This fox was found sleeping on the seat of an OC Transpo bus in Ottawa this morning. http://t.co/mYoJagF1Kk—
The fox was probably on the way to visit the raccoons who are taking over your neighborhood, the wolf-coyote hybrids who are prowling your park, and the deer who are munching on your parsley. Despite the fact that the bus was empty, the fox only took up one seat. If only all encroaching wildlife (including humans) were so polite.
Have no fear: The fantastic little guy snuck onto the parked bus for a snoozer and left on his own accord (feeling refreshed, we hope, and ready to seize the day — or somebody’s tasty backyard chickens!).
People who live near fracking sites have been complaining for years about headaches, nosebleeds, and birth defects. Now one such population, in Washington County, Penn., is getting some help in the form of free medical consultations — but not from the usual suspects.
Washington County is a place known for its many picturesque bridges. It’s also known for its “wet gas” — an underground smorgasbord of methane, propane, butane, and ethane that hasn’t seen daylight since the Devonian era. During the drilling process, most of this gas is captured, but a certain amount does leak into the atmosphere.
There has been some research into the risks of living in a natural gas drilling area, but not the kind of long-term, systematic study that would prove or disprove a connection between the gas and the health issues.
There are reasons for this. Some of them are political: Back in 2011, Philadelphia’s House of Representatives set aside $2 million to create a public health registry for tracking health complaints related to fracking, but the funding that would have made it happen was cut at the last minute. Any current complaints are referred to the state Bureau of Epidemiology, which keeps those complaints secret, citing patient confidentiality. In 2012, New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation asked the Department of Health for a review of the public health risks associated with fracking, but the commissioner in charge of the report kept stalling, and stepped down from the job this spring without ever finishing it.
Other reasons are financial. Correlations between environmental pollution and personal health are hard to prove. People aren’t lab rats. They get up to all kinds of variable-confounding mischief, like smoking, or moving, or working in jobs that expose them to a whole new set of environmental risks. Studying humans properly is very, very expensive, and today, most expensive science is funded and guided by the enthusiasms of the very well-to-do.
The trick, then, is to find a well-to-do person (or foundation) that might be really interested in fracking epidemiology. There aren’t many. But yesterday, Inside Climate News (in partnership with the Center for Public Integrity) profiled one: the Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project (SWPA-EHP — and yes, that is an unfortunate acronym).
SWPA-EHP is run by an impressive group of scientists, including a former EPA toxicologist, and it was started with the support of the Heinz Endowments. It is well-placed to do exactly the kind of research into fracking’s health impact that we need. Right now, though, it doesn’t do a lot of research — a state of affairs that SWPA-EHP blames on its limited budget ($750,000 a year) and that its critics blame on a lack of courage.
Here’s what SWPA-EHP does do: It educates people who live near drilling sites about how to take health precautions. It keeps a nurse-practitioner on staff to answer more detailed questions. And it spins off what information it does find into interesting, but not statistically significant, studies.
So maybe SWPA-EHP is hoping that if it can first draw attention to a health problem, then research grants will follow. There’s a precedent for this approach in the story of flame retardants. Over the last decade, a small group of scientists — particularly a biochemist named Arlene Blum — managed to mobilize scientific and political interest in what was a little-known subject at the time. Within a few years, solid research began to emerge that flame retardants were more pervasive and more risky than anyone had thought, and a few years after that, some behind-the-scenes political maneuvering managed to change the regulations around their use.
“Spread the word first, then do the research” can work, at least sometimes. But that doesn’t mean it’s a great way to do science. It ought to be possible to fund and perform important research into public health without having to mount a full-on public relations campaign first.
The health effects of antioxidants came up recently because a study found that organic food has more of them. Now science writer Moises Velasquez-Manoff has a fascinating story on a theory that upends conventional wisdom about antioxidants.
The original idea was that antioxidants were good because they sopped up molecules called “reactive oxygen species” (ROS) that are released by stress and bounce around cells, wrecking havoc. This new theory suggests that we need the stress, and it’s our bodies’ reaction to that (producing our own internal antioxidants) that really does us good.
In other words, it’s the whole system that’s important — piling on more antioxidants from outside alone basically accomplishes nothing. Here’s Velasquez-Manoff:
Exercise accelerates the burning of fuel by your cells. If you peer into muscles after a jog, you’ll see a relative excess of those supposedly dangerous ROS — exhaust spewed from our cellular furnaces, the mitochondria. If you examine the same muscle some time after a run, however, you’ll find those ROS gone. In their place you’ll see an abundance of native antioxidants. That’s because, post-exercise, the muscle cells respond to the oxidative stress by boosting production of native antioxidants. Those antioxidants, amped up to protect against the oxidant threat of yesterday’s exercise, now also protect against other ambient oxidant dangers.
Contrary to the ROS dogma, [scientist Michael] Ristow realized, the signal of stress conveyed by the ROS during exercise was essential to this call-and-response between mitochondria and the cells that housed them. To improve health, he figured, perhaps we shouldn’t neutralize ROS so much as increase them in a way that mimicked what happened in exercise. That would boost native antioxidants, improve insulin sensitivity, and increase overall resilience.
But we also see a true health benefit from eating plants. This may be because Fruits and Vegetables Are Trying to Kill You — to quote the title of Velasquez-Manoff’s piece. That is: The toxins produced by veggies stimulate the same kind of stress response as exercise and give your system a work out.
Obviously it’s still too early to make specific dietary recommendations based on this thinking (though someone will be trying to turn this into a lucrative diet fad in 5, 4, 3 …). I still stick with my don’t worry, be happy, eat veggies theory of nutrition. But check out this fascinating essay, and glory in the weirdness of the notion that we might just need toxins to keep us healthy.
Today, the U.S. Department of Transportation proposed new rules for improving safety standards around transporting large quantities of flammable materials by rail. The chief concern here is the movement of crude oil and ethanol, which the federal government has been ramping up through recent decisions to expand the exploration and extraction of domestic oil and gas.
The new rules, summarized here, focus on upgrades for train tank cars, new speed limits for trains carrying flammable fuels, improved braking operations, and more rigorous testing for the movement of volatile liquids. A recent rash of train crashes and oil spills, notably in North Dakota, Pennsylvania, Alabama, and Lynchburg, Va., prompted the new safety standards.
In a recent review of data from the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, Politico found that train wrecks have done more than $10 million in damage as of mid-May this year, which is nearly triple the damage for all of 2013.
In a press statement, Department of Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx called the proposal “our most significant progress yet in developing and enforcing new rules to ensure that all flammable liquids, including Bakken crude and ethanol, are transported safely.”
The Bakken oil mention is in reference to the train explosion last year in North Dakota, worsened by the fact that Bakken crude is more flammable than most all other oils. The Transportation department anticipates an increase in the volume of Bakken oil being shipped throughout the U.S., and across longer distances. On average, Bakken crude oil shipments travel over 1,000 miles from point-of-origin to refineries on the coasts.
According to the department’s website, 9,500 rail-carloads of crude moved through the country in 2008. Last year, there were 415,000 rail-carloads.
Given that many of those trains pass through or near communities of color and low-income, environmental justice organizations have long been concerned about the movement of goods by rail, especially chemicals and volatile liquids.
“For African Americans, we’ve gone from the ‘underground railroad’ being a route to freedom, to today’s railway system being a source of pollution and hazard,” said Jacqueline Patterson, director of the NAACP’s Climate Justice Initiative. “Coal trains come through communities of color leaving a trail of coal dust on our cars and in our lungs.”
The U.S. spilled more oil from trains in 2013 than in the previous four decades combined.
Including major derailments in Alabama and North Dakota, more than 1.15 million gallons of crude oil was spilled from rail cars in 2013, according to data from the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.
By comparison, from 1975 to 2012, U.S. railroads spilled a combined 800,000 gallons of crude oil. The spike underscores new concerns about the safety of such shipments as rail has become the preferred mode for oil producers amid a North American energy boom.
In light of this, “Any effort to regulate one of the threats facing oft-vulnerable communities — in this case trains carrying oil that are like ticking time bombs — is stridently welcomed,” Patterson said.
The National Environmental Justice Advisory Committee (NEJAC) has advised the federal government on how to improve its “goods movement” infrastructure for years. It released a report offering recommendations on this in 2009. The report focused not just on the goods moved, but also on the impacts of rail and freight transportation itself, as it moves through communities beset by poverty and poor access to quality healthcare. Reads the report:
[Goods] movement related‐ activities can have negative impacts on air quality and public health. Adjacent communities bear the burden of such activities resulting from the growth and demand for goods. Across the country there are many communities near goods movement infrastructure that consist of large populations of low‐income and minority residents.
NEJAC recently sent a letter to Environmental Protection Agency chief Gina McCarthy imploring her to check on whether the other federal cabinet agencies, including the Department of Transportation, are meeting with residents of the communities where trains are moving materials through, and asking for the agencies to create strategies to protect the health of those communities.
The Transportation department’s proposed rules focus more on the hazardous materials being carried. But they would also require carriers to perform a new analysis for routing trains that would be based on 27 safety and security factors. They would also require existing rail tank cars to be retrofitted to meet new performance requirements; those that can’t be retrofitted would be retired or repurposed.
The rail industry, of course, is freaking out about the new safety proposals. From Amy Harder at The Wall Street Journal:
Railroads, oil companies and railcar owners have been expecting new federal rules meant to improve the safety of oil shipments in the wake of several fiery train accidents. The proposed regulation could impact several industries. The railroads have been worried that slower speed limits could cause major gridlock, while oil companies have fretted that new rules about tank car volumes might prevent them from shipping all the crude they wanted.
I guess, but business as usual could mean more explosions and spills, which communities would pay for with their health and lives. It’s the same bellyaching the oil and gas industry had when the Obama administration imposed new safety regs after the BP oil disaster. These industries have to understand that it’s healthier and less expensive to be safe than it is to be sorry.
When I travel to a rural area, I assume that renting a car will be a necessity. In fact, I assume it in much of the U.S. Except in a few older coastal or Upper Midwest inner cities, it’s hard to get around in America without driving. So imagine my surprise upon arriving in Aspen, Colo., for a reporting trip and the Aspen Ideas Festival, and finding that a surprisingly good bus system and bikeshare program could get me almost everywhere I needed to go. And it didn’t cost an arm and a leg — just an arm. A broken arm. It turns out Aspen is so pro-pedestrian that it can actually create difficulties for visiting cyclists. But that’s not the worst problem to have.
Aspen and its neighbors along the Roaring Fork River high in the Rocky Mountains, such as Carbondale, are old mining towns. Developed in the late 19th century, they have walkable downtowns. To help residents and visitors get around or between those downtowns, they have a recently expanded bus service. The regional bus stops along Route 82, the road connecting the towns, with parking lots at the outlying stops, like a suburban commuter-rail station.
Local environmentalists I spoke with raved about the bus system, which may partly reflect the low expectations we’ve all developed for rural mass transit. Still, there were 4.1 million rides on Roaring Fork Transportation Authority (RFTA) buses in 2013, a 4 percent increase over 2012. That’s impressive for a region with only around 32,000 residents (though the seasonal population can increase substantially from tourism). If you’re in a downtown area, there will be a stop walking distance from you. The buses come frequently enough despite the small local population. The system is even integrated with other modes of transit: Many buses are outfitted with a bike rack in front and at certain stops you can load your bike on.
And it isn’t like in some Sun Belt cities where bus riding is a stigmatized habit of poor people. While the system’s primary purpose is to take service workers from the less expensive towns where they live to their jobs in Aspen, I saw tourists and members of the second-home crowd on the buses. Professionals also often commute by bike or bus. Jamie Cundiff, the forest program director at the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies, does both. “My car doesn’t do very well in the snow, so especially in the winter it’s nice not to stress about the snow,” says Cundiff. “If it’s in the summer, I love having the ability to bike one way and bus the other because sometimes the weather is different in the morning than the afternoon.”
But, like many bus systems, this one is confusing to outsiders. Stops are identified in a local jargony shorthand, like “ABC” for the “Airport Business Center,” and there’s no easy way to find out how the nicknames or acronyms correspond to places in the real world. Buses skip stops if there is no one waiting there and no rider requests the stop, but of course out-of-towners often don’t know when to request the stop they want. Even so, with effort, determination, and a lot of communication with the bus driver, one can save the $100 per day it would cost to rent a car.
Still, the system is not quite as advanced as the marketing would lead you to believe. The RFTA’s new “Bus Rapid Transit” line is actually nothing of the sort: It’s just express bus service. It makes fewer stops — only nine on its 41-mile route — and it doesn’t wait for other buses to arrive so that riders can seamlessly transfer, as the local buses do. But real BRT has a dedicated lane and a number of design elements that speed the loading of passengers, such as fares paid ahead of time at the stop, instead of on the bus. In a rural area, these differences probably matter a lot less than they do in a big city. The Roaring Fork Valley “BRT” only has a dedicated lane for a small section of its route, but it’s not like I ever got stuck in traffic as a result. Nor is waiting for people to pay on the bus as big a deal when the bus doesn’t have nearly as many riders as, say, Manhattan’s 2nd Avenue line.
But why call it BRT rather than just an express bus? Because it might make it easier to get funding from local voters and the federal government. Local officials brag that their “VelociRFTA,” which launched in 2013, was the nation’s first rural BRT line. The $46 million cost of the line was paid for partly with federal money and partly by a 0.04 percent sales tax increase in the eight participating jurisdictions, approved by voters in 2008. The proposal was considered politically risky at the time, as the economy was in crisis. Voters, though, were weary of high gas prices and worsening traffic coming in and out of Aspen at rush hour, so 55 percent voted to fund the new line. (RFTA did not respond to a request for comment.)
The whole question of BRT highlights a larger problem, which is that even express bus service relies on the inefficient mechanism of roads and automobiles. Trains can keep to a schedule with a certainty that buses can’t, unless they are shielded from the vicissitudes of traffic in a dedicated BRT lane. (Every RFTA bus I took was precisely on time, but a road blocked by an accident could easily change that.) And trains, of course, are more energy-efficient than cars and buses. The Roaring Fork Valley actually had trains until they were phased out between the 1960s and ‘90s. It’s too bad they’re now gone, but at least the former tracks have been turned into a lovely biking and walking trail, largely managed by the RFTA.
I took a bike ride on that stunningly scenic trail, which runs right along the Roaring Fork River, through a valley with mountains on all sides. And thanks to Aspen’s bikeshare program, annoyingly called WE-cycle, I also used bikes to zip around town.
It was great — until I discovered one of the big downsides of the city’s people-centric transportation policies. On my last full day in Aspen, I was biking down a hill when a jaywalking pedestrian waltzed into the middle of the street in front of me. I slammed on the breaks, flew forward off the bike, landed on my wrist, and fractured my elbow. I stood up to find the woman who’d stepped into my path screaming at me, insisting that I was supposed to stop for pedestrians. I thought she was crazy — she wasn’t in a crosswalk, after all — until I asked a local police officer and was told that is indeed the expectation in Aspen. Pedestrians apparently always have the right of way, and cars and bikes are expected to just stop for them. I’m a firm believer that cyclists should follow the same rules as cars and be considerate of pedestrians — I wrote about this at length just a couple of months ago — but it doesn’t make sense in this context. Unlike a car, a bike can’t stop on a dime without sending its driver flying forward.
So I experienced the good and the bad of the Aspen area’s transportation system. It’s mostly good — cheaper, greener mobility options are helping to maintain the area’s high quality of life. And the bad — well, my arm is still in a sling, three weeks later.
Used clothing bins — those metal boxes where people drop their unwanted or used shirts, jackets, jeans, belts, and the occasional human skull – sure are making people mad these days.
The problem is in the sales pitch: Some of the sketchier bins on street corners and in parking lots have “DONATION” stenciled on the side. As a result, people think that their old spandex jeggings, those Uggs from last season, and the hot pink Juicy Couture sweatpants that they only wore once are going to a person in need. In fact, those “donations” are going to textile recyclers who are making billions selling the clothes to companies overseas that grind the clothes into material for industrial uses.
While it isn’t exactly a news flash that most of the clothes from these bins go to for-profit companies, a recent New York Times article condemned the boxes as public nuisances, calling them magnets for graffiti and crime, and fire hazards. The city of New York has upped its efforts to haul away the bins. One New York state assemblyman has made getting rid of them his cause celebre, and the bins have been causing turf wars in other states.
It’s certainly one thing if the bins are fabricating falsehoods about charitable intentions, but the sad reality is this:
- Americans buy five times as much clothing as they did in 1980 (that’s a 40 percent increase in textile trash). And with the proliferation of fast, cheap clothing, more and more textiles are ending up in landfills, and more and more charities have to throw these clothes away to because they are unfit to sell.
- Americans throw away over 25 billion pounds of clothes each year, and most of it ends up in landfills. Only 15 percent of clothes get donated or recycled. According to the EPA, textiles and fabrics have one of the lowest recycling rates for any reusable material.
- Even legitimate charities like the Goodwill only end up selling about 20 percent of what gets donated in their retail stores anyway. The rest gets sold to — guess who — textile recycling companies that either sell the clothes to overseas markets or pound them down to make industrial rags and carpeting materials.
The bins are clearly not the problem.
As Elizabeth Cline, author of Overdressed: The Shockingly high Cost of Cheap Fashion notes in a recent article in the Atlantic’s CityLab, people tend to do what is most convenient for them. If a clothing donation bin is nearby, they will be more likely to throw their used clothes in the bin, rather than a garbage can. And recycling is certainly a better option than piling up in the landfill.
So stop flipping out about the bins, people. If you really want your old rags to go to someone in need, you can increase the chances by taking them to Goodwill. But the biggest thing you can do? Stop buying so many cheap clothes!
Citizens trying to stop the piping of tar-sands oil through their community wore blue “Clear Skies” shirts at a city council meeting in South Portland, Maine, this week. But they might as well have been wearing boxing gloves. The small city struck a mighty blow against Canadian tar-sands extraction.
“It’s been a long fight,” said resident Andy Jones after a 6-1 city council vote on Monday to approve the Clear Skies Ordinance, which will block the loading of heavy tar-sands bitumen onto tankers at the city’s port.
The measure is intended to stop ExxonMobil and partner companies from bringing Albertan tar-sands oil east through an aging pipeline network to the city’s waterfront. Currently, the pipeline transports conventional oil west from Portland to Canada; the companies want to reverse its flow.
After an intensely debated, year-and-a-half battle, the South Portland City Council on Monday sided with residents like Jones who don’t want their city to end up as a new “international hub” for the export of tar-sands oil.Dan WoodProponents of the Clear Skies ordinance, wearing blue, packed a South Portland city council meeting on July 9.
“The message to the tar sands industry is: ‘Don’t be counting your chickens yet,’” said Dylan Voorhees, clean energy director for the Natural Resources Council of Maine. “There is a pattern of communities saying ‘no’ to the threat of tar-sands oil.”
A clear signal
The ordinance could have global implications. The Canadian government expects the nation’s oil industry to be producing 4 million to 6 million barrels of tar-sands bitumen a day within a few years, and it’s pinning its hopes on somehow getting all that oil to coastal ports, said Richard Kuprewicz, president of Washington-based pipeline safety consulting firm Accufacts Inc. Indeed, a recent report from the International Energy Agency found that the industry needs export pipelines in order for its boom to continue.
South Portland’s move is just the latest setback for plans to pipe the bitumen out to international markets. Another big hurdle is the long delay over the Keystone XL pipeline. And in Canada, pipeline plans have met with opposition from indigenous peoples (known as First Nations), who are taking the lead to stop projects like the Enbridge Northern Gateway tar-sands pipeline through British Columbia.
Now, there is a clear signal that communities along the U.S. East Coast will fight tar-sands expansion too.
“Do not under estimate the power of a local government,” said Kuprewicz.
“A lot of perseverance”
In early 2013, residents formed Protect South Portland to try to stop the Portland-Montreal Pipeline reversal. They put an initiative on the November 2013 ballot to block the project, but it lost narrowly at the polls.
So the city council took up the cause. In December of last year, the council voted to impose a six-month moratorium on shipping tar-sands oil out through its port. Then a council-appointed committee crafted the Clear Skies Ordinance to permanently block tar-sands shipments, which is what the council officially approved this week. The law also changes zoning rules to block the construction of twin smokestacks that would be needed to burn off bitumen-thinning chemicals before the oil could be shipped out.
Over the past few months, concerned residents met in homes and Protect South Portland grew. Meanwhile, the group Energy Citizens, backed by the American Petroleum Institute, the oil industry’s largest trade group, ran ads that said “It’s just oil. From Canada.” The oil companies hired a number of lawyers and brought public relations firms on board.
Protect South Portland spokeswoman MJ Ferrier estimates that the grassroots group was outspent by at least 6 to 1.
So how did residents win over Big Oil? “A lot of perseverance and a lot of community engagement,” Voorhees said.
After the vote, supporters of the ordinance went to a local bar, and “we raised our glasses,” Jones told Grist.
But while local activists are celebrating this week’s win, they know “this is not the end,” said Jones.
South Portland Councilor Tom Blake, who’s been a champion of the effort to protect the city from tar sands, said a legal challenge seems imminent, by either Portland Pipe Line Corp., a subsidiary of ExxonMobil, or by the Canadian government. Blake had this message for the oil company and Canadian officials Monday evening: “This ordinance is the will of the people,” he said. “Do not spend millions of dollars and force the city of South Portland to do the same.”
But the oil interests are unlikely to heed his warning.
Tom Hardison, vice president of Portland Pipe Line, told reporters that the city had made a rush decision and bowed to environmental “off-oil extremists.” He added that the zoning changes amounted to a “job-killing ordinance” that prevents the city’s port from adapting to meet the energy needs of North America.
Matthew Manahan, attorney for Portland Pipe Line, told the city council before the vote that its ordinance is “illegal” and “would clearly be preempted by federal and state law.”
“The council is ignoring the law” and “ignoring science,” the lawyer added.
Air and water worries
Like the process of extracting tar-sands oil, the process of transporting it takes a huge toll on the environment. Before the heavy, almost-solid bitumen can be sent through pipelines, it has to be thinned with a concoction of liquid natural gas and other hydrocarbons. And then before it can be loaded onto ships, that concoction has to be burned off. ExxonMobil currently holds permits to build two smokestacks on South Portland’s waterfront that would do the burning.
Ferrier, a retired psychologist and a nun, joined Protect South Portland largely out of concern for what the oil companies’ plans would do to air quality in an area that has already received a “C” for ozone pollution from the American Lung Association. The proposed smokestacks would emit volatile organic compounds (VOCs). “We know there is benzene in it, a known carcinogen,” said Ferrier.
Resident Andrew Parker had similar concerns. “Tonight is about children,” he said at Monday’s city council meeting. “The oil company will put poison in the air, that is a fact.”
For Mayor Gerard Jalbert, who also sits on the city council and voted in support of the ordinance, it came down to concerns about water quality. The risk of water contamination in the case of a spill far outweighed the nebulous claims about job creation.
“When I look at the economic benefit, which no seems to be able to detail, the risk seems to outweigh the benefit,” Jalbert told Grist.
The easternmost 236-mile stretch of pipeline crosses some of the most sensitive ecosystems in Maine, including the Androscoggin River, the pristine Crooked River, and Sebago Lake, which supplies drinking water for 15 percent of the state’s population.
Blake, the council member, is worried that using old pipes to transport heavy bitumen could lead to a spill like the one that happened in Mayflower, Ark., in March 2013, when an ExxonMobil pipeline built in the 1940s ruptured and spilled hundreds of thousands of gallons of tar-sands oil.
Saying “no” to tar sands is part of a bigger shift to a greener future in South Portland, Blake added. “Being a community that has been heavily dependent on petroleum, this turns a tide,” the councilor said.
He pointed to a new electric-car charging station at the city’s community center and potential plans to build a solar farm on an old landfill as steps toward a sustainable future. “I think we are starting to walk the talk,” Blake said.
Even as the teensy unarmed planes continue to invade American skies, words like “drones” and “surveillance” tend not to elicit warm and fuzzy feelings. But are there certain cases where being kept under bot watch will be welcomed?
Because drones are both nimble and thrifty, idealists are launching drones on feel-good missions across the globe. Yesterday, I wrote about the potential for drones to keep us in the know of what goes on with our food. Here are some other projects that aim to use camera-armed drones for the good of the planet — and why skepticism might keep these projects from taking off.
Drones that spot illegal fishingShutterstock
Ocean conservationists may be psyched about Obama’s plan for a supersized marine protected area. But, given that 20 percent of seafood is caught illegally, marine sanctuaries may matter a lot less when the rules aren’t enforced. That’s why the government of Belize is testing the waters with drone surveillance by using them to monitor their Glover’s Reef Marine Reserve.
From National Geographic:
Belize has only 70 fisheries enforcement officers to patrol its 240 miles (386 kilometers) of Caribbean coast and more than 200 islands. And with fuel prices rising, the enforcement budget has been shrinking. As a result, fishermen get away with flouting the law, says [Julio Maaz, Wildlife Conservation Society's fisheries coordinator with Belize] – especially crews based in nearby Honduras and Guatemala.
But now a new weapon is being tested in the fight against pirate fishing: drones.
The possible pitfall? National Geographic reports that specially marketed anti-drone bullets may hint at conflict to come (though, ahem Nat Geo, I’m pretty sure that was just an April fool’s joke. In reality, any bullet would probably do the trick).
Drones that take down poachersbalti-sam
If you have a heart, you love baby rhinos. And yet rhinos — and other animals, like elephants and tigers – are still being poached. Because even thousands of miles of protected habitat will fall short of keeping them alive if that land isn’t regulated properly. Once again, drones can step in!
In the last few years … conservationists have begun to develop [drones] to survey wildlife, monitor deforestation and help park rangers locate poachers before apprehending them on foot. Scientists believe the tool could revolutionize the way conservation is done in many countries, slashing the costs of monitoring large, rugged areas and, ultimately, better protecting wildlife from threats.
“The pressure on natural resources in almost all conservation spaces on the planet is increasing,” says David Wilkie, director of conservation support for the Wildlife Conservation Society, which is testing drones in Madagascar, Cambodia and Palau, among other places. “How do you move beyond enforcing the law and catching guys with ivory to preventing them from shooting the elephants in the first place? Can we use drones to do that? That gets people’s ears pricked up and they begin to think, oh my gosh, this could really be a game changer.”
Well, when you call it a game changer, it sure sounds sexy. But The Guardian warns that the new method could backfire, because the rural communities around the parks so strongly associate them with “sinister technologies or surveillance” or “associated with warfare and civilian causalities.”
“The conservation community needs to consider this carefully because any mistakes could alienate local people and undermine the long-term relationships on which conservation success depends,” The Guardian says.
Drones that fight China’s rampant pollutionShutterstock / Hung Chung ChihThe Chinese are fed up with pollution.
Earlier this year, China’s Premier Li Keqiang announced that China is engaging in combat of a different sort: a “war on pollution.” And the country’s Ministry of Environmental Protection is getting drones involved in the battle.
From Bloomberg Businessweek:
The unmanned aerial vehicles, which are equipped with infrared cameras, can detect whether factories illegally release emissions at times when inspectors aren’t present, according to the ministry. So far its four drones have flown watchdog missions over Beijing, Hebei, Shanxi, and Inner Mongolia – all heavily polluted regions in coal-reliant northern China.
As Bloomberg reports, earlier this month the ministry announced that of the 254 factories and businesses the drones observed, 64 were flagged for further investigation.
Are drones here for good?
At the very least, these three examples go to show that environmental agencies are getting more creative with their bots. But whether these environmental drones are here to stay may still come down to this big question: when, where, and how much do we think it’s OK to be watched?
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.