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A Recipe for Change?

In Review: Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation
By Michael Pollan
Penguin Press, 2013, 480 pages

In Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation, Michael Pollan describes his personal journey of stepping away from processed and packaged foods toward cooking from scratch, and highlights the grievous consequences of industrial modernity in the daily arena of eating and drinking. Specialization, Pollan argues, “breeds helplessness, dependence, and ignorance and, eventually… undermines any sense of responsibility.” Cooked persuasively illuminates how the industrial mindset fosters the domination of nature and distorts public governance, and offers, instead, justification and guidance for a healthier way of eating and a richer life.

Photo of Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation Book Cover

But is this a significant book for those dedicated to getting humanity in sync with nature’s ways? Speaking of the allure and benefit of cooking, Pollan explains, “Perhaps what most commends cooking to me is that it offers a powerful corrective to this way of being in the world — a corrective that is still available to all of us.” Is cooking then a vital ingredient for a socially just and ecologically sound society? 

Pollan, a journalism professor at the University of California, Berkeley, has been a prolific and effective messenger for food and sustainable agriculture issues, with such popular books as The Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food. People with such a wide platform have a vital role to play in broadening a movement beyond the choir. In this sense, Pollan has been an eloquent ally in the great transition to a better world. 

Calls for meaningful action for social change too often become reduced to requesting yet another donation or letter to unresponsive politicians. Herein lies a role for cooking, “a magic that remains accessible to all of us, at home.” Cooking your own food builds self-reliance and community. It is an available tool for personal transformation and, by promoting an affiliation with nature, progressive environmental change. Ever stumble when trying to tell friends or colleagues what they can do to help save the day? By combining more local food and more time in the kitchen, one can wrest a modicum of societal control away from corporate executives to regular folks. This is at least part of the solution to confronting the contemporary social and ecological crisis.

Pollan has done his homework, rigorously rooting his …more

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There’s No Place Like Home

Tiny houses in Eugene, Oregon, provide the formerly homeless with a sense of ownership and community

Rhonda Harding was working as a live-in health care provider when she became homeless. Her client passed away, and Harding couldn’t find other housing. "Since I was technically not on his lease, I had nowhere else to go," she says.

photo of people building small houses© SquareOne VillagesOpportunity Village was built with donated materials and labor.

An article in the local newspaper in Eugene, Oregon, about a proposed "transitional micro-housing pilot project" caught Harding’s attention, and she and her longtime partner applied. They became two of the first members of Opportunity Village Eugene (OVE).

A place to be

A nonprofit, self-managed community of low-cost tiny houses for people in need of housing, Opportunity Village has housed 90 people since 2013, with 30 to 35 currently living there. The village has 20 bungalows ranging between 60 and 80 square feet each – which is significantly smaller than the 400-500 square feet that generally defines a tiny house — nine Conestoga wagons, a bathroom, a gatehouse, and a yurt that provides common space for gathering and cooking.

The village offers a sense of ownership combined with community autonomy. Residents pay 30 US dollars per month, attend mandatory weekly meetings, and do ten hours of work a week, including giving tours to visitors, working at the front gate, and cleaning the shared facilities.

OVE was created in response to the large number of homeless people in the Eugene area. Estimates put the current number at nearly 3,000 in a town of 150,000 people. The local Occupy movement brought the seriousness of the issue to light. Following a series of community meetings, Mayor Kitty Piercy created a community task force to develop recommendations. The first of these was simply to give unhoused people a place to be.

photo of small, brightly colored houses© SquareOne VillagesResidents pay 30 US dollars per month to live in Opportunity Village.

The city council identified underused property that could be used for OVE, and the village was built with donated labor and supplies, with church and community groups, individuals, and several local businesses contributing to the creation of the village through work parties, group building days and more. It is funded with donations and grants. The council initially agreed, on a six to two vote, …more

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Living Near Greenery May Increase Your Lifespan

Proximity to trees and other plants decreases mortality rates from cancer, respiratory disease, study suggests

Many of us plant trees, shrubs, and other plants around our homes to beautify our surroundings. A study published earlier this month in Environmental Health Perspectives reveals that this attractive greenery has another significant benefit as well — people living in greener neighborhoods may live longer.

photo of Tree Lined StreetPhoto by Jeffrey Zeldman A tree lined street in New York City. New research shows that people living in greener neighborhoods may live longer.

Scientists from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts assessed the greenness surrounding the homes of 108,630 women. They then tracked changes in both the vegetation and participants’ deaths from 2000 to 2008. The scientists discovered that women with the most vegetation around their homes experienced a 12 percent lower death rate than those living in the least green areas.  

The biggest differences were observed in death rates from kidney disease, respiratory disease, and cancer. Women residing in the top 20 percent of green areas were 41 percent less likely to die from kidney disease than those living in the lowest 20 percent. They had a 34 percent lower death rate for respiratory disease and 13 percent lower death rate for cancer. No significant relationship appeared to exist between greenness and risk of death from coronary heart disease, diabetes, or infections. 

The study, funded by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), is the first on greenness and mortality to draw its subjects from across the entire United States. The participating women were all enrolled in the Nurses’ Health Study (NHS), a long-term study that has examined the risk factors for chronic disease among women, collecting questionnaires from more than 100,000 women every other year since 1976. 

The Harvard researchers culled data from the women in the NHS study who were alive in 2000 and had at least one residential address that could be mapped to obtain latitude and longitude for satellite imaging purposes — in 2000, there were at least 10 nurses participating in the study in each of the contiguous US states.

By looking at the questionnaires returned between 2000 and 2008, the scientists were able to identify specific characteristics of each participant. This distinguished the study from previous research on greenness and mortality, …more

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The War Against Iceland’s Highlands

Proposed dams threaten Iceland’s isolated, ecologically sensitive interior

As massive protests erupted in Iceland earlier this month over the prime minister’s secretive offshore investments, another storm is brewing in the country’s central highlands. Energy companies are pushing the center-right government to build a slew of dams through the country’s interior, an isolated and ecologically sensitive region home to vast glacial rivers, remote lakes, and the world’s largest nesting ground of pink-footed geese. 

Photo of Highlands in IcelandPhoto by Steinar Kaldal Skjálfandafljót, Iceland. Energy companies have proposed several new dams in Iceland's highlands, which would cause irreparable damage to the region.

If built, the dams would pave the way for IceLink, a proposed undersea cable that would funnel electricity from Iceland to the UK. While Britain trumpets IceLink as a vehicle for green energy, the damage done to the highlands, which have already been impacted by dams, would be irreparable. 

Though Iceland Prime Minister Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson resigned on April 5 following the Panama Papers scandal, his center-right coalition is still in power and continues to support the project.

“The government that’s now in power is very extreme,” pop icon Björk said last November at music festival Iceland Airwaves. The singer, who is herself Icelandic, has taken a strong stance against the proposed dams: She notes that the government immediately put up plans to harness the highlands for electricity when it took office in 2013.

In recent months, Björk had become Gunnlaugsson’s bane, hammering the head of state over his plans to dam the highlands, and drawing public attention to the issue. The government elite, she says, “think they are superior to nature and that they should have control over it.”

Iceland’s government, meanwhile, still styles itself a land of “pristine nature” in a bid for tourism. Environmental groups are quick to point out the hypocrisy: heavy industry already consumes 77 percent of Iceland’s electricity, as the country has drowned massive swathes of land in order to power a handful of aluminum smelters. Developing the highlands into an industrial zone, many fear, would be a death knell for Icelandic wilderness.

The highlands’ ecological uniqueness stems in part from the fact that they were never settled by humans. When Vikings landed in Iceland in the ninth century, they settled along coasts and rivers where fish were plentiful, never venturing more than a …more

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New Discovery: A Massive Reef System at the Mouth of the Amazon River

But this unique 600-mile long reef is already threatened by oil drilling

Could coral reefs have anything to do with the Amazon River? Apparently so. In case you missed this new finding among the sea of reports about the impending demise of coral reefs (especially the Great Barrier Reef) across the world, here’s the lowdown: A team of scientists from Brazil and the United States have discovered a 600-mile long sponge and coral reel at the mouth of the Amazon River, where it empties into the Atlantic Ocean.

Photo of Rodrigo MouraPhoto by Lance Willis Rodrigo Moura of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro holds up a part of the reef collected during the 2012 expedition onboard RV Atlantis.

The reef stretches across more than 3,600 square miles in ocean floor off of the South American continental shelf, between the French Guiana-Brazil border and the Maranhão State in Brazil, according to the researchers whose findings were published in the journal Science Advances on Friday.

Here’s why this is unexpected and amazing: First, coral reefs are usually found in clear, briny water, off the continental shelf in tropical areas — waters where sunlight can penetrate. Yet the water where the Amazon meets the Atlantic is anything but clear. In fact, the Amazon plume — the area where freshwater from the river mixes with the salty ocean — is full of sediment and pollutants and is among the muddiest plume areas in the world. Then there’s the fact that plume areas are places where there usually tend to be gaps in the reef distribution along the tropical shelves.

Yet the researchers who discovered this novel reef system say that while it is “impoverished in terms of biodiversity,” it is pretty extensive. The finding has marine scientists revising their idea of how and where reefs can exist. "We found a reef where the textbooks said there shouldn't be one," study co-author Fabiano Thompson of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro told National Geographic.

Scientists have been hunting for this deepwater reef system since the 1970s after some researchers caught reef fish at the mouth of the Amazon. But until now, no one knew for sure if it existed. The study’s lead author, Rodrigo Moura of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, uncovered the reef system in 2012 when he dredged some areas near …more

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The Indigenous Protectors of the World’s Most Sacred Places

Around the world, Indigenous groups are working to safeguard and restore besieged sacred sites

Back in the 1990s, there was an intense debate among my Native American friends about whether public education about sacred places would be a good idea. One activist argued forcefully that: “Sacred places don’t need a PR campaign. They need ceremony and prayer.” But many places, from the San Francisco Peaks and Black Mesa in the Southwest to Bear Butte and Devils Tower in the Black Hills, were being desecrated. Ski resorts. Coal stripmines. New Agers. Rock climbers. Dams. While some battles revealed outright racism, other sacred sites were being destroyed out of ignorance. Though tradition long mandated that “sacred” meant “secret,” more people began to agree that limited information about sacred places should be shared in order to nurture understanding, build respect, and inspire allies.

All photos by Christopher McLeodQ‘eros women embark on a pilgrimage to the Quyllur Rit’i festival in the heart of the Peruvian Andes.

“We use the word ‘sacred.’ That’s not an Indian word. That comes from Europe,”Onondaga elder Oren Lyons explained to me during an interview for the Standing on Sacred Ground film series. “It comes from your churches. We have our own way to say things. The way we use it, it’s a place to be respected, a place to be careful.”


Around the planet, indigenous communities still guard their sacred places—mountains, springs, rivers, caves, forests, medicinal plant gardens, burials of beloved ancestors. Everywhere it seems these places are under siege. Each attack is met with a spirited defense because sacred places anchor cultures. They provide meaning. They give life, give information, heal, and offer visions and instructions about how to live, how to adapt, how to be resilient.

Around the planet, indigenous communities still guard their sacred places.

There have been many inspiring victories. At Kakadu in Australia, Aboriginal leaders stopped uranium mining and protected a World Heritage Site. At Devils Tower in Wyoming, the National Park Service consulted with Lakota elders and developed a plan to discourage climbing. Native Hawaiians stopped U.S. Navy bombardment of sacred Kahoʻolawe island and are now restoring it spiritually and ecologically as a cultural refuge. But battles rage on at Mauna Kea, on Oak Flat, in the Amazon.

On Earth Day, let us all celebrate the sacred lands and territories …more

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The Plight of Swaziland’s Pangolins

Poachers target little-known mammal to satisfy growing demand in Asia

Pangolins are the most trafficked animals in Southern Africa. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) calls them “the most traded wild animal” in the world, yet many people have never seen or heard about them.

photo of pangolin in AfricaPhoto by David Brossard A ground pangolin at Madikwe Game Reserve in South Africa. Pangolin’s are Southern Africa’s most trafficked animal.

These scaly ant eaters, whose tongues can be long as their body, can be found throughout much of southern Africa, including in the mountain wilds of Swaziland. All eight of the world’s pangolin species — four of which live in Africa — are listed on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, victims of poaching as demand for pangolin meat and scales has shot up in parts of Asia, particularly in China and Vietnam. Today in Swaziland, where an estimated 2,500 pangolins are poached every year, you are more likely to see a pangolin in the back of a smuggler´s truck on its way to a boat in the Indian Ocean than you are in the wild.

In a country where average public wages are low, some in Swaziland have turned to pangolin hunting to supplement their earnings. “I hate to say it, but increasing food [insecurity] forces rural communities to hunt and capture pangolins for profit,” says Richard Mlotshwa, head veterinary manager for the Endangered Animals Rehabilitation taskforce at the state run Swaziland Tourism Authority. 

Aiyoba Namaqa, an independent economist who works closely with the Trade Union Congress of Swaziland (which has been banned from operating in the country because the government says it incites workers to challenge the king’s authority) agrees, and thinks the situation could get even worse. “Hunger, worsened by El Niño… threatens to leave 20 percent of the country´s rural dwellers grappling for food in 2016,” she says. “No wonder some close to forests are hunt pangolins to [sell] and buy food.”

A kilogram of pangolin skin can fetch up to $500 on the black market in South Africa´s port cities, where the majority of the pangolins trafficked from Swaziland pass through on their way to Mozambique and finally Asia. “So it is tempting even for rogue Swaziland wildlife wardens to kill or capture these little …more

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