Environmentalism looks different in different places
A year ago, I was making arrangements with classmates at UC Berkeley to share one graduation gown. Since our commencement ceremonies were held on different days, it seemed wasteful for each of us to buy a gown that we would only wear for one evening. So four of us split the cost and bought a single gown to share among us. For me, this came naturally. I had just earned a degree in environmental science and had spent four years developing composting and recycling initiatives to move the Berkeley campus closer to its goal of Zero Waste by 2020. The reduce-reuse-recycle ethic was instinctive for me.
Photo by Claire Porter
I felt proud of what I had accomplished, but also burnt out. The things that had felt so important to me — the environment, and specifically, achieving a society that creates zero waste — seemed abstract. During my last few weeks as a student, I halfheartedly interviewed for positions as an environmental consultant and outdoor educator. I left each interview feeling less excited about the position than I should have. A crazy idea kept distracting me: I wanted to bike across the country. I yearned for an adventure. The long bike trip would have to meet two parameters: I would begin pedaling from my front door, and I would carry everything with me that I would need to eat, sleep, and make repairs on my bike. So on June 4, 2014 I left my front door in Walnut Creek, California, packed with my sleeping bag, tent, bike tools, two pairs of clothing and took off to ride to Chicago by myself.
I have been backpacking and bike camping since I was child, but this was my most ambitious trip yet. After a week of pedaling through familiar California territory, and a second week through Oregon, I entered places where my upbringing and education cast me as an outsider. Along the way I would become far more aware and tolerant of the viewpoints of people outside the “Berkeley Bubble” — that is, the rarified space of political liberalism and environmentalist values. My bubble was about to burst.
As I was riding through rural Idaho, …more
Fracking-related habitat loss, degradation, and fragmentation could have lasting impacts
The use of the unconventional hydraulic fracturing method of oil and gas extraction has expanded energy infrastructure across parts of the nation that were previously untouched by machinery. Pristine forests in Pennsylvania, wide-open prairies in the Dakotas and Texas, and clear-blue streams in Ohio have been forever altered. As fracking operations have spread across the American landscape, these once pristine areas have been converted into fields of pumpjacks and islands of oil and gas Christmas trees. In the wake of this landscape change, animal species have suffered huge losses as their habitats have become fragmented and they have been forced to find a new place to live. Unfortunately, many of these changes may scar the landscape long after extraction activities have ended.
Photo by EcoFlight
Habitat fragmentation can, of course, happen through natural processes, including floods, volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, landslides, tsunamis, hurricanes, and the like. But in the 21st century, habitat fragmentation has more often come from man-made causes. Oil and gas development in particular has sped up this process in several states in the past few years. Constructing well pad, roads, compressor stations, and gathering lines, among other infrastructure, causes serious disturbances to the natural environment. Scientists have estimated that an average drilling and hydraulic fracturing operation and its accompanying infrastructure can span at least 30 acres for a single well pad, creating a giant ecological footprint.
Several recent studies have outlined the serious impacts of habitat fragmentation. One found that habitat fragmentation of forest ecosystems can reduce biodiversity up to 75 percent. (Read more here.) And last year, a study published in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment identified habitat fragmentation as one of the long-term impacts of oil and gas investigation. “These changes are happening in our environment and we need to take the opportunity to learn from them so that we minimize future environmental impacts,” said lead author Sara Souther in an interview with Earth Island Journal.
Several species have become high profile victims of fracking-related habitat fragmentation and disturbance. One example is the lesser prairie chicken, which nests in short prairie grasses and in areas devoid of trees. Scientists believe this behavior may reflect a fear that predators …more
Countries were asked to submit their best climate action plans ahead of December climate talks, and pledges announced so far show that developing countries are ready to act
The emerging framework for the global climate agreement under consideration in Paris at the end of the year upends 20 years of thinking about how best to tackle rising greenhouse gas emissions. Gone is the top-down process, as enshrined in the Kyoto Protocol, under which emissions reduction targets were assigned exclusively to the countries that happened to be the world’s biggest emitters in 1992. Instead, under a deal agreed to at the climate talks held in Warsaw, Poland, in 2013, countries were tasked with submitting voluntary domestic climate action plans this year. While the same commitments won’t be asked of every country — developed countries are still expected to do more, sooner — the Paris agreement itself will be applicable to all countries.
Photo by UNclimatechange, on Flickr
The building blocks of the Paris agreement are the climate actions plans — or “intended nationally determined contributions” (INDCs) in UN lingo — that lay out steps to be taken after 2020. Developed countries were asked to submit their plans first, by March 31. The United States, European Union, and Switzerland, met the deadline; laggards such as Japan, Canada, and Australia did not. China’s INDC was unveiled on June 30, and as of this writing, 43 countries have submitted INDCsto the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The final deadline for all countries to submit plans is October 1, after which the UNFCCC will prepare a synthesis report, due November 1, to assess whether emissions reductions on offer are sufficient to hold global warming below 2°C.
Among the INDCs submitted thus far are several welcome surprises. While Climate Action Tracker (CAT), an independent scientific analysis produced by four organizations tracking climate action, panned plans submitted by Canada and Russia as “inadequate,” CAT and other independent experts found much worth praising in pledges made by a handful of developing countries now in the vanguard of responsible climate actors.
Russians working to protect the unique Altai ecosystem forced to register as “foreign agents”
Russian aggression in Ukraine during the past year has made many Westerners anxious about Vladimir Putin’s territorial ambitions and his penchant for saber-rattling. While the warfare in Ukraine — along with the Putin government’s crackdown on dissidents like Pussy Riot and its hostility toward gays and lesbians — has received a good deal of attention in the international media, the Russian government’s wholesale repression of civil society organizations, human rights groups, and Indigenous advocates is less well known. Environmentalists have also been targeted by the authoritarian Putin regime. Today in Putin’s Russia, it’s considered almost treasonous to speak out for environmental protection.
Photo by Serge Bystro, on Flickr
One of the more potent — and insidious — tools of government repression is something called the law “On Foreign Agents,” which went into effect in 2012. This law was nominally established to require Russian non-governmental organizations receiving foreign funding and engaged in “political activity” (only vaguely defined) to register as “foreign agents.” But the mere use of the term “foreign agent” threatens political freedom. In Russian language and history, the term is synonymous with being a treasonous spy; the label alone discredits important work being undertaken by defenders of human, environmental, and Indigenous rights. In Russia’s state-controlled news media, poisonous rhetoric and slurs fill not only the comment sections of articles, but the articles themselves, making it challenging for important topics like environmental justice and human rights to be discussed productively.
I personally have witnessed how this law has been used to quash civic engagement. I’m the director of The Altai Project, an Earth Island Institute-sponsored project that supports the work of environmental justice and conservation groups in Altai Republic, on Russia’s frontier with China, Mongolia, and Kazakhstan. Since the late 1990s, we have supported successful advocacy against ill-conceived hydroelectric dams, a gas pipeline, and development threats to protected areas and sacred sites, while at the same time promoting renewable energy, sustainable tourism, and thriving Indigenous communities.
In just the last six months, I have seen how Russian authorities have wielded the Foreign Agent Law to target the strongest defenders of Altai’s environment — perhaps as a measure of those groups’ prior successes.
Decision is a setback for Obama administration and Environmental Protection Agency
By Suzanne Goldenberg and Raya Jalabi
The US Supreme Court struck down new rules for America’s biggest air polluters on Monday, dealing a blow to the Obama administration’s efforts to set limits on the amount of mercury, arsenic and other toxins coal-fired power plants can spew into the air, lakes and rivers.
Photo by Cathy, on Flickr
The 5-4 decision was a major setback to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and could leave the agency more vulnerable to legal challenges from industry and Republican-led states to its new carbon pollution rules.
It was also a blow to years of local efforts to clean up dangerous air pollution.
The justices embraced the arguments from industry and 21 Republican-led states that the EPA rules were prohibitively expensive and amounted to government overreach.
The decision, written by Justice Antonin Scalia, ruled that the EPA did not reasonably consider the cost factor when drafting regulation.
The Clean Air Act had directed the EPA to create regulations for power plants that were “appropriate and necessary.” The agency did not consider cost when making its decision, the court ruled, but estimated that the cost of its regulation to power plants would be $9.6 billion a year.
Scalia was joined by the conservative members of the bench. The dissent, written by Elena Kagan, was supported by Ginsburg, Breyer and Sotomayor.
The landmark decision closes a chapter on a two-decade-long effort to force stricter emissions standards for coal-fired power plants.
The regulation, adopted in 2012, would have affected about 600 coal-fired power plants across the country — many of which are concentrated in the midwest and the south.
It was already going into effect across the country. But Republican governors and power companies challenged the EPA’s authority, saying the agency had mishandled estimates of the cost of the new rules.
The EPA and campaigners have argued that the public health costs posed by the toxic air pollutants outweighed those to utility companies forced to fit new control equipment.
Anti-mining activists face challenges as they take on state-planned project
"We have always defended our land peacefully, not once turning to violence. Regardless, the government stationed over two hundred federal police throughout our community to maintain order when the mining officials came to conduct their 'Environmental Impact Assessment.' The assessment took only one week, but dozens of police still occupy our village," Marcia Ramírez, a community activist in Intag, Ecuador, told us, referring to an assessment of a proposed copper mine in the area. The forest enveloping our lodge filled the cool night air with the humming of insects and voices of frogs as Ramírez paused to reposition her nursing baby. Moths of countless colors, shapes, and sizes fluttered around the bulb dimly lighting the porch where I sat listening in a group of about a dozen other Americans.
Photo by pato chavez, on Flickr
She continued, "Our community is not united as it used to be. The government has divided the people by promising prosperity and paying off those who come out in favor of the planned mine. Families get lots of money from the government for providing room and board to the police — several families are almost competing to host them. We are simple campesinos, making it easy for the authorities to trick us into thinking that we are a foolish and uneducated people, that it is the officials in Quito who know what is best for us. The police have penetrated deep into our community — some are even flaunting their power and sophistication to seduce our local girls."
I was in Intag listening to Marcia's story as part of The Intag Project, an interdisciplinary group of students and faculty at Cornell University and Ithaca College. The project was initiated two years ago by a Cornell undergraduate from Intag to connect American students with key community-based organizations that are fighting mining in the region and working for sustainable alternative. The idea is that many of these organizations in Ecuador are lacking in the technological and institutional resources that US college students take for granted, and that US college students can reciprocally benefit through the rare learning opportunity to engage directly with organizations addressing real-world environmental and social problems.
After months of preparation, …more
Often simplified in books and movies, deserts have much to offer
If you’ve seen Lawrence of Arabia, you cannot forget a sun-smacked Peter O’Toole dressed in an Arab robe and headdress as Omar Sharif on his camel appears myth-like out of the endless horizon. (If you’ve not seen the film, do.) That is the desert for many; the sort of sweep of landscape John Wayne surveys as he and the soldiers, bugling, come around the headland chasing hapless never-to-win Indians. These are the parched “wastes” you cross as quickly as possible on your way somewhere else. These are the harsh “wilderness” areas into which our prophets retreated to hear the voice of their gods.
Photo by James Marvin Phelps, on Flickr
Despite these simplified portrayals, our deserts and those around the world are so much more. Here, landscapes are endless yet intimate, seeming inhospitable yet home for many creatures phenomenally well adapted to their niche. Home, too, for desert-loving people. One was Mary Austin, whose classic The Land of Little Rain evokes her life in the Mojave.
“Some wonder how so many people came to settle in lonely desert landscapes, what they do there, and why they stay,” she wrote. “But these questions quickly vanish for anyone who has lived in the desert. None other than brown land lays such a hold on the affections. The rainbow hills, the tender bluish mists, and the luminous radiance of the spring have the lotus charm. They trick the sense of time, so that once in having there you always mean to go away without quite realizing that you have not done it.”
Deserts hold secrets not easily pried loose, but patience rewards our curiosity with knowledge. Take Joseph Wood Krutch, a New York theatre critic who moved to then-small Tucson in 1952 and came to admire the frugal kangaroo rat, Dipodomys merriami, the mouse that never drinks. For a time he kept one in a glass case, naming him Dipo. [“H]e is the most triumphant possible example of adaptation to the most characteristic desert difficulty, the lack of water,” he wrote. “It is not that that he can get along without water He will not take it if it is offered to him … no economy can explain a complete …more