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Overpopulation Must Remain a Key Issue for Environmentalists

A second take on Alan Weisman’s Countdown

If the Earth Island Institute community is a family, as we like to say we are, then there should be dinner-table arguments,  and I’m going to start one now. Having muttered to myself for a couple of days about “Numbers Game,” a review in Earth Island Journal’s Spring issue of Alan Weisman’s book Countdown, I need to vent and thump the table.

Crowdphoto by James Cridland, on Flickr

The reviewer, Tom Athanasiou of EcoEquity, an Earth Island project, does the craziest dance with the book, with its subject matter – population – and with himself for having agreed to review the damn thing in the first place. It’s some sort of tango. The second paragraph reads: “Before I go any further, a disclaimer: I’ve known Weisman for some time, and count him as a friend.” (Big step toward partner, with rose between teeth.) “But Countdown is a population book, and I hate Malthusianism.” (Giant step backward. Partner has bad breath?) “They’re not the same thing, of course …” (Tentative half-step toward partner again.) “ … but I still hesitated before reviewing it.” (Half-step backward.)

If a population book and Malthusianism are not the same thing, then why did Athanasiou, however briefly, conflate them? Athanasiou’s pattern of equivocation repeats throughout the review: criticism, then retraction – or sometimes just amelioration – and then criticism again.  The result for the reader is a kind of seasickness. Athanasiou’s position on the population question is a moving target, very difficult to track. If there is a lesson, it is that Athanasiou was justified in his ambivalence about undertaking this assignment: Never review the book of a friend whose basic thesis you dispute.

I want to select one Athanasiou paragraph for attention, his third, in which he takes aim at Thomas Malthus. He begins:

“First up, what’s this ‘Mathusianism,’ and why is it hateful? Well, Malthusianism is a specifically biological kind of reductionism, one that buttresses right-wing pessimism and policy conclusions, and one that not at all incidentally pushes social justice off the political agenda.”

Yes, Malthus was a demographer, and his theories are quasi-biological. But why is “biological” a term of opprobrium? It is untrue that Malthus was a reductionist. Yes, Malthus predicted reduction in human numbers, either by what is now called “Malthusian catastrophe” …more

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Why US Fracking Companies are Licking their Lips Over Ukraine

From climate change to Crimea, the natural gas industry is supreme at exploiting crisis for private gain – what I call the shock doctrine, writes Naomi Klein

The way to beat Vladimir Putin is to flood the European market with fracked-in-the-USA natural gas, or so the industry would have us believe. As part of escalating anti-Russian hysteria, two bills have been introduced into the US Congress – one in the House of Representatives (H.R. 6), one in the Senate (S. 2083) – that attempt to fast-track liquefied natural gas (LNG) exports, all in the name of helping Europe to wean itself from Putin's fossil fuels, and enhancing US national security.

Aerial view of a natural gas fieldPhoto by Peter Aengst/The Wilderness SocietyAerial view of the Jonah natural gas field, upper Green River valley, Wyoming."The industry’s singular solution to the climate crisis is to dramatically expand an extraction process that releases massive amounts of climate-destabilising methane," writes Klein.

According to Cory Gardner, the Republican congressman who introduced the House bill, "opposing this legislation is like hanging up on a 911 call from our friends and allies". And that might be true – as long as your friends and allies work at Chevron and Shell, and the emergency is the need to keep profits up amid dwindling supplies of conventional oil and gas.

For this ploy to work, it's important not to look too closely at details. Like the fact that much of the gas probably won't make it to Europe – because what the bills allow is for gas to be sold on the world market to any country belonging to the World Trade Organization.

Or the fact that for years the industry has been selling the message that Americans must accept the risks to their land, water and air that come with hydraulic fracturing (fracking) in order to help their country achieve "energy independence". And now, suddenly and slyly, the goal has been switched to "energy security", which apparently means selling a temporary glut of fracked gas on the world market, thereby creating energy dependencies abroad.

And most of all, it's important not to notice that building the infrastructure necessary to export gas on this scale would take many years in permitting and construction – a single LNG terminal can carry a $7bn price tag, must be fed by a massive, interlocking web of pipelines and compressor stations, and requires its own power plant just to generate energy sufficient to liquefy the …more

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Addressing Food Security in Cape Town, One Garden at a Time

Home gardens in crime-ravaged community prove the power of resourcefulness in the face of adversity

The Cape Flats is a windswept, crime-ravaged area in Cape Town, South Africa, that’s beset by apathy, unemployment, and substance abuse. Underprivileged communities live here in grim housing blocks pockmarked by gunfire, or in shacks packed tightly together in the unmistakeable press of poverty. Empty lots are choked with refuse and municipal buildings are surrounded by fencing topped with razor wire. Children returning home at the end of the school day often have to run a gauntlet of gangsters and drug pushers. Yet, in this unpromising environment people are growing food, and in the process, changing their lives.

DSC_0056photo by Carole Ann Knight, on FlickrSuelyla Dya grows enough vegetables in her tiny garden to feed herself and her family of seven.

Suelyla Dya, a slim, self-effacing mother of five, lives with her family in a small shack at the end of a dusty street on the Cape Flats. From the outside Dya’s shack is unremarkable, much like the rest of the haphazardly-assembled shacks alongside it. However, if you peek behind her garden gate, you’ll spot a lot of green. The tiny garden, no more than a metre wide, flanks her home on two sides. In this small space Dya grows vegetables to feed herself and her family. The vegetables, along with eggs from the family’s chickens and “an occasional piece of fish,” keep her family well fed, she says.

Dya, who grows her crop of eggplant, spinach, broccoli, beetroot, carrots and other vegetables in the most imaginative of containers, is an example of the power of resourcefulness in the face of adversity. With an eagle eye for what others consider to be junk, she has assembled an astounding assortment of containers to grow her plants in – from an old computer case, to the drum of a washing machine, to sections of piping, and an old bathtub. Nothing goes to waste in Dya’s garden and not a centimetre of space is overlooked. With paint tins planted with lettuce and herbs suspended from the outer walls of the house and ground containers overflowing with healthy plants, her garden hardly has enough room to stand in. Dya’s little patch of green bagged the second place in a Soil for Life “gardener of the year” competition last year, winning her a washing machine for her efforts …more

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California’s San Joaquin tops list of America’s 10 Most Endangered Rivers

This isn’t a list of the worst rivers, but of rivers at crossroads, says American Rivers

For many Americans, rivers bring to mind languid summer days, exuberant tubing adventures, or family fishing excursions. For me, they represent a kind of wild, untamed beauty, which I take every opportunity to enjoy.

In reality, few of America’s 250,000 rivers are truly untamed. They have been used for centuries as a source of energy, drinking water, agricultural irrigation, and recreation. This use has taken a steep toll, and many rivers are now threatened by excessive water diversions and withdrawals, outdated water management plans, dams, and pollution.

photo of a grassland and a reservoir, sailboats visiblephoto by eutrophication&hypoxia on FlickrMillerton Lake on the San Joaquin River, California. Improving water conservation and efficiency would go a long way when it comes to preserving endangered rivers.

American Rivers, an organization that works to protect and restore rivers and streams across the county, has responded to these mounting threats with their annual report: America’s Endangered Rivers 2014. The report whittles down a list of thousands of threatened rivers to a list of the “top ten.”

Rivers are selected for the list based on three primary criteria. “One is the significance of the river, the second is the significance of the threat, and the third, and probably the most important, is whether there is a decision point in the coming year that will change the river’s fate, put the river on a different path,” says Amy Kober, senior communications director at American Rivers. “It isn’t a list of the worst rivers. It is really a list of rivers at a crossroads.”

Improving water conservation and efficiency would go a long way when it comes to preserving these endangered rivers. Other preservation strategies include groundwater recharge, water recycling, storm water reuse, and forest and meadow restoration. “Healthy, natural forests and meadows kind of function like sponges – they suck up water and release it slowly,” explains Kober. “Restoring [meadows and forests] can help with long-term downstream water supply.”

So here are the “top ten,” starting with the most at threat – the San Joaquin River in California. Find out whether one of these threatened rivers runs near you.

#1 San Joaquin River, California
The San Joaquin River supports vast wetlands and sustains tule elk, grizzly bears, waterfowl, and king salmon, among many other fish and wildlife. The river also is used to irrigate …more

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Call climate change what it is: violence

Social unrest and famine, superstorms and droughts. Places, species and human beings – none will be spared. Welcome to Occupy Earth

If you’re poor, the only way you’re likely to injure someone is the old traditional way: artisanal violence, we could call it – by hands, by knife, by club, or maybe modern hands-on violence, by gun or by car.

But if you’re tremendously wealthy, you can practice industrial-scale violence without any manual labor on your own part. You can, say, build a sweatshop factory that will collapse in Bangladesh and kill more people than any hands-on mass murderer ever did, or you can calculate risk and benefit about putting poisons or unsafe machines into the world, as manufacturers do every day. If you’re the leader of a country, you can declare war and kill by the hundreds of thousands or millions. And the nuclear superpowers – the US and Russia – still hold the option of destroying quite a lot of life on Earth.

protestors being sprayed by a water cannonphoto by MARQUINAM/FlickrWill our age of climate change also be an era of civil and international conflict?

So do the carbon barons. But when we talk about violence, we almost always talk about violence from below, not above.

Or so I thought when I received a press release last week from a climate group announcing that "scientists say there is a direct link between changing climate and an increase in violence". What the scientists actually said, in a not-so-newsworthy article in Nature two and a half years ago, is that there is higher conflict in the tropics in El Niño years, and that perhaps this will scale up to make our age of climate change also an era of civil and international conflict.

The message is that ordinary people will behave badly in an era of intensified climate change.

All this makes sense, unless you go back to the premise and note that climate change is itself violence. Extreme, horrific, longterm, widespread violence.

Climate change is anthropogenic – caused by human beings, some much more than others. We know the consequences of that change: the acidification of oceans and decline of many species in them, the slow disappearance of island nations such as the Maldives, increased flooding, drought, crop failure leading to food-price increases and famine, increasingly turbulent weather. (Think Hurricane Sandy and the recent typhoon in the Philippines, and heat waves that …more

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Spring Cleaning: Dusting Toxins Off Couches

Proposed California bill aims to inform consumers and reduce use of toxic flame retardants

Ever wondered if your couch was filled with toxic flame retardants? If you have, chances are you weren’t able to find out because the manufacturer wasn’t required to inform you.

dog lying on couch Photo by This Year's LoveThe bill requires manufacturers to stop using flame retardents in furniture stuffing.

Fortunately, that may be changing. Last month, California State Senator Mark Leno introduced SB 1019, a bill that would require furniture manufacturers to label furniture that has been treated with flame retardants and to inform consumers of such use at the point of sale. If passed, the proposed bill will be implemented in January 2015, and would contribute to a broad effort in California to reduce the use of toxic flame retardants.

Flame retardant use expanded in California under Technical Bulletin 117 (TB 117), which was implemented in 1975 and required furniture filling to be resistant to an open flame, encouraging the use of flame retardants among furniture manufacturers. (Yes, even furniture gets it’s own regulations.)

Over the past few years, however, research has called into question the fire safety benefits of flame retardants, while also pointing to the serious health and environmental risks associated with exposure to flame retardant chemicals.

With respect to fire safety, recent studies have shown that fireproofing furniture filling doesn’t do a whole lot of good. “It turns out, on the fire safety side, [TB-117] actually wasn’t a very good regulation,” said Veena Singla, staff scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). “What they found was that adding flame retardants to the inside [of furniture] doesn’t provide any meaningful fire safety benefits.” In other words, once the outside fabric of a couch goes up in flames, it doesn’t matter how much flame retardant has been doused on the fillings. The couch is going to burn.

In addition to their questionable fire-safety benefits, flame retardants have been linked to a variety of environmental and health ills.  “They produce health and environmental concerns,” said Singla. “The chemicals are added to the filling, but they aren’t chemically attached or bound to it, so they continuously migrate out of the filling into the air and dust, and that is how people get exposed to these chemicals.”

Once released into the air and dust, these chemicals persist in the environment and have been shown to negatively impact …more

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ABC Bakers’ Girl Scout Cookies Still Contain Unsustainable Palm Oil

With other companies making progress on palm oil, there’s no excuse for Girl Scouts’ inaction

In seventh grade, we were inspired by Jane Goodall’s dedication to chimpanzee conservation and decided to raise awareness about the endangered orangutan in order to earn our Girl Scout Bronze award. When we discovered that the orangutans’ rainforest habitat is destroyed for palm oil plantations, we began educating our peers with a poster board presentation. In the seven years since then, we’ve grown that middle school awareness campaign to an international platform.

a mother orangutan with her two babiesPhoto by Carlos Quiles/Rainforest Action NetworkEndangered orangutans’ rainforest habitat is being destroyed for palm oil plantations. Yet, instead of changing where the palm oil for their cookies is sourced from, Girl Scouts USA is purchasing misleading “GreenPalm” certificates.

We learned that unsustainable palm oil production isn’t just threatening orangutans. Indonesia is the third largest emitter of greenhouse gases due to its rates of deforestation and peat burning, both of which are driven by this industry. Additionally, in 2012, the US Department of Labor linked palm oil production in Indonesia with child labor, and in Malaysia with forced labor. Social injustices linked to palm oil also occur in other countries. During a trip to Colombia with a human rights organization called Witness For Peace, we had the opportunity to speak with communities directly impacted by this industry. Paramilitary groups there had forcibly displaced these people and sold the stolen land to palm oil corporations.

This single ingredient is harming people, animals and the environment, and it’s in 50 percent of the products on American grocery store shelves. Imagine our shock and dismay when we discovered that Girl Scout cookies contain palm oil. As members of the organization since first grade, we had been taught the importance of environmental stewardship and service. Part of the Girl Scout Law includes “to make the world a better place.” Switching to a source of deforestation-free palm oil for its cookies seemed like the right thing for the Girl Scouts to do.

So we launched a campaign called Project ORANGS to bring this issue to the attention of our national organization. More than 140,000 people signed our online petitions, hundreds of Girl Scouts decorated puzzle pieces and earned our “Rainforest Hero” badge, and we educated millions of consumers through appearances in the Wall Street Journal, ABC World News, NPR, and TIME magazine. Girl Scout executives met with …more

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