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Black Oak Down

The demise of an ancient oak tree brings loss, but also new life, to a Sebastopol farm

A loud, crashing sound startles my young farmhand Emily Danler awake in the dark of the night. She camps outdoors in order to start picking berries at sun-up. My dog barks in excitement. But after a physically demanding day farming, I sleep through it all.

Looking down the boysenberry field to the bottom of Kokopelli Farm the next morning, tears come to my eyes. The tall, black oak that had always anchored my farm had split right down the middle of its deep, wide trunk. It now lay broken, crashing across the fence from where it grew on my neighbor’s land. I would never again see its crimson leaves announcing the beginning of spring.

photo of a treePhoto by Scott HessThe fallen oak reminded me again that life can sprout out of death.

The loss of the oak evoked fear of my own death. Being old myself, 70 this year, I lamented the loss of yet another old creature. I am now of the age that I go to more memorial services than marriages. This has been a year of half a dozen deaths of friends, including two suicides. It took a week after the oak fell for me to realize that its demise evoked the loss of my human friends.

I had never imagined that I could outlive this grandfather oak, which had survived hundreds of years on my neighbor’s land to become a vital member of my community. It felt like the loss of a family member.

I was also reminded of my former wife and her connection to the giant tree. Years ago, when developers wanted to topple the huge oak to make way for a major subdivision, she pleaded compassionately with government officials to save the majestic tree. She even threatened to chain herself to the oak if they proceeded with the plan. Her efforts were a success. Now, several decades later, there are still no houses where the subdivision was once planned.

“Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?” the poet Mary Oliver asks us in her poem “Summer’s Day.” She concludes by asking, “Tell me, what are you going to do with your one wild and precious life?”

As my loss exploded into anger, my first response to the fallen oak was to remove it. Its large, dead trunk now blocked the path to …more

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Trees: Good for the Planet, Good for Your Health

First-of-its-kind study quantifies urban trees’ benefits to public health

Trees planted in metropolitan areas can feel like little more than ornamentation, an artsy effort to enliven the urban jungles of concrete and asphalt. But it turns out that city trees have real, quantifiable health benefits that exceed expectations. According to a new study by the US Forest Service, some 850 human deaths and 670,000 incidences of serious respiratory illness are avoided each year within the United States thanks to our towering, green friends.

photo of a city skyline, a tree-filled park dominating the backgroundPhoto by Mathew Knott, FlickrNew York City’s Central Park. According to the study, the value of a tree in terms of human health benefits increases with the density of population.

This is the first time scientists have quantified the exact amount of noxious air pollution removed by trees. The amount is substantial, weighing in at 17.4 million tons. With less harmful toxins floating around and irritating our lungs and sinuses, $7 billion per year is saved in unneeded trips to the doctor.

The value of a tree in terms of human health benefits, the study says, increases with density of population. So, if more trees are planted in New York City as opposed to, say, Ithaca, a far greater health benefit can be achieved. “In terms of impacts on human health, trees in urban areas are substantially more important than rural trees due to their proximity to people,” says Dave Nowak of the US Forest Service’s Northern Research Station in a press release announcing the report.

Unfortunately, there aren’t as many trees as there could be in many American cities today. This poses a serious national health risk. “With more than 80 percent of Americans living in urban areas, this research underscores how truly essential urban forests are to people across the nation,” says Michael T. Rains, director of the Forest Service’s Northern Research Station and the Forest Products Laboratory. 

So, how exactly do trees manage to remove such an incredible amount of dangerous air pollutants? The science lies in the green, glossy surface of each tree’s leaves. “Trees remove air pollution by the interception of particulate matter on plant surfaces and the absorption of gaseous pollutants through the leaf stomata,” the study explains. While this process is well documented, the new study is first to calculate the total public health benefit from tree canopy.

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Wildlife Depletion May Be Driving Child Labor and Crime

Decline in biodiversity is a source of social conflict rather than a symptom, says UC Berkeley report

What do overfishing, wildlife trafficking, and endangered species all have in common? According to a paper recently published in the journal Science, these environmental challenges may all have cascading social consequences when it comes to forced labor, organized crime, and even piracy.

photo of people folding nets on a dock; one of them is very youngphoto by ILO in Asia and the Pacific, on Flickr Children and teenagers who work on small fishing boats in Cambodia stay out at sea for 10-11 hours at a time, mostly at night. As labor demands increase, fishing boats are turning in increasing numbers to employing children and migrant workers without pay.

The paper, published by a group of University of California, Berkeley researchers, examines the connection between resource depletion and its unexpected social consequences. Although it can be difficult to pin down a direct causal link between these two issues, the authors point to several convincing examples.

“What we try to do in this paper is specifically highlight some of the mechanisms… [through which] wildlife decline actually connects mechanistically… [and] how something like the loss of an endangered species or a really important food resource can precipitate something unexpected like an increase in child labor or an increase in regional conflict, ” says Doug McCauley, an assistant professor at UC Santa Barbara who contributed to the paper as a postdoctoral researcher at UC Berkeley. “Obviously it is bad to be losing some of these species and impacting some of these populations, but it is much worse if we are losing these species… and on top of that we are also seeing increased violence and increased social injustices like forced labor practices.”

The fishing industry provides perhaps the starkest example of resource depletion contributing to social conflict. As fishing stocks become depleted across the world, fishermen must travel further and spend more time fishing to maintain their catch, which drives up the cost of business. As labor demands increase, fishing boats are turning in increasing numbers to human trafficking, employing children and migrant workers without pay. In Thailand, for example, migrant workers are subjected to grueling 18- to 20-hour days, physical abuse, and little food or rest. Similarly, the authors believe that competition over fishing rights, combined with a …more

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The Fight For Chile’s Environment Is Not Over

The country’s coastline and Patagonia region are constantly under threat from proposed industrial projects

The Chilean government’s decision in June to scrap plans to build the HidroAysén mega-dam project on two of Patagonia’s wildest rivers, is definitely cause for celebration, but the battle to protect Chile’s rich natural world is far from over.

The country’s coast and Patagonia region are constantly under threat from all sorts of extractive industries and lack effective legal protections, even though Chile is among the most developed countries in South America.

Though there has been a recent increase in protected areas in Chile, this does not ensure that there are any active conservation efforts to sustain them. For example, the Punta de Choros and Chañaral Marine Reserves are currently under threat due to the Dominga project, which which is currently awaiting government approval.

The Dominga project comprises in several mines (iron ore and copper) and new port at Totoralillo Norte that would be capable of shipping millions of tons of ore every year. Two enormous open-cast pits would create a giant mound of toxic tailings. This same place was under threat in 2010 because of three coal power plant projects, but citizens managed to halt the construction of these, forming part of a large citizen movement called Save Punta de Choros (Salvemos Punta de Choros). And plans are advancing in Chile to dig what might become the biggest hole in the world – a title currently claimed by the Chuquicamata copper mine, 1,000 kilometres to the north in the Atacama Desert.

A Chilean filmmakers’ collective, MVMT (or Movimiento), of which I’m a member, is documenting threats to the environment in different parts of Chile and people’s efforts to fight these threats. MVMT lends its creativity to causes that need attention in order to help build a society that lives in harmony with the environment. With this goal in mind we have created two short videos documenting environmental mismanagement in an increasingly exploited country.

The film Chiloé Saliendo A Flote (Chiloé Coming Afloat) shows how the rich biodiversity of the island of Chiloé, which is home to several endemic plant and animal species, is now gravely threatened due to lack of regulation on how its resources are used. Salmon farming, introduced in the 1970s, as well as large commercial fishing trawlers have been especially devastating for marine life around the island. Machas, or razor clams –part of a classic seafood diet in Chile – have nearly disappeared from …more

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Environmental Advocacy 3.0

Today’s up-and-coming green advocates are redefining what environmentalism means to them

The initial years following college graduation are daunting, a time when the fuzzy, warm mirage of an imagined future morphs into a harsh, though still unclear, present reality. For some new graduates, trading skinny jeans and picket signs for a sleek pantsuit and briefcase is what “growing up” means. Even the most idealistic sometimes abandon their aspiring life of activism – a conscious decision to sacrifice personal financial gain for the greater good – during this post-academic transition. Yet as I look at my peers, I see many people who remain committed to progressive change. So what, exactly, is motivating today’s graduates to continue on with environmental activism? I interviewed a range of up-and-coming environmental advocates across the United States to find out.

powershift_1021b_0355.jpgphoto by Mark Haller, on FlickrA demonstration at PowerShift in 2013

“The thing that keeps me going now is knowing that I'm part of a larger movement that aims to create a paradigm shift in our society. It's knowing that, at the core, this movement addresses structural problems,” says Victoria Fernandez, a University of California-Berkeley senior studying environmental economics and policy.

Coming of age within a tumultuous cycle of booms and (mostly) economic busts, many of today’s activist-minded college graduates are asking some tough questions about the sustainability of our social and economic systems. Why, for example, does our society continue to risk both human and environmental health for a financial system that is visibly broken? What’s blocking widespread human and environmental wellbeing? Who, exactly, is preventing sustained social, economic and environmental resiliency? 

These questions have spurred young environmental advocates to consider the multi-faceted complexities of ecological issues. Environmental concerns, many Millenials realize, are intimately tied with the socio-economic struggles of our day.

“At first, I was only interested in the environmental effects of our actions, like what all that coal burning was doing to the lovely mountains that I used to hike and to the wildlife in the Great Smoky Mountains,” says Zach Bielak, a soon-to-be Rice University graduate and currently an environmental and social justice intern in Shenzhen, China. “Slowly, I began to adopt the word ‘sustainability’ as my main interest. It wasn't until only a year ago that I really found out and understood that sustainability implies much more than just environmental. It involves social and economic as well. …more

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Wilderness in the Anthropocene

“The Human Age” makes wildness more important than ever

This article is a sneak preview from Earth Island Journal’s upcoming autumn edition, which will be a special, expanded issue marking the 50th anniversary of the passage of the Wilderness Act and includes articles from Michael Brune, Kathleen Dean Moore, Rick Bass, Shelton Johnson, and Brooke Williams, among many others. To make sure you don’t miss any of the essays and inspiring art, become a subscriber today.

photo of a meadow in full flower, soaring bare peaks behind it and a dramatic skyphoto by John Richter

We decided to use the long weekend for a backcountry getaway, figuring that the chance to spot a bald eagle soaring over an alpine lake would be just as patriotic as watching fireworks on the beach. Nothing more than a scant two nights and three days in the Emigrant Wilderness of the Sierra Nevada, a quick woodsy holiday. Toward the end of Day Two we were hiking through a place called Mosquito Pass when one of my companions exclaimed with delight: “It’s like another planet. A really fucking beautiful other planet.”

I knew what she meant, enthusiastic expletive included. The scene was, in fact, amazing. Thick stands of purple lupine and the tiny white bells of moss heather clustered around meltwater ponds. The Sierra’s signature bone-white granite rose in dramatic swells and sweeps. Slopes of lodgepole and fir, the late-day light putting an extra coat of lacquer onto every needle. And, at the same time, the observation made me sad. What a shame, to think that our own Earth has come to seem otherworldly. Once commonplace sights and sounds – the stars at night, the burble of a stream – are now curiosities. Wild nature’s everyday magic has turned exotic. When we Moderns enter the last remnants of the original world we find ourselves strangers in a strange land.

The wilderness’s alien feeling has been used to critique the value of wild places. The argument goes like this: In celebrating the wilderness as the ideal of an intact ecosystem, conservationists have encouraged an unattainable view of the man-and-nature relationship. Since seven billion people cannot make a living in today’s wilderness (“a place where man himself is a visitor,” in the words of the Wilderness Act), wildlands are a poor model for understanding how to coexist with the rest of …more

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Toxic Tailings Pond Breach in Canada Highlights Risks Faced by Proposed Pebble Mine in Alaska

Hundreds of people in British Columbia without water after billions of gallons of mining waste spill into rivers

This week’s devastating tailings dam failure at the Mount Polley copper mine in British Columbia sent an estimated 4.5 million cubic meters of mine waste solids and 2.6 billion gallons of mine waste liquids into streams, rivers, and lakes in the headwaters of the Fraser River watershed.  According to the CBC, the volume of the spill would fill approximately 2,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools.

It will be some time before we know the full consequences of this mine failure, but just the physical damage as shown by the video above, of the Canadian disaster means the ecosystem will take a long time to recover. In the mean time, area residents are advised not to drink their tap water.

It’s impossible not to draw comparisons between the Mount Polley Mine and the proposed Pebble Mine that would be situated at the headwaters of Alaska’s Bristol Bay. Both mines are large, open pit, copper porphyry mines at the headwaters of important salmon streams. Ironically, the company behind the proposed Pebble Mine, the Pebble Limited Partnership, has repeatedly pointed to the Fraser River as an example of a watershed where mining and fish can coexist.

Even more ironic, Knight Piesold, the firm that provided designs for the tailings pond lifts at Mount Polley, also provided the designs for the tailings pond for the proposed Pebble Mine.

While industry and regulators claim that tailings pond failures are rare occurrences, they happen more often than industry would like us to know.  In 2012, Earthworks released a peer-reviewed report that examined 14 out of 16 operating copper porphyry mines in the US representing 89 percent of copper production. We found that full or partial tailings dam failures have occurred at roughly a quarter of them.

Yet the mining industry, and certainly the Pebble Partnership, is often in denial about mining’s environmental impacts. 

Bristol Bay’s wild sockeye salmon fishery is the world’s largest. Almost half the world’s commercial supply of wild sockeye salmon comes from here. The fisheries here support 14,000 jobs and generate approximately $480 million in revenue each year.

To protect Bristol Bay, a unique coalition of groups, including Alaska Native Tribes, commercial and recreational fishermen, churches, jewelers, and chefs, created such a stir about the Pebble Mine that it compelled the US Environmental Protection Agency to conduct an extensive, peer-reviewed …more

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