Communities with strong ethics of the commons most resilient to disasters
Following the hugely destructive earthquake and tsunami of March 2011, communities along Japan’s northeastern coast faced a major challenge of social organization: People who had lost everything needed to decide, often together, how to rebuild. They had to work through complex issues of property rights, urban planning and emotional connection to the land. Some communities quickly came to a consensus about what to do, but others – particularly those in urban areas – remain divided more than two years later.
Why the gap? Hokkaido University sociologist Taisuke Miyauchi believes the answer has to do with what scholars call “the commons”: resources belonging to the community as a whole rather than being controlled by an individual, a corporation, or a government body. Shared grazing land and fishing grounds are classic examples of commons. But information, air, water, and language can fit the definition, too (or at least the contemporary version of it).
Miyauchi studied a group of fishing hamlets in Kitakami, Miyagi prefecture whose residents had a long history of cooperatively managing fishing grounds and seaweed beds. Although the tsunami nearly obliterated the hamlets, residents smoothly and quickly reached a consensus on how to rebuild. Meanwhile, a number of urban neighborhoods that lacked commonly managed resources became mired in disagreement over the reconstruction. Miyauchi argues that the community cohesion created by managing the commons was critical in helping the fishing villages bounce back from the tsunami.
There’s a bigger lesson here, especially as the globe enters the era of climate change: Communities with a strong ethic of the commons will likely be more resilient to the impacts of extreme weather and natural disasters.
That may be an oversimplification, but at a international conference where Miyauchi presented his research last week, academics and policy-makers offered many other examples of how common property systems help people overcome disaster. The research is particularly relevant because land grabs and resource exploitation by multinational corporations continue to errode commons around the world, destroying a key source of resilience just when we need it the most.
“In an unpredictable environment, the complex of commons, livestock, and agriculture provides stability,” says Rahul Chaturvedi of India’s Foundation for Ecological Security. The organization was involved in a 2010 study of how 3,000 households in 100 villages throughout India use …more
Canadian oil producers seeking to expand existing pipelines to get tar sands oil to the US market
The battle over TransCanada’s Keystone XL pipeline continues to rage as both sides dig into their strategic playbooks for the Hail Mary pass that might tip the contest in their favor. The stakes, of course, are high. The multi-billion dollar project would see hundreds of thousands of barrels of diluted bitumen piped every day from Alberta across the border into the United States and to refineries on the Gulf of Mexico.
Each side’s arguments are well known by now. Pipeline supporters promise jobs and North American energy security. Environmentalists warn of a climate change time bomb and oil spills, and argue that now is the time to end reliance on fossil fuels altogether and commit to a renewable energy future.
As the Keystone battle continues to grab all the attention, Canadian oil producers are quietly seeking to expand existing pipelines so they can boost exports to the US and other countries.
There is no shortage of new pipeline and pipeline expansion projects in development. The projects are in various stages – from initial concept phase to application process to those close to approval. Combined, the proposed projects would, if completed, dwarf Keystone XL in terms of how much petroleum they would move.
Houston-based Kinder Morgan is seeking to triple the amount of crude oil that currently moves through the 60-year-old Trans Mountain pipeline that runs from Alberta to British Columbia. The $5.4 billion expansion would pump 890,000 barrels per day from the tar sands mines to an expanded Westridge Marine Terminal in Burnaby, BC. (Keystone XL, by comparison, would move 830,000 barrels daily.) Once it reaches the ocean, the crude would have to be placed on oil tankers to get it to markets in the US or Asia. According to The Council of Canadians, approval of the Kinder Morgan project would "add up to 360 oil tankers per year in the Burrard Inlet and the Strait of Georgia.” Last week Kinder Morgan filed preliminary plans for the expansion; a formal application will be filed later this year with Canada's National …more
Law is first of its kind in the United States
This week, Connecticut won the honor of becoming the first state to pass a law requiring genetically engineered foods to be labeled. (The governor has indicated he will sign.) It was really only a matter of time. The disappointing defeat of Prop 37 last fall in California – thanks to a massive industry disinformation campaign – sparked a national movement that has resulted in labeling bills getting introduced in about half the states.
But how did the small state of Connecticut make this happen?
by lachshand, on Flickr
I spoke at length with the leader of the effort, Tara Cook-Littman of GMO Free CT, who worked for the past two years as a volunteer.
She said for a long time, efforts to pass labeling bills went nowhere, but things started to change two years ago once advocates formally organized themselves. While at first she and others “were dismissed as a bunch of crazy moms and environmentalists,” things started to pick up last year “when advocates were able to show themselves to be a serious movement with political power.”
What about the opposition? Cook-Littman said it was formidable, and that industry made all the same fear-mongering arguments we heard last year during Prop 37 in California about higher food prices and confusing consumers.
She and others suspect the biotech industry was funneling money through the trade group, the Connecticut Food Association, which represents retailers and wholesalers. Also in opposition was the Grocery Manufacturers Association, the national trade group for food makers, which firmly stated its opposition to Prop 37 last year, calling it the organization’s “single-highest priority.”
In addition, Cook-Littman told me about the front group industry formed to oppose the bill, Connecticut Farm to Food. This group’s home page claims boldly if inexplicably: “Forced labeling will drive business and science out of Connecticut.” Listed as sponsors are three groups: The Council for Biotechnology Information (a trade group for the biotech industry), the Connecticut Retail Merchants Association and the previously-mentioned Grocery Manufacturers Association. In other words, two of these three groups behind this “Connecticut” organization are based in Washington DC.
The toughest opposition though, Cook-Littman said, came from the Connecticut Farm Bureau, which claimed the bill would hurt farmers, despite the bill not even being about farming, but rather …more
Jairo Sandoval had dedicated himself to protecting leatherback turtles
UPDATE, June 14: Since this article was first published, the reward for information leading to the arrest of Mora’s murderers has increased to $56,000, including $30,000 being offered separately by Sea Shepherd Conservation Society founder Paul Watson. More than 100,000 people have now signed the petition at Change.org.
LIMON, COSTA RICA – Last week a Costa Rican environmentalist was kidnapped and killed while on a routine patrol to protect leatherback sea turtle eggs from being poached. On the evening of May 30 Jairo Mora Sandoval, three young women from the United States and another from Spain were kidnapped by five masked men carrying military-style rifles as they inspected leatherback nesting sites at Moín Beach on Costa Rica’s northern Caribbean coast.
The five conservation workers were then taken to an abandoned home where Mora, a Costa Rican, was separated from the others. The next morning his body was found in the sand. He had been bound and beaten. Initial reports said Mora had been shot in the head execution style; according to the latest news from Costa Rica’s English language Tico Times, Mora died from head trauma and asphyxiation from sand.
Mora worked for the Wider Caribbean Sea Turtle Conservation Network (WIDECAST) at Moín, a beach near the town of Limon, monitoring the beach for leatherback sea turtles. The turtle eggs are thought to be an aphrodisiac and are sold at local bars for about $1 each. A poacher can steal as many as 200 eggs in a night. Nest monitoring patrols and public awareness campaigns conducted by groups like WIDECAST have proven effective in reducing egg poaching. The mere presence of observers on beaches is often enough to scare off poachers.
But in the past year poachers on the Caribbean coast have become more aggressive.
This was not Mora’s first run-in with armed poachers. In April 2012 a group of turtle defenders who were monitoring nests were tied up by masked men who stole a large clutch of eggs. After that, Mora and the director of WIDECAST, Vanessa Lizano, were sometimes followed by men on motorbikes carrying AK-47s. “He was held up at gunpoint, and they told him to back off …more
Biofuel forests could jumpstart economies of mine-ravaged communities and renew the land in the process.
Using valuable food crops like corn and sugar cane to produce biofuels has been a highly controversial topic in an age of imminent food crises. But nobody is growing corn on the former strip mines of Eastern Kentucky.
A look at the region on Google Earth shows a patchwork of bald spots in the forested hills. Surface mining left its mark on the Appalachian landscape through much of the twentieth century, as large swaths of native forest were replaced with sparse, scrubby grassland. But University of Kentucky forestry professor Chris Barton sees in the compacted soil of old strip mines the possibility of using former surface mine land for short-rotation forestry – in order to produce fuel.
Photo courtesy of Green Forests Work.
Here's how it would work: Fast-growing, native trees like black locust could be grown and harvested every five to 10 years; then, the woodchips would be burned in an oxygen-restricted condition to produce combustible gases that in turn could be used to generate energy and heat. After a few generations of short-rotation harvests, the land could be transitioned to a long-term forest.
Barton is the founder of Green Forests Work, a nonprofit spin-off of the Appalachian Regional Reforestation Initiative that seeks to reforest lands scarred by mining with native trees – all the while helping to rebuild struggling local economies.
When President Obama delivered his 2009 inauguration speech, he talked about creating green jobs. A light bulb turned on for Barton. Realizing that his reforestation initiative was a shovel-ready project that could create jobs right away, Barton began thinking about approaching the federal government for financial support.
Instead of depending on a single, monolithic employer to create jobs, Hall would like to see people taking job creation into their own hands.
Surface mining strips away nutrient-rich topsoil and leaves a devastated landscape that is prone to landslides and water contamination. With the passage of the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977, mining companies were required to stabilize the land when they were finished mining in order to control erosion. But instead of merely stabilizing, mining companies over-compacted more than 1 million acres of former surface mines using bulldozers. This made …more
Book Excerpt from Spiritual Ecology: The Cry of the Earth
“There is now a single issue before us: survival. Not merely physical survival, but survival in a world of fulfillment, survival in a living world, where the violets bloom in the springtime, where the stars shine down in all their mystery, survival in a world of meaning.”
Earth is in distress and is calling to us, sending us signs of the extremity of its imbalance through floods and storms, drought and unprecedented heat. There are now indications that its ecosystem as a whole may be approaching a “tipping point” or “state shift” of irreversible change with unforeseeable consequences.
Some of us are responding to these signs, hearing this calling, individually and as groups, with ideas and actions – trying to bring our collective attention to our unsustainable materialistic lifestyle and the ways it is contributing to ecological devastation, increasing pollution, species depletion. But the momentum of our consumer, fossil-fuel driven civilization seems unstoppable, accelerating the destruction of the very ecosystem that supports us.
Even the concept of “sustainability” has been co-opted by our culture. Sustainability no longer refers to the sustainability of our ecosystem, its biodiversity and beauty, its wilderness and wonder, but to the very materialistic culture that is destroying it. We want to sustain our energy-intensive, resource-depleting lifestyle, whose very demands are unsustainable by our planet. As British writer Paul Kingsnorth puts it: “Environmentalism is no longer about how to save the environment. It has instead become about how we in the developed world can save our life style.”
This environmental crisis is the greatest threat to the future of humanity and the well-being of the planet. And yet it is part of a much deeper crisis whose danger is unnoticed: a crisis of soul caused by a deep forgetfulness of the sacred nature of creation.
This primal imbalance began centuries ago. Early Christianity persecuted any earth-based spirituality. The sacred groves of Europe were cut down; the physical world became a place of darkness and sin. We created a primal split between spirit and matter. Then, with the dawn of the Age of Enlightenment, Newtonian physics saw the world as an inanimate mechanism whose laws needed to be discovered so that we could master it. We used our developing scientific awareness to dominate and control the …more
In Review: The East
“We will counterattack three corporations for their worldwide terrorism in the next six months.” So declares the eco-anarchist group “The East” near the beginning of Zal Batmanglij’s new film of the same name. With this politically tinged suspense and action film, Batmangilij seeks to break the mold of the usual formulaic summer blockbusters. The director of earlier sci-fi inflected dramas, Batmanglij appears to want to surf the frenzy of Occupy Wall Street and the Tar Sands Blockade that grabbed headlines. The film delves into questions around justice, violence, community, commitment, and ultimately asks the viewer, Which side are you on?
This provocative film is one part espionage thriller, one part love story, and all anarchy. Batmanglij tells the story of undercover corporate spy and ex-FBI agent Sarah Moss (Brit Marling, who also gets a co-writer credit) tasked with infiltrating an eco-anarchist group called "The East." The collective, fronted by Benji (Alexander Skarsgård) and Izzy (Ellen Page), is wanted for executing covert attacks upon major corporations.
The corporate bad guys have never looked so bad. And the depiction isn’t just caricature: the director drew the film’s corporate misdeeds from real stories of corporate crime. From oil companies spilling billions of gallons of oil into pristine eco-systems, to a pharmaceutical giant putting bad meds on the market, to a chemical company poisoning local watersheds and children, we’re given the sense that The East’s actions are justified. A private security honcho named Sharon (Patricia Clarkson) is especially vile. When, early in her undercover operation, Sarah discovers The East will be poisoning a Big Pharma cocktail party with dirty meds, Sharon orders her to let them proceed – since the party goers aren’t her clients, she doesn’t care what happens to them.
But, for me at least, the verisimilitude breaks down when it comes to its depictions of the eco-warriors at the heart of the film. As a self-identified anarchist and activist, I just wasn’t buying it. Not that Batmanglij and Marling didn’t try to get it right. The writers spent the summer of 2009 traveling through the North American anarchist scene researching the film. To their credit, they depict the anarchist activists as smart, strategic operators – not as dumb, naïve kids duped into some plot, the usual script for the mainstream media. While two months is enough to get …more