Eco Buzz

A growing appetite for local food sends us back to our root cellars

Gristmill - Tue, 2014-07-15 11:10

Tucked in a grassy ridge cutting across the Small Family CSA Farm in La Farge, Wis., is a refrigerator so efficient it requires not a single watt of electricity, yet it can keep some crops chilly for months. It’s not some high-tech, Swedish-designed, solar-powered cooling unit. Just a good old-fashioned root cellar, kept cool through the summer months, and above freezing in the winter, by the soil surrounding it.

Shunning hulking and energy wasting refrigerated cold storage, Jillian and Adam Varney four years ago chose to build this two-room cellar for $10,000. Over time, like solar panels, it will pay for itself in savings – and in revenue for their small, organic farm. The hand-built produce closet, which includes a room kept extra cool with a small air-conditioner, allows them to extend their 220-member community-supported agriculture operation (CSA) into the winter months.

Root cellars are basically any storage area that operates on the earth’s natural cooling, humidifying, and insulating properties. To work properly, a root cellar must stay between 32 and 40 degrees Fahrenheit and at 85 to 95 percent humidity. The cool temps slow the release of ethylene gas, halting decomposition. High humidity levels prevent evaporation loss, stopping your veggies from shriveling and withering.

Outmoded with the birth of the refrigerator and the 1950s kitchen, root cellars all but went underground, resurfacing briefly in the ’60s and with survivalists. Now, this tiny house movement for foodstuffs is experiencing a slow but certain renaissance as the local food movement gains momentum.

c/o Jillian and Adam VarneyJillian and Adam Varney run the Small Family CSA Farm in La Farge, Wis.

Jillian Varney explains why people are diggin’ them again:

“Come November, both rooms are packed full with beets, daikon radish, napa cabbage, parsnips, celeriac root, potatoes, onions, shallots and bins of apples,” she says. “We had 3,000 pounds of carrots that we were able to sell into this March. We can over-winter shallots, putting them in the first CSA boxes of the season. And we can keep our potato seed in the cellar, ready for planting the next year.”

The Varneys’ bible is Root Cellaring: Natural Cold Storage of Fruits & Vegetables. Meanwhile, articles on how to build a root cellar have flooded the internet.

These things aren’t just for farmers. Institutions of higher ed have added root cellars to house the bounty from campus and neighboring farms, often using stored food for student meals. And some colleges share the space with locals. The University of Montana in Missoula, Rachel Carson’s alma mater, Chatham University in Pittsburgh, Poultney, Vermont’s Green Mountain College, and others all incorporate community root cellars into their sustainability programs.

EcoVillage Ithaca residents, in cooperation with students from Ithaca College, built an earthbag and rammed earth tire cellar for $6,000 in 2006. The community uses it to store 2,000 pounds of veggies for use during the winter months via a village CSA.

Community root cellars are handy because not everyone has the yard space to put one in. They also help draw people together, as they cooperate to grow and preserve local foods.

Old cellars are back in use in Elliston, Newfoundland, a.k.a. the Root Cellar Capital of the World.

They’re really taking off north of the border. In Halifax, Nova Scotia, the Ecology Action Center offered funding for three community root cellar programs to local nonprofits, building one in the basement of its own building. Meanwhile, in the fishing village of Elliston, Newfoundland, known as the Root Cellar Capital of the World as it’s home to more than 130 veggie caves, a new generation is taking up farming and making use of cellars built into hillsides by early settlers.

Even community gardens and urban farms – some fueled by immigrant populations that have long utilized alternative food storage — are creating cellars. Some are simply buried galvanized trash cans or barrels, sunken deep freezers, or shipping containers. In Detroit, growers are utilizing basements in abandoned buildings.

But it’s farms providing food to local consumers where root cellars are making perhaps their biggest economic impact. Because of the cellar, seasons can be extended, revived, or momentarily recalled, as a farmer retrieves extended back stock not only for families but for chefs and anyone else fueling a locavore movement. The farmer’s root cellar becomes a bit of a prized secret garden, harboring squash, herbs, purple potatoes, or heirloom apples.

At the Hazzard Free Farm in Pecatonica, Ill., farmer Andy Hazzard says last year, she converted an old 10-foot-deep cistern with a concrete cap into a root cellar where she stored 800 pounds of organic carrots over last winter. Covered with 15 bales of straw and fitted with a light for some warmth, the cellar allowed Hazzard, 39, to supply customers with fresh carrots throughout the winter.

What led her to create a root cellar? “During the winter In the Midwest, money dries up unless you have a CSA operation or a good line of credit,” Hazzard says. “So to keep it rolling, farmers are creating storage crops such as squash, beets, and turnips. We had lots of carrots and many accounts that wanted them past season. We could have rented a refrigerated semi-trailer for $5,000 or use what was available and worked just as well.”

Her first year cellar crop brought in $2,000. “But when done properly and grow to fill their space, it could mean tens of thousands for many farmers,” Hazzard adds.

Clare Hintz, 39, of Elsewhere Farm near Wisconsin’s Lake Superior, converted part of her basement into a root cellar where she also stores a personal stock of pickled eggs and homemade hard cider. And Mary Ann Bellazzini of Campo di Bella in Horeb, Wis., is building a root cellar beneath an existing wine cellar.

Root cellaring has long been a staple at the Sliwa Meadow Farm in Decorah, Iowa. In the 1980s, Perry-O and David Sliwa bought a patch of land, pursuing their desire to live off-grid, designing and building their simple home to include an underground root cellar. It houses not only vegetables but also Perry-O’s flower bulbs, garlic braids, and canning jars. This patch of Decorah has become an off-the-grid hub where others look to the Sliwa’s for guidance.

“We have a mission statement of sorts,” Perry-O says. “As a small village we spend time learning together sharing the gentle passing of time. And in that gentle passing, we look to show the next generation a model for intentional living and homemade happiness.”

In testament to how well the good earth can not only grow food but harbor it, Philip Ackerman-Leist, an environmental studies professor at Green Mountain College, recalls when a very old, local root cellar was found. “They were still pulling vegetables from years and years ago out of the root cellar, and they were perfectly good,” Ackerman says. “So it’s not just a pie-in-the-sky idea. It’s exciting to see their return.”

Filed under: Article, Food
Categories: Eco Buzz

What kind of environmentalist are you? This time, you decide

Gristmill - Tue, 2014-07-15 11:08

A couple weeks ago, I put together a highly scientific questionnaire in order to dig into the depths of our readers’ environmental motivations and psyches.

Ha, no I didn’t. But I did ask a few silly questions and then mercilessly stereotype you all!

Putting the “What kind of environmentalist are you” quiz together felt like a fun experiment in the ways of the internet, because quizzes are internet crack — and not just for BuzzFeed. The New York Times’ most popular article of last year was a quiz (by a long shot). But I recognize that, to many people, I kind of missed the mark.

Part of the fun of taking a quiz is recognizing yourself in the results and poking fun at that. The way I saw it, half of the joke was mocking the fact that I even made a quiz — and so most of the answers I provided weren’t actually serious (raise your hand if you actually get around in self-driving cars or communicate with Occupy hand signals). So, probably no one fully recognized themselves in his or her result. But a lot of what I felt I was making fun of were the glimmers of myself I saw in each of the included parodies, and I hoped others could do the same.

More problematically, a lot people got left out of the joke because all of the parodies featured in the quiz are stereotypically white. As Grist’s environmental justice writer Brentin Mock pointed out to me, the quiz turned out to be a microcosm of the type of exclusion we hope to combat in the real world, and it left out so many of the very people Grist covers and hopes to reach. As unfortunately often happens in the environmental world, we failed to recognize people of color.

We received more than 19,000 responses to our goofy questions (turns out, most people do go for the answers that are at least somewhat realistic). For the record, I returned a medium-chill result. But then again, I know how to game the system. Here’s how a few of the answers broke down:

I do believe that environmentalists increasingly come in all sorts of ages, genders, and colors (even if not all of them identify as one). But if we do want more people to start cultivating their own environmental identity, pigeonholing what an environmentalist is — or isn’t — is not the way to get us there.

Yes, that sense of validation when you come out of a quiz with an answer you’re pleased with feels pretty nice. But it can also feel alienating to come out with an answer that just doesn’t resonate (like yuppie. Turns out, no one wants to get called one of those). So what kind of environmentalist are you? This time, I’ll let you decide for yourself.

Filed under: Article, Living
Categories: Eco Buzz

Can we have our sustainable seafood and eat it too?

Gristmill - Tue, 2014-07-15 10:58

You know the feeling: You’re standing in front of the seafood counter, running down the list of evils you might be supporting when you buy one of those gleaming filets. There’s overfishing, but also pollution from fish farming, not to mention bycatch, marine habitat destruction, illegal fishing … and that’s before getting to the problem of seafood fraud, and the fact that 1 in 3 seafood samples in a massive study by Oceana was served under pseudonym.

Programs like Monterey Bay’s Seafood Watch and the Safina Center’s Seafood Guide are helpful when it comes to sorting seafood’s angels from its demons, but only if you can be sure the red snapper you’re looking at is actually red snapper (hint: It probably isn’t).

Meanwhile, third-party certification outfits — the ones that slap their seal of approval on seafood that’s harvested responsibly — are not without their flaws. In fact, the current demand for certified “sustainable” seafood is so high that it’s driving, you guessed it, overfishing. Someone get Poseidon in here because that, my friends, is what the Greeks called a “tragic flaw.”

Still, these third-party groups may offer the best hope for ocean-loving fish eaters like myself, so it’s worth paying attention to how they operate. And while these certification programs are very much a work in progress, they’re getting better.


The largest of the third-party labeling groups is the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC). Born of a partnership between the World Wildlife Fund and Unilever, the MSC was designed to bring market-based solutions to the kinds of environmental problems capitalism usually takes the blame for. It motivates fishermen, grocery chains, and restaurants to care about sustainability — because they can charge more for their product if it has MSC’s approval stamped on it.

MSC’s certification standards are based on the health of the fish population in question, the wider environmental impacts of fishing for it (such as habitat destruction and bycatch), and the quality of the fishery’s management. If fishermen want their fishery to be certified, they must pay hefty fees to independent assessors, who gather testimony from scientists and stakeholders, then submit a draft report which is peer-reviewed by other scientists, followed by public comments, more revisions (I assume you’ve tuned out by now), and so on — all adding up to an intimidating tangle of checks and balances. (If you like to geek out on this stuff, you can read all the reports of all the committees at every step of the process yourself.)

Once a fishery is certified, it receives yearly audits for five years, at which point the certification lapses and the whole process starts over again. Somehow, hoops and all, the MSC has managed to certify over 220 fisheries since 1996. According to MSC, its certified fisheries, along with about a hundred currently under review, make up over 10 percent of the global seafood catch, worth around $3 billion. Meanwhile, many companies are getting generous returns on their investment in sustainability: The wholesale value of MSC-labeled products rose 21 percent in 2013 alone.

But as MSC has grown, it has broken bread with larger and larger partners, whose appetites may outstrip the ability of certified fisheries to sate them. Critics claim MSC has slackened some if its rules to keep up with the demand from retail chains such as Walmart. Al Jazeera reported on the company’s struggle to keep buying Alaskan salmon after the fishery’s MSC approval lapsed:

Jennifer Jacquet, an environmental studies professor at New York University … said Walmart’s allegiance to MSC put a lot of pressure on the nonprofit to certify more fish.

“You have two options,” Jacquet said of MSC’s situation. “You can make seafood sustainable or you can redefine the word ‘sustainable’ to match existing resources.”

Likewise, when McDonald’s pledged to sell only MSC-labeled Alaskan pollock in the U.S., it strained the ability of the fishery — with only a mediocre sustainability score from Seafood Watch — to keep all 14,000 restaurants in Filet-o-Fish sandwiches.

Furthermore, NPR’s excellent in-depth series on MSC’s sustainability (or not) focused on a few fisheries the group had certified despite less-than-cheery evidence on the ground, er, sea. These included a swordfishery in Canada, where sharks are snagged more often than actual swordfish, over- and illegally fished Chilean sea bass, and volatile sockeye salmon populations in Alaska:

“Originally I thought [MSC] was a good idea,” says Jim Barnes, director of the Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition, a network of dozens of environmental groups around the world. … [But] the controversy over Canadian swordfish illustrates why the booming demand for sustainable seafood actually threatens to hurt the movement more than help it. “The bottom line is that there are not enough truly sustainable fisheries on the earth to sustain the demand.”

One result of that skyrocketing demand is that new, less stringent certification programs are popping up. After allowing its MSC’s certification to lapse, a powerful salmon fishery in Alaska persuaded Walmart to make room for a new certification, Responsible Fisheries Management, which puts less emphasis on sustainability and comes with no logo-licensing fees. Walmart still carries some MSC certified goods, but the company reneged on its all-MSC-all-the-time pledge.

You can imagine how this could quickly become a race to the bottom: If Alaskan pollock stocks continue to decline, the fishery may no longer meet MSC’s standards of sustainability. And if that happens? MSC could drop the pollock fishery and risk losing the McDonald’s account, too. Or it could lower the bar, in hopes of improving fishery practices down the road.

MSC has insisted that it never loosened its standards, and that those standards and the oversight that comes with them are high enough to guarantee sustainability — although it does offer a provisional certification for fisheries that are working toward sustainability, but aren’t quite there yet.

When I talked to MSC’s CEO, Rupert Howes, a few months ago, he told me that MSC has taken the global seafood scene a long way: “When MSC started, it really was innovative. There wasn’t really a sustainable seafood movement,” he said. “When you get leadership within the industry and within the market saying, we want sustainable seafood, we care where it comes from, we want to be part of the solution — it really is a huge, powerful force.

“I hasten to say: MSC is part of the solution,” Howes added. “Overfishing is a huge challenge — you need public policy reform, you need the work of advocacy groups to raise awareness of the issues, and then you need a program like the MSC that’s actually going to empower consumers, you and I, to use our purchasing decisions to make the best environmental choice.”

And like a good overseer, MSC is turning its eye on itself this year, in a thoroughly documented (naturally) self-review of its “chain of custody” program, which assures that MSC’s fish can be traced through the supply chain, from the water all the way to the seafood counter at the grocery store.


It’s worth pointing out that none of this controversy is unique to seafood. Other food labels, from USDA’s widely appliedorganic” to “fair-trade” to the virtually useless “all-natural” have at some point come under fire for being less idealistic in practice than they are in theory. The same is true of green building standards. Things get messy as any system gets bigger.

Of course, with billions of people eating from the sea, any movement toward oversight and accountability is almost certainly better than nothing. At the very least, by making sustainability visible, and desirable, to consumers, MSC has raised the stakes for the supply chains that serve them.

But what to do if the MSC’s logo isn’t enough for you? Here are a few tips for getting sustainable seafood, certifications be damned: 1) Eat as local as possible and many other concerns become moot; 2) eat low on the food chain, as in, more oysters and, seriously, no more Bluefin tuna; and 3) stick to restaurants or markets whose mission you trust instead of trying to decode the signage at your city’s everything emporium.

Did I miss anything? Uh, yeah, definitely. This whole labeling thing is a sticky issue, but it only works if producers know what the people want. So, by all means, weigh in.

Filed under: Article, Business & Technology, Food
Categories: Eco Buzz

Liz Cheney scorns climate action just as much as her dad

Gristmill - Tue, 2014-07-15 06:11

Darth Vader and his Sith apprentice — a.k.a. Dick Cheney and his daughter Liz — are totally in synch about climate change. Here’s how they responded to a question on the topic during a conversation with Politico’s Mike Allen on Monday:

Mike Allen: Here’s a question from Felix Dodds. What should the Republican Party do about climate change?

Dick Cheney: Liz?

Liz Cheney: Nothing. [Scornful guffaw.] I mean … [Shrug.] Look, I think that what’s happening now with respect to this president and this EPA and using something like climate change as an excuse to kill the coal industry nationwide — and that’s exactly what they’re doing. They’ve been open about it. They even admit that the emissions from coal aren’t actually causing any kind of a heating of the planet. But this is an opportunity to go in, and they’re killing coal. You know, Wyoming is the leading coal-producing state in the nation. But you don’t have to be from Wyoming to understand that your electricity is gonna be directly affected by that. It is bad policy. It’s bad science. We’re seeing increasingly that it’s bad science.

And a much greater threat to us, frankly, is this massive expansion and growth of the bureaucratic state here in Washington — the EPA, the use of things like the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act to go directly at people’s private property rights in a way that clearly, frankly, is unconstitutional and is a real threat to our freedom.

That Liz is following in her father’s jackbooted footsteps should come as no surprise. She demonstrated her denier cred during a failed bid for the U.S. Senate last year. She told Fox News’ Sean Hannity that “the science is just simply bogus, you know, we know that temperatures have been stable for the last 15 years.” She tweeted that Obama’s climate policy is “using phony science to kill real jobs. This is a war on coal, a war on jobs, a war on American families.” And she tweeted a photo of a snowy scene as though it were a clever rejoinder to the whole body of climate science:

Good morning from Wilson, Wyoming. Global warming? Not so much.

— Liz Cheney (@Liz_Cheney) May 1, 2013

Filed under: Article, Climate & Energy, Politics
Categories: Eco Buzz

U.K. Grocer Becomes the First Retailer to Issue a Sustainable Seafood Report

Triple Pundit - Tue, 2014-07-15 04:17

The British supermarket chain Asda is the first retailer to publish a sustainable seafood report. The report, titled Wild Fisheries Annual Review, lists all of the fisheries used by the supermarket chain between Jan. 1 and Dec. 1, 2013.

The post U.K. Grocer Becomes the First Retailer to Issue a Sustainable Seafood Report appeared first on Triple Pundit: People, Planet, Profit.

Categories: Eco Buzz

Eileen Fisher Leverages Employee Values to Chart Path Toward Long-Term Sustainability

Triple Pundit - Tue, 2014-07-15 04:16

Eileen Fisher has expertly curated a culture that actively allows employees to be leaders of change internally and in society at large.

The post Eileen Fisher Leverages Employee Values to Chart Path Toward Long-Term Sustainability appeared first on Triple Pundit: People, Planet, Profit.

Categories: Eco Buzz

Eileen Fisher Leverages Employee Values to Chart Path Toward Long-Term Sustainability

Triple Pundit - Tue, 2014-07-15 04:16

Eileen Fisher has expertly curated a culture that actively allows employees to be leaders of change internally and in society at large.

The post Eileen Fisher Leverages Employee Values to Chart Path Toward Long-Term Sustainability appeared first on Triple Pundit: People, Planet, Profit.

Categories: Eco Buzz

Alternative Building Method: Aerated Concrete

Triple Pundit - Tue, 2014-07-15 03:23

Autoclaved aerated concrete has some environmental benefits compared to typical cement, reducing energy use during manufacture and providing some durable features.

The post Alternative Building Method: Aerated Concrete appeared first on Triple Pundit: People, Planet, Profit.

Categories: Eco Buzz

Guess which two words can make your nonpartisan education reforms a hot potato?

Gristmill - Tue, 2014-07-15 01:14

Depending on who you’re talking to, the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS)– the first major national recommendations for teaching science to be made since 1996 — either painfully water down the presentation of climate-change information or attempt to brainwash our nation’s youth into believing climate change is real.

The backlash to the NGSS began last year, but now, we also have the backlash to the backlash — an effort by the Union of Concerned Scientists, and others, to frame science education as a civil rights issue and mobilize a grassroots movement around the idea of a Climate Students Bill of Rights. The idea is to ensure that the new standards actually wind up getting taught.

If you’re the kind of person who likes geeking out over curricula, you’ll find the NGSS’s website fascinating. How do we teach climate change? It’s such an awkward thing to explain to children, who have not caused the problem and have yet to have a chance to help make it better. Or worse, for that matter.

The standards spell it out, grade by grade. Kindergartners  will learn that “Things that people do to live comfortably can affect the world around them. But they can make choices that reduce their impacts on the land, water, air, and other living things.” High schoolers will learn that “All forms of energy production and other resource extraction have associated economic, social, environmental, and geopolitical costs and risks as well as benefits. New technologies and social regulations can change the balance of these factors. “

It’s up to the states to adopt new educational standards like this. When the feds want to get new educational standards approved, they can pressure states into signing by attaching federal funds to the deal. Because the NGSS standards were developed by a smorgasbord of scientific organizations and the states themselves — or 26 of them, anyway — that financial incentive doesn’t exist. Instead, there’s the motivation that comes from so many states having participated in the process, as well as fears of America’s waning scientific standing.

Attempts to block the NGSS have taken several forms. In Wyoming, state legislators added a last-minute footnote to its state budget that banned the use of any public funds to adopt the new science standards, which effectively removed them from the public school system. In Oklahoma, a group of lawmakers tried to repeal its NGSS-based science standards, but were blocked by the state’s education department, which managed to get the governor to sign off on them.  The NGSS have been adopted by 11 states so far, including California, Delaware, Illinois, Kansas, Kentucky, Maryland, Rhode Island, Vermont, Oregon, Nevada, and Washington, plus the District of Columbia, though Kansas promptly got sued over it.

I grew up in Michigan, in a suburban community outside of Detroit that was a melting pot of religions, all of which seemed to have objections to scientific education. In general, teachers steered clear of anything more controversial than photosynthesis. Outside of school, I took every chance I could get to (a) read about dinosaurs/space shuttles/stalactites and (b) wish I was a dinosaur/space shuttle/stalactite.

For all that I loved science, it took me years to learn the really important stuff: how to wade through what people want to believe — and what you want to believe — to figure out what can be empirically proven. Here’s hoping that these new standards will help students get to the same place.

Filed under: Article, Climate & Energy, Politics
Categories: Eco Buzz

U.S. tariffs on Chinese solar panels break trade rules, WTO says

Gristmill - Tue, 2014-07-15 00:11

When it comes to global trade in solar panels and components, the U.S. trade representative wants to have his suncake and eat it too. Even as the trade rep has been hauling India before the World Trade Organization, complaining that the country’s requirements for domestically produced solar panels violate global trade rules, the U.S. has been imposing new duties on panels imported from China and Taiwan. By some estimates, the U.S. duties could increase solar module costs in the country by 14 percent.

On Monday, WTO judges who were mulling China’s complaint against the U.S. over its duties on solar panels and steel ruled in favor of — you guessed it — more world trade. Reuters reports:

In the $7.2 billion Chinese case, the panel found that Washington had overstepped the mark in justifying the so-called countervailing duties it imposed as a response to alleged subsidies to exporting firms by China’s government. …

And it told the United States it should adapt its measures to bring them into line with the WTO’s agreement on subsidies and countervailing measures.

The Coalition for Affordable Energy, a trade group, cheered the ruling. It primarily represents solar panel installers, not solar panel manufacturers, so it supports lower-cost panels — regardless of where they are made. “Today’s WTO announcement and the broader trade dispute should prompt the Obama Administration to reconsider the wisdom of additional solar tariffs,” CASE President Jigar Shah said in a press statement.

Trade Representative Michael Froman’s office said it “will evaluate all options to ensure that U.S. remedies against unfair subsidies remain strong and effective.” In other words, it is likely to appeal the ruling — something that could help keep the tariffs in place for at least another six to 12 months.

Monday’s ruling was unrelated to the U.S. complaint against domestic manufacturing rules imposed under India’s burgeoning solar panel program – a program that appears set to grow even more under the country’s new leader. Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently announced that taxes on coal would be increased to help fund a clean-energy revolution. But the ruling does not bode well for Indian factories that hope to continue manufacturing the panels that are being used in that revolution.

Filed under: Business & Technology, Climate & Energy, Politics
Categories: Eco Buzz

America’s largest reservoir is hitting new record lows every day

Gristmill - Mon, 2014-07-14 22:21

The drought that’s afflicting much of the American West has hoovered out a record-breaking amount of water from the reservoir that’s held in place by the Hoover Dam.

Water levels in Lake Mead, the nation’s largest reservoir, have fallen to a point not seen since the reservoir was created during the 1930s to store water from the Colorado River. The Las Vegas Review-Journal reports that the surface of the reservoir dipped below 1,082 feet above sea level last week:

The past 15 years have been especially hard on the nation’s largest man-made reservoir. Lake Mead has seen its surface drop by more than 130 feet amid stubborn drought in the mountains that feed the Colorado River. The unusually dry conditions have exacerbated a fundamental math problem for the river, which now sustains 30 million people and several billion dollars worth of farm production across the West but has been over-appropriated since before Hoover Dam was built.

Andy Ameigeiras and two of his friends spent Wednesday night and Thursday morning hooking carp, catfish and stripers from the rocky shore of Echo Bay. He said the water had “easily” dropped three to five feet since the last time they fished there, just four weeks ago.

“I walked out there and I wasn’t sure I was in the right spot,” the Las Vegas man said. “It’s definitely startling to see how far it’s dropping.”

The latest low water mark comes less than four years after the previous record of 1,081.85 was set on Nov. 27, 2010.

Experts expect the water level to continue to fall during the coming weeks. Because the ways we’re using water in the American West during a widespread drought are simply unsustainable.

Filed under: Article
Categories: Eco Buzz

Another court victory for EPA — this time on mountaintop-removal rules

Gristmill - Mon, 2014-07-14 22:06

Blowing up mountains so that their coal-filled bellies can be stripped of their climate-changing innards doesn’t just ruin Southern Appalachian forests. It also poisons the region’s streams, as fragments of rock and soil previously known as mountaintops get dumped into valleys. A government-led study published two weeks ago concluded that this pollution is poisoning waterways, leading to “fewer species, lower abundances, and less biomass.”

Concern about just this kind of water pollution is why the EPA stepped in five years ago using its Clean Water Act mandate to boost environmental oversight of mountaintop-removal mining, creating a joint review process with the Army Corps of Engineers to help that agency assess mining proposals under the Mining Control and Reclamation Act.

The EPA can’t really do anything these days without the attorneys of polluters and the states that they pollute crying foul in court about “agency overreach.” So it was with the EPA’s 2009 “Enhanced Coordination Process.” The National Mining Association, West Virginia, and Kentucky filed suit, and a federal court sided with them. But on Friday, the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia reversed that decision, issuing a 3-0 ruling in favor of the EPA. The Charleston Gazette reports:

In a significant victory for the Obama administration’s coal policies, a federal appeals court on Friday upheld U.S. Environmental Protection Agency initiatives aimed at reducing water pollution from mountaintop removal mining operations. …

“The EPA did its job when it directed its staff to finally follow the law and science, and start protecting Appalachian waters and communities from mountaintop removal mining, which is associated with higher cancer, birth defects and early death for people living nearby,” said Emma Cheuse, an attorney with Earthjustice, which represented citizen groups who sided with the EPA in the case. “The coal industry continually fights for free rein to blow up mountains and dump waste all over Appalachia, and we’re glad to see clean water and healthy communities triumph today.” …

Coalfield elected officials responded with statements harshly criticizing the EPA and the court ruling, and promising legislation that would try to block the EPA from more closely scrutinizing mining operations.

The trade association and states also claimed in their lawsuit that the EPA erred in 2011 when it issued recommendations regarding the need for greater oversight by state and federal staff of mining permits that could affect salinity levels in rivers. The appeals court slapped them down on this point as well.

Filed under: Business & Technology, Climate & Energy, Politics
Categories: Eco Buzz

Is it hot in here? Yes, and it’s killing us

Gristmill - Mon, 2014-07-14 20:31

Stop me if you know this feeling: It’s 95 degrees in the shade, with 95 percent humidity. Walking three blocks requires Herculean effort and occasional detours into air-conditioned bodegas. The idea of standing in close proximity to other humans on the subway inspires a sensation of nausea. You think: “If I have to live another hour like this, I might actually die.”

Here’s some uplifting news: Turns out that today, you actually are more likely to die from a heat wave than at any point in the last 40 years! Happy Monday!

A new report from the World Meteorological Organization found that the number deaths caused by extreme temperature – primarily heat waves – increased enormously in the first decade of the 21s century. In 2003, a heat wave killed 72,000 people in Europe and in 2010, 55,000 in Russia. Storms – such as Katrina and Sandy – were responsible for the most weather-related deaths in that time period, but heat waves came in at a close second.

So as our friend Cornell Iral Haynes, Jr. would say, it’s hot in here — and getting hotter. What can we do to deal with it (other than taking off all our clothes, which isn’t always the most realistic option)?

As Brad Plumer suggests on Vox:

Scientists have observed that the urban heat island effect tends to exacerbate heat waves. Because of all the buildings and cars and black pavement, cities tend to be even hotter than their surroundings. But there are ways to mitigate that. One study found, for instance, that introducing more green spaces into a city could reduce the need for medical assistance during scorching heat waves by 50 percent.

Alright: so, greener cities = fewer blue humans. We can think of a few American cities that might want to take that advice to heart.

Filed under: Cities, Climate & Energy, Living
Categories: Eco Buzz

Oklahoma hit by eight earthquakes in two days. Is the fracking industry to blame?

Gristmill - Mon, 2014-07-14 20:01

The eight earthquakes that occurred in Oklahoma over the past couple of days may be yet another side effect the U.S.’s insidious fracking boom.

The quakes hit between Saturday morning and early Monday morning, most of them small enough that people didn’t realize the ground was shaking beneath them (they ranged from 2.6 to 4.3 on the Richter scale). But they’re part of a broader trend of increased seismic activity in the heartland over the last few years, a trend that correlates with the growth of fracking. As the L.A. Times reports, Oklahoma experienced 109 tremblors measuring 3.0 or greater in 2013, more than 5,000 percent above normal.

Fracking itself isn’t thought to blame, but the disposal of fracking wastewater might be. Scientists have found that pumping the wastewater from fracking operations into wells likely triggers earthquakes because it messes with ground pressure, especially as those wells become more full. Like the wastewater well in Youngstown, Ohio, that triggered 167 earthquakes during a single year of operation. The biggest one, a sizable 5.7, happened the day after the Ohio Department of Natural Resources finally stepped in to shut the well down.

Jonathan Hallmark, police chief in Langston, Okla., which was hit by the biggest of this recent batch of quakes, told the L.A. Times that they never use to experience tremblors like these. Unless Oklahoma decides to crack down on fracking, the state’s residents might have to get used to them.

Filed under: Climate & Energy
Categories: Eco Buzz

This Texas solar farm uses sheep for its landscaping needs

Gristmill - Mon, 2014-07-14 17:54

Using livestock in the solar power industry is a time-honored practice dating back to at least last Monday. But as handy as it is to have a donkey saddled with solar panels, when the energy requirements grow beyond charging tour laptop, larger and larger solar-animals are required. Eventually, strapping panels to grazing mammals becomes impractical.

That doesn’t mean that big solar plants don’t have a place for some four-hooved hench-creatures, however.

Enter the sheep. (Enter the Sheep, by the way, was to be the title of Bruce Lee’s next film). A small solar farm owned by CPS Energy, the municipal power company in San Antonio, Texas, has enlisted the help of the wooly workers to keep its grounds safe and tidy.

Jim Malewitz has more in the New York Times:

At the San Antonio plant, which is home to thousands of solar panels, OCI Solar describes its grazing as an experiment that has worked well. The meandering sheep appear to have done their job; patches of grass reach no higher than a foot despite recent heavy rains. The sheep have not chewed on cables or jumped on panels, which goats — their equally hungry cousins — are more apt to do. The lone mishap thus far, Ms. Krueger said, came when one wily sheep sneaked through a gap in a locked gate. OCI Solar teamed with a local police officer and a resident to corral the animal within 30 minutes.

The sheep receive fresh water on site and can take refuge from the Texas sun beneath the solar panels, which extend several feet off the

OCI Solar recently unleashed additions to its grazing operation: two herding dogs, both Great Pyrenees mixes, intended to ward off coyotes. On a recent afternoon that topped 90 degrees, one of the high-energy pups spent half an hour bounding alongside a reporter and his hosts, showing more interest in getting belly rubs and finding shade beneath the solar panels than protecting sheep.

The practice makes a lot of sense. First off, solar energy plants are called farms and what’s a farm without a “baa-baa here” and a “baa-baa there”? Then there’s the fact that the sheep/solar farm provides pasture for local farmers, and the sheep keep the grass around the panels low to provide technicians safe and easy access. Solar farms create tricky terrain for mechanized mowing. Besides, it gives the sheep something else to do besides hanging out at the mall all day.

I personally think this sheep thing is brilliant. I’ve been using sheep to drive in the HOV lane for years, but now I can see I’ve been thinking too small. There’s a million uses for sheep around Grist World Headquarters, so I’ve just bought a dozen and am sending them to the home office. To my editors: You’re welcome.

Filed under: Business & Technology, Climate & Energy
Categories: Eco Buzz

Is Uber Exploitative? And What Does It Say About the Sharing Economy?

Triple Pundit - Mon, 2014-07-14 17:33

Some questions the legitimacy or fairness of Uber’s business tactics, especially given the fact that it operates in many places within a "grey area" of the law. Yet, behind these arguments lie even more fundamental questions: Is Uber still considered part of the sharing economy? Is it exploitative? And if you answer ‘yes’ to both questions, what does it say about the sharing economy?

The post Is Uber Exploitative? And What Does It Say About the Sharing Economy? appeared first on Triple Pundit: People, Planet, Profit.

Categories: Eco Buzz

Thanks to the fracking boom, we’re wasting more money than ever on fossil fuel subsidies

Gristmill - Mon, 2014-07-14 16:51

You probably know that the U.S. government subsidizes fossil fuel production. But here’s something you probably don’t know: Those subsidies have recently increased dramatically. According to a report released last week by Oil Change International, “Federal fossil fuel production and exploration subsidies in the United States have risen by 45 percent since President Obama took office in 2009, from $12.7 billion to a current total of $18.5 billion.” We are, as the report observes, “essentially rewarding companies for accelerating climate change.”

At first glance, this seems strange. Why would there be such a big increase under a Democratic president who has committed his administration to combatting climate change, and who has even repeatedly called for eliminating exactly these kinds of dirty energy subsidies?

The short answer: fracking. The fracking boom has led to a surge in oil and natural gas production in recent years: Oil production is up by 35 percent since 2009, and natural gas production is up by 18 percent. With more revenues, expenditures, and profits in the oil and gas industries, the value of the various tax deductions for the oil industry has soared. So, for example, the deduction for “intangible drilling costs” cost taxpayers $1.6 billion in 2009, and $3.5 billion in 2013.

Oil Change argues that the increase in the size of subsidies is Obama’s fault. The report is even titled “Cashing in on All of the Above: U.S. Fossil Fuel Production Subsidies under Obama.” And it’s true that Obama endorses the farce of “energy independence” and pushes an “all of the above” energy strategy, which includes making public lands and offshore areas available for fossil fuel extraction.

But it’s a bit unfair to blame Obama, as the recent growth of subsidies has been largely beyond his control. First, that’s because many tax breaks for fossil fuel companies have been on the books for decades and Obama doesn’t have the power to unilaterally do away with them. Second, and more notably, it’s because the fracking boom has primarily been driven by technological advances, not by policy decisions. In fact, the amount of drilling happening on federal lands, where the president has some control over activities, is actually down over the past decade; most of the new drilling is happening on private land, according to a new report from the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Still, the federal government continues to lose lots of money by selling fossil fuel extraction rights on public lands for less than they are worth, as the Government Accountability Office has reported. Here again, more extraction means more lost government revenue. This is true for coal as well as oil and gas. In Wyoming and Montana’s Powder River Basin, where coal mining is booming, Oil Change notes that below-market lease rates are costing the Treasury $1 billion per year.

One of the biggest ways we continue to subsidize fossil fuels is by making society bear the brunt of the local pollution and climate change caused by fossil fuel extraction, transport, and burning. Calculating that cost is obviously difficult, although the Oil Change report estimates that it’s between $350 million and $501 billion annually. Some would also argue — as Oil Change does — that tens, or even hundreds, of billions of dollars in U.S. military spending in the Middle East each year is a fossil fuel subsidy, essentially spent to secure our oil supply.

David Turnbull, Oil Change’s campaigns director, says Obama’s pro-oil and -gas rhetoric has helped to encourage the recent boom, as well as decisions made by his Cabinet agencies. The Obama administration has expedited processes for leasing of public land and permitting of drilling and mining, he points out. Also, Turnbull says, “The administration stopping investigations of the impact of fracking on communities is allowing [fracking] to continue. It’s the administration saying, ‘We’re going to let fracking continue without diving into details.’”

Still, the biggest impediment to reform, by far, is the sway that dirty energy interests hold over Congress. As Oil Change points out, in the 2012 campaign cycle, fossil fuel companies spent $329 million on campaign contributions and lobbying.

Only a constitutional amendment enabling more aggressive campaign finance reform could begin to fix that problem. As it happens, the Senate Judiciary Committee passed exactly that on Thursday on a party-line 10-8 vote. But it would need two-thirds majorities to pass the full Senate and House of Representatives, even before it went to the states for ratification, and it won’t get support from anywhere near enough Republicans.

In the meantime, Obama can try to do more to properly regulate fossil fuels through his Cabinet agencies. The EPA, for example, should be regulating methane emissions from natural gas drilling. And he can reject proposals for the Keystone XL pipeline and the exportation of crude oil and natural gas. It would hardly be enough, but it would be a start.

Filed under: Article, Business & Technology, Climate & Energy, Politics
Categories: Eco Buzz

Eden Foods hit by backlash for fighting Obamacare’s contraception mandate

Gristmill - Mon, 2014-07-14 14:47

We told you recently that Eden Foods, a widely distributed organic brand, has sued the Obama administration over the requirement that companies cover contraception as part of employee health-care plans. As word has spread, outrage has spread.

More than 112,000 people have a signed a petition organized by progressive group CREDO Action:

Tell CEO of Eden Foods, Michael Potter:

“I won’t buy Eden products until you stop playing politics with women’s health and drop your attacks on birth control coverage under the Affordable Care Act.”

Some are tweeting out Eden-shaming selfies:

Activists are returning @EdenFoods products until the company drops its attacks on birth control: #p2 #waronwomen

— CREDO Mobile (@CREDOMobile) July 11, 2014


Citizens are also calling on their grocery stores and co-ops to stop stocking Eden’s products:

Every time I go to the store I'll be asking my grocer to stop carrying @edenfoods. You should too. Don't fund misogynists. #boycottedenfoods
Jill Filipovic (@JillFilipovic) July 05, 2014

Want to know if your favorite store carries @edenfoods? Store locator here:… #boycottEdenFoods #boycottWholeFoods
Jill Bauhs Jensen (@JillJensen) July 08, 2014

More than 14,000 have signed a petition at that asks Whole Foods to stop stocking Eden goods. The initial response from Whole Foods was not promising: “When reviewing products for our shelves, our primary consideration is whether the product’s ingredients meet our Quality Standards,” a company rep said. (Considering that Whole Foods founder and CEO John Mackey is also a libertarian who has whined about Obamacare, I wouldn’t expect any better.) Co-ops in San Francisco and Minneapolis have also refused to drop Eden, at least for now.

Eden’s CEO and sole shareholder, Michael Potter, is portraying himself as a victim of mean lefty activists, but he’s not backing down. From a statement posted on the company’s website on July 3:

We realized in making our objection that it would give rise to grotesque mischaracterizations and fallacious arguments. We did not fully anticipate the degree of maliciousness and corruption that would visit us. Nevertheless, we believe we did what we should have.

When a CNN opinion columnist asked the company what kind of “corruption” it was referring to, it didn’t respond.

Expect this controversy to stay hot while the Eden Foods lawsuit winds its way through the court system, and maybe long after.

“It’s very conceivable they could lose business,” Michael Layne, president of PR firm Marx Layne, told USA Today. “And they could lose employees, too.”

Filed under: Article, Food, Living, Politics
Categories: Eco Buzz

Coming to a Store Near You: Ch-Ch-Ch Chia Seeds!

Triple Pundit - Mon, 2014-07-14 13:58

Joseph Enterprises, presenter of Chia Pets, has entered the health food business. The company is marketing not just any chia seeds, but Ch-Ch-Ch-Chia Seeds!

The post Coming to a Store Near You: Ch-Ch-Ch Chia Seeds! appeared first on Triple Pundit: People, Planet, Profit.

Categories: Eco Buzz

Hackers hack monster burritos down to sensible size

Gristmill - Mon, 2014-07-14 12:07

“Burrito creep” is the sort of jargon you’re unlikely to hear unless you descend deep into a highly specialized world. In this case, that world is the food company Chipotle, and “burrito creep” is the term of art employees have come up with to describe a seemingly unstoppable phenomenon: No matter what they try, the burritos keep getting bigger. And the bigger they get, the larger the proportion that ends up in the trash.

Thanks to some creative thinking at the Food+Tech Connect Hack//Dining event in New York, there may be a solution to burrito creep — one that gives eaters an incentive to control portions and cut back on the most carbon-intensive ingredients (like meat).

The point of these hackathons is to bring clever people together and set them loose on bite-sized food and sustainability problems. “The problems in the food industry are complex, and they aren’t going to be solved in a weekend,” said Danielle Gould, founder of Food+Tech Connect. “The point is to get new ideas into circulation, new people working on this, and to do rapid prototyping — to actually make a real product in a weekend.”

Alice Yen went alone to the hackathon, where she bumped into a friend from school, Marc Loeffke. Loeffke had come with a colleague, Brian Callaway, and the three recruited a teacher and software developer, Kevin Taniguchi, to form their team.

Left to right: Kevin Taniguchi, Marc Loeffke, Mariana Cotlear (from Chipotle), Brian Callaway, Alice Yen.

Chipotle had asked, “How might we use technology to enable quick-service restaurants to better measure and manage their actions to operate in a more environmentally sustainable way?”

“The challenge itself was pretty broad and vague,” Yen said. “They were just looking for cool ideas.”

But as they talked with representatives from Chipotle, they zeroed in on the problem of burrito creep. Chipotle trains workers to scoop out a precise amount of each ingredient. But as customers come through the line, people nudge the servers for more: “Can I have a little extra guac?” No one ever asks for less. Over time, the servers begin to preemptively increase the portions. The burritos creep, they grow, they expand to sizes that menace children and small dogs.

In a quick survey of people leaving a Chipotle, the team found that nearly 60 percent of the customers hadn’t finished their food.

The solution is a little app that lets people adjust the amount of each ingredient for themselves. Chipotle already has a smartphone app for ordering, so the hackathon team built an addition that gives people rewards for slimming down their orders. Choose a smaller size, and you earn points that you can redeem for another burrito. The app also awards points for opting out of the more carbon-intensive ingredients — for example, you can reduce the meat portion by pinching down the meat section in a stylized cross-section of the meal.

Click to embiggen.

The hackathon team also provided an option that allows people to get an even bigger burrito — say you’re an athlete, and you need the calories — but it takes an extra click to do that, so it’s harder to gorge on an impulse.

Early on, the team wanted to put the entire process on the app: You order online and then just show up and grab your food. But the Chipotle reps nixed this idea – they didn’t want to lose the interaction between customers and employees. So instead, the team tried to find a way to improve the exchange between the customer and employee. You would still order online, but then you walk along the counter as the server makes the burrito.

Click to embiggen.

The team did a back-of-the-envelope calculation and estimated their app could save Chipotle over $100 million a year and save 115,000 tons of carbon — though Yen admits that the Chipotle representatives politely suggested that these calculations might be significantly off.

Maybe some permutation of this idea goes on to revolutionize the fast food industry, or maybe this is as far as it will ever get. Regardless, it’s cool to see such a good idea emerge in a single weekend.

Americans generally don’t feel like they are getting a great deal unless they are served enough food to turn themselves into human foie gras. The most powerful insight from this project, in my opinion, is that it’s possible — and even profitable — to tip the incentives back in the other direction, so that people feel they’re getting a better deal when they pick a smaller size.

Filed under: Article, Business & Technology, Food
Categories: Eco Buzz
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