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The Risks of Digital Delusion

Despite the online world, civilization is still subject to physical laws

A friend of mine recently related an amusing story: he was walking down a city street one day when a young man accosted him, in obvious distress. The youth thrust forward his face, pried open his bloody mouth with his fingers and asked my friend to look at his teeth. My friend, somewhat taken aback but unable to refuse, took a look and replied, “your left front tooth is badly chipped. You need to see a dentist immediately.” The youth sheepishly explained that he had had an accident. He had been looking at his smartphone while walking down the sidewalk, and had walked directly into a metal pole.

Connected and Alone, Plate IIphoto by Almond Butterscotch, on FlickrOur digital preoccupations do not operate outside of or transcend the physical world.

The story brought to mind an advertisement I had seen on a city bus. The ad was for a digital marketing agency, and read, in large, bold letters “Because we live in an online world.” It is a common slogan, and not just in advertising. Our lives these days are increasingly conducted online – from entertainment to business, education, and political activism. We are compelled to keep up with the newest apps, get on the hottest new social media platform, and adopt the latest software upgrades for our families, our work and our schools, because, we are told repeatedly, “we live in an online world.”

But is this actually true? The answer, of course, depends on what we mean by “world.” It can mean the physical world as described by the physical sciences and includes things like gravity, mitosis, photosynthesis, and plate tectonics. But it can also refer to the human cultural constructions that constitute our social institutions and practices. The “world of the ancient Greeks” in the second sense was radically different from ours – so much so that we could say they lived in a “different world”– but not in the first sense. The ancient Greeks inhabited the same physical world we do; the same physical laws applied then as they do now. The ancient Greek philosopher Thales reportedly fell down a well while contemplating the night sky. He was in his own “world,” so to speak, but gravity asserted itself and interrupted. Similarly, the limit of the socially constructed “world” …more

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Grain by Grain, Truck by Truck: How Myanmar Is Losing its Beaches

Booming construction fuels sand mining, threatens coastal environment and tourism

Around every corner waits a new truck. Workers dig their shovels into the powdery white sand of Myanmar’s Ngapali beach, the country’s top seaside destination, and lift it onto the truck beds. Vast craters dot the coastline. Many are bigger than the swimming pools of the nearby luxury hotels.

Photo of Ngapali sand miningPhoto by Denise Hruby A booming construction industry is fueling illegal sand mining in Ngapali, Myanmar.

As a main ingredient of cement, sand is a vital component in almost any construction, whether that of a skyscraper or a middle-class home, a countryside road or a vast bridge. But the resource is finite, and as construction booms in Myanmar and across Asia, the industry has fuelled the illegal mining of sand — with harsh implications for Myanmar’s environment and burgeoning tourism industry.

Myanmar was ruled by a brutal military junta for decades. Few tourists ventured to Southeast Asia's most impoverished nation, and even fewer made it to Ngapali, nestled in the remote Rakhine state in western Myanmar. Up until 2011, fewer than 1 million international visitors (including business travelers and tourists) arrived in Myanmar each year. Then, the junta opened up the country and began to make way for a civilian government. International arrivals are now estimated around 5 million annually.

Ngapali is still the secluded, pristine paradise for which Western tourists yearn. The beaches are white, the seafood fresh, and the coconuts meaty. Clamoring beach vendors are as hard to come by as a cell phone signal. But with the arrival of international tourism, hotel numbers have more than doubled since 2012. Construction is booming, and sand, mostly taken straight from the local beaches, is urgently needed. The sand on Ngapali's beach has become a free-for-all.

Few have thought about the implications of mining beach sand. But Oliver E. Soe Thet, a rotund German who's adopted a Burmese name and who used to serve as an environmental advisor to the junta government, is fully aware of the environmental toll. He now documents the depletion of the beach in Ngapali.

The waterline has already started to recede due to the disappearing sand, says Thet. In the evenings, the high tide comes in closer than before, causing erosion and decreasing protection from the storm surges common to this area. Moreover, …more

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FBI Joins EPA in Investigating Flint Water Crisis for Criminal Violations

FBI spokeswoman says agency’s role is ‘investigating the matter to determine if there have been any federal violations’ in lead contamination of drinking water

The FBI is working with a multi-agency team investigating the lead contamination of Flint’s drinking water, alongside Environmental Protection Agency investigators who can tackle criminal violations of federal environmental law, officials said on Tuesday.

photo of people listening in a meetingcourtesy of Flint Water StudyThe Michigan civil rights commission plans to hold hearings to explore whether the civil rights of Flint residents were violated.

Also on Tuesday, it was announced that Darnell Early, the state-appointed emergency manager for Flint when its water source was switched, will leave his current role in Detroit’s troubled school district four-and-a-half months early.

A slew of local, state and federal officials have resigned since doctors revealed last year that using the Flint River for the city’s drinking water supply caused elevated levels of lead in some children’s blood. Lead contamination has been linked to learning disabilities and other problems. Michigan’s governor, Rick Snyder, has apologized repeatedly for the state’s role.

FBI spokeswoman Jill Washburn told the AP in an email that the agency’s role is "investigating the matter to determine if there have been any federal violations." She declined to say when the FBI got involved.

Officials haven’t said whether criminal or civil charges might follow the investigation.

In addition to the FBI and the EPA, the team includes the US postal inspection service, Gina Balaya, a US attorney’s spokeswoman in Detroit, told the Associated Press in an email. The Detroit Free Press first reported the FBI’s involvement on Tuesday.

In November, the EPA announced it was auditing how Michigan enforces drinking water rules and said it would identify how to strengthen state oversight. The US attorney’s office in Detroit said in January that it was investigating the water crisis with the EPA.

The federal investigation is one of several taking place into Flint’s water supply. Last month, Michigan attorney general Bill Schuette announced the appointment of a special counsel to help his office investigate whether laws were broken.

An independent panel appointed by Snyder has determined that the Michigan department of environmental quality was primarily responsible for the water contamination. The Michigan civil rights commission also plans to hold hearings to explore whether the civil rights of Flint residents were violated.

Earley notified Snyder of his decision on Tuesday and said he had completed work ahead …more

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The Fight to Legalize Ferrets in California

Advocates push to overturn state ferret ban, argue pets don't pose threat to wildlife

Berkeley’s Martin Luther King Jr. Civic Center Park was packed, gray-haired hippies in tie-dye swaying to a Grateful Dead tribute band, the scent of marijuana heavy in the air. Tents around the perimeter peddled food, jewelry and the like — but one tent was a little different.

Photo of FerretPhoto by LynahePossession of ferrets has been illegal in California since 1933.

Three women stood gathering signatures, selling t-shirts and buttons with slogans like “Occupy California” and “Enemy of the State.” Each item featured a small weasel-like creature, the furry emblems of their cause: to quote from another button, “Free the fucking ferrets.”

Importation and possession of Mustela putorius furo has been illegal in California since 1933, though ferrets are allowed in zoos and research labs. This ban is driven primarily by fear that escaped ferrets would prey on native birds and other small animals. After years of unsuccessful government lobbying, these three activists and others like them are petitioning to put ferrets on the November 2016 ballot.

Perhaps the closest to success the legalization movement has come in three decades of advocacy was Senate Bill 89, which made it through the legislature onto then-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s desk in 2004. The bill proposed amnesty to ferrets already in the state — no small number, estimates ranging wildly from 30,000 to one million — on the condition they were vaccinated for rabies and sterilized. SB 89 would also have allocated funds towards an environmental impact report (EIR) to determine the ecological consequences of legalization.

Schwarzenegger terminated the bill. “I love ferrets,” he wrote in his official veto message. “I co-starred with a ferret in ‘Kindergarten Cop.’” But he found the bill “too bureaucratic,” and believed such action should not be taken without conducting an EIR first.

No EIR is required to put a ferret measure in front of California voters, but a spot on the ballot must be earned through other means: 365,880 signatures. (A quarter of that number would at least guarantee a hearing in the state legislature). The ferret legalization initiative estimates it has collected around 10,000 signatures so far, and campaigners say they have until February 9 to close the gap. While they admitted that’s a long shot, advocates said their primary goal has been to build awareness.

The Golden State …more

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Trans Mountain and Energy East Pipelines Delayed in Face of Mounting Protests

Trudeau government announces new climate test and consultation with Indigenous Peoples on all major resource projects

In an effort to build public trust, the Canadian government announced last week that is going to change the way it reviews natural resource projects, thus delaying final decisions on two major oil pipeline projects.

Protest against Kinder Morgan in BurnabyPhoto by Mark KlotzA November 2014 file photo of a rally against the proposed Kinder Morgan oil pipeline on Burnaby Mountain, British Columbia. Final hearings for the project are underway in Burnaby, as are protests.

Leading up to his election last October, and again at the Paris climate summit in December, new Prime Minister Justin Trudeau talked big about tackling climate change and had environmentalists ready to sing his praises. But just a few months after his election there was already trouble brewing. 

The trouble, as has been the case in Canada for years, begins and ends with the Alberta tar sands. Or, specifically, the oil industry’s desire to get approval for some pipeline, any pipeline, that would move tar sands crude to the seaside and on to foreign markets, thus allowing the tar sands mines to expand exponentially.

The question that continues to dog Trudeau is a simple one: How can Canada be a climate leader while continuing to push for the expansion of what is considered the most destructive environmental project on the planet. 

Right now there are two tests looming for Trudeau. 

The first, American company Kinder Morgan’s proposed Trans Mountain pipeline project that would allow for the transportation of 900,000 barrels of crude per day by twinning its existing pipeline from Alberta to the Westridge marine terminal in Burnaby, British Columbia. Final hearings for the project are underway in Burnaby, as are protests.

The second, Enbridge’s Energy East project, which involves repurposing an old gas pipeline and building a new one to carry 1.1 million barrels per day of tar sands crude 4,600 kilometrs from Alberta to Eastern Canada. 

Both projects are designed to feed markets hungry for oil outside Canada. 

Trudeau’s continued support for pipeline projects has been making environmental groups nervous. On Wednesday, January 27, in an open letter to the Canadian parliament, 75 environmental groups from Canada and the United States expressed their opposition to “new fossil fuel energy infrastructure such as pipelines and tar sands projects” and urged Trudeau to stick to the …more

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Five Big Cats Rescued from Thailand’s Tiger Temple

Fate of remaining 142 big cats still uncertain

Thai officials seized five of the 147 captive tigers at the controversial Tiger Temple on Friday and relocated them to wildlife refuges run by the country’s national parks department, according to a report in the Bangkok Post.

entrance to Tiger Temple meditation centerPhoto by Steve WinterThe Tiger Temple's new 'meditation center' is part of a massive new expansion initiative that will include a new temple building and a larger tiger enterprise - housing up to 500 tigers in the project's initial phase.

While the rescue of the first five tigers is welcome news, the fate of the remaining 142 was still unclear as of posting this update. The Bangkok Post reports that it’s possible that the temple authorities and Thai officials “had reached an agreement that 70 tigers could be removed while the remaining 77 should be kept at the temple for tourism purposes so the foundation can earn revenue to operate.”

Friday’s big cat rescue by Thai Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation comes a week after the National Geographic magazine revealed that the temple, officially known as Wat Pa Luangta Bua Yannasampanno, has been involved in the illegal trade and speed-breeding of tigers since at least 2004. The temple — that’s located in Kanchanaburi, about a three-hour drive from Bangkok — attracts thousands of tourists every year, who pay $200 or more each for hands-on contact with the tigers. The temple makes a whopping $3 million a year from this business.

photoname Photo by Sharon GuynupThe Tiger Temple makes about $3 million a year from thousands tourists who show up to
pet and play with the tigers.

The NatGeo investigation was based, in part, on information provided in a report by the Australian animal welfare group, Cee4Life. The report includes videotaped evidence from a whistleblower codenamed “Charlie” that three micro-chipped male tigers were trafficked from the temple in December 2014 with the full knowledge of the temple’s founder and leader, Abbot Phra Acham Phoosit (Chan) Kanthitharo. (Read EIJ’s article on this issue, which includes an interview with Cee4Life founder Sybelle Foxcroft, here.)

Though Cee4Life made it’s report public last Friday (January 22), it had turned its findings over to Thai authorities (and to NatGeo) back in December.

The Thai …more

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Copenhagen’s Mayor Announces Plans to Divest City from Fossil Fuels

Denmark's capital will withdraw investment fund out of all holdings in coal, oil, and gas if proposal is approved

Copenhagen’s mayor has announced plans to divest the city’s 6.9 billion kroner (£700 million) investment fund of all holdings in coal, oil and gas.

If his proposal is approved at a finance committee meeting next Tuesday, as expected, the Danish capital will become the country’s first investment fund to sell its stocks and bonds in fossil fuels.

Photo of Tony WebsterPhoto by Alan HoppsIf the mayor’s plan is approved, the Danish capital will become the country’s first investment fund to sell its stocks and bonds in fossil fuels.

“Copenhagen is at the forefront of world cities in the green transition, and we are working hard to become the world’s first CO2 neutral capital in 2025. Therefore it seems totally wrong for the municipality to still be investing in oil, coal and gas. We must change that,” the city’s mayor, Frank Jensen, told the Danish newspaper, Information, which first reported the story.

“I think this move sits well with Copenhagen’s desire for a green profile for their city,” he added.

It is unclear exactly how much of the city’s money pot is currently tied up in equities and bonds in the dirty energy sector. 

A council spokesperson told the Guardian that no decision had yet been taken as to where exactly the withdrawn monies would be reinvested.

The divestment initiative began with a small leftwing party on the Copenhagen council, before being taken up by Jensen, a social democrat.

Last year, Oslo became the first capital city to divest from fossil fuels, when it ditched $7 million of coal investments, to join a growing movement of cities that have pledged to combat climate change. The world’s largest coal port, Newcastle in Australia, has also made a divestment commitment.

In a possible sign of Scandinavian rivalry, Jensen suggested that Copenhagen’s move might be more significant. “I am not aware of any other capitals, which have made decisions as clear as the one, we are making,” he said. “But I believe more will follow in the wake of the climate agreement in Paris. The development will be fast.”

Around 80 percent of the world’s known coal, 50 percent of its oil and 30 percent of its gas reserves will have to stay in the ground …more

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