negative externality,” where the public cost of a particular item or service actually exceeds its private cost. “If you don’t pay for parking your car, somebody else has to pay for it,” Shoup has said. “And that somebody is everybody.”
An empty parking spot on the street appears, at first, to be an absence: a tantalizing, car-length volume of negative space. In fact, though, an empty parking spot is one of the most valuable commodities over which a city has any control. Wise exercise of that control could reduce traffic congestion, fill municipal coffers, stimulate local businesses, and reduce carbon emissions. It turns out you really can make something out of nothing. Cities would have to be crazy to give this nothing away for free.
Image: Vladimer Shioshvili
My morning commute from the Jersey suburbs is often fraught with confusion and delay. But this morning was the first time a black bear was to blame.
There it was, in the small park just across the street from my train station, perched nervously in the lower branches of a large tree. It looked like it was seriously considering a leap onto the police SUV parked below, which is why officers were banging loudly with fallen branches and a hammer, hoping to keep the bear off the ground until wildlife officials could arrive. The park was ringed with yellow caution tape, and I joined the gaggle of New York City commuters quickly snapping pictures with their smart phones, until the approaching train whistle lured us across the street to the boarding platform.
My neighborhood is actually home to a wide variety of wildlife. We’ve had to brake for wild turkeys crossing our street, watched a raccoon sack a neighbor’s garbage can from my son’s bedroom window, and doused our garden with cayenne pepper to keep a fat groundhog from devouring the vegetables (it especially loves celery). Just yesterday on the walk home from the train, my neighbors mentioned reports of a coyote in town.
Seeing a bear on the morning commute felt like a special treat, though, beyond even the usual pleasures afforded by backyard wildlife. Black bears are actually common in New Jersey. The state known for turnpikes and “The Sopranos” has more black bears per square mile than anywhere in North America, according to state wildlife officials, and bears have been spotted in all 21 counties. Their population has been growing and spreading across the state from the mostly rural northwest since the 1980s (a decade after the bear population reached its nadir of about 50 due to overhunting). Especially this time of year, when bears are active and looking for food, reports of them wandering into populated areas and being captured by wildlife officials are fairly routine.
They can still draw a crowd, though, as I found this morning. And a growing bear population means growing opportunities for conflict with humans. There has already been controversy about the state’s newly sanctioned bear hunts of the past few years (since Chris Christie took office -- his predecessor was opposed). Wildlife officials say they are necessary for reducing the bear population by roughly half. That goal outrages animal rights activists, who have challenged the hunts in court -- unsuccessfully so far.
What’s clear, though, is that in a state with the highest population density of both bears and humans in the country, encounters between the two species are bound to happen. Bears eat a lot -- they grow from eight ounces at birth up to somewhere around 600 pounds five or so years later -- and with the New Jersey suburbs continually encroaching into their territory, they’re naturally going to seek out new food sources, like restaurant Dumpsters and garbage cans. Normally they’re scared of humans and pretty good at hiding, experts say, so they often live out of sight on the edges of residential neighborhoods. The bear that disturbed my morning commute was likely inexperienced, or just unlucky.
I only got to watch it in the tree for about 30 seconds before running across the street to catch my train. Which means I missed the exciting conclusion -- wildlife officials arrived and shot a tranquilizer dart into the bear’s paw, and it fell about 12 feet out of the tree into a stretched net held by firefighters. A wildlife official told the local news the bear was 18 months old and weighed 158 pounds -- “old enough to be booted out by mom and … looking for his own place,” which officials will attempt to provide him on public forestland in the western part of the state. Now I wish I had stuck around and caught a later train. My instinct told me not to be late for work, but even in a state where bear encounters are becoming more common, I should have recognized this for the special opportunity it was -- and kept my smart phone at the ready.
OnEarth’s new cover story dives deep into what author Jeff Turrentine characterizes as the three “sins” that debased the American Eden -- that would be Los Angeles -- during its rapid growth throughout the 20th century: sprawl, traffic, and ill-gotten water. There’s a fourth sin that Turrentine could easily have included alongside that unholy trinity: segregation. And like the others, segregation is continuing to impose an environmental toll on the city’s residents, one that will only get worse under the harsh glare of global warming.
For the first half of the 20th century, racial covenants -- contractual agreements between property owners that restricted them from selling their properties to minorities -- effectively barred non-Caucasians from many of L.A.’s rapidly growing suburbs. Though they were ruled unconstitutional by a 1948 Supreme Court decision, the patterns established by these covenants in Los Angeles and many other cities determined the way that residential neighborhoods developed all over the country. A century later, that legacy of racial division persists, and ensures that climate change will have a disproportionate impact on communities of color.
That’s because high-density cities, in all their concrete majesty, amplify heat waves. Researchers at Columbia University recently estimated that New York City can expect an alarming spike in deaths due to hotter weather. Their study, which appeared in Nature Climate Change, projected that heat-related deaths in Manhattan will climb by up to 20 percent by the 2020s. That’s approximately 80 additional deaths each year over a 1980s baseline of 369. Some of those deaths will be offset by the fewer deaths that occur during milder winters, but that hardly seems like an acceptable trade.
Those heat-wave-related deaths are likely to be concentrated in neighborhoods that lack sufficient tree cover and heat-absorbing surfaces, such as asphalt and sidewalks -- neighborhoods that are primarily home to the poor and to racial minorities. A study released last month in Environmental Health Perspectives found that black people nationwide are 52 percent more likely than whites to live in areas of heat risk. Asians are 32 percent more likely, and Latinos are 21 percent more likely.
“What we’re seeing in the physical environment does reflect a social environment that disadvantages people of color specifically,” said environmental scientist Bill Jesdale, the lead author of the tree canopy study. “The way cities grow -- where people move and where people can afford to move -- tends to reflect the racially hierarchical nature of our society.”
Jesdale, who is based at the University of California, Berkeley, said that suburban wedges radiating out from urban centers historically had more resources to commit to providing shade. Community infrastructure projects such as parks depended on investment from middle class whites, who flooded suburbia throughout the 20th century in search of their own piece of Eden.
Although trees may seem like an overly simplistic fix to a much deeper problem (it is global climate change, after all), they make a significant difference to the temperatures that people experience on the street and in adjacent homes and buildings. And if the tree canopy can be expanded, there’s something in it for everyone, regardless of ethnic background. Whites also suffer when communities are segregated and lack tree cover, researchers discovered; in fact, whites were found to be 34 percent more vulnerable to heat risk when the city they lived in was highly segregated.
As with the other sins that Turrentine has documented, Los Angeles is now working to atone for some of them relating to its formally segregated past. The Million Trees LA initiative, which supplies up to seven trees for residents to plant around schools and other areas that lack canopy, was launched by outgoing Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa in 2006. The project is one of many similar efforts across the country, in cities including New York, Houston, and Denver. So far, in L.A., more than 400,000 trees have been planted by participants who are helping to fight the impacts of climate change, one patch of shade at a time.
Image: Bit Boy
Sometimes I bike and sometimes I walk, but either way I’m a tree-hugging, 350.org-supporting, vegetarian Brooklyn cliché -- hauling a week’s worth of kale stems, shallot skins, and daikon peels to my local greenmarket for compost collection. I feel sheepish about fulfilling a stereotype, but at least I’m joined on my weekly march by tens of thousands of others around New York City who share my feelings about the earth: we know that these scraps converted to compost will nurture the soil that grows our food and other plants. (The wonkier among us understand that compost also increases soil’s carbon-storage capacity, helps to retain soil moisture, reduces the use of artificial fertilizers, and improves soil structure and texture.) And so we don’t mind terribly that our bags of waste take up valuable space in our freezers (the best place to store them until market day), or resent hiking this stuff a half mile, or more, to a collection site no matter what the weather brings.
Food and other organic material (by which I mean yard waste and prunings) make up a whopping 25 percent of New York’s residential waste stream: that’s a huge amount to potentially divert from landfills and incinerators. Compost it instead and we’d be saving the city money (New York spends more than $330 million a year hauling waste to landfills) and avoiding the generation of the greenhouse gas methane, which is produced when organic material rots in the airless confines of a dump.
Not too many people consider the biochemical fallout of their banana peels, but solid-waste managers across the nation are beginning to see organics collection as the next frontier, after recycling, in reducing their waste streams. Today, more than 160 American communities, serving more than 1.2 million households, have programs for separating organics from the trash -- an increase of more than 50 percent since 2009.
Yes, most of these communities are in California, Washington, and Oregon (places accustomed to collecting yard waste during a long growing season), but New York is poised to get on board. Last month, Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced a pilot program for collecting organic material from the curbsides of several Staten Island neighborhoods, a couple of homeless-services agencies in Brooklyn, three high-rises in Manhattan, and 72 schools in two boroughs. Should the two-year pilot succeed -- with high participation rates and the diversion of significant tonnages -- the program will roll out across the city. My days of toting rotting food to market may be numbered.
The city tried this once before, with an organics-collection pilot in the 1990s. That program compared participation in my brownstone neighborhood, which is almost comically progressive and green-leaning, with the high rises of Starrett City, a public-housing project on the southeastern fringe of Brooklyn. My neighborhood diverted 41 percent of the food in its waste stream (not great); Starrett City diverted almost none (worse). A study found that collection wasn’t efficient (trucks weren’t maxing out); contamination was high (thanks to a lack of education and little supervision of the bins); and many buildings complained they didn’t have space for another collection container. Everyone worried about stench and pests (perhaps forgetting that food scraps had been nestled in their garbage bags all along).
So what will be different this time around? Lots, according to Ron Gonen, New York’s deputy commissioner of sanitation, recycling, and sustainability. “There’s been a cultural shift, people are more aware of waste and its impacts.” We’ve also got better food-scrap containers, which keep vermin out and smells in; better compostable bags; and better building managers. “The ethos has changed in the real-estate community,” Gonen says. “Developers understand that smart environmental decisions can reduce their costs.” And potentially attract green-leaning tenants.
Perhaps the biggest challenge for New York will be finding facilities to accept what it collects. The city recently solicited a request for proposals from organics processors, and is seeking an operator that can handle 100,000 tons of material a year. Nearly a decade ago, I visited California’s Jepson Prairie Organics, which happens to annually convert exactly that amount of material into high-quality compost. Over 15 acres, grinders, bulldozers, front-end loaders, augers, and screeners roared and hummed. Depending on the material’s stage of decomposition, the air was redolent of pig farm, mold, fungus, or loam.
It’s hard to imagine siting this type of operation within the New York city limits. But note that most people in the food-scraps game try hard to avoid the word “compost” in favor of the phrase “organics collection.” That’s because the city’s food waste might not be piled and prodded across a swathe of land but instead shoveled into tall enclosed tanks for anaerobic digestion, in which microorganisms devour food and other scraps, producing gases (mostly methane) that can be collected and used to fuel turbines and make electricity, or compressed into liquid fuel. Anaerobically digesting just 50 percent of the food waste generated each year in the U.S., says the Environmental Protection Agency, would produce enough electricity to power 2.5 million homes for a year. (The process also leaves behind material that can be used for fertilizer.) Says Rhodes Yepsen, a compost expert who consults for BioCycle magazine and Novamont, which makes biodegradable plastic bags, “The highest and best use for food scraps is to first make energy, and then compost what’s left.”
Traditional compost operations are cheaper to build than anaerobic digesters, and therefore more common among cities that collect food waste. But that could change as cities spread closer to areas zoned for industrial activity, neighbors grow fussy about odors, and processors seek tax credits for producing sustainable energy.
It’s too soon to say what the future of food-waste collection in New York City will look like, but for individual residents it’s likely to start with scraping plates into a counter-top container, which they would empty into larger brown bins they’d set on the curb for collection. The department of sanitation would deliver the scraps to transfer stations, from whence they’d be hauled to regional compost and digestion sites. “We like the idea of making links with upstate communities and the city-to-farm connection for an organics partnership,” says NRDC’s New York City environment director, Eric Goldstein. You’ll also see more verdant parks, green spaces, and private lawns, Goldstein says, “since free compost would periodically be made available to participants, including parks, in the program.”
With 1.2 million tons of organic material in its waste stream, the city will likely use several processing sites and methods. One can imagine a biodiverse system that includes everything from anaerobic digestion to traditional compost operations, backyard static piles in neighborhoods with yards, community drop-off sites, and even indoor worm bins, for the obsessively hyper-local. No single system will meet all the city’s needs -- residential and commercial, high-rise and low. But with so much organic material out there, the opportunity to do some good for both the planet and the city’s bottom line is vast.
It may take some time for cranky, impatient New Yorkers to get used to the idea of segregating their food scraps, but Gonen isn’t worried. “If you make it convenient for people, and teach them that this is an important issue, they will eventually change their behavior.” Twenty years from now, he says, “people will shake their heads and say, ‘You were spending $100 million a year exporting food waste to landfills and allowing it to emit methane into the atmosphere? What were you thinking?’”
Image: Tom Giebel
Last Tuesday, as I do almost every day, I went for a walk in the woods with Missy, my yellow lab. We were deep in a thicket near the North Carolina coast when I heard the sound of metallic wings growing close. A police helicopter came down low, blowing the tops of the trees sideways, passing over three times. My walk changed instantly -- suddenly becoming a lot less Walden, a lot more Goodfellas.
This had never occurred before on one of my walks. But as coincidence would have it, I had just been doing a lot of thinking about what it means to be alone, and what it means to be watched. My guess is that this helicopter was, in its distinctly ominous way, signaling a major reality-shift: my walk into the woods on this particular day could and should, to some extent, be seen as a walk into the future. And in this future, rushing toward us faster than anyone wants to believe, we will be watched on our walks from above -- not by manned helicopters, most likely, but by unmanned surveillance drones.
It’s not science fiction. At this moment we are living at the dawn of the Drone Age: an era marked by a startling rise in the domestic use of small, unmanned, flying surveillance cameras. As I type, the increasingly powerful drone lobby (I know it sounds ridiculous, but yes, there is such a thing) is pushing for increased government and corporate adoption of this sophisticated surveillance technology, and the FAA has set a September 2015 deadline to open the nation’s airspace to drone use. Meanwhile, in the wake of the horrific Boston Marathon bombings, some polls indicate that there is more public support than ever before for increased surveillance. Apparently, we are now poised to train the same free-floating, all-seeing eyes we once reserved for spying on insurgent-riddled Afghan villages on our own villages.
As I think back to my interrupted walk with Missy, what bothered me so much about it wasn’t simply that I was aware we were being observed. It was the noise from the blades: it cracked open the quiet of the woods. I have read accounts from Afghan villagers who note the toll taken on their psyches by all the military surveillance drones that are constantly flying overhead. The noise they give off speaks, effectively saying: “You’re not alone. We’re always here.” And it’s that same noise, I fear, that we’re now inviting into our own skies.
A story in the Los Angeles Times reveals that “companies have marketed drones disguised as sea gulls;” another, in the Huffington Post, relays the news that some newly designed drones are “tiny as a hummingbird.” Whenever I head into the woods on my daily walks, I’m attempting to do what people have always done: get away from the clutter and busyness of the human world, and get closer to something else. In more recent times this has necessarily meant getting as far away as I can from the world of electronics and gadgets. I don’t know about you, but I don’t welcome the news that these gadgets -- in the form of drones that not just governments, but also corporations and even individual hobbyists will be allowed to send through our airspace -- might soon be following me.
Like many, I was first drawn to nature as a world apart: a refuge, a place of solitude -- and freedom. The sense of freedom that I’ve always gotten whenever I’m exploring wild spaces is what drives me to want to protect them; my desire to save the wolves has its origins in wanting to save the wolf in me. “The life that men praise and call successful is but one kind,” wrote Henry David Thoreau. One gift that the world apart from man provides is the model for thinking truly independently, for living a kind of counter-life. I believed that as a young man and I believe it still. And it goes without saying that the first time I walked into that world, I walked into it alone, and unwatched.
The truth is that we act, and even think, differently when we know we’re not alone. And something deep is going to be lost if we can never again feel like we’re able to put some distance between our selves and our technology. In a world whose entire population seems to have happily laid itself bare on Facebook and Twitter, don’t we both need and deserve a place where we can go to escape all the static and chatter? Or are we really willing to keep stumbling in the same direction, gradually becoming habituated to the erosion of privacy that our forefathers held up as a sacred tenet, until we eventually come to accept what the cultural critic Glenn Greenwald, writing in the Guardian, has referred to as the “ubiquitous surveillance state”?
There are certainly legitimate uses for drones: search and rescue missions, fire fighting, law enforcement, even wildlife conservation. But the best argument against letting drones invade every last corner of American airspace, to my mind, is one that successfully connects the freedom from feeling like we’re all under constant surveillance with the freedom to go to the natural world as a refuge -- as a place apart. This isn’t the jingoistic “freedom” that politicians can often be heard prattling on about, but rather something much closer to the real, productive, pioneering freedom that -- in this country, at least -- has always been tied to our most fundamental ideals: independent thought, nonconformity, and the exploration of new frontiers.
We all tend to live so virtually now that we have forgotten how our private and public exploration of these wild places helped forge our national character, just as surely as the shot heard round the world. We still sense it, but only vaguely, like something half-remembered from a collective dream. We can’t quite get back to it, and as we go about our busy, gadget-dependent, globally interconnected lives, it just gets further and further away from us -- until our nature myths of mountain men are eventually replaced with spooky stories about paranoid Unabombers, until we have convinced ourselves that those who desire solitude and want to be apart must be up to no good. Before long, we’ll all wonder how and why wilderness was ever so important to us.
This spring I have been spending a good deal of time in the company of two men who never forgot why it was so important. At the moment, I happen to be working on a book that intertwines the biographies of the writers (and naturalists) Edward Abbey and Wallace Stegner. In his famous “Wilderness Letter,” Stegner wrote of how wild places helped form our national character and history, and how wilderness remains vital “even if we never do more than drive to its edge to look in.” Abbey concurred. “We need wilderness because we are wild animals,” he wrote, and also because “love flowers best in openness and freedom.”
But Abbey took things a step further than Stegner. Along with the poetic reasons he gave for the need to keep wilderness wild, he gave one that is both more practical and more extreme. Wilderness, Abbey intimated, was among other things a place where free men could retreat if and when the tyrants ever took over. As one reads his sentiments these days, they have a distinctly Unabomber-ish whiff to them. But at their core, they get at something that we all instinctively know is true: wilderness means freedom. And it is in wilderness -- or what is left of it -- that we can think free thoughts, unwatched and unfettered.
At heart, Ed Abbey was a contrarian, and his relationship with modern technology can be summed up by the fact that he once famously blasted out his TV screen with a shotgun. It doesn’t take much imagination to picture how he would react to a drone. There he is, walking alone in the wilderness: alone, that is, except for the flying surveillance camera that hovers persistently over his shoulder. I imagine that next he would yell “Pull!” before raising his gun and blowing the thing to smithereens.
In my mind, at least, this seemingly destructive act would be completely justified: not destructive, actually, but rather a creative blow for freedom, for independence, for the right to unwatched solitude. I’d like to believe there are still people left in this country -- healthy-minded, non-conspiratorial individuals -- who would see it the same way.
Things are not going well for frogs. A type of fungus known as chytrid has decimated populations around the globe, causing the serious decline or extinction of 200 species. Even worse, scientists believe chytrid is capable of infecting most of the world’s 6,000-some amphibian varieties -- an event that would likely be cataclysmic for food chains worldwide. Luckily, a paper published in the online journal PLOS One this week offers some insight about how chytrid might have first spread -- and perhaps how to stop it.
But I have to warn you: it’s about to get a little weird.
It involves pregnancy tests. Nowadays we’ve got plastic, pastel-colored sticks with plus-signs and smiley faces to tell women when they’re expecting. But in the 1930s, those didn’t exist. Back then, women gave a sample of their urine to a scientist, who then promptly injected it into the hind leg of an African clawed frog (Xenopus laevis). If the woman was truly pregnant, her urine would contain human chorionic gonadotropin, or hCG -- the same hormone detected by modern tests -- which also happens to induce ovulation in frogs. In other words, if the frog started laying eggs the woman was pregnant. I promise, this is a real thing.
As you can imagine, the invention of a reliable pregnancy test was a pretty big hoopla, and the technology spread quickly -- which meant African clawed frogs were now on world tour. Little did we know then, but some of those frogs had chytrid.
Scientists have suspected that African clawed frogs might have been the vector for chytrid for some time now, but this week’s paper seeks to make it official. The authors were able to confirm this hypothesis by testing archived frog samples from 1871 up to 2010, finding that the fungus was indeed present before we started shipping frogs around the world. They also confirmed that the same kind of chytrid is present in feral populations of African clawed frogs in California today. (It seems many research facilities may have set their test frogs loose when less slimy pregnancy tests were invented in the 1960s, allowing the creatures to take up residence in many foreign lands. Though this species is still a lab favorite for outlandish experiments.)
The fact that African clawed frogs were able to transport chytrid around the globe without succumbing to its effects is both bad and good. On the one hand, it allowed an outbreak to burn through amphibian populations (many of them already endangered or struggling) the world over. But on the other hand, unlocking the secrets of how the African clawed frog evolved a resistance to the fungus, allowing them to be carriers who aren’t killed, might be the only hope we have for the amphibians that remain. Scientists have managed to save other species from the fungus in the lab, though a field cure remains elusive.
Perhaps the most important strategy, though, is to keep the worldwide transport and sale of frogs (mainly for pets and laboratory use) under control. At least some companies are starting to check their shipments more closely for chytrid. Others need to hop on it soon.
Image: Holger Krisp
No revolution is deserving of the label if it doesn't provoke resistance from a threatened establishment. That’s why the backlash against Citi Bike -- the new bike-sharing program scheduled to put 6,000 bikes and 330 stations on New York City’s streets by the end of the month -- is a positive development.
Let us first qualify. As far as backlashes go, the anti-Citi Bike outcry is fairly tame stuff: a smattering of lawsuits, some very typical New York City-style kvetching over details and logistics, the expected histrionics from reporters whose expertise on matters transit-related may extend no further than possessing a driver’s license. The specifics of said outcry have been adequately dissected elsewhere (here and here are two good places to start), so I won’t linger on the rather parochial nature of most of the complaints that have been lodged so far.
But here’s the reason I’m actually heartened by the backlash: most of the energy behind it has been provided by residents of apartment buildings or business owners who are taking issue with the siting of particular bike share stations. What’s striking about that fact is that it means, essentially, that these people have already accepted the idea of a bike-sharing program in New York as a fait accompli -- and that they are now merely subjecting that program to the same gauntlet of travails that would accompany the introduction of any other new transit system. (The building of the city’s Second Avenue subway line, for example, has already occasioned a number of lawsuits over where its station entrances should be located.)
Insofar as they alter entrenched travel patterns, change urban landscapes, and carry people into parts of town where they previously hadn’t been carried, new transit systems by their very nature tend to be magnets for opposition. (And here it should be noted that Citi Bike is perhaps the least disruptive transit system that has ever been adopted by New York City, at least in terms of its construction and operation.) In its earliest phase, the debate over Citi Bike appeared to echo the debate over another profound change to New York City’s streetscape a half-century ago: the installation of on-street parking meters. At the time, critics declaimed them as “unconstitutional.” Lawsuits were mounted. The warnings were dire. There would be vandalism! People would try to cheat the system! The meters would only make traffic worse! Today, of course, parking meters are universally viewed as simply an irrefutable cost of driving a car in a crowded city, and the only real debate left is over how much to charge per 15 minutes.
The Harvard University sociologist Lant Pritchett has proposed a sort of taxonomy of social change that I find applicable to changing dominant transportation paradigms, which are really social paradigms. The four stages in the sequence might be labeled thusly: Silly, Controversial, Progressive, and Obvious. When applied to the the idea of bicycles serving as transportation in New York City, the stages of opinion have played out something like this:
Silly: It’s New York, you’d have to be crazy -- or a messenger -- to ride a bike. As more people began to do it, the tone shifted to:
Controversial: Bikes are dangerous, pedestrians are getting hurt, they will make traffic worse by removing space for cars. As these scenarios in turn failed to materialize, a new strand of critique began to surface:
Progressive: Biking proponents are nothing but an elitist, Copenhagenizing cabal trying to take over the city and turn us all into velocipede-loving socialists.
We would now seem to be entering the “Obvious” phase of the sequence, in which dissenters are spending less time arguing over the desirability or wisdom of the bike share program (which, it should be noted, enjoys the support of more than 70 percent of the citizenry) than they are over the precise location of bike infrastructure, and its day-to-day operation. The tone of this dissent has given it the characteristics of a classic NIMBY response -- or perhaps, given New York City’s unique urban geography, a NOMB (Not On My Block) response.
Dropping a huge bike-share program into the middle of New York City is unquestionably a dramatic step; the average New Yorker, to be fair, has little idea of what to expect. But in a society so relentlessly focused on what’s happening right now, it can sometimes be hard to remember that the things we think are so important today won’t necessarily be the things we think are so important tomorrow. As an example, consider what took place -- or, more accurately, what didn’t take place -- in another major city of global importance that installed a bike-share system not unlike Citi Bike’s. The debate over London’s Barclays Cycle Hire program, which is overseen by Transport for London (that city’s version of New York’s Metropolitan Transit Authority), was dogged by many of the same doubts raised when New Yorkers were first considering Citi Bike. But the resounding success of Barclays Cycle Hire to date effectively refutes all the objections these doubters raised prior to its launch in 2010.
So you say that people “just won’t cycle” in a big city like London? As James Mead, the system’s head of operations, told me, 49 percent of Barclays’ users say they actually started cycling in London because of the system. You say that bike-sharing is inherently unsafe? Mead tells me there have been more than 20 million hires (to use the British-ism for uses) without a single fatal crash. What about the argument that bike-share infrastructure will contaminate the character of historic streets in picturesque neighborhoods? While he acknowledges that “wealthier areas generated more resistance” to the siting of stations therein, Mead also reveals that -- once the program was actually in place -- something very curious happened. Those areas, he said, “are the very same areas which tend to have some of the highest levels of uptake.”
The opposition to bike-share programs can, at times, take on the quality of what the psychologist Daniel Kahneman has called a “focusing illusion,” which he describes using the following epistemological shorthand: “Nothing in life is as important as you think it is when you are thinking about it.” In London, for example, objections were raised about the noise that stations would almost certainly generate -- including the electronic beeping sounds made by employees’ keypads during transactions. Transport for London eventually agreed to disable the audio. And yet, as Mead points out, these beeps would have measured sonically at about 60 decibels, well below the 75db background hum -- much of it generated by automobiles -- that is simply the inescapable “sound” of living in modern-day London.
A version of the focusing illusion is alive and well in New York City during the debate over Citi Bike. Virtually every objection that has been raised by opponents focuses on some problem that already exists in their lives and on their streets -- interestingly, almost always a problem that can be traced to automobiles. Noise, injuries, the aesthetic degradation of the city: you can pretty much go down the line. It’s odd to hear someone bemoan how a Citi Bike station will mean the loss of yet one more precious parking spot in their neighborhood; for one thing, most of the stations aren’t being sited in such a way that they’ll result in the loss of a parking spot to begin with. But the program nevertheless seems to have equipped frustrated street-parkers with a tangible symbol of their ire regarding the dearth of these rare urban commodities -- even though the real culprit is far more likely to be someone who’s driven in from New Jersey or Long Island, and is willing to troll the streets in search of a sweet parking space next to the curb.
Interestingly, when it comes to property values, it’s generally accepted that higher-traffic streets are correlated with lower property values. But with bike infrastructure, the opposite seems to be true. In London, there’s no surer sign that a property is located in an upward-trending hot spot than the presence of a nearby bike-share station. One real-estate broker notes that her company’s agents “have been inundated with questions from prospective tenants about the nearest docking station.” (And what’s true in London also appears to be true here: in Washington, D.C., proximity to a Capital BikeShare station now appears in real-estate listings -- along with hardwood floors and top-of-the-line appliances -- as an amenity.)
In the end, people’s opinions about bike-share programs are inevitably going to be shaped most by their experiences -- or lack thereof. Not long ago, after giving a talk at a conference, I struck up a conversation with a middle-aged couple from suburban Paris who assured me, with what appeared to be deeply-held conviction, that the city’s Vélib' bike-sharing program had proved itself to be an unmitigated disaster since being installed in 2007. The system was too expensive, they told me; the bikes were always being vandalized; “no one” -- their words -- ever used it. (Paradoxically, they insisted, you could never find a bike when or where you needed one.)
“‘Oh, come on,” I replied. “There must have been at least one time when you found it useful.” Somewhat placidly, the man to whom I had addressed my question admitted the truth. “I’ve never actually used it,” he said.
Unbowed, on a trip to Paris earlier this year, I rented a Vélib' bike and rode it around to my various destinations throughout the day. It was easy to obtain, comfortable and fast: all in all, a wonderful way to see the city. That one act was all it took to turn me into a Vélib'-er. Doubtful New Yorkers, if they can be convinced to get off their high horses and onto bike seats, will be converted in much the same way.
Image: Craig Ruttle/Associated Press
In 1958, a year before Ralph Keeling was born, his father set up an atmospheric monitoring station on a Hawaiian volcano. The average daily level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere at the time stood at about 315 parts per million -- higher than it had been for most of human history, but not by much. Late last week, headlines around the globe reported that monitors on that same Hawaiian volcano were showing CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere had topped 400 ppm -- a level not seen for about 3 million years.
“It’s a psychological milestone,” says Keeling, who followed in the footsteps of his father, renowned geochemist Charles David Keeling, to become an atmospheric scientist at the Scripps Oceanographic Institution in California. I wrote about the younger Keeling continuing his father’s work for the Winter 2013 issue of OnEarth (see “Air Apparent”), and I spoke to him briefly this week to get his reaction to the atmospheric monitoring readout heard round the world.
“It’s like turning 50,” Keeling told me. “You don’t think that much about your age until you reach that milestone. You don’t think abut CO2 levels going up year by year -- it’s hardly newsworthy when levels go from 380 to 382 -- until you reach that landmark and realize the levels have gone up an awfully long ways.”
Keeling’s father meticulously documented that steady rise (which bears his name, the Keeling curve) over the course of half a century, providing indelible proof that the burning of fossil fuels is significantly altering the planet’s atmosphere. Carbon dioxide levels were approaching 340 ppm when Ralph, too, began taking atmospheric measurements in the early 1980s. And they were at 380 ppm when his father died in 2005 and Ralph took over the long-term monitoring program.
Even more important than the growing number of CO2 molecules in the air is the rate at which they have been increasing annually -- from 0.7 ppm per year in the late 1950s to 2.1 ppm per year during the last decade. At this pace, Keeling warns, we could hit 450 ppm -- a level widely regarded as what’s needed to keep global temperature rise to no more than 2°C above pre-industrial levels -- within two decades.
Despite last week’s headlines, it’s now not exactly clear when or if CO2 levels strayed across the 400 ppm threshold. Daily readings are based on preliminary data, which are often revised. After announcing a reading of 400.03 ppm last Thursday, scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration revised that measurement and now say it was actually 399.89 ppm. The preliminary data for yesterday, though, suggests a reading of 400.07 ppm.
Atmospheric concentrations of CO2 fluctuate. The levels rise and fall daily, as well as seasonally. The amount of carbon in the air peaks at this time of year, then starts dropping as the Northern Hemisphere’s plants and forests grow, leaf out, and draw carbon dioxide out of the air for the process of photosynthesis. Keeling compares the shifting carbon levels to waves lapping at a beach. “What we’re seeing are the first ripples up to the 400 level.” He predicts that by this time next year, the average monthly -- not just daily -- reading at Mauna Loa will be 400 ppm.
Change -- especially global change -- takes time. Day to day, it’s easy to overlook that fact. We don’t care much, or even really notice, if temperatures are a half-degree warmer this year than last, or if the sea is pushing a half-inch higher on shore. But landmarks like 400 ppm can turn our attention to the screw-turn of time and spotlight the incremental advance of change. At least that’s Keeling’s hope.
“This 400 ppm milestone," he says, "is an opportunity to get people to pay attention to what’s happening” -- while there's still a chance to make a difference.
Image: Zen Sekizawa
When President Obama nominated Charlotte, North Carolina, Mayor Anthony Foxx to head the U.S. Department of Transportation last month, he cited among Foxx’s other relevant accomplishments “a new streetcar project that’s going to bring modern electric tram service to [Charlotte’s] downtown area.” All well and good. But honestly, if enthusiasm for downtown streetcar projects was a prerequisite for the job, the president could probably have compiled his short list of candidates simply by closing his eyes and aiming a dart at a wall-mounted map of the lower 48.
Suddenly streetcars -- those clanging, clattering, spark-emitting icons of public transit’s past -- are among the hottest and most coveted components of public transit’s future. Right now the list of cities looking to introduce new streetcar lines or extend existing ones reads like a back-of-the-envelope tally by members of the NBA’s expansion-team task force, circa 1978: in addition to Charlotte, there’s Dallas, Kansas City, Salt Lake City, San Antonio, Fort Lauderdale, Cincinnati, Baltimore, and Tucson, among others.
As different as those streetcar-crazy cities are from one another, they have at least three things in common. First is their desire to breathe new life into somewhat moribund downtowns or other neighborhoods where the potential for economic activity is somewhat greater than the actual level of economic activity. Second is their desire to attract and retain the well-educated millennials who make up the tech-savvy “creative class,” but who have largely abandoned or foregone their cities in favor of those in California, the Northeast, and the Pacific Northwest. And third is their belief that streetcars, somehow, are absolutely key to the fulfillment of both these desires.
A story in yesterday’s New York Times would certainly seem to validate the notion that Foxx has a firm grasp of where transportation is headed and how to get us there. The article, about how twentysomethings are eschewing their cars in never-before-seen numbers for alternate forms of transit, is datelined Charlotte and contains within it the startling fact that the city’s light rail line "was projected to reach a ridership of 12,000 people within 7 to 10 years; it hit that level in the first month and a half." The overall image of Charlotte is that of a city that has smartly rooted its recent transportation decisions in demographic realities -- namely, that millennials are opting to drive less and walk, bike, or take mass transit more. Streetcars are the most visible symbol of that reality.
As is now customary in all questions pertaining to the cultivation of cool in America, Portland is held up as the example worth following. There’s certainly no question that the city’s well-designed, highly popular streetcar line, which began operation in 2001, is much beloved by the young creative professionals who have flocked to Portland in great numbers over the last decade (the city’s smartypants demographic now merits its own self-mocking TV satire). More than half of all new development in downtown Portland over the last ten years has taken place within one block of a streetcar line; the city’s initial capital outlay of $103 million has now led to more than $3.5 billion worth of private investment in residential and business development -- 10,000 housing units and nearly 5.5 million square feet of commercial space -- within three blocks of the streetcar. That’s an awful lot of bike shops, microbreweries, and pour-over coffee emporia.
But there’s another interesting thing about the new buildings along Portland’s streetcar line: by and large, they’re almost three times as dense as the buildings that were going up in the same area prior to the streetcar’s arrival. They’re far more likely to be multi-story and mixed-use -- precisely the type of transit-oriented, urban-infill development that smart-growth advocates have long touted as a powerful city-planning weapon in the fight against global climate change. And thanks in large part to the streetcar, the people who live and work in these blocks (which also happen to be filled with some of the city’s most popular shopping and nightlife destinations) have found that they simply don’t need to drive in order to get where they want to go. Accordingly, residents of these neighborhoods can boast a per-household carbon footprint up to 65 percent lower than the ones taken up by their suburban counterparts; likewise, employers who set up shop along the streetcar “corridor” can claim a footprint up to 45 percent lower.
Still, as impressive as Portland’s example is, there may also be some magical thinking at work here on behalf of cities hoping to replicate it. Adding a streetcar line can’t, by itself, lead to $3.5 billion in dense development, attract desirable demographics, or curb a city’s carbon footprint any more than joining a gym -- by itself -- can get an unhealthy person in prime physical shape. Portland, with its high concentration of young, tech-savvy professionals living inside its urban core and its environmentally progressive culture, was already demographically primed for streetcars in a way that cities like Kansas City, Fort Lauderdale, or Tucson may well find that they aren’t. And with the average price tag of a four-mile streetcar line hovering just north of $100 million, you can’t blame some critics for wondering if it’s really worth it. Are taxpayers putting up all that money to remake their downtowns into creative-class magnets, or just so tourists and conventioneers can get from the Cheesecake Factory back to their hotels faster and more comfortably?
Streetcar critics have emerged from both the right and the left, and often cite a similar argument: that it can frequently make more sense, from both an economic and emissions-cutting angle, to expand and upgrade bus service than it does to finance, build, and maintain a streetcar line from scratch. Streetcars are indeed more expensive to operate than buses per vehicle mile; and the electricity that powers them, lest we forget, is most often generated from the burning of fossil fuels. And they’re certainly no match for most other forms of public transportation as far as speed goes. In the 1940s, San Francisco mayor Roger Lapham tried to make this point as part of his effort to sway public opinion toward eliminating the city’s famed cable cars and replacing them with buses. Attaching a cable car to a pair of horses, Lapham made a deliberately slow procession down Market Street in order to mock what he saw as San Franciscans’ “sentimental,” and in his opinion irrational, attachment to an antiquated system.
But in the end, Mayor Lapham’s constituents didn’t much care how fast or efficient their cable cars were vis-a-vis buses. Protests broke out; the trolleys stayed. The whole episode, despite having taken place more than 60 years ago, may offer a clue as to why we may very well be on the verge of a streetcar renaissance. Lapham wasn’t wrong, necessarily, to imagine that buses represented a cheaper, faster, and more efficient mode of public transportation than trolleys did. Where he erred was in assuming that San Franciscans would willingly say goodbye to a mode of mass transit that -- slowness and ricketiness aside -- was such a powerful symbol of their city’s trademark style: unhurried, open-air, democratic, in-the-know, maybe even a little quaint. A bus was what you took to work when you were running late. But a streetcar was what you grabbed to get Italian food in North Beach, or attend a bookstore poetry reading, or meet friends for espresso and political gossip at Caffe Trieste.
The sleek, smooth-running streetcars that cities like Charlotte are hoping to add to their streets are as different from an old-fashioned San Francisco trolley as buttoned-down, banker-dominated Charlotte itself is from San Francisco. But what big city in America wouldn’t want to inject just a little of San Francisco’s charm or Portland’s uber-hipness into an urban core that generally tends to close for business at 5 p.m.? Streetcars can’t transform the cultural character of a city, or single-handedly pull one out of a national recession. And unless they’re structurally connected to a much larger and thoughtfully administered mass-transit system, they can’t even make much of an impact on greenhouse gas emissions or climate change. But if they’re done right, they can leverage their unique attractiveness to get people out of their homes and into stores, restaurants, cafes, sports arenas -- or even offices -- without having to get into and out of their cars so many times.
Photo: James Willamore
In grad school, one of my professors, the journalist Jonathan Weiner, told us the story of visiting Hawaii's Mauna Loa earth observatory in the mid-1980s while researching his book The Next One Hundred Years. Atop an active volcano, Jonathan was asked to breathe on a new intake valve as part of an informal test of the equipment that, since 1958, has kept continuous track of the average daily concentration of carbon dioxide in the earth’s atmosphere. The exhalation from my professor’s lungs was enough to show a momentary spike on the station’s monitors to a CO2 level of 378 parts per million (don’t worry, climate skeptics -- the scientists filtered out the tiny anomaly from the long-term readings). The experience helped inspire Jonathan’s memorable description of the Mauna Loa observatory measuring “the breathing of the world.”
Last week, those same monitors showed that the world’s breath has grown increasingly dangerous to the other life cycles of our planet. For the first time since the Pliocene Epoch, when sea levels were at least 30 feet higher than today and camels roamed the Arctic, the average daily concentration of atmospheric CO2 has topped 400 ppm. And unlike in the past, when natural cycles caused carbon dioxide levels to rise and fall over periods of hundreds of thousands -- and sometimes millions -- of years, we’ve seen an extreme shift of more than 100 ppm in less than a century. That’s a swing that, as far as scientists know, is pretty much unprecedented.
Of course, just because we’ve crossed the arbitrary threshold of some big, round number doesn’t mean we’ll suddenly start seeing vineyards in Siberia and high tides on 34th Street. CO2 levels have been rising, resulting in slow but steady worldwide climate shifts, since coal dust started spewing into the atmosphere in the early days of the Industrial Revolution. But the 20th century saw a huge increase in fossil fuel burning, and the atmosphere and oceans have responded in kind. Deserts expand, Arctic ice shrinks, crop ranges wander, and extreme storms become routine. That doesn’t mean we won’t still see a cold winter every now and again, but it does mean that our grandchildren will grow up under very different conditions than those experienced by our grandparents and their grandparents -- and a long line of grandparents going all the way back to cave painting times.
Human activity has dramatically altered the world’s breath; how can we possibly expect the rest of the world not to change along with it?
If crossing the 400 ppm threshold does anything, it should add a further sense of urgency to efforts to halt and, if possible, reverse the effects of our own activity. “Ultimately, we have to invent our way out,” writes Nicholas Thompson at the New Yorker, expressing the technological optimist’s perspective. “Everything we use that emits carbon dioxide needs to be replaced with something that doesn’t, whether a car or a cooking stove.” Then there are the related options of using less than we do now, or making everything that we do use that much more efficient. The truth is, we need to utilize every option available to us, and ensure that 400 ppm isn’t just a number that historians one day look back on as a milestone we crossed and left far behind. It’s a number that we need to strive to reach again -- this time, when we’re headed in the other direction, back down to the numbers our grandparents and their grandparents would find familiar.
In December 2005, a Pennsylvania judge ruled that a local school board could not include intelligent design as part the district’s biology curriculum. Throughout the controversy, which ballooned to Scopes monkey trial proportions, a bespectacled physical anthropologist assisted the attorneys on the side of science by marshaling the evidence for evolution and assembling noted researchers to serve as advisers.
That anthropologist was Eugenie Scott, head of the National Center for Science Education, which was founded in 1987 to support public understanding of evolutionary biology, especially in schools. The 67-year-old founding CEO announced her intention to retire from the center on Monday, after 26 years. "I’ve put a lot of blood sweat and tears into this organization," she said in a phone interview Wednesday, "but I think it’s a good time for someone with new ideas."
Her departure, though, won’t change what has become a key new emphasis for the organization in recent years: countering the trend of climate change denialism that has joined anti-evolutionary fervor as an obstacle in science classrooms. Half the organization is devoted to climate at this point, she said.
That happened because a few years ago, Scott began to notice that anti-evolution bills in state legislatures were being bundled with regulations aimed at straitjacketing climate science curricula. A handful of states, including South Dakota and Utah (which have passed resolutions denying climate change altogether), have already approved legislation specifically restricting climate science in the classroom. Scott’s center, based in Oakland, California, is working to counteract that anti-science surge by providing teachers with classroom resources and political backing for teaching climate science, along with evolution.
“Students shouldn't be debating whether living things have common ancestors,” Scott told OnEarth editor-at-large Ted Genoways in an extended interview published in the magazine’s Spring 2013 issue. “And they shouldn't be debating whether the earth is getting warmer. They can debate arguments within evolution or climate change. Were dinosaurs warm-blooded or cold-blooded? That's a great critical-thinking exercise for kids. With regard to climate change, is the sea level going to rise two inches or six? What are the data? That's a great exercise.”
And it’s one with special interest to the students who will inherit the world that climate science predicts.
Image: National Center for Science Education
This article originally appeared at Mother Jones.
Many women say lipstick makes them feel beautiful and confident. But could it also be making them sick?
In a small study out last week, researchers asked a group of teenage girls to hand over their lipsticks and glosses and tested them for toxic metals, including lead and cadmium. Though metal content varied widely from brand to brand, they found that women who apply lipstick two to three times daily can ingest a significant amount -- 20 percent of the daily amount that's considered safe in drinking water or more -- of aluminum, cadmium, chromium, and manganese. Depending on the lipstick, in some cases women who slathered it on (14 times a day or more) were meeting or surpassing the daily recommended exposure to chromium, aluminum, and manganese. Lead, a metal that humans should avoid exposure to entirely, was detected in 75 percent of the samples.
Some of these chemicals are nasty: Cadmium, for example, is a carcinogen that has been found in breast cancer biopsies and shown to cause cancer cells to multiply in lab experiments. Metals are often used in mineral dyes, which give lipstick its pigment, and are also often found in soil and groundwater. "Cadmium is a very common contaminant in soil," says Sharima Rasanayagam, a scientist at the Breast Cancer Fund. "What's concerning is that consumers don't know they're in the lipstick."
Sonya Lunder, a scientist at the Environmental Working Group, sees it as a two-part issue. "The first question is, can these products be safely used by everyone? And the second is, if they're just a contributor to this overall concern about metals and metal exposure, then what's best? How low can those levels go?" Lunder and others suggest that better disclosure, either from companies themselves or the government, would help consumers understand and limit their daily exposure.
Elevated lead levels in adults can lead to a host of health problems from miscarriages to seizures. Lead exposure among children can lead to permanent brain damage and, and as Kevin Drum investigated in Mother Jones' January/February issue, possibly even crime.
Studies have been finding lead in lipstick for years. The first major examination was in 2007 when the nonprofit Campaign for Safe Cosmetics tested a range of products and found lead in 61 percent of them, including Burt's Bees tinted chapstick. Burt's, which is owned by Clorox, trades on selling "truly natural products that have a positive effect on both you and the world you live in." (Burt's has a statement on its website from the 2007 study that says, "We are meeting directly with our suppliers to find ways to identify, minimize and even eliminate trace elements of lead from our natural mineral sources." The company didn't respond to Mother Jones's request for more information about what they had done to eliminate the lead since the 2007 study came out.)
The FDA has conducted two follow-up studies, one in 2009 and one in 2012. Both studies found much more lead, up to 7.19 parts per million, in the lipstick samples tested. Here are the top 20 lead-containing lipsticks from the FDA's 2012 review of 400 lipstick shades:
So shouldn't the FDA do a better job curbing lead and metal content in lipstick? In short, yes. Though the agency regulates how much of these substances can be in pigment, strangely, it hasn't specified how much metal overall is allowed in the tube of lipstick. And the FDA itself doesn't even test the dozens of dyes used in cosmetics or set the maximum amounts of metals in them; it outsourced that job years ago to the Cosmetic Ingredient Review, an organization established in 1976 by a cosmetics-industry-aligned trade and lobbying group. Over the years, the US has banned 22 chemicals outright. For comparison, the EU currently bans more than 1,300 chemicals.
Want to limit your heavy metal intake without giving up your lipstick? The FDA's 2012 test found less than one part per million of lead in Wet n' Wild, Bobbi Brown, and Shiseido brand lipsticks. The Environmental Working Group also has a database with information on cosmetic products and the risky ingredients that could be in them, and the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics has a list of its favorite products online as well.
“That’s it Zuckerman,” posted someone named Margret Ball, in Prineville, Oregon. “I’m done with you, and you can put that little happy face where the sun don’t shine. NO FACEBOOK FOR A WEEK!"
Where did she post this? On Facebook, of course.
When people get mad nowadays, Facebook is where they go to vent. So when Facebook (or its billionaire founder) is the target of their frustrations, expect a little cognitive dissonance. Zuckerberg made headlines recently after his political group bankrolled a series of TV ads (why not Facebook ads, Zuck?) for politicians who support drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and want to build the Keystone XL pipeline, which would transport tar sands oil from northern Canada to the Texas Gulf Coast.
The political group, FWD.us, doesn’t explicitly support fossil fuels. It was set up by a slew of techies, including Bill Gates and LinkedIn’s Reid Hoffman, to push for immigration reform. So the support for Keystone XL and Arctic drilling may just be Machiavellian tit-for-tat, funding pro-fossil fuels politicians in exchange for immigration reform votes.
The phone company CREDO Mobile, whose support for social and environmental causes is part of its brand, tried to push back by running a paid ad -- on Facebook -- asking Zuckerberg to back off on his support for Keystone XL. But the social network rejected the ad, telling ThinkProgress that Zuckerberg’s image is part of its brand trademark and therefore verboten to use in advertising.
So instead, the ad is turning up all over Facebook, in the news streams of individual users. CREDO action, the mobile company’s advocacy arm, made a share-able poster and published it on its company page. This non-ad went on to muster 9,902 shares. Then Sierra Club jumped on the Facebook campaign bandwagon and made its own, Zuckerberg dislike, ad. Between Sierra Club posts and CREDO’s, 29,841 people have either liked or shared posts lambasting Zuckerberg.
That has translated to a whole lot of exposure. CREDO action told OnEarth that its initial post has gotten 697,344 views so far. “It’s likely, we reached more people with our campaign than we would have with the proposed ad buy,” said Sarah Lane of CREDO action over email today. “This was largely due to public outrage over Zuckerberg’s pro-Keystone XL ad.”
Perhaps that’s the beauty, and paradox, of social platforms. Sharing between peers isn’t censored (yet). But using Zuckerberg’s site, even to criticize him, is still good for his company’s bottom line.
And Margret Ball? She’s been posting all week.
Remember the rovers, NASA’s Mars-trekking robots that have been roaming the red planet off and on since 2004? Well, here comes Grover, the space agency’s new unmanned, Earth-hugging vehicle, which is about to explore another remote, inhospitable place: Greenland’s ice sheet.
Tomorrow, NASA will begin testing Grover -- short for Greenland Rover, or short for Goddard Remotely Operated Vehicle for Exploration and Research, take your pick. The robot has until June 8 to prove itself on the island’s frigid and ever-changing snowscape. There's good reason to be concerned about this shifting terrain: last July, more of Greenland’s surface ice melted, and melted faster, than ever before recorded.
Climate Central’s Andrew Freedman reports:
Greenland is the world's largest island, and it holds 680,000 cubic miles of ice. If all of this ice were to melt -- which won't happen anytime soon -- the oceans would rise by more than 20 feet. Uncertainties about how the ice sheets of Greenland and Antarctica are responding to the warming climate have limited scientists’ confidence in projections of future sea level rise. Current estimates show that the global average sea level is likely to rise by up to 3 feet by 2100, which would cause significant flooding problems for coastal cities, particularly during severe storm events.
Like its older, worldlier cousins, Grover runs on solar panels and has an onboard computer. Unlike the six-wheeled, slower-than-molasses Mars rovers, Grover will cruise around on repurposed snowmobile tracks -- at a speedier 1.2 mph! The vehicle's ground-penetrating radar will relay signals from within the ice sheet, detailing what's happening down below within its many layers of ice and snow.
The glaciologists at the Goddard Space Flight Center and Boise State University who developed the new bot are understandably excited. Instead of spending hours snowmobiling or flying over the ice to collect data, the scientists will maneuver Grover by remote control, presumably while sipping cocoa in warm offices.
“It will go slower than we would with snowmobiles, but when it goes for 24 hours, which a human can’t, it’ll actually gather more data for us,” says glaciologist Lora Koenig in a video that details Grover’s history. It began as an idea sparked by students at a summer engineering program and grew to a 6-foot tall, 800-pound Arctic trailblazer. In June, Grover will get a new friend, Dartmouth University's "Cool Robot" (which is actually kind of square). If all goes well this summer, the snow-bots might soon start monitoring ice loss -- and freaking out penguins -- in Antarctica. Here's hoping nobody falls in. These guys can't swim.
Image: Gabriel Trisca, Boise State University
We know that the readers of our daily news roundup are probably voracious consumers of environmental news. Which means there's a good chance that you're just the kind of person we need to serve as the new lead writer for Today OnEarth (or you know someone who is). Here's a description of what we're looking for and how to apply:
OnEarth magazine is seeking a talented journalist to be the lead writer for our daily Today OnEarth news roundup (OnEarth’s equivalent of The Slatest or The Daily Beast’s Cheat Sheet) and produce other timely blog posts/news briefs on environmental topics for OnEarth.org. The ideal candidate will be a voracious news junkie who understands that good curation is about more than just listing and linking; we want a writer who can add value and analysis to the source material and offer entertainment and insight to our educated readers, who include scientists, policy makers, and media pros.
This is a part-time contract position that will work off site, perhaps during off hours in order to produce the morning news roundup. (A West Coast candidate who can work late, after the next day’s news stories are posted online, or an East Coast early riser who can file by an early deadline would be ideal.) We’re looking for a writer who can dedicate about three hours each weekday to blogging for OnEarth. Compensation commensurate with experience.
To apply, please send a cover letter, resume, and 3-5 clips highlighting your aggregation and blogging abilities to email@example.com with “News Blogger” in the subject. OnEarth is published by the Natural Resources Defense Council, an equal-opportunity employer.
To early mammals, the world looked something like the beginning of The Wizard of Oz: colorless. But at some point, a group of primates began seeing reds, greens, and blues -- and many shades of pink, yellow, and aquamarine in between. Scientists have long thought that color vision -- called trichromacy -- developed in primates sometime after they stopped hunting at night and began waking up with the sun. By the light of day, the thinking went, these pioneering primates were better able to identify food, communicate, and spot predators in the brush. They prospered in the sunlight and continued evolving into some pretty impressive characters: monkeys, apes, and humans.
But now the tiny, colorblind tarsier is giving an opposable thumbs down to that theory and raising new questions about just when our Technicolor-perceiving abilities emerged. The questions arose after a recent study that compares the photopigment genes of two tarsier species living today with their oldest common ancestor, a tarsier that went extinct millions of years ago. That ancient relative, the researchers found, was trichromatic, which challenges the notion that color vision came to primates only after they began burning daylight hours. Tarsiers, after all, are nocturnal.
“Tarsiers represent a really key position in primate evolution. They are kind of their own weird creature,” says Amanda D. Melin, an evolutionary ecologist at Dartmouth University. Tarsiers, which are found in Southeast Asia, can communicate via ultrasound, swivel their heads like owls, and climb like long-legged tree frogs. (The Horsfield’s tarsier can leap up to 18 feet in a single bound.) Their eyeballs are sometimes larger than their brains, and they are the only primates that eat meat exclusively. So it’s little wonder scientists have had the darndest time classifying these guys. Taxonomists first clumped tarsiers in with prosimians -- which means “before monkeys” -- but they didn’t quite fit in with that group of lorises and lemurs. Upon closer inspection at the molecular level, scientists now consider tarsiers to be most closely related to the anthropoids -- those sun-loving, more color-savvy monkeys, apes, and humans.
But modern tarsiers prefer the nightlife and, like all nocturnal mammals, they are dichromatic, meaning they only have two kinds of cones in their eyes, instead of the three that allow for color vision. In fact, seeing a fuller spectrum would hinder their ability to detect subtle changes in brightness levels in the dark. Might this mean that the tarsier’s color-seeing ancestor had been active during the day? Melin doesn’t think so. Fossilized skulls of the prehistoric primate feature huge orbits that would have likely held big, round eyeballs, much like those of the modern tarsier. Dusk and moonlight, the researchers conclude, were bright enough that seeing color would come in handy.
“It probably was useful then under dim light, and trichromatic vision is really good for discriminating between greenish and reddish objects,” says Melin. “A lot of cats and civets are kind of a reddish or yellowish and against a green, leafy background, they would stand out.” -- A good thing to notice for a snack-size primate.
So how much farther back does color vision go? What can it tell us about the evolution of our own eyesight? Like so many things in science, mark this one as: more study required.
But to do that, scientists will need tarsiers to stick around for further eye exams, and right now their future is in serious doubt. Their ancestors lived in forests in Asia, Europe, and North America, but today’s tarsiers inhabit only a handful of islands. The Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) lists 10 of the 18 tarsier species and sub-species as vulnerable or endangered (two critically so). Along with deforestation, these primates are also threatened by the pet trade, which removes them from their native habitat. And while undeniably adorable, the shy, picky-eating tarsier makes for a terrible pet -- zoos even have trouble keeping them in captivity. Worse yet, the animals have a tendency to “commit suicide” when overstressed. Apparently they’d really rather just be left alone, in the dark, where they belong.
When ExxonMobil’s Pegasus pipeline burst last month, filling the streets and front lawns of small-town Mayflower, Arkansas, with pools of heavy crude oil, the company followed what has by now become standard protocol: attend to the spill and clamp down on the media. It’s a scenario all too familiar to those journalists who covered 2010’s Deepwater Horizon disaster, and to the people of the Gulf Coast desperate for information about how the BP blowout would affect their health and livelihoods.
In the days right after last month's Mayflower spill, ExxonMobil was allowed to impose and supervise an FAA-approved temporary no-fly zone over the town. Reporters who attempted to get anywhere near the site -- or even enter the area that housed the accident’s command center -- were threatened with arrest. All told, it was more than a week before journalists were allowed any substantive access; and even then, reporters were allowed to do their jobs only in the presence of an ExxonMobil escort. (The company, of course, denies this -- spokesman Russ Roberts told me "the media has always been granted access to the site within accordance to the law and safety procedures" -- but that runs counter to what reporters on the ground were documenting.)
Journalists and citizens alike cried foul, claiming that ExxonMobil was infringing on the public’s right to know. And they would seem to have a point. Quick: try to name another instance where the perpetrator of potential criminal negligence is placed in charge of the accident scene.
Yet the legal power of an oil spiller to run the show, so to speak, remains one of the most mysterious aspects of these occurrences. ExxonMobil’s authority in Mayflower derives mainly from a little known (let alone understood) law that was passed right after the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster: the 1990 Oil Pollution Act, or OPA. This statute charges the oil spiller -- known as the “responsible party” -- with the task of stopping the flow and cleaning up the spill. But while those goals in and of themselves make sense, the statute also grants that same party an inordinate amount of control over who gets to see how it’s doing that job.
And here’s where the law gets really interesting.
To compound the problem, the statute also dictates that the oil company’s liability for any given spill is to be calculated based on the volume of oil released and the resulting damage to the environment. From a liability standpoint, then -- not to mention a public relations one -- it’s pretty obvious why an oil company would be motivated to stanch not only the flow of oil, but also the flow of images that bear witness to an accident’s breadth and depth. (To see the kinds of images oil companies would really prefer that you not be seeing, check out this devastating aerial footage of the Mayflower accident site, taken just before the no-fly zone had been imposed and provided to OnEarth by Austin Kellerman, the news director of KARK 4 News in Little Rock.)
“Their instinct is to keep people as far away from this thing as possible, to limit their liability and limit the negative publicity,” says Pat Parenteau, an environmental law professor at Vermont Law School. “They don’t want those pictures in the paper.” Parenteau makes clear that the Environmental Protection Agency, as the ultimate authority on site, can and should override ExxonMobil or any other oil spiller in situations where the agency thinks the company is unduly limiting media access. Consequently, he says, the press has an obligation to be “hammering the EPA to give access” in any such cases.
The fundamental problem, Parenteau maintains, is the wording of the statute itself. “That’s just the way the law is built,” he says. For example, “fines are calculated per barrel, so ExxonMobil has a huge financial incentive to low-ball.” (Something the company has already been suspected of doing in Mayflower, and something which BP did, famously, in the Gulf of Mexico, forcing the company to plead guilty to lying to Congress as part of a $4.5 billion legal settlement.) “ExxonMobil is facing tort claims, personal injury claims, property damage claims, interference-with-quality-of-life claims, and on and on,” Parenteau continues. “There could also be criminal indictments of individuals, as well as the corporation, if there’s gross negligence. So it’s just natural that ExxonMobil’s going to limit access and limit information; that’s their whole orientation. Get this thing cleaned up, get it behind us, limit the damages, cut our losses.”
What’s more, the complexity of the statute, especially in regards to how it plays into the U.S. National Contingency Plan (which covers federal, state, and local authorities who respond to and supervise oil spills), adds to confusion about who’s in charge. As the designated on-scene coordinator representing the federal government, the EPA officially serves as the final authority during cleanup operations at any such major accident scene. But per the OPA, even on-scene coordinators -- along with any state and local authorities who happen to be assisting them -- are encouraged to defer to oil spillers unless and until the actions of the “responsible party” are deemed inadequate. Finally, there’s one more troublesome legal hitch that makes the EPA reluctant to step in and take over: according to the statute, if federal authorities somehow wind up causing or facilitating further on-site damage that can later be proven in court, a portion of the oil company’s liability tab can be shifted to the federal government.
When Americans watched video showing millions of gallons of oil spewing into the Gulf of Mexico after the Deepwater Horizon disaster, many of them felt confused and helpless. Why was the White House continuing to defer to BP’s judgement on the question of what to do? A better knowledge of the Oil Pollution Act would have helped to explain -- at least in part -- why the federal government seemed so hesitant, at the time, to take the reins.
In the end, perhaps the starkest example of all that’s wrong with the Oil Pollution Act comes in the form of a single phone number. It’s to be found on any and all of the press releases coming out of the Mayflower Incident Unified Command Joint Information Center -- an operation that is, nominally at least, headed jointly by officials from the EPA, ExxonMobil, the city of Mayflower and the county in which Mayflower sits.
Call that phone number, as I did, and you’ll be routed to an ExxonMobil representative in Virginia. When I asked the telephone operator (as she described herself) who took my call what the protocol was if someone from the press wanted to speak to an EPA official on site, she informed me that all media inquiries had to go through her -- and would be forwarded, summarily, to an official ExxonMobil press officer. So I asked, and got sent back to Russ Roberts, the ExxonMobil spokesman I had been in contact with previously. He took my email address and deadline, sent it to the EPA, and said the agency would contact me directly. When EPA spokeswoman Jennah Durant called me from Dallas, she said she couldn't answer my questions, and would run them further up the chain of command. As of press time, I was still waiting.
Before raising more than $1 billion in private capital to start his own “green car” company, Henrik Fisker was a designer for the likes of Aston Martin and BMW, and it shows in the cutting-edge, plug-in electric vehicle he released two years ago. This is the kind of car that will make you turn around and notice -- slung low to the ground, boasting bold curves and an overall sleek look.
Based in Anaheim, California, Fisker Automotive has sold about 2,000 of the innovative designer’s new Karmas, a hybrid luxury sedan that cost more than $100,000. But the company is now struggling and has become a target for politicians seeking to challenge the government’s role in encouraging innovation and energy efficiency.
Last week, Fisker and a Department of Energy official were hauled in front of a congressional panel and grilled on why the electric carmaker is in jeopardy of losing almost $200 million in federal loans. The fact is, you need a lot more than cool-looking cars to be a successful automotive startup. And Fisker has not delivered when it comes to business execution. The Karma came out later than originally planned and then got mixed reviews. Consumer Reports complained that the car was cramped inside, felt bulky when driving, and had a small back seat and trunk. The car suffered numerous technical glitches, as well. In an infamous incident, it had to be towed away during Consumer Reports’ testing because the batteries failed.
The car isn’t exactly a home run when it comes to its green claims, either. It runs on batteries for short trips and then uses a gasoline engine to maintain charge when the battery runs low -- the same type of powertrain as the Chevy Volt. The EPA rated the Fisker Karma at 55 mpg equivalent on all-electric mode, but only 21 mpg in charge-sustaining mode for highway driving, which is well short of other plug-ins. (The plug-in Prius hybrid, by comparison, is rated at over 100 mpg for all-electric driving and 49 mpg in hybrid mode.)
But it’s not Fisker’s business or engineering failures that have gotten critics in Congress and conservative circles all revved up. They’re using the company’s problems as an opportunity to question the government’s role in commercializing clean tech innovation. By its definition, the Department of Energy’s loan guarantee program, which provided money to Fisker and failed solar company Solyndra, carries risks -- after all, some new technology companies are destined to fail, just like any companies in an emerging market would.
No doubt the loan program could benefit from a review to make it more effective, but seizing on company failures to score political points is just a distraction from a more substantive discussion. And the negative publicity fanned by political hearings has already made the Energy Department more risk-averse and clean-tech companies “wary of being associated with government support,” according to a recent Government Accountability Office report.
Though Fisker started with private backing, when it came time to start producing the Karma and a lower-priced plug-in sedan called the Atlantic (which is still in the planning stages), the company sought and was approved for a $529 million federal loan guarantee meant for automakers investing in new technology and advanced manufacturing. But in 2011, when Fisker didn’t meet certain milestones to continue receiving money, the DOE cut it off. Fisker failed to make its most recent repayment and is considering going into bankruptcy.
Still, even if the company does go belly-up and never makes the Atlantic, it’s hard to see the rest of auto industry missing much of a beat. Automakers are well aware of the challenges regarding the public’s adoption of electric vehicles, namely high battery costs and the limited range of all-electrics. Fisker’s demise can be blamed on plenty of factors specific to its situation. Without the government loan, it would be just another plug-in auto startup that hit a wall trying to get market traction. At least five plug-in carmakers have failed to get beyond early prototypes in the past three years, a sign of how difficult it is to crack into the auto market. You can’t say that Fisker’s core powertrain technology was fundamentally flawed, because other automakers already use or plan to use the same approach.
In terms of policy, it’s become a conservative talking point that the government should stick to funding basic research and not provide loans to help grow young companies. But there’s still a case to be made for some role of government in advancing technologies with economic and societal benefits. Banks are wary of loaning money for first-of-a-kind projects to young companies because there’s substantial risk. Without some policy mechanism to scale up alternative energy and efficiency technologies, many business ideas that would help make our energy system cleaner will likely never make it beyond the labs or drawing boards. It’s worth noting that the DOE loan guarantee programs were crafted and authorized under President George W. Bush.
Ford, Nissan, and Tesla Motors also received loans from this program and are on track to pay them back. But it now looks like Fisker will not. What’s an acceptable rate of failure? Is there a way to structure the program to guard against politicians’ desires to favor pet projects? Can the program be reformed to minimize taxpayer risk? These are valid questions Congress should be discussing. In fact, last week Republican senator Lisa Murkowski voiced optimism that the loan guarantee program could be preserved with some simple changes. But in today’s politicized environment around energy, it seems constructive conservations of this sort are rare.
Financially, the people with the most money to lose in the Fisker saga are private investors, not public taxpayers, whatever the partisan rhetoric. And if there’s a broader chilling effect from Fisker’s political woes, it may well be on innovators and investors. In the past two years, the Department of Energy hasn’t provided any more auto or renewable energy-related loans despite having billions of dollars available. No doubt, that’s partly because some loan applications were deemed too risky. But the withering attacks from politicos in the wake of failed companies could also help explain why loans have effectively stopped. With the loan guarantee program at a stand still, there’s one less source of capital to help bring new energy technologies to market. That’s a loss for everyone.
Image: Fisker Automotive
This is the first in an ongoing series of columns we're calling "The Future of Food."
Today marks the deadline for public comments on a genetically modified salmon currently under review by the Food and Drug Administration. If approved, the fish will be the first transgenic animal ever to enter the human food supply. Some say it’s about time. In an op-ed that appeared last month in the New York Times under the title “Don’t Be Afraid of Genetic Modification,” science writer Emily Anthes explained that the company behind the fish, Massachusetts-based AquaBounty Technologies, has been waiting more than 17 years for approval of its product.
Anthes, author of the just-published Frankenstein’s Cat: Cuddling up to Biotech’s Brave New Beasts, called the FDA’s extension of the comment period on its environmental assessment (the original deadline was back in February) “just one more delay in a process that’s dragged on far too long.” The tests were in, she suggested, and the diagnosis an obvious one. Couldn’t we please put this poor company out of its misery and give its salmon the green light already?
Not so fast. The FDA says the fish is just as safe to eat as conventional salmon -- though you can count me among those who don’t look to that troubled agency (see “The FDA is Out to Lunch,” Winter 2013) for the last word on food safety. But the potential threats to the oceans are significant, and the FDA doesn’t acknowledge them. More troublingly, the agency seems content to leapfrog over the entire process for determining whether those threats exist in the first place. Given the far-reaching impact this salmon could have on our natural ecosystems and global seafood supply, fish scientists and food advocates make a strong case for closer scrutiny.
AquaBounty has created its AquAdvantage fish by modifying farmed Atlantic salmon with a growth-hormone gene from the Chinook salmon and a piece of DNA from the ocean pout. The two work together to allow the fish to grow year-round, cutting down on feed costs and on the time it takes to reach marketable size. AquaBounty says the fish pose “no threat to wild salmon populations.” After producing the eggs on Prince Edward Island, in Canada, the company grows the fish to size at an inland facility in Panama, where AquaBounty has a “confinement system” in place involving multiple physical barriers. In addition, the company says that it is breeding these salmon to be sterile, so that even if they were to escape, they would presumably be unable to take hold in any ecosystem or reproduce with any native salmon populations.
It’s possible that AquaBounty’s various safeguards could succeed in sequestering its GM fish in the highly specific, highly limited scenario it’s describing -- but that’s ultimately beside the point. Ronald Stotish, the company’s CEO, has said that the AquAdvantage salmon are designed for “facilities that can be built closer to consumers” and that the fish “can help us to feed an overpopulated planet.” In other words, the company’s plan is to scale up. (How would AquaBounty -- which has already danced on the brink of bankruptcy -- get a return on its multi-million-dollar investment otherwise?)
But if fish farmers everywhere will be able to purchase the company’s eggs, they’ll be growing the salmon in very different environments, and it’s hard to imagine that many will have the capacity to put in place the rigorous and costly control system that AquaBounty has installed in Panama. (The FDA can extend an original approval to cover new manufacturing facilities with little public input or environmental review.) Nor is it a leap to imagine that continued expansion will eventually lead to conventional open net-pens, the standard system for the global salmon aquaculture industry, and, significantly, a form of confinement from which millions of farmed salmon have escaped in the past.
AquaBounty acknowledges that its sterilizing procedure isn’t 100 percent effective. Even if its failure rate is as low as 0.1 percent, when you’re talking about massive farms – and it’s not uncommon for today’s operations to entail a million fish -- huge numbers of fertile fish could escape and interbreed with the already endangered Atlantic salmon, compromising its fitness and threatening its ultimate survival.
Standard risk assessment generally involves three steps. The first step is to identify the hazard; the second, to determine the environmental consequences should the hazard be realized; and the third, to figure out how best to manage the risk and prevent those consequences from emerging. But the environmental assessment released by the FDA back in December essentially neglected the first two of these steps. It included no in-depth analysis of hazardous weaknesses in AquaBounty’s salmon-confinement system and no examination of the consequences should the company’s GM salmon escape. Also absent was a formal “uncertainty analysis,” which -- given the inevitable unknowns involved with the natural world (remember when we thought it was a good idea to import Asian carp?) -- is particularly critical in assessments related to the environment. Anne R. Kapuscinski, an environmental studies professor at Dartmouth College and the lead writer of a book about risk-assessment science as applied to genetically modified fish, has called the FDA’s environmental assessment “not even close to approaching the standards of state-of-the-art risk assessment.”
Part of the problem may be the regulatory framework itself. Currently, applications for transgenic animals are being considered by the FDA under the category of "new animal drugs" (go figure). And while the application process does take into account the potential effects of such "drugs" on human and animal health, it doesn’t allow for any thorough consideration of environmental hazards. Nor does it require substantive input from other agencies -- like, for example, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the National Marine Fisheries Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, or the Environmental Protection Agency -- that have actual expertise in areas such as fisheries and ecological risk.
Even more outrageous, because of concerns over trade secrets, the process mostly takes place in the dark. The public-comments period under the National Environmental Policy Act, for example, takes effect only after a New Animal Drug Application has been approved by the FDA, turning it into something that feels very much like a formality. (AquaBounty, as the first GM-animal applicant, gave the FDA permission to make public some information about its salmon; future applications would carry no such requirements.)
It is precisely because this environmental assessment (by virtue of being the first) will set the precedent for all transgenic animals moving forward -- both in this country and internationally -- that it’s important to get it right. Rather than relying on the shoddy version released in December, the agency could complete a new, and comprehensive, environmental impact statement that fully assesses the potential risks associated with broad adoption of these GM fish and others like them. Agencies with deep knowledge of fisheries and the environment could play a much larger role in determining the threats. Until the best available science can affirmatively demonstrate that GM fish pose little or no risk to our wild fish populations, it would be careless not to slam the brakes on their cultivation.
In her Times op-ed, Anthes wrote that the rejection of AquaBounty’s salmon application would be “just fine” with groups that “traffic in scare tactics rather than science.” In fact, among those calling for a rejection, sound science is all they want.
I want you to try something: close your eyes, think back over your media diet for the day, and identify six photographs that you clearly remember seeing.
It's harder than you would have thought, isn't it? Photographs are everywhere: in our newspapers, on our computer and tablet screens, at our bus stops, on our food packaging. Advertisers and editors spend a lot of time and money trying to ensure that you won't forget all those sexy images at the end of the day. But I'll bet that you did forget them. It's simply impossible to retain the amount of visual information that our image-saturated culture throws at us. We're bombarded with photographic images of every possible kind: the good, the bad, and the ugly. (The media scales are most heavily weighted toward those last two categories, alas.) All of these images are out there clamoring for our attention; some are screaming, others are whispering, but all are saying: look at me!
The cruel irony, from the image producers' standpoint at least, is that we’re completely unaware of most of them. In such a maelstrom, nothing gets the chance to stand out. We’re visually numb.
As OnEarth's photo editor, I get to see incredible photography on a daily basis -- the kind that makes a powerful visual statement, the kind capable of yanking you back from numbness into consciousness. It’s beautiful photography, but it's more than that: it's meaningful. It operates in a space where the categories of documentary, science, and fine art blur and overlap. These photos challenge us to slow down, to think, to dig a little deeper. Why did the photographer focus on this subject in the foreground, and not that one in the background? What is she really trying to show us here? And, of course, the larger question at the core of those others: why should I care?
The special photographs of which I speak are the ones that remind us about the fragile bonds that connect all life on our planet. They're worth seeing, and they're worth caring about. These images (and the stories behind them) are the ones I’d like to share with you in my new blog. I hope you enjoy them.
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Now that the preamble is out of the way, let me introduce you to a photographer whose work you’ve probably seen before (perhaps in this OnEarth review, for instance). Paul Nicklen's specialty is taking photographs in sub-zero temperatures at the earth's polar regions. And yet, somewhat amazingly, this award-winning photographer never gets “cold feet.”
So far, the 20 cases of frostbite Paul has endured in his dogged pursuit of that "perfect shot" haven't deterred him. One shoot required Paul to snap, right up close, the gaping mouth of a 1,000-pound leopard seal. Another shoot found him sprawled belly-down on the ice with his camera poised as waves of Emperor penguins vaulted out of the water beside him. Both scenarios illustrate just how completely at home Paul is in this frozen environment.
In his 2011 TED Talk “Tales of Icebound Wonder,” which is alternatively funny, stunningly beautiful, and moving, Nicklen shares a revealing secret for getting such incredible photographs. “If I find myself standing shoulder-to-shoulder with a lot of other photographers, I know I'm in the wrong place," he says. "If I'm cold and miserable and alone under the sea ice, and my assistant is hating me for being there, and big animals with large and sharp protruding parts are staring at me, then I know I'm in the right spot.”
He needn't worry too much. By hanging out in minus-40 temperatures in Antarctica (which he does regularly), Paul all but ensures that he won’t find himself caught in some standing-room-only crowd of photographers. He's much more often than not the only photographer around for many miles -- as was the case when he jumped into icy waters to prove that leopard seals weren’t, in fact, the vicious killers they have sometimes been depicted as. He spent days photographing one particular female leopard seal that had befriended him -- and even tried to woo him with fresh penguins. The result is a series of some of the most remarkable images of these misunderstood marine mammals ever to be captured.
Climate change has increased the urgency of his mission. The more attention that he and other members of the media can direct toward the devastating impact that loss of ice will have on the polar regions, the greater the chance that it will "inspire an audience to help avert the warming trend that is changing these remote areas quickly and irreversibly," he said in a 2012 National Geographic Live! lecture. "What I’m trying to do with my work is put faces to this. If we lose ice, we stand to lose an entire ecosystem.”
If those sound like the words of an environmental scientist, that's because they are: Paul also happens to be a marine biologist with a degree from the University of Victoria. He sees his photography and his science as twin components of a larger job description, which he labels interpreter or translator.
As you look at his powerful, beautiful photographs, you'll hardly be surprised to learn that they’ve already earned Paul an array of coveted honors. Last December he became the first recipient of NRDC’s Biogems Visionary award (disclaimer: NRDC publishes OnEarth). His most recent book, Polar Obsession, is now in its third printing and has won more than 20 international awards from organizations like World Press Photo, Pictures of the Year International, and the BBC. He's one of only a handful of photographers in the entire world who can claim to be a member of National Geographic's most trusted cadre and has published more than a dozen stories for that magazine.
In the form of one person, Paul Nicklen combines a biologist's knowledge, a conservationist's concern, and an artist's creativity to highlight the most pressing issues facing our polar regions. Every seal, penguin, and polar bear that he photographs puts a face on the essential ways that ice and wildlife are interwoven on our coldest ecosystems -- ecosystems we're in grave danger of losing.
All images courtesy of Paul Nicklen
As an eager consumer, and sometime producer, of garbage-related writing, I was thrilled to be invited to provide a blurb for Robin Nagle’s recently released Picking Up: On the Streets and Behind the Trucks with the Sanitation Workers of New York City. Plunging into the book with the zeal of a dumpster diver, I emerged utterly charmed by Nagle’s precise and often hilarious descriptions of how people function -- or not -- within the largest municipal garbage operation in the world. Nagle is an anthropologist (she teaches at New York University) interested in how people perceive sanitation workers and how those workers perceive themselves. In her first chapter, though, she takes a pot shot at recycling that’s hard to ignore.
Municipal recycling programs, she writes, “don’t do squat for environmental health. Yet curbside recycling . . . receives real resources and support while other, less obvious, more complicated choices that have the potential to make a real difference, like a more politically engaged citizenry and government incentives against various forms of large-scale pollution, are largely unmarked and so are ignored.”
Imagining howls from tree huggers armed with statistics on how recycling cuts energy use and reduces air and water pollution, I pressed the author, whom I had met nearly a decade earlier while researching my own garbage book, to elaborate.
“I believe curbside recycling is important,” Nagle told me, speaking with deliberation. “I believe that the behavior and attitudes and consciousness, the change and awareness that it helps bring about, is a crucial start. My criticism is that recycling is often not a start but an end point, and the conversation needs to move to a broader horizon that includes industrial and agricultural and manufacturing forms of waste that stand behind the products that we discard and put on the curb for collection.” Municipal waste, which ends up in landfills and incinerators, accounts for just 3 percent of the nation’s overall waste stream. The other 97 percent is generated upstream, remains largely invisible to us, and consists of materials such as mine tailings, manufacturing scraps, and wastes buried on factory property.
Not surprisingly, public-education campaigns focus on individual actions: don’t litter, recycle your cans, buy goods with recycled content, etc. “But the source of the much bigger crisis isn’t in the hands of any individual,” Nagle continued. “So as long as curbside recycling gets a disproportionate amount of attention and resources, we’re missing a really important piece of the picture. Even if we recycle perfectly, even if we were to divert all of our municipal waste to recycling, what about the 97 percent still out there?”
Nagle has a point, but recycling 100 percent of our municipal waste (however theoretical that is; the national recycling rate lingers at around 34 percent) is nothing to sneeze at. We would mine, harvest, and transport fewer raw materials (as we make new goods from old), thus generating fewer greenhouse gases and other pollutants. And we would generate less methane in landfills if we recycled or composted, instead of buried, paper and paperboard (which make up 28.5 percent of the municipal waste stream). More to Nagle’s point: cut production of new goods and we reduce the volume of those mine tailings and factory scraps.
Yes, recycling gets more public attention than the anti-capitalist “reduce” and the utterly unsexy “reuse.” (Though I offer huge props to the rappers Macklemore and Ryan Lewis for their infectious “Thrift Shop,” which celebrates “your granddad’s clothes” and calls out conspicuous consumption with a contemptuous “50 dollars for a T shirt? … I call that getting tricked by a business.” The song has reportedly boosted thrift shop sales.) Altogether, the 3R message seems a bit tired. Green groups advise individuals concerned about their environmental footprint to focus on our transportation and how we heat and light our homes. Hard to argue with that. But consumer goods, their use, and their packaging are responsible, over their life cycles, for 44 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions (including emissions generated overseas for products consumed here), according to a white paper commissioned by the Product Policy Institute. Clearly, how much and what kind of stuff we buy is important, especially when you consider that as standards of living rise around the planet, ever more consumers will follow in our heavy American footsteps.
Nagle’s complaint, shared by many, is that we focus on sorting single-use plastic bottles instead of questioning their existence. Short of mounting the barricades and denouncing the drumbeat of economic growth, what can we do? We can address the impacts of consumption with, to name just one tool, life-cycle analyses (or LCAs), which assess the cradle-to-grave environmental impacts of a product, from raw material extraction through manufacturing, distribution, use, and disposal. (The European Union has launched a pilot LCA program for “green” consumer products and organizations.)
LCAs may make it easier for consumers to pick the “greener” product, but they’re not going to be truly useful until every product has one, and governments use them to take the next step: require manufacturers to internalize the negative social and environment impacts they’ve long passed on to the public. (For example, the pollutants they’ve discharged into our atmosphere or the packaging they’ve tasked municipalities with collecting and disposing of, at taxpayer cost.) Yes, products may become more expensive as manufacturers research and develop alternatives to high-impact goods, but those companies will also compete, on a newly level playing field, to provide the best product at the best price. In this scheme, bad (polluting or hard-to-recycle) products will cost more, and good products will cost less -- the opposite of the current reality.
This idea isn’t new, of course. People have been writing and talking about such regulations, incentives, and economic signals for years, most recently in the debate over a carbon tax. The idea isn’t politically popular. But many economists believe it’s the only way to reverse our current carbon-spewing trajectory.
As Nagle makes clear with her jab at curbside recycling, the personal isn’t always where it’s at. We need to lift our gaze from our own kitchen cans and consider the political pressure points that could force more significant changes. A system that obscures its upstream impacts and continually whisks individuals’ contributions from the curb is designed to keep us in the dark. And to keep the vast consumer waste stream -- and its associated revenue -- flowing.
Everly Macario lost her 18-month old son, Simon, in 2004 after he contracted an antibiotic-resistant strain of Staphylococcus. It took an autopsy to determine the exact cause of his death; his lungs looked like Swiss cheese from the bacteria. When Macario was notified, she was bewildered.
“When the doctors first told me, I just didn’t understand,” Macario recalls. “I felt insane because I didn’t understand how he got it. They explained that one tends to get infected in a cut or a boil. But Simon had no cuts, no rashes, no boils. I know now that he may have touched an object with MRSA on it and then put his fingers in his mouth. But I just couldn’t fathom how it could be possible.”
Macario is the kind of mom who would be expected to have a clue about these things; she holds a doctorate in public health from Harvard University, although her work was focused on lifestyle behaviors and chronic disease. After her son’s death from methicillin-resistant Staph, or MRSA, Macario went on to found the MRSA Research Center at the University of Chicago and later became part of an advocacy group associated with the Pew Charitable Trusts known as Supermoms Against Superbugs. On Tuesday, the
ninth anniversary of the day that Simon fell ill, Macario (above) met with Congresswoman Louise Slaughter and others on Capitol Hill and at the White House to talk about limiting the use of antibiotics in livestock.
Drug-resistant bacteria, like the MRSA that killed Macario’s son, have become increasingly prevalent in the United States in recent years. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 70,000 people die from drug-resistant infections annually, and the roster of bacteria that show signs of becoming more resistant to drugs includes common ailments such as gonorrhea and tuberculosis.
This is happening as antibiotics have become ubiquitous -- nowhere more so than among factory-raised animals intended for meat consumption. Nearly 80 percent of antibiotics sold in the U.S. are used to raise livestock, administered in low doses in order to spur growth and allow the animals to endure strenuous factory conditions.
When confronted with low doses of antibiotics like those given to healthy livestock, bacteria can survive and adapt, developing resistance to those drugs and others. Research based on genetic analysis shows that those bacteria can jump from humans to animals, become resistant to antibiotics in the livestock, and then travel back to humans again.
What’s worse, government data released in February show that the amount of meat contaminated with antibiotic resistant bacteria is burgeoning: from 2002 to 2011, there was a 48 percent jump in the amount of antibiotic-resistant salmonella found in raw chicken. Analysis of the data by the Environmental Working Group shows that the problem is widespread -- 81 percent of ground turkey and 69 percent of the pork chops sold in supermarkets was found to contain antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
As OnEarth reported more than two years ago:
Such respected bodies as the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Academy of Sciences, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the World Health Organization all identified low-dose antibiotics as the reason antibiotic-resistant bacteria were proliferating in humans and animals. And the FDA -- which is charged with protecting the health of Americans -- failed to act, only going so far as to issue a “Draft Guidance” report and a draft "Action Plan" proposing voluntary guidelines. These suggestions have done nothing to stem the deluge of unnecessary antibiotics through the spigot of agribusiness.
Since then, FDA regulation has languished, and legislation proposed in 2011 to limit antibiotics, put forward by Congresswoman Slaughter, has been waylaid in congressional subcommittees. In response to a lawsuit filed by NRDC (which publishes OnEarth), last year a federal court ordered the FDA to take action regarding antibiotic use in livestock, but the agency appealed the ruling.
Still, there has been progress, as concerns about the impact of factory farming and antibiotic use have prompted some farmers to change the way they raise livestock. After nearly being killed by a drug-resistant bacteria himself, Missouri’s Russ Kremer (profiled this month by OnEarth) started an antibiotic-free cooperative that includes 60 local farmers and supplies the likes of Whole Foods and Chipotle.
Macario believes that keeping antibiotics effective for human use will require more farmers like Kremer, along with consumers who choose to buy antibiotic-free meat. “To this day I don’t understand why more people aren’t aware of antibiotic resistance,” Macario says. “I don’t know why people aren’t freaking out about the fact that we’re nearly at a post-antibiotic era.”
Images: Edmund Yeo and Pew Charitable Trust
I have lived in the state of North Carolina for just short of a decade now. My daughter, Hadley, turns 10 in May and has never called any other place home. During those 10 years, I have grown to love this place -- its people, of course, but also its great bounty of water, birds, beaches, and barrier islands. And now, during the last few months, I have watched -- stunned -- as state lawmakers have done their best to make sure that this bounty will not be around for Hadley and future generations to enjoy.
Only three months into the 2013-2014 General Assembly, Tar Heel senators have already approved a bill that would lift the state moratorium on hydraulic fracturing -- a process of drilling for natural gas that poses serious pollution and health concerns -- without first enacting adequate safeguards. The bill would also allow drillers to freely inject polluted waste fluids from fracking back into the ground, which is particularly dangerous here, given the fact that the shale gas layer is shallower in North Carolina than in many other parts of the country, and therefore closer to the water table. The same bill would also formally embrace offshore drilling (despite recent disasters like BP’s Deepwater Horizon spill, from which tar balls and oil are still washing up on Gulf Coast beaches nearly three years later). These ideas are being seriously considered, even as states that earlier embraced fracking are now facing some dramatic water pollution issues, and despite the fact that our state’s scientists keep warning us about the threats to our own water.
Of course, if you think that North Carolina legislators take their cues from science, then you don’t really know the people who are passing these laws. Many of them are the same folks who wanted to make it illegal to mention sea-level rise in legislative sessions (see “North Carolina Buries Its Head in the Disappearing Sand”), even as that very same (and very real) sea-level rise threatens to erode the beautiful chain of barrier islands known as the Outer Banks. Perhaps to drive home that point, one of the earliest bills to be introduced in the 2013-2014 session, Senate Bill 10, proposed eliminating scientists -- or pretty much anybody else with any environmental concerns -- from serving on our various state commissions. As the News & Observer’s Craig Jarvis has reported, the bill would reduce the state’s Coastal Resource Commission “from 15 to 11 members, and eliminate slots that are currently set aside to represent commercial and sports fishing, marine ecology, coastal agriculture, forestry and conservation interests.”
Simultaneously, this bill would make it far easier to replace these slots with new ones to be filled by Realtors, developers, and lobbyists. Other priorities for the new lawmakers include removing water and air experts, as well as the state geologist, from North Carolina’s Mining and Energy Commission, and re-christening the state’s Energy Policy Council the “Energy Jobs Council” -- just as soon as all those pesky regulators who have been serving on it have been replaced with (you guessed it) more businessmen and lobbyists. As Environment North Carolina executive director Elizabeth Ouzts puts it: “This is going to let the foxes guard the henhouse.”
The speed with which these bills (both of which passed in the N.C. Senate and are now in committee) have been introduced is dazzling. In fact, if you try not to think too much about how these lawmakers are bringing about the destruction of our state’s land and waters, you can’t help but be impressed by the sheer audacity of their legislative assault. At every turn, it seems, they’re working to undermine North Carolina’s flourishing alternative-energy businesses, as if somehow offended by the fact that these businesses are doing so well. Can you really claim to be pro-jobs and then be against businesses that have created $1.7 billion dollars in economic benefits and more than 15,000 jobs since 2007 -- which happens to be one of the toughest economic stretches in the state’s history? The importance of these businesses to the state is so obvious that 75 percent of Republican voters say they support alternative and renewable energy sources. But although our solar-energy companies are too visibly successful to be derailed entirely, wind is another matter. That much seems clear from House Bill 298, which seeks to repeal the renewable energy standards the state adopted in 2007. Forced to acknowledge (however regretfully) the fact that North Carolina’s geographical placement makes it the perfect host for offshore wind farms, legislators at first hoped to hamper the progress of this particular renewable-energy effort through Orwellian means: by re-defining the word renewable to their own satisfaction. Just take a look at this bluntly line-edited portion of an early draft of HB 298 that lists various sources of renewable energy:
While the General Assembly is taking a strike-thru approach to science and replacing environmentalists and scientists with lobbyists and businesspeople, North Carolina’s newly elected Republican governor, Pat McCrory, is sending clear signals that he’s on board, ideologically speaking. North Carolina has always been (rightfully) proud of its top-tier public university system. Yet in January, McCrory told a conservative talk-radio host that an “educational elite” within that same system was wasting students’ time and taxpayers’ money by offering classes in certain subjects, singling out gender studies and Swahili as two examples. McCrory made clear his intention to revamp public education in North Carolina so that it would be more in line with “what business and commerce needs.” (As a creative writing professor in this same state university system, I suspect I’m not what he has in mind.) At last check, business and commerce weren’t expressing a need for more environmental studies majors, either – perhaps in part because those students might be inclined to take what they learned in school and use it to get in the way of fracking, offshore drilling, and overdeveloping the Outer Banks. Which can only mean, one supposes, that as the legislature goes about approving bills that would hasten the destruction of our state’s beautiful shores and mountains, the governor will not just be signing these bills, but also doing his part to dissuade public universities from inspiring future generations to save these same resources.
McCrory was once the fairly moderate mayor of our state’s largest city, and a vocal smart growth and public transit supporter. But he’s since thrown in his lot with Art Pope, the state's largest political donor and a close ally of the Koch brothers. Now serving as the governor’s chief budget writer, Pope has a well-documented history of opposing environmental (or pretty much any other form of) regulation, and has spent years building a massive conservative infrastructure in the state. He’s also the guy considered most responsible, though his fund-raising apparatus and political spending, for helping the GOP's most right-wing elements take control of state government.
From the vigorous way that the legislature is working to slash environmental regulations, you might think it had a mandate from the voters. In fact, the disconnect between the represented and their representatives has never been greater. In the wake of the 2012 election, North Carolina has become well-known for its gerrymandering, which has already led to a Republican increase (and a corresponding Democratic decrease) in the state’s delegation to the U.S. House of Representatives -- despite the fact that the majority of North Carolinians voted for Democratic Congressional candidates in the last election. Less well known is the impact gerrymandering has had on the state level. Although Republicans did win the state in 2012, they did so in relatively small numbers that are not commensurate with the landslide of General Assembly house seats that gave them their current supermajority. And make no mistake: it’s that very same supermajority that is currently allowing anti-environmental forces to run roughshod over North Carolina’s land and water.
This past Saturday, while swimming with Hadley at Wrightsville Beach, I indulged in a little thought experiment. If we keep going the way we’re going, what will this state, and these shores, be like in 40 years, when Hadley is my age? Does anyone here, Republican or Democrat, really think we can frack and drill for that long without a spill of some sort, or without poisoning our waters? Does anyone really think it’s a good idea to inject the waste from drilling operations into the ground? That we will benefit by eliminating scientists from our guiding commissions, and by allowing ourselves to be counseled on environmental matters by business interests? Does anyone, regardless of his or her politics, really believe this? I’m pretty sure that most of the North Carolinians I have come to know and love in my 10 years here don’t.
For now, I live in a state where the environment is under legislative assault. A state where even actively caring about the environment seems to be under assault. And a state where, over the course of three short months, a governor and his like-minded cronies in the General Assembly have accomplished what most of my fellow North Carolinians had once thought impossible: they have made South Carolina look good.
Image: Andy Beah Photography
On Monday, I wrote about a TransCanada land agent named Myron Stafford who moved to Nebraska five years ago, got added to the board of deacons at the local First Baptist Church, and started filling in for the regular Sunday minister and performing weddings and funerals. His position at the church quickly gave him standing in the community -- and it sure didn't hurt his day job, obtaining easements for TransCanada to build the controversial Keystone XL tar sands oil pipeline across Nebraska. But as I detail in my story, his approach of offering to pray with landowners during negotiating sessions, quoting Bible verses, and ticking off the religious ceremonies where he has officiated didn’t sit well with some landowners along the KXL route.
“My faith is an incredibly important thing to me,” one property owner told me, “and if I’m going to talk to you about that, then let’s go talk about that. But if I’m going to buy hay, I typically don’t.”
My report for OnEarth (“TransCanada's Not Paying This Preacher to Save Souls”) created a bit of a stir at today's company press briefing in advance of what's expected to be an eight-hour State Department hearing on the pipeline project. The story was based in part on tape recordings made in cooperation with Nebraska land owner Terry Van Housen [pictured above at the hearing], who was among those concerned about Stafford using his position with the Baptist church as a way to help make land deals. I asked both Stafford and TransCanada officials to comment for my story before it was published; Stafford referred me to corporate spokespeople who didn’t return my calls. So today, at the news conference in the beef pit of the Nebraska State Fairgrounds, where the public hearing is being held, I asked TransCanada spokesman Shawn Howard about the story. The following is a transcript of our public exchange [UPDATE: and a later private conversation after the briefing].
TG: Can you respond to landowners’ allegations that they’ve been anywhere from deceived to intimidated in order to get their cooperation?
SH: I’m certainly aware of your story, Ted. And our land agents . . . the expectation is extremely clear about what they’re there to talk about. They’re there to talk about our pipeline. They’re there to talk about the easement. They’re there to provide landowners with as much information as they require. And that expectation from the company is clear. I think Tom [a landowner that TransCanada brought to the press conference] can talk to what we’ve been like to deal with, in terms of his dealings with us. We recognize that not every landowner will support a project going through, and some of those discussions aren’t as difficult. There’s a process we’re required to follow -- not just as a company but also as state law -- and we follow those.
TG: Just to follow up ... if you’re aware of the story, can you comment on your opinion of Myron Stafford’s practices as a land agent?
SH: I’ve told you what our expectations for our land agents are.
TG: Is he meeting your expectations?
SH: I’ve given you the comment that I’m going to provide on that story. Ambushing somebody with a camera when they’re there to meet a landowner ... you know, that speaks for itself. Next question.
TG: So your land agents say different things behind closed doors than they say in public?
SH: I’ve given the statement that we’re going to offer on that.
TG: I just --
SH: That’s the final question from you. You’re not going to get me to change the answer here.
TG: All I wanted to hear was whether or not you approve of his practices.
SH: Our expectations of our land agents are extremely clear.
TG: And is he meeting the expectations? That’s a simple question ... If you approve of it, why not say so? If you don’t, just say that.
SH: Getting pieces of a tape recording don’t tell me what the story is.
TG: We can provide the full tape if you’d like to hear it.
SH: I’d be happy to talk you after about this, but the reality is: the expectations for our land agents are clear.
TG: We’ve been calling and e-mailing and no one ever responds, so we come to press conferences when you have them.
SH: I just told you we’ll deal with you later.
TG: I look forward to that, but I’m hoping just to hear whether or not you approve of the practices that Myron Stafford has been using to get easements.
SH: The practices for our land agents are extremely clear. And that’s what our statement is going to be.
UPDATE: From a private conversation after the press conference:
TG: So tell me about Myron Stafford. You said you knew the story, you’d seen it.
TG: Were you aware of what he was up to in Polk and York counties?
SH: Well, I’ll take exception to: “what he was up to.” He’s there meeting with landowners. Based on what I saw in your story, he was responding to questions. There was a conversation going on. It would be like you walking up to me somewhere -- “Don’t I know you from somewhere?” I mean, I didn’t see anything based on what you recorded, that he was preaching or doing other things. This is a land agent who has worked for us for a number of years, and he lives in that community. In small communities, people know each other. If I was somebody’s kid’s soccer coach or if I was out there with the Rotary Club or whatever, they know those kinds of community activities. Are they there to answer questions from landowners about our pipeline? Absolutely. I mean, that’s there job. If someone asks them about activities that they’re involved in, trying to make a connection, it seems to me that responding to that and being open about that is part of what these conversations often become. But they’re there to do a job, and that job is, “Here’s the information about the pipeline.” If that particular person had a concern about some of the conversations, in the packages that people are given, there’s all kinds of contact information for people who someone like Myron would report to. And they will step in to find out what’s going on. And if there’s something that shouldn’t have been communicated or if somebody was having an issue with the information that was being provided, we step in and deal with that. But all of that information, it is provided, and our senior land management, their contact numbers are in there for a reason. It’s so people can bring issues forward if there are any, so that we’re sure that they’re doing what they’re supposed to.
TG: And so you do think he’s been doing what he’s supposed to?
SH: I’m not in that kitchen. I’m not in that person’s living room. All I can go on is what you put in your story, and based on what was in there, he was responding to questions. And it seemed like, from the way you had written it, that it was a don’t-I-know-you kind of conversation. He’s answering questions. If he’s doing something different, I don’t know based on that piece that you wrote. They know going in, “Here’s the information that you’re to talk about about our project.” But if you and I are having a conversation and you might know me from somewhere and you’re trying to draw a connection or you think I look familiar, and all of sudden you identify, okay, we go to the same community church. I mean, this guy is part of that community. He has been for years. People will know that.
TG: And the landowners who say that he asked that they pray together on the decision?
SH: Well, okay, I don’t know that. I don’t know that. If that’s what was going, that’s not part of what we do. They’re there to talk about a pipeline. But I don’t know the conversations that are going on, and it’s difficult for me to say, “Well, he should have done this, he shouldn’t have done that,” because I don’t know what else was being said as part of that conversation.
TG: Is TransCanada looking into it?
SH: We have talks with our land agents all the time. And when issues come forward, our senior land management looks into them. And they’ll obviously look at what’s been said here. And if something wasn’t done according to what our expectations are, they will make sure that he’s reminded that there’s a certain way that we do business. But the other part of this is … we hire people who are part of these communities. They’re reflective of those communities.
TG: Myron Stafford’s not from that community.
SH: He has been for years.
TG: He was moved there as part of this project from Tennessee.
SH: He moved here. But regardless --
TG: I’m just saying he’s not part of the community. He’s a transplant to the community.
SH: He came to work in that community. He has become a part of that community. He’s been here longer than a lot of the opponents of the pipeline have.
TG: Well, I can tell you that Terry Van Housen, who made the recording, his family has been on the land for generations.
SH: I’m aware of that. But I’m just saying, [Stafford] made an effort to become a part of the community. So that’s kind of what’s expected of those kinds of jobs. And it could be anything from me coaching my son’s baseball team, where I want to give back and be involved in that community. Those become your friends and your neighbors. It’s not all about the pipeline.
Image: Ted Genoways