Tag Archives: environment

Where Were You the First Time You Realized the Government Wasn’t Always On the Ball?

Pacific Standard writer Kate Wheeling and editor Max Ufberg wrangled a comprehensive, meticulous, and fascinating oral history of the 1969 oil spill off Santa Barbara, California, that galvanized environmental activism, ultimately leading to the creation of a slew of federal environmental regulations and agencies. The whole read is great—Wheeling and Ufberg pulled in everyone from local activists to oil company lawyers to journalists—but one section on cleanup tactics stands out as both interesting and quaint.

Bottoms: The way they cleaned it up was they brought in straw. Bales and bales of straw.

Hazard: They didn’t have the oil response teams that they have now. We were totally unprepared for it. You know, what were we going to do?

Relis: I thought these oil companies and the federal government had sort of a game plan, but this was a joke. They were throwing straw down on the beach to lap up the oil with pitchforks and hiring people off the street! I mean, this was funky.

Bottoms: And they’d throw the straw out into the harbor too, and they’d take pitchforks and get convicts down there in little barges and lift the straw out of the ocean and drive the straw up the coast to a dump.

Relis: That was kind of eye-opening — that big companies and big government can be so incompetent.

It’s true, kids! Barely more than 40 years ago, government and corporations were assumed to be generally competent and responsible. The times, how they change.

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The Outdoorsy Type’s Dilemma

At The Guardian, Marisa Meltzer looks at the self-congratulatory corporate philosophies of outerwear giants Patagonia and The North Face. Beyond the often-amusing details (like the time employees at Patagonia’s California headquarters tried to save a butterfly chrysalis they’d spotted on the sidewalk), she unpacks the complex dynamic that allows these companies to tout their ethical sourcing and care for the environment while selling luxury goods to affluent weekend warriors.

Selling professional-grade gear to people with no intention of using it professionally isn’t exactly a new trick in marketing, as the makers of SUVs, digital cameras and headphones can tell you. Most people who buy the Nike trainers advertised by Mo Farah don’t use them to run long distances.

But North Face and Patagonia are both wrestling with a more consequential paradox, one that is central to contemporary consumerism: we want to feel morally good about the things we buy. And both companies have been phenomenally successful because they have crafted an image that is about more than just being ethical and environmentally friendly, but about nature, adventure, exploration — ideas more grandiose than simply selling you a jacket, taking your money and trying not to harm the earth too much along the way. But the paradox is that by presenting themselves this way, they are selling a lot more jackets. In other words, both companies are selling stuff in part by looking like they’re not trying too hard to sell stuff, which helps them sell more stuff — and fills the world with more and more stuff.

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From Food Scraps to Profit: The Compost King of New York City

At first, I didn’t know what to make of Charles Vigliotti. You seldom hear the words “wealthy” and “composter” strung together. But as he explained his roundabout path to the energy sector, I began to sense Vigliotti’s commitment to solving some serious environmental problems, even as he lined his silky pockets.

After city landfills began closing in the 1980s, Vigliotti found he was spending too much money directing waste out of state. He began to move away from the trash business and in 1991 established with his brother Arnold a compost company in Westbury, N.Y., that transforms Himalayas of landscape debris — grass clippings, leaves, wood chips — into millions of bags of lawn and garden products. Business was good, but Vigliotti remained restless. In 1999, he opened a compost site in Yaphank, where in 2008 he began dabbling in food waste, mixing scraps from a Whole Foods Market and a small-batch won-ton manufacturer into his formula for potting soils. At this point, Vigliotti wasn’t thinking of food waste as a renewable energy source or a way to reduce the city’s far-flung garbage footprint or greenhouse-gas emissions. It was simply a way to take in more volume and thus make more money.

At the New York Times Magazine, Elizabeth Royte reports on “compost king” Charles Vigliotti, chief executive of American Organic Energy, who has a vision for the future: transforming the food waste of New York City into clean energy — and a profit.

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Loving the Difficult Places

The Kalmiopsis will probably never provide the kind of blissful recreational experiences portrayed in outdoor-equipment catalogs. Zach Collier, a river guide who occasionally runs trips on the Illinois and the Chetco, told me that he grills his prospective clients. “When people call me to book it, I actively try to talk them out of it,” he says. “It’s physically demanding and not much fun.”

But Peter Landres, an ecologist with the U.S. Forest Service and an expert in wilderness studies, says the very difficulty of visiting the Kalmiopsis helps it fulfill the more abstract needs that Zahniser described. “It’s exactly what we need in the age of the Anthropocene,” Landres says. “We can feel we’re a small part of this larger universe. That reinforces the feelings of humility and restraint,” feelings, he says, we need now more than ever.

The Kalmiopsis is also a superlative example of wilderness’ role as an ecological safe harbor. “Wilderness is the best place and maybe the only place that evolution can go on its merry way,” Landres says. As the climate changes, disrupting ecosystems along with it, those pockets of intact landscape where non-human life can adapt are increasingly precious. The Kalmiopsis, he says, is a perfect example of such a place. It’s rare to find a swath of low-lying hills as intact and protected as these among the alpine and desert areas that make up most legally designated wilderness areas. And the region’s plant diversity is off the charts.

In High Country News, editor Kate Schimel narrates her grueling trek into Oregon’s Kalmiopsis Wilderness with the people who voluntarily clear its impenetrable trails and swim its clear creeks, showing why America needs road-free, undeveloped areas just like it. Schimel’s piece is a love letter to the demanding places that don’t easily share themselves with us, and that many of us find ourselves inexplicably drawn to anyway.

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We’re Stronger Together: What Happens After Standing Rock?

When I first arrived in North Dakota to report on Standing Rock, I visited the State Capitol, built in 1934, the tallest building in Bismarck. The Art Deco interior has gilded everything — doorframes, ashtrays, elevator buttons. On a late afternoon in December, I stood at a window on the 18th floor and looked outside. Tiny people scurried through the streets below, and tailpipes puffed a fog of spent petroleum into the cold air. The snowy horizon was the same color as the clouds in the light gray sky, the landscape a pale abstraction that went on forever beyond the neatly gridded city. Somewhere to the south, thousands of people hunkered in the NoDAPL camps against the coming winter. From where I stood, I couldn’t see them.

In the days that followed, as I traveled through the camps and spoke to the water protectors, I had the sense that this movement, invisible though it was to Bismarck, was coming into sharp relief here and elsewhere. The Trump administration has indicated that it might push the pipeline through. If so, NoDAPL itself may be remembered simply as a brief moment of hopefulness — for the Standing Rock Sioux, social justice activists and climate protesters. Hope, though, once planted, tends to grow, to take on a life of its own. At Oceti Sakowin, it was palpable, at communal meals and in the daily teamwork it takes to keep such a sprawling encampment functioning, a feeling that people who stand together can overcome injustice and systems that do not serve them, no matter who is in power. That hope, now lodged in the memories of tens of thousands of people, will be hard to erase. “Getting well in your mind, body, spirit is what this camp really is about,” one Standing Rock Sioux elder told me. “People are coming to be healed.”

Dakota Access may yet carry oil south, and the demonstrations it has inspired may disintegrate. But if the inspiration of a new generation of “protectors” is any indication of success, maybe they’ve already won. On my last day at the casino, I met a woman who works at the restaurant there. She was exceptionally busy that week, as thousands of NoDAPL protesters passed through for a hot meal, but she took a few minutes to speak with me. “Through (NoDAPL), our elders have gained confidence,” she said. “I hope this thing leaves its fingerprints on you, too.”

In High Country News, Tay Wiles reports on how the Dakota Access Pipeline protests have spread greater understanding of environmental issues among Natives and non-Natives alike, and how they’ve inspired a new generation of protesters who are collaborating to raise awareness of and oppose other projects that impact Indigenous people, their rights, and their land.

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Twilight of the Sawfish

What happens to age-old traditions when the animals on which their symbolism depends all but vanish? At Hakai Magazine, Jori Lewis chronicles her journey along the Senegal and Guinea-Bissau coast looking for sawfish — a creature so venerated it appears on all Senegalese currency, but which few people in the region have actually seen in in recent decades.

Twelve years ago, Marine Robillard began surveying residents in West African coastal communities about the cultural importance of the sawfish. Now an environmental anthropologist at a French consulting firm called AnthropoLinks, Robillard says that most people could not believe the sawfish was gone for good. “When we were in Senegal, they would say, ‘Oh, there were some sawfish here but now they have migrated north. Go north.’ When we arrived in Mauritania, they would say, ‘Oh, there are no more sawfish here, but go south, go south.’ And when we arrived in Guinea Conakry, they said, ‘Oh, no, up north.’ People think that this is true for the sawfish, for sharks, and for fish, too. People don’t think they can disappear; they think that they have only moved.”

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How to Talk about the Weather Like a Newfoundlander

Winters are long and cold in Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada’s easternmost province, but the language that describes the many local varieties of rain, wind, and ice is anything but dreary. In Hakai Magazine, Emily Urquhart digs deep into the rich lexicon Newfoundlanders — from First Nations people to Basque and Irish immigrants — have assembled over the centuries to talk about the world around them.

Stories, like songs, are told with cadence and tone, timing, and, most importantly, attention to language. Perhaps there simply weren’t enough words to describe the erratic weather and rock-lashed land, the complex history of the people who settled there, and the boundless sea that surrounded them. Maybe the regional lexicon was not simply the result of limitation—the isolation of the outports—but a response to the limitlessness of the natural and social landscape.

The vocabulary is fluid. It’s an ongoing dialogue, and it’s as captivating and elusive as the Newfoundland fairies. Preservation efforts are constantly underway, from the b’ys (read: dudes) on George Street outdoing one another with local slang to the academics who collect and study this kind of talk like specimens in a jar. But it’s the artists who’ve cornered the market on heritage language in the province.

Marlene Creates, for example, captures the language of the natural world in her poetry and visual art, which are equal parts aesthetic and political. And what wordsmith could resist terms like glim, a light seen across a distant ice field, or swatch, a rivulet of open water in ice? There is an onomatopoeic quality to these words that lends itself to lyrical language: sketch, for the thin layer of ice that rests on the water; sish, both the word that describes a boat running through slushy water and the resulting sound. You can hear the crackle in brickle ice, which is easily shattered. Way ice is more straightforward, in that a vessel can navigate its broken pans.

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Living and Dying in Cancer Alley

oil refinery

Nothing comes easy in places like Standard Heights or St. Rose or Alsen. The streetlights turn yellow then red then green again. The trees lose their leaves then grow them again. The plant lights come on at night, the steam rises, the toxic flares flash, the heavy odor moves through the house like a thin curtain lifted off its rod, the brown dust falls on the cars. Even when you take a second to remember the smell or to see the rusting tanks through the fence, a hundred daily chores come ahead of picking up the slingshot and aiming at Goliath.

“You know yourself,” Spears tell me. “With a big company like Exxon, you can’t fight a case so you gotta go along with them. I’m not down on Exxon because I use their gas, so what can I say? We need it. I wish they could straighten up the odor thing, but I don’t know. The only thing I see, we gotta live with it till we die. I’ll be here till 5. Every day of the week except Sunday.”

— David Hanson, writing for the Bitter Southerner, helps residents of Standard Heights, Baton Rouge, tell their story of a town next to an Exxon plant — explosions, sinkholes, toxic sludge, and an everyday life that has to go on, regardless.

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Just Below the Surface

Summer Brennan | The Oyster War | Counterpoint Press | August 2015 | 20 minutes (5,042 words)

The following is an excerpt from Summer Brennan’s excellent The Oyster War: the True Story of a Small Farm, Big Politics, and the Future of Wilderness in America, appearing courtesy of Counterpoint Press. Buy the book here.

***

The road to the oyster farm is paved with the moon-white grit of pulverized oyster shells. There is a gleam to it, and to drive it in the dusk of the dry summer months is to see the dust-coated leaves of the ditch plants take on the powdery luminosity of white moths.

Hugging the edge of the estuary’s northernmost inlet, the narrow lane rises a little above a lush wetland dotted with egrets and blue herons, and then winds down again to the edge of a vast and shining body of water. This is Drakes Estero, what’s been called “the heart of the park.” The air feels different here. In winter or summer, heat or cold, there is an enlivening bite of freshness.

I was at the farm one evening in the late summer of 2013 to look for Oscar, one of the farm’s workers. He had given me an unauthorized tour of the planting sites the month before, and I was worried that allowing him to do so had accidentally gotten him fired. Word on the street was that it had. I was initially shocked to hear this, but considering how contentious things had gotten, what with the legal battle and all the national media attention, I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised at all. For owners Kevin and Nancy Lunny, who by some estimates had already sunk more than a million dollars into their efforts to restore the farm and keep it open, the stakes could not have been higher.

Like many of the oyster workers, Oscar lived in one of the rundown buildings that made up the farm’s small land-based component—a smattering of sheds, cottages, trailers and pre-fab homes. At least, that is what he told me, though I didn’t know if he still lived there. The buildings were scattered over just about an acre and a half, so I figured it wouldn’t take too long to look.

I pulled up and parked my borrowed, mud-splattered 1991 Toyota station wagon in front of a weatherworn white building. A brightly painted sign exclaimed it to be the “Oyster Shack.” No more than 600 square feet in total, it housed the retail portion of the business in front and the tiny hatchery in back, where the oysters were grown from spat (or “seed”) the size of sand grains. On the wall of an adjacent shed was pinned a large American flag.

The pop radio station I’d been listening to on the drive out had turned to white noise. I switched it off and got out of the car. Read more…

Rivers We Destroy: A Reading List

Rivers are forces of nature, but over time, humans have learned to harness their power and change their course — often for the worse. Here are four stories on how humans have changed local and regional river systems, and the disastrous and sometimes deadly consequences. Read more…