Showing posts with label ecologic. Show all posts
Showing posts with label ecologic. Show all posts

Friday, April 24, 2015

End of A Recycling Era

In my previous post on this subject I described aspects of the changeover here in recycling systems in terms of a philosophical change: from "Reduce, Reuse, Recycle" to "If in doubt/Throw it out."  But there's a little more to the local story.

The previous system I described--hauling our recycling to the Arcata Community Recycling Center at our own discretion--was otherwise without cost to us.  ACRC was a nonprofit enterprise.  Eventually they charged for certain kinds of electronic recycling, but they also paid cash for certain items.  Basically however, the price was in the effort to get it there, which wasn't much effort, and was often enjoyable.

Now our recycling is picked up weekly, and we pay for that service.  It is mandated by city government--a weekly recycling charge no matter what.  Part of a dubious trend of government forcing you to pay money to a profit-making business. You can have less than fits into the bins but not more.  This requires tearing cardboard into strips rather than simply flattened boxes.  So there's still work we do, but we also pay.  Arcata Garbage is a profit-making company.

Last week saw the official end of Arcata Community Recycling Center as an entity.  After they closed the local center shortly after Arcata Garbage started curbside, they maintain a sorting center nearby, and continued to bid for recycling from local communities.  After allegedly tricking them into revealing details of their operation, another profit-making company underbid them for a big contract.  They sued, and last week, facing more attorney fees and legal costs, they settled out of court for a piddling amount, and announced they were folding.

There is still some community-based nonprofit reycling going on--ACRC cites Zero Waste Humboldt as one.  Still, ACRC's demise seals the end of that era, with the reminder that we're paying for it--Arcata Garbage makes money not only on recycling but from us.  And lessens our involvement in the process, as well as personally my confidence that much of this stuff is actually being recycled.

Thursday, April 23, 2015


Here's an article on e-waste with an unsurprisingly theme: there's a lot of it, it's growing fast, especially in big countries that talk big about environmentalism.  But there are two interesting elements in this story: what constitutes e-waste, and what a waste it is.

Most of the e-waste in this model, in bulk at least, is made up of "fridges, washing machines and other domestic appliances at the end of their life."  In other words, large appliances that have some electronic components I guess.  60% by weight comes from these sources, and only 7% by computers, printers, cell phones etc.--stuff that we more readily think of as e-waste.  Weight and number are two ways of measuring it but neither quite gets at environmental impact.  But there's quite a bit with contaminating metals, compounds, chemicals and gases.

However, there's this: "Waste that could have been recovered and recycled was worth $52bn, including 300 tonnes of gold – equal to 11% of the world’s gold production in 2013."

Which suggests further problems with recycling and recycling industries.  It seems to me that after a much publicized start, government at all levels have dropped the ball on making recycling work, let alone the priority it must be.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

This Is Not The Technological Age

This is not the technological age.  We may be seduced into believing this by the tiny devices that increasingly rule our lives, and the rooms of books, records, photo albums and letters that have vanished into electronically accessed clouds in the ephemeral realms of cyberspace.

Even the names that dominate our days--Google, Yahoo, Apple, Twitter, Facebook, Amazon--suggest the whimsical worlds of make believe.  But this insubstantial pageant masks the hard and increasingly terrible truth: we still live in the Industrial Age.

Technology may have revolutionized our lives, and may well change our circumstances even more in the near future.  But we are too easily deceived by the bright screens and images at the speed of a fingertip, and by all the giddy power that fits in the palm of your hand.  For despite its seemingly inconsequential size and weight, this device is manufactured out of materials mined and constructed in huge industrial operations, and gathered together from many distant places.

There is no "cloud."  There are only miles of  servers, requiring gross and exotic materials, vast quantities of electrical power which in turn requires vast quantities of fuels.  And that's true of all other new technologies, in medicine, communication, and industry itself.

 Technology is a subset of the industrial age, because without the systems of that industrial age, there would be no technological marvels in your hand.

For a generation or more we in the US have been told that we live in a service economy, dominated by communications--that manufacturing and mining are occupations of the past.  The manufacturing and mining, the industrial byproducts of deadly chemicals, poisoned land, water and air as well as cheap labor and pitiless human health risks, may mostly exist now in distant and hidden places, but their scale is ever more immense and growing.

Industrialization in those parts of the world where it did not exist means that industrialization is spreading and accelerating to far larger sizes and impact than the "Machine Age" of textbooks and museum shows.  3-D printing and the Internet of Things do little if anything to change this fact.

In fact the Industrial Age has spread beyond the processes of manufacturing things to the industrialization of the food supply--crop farming (with heavy use of GMOs and pesticides), livestock (with heavy use of antibiotics, engineered feeds and chemicals) and fishing (with the collateral damage of other species and habitats.)

Though attention has turned away from it, clearcutting and other industrial timber cutting continues.

The Industrial Age is vast and insatiable.  Capitalism's addiction to relentless growth insists on this.  It is also increasingly fragile.  Fossil fuels are harder to find and extract, requiring more complex machinery and greater damage to the natural world, both in remote and biological sensitive locations, and dangerously near human communities.  The metals and minerals that computers need are especially vulnerable, as some vital ones come from few countries, which may be in strife or controlled by criminals.

Industrial farming is depleting soil that only thousands of years could nourish.  Industrial logging continues to destroy all that supports the life of forests, streams, wildlife and ultimately people.

Garbage and waste is itself a huge industry, poisoning land and now immense areas of the oceans, which among other things, regulate global weather.

Transportation is perhaps the defining industry of our age, so comparatively cheap that much of our material goods come from afar, including our food.  Transport that uses fuels, power and packing materials in massive quantities.

Disruption of  transportation is now easily the most consequential of industrial processes. Disruption of computerized communication may overall be worse in the short term, but its effect on transport could be deadly.  With our lives so dependent on multiple industrial processes far away, they are stunningly fragile.  How many of us can depend on even locally produced food, once the supermarket shelves and the cupboards are bare?

It may be comforting to think it's the technology age--it sounds smarter, cleaner, smaller.  The reality is larger, dirtier, more violent and ultimately horrifying in its abuse and insanity. It is important to recognize that our shiny technologies and the culture's obsessions with them may blind us to realities that need to be addressed.  Both to our fragile dependence and to the effects of industrialization on our planet and its ability to sustain life.      

Friday, March 27, 2015

Whatever Happened to Recycling?

This was the original slogan of the environmental movement that led to recycling becoming public policy in many if not most US municipalities: "Reduce, Reuse, Recycle."

It was the "recycle" that dominated, perhaps to its own detriment.  But what seemed like environmental idealism became a surprising reality.

I remember when the city of Pittsburgh was about to begin mandatory recycling in the 1980s.  One of the city's newspapers editorialized that it would never work, we lived in too much of a "throwaway society."  I wrote an oped piece for that newspaper, claiming that it would work--that a combination of youthful idealism and especially a cultural resistance to waste in Pittsburgh's traditional, immigrant culture, reinforced during the Depression and World War II recycling, would make it feel natural.

It was quickly clear that I was right--people did recycle in Pittsburgh, and elsewhere.  The problem has seldom been compliance.  But especially once it seemed there was money to be made doing it, the problems were economic.

When we moved to the North Coast almost 20 years ago, Arcata had no curbside recycling.  What they had instead was a Recycling Center, and a strong environmental ethic.  Like other citizens, we separated recyclables in our kitchen and garage, and periodically I would load up the Volvo and take everything to the Recycling Center.  I'd drive into it, park, haul out my boxes and stuff recyclables into the appropriate bins.  We separated newspaper from cardboard, and glass bottles by their color.  Plastics were a pain--all those numbers--but I could also easily recycle batteries and other somewhat exotic materials.

It was kind of a fun place, too.  People were friendly, and there was a shop with donated--hence recycled--items, including books, records, clothes, stereos, lamps etc. but mostly elements people used to build and replace things.  For awhile there was a free bin of books, where I found a rare book I truly treasure (Fernald's English Synonyms that separates them by shades of meaning, instead of jumbling them together Roget-style, as if they actually all meant the same thing.)

But then Arcata Garbage got the contract for curbside recycling, and the Recycling Center faded and closed.

  At first, Arcata Garbage supplied us with a reycling bin with two sides: one for paper and cardboard, the other for metal and plastic.

In the past few weeks, they've replaced the two-compartment bin with one, and it's no longer necessary to separate at all.  The latest communique from Arcata Garbage describes what is recyclable and what isn't.  But if you're uncertain what qualifies, they have a new slogan: When in doubt/throw it out.

So there it is: 20 years from Reduce, Reuse, Recycle to When in doubt/throw it out.  I've read recently of consternation in the recycling/garbage business because China is no longer accepting certain plastics---apparently they were taking most of it, so few US companies invested in processing here.  I suspect that's true of more than certain plastics.  It really would not surprise me if everything in our recycling bins ends up in landfill.  But I keep doing it anyway, whispering those erstwhile magic words to myself.  Reduce.  Reuse. Recycle.

Update: An NPR report on "single stream recycling" of this kind says that about a quarter of it winds up in landfill, 40% of the glass.  Some due to consumers recycling wrong stuff but also due to breakage and cross-contamination.  One enviro quoted as saying:"In terms of preserving the quality of materials so that the maximum materials collected can actually be recycled, single-stream is one of the worst options," she says.  The report concludes that while single stream may be more "convenient":"But as single-stream processing continues to increase in popularity, the trade-off will be fewer recyclables recycled."  Here in Arcata I don't recall being given a choice.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Blue Light Special and The Week in Good News

The Supreme Court (yes, that Supreme Court) struck down voter ID laws in Wisconsin and Texas, effective immediately.  As this story notes and others go into more elaborately, the Texas decision that the Supremes upheld is the more sweeping, indicating that the Texas law was a form of poll tax, deliberately restricting minority voters rights.

Nobel Peace Prize supports children's rights,  Physics prize for blue light, a key to earth-saving technology in the climate crisis.

This is actually a month old but it's still good news: thanks to the success of regulated limits, nearly two dozen previously threatened and endangered fish species off the California coast have bounced back to sustainable populations.

Wednesday, October 01, 2014

The Environment Is The Economy

The numbers assigned to the climate march in New York have grown.  Bill McKibben in the New Yorker notes: "The Times, quoting a Carnegie Mellon data analyst and thirty-five crowd spotters, estimated that the marchers numbered three hundred and eleven thousand; Fox News said four hundred thousand. The point is, it was huge: a sprawling crowd of the kind that comes along once in a generation, one of the largest political gatherings about anything in a very long time."

Responding to someone who saw this as proof that people really do care about the climate crisis, McKibben writes that he believes they care but: "I’ve always thought that, to the contrary, climate change caused a peculiar combination of deep dread and a sense of powerlessness."

Individuals think they can't do much and they're right, McKibben says." warming is fundamentally a structural problem, driven above all by the fact that there’s no price on carbon."  Others emphasize different bigger than driving a Prius changes; Charles C. Mann in the Atlantic suggests that shutting down the 7,000 or so coal-fueled power plants in the world would pretty much do the trick.  But Mann agrees with McKibben in this respect: climate needs a movement. McK:

"That is one of the reasons numbers matter: they build on themselves, speaking to the part in each of us that doubts change can really happen. But numbers also say something to the larger world; they are the basic currency a movement relies on. The fossil-fuel industry represents the one per cent of the one per cent; lacking scientific arguments, its advocates use their only asset, an unparalleled pool of cash, to maintain the status quo. If the rest of us are going to shake up the planetary gestalt, our equivalent currency is bodies—and the passion, spirit, and creativity they contain.

To borrow a metaphor from the fossil-fuel age, our job is to inject pressure into the system. Marches aren’t subtle; they don’t lay out detailed manifestos (and, in any event, economists have been telling us for a quarter century what we need to do—beginning, again, with putting a price on carbon). Movements work by making the status quo impossibly uncomfortable—by deploying people, arguments, metaphors, and images until our leaders have no choice but to change and, in so doing, release some of that pressure."

In the meantime, the evidence keeps coming in.  NOAA affirms that 2013 heat waves were made worse by global heating.  A Stanford scientist says the California drought this time is linked to the climate crisis.

To emphasize this is not the only problem--or more to the point--it is not merely a technical problem--there's the World Wildlife Fund finding that human civilization has killed off half the "non-human vertebrae animal population" on the planet since 1970.  Actually the years were 1970 to 2010: 40 years.

The reasons had to do with habitat destruction, exploitation and pollution.  Global heating makes it all worse, when combined with human population, industrialization and urban sprawl. This is more than be nice to our fellow creatures, as this Washington Post Wonkblog piece explains. We're using more "resources" than can be replaced or healed, and therefore sustained.  The environment is the economy.  Until we all figure that out, we're arguing over nothing.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

More Than Mourning

This is the 100th anniversary of the last known passenger pigeon.  That's her--Martha--who died in 1914.  It seems remote in history, but today in San Francisco a woman saw her first major league baseball game--she is nearly 108.  On her first day of school there were still passenger pigeons.

 The extinction of a species is in some ways a technical matter.  There are other pigeon species that probably share genes with the passenger pigeon.  But each species extinction lessens the genetic diversity that keep populations healthy, and these losses eventually lead to the disappearance of what we non-scientists would describe as types of animal or plant life.  Not just one kind of tiger, but tigers, something that's in the cards as effects of the climate crisis combine with the other human-causes of lethal poisons, industrial hunting and destroyed habitat and range.
Martha was a harbinger of a century of extinction that rivals any period in Terran history.  That we mourn these extinctions and have made the passenger pigeon their icon is (as Elizabeth Kolbert notes) relatively new outside of indigenous cultures, and laudable.  That scientists are trying to figure out how to revive Martha's breed is in itself interesting but suggests our all too prevalent techno-fix response, which demonstrates our ignorance as well as our feeling.  Far better would be to do the hard work of cleaning up our chemical act, and restoring habitat and range for existing species.

Because extinctions in the 21st century may well make the 20th look innocent.  All primates are threatened, a lot of large animals and a large number of bird species: some 1300 may go extinct, according to this National Geographic article, including the one pictured below, an African fish eagle.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Life in the Day

                                      Remember me?
                                      Remember me.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Califractia No!

Think Progress reports:

"Thousands of environmentalists took to California’s state capitol on Saturday to demand Governor Jerry Brown ban hydraulic fracturing, in what is being called the largest anti-fracking mobilization the state has ever seen."

"The process relies heavily on groundwater by injecting a mixture of chemicals and water into rock formations to release oil and gas deposits. California’s recent drought emergency has prompted some lawmakers to push for a statewide moratorium on hydraulic fracturing, as a recent Ceres report found that 96 percent of California fracking wells are located in the areas experiencing drought and high water stress."

"The protest, called Don’t Frack California, also attempts to point out that the oil and gas produced from fracking ultimately contributes to climate change, which leading climate scientists have said is the reason why California’s drought has been so bad in the first place."

Also last week a study commissioned by several environmental advocacy groups quantified the risks of earthquakes induced by fracking practices.

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

We Have Met The Enemy...

The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History
by Elizabeth Kolbert
Henry Holt

I have to confess that I had an advance copy of this book for months before I could bring myself to begin reading it. Over the past few years I’ve read and reviewed a stunned procession of books on the climate crisis (most of them after Kolbert’s Field Notes from a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change in 2006) and I wasn’t looking forward to another voyage circling the abyss.

Fortunately, Elizabeth Kolbert is an engaging, absorbing writer, and given this subject, she pretty much has to be. It also helped me in particular that after an introductory chapter of reporting on the extinction of frog species in central America, she deftly summarized the history of extinction as a scientific concept, focusing on the 18th and 19th century, a period in the earth sciences I find fascinating.

These first chapters establish two key facts: that the reality of extinction—the relatively sudden erasing of entire species—has only recently been recognized (there were doubters even 50 years ago), and that actual extinctions are normally very rare: new species appear more often than one goes extinct. “Probably one amphibian species should go extinct every thousand years.” But the scientist she follows has seen several, and she herself has essentially witnessed at least one.

Life forms adapt to their environment, and in the normal course of things, they have time to adapt to environmental changes. “...conditions on earth change only very slowly, except when they don’t.” When something big and unusual happens fast, extinctions occur, and the bigger and more lethal the event, the more extinctions. The asteroid collision that led to the dinosaurs’ demise in the Fifth Extinction is the most dramatic. Sometimes they are slower but inexorable, affecting one species after another.

Kolbert chronicles the five known mass extinctions, though their causes are not all known. The general cause of the ongoing Sixth Extinction is the human species and what it is doing to planet Earth.

On our present track, global heating alone could easily cause the extinction of half the species on the planet, sealing their fate before this century is half over. A more optimistic estimate is one fourth.

But that’s not the only ongoing cause. By transporting species to places they could not normally go (deliberately, as Europeans did when they brought plants and birds to America, or accidentally in the holds of ships and jumbo jets) humans can introduce a foreign species that eradicates the native plants or animals, eventually causing the local ecology to crash and other dependent species to go extinct. Or they bring diseases that local life can’t resist, such as the infestations currently killing off those frogs in central America, and bats by the millions in New England.

Species have been hunted to extinction, their forest environments cut down, and now more often so fragmented by development that they can’t survive. Some of the same industrial age changes in the atmosphere responsible for the climate crisis are implicated in changes in the chemistry of the oceans, perhaps the most dangerous threat of all. Even when there is not a causal link, there is a “dark synergy” with climate change that amplifies mortal threats to life forms well beyond individual species.

Kolbert travels to scientific research stations, interviews and experiences and writes very well about it all. She’s good with apt similes and observations, and doesn’t shy from setting up a giddy turn of phrase, like “rickety spelunkers.” Within the broad effects she describes differences and specifics that scientists study, fascinating as the best nature writing can be.

She follows extreme efforts to save the last remnants of some species, even as the evidence grows that humans were responsible for killing off entire species long before the first cotton gin, including other humans whose genes we still carry, such as the Neanderthal.

Scientists know of key species such as corals that face extinction (threatening an estimated nine million other species), but there are some that are not understood but still may eventually lead to ecologies crashing. The list of species going extinct range from the very small (some of which will not even be catalogued by science before they disappear forever) to trees, amphibians and mammals, including all the great apes, “except us,” at least for the foreseeable future.

A Sixth Extinction might become as profound as the Fifth, in which case the planet will someday be populated by the descendants of the few species that might survive (rats are a good candidate.) In geological time, that may not mean much. “...a hundred million years from now, all that we consider to be the great works of man—the sculptures and the libraries, the monuments and the museums, the cities and the factories—will be compressed into a layer of sediment not much thicker than cigarette paper.” But it's something else to know it is happening now, and will become increasingly obvious during the lives of our immediate descendants. (Though the book's illustrations are few, they are helpful. That there aren't more and glossier could be considered a blessing.)

Whether the human species will outlive the Sixth Extinction it caused is an open question, with lots of doubters. What is even more likely to end is the 10,000 year old experiment called civilization, and the potential for it to redeem recurrent slaughter, mindless cruelty and oppression by growing into consciousness as well as knowledge, in time to save itself and the life of this world. I don’t know if civilization’s achievements are any solace, any more than good writing redeems its subject. But we’re grateful for it now.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Monarchs, Penguins, Marius and Wildleaks

Back in the mid 1990s I read of concern that Monarch butterflies were disappearing, and that their migration was being disrupted.  Like a lot of species now endangered or going extinct, humans are only recently aware of what they are about. So the Monarchs' actual migration paths were only recently mapped, and still incompletely.  I recall proposing an article on the subject to the Smithsonian Magazine--I was writing for them at the time--but they didn't assign it.

Monarchs, among many kinds of butterflies were common in my backyard in western Pennsylvania when I was a child.  I especially remember the ones with Monarch-like patterns, but they were blue.

In the years since the 90s, some conservation plans were enacted for the Monarchs, many more discussed.  The Monarch migration to Mexico became something of an ecotourism attraction, and one of the California towns which had been witnessing their wintering there for years woke up to the wonder of it (and possible tourist dollars) and amped up an annual festival.

But this year, for the third straight year, the number of Monarchs who made it to their Mexican wintering and breeding spot has declined enormously.  The NY Times reports: Faltering under extreme weather and vanishing habitats, the yearly winter migration of monarch butterflies to a handful of forested Mexican mountains dwindled precipitously in December, continuing what scientists said was an increasingly alarming decline.

The migrating population has become so small — perhaps 35 million, experts guess — that the prospects of its rebounding to levels seen even five years ago are diminishing. At worst, scientists said, a migration widely called one of the world’s great natural spectacles is in danger of effectively vanishing.

35 million may seem like a lot, but not in comparison to the one billion of past migrations. This year's migration was a record low--and "it was just 56 percent of last year’s total, which was itself a record low."

Monarchs are a kind of beautiful poster child for the small creatures being forced into extinction by human action, indirect and direct.  Disappearing habitat, transportation of species to new places where they disrupt the ecosystem, pollutions of various kinds and the climate crisis are the most frequent causes.

Climate crisis victims include the polar bears and now at least one species of penguin, but again, they are only the most photogenic of larger creatures under severe pressure.  The BBC reports:  Penguin chicks in Argentina are dying as a direct consequence of climate change, according to new research.
Drenching rainstorms and extreme heat are killing the young birds in significant numbers. 

This is happening while the average global temperature is not rising as fast as models predict, at least according to some estimates.  Increased heat trapped in the oceans has become the chief theory for why this has happened for the past decade or so, and now there is some evidence for a mechanism to cause it: the abnormally high speed of winds over the Pacific.  Scientists warn that when these winds (or whatever else is causing this heat trapping effect) slow down again, the average global temperature will shoot up.

Meanwhile, the efforts of professional climate crisis deniers to demonize climate scientists felt a counterpunch when a DC Superior Court judge ruled that the conservative Competitive Enterprise Institute and the National Review website must face a defamation lawsuit for defaming the prominent Penn State climate scientist Michael Mann.

Although the U.S. east of the Mississippi has weathered more snow storms this winter than for a long while,  the winter Olympics in Russia have apparently focused at least ski observers on the global retrenchment of snow.  There is little in Sochi, and this article is about the possible "end of snow" in eastern US mountains.

The extinction of larger animal species is also being hastened by illegal hunting.  Because it is a big business and law enforcement is lax or more often outmatched in technology, it has been very difficult to control.  Now there is at least a way for ordinary people to get involved, assuming they are being ordinary in places where these animals live.  National Geographic reports on a web site for whistle blowers and observers of wild life crime called Wildleaks.  It bills itself as the first secure website for reporting crimes against nature, including illegal forest cuts.

There are species that no longer exist in the wild but only in human-maintained labs or zoos.  That isn't the case yet with giraffes, but the scientific bureaucratic reasoning that led to the killing of a healthy giraffe called Marius has caused a global furor, and has also been the occasion for exposing some of the complexities involved in the current situation, when humans try to compensate for the immense destruction they have unwittingly--but today, knowingly--unleashed.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Weed v. Water in Humboldt County

When I got to Arcata I was briefly involved in writing about forest issues, principally for a documentary film called  Voices of Humboldt County: The Cumulative Impact.  Professionally it's not one of my happiest memories in that I was never paid and though I got screen credit, that usually doesn't show up in online citations.  But in shaping and writing the script (including final draft) I learned a lot about the effects of cutting too many trees in the wrong places, not only on the forest habitat and on local landowners (the destruction caused by flooding made worse by over-cutting prompted the docu) but on salmon habitat.

A rapacious timber company is still alive in the legacy of Humboldt, as evidenced by this letter to the editor by one of the principals involved in that documentary, Dr. Ken Miller (you'll have to scroll down for it, to the subtitle  "Gallegos’ proud record as DA") which details some of the conflict of interest, chicanery and mendacity involved in local government as well as the company involved.

But the current threat to salmon habitat comes from the new biggest industry in HC: pot growing.  According to another NPR report

"According to critics, marijuana plantations guzzle enormous amounts of water while also spilling pesticides, fertilizers and stream-clogging sediments into waterways, including the Eel and the Klamath rivers, that have historically produced large numbers of Chinook salmon and related species."

So the first part of the problem is the huge amount of water these "plantations" are said to be taking out of streams, to the extent that many are drying up.  That particularly critical because the North Coast along with the rest of California is in drought, and it's getting worse.  Here it is mid January and there are forest fires already in the county.  Tuesday in Arcata hit 68 degrees, and Wednesday 73--these would be unusually warm temps in summer.  Right now it's supposed to be mid 50s and raining.  We've had one day of rain this month.  Wells are drying up and folks are using water reserves they normally don't touch until late summer.

Salmon need water--cool water-- in streams and rivers.

That puts the focus on the largest users:

 "According to Bauer, 24 tributaries of the Eel River — in which once-enormous spawning runs of Chinook salmon have nearly vanished — went completely dry in the summer of 2013. Each, Bauer says, was being used to irrigate pot farms. As a result, Bauer expects to see poor returns of Chinook and Coho salmon, as well as steelhead, in several years. While 2013 saw record-low precipitation in California, drought, Bauer says, is only part of the problem, and he still blames marijuana farmers."

The other problem is the pesticides that the new industrial pot growers are using:

"Fertilizers that drain into rivers can cause floating carpets of algae to grow in the water. When these mats begin to decay, the breakdown process steals oxygen from the water, suffocating fish. Bauer has discovered pools full of dead adult Chinook salmon — fish full of eggs, he says, that had not yet spawned."

"Scott Greacen, the executive director of Friends of the Eel River, warns that, unless pot growers are more closely regulated, some of California's North Coast salmon runs could be looking at extinction."

These issues are part of a very active public dialogue in Humboldt and the North Coast: the redwood forests may have receded in political consciousness, but salmon and weed remain hot topics, and are as least as crucial as cultural as well as economic and ecological issues.  Southern Californians may be more used to water as a political issue.  Now the North Coast welcomes you to the climate crisis.

Attack on Penn's Woods

Pennsylvania is among the most forested states in the contiguous U.S.  But not only is this news to outsiders, most Pennsylvanians are unaware of their forests and threats to them.

I discovered this in reporting a magazine piece I did some 20 years ago, and I believe it's still true.  (I've reposted the piece with photos here.)

The rapacious industries that are taking over the Commonwealth, not only fracking for natural gas wherever they please but rewriting laws that endanger environment and health more generally, are reaching into Pennsylvania's state forests according to this NPR report.  

"Pennsylvania is no stranger to extractive industries, like timber. By the early 20th century, its forests were decimated. Today they've grown back and trees are harvested sustainably. But, Pennsylvania has emerged as the fastest-growing state in the nation for natural gas production — with hydraulic fracturing technology unlocking vast amounts of gas in the Marcellus Shale. Scientists say this surge in gas development is having new kinds of dramatic effects on forests. Pennsylvania has roughly 2 million acres of public forest land; about a third of it is available for drilling."

"Kevin Heatley lives in the area and has come to these woods for years to hike. He's an ecologist by trade and he's concerned about what he's seeing. "Everything from the noise and the traffic to the lighting, to the pad placements, to the pipeline construction to the road expansion — this is all industrial infrastructure," Heatley says. "It's inherently incompatible with sustainable forest management. "You're looking at some of the impacts associated with forest fragmentation," he says. Forest fragmentation is what happens when human development crisscrosses the landscape, carving up large swaths of contiguous forest into smaller pieces."

And this destruction is not being inflicted from the edges or borders, but in the core:

"Core forest means "forest next to forest," making it very different from so-called "edge habitats," which means forest next to something else, like a grassy field, or a suburban home. The big tracts of core forests are rarer and they're home to species that don't do well near people. When core forest is lost, the host of important services provided by its plant and animal species go with it, according to Margaret Brittingham, a professor at Pennsylvania State University who has also studied forest fragmentation. "Insect control, climate control, water purification, you can go on and on," she says. "Recreation, aesthetics."

Not content with the power to destroy they now have, these companies want even more control and dominion, until only they rule the Commonwealth:

"But the gas industry is pushing a new measure that may lead to more forest fragmentation — a controversial bill that would limit the authority of state agencies to designate endangered species. The bill passed the state's House Game and Fisheries Committee in November."

When I posted my old story online I was able to restore the section that was cut for its original print publication, which is about Gifford Pinchot, the forester who became governor, and his friendship with President Teddy Roosevelt.  The kind of dominion these industries are seeking and in large measure already enjoy hasn't been seen generally since TR's day, and he was instrumental in reigning them in.

There are places where this hegemony continued--West Virginia being a conspicuous example, and so the chemical spill that cut off water supplies last week was more business as usual than shocking news.  Even with its habit of alternating governors of different parties, Pennsylvania had established environmental law and practice to control at least the most obvious rapacity.  But the current far right governor and right leaning legislature has paved the way for the latest attempted takeover by fossil fuel interests.  One ray of hope is that this governor is vastly unpopular, and is unlikely to be reelected.

Pennsylvania let its forests be destroyed once before.  The citizens of Penn's Woods (which is what "Penn-sylvania" means) can't let it happen again.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Constitution Days

Two significant U.S. court cases, for the good for a change:

A U.S. District Court in Utah struck down that state's ban on same sex marriage as federally unconstitutional discrimination.  The judge's decision made prominent use of a Supreme Court dissent by Antonin Scalia.  Apart from instantly permitting same sex marriages in Utah, this decision is significant because it is based on the U.S. Constitution rather than a state constitution or other laws.

Getting much less press but possibly of great significance as well:  the Pennsylvania Supreme Court struck down major portions of the law that enables drilling for natural gas anywhere in the state.  This law, practically fascist in several of its provisions and its overall spirit, overrode the power of individual municipality to zone. Under the state law, drilling could be forced anywhere--in neighborhoods, near schools, anywhere.  The law enabled corporations to exploit the Marcellus shale formation for natural gas.  

 The Court  specifically cited the PA constitution's Environmental Rights Amendment. According to the Pittsburgh Post Gazette: "By any responsible account," Chief Justice Castille wrote, "the exploitation of the Marcellus Shale Formation will produce a detrimental effect on the environment, on the people, their children, and the future generations, and potentially on the public purse, perhaps rivaling the environmental effects of coal extraction." He goes on to say that although the state's regulatory powers are broad, they are "limited by constitutional demands, including the Environmental Rights Amendment."

The Court also addressed another totalitarian provision:

The court's decision, on a 4-2 vote, also sent back to Commonwealth Court for review and disposition challenges by a physician to the Act 13 provisions that would have prevented doctors from telling patients about health impacts related to shale gas development, and a constitutional challenge that the law benefits a single industry.

Drilling and fracking under draconian laws passed by corrupt state legislatures and governors has been virtually unrestrained across the country.  This is a single state decision but its basis is important: health and environment.  That opens to the door to arguments on those issues everywhere.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

The Message of Stonehenge

Stonehenge has tantalized and mystified generations.  These monumental stones were not only arrayed in some incomprehensible pattern--the stones came from many different locations, some of them very far away.  What was its purpose?

A ten year archaeological investigation has resulted in a conclusion: Stonehenge was "a monument to unify the peoples of Britain after a long period of conflict and regional differences."

When Stonehenge was built,” said Professor Mike Parker Pearson of the University of Sheffield, “there was a growing island-wide culture – the same styles of houses, pottery and other material forms were used from Orkney to the south coast. This was very different to the regionalism of previous centuries. Stonehenge itself was a massive undertaking, requiring the labour of thousands to move stones from as far away as west Wales, shaping them and erecting them. Just the work itself, requiring everyone literally to pull together, would have been an act of unification.”

This all happened some 5,000 years ago., at about the midpoint (so far) in the history of human civilization.

The people who built Stonehenge selected a site of particular importance--because like monuments thousands of miles away (in the U.S. for instance) it does align with solar and lunar events. Professor Parker Pearson said: “When we stumbled across this extraordinary natural arrangement of the sun’s path being marked in the land, we realized that prehistoric people selected this place to build Stonehenge because of its pre-ordained significance. This might explain why there are eight monuments in the Stonehenge area with solstitial alignments, a number unmatched anywhere else. Perhaps they saw this place as the centre of the world.”

The particulars of this history are so far lost to us.  Only so much can be inferred from surviving evidence.  In a way it is as mythical as the United Federation of Planets posited in the Star Trek future: another instance of peoples coming together after a self-destructive time. 

But it is the kind of myth we need.  We can guess that within us there is the possibility of coming together to solve our common problems.  It is worth something to suggest that even on this scale, humans have done so before.  That they may have done so by affirming the natural, the cosmic rightness of it, is perhaps the most heartening of all.

[The bottom photo is an official White House photo of President Obama with Nichelle Nichols, who not only was the first African American in a regular network role when she played Uhura on Star Trek, but who successfully recruited minority astronauts for NASA.  The photo was taken some months ago but posted recently by Nichelle.]

Saturday, January 07, 2012

Getting Better--and Maybe Getting Healthier

Friday's surprise was the strong employment report, with more jobs created than forecast, and an unemployment rate that was expected to go up instead went down to 8.5%. 

Some 212,000 private sector jobs were added last month, including a healthy increase in manufacturing and even some increase in average wages.  Once again the only sector that lost jobs was government.

Politically it was of course good news for President Obama, especially in rising consumer confidence and spending.  It has reduced his GOPer rivals to obvious lies, which admittedly isn't much of a stretch for them.  There must be something different about conservative GOPer Christianity that encourages lying as well as hatred and cruelty than the brand I learned in Catholic school.  Although it might be different in Catholic school now (both Gingrich and Sanctimonious are Catholic.)

The lie--which was identified by Greg Sargent in the Washington Post and Paul Krugman in the NY Times--is claiming the economy has lost jobs under Obama, by conveniently counting the first few months after their hero GW Bush left the country in the toilet, and before President Obama's policies were enacted, let alone in effect for long enough to show results.  (Krugman also shows what a whopper Romney's claim is that he "created 100,000 jobs.")

They continue to repeat their lies, about big government as well, while government is shedding jobs.  That may also be politically to Obama's advantage, but for the economy and society, it's very bad news.  Jobs are jobs, first of all.  And these are mostly jobs that are necessary for the functioning of this economy and this country.  They are going to wind up costing everyone more in the long run.

There is a paradox in economic growth itself.  It is necessary to put bread on the table for millions of Americans.  But high consumption and wasteful practices also create enormous waste and ruins the environment we depend on for ultimate survival.  But at least some of the current growth is better because it arises from green energy development and manufacturing, and such anti-waste efforts as retrofitting.  Plus despite the government job losses and the criminal failure of Congress to support needed infrastructure construction and repair, there actually is some infrastructure work happening, and construction jobs are up.

The truth is that the Great Recession was so damaging, and so many jobs were lost, that even at the highest levels of growth we've had in the past 20 years or so,  this economy is not going to recover what it lost for years.  That sobering truth is one that the Obama campaign will have to introduce sooner or later.  The global economy is still fragile, and the big shocks from the Climate Crisis have barely begun.  We need to have a sounder, more ecologically responsible economy, and economic justice, because it is unlikely that the kind of prosperity this country squandered and is still squandering will be seen for a long time, if ever again.  That doesn't prevent a spirit of optimism, but optimism in achieving new goals--for a sustainable, resilient economy and society-- as well as again defining old, basic ones, of economic justice and the common good.      

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Reality Check

The dangers of economic inequality (which are largely founded on economic injustice) threaten our economy and our polity, and in the process they cause suffering and destruction to real people.  They limit and may destroy the chances of future generations.  All of this--and all the economic and political theory outlined in President Obama's speech and my last two posts--are demonstrably true.

But they don't tell the whole story.  To the extent that in the end, none of this may matter much.  Because virtually all economic theory is fantasy.  It is, to be sure, really pretentious and boring fantasy, and the purveyors of these fantasies dress in severe suits and ties, and are boring and pretentious.  But nothing Disney ever produced is as unreal as the economics accepted as operating procedure by the global economy, by the institutions of commerce and finance and government, at every level.

Economic theories work within the premises, in both senses: they work within the artificial constructs, the closed system, within the building.  And for a few hundred years we've managed to pretty much stay inside the building.  But the building is not self-contained, not really.  The natural world outside it is essential to its survival, to our survival.  And the laws there are very different, and we've been ignoring them.  The world is so big that we got away with ignoring them.  But we're too big now, and we're destroying the world's ability to continue to give us life.

The most obvious way to translate this into economics is by assigning cost.  Costs are calculated without regard to the resources used and the environment ruined, such that it will not sustain as much life, or any life, in the future.  The jargon is that environmental costs are "externalized," that is, ignored.  But these days there is far too much damage being done on scales that are almost unimaginably vast and fast, by and on behalf of far, far too many people. 

We're using up resources and poisoning our planet, destroying the diversity of life we don't really understand, and in the process, we are destroying the human future.  And our economics ignores this most important fact.  If we don't get this right, none of the rest is going to matter for very much longer.
Waste is one of the most ignored problems.  Of all the resources that go into making products we use, only 6% of the materials actually show up in the products themselves.  And then many of the products become waste in short order, often toxic waste.  The computer revolution, which looks so clean and futuristic, is making this very much worse.  The rapid proliferation and obsolescence of devices is creating waste on a stupendous scale.  There are more discarded cell phones in Japan than there are Japanese.  It's getting worse, utterly out of control, and it is utterly ignored.

The greatest costs to be exacted on human civilization are the result of greenhouse gases still polluting and deforming our atmosphere at a record rate, decades after the dangers they pose were known.  The latest international climate crisis conference, in Durban, South Africa, is now over.  An agreement was reached in its final hours that some are hailing it as a modest success, and a blueprint for progress.  Others are less enthusiastic.
My first impression is this: The agreement (which is basically to negotiate a new treaty) sets out a framework that will be available in the near future, should world leaders (conspicuously absent at this conference) and their governments be scared enough by climate catastrophes into looking for a way to act, to forestall even worse effects.  And perhaps to deal with the effects then happening.

I don't think there are many climate scientists or close observers of climate science and what's already happening worldwide who believe that even a strong global treaty in 2020 is going to prevent climate catastrophe beginning in this century, and a much altered climate for the planet for many centuries. But if action is taken the prospect might be that the return to a very hot climate before human life arose--and one which would make human civilization unlikely if not impossible--might be forestalled, eventually. 

But nobody really knows.  Nobody knows what small changes may result in big changes.  Nobody knows if we've already passed any number of tipping points or not.  What almost everybody knows is that greenhouse gases in the atmosphere have caused, are causing and will cause global heating, with dire consequences for at least a significant proportion of the human species, and eventually negative consequences for all.  Not to mention the polar bears.  Every species lives within an interdependent ecology.  Some adjustments for some species are possible.  But the economy of life in the real world sometimes rules extinction, or something very much like it.

We're smart enough to figure that out.  But it does look like we've been too slow to accept it, take it seriously and act on it at the scale of the problem. This is the ultimate economics, and without dealing with it, the rest is going to be superseded.    

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Sunshine Today

Update: The postponment of the pipeline approval is official now, and attacks have already begun from GOPers on the issues of jobs and energy.  They are also asserting that this was a decision based on electoral politics.  With his crowing of victory, McKibben is playing into that perception.  It's worth mentioning that though the President made the final decision, the recommendation to postpone came from the State Department.  They want to consider all the factors.  From their statement: "After obtaining the additional information, the Department would determine, in consultation with the eight other agencies identified in the Executive Order, whether the proposed pipeline was in the national interest, considering all of the relevant issues together. Among the relevant issues that would be considered are environmental concerns (including climate change), energy security, economic impacts, and foreign policy."

While I've joined in the call to stop the pipeline, I recognize--as apparently environmentalists who seem capable of congratulating only themselves do not--the other considerations, and the questions that have not been answered.  One of these has to do with the impact on the Climate Crisis, if Canada decides to exploit their resource anyway and sell the energy to China.  I'd like to hear that addressed.  And it would be nice if the Obama administration got a little credit for taking the political heat for pulling back from a project that at least looked like it could generate jobs in hard times.  

Several news outlets are reporting that the Obama administration will postpone a decision on the tar sands pipeline from Canada for at least a year, which means among other things until after the election.  It will still probably emerge as a campaign issue but not as prominently, and perhaps a better final decision can be made outside the heat of that kind of politics.

Meanwhile, progress towards ending such dependence on fossil fuels continues.  California has passed a milestone in solar energy--one gigawatt installed, joining five entire countries in solar capacity.   Paul Krugman has added his economically inclined voice to, well, mine, in championing solar energy as the energy source of the present-becoming-future:

"We are, or at least we should be, on the cusp of an energy transformation, driven by the rapidly falling cost of solar power. That’s right, solar power. If that surprises you, if you still think of solar power as some kind of hippie fantasy, blame our fossilized political system, in which fossil fuel producers have both powerful political allies and a powerful propaganda machine that denigrates alternatives."

Which of course the Koch Brothers are all about, and the GOP, which is a mostly owned subsidiary of fossil fuel industries.  Krugman points out that one of the fossils with a new look--fracking--violates the principles that GOPers chant incessantly:

"So it’s worth pointing out that special treatment for fracking makes a mockery of free-market principles. Pro-fracking politicians claim to be against subsidies, yet letting an industry impose costs without paying compensation is in effect a huge subsidy. They say they oppose having the government “pick winners,” yet they demand special treatment for this industry precisely because they claim it will be a winner."

But despite the fossils who prevent the scale of investment in solar energy that a sane nation would insist on, the cost of solar energy is dropping rapidly and Krugman writes that it won't be long before electricity generated by the sun will be as cheap as that generated by coal.  That of course won't stop the fossils from pouring their billions into disinformation and worse, but it will persuade the 99%.

Friday, November 04, 2011

We Really Can't Wait

I've just started reading a 1984 science fiction novel by Kim Stanley Robinson called Icehenge.  The first section (which in many ways seems a clear forerunner to his Mars trilogy) is set in 2248, and has the common glitch of futures written then of referring to the Soviet Union.  But it also mentions an earth troubled by resource depletion, environmental and political problems due to the burdens of a population of six billion.

And in the real world of November 2011, Earth's human population reached 7 billion.  It is the burden that is least talked about by environmentalists and politicos alike--the very definition of that wearisome cliche, the elephant in the room.  It is the elephant, and the room.

It's a major factor in how hard it is going to be for the planet to respond to not only dwindling fossil fuel and the consequences of immense environmental poisoning and other destruction, but to the Climate Crisis.  

It took about 24 hours for the environmental community to pick up on Politico's report of some surprising statements by President Obama, pretty much stating an environmental case against the oil pipeline, the Keystone/oil sands project that Bill McKibben and other Climate Crisis activists have been agitating about for weeks.  So in the past couple of days a number of stories about it have emerged, in the mainstream press as well as enviro sites like Real Climate.   So whatever is going to happen now, is not going to happen quietly.  Update: I forgot to note that McKibben's group and allies are converging on Washington this Sunday, and asking supporters to join them. 

The Real Climate piece again quotes James Hansen as saying this pipeline will mean "game over" for attempts to limit the effects of the Climate Crisis.  But then there's this story, indicating that despite all the talk and so-called treaties, the amount of greenhouse gases spewed into the atmosphere jumped significantly in recent years, so that their concentration in 2010 is higher than the worst case scenario of climate experts four years ago.  That's not encouraging, let alone good news for attempts to save the planet from our worst.

Though there's been little doubt in the science--the case only getting stronger and more detailed--the media has waxed and waned on the facts of global heating.  In view of that recent study, more media outlets have seized the opportunity to call it settled.  One predicted phenomenon that follows from this may also be gaining credibility: that extreme weather is becoming the new normal.  All of this as folks are getting wind of a very grim IPPC report in the works.  The Climate Crisis is going to drive the future, and even though it's pretty scary--even paralyzing or surreal to consider--it's much better to recognize this now instead of when panic sets in.

Thursday, September 08, 2011


from the photonovel, Ruins of Detroit

Later today President Obama gives his speech before Congress outlining his proposals to spur job growth.  The Democrats at least are likely to keep pushing the jobs issue to the forefront, though how successfully remains to be seen.  Despite persistent high unemployment and underemployment, there wasn't a lot of prominent and consistent attention towards the jobs issue until now, as several commentators have noted.

In a way this inattention was surreal, but telling.  Apart from the attention focused on health care costs--a huge drag on the economy and the finances of small businesses and families--and apart from the distractions fomented by GOPer politicians, the seeming invisibility of unemployment pain was a reflection of the current corporate economy.

With financial corporations bailed out by huge government loans, the world economy avoided a catastrophic implosion in 2008 and 2009.  Banks and then major corporations based in the U.S. recovered quickly.  They have been rolling in cash for well over a year.  Apart from a very slowly recovering housing market (due to part to banks thwarting efforts to settle foreclosures),  the economy has been slowed by a lack of corporate investment in the U.S.

 That investment has gone overseas, where production is, and increasingly, where consumers are.  American corporations are prospering because they have new markets in the rest of the world, as something like a middle class grows in places like India and China.  U.S. corporations don't have to hire Americans because they can hire workers elsewhere who work cheaper, and they are closer to growing markets.  U.S. corporations don't have to worry about impoverishing a U.S. middle class, because they no longer depend on Americans to buy their products and services.  For these corporations, the U.S. supplies infrastructure, some skilled and professional labor not so readily available elsewhere (at least temporarily), and increasingly, the U.S. serves as a tax haven.  If corporations could just get rid of regulations and environmental restraints, they could complete the process of turning the U.S. into their ideal, a Third World country on a hill.

That's the U.S. economy in the fall of 2011.  It is unsustainable and it's temporary--perhaps very temporary.  Everyone knows this, or at least suspects it is.  Fear of the future may not be a conscious component of the denial that has become the increasingly aggressive posture of U.S. corporations, especially in fossil fuels.  But it is itself the fuel.


The resources of planet Earth cannot support a world of 7 billion people with the lifestyles of middle class Americans or Europeans.  We would need several more planets for that.  That's just the math.  If peak oil hasn't been reached already, it will be soon enough.  The global Climate Crisis is already wreaking havoc on food costs and supply, and in drought areas, even on human water supply.  Huge populations remain available for the kind of low-wage labor and virtual (if not actual) slavery that capitalism apparently demands. But wages for skilled labor will go up, and quickly approach U.S. standards.  So costs will go up for the currently deliriously wealthy global corporations.

In the short term, the U.S. economy still has a lot of residual strength.  Some of it may even spark an upturn next year.  Buried in the dismal employment numbers last month were continuing growth in health care jobs--a sign that the affordable care act is not depressing employment, and may be spurring it, as its major provisions unfold.  There are other positives that may pay off.

But that residual strength can also mask a situation that may well be worse than it might appear.  America is still awash in cheap stuff.  People don't look like people looked in the Great Depression.  They are better clothed, they have TVs etc.  Food is still plentiful, even if what's cheaply available is bloating people to a grotesque degree and creating long-term health problems.  The first visible sign of trouble now is housing, and that's likely the first to become very obvious.  We've somehow learned to live with a degree of homelessness that was unthinkable between the Depression and the 1980s.  But it could get more obviously worse.

All that Americans have to hang their hopes on at the moment is their vote, and GOPers are aggressively trying to take their right to vote away from them.  It's hard to see how an election can be really decisive, since 2008 turned out not to be.  But it was always going to take more than one election.  Then there's some hope in the demographics, which is what's driving a lot of current politics: it's the last of the white supremacists, now driving the GOP.  The economy itself may spring a few surprises, but when corporations seem so blindered that they don't care about the catastrophic future they are creating--along with the equally cynical fostering of present pain--they can't be counted on to do anything but evil.