How the Oglalla Sioux are freeing themselves from fossil fuels
It’s high summer in South Dakota, and a cruel sun beats down with an endless floodtide of photons that burns skin through t-shirts and tinted car windows. That’s the way Henry Red Cloud likes it. To Red Cloud — descendant of a great Lakota insurgent chief, founder of Lakota Solar, and self-proclaimed “solar warrior” — that July sun is key to the independence of his fellow Lakota and native peoples across America; it also embodies a hot business opportunity.
Photo courtesy of Lakota Solar
It’s July 5, the tail end of Red Cloud’s Energy Independence Day weekend, first announced in the wake of the Trump Inauguration, and meant to spread off-grid skills throughout Indian country — possibly with radical purpose.
I walked out of the sun and indoors to find Red Cloud leading a solar workshop, holding forth to a group of eager Indigenous participants about photovoltaic cells and the danger of phantom loads — the way in which many appliances continue drawing current even when switched off. “Vampire” loads are a constant suck on household energy, consuming electricity and thereby emitting carbon to no purpose — while also draining an off-grid setup with limited juice.
A set up, like, say, the remote, off-grid camps at the Standing Rock Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) protests in 2016.
Red Cloud offers up a hypothetical: “Let’s say you have a Water Protector camp, your solar array is charging, you notice the inverter is on, but nothing is plugged in.” The stocky 60-something instructor, with long ponytail and far-seeing eyes, frowns and shakes his head, indicating trouble. “Well, that empty power strip can draw more than your actual daily use, draining down the batteries faster than they can charge.”
A bearded man in his late 20s raises his hand. “That bad for the array?”
“Well,” Red Cloud responds, “it’s not a problem if you know about it. Just plug in a couple cellphones,” and charge them up so protestors can reach out to the media from the remote site. That way, he says, at least now the array is doing some work.
Man with a plan
After the workshop, Red Cloud shows me his innovations. A solar trailer, small enough to be pulled by a compact car, is mounted with panels and an inverter. …more
A cascade of courtroom standoffs are beginning to slow EPA rollbacks thanks to the administration’s ‘disregard for the law’
In its first year in office, the Trump administration introduced a solitary new environmental rule aimed at protecting the public from pollution. It was aimed not at sooty power plants or emissions-intensive trucks, but dentists.
Photo by Thomas Hawk
Every year, dentists fill Americans’ tooth cavities with an amalgam that includes mercury. About 5 tons of mercury, a dangerous toxin that can taint the brain and the nervous system, are washed away from dental offices down drains each year.
In Trump’s first day in the White House, the administration told the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to withdraw an Obama-era plan that would require dentists to prevent this mercury from getting into waterways. But in June, the rule was unexpectedly enacted.
This apparent change of heart followed legal action filed by green groups, part of a cascade of courtroom standoffs that are starting to slow and even reverse the Trump administration’s blitzkrieg of environmental regulations.
“The Trump administration has been sloppy and careless, they’ve shown significant disrespect for rule of law and courts have called them on it,” said Richard Revesz, a professor at the New York University school of law.
“I expect we will see a number of further losses for the administration on similar grounds. If they keep showing the same disregard for the law, their attempt to repeal all these environmental regulations will go badly for them.”
The reversal of Obama’s environmental legacy has been spearheaded by Scott Pruitt, who heads the EPA, the agency he repeatedly sued as Oklahoma attorney general. Pruitt, who accused Obama of “bending the rule of law” and federal overreach, has overseen the methodical delay or scrapping of dozens of rules curbing pollution from power plants, pesticides and vehicles.
Ironically for Pruitt, who has touted a “back to basics” approach rooted safely within the confines of the law, this rapidly executed agenda has run into a thicket of legal problems, causing the administration to admit defeat in several cases.
In July, a federal court ruled that the EPA couldn’t suspend rules designed to curb methane emissions from new oil and gas wells. This was followed by a hasty retreat in August when the EPA agreed to not delay new standards to reduce smog-causing air pollutants, the …more
The sampled fish may have originated from a particularly polluted patch of the Atlantic Ocean
Marine scientists from the National University of Ireland (NUI) in Galway found the plastic bits in 73 percent of 233 deep-sea fish collected from the Northwest Atlantic Ocean—one of the highest microplastic frequencies in fish ever recorded worldwide.
Photo by NOAA Oceans Explorer Program
For the study, published Monday in the journal Frontiers in Marine Science, the scientists inspected the stomach contents of dead deep-water fish collected from the Northwest Atlantic Ocean. The sampled fish, including the Spotted Lanternfish, Glacier Lanternfish, White-spotted Lanternfish, Rakery Beaconlamp, Stout Sawpalate and Scaly Dragonfish, were taken from depths of up to 600 meters (about 2,000 feet).
Even though microplastics are usually found around the ocean's surface, these fish were able to gobble them up anyway.
"Deep-water fish migrate to the surface at night to feed on plankton (microscope animals) and this is likely when they are exposed to the microplastics," explained Alina Wieczorek, lead author of the study and Ph.D. candidate from the School of Natural Sciences and Ryan Institute at NUI Galway.
One fish that was examined, a Spotted Lanternfish less than 2 inches in length, had 13 microplastics extracted from its stomach, Wieczorek said.
"In total, 233 fish were examined with 73 percent of them having microplastics in their stomachs, making it one of the highest reported frequencies of microplastic occurrence in fish worldwide," she said.
The fish were sampled from a warm core eddy, which is similar to ocean gyres that are thought to accumulate microplastics. The sampled fish may have originated from a particularly polluted patch of the Atlantic Ocean.
"This would explain why we recorded one of the highest abundances of microplastics in fishes so far, and we plan to further investigate the impacts of microplastics on organisms in the open ocean," Wieczorek added.
The identified microplastics were mostly microfibers, with black and blue the most recorded colors. These tiny plastic threads shed from commonly used synthetic fabrics like polyester, rayon and nylon. When washed, plastic microfibers break off and a single jacket can produce up to 250,000 fibers in washing machine effluent.
Microplastics can contain additives such as colorants and flame retardants and/or pollutants adsorbed …more
Fresh efforts needed to protect critically endangered animals from hunters and habitat loss as population more than halves
Hunting and killing have driven a dramatic decline in the orangutan population on Borneo where nearly 150,000 animals have been lost from the island’s forests in 16 years, conservationists warn.
Photo by Gemma i Jere, Flickr
While the steepest percentage losses occurred in regions where the forest has been cut down to make way for palm oil and acacia plantations, more animals were killed by hunters who ventured into the forest, or by farm workers when the apes encroached on agricultural land, a study found.
Researchers estimate that the number of orangutans left on Borneo now stands at between 70,000 and 100,000, meaning the population more than halved over the study period which ran from 1999 to 2015. Without fresh efforts to protect the animals, the numbers could fall at least another 45,000 in the next 35 years, the conservationists predict. The real decline could be worse, because the prediction is based only on habitat loss, and does not include killings.
The bleak assessment of the state of the Bornean apes comes from an international team of conservationists who compiled one of the most comprehensive reports yet on the animals, which in 2016 were declared “critically endangered” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
“I expected to see a fairly steep decline, but I did not anticipate it would be this large,” said Serge Wich, a co-author on the report at Liverpool John Moores University. “When we did the analyses, we ran them again and again to figure out if we had made a mistake somewhere. You think the numbers can’t be that high, but unfortunately they are.”
The researchers studied 16 years of ground and helicopter surveys that recorded the numbers and locations of nests that orangutans built in the trees from branches and leaves. The nests have long been used to infer the sizes of orangutan populations because the animals themselves are so elusive.
Writing in the journal Current Biology, the team describe how the decline in nests from 1999 to 2015 points to the staggering loss of 148,500 orangutans in Borneo. The conservationists identified 64 separate groups of orangutans on the island, but only 38 are thought to comprise more than 100 …more
Recycling is not enough: We need bold solutions to deal with our plastic overproduction problem
Remember that plastic milk jug you emptied out last month? And that yogurt container you threw in your recycling bin last week? Chances are, they are now sitting in one of the growing mounds of plastic piling up in collection centers across the country with nowhere to go.
Photo by recycleharmony, Flickr
As of January 1, China effectively banned imports of plastic recyclables from other countries. The change represents a major policy shift: In 2016, China took 51 percent of the 15 million tons of plastic recyclables in trade globally, including a whopping 40 percent of US citizens’ plastic recycling. So when China announced that it was shutting its doors to our plastic, it was a wake up call for the US recycling industry.
"Corporate recycling is in for a reality check as China raises its standards,” says Martin Bourque, executive director of the Ecology Center, a leading zero waste non-profit and recycling center in Berkeley, CA. “Everyone is desperately looking for the cheapest possible new destinations for low quality mixed materials, and there is currently a lot of incentive for companies to dump, burn, or bury recyclables that customers think are getting recycled.”
Due to trade imbalances amongst other factors, it’s been much cheaper for many states to ship plastic abroad than deal with it stateside. Giant barges arrive at ports around the country with products manufactured in China, and we have been reloading those barges with plastic waste generated from cheap, single-use products and packaging, and sending it right back to China and other parts of Asia.
The “recyclable” plastic the US sends abroad are often low-quality and low-value. Some contain a cocktail of toxic additives that threaten recycling workers’ health. (Recyclables that are higher value, namely HDPE and PET [#1 and #2], are more often recycled domestically.) The bales of plastic recyclables we were sending to China were also often contaminated with non-recyclable materials, which recycling operations were then forced to dispose of, either through landfilling or burning. (Indeed, the effective ban was in fact a drastic tightening of “impurity standards” for recyclables imports, one that US facilities cannot meet. China has also announced that it plans to completely ban plastic waste imports in 2019)
In some importing countries, collection and processing of low-grade plastics for recycling is carried out largely by …more
One person's meat-eating can take a big toll on animals, climate, and health over time
One of my resolutions this year is to eat less meat. As a lifelong carnivore, this task has already proven to be easier said than done. The major challenge comes down to changing my habits. After years of enjoying bacon with my eggs for breakfast, I now associate its comforting greasy taste with the feeling of fullness. So how do I — and others like me — overcome this obstacle? One big challenge is finding a way to stay motivated.
Enter the Meat Blitz-Calculator.
Photo by Derek K. Miller
Major reasons for cutting down on meat have to do with the health, environmental, and animal welfare impact of this dietary choice. It may be easy to understand the negative consequences meat-eating has for your heart, the climate, or animals on factory farms, but it's another matter when it comes to relating these impacts directly to your own consumption habits. This is where the calculator comes in.
The first question the calculator asks is whether you eat meat. If you answer yes, the calculator displays three predetermined average values for the amount of poultry, pork, and beef in ounces you consume in a week. These figures — based on information taken from a USDA database — represent the national average for Americans and can be adjusted accordingly. The calculator then asks you to fill in what percentage of meat you would be willing to replace with vegetarian food in your diet.
This is where things get interesting. Based on further USDA statistics, the calculator displays the direct impact your dietary decision could have over the course of a decade. This information comes in two parts. The first set of figures shows how much water, CO2, and antibiotics would be spared by committing to your change in diet. The calculator also displays an infographic that represents the number of pigs, cows, and chickens you would save from the slaughtering block.
What difference can this make to your habits, you may wonder? It comes down to shifting perspectives. Using the averages of the calculator, I committed to a 60 percent reduction over the next decade. By crunching the numbers, the calculator revealed the full impact my dietary decision could have on both my own wellbeing as well as the environment and animals (the latter two …more
Proposal would threaten endangered species and fragile habitats
The Trump administration is attempting to speed up or even sweep away various environmental reviews in its plan to fix America’s crumbling infrastructure and construct a wall along the border with Mexico.
Photo by Oregon Department of Transportation
The White House’s infrastructure plan targets what it calls “inefficiencies” in the approval of roads, bridges, airports, and other projects. It proposes a 21-month limit for environmental reviews of projects that potentially threaten endangered species or fragile habitats, along with curbs on federal agencies’ ability to raise objections to new construction.
In a meeting with state and local officials on Monday, Trump said, “we’re going to get your permits very quickly.” The president, who mentioned he was able to push through the building of an ice rink in New York’s Central Park within a few months, said he will “speed the permit approval process from 10 years to two years, and maybe even to one year.”
The campaign to fast-track development over concerns has been picked up by Trump’s lieutenants. Scott Pruitt, the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, has attempted to quicken the pace even further, telling the same group that the EPA will “process every permit, up or down, within six months” by the end of 2018.
The administration has sought to completely cast aside environmental considerations when it comes to its controversial border wall. It recently acquired a waiver for the third time in order to speed construction of 20 miles of the wall in New Mexico, and Trump has rescinded an Obama-era rule that demanded officials consider sea level rise and other climate change factors in federally-funded projects.
Environmentalists have warned that Trump’s agenda will place extra pressure on endangered species and risk exacerbating hazards, such as flooding, by failing to factor climate change.
A recent report by the Center for Biological Diversity found that the border wall risks the habitat of dozens of species, including the arroyo toad, the Peninsular bighorn sheep, and the jaguar, which was once driven out of the south-western US but has been spotted again in recent years due to the northward migration from a group located around 100 miles south of the border in Sonora, Mexico.
A coalition …more