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In Celebration of John Muir

The American legend’s legacy is especially relevant to today’s environmental movement

Born in Scotland, raised in Wisconsin, John Muir is considered the father of our National Parks system, called by many "America's greatest idea" and later adopted around the world. He was a founder and guiding spirit of the Sierra Club, one of our largest and most effective environmental organizations. An author, naturalist, advocate, and friend of such prominent Americans as Teddy Roosevelt, Fredrick Law Olmsted, and Ralph Waldo Emerson, he achieved enormous fame and recognition. An institution in California, where he spent much of his adult life, Muir's name adorns a National Monument, a Pacific beach, a Sierra pass, a 14,000-foot mountain, a Wilderness Area and the spectacular 220-mile John Muir Trail, running from Yosemite Valley to Mt. Whitney. Schools, parks, and playgrounds also bear his name, and his home in Martinez, California is a National Historic Site.

John Muir Photo courtesy University of Washington, Taber & BoydWith the clear exception of his early racism, which warrants continued criticism,
Muir is anything but out-of-date.

Contra Muir

But for some scholars, Muir has outlived his relevance. Just before a recent conference on Muir's legacy at the University of California, Los Angeles, historian and professor of sustainability Jon Christensen told the Los Angeles Times that "Muir's legacy has got to go. It's just not useful anymore. Muir's a dead end. It's time to bury his legacy and move on." In Christensen's view, Muir was a nature advocate whose use of Biblical language and focus on pure wilderness now appeals only to older white Americans and not to California's diverse population, which needs urban nature and clean air more than it does "awe-inspiring parks" and protected wild lands. The LA Times reported that, “critics also said Muir's vision of wilderness is rooted in economic privilege and the abundant leisure of the upper class." The most serious charge was that Muir was racist toward Native Americans.

Christensen's comments, in particular, brought forth a torrent of angry letters and online comments. Many readers thought him arrogant and felt he was being provocative with the sole intent of attracting publicity. As I read the article, I too, felt the heat of anger rising inside. How dare these "scholars" dishonor Muir's memory? As I mulled on the controversy, I began to realize that, above all others, Muir's ideas and ideals ultimately shaped my values and my future …more

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Sandra the Orangutan is a Person, Rules Argentine Court

In landmark judgment, court says that the 28-year-old Great Ape has the right to be free

Sandra, a 28-year-old orangutan who lives in a zoo in Buenos Aires, Argentina is now the first animal to be legally recognized as a person.

In a landmark judgment last Friday, an appeals court in Argentina declared that the Sumatran orangutan, who has been held captive at the zoo for 20 years, should be recognized as a nonhuman person with the right to freedom. The court ruled that Sandra, who was born in captivity in Germany in 1986, be released to an animal sanctuary in Brazil where she can live out the rest of her life in relative freedom. (Since she was born in captivity, Sandra doesn’t have the skills to survive in the wild.)

Rubi the OrangutanPhoto by Albuquerque BioParkRuby (not Sandra), a female orangutan at the ABQ BioPark Zoo in Albuquerque. Many scientific studies have shown that orangutans and other Great Apes have complex cognitive abilities as self-awareness and autonomy.

The ruling was based on a habeas corpus petition filed on Sandra’s behalf in November by the Association of Officials and Lawyers for Animal Rights (AFADA), which claimed that it was unjustified to confine an animal with “proven cognitive capability.”  (Habeas corpus cases are based on the legal principle that requires that an imprisoned person, or an individual who is unable to personally appear in court — for example, a severely disabled person or infant — be allowed to make a plea in court via lawyers.)

The ruling “opens the way not only for other Great Apes, but also for other sentient beings which are unfairly and arbitrarily deprived of their liberty in zoos, circuses, water parks and scientific laboratories," the association’s lawyer, Paul Buompadre, was quoted as saying in the Argentine daily, La Nacion. The zoo has 10 days to seek an appeal.

Indeed, the court’s decision is a big win for the animal rights movement since it’s the first time that a court has agreed that a nonhuman animal with complex cognitive capabilities is entitled the basic right to life and liberty — rights usually considered exclusive to humans. Many animal rights activists believe hat recognizing highly intelligent and sentient animals — like the Great Apes, dolphins, whales, and elephants — as legal persons would help protect them from held captive in fun parks and zoos or be subject to invasive experiments in laboratories.

The …more

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The Most Important Environmental Stories of 2014

The good, the bad, and the ugly of the year that was

The calendar is about to flip over once again, meaning it’s time for the obligatory roundup of the most important environmental stories of the past year.

This list is mostly subjective — my own personal picks, filtered through my own lens. But I did reach out to a several dozen environmental activists and thinkers to tap into the wisdom of the crowd. I asked folks to give me their suggestions not necessarily for the “biggest” news as measured by headlines or page views or likes, but for the most important stories. That is, happenings likely to have an impact on ecosystems, politics, economy, and culture beyond 2014.

Not surprisingly, climate change and energy once again dominate the list. But there was also some important news in wildlife conservation and loss, forest protection, and politics. Without further ado, here’s my list of the top 10 most important environmentally related stories of 2014.

1. Obama Finally Acts on Power Plant Emissions

a power plant spewing smokePhoto by Mario GoebbelsIn June, Obama’s EPA announced draft rules to slash carbon pollution from power plants, the largest source of US greenhouse gas emissions.

President Obama has been a reluctant warrior when it comes to the environment. In his first term he focused on dealing with the biggest financial meltdown and recession in a generation, and then passing his signature health care reform. Now, hamstrung by an oppositional Congress, he’s found that one of the issues on which he can use his executive authority to make real progress is climate change.

In June, Obama’s EPA announced draft rules to slash carbon pollution from power plants, the largest source of US greenhouse gas emissions. Once finalized in 2015, the rules are expected to slash power plant emissions by 25 percent by 2020 and 30 percent by 2030 (from a 2005 baseline). Fossil fuel interests are attempting to challenge the rules in court, but the administration’s actions rest on solid legal footing. In a landmark case in 2007, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that “greenhouse gases fit within the [Clean Air Act’s] capacious definition of an air pollutant.” Here’s how Sierra Club ED Michael Brune described to me the importance of the rules for a story I wrote for The Daily Beast: “This is the kind of leadership that we’ve needed for a long time. And the …more

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A Chronicle of Edward Abbey and Radical Environmental Movements

In Review: Wrenched

The new film Wrenched, by filmmaker ML Lincoln, explores the life of environmental writer and activist Edward Abbey and the direct action environmental movements that he helped to inspire. Rather than focusing purely on Abbey himself, Lincoln told me in our correspondence about the film that, “Wrenched is about his actions.”  Lincoln, a longtime activist herself, worked on the film for over seven years and interviewed 40 people, including many of Abbey’s long-time friends and associates. This is her second feature length documentary, and follows her 2007 film Drowning River about the loss of Glen Canyon underneath the Powell Reservoir in Arizona.

 Glen Canyon DamPhoto by Mark Stevens, on FlickrThe construction of the Glen Canyon Dam and subsequent drowning of Glen Canyon had a significant impact on the maturation of Edward Abbey’s worldview.

Wrenched excels at exploring the origins of direct action environmental movements in the United States, and particularly Abbey’s environmental activism in the Southwest.

In doing so, the film delves into Abbey’s early life and his emergence as a writer and activist, including his involvement in anti-war activism during the Second World War and the beginning of the nuclear age. This period was critical to the formation of his perspectives on the terrifying destructive power of industrial capitalism at the middle of the twentieth century. The film also touches on two events significant in the history of the Southwest that were also central to the maturation of Abby’s worldview: The construction of the Glen Canyon Dam and subsequent drowning of Glen Canyon, and the Central Arizona Project, through which Colorado river water was diverted to Arizona’s desert cities, pumped by coal from the Black Mesa plateau.

In the film, Abbey’s own participation in direct action, or “night moves” as he describes them, are explored in the context of his writing, his activism, and the movements that he helped to inspire. The film gives a rough history of the origins of Earth First!, the radical environmental group that that was inspired by Abbey’s writings. It examines several instances of state repression in the 1980s and 1990s, and highlights FBI infiltration, instigation, and, as some would say, entrapment, related to the so-called Arizona 5, a group of Earth First! members arrested for conspiracy to sabotage nuclear power plants. The film also describes the …more

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New York’s Fracking Ban is a Major Setback for the Oil and Gas Industry

Activists are now laying the groundwork for a national campaign against "extreme energy"

Five years ago it wasn’t a question of if fracking would come to New York but when. Yesterday’s decision by Gov. Andrew Cuomo to ban high volume hydraulic fracturing in the state is a measure of how much things have changed in a relatively short period of time. New York is the first state, other than Vermont (which has little or no proven shale deposits) to ban the controversial drilling technique. New York’s decision is particularly striking given that it sits atop the mother of all gas reserves: the Marcellus Shale. In no uncertain terms the decision is a major setback for the oil and gas industry in North America.

anti-fracking protestors in Albany, NYPhoto courtesy 350.org Environmental activists now have an ambitious goal: they want to connect the dots and change the national dialogue on energy production and put an end to all types of fossil fuel consumption.

When I visited Wes Gillingham, the program director of Catskill Mountainkeeper, in 2009, hydraulic fracturing was still an insider’s game. As Gillingham told me earlier this week, when he tried to research the process six or seven years ago, nothing came up. The word wasn’t in circulation. And the only information available was from industry sources or geologists. In other words you had to know where to look.

Today the opposite is true. Fracking is everywhere. It’s been the subject of studio films, documentaries, and countless investigative news stories and even featured on an episode of the Simpsons. Since 2012, when Cuomo asked the New York Department of Health to conduct a review of fracking, the number of peer-reviewed studies on its environmental impacts has nearly quadrupled, Gillingham says. And the vast majority of those studies suggest that fracking poses a serious threat to human health and the environment. Indeed that was the primary argument put forward by state health commissioner Howard Zucker in presenting the findings of a long awaited report. Zucker summed it up this way: “Would I live in a community that allowed fracking? The answer is no.” (Numerous towns across New York had already come to the same conclusion passing moratoriums and restrictions on fracking.)

With the science and media attention public opinion has shifted too. A poll conducted earlier this year found that 79 percent of New Yorkers support a moratorium on fracking. Even so Cuomo’s …more

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Travelers: Put Your Money Where Your Beliefs Are

Top 10 countries in the developing world that treat their people and environment well

Most of us love to travel, and most of us want to have a positive impact on the world. If you do it right, one Earth Island Institute project asserts, you can do both at the same time. By spending your travel dollars in forward-thinking countries, you can reward the good guys, and encourage good practices worldwide.  

A blue-green lake with boatsPhoto by Andrew GibsonCape Verde made it to Ethical Traveler's 10 Best Ethical Destinations list for 2015.

Each year, California-based nonprofit Ethical Traveler researches and publishes a list of the 10 most ethical destinations in the developing world. Each country is reviewed for its performance in the areas of human rights, social welfare, animal welfare, and protection of the environment. That’s not all— a winning country also must have plenty of appeal as a travel destination.     

Though we are diligent in creating this list, we must continually remind ourselves: No country is perfect. All have genuine and often serious shortcomings. Each of our winners, however, is making a genuine effort to “do the right thing” in the many areas we take into consideration. We sincerely hope that inclusion on this list will motivate them to continue and improve upon their good work.

How the List is Created:

To begin, Ethical Traveler conducts a survey of developing nations — from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe — to identify the world’s best travel and tourism destinations. We begin our research by focusing on three general categories: environmental protection, social welfare and human rights. In 2013, responding to requests from our members, we added animal welfare to our investigations.

For each of these categories, we look at information past and present so that we understand not only the current state of a country, but how it has changed over time. This helps us select nations that are actively improving the state of their people, government and environment.

A streetscape in Vilinus, Latvia Photo by David Kosmos SmithEach place selected also offers unspoiled natural beauty, great outdoor activities, and the
opportunity to interact with local people and cultures in a meaningful, mutually enriching way.

In this first phase of our process, we consider country scores from a variety of databases related to one of the three categories, using information from sources like …more

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New York State to Ban Fracking Over ‘Red Flags’ to Public Health

Decision comes after two-year study into the effects of fracking on the state’s air and water raises ‘serious questions’

The state of New York said it would ban the controversial practice of hydraulic fracturing on Wednesday because of “red flags” about its risks to public health.

The ban puts one of the last great areas of untapped potential in the Marcellus Shale off-limits to the oil and gas industry.

anti-fracking protest in NYCPhoto by Adam Welz for CREDO ActionToday's decision for a frack-free zone across an entire state is the biggest obstacle to date to an industry that has had rapid growth across a number of other states.

The decision was reached after a two-year study into the effects of fracking on the state’s air and water, and announced at a cabinet meeting in Albany.

“The takeaway that I get from the data is that there are serious questions about public health,” Governor Andrew Cuomo, said.

New York State has had a moratorium on fracking for the past five years – and more than 120 towns across the state have outlawed the practice.

But Wednesday’s decision for a frack-free zone across an entire state was the biggest obstacle to date to an industry that has had rapid growth across a number of other states.

New York’s two-year review raised multiple concerns about the effects of fracking on public health.

“I cannot support high-volume hydraulic fracturing in the great state of New York,” Howard Zucker, the health commissioner, said. “There are many red flags.”

Zucker admitted there was still a lack of hard data about the effects of fracking on public health, but he said: “Would I let my child play in a school field nearby? After looking at the plethora of reports, my answer would be no.”

Asked why other states had allowed fracking given those health risks, Zucker said: “The fact is that many of those states didn’t bring their health teams to the table.”

The ban in New York comes at a time when oil and gas prices are falling around the country, shutting down hundreds of gas wells.

But the decision still carries political costs for Cuomo. The oil industry and supporters of fracking have countered that the industry could bring jobs to economically depressed areas of the state.

“I’ve never had anybody say to me ‘I believe fracking is great’. What I get is: ‘I have no alternative to fracking’,” Cuomo said on Wednesday. “But if …more

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