Most of the iconic locations for American outdoorspeople are … outdoors. You’ve got your Half Dome, you’ve got your Muir Woods, you’ve got your Mt. Washington, your Blue Ridge Parkway. But if there’s an indoor mecca, it’s probably REI’s flagship store in Seattle, with its glass-enclosed climbing spire looming over I-5, and its racks of everything from backpacks to snowshoes to collapsible trail-friendly dog bowls inducing a kind of glaze-eyed lust from those of us who are — love of the wilderness aside — still good old-fashioned American gearheads.
It’s a casual, friendly, airy, open space filled with the best kind of dreams — and it’s kind of the opposite of the Rana Plaza garment factory in Bangladesh, which collapsed last year, killing more than 1,100 people. As the New York Times reported, “survivors described a sensation akin to being in an earthquake: hearing a loud and terrifying cracking sound; feeling the concrete factory floor roll beneath their feet; and watching concrete beams and pillars collapse as the eight-story building suddenly seemed to implode.” And of course this was not some one-off tragedy. A few months earlier, 112 workers died in a fire at Tazreen Fashions, and before that — well, it’s a long list, all marked by unsafe conditions, chained doors, and the lethal combination of greedy owners and desperately poor workers with no control over their lives.
The link between dangerous Bangladeshi factories and the cathedral-like Seattle superstore is a little too close for comfort, though. Some of the brands that REI features — North Face, say — are made in those dark satanic mills. And North Face’s parent, the giant VF Brands, is refusing to sign on to the Bangladesh Fire and Building Safety Accord that local unions and human rights activists have demanded to cut the risk of such disasters. Instead, it’s endorsed a rival set of criteria — just as, say, the forestry industry has endorsed its own set of rules for “sustainable” logging, ignoring the ones that environmentalists promote. Bangladesh has enough problems, as sea-level rise forces vast internal migrations; it’s simply cruel to trap already trapped people in dangerous factories.
The group United Students Against Sweatshops has mounted a campaign against VF, the parent company of North Face, which supplies logo gear to many colleges. Its been a spirited effort, but VF boasts that it is weathering the storm. Only a few universities — “we’re talking eight out of a thousand” — have severed ties with the company, VF insists. The intrepid students organizing this campaign say more than a dozen campuses have taken the step.
But either way, that’s not enough pressure yet to bring these conglomerates in line with the need for change. So that’s why those of us who are out of college, and making the disposable income to buy nifty parkas and high-tech longjohns, need to remind our dream-merchants to stop trafficking in nightmares. REI sells a lot of that North Face gear — it needs to tell the parent company to sign on to the real safety regulations in countries like Bangladesh, and to do it quickly.
It’s not the fault of your average REI shopper that their high-end gear gets made in dark satanic mills. But since we have the leverage to do something about it, it’s time for us to try. Here’s the very easy link to hit to send the management a message. Do it before you hit the trail.
Few things are more unappealing than a lumpy, bruised potato covered in sprouts. But leave it to the French to make it look sexy.
A campaign by the French supermarket chain Intermarché is on a mission to make shoppers see the inner beauty in scarred, disfigured, or otherwise odd-shaped fruits and vegetables. The message: Why throw away perfectly good produce just because it doesn’t meet arbitrary cosmetic criteria — especially when so many families can’t afford to eat the five daily portions of fruits and vegetables recommended by nutritionists?
“Now, you can eat five ‘inglorious’ fruits and vegetables a day. As good, but 30 percent cheaper,” says an Intermarché promotional video, trumpeting the virtues of the “the grotesque apple, the ridiculous potato, the hideous orange, the failed lemon, the disfigured eggplant, the ugly carrot, and the unfortunate clementine.” Here’s an English version of the video:
The French are eating it up like chocolat. After Intermarché launched the campaign in March, it sold out of its ugly fruits and vegetables within the first two days, and saw a 24 percent increase in traffic in participating stores. Now it’s looking to expand the program to its 1,474 supermarkets all over France.
We sure could eat more ugly veggies over on this side of the pond. A report by the Natural Resources Defense Council found that Americans toss a whopping 52 percent of the country’s fruits and vegetables — more than any other food group. A significant part of that loss occurs before the produce ever leaves the field.
Part of the problem is the structure of our industrialized food system. It’s made up of a few large buyers and many suppliers, leading to a situation where the largest purchasers have the power to dictate the terms of a sale. Marketing orders issued by trade associations specify the exact size, diameter, consistency, and color required for a certain product to be considered “grade A,” and if a fruit or vegetable doesn’t make the cut, its retail price drops dramatically.
When prices are too low, it costs a farmer more to harvest his or her field than he or she would make by the sale of the produce. If a field turns up “sub-standard” produce — which sometimes just means carrots half an inch too small — the farmer may be forced not to harvest it, leaving entire crops of perfectly edible, nutritious food to go to waste.
Standards are a necessary trade tool for retailers, for them to know what they’re getting when they buy in bulk quantities, explained Dana Gunders, a food waste expert at the NRDC. The problem, she says, is that today’s standards are ridiculously high.
As California organic farmer David Mas Masumoto put it in The Sacramento Bee, “If we picked our friends the way we selectively picked and culled our produce, we’d be very lonely.”
(Believe it or not, ripeness and taste aren’t part of marketing order standards — which explains why supermarket aisles are chock-full of great-looking, uniform peaches that taste like cardboard. Just sayin’.)
All about marketing
Gunders believes American consumers are far more open to odd-shaped produce than supermarket managers give them credit for. Sure, if given the choice between a great-looking tomato and a lumpy one, most might initially reach for the beauty queen. But enticed with a discount and presented with a light-hearted yet relevant social message, as Intermarché customers were, many will think twice.
“There are and always will be bargain shoppers out there,” Gunders said. “It’s all about marketing, right? Marketing got us into this corner where we’re wasting nearly half of our food, so marketing could get us back out of it.” She added that she’s been sent the Intermarché video by at least 15 different people since the English version first surfaced online, a sign that there is significant public interest in this kind of initiative.Intermarché
Colorado resident Anna Bundick King, 41, who posted the “Inglorious” video on her Facebook feed, agrees that initiatives like this would find a receptive audience in the U.S. “Being a teacher, I would love to see this idea introduced in schools,” she wrote in an email. “It would be a fun way to teach responsible use of our resources.”
“If I were a U.S. retailer, I’d be jumping all over this,” said Gunders.
American supermarkets may be ready to listen. Lindsay Robinson, a spokesperson for Whole Foods, said the chain’s management had “seen the campaign and they love it.”
“We’re always looking for new ways to bring high quality, delicious produce to our customers,” she wrote in an email.
Omar Jorge Peña, a partner and general counsel at the small, independent East Coast supermarket chain Compare Foods, said his company was “aware of the ‘Inglorious’ fruits and vegetables concept” and would be “further studying its viability” in the company’s markets.
Ugly produce, yummy soups
To seal the deal, the masterminds behind Intermarché’s marketing initiative developed a line of soups and juices made exclusively with “ugly” fruits and vegetables — proof that a crooked carrot or lopsided orange can taste just as good, if not better, than her smooth, spotless neighbor.
And even that lumpy potato can be used to make gorgeous, sexy, golden-crisp French fries, n’est ce pas?Intermarché
It is common for the coal industry and its conservative allies in politics and media to complain that President Obama is waging a “war on coal.” It is certainly true that the share of American energy that comes from coal is declining. Obama doesn’t actually deserve much of the credit for that. It’s mostly due to the natural gas boom, helped along by the rise of solar and grassroots organizing efforts such as the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign. Still, Obama is trying to move the energy sector further away from coal in the years ahead through his proposed CO2 regulations for power plants.
But coal extraction keeps chugging along, with much of the coal being exported to Asian countries that are hungry for energy to fuel their growing economies. And a lot of this mining is taking place on federal land. The Bureau of Land Management sells leases to coal companies at far below their market value, and even farther below the cost of their pollution on society. As we’ve previously noted, this is one of the ways the federal government subsidizes fossil fuel production. Such subsidies have actually grown during the Obama administration. Environmentalists say that Obama’s “all of the above” energy policy contradicts his professed commitment to reducing CO2 emissions, and undermines his efforts to do so.
“Leasing Coal, Fueling Climate Change,” a report released on Monday by Greenpeace, attempts to quantify the scope and social costs of federal coal leasing. Here are the most important statistic-filled bits:
The Bureau of Land Management has leased 2.2 billion tons of publicly owned coal during the Obama administration, unlocking 3.9 billion metric tons of carbon pollution. This is equivalent to the annual emissions of over 825 million passenger vehicles, and more than the 3.7 billion tons that was emitted in the entire European Union in 2012. …
A ton of publicly owned coal leased during the Obama administration will, on average, cause damages estimated at between $22 and $237, using the federal government’s social cost of carbon estimates — yet the average price per ton for those coal leases was only $1.03. …
The carbon pollution from publicly owned coal leased during the Obama administration will cause damages estimated at between $52 billion and $530 billion, using the federal government’s social cost of carbon estimates. In contrast, the total amount of revenue generated from those coal leases sales was $2.3 billion. …
The federal coal leasing program is the source of 40% of US coal extraction. One BLM field office in Wyoming recently proposed a plan that estimates new coal leases amounting to 10.2 billion tons, which would unlock an estimated 16.9 billion metric tons of carbon pollution.
Part of the reason for the perception that Obama isn’t a friend to the coal industry is that the new leases are not in historical coal country. They are out West, where the BLM’s holdings are concentrated. All of the federal coal leases since 2009 have been west of the Mississippi, with the majority being in Wyoming’s booming Powder River Basin. The state coming in second is Colorado. This may come as cold comfort to West Virginia and Kentucky Democrats struggling to convince their state’s voters that their party has no anti-coal agenda.
The truth is that Obama has a split personality on coal: He’s trying to get us to burn less of it even while we continue to mine tons of it. Economically and politically, it seems like a win-win for the country: We get to claim that we’ve reduced our carbon footprint because when our coal is burned in China it is counted as their CO2. It’s a lot better for Western states, though, which can mine the coal and transport it to the West Coast for export, than the Midwestern and Appalachian states that rely heavily on burning coal to power their industrial economies.
It’s also a bait-and-switch on climate change. If we produce enough coal on federal land to create the equivalent annual emissions of 825 million cars, we’re not doing the climate any favors by simply getting someone else to burn it. Yes, China will still need to get its electricity from somewhere. But if we left that coal in the ground, constraining global coal supplies, China might find it too expensive to get energy from coal and instead more aggressively build up its renewable sector or find greater energy efficiencies. (And some of this coal is still burned within the U.S., so we’re not entirely off the hook on that charge either.)
What the country actually needs is a price on carbon that reflects the true social and environmental burden of burning fossil fuels. That would make coal prohibitively expensive. Today’s Congress will never go along with that, of course. But what Obama could do, without congressional approval, is determine that it isn’t in the public interest to give away mineral rights for a fraction of their negative cost to society. That’s why Greenpeace is calling for a moratorium on leasing coal on federal lands, followed by a review of the leasing program and an examination of its climate change cost. This is a good idea that should be extended to all fossil fuels on federal property, both land and sea. Just last week, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management — which, like the BLM, is part of the Department of Interior — announced that it would allow seismic testing off the southern Atlantic coast to search for underwater oil and gas.
This makes no sense if Obama is serious about reducing global CO2 emissions. His administration can’t effectively fight climate change with one hand tied behind its back.
Let me tell you about a catastrophe. I don’t use that word lightly: This event was monumental, an apocalypse that was literally global in scale, and one of the most deadly disasters in Earth’s history.
It began about 2.5 billion years ago (though opinions vary). The Earth was very different then. There were no leafy plants, no animals, no insects. Although there may have been some bacterial life on land, it was the oceans that teemed with it, and even there life was far simpler than it is today. Most of the bacteria thriving on Earth were anaerobic, literally metabolizing their food without oxygen.
But then an upstart appeared, and things changed. This new life came in the form of cyanobacteria, sometimes called blue-green algae.
Cyanobacteria are photosynthetic. They convert sunlight into energy and produce oxygen as a waste product. Back then, the Earth’s atmosphere didn’t have free oxygen in it as it does today. It was locked up in water molecules, or bonded to iron in minerals.
The cyanobacteria changed that. But not at first: For a while, as they produced free oxygen as their waste, iron would bond with it and the environment could keep up with the production.
At some point, though, as cyanobacteria flourished, the minerals and other sinks became saturated. They could no longer absorb the oxygen being produced. It built up in the water, in the air. To the other bacteria living in the ocean — anaerobic bacteria, remember — oxygen was toxic. The cyanobacteria were literally respiring poison.
A die-off began, a mass extinction killing countless species of bacteria. It was the Great Oxygenation Event. But there was worse to come.
Up until this time, the atmosphere was devoid of the reactive molecule. But as oxygen abundances increased, some of it combined with methane to create carbon dioxide. Methane is a far more efficient greenhouse gas than CO2, and this methane was keeping the planet warm. As levels dropped, the Earth cooled. This triggered a massive glaciation event, a global ice age that locked the planet in its grip.
Things got so bad the cyanobacteria themselves were threatened. Their own numbers dropped, along with nearly all other life on Earth. The mass extinction that followed was vast.
But there was an exception: Some organisms could use that oxygen in their own metabolic processes. Combining oxygen with other molecules can release energy, a lot of it, and that energy is useful. It allowed these microscopic plants to grow faster, breed faster, live faster.
The anaerobic species died off, falling to the oxygen-burning plants, which prospered in this new environment. Certainly, anaerobes didn’t vanish from the Earth, but they were vanquished to low-oxygen environments such as the bottom of the ocean. They were no longer the dominant form of life on Earth.
It was perhaps the first of the mass extinctions life would face on our planet, and its impact resonates through the eons (and of course there is quite a lot of detail to this story). To this day, our atmosphere is rich in oxygen, with most multicellular life on Earth descended from the upstart oxygen breathers, and not the anaerobes.
It’s an interesting tale, don’t you think? The dominant form of life on Earth, spread to the far reaches of the globe, blissfully and blithely pumping out vast amounts of pollution, changing the environment on a planetary scale, sealing their fate. They wouldn’t have been able to stop even if they knew what they were doing, even if they had been warned far, far in advance of the effects they were creating.
If this is a cautionary tale, if there is some moral you can take away from this, you are free to extract it for yourself. If you do, perhaps you can act on it. One can hope that in this climate, change is always possible.
Netflix has already burned weeks of our lives with its early ventures into original programming. You know what I’m talking about. Every episode of House of Cards or Orange is the New Black left you tearing out your hair screaming, “I NEED JUST ONE MORE, PLEEEASE!”
Now that the good people at Netflix have come to realize their power, they’re going to try to use it to show us something even more unnerving than murderous politicians: real life. As part of their new documentary push, they bought the rights to two films focused on the state, and fate of our planet — Mission Blue (watch the preview above) and Virunga.
From the makers of The Cove, Mission Blue follows oceanographer Sylvia Earle – the first female chief scientist of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration who has logged more than 7,000 hours underwater (you know, only one of the heroes of my adolescent self). In Mission Blue, Earle lays out the ways in which we’re screwing the oceans over – and puts forward her vision for a network of wilderness-like ocean preserves.
Virunga, which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in April, is about the Herculean toils involved in protecting a National Park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and its endangered mountain gorillas. Poaching, skeevy oil companies, corruption, war … clearly part of Netflix’s plan is to make you feel so bad that you’ll need to pick yourself back up by browsing the site’s comedy section once its over.
Mission Blue will premier in New York, L.A., and on Netflix on Aug. 15. Stay tuned for my interview with Earle in Grist before then. Virunga will air on Netflix later this year.
Who needs a planet when you can have Earth Ball? Each kit comes with a spray bottle of acid rain, spillable mini-barrels of oil, and printouts of irrelevant environmental legislation (ouch! My heart!). Practice up, kiddos. If you’re ever going to keep up with your parents, you have a lot of terrible habits to learn.
Thanks to the kids big and small at the Upright Citizens Brigade for the too-real video.
I know what you’re thinking, but Skyfarm is not the latest Tom Cruise sci-fi failure. Skyfarm is one possible solution to a lot of the problems with high-density urban living.
Concieved by the folks at Aprilli Design Studios for Seoul, South Korea, the Skyfarm would be a massive techno tree rising amongst the skyscrapers. The concept would provide arable space to grow crops in a tightly packed city while also providing public green spaces, producing energy, purifying water, and cleaning the air — and the structure’s great height will get that air cleaning up where it’s needed most.
Stu Roberts at Gizmag has the scoop:
The primary structure has a large, root area at its base to provide stability and spread the weight of the Skyfarm out across the ground. A trunk section rises up from the root and spreads out into eight vertical branches that are connected together by trusses to provide structural reinforcement.
The branches each support 60-70 farming decks, which can be described as the leaf sections of the tree. The decks are spread out as much as possible to ensure they receive adequate exposure to sunlight. Each deck has heating and LED lighting systems that are used to create “optimal environmental conditions” for farming.
The Skyfarm design uses a hydroponic system for growing crops, instead of using a soil-based approach. The higher, external leaf sections would be used for fruit trees and larger scale vegetables that need more exposure to air and sunlight, while lower, internal growing areas would be available for items that might thrive better indoors, such as herbs.
Ahh the future, a place where we will abandon all of the long accepted terms used in engineering and architecture and replace them with marketing appropriate nomenclature. Building a Skyfarm? “Superstructure” becomes “trunk.” Building a frat house? “Floor” is now known as “bro-Bedding.”
Cheesy nomenclature aside, the concept is actually pretty rad, although the roughly 13 acres of hydroponic growing space doesn’t sound like it’d make much of a dent in Seoul’s food needs. Still, it’s a start, and it’s certainly cooler than a 20-story parking lot, and I’ll finally get a chance to combine my two great passions, jetpacks and gardening.
The article was reported by the Guardian’s Suzanne Goldenberg, and the video was produced by Climate Desk‘s James West.
The skies are threatening to pour on the Apple solar farm but as the woman in charge of the company’s environmental initiatives points out: The panels are still putting out some power. Apple is still greening its act.
The company, which once drew fire from campaigners for working conditions in China and heavy reliance on fossil fuels, is now leading other technology companies in controlling its own power supply and expanding its use of renewable energy.
After converting all of its data centers to clean energy, the Guardian understands Apple is poised to use solar power to manufacture sapphire screens for the iPhone 6, at a factory in Arizona.
And in a departure for its reputation for secretiveness, Apple is going out of its way to get credit for its green efforts.
“We know that our customers expect us to do the right thing about these issues,” Lisa Jackson, the vice-president of environmental initiatives told the Guardian.
This week, the company invited journalists on a rare tour of its data center in North Carolina to showcase its efforts.
Until a year ago, the telegenic Jackson was the front woman for Barack Obama’s environmental ambitions as the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency.
Now she is leading the effort to shrink Apple’s carbon footprint — and make sure customers realize the company is doing its bit to decarbonize its products and the internet.
Data centers require huge loads of electricity to maintain climatic conditions and run the servers carrying out billions of electronic transactions every day.
With Apple’s solar farm, customers could now be confident that downloading an app or video-chatting a friend would not increase carbon pollution, Jackson said.
“If you are using your iPhone, iPad, Siri or downloading a song, you don’t have to worry if you are contributing to the climate change problem in the world because Apple has already thought about that for you. We’ve taken care of that. We’re using clean energy,” she said.
The company is also moving to install solar and geothermal power at a plant in Mesa, Ariz., that has been manufacturing sapphire glass. Apple would not directly comment on the Arizona factory but the state’s governor, Jan Brewer, has publicly praised the company’s decision to relocate there and to use solar and geothermal in manufacturing.
“We are aware that almost 70 percent of our carbon footprint is in our supply chain,” Jackson said. “We are actively working on the facilities that we have here in the United States.”
The initiatives mark a turnaround for Apple, which was criticized in the past for working conditions and the use of toxic chemicals at its factories in China and for its heavy reliance on carbon intensive sources such as coal to power the cloud.
Greenpeace now says the company is out ahead of competitors like Google and Facebook, which also operate data centers in North Carolina.
“They are the gold standard in the state right now,” said David Pomerantz, a senior Greenpeace campaigner. “There are a lot of data centers in North Carolina and definitely none has moved as aggressively as Apple has to power with renewable energy,” he said.
The 55,000 solar panels tracking the course of the sun from a 400,000 square meter field across the road from Apple’s data center in Maiden were not in the picture seven years ago when Duke Energy and local government officials sought to entice Apple to open up a data center in North Carolina.
Duke Energy, which has a near monopoly over power supply in the Carolinas, set out to lure big companies like Apple, Facebook, and Google to the state with offers of cheap and reliable power for the data centers that are the hub of internet.
Data centers, with their densely packed rows of servers and requirements for climatically controlled conditions, are notorious energy hogs. Some use as much power as a small city. In Apple’s case, the North Carolina data center requires as much power as about 14,000 homes — about three times as much as the nearby town of Maiden.
Charging up a smartphone or tablet takes relatively little electricity, but watching an hour of streamed or internet video every week for a year uses up about as much power as running two refrigerators for a year because of the energy powering data centers elsewhere.
That made data centers a perfect fit for Duke, said Tom Williams, the company’s director of external relations. With the decline in textile and furniture factories that had been a mainstay in the state, the company had a glut of electricity.
“What the data centers wanted from Duke was low cost and reliable power. Those two things — cost and reliability — are fundamental to their operations,” he told the Guardian. “What we like about these data centers is that it’s an additional load on our system.”
In the early days, Apple bought renewable energy credits to cover the center’s electricity use. In 2012, the company built its first solar farm across the road from the data center.
Apple built a second solar farm, and announced plans this month for a third, all roughly about the same size, to keep up with the growing use of data. It also operates fuel cells, running on biogas pumped in from a landfill. All of the power generated on-site is fed into the electricity grid.
“On any given day 100 percent of the data center’s needs are being generated by the solar power and the fuel cells,” Jackson said.
The company has been less successful in its efforts to get other companies to switch to solar power. Duke, in cooperation with Apple, launched an initiative last year to encourage other big electricity users to go solar but so far there have been no takers.
Renewable energy accounts for barely 2 percent of the power generated in North Carolina, and Duke does not see the share growing significantly by 2020.
Meanwhile, consumer groups accuse Duke of offering Apple cheap energy at the expense of ordinary residential customers and of blocking rooftop solar.
“We think Duke is actually trying to tamp down the solar industry in this state. They are accommodating big customers like Apple who want to do solar farms, but as far as rooftop solar or other solar developments they are doing things that hurt solar,” said Beth Henry, who sits on the board of NC Warn, a local environmental group.
It’s also questionable whether Apple can ever operate entirely off the grid. On bright sunny days, the solar farms generate excess power. But Apple still needs a backup.
“They are still hooked up to our grid,” Williams said. “They are still a very important part of our system. We provide back-up power. I expect it in times of a storm.”
One morning during last winter’s deep freeze — the so-called polar vortex — was a case in point, Williams said. “With the polar vortex we reached an all-time peak in the winter time,” he said. “There was no solar on our system at all.”
What is clear is that Apple and the other big tech companies are in a race to control and clean up the cloud.
Google uses renewable energy to power about a third of its data centers. Facebook says its new Iowa data center will run entirely off wind power when it comes on-line in 2015.
Microsoft earlier this month announced a second wind farm in Illinois to power its data centers.
That expansion of renewable energy on the cloud is likely to continue, Jackson said.
“There is an opportunity in getting ahead of the trend to move towards being self-sufficient on energy and in using clean energy,” she said.
“It’s something our customers value. They ask about corporate values around things like climate change and we are really proud to be able to say that we acknowledge climate change is a problem and that more than just being a problem we are actually doing something about it.”
I’ve been in Michigan for the last few days, researching Detroit’s water crisis. Yesterday, it became pretty obvious that my phone had figured out that we had arrived in the Mitten State:
Why no, I was not aware that “energy development” contributes $15.8 billion to Michigan’s economy each year! It’s super thoughtful of you to bring this to my attention, because I often spend my Sunday mornings drinking coffee, doing the crossword, and trying to quantify the exact dollar value that a vague phrase gives to the equally slippery word “economy.”
Twitter’s pricing structure is a little mysterious, but the cost of a promoted tweet campaign like this is pretty modest — a small sum debited from a budget each time the message is retweeted or favorited. So imparting this fun fact to me and the few thousand other Michiganders scrolling through our feeds on Sunday to see if any of our friends had more fun than we did last night probably only cost Energy Citizens a few bucks.
Wow. How did you know that I care so much about jobs? I mean, everyone cares about jobs, but anyone who grew up in the state of Michigan — especially anyone who lived through the year 1990 — has a Pavlovian response to the word. We know firsthand what it’s like when no one has one. It’s like you know me better than I know myself, promoted tweet! It’s like you focus-grouped my solid, self-sufficient Midwestern people, at great expense and effort.
I’m sure it comes as no surprise to the average reader that Energy Citizens is a front group backed by the American Petroleum Institute (API). The API, historically, is an organizer of opposition to any kind of legislation related to clean air or clean water. It approaches this work with such ardor that, even if it can’t marshal much actual popular support, it has simply stocked rallies with its own employees.
Why is the API so interested in Michigan? Well, the state has oil and gas reserves that people have been trying to figure out how to get out of the ground for years. This has been complicated by the fact that the state is also home to the largest aboveground freshwater system on earth, which Michiganders are so proud of you would think they glaciated the Great Lakes basin themselves or something.
In the last few years, Michigan’s state government has come up with some pretty pro-drilling legislation, like the state law passed three years ago that makes it nearly impossible for local municipalities to put limits on drilling for oil and gas the way that towns in New York have done.
The upcoming election could change that. People have already noticed a lot of out-of-state money pouring into the state Senate race. I suspect that a promoted tweet campaign like this is just a drop in the bucket compared to what Energy Citizens (and the API) are going to be laying on Michigan in the next few months.
President John F. Kennedy once told an audience of American University grads, “We can help make the world safe for diversity. For in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air.”
That was 1963. We did not inhale the same oxygen then, and we certainly don’t now. In 2011, scientists found that American counties with the worst levels of ozone had significantly larger African-American populations than counties with less pollution. A recent study from the University of Minnesota found that black and brown Americans are more often trapped in neighborhoods laden with nitrogen dioxide than their white fellow Americans.
And despite civil rights laws, organizations whose mission is to clean the air don’t seem to have grown much more hospitable to people of color. A new report, released today, shows that the staffs of mainstream green groups have been overrepresented with white men despite the groups’ intentions to be more colorful. One of its most damning findings is that “the dominant culture of the organizations is alienating to ethnic minorities, the poor, the LGBTQ community, and others outside the mainstream.”
The report, called “The State of Diversity in Environmental Organizations,” is billed as “the most comprehensive report on diversity in the environmental movement.” It was compiled by a working group of thought leaders on environment and race called Green 2.0, led by University of Michigan professor Dorceta Taylor. The report explores the history of tension between green activism and racial justice, and the many attempts at rapprochement.
From Earth Day 1970 until today, the report says, the majority of the people directing, staffing, and even volunteering at green groups have not only been white men, but they also hail from wealthier households with elite educational pedigrees. A 1972 study of 1,500 environmental volunteers nationwide showed that 98 percent of them were white and 59 percent held a college or graduate degree. Compare that to Taylor’s more recent demographic profiling of environmental orgs where, based on data collected on 166 mainstream organizations from 2004 to 2006, she found that minorities comprised just 14.6 percent of their staffs.
People of color make up 37 percent of the U.S. population today. Census figures predict that white Americans will no longer be the majority as early as 2043.
The most recent data on people of color hired by green organizations is reflected in this infographic below, from the Green 2.0 report:Click to embiggen.
The report also found a gap between white environmental leaders’ desires and their actions when it comes to diversity. Of the near-300 people surveyed — from major environmental groups, foundations, and federal environmental agencies — 70 percent expressed interest in ideas to include more people of color and low-income in the workforce, but only 50 percent of environmental org and foundation members said they’d actually act on such ideas if proposed. For federal government agencies, it was 40 percent.Green 2.0Click to embiggen.
This is far from the first indictment of the environmental movement on this front, but the Green 2.0 group says it plans to hold the movement accountable. Its recommendations for finally moving the needle on this problem include creating diversity assessment plans with transparency for tracking progress, and increasing resources for diversity initiatives (one finding of the report is that not one green foundation has a diversity manager).
More on this later throughout the week as I make my way through the rest of the report, which you can find at the Green 2.0 website.
Send your question to Umbra!
Q. Is the water dripping from my upstairs neighbor’s air conditioner full of chemicals? I often sit out on my fire escape and wonder if I should be concerned about the water dripping not only on me but also on my potted herbs and salad greens (which I eat).
Jersey City, N.J.
A. Dearest Kate,
Your letter gives me an idea for the next great superhero movie: Our mild-mannered heroine sits out on the fire escape, eating salad while unknowingly absorbing drip after drip of radioactive goo from the upstairs AC unit. The next morning, she wakes up with superpowers and bounds off to battle villains, protect the innocent, and restore peace to Jersey City. Is that blockbuster material or what?
Unfortunately for my prospects of summer-movie success but fortunately for your health, Kate, air-conditioner water will no sooner hurt you or your garden than it will enable you to swing between skyscrapers. The stuff dribbling out of the neighbor’s AC is essentially pure, distilled water, not chemical-ridden toxic waste. That doesn’t mean you can drink it, mind you, but there’s no need for you to rig up an umbrella out back, either.
Those drops don’t indicate your neighbor’s AC is broken or leaky, by the way – window units are designed to drip. What’s happening is this: In order to cool your home, the AC pulls hot, humid air out of the building and passes it over chilled cooling pipes. This temperature plunge forces the moisture to condense out of the air (the water we’re talking about is often called “air conditioner condensate”) and collect in the unit, where it’s then channeled out of the machine through a pipe and onto your fire escape. So really, AC both cools and dehumidifies the home, an effect most appreciated on those sticky summer nights.
But while AC condensate is generally free of heavy metals or other worrisome contaminants, it might still contain some nasty bugs. Internal leaks or clogs can create stagnant pools inside the unit, forming a sort of beach party for bacteria. (In fact, the infamous 1976 outbreak of Legionnaire’s disease was traced back to a hotel’s AC system.) So it’s not considered potable, but the splish-splash is OK to use to irrigate plants – just wash them carefully before eating. And to be safe, Kate, I wouldn’t sit where the water hits your face or hands, and a soapy wash afterwards is a good idea.
Now, I certainly don’t mean to scare you and your plants off the back porch. In fact, your inadvertent reuse of AC condensate is a great example of smart water conservation. A home AC unit can suck anywhere from two to 10 gallons of perfectly good water out of the air every day – so why just dump it all on the ground? Some savvy gardeners already capture the drips from their units, using strategies as simple as sticking a bucket under the outflow pipe, and as elaborate as building automatic watering systems over their beds. Think of it as a cousin to the rain barrel: using water from the sky so you don’t have to turn on the tap.
Plenty of larger-scale operations have wised up to the water savings draining out of their windows, too. Innovative systems in jungle-y climates like Texas capture hundreds or even thousands of gallons of water every day: In San Antonio, a mall reuses about 250 gallons per day in its cooling towers, and the library saves up to 1,400 gallons daily to water the grounds. At the University of Texas, a combined rainwater-condensate system collects up to 110,000 gallons per day, and Texas A&M reuses AC water from many campus buildings. There’s lots more potential for setups like this, especially in wiltingly muggy places from Atlanta to Chicago — including, I’d wager, Jersey City.
Mind you, this isn’t my blessing to crank the AC willy-nilly. Arctic air in the summertime requires loads of energy, and the overheated have myriad other options in a heat wave. But if you’re going to use AC, you might as well find the silver lining in the dreadfully humid weather and gobble up all the free water you can.
About a year ago, I started wondering about the impact of climate change on mental health. After all, depression is already the second leading cause of disability around the world, depression can be kicked off by stress, and watching the ocean inch up to your doorstep or seeing drought destroy your crops and take away your livelihood can be pretty nerve-racking.
I checked the most recent IPCC report. Nothing on mental health. I checked news articles. Nada. I checked the scientific literature, and found a few things, mostly from Australian scientists.
So I headed Down Under, and found a small but dedicated research community. I also found recalcitrant farmers, concerned members of Aboriginal communities, a climate change philosopher, and the beginnings of a new vocabulary.
Research on mental health and climate change in Australia pretty much starts and ends with a very modest and soft-spoken psychiatric epidemiologist, Helen Berry of the University of Canberra. She’s responsible for 27 papers and book chapters published on the subject since 2011. Her studies don’t focus on specific psychiatric diagnoses, but general mental health and well-being. So: How often do you feel distressed? How are you sleeping? Do you talk to others about your distress or do you keep it to yourself?Helen Berry
Berry has documented increased levels of distress in young people in drought-affected areas, and in farmers as well. The farmers she’s studied have shown a strong reluctance to use mental health services. She’s also looked at the effect of climate change on Aboriginal communities.
“When you think about what climate change does, it basically increases the risk of weather-related disasters of one sort or another,” she said. “What happens from a psychological point of view is people get knocked down. Whenever people are knocked down, they have to get up again and start over. And the more that happens, the more difficult it is to keep getting up.”
I spoke to elders from several Aboriginal communities in New South Wales who all told of a general sense of unease. All have noticed something — the absence of snow in the winter, the disappearance of rivers. One woman said, “I feel like the world is ending, that’s what I think. It’s scary.” Her solace: working in her garden.
That corresponds with what Berry has found in her scientific studies — a sense of despair, but also an enthusiasm for re-connecting with the land.
That’s what James Williams has noticed as well. He’s a member of the Aboriginal community in New South Wales and used to head a local land council. He’s now a caseworker for the state’s Department of Family and Community Services. What people do to the land gets done back to them, he said. “We have a saying: If you look after the land and the rivers, the land and the rivers will look after you.” People in his community see the changes as something brought on them by others who are not looking after the land and rivers. But they’re not angry, according to Williams. They’re frustrated.
Also like Berry, Williams has noticed that when people take action to restore the environment, it energizes them and lessens their anxiety. He points to various Aboriginal groups working on traditional resource management, including burning off the low brush that fuels bush fires.
Berry is studying children as well. In an ongoing study in Queensland, she and her colleagues have found that children with low levels of connectedness — not much family, low involvement in school or other group activities — are at a much higher risk of being traumatized by fires, floods, and the like.
A challenging field
Berry’s line of research has led her to some complicated challenges. As with all things climate change, definitions are difficult. “We all know what a drought is intuitively. It doesn’t rain,” Berry said. “But trying to actually define a drought statistically and measure it, and then go a step further and say who was exposed to that, is a really hard thing to do technically.”
She and her coworkers have found different effects on people’s mental health and well-being depending on the type of drought they experience — very dry periods punctuated by occasional rain, consistent dryness, short sharp droughts, and long droughts that culminate in one or two years of catastrophic drought. In rural areas, the pattern associated with the worst mental health across the whole population was a long period of persistent drought followed by a year or two of especially dry weather.
Berry is also working on a study whose early results suggest that a hot spell of even a few days can have effects that last up to a year — it attacks men’s sense of being capable and strong and competent, and women’s emotional functioning. Again, it’s not simple. If people live somewhere hot to begin with, it looks like even hotter weather is generally well-tolerated — unless it’s really extreme heat relative to what’s normal in that place. And the long droughts that can bankrupt farmers and push some of them over the edge can raise the mood of people in cities, who experience the drought as endless sunny days.
The hardest hit by climate change in Australia so far have been farmers, and they’re a challenge as research subjects, said Berry. “They’re happy to talk about problems having to do with the climate and climate variability, but they don’t like talking about climate change.”
That’s what I found when I visited Reg Kidd on his picture-perfect ranch in New South Wales. When I asked him about climate change, he quoted a popular Australian poem written in 1910 that refers to the country as “a land of droughts and floods.” With one of his cows mooing in the background, he says he believes in climate variability, but hasn’t seen the evidence to prove climate change yet.
He offers up that he’s been on antidepressants at various points in his life, and while he doesn’t think his episodes were related to weather events, he’s seen weather-related depression in other farmers. “They become very withdrawn,” he said. They think they should be able to fight their way through it. “Here they are with something they can’t control around them, and things are going backwards, and it becomes a health issue.”
Kidd and other local farmers have founded a group, “Are You Okay?,” with discussions and buttons to wear to remind them to touch base with their neighbors during tough times and ask them how they’re doing.
And on his own ranch, he’s made changes that could be considered climate mitigation or adaptation. He stores water in vast tanks on his farm. He uses solar panels that generate more electricity than he can use. He’s looked into drought-resistant plants, and he plans his farming and ranching around seasonal weather forecasts.
On top of climate change denial, or at least agnosticism, there’s another challenge. Berry’s mentor, Tony McMichael, recently retired from Australian National University and generally credited as the father of climate change and health research, told me that epidemiologists “by and large prefer to work with health outcomes that are readily measurable and quantifiable, and that’s never easy with mental disorders.”
Both Berry and McMichael say one of the biggest challenges is research funding, especially government funding. The best thing that can be said about the Australian government’s approach to climate change is that it’s crazy. The only time Berry talked above the level of a whisper was when I asked her if research on climate change and mental health was a tough sell to government funding agencies. “The toughest,” she said quickly.
Another big challenge is the scope of the research. “To do this work well is really hard and takes ages, so you need longer funding and more funding than other topics might,” Berry told me. And McMichael noted that ecology doesn’t fit very well into the traditional medical research model. “It affects whole communities and its source is collective, and we have to reframe a number of our ideas about health, disease, survival within that ecological perspective,” he said. It doesn’t seem like real science to the big funding agencies, and there aren’t going to be any single bottom-line answers. “So you don’t get the money,” he said.
With all these challenges, why have Australian scientists taken such an interest? Berry credited McMichael, and McMichael in turn credited several factors. The biggest: Australia has already been hard-hit by climate change. A decade-long bake called the Millennium Drought (which in some form actually lasted from 1995 to 2009) reminded people how bad droughts could be. Farmers culled their herds straight through to the breeding stock. Recent droughts have fostered several dramatic and lethal wildfires, one of which marched right up to the outskirts of Melbourne.
Ultimately, McMichael says he persisted because the work is important. “We need to understand just what the full spectrum of consequences of human-driven climate changes are likely to be. There’s not much recognition beyond the damage that will occur to iconic species and to ecosystems and to tourism and the economy,” he said. “I think if we can paint that picture more fully, it will help motivate the public who for the moment are a bit confused and a bit standoffish about this topic.”
New problems, new words
As for the new vocabulary, that comes from another Aussie, Glenn Albrecht, a professor of environmental studies at the University of Newcastle. “A genuine philosopher,” he said with a wink, since he has a doctorate in philosophy. His big contribution to the field: solastalgia. That’s “the homesickness when you’re still at home and your home environment is changing around you in ways that you find negative, and that you have very little power over.”
What got him thinking about solastalgia was not climate change, but open-pit mining in New South Wales vast enough to be seen from space. Talking to people who lived nearby, he found they were outraged, and saddened, and that got him thinking about the role that place, land, and landscape play in people’s sense of well-being. It wasn’t nostalgia — that’s for some other place. It’s a longing for home, as what was once familiar becomes unpredictable.
He and his wife came up with the term a few years ago. “It was at the kitchen table, my wife and I sat down and I said I want a world for ‘placealgia,’ and we just worked our way through the most suitable Greek and Latin terms until we came up with solastalgia,” he said.
Sol — from solace, the idea that we take solace from the patterns and rhythms of nature. And -algia, from pain. When the patterns and rhythms of nature, the timing of fruits and flowers and plantings, change, so too do the patterns and rhythms of our minds, he said.
Albrecht has more words up his sleeve. Soliphilia — a state that results in positive energy to collaborate, heal, and work together. Basically, people who see the cumulative damage of climate change and work together to make repairs. He practiced it in his own life by helping to restore a wetland.
And then there’s endemophilia — the love that people have for what’s distinctive about the place they live or come from. I get that one. I’m a New Jersey ex-pat, and I miss everything from the gas tanks of Elizabeth to the horse country near Gladstone to the Jersey shore.
In the few months since my visit, Australia stopped being such a lonely outpost for people studying the mental health effects of climate change. The new IPCC report has a health chapter that deals with the issue (Berry and McMichael were among the authors). The American Psychological Association and ecoAmerica recently released a report on the broad psychological effects of climate change.
So chalk one more health challenge up to climate change. But there is a pearl in the oyster, Berry says. “Climate change and associated weather-related disasters could be such a serious threat that they could actually propel people to come and work together,” she said. Climate change might make people willing to take some kind of concerted action, to do something useful for their community. “That’s the pearl,” she said, “that all this could lead to a growth in social capital — the best thing for mental health.”
Reporting for this story was supported by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting
The issue keeps coming up when I write about genetic engineering, or local food systems, or decreased farm yield due to climate change: How do we avoid starvation as populations grow, and how can we allow people to feed themselves equitably and sustainably? The question seems to lurk in the background of every story I do, and this makes me uncomfortable, because I don’t know enough to answer. So I’m diving into the debate, blogging as I go.
I recently attended a debate on this topic put on by the Beahrs Environmental Leadership Program at UC Berkeley, and it quickly became clear that there are several contentious issues flying crosswise here. We really have a lot of work ahead of us. This was supposed to be a debate over solutions, but there was no agreement over what the problem is.
Economist David Zilberman argued that we should use agroecology — in this context, agroecology meant small, diverse, low-input, labor-intensive farms — but we shouldn’t give up biotechnology as a tool. Conservation biologist Claire Kremen argued we should focus strictly on agroecology as the best way to get food to the poorest and hungriest people. And Eric Holt-Gimenez, executive director of Food First, argued that the real problem was capitalism, and to keep people from going hungry you need to regulate markets.
It was a mixed-up discussion. Two of the panelists said, “I don’t know where to start,” as the event sprawled into incoherence. In their defense, the terms of the debate were posed in a ridiculous way: How do we feed the world — with biotechnology or agroecology? That’s like asking: How do we drive cars — with catalytic converters or spark plugs?
Often, figuring out the right question to ask is more important than picking an answer. And, at the very least, this debate left me with some clear questions. For instance:
What is the relationship between agricultural productivity and hunger? Holt-Gimenez and Kremen both presented evidence that hunger is disconnected from the global food supply. Zilberman, the economist, didn’t offer any counterarguments — though this may have had something to do with the fact that the agroecology side (absurdly) had twice the time to make their arguments.
Do we really need to worry about producing more on each farm? Holt-Gimenez and Kremen suggested that we shouldn’t even begin to struggle with the problem of increasing yields until we deal with the political problems that prevent our — currently sufficient — food supply from reaching the poor.
When it comes to food, should we be limiting markets, or freeing markets?
Realistically, what does modernization of farming in Africa and Asia look like? Will it resemble the American system, with fewer, bigger farms? Or is there a way for small, peasant farmers to become more prosperous while remaining relatively small?
As I start I’m especially open to feedback: Are these the right questions? And who has done the best work in answering them? I’m specifically interested in connecting with sources and experts beyond the usual suspects. As I learned when writing about GMOs, there are plenty of people studying these issues in a careful, open-minded way. Usually, those are not the same as those shouting in the town square (i.e. the internet) who usually get the attention of journalists. I’d welcome recommendations.