Environmental issues remain one of the last wedges in the American culture wars
I never get tired of recalling the story of the original Earth Day. On April 22, 1970, millions of Americans spontaneously turned out for thousands of largely uncoordinated community actions to demonstrate their concern for our one and only planet. Some people planted gardens, others cleaned up local streams and beaches, many organized or attended teach-ins. In New York, more than one million people marched through the streets; an estimated one-in-ten Americans participated in some way or another. And all of it organized on a shoestring budget by a bunch of idealistic twenty-somethings and a US Senate backbencher. The outpouring of popular energy tapped into a deep uneasiness about the havoc we were wreaking on natural systems and galvanized political leaders to pass a raft of landmark environmental laws: the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, and the National Environmental Protection Action. The first Earth Day and the legislation that followed represent the ideal of citizen activism.
Photo courtesy earthday2013funphotos.com
It’s hard for environmentalists not to look back on that success without a sense of poignancy. Would it be possible to pull off something similar today? And if not, then why not?
Nicholas Lemann grapples with that question in an essay in a recent issue of The New Yorker. Lemann, dean of the Columbia School of Journalism, starts with an assumption that few environmental strategists would argue with. “Today’s environmental movement is vastly bigger, richer and better connected than it was in 1970,” he writes. “It’s also vastly less successful.” Lemann goes on to offer what has become a common explanation (at least among grassroots environmentalists) for greens’ current lack of success: an overreliance on lawyers and DC policy wonks, too much attention on maintaining Capitol Hill access, an overabundance of professionalism and a deficit of passion. While I have huge respect for most of the Big Green groups, I’ve made this critique myself. It can often seem that too many environmental outfits dedicate too much attention to Washington’s “inside game,” at the expense of congressional district-by-congressional district on-the-ground organizing.
I wonder, though, if there’s not something more at work here. Perhaps greens are struggling to achieve their political goals because environmentalism remains one …more
Most people have lost faith the in the recovery process, says photojournalist Julie Dermansky
Three years after an explosion at British Petroleum’s Deepwater Horizon rig in the Gulf of Mexico killed 11 workers, injured dozens, and set off the worst oil spill in the history of the petroleum industry, the waters along Gulf Coast seem almost back to normal. Much of the oil is gone. New Orleans-based photographer Julie Dermansky says there’s still a lot left. The oil, she says, is often hard to locate because it has a tendency to play hide and seek. Dermansky, who photographed the spill in 2010 “pretty much non-stop for four months," has been doggedly following the story for the past three years — reading up all the research she can lay her hands on, making trips out to the worst impacted areas in Louisiana every few months, and talking to people from affected communities. In the early days of the spill she was hired by several major publications, including The Times, London, The Washington Post, and Der Spiegel. But these days she travels without assignment, covering expenses on her own, since few publications hire photographers or reporters to cover what’s now an old news story. Last week, Dermansky again visited the beaches and marshes along the Louisiana and Mississippi coast — some of the worst hit areas where crews are still cleaning up tar mats and tar balls. I spoke with Dermansky via email and over the phone about her trip and her assessment of the situation in the Gulf Coast.
What did you find during your recent trip out to Grand Isle, Bay Jimmy in Louisiana, and the Mississippi coast?
There was oil sheen stirred up from the turbulence in the Bay Jimmy. PJ Hahn Plaquemines Parish director of coastal zone management, who I accompanied on an oil spotting trip, turned over some of the dead marsh grass and exposed roots covered in hardened oil. There was also hardened oil on top of some of the surface we walked on. With each step on the surface, an oil sheen spread around my boots. …more
Mining giant should address pollution and human rights abuses at its mines in West Papua and Papua New Guinea, say critics
Mining watchdog groups and human rights activists from around the world confronted Rio Tinto officials at the mining giant’s annual general shareholder meeting in London Thursday, questioning the company about proposed and in-the-works projects that they said could cause serious environmental and human rights violations if allowed to go forward.
Photo by Kari Lydersen
They brought up several controversial Rio Tinto projects, including the massive in-the-works Oyu Tolgoi copper and gold mine in Mongolia, the proposed Pebble Mine in Alaska, and in-the-works mines in Arizona and Michigan. But much to the disappointment of some anti-mining activists, no mention was made of two of Rio Tinto's most infamous operations — the Grasberg mine in West Papua, Indonesia and the Panguna mine in Papua New Guinea.
Much of the shareholders’ focus at the meeting was on the recent losses and setbacks suffered by the company last year. Following a year of low commodity prices and labor unrest, Rio Tinto had to write down assets including $3 billion in a bad coal deal in Mozambique and $11 billion in its aluminum sector — setbacks that led to the resignation of former chief executive Tom Albanese. While Panguna and Grasberg didn’t figure into Rio Tinto’s 2012 reports, company critics say those mines are relevant to the company’s future.
Rio Tinto’s own documents note that it expects the Grasberg mine, in which it owns a 40 percent stake, to be an important asset in the future, and there’s talk of reopening the Panguna mine that’s been closed since 1989.That being the case, critics say, Rio Tinto should address the devastating environmental pollution caused by the ongoing mining in West Papua and past mining in Papua New Guinea; plus do more to address past human rights abuses in both locations.
Exiled Indigenous activist Benny Wenda, who protested outside the shareholder meeting holding a banner saying “Free West Papua,” says West Papuans were too terrified to speak out against the Grasberg mine. “If you are against the company you will be attacked,” he says. “The moment you protest they will say you are a separatist. Indonesia has its intelligence there, and around the world. The killing is still going on. Indonesia doesn’t care about my people, they care …more
Up to 15 feared dead. Rescue efforts continue amid fears that toll could rise
Rescue workers were fighting through the devastation caused by an explosion at a Texas fertilizer plant that destroyed scores of homes and killed up to 15 people.
The blast wrecked a large section of West, a small town around 20 miles north of Waco, leveling buildings and leaving more that 160 people injured. Police estimated that between five and 15 people died. Up to five firefighters were missing on Thursday.
As acrid smoke hung over the area, authorities warned that the number of victims could rise. "We do not know how many folks may still be trapped," Waco police sergeant William Swanton said in a news briefing on Thursday.
The blast happened at about 8pm on Wednesday night, when the town's small team of volunteer firefighters were tackling a blaze at the West Fertilizer Company plant. Video footage showed the moment of the blast. "It was a like a nuclear bomb went off," West's mayor Tommy Muska told reporters. The explosion registered as a 2.1 magnitude seismic event, and was felt for miles around.
It is thought that the explosion was caused when a tank of anhydrous ammonia, a fertilizer, exploded. Official records showed that up to 54,000lbs of the chemical were stored at the plant. It was fined in 2006 for deficiencies in its emergency plan.
Authorities were in the process of evacuating residents, including a nearby nursing home, when the explosion happened. It is thought that some 50 to 75 properties were damaged by the blast.
Among the buildings hit was a 50-unit apartment complex. Texas Public Safety Department spokesman D L Wilson told Reuters that it had been reduced to "a skeleton standing up". A middle school in West was also badly damaged.
Matt Nors said he felt the blast from his home five miles away. "The first thing that went into my mind was a nuclear bomb," he told the Guardian. "I was standing in my garage flipping meat on the grill. The shock wave felt like somebody hit me in the gut."
Shivering from the cold as he stood outside the family's restaurant, Nors Sausage and Burger House, Nors said his sister had a lucky escape. "My sister was really close to it," he said, adding that she lives within 500 yards of the blast. "I haven't seen the house but supposedly it's demolished," …more
“We only sell what we create, and we will not sell what we do not create”
It would seem odd that an Indigenous woman from the hinterlands of Indonesian West Timor would help decide a case before the US Supreme Court, but that’s exactly what happened (in my head, at least) as I listened to Aleta Baun receive the Goldman Environmental Prize at the San Francisco Opera House on Monday night.
Photo Courtesy Goldman Environmental Prize
I know I’m connecting two dots that are very far apart, so let’s step back a minute.
First, the Supreme Court case. On Monday the justices heard oral arguments in the case, Association for Molecular Pathology v Myriad Genetics Inc. The court is deciding whether a private company, Myriad Genetics, deserves a patent for isolating a human gene that indicates a disposition to breast and ovarian cancers. A collection of organizations of physicians, researchers, patients, and geneticists are contesting Myriad’s patent claim. They say the DNA strands are “snippets of nature” and shouldn’t be given intellectual property rights protections. Here’s the how The Washington Post describes the importance of the case: “The decision could shape the future of medical and genetic research and have profound effects on pharmaceuticals and genetically modified crops.”
Along with another genetic patent case — Vernon Bowman vs Monsanto Company, which the Supreme Court heard in February — the justice’s decision in the cancer gene dispute will likely be a landmark ruling for how American law treats humans’ relationship with the building blocks of life itself.
Next, then, Aleta Baun, one of the winners of the 2013 Goldman Environmental Prize. Baun — or “Mama Aleta,” as everyone calls her at home — is a member of the Mollo nation on the island of Timor. In the 1980s, the local government issued permits for mining companies to begin cutting marble from the Mutis Mountains, a range that is home to the headwaters of West Timor’s major rivers. When the mining — and accompanying deforestation — began in earnest, the region started to experience landslides that clogged river waters, making life harder for downstream communities. Determined to halt the mining, Mama Aleta enlisted other women in a campaign to travel to the region’s villages and organize the local communities into a resistance …more
Shipping industry is showing renewed interest in fleets powered by wind energy
International cargo ports in Europe and the Caribbean are occasionally treated to an unusual sight these days – cargo vessels with billowing sails slipping in to dock between hulking container ships. The vessels are a symbol of a possible renaissance of the golden age of sail, a period that historians say ended sometime around the last decades of the nineteenth century.
Photo courtesy Michel Floch/ TOWT
There is once again sustained trade being conducted between Europe and the Caribbean, and in at least one case with South America thrown into the mix, powered exclusively by wind pressing upon sails.
A combination of factors – including a greater awareness of global wind patterns, advances in material design of sailing ships, and the economy of scale reached by the great “Clipper Ships” of the mid-nineteenth century – led to the first golden age of shipping. Today a rebirth of sail-powered commerce may be brought about by similar technological changes, as well as by the economic and environmental pressures that are making carbon-based fuels increasingly expensive.
Many cargo companies have already given up half of the advantage that the internal combustion engines gave over wind power – speed – as they have reduced ship speeds in order to conserve fuel and reduce costs.
Currently, a handful of ships and a few boats, mostly tied together in a common effort by Trans-Oceanic Wind Transport (TOWT), a new company based in Brest, France, lug cargos consisting of fine food products, robust wines, quality liquors (especially rum), and other luxury items,across the ocean and to European ports. Moreover, they are doing it in "traditional" ships. Think three masts and at least some square sails.
Founded in 2009 by Guillaume Le Grande, TOWT is essentially an import-export company that makes its mark by booking cargo only on sailing ships. Despite massive advances in material sciences and modern sailboat design, Le Grande’s company is not taking advantage of any of these changes. This is in part because modern shipping design companies are still just playing with the idea of using wind power.
Although shipping accounts for 90 percent of international trade …more
Six eco leaders from around the world receive a cash prize and international recognition for their accomplishments
Environmental activism — like any other attempt at social change — is a slog. Victories are often tempered by setbacks and even the most clear cut wins can seem provisional. As David Brower, the founder of Earth Island Journal, famously said, speaking about how environmental defense is a constant struggle: “All of our victories are temporary, and all of our defeats are permanent.” The effort for sustainability will always be a work in progress.
Photo courtesy The Goldman Awards
It’s essential, then, that we take time to step back and recognize environmental victories when they come. It’s a matter of sanity, if nothing else.
By identifying and celebrating some of the most courageous environmental activists around the world, the Goldman Environmental Prize delivers a much-needed jolt of inspiration. Yes, Earth is beleaguered. But, even more important, there are people who are dedicating their lives to ensuring that we leave the planet as healthy as we found it.
Now in its twenty-fourth year, the Goldman Environmental Prize is sometimes called the Nobel Prize for the environmental movement. Winners — who come from every continent as well as island states — receive a $150,000 cash prize and the kind of international attention that offers a huge boost to local campaigns. Past winners include Wangari Maathai, founder of Africa’s Green Belt Movement, anti-mountaintop removal coal mining activist Judy Bonds, and Nigerian Ken Saro-Wiwa, among many others.
The 2013 prizewinners were announced Monday morning. From the Goldman Prize’s press release about this year’s recipients:
JONATHAN DEAL, South Africa
With no prior experience in grassroots organizing, Jonathan Deal led a successful campaign against fracking in South Africa to protect the Karoo, a semi-desert region treasured for its agriculture, beauty and wildlife.
AZZAM ALWASH, Iraq
Giving up a comfortable living and family life in California, Azzam Alwash returned to war-torn Iraq to lead local communities in restoring the once-lush marshes that were turned to dustbowls during Saddam Hussein's rule.
ROSSANO ERCOLINI, Italy
An elementary school teacher, Rossano Ercolini began a public education campaign about the dangers of incinerators in his small Tuscan town that grew into a national Zero Waste movement.
ALETA BAUN, Indonesia