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When Building Sustainable Societies, There’s No Better Guide than the Human Scale

We need to fashion communities such that individuals become neighbors and lovers instead of just acquaintances and ciphers

It can be fairly objected that every age has its crises and so far the ingenuity of the human brain or the capacity of human society has been able to solve, or appear to solve, most of them. No matter how problems have grown in the past they have not interfered with the sort of growth that has characterized Western civilization in the modern period. But that lesson from the past disguises one important fact of the present: our crises now proceed, like the very growth of our systems, exponentially.

da vinci's vetruvian man sketchPhoto Wikimedia CommonsLeonardo da Vinci's The Vitruvian Man sketch was his exploration of the theories about human proportions set forth by ancient Roman architect Vitruvius. “Human scale” was originally an architectural term, used to describe the components of a building in relation to the people who use it.

“During the past two centuries,” in the words of M. King Hubbert, the prescient geophysicist with the United States Geological Survey, “we have known nothing but exponential growth, and we have evolved what amounts to an exponential growth culture, a culture so heavily dependent upon the continuance of exponential growth for its stability that it is incapable of reckoning with problems of non-growth.”

Obviously the solutions to these crises, even when they are identified and tried, have done nothing to diminish the impact of exponential growth, and indeed the solutions turn out to be problems, or generate unforeseen problems, as often as not. That is why it is necessary to turn in a totally different direction with a totally different mindset and expectation—a way, as I will show you, to the human scale.

It is now obvious that the way we have been going, particularly for the last 25 years, has plunged us into multiple environmental and social crises, and going on in that direction invites, if it does not guarantee, civilization’s collapse within the next 25. That is no exaggeration: as Pope Francis said in his June 2015 encyclical, “Doomsday predictions can no longer be met with irony or disdain.”

So to save our planet and its civilizations we must move in an opposite direction, we must work toward the decentralization of institutions, the devolution of power, and the dismantling of all large-scale systems that have created or perpetuated the current crises. In their place, smaller, more controllable, more efficient, more sensitive, people-sized units, rooted in local environments and guided by local citizens. That is the human-scale alternative.

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Environment Takes the Biggest Hit in Trump’s Budget Blueprint

EPA budget slashed by 31 percent, funding for key climate change programs scuttled

Donald Trump’s first budget blueprint, released today, hits the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and other federal climate change programs and initiatives the hardest while rewarding extractive industries and polluters.

photo of Great LakesPhoto by Joel DindaTrump's budget blueprint slashes funding for the EPA and eliminates funding for programs like the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, which has helped address pollution in the Great Lake system, including Lake Michigan (pictured).

The $54 billion in cuts to federal programs in the president’s Budget Blueprint to Make America Great Again slashes the EPA’s annual spending by more than 31 percent; cuts $250 million that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOOA) spends on grants and programs that support coastal and marine management, research, and education; and ceases payments to the United Nations' climate change programs such as the Green Climate Fund and Climate Investment Fund.

The EPA budget will slip from $8.2 billion to $5.6 billion — lower than it’s been in four decades. Proposed cuts include the scuttling of more than 50 EPA programs and the elimination of 3,200 staff positions (over 20 percent of the department).

The blueprint also envisions ending funding for President Obama's signature Clean Power Plan aimed at reducing carbon dioxide emissions; cutting $900 million from the Energy Department’s Office of Science, which has funded cutting-edge research on projects such as biofuels, nuclear power, and other advanced techniques for energy generation, storage, and use; and eliminating $102 million in funding for NASA’s earth science program (which would terminate four missions related to climate change).

According to Legal Planet, cut EPA programs include Energy Star, Targeted Airshed Grants, the Endocrine Disruptor Screening Program, and infrastructure support for Native villages in Alaska that are rapidly losing land due to climate change. Funding for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, the Chesapeake Bay clean-up, and other "regional efforts" would also be axed. Most of the cuts come as no surprise to the environmental community given the new administration's pro-industry stance and the fact that Trump had spoken about gutting the EPA in the past.

The cuts also hit the 60-year-old State Department Food for Peace Program, which sends food to poor countries hit by war or natural disasters, and the $3 billion Community Development Block Grant program, which funds popular programs like Meals on Wheels.

"I think it’s fundamentally a signal from this president that the US is going to back away from all of the international architecture that’s …more

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The Way Forward Post Zinke’s Repeal of Obama Ban on Lead Ammunition

We need to engage hunters and anglers in an open dialogue about the true cost of lead contamination

With frontier flair, Ryan Zinke showed up for his first day of work as interior secretary on horseback on March 2. The former Montana congressman hadn’t been out of the saddle long before he took aim at Obama’s ban on lead ammunition and fishing tackle in in national parks and wildlife refuges.

man fly fishingPhoto by Joseph/FlickrWhile the ban has been removed from some 500 million acres of federally administered lands where hunting and angling is allowed, some states — including Maine, New Hampshire, New York, and Vermont — already restrict the use of lead bait and tackle.

Surrounded by representatives from a host of sportsman’s organizations, including the National Rifle Association, Zinke overturned President Obama’s last minute effort to protect wildlife and human health. The repeal of the ban was one of two secretarial orders, which Zinke said would “expand access to public lands and increase hunting, fishing, and recreation opportunities nationwide.” Zinke expressed a concern about Obama-era restrictions that he believes threatens to make hunting and fishing out of reach to everyone but “the land-owning elite.”

The ban had been issued by the US Fish and Wildlife Service on January 19, one day before the inauguration of President Donald Trump, to protect birds and fish from lead poisoning.

Many conservationists are crying foul, calling the move a clear effort to pander to the National Rifle Association (NRA) and other hunting groups. (The NRA had called the ban a “final assault on gun owners’ and sportsmen’s rights” as it would force them to buy more expensive steel and copper bullets.)

WildEarth Guardians’ Wild Places program director Greg Dyson expressed disappointment with Zinke’s order to lift the ban. In an email message, he wrote, “The existing order pertained only to lands managed by the USFWS, in other words, wildlife refuges. If we can’t put wildlife first in wildlife refuges, then that’s pretty sad.”

While the ban has been removed from some 500 million acres of federally administered lands where hunting is allowed, some states — including Maine, New Hampshire, New York, and Vermont — already restrict the use of lead bait and tackle. And California will institute the nation’s first statewide ban on lead ammunition and tackle in 2019.

However, there are some conservationists who question whether a ban would have been effective in the first place. The National Wildlife Federation — a conservation group that has worked for decades to reduce the use of lead ammunition and tackle …more

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The Fossil Fuel Industry’s Quiet Colonization of American Academia

Corporate capture of academic research by fossil fuel interests is a threat to tackling climate change

On February 16, the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center hosted a film screening of the "Rational Middle Energy Series." The university promoted the event as “Finding Energy’s Rational Middle” and described the film’s motivation as “a need and desire for a balanced discussion about today’s energy issues.”

photo of BP and BerkeleyPhoto by Joe HallFrom Harvard to UC Berkeley, fossil fuel interests have colonized nearly every nook and cranny of energy and climate policy research in American universities.

Who can argue with balance and rationality? And with Harvard’s stamp of approval, surely the information presented to students and the public would be credible and reliable. Right?

Wrong.

The event’s sponsor was Shell Oil Company. The producer of the film series was Shell. The film’s director is vice president of a family-owned oil and gas company, and has taken approximately $300,000 from Shell. The host, Harvard Kennedy School, has received at least $3.75 million from Shell. And the event’s panel included a Shell executive vice president.

The film The Great Transition says natural gas is “clean” (in terms of carbon emissions, it is not) and that low-carbon, renewable energy is a “very long time off” (which is a political judgment, not a fact). Amy Myers Jaffe, identified in the film as the executive director of Energy and Sustainability at the University of California, Davis, says, “We need to be realistic that we’re gonna use fossil fuels now, because in the end, we are.” We are not told that she is a member of the US National Petroleum Council.

The film also features Richard Newell, who is identified as a former administrator at the US Energy Information Administration. “You can get 50 percent reductions in your emissions relative to coal through natural gas,” he says, ignoring the methane leaks that undermine such claims. The film neglects to mention that the Energy Initiative Newell founded and directed at Duke University was given $4 million by an executive vice president of a natural gas company.

Michelle Michot Foss, who offers skepticism about battery production for renewables, is identified as the chief energy economist at the Center for Energy Economics at the University of Texas at Austin. What’s not said is that the Energy Institute she founded at UT Austin is funded by Chevron, ExxonMobil, and …more

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Natural Burial Industry Is Greening End-of-Life Options

From underwater reefs to woodland cemeteries, eco-burials help reduce postmortum pollution

As people grow increasingly concerned about reducing their carbon footprint, a natural byproduct of greener lives is greener exits. That’s where the fledgling green burial industry comes in, catering to the millions who don’t want pollution to be their postmortem legacy. From bicycle hearses to biodegradable urns to burlap sacks, this booming new biz is spurning an end-of-life revolution.

natural burialPhoto courtesy of Memorial EcosystemsA natural burial site at Ramsey Creek Preserve, a green cemetery in Westminster, South Carolina.

Eco-burial options offer an alternative to standard western practices. Of the roughly half of Americans who opt for burial, the process often involves injecting the body with formaldehyde and other solvents to slow decomposition, placement in a wood or metal casket, and a final resting place in a plastic-lined concrete. In a single year, burials in the US require felling of some 30 million board feet of wood for caskets, 90,000 tons of steel, and 800,000 gallons of embalming fluid. Cremation, too, comes with it’s own downsides, resulting in emissions of dioxin, hydrochloric acid, and carbon dioxide, among other substances.    

Those in the green burial industry see a different path ahead, one that is less resource intensive and pollution-heavy. One that allows families to be involved in the end-of-life process, and that provides varied choices regarding how and where loved-ones are laid to rest, whether in the middle of the woods or the deep sea.

Sarasota, Florida-based company Eternal Reefs, for example, gives new meaning to the idea of being “one with the ocean." Founded in 1998 by college friends and avid scuba divers Todd Barber and Don Brawley, the company mixes the ashes of the dearly departed with environmentally safe concrete to create “reef balls,” the foundation for artificial reefs.  Eternal reef then casts these burial reef balls into the sea. The porous, pod-like structures, which can be adorned with a small plaque, as well as handprints and messages from loved ones, help marine environments thrive and create natural resting places teeming with life.

“It’s the best of both worlds,” Barber said. “You’re not taking up land, which is a precious thing, and you’re eternally nourishing marine life.”

Barber explains that for “a culture that loves options,” alternatives to mainstream burial practices are especially appealing. They can also simply make more sense. Graves require maintenance after all, and with families scattered (and nuclear families no longer the norm), reef balls can help loved ones avoid …more

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A Narrative in Five Parts: Sandhill Cranes

Witnessing an ancient ritual play out by the Platte River

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It is 19 degrees at 6 am in mid-March in Kearney, Nebraska. 
I am in a bird blind at the Rowe Sanctuary awaiting the fly-off
of sandhill cranes. There are hundreds of thousands of cranes –
murmuring, purring, babbling among themselves. It is impossible
to speak above them, and whispering is barely allowed as I await
their fly-off. Last night I witnessed their fly-over and landing,
a majestic sight, one that I would call the 8th wonder of the world.

photo of many cranes on the wing, sunset skyphotos by MarianneClick or tap any of these to view larger

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They had arrived at early sunset, a radiant orange-yellow with
outlines of leafless trees stark against the low horizon. They
came in small noisy groups, then circled in massive numbers,
jabbering, the sky so filled with cranes it was as if a giant surge
of some other life form had consumed everything else, every
thought, every worry; it was a lightness of pure joy. Those
milling flocks of birds pumping their gray feathered bodies,
gliding through the evening sky were a giant bubbling,
talking mass, seeking their night’s sleep as they have for
thousands of years on one of the many sand bars in the
Platte River.

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Now, the morning after, as I await their departure, they are
murmuring again, louder, as a few birds stir restlessly. Still
dark, I know they are nearby, even though I cannot envision
how many there are. Not until the light eases over the Platte
River does this ancient feathered congregation begin to take
form. These are the huddled masses, huge groups tightly bound,
standing in shallow water to avoid predators. Expansive swaths
of cranes have gathered as far as my eyes can see — gray clarifying
into shapes as the sun continues emerging from the horizon.
One large group, just in front of the blind I am in, burnishes
golden as sunlight slowly spreads across the flocks.

photo of many cranes on a marsh

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Suddenly ruffling begins, a stretching of wings, the murmuring
still louder, and thousands of cranes swish into flight, massive wings
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Strawberries, Spinach Top Dirty Dozen List of Produce Containing Pesticides

Report finds pesticide residues often remain on fruits and vegetables even after they are washed

For the second year in a row, strawberries topped the “Dirty Dozen” list of pesticide-contaminated produce that the Environmental Working Group complies every year. Spinach was a close second on the list of fruits and vegetables to avoid released by EWG last evening.

photo of strawberries with pesticidesPhoto by Jerry BurkeStrawberries topped the "Dirty Dozen" list of pesticide-contaminated foods, bad news for the average American who eats nearly eight pounds of fresh strawberries a year. 

Given that the average American eats nearly eight pounds of fresh strawberries a year, this isn’t the best news for most of us. EWG’s annual update of its “Shopper's Guide to Pesticides in Produce” — which is based on an analysis of tests run by the US Department of Agriculture — found that the most contaminated sample of strawberries had a whopping 20 different pesticides.

Some of the chemicals detected on strawberries are relatively benign, but others are linked to cancer, reproductive and developmental damage, hormone disruption, and neurological problems. Spinach samples, meanwhile, had an average of twice as much pesticide residue by weight than any other crop. Three-fourths of spinach samples had residues of a neurotoxic pesticide that’s linked to behavioral disorders in young children and has been banned in Europe for use on food crops.

The analysis also found that nearly 70 percent of the 48 different conventional produce samples tested by the USDA were contaminated with residues of one or more pesticides. In all, USDA researchers found 178 different pesticides and pesticide breakdown products in the thousands of fruit and vegetable samples tested in 2016.

The pesticide residues remained on fruits and vegetables even after they were washed and, in some cases, peeled.

For the Dirty Dozen list, EWG singled out produce with the highest loads of pesticide residues. In addition to strawberries and spinach, this year’s list includes nectarines, apples, peaches, celery, grapes, pears, cherries, tomatoes, sweet bell peppers, and potatoes. Pears and potatoes were new additions to the list, displacing cherry tomatoes and cucumbers from last year's list.

And in especially gloomy news for a spicy food lover like me, the list has been expanded again this year to highlight hot peppers, especially jalapeno, Serrano, and Anaheim peppers. Though hot peppers do not meet EWG’s traditional ranking criteria, researchers found them to be contaminated with insecticides like acephate, chlorpyrifos, and oxamyl that are toxic to the human nervous system. These insecticides are banned on some crops …more

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