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In Conversation: Dr.  M. Sanjayan, host of EARTH: A New Wild

Conservation biologist discusses his new PBS Series, the challenges of co-existing with wild animals, and the schism among conservationists these days.

Last night PBS debuted its newest nature special, EARTH: A New Wild. In the opening episode, the program’s host, M. Sanjayan, promises that this will be a genre-busting kind of environmental documentary. “My mission,” Sanjayan says, “is to tell you an untold story, where we humans are not separate from nature – we are part of it.” And indeed this isn’t just a Planet Earth knock off. Instead of focusing the camera on the planet’s myriad natural wonders, Sanjayan is more interested in exploring a thornier question: How can human civilization and wild nature coexist, especially in this worrisome new era of the Anthropocene? 

Earlier this week I got the chance to geek out with Sanjayan, who, when not hosting globe-spanning television documentaries, works for the NGO Conservation International. We talked about his aspirations for the new program, why Americans have such an especially hard time living with bears and wolves, and the current tensions in the field of conservation biology.

You’ve titled your new PBS Series, “Earth: A New Wild.” So what exactly is it about the wild today that makes it new?

So, first of all, you should know the way that titles come up, I had very, very little to do with the title. At the end of the day it becomes this gigantic – many people get involved. They have to look at what’s been done before, and what’s been on television, etcetera. But the original working title for the show was, “Earth in the Age of Man.” So, the Anthropocene. When I think about the new wild, what I think about is a place that still feels, looks, tastes, acts wild – but along with the larger human presence within it. And if you want one example of it, it’s the Centennial Valley of Montana. The Serengeti plains would be [another] great example. These are places that look wild, but have had a human presence for a long time. And in some ways human presence has modified those landscapes and in some ways, today, they are fundamentally protecting that landscape, too.

photo of a man sitting in bamboo with a giant pandaCourtesy of Ami VitaleSanjayan and panda

You didn’t use the term, because it’s a little academic, but this really is the PBS nature special for …more

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10 Million Gallons of ‘Missing Oil’ from 2010 BP Spill Found on Gulf Sea Floor

Oil sediments will contaminate the food web for years to come, scientists say

The April 2010 blowout of BP’s Macondo well spilled more than 200 million gallons of crude oil across an area of around 68,000 square miles in the Gulf of Mexico. Much of this oil was removed using various cleanup measures, including skimming and mopping it off the sea surface, burnings of concentrated slicks, and applications of the dispersant COREXIT. But several million gallons of the spilled crude simply disappeared. Clean up crews were unable to locate it.

Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill SitePhoto by Green Fire ProductionsDay 30 of Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. The new study by Florida State University scientists corroborates earlier research, which had shown that a some of the missing oil had settled on the sea floor.

Now a new study published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology appears to have solved the missing oil mystery: it says that 10 million gallons of oil are sitting on the Gulf sea floor, 62 miles southeast of the Mississippi Delta.

The study, led by Florida State University Professor of Oceanography Jeff Chanton, details how oil from the Deepwater Horizon spill caused particles in the Gulf to clump together and sink to the ocean floor where it poses a threat to the marine environment.

"This is going to affect the Gulf for years to come," Chanton said in a statement. "Fish will likely ingest contaminants because worms ingest the sediment, and fish eat the worms. It's a conduit for contamination into the food web."

Earlier research by scientists at University of California, Santa Barabara, had shown that a some of the missing oil had settled on the sea floor, but only a small portion of it had been located. Chanton and his team have located the rest of it. BP had challenged those earlier findings, saying that the researchers "failed to identify the source of the oil," but this new study, which made sure to avoided areas with natural oil seeps, might help lay those doubts to rest.

Chanton and his team collected 62 sediment cores from a 9,266 square mile area around the spill site and used carbon-14, a radioactive isotope, as an “inverse tracer” to determine where oil might have settled on the floor. (Ocean sediment contains carbon-14, oil does not, so sediment samples without carbon-14 indicate the presence of oil).

Based …more

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Keystone Pipeline: Oil Price Drop Will Worsen Climate Impact, EPA Warns

Falling oil prices could mean higher carbon pollution for the controversial pipeline, a finding that gives Obama new cause to reject the project

Falling oil prices have changed the economic viability of the Keystone XL pipeline — and that means the project would result in much higher carbon pollution, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) said on Tuesday.

The finding hands President Barak Obama new grounds on which to reject the pipeline, only days after the Senate voted to force approval of the project and as the House Republican leadership moved to a final vote that could send a pipeline bill toward the president’s desk as soon as next week.

Keystone pipline protest in NYCPhoto by Michael FleshmanThe EPA says that the recent drop in oil prices means that Keystone would promote further expansion of the Alberta tar sands, unleashing more greenhouse gas emissions, and worsening climate change.

In a letter to the State Department, the EPA said the recent drop in oil prices meant that Keystone would indeed promote further expansion of the Alberta tar sands, unleashing more greenhouse gas emissions, and worsening climate change.

“Until ongoing efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions associated with the production of oil sands are more successful and widespread development of oil sands crude represents a significant increase in greenhouse gas emissions,” the EPA’s assistant administrator, Cynthia Giles, wrote in a letter posted on the agency’s website.

The agency said building the pipeline could increase emissions by as much as 27.4m metric tons a year — almost as much as building eight new coal-fired power plants.

Campaigners said the finding gave Obama all the information he needed to reject the pipeline. Obama had earlier said he would take climate change into account when rendering his final decision on the project.

“As of today the president has all the nails that he needs to close the lid on this particular boondoggle of a coffin,” Bill McKibben, the founder of, which led environmental opposition to the pipeline, told a conference call with reporters.

The president has final authority over the pipeline — much to the frustration of TransCanada, the pipeline company, which has been trying to build the project for more than six years.

TransCanada reiterated that production in the Alberta tar sands was expanding anyway, suggesting that Keystone would have no effect on climate change. “The oil that Keystone XL will deliver is getting to market today — that is a fact,” Shawn Howard, a spokesman for …more

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In Conservation Work, ‘Reptiles and Amphibians Are the Underdogs’

A conversation with herpetologist Dr. Jenny Daltry

Dr. Jenny Daltry has been exploring her love for reptiles since the young age of eight, and her interest has only grown with time. By the time she turned 25, she had earned her PhD from the University of Aberdeen in zoology and ecology and her thesis had been published in Nature Magazine. Not content with an academic career or an office job, Daltry has spent much of her professional life in the field. Now, as senior conservation biologist at Flora and Fauna International (FFI), Dr. Daltry’s fieldwork has led her to dozens of countries, many in the Caribbean and southern Asia.

Jenny Daltree

Daltry’s work with critically endangered species has truly set her apart as one of the world’s leading conservationists. She personally oversaw the Antiguan Racer Conservation Project, nursing a tiny inbred population of 50 Antiguan racer snakes on one island in Antigua a much healthier population of over 1,000 snakes spread over several islands. This project rescued the species from the brink of extinction. Daltry was also one of the lead researchers involved in saving the Siamese Crocodile, a species once thought to be effectively extinct. Her work has been so influential that she was awarded the title of Officer of The Royal Order of Sahametrei for her services to the environment in Cambodia, and has received a number of other international awards including the Whitley Award from the Whitley Fund for Nature, a United Kingdom-based charity, and the Castillo’s Prize for Conservation for the Crocodile Specialist Group.

Can you give me a bit of background on your work as a senior conservation biologist at Flora and Fauna International (FFI) and how you came to work for them?

Well, I actually joined FFI as a member when I was 11 years old. FFI is one of the world’s oldest conservation organizations, founded in 1903, and I’ve always liked FFI because it is involved with issues impacting all types of wildlife. The mission is to help conserve threatened biodiversity across the whole world, so it’s very diverse, it’s a very dynamic organization, and I joined the organization as a staff member about 20 years ago. In my current role as senior conservation biologist, I work with teams across the world, helping to solve …more

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Can Seven Billion Humans Go Paleo?

Advocates of this meat-rich diet trend need to grapple with its impact on the environment

After decades of obscurity, Paleo is now one of the fastest-growing diet trends. A 2013 survey found that one percent of Americans eat Paleo, which is based on the premise that our diets should be based on animals and plants, the way we ate when we were hunter-gatherers. Bestselling books like Grain Brain have redeemed meat’s nutritional profile and convinced many people that their high-carb diets promote unhealthy levels of brain and gut inflammation. I count myself among the throngs of Paleolistas who have benefited from adhering, more or less, to its principles.

cattle at a feedlotPhoto by David OliverMany paleo advocates recommend eating organic, pastured, holistically grazed animal protein. But there’s simply not enough grazing land on the planet to feed enough livestock to put sustainable meat and eggs in front of all seven billion of us three times a day.

But what happens when Paleo really starts catching on, and millions of ill and overweight people eliminate grains and start eating animal protein with every meal? This leads to questions the Paleo community has yet to address: How many inhabitants of our small planet can regularly eat meat without despoiling the environment? And how do we decide who gets to eat Paleo and who’s stuck with grains and tofu?

Many Paleo advocates and consumers are no doubt aware of the environmental issues associated with factory-farmed livestock and commercial fishing — the enormous quantities of water, fossil fuels and pesticides needed to grow cattle, pig and chicken feed, livestock’s fecal contamination of fresh water, aquatic dead zones caused by pesticide runoff, the depletion and collapse of fisheries, heat-trapping methane emissions from the front and back-ends of farm animals … I could go on.

A study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that global meat production uses one-third of the world’s fresh water and that more than 1.3 billion tons of grain are consumed by farm animals each year. In the Gulf of Mexico, aquatic dead zones from pesticide, fertilizer and manure runoff now total an area the size of Connecticut. Much of the runoff originates on heartland farms that produce corn for cattle feed.

Conventionally grown grains and vegetables are an ecological disaster too, but conventional meat production is substantially more resource-intensive, polluting and wasteful. The United Nations Environmental Programme cites meat production as …more

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White House Unveils Plan to Open Atlantic Waters to Offshore Oil Drilling

Move to lease large swaths of ocean along east coast and double down in Gulf of Mexico oddly comes in wake of attacks against right for climate change denial

President Barack Obama pivoted from his goal of fighting climate change on Tuesday, setting out a plan to allow the first oil drilling in Atlantic waters off the US east coast but bar companies from some of the pristine waters off the north coast of Alaska.

Offshore Oil Rigphoto by Stephen Conn, on FlickrThe proposals could allow the first oil drilling rigs off the Outer Banks of the Carolinas and other tourist destinations near Virginia and Georgia.

Arriving a week after the president attacked climate deniers in his State of the Union address, the same week as his use of executive authority to protect huge swaths of Alaskan wilderness and in the shadow of the BP oil spill trial, the proposals could allow the first oil drilling rigs off the Outer Banks of the Carolinas and other tourist destinations near Virginia and Georgia. However, they would not include the whaling grounds and other sensitive areas of the Beaufort and Chukchi seas.

The Pacific coast, where there is strong objection to drilling from state governors and the public, would remain off-limits. However, the Obama administration’s plan called for doubling down on offshore oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico.

The plans – which are far from finalized – represent a first step to auctioning off oil leases from 2017 to 2022, the interior secretary, Sally Jewell, told a conference call with reporters on Tuesday.

“We continue to take an all-of-the-above approach to developing domestic energy,” she said.

The draft proposal includes a single potential oil lease in the Atlantic that could potentially extend from Virginia’s Chesapeake Bay, past North and South Carolina and down to Georgia. However, the proposed area represents the maximum that would ever be opened up for drilling, Jewell said, with oil companies forced to remain 50 miles offshore.

Governors in all four states have pushed hard for the Atlantic’s first offshore oil lease sales. Florida, Delaware and Maryland – where governors are opposed to drilling – were not included in the five-year plan.

The proposals envisage 10 lease sales in the Gulf of Mexico and three in the Arctic, though Jewell said it was unlikely any lease sale would be held for the Atlantic before 2021.

Obama had sought to open up drilling in …more

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Can We 3D Print our Way to Sustainability?

3D printing offers promise for home-based manufacturing and recycling

Someday soon, home may be where the recycling happens. If Dr. Joshua Pearce has his way, that is. Pearce has spent his career investigating how technology can address the pressing global issues of sustainability and poverty. Last year, he and his team from Michigan Technological University's Open Sustainability Technology research group put milk jugs through an office shredder, then into a 3D printer. They found that making their own 3D printing feedstock used about one-tenth the energy needed to acquire commercial filament, and used less energy than recycling the plastic conventionally.

3D printingPhoto by Creative Tools, on Flickr Miniature 3D printed pallets. Environmentalists are hopeful because 3D printing is much faster and less wasteful than traditional manufacturing.

3D printing in general has been hailed as an eco-solution that will revolutionize industry as we know it. The technique boasts a wide range of potential applications in manufacturing, medicine, and even building construction. Since world demand for 3D printers and printing materials is projected to reach 5 million dollars per year by 2017, it may make a significant mark on the economy in the coming years. Environmentalists are hopeful because 3D printing offers several advantages over traditional manufacturing. It’s decidedly much faster and less wasteful. Since items are created digitally, there are no limitations on geometry; printers can make intricate shapes, interspersing hollow regions to make lighter-weight products that require less fuel to transport. The technique has already made lighter and cheaper solar panels that are up to 20 percent more efficient than conventional ones.

The eco-virtues of 3D printing have been extolled across the blogosphere. But is all the hype true? And what are its potential environmental drawbacks?

How 3D Printing Works

3D printing builds an item in layers from the bottom up, based on horizontal cross sections of a digital 3D model. It’s also referred to as additive manufacturing, since it builds products by adding material, rather than cutting it away. A major advantage is that it adds material to each layer only where it’s needed, resulting in little waste. In contrast, traditional subtractive manufacturing transports large amounts of material to a manufacturing site, where most of it’s cut away to shape an end product.

The Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory found that subtractive manufacturing can waste up to …more

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