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We Need to Expand the Definition of What’s Natural

How an inadequate description of the world hinders the environmental movement

As US politicians attempt to create more borders and divisions between people, it is a fitting time to resist conceptual boundaries that lead to destruction and suffering. The particular type of boundary that I wish to interrogate is of the linguistic variety: words represent ideas and serve as the precursor to physical borders and social and environmental policies. Sometimes linguistic tools are so inadequate that they endanger the very societies that conceived them. The wrong words shore-up problematic divides and perpetuate injustices; sometimes new words are needed to fight these societal ills.

photo of ShanghaiPhoto by johnlsl, Flickr, Flickr Cities like Shanghai, pictured, are simultaneously natural and artificial. In fact, everything in the human-built world is both natural and artificial, or "artinatural."

For centuries philosophers have wrestled with the inadequacies of languages to describe the world around them. Of course the world and all its complex interrelationships existed well before humans developed language. Many of these confounding complexities will persist even if people never comprehend them. The sooner people grasp ecological interconnectedness — rather than insisting on boundaries between false categories — the better chance societies have of forging sustainable policies. There is the idea, for example, that human-made objects like cars, computers, and buildings exist in a realm separate from the natural — these objects are referred to as “artificial.” I believe this conceptual distinction is a dangerous myth because it hides the ecological interdependencies upon which humanity and all living things rely.

The human-built world is simultaneously artificial and natural. Borrowing a term once used in the field of landscape architecture, we could call things that are both artificial and natural “artinatural.” This term implies that everything artificial is — and always was — still natural. There are no exceptions; a Prius, an iPhone, even artificial intelligence, are all artinatural things.

What does the idea of the artinatural mean for environmentalism? It can be argued that environmentalism as a movement has reached a point of crisis. Not only have traditional environmental concerns like clean air and water been fragmented and pushed to the margins in mainstream politics and media, but the movement itself cannot garner sufficient support to combat human existence-threatening crises: global mass extinction, runaway global warming, rising sea levels, the proliferation of toxics… and the list goes on. Why hasn’t the environmental movement been able to better shield society from these catastrophic developments?

Some thinkers — Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus of …more

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Over 70 Arrested at Standing Rock as Company Aims to Finish Dakota Access Pipeline

Arrests came one day after federal officials suggested that government could soon approve the final stage of construction

North Dakota police have arrested 76 people at Standing Rock one day after federal officials suggested that the government could soon approve the final stage of construction of the Dakota Access pipeline.

The arrests occurred after a group of activists, who call themselves water protectors, established a new camp near the pipeline construction.

Rob Keller, spokesman for the Morton County sheriff’s office, told The Guardian on Wednesday night that it was too soon to say what charges were being filed. In a statement, he claimed that a “rogue group of protesters” had trespassed on private property.

photo of Lake TiticacaPhoto by Dark Sevier, Flickr Indigenous water protectors have been camped out in North Dakota since April in opposition to the Dakota Access Pipeline. Nearly 700 people have been arrested since the demonstrations escalated over the summer.

“A lot of water protectors really felt that we needed to make some sort of stand as far as treaty rights,” said Linda Black Elk, a member of the Catawba Nation. “We basically started to see police mobilizing from all directions. Someone came along and told us we had about 15 minutes before the camp would get raided.”

Black Elk, who works with the Standing Rock Medic & Healer Council, said there were initially hundreds of activists at the new camp but that those who did not want to be taken into custody ultimately decided to retreat.

“There were a lot of people who felt like the prospect of treaty rights was something worth getting arrested over,” she said.

The tense confrontation comes one week after Donald Trump issued an order demanding the revival of the Dakota Access pipeline and the controversial Keystone XL pipeline, reversing Barack Obama’s actions.

The Standing Rock Sioux tribe, which has long argued that the $3.8 billion pipeline threatens its water supply and sacred lands, has vowed to fight the order. Activists are seeking to assert indigenous treaty rights, which they say the government and the oil company have violated.

On Tuesday night, Senator John Hoeven of North Dakota announced that the acting secretary of the army has directed the Army Corps of Engineers to proceed with an easement necessary to finish the pipeline. His spokesman said the easement, which Obama had denied in December, “isn’t quite issued yet, but they plan to approve it” within days.

MG Malcolm Frost, US army chief of public …more

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Bolivia’s Disappearing Lake

As Lake Poopó vanishes, depleted by water diversions and warming temperatures, it leaves behind an uncertain future for Indigenous Urus

Battered by the blinding sun that reigns supreme in Bolivia’s arid high plain, Urus-Muratos villagers from three Lake Poopó communities waited impatiently. In an otherwise soundless sky, a helicopter’s approach galvanized the morning crowd into a flurry of activity. Indigenous President Evo Morales, who grew up close to the lake’s western edge, stepped out of the chopper onto the remains of the salty lake, which almost completely dried up in late 2015 and has yet to recover. Dozens of Urus and fisherman from the same ethnic group as Morales, the Aymara, rushed to greet him.

photo of dry lake poopophoto by Linda FarthingLake Poopó's dry lakebed. The lake dried up almost completely in December 2015.

Evo Morales came here to inaugurate 14 new houses in the Urus community of Puñaka Tinta Maria that were built by the government’s housing agency. Each one is rounded like a traditional Urus home, with two bedrooms, indoor plumbing, and water taps.

The Urus did their traditional Dance of the Fish for the President with huge fish and birds constructed from local lake reeds called tortora, the men dressed in black and white stripped ponchos and rough handspun wool pants, the women in wide skirts and tight blouses The towering puppets displayed an inevitable nod to the increasingly present modern world: all the creatures were given old CDs for eyes.  

None of the national and regional government officials present made any mention of the dusty residue of the lake just half a mile away. Only Urus leader Evarista Flores beseeched the audience to remember that “We who lived in the lake are the ones who most need our lake back.” Abandoned boats dotted the lake’s edges, reminders that many of those who once depended on the lake have fled to make a living elsewhere.

The 150 Urus living here share only 10 acres of land — just enough to accommodate their houses. With the lake gone for a year now, they can’t fish, and there are no birds, ducks, or flamingos around, all of which they have hunted for millennia.

“What worries me most about the disappearance of Lake Poopó is the uncertain future of the Urus,” says Victor Antonio Guevera, guide to a permanent exhibition on the Urus at MUSEF in Bolivia’s southern city of Sucre.

***

The Urus-Muratos culture revolves around the Lake Poopó. Historically, the Uros have lived on the lake, fished on the lake, and turned to …more

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Republicans Move to Sell Off 3.3 Million Acres of Public Land

Land totaling the size of Connecticut has been targeted in new House bill, uniting hunters and conservationists in opposition

Now that Republicans have quietly drawn a path to give away much of Americans’ public land, US representative Jason Chaffetz of Utah has introduced what the Wilderness Society is calling “step two” in the GOP’s plan to offload federal lands.

photo of Organ Mountains Desert Peak National MonumentPhoto by Bureau of Land Management, FlickrOrgan Mountains Desert Peak National Monument, designated in 2014, is one of several national monuments located in counties with large swathes of BLM land designated for sale. 

The new piece of legislation would direct the interior secretary to immediately sell off an area of public land the size of Connecticut. In a press release for House Bill 621, Chaffetz, a Tea Party Republican, claimed that the 3.3 million acres of national land, maintained by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), served “no purpose for taxpayers.”

But many in the 10 states that would lose federal land in the bill disagree, and public land rallies in opposition are bringing together environmentalists and sportsmen across the west.

Set aside for mixed use, BLM land is leased for oil, gas, and timber, but is also open to campers, cyclists, and other outdoor enthusiasts. As well as providing corridors for gray wolves and grizzly bears, low-lying BLM land often makes up the winter pasture for big game species, such as elk, pronghorn, and big-horned sheep.

Jason Amaro, who represents the south-west chapter of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, describes the move as a land grab.

“Last I checked, hunters and fishermen were taxpayers,” said Amaro, who lives in a New Mexico county where 70,000 acres of federal lands are singled out. In total, his state, which sees $650 million in economic activity from hunting and fishing, stands to lose 800,000 acres of BLM land, or more than the state of Rhode Island.

“That word ‘disposal’ is scary. It’s not ‘disposable’ for an outdoorsman,” he said.

Scott Groene, a Utah conservationist, said the state’s elected officials were trying to “seize public lands any way they can,” without providing Americans a chance to weigh in. If residents knew their local BLM land was being threatened, said Groene, “I’m sure the communities would be shocked.”

Chaffetz introduced the bill alongside a second piece of legislation that would strip the BLM and the US Forest Service of law enforcement capabilities, a move in line with the Utah delegation’s opposition to all federal land management.

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Samburu Warriors Are Safeguarding Kenya’s Lions

Community-based program engages pastoralists in conservation work to reduce human-wildlife conflicts

Among the Samburu people, a pastoral tribe of north-central Kenya, warriors have traditionally hunted lions to prove their bravery or to protect their cattle, which form the basis of wealth and social rank in the community. But for nine years now, Jeneria Lekilelei, a Samburu warrior, has been doing the opposite, working to protect lions from being killed by his own people.

photo of Samburu warriorsphoto by Tony AllportEwaso Lions trains Samburu warriors to do field work, conduct bush patorols, and help reduce conflicts between lions and pastoralists in north-central Kenya.

Lekilelei, 27, dropped out of high school many years ago for lack of funds. Most of his adolescent years were spent herding the cattle within the Westgate Conservancy, a community-owned group ranch that boarders the semi-arid Samburu National Reserve. In 2008, when he was 19, he joined Ewaso Lions, a conservation group based in the Conservancy, as a field data collector. At the time, he knew nothing about lions and found the idea of protecting the large carnivores shocking.

Founded in 2007 by conservation biologist Shivani Bhalla, Ewaso Lions works to protect Kenya’s wildlife by involving communities in solutions that promote peaceful coexistence between people and wild animals. The organization fills a critical need in the country: According to Ewaso, Africa’s lion population has declined by some 90 percent over the past 75 years, primarily due to loss of habitat and human-animal conflict. In Kenya, there are fewer than 2,000 lions left. 

Bhalla quickly realized that understanding lion movements throughout the park, and beyond, was essential to the conservation work. “We’d see lions, then they’d disappear. Clearly, they were going outside the park,” Bhalla says. “I realized we need[ed] to be living outside and understanding whether lions and people can actually live together.” In need of more information in order to create solutions for protecting lions, she shifted her focus from the park to surrounding community lands and recruited three young Samburu men to assist her, including Lekilelei.

In the first year working for Ewaso Lions, Lekilelei quietly recorded general field information about the ecology and different kinds of animals in the area surrounding Samburu and hardly spoke a word to Bhalla. In his second year, he accompanied her on a research trip to the Shaba National Reserve, an even drier and more rugged region of Samburu. For a week, he sat on a vehicle roof under the scorching sun searching for lions. Undeterred by the heat or rough conditions, …more

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America Can’t Afford to Be a Climate Loner

Leaving the Paris Agreement would isolate the country

Last year was full of contradictions. Climate action made substantial strides forward, with momentum building on many fronts: The Paris Agreement went into effect with record-breaking speed; countries amended the Montreal Protocol to phase-down hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), the most potent class of greenhouse gases; and the world created a global market-based mechanism to reduce CO2 emissions from civil aviation, to name just a few.

photo of Eiffel Tower during Paris Climate TalksPhoto by Yan Caradec/FlickrThen the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States has raised concerns about whether the country will pull out of the Paris climate agreement. 

Then the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States suddenly raised doubts about whether the country will continue to play a leadership role and cooperate with other nations on climate policies. President Trump’s derisive comments about climate change and the equivocation (at best) that his cabinet appointees have shown for international climate policies could put the United States at odds with the world.

But at this critical juncture, America should not become a climate isolationist. The rest of the world appears determined to press ahead in tackling climate change’s threats to humanity’s future. There are many good reasons the United States should not pull out of the international climate action movement.

Diplomatic Isolation

America's most steadfast allies and trade partners support the Paris Agreement. One-hundred and ninety four countries joined the Agreement; only three did not (Syria, Nicaragua and Uzbekistan). Many of the 130 heads of government who came to Paris in December 2015 emphasized the wide-ranging impacts of climate change on health, well-being and security, and ultimately, each of the countries that joined the Agreement did so in their own self-interest. 

As countries worked to create the Agreement, the landscape of global diplomacy was forever altered, with climate change breaking out of its historical silo to become an issue as central to international diplomacy as trade and security. This has also been reflected in the G7 and G20, where climate change has come to the center of the agenda.

Withdrawing from this wave of cooperation risks much. Countries are now clearly assessing each other’s contributions to the stability of the global climate regime as a strong measure of whether they are good partners more broadly. If the Trump administration doesn’t honor its international commitments on climate change, they very well may find it difficult to engage countries on the new administration’s priority issues.

We’ve been here …more

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Safeguarding the Karnali River

Nepal's last free-flowing river is threatened by a massive dam

Megh Ale (pronounced “Ah-lay”) is a patient man. His eyes twinkle, the corners almost always turned up into a soft smile. He used to be a monk before he started his rafting, adventure travel, and river conservation endeavors. Patience is a virtue in Nepal if you are a river conservationist, but a sense of alarm is also present in Ale’s face and voice. The country has about 6,000 rivers and streams, and every single river is dammed except one. That’s right — one.  

Now that final free-flowing river, the Karnali, is also threatened. Ale is trying to save it.

Karnali Riverphoto by Gary WocknerThe Karnali, Nepal's last free-flowing river, faces threats from several proposed dams.

The Karnali River begins in the Himalaya Mountains on the Nepal-side of the Tibet border across from holy Mt. Kailish. The spiritual center for four eastern religions — Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Bon — Mt. Kailish is believed to be where the Hindu’s Lord Shiva lives and sits in a state of perpetual meditation. But the Karnali River itself seems to never meditate. It rages and flows down the canyons of Western Nepal in a constant state of motion, its glacier-fed blue-green waters glistening in the sun.

We visited in the first week of November 2016, which is the dry season in Nepal. Led by Ale and his team at his rafting company, Ultimate Descents, 21 of us international adventurers from 10 different countries launched an 8-day raft trip on the Karnali as the inaugural “Karnali River Waterkeeper Expedition” This expedition wasn’t just about rafting. Organized in cooperation with the “Nepal River Conservation Trust,” which Ale co-founded in 1995, and the international Waterkeeper Alliance, which Ale began collaborating with in 2016, this adventure was about protecting the Karnali.

On our first day at the put-in (the starting point for the rafting trip), five of us woke up early and drove 18 miles upstream to the proposed dam site of the “Upper Karnali River Dam” in the village of Daab. GMR, the private Indian engineering firm that proposes to build a 520-foot tall hydroelectric dam on the river, has built a small headquarters in Daab, their six new modern buildings contrasting dramatically with the traditional mud and slash-roofed homes of the villagers.

Karnali Riverphoto by Gary WocknerBefore embarking on the rafting trip, the author and four fellow rafters snuck down to the river near the dam builders’ headquarters …more

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