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Ancient Sand Dunes Under Threat from Development in California’s Bay Area

Advocacy group seeks to raise profile of Daly City dunes and its rare flowers

Fifty years ago, the Committee to Save San Bruno Mountain stopped a plan to lop off half of San Bruno Mountain to fill the San Francisco Bay and expand Foster City. Today, local environmental activists have a new challenge: getting the California Bay Area to notice — and protect — the rare, 100,000-year-old sand dunes on the western slope of the mountain.

photo of San Bruno DunesPhoto by Tom MolanphyMany of the Daly City sand dunes have been built over, but San Bruno Mountain Watch hopes that the remaining sand dune system will one day be incorporated into San Bruno Mountain County Park.

“Although people say San Bruno was ‘saved’ 40 years ago, the mountain is never completely safe,” Ariel Cherbowsky, stewardship coordinator of San Bruno Mountain Watch, explained one fine Saturday morning, during a one-mile interpretive walk in the dunes. The program, which also includes the option of ripping out invasive ice plants, began in May of this year.

These inland dunes were formed during an interglacial period in the Pleistocene era, some 80,000 to 125,000 years ago, when the northern San Francisco Peninsula was an island. Back then, water from melted glaciers made the sea level higher than today and over thousands of years, ocean waters deposited silt creating the sands of what’s called the Colma Formation. Deposits from shallow tidal lagoons and silt from valley slopes gave the sand here more soil-like properties and its characteristic iron-stained brownish coloring, unlike the whiter sands of the coastal dunes. The older dunes are more efficient at retaining water and nutrients and are home to several rare and endangered plants.

Many of the dunes, which have historically been on privately owned land, have been built over. The largest of the sand dunes is estimated at 10-12 acres. San Bruno Mountain Watch hopes that, one day, the entirety of the sand dune system be incorporated into San Bruno Mountain State and County Park.

In 2015, San Bruno Mountain Watch helped preserve part of the sand dunes, about 3.25 acres, after a local landowner donated it to San Mateo County. That land was annexed into the local state-county park. But the best way for the dunes to gain notoriety —  and further protection — may be through its tiny star, the rare San Francisco Lessingia flower. The flower is found in only two places in the entire world: the dunes our group of 12 walks over and the dunes of the Presidio …more

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Is Using Less Water the Secret to Cutting Our Greenhouse Gas Emissions?

California, which uses 20 percent of its electricity in supplying water, just passed a law to collect emissions data from water utilities

When most of us think of slowing global warming, we think of reducing car exhaust and power plant emissions — limiting activities that involve combusting fossil fuels. But we rarely draw the connection between the production of energy and another important resource: water.

photo of California IrrigationPhoto by TimhallA new California law establishes a greehouse gas emissions registry for water utilities, shifting the state's climate change focus from fossil fuels to water.

Yet in California, 20 percent of the state’s electricity and 30 percent of the natural gas that isn’t used by power plants goes to the water system — from pumping it for delivery to disposing of wastewater. Could saving water play a significant role in addressing climate change? And, if so, could we achieve these savings without incurring significant costs?

A bill just signed by governor Jerry Brown will pave the way to answer those key questions.The Water-Energy Nexus Registry bill, or SB 1425, establishes a voluntary registry of greenhouse gas emissions for water utilities to account for the emissions generated from their energy use. It’s a radical departure of how California has been addressing climate change. In effect, SB 1425 moves the focus from fossil fuels to water.

California has long been a leader in addressing global warming. In 2006, California enacted the Global Warming Solutions Act (AB 32), which set out to reduce emissions to 1990 levels by 2020. Since then, the state has implemented a flurry of programs to cut emissions, from subsidizing electric cars and solar panel purchases to mandating tailpipe emission reductions of cars and trucks. In September, the governor expanded the target by signing a bill requiring the state to cut the emissions to 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030.

These programs have been a great success: California is on target to meet its near-term 2020 goal. Reaching the 2030 goal will require new investments and innovation.

The new registry for water-related emissions can play a key role in achieving that 2030 target. We haven’t been focusing on water primarily because our efforts have centered on reducing emissions from two of the biggest sources: burning fossil fuels to generate electricity and power vehicles. Then, the ongoing drought that first hit California five years ago put a spotlight on water consumption and its heavy reliance on the state’s electricity generation and distribution system.

The drought led to mandatory water use reductions, sparked public …more

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Can California Finally Ditch Single-Use Plastic Bags?

Proposition 67, facing fierce industry opposition, puts the issue before voters

Two years ago, the Golden State took a strong stance against plastic pollution when Jerry Brown signed SB 270, which made California the first state in the country to ban single-use plastic shopping bags. While environmental groups celebrated the victory, a group of American plastic bag manufacturers quickly organized, gathering hundreds of thousands of signatures to put the ban on hold and place the issue before voters on the 2016 ballot.

Next month, Californian voters will come face-to-face with that effort when they vote on Proposition 67, also known as the “California Plastic Bag Ban Veto Referendum.”

photo of plastic bagsPhoto by Victor AndronacheThe plastics industry has spent $6 million to defeat Proposition 67, which will be put before California voters on the November ballot.

Organized under the American Progressive Bag Alliance, out-of-state corporations have poured some $6 million into the pro-plastic bag campaign, including $3.2 million on a paid signature gathering effort to get Proposition 67 on the ballot in the first place. Their campaign mantra? Plastic bags are actually better for the environment than alternatives, or as the APBA puts it on its website, they are “the smartest, most environmentally-friendly choice at the checkout counter.” Specifically, the Alliance insists that plastic bags are recyclable, generate less waste paper alternatives, and result in fewer greenhouse emissions than paper bags.

Of course, Big Plastic has an agenda. According Californians Against Waste, an environmental nonprofit that supports the bag ban, as a result of the postponement of SB 270, roughly 192 million single-use plastic bags continue to be distributed in California every week. Industry profits in the state are estimated at $208 million a year.

Environmental groups have hit back, challenging the Alliance’s pro-environment rhetoric. Yes on 67, Protect the Plastic Bag Ban — a coalition of environmental, businesses, labor, and consumer groups — points to the impact plastic bags have on ocean pollution and marine wildlife, noting that plastic bags are often ingested by sea turtles, otters, seals, fish, and birds. More than 450 organizations, elected officials, and private companies have endorsed Proposition 67, including dozens of local, state, and national environmental groups.

“The plastic bag industry’s arguments don’t make a lot of sense,” says Sejal Choksi-Chugh, executive director of San Francisco Baykeeper, one of the many organizations that have come out strongly in favor of Proposition 67. “A single-use plastic bag that takes about 1,000 years to degrade into smaller pieces …more

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For Lesser Prairie Chicken, A New Era in Conservation or Raw Deal?

On the Great Plains, environmentalists divided over voluntary conservation program for bird habitat

In 1904, writer and shooting enthusiast Walter Colvin first reported from Kansas on the abundance of lesser prairie chickens he found there. The lesser prairie chicken, or LPC, is a grouse-like bird of the southern plains that thrives in its heat-tolerant grasses and small shrubs. It’s a lekking species, with males gathering on communal drumming grounds, or leks, to flash their bright orange, inflatable neck pouches and dance in order to attract mates.

Colvin wrote that nearly every farmer had hundreds of prairie chickens roosting in their winter grain fields, and in one cane field near the state line, his shooting party startled a flock that, when it rose from the field, made it seem “as though a hole had been rent in the earth.” In another field, he says that his brother saw 15,000 to 20,000 chickens.

a male lesser prairie chickenPhoto courtesy of USDA NRCSThe lesser prairie chicken, a grouse-like bird was once abundant in the southern plains. Today, the bird's population is down to about 29,000.

These numbers are especially startling when you realize that, just over a hundred years later, the total lesser prairie chicken population is only 29,000, and had, as recently as 2013, dropped as low as 17,616, largely due to habitat loss and fragmentation by roads and energy development,

This steep decline in 2013 is one reason the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) declared the species threatened in 2014. Conservation of these birds faces two major hurdles: private land development and climate change.

That USFWS listing was successfully challenged in court in 2015, leading the agency to withdraw the listing in July of this year (conservation groups submitted a petition to relist the bird in September). At issue was the Rangewide Plan for the lesser prairie chicken, a sweeping conservation agreement that has been hailed by its supporters as ushering in a new era in private land conservation and by its critics as representing a fast track to extinction.

The Rangewide Plan was unprecedented in the scale and scope of its multiagency collaboration. The brainchild of the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, or WAFWA, it emerged in 2013 from similar, smaller-scale conservation agreements being tried in New Mexico and elsewhere. David Mehlman, the director of the Nature Conservancy’s Migratory Bird Program, describes it as well thought out and well-executed: “They put good resources to it, hired the best scientists, and were careful to reach out to …more

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The New Era Demands Cooperation, Not Competition

In Review: Facing the Anthropocene

Ian Angus’ Facing the Anthropocene: Fossil Capitalism and the Crisis of the Earth System is required reading. Why? Angus weds natural and social processes of planetary import in 2016. To this end, his “essential background and context” advances a vital discussion.

road on a stormy eveningPhoto courtesy of Jeff WallaceTo impress upon readers the magnitude of the systemic environmental crisis, Angus dives into the work of scientists such as atmospheric chemist Paul J. Crutzen, who redeployed the word Anthropocene in 2000.

The book, short and sweet at 277 pages, joins a literature of eco-social critiques from radical writers such as Paul Burkett, Brett Clark, Rebecca Clausen, John Bellamy Foster, Naomi Klein, and Stefano B. Longo. Foster’s Foreword sets the stage for Facing the Anthropocene.

In part one of the book, Angus unpacks the science of the Anthropocene, a proposed geological term for a biophysical phenomenon that dates from the dawn of industrial capitalism, emerging out of feudalism. Stage one of this process arrives in the early 1800s. The system, global from the get-go, degrades nature and people; both are transformed into commodities with prices in the marketplace. Capital’s imperative to “grow or die” propels the plunder of the global South, via armed conquest. Angus describes stage two of the Anthropocene as a “Great Acceleration,” which begins in the 1950s, the so-called “golden age” of capitalism. Its main features are rapid growth fueled by polluting energy that relentlessly damages the planet and people through petrochemical use and nuclear weapons tests. Meet “fossil capitalism.”

To impress upon readers the magnitude of the systemic environmental crisis, Angus dives into the work of scientists such as atmospheric chemist Paul J. Crutzen, who redeployed the word Anthropocene in 2000. Crutzen and his colleagues’ work on the Anthropocene and its preceding geologic age, the Holocene (the roughly 11,000 years of human civilization) makes for bracing reading. Backed by hard data and evidence, the new research reveals the extent of the recent disruption capitalist society has we have caused to Earth systems. Against that backdrop, we read about the geological history of sudden climate changes. Such occurrences took place in the past without the record amount of carbon in the atmosphere that’s creating climate chaos now.

To be clear, and Angus is on this angle, human impact drives the Anthropocene. However, the blame doesn’t lie equally on all humans, especially not on the 3 billion people of the global South living in abject poverty. As he puts …more

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Civil War Spurs Spike in Solar Energy Use in Yemen

Sanaa residents switch to alternative energy amid power cuts and rising fuel prices

Air pollution has been a serious problem in Yemen's capital of Sanaa, but that’s starting to change. How? Oddly enough, the ongoing war that began in 2015 between the government and a militia loyal to the country’s former president feuding for control of the country helped jumpstart Sanaa’s renewable energy industry.

A view of Sanaa Yemen, right after sunsetPhoto by Louis/FlickrIn the spring of 2015, the national power grid, which was then providing Yemen's captial city of Sanaa with just a few hours of electricity each day — and sometimes just a few hours a week — shut down.

When the so-called Arabic Coalition launched its airstrikes on Sanaa in the spring of 2015, the national power grid, which was then providing the city with just a few hours of electricity each day – and sometimes just a few hours a week – shut down.  People who relied on the public, albeit unreliable, power-grid were left in the dark. Moreover, residents who used private gasoline or diesel-run generators as a supplement for power shortages were no luckier after the price of fuel soared.

As a result, solar energy became a measure of last resort.

Today, almost every neighborhood in the capital city has several solar-installation and related businesses – sometimes outnumbering barbershops and markets. In my neighborhood, for instance, there are more than five solar businesses within 200 meters from my home. Some of them are home-appliance stores that now sell solar units and energy-efficient appliances.

According to Small and Micro Enterprise Promotion Service (SMEPS), a Yemeni development agency that has been tracking the solar industry, sales of solar panels have increased by over 2,000 percent in the past year.

Even before the war erupted and shut down the power grid, blackouts were a frequent problem in Sanaa, which has an aging electricity grid.

When the price of gasoline and diesel skyrocketed at the outbreak of the war, people recognized that their portable generators would no longer be an affordable supplement or substitute for electricity. Installing a medium-sized solar power system – comprising about two 150-watt panels and a 1,000 to 1,500-watt inverter – costs less than $500 and has actually proved to be less expensive than buying fuel for a generator.

Running a generator for two hours often cost more than a 150-watt solar panel, which costs around $100. (The price of 5 gallons of gasoline spiked to around $100 for several months in the past year, though …more

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The People’s Forest

Co-op forest in Germany champions conservation and the common good

On paper, Remscheid is a large city of 100,000 residents. But it does not seem like one. Surrounded by woods in all directions, its residents take the lush greenery for granted. However, the German forest is a cultivated landscape; for centuries, man has been shaping its look and condition. This is also the case in Remscheid, yet recently, this human impact is playing by new rules: The city boasts Germany’s first citizen-owned forest.

Wald 2.0 co-op forestPhoto by Waldgenossenschaft Remscheid Wald 2.0 co-op members gather in the forest. 

Making decisions as a community rather than leaving them to big investors

The story began at the Remscheid office for forestry, where Markus Wolff serves as municipal forestry director — and he is a busy man. In the life of a forester, great challenges are the rule rather than the exception. According to Wolff, modern foresters are primarily moderators: “They must strike a balance of interests between a prudent use of our valuable resource wood, conservational interests, and recreational purposes,” which means free public access to the forest.

“Yet all of this is tremendously difficult, because the group of owners is extremely fragmented, I can’t even reach the individual stakeholders,” he adds. In fact, there are about two million private forest owners in Germany. Individuals often own only tiny parcels. Many of the forest owners are unable to take care of their property; they live far away or don’t have the right skills.

Often, the most pertinent course of action seems to be selling the forests, which are mostly inheritances. Since investors know this, too, they scout heavily forested communities for potential sellers who are looking to make a quick buck. Some years ago, Markus Wolff observed such an operation in a neighboring community: Businessmen descended on the town, paying forest owners handsome cash sums. In some cases, the trees were felled and hauled away the very next day. Residents complained, asking where the forest went. Wolff did not like any of this. He realized that a future-proof forest required a whole new approach.

Markus Wolff called this principle ‘Wald 2.0’, i.e. ‘Forest 2.0’. It is the product of the forest co-op Remscheid, which he and a few supporters founded in 2013. There are two ways to become a member. Forest owners can contribute their properties and thus become shareholders. Those who do not own any forest can also subscribe to a share, starting at 500 Euros. The co-op uses …more

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