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All Aboard the People’s Climate Train

Activists tackle big-picture questions while traveling across the country for Sunday’s big march in NYC

On an Amtrak train hurtling east toward New York City, a wall is festooned with bright-colored sticky notes announcing workshops and discussion groups: “stories and photos from the Tar Sands Healing Walk,” “Fukushima,” “stories and photos from Keystone XL,” “green sustainable regenerative building;” “near-term human extinction, i.e., 2030,” “Typhoon Haiyan.”

Conversations in the lounge car and across the aisle take on big questions: the culture of materialism, consumption, and profit; how much coal we burn reading a book; getting money out of politics; Wall Street, fossil fuels divestment, and the green economy.

People's Climate Train at RenoPhoto by Bob BennettThe first People's Climate Train in Reno, NV. Two trains from San Francisco carried hundreds of activists across the country for Sunday’s People’s Climate March in New York City.

Welcome to the People’s Climate Train, one of two trains that departed from the San Francisco Bay Area on September 15 and 16 carrying hundreds of activists across the country for Sunday’s People’s Climate March in New York City.

I boarded the second People’s Climate Train in San Francisco along with a small but diverse group of 18 activists. We have been joined by dozens more along the way. The mood among the activists is upbeat and engaged, but realistic about the prospects of the mass mobilization delivering significant change. With some of us coming from as far away as Hawai‘i, we have committed to a long, fun-but-wearying trip to help pump up the numbers and volume in what all hope is the biggest climate change protest in US history.

Nobody here expects one big march to change everything, yet there is a palpable urgency about the need for sweeping changes in how we live and do business as a society. As we traverse eye-popping landscapes — towering rocky mountains, deep gorges sliced by white-capped river waters, yellow-orange bursts of early autumn foliage — our conversations navigate a more distressing terrain: ecological devastation and First Nations’ resistance against the tar sands mines in Alberta; the maddening persistence of Big Coal and Big Oil amid an exponentially worsening climate crisis; and a culture and economy of consumption that enables and encourages it all.

The train ride is “a great reminder of what we’re going to New York for,” says Sonny Lawrence Alea, a recent environmental studies graduate from San Francisco State University. “This …more

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“A Weekend to Change the Course of History”?

Beyond appealing to powers-that-be, climate justice movements need to focus on creating systemic change to address the climate crisis

A Weekend to Change the Course of History. That is how the call-to-action for the People's Climate March taking place this coming Saturday, September 21, begins. The appeal goes on to suggest the weekend will be used “to bend the course of history.” This raises some questions critical to climate movements. How do we make that bend? And in what direction? In other words, what understandings and methods of social change inform the New York mobilization, and where do we want it to lead? These are urgent questions. The scale of the New York mobilization and the concentration of resources for the march demands that we put such questions firmly on the table.

Climate MarchPhoto by cactusbonesPosters advertise the People's Climate March on the streets of New York City.

The answers hinge on what we understand the nature of the problem to be. There are two general kinds of problems: surface and systemic. Imagine a house. Surface problems would include paint peeling, a leaky faucet or even flooring that needs replacement. All of those repairs can be done within the structure of a home. In the political realm, surface problems might include road decay, wasteful government spending or the lack of green spaces. Systemic problems go deeper. They would include a cracked foundation or rotted support beams that are so severe that fixing them would entail fixing the structure itself — or building an entirely new home. Racism and sexism are such problems. It isn’t enough (or even possible) to integrate schools or create policies for pay equity; the very structures that support these systems must be challenged for them to be addressed.

Climate change is also fundamentally a systemic problem. The climate crisis has emerged from the structures of our society, particularly capitalism, and their arrangement of values.

There are a wide variety of activities planned in New York and I know that many environmental and climate justice groups involved in the march understand the systemic nature of the climate crisis and are articulating community-based, power building strategies. I believe this approach is essential. However, I worry that the surface-level politics of the big environmental (and other) organizations and a march and rally to pressure heads of state focus on surface-level approaches, and could drown out those voices calling for systemic change.


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Governor Brown Sign’s Historic Groundwater Legislation

Trio of bills may put California on the path to groundwater sustainability

California is in the midst of one of its worst droughts in centuries, yet until yesterday, it was also the only western state without a statewide water management plan. That changed on Tuesday, when Governor Brown signed into law three bills that call for extensive oversight of the state’s groundwater resources, thus enacting the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act.

Effect of the drought on Uvas ReservoirPhoto by Don DeBoldWater levels are low in the Uvas Reservoir, as shown in this March 2014 photo.

The three-bill legislative package to improve groundwater sustainability was passed by the state senate and assembly in August at a time when the drought was raising serious questions about California’s ability to sustain adequate groundwater levels.

Water rights have long been considered property rights in California, leaving landowners with full discretion about how much groundwater they pumped from the land. Due to this, some water basins have suffered from overdraft, with more water being pumped out than could be replaced through natural processes. The closest the state has previously come to regulating groundwater is to encourage local agencies to adopt their own groundwater plans.

Taken together, the bills — AB 1739 (sponsored by Assemblymember Dickinson, D-Sacramento), AB 1319, and SB 1168 (both sponsored by Senator Fran Pavley, D-Angoura Hills) — will work off of the existing local management structure while also laying out a comprehensive statewide water management scheme. “We have to learn how to manage wisely water, energy, land and our investments,” Governor Brown stated in a press release regarding the legislation. “That’s why this is important.”

SB 1168 directs local agencies to develop sustainable groundwater management plans. These plans must contain measurable objectives to achieve groundwater sustainability within 20 years. The bill also classifies state water basins as either low-, medium- or high- risk based on risk of overdraft. Low-risk basins are monitored, but otherwise generally left alone. Medium- and high-risk basins trigger action at the state level to improve basin sustainability.

AB 1739 dovetails with SB 1168, providing for state intervention and interim management when local agencies aren’t satisfying management requirements.  In a signing message, Governor Brown emphasized that the State’s primary role will be to provide guidance and technical support to local authorities, rather than to intervene.

"I think this truly is …more

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Can Dumping Poison on the Farallon Islands Save It From Mice Overpopulation?

USFWS plans to shower world’s most mice-infested archipelago with rodenticide-infused food pellets.

About 30 miles off the coast of San Francisco, the Farallon Islands are craggy, other-worldly outposts, a seasonal home to a variety of marine life such as elephant seals and sea lions, dozens of species of shore and seabirds, and a few government researchers. The archipelago, which is protected as congressionally designated wilderness area, serves as one of the last refuges for many of California’s native nesting birds. Unfortunately, the Farallones also happen to have one of the largest mice populations of any island chain in the world, and the rodents are wreaking havoc on the islands’ ecosystem. The rodents, mostly Eurasian house mice, have reached numbers exceeding 60,000. Southeast Farallon Island — the largest island in the chain and only island where scientists conduct research on the ground — has become so overwhelmed by mice in the past few years the ground is said to “move with mice” during peak breeding season.

Farallon IslandsPhoto by Erik Oberg, Island ConservationOn Southeast Farallon Island, the ground is said to “move with mice” during peak breading season.

Researchers who stay on the island have told horror stories about going on bird counts at night and having the ground crawling with so many mice that one researcher stopped counting nest sites and started breaking mice necks with his bare hands. 

Last year, the US Fish and Wildlife Services (USFWS), which oversees the islands, and a handful of conservation nonprofits, came up with a plan to get rid of the pesky rodents called the South Farallon Islands Invasive House Mouse Eradication Project. The plan, which reviews 49 suggested ways of getting rid of the pest, concludes that the only way to get rid of the mice is by poisoning them.

How mice came to overrun the islands is something of a mystery. It is speculated that mice came with nineteenth century marine mammal hunters who inadvertently carried rodents aboard their boats. Looking for fatty seal meat and pelts from fur seals, many Americans and Russians took part in the trade. Towards the middle of the century, the islands also fell prey to egg collectors, who ended up decimating bird populations by the beginning of the twentieth century.

President Theodore Roosevelt signed an Executive Order in 1909 to protect the northern Farallon islands from these threats, which was extended to the southern patch of …more

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Lettuce, From a Skyscraper Near You

Vertical farms are gaining traction from Illinois to Singapore, but questions remain about their role in urban agriculture.

Skyscraper farms seem like a thing of the future: Lettuce growing in windowless rooms under red-tinted LED lights while scientists check nutrient levels and calculate optimal harvest times. Basil plants stacked 10-feet high. Tilapia swimming in large troughs. While these images may contrast with our romantic notions of farming, the truth is that intensive indoor farming isn’t just a sci-fi fantasy – but a thing of present. There are already indoor farms cranking out 10,000 heads of lettuce a day.

aquaponics bedphoto by Plant Chicago, on FlickrLettuce grows under the red-tinted glow of LED lights at The Plant, a vertical farm in Chicago.

During the past decade, enclosed vertical farms have popped up around the world, from Singapore, to Japan, to the United States. These farms strive to grow fresh produce in indoor settings and to fill gaps in local food production. In a world of rapid population growth, growing food insecurity, and global climate change, this type of innovation in agriculture seems like a good thing. But for all the promise that vertical farming may hold, it also raises serious questions about energy-use, food justice, and the fundamentals of how we want our food to be grown.

The first question is: What exactly constitutes a vertical farm? Indoor vertical farms come in many different shapes and sizes, but generally speaking, they are “vertical” because they stack plants from floor to ceiling (often in several stories of a building). Some are constructed in abandoned warehouses, while others, like the Plantagon under construction in Sweden, are stunning examples of modern architecture. Regardless of size and shape, they generally employ one of three technologies: aquaponics (growing plants adjacent to fish, and using the nutrient rich water from the fish tanks to fertilize plants), hydroponics (growing plants without soil, in sand, liquid, or some other solution), or aeroponics (growing food with roots suspended in the air).

Using these indoor technologies, farmers are able to grow food just about anywhere, allowing for “ultra-local” farming.

“There are a number of factors that go into the farm and why we do what we do, and the majority of it has to do with being able to provide local produce to people and to customers that otherwise, traditionally, especially in the Midwest, are getting products that are …more

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Blue Whale Recovery Report Leaves Room for Caution

New study only relevant to the Eastern Pacific Ocean; other blue whale populations around the world remain severely depressed

A recent report that the blue whales along the California coast in the Eastern Pacific Ocean have recovered from the severe damage done to the population by commercial whaling, which continued up until the mid-1960s on these giants, has gone viral on the Internet. While the story is a positive one, there is room for some caution.

Blue Whale off Redondo BeachPhoto by millerm217/FlickrBlue Whale spotted near Redondo Beach, CA. Of continuing concern is the fact that the seas the blue whales are swimming in are still in peril.

The headlines imply more scientific certainty about the findings than may be warranted, and blue whales still swim in an ocean with many dangers, including possible renewal of commercial whaling if some countries have their way. And, sadly, other populations of blue whales around the world remain severely depressed.

The blue whale is the largest animal on Earth, growing in the Eastern Pacific to a length of 80 to 90 feet. Their brethren in the Antarctic can exceed 100 feet and weigh up to 200 tons. 

The increase in numbers over the years is not new news — whale-watchers, fishermen, and researchers have known for two decades that blue whales (along with gray whales and humpback whales) have increased in numbers offshore since the 1970s when interest in whales began to rise. Intense research with photo identification of blue whales to count the numbers has come to a conclusion that about 2,500 blue whales can be found in the Eastern Pacific from the equator to Alaska. Researchers photograph the blue whales on the surface and can identify individuals from coloration, scarring, and the shape and size of their small dorsal fins.

We know these whales can swim enormous distances, likely looking for feeding areas where their main prey, krill, are found in abundance, especially during the summer and fall months. They can communicate with each other using very loud low frequency sound, which can travel substantial distances in the ocean.

The new study from the University of Washington analyzed the historic records from whaling vessels of blue whale kills and, using computer models, estimated the original carrying capacity of the Eastern Pacific. They conclude the current population is around 97 percent of the historical carrying capacity, suggesting that the population has indeed recovered.

Of course, studies were never conducted on …more

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End of the Road

The US Forest Service is beginning to decommission some of its roads, opening the way for a wildlife comeback

On a crisp afternoon last October, beneath a canopy of larch, lodgepole, and red cedar, Pete Leusch led me up a trail in the heart of the Yaak Valley, the densely forested corner of northwest Montana that remains one of the wildest ecosystems in the Continental United States. A steep mountain stream coursed to our left and the broad, star-shaped leaves of thimbleberry lined the path – “A little mushy, but just delicious,” Leusch said of the berries. We picked our way around scattered clusters of elk pellets, nodded at the parallel scars that bears had etched in bark. The morning hung earthy and moist, like aerosolized mulch.

photo of a fog-gentled meadow, a shadowy forest and an animal looking toward the cameraPhoto: Lowry BassMontana’s Yaak Valley is one of the wildest areas in the Lower 48 – and getting wilder as the Forest Service decommissions some its roads.

Leusch lowered his long, angular frame into a crouch to better examine a pine seedling that had thrust its head above the trail. “I’m really psyched about the way this is looking,” he said, his eyes alight beneath the knitted purple beanie pulled low over his forehead. “This is a lot better than it was in spring. Last time I was here, this was all raw.”

Without the commentary from Leusch, watershed restoration coordinator at the Yaak Valley Forest Council, it would have been impossible to tell that just a year ago, this wooded trail was a rutted logging road operated by the US Forest Service. Though the road had been officially closed for years, it had continued to inflict damage upon the stream below. As rivulets of water coursed down the adjacent slope and across the roadbed, they picked up loads of loose dirt, which was eventually deposited into the creek. Once in the watershed, the sediment could smother the eggs and spawning grounds of native westslope cutthroat and redband trout. Leusch and the Forest Service had identified the five-mile-long road as one of the most harmful in the Yaak.

That’s why the time had come to destroy it.

If interstates are this country’s arteries, Forest Service roads are its capillaries: its most minuscule, ubiquitous vessels. Although President Bill Clinton’s 2001roadless rule protected nearly 60 million acres of national forest from logging and road-building, our forests are …more

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