If you’re wondering what killed the George Harrison memorial tree in L.A.’s Griffith Park, the short answer is irony. I think. I learned about irony from Alanis Morissette, so hopefully I got that right, but I’d better just let Randy Lewis at the Los Angeles Times explain:
The George Harrison Tree was killed by beetles.
Thanks, Randy. (Yes, we’re talking about that George Harrison.)
So that’s the short answer. The long answer, however, could be climate change. The Harrison tree was a Cayman Islands Pine, and bark beetles love pine and bark beetles love it hot. Fewer cold snaps mean fewer beetle die-offs, but even more frighteningly, warmer temperatures may be speeding up the beetles reproductive cycle, triggering a massive increase in the beetle population.
In climate change’s defense, if bark beetles hadn’t destroyed the tree, Yoko would have.
The Earth is currently riding a hot streak that would make Barry Bonds blush. This May was the hottest May in history, and, we learned today, it was followed by the hottest June.
June marked the 352nd consecutive hotter-than-average month, a stretch reaching back to February of 1985, and it doesn’t show any signs of cooling off. So far this year, every month but February has been one of the four hottest on record, and, with an El Niño on deck, 2014 is well on its way to becoming the hottest year in history.
If you’re suspicious that, with a streak like that, the planet must be juicing, well, you’re not alone. Seth Borenstien of the Associated Press spoke with NOAA’s chief of climate monitoring, Derek Arndt, and it sounds like this is more than a corked climate bat:
“We are living in the steroid era of the climate system,” Arndt said.
Arndt said both the June and May records were driven by unusually hot oceans, especially the Pacific and Indian oceans.
Heat records in June broke on every continent but Antarctica, especially in New Zealand, northern South America, Greenland, central Africa and southern Asia.
The United States had only its 33rd hottest June.
All 12 of the world’s monthly heat records have been set after 1997, more than half in the last decade. All the global cold monthly records were set before 1917.
At this point, denying anthropogenic climate change is akin to believing professional wrestling is real — or, to stick with my original metaphor (something they told us at writer’s school is important), it’s like watching Barry Bonds’ head grow a hat size a season, along with his home run totals, and thinking, “Dang. He must be working out.”
The idea of going paleo is attractive to someone like me, who feels he is living in an unhealthy, vapid world of consumerism. The sprawl of modern humanity is clearly unhealthy for earth’s biodiversity and for the stability of our climate. And it makes a lot of sense that our modern lifestyle would prove unhealthy for us: Our bodies were shaped for hundreds of thousands of years to hunt and gather — and yet we insist on sitting down all day while eating things our ancestors would not recognize as food. We keep introducing new things that don’t fit into the natural environment or the environment of our bodies.
There’s a natural yearning to backtrack — to get back to the garden. But there’s a problem, usually unacknowledged, with the whole paleo phenomenon: Going back to a hunter-gatherer’s meat-heavy diet is impossible unless we cull our population to pre-agricultural levels. There have been no reasonable proposals for achieving quick population reduction. And so we are faced with a sad reality: We can’t ever go home again.
In this week’s New Yorker, Elizabeth Kolbert wrote about putting her family on the paleo diet while reviewing “a small library of what might be called paleo literature — how-to books that are mostly how-to-undo books.”
The proposed “undo” is gobsmackingly gargantuan. It suggests that agriculture, and the civilization built upon farming was, as Jared Diamond put it, “The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race.” There is evidence that agriculture was, indeed, a mistake. When people started farming around the world, they became sicker and smaller. And today we are beset by a suite of diseases, from Type 2 diabetes to asthma, that seem to result from the mismatch between our Paleolithic bodies and a world where everything is super-sized, sterilized, deep-fried, ultra-wide Naugahyde. Here’s Kolbert:
Paleo may look like a food fad, and yet you could argue that it’s really just the reverse. Anatomically modern humans have, after all, been around for about 200,000 years. The genus Homo goes back another two million years or so. On the timescale of evolutionary history, it’s agriculture that’s the fad.
But agriculture is an unusual sort of fad — a fad our lives depend upon. It’s got its hooks in us. Farming allowed the human population to exceed the earth’s previous carrying capacity. The creation of synthetic fertilizers expanded that carrying capacity again. And now, like it or not, we’re stuck.
A new study, just out from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, reaffirms that meat production has an outsized impact on climate change, and that beef is the worst offender. It suggests that, if we want to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions, it would be more effective to give up red meat than to stop driving cars. This means that, “from an environmental standpoint, paleo’s ‘Let them eat steak’ approach is a disaster,” Kolbert wrote.
I expect Kolbert, who wrote Field Notes from a Catastrophe and The Sixth Extinction, would agree that it’s a disaster either way. We’re now in the unfortunate position of choosing the lesser of disasters. And when things look bleak, the idea of pressing the reset button is enthralling. When I was younger I was always hoping for radical revolution, but the more I learned about history the more disappointed I became in revolutions. When you wipe the slate clean and kick out the bastards, a new set of bastards always take over. The deep structural problems that were there from the beginning always reemerge. I eventually came around to thinking that it’s almost always better to tinker with a broken system than to burn everything down and start from scratch.
Our bodies have already started tinkering, finding ways to make do in an imperfect environment. My DNA, for example, contains a mutation that allows me to digest milk for my entire life rather than just my infant nursing days. This was a swift adaptation to the partnership between humans and cattle. Another mutation allows the production of an enzyme in saliva that breaks down starches from grains. Our bodies aren’t completely Paleolithic. Another New Yorker contributor, the doctor Jerome Groopman, has written about the wealth of evidence suggesting that, overall, humans have gotten healthier since the advent of agriculture. Yes, we got shorter and sicker immediately after we started farming, but since then we’ve become taller and healthier than ever before. It’s true that that positive trend has stalled out in the U.S. since the 1950s, but it hasn’t stalled uniformly: The rich seem to be taller and longer-lived than ever; it’s the poor who are taking a beating.
The average height of native-born American males has not significantly changed since the middle of the twentieth century. This plateau contrasts with the trends in Europe, where growth increases have continued, dramatically in countries like the Netherlands, which now has on average the tallest European men. Factors that have been considered by way of explanation of static American growth are social inequality, an inferior health care system, and fewer welfare safety nets compared to western and northern Europe, despite our high per capita income.
As usual, the real problem is political, not biological.
There’s a lot of good coming from the paleo movement. The ability to take the evolutionary perspective on human health has already led to breakthroughs (like this), and more will follow.
But watch out for the ideology that often goes with paleo purists — the assumption that the only way forward is to find our way back to Eden. Neither humans, nor the earth’s ecosystems, are fragile. We are dynamic, always changing and adapting. This doesn’t excuse our staggering recklessness, but it does suggest that we shouldn’t aim for a static vision of the past. The world has changed inalterably. Ignoring that fact leads us to focus on things like Vibram FiveFingers and steak tartare, rather than more important issues. If we really care about human health, and the health of the earth, we need to focus on inequality and poverty. Paleo is just a trendy distraction.
If there weren’t enough reasons to protest McDonald’s, here’s another: Remember Debra Harrell, the mother who went to jail for sending her daughter to the playground? Well, McDonald’s, her employer at the time, fired her.
Bryce Covert reports for Think Progress:
While Robert Phillips, the attorney representing her pro bono at McGowan, Hood & Felder, said that she was released from jail the day after she was arrested on bond, he confirmed that she had been let go from her job. He didn’t have any information as to why. A spokesperson for McDonald’s declined to comment, saying it is inappropriate to discuss a human resources issue. She also said the company is cooperating with local police in their investigation of the situation.
It is believed that Harrell let her daughter go to the playground alone because she couldn’t afford childcare. But daycare will be even farther out of reach without a job.
Fortunately for her family, almost $27,000 has been raised online for her troubles. She’s also been reunited with her daughter, who was in the state’s custody while Harrell was in jail.
But the message this sends to other mothers similarly situated, who lack childcare options, is chilling. And those chills will especially be felt at that playground. Imagine the eyes and gazes that will be set on black children in this community now, from people looking for more parents like Harrell to report.
It just might be enough to keep some black kids from playing outside without a parent close-by, and African Americans don’t need more reasons to avoid the outdoors.
Here in the United States, we fret a lot about global warming denial. Not only is it a dangerous delusion, it’s an incredibly prevalent one. Depending on your survey instrument of choice, we regularly learn that substantial minorities of Americans deny, or are skeptical of, the science of climate change.
The global picture, however, is quite different. For instance, recently the U.K.-based market research firm Ipsos MORI released its “Global Trends 2014” report, which included a number of survey questions on the environment asked across 20 countries. (h/t Leo Hickman). And when it came to climate change, the result was very telling:Ipsos MORI Global Trends, 2014
Note that these results are not perfectly comparable across countries, because the data were gathered online, and Ipsos MORI cautions that for developing countries like India and China, “the results should be viewed as representative of a more affluent and ‘connected’ population.”
Nonetheless, some pretty significant patterns are apparent. Perhaps most notably: Not only is the United States clearly the worst in its climate denial, but Great Britain and Australia are second and third worst, respectively. Canada, meanwhile, is the seventh worst.
What do these four nations have in common? They all speak the language of Shakespeare.
Why would that be? After all, presumably there is nothing about English, in and of itself, that predisposes you to climate change denial. Words and phrases like “doubt,” “natural causes,” “climate models,” and other skeptic mots are readily available in other languages. So what’s the real cause?
One possible answer is that it’s all about the political ideologies prevalent in these four countries.
“I do not find these results surprising,” says Riley Dunlap, a sociologist at Oklahoma State University who has extensively studied the climate denial movement. “It’s the countries where neo-liberalism is most hegemonic and with strong neo-liberal regimes (both in power and lurking on the sidelines to retake power) that have bred the most active denial campaigns – U.S., U.K., Australia, and now Canada. And the messages employed by these campaigns filter via the media and political elites to the public, especially the ideologically receptive portions.” (Neoliberalism is an economic philosophy centered on the importance of free markets and broadly opposed to big government interventions.)
Indeed, the English language media in three of these four countries are linked together by a single individual: Rupert Murdoch. An apparent climate skeptic or lukewarmer, Murdoch is the chair of News Corp and 21st Century Fox. (You can watch him express his climate views here.) Some of the media outlets subsumed by the two conglomerates that he heads are responsible for quite a lot of English language climate skepticism and denial.
In the U.S., Fox News and The Wall Street Journal lead the way; research shows that Fox watching increases distrust of climate scientists. (You can also catch Fox News in Canada.) In Australia, a recent study found that slightly under a third of climate-related articles in 10 top Australian newspapers “did not accept” the scientific consensus on climate change, and that News Corp papers – The Australian, The Herald Sun, and The Daily Telegraph – were particular hotbeds of skepticism. “The Australian represents climate science as matter of opinion or debate rather than as a field for inquiry and investigation like all scientific fields,” noted the study.
And then there’s the U.K. A 2010 academic study found that while News Corp outlets in this country from 1997 to 2007 did not produce as much strident climate skepticism as did their counterparts in the U.S. and Australia, “the Sun newspaper offered a place for scornful sceptics on its opinion pages as did The Times and Sunday Times to a lesser extent.” (There are also other outlets in the U.K., such as the Daily Mail, that feature plenty of skepticism but aren’t owned by News Corp.)
Thus, while there may not be anything inherent to the English language that impels climate denial, the fact that English language media are such a major source of that denial may in effect create a language barrier.
And media aren’t the only reason that denialist arguments are more readily available in the English language. There’s also the Anglophone nations’ concentration of climate “skeptic” think tanks, which provide the arguments and rationalizations necessary to feed this anti-science position. According to a study in Climatic Change earlier this year, the U.S. is home to 91 different organizations (think tanks, advocacy groups, and trade associations) that collectively comprise a “climate change counter-movement.” The annual funding of these organizations, collectively, is “just over $900 million.” That is a truly massive amount of English-speaking climate “skeptic” activity, and while the study was limited to the U.S., it is hard to imagine that anything comparable exists in non-English speaking countries.
Ben Page, the chief executive of Ipsos MORI (which released the data) adds another possible causative factor behind the survey’s results, noting that environmental concern is very high in China today, due to the omnipresent conditions of environmental pollution. By contrast, that’s not a part of your everyday experience in England or Australia. “In many surveys in China, environment is the top concern,” Page comments. “In contrast, in the west, it’s a long way down the list behind the economy and crime.”
Whatever the precise concatenation of causes, the evidence seems clear. We English speakers have a special problem when it comes to understanding and accepting climate science. In language, we’re Anglophones; but in climate science, we’re a bunch of Anglophonies.
If there are two things that hockey players hate, the first is obviously teeth, and the second is apparently climate change.
According to the National Hockey League’s 2014 Sustainability report, each NHL game produces 408 tons of carbon dioxide emissions. With 1,230 regular season games and another 95 playoff games in 2013, that worked out to a lung collapsing 540,600 tons of C02, and that’s without factoring in the energy spent by fans getting to the games. Maybe up in Canada fans arrive through some sort of Harry Potter teleportation, but at the last Caps game I attended, the garage was pretty full.
But more than any other major professional sport, hockey relies on clean water and cold winters. The legendary Bobby Orr, probably the second greatest player ever to strap on the skates, summed it up most eloquently: “The routine of my daily life as a kid was pretty simple. One way or another, it always seemed to lead me in the direction of a body of water, regardless of the time of year. The only question was whether the water would be frozen solid for hockey or open and flowing for fish.”
Sure, there are NHL teams in Anaheim and Arizona, but the league’s push south has mostly been a failure, and even on those remaining warm weather teams, the players are coming from up North. Without those clean, frozen ponds where the Gretzky’s and Lemieuxs fall in love with the game, there is no hockey, and the NHL knows it has a role in saving those ponds.
Here’s more, straight from the horse’s toothless mouth:
Perhaps more than any other sport, hockey is impacted by environmental issues, particularly climate change and freshwater scarcity. The ability to skate and play hockey outdoors is a critical component of the League’s history and culture. Many of the NHL’s players, both past and present, learned to skate outside on frozen lakes, ponds and backyard rinks. The game of hockey is adversely affected if this opportunity becomes unavailable to future generations.
With this 2014 NHL SUSTAINABILITY REPORT, the first of its kind for the League, we address head-on the connection between hockey and the environment, and the impact we have on our planet. It is in our best interest to confront this challenge, to be transparent with our impacts and to discuss and explore with all of our stakeholders a strategy for long-term environmental sustainability. …
Sadly, you can’t actually punch global warming in the mouth or pull climate change’s sweater over its head, so how does the NHL plan to fight rising temperatures? According to the league’s study, nearly three-quarters of its emissions stem from electricity consumption, and the NHL hopes to tackle the issue team by team.
The Montreal Canadians have already made the switch to LED lighting in their arena; the Anaheim Ducks are moving to an on-site oxide fuel cell that will use some biogas and produce 51 percent of the Arena’s annual energy; and the Winnipeg Jets are recovering heat from their ice making machines and using it to boil water for ice resurfacing. The Toronto Maple Leafs and Arizona Coyotes have launched programs to make their existing arenas greener, with the Coyotes hoping to reduce their carbon footprint by a laudable 80 percent. New arenas for the New York Islanders and, ironically, the Edmonton Oilers are set to meet LEED Silver certification.
While these steps may not be enough to make hockey green, it’s a start — and the marketing power of a sport that claims to have 50 million fans is a real boon to climate awareness. So raise your novelty Stanley Cup to the good people at the NHL for getting the puck sliding in the right direction.
Of course, they really didn’t have much of a choice. It was either green up their game or start playing in a lot less clothes.
Artist Mia Feuer’s planned “ANTEDILUVIAN” art installation — a gas station mostly submerged underwater in Washington, D.C., as a statement on climate change and rising sea levels — is officially cancelled completely. Months of anticipation for Feuer’s proposed project were dashed last Friday when the D.C. Commission for the Arts and Humanities announced that ANTEDILUVIAN couldn’t be installed in Kingman Lake, by the Anacostia River, where Feuer had initially hoped to place it.
“After further consultation with the District’s Department of the Environment regarding the city’s on-going efforts to clean up the Anacostia River, DCCAH is working to relocate the temporary project outside of the Anacostia River and vicinity,” a spokesperson for the Arts Commission said.
But Feuer wrote on her Indiegogo blog this morning that her installation won’t be relocated anywhere, and that it was permanently banned from happening. It was supposed to be part of DC’s 5×5 Festival, a program the city’s arts commission is kicking off this fall with five noted curators picking 25 artists to feature public arts projects around the District – similar to Art Basel in Miami or Prospect in New Orleans.
But Feuer told me today that the arts commission had dropped ANTEDILUVIAN completely, even though hers was one of the highest profiled projects in the festival.
Almost from the moment Feuer made her plan public it had garnered media attention from plenty of outlets, notably The Atlantic’s City Lab. But all of that media spotlight might have been what led to it getting scrapped. Feuer told me that her plans had not been finalized for the project when word started to spread. When a number of organizations that work with the river and the neighboring southeast D.C. Anacostia community caught wind of it, they had some concerns.
A coalition called United for a Healthy Anacostia River sent a letter to the Arts Commission opposing the project. From the letter:
Given the many years of community investment and hard work to clean up and change the negative perception of the Anacostia River, this kind of project should never have been approved without broad stakeholder consultation. Moreover, in light of the decades of oil and gas pollution and environmental injustice to which the river and its nearby communities have been subjected, we believe that it is inappropriately heedless to encourage such a representation of oil and gas in the river’s waters.
In this regard, there could hardly be a worse public message than sinking an entire mock gas station in the Anacostia’s waters. If the public misunderstands the art’s intended message as permission to put gas or oil in the river, the project could single-handedly set back the river restoration and undo years of effort on the part of the DC, Montgomery County and Prince Georges County governments to convince people to keep oil out of the water.
Basically, Feuer failed to clear her project with the community, so the community didn’t clear the project. A major reason why it was rejected for the Anacostia River location is that D.C.’s Department of the Environment is taking samples there as part of a remediation program, for the decades of pollution that have assaulted it, as mentioned in the letter. (I also wrote about this for the American Prospect.)
Feuer told me that she had been in touch with Living Classrooms, an environmental education program for kids that uses Kingman Island near the location where Feuer hoped to place the installation. That was the start of her community outreach, she said, but word of her plans got far ahead of her. This would have been her first public arts project, though she’s done many other art installations.
In addition to the gas station, the ANTEDILUVIAN proposal included workshops and lectures – held in the water on boats – on climate change impacts, green energy, and environmental awareness. That part of it will still go on, Feuer said. But the installation itself is permanently off the menu, at least for this festival. Feuer said she’s looking for other cities that might welcome the project at another time.
If you don’t eat beef because you feel sorry for those cows in Chick-fil-A ads, then you probably shouldn’t drink milk either. The typical male calf born to a dairy cow becomes veal. The typical female is milked for five years – a quarter of her natural lifetime – then sent to the abattoir to become pet food or low-grade hamburger meat. Elsie the Cow, Borden Dairy Company’s famous cartoon logo, is smiling only because she doesn’t realize that she’s about to get euthanized with a cattle gun.
Yet if you’re an ethical vegetarian who still can’t bear to give up milk, you now have another option: slaughter-free dairy, which comes from farms where cows never get killed. Since 2011, the U.K.-based Ahimsa Dairy has offered slaughter free-milk and cheese to customers in London. In February, Pennsylvania’s Gita Nagari Creamery, which has supplied no-kill milk to the local Hare Krishna community for many years, began offering it to the public through subscription and mail order – for a whopping $10 a gallon. The price includes a $2.50 cow retirement fee and $1.50 for “boy calf care.” Less than half of its 60-head herd gets milked; the rest of the animals pull plows or spend their golden years lackadaisically chomping grass.
“For us, the cows or oxen or bulls are seen as extended family members,” says Pari Jata, the co-president of Gita Nagari Creamery. “It’s very important for us to protect them in their retirement. We take care of them just as one would take care of elderly parents in their old age.”
The slaughter-free milk movement takes its cues from India, where many vegetarian Hindus drink milk but consider cows sacred animals that should never be consumed for meat. Yet increasing numbers of Gita Nagari and Ahimsa customers are westerners who eschew meat for ethical reasons. Both dairies have considered selling their milk in stores; Ahimsa is in talks with a major retailer.
As vegetarianism gains popularity, slaughter-free milk could become a bona fide food trend – but there’s a catch: It might take a toll on the environment. Cows are already the nation’s single largest source of methane, a greenhouse gas produced by oil extraction, decomposing trash, and the guts of grazing animals that’s as much as 105 times more potent than carbon dioxide. A single cow farts and belches enough methane to match the carbon equivalent of the average car. According to a 2006 United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization report, the world’s 1.4 billion cows produce 18 percent of the world’s greenhouse gases – more than the entire transportation sector. Since the turn of the 19th century, global methane emissions have increased by more than 150 percent, and cows are largely to blame.
If all dairies became slaughter-free, we’d need three to four times as many dairy cows to produce the same amount of milk, which would mean adding at least 27 million additional cows to our herds. Those added cows would each year produce greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to four large coal-fired power plants. We’d also need more meat cows to keep up with the demand for products such as veal and dog food. Pasturing all of these cows would displace wildlife or agricultural crops, straining biodiversity and increasing food prices.
Jata knows there’s a potential for the slaughter-free milk trend to go bad – just like the craze for tofu and soymilk contributed to the spread of soybean plantations in South America’s rainforests. “Where does it end?” she asks. “For us, as a community, we bring it all back to local food sources and local practices that are self-contained but shared, so it doesn’t create this mass corporation-style approach to everything.”
Small, humane dairies can certainly find other ways to mitigate their environmental impacts. The Gita Nagari and Ahimsa dairies employ cow manure to fertilize their organic vegetables and bull power to plow their fields, avoiding carbon-intensive tractors and chemical fertilizers. And the Gita Nagari dairy uses an anaerobic digester to convert manure into a gas that residents of the dairy use for cooking – but this sort of thing would be hard to implement on a larger scale.
For Nicola Pazdzierska, the co-director of the Ahimsa Dairy Foundation, the price and environmental impact of slaughter-free milk underscores the need to rethink our relationship with dairy products. “We’re not saying more cows,” she told me. “We’re saying possibly even fewer cows, but kept in better circumstances.” She went on: “We think milk is a precious foodstuff. If you pay more for it, you value it more. You use it more thoughtfully. It should be treated with respect.”
I’ve written recently about the importance of small news websites to cities, especially during and after natural disasters. These sites, which have proliferated like crazy in the past five years, are filling in some of the holes left by dwindling daily newspapers. The trick, of course, is keeping them afloat.
Well, here’s another approach to funding strong journalism — not publications, per se, but individual writers. It’s called Beacon, and it’s the Adopt-A-Manatee program of the increasingly colorful online news ecosystem.
I first learned about Beacon via an email from a writer and some-time Grist contributor, Josie Garthwaite, who has joined forces with five other journalists to create Climate Confidential, a “micro publication” that publishes weekly stories about the environment and tech. To get the project off the ground, the four were soliciting subscriptions and sponsorships via Beacon — a combination publishing and fundraising platform that’s billed as a sort of “Netflix for news.”
Since its launch in February, Climate Confidential has raised $45,775, according to Beacon. And I’m getting emails almost weekly from other journalists (and groups of journalists) who are launching their own projects on Beacon and asking for help.
There was one from Emma Marris, who is working on a project about wolves in the 21st century, and another from Emily Gertz, who is part of a collective working under the banner of Flux, covering “resilience and weakness in a shifting world.” A quick poke around Beacon turns up Elizabeth Grossman’s investigation of what climate change means for my cheeseburger; Cally Carswell and Sarah Keller’s exploration of what genetics tells us about plants’ and animals’ ability to adapt; and Bob Berwyn’s father-son reporting trip through the Rockies, studying global warming’s impacts on the high country.
Worthy projects, all. And each comes with a convincing Kickstarter-style video appeal, asking me to chip in, and a list of premiums reminiscent of an NPR pledge drive. (Mugs! Photos! Dinner with the author!)
Here’s how Beacon works: I can pick my favorite writer, or micro-publication, or even a general topic such as “climate + environment.” I “subscribe” by paying $5 a month, and get access to not just my favorite writer/ micropub, but everything that’s published on Beacon. The writers set their own fundraising goals and get 70 percent of their monthly subscription money. Half of the remaining money goes into a bonus pools for the writers, and the final 15 percent goes to Beacon to cover overhead.
The key difference between Beacon and crowd-funding sites like Kickstarter and (presently mothballed) Spot.us is that on Beacon, you pay to support the writers, whereas other sites focus on individual projects. So with the latter, writers pitch how cool a story is up front, whereas the Beacon model lets them say, “I am a talented person with a solid track record, ‘subscribe’ to me and I will produce interesting stuff for you.”
I like this. I like it because I like journalists (oh right, I am a journalist), and because I want to find creative ways to keep them (us) in work. Magazine and newspaper jobs are hard to come by these days, and making a living as a freelance writer can be bruising. With Beacon, independent journalists might be able to make a decent living without the constant sales and marketing required when pitching stories to publications.
I also like the idea that writers can strike off on their own, using Twitter, Facebook, and now Beacon to take their readers with them. In an age when many publications measure success on “clickability,” this is a chance to put my money into deep-diving reporting and more thoughtful work.
The biggest drawback that I see is the same as the site’s biggest draw: It’s not a publication. Publications and media organizations, lumbering and fickle as they may be, do have some advantages. Editors, for example (yes, I’m one of those too). And libel insurance. I’m a little worried that writers could be hung out to dry if one of their sources or subjects decided to sue over something they wrote — or that they might shy away from more controversial topics for fear of same.
“From the beginning, we’ve said that this is a platform, not a publication,” Beacon’s managing editor, Dan Fletcher, told me. “We’ve been clear with our writers that they lose some of the protections that they would have working with a publication.”
Fletcher acknowledged that the company has some work to do. “Since we launched Beacon back in September, we’ve been focused on, how do we make enough money to make this a viable option? It’s only recently that we’ve cracked that,” he said. The company will address issues such as libel insurance in the next six months, he says.
Meanwhile, it’s clear that Beacon’s founders want the site to be more than just a funding platform. For now, writers are free to sell their Beacon-funded work elsewhere, Fletcher says. But ultimately, he says, “We want Beacon to be a destination.”
Do you have something in your life that’s causing you shame? Here’s an idea from the Swedes: Set it on fire.
Some helpful examples:
1. That American Apparel dress that you wore approximately 15 Saturdays in a row during your sophomore year of college. LIGHT THAT SHIT UP.
2. Your eighth-grade book report on The Scarlet Letter, for which you received an F because you only read the first and last chapters. BURN IT TO THE GROUND.
3. That guy you met at the bar last weekend who is saved in your phone as “Bucket Hat.” OK – seriously, Grist does not condone murder! Set the phone on fire, you sadist.
4. The 251 million tons of non-recyclable and -compostable trash that the U.S. produces annually. CREATE THE LARGEST BONFIRE THE WORLD HAS EVER SE — no, wait, that approach seems irresponsible. There has to be a better way.
There is a better way to burn your garbage, and of course the damn Swedes have already successfully adopted it. (Fact: Anything remotely helpful or interesting that you have ever come up with in your life, a Swedish person has done better and more efficiently for years.) In 2012, Sweden sparked up 2.27 million tons of household waste in its waste-to-energy (WTE) plants, producing 8.5 percent of the national electricity supply. As a result, only 1 percent of Swedish garbage ends up in landfills.
As Daniel Gross reports for Slate, burning garbage isn’t the cleanest form of energy production. But when offsetting the amount of CO2 it produces by the emissions that would be released from garbage decomposing in a landfill over time, its real carbon impact is about 986 pounds of carbon dioxide per megawatt hour. That’s slightly less than the amount of carbon dioxide released from burning natural gas, and less than half the amount ascribed to burning coal. And also, since we can be perversely comforted by the fact that we will always have garbage, it’s a dependable and renewable source of energy.
Waste-to-energy plants do exist in the United States, so boo-ya, Sweden! We currently burn approximately 35 million tons of waste each year, which is WAY MORE than 2.27 million! Then again, the United States population is about 30 times larger than Sweden’s. Oh.
In the high school cafeteria that is the world, the Swedes are the Tavi Gevinsons, and will always be prettier and smarter and cooler than the rest of us — we must just accept that and move on.
Monday morning, the Detroit Water and Sewerage District (DWSD) announced that it would stop shutting off people’s water, at least for now. What was it, in this infrastructural showdown I wrote about last week, that caused the change of heart? Was it the condemnation from the U.N.? The protestors blocking utility shut-off trucks? The giant march on Friday, featuring Mark Ruffalo and a megaphone? The children holding signs that read “We need water to brush our teeth”?
The DWSD isn’t saying. Here’s what it is saying: “We are pausing for 15 days to refocus our efforts on trying to identify people who we have missed in the process who may qualify for the Detroit Residential Water Assistance Program.” That’s according to DWSD spokesperson Bill Johnson in a phone interview this morning.
The Water Assistance Program is a long-defunct but recently revived program that allows Detroit residents who are below the federal poverty line to keep their water running as long as they agree to pay a fraction of the overall bill each month. The program was suspended in 2012 when all of the people who managed it at the Detroit Department of Human Services were laid off. The program continued to accumulate money, Johnson says, but there was no one around to help pass it out. This June, DWSD signed a contract with THAW — a nonprofit that helps Michigan residents with their heating bills — to restart the Water Assistance Program.
Detroit’s water crisis has been a long time in the making. Partly it’s due to forces that are affecting many American cities — our infrastructure is aging and we don’t have the resources to maintain it. But DWSD’s issues are larger than that. The utility, like many municipalities and utilities around the country, made some really bad investment decisions in the years leading up to the financial collapse in 2008. DWSD has paid out over $500 million to Wall Street banks as a result.
Residents have complained that homes and small businesses are being cutoff, while larger clients like golf courses are not. Johnson maintains that many people who are being cut off can afford to pay. “A lot of Detroiters, for a number of reasons, don’t pay their bill. We think mainly because it isn’t a priority. They pay their cable bill or their phone bill, but not their water.” Because DWSD has so many unpaid water bills, Johnson says, Detroit residents saw an 8.7 percent increase in their water rates, compared to the 4.2 percent increase that DWSD passed on to the suburbs.
During the 15-day pause, says Johnson, DWSD will step up its efforts to find people who are using water illegally: “There are people who follow our crews around, and when we turn off someone’s water, they’ll knock on someone’s door and offer to turn it back on for a fee. Maybe they used to work for DWSD. Maybe they just know how to make the tool. It’s a big problem.”
Meanwhile, the Water Brigade, a protest group that formed in response to the shut-offs, is pushing for an earlier version of the Water Assistance Program. This one was was developed in 2005 by the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization and a group of other nonprofits, and it would have capped water payments at 2.5 percent of monthly income, which is the rate that the EPA thinks is fair for a middle-class household. At the time, researchers working on the Affordability Plan found that some Detroit residents were paying more than 20 percent. Until that plan is implemented — or until the shut-offs cease for good — the Water Brigade says that it will continue organizing water deliveries to people who have had their water turned off.
In its ongoing effort to make life difficult for environment reporters, the Obama administration once again announced major environmental news on a Friday. This time, however, it was not a measure to protect the environment, but to destroy it. The Department of Interior decided to allow seismic testing off the southern Atlantic coast from Delaware to Florida. This is a precursor to possible oil and gas drilling, to determine what fossil fuel resources are there.
It is an illustration of one of Obama’s biggest failures on climate change. And it points to the direction that environmentalists need to go next: call for a moratorium on all federal leasing for fossil fuel development.
Green groups and green leaders in Congress attacked Interior’s move. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), a top climate hawk, issued a statement saying, “it just doesn’t seem worth putting our oceans and coasts at risk.” The NRDC called the decision “a major assault on our ocean.”
There are four big reasons to oppose this seismic testing:
1. Damage to marine life from testing. Seismic testing involves blasting underwater with air guns, creating dramatic sound waves that can travel thousands of miles. As Grist’s John Upton noted in February, when the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management released its preliminary report on this plan, 34 marine mammal species that use sound to navigate could be harmed, and many animals could be killed. The government’s own assessment said more than a million bottlenose dolphins could be hurt every year, along with a number of endangered whales.
2. Damage to marine life, oceans, and coastlines from drilling. If offshore oil and gas drilling does happen in the region, it will cause pollution of the oceans and degradation of fisheries and coastlines, possibly damaging local fishing and tourism industries. Small spills are just business as usual for the oil industry.
3. Possible disaster. Offshore drilling creates the risk of a big oil spill that could devastate an entire ecosystem. The Obama administration was actually taking steps toward allowing offshore drilling along the Atlantic coast in the spring of 2010, but then the Deepwater Horizon explosion happened in the Gulf of Mexico and plans were put on hold.
4. And, of course, climate change. Obama has publicly committed to fighting climate change caused by fossil fuels, and yet he approves the extraction of more fossil fuels. By allowing this extraction on public lands and in federally controlled oceans, he is essentially subsidizing fossil fuel consumption and contributing to more climate change.
“It’s completely inconsistent with this ambitious climate policy they’ve announced to then turn around and say, ‘Well, we might allow drilling,’” says Athan Manuel, director of the Sierra Club lands protection program.
The huge increase in oil and gas production during Obama’s tenure may make his record on allowing drilling seem worse than it is. Most of the fracking boom is actually occurring on private land. “This president has been pretty good when it comes to leasing public lands for oil and gas in particular,” says Manuel. “But to allow seismic testing is inconsistent with what he’s done in the past.”
The Interior Department’s latest move is especially bizarre because early in Obama’s first term, when there was still hope for Congress passing climate change legislation, granting offshore drilling leases was supposed to be part of what Obama offered Republicans and conservative Democrats from states like Virginia in exchange for their votes. Now Republicans control the House of Representatives, climate change legislation has no chance, and Obama will get nothing in return for this. The only stakeholders who are pleased by the announcement are industry groups like the American Petroleum Institute, which never have done, and never will do, any favors for Obama.
And that is why Obama should be rejecting any and all fossil fuel extraction from federal lands and waters. Trading drilling rights for an economy-wide price on carbon would be a deal worth making. But there is no deal to be made right now. And in any potential future deal, the Democrats’ hand would be strengthened by holding exploration and leasing rights as a bargaining chip.
There has been some debate in recent years over the environmental movement’s priorities. Some center-left pundits, such as New York magazine’s Jonathan Chait, argue that Obama has done just about everything he can do without congressional action to address climate change, and that the focus on the Keystone XL pipeline instead of stronger power plant regulations has been misplaced.
Well, here is something Obama should be doing differently, something fully within his power to control: stop issuing leases for fossil fuel extraction. It is no less important than Keystone. Indeed, it is absurd that we hand out permission to for-profit companies to despoil our shared lands and waters. The executive branch is charged with managing these areas in the public interest, and the public’s greatest interest — economically as well as environmentally — is in reducing climate change.
The environmental community should be calling on Obama not to issue a single new lease offshore or on federal land. Environmental activists say this is a great idea, just waiting for a catalyst. “Putting a moratorium in place would be a major step forward on climate. It’s a campaign waiting to happen,” says Jamie Henn, spokesperson for 350.org, which has led the fight on Keystone. Henn proposes a sort of middle ground: that Obama could take climate impact into account for all new leasing proposals. “President Obama could start by applying his Keystone XL climate test to any new developments: They can only proceed if they don’t significantly contribute to global warming.”
That would be a step in the right direction. But, given the local environmental and public health impacts of oil and gas drilling and coal mining, there is good reason prevent it even if the climate impact is relatively minor.
Could a movement to stop federal fossil fuel leasing become a reality? In 1983, the environmental community successfully lobbied Congress to place a moratorium on offshore Atlantic drilling, which was renewed until 2008. The Sierra Club has considered trying to revive it, but found the enthusiasm among donors to be lacking. While the group has consistently opposed all leasing in recent years, it hasn’t been running a unified campaign for a moratorium. “It’s been harder than you’d think to raise money and build a national coalition,” says Manuel.
It may be easier to mobilize for such a campaign when there is an anti-environment administration to serve as a villain. “We haven’t been able to raise the money and build a coalition to keep that campaign going. In the ‘80s we were able to, maybe because of James Watt,” says Manuel, referring to Ronald Reagan’s notorious interior secretary. “Maybe that’ll happen eventually.”
A few years ago, no one would have thought that a mass mobilization against Keystone was likely either. But groups organized, donors got excited, volunteers mobilized, and the rest is history. As on Keystone, Obama won’t do the right thing on leasing unless he is forced to.
If you were privy to everything that went on inside a factory farm, you might never want to eat again. Manure lagoons fester. Animals cram into tiny spaces. Unsanitary conditions abound. Which is exactly why Big Ag would rather you just didn’t know. At least seven states have now made it illegal to use undercover evidence to expose the unsavory practices that take place on factory farms. Award-winning journalist Will Potter thinks drones could be the workaround to these controversial “ag-gag” laws.
NPR reports that Potter raised $75,000 on Kickstarter to buy drones and other equipment in order to investigate animal agriculture in the U.S.
“I was primarily motivated by what’s happening outside of those closed doors, but is still invisible and hidden from the public spotlight,” Potter tells NPR. “In particular, I was motivated by seeing these aerial photographs and satellite imagery of farm pollution, of waste lagoons, of sprawling industrial operations.”
Potter’s taking advantage of the fact that while drones have been a hot news item of late, lawmakers are still figuring out the specifics on if and how to regulate them.
Could Potter be prosecuted for flying drones over farms? Clemens Kochinke, a Washington D.C.-based lawyer behind the Drone Law blog, says the law is unclear about monitoring ag businesses. And it takes years to test the laws in court.
“Aside from the many federal issues involving the [Federal Aviation Administration] and the [Department of] Homeland Security, you have the state, county and municipal rules,” Kochinke says. “An overriding limitation on the restriction of drones may derive from the First Amendment where reporting in the public interest is concerned.”
Legalities aside, Chuck Jolley, who works in the meat industry, points out another complication that could disrupt Potter’s plans: “Those things better not be coming over during duck season because there are hunters out there that might look up and mistake that drone for a duck.” It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s perhaps our best bet for circumventing ag-gag laws, so long as it doesn’t get shot down?
I saw the Disney film Planes: Fire and Rescue over the weekend with my 11-year-old son Justice. It’s not my favorite animated movie series, but I thought it would be a calmer, more ambient version of the kind of anthropomorphized stories Justice and I have sat earmuffed through at the movies lately, like Transformers and Planet of the Apes.
I’m not mad we went. It did a better job of explaining the inconsolable wrath of wildfires for us two East Coasters than I could have ever done for my son. And it managed to pack in a subplot about water scarcity.
Spoiler alert here — and sorry, because I know y’all have been dying to see this sequel.
Dusty Crophopper, a small-farm, single-propeller cropduster returns from his main character role in the original, where he left the farm to become a Top Gun prize racer. But in Fire & Rescue, we learn that his streak of world championship racing and fancy globetrotting have grinded his gears irreparably, meaning he can no longer race.
Enraged that he has to hang it up, Dusty accidentally causes a five-alarm blaze at his home hanger that’s not easily put to bed by the old resident fire truck. An ensuing investigation into the conflagration reveals that the hangar is out of compliance with a bunch of safety codes and regulations. It must be shut down unless the local fire unit makes significant upgrades (Big Government ruins the day once again! Thanks, Obama!).
It’s here that Dusty decides he wants to enlist with an elite squad of planes, trucks, and other motorized, vocalized equipment trained specifically for dealing with the worst of disasters, so he can help save his town. Dusty’s training days involve helping the squad find creative ways to fight a rash of wildfires occurring all over their terrain. We never learn the cause of the fires; they just happen. The story’s major function is to show the audience just how difficult it is to put these forest fires out.
But the real tension kicks in when a major conflict of agendas breaks out between a national park superintendent and the disaster squad over water usage. The demanding superintendent insists on using the water for the grand opening of a huge tourist lodge resort, built deep in the woods of the national park he oversees. He wants to impress the Secretary of the Interior department, who’s making a guest visit for the opening.
When yet another forest fire breaks out near the lodge, the disaster unit doesn’t have the water it needs because it’s all been diverted to the resort. This diversion puts the Interior Secretary, along with hundreds of visitors present for opening day at the lodge, in grave danger — saved only, of course, when our hero Dusty finds a way to secure water from the river to help rescue them.
I imagine Tea Party dads will use this story to drive a point through about the federal government being clueless. The National Park Service gets a good kick in the butt in this film as well. But I think the discussion that Planes surfaces around water resources — who decides how they are used, how and why — are important ones to have, and at an early age. It was the part that got my greatest attention.
If climate change is a thing in the movie, it serves more as a watermark. As with Snowpiercer, the science behind what’s causing the disasters is never explored; they are just facts of life in the story.
Some parents will use this as an opening into climate talks with their kids. Some of the Tea Partiers might probably just tell the kids that this is what happens when Smokey Bear goes into the woods to smoke weed with the hippies. But paired with other accessible shows like Showtime’s Years of Living Dangerously or Cosmos, kids can walk away with a good sense of how exactly climate change might impact their own backyards, and the difficult choices we need to make about how to deploy resources both before and when they happen.
It knows when you are sleeping. It knows when you’re awake. It knows if you’ve been driving, biking, or walking, and it records it, for data’s sake.
Human is an app that tracks activity with the goal of getting users to exercise at least 30 minutes a day. It uses the M7 motion co-processor, a handy little iPhone microchip with gyroscope, compass, and accelerometer sensors, to track and record your every move – even while your phone is asleep.
This month, Human’s parent company released a series of neat-o visualizations of walking, biking, running, and driving patterns for 30 cities around the world. Check out the video here:
According to some ‘plannerds‘ and city traffic engineers, the maps can give a far more nuanced look at travel patterns than traffic engineers have ever been able to cobble together with car and bike counters, census surveys, and other traditional methods.
It’s possible that one day, the data can help fill in some gaps about everything from public transportation use to bicycling in cities (since the census only counts biking to work, and doesn’t give a complete picture of how people are using bicycles to get around). But the app can’t provide a complete picture yet, because (for now) it doesn’t collect specific demographic information, and because people without iPhones actually walk and ride bikes too.
Here’s Michael Anderson writing in StreetsBlog:
Human’s maps are certainly pretty. But for traffic engineers like the City of Austin’s Nathan Wilkes, they’re the tip of the iceberg.
If the users of apps like Human can provide just a few demographic indicators, Wilkes says, planners would be able to compensate for underrepresented groups and calculate not only how a city’s transportation choices are shifting in real time, but which streets people are choosing.
“It doesn’t seem like a far stretch to be able to have monthly updates to the heat maps to the point where we could see, ‘Oh, we just installed the cycle track on this facility: This is month one, month two, month three, month four,’” said Wilkes, the city’s lead bikeway planner and designer.
Until then, the data makes for some fun eye candy — and a cool way to compare activity patterns between cities.
Here’s a look at bicycle utopia Amsterdam, which, according to Human’s data, leads the way for cycling, and also ranks as and the most active city:
East Coast cities like Washington, D.C., Boston, and New York topped the charts for walking. Here’s Boston:
And Los Angeles, man, you gotta get out (of your car) more: