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A Way to Come Together on Public Lands Conservation

If Congress doesn’t like President Obama’s national monument designation, it should pass the dozens of pending wilderness bills

Late last month the House of Representatives passed a bill that would restrict the president’s ability to fulfill a key part of his stated agenda. No, this wasn’t the umpteenth vote to repeal Obamacare. Rather, the “Ensuring Public Involvement in the Creation of National Monuments Act” would severely constrain the president’s power to conserve wildlands via the Antiquities Act. As the bill’s sponsor, Utah Republican Congressman Rob Bishop, explains it: “The president ought to formally be required to consider the input of local communities and states prior to declaring new national monuments.”

Sleeping Bear Dunesphoto by Josh Kellogg, on FlickrSleeping Bear Dunes, on the shore of Lake Michigan

At first glance, the bill may appear like yet another predictable partisan fight over environmental protection, with Democrats demanding more conservation as Republicans fight for more resource extraction on public lands. But the story is more complicated – and more interesting – than that.

For generations there has existed a bi-partisan enthusiasm for protecting America’s unique wild places. Republicans, following in the tradition of Teddy Roosevelt, often celebrated the wilderness as a crucible of the nation’s pioneering character. Democrats, continuing on the path blazed by Henry David Thoreau and John Muir, praised the wild as a sacred place, a spiritual resource for personal renewal. In 1984, for example, Congress passed 20 wilderness bills protecting some 8 million acres; nearly every one had bi-partisan co-sponsors.

This history of collaboration might seem to be in shreds. The previous Congress, the 112th, was the first since 1964 not to designate any new wilderness areas. But when, last month, Congress finally got around to passing its first wilderness bill in five years – a measure to protect 32,500 acres of the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore in Michigan – the accomplishment received praise from both sides of the aisle. Republican Congressman Dan Benishek of Michigan called the bill, which the House approved unanimously, a “huge win … for the citizens of Northern Michigan.” And remember that during last year’s government shutdown, Congressman Bishop’s home state of Utah rushed to pick up the tab to keep its national parks open.

As Congressmen Benishek and Bishop know, many of their constituents see real value in wilderness conservation – both the ineffable worth of wild places and wildlife, as …more

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Showtime Series Uses Star Power to Drive Home the Truth About Our Warming World

Can a 60 Minutes-meets-Ocean’s Eleven show on climate change lure viewers away from Don Draper?

A Sunday night primetime television show, a documentary series at that, on climate change — that’s kind of ambitious, wouldn’t you say?

actor Harrison Ford with an orangutanHarrison Ford stirred up quite a flutter during his reporting trip to Indonesia when he bore down upon the country's foreign minister, asking repeatedly nothing was being done to curb illegal logging.

But add in a star cast of Hollywood heroes — Harrison Ford, Jessica Alba, Don Cheadle, and Matt Damon. Mix in some hotshot journalists — The New York Times’ Tom Friedman, CBS’ Lesley Stahl, and MSNBC’s Chris Hayes. Have them travel around the country and different parts of the world to report on the causes of global warming, and talk with regular folks who are bearing the brunt of our rapidly changing biosphere— and well, you just might have the right recipe for a crowd-puller.

At least that’s what the producers of Years of Living Dangerously, a nine-part series on climate change that kicks off this Sunday at 10 p.m., are hoping. As are most environmentalists (yours truly, included), who constantly struggle to find ways to communicate the grim fallouts of spewing invisible gases to our atmosphere to a public that’s exposed to a daily dose of climate denialism.

Conceptualized by former 60 Minutes journalists, Joel Bach and David Gelber, the executive producers of the series include Hollywood director James Cameron (of Avatar, Titanic fame), former California Gubernator Arnold Schwarzenegger, producer Jerry Weintraub (Ocean’s Eleven), and clean tech guru Dan Abbasi. The reporting is informed by a crack team of climate scientists, including James Hansen, Michael Mann, Joe Romm, and Dr Heidi Cullen, who described the series as “60 Minutes-meets-Ocean’s Eleven.”  

Actor Dan Cheadle talks with Texans who are facing the brunt of the ongoing drought.Dan Cheadle meets with Texans who are bearing the brunt of the long drought.

The series consist of multiple stories on climate change that play out over the course of nine episodes. Each individual “correspondent” explores a specific impact of our warming world — from Superstorm Sandy to political instability in the Middle East, to melting Arctic ice. The stories also focus on how climate change is affecting the life of everyday Americans and offers some ideas about how they can be part of the solution.

The first …more

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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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