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Eco Buzz

    Triple Pundit: Video: Michelle Obama on Work-Life Balance
    Apparently Michelle Obama brought baby Sasha with her to interview for a VP position at University of Chicago Hospitals. Truthfully, are the working parents among us really accomplishing as much as the workers out there without kids?
    Gristmill: Your hiking gear might come from a sweatshop. Here’s how you can fix that

    Most of the iconic locations for American outdoorspeople are … outdoors. You’ve got your Half Dome, you’ve got your Muir Woods, you’ve got your Mt. Washington, your Blue Ridge Parkway. But if there’s an indoor mecca, it’s probably REI’s flagship store in Seattle, with its glass-enclosed climbing spire looming over I-5, and its racks of everything from backpacks to snowshoes to collapsible trail-friendly dog bowls inducing a kind of glaze-eyed lust from those of us who are — love of the wilderness aside — still good old-fashioned American gearheads.

    It’s a casual, friendly, airy, open space filled with the best kind of dreams — and it’s kind of the opposite of the Rana Plaza garment factory in Bangladesh, which collapsed last year, killing more than 1,100 people. As the New York Times reported, “survivors described a sensation akin to being in an earthquake: hearing a loud and terrifying cracking sound; feeling the concrete factory floor roll beneath their feet; and watching concrete beams and pillars collapse as the eight-story building suddenly seemed to implode.” And of course this was not some one-off tragedy. A few months earlier, 112 workers died in a fire at Tazreen Fashions, and before that — well, it’s a long list, all marked by unsafe conditions, chained doors, and the lethal combination of greedy owners and desperately poor workers with no control over their lives.

    The link between dangerous Bangladeshi factories and the cathedral-like Seattle superstore is a little too close for comfort, though. Some of the brands that REI features — North Face, say — are made in those dark satanic mills. And North Face’s parent, the giant VF Brands, is refusing to sign on to the Bangladesh Fire and Building Safety Accord that local unions and human rights activists have demanded to cut the risk of such disasters. Instead, it’s endorsed a rival set of criteria — just as, say, the forestry industry has endorsed its own set of rules for “sustainable” logging, ignoring the ones that environmentalists promote. Bangladesh has enough problems, as sea-level rise forces vast internal migrations; it’s simply cruel to trap already trapped people in dangerous factories.

    The group United Students Against Sweatshops has mounted a campaign against VF, the parent company of North Face, which supplies logo gear to many colleges. Its been a spirited effort, but VF boasts that it is weathering the storm. Only a few universities — “we’re talking eight out of a thousand” — have severed ties with the company, VF insists. The intrepid students organizing this campaign say more than a dozen campuses have taken the step.

    But either way, that’s not enough pressure yet to bring these conglomerates in line with the need for change. So that’s why those of us who are out of college, and making the disposable income to buy nifty parkas and high-tech longjohns, need to remind our dream-merchants to stop trafficking in nightmares. REI sells a lot of that North Face gear — it needs to tell the parent company to sign on to the real safety regulations in countries like Bangladesh, and to do it quickly.

    It’s not the fault of your average REI shopper that their high-end gear gets made in dark satanic mills. But since we have the leverage to do something about it, it’s time for us to try. Here’s the very easy link to hit to send the management a message. Do it before you hit the trail.

    Filed under: Business & Technology, Living
    Gristmill: The latest French fashion: Eating ugly fruits and veggies
    ugly produce

    Few things are more unappealing than a lumpy, bruised potato covered in sprouts. But leave it to the French to make it look sexy.

    A campaign by the French supermarket chain Intermarché is on a mission to make shoppers see the inner beauty in scarred, disfigured, or otherwise odd-shaped fruits and vegetables. The message: Why throw away perfectly good produce just because it doesn’t meet arbitrary cosmetic criteria — especially when so many families can’t afford to eat the five daily portions of fruits and vegetables recommended by nutritionists?

    “Now, you can eat five ‘inglorious’ fruits and vegetables a day. As good, but 30 percent cheaper,” says an Intermarché promotional video, trumpeting the virtues of the “the grotesque apple, the ridiculous potato, the hideous orange, the failed lemon, the disfigured eggplant, the ugly carrot, and the unfortunate clementine.” Here’s an English version of the video:

    The French are eating it up like chocolat. After Intermarché launched the campaign in March, it sold out of its ugly fruits and vegetables within the first two days, and saw a 24 percent increase in traffic in participating stores. Now it’s looking to expand the program to its 1,474 supermarkets all over France.

    Unnecessary waste

    We sure could eat more ugly veggies over on this side of the pond. A report by the Natural Resources Defense Council found that Americans toss a whopping 52 percent of the country’s fruits and vegetables — more than any other food group. A significant part of that loss occurs before the produce ever leaves the field.

    Part of the problem is the structure of our industrialized food system. It’s made up of a few large buyers and many suppliers, leading to a situation where the largest purchasers have the power to dictate the terms of a sale. Marketing orders issued by trade associations specify the exact size, diameter, consistency, and color required for a certain product to be considered “grade A,” and if a fruit or vegetable doesn’t make the cut, its retail price drops dramatically.

    When prices are too low, it costs a farmer more to harvest his or her field than he or she would make by the sale of the produce. If a field turns up “sub-standard” produce — which sometimes just means carrots half an inch too small — the farmer may be forced not to harvest it, leaving entire crops of perfectly edible, nutritious food to go to waste.

    Standards are a necessary trade tool for retailers, for them to know what they’re getting when they buy in bulk quantities, explained Dana Gunders, a food waste expert at the NRDC. The problem, she says, is that today’s standards are ridiculously high.

    As California organic farmer David Mas Masumoto put it in The Sacramento Bee, “If we picked our friends the way we selectively picked and culled our produce, we’d be very lonely.”

    (Believe it or not, ripeness and taste aren’t part of marketing order standards — which explains why supermarket aisles are chock-full of great-looking, uniform peaches that taste like cardboard. Just sayin’.)

    All about marketing

    Gunders believes American consumers are far more open to odd-shaped produce than supermarket managers give them credit for. Sure, if given the choice between a great-looking tomato and a lumpy one, most might initially reach for the beauty queen. But enticed with a discount and presented with a light-hearted yet relevant social message, as Intermarché customers were, many will think twice.

    “There are and always will be bargain shoppers out there,” Gunders said. “It’s all about marketing, right? Marketing got us into this corner where we’re wasting nearly half of our food, so marketing could get us back out of it.” She added that she’s been sent the Intermarché video by at least 15 different people since the English version first surfaced online, a sign that there is significant public interest in this kind of initiative.

    ugly apple

    Colorado resident Anna Bundick King, 41, who posted the “Inglorious” video on her Facebook feed, agrees that initiatives like this would find a receptive audience in the U.S. “Being a teacher, I would love to see this idea introduced in schools,” she wrote in an email. “It would be a fun way to teach responsible use of our resources.”

    “If I were a U.S. retailer, I’d be jumping all over this,” said Gunders.

    American supermarkets may be ready to listen. Lindsay Robinson, a spokesperson for Whole Foods, said the chain’s management had “seen the campaign and they love it.”

    “We’re always looking for new ways to bring high quality, delicious produce to our customers,” she wrote in an email.

    Omar Jorge Peña, a partner and general counsel at the small, independent East Coast supermarket chain Compare Foods, said his company was “aware of the ‘Inglorious’ fruits and vegetables concept” and would be “further studying its viability” in the company’s markets.

    Ugly produce, yummy soups

    To seal the deal, the masterminds behind Intermarché’s marketing initiative developed a line of soups and juices made exclusively with “ugly” fruits and vegetables — proof that a crooked carrot or lopsided orange can taste just as good, if not better, than her smooth, spotless neighbor.

    And even that lumpy potato can be used to make gorgeous, sexy, golden-crisp French fries, n’est ce pas?

    ugly veggie soup containers

    Filed under: Article, Business & Technology, Food, Living
    Gristmill: Obama’s coal-leasing program is costing taxpayers more than $50 billion
    coal and money

    It is common for the coal industry and its conservative allies in politics and media to complain that President Obama is waging a “war on coal.” It is certainly true that the share of American energy that comes from coal is declining. Obama doesn’t actually deserve much of the credit for that. It’s mostly due to the natural gas boom, helped along by the rise of solar and grassroots organizing efforts such as the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign. Still, Obama is trying to move the energy sector further away from coal in the years ahead through his proposed CO2 regulations for power plants.

    But coal extraction keeps chugging along, with much of the coal being exported to Asian countries that are hungry for energy to fuel their growing economies. And a lot of this mining is taking place on federal land. The Bureau of Land Management sells leases to coal companies at far below their market value, and even farther below the cost of their pollution on society. As we’ve previously noted, this is one of the ways the federal government subsidizes fossil fuel production. Such subsidies have actually grown during the Obama administration. Environmentalists say that Obama’s “all of the above” energy policy contradicts his professed commitment to reducing CO2 emissions, and undermines his efforts to do so.

    Leasing Coal, Fueling Climate Change,” a report released on Monday by Greenpeace, attempts to quantify the scope and social costs of federal coal leasing. Here are the most important statistic-filled bits:

    The Bureau of Land Management has leased 2.2 billion tons of publicly owned coal during the Obama administration, unlocking 3.9 billion metric tons of carbon pollution. This is equivalent to the annual emissions of over 825 million passenger vehicles, and more than the 3.7 billion tons that was emitted in the entire European Union in 2012. …

    A ton of publicly owned coal leased during the Obama administration will, on average, cause damages estimated at between $22 and $237, using the federal government’s social cost of carbon estimates — yet the average price per ton for those coal leases was only $1.03. …

    The carbon pollution from publicly owned coal leased during the Obama administration will cause damages estimated at between $52 billion and $530 billion, using the federal government’s social cost of carbon estimates. In contrast, the total amount of revenue generated from those coal leases sales was $2.3 billion. …

    The federal coal leasing program is the source of 40% of US coal extraction. One BLM field office in Wyoming recently proposed a plan that estimates new coal leases amounting to 10.2 billion tons, which would unlock an estimated 16.9 billion metric tons of carbon pollution.

    Part of the reason for the perception that Obama isn’t a friend to the coal industry is that the new leases are not in historical coal country. They are out West, where the BLM’s holdings are concentrated. All of the federal coal leases since 2009 have been west of the Mississippi, with the majority being in Wyoming’s booming Powder River Basin. The state coming in second is Colorado. This may come as cold comfort to West Virginia and Kentucky Democrats struggling to convince their state’s voters that their party has no anti-coal agenda.

    The truth is that Obama has a split personality on coal: He’s trying to get us to burn less of it even while we continue to mine tons of it. Economically and politically, it seems like a win-win for the country: We get to claim that we’ve reduced our carbon footprint because when our coal is burned in China it is counted as their CO2. It’s a lot better for Western states, though, which can mine the coal and transport it to the West Coast for export, than the Midwestern and Appalachian states that rely heavily on burning coal to power their industrial economies.

    It’s also a bait-and-switch on climate change. If we produce enough coal on federal land to create the equivalent annual emissions of 825 million cars, we’re not doing the climate any favors by simply getting someone else to burn it. Yes, China will still need to get its electricity from somewhere. But if we left that coal in the ground, constraining global coal supplies, China might find it too expensive to get energy from coal and instead more aggressively build up its renewable sector or find greater energy efficiencies. (And some of this coal is still burned within the U.S., so we’re not entirely off the hook on that charge either.)

    What the country actually needs is a price on carbon that reflects the true social and environmental burden of burning fossil fuels. That would make coal prohibitively expensive. Today’s Congress will never go along with that, of course. But what Obama could do, without congressional approval, is determine that it isn’t in the public interest to give away mineral rights for a fraction of their negative cost to society. That’s why Greenpeace is calling for a moratorium on leasing coal on federal lands, followed by a review of the leasing program and an examination of its climate change cost. This is a good idea that should be extended to all fossil fuels on federal property, both land and sea. Just last week, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management — which, like the BLM, is part of the Department of Interior — announced that it would allow seismic testing off the southern Atlantic coast to search for underwater oil and gas.

    This makes no sense if Obama is serious about reducing global CO2 emissions. His administration can’t effectively fight climate change with one hand tied behind its back.

    Filed under: Business & Technology, Climate & Energy, Politics
    Triple Pundit: The North Face Sustainability Report: Environment and Efficiency
    The most recently issued The North Face sustainability report highlights the company's progress on clean energy and sustainable manufacturing.
    Triple Pundit: NASA: Groundwater Depletion Threatens Southwest Water Supplies
    Groundwater depletion accounts for more than 75 percent of total freshwater loss across the Colorado River Basin, a "shocking" finding that compounds threats across seven Western states, according to a first-of-its-kind NASA study.
    Triple Pundit: Why Would the USDA Waste $34 Million on Soybeans in Afghanistan?
    In Afghanistan, an attempt to launch the farming of soybeans under the guise of nutrition and economic development has failed -- for obvious reasons.
    Triple Pundit: Obama’s ‘Economic Patriotism’ Won’t Win Until Firms Do
    President Obama's criticism of businesses that move abroad to more affordable tax bases may have value. But is that the fault of businesses or a federal tax system that is out of step with tax systems overseas?
    Triple Pundit: New Jersey Turns to Distributed Resources to Enhance Energy Resilience
    With memories of the devastation Superstorm Sandy caused still fresh, the Christie administration launched the N.J. Energy Resilience Bank. The first of its kind in the nation, ERB was seeded with an initial $200 million in Community Development Block Grant - Disaster Recovery funds.
    Triple Pundit: WhiteWave Foods Issues Its First Sustainability Report
    WhiteWave Foods recently released its first corporate social responsibility (CSR) report, detailing the plant-based foods manufacturer's environmental achievements, including reducing packaging, waste, and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.
    Triple Pundit: ExxonMobil to Comply with LGBT Executive Order
    Exxon, which according to government records won more than $480 million in federal contracts in 2013 and more than $8 billion since 2006, has long resisted pressure from civil rights groups and shareholders to enumerate LGBT protections in its formal equal opportunity corporate policy.
    Gristmill: When a species poisons an entire planet
    Modern cyanobacteria, magnified 2400x. A distant ancestor of this plant changed the entire planet.

    Let me tell you about a catastrophe. I don’t use that word lightly: This event was monumental, an apocalypse that was literally global in scale, and one of the most deadly disasters in Earth’s history.

    It began about 2.5 billion years ago (though opinions vary). The Earth was very different then. There were no leafy plants, no animals, no insects. Although there may have been some bacterial life on land, it was the oceans that teemed with it, and even there life was far simpler than it is today. Most of the bacteria thriving on Earth were anaerobic, literally metabolizing their food without oxygen.

    But then an upstart appeared, and things changed. This new life came in the form of cyanobacteria, sometimes called blue-green algae.

    Cyanobacteria are photosynthetic. They convert sunlight into energy and produce oxygen as a waste product. Back then, the Earth’s atmosphere didn’t have free oxygen in it as it does today. It was locked up in water molecules, or bonded to iron in minerals.

    The cyanobacteria changed that. But not at first: For a while, as they produced free oxygen as their waste, iron would bond with it and the environment could keep up with the production.

    At some point, though, as cyanobacteria flourished, the minerals and other sinks became saturated. They could no longer absorb the oxygen being produced. It built up in the water, in the air. To the other bacteria living in the ocean — anaerobic bacteria, remember — oxygen was toxic. The cyanobacteria were literally respiring poison.

    A die-off began, a mass extinction killing countless species of bacteria. It was the Great Oxygenation Event. But there was worse to come.

    Up until this time, the atmosphere was devoid of the reactive molecule. But as oxygen abundances increased, some of it combined with methane to create carbon dioxide. Methane is a far more efficient greenhouse gas than CO2, and this methane was keeping the planet warm. As levels dropped, the Earth cooled. This triggered a massive glaciation event, a global ice age that locked the planet in its grip.

    Things got so bad the cyanobacteria themselves were threatened. Their own numbers dropped, along with nearly all other life on Earth. The mass extinction that followed was vast.

    But there was an exception: Some organisms could use that oxygen in their own metabolic processes. Combining oxygen with other molecules can release energy, a lot of it, and that energy is useful. It allowed these microscopic plants to grow faster, breed faster, live faster.

    The anaerobic species died off, falling to the oxygen-burning plants, which prospered in this new environment. Certainly, anaerobes didn’t vanish from the Earth, but they were vanquished to low-oxygen environments such as the bottom of the ocean. They were no longer the dominant form of life on Earth.

    It was perhaps the first of the mass extinctions life would face on our planet, and its impact resonates through the eons (and of course there is quite a lot of detail to this story). To this day, our atmosphere is rich in oxygen, with most multicellular life on Earth descended from the upstart oxygen breathers, and not the anaerobes.

    It’s an interesting tale, don’t you think? The dominant form of life on Earth, spread to the far reaches of the globe, blissfully and blithely pumping out vast amounts of pollution, changing the environment on a planetary scale, sealing their fate. They wouldn’t have been able to stop even if they knew what they were doing, even if they had been warned far, far in advance of the effects they were creating.

    If this is a cautionary tale, if there is some moral you can take away from this, you are free to extract it for yourself. If you do, perhaps you can act on it. One can hope that in this climate, change is always possible.

    This story first appeared on Slate as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

    Filed under: Climate & Energy
    Gristmill: Netflix is about to hijack our evenings with grim environmental films

    Netflix has already burned weeks of our lives with its early ventures into original programming. You know what I’m talking about. Every episode of House of Cards or Orange is the New Black left you tearing out your hair screaming, “I NEED JUST ONE MORE, PLEEEASE!”

    Now that the good people at Netflix have come to realize their power, they’re going to try to use it to show us something even more unnerving than murderous politicians: real life. As part of their new documentary push, they bought the rights to two films focused on the state, and fate of our planet — Mission Blue (watch the preview above) and Virunga.

    From the makers of The Cove, Mission Blue follows oceanographer Sylvia Earle – the first female chief scientist of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration who has logged more than 7,000 hours underwater (you know, only one of the heroes of my adolescent self). In Mission Blue, Earle lays out the ways in which we’re screwing the oceans over – and puts forward her vision for a network of wilderness-like ocean preserves.

    Virunga, which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in April, is about the Herculean toils involved in protecting a National Park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and its endangered mountain gorillas. Poaching, skeevy oil companies, corruption, war … clearly part of Netflix’s plan is to make you feel so bad that you’ll need to pick yourself back up by browsing the site’s comedy section once its over.

    Mission Blue will premier in New York, L.A., and on Netflix on Aug. 15. Stay tuned for my interview with Earle in Grist before then. Virunga will air on Netflix later this year.

    Filed under: Living
    Gristmill: Earth Ball: So much fun, you’ll want to destroy the planet twice!

    Who needs a planet when you can have Earth Ball? Each kit comes with a spray bottle of acid rain, spillable mini-barrels of oil, and printouts of irrelevant environmental legislation (ouch! My heart!). Practice up, kiddos. If you’re ever going to keep up with your parents, you have a lot of terrible habits to learn.

    Thanks to the kids big and small at the Upright Citizens Brigade for the too-real video.

    Filed under: Living
    Gristmill: This gigantic urban “skyfarm” looks like a tree and grows food for the masses

    I know what you’re thinking, but Skyfarm is not the latest Tom Cruise sci-fi failure. Skyfarm is one possible solution to a lot of the problems with high-density urban living.

    Concieved by the folks at Aprilli Design Studios for Seoul, South Korea, the Skyfarm would be a massive techno tree rising amongst the skyscrapers. The concept would provide arable space to grow crops in a tightly packed city while also providing public green spaces, producing energy, purifying water, and cleaning the air — and the structure’s great height will get that air cleaning up where it’s needed most.

    Stu Roberts at Gizmag has the scoop:

    The primary structure has a large, root area at its base to provide stability and spread the weight of the Skyfarm out across the ground. A trunk section rises up from the root and spreads out into eight vertical branches that are connected together by trusses to provide structural reinforcement.

    The branches each support 60-70 farming decks, which can be described as the leaf sections of the tree. The decks are spread out as much as possible to ensure they receive adequate exposure to sunlight. Each deck has heating and LED lighting systems that are used to create “optimal environmental conditions” for farming.

    The Skyfarm design uses a hydroponic system for growing crops, instead of using a soil-based approach. The higher, external leaf sections would be used for fruit trees and larger scale vegetables that need more exposure to air and sunlight, while lower, internal growing areas would be available for items that might thrive better indoors, such as herbs.

    Ahh the future, a place where we will abandon all of the long accepted terms used in engineering and architecture and replace them with marketing appropriate nomenclature. Building a Skyfarm? “Superstructure” becomes “trunk.” Building a frat house? “Floor” is now known as “bro-Bedding.”

    Cheesy nomenclature aside, the concept is actually pretty rad, although the roughly 13 acres of hydroponic growing space doesn’t sound like it’d make much of a dent in Seoul’s food needs. Still, it’s a start, and it’s certainly cooler than a 20-story parking lot, and I’ll finally get a chance to combine my two great passions, jetpacks and gardening.

    Filed under: Business & Technology, Cities, Food
    Gristmill: Inside the huge solar farm that powers Apple’s iCloud

    The article was reported by the Guardian’s Suzanne Goldenberg, and the video was produced by Climate Desk‘s James West.

    The skies are threatening to pour on the Apple solar farm but as the woman in charge of the company’s environmental initiatives points out: The panels are still putting out some power. Apple is still greening its act.

    The company, which once drew fire from campaigners for working conditions in China and heavy reliance on fossil fuels, is now leading other technology companies in controlling its own power supply and expanding its use of renewable energy.

    After converting all of its data centers to clean energy, the Guardian understands Apple is poised to use solar power to manufacture sapphire screens for the iPhone 6, at a factory in Arizona.

    And in a departure for its reputation for secretiveness, Apple is going out of its way to get credit for its green efforts.

    “We know that our customers expect us to do the right thing about these issues,” Lisa Jackson, the vice-president of environmental initiatives told the Guardian.

    This week, the company invited journalists on a rare tour of its data center in North Carolina to showcase its efforts.

    Until a year ago, the telegenic Jackson was the front woman for Barack Obama’s environmental ambitions as the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency.

    Now she is leading the effort to shrink Apple’s carbon footprint — and make sure customers realize the company is doing its bit to decarbonize its products and the internet.

    Data centers require huge loads of electricity to maintain climatic conditions and run the servers carrying out billions of electronic transactions every day.

    With Apple’s solar farm, customers could now be confident that downloading an app or video-chatting a friend would not increase carbon pollution, Jackson said.

    “If you are using your iPhone, iPad, Siri or downloading a song, you don’t have to worry if you are contributing to the climate change problem in the world because Apple has already thought about that for you. We’ve taken care of that. We’re using clean energy,” she said.

    The company is also moving to install solar and geothermal power at a plant in Mesa, Ariz., that has been manufacturing sapphire glass. Apple would not directly comment on the Arizona factory but the state’s governor, Jan Brewer, has publicly praised the company’s decision to relocate there and to use solar and geothermal in manufacturing.

    “We are aware that almost 70 percent of our carbon footprint is in our supply chain,” Jackson said. “We are actively working on the facilities that we have here in the United States.”

    The initiatives mark a turnaround for Apple, which was criticized in the past for working conditions and the use of toxic chemicals at its factories in China and for its heavy reliance on carbon intensive sources such as coal to power the cloud.

    Greenpeace now says the company is out ahead of competitors like Google and Facebook, which also operate data centers in North Carolina.

    “They are the gold standard in the state right now,” said David Pomerantz, a senior Greenpeace campaigner. “There are a lot of data centers in North Carolina and definitely none has moved as aggressively as Apple has to power with renewable energy,” he said.

    The 55,000 solar panels tracking the course of the sun from a 400,000 square meter field across the road from Apple’s data center in Maiden were not in the picture seven years ago when Duke Energy and local government officials sought to entice Apple to open up a data center in North Carolina.

    Duke Energy, which has a near monopoly over power supply in the Carolinas, set out to lure big companies like Apple, Facebook, and Google to the state with offers of cheap and reliable power for the data centers that are the hub of internet.

    Data centers, with their densely packed rows of servers and requirements for climatically controlled conditions, are notorious energy hogs. Some use as much power as a small city. In Apple’s case, the North Carolina data center requires as much power as about 14,000 homes — about three times as much as the nearby town of Maiden.

    Charging up a smartphone or tablet takes relatively little electricity, but watching an hour of streamed or internet video every week for a year uses up about as much power as running two refrigerators for a year because of the energy powering data centers elsewhere.

    That made data centers a perfect fit for Duke, said Tom Williams, the company’s director of external relations. With the decline in textile and furniture factories that had been a mainstay in the state, the company had a glut of electricity.

    “What the data centers wanted from Duke was low cost and reliable power. Those two things — cost and reliability — are fundamental to their operations,” he told the Guardian. “What we like about these data centers is that it’s an additional load on our system.”

    In the early days, Apple bought renewable energy credits to cover the center’s electricity use. In 2012, the company built its first solar farm across the road from the data center.

    Apple built a second solar farm, and announced plans this month for a third, all roughly about the same size, to keep up with the growing use of data. It also operates fuel cells, running on biogas pumped in from a landfill. All of the power generated on-site is fed into the electricity grid.

    “On any given day 100 percent of the data center’s needs are being generated by the solar power and the fuel cells,” Jackson said.

    The company has been less successful in its efforts to get other companies to switch to solar power. Duke, in cooperation with Apple, launched an initiative last year to encourage other big electricity users to go solar but so far there have been no takers.

    Renewable energy accounts for barely 2 percent of the power generated in North Carolina, and Duke does not see the share growing significantly by 2020.

    Meanwhile, consumer groups accuse Duke of offering Apple cheap energy at the expense of ordinary residential customers and of blocking rooftop solar.

    “We think Duke is actually trying to tamp down the solar industry in this state. They are accommodating big customers like Apple who want to do solar farms, but as far as rooftop solar or other solar developments they are doing things that hurt solar,” said Beth Henry, who sits on the board of NC Warn, a local environmental group.

    It’s also questionable whether Apple can ever operate entirely off the grid. On bright sunny days, the solar farms generate excess power. But Apple still needs a backup.

    “They are still hooked up to our grid,” Williams said. “They are still a very important part of our system. We provide back-up power. I expect it in times of a storm.”

    One morning during last winter’s deep freeze — the so-called polar vortex — was a case in point, Williams said. “With the polar vortex we reached an all-time peak in the winter time,” he said. “There was no solar on our system at all.”

    What is clear is that Apple and the other big tech companies are in a race to control and clean up the cloud.

    Google uses renewable energy to power about a third of its data centers. Facebook says its new Iowa data center will run entirely off wind power when it comes on-line in 2015.

    Microsoft earlier this month announced a second wind farm in Illinois to power its data centers.

    That expansion of renewable energy on the cloud is likely to continue, Jackson said.

    “There is an opportunity in getting ahead of the trend to move towards being self-sufficient on energy and in using clean energy,” she said.

    “It’s something our customers value. They ask about corporate values around things like climate change and we are really proud to be able to say that we acknowledge climate change is a problem and that more than just being a problem we are actually doing something about it.”

    This story was produced by The Guardian as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

    Filed under: Business & Technology, Climate & Energy
    Gristmill: In Michigan, the drilling wars are infesting the Twitter stream
    Michigan from Space

    I’ve been in Michigan for the last few days, researching Detroit’s water crisis. Yesterday, it became pretty obvious that my phone had figured out that we had arrived in the Mitten State:


    Why no, I was not aware that “energy development” contributes $15.8 billion to Michigan’s economy each year! It’s super thoughtful of you to bring this to my attention, because I often spend my Sunday mornings drinking coffee, doing the crossword, and trying to quantify the exact dollar value that a vague phrase gives to the equally slippery word “economy.”

    Twitter’s pricing structure is a little mysterious, but the cost of a promoted tweet campaign like this is pretty modest — a small sum debited from a budget each time the message is retweeted or favorited. So imparting this fun fact to me and the few thousand other Michiganders scrolling through our feeds on Sunday to see if any of our friends had more fun than we did last night probably only cost Energy Citizens a few bucks.


    Wow. How did you know that I care so much about jobs? I mean, everyone cares about jobs, but anyone who grew up in the state of Michigan — especially anyone who lived through the year 1990 — has a Pavlovian response to the word. We know firsthand what it’s like when no one has one. It’s like you know me better than I know myself, promoted tweet! It’s like you focus-grouped my solid, self-sufficient Midwestern people, at great expense and effort.

    I’m sure it comes as no surprise to the average reader that Energy Citizens is a front group backed by the American Petroleum Institute (API). The API, historically, is an organizer of opposition to any kind of legislation related to clean air or clean water. It approaches this work with such ardor that, even if it can’t marshal much actual popular support, it has simply stocked rallies with its own employees.

    Why is the API so interested in Michigan? Well, the state has oil and gas reserves that people have been trying to figure out how to get out of the ground for years. This has been complicated by the fact that the state is also home to the largest aboveground freshwater system on earth, which Michiganders are so proud of you would think they glaciated the Great Lakes basin themselves or something.

    In the last few years, Michigan’s state government has come up with some pretty pro-drilling legislation, like the state law passed three years ago that makes it nearly impossible for local municipalities to put limits on drilling for oil and gas the way that towns in New York have done.

    The upcoming election could change that. People have already noticed a lot of out-of-state money pouring into the state Senate race. I suspect that a promoted tweet campaign like this is just a drop in the bucket compared to what Energy Citizens (and the API) are going to be laying on Michigan in the next few months.

    Filed under: Article, Business & Technology, Climate & Energy, Politics
    Gristmill: New report expounds on old problem: Lack of diversity in green groups
    paper dolls

    President John F. Kennedy once told an audience of American University grads, “We can help make the world safe for diversity. For in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air.”

    That was 1963. We did not inhale the same oxygen then, and we certainly don’t now. In 2011, scientists found that American counties with the worst levels of ozone had significantly larger African-American populations than counties with less pollution. A recent study from the University of Minnesota found that black and brown Americans are more often trapped in neighborhoods laden with nitrogen dioxide than their white fellow Americans.

    And despite civil rights laws, organizations whose mission is to clean the air don’t seem to have grown much more hospitable to people of color. A new report, released today, shows that the staffs of mainstream green groups have been overrepresented with white men despite the groups’ intentions to be more colorful. One of its most damning findings is that “the dominant culture of the organizations is alienating to ethnic minorities, the poor, the LGBTQ community, and others outside the mainstream.”

    The report, called “The State of Diversity in Environmental Organizations,” is billed as “the most comprehensive report on diversity in the environmental movement.” It was compiled by a working group of thought leaders on environment and race called Green 2.0, led by University of Michigan professor Dorceta Taylor. The report explores the history of tension between green activism and racial justice, and the many attempts at rapprochement.

    From Earth Day 1970 until today, the report says, the majority of the people directing, staffing, and even volunteering at green groups have not only been white men, but they also hail from wealthier households with elite educational pedigrees. A 1972 study of 1,500 environmental volunteers nationwide showed that 98 percent of them were white and 59 percent held a college or graduate degree. Compare that to Taylor’s more recent demographic profiling of environmental orgs where, based on data collected on 166 mainstream organizations from 2004 to 2006, she found that minorities comprised just 14.6 percent of their staffs.

    People of color make up 37 percent of the U.S. population today. Census figures predict that white Americans will no longer be the majority as early as 2043.

    The most recent data on people of color hired by green organizations is reflected in this infographic below, from the Green 2.0 report:

    Click to embiggen.
    Click to embiggen.

    The report also found a gap between white environmental leaders’ desires and their actions when it comes to diversity. Of the near-300 people surveyed — from major environmental groups, foundations, and federal environmental agencies — 70 percent expressed interest in ideas to include more people of color and low-income in the workforce, but only 50 percent of environmental org and foundation members said they’d actually act on such ideas if proposed. For federal government agencies, it was 40 percent.

    Click to embiggen.
    Green 2.0
    Click to embiggen.

    This is far from the first indictment of the environmental movement on this front, but the Green 2.0 group says it plans to hold the movement accountable. Its recommendations for finally moving the needle on this problem include creating diversity assessment plans with transparency for tracking progress, and increasing resources for diversity initiatives (one finding of the report is that not one green foundation has a diversity manager).

    More on this later throughout the week as I make my way through the rest of the report, which you can find at the Green 2.0 website.

    Filed under: Climate & Energy, Politics
    Gristmill: Ask Umbra: What’s that stuff dripping out of my neighbor’s air conditioner?

    Send your question to Umbra!

    Q. Is the water dripping from my upstairs neighbor’s air conditioner full of chemicals? I often sit out on my fire escape and wonder if I should be concerned about the water dripping not only on me but also on my potted herbs and salad greens (which I eat).

    Jersey City, N.J.

    A. Dearest Kate,

    Your letter gives me an idea for the next great superhero movie: Our mild-mannered heroine sits out on the fire escape, eating salad while unknowingly absorbing drip after drip of radioactive goo from the upstairs AC unit. The next morning, she wakes up with superpowers and bounds off to battle villains, protect the innocent, and restore peace to Jersey City. Is that blockbuster material or what?

    Unfortunately for my prospects of summer-movie success but fortunately for your health, Kate, air-conditioner water will no sooner hurt you or your garden than it will enable you to swing between skyscrapers. The stuff dribbling out of the neighbor’s AC is essentially pure, distilled water, not chemical-ridden toxic waste. That doesn’t mean you can drink it, mind you, but there’s no need for you to rig up an umbrella out back, either.

    Those drops don’t indicate your neighbor’s AC is broken or leaky, by the way – window units are designed to drip. What’s happening is this: In order to cool your home, the AC pulls hot, humid air out of the building and passes it over chilled cooling pipes. This temperature plunge forces the moisture to condense out of the air (the water we’re talking about is often called “air conditioner condensate”) and collect in the unit, where it’s then channeled out of the machine through a pipe and onto your fire escape. So really, AC both cools and dehumidifies the home, an effect most appreciated on those sticky summer nights.

    But while AC condensate is generally free of heavy metals or other worrisome contaminants, it might still contain some nasty bugs. Internal leaks or clogs can create stagnant pools inside the unit, forming a sort of beach party for bacteria. (In fact, the infamous 1976 outbreak of Legionnaire’s disease was traced back to a hotel’s AC system.) So it’s not considered potable, but the splish-splash is okay to use to irrigate plants – just wash them carefully before eating. And to be safe, Kate, I wouldn’t sit where the water hits your face or hands, and a soapy wash afterwards is a good idea.

    Now, I certainly don’t mean to scare you and your plants off the back porch. In fact, your inadvertent reuse of AC condensate is a great example of smart water conservation. A home AC unit can suck anywhere from 2 to 10 gallons of perfectly good water out of the air every day – so why just dump it all on the ground? Some savvy gardeners already capture the drips from their units, using strategies as simple as sticking a bucket under the outflow pipe, and as elaborate as building automatic watering systems over their beds. Think of it as a cousin to the rain barrel: using water from the sky so you don’t have to turn on the tap.

    Plenty of larger-scale operations have wised up to the water savings draining out of their windows, too. Innovative systems in jungle-y climates like Texas capture hundreds or even thousands of gallons of water every day: In San Antonio, a mall reuses about 250 gallons per day in its cooling towers, and the library saves up to 1,400 gallons daily to water the grounds. At the University of Texas, a combined rainwater-condensate system collects up to 110,000 gallons per day, and Texas A&M reuses AC water from many campus buildings. There’s lots more potential for setups like this, especially in wiltingly muggy places from Atlanta to Chicago –including, I’d wager, Jersey City.

    Mind you, this isn’t my blessing to crank the AC willy-nilly. Arctic air in the summertime requires loads of energy, and the overheated have myriad other options in a heat wave. But if you’re going to use AC, you might as well find the silver lining in the dreadfully humid weather and gobble up all the free water you can.


    Filed under: Living
    Gristmill: What is climate change doing to our mental health?
    drawing of depressed woman

    About a year ago, I started wondering about the impact of climate change on mental health. After all, depression is already the second leading cause of disability around the world, depression can be kicked off by stress, and watching the ocean inch up to your doorstep or seeing drought destroy your crops and take away your livelihood can be pretty nerve-racking.

    I checked the most recent IPCC report. Nothing on mental health. I checked news articles. Nada. I checked the scientific literature, and found a few things, mostly from Australian scientists.

    So I headed Down Under, and found a small but dedicated research community. I also found recalcitrant farmers, concerned members of Aboriginal communities, a climate change philosopher, and the beginnings of a new vocabulary.

    Research on mental health and climate change in Australia pretty much starts and ends with a very modest and soft-spoken psychiatric epidemiologist, Helen Berry of the University of Canberra. She’s responsible for 27 papers and book chapters published on the subject since 2011. Her studies don’t focus on specific psychiatric diagnoses, but general mental health and well-being. So: How often do you feel distressed? How are you sleeping? Do you talk to others about your distress or do you keep it to yourself?

    Helen Berry
    Helen Berry

    Berry has documented increased levels of distress in young people in drought-affected areas, and in farmers as well. The farmers she’s studied have shown a strong reluctance to use mental health services. She’s also looked at the effect of climate change on Aboriginal communities.

    “When you think about what climate change does, it basically increases the risk of weather-related disasters of one sort or another,” she said. “What happens from a psychological point of view is people get knocked down. Whenever people are knocked down, they have to get up again and start over. And the more that happens, the more difficult it is to keep getting up.”

    I spoke to elders from several Aboriginal communities in New South Wales who all told of a general sense of unease. All have noticed something — the absence of snow in the winter, the disappearance of rivers. One woman said, “I feel like the world is ending, that’s what I think. It’s scary.” Her solace: working in her garden.

    That corresponds with what Berry has found in her scientific studies — a sense of despair, but also an enthusiasm for re-connecting with the land.

    That’s what James Williams has noticed as well. He’s a member of the Aboriginal community in New South Wales and used to head a local land council. He’s now a caseworker for the state’s Department of Family and Community Services. What people do to the land gets done back to them, he said. “We have a saying: If you look after the land and the rivers, the land and the rivers will look after you.” People in his community see the changes as something brought on them by others who are not looking after the land and rivers. But they’re not angry, according to Williams. They’re frustrated.

    Also like Berry, Williams has noticed that when people take action to restore the environment, it energizes them and lessens their anxiety. He points to various Aboriginal groups working on traditional resource management, including burning off the low brush that fuels bush fires.

    Berry is studying children as well. In an ongoing study in Queensland, she and her colleagues have found that children with low levels of connectedness — not much family, low involvement in school or other group activities — are at a much higher risk of being traumatized by fires, floods, and the like.

    A challenging field

    Berry’s line of research has led her to some complicated challenges. As with all things climate change, definitions are difficult. “We all know what a drought is intuitively. It doesn’t rain,” Berry said. “But trying to actually define a drought statistically and measure it, and then go a step further and say who was exposed to that, is a really hard thing to do technically.”

    She and her coworkers have found different effects on people’s mental health and well-being depending on the type of drought they experience — very dry periods punctuated by occasional rain, consistent dryness, short sharp droughts, and long droughts that culminate in one or two years of catastrophic drought. In rural areas, the pattern associated with the worst mental health across the whole population was a long period of persistent drought followed by a year or two of especially dry weather.

    Berry is also working on a study whose early results suggest that a hot spell of even a few days can have effects that last up to a year — it attacks men’s sense of being capable and strong and competent, and women’s emotional functioning. Again, it’s not simple. If people live somewhere hot to begin with, it looks like even hotter weather is generally well-tolerated — unless it’s really extreme heat relative to what’s normal in that place. And the long droughts that can bankrupt farmers and push some of them over the edge can raise the mood of people in cities, who experience the drought as endless sunny days.

    The hardest hit by climate change in Australia so far have been farmers, and they’re a challenge as research subjects, said Berry. “They’re happy to talk about problems having to do with the climate and climate variability, but they don’t like talking about climate change.”

    That’s what I found when I visited Reg Kidd on his picture-perfect ranch in New South Wales. When I asked him about climate change, he quoted a popular Australian poem written in 1910 that refers to the country as “a land of droughts and floods.” With one of his cows mooing in the background, he says he believes in climate variability, but hasn’t seen the evidence to prove climate change yet.

    He offers up that he’s been on antidepressants at various points in his life, and while he doesn’t think his episodes were related to weather events, he’s seen weather-related depression in other farmers. “They become very withdrawn,” he said. They think they should be able to fight their way through it. “Here they are with something they can’t control around them, and things are going backwards, and it becomes a health issue.”

    Kidd and other local farmers have founded a group, “Are You Okay?,” with discussions and buttons to wear to remind them to touch base with their neighbors during tough times and ask them how they’re doing.

    And on his own ranch, he’s made changes that could be considered climate mitigation or adaptation. He stores water in vast tanks on his farm. He uses solar panels that generate more electricity than he can use. He’s looked into drought-resistant plants, and he plans his farming and ranching around seasonal weather forecasts.

    On top of climate change denial, or at least agnosticism, there’s another challenge. Berry’s mentor, Tony McMichael, recently retired from Australian National University and generally credited as the father of climate change and health research, told me that epidemiologists “by and large prefer to work with health outcomes that are readily measurable and quantifiable, and that’s never easy with mental disorders.”

    Both Berry and McMichael say one of the biggest challenges is research funding, especially government funding. The best thing that can be said about the Australian government’s approach to climate change is that it’s crazy. The only time Berry talked above the level of a whisper was when I asked her if research on climate change and mental health was a tough sell to government funding agencies. “The toughest,” she said quickly.

    Another big challenge is the scope of the research. “To do this work well is really hard and takes ages, so you need longer funding and more funding than other topics might,” Berry told me. And McMichael noted that ecology doesn’t fit very well into the traditional medical research model. “It affects whole communities and its source is collective, and we have to reframe a number of our ideas about health, disease, survival within that ecological perspective,” he said. It doesn’t seem like real science to the big funding agencies, and there aren’t going to be any single bottom-line answers. “So you don’t get the money,” he said.

    With all these challenges, why have Australian scientists taken such an interest? Berry credited McMichael, and McMichael in turn credited several factors. The biggest: Australia has already been hard-hit by climate change. A decade-long bake called the Millennium Drought (which in some form actually lasted from 1995 to 2009) reminded people how bad droughts could be. Farmers culled their herds straight through to the breeding stock. Recent droughts have fostered several dramatic and lethal wildfires, one of which marched right up to the outskirts of Melbourne.

    Ultimately, McMichael says he persisted because the work is important. “We need to understand just what the full spectrum of consequences of human-driven climate changes are likely to be. There’s not much recognition beyond the damage that will occur to iconic species and to ecosystems and to tourism and the economy,” he said. “I think if we can paint that picture more fully, it will help motivate the public who for the moment are a bit confused and a bit standoffish about this topic.”

    New problems, new words

    As for the new vocabulary, that comes from another Aussie, Glenn Albrecht, a professor of environmental studies at the University of Newcastle. “A genuine philosopher,” he said with a wink, since he has a doctorate in philosophy. His big contribution to the field: solastalgia. That’s “the homesickness when you’re still at home and your home environment is changing around you in ways that you find negative, and that you have very little power over.”

    What got him thinking about solastalgia was not climate change, but open-pit mining in New South Wales vast enough to be seen from space. Talking to people who lived nearby, he found they were outraged, and saddened, and that got him thinking about the role that place, land, and landscape play in people’s sense of well-being. It wasn’t nostalgia — that’s for some other place. It’s a longing for home, as what was once familiar becomes unpredictable.

    He and his wife came up with the term a few years ago. “It was at the kitchen table, my wife and I sat down and I said I want a world for ‘placealgia,’ and we just worked our way through the most suitable Greek and Latin terms until we came up with solastalgia,” he said.

    Sol — from solace, the idea that we take solace from the patterns and rhythms of nature. And -algia, from pain. When the patterns and rhythms of nature, the timing of fruits and flowers and plantings, change, so too do the patterns and rhythms of our minds, he said.

    Albrecht has more words up his sleeve. Soliphilia — a state that results in positive energy to collaborate, heal, and work together. Basically, people who see the cumulative damage of climate change and work together to make repairs. He practiced it in his own life by helping to restore a wetland.

    And then there’s endemophilia — the love that people have for what’s distinctive about the place they live or come from. I get that one. I’m a New Jersey ex-pat, and I miss everything from the gas tanks of Elizabeth to the horse country near Gladstone to the Jersey shore.

    In the few months since my visit, Australia stopped being such a lonely outpost for people studying the mental health effects of climate change. The new IPCC report has a health chapter that deals with the issue (Berry and McMichael were among the authors). The American Psychological Association and ecoAmerica recently released a report on the broad psychological effects of climate change.

    So chalk one more health challenge up to climate change. But there is a pearl in the oyster, Berry says. “Climate change and associated weather-related disasters could be such a serious threat that they could actually propel people to come and work together,” she said. Climate change might make people willing to take some kind of concerted action, to do something useful for their community. “That’s the pearl,” she said, “that all this could lead to a growth in social capital — the best thing for mental health.”

    Reporting for this story was supported by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting

    Filed under: Article, Climate & Energy, Living
    Gristmill: Hungry hungry humans: The science (and art) of feeding ourselves

    The issue keeps coming up when I write about genetic engineering, or local food systems, or decreased farm yield due to climate change: How do we avoid starvation as populations grow, and how can we allow people to feed themselves equitably and sustainably? The question seems to lurk in the background of every story I do, and this makes me uncomfortable, because I don’t know enough to answer. So I’m diving into the debate, blogging as I go.

    I recently attended a debate on this topic put on by the Beahrs Environmental Leadership Program at UC Berkeley, and it quickly became clear that there are several contentious issues flying crosswise here. We really have a lot of work ahead of us. This was supposed to be a debate over solutions, but there was no agreement over what the problem is.

    Economist David Zilberman argued that we should use agroecology — in this context, agroecology meant small, diverse, low-input, labor-intensive farms — but we shouldn’t give up biotechnology as a tool. Conservation biologist Claire Kremen argued we should focus strictly on agroecology as the best way to get food to the poorest and hungriest people. And Eric Holt-Gimenez, executive director of Food First, argued that the real problem was capitalism, and to keep people from going hungry you need to regulate markets.

    It was a mixed-up discussion. Two of the panelists said, “I don’t know where to start,” as the event sprawled into incoherence. In their defense, the terms of the debate were posed in a ridiculous way: How do we feed the world — with biotechnology or agroecology? That’s like asking: How do we drive cars — with catalytic converters or spark plugs?

    Often, figuring out the right question to ask is more important than picking an answer. And, at the very least, this debate left me with some clear questions. For instance:

    What is the relationship between agricultural productivity and hunger? Holt-Gimenez and Kremen both presented evidence that hunger is disconnected from the global food supply. Zilberman, the economist, didn’t offer any counterarguments — though this may have had something to do with the fact that the agroecology side (absurdly) had twice the time to make their arguments.

    Do we really need to worry about producing more on each farm? Holt-Gimenez and Kremen suggested that we shouldn’t even begin to struggle with the problem of increasing yields until we deal with the political problems that prevent our — currently sufficient — food supply from reaching the poor.

    When it comes to food, should we be limiting markets, or freeing markets?

    Realistically, what does modernization of farming in Africa and Asia look like? Will it resemble the American system, with fewer, bigger farms? Or is there a way for small, peasant farmers to become more prosperous while remaining relatively small?

    As I start I’m especially open to feedback: Are these the right questions? And who has done the best work in answering them? I’m specifically interested in connecting with sources and experts beyond the usual suspects. As I learned when writing about GMOs, there are plenty of people studying these issues in a careful, open-minded way. Usually, those are not the same as those shouting in the town square (i.e. the internet) who usually get the attention of journalists. I’d welcome recommendations.

    Filed under: Article, Food
    Triple Pundit: Pact Apparel Launches Fair Trade Certified Line
    Pact Apparel, which brand itself as an “ethical and organic apparel basics brand,” announced it is releasing an organic cotton Fair Trade certified line.
    Triple Pundit: Op/Ed: Despite Big Leaps, CSR Still Has a Long Way to Go
    We have seen recent report cards on corporate social responsibility (CSR) with remarkable results from institutions like Tata, Morgan Stanley and Infosys. The question is: Have these and many other CSR maneuvers made notable global impacts?
    Triple Pundit: A Proud Day To Be A Hockey Fan: NHL Releases First Sustainability Report
    The NHL's report is the first of its kind in major professional sports, and its scope and ambition are impressive.
    Triple Pundit: Shrink the Solar Power Inverter and Google Will Pay You $1 Million
    Need seed money for that next cool invention? Looking for that down payment for a seat on the first commercial Mars flight when it comes available? Google can help. Figure out how to shrink the power inverter used for solar and wind power conversion to the size of, say, a tablet, and Google will pay you a handy $1 million. And yes, the challenge is open to hobby techies as well as academic institutions.
    Triple Pundit: Harnessing the Benefits of Employee Volunteerism at Mid-Size Companies
    Since the global recession, companies of all sizes have embraced employee volunteerism as a fiscally responsible way to supplement their existing community giving initiatives. But it appears mid-size businesses may not be harnessing the full potential of volunteer programs and are overlooking the wide range of benefits they can provide…
    Triple Pundit: Financing Conservation Through Payment for Ecosystem Services (PES)
    The need for policies that promote the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity and ecosystem services is more important than ever. Word Resource Institute (WRI) estimates the value of ecosystem services to be US$33 trillion a year, nearly twice the value of the global gross national product (GNP) of US$18 trillion.
    Triple Pundit: New Tenn-Tom Upgrade Offers Clues to an Energy Efficient Future
    The 30-year-old Tenn-Tom Waterway is getting an energy efficiency upgrade from a new US Army Corps of Engineers third-party financing contract.
    Gristmill: These young people are pioneering Appalachia’s post-coal economy
    image (9)

    In the Hunger Games novels, heroine Katniss Everdeen comes from a coal mining region known as District 12. Her people are poor and looked down upon, but they’re also resourceful and know how to work together. In the end, it’s those skills that allow Katniss and her friend Peeta to win the games against better-trained rivals from the wealthy capital.

    The books are fiction, but many readers believe District 12 is set in a futuristic version of Appalachia’s real-life coal country. And, these days, the real Appalachia needs all the resourcefulness and cooperation it can get.

    The coal industry, which in many counties has dominated the economy for more than a century, is not providing the jobs it used to. Coal reserves are dwindling, mechanization has made it easier to pay fewer workers to extract more coal, and there’s new competition from cheap natural gas. In Boone County, W. Va., for example, about 40 percent of coal jobs have disappeared since the end of 2011, according to research firm SNL Financial. And the same trend is going on across the region.

    You could say Appalachia needs an army of real-life Katnisses — and, luckily, it’s found them. The Highlander Center, a training center for social movements with deep roots in the South, just launched its “Appalachian Transition Fellowship” – a program to mentor and support 14 young Appalachians as they work on economic development projects throughout the region. Their goal is to accelerate the creation of a diverse economy by working on projects that create jobs and livelihoods in the wake of coal’s decline.

    Through this fellowship, Highlander’s fellows will spend a full year working on economic transition projects in Tennessee, Kentucky, West Virginia, Virginia, Ohio, and North Carolina.

    I recently had a chance to meet the Appalachian Transition Fellows as they took a kick-off tour through the region. We talked about how they got interested in economic transition and what their fellowships will look like. Here’s what a few of them had to say.

    Catherine Moore

    Name: Willa Johnson
    Age: 28
    Hometown: McRoberts, Ky.

    In the sixth grade, Willa was shopping for school supplies with her mom when an artificial pond broke down near her house. It had been full of wastewater left over from processing coal, and it sent a four-foot polluted wave down her mountain hollow. Everything but Willa’s double-wide mobile home was wiped away, including her family’s pool and much of their yard.

    By the time she was 16 years old, the mold was so bad that her family had to move. They couldn’t sell the house, either. It was uninhabitable.

    By her early 20s, Willa thought she could help by fighting the coal companies that had caused disasters like the one she remembered from her childhood.

    So she became a community organizer, but the work didn’t go as expected. Willa’s father was a coal truck driver. So was her brother. They didn’t like what she was doing, and they weren’t shy about saying so.

    Once, when Willa was doing voter outreach at a festival, a neighbor said Willa was a disappointment to her father – and that he had told her so. Another time, at a family barbecue, an in-law accused Willa of “taking away jobs.” Willa responded that her work was about protecting water and community. Then Willa’s own brother ripped into Willa’s stance against coal.

    After that incident, Willa and her brother didn’t speak for a year and a half.

    She burned out, left town, and had nothing to do with organizing for the next two years. Now she wants back in, but she wants to work on the growth and evolution of Appalachia – not on fighting King Coal.

    Willa’s fellowship will be in North Carolina, where she will help local textile mill operators connect to a growing marketplace that wants more environmentally friendly and fair trade fabrics.

    Catherine Moore

    Name: Joshua Outsey
    Age: 28
    Hometown: Birmingham, Ala.

    Joshua tells me about growing up young and black in Birmingham. If you wanted to “build power” – to grow a strong enough network to protect your friends and family – the most direct path was to join a gang. Josh took a step down this path, but got a wake-up call at age 18, when a gang orientation took a turn for the worse and shots were fired.

    Joshua moved to Knoxville and started hanging out with a group called Tribe One, an after-school program designed to give young black men a refuge from gang activities. It was there that he met his mentor, Stan Johnson, who taught him about other ways to build power. By coming up with a plan to organize a community, for example, a person could achieve a more lasting form of power.

    At age 22, Joshua joined up with Johnson to co-found a group called Socially Equal Energy Efficient Development, or SEEED, a group that makes green jobs available to low-income people in Knoxville, Tenn. Josh helped organize neighborhood clean up days, “empowerment hour” workshops, and a door-to-door listening project to build support for home insulations.

    “I started my own gang,” Josh tells me.

    Joshua is starting a year-long fellowship with Kentuckians for the Commonwealth. He’ll be working with the city of Benham, Ky., to insulate homes and make home heating more affordable.

    Catherine Moore

    Name: Kendall Bilbrey
    Age: 22
    Hometown: Wytheville, Va.

    Kendall’s parents grew up in a company-owned Virginia mill town called Fries, and money was always a problem. They pushed hard work, a good education, and getting out of the mountains. Kendall obliged, went to Washington, D.C., and attended George Mason University – finishing in two and a half years.

    Summer of junior year, a friend invited Kendall to attend a summer retreat organized by the STAY Project. Founded in 2008, STAY is a youth-led group designed to build a community of young people from central Appalachia who care about each other and the region. Kendall, who was also coming to terms with being queer at the time, reported feeling more at home with the people at STAY than with the queer community in D.C.

    After graduating college, Kendall nabbed a research internship with the Smithsonian’s National Zoo, which involved traveling to China to study red pandas for five months. After returning to Virginia, Kendall took pause to reflect: “People line up for internships with Smithsonian programs, but they weren’t lining up for Appalachia.”

    Starting in June, Kendall will begin a fellowship with the Alliance for Appalachia, doing research and legwork to inform a potential federal campaign to unlock more resources for economic transition.

    Catherine Moore

    Name: Joey Aloi
    Age: 30
    Hometown: Buckhannon, W.Va.

    Joey spent his high school years doing flood relief work in McDowell County, W.Va. It’s not that it rains more there than in other counties, he says – it’s just that the rain doesn’t have anything to stick to. The deforested landscape of surface mines sent the water rolling down the hollers, overpowering the creeks and destroying houses.

    Joey tells me that after a day of throwing out people’s mud-soaked belongings and knocking down walls, he’d wipe out his nose, and his “boogers would be covered in coal dust.” As he grew increasingly aware of the connection between mining and flooding, he wanted to find a different way of thinking about the land and how we use it.

    Joey started by studying philosophy at Warren Wilson University, with a concentration in environmental ethics. He then enrolled in the PhD program in philosophy at the University of North Texas in Denton. He says that most of his fellow students are still there, writing their dissertations in the library or teaching undergraduates.

    But Joey recently returned to West Virginia, where he will work on his dissertation in the evenings. During the day, he’ll be working with the Greater Kanawha Valley Foundation in Charleston, W.Va., connecting local farmers with the city’s hospitals, which serve more than 2.5 million meals a year.

    Catherine Moore

    Name: Carol Ann Davey
    Age: 26
    Hometown: Columbus, Ohio

    Carol went to high school in Cheshire, Ohio – a tiny town in the southeastern corner of the state, shadowed by the two huge smokestacks of a coal-fired power plant.

    As Carol was growing up, the owner of the plant, American Electric Power, was forced in a legal settlement to buy out every house in Cheshire because of sulphurous gas clouds and acid rain that had rendered the place uninhabitable. Over time, the people moved out and the company bulldozed their houses. She remembers riding the bus to school in the morning and seeing the city vanish block by block.

    All the kids grew up being told the coal plant was “where they made the clouds.” No one seemed to want to dig any deeper into why this was happening. Carol, though, felt a creeping dread. She went to Kentucky for her undergraduate degree and then to Ireland to get her masters – but is committed to return to the region and give back.

    So she’ll return to Athens, Ohio – the closest city to what’s left of Cheshire – for a fellowship with the Appalachian Center for Economic Networks, where she’ll help local businesses develop more sustainable practices.

    Catherine Moore

    Name: Mae Humiston
    Age: 23
    Hometown: Fairfield, Va.

    When Mae was in middle school, she suffered from some serious bullying. Mae didn’t want her younger brother to see the same fate, and reasoned that if she “become the most successful person in Rockbridge, Va.,” the kids wouldn’t mess with him. She set her sights on a high-powered career in international relations, and earned a scholarship to Tufts University.

    Mae’s first class on international relations made her miserable. Her work with the school’s student garden, however, was sheer pleasure. From there, she expanded to working with small farms in the Boston and Washington, D.C. metro areas. After college, she got a job with a CSA farm, where she was on the edge of a promotion to crew manager.

    Soon she noticed all of her crew’s farmers were getting “parsnip burn”: a nasty rash that comes from handling the plants without gloves. Mae tried to get her manager to pay attention, but instead he told her she was “too weak for the job.” The experience led to her current interest in farm workers’ rights.

    Mae’s fellowship will be with the Community Farm Alliance in Hazard, Ky., where she’ll help farmers get their produce to low-income communities.

    Joe Solomon

    Name: Catherine Moore
    Age: 32
    Hometown: Charleston, W.Va.

    Catherine always had affection for her home state of West Virginia. When she was in college in Cambridge, Mass., she says, she hung a huge satellite map of the state on her wall.

    She always assumed she’d return, but maybe in her 40s – someday far off in the future. But it came sooner. While working on her PhD in Richmond, Va., Catherine took a dive into local history. It made the pain of being cut off and disconnected from her own place even sharper, she says.

    Catherine is now home, living in the New River Gorge of the southern part of the state, where the roots of her family tree crisscross the land. It’s a tree that includes slave owners and coal barons, and part of the reason Catherine says she needs to be here is her desire to research and come to terms with these stories.

    Catherine tells me about how locals mourn what’s been lost in West Virginia: the tens of thousands of coal jobs, the countless once-vibrant towns. But within the loss is an opportunity.

    “Most of all, I am struck by the sheer potential for radical self-definition that this moment holds,” she says. It’s “the chance to write our own story, to find our own words for who we are and who we want to become.”

    Catherine will spend her fellowship working on the “What’s Next, West Virginia?” project – a year of listening events around the state designed to help residents have a conversation about their vision for a new economic future and to help them act on it together.

    Filed under: Climate & Energy, Politics
    Gristmill: Appalachia tries to make a life after coal
    Mural in Benham.

    Benham, Ky., in the heart of Harlan County, is a quiet place with a proud sign that has been amended over time to read, “Benham, the little town that International Harvester, coal miners and their families built.”

    International Harvester, a farm-equipment conglomerate created by industrial speculator J.P. Morgan, bought up Benham’s land and mineral rights soon after the turn of the century in order to supply Wisconsin steelworks with Appalachia’s high-quality coal.

    All at once, a trappers’ and hunters’ hamlet became a churning coal-camp town. International Harvester designed the streets, built the houses, attracted the workers, and ran the coal north by rail. Miners were paid good wages when there was work (especially later, when workers were unionized), but most of the workers’ cash went straight back to International Harvester – which owned the two-story department store, the cinema, the hospital, the power company, and every significant business in town.

    Half a century later, new machines took miners’ jobs and new technology enabled customers to burn cheaper coal. IH started laying off miners and selling its properties, taking its profits with it – as it had the coal.

    Between 1960 and 2012, Harlan County shrank from more than 51,000 residents to fewer than 30,000. Benham’s population (now under 500) set about building a new economy.

    Today, the former company store houses a mining museum where visitors can crawl about in a mock mineshaft and study detailed dioramas of life during the boom years. The old public school has transformed into a colorful Country Inn, and there’s a campaign to switch the town power supply (which the town still controls) from coal to renewables.

    Unfortunately for Benham, it’s just one of dozens of former coal camps in the area with more coal “heritage” these days than coal. If its population keeps dwindling there won’t be a town here for very long. The town of Lynch, created by another J.P. Morgan-created monopoly (U.S. Steel) sits right next door – with a real mineshaft museum. Similar towns with similar museums exist to the east, in Virginia, and north and south, in Tennessee and West Virginia. The odds of Benham seeing another boom seem stacked against it as steeply as the lush mountains tower over both sides of Main Street.

    Not “another America”

    A more diverse economy is possible. Before the robber barons arrived, mountains like these produced chestnuts that were sold on the streets of Manhattan and ginseng that was exported to China. Locally tanned leather traveled to South America and Europe.

    To begin a new chapter of economic development will require land reform and investment in local people and in local democracy – but it’s possible. That’s the least coal country deserves, says scholar and activist Helen Lewis, who’s lived here for 60 years:

    The people who agreed to spend their days digging coal from the underside of mountains produced enough power to industrialize the nation: They’re owed something back.

    Lewis moved to southwest Virginia in 1955, just as tens of thousands of miners were moving out. “I was overwhelmed by what was going on,” she recalled last spring. “Mines were being mechanized and half the population was leaving for industrial jobs up north. Strip mining was starting – a whole new form of destruction.”

    At the same time, triggered by the exodus, Appalachia was receiving mass media attention – most of it negative. Even as the media expressed concern about poverty (and helped inspire the War on Poverty and programs like food stamps and Medicaid), coverage played into old stereotypes of “backward” hill people with a “culture of poverty” living in what author Michael Harrington called “another America.”

    But rather than another America, Appalachia has always offered a reflection of what’s coming down the road for the rest of the country, believes historian Ronald Eller, author of Uneven Ground: Appalachia Since 1945: “Just as Americans in the 1960s didn’t want to address the real structural problems that created conditions in Appalachia (because they hit too close to home) Americans today are equally reluctant to face the more complex systemic problems that we face five decades later.”

    In a region so rich, why were the people so poor?

    The bellwether

    In the 1970s, Lewis was part of a group of scholars and local volunteers who conducted a study of who owned the land. The Appalachian Land Ownership Task Force revealed that absentee owners, primarily coal, timber, and petroleum companies, held title to nearly half the surface area in 80 counties in West Virginia, southwestern Virginia, eastern Kentucky and Tennessee, western North Carolina, and Alabama. According to The New York Times‘ 1981 coverage of the report, individuals and corporations headquartered elsewhere (like Oregon’s Georgia Pacific – now owned by the Koch brothers – and New York’s Pittston Coal) owned 43 percent of the total land area, while only 1 percent of the local population owned tracts larger than 250 acres. Moreover, the Times reported, the volunteer investigators found that three-quarters of the mineral land owners paid less than 25 cents an acre in annual property taxes.

    Coal country wasn’t backward – it was being robbed. Total property tax receipts from mineral-bearing land in 12 eastern Kentucky counties amounted to just $1,500 in 1979. “Equitable tax administration” would generate $8 million in those eastern Kentucky counties alone, concluded the report, and a total of $16.5 million more a year in the 80-county study area.

    It wasn’t the culture that was the problem, it was the corporations, decided Lewis. “Even at best, mining is exploitative … It leaves little behind unless it is forced,” she wrote. But at the political level, Appalachia’s residents were no match for big donors.

    Appalachia wasn’t behind; it was a bellwether.

    YES! Magazine graphics by Jim McGowan and Natalie Lubsen. Data from the Appalachian Regional Commission and the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
    YES! Magazine graphics by Jim McGowan and Natalie Lubsen. Data from the Appalachian Regional Commission and the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

    “It’s a lesson for the whole country,” said Lewis this June. “It’s not just us, a bunch of hillbillies. It’s very much a part of what’s happening all over. The questions here are the questions everywhere: Who owns the place? Where do the profits go? What can people do? Who has control?”

    “The issues we face in Appalachia are the issues we face as a globe,” agrees Justin Maxson of MACED, the Berea, Ky.-based Mountain Association of Community Economic Development. It’s true politically and also in terms of energy: “If we can move past fossil fuels here [in the heart of coal country] that changes the debate everywhere” he adds.

    Coal heads west

    It’s no secret in Appalachia that coal is not the big employer it used to be. After a peak in the late ’90s, coal production in Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee is on the decline and national projections indicate that annual production in this region may shrink another 46 percent by 2020, and 58 percent by 2035. Kentucky’s lost some 30,000 coal jobs since 1970, and those that remain (mostly in surface mining and non-union mines), don’t pay what the union jobs underground once did.

    While local politicians still resist the idea (it’s hard to find a U.S. Senate candidate in any of these states that doesn’t support Big Coal), this isn’t just another turn in an industry that’s seen many busts and booms. Nationally, production hasn’t declined – it’s moved: from Appalachia, west, to non-union states and overseas. Coal is facing competition from renewables and natural gas (nationally, jobs in solar now outnumber jobs in coal). Environmental regulations, like President Obama’s recently declared limits on carbon emissions from power plants, impose new restrictions and costs on the industry.

    Data from the Energy Information Administration.
    Natalie Lubsen
    Data from the Energy Information Administration.

    Like it or not, Appalachians are increasingly having the conversation that many have seen coming for decades about what happens next. Can the same place that fueled the Industrial Revolution lead us into a new economy? There’s a long way to go, says Maxson. Still, “We are much further along than we were 10 years ago.”

    Building a network: a lot of silver BBs

    You can’t build a strong local economy without strong local people. But for years, people around here grew up hearing their futures lay elsewhere. “It was like, get your ticket punched and get out,” recalls Herb E. Smith, who grew up in a hillside home above Whitesburg, Ky., with his seven siblings. He’s the son of a miner and the brother of two more.

    In Smith’s senior year at Whitesburg High School, two filmmakers from New York showed up to start a media project funded by War on Poverty efforts. It was intended to equip local youngsters with skills they could use to find employment out of state. Invited to make a film about their community, Smith put a camera on his shoulder and started talking to local people about their lives. It was then, he says, that he and his fellow students “fell in love with the place that we were part of.”

    In his film work and through the power of his example, Smith has been inspiring people to fall in love with this place and its people ever since. He met his wife, fellow filmmaker Elizabeth Barrett, at Appalshop. The original three-year project has become a 45-year-old nonprofit media arts and education hub that’s been documenting local happenings and training local media-makers since 1969.

    Along with making films, the Smiths raised a family. Today, their son Evan is an up-and-coming lawyer in town; daughter Ada returned from university – to stay.

    “Being elsewhere made me miss this place,” she said.

    “There’s not one silver bullet to replace coal,” says Justin Maxson of MACED. “There are a lot of silver BBs.”

    Appalshop is one of those BBs. The ground floor of the organization’s sunlit, former-warehouse home features an art gallery for local artists and a community theater, as well as a community-run radio station with a window onto the street. Editors and administrators work upstairs. A state-of-the-art vault for archives just opened in the basement – the only climate-controlled media depository in the state.

    Last year, at 26 years old, Ada Smith became Appalshop’s development director. She’s also a founding member of the Stay Together Appalachian Youth (STAY) Project a youth-led, multi-issue network. Her mission, she says, is “to build and keep wealth—and young people— here.” Critical to that mission is creating an ecosystem of knowledge and experience.

    Appalshop offers local residents a chance to learn skills, take leadership, and develop projects – some of which, like the vault, have the potential to make money. The organization’s doing development work; it’s also doing the critical cultural work of changing the image outsiders have of Appalachia, and that Appalachians have of themselves.

    The shelves of Appalshop’s basement vault are piled high with decades of productions in every format imaginable: shiny tin reels, fat and thin videotape, digital drives of every size. The archives hold the stories of coal workers and country singers and kids, parents, and grandparents talking about their lives.

    “We’ve been through people elsewhere telling us what to do,” says Herb. “We’ve had a lot of experience of how that fails.” Now people here have a chance to do something different, but transitioning to an economy that’s not so top down is not going to be easy. The coal industry didn’t just over-exploit the coal here, says Herb. It underdeveloped the skills of the community.

    Whitesburg through the windows of Appalshop.
    Colin Mutchler
    Whitesburg through the windows of Appalshop.

    “In functioning economies, the local people participate,” he said. “Jeffersonian democracy isn’t about there being some company that comes up here and builds your house.”

    Appalshop is a success story. Founded 45 years ago with a federal grant that soon ran out, Appalshop now supports 27 workers, bringing in money through grants but also through the sale of its videos and media services to clients in this country and around the world.

    Making that many jobs in a county this size makes Appalshop an economic force. They’re here in the coalfields, meeting payroll every two weeks. “We’ve demonstrated that it’s possible,” says Herb, a satisfied smile broadening beneath his bushy white moustache.

    View more videos from Appalshop’s YouTube Channel

    Appalshop pumps a certain amount of money into the local economy through wages and spending. Even more significant is its catalytic effect on other businesses and the town.

    Amelia Kirby is the co-owner of Summit City, a bar/café/music venue in the center of town. She used to be the hip-hop DJ on Appalshop’s radio station, WMMT. Almost seven years ago, Kirby and her partner created half a dozen jobs (and a bit of a stir) when they became the first business in Whitesburg to sell alcohol after the town council was persuaded to roll back its prohibition-era “dry” ordinance. Summit City got attention because it was able to book big-name bands, and it could book those bands in part because of the live radio studio down the road at Appalshop. Artists who might otherwise never have come to so small a venue know they’ll be heard for miles around.

    Live music at Summit City.
    Jason Vowels
    Live music at Summit City.

    While it’s not in the black yet, Kirby’s happy with the impact the café is having on the community. The town center is not as quiet after 5 p.m. as it used to be, she says. And people who have been bitterly divided over issues like coal mining are meeting over music and drinks.

    Still, in Maxson’s terms, there’s a long way to go to make systemic change. If Appalshop and Summit City are two silver BBs, they haven’t hit their target yet. Letcher County, where Whitesburg sits, has a slightly smaller population than Harlan and a slightly lower poverty rate, but it’s still hard up (one in four, instead of one in three, residents live in poverty).

    Appalshop still relies on foundation grants, and Kirby and her partner subsidize the café from other funds. To become self-sustaining, local changemakers need state level partners capable of changing policies, increasing tax revenues, and building infrastructure and demand sufficient to bring local initiatives to scale. And because the coal industry penetrated so deeply into every aspect of local life, Appalachia needs a lot of change all at once.

    Inside WMMT, Appalshop's flagship radio station.
    Catherine Moore / Appalachian Transition Fellows
    Inside WMMT, Appalshop’s flagship radio station.

    A local vision for transition

    Replacing coal in coal country is like rewiring a state-sized home. From elections to electricity, the coal economy penetrated every system. Without coal, Appalachia needs not just energy change but systemic change and economic development of massive proportions.

    Fifty years after the War on Poverty, the Appalachian Commission reports that the region’s residents receive less federal funding per head than their more affluent East Coast neighbors. That doesn’t look as if it’s about to change.

    Still, the area has been targeted for special assistance from the federal government under President Obama’s Promise Zone project – a White House initiative to get certain hard-up areas priority access to existing government programs. And in Kentucky, a bipartisan state initiative called SOAR (Shaping Our Appalachian Region) has been tasked with coming up with models for development.

    At the end of April, Whitesburg hosted a “listening session” for residents seeking to weigh in on the county’s plan. Asked to list the “assets” of the region, some of the 75 or so participants put the area’s culture and land close to the top. Others listed natural resources, timber, gas, and the remaining coal. Discussions immediately broke out between the group who feared that pollution from further mining or drilling would wreck the rivers for rafting and canoeing, and the group who doubted service jobs could support a strong local economy.

    David Fisher was laid off in 2012, after a lifetime in the steel industry, when the company he worked for was bought by a conglomerate and promptly closed. “Seventy-eight of us were sent home that same day,” he says.

    Since then, Fisher and his wife started a general store in Whitesburg, selling everything from paper towels to handmade quilts. But foot traffic is slow. A former engineer, Fisher can name half a dozen needs in the area that are going unmet: everything from the means to wire wind turbines to the grid, to a slaughterhouse for local livestock farmers.

    Rather than attempting to attract tourists or chain stores in from elsewhere, Fisher would like to see better broadband, more technical assistance, and easier-to-get loans to local entrepreneurs.

    “It’s not as simple as go work for somebody else,” Fisher told me. “If we want to work we better create our own jobs.”

    In the meantime, Fisher supplements his family’s income by selling produce at a new local farmers market. Valerie Horn, a retired high school guidance counselor (who, as a child, participated in one of Appalshop’s first oral history projects) works with the Community Farm Alliance. The Alliance encourages local people to grow more of their own food and helps people like the Fishers earn income from their gardens. Last year, with help from a state university and the local community college, she was part of a group that started the farmers market, attracting 10 to 12 sellers. She expects twice that many to take part this summer.

    “I’ve not seen this much enthusiasm about anything in a long time,” Horn said over lunch with Kirby, Smith, and Fisher, before the listening session. “That $300 or $400 that people bring in a month from the market is the difference between leaving and being able to stay in their homes.”

    On the questionnaire distributed at the meeting, Horn suggests a local bottling and canning plant so local growers can sell their produce over a longer season. She also expresses skepticism. When asked, “What are the obstacles the region and your county have to overcome to move forward?” Horn wrote: “The local elite has decided the county priorities without any planning [and with] little community input.”

    Horn’s fear is common. While venerable local groups like KFTC, the Farm Alliance, or the American Chestnut Foundation (which plants trees on reclaimed mining land) have spent decades promoting diversification, bottom-up development, and the reforesting of clear-cut lands, state and federal funds have typically gone to shopping malls, industrial parks, golf courses, and prisons. You can see them, sitting on concrete slabs – some busy, some pretty empty – on flattened mountain land across coal country.

    The most influential U.S. Congressman in the state is lobbying hard for more of the same. With two sites identified not far from Whitesburg, Hal Rogers (R-K.Y.) has already secured millions of dollars in congressional aid for planning new prisons. The chair of the powerful House Appropriations Committee, Rogers is also involved in a bipartisan state initiative called SOAR. Sylvia Ryerson, who works on a prison project at Appalshop, fears that any new aid that comes this way will be snapped up by Rogers for prisons.

    This is a critical time, she says, “when the only plan we’re being offered from above is a high-security prison with no guarantee of local jobs. We need to look to each other for ideas.”

    From mines to wines: Models for economic transition

    Coal isn’t the first toxic industry to dominate the Appalachian economy. In the rural areas of the region, the tobacco industry once seemed untouchable, too – until a series of successful lawsuits hobbled it.

    “If transition from tobacco was possible, then so is transition from coal,” West Virginia farmer and local food activist Anthony Flaccavento said as we sat at the big farmhouse kitchen table overlooking his organic vegetable farm.

    After losing in court on charges of covering up the dangers of smoking, the biggest tobacco companies in the world agreed in the 1990s to a “Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement.” Thanks to vigorous local organizing, some of the more than $206 billion states received went to family tobacco farmers seeking to switch to other crops. Those reparations not only helped people whose lives had been ravaged by cancer, but also family farmers whose livelihoods were tied up with tobacco.

    Big Coal has yet to be forced into any “settlement” comparable to Big Tobacco, even though tens of thousands of miners have suffered ill health as a result of poorly protected work underground, and entire communities have felt the harmful effects of coal and the related chemical industry.

    Having felt no threat, some of the same global energy companies and absentee land owners identified in the Appalachian Land Use Study of the ’70s still have huge influence today (the Koch brothers’ Georgia Pacific is one). Some companies that once mined coal are now turning to gas. Fat pipelines already snake across people’s land. The wages aren’t as good and the environmental impacts are still bad, but ex-miners are being told their coalfield skills will transfer well to drilling. Local activists were recently able to delay a proposed “BlueGrass Pipeline” planned to pass through Ohio, Kentucky, and West Virginia, but more are on the way.

    Forcing coal companies to pay out now has the potential to slow down or stop the next wave of extraction. While national groups, when they talk about coal, tend to emphasize the negative environmental impacts of burning it, local organizations like Coal Mountain River Watch, the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, and the ACHE campaign are laser-focused on corporate crimes in the extraction process. And a cohort of (mostly local) lawyers are pushing cases through the courts. Big Coal’s not off the hook yet. Far from it.

    In the meantime, local landowners like David Lawson are making the best out of a bad situation. Lawson is the co-owner and founder of Mountainrose Vineyard in Wise County, a winery in the heart of coal country. The grandson of coal miners and the inheritor of land that’s been in his family since the mid-1800s, Lawson planted his first vines in 1996 on land that had been strip-mined in the 1980s. (While his family owned the land, the coal companies owned the minerals beneath it.) The Lawsons were able to arrange for the company to leave their property, which had been steeply graded — just right for grape-growing.

    Lawson calls it a story of “mines to wines.” Now his wines, with names like Jawbone and Pardee (named after coal seams), are winning prizes and Lawson believes his business could grow.

    “My grandfathers were coal miners,” Lawson said this June. “They dug coal where we are growing grapes today. It’s our way of honoring our heritage as we move into the future.”

    Unfortunately, today most of Wise County is still owned by the federal government and the coal companies – and the companies won’t lease their land for more than a year at a time. “That’s OK for grazing cattle, but it’s no good for wine growing,” Lawson said.

    Short of forcing the companies to give up their land, the authorities could offer the coal companies tax incentives to lease it out for the long term. Lawson believes county coffers would see a boost from business revenues and the community would benefit too.

    I asked Lawson, what if Wise County became award-winning wine country?: “That would create more name recognition worth than any amount of development dollars – and give the county a new image.”

    “That man could be anybody’s”

    Legal strategies may yet play out. In the meantime, there are other possibilities at the level of policy. At a conference of the Appalachian Studies Association held in Huntington this spring, scholars and activists compared their situation to others they felt were comparable: When military bases close, for example, the federal Base Realignment and Closure process sometimes helps military communities transition to a different economy.

    Across the Atlantic, coal communities in Wales received millions of pounds from the European Commission to develop biotechnology and green energy alternatives. Industrialized shortly before Appalachia, now Wales promotes itself as a green energy leader.

    No one has done more to raise questions like these and connect Appalachian mining communities with those in other parts of the world than Helen Lewis. This year she is turning 90. Still in coal country, she lives in a cooperative elder housing community in southwest Virginia where every inch of wall space in her welcoming bungalow home is decorated with paintings, carvings, and ceramics celebrating life in coal mining places. They are gifts from friends she’s made and exchange trips she’s arranged – from other coal-mining communities in Appalachia, to Wales and Chile and South Africa, among others.

    Her back is more bent than it used to be, but her passion isn’t flagging. These days, she has plenty of company in her belief that local people rooted in their history and culture need to be at the heart of the region’s reinvention.

    When we met in the spring of 2012, Lewis was just back from a conference convened by Kentuckians for The Commonwealth titled “Appalachia’s Bright Future.” She was particularly fired up about apple trees. She said before industrial mining, Virginia was the largest apple producer in the United States. She sees a bright future in heirloom fruit, hard cider, and apple wine.

    “Bring back the orchards,” Lewis told a public meeting in nearby Norton this April. It made the front page of the local newspaper.

    When I ask her what she’ll miss about coal, Lewis’ blue eyes glint: “I’ve never known closer, more caring communities.” Her comment takes me back 25 years to a strike I covered in Virginia in 1989. When Pittston Coal, then the leading coal producer in Virginia and the second-largest exporter in the United States, sought to cut the health benefits of its retirees, the reaction in coal country was immediate. Miners and their families – and just about every shopkeeper, chaplain, and contractor around – took their turn blocking coal traffic entering or leaving the coal-pit gates. Those that didn’t blockade massed around in the dusty streets to cheer them on.

    Since people’s lives are constantly at stake, coal-mining communities have developed a culture of hanging together. “Everyone is listening for the siren [the alarm that signals an accident down the mine],” Lewis reflected. If a single man was trapped underground, everyone in the town waited at the pit-head until he surfaced – because, as she put it, “that man could be anybody’s.”

    I ask her, “Can we create strong, local economies and caring communities without the destruction of coal mining?”

    “That’s the question,” she responds.

    Appalachians are not the only ones whose fate hangs on the answer.

    Natalie Lubsen, Molly Rusk, and Jim McGowan contributed reporting and graphic design to this article.

    Filed under: Climate & Energy
    Gristmill: Gimme 8 percent of your lunch! You’re not going to eat it anyway

    When presented with a plate of delicious food, do you eat all of it? Every last bit? Is the plate pristine at the end of your eating session? Yes? Well, okay, you are a liar.

    A recent study in the International Journal of Obesity found that, on average, we eat 92 percent of the food on a plate. Good news (or bad, depending on how you look at it): If the food is unhealthy, that figure goes down to 81 percent.

    What does 92 percent of a meal look like? The friendly staff at Grist have compiled a very helpful guide using your – yes, YOUR – diet as an example!


    7:46 AM: A bagel! What a nice, wholesome way to start your day. Too bad you’re only eating this much of it.


    12:23 PM: Wow, what a terrific-looking salad. Bonus points for the artfully placed radicchio and perfectly halved cherry tomatoes! Sadly, a few of those perfect li’l leaves are going to waste.


    5:15 PM: You know a bar is classy when they give you complimentary olives. Thank god, too, because that salad was not very filling, and honestly, that 8 percent was not going to make much of a difference. Either way, you don’t want to look like a pig, so you have to leave at least one behind. It’s better this way.



    7:06 PM: Did you really pay $16 for charcuterie? Sorry — no judgment. You are now trying to decide whether devouring the entire thing in 90 seconds will augment the faint nausea you feel after 4 glasses of rosé, or temper it. But obviously, you are not going to devour the whole thing. Only 92 percent, remember?


    9:20 PM: This bar is distinctly less classy. You’ve never even seen Cheetos on a menu before, but you’re not arguing. These are objectively pretty unhealthy! You’re probably only going to eat 81 percent of them.


    11:46 PM: Seriously, why are you still here?


    12:27 PM: Home, sweet — oh, dear.


    1:04 AM: YIKES. Wow. The whole bo — ? Okay.

    (But not the whole box, really. Only 92 percent.)

    10:32 AM: Hi! Good morning! You look great. Fantastic news — because we hate food waste, we saved the little bits of leftover food that you didn’t eat yesterday. Here is what that looks like:


    Happy breakfast — enjoy! Wait, where are you going?

    Filed under: Article, Food, Living
    Gristmill: You’d scream, too, if you were this close to a collapsing iceberg

    Climate change is melting ice at both ends of the planet – just ask the researchers who published two papers in May saying that a major expanses of Antarctic ice are now undergoing a “continuous and rapid retreat” and may have “passed the point of no return.”

    As the poles melt, icebergs are breaking off and drifting with greater ease, creating a world of problems for humans and animals alike. In Antarctica, warmer winters mean icebergs aren’t held in place as they once were, and are now colliding with the ocean floor more frequently, laying waste to a complex ecosystem. In Greenland, summer icebergs – like one twice the size of Manhattan that broke off 2012 – can clog up shipping lanes and damage offshore oil platforms.

    But whether climate change set it free or not, even a single ‘berg can be dangerous if you get too close, as this couple discovered when they took a look at one floating off the coast of Newfoundland, in eastern Canada.

    h/t to Minnesota Public Radio News for finding this one.

    This story was produced by Mother Jones as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

    Filed under: Climate & Energy
    Triple Pundit: Follow Up: Twitter Chat with Mars, Inc. – #MarsSusty
    On July 24, join Nick Aster of TriplePundit and Aman Singh of CSRwire for a lively Twitter chat with Mars, Inc. about its 2013 "Principles in Action" CSR report.
    Gristmill: Dead elephants, plagues, and rats: Why the sixth extinction is bad for you and everyone you know

    Hey, remember the dinosaurs? Yeah, neither. All it took was one massive asteroid, and all the dinos were wiped off the face of the planet. Well, there’s a new asteroid in town: us.

    New research published in the journal Science lays out the scope of the destruction we’ve wrought — and suggests that it’s going to come back to bite us. Not only will the so-called sixth extinction make that wildlife safari you’ve always wanted to take a lot less interesting, it could increase disease and make it even harder to feed our own ever-growing population. Happy weekend!

    Similar to previous extinction events, the large, cute animals (like elephants and polar bears) are disappearing the fastest: since 1500, more than 320 land-based vertebrates have gone extinct. Which isn’t just bad news for wildlife junkies; their loss translates into a shift in the whole ecosystem. Scientists found that areas in which the big guys disappeared quickly became infested with rodents – who bring all of their disease-carrying parasites with them.

    “Where human density is high, you get high rates of defaunation, high incidence of rodents, and thus high levels of pathogens, which increases the risks of disease transmission,” lead author Rodolfo Dirzo says. “Who would have thought that just defaunation would have all these dramatic consequences? But it can be a viscious cycle.”

    The sixth extinction also means bad news for those critters that we’re less likely to fawn over, but we’ll probably still miss them when they’re gone. As the human population has doubled since 1979, the number of invertebrate animals (such as insects) has decreased by 45 percent. You might be used to thinking of bugs as unwanted pests, but they do actually help us out in some crucial ways. Like, say, eating. We rely on insects to pollinate about three-quarters of the world’s food crops.

    So if you’re not kind of person that’s into animals, so be it. But if you’re the kind of person that enjoys, well, living? Turns out, you could benefit from the animals as much as they could benefit from you.

    Filed under: Article, Climate & Energy, Food
    Gristmill: Out-of-touch dads still want gas-guzzling SUVs, apparently
    Father's Day is just around the corner!

    Watching the cultural backlash against all the mongo SUVs that ran us off roads, CO2′d our cities, and ruined Hype Williams videos for something like two decades remains one of the unexpected pleasures of the recession. Soccer moms now want Priuses instead of Escalades; carmakers embraced fuel efficiency as a selling point; the Tesla S seems poised to own poster space on the bedrooms of car-obsessed teenagers.

    But like brachiosaurs in Jurassic Park, Suburbans aren’t dead yet. Today, the New York Times reports that SUV sales have very nearly singlehandedly kept GM afloat with almost $1 billion in profits this year, and the company commands 70 percent of the market. GM’s mastodon-size vehicles sport higher profit margins than its current line of fuel-efficient vehicles, and they inspire loyalty among previous adopters who feel a recovering economy has washed off some of the stink. Judging by the quoted sources, a lot of these folks are dads who just don’t give a shit about gas mileage:

    “I didn’t buy the vehicle for the gas mileage,” [Mike Quinto] said. “I bought it for everything it can do for me and my family.” …

    Howard Sucher, of Parkland, Fla., knows the feeling. Mr. Sucher has a family of six, including a newborn, and he said even his old Cadillac Escalade was too small. When the new 2015 Suburban became available, he, too, bought it without ever taking a test drive — ordering it early from a dealer in Miami.

    “I felt I had no choice,” Mr. Sucher said. “There really is no other large vehicle for a family this big that needs a stroller in the trunk.”

    “It actually gets decent mileage on the highway, so that’s a bonus,” he added. “But gas mileage wasn’t a factor in my decision.”

    Is it time to worry that the Dawn of the Electric Car might get crushed under 65 tons of American pride? Before we do that, let’s take a quick moment to recall a few more things out-of-touch dads love that miraculously persist as background cultural artifacts, not societal drivers:

    1. America’s ‘Horse With No Name’

    2. Squishy-butt jeans with “plenty of room”

    3. Dave Barry

    4. Bathroom joke books

    5. Bathrooms

    6. Socks ‘n’ sandals

    7. Pot (never now, but 40 years ago)

    8. Being proud of you, no matter what

    See? Harmless curios from bygone eras for us to enjoy on occasion with our dear old dads, ironically or unironically. This is the destiny of the honkin’ SUV.

    Filed under: Article, Business & Technology
    Triple Pundit: 3p Weekend: 11 Companies That Hire the Formerly Incarcerated
    It's no secret that finding a job after being released from prison is an often insurmountable task, leading to skyrocketing recidivism rates across the country. While many companies are hesitant to hire the formerly incarcerated, a number of enterprises are taking a chance on these men and women -- and, in turn, giving them a second chance at life.
    Gristmill: Be a patriot, eat less beef

    As Josh Harkinson noted this week, cows are the United States’ single biggest source of methane – a potent gas that has 105 times the heat-trapping ability of carbon dioxide. That’s one major reason why beef’s greenhouse gas footprint is far higher than that of most other sources of protein, according to an EWG study. (Though it’s consumed at a fraction of the rate of beef or chicken, lamb is by far the most carbon intensive of the major meats, according to EWG, since the animal’s smaller body produces meat less efficiently but still produces a lot of methane.)


    And EWG’s estimate of beef’s impact may actually be on the conservative side: A study released this week found the greenhouse gases associated with beef to be even higher.

    So what should you eat instead of beef? One answer: Chicken, which has a carbon footprint roughly a fifth the size of beef’s. Happily, earlier this week, the National Chicken Council released new research showing that Americans are eating chicken in 17 percent more meals and snacks than they did in 2012. As the chart below shows, chicken consumption has actually been rising steadily for decades. Red meat consumption, meanwhile, has steadily declined over the same period.

    The group attributes the spike in chicken consumption to consumers’ perception of poultry as healthier than beef, not its smaller carbon footprint. But the environmental benefits are a great side effect, says Emily Cassidy, an analyst at the Environmental Working Group. “If every American simply switched from beef to chicken, it could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 137 million metric tons of carbon a year, or as much as taking 26 million cars off the road,” she says, citing a recent EWG report.

    Still, even as the American appetite for beef has declined over the years, other countries are picking up the slack. Globally, beef and veal production has increased almost 20 percent between 1995 and 2012, according to the Organization for Economically Developed Countries. It’s projected to increase another 11 percent by 2022, a trend that’s largely driven by rising incomes in Asia (and, increasingly, in Africa).

    In the face of this environmental onslaught, says Cassidy, really measurable change could only happen if everyone ate vastly less meat – and the only way to achieve that is to change policies that favor livestock feeds like corn.

    “Essentially, cheap corn encourages meat to be a big part of our diets,” she says. “If crop subsidies were reined in, meat and especially beef consumption would likely go down.”

    This story was produced by Mother Jones as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

    Filed under: Climate & Energy, Food
    Triple Pundit: White House Launches $10 Billion Rural Infrastructure Fund
    A public-private partnership, the Rural Infrastructure Opportunity Fund offers private sector investors an opportunity to leverage and capitalize on federal resources and expertise for the benefit of rural communities across the U.S.
    Triple Pundit: Ashoka’s Vision to Develop an International Age of Social Entrepreneurship
    Ashoka has always been the world's leader in developing the idea of a social entrepreneur. It is an international non-government organization looking to develop a world where everyone is a change-maker. Here, is a a brief illumination of the challenges and mission of Ashoka's São Paulo, Brazil branch.
    Gristmill: Letter from Detroit: And now for a completely different kind of Canadian pipeline

    I was loading boxes of water onto a truck in Detroit yesterday when I heard the news: A convoy from the Council of Canadians was coming over the Ambassador Bridge from Windsor, bearing gifts of water. “Really, Canada?” I thought. “We’re practically in each other’s backyards. Basically, the only thing separating us from you is water.”

    That’s not the kind of water you can drink, though. And also: Protest is storytelling, just like the rest of politics. I had been interviewing some people downtown about Detroit’s water crisis, and they were all going to see the water arrive, because why not? When we were done with the last water delivery, we walked down to the Spirit of Detroit sculpture, where the convoy would be arriving.

    Campus Martius Park was packed with people celebrating Detroit’s birthday, which I had not even thought of the city as having. I passed a huge banner, unfurled across the modernist facade of one of the tall buildings on Michigan Avenue. Decorated with neon confetti and party hats, it looked like the kind of banner you might buy for a little kid’s birthday party, but on a colossal scale.

    “Happy 313th birthday, Detroit!” it read. “You don’t look a day over 300!”

    There was a throng of people at the Spirit of Detroit sculpture already, holding signs that read “Water=Love,” and chanting “Whose water? Our water!” over and over, with occasional breaks for speechmaking and practical matters. “There’s a council hearing this Tuesday,” a woman from the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization said to the crowd. “I want you all to call your councilman and ask, how many people in your district have lost their water? And when are they going to get it back?”

    The water, predictably, got stuck at the border, so it was late. When it did arrive, there was much cheering and a race between several local television news crews to document the moment when the hatchback of the Jeep Grand Cherokee at the head of the convoy opened, revealing several utility jugs of Canadian tap water.

    The convoy was held up, we learned, because the Canadian side was figuring out how to tax the water that was leaving the country. Both sides eventually reached a mutual agreement of $10.

    The water, it was announced, would be taken to St. Pete’s Church on Washington Avenue and stacked near the holy water fountain. “We brought it as much of a show of solidarity as anything else,” said one of the Canadians to the cheering crowd.  “But we did bring water.”

    Filed under: Article, Cities, Politics
    Gristmill: Want to support clean energy? Fight for voting rights

    As Jelani Cobb wrote recently in The New Yorker: “The past year has offered an odd object lesson in historical redundancy. The 50th anniversaries of major points in the civil-rights movement tick by at the same time that Supreme Court decisions and political maneuvering in state legislatures offer reminders of what, exactly, the movement fought against.”

    The most recognizable example of what Cobb is referring to is the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2013 Shelby v. Holder decision, which severely weakened the heralded Voting Rights Act just weeks before we recognized the 50th anniversary of the historic March on Washington that made the civil rights law possible. Earlier this month, we recognized the 50th of the Civil Rights Act, and next year will mark the half-century mark of the Voting Rights Act itself. And yet equal protection for people of color seems to be moving backwards.

    Why should this matter to the average white (green) American? Well, for many reasons. But one of them is this: In our ever-browning America, empowering black and brown voters is absolutely necessary to make the transition to clean energy.

    Consider that only 51 percent of American voters “strongly” prefer clean energy investments, according to a recent Sierra Club survey, but preference is significantly higher among African-American voters (77 percent) and Latino voters (71 percent). A Yale study found that African Americans and Latinos are more likely than whites to require electric utilities to produce at least 20 percent — a modest sum — of energy load from wind or solar, even if that would increase electric bills.

    And yet it’s white men who exercise most of the power over the current coal-based economy – via their places on corporate boards, their positions in politics, and, on the local and state level, where they make up the bulk of public utility and service commissioners. The utility commissioners (who are usually elected or appointed) regulate the corporate-owned utility industries, determine electricity costs and, in some cases, decide where power plants can be built.

    These utility commissioners will play a critical role in hammering out the details of the Environmental Protection Agency’s recently announced regulations for coal-fired power plants. Yet, many of them do not look like the residents that the utilities serve. According to a study from the Minority and Media Telecom Council, 33 state public utility commissions (64.7 percent) do not have a single minority member — that includes Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, and South Carolina, the states with the highest concentration of black residents.

    We also see this whiteout at the federal level, where the number of people of color serving in the U.S. House and Senate energy committees are but a handful.

    You can chalk this lack of diversity up to the kind of patronage and cronyism that has preserved these powerful roles for white men —  a function of white supremacy. You can also credit voter suppression and intimidation, which happen even in local utility district elections. In fact, such shenanigans are harder to detect in these smaller races that don’t draw the same kind of media spotlight as a gubernatorial or presidential race. In the 1980s and 1990s, when African Americans built multiracial coalitions to diversify local utility boards and electricity co-ops throughout the South, white officials secretly changed election rules to disqualify their votes (read more on this here).

    Other examples:

    ● In 2000, the Department of Justice filed a voting rights complaint against the Upper San Gabriel Valley Municipal Water District in Los Angeles County, Calif., for redrawing district lines so that the Latino voting populations would be diluted across the district.

    ● In 2008, Texas proposed to change its qualification requirements for candidates running for water supply district supervisor so that only landowners would be eligible, which ruled out a number of Latino Americans seeking candidacy and some who were already supervisors.

    ● Also in 2008, the North Austin Municipal Utility District v. Holder case, which the U.S. Supreme Court almost used to dismantle the Voting Rights Act, involved elections for positions that control utility, land, and water resources.

    These cases show how racial disenfranchisement drains power, energy, and resources from people of color, which is why Voting Rights Act protections are so essential.

    People are taking action despite these problems. Latino Americans are campaigning to defeat a proposal from the Public Service Company of New Mexico, which wants to build more coal and nuclear energy stations. In Arizona, Latinos are campaigning to encourage the Salt River Project public utility board to increase solar and wind energy generation. In South Carolina, Rev. Leo Woodberry is leading an environmental justice effort to work on the state’s implementation plans for the new power plant regulations, with an emphasis on making sure electricity rates remain affordable and accessible for low-income customers.

    Understand, it’s not only that we need more black and brown utility commissioners. But voters need to ensure that commissioners of any race represent their clean energy values. Last year in Georgia, a multi-racial band of clean energy advocates teamed with the not-so-colorful Tea Party to force Georgia Power Company to increase solar-based energy production. The coalition did this by appealing to the Georgia Public Service Commission. There has been only one African American and one woman who’ve served on Georgia’s Public Service Commission in its 133 years, both of them elected in the 21st century.

    These are laudable campaigns, but ultimately it will require African-American, Native-American, and Latino American voters being able to vote fairly and freely — and also to be able to serve on these boards — to ensure that those paying the highest costs for our fossil fuel addiction have a voice in securing a clean energy future. For all Americans who want the same for their future, the way to act is to support strengthening voting rights protections across the nation.

    Filed under: Article, Cities, Climate & Energy, Politics
    Gristmill: Amory Lovins’ high-tech home skimps on energy but not on comfort
    Amory Lovins' Banana Farm
    © Judy Hill Lovins

    For most of its history, environmentalism has been associated with a back-to-the-land lifestyle: being one with nature, living in the woods, wearing sandals, maybe driving a Volkswagen. Over the last decade, a counter-narrative has taken over. Cities are in. As climate change has become the dominant environmental issue, a low-carbon lifestyle has become the priority. Denser living is heralded for its energy efficiency, as are walking, biking and taking transit instead of driving.

    All other things being equal, walkable urbanism beats sprawl. But one house in Old Snowmass, Colo., demonstrates that, with the right design, rural living can be about as low-carbon as possible. And it turns out those hippies were on to something: the secrets to low-impact rural housing lie in embracing nature instead of combatting it. Plus it helps to have some bleeding-edge technology.

    Amory Lovins, the owner of the house, is exactly the guy you’d expect to live here. A bespectacled physicist and world-renowned energy-efficiency expert, he cofounded the Rocky Mountain Institute in 1982 with his then-wife L. Hunter Lovins. They chose this location, nestled up in the mountains 14 miles from Aspen, for RMI’s first headquarters, which they built as a model of energy efficiency. The original structure was completed in 1984. Today, RMI has expanded into other buildings, but Lovins still lives in the original house, which got a high-tech makeover in 2009.

    Amory Lovins
    © Judy Hill Lovins
    Amory Lovins with his bananas.

    Lovins instructs visitors to drink water, because the house’s high elevation, around 8,000 feet, causes dehydration, and he throws on a goofy fisherman’s hat to protect his bald head when going outside. He calls his home “the Banana Farm,” after the tropical fruits grown in its greenhouse.

    Many suburbanites have rejected the housing styles best suited to their specific environments, instead embracing a generic image of the American Dream that is often regionally inappropriate. Picture green lawns baking in the Arizona desert. The Banana Farm, however, adopts the classic adobe style indigenous to the Mountain West.

    The primary challenge to building a super-efficient home in the mountains is heating. It can get very cold on winter nights in Old Snowmass, as low as -30 Fahrenheit. Heating a home here is an energy-intensive, and expensive, proposition. And so Lovins’ single biggest insight was to design it with walls so thick that it didn’t require heating.

    Banana Farm in the snow
    © Judy Hill Lovins

    In an arid mountainous area, the sun is strong during the day. So the 16-inch thick walls — made of concrete, locally harvested sandstone, and a middle four inches of polyurethane — are adept at storing heat throughout the day and retaining it overnight. Typically, an architect would recommend increasing the wall thickness until the point where the marginal savings on heating are passed by the increased costs of building. But Lovins went twice as thick, thereby eliminating the need to build a heating system at all. “We saved $1,100, and that’s just on the building, never mind operating the heating,” Lovins boasts.

    Windows are a major source of air leakage, so the building has “super-windows,” which have microscopically thin layers of gases such as krypton and xenon that let in light but prevent heat exchange. “It’s equal to 16 layers of glass but it uses only two layers and costs less than three,” says Lovins.

    Keeping rooms warm is not the only purpose for which most houses require oil or natural gas. To make a “combustion-free” house, Lovins had to solve a few other problems such as drying clothes and heating water. The answer is to harness the sun’s natural heating power. Although they have a dryer, Lovins and his current wife Judy usually hang their clothes on a line that can be raised by pulley up into a skylight and dried in the sunlight. They heat water through eight thermal solar panels and send it around the house through pipes that are extra wide and turn at gentle angles to minimize the electricity needed to move it.

    Banana Farm

    The house’s electricity is all renewable. Massive solar panels adorn the roof, carport, and grounds alongside the building. The panels produce far more solar power during the day than the Lovinses use, so they sell electricity to the grid during the day and buy wind energy from the grid at night. They also store the solar power in batteries so that they could be fully self-sufficient in a blackout. The batteries would run down at night but be recharged during the day. “In February 2013, there were five power failures [in the area], and we never lost power,” says Lovins.

    Super-efficient appliances are another reason that the house uses less than half the electricity of most comparable-sized homes. The dishwasher, from Swedish company Asko, has sensors that measure the cleanliness of the water coming out and stop washing when the water is clean, instead of continuing to run for another hour. The result is that it uses two-thirds of the water and electricity of a typical dishwasher. The fridge and freezer are also designed to save more energy than typical models. The compressor, which gives off heat, is located at the top rather than the bottom, so that as the heat rises it goes away and does not necessitate more cooling. The electric stove comes with specially designed copper pots that retain heat and can boil water at an incredible speed. The lights are all LED, and track lighting helps distribute light more efficiently around the large living room.

    The main trick, though, is not using more advanced technology, but using the oldest one available. In the middle of the building, between the living area and the office, is a greenhouse. A wide section of roof over it is glass, allowing sunlight and heat to pour in, helping to reduce the need for lighting. “You basically don’t turn the lights on during the daytime,” says Lovins. The building’s rounded walls distribute the light more effectively than a typical house full of right angles.

    the greenhouse at the Banana Farm
    © Judy Hill Lovins

    Lovins grows tropical fruit in the greenhouse, not just the eponymous bananas but mangos and even coffee. The plants consume CO2 and release humidity. They also store heat. The greenhouse also features a pond, which adds ambient noise, a nice feature because such a tightly constructed and mechanical-free house might otherwise be eerily quiet.

    Even the bathroom contains oddball innovations, such as a sink on top of the toilet tank, so that when you flush the toilet you can wash your hands in the water that will then refill the tank. (This apparently is common in Japan because space there is at such a premium and it saves the need for a separate sink.)

    Lovins drives an electric car and charges it with solar power. Of course, he’d be an even greater net clean energy contributor if he didn’t need a car at all, much less his second one for long trips that exceed the electric car’s range. But the Lovinses manage to live a lifestyle that is remarkably low-impact without being abstemious. They even have a solar-heated hot tub.

    Looking out at the stunning mountain views they enjoy from the hot tub, it’s understandable why they wouldn’t want to trade in their 4,000-square-foot house for a cramped urban apartment. And thanks to smart design, they don’t have to.

    Evening view of the garden at the Banana Farm
    © Judy Hill Lovins

    Filed under: Article, Climate & Energy, Living
    Gristmill: On climate change, Republicans are even more backward than oil companies
    old white guy

    Ask your average liberal or environmentalist to name the primary impediment to action on climate change, and the response will probably be: “Easy. It’s the fossil fuel industry.”

    It’s not that easy, however. The fossil fuel companies are actually more accepting of climate reality than virtually every Republican in Congress.

    That’s the conclusion I came to after watching a presentation by Cho-Oon Khong, chief political analyst at the Shell Oil company at the Aspen Ideas Festival last month. Khong called a temperature increase of 2 degrees Celsius “the flu,” leading to heat waves, sea-level rise, and 10 to 20 percent less arable land. “But the worst effects are beyond that limit, when you start to see feedback loops,” he warned.

    Accepting the 2 degree Celsius target is the same thing as accepting the recommendations of the global scientific community. Khong laid out possible world energy portfolios for keeping warming to 2 degrees. None would thrill environmentalists, as they rely to varying degrees on increases in nuclear energy, natural gas, and the deployment of carbon capture and sequestration (CCS). But he nonetheless acknowledged that we needed to change our ways.

    “We have to talk about using any fossil fuel more efficiently, and CCS,” he said. Afterwards, he told Grist, “I think it would be foolish to dispute the science [of climate change].”

    Shell was a sponsor of Aspen Ideas, and Khong’s speech — given in the Booz Allen Hamilton room of the Koch building — would be dismissed by any skeptical observer as corporate greenwashing. In 2009, Shell dropped its investments in solar, wind, and hydropower.

    But Republicans don’t even bother with greenwashing. Not a single Republican member of Congress, with the exception of Rep. Michael Grimm who represents a swing district in New York City badly damaged by Hurricane Sandy, fully accepts the scientific consensus that global warming is happening and it is caused by greenhouse gas emissions.

    Shell is hardly the only oil company that admits that emissions from the fuels it produces is causing the planet’s average temperature to rise. Just take a look at their websites.

    ExxonMobbil, the largest and most intransigent of the American oil giants, “believes that it is prudent to develop and implement strategies that address the risks to society associated with increasing GHG emissions.”

    Exxon avoids discussing climate science directly, but it implicitly accepts it by acknowledging the “risks” of greenhouse gases and the desirability of reducing them. It tries to counter that with a lot of talk about the value of energy to economic growth and some fear-mongering about the costs of regulating carbon. Nonetheless, it says, “Industry and governments should pursue an integrated set of solutions that include developing new energy supplies, increasing efficiency, and advancing energy technologies.”

    Chevron, the next-largest, claims to “recognize and share the concerns of governments and the public about climate change.” The very next sentence states: “The use of fossil fuels to meet the world’s energy needs is a contributor to an increase in greenhouse gases (GHGs) — mainly carbon dioxide (CO2 ) — in the Earth’s atmosphere.”

    This would seem to be a straightforward admission of the role of GHGs in global warming, although a careful reading reveals that the company does not directly acknowledge that GHGs cause warmer global average temperatures. Like Exxon, Chevron talks a lot about the economic need for lots of energy from fossil fuels for the foreseeable future. Even so, the company’s site says, “We are also committed to improving our energy efficiency and researching how to deliver volumes of alternative fuels at scale in the future.”

    BP is the most forthright of the major oil companies. Its climate change page opens with bracing honesty: “According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), warming of the climate system is unequivocal, and is in large part due to an increase in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from human activity.”

    Critics contend that even BP, in rebranding itself “Beyond Petroleum,” is doing little more than greenwashing. Even so, these statements are all to the left of the GOP on climate and energy.

    Take a look at the Republican Party’s 2012 platform. Climate change and global warming are not mentioned, and the only reference to greenhouse gases is the following statement opposing their regulation under the Clean Air Act: “We also call on Congress to take quick action to prohibit the EPA from moving forward with new greenhouse gas regulations that will harm the nation’s economy and threaten millions of jobs over the next quarter century.”

    The document is filled with demands for more fossil fuel development without mention of any environmental impact. Here’s the statement of overarching principle: “Our common theme is to promote development of all forms of energy, enable consumer choice to keep energy costs low, and ensure that America remains competitive in the global marketplace. We will respect the States’ proven ability to regulate the use of hydraulic fracturing, continue development of oil and gas resources in places like the Bakken formation and Marcellus Shale, and review the environmental laws that often thwart new energy exploration and production.”

    Every likely 2016 Republican presidential contender expresses uncertainty at best about climate science. And congressional Republicans have made it clear that reducing fossil fuel consumption through efficiency or expansion of renewables is of no interest to them. They recently killed a bill that would have helped the private sector with voluntary efficiency improvements because it did not include approval of the Keystone XL pipeline. They are also turning against the wind energy production tax credit, even as fossil fuels drain billions of dollars from the federal Treasury in tax subsidies.

    It is probably no coincidence that Shell and BP, being European, are less backwards about climate science than their American counterparts. A similar disparity exists politically, with the major European conservative parties being more enlightened than Republicans. But even American oil companies are clearly to the left of Republicans on climate.

    It turns out you actually can be more Catholic than the Pope.

    It makes sense when you consider the changes in the GOP since 2008, when its presidential ticket supported cap-and-trade. First, the Tea Party wave has swept in a cohort of Republicans who are genuine believers in their anti-environmental platform. With ideology as their motivation, rather than mere economic self-interest, there is no limit to their hostility to addressing climate change. This is why ideologically extreme right-wing foundations have replaced Exxon as the leading funders of climate denial.

    All the studies in the world showing that the cost of catastrophic climate change is higher than the cost of regulating greenhouse gases won’t change their mind, because they aren’t interested in cost-benefit analysis. They view regulations as immoral infringements on freedom. Claiming they will cost money is just a convenient argument.

    You also see a difference between the constituencies that oil companies and Republican politicians must respond to. Republican candidates and officeholders must appease right wing Republican primary voters, grassroots activists, and donors. For those groups, refusing to accept climate science or even voluntary efforts to reduce energy consumption or carbon emissions is a matter of tribal identity politics. Prius owners are liberals, so Priuses are offensive to their eyes, and the underlying premise that spewing CO2 out of your tailpipe isn’t good for the Earth must also be false.

    Oil companies actually have a broader constituency than Republicans do. Not everyone who buys stock in an oil company or fills up his gas tank votes Republican. To keep activist investors at bay, ward off efforts to divest university endowments from fossil fuels, and keep a friendly face on their gas stations, it behooves Exxon and others to at least pretend to care about the environment. Pretending to care requires admitting that the CO2 you emit is contributing to climate change.

    Of course, oil companies have been known to say one thing directly to the public and another through dark money donations to climate-denying advocacy groups. But Exxon, which gave heavily to those groups between 2003 and 2007, hasn’t done so — at least through a publicly traceable donation — since 2008.

    That would be encouraging, if only the people with the real power to do something about climate change — the ones controlling the House of Representatives — were also coming around to reality.

    Filed under: Business & Technology, Climate & Energy, Politics
    Triple Pundit: The A to Z of Unusual Renewable Energy Sources
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    Gristmill: Relax, everyone: We’re not about to run out of kale

    Lay off the kale, you arrogant yuppies.* The leafy green’s popularity has skyrocketed in the last few years, and as a result, Bejo Seeds, a major kale seed supplier, just ran out of seeds in Australia.

    The kale chip fans in the media are scared. “Hipsters have made kale so popular that farmers are struggling to meet demand,” cries the Daily Mail. “Time to Panic: There May Be a Global Kale Shortage,” warns Eater. “Start Prepping Now for a Possible Global Kale Shortage,” advises GrubStreet.

    I see you’re already clutching your favorite leafy green and growling. But is it really time to panic over, hoard, and ration your kale?

    Don’t unwax your handlebar mustache just yet. First, to point out the obvious, we’re only talking about a temporary shortage from one (albeit big) seed supplier in one country. The Bejo Seeds Australia director told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation that he hopes seeds will be available by September or October.

    When I contacted the Australia director for more details, he told me they had “switched the tap off” when it comes to the kale story. Translation: Calm the fuck down, internet.

    I called up the managing director of Bejo Seeds’ U.S. branch, Mark Overduin. He told me that while their branch had quadrupled kale seeds sales in the last three years, they weren’t feeling the same crunch as their sister branch in Australia. “Sometimes supplies get a little tight,” he said. When I told him that I thought that the kalepocalypse was overblown, he chuckled and said I was probably right. The leafy green researcher and kale farmers I heard from didn’t seem too concerned, either.

    While the kale market has been booming — with one Australian farm putting in 150,000 kale seedlings a week — it’s not clear that global demand is outpacing supply. “This is probably one of the slowest seasons we’ve had for kale,” said Scott Niizawa, commodity manager for Growers Express in Salinas, California. Turns out farmers pay attention to food trends, too. “Everyone has been getting in on kale. It’s not expensive to grow, it gives fairly high yields for its cost, so there are so many competitors right now,” he said.

    Hear that? Your kale is safe. While I feel for the Australian farmers who might be scrambling over seeds for the next two months, this is just another case of a hyped-up, everything-delicious-you’ve-ever-loved-will-be-taken-from-you story.

    If there’s anything to be learned, it’s that hiccups are bound to happen as a crop scales up into the mainstream. “Just 50 crop commodities provide more than 90 percent of calories, protein, and fat around the world,” writes Virginia Gewin at Slate. We need to shake that up. Try not to panic when we do.

     *I eat kale on a near-daily basis, so if anyone is being arrogant here, it’s this guy. I couldn’t help but poke fun at Tom Philpott’s recent smash hit, “Lay off the almond milk, you ignorant hipsters.”

    Thanks to the good folks in the UC system for help with finding sources. 

    Filed under: Article, Food, Living
    Triple Pundit: New Ethical Shopping App features CSRHub Sustainability Ratings
    Ethical Barcode has released a new sustainability ratings app powered by the CSRHub API that lets you uncover what you're truly supporting when you shop.
    Gristmill: Frackers learn one does not simply walk into Pittsburgh and mess with its CSAs

    The Pennsylvania Constitution stipulates that its citizens have a right to “clean air, pure water, and to the preservation of the natural, scenic, historic, and esthetic values of the environment.”

    Allow me to propose, herewith, an amendment: “… and a toxin-free CSA box, goddamn it.” (Would Benjamin Franklin approve of that wording? Who cares, he’s dead!)

    In New Sewickley Township, about 30 miles north of the city of Pittsburgh, there’s a new microcosm of the ongoing tug-of-war between the oil and gas industry and people who just happen to like clean air and water (crazy! I know). Kretschmann Farm, which has supplied certified organic produce to the greater Pittsburgh area for 36 years, is engaged in battle with Cardinal Midstream, a Texas-based corporation proposing to build a natural gas compressor station right next door.

    A bit of background, for those who are new here: Most of Pennsylvania sits on the Marcellus Shale, the country’s top source of natural gas. The state has 6,391 active fracking wells, and with salivating oil and gas companies aggressively courting legislators and landowners across the state, that number is rapidly growing. But this has all happened very quickly — 10 years ago, the use of “fracking” in conversation was more likely to be understood as a hedged expletive than anything else.

    In Pennsylvania, one has to move pretty quickly to keep up with the developments surrounding natural gas infrastructure. But unfortunately, research on the health and environmental effects of fracking tends to move very slowly.

    In that regard, Becky Kretschmann, who owns Kretschmann Farm with her husband, Don, tells me that her opposition to the proposed compressor plant has to do more with the possibility of how it could contaminate their crops.

    “We just know there’s the possibility of all sorts of toxins,” she says. “It’s very difficult to get access to the sites to do research, and there is not a lot done yet — although it’s in the process — in terms of relating health issues with fracking and these compressor plants. But the research is really in its infancy. So, lots to do before we sleep.”

    It’s not like these concerns are unwarranted. A few recent and alarming news items from the Keystone State regarding its natural gas industry: Hundreds of incidences of contaminated water, health workers prohibited from discussing fracking with patients, and faulty measurement of harmful emissions.

    I reached out to Cardinal Midstream to ask about the precautions that would be taken to prevent contamination from the proposed compressor station, and received the following response from their spokesperson:

    We are committed to being a good neighbor and it’s our job to make sure we minimize impact.  We’re serious about that job. As you know, emissions are heavily regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency. The station will meet and exceed all federal and state standards and the requirements of the township’s ordinance. This facility will not impact the quality of the produce and livestock grown in the community.

    It’s worth noting that just this week, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection issued a report detailing its own inability to adequately monitor and regulate fracking operations in the state. From the report:

    In conclusion, as evidenced by this audit, DEP needs assistance. It is underfunded, understaffed, and does not have the infrastructure in place to meet the continuing demands placed upon the agency by expanded shale gas development.

    Cardinal Midstream first started posting notices about a hearing regarding the proposed compressor station four months ago, Kretschmann tells me, but she didn’t find out about it until three weeks ago. “We got a call from a neighbor who said, ‘You know what’s going on?’ and we [didn’t],” she says. “That was on July 2. There was a meeting that night with the township board of supervisors and the gas company and the compression company. And they wanted a vote right away, yes or no.”

    A second hearing, which took place last night, was attended by more than 300 people — so many, in fact, that the venue had to be changed at the last minute — and lasted approximately six hours. “I was astonished at how many people stayed until the bitter end,” says Kretschmann.

    While the majority of the attendees were New Sewickley residents, a number of the Kretschmanns’ CSA customers came in from the city for it. Approximately 300 of their customers wrote letters of support to the township manager.

    Kretschmann tells me that Cardinal Midstream made an hour-and-a-half long presentation on the safety of the proposed compressor station, and brought along a panel of their own experts. New Sewickley residents opposed to the station, however, were not as well-prepared.

    “We were just frustrated — we did the best we could with the information we could garner ourselves, and had quite a few people presenting various [pieces of] information, but we didn’t have the experts that they had,” says Kretschmann. “And shame on us, in a sense, because we weren’t keeping up on what was going on in the township.”

    The New Sewickley Township supervisors will meet again on July 31, and then render a decision within the following 45 days.

    On one hand, you kind of have to admire the balls of a corporation fighting to potentially endanger the supply of Pittsburgh’s up-and-coming restaurant scene. One does not thoughtlessly fuck with a foodie’s seasonal vegetable ragout. But on the other hand, the oil and gas industry is pretty much the absolute worst, so — admiration rescinded.

    Filed under: Climate & Energy, Food, Living
    Gristmill: Climate change VR games make you a better person by making you kill trees and coral

    Despite our best efforts to convince people of the dangers of climate change, fully half of Americans still choose to ignore the 97 percent of scientists who say it’s real. Well, stop tearing your hair out, and get a load of this mind boggling study out of Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab, which shows how virtual simulations might be the thing to do the trick.

    Armed with an Oculus VR headset, one of the lab’s games guides the participant on a walk through the forest. And then, things get a little weird:

    From Smithsonian:

    In a minute, she’s handed a joystick that looks and vibrates like a chainsaw, and she’s asked to cut down a tree. As she completes the task, she feels the same sort of resistance she might feel if she were cutting down a real tree. When she leaves this forest, and re-enters the “real” world, her paper consumption will drop by 20 percent and she will show a measurable preference for recycled paper products. Those effects will continue into the next few weeks and researchers hypothesize it will be a fairly permanent shift. By comparison, students who watch a video about deforestation or read an article on the subject will show heightened awareness of paper waste through that day—but they will return to their baseline behavior by the end of the week.

    Just imagine what she’d do if we made her go out and cut down a real live tree!

    The coral reef game takes it even a step further, by making the participant actually become a piece of coral. It goes something like this: Participant is plopped in the middle of a beautiful, serene sea. Ocean acidification sets in. All of her new aquatic friends begin to die off – until even the piece of coral that she has come to embody begins to fade. With the realization that not even her hot tears can make it better, she vows to never to anything to harm the ocean again.

    Smithsonian reports that the game was more effective at getting participants to change their behaviors than making them watch an ocean acidification video explainer (but, then again, that might just be due to the known soporific qualities of most nature docs).

    As for those of us who have dedicated our lives to communicating the dangers of climate change, painstakingly documenting every data point and endangered species? Screw it, we can all just go home. There’s a sweet new game on Xbox we’ve been meaning to try, anyway.

    Filed under: Climate & Energy, Living
    Gristmill: Northwest wildfires: We broke the forests, now we need to fix them

    The Northwest is ablaze. Both Washington and Oregon are in official states of emergency as dozens of fires burn on forests and rangelands. Rainy weather in some areas has helped firefighters in the past few days, but according to the federal government’s InciWeb website, there are still 22 large fires burning almost a million acres in the two states. The half-contained Carlton Complex fire in north-central Washington alone has torched 150 homes and burned more than a quarter million acres, making it the largest in state history.

    Welcome to the hot, flammable future, America. We’ve been setting ourselves up for these fires for a long, long time.

    David Freedman has a strong piece on the past, present, and future of wildfire in America in the latest issue of Men’s Journal. Here’s a snippet starring Dave Cleaves, an economist and former professor who now advises the chief of the U.S. Forest Service:

    In the late 1980s, Cleaves found himself wondering: Why was the U.S. being hit by more and more uncontrollable fires? Up until then, increasing investments in firefighting seemed to have rendered wildfires tamable. But in 1989, 873 structures burned down in California wildfires. In 1990, 641 structures were lost in a single fire. In 1991, more than 3,300 homes were torched in a firestorm near Oakland. Throughout the 1980s, an average of 3 million acres had burned each year in the U.S.; by 1991, the number exceeded 5 million acres. “Large parts of whole counties in the West were going up in single fires,” says Cleaves. “We’d never seen fires like that.”

    Cleaves pored over the data and came to a disturbing conclusion, one that seemed almost preposterous at the time: A slow but accelerating rise in average temperatures in the West was tipping the wildlands into a state of unprecedented vulnerability that would render fires increasingly uncontrollable. Today, we call it climate change.

    Turns out you don’t have to crank up the thermostat very far to make already flammable forests downright explosive. A 2009 study by the Forest Service and the universities of Washington and Idaho found that the area of Washington burned by wildfires is likely to double or even triple by the end of the 2040s, as trees are stressed by heat and drought, and succumb to bark beetle invasions.

    President Obama rightly drew the connection between the fires and climate change at a fundraiser in Seattle earlier this week: “A lot of it has to do with drought, a lot of it has to do with changing precipitation patterns and a lot of that has to do with climate change,” he said.

    But it’s more than just climate change that’s stoking these flames. More than a century of logging turned forests that were built to survive fires into tinderboxes of small, tightly packed trees. And many of our fire fighting efforts have only exacerbated the problem by allowing the fuels to build up further. Add a few hots days, a spark, and a little wind, and all hell breaks loose.

    That’s exactly what we’ve seen in Washington over the past two weeks. Late spring rains spurred grass and shrubs to grow tall. Then a streak of hot days sent the mercury up over 100 degrees, turning it all into kindling. Lightning and high winds quickly blew up an inferno.

    “Our fire behavior specialist told us that the rate of spread during that fastest period — we saw approximately 20 miles of movement in 6 hours,” says Glenn Hohler, a public information officer with the Washington State Incident Management team working the Carlton Complex fire. “That’s almost unheard of.”

    There are some things we can do to reduce the threat of these massive fires. We can stop building homes in flammable forests, for starters. We can also send loggers into those forests to thin them out, clearing out brush and other so-called “ladder fuels” that allow fires to roar into the tree canopies. We can also set small “prescribed fires” to clear out understory in relatively controlled situations.

    I saw some remarkable examples of this kind of work on a recent trip through north-central Washington. My wife, kids, and I camped on the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, and spent a day hiking through a thinned out forest of stately larches. A handful of the trees were what the greenies like to call “old-growth” — hundreds of years old, and so broad at their base that the four of us, stretching fingertip to fingertip, couldn’t get our arms around them. Many of the other trees were second-growth, just a couple of feet in diameter — but standing at a good distance apart, thanks to crews that had come through with chainsaws and thinned the forest out.

    To my knowledge, the fires haven’t touched those woods, but if they did, chances are good that they would burn through the undergrowth, lick at the thick, fire-resistant bark of those larches, and move on. The unmanaged private lands nearby, crowded with small trees, on the other hand, would go up like fireworks on the Fourth of July.

    Hohler, whose day job is as a forest entomologist for the Washington Department of Natural Resources, says he’s seen just that where the Carlton Complex fire has burned. In some areas, he says, stands of big, dispersed trees have survived the flames. In another spot, where a thick, overgrown forest burned, he says, “an ATV — there’s literally nothing left but the metal frame. The ash layer looks like snowfall. It’s completely black, the most intense fire you can imagine.”

    Sadly, in the aftermath of these current fires, we’re apt to see more of the later, and less of the former, as flames rage through thousands of acres of forests that have been subjected to logging — and deprived of natural fire — for decades. Meanwhile, funding for forest thinning and fire prevention is hard to come by, while we continue to throw millions at “fighting” fires that are far beyond our control.

    Freedman, writing in Men’s Journal, details President Obama’s proposal to put about $1 billion into wildfire prevention and damage-reduction efforts.

    The proposal is facing fierce opposition. Rep. Steve Pearce, a New Mexico Republican, has been a particularly outspoken critic of the administration’s intention to downplay firefighting in favor of forest management and fire prevention. He and some other politicians from the West want to keep all-out firefighting as the top priority – harking back to the 1930s, when the Forest Service’s so-called “10 am policy” promised to extinguish new fires by the next morning. They also want to bring in more logging and grazing as a self-funding form of thinning. “I want you to go back to the 10 am policy, ” Pearce said in one congressional speech.

    But the war on wildfire, like the war on drugs, is a losing proposition. The harder we fight, the more we get burned.

    Instead of fighting, we need to get serious about fixing. We broke these forests. Now we own them.

    Filed under: Climate & Energy
    Gristmill: Sit down, relax, and charge your phone at this cool new solar-powered smartbench
    solar bench

    Welcome, friends, to tomorrow. Thanks to the Soofa electricity-generating park bench, the tyranny of the non-solar seating is at an end! That old dude sitting across the way isn’t just feeding pigeons; he’s recharging his I-Pacemaker! Put a propeller on his fedora and he can also power his jazzy.

    Actually, metric ton of snark aside, it’s a pretty good idea. With solar panels getting cheaper and easier to install, they’re popping up everywhere, and with our insatiable need for electricity to power every aspect of our once unpowered lives, strapping panels to the thing we were going to sit on anyway makes a lot of sense.

    Christina B. Farnsworth with Green Builder has more:

    The Soofa: my urban hub not only powers our toys but also shares location-based information like air quality and noise levels with its built-in sensors. …

    Three women—Jutta Friedrichs, Sandra Richter and Nan Zhao—founded Changing Environments, a MIT Media Lab spin-off, that develops what they call urban furniture. The creators of the smart urban furniture, Soofa, share one vision: “Getting you out of the homes and into a new, smarter and more sustainable city.” After all, most of us live in urban environments.

    The first benches have been installed in and around Boston.

    So the Soofa smartbench can be festooned with sensors that allow you to check out the local park before you get there. The website mentions ambient noise and air quality, but one could imagine other uses. Looking for a romantic stroll to pop the question? Check the Soofa database first to see if there are hippies playing hacky sack where you two lovebirds met. Terrified of street performers? A human statue warning system is just around the corner!

    But perhaps most important is the solar panel itself, which is thoughtfully positioned in the middle of the bench, guaranteeing no one will ever sit awkwardly close to you again.

    Filed under: Business & Technology, Cities
    Gristmill: North Dakota’s ag commissioner race oughta be on Broadway
    amazing cowboy man

    In the struggle over North America’s energy boom, some tales are more suitable for Broadway musical treatment than others. But could there be another story more perfect for song and dance than that of the race for North Dakota agricultural commissioner?

    The agricultural commissioner does pretty much what you expect – handle permits for agricultural lands, which, in the case of North Dakota, is mostly ranchland. Since part of permitting grazing territory is making sure that said land remains safe for grazing, the agricultural commissioner also has sway over drilling permits and oversight — a lot of sway.

    Now that North Dakota is producing more oil than some OPEC members, and oil companies are planning to drill 35,000 new wells across North Dakota in the next 15 years, the race for this relatively homespun political office has suddenly become the stuff of political melodrama.

    On one side: Standing agriculture commissioner and Republican Doug Goehring, who has the backing of at least 10 oil companies or their executives — including Continental Resources Inc., Whiting Petroleum, and Marathon Oil — as well as a truly strange-sounding sexual harassment investigation in his recent past. From Reuters:

    An investigation last year … found [Goehring] had asked a female staff member to step on his sore back to crack it and labeled women in his office his “harem.”

    Goehring apologized, took a sexual harassment course and was cleared of misconduct by the state’s Department of Risk Management.

    The “harem” comment was in poor taste and didn’t reflect his true feelings, Goehring said.

    On the other side, we have organic rancher, former Democratic state senator, and Whole Foods supplier Randy Ryan Taylor:

    “We want the oil, but we also want productive land when it’s all done,” Taylor said in an interview on his 2,900-acre ranch, dotted with scores of quietly grazing cows. He went on to say that if elected, “I’ll probably be looking at things in a more critical eye.”

    His cows are quiet because they know he is just about to burst into song. What will he sing about? Perhaps his proposal that would require pipelines to be equipped with flow meters, to enable early leak detection. What rhymes with flow meter? Snow cheater? Crow leader? This is going to be great!

    Broadway dreams aside, this story underscores how much the battle over America’s energy policy is being fought at the local level, especially those levels that involve zoning and permits. We’ve seen this play out in New York, in Nebraska and South Dakota, in Richmond, Calif., in Washington state, and in Maine. And we’ll be seeing it more in this next round of elections. Regional political races are becoming the new front lines of environmentalism.

    Filed under: Article, Climate & Energy, Politics
    Gristmill: Drilling in Pennsylvania has damaged the water supply 209 times in last seven years

    Whether or not you think that’s alright depends on your perspective. According to Patrick Creighton, those numbers are pretty good – so many oil and natural gas wells have been drilled in Pennsylvania in the past seven years that 209 problem wells is a mere 1 percent of the total. But Creighton happens to be the spokesperson for the Marcellus Shale Coalition, a trade group composed of natural gas drillers. So there’s that.

    According to Steve Hvozdovich, 209 is a lot. “You are talking about somebody’s drinking water supply.” But then Hvozdovich works for the environmental group Clean Water Action. He would like clean drinking water.

    However you feel about the 209 “instances,” that number wasn’t an easy one get. According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) is legally required to get to the bottom of drilling-related water complaints, report its findings to the owner of the affected property, and issue orders to clean up or fix the damage — all within 45 days of the first complaint.

    The report on this process is supposed to be a part of the public record, but when the Post-Gazette and other groups became curious about these reports and where they might be, DEP balked. The reports were too difficult to find, the agency said. They were mixed in with a whole lot of other paperwork. The agency was understaffed, overworked, and underfunded.

    All of which was probably true, but still, in the last year, information about the DEP’s attempts to regulate gas and fracking has been, er, leaking out, which the Post-Gazette credits to court rulings and political pressure. While the Post-Gazette got its list of the 209 sites through a public records request, the DEP will post its own official tally of damaged water supplies this month. It will mark the first time the agency has released its official accounting of drilling-related pollution and water loss cases on its website.

    What would be useful, now, is more context. What kind of bad thing happened, exactly? (Not all cases are pollution-related — a lot of them have to do with issues of water quantity as well as quality, since drilling for shale gas can take up a lot of water.) Which companies were involved? Were shale gas drillers more likely to cause problems than people who drilled regular, garden-variety oil and gas wells? How did the companies involve fix the problem? Were they fined?

    Pennsylvania’s DEP can expect to see a lot more requests for this sort of information as people move past the question of “What’s happening to our water?” and into the questions of “Why is this happening? And should we be freaking out?”

    Filed under: Article, Climate & Energy
    Gristmill: Halliburton fracking spill mystery: What chemicals polluted an Ohio waterway?
    Dead fish near the site of the spill.

    On the morning of June 28, a fire broke out at a Halliburton fracking site in Monroe County, Ohio. As flames engulfed the area, trucks began exploding and thousands of gallons of toxic chemicals spilled into a tributary of the Ohio River, which supplies drinking water for millions of residents. More than 70,000 fish died. Nevertheless, it took five days for the Environmental Protection Agency and its Ohio counterpart to get a full list of the chemicals polluting the waterway. “We knew there was something toxic in the water,” says an environmental official who was on the scene. “But we had no way of assessing whether it was a threat to human health or how best to protect the public.”

    This episode highlights a glaring gap in fracking safety standards. In Ohio, as in most other states, fracking companies are allowed to withhold some information about the chemical stew they pump into the ground to break up rocks and release trapped natural gas. The oil and gas industry and its allies at the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a pro-business outfit that has played a major role in shaping fracking regulation, argue that the formulas are trade secrets that merit protection. But environmental groups say the lack of transparency makes it difficult to track fracking-related drinking water contamination and can hobble the government response to emergencies, such as the Halliburton spill in Ohio.

    According to a preliminary EPA inquiry, more than 25,000 gallons of chemicals, diesel fuel, and other compounds were released during the accident, which began with a ruptured hydraulic line spraying flammable liquid on hot equipment. The flames later engulfed 20 trucks, triggering some 30 explosions that rained shrapnel over the site and hampered firefighting efforts.

    Officials from the EPA, the Ohio EPA, and the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR) arrived on the scene shortly after the fire erupted. Working with an outside firm hired by Statoil, the site’s owner, they immediately began testing water for contaminates. They found a number of toxic chemicals, including ethylene glycol, which can damage kidneys, and phthalates, which are linked to a raft of grave health problems. Soon dead fish began surfacing downstream from the spill. Nathan Johnson, a staff attorney for the nonprofit Ohio Environmental Council, describes the scene as “a miles-long trail of death and destruction” with tens of thousands of fish floating belly up.

    Statoil and the federal and state officials set up a “unified command” center and began scouring a list of chemicals Halliburton had provided them for a compound that might be triggering the die off. But the company had not disclosed those ingredients that it considered trade secrets.

    Halliburton was under no obligation to reveal the full roster of chemicals. Under a 2012 Ohio law – which includes key provisions from ALEC’s model bill on fracking fluid disclosure – gas drillers are legally required to reveal some of the chemicals they use, but only 60 days after a fracking job is finished. And they don’t have to disclose proprietary ingredients, except in emergencies.

    Even in these cases, only emergency responders and the chief of the ODNR’s oil and gas division, which is known to be cozy with industry, are entitled to the information. And they are barred from sharing it, even with environmental agencies and public health officials. Environmental groups argue this makes it impossible to adequately test for contamination or take other necessary steps to protect public health. “Ohio is playing a dangerous game of hide and seek with first responders and community safety,” says Teresa Mills of the Virginia-based Center for Health, Environment, and Justice.

    Within two days of the spill, Halliburton disclosed the proprietary chemicals to firefighters and the oil and gas division chief, but it didn’t give this information to the EPA and its Ohio counterpart until five days after the accident, by which time the chemicals had likely reached or flowed past towns that draw drinking water from the Ohio River. The company says that it turned over the information as soon as it was requested. “We don’t know why US EPA and Ohio EPA didn’t have the information prior to July 3,” Halliburton spokesperson Susie McMichael tells Mother Jones. “If they had asked us earlier, we would have provided the information, consistent with our standard practice.” The Ohio EPA, on the other hand, maintains that ODNR, emergency workers, and federal and state EPA officials had a representative ask Statoil and Halliburton for a complete list of chemicals just after the spill. Several days later, environmental regulators pressed for the information again and learned that it had already been shared with only ODNR, which according to the EPA report was not deeply involved in the emergency response.

    Other key players, including local water authorities, the private company hired to monitor water contamination, and area residents, did not get a full rundown of chemicals, even after the EPA and the Ohio EPA finally received the information.

    Ohio state officials maintain that the river water is safe to drink because the fracking chemicals have been so heavily diluted. But environmentalists are skeptical. “Tons of chemicals and brine entered the waterway and killed off thousands fish,” says Johnson of the Ohio Environmental Council. “There’s no way the drinking water utility or anyone else could monitor those chemical and determine whether the levels were safe without knowing what they were. Even today, I don’t think the public can be sure that the water is safe to drink.”

    This story was produced by Mother Jones as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

    Filed under: Business & Technology, Climate & Energy
    Gristmill: Scientists could finally find extraterrestrial life – by spotting its pollution

    My flying saucer? Yeah, it’s a hemi. Or at least scientists involved with the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (a.k.a. SETI) hope so. Thanks to a wizbang new telescope, researchers will soon be able to detect life on other planets by observing the contents of their far-away atmospheres. In particular, they’ll be looking for chlorofluorocarbons, because any old single-celled life form can spew a bit of oxygen and methane — but pollution? That takes intelligence.

    Here’s more from today’s Harvard-Smithsonian press release on the search for extra-terrestrial coal-rollers:

    New research by theorists at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) shows that we could spot the fingerprints of certain pollutants under ideal conditions. This would offer a new approach in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI). …

    The team, which also includes Smithsonian scientist Gonzalo Gonzalez Abad, finds that the upcoming James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) should be able to detect two kinds of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) — ozone-destroying chemicals used in solvents and aerosols. They calculated that JWST could tease out the signal of CFCs if atmospheric levels were 10 times those on Earth. …

    “We consider industrial pollution as a sign of intelligent life, but perhaps civilizations more advanced than us, with their own SETI programs, will consider pollution as a sign of unintelligent life since it’s not smart to contaminate your own air,” says Harvard student and lead author Henry Lin.

    Aren’t the humans adorable? The thinking comes down to, “I seem to have made a horrible mess of this place, and I’m the smartest guy I know, so if there’s another, smarterer guy out there, just imagine what he’s done to his place.”

    Lin’s co-author Avi Loeb points out that we may need to rethink some of our extraterrestrial jargon: “People often refer to ETs as ‘little green men,’” he says, “but the ETs detectable by this method should not be labeled ‘green’ since they are environmentally unfriendly.”

    Still, this new technology could give us a handy tool for dealing with the not-so-green men here on earth: Climate denial tends to walk hand-in-hand with paranoia. If we tell the deniers that climate change will help the aliens find us, I’ll be we can get them to put solar panels on their tinfoil hats.

    Filed under: Business & Technology
    Gristmill: Ask Umbra: How can I get rid of all of this packaging foam?

    Send your question to Umbra!

    Q. I am distressed by the bulky #6 Styrofoam blocks that come in the box on the rare occasion when I buy something new and large. I have not found anywhere that recycles them; they sit around the house for a few months, and if Halloween doesn’t arrive, they ultimately go in the trash. (I’ve already dressed as a salted pretzel, hot cocoa with marshmallows, and coffee with sugar cubes for Halloween.)

    I found your post from 2004 that said the market for #6 might improve, but it’s been ten years (!) and it doesn’t seem like it has. Is there hope for #6? Do you have any other ideas of how to dispose of it?

    Emily B.
    Hillsborough, N.C.

    A. Dearest Emily,

    How about bagel with sesame seeds? Christmas tree covered in snow? Starry sky? That should get you through another few years.

    But seriously now: I’m afraid those piles of excess foam still represent a recycling hurdle in many parts of the country. And even the most inspired Halloween reuse is merely delaying the disposal issue, leaving us with a big, bulky problem. But the good news is that you can very likely find a place to recycle your blocks, even if it’s not as simple as taking them out to the curb.

    First, a note on semantics: What you call Styrofoam, Emily, is technically expanded polystyrene, or EPS. We encounter the stuff frequently as packing material (both blocks and peanuts), takeout food containers, egg cartons, and disposable cups. Styrofoam, on the other hand, is a trademarked product from the Dow Chemical Company. These materials are similar and frequently confused, but this is not exactly a Kleenex/tissue situation.

    Many municipal recycling companies like yours don’t accept EPS, citing its difficulty to keep clean and uncontaminated (especially takeout containers), lack of nearby processing facilities, and shipping inefficiency (imagine the trucks needed to haul such a large, lightweight commodity; EPS can be as much as 98 percent air). But if you can reasonably get your blocks to a densifier – a machine that converts airy chunks of #6 into compact, shipping-friendly bricks – there’s indeed a market for them. Recyclers can then turn the bricks into things like home insulation, picture frames, cafeteria trays, clothes hangers, and more EPS.

    According to the EPS Industry Alliance (EPS-IA), 98 million pounds of the white stuff were recycled in 2012, an average recycling rate of 15 percent. Industry publications are reporting signs that the recycling market will continue to grow, helped along by better densifier technology and more take-back programs – so maybe those crumbly blocks won’t be such a burden in coming years. But until that magical day comes, you’ve got EPS to deal with.

    When it comes to recycling, the EPS-IA’s recycler directory is a great place to start. It turns out you have a drop-off center that accepts polystyrene packing blocks not too far away, Emily; what’s more, your local waste management company is kind enough to provide these suggestions, too. EPS packing peanuts (a.k.a. loose fill) are an even easier fix: Plenty of shipping stores will take them off your hands to pad tomorrow’s boxes of breakables. And if all else fails, the EPS-IA itself will take your foam through the mail.

    While all of this helps, we mustn’t forget EPS is a petroleum-based, non-biodegradable product that all too often ends up clogging our landfills. Even recycling it often involves extra energy used in shipping. As such, we’d do best to avoid it as much as possible. This is easiest with food containers: Buy your eggs in cardboard cartons (or farm fresh!), BYO takeout containers, and choose reusable mugs and plates whenever possible. Skipping EPS packaging blocks can be tougher, though you can always shop around for gently used electronics, cookware, and whatever else you typically find cradled in foam.

    You describe your new purchases as rare, Emily, and you reuse your EPS diligently. Just complete the routine with recycling and I’d say you’re in good shape – after your star turn as a T. rex, robot, or sushi roll, of course.


    Filed under: Article, Living
    Triple Pundit: Urban Organics: Sustainable Development in Post-Industrial America
    Urban Organics brings sustainable development to a beleaguered inner-city neighborhood by growing organic produce and fish through commercial-scale aquaponics.
    Triple Pundit: Is 2014 Really the Year of Impact Investing?
    Earlier this year, on this forum, I proclaimed that 2014 would be The Year of Impact Investing. Now that half the year is in the history books, it's fair to ask if 2014 is living up to that billing. Let's take a look at what the first six months of the year have produced.
    Triple Pundit: Investing in America: How Companies are Prioritizing Economic Development in the U.S.
    The business trend over the past 20 years may have been focused on globalization and our increasingly connected world, but some companies have decided to concentrate on efforts a little closer to home.
    Triple Pundit: Human Values and Corporate Social Impact: The Case of JPMorgan Chase
    The Supreme Court’s 2010 “Citizens United” decision affirms the legality of treating corporations as persons -- having a right to free speech, manifested in money contributions in elections. But, corporations should not be treated as people, because they do not act like people. The focus of the following six posts in this series is to show how certain human moral values and some corporate behaviors are incompatible, using JPMorgan Chase as an example.
    Triple Pundit: U.S. Public Lands Contribute $360 Billion, Over 2 Million Jobs in 2013
    Federal budget sequestration continues to cut into Interior Department funds and investments, compromising potential economic, social and ecological benefits and investment returns. President Barack Obama is urging Congress to fully and permanently fund the U.S. Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), something Congress has done only once in the legislation's 50-year history.
    Triple Pundit: Sustainable Purchasing 101: Tools for Buying Greener Products
    The hidden impacts occur throughout a product’s supply chain: from the point raw materials are scraped out of or harvested from the earth, to the preparation of the raw materials, the manufacturing processes, the packaging, use and ultimate disposal of the product, including all of the transportation requirements throughout the lifecycle.
    Triple Pundit: International Paper Sets Goal for Zero Waste
    International Paper has set a medium-term goal to reduce waste sent to landfills 30 percent by 2020, with aspirational goal of achieving zero manufacturing waste.
    Triple Pundit: Poll: Carbon Tax Reused for Renewables Could Work for U.S. Voters
    Australia's recent repeal of its carbon tax has everybody talking, but not as much as the University of Michigan researchers' latest poll results should be. The majority of those surveyed said they would support a carbon tax in the U.S. if it were then reinvested in renewable energy. And the support came from all three political sectors: Democrat, Independent and Republican voters.
    Gristmill: Seals discover offshore wind farms are all-you-can-eat seafood buffets

    Looking to catch up with legendary British pop sensation and noted beach ball enthusiast Seal? The “Kiss from a Rose” singer has been soaking in the North Sea sun as he frolics amongst the offshore wind farms. According to the Christian Science Monitor, the four-time Grammy-award-winning, semiterrestrial mammal is drawn by the ample fish provided by these artificial reefs. [Editor’s note: Not Seal, Meyer, seals. Remind me again, how did you get this job?]

    Well that makes a great deal more sense. Let’s let Eva Botkin-Kowacki at the Monitor explain:

    The scientists observed eleven harbor seals outfitted with GPS tracking tags in the North Sea frequenting two active wind farms, Alpha Ventus in Germany and Sheringham Shoal off the southeast coast of the United Kingdom. One seal even visited 13 times, according to a report published this week in the journal Current Biology.

    The wind turbines make up a grid. When foraging for food, the seals moved “systematically from one turbine to the next turbine in a grid pattern, following exactly how the turbines are laid out,” says study author Deborah Russell of the University of St. Andrews. “That was surprising to see how much their behavior was affected by the presence of these artificial structures and how they could actually adapt their behaviors to respond to that.”

    There are possible downsides. The sound of the turbines could damage the seals’ hearing, which would wreak further havoc on their recording careers. The wind farms could also be playing what amounts to an ecological shell game, drawing creatures that would naturally be more widely dispersed to a smaller area without increasing actual numbers. The science is still out, but the farms could actually be increasing habitat for sea animals while providing cleaner power for us landlubbing bipeds.

    Another plus for wind: I’m sure most marine mammals, and even Seal, for that matter, prefer a wind turbine to the oil-spewing equivalent.

    Filed under: Climate & Energy
    Gristmill: Norwegian reindeer are enjoying the balmy weather, breeding like bunnies
    reindeer herd

    When you’re planning your next incarnation, consider the majestic Norwegian reindeer. Sure you will have to deal with the draconian labor practices of one Mr. S. Clause and his union-busting elf goons, but on the flip side, job security. Also, it looks like Norwegian reindeer are doing OK with climate change.

    Nature World News has more on the story:

    [A] study … conducted by researchers at the University of Manchester and the Norwegian Arctic University in Tromsø [has] found that contrary to popular belief, warm climate hasn’t reduced populations of reindeers in the high arctic archipelago of Svalbard.

    According to researchers, the number of Svalbard reindeers has jumped by 30 percent in the last year, showing that the animals are thriving under warm climate. …

    Dr Nicholas Tyler of the Norwegian Arctic University and colleagues have kept a record of the reindeer population in the area since 1979. The population of reindeer in Svalbard increased from 600 on an average in the 1980s to about 1,000 today, researchers said.

    Of course there are caveats. Looks like reindeer are a lot like the rest of us: There will be some winners along with a heck of a lot of losers. Reindeer in the high Arctic are thriving, but melting ice and heat are bad news for reindeer populations globally.

    So perhaps we should rein in that first sentence. If you are planning your next incarnation, try to come back as a northern Norwegian reindeer with a good job outside the toy industry.

    Filed under: Climate & Energy
    Gristmill: The NFL’s newest stadium is also one of the greenest
    NRG Solar Terrace (1)

    Traditionally, sports fans have not been the most eco-minded lot. One way pro leagues and team owners can help fans jump on the green bandwagon: LEED by example.

    That’s the promise of the San Francisco 49ers’ new stadium, which on Monday received LEED Gold certification. Levi’s Stadium, set to open next month, is the second NFL arena to earn Gold cred (the Baltimore Ravens’ M&T Bank Stadium is the other).

    Here are more details on the Niners’ new digs, from The Sacramento Bee:

    The 49ers’ stadium achieved the certification through a number of means, including water use. About 85 percent of the water used in the stadium is recycled or “gray” water. The type of grass used, Bermuda Bandera, also requires up to 50 percent less water than other types used in the Bay Area. Another major reason for the green designation is Levi’s Stadium’s solar panels, which will sit atop the three bridges that lead to the stadium as well as the roof of the tower suite. The team expects that the power generated from those panels will offset the power used in the 10 NFL games played there each year.

    The major sports are still a long way from becoming carbon neutral. But, with the news of the NHL’s sustainability strategy also dropping this week, we’re happy to see the small Ws starting to pile up.

    Filed under: Article, Business & Technology, Cities
    Gristmill: This little fox loves transit. Should we tell him he just missed his stop?

    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!).

    Filed under: Article, Cities, Living
    Gristmill: In Pennsylvania, Dr. Frack will see you now
    fracking site

    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.

    Filed under: Article, Climate & Energy
    Gristmill: Plants are poison — and that just may be why they keep us healthy

    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.

    Filed under: Article, Food
    Gristmill: New rules aim to stop rash of oil train spills and explosions

    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.

    From McClatchy:

    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.

    Filed under: Climate & Energy
    Triple Pundit: Storing Data in the Cloud: How Safe is It?
    Inherent in corporate social responsibility, data security takes on even greater importance given the profusion of mobile devices and use of cloud services. Though it remains of paramount concern, research indicates cloud security concerns will abate with greater familiarity and usage.
    Gristmill: Even rural America can have good public transportation
    bus in Roaring Fork Valley

    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 bike-share 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 bike-share 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.

    Filed under: Article, Cities, Living
    Gristmill: People: Stop getting your panties in a wad about ‘fake’ charity clothing bins

    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 5 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 them to Goodwill. But the biggest thing you can do? Stop buying so many cheap clothes!

    Filed under: Article, Living
    Gristmill: How a town in Maine is blocking an Exxon tar-sands pipeline
    tar sands protestors in Maine

    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.

    South Portland city council meeting
    Dan Wood
    Proponents 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.

    Cautious celebration

    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.

    Filed under: Article, Business & Technology, Climate & Energy, Politics
    Triple Pundit: Better Cotton and Ikea Report Shows Less Pesticide and Water Use
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    Announced by the president and launched last week, the Tribal Climate Resilience Program should benefit American Indian tribes and the nation economically, socially and environmentally.
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    The Alliance to Save Energy, an association of lawmakers and manufacturers are promoting a bill that would strip consumers of the right to lodge class action litigation against companies that falsify Energy Star ratings. Consumer advocates and trial lawyers argue however that companies stay honest when they know that there is more to risk than simply having to return a customer's good-faith investment.
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    Gristmill: Will drones save the rhinos? Some conservationists say it’s launch time

    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 fishing


    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 poachers 


    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!

    From Smithsonian:

    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 pollution

    The Chinese are fed up with pollution
    Shutterstock / Hung Chung Chih
    The 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?

    Filed under: Article, Business & Technology, Living
    Gristmill: George Harrison memorial tree falls victim to climate-driven irony

    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.

    Filed under: Climate & Energy
    Gristmill: Earth crushes another temperature record; not getting much love from the stands

    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.”

    Filed under: Climate & Energy
    Gristmill: Millions alive today would have to die before the paleo diet could take over
    banksy caveman

    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.

    Groopman writes:

    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.

    Filed under: Article, Climate & Energy, Food
    Gristmill: Good news: Mother jailed for sending daughter to playground is freed. Bad news: McDonald’s fires her

    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.

    Filed under: Article, Business & Technology, Food
    Gristmill: The strange relationship between global warming denial and … speaking English
    sticking head sand

    Here in the United States, we fret a lot about global warming denial. Not only is it a dangerous delusion, it’s an incredibly prevalent one. Depending on your survey instrument of choice, we regularly learn that substantial minorities of Americans deny, or are skeptical of, the science of climate change.

    The global picture, however, is quite different. For instance, recently the U.K.-based market research firm Ipsos MORI released its “Global Trends 2014” report, which included a number of survey questions on the environment asked across 20 countries. (h/t Leo Hickman). And when it came to climate change, the result was very telling:

    Ipsos MORI Global Trends, 2014

    Note that these results are not perfectly comparable across countries, because the data were gathered online, and Ipsos MORI cautions that for developing countries like India and China, “the results should be viewed as representative of a more affluent and ‘connected’ population.”

    Nonetheless, some pretty significant patterns are apparent. Perhaps most notably: Not only is the United States clearly the worst in its climate denial, but Great Britain and Australia are second and third worst, respectively. Canada, meanwhile, is the seventh worst.

    What do these four nations have in common? They all speak the language of Shakespeare.

    Why would that be? After all, presumably there is nothing about English, in and of itself, that predisposes you to climate change denial. Words and phrases like “doubt,” “natural causes,” “climate models,” and other skeptic mots are readily available in other languages. So what’s the real cause?

    One possible answer is that it’s all about the political ideologies prevalent in these four countries.

    “I do not find these results surprising,” says Riley Dunlap, a sociologist at Oklahoma State University who has extensively studied the climate denial movement. “It’s the countries where neo-liberalism is most hegemonic and with strong neo-liberal regimes (both in power and lurking on the sidelines to retake power) that have bred the most active denial campaigns – U.S., U.K., Australia, and now Canada. And the messages employed by these campaigns filter via the media and political elites to the public, especially the ideologically receptive portions.” (Neoliberalism is an economic philosophy centered on the importance of free markets and broadly opposed to big government interventions.)

    Indeed, the English language media in three of these four countries are linked together by a single individual: Rupert Murdoch. An apparent climate skeptic or lukewarmer, Murdoch is the chair of News Corp and 21st Century Fox. (You can watch him express his climate views here.) Some of the media outlets subsumed by the two conglomerates that he heads are responsible for quite a lot of English language climate skepticism and denial.

    In the U.S., Fox News and The Wall Street Journal lead the way; research shows that Fox watching increases distrust of climate scientists. (You can also catch Fox News in Canada.) In Australia, a recent study found that slightly under a third of climate-related articles in 10 top Australian newspapers “did not accept” the scientific consensus on climate change, and that News Corp papers – The Australian, The Herald Sun, and The Daily Telegraph – were particular hotbeds of skepticism. “The Australian represents climate science as matter of opinion or debate rather than as a field for inquiry and investigation like all scientific fields,” noted the study.

    And then there’s the U.K. A 2010 academic study found that while News Corp outlets in this country from 1997 to 2007 did not produce as much strident climate skepticism as did their counterparts in the U.S. and Australia, “the Sun newspaper offered a place for scornful sceptics on its opinion pages as did The Times and Sunday Times to a lesser extent.” (There are also other outlets in the U.K., such as the Daily Mail, that feature plenty of skepticism but aren’t owned by News Corp.)

    Thus, while there may not be anything inherent to the English language that impels climate denial, the fact that English language media are such a major source of that denial may in effect create a language barrier.

    And media aren’t the only reason that denialist arguments are more readily available in the English language. There’s also the Anglophone nations’ concentration of climate “skeptic” think tanks, which provide the arguments and rationalizations necessary to feed this anti-science position. According to a study in Climatic Change earlier this year, the U.S. is home to 91 different organizations (think tanks, advocacy groups, and trade associations) that collectively comprise a “climate change counter-movement.” The annual funding of these organizations, collectively, is “just over $900 million.” That is a truly massive amount of English-speaking climate “skeptic” activity, and while the study was limited to the U.S., it is hard to imagine that anything comparable exists in non-English speaking countries.

    Ben Page, the chief executive of Ipsos MORI (which released the data) adds another possible causative factor behind the survey’s results, noting that environmental concern is very high in China today, due to the omnipresent conditions of environmental pollution. By contrast, that’s not a part of your everyday experience in England or Australia. “In many surveys in China, environment is the top concern,” Page comments. “In contrast, in the west, it’s a long way down the list behind the economy and crime.”

    Whatever the precise concatenation of causes, the evidence seems clear. We English speakers have a special problem when it comes to understanding and accepting climate science. In language, we’re Anglophones; but in climate science, we’re a bunch of Anglophonies.

    This story was produced as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

    Filed under: Climate & Energy
    Gristmill: The NHL is out to punch climate change in the mouth

    If there are two things that hockey players hate, the first is obviously teeth, and the second is apparently climate change.

    According to the National Hockey League’s 2014 Sustainability report, each NHL game produces 408 tons of carbon dioxide emissions. With 1,230 regular season games and another 95 playoff games in 2013, that worked out to a lung collapsing 540,600 tons of C02, and that’s without factoring in the energy spent by fans getting to the games. Maybe up in Canada fans arrive through some sort of Harry Potter teleportation, but at the last Caps game I attended, the garage was pretty full.

    But more than any other major professional sport, hockey relies on clean water and cold winters. The legendary Bobby Orr, probably the second greatest player ever to strap on the skates, summed it up most eloquently: “The routine of my daily life as a kid was pretty simple. One way or another, it always seemed to lead me in the direction of a body of water, regardless of the time of year. The only question was whether the water would be frozen solid for hockey or open and flowing for fish.”

    Sure, there are NHL teams in Anaheim and Arizona, but the league’s push south has mostly been a failure, and even on those remaining warm weather teams, the players are coming from up North. Without those clean, frozen ponds where the Gretzky’s and Lemieuxs fall in love with the game, there is no hockey, and the NHL knows it has a role in saving those ponds.

    Here’s more, straight from the horse’s toothless mouth:

    Perhaps more than any other sport, hockey is impacted by environmental issues, particularly climate change and freshwater scarcity. The ability to skate and play hockey outdoors is a critical component of the League’s history and culture. Many of the NHL’s players, both past and present, learned to skate outside on frozen lakes, ponds and backyard rinks. The game of hockey is adversely affected if this opportunity becomes unavailable to future generations.

    With this 2014 NHL SUSTAINABILITY REPORT, the first of its kind for the League, we address head-on the connection between hockey and the environment, and the impact we have on our planet. It is in our best interest to confront this challenge, to be transparent with our impacts and to discuss and explore with all of our stakeholders a strategy for long-term environmental sustainability. …

    Sadly, you can’t actually punch global warming in the mouth or pull climate change’s sweater over its head, so how does the NHL plan to fight rising temperatures? According to the league’s study, nearly three-quarters of its emissions stem from electricity consumption, and the NHL hopes to tackle the issue team by team.

    The Montreal Canadians have already made the switch to LED lighting in their arena; the Anaheim Ducks are moving to an on-site oxide fuel cell that will use some biogas and produce 51 percent of the Arena’s annual energy; and the Winnipeg Jets are recovering heat from their ice making machines and using it to boil water for ice resurfacing. The Toronto Maple Leafs and Arizona Coyotes have launched programs to make their existing arenas greener, with the Coyotes hoping to reduce their carbon footprint by a laudable 80 percent. New arenas for the New York Islanders and, ironically, the Edmonton Oilers are set to meet LEED Silver certification.

    While these steps may not be enough to make hockey green, it’s a start — and the marketing power of a sport that claims to have 50 million fans is a real boon to climate awareness. So raise your novelty Stanley Cup to the good people at the NHL for getting the puck sliding in the right direction.

    Of course, they really didn’t have much of a choice. It was either green up their game or start playing in a lot less clothes.

    Also, ZAMBONI! (Hey, they’re even electric now …)

    Filed under: Climate & Energy, Living
    Gristmill: D.C. scraps climate art installation, says it sends the wrong message

    Artist Mia Feuer’s planned “ANTEDILUVIAN” art installation — a gas station mostly submerged underwater in Washington, D.C., as a statement on climate change and rising sea levels — is officially cancelled completely. Months of anticipation for Feuer’s proposed project were dashed last Friday when the D.C. Commission for the Arts and Humanities announced that ANTEDILUVIAN couldn’t be installed in Kingman Lake, by the Anacostia River, where Feuer had initially hoped to place it.

    “After further consultation with the District’s Department of the Environment regarding the city’s on-going efforts to clean up the Anacostia River, DCCAH is working to relocate the temporary project outside of the Anacostia River and vicinity,” a spokesperson for the Arts Commission said.

    But Feuer wrote on her Indiegogo blog this morning that her installation won’t be relocated anywhere, and that it was permanently banned from happening. It was supposed to be part of DC’s 5×5 Festival, a program the city’s arts commission is kicking off this fall with five noted curators picking 25 artists to feature public arts projects around the District – similar to Art Basel in Miami or Prospect in New Orleans.

    But Feuer told me today that the arts commission had dropped ANTEDILUVIAN completely, even though hers was one of the highest profiled projects in the festival.

    Almost from the moment Feuer made her plan public it had garnered media attention from plenty of outlets, notably The Atlantic’s City Lab. But all of that media spotlight might have been what led to it getting scrapped. Feuer told me that her plans had not been finalized for the project when word started to spread. When a number of organizations that work with the river and the neighboring southeast D.C. Anacostia community caught wind of it, they had some concerns.

    A coalition called United for a Healthy Anacostia River sent a letter to the Arts Commission opposing the project. From the letter:

    Given the many years of community investment and hard work to clean up and change the negative perception of the Anacostia River, this kind of project should never have been approved without broad stakeholder consultation. Moreover, in light of the decades of oil and gas pollution and environmental injustice to which the river and its nearby communities have been subjected, we believe that it is inappropriately heedless to encourage such a representation of oil and gas in the river’s waters.

    In this regard, there could hardly be a worse public message than sinking an entire mock gas station in the Anacostia’s waters. If the public misunderstands the art’s intended message as  permission to put gas or oil in the river, the project could single-handedly set back the river restoration and undo years of effort on the part of the DC, Montgomery County and Prince Georges County governments to convince people to keep oil out of the water.

    Basically, Feuer failed to clear her project with the community, so the community didn’t clear the project. A major reason why it was rejected for the Anacostia River location is that D.C.’s Department of the Environment is taking samples there as part of a remediation program, for the decades of pollution that have assaulted it, as mentioned in the letter. (I also wrote about this for the American Prospect.)

    Feuer told me that she had been in touch with Living Classrooms, an environmental education program for kids that uses Kingman Island near the location where Feuer hoped to place the installation. That was the start of her community outreach, she said, but word of her plans got far ahead of her. This would have been her first public arts project, though she’s done many other art installations.

    In addition to the gas station, the ANTEDILUVIAN proposal included workshops and lectures – held in the water on boats – on climate change impacts, green energy, and environmental awareness. That part of it will still go on, Feuer said. But the installation itself is permanently off the menu, at least for this festival. Feuer said she’s looking for other cities that might welcome the project at another time.

    Filed under: Climate & Energy
    Gristmill: Slaughter-free milk is great for cows, but not the environment

    If you don’t eat beef because you feel sorry for those cows in Chick-fil-A ads, then you probably shouldn’t drink milk either. The typical male calf born to a dairy cow becomes veal. The typical female is milked for five years – a quarter of her natural lifetime – then sent to the abattoir to become pet food or low-grade hamburger meat. Elsie the Cow, Borden Dairy Company’s famous cartoon logo, is smiling only because she doesn’t realize that she’s about to get euthanized with a cattle gun.

    Yet if you’re an ethical vegetarian who still can’t bear to give up milk, you now have another option: slaughter-free dairy, which comes from farms where cows never get killed. Since 2011, the U.K.-based Ahimsa Dairy has offered slaughter free-milk and cheese to customers in London. In February, Pennsylvania’s Gita Nagari Creamery, which has supplied no-kill milk to the local Hare Krishna community for many years, began offering it to the public through subscription and mail order – for a whopping $10 a gallon. The price includes a $2.50 cow retirement fee and $1.50 for “boy calf care.” Less than half of its 60-head herd gets milked; the rest of the animals pull plows or spend their golden years lackadaisically chomping grass.

    “For us, the cows or oxen or bulls are seen as extended family members,” says Pari Jata, the co-president of Gita Nagari Creamery. “It’s very important for us to protect them in their retirement. We take care of them just as one would take care of elderly parents in their old age.”

    The slaughter-free milk movement takes its cues from India, where many vegetarian Hindus drink milk but consider cows sacred animals that should never be consumed for meat. Yet increasing numbers of Gita Nagari and Ahimsa customers are westerners who eschew meat for ethical reasons. Both dairies have considered selling their milk in stores; Ahimsa is in talks with a major retailer.

    As vegetarianism gains popularity, slaughter-free milk could become a bona fide food trend – but there’s a catch: It might take a toll on the environment. Cows are already the nation’s single largest source of methane, a greenhouse gas produced by oil extraction, decomposing trash, and the guts of grazing animals that’s as much as 105 times more potent than carbon dioxide. A single cow farts and belches enough methane to match the carbon equivalent of the average car. According to a 2006 United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization report, the world’s 1.4 billion cows produce 18 percent of the world’s greenhouse gases – more than the entire transportation sector. Since the turn of the 19th century, global methane emissions have increased by more than 150 percent, and cows are largely to blame.

    If all dairies became slaughter-free, we’d need three to four times as many dairy cows to produce the same amount of milk, which would mean adding at least 27 million additional cows to our herds. Those added cows would each year produce greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to four large coal-fired power plants. We’d also need more meat cows to keep up with the demand for products such as veal and dog food. Pasturing all of these cows would displace wildlife or agricultural crops, straining biodiversity and increasing food prices.

    Jata knows there’s a potential for the slaughter-free milk trend to go bad – just like the craze for tofu and soymilk contributed to the spread of soybean plantations in South America’s rainforests. “Where does it end?” she asks. “For us, as a community, we bring it all back to local food sources and local practices that are self-contained but shared, so it doesn’t create this mass corporation-style approach to everything.”

    Small, humane dairies can certainly find other ways to mitigate their environmental impacts. The Gita Nagari and Ahimsa dairies employ cow manure to fertilize their organic vegetables and bull power to plow their fields, avoiding carbon-intensive tractors and chemical fertilizers. And the Gita Nagari dairy uses an anaerobic digester to convert manure into a gas that residents of the dairy use for cooking – but this sort of thing would be hard to implement on a larger scale.

    For Nicola Pazdzierska, the co-director of the Ahimsa Dairy Foundation, the price and environmental impact of slaughter-free milk underscores the need to rethink our relationship with dairy products. “We’re not saying more cows,” she told me. “We’re saying possibly even fewer cows, but kept in better circumstances.” She went on: “We think milk is a precious foodstuff. If you pay more for it, you value it more. You use it more thoughtfully. It should be treated with respect.”

    This story was produced by Mother Jones as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

    Filed under: Climate & Energy, Food
    Gristmill: For $5 a month, you can put food on a stray climate writer’s plate

    I’ve written recently about the importance of small news websites to cities, especially during and after natural disasters. These sites, which have proliferated like crazy in the past five years, are filling in some of the holes left by dwindling daily newspapers. The trick, of course, is keeping them afloat.

    Well, here’s another approach to funding strong journalism — not publications, per se, but individual writers. It’s called Beacon, and it’s the Adopt-A-Manatee program of the increasingly colorful online news ecosystem.

    I first learned about Beacon via an email from a writer and some-time Grist contributor, Josie Garthwaite, who has joined forces with three other journalists to create Climate Confidential, a “micro publication” that publishes weekly stories about the environment and tech. To get the project off the ground, the four were soliciting subscriptions and sponsorships via Beacon — a combination publishing and fundraising platform that’s billed as a sort of “Netflix for news.”

    Since its launch in Febriary, Climate Confidential has raised $45,775, according to Beacon. And I’m getting emails almost weekly from other journalists (and groups of journalists) who are launching their own projects on Beacon and asking for help.

    There was one from Emma Marris, who is working on a project about wolves in the 21st century, and another from Emily Gertz, who is part of a collective working under the banner of Flux, covering “resilience and weakness in a shifting world.” A quick poke around Beacon turns up Elizabeth Grossman’s investigation of what climate change means for my cheeseburger; Cally Carswell and Sarah Keller’s exploration of what genetics tells us about plants’ and animals’ ability to adapt; and Bob Berwyn’s father-son reporting trip through the Rockies, studying global warming’s impacts on the high country.

    Worthy projects, all. And each comes with a convincing Kickstarter-style video appeal, asking me to chip in, and a list of premiums reminiscent of an NPR pledge drive. (Mugs! Photos! Dinner with the author!)

    Here’s how Beacon works: I can pick my favorite writer, or micro-publication, or even a general topic such as “climate + environment.” I “subscribe” by paying $5 a month, and get access to not just my favorite writer/ micropub, but everything that’s published on Beacon. The writers set their own fundraising goals and get 70 percent of their monthly subscription money. Half of the remaining money goes into a bonus pools for the writers, and the final 15 percent goes to Beacon to cover overhead.

    The key difference between Beacon and crowd-funding sites like Kickstarter and (presently mothballed) is that on Beacon, you pay to support the writers, whereas other sites focus on individual projects. So with the latter, writers pitch how cool a story is up front, whereas the Beacon model lets them say, “I am a talented person with a solid track record, ‘subscribe’ to me and I will produce interesting stuff for you.”

    I like this. I like it because I like journalists (oh right, I am a journalist), and because I want to find creative ways to keep them (us) in work. Magazine and newspaper jobs are hard to come by these days, and making a living as a freelance writer can be bruising. With Beacon, independent journalists might be able to make a decent living without the constant sales and marketing required when pitching stories to publications.

    I also like the idea that writers can strike off on their own, using Twitter, Facebook, and now Beacon to take their readers with them. In an age when many publications measure success on “clickability,” this is a chance to put my money into deep-diving reporting and more thoughtful work.

    The biggest drawback that I see is the same as the site’s biggest draw: It’s not a publication. Publications and media organizations, lumbering and fickle as they may be, do have some advantages. Editors, for example (yes, I’m one of those too). And libel insurance. I’m a little worried that writers could be hung out to dry if one of their sources or subjects decided to sue over something they wrote — or that they might shy away from more controversial topics for fear of same.

    “From the beginning, we’ve said that this is a platform, not a publication,” Beacon’s managing editor, Dan Fletcher, told me. “We’ve been clear with our writers that they lose some of the protections that they would have working with a publication.”

    Fletcher acknowledged that the company has some work to do. “Since we launched Beacon back in September, we’ve been focused on, how do we make enough money to make this a viable option? It’s only recently that we’ve cracked that,” he said. The company will address issues such as libel insurance in the next six months, he says.

    Meanwhile, it’s clear that Beacon’s founders want the site to be more than just a funding platform. For now, writers are free to sell their Beacon-funded work elsewhere, Fletcher says. But ultimately, he says, “We want Beacon to be a destination.”

    Filed under: Business & Technology, Climate & Energy
    Gristmill: For $5 a month, you can put food on a stray climate writer’s plate

    I’ve written recently about the importance of small news websites to cities, especially during and after natural disasters. These sites, which have proliferated like crazy in the past five years, are filling in some of the holes left by dwindling daily newspapers. The trick, of course, is keeping them afloat.

    Well, here’s another approach to funding strong journalism — not publications, per se, but individual writers. It’s called Beacon, and it’s the Adopt-A-Manatee program of the increasingly colorful online news ecosystem.

    I first learned about Beacon via an email from a writer and some-time Grist contributor, Josie Garthwaite, who has joined forces with three other journalists to create Climate Confidential, a “micro publication” that publishes weekly stories about the environment and tech. To get the project off the ground, the four were soliciting subscriptions and sponsorships via Beacon — a combination publishing and fundraising platform that’s billed as a sort of “Netflix for news.”

    Since its launch in Febriary, Climate Confidential has raised $45,775, according to Beacon. And I’m getting emails almost weekly from other journalists (and groups of journalists) who are launching their own projects on Beacon and asking for help.

    There was one from Emma Marris, who is working on a project about wolves in the 21st century, and another from Emily Gertz, who is part of a collective working under the banner of Flux, covering “resilience and weakness in a shifting world.” A quick poke around Beacon turns up Elizabeth Grossman’s investigation of what climate change means for my cheeseburger; Cally Carswell and Sarah Keller’s exploration of what genetics tells us about plants’ and animals’ ability to adapt; and Bob Berwyn’s father-son reporting trip through the Rockies, studying global warming’s impacts on the high country.

    Worthy projects, all. And each comes with a convincing Kickstarter-style video appeal, asking me to chip in, and a list of premiums reminiscent of an NPR pledge drive. (Mugs! Photos! Dinner with the author!)

    Here’s how Beacon works: I can pick my favorite writer, or micro-publication, or even a general topic such as “climate + environment.” I “subscribe” by paying $5 a month, and get access to not just my favorite writer/ micropub, but everything that’s published on Beacon. The writers set their own fundraising goals and get 70 percent of their monthly subscription money. Half of the remaining money goes into a bonus pools for the writers, and the final 15 percent goes to Beacon to cover overhead.

    The key difference between Beacon and crowd-funding sites like Kickstarter and (presently mothballed) is that on Beacon, you pay to support the writers, whereas other sites focus on individual projects. So with the latter, writers pitch how cool a story is up front, whereas the Beacon model lets them say, “I am a talented person with a solid track record, ‘subscribe’ to me and I will produce interesting stuff for you.”

    I like this. I like it because I like journalists (oh right, I am a journalist), and because I want to find creative ways to keep them (us) in work. Magazine and newspaper jobs are hard to come by these days, and making a living as a freelance writer can be bruising. With Beacon, independent journalists might be able to make a decent living without the constant sales and marketing required when pitching stories to publications.

    I also like the idea that writers can strike off on their own, using Twitter, Facebook, and now Beacon to take their readers with them. In an age when many publications measure success on “clickability,” this is a chance to put my money into deep-diving reporting and more thoughtful work.

    The biggest drawback that I see is the same as the site’s biggest draw: It’s not a publication. Publications and media organizations, lumbering and fickle as they may be, do have some advantages. Editors, for example (yes, I’m one of those too). And libel insurance. I’m a little worried that writers could be hung out to dry if one of their sources or subjects decided to sue over something they wrote — or that they might shy away from more controversial topics for fear of same.

    “From the beginning, we’ve said that this is a platform, not a publication,” Beacon’s managing editor, Dan Fletcher, told me. “We’ve been clear with our writers that they lose some of the protections that they would have working with a publication.”

    Fletcher acknowledged that the company has some work to do. “Since we launched Beacon back in September, we’ve been focused on, how do we make enough money to make this a viable option? It’s only recently that we’ve cracked that,” he said. The company will address issues such as libel insurance in the next six months, he says.

    Meanwhile, it’s clear that Beacon’s founders want the site to be more than just a funding platform. For now, writers are free to sell their Beacon-funded work elsewhere, Fletcher says. But ultimately, he says, “We want Beacon to be a destination.”

    Filed under: Business & Technology, Climate & Energy
    Triple Pundit: British Supermarket Powered By Food Waste
    The British supermarket chain, Sainsbury’s announced that one of its stores will be powered by its food waste. All of the electricity used by the store in Cannock, England will come from what’s called anaerobic digestion, which turns food waste into bio-methane gas that is used to generate electricity.
    Triple Pundit: British Supermarket Powered By Food Waste
    The British supermarket chain, Sainsbury’s announced that one of its stores will be powered by its food waste. All of the electricity used by the store in Cannock, England will come from what’s called anaerobic digestion, which turns food waste into bio-methane gas that is used to generate electricity.
    Triple Pundit: Shared Value: Double the Value?
    While the debate about Porter and Kramer's creating shared value (CSV) concept has lately taken a more critical view, two aspects of the concept have largely been neglected: instrumental versus ethical CSR and the lack of interaction between business and academia.
    Triple Pundit: Shared Value: Double the Value?
    While the debate about Porter and Kramer's creating shared value (CSV) concept has lately taken a more critical view, two aspects of the concept have largely been neglected: instrumental versus ethical CSR and the lack of interaction between business and academia.
    Gristmill: Swedes really are better at everything, including setting their garbage on fire

    Do you have something in your life that’s causing you shame? Here’s an idea from the Swedes: Set it on fire.

    Some helpful examples:

    1. That American Apparel dress that you wore approximately 15 Saturdays in a row during your sophomore year of college. LIGHT THAT SHIT UP.

    2. Your eighth-grade book report on The Scarlet Letter, for which you received an F because you only read the first and last chapters. BURN IT TO THE GROUND.

    3. That guy you met at the bar last weekend who is saved in your phone as “Bucket Hat.” OK – seriously, Grist does not condone murder! Set the phone on fire, you sadist.

    4. The 251 million tons of non-recyclable and -compostable trash that the U.S. produces annually. CREATE THE LARGEST BONFIRE THE WORLD HAS EVER SE — no, wait, that approach seems irresponsible. There has to be a better way.

    There is a better way to burn your garbage, and of course the damn Swedes have already successfully adopted it. (Fact: Anything remotely helpful or interesting that you have ever come up with in your life, a Swedish person has done better and more efficiently for years.) In 2012, Sweden sparked up 2.27 million tons of household waste in its waste-to-energy (WTE) plants, producing 8.5 percent of the national electricity supply. As a result, only 1 percent of Swedish garbage ends up in landfills.

    As Daniel Gross reports for Slate, burning garbage isn’t the cleanest form of energy production. But when offsetting the amount of CO2 it produces by the emissions that would be released from garbage decomposing in a landfill over time, its real carbon impact is about 986 pounds of carbon dioxide per megawatt hour. That’s slightly less than the amount of carbon dioxide released from burning natural gas, and less than half the amount ascribed to burning coal. And also, since we can be perversely comforted by the fact that we will always have garbage, it’s a dependable and renewable source of energy.

    Waste-to-energy plants do exist in the United States, so boo-ya, Sweden! We currently burn approximately 35 million tons of waste each year, which is WAY MORE than 2.27 million! Then again, the United States population is about 30 times larger than Sweden’s. Oh.

    In the high school cafeteria that is the world, the Swedes are the Tavi Gevinsons, and will always be prettier and smarter and cooler than the rest of us — we must just accept that and move on.

    Filed under: Climate & Energy, Living
    Triple Pundit: Detroit Suspends Water Shutoffs After Protests and U.N. Condemnation
    Following massive Friday protests that led to nine arrests, the city of Detroit announced on Monday it is suspending its sweeping water shut-offs for 15 days to launch a massive campaign to inform city residents of water assistance.
    Triple Pundit: Kung Fu and the Art of Living in Systems
    There’s conflict within every system, but we can learn to respond with grace and creativity – argues Jeremy Mathieu, a student of the martial arts and sustainability professional.
    Triple Pundit: Kung Fu and the Art of Living in Systems
    There’s conflict within every system, but we can learn to respond with grace and creativity – argues Jeremy Mathieu, a student of the martial arts and sustainability professional.
    Gristmill: Detroit will stop shutting off people’s water — for now

    Monday morning, the Detroit Water and Sewerage District (DWSD) announced that it would stop shutting off people’s water, at least for now. What was it, in this infrastructural showdown I wrote about last week, that caused the change of heart? Was it the condemnation from the U.N.? The protestors blocking utility shut-off trucks? The giant march on Friday, featuring Mark Ruffalo and a megaphone? The children holding signs that read “We need water to brush our teeth”?

    The DWSD isn’t saying. Here’s what it is saying: “We are pausing for 15 days to refocus our efforts on trying to identify people who we have missed in the process who may qualify for the Detroit Residential Water Assistance Program.” That’s according to DWSD spokesperson Bill Johnson in a phone interview this morning.

    The Water Assistance Program is a long-defunct but recently revived program that allows Detroit residents who are below the federal poverty line to keep their water running as long as they agree to pay a fraction of the overall bill each month. The program was suspended in 2012 when all of the people who managed it at the Detroit Department of Human Services were laid off. The program continued to accumulate money, Johnson says, but there was no one around to help pass it out. This June, DWSD signed a contract with THAW — a nonprofit that helps Michigan residents with their heating bills — to restart the Water Assistance Program.

    Detroit’s water crisis has been a long time in the making. Partly it’s due to forces that are affecting many American cities — our infrastructure is aging and we don’t have the resources to maintain it. But DWSD’s issues are larger than that. The utility, like many municipalities and utilities around the country, made some really bad investment decisions in the years leading up to the financial collapse in 2008. DWSD has paid out over $500 million to Wall Street banks as a result.

    Residents have complained that homes and small businesses are being cutoff, while larger clients like golf courses are not. Johnson maintains that many people who are being cut off can afford to pay. “A lot of Detroiters, for a number of reasons, don’t pay their bill. We think mainly because it isn’t a priority. They pay their cable bill or their phone bill, but not their water.” Because DWSD has so many unpaid water bills, Johnson says, Detroit residents saw an 8.7 percent increase in their water rates, compared to the 4.2 percent increase that DWSD passed on to the suburbs.

    During the 15-day pause, says Johnson, DWSD will step up its efforts to find people who are using water illegally: “There are people who follow our crews around, and when we turn off someone’s water, they’ll knock on someone’s door and offer to turn it back on for a fee. Maybe they used to work for DWSD. Maybe they just know how to make the tool. It’s a big problem.”

    Meanwhile, the Water Brigade, a protest group that formed in response to the shut-offs, is pushing for an earlier version of the Water Assistance Program. This one was was developed in 2005 by the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization and a group of other nonprofits, and it would have capped water payments at 2.5 percent of monthly income, which is the rate that the EPA thinks is fair for a middle-class household. At the time, researchers working on the Affordability Plan found that some Detroit residents were paying more than 20 percent. Until that plan is implemented — or until the shut-offs cease for good — the Water Brigade says that it will continue organizing water deliveries to people who have had their water turned off.

    Filed under: Article, Cities, Politics
    Gristmill: It’s time for Obama to stop selling off our land and water to fossil fuel companies
    protest sign: "Obama: This is your crude awakening"

    In its ongoing effort to make life difficult for environment reporters, the Obama administration once again announced major environmental news on a Friday. This time, however, it was not a measure to protect the environment, but to destroy it. The Department of Interior decided to allow seismic testing off the southern Atlantic coast from Delaware to Florida. This is a precursor to possible oil and gas drilling, to determine what fossil fuel resources are there.

    It is an illustration of one of Obama’s biggest failures on climate change. And it points to the direction that environmentalists need to go next: call for a moratorium on all federal leasing for fossil fuel development.

    Green groups and green leaders in Congress attacked Interior’s move. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), a top climate hawk, issued a statement saying, “it just doesn’t seem worth putting our oceans and coasts at risk.” The NRDC called the decision “a major assault on our ocean.”

    There are four big reasons to oppose this seismic testing:

    1. Damage to marine life from testing. Seismic testing involves blasting underwater with air guns, creating dramatic sound waves that can travel thousands of miles. As Grist’s John Upton noted in February, when the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management released its preliminary report on this plan, 34 marine mammal species that use sound to navigate could be harmed, and many animals could be killed. The government’s own assessment said more than a million bottlenose dolphins could be hurt every year, along with a number of endangered whales.

    2. Damage to marine life, oceans, and coastlines from drilling. If offshore oil and gas drilling does happen in the region, it will cause pollution of the oceans and degradation of fisheries and coastlines, possibly damaging local fishing and tourism industries. Small spills are just business as usual for the oil industry.

    3. Possible disaster. Offshore drilling creates the risk of a big oil spill that could devastate an entire ecosystem. The Obama administration was actually taking steps toward allowing offshore drilling along the Atlantic coast in the spring of 2010, but then the Deepwater Horizon explosion happened in the Gulf of Mexico and plans were put on hold.

    4. And, of course, climate change. Obama has publicly committed to fighting climate change caused by fossil fuels, and yet he approves the extraction of more fossil fuels. By allowing this extraction on public lands and in federally controlled oceans, he is essentially subsidizing fossil fuel consumption and contributing to more climate change.

    “It’s completely inconsistent with this ambitious climate policy they’ve announced to then turn around and say, ‘Well, we might allow drilling,’” says Athan Manuel, director of the Sierra Club lands protection program.

    The huge increase in oil and gas production during Obama’s tenure may make his record on allowing drilling seem worse than it is. Most of the fracking boom is actually occurring on private land. “This president has been pretty good when it comes to leasing public lands for oil and gas in particular,” says Manuel. “But to allow seismic testing is inconsistent with what he’s done in the past.”

    The Interior Department’s latest move is especially bizarre because early in Obama’s first term, when there was still hope for Congress passing climate change legislation, granting offshore drilling leases was supposed to be part of what Obama offered Republicans and conservative Democrats from states like Virginia in exchange for their votes. Now Republicans control the House of Representatives, climate change legislation has no chance, and Obama will get nothing in return for this. The only stakeholders who are pleased by the announcement are industry groups like the American Petroleum Institute, which never have done, and never will do, any favors for Obama.

    And that is why Obama should be rejecting any and all fossil fuel extraction from federal lands and waters. Trading drilling rights for an economy-wide price on carbon would be a deal worth making. But there is no deal to be made right now. And in any potential future deal, the Democrats’ hand would be strengthened by holding exploration and leasing rights as a bargaining chip.

    There has been some debate in recent years over the environmental movement’s priorities. Some center-left pundits, such as New York magazine’s Jonathan Chait, argue that Obama has done just about everything he can do without congressional action to address climate change, and that the focus on the Keystone XL pipeline instead of stronger power plant regulations has been misplaced.

    Well, here is something Obama should be doing differently, something fully within his power to control: stop issuing leases for fossil fuel extraction. It is no less important than Keystone. Indeed, it is absurd that we hand out permission to for-profit companies to despoil our shared lands and waters. The executive branch is charged with managing these areas in the public interest, and the public’s greatest interest — economically as well as environmentally — is in reducing climate change.

    The environmental community should be calling on Obama not to issue a single new lease offshore or on federal land. Environmental activists say this is a great idea, just waiting for a catalyst. “Putting a moratorium in place would be a major step forward on climate. It’s a campaign waiting to happen,” says Jamie Henn, spokesperson for, which has led the fight on Keystone. Henn proposes a sort of middle ground: that Obama could take climate impact into account for all new leasing proposals. “President Obama could start by applying his Keystone XL climate test to any new developments: They can only proceed if they don’t significantly contribute to global warming.”

    That would be a step in the right direction. But, given the local environmental and public health impacts of oil and gas drilling and coal mining, there is good reason prevent it even if the climate impact is relatively minor.

    Could a movement to stop federal fossil fuel leasing become a reality? In 1983, the environmental community successfully lobbied Congress to place a moratorium on offshore Atlantic drilling, which was renewed until 2008. The Sierra Club has considered trying to revive it, but found the enthusiasm among donors to be lacking. While the group has consistently opposed all leasing in recent years, it hasn’t been running a unified campaign for a moratorium. “It’s been harder than you’d think to raise money and build a national coalition,” says Manuel.

    It may be easier to mobilize for such a campaign when there is an anti-environment administration to serve as a villain. “We haven’t been able to raise the money and build a coalition to keep that campaign going. In the ‘80s we were able to, maybe because of James Watt,” says Manuel, referring to Ronald Reagan’s notorious interior secretary. “Maybe that’ll happen eventually.”

    A few years ago, no one would have thought that a mass mobilization against Keystone was likely either. But groups organized, donors got excited, volunteers mobilized, and the rest is history. As on Keystone, Obama won’t do the right thing on leasing unless he is forced to.

    Filed under: Business & Technology, Climate & Energy, Politics
    Triple Pundit: Elon Musk Lays Out Future Plans for Tesla
    In a recent interview with AutoExpress magazine, Tesla CEO Elon Musk unveiled the company's future plans, which include a lower-priced Model 3 and upgrades to the original Roadster.
    Triple Pundit: Elon Musk Lays Out Future Plans for Tesla
    In a recent interview with AutoExpress magazine, Tesla CEO Elon Musk unveiled the company's future plans, which include a lower-priced Model 3 and upgrades to the original Roadster.
    Gristmill: Could drones be our secret weapon in the fight against Big Ag?

    If you were privy to everything that went on inside a factory farm, you might never want to eat again. Manure lagoons fester. Animals cram into tiny spaces. Unsanitary conditions abound. Which is exactly why Big Ag would rather you just didn’t know. At least seven states have now made it illegal to use undercover evidence to expose the unsavory practices that take place on factory farms. Award-winning journalist Will Potter thinks drones could be the workaround to these controversial “ag-gag” laws.

    NPR reports that Potter raised $75,000 on Kickstarter to buy drones and other equipment in order to investigate animal agriculture in the U.S.

    “I was primarily motivated by what’s happening outside of those closed doors, but is still invisible and hidden from the public spotlight,” Potter tells NPR. “In particular, I was motivated by seeing these aerial photographs and satellite imagery of farm pollution, of waste lagoons, of sprawling industrial operations.”

    Potter’s taking advantage of the fact that while drones have been a hot news item of late, lawmakers are still figuring out the specifics on if and how to regulate them.

    From NPR:

    Could Potter be prosecuted for flying drones over farms? Clemens Kochinke, a Washington D.C.-based lawyer behind the Drone Law blog, says the law is unclear about monitoring ag businesses. And it takes years to test the laws in court.

    “Aside from the many federal issues involving the [Federal Aviation Administration] and the [Department of] Homeland Security, you have the state, county and municipal rules,” Kochinke says. “An overriding limitation on the restriction of drones may derive from the First Amendment where reporting in the public interest is concerned.”

    Legalities aside, Chuck Jolley, who works in the meat industry, points out another complication that could disrupt Potter’s plans: “Those things better not be coming over during duck season because there are hunters out there that might look up and mistake that drone for a duck.” It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s perhaps our best bet for circumventing ag-gag laws, so long as it doesn’t get shot down?

    Filed under: Business & Technology, Food
    Gristmill: Disney’s “Planes” sequel is an excuse to talk to your kids about climate change

    I saw the Disney film Planes: Fire and Rescue over the weekend with my 11-year-old son Justice. It’s not my favorite animated movie series, but I thought it would be a calmer, more ambient version of the kind of anthropomorphized stories Justice and I have sat earmuffed through at the movies lately, like Transformers and Planet of the Apes.

    I’m not mad we went. It did a better job of explaining the inconsolable wrath of wildfires for us two East Coasters than I could have ever done for my son. And it managed to pack in a subplot about water scarcity.

    Spoiler alert here — and sorry, because I know y’all have been dying to see this sequel.

    Dusty Crophopper, a small-farm, single-propeller cropduster returns from his main character role in the original, where he left the farm to become a Top Gun prize racer. But in Fire & Rescue, we learn that his streak of world championship racing and fancy globetrotting have grinded his gears irreparably, meaning he can no longer race.

    Enraged that he has to hang it up, Dusty accidentally causes a five-alarm blaze at his home hanger that’s not easily put to bed by the old resident fire truck. An ensuing investigation into the conflagration reveals that the hangar is out of compliance with a bunch of safety codes and regulations. It must be shut down unless the local fire unit makes significant upgrades (Big Government ruins the day once again! Thanks, Obama!).

    It’s here that Dusty decides he wants to enlist with an elite squad of planes, trucks, and other motorized, vocalized equipment trained specifically for dealing with the worst of disasters, so he can help save his town. Dusty’s training days involve helping the squad find creative ways to fight a rash of wildfires occurring all over their terrain. We never learn the cause of the fires; they just happen. The story’s major function is to show the audience just how difficult it is to put these forest fires out.

    But the real tension kicks in when a major conflict of agendas breaks out between a national park superintendent and the disaster squad over water usage. The demanding superintendent insists on using the water for the grand opening of a huge tourist lodge resort, built deep in the woods of the national park he oversees. He wants to impress the Secretary of the Interior department, who’s making a guest visit for the opening.

    When yet another forest fire breaks out near the lodge, the disaster unit doesn’t have the water it needs because it’s all been diverted to the resort. This diversion puts the Interior Secretary, along with hundreds of visitors present for opening day at the lodge, in grave danger — saved only, of course, when our hero Dusty finds a way to secure water from the river to help rescue them.

    I imagine Tea Party dads will use this story to drive a point through about the federal government being clueless. The National Park Service gets a good kick in the butt in this film as well. But I think the discussion that Planes surfaces around water resources — who decides how they are used, how and why — are important ones to have, and at an early age. It was the part that got my greatest attention.

    If climate change is a thing in the movie, it serves more as a watermark. As with Snowpiercer, the science behind what’s causing the disasters is never explored; they are just facts of life in the story.

    Some parents will use this as an opening into climate talks with their kids. Some of the Tea Partiers might probably just tell the kids that this is what happens when Smokey Bear goes into the woods to smoke weed with the hippies. But paired with other accessible shows like Showtime’s Years of Living Dangerously or Cosmos, kids can walk away with a good sense of how exactly climate change might impact their own backyards, and the difficult choices we need to make about how to deploy resources both before and when they happen.

    Filed under: Climate & Energy, Living
    Gristmill: These amazing animated maps show cities on the move

    It knows when you are sleeping. It knows when you’re awake. It knows if you’ve been driving, biking, or walking, and it records it, for data’s sake.

    Human is an app that tracks activity with the goal of getting users to exercise at least 30 minutes a day. It uses the M7 motion co-processor, a handy little iPhone microchip with gyroscope, compass, and accelerometer sensors, to track and record your every move – even while your phone is asleep.

    Creepy? Maybe a little. But what with the NSA so busy looking at pictures of you in your underwear, maybe a device that tracks how you get around on a daily basis isn’t all that bad.

    This month, Human’s parent company released a series of neat-o visualizations of walking, biking, running, and driving patterns for 30 cities around the world. Check out the video here:

    According to some ‘plannerds‘ and city traffic engineers, the maps can give a far more nuanced look at travel patterns than traffic engineers have ever been able to cobble together with car and bike counters, census surveys, and other traditional methods.

    It’s possible that one day, the data can help fill in some gaps about everything from public transportation use to bicycling in cities (since the census only counts biking to work, and doesn’t give a complete picture of how people are using bicycles to get around). But the app can’t provide a complete picture yet, because (for now) it doesn’t collect specific demographic information, and because people without iPhones actually walk and ride bikes too.

    Here’s Michael Anderson writing in StreetsBlog:

    Human’s maps are certainly pretty. But for traffic engineers like the City of Austin’s Nathan Wilkes, they’re the tip of the iceberg.

    If the users of apps like Human can provide just a few demographic indicators, Wilkes says, planners would be able to compensate for underrepresented groups and calculate not only how a city’s transportation choices are shifting in real time, but which streets people are choosing.

    “It doesn’t seem like a far stretch to be able to have monthly updates to the heat maps to the point where we could see, ‘Oh, we just installed the cycle track on this facility: This is month one, month two, month three, month four,’” said Wilkes, the city’s lead bikeway planner and designer.

    Until then, the data makes for some fun eye candy — and a cool way to compare activity patterns between cities.

    Here’s a look at bicycle utopia Amsterdam, which, according to Human’s data, leads the way for cycling, and also ranks as and the most active city:

    East Coast cities like Washington, D.C., Boston, and New York topped the charts for walking. Here’s Boston:

    And Los Angeles, man, you gotta get out (of your car) more:

    Filed under: Article, Business & Technology, Cities
    Gristmill: Ask Umbra: What should I do with my nasty old pillows?

    Send your question to Umbra!

    Q. My pillows are getting gross. I’ve thought about washing them, but I can only do two at a time in the washing machine, and I live in Southern California where we’re in the midst of a nasty drought. So, I’ve thought about throwing them away and getting new ones, but I hate the thought of them just sitting in a landfill. Which path to clean pillows is better for the planet? And if you have any recommendations for eco-friendlier pillows in general, I’ll take ‘em!

    Glendale, Calif.

    A. Dearest Amy,

    While I admire your commitment to water conservation, there’s no need to force your pillows into early retirement. Just as you wouldn’t toss your clothes, dishes, or bedsheets after getting a bit grimy (I hope), nor should you contribute to overconsumerism with a new set of pillows, which require raw materials, water, and energy to produce – and that you don’t really need.

    Pillows can be dry-cleaned, but I wouldn’t recommend it. Conventional dry-cleaning is just too toxic, “eco-friendly” cleaners may simply be greenwashing, and the better commercial alternative, “wet cleaning,” still uses water.

    So go ahead and wash your pillows, Amy. As you’ve got capacity issues at home, I’d check out the larger machines found at your local laundromat. Gold stars to you if you patronize a business that offers low-water, energy-efficient washing machines (laundromats don’t always advertise this, but may have a few horizontal-axis, front-loading washers for use – ask around, and go for those).

    Whether you’re coming clean down the street or at home, use a small amount of gentle detergent. To dry, use the low-heat setting on your clothes dryer and include a few tennis balls or clean tennis shoes to help break up the down clumps that tend to form. It won’t hurt to leave the finished pillows out in the sun for a few hours to enhance drying, either.

    You don’t say whether you own an Energy Star washing machine (which uses about 15 gallons of water per load versus 23 gallons for a standard washer, plus less energy to boot), but that’s certainly something to look into for all your laundry going forward. In terms of pillows going forward, look into laying your head on organic cotton, organic wool, hemp, or even buckwheat hulls, all of which can be found stuffing today’s eco-friendly bedding options.

    Oh, and if those pillows are at the end of their useful lives? Read on.


    Q. We have several old down pillows and comforters, and I have not been able to find a place to recycle or donate them. Any suggestions?

    Gretchen H.
    Boise, Idaho

    A. Dearest Gretchen,

    Do I have suggestions? Of course I do! But first, how old are we talking? If your bedding is still in usable condition, you may be able to find someone who’d gratefully take it off your hands. As you may have discovered, secondhand shops can be squeamish about accepting old pillows for reasons involving hygiene and bedbugs. But some local charities may be interested in clean, washed (see above) items; make a few calls to see where your donation can do the most good.

    But if your pillows and comforter have deflated beyond all hope, reusing is your best bet. Do you by any chance have pets, Gretchen? Old pillows and blankets make great beds for our four-legged friends. If not, friends, neighbors, or Freecyle might want your castoffs for this purpose, as would your local vet or animal shelter. A few more ideas: Stash pillows in the car for naps. Use the down as stuffing for new throw pillows, old teddy bears, or draft snakes. Turn your comforter into a picnic or beach blanket. Repurpose the filling as packing material.

    One more option: You may be able to unload some of your bedding directly to textile recyclers, which sell the fibers to be made into things like industrial rags, carpets, and insulation. There just so happens to be one in your area, and yep, it accepts down pillows and comforters. (If you’re not in Boise, check with the company before dropping anything off.)

    I’m sure you’ll find a second life for those tired bedthings, Gretchen. Then sleep easy knowing you’ve kept usable threads out of the landfill.


    Filed under: Living
    Gristmill: Fracking fight headed for the ballot in Colorado
    fist fight

    Colorado voters will likely get a chance to weigh in on fracking in November — and that puts Democrats on the ballot in a tight spot.

    The fracking boom has bolstered Colorado’s economy, and twisted its politics. Even many Democrats advocate for oil and gas interests, including Gov. John Hickenlooper and Sen. Mark Udall, both of whom are up for reelection this year. But many people living near the wells complain of contaminated air and water, noise, health problems, and other adverse effects.

    As Colorado cities have begun trying to ban fracking, the state government has sued them, arguing that only the state has that authority. Rep. Jared Polis (D), whose congressional district includes many of those communities north of Denver, is spending his own money to promote a ballot initiative to outlaw fracking less than 2,000 feet from a residence, up from the currently allowed 500 feet. The gas industry says that would amount to a fracking ban in many areas. Polis is also supporting an initiative that would make more stringent local environmental regulations override conflicting weaker state rules, which could allow communities to outlaw fracking.

    Hickenlooper and other state lawmakers were trying to broker a legislative compromise that would keep the initiatives off the ballot. The governor’s proposal would have placed some additional restrictions on fracking but made it clear that localities couldn’t ban it altogether. But last week, the negotiations fell apart and Hickenlooper announced that there would be no special summer legislative session to pass a fracking bill. Polis then declared that he will move forward with collecting the signatures needed to place his proposals on the ballot.

    Environmental activists expressed relief that no deal was reached in the legislature, saying that the proposal under consideration would not have allowed for enough local control. “I have no idea why Polis thought the proposed legislation was an acceptable ‘compromise,’” says Lauren Swain, a Coloradan who works with the Rocky Mountain chapter of the Sierra Club. “It made all the community rights to self-protection that it granted subject to operational conflict with the state and to the interests of the industry. It gave and it tooketh away, subjecting every local regulation or moratorium to more lawsuits.”

    Perhaps the reason Polis was open to such a bill is because he, like most other Colorado Democrats, supports fracking in principle. In his statement Wednesday, Polis said, “My one goal is to find a solution that will allow my constituents to live safely in their homes, free from the fear of declining property values or unnecessary health risks, but also that will allow our state to continue to benefit from the oil and gas boom that brings jobs and increased energy security.”

    Hickenlooper opposes both initiatives, as does Udall, who issued the following statement: “I oppose these one-size-fits-all restrictions and will continue working with all parties — including property owners, energy producers, and lawmakers — to find common ground.”

    The presence of the initiatives on the ballot is generally seen as disadvantageous for Democrats up for election like Hickenlooper and Udall — not because most Coloradans disagree with the Democrats’ positions on the issue, but because it would spur the oil and gas industries to reach into their deep pockets and run ads to mobilize Republican-leaning, pro–fossil fuel voters. Industry groups could dump $50 million into the state to kill the initiatives.

    Colorado Republicans are also eager to capitalize on fracking as a potential wedge issue. Whereas Hickenlooper and Udall speak of the need for balance between the economic upsides of oil and gas drilling and the environmental and community-level downsides, their Republican opponents are unmitigated fans of fossil fuels. Rep. Cory Gardner, who is challenging Udall for his Senate seat, complains that Udall hasn’t come out for the Keystone XL pipeline. But Udall hasn’t come out against it either — he’s just supported the Obama administration’s process of conducting a thorough review before making a decision, and he voted against a Republican measure to override the president’s authority and force the pipeline’s approval. Since Keystone XL wouldn’t even go through Colorado, it’s an especially odd attack on Udall, but Gardner clearly believes that anything short of a full-throated “Drill, baby, drill!” is a potential liability for Udall.

    If enthusiastic pro-fracking voters do swarm to the polls and help defeat Udall, that could have national repercussions. Democrats are in danger of losing the U.S. Senate, and Udall’s seat is one of 10 most vulnerable Democratic Senate seats up for reelection this year, along with others in red states like West Virginia and Alaska. The Democrats need to limit their losses to five seats to retain control.

    But Colorado politicians and their campaign consultants could be wrong in thinking the initiatives would benefit Republicans. A week ago, The Denver Post published the results of a poll that found the Polis-backed ballot measures would pass easily. Roughly 30,000 Coloradans work in the oil and gas industry, and many more collect royalty checks, but the state’s electorate has long been distinguished by its concern for quality of life. The oil industry’s anti-initiative ads could bring more right-wingers to the polls, but the chance to curb fracking could bring out a lot of liberal-leaning Coloradans.

    It’s not often that a fossil fuel industry with such local economic clout finds itself on the defensive. (Just look at King Coal, which controls the politics in West Virginia.) But this fall, Colorado might be one of the few states to put the fossil fuel industry in check.

    Filed under: Business & Technology, Climate & Energy, Politics
    Gristmill: California’s next oil rush is tastier than you might expect

    Olives trees have a lot to offer the United States. One of those things is water — and this year, as California dries to a shriveled crisp, water is looking especially important.

    Most olives grown around the world have no irrigation. The trees are built for drought: They have narrow, waxy, abstemious leaves. They’ve evolved biological tricks for going dormant when things get too dry; they hunker down and then spring back when the rains come. These skills are appealing to farmers, especially ones who have recently ripped out a drought-ravaged orchard, thereby walking away from a 20-year investment.

    It’s nearly impossible to say whether California’s drought is linked to climate change. Current models suggest that the state could actually get a little wetter, but they also suggest hotter summers and greater extremes. When the droughts do come, they are going to be serious.

    One projection is clear: There are going to be a lot more people sticking their straws into the communal cup. So, right about now, this tree that’s adapted for California’s Mediterranean climate, survives without irrigation, and produces food at the same time seems pretty cool.

    In the midst of this drought wracking the country’s agricultural powerhouse (don’t forget that California is the biggest ag state), forecasts tend toward the dire. But there is real hope in olives. Done right, olive oil farming could be a boon for nutrition and the environment. And, as a bonus, if we developed a domestic olive oil industry, we’d have access — for the first time — to the good stuff. Right now, just about everything we call olive oil is rancid, or something else entirely.

    “There’s 10 times more California-grown olive oil than we had 10 years ago,” said Dan Flynn, executive director of the UC Davis Olive Center. “And olive oil consumption in the United States has gone up maybe ten fold in the last thirty years.”

    Human health and health of the land

    Dom Sagolla

    Olive oil hasn’t been a major part of American food traditions, but we’ve been incorporating it more and more. The market is growing 10 percent a year. Through all our spastic dietary fads, people have stood firm on one point: Olive oil is good stuff. The carb haters and the fat haters alike consider olive oil virtuous. And the FDA says we should maybe be replacing saturated fat with olive oil.

    Americans currently consume an average of a liter of olive oil a year, but that’s nothing compared to the Spanish (10 liters) or the Italians (15 liters). “There’s a lot of room for growth in the U.S. if it took the space of other fats,” Flynn said.

    It could also be good for the environment if olives took the place of animal fats, or of that other — much thirstier — Mediterranean tree, the almond. I love almonds: they seem to be healthier than meat, and exact less suffering. But almonds do require a lot of water. Even when farmers irrigate olives to insure a large crop, they use half the water that almond trees require.

    The real trick, both for the environment and for human health, is to have olive oil take the place of something else. Americans seem to have a vague additive theory of nutrition: Instead of eating less of anything, we simply eat more of whatever is currently considered healthy — as if the vinaigrette on a salad will somehow cancel out the hamburger that comes next. It’s not entirely our fault: As Marion Nestle has been pointing out for years, government recommendations always tell us what to eat more of but shy away from telling us to eat less of anything.

    The same additive logic goes for farming: So far, olive trees aren’t replacing almond groves or feedlots. A lot of the olives have gone in on marginal land that couldn’t support anything else, Flynn said. If olive oil production is going to be good for the environment, we’ll have to do better across the board.


    Olive grove in Filoli, Calif.
    Jill Clardy
    Olive grove in Filoli, Calif.

    Perhaps the first thing people will notice from the growing domestic olive crop is the taste. Unlike most oils, it actually has a range of powerful flavors: It’s grassy, peppery, slightly astringent.

    Currently, 97 percent of olive oil consumed in the U.S. is imported, and a lot of it is crappy. We get the oil rejected by other countries, and there are chances for fraud at every stop along the journey. When Flynn’s Olive Center tested oils, it found that a lot of the stuff labeled “extra virgin” was rancid.

    The thing is, we Americans don’t know the difference. As Tom Mueller carefully documented in his book, Extra Virginity, the oil suppliers are simply catering to our ignorant taste buds. They know they are dealing with rampant fraud, Mueller writes, but essentially say, “‘Yeah, we know, but it’s cheap, and that’s what our customers want.’”

    Mueller writes, “It’s rare to find authentic extra ExtraVirginityPbkvirgin olive oil in a restaurant in America, even in fine restaurants that ought to know better. It’s nearly impossible in some localities such as southern California, where large-scale counterfeiters pump out blends of low-grade olive oil and soybean oil dyed bright green…”

    All this means that many American have never tasted good olive oil. “For a lot of people, it’s an entirely new flavor and quality experience,” Flynn said.

    If we shortened the supply chain by making olive oil locally, there would be fewer opportunities for fraudsters to adulterate the mix. And a stronger olive industry might campaign for stricter regulation of imports. We have some of the loosest laws, and an even looser inspection regime for food oils. The U.S., Mueller says, “is an oil criminal’s dream.”

    If American eaters stopped accepting the oil con, and started demanding real olive oil, they could support a more resilient crop for the uncertain future. Adapting to change may be hard, but it doesn’t have to leave a bad taste in our mouths.

    Filed under: Article, Climate & Energy, Food
    Triple Pundit: No EV Charging Stations for Your Tesla? Do It Yourself

    Zong needed a way to get his new Tesla home from the dealership; his idea evolved to a “demonstration of the power of Internet-based organizing and a grassroots alternative to government-backed charging-facility projects,” the Caixin report says.

    The post No EV Charging Stations for Your Tesla? Do It Yourself appeared first on Triple Pundit: People, Planet, Profit.

    Triple Pundit: Giving a Pass to Corporate Polluters

    Has there ever been a better time to be a corporation? I doubt it. Corporations might disagree, and we’re all familiar with corporate lamentations regarding the increasingly challenging web of federal regulations (Dodd-Frank; the FCPA) they supposedly struggle to navigate. Yet, it’s hard to dispute that these are good times for big business, and “Exhibit A” could easily be the utter dearth of criminal prosecutions for corporations that are guilty of pollution.

    The post Giving a Pass to Corporate Polluters appeared first on Triple Pundit: People, Planet, Profit.

    Triple Pundit: California City Blocks New Power Plant, Cites Climate Change

    Environmentalists have won an unusual victory in the city of Oxnard, Calif. With emotions running high, the city council placed a moratorium on construction of a new power plant that is supposed to replace the behemoth on the city's shoreline. The city's reasons for not updating the existing facility was climate change, which is due to raise ocean levels at least 4 feet. NRG meanwhile isn't listening.

    The post California City Blocks New Power Plant, Cites Climate Change appeared first on Triple Pundit: People, Planet, Profit.

    Triple Pundit: Obama: Climate Change Is a Threat to U.S. Infrastructure

    More extreme droughts, floods and wildfires – these are just some of the impacts of climate change that won’t just occur in the distant future to our great-great grandchildren, but are happening now. To address the changing climate’s current effects on communities in the U.S., President Barack Obama announced a plan to strengthen national infrastructure and help cities, states and tribal communities better prepare for and recover from natural disasters.

    The post Obama: Climate Change Is a Threat to U.S. Infrastructure appeared first on Triple Pundit: People, Planet, Profit.

    Triple Pundit: Kroger Cuts Energy Use By 35 Percent, Ramps Up Sustainability Efforts

    The Kroger Co. reduced the energy use in its stores by 34.6 percent since 2000, saving more than 2.5 billion kilowatt hours (kWh). That is enough electricity to power every home in Charlotte, North Carolina for a year -- or the equivalent of taking 362,000 cars off the road for a year.

    The post Kroger Cuts Energy Use By 35 Percent, Ramps Up Sustainability Efforts appeared first on Triple Pundit: People, Planet, Profit.

    Triple Pundit: Maryland Offshore Wind Auction Date Set, New Jersey Auction Proposed

    Nearly 80,000 of Maryland offshore wind energy development leases are to be auctioned and another of 344,000 acres offshore New Jersey is being proposed. All told, the two Atlantic Ocean parcels could support a massive 4,850 MWs of clean, renewable power, enough for 1.5 million U.S. homes.

    The post Maryland Offshore Wind Auction Date Set, New Jersey Auction Proposed appeared first on Triple Pundit: People, Planet, Profit.

    Triple Pundit: More Millennials Are Living With Their Parents: Is It Hurting the Economy?

    A growing number of millennials are living with their parents. This is good news, right? Millennials seem to adopt a more responsible economic behavior, avoiding the same reckless financial decisions that got so many people in trouble only a few years ago. Well, not so fast. The reports on this trend widely present it as a problem rather than an opportunity. Why? Because by not buying houses, millennials are hurting the real estate recovery and a weak housing market has been a burden on the U.S. economic growth.

    The post More Millennials Are Living With Their Parents: Is It Hurting the Economy? appeared first on Triple Pundit: People, Planet, Profit.

    Gristmill: Feds move to restrict neonic pesticides — well, one fed at least
    Kealia Pond National Wildlife Refuge

    So far the EPA has refused to ban use of neonicotinoid insecticides — despite mounting evidence that they kill bees and other wildlife, despite a ban in the European Union, despite a lawsuit filed by activists and beekeepers.

    But if the EPA is somehow still unclear on the dangers posed by neonics, it need only talk to the official who oversees federal wildlife refuges in the Pacific Northwest and Pacific Ocean.

    Kevin Foerster, a regional boss with the National Wildlife Refuge System, directed his staff this month to investigate where neonics are being used in the refuges they manage — and to put an end to their use. Foerster’s office is worried that farming contractors that grow grasses and other forage crops for wildlife and corn and other grains for human consumption on refuge lands are using neonic pesticides and neonic-treated seeds. There are also fears that agency staff are inadvertently using plants treated with the poisons in restoration projects.

    “The Pacific Region will begin a phased approach to eliminate the use of neonicotinoid insecticides (by any method) to grow agricultural crops for wildlife on National Wildlife Refuge System lands, effective immediately,” Forster wrote in a July 9 memo that was obtained and published last week by the nonprofit Center for Food Safety. “Though there will be some flexibility during the transition and we will take into account the availability of non-treated seed, Refuge managers are asked to exhaust all alternatives before allowing the use of neonicotinoids on National Wildlife Refuge System Lands in 2015.”

    An information sheet attached to the memo notes that “severe declines in bee fauna have been a driving force behind the growing concern with neonics,” but that other species are also being affected. The information sheet also warns that pesticide drift, leaching, and water runoff can push neonics into wildlife habitats near farmed lands.

    The use of the pesticides in U.S. wildlife refuges has triggered outcries and lawsuits from groups that include the Center for Food Safety. “Federal wildlife refuges were established to protect natural diversity,” said Paige Tomaselli, an attorney with the center. “Allowing chemical companies to profit by poisoning these important ecosystems violates their fundamental purpose and mission.”

    Foerster’s move will help protect nearly 9,000 acres of refuges in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Hawaii, and the Pacific Islands from ecosystem-ravaging poisons.

    But the memo has significance beyond that. It confirms that wildlife experts within the federal government are acutely aware of the dangers that the poisons pose. Now we just need the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and the EPA to talk to each other.

    Filed under: Article, Business & Technology, Politics
    Gristmill: Whole Foods will bring you groceries by bike

    OK, I’ll admit right off the bat that I wasn’t so excited when my editors suggested I write about Whole Foods making deliveries by bike. Now affluent people who can’t be bothered to pick up their own groceries can have a slightly lower carbon impact — I mean, where’s the champagne!

    But after I sat with this for a second, I decided there is reason to celebrate. Cargo-bike deliveries make a lot of sense for companies, even if they don’t care about the environment: They don’t get hung up in traffic, they don’t require parking spaces, they don’t guzzle fuel, they’re cheaper than delivery vans, they are easy to repair … The list could go on. But they are still pretty rare because, basically, change is hard.

    It’s hard to insure bicycles, and worker’s compensation insurance doesn’t come bundled in the package, the way it does if you are insuring a delivery van. As Streetsblog pointed out, you need a critical mass of cargo-bike delivery people to make insurance affordable. And, when something is rare, busy managers just don’t think of it. When you say “delivery,” most people are going to think “van.”

    So cheers to Whole Foods for defying the default, and leading the way toward common sense. Hope it’s a huge success, and widely replicated.

    Filed under: Article, Business & Technology, Food
    Gristmill: Washington state just lopped up to $2,500 off the cost of solar panels. Here’s how.
    solar panel rainbow

    All new technology, no matter how innovative, arrives in a world of pre-existing laws and regulations. But not all technology catches the same breaks. A company like Lyft or Uber can do its thing right out there in the open for a surprisingly long time, despite being — essentially — appified versions of such already-illegal innovations as dollar vans and jitneys.

    By comparison, solar energy, despite having made leaps and bounds both technologically and finance-wise, can’t show up at the block party without bringing down a lawsuit, a law, or some kind of extra fee.

    Yet those impediments, intentional and unintentional, are beginning to remove themselves. A decision this week by the Building Code Council in Washington state is a prime example.

    Until now, the process of legally installing solar panels on a building in Washington has been what it is in most of the U.S.: while there are state and national building codes, each county enforces them differently. What this meant was that the process of putting in solar ranged from the very simple (a solar panel installation was seen as the equivalent of putting on an extra layer of shingles)  to the complicated and prolonged (any installation, no matter how much of a no-brainer, required a full set of plans, signed by a licensed structural engineer, which added between $800-$2,500 to the final bill.) Solar installers were spending a lot of time learning about how permits were handled from county to county, and avoiding some areas altogether because the  process was so daunting.

    Then this April, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee issued an executive order to deal with carbon emissions — and that order paved the way for the standardization and simplification of solar permitting. It was a surprisingly agreeable process, says Mia Devine, a project manager at Northwest Solar Communities, a coalition that helped with the rule changes. “The mandate of the governor’s office really made people pay attention. It actually passed unanimously.”

    This whole “actually making it easy to put in solar” thing is still fairly rare, but the idea of having simpler rules seems like a popular one. In the coming months, expect to see more of these attempts to make rules around solar easier to navigate. It won’t be the wild west of the Silicon Valley startup world, but it’s shaping up to be a lot more open than it is today.

    Filed under: Article, Business & Technology, Climate & Energy, Politics
    Gristmill: Florida Gov. Rick Scott is about to sweat through some climate education

    During the 2010 gubernatorial campaign, when Rick Scott was asked if he believed in climate change, his response was, “I have not been convinced.” Since then, he has evolved from denier to evader, and his current position stands at, “I am not a scientist.”

    Luckily for Scott, Florida is full of scientists, and they are happy to pitch in and explain the big words. Ten of them, led by Professor Jeff Chanton, an oceanographer with Florida State University, delivered a letter to the governor’s office this week. “We are scientists,” they wrote. “And we would like the opportunity to explain what is at stake for our state.”

    Turns out the evidence for climate change is so clear and straightforward anyone, even a Republican governor, can understand it. “It’s not rocket science,” Chanton told Mary Ellen Klas at the Tampa Bay Times, “I can explain it. Give me half an hour.”

    Scott initially offered to send someone from his administration to meet with the scientists. (Admittedly, he was busy that week fighting Harry Potter, but it still didn’t look good.) Then, when he heard his Democratic rival in the next gubernatorial election, Charlie Crist, was going to meet with the scientists, Scott cancelled a gig he’d scheduled with his Midnight Oil cover band, and agreed to talk.

    Jeff Spros at ThinkProgress offers a hint of what the conversation might sound like:

    The recently released National Climate Assessment warned that Southeast Florida is particularly vulnerable to sea level rise, and that “just inches of sea level rise will impair the capacity of stormwater drainage systems to empty into the ocean.” A tide gauge in Key West that’s been measuring sea levels since 1913 has detected an eight-inch rise as of 2013, and the World Resources Institute projects another rise of anywhere between nine inches and two feet by 2060. By 2030, the risk of storm surges at the four foot mark is anticipated to double, and the more dire scenarios project a sea level rise of as much as six feet by the end of the century.

    That would do away with both Scott’s own beach-side mansion and the city of Miami. Meanwhile, 75 percent of South Florida’s residents — around 4.12 million people — live along the coast, and 2.4 million of them live within four feet of the tide line.

    Scott’s decision to meet with the scientists is probably a shrewd move, as most Floridians believe climate change is not just real, but anthropogenic in origin — and not just most Floridians, but the most Floridian Floridians. Frankly, the Governor of Florida turning away climatologists is kind of like the mayor of Tokyo being too busy to talk to the Godzilla experts. Here’s hoping they can get the message through his thick and horrifying skull.

    Filed under: Climate & Energy, Politics
    Gristmill: Punk strife and farm life pair remarkably well

    Here is something you’ve almost definitely never thought about: Rural punks! Punks in the country!

    How does that even work, exactly? Does a shredded Black Flag T-shirt go with a Dodge pickup? Can one maintain a deep-seated rage against pigs (the police) while feeding pigs (the farm animal)? Is piercing your eyebrow with a safety pin in the middle of a cow field more or less transgressive than doing it in the bathroom of whichever shitty warehouse show is happening on a Thursday?

    Thanks to Modern Farmer, we can now ponder these questions throughout the day and for the rest of time. Tyler LeBlanc interviewed the founder of the Grind, a zine for rural punks founded by a woman whose honest-to-God, government name is Gretchen Bonegardener.

    You can read the whole interview here, but we’ve cherry-picked the best excerpt:

    MF: What does the Grind offer a country punk?

    GB: Mostly service stuff, a good chunk are of our articles are how to’s. For example, in the newest issue, we look at things like how to hunt prairie chickens and how to sharpen a chainsaw.

    MF: You’re obviously not a fan of city life, so, what’s your favorite part of living in the country?

    GB: I like the lack of people telling me what I can and cannot do. I can go sit on my front porch and shoot off my gun, and blast music as loud as I can and nobody cares. I mean I don’t do that all the time, but I can, and that’s nice.

    All of a sudden, the rural punk life makes complete sense. We’ll just leave you with this, a soundtrack to your reflections:

    Filed under: Food, Living
    Gristmill: It’s going to take more than swimming lessons to undo the effects of racism

    If you haven’t caught the documentary Free Swim, about the paradox of an island in the Bahamas where the natives don’t know how to swim (you can catch it free on online), it’s worth a look — especially if you’ve followed our own Grist-ian summer coverage of the often painful stories behind American swimming and beaches (found here, here, here, aaand here). That pain comes, in part, from a history of racism that has excluded black people from public swimming areas and taken their land to build beach resorts.

    Free Swim strokes through similar themes. Here’s the trailer:

    The film focuses on the Deep Creek village on the southern end of Eleuthera, a thin sliver of an island in the Bahamas — 110 miles long, but only about a mile wide. We know poverty besets the region because of the shanty shelters, abandoned farms, and the rusts and ghosts of industrial buildings throughout the landscape.

    The children don’t seem “poor” — they dance in the streets, twist braids on the porch, and make music from discarded empty bottles — but they dream of going to big cities like New York and Los Angeles. They think they won’t make it because they are scared of the water they’d need to cross to get there.

    One villager estimates that about half of the people on the island can’t swim, though a survey taken years before the film figures more like 90 percent.

    The filmmaker, Jennifer Galvin, came to the Bahamas straight from the university to explore the relationship between water and public health in the Caribbean. She holds a doctorate and master’s degree in public health from Harvard and Yale respectively, and did her undergraduate work in the field at Brown. She came to this part of the Bahamas when she heard there were two American teens providing swimming lessons to the village children. Part of what kept her there, from 2006 to 2008, was the relationships she built with the islanders, and also her curiosity about how people who live so close to water became afraid of it.

    Much of Free Swim involves the villagers explaining why they can’t or don’t swim, and where they believe their aquaphobias emanate from. Myth and fantasy drench these explanations. Kids are frightened by lore of a big octopus they heard eats people, along with deadly sharks. Another urban legend tells of a “boiling hole” that will cook you to death if you’re caught in it.

    The subplot shows how the two American girls gradually coax the children, and even some of their parents, out of these fears, teaching a bunch of them how to float and swim in the process. The movie is keen to capture the gleeful moments of kids splashing about, invigorated by their new aquatic skills. Their fresh, glistening disposition on water leads to other rewarding moments, like excelling in school, the cinematic tale suggests. That narrative and the doc’s title leads us to believe that the moral here is that swimming helps free the villagers from the oppression of poverty.

    But as the question sampled by Wu-Tang Clan from Gladys Knight goes: Can it be that it was all so simple then?

    There are other issues at play here in Eleuthera  – Greek for “freedom,” which partially inspired the title. Given that these islands were some of the original posts of the Atlantic slave trade, racism and economic exploitation have held black Bahamians back, and not just from ocean-dipping. Viewers are treated to some of that story, though there’s not much room for it in the 50-minute film.

    Eleuthera once had a booming hotel resort market in the 1970s, which was the primary employer of the indigenous population. Part of why many on the island can’t swim is because there was no time to learn. After school, kids didn’t go to the beach or a YMCA for swimming lessons. They went to where their parents were: in the hotels working. This is where kids “learned to be a busboy to start off with,” explains a villager.

    But that tourism economy shifted to Nassau, on another island in the Bahamas, taking the jobs with it. Eleuthera was once populated with farms for dairy and poultry, but they’re mostly closed now courtesy of U.S. imports of those goods. Then there’s that pesky beach privatization problem, which has crept into Eleuthera, creating even more distance between the indigenous folk and their surrounding environment.

    Learning all of that, you get the sense that It’s going to take more than just swimming skills to defeat these socioeconomic leviathans.

    “A white person in a post-colonial society enjoys certain advantages and access,” says Patricia Glinton-Meicholas, a Bahamian historian in the film. “Even though we’ve had majority rule for the past 35 years, there’s a lot of catching up to do when you’ve had a slave past.”

    Glinton-Meicholas says the black islanders suffer from a “psychology of scarcity,” the result of when white people take control of the economy and natural resources of the natives, which is what happened throughout the Caribbean.

    The American teens, Brenda and Sally, come to Eleuthera not to further exploit them. Teaching the island kids how to swim is their way of hopefully undoing some of the oppression. They form the nonprofit Swim to Empower based off of this. But the film doesn’t admit that such swimming empowerment might only be the latest conceit for black freedom.

    You can’t avoid that the teens are white amidst a sea of black villagers. The tone at times feels unflatteringly like a Teach for America project, where people parachute in from worlds of white privilege to teach black youth skills to be more functional in the global market. You can’t help but feel traces of Waiting for Superman, the documentary critics have labeled a propaganda piece for the education reform movement. Is this Waiting for Aquaman?

    Galvin is aware of the perceptions. She told me her intention was not to shoot a PR vehicle for Swim to Empower. And she gets that the racial dimensions of the instructors and students might not be the best contrast.

    “This film was not meant to be a ‘white girl saves the world’ film,” Galvin told me. “I see this [messiah complex] all the time, especially in the Caribbean, especially in Haiti, where people perpetuate this benevolent oppressor action — thinking they are doing good when they are still kinda engaging oppression.”

    The Swim to Empower organization was handed over to Bahamians to run, which is what it was created to do, she tells me. She also discovered in her research that Bahamian laws actually mandate “swimming literacy” as part of its national curriculum. It was just never enforced. She hopes to create a “Free Swim” sequel, or perhaps a mini-series, where she can devote more time to unpacking the issues around race and class.

    “I didn’t want to come at it as an academic film, or just a historical perspective on swimming and race,” said Galvin. “I wanted to make something more poetic and emotional, a launching pad for more conversations”

    There is no narrator in Free Swim. It consists purely of the villagers and their voices, which is the best way to start the conversation.

    Filed under: Living
    Triple Pundit: 3p Weekend: 5 Cities Already Feeling the Effects of Climate Change

    While some still view climate change as some distant or unidentifiable threat (and others simply argue its effects "won't be so bad"), the impacts of rising tides and surging temperatures are already changing lives around the world.

    The post 3p Weekend: 5 Cities Already Feeling the Effects of Climate Change appeared first on Triple Pundit: People, Planet, Profit.

    Gristmill: Hospital food gets a locavore makeover

    If you’re reading this from a hospital bed, you’ve probably got a lot feel crummy about. And sometimes it seems like hospitals are actually trying to add insult to injury by what they serve up.

    Like this:

    Mark Hillary
    hirotomo t
    Ok, that doesn't even look real. And yet ... it is. Yuck.
    OK, that doesn’t even look real. And yet … it is. Yuck.

    But there’s good news spreading through hospital corridors across America: The promise of a meal that’s actually palatable and good for you — and for the environment. AP reports that a “growing network of companies and organizations is delivering food directly from local farms to major institutions like Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in downtown Philadelphia, eliminating scores of middlemen from farm to fork.”

    From AP:

    Major institutions like Jefferson have long relied on whatever giant food service companies provide, often processed foods that are delivered efficiently and are easy to heat and serve. But with a steady supply of locally grown food from the Common Market food hub, Jefferson now serves vegetables like bok choy and asparagus, creamy yogurts from Amish country and omelets with locally sourced cage-free eggs and spinach.

    The model is simple: Common Market, a nonprofit, picks up food from 75 regional farmers and small food companies and quickly turns it around in its Philadelphia warehouse. The food — everything from vegetables to turkey to tofu — is then sent to 220 city customers along with detailed information about where it was grown or produced. There are about 300 other similar food hubs around the country.

    St. Luke’s University Hospital Network is taking that a step further by growing veggies on site at its new facility in Bethlehem Township, Penn. This year, the five-acre plot is expected to grow 44,000 pounds of organic food like tomatoes, squash, and peppers. St. Luke’s plans to eventually double the size of the farm. Eating produce is very beneficial for patients, St. Luke’s Community Health Medical Director Bonnie Coyle told Lehigh Valley Live. Who woulda thunk!

    Health benefits aside, institutions like hospitals are perfectly poised to give the food movement the kick it needs by making local food available on a bigger scale. Because as fun as it is to casually browse local offerings on a Saturday afternoon, farmers markets can’t change the food system all on their own. I can’t say I hope to get sent to a hospital soon … but if I do, I’ll take a bok choy omelet over those weird brown-grey globs.

    Filed under: Food
    Gristmill: Living next to natural gas wells is no fun
    fracking protestors holding hands

    Driving around the rural back roads of Garfield County, Colo., you don’t see many cars. But one type of vehicle keeps popping up, often the only one you’ll see for hours: the white pickup trucks favored by gas drilling companies. Here in the central western part of the state, the rolling fields of scrubby yellow-green vegetation are frequently punctuated by natural gas wells. Even after a well has stopped producing gas, big cylindrical tanks of waste water and natural gas condensate remain, sitting behind low fences by the roadside. Too often those tanks leak out their contents, including volatile organic compounds (VOCs) such as benzene and toluene.

    Are these ones leaking?
    Are these ones leaking?

    People who live on or near properties with gas wells say they have experienced an array of health effects from exposure to high concentrations of these chemicals. The known immediate effects of exposure to high concentrations of benzene, according to the Centers for Disease Control, include headache and drowsiness. Long-term exposure can cause cancer, as well as fertility problems in women.

    Karen Protz certainly thinks being surrounded by gas wells is at least partially responsible for her overwhelming health problems. In 2005, as the fracking boom brought gas wells closer to her log cabin on a winding mountain road, Protz began to feel sick. “I was walking five miles a day for three years to lose weight,” says Protz. “Then I started not feeling good: tired, lethargic. I’m Italian and I love to eat, and I couldn’t even look at pizza. I started having heart palpitations.”

    Karen Protz
    Karen Protz

    In the years since, her problems have multiplied and worsened. She gets frequent sinus infections, and has had several benign growths on her thyroid. More recently she has suffered from blood clots and a mild stroke for which her lab work can produce no explanation. Protz gets out of breath just from climbing a flight of stairs and is on oxygen at night, though she has never been a smoker. When she goes back to visit family in Delaware, or even just east to Denver, her symptoms subside. But they come back as soon as she returns home. She might move, but her husband works in the area and her grown children live here. Sitting in her living room, under the giant elk and deer heads over the fireplace, Protz tears up as she says, “I just wish I didn’t feel like I was 70 in a 53-year-old body.”

    The gas companies note that no studies have demonstrated that their wells in the area are causing these problems. There’s a dearth of good data on how much VOCs people breathe in due to living near a well. “If people have health concerns we take that seriously, but we have seen no data that there is a direct cause or correlation between symptoms and our operations,” says Doug Hoch, a spokesman for Encana, one of the major gas production companies in the area. Protz and others who are sick counter that this is partly because the high concentrations of VOCs in the air are not being properly measured. Colorado has relatively stringent requirements for air quality reporting, but they rely on companies to do the reporting themselves. There is also the issue of access to the wells, which of course the gas companies do not grant to independent researchers. Nonetheless, a 2012 study by the University of Colorado-Denver School of Public Health found VOCs in Garfield County five times above the EPA’s Hazard Index level.

    Toxic chemicals are not the only air pollutants created by gas and oil drilling. Greenhouse gases are also released, as are the gases that contribute to the formation of ozone, which causes breathing problems. A University of Colorado study from 2013 found that more than half of the ozone pollution in Colorado is caused by oil and gas drilling. Ozone levels in Colorado’s Front Range — the heavily populated spine where the Great Plains meet the Rocky Mountains — have risen in recent years and consistently exceed the levels deemed safe by the federal government.

    Even if it doesn’t make you sick, living next to gas wells can be unpleasant. Residents say drilling makes the wells release a “rotten egg” or “chemical” smell. The gas and the fracking fluid can infiltrate your water supply. None of the residents of Garfield County whom I interviewed drink their tap water. Their dogs won’t drink it due to the smell. Protz and her family have even gotten rashes from using the shower. Protz also says her house has experienced earth tremors because of the seismic testing done by gas companies. “My sister came to visit from Delaware in 2007,” Protz recalls, “And she said, ‘How the hell do you live here?’”

    The process of building and tapping gas wells is loud, and the floodlights involved can make it feel like your window looks out on airport tarmac. These activities often go on in the middle of the night, making a good night’s sleep impossible. (Critics assert that the gas companies deliberately work at night to avoid detection for violations by state authorities, since the inspectors only come during business hours.)

    All these annoyances may adversely affect property values. Mike Smith owns a small horse ranch and heating/air-conditioning business in Rifle, Colo. Across the two-lane road from him is a welcome sign over a neighbor’s driveway reading “My Heaven.” And just a few feet over from that, straight across the road from Smith’s front door, is a gas well owned by the Bill Barrett Corporation, an oil and gas exploration firm based in Denver. Barrett chose to put the wells right next to the road. Smith claims they did this as retribution for his refusal to agree to let them drill on his property. “They told me it was because I’m ‘uncooperative,’” he says. The smells from fracking are so nasty, Smith recalls, that a friend who was helping him put up a fence in his yard vomited. Smith estimates that his land and house have lost about a third of their value due to drilling. (Barrett did not return a request for comment.)

    The view from Mike Smith's house.
    The view from Mike Smith’s house.

    The truck traffic to build and service the wells is another sore point for locals. It interferes with the serenity for which they moved there. One encounters signs with phrases such as “Private Road: No Encana traffic.” And the truck traffic can be worse than merely annoying. A truck carrying fracking fluid flipped over right at the end of Protz’s driveway, spilling the chemicals. The cleanup lasted four months. “It was like something from a space movie, with the white suits,” says Protz.

    Encana says it’s doing what it can to improve its processes. “We understand there are some folks that are not in favor of oil and gas development in the area,” says Hoch, “but we certainly work to minimize the impact.” The company has started piping water to wells to reduce truck traffic, he says.

    Many of the problems neighbors complain about would violate state law, but they don’t get officially reported or verified by inspectors. If you call to report a foul odor, especially on a night or weekend, a state worker will come several days later to test the air quality and often find no problem. And even when violations are noted by the state, the penalties are too small and infrequently imposed, environmental activists say. “Fines are cheaper than doing it properly,” says Tara Meixsell, a local anti-drilling activist and author. The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, which is responsible for enforcement, is underfunded and incapable of inspecting every well. In 2011, there were 516 known spills but only five assessed fines.

    In an interview with Grist at the Aspen Ideas Festival in June, Gov. John Hickenlooper (D) noted that he has doubled the number of oil and gas inspectors in the state. That’s roughly true —  the number has risen from 15 in 2011 to 27 in 2013 — but considering that there are about 50,000 active oil and gas wells in Colorado, that’s not very impressive. “We’re trying to get a gauge at every wellhead and measure benzene,” he added. Hickenlooper also boasts that his administration earlier this year adopted some of the nation’s strictest rules governing VOC and methane emissions at drilling sites. (Methane is a potent greenhouse gas, and methane leakage may wipe out the climate change benefits of natural gas over coal.) Environmentalists, though, argue that the new rules are not strong enough to achieve reductions in total pollution when 2,000 new wells are being drilled in Colorado every year.

    In Colorado, as in many other Western states, there’s a “split estate” approach to land ownership, which means that mineral rights beneath the surface are often bought and sold separately from the surface of the land itself. So people who live on the land can be forced to endure the adverse effects of drilling by the owners of the ground underneath. The divided incentives have had a predictable effect on communities in Colorado, pitting neighbor against neighbor.

    Hickenlooper argues that it wouldn’t be fair to the mineral rights owners to let the residents vote to ban fracking. “Owners of mineral rights have a right to their property,” he says. “Both sides have a legitimate right.”

    And that’s why neither side will give up easily. With state initiatives to limit fracking likely to appear on Colorado ballots this fall, the battle will only get uglier.

    Filed under: Article, Business & Technology, Climate & Energy
    Gristmill: How Western civilization ended, circa 2014
    Thwaites Glacier of West Antarctica.

    This episode of Inquiring Mindsa podcast hosted by neuroscientist and musician Indre Viskontas and best-selling author Chris Mooney, also features a discussion of questionable claims about “drinkable” sunscreen, and a new study finding that less than 1 percent of scientists are responsible for a huge bulk of the most influential research.

    To catch future shows right when they are released, subscribe to Inquiring Minds via iTunes or RSS. We are also available on Stitcher and on Swell. You can follow the show on Twitter at @inquiringshow and like us on FacebookInquiring Minds was also recently singled out as one of the “Best of 2013″ on iTunes – you can learn more here.

    You don’t know it yet. There’s no way that you could. But 400 years from now, a historian will write that the time in which you’re now living is the “Penumbral Age” of human history – meaning, the period when a dark shadow began to fall over us all. You’re living at the start of a new dark age, a new counter-Enlightenment. Why? Because too many of us living today, in the years just after the turn of the millennium, deny the science of climate change.

    Such is the premise of a thought-provoking new work of “science-based fiction” by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway, two historians of science (Oreskes at Harvard, Conway at Caltech) best known for their classic 2010 book, Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global WarmingIn a surprising move, they have now followed up that expose of the roots of modern science denialism with a work of “cli-fi,” or climate science fiction, entitled The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View from the Future. [SPOILER ALERT: Much of the plot of this book will be revealed below!] In it, Oreskes and Conway write from the perspective of a historian, living in China (the country that fared the best in facing the ravages of climate change) in the year 2393. The historian seeks to analyze the biggest paradox imaginable: Why humans who saw the climate disaster coming, who were thoroughly and repeatedly warned, did nothing about it.

    So why did two historians turn to sci-fi? On the latest installment of the Inquiring Minds podcast, Oreskes explained that after the extensive research that went into Merchants of Doubt, she and Conway “felt like we really understood the science, but we also felt that the scientific community had really not explained why any of this mattered. And we just kept coming back to this idea of, how do we really talk about why this matters, and not just for polar bears, and not just for people living in far flung places or far into the future, but what’s really at stake.”

    The resulting book, The Collapse of Western Civilization, diverges in many respects from other cli-fi works, such as the novels of Kim Stanley Robinson (who clearly influenced Oreskes and Conway, and who blurbed their new book). Collapse is quite short, and hardly a study in character or plot. It has one narrator, and that narrator is a “scholar,” approaching the topic analytically. The force of the story, then, comes not so much from dramatic elements, but rather, from its simple conceit: How would a fair-minded thinker, living 400 years from now, evaluate us?

    The answer couldn’t be more depressing: We got it all wrong. We sacrificed our birthright. We unleashed ravaging heat waves, destabilized ice sheets, shot chemicals into the skies in a failed attempt to fix our mess, then halted that intervention and made everything still worse. (All of these things unfold in the story.)

    collapse front cover CROPPEDThe consequences were toppled governments, mass migrations, and unimaginable human tragedy from starvation, dehydration, and disease. Finally came the “collapse” itself, not of Western civilization at first, but of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, which in the late 21st century rapidly disintegrated, driving up sea levels some five meters. Much of Greenland soon followed.

    “We were trying to sort of play on this two different senses of ‘collapse,’” explained Oreskes on Inquiring Minds. Summarizing the plot of the book, she elaborated as follows: “The West Antarctic Ice Sheet does collapse, causing massive rapid sea-level rise, which then puts into effect a kind of chain of events, which ultimately leads to the collapse of political and cultural institutions as well.”

    This is a worst-case scenario, but it is far from crazy in light of our current trajectory. And we are on this trajectory because we’re ignoring the evidence all around us. “A shadow of ignorance and denial had fallen over people who considered themselves children of the Enlightenment,” writes Oreskes’ and Conway’s historian, explaining why our present era will later be called the “Period of the Penumbra.”

    So why are we currently on course to be remembered for causing humanity’s greatest failure? The historian singles out two causes in particular, the first of which may be surprising.

    First off, the historian argues that our scientists failed us, and in a very particular way: They failed us by being too conservative. Scientists today know full well that the “95 percent confidence limit” (the requirement to statistically establish that there is less than a 1-in-20 chance that a given scientific result is due to chance – or, a 19 in 20 chance that it is real – before it can be accepted) is merely a convention, not a law of the universe. Nonetheless, this convention, the historian suggests, led scientists to be far too cautious, far too easily disrupted by the doubt-mongering of denialists, and far too unwilling to shout from the rooftops what they all knew was happening.

    “We have come to understand the 95 percent confidence limit as a social convention rooted in scientists’ desire to demonstrate their disciplinary severity,” writes the historian. “Western scientists built an intellectual culture based on the premise that it was worse to fool oneself into believing in something that did not exist than not to believe in something that did.” The historian even cites the currently live issue of the relationship between hurricanes and global warming: It is very likely that global warming is changing these storms in some way, but showing that in a way that satisfies all of the relevant experts has proven very difficult.

    Why target scientists in particular in this book? Simply because a distant future historian would too, says Oreskes. “If you think about historians who write about the collapse of the Roman Empire, or the collapse of the Mayans or the Incans, it’s always about trying to understand all of the factors that contributed,” she says. “So we felt that we had to say something about scientists.”

    Naomi Oreskes.
    Andy Tankersley
    Naomi Oreskes.

    And then, there are the ideologues. They are, of course, vastly more culpable than the scientists. Here, The Collapse of Western Civilization picks up a theme from Merchants of Doubt: Free market ideologues, trained on the idea that the Soviet Union was the root of all evil, converted to an economic religion of their own dubbed “neoliberalism,” defined as “the idea that free market systems were the only economic systems that did not threaten individual liberty.” Unfortunately for this worldview, market failures do exist, and climate change is the granddaddy of them all. But too many neoliberal ideologues couldn’t accept that, so they doubled down on fantasy. (These are the climate change denying libertarians that we all know so well.)

    In The Collapse of Western Civilization, neoliberals receive a comeuppance for this that is appropriate in its dramatic irony. The book ends by noting that China, a country not exactly wedded to freedom of thought or free markets, nevertheless survived climate calamity the best, thanks to its ability to exercise the centralized power of the state to force rapid climate adaptation. Eighty percent of Chinese thus survived the climate cataclysm. Other nations soon followed suit, also growing more autocratic.

    Oreskes is not applauding this, of course; rather, she’s suggesting that it could be a very, very painful irony resulting from the behavior of neoliberals. “It could well be the case that the authoritarian nations are actually better situated to deal with climate disruption than the liberal democracies,” says Oreskes. “And we want to suggest that that’s a very worrisome thought.”

    So can we still prevent ourselves from writing the story of The Collapse of Western Civilization – a story in which the historian narrator repeatedly points out missed opportunities, when something could have been done to prevent the disaster that followed? Oreskes thinks the answer is yes.

    “It’s not too late. We do still have opportunities,” she says. “But if we continue the way we’ve been going, and we continue to miss these opportunities, there is going to become a point of no return.”

    This story was produced as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

    Filed under: Climate & Energy
    Triple Pundit: Smartphones Are Everywhere … But Where Are the Standards?

    Eco labels, certifications and industry standards such as UL Environment's UL 110 are integral to minimizing the environmental impacts of CE devices throughout their life cycles and assuring human and environmental health and safety.

    The post Smartphones Are Everywhere … But Where Are the Standards? appeared first on Triple Pundit: People, Planet, Profit.

    Gristmill: Stephen Colbert can’t wait to belch exhaust all over bicyclists & hybrid cars

    Greens had Stephen Colbert seeing red, so he was excited to hear about a new anti-environmentalist trend: coal rolling. “Coal rollers modify their diesel pickups to get shittier mileage and belch as much pollution as possible,” explains Jim Meyer. The dirty pranksters then kick up black clouds on bicyclists, pedestrians, and hybrid cars. As Colbert points out, “The only other way to keep a Prius away from you is driving over 45 mph.”

    Filed under: Climate & Energy, Living
    Gristmill: New Jersey reshuffles Sandy relief dollars, admits to numerous mistakes

    Remember Bridgegate? No? You obviously weren’t trying to get across the GW Bridge last Sept 9-13. That’s when New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s administration barricaded several lanes, causing massive traffic jams, in apparent retaliation against Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich for not supporting Christie’s reelection bid. (Christie, of course, says he knew nothing about the monkey business.)

    Well, Sokolich wasn’t the only one accusing Christie and Co. of political reprisal last year. Another mayor, Dawn Zimmer (D) of Hoboken, wondered out loud if Christie intentionally sent her a shit sandwich by shortchanging her city on Hurricane Sandy relief money. Sandy flooded half of Hoboken with seawater and closed its main transit terminal for weeks, but the state gave the city only a fraction of the relief money it requested. Zimmer suggested it was because she’d refused to back a development project that was being pushed by one of Christie’s top aides.

    We may never know if there were political motives behind those decisions, but the state later admitted to making numerous errors when it allocated the relief funds, and this week, it released a revised list of awards, shuffling hundreds of thousands of dollars of grants designed to make communities more resilient to storms. The new grants include $250,000 for Hoboken — the maximum amount now available to an individual city.

    It’s a big win for Hoboken, and also for small, community news sites, which, as I wrote last week, are playing an increasingly critical role in the face, and aftermath, of natural disasters.

    The reshuffling comes following an investigation by the news website NJ Spotlight and WNYC/NJ Public Radio. That investigation looked at federal “hazard mitigation grants,” doled out by the state under something called the Energy Allocation Initiative. The $25 million pot of money was to be spent on backup generators and other equipment to help communities weather future storms.

    Hoboken, where damaged equipment during Sandy left the fire chief unable to communicate with his teams in the streets, requested $1.7 million from that fund. It received only $142,000. Other communities that got pounded by the storm, including Atlantic City and Belmar, got nothing at all. Meanwhile, several cities that sustained very little damage, and had little history of flooding, raked in the cash.

    Despite accusations of favoritism, however, media reports found nothing untoward about the way the money was distributed. That is, until reporter Scott Gurian with NJ Spotlight took the time to examine the scorecards the state had used to make its decisions, and found them riddled with errors. Months later, the state has finally announced that it has corrected its mistakes.

    Under the new announcement, Atlantic City will also get the maximum $250,000, after being stiffed the first time around, and Belmar will get $100,000. Mayor Zimmer of Hoboken thanked NJ Spotlight. “The mistakes that were made would never have been rectified if not for the investigative journalism of NJ Spotlight,” she said in a statement.

    “There’s an intense need for information after a natural disaster, and as time goes on, there’s a need for accountability with all the money flowing through the state,” says Molly de Aguiar, director of media and communications for the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation.

    Dodge, along with the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and others, contributed to the New Jersey Recovery Fund, part of which was designed to bolster information and civic engagement after Sandy. NJ Spotlight won one of the grants, which were administered by the Community Foundation of New Jersey.

    In addition to the grant for NJ Spotlight, the community foundation wrote a check to Justin Auciello, an urban planner by day who created a Facebook-based news service called Jersey Shore Hurricane News. Following the storm, the site became a valuable platform for connecting people in need with people who could help.

    “After Sandy hit, his almost exclusive focus was to say, ‘Who needs help? Do you need water? Do you need place to stay? Who out here in my community is willing to lend a hand?,’” de Aguiar says. “I bet he was single-handedly responsible for huge amounts of time and goods being available for people on the Jersey Shore.”

    Another project, a collaboration between WHYY public radio and the Penn Project for Civic Engagement, facilitated public meetings where community members could talk about thorny questions such as whether to rebuild on the Jersey Shore, retreat, or find some middle ground. (Almost without exception, de Aguiar says, people wanted to rebuild.)

    Dodge, Knight, and others are helping to show what small, local media outlets can accomplish, but de Aguiar says convincing other foundations to fund media is still a tough sell. Props to the good people at Dodge for getting it (even if they no longer funds Grist — the dogs!). Here’s hoping that more foundations, as well as local businesses and readers, start supporting this kind of media, too.

    Oh, and wondering what happened to Bridgegate? The U.S. Attorney’s Office and a state legislative committee are both still investigating. NJ Spotlight and WNYC have all the details.

    Correction: This story originally stated that the Dodge Foundation funded NJ Spotlight and Jersey Shore Hurricane News. The Grant actually came via the New Jersey Recovery Fund, which was administered by the Community Foundation of New Jersey. Dodge contributed to the fund.

    Filed under: Cities, Climate & Energy
    Gristmill: Sierra Club chief weighs in on conservation heroes, green energy, and Thunder Road

    We have a new game we like to play with famous (and infamous) visitors to Grist World HQ. It’s called Vs., and it goes something like this: Famous person sits down. Gristers present visitor with two related words or ideas or songs. Gristers then force visitor to choose one over the other — and explain why he or she chose it. Visitor squirms, Gristers giggle, repeat. It’s fun!

    This time around, our lucky guest was Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club. And it turns out this is a game he’s already pretty good at: Not only did he somehow manage to get through our questions without offending anyone (does that mean we lost?), he flipped the table around by saying a few things that got our wheels turning.

    Natural gas vs. nuclear? Pounding the pavement vs. cutting a trail? Thunder Road vs. Ghost of Tom Joad? Watch the video to find out!

    Filed under: Article, Climate & Energy
    Gristmill: This crusty activist gave up on playing by the rules. What are they gonna do, arrest him?
    Alec Johnson

    It’s been over a year since Alec Johnson was arrested for locking himself to an excavator sitting on a pipeline easement in Atoka, Oklahoma. He’s still waiting to go to trial. Rural Oklahoma communities only hold jury trials once or twice a year, and every time a new court date comes up, Johnson gets bumped – priority goes to anyone charged with a felony or presently cooling their heels in jail, which Johnson is not.

    A lot has changed in that year. The protest around U.S. energy policy and climate change has shifted fronts – coal terminals, oil-by-rail, divestment, solar, and a massive climate rally planned for this September. Keystone XL South (now renamed the Gulf Coast pipeline) is up and running and being monitored by an ad hoc group of volunteers. Keystone XL is on hold until after the November U.S. elections — possibly for good, though Johnson has his doubts. “In my experience, the ruling class pretty much gets what they want when they want,” he says.

    Johnson has been arrested seven times, though there’s a gap of several decades in the sequence. The majority of his arrests happened in the mid-’70s, outside of the Seabrook Station Nuclear Power Plant in Seabrook, New Hampshire. Johnson was a member of a direct-action group called the Clamshell Alliance, and getting arrested was a whole different business then. “I got the shit kicked out of me,” he said. “They had their badge numbers taped over. A lot of white people that doesn’t happen to, but it happened to me.”

    The anti-nuclear movement of the ’70s and ’80s is regarded in some circles as one of the most successful environmental direct-action movements in US history. But Johnson, again, has his doubts. “We still have the Price-Anderson Act, which ensures that we the people pick up their insurance tab. We still have millions in loans for people who want to build them.”

    Johnson credits the anti-nuclear movement’s effectiveness more to disaster than activism. “Three Mile Island went from being a multi-million dollar asset to a multi-million dollar liability in one night.” He pauses. “That said, if I was given a choice between leaving an existing nuclear plant running and building new coal plant, I would leave the nuclear plant running.”

    Johnson grew up in a family that was not particularly environmentalist or activist — but it was extremely interested in science. Johnson’s mother, the author Anne McCaffrey (of Dragonriders of Pern fame), worked hard to use it accurately in her fiction. “Scientists would fall all over themselves trying to help her do something like talk intelligently about how to sight a telescope,” Johnson says, “I saw it happen.”

    Back then, says Johnson, America was in love with scientists. “I remember watching Kennedy, when he said, ‘We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.’ ” But by the time climate change began to be talked about, something had changed. “It’s baffling to me,” says Johnson. “The threat is clear. It’s serious. Scientists have told us that it’s serious, and these are people who tell the truth for a living.”

    After the Clamshell Alliance, Johnson didn’t see much point in getting arrested anymore. He moved to Ireland. He moved back. He got involved in political organizing.

    Keystone XL changed that. In August of 2011, Johnson found himself, along with 1,252 other people, getting arrested in front of the White House for protesting the pipeline.

    A year and a half later, Johnson, sat in on a talk given Lauren Regan, of the Civil Liberties Defense Center. Regan was briefing a group of activists who were marching on the Texas headquarters of pipeline builder TransCanada. Regan did not mince words: if they went inside the headquarters, they would be arrested, and in Texas, that was not going to be fun.

    By the end of the talk, only two people out of the crowd of a hundred still planned on walking into the headquarters proper. Johnson was one of them.

    Unlike Central Booking in Washington D.C., where the White House protesters got sent, the jail in Harris County, Texas, wasn’t so bad. They served grits and eggs with hot sauce for breakfast, and the other inmates named Johnson “School” after his propensity for explaining global warming to everyone. Thirty-six hours later, he was taken to court, where he paid a $300 fine and left.


    Johnson could have pled guilty and paid a fine in this case, too. Instead, he’s hoping that a jury trial could result in a useful precedent. There’s an argument known as the “necessity defense” – basically, that you committed the crime you were arrested for out of necessity, to prevent a larger crime from happening. While it is a defense often used by activists, is is not one that often works. Johnson plans to combine the necessity defense with a heavy dose of public trust doctrine. A ruling in his favor could set a precedent that would help other climate activists down the line.

    On the other hand, a ruling against Johnson could land him in jail for a year or two, which is not a fun prospect for anyone, let alone a 62-year-old. “I can’t say that I’m particularly looking forward to going to jail,” says Johnson. “My lady love wouldn’t like it either. But I’m the father to two daughters and I truly take this seriously. It shouldn’t be this hard to protect the environment.”

    Filed under: Article, Climate & Energy, Politics
    Triple Pundit: California, Massachusetts Top U.S. Clean Tech Rankings

    California ranked tops in clean tech leadership among U.S. states for the fifth year running, while three California metro areas took the top three spots. Following Massachusetts, Oregon ranked third among U.S. states, with Portland earning fourth place among U.S. metro areas, according to Clean Edge's "2014 Clean Tech Leadership Index."

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    Triple Pundit: GE Launches $1 Million Competition to Reduce Emissions in Canada’s Oil Sands

    The race for big oil companies to cut green house gas emissions is fierce. As zero emissions solutions from renewable energies and technologies begin to proliferate and set new expectations for energy production, oil companies are being called to accelerate their environmental efficiencies and more importantly, compete with foreign oil distributors.

    The post GE Launches $1 Million Competition to Reduce Emissions in Canada’s Oil Sands appeared first on Triple Pundit: People, Planet, Profit.

    Triple Pundit: New Carbon Capture Plant Will Use Coal Exhaust to Get Oil From the Ground

    This week, NRG announced the Petra Nova Carbon Capture Project, the world’s largest post-combustion carbon capture power generation plant. This commercial-scale carbon capture and storage (CCS) system will utilize existing technology to capture 90 percent of the carbon dioxide (CO2) in the processed flue gas from an existing coal plant in Fort Bend County, southwest of Houston. Construction on the project has already begun.

    The post New Carbon Capture Plant Will Use Coal Exhaust to Get Oil From the Ground appeared first on Triple Pundit: People, Planet, Profit.

    Triple Pundit: Nestle Hides Behind a ‘Sovereign Nation’ in Desert Bottled Water Controversy

    Nestle, which sells the most bottled water in the U.S., is attracting controversy for its bottling of water in a region suffering from depleted groundwater.

    The post Nestle Hides Behind a ‘Sovereign Nation’ in Desert Bottled Water Controversy appeared first on Triple Pundit: People, Planet, Profit.

    Gristmill: In 10 years, no one in Helsinki is going to own a car

    The future is always changing. Back in the day, they promised a flying car in every garage. Now that the future is almost here, it’s looking like a no-go on the winged Chevy. In fact, in Helsinki, Finland, the future could mean empty garages. Turns out that in an age when we carry the sum of all human knowledge around in our pants pockets, some better ideas come up.

    The Finnish capital is planning a comprehensive and flexible smartphone-enabled travel network that could be online by 2025. The system will combine small buses, self-driving cars, bicycles, and ferries. Users will simply enter their destination into an app and the system will suggest where to transfer from car to bike, for instance, and arrange for the vehicles — and do it all for one easy and inexpensive payment.

    Adam Greenfield at the Guardian has more on the plan:

    Helsinki aims to transcend conventional public transport by allowing people to purchase mobility in real time, straight from their smartphones. The hope is to furnish riders with an array of options so cheap, flexible and well-coordinated that it becomes competitive with private car ownership not merely on cost, but on convenience and ease of use.

    Subscribers would specify an origin and a destination, and perhaps a few preferences. The app would then function as both journey planner and universal payment platform, knitting everything from driverless cars and nimble little buses to shared bikes and ferries into a single, supple mesh of mobility. Imagine the popular transit planner Citymapper fused to a cycle hire service and a taxi app such as Hailo or Uber, with only one payment required, and the whole thing run as a public utility, and you begin to understand the scale of ambition here. …

    All of this seems cannily calculated to serve the mobility needs of a generation that is comprehensively networked, acutely aware of motoring’s ecological footprint, and – if opinion surveys are to be trusted – not particularly interested in the joys of private car ownership to begin with.

    It’s no wonder the Finns are out ahead on this one. Traveling by car in Finland, a land where the roads seemed paved with danger, is a terrifying proposition. There are a staggering 3,000 to 4,000 reindeer-related collisions annually in Northern Finland alone. Compare those frightening figures with L.A., where there hasn’t been a single reindeer related accident in months. Why, even Maija, Finland’s beloved traffic safety reindeer, isn’t safe.

    Helsinki isn’t the only city trying to put personal car ownership in the past. There’s a similar, smaller effort afoot in downtown Las Vegas, of all places. But in compact Helsinki, it’s a system that makes a lot of sense. And now that futurists have given up on the flying car, they can get to work on that practical jetpack they’ve been promising.

    Filed under: Business & Technology, Cities, Climate & Energy
    Gristmill: Another reason kelp will win over hipsters’ hearts: Craft beer

    Yesterday, I gave you the top reasons why kelp could bump out kale as hipsterdom’s star vegetable — it’s environmentally friendly, nutritious, and delicious (maybe?). If seaweed really wants to reign king, what better way to win cool hearts than becoming an ingredient in craft beer? (There’s no such thing as Kale Light.)

    Turns out, kelp is already a step ahead of me. On July 15, the Marshall Wharf Brewing Co., in Belfast, Maine, began pouring the Sea Belt Scotch Ale. Sugar kelp is a main ingredient.

    Brewery owner David Carlson had reason to believe his experiment would be a success: What gets kids excited these days like weird ingredients, especially if they’re locally sourced? But, as NPR reports, he approached the experiment with reasoned caution:

    [S]ix pounds of dried kelp, the equivalent of 60 pounds of wet seaweed, go into this 200 gallon batch of scotch ale called Sea Belt. Carlson knew he’d get some iodine from the sugar kelp and some salt to counterbalance the Scottish peat-smoked malt in the beer. But he worried that if the kelp introduced too much of a polysaccharide called carrageenan that the beer would end up thick – like a milkshake. And no one is quite sure what the beer will taste like.

    A few weeks later, the first batch is done and it’s time for a taste test. Carlson wants an expert opinion. So he calls another brewer with a reputation for using off-the-wall ingredients, Sam Calagione, founder of Dogfish Head Craft Brewery in Milton, Del. Calagione agrees to taste Sea Belt, and Carlson ships him some cans. The men hook up via a conference call.

    The result? “[A] beautiful, russet mahogany,” Carlson says. Malty, earthy, and salty, with caramel notes. To truly lock it in with the cool kids, Marshall Wharf Brewing Co. should wring it out of an artisan beard.

    Filed under: Food, Living
    Gristmill: Wanna see what climate change looks like? Check out the vicious fires in northwest Canada

    Lightning, an intense heat wave, and low rainfall are lighting up northwestern Canada like a bonfire, producing conflagrations that scientists are linking to climate change.

    More than 100 forest fires are burning in Canada’s lightly populated Northwest Territories, east of Alaska. Some residents are being evacuated from their homes; others are being warned to stay inside to avoid inhaling the choking smoke. Take a look at the latest map produced by the region’s fire agency:

    NWT Fire

    “Some attribute that to climate change, and I’m one of those,” Mike Flannigan, a professor of wildland fire at the University of Alberta, told CBC News. “What we are seeing in the Northwest Territories this year is an indicator of what to expect with climate change. Expect more fires, larger fires, more intense fires.”

    Here’s more from Climate Central:

    Boreal forests like those in the Northwest Territories are burning at rates “unprecedented” in the past 10,000 years according to the authors of a study put out last year. The northern reaches of the globe are warming at twice the rate as areas closer to the equator, and those hotter conditions are contributing to more widespread burns.

    Further south, Oregon and Washington state have declared emergencies as the same three forces — lightning, hot weather, and dry conditions – fuel wildfires that have forced evacuations. Elsewhere in the American West, major wildfires are being battled in Nevada and California.

    Filed under: Climate & Energy
    Gristmill: This rogue bicycle pony express delivered mail in 1894

    If any of the cyclists who participated in the great bicycle messenger mail route were still alive to tell the tale, it would make the ultimate “when I was your age story.”

    Picture this: San Francisco, 1894. The Pullman rail strike in Illinois cuts off all rail service west of Detroit, leaving California train-less and thus, mail-less. One “enterprising citizen” and bicycle salesman Arthur C. Banta decides to create a fixie chain gang relay along a 210-mile stretch from San Francisco to California’s Central Valley with eight primary riders. He charges $0.25 for stamps, 10 times the price of standard mail at the time.

    I can just hear the conversation now:

    Old-Timer Cyclist: When I was your age, we didn’t have no Amazon delivery service or fancy-schmancy computers. We wrote letters with pens and paper and put stamps on them. And when the mail system broke down because of a rail strike, we printed up our own stamps and rode our own fixed gear bicycles on unmarked dirt roads in the dark. And if we broke our ankles, we kept going because the darn mail had to be delivered.

    Disinterested Youth: What is paper? [looks at phone] Have you seen the new Iggy Azalea video? It’s awesome.

    Here’s more on the ride from Kai McMurtry at the Mission Bicycle Company:

    The messengers began in Fresno, rode northwest stopping several times along the way to deliver or capture new mail, and on into San Francisco. B.J. Treat owned the first 20 mile leg out of Fresno. W.B. Atwater was charged with summiting Pacheco Pass, a climb of over 1,300 feet, and so had the shortest leg at 15 miles. The trip was completed by C.S. Shaffer who rode 30 miles from Menlo Park into SF, picked up return mail and rode immediately back to Menlo Park for 60 miles round trip. He was regarded as a “particularly good rider.” Except for the relay into and out of San Francisco each rider was to remain at the northern end of his route until receiving mail for the southward run. A rider having an accident or delay was instructed to continue, on foot if necessary. The awaiting rider, after a reasonable delay, was to ride out to meet him.


    The mail route ended “almost as quickly as it began,” writes McMurtry, when the strikes collapsed. To commemorate the 120th anniversary of this epic ride, Mission Bicycle is selling the “Mail By Messenger” patch – a replica of the original stamp for the route, which misspelled San Francisco on its first printing.

    Filed under: Article, Living
    Gristmill: Weed-sniffing dogs join the fight against invasive species
    dog nose

    There aren’t a lot of career options for dogs. Basically they’ve been limited to law enforcement, imperial transport, and designated hitter — until now. A crack team of canines is on the hunt for invasive species.

    The dogs, which are equipped with GPS units because we live in the future, search the countryside looking for invasive weeds, snails, and, for the lucky dogs, scat. Under the auspices of the Montana nonprofit Working Dogs for Conservation, it’s a career that combines two of a dog’s favorite things: wandering about and smelling poop.

    Jodi Helmer at Takepart has the rest of the tail (ahem):

    Seamus was trained to sniff out Dyer’s woad, a noxious weed that takes over rangeland, choking out native plants that are an important source of food and habitat for wildlife.

    The dog often works off-leash, crisscrossing quadrants of the park until he picks up the scent of Dyer’s woad. When he stops, the GPS in his bright orange doggy backpack marks the location of the invasive weed. [His handler, Aimee] Hurt also makes note of the coordinates and will return to spray the plant. …

    A 2010 study published in the journal Invasive Plant Science and Management found that dogs sniffed out twice the number of invasive plants that humans could detect with their eyes.

    The dogs are a great tool in the fight against non-natives, but there are limitations to their work. So far, they are only on the trail of terrestrial invasives, so lionfish and zebra muscles are safe for the moment. But with the right training, who knows?

    Filed under: Article
    Triple Pundit: Coca-Cola’s Last Mile: From Fizzy Drinks to Medical Supplies

    Coca-Cola's Project Last Mile leverages the company's vast distribution network to increase and improve the delivery of medical supplies to 10 African countries by 2019.

    The post Coca-Cola’s Last Mile: From Fizzy Drinks to Medical Supplies appeared first on Triple Pundit: People, Planet, Profit.

    Gristmill: Scientist: Save Earth by shrinking humans — and making them hate hamburgers

    If the Earth were a potluck, humans would be the guest who shows up empty-handed and already drunk, eats all the dip, knocks over the fish tank, and electrocutes the dog. There’s a reason why there’s a billion trillion planets out there and only one invited us to the party: No matter how many times we offer to fix the coffee table, perhaps with some sort of whacky pseudo-sciency scheme using Duck Tape and a hundred or so tons of iron sulphate, we’re still shitty guests.

    Maybe it’s better to change ourselves — and not just switching from bourbon to beer, but serious change, on the genetic level. At least that’s what Matthew Liao, director of the bioethics program at New York University, is suggesting.

    Frank Swain with the BBC has more:

    “We tried to think outside the box,” says Liao. “What hasn’t been suggested with respect to addressing climate change?”

    The answer they landed on is human engineering: the biomedical modification of human beings to reduce their impact on the environment. The associate professor suggests that by changing our underlying biology – altering our size or diet, for instance – we could create greener humans. …

    “We’re not suggesting that we should mandate these ideas, but it would be good to make them options for people,” says Liao

    What kind of “options” is he talking about? Dr. Liao suggests that we start by making people 15 cm shorter, cutting about a quarter of our body mass and reducing our needs for food, water, and other resources. Such a reduction in height would also make driving obsolete, since no one could reach the pedals.

    But why stop there? Why not shrink people down to, say, the height of three apples, so we could live harmoniously in forests and mushroom fields? Perhaps we could adjust our skin to better survive in harsh sun, or even alter our morphology so we could all wear the same kinds of pants and hats. It would be magical.

    Once he has shrunken us, Dr. Liao suggests giving the tiny people medications to make averse to eating meat. “We can artificially induce intolerance to red meat by stimulating the immune system against common bovine proteins,” he told the BBC.

    Turn the right knobs and dials, and one nip of the stuff could make people violently ill. It’s an off-the-shelf technology Taco Bell has been using for years in their chalupas.

    All this may sound frightening (mostly because it is), but there are so many upsides to GMDs (Genetically Modified Dudes and Duddettes). For instance, we’ll no longer have to do all that icky sex stuff. And maybe having a tiny clone of yourself around will be awesome. Dr. Liao seems to think so.

    Filed under: Business & Technology, Climate & Energy
    Gristmill: Australia repeals carbon tax, scientists freak out
    Australian outback

    The cartoonish stereotype of Australia of yesteryear featured a rough-headed bloke in an Akubra hat wrangling crocodiles. That image has finally been scrubbed from our collective memories – only to be replaced with something worse. Today, when we read news dispatches from Australia, we’re seeing a dunderheaded prime minister cartoonishly wrangling commonsense, becoming the first leader in the warming world to repeal a price on carbon.

    It’s like George W. Bush, Crocodile Dundee-style.

    Conservative prime minister, climate change denier, and accused misogynist Tony Abbott was elected in September. He started working as the nation’s leader almost immediately, but he had to wait until this month for newly elected senators to take their seats. Abbott’s (conservative) Liberal party still doesn’t control the Senate, but it has found Senate allies in a powerful party that was founded just last year by kooky mining magnate Clive Palmer. Palmer held a press conference with Al Gore last month to announce that he opposed some of Abbott’s climate-wrecking policies, and that he wanted a carbon-trading program to replace the carbon tax. That now seems to have been smokestacks and mirrors. When it came to repealing Australia’s $US23.50 per metric ton carbon tax, the immodestly named Palmer United Party fell into line on Thursday, helping the repeal pass the Senate by a vote of 39 to 32, without demanding the establishment of any alternative.

    The vote came just days after new modeling and research revealed that climate change is worsening drought conditions in Australia. Apparently, the drought is also of the intellectual variety.

    Abbott has proposed replacing the carbon tax with something he calls Direct Action. That would involve handing out billions of dollars to corporations to help them reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. But Direct Action has not been passed by the Senate, and it might never be passed, meaning that one of the worst per-person climate-polluting countries now has no overarching strategy for reducing that pollution.

    “Today’s repeal of laws that price and limit carbon pollution is an historic act of irresponsibility and recklessness,” said John Connor, CEO of The Climate Institute. “Today we lose a credible framework of limiting pollution that was a firm foundation for a fair dinkum Australian contribution to global climate efforts.”

    We could bore you with visceral reactions from politicians Down Under. Instead, here are some reactions to the repeal from Australian scientists and academic analysts:

    Roger Jones, Victoria University: “It’s hard to imagine a more effective combination of poor reasoning and bad policy making. The perfect storm of stupidity. Bad economics and mistrust of market forces.”

    Hugh Outhred, University of New South Wales: “With climate change already underway, repeal of the carbon tax represents dereliction of duty with respect to the rights of young people and future generations. The coalition plan to replace a ‘polluter pays’ policy with a ‘pay the polluter’ policy will exacerbate the budget imbalance while being simply inadequate to the task.”

    Roger Dargaville, University of Melbourne: “The Government’s replacement strategy, Direct Action, will fail to reduce emissions as it fails to penalise the largest emitters. Also, Direct Action risks not gaining approval in the Senate as it is unlikely to get the support of [Palmer United Party] Senators. The repeal of the price on carbon is a backwards step and a sad day for the global climate.”

    Jemma Green, Curtin University: “Without a domestic emissions trading scheme, Australia will probably use international offsetting to meet its commitments. The Renewable Energy Target and the Clean Energy Finance Corporation will play some role in retooling for the low-carbon economy, but other new policies may be required to fully address this need.”

    Peter Rayner, University of Melbourne: “I’m a carbon cycle scientist, my job is to monitor, understand and predict the levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. As an Australian, I’m proud of how much we have contributed to that understanding, but today I’m embarrassed by how poor we are at putting that understanding into practice.”

    Correction: This post originally stated that The Climate Institute was a former Australian government agency that morphed into a nonprofit after Abbott took power, but in fact it has always been a nonprofit.

    Filed under: Article, Business & Technology, Climate & Energy, Politics
    Gristmill: Goodbye, everyone! A massive hole has opened at the End of the World

    Well! It was nice knowing yinz, because Doomsday is upon us. According to Scripture, the first two signs of the apocalypse are:

    1. A goblin of the underworld shalt sign a princess with a voice of gold to his record label, and so the two will beget a heavily Auto-Tuned music video starring a mythical beast.

    2. And lo! For a chasm shalt suddenly appear at the End of the World.

    We’re two for two! Tuesday, The Siberian Times reported that a massive hole measuring 262 feet in diameter suddenly appeared in the Yamal region of Siberia. Gee, what does Yamal mean in the language of the Nenets, the region’s indigenous people? “The end of the world.”

    Oh. (We’ll just wait for you to send the hearts-for-eyes emoji to all of your loved ones.)

    Back to business! What — aside from the work of the devil — could have possibly caused this gaping maw to appear? From The Siberian Times:

    Anna Kurchatova from Sub-Arctic Scientific Research Centre thinks the crater was formed by a water, salt and gas mixture igniting an underground explosion, the result of global warming. She postulates that gas accumulated in ice mixed with sand beneath the surface, and that this was mixed with salt – some 10,000 years ago this area was a sea.

    Global warming, causing an ‘alarming’ melt in the permafrost, released gas causing an effect like the popping of a Champagne bottle cork, she suggests.

    Given the gas pipelines in this region such a happening is potentially dangerous.

    There are a lot of alarming things happening in this excerpt, but let’s focus on the most terrifying: Global warming could be causing enormous chunks of the Earth to pop like champagne bottles.

    There’s also the tiny matter that this hole has appeared roughly 20 miles away from the Bovanenkovo gas field, the largest in the Yamal region. The Yamal peninsula itself is a crucial component of Russia’s oil and natural gas production, which makes up approximately half of the national income. Last spring, Russia’s oil and gas giant Gazprom first started fracking on the peninsula.

    Now, I’m not a religious gal, but if a giant abyss appears near a fracking site on a massive gas reserve, maybe — MAYBE! Just a suggestion! — it’s a sign that there’s something going on there that is not entirely advisable. In the meantime, you can find me programming Google Alerts for Paris Hilton’s musical career and quietly building my storm shelter.

    Filed under: Business & Technology, Climate & Energy, Living
    Gristmill: Ask Umbra: Are organic cherries worth the extra expense?

    Q. While I go organic as much as I can, the inability to buy organic cherries is the price I pay for a low-paying job cleaning up our gorgeous environment. Since I cannot bear to live life without a few fresh summer cherries, I buy the regular ones. My mother insists that in this case, using that fruit wash stuff is the way to go. But it’s expensive! Does it REALLY do a good job of getting pesticide residues off of the surface of fruit, or does a good spray of plain old water do just as well?

    North Bend, Wash.

    A. Dearest Karen,

    I wholeheartedly agree: No one should be confined to a life without fresh summer cherries. Or strawberries. Or blueberries. Mmm … Methinks a trip to the farmers market is in order, stat.

    As you note, though, even in-season cherries can be pricey, with organics still more so (and that’s not considering the premium you’ll pay for those tasty kings-among-cherries, Rainiers). We here at Grist love organic produce: It’s free of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, making it healthier for you and the planet. But if your budget can’t swing it – I’m going to go into some tips on that in a moment, mind you – you can still reduce your pesticide exposure from the conventional variety.

    If you and your mom have a bet riding on the fruit wash question, good news, Karen: You win. Studies from the University of Maine and the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station found there’s essentially no difference between cleaning fruits and veggies with plain old water and dedicated produce washes – in terms of both pesticide residue and bacteria. The FDA even advises against using store-bought produce wash.

    But scrubbing up well does take a bit more than a spray from the tap. You’ll want to rub fruits and veggies briskly under running water; if a presoak is in order, do it in a bowl, not the sink, to avoid bacteria around the drain. With cherries and other berries in particular, save the wash until right before you eat them to extend freshness (not that they ever last that long, at least in my house).

    Now, back to the organic-vs-conventional business. The Environmental Working Group’s Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce ranks cherries 18th out of 51 tested fruits and veggies for pesticide residue – not quite bad enough to earn a place on the notorious Dirty Dozen, but not exactly squeaky-clean, either. And according to the Pesticide Action Network’s What’s on my Food? guide, cherries harbor residue from as many as 42 different pesticides, including 5 known or probable carcinogens, 20 suspected hormone disruptors, 7 neurotoxins, 8 developmental/reproductive toxins, and 14 honeybee toxins. Not so appetizing, is it? And while washing with water helps, it probably won’t remove all pesticide remnants.

    Only you know your food budget, Karen — but if you’re concerned about chemicals, you may want to think strategically about buying organic. Might you be able to switch to conventional for some items with lower pesticide risk? The EWG ranks these too, as the Clean Fifteen, and they include avocado, kiwi, pineapple, mango, sweet corn, onions, and asparagus. You could then apply the savings toward organic cherries.

    I’d also go hunting at the farmers market. Living as you do in cherry country (Washington, Oregon, and California grow 97 percent of U.S. sweet cherries), I wouldn’t be surprised if you could find local, pesticide-free fruits at a good price. Keep in mind that many smaller farms may grow food organically even if they can’t afford official certification.

    You may also find success with a little budgetary shuffling. Is there anywhere else you can trim a few dollars during cherry season? Perhaps you’d find one or two fewer lattes, movie downloads, or meals out every week a worthy trade for your cherries of choice.

    No matter what you decide, don’t skip out on one summer’s sweetest treasures. Cherries are full of vitamin C and fiber, and besides, after spending your days toiling away for the earth, you deserve it.


    Filed under: Food, Living
    Gristmill: Four things you should know about Detroit’s water crisis

    This May, the Detroit Water and Sewerage District (DWSD) sent out 46,000 shutoff notices to customers who were behind in their water bills. It was the latest calamity to befall a city that had seen its water rates rise 119 percent in the last decade.

    As a city that has lost nearly two-thirds of its population in the last 60 years, Detroit has a lot of water infrastructure to maintain, and not much money to maintain it.

    Since the shutoffs began (about 17,000 households and small businesses have lost service to date), residents have fought back hard. They’ve blocked trucks that are being sent out to shut off water accounts. They’ve called out DWSD for focusing on shutting off water to private homes that don’t even owe that much, while ignoring golf courses that owe amounts in the hundreds of thousands. (DWSD responded that it had focused on residential customers because shutting off water to a large-scale user was more technically complicated than most of its employees can handle.) They’ve accused DWSD of dropping low-income customers as a way of making the system more appealing to potential buyers. (Whether or not that’s true, Detroit emergency manager Kevin Orr has spoken openly about selling DWSD to a private company.) They’ve organized brigades of volunteers to bring water in to people who’ve had their accounts shut off. They even got the United Nations to condemn the way that DWSD is handing the situation.

    But what’s happening in Detroit isn’t just Detroit’s problem. It has larger implications for the rest of us. Here’s what you need to know.

    Water is getting more expensive everywhere.

    This is true both internationally and in the U.S., where the cost of water has been rising faster than the rate of inflation.

    There’s no federal policy to help people deal with the cost of water.

    As Jan Beecher, with the Institute of Public Utilities at Michigan State University, told the Los Angeles Times there are no federal programs to help people pay for the rising cost of water, the way that there are for fuel and electricity (or housing, for that matter).

    “We’ve never really developed a clear public policy toward universal service and water,” Beecher said. “International organizations are concerned with a basic level of service, but with water, the tricky thing is that drinking water would fall into that, but watering the lawn would not be considered a basic human right.”

    That said, until recently, Detroit actually had a program that helped low-income residents pay their water bills.

    It was called the Water Affordability Plan. As Roger Colton, a utilities consultant, told the Los Angeles Times:

    The last time Detroit began shutting off water for unpaid bills a decade ago, Colton worked with the Michigan Poverty Law Program to develop a program that would help the water department collect money while still keeping water affordable. He found that whereas the federal Environmental Protection Agency recommends that families spend no more than 2.5 percent of their pretax income on water and sewer service, some Detroit residents were paying more than 20 percent.

    Colton argues that cities won’t get the money they want by simply shutting off services. Instead, he says, utilities should require residents to pay a percentage of their income to the water department for service.

    “If you give someone a more affordable bill, you end up collecting more of the bills,” he said.

    Taking Colton’s advice into account, Detroit’s water department implemented a program that allowed residents to start making payments on their bills even if they were thousands of dollars behind. But that program was cut during the city’s bankruptcy.

    This year the DWSD says it has a $1 million fund for residents who need help paying their water bills — money raised by voluntary contributions from customers.

    The infrastructure that was designed to keep us all hydrated is in trouble everywhere, not just Detroit.

    Detroit did most of its growing in the 30 years between 1920 and 1950 – the population nearly doubled, from 994,000 to 1,850,000 (It’s now about 685,000). This is the same time window during which much of America’s water infrastructure was being laid out: people were moving from the country to the cities, and there were generous federal subsidies that helped put those pipes in the ground.

    Other cities that put in a lot of water infrastructure during this time, like Los Angeles and Chicago, can expect to see the same problems, since everything built during that 20-year period is going to break more or less all at once. Writes the New York Times:

    The oldest cast-iron pipes, dating to the late 1800s, have an average useful life of about 120 years. For cast-iron pipes installed in the 1920s, that drops to about 100 years. And pipes put in after World War II have an average life of only around 75 years. The upshot is that all three vintages of pipe will need replacement in a short stretch of time.

    The EPA has been writing reports for years about how America’s water infrastructure is old, leaky, and generally unsafe, and how it’s going to take New Deal-style funding to get it back in shape. The bad news is that, as a country, we’re more excited about building new things than fixing old ones.

    But then there’s the good news: With so much water infrastructure across the country in need of repair, there’s real opportunity to design and experiment with systems that are better adapted for drought, heavy rainfall, sea-level rise, and the extreme weather events that climate disruption is already laying on us. While Detroit is dealing with the worst of it, these questions are ones we should all be thinking about.

    Filed under: Article, Business & Technology, Cities, Politics
    Triple Pundit: Safeway Makes Progress Toward Environmental Goals

    Safeway, the second-largest supermarket chain in North America, is making progress toward its environmental goals, according to its sixth annual sustainability report released last week. The Pleasanton, California based chain is working to eliminate paper and plastic bags in its stores by 2015. So far, Safeway has eliminated over 300 million plastic and paper bags.

    The post Safeway Makes Progress Toward Environmental Goals appeared first on Triple Pundit: People, Planet, Profit.

    Triple Pundit: Tragedy of the Commons: Once Upon a … Water

    We have reached a tipping point where we need to monetize and assign a dollar value to a natural resource like water -- without which we cannot survive. We live on the water planet: 75 percent of Earth’s surface is covered by water. Yet fresh water is scarce. Aristotle and other philosophers were right on the mark when they said, “What is common to the greatest number has the least care bestowed upon it!"

    The post Tragedy of the Commons: Once Upon a … Water appeared first on Triple Pundit: People, Planet, Profit.

    Triple Pundit: Southwest Airlines Upcycles 43 Acres of Plane Interior

    Southwest Airlines' latest project-- LUV Seat: Repurpose with Purpose-- is a multi-phase sustainability program that partners with social enterprises in Nairobi, Kenya; the Republic of Malawi and the United States to produce goods that create opportunities for training and employment while preventing additional waste.

    The post Southwest Airlines Upcycles 43 Acres of Plane Interior appeared first on Triple Pundit: People, Planet, Profit.

    Triple Pundit: Millennials and the State of Employee Engagement

    In response to employee demand, particularly from millennials, a growing number of employers are adopting an official engagement policy on sustainability. "People are realizing that these are not 'nice-to-have' programs," Susan Hunt Stevens, founder and CEO of WeSpire, told Triple Pundit. "They drive the bottom line and the top line of business."

    The post Millennials and the State of Employee Engagement appeared first on Triple Pundit: People, Planet, Profit.

    Triple Pundit: PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi Weighs In on Work/Life Balance

    Recently PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi gave some frank answers to questions about work/life balance that coincide more with Anne-Marie Slaughter than Sheryl Sandberg. As in, work/life balance? At the c-suite level, there isn't any.

    The post PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi Weighs In on Work/Life Balance appeared first on Triple Pundit: People, Planet, Profit.

    Gristmill: Now Google Street View is mapping gas pipeline leaks
    Google Street View car

    Some of those Google cars that drive around photographing streetscapes and embarrassing moments have captured something extra — something that should embarrass major utilities. The cars were kitted out by University of Colorado scientists with sensors that sniff out natural gas leaking from underground pipelines. These methane-heavy leaks contribute to global warming, waste money, and can fuel explosions.

    The sensor-equipped cars cruised the streets of Boston, New York’s Staten Island, and Indianapolis. They returned to sites where methane spikes were detected to confirm the presence of a leak. The results were released Wednesday by the Environmental Defense Fund, which coordinated the project, revealing just how leaky old and metallic pipelines can be, such as those used in the East Coast cities studied, particularly when compared with noncorrosive pipes like those beneath Indianapolis.

    About one leak was discovered for each mile driven in Boston, Mass.:

    Boston gas leaks

    The findings were similar in Staten Island, N.Y.:

    Staten Island gas leaks

    In Indianapolis, Ind., by contrast, about one leak was found for every 200 miles that the cars covered:

    Indianapolis gas leaks

    Filed under: Climate & Energy
    Gristmill: Mother jailed for letting her daughter run free — at the playground

    Remember Another Bad Creation’s song, “At the Playground”?

    A more recent story that happened at the playground: A mother lets her child go to the playground by herself and goes to jail for it.

    The young girl, just 9 years old, is used to spending hours and days on the internet in McDonald’s, not only because it has free wi-fi, but because it’s where her mother works. It’s summer, and Debra Harrell can’t afford to put her daughter in daycare, because it’s McDonald’s.

    The restaurant is daycare, but on this particular day the girl wants to go to a playground, a little over a mile away. Harrell allows her, and is later charged with “unlawful conduct towards a child” for letting her go unsupervised. Her daughter goes to state custody.

    I’m really glad Jonathan Chait stepped outside of his normal political coverage at New York Magazine to draw attention to this story, which happened earlier this month, in North Augusta, S.C., where apparently it’s a crime for parents to trust their kids and their surrounding environment.

    The additional facts on this story, as presented by Lenore Skenazy over at reason, make it even more heartbreaking. Harrell had saved up to buy her daughter a laptop only for it to be stolen when their house was robbed. It wasn’t the first time her mother let her go to the playground by herself, and she gave her daughter her cellphone before sending her along.

    Chait sums it up well:

    The story is a convergence of helicopter parenting with America’s primitive family policy. Our welfare policy is designed to make everybody, even single mothers, work full-time jobs. The social safety net makes it difficult for low-wage single mothers to obtain adequate child care. And society is seized by bizarre fears that children are routinely snatched up by strangers in public places. The phenomenon is, in fact, nearly as rare as in-person voting fraud.

    I think our raged-but-false security senses and the rarity of child-snatching are worth pointing out, but there are other issues here that involve the criminalization of black women, and the ongoing, unresolved issues of public park space: Who belongs in it and under what terms.

    For the Harrell family, going to the playground is a luxury. The adults who could afford to be there that day assumed that her mother’s choice was irresponsible. Given the girl is black, they may have assumed worse: Mom’s a crackhead? Prostitute? Whatever the case, the child’s answer, that her mother was at work, was not good enough.

    The adult who snitched Harrell out made another assumption: that parenting means around-the-clock supervision of children, and anything less is uncivilized. It’s those kind of gentry values that the creators of city public park systems were trying to avoid. They wanted a safe space accessible to people of all classes and backgrounds to enjoy recreation. Instead, in too many places it’s become a place where black and brown youth are made to feel they don’t belong — and certainly not without supervision.

    But unsupervised play might be exactly what children need. In a society where everyone has cameras on their phones, tablets and computers, no one is ever really unsupervised. But I think Sarah Goodyear hit the right note on this when she discussed unmonitored kid time in the Atlantic’s Citylab:

    Traditional street play is good for kids, and fun for kids, precisely because it allows them to figure out how to use their environment in creative ways on their own, or maybe with the help of adults who are doing their own socializing on the street. Kids call the shots themselves, making a tree first base and a manhole cover second and the streetlamp third. They figure out how to make fair teams, learn which scoring systems work and which don’t. They learn which grown-ups they can count on to retrieve a lost ball, and how to knock an errant football down from the branches of a tree. They get to know each other by creating something together.

    For urban kids, this kind of self-structuring play is vital. They can’t run around in the woods, the way that kids in rural areas can. But they can learn to navigate the environment that they live in, thereby gaining mastery over it and themselves. It’s very different from the league play that has taken over the lives of many urban families in the last 20 years.

    That playground and that community make up the child’s environment, and Harrell has the right to allow her daughter to explore, discover, and make sense of that environment on her own. This is true even given that Harrell had little other option except to let her sit at a McDonald’s booth.

    Now her daughter has a whole other environment to make sense of: South Carolina’s Department of Social Services, which her mother can hopefully help her with when she gets out of jail.

    Filed under: Cities
    Gristmill: Good riddance, ocean, you were terrifying and gross anyway

    When I put a fishy face to the victims of ocean acidification, overfishing, and pollution, my brain usually goes off into Christian Riese Lassen territory. Orcas leap through the ocean at sunset. Coral reefs teem with diversity, each fish more lovely than the next. Sea turtles circling the globe? Why the heck not.

    You know what never made it into the ocean diversity art on my seventh-grade geography folder? This guy:


    Meet Bathynomus giganteus, a giant isopod who splits his time between scavenging the bottom of the ocean and waiting for you at the gates of hell. Lynne Elkins has an excellent essay on The Toast about monsters in the ocean and had this to say:

    [Giant isopods] are not the worst isopods, which honor is reserved for the parasitic isopods. Those are the ones that attach themselves to the tongues of fish, causing the tongue to wither and fall off; they then take up permanent residence in their host fish’s mouth. Some live off whatever food the fish is eating, while others drink the fish’s own blood.

    And that’s not all of the horror the ocean has to offer:

    [T]he extreme deep-sea vampire squid (whose full latin name literally means “vampire squid of Hell”) is blood-red with “limpid, globular eyes,” can release a bioluminescent mucus into the water from its “writhing arms” which blinds opponents in a crazy light show that lasts up to 10 minutes, and can, you know, turn its own body inside out. …

    [T]he spectacular misandrist anglerfish female [is] parasitized by tiny males whose bodies are absorbed onto her side, and who thereafter accesses their gonads as she sees fit. …

    The deep-sea blobfish turns into the quite-famous gooey, creepy monster blob when surfaced. The sheepshead fish has horrible, human-like teeth in its horrible monster mouth.

    Sayonara, sea. Don’t let the Great Pacific Garbage Patch hit you on the way out. What’s that you say? Discounting a critical part of our planet because of a few creepy apples is wrongheaded and silly? You’re right. But forgive me if I picture parasitic isopods instead of fun-lovin’ dolphins the next time we run a story on how bad we’re screwing up the ocean.

    Filed under: Article, Living
    Gristmill: Five reasons why kelp could be the next kale

    Eating kelp sounds gross. But even the mighty kale was once largely regarded as a leathery, bitter garnish. Look how far that leafy green has come now!

    We’re bound to tire of smothering kale in peanut butter and baking it into cookies someday. When that happens, we might turn to the oceans to satisfy our next big veggie craze. In the video above, Bren Smith, the director of Greenwave, explains why he thinks seaweed is poised to invade our plates. Here’s a few reasons:

    1. It requires no fresh water or land to grow. At the rate we’re going, we probably want to be more frugal with both these resources. Smith points out that kelp can be grown in dense sites off our coasts instead of space-hogging, water-sucking fields.

    2. It cleans up the water. Nutrient runoff from farms leads to scary things. Kelp farms can help clean up our messes – especially if they’re integrated with shellfish like mussels or oysters that also slurp up some of that nasty pollution.

    3. It sequesters carbon. Yes, all plants absorb CO2. But kelp grows so fast that scientists say seaweed farms could do a particularly good job of absorbing some of our fossil fuel emissions.

    4. It’s good for you. Vitamins! Calcium! Iodine! Everybody will love kelp once you can call it a “superfood.”

    5. It’s delicious. Or so chef David Santos wants you to believe. In any case, he’s figuring out how to noodle-it, pickle-it, and butter-it in ways that are guaranteed to make your mouth water. Penne con algae, anyone?

    Filed under: Climate & Energy, Food
    Gristmill: Vermont’s dirty secret: Free-ranging cows are crapping in the water supply

    Vermont – mention the state, and people picture the soft-focus Holsteins on Ben & Jerry’s ice cream cartons and postcard pictures of cows grazing in a hilly, pastoral heaven. And for good reason: As New England’s leading milk producer, the Green Mountain State has a huge cultural and financial investment in dairies.

    Amidst all the bovine iconography, however, here’s one image you’ll never see: Bessie pooping in the sparkling waters of Lake Champlain. But increasingly, waste from Vermont’s lightly regulated dairy farms is polluting the lake, the nation’s sixth-largest body of fresh water. It’s undermining Vermont’s tourist economy and jeopardizing drinking water supplies for a third of the state’s population.

    The damage is obvious in the murky gray-brown stains spreading at river mouths, the slimy masses of weeds choking bays, the rotten stench wafting over the sluggish water in late summer when the blue-green algae blooms.

    State officials say the biggest culprit is farm runoff, responsible for 40 percent of the phosphorus pollution in the lake as a whole and up to 70 percent in the worst-polluted sections. The phosphorus feeds out-of-control aquatic weeds and algae; at its worst, the rampant growth can strip the water of oxygen, suffocating all other life and generating toxic cyanobacteria.

    As a result, some Vermonters now say that while the dairy industry is sacrosanct in Vermont, it’s time to corral this sacred cow.

    “Here we are, the Green Mountain State, with this enormous environmental reputation that’s only partially deserved,” said Jon Erickson, interim Dean of the Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources at the University of Vermont. “We haven’t really regulated our own water, one of the most critical resources we have.”

    * * *

    That Vermont would be in such a plight may come as a surprise, given its progressive reputation, from being the first of the United States to launch single-payer health care to its battle to defend the nation’s first GMO-labeling law.

    But Erickson, who produced an award-winning 2010 documentary about Lake Champlain’s woes, says Vermont is on the cutting edge this time, too: It may well become the first state to forfeit its environmental authority to the federal government.

    In 2002, the federal Environmental Protection Agency granted Vermont power to enforce the Clean Water Act within state borders in an agreement that included a pollution-management plan for Lake Champlain. That plan established a “Total Maximum Daily Load” for phosphorus. As the name suggests, a TMDL establishes legal limits on how much of a given pollutant a body of water can safely absorb. But in 2008, the public-interest Conservation Law Foundation sued the EPA, saying the TMDL was far too lenient. In response, in 2010, the EPA invalidated Vermont’s plan, essentially putting the state on probation while it comes up with new pollution-control proposals.

    For now, as federal authorities evaluate whether they need to take over, the state retains its Clean Water Act powers. But Vermont has had a tough time proving it’s serious about a cleanup. In early May, the EPA rejected the state’s proposed strategies to meet minimum Clean Water Act standards.

    Gov. Peter Shumlin tried again, promising in a May 29 letter to the EPA that his administration will make farms cleaner — especially small dairies, which until now have been largely unregulated. Still, Vermont has yet to even bar cows from creeks and rivers, or the lake itself.

    Roger Rainville of the Farmers Watershed Alliance – a leading agricultural spokesman on environmental issues — resists such a ban. “There’s a lot of wildlife in this state, and there’s a lot of things that crap in that water, not just cows,” Rainville said. “The public perception is, ‘I see that cow there. She’s causing problems.’ Well, we have to put our money where it has the biggest impact, and livestock in the water is not the biggest impact.”

    The revised lake cleanup plan accompanying Shumlin’s letter offers “strengthening of the

    livestock exclusion requirements” by early 2016. That word “requirements” is slippery: The plan describes incentive programs, such as helping farmers pay for fencing, but it never mentions any universal ban on cattle in the water. It makes little mention of enforcement on other issues, either, beyond pointing out that there’s little money to pay for it. Small farms wouldn’t have to meet whatever stricter pollution-control rules that may be developed until 2020.

    * * *

    If Vermonters can’t even impose a no-crapping-in-the-water rule, how will they ever get to the rigorous response the crisis requires?

    Chuck Ross, the state’s agriculture secretary, and David Mears, who heads the state Department of Environmental Conservation, said new farm rules aimed at reducing runoff could be modeled in part on proposals by the Conservation Law Foundation. One such recommendation calls for planting a cover crop, like rye, that would remain in the fields after the corn harvest, helping to hold the soil together and reducing erosion. Another would bar farmers from planting crops too close to riverbanks, leaving natural buffers of grass or brush to catch runoff.

    James Maroney has another solution. A New York refugee, Maroney owned Vermont’s largest organic dairy from 1986 to 1995, when a fire leveled his barn. He believes that organic farming is the salvation for Vermont’s waterways and its farmers both. He preaches his message through innumerable appearances before the state legislature, letters, op-eds, YouTube videos, and a self-published book.

    Maroney says only organic, pasture-based farming – which commands higher milk prices — offers an economically viable alternative to the dominant Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO) model, which involves ever larger herds, kept in barns and fed on phosphorus-fertilized corn and grain planted on the state’s most highly erodible floodplains or imported from the Midwest.

    James Ehlers, executive director of the environmental nonprofit Lake Champlain International, advocates buying out fields that are pollutant sources and turning them to other uses, possibly agriculture that doesn’t require as much fertilizer, or leave the soil as open to erosion, as corn. He admits it’s “not an easy political sell.”

    Ehlers says there’s already technology to take advantage of the nutrients that are growing toxic algae in Lake Champlain. He cites one company that has developed a “floating island” system, using microfiber mats that can support water-borne meadows. Ehlers wants to find out whether they could be used to grow cattle feed while soaking up phosphorous from the grievously polluted Missisquoi Bay.

    Such plans have no part in Vermont officials’ proposed solutions to the lake’s contamination, however. And as the EPA considers whether to accept the state’s newest proposals, environmentalists and farmers, both, are getting fed up with the bureaucratic back-and-forth.

    Christopher Kilian, the Conservation Law Foundation’s Vermont director, says his group’s proposals for cover crops and stream buffers are only a start, and should have been required 20 years ago. He believes it’s time to impose harsher penalties on polluters.

    “The main way we’ve regulated the dairy industry in this state has been the carrot approach, to give payments for planting trees or changing practices,” Kilian said. “We need a stick.”

    Rainville, the environmentalist farmer, says some clear direction would be a better place tostart. For decades, he says, government advisors pushed nitrogen as the dairies’ best friend. Now, he and his neighbors are trying to comply with new directives like restrictions on spreading manure on fields in the winter when the frozen soil can’t absorb the waste. They’ve already tried CLF’s cover cropping suggestions, with mixed results. Vermont’s growing season is so short, it’s hard for the secondary plantings to take hold, Rainville said.

    “We as farmers are saying, ‘What the hell do you want us to? We’re listening to what you’re telling us. You get it right and we’ll get it right,’” he said.

    Federal regulators are reviewing the governor’s newest proposal. There’s no hard deadline for them to accept or reject it. Meanwhile, the lake’s nutrient counts just keep going up.

    Filed under: Article, Food
    Gristmill: Lay off the almond milk, you ignorant hipsters

    Almonds are a precious foodstuff: a crunchy jolt of complete protein, healthful fats, vitamins and minerals, and deliciousness. Given their rather intense ecological footprint – see here – we should probably consider them a delicacy, a special treat. That’s why I think it’s deeply weird to pulverize away their crunch, drown them in water, and send them out to the world in a gazillion little cartons. What’s the point of almond milk, exactly?

    Evidently, I’m out of step with the times on this one. “Plant-based milk” behemoth White Wave reports that its first-quarter sales of almond milk were up 50 percent from the same period in 2013. In an earnings call with investors in May, reported by FoodNavigator, CEO Greg Engles revealed that almond milk now makes up about two-thirds of the plant-based milk market in the United States, easily trumping soy milk (30 percent) and rice and coconut milks (most of the rest).

    Dairy is still king, of course, comprising 90 percent of the “milk” market. But as our consumption of it dwindles – down from 0.9 cups per person per day in 1970 to about 0.6 in 2010, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture – plant-based alternatives are gaining ground. Bloomberg Businessweek reports that sales of alternative milks hit $1.4 billion in 2013 and are expected to hit $1.7 billion by 2016, with almond milk leading that growth.

    Now, I get why people are switching away from dairy milk. Industrial-scale dairy production is a pretty nasty business, and large swaths of adults can’t digest lactose, a sugar found in fresh dairy milk. Meanwhile, milk has become knit into our dietary culture, particularly at breakfast, where we cling to a generations-old tradition of drenching cereal in milk. Almond milk and other substitutes offer a way to maintain this practice while rejecting dairy. (Almond milk has been crushing once-ubiquitous soy milk, perhaps partly because of hotly contested fears that it creates hormonal imbalances.)

    All that aside, almond milk strikes me as an abuse of a great foodstuff. Plain almonds are a nutritional powerhouse. Let’s compare a standard serving (one ounce, about a handful) to the 48-ounce bottle of Califia Farms almond milk that a house guest recently left behind in my fridge.

    Tom Philpott

    A single ounce (28 grams) of almonds – nutrition info here – contains six grams of protein (about an egg’s worth), along with three grams of fiber (a medium banana), and 12 grams of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats (half an avocado). According to its label, an eight-ounce serving of Califia almond milk offers just one gram each of protein and fiber, and five grams of fat. A bottle of Califia delivers six eight-ounce servings, meaning that a handful of almonds contains as much protein as the mighty jug of this hot-selling beverage.

    What this tells you is that the almond-milk industry is selling you a jug of filtered water clouded by a handful of ground almonds. Which leads us to the question of price and profit. The almonds in the photo above are organic, and sold in bulk at my local HEB supermarket for $11.99 per pound; this one-ounce serving set me back about 66 cents. I could have bought nonorganic California almonds for $6.49 per pound, about 39 cents per ounce. That container of Califia, which contains roughly the same number of nonorganic almonds, retails for $3.99.

    Click here for more comparisons.
    Mother Jones
    Click here for more comparisons.

    The water-intensive nature of almond milk, of course, is no secret. By law, food manufacturers have to name ingredients in order of their prevalence in the product. For Califia and other almond milk brands, it starts like this: “filtered water, almonds.” Given that it takes 1.1 gallons of water to grow a single almond in California, where 80 percent of the world’s almonds are produced, drenching the finished product in yet more water seems insane.

    Califia does make a couple of splashy nutritional claims: “50% more calcium than milk,” the bottle declares, and “50% RDI of Vitamin E.” Almonds are a great source of these vital nutrients, but not that great. Our ounce of whole almonds contains 74 mg of calcium vs. 290 mg for a cup of whole milk, and seven mg of vitamin E, about 37 percent of the recommended daily intake.

    How does Califia’s beverage manage to outdo straight almonds on calcium and vitamin E when it lags so far behind on protein and fat? Again, the answer lies in the ingredients list, which reveals the addition of a “vitamin/mineral blend.” All fine and well, but if you’re interested in added nutrients, why not just pop a vitamin pill?

    Moreover, almond milk isn’t just a few nuts packaged with lots of water. It often contains additives. For example, in addition to vitamins, the Califia product, like many of its rivals, contains small amounts of carrageenan, a seaweed derivative commonly used as a stabilizer in beverages. Academic scientists in Chicago have raised concerns that it might cause gastrointestinal inflammation.

    I’m not saying your almond milk habit is destroying the planet or ruining your health, or that you should immediately go cold turkey. I just want people to know what they’re paying for when they shell our for it. As for me, when I want something delicious to moisten my granola or add substance to a smoothie, I go for organic kefir, a fermented milk product that’s packed with protein, calcium, and beneficial microbes. Added bonus: According to the label, it’s lactose-free – apparently, the kefir microbes transform the lactose during the fermentation process.

    The industry, meanwhile, aims to take its lucrative almond milk model on the road. FoodNavigator reports that White Wave is setting up a joint venture to market its plant-based milks in almond-crazy China.

    This story was produced by Mother Jones as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

    Filed under: Business & Technology, Food
    Gristmill: Here’s how Obama is preparing the country for climate change
    Obama in the rain

    The good news is that President Barack Obama wants the nation to do a better job of bracing itself for the wild changes afoot in the weather. The better news it that he realizes that bolstering infrastructure and reimagining how we design our cities and electrical grids are among the best ways of doing that.

    “Working together, we can take some common-sense steps to make sure that America’s infrastructure is safer, stronger and more resilient for future generations,” Obama said on Wednesday. Here are some of the steps his administration is taking:

    • A nearly $1 billion competition, announced last month, will provide funds to help communities recover and rebuild following disasters. Technical details of the competition were outlined on Wednesday, indicating that many of the 67 communities affected by recent disasters could receive funds to support risk assessment and planning efforts. A smaller number of those communities will be selected to receive additional money to design and implement novel ideas for minimizing future risks.
    • The Department of Interior will spend $10 million on a training program that will help tribes prepare for climate change.
    • The Department of Agriculture announced $236 million worth of funding to improve rural electric infrastructure using smart grid technology in eight states.
    • A 3-D mapping program will be developed to help identify and manage risks of flooding, storm surges, landslides, coastal erosion, and water supply shortfalls. The program will be funded with $13.1 million.
    • FEMA has established a task force to figure out ways of better protecting disaster-affected communities from future disasters.
    • FEMA will release guidelines that call on states to consider climate variability in planning efforts.
    • Houston, Colorado, NASA’s Johnson Space Flight Center, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory will work together on pilot projects geared toward preparing for climate change.
    • NOAA is making changes that will require greater consideration of climate change in the management of coastal areas.
    • At least 25 communities will receive EPA funding to help them use urban forests and rooftop gardens to better manage stormwater.
    • The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released guidelines that will help public health departments assess local health risks associated with climate change.

    Kenneth Kimmell, president of the Union of Concerned Scientists, told The Washington Post that state and local officials are beginning to calculate how much it will cost to prepare for more intense and frequent storms, rising seas, and changing temperatures. “People are scared,” he said. “They’re just starting to put a price tag on how much it costs to adapt, and they’re going to need help from Washington.” At least that help is starting to come.

    Filed under: Article, Climate & Energy, Politics
    Gristmill: California farms are sucking up enough groundwater to put Rhode Island 17 feet under

    California, the producer of nearly half of the nation’s fruits, veggies, and nuts, plus export crops – four-fifths of the world’s almonds, for example – is entering its third driest year on record. Nearly 80 percent of the state is experiencing “extreme” or “exceptional” drought. In addition to affecting agricultural production the drought will cost the state billions of dollars, thousands of jobs, and a whole lot of groundwater, according to a new report prepared for the California Department of Food and Agriculture by scientists at UC-Davis. The authors used current water data, agricultural models, satellite data, and other methods to predict the economic and environmental toll of the drought through 2016.

    Here are four key takeaways:

    • The drought will cost the state $2.2 billion this year: Of these losses, $810 million will come from lower crop revenues, $203 million will come from livestock and dairy losses, and $454 million will come from the cost of pumping additional groundwater. Up to 17,100 seasonal and part-time jobs will be lost.
    • California is experiencing the “greatest absolute reduction in water availability” ever seen: In a normal year, about one-third of California’s irrigation water is drawn from wells that tap into the groundwater supply. The rest is “surface water” from streams, rivers, and reservoirs. This year, the state is losing about one-third of its surface water supply. The hardest hit area is the Central Valley, a normally fertile inland region. Because groundwater isn’t as easily pumped in the Valley as it is on the coasts, and the Colorado River supplies aren’t as accessible as they are in the south, the Valley has lost 410,000 acres to fallowing, an area about 10 times the size of Washington, D.C.
    • Farmers are pumping enough groundwater to immerse Rhode Island in 17 feet of it: To make up for the loss of surface water, farmers are pumping 62 percent more groundwater than usual. They are projected to pump 13 million acre-feet this year, enough to put Rhode Island 17 feet under.
    • “We’re acting like the super-rich”: California is technically in its third year of drought, and regardless of the effects of El Niño, 2015 is likely to be a dry year too. As the dry years accumulate, it becomes harder and harder to pump water from the ground, adding to the crop and revenue losses. California is the only western state without groundwater regulation or measurement of major groundwater use. If you can drill down to water, it’s all yours. (Journalist McKenzie Funk describes this arcane system in an excerpt from his fascinating recent book, Windfall.) “A well-managed basin is used like a reserve bank account,” said Richard Howitt, a UC-Davis water scientist and co-author of the report. “We’re acting like the super-rich, who have so much money they don’t need to balance their checkbook.”

    This story was produced by Mother Jones as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

    Filed under: Climate & Energy, Food
    Gristmill: A Tesla for the rest of us? Elon Musk dishes on the new, cheaper model
    tesla cars factory

    One of the knocks against Tesla (besides the slight chance of the automaker’s cars going up in flames) is that the sexy zero-emission rides are darn expensive. Case in point: The much ballyhooed Model S starts at $69,900.

    But a more affordable Tesla is on the way. CEO Elon Musk recently announced that a new model, called the 3, will start at around $35,000. The 3 is set to be on sale by 2017.

    Here are some additional details, via an exclusive with U.K. car mag Auto Express:

    The new car is rumoured to be about 20% smaller than the Model S and our image shows how it could look. Key to the new model, which Musk said should retail for around $35,000 (likely to equate to around £30,000 in the UK), is cheaper battery technology made possible by Tesla’s forthcoming Gigafactory.

    Yes, $35K is still steep, but a 50 percent price drop from the S to the 3 — in just three years — bodes well for even more cost-friendly iterations down the line.

    Honk if you like that idea.

    Filed under: Article, Business & Technology
    Gristmill: Houston’s one-bin-to-rule-them-all recycling plan smells a little like racism

    Integration is a good thing, except when it comes to trash, says Melanie Scruggs, the Houston-based program director for Texas Campaign for the Environment. Scruggs’ organization is part of the Zero Waste Houston Coalition, which is campaigning against the city government’s new “One Bin for All” proposal, which would have residents place their garbage and recyclables in the same trash can for collection, to be separated by workers later.

    This idea, funded with a milli from Bloomberg Philanthropies, is different than your run-of-the-mill recycling separation factories. Those “materials recovery facilities,” as they’re called, separate recyclables from one another — your glass from your plastic, for example — as our columnist, Umbra Fisk, has explained. No, this plan would allow you to toss out the leftover scraps from the hotbar in the same container it came in, along with the snotty tissues, the jammed-up glass, and the nasty plastic altogether, to be unyoked later at facilities that the Zero Waste Coalition call “dirty materials recovery facilities” — or “Dirty MRFs” for short.

    The “One Bin” plan sprang from the city’s Office of Sustainability. Despite declaring itself a green city, Houston’s recycling rates were running around 14 percent; compare that to San Francisco, which has managed to recycle 80 percent of its waste. The One Bin plan aims to bump Houston’s recycling rate up to 75 percent.

    But the plan arises at the same time that Houston Mayor Annise Parker committed last October to expanding recycling bins distribution throughout the city. Before that, fewer than half of the city’s neighborhoods had the bins. That move was applauded by environmentalists around the city. But they’re now scratching their heads about how city-wide recycling bins will co-exist with a one bin fits all strategy, and are doubtful about the landfill diversion goals.

    “No other facility like this has ever achieved anything close to what our recycling goals are in Houston — and most have been outright disasters,” Scruggs said in a press statement earlier this month. “City officials have set a 75 percent recycling goal for this proposal, but when we researched similar facilities, none have ever exceeded 30 percent. It’s been shown over and over that real, successful recycling will never be possible if the city tells residents to mix their garbage with recyclable materials in the same bin.”

    You can read about the coalition’s research in the report “It’s Smarter to Separate” (not to be confused with a Stormfront post). The report not only takes aim at the “one bin” approach, but also another part of the plan, which would incinerate some of the garbage and convert it into fuel. It’s the same “waste-to-energy” experiment that’s been attempted and halted in Baltimore, and cancelled in New Orleans. The coalition also points to an Energy Information Administration report that figures this kind of energy production is more expensive than producing energy from nuclear sources, leading the coalition to the conclusion that “waste to energy is a waste of energy.”

    The coalition also senses a whiff of environmental racism in this deal. The areas slated for Dirty MRFers fall mostly in black or Latino communities — which is a shame, as Houston is one of the most racially diverse cities — and now the city has an environmental justice issue on its hands.

    This is why the Houston branch of the NAACP is involved, as is the pioneering environmental justice scholar Robert Bullard, whose first research study in 1979 was on the siting of waste incinerators and garbage transfer stations in Houston’s black neighborhoods. The study was ammunition for a lawsuit against the city for the permitting of a waste facility in a black community that the residents did not want, and it’s considered a major jump-off point for the environmental justice movement.

    Here they are almost 40 years later still fighting the same battle — against using black and brown neighborhoods as garbage projects.


    “Bad proposals like incinerators and landfills have a way of uniting communities against a known threat to their health and safety, not to mention the safety of the workers in the facility who would be sorting through Houston’s trash,” said Bryan Parras of Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services (T.E.J.A.S), a member of the Zero Waste Houston coalition.

    The worker issue Parras references is a nasty proposition alone. The report provides a few anecdotes from workers who toil in similar facilities in other cities. This particular one comes from a worker in a Chicago trash separation plant … ugh:

    “There are so many smells that you come across, they make your stomach queasy. Yet before we went to work, they showed us a safety film where all the stuff was really clean… They told us that it was going to be a clean environment. They said fresh air was going to be pumped through there every 15 minutes, so it wouldn’t smell, and stuff like that, but it wasn’t. It was a little different than they had described it. One time they had a dead dog… go through there. There was all garbage, you know (not just recyclables). At first we thought they were only talking about plastic bottles and cans going through there. But that was plain garbage, everything, you know? Dirty diapers, cleaning products, stuff like that.”

    I can’t remind us enough that Martin Luther King’s last campaign was for improving the conditions of sanitation workers in Memphis — a campaign that Bullard says serves as the true genesis of the environmental justice movement.

    Given Houston’s “One Bid” plan is a public-private partnership, it could displace a number of city employees, said Scruggs. Not to mention, the city is offering around $100 million of its own money in tax incentives if it passes (it’s still at the bidding phase and the city council would have to approve the contract). I can only think of the city I grew up in, Harrisburg, Pa., that went bankrupt for wheeling and dealing with a similar incinerator scheme. Detroit, meanwhile, owes much of its bankruptcy to an incinerator project also.

    If that ain’t all bad enough, these plans can be ruinous for climate. The report cites an EPA study stating that “36.7 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions produced in the U.S. are produced by the materials production, consumption, and disposal cycle.”

    There are no easy answers when it comes to our waste disposal. The most ideal is to find ways to consume less, and dispose of less waste, through composting, reuse, recycling, remixing and any other re-[x]-ing you can think of.

    I can see how a one-bin-fits-all plan would appeal to the laziness in us — but Scruggs says she has 20,000 signatures from Houston residents that says otherwise. They want to keep their reusable trash apart from the disposable. I can see how incineration helps solve the landfill problem, but if it worsens the climate and environmental implications of waste management, then it seems like a wash. Justice is not disposable and need not be separated from the equation.

    Filed under: Article, Cities, Climate & Energy, Living
    Triple Pundit: New Trend: Climate Optimists Say Climate Change Won’t Be So Bad

    Accepting that climate change is happening but putting a positive spin on the consequences is a growing view in the climate skeptic camp, Slate reports. And this new “climate optimism” was on full display at the last week’s 9th International Conference on Climate Change, billed as an “International Gathering of Scientists Skeptical of Man-Caused Global Warming.”

    The post New Trend: Climate Optimists Say Climate Change Won’t Be So Bad appeared first on Triple Pundit: People, Planet, Profit.

    Triple Pundit: Clean Tech Leadership Index Ranks States and Cities

    This week Clean Edge released its 2014 Clean Tech Leadership Index, which tracks clean technology progress in all 50 states, as well as the top 50 metropolitan areas in the U.S.

    The post Clean Tech Leadership Index Ranks States and Cities appeared first on Triple Pundit: People, Planet, Profit.

    Gristmill: In Iowa, solar is fighting back against utilities and winning

    Last week, I wrote about the pushback that solar is getting from utility companies, who fear it will cut into their profits and break their monopolies. (The predictions in certain corners of the business world that solar is coming to “take their lunch” isn’t helping either.)

    But there’s another story – which is that solar is fighting back and winning. The most recent evidence is a decision last week in Iowa’s Supreme Court, that has big implications for solar, both in the Midwest and elsewhere.

    The case started this way: back in the summer of 2011, a company named Eagle Point began installing solar panels on the roof of a municipal services building in Dubuque, Iowa. The two had entered into a deal called a Purchase Power Agreement (PPA), under which Eagle Point would install and maintain the panels in exchange for use of the municipal building’s nice sunny roof and first dibs on the chance to sell any electricity generated by the panels to the building’s occupants.

    As corn has noticed, Iowa is a place that gets a lot of sun, especially in the summertime. The Iowa Environmental Council estimates that the state could supply about 20 percent of its current energy needs through rooftop solar installations.

    PPAs are popular lately because, like leasing solar panels, they require little or no down payment.  Since you’re buying the electricity, though, rather than access to the panels, the PPA installer is responsible for maintaining and fixing them. To a utility, that looks a lot like someone trying to be a utility, whether or not they are calling themselves that, which is where Interstate Power and Light Company (IPL) came in.

    IPL, the local utility, noticed the solar panels going up, and promptly complained to the Dubuque City Council. The local utility board agreed with IPL in March 2012, but Eagle Point appealed, and in April of last year, the Polk County District Court overturned the utility board’s decision, partly because, as the ruling put it, “The customer will still be connected to the grid, will still be an IPL customer, and must continue to purchase energy and capacity from IPL. Eagle Point is neither attempting to replace or sever the link between IPL and the city. it is simply allowing the city to decrease its demand for electricity from the grid.” In other words, the solar panels weren’t any more illegal than an energy-efficient appliance would be.

    This time, IPL appealed. The case went to the Iowa Supreme Court, which ruled on July 11 — 4-2, with one abstention — that Eagle Point, indeed, had the right to install solar panels anywhere it liked in Iowa.

    “There is simply nothing in the record to suggest that Eagle Point is a 600-pound gorilla that has cornered defenseless city leaders in Dubuque,” the ruling read. “Eagle Point is not providing electricity to a grid that all may plug into to power their devices and associated ‘aps’ [sic], or, more prosaically, their ovens, refrigerators, and lights. Eagle Point is providing a customized service to individual customers.”

    IPL was, understandably, bummed. It had, it reported,  lost nearly 600,000 kilowatt hours in sales to Dubuque since the solar panels were turned on in 2012. “We have a financing model that hasn’t changed,” said spokesman Justin Foss, a spokesman for IPC’s parent company, Alliant. “If nobody’s buying energy, in the middle of the night, there’s no one to pay for the power plant.”

    Counting Iowa, that makes 23 states now where PPAs are legal, and the Iowa ruling is strong enough that it’s expected to have an effect on the status of PPAs in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and other sections of the Midwest where they currently operate in a legal gray area.

    It is possible that PPAs will get to the point where they are directly competing with utilities. By their nature, they create an incentive for companies like Eagle Point to seek out anyone with a flat, sunny roof, and strike a deal with them to install panels there — not because it’s inherently noble, but because it’s going to bring them the cheddar.

    But there’s no reason that they couldn’t strike a deal to sell to utilities some day either, the same way that coal, gas, and oil companies do now. The first utilities that figure out how to do business with solar providers, instead of suing them, could be doing pretty well for themselves in the future.

    Filed under: Article, Business & Technology, Climate & Energy
    Triple Pundit: Twitter Chat TODAY: Transforming Transportation with GM – #GMCSR

    Please join TriplePundit & CSRWire for an hour long conversation at #GMCSR via Twitter to get to the heart of GM’s latest progress. We will discuss how GM is helping transform transportation in the 21st century.

    The post Twitter Chat TODAY: Transforming Transportation with GM – #GMCSR appeared first on Triple Pundit: People, Planet, Profit.

    Triple Pundit: Sustainable Packaging: The New Product Differentiator?

    Sustainable packaging has come a long way over a generation, and is now becoming a product differentiator and means for a company to enhance its brand and reputation.

    The post Sustainable Packaging: The New Product Differentiator? appeared first on Triple Pundit: People, Planet, Profit.

    Triple Pundit: Fortune: Female-Led Businesses Beat the Stock Market, But Their Numbers Remain Low

    Companies with female CEOs and/or women on their boards on average consistently outperform companies without women in the c-suite, yet the number of women in these positions remains very low.

    The post Fortune: Female-Led Businesses Beat the Stock Market, But Their Numbers Remain Low appeared first on Triple Pundit: People, Planet, Profit.

    Gristmill: Wasting water in California will now cost you $500
    water wasting

    Here’s a list of things that could now get you fined up to $500 a day in California, where a multi-year drought is sucking reservoirs and snowpacks dry:

    • Spraying so much water on your lawn or garden that excess water flows onto non-planted areas, walkways, parking lots, or neighboring property.
    • Washing your car with a hose that doesn’t have an automatic shut-off device.
    • Spraying water on a driveway, a sidewalk, asphalt, or any other hard surface.
    • Using fresh water in a water fountain — unless the water recirculates.

    Those stern emergency regulations were adopted Tuesday by a unanimous vote of the State Water Resources Control Board – part of an effort to crack down on the profligate use of water during critically lean times.

    California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) asked the state’s residents to voluntarily conserve water in January, but they didn’t. Rather, as the San Jose Mercury News reports, “a new state survey released Tuesday showed that water use in May rose by 1 percent this year, compared with a 2011-2013 May average.”

    Californians use more water on their gardens and lawns than they use inside their homes, as shown in the following chart from a document prepared for the board members ahead of Tuesday’s vote. So the new rules focus on outdoor use.


    Extreme drought is now affecting 80 percent of the Golden State. Some 400,000 acres of farmland could be fallowed due to water shortages, and water customers in the hardest-hit communities are having their daily water supplies capped at less than 50 gallons per person.

    The California Landscape Contractors Association sees an upside, though. It expects that the threats of fines could convince Californians to hire its members to replace thirsty nonnative plants in their gardens with drought-hardy alternatives. “If the runoff prohibition is enforced at the local level, we expect it to result in a multitude of landscape retrofits in the coming months,” association executive Larry Rohlfes told the water board in a letter dated Monday, one of a large stack of letters sent by various groups and residents in support of the new rules. “The water efficient landscapes that result will help the state’s long-term conservation efforts — in addition to helping the state deal with a hopefully short-term drought emergency.”

    Filed under: Business & Technology, Climate & Energy, Living
    Triple Pundit: ‘Give Back Box’ Turns Old Shipping Boxes Into Charitable Donations

    What if you could take your old shipping boxes from online retailers and – instead of tossing them into the recycling or garbage – pack them with clothes and household goods you no longer need, and send them to charities? That’s the idea behind Give Back Box, a startup inspired by a homeless man holding a sign that said, "I need shoes."

    The post ‘Give Back Box’ Turns Old Shipping Boxes Into Charitable Donations appeared first on Triple Pundit: People, Planet, Profit.

    Triple Pundit: Eden Foods Endures Customer Backlash for Birth Control Stance

    Eden Foods' owner, Michael Potter, is hoping that the Hobby Lobby decision by the Supreme Court will mean he won't have to pay for contraceptive coverage for his employees. But while he's rallying for change, another battle is taking place in health food stores, where customers are returning his products and pressuring retailers to drop Eden Foods products.

    The post Eden Foods Endures Customer Backlash for Birth Control Stance appeared first on Triple Pundit: People, Planet, Profit.

    Triple Pundit: Governor Christie Pulls New Jersey Out of Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative

    RGGI - the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative - is the first market-based regulatory program in the United States to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The program has proven to be a revenue generator in its first six years, but Gov. Chris Christie seems to have other ideas for New Jersey.

    The post Governor Christie Pulls New Jersey Out of Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative appeared first on Triple Pundit: People, Planet, Profit.