A few years ago, I suggested to a coalition of conservation groups that we use crowdsourcing to engage the world in saving wild tigers and to come up with some fresh, out-of-our-box ideas because business-as-usual was not working.
Two prominent wildlife organizations nixed the idea. “That is not our brand,” one of their people said. “Our brand is that we are the ones who have the solutions.” Never mind that millions of dollars had been spent over decades of effort and wild tigers were still in dangerous decline.
This week, headlines joyfully called out India’s announcement that wild tiger numbers there may be up by as much as 30 percent. That is good news indeed, if the numbers are right. But here is the risk: Many people may take this to mean wild tigers are out of danger, and some organizations married to that we’ve-got-it-covered brand will be playing down the potentially fatal list of caveats.
President Obama delivered a fiery State of the Union earlier this week, immediately making headlines (and exploding the Twittersphere) for a now-famous ad-libbed line about winning both elections. Chatter about the unplanned quip, however, threatened to overshadow the more substantive parts of the President’s speech, in which he promised to tackle inequalities in income, education, and immigration as well as offering concrete measures for slowing climate change, benefiting veterans, closing tax loopholes, and the like. It was also, notably, the first time a President has used the word transgender during a State of the Union address.
For those looking for deeper insight into some of the issues Obama spoke about, we’ve created a State of the Union reading list, and highlighted a few specific titles below:
Two decades ago, international wildlife investigator J. A. Mills went undercover to expose bear farming in China and discovered a plot to turn tigers into nothing more than livestock. Now, a new video for Blood of the Tiger takes viewers deep into the heart of one of these tiger farms.
In 1991, while investigating the industrial farming of bears in China, I visited a fur farm in the country’s remote Northeast corner. I saw mink and other common furbearers along with a handful of tigers who turned out to be the founding breeders in what was the country’s first effort to farm tigers for their bones—for use in medicine.
By 1992, tiger experts declared China’s demand for tiger bone the main driver of tiger poaching, which was skyrocketing throughout the big cat’s Asian range. Then in May 1993, China announced a ban on trade in tiger bone. Conservationists celebrated China’s bold move as the death knell for the demand that was causing wild tiger populations to plummet. They assumed this also meant an end to tiger farming. They were wrong.
January is a time of new beginnings, fresh starts, ambitious goals. At Beacon, we publish some of our most exciting titles in January, books we think will have a long shelf-life. This January, we explore a geopolitical conservation effort, redefine the cause of hate and hate-driven violence, return Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to his radical roots, and expose the hypocrisy of “merit-based” admissions practices. These are books you will be thinking about and discussing for the rest of the year.
In our book The Real Cost of Fracking: How America’s Shale Gas Boom is Threatening Our Families, Pets, and Food, we discuss the de facto moratorium on unconventional oil and gas extraction in New York State and the NYS Department of Health review of the process. On December 17, 2014, the NYS Department of Health announced that the public health review had been completed and the recommendation was made that New York State should not permit high volume hydraulic fracturing (HVHF). The acting commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker said, “I have considered all of the data and find significant questions and risks to public health which as of yet are unanswered. I think it would be reckless to proceed in New York until more authoritative research is done. I asked myself, ‘would I let my family live in a community with fracking?’ The answer is no. I therefore cannot recommend anyone else’s family to live in such a community either.” The commissioner of the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation, Joe Martens, added:
“For the past six years, DEC has examined the significant environmental impacts that could result from high-volume hydraulic fracturing. DEC’s own review identified dozens of potential significant adverse impacts of HVHF. Further, with the exclusion of sensitive natural, cultural and historic resources and the increasing number of towns that have enacted bans and moratoria, the risks substantially outweigh any potential economic benefits of HVHF. Considering the research, public comments, relevant studies, Dr. Zucker’s report and the enormous record DEC has amassed on this issue, I have directed my staff to complete the final SGEIS [Supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement]. Once that is complete, I will prohibit high-volume hydraulic fracturing in New York State at this time.”
With those statements, months of speculation ended. This was a considerable victory for the grassroots environmental movement that grew up in response to this issue and indeed for citizens of New York State.
Protesters at the People’s Climate March, photo by Tom Hallock
Climate change is happening, and faster than scientists expected. Polar ice caps are melting faster, island nations are going underwater, the ocean is acidifying and warming. In the US, we are suffering catastrophic droughts from California to Texas, along with severe flooding in the East. The answer is to stop burning fossil fuels, but the World Meteorological Organization says that, in 2013, CO2 rates in the atmosphere were rising faster than ever. So what can we do? On Sunday, September 21st, hundreds of thousands of people from around the globe converged in Manhattan to show the world exactly how critical the issue of climate change is to them, and to demand action. Beacon’s Senior Editor Alexis Rizzuto and Associate Publisher Tom Hallock were there to bear witness. We recently spoke with them about their experiences at the march and why climate change is fast becoming one of the most important issues of our time.
This Sunday, September 21st, concerned citizens from across the globe are convening in New York City for what’s being called the largest climate march in history. Over 100,000 participants will march two miles through the streets of Manhattan “to demand bold action on climate change.” For those who are planning to march, or for those who wish to take action from afar, we’ve compiled a list of essential titles that raise awareness about impending climate change—the most pivotal environmental crisis humankind has yet to face:
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo meets with supporters at the Hotel Trade Council during a reelection campaign event on September 8, 2014 in New York City.
The September 9th gubernatorial primary in New York State was, in essence, a referendum on the record of Governor Andrew Cuomo, a conservative Democrat. Although the result was never in doubt, the margin of victory has been taken as a measure of satisfaction with his policies and his prospects for higher office. His opponent was a little known and underfunded progressive Democrat in the mold of Elizabeth Warren: Professor Zephyr Teachout, a law professor from Fordham University. Prof. Teachout, while losing the election, scored an important victory by taking 34.3% of the vote to Mr. Cuomo’s 62.2% (Randy Credico took 3.6% of the vote).
This was the strongest challenge to an incumbent governor since primaries were instituted in New York State (1970). Although Cuomo scored victories in the most populated counties, Teachout won half of New York’s 62 counties. The Teachout vote seemed to be motivated by at least two important issues: the perceived corruption of the Cuomo administration and the issue of permitting hydraulic fracturing in New York. Teachout is the author of the recently released Corruption in America: From Benjamin Franklin’s Snuff Box to Citizens United(Harvard University Press, 2014) and is considered a strong opponent of corruption in government. She also is an outspoken opponent of unconventional oil and gas extraction, and favors banning the practice in New York State.
LOST HILLS, CA : The sun rises over an oil field in California, where gas and oil extraction using hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, has contaminated aquifers in a state damaged by drought. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)
During summers in California’s Central Valley, an inland area that spans the length of the state from Bakersfield to Stockton, it’s not uncommon to hear a local rejoice when “it will only be 100 degrees today!” The sun is relentless and its heat is stifling, especially during a drought, and especially for the thousands of farm workers who are responsible for nearly all of California’s and much of the United States’ agriculture.
Now, a report from the University of California, Davis explains that if the drought continues for two or more years, Central Valley farmers will be forced to increasingly rely on groundwater reserves, some of which, we are now learning, may have been polluted by fracking wastewater.
Growing up in the heart of the Central Valley, whose claim-to-fame is being the “Gateway to Yosemite,” my preferred remedy for the afternoon summer heat was to frolic in the lawn sprinklers for hours on end, quench my thirst with gulps of water from the garden hose, engineer makeshift slip-and-slides, and bike to the farmer’s fruit stand down the road.
The days of moderately worry-free water consumption are long gone as California rightfully encourages reductions in residential water use during this debilitating drought. What I never imagined is that my trips to the farm stand might become a relic of the past not only due to a lack of water, but to a lack of safe water.
Summer is a time for getting outdoors, listening to the birds, taking long walks in the woods or long naps on the beach. And there’s nothing quite like reading a book outside, or after a day spent basking in the splendor of the natural world. With that in mind, here are five titles to accompany your summer adventures, or inspire your next trip outdoors:
Missoula whitewater rafter Daniel Berger (at rear) and friends float past three airliner fuselages dumped in Montana's Clark Fork river by a train derailment last week. (Courtesy Chuck Irestone)
The picture probably showed up in one of your feeds. It fit all sorts of algorithmic criteria for viral interestingness, shapes and colors and scale otherwise unseen in nature: The steep bank of a Montana river littered with the bare fuselages of three Boeing airplanes spilled from a train track above like oversized logs swathed in aquamarine-colored protective wrap. Or maybe not logs, but uniformly skinny whales beached far from any ocean. Either way, an eye-grabbingly irresistible curiosity. In the foreground, always, whitewater rafters taking selfies.
The river is called the Clark Fork. And I’ve paddled that stretch in canoes and rafts with some of the rafters who showed up in some of those pictures. It’s a section about 40 freeway minutes downstream of Missoula called Alberton Gorge, named for nearby Alberton, Montana—an off-Interstate mountain town of four or five hundred people. Within roughly seven easily accessible river miles are five major rapids that, depending on the flow, range from Class II to Class IV. The last of these is called Fang, and it was just downstream of Fang that the planes were tossed down the bank, coming to scattered rest with their snouts or tails in the water.
The Gorge is a fun stretch to run, but it makes you pay attention. While drownings are infrequent, substantial injuries are hardly unheard of. Boats are flipped all the time in Alberton Gorge, spilling bodies and gear that is later recovered or washed downstream to the intake grates of the next dam, at Thompson Falls, and trucked off to a landfill.
You wouldn’t know it from rocky Alberton Gorge, which is host to an almost constant stream of kayakers and rafters during the temperate months, but the Clark Fork is one of the most badly abused rivers in the United States, and simultaneously one of the luckiest.
In our soon-to-be released book, The Real Cost of Fracking: How America’s Shale Gas Boom is Threatening Our Families, Pets, and Food, we discuss the laws that affect local control of gas drilling in New York and Pennsylvania. At the time of writing, two cases were before the New York State Court of Appeals that would effectively decide if individual towns in New York could ban gas drilling using zoning ordinances (Mark S. Wallach, as Chapter 7 Trustee for Norse Energy Corp. USA vs. Town of Dryden et al. and Cooperstown Holstein Corporation vs. Town of Middlefield). On June 30, 2014, the decision was announced by the Court of Appeals in favor of the Towns of Dryden and Middlefield. It is important to note that “towns” in New York are subdivisions of counties, and constitute most of the land that is not a city or Indian reservation.
“Bulindi survivors” Sylvester and Keeta crossing the main road in Bulindi, Uganda
Nancy J. Merrick came to Boston recently to talk about her new book Among Chimpanzees: Field Notes from the Race to Save Our Endangered Relatives. Over lunch, she passed around a series of photographs taken by chimpanzee researcher Matthew McLennan. The photos were compelling, showing key members of a chimpanzee group in Bulindi, Uganda. In them, one could see all the intelligence, emotion, and wild beauty that first captivated a young Merrick in 1972, when she was a student of Jane Goodall’s at the famed Gombe Stream camp in Tanzania. Chimpanzees—as Goodall and the rest of the world would discover—can fashion tools, solve problems, and have complex societies and relationships. And they share 98% of our DNA, making chimps our closest relatives. The chimpanzees in the photographs seemed to have enough charisma to ignite the imaginations of anybody they encountered. But the photographs also showed a darker side: chimpanzees sharing a road with local villagers while the humans looked on, wary but not surprised.
As Father’s Day approaches, I’ve been thinking of books I’d recommend to my own father. I have fond memories from childhood of sitting with my father while he watched “his shows,” the science and nature and history programming on public televison channels that my other siblings would spurn as too educational to be entertaining. My father, a former Navyman who’d traveled the world in his youth, loved pointing out places he had been to, and I loved discovering a sense of the world through his eyes. Later, after we moved to the Olympic Peninsula in Washington state, we would go on hikes together and stand at the summits, taking in the vastness. Or we would go fishing together, which seemed mainly an excuse to sit in inflatable rafts and read, or listen as nature filled in the quietness between us. I don’t know if I inherited my curiosity of the world from him, or if I was drawn to that part of him that intersected with my own sensibilities. In a way, it doesn't matter. It’s the commonality one cherishes.
Here are five titles that, like my father, share a deep interest in the world, or that tell the story of fatherhood itself, with all its memories and complexities and sometime revelations. If your father is anything like mine, I’m sure he would take any of these books, find a quiet place to sit, and then read every word.
Of all the problems the world confronts today, climate change undoubtedly affects more people, with more potentially dire consequences, than any other single issue.
Yet most people, looking at the EPA regulation that President Obama just proposed for cutting carbon emissions in order to combat climate change, are probably saying: “I don’t own a coal plant. This has nothing to do with me.”
In fact, the proposal has plenty to do with all of us. And there’s a whole list of things we can do to help make the carbon-cutting goals a reality.
(Of course, if you do happen to own a coal plant, or if you are a member of Congress or a state legislature, or an aide to a politician—well, there’s even more that you can do.)
Mount Storm Coal-Fired Power Station in West Virginia (by user Raeky via Wikimedia Commons)
“Even if Stanford [University] divested itself fully of all its stocks, both fossil fuel and nonfossil, it would probably take the market less than an hour to absorb all the shares. It would not lead the executives of the affected companies to engage in soul-searching, much less to changes in operations.”
Ivo Welch, a finance and economics professor at UCLA, wrote those sentences recently in a New York Times Op Ed column, after Stanford announced that its $18.7 billion endowment would dump all holdings in coal-mining companies.
But where else have we heard that refrain? Ah yes, about 30 years ago, during the movement to divest stockholdings in companies doing business in apartheid South Africa.
Selling a few shares of stock won’t do any good, the refrain goes. Instead, you should do A or B or C...
Back during the South Africa divestiture movement, skeptics said that people who really hated apartheid ought to keep their money in General Motors and other multinationals, and then use their clout to pressure those companies to improve conditions for nonwhite workers. For his part, Professor Welch says that Stanford should invest in “research and development of clean-energy technology.”
However, these naysayers are proffering a set of phony choices and premises.
My mom gently shook me awake. It was 5 a.m. “Quick—you’re going to miss it!” she whispered excitedly, rushing out of my bedroom and downstairs. I was still half-asleep, but I followed quickly. This had happened before, and I knew I didn’t want to miss it.
The coyote was back.
Groggily, I scampered downstairs and sidled up against my mother, who stood with her face squished against a window pane at the front of the house, peering outside. I squeezed my face next to hers. Our noses pressed flat on the cold glass, spreading a fog of collective breath across the pane. I used the sleeve of my Red Sox pajamas to wipe it away. I didn’t want anything to ruin the view.
The summer I turned twelve, this was a regular occurrence at my family’s house in Massachusetts. Our home, nestled in a heavily wooded housing development and closely bordered by horse farms, was no stranger to wild visitors. Still, the coyote was different from the deer, rabbits, foxes and even wild turkeys that frequently made cameos in our yard.
His presence could draw a twelve-year-old willingly from bed at the break of dawn. He was majestic. His vaulted ears made him look like a king. And he was intelligent. His calculating eyes flashed yellow in the dusky dark as he assessed his surroundings.
Peter Matthiessen in 2008 (courtesy Melissa Eagan, WNYC New York Public Radio)
Peter Matthiessen was a mentor and model to me in the early seventies, when I was dropping back in after the mind-blowing sixties. I had lived in the New Hampshire woods with my “old lady,” and there, as my mother put it, “nature hit me,” which was not surprising, as I come from a family of Russian explorers, naturalists, and natural scientists. My dream to become the next great poet in the great tradition, the next T. S. Eliot, had morphed into wanting to be the next Bob Dylan, and that dream too had run its course.
In 1971, I came obsessed with birds, and was making watercolors of them and keying them out in the Peterson field guide, and taking copious notes in my journals. Writing about nature, having read Wordsworth, Yeats, Cowper, Frost, and other poets who wrote so beautifully about their natural surroundings, came naturally. Having been on the Harvard Lampoon, when in New York I would usually visit George W. S. Trow, the Lampoon’s editor-in-chief two classes ahead of me who was now writing for the Talk of the Town and producing long elegant profiles at the old New Yorker’s Dickensian offices at 25 West 43rd Street. Trow introduced me to the finely crafted literary journalism of John McPhee, who also wrote beautifully about nature in his portrait of the New Jersey Pine Barrens, for instance.
Jane Goodall speaks at the World Bank in 2011 / courtesy the World Bank Photo Collection
Looks can be deceiving. The always tactful and elegant Maria Shriver found out firsthand one day when she called Jane Goodall to the podium in 2009 to award her the Women’s Conference Minerva Award. Intending it as a compliment, Shriver offhandedly remarked that despite her “frail” appearance, Jane was a mighty woman.
As Jane took the podium, she remarked that she was anything but “frail,” and proceeded to prove it by hoisting the heavy award trophy over her head. She then delivered an energetic acceptance speech and spoke of her tireless 300 day a year lecture tour, describing a schedule far beyond the reach of a fragile woman.
I had to laugh, for I knew the minute that Shriver uttered the word “frail,” she had entered dangerous territory. I have had the good fortune to know Jane Goodall for 42 years, and I can guarantee you that she is anything but feeble. Jane runs on sheer determination, even now as she celebrates her 80th birthday.