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George Will Misses the Mark on Divestment

Campus sustainability movements are no more fundamentalist than Will’s unbridled faith in the free market

Last week, Washington Post columnist George Will took a swing at the campus divestment movement that is spreading across the country, arguing that sustainability has “gone mad” on college campuses. 

Divest from Fossil FuelPhoto by Light Brigading, on Flickr The environmental movement doesn’t fit into the stale boomer-era narrative of left versus right.

Will started out predictably at first, claiming that divestment from fossil fuels is ineffective. It soon became obvious, however, that the divestment movement may indeed pose a serious threat to Will’s worldview. His rhetorical license crescendoed as he compared those committed to sustainability and divestment to religious fundamentalists. But thinly veiled name-calling is the surest sign of a weak argument.

More important than what Will wrote in his column is what he left out. Although Will criticized sundry other divestment movements inspired by “involvement with Israel, firearms, tobacco, red meat, irrigation-dependent agriculture, etc.,” he conveniently omitted apartheid from that litany. Why omit the largest example of a successful divestment movement? This isn’t the first time Will has been on the wrong side of history: Decades ago he criticized the “moral Hula Hoop” of sanctions against the apartheid regime, an amazing campaign that proved to be much more than a passing “fad.” Maybe his recent criticism of the “flamboyant futility” of the fossil fuel divestment movement stems from the fact that the strategy can serve as an effective catalyst. 

Will also summarily dismissed the fossil fuel divestment movement as an indulgence in “progressive gestures” and incorrectly characterized the environmental movement as a left-wing revival. Nothing could be further from the truth. The environmental movement doesn’t fit into the stale boomer-era narrative of left versus right. Many environmental thinkers question the assumptions of the philosophers of plenty — whether Karl Marx or Adam Smith. 

Indeed, most greens are critical of the environmental degradation hidden behind the banner of progress in both capitalist and planned economies of the past. Today, what difference does it make if carbon emissions are coming from a tailpipe in a capitalist country or a smokestack in a socialist one? Will is wrong to assume that environmentalists are motivated out of loyalty to leftist ideology and that the movement is a “green tree with red roots,” as he has written in the past. Perhaps it is not green but gray …more

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Fighting for Our Oceans

From Haiti to Scotland, Goldman Environmental Prize winners tackle marine management challenges

In an era of seemingly unlimited threats to the environment, ocean health is one of the most urgent and severe challenges facing activists today. The oceans are under fire from almost uncountable ills, including rampant overfishing, ocean acidification, plastics pollution, oil spills, and ocean dumping, to name a few. But although the challenges are humbling, there are some activists who have faced them head-on, and with astounding success.

Goldman PrizePhoto courtesy of Goldman AwardsJean Wiener has worked for more than two decades to protect Haiti’s coastal environment and empower local communities.

Jean Wiener and Howard Wood may live 4,000 miles apart, but their lives have taken many similar turns. Both grew up surrounded by water, and have a deep love of the ocean, expressed through years of snorkeling in Haiti’s tropical waters in Wiener’s case, and through chilly dives off the Scottish coast in Wood’s. Over time, both witnessed dire changes in their local coastal zones, and both responded by working tirelessly for marine protection. Through decades of persistence, both men built community support for improved marine management and helped shape stronger national ocean policies. And on Monday, both were among this year’s recipients of the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize.

Growing up in Haiti, Wiener’s family spent every weekend at the beach, and he remembers being drawn to the water from the time he could walk. After attending college in the United States — where he fittingly chose to major in marine biology — Wiener returned to a changed Haiti, finding that the Caribbean waters had deteriorated while he was gone. In particular, mangrove forests were being decimated for use as fuel and coastal zones were being severely overfished.

Eighty percent of the population in Haiti lives in poverty. Local communities that use – and often deplete – natural resources are merely trying to get by. Recognizing this crucial link, and realizing that there were no other organizations addressing natural resource protection issues in Haiti, in 1992 Wiener established the Foundation for the Protection of Marine Biodiversity (FoProBiM), which combines coastal protection campaigns with economic empowerment.

Through FoProBiM, Wiener has worked with local communities to develop educational programs as well as conservation projects that provide a source of income for local residents. As Wiener put it, if you ask people to stop fishing or to stop …more

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You Shall Not Pass

Goldman Environmental Prize winners lay their bodies on the line to halt destructive practices

When Marilyn Baptiste, chief of the Xeni Gwet’in community of the Tsilhqot’in First Nation in British Columbia, was told by two members of her tribe that a long line of trucks and heavy equipment was headed into the nation’s territory, she knew she would have to act quickly to stop them. It was November 2011, and three years earlier a Canadian mining corporation, Taseko Mines Limited, had announced its plans to dig a massive, open-pit copper and gold mine on the tribe’s territory in an area called Fish Lake. The company had failed to receive all of the necessary permits from the Canadian federal government to construct the mine, but it was determined to begin some exploratory excavation anyway. By sheer luck, a couple of Tsilhqot’in members were out moose hunting when they spotted the convoy of industrial equipment entering tribal lands, and they rushed to tell Baptiste about it.  

Goldman Environmental PrizePhoto courtesy of Goldman AwardsGoldman Environmental Prize winner Marilyn Baptiste takes a drink out of Chilko Lake, the Tsihqot’in’s main watershed Nemiah Valley, British Columbia, Canada.

“Well, they call it a ‘moral blockade’ — it was myself and my hubby and my late niece,” Baptiste, 44, told me in a recent interview. “And basically the intent was to stop them and to ask them to exit our territory. And that’s what they did.”

The Taseko Mines exploratory convoy included 12 vehicles, including four semi flatbeds with bulldozers and drilling rigs. The way Baptiste tells the story, she and her husband parked their truck diagonally across the road to stop the convoy. The two parties “yakked back and forth … and basically the supervisor said they had a permit and they were going into the area to do exploration.” But the Tsilhqot’in live in what they call “unceded territory” — meaning that they never signed a treaty with white Canadian settlers relinquishing their lands. As mining company security personnel began videotaping the confrontation, Baptiste “advised them they didn’t have jurisdiction.” She told them, “They had not consulted with us. And to please leave our territory.”

Eventually officers with the Royal Canadian Mountain Police showed up. After a three-hour standoff that, as Baptiste says, “felt like it was forever,” the miners said they would turn the convey around and leave Tsilhqot’in land. “By the time they were all …more

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Five Years after the BP Deepwater Horizon Disaster, Oil Spills Are on the Rise

Offshore and onshore, oil and gas operations and transportation appear no safer than before

Five years after the BP Deepwater Horizon blowout in the Gulf of Mexico sparked national outrage, oil spills remain a routine occurrence across the United States. Yet many receive little — if any — national attention. The enormity and unprecedented scale of the BP disaster demanded a federal emergency response and captured daily headlines for months. But oil spills and pipeline ruptures occur daily – as they have nearly every day since the Deepwater Horizon exploded on April 20, 2010. While many are relatively small in comparison, they still pose threats to public safety, health, and the environment.  

Deepwater HorizonPhoto by Ideum - ideas + media, on Flickr The Deepwater Horizon offshore drilling platform on fire following the explosion of the Macondo oil well. The federal government estimates that 4.9 million barrels of oil spilled into the Gulf of Mexico before the well was capped.

The images and details of the BP Deepwater Horizon episode are unforgettable. On the evening of April 20, 2010, the Macondo offshore oil well located almost a mile under the sea surface and about 50 miles southeast of Venice, Louisiana exploded, killing 11 of the 126 workers on board the drilling platform and critically injuring three. The cataclysmic explosion unleashed what’s considered to be the largest accidental release of oil in US history. By the time the well was capped and the underwater flow of oil stopped on July 15, at least 3 million and perhaps nearly 5 million barrels of oil had spilled into the Gulf of Mexico, affecting more than 350 miles of coastline form Louisiana to Florida. (The estimates vary depending on source but the federal government estimate is 4.9 million barrels, or almost 206 million gallons.) Five years later, the impacts of the oil and the measures deployed to contain and remove it — on fragile wetlands and barrier islands, beaches, marine wildlife and on coastal communities and those involved in the oil spill cleanup — are still being felt and tallied.

One might think that such a catastrophic event would have put a damper on US oil and gas production and forestalled additional spills and other unintentional fuel releases. Neither has happened despite political leaders’ pledges to prevent future accidents and rethink US reliance on fossil fuels.

On June 15, 2010, speaking from the Oval Office in …more

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In Review: Antarctic Edge: 70° South

A beautifully filmed journey to the bottom of the globe reveals new risks to the planet

There’s an old saying: “Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it.” Well, here’s a film about a few people who are doing something about extreme weather. Every spring (in the Southern Hemisphere) oceanographers and ecologists of the Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) project make the arduous journey to Palmer Station in the West Antarctic Peninsula. The area has been described as “the fastest winter-warming place on Earth,” and because of that unfortunate distinction it is among the best places on the planet to study the impacts of global climate change.

photo of a tiny boat zipping toward an ice sheetFirst Run Features photoA scene from Antarctic Edge: 70° South, a film by Dena Seidel

For the first time since LTER was established at the remote Palmer outpost by the United States National Science Foundation in 1990, a crew of filmmakers were allowed to accompany LTER team members to Antarctica. The resulting documentary film – Antarctic Edge: 70° South – is impressive. Director Dena Seidel and her crew have made one of the most informative films shot on location in the polar regions since Robert Flaherty’s groundbreaking Eskimo epic Nanook of the North was made at the Canadian Arctic in 1922. But instead of focusing on human inhabitants, Antarctic Edge: 70° is primarily concerned with the West Antarctic Peninsula’s penguins, whales, elephant seals, and seabirds as they confront global warming.

With a “you-are-there” vibe Seidel’s digital cameras transport viewers to the world’s final (if no longer fully frozen) frontier, one that’s sometimes literally off the charts. Various peninsula sites are still designated on maps as “PA” and “PD”: Position Approximate or Position Doubtful. The documentary, funded in part by National Science Foundation, opens with this worrisome caption, “May 2014: Scientists declared West Antarctic ice sheet melt unstoppable.” Throughout the film members of the interdisciplinary team of scientists explain the implications of that fact, which usually come across as dire pronouncements.

Biological oceanographer Oscar Schofield, who made his first Antarctic excursion in 1987, described the continent then as being “the land of the gods… like no other place on Earth.” But now the place is changing. The season for growing winter sea ice at the West Antarctic Peninsula is now, astonishingly, three months shorter per year. Antarctic Edge points out this reduction in ice has the potential to not …more

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From California to São Paulo, Challenging Agribusiness’s Water Monopoly

As Brazil's São Paulo taps out its water reserves, questions linger about how much the state's water utility distributes to sugarcane for ethanol production

By now, most are aware of California's unprecedented mandatory water restrictions, which Governor Brown ordered earlier this month. Many also know that these limits apply exclusively to urban water agencies, even though cities use only about 20 percent of California's total surface water reservoirs. California farms, on the other hand, use 80 percent of the state's surface water. While Governor Jerry Brown has defended this allocation for economic reasons, critics note that agriculture only accounts for 2 percent of the state's GDP. Regardless, the power of the agriculture lobby may ensure that pressures to cut back on water use will be shouldered by ordinary citizens living in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and other growing cities across the state.

photo of a dry lakePhoto by ClairexA dry branch of the Atibainha reservoir, which is part of São Paulo’s Cantareira system of reservoirs. Last year, the Cantareira reservoir was hit especially hard by drought, compounding management problems.

The water pains in the world's seventh largest economy are also being felt within the eighth: Brazil. The nation's most populous city, São Paulo, officially tapped out its supply of water on March 15, leaving millions with water access at only irregular hours, and millions of favela dwellers with even less access to water. The Guardian reported of neighbors fighting over measly remaining water reserves, and of armed groups looting emergency water trucks; NPR says people are drilling guerrilla wells across the city, potentially contaminating underground aquifers.

Last year, two of the main reserve systems that supply the city with water, the Cantareira and the Alto Tietê, were hit especially hard by drought, which the governor of São Paulo state has blamed for current water shortages. However, a UN report shows that reserve volume had already been declining for the past five years, meaning that the drought simply compounded management problems. The report cites mismanagement and poor preparation by the state government and its semi-public water utility, SabeSP, which distributes and purifies water in the region.

This has raised questions over how SabeSP distributes water between urban areas like São Paulo city and surrounding agricultural land. Like California, much of the available surface water in São Paulo state is directed toward agriculture (45 percent) or industry (14 percent). A further 36 percent is completely lost to …more

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Farming with Robots

Can more mechanization reduce the use of chemical herbicides?

Weeds, farmers’ biggest headache since time immemorial, just won’t stop popping up.

Modern agricultural technology thought it had weeds beaten with its synthetic pesticides and gene manipulation. But nature has come roaring back with evolved weeds robust enough to resist the chemicals farmers typically throw at them. And so they throw more. But herbicide overuse threatens the health of insect and animal life, and maybe ours, too. Last month an agency of the World Health Organization declared glyphosate – the active ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup – a possible human carcinogen.

But technology may yet come to the rescue. Teams of engineers around the world are hard at work inventing cutting-edge, weed-busting robots to step in and take over from broadcast herbicides. These robots just might make good on biotechnology’s broken promise: reducing the amount of chemicals used to grow our food.

photo of a solar panel-covered device on wheels in a farm fieldphoto courtesy the Australian Centre for Field RoboticsThe Ladybird, an autonomous weed-killer.

Technology has made it possible for just 2 percent of the US population to feed the rest of the nation. Biotechnology’s herbicide-tolerant crops made weed suppression easier with blanket spraying. Today, the vast majority of soybean, corn and cotton fields are planted with glyphosate-tolerant varieties.

According to a study by Charles Benbrook, total herbicide use in the United States increased by 527 million pounds between 1996 and 2011. That opened the door to glyphosate-resistant weeds, which now infest more than 62 million acres of US cropland, threatening farmers’ yields. The farm chemical industry’s solution? They’re promoting new seeds, this time tolerant of the additional and more toxic herbicides 2,4-D and dicamba. The chemical treadmill just keeps going.

Now, it’s a long way from “The Jetsons” to today’s farm robots. Most weeding bots still can’t navigate themselves around a farm field. They depend on a human driver, who brings a common sense approach, something engineers can’t yet program into computers.

But what robots do bring is enough accuracy and precision to potentially reverse escalating herbicide use trends (though they would not necessarily eliminate the use of herbicides). Using sophisticated computer vision technology, robots can distinguish weeds and either uproot or shoot them with tiny spot sprays of a deadly liquid. Even if that liquid is a conventional herbicide, …more

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