Get a FREE Issue of Earth Island Journal
Sign up for our no-risk offer today.

Go Back: Home > Earth Island Journal > Latest News

Latest News

Mass Incarceration vs. Rural Appalachia

Feds want to build a maximum-security prison on top of a former mountaintop removal mining site in eastern Kentucky

For all practical purposes the [Cumberland Plateau] has long constituted a colonial appendage of the industrial East and Middle West, rather than an integral part of the nation generally. The decades of exploitation have in large measure drained the region.
Harry M. Caudill, author, historian, lawyer, legislator, and environmentalist from Letcher County, in the coalfields of southeastern Kentucky (May 3, 1922 – November 29, 1990)


The United States Bureau of Prisons is trying to build a new, massive maximum-security prison in the Appalachian mountains of eastern Kentucky — and there’s a growing movement to stop it.

a strip minePhoto by Universal Pops/FlickrA mountaintop removal mine in Wise County, Virginia. The federal Bureau of Prisons wants to build a prison over a similarliy strip-mined parcel of land in neighboring Kentucky which is still being drilled for gas, and which is located amid a habitat for dozens of endangered species.

The prison industry in the US has grown in leaps and bounds in the past 20 years— a new prison was built at an average rate of one every two weeks in the ’90s, almost entirely in rural communities. As of 2002, there were already more prisoners in this country than farmers. The industry seems like an unstoppable machine, plowing forward at breakneck speed on the path that made the world’s largest prison population.

Today, about 716 of every 100,000 Americans are in prison. Prisoners in nations across the world average at 155 per 100,000 people. And in the US, Southern states rule the chart. Viewing these states as countries themselves, Kentucky ranks at lucky number seven.

“Sounds terrible…” you may be thinking, “But what does it have to do with the environment?”

Well, this seemingly impenetrable multi-billion dollar bi-partisan government-driven industry does have a weak point: it’s a well-verified ecological mess. For a 10-year period of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Prison Initiative, prison after prison that the EPA’s inspected in the Mid-Atlantic region was plagued with violations. Violations included air and water pollution, inadequate hazardous waste management and failing spill control prevention for toxic materials.

From the initial breaking ground on construction in rural and wild places to the inevitable sewage problem from operating chronically over-populated facilities — running a prison is …more

(1) Comments

Fossil Fuels’ Days are Numbered, Thanks in Large Part to Economics: Lester Brown

In Review: The Great Transition

Lester R. Brown is well known for his sweeping assemblages of information to illustrate world trends, economic trends, and environmental trends.  His revelations are usually sobering, if not frightening.

But along comes The Great Transition, his newest look at world trends. Today, Brown is telling a different tale. What he sees, along with his co-writers, is a rather uplifting vision:  Fossil fuels are being replaced at an increasing pace by wind and solar energy.

Lester Brown Photo courtesy of Lannan FoundationBrown says the reason solar and wind energy are growing in use
around the world has a lot to do with the economics as well.

We know, of course, that fossil fuels — coal, oil and natural gas — cause considerable environmental damage.  Smog causes or aggravates many human diseases such as lung disease and heart disease, contributing to tens of thousands of premature deaths annually. Getting fossil fuels out of the ground is dangerous and causes its own set of pollution problems: coal mine disasters, black lung disease, oil spills, chemical pollution of aquifers. Since all of the easy sources have already been exploited, fossil fuels are harder and therefore more expensive to find and extract today that in the past. BP’s Deepwater Horizon blowout in the Gulf of Mexico is a clear example of the risk of pursuing what some have called “extreme energy.”  Finally, fossil fuels are causing an increase in planetary concentrations of carbon dioxide, resulting in global warming that threatens humans, the crops and water supplies we depend on, and natural habitats like never before.

You would think this is reason enough to move to sources of energy from wind and solar power.  But Brown says the reason solar and wind energy are growing in use around the world has a lot to do with the economics as well.  The cost of wind generators and solar cells are coming down, while the costs of finding and processing more fossil fuels is going up. 

Book Cover Photo courtesy of W. W, Norton & Co.

Brown notes that we are in a race with global warming trends.  “Can the world’s economies move to wind and solar fast enough to avoid crossing key thresholds that could cause climate change to spiral out of control?” he …more

(0) Comments

Soaking in the Salton Sea

California’s largest manmade lake, which supports an amazing array of birdlife, has a quirky allure (slideshow)

I eased my kayak off the briny shoreline separating flocks of American avocets and western sandpipers wading and feeding hurriedly in the shallows. The salty, buoyant water was silky smooth as my kayak glided southbound toward an apocalyptic desertscape of extinct volcanoes and steamy plumes spewing from boiling mud pots. 

For nine miles I followed the V-formations of migratory American white pelicans and a flock of low-flying double-crested cormorants, their wings humming in rapid flight just above the surface of the water. I reveled in the cacophony of birdlife and the geological wonders that loomed around this arid inland sea, the wake of my kayak the only blemish on the tranquil waters.

photo of kayakers on a still body of water near a large flock of wading birdsall photos by Chuck GrahamClick or tap this photo to view more as a slideshow of the Salton Sea.

Over the years the Salton Sea has transformed from a resort-like destination of the 1940s to 1960s, to an environmental conundrum. This inland saline lake in the southeast corner of the Golden State was formed between 1905 and 1907, when the Colorado River swelled and breached poorly-built levees and dikes flooding surrounding agricultural fields and what was then the Salton Sink. Almost the entire flow of the Colorado filled the Salton Basin (a remnant of prehistoric Lake Cahuilla that’s some 230 feet below sea level) for more than a year, inundating communities, farms, and the main line of the Southern Pacific Railroad.

Eventually the floodwaters created an inland oasis about 40 miles long and 13 miles wide, covering an area of about 400 square miles. Dubbed Salton Sea, the lake became a popular hangout for Hollywood celebs like the Marx Brothers, Jerry Lewis, and Frank Sinatra and was on the verge of becoming “the next Las Vegas”. Raucous crowds would line the shorelines and jetties to watch the bevy of speedboats, waterskiing jumps, and fishing tournaments on what became the largest manmade lake in California. There was a time when 400,000 boats used the manmade sea each year, and more people visited the lake than Yosemite National Park. Seaside towns like Bombay Beach and Desert Shores rose from the desert floor, and in 1959 the Salton Sea Yacht Club was built, the place …more

(3) Comments

Closing the ‘Adventure Gap’ by Getting Inner City Kids Outdoors

America’s wild places need urban youth and minorities to get interested and invested in nature

Students scurry around the decrepit warehouse, pulling up the legs of their waterproof pants and zipping up splash jackets, strapping on life vests and organizing themselves into two river-rafting teams. This isn’t just a typical summer afternoon at cityWILD in Denver, Colorado. This is race day, when the kids will demonstrate their abilities on the water with speed and technical skill. They’ll have a three-mile stretch to strut their stuff, and the South Platte River is flowing abnormally high today — running at 2,320 cubic feet per second instead of the usual 800, following a week of steady rain and snowmelt.

people rafting down a rapidPhoto by Sonya Doctorian Kevin Nicastro, CityWild program director, steers a raft down the South Platte River in Denver, Colorado. In the background are other members of the CityWILD group.

Anticipation builds, prompting the program director Kevin Nicastro to issue reminders about sportsmanship. “We don’t normally do competitions like this. There will be people who win and people who lose today. So I want you to strategize how you want to win, and how you want to lose,” Nicastro tells the students, who don’t look like the typical whitewater rafters. Most are multi-ethnic and come from poor neighborhoods in northeast Denver where violent crime and gang-related activity are rampant. Since 1998, cityWILD has been getting these kids out of the concrete jungle and on camping, rock climbing, hiking, mountain biking, whitewater rafting, and snowshoeing trips. The nonprofit recognizes that starting with youth is key because when kids play around in the outdoors they tend to carry this enthusiasm into adulthood.

Students with cityWILD had spent the month before their big May race learning how to raft the South Platte River, which flows through downtown Denver past homeless encampments, an REI outlet, an amusement park and Sports Authority Field at Mile High where the Broncos play. On race day, 18-year-old Tim Smith paddles a raft confidently through rapids. He joined cityWILD as a seventh grader and by the time he was 14 years old had achieved the status of a junior raft guide, meaning he could help lead excursions. Now he’s about 6-feet tall and a high school graduate with a firm handshake, and preparing to enter the US Army National Guard.

“Before I …more

(0) Comments

A Tipping Point In The Great Zero Emissions Vehicle Competition?

New hydrogen fuel facility in Germany could level the playing field between electric vehicles and hydrogen-powered ones

Last month, Linde AG, a Germany-based industrial gases and engineering company announced it was opening a new facility in Mainz, by the Rhine River, where energy generated by wind turbines will be used to split water into its component parts via electrolysis, releasing a great deal of collectable hydrogen.The announcement has potentially huge implications not just for hydrogen fuel vehicles (HFC) but for the entire zero emissions vehicle market.

Toyota MiraiPhoto by Yang and Yun's Album/FlickrToyota's hydrogen fuel cell car, Mirai, on display at an Shanghai auto show in April. So far, electric vehicles have had an advantage over HFC vehicles “green” hydrogen is hard to come by and expensive.

The overall market for zero emissions vehicles — a category that includes electric battery-powered vehicles (EV) and hydrogen fuel cell-powered vehicles — is still quite small, but it clearly has great expectations. The California Resources Board, for example, projects 1.5 million of these vehicles on just California roads as early as 2025, with zero emission vehicles being 87 percent of all the cars on these roads by 2050.

Virtually every major automaker is either already offering zero emission vehicles or considering doing so. Tesla Motors, Volkswagon, and Nissan are lining up as key electric vehicle contenders; Toyota, Mercedez-Benz, Honda and Hyundai are positioning themselves to play big roles in the hydrogen fuel cell-powered sector. 

But as of now, electric EVs have an advantage over HFC vehicles because electricity, and green power at that (i.e. solar, wind etc) is pretty ubiquitous, and it is far cheaper to run one’s car on power than on gasoline. On the other hand, “green” hydrogen — that is hydrogen that’s been produced without generating carbon emissions — is hard to come by and expensive. It has been generally recognized that in order for hydrogen fuel cell-powered vehicles to compete favorably with EVs these two key issues have to be addressed. The first involves convenience and cost — how easily and cheaply can hydrogen fuel vehicles be refueled; the second is an environmental consideration — are these vehicles really zero emission?

With regard to this second consideration, hydrogen has long been made from natural gas via a steam methane reforming process. Since both getting methane (natural gas) from the ground and the steam methane reforming process itself …more

(0) Comments

A Very Different Kind of GMO is Headed to Supermarket Shelves

Little is known about the environmental and public health impacts of crops using a new technology called RNAi

Soon, maybe within a year, Americans could be eating two new varieties of apple that won’t turn brown after slicing. To make these new transgenic apples, Okanagan Specialty Fruits, Inc., a Canadian company, turned to an advanced biotechnology called RNA interference (RNAi). Okanagan insists its modified Granny Smith and Golden Delicious varieties— called Arctic Golden and Arctic Granny — are safe to eat. “By the time Arctic apples reach your market, they will be one of the most researched and tested foods on the planet,” the company says on its website. Despite this assurance, a number of disturbing questions remain about how RNAi technology might affect human health.

supermarket vegetable shelvesPhoto by Liz WestRNAi isn’t really a new technique, tt had been used by the food and biotech industry to alter certain fruits and vegetables as far back as the 1990s.

US Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration have already cleared the fruits for sale in the US, much to the disappointment of many food and environmental activists as well as scientists who are concerned about the unintended consequences of the technology used to create these apples. The  Environmental Protection Agency is currently reviewing concerns about RNAi technology raised by several research papers. But the agency’s authority to regulate transgenic crops is limited (See inset). Meanwhile, several other RNAi-altered fruits and vegetables, including non-bruising potatoes, called Innate Potato, and a new kind of pest-resistant corn, are on their way to supermarket shelves.

These new transgenic crops will be much different from most genetically modified foods currently in the market. Traditional GMOs have been altered through gene splicing — a technique that usually adds a new genetic sequence to the plant’s DNA. But these RNAi-altered crops will not be sporting any new genes. Instead, they have been created by shutting down or “suppressing” certain preexisting genes in the vegetables and fruits.

Let’s back up and look at the basic science a bit. RNA and DNA are part of the genetic coding in the cells of every plant and animal. The DNA contains the genes, while the RNA transcribes the genes into messages that dictate proteins, which in turn determine specific traits in a plant or animal. RNAi technology, which is part of a suite of “gene silencing” …more

(2) Comments

Invasive Species Aren’t the Actual Problem, They’re Merely a Symptom

Climate change, habitat destruction, and changes in land use and management contribute to their proliferation

From California to South Africa, New York to New Zealand, invasive species seem to be everywhere, their populations expanding and threatening ecological integrity around the world. A 1998 Princeton University study found that invasive species are the second greatest threat to global biological diversity. In 2011, the International Union for Conservation of Nature, the world’s oldest and largest global environmental organization, warned that invasive species wreak havoc on economies and ecosystems. Organizations such as the National Wildlife Federation and the National Audubon Society consider invasive species to be serious impediments to healthy wildlife habitat and the survival of endangered species. And government agencies, including the US Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management, blame invasive species for losses and permanent damage to the health of natural plant communities.

purple loosestrifePhoto by Jack McLane/FlickrPurple loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria), an invasive perennial plant is spreading rapidly in North American wetlands, shorelines, and roadside ditches. The choices we make on a daily basis—the ways we procure food, shelter, water, medicine, and transportation—are the major drivers of contemporary changes in ecosystem structure and function.

Species invasions are also costly. According to The Nature Conservancy, worldwide spending on invasive species totals $1.4 trillion every year, equal to 5 percent of the global economy. The United States alone spends $137 billion annually to contend with them. The National Invasive Species Council holds invasive species accountable for “unemployment, damaged goods and equipment, power failures, environmental degradation, increased rates and severity of natural disasters, disease epidemics, and even lost lives.”

Given the apparent threats posed by invasive species, it makes sense that their eradication has become a central organizing principle of the practice of restoration. After all, if they are perceived as degrading ecosystems, then the practice of restoration as assisting in the repair of degraded ecosystems should focus on their elimination. I know that people who work in restoration care deeply about the loss of habitats, loss of ecological function, and declining biodiversity that are readily apparent in seemingly every ecosystem on Earth. Invasive species in many cases are part of this trend, and while I agree that invasive species are less ideal than the diverse and robust native flora and fauna they appear to dominate and replace, invasive species themselves aren’t the actual problem; they are merely a symptom. I remove …more

(1) Comments

← Recent   Older →

View Posts by Date View Posts by Author


Four issues for just
$10 a year.

cover thumbnail EIJ

Join Now!