Look Away, But At Least Listen

9780525576709.jpegWe have already linked to stories about life after warming enough that it borders on repetitive. No choice, as the book to the right makes very clear. This recent short video by the author will make you wince. There is something about visual cues on this topic that make it tougher to listen without being distracted. One of the better conversations with him is this one hour+, so if you only have that much time for him, make the best of it:

After years of hovering on the periphery of American politics, never quite the star of the show, it seems that climate change is having a moment. Continue reading

Marine Biologists & Earth’s Future

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Hirondellea gigas, an amphipod collected from the Mariana Trench (ALAN JAMIESON / NEWCASTLE UNIVERSITY)

Ed Yong’s story will not make you happy. But it is a plastics must-read. Marine biologists are akin to climate scientists whose job requires sharing specific unsettling findings. To put it mildly. The scientist in this case says he does not like doing this work. But he continues in the interest of science and in the interest of the planet’s future. Thanks to him and people like him:

A Troubling Discovery in the Deepest Ocean Trenches

In the Mariana Trench, the lowest point in any ocean, every tiny animal tested had plastic pollution hiding in its gut.

Alan Jamieson remembers seeing it for the first time: a small, black fiber floating in a tube of liquid. It resembled a hair, but when Jamieson examined it under a microscope, he realized that the fiber was clearly synthetic—a piece of plastic. And worryingly, his student Lauren Brooks had pulled it from the gut of a small crustacean living in one of the deepest parts of the ocean. Continue reading

Addictions Abound, Solutions Hiding In Plain Sight

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Orangutans rescued near a palm oil plantation in Kalimantan, Indonesia. Photograph: Vier Pfoten/Four Paws/Rex

Thanks to the Guardian for presenting this story by Paul Tullis:

How the world got hooked on palm oil

It’s the miracle ingredient in everything from biscuits to shampoo. But our dependence on palm oil has devastating environmental consequences. Is it too late to break the habit?

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A fire at an oil palm plantation in Pekanbaru, Sumatra, due to intensive farming methods and the dry season. Photograph: AFP/Getty

Once upon a time in a land far, far away, there grew a magical fruit. This fruit could be squeezed to produce a very special kind of oil that made cookies more healthy, soap more bubbly and crisps more crispy. The oil could even make lipstick smoother and keep ice-cream from melting. Because of these wondrous qualities, people came from around the world to buy the fruit and its oil.

In the places where the fruit came from, people burned down the forest so they could plant more trees that grew the fruit – making lots of nasty smoke and sending all of the creatures of the forest scurrying away. When the trees were burned, they emitted a gas that heated up the air. Then everybody was upset, because they loved the forest’s creatures and thought the temperature was warm enough already. A few people decided they shouldn’t use the oil any more, but mostly things went on as before, and the forest kept burning.

This is a true story. Except that it is not magic. The fruit of the oil palm tree (Elaeis guineensis), which grows in tropical climates, contains the world’s most versatile vegetable oil. It can handle frying without spoiling, and blends well with other oils. Its combination of different types of fats and its consistency after refining make it a popular ingredient in packaged baked goods. Its low production costs make it cheaper than frying oils such as cottonseed or sunflower. It provides the foaming agent in virtually every shampoo, liquid soap or detergent. Cosmetics manufacturers prefer it to animal tallow for its ease of application and low price. It is increasingly used as a cheap raw material for biofuels, especially in the European Union. It functions as a natural preservative in processed foods, and actually does raise the melting point of ice-cream. Palm oil can be used as an adhesive that binds together the particles in fibreboard. Oil palm trunks and fronds can be made into everything from plywood to the composite body of Malaysia’s national automobile.

Read the whole story here.

What’s The Delay?

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In 2017, seventeen major wildfires in California were connected to P.G. & E. Photograph by George Rose / Getty

Sheelah Kolhatkar has a note, The P.G. & E. Bankruptcy and the Coming Climate-Related Business Failures, that gets me thinking. The standard thinking on why climate change is so difficult to do anything about is how it is seen as a problem we will encounter far off in the future. It obviously is not far off. It has started. Farmers have suffered. Big city folk have suffered. California dreamers have suffered. The immediacy needs to be framed accordingly:

On January 15th, the World Economic Forum issued its annual Global Risks Report, which presents the results of a survey of what policymakers and experts perceive to be the world’s greatest challenges and threats. The report categorizes concerns by color: blue for economic risks, orange for geopolitical risks, purple for technological risks, red for societal risks. This year, green, which denotes environmental hazards, was dominant: the top three risks, listed by the “likelihood” that they would occur, were extreme weather events, failure of climate-change mitigation and adaptation, and natural disasters. (Threats such as data fraud and cyber-attacks appeared lower down on the list). “Is the world sleepwalking into a crisis?” the report’s authors wrote. “Global risks are intensifying but the collective will to tackle them appears to be lacking.” Continue reading

Anything But Sweet

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Trees felled for a cocoa plantation inside the Scio Forest Reserve in western Ivory Coast. MIGHTY EARTH

Fred Pearce provides puzzling yet somehow understandable examinations of environmental challenges, that make it impossible to look away with a clear conscience. Since reading this (note the photo above and in that story) I have been paying more attention to chocolate and its origins. I appreciate Mr. Pearce’s deep dive into the dark reality documented in this story:

The Real Price of a Chocolate Bar: West Africa’s Rainforests

Ivory Coast has lost more than 80 percent of its forests in the last 50 years, mainly to cocoa production. The government has a plan to turn over management of former forest to international chocolate manufacturers: Is it a conservation strategy or a land grab?

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Workers cut cocoa in the Ivory Coast village of Godilehiri. Most of the country’s cocoa is grown by small farmers, on plots of 7 to 10 acres. ISSOUF SANOGO/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

How can you save the last rainforests from rampant deforestation in one of Africa’s most biodiverse countries? A crackdown on those responsible — in this case, chocolate growers and traders? In the Ivory Coast, the government thinks differently. It is unveiling a plan instead to remove protection from most of its remaining forests and hand them over to the world’s chocolate traders. Is this madness, a brutal land grab, or the only way out?

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A park ranger stands over illegally harvested cocoa, found during a routine patrol of the Cavally Classified Forest in Ivory Coast. MIGHTY EARTH

In the past half-century, few countries have lost rainforests as fast as the Ivory Coast. More than 80 percent of its forests are gone, most following an illegal invasion by as many as a million landless people into national parks and other supposedly protected forests. The Marahoue National Park alone has 30,000 illegal inhabitants. The invaders are growing cocoa to supply the global chocolate business.

The Ivory Coast, a West African country the size of New Mexico, produces more than a third of the world’s cocoa. The crop contributes around a tenth of the nation’s GDP. But around 40 percent of the country’s cocoa crop — more than a tenth of the world’s chocolate bars — is grown illegally in the country’s national parks and 230 supposedly protected government-owned forests, known as forêts classée, says Etelle Higonnet of Mighty Earth, a United States-based environmental group active in cataloging the footprint of key global commodities.

Most cocoa is grown in monocultures of what is known as the full-sun system, requiring the removal of all surrounding trees. Meeting the world’s insatiable demand for the beans that make chocolate has resulted in many protected areas being “completely converted to farms,” according to Eloi Anderson Bitty of the University Felix Houphouet-Boigny in Abidjan. Continue reading

The Power Of Panic

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Ms. Cohen favors vendors who don’t use plastic. Credit Adam Amengual for The New York Times

When I started my Saturday morning reading it was just prior to our weekly visit to the farmer’s market and there was visual resonance with our own experience eliminating, or trying to eliminate plastic:

You’re Addicted to Plastic. Can You Go Cold Turkey?

Going plastic free starts with cloth bags and straws. Suddenly, you’re … making your own toothpaste?

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Reusable cloth bags are a must. Credit Adam Amengual for The New York Times

Like most people, resonance is always welcome in my reading. But like a second cup of coffee to really get the day going, there is nothing like cognitive dissonance. I can think eliminating plastic from our lives is a big deal one moment, and then the next it is clear that it is not enough, that it is like tinkering. Or as the punchy cliche puts it, like arranging deck chairs on the Titanic. David Wallace-Wells is a skilled dissonance artist in this vein. He can make your best efforts suddenly seem pathetic; not in a snarky way and if you listen to him explain his work you will realize resistance is futile; you cannot look away from what he is saying, even if you want to.

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‘A profound book, which simultaneously makes me terrified and hopeful about the future’ Jonathan Safran Foer
A Times and FT Most Anticipated Book 2019

His book will not likely be damned by faint praise; its look at our future prospects will more likely draw extreme responses in favor of the intensity of his alarm, and claims of alarmism from the usual suspects. He is catching up to Elizabeth Kolbert in balancing our preference for optimism with extreme realism. His op-ed on Saturday tipped the balance for me quite like a second, maybe third cup of coffee:

The age of climate panic is here. Last summer, a heat wave baked the entire Northern Hemisphere, killing dozens from Quebec to Japan. Some of the most destructive wildfires in California history turned more than a million acres to ash, along the way melting the tires and the sneakers of those trying to escape the flames. Pacific hurricanes forced three million people in China to flee and wiped away almost all of Hawaii’s East Island.

We are living today in a world that has warmed by just one degree Celsius (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit) since the late 1800s, when records began on a global scale. We are adding planet-warming carbon dioxide to the atmosphere at a rate faster than at any point in human history since the beginning of industrialization. Continue reading

Save The Waves, Stop The Seawall

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Grass bales intended to prevent erosion, in place last month at the Trump resort in Doonbeg, Ireland. Paulo Nunes dos Santos for The New York Times

I cannot explain why of all the mailing lists in all the world, most of which I opt out of preemptively and nearly all of which I opt out of within a week or two–I have remained on this mailing list since its inception. And this call to action catches my attention enough that I am passing it along. I first heard of this issue from Save the Waves a couple years ago. Then I noticed it in the news late the same year (click the image to the left), and again about a year ago there was this from Save the Waves. Now, one more time before it is too late, here is a copy/paste of the email from this week:

The Fight Against Trump’s Irish Seawall.

The ongoing campaign #NatureTrumpsWalls continues! Save The Waves Coalition and local partners urge careful consideration from Ireland’s national planning appeals board in the case against Trump International Golf Links’ seawall in Doonbeg, Ireland.

If approved, the proposed project would allow two seawalls to be built on a public beach to provide ‘coastal erosion management’ for Trump’s private golf resort and cause profound negative impact on Doughmore Beach – a popular surf break and coastline for surfers and beach goers.

The case is still left undecided one year after the appeal. Save The Waves continues to implore the Appeals Board to hear the case and recognize the severe implications of the project on the surrounding coastline.

Learn more about #NatureTrumpsWalls and the appeal here.

In The Eyes Of Motivated Beholders

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Stacks of rosewood at a timber market in Dongyang, China, a well-known hub for the illegal trade. SANDY ONG

Thanks to Sandy Ong and Edward Carver for this story about a type of tree that is too beautiful for its own good:

The Rosewood Trade: The Illicit Trail from Forest to Furniture

The most widely traded illegal wild product in the world today is rosewood, an endangered hardwood prized for its use in traditional Chinese furniture. An e360investigation follows the trail of destruction and corruption from the forests of Madagascar to furniture showrooms in China.

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Logged wood on a path near Masoala National Park in northeast Madagascar. The park has been plundered not just of rosewood but many types of tropical hardwood. EDWARD CARVER

Fampotakely, a sandy village in northeast Madagascar, at first seems an unlikely destination for migrants. It has no hospital, no secondary school, no electricity, and limited well water. Yet its population has exploded to 5,000 in recent years. A few of the houses, usually made from dried palm leaves and stalks, now have concrete foundations and solar panels. Fampotakely’s relative wealth is due to its strategic location in the illegal timber trade: it’s downriver from Masoala National Park, home to some of the world’s most valuable rosewood.

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Waterways around Fampotakely, Madagascar run blood red from rosewood stored underwater while waiting for ships to transport it to China. EDWARD CARVER

For the last decade, men from all over the region have gone into the park’s dense forests to work as loggers, a job that pays well by local standards. They cut down the massive trees, carve grooves in the logs, and use climbing vines to drag them to the nearest waterway. With rafts made from other felled trees, they use bamboo poles to float the precious hardwood toward Fampotakely and other villages along the Indian Ocean coastline. Continue reading

Golf & Its Discontents

Thanks to Yale e360, with this headline below I found my way to the video above and the website where the video is hosted:

California Teen Finds Thousands of Golf Balls Releasing Microplastics into Ocean

Reading further, I sensed that Yale e360 was being a bit polite saying “thousands” — more than 50,000 balls have already been extracted over two years. The article linked to National Public Radio’s coverage of the same story, with this slightly more aggressive headline:

Teenage Diver Finds Tons Of Golf Balls Rotting Off California

During my PhD years I got to be reasonably competent at the game of golf. I can say I even loved the game. One odd bi-product of my dissertation was that I learned of the perils to the planet from out of control golf course development. Then I felt compelled to give up the game. (I did play a bunch during the mid-1990s, in Costa Rica, as I slowly learned of those perils.) Recently I found the clubs I used to play with, and the shoes, while cleaning out a store room in Costa Rica. I left them there.

To this day I have some close friends who play golf. I never comment on this topic in front of them, because my message is easily misconstrued. I am not against all golf. I just think there are more than enough courses already built on this planet. A moratorium on building more would make me happy. My friends already have more than enough courses to play on. Anyway, this topic is of interest now for a new, very specific reason. And it comes as a bit of a surprise what a big problem golf balls are in the ocean. The website of the organization that is featured in both articles can be reached by clicking the image below:

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I remember advertisements from not that long ago that encouraged you to daydream about hitting balls endlessly into the ocean from cruise ship voyages with golf tees on the back of the ship. At first I thought maybe that kind of weird pleasure was the culprit, considering all the other dirty outcomes of cruising. But it’s complicated, as I learned from The Plastic Pickup website:

Golf1.jpgIn the spring of 2016, my dad (Mike Weber) and I (Alex Weber) were freediving along the central coast of California in the shallow waters adjacent to the Pebble Beach golf course, when we came across a discovery that had never been reported before. Thousands of golf balls blanketed the seafloor, and inhabited nearly every crack and crevice in the underwater and onshore environment. The overabundance of inorganic materials was overwhelming but for a second it did not phase us. As we began diving to the bottom to collect the balls, we realized what perfect freediving training it was and the whole operation felt like a fun game; we were having a blast. But soon, the enormity and vast scale of the pollution set in and it made me feel sick to my stomach. To preface this day, for a few years prior I had been spending at least an hour a day down at the beach collecting golf3microplastics and nurdles after heavy storms would wash them ashore. As a kid I was raised in the sea, boogie boarding everyday after school in kindergarten, scuba diving as soon as I was allowed to, and spending each summer day swimming offshore to hang out with dolphins and swim through giant kelp forests. To me the ocean was a peaceful home as well as my favorite teacher, so the discovery of such a large scale underwater plastic problem both shocked me and also captivated my curiosity. What began as a day of freediving resulted in a project that has changed my life ever since.

golf2The next dive-able day, we were underwater early in the morning equipped with mesh bags and a new diver, Jack Johnston. Jack and I had been long time friends since middle school, and spent all our time together either underwater or on mountains, so he didn’t need much convincing to come along. Jack’s reaction was similar to mine, but his wildly curious mind helped him stay positive and motivated. That day we collected nearly 2,000 golf balls which was just the start of what grew into The Plastic Pick-Up. As we continued diving, we were not only collecting golf balls, but data too…

Read the whole story here. And if that interests you, there is another website that mentions a different Alex and his buddy Andrew who have also found a mission-driven business focused on ocean cleanup:

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The story begins when Alex and Andrew take a surf trip…

to Bali Indonesia that would inevitably change their lives and the fate of the ocean. Devastated by the amount of plastic in the ocean, they set out to find out why no one was doing anything about it. Continue reading

The Future Runs Through It

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After two decades of drought, Lake Mead in Nevada is just 40 percent full. TED WOOD

Thanks to Jim Robbins and Yale e360 for this second installment, and especially to Ted Wood for photography as visually compelling as the implication of the story:

CRISIS ON THE COLORADO: PART II

On the Water-Starved Colorado River, Drought Is the New Normal

With the Southwest locked in a 19-year drought and climate change making the region increasingly drier, water managers and users along the Colorado River are facing a troubling question: Are we in a new, more arid era when there will never be enough water?

 

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Scientists at the University of Arizona are using tree rings to study centuries of drought conditions in the Colorado River Basin.

In the basement of the University of Arizona’s Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research, the fragrant smell of pine hangs in the air as researchers comb through the stacks of tree slabs to find a round, 2-inch-thick piece of Douglas fir.

They point out an anomaly in the slab — an unusually wide set of rings that represent the years 1905 to 1922. Those rings mean it was a pluvial period — precipitation was well above average — and so the trees grew far more than other years.

“In 1905, the gates opened and it was very wet and stayed very wet until the 1920s,” said David Meko, a hydrologist at the lab who studies past climate and stream flow based on tree rings. “It guided their planning and how much water they thought was available.”

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Mark Harris, a water manager in Grand Junction, Colorado.

The planning was that of the states that share the water of the Colorado River. Worried that a burgeoning California would take most of the water before it was fairly divvied up, representatives from the other Colorado River Basin states, presided over by U.S. Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover, came together in 1922 to develop an equitable apportionment. They looked at flow measurements and figured that the river contained an average of 15 million acre-feet. They divided the Colorado River states into two divisions – the upper basin and the lower basin, with the dividing line in northern Arizona near the Utah border. The upper basin states — Utah, Wyoming, Colorado, and New Mexico — agreed not to take more than a total of 7.5 million acre-feet and to allow the other half to flow south to the lower basin. The agreement they signed was called the 1922 Colorado River Compact, also known as the Law of the River. Continue reading

Urban Tree-Huggers

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Women demonstrators protest a plan to to cut down more than 14,000 trees for a redevelopment project in New Delhi in June 2018. CHANDAN KHANNA/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

Thanks to Yale e360’s Mumbai-based Vaishnavi Chandrashekhar:

In India’s Fast-Growing Cities, a Grassroots Effort to Save the Trees

In India’s burgeoning urban areas, residents are rallying against the widespread destruction of trees to make way for development. The recent protests highlight a global issue: densely populated megacities in the developing world, which are most in need of tree cover, often have the least.

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Thousands of trees have been cut down in Mumbai in recent years to make way for new housing, wider roads, and a $3.3 billion subway line. COURTESY OF ZORU BHATHENA

The funeral cortege was small. Six people shouldered the bier and others followed, clad in the traditional Indian white. As the group filed past the state assembly building, the armed guards did not give it a second glance. In a few minutes, however, the security forces caught on. The procession winding its way through Mumbai’s government district was not a real funeral: It was a protest. The shrouded body held aloft was not a human — it was the trunk of a tree, one of many, including grand old banyans, cut down for the construction of a $3.3 billion subway line.

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A protester hugs an old tree in Mumbai to prevent it from being cut down for a subway project. COURTESY OF ZORU BHATHENA

Mumbai’s old trees have borne the brunt of new development in the booming city, including road widening, transport projects, and housing construction. The new subway alone is destroying or damaging 5,000 trees, from hundreds of old street trees in the dense parts of the historic island city to more than 2,000 trees in a mini-forest in suburban Aarey Colony, where a rail car shed is to be built. A less visible loss lies in defunct industrial areas, where large plots with old trees and ponds are being redeveloped into residential and commercial towers. “Developers are supposed to replace the trees but no one really checks,” says Stalin D., head of local environmental group, Vanashakti. Continue reading

Graphics For Better Comprehension

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Yesterday I was struck by a set of graphics that helped me see an old story in a new light. That was not a particularly important old story, as history of the planet goes; but it gave the manufacturing consent theme a new shine–in technicolor, black and white, and finer shades of gray. Today, on a story that is definitely of historic proportions related to the planet, my thanks again to Brad Plumer and his occasional writing partner Nadja Popovich, especially for its accompanying graphics:

Naughty Behavior Will Not Be Tolerated

Thanks to the Guardian for the latest story in this series. We have avoided adding our voice to the many rightly concerned about the radically pro-extraction, carbon-freewheeling policies of the United States since early 2017. The concern is loud and widespread. We have listened. Today, reading this story, I pictured a naughty boy, a bully, getting away with bad behavior for an extended period. Any period of bad boy behavior is intolerable but it happens. Until it is no longer tolerated. Which eventually always happens. And that may be the best stand-in for optimism these days:

Lost lands? The American wilderness at risk in the Trump era

Exclusive: a new study reveals the vast extent of public lands being opened up to the energy industry. The Guardian heard from three communities on the frontlines

by Charlotte Simmonds, Gloria Dickie and Jen Byers

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Colter Hoyt, an outdoors guide and conservationist, at Grand Staircase-Escalante. Photograph: Charlotte Simmonds for the Guardian

In the great expanses of the Grand Staircase-Escalante national monument, the silence hits you first. Minutes pass, smooth and unbroken as glass. The smallest sound – a breath of wind, a falling rock – can seem as loud as passing traffic.

Colter Hoyt knows this landscape well. As an outdoor guide, he walks the monument almost daily. Yet these days he is full of fear. This remote paradise of red rocks, slot canyons and towering plateaus faces an uncertain future, following a controversial presidential proclamation that removed 800,000 acres from the monument and opened land up for potential energy development.

When Trump took office in 2016, he promised the energy industry a new era of “American energy dominance”. This would only be possible by exploiting America’s 640m acres of public land: mountains, deserts, forests and sites of Native American history that cover more than a quarter of the country. Continue reading

The Little Creatures We Cannot Live Without

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Photo illustrations by Matt Dorfman. Source photographs: Bridgeman Images.

Brooke Jarvis has written a longform feature article with the word apocalypse in the title, which may make you wince and turn away. As might the word insect, even if you find the illustration above mesmerizing as I do. And reading to the end is an investment in time. But do not turn away just because the illustration below is alarming. It is another alarming topic we are responsible for taking account of.

02mag-insects-image2-superJumbo-v5.jpgSune Boye Riis was on a bike ride with his youngest son, enjoying the sun slanting over the fields and woodlands near their home north of Copenhagen, when it suddenly occurred to him that something about the experience was amiss. Specifically, something was missing.

It was summer. He was out in the country, moving fast. But strangely, he wasn’t eating any bugs.

For a moment, Riis was transported to his childhood on the Danish island of Lolland, in the Baltic Sea. Back then, summer bike rides meant closing his mouth to cruise through thick clouds of insects, but inevitably he swallowed some anyway. When his parents took him driving, he remembered, the car’s windshield was frequently so smeared with insect carcasses that you almost couldn’t see through it. But all that seemed distant now. He couldn’t recall the last time he needed to wash bugs from his windshield; he even wondered, vaguely, whether car manufacturers had invented some fancy new coating to keep off insects. But this absence, he now realized with some alarm, seemed to be all around him. Where had all those insects gone? And when? And why hadn’t he noticed? Continue reading

News & Perspective

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Firefighters battle the King Fire near Fresh Pond, California, in September 2014. NOAH BERGER / REUTERS

Posts like this one tend to not fare as well with readers visiting our platform. Whoever makes their way here is normally looking for what we normally offer, stories about entrepreneurial conservation. Which we believe can be a winning formula for the challenges at hand. But from time to time, we must acknowledge that the odds look grim.

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Fighting the Camp Fire this month in Magalia, Calif. Credit Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Two articles, both very well written, about the report warning of the dangers of climate change to the US economy, note that the report is not likely to have much impact. Because of Black Friday? No, because the forces behind willful ignorance have been at it for a long time, with plentiful resources to strengthen their game. This cartoon says more in fewer words than either article on why. Nathaniel Rich’s short essay, dark and stark and alarming, is akin. Bill McKibben, though, once again hits the nail squarely and firmly, and more effectively than news, because of his trench-based perspective:

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California is currently ablaze, after a record hot summer and a dry fall set the stage for the most destructive fires in the state’s history. Above: The Woolsey fire, near Los Angeles, seen from the West Hills. Photograph by Kevin Cooley for The New Yorker

How Extreme Weather Is Shrinking the Planet

With wildfires, heat waves, and rising sea levels, large tracts of the earth are at risk of becoming uninhabitable. But the fossil-fuel industry continues its assault on the facts.

Thirty years ago, this magazine published “The End of Nature,” a long article about what we then called the greenhouse effect. I was in my twenties when I wrote it, and out on an intellectual limb: climate science was still young. But the data were persuasive, and freighted with sadness. We were spewing so much carbon into the atmosphere that nature was no longer a force beyond our influence—and humanity, with its capacity for industry and heedlessness, had come to affect every cubic metre of the planet’s air, every inch of its surface, every drop of its water. Scientists underlined this notion a decade later when they began referring to our era as the Anthropocene, the world made by man.

I was frightened by my reporting, but, at the time, it seemed likely that we’d try as a society to prevent the worst from happening. Continue reading

When Alarmism Is Required

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An illegal logging in the Alto Turiacu indigenous territory in Brazil’s Maranhão State in 2015. FÁBIO NASCIMENTO / GREENPEACE

Trust, a kind of social glue, keeps us from having to think nonstop about worst case scenarios. We trust that those with authority, whether intellectual or political, will use it responsibly. Thinking about this recently, I have been adjusting where I have least and greatest trust that responsible environmental actions are taken. Today I have made an adjustment on the former. The USA’s political leadership has been at the forefront of my thought when it comes to least responsible, least trustworthy actions. Philip Fearnside, an ecologist at the National Institute for Research in Amazonia (INPA) in Brazil, studies the consequences of deforestation in the world’s largest tropical forest, so his word carries scientific weight for me. He has put in perspective why I should turn my attention to Brazil:

Why Brazil’s New President Poses an Unprecedented Threat to the Amazon

Newly elected Jair Bolsonaro, an authoritarian nationalist sometimes called the “tropical Trump,” has staked out an environmental agenda that would open the Amazon to widespread development, putting at risk a region that plays a vital role in stabilizing the global climate.

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An indigenous woman protests against then-candidate Jair Bolsonaro, who has promised to ban the creation of new protected areas or indigenous territories, in Sao Paulo in October. NELSON ALMEIDA/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

For people concerned about the environment and climate change, U.S. President Donald Trump has proven to be as bad, or worse, than feared. He is in the process of pulling the United States out of the Paris Agreement, continues to flatly dismiss the science of human-caused global warming, and has worked ceaselessly to undo environmental regulations and weaken environmental agencies.

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Brazil’s president-elect, Jair Bolsonaro, has pledged to dismantle the country’s environmental regulations. MIGUEL SCHINCARIOL/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

Now, however, a new leader has emerged on the world stage who is poised to do even more global environmental damage than Trump. He is Jair Bolsonaro, the recently elected president of Brazil, and his extreme views on the environment, coupled with his control of nearly all the country’s levers of power, means that he is now in a position to do unprecedented harm to the Amazon and the international battle to slow climate change.

Not for nothing is Bolsonaro known as the “tropical Trump.” The parallels are many, including their embrace of the far right and their inflammatory rhetoric. And among their similarities is the way that a constant barrage of outrageous comments diverts discussion from the environmental damage that their policies portend. Continue reading

The Great Lakes And Unexpected Consequences Of Human Interventions

9780393355550_300.jpegI was not aware of this book until listening today to its author spend an hour talking about it. And that happened because of a radio program that I listened to during graduate school, which like most radio shows is now available as a podcast. The discussion was all about unintended ecological consequences of what seemed like smart decisions at the time, going back centuries and up to the present day.

It was interesting enough to search for more information about the book. In the process I found a book club that in turn led me to the book review that is just what I was looking for to complement the author interview:

In the oceanic depths of the Great Lakes, life and death swirl like coffee and cream. Growing up on the western shores of Lake Michigan, I knew this instinctively. The lake provided our drinking water and a place to cool off in the summer, but it also occasionally coughed up millions of small dead fish called alewives, which littered the shoreline, giving off an aquarial reek.

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Great Lakes vampires: Lampreys latch on to a brown trout.
 Credit James L. Amos/National Geographic, via Getty Images

As long as the town deemed the water’s bacteria count low enough, we kids would go swimming or fishing (though we weren’t allowed to eat what we caught). Our moms would sit on towels on the pebbled beach, misted with sweat, paging through magazines. “Do you go in?” they would ask one another, with widened eyes and a half-ironic cringe. Oh no, it was much too cold, or too polluted, they inevitably replied. Nevertheless, the lake served as the axis mundi of our little universe; when people gave directions, they were often oriented “toward the lake” or “away from the lake.” The name of our town had “lake” in it; the town next door did too. Both lay within Lake County. We were lake people. Continue reading

Reckoning With Doom

Kolbert.jpgWe have featured work by Elizabeth Kolbert since the earliest days of this platform, about twice a year. A year ago we linked to The Fate of Earth, which remains a favorite.

LongformShe has chosen to focus her work on the existential environmental challenges created by mankind, and unflinchingly reports on what we collectively are, and more often are not, doing about those challenges. The word doom always comes to mind when I see her name or think about her work. Today I am recommending this rare interview with her, in which she shares personal reflections on what it is like to do the work she does, and about 40 minutes in touches on how and why she persists with her work, even knowing that most people simply cannot bear to face the facts she is presenting:

Elizabeth Kolbert, author of Field Notes from a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change and The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, is a staff writer at The New Yorker.

“I still nurse the idea in my heart of hearts that something you write, that there’s some key to this all. Continue reading

One More Reason To Eliminate As Much Plastic As You Can From Your Daily Routines

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A green sea turtle off the eastern coast of Australia. Researchers estimate that more than half of all sea turtles have ingested plastic debris. Credit Kathy Townsend

Thanks to Karen Weintraub for this stark reminder, one of countless examples, of why so many places, and some big companies and many individuals are doing their best to get plastic out of daily routines:

Just a Few Pieces of Plastic Can Kill Sea Turtles

A new study shows that especially for young turtles, ingesting just a little more than a dozen pieces of plastic in the ocean can be lethal.

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Plastics removed from the intestine of a sea turtle. The study found that half of juvenile turtles would be expected to die if they ingested 17 plastic items. Credit Kathy Townsend

All over the world, sea turtles are swallowing bits of plastic floating in the ocean, mistaking them for tasty jellyfish, or just unable to avoid the debris that surrounds them.

Now, a new study out of Australia is trying to catalog the damage.

While some sea turtles have been found to have swallowed hundreds of bits of plastic, just 14 pieces significantly increases their risk of death, according to the study, published Thursday in Scientific Reports.

Young sea turtles are most vulnerable, the study found, because they drift with currents where the floating debris also accumulate, and because they are less choosy than adults about what they will eat.

Worldwide, more than half of all sea turtles from all seven species have eaten plastic debris, estimated Britta Denise Hardesty, the paper’s senior author and a principal research scientist with the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization in Tasmania. “It doesn’t matter where you are, you will find plastic,” she said. Continue reading

Waterways, Persons & Rights

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The free-flowing Baker River in Chile’s Patagonia region. Permits for a major hydroelectric project on the waterway were revoked in 2014 amid protests. LOUIS VEST/FLICKR

Dams in Patagonia are the gift that keep on giving, in terms of awakening activism and forcing raised awareness of the value of waterways. I first mentioned my experience in Chile here. I came back to the idea a few more times. Thanks to Jens Benohr and Patrick Lynch for this reminder, and for letting us all know where this seems headed from a legal point of view:

Should Rivers Have Rights? A Growing Movement Says It’s About Time

Inspired by indigenous views of nature, a movement to grant a form of legal “personhood” to rivers is gaining some ground — a key step, advocates say, in reversing centuries of damage inflicted upon the world’s waterways.

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A Chilean energy company is seeking permits to restart the building of an unfinished dam along the San Pedro River. CARLOS LASTRA

Chile is a land of rivers. Along its narrow 3,000-mile length, thousands of rivers and wetlands bring freshwater and nutrients down from the Andes Mountains to the Pacific Ocean. Together, these river systems drain 101 major watersheds that support both terrestrial and marine ecosystems, ranging from arid lands in the north to blue whale nurseries off of Patagonia in the south.

Chile’s second-longest river, the 240-mile Biobío, once tumbled fast and wild through deep gorges and spectacular scenery on its way from the Andes to the sea. The Biobío was one of the world’s great whitewater rafting venues — until the 1990s, when the first of three large hydroelectric dams was built across the river. Over the past two decades, the Biobío dams have flooded more than 13,000 acres, displaced hundreds of families of the indigenous Mapuche people, turned long stretches of this once-unruly river into placid reservoirs, and caused abrupt fluctuations in water levels that have wrecked nesting habitat for native birds and disrupted the river’s natural rhythms. Continue reading