Hollywood director wrestles with Alberta’s “out of whack” tar sands on a trip with the Sierra Club and Leonardo DiCaprio
Filmmaker Darren Aronofsky just returned from an excursion to see up close and personal the Alberta tar sands, and judging by his response to how oil companies are impacting the environment, this unregulated part of Canada sounds more like the Wild West than the Great White North. Aronofsky – who directed and co-wrote the $135 million, 138-minute Paramount Pictures adaptation of the Biblical tale of Noah – made the expedition way up yonder with a Hollywood superstar and prominent conservationist.
In this candid conversation conducted by phone shortly after his return to New York City, Aronofsky presents a compelling eye witness account of how the Alberta tar sands extraction impacts the environment and the health of First Nations communities in the region. In his thick Brooklyn accent Aronofsky – who helmed 1998’s Pi, 2000’s Requiem for a Dream, 2008’s The Wrestler, and who earned an Oscar nomination for directing 2010’s Black Swan (for which Natalie Portman scored the Best Actress Academy Award) – also discusses celebrity activism, how he expresses eco-consciousness in his art, kindergarten, caribou, the Keystone Pipeline and more.
Tell me about your trip to Alberta.
The whole idea of the trip started maybe two, three years ago when I was researching Noah. While looking at the story of Noah we realized that in Scripture there was this big environmental message about how man had destroyed the world, and that part of the reason for the destruction of the world was because of not taking care of creation. So when we started researching, we started looking at the modern day and looking for places that were the worst polluted places on the planet. My partner is actually from British Columbia and she started telling me about the tar sands and they became a big influence on the visual look of the prediluvian world.
photo by Nico Tavernise
At the same time I’d just met Michael Brune [executive director] at the Sierra Club. I was talking to Michael about possibly shooting out there. We talked about taking a trip up there. It didn’t happen during the making of [Noah]. But we …more
Massive logging proposal threatens many spotted owls, currently thriving in the fire-affected acres of Stanislaus National Forest
The US Forest Service issued a draft decision yesterday for a massive post-fire logging project in the Stanislaus National Forest portion of the 2013 California Rim Fire, which covered 257,171 acres on the national forest and Yosemite National Park. A final, signed decision on the proposal is expected this afternoon.
Photo by Chad Hanson
The draft decision proposes over 37,000 acres of intensive post-fire logging, which would remove the majority of the rarest and most ecologically valuable habitat resulting from the fire on the Stanislaus National Forest: “snag forest habitat” created by high-intensity fire in mature conifer forest. (Forty one percent of the Rim Fire area was comprised of non-conifer vegetation, such as grassland and foothill chaparral, and most of the forest area burned at low/moderate-intensity, wherein only a portion of the trees were killed).
This would include essentially clear-cutting 95 percent of the snags (standing fire-killed trees) in
19,462 acres of the fire area. An additional 17,706 acres of “roadside” logging is planned along roads, including old logging roads, which are not maintained for public use (and many of which are closed roads, long since decommissioned). Much of this would be clearcut too, including live, healthy, mature, and old-growth trees, which would be removed by the thousands, for no credible public safety benefit, based upon profoundly vague criteria that allow just about any tree to be cut.
Because the Forest Service has closed most of the Rim Fire area to public access, and because the agency is not marking trees before they cut them along roads, there is no accountability.
The Forest Service would keep 100 percent of the revenue from selling the timber from our federal public lands to private logging companies. Most of these funds would be used to pay Forest Service staff to implement future post-fire logging projects, under the “Salvage Sale Fund.”
As I have reported previously in Earth Island Journal (see here and here), the Forest Service has repeatedly claimed over the past year that the Rim Fire damaged and destroyed the forest, using this as a justification to propose one of the largest commercial logging projects in the history of the national forest …more
LEED certified buildings can’t negate the emissions from a long line of idling cars
There’s a rainwater catchment system on the roof of my west Florida neighborhood’s Dunkin’ Donuts outlet, collecting water to irrigate the restaurant’s own landscaping. There are electric car charging stations, for those Tesla owners who aren’t afraid to get a little powdered sugar on the upholstery. There is carpool-preferred parking, which is really available to anyone but might at least make single-car drivers feel a little guilty for parking there. The building features reflective and permeable hardscapes, to minimize the heat island effect and to help recharge the aquifer after a rainstorm. There is efficient LED lighting, and low- or no-flow fixtures in restrooms and kitchen sinks. The whole place was built with recycled materials. The works.
Photo by Skip Steuart
Now, I haven’t yet seen an electric car parked in front of one of the charging stations, but the water-saving features and the reflective, permeable hardscapes are particularly appropriate in urban Florida, where decades of aggressive population growth has put tremendous strain on our water resources, and where acres of blacktopped parking lots make already-challenging summers nearly unbearable.
You don’t see a lot of fast food restaurants like this, especially here in the Sunshine State. Scratch that — you don’t see many buildings like this here, period. As you might expect, the owners of this particular store are pursuing LEED certification. It’s the second Dunkin’ Donuts outlet in my city to be constructed using green building materials and methods.
But despite these efforts, the building is fundamentally at odds with concepts like sustainability and smaller carbon footprints and a cleaner environment generally. That’s because the building’s design includes a drive-thru window, which means it’s specifically designed to attract and accommodate lines of idling cars spewing toxins and greenhouse gases into the air. Which seems like a strange thing for a green building to do.
How long do drivers sit in the drive-thru, drumming their fingers on the steering wheel, waiting for their toasted bagels with cream cheese and their iced coffees? The industry average wait time is three minutes per car, from order to pickup. That translates to nearly 20 grams of pollutants emitted per car, on average, per visit — about the same as driving for a mile and …more
A controversial program in Tajikistan tests the idea
The sun was beginning to fade in the frigid evening sky. It was the end of a long day of counting the endangered wild goats of southern Tajikistan. Known as the markhor, these goats are distinguished by their Merlin-esque beards and twisting, towering horns. The rare goats are difficult to spot amid the crags and gulches of the Pamir Mountains, but conservationist Tanya Rosen Michel's is practiced at the art, and she eventually honed in on them.
Photo by Marie Halel
Michel is the snow leopard program coordinator for Panthera, a wildcat conservation group that was surveying the markhor with help from the Tajik Committee on Environmental Protection, the Forest Agency and Academy of Sciences, and the German Development and Cooperation Agency. The March survey was an effort to understand how the markhor population affects those of its primary predator, the equally endangered snow leopard.
The tally this year totaled 1,300 markhor – the highest count in more than two decades. In the 1990s, the population plummeted to a tenuous 350 animal due to a civil war that devastated livestock and fueled poaching. After the war, as normal food sources rebounded and local conservation efforts were enacted to protect the markhor, their numbers began to rise. So, too, did snow leopard sightings.
As Michel peered through her scope, she noticed the herd, which had been casually grazing on grass, tapping the cold ground feverishly and crowding together. Scanning the landscape, Rosen spotted the source of distress – a snow leopard tiptoeing towards the heard in hopes of meal. For almost half an hour the snow leopard attempted stealing upon the herd from different angles. It then lay down behind a juniper tree in hopes of calming the herd, which sensed the predator's presence. Without success, "the ghost of the mountains," turned tail and faded into the fog.
It is clear to Michel and her colleagues that the fate of these two animals is intimately linked. Snow leopards cannot thrive without the markhor – and the markor cannot thrive without a concerted human effort at conservation. Michel also realized that it was going to take a sizeable, and perhaps counterintuitive effort, to defend both species. To protect the snow …more
Ordinance 960 preempted by state law, says ruling; appeal likely
A federal judge yesterday overturned Kauai’s new law regulating the transgenic seeds industry on the Hawaiian island, ruling that it was preempted by state law and was therefore invalid. The ruling is a setback for activists and citizens fighting to protect local residents and the environment from exposure to the heavy doses of toxic pesticides that the biotech companies use on their fields year round.
Photo by Ian Umeda
“Obviously I would have preferred a different ruling… I will recommend to my client that we appeal to a higher court,” Earthjustice attorney Paul Achitoff said in an interview Monday evening. The legal nonprofit has intervened in the case to defend the county’s law.
The Kaua‘i County law, Ordinance 960, was passed in November after surviving a veto by Kauai Mayor Barnard Carvalho. The law, which received widespread support within the community, requires agricultural companies and large farms to disclose the type and volume of pesticides they are spraying and the location of their genetically modified crop fields. It also requires the companies to set up buffer zones between fields growing GM crops and public places like schools, hospitals, and parks.
The four global pesticide and genetically engineered seed corporations that have large operations on the island — Pioneer-DuPont, Syngenta, and Agrigenetics Inc (a subsidiary of Dow Chemical), and BASF Plant Science — had challenged the new law in federal court, arguing that it arbitrarily targets GE seed farming operations on Kaua‘i and tries to regulate activities over which counties have no jurisdiction.
Ruling on the lawsuit yesterday, US Magistrate Judge Barry Kurren concluded that the pre-existing Hawai‘i Pesticide Law preempted the Kauai ordinance and that only state government had the authority to regulate the seeds companies.
“This decision in no way diminishes the health and environmental concerns of the people of Kaua‘i,” Judge Kureen wrote in his decision. “The Court’s ruling simply recognizes that the State of Hawaii has established a comprehensive framework for addressing the application of restricted use pesticides and the planting of GMO crops, which presently precludes local regulation by the County.”
The biotech companies issued a joint statement yesterday saying they were pleased with judge’s decision.…more
Other significant challenges include cost and figuring out where to store the captured carbon
Trees are great filters. Wind, sunlight and photosynthesis enable trees to “scrub” carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, while replenishing it with oxygen, which almost every life form needs to survive. But there simply aren’t enough trees around to scrub out the surplus carbon we have in our atmosphere right now which is steadily changing the delicate balance of life on Earth.
Photo courtesy Columbia University
Human beings have put an estimated 450 – 500 gigatons of carbon into the air, primarily by burning fossil fuels, according to James L. Buizer, a professor in the School of Natural Resources and the Environment at the University of Arizona. Each year we pump another 30 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the air. The United Nations projects human population will surpass 9 billion by 2050, so energy use will only increase.
Researchers across the world have been working to develop technologies that can remove this excess carbon from the air. One such technology — passive carbon capture — holds much promise, but skepticism about the process and lack of support from policymakers have slowed the development of what could be a cost-effective approach.
‘It’s not magic’
To people proposing sustainable energy alternatives and lifestyle changes, removing CO2 seems pointless. Removing a substantial amount of carbon from the air requires a great deal of it to be filtered. Heating, cooling, or pushing air through a filtration process requires the use of energy, thereby creating more carbon emissions.
But some scientists have demonstrated that carbon can be passively removed from the air without creating further emissions. Klaus Lackner, a geophysics professor at Columbia University and his team have developed a “fake tree” carbon collector.
An early effort used plastic “leaves” coated in resin that traps carbon particles in the air. The newer passive carbon-capture devices look more like furnace filters with straw-like tubes dotted with holes, packed closely together inside a metal frame. The devices necessary to collect one ton of carbon per day would fit into a standard shipping container that, once opened, would require approximately 60 square meters of area. Set up in a location facing into a slow wind, the devices would come into contact with carbon in the …more
In Review: The Cartoon Introduction to Climate Change
Just six years ago, Gallup estimated that 61 percent of Americans grasped the reality that human activities cause global warming. Today, that number has slipped to 57 percent. In this climate of decreasing public acceptance, we need persuasive, knowledgeable advocates explaining the human causes of global warming in elegant, digestible, and, most importantly, acceptable ways to counter the relentless disinformation war being waged by the fossil fuel industry.
One creative tool to help increase awareness and understanding of how human activities cause climate change is The Cartoon Introduction to Climate Change, a new graphic book illustrated by Grady Klein, and written by Yoram Bauman, who describes himself as “The World’s First and Only Stand-Up Economist.” Together, these two bring a modicum of levity to the task of conveying the basics of climate change, an otherwise dour topic. With a comedic touch, and a small cast of characters cracking jokes in the background, they elucidate the basics of climate science, predictions of future warming, and possible solutions. Drawing heavily from the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, Klein illustrates numerous infographics to help readers visualize complicated processes and associated statistics.
Bauman’s background as an economist comes through clearly in his analysis, exemplified by his seven Chinas theory. The seven billion humans who occupy the planet at this time can be split into five groups of 1.4 billion, roughly the size of China’s population, he explains. The Rich Countries make up just one of those Chinas but are responsible for half of all resource consumption and half of all human-caused greenhouse gas emissions. Global economic development is rapidly transforming poor people in the other four Chinas into middle class consumers who look to the Rich Countries as role models. If they follow in the footsteps of the Rich Countries, global resource consumption and greenhouse gas production will multiply two-and-a-half times without any population growth. But, population growth will likely take us up to 10 billion people before the end of the century, which adds …more