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A Chronicle of Edward Abbey and Radical Environmental Movements

In Review: Wrenched

The new film Wrenched, by filmmaker ML Lincoln, explores the life of environmental writer and activist Edward Abbey and the direct action environmental movements that he helped to inspire. Rather than focusing purely on Abbey himself, Lincoln told me in our correspondence about the film that, “Wrenched is about his actions.”  Lincoln, a longtime activist herself, worked on the film for over seven years and interviewed 40 people, including many of Abbey’s long-time friends and associates. This is her second feature length documentary, and follows her 2007 film Drowning River about the loss of Glen Canyon underneath the Powell Reservoir in Arizona.

 Glen Canyon DamPhoto by Mark Stevens, on FlickrThe construction of the Glen Canyon Dam and subsequent drowning of Glen Canyon had a significant impact on the maturation of Edward Abbey’s worldview.

Wrenched excels at exploring the origins of direct action environmental movements in the United States, and particularly Abbey’s environmental activism in the Southwest.

In doing so, the film delves into Abbey’s early life and his emergence as a writer and activist, including his involvement in anti-war activism during the Second World War and the beginning of the nuclear age. This period was critical to the formation of his perspectives on the terrifying destructive power of industrial capitalism at the middle of the twentieth century. The film also touches on two events significant in the history of the Southwest that were also central to the maturation of Abby’s worldview: The construction of the Glen Canyon Dam and subsequent drowning of Glen Canyon, and the Central Arizona Project, through which Colorado river water was diverted to Arizona’s desert cities, pumped by coal from the Black Mesa plateau.

In the film, Abbey’s own participation in direct action, or “night moves” as he describes them, are explored in the context of his writing, his activism, and the movements that he helped to inspire. The film gives a rough history of the origins of Earth First!, the radical environmental group that that was inspired by Abbey’s writings. It examines several instances of state repression in the 1980s and 1990s, and highlights FBI infiltration, instigation, and, as some would say, entrapment, related to the so-called Arizona 5, a group of Earth First! members arrested for conspiracy to sabotage nuclear power plants. The film also describes the …more

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New York’s Fracking Ban is a Major Setback for the Oil and Gas Industry

Activists are now laying the groundwork for a national campaign against "extreme energy"

Five years ago it wasn’t a question of if fracking would come to New York but when. Yesterday’s decision by Gov. Andrew Cuomo to ban high volume hydraulic fracturing in the state is a measure of how much things have changed in a relatively short period of time. New York is the first state, other than Vermont (which has little or no proven shale deposits) to ban the controversial drilling technique. New York’s decision is particularly striking given that it sits atop the mother of all gas reserves: the Marcellus Shale. In no uncertain terms the decision is a major setback for the oil and gas industry in North America.

anti-fracking protestors in Albany, NYPhoto courtesy 350.org Environmental activists now have an ambitious goal: they want to connect the dots and change the national dialogue on energy production and put an end to all types of fossil fuel consumption.

When I visited Wes Gillingham, the program director of Catskill Mountainkeeper, in 2009, hydraulic fracturing was still an insider’s game. As Gillingham told me earlier this week, when he tried to research the process six or seven years ago, nothing came up. The word wasn’t in circulation. And the only information available was from industry sources or geologists. In other words you had to know where to look.

Today the opposite is true. Fracking is everywhere. It’s been the subject of studio films, documentaries, and countless investigative news stories and even featured on an episode of the Simpsons. Since 2012, when Cuomo asked the New York Department of Health to conduct a review of fracking, the number of peer-reviewed studies on its environmental impacts has nearly quadrupled, Gillingham says. And the vast majority of those studies suggest that fracking poses a serious threat to human health and the environment. Indeed that was the primary argument put forward by state health commissioner Howard Zucker in presenting the findings of a long awaited report. Zucker summed it up this way: “Would I live in a community that allowed fracking? The answer is no.” (Numerous towns across New York had already come to the same conclusion passing moratoriums and restrictions on fracking.)

With the science and media attention public opinion has shifted too. A poll conducted earlier this year found that 79 percent of New Yorkers support a moratorium on fracking. Even so Cuomo’s …more

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Travelers: Put Your Money Where Your Beliefs Are

Top 10 countries in the developing world that treat their people and environment well

Most of us love to travel, and most of us want to have a positive impact on the world. If you do it right, one Earth Island Institute project asserts, you can do both at the same time. By spending your travel dollars in forward-thinking countries, you can reward the good guys, and encourage good practices worldwide.  

A blue-green lake with boatsPhoto by Andrew GibsonCape Verde made it to Ethical Traveler's 10 Best Ethical Destinations list for 2015.

Each year, California-based nonprofit Ethical Traveler researches and publishes a list of the 10 most ethical destinations in the developing world. Each country is reviewed for its performance in the areas of human rights, social welfare, animal welfare, and protection of the environment. That’s not all— a winning country also must have plenty of appeal as a travel destination.     

Though we are diligent in creating this list, we must continually remind ourselves: No country is perfect. All have genuine and often serious shortcomings. Each of our winners, however, is making a genuine effort to “do the right thing” in the many areas we take into consideration. We sincerely hope that inclusion on this list will motivate them to continue and improve upon their good work.

How the List is Created:

To begin, Ethical Traveler conducts a survey of developing nations — from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe — to identify the world’s best travel and tourism destinations. We begin our research by focusing on three general categories: environmental protection, social welfare and human rights. In 2013, responding to requests from our members, we added animal welfare to our investigations.

For each of these categories, we look at information past and present so that we understand not only the current state of a country, but how it has changed over time. This helps us select nations that are actively improving the state of their people, government and environment.

A streetscape in Vilinus, Latvia Photo by David Kosmos SmithEach place selected also offers unspoiled natural beauty, great outdoor activities, and the
opportunity to interact with local people and cultures in a meaningful, mutually enriching way.

In this first phase of our process, we consider country scores from a variety of databases related to one of the three categories, using information from sources like …more

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New York State to Ban Fracking Over ‘Red Flags’ to Public Health

Decision comes after two-year study into the effects of fracking on the state’s air and water raises ‘serious questions’

The state of New York said it would ban the controversial practice of hydraulic fracturing on Wednesday because of “red flags” about its risks to public health.

The ban puts one of the last great areas of untapped potential in the Marcellus Shale off-limits to the oil and gas industry.

anti-fracking protest in NYCPhoto by Adam Welz for CREDO ActionToday's decision for a frack-free zone across an entire state is the biggest obstacle to date to an industry that has had rapid growth across a number of other states.

The decision was reached after a two-year study into the effects of fracking on the state’s air and water, and announced at a cabinet meeting in Albany.

“The takeaway that I get from the data is that there are serious questions about public health,” Governor Andrew Cuomo, said.

New York State has had a moratorium on fracking for the past five years – and more than 120 towns across the state have outlawed the practice.

But Wednesday’s decision for a frack-free zone across an entire state was the biggest obstacle to date to an industry that has had rapid growth across a number of other states.

New York’s two-year review raised multiple concerns about the effects of fracking on public health.

“I cannot support high-volume hydraulic fracturing in the great state of New York,” Howard Zucker, the health commissioner, said. “There are many red flags.”

Zucker admitted there was still a lack of hard data about the effects of fracking on public health, but he said: “Would I let my child play in a school field nearby? After looking at the plethora of reports, my answer would be no.”

Asked why other states had allowed fracking given those health risks, Zucker said: “The fact is that many of those states didn’t bring their health teams to the table.”

The ban in New York comes at a time when oil and gas prices are falling around the country, shutting down hundreds of gas wells.

But the decision still carries political costs for Cuomo. The oil industry and supporters of fracking have countered that the industry could bring jobs to economically depressed areas of the state.

“I’ve never had anybody say to me ‘I believe fracking is great’. What I get is: ‘I have no alternative to fracking’,” Cuomo said on Wednesday. “But if …more

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Milwaukee Suburb’s Water Request is a Test for the Great Lakes Compact

Waukesha is the first community to seek an exception to the ban on diversion of water out of the Great Lakes

The city of Waukesha, Wisconsin, wants to draw water from Lake Michigan. But to do that the Milwaukee suburb will need the approval of all eight Great Lakes states, and nods from a couple Canadian provinces.

In the late 1800s, Waukesha was celebrated for its natural springs. But over time, the aquifer from which the city draws its water has shrunk, concentrations of radium have risen to unsafe levels, and the water has become increasingly brackish. Waukesha is under a court order to find a better drinking water source by 2018.

Lake MichiganPhoto by Yinan ChenThe Great Lakes Compact bans the diversion of water out of the Great Lakes with two exceptions: communities that straddle the basin, and communities within counties that straddle the basin.

“Even with conservation — even with the demand reduction we’re looking at implementing — we don’t have a sustainable water supply for the long term,” says Dan Duchniak, the general manager of the city’s water utility. After considering other options, including a failed legal challenge to the radium standard, Waukesha settled on a solution just 15 miles to the east: Lake Michigan.

But the city lies just outside of the Great Lakes basin — and within, therefore, restrictions imposed by the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Basin Water Resources Compact, aka the Great Lakes Compact, the historic 2008 international agreement on protecting Great Lakes water. “The Great Lakes have a long history of relatively crazy ideas for sending water in ships over to Asia, or pipelines to the Rocky Mountains, or things like that,” says Joel Brammeier, the president and CEO of the Alliance for the Great Lakes, a conservation group. “The reality is that the proposals to use water in new ways are going to come much closer to home.”

The compact bans the diversion of water out of the Great Lakes with two exceptions: communities that straddle the basin, and communities within counties that straddle the basin.

Hoping to squeeze into the latter of these loopholes, Waukesha is asking for a daily average diversion of 10.1 million gallons from Lake Michigan. Its application makes it the first community to seek such an exception — a crucial test case for how the compact will work in practice. “This initial precedent that’s going to be set by the Waukesha decision is extraordinarily important,” says Brammeier, “because …more

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Advocates Win Key Victories to Stop Wildlife-Killing Contests in the US

Statewide ban in California and victories in Idaho and Oregon spur hope for nationwide predator management reform

Wildlife-killing contests in the United States go by many different names, including wildlife derbies, predator-hunting contests, coyote calling contests, and coyote drives. But whatever the name, and wherever they are held, these contests come down to the same basic principle: Hunting animals for entertainment, with prizes for the top killers.

Coyotephoto byShawn McCready, on FlickrPrizes and inducements can no longer be awarded for nongame wildlife-killing contests in California.

Recently, the prize-for-killing mentality has come under increasing scrutiny, and in early December, wildlife activists won a key victory when the California Fish and Game Commission announced that “prizes and inducements” can no longer be awarded for nongame wildlife-killing contests in the state. The policy change makes California the first state to enact such a ban.

The California prohibition follows a nearly two-year effort by environmental advocates to reform the commission’s predator management policy. The campaign honed in on one particular wildlife-killing contest in northern California, known as the Modoc Coyote Drive, raising concerns not only for public safety and ethics, but also for the safety of OR-7, the first wolf to show up in California in 87 years, who was traversing in the region at the time.

Pointing out that OR-7 was protected under the federal Endangered Species Act, environmental groups, including Project Coyote, an Earth Island Institute project that works to change negative perceptions about predator species, petitioned the commission not only to stop the Modoc County killing contest, but also to ban nongame wildlife-killing contests statewide. During the rule-making process, the commission received thousands of letters and petitions in support of the ban, and on December 3, it voted 4 to 1 to end such contests in California.

“Awarding prizes for wildlife-killing contests is both unethical and inconsistent with our modern understanding of natural systems,” Michael Sutton, president of the commission, said after the vote. “Such contests are an anachronism and have no place in modern wildlife management.” It isn’t yet clear when the ban will be implemented.

The victory in California follows closely on the heels of another win in Idaho, this one involving a wolf and coyote-hunting contest on public lands managed by the United States Forest Service (USFS) and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Seven conservation groups, including Project Coyote, the Center for Biological Diversity and the Western …more

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Is the Lima Deal a Travesty of Global Climate Justice?

Poorer countries likely to reject agreement in Paris next year if onus falls on them rather than those largely responsible for global warming

At one point on Saturday night it looked quite likely that the Lima climate talks would collapse in disarray. Instead of the harmony expected between China and the US following their pre-talks pact, the world’s two largest economies were squaring off; workmen were dismantling the venue; old faultlines between rich and poor countries were opening up again and some countries’ delegations were rushing to catch their planes.

Activists wearing masks of world leaders in a boatPhoto by Percy Ramirez/OxfamCountries may technically still be on track to negotiate a final agreement in Paris next year, but the gaps between them are growing rather than closing and the stakes are getting higher every month.

In the end, after a marathon 32-hour session where everyone stared into the abyss of total failure, a modicum of compromise prevailed. Some deft changes of emphasis in the revised text and the inclusion of key words such as “loss” and “damage” proved just enough for diplomats to bodge a last-minute compromise. There were cheers and tears as the most modest of agreements was reached. The Peruvian president of the UN climate change convention, or COP20, could say without irony: “With this text, we all win without exception.”

Not so. Countries may technically still be on track to negotiate a final agreement in Paris next year, but the gaps between them are growing rather than closing and the stakes are getting higher every month.

We have now reached the point where everyone can see clearly that whatever ambition there once was to respect science and try to hold temperatures to an overall 2C rise has been ditched. We also know that developing countries will not get anything like the money they need to adapt their economies and infrastructure to climate change and that those countries that have been historically responsible for getting the world into its current climate mess will be able to do much what they like.

As it stands, 21 years of tortuous negotiations may have actually taken developing countries backwards on tackling climate change. From an imperfect but legally binding UN treaty struck in 1992, in which industrialized countries accepted responsibility and agreed to make modest but specific cuts over a defined period, we now have the prospect of a less than legally binding global deal where everyone is obliged to …more

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