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Body, Home, and the Wild

Where we begin after wildfire

For the past four years, I have spent much of my time documenting wildfires and post-fire wildlands in California — strikingly beautiful forests, shrublands, and grasslands that are full of life. On the night of October 8, 2017, the wildfires of Sonoma and Napa Counties came close to home.

wildfirePhoto by Ginger Gillogly A view of the wildfire when it reached Pepperwood Preserve in Santa Rosa on the night of October 8.

Driving along Highway 12, my friend Paul Lamb and I witnessed flames cresting over a ridgeline to the north, somewhere in Napa County. We stopped while a fire truck raced past, followed by another. The Diablo winds were strong enough to blow my car door open as I emerged (I later learned the gusts were reaching 60 miles an hour that night). Wind filled the darkness with sound; the distant red glow on my camera screen was silent. Within minutes, the glow had grown into full, bright flames, flowing down the hill. “It’s coming closer,” Paul warned as we drove on. A few hours later, Highway 12 was closed along with sections of Highways 101, 121, and 128, and 29. “Fire was running downhill like a river,” my friend Maria Alvarez, a plant ecologist, described the view of burning grasslands from her hilltop home in Cotati.

The flowing river was an illustration of what fire scientist Dominick DellaSala described as a “top down effect” at a senate briefing about wildfire, held during the second week of October 2017 while the Napa and Sonoma fires were burning. Hot, dry weather, and dry winds are top-down drivers, expected to increasingly dictate the terms of wildfire with the current climate change trends, while vegetation (“fuels”) and terrain are bottom-up drivers — increasingly overridden by the top-down drivers. “In a changing climate, we’re going to see more of the top-down drivers in some regions,” DellaSala predicted. Acreages burned could also rise in the future.

That same night of October 8, the Tubbs and Nunn wildfires of Napa and Sonoma Counties quickly crossed the wildland-urban interface (WUI), and transitioned into tragic urban fires, destroying homes and displacing people by the thousand. Friends and friends of friends lost their homes. “Make no mistake, Cal Fire Chief Ken Pimlott said,” this is a serious, critical, catastrophic event.”

“This is not a classic wildfire situation; this is really an urban conflagration,” Max Moritz, a fire scientist at UC Santa Barbara, cautioned on Democracy Now! “There’s …more

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In Win for Dolphins, WTO Reverses Decision on US Dolphin Safe Tuna Label

Environmental groups celebrate, call on Mexico to drop case against US

After several negative rulings against the United States for its strong standards for the Dolphin Safe tuna label, the World Trade Organization yesterday agreed that the US is in compliance with WTO Free Trade regulations. Environmental groups, including the International Marine Mammal Project (IMMP), are celebrating the ruling, calling it a big victory for dolphins.

photo of dolphins in mexicoPhoto by Charles Chandler The World Trade Organization has ruled that Dolphin Safe tuna-labeling standards in the US comply with free trade regulations.

“As the organization that established the popular Dolphin Safe label, we are very pleased with this decision,” said IMMP Associate Director Mark J. Palmer. “Governments and tuna industries such as Mexico should reconsider their actions of sanctioning the chasing, netting, and killing of thousands of dolphins and adopt the US standards of no setting of nets on dolphins to catch tuna,” he said.

Yesterday’s decision — the latest development in a long-running trade dispute between the two countries that dates back to the establishment of the Dolphin Safe tuna label in 1990 — reverses several prior WTO rulings, including one in April of this year, that said that Dolphin Safe tuna-labeling regulations unfairly discriminated against Mexico by restricting its access to US markets.

The US standards for use of the Dolphin Safe label require that the tuna fishing vessels not encircle any dolphins with nets.

Until recently, some of the strictest labeling restrictions only applied to tuna fishing in the Eastern Tropical Pacific Ocean (ETPO) — a large marine region running from Southern California to Peru and extending out into the Pacific Ocean almost to Hawai’i  — where schools of tuna tend to swim along with dolphins.  

Mexico, the United States, and several other countries in the region used to allow their tuna industry to deliberately target, chase, and surround the dolphins with nets in order to get to the tuna. 

Fishermen in this region use speedboats to herd dolphin pods, which are herded for miles until they are exhausted. Then they use massive, mile-long purse seine nets to surround the exhausted dolphins and the tuna that swim beneath. Many dolphins die from injuries, physiological stress, and drowning. Meanwhile, baby dolphins, who are often left behind during the chase, starve or are eaten by predators. The same pod of dolphins can be chased and netted again and again. More than 7 million dolphins have died after being trapped in nets since this fishing …more

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Fracking Pollutants Linked to Brain Problems in Children

Report highlights the neurological dangers for kids living near oil and gas fracking sites

Multiple pollutants found in the air and water near fracked oil and gas sites are linked to brain problems in children, according to a science review published today.

Researchers focused on five types of pollution commonly found near the sites — heavy metals, particulate matter, polycyclic aromatic hydrobcarbons, BTEX, and endocrine disrupting compounds — and scrutinized existing health studies of the compounds' impacts to kids' brains.

photo of fracking operationPhoto by US Geological Survey A fracking operation in the Marcellus Shale formation. New research links fracking chemicals to brain problems in children.

"Early life exposure to these air and water pollutants has been shown to be associated with learning and neuropsychological deficits, neurodevelopmental disorders, and neurological birth defects, with potentially permanent consequences to brain health," the authors wrote.

What they didn't find is as important as what they did find: while more than 1,000 studies have looked at health hazards from unconventional oil and gas drilling, none have focused specifically on the brain health of children near the sites.

"Many of us looking are looking at what's happening now and then we're going to revisit this to see what these exposures are doing to people," said Madelon Finkel, a professor of clinical healthcare policy and research at Weill Cornell Medical College who was not involved in the study.

"Unfortunately, we are just waiting to see what happens, it's really sad," she added.

Lead author of the new study, Ellen Webb of the Center for Environmental Health, said the research on children's health near oil and gas sites is "slowly emerging" but that "it's only reasonable to conclude that young children with frequent exposure to these pollutants would be at high risk for neurological diseases."

Since the mid-2000s, as extraction techniques such as fracking became more widespread and refined, oil and gas drilling has taken off. The FracTracker Alliance — a renewable energy advocate organization that studies and maps oil and gas development — estimates there are about 1.7 million active oil and gas wells in the US.

Webb and colleagues said regulators should increase setback distances between oil and gas development and places where children live or play. They recommend at least a mile "between drilling facility lines and the property line of occupied dwellings such as schools, hospitals and other spaces where infants and children might spend a substantial amount of time."

They also recommend more research on low level, chronic exposure, mandatory testing of industrial chemicals used on site, …more

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Who Are the Commons? Rethinking Capitalism by Considering the Interests of Whales

Rather than having conservationists advocating for whales, we ought to be giving the whales themselves a seat at the table

The International Whaling Commission meets every two years to decide the future of the whales. That is, it decides which nation will kill how many, and for what reasons (commercial, subsistence, “research”). The meeting engages stakeholders from around the world are engaged, from whaling and non-whaling nations alike.

a young male humpback whalePhoto by Sylke Rohrlach Within capitalist models, individuals of other species are not only neglected — their very existence is denied.

Notably absent in these discussions on the future of whales, are the whales themselves. But this is not just because they would have a hard time fitting into the conference room. It’s an intentional omission, since whales are a part of the Commons: that great, amorphous void which we draw individuals out of, pour refuse into, and in which live the nameless, faceless “biomass” that we refuse any real legal or political consideration on a categorical basis. According to our current paradigm, the whales, and everyone else in the oceans, are resources to be protected, conserved, or exploited: divided up (albeit unequally) amongst ourselves and consumed.

This might sound like an article about whales, but it isn’t. It’s really about us, and what we chose to believe about ourselves, our societies, and what our future can look like. For perhaps the first time in history, we human cultures of the world are largely united in a struggle for what comes next — an active discussion, a exercise in collective imagination that’s becoming all the more urgent as we watch our current world, and worldviews, fall apart — or more aptly, being ripped apart by late-stage capitalism.

Our current system is incapable of addressing the problems faced by our own species because inequality is embedded within its very foundation. Strategies to dismantle plutocracy and eradicate poverty often involve new ways of “managing” the Commons. However, as long as we try to preserve or manage habitats and ecosystems for human benefit alone, the resulting damage to the lives of other species will reverberate into our own in increasingly disastrous and unpredictable ways.

Within capitalist models, individuals of other species are not only neglected – their very existence is denied. They are instead relegated to the realm of property, only to be considered or “conserved” when their bodies are seen as necessary for the health of an ecosystem of value; and then, they are lumped into “populations” or “stocks” rather than recognizing them as individuals …more

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The Sambor Dam Is a Tragic Mistake for Cambodia

Planned mega-dam threatens fish populations and food security in the lower Mekong Basin

Auntie Punleu has spent most of her life on Koh Dambang, an island set in the middle of the Mekong River in Cambodia. A small, grandmotherly woman, she paints an idyllic picture of life there.

“We catch fish as our main food every day. We eat fish nearly six days a week,” she says. With her gentle strength and keen knowledge of community affairs, people on the island look to her as a natural leader. “My children and grandchildren have enough food to eat every day and they are healthy. We do not need to spend money to buy fish. We do not need to beg people for them. They come naturally from the river.”

photo of Mekong riverPhoto by International RiversThe Mekong River is threatened by a mega-dam project in the Sambor District, one of 11 large hydropower dams planned for the river's lower mainstream.

A few kilometers away, Uncle Songom, a resident of the quiet riverside village of Svay Chek, echoes Punleu: “My family have enough food and my children are healthy because of the Mekong River.”

Punleu’s story is replicated up and down the riverbanks. The livelihoods and cultures of 60 million people in the lower Mekong Basin are intimately connected with the Mekong River’s natural cycles. Boasting one of the world’s most diverse and productive inland fisheries, the Mekong supplies people in the region with approximately 80 percent of their protein needs. For families living on the margin, the river is an invaluable source of both protein and income.

But this vital lifeline is now at risk, and families like those of Punleu and Songom face an uncertain future. Regional governments are pushing forward a series of large-scale hydropower dam projects that are threatening the Mekong’s abundant fisheries, and consequently the food supply of millions.

This past September saw the inauguration of the Lower Sesan 2 Dam, a project that fisheries experts warn will block fish migrations on two of the major tributaries of the Mekong River, the Sesan and Srepok rivers, causing a 9.3 percent drop in fish biomass for the entire river basin. The dam is also expected to flood 36,000 hectares, displacing about 5,000 people. The plans for these large-scale projects are typically conceived and approved in secret, and the communities who stand to lose the most are never consulted.

Punleu’s island is now facing inundation by one such project: the proposed Sambor Dam. The dam would be located on the …more

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The Tragic Tale of Tony the Truck Stop Tiger

Tony's life and death as a roadside attraction expose the failure of the American legal system

For more than six years, the Animal Legal Defense Fund fought tirelessly to save a tiger named Tony from a cage in the parking lot of a Louisiana truck stop. Sadly, we received news last week that Tony had died of kidney failure after spending 16 years confined to his cage, living and dying as a roadside attraction. Tony's plight is a microcosm of the problems with our legal system, a system that treats sentient beings as property and affords disproportionate political influence to their captors and abusers.  

photo of tony the truckstop tigerPhoto by Janusz SobolewskiA tiger known as Tony spent his life in a cage at a Louisiana truck stop. Tony died last week.  

Tony was born into captivity, sentenced from birth to a life of exploitation, a gimmick used by his owner Michael Sandlin to sell gasoline at the Tiger Truck Stop. It doesn't take a degree in veterinary medicine to know that a truck stop is no place for a tiger. But veterinarians and animal behaviorists weighed in emphatically on Tony's behalf. Dr. Jennifer Conrad, a doctor of veterinary medicine with decades of experience with captive large cats, personally visited Tony and concluded that he was "exploited to the detriment of his welfare."

Dr. Marc Bekoff, professor emeritus of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder, concluded that Tony's enclosure was completely unnatural and totally unfit, and that the manner in which Tony was kept at the Tiger Truck Stop fell significantly below the bare minimum required to ensure his psychological welfare.

The state legislature and the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries (LDWF) recognized that keeping wild animals in captivity causes immense animal suffering and threatens public safety, so they banned the private possession of tigers. But the agency bowed to pressure from the Tiger Truck Stop and issued it a grandfather permit to keep Tony in spite of the ban.

In early 2011 — moved by Tony's suffering and the passion of his supporters — we sued LDWF, arguing that the truck stop wasn't eligible for a grandfather permit. And we won. The trial court ruled that because the truck stop violated a local ordinance prohibiting the ownership and exhibition of tigers, it couldn't qualify for a permit. The court ordered LDWF to revoke the permit and prohibited it from issuing any new permits. The Louisiana Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court's decision, leaving the Tiger Truck …more

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Former Head of Energy, Environment at ALEC Hired by Trump Interior Department

Todd Wynn has described climate change as a potential 'net benefit for the planet'

Todd Wynn, former Director of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC)'s Energy Environmental and Agriculture Task Force, was recently hired by President Donald Trump to work as a senior-ranking official in the US Department of the Interior. 

photo of grand staircase-escalantePhoto by Ad MeskinsPresident Trump hired fossil fuel insider Todd Wynn to work as a senior-ranking official in the US Department of the Interior. 

DeSmog discovered the hire via LinkedIn, and Wynn says on his profile page that he began at Interior in October.

Wynn worked at ALEC from 2011 to 2013 and then became Director of External Affairs for Edison Electric Institute (EEI), a trade association representing electric utility companies nationwide. Prior to his position at ALEC, Wynn served as Vice President of the Cascade Policy Institute, a part of the State Policy Network (SPN), a national chain of state-level conservative and corporate-funded think-tanks which was started as an ALEC offshoot.

ALEC's critics have described the organization, a national consortium of mostly Republican Party state legislators and corporate lobbyists, as a “corporate bill mill.” That's because its lobbyist members convene several times a year with legislators to produce what it calls “model bills” which have ended up as actual legislation thousands of times since the organization's founding in 1973.

Wynn's new job at Interior will parallel his past role at ALEC, where according to LinkedIn, the office he will oversee “strengthen[ing] relationships between state and local partners and external stakeholders with the Office of the Secretary [Ryan Zinke]. [Office of Intergovernmental and External Affairs] also serves as liaison for governmental and non-governmental partners in communicating with Departmental offices and the Bureaus.”

Wynn has not responded to a request for comment. 

“This is yet another choice to put an aggressive fossil fuel insider into a position of power at taxpayer expense. I have no doubt Wynn will put private interests — very special interests — over the public interest in protecting our public lands and forests,” said Lisa Graves, executive director of the Center for Media and Democracy and publisher of the website ALECExposed.org, the first website to publish hundreds of ALEC model bills back in 2011.

“Promoting Wynn, with his long ties to the Koch Industries-fueled ALEC pay-to-play operation and other groups like EEI that peddle the corporate agenda, just underscores how Trump has put the …more

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