Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Climate Change in Pictures 2012

For those of us in the US, there was no shortage of crazy climate-fueled weather stories in 2012: droughts and heatwaves, wildfires, Sandy, a melting Arctic. But like most people, I have a hard time remembering the deluge of records and events that, together, tell the story of climate change.

In the summer, I started a Pinterest page devoted to documenting climate impacts at the state level, made up of news articles, reports, blogs posts, etc. These stories and images illustrate how climate change is already impacting people and wildlife in every part of the country. Here are those that stood out this year, by region:

A WWII ship uncovered by a drought-impacted Mississippi River in December 2012 (TeamSaintLouis/Flickr)
Midwest: The drought of 2012, the worst in decades, has crippled the "Mighty Mississippi" River: it dropped 12 feet below normal in some areas, exposing sunken steamboats on the river bottom and threatening to shut down one of the world's busiest shipping routes. The drought also did a number to farmers, prompting the Department of Agriculture to declare over half the country a disaster zone and lowering the crop yield forecast multiple times. In July, stories of withered harvests were flying from farmers across the breadbasket: from corn in Illinois and wheat in North Dakota to oats in Wisconsin. In Iowa, 37,000 fish were found dead along the Des Moines River because the water got too hot.

A forest ravaged by pine beetles in Colorado (sandrift/Flickr)
West: Colorado's Waldo Canyon Fire got the most news coverage, but damaging fires burned across the West this year. Already by August 2012, the National Interagency Fire Center had declared 2012 the worst year for wildfires in terms of acreage burned. And if fires weren't bad enough, forests in the West continue to die from pine beetle infestation caused by rising temperatures. A three-year study on the Colorado River released in December found that the watershed will be unable to support the region's needs over the next 50 years. In the Southwest, giant dust storms that shut down roads and carry a "noxious mix of fungi, heavy metals, fertilizers and stockyard fecal matter" are becoming more frequent.

Northern Florida's County Line Fire - April 2012 (NASA)
South: Rising temperatures are a threat to infrastructure. In Lynchburg, Virginia, a severe storm that knocked out power to a water treatment plant released partially-treated sewage into the James River. Researchers in both Arkansas and Texas have found fewer ducks and other birds migrating south for the winter and Texas saw its worst West Nile Virus outbreak since 1999 (its 2011 drought alone also cost the state $7 billion). Along the coast, states are bracing for the next big storm; Miami, Florida is seen as being particularly susceptible. And wildfires weren't confined to the West. A wildfire fueled by drought burned 35,000 acres in Florida's Osceola National Forest.

 Breezy Point, NY after Hurricane Sandy and fires (FEMA)
East: Images of the New York subway system and the New Jersey coastline inundated by water pushed inland by Hurricane Sandy are hard to forget. The damage, which is expected to cost NY and NJ alone at least $72 billion to address, was foreshadowed months before when a US Geological Survey report said that sea levels are rising twice as fast along the Atlantic Coast as other areas. Vermont is still recovering from 2011's Hurricane Irene which wiped out 500 miles of roadways and a state hospital there. A warming ocean is leading to problems up and down the coast from a nuclear plant in Connecticut that had to shut down in August to fish fleeing north to cooler waters.

There are hundreds of other stories like these on my Climate Impacts page, from coastal erosion in Alaska and Hawaii to ocean acidification in Oregon. Keep up-to-date with the latest stories by following me here.

And for some more quick summaries of climate impacts in 2012, see the Climate Desk's Year in Review, NRDC's This is What Global Warming Looks Like (videos), Climate Central's list of 2012 extreme weather events, and World Resources Institute's Extreme Weather Timeline.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Animals Like Us, Part II: Bonobo Handshake

I first heard about bonobos when Peter Gabriel started making music with them, to mild ridicule from his peers, back in the early aughts. Then they came up again in the book I read last year, Sex at Dawn by Ryan and Jethá. To me, they're by far the most fascinating (non-human) ape, so I'm always surprised at how many people have never heard of them. Vanessa Woods' 2010 book Bonobo Handshake has hopefully helped somewhat to remedy that.

If you know anything at all about bonobos, it's probably that they have a lot of sex. Sex with relatives, troupe-mates and strangers of every age and gender, in various positions (including missionary, which researchers once thought only humans were "advanced" enough to employ), and in all sorts of contexts. Sex is used to diffuse tense or exciting situations, to greet others, to ease anxiety, and to express affection. It comes as easy as a handshake, hence the title of the book.

All this sex has produced a remarkably egalitarian society. There are no lack of violent chimp stories, but you simply don't find the same among bonobos. Alliances of females, not alpha males, keep the peace. Woods tells of her unwitting role as a guest and researcher at the world's only bonobo sanctuary in the Congo in the midst of that country's endless string of gruesome wars and the bonobos dwindling population.

She makes frequent contrast between the bonobos and the chimps she had previously worked with, but the more searching and central question probes the human capacity for both aggression and empathy in light of the horrific stories of war she hears from the staff at Lola Ya Bonobo.

When we call someone an animal, we believe they're cruel and unfeeling and acting on baser impulses. But by this definition, humans are certainly more animal than bonobos. It's difficult to read the accounts of genocide, greed, global apathy and mass rape and that pepper Woods' account and not come out deeply ambivalent about human cooperation. One need not even look to a place like the Congo for distressing examples. Just last week, a woman jogging on the trail I frequently bike to work on was knocked unconscious and raped in the woods not two miles from my house.

Knowing the book was going to be about war and traumatized baby bonobo orphans, I hesitated to pick it up at first, but Woods' story is still upbeat and entertaining, especially when she describes the personalities and intriguing relationships of all the bonobos and staff at the sanctuary. Her message is also ultimately a hopeful one: bonobos are the living example that apes like us can live harmoniously.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Animals Like Us

Today I sat across the glass from Kyle, a 16-year old orangutan at the National Zoo while he sporadically twisted pieces of straw as if pedaling a hand bike, regurgitated his food, scratched his arms and looked sideways at his onlookers. He rapped gently on the glass with his fist and I couldn't help putting my own hand up to meet his.

Kyle / Smithsonian Photo
Kyle became famous last year for sensing the DC earthquake before it hit: rushing to the top of the "tree" in his enclosure, but I came to visit the apes because I'm in the midst of reading Frans de Waal's The Age of Empathy and wanted to see our cousins up close.

De Waal's gotten in debates with the likes of curmudgeonly atheist Richard Dawkins, whose book The Selfish Gene has, somewhat unintentionally, added fuel to the popular idea that animals are looking out for numero uno above all else. De Waal makes the case, much like the Cherokee legend of two wolves, that empathy is just as motivating a force as selfishness is for many primates. And that includes humans.

The book is filled with examples of self-sacrifice and evidence of empathy that de Waal's witnessed in his decades as a primatologist: chimps jumping into moats to save their zoo-mates despite an inherent fear of water, a Bonobo who collected a stunned bird that had fallen in its enclosure and tried helping it flap its wings, even dolphins saving dogs and humans.

De Waal's observations have a positive message for human cooperation, but they also serve to chip away at the ideological barrier between humans and animals. My friend Anoop, who got me into reading this book, wrote his undergraduate thesis on the topic. He quotes Paul Nadasdy:
It is perhaps not surprising that anthropologists should be reluctant to accept the notion that humans and animals might actually engage in social relations with one another. Despite the fact that humans are animals, Euro-Americans invest a great deal in maintaining a sharp conceptual distinction between humans and animals…the standard behavioralist assertion that animals are mindless automatons should be recognized as dogma that is not only unproven but that requires all sorts of theoretical contortions to maintain.
We like to believe, as we push our doublewide strollers through the great ape exhibit, flashing photos and  pointing out the "monkeys" to our children, that the creatures behind the glass are nothing like us. But researchers are closing the gap all the time, putting the "animal" in "human" and, as a consequence, making us a part of the environment too.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Book Review: The Great Inversion

Websites like The Atlantic Cities seem to publish new statistics on the Millennial generation's affinity for urban living at least once a week. Articles like The End of Car Ownership; It's Official: Downtowns are Booming; and Will Millennials Stay? Alan Ehrenhalt gives some context and nuance to this 21st century shift in urban thinking by profiling a number of unique American cities on the verge of change in The Great Inversion.

Ehrenhalt's thesis is that the post-war demographic shift is now seeing its inverse with young and affluent (largely white) people moving to the city while immigrants, minorities and poorer people are heading to the suburbs.

Despite this basic premise, the cities and neighborhoods Ehrenhalt visits are all facing unique challenges. There's New York City's Financial District that's seeing an unexpected conversion of office space to residential, but without the mom 'n pop shops deemed vital to a healthy community by famous urbanist Jane Jacobs. There's Phoenix and the suburbs of Denver, CO struggling to redefine themselves as "walkable, transit-oriented" in an era far removed from the post-war sprawl mentality they were born into. And there are places like Philadelphia ("Bostroit") that are thriving in the downtown core but remain crippled under a glut of abandoned buildings elsewhere.

It's clear that the urbanist revival of the past 15 years or so is still struggling to find its footing. Much of the development (in the suburbs especially) seems to capture the facade of city life, but not its heart. Reston Town Center in Virginia, West Hartford, CT's Blue Back Square and the rest of the new crop of polished suburban "downtown centers" seem more eager have people buy things than to foster civic engagement.

There are two factors that Ehrenhalt glosses over to the book's detriment. The first is the role that energy, climate change and resource scarcity play in the future of cities. He cops out by saying he's not an energy policy expert, a frustrating statement considering cities consume 75% of the world's energy and the enormous challenges they face in light of that.

And while race and inequality are part of his thesis, Ehrenhalt says that there's nothing much to be done about segregation by class, that it's "a fact of American life". In this way he brushes aside the idea that equality (or lack thereof) might be the most important factor determining the shape of our cities. Enrique Peñalosa, former mayor of Bogotá (it's difficult not to quote a Colombian mayor these days) puts it best: "A city needs to show as much respect for a person riding a $30 bicycle as it does for someone driving a $30,000 car." American cities just aren't there yet.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

From the Motor City to Car Free

A developed country is not a place where the poor have cars. It's where the rich use public transportation. - Gustavo Petro, Mayor of Bogota. 

My family's history in the car industry reads like some biblical genealogy. On my mom's side, my great uncle and great grandfather worked for Pontiac Motors, my grandfather for Fisher Body, countless other aunts and cousins at plants my mom can't remember. 

My paternal great grandfather Floyd worked for decades at the very first Ford assembly plant in Highland Park, MI. My grandfather helped build engines at Detroit Diesel. Although my dad doesn't work for the industry, his trucking company gets much of its business shipping parts for various automakers. You get the idea...
My great grandfather Floyd's Ford employee pass
Such sprawling, multi-generational involvement in the car industry is typical of most families that live in southeast Michigan and the highways filled with Chevys, Chryslers, Fords and Buicks are one very visible reminder. I get a twinge of reverse culture-shock every time I pass the "Pure Michigan" welcome sign on my way home as I'm steadily flanked by products of the Big 3 on all sides.

Love and Cars: My Paternal Grandparents
I got my driver's license at 17 and have owned a car -- mostly hand-me-downs -- ever since. But I've never enjoyed the need to depend on it. When I moved to DC earlier this year, I found I could bike or even walk to work, take the bus to meet colleagues for lunch, take the Metro to see friends. The ability to choose from multiple forms of transportation is a luxury nearly unimaginable in my home state (unless you hop in a time machine). 

(There's certainly room for improvement in DC, especially when it comes to inter-city travel. One dreams of high-speed rail lines connecting major cities, a Metro system without terminal escalator outages, extensive separated bike paths, etc...)
The Old Me
The New Me, With Stronger Legs
So after my car started collecting cobwebs behind the house, I realized going car-free was possible. Don't get me wrong. I like my car. I like blasting music with the windows down driving the GW Parkway at night with the lights of the city sparking in the distance. I like that its namesake, Pontiac, hearkens back to my family's involvement in the car industry. And who knows, I might need one in the future. But now I'm using some lo-fi ways of getting around town that are better for my wallet, for my city, and for the environment.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Another One Bites the (Coal) Dust

On my way to an Anacostia Riverkeeper event at the unique Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens this morning, I passed by PEPCO's Benning Road power plant in NE DC, which was shut down two months ago. Such closings are part of a national trend: US power generation from coal dropped nearly 20% in just one year, mostly due to cheap natural gas prices (which, unlike "all-of-the-above" boosters, I'm highly ambivelant about, but that's another story).

The plant shut down on June 1, but coal cars are still lined up next to the Minnesota Avenue Metro station:

Burning toxic rocks for energy? How passé.

Of the power plant's lasting legacy, the Sierra Club has this to say:
The big issue is the possible PCB contamination of the soil on this 70-acre site and the leaching of those chemicals into the groundwater and the river it abuts. Many of the homes in this section of the city require sump pumps to remove water from basements flooded by underground creeks. We have recently heard that the water entering these homes comes with odd odors. Though only anecdotal for now, our coalition and local community leaders are beginning to mount an environmental health study to determine if residents are being directly exposed to toxins in the water. 
Via Clean Water Action:
The plant, which only operates ten to fifteen days per year during periods of peak energy demand, will be officially closing in 2012. However, Benning Road will remain a major threat to public health until 100 years of pollutants and toxins are thoroughly mitigated... It will be important for citizens to be active in pressuring the DDOE to complete a timely cleanup. For too long we have accepted that the reality of the Anacostia is pollution and poor health for communities downstream.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Jimmy Stewart Talks Solar Power in 1938

Been on a TCM kick lately. Capra's Oscar-winning 1938 film You Can't Take it With You was on last night. In this clip, Jimmy Stewart's character Tony talks about his longtime dream of harnessing the sun to make energy and his regrets about going into banking. You're ahead of your time, Tony! And with the awesome Jean Arthur, the duo better known for Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Wilderness Survival Class

Today I learned some "primitive survival skills" in rural Virginia from outdoor Renaissance man Tim MacWelch (who writes for Outdoor Life here). This class assumes you've been plopped in the woods with no modern tools whatsoever and have to get by on stuff you can gather in nature. We learned how to build a warm shelter of leaves and twigs, make rough stone tools, start a fire with a bow drill and boil water, among other things. Starting a fire was by far the most difficult task, although Tim made it look easy:

Everyone was watching so quietly as Tim sheltered the embers. It really is magical when the fire blooms. Tim completed the whole process in maybe three minutes. It took me about 40 minutes, all of them sweaty and sprinkled with cuss words. The drill kept popping off the rope. Or the drill would slide off the tulip poplar sham. Or the rope wasn't turning the drill properly. Eventually I found a groove with the encouragement of some nice ladies.

Boiling water with hot rocks that had been heated in the fire pit. Ingenious!

Making rope with Dogbane twigs. The woman in the photo, Jen, told us about a Lakota wedding preparation she'd attended where the women of the tribe made Dogbane rope to tie around the hands of the bride and groom during the ceremony:

My Dogbane rope:

I only attended the "crash course". Most of the others stayed for the whole week, sleeping in tents or in the rough shelters we'd made and taking additional classes. At some point I'd like to take some overnight hiking trips. One of the students was a nurse with foraging skills who set up hammocks for her daughter and herself. A hammock under the stars - just added it to my bucket list.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Book Review: China's Environmental Challenges

China’s environmental story is full of contradictions. What does one make of a country where the government severely limits the freedom of NGOs, yet has some of the most thorough environmental laws and most sustainably-minded leadership in the world? A place where the opening of a nature preserve is celebrated with a banquet that includes endangered animals? A country that builds the most wind turbines—and burns the most coal?

Judith Shapiro’s readable new book, China’s Environmental Challenges, untangles these contradictions and provides a snapshot of China as it teeters on the edge of unprecedented ecological limits. Shapiro was one of the few Americans to enter China before relations between the two countries were normalized in 1978 and now teaches global environmental politics at American University. In the book, she looks at how national identity, government structure and civil society play into China’s approach to environmental issues.

By now, we’re familiar with news of polluted cities and “cancer villages,” enormous factories and contentious dam projects, rapid desertification and a growing middle class eager to model the West’s worst consumerist excesses. With news like this, one gets the impression that Chinese society is a monolithic ogre blindly pulling its people, and the world, toward environmental ruin.

But according to Shapiro, the country’s domestic realities and international relations are complex.
She reveals that China’s leadership under Mao Zedong was just as undeniably brutal to nature as it was to millions of Chinese during the “Great Leap Forward” (1958-1961): swaths of forests were felled for unusable steel smelters, sparrows were systematically killed as “pests” despite their important role in defending crops from insects, and ecologically-sensitive areas throughout the country were converted to  experimental farmland, leading to famine (Shapiro’s 2001 book Mao’s War Against Nature digs further into this period).

But China’s government has become increasingly more fractured and sensitive to environmental issues in the last few decades, just as the stakes have been raised. Echoing Jonathan Watts in When a Billion Chinese Jump, Shapiro writes that it’s not the national government, but an entrenched network of corrupt and uncontrollable developers and local officials, that are driving most of the country’s environmental problems today.  

A Factory on the Yangtze River / Wikimedia Commons
The same rich countries that lament China’s environmental record are far from blameless either. For decades, the US and Europe have displaced environmental harms to China, especially in the textile and electronics industries. Now China, with its rising economic prowess and disgruntled, savvy middle class, is exporting harms itself: to poorer areas domestically, and to Southeast Asia and Africa.

Though they’re hampered by repressive rules about activism and fundraising, Shapiro describes China’s community of environmental groups as large, active and, for the most part, respected. She delves into the contours of this community in what turns out to be the most encouraging part of the book.

Chinese NGOs have attended the last few UN climate negotiations to pressure their government and the global community to take bolder action on climate change. Famous journalists-turned-activists like Liu Jianqiang and the 2012 Goldman Prize winner Ma Jun are well-known for their publicizing environmental harms and challenging corporations and government projects.

Low estimates put the number of environmental protests at 5000 each year, many of them originating from the same middle class that fuels the country’s resource consumption. While the difference between human rights abuses and environmental damage isn’t as distinct as it might be in developed countries, Shapiro says environmental groups enjoy a greater level of freedom than other types of political organizations.

Protesting a Chemical Plant in Dalian, August 2011 (Getty)
Any hope of addressing China’s enormous environmental problems will involve strengthening this mostly feeble civil society sector, giving voice to the rural and minority populations most affected by environmental damage, and tapping into China’s home-grown notions of sustainability found in its religious and cultural traditions. With Western-style consumerism ascendant and free speech still stifled, the prospect of such a shift happening is slim, but the seeds of change do exist. One suspects that US leadership on climate change, which is currently lacking, may also influence China’s actions on the global stage.

Although Shapiro’s book is aimed at students (each chapter ends with discussion questions), general readers will find the book helpful when placing news items like the recent US-China clean technology trade tensions or friction over embassy smog reporting in context. Those wishing for more in-depth discussions on particular issues will need to look elsewhere.

It’s impossible to be a globally-minded environmentalist today without considering the role China plays. Shapiro rightly says that “it is within China that much of the future of the planet will be decided.” 

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Equity and Sustainability in Washington, DC

Elvert Barnes / Flickr
I moved to DC at an interesting time: after years of declining population, the city now has more people than it's had in 2 decades: 617,000. As Grist has pointed out, cities are the new suburbs in terms of desirability. Young professionals don't want the 'burbs they grew up in: they want transit-friendly, lively neighborhoods and DC is seeing the effect of this shift.

But the obvious downside to this trend is that property values rise with desirability, making it harder for low income (and often long-time) residents to stick around gentrifying neighborhoods.

This was one of the major themes that surfaced in tonight's Sustainable DC community discussion on equity. The conversation was charged at times (as a new resident, I mostly sat back and tried to figure out what was going on!), but even the tough topics were satisfying to hear spoken about so candidly.

Segregation in the DC-metro region (blue is white, red is black: WaPo)
In the midst of Mayor Gray's Sustainable DC initiative launched last year (with the intention of making DC the "healthiest, greenest and most livable city in the US"), the city faces some tough stats: an 18% poverty rate, 11,000+ homeless, a 25% unemployment rate in Ward 8 where our meeting was held.

With those kinds of problems, the word "sustainability" certainly sounds a bit elitist, but everyone agreed that's more of a framing and communication issue than a substantive disconnect. At its core and done right, sustainability is about fostering resilient communities and that's something everyone can hitch their wagon to.

The insights from Wards 7 and 8 residents were valuable to hear. They live in a catch-22 situation: frustrated that they have to travel to other parts of the city for work, shopping and healthy food, but weary of developers that might come into their neighborhood to build fancy housing and amenities for rich folks. In either scenario, access to the benefits of a healthy community are out of reach.

It's easy to see why "green" can be seen as a tool of gentrification, but not if diverse voices are given the chance to define sustainability for themselves. As one participant said: traditionally "green" cities like Seattle or Portland don't "feel black". What works for Portland, in other words, is not necessarily what will work for DC, a city with a majority African-American population.

There are also more political and bureaucratic issues: how do zoning and education, for instance, and advisory neighborhood commissioners influence residents engagement with sustainability? What's the best way to communicate Sustainable DC to people? Who are the best local partners to work with?

Dennis Chestnut, a local hero and Director of Groundwork Anacostia, summed up the best way to reach out to underserved communities: "Come with resources, come with an open mind, and listen". Listening is an excellent place to start.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Singing from a Coal Town

English folk singer Kate Rusby comes from a family of coal miners in Yorkshire. In her song "My Young Man", she sings from the perspective of her grandmother, who lost her grandfather to emphysema from working in the mines. We rarely see the emotional toll of industrialization, but Kate makes it plain:

Friday, June 15, 2012

Afternoon View: Green Roof

I took a tour of the World Wildlife Fund green roof on Wednesday. They installed it in 2010 and it's beginning to fill in nicely. Eventually, one of the guides told us, the gravel won't be visible. DC installed more green roofs than any other US city in 2011. 

Monday, June 11, 2012

Comfort in Communal Spaces

When I was a kid, I claimed I would to grow up to be a hermit like Adam on Northern Exposure: cabin in the woods, gruff attitude, haughtily shunning society and its pedestrian rules. I hated teamwork time in school - I felt I could accomplish things with less struggle if I did it myself. In other words, I thought I was special. As I get older, though, I'm beginning to appreciate the comfort of melting into a crowd and working on something with a group - it's a transformation reflected in the Fleet Foxes song, Helplessness Blues:

I was raised up believing 
I was somehow unique 
Like a snowflake distinct among snowflakes 
Unique in each way you can see 

And now after some thinking 
I'd say I'd rather be 
A functioning cog in some great machinery 
Serving something beyond me

This weekend I went for the second time to a Korean-style spa in Virginia called "Spa World". One of the unique aspects of the place is its large common room where people of all ages and nationalities nap and read and chat on mats laid out on the floor.

You stake out your temporary real estate, park your head on a cushion and drift in and out of wakefulness as the older Korean couple on the mat next to you talk in even, comforting tones you can't understand or the kids a few mats over unwrap red bean popsicles. In whatever section of the building you're in, there's a feeling of relaxed, anonymous intimacy with those around you - you're either wearing your birthday suit like everyone else in the pool area (and why feel self-conscious when everyone else is naked too?), or you're dressed in matching orange jumpsuits in the co-ed rooms as if you're all rooting for the same team.

Through my friends, I've also gotten into social dances like Square and Contra.

jack_mitchell_iv / flickr
Although the building block of such dances is the couple, the unity and integrity of the whole group is what's important. By the end of the night, everyone has danced with nearly everyone else on the floor, giving the event a feeling of shared joy and accomplishment. I can show up alone to an event like this and immediately feel embraced by the crowd.

Tryst in Washington, DC. A kind of community living room (Photo: Poldavo)
The buzz about walkable communities, collaborative consumption, placemaking, and localism all signal a shift from the illusion of separateness which Americans have been operating under for past few decades. We made a bargain, it seems: things over people; possessions over community. There are signs that we're now beginning to see the value in trusting each other and working together, in a shared purpose that transcends the nuclear family. Despite my youthful affinity for solitude, I welcome this shift.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Summer Visitors

This morning I was heading upstairs for breakfast when I spotted a little snake huddled on the first step. We both spent some tense seconds staring at each other. I quickly consulted the web to make sure I wasn't dealing with a poisonous snake (I wasn't - she appears to be a northern brown snake), scooped her up in a shoe box and released her in the yard.

And earlier this week, I found this camel cricket hanging out on the back of my chair, with its wildly long antennae:

Now that I know creatures are fond of my basement apartment, I'm a little anxious about sleeping in a mattress on the floor. Still, gingerly capturing and releasing them adds some zest to life.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Undoing a Dam

Stopped briefly at Thompson's Boat Center along the Capital Crescent Trail in Georgetown yesterday and admired the powerful, gushing waters of Rock Creek as it met the wide, still Potomac. I stood on a narrow wooden bridge, hypnotized by the strength of the creek as it churned over rocks. Three fisherman cast lines at the mouth. One reeled in a little fish--blue gill?--and tossed it back in. I used to know the names of these fish when I was younger.

It reminded me of this clip I'd see earlier of Condit Dam being removed from the White Salmon River in Washington state last autumn. The river wrestles out of its confinement and practically explodes with energy as the dam is destroyed. Powerful.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

A Masculine Lens on Climate Change?

Happy Mother’s Day.

"Sea Stack" by Justine Kurland
The ecoAmerica values survey, which I usually find insightful, tweaked me the wrong way recently. The report tries to take the American public's pulse on environmental issues. One section offers suggestions on messaging for environmental advocates, including this one:
Make climate solutions masculine to garner more support

Passive energy sources may be the solution for the planet, but many Americans want action. The majority of positive attitudes on the environment and current climate change solutions, such as wind and solar energy, are viewed as feminine. Feminine issues are passive, and passive issues do not require immediate attention. Themes of sacrifice and must do – also perceived as feminine – are not bold solutions to climate change.

The majority of anti-green attitudes are viewed as masculine. Problems perceived as masculine – tough problems – require immediate, bold action. Americans with masculine, anti-green attitudes, such as resentment and excuses, want big solutions. They need to know that whatever America invests in and builds will work. They want bold solutions at scale, that are visibly active, and yield significant, visible progress. They are not attracted to solutions that cut off energy supply when days are cloudy or windless…
How to unpack this? To me, what this reveals is not a problem with how the American public views environmental issues, but how they view gender (if these findings are accurate, anyway). And are the surveyors simply passing along data, or letting their own biases about gender color the results? There’s also an unspoken assumption here: men run things, “masculinity” takes precedent in American culture; therefore, we must appeal to men.

I understand the concept of opening communication channels with and appealing to those in power. But must we downgrade “feminine” values (whether they're coming from women or men) in order to open those channels?

Far from being passive, women are not only on the frontlines of climate change, they’re also some of the most courageous advocates for “immediate, bold action”. Accepting stereotypes about what constitutes a “feminine” solution vs. a “masculine” one divides us when we need to be working together.

I was also surprised that the findings equated renewable energy with femininity. What with men occupying most of the green jobs, the Weather Channel’s new show Turbine Cowboys and the “booth babes” one finds at renewable energy conferences – the sector seems pretty masculine to me.

Maybe instead of continuing to romanticize technocratic solutions, we should recognize that so-called feminine perspectives are vital in the current crisis. How might we build that recognition? What do you think?

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Religion and Environmentalism

I became disgruntled with organized (Western) religion as a kid and didn't think much about its value until, ironically, I became more of an environmental activist. Like in the civil rights movement, churches are nourishing environmental causes, whether it was St. Stephen's hosting Tar Sands Action trainings or St. Columba's showing documentaries during the Environmental Film Festival. Greater Washington Interfaith Power and Light is tapping into religion's potential to address the ethical vacuum in environmental debates and last week our local chapter of Citizens Climate Lobby co-hosted an event with them.

The panelists Yasir Syeed and Laura Bellows spoke movingly about how religion could counteract contemporary ideas about "resources": putting the "spirit" back in a nature which has largely been appreciated only for its monetary or utilitarian value.

I also visited the Washington National Cathedral today for an Easter organ concert and was tickled to stumble across grizzly bears, spawning salmon and jellyfish among the saints and biblical scenes on their stained glass windows:

Religion (done right, of course) is not so far from art and literature: we need their stories and metaphors to understand our relationship to other living things.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Technology is Not the Answer

I can't count the number of times I've been discussing environmental issues with someone when they offer technology as a solution to the problem - "Just wait for cold fusion!" they say, or "We should ramp up nuclear" or "Electric cars!". Leave it to the innovators.

Ehhhh. Wrong answer.

I've long felt that the problems are deeper than that. That we need to hold up a mirror to ourselves and scrutinize what we find: our culture, our economic systems. I was pleased to discover a film last night at the DC Environmental Film Festival that so succinctly captures this idea, Surviving Progress:

The filmmakers don't offer a prescription, but they do suggest a theoretical way out. Nature is running the human experiment, they say, and it's looking like it might not work out. The problem is that we're running high-tech (and technology obsessed) software on hardware - the brain - that's over 50,000 years old. To make the jump, we have to tap into some collective, innate moral potential. It's a long shot, but wouldn't it be transcendent if we managed to make that leap?

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Enduring Disaster: Reflections on the Anniversary of 3/11

What is it that this disaster wants to teach us? If there's nothing it wants to teach us, then what should I believe in? - Fukushima Poet Ryoichi Wago

March was falling apart. My girlfriend and I had recently broken up and we were to see each other at an academic conference in Montreal where our respective jobs were both sending us. A week before the event, Northeast Japan was hit by domino disasters: a record earthquake followed by a tsunami that would claim over 15,000 lives. Then Fukushima’s coastal reactors blew, turning once bustling cities into ghost towns and sending radiation into the water supply of one of the most populous cities in the world. My girlfriend’s family and friends in Japan were outside the disaster zone but I was rattled. At the conference, I cringed at the banal conversations of the academics who lingered in the hallways, talking about their various job appointments.

I bailed on two colleagues my coworker Jim and I were supposed to meet early one morning when my emotions frayed after too little sleep and too much news coverage of the disaster. One started making small talk about her child’s school party, muffins or something. I turned to Jim with tears in my eyes, shook my head and left the building without a word to our colleagues.

I held onto my former girlfriend like a lifeboat though, as a Japanese citizen, she certainly had more to be concerned about than I did. For her, Fukushima seemed as far away as it did to me, outside her world. Writers from Fukushima would later reflect on the disconnect they felt from the rest of the country, the sacrifice they endured so that places like Tokyo would have a reliable food supply, a reliable energy source.

Despite my initial dismissal of the academics at the conference, I was humbled to discover how many people there were directly affected by the event but still carried themselves upright while I was blubbering and sulking. Our neighbor in the booth next to us, a boisterous, friendly Brit selling books for the UN had felt the earthquake in Tokyo where he lived with his family right before jetting to the conference. Each day the news got worse and worse, the American government was advising citizens to leave the country, yet he continued to affably greet customers at his booth.

Still, there was anxiety under his buoyant demeanor. We talked generally about the disaster but he was mostly preoccupied with Anderson Cooper’s coverage on CNN. “Anderson 360!” he scoffed. “What kind of a name for a show is that!?”. He’d arrive to the exhibit hall in the morning, take a quick glance at his inventory, and ask us, “Hey, did you see Anderson last night? With that Geiger counter around his neck? God! What an ambulance chaser!”. He laughed haughtily at Anderson’s antics, his cowardly jolt when yet another reactor exploded, his war zone-like coverage from a faraway Tokyo rooftop.

On another day, an academic from Hiroshima University revealed before his panel presentation that his family was evacuating from Fukushima Prefecture as we sat there listening to his dry presentation on ASEAN. He sat back down in the sparse audience after his talk where I could see his mussed hair. He took photos of the other panelists as they got up to talk and a small cellophane-wrapped lip balm stamped in Hiragana fell out of his pocket unnoticed onto the floor. This little glimpse of his private life devastated me. What other modest nothings of life were hiding in the folds of these academic posturings? What other secrets were those I walked among hiding?

Jim and I were bewildered when the woman at the other booth next to us, representing a foreign policy think tank, began playing a DVD that featured various horrible things that were occurring in the world: genocide, climate change, global epidemics, and the timely kicker: the threat of nuclear proliferation complete with footage of an atom bomb test and a creepy, wavering robot-voiced countdown: fiihihive, foohorhor, threeheehee, two ooh ooh, wahnnan… BOOM! (She seemed entirely indifferent to the irony). Jim and I commented loudly on the disturbing nature of the clip within her earshot. He even half-jokingly asked if she could change it to the NCAA championships instead. She wasn’t amused. The film played in a loop for the whole four-day event, amplifying our anxieties.

A knot would come and go in the center of my upper back depending on the progress or setbacks crews were having at Fukushima Daiichi. The technologies we created to serve us had gotten much too unwieldy for our moral evolution, it seemed. Watching bold crews scramble to address the smoking reactors with buckets of water showed starkly how much humility we as a species lacked. The monster turning on us with a brush of its tail.

On NPR, Christopher Joyce reiterated the oft-cited national characteristic of gaman (我慢) —“to endure, accept the pain, don't complain," and shikata ganai (仕方がない) or "it can't be helped." The later seemed most useful. After the conference, I would watch Kore Eda’s quiet film Still Walking, an Ozu-esque examination of bittersweet family dynamics and unfulfilled yearnings. Kore Eda shoots at the luminous sky, the bright clear clouds. The family house is in a hilly neighborhood overlooking the ocean where a red train passes by in a regular, peaceful hush.

The train holds a regular schedule despite all the dramas that play out in the household. The mother character tends the grave of a son who commited suicide, says matter-of-factly how impossible it is to lose a child, but regularly huffs and puffs up and down the hill to the graveyard anyway. A younger woman politely endures this new mother-in-law’s cutting comments, a quick flicker of hurt showing on her face before regaining composure. These seams of pain are so unbearably accute, yet they are somehow borne.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Pinterest for the Environment

A friend says his colleagues are beginning to "succumb to Pinterest". In my new position for the nonprofit EarthShare, I get to manage our online presence and after hearing about the explosive growth of the social networking site, I quickly set up an account for them.

In my last post, I mentioned how environmental challenges like climate change benefit from creative forms of storytelling. Though the popularity of "cute animal" pins make me a little cynical, I have found ways to engage others through images. Images of both the things we want to move away from and the things that capture the world we want to live in. You can follow my pins here, or check out the pinners I'm following (most of whom are related to the environment).

Saturday, February 18, 2012

How to Talk to People About Climate Change

Photo: Involve 
I've made a few congressional visits in the last month and after experiencing some disconnect with staffers on the urgency of climate change (surprising, right?), I've become even more committed to nailing down effective messaging on the issue. Turns out there are a handful of organizations out there working on the same. Among them:

Climate Access: Their newsletter always comes packed with valuable articles and their webinars bring the top players in climate change communications together. I learned a lot in their previous webinar on communicating risk. The information can be a difficult to access though (ironically) because their registration process is a bit involved. Worth signing up for if you can though. Their UK counterpark, Talking Climate, is also a useful site.

Both Columbia University (Center for Research on Environmental Decisions - CRED) and Yale University (Yale Forum on Climate Change and the Media) have centers devoted to the psychology of addressing environmental issues. CRED's report on climate change communication is a great resource as is Yale's Knowledge of Climate Change Across Six Americas.

International Environmental Communication Association: Just formed last year. Their previous conferences have all been held in the US, but one in 2013 is planned for Sweden.

EcoAmerica: Their tag line is "start with people" and they've got a great archive of publications with that in mind including the revealing annual American Climate and Enviromental Values Survey.

I'll close with a great slideshow produced by my friends (and fellow Tar Sands Action arestees) Sieren and Yiming on tar sands impacts. What makes the presentation so great is its balance between the science of climate change, striking imagery and personal stories. The biggest take-home lesson I've learned from all the sources above is that climate change communications have relied too heavily on data in the past, that stories and pictures are often more convincing than science. This presentation is a great illustration of what works and Yiming told me it was well-received in her own recent visit to Congress. Feel free to share!

Monday, February 6, 2012

Walking the Plank with Eyes Wide Open

Been getting a number of musician Gotye's songs stuck in my head lately. I heard Eyes Wide Open lots of times before realizing it had an environmental message. Check it:

Gotye talks about the song in a "making of" video:
Eyes Wide Open is a dystopian vision that probably couldn't be more at odds with the place I recorded it. My parents have a beautiful block of land on the Mornington Penninsula in Victoria and its one of my favorite places in the world... maybe its some kind of subconscious fear of loosing a place like that in my life, like some weird sense of inevitability that indirectly inspired these apocalyptic musings.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Women and Climate Change in the Developing World

January's DC EcoWomen speaker was Suzanne Ehlers, President & CEO of Population Action International. Ehlers had a lot to say about the importance of women's reproductive rights in general, but also the connection between women's rights and environmental issues. She pointed us to this recent video produced by PAI about the ways that climate change is effecting women's lives in poorer regions of the world where access to natural resources is a daily struggle.

Friday, January 20, 2012

"The Most Fully-Realized American Place"

Last month I reviewed Taubman's new photography book Detroit: 138 Square Miles. In it, Jerry Herron describes Detroit as "the most fully-realized American place", a place created by leaving and forgetting, by immigrating "moment by moment to someplace we hadn't dreamed of yet", a place where we sacrificed the past for material plenty.

My friend Anoop (who used to live in Detroit) recently pointed me to this video which illustrates those ideas in a video format. On the one hand, Michigan occasionally seems like a mundane place to me (as the place we grow up often seems to be). On the other hand, stepping away for awhile, it really is an interesting, almost mythic place when viewed through the lens of industrial history:

Monday, January 16, 2012

Environmental News Roundup: Turkey

The controversial Ilısu Dam, currently under construction.
(Photo: Brandon King)
"Rather than view nature as a pool of resources that exist to be used and exploited by humans, the IEC wants Turkey’s environment to be valued as its own subject, with its own set of “rights”. The group wants the constitutional changes to reflect the truth that the rest of human society is impossible without a healthily functioning ecosystem."   Will Turkey’s New Constitution Include Ecological Protections?

"The regulation, approved in late November by Ankara’s Biosecurity Committee and put into effect at the start of 2012, gives the green light to the importation and sale of 13 genetically modified varieties of corn for livestock feed, a sign to activists and biotech lobbyists alike that Turkey’s once bio-technologies adverse climate may be coming to an end."  Genetically modified corn regulation sows seeds of discontent

"The history of wheat goes back a long way in Anatolia -- 8,000 years or so. In fact, the area that is now Turkey is believed to have been where the grain was first domesticated and developed as a crop. Some modern varieties date back to those long-ago ancestors…"These 8,000 year-old varieties can be destroyed if GMOs are allowed in to Turkey," Defne Koryürek of Slow Food Istanbul told TreeHugger recently."  Celebrating Wheat's 8,000-Year-Old History in Turkey

"Turkey’s astonishing amount of biodiversity, especially for a temperate country of its size, is being destroyed rapidly, partially in the past decade during which “Turkey’s Great Leap Forward” has put the country at the risk of “cultural and environmental bankruptcy.”  Turkey’s Conservation Crisis: Global Biodiversity Hotspots Under Threat 

Vietnam, United Arab Emirates, Turkey, and others, are still intent on acquiring civilian nuclear reactors for electricity despite the Fukushima disaster."  Doomsday Clock Ticks Closer to Midnight

"The deputy undersecretary for the Ministry of Environment and Forestry, Sedat Kadıoğlu, evaluated the matter and said, “Turkey is the only member country of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) that doesn’t have a nuclear plant and so we have to explain the details of nuclear power to the public in order to prevent information pollution."  Turkey surprises Russian nuclear firm with new conditions

 "Given the magnitude of the Caspian's oil and gas reserves, many energy firms are planning new production operations in the region, along with the pipelines needed to bring the oil and gas to market. The European Union, for example, hopes to build a new natural gas pipeline called Nabucco from Azerbaijan through Turkey to Austria. Russia has proposed a competing conduit called South Stream. All of these efforts involve the geopolitical interests of major powers, ensuring that the Caspian region will remain a potential source of international crisis and conflict."  Fuel duel: Top three energy conflict hot spots

 "Turkish hydro projects along the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, for example, have dried up large swathes of former marshland in Iraq and Syria as well as dams that desert communities rely on, forcing entire communities to resettle and severely affecting local plant and animal life. Sadly, the UN report seems to have changed little about Turkey’s hydroelectric plans."  Hydroelectric Dam In Turkey May Cause Environmental Catastrophe In Georgia 

"Turkey, through its own means and domestic resources, has reduced its GHG emissions by 20 percent since 1990,” Rende said of Turkey’s progress on the road to drastic reduction in the emissions of GHG, concentrations of which in the atmosphere are believed to be the main trigger of temperature increase on earth. On the other hand, Rende noted, Turkey has also invested $2 billion in forestry over the past few years, and the positive effects of that are not included in the country’s GHG reduction statistics."  Climate negotiator Rende: Turkey ready to do its part on climate change

"The proposed 1,200 MW coal plant is among the first of over 50 coal plants now being pushed in Turkey. It’s already been a 3 year struggle for heroic local residents to block the project. This year they’ve been camping by the hundreds and protesting by the thousands for weeks and months on end. When over 10,000 people took to the streets together in November, one sign in particular caught my eye. It read: "the people of Gerze do not stand alone.""  Support Turkey Climate Activists Fighting Huge Coal Power Plant

"Greece reaffirmed its support for the Turkey-Greece-Italy (ITGI) natural gas pipeline in a joint announcement issued on Friday by the Greek ministries of foreign affairs and environment, energy and climate change. The announcement, as ANA reported, was made in view of decisions due to be made concerning the pipeline that will supply natural gas from Azerbaijan's Shah Deniz gas field." - Energy: Greece reaffirms support for ITGI gas pipeline

"Groups such as the Istanbul Chamber of Urban Planners argue that previous bridges have eventually increased traffic and boosted the city’s urban sprawl – and that the third bridge would endanger the city’s natural habitat, notably the Belgrade Forest to its north."  Turkey: building bridges regardless

"German utility E.ON wants to invest in the energy sector in Turkey, with a particular focus on power generation, and is seeking Turkish partners."  E.ON considering Turkey investment – minister

Friday, January 13, 2012

Afternoon View: Dulles Metrorail Construction

Construction is humming along on the final stop of Phase I of the Dulles Metrorail extension (Wiehle Ave. Station, opening in 2013). I took these today, the air not quite as smoggy as last summerHere's a map of the new Metro line extending from DC to Dulles Airport. 

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Poems for the Weary

Last night was the second meeting of the DC chapter of Citizens Climate Lobby. We're working on building the political will to pass climate legislation (in the form of a carbon tax). Everyone in the group is passionate about doing something, but I'm constantly aware that people have demanding pressures in their lives and don't want anyone (including myself) to feel burdened by their voluntary participation. I want the group to be a place of respite rather than additional source of stress. What keeps me coming back are the inspiring people I'm meeting and working with.

Although I studied literature in college, there is very little poetry in my life these days. The quest to find a job and develop some meaningful activism has given me tunnel vision. What poetry I do have comes from my friend Jim. This one he sent me, Everyday People by Albert Goldbarth, empathizes with those who carry weariness in the face of big problems (excerpt):

The oceans are dying. They require a hero,
or a generation of heroes. The oceans are curdling
in on themselves, and on their constituent lives,
they're rising here, and lowering there,
I swear I've heard them gasping. And my friends ... ?
Are brooding over who their kids are playing with
on the streets. Are coming home after a day where some
midlevel management weasel sucked
their souls out like a yolk from an egg—right through
a tiny puncture-hole in the dome of the skull. The cat
has worms. The price of gas is nearly what
their grandparents' wedding rings cost. The oceans

sorely need a paladin, but my friends are exhausted
disputing how many angels can trample the truth
from a twelve-dollar overcharge on a cell-phone bill.
Our privacy is disappearing, cameras sip it up
like thirsty beasts surrounding a shrinking pool of water, my friends
are worried, oh yes certainly they're worried, but also the tumor
and the marriage and the alcoholic uncle. The war
that's this war but is any war and all war is requesting
a little attention in the cause-part, maybe only
a little more in the effect-part, but my friends know
how impossible it is to attend to even a single other
person sufficiently, plus the dentist, plus the eye exam,
and can't they spend some time renewing their sense
of making beauty in this wreckage, Edie
her hummingbird feeders, Sean his libretto, Omar
his amazing organic noodles: something like Balenciaga

the haute couture designer whose life I'm reading compulsively
while the ice caps and the red tide and the polar bears,
Balenciaga for whom "the business of making beautiful things
absorbed him totally, and there was no room in his life
for anything else," he did a piece of sewing "every day
of his adult life: from the age of three," in 1913 (age eighteen)
"he was learning the women's-wear trade" as the guns
of the World War cleared their throats and aimed, and through
the world depression, "a fishnet cloak
of knotted white velvet, and swathes of parachute silk
to make pink-and-white flowers," and through
the Spanish Civil War, "regarded making dresses
as a vocation, like the priesthood, and an act of worship,"
through (he bargained with Franco) World War II,
chantilly, chenille, mohair, tulle,
"he took the sample of intractable material
into his sanctum and returned in only moments
with a superbly accomplished buttonhole: it
would have been a half-hour's labor for anyone else,"
a buttonhole while Israel was forged in 1948,
a buttonhole for Sputnik, yes a buttonhole,
a perfect—consummate—buttonhole, is this
a condemnation of my friends (and so myself)

or an exoneration? I truly don't know...

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Lessons in a Foraged Past?

I tend to bring up my dad a lot on this blog - on the surface we don't often agree on politics and his sometimes negative reactions to my ideas on environmental issues allow me to confront my assumptions. During one particularly heated exchange a few months ago, he accused me of wanting to send modern human civilization back to living in huts, back to collecting "nuts and berries" as the Talking Heads lyric goes. Setting aside the possibility that our current consumptive lifestyle may be sending us in that direction anyway, is his charge correct? And if so, should I deny or embrace it? 

Like many people, my dad would characterize the hunter-gatherer condition as Thomas Hobbes did: "nasty, brutish, and short", full of conflict and poverty. A counterpoint to this argument is contained, interestingly, in a book about the evolutionary psychology of sex that came out in 2010: Cacilda Jethå and Christopher Ryan's Sex at Dawn. I haven't yet read the book but I've gotten the gist of it from a recent interview and some of Ryan's articles. While the book primarily examines how modern notions of monogamy and "proper" sexual behavior didn't exist in pre-agriculture societies, their research also draws broader conclusions about the central importance of cooperation and sharing in these societies - sharing sexual partners, yes, but also everything else:
What if—thanks to the combined effects of very low population density, a highly omnivorous digestive system, our uniquely elevated social intelligence, institutionalized sharing of food, casually promiscuous sexuality leading to generalized child care, and group defense—human prehistory was in fact a time of relative peace and prosperity? If not a “Golden Age,” then at least a “Silver Age” (“Bronze Age” being taken)? Without falling into dreamy visions of paradise, can we—dare we—consider the possibility that our ancestors lived in a world where for most people, on most days, there was enough for everyone? By now, everyone knows “there’s no free lunch.” But what would it mean if our species evolved in a world where every lunch was free? How would our appreciation of prehistory (and consequently, of ourselves) change if we saw that our journey began in leisure and plenty, only veering into misery, scarcity, and ruthless competition a hundred centuries ago?
My tweep GLEthnohistory (Great Lakes Ethnohistorian Megan McCullen who blogs here) tipped me to a more nuanced view of pre-ag societies in the book The Foraging Spectrum: Diversity in Hunter-Gatherer Lifeways. Here's an excerpt from a review of the book, which warns about the dangers of simplifying the past for good or ill:
Hunter-gatherers are not the alter ego of Western civilization; they are not simplistic societies; they are not humanity in a virginal state of nature; they are not Pleistocene relics; they do not preserve ancient ways of life; and we cannot reconstruct ancient human society by extrapolating backward from living hunter-gatherers (p. xiii). Throughout the text Kelly achieves his objectives by elucidating the variability which has been observed in the foraging lifestyle and by giving account of the factors which have led to variability; these include differences in subsistence activities, mobility, trade, sharing, territoriality, demography, and socio-political organization.
Aware of this diversity, anthropologist Greg Downey hesitates to endorse Sex at DawnAs appealing as Jethå and Ryan's findings are (our ancestors cooperated better, had a broader conception of the family than we do today), it may not be entirely accurate:
Although many of their innovative ideas are well worth considering, if for no other reasons to cleverly counter-balance other pervasive accounts of human sexuality in evolution, the book does run the danger of a competing partiality, however important the corrective may be.
I'm constantly looking for models of the future. If our present world isn't working for us, is the past a better model? If anthropologists reject a monolithic "past", or an overarching "human nature", how will we know what works, what kind of future we should be building together?