Kinda hard to believe, but the Exxon Valdez oil spill was 25 years ago. “Yeah, sheesh,” says the sea otter population that has spent this entire time struggling to recover from the spill’s effects.
Back in 1989, the 10.8 million gallons of crude oil that leaked into Prince William Sound killed otters and 20 other species. Roughly 1,000 otters died from the spill right away, and lingering oil in clams (otter food) and in otters’ fur slowly killed 1,000 to 2,000 more otters later.
Thankfully, a new study indicates the number of sea otters off Alaska’s southern coast is finally back to normal – although it sure took long enough. Explains Reuters:
The report’s findings underscore the lengthy recovery times for many species affected by oil spills, U.S. Geological Survey research biologist Brenda Ballachey said in a statement.
“Although recovery timelines varied widely among species, our work shows that recovery of species vulnerable to long-term effects of oil spills can take decades,” said Ballachey, the study’s lead author.
Um, YEAH. You can’t just magically slurp up spilled oil with a Godzilla-sized eyedropper. But at least otters have finally bounced back. That means marine life could fully recover from the BP oil spill in … let’s see … 2035. Mark your calendar!
I’m glad to see that 12 Years a Slave won a few well-deserved Oscars Sunday night, including best picture and best adapted screenplay. Those who’ve been following me know that I used this film as one of the starting points for my blog, and as a lens for examining the intersection between environmentalism and social justice. I’ve been curious if there were others who saw in the movie the same crimes against nature I saw, along with the crimes against black people.
The film includes scenes of enslaved Africans hacking away at dense fields of sugarcane stalks, and chopping away trees in the plush forests of Louisiana, all at whip- and gunpoint, and all in efforts to expand the plantation state. This, to me, made it clear that director Steve McQueen was trying to show not only how slavery exploited and devastated African Americans, but also how it did the same to the American environment. He said as much when describing his cinematic vision: “The story is about the environment, and how individuals have to make sense of it, how we locate the self in events.”
McQueen drew his inspiration from the book on which the film was based: The memoir of Solomon Northup, an African American born free but sold into slavery. And as it turns out, there were many people during Northup’s time who were making the same observations about how slavery was wrecking the nation racially, physically, and biologically. Among them was Henry David Thoreau, the 19th-century naturalist and political philosopher.
I recently stumbled upon a research paper by James Finley, editor of the Thoreau Society Bulletin, titled “Justice in the Land,” published last year in the The Concord Saunterer: A Journal of Thoreau Studies. The piece explores Thoreau’s use of ecological protest to advance the anti-slavery cause.
Thoreau argued that slave labor and plantation-based agriculture was destroying the fertility and productivity of the South’s natural resources. But he also argued that the North was not spared in that equation, and provided an environmental justice lens through which to view that.
“Slavery and servility have produced no sweet-scented flower annually, to charm the senses of men, for they have no real life: they are merely a decaying and a death, offensive to all healthy nostrils,” he wrote in his essay, “Slavery in Massachusetts.” “We do not complain that they live, but that they do not get buried. Let the living bury them; even they are good for manure.”
And just so we know that he had a racial analysis about his environment — not just sweet-scented metaphors — he added that “the history of slavery and its aftermath reveals that at least some of our nation’s cherished green spaces began as black spaces,” a conclusion he arrived at after spending time in the Walden Woods of Massachusetts with Native Americans and marooned ex-slaves.
Thoreau made these observations in the 1840s-1850s, the same era when Northup was ensnared in an underground market that captured freed black men in the North and sold them down South as slaves. The practice was given legal cover by the Fugitive Slave Act, passed in 1850, that forced northern officials to remand slaves who escaped from Southern plantations back to their places of servitude. That law and the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, which allowed slavery in the new western territories, were extending the pollutive effects of slavery both northward and westward — and Thoreau understood that.
Writes Finley, Thoreau “reveals how thoroughly Northerners … are embedded in slavery’s networks, suggesting that slavery is not simply a condition specific to the South but rather an environmental threat to the entire nation. He argues that the slave system pollutes everything, including agricultural land, wilderness, labor conditions, politics, and interpersonal relationships.”
In fact, the early environmental protection movement called the Free Soil Party coalesced with abolitionists to oppose slavery’s expansion. As white Northerners, many Free Soilers didn’t necessarily oppose slavery on the grounds that it was leading to massive oppression, torture, and killing of human beings, though. Rather, they fought slavery on the grounds that its expansion was a massive injustice imposed upon … well, the grounds. The concern was that more American soil, forests, and rivers would be destroyed by the metastasizing slavery problem.
“Some of these guys were white supremacists,” Finley told me on the phone. “They didn’t want slavery to extend into the new territories because they wanted that land free for white farmers.”
Whatever their motives, many Free Soilers banded with Thoreau to recruit more Northern whites to the abolition movement. Writes Finley: “Thoreau [sought] to shift their concern to their surrounding environment, believing … that the majority of Northerners would mobilize around antislavery when they felt their landscapes and their livelihoods, not just those of distant landscapes, were threatened.”
If this sounds familiar, it’s because this is what environmental justice activists often have to grapple with today: White environmentalists are often hesitant to join civil and human rights causes until they see what’s in it for them, usually in terms of nature conservation. “[Environmental justice] issues become a concern to [environmentalists] when they think there’s some utility for them in advancing EJ concerns,” longtime activist Vernice Miller-Travis told me recently. “Otherwise, these communities are invisible.”
“Thoreau was not interested in affirming racial hierarchies,” Finley told me, “but he’s trying to mobilize a community of white farmers who were themselves invested in white supremacism, but while also helping them feel that slavery is something that affects them and so they should mobilize against it.”
Meanwhile, there were plenty of black abolitionists who were also addressing the dual evils of racism and environmental injustice undergirding slavery. You can find it in Samuel Ringgold Ward’s Autobiography of a Fugitive Negro, Frederick Douglass’s second autobiography, My Bondage and My Freedom, and also in the Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Henry Bibb.
And of course Solomon Northup did this as well, in 12 Years a Slave. His memoir, and now the movie, showed how a whole race of people were subjugated under white supremacy and how that very system polluted America from its beginnings. And this was voted the best film of the year — a bold choice by the Academy, no doubt, and hopefully a recognition of how deep the pollutive effects of slavery have ravaged this nation.
Dog shit doesn’t do(o) much for green space. Sidewalks, public parks — pretty much everywhere is better off without it. And yet some people insist on pulling a Jason Segel in Forgetting Sarah Marshall and leaving their pup’s poop for the rest of us to step in.
Naples, for one, has stinky shoes, and the Italian city isn’t taking any more of your canine irresponsibility. The city plans to DNA-test abandoned dog doo-doo, find the guilty party, and slap you with a $685 fee for being a shitty pet owner/human being. Explains the New York Times:
The idea is that every dog in the city will be given a blood test for DNA profiling in order to create a database of dogs and owners. When an offending pile is discovered, it will be scraped up and subjected to DNA testing. If a match is made in the database, the owner will face a fine of up to 500 euros, or about $685.
Apparently it’s pretty effective so far:
“Now, when I walk the streets, the presences have greatly diminished,” [Municipal Police] Captain Del Gaudio said. “Before, it was like an obstacle course. Every day, a child would walk into school with a little gift under her shoe.”
We Yanks aren’t off the hook, either — communities in more than 40 states as well as Canada and Israel are testing dog dung to help stamp out the messy problem. So get ready to open that doggy bag — or open your wallet. The choice is yours.
Bruce Dickinson — yes, the Bruce Dickinson — plans to pilot a hybrid airship called The Airlander across the world. At 302 feet, it’s the longest aircraft in the world, and it’s 70 percent greener than a cargo plane. It lands on water, ice, or any reasonably flat surface. It can fly for days without refueling, promising more efficiency and carbon savings for freight and shipping industries while also being a boon to disaster recovery efforts.
Wait. Stop. What do you mean “who’s Bruce Dickinson?”
“Number of the Beast?” “Run To The Hills?” Iron Freaking Maiden?!?! Do they even teach anything in high school anymore? Fine, I’ll do it for you:
You’re welcome. Anyway, Dickinson — Iron Maiden singer, doctor, commercial airline pilot, all-around hero — is a major investor in the British Hybrid Air Vehicles’ Airlander, and he’s planning an all-out, Richard-Branson-esque media assault to trumpet the Airlander’s maiden voyage in 2016. He tells the BBC:
“It’s a game changer, in terms of things we can have in the air and things we can do,” he says.
“It seizes my imagination. I want to get in this thing and fly it pole to pole,” he says.
“We’ll fly over the Amazon at 20ft, over some of the world’s greatest cities and stream the whole thing on the internet.”
Take that, Branson. You may have fancy island parties where Kate Winslet rescues your mom from flames or whatever, but can you sing, “Please put away your tray tables and place your seats in the upright POSIIIIIITTIOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOON!!!” while hitting a totally righteous high A? Didn’t think so.
More on the Airlander:
It’s not all clean-energy sunshine, as Hybrid Air Vehicles plans to market the Airlander to drilling operations as an ideal operations solution in extreme climates (i.e. the Arctic). But if they can make it up to us by marketing it to clean energy consortiums as well, we’ll call it even. An enormous balloon in a field of wind turbines presents no serious risks that I can think of.
Yeongyang County is a remote, mountainous, and relatively untouched area that’ll soon be home to South Korea’s National Research Center for Endangered Species. And if designs by Seoul firm Samoo Architects & Engineers (SAMOO) are implemented, bubbly biodomes will play a major role.SAMOO
As part of the 172,000-square-foot center, the biodomes will house research areas and indoor/outdoor breeding facilities. We all know what that’s code for: plenty of romantic, candle-lit spots for endangered animals to bone and make adorable babies. (Hands off the slow lorises, Lady Gaga.)SAMOO
The center will also include offices, a quarantine area, a visitors’ center, and lodging for visitors and researchers. The whole place is supposed to “blend harmoniously within the surrounding environment,” but to borrow Fox Mulder’s words, the biodomes look more like giant Jiffy-Pop poppers. Whatever you need to tell yourself, South Korea!
Despite the pugnacious storms that had California on the ropes this past weekend, the state is still in the middle of a record-making drought. The snowpack in the Sierra Nevada Mountains is well under half its usual level for this time of year, and there’s almost certainly no way to catch up this late in the season.
Enter the ongoing construction of 17 desalination plants across the state. A $1 billion plant being built in Carlsbad, Calif., expected to be ready by 2016, will pump 50 million gallons of drinkable water out of the ocean daily — making it the largest such facility in the Western Hemisphere. Another project underway near San Francisco (a discount at only $150 million) could supply 20 million of the 750 million gallons of water guzzled daily in the Bay Area by 2020.
Desalination involves sucking up seawater and pushing it at high pressure through a series of very thin membranes, to strip away the salt and ocean gunk. Water purists (ha) know it as reverse osmosis. It’s not an ideal process, since it uses an enormous amount of energy to turn about two gallons of seawater into one gallon of potable water, plus there are the aforementioned ocean gunk leftovers, but it does keep working rain or shine. A spokesperson for the Carlsbad plant describes it as “droughtproof” — a tantalizing prospect that would probably have Californians salivating, if they could spare the spit.
Instead, we can measure excitement by the uptick in investment. Currently there are only three small desalination plants operating in the state, including one that provides all the water to aptly named Sand City since 2010. By “all the water,” we mean “enough for the 334 people who live there.” From the San Francisco Chronicle:
“It’s a miracle how we managed to get this plant,” said Sand City Mayor David Pendergrass. “If we didn’t have it, the whole area would be in trouble. We’re not under any rationing here, but then we’ve been practicing conservation for years already, so we are responsible about our water use.
“I would absolutely recommend desalination for other areas.”
Of course, the miraculous transmutation of Pacific brine to sweet freshwater comes with a price — the literal one, but also a load of energy, carbon emissions, hapless sea creatures siphoned up intake tubes, and extra salt and miscellaneous water treatment chemicals flushed back into the ocean. Some plants in progress have been stalled by these concerns. Many environmentalists and/or spendthrifts argue that it makes more sense promote water conservation and recycling before turning to expensive alchemy, but water officials still aren’t convinced that will be enough. From NPR:
Jeffrey Kightlinger, the general manager of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, says the district has invested in conservation and recycling, and it has helped, but the region still needs more water to meet demand. That’s always been the case in arid California, but it’s even more so now.
“There are two things that are changing the landscape for us,” he says. “One is we’ve grown a lot. We’re doing water for nearly 40 million people statewide. The second thing that really changed is climate change. It’s real. And it’s stressing our system in new ways.”…
“We don’t have time to rehash the same debates over and over and over again. We’re going to have to start investing in things for the future,” Kightlinger says.
Even if cheap, renewable energy sources could theoretically power desalination plants without producing a lot of extra ocean pollution, desalination is not going to solve all the state’s water problems in one fell swoop. Weaning So Cal off water imported from other areas would mean building a Carlsbad-scale plant every four miles along the coast, which adds up to 25 plants just between San Diego and L.A. With so many people and so little water, no solution is going to work without significant cuts in wasted water.
Whether these facilities are a good investment, or at least a bearable compromise, will have a lot to do with what havoc climate change decides to wreak on the coastal state in the coming decades. If this drought is a sign of climates to come, California may not be the only state to run on desal.
Tiny houses have seemingly taken over the landscape of aspirational real estate, and not just for the green-minded. When it comes to choosing a compact cottage of one’s own, tiny house fetishists need only adopt the guiding principle of sage philosopher Ludacris: What’s your fantasy?
Ranging from impossibly twee to space-age minimalist, with rustic cabins in snow-covered woods lying somewhere in between, there’s seemingly no limit of miniature dwellings to fill the Pinterests of a growing audience. The prolific Tiny House Swoon website, for example, offers pages upon pages of shelter porn for those who dream of downsizing: a fairy-tale treehouse in Germany; a stark West Virginia cabin built entirely of recycled materials; and a transparent cube unit in Switzerland that may as well have been abandoned by an extremely adorable Martian.
What’s the appeal of a home the size of a toolshed? You can’t scroll through a page of design sites such as Inhabitat and Dwell without hitting at least one. Graham Hill, founder of TreeHugger, launched LifeEdited, an online publication about downsized living inspired by his own 420 square-foot apartment, in 2010. Outside of niche publications, tiny houses been featured in The New York Times, The Independent, and even Fox News – and that’s just in the past two months. Is all this hype a real push toward more sustainable lifestyles, or is it just a manifestation of widespread preoccupation with cuteness?
I spoke with Sally Augustin, an environmental psychologist based in Chicago and founder of design consultancy Design with Science. I asked her about how our most primitive instincts can cause this fascination with pocket-sized homes.
“If you go back to [prehistoric times], when we didn’t have all the tools and such that we have now, certain types of environments were really desirable to us,” she says. “They’d be places where we were protected, felt secure, but we could survey the world around us easily — think of the mouth of a cave in a hill, with a view out over the valley. I think a lot of tiny homes have that sort of arrangement, and so appeal to us at a really fundamental level, psychologically.”
She has a point. The most titillating tiny house photographs tend to feature a lone structure perched on a cliff over the ocean, nestled in a mountainside, or presiding over a vast prairie. But what about the more pragmatic placements of tiny houses — in cities, for example — where a million-dollar view isn’t an option? What’s the appeal there?
“Small spaces give you a lot of control over the experience you have there,” says Augustin. “You can be certain that you’ll have control over all the different sensory experiences, and you can also really personalize a small space so it sends exactly the right messages about who you are and what you value about yourself. McMansions, on the other hand — nothing is very distinctive [about them.]”
Without even taking the environmental or economic benefits into account, tiny houses appeal to both our most primitive instincts and our desire to be unique snowflakes — a pretty enticing combination.
And those benefits are certainly real. It’s logical that a small house would use fewer resources than a large one, but the size of that margin hasn’t been extensively measured. However, a 2010 study of small homes by the Oregon Department of Environmental Equality (DEQ) — and one would expect nothing less from the Most Delightfully Offbeat State in the Union — found that among 30 different green construction practices, reducing house size had the greatest environmental impact in terms of greenhouse gas reduction. According to the DEQ, a 50 percent reduction in a house’s square footage corresponds to a 36 percent reduction in carbon emissions over its lifetime.
In this study, a “small” house was defined as one measuring 1,630 square feet, and “extra-small” as 1,150 square feet. The prototypical tiny house tends to range from 120 to 500 square feet.
Ryan Mitchell, founder of The Tiny Life website, did some investigation into the financial advantages of tiny houses by surveying 120,000 tiny house owners. Mitchell found that the average cost of an owner-built tiny house is $23,000 — one-twentieth of the average cost of a house in the United States, with mortgage interest included. And for 68 percent of tiny house dwellers, mortgages aren’t even a concern.
I spoke with Nithya Priyan, 39, and Ally Muller, 29, who just finished construction of their own tiny house in Chico, Calif. Nithya works as an architect, and Muller, as a yoga instructor. Even on the spectrum of tiny houses, theirs is small, measuring just 120 square feet. The couple has lived in the house for about six months now, five of which were spent “camping” in the unfinished structure, which Muller readily acknowledges was a horrible idea. But now that it’s fully functional: “I love it,” she gushes. “I was shocked — I had my reservations, to be honest, but I absolutely love it.”Muller and Nithya in their self-built, 120 square foot “micro-homestead.”
The couple decided to go tiny because it enabled them to live simply, sustainably, and completely within their means. With no construction experience at all, they designed and built the house for just $8,500 on one-tenth of an acre. Their living costs in utilities have also drastically decreased — the unit is powered only by a 30-amp, 240-volt electrical supply, uses a 19-gallon water heater, and was kept warm entirely by the couple’s body heat this winter. Sexy!
Nithya’s interest in tiny living began when he was an architecture student in his native Singapore: “My thesis project was on housing in repurposed cargo containers. I always had this strong interest in living in unconventional spaces … [and in] the whole idea of not having unnecessary stuff.”
While talking to Nithya and Muller about their lifestyle, the conversation keeps coming back to the idea of designing a living space for humans, instead of — in the words of George Carlin — as a “place to put our stuff.” And sure enough, the great appeal of their “micro-homestead,” as they call it, is that it fits them perfectly.
“It feels less about cramming ourselves into it, and more about it fitting us like a glove,” says Nithya.
“Tailor-made!” Muller adds.
And for them, there’s no going back. They tell me that they’re committed to “simple living” from here on out. Their future plans for the property include growing their own food, harvesting rainwater, and raising chickens.
Cherae Stone of Tahlequah, Okla., population 16,000, moved into her tiny house in October of last year, and is similarly enamored. Stone, 54, is a massage therapist and holistic health specialist. In 2008, she endured a series of great challenges: She lost her job, then her retirement savings, and then her father, and to top it all off, broke her arm, leaving her unable to work for months.
“I was kind of in a daze at the time,” she says. “You follow the rules, you do what you’re supposed to in America, and you think everything is going to be OK.”
Stone’s plan, initially, was to move out of the 2,000 square-foot home in which she’d raised her family and purchase a large, 150-year-old (read: high-maintenance) house in Tahlequah. With her children grown and moved away, her savings depleted, and apprehensive about going back into debt, she began to reconsider the purchase:
“I had to decide, ‘Do I want to put X amount of dollars [that I made from selling my house] into this property, and then work my butt off every day from sun-up to sundown to keep it repaired, or do I want to take this money and have something built to fit me?’”
While exploring her options, Stone found some images of tiny houses online, and instantly fell in love. “Have you seen the Tiny Texas Houses?” she asks me. “Oh, my gosh. They are works of art!”
She abandoned her plan to buy the 150-year-old house, and instead put the money from her property sale toward a lot on the Illinois River. She calls the area “beautiful,” adding, “it’s the place everyone wants to live if they’re from here.” Then, she commissioned a 240 square-foot house from Scott Stewart of Slabtown Customs in Mountain View, Ark. Stone and Stewart worked together on the design and used Arkansas pine and corrugated tin as base materials. The house took about six months to construct.Cherae Stone’s 240 square-foot house, made of Arkansas pine and corrugated tin, took just six months to construct.
Was environmental impact a factor in Stone’s decision? “Absolutely,” she says. And since she’s moved into the house, she’s been paying a lot more attention to the sustainability and healthiness of her lifestyle. But another, equally significant factor was the idea of a simple, baggage-free lifestyle.
Stone tells me that I would not believe the amount of stuff that she’s gotten rid of since downsizing. “The hardest thing has been the books — that’s an ongoing process,” she says. “But [even now], I’ve still got every single thing I need.”
She’s also reacting to the American culture of “buy more.” “In the United States, we very often are defined — and we define ourselves, as well — by what we do for a living, and what we own. ‘This is what I do, this is what I have.’ But that doesn’t fit my way of being in the world. It doesn’t make sense in the long term, for any of us. It’s not healthy.”
By opting for small and simple over large and lavish, are Stone, Nithya, and Muller living the new dream? In today’s economic climate, a culture of excess seems increasingly ridiculous, and more and more people are beginning to question a lifestyle facilitated by debt. In talking to tiny house enthusiasts, I hear a number of themes repeated: affordability, simplicity, living within one’s means. There’s an intent focus on unburdening oneself from material possessions, and fixating on things besides money. These may sound like radical ideas, the soapbox declarations of crazed anarchists or hippies, but the people who are espousing them are intelligent, educated, and, for all practical purposes, quite normal.
I must admit: I hear these ideas more loudly and with more enthusiasm than “I want to save the planet!” But that motivation is still very much present, and there’s no question that shrinking one’s ecological footprint is a significant reality for anyone who’s downsized their lifestyle. And that just might be the big hope for greater environmental consciousness: that it will sneak in on the heels of a desire for a more affordable, simplified lifestyle.
Check back with us in the coming weeks, as we explore the tiny house movement and the future of miniature communities.
Catastrophic risks are unanticipated losses or damage that cripple an organization and often lead to a survival mode. Business leaders may choose to ignore them, but they can end corporate life.
The post Sustainability and Catastrophic Risk: What Business Leaders Can Learn from BP appeared first on Triple Pundit: People, Planet, Profit.
It is no secret that education is the surest route to a better life, but for tens of thousands of low-income students in developing nations, high costs means that access to it continues to be the stuff of fantasy. Student loans are notoriously hard to come by outside of the U.S. and Europe, largely due to the fact that banks have no track record of repayments that can be used to assess risk, and students generally don’t have collateral or a credit history to prove that they can pay back loans.The answer to this classic "chicken-or-the-egg" problem could lie with crowdfunding, which not only presents an opportunity to get tuition loans to students who need them, but also to build a “track record of repayment” that will encourage financial institutions to offer more loans to students.
The post Kiva and Vittana Crowdfund Student Loans in the Developing World appeared first on Triple Pundit: People, Planet, Profit.
Mattel could have used the timely idea of Entrepreneur Barbie to break the mold and present a realistic role model, but it stayed within the same mold.
The post Mattel Missed a Big Opportunity with ‘Entrepreneur Barbie’ appeared first on Triple Pundit: People, Planet, Profit.
A five-day power outage tests this energy-efficient passive house.
The post Extended Power Outage Tests High-Performance House appeared first on Triple Pundit: People, Planet, Profit.
Tim Cook, Apple's CEO and successor to Steve Jobs, is generally known as a man who, unlike his predecessor, has a cool head, and does not let his emotions influence his decisions or his behavior on the job. But that is apparently not the case when it comes to global warming. Nothing seems to get him steamed up more than a group of climate deniers, like the group that recently attended Apple's annual shareholder meeting last Friday.
The post Apple CEO Tim Cook Tells Climate Deniers to Take a Hike appeared first on Triple Pundit: People, Planet, Profit.
Biofuel critics have brought up that converting foodstuffs to biodiesel means less food in a world threatened with food insecurity. And converting wood to pellets and burnable resources for heating and boiler fuel has its downside as well. That's where Bio-Bean comes in.
China is infamous for its dangerously high levels of air pollution, and now one man is suing the government for failing to reduce the toxic smog. Li Guixin, who lives in a major industrial region of northern China surrounding Beijing, filed a complaint with a district court, urging the city’s environmental department to improve its efforts to control air pollution, Reuters reported last week.