“China farms tigers? Why didn’t I know that?” This is the most common comment I hear when I talk about China’s industrial tiger farms and my book Blood of the Tiger, which was rereleased today in paperback.
“Yes,” I reply, “they farm them ‘just like cows and pigs.’ That’s how a Chinese government official described it to me during my first visit to China back in 1991.”
Retaking the Keystone XL Pathway. Photo credit: Tar Sands Blockade
Wen Stephenson was invited by the Reverend Kyle Childress, longtime pastor of Austin Heights Baptist Church in Nacogdoches, Texas and one of the key voices in What We’re Fighting For Now Is Each Other, to speak to the congregation. The church's congregation plays a crucial role in the resistance to the southern leg of the Keystone XL pipeline. They supported the Tar Sands Blockade and welcomed young blockaders into their homes.
Stephenson tells us: “By uncanny coincidence, I was in Houston, doing an event with the grassroots group TEJAS (Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services)—whose founders Juan and Bryan Parras, and organizer Yudith Nieto, figure prominently in the book—when the news broke that President Obama had rejected the Keystone XL pipeline, or the northern leg of it. And the very next day I went up to Nacogdoches. Too many people, especially in our national media, have forgotten that the southern leg of the pipeline was built with Obama’s blessing, and that it began pumping tar-sands crude to refineries in Port Arthur and Houston in January 2014.”
He adds: “I realize now that this book project wasn't truly finished until I went back to Nacogdoches and spoke to the people of that church community. It really closed the circle for me, in a profound way.”
Photo credit: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Headquarters
Rampant wildfires across the West, venomous sea snakes on California beaches—sound familiar? Rarely does a day pass without a headline focused on climate-related news. Every time I read one of these stories, my mind goes to the people living amidst it: exhausted hotshot crews in Twisp, WA, barefoot beachcombers in Oxnard, CA. Though national in distribution, every story begins in its own neighborhood.
About a year ago, the National Park Service invited me to write an essay for a web-based literary anthology focused on climate-triggered ecological changes in my own backyard: Denali National Park. Denali's sub-Arctic location means that taiga (the boreal forest) and tundra (a treeless region often with permafrost present) overlap, making it an ideal place to track changes. The Park Service supports critical scientific research in Denali all year round, noting and recording everything from sound pollution to glacier profiles. But the NPS also knows that one of the best ways to invest visitors in climate research is not through power points and charts, but through narrative. Hence, the call for essays by writers from the region. Here's how Denali introduces the anthology project on its website:
Lanza hiking in the Grand Canyon, May 2015. Photo credits: Michael Lanza
When the country’s largest consumer co-op retailer announces it will close its doors and website on one of the biggest shopping days of the year, it attracts attention. REI did just that when it announced last week that it’s closing all 143 stores on Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, and won’t process any online purchases until the following day. Employees will get a paid day off and be encouraged to get outside—and no doubt many of them will.
Beyond the benefit to REI’s workers and potential impact on company sales, does this matter to anyone else? I say, yes, it does, for reasons that reach far beyond REI’s walls. Maybe least obviously, but most importantly, this is good for our kids.
It is mysterious and beautiful, literally a creature from a different world. Its body is ebony above and golden below, a serpent with aposematic paint. The edges of the opposing colors undulate down its side until the yellow becomes drips on the black, dorsally flattened tail. The exotic animal is a yellow bellied sea snake, Pelamis platura, which is normally found in warm, tropical waters. But due to a recent climatic vagary, the snake has found its way onto an Oxnard beach, miles up the coast from Los Angeles, hundreds of miles from the edge of its normal range. It is stunning, amazing, but how is the event chronicled?
What has been your relationship with environmental issues?
My mother took me to my first protest when I was six, against the Seabrook nuclear plant in New Hampshire in 1976. She also took me for walks in the local woods and taught me about trees. So I had a good grounding both in caring about nature and citizen activism, which has stayed with me throughout my life. At this point in history, the number one issue is climate change. If we don't address that, everything else will be beside the point.
What do you look for in books dealing with these issues?
Obviously, I hope the books I look for on environmental issues will move people to action. The way to bring people in is through stories. Having something new to add to the conversation is important as well, but I look for writing that can teach about the issues by engaging readers with good writing and compelling storytelling. Whether the book is about solar power, orcas, or farming, the information is grounded in stories of people, places, struggles, hope.
And sometimes, as in literary nature writing as opposed to issue-driven books, the writing is enough—creating something beautiful in the service of nature speaks to our human connection with the “natural” world and with each other.
As a teenager, I didn't pay much attention to posted signs. I was a strange kid—both very confident and very lost. My façade, my own sign posted for the world, was a lie and I knew it. But I believed if I could just be patient enough, a kind of secret door would eventually open to a new land, one that looked more or less the same as the old—same streets, same school, same annoying older brother—but would include a sense of orientation, which meant a sense of the world with my place in it. So, what interested me was the other kind of sign. The kind that might offer a portent of my life to come, or an insight into the way things really were.
There was one sign that was both kinds of sign, though I didn't know it at the time. It was posted on a high black chairlift tower, about two-thirds of the ride up Killington's Bear Mountain. As I remember it now, the wind is whipping, the chairlift pitches and bobs over Outer Limits, the steepest mogul run in the east. The edge of the yellow sign is crusted with rime. Huddled below an imposing black pine tree, there's a silhouette of a man, his knees drawn toward his chest. "These woods will be as cold and lonely tonight as they were two hundred years ago. Do not ski alone."
When I read the news I am often troubled. Around the world, glaciers are melting at alarming rates, spelling disaster for the people who rely on those water sources for drinking and electricity. Sea levels are rising, forcing low-lying countries like Tuvalu in the South Pacific to formulate evacuation plans. And, in parts of Brazil and South Africa, water is rationed and crops die because of historic droughts.
As people around the world grapple with the effects of climate change, many stand to lose their homes—and their lives. Countries and communities in the Global South with the fewest resources have been and will be hit the hardest.
I've lived in Interior Alaska for the past eleven years, about 100 miles, as the raven flies, from the highest mountain in North America. I have always called this formidable and beautiful summit "Denali," as do a majority of Alaska residents, including our three Republicans in Congress. Since President Obama just empowered Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell to change the official name from Mt. McKinley to Denali, soon you'll be calling it Denali, too.
For the past few days, I've been glued to the national media coverage centered on my home, and I'm thrilled that the rest of the world will finally call the mountain Denali. Unfortunately, in the rush to cover the big news, the media has been getting small but important details wrong, especially those related to the rights and identities of Alaska Native people. So instead of retelling the strange story of an obsequious explorer, a presidential hopeful, and the gold standard, I want to dig deeper, finding a route through the context surrounding Alaska's iconic peak.
In August of 2013, President Barack Obama released his “Climate Action Plan” that was to form a roadmap for transforming our energy supply and usage. It had many important suggestions for combating climate change, but was presented in very general terms. The release of the “Clean Power Plan” by President Obama and the EPA in August of 2015 deals with carbon pollution from power plants and provides many more specific guidelines and goals. Each state is required to submit a plan based on the EPA guidelines by 2022, with implementation between 2022 and 2029. The goals require carbon emissions to decrease over time in three steps: 2022-2024, 2025-2027, and 2028-2029. The baseline is taken as the year 2012, and any decrease in CO2 emissions after that time can be counted as part of the emissions reduction.
A grizzly bear attack flowed into my news stream today. Lance Crosby worked for a company that ran urgent care clinics in Yellowstone National Park. He went for a hike. He is now dead.
The response by the Park was swift. Any human death from the claws and canines of a wild carnivore is one too many, and the solution is part prevention, part revenge. Pronounced guilty for eating and not just killing, the sow grizzly bear was put to death and her cubs are destined for a life in captivity.
The preservationist backlash began even before the sow’s fate was solidified. Commentators pointed out that Mr. Crosby wasn’t following the obvious safety precautions that should be used in bear country: he was hiking alone; he wasn’t carrying pepper spray. He was asking for it. After animal attacks, some of us embrace victim blaming.
That isn’t right either. The loss of Lance Crosby is a terrible, unacceptable tragedy.
On July 30, the whole world watched as thirteen Greenpeace activists dangled from ropes tied to the St. John's bridge in Portland, Ore., red and yellow streamers catching the wind. They were blocking the exit of the Fennica, Shell's ice breaker headed to the Arctic to facilitate drilling. These young activists hung there for forty hours in makeshift platforms and slings during some of the hottest days on record, before the police and Coast Guard brought them down. One hundred feet below them, filling the river with their colorful small boats, were Portland's "kayactivists" from the local Climate Action Coalition—some were experienced paddlers, others kayaking for the very first time. On shore stood over five hundred people, cheering and chanting "Stop that boat!" Some were moved to tears by this unprecedented spectacle and by the courage of the protesters.
But everyone was not so thrilled. The Oregonian printed several letters from readers castigating the activists for disrupting traffic on land and sea and for wasting tax money. One wrote: "Make them pay serious fines or spend time in Portland jail." Another complained: "Congratulations, Portland! You've confirmed that this is a city where it's important to be weird." There arises a legitimate question: what is the difference in civil disobedience and simply breaking the law? Was this an instance in which such a protest was justified? Perhaps it would be useful to look at the history and purpose of this radical form of protest.
Organic ingredients can cost nearly twice as much as processed ones. The price of solar and wind energy has dropped but still remains far above coal, oil, and natural gas in most of the U.S. Small business owners are among the most vocal opponents of raising the minimum wage.
Maybe a $16.45 billion behemoth like Starbucks has the spare cash to spend on good deeds like health insurance for its baristas or water-purification in developing countries, but how can a small, struggling startup possibly afford solar energy, organic ingredients, paid family leave, donations to local museums or any of the similar steps that typically define a socially responsible (CSR) business?
Actually, being socially responsible is often easier for small businesses, said Susan Salgado, a co-founder and co-chair of the New York City chapter of Conscious Capitalism, which is a nonprofit that promotes a broad agenda of sustainability, social entrepreneurialism, social responsibility and stakeholder values.
“Small companies are more nimble, so it’s easy to stay more closely attached to your purpose and values,” Salgado said.
Even from a strict dollars-and-cents viewpoint, she added, “there are a lot of small businesses that are actually doing it—even in the restaurant industry where I come from, where margins are incredibly small.”
For starters, there’s a lot of truth to the cliché about “doing well by doing good.” Being socially responsible can also be profitable.
On the steps of Gombe, 2008. Merrick is seated next to Goodall in the company of family and others.
Fifty-five years ago today, young Jane Goodall arrived on the shores of Lake Tanganyika to begin the study of our closest relative, the chimpanzee. Accompanied by her mother, she arrived at a time when it was unthinkable for a young woman to “risk” the African jungle alone. It was also an era when humans were viewed as the sole makers of tools and the only beings capable of intelligent thought and complex emotion. How wrong we were.
Dr. Jane arrived, little suspecting the significance of that day—or of how she was about to rock a number of the world’s fundamental concepts. A former secretary without college education, could she have imagined she would earn a doctorate from Cambridge University, become one of today’s most influential people, and reorder the world’s thinking?
I was seven years old at the time, and unaware that a young British woman was beginning a mission that would one day so enrich my life. Twelve years later, I would arrive on those same Lake Tanganyika beaches to become Dr. Jane’s research assistant—and life-long friend. It has been a privileged journey, witnessing firsthand so many seasons of the remarkable Dr. Jane Goodall.
The EPA recently released a review draft of its long awaited study of hydraulic fracturing in the United States entitled “Assessment of the Potential Impacts of Hydraulic Fracturing for Oil and Gas on Drinking Water Resources.” This report, which totaled almost one thousand pages, was undoubtedly read by very few people, but the news coverage was astounding. Oklahoma’s senator Jim Inhofe stated in a press release: “EPA’s report on hydraulic fracturing confirms what we have known for over sixty years when the process began in Duncan, Oklahoma—hydraulic fracturing is safe…” Erik Milito of the American Petroleum Institutesaid, “After more than five years and millions of dollars, the evidence gathered by EPA confirms what the agency has already acknowledged and what the oil and gas industry has known: hydraulic fracturing is being done safely under the strong environmental stewardship of state regulators and industry-best practices…” But is that the message from the document itself? Tom Burke, the deputy assistant administrator of the EPA’s office of research, explained the impact of the document: “It’s not a question of safe or unsafe” but rather “how do we best reduce vulnerabilities so we can best protect our water and water resources?”
If we accept Tom Burke’s explanation, how did so many news outlets get the story so wrong? The document itself states: “We did not find evidence that these mechanisms have led to widespread, systematic impacts on drinking water resources in the United States.” This was the quote that was taken out of context and drove the breathless news coverage. A very different picture emerges if one actually takes the time to read the document.
There’s a new kid in town, who, like the new kid before him and the kid before her, is stirring things up. He’s saying things differently than those who preceded him, and his new ideas are making some people feel a little uncomfortable. In the parlance of the much-admired entrepreneurial class, he’s a “disruptor.”
The new kid is Dave Rauch, the former president of the beloved Trader Joe’s. His new idea is the Daily Table, a non-profit grocery store that opened in Dorchester, Massachusetts in early June. The Daily Table is located in a low-to-middle income area which has not enjoyed much success attracting conventional supermarkets. Relying largely on the donation of “seconds”—food that is edible and safe, but just beyond its expiration date or a few days shy of the compost pile—Daily Table is, according to CBS News, “on a mission to solve two problems: preventing tons of food from going to waste and offering healthy alternatives to families who may not be able to afford traditional stores.”
The food, befitting its less than top-quality condition, is sold—packaged and fresh, as well as in the form of prepared meals—at prices that are often one-third of those found at conventional retail food outlets. Daily Table sources its merchandise from places as diverse as The Food Project, a nearby non-profit community farm, Whole Foods, and the Greater Boston Area Food Bank. When food isn’t available pro bono, Daily Table will occasionally resort to making cash purchases. And based on the comments of the people I talked to for this story, consumer response has been over the top, leaving Daily Table’s shelves virtually bare at the end of its first opening days.
Some sustainability and waste-reduction advocates are ecstatic, drooling over all that methane-churning matter that might not find its way into metro-Boston landfills. Rauch, who likes to use social math to describe the gulf he’s trying to bridge, says that the U.S. food system is wasting enough food every day to fill the Rose Bowl. The USDA, which favors the old math, reports that about thirty-one percent of all food produced in the U.S. is wasted. This amounts to about 133 billion pounds per year. With respect to what that might mean for the nation’s food-insecure households, Ben Simon of the Food Recovery Network estimates that we could cut hunger in half with just fifteen percent of our food waste.
I have to say that I’ve always been more than a little perplexed by our penchant to link waste reduction to food security. Though I’m an ardent composter—I’ll carry a small handful of overlooked vegetable scraps outdoors on a cold winter’s night to the compost pile rather than drop them in the kitchen waste can—the waste diversion fervor associated with feeding the hungry seems at times like a sanctimonious distraction from the more critical task of a moral society: ending hunger.
A year ago, when UUA/Beacon left our location on Beacon Hill to move to the Innovation District, I sorely regretted the change of scenery on my morning walk into the office. No more expanses of grass, tree-lined paths, dogs frolicking, tourists feeding the squirrels, songbirds chirping, the occasional hawk soaring over the Common. Instead, the walk through concrete—despite the oasis of the Greenway—was decidedly less green. I had hopes of observing sea life from the bridge on my daily walk over the channel, but the water seemed devoid of anything but ubiquitous seagulls. No happy little seal face broke the surface, no fish jumped, no migratory waterfowl paddled. And yet, over the year and much to my surprise, I learned much about the natural world.
For one thing, I’ve never lived on the shore, so I had never had the opportunity to observe the tides week after week. I noticed the normal high and low water mark on the pilings in the channel. One day, I was surprised to see the water reaching almost to the top of the pilings, and perilously close to the boardwalk attached to the buildings on the eastern side. Soon after, I noticed the lowest tide I’d seen, revealing more of the gravelly “beach” below the channel’s western wall. What was going on? Had there been a storm? I seemed to recall learning in school something about the tides and the moon, so I looked it up. As most people are probably aware, the tides reach their highest and lowest extremes as the moon is at its most full and when it is new, at the turning of its cycle. But to me, this was an opportunity to observe in the real world a long-forgotten lesson in action: when the sun, moon, and earth are in a line, the gravitational pull is strongest, causing the greatest range of tides.
I also learned that while the sun rises in the east and sets in the west, it also moves north and south. My route to work fell between two tall buildings, and each day the sun shone directly in my face. Of course, it was morning and I was walking east. Yet as the months wore on, I noticed that I no longer needed to shade my eyes. Wait—I walked in the same direction at the same time every day, but the sun had moved to the right and behind a building. I had just read a book on Cape Cod, The Outermost House, in which Henry Beston writes, “All these autumn weeks I have watched the great disk going south along the horizon of moorlands beyond the marsh…” Now I saw what he meant. For those of us in the northern hemisphere, the sun moves south in the fall and north in the spring. Again, maybe this is common knowledge, but I hadn’t really made the connection and only noticed it because of my daily walk in the concrete jungle.
Alien species are taking over nature. Rogue rats, predatory jellyfish, suffocating super-weeds, snakehead fish wriggling across the land–all are headed for an ecosystem near you. These biological adventurers are travelling the world in ever greater numbers, hitchhiking in our hand luggage, hidden in cargo holds and stuck to the bottom of ships. Our modern, human-dominated world of globalized trade is giving footloose species many more chances to cruise the planet and set up home in distant lands. Some run riot, massacring local species, trashing their new habitats and spreading diseases.
We all like a simple story with good guys and bad guys, so the threat of invasive species invading fragile environments and causing ecological mayhem instantly gets our attention. For half a century, conservationists have been in the forefront of the battle to hold back the invasive tide. And as an environmental journalist, I have written my share of stories about the mayhem they can cause.
Some of it is true. But do we fear the invaders too much? Do zebra mussels, kudzu, salt cedar and the rest do as much damage as is claimed? And what about the thousands of other visitors who fit in without trouble? Is our fear of invasive species little more than green xenophobia? In my new book The New Wild: Why Invasive Species Will Be Nature’s Salvation(Beacon Press, 2015), I explore these questions.
Most of us don’t treat foreign humans as intrinsically dangerous. Yet the orthodoxy in conservation is to stigmatize foreign species in just that way. Native is good, and foreign is bad. I believe it is time for a rethink—time to consider whether invasive species can sometimes be the good guys, and whether nature’s go-getters are actually rebooting ecosystems corrupted by human activity.
2015 marks the 45th anniversary of Earth Day. This could be the most dynamic year in environmental history. Economic growth and sustainability, once mutually exclusive, have begun a symbiotic relationship. Citizens and experts have set up defenses for their homes and the survival of other species from the encroaching effects of ecological devastation and extinction. New business ventures have transformed renewable energies into a viable market. As challenging and daunting as these issues are, it has become more apparent that we still have a chance of preserving our home. This Earth Day, we at Beacon Press are featuring titles that showcase individuals and organizations taking a stand for our home and encourage readers to take the stand with them.
Environmental journalist Fred Pearce presents a unique twist on a taking the lead on progress. In The New Wild: Why Invasive Species Will Be Nature’s Salvation, he implores environmentalists of the twenty-first century to celebrate the dynamic nature of invasive species and the new ecosystems they create. The case for keeping out invasive species is not only flawed, but also contradictory to the environment’s capacity for change, accelerated now by climate change and widespread ecological disaster.
California’s limited water resources have made headlines at the start of this year. It won’t be long until the rest of the country is affected by threats of shortage. Journalist Cynthia Barnett calls for the simplest and least expensive call to action in Blue Revolution: Unmaking America’s Water Crisis. Selected as one of the Boston Globe’s top ten science books of 2011, it outlines a water ethic to reconnect Americans with our rivers, aquifers, and other freshwaters . This blue movement will turn us to “local water” the way the green movement turned us to local foods.
Most people know that the earth is warming, and as the dominant creatures on the planet, humans are at fault. Two out of three people believe climate change is happening, and 89 percent are "somewhat worried" or "very worried." After all, 14 of the 15 warmest years on record in all of history have occurred since 2000. Wildfires in the West burned out of control last summer, and they are expected to be just as serious this summer. The snowpack in California is about 6 percent of normal, and so the state is putting mandatory curbs on water use, for the first time in history. The effects of global warming are not predictions for the future; they are fast becoming the realities of our daily lives.
So why all the silence about climate change? Why isn't this topic filling our conversations, the way a tsunami would, or a major earthquake?
Count me in with the "very worried" group—actually, count me in with those who are feeling filled with fear, steeped in grief. Some of the smartest people I know think we will not be able to act in time, that we will continue to delay until we can't stem the rising waters, the droughts, the refugees, the failed states, the wars fought over precious resources like arable land, food, water. In a recent New Yorker article, novelist Jonathan Franzen writes, "It's important to acknowledge that drastic planetary overheating is a done deal...no head of state has ever made a commitment to leaving any carbon in the ground." When I asked a poet I know about our chances of averting disaster, she sighed and said, "Humans are a very flawed species."