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Embracing Earth-Centric Learning

When today's students inherit a host of environmental problems, they will the knowledge and courage to act

It was 1992. Laurette Rogers, a fourth-grade teacher in San Anselmo, California, had shown her students a film about rainforest destruction. Distressed, they asked what they could do about it. “I just couldn’t give a pat answer about writing letters and making donations,” Rogers recalls. Instead, she took the advice of a trainer for a former Adopt-a-Species program: “Pick any species. Find out all about it, and you’ll fall in love with it.”

photo of environmental educationPhoto by Brisbane City Council, Flickr Children in Brisbane, Australia participate in an environmental education program.

Rogers wanted a local species, and she wanted it to be obscure, to counter bias toward beautiful and charismatic species. Her class chose an endangered shrimp that lived in only 15 streams within a few kilometers of the school. They studied the ecology and lifecycle of the shrimp, which they learned are one strand of a web that encompasses insects, songbirds, streams, dairy ranches, watersheds, and, ultimately, the San Francisco Bay. They discovered that habitat restoration on behalf of the shrimp — planting willows and blackberries while ranchers built bridges and fencing to keep cattle out of the streams —required nurturing a network of people who sometimes see themselves as adversaries: ranchers and environmentalists; for-profit companies and public officials; teachers, students, and parents.

They persevered, prospects for the shrimp improved, and the California Freshwater Shrimp Project evolved into STRAW (Students and Teachers Restoring a Watershed), cosponsored by The Bay Institute and the Berkeley-based Center for Ecoliteracy. STRAW has since expanded to address additional watershed issues, and celebrated its five-hundredth restoration in 2015. Some 40,000 students — kindergarten through high school — have restored more than 56 kilometers of creek banks. And it’s been good for more than shrimp. As one of the original fourth graders later reflected, “I think this project changed everything we thought we could do.... I feel it did show me that kids can make a difference in the world, and we are not just little dots.”

STRAW is a powerful example of education for ecoliteracy. The need is evident to prepare students as they inherit a host of environmental challenges: climate change, biodiversity loss, the end of cheap energy, resource depletion, gross wealth inequities, and more. This generation will require leaders who can understand the interconnectedness of human and natural systems and who have the knowledge, will, ability, and courage to act. Responses to this imperative go by many names: ecological literacy, education …more

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EPA Proposes Delaying Air Pollution Rule Despite ‘Disproportionate’ Effect on Children

Omaba administration measure meant to prevent leaks from oil and gas industry

The Environmental Protection Agency has proposed delaying a federal air pollution rule for two years, despite acknowledging that children will be disproportionately harmed by the decision.

The regulator plans to suspend standards aimed at preventing leaks from the oil and gas industry while it reconsiders the rule, which was introduced in June 2016 under Barack Obama’s administration.

photo of oil drillingPhoto by CGP Grey, Flickr Oil pumps in California. The Environmental Protection Agency has proposed delaying an air pollution rule meant to decrease leaks from the oil and gas industry.

In its announcement of the proposed stay, the EPA said it “believes that the environmental health or safety risk addressed by this action may have a disproportionate effect on children.”

The EPA said, however, that any harm to children would last only for a “limited” time. “Any impacts on children’s health caused by the delay in the rule will be limited, because the length of the proposed stay is limited. The agency therefore believes it is more appropriate to consider the impact on children’s health in the context of any substantive changes proposed as part of reconsideration.”

The EPA said it had received petitions from “interested parties” to reconsider the rule, which is designed to reduce methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, and emissions that can cause smog. Oil and gas companies are required to monitor and plug any leaks from well sites and compressor stations under the regulation.

Environmental groups castigated the EPA over the delay, saying children would be at heightened risk from cancer-forming pollutants such as benzene if the rule were lifted. The regulation applies to about 18,000 oil and gas facilities in 22 states.

“It is unconscionable that this unprecedented loophole for oil and gas pollution will increase dangerous smog, methane, and cancer-causing benzene when commonsense solutions are at hand,” said Peter Zalzal, lead attorney at the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF).

“Every day that these clean air safeguards are delayed, thousands of oil and gas wells across the country will emit dangerous pollution in the air, harming the health of our children.”

The EDF, along with other green groups, is already suing the EPA over its decision last week to delay the oil and gas standards for three months. This delay is now set to stretch to 2019, following a period of public comment and a final EPA decision.

“This isn’t simply mean-spirited, it’s …more

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Renewable Energy Projects Are Uplifting Maasai Women

Solar panel and clean cookstove programs are reducing emissions, electrifying remote parts of Kenya and Tanzania

Not so long ago, few remote Maasai villages in southern Kenya or northern Tanzania had access to electricity. But now, women in these villages are championing the use of clean, renewable energy in the form of solar panels, as well as clean, efficient cook stoves.. At the same time, they are forging new roles for themselves as community leaders and entrepreneurs.

photo of women installing solar panelPhoto Christabel Ligami Maasai women install a solar panel on top of a house in Tanzania.

This is a unique development in a community unaccustomed to women taking on leadership roles. The Maasai are a marginalized, nomadic community that is almost entirely dependent on livestock for its livelihood. Raising livestock is an occupation performed exclusively by the men of the community. Customarily, the only work open to women has been taking care of their homes and children.

In Tanzania, an international collaborative called the Maasai Stoves and Solar Project has begun to change that norm by introducing the use of clean-energy cookstoves and solar power to the Maasai community. The project trains women to distribute and install cookstoves and solar panels in their manyatta (traditional mud houses), work that in the past would have fallen to men.

According to Kisioki Moitiko, the project manager in Tanzania, in each of the villages, the Maasai women work in groups of five to ten, selected by fellow women during a community meeting. Within these working groups the women elect their own leaders, who manage them and organize their daily work. The women are trained in approximately ten days to install the stoves and solar panels.

Leah Laiza from Ngarash village in Tanzania, a widow and mother of five, is a leader in her group. Her job is to ensure that all requests for installations of cookstoves and solar power are honored in a timely fashion. She also manages the workflow of the members of her group, ensuring that they work efficiently and effectively.

Esupat Loseku, a 29-year-old mother of six from Enguiki village, has been installing solar panels in her village for the last six years. She says that her team can install solar panels and cookstoves in at least four homes a week, and that they even get requests from other villages where the project has not yet been initiated. “People come to us asking for solar because they have seen it work well at their neighbors’ [house] or through referrals,” she says. “Compared with …more

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Goldman Sacks-Backed Firm Invests Big in Oil-by-Rail Plan Along Keystone XL Pipeline Route

New deal will facilitate transportation of tar sands from Alberta to Oklahoma

USD Partners, a rail terminal operator owned in part by Wall Street giant Goldman Sachs, has signed a nearly three year deal to facilitate moving tar sands by train from where it is extracted in Alberta, Canada, to an offloading terminal in Stoud, Oklahoma, in a route mirroring that of the Keystone XL pipeline.

photo of fansPhoto by Kurt Haubrich An empty oil train passes a loaded oil train in St. Paul, Minnesota. A new deal signed by USD Partners will facilitate oil transportation out of Alberta, Canada.

From Stroud, the heavy oil can be sent via pipeline to the nearby oil storage hub in Cushing, Oklahoma. USD's announcement, which said the company could transport up to 70,000 barrels per day of tar sands in rail cars, came in a June 2 filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC).

The deal, centering around the purchase of the Stroud terminal, also included the acquisition of 300,000 barrels of storage space in Cushing, a town known by oil and gas industry observers as the “pipeline crossroads of the world.” 

“We are proud to announce the successful repositioning of an underutilized asset to create a competitive network solution for our new customer’s growing oil sands production,” Dan Borgen, CEO of USD Partners, said of the deal in a press release. “Our Hardisty to Stroud rail solution delivers immediate takeaway capacity, preserves the integrity of our customer’s heavy barrels and enables substantial end market optionality at Cushing with available pipeline capacity to the Gulf Coast.” (Note: Tar sands are also known as “oil sands.”)

Ironically, as reported by DeSmog's Justin Mikulka, Goldman Sachs penned a 2013 report titled, “Getting oil out of Canada,” which said tar sands-by-rail was not economically viable. However, in the years following that report, USD, with the backing of Goldman, has entrenched itself more deeply in the tar sands-by-rail market.

In Hardisty, Alberta, where the tar sands-by-rail journey begins, USD Partners owns a major oil-by-rail shipping facility. The Hardisty facility currently has the ability to handle two tar sands-by-rail shipments per day, equivalent to 120,000–140,000 barrels per day of crude. This latest deal will represent a quarter of the site's business.

image of oil-by-rail routeCourtesy of USD Partners

“Inbound product” shipped from Alberta to Stroud “is delivered by the Stillwater Central Rail, which handles deliveries from both the BNSF and the Union Pacific railways,” explains the USD Partners press release. BNSF is owned by Warren Buffett, who is a major campaign contributor to …more

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Forced to Endure Extreme Heat, Texas Prisoners Becoming Casualties of Climate Denial

Dangerous prison conditions likely to worsen as heat waves intensify with climate change

graphic depicting a prison

On a spring day in May, temperatures in Dallas, Texas, were already in the 90s. Sunlight glinted off the barbed wire perimeter outside the Hutchins State Jail, located just a mile down the road from Hutchins High School. The first blooms of Castilleja, colloquially known here as "prairie fire," seemed to set a field across from the prison ablaze.

It was hot outside, but it was nothing compared to the temperatures inside the Hutchins Unit, one of 79 state-run prison units still lacking air-conditioning in its cellblocks in 2017. Even those temperatures, though, still pale further in comparison with the extreme summer heat wave that broiled the jail on July 28, 2011, pushing the heat index up to about 150 degrees in the cellblocks, according to the state's own records, and transforming the jail into an oven that slowly baked Hutchins prisoner Larry McCollum alive.

McCollum, a 58-year-old cab driver from the Waco area, was found having convulsions in his top bunk. He was taken to Dallas's Parkland Hospital, where his body temperature was measured at 109.4 degrees Fahrenheit. McCollum, who was incarcerated for writing a bad check, had recently begun serving his 11-month sentence, and was eager to get through his time and reunite with his wife and two children.

photo of fansPhoto by Rob Fahey The TDJC has acknowledged 22 heat-related deaths in its prison units. The deaths are likely the first few indications of what may be a much larger heat problem

"He was taken from us. He was supposed to go in for 11 months, and he wound up with a death sentence," McCollum's daughter, Stephanie Kingrey, said. "It was very heartbreaking that he had to sit there and suffer as long as he did before they got any help for him or got him to emergency room."

Kingrey said that officials with the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) even tried to deny her access to her father during the seven days he spent on life support at Parkland Hospital, eventually relenting as Kingrey and other relatives were forced to make the devastating decision to take McCollum off of life support.

"They had guards on him 24 hours, like he was just going to jump up and go somewhere, and he was handcuffed to the bed the whole time," Kingrey says. "He was literally brain dead, and there …more

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Wendell Berry as a 21st Century Apostle of Jeffersonian Democracy

In Review: Look & See: A Portrait of Wendell Berry

Look & See: A Portrait of Wendell Berry is a poetic new documentary about an American eco-icon of our age. The Kentucky-born, 82-year-old Berry is a poet, essayist, novelist, academic, and farmer who has long been a force to be contended with on the environmental scene. Since 1958, Berry’s artistically expressed championing of conservationism has earned awards and fellowships from a wide range of entities, including government agencies, museums, foundations, publications, grassroots and professional organizations, and educational and religious institutions.

photo of Wendell BerryPhoto courtesy of Look & SeeA young Wendell Berry with his son in the woods of Kentucky.

In 2011 President Obama awarded Berry the National Medal of Humanities; his co-recipients included novelists Joyce Carol Oates and Philip Roth.

Directed by Laura Dunn and Jeff Sewell, and produced by Robert Redford and Terrence Malick, Look & See paints a motion picture portrait of its subject and the themes that have consumed Berry over his lifetime. The 82-minute nonfiction film uses realistic, as well as impressionistic, techniques, along with sometimes-elegiac music, to convey a sense of Berry and his philosophy. Wood engravings by Wesley W. Bates, an artist who has often provided pictorial accompaniment to Berry’s poetry, periodically appear onscreen.

The film opens with a montage of images of strip-mined mountains, machines chopping down trees, polluted rivers, and the endless hum of city life, set to a voice over reading of Berry’s poignant poem, “A Timbered Choir:”

“Even while I dreamed I prayed that what I saw was only fear and no foretelling,
for I saw the last known landscape destroyed for the sake
of the objective, the soil bludgeoned, the rock blasted.
Those who had wanted to go home would never get there now…”

Like a book, the story on screen unfolds through numbered chapters entitled “Imagination in Place”, “The Unsettling of America” and so on, as a series of subjects, including Berry family members, friends, neighbors, and several farmers in Henry County, Kentucky are interviewed. Their stories highlight how the people of Henry County, like many rural communities across this country, are struggling to hold on to their sense of place as well as the agrarian virtues of sustainable land stewardship in the face of the ever-expanding march of industrial agriculture.

Though a passionate defender of the simple, agrarian life, Berry is wary of how the camera frames (literally and metaphorically) people seen onscreen, and proves to be elusive in the film. …more

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Scientists Yet to Pinpoint Specific Cause of Shark Die-Off in SF Bay

Strandings can be stopped if efforts are made to improve Bay water quality and marine habitat, says conservationist

You have probably heard of whale strandings, where whales beach themselves for unknown, but possibly human-caused reasons. But in the San Francisco Bay Area right now, shark strandings are the talk of the town. Hundreds of leopard sharks (Triakis semifasciata) have been washing up on Bay Area beaches and marshes over the past three months. Sharks have been found dead on beaches in Foster City, Hayward, Berkeley, Oakland, San Francisco and other areas around the Bay.

photo of leopard sharkPhoto by Eric Heupel Hundreds of leopard sharks have been stranding on Bay Area beaches over the past several months, but researchers have yet to determine the exact cause of the die-off.

Similar, massive unexplained die-offs occurred in 2006 and 2011. However, the root cause of such die-offs continues to elude researchers. 

Leopard sharks are the most common shark in the San Francisco Bay Area and are not listed as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act. However, these predatory fish, — which eats crabs, other small fish and mollusks and can grow to up to 5 feet in length — are an important part of the Bay marine food web. Researchers suspect that they are being exposed to pathogens when they congregate in shallow waters in the springtime to give birth.

Dr. Mark Okihiro, a fish pathologist with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, suspects that a fungal pathogen could be infecting the meninges – the tissue covering the brain — disorienting the sharks and causing them to strand themselves on land. But he says that the fungus is most likely not only pathogen that’s affecting the sharks. Okihiro, who has been working tirelessly to investigate why leopard sharks are stranding, released his preliminary findings last week.

So far, Okihiro has performed 10 necropsies on recovered sharks and was able to successfully isolate a fungal pathogen from the tissues of three stranded sharks. When these sharks were found on local beaches, they were still alive, but were so close to death they would not have survived even if they had been returned to the water. “Necropsies...have shown the infection is in their brain and inner ears,” which could explain their confusion and how they end up on shore, John Traverso, a spokesperson for the fish and wildlife department said in response to emailed inquiries. Researchers are yet to detect the specific species of fungus causing the infection. 

The brain tissue …more

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