We live with the illusion that the animal rights movement is gaining ground because there are more vegans, more alternatives to animals in research, better laws, more no-kill shelters, etc. Yet the truth is, our planet is undergoing the Holocene or Sixth Extinction—the mass extinction of nonhuman species caused by human population growth as well as increased consumption and pollution, where the rate of extinction is estimated to be 100-1000 times higher than without human influence. Two-time Pulitzer Prize winner E.O. Wilson predicts that 30,000 species per year (or three species per hour) go extinct—at the current rate, one-half of what he terms Earth’s higher life forms will be extinct by 2100. It is a Meatrix-style delusion to say there is a mounting “animal rights movement” while we wipe other species from the planet. If we dispel our illusion the way Leo did our lesson will be clear: we must liberate, rather than eliminate, the nonhuman world.
One recent study of 114 nations found that human population density predicted with 88-percent accuracy the number of endangered birds and mammals. Current trends indicate that the number of threatened and endangered species will increase as human population skyrockets to 8 billion by 2020, and 9 to 15 billion by 2050. And yet few if any animal organizations truly address human population growth or consumption, leaving these issues instead to environmentalists for whom population is also a taboo word. Peter Singer is considered by many to be the father of the modern animal rights movement but he himself had three children roughly at a time when projections showed that having three children on average would increase the world population to 256 billion humans in a mere 150 years.
The last five years have seen a revolution in terms of the amount of inexpensive U.S. natural gas made available for consumption in power plants, road fuels, and as a feedstock for new and expanded petrochemical plants. We are now even debating the advisability of large volume natural gas exports in the form of liquid natural gas (LNG).
This bonanza has created euphoria in the fossil energy and industrial communities, but has also created something of a “Janus effect” within the Environmental community. To the Romans, Janus (the two faced god) provided a cohesive view of the present as well as an uncertain view of the future. In Rome, the temple to Janus was opened only when Rome was at war. During peace time, presumably because the future was more certain, the doors of the temple remained closed. They were last opened in AD 531 immediately prior to an invasion by the Goths. We all know how well that turned out.
Environmentalists are reacting to the natural gas bonanza in three ways. The first group, which we may define as “pragmatists”, see a hopeful face based on solid evidence that natural gas helps with achieving multiple environmental goals by reducing particulate emissions, sulfur emissions, NOX levels and CO2 emissions. They acknowledge natural gas fueled generators emit approximately 40% less CO2 per kilowatt hour than the older coal-fired units they are largely replacing. Although the aftermath of the recession has reduced the use of most other fuels, natural gas now rivals coal as the major fuel source for power generation in the US.
A second group, the “environmental fatalists” are less impressed with the displacement effects on coal but appreciate that natural gas plants provide crucial support when mandated, for intermittent renewable power options, such as solar and wind. Once renewables represent approximately 10% of aggregate capacity, negative side effects of these “intermittent” sources become problematic; too much dependence on them can cause grid “instability” or, in a worse case, cascading power failures and massive blackouts.
Then there’s the third group, we’ll call the “ideologues.”
Pacific island nations and environmentalists raised an alarm Sunday over destructive fishing methods and overfishing that they say are threatening bigeye tuna — the fish popular among sushi lovers worldwide.
Palau fisheries official Nanette Malsol, who leads a bloc of Pacific island nations, said at the start of a weeklong tuna fisheries conference in Manila that large countries should cut back on fishing, curb the use of destructive fishing methods and respect fishing bans to allow tuna stocks to be replenished in the Pacific, which produces more than 60 percent of the world’s tuna catch.
The annual meeting of the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission, which regulates commercial fishing in the vast expanse of waters from Indonesia to Hawaii, is to approve steps aimed at protecting the bigeye and other threatened tuna species, along with giant whale sharks. More than 600 delegates from about 40 Asian and Western countries, along with environmental activists, are attending.
Malsol said she expects heated debate. Proponents of the multibillion-dollar fishing industry have squared off with conservationists in the past over the best ways to protect the bigeye and other species without considerably setting back the lucrative business.
While the demonstrators that have mobbed the streets of Amman for two weeks now are demanding the overthrown of King Abdullah — a criminal offense in Jordan — it’s not the demand for democracy that sparked their protests. Instead, thousands of Jordanians have been spurred to act by a more basic issue: the rising price of gas after the government withdrew its subsidies.
Jordanians are hardly alone in their anger. Governments across the world are attempting to wean their citizens off subsidized fossil fuels —a critical issue which environmentalists say is a big contributor to the output of carbon gases that contribute to global warming, and which have even more immediately burdened public finances the world over by an estimated total of $523 billion last year — a 30% increase over the previous year. “In a lot of emerging and developing countries you see fuel subsidies, where the government is picking up the tab,” says Helen Mountford, deputy director of the environmental directorate for the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development, or OECD, in Paris, which represents the world’s biggest economies. “In many cases it has been put in place to help support the poor.”
For decades, the price paid at the gas pump for most of the world’s drivers has had little relationship to the true cost of fuel. Massive government subsidies have allowed millions of consumers to pay a token amount, in some places mere pennies per gallon. Jordanians, as it turns out, pay about $3.33 a gallon for gas, but in oil-rich Venezuela, the price for premium gas is just 9 cents a gallon, while in Saudi Arabia it is 61 cents, according to Bloomberg rankings. Such subsidies have long been a key prop in the political survival strategies of authoritarian governments, while even in more democratic countries fuel subsidies have become an untouchable entitlement.
But fuel subsidies are becoming increasingly untenable as governments face mounting budget deficits in a weakening global economy, amid oil prices that have remained above $100 a barrel since 2010. Jordan lifted subsidies in order to secure a $2 billion IMF loan in the face of a $3.2 billion shortfall in a budget that devotes $2.3 billion annually to subsidizing fuel and other basics.
When a swell approaches Malibu’s most famous beach, Surfrider, it begins breaking just above a long, curved alluvial fan of sediment and stones near the mouth of Malibu Creek. It then flattens out, rears up again and rounds a small cove before running toward the shore for 200 yards. Here, according to Matt Warshaw’s book The History of Surfing, it “becomes the faultless Malibu wave of legend”—a wave that spawned Southern California surf culture. The plot of the classic 1966 movie Endless Summer was the quest for, in the words of the film’s director-narrator, “a place as good as Malibu.” In 2010, Surfrider was designated the first World Surfing Reserve.
Stephenie Glas moved to this stretch of Los Angeles County in the late 1990s. Blond, athletic and in her mid-20s at the time, she settled in a Malibu neighborhood with gaping ocean views and took to the water with her kiteboard. “She was one of the very few women that would hit the lip [of waves] with style,” an acquaintance of hers observed. “No holding back!”
Always something of an over-achiever, Glas had worked her way through UCLA by starting a personal-training business, and later set her sights on becoming a firefighter. In 2005 she joined the Los Angeles Fire Department, a force that was 97 percent male. “I picked this career knowing I would have to spend the next 25 years proving myself to men,” Glas said in a magazine profile.
To what extent her hard-charging nature contributed to her becoming a polarizing figure in close-knit Malibu is open to question. But she dove into one of the most surprising environmental disputes in memory not long after her partner, a 55-year-old goateed carpenter and surfer named Steve Woods, contracted a gastrointestinal illness following a session at Surfrider.
The water there, everyone knew, was contaminated with runoff from commercial and residential developments as well as effluent that flowed out of a wastewater treatment plant through Malibu Creek and into Malibu Lagoon before pulsing into the ocean. Eye, ear and sinus infections and gastrointestinal ailments were common side effects of paddling out at Surfrider. In the late 1990s, four surfers died after contracting water-borne diseases, reportedly acquired in the sludgy waves, and a fifth was nearly killed by a viral infection that attacked his heart.
The cult of pristine wilderness is a cultural construction, and a relatively new one,” writes reporter Emma Marris in her new book-length essay, Rambunctious Garden. Contrary to environmentalists who seek to restore or conserve “pristine” enclaves of nature from human encroachment, Marris argues that nature is everywhere, from the barren Arctic to the birds in a suburban backyard. Nowhere is nature static and unaltered by human beings; ecosystems are plastic, constantly changing and adapting to new conditions, and to the activities of different plants and animals. This constant flux in the earth’s rambunctious ecosystems ought to give us pause when considering the impact that Homo sapiens, the gardening animal, has had on the environment, both before and after the advent of modern technology and industry.
If man is nature’s gardener in Marris’s work, for climate-change activist Mark Lynas we are even more: his book’s eponymous God species. Lynas is concerned with solving the large-scale man-made ecological problems that he believes pose a serious threat to the planet’s future. But his argument is unorthodox. “Until now, environmentalism has been mostly about reducing our interference with nature,” he writes. “My thesis is the reverse: playing God (in the sense of being intelligent designers) at a planetary level is essential if creation is not to be irreparably damaged or even destroyed by humans unwittingly deploying our newfound powers in disastrous ways. At this late stage, false humility is a more urgent danger than hubris.”
Marris and Lynas are both voices in a growing chorus of environmentalists who acknowledge an important and active role for human beings, and seek to solve environmental problems not simply by restraining human activity but rather by harnessing human innovation and creativity. By dispelling the myth of the “pristine wilderness” and recognizing the role that man has played in shaping the natural world for millennia, Marris forces the environmental movement to articulate more sensible aims than recreating a simulacrum of ecosystems that purportedly existed prior to the advent of industrial civilization…
Green vs. Green: Seattle would have more environmentally friendly buildings if environmentalists got out of the way.
As a bastion of liberal values, Seattle is proud to be the capital of what some call Ecotopia. But local advocates of sustainable cities—densely packed urban landscapes with a mix of residential, commercial, industrial, and retail uses—are battling with Seattle’s neighborhood activists who, ironically, are using environmental regulations to stop construction of green-friendly buildings that would dramatically reduce energy use. Filing appeals based on the State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) and the Growth Management Act (GMA), the activists have worked against the construction of two buildings, the Bullitt Center on Capitol Hill and the Stone34 project in Fremont. Both projects are part of the city’s Living Building Pilot Program, which offers various exemptions from land-use and building codes to new buildings that meet a set of rigorous standards—most notably, that they use just one-quarter of the energy and water of typical buildings.
When a developer proposed some modest additional exemptions under the LBPP, the city council caved to pressure from opponents and opened an extended debate about the developer’s motives. As local writer and urbanist Dan Bertolet wrote with exasperation, “Why is there a debate at all? It’s just plain embarrassing that in a city that talks so loud and proud about sustainability, once again we have such hand wringing over a modest piece of legislation that is so obviously the right thing to do.” Meanwhile, just this week, with almost no debate, the council passed emergency legislation banning some small-lot development, because three-story houses are “too big.”
Neighbors recall promises that the eerie azure lake known as “Little Blue” would be made into a recreational jewel, complete with swimming, bike trails, and sailboats.
But the sprawling pond, its blue somewhat faded in recent years, delivered more blight than benefits to its rural surroundings near the West Virginia border in southwestern Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania officials now have initiated shutdown of the facility south of the Ohio River, one of the largest U.S. impoundments for waste ash from coal power plants.
Little Blue Run’s operator, FirstEnergy, an electricity company based in Akron, Ohio, agreed to develop a plan to shut down the facility in a consent decree filed July 27 in federal court. The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) characterized its agreement with FirstEnergy as a proactive move, to ensure the site “will not create an imminent and substantial endangerment to health or the environment.” But for years, neighbors have complained about the site’s impact on land, air, and water, detailing the site history and their woes, for example, at a 2010 federal hearing on whether the U.S. government should step in and regulate coal ash as a hazardous waste.
Environmentalists praised the plan to shut down the 1,700-acre (688-hectare) Little Blue Run, saying it was the first time a regulatory agency has taken such aggressive action on a coal ash pond. But the larger question of how the United States will address coal ash—at 140 million tons a year, one of the nation’s largest waste streams—is still unanswered. Nearly four years since a dam collapse in Kingston, Tennessee, spilled 1.1 billion gallons (4 billion liters) of coal ash sludge into the Emory and Clinch rivers and the surrounding environment, regulations are stalled at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
“Little Blue is one of hundreds and hundreds of sites like this throughout the country,” said Lisa Widawsky Hallowell, a lawyer with the nonprofit Environmental Integrity Project (EIP) in Washington, D.C.
Recently The New York Times published my op-ed ‘How Liberals Win,’ in which I argued that throughout American history, liberal advancements have been mainly achieved with corporate support, and not without. For example, FDR needed corporations to establish basic workplace standards. LBJ needed them to spark a wave of environmental regulation. And Obama needed them to win health care, stimulus, Wall Street reform, higher fuel-efficiency standards, and stronger food-safety rules.
But as you surely know, I was not able to include a cap on carbon emissions on that list. And it might look at first glance that the failure of ‘cap-and-trade’ legislation, which had a multitude of corporate compromises that made environmentalists cringe to varying degrees, debunks my case.
Soon after the bill was left for dead in the Senate, 350.org’s Bill McKibben declared, ‘So now we know what we didn’t before: making nice doesn’t work. It was worth a try, and I’m completely serious when I say I’m grateful they made the effort, but it didn’t even come close to working. So we better try something else … we’re going to need a movement, the one thing we haven’t had.’
Since then, McKibben has moved the environmental community to focus on blocking fossil-fuel projects like the Keystone XL oil pipeline instead of building broad coalitions, which has left out previously supportive unions as well as corporations. And Naomi Klein, in a cover piece for The Nation, took McKibben’s logic several steps further and argued that the environmental movement should merge with the Occupy movement and declare capitalism itself the enemy of the climate.
Bill Scher is the executive editor at LiberalOasis.
Gulf Coast Oil Platforms: Save the Rigs?
A federal program urges the fast removal of “idle iron” oil and gas platforms in the Gulf of Mexico. But in an unexpected twist, some environmentalists want the rigs to remain as a home for fish.
This year, it’s likely more than 100 offshore structures in the Gulf of Mexico will be removed as part of a Department of the Interior plan. There are 650 nonproducing oil and gas platforms, known in the industry as “idle iron,” listed for removal “as soon as possible”—i.e. within five years of the end of production or a year of losing the lease—under Interior’s directive. Historically, companies seldom removed an idle structure until the lease for the area where it was located expired.
Having companies clean up after themselves sounds like a good idea, but many recreational fishermen, scuba divers, scientists, and fishery managers aren’t happy about it. Turns out, some of the 2,500 multileg platforms that pepper the Gulf of Mexico have become de facto artificial reefs. According to Bob Shipp, University of South Alabama’s Department of Marine Sciences, the platforms have transformed the entire ecosystem. Some marine species are attracted to platforms for shelter or food, but others—sea fans, sponges, algae, and reef fish—spend their entire life cycle on these structures. What’s more, some species have increased in number because of the platforms.