Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Book Review: Something's Rising

I come from the flat land of Michigan so when I flew into Appalachia for the first time, I was taken aback. From the sky, those gentle old mountains looked like elders gently watching over the little valley towns beneath them. In grade school we were told that while the Rockies might provide the more stunning vistas, the Appalachian Mountains dwarf them in age. There’s something there that demands reverence, “respect your elders” and all that, but this imperative has gone blatantly unheeded by the perpetrators of mountaintop removal mining.

Coal mining has a long history in Appalachia, of course, but it’s only since the 1990s that mountaintop removal has become widespread. Somehow coal companies have managed to convince many folks that this sick practice is part of the respectable coal mining traditions of yore when in fact it destroys that legacy. The many local voices speaking out in Something’s Rising: Appalachians Fighting Mountaintop Removal have devoted their lives to combating this myth and the practice of MTR at the risk of social stigmatization and in some cases, physical danger. Though their life circumstances are diverse, they share some surprising commonalities. The one I found most intriguing was the prevalence of a shy personality. These people weren’t born activists; they were forced from their very nature as demure people by circumstance. When loads of toxic mining waste is dumped in local rivers, when boulders removed by excavating machines crush little children while they sleep in their beds, when mountains are blown up before one’s eyes, well, even the shy get audibly livid.

“The canary in the coal mine” is an apt metaphor for what’s happening in Appalachia and in many other parts of the world where the promise of resource wealth never (surprise surprise) manages to cultivate the local economy or well-being. Sure some folks will get jobs and buy new trucks and TVs, but one day they’ll look around and notice that all the shops in town are boarded up and that they get sick when they drink the tap water. Renowned activist Judy Bonds’ blisteringly honest thoughts on the matter leap right off the page.

Every story in this book is heartrending, but I was particularly moved by steadfast witness of folk legend Jean Ritchie and the spotlight on despicable political maneuvering by Jack Spadaro. The voices here have different cadences and histories but the collective picture that emerges is undeniable: the slick promises of dirty fuel corporations should never be trusted, nor, sadly, should the politicians who essentially work for these companies instead of their constituents. Something has certainly risen by the time you finish this book: your own fury.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Sigur Ros Sings for Iceland's Highlands

Sigur Ros' Heima (at home) is a beautiful film that in addition to being a music documentary is a moving tribute to Iceland's people and natural beauty. Here Jonsi and others draw attention to the damage caused by the Kárahnjúkar Hydropower project, a series of dams constructed to supply energy to an aluminum smelter in Reyðarfjörður:

Saturday, August 20, 2011

"But Think of the Jobs!"

In reading articles about the Keystone XL, I'm so sick of hearing "jobs" used as an excuse to build it. NWF recently debunked the jobs numbers coming from TransCanada. I'm also in the midst of reading Something's Rising: Appalacians Fighting Mountaintop Removal and came across this fiesty quote from Judy Bonds of West Virginia that calls out the bullshit:
I've lived here...fifty-seven years... And in that time, I've seen this town die. Bill Raney's association keeps talking about the prosperity of coal. Hell, I can't find it nowhere. I've looked everywhere for that prosperity. I can't find it. I can't find it nowhere. The more coal we mine, the poorer we get. Why? Can they explain that to me? I want my government and the coal industry to explain that to me. I just can't seem to get it. Maybe the coal dust is affecting my brain. I'm seeing, in this little town, buildings falling apart, boarded up. I've seen it all my life. The more coal we mine, the more mechanized they get, and the poorer we get. It's just about the same in every Appalachian town.
You take McDowell County, it was once one of the richest counties in the United States. It's now one of the poorest. I just can't find that prosperity. The coal industry says, “Aw, it's your government, they're stealing that coal severance from ye.” I say, well, let's go to the legislature and tell them we want the taxes to go back to the coal communities it come from. But they say, “Oh, no, you'll never get that, all the counties deserve that coal severance tax.” But are all of them breathing the coal dust, drinking the water we're drinking? They're all in on it together. In Appalachia, I think 98 percent of the politicians are corrupt. They owe their soul to coal.

First Wave of NoKXL Sit-ins Hits White House

I love this picture from @joshkahnrussell. The first wave of "No Tar Sands" protesters - about 70 total - are being arrested outside the White House as I write this. 2000+ more will be following them over the next two weeks. I'll be sitting there on Tuesday! Here's why we're doing this:

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Book Review: The Global Forest

Trained in biochemistry but also a vocal advocate of aboriginal plant use, Diana Beresford-Kroeger is that rare person who bridges the divide between science and myth. Her new book catalogs the chemical lives of trees, describes their indirect and direct medicinal properties and serves as a call-to-arms to protect our rapidly dwindling forests. Each of the brief chapters (or “essays”) covers a different theme, from how animals have instinctually used plants as medicine to the ways that weather and disease can change the chemistry of a tree.

While Beresford-Kroeger clearly posses a wide-ranging knowledge of the hidden lives of plants, the book is hampered by a perplexing writing style that fails to do the subject justice. The book is full of intriguing concepts left unexplored or unsubstantiated, strings of abrupt sentences and awkward cloying sayings (“Our broken forest is in our hearts and in our children’s tears.”). This is disappointing because her general message: that trees support our fragile existence in complex ways we can’t begin to fathom, needs so desperately to be heard.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

The China Factor and the Keystone XL

Note: An alternate version of this post appeared in the Daily Kos "No Tar Sands" Blogathon as "Oil Companies Are Multinational But We Are Too" on August 19.

I mentioned to a colleague of mine this week that I’d be participating in the Keystone XL protest. While he was supportive, he didn’t think it would matter much in terms of global emissions since China would be all too happy to take that sweet sweet bitumen off our hands. The Washington Post editorial a few days ago echoes the sentiment:
Considering geography, exporting oil from Canada to a non-American market doesn’t sound easy; Canada’s tar sands are close to the U.S. border, but not much else. So we asked John Baird — Canada’s new foreign minister — which nations would buy oil that America decided not to take. His answer was quick and unequivocal: the Chinese. New pipeline infrastructure will transport oil between the tar sands and Canada’s west coast, from which tankers can ship it across the Pacific Ocean. And, even now, Chinese firms are buying stakes in Canadian tar sands.
So as the story goes, should we succeed in getting Obama to shut down Keystone XL, Canada would simply fire up other pipelines, notably the Northern Gateway. That pipeline would carry the oil from Alberta to Canada’s west coast and off into the sunset, prompting sorrowful oil-hungry Americans to shed tears at their loss (as if KXL would guarantee Americans sole access to the stuff anyway). Is our protest a pointless exercise then? I don’t think so:

First off, Michael Byer, a professor at the University of British Columbia wrote Tuesday that he spoke with a Singapore-based consultant and oil industry insider who suggested that any tar sand oil China buys from Canada would need to be sent to Gulf oil refineries anyway. That would be extra costly and Canada might not be willing to lower the price of the bitumen enough to make it attractive to Asian buyers. Okay, so this is hearsay, but interesting enough to raise doubts…

Secondly, the Northern Gateway has inspired its own dynamic protest movement (as, to a lesser extent, has the Trans Mountain Pipeline expansion). Bill McKibben points out in his WaPo op-ed this week, the Northern Gateway is “tangled in litigation” and perhaps, by the time they get it sorted out, we’ll already be on the right clean energy track. TransCanada is also betting on Keystone XL and doesn’t have a good contingency plan should it fall through. He points to an article in The Globe and Mail that details industry hand-wringing over this basket of eggs.
For the oil patch, the possibility that the XL project will falter is so outside expectations that many haven’t even considered it. Indeed, companies have already signed up for the majority of its capacity. “None of us are really planning for that,” Devon Canada president Chris Seasons said.
But thirdly, and this is the most important point: we must stop the Keystone XL because the potential environmental damage is not isolated to the US. Our resolve expresses solidarity with those fighting similar battles in other places. Even if Canada decides to push ahead with the Northern Gateway, our protest should serve to embolden our global neighbors, to show them we stand with them. One of the most important things the environmental movement can do is show that our national affinities are less important than our shared planetary future. This is not about China vs. the US and who gets to have the oil in the end. It’s about sparking a movement that recognizes common humanity across borders. We have no other choice.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Civil Disobedience? Me?

If the government is going to refuse to step up to that responsibility to defend a livable future, I believe that creates a moral imperative for me and other citizens. My future, and the future of everyone I care about, is being traded for short term profits. I take that very personally. Until our leaders take seriously their responsibility to pass on a healthy and just world to the next generation, I will continue this fight… - Tim DeChristopher in his closing statement before being sentenced to two years in prison (read it - it's historic!)

Last month on Twitter, all the environmental tweeps I follow were buzzing about some guy named Tim DeChristopher. I quickly learned about DeChristopher’s spur-of-the-moment attempt to prevent public lands from being leased to gas and oil companies by “winning” bids at the auction that he didn’t intended to pay for. I was both impressed by how elegant and creative his action was and outraged that he was sentenced to such a harsh prison sentence for it.

The Alberta tar sands
DeChristopher’s act of civil disobedience planted a seed in my head. Or at least watered the seed that was planted when Deepwater Horizon exploded, when the Kalamazoo River next to my alma mater was coated with sludge from the Enbridge spill, when the Yellowstone River was awash in oil from an Exxon pipeline that ruptured last month. I was perhaps trying to work out an inner dilemma when I told a friend in general conversation that I’d be afraid of doing civil disobedience because of the likely repercussions: namely, a crime record that might prevent me from getting a job. Even if you explain to a prospective employer that it was an act of civil disobedience, they’ll still think you’re a bit unstable, a bit of a loose cannon, we reasoned. My friend said something like “That’s why people don’t act.”

A week or so later, an email alerted me to a petition against the proposed Keystone XL pipeline that would carry oil about 1700 miles from the tar sands of Alberta to the Gulf coast. Then I learned Bill McKibben, Naomi Klein, Wendell Berry and others were asking folks to follow DeChristopher’s example by stepping up the game, putting more on the line in this fight. I was moved by the appeal and started to test my apprehensions about civil disobedience. I was ultimately won over by the idea and last night signed up to participate. I felt even stronger in my decision after my dad, who most would consider a “mainstream” American, told me he’s angry about the pipeline too and supports my choice.

We have to do something to shake up the status quo in this country. We’ve built our entire economy, our infrastructure on this dirty, finite energy source. We need to start planning for the future now, by taking our money away from oil companies and putting it into energy efficiency, renewables, public transportation, smart growth and smart grids, sustainable agriculture and other measures. Although I’m anxious (and excited!) about participating, it's important to live by one’s guiding values. If you’d like to participate too, here’s more information.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

NIMBY and Wind Power

BBC’s One Planet podcast had a segment recently on how NIMBY-ism is preventing wind farm projects from moving forward in the UK – “nearly half” the proposed projects in fact. Folks from the Welsh village of Gilfach Goch where a wind farm has been planned are livid, livid I tell ya, that the utility wants to put these “monstrosities” in their town.

All the arguments they had against the project in the interviews were based on aesthetic complaints – they mess up the look of the landscape and they sound bad, etc... But the icing on the cake quote was from John Jenkins of South Wales Alternatives to Turbines (SWAT) who suggested that nuclear is a good alternative to wind (huh?). When pressed by the interviewer, he also suggested this imaginary nuclear plant not be placed in Gilfach Goch, but somewhere else (HUH?).

People People People. Let’s get some things straight here. Gilfach Goch’s energy now comes from somewhere. There’s a plant in someone’s backyard supplying energy to the people of Gilfach Goch right now. Judging by the UK’s energy statistics, it’s probably a plant that burns gas or coal. Someone somewhere is eating their shit in the form of mercury, nitrogen oxide, carbon dioxide or any number of other nasty pollutants.

When people say they don’t want a wind farm in their backyard, they’re essentially saying “I want someone else to pay for the consequences of my energy use”. I’m not against taking a careful look at the potentially negative effects of renewable energy installations – I’ve heard reasonable environmental complaints and I'm also a bigger cheerleader for efficiency than I am for renewables. But for people to pretend that their righteous protest is morally benign is the height of hypocrisy and selfishness. It’s asking others to make the sacrifices you don’t want to. And ultimately, the entire planet is one big backyard. If you get your energy from a coal plant 100 miles away, believe me, it’s still in your backyard.

I don’t mean to single out Wales – the region is actually doing a lot to support renewable energy (perhaps that's why we see the backlash). NIMBY-ism is a common impediment to wind energy in other places too (Martha’s Vineyard anyone?). The haters could learn from these folks:

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The Myth of the Rich Environmentalist

EcoAmerica's mission is somewhat unique among environmental organizations. It's not out to protect wilderness areas or push for anti-pollution legislation. According to their site, they "build awareness, understanding and action for climate and environmental solutions among mainstream Americans." Whew - that's quite a tall order! In my opinion, it's probably the most important environmental mission of all, because changing minds is going to have a bigger impact than changing technology.

Anyway, in 2008, they came out with a fascinating report on "mainstream American" views of global warming and other environmental issues. They found that the biggest indicator of belief in global warming is a person's political affiliation. They also look at education, age, gender and income, seen here:

We can intuit that Democrats, women, young people and educated people care more about the environment, and we'd be right. But when it comes to income, there's little correlation: 
Between the lower income groups (<$50k) and the higher income groups (>$100k) there were only 3 items with a 10-point spread. Controlled for education, there really isn’t much difference at all. There are a few things to point out here though. Generational messages referring to ancestors and children both resonate more strongly with lower income groups. Lower income groups are also more likely to have personally noticed local changes in climate, and to be worried about them for the future. 
Kinda breaks apart the myth of the latte-sipping environmentalist, or that one has to be in a comfortable position before they're willing to make sacrifices. Poor folks already are making sacrifices because of environmental degradation.

Monday, August 8, 2011

More Trouble Ahead for the Horn of Africa?

Duncan Green tentatively (with numerous qualifications) makes the climate connection:
The current drought conditions have been caused by successive seasons with very low rainfall. Over the past year, the eastern Horn of Africa has experienced two consecutive failed rainy seasons. According to surveys of local communities, this is part of a long-term shift. Borana communities in Ethiopia report that whereas droughts were recorded every six to eight years in the past, they now occur every one to two years... The conclusion? Attributing the current drought directly to climate change is impossible, but in the words of Sir John Beddington, the UK government's chief scientific adviser, in a talk at Oxfam last week, "worldwide, events like this have a higher probability of occurring as a result of climate change".
That last quote from Sir Beddington seems to be a common one from climate scientists. Tornadoes and heat waves could be whipping up outside, but they'll still say "I don't know about this stuff, but expect more of the same in the future!". I guess that's as far as science can go...

Green is also quick to point out that "drought" is not synonomous with "famine":
Remember that while the drought is caused by lack of rainfall, famine is man-made. As the Nobel prize-winning economist Amartya Sen famously observed, famines do not occur in functioning democracies.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

EPA Fail

Have to pass along this funny photo I found on the Epic Fail Blog. I think a lot of organizations devoted to environmental protection are guilty of stuff like this. Some comments indicate the trash can is probably DC property, not the EPA's. Still... I suppose at the very least shows how little an organization can do to change bad cultural habits. There also seems to be a dearth of recycling bins around the city. I always end up carrying empty plastic cups and glass bottles back home with me after I go downtown because I can't find anywhere to throw them (that isn't a trash can).

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Book Review: The Sound of Wild Snail Eating

Elisabeth Bailey, bedridden for years with a debilitating disease, becomes enamored of a snail her friend brings to her on a whim. Bailey’s forced immobility allows her an intense observation of and intimate connection with this whimsical creature who lives Zen-like by her side in her deepest isolation.

The best parts of the book describe her bemused discoveries of the snail’s minute adventures and how watching its graceful activities keep her “spirit from evaporating”. I laughed out loud when she found the snail had left perfectly square bite marks in papers she left around or the apparent contented emotions it conveyed in the energetic movement of its tentacles. Most striking was the way constant observation of snail’s methodic, gliding pace made her perceive human movement and emotion differently. Her occasional visitors suddenly appeared erratic and careless in the way they moved their bodies.

Bailey draws on the writings of 18th and 19th century naturalists to add context to her own observations and while at times the excerpts can feel a bit “lit-reviewy”, they show that Bailey isn’t the only person who’s found a mystical quality in the whorl of a snail shell. That she was prevented from sliding into despair by this small creature demonstrates the humility and wonder nature can provide to us clumsy bipeds if we only pay attention.

In the book, Bailey also mentions this memorable scene from the documentary Microcosmos that shows how amorous snails are. Should it be labeled NSFW? :).

Thursday, August 4, 2011

The Aesthetics of Pollution

Jerry James Stone of the Atlantic and TreeHugger recently highlighted the work of photographer J Henry Fair. Fair's work captures the nearly-neon intensity of coal mining, aluminum production, oil spills and other industrial nightmares. As Stone points out, the photos have a certain beauty.
"His color palette is so flirtatious you might actually question their authenticity, but Fair confirms that 'what one sees in the photos is what was there [on land.]'"
"Herbicide manufacturing waste swirling with limegreen highlights"

Portrait of a Disappearing Island

Tuvalu - Islands on the frontline of Climate Change from panos pictures on Vimeo.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Confronting Elected Officials

Today I tore myself away from the BBC production of Anna Karenina on YouTube and endless bowls of Three Sisters Graham Crackerz cereal (this is what life in “laid off land” has become) to visit my (former) representative Frank Wolf's office to protest with other Move On peeps about the debt deal that’s just made it through both sides of Congress. I took my housemate along with me. As I expected, the gathering was sparsely populated (maybe eight folks showed up) but we went into the office and aired our grievances with the senior staff member. We all sat around a table and talked in a way that reminded me of sitting in a heated college seminar.

I disagreed across the board with the rep’s rep (and she kicked the lone newspaperman out of the room – First Amendment anyone?) but she at least talked to us and let us shoot angry questions at her. Sure Wolf’s not going to do anything when we complain about tax increases not being a part of the deal – he tows the Republican line like they all do (and Democrats too, lately) – but it felt good to say our piece anyway. Housemate and I were the youngest folks in the room. We talked to the newspaperman afterward, about how we’re both smart, college educated ladies who can’t get decent work and surely if the government’s in such financial trouble then the people who can most afford to should put in their share. It was their tax cuts that largely got us in this mess to begin with. Austerity’s not working for Britain so why would it work for us? I tend to agree with Krugman on all this. And to connect this in an offhanded way to the blog’s theme, I can see this “compromise” eroding already fragile environmental protections.

The anthropology of the "protest" was interesting too - on whose terms/turf were we speaking? How should one behave? On the one hand, you want to express fury, on the other you want to be polite to the reps as people and get listened to. The group tipped from one approach to the other during the meeting, getting angry one moment and asking genially about an intern's university experience the next. On the whole, I think people are too deferential to our leaders. It makes them think we don't care.

Moral of the story: talk to your elected officials – it feels good! Besides, they’re supposed to work for you.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Giving Old Buildings New Life

Beautiful abandoned buildings can break your heart. Often carefully crafted in a more sturdy age, they serve as reminders of our failure to reach collective dreams. But it’s not necessary to abandon buildings if they can be creatively reworked into new economic and cultural environments. Two of my favorite examples are in Baltimore and Detroit:

John K. King Used & Rare Books in downtown Detroit is housed in an old four-story glove factory. My friend A. introduced me to this place and said he could get lost in here for hours.

Downtown Baltimore’s Pratt Street Power Plant used to run the city’s street cars in the early 1900s but later fell into disuse. It took a few failed attempts to develop the site before reaching its current incarnation as a Barnes & Noble bookstore, restaurants and art gallery. The four stacks rising from the top of the building run down right through the center of the store. By far the coolest B&N I’ve ever been in.

While we’re on the topic of books, here’s another cool bookstore inside a 13th century (!) cathedral in Maastricht:

Architect Ricardo Bofill converted an old cement factory in Barcelona into a multiuse office/residential/gallery space:

Kate Carmichael talks about converting old spaces into new theaters in Britain and finds that repurposing is an old idea:
You might think that converting theatres is a modern phenomenon but the conversion of buildings to theatres can be traced back to medieval times – even as the idea of the theatre as a distinct building type developed, the Teatro Olimpico at Vicenza (1580) was created within the shell of a medieval fortress.
And this seems a bit creepy, but Germany is turning an unfinished nuclear plant into an amusement park:

After being built for 8 billion deutsche marks (€4.1 billion; $5.9 billion), the complex known locally as "der Brüter" ("the breeder") was destined never to go online. In the wake of the Chernobyl disaster, it stood idle for years because nobody wanted to have anything to do with the enormous mountain of concrete.