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Time in the Wilderness Supplies Lessons for (Planetary) Survival

In celebration of the Wilderness Act’s 50th anniversary

Ah, summertime — the season for getaways to the great outdoors. Maybe that means a lazy float trip down the Russian River, a weekend at the beach, or camping at the nearest state park. If you're especially intrepid, getting away might involve strapping on a pack and striking out into one of California's 149 designated wilderness areas.

John Muir Wilderness Area Photo by V.H.S./FlickrThe United States has more land protected as wilderness than any other country. Yet the
wilderness ideal is also experiencing unprecedented challenges.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the passage of the Wilderness Act. The watershed law established a legal definition of wilderness as an area that retains its "primeval character" and where "the imprint of man's work [is] substantially unnoticeable." Today, some 110 million acres of land across the United States are protected as wilderness, an achievement unmatched anywhere else in the world.

Yet the wilderness ideal is also experiencing unprecedented challenges. The strains of accommodating 7 billion people on Earth are making wilderness areas and other preserves ever more isolated. The far-reaching effects of global climate change are disrupting the natural cycles of even the most remote places. The tug of our technologies requires extra effort to disconnect from the noise of civilization.

It has become fashionable in environmentalist circles to say that the garden, rather than the wilderness, offers the best metaphor for understanding how humans can coexist with the rest of nature. As a co-founder of San Francisco's largest urban farm, I agree the garden supplies a bounty of teachable moments about environmental sustainability. And I also agree with the poet Gary Snyder's observation that "wilderness can be a ferocious teacher." A foray into the remote wilderness — whether for a single night or an entire week — offers a unique wisdom found nowhere else.

For starters, the wild provides a crash course in humility. Go beyond road's end to where the motor and the engine cannot reach, and you'll be reminded of the self-flattery of human technology. The presence of other apex predators — mountain lions, bears, wolves — is a bracing tonic, evidence of how the wild naturally resists human desires. In the wilderness, we're forced to consider that we're not as all-knowing and as all-powerful as we may think, and that we should be more cautious in believing we can (or should) …more

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Unsafe at Any Speed

Will new DOT regulations prevent another oil by rail disaster?

Who is responsible for the series of oil train derailments and accidents that have occurred recently? A little more than one year since a train derailed in the Quebec town of Lac-Megantic, killing 47 people and destroying more than 40 buildings, this seemingly simple question remains at the heart of efforts to improve oil by rail safety. On Wednesday the Obama administration issued proposed changes to an industry that has, until now, operated with little oversight. The “Proposed Rulemaking” would gradually phase out the DOT 111 rail car, widely acknowledge as inadequate for the transport of highly flammable materials like Bakken crude; reduce “high-hazard flammable train” speeds to 40 mph; and require increased testing and sampling of mined gases and liquids. “Today’s proposal represents our most significant progress yet in developing and enforcing new rules to ensure that all flammable liquids, including Bakken crude and ethanol, are transported safely,” Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said in a press release.

Fireball over city of La Megantic on night of accidentPhoto by Photo: Steve Poulin/Agence QMI/Creative Commons LicenceA scene from the July 2013 Le Megantic accident that occurred when a train carrying North Dakota crude oil derailed and exploded, burning far hotter than experts expected. Though the US Department of Tranport’s proposed regulations address the risks posed by the transport of shale oil and gas, many enviornmental groups feel they don’t go nearly far enough.

The new rules were issued along with the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration’s long awaited analysis of Bakken crude oil, known as Operation Classification. According to a Department of Transportation press release, “The data show that crude oil from the Bakken region in North Dakota tends to be more volatile and flammable than other crude oils.” Though the DOT’s proposed regulations address the risks posed by the transport of shale oil and gas, they don’t go nearly far enough, according to several environmental organizations. Earthjustice, ForestEthics, and the Sierra Club recently filed a legal petition asking the Department of Transportation to issue an emergency ban on the use of DOT 111 rail cars to ship Bakken crude.

“These are the heaviest, most dangerous trains on American tracks and they now pass through nearly every downtown in North America,” ForestEthics said in a press release. “The worst of these oil tanker cars are unsafe at any …more

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Radar Station on Tiny Indian Island Could Harm Rare Hornbill Population

Conservationists fear India’s new government is ignoring environmental concerns in rush to clear projects

When the new Indian government came to power in May, its focus on speeding up approvals for defense and infrastructure development projects had environmentalists concerned that the administration would ride roughshod over environmental clearances for these projects. Those fears were reinforced last month when the country’s environment minister Prakash Javadekar approved a proposal to set up a radar station on Narcondam Island, a tiny volcanic island in the Bay of Bengal that’s home to the Narcondam hornbill — an endangered bird endemic to the island.

Narcondam hornbill on a tree trunkPhoto by Dr Asad RahmaniNarcondam hornbills are endemic to Narcondam Island. Only about 340 birds are thought to be left on the 2.6 square mile island. No other bird species in India has such a small range.

The proposal by the Indian Coast Guard, aimed at monitoring supposed Chinese presence in the nearby Coco Islands, had been rejected by India’s previous government in 2012, because of concerns about the Narcondam Hornbills (Rhyticeros narcondami). Only about 340 birds are thought to be left on the 2.6 square mile island. In India, no other bird species has such a small range.

Narcondam Island  is part of the Andaman and Nicobar archipelago, which lies east of the Indian peninsula. The island is listed as a wildlife sanctuary and is also on the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s ‘tentative’ list of places considered worth designating as a World Heritage Site. Apart from the hornbill, there are several other plant and animal species that are endemic to the island.

The Coast Guard project on the island involves installation of static radar equipment, a power supply station, housing facilities for the staff, and a road through the hornbills’ breeding areas. The National Board of Wildlife — whose approval is required for projects in areas inhabited by protected species — had concluded in 2012 that the hornbill habitat was too vulnerable for such a project. The board’s report stated that the small island was already under pressure from human presence (there is a police outpost in the island) and any additional deployment of personnel would prove detrimental to the threatened hornbill population.

Javadekar has also cleared another controversial defense proposal to build a naval base in the ecologically fragile Western Ghats in the west coast state of Karnataka.

Ever since the Narcondam decision, online birding forums …more

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The Comeback Cat

Jaguars have critical habitat set aside for them in the Southwest. But is it enough for the predator to recover?

Jaguars are returning to a portion of their historic range in the southwestern United States, having surmounted numerous obstacles along the increasingly militarized US-Mexico border. Yet whether this mysterious carnivore will be able to make a full comeback is in doubt as the animal faces continued hostility from many humans.

A Jaguar in a zoo penPhoto by Eric KilbyThe United States Fish and Wildlife Service has designated 760,000 acres of remote backcountry in Arizona and New Mexico as “critical habitat” to allow for the jaguar to expand from its population center in northern Mexico.

In March — under a court order prompted by lawsuits and petitions from conservation organizations — the United States Fish and Wildlife Service designated 760,000 acres (or 1,164 square miles) of remote backcountry in Arizona and New Mexico as “critical habitat” to allow for the jaguar to expand from its population center in northern Mexico.

The jaguar (Panthera onca) is the third largest cat in the world after lions and tigers, recognizable by its golden coat speckled with black rosettes and its impressive roar. The animal once roamed as far north as the Grand Canyon and as far west as Southern California, but was extirpated from the US in the early twentieth century after cattle ranchers appealed to the US Biological Survey (the precursor to the Fish and Wildlife Service) to eliminate the predator, considered a threat to livestock. Much like the wolf, the jaguar was hunted until none were left.

Reports of the jaguar’s return to the United States began in 1996, when two separate cougar hunters reported seeing a jaguar in two different mountain ranges in southern Arizona. A year later, in 1997, the jaguar was officially listed as an endangered species after years of petitioning by Tony Povilitis, a conservationist associated with a group called Life Net Nature. Between 2004 and 2007, researchers at the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge in southern Arizona spotted leopards on three occasions.

Povilitis and other conservationists believe that the USFWS has not gone far enough to recover a species that was hunted by the agency’s own precursor in what Povilitis calls “the great kill off.” He says the recovery plan should include all of the jaguar’s former range, including north of Arizona’s Mogollon Rim, an area with plenty of what jaguars require for survival: water, prey, and …more

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A Pledge that Promises to Keep Seeds Free For All to Use

In battle against seed patents, plant breeders and advocates find inspiration in open source software

For years, many of us have kept an eye out for organic and pesticide free vendors at our local farmers markets. Thanks to a new movement hitting the American food scene, we may soon be looking for another important environmental marker: open source seeds. At least, that is the goal of a small but burgeoning group of plant breeders and sustainable farming advocates who hope to add “free seed” to the list of things consumers watch for as they vote with their wallets.

a newly germinated seedlingPhoto courtesy USDAThe Open Source Initiative has released 36 varieties of 14 different vegetables and grains using a new kind ownership agreement known as the “Open Source Seed Pledge.

Inspired by the concept of open source software, a group of plant scientists and food activists, led by the University of Wisconsin, have launched the Open Source Seed Initiative – a campaign to protect the right of farmers, plant breeders and gardeners to share seeds freely. At a formal event in April, the initiative released 36 varieties of 14 different vegetables and grains using a new kind ownership agreement known as the “Open Source Seed Pledge.” The pledge is designed to keep the new seeds free for anyone to propagate and share for perpetuity.

Essentially, the Open Source Seed Initiative (OSSI) is a response by small-scale farmers, plant breeders, public universities, and nonprofit organizations to the drastic proliferation of seed patenting since the 1980s.

Seeds have typically been part of the Commons – a natural resource shared freely by all. But with the rise of intellectual property rights and patenting, many hybrid seed varieties began to be patented as inventions. Growers these days need to seek permission from the patent holder, usually a big seed company, to use them. Most seed patents today are held by the “Gene Giants” – Monsanto, DuPont, Syngenta, Bayer, Dow, and BASF. These six companies now control roughly 60 percent of all commercial seeds and restrict farmers and plant breeders from conducting research or breeding with the seeds (and seed traits) that they own.

For smaller scale farmers and breeders, this means that the so-called Gene Giants are patenting traits that many of them have already bred independently or that they may already be using.

“Patenting is being misused by a very narrow range of companies,” explains Jack …more

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EPA Restricts Mine Waste Disposal in Bristol Bay Watershed

A crucial step towards protecting the world’s most prolific salmon fishery

On Friday, the US Environmental Protection Agency released its long-awaited plan for restricting mine waste disposal in Alaska's Bristol Bay watershed — a crucial step towards protecting the world's most prolific wild salmon fishery and the 14,000 hardworking fishermen who depend on it. Alaska Native Tribes and commercial fishermen petitioned the EPA to use its authority to protect the fishery in 2010.

Salmon fishing boats in Bristol BayPhoto by Courtesy Friends of Bristol BaySalmon fishing boats in Bristol Bay. Alaska Native Tribes and commercial fishermen petitioned the EPA to use its authority to protect the fishery in 2010.

"It's been a long time coming," said Luki Akelkok, chairman of Nunamta Aulukestai, an association of ten Native Tribes and corporations, in a press statement.

The EPA has authority under Section 404(c) of the Clean Water Act to restrict mine waste disposal that will harm important fisheries. Yet, EPA has used its authority sparingly — only 13 times in the 42-year history of the Clean Water Act. And, never has it been more warranted than now. As Dennis McLerran, Regional Administrator for EPA stated on Friday:

"Bristol Bay is an extraordinary ecosystem that supports an ancient fishing culture and economic powerhouse. The science is clear that mining the Pebble deposit would cause irreversible damage to one of the world's last intact salmon ecosystems."

Just how big would it be? The numbers are staggering. Based on information provided by Northern Dynasty Minerals to investors and the US Securities and Exchange Commission, mining the Pebble deposit is likely to result in:

  • A mine pit nearly as deep as the Grand Canyon.
  • Mine waste that would fill a major football stadium up to 3,900 times.
  • A mining operation that would cover an area larger than Manhattan.

The EPA's announcement has been met with strong and diverse support from Alaska Native Tribes, the commercial fishing industry, jewelers, investors, conservation groups, hunters and anglers.

“We asked the EPA to step in to protect our fishery from the Pebble Mine because the State of Alaska wasn’t listening to us,” said Kim Williams, executive director of Nunamta Aulukestai. “The future of our people and 14,000 jobs are at risk. We’re glad the EPA is doing its job.”

“Thousands of jobs in Bristol Bay rely on a healthy fishery, said …more

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In Review: Snowpiercer

No, it’s not another climate change dystopia flick. It’s the first geoengineering dystopia flick

The end of the world won’t be prophesied by the feverish nightmares of the Book of Revelations, but instead by the apocalyptic fantasias of Hollywood.

Movie directors just can’t seem to get enough of crafting stylish dystopias. Doomsday is its own genre by now and, as New Yorker film critic David Denby quips: “In movies, the death of a single person is still a tragedy; the death of the human race is entertainment.” Or, at least, a convenient backdrop. A screenwriter or director rubs out humanity and voilà — a perfect blank slate for crafting the kind of action-packed, outsized morality tales that can fill a theater.

Snowpiercer movie posterSnowpiercer goes far beyond sci-fi into the realm of straight-up allegory.

The apocalypse used to arrive in a couple of predictable forms — nuclear war, plagues, zombies. In the last decade or so, a new scourge has appeared: planetary environmental devastation, usually in the guise global climate change. The first of this dystopian sub-genre was the soporific Kevin Costner vehicle Waterworld, a kind of Mad Max on the high seas. The next big climate change feature didn’t appear for close to a decade later, when Roland Emmerich unveiled The Day After Tomorrow, his 2004 blockbuster about the heroics of a climatologist played by Dennis Quaid. While The Day After Tomorrow was burdened by a slew of predictable action scenes (a wolf-pack chase, a couple of literal iceberg cliffhangers), it distinguished itself by its effort to sketch some science (however exaggerated) and its edge of irony. Climate change, we were told, would destroy civilization, not in a blast of heat, but with the hammer of a blizzard. 

Since then, Hollywood’s eco-apocalypses have come hard and fast. Pixar’s Wall-E was all about an adorable robot tasked with cleaning up a trashed Earth. The Hunger Games takes place in an austerity landscape created by some vague environmental dislocation that occurred in the near-past. In last year’s Elysium, Matt Damon battles to get himself off an Earth that’s become a dusty wasteland. And don’t forget Avatar. The ugly humans were hell bent on razing the wonders of the forest-moon Pandora because they had already ruined our home planet.

You can now add to the list Snowpiercer, the hotly talented Korean director Bong Joon-ho’s fable about environmental hubris and social injustice. Snowpiercer is a potent — if …more

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