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Disney’s Latest Motion Picture Is a Parable about Climate Change and Indigenous Rights

In Review: Moana

Disney’s South Pacific-set animated feature Moana — co-directed by Ron Clements and John Musker, co-creators of The Little Mermaid and Aladdin, with voice characterization by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and music co-written by Hamilton’s Lin-Manuel Miranda — was number one at US box offices during the Thanksgiving holiday weekend. After its world premiere at LA’s AFI Fest on November 14, The Hollywood Reporter noted, “Moana scored… with $81.1 million from 3,875 theaters,” while ABC News reported it “notched the third-largest three-day Thanksgiving opening of all time.”

movie poster

The optically opulent movie is about Moana (voiced by Hawaiian teenager Auli’i Cravalho), daughter of Motunui island’s Polynesian Chief Tui (New Zealand Maori actor Temuera Morrison, who starred in 1994’s Once Were Warriors). After the Pacific Islander learns about her voyaging heritage from Gramma Tala (Maori actress Rachel House of 2016’s Hunt for the Wilderpeople), Moana decides to embark on an Oceanic odyssey to save her endangered isle from environmental devastation. During her voyage she enlists the aid of the legendary demigod Maui (voiced by Johnson, who is part-Samoan), who reluctantly helps the young, feisty Moana as they cross the Pacific in a sailing canoe to fight the demonic force on a far away isle that is threatening Motunui (which can be translated as “big island”).

This is the basic plot of Disney’s sumptuously animated musical adventure, but what most reviewers have missed is that disguised in the medium of a feature-length colorful cartoon, Moana’s filmmakers have created a motion picture parable about climate change. And emerging while Native tribes take a stand at Standing Rock against fossil fuel development and oppression of indigenous peoples, Moana is also a movie metaphor about indigenous rights. (If Dakota Access Pipeline protesters are “water protectors,” however, in Moana the Pacific protects the title character — whose name can be translated as “ocean.”)

The entire raison d’etre for Moana’s mission is that an environmental disaster has befallen Motunui. The crops are failing, the coconuts have turned black, and the lagoon’s fish have been fished out. To restore ecological balance Moana must sail to the distant island of Te Fiti and return the “heart of Te Fiti,” a sculpted, jade-like precious gem-like stone that glows green (symbolizing Mother Nature) in order to defeat Te Kā, a fierce fiery creature threatening her home. Te Kā’s heat and flames represent global warming; Moana and Maui repeatedly proclaim they’re not only rescuing Motunui, but “saving the world.” 

Disney’s creative …more

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Trudeau’s Approval of Kinder Morgan, Line 3 Pipelines Is a Failure in Climate Leadership

Environmentalists, First Nations gear up for long fight against tar sands oil pipelines

“Canada is back my friends. We are here to help.”

When Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau made this statement last year, he was newly elected and addressing the UN's 21st Conference of the Parties (COP21) in Paris. Canada’s renewed focus on battling climate change was a big deal. But, if approving two massive new pipeline projects that will send the Alberta tar sands crude around the world is his idea of helping in the fight against climate change, many are wondering what Trudeau might do in a less environmentally generous frame of mind.

Protest against Kinder Morgan pipelinePhoto courtesy of SumOfUsCanadian environmental groups are already gearing up to stop the Trans Mountain project in its tracks by utilizing a rarely used piece of provincial legislation dubbed the “Recall and Initiative Act.”

Despite his Paris pledge to become an international climate leader, on Tuesday, Trudeau announced the approval of Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline project. The project, proposed by the Texas based energy infrastructure company, would twin an existing pipeline that runs from the tar sands mines in Alberta to the Pacific Coast and will increase the pipeline’s capacity by 300,000 barrels per day. The Trudeau government also approved the expansion of the Line 3 pipeline between Alberta and Wisconsin that will increase the existing pipeline’s capacity by 370,000 barrels of oil per day.

Approval of the projects assure expansion of mining in the Alberta tar sands — considered to be one of the most environmentally destructive projects on the planet — and a corresponding increase in greenhouse gas emissions.

“Today’s announcement may as well have said that Canada is pulling out of the Paris climate agreement. By approving the Kinder Morgan and Line 3 pipelines, there is no way Canada can meet those commitments. Justin Trudeau has broken his promises for real climate leadership, and broken his promise to respect the rights of Indigenous peoples,” Aurore Fauret, Tar Sands Campaign Coordinator with said on Tuesday.

">"Enbridge’s proposed replacement and expansion of Line 3 from Alberta to Wisconsin would add up to 525,000 barrels per day (bpd) of new capacity, bringing total capacity for the line up to 915,000 bpd," Natural Resources Defence Council's Joshua Axelrod said in a blog post following the Trudeau announcement. "The upper Midwest has already witnessed the aftermath of one major tar sands spill when an Enbridge pipeline ruptured in 2010. That memory alone should remind us all that the risks these new pipelines pose to our …more

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What Green Looks Like Behind Prison Walls

Inmates plan sustainable living projects based on land, water and energy usage within San Quentin

Walking into San Quentin State Prison’s imposing East Gate entrance feels a bit like entering a medieval fortress with clanging ironwork doors and dark passageways. Inside California's oldest and most famous prison, however, is a light-filled courtyard with tended gardens and a bustle of activity. In October, I found myself inside this surprisingly cheery prison courtyard to attend the graduation of inmates from the Green Life project, a permaculture-based self-sufficiency, and eco-literacy program, peer-led by former Green Life graduates and facilitated by Green Life director Angela Sevin.

Angela Sevin and the Green Life graduatesPhoto by Nate MerillGreen Life graduates and project director Angela Sevin. The creative, practical, and inspired projects the graduates chose, embody what one graduate called “ecological reconciliation” with their environment.

The smiling faces which met us at the prison chapel, where the graduation ceremony was held, included inmates graduating the program who presented their sustainable living project proposals, the culmination of 18 months of meeting together as a cohort. The Green Life program challenges the men to look at the interrelationships between natural and social systems and apply that lens to their own world and sphere of influence. Not an easy task inside a prison where your daily routine, including what and when you eat, drink, and sleep is decided for you. 

The creative, practical, and inspired projects the graduates chose, embody what one graduate called “ecological reconciliation” with their environment. They made me sense that there was another type of reconciliation being sought as well. To have the time and opportunity to contemplate the choices we make and our impact on the world feels like a luxury for most, but in prison, it’s a daily imposed reality. To propose a right way, or even an improved way, of living on the earth through our personal choices is a means of restoring relationship, contributing to a solution and being of good use. This is vital for a person who has been paying the price of past mistakes for decades and has lost the right to participate in society.

Not quite knowing what to expect, the first presentation by Wesley Eisiminger and Lynn Beyett on their water catchment proposal for harvesting rain off the San Quentin facility roofs, surprised me by its simplicity and elegance. The prison yard dries out as does the gardens tended by inmates in the dry summer months. These men saw a practical need around them and its impact on their friends which inspired …more

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Plastic Bottles and Cave Divers Aid in Quest to Document an Elusive, Subterranean Critter

The Georgia blind salamander could be an indicator species for the health of the Floridan aquifer, but scientists don’t know if it’s thriving or declining

“Every biologist thinks his or her species of interest is the canary in the coal mine,” says John Jensen, state herpetologist for the Georgia Department of Natural Resources. “But the Georgia blind salamander, in my opinion, really fits this analogy better than most.” Jensen, who has worked with the species for two decades, explains his reasoning by pointing out the salamander’s habitat: aquifers. “It lives in the groundwater — groundwater that we rely on for drinking. If we are seeing declines or disappearances of blind salamanders, then we should be very alarmed.”

photo of Georgia Blind Salamander Photo by Jake ScottThe Georgia blind salamander's subterranean habitat makes it difficult to study. As a result, very little is known about the species. 

Yet to know if these salamanders are declining or disappearing, it’s first critical to know where they are, or are not, living in the aquifer. Georgia blind salamanders, along with other “stygobitic” species — that is, species that live in groundwater systems or aquifers, — are some of the most difficult species on earth to find. Scientists know they inhabit the Floridan aquifer, a vast, subterranean network of limestone passageways that underlies much of the southeastern United States, yet information on specific locations of salamanders is hard to obtain. Some parts of this network permit erect walking by humans, while many areas can only be accessed by crawling through “worm holes” — tight passages barely large enough for an adult body. Water-filled rooms and tunnels can only be navigated by scuba diving. The underworld hazards to surveyors are many and varied. There is the potential for getting lost or stuck, running out of air or encountering bad air (generally a result of carbon dioxide buildup from the decomposition of organic matter), or breathing air flecked with the fungal spores that cause histoplasmosis, an infection that can cause fever, coughing, and fatigue.

“Very little is known about this species,” Jensen admits, “beyond their general habitat and morphology. I have only seen blind salamanders in Climax Caverns [in southwest Georgia] and those pools took hours of caving to reach. The animals were in water directly below a southeastern myotis bat roost. The bats had contributed guano to the bottom of the pool, and this dark substrate really helped make the translucent salamanders visible.”


Georgia blind salamanders first became known to science in May 1939. That spring, one individual was brought up in a water sample from a 200-foot well …more

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Air Pollution Taking a Steep Toll on Kathmandu Residents

Government has been slow to take action in one of the world's most polluted cities, say advocates

Nepal’s image as an unadulterated tourist destination — with its pristine mountains, snow covered peaks, and bright blue skies — is in jeopardy. Life in the country’s capital city doesn’t align with this immaculate representation. For years, Kathmandu’s rapidly growing population has struggled with increasing air pollution and the associated impacts on health.

At the same time, the government has struggled to monitor air quality in the city. In 2007, the last air monitoring station in Kathmandu broke due to lack of proper maintenance, effectively ending the city’s monitoring program. The program wasn’t replaced until August of this year, when Nepal’s Department of Environment installed three new air monitoring stations across the city.

photo of Kathmandu trafficPhoto by Slok Gyawali Increasing traffic is a primary contributor to poor air quality in Kathmandu.

The results from the new monitoring stations were disappointing but not surprising. Measures of both PM2.5 and PM 10 were significantly higher than standards set by the national government, recording PM 10 levels as high as 188 micrograms per cubic meter (µg/m3) and PM 2.5 as high as 125 µg/m3 in central Kathmandu. Nepal’s National Ambient Air Quality Standards set limits at 120µg/m3 for PM 10 and 40µg/m3 for PM 2.5.

These results are concerning, but findings from other surveys are even worse. For example, in 2014, The Kathmandu Post reported data from the 2014 Yale Environmental Performance Index, which indicated PM 2.5 levels in Kathmandu measured above 500 micrograms per cubic meter, 20 times higher than the World Health Organization’s guidelines. Another report published in 2014 by Clean Energy Nepal showed that in certain areas of Kathmandu, PM10 level reached 781 μg/m3 and PM2.5 levels spiked to 260 μg/m3, well above the recently collected state data.

The numbers vary in accordance with when and where the data is collected. According to Clean Energy Nepal, given Kathmandu valley’s bowl shaped topography, pollution is worse in the winter due to thermal inversion: a layer of warm air acts a lid that traps cold air and pollutants closer to the ground. During the monsoon and autumn seasons — when the recent government data was collected — pollutants can escape more freely, which improves air quality in the city.

Air quality in Nepal doesn’t stack up well against that in other countries. Yale’s 2016 Environmental Performance Index, which ranks countries from best to worst based on various environmental metrics, ranksmore

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Why Don’t We Grieve for Extinct Species?

An impassioned group of artists and activists is creating rituals for coping with extinction and environmental loss

In early 2010, artist, activist and mother, Persephone Pearl, headed to the Bristol Museum. Like many concerned about the fate of the planet, she was in despair over the failed climate talks in Copenhagen that winter. She sat on a bench and looked at a stuffed animal behind glass: a thylacine. Before then, she’d never heard of the marsupial carnivore that went extinct in 1936.

Passenger Pigeon Chalk Artphoto by University of Michigan School of Natural Resources & Environment / FlickrA commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the passenger pigeon’s extinction at the University of Michigan.

“Here was this beautiful mysterious lost creature locked in a glass case,” she said. “It struck me suddenly as unbearably undignified. And I had this sudden vision of smashing the glass, lifting the body out, carrying the thylacine out into the fields, stroking its body, speaking to it, washing it with my tears, and burying it by a river so that it could return to the earth.”

Pearl felt grief, deep grief, over the loss of a creature she’d never once seen in life, a species that had been shot to extinction because European settlers had deemed it vermin. Yet, how do we grieve for extinct species when there are no set rituals, no extinction funerals, no catharsis for the pain caused by a loss that in many ways is simply beyond human comprehension? We have been obliterating species for over ten thousand years – beginning with the megafauna of the Pleistocene like woolly rhinos, short-faced bears, and giant sloths – yet we have no way of mourning them.

Still, Pearl didn’t push the grief under or ignore it. Instead, she sought to share it. In 2011 Pearl, who is the co-director of the arts group, ONCA, and the theatre group Feral in Brighton, helped organize the first ever Remembrance Day for Lost Species. Held every November 30th, it’s since become a day for activists, artists and mourners to find creative ways to share their grief for extinct species – and reinvigorate their love for the natural world.

“We hope the Remembrance events will function as funerals for humans do,” Rachel Porter, a co-founder of Remembrance Day for Lost Species and a movement therapist, said. “Such rituals are ancient, embedded within us. We are just placing this common ritual into an unfamiliar context.”

Most of these events are not large – they are not thousands of people marching on government buildings …more

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Rising Tides on The Golden Shore

Californians may soon have more sea to love than they can handle

I believe it’s Californians’ sense of entitlement to the coast and ocean, their understanding that it belongs to all of them—surfers, sailors, fishermen, the maritime industry, the tourist industry, the navy, the tribes, and every single beachgoer —that makes protecting California’s seas both so contentious and so effective. Because of their wide range of users, California’s ocean and shoreline can never be dominated by a single industry or interest.

San Francsico skylinePhoto by Albert de BruijnThe changing climate is transforming California’s coast and ocean in unprecedented ways.

In Massachusetts there’s a feeling the ocean belongs to the fishermen, and as a result New England’s waters have long been overfished and depleted. In Louisiana they know it belongs to the oil companies, and things like the BP oil blowout of 2010, the loss of their coastal wetlands, and the “cancer alley” that’s grown up along the lower Mississippi where the refineries are located is the price they’ve had to pay. In Florida the real-estate industry so dominates ocean and coastal uses that when you encounter bits of undeveloped “old Florida” it’s like finding a piece of paradise lost. In California, however, it’s the people who continue to fight over and protect their golden shore and deep blue sea.

According to the California Ocean Protection Act of 2004: California’s coastal and ocean resources are critical to the state’s environmental and economic security and integral to the state’s high quality of life and culture. A healthy ocean is part of the state’s legacy, and is necessary to support the state’s human and wildlife populations. Each generation of Californians has an obligation to be good stewards of the ocean, to pass the legacy on to their children.

South to north or river to sea, SeaWorld, Big Sur, the Golden Gate, the Beach Boys or, Beach Blanket Babylon, California’s ocean waters are historic, cultural, legal, and literary phenomena bonded to the very DNA of the state. Its passionate love affair with the ocean is ongoing, its pop-cultural references to it too vast to fully enumerate. The Endless Summer starts and ends in California. The original Treasure Island was filmed on Catalina, and Sea Hunt, in which Lloyd Bridges played underwater investigator Mike Nelson—inspiration for generations of divers and marine scientists—was largely shot in the waters off Catalina where actress Natalie Wood also drowned and a criminal investigation into her death was reopened forty-five years later. SpongeBob SquarePants was created by California marine biologist Stephen Hillenburg, …more

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