REDISCOVER A MYSTERIOUS BEAST FROM THE DEEP
A Survival Guide for the Planet • published by the natural resources defense council
africa’s urban harvest CONFRONTING CLIMATE CHANGE AND POVERTY, A NEW CROP OF CITY FARMERS COMES OF AGE
PLUS born to be wild
THE ENCHANTED WORLD OF KID LIT
LIGHTS! CAMERA! ACTIVISM!
ENVIRONMENTALISM GOES TO THE MOVIES
THE COMING OIL AND GAS BOOM
winter 2011/2012 w w w.one arth.org
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volume 33 number 4 winter 2011/2012
FEA TU RES
dep a r t m ents
38 Born to Be Wild
8 From the Editor 14 Letters 17 FRONTLINES
by Sharman Apt Russell
Time to delve again into those childhood books—gateways to untamed places, fierce beasts, and our enduring affinity for the natural world.
A trash system smart enough to sort our mountains of stuff. Plus, Tucker the dog, who sniffs out endangered wildlife.
Q&A Even before Occupy Wall Street, economist Tim Jackson made the case for a greener, more equitable brand of capitalism.
42 Creature of
the Deep by Bruce Stutz
Charismatic and mysterious, the sturgeon has been around for 85 million years. We may have no more than 20 years left to save it from extinction.
48 Lights, Camera, Activism!
24 the synthesist
by Bruce Barcott
Four of the 10 most successful documentaries at the box office have been on environmental themes. Indy filmmaker Mark Kitchell hopes to add his new movie to the list.
14 Dusk at the Edge of the World by Floyd Skloot
57 I Heard a Willow Fall by Chard deNiord
See more photos from our cover story and hear articles editor Jocelyn C. Zuckerman talk about reporting on agriculture in Africa. onearth.org/africaslideshow
A decade ago, when Francis Wachira began planting amid the traffic-clogged streets of downtown Nairobi, his neighbors laughed out loud. Now they’re lining up for advice on how to do the same.
The Constant Gardeners by Jocelyn C. Zuckerman
Some 15 million Africans abandon the countryside every year in pursuit of better lives in the city. Climate change and further desertification will only exac-
by Alan Burdick Scientists are finding that the high-resolution panoramic photos known as GigaPan images can open up strange new worlds.
26 living green
by Zach Zorich Forget souping up your car to look cool or ride fast: eco-modders are hell-bent on energy independence.
As the Arctic ice melts, five nations eye new prospects for wealth in the region’s oil and gas reserves.
64 open space
by Jill Sisson Quinn Just think: Earth is upside down, the sun never rises, and our bodies are made of stars.
i n s ide n r dc
10 view from nrdc
erbate that trend. How will these ballooning urban
by Frances Beinecke
populations survive? The best strategy, they’re find-
12 THE DEANS LIST
ing, is to begin sowing seeds right where they are.
by Bob Deans
58 dispatches Cover: Photographed for OnEarth by Tia Magallon.
Building better cars, saving sharks, climate health effects, and more.
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Rancher Ben Gotschall speaks against the Keystone XL pipeline at a hearing in Atkinson, Nebraska.
4W E B
Tar Sands Showdown
Nebraska’s ranchers and small-town residents weren’t about to let a Canadian energy giant build a $7 billion pipeline across their prairies—and water supply—without a fight. From high school auditoriums and packed football stadiums, our new editor-at-large, Ted Genoways, reports on the battle. onearth.org/keystonexl
Meet the Change Makers
Some corporate giants are making even bigger bucks by embracing sustainability. We find out how in a series of Q&As with top execs at some of America’s biggest companies. onearth.org/changemakers
And Baby Makes 7 Billion
Last month, the world welcomed its 7 billionth person—just as our columnist was giving birth. Find out how she feels about bringing a new consumer into our crowded world. onearth.org/7billion
ABOVE: ALEXANDRA MATZKE; RIGHT: DAVID GESSNER
4F E A T U R E D
4most popular 4Lake Erie Deathwatch 4The Great Oyster Crash 4Occupy Wall Street: Good for the Environment?
4Ask an Aggie:
Climate Change Is Real
4This Is Your Brain
on the Ocean More online-only stories: onearth.org/webexclusives
THE DEANS LIST
Author DAVID GESSNER tries to make sense of the modern environmental movement, and even make it fun again, by reconnecting with nature—and nature lovers. onearth.org/wildlife
After 30 years as a reporter, including eight on the White House beat, BOB DEANS is now setting the agenda with the ultimate insider’s guide to environmental politics. onearth.org/thedeanslist
On Tumblr onearth.tumblr.com On the Kindle onearth.org/kindle Digital edition onearth.org/digital Your comments onearth.org/community Your nature photos onearth.org/photocontest Winners appear in the magazine—see p. 61 for this issue’s pick.
OWNERSHIP STATEMENT Statement of ownership, management, and circulation (required by 39 U.S.C. 3685) of OnEarth, published quarterly and owned by the Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc., President, Frances Beinecke; Editor, Douglas S. Barasch, 40 West 20th Street, New York, NY 10011. Known bondholders, mortgages, and other security holders owning or holding one percent or more of the total amount of bonds, mortgages, and other securities: None. The purpose, function, and nonprofit status of this organization and the exempt status for federal income tax purposes have not changed during the preceding twelve months. The average number of copies printed of each issue during the preceding twelve months was: A. Total number of copies printed: 140,465. B. Paid and/or requested circulation: (1) Paid/ requested outside-county mail subscriptions stated on Form 3541: 132,280; (2) Paid in-county subscriptions: 0; (3) Sales through dealers and carriers, street vendors, counter sales, and other non-USPS paid distribution: 2,287; (4) Other classes mailed through the USPS: 0. C. Total paid and/or requested circulation: 134,467. D. Free distribution by mail: 1,895. E. Free Distribution outside the mail: 4,097. F. Total Free Distribution: 5,992. G. Total Distribution: 140,459. H. Copies not distributed: 6. I. Total: 140,465. I certify that the statements made by me above are correct and complete. DOUGLAS S. BARASCH, Editor
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A Bright Green Start
contributors Mckenzie Funk (“The New Arctic Bonanza,” p. 54) is a Knight-Wallace Journalism Fellow at the University of Michigan. His articles have appeared in Harper’s, Rolling Stone, National Geographic, Mother Jones, and other publications. His book about climate change, Best Laid Plans, will be published in 2012. Antonio bolfo (“The Constant Gardeners,” p. 28) is a Queens, New York–based photographer whose work has appeared in such publications as the New York Times and Fast Company. A former New York City police officer, Bolfo is the firstplace winner of the National Press Photographers Association’s 2011 Best of Photojournalism competition. jill sisson quinn (“Mixing My Metaphors,” p. 64) is a nature writer and teacher whose essays have been published in several literary journals. In 2010 she won the John Burroughs Award for an essay that appeared in Ecotone. Her first book, Deranged: Finding a Sense of Place in the Landscape and in the Lifespan, was published last year. emily carew woodard (“Born to Be Wild,” p. 38) is an illustrator based in a Victorian studio in East London. She grew up on the coast of Cornwall and graduated with honors from the London College of Communication. Her illustrations, which she creates using antique or distressed paper, have been exhibited at galleries throughout London. our paper and printing onearth is committed to environmentally sound publishing practices. Our text stock contains a minimum of 30 percent postconsumer waste and is certified by the Forest Stewardship Council, a nonprofit organization dedicated to ensuring that the world’s forests are sustainably managed. Our cover stock contains a minimum of 10 percent postconsumer waste.
Photo: Russ Roca
editor’s letter Big, amazing things that are mostly out of sight
omething resembling hope is blooming in Kibera, a densely
D ou g las S . barasc h
populated slum in the Kenyan capital of Nairobi. Literally blooming, in the form of homegrown vegetables that can feed impoverished families and their neighbors. The leaves of kale and spinach that our articles editor, JOCELYN C. ZUCKERMAN, sees sprouting in narrow alleyways represent a significant (though largely unreported) global trend: the urbanization of farming. Already, Zuckerman points out, “800 million people worldwide currently are engaged in urban agriculture, producing 15 percent to 20 percent of the world’s food.” The mass migration of populations from the countryside to cities has tipped the planet’s demographic balance in favor of urban areas for the first time in our collective history. Drought, water scarcity, and desertification (all of which are intensified by climate change) have accelerated this vast movement. “Less arable land—and fewer farmers—means less food,” notes Zuckerman. And “hungry people and crowded cities make a combustible mix.” And yet these desperate conditions have produced ingenious solutions—vegetables grown in recycled grain sacks, for instance, cultivated with recycled domestic waste and sewage water—offering a lifeline to people on the edge of starvation. That a trend this large and meaningful has received so little attention is astonishing. Yet it is impossible to imagine how the planet can sustainably produce food, 40 years hence, for nine billion people unless urban agriculture, vividly described by Zuckerman, continues to flourish. The phenomenon of something big and important occurring just out of view takes very different shape in a revelatory account by contributing editor BRUCE STUTZ, who chronicles the life of one of the sea’s most astonishing creatures: the Atlantic sturgeon. This “massive armored” fish—which can grow to eight feet, weigh 600 pounds, and live past 60 years of age—has navigated the earth’s rivers and seas for approximately 85 million years. Yet in little more than 100 years it was hunted almost to extinction by fishermen in pursuit of its increasingly valuable roe (processed into caviar). “Some have compared the carnage,” writes Stutz, “to the massacre of the buffalo.” Within the next 20 years, certain populations of this animal could vanish. But will they? The prospects for their survival depend on understanding where they reside, their patterns of migration, and how these behaviors vary among geographically distinct populations—and on acting accordingly through regulatory oversight. In an age of mass extinctions, how could we risk losing an animal of such magnificence, even if we don’t yet know every last detail of its predicament? In both the human and the animal realms, in other words, our leading experts are working to decipher the still infinite mysteries of our planet. That the survival of so many depends on new knowledge and innovations—on land and at sea, among Africa’s hungry millions and the sea’s diminished bounty—tells us something about the unprecedented urgency of their endeavors.
education. leadership. change.
center for environmental policy
“We are alive at an extraordinary moment, one that demands, especially from graduate education, an extraordinary responsibility.” —EBAN GOODSTEIN, Director
“The interdisciplinary nature of the program deepens our students’ ability to analyze and think about the policy process and how the key driver of our time, climate change and adaptation, is shaping our future policy choices.” —MONIQUE SEGARRA, Professor of Political Science
“The Bard CEP curriculum provides a broad foundation in the science, economics, and politics behind environmental policy. It prepared me to work across disciplines to better understand and help solve modern environmental problems.” —DANE KLINGER, B.A./M.S. ‘06
“It was definitely nice to come to Bard and have a smaller close-knit community, where I got to see my professors and actually talk to them, and have time dedicated to our class and me.” —HEATHER NICHOLE DAVIS, M.S. ‘11
I’d known for years that I wanted to join the Peace Corps, and the Bard CEP program is giving me the opportunity to fulfill that dream and to set off on my way toward a new career.” —KAREN COREY, M.S. ‘13 Candidate, Master’s International Program
Programs of Study Admission Deadlines Early: January 15, 2012 Regular: March 15, 2012
Inquire Today Bard Center for Environmental Policy Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, New York tel 845.758.7073 e-mail email@example.com web www.bard.edu/cep/nrdc Photos from top: Peter Aaron ’68/Esto, Karl Rabe, David Toerge/Black Star, Karl Rabe, Karen Corey.
M.S. in Environmental Policy M.S. in Climate Science and Policy Master’s International Program with Peace Corps Coverdell Fellows Program for Peace Corps returnees Professional Certificate Programs M.B.A. in Sustainability pending approval
Dual Degrees M.S. and J.D. with Pace Law School M.S. and M.A.T. with Bard’s Master of Arts in Teaching 3+2 Program for qualified undergraduates
view from NRDC
y first job out of college was testing children
for lead poisoning. Scientists knew lead could lower IQ and cause long-term developmental delays. Yet, largely as a result of tailpipe and smokestack emissions, 88 percent of American children had elevated blood lead levels in the 1970s. A few years later, the Clean Air Act began phasing out lead from gasoline and reducing power plant pollution. By the mid-1990s, blood lead levels in children had dropped by 78 percent, and by 2000, only 2.2 percent of American children had high levels of lead in their blood. The lead program and other environmental initiatives have improved the health of millions of Americans over the past four decades. The Clean Air Act alone has prevented more than 200,000 premature deaths and 850,000 asthma attacks every year since 1990, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Yet the Tea Party is leading a push to erase those gains. With indiscriminate antigovernment fervor, Republican leaders believe the EPA has no business regulating pollution. Since the GOP took control, the House has been asked to cast votes nearly 160 times on measures to block or limit environmental safeguards. This is the most coordinated attack we have witnessed in the past 40 years. NRDC is pushing back hard. First, we have launched a series of targeted campaigns that connect environmental issues with the basic concerns of American families, especially their health, the food they eat, the air they breathe, and the water they drink. This is a return to our roots, to a time when most Americans understood that the environmental movement sought to protect everyone’s well-being. We need to communicate that message more clearly and effectively than ever. Second, we will support elected officials who safeguard our health and our environment and hold accountable those who do not. Finally, we will develop more and broader partnerships with those in the business community who share our goals. If Tea Party rhetoric became reality, I don’t think Americans would take kindly to a more toxic world that posed a greater threat to their families’ well-being. I don’t know one parent who wants to expose her children to more lead, mercury, or smog. That’s why NRDC remains committed to strengthening the protections that place the well-being of the many above the narrow interests of the few.
francEs beinecke, President
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nrdc in the news “‘keystone xl will promote oil dependency, which is precisely what undermines America’s energy security,’ Danielle Droitsch, a senior adviser with the Natural Resources Defense Council, said today on the conference call.” —From “Clinton Review of Canada Pipeline Ignores Risks, Groups Say,” Bloomberg, August 25, 2011
“‘The White House is siding with corporate polluters over the American people,’ said NRDC President Frances Beinecke. ‘The Clean Air Act clearly requires the Environmental Protection Agency to set protective standards against smog—based on science and the law. The White House now has polluted that process with politics.’” —From “Texas Lawmakers Applaud Obama Decision to Block EPA Reg; Environmentalists Hiss,” Houston Chronicle, September 7, 2011
“‘When you get teams looking for efficiency, it gets noticed more than when environmental advocates do it,’ said Allen Hershkowitz, the director of the Sports Greening Initiative at the Natural Resources Defense Council, which advises leagues and teams. ‘People expect it from us, but when it’s the Cardinals, it’s the heartland. It’s nonpolitical.’” —From “Sports Rally Around Green Projects,” New York Times, October 25, 2011
Protecting the laws that protect us all
Make Someone Happy. (And send the Earth a little joy at the same time.)
Holiday Gifts That Make a Difference Are you looking for unique gift ideas for friends and loved ones who are passionate about protecting wildlife, saving wild places, supporting renewable energy or fighting global warming? The NRDC Green Gift collection was created with
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the deans list
by bob deans
our new jobs man in d.C. secretary promotes U.S. exports and ensures that imports comply with domestic law and international accords. Bryson takes the helm amid the worst job market since Ronald Reagan was president, with 14 million Americans looking for work and the unemployment rate at 9 percent. That means job number one for Bryson will be helping to After President Obama tapped create jobs, by promoting American business at home and the former utility executive to head abroad and by supporting policies that help keep U.S. comthe Commerce Department last panies and workers competitive in the global marketplace. The new commerce secretary knows how to recognize May, Bryson drew fire from the far right for his history of environmental advocacy. Yet he was opportunity. He proved that during his 18-year tenure as endorsed by key business groups, including the National chairman and chief executive officer of Edison International, Association of Manufacturers and the U.S. Chamber of the holding company that owns Southern California Edison. Commerce, which praised “his extensive knowledge of In 1990, when he assumed the top post, Bryson saw over the the private sector and years of experience successfully horizon to a future of increased electricity generation, not just by utilities but by their commercial and residential consumrunning a major company.” For five months, though, his nomination hung in the ers as well. In California and in foreign countries from Italy to Indonesia, he helped balance. One of his develop cogeneration fiercest opponents, Sometimes called the nation’s top salesprojects that let cusSenator James Intomers produce their hofe, Republican of man, the commerce secretary presides own electricity—from Oklahoma, assailed over a department with a $7.5 billion renewable sources Obama for appointbudget and 47,000 employees worldwide like solar and wind or ing a founder of “one from waste heat—that of the most radical, they can then use or sell to their utility company. left-wing, extreme environmental groups.” Bryson grasped the potential of renewable energy After graduating from Yale Law School in 1969, Bryson joined with John Adams and several other young attorneys sources, which provided 16 percent of Southern California to create the Natural Resources Defense Council. At a time Edison’s electricity mix by the time he left his position in when there was no such thing as environmental law, they 2008. He helped put the company on track to install “smart saw a vital role for the courts in protecting our air, water, meters” in more than five million homes, where they can lands, and wildlife. Bryson left NRDC in 1974, but he has save consumers money and reduce the need to build new retained his commitment to defending electricity-generating plants. Bryson, in short, understands visit onearth.org public health and a clean environment. that the key to creating jobs and spurring growth is to embrace to read Bob Deans’s weekly guide to environmental politics in Washington. Over the objections of Inhofe and the future and the opportunities it presents. onearth.org/thedeanslist 25 other Republicans, the Senate conThat’s the challenge, writ large, we face as a nation as we firmed Bryson on October 20. After the vote, the president struggle to regain our footing from the worst economic colsaid, “John Bryson will be a key member of my economic lapse since World War II. And that’s the charge to Bryson team, working with the business community to promote as he takes the reins as our 37th secretary of commerce. job creation, foster growth, and help open up new markets around the world for American-made goods.” Bob Deans, NRDC’s associate director of communications, spent Sometimes called the nation’s top salesman, the com- 30 years as a reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and merce secretary presides over a department with a other newspapers and is a former president of the White House $7.5 billion budget and 47,000 employees worldwide. The Correspondents’ Association.
1 2 onearth
illustration by bruce morser
Nominees for secretary of commerce usually glide through their Senate confirmation, without the political drama of, say, a potential Supreme Court justice. John Bryson was an exception.
40 West 20th Street, New York, NY 10011
YOUR OWN BAT CAVE
I found “Coal on a Roll” (Fall 2011), by George Black, to
be the most enjoyable article that I have read to date regarding the coal issue. But here’s my gripe: what seems to be missing in this great coal debate are acceptable alternatives. The wind turbines coming through the Port of Longview in Washington State do not represent a realistic alternative to burning fossil fuel. Until we achieve the “hydrogen economy,” if we ever do, we are going to burn stuff. If it isn’t coal, it will be natural gas, shale gas, oil, buffalo manure, or… who knows what. They all produce CO2 (though coal generates more per Btu). All this intellectual energy fighting against a particular fuel should be directed toward the carbon emissions from all fossil fuels. Maybe then we would be forced to find that bridge to the future. —GEORGE RAITER Cowlitz County Commissioner Kelso, Washington
OH, CANADA! In his article “Blame Canada!” (Fa1l 2011), Andrew Nikiforuk states that a loophole in Canada’s federal Fisheries Act allows government officials to turn lakes into “tailings impoundment areas.” OnEarth readers should also know that a change was made to the Clean Water Act by the Bush administration in 2002, allowing lakes to be used for mine waste disposal upon approval by the Army Corps of Engineers. In 2010 Slate Lake in Alaska became the first lake since the passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972 to be converted into a tailings impoundment. Since using a lake for mine waste disposal is cheaper than
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building a tailings dam, we can expect to see more lakes in the United States meeting a similar fate in the future. —DAVID CHAMBERS Center for Science in Public Participation Bozeman, Montana Although Canada’s industrial policies show a disturbing disregard for the environment, it bears mentioning that most of the current crop of presidential contenders seem to have the exact same vision for our own country, as does the U.S. House of Representatives. —JOHN BANACH Deerfield, Florida
I can’t believe OnEarth ended “The Man Who Loves Bats” (Fall 2011), by Ted Genoways, with the sentence, “As we turn onto the interstate back toward Boston, Kunz’s mind is on how to increase the production of the roost modules,” and did not include a link to plans or instructions to build them!
posted online by Tom Wicker The editors reply: We can’t believe it either. We’ve got links to some basic instructions and will soon be providing more information (with pictures!) at onearth.org/batbox.
BUZZ KILL OnEarth arrived in my mailbox this week, filled with insightful, relevant information—until “The Summer I Got Buzzed” (Fall 2011), by Emma Marris, a self-indulgent baby-mama who couldn’t make it through the recent cicada irruption without a mother’s-little-helper bottle of Klonopin—to take the edge off that panic-inducing buzzing. Marris waxes poetic about how the pills made her ”arguably a better mother.” And she closes her little pharmaceutically pil-
lowed scamper in the backyard by informing us proudly that she’d just “done exactly what I advise us all to do. I have experienced the nature that is all around us in a deep and visceral way.” Really? —JACQUELYN HOUGH Red Springs, North Carolina
those damn bikers I cannot think of a more overhyped, less environmentally effective cause than urban biking, as described by Joe Dolce in “The Bicycle Diaries” (Fall 2011), especially as it is played out here in New York City. Biking has zero environmental benefit—that is, zero public benefit—unless it takes a driver directly out of his car. As far as I can tell, most people who “bike to work” in Manhattan come off the subway. A bike does not necessarily mean “one less car.” It might just mean one more bike added to traffic. —KURT STRAHM New York, New York write to us
Got an opinion? Send in your thoughts by pen or by keyboard. Visit us on the Web at onearth.org. Letters may be edited for clarity and length.
Dusk at the Edge of the World Moonrise softens the lake’s steel blue to sky, and wind-driven ripples to powder. Those distant shadows are boats docked near cottages huddled on this narrow spit at land’s end. For a moment, we are deaf to the ocean beyond, lost in the surrender of color that means the world still turns. The cold, when it comes, is another form of light. It leads us back toward home.
—B y F loyd S k loot
illustration by blair thornley
is coal king?
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s c i e n c e b u s i n e s s n a t u r e t e c h n o l o g y c u l t u r e p o l i t i c s
it’s just your trash talkin’
W illustration by Jonny Mendelsson
by jocelyn c. zuckerman
What if our garbage system were smart enough to inform waste collectors, recyclers, and resellers what we’ve just tossed into it? We may be closer than you think.
nobody seems to have thought about where all those radios and recliners would go once consumers were through using them. “This is sort in stuff. Four decades ago, the introof a solved problem,” says Valerie Thomas, an industrial engineering duction of a technology known as the professor at Georgia Tech. For the past few years, Thomas has been Universal Product Code, or UPC, enworking on a Smart Trash concept based on that same UPC technology. abled grocery stores to streamline the Most people will tell you that they’d like to recycle tagging, checking visit onearth.org the things for which they no longer have a use, she out, and reorderto read about our columnist Laura Wright Treadway’s struggle with points out. The problem is all the time, effort, and ing of products, e-waste. onearth.org/observed money it often takes to make that happen. thereby vastly scal“I think trash cans as we know them will disappear,” says Thomas, ing up the volume of inventory they could offer. A typical supermarket in who calls her concept “product self-management.” “Not to the extent 1974 stocked 9,000 items on its shelves. By 2006, that figure had risen to that the chair will go walking off,” she clarifies. What she has in mind 45,000, and many of those supermarkets had morphed into super-stores. is a system that would simplify the process by which the chair could (Today’s Walmart might carry some 85,000 products.) Unfortunately,
e weren’t always so awash
thousand: NUMBER OF desktop and laptop computers discarded daily in the U.S. in 2010
Percentage of all corrugated boxes recycled in the u.s. last year
thousand: miles of ribbon discarded by Americans each year—enough to tie a bow around the earth
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NEWS HOUND No shedding, no barking, no need to walk or feed. This adorable (if pricey) pooch was made from recycled newspapers. $149 at vivaterra.com.
NOT YOUR GRANDMA’S GROW LIGHTS
ith demand for food expected
to double over the next 40 years, the greenhouse-lighting system introduced by the Swedish company Heliospectra comes as welcome news. Combining high-brightness light-emitting diodes (HB-LEDs), sensors, and computer software that together can be programmed to deliver light with the precise intensity and wavelength that plants need, the product can augment growth by as much as 30 percent. The orange-spectrum mercury-based high-pressure sodium lights currently used by most greenhouses generate a lot of heat; the problem, according to Heliospectra, is that plants utilize only 25 percent of the lights’ energy. Cooler HB-LEDs produce the blue and red wavelengths that plants prefer. CEO Staffan Hillberg says the lights can save 50 percent in energy costs, and the company is developing a feedback system that can sense conditions like thirst and adjust —Renee cho light delivery accordingly. decibels
the SOUNDs OF SONAR
Low-frequency Military Sonar
Airplane Taking Off
ilitary ships and submarines routinely ping the ocean with active sonar despite the sometimes fatal hazard that the practice poses to whales and other marine mammals. Just how loud are those noises? It’s all relative.
urban backyard—bar codes may give way to radiofrequency identification (RFID) tags, already used for tracking livestock and enabling motorists to zip through tollbooths. The tiny tags can cost as little as seven cents apiece. But there are some hurdles. For starters, manufacturers may have mixed feelings about the idea of their products enjoying continued resale and reuse. And there will be costs involved in setting up the scanning systems and databases. In the case of the UPC, industry decided the ultimate benefits justified the initial outlay, but it may not feel the same about Smart Trash, in which case government regulation could potentially urge it along. Still, pressure is building, especially where electronics are concerned. Projected shortages of heavy metals such as lead, cadmium, and nickel, as well as China’s threats to further restrict exports of the rareearth metals needed to make mobile phones and flatscreen TVs, mean recycling such goods makes sense on several levels. Thomas recently participated in an EPA working group—along with representatives from manufacturing, retailing, and recycling—tasked with exploring how the chips could help with e-waste recycling, and a new federal strategy for e-waste management, released in July, calls for better tracking of used electronics. Once the technology has been adapted for computers and cell phones, she believes, it’s only a matter of time before it trickles down to that chair.
illustration by David Goldin
Well, they’ve certainly identified a niche. The Texas-based act Vocal Trash combines singing, break dancing, and drumming with tips about recycling. You gotta love a band whose instruments run to dented trash cans.
Kanye West Concert
Manufacturers may have mixed feelings about the idea of their products enjoying continued resale and reuse
Rockers for Refuse
move from one user to the next. She is working on a prototype of a recycling bin outfitted with a bar-code reader that would register details about whatever cell phone or cowboy boot you’ve just thrown in. As is the case with today’s UPCs, the information corresponding to the bars would be stored in a central database, in this case at a waste company or a website like eBay. On the basis of that information—including the make, model, and component parts of the item—the company would determine its value (and that of its parts) to recyclers or secondhand dealers. When the company arrived for pickup, it would download the information and then direct the item to a recycler, secondhand dealer, or e-waste handler as appropriate. Consumers would be rewarded with cash or other incentives. Ultimately, says Thomas—who is so dedicated to conservation that she regularly prepares dinner for her family of four on a solar cooker in her sub-
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mestic product are a meaningful measure of a nation’s economic health. He describes GDP as “nothing more and nothing less than a measure of ‘busy-ness’ in the economy”—regardless of whether all that economic activity has any redeeming social value. Prosperity Without Growth presents an unusual marriage of ideas, combining Jackson’s skepticism about growth with proposals by the likes of Deutsche Bank, the second biggest bank in the world, for a “Green New Deal”
There are people who see sustainability as an act of ideological warfare, a plot to undermine capitalism. So I try to avoid the word.
Tim Jackson sees green investment as the key to our future.
the sweet spot An economist questions the virtues of perpetual growth— and finds some corporations surprisingly ready to listen
that would channel economic stimulus funds preferentially into low-carbon energy development, energy-efficient buildings, fuelefficient vehicles, transportation infrastructure, and an upgraded electricity grid, all of which would create jobs. OnEar th executive editor George Black visited Jackson at his office in Guildford, just outside London, to ask how this vision has fared over the past three years.
As Western economies continue
to languish, some economists and environmentalists have asked whether a return to the high growth rates of the past is possible, sustainable, or even desirable. Among the slew of books published in the aftermath of an interview with the crash, perhaps the most influtim jackson ential—especially in the euro zone, by george black which is now fighting for survival— has been Prosperity Without Growth, by the British economist Tim Jackson. Jackson is something of a Renaissance man: adviser to governments, corporations, and asset management companies; award-winning dramatist; and, since 2006, director of the Research Group on Lifestyles, Values, and Environment (RESOLVE) at the University of Surrey, England. Prosperity Without Growth began life as a report for the British government’s Sustainable Development Commission, which, in a sign of the times, was abolished in March 2011, a casualty of Prime Minister David Cameron’s austerity program. Jackson fundamentally questions the idea that increases in gross do-
You say in your book that “questioning growth is deemed to be the act of lunatics, idealists, and revolutionaries.” Is that more true or less true now than when you wrote it in 2009?
Both. It’s more true in the sense that there’s a ferocious backlash against those who question the quasi-religious fervor about getting growth back. But at another level there’s this really interesting thing going on, with a whole spectrum of people beginning to question the assumption that it’s desirable, from ordinary people who have always been uncertain about why things must expand indefinitely to groups that have previously been obsessed with the idea of growth, like
Other than just relishing a challenge, what’s driving these people to embrace such radical ideas?
I think they have real concerns in the wake of this economic crisis, looking at commodity prices, the fragility of supply chains, environmental constraints, the potential for resource scarcity. These issues now really scare many enterprises. This is a recession unlike any other. In a normal recession, you find your input costs falling, you find that economic conditions get slightly easier in terms of your supply chains. But that isn’t happening. It’s a very different climate. The cynic might say that you can’t get away from the word sustainability in the corporate world these days.
Yeah, I tend to use it as little as I can, to be honest, partly because it can just be a meaningless tagline, but also because it provokes antagonism from mainstream sectors. In the U.K. we took sustainability more seriously than many other countries. We were the first to produce an action plan for sustainable development, in the 1990s. But there’s been quite a frightened retreat from that lan-
left: photograph for onearth by trevor ray hart/getty images; right: illustration by johanna goodman
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the World Economic Forum in Davos. It continues to surprise me that my book has had such resonance among business leaders. I was trying to say that it’s a real dilemma to structurally reorganize your economy. This isn’t an easy thing, and there are no off-the-shelf solutions. But we have to go into that place, no matter how dark and counterintuitive it seems. And I think that’s something the more visionary CEOs respond to, actually enjoy to some extent.
guage. That’s partly because of the financial crisis—sustainability is seen as an unnecessary luxury. But there are also people who see it as an act of ideological warfare, a plot to undermine capitalism. So I try to avoid the word. When the crisis hit, Deutsche Bank identified a “sweet spot” for investment in sectors that would create green jobs. But the results have been mixed, to say the least.
Worldwide, the commitment to green stimulus has varied a lot. The greenest recovery package was in South Korea, which targeted more than 80 percent of its stimulus funds toward environmental goals. Here in the U.K. it was less than 7 percent, and in the United States it was about 12 percent. In dollar terms, that amounted to about $94 billion. But the sweet spot wasn’t quite so sweet as Deutsche Bank hoped. It was sweet in the sense of opportunity, but not in the sense of execution. Enormous amounts of money were thrown into structures and institutions that weren’t ready to deal with them. With Solyndra [the solar panel manufacturer accused of squandering half a billion dollars in U.S. government subsidies] being the poster child, of course.
Well, in the context of a $787 billion stimulus package, there was always a danger that some of the money would go astray, would be misallocated or undermanaged, and inevitably therefore you get a backlash. Solyndra is an easy target. But that doesn’t mean the sweet spot isn’t still sweet in terms of opportunity. It does mean that we don’t yet have the institutions to manage the money in a way that maximizes those opportunities. To play devil’s advocate, many of the people who are driving the best innovations in green technology are also
passionately committed to economic growth. In other words, they seem to believe you can have it both ways.
It depends on what you mean by “best.” I know people like Jeremy Leggett at Solar Century, who has built up a very impressive company here in the U.K. with a very good understanding of the limits of natural resources. He would certainly argue that you can do a lot within the existing economic model by developing better technologies. And his company is successful; it keeps its investors happy. But at the same time, he absolutely understands that if you extend the growthbased model at scale for nine billion people, all aspiring to this kind of lifestyle, by 2050 you just have a “does not compute” sign leaping out at you at every turn. Which takes us to China. You’re okay with very high growth rates there because of the need to raise millions of people out of poverty. But doesn’t their model depend on feeding Western consumption habits, which in turn lock us into a growth-based model too?
it takes all kinds A recent study of frogs and other amphibians suggests variety may be the key to life
hen they studied a mysterious fungal
infection ravaging the world’s amphibian populations, researchers at Oregon State University uncovered yet another reason to value biodiversity. In a paper recently published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the authors found that increased species richness decreased both the prevalence and the severity of the disease. The more amphibian species the researchers added to a controlled environment, the smaller the percentage of animals that died from the infection. “If you manipulate the diversity of the system,” says Andrew Blaustein, a conservation biologist and co-author of the paper, “it dilutes the effects of the disease.” Some species may be poor hosts, for example, and others may not get infected at all. The combined effect is a slowing of the overall transmission of the disease. Not only does a lack of biodiversity have a profound impact on the amphibian world, say the researchers, but a depleted amphibian world has serious implications for biodiversity as well: tadpoles clean rivers by eating algae, for example, enabling other aquatic life to flourish. Frogs and salamanders eat insects, thereby protecting plant life. And amphibians are prey for fish, reptiles, birds, and even foxes. The tricky thing about biodiversity, Blaustein says, “is that once you lose it, it’s —michelle bialeck really hard to get it back.”
To an extent, yes, but I think that’s been decoupled a bit by the financial crisis. China has a very canny, sophisticated leadership, and its strategy increasingly is to feed its own domestic demand and demand from the middleand low-income countries in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. It’s the West that has suffered most from the economic crisis, so the Chinese model will depend less and less on Western consumption. China has also made enormous strides over the past 20 years in bringing down the energy intensity of its economy. We have no moral right to make judgments about China’s lifestyle aspirations. The frontier for thinking about alternatives to a growth-based economy has to be in our high-consuming, highemitting nations, not in the developing world.
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dog’s best friend
Sam Wasser runs the Center for Conservation Biology, in Seattle
will work for chew toys With their super-evolved sense of smell, canines make ideal employees for conservation programs aimed at tracking and detecting endangered wildlife. And they never whine for a raise.
By anne casselman
ucker doesn’t care about saving the
whales. The 7-year-old lab-retriever mix is concerned solely with his ball, a bright-orange chew toy and his main motivator in life. “You want a dog that’s so obsessed with the ball, he’ll work all day,” says Sam Wasser, director of the Center for Conservation Biology at the University of Washington, in Seattle, and the founder of its Conservation Canines program. Sure enough, on this July morning, Tucker is hard at it, tirelessly sniffing the winds of Puget Sound to find whale scat before all of the genetic and biological information it contains sinks in the inky blue waters of the Pacific. If he finds some, he gets his toy. Wasser’s 14-year-old program uses dogs with high “play drive” to find poop, which he and his research team then mine for genetic and physiological details including hormone and toxin levels. Using noses that have evolved to sniff out prey to locate feces isn’t just low cost and noninvasive; it’s also an incredibly efficient way to determine the environmental pressures confronting a population. Scat-detection dogs can find samples
from multiple species simultaneously across large, remote areas and are more effective than traditional wildlife detection methods such as radio-collaring, trapping, and photographing with remote cameras. By analyzing the scat, Wasser and his team can ascertain everything from a species’ abundance and distribution to its use of resources. Here in the San Juan Islands, Tucker and the crew are catching up with a few of the region’s endangered Southern Resident Killer Whales, which were last spotted heading north. As the boat bisects the orcas’ path about half a mile downwind of the pod, Tucker paces across the bow, poised to locate the “scent cone” of the feces, as his handler, Elizabeth Seely, shouts directions to the driver. As endearing as the sight of Tucker is— his neck and head outstretched over the prow of the boat like the figurehead of a galleon—he is a no-nonsense, 76-pound smelling machine. Dogs have up to 40 times as many olfactory receptors as do humans, and that’s not taking into consideration the maze of ridged bones in their snouts that increases the surface area on which scent particles are trapped. Plus they can sniff the air at an amazingly fast rate. All of which helps explain
The dogs are so toy-fixated that ‘you can literally take a ball and throw it in a bag of dog food and they’ll take the ball and not the food’
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left: photograph for Onearth by Annie marie Musselman (all samples collected under nmfs permit #10045; funding for the center from the washington sea grant); right: iillustration of Mario batali by zach trenholm
how Tucker has managed to track orca scat from more than a mile away. “It has allowed us to establish some of the causes of the decline of killer whales that began in the late 1990s,” says Wasser, who has also done extensive conservation work in Africa. (The main culprit appears to be the lack of fish: the whales feed mostly on chinook salmon, whose numbers have diminished in recent decades thanks to a combination of increased marine pollutants, overfishing, and dams that disrupt their habitat.) Wasser’s dogs are so toy-fixated, he says, that “you can literally take a ball and throw it in a bag of dog food and they’ll take the ball and not the food.” Today the program has 12 dogs and five handlers deployed worldwide. The canines have sniffed out jaguars and pumas in southern Mexico and tigers and leopards in the wilds of Cambodia. In the species-rich savanna of Brazil’s Cerrado region, they tracked the scat of five different species. Tucker himself has tracked the feces of grey wolves, moose, wolverines, woodland caribou, and green iguanas, but it’s his work on the water, in search of orca poop, that has earned him the most attention. Passing boaters and whale-watching outfits will often radio in to check on his progress. “He’s definitely the star of the show,” says Jessica Lundin, an environmental toxicology graduate student who regularly accompanies the dog on his outings and uses the scat that he finds in her research. Back on the boat, Tucker appears to be closing in on something good. Seely calls out directions over the canine’s whines and whimpers as the driver’s zigzagging gets tighter and tighter. “It’s white!” she finally shouts to the crew. “Silver-dollar size!” The group erupts into cheers and whistles (“Good boy, Tuck!”), but their hero is oblivious to it all. His jowls stretched wide from the g-forces, he whips his head back and forth, the orange ball locked in his slavering mouth. He dances in the wind, an ecstatic black blur silhouetted against the morning sky.
DELUXE SUITE W/GECKO
Beyond Skin Deep Twenty-five years ago, Ute Leube and Kurt Nübling began gathering plants around their Alpine home for a line of beauty and wellness products. Now their all-natural creams and lotions are available in this country. We love knowing that the company helps partners from Peru to Nepal convert to organic farming. From $15 at primaveralife.com.
“Stop asking why organic food is so expensive and start asking why conventional food is so cheap. Conventional ag carries hidden costs that catch up with us later on: poor health and climate change are far more expensive in the end than the extra buck you’d pay for that sustainably farmed tomato.”
ack in 2006, one of the resident astronomers
at Namibia’s Sossusvlei Desert Lodge, a safari camp run by the conservation-minded andBeyond, came across a tiny speckled gecko that he didn’t recall having seen before. Five years and several examinations by taxonomists later, the rock-dwelling creature has now been recognized by the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology as a brand-new species: Pachydactylus etultra (“et” for and and “ultra” for beyond ). Guests of the lodge, which reopened last December after an extensive renovation, already were known to return home with stories of close-up encounters with oryx, springbok, aardwolf, hyena, and zebra. This in addition to stargazing with those astronomers and early-morning ballooning over the petrified-sandstone dunes. Now they can add new bragging rights to the mix: How many people do you know who’ve checked in to a hotel with its own species? Visit andbeyond.com.
N A recent TRIP TO SOUTH AFRICA, the Vermont-
based artist Sally Linder met an AIDS orphan who inspired Zebra Boy, from her series Luminous People and Land. “The Zulu consider animals to possess special powers. This child was not well, and by imagining a zebra in his tiny hands I hoped to bring him symbolic respite and a moment of childhood joy.” Visit onearth.org for an interview with the artist and paintings from her polar bear series, Approaching a Threshold.
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by alan burdick
calculates how many shots to take, moves the camera incrementally, and snaps the shutter. Special software stitches together the photos— hundreds of them—into a seamless image gigapixels in size, with a thousand times the resolution of a high-definition television. This isn’t your average static photograph. It’s an exploratory experience: you zoom in, and zoom in, pan, and zoom in still further. Smith uses his GigaPan setup to take 360-degree panoramas of his cloud-forest sites, from canopy to floor. Afterward he can go back and identify individual spiders or ants on the leaves or call on a botanist to identify the flora for him. “I often see things in the digital environment,” he says, “that I wasn’t aware of when I was actually there.” Smith is creating a series of GigaPan images of his field sites, made months apart. The visual record provides a meticulous document of how insect and plant populations are shifting as the cloud forest is warmed and dried by climate change. Back in Ontario, he is making a similar set of images of a local patch of woods to record how it responds over time to global warming and urban pressure. Chris Fastie, a biologist at Middlebury College, uses GigaPan images to study forest structure at sites around New England and in Alaska. And Dennis van Engelsdorp, an entomologist at Penn State, takes GigaPan images of honeybee colonies to better learn how they succumb to colony collapse disorder. Gigapixel images involve enormous file sizes, so Carnegie Mellon University—which developed the technology in collaboration with NASA and with support from Google—hosts a website where scientists and other users can upload and share their shots. (Though the images look spectacular on their own, they’re best viewed through the Google Earth program, which creates the experience of standing cologists work in what Alex Smith, of the University of Guelph in Ontario, calls “this van- on the ground and looking at the scene in three dimensions.) Viewers can tag and comment on images; scientists can collaborate. Andrew ishing moment.” Time is fleeting; you have hours, maybe days, often at a remote field site you visit Deans, an entomologist at North Carolina State University, uses the rarely, to gather as much data as possible, knowing site to share GigaPan images of his department’s insect collections, that the same conditions won’t recur exactly. “That to crowd-source their taxonomic identification. Smith, at Guelph, has begun a Nearby Nature Gigablitz, in which citizens capture a local moment, you can’t recreate it,” Smith says. The challenge is to maximize that time, to capture now landscape of interest and join forces to identify every living species in it. The GigaPan concept was developed by Illah Nourbakhsh, of Carnin full and decipher the details later. That imperative drives all the egie Mellon’s Robotics Institute, and Randy Sargent, sciences, of course, but it’s especially keen among visit onearth.org of the NASA Ames Intelligent Robotics Group, after environmental researchers, who race to document for the best images from the Nearby Nature Gigablitz. their experience stitching together the high-res disappearing species and to learn how ecosystems onearth.org/gigapan panoramic images sent back by NASA’s rovers work even as they unravel. on Mars. “I felt like I was on Mars myself,” Sargent recalls. “It had a Smith’s fieldwork in the cloud forests of Costa Rica involves the usual tools for documentation: notebooks, field microscopes, bug- profound effect on me.” Recently they unveiled the project’s newest collecting vials, a point-and-shoot camera. Lately he’s been bringing capability, a method of easily creating time-lapse GigaPan images— along an extra piece of equipment that enables his camera to take essentially ultra-high-res panoramic videos. They’re only just realizing what are known as GigaPan images—immersive and extremely the various ways scientists might utilize it, but one application may be Earth itself. By pushing data from the orbiting MODIS satellites high-resolution panoramic photos. The technology has been around through the GigaPan software, scientists can begin more easily to a few years—it caught notice with a high-res panorama of President detect changes in ocean chlorophyll, land cover, and other data critiObama’s inauguration—but it is gaining traction with environmental scientists, geologists, entomologists, even archaeologists, for its abil- cal to climate models. The view is so new, it’s like looking at another planet—except we live on it, for the moment, anyway. ity to capture the smallest visual details. Now never looked so rich. A GigaPan unit is a small robotic mount that sits on a tripod and accepts most any digital camera. Set the camera to maximum zoom, Alan Burdick is a contributing editor and regular columnist for OnEarth. His enter the width of the panorama you want, and a microprocessor most recent book, Out of Eden, was published in 2005.
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illustration by jesse lefkowitz
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hot-rod? try eco-mod
by zach zorich
oyota had prepared for the
Green Drive Expo held last July at the Dane County Fair, in Madison,
Wisconsin, by erecting two giant booths fes-
tooned with multicolored banners and fronted by gleaming models of its 2012 Prius. Nearby, Ben Nelson, a bespectacled 35-year-old from Oconomowoc, Wisconsin, sat behind a folding 2 6 onearth
table with a fake wood-grain top and a taped-on, handwritten sign reading “Freedom From Foreign Oil” and “Home-Built Electric Car.” A black Geo Metro, sporting vanity license plates exhorting “REVOLT,” was parked at his side. A few minutes earlier, wandering the floor of the Expo, I’d been checking out some of the vintage vehicles on display. There was a Carter-era electric car called the Electrek, whose passenger compartment was a squat, four-sided chamber of beige fiberglass that looked like a lopped-off Egyptian pyramid with a sunroof. Had the builder of the thing done so in response to the oil shortage at the time of the Iranian revolution in 1979? All I can say is that the Ayatollah would have had a good laugh over it. Next to the Electrek sat the corroded and dented body of a three-wheeled vehicle with a robin’s egg–blue paint job and bug-eye headlights. It looked more like an animated Disney character than anything that would actually take you somewhere. The quirky old vehicles had me thinking about how completely unserious have been the attempts in this country to address our addiction to oil. Ben Nelson had obviously gotten to that conclusion earlier. (For more on electric cars and the people who love them, see Adam Aston’s review of High Voltage, on page 56.) He and others like him are part of an emerging subculture known as eco-modders, guys (there appear to be few women involved) united around the idea that we can beat that dependence—by starting in our own backyards. Rather than soupingup their vehicles to go faster, eco-modders pimp their rides with a nod toward preserving the planet. And representatives of this new twist on the hot-rodder had descended on Madison, eager to flaunt their cars, talk shop, and compete in the MPG Challenge—an 18-mile race through the city streets to determine whose ride gets the best mileage. Though his license plates might lead you to believe otherwise, Nelson said he hadn’t come to eco-modding by way of politics. “I got sick of cars,” he explained. “I’ve had some crappy beater cars that just didn’t run well.” Also, he added, “I can’t afford a brand-new Prius.” So one day in 2008 he decided to get serious. Creating the “Electro Metro” in the driveway of his suburban home involved buying a mostly rustfree 1996 Metro for $500 and replacing its nonfunctional engine with an electric forklift motor he’d stumbled across in a junkyard. He took out the old fuel tank, installed a set of lead-acid batteries, and rigged up a computer “controller”—basing it on an open-source design that some friends had put together—to regulate power flow between the batteries and the motor. When it’s fully charged, the car can travel at 45 miles an hour for 20 miles. Nelson charges the batteries from a standard three-prong household outlet, and he pays an extra $3 a month to get electricity from renewable resources. Taken together, these measures render the vehicle practically carbon-neutral. In addition to the Metro, Nelson had brought along the Kawasaki motorcycle he’d converted from gas to electric power, a project that had helped prepare him for the more labor-intensive car conversion. Guileless and mustachioed—think Ned Flanders from The Simpsons—Nelson supports his wife and infant daughter by working as a freelance video producer. It’s a background that has come in handy in his transition from backyard tinkerer to eco-modding evangelist: log on to YouTube and you’ll see that the guy has made (and stars in!) no
illustration by mike byers/levy creative
fewer than 200 videos touting the joys of pimping a sustainable ride. him. The pair had eco-modded a 1980s-model Renault Le Car with His entire electrical and mechanical training having extended no the words “Lectric Leopard” printed on the doors. The Leopard had further than high school shop, Nelson said he learned much of what been manufactured as an electric car, but Sherwin and Ngo added a he needed to know from books checked out of the local library. But bank of lead-acid batteries to extend its range, and Sherwin designed the best sources of information, he said, have been friends of friends a new controller. “I didn’t start off as a green person,” Ngo said. “If and the folks he has met online. “I just started telling everybody, ‘I’m you’re an engineer, you just like to build crap.” going to build an electric car,’ and that’s when it took off.” “Plus he works for the power company,” added Sherwin, “so it’s a Here at the Expo, car geeks beway to sell more electricity.” traying various degrees of technical Toward the end of the day, as savvy stopped by Nelson’s booth the fairgrounds began to empty, The enthusiasm was heartwarming, to chat up the guy from the vidNelson took me for a spin, driving even if most of the visitors betrayed the eos. Some were friends he’d made the Electro Metro to an isolated borderline mania of people whose through message boards like Ecocorner of the parking lot where hobbies have gotten the better of them Modder.com but had never met in the Lectric Leopard crew awaited. person. Nelson greeted them with Once we were away from traffic, a gleeful “Heyyyy” and digressed he whipped the car in a tight circle, into all manner of eco-modding minutiae with an excited physicality. accelerating quickly enough to press me against the passenger door. A middle-aged guy in a cowboy hat told him about the car he’d been He came right up to the Leopard. “Hey, guys,” he teased, “I lost some running on ethanol that he distilled himself. A younger fellow listed the rubber. Is that it on the pavement back there?” many creative driving techniques he’d come up with for extending a Ngo climbed into the Leopard and strapped on his seat belt. He car’s gas mileage beyond its EPA rating. Still others went on about the pulled up next to us, and Sherwin strode out to stand before the two vehicles they were working on—or thinking about working on. The cars. “Okay, don’t hit me,” he said, calmly raising his arms. “Hey,” enthusiasm was heartwarming, even if most of the visitors betrayed protested Nelson as he jerked his thumb in my direction, “I’m carrying the borderline mania of people whose hobbies have gotten the better 200 pounds of ballast!” (I’m actually only 160, but Sherwin dropped of them. (Let’s just say you could feel for the spouses back home.) his arms before I could set the record straight.) Thomas Ngo and Chris Sherwin, electrical engineers and fellow We took off. The ride was surprisingly fast, utterly smooth, and silent Wisconsinites, had arranged to share Nelson’s exhibition space with except for the loose gravel beneath our tires. Compared with internalcombustion engines, electric motors produce a huge amount of torque, which translates into super-quick acceleration. By the time we had to S HORT TA K E brake for the line of cars leaving the lot, the Metro had pulled a few feet ahead of the Leopard. “I shifted gears and it slowed me down,” protested Ngo as he ground to a stop alongside us. Nelson had stayed in second gear the whole race, reaching a top speed of maybe 40 miles Eco-modders will tell you that the first an hour. “I love electric vehicles,” Nelson declared. “They’re like ninjas, silent until you need them, and then HWAAA!” He punched his fist at step to increasing your fuel economy is “to adjust the an invisible assailant somewhere near the windshield. nut behind the wheel.” DriveSmart America, an orgaNelson stopped the car so we could switch positions while Sherwin nization founded by Wisconsin native Bradlee Fons drove the Leopard over to a pile of sand at the edge of the lot and proand his family, offers training and tips for motorists ceeded to skid into a series of burnouts. It took me a minute to figure looking to increase their fuel efficiency. out how to get the Metro started, and then I accelerated tentatively, Drive the speed limit. “Every five miles per hour above 55 is like causing the car to jerk. Once I got the feel of it, though, I stomped on paying 14 cents a gallon more for gas,” Fons says. the accelerator and took off. It was a blast to drive—agile even without Play it cool. You use more fuel when you accelerate hard and the benefit of power steering—and I wondered why electric cars had slam on the brakes. gotten such a wimpy reputation. “Freedom of the road” had always Inflate your tires to their maximum rated pressure. Fully struck me as nothing but a cheesy marketing slogan, but I have to inflated tires create less friction with the surface of the road, admit I was feeling pretty free out there on that plain of asphalt. reducing the amount of work the engine has to do. The Electro Metro won’t solve this country’s dependence on oil, of Get the junk out of the trunk. Carrying extra weight makes the course, but it has gone a long way toward reducing Nelson’s. “The car engine work harder, and that can add up to a lot of wasted gas. itself isn’t that impressive,” Nelson admitted. “But it moves under its Tune your engine and clean your air filter. Good maintenance own power without gasoline.” Also, he said with a grin, “I built it.”
Increase Your MPG
means better burning. For more tips, visit milwaukeehybridgroup.com.
Zach Zorich is a senior editor at Archaeology magazine.
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T H E C o n s Ta n t
a new kind of farm In Dadaab, now Kenyaâ€™s third-largest city, Somali refugees grow vegetables in recycled grain sacks.
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t gardEners faced with increasing drought and desertification , Africans are focusing on a new farming frontier: the cities by J o c e ly n C . Z u c k e r m a n
p h o t o g r a p h s by a n t o n i o b o l f o
dry and low-hanging electric wires. The place reeks of human shit. Njenga knows this territory well. An environmental scientist and We are headed to Kibera, the notorious slum in the Kenyan capital of Nairobi, and Mary Njenga, outspoken advocate for women (and with her shaved head and vow our guide for the visit, has just suggested that never to marry, the most outspoken Kenyan woman I’ve met), the maybe it would be a good idea for the men to 40-year-old has been coming here regularly for the past decade, helping stay behind in the car. People in Kibera can be the locals figure out sustainable strategies for feeding themselves and pretty desperate, and you never know when one of them might pull a their families. Estimates vary as to how many people live in Kibera— knife or a gun on you. “If it’s just the women,” Njenga says, “they’ll know some say half a million; others, a fraction of that—but either way, at just under one square mile, the slum is we’ve come to see the farmers.” under power lines, among the most densely populated We pull into an open area on alongside highways, down places on earth. And the people the outskirts of the shantytown and, while stripping ourselves of the banks of rivers—wherever here are hungry. In a recent study of Kibera’s residents, more than watches and cell phones, make there’s unclaimed dirt, city 95 percent of those surveyed rea plan to reconvene here in a dwellers are digging in ported worrying at some point in couple of hours. (Antonio, the photographer, isn’t about to hang back, but Peter, our driver, is the past 12 months that they would run out of food before finding the visibly frantic about getting himself and his treasured Toyota out money to buy more. (Nearly 20 percent said they’d gone a whole day of here as fast as he can.) Njenga leads us down the wide dirt road and night without eating.) Unlike those who live in the country and that serves as the main drag of the “informal settlement,” as these have land for farming, city dwellers generally have to pay for their food, places are euphemistically known, and onto a narrow path that snakes sometimes spending as much as 80 percent of their incomes to do so. But as Njenga is happy to show me, they’re finding new ways to cope. among shacks fashioned out of mud, tin, and scraps of wood and cardboard. Children poke their heads out of makeshift doorways to We meet up with Catherine Wangui, a friendly 25-year-old sporting a call “How are you?” or “Mzungu! ” (Swahili for white person), as we newsboy cap, who tells us how, about four years ago, representatives step gingerly over shallow gullies of sewage and under drying laun- of the French nongovernmental organization Solidarités International, 3 0 onearth
ur driver isn’t at all happy about this.
nrdc feeding the cities
Mark Izeman Senior attorney and director of NRDC’s New York urban program, spearheading its regional food initiative
Urban agriculture can clearly provide food to disadvantaged populations in African cities. What is happening here in the United States? According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, more than 23 million people in America live in food deserts—areas, often in low-income communities and communities of color, where healthy and affordable food is hard to get. And studies have shown that limited access to healthy food choices often leads to poor diets and high levels of obesity and other diet-related diseases. Eliminating food deserts is therefore a vital issue for reasons of health and social justice.
which does emergency relief and reconstruction work around the world, came here and distribwherever they can. Francis Wachira, uted old flour sacks to some of above, also farms inside the city. the women. They explained how to fill them with soil and rocks before poking holes in the sides and pushing in seeds. Wangui, who grew up in Kibera, stops in front of three of these “vertical gardens”—four-foot-tall sacks plumped out with dirt and sprouting gangly tendrils of kale and spinach. Her 5-year-old daughter, Grace, who is playing nearby in a neat dress and braids, now gets fresh vegetables every day, says Wangui, who sells some of what she grows at a little wooden kiosk that she runs. Njenga also introduces us to people who, in spaces barely the size of closets, are raising chickens and profiting from them. Not that everyone is suddenly thriving; one young woman tells us how her garden sacks have enabled her to buy sugar and cooking oil, but hits me up nonetheless for some spare shillings—to the chagrin of Njenga. no land? no problem Residents
illustration by bruce morser
of Kibera, a Nairobi slum, left, plant
Three years ago, for the first time in human history,
the number of people living in cities worldwide outnumbered those living in rural areas, and the United Nations projects that by 2050, up to 65 percent of the global population will be urbanized. The rate of urban migration is particularly high in sub-Saharan Africa, where 15 million people abandon the countryside every year to move to the cities. Climate
One of our main goals in our effort to boost the production, distribution, and consumption of sustainable local food in these communities is to create a wholesale farmers’ market at the massive Hunts Point food market in the Bronx. This would establish for the first time a distribution hub where small- and medium-size growers would be able to sell directly to supermarkets, restaurants, and other food outlets. An important consideration in creating the wholesale market is to help scale up the availability of fresh food in disadvantaged neighborhoods that are considered food deserts. By the way, the folks who run the city’s more than 50 retail farmers’ markets, GrowNYC, are key partners in pushing for this project. Another great initiative, which is already under way in some neighborhoods, is to bring local produce—and free small refrigerators to keep it fresh— directly to small bodegas that have never offered such healthy food. In Chicago, to cite another example, community organizers have developed the idea of a mobile supermarket to bring fresh, healthy produce to underserved areas. What other initiatives are you working on to get more healthy local food to the residents of New York City? We are working with a grassroots group called Catskill Mountainkeeper to protect and expand farming in the nearby Catskill region so that it can become a larger source of fresh, healthy food for the city. At the same time, we’re working to ensure a steady demand for local food. One way to do this is to push for new laws and policies that would leverage the enormous purchasing power of New York City agencies—including our more than 1,500 public schools—to boost demand for food from nearby farms.
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change will exacerbate the trend, as extreme events—like the drought him as if he were crazy. Having moved to Nairobi to find work while currently devastating the Horn of Africa—become more frequent and in his twenties, Wachira spent 20 miserable years picking up the odd more intense. Climate models predict that in the years to come, sub- construction job and reselling fruit that he would buy from the central Saharan Africa’s arid and semiarid areas will increase by up to 350,000 market. Finally, in 2002, though he owned no land of his own, he found square miles, an area equal to the size of the country of Nigeria. Longer, an empty patch of dirt and started to plant. “Why are you farming in hotter dry periods and unpredictable rainfall already are making it harder Nairobi?” the neighbors mocked. “Go back to the rural area.” There was prejudice at work here—people who take up farming in for farmers to know when to sow and harvest their crops, and in this part of the world, where high-tech irrigation is all but unheard of, the the city must be poor and uneducated, the thinking went—but there challenge is especially acute. Less arable land—and fewer farmers—also was also a perception that food produced in the polluted environment means less food: the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has of a city was inherently unhealthy. (Given the water used for most estimated that yields from rain-fed agriculture here could be cut in half urban crops, that perception wasn’t entirely unfounded.) And because by 2020, and the Washington-based International Food Policy Research people like Wachira were farming on public land, without any permitting Institute predicts that, as a result of climate change, output of staple crops involved, it galled the authorities to no end. Wachira ignored the mockery, and today the lanky father of three actulike cassava and wheat could plunge by as much as 22 percent by 2050. Hungry people and crowded cities, of course, make a combustible ally giggled as he led us through the neat rows of kale, eggplant, spinach, and other vegetables bursting from mix. Think of Paris in 1789, or the 6,000-square-foot plot of land St. Petersburg in 1917. As recently in the scruffy Makadara district, as 2008, the skyrocketing cost of across town from Kibera. “I used staple foods, fueled in part by specuto grow maize,” he said, “but the lation in agricultural commodities city council said it was a security markets, led to riots in no fewer than concern.” The corn grows so high, 36 countries, 21 of them in Africa. apparently, that it makes an irreThe good news is that urban garsistible hiding spot for the city’s dens like Wangui’s are making a legions of thieves. “You have evdifference. And, as I realized when erything here,” Wachira continued I rounded a corner and crashed as we surveyed the land adjacent into 34 of the things, scrunched in to his two-room home. “You don’t tight between a concrete wall and have to go to a kiosk.” He stooped a row of connected shanties, this longer, hotter dry to pick some napier grass and letisn’t just some boutique trend. In periods are already making tuce. “For my goat,” he smiled. Kibera—which the Kenyan govit harder for african farmers Motioning to a handful of young ernment designated a “temporary men washing a car several yards residence” for Nubian (Sudanese) to know when to sow and away, Wachira, who has the prosoldiers after World War I and harvest their crops fessional athlete’s tic of referring which since has drawn hundreds of thousands of squatters from other ethnic groups—some 5,000 house- to himself in the third person, led us to another patch of green. A few holds currently are growing vertical gardens. (The average farming months earlier, he said, as the youths approached and greeted us politely one by one, he’d given them some manure and seeds and spent several household maintains five or six of the sacks.) And in cities across the developing world similar efforts are under afternoons teaching them to plant. Now they were out here every day, way, with the poor making use of everything from used grain sacks to bent over their kale and sweet potatoes and snaking along a hose hooked old tires for planting and cultivating micro-farms. The United Nations up to the nearby public tap. “Before they started this,” he said, “whenever Development Program recently reported that an astonishing 800 million you passed by, they were just asking for coins.” Oscar Njoroge, the people worldwide are now engaged in urban agriculture, producing 32-year-old secretary of the group they’ve dubbed the All For One Youth from 15 percent to 20 percent of the world’s food. (Many of those people Organization, didn’t deny that the young men had been at loose ends. are in Asia, which has a long tradition of urban farming.) Under power In the past few years, he said, 18 youths from the immediate area had lines, alongside highways, down the banks of rivers—wherever there’s died from drugs, AIDS, or tuberculosis. “Farming has really changed unclaimed dirt to be found—landless city dwellers are grabbing shovels our lives,” agreed Erastus Maina, a 23-year-old All-For-Oner in a yellow and digging in. In sub-Saharan Africa alone, participation in urban farm- baseball cap. “Trust has come between us. And we are being respected.” Over in Kibera, I hear similar sentiments—about how the gardens ing has increased from 20 percent of the population two decades ago to nearly 70 percent today. By the year 2020, some 40 million Africans have engendered a sense of trust among the women growing them, how they now carry soil and water for one another, and pool their will be depending exclusively on food grown in cities. money for things like pesticides. There’s also talk about how people Africa’s cities haven’t always welcomed farmers. A few are healthier, in part because they eat more vegetables, but also because days before meeting up with Njenga, Antonio and I spent an afternoon they’ve begun to grow a wider variety of them, including traditional with a 56-year-old named Francis Wachira, who told us that a decade ones like amaranth, spider plant, and African nightshade. Over the past ago, when he said he wanted to grow food in the city, people looked at several decades, such plants had fallen out of favor, especially in urban 3 2 onearth
map by steve stankiewicz
areas, replaced by the easier-to-grow and cheaper kale and cabbage. that when you go to town you’re supposed to modernize,” she tells me (The indigenous vegetables also were associated with poor, rural people over chai and cumin-flecked crackers on her rubber tree–shaded patio. and so were looked down upon by urban consumers.) Now, thanks to “You’re not supposed to be doing farming.” A soft-spoken but opinioncampaigns sponsored by Kenya’s Ministry of Agriculture touting the ated Brit with silvery hair and, at the moment, a sling steadying her left nutritional benefits and drought resistance of these old vegetables, arm (“these things happen after you get to be 70”), Lee-Smith came to they are enjoying a renaissance throughout the country. Njenga has Nairobi to teach in 1969, Ph.D. in architecture and development studies been working with women in Kibera to produce and sell seeds for the in hand. Soon after arriving, she met and married Davinda Lamba, a traditional greens, which more and more Kenyans are adopting in an Kenyan of Indian descent. Based on their mutual interests in urban effort to shield themselves from the effects of changing weather patterns. planning, environmentalism, and human rights, the two founded the These days Wachira attracts a small crowd to Makadara every Tues- Mazingira Institute in 1978 (mazingira is Swahili for environment). day and Saturday, when men and women from around Nairobi pay They began looking into urban poverty and the fundamental right 300 shillings apiece (about $3) to sit on the skinny wood benches to food and later that year published a report showing that roughly a in his “training area,” jotting third of Kenyans were producdown pointers for growing ing some kind of crop or raising their own food. “You can see livestock in towns. “People were By 2050 climate they are doing what Wachira quite astonished,” Lee-Smith change could is doing,” he said later, pointsays. “The report was ridiculed result in the loss of about ing out patches of green amid by many as absurd.” Research two-thirds of the billboards and tumbledown in other East African countries arable land in Africa. shacks in the distance. produced similar results, but still The Sahel Back when he started in 2002, the authorities were dismissive. Wachira told us as we walked (Denial seems to be a theme: unSomalia population growth toward a tin-roofed structure by til recently, the official land-use ghana 2000: 1,674,000 his house, he’d purchased a pair map of the Nairobi City Coun•Accra 2020: 3,110,000 of rabbits. First the neighbors cil showed Kibera, home to as kenya •Dadaab fell over themselves laughing— many as one-sixth of the city’s •Nairobi “Those animals are for country residents, as a forest.) When population growth kids!”—then they got annoyed. they did finally acknowledge Atlantic 2000: 2,230,000 “People were complaining all that urban farming was going on, Ocean 2020: 5,192,000 over,” he recalled. They cursed municipal governments in Africa the smell and accused him of encontinued to discourage, if not gaging in witchcraft. He sold the downright prohibit, the practice. Within 40 years, the bunnies, but a year later decided As the authors of a 2003 study in African to give it another shot, learning Cameroon put it, “urban agriculurban population to build better cages and to dry ture has been playing hide-andwill have out their food to cut down on the seek with urban management tripled. urine. In 2006 he took an entrefor a century.” preneurship course sponsored by his church. “Then my head opened. In fact, city farming has a much longer history, says Lee-Smith, I decided Wachira is not supposed to have a shop,” he said of the fruit who, before her retirement in 2005, also spearheaded an organization stand he’d continued to maintain. “I am a farmer.” called Urban Harvest, based at Mazingira. “It’s been ironed out of Today he keeps some 500 New Zealand whites, long-haired Angoras, urban thinking and planning” since the industrialization of Europe and various other breeds of rabbit in this string of hutches piled three in the 19th century, she says, “when there was the idea that to be stories high. “There is one that can attack you,” he said, opening the efficient you had to get hordes of workers in to run the machines mesh doors to reveal endless bundles of fur, “but I know which one.” while the rest stayed out in the rural areas and did the menial job of The family enjoys rabbit for dinner once a week, he shouted over the creating food.” In a place like sub-Saharan Africa, though, where the traffic racing by just beyond the fence, and every three days he collects lack of refrigeration and bad roads, among a host of other problems, the manure, which he covers with dried grasses to make fertilizer for his means that more than a quarter of the food produced here—some vegetables. “The minister of agriculture knows what I’m doing here,” 100 million tons annually—rots before it can be eaten, it makes obviWachira said, reminding me that we were standing on public land. “As ous sense to grow things as close as possible to the people who are much as they would like to demolish this and take the rabbits, it’s not going to eat them. that easy. It’s very political.” And in an era of climate change, when already degraded soils are increasingly under siege—just as naturally occurring sources of such In the busy Westlands neighborhood of Nairobi, an nutrients as rock phosphate are being depleted—it also makes sense to affable yellow lab named Kofi greets me at the green iron gate that do something with the organic output. “Waste is a nutrient gold mine in marks the home of Diana Lee-Smith, arguably the authority on the urban areas,” Lee-Smith says, “both domestic waste and human waste, politics of urban farming in Africa. “The thinking has always been and, as a minor theme, livestock waste.” While Nairobi generates some winter 2011/2012
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2,200 tons of solid waste a day, the cash-strapped municipality only col- a staple among street-food vendors in this seaside town. The green lects 40 percent of it. In the past few years, with the help of Mary Njenga, expanse is the size of two football fields. (If we shield our ears from the who worked under Lee-Smith at Urban Harvest, local women’s and youth roar of the highway behind us and ignore the massive electrical plant groups have begun to band together to gather the trash on their own, on our left, we can almost imagine we’re in the countryside.) We walk transporting it to central areas for processing into compost. They earn a across a rickety bridge that spans a sewer choked with plastic bags and small fee from households who pay to have it taken away, and they sell dirt-caked bottles and past a little open-air shed, where seven or eight the nutrient-rich by-product to local farmers, landscapers, and seedling men in long robes are praying on woven mats. Most of these farmers nurseries. Lee-Smith tells the story of one Mazingira-trained farmer who are Muslims from up north, Amoah explains, who left the countryside grew up in the slum and now runs a recycling business, transporting for better livelihoods in the city. “This phenomenon is intensified due to compost to the countryside and educating elders there about using it for climate change,” he says, “because now they are having more floods due food production. “He’s actually become quite well-off,” she says with pride. to heavy rains within a short period of time. And they are having very When it comes to irrigating their crops, most of these farmers don’t long dry seasons. If the rainy season used to be five months, now it’s have a choice. Not only are they working on public land, but their three or four.” In the past few years, so many families have abandoned plots are generally in places where there are no functioning water the region just south of the Sahara known as the Sahel—they moved or sewage systems. Residents of Kibera, for example, can buy clean south to areas of greater rainfall in Ghana, Guinea, and Nigeria—that water from one of the few municipal taps (each generally shared by Nigerian police now turn people away at the border. A recent survey found that only 13 percent of the 70 or so wastewater about 100 households), but they pay as much as 10 times what those and fecal-sludge treatment plants in in legal neighborhoods do for the Ghana work as they were meant privilege. Not surprisingly, most to, and that even if all functioned resort to untreated wastewater properly, less than 10 percent of the for irrigation. Free and available country’s urban wastewater would year-round, it’s also rich in plant be treated. To water their crops, nutrients, which means less these farmers use a combination of money spent on fertilizer. There water from the Onyansa stream on are likely heavy metals in it too, our right, which catches graywater though—things like cadmium, from the surrounding communities, chromium, and lead—not to menand the even dirtier stuff from the tion pathogenic microorganisms sewer we’ve just crossed. In 1999, like bacteria and viruses, as well Amoah tells me, the municipal as parasitic worms. government in Accra banned the More than 10 percent of the use of wastewater for farming, but global population regularly eats more than percent most continued to use it anyway, produce that has been irrigated of the global population occasionally at the cost of arrest. with untreated wastewater, says Given the numbers of people who Lee-Smith, adding that for centuregularly eats produce continue to flock to Accra, though, ries the practice was the norm. that has been irrigated with and the fact that most aren’t likely Back in 1868, Victor Hugo wrote untreated wastewater to find jobs there, the government that if it was returned to the land, the sewage of Paris “should suffice to nourish the world.” Once patho- eventually decided to compromise. A revision of the law, adapted with genic microbes were discovered in the 1880s, though, and people came to the help of IWMI and based on the recent WHO guidelines for cheap understand how diseases were transmitted, developed nations clamped and practical ways to improve food safety despite the use of wastewater, down with strict guidelines for wastewater use. Low-income countries ad- is currently being evaluated by the city government. In the meantime, farmers like Fuseini Bukari, a 45-year-old from opted similar policies, despite the fact that they didn’t have the resources to make them a reality. It wasn’t until 2006, when the World Health Or- northeast Ghana who looks like the pop star Seal, have begun impleganization issued new Guidelines for the Safe Use of Wastewater, Excreta menting some of those low-tech measures on their own. They hold and Greywater, that the risks were evaluated alongside the health, social their watering cans closer to their crops, for example, and equip them welfare, and environmental benefits of wastewater irrigation. The WHO with rosettes on the mouths to avoid splashing the often-contaminated guidelines were based largely on research carried out by the International dirt. When they get water from the pond they’ve dug to collect it, Water Management Institute (IWMI), headquartered in Accra, Ghana. says Bukari, stepping onto a little wooden plank, they no longer walk Lee-Smith put me in touch with Philip Amoah, a young researcher there, into it so as not to stir up the disease-causing germs settled at the bottom. He lifts a plastic tarp off a two-foot-high mound. He’s just and he offered to show me the city’s wastewater farming in action. learned how to safely compost poultry manure, and he’s a few days Navigating the Accra traffic is a trial—as in Nairobi, the into the six-week process. (Some 95 percent of Accra’s 1,000 or so infrastructure here lags frustratingly behind population growth—but urban farmers rely on poultry droppings to fertilize their crops.) eventually Amoah pulls up to a government-owned tract of land in They store their vegetables in well-aerated baskets rather than in the Dzorwulu neighborhood, where 100 or so farmers grow lettuce, bags, he says, and some of them stop watering a few days before cabbage, bell peppers, and scallions for the salads that have become harvest so that any pathogens die off. “Now we are able to tell the
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green(Ish) acres Farmers in Accra, Ghana, grow vegetables on cityowned land in the shadow of a power plant.
public that even though we know there are risks,” Bukari says, “we take measures. People from the rural areas come here to learn.”
two male assistants are inventorying fruits of their labors hundreds of three-inch-wide charcoal Mary Njenga, left, helps rings. Brown ones like giant bran- Catherine Wangui cultivate. cereal O’s are laid out on black tarps Right, Francis Wachira offers The fog hangs low over the city on the morning we meet Mary Njenga at her office on the hilly campus of the University of Nai- alongside black ones like miniature a homegrown rabbit dinner. robi. In addition to teaching here, she is working on her Ph.D., focusing dumbbells. Njenga is testing the differon charcoal production with an aim toward fighting climate change, ent combinations to determine which woods and binders emit the least protecting the forests, and—always paramount for her—bettering the carbon dioxide, as well as carbon monoxide and particulate matter, the lives of women. Growing up on a farm west of Nairobi, Njenga says, she culprits responsible for the indoor air pollution that plagues the developbegan noticing how damage to the natural world rippled out into other ing world’s cooks. She’s also working with women in Kibera to make problems. “I saw what was happening around us,” she explains, recalling and sell briquettes that are three times cheaper than ordinary charcoal the trips she and her sisters would make into the forest to collect fire- ones and yet burn nearly twice as long. Among Njenga’s numerous missions (“I want to be wood. “Trees were being cut down. The river became visit onearth.org a renowned scientist,” she declares) is to persuade scarcer, and there was a lot of conflict.” Women had to see more photos and hear an interview with the author. policy makers to integrate not just farming and fuel to walk farther to get wood, keeping them from more onearth.org/africaslideshow policies but also waste management into urban deimportant pursuits, including earning money. Farming got harder and harder, and locals abandoned the countryside for lives velopment plans. An estimated 2.6 billion people in the developing in the city. Njenga prevailed upon her father to send her away to school, world lack access to basic sanitation services, she explains; her Kibera where she woke up at 5:00 every morning to hit the books, and by the women’s groups also have begun selling small biodegradable bags time she reached secondary school—the only one of 11 siblings to get designed to hold human waste (urea crystals inside kill off pathogens) that can be collected and eventually processed into fertilizer. that far—she had decided to focus on the environment. City dwellers spend most of their money on food, but second to that is the fuel they need to cook it. In the process of feeding their families, Last month, UN-habitat, the united nations organization says Njenga, whom an American colleague calls “one of the most driven charged with promoting sustainable towns and cities, released a report women I’ve ever met,” Kenyans go through two million tons of wood titled Cities and Climate Change, in which it called for the mainstreamcharcoal every year. Meeting that demand means the widespread destruc- ing of “urban agriculture in global climate change and food security tion of the country’s forests. Even more galling to Njenga is how much of agendas.” And these days, thanks largely to the work of organizations the wood gets wasted. Nairobi goes through 770 tons of charcoal every like Urban Harvest, Mazingira, and IWMI, governments across Africa day, but between its production and transport, fully one-tenth of that ends are putting in place policies that encourage farming and resource reup as dust. Her plan is to recycle it, along with the 225 tons of sawdust covery in their cities. Kenya’s 2009 national land policy has a section wasted by Kenyan sawmills every year, into briquettes for cooking. devoted to urban agriculture (which Njenga helped to write), and a draft She walks us down a grassy hill to her open-air laboratory, where of the country’s first-ever national policy focused on city farming and 3 6 onearth
animal husbandry is currently under review. Last year Ghana passed Dilemma, are routinely held up as visionaries for the kind of completethe continent’s first national irrigation policy, which encourages the nutrient-cycle, sustainable-agriculture operations they run in the comsafe practices for wastewater irrigation that Amoah had told us about, fortable United States, but Africa’s urban farmers are doing the same and in the Ugandan capital, Kampala, the city council recently added with far, far less. And with the earth’s population expected to grow to a department of urban agriculture. Some municipalities have begun to 9.1 billion in 2050—more than four billion of whom will live in countries grant tax exemptions to landowners who allow farmers to use vacant chronically short of water—we’d probably be wise to pay attention. acreage, and a few are now including plots designated for agriculture in their land-use plans. Kenya recently introduced a system of loans for Our last night in nairobi, antonio and i join francis small urban-farming enterprises, and other cities have reduced tariffs Wachira for a rabbit dinner prepared by his 20-year-old son, for irrigation water and are providing incentives for composting and George. Sitting in the family’s cramped home, where a tablecloth reusing household wastes. draped on a string separates the “living room” from a sleeping “I think there’s a bigarea just big enough to “People have to change their idea ger ideological battle goaccommodate his twenof a sterile, futuristic city with no ing on now in the field of tysomething daughters’ agriculture,” Lee-Smith bunk beds, we listen as farmerS,” says diana lee-smith, into says, pointing to the 2008 he recounts his jourone that integrates farming report released by the Inney from impoverished into all aspects of planning ternational Assessment of construction worker to Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development, recent international traveler. A few months earlier, through an a global consortium established by the World Bank and various U.N. exchange arranged by Mazingira, Wachira and a handful of other organizations to assess the role of agriculture and make recommenda- African farmers had spent time in the United States with outfits tions for the future. Widely acknowledged to be the most comprehensive like Denver’s GrowHaus, which distributes fresh produce in poor analysis of world farming to date, the report called for a shift away from neighborhoods, and Will Allen’s Milwaukee-based Growing Power. industrial agriculture and toward the small-scale farmer, wherever she “I was in Denver for six years,” he begins. “Six weeks,” corrects his might sow. “People have to change their idea of a sterile, futuristic city wife, a little wearily. She’s heard this story before, as have I. But I’m with no farmers,” she says, into the idea of a city that integrates farming not yet tired of listening to this man who’d never previously boarded into all aspects of planning. “These things will change,” she adds, “and an airplane talk about how he delivered a lecture at an American uniI would be vastly entertained to sit around and watch it all happen.” versity that culminated with the crowd on its feet and chanting “Rabbit Developing-world slums have a well-deserved reputation for being King! Rabbit King!” He’s standing now, too, recounting the part where hells on earth, but it strikes me on this trip that in many ways these he explained the concept of the vertical gardens. The Americans had places are ahead of the game. People like the farmer Joel Salatin, the crowded around afterward, begging for more details. “They all wanted cantankerous hero of Michael Pollan’s best-selling The Omnivore’s Wachira,” he says with wonder, “to go over there and train them.” winter 2011/2012
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B orn T o B e W ild s h a r m a n
a p t
r u s s e l L
As children, we absorb books into our bones . they become part of who we are. rereading them in adulthood can bring some surprising revelations . remember inhaling books, reading through the interstices of
the day—stitching the day together with story—after school, on car rides, while people were talking. Greedily, I shopped the library shelves, picking out treasure and carrying home my stack of 10 (the limit set by a capricious authority). All those books to read! What happiness! Titles like Jack London’s White Fang mixed with Sue Barton, Student Nurse, sad books and silly books, books that entertained and books that comforted, books that entered my bones and formed the bones of who I am today. It was the 1960s. My mother, sister, and I lived in apartment buildings in Phoenix, my nature a square of Bermuda grass and a highly chlorinated swimming pool. We never went camping. I was not athletic. And yet I could make a well-balanced spear, paddle a canoe long distances, and tame a wild dog—just like Karana in Scott O’Dell’s Island of the Blue Dolphins. I knew how to skin a slew of animals, eat their insides (the liver a special treat, all that vitamin C), and wear their outsides, proud of my leather shirt and rabbit-fur underwear. Born and raised in the desert, I was truly unfamiliar with trees, a beech as exotic as a baobab, but along with Sam Gribley from Jean Craighead George’s My Side of the Mountain, I lived in a giant hemlock for almost a year, through snow and ice and the greening of spring, befriending a falcon
illustration by Emily Carew Woodard
tional Forest, and have now settled a mile from the national forest line. and cooking meals of cattail tubers and dogtooth violet bulbs smothA girl from the apartment buildings of Phoenix, I found my redempered in acorn gravy. Living off the land was unexpectedly easy—and tion in a landscape where I have lived for the past 30 years and where I richly satisfying. expect to die. I blame Squirrel. My version of going headless includes Lately I’ve been rereading the children’s books that helped shape long walks on country roads and dirt trails, the occasional bushwhack my relationship to nature, turning me toward the natural world and across wild country, up canyons, down creek beds, all the while trying environmental concerns. The reunion has included some surprises. to think less and see more. This is something I am not very good at. I One book in particular gave me goose bumps. Miss Hickory, by want to merge as One with the natural world. Carolyn Sherwin Bailey, was a winner of the 1947 But I keep remembering my human concerns: Newbery Medal, a prize given by the American students and writing, laundry and family. Library Association to the most distinguished Like Sam Gribley in the Catskill Mountains, American children’s book of the year. Newbery like Karana on her island, I find my redemption winners tend to stay in libraries forever, read in the degree to which I have made this place over and over, generation after generation. In my home, knowing these juniper and piñon this back-to-the-wild classic, a sharp-tongued pine, these grasslands dotted with yucca and doll with a body made of twigs and a hickory nut prickly pear, knowing the sound of cicada, the for a head is forced to leave her corncob house rattle of snake, the beauty of jimsonweed, or and live in a nearby forest and half-abandoned sacred datura, also called thorn apple, also called apple orchard. Eating berries and sewing clothes moonflower. I stop to breathe in the smell of the from leaves, Miss Hickory becomes a better large, creamy, trumpet-shaped blossoms (every person—although not quite good enough. One leaf and petal poisonous, causing hallucinations spring, she thoughtlessly scolds her neighbor and death). I know that the roots of yucca make Squirrel, who nips off her head and eats it. Feela good soap. I know that juniper berries are high ing strangely liberated, the headless body of in vitamin C. For reasons going back to fourth twigs gropes its way out of Squirrel’s nest. (Poor grade, all this is deeply satisfying. Squirrel is horrified, and so was I. Having completely forgotten the book’s ending, I’d become my daughter’s thirdattached to this spunky if flawed main character.) hroughout my adult “Headless, heedless, happy Miss Hickory” grade students will be drawn life I have continued to read begins to climb an old apple tree. Near the top children’s books, largely beto characters who are beshe finds herself a permanent home, for all cause I love the genre. C. S. friended by animals and along the slim waist and two legs and arms Lewis, author of the beloved have been a scion, a graft or living plant part become independent Narnia series, said he wrote used to start a fruit tree blooming again. The children’s fantasy because it was the right art and competent and wise. twig doll finally becomes her true self. I have form for what he wanted to say. He liked its Our true self is not separate brevity, emphasis on plot and action, and easy no doubt that Miss Hickory entered my psyche and took root. In that return to a more natural from nature. That this trans- familiarity with talking beasts and other archestate, we are redeemed. formation happens in forest types. Writing for a young audience also allowed As a young adult, I got my undergraduate him to “leave out things I wanted to leave out,” and field, mountain and such as sexual tension and romance. Moreover, degree in conservation and natural resources. I spent a summer backpacking, alone and mismeadow is the larger point. a convention of all children’s literature—even erable, on the Pacific Coast Trail in Oregon. works dealing with the darkest of subjects—is (How easily those children in books lived alone, the “happy ending,” a conclusion that is not competent in the woods, comfortable in solitude. That was a standard falsely sentimental but a final turning toward hope. Surely today, even I could never meet.) In the 1980s, my husband and I moved to south- as we face the darkest of environmental fears, our moral choice still is western New Mexico as counterculture “back-to-the-landers.” Raised in to give our children hope. In that gift I am able to find some of my own. suburb and city, we wanted what we saw as a more direct and authentic Among authors whose stories introduce children to nature, few connection to life. We wanted to grow our own food, build our own have been more influential or prolific or steadfast than Jean Craighead home, root into the earth. Surprisingly, and rather wonderfully, we George. Her 1960 Newbery Honor book, My Side of the Mountain, was did just that, shaping adobe bricks into a house made literally of mud, followed by four more novels, published between 1990 and 2007, on the irrigating a one-acre garden, raising goats and an assortment of turkeys, relationship between the falcon Frightful and adolescent Sam Gribley. chickens, and ducks. We had two home births, a daughter and a son. In his foreword to one of these later books, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. We had too much goat cheese in the refrigerator. Our illusion that describes the letter he wrote at age 11 asking the author where he we could do all this without jobs or money did not last long. I began could find his own kestrel nest. (He went on to become an experienced teaching writing at the university in Silver City, New Mexico, where falconer and environmental lawyer.) my husband became the city planner. We moved from our original In 1973, the Newbery Medal was given to George’s Julie of the Wolves, homestead, staying close to the mountains and trees of the Gila Na- another story that mixes unsentimental science with a child’s connection
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to wild animals. In George’s work, predators eat and prey die. Ecology is part of the plot, and Julie, a resourceful Eskimo girl, finds her way out of the tundra by watching the migration flight of Arctic terns. Importantly, children in these stories do not merely survive: they are wakened to the beauty of the world. They learn the language of wolf and falcon. They step outside the circle of human civilization and are welcomed into a larger circle of life. It’s as if they belong there. In six decades of writing and more than 100 published books, George has not only wakened children to the natural world but introduced them to environmental problems from clearcut logging to air pollution. Her books are used in classrooms across America, with The Missing ’Gator of Gumbo Limbo (1996) being many a fourth-grade teacher’s favorite. In this “ecological mystery,” one of a series, the culprits include pentachlorophenol (PCP), something of a mouthful, but George doesn’t blink—or underestimate her audience. Most recently, The Cats of Roxville Station (2009) explores the world of feral cats, with 14-yearold Mike discovering a wilderness of skunks, foxes, deer, owls, mice, butterflies, and mosquitoes in the dirt lot by the railroad station and the woods behind the housing project. George’s theme is relentlessly optimistic: if humans have the ability to damage the natural world, they also have the ability to be at home in it. Being at home involves physical and emotional engagement. If you have ever taken a 9-year-old for a walk, you know she won’t be happy admiring the scenery or musing, like Thoreau, that “in wildness is the preservation of the world.” Instead, you’ll get “Can I build a dam in the stream?” “Are raccoons good pets?” “Will this mushroom kill me?” And the ever-popular, particularly among boys, “If a grizzly bear was fighting a wolf, who would win?” Children are kinesthetic. Children are relational. They want action. They want friends. They want to get their hands dirty. (This is not to say that children are incapable of philosophical reflection. Once, when my son was 4, he asked me poignantly, “Does soil get lonely?”) Gary Paulsen’s dramatic survival tale, Hatchet (a Newbery Honor book in 1988), has sold more than two million copies. Through a series of trials—plane crash, hunger, bear, windstorm—a 13-year-old uses his only tool, a hatchet, to make fire and weapons and shelter, living alone for two months in the Canadian woods. By necessity, he enters the natural world as a problem-solving hunter, respectful of his prey and his competitors. Soon he is seeing things differently, alert to his surroundings. Once again, the experience of the wild is transformative: “He was not the same now—the Brian that stood and watched the wolves move away and nodded to them was completely changed.” My 26-year-old daughter, Maria, lists Hatchet and My Side of the Mountain as seminal influences. For her, these books had much more of a context than they did for me, because of course we did go camping. At 5 Maria was descending Little Bear Canyon on a horse, on a four-day pack trip into the Gila Wilderness. At 12 she was going to be an ethnobotanist. In her early 20s, Maria became interested in environmental education. Last fall she started her second year as a teacher in the public schools. Like me, my daughter’s third-grade students in Deming, New Mexico, have grown up in the desert, not knowing a baobob from a beech. Too many of them have also grown up with poverty and drug violence, characteristic problems of a border town. I ask Maria if she will pass on to her class the stories of Sam and Karana and Julie and Brian, and she says yes. I wonder what these books will mean to the children she teaches, and I think I know the answer. I’m sure that they
will be drawn to main characters who are befriended by animals and who become independent and competent and wise—better people. That this transformation happens in forest and field, mountain and meadow is the larger point. Our true self is not separate from nature. We are part of the circle of life. We are already home.
ver the years, my interest in children’s
literature has shifted slightly and I have started reading more young adult novels, a subset of what librarians call juvenile literature. In this field, changes in identity, uncertainty about the future, and a hypercritical self-assessment are frequent themes (reminding me that my adolescence and middle age have some things in common). New, compelling stories about nature are often about catastrophe and collapse: surviving the apocalypse. Writers like Paolo Bacigalupi, for example, take climate change seriously and may be part of a new fictional negotiation in which we do not so easily go back to the wild. His prizewinning, fast-paced, futuristic young adult novel Ship Breaker is set near the drowned city of New Orleans, a broken society in which cheap oil is gone and the have-nots have less than ever. Many of the worst predictions of global warming have come true: drought, famine, disease, melted ice caps, horrendous weather. The teenage protagonist, Nailer, lives a dangerous and dreary life scavenging metal from derelict oil tankers—a nice dinner for this character is “rat on a stick”—until his fortunes intertwine with those of a wealthy girl and a genetically engineered “half-man” (who is also part dog, tiger, and hyena). Nailer is a survivor, and his future turns hopeful at the end, although that isn’t true for most everyone else in the novel. Here, redemption is harder won and more complicated, less about what we do as individuals than what we do as a culture and species. The 16-year-old engrossed in Ship Breaker will be my age in 2056. Some of the third-graders my daughter teaches will live to see the end of this century. Am I wrong to believe that what they read now is important? There is a time in life when we absorb books into our bodies, when they become the body of who we are. My childhood experiences are weighted toward middle-grade fiction and those exalted years when I served as master of my elementary school library. For other children, picture books or young adult novels may have been their literary introduction to nature. With the extraordinary wealth of new books on ecology and the environment, still others may find nonfiction an even more potent art form, a direct line to amazement and wonder. As I draw to the close of this meditation, I can imagine, Dear Reader, your cries of outrage at my choices. I can see the pitchforks and smell the tar. I have made a muddle of everything, neglecting to mention this book or that—your own favorite, the one that shaped you. I have highlighted American authors and award winners, idiosyncratically beginning with a nut like Miss Hickory. What about Old Yeller? Little House on the Prairie? Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH? Shiloh? How could I forget… Hello!!! Of course your favorites are not here. This is my reading list, my numinous landscape of metaphor and romance, impressions seared on a child’s soul. If you want to rediscover your past—explore that dreamtime where story first forms—you need to do that yourself. Get a library card. Think of it as your hatchet. Settle into an armchair. Start reading. Sharman Apt Russell is a regular contributor to OnEarth. Her most recent book is Standing in the Light: My Life as a Pantheist. winter 2011/2012
terio s y
feed me! The sturgeonâ€™s unique mouth sucks up prey from the seabed.
deep by bruce stutz
Itâ€™s been around since the dinosaurs, but it may now be close to extinction. What can we do to save the
y first encounter with this ancient ban on all sport or commercial fishing for the Atlantic sturgeon. Nine chimera came on a research vessel trolling years later, an NMFS study found that, despite the ban, “only a few just outside New York Harbor, within sight of subpopulations seem to be increasing or stabilizing” and the majority Coney Island’s Cyclone roller coaster. The big “show no signs of recovery.” And yet if NMFS was looking for consensus among sturgeon scienfish lay still on the deck, enduring its examination with an uncanny self-possession as we ran tists, it wasn’t finding any. The departments of natural resources and our hands across its mottled brown crocodil- fisheries in nine states on the eastern seaboard opposed an endangered ian form and measured its massive armored listing; only two supported it. The opponents called the move premature, torso—some four feet long and dense as a log unnecessary, an impediment to continuing research, a precursor to sheathed in leather, studded head to tail with rows of hard, barbed onerous new regulations at a time when their own as well as the federal scutes. Of course the antediluvian form was remarkable, but more agency’s resources were finite, and, most of all, not based on good—or so was the fish’s composure, a Zen-like patience we decided must sufficient—science. Many fisheries scientists pointed out that NMFS’s own 2007 status review, despite its grim findings, recommended only derive from its antiquity. Few animals are more ancient than the sturgeon. Two hundred regional “threatened” listings—meaning some populations of sturgeon million years ago, when the first dinosaurs were appearing and before were likely to become endangered within 20 years if nothing improved. Proponents of an enthe continents separated, dangered listing, however, sturgeon ancestors already considered a 20-year bet inhabited the Triassic seas. on an 85-million-year-old The way they look now is species a reckless gamble. pretty much the way they NMFS and the Natural Relooked some 85 million sources Defense Council, years ago. Those that surwhich filed a listing petivived the spreading of contion in 2009, claim that tinents, a global extinction, recent research shows and the coming and going Atlantic sturgeon face inof ice ages inhabited the creasing environmental Northern Hemisphere’s risks. Worsening water largest river basins, quality in the estuaries lakes, and inland seas—in and rivers where the fish Europe the Baltic, Black, were once most abundant and Caspian, the Danube threatens young fish. In and Volga; in Asia the the Delaware Bay and Amur. In North America, the Delaware River, once a freshwater species colo400 POUNDS OF JOY Back in 1947, fish of this the staging area for the nized the Great Lakes, and size were still making their way into stores. greatest aggregations of other species flourished in the Missouri and Mississippi rivers and the Gulf of Mexico. Sturgeon Atlantic sturgeon, sightings of juveniles are rare and spawning adults roamed the estuaries and rivers of the Pacific Northwest; Atlantic stur- rarer still. (Delaware and Pennsylvania already include the sturgeon geon migrated along North America’s eastern coast from Labrador to on their state endangered lists and favor federal listing.) Atlantic sturgeon are, of course, not the lone suffering species: Florida, spawning in nearly every major coastal estuary. Yet for all their evolutionary prowess, sturgeon are now critically 100 years of development, ship-channel dredging, and runoff have endangered. Once humans developed a taste for their roe—processed reduced to a shadow of their former selves populations of American as caviar—and a craving for the profits it brought, species that had shad, blueback herring, alewife, and American eel—all of which survived millions of years were devastated in little more than a century. migrate between freshwater and salt water. Those arguing for an endangered listing believe it may be the only The International Union for Conservation of Nature considers 18 sturgeon species worldwide to be endangered, 16 of them critically. The way to initiate the coast-wide effort they feel is needed to keep the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service lists four of the country’s nine species Atlantic sturgeon from disappearing altogether. The population trend across the fish’s entire range, they contend, is clear, troubling, and in as endangered, two as threatened. So it would not have seemed controversial when, in 2010, the some cases alarming. Declare the Atlantic sturgeon endangered now, National Marine Fisheries Service proposed adding all but one popula- they say; fill in the scientific blanks later. No one disputes that, for the Atlantic sturgeon, those blanks are tion of Acipenser oxyrinchus oxyrinchus, the Atlantic sturgeon, to the Endangered Species List. Concern for the precarious state of this big and plentiful. While charismatic is the first word many scientists once spectacularly abundant species was not new: in 1998 the Atlantic use to describe the sturgeon, cryptic is usually the second. Its life States Marine Fisheries Commission had called for a minimum 20-year history remains frustratingly inscrutable, a Rumsfeldian collection this article was made possible by the jonathan and maxine marshall fund for environmental journalism 4 4 onearth
opposite: Reg Speller/Getty Images; illulstration by bruce morser
of knowns, known unknowns, and unknown unknowns. Atlantic sturgeon can live past 60 (a lake sturgeon might live twice as long), grow to eight feet or more, and weigh 600 pounds. Yet despite their size and battle-ready appearance, they are a reclusive species. They are at home, out of sight, along deep river bottoms and coastal seabed channels, where they graze on an assortment, from large to microscopic, of mollusks, worms, crustaceans, and insects—food that even 200 million years ago would have been plentiful. It’s an ecological niche that no other large fish evolved to exploit and that sturgeon make the most of, thanks to some splendid evolutionary adaptations. Electroreceptors allow them to locate prey in the dark depths—an adaptation also found in sharks, an even more ancient species to which sturgeon, because of their cartilaginous skeleton, were once thought to be related. The two species also share an airplane-like tail fin, but the sturgeon’s is truncated at the base, so the fish can move swiftly but still remain close to the riverbed or seabed. The four gangly barbels that dangle beneath the fish’s snout are not feelers but tasters, covered with chemoreceptors that detect prey buried in the bottom sediment. The sturgeon extracts its prey through an extraordinary process made possible by a mouth that is unique among fishes. (It can’t properly be called a jaw because no bones connect it to the skull.) When a sturgeon locates food, the mouth bulges outward from beneath the snout like a fleshy hose, flushing out prey. The fish then separates food from sand and gravel and expels the grit through its gills. While other anadromous fish such as salmon, shad, or striped bass may, within a few years of their birth, return to their natal rivers to spawn, once a young Atlantic sturgeon goes out to sea it may not return for a decade. Sturgeon from South Carolina reach maturity between the ages of 5 and 19, Hudson River sturgeon between 11 and 21, and in the St. Lawrence not until they’re between 24 and 34 years old. This, combined with the fact that younger females carry fewer eggs, means that new generations of some Atlantic sturgeon populations emerge less frequently than generations of humans. A depleted population, therefore, can take a very long time to recover. And it is for this reason, many opponents of an endangered listing contend, that the effects of the 1998 fishing ban have only recently become apparent. All Atlantic sturgeon make their major spawning runs in spring: southern fish as early as February, northern fish as late as June. The gravid females swim in from the sea and continue upstream until they find freshwater or deep river channels. There they release their eggs, which stick to the sand and gravel. Hatched within a few days, the young begin a slow migration downstream, scuttling along the bottom like little crocodiles that have sprouted fins and adapting over the course of the following year to more and more saline surroundings. Once acclimated to salt water, they’ll spend their first few years in the lower reaches of their natal estuary, “hanging out like kids at a 7-Eleven,” as one scientist put it, with seemingly little urgency to get on with their adult lives. Most of the rest of their lives will be spent on wide-ranging coastal peregrinations that are not well understood. What is known is that sturgeon rarely go into waters deeper than 100 feet, and that while some remain close to home (fish from the south seem to be the less daring travelers), they can travel far—very far—from their native estuaries. Hudson River fish have been tracked as far north as the Bay of Fundy, and last year a sturgeon tagged in the Delaware River was followed by telemetry up to Cabot Strait, between Nova Scotia and Newfoundland, a thousand-mile journey made in 53 days. Scientists have even come up with evidence that sometime in
mission to protect
ANDREW WETZLEr Co-director of NRDC’s land and wildlife program and an expert on the Endangered Species Act
Congress recently asserted that it has the right to make decisions about listing endangered species—in this instance, wolves—rather than leaving the matter to scientific experts. It’s not easy to defend against that kind of attack. High-profile species such as wolves tend to be controversial, and unknown species tend to have few champions. But there is hope. Recently, the House of Representatives rejected a proposal that would have prevented the federal government from spending any money to place new species on the endangered species list. Both Democrats and Republicans voted to kill the measure. Given that there are thousands of species at risk, how do you determine which ones are priorities? NRDC tries to focus on those species that leverage the greatest environmental gains, either because they are incredibly important to the healthy functioning of the ecosystems in which they are found, or because they are an indicator of overall environmental health—like the canary in the coal mine. Sometimes we also focus on a species that may allow us to help shape laws and policies that affect all wildlife. Given the importance of scientific data in making a listing decision, what happens when you know the risk is real but the data are incomplete? One of the best things about the Endangered Species Act is that it makes very clear that listing decisions are to be made solely on the basis of the best available science. The act goes out of its way to be clear that economic considerations are not to be used. The use of the word available is also important. The act doesn’t demand perfection—just that we make the best decision we can based on the information currently available, even if that information is incomplete. How big a role have recent advances in genetics played in listing decisions? Genetics has quickly become one of the most important and influential tools we have. Usually questions of genetics come up in the context of whether a particular population truly qualifies as a species, a subspecies, or a “distinct population”—the three categories that can be protected under the act. We’re very lucky to have a geneticist and evolutionary biologist on staff, Sylvia Fallon, to help us sort through those issues (see “NRDC: Science and Politics,” OnEarth, Fall 2011).
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By examining variations in particular segments of DNA, scientists the Middle Ages, East Coast sturgeon found a route across the North identified at least nine genetically distinct Atlantic sturgeon populaAtlantic and established themselves in the Baltic Sea. What’s also known is that these peripatetic fish often gather in large tions. (Some are more closely related than others, and geneticists often aggregations close to shore or at the mouths of estuaries. Exactly why, disagree on how different is different. They also continue to find further or how frequently, they form these groups is not known, but when genetic diversity within these larger groups—more in southern fish they do huddle up they can find themselves in harm’s way, in areas than in northern ones, perhaps because northern fish settled in their targeted by commercial fishermen. Sturgeon caught in nets set for rivers only after the last ice age ended.) For the sake of the endangered species listing, the National Marine smaller species may not survive. While this bycatch may not be substantial in any one place, it becomes Fisheries Service settled on five distinct population segments (DPS) of Atlantic sturgeon, proposing to list four significant when multiplied by fisheries NATURAL BOUNTY This female as endangered and one as threatened. all along the coast. And it is complicated yielded 13 pounds of caviar, 10 (Under the Endangered Species Act, by the fact that these gatherings can be percent of her total body weight. individual population segments, as well made up of fish from anywhere along the as an entire species, can be listed.) This Atlantic seaboard. In other words, a Georwas not a popular decision. Delaware and gia fisherman could easily haul up a HudHudson fish, for instance, which most son River sturgeon rather than one from scientists agree are genetically distinct, Georgia. Under an Endangered Species are lumped together into a New York Act recovery plan, suggests Keith Dunton, Bight DPS. This pleases neither Hudson a Ph.D. student at the Stony Brook School River nor Delaware River biologists, who of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences, the don’t believe that their populations are key sturgeon staging areas could be found, equally endangered—the Delaware fish defined, and, when inhabited by sturgeon, are much worse off—and so can’t be mandeclared to be critical habitat and closed to aged in the same way. commercial fishing or restricted to certain Genetic IDs have made it possible to types of fishing gear. THE sturgeon’s determine from a tissue sample whether All the sturgeon’s undisciplined comstatus changed after a sturgeon caught in Maine was a Penobings and goings and heterogeneous minwhen the scot native and not a Delaware River migling “throw a monkey wrench into our a method for grant, or whether a fish caught in South understanding of Atlantic sturgeon biolCarolina didn’t roam down for the winter ogy,” says Isaac Wirgin, a geneticist in the preserving its roe from the Hudson. But knowing where a department of environmental medicine at for sturgeon comes from doesn’t necessarily New York University School of Medicine. to major cities tell you where it’s going. That, it appears, They also create statistical havoc for those incited a caviar rush depends on its age. Matthew Fisher of the hoping to find out whether one particuDelaware Division of Fish and Wildlife, lar sturgeon population is in good or bad who has been tracking Delaware Bay and shape, or whether the entire population is in decline or recovery. A simple head count in the native river won’t Delaware River sturgeon with acoustic tags, says, “There are earlydo, since many of the fish may be out at sea. But counting them in the stage juveniles from 0 to 2 years old that need freshwater to survive and ocean won’t work either, because without doing an extensive genetic grow in low salinity. There are late-stage juveniles that mix at the mouth of the bay and offshore with others from the Hudson, Connecticut, analysis, you can’t be certain which river a sturgeon came from. As Wirgin puts it, the sturgeon that are there may not be the stur- Roanoke, and James rivers. And then there are the adults. It’s almost as if there are three different species that all behave in different ways.” geon you think they are. To further understand the sturgeon’s travels, scientists are implantWhen I spoke last spring to Dunton, he and his adviser, Michael Frisk, had just caught 80 sturgeon in several sweeps of their trawl ing transmitters in the abdomens of the fish that will, in some cases for net off the southwestern shore of Long Island. While some scientists, years, report their whereabouts as they pass gauntlets of sensors now like Wirgin, say numbers like these prove that sturgeon populations being arrayed in rivers and bays and along the coast. Dewayne Fox, of Delaware State University’s department of agriculare in good shape, Dunton and Frisk say they prove nothing: “When you’re on the fish, you’re on them; when you’re not, you’re not.” By ture and natural resources, is working with Kevin Wark, a commercial the same token, even if you aren’t on them, they may still be out there. fisherman from New Jersey, to implant transmitters into large sturgeon Over millennia of fidelity to the rivers in which they spawned, Atlantic caught offshore, hoping to follow the fish for several years. That will allow sturgeon formed genetically distinct populations and subpopulations. In them to learn where the fish go to spawn, where they roam, where they the 1990s, when scientists began looking into sturgeon genes, they found congregate, whether juveniles mingle with adults, and whether the fish themselves staring down an evolutionary rabbit hole. While a human move in response to changing food resources or shifts in temperature. “The rubber hits the road,” Fox says, “when I’m able to say that cell has 46 chromosomes, an Atlantic sturgeon has about 120 (some species may have as many as 500), the result of a long, reproductively Atlantic sturgeon are in this location at this time and maybe restrict our activities there to minimize human impacts.” complex, and highly successful evolutionary history.
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opposite: Eric Vandeville/Getty Images; map by mike reagan
Fox believes that within the Delaware estuary, the Atlantic sturgeon faces enough challenges from ship strikes, dredging, and alterations in habitat related to climate change that current protections are not enough to save the Delaware fish. At the same time, he hopes that the data being gathered and shared by researchers using acoustic tags, from northern Florida to Canada, will begin to refine the outlines of the sturgeon’s natural history. For now, the data are sparse and anecdotal, but intriguing. “We’ve seen females over 300 pounds go up [the Hudson] to Catskill, New York, then turn around and return to the Delaware,” Fox says. “We’ve caught fish from South Carolina, the Hudson River, Virginia, Maine, Georgia, and Delaware all sitting less than three miles off the Delaware coast,” in waters that also harbor migrating shad and striped bass. “If we could see what was going on offshore,” he says, “it would put the Serengeti migrations to shame.” But what is going on offshore is nothing close to the migrations that once were.
ative Americans valued the sturgeon for its meat and oil and netted, speared, or corralled them on their upstream spawning runs. The fish held little interest, however, to the early European settlers (although a strong spring run up the James River in 1607 may have saved John Smith’s starving colony). Sturgeon flesh was considered a lesser meat, and later immigrants who ate sturgeon were derided for their consumption of “Albany beef.” Besides, America’s rivers teemed each spring with far less unwieldy fish, such as striped bass, herring, shad, and eels. Sturgeon were for the most part unwelcome brutes that mangled fishing nets and were deemed remarkable mostly for the sight of huge individuals leaping from the water. The sturgeon’s status changed, however, after the Civil War, when a method for preserving its roe, for shipment by train along new routes to major cities or by ship to Europe, incited a late-nineteenth-century caviar rush. Centered on the Delaware Bay and Delaware River (the town of Bayside, New Jersey, was once called Caviar), the industry
began in earnest around 1870. Within 20 years, 1,000 sturgeon fishermen were working the Delaware, bunking during spring migrations in crowded houseboats along the shore. They netted the fish, stripped the cows of their eggs, and often left the heavy carcasses to rot on the riverbanks. The industry spread up and down the coast. In 1888 East Coast fishermen harvested more than seven million pounds of sturgeon. The population crash was swift and severe—by 1901 fishermen caught only 650,000 pounds—and manifested in the rising price of caviar. In 1885 a keg that held some 135 pounds sold for $9 to $12; by 1899 the price had risen to $105. The carnage has been compared to the massacre of the buffalo and the slaughter of the passenger pigeon. A handful of fishermen persevered through much of the twentieth century, catching sturgeon when not netting shad or striped bass, mostly selling the fish for meat and enjoying the roe for the very high price it brought in, sold no longer by the keg or pound but by the ounce. But the great sturgeon migrations never resumed. Gone as well were the nearly pristine rivers that spawned the great migrations. The Industrial Revolution took its toll on all river species. In 1895 the Pennsylvania Fish Commission’s report on shad stated that “the general impression among fishermen is that the decrease in the catch during the past four springs is due to the increase of coal oil, gas and bone factories along the Delaware River. The obnoxious poisons and gases are all turned into the river, killing the young fry.” The marine biologist John Waldman, of Queens College in New York, who has been studying sturgeon for more than 20 years and worked on some of the earliest and most important population and genetic studies, believes a key problem is assessing the present state of the sturgeon on the basis of historical populations. This, he says, ignores the fact that the estuaries where the fish now spawn and spend their early lives have been so altered by pollution that they may no longer be able to support anything like the large populations they once did. Forget what once was, Waldman suggests. Regulators would make far more realistic decisions if they hitched their expectations to a postindustrial baseline. Yet the baselines for the sturgeon are blurred by historical and statistical unknowns as well as by biological uncertainties. Brad Sewell, a senior attorney with NRDC who played a key role in the 2009 petition to have the sturgeon listed as endangered, believes there are certain certainties. The 13 years since fishing for sturgeon was banned, he says, have only proved the need for better protection. “If it was adequate or effective, you’d see a lot of juveniles out there, but you’re not seeing them,” Sewell says. “I understand the perspective of the researchers,” he adds. “But from the perspective of the species, more research is not as important as [the problem of] significantly reduced habitat. You need high genetic diversity to withstand changing conditions.” In Sewell’s view, by the time all the unknowns are known it may be too late—especially if, as the NMFS study team estimated, after 85 million years we may have reduced the sturgeon’s window for survival to a matter of decades. “I think,” Sewell says, “a listing will save it.” While many argue that a threatened rather than an endangered listing would be sufficient—and present data to back up that view—there is one thing few would dispute: that time is not on the side of this ancient and mysterious species. Bruce Stutz is a contributing editor to OnEarth. His most recent book is Chasing Spring: An American Journey Through a Changing Season. winter 2011/2012
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frame by frame
u The 1966 photo of Bob Dylan is by Lisa Law, whose documentary, Flashing on the Sixties, was released on video as a package with my film. v The poster for
my previous film, Berkeley in the Sixties, which was released in 1990, is by the poster artist Alton Kelley.
w This drawing of me is by my daughter Celia, for her senior thesis in high school. It was selected to hang in Congress, apparently got lost on the way home, and then was discovered in Representative Nancy Pelosiâ€™s office. We decided it looked too fierce to use in publicity materials, even for A Fierce Green Fire.
x The two paintings are by my wife, Ruthie Sakheim, the bigger one being her take on the garbage gyre in the North Pacific. y On the screens are paintings by Albert Bierstadt of Hetch Hetchy Valley in Yosemite. The fight against the damming of the valley was a defining battle of the conservation movement.
b y b r u c e b a r c o tt
ACTI v i s M ! documentary filmmaker
believes his story of the environmental movement can be a box-office smash
n a creaky wood-floor office overlooking
San Francisco Bay, the documentary filmmaker Mark Kitchell removes his glasses, runs his hand through his hair, and glares at a computer screen filled with thumbnail images of film clips. Kitchell, 59, is in the throes of a dilemma. He’s spent the past 10 years making A Fierce Green Fire, an epic documentary about the 50-year evolution of the modern environmental movement. He has two hours and 12 minutes in the can. And it’s good. “The material is vast, and it’s an incredibly dynamic film,” says Cara Mertes, head of the Sundance Institute Documentary Film Program, who has seen a rough cut. “It’s shaping up to be the documentary of record on the environmental movement. I think it’ll be hugely successful.” So Kitchell has buzz. What he doesn’t have is an ending. On this beautiful spring day, with a breeze blowing in from the bay, Kitchell is forced to confront his film’s ultimate question: What does the environmental movement mean? He looks over columns of index cards tacked to the wall. Each represents an interview, a quote, a moment, culled from hundreds of hours of film. “Let’s try that Paul Hawken clip one more time,” he tells his film editor. “It’s 8:12 into the interview.” As the editor cues it up, Kitchell turns to me and recalls a recent moment at Hot Docs, an annual documentary film festival in Toronto. During a pitch session where filmmakers present works in progress to prospective buyers and distribu-
iela Hasbun photograph by Gabr winter 2011/2012
I’d always wondered what Kitchell in your face In the 1960s, tors, Kitchell spoke and screened a three-minute trailer. “A guy from the BBC stood up and said, ‘So, what is the moral of the story? The images had done after Berkeley. The idea of David Brower fought plans to creating a film history of the envi- build dams in the Grand Canyon. in the film are uplifting, but your words are pessimistic. Which is it?’” ronmental movement struck me as Kitchell smiles wanly. “That’s the rub, right? Which is it?” Hawken appears on the computer screen. The author of Natural audacious and, frankly, financially insane. Intrigued, I called him up. “We’re just about done,” he told me. “I’m figurCapitalism talks about environmentalism as a ing out how to open and close the film. You’re leaderless movement. “Nobody invented it,” he kitchell spent welcome to come watch us work.” says. “Nobody created it. Nobody’s in charge.” I hopped a plane to San Francisco and found Kitchell halts the clip. “Do we cut it here or let years poring over him in his office, which is in a former military him play out the metaphor?” he asks. Silence fills tv station archives, hospital in the Presidio that’s been converted into the room. “We’ve got to have the lightest touch. home movies, a warren for local nonprofit groups. Kitchell is a Short and sweet. It is the end of the film!” laid-back Californian, melancholy and mellow. He Kitchell likes the Hawken clip but he’s not keeps a lot of art on the walls. One arresting piece yet sold. He paces. He consults the index cards looks like a whirlpool of trash. “It’s based on the again. He turns to me. “I think the world is still Pacific garbage gyre,” he told me. “Oceans. One waiting for the environmental movement’s of the many strands I had to leave out of the film.” defining film, a movie that brings the pieces Before we talked further, he sat me down with together into a big picture and delivers the that might contain a rough cut and a pair of headphones. “I’ll be meaning of environmentalism,” he says. “It’s got to be done in an intelligent, compelling way. crumbling videotape anxious to see what you think,” he said. “See you in two hours.” No pounding people over the head. The brass A Fierce Green Fire unfolds in five acts, each following a strand of ring is there for us to grab, and I think we’re going to grab it.” He takes a deep breath and returns his attention to the screen. the modern environmental movement. There’s David Brower and the Sierra Club fighting to keep dams out of the Grand Canyon in “All right,” he tells the editor. “Let’s bring up that Carl Pope bit…” the sixties. The Love Canal saga of the seventies explores the ravages of industrial pollution. Greenpeace’s “Save the Whales” camfirst came across Kitchell’s film in April, when he sent me paign marks the beginnings of direct-action activism. Chico Mendes a fund-raising e-mail. He was trying to gin up a few bucks through Kickstarter, a website where entrepreneurs of all sorts can appeal to and the Amazon rainforest story exemplify the globalization of the the masses to crowd-fund their projects. The director’s name jumped out movement. And finally, there’s climate change, embodied by catasat me. Kitchell’s previous documentary, Berkeley in the Sixties, chronicled trophes both physical (Hurricane Katrina) and political (America’s the stirrings of student activism at the University of California, from early 20 years of inaction). Five acts to capture the entire half-century of sit-ins to the battle over People’s Park. Released in 1990, the film became modern environmentalism. It’s an epic work of history. At the film’s a defining document of the sixties. Berkeley was nominated for an Oscar heart are the three middle acts—Love Canal, Greenpeace, and and won the National Society of Film Critics award for best documentary. Chico Mendes—stories of unlikely heroes who risked their lives (and
searching any closet
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opposite: Arthur Schatz/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images; right, illustration by bruce morser
in Mendes’s case, lost it) to stop profit-driven destruction. We’re so far from Love Canal today that it’s nothing short of shocking to relive the story—the water poisoning and birth defects caused by routine toxic dumping, the uncaring government officials, the radical action taken by housewives. As Kitchell later remarked, “These women took EPA officials as hostages! Can you imagine?” The film left me emotionally drained and profoundly hopeful. I’ve read a lot of environmental histories—Ted Steinberg’s Down to Earth and Philip Shabecoff’s A Fierce Green Fire are among the best—but none has the power of film. None leaves you with images of early Greenpeace leaders Paul Watson, Bob Hunter, and Rex Weyler putting their bodies between a sperm whale and a Soviet whaling ship firing exploding harpoons. “I came home from the Oscars in 1991 with a year-and-a-half-old daughter and my wife about to give birth to number two,” Kitchell told me over a lunch of vegetables from the common-area fridge. The success of Berkeley was gratifying but not world-changing. To make rent, he directed TV shows and short documentaries. While scouting for his next big project he kept returning to the idea that had captivated him in Berkeley: people forcing change. In 2001, he said, he found his subject—the history of the environmental movement. Kitchell is obsessed with movement, whether it’s kinetic energy on screen, political movements in the world, action forcing change. Berkeley in the Sixties opens with a rollicking scene of cops hauling student protesters down a flight of stairs—bumpety-bumpety-bump—over a soundtrack of Little Richard’s “Keep a Knockin’.” It was Kitchell’s way of telling viewers this would be no sleepy documentary. “That’s what attracted me to environmentalism—the movement,” Kitchell told me. “I read every environmental history I could get my hands on. They all started with 150 pages of prologue: Thoreau, George Perkins Marsh, John Muir.” He mimicked a man falling asleep. “I decided I wasn’t gonna do ’em. I wanted a film about the environmental movement, the story of people fighting for change. And that really kicked off in the sixties, with David Brower fighting dams in the Grand Canyon.” Making a low-budget historical documentary means finding archival footage on the cheap. Kitchell spent years poring over previous documentaries, TV station archives, private home movies, searching any closet that might contain crumbling celluloid or videotape. There were some unpleasant surprises. In the decade since he shot Berkeley in the Sixties, the corporations that own local TV stations realized that their old images could be milked for money. “In the mid-eighties, I bought rights to the entire news archives of three San Francisco stations for a dollar each,” Kitchell told me. “By 2001, when I went looking for Love Canal footage, TV stations in Buffalo were demanding $60 per second.” The project eventually grew into a six-part series. “There were so many great stories,” Kitchell said. “The snail darter and Tellico Dam. The stopping of New York City’s Westway freeway. Even NRDC’s story, evolving from an environmental law firm to this concatenation of expertise and global organization.” Then in 2003 he traveled to Cambridge, Massachusetts, to see the biologist Edward O. Wilson. Wilson, who has written both dense scientific treatises and more breezy best sellers, gave Kitchell some advice. He could make a comprehensive reference work seen by few or a movie seen by many. But he couldn’t do both. “The audience does not want six hours, Mark,” Wilson told him. “They will stop watching. They will walk out on you.”
nrdc moving pictures
daniel hinerfeld NRDC’s deputy director of communications and director of the organization’s film unit, based in the Santa Monica office
Why did NRDC start producing documentary films? It began in 2006 with Robert Redford, an NRDC trustee. He stood up at a board meeting and said that the most powerful way to communicate about nature is through film, and that we shouldn’t wait for others to tell our stories visually. It was an epiphany for us, and we created a small film unit. Making our own videos and movies has enabled us to engage media, policy makers, and the public on issues that previously had been challenging to convey. A good documentary opens your mind to ideas and information, and it can help overcome prejudice. The best environmental documentaries also leave you hopeful about our ability to solve the problems we’ve created for ourselves. Can you give a couple of examples of that? Our film Acid Test, narrated by Sigourney Weaver, is a good example. It’s a half-hour movie about ocean acidification that has aired more than 30 times on Discovery Planet Green, been featured on Good Morning America, and been screened for members of the U.S. Senate. When we started production, virtually no one outside scientific and environmental circles had even heard of ocean acidification. Sigourney, Warner Brothers, and a couple of the world’s best underwater cinematographers worked with us to create a movie that succeeded in reaching a significant audience. Today, there’s much broader awareness of this urgent problem. A very different example is Stories From the Gulf, narrated by Robert Redford, another half-hour film we made for Planet Green. Whereas Acid Test is about science, Stories is about people and communities devastated by the BP oil disaster. In a sense it’s a rebuttal to BP and the Obama administration, which have tried to minimize the impact of this disaster from day one. What are some of your favorite environmental documentaries? A recent favorite of mine is The Last Mountain, directed by Bill Haney, a powerful indictment of Massey Energy, which is destroying large swaths of Appalachia—blowing the tops off mountains to mine the coal within. The movie follows an inspiring group of local activists fighting to save their home, and also features NRDC’s own Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who has been battling mountaintop mining for years. The movie draws the connections between a local conflict and the global predicament we face because of fossil fuels. Everything in nature is connected, and a good documentary can help you understand that better than words on a page.
“He was right,” Kitchell told me. “There are hundreds of great documentaries out there that get seen by no one.” When he got home, Kitchell killed everything except the five most gripping segments. Gone was Westway. Gone was NRDC—“I interviewed [NRDC founder] John Adams for four hours,” he recalled, “and had to lose all but a few quotes.”
can walk into a room and line up $1 million with nothing but their name and a good pitch. For filmmakers like Kitchell, though, fundraising is a constant struggle. In 2004, despite the new popularity of documentaries, A Fierce Green Fire ran out of money. So Kitchell had to teach filmmaking at the University of California at Santa Cruz and work as a location scout for film and television. By 2008 he’d scraped together enough cash to restart the film. odern documentary films can be neatly parted into “I had enough to pay two editors,” he said. “The bad economy meant two epochs: before Michael Moore and after. The Before Moore period was marked by gritty cinema vérité classics we could get a couple of great interns.” But he still needed to shoot such as Frederick Wiseman’s Titicut Follies, Albert and David Maysles’ the final act, about climate change. That’s when he found his angels. Grey Gardens, and Barbara Kopple’s Harlan County, USA—brilliant, Patricia Matthews, a documentary producer, was a big fan of Berkeley in the Sixties. She asked her husband, Edwin, highly regarded films seen by small audiences to watch a rough cut of A Fierce Green Fire. in art-house cinemas. Edwin Matthews founded Friends of the Earth Then came 2002 and Bowling for Columbine. International and now runs the private Gould “Michael Moore blew the top off what a documenFamily Foundation. He liked what he saw, tary could do at the box office,” says Ward Serrill, and persuaded the foundation to give Kitchell whose movie about a high school girls’ basketball $100,000 in grants to help finish the project. team, The Heart of the Game, was a minor hit in With a five-act rough cut, Kitchell landed more 2006. “Bowling for Columbine made more than funding from the Sundance Institute Documen$20 million, and distributors all over the country tary Fund. Then he went after bigger game. said, Whoa! Documentaries can make money!” In the past few years a pitching circuit has Other factors came into play. Netflix made developed for documentary filmmakers. These obscure documentaries available to the masses confabs happen a few times a year in cities like thanks to Ted Sarandos, the company’s chief conNew York, Los Angeles, Amsterdam, Toronto, tent officer and a big documentary fan. And reality and Berlin. Producers and distributors sit and TV introduced new viewers to nonfiction. “Reality listen as dozens of filmmakers pitch their works television helped change the audience’s attitude,” in progress. It’s speed dating for filmmakers. says Ruth Hayler, a Seattle-based film buyer for In May 2011, Kitchell pitched A Fierce Green the Landmark Theatres chain. “They realized Fire to a roomful of international buyers at nonfiction didn’t have to be dry and boring.” kitchell says it’s Toronto’s Hot Docs film festival. “It’s like be“I’m wary of message-oriented films,” says ing the prime minister during question time Andrew Herwitz, president of the Film Sales Comstill shocking to in Parliament,” Kitchell told me. “You show pany, a New York–based distributor that handled relive the love three minutes of the film, then talk another foreign rights for Fahrenheit 9/11, the top boxcanal story. “THESE three, then nine minutes of questions. Fifteen office documentary of all time (it grossed $119 milminutes, time’s up!” lion domestically), as well as the Oscar-winning Nick Quested, executive director of GoldBorn Into Brothels. “There’s still a tendency for crest Films, was intrigued. His London-based people to feel they’re medicinal.” But environmencompany has financed or distributed a slew of tal films can make money. Davis Guggenheim’s award-winning films, including Gandhi, Chariots An Inconvenient Truth brought in $24 million, of Fire, and Local Hero. Restrepo, the Academy the sixth-biggest box-office haul among docuas hostages! can Award–nominated documentary, was finished mentaries. Eight of the top 10, in fact, are either at Goldcrest’s postproduction studios. politically charged (such as Moore’s Fahrenheit you imagine?” Quested sidled up to Bruni Burres, a consul9/11, Sicko, and Bowling for Columbine) or related to the natural world (Earth, African Cats, and March of the Penguins, the tant for the Sundance documentary film program who had introduced Kitchell onstage. “I can put up the money to finish that film,” he told her. number-two documentary of all time with a $77 million gross). Kitchell tracked down Quested the next day. “We bonded over our “I don’t know that environmental subject matter works for or against a film,” says Cara Mertes, whose documentary film program, which of- shared love of Marjoe,” a 1972 documentary about a child preacher fers support to 50 documentaries every year, is an arm of the Sundance on the revival circuit, Kitchell recalled. What’s it going to take to finish A Fierce Green Fire, Quested asked, Institute. Two years ago A Fierce Green Fire was picked from among more than 2,000 applicants for Sundance backing. One advantage and Kitchell laid out his completion costs. Twenty thousand for graphfor Kitchell, she says, is the existence of “a long list of environmental ics. Ten each for music and narration. Twenty for audio design and stakeholder groups and their allies” that could provide a core audience. mixing. Thirty to dig up and remaster archival footage, and fifty for Those groups may be interested in seeing the film. But that doesn’t the rights to footage that didn’t qualify as “fair use.” (Copyright law allows filmmakers to use bits of copyrighted film without permission as mean they’re eager to fund it. There are a handful of documentary filmmakers, like Moore, who long as they’re part of a social, political, cultural, or historical critique.)
women took epa officials
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Thirty for staff, travel, and overhead. Another thirty for the online edit. Greenpeace pioneered a new Bottom line: with $200,000, style of environmental activism. Kitchell could have A Fierce Green Fire ready in time for submission to the January 2012 Sundance Film Festival. He and Quested shook hands. They didn’t have a deal, but they had a deal to work out a deal.
picture edit,” Kitchell said, “and we’re talking about ways to parcel out the other pieces among people in the business willing to do us favors.” “So I’ve got Plan A, B, and C,” he said. Plan A required another angel to front $200,000 cash. Plan B could be done on $70,000 and a lot of in-kind contributions from friends and colleagues. Plan C would use $15,000 to take the film as far as Kitchell could on Final Cut Pro editing software and show that version at Sundance, which could lure a buyer. “I’m due to submit to Sundance in 10 days,” he told me. So… for now, it’s Plan C. “If they decide to take the film, the race is on to continued to follow Kitchell’s progress over the next few months. When I spoke with him in August, his lawyer was talking get it done in time for a January premiere.” The good news, Kitchell said, was that he’d found the film’s closwith the lawyers at Goldcrest. “They’re going over the fine details,” ing. “That question from the producer at Hot Docs stayed with me he told me. “My fate may get decided as I sit here.” Goldcrest’s distribution strategy was turning into a point of dispute. all summer,” he told me. “What’s the moral of the fable? What’s the “I’m insisting on right of approval on that,” Kitchell said with a sigh. “It’s meaning of environmentalism?” “How did you answer it?” I asked. the whole rolling-out of the film. It’s the biggest part of filmmaking that “I got it down to about 45 seconds of narration at the end,” he said, some people don’t pay attention to, to their detriment. I learned that on Berkeley in the Sixties. There are two ways to open a film. You can “but it didn’t have the gravitas and brilliance that I’d hoped for. So we open on one weekend in 40 cities nationwide, and it flies or dies. That cut it. But that’s okay. Because then I can turn it over to Paul Hawken, won’t work with this film. It’s better to go city to city, cross-promote and he leaves us with the idea that everybody’s always declaring the environmental movement dead and gone. But it’s with local environmental groups, get publicity from visit onearth.org not, because it’s not even a movement, in the tralocal papers and radio stations.” to find out if Mark Kitchell’s film made it to Sundance and follow its ditional sense.” He played the clip for me. Hawken Six weeks later Kitchell called with bad news. “Well, progress. onearth.org/bbarcott describes environmentalism as humanity’s immune the Goldcrest deal fell through yesterday,” he said. response to the industrial despoliation of the planet. It’s an intriguing “What happened?” “The main sticking point was my right of approval over distribution,” idea: thousands upon thousands of grassroots groups, causes, and he told me. “But I think the bigger unspoken reason was money.” movements acting like so many white blood cells all over the globe. Kitchell paused for a second. Kitchell had asked for half of the necessary $200,000 in cash, and half in “It’s always the toughest trick on these films,” he said. “How do in-kind postproduction services—in other words, the use of their equipyou finish them?” ment. “The deal just got too big for their comfort on the cash front.” He hung up the phone and returned to the task of doing it. I asked where he went from here. He told me he already had interest from other quarters. A Fierce Green Fire was being considered by the Independent Television Service, which broadcasts documentaries on Contributing editor Bruce Barcott’s last story for OnEarth was “Arctic Fever” PBS. And a Bay Area film distributor had contacted him after seeing (Spring 2011). As this issue went to press, the Sundance Film Festival was a rough cut of the film. “He’s got a studio capable of doing the final considering A Fierce Green Fire for inclusion in its January 2012 lineup. direct action In its confrontations with Soviet whaling ships,
above: Rex Weyler
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cold front Conflict Ahead in Arctic Waters by David fairhall Counterpoint, 256 pp., $26
the new arctic bonanza
As the polar ice melts, five nations gear up for an oil and gas boom by mckenzie funk
here is a natural constituency for the notion that the
Arctic will soon be the world’s next great battleground, for anyone can tell you that it has two things in superabundance: climate change and Russians. Defense hawks will remember the cold war. Climate hawks, who rightly believe that warming will increase the risk of global conflicts, reason that the first flare-up may be where temperatures are spiking the fastest: in the Arctic, which is heating up at twice the rate of the rest of the planet. After years of study, we have a general sense of what the Arctic Ocean will do in coming decades: it will dramatically melt. Its summers will become largely ice-free (even as its winters remain frigid); its walrus and polar bear populations will collapse; its oil will be easier to reach; and its Inuit will have to abandon their traditional world or be abandoned by it. After years of study, however, we still have no idea what Russia will do. In the summer of 2007, when the Arctic ice cap shrank to its smallest extent in recorded history, revealing an Alaska-size expanse of open ocean, Russia sent a nuclear-powered icebreaker to the North Pole, where the deputy speaker of its parliament climbed into a submersible, descended 14,100 feet to the seafloor, and planted a titanium Russian flag. There was a frenzy of media coverage, and the specter of Arctic conflict was forever lodged in the public mind. We shouldn’t need an excuse to worry about the breakdown of the Arctic environment, but if we’re looking for one, some might argue that this is it. In his densely reported new book, Cold Front, the British defense correspondent David Fairhall, who 5 4 onearth
covered the last ecological disaster approaching this scale— Chernobyl—for the Guardian, does not fall into this trap. “The North Pole [is not] going to be the setting for a new kind of Cold War,” he writes, “much as it might make for an easy headline.” He dashes other conventional wisdom—that the Arctic will soon become a navigable, ice-free ocean like any other, that polar shipping routes will soon put the Panama and Suez canals out of business— with similar certainty. “Dark, cold winter conditions will return each year,” he reminds us. “The disappearance of summer ice will not prompt a maritime revolution... so much as a process of piecemeal evolutionary change.” Journalists burdened by reality are inevitably stuck with the fact that reality is not as sexy as disasterism, and I can name at least one writer—myself—who has been guilty of highlighting some bellicose moments in recent Arctic history. Five years ago, when I witnessed friendly Canadians firing live ammunition into the Northwest Passage and running mock drills aimed at pacifying American merchant vessels, I briefly believed that global warming was making anything possible. Up was down, ice was water, and even Canada and Denmark were picking fights. But the Arctic has one more thing in great abundance—petroleum—and this is having an oddly stabilizing effect on polar politics even as it begins to wreak havoc on the polar environment. The region has nearly a quarter of the planet’s untapped oil and gas, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. In a zero-sum, winner-takes-all, scorched-earth
world, that could be a prize worth fighting over. But it is worth remembering that the Arctic Ocean is bounded by just five countries, all of them stable and relatively wealthy, four of them part of NATO: the United States (via Alaska), Canada, Denmark (via Greenland), Norway, and Russia. So five countries have an opportunity to lay claim to what might otherwise belong to all of humankind. Economic game theory has an explanation for why these Arctic powers have been cooperating in recent years, but so do toddlers’ birthday parties: so long as you’re guaranteed a big piece of the cake, you’re unlikely to throw a tantrum because you’re not getting all of it. Were the United States truly worried about Arctic warfare, we would have more than one functioning polar icebreaker. Were Canada truly worried about the territorial designs of its two Arctic neighbors, the United States and Denmark, it would not have invited both to play along in recent years’ military exercises in the high north. Were Norway truly worried about the Russians next door, it would not have wanted its largest petroleum company, Statoil, to partner with them in the Barents Sea to develop Shtokman, the Arctic’s largest natural gas project. And were Russia worried—well, who knows. But it will likely be not warships but an international legal agreement, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, that decides who controls what in the Arctic. As Fairhall explains, in 2001 Russia became the very first country to try to play by the treaty’s new rules on territorial claims, submitting one—later sent back for more geological data—for what it considered its rightful undersea territory. Canada, Denmark, and Norway are in the process of doing the same. (The treaty-shy United States, meanwhile, is one of the few countries in the world that has yet to ratify the Law of the Sea.) Russia’s eco-
flags and say, ‘We’re claiming this day most still cannot. If the Arctic territory.’” And he was right; the continues to develop peacefully, five Arctic powers have settled on Fairhall notes, it will have at least more gentlemanly means. one practical advantage over the In late summer 2008, the North- Suez Canal: no pirates. west Passage, atop North AmerFor the militarily minded, Cold ica, and the Northeast Passage Front should be comforting. The (or Northern Sea Route), atop Arctic is unlikely to be a major Russia, were simultaneously open theater, so they can focus their for the first time in recorded his- attentions on the many other tory. But the future of these two regions—from the Nile Basin to fabled shipping routes is unclear South Asia to sub-Saharan Africa— from Fairhall’s reporting, which where climate change may have studiously avoids predicting what serious security impacts. But for is in fact unpredictable. He is him- the environmentally minded, the self a maritime buff, and it shows: book should not be comforting. Cold Front Read between visit onearth.org spends long the lines and for a review of a new exhibition of works inspired by artists’ visits to the melting pages describthis thorough Arctic. onearth.org/reviews ing the travails history of the of men who sought the Northwest Arctic takes shape as a history of Passage—Ross, Parry, Sabine, political pragmatism: even as rivalFranklin, Bylot, Hudson, Baffin— ries flare, very little gets in the way and longer pages on the bureau- of economic development. cratic history of the Northeast Scarcely discussed in Cold Passage, which Russia saw as a Front are the rash of new explorapotential source of foreign income tion deals between oil multinationeven in Soviet days. One learns als and the northern powers, from about submarines, aircraft carri- Exxon’s multibillion-dollar foray ers, the fundamentals of icebreak- into the Russian Arctic Ocean ing, and especially the economics to Cairn Energy’s test wells off of container shipping: using the the west coast of Greenland to Arctic instead of the Suez Canal Shell’s twin offshore projects in to get to Yokohama, Japan, from the Chukchi and Beaufort seas Rotterdam, the Netherlands, a hy- of Alaska, which appear close pothetical ship could save 4,000 to clearing their final regulatory miles, eight days, and hundreds hurdles. The Arctic’s natural feedof thousands of dollars in fuel back loops, which contribute to costs—provided its owner can the region’s accelerated pace of live with the many uncertainties climate change, are well known: introduced by the ice, which to- open water absorbs more heat than does bright, white ice. The more water there is, the more quickly the ice melts, and the f r o m o u r c o n t r i b u t o r s more quickly the ice melts, the more open water is exposed. On land, permafrost stores untold By Emma Marris, Bloomsbury, $24 quantities of methane, a greenhouse gas more than 20 times “OUR MISTAKE HAS BEEN thinking more powerful than carbon dithat nature is something ‘out there,’ oxide. As the permafrost melts, far away. We watch it on TV, we read the methane goes into the atabout it in glossy magazines. We imagmosphere, and the atmosphere ine a place, somewhere distant, wild heats up, melting the permafrost. and free, a place with no people and Fairhall does not ruminate on the no roads and no fences and no power obvious, if crucial, irony of Arclines.... This dream of pristine wildertic oil and gas: insofar as drilling ness haunts us. It blinds us.” begets warming and warming
nomic future is planned around oil, gas, and minerals. “Finding, extracting and selling them at a profit is a lengthy process,” he writes. “It can only be achieved from a reasonably stable platform of international technical, legal and financial cooperation—international oil companies want to know where they are going to pay their taxes. The Kremlin surely knows this.” In hindsight, Russia’s flagplanting was as much about domestic politics as geopolitics, an election-year stunt by one of Vladimir Putin’s closest confidants. The same goes for Canada, where Prime Minister Stephen Harper waves flags in the Arctic and talks tough about U.S. incursions in part because it gives him political cover to cut crossborder deals with politicians such as George W. Bush, with whom he had much in common, and Barack Obama, with whom he hopes soon to have an agreement to build the Keystone XL oil pipeline. Were it not for its friendship with America, Canada would not have so many planned pipelines and hydropower plants: U.S. consumption drives Canada’s energy market. It was Canada’s foreign minister at the time, Peter MacKay, who provided the most colorful response to Russia’s visit to the North Pole. “This isn’t the 15th century,” he said. “You can’t go around the world and just plant
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begets melting and melting begets more drilling, this represents yet another feedback loop—perhaps the only one we humans have the power to stop.
high voltage The Fast Track to Plug In the Auto Industry BY jim motavalli Rodale Books, 272 pp., $24.99
When the Toyota Prius
debuted in the United States a decade ago, reactions were polarized. Fans loved its tantalizing mileage; skeptics scoffed at its relatively high cost and smug ecoimaging. Today, with more than two million sold, the groundbreaking gas-electric hybrid is as uncontroversial as it is unsexy, its success a profitable reward for an early, risky bet on green technology. In High Voltage, the longtime automotive journalist Jim Motavalli argues that we’re at the start of a similar arc with electric vehicles, or EVs. As these finally hit the streets, we’re still early in the fascination-versus-skepticism phase. Pundits fret over “range anxiety”—how far an EV can go on a charge—while consumers are drawn to the remarkable mileage, the equivalent of as much as 100 miles per gallon of gasoline. Riding shotgun with Motavalli, 5 6 onearth
readers get a sense of how this technology may not only electrify most new cars (either partially or completely) but also remake the auto industry, rewire our electrical grid, and redefine how and where we refuel—all while lowering oil consumption and cutting greenhouse gas emissions. For the lay reader, Motavalli breaks down the basics of the technology, untangling the often confusing taxonomy of subspecies. There are the now-familiar gas-electric hybrids, such as the Prius, which are never plugged in. There are plug-in hybrids, such as the Volt, which recharge from an outlet but also have a gas engine for extended range. And there are the truest EVs, such as Nissan’s Leaf, which use no gasoline, drawing all their energy from a supersize battery pack. If you think the $40,000-plus Volt is too costly, Motavalli writes, blame the battery. Higher-capacity batteries may spell the difference between success and failure, which explains, he says, why “battery companies have become the rock stars of the EV business.” How and where EVs recharge is shaping up to be a monumental technology shift in its own right. From developing a safe, standard design for EV plugs to transforming the grid to handle the EV era, the effort has pulled in some big newcomers to the auto biz. There’s Southern California Edison, which is working out the kinks to install at-home and public charging points. Then there’s GE, which is fortifying the grid for EVs and rolling out “smart grid” technologies, including curbside gizmos that will allow even garageless city dwellers to recharge. China, already the world’s largest auto market, looms as the EV industry’s game changer. China’s top battery maker, BYD (which is one-tenth owned by Warren Buffett), is targeting the U.S. market with both battery and plug-in hybrid models, the latter priced just
south of $30,000, about $10,000 less than the Volt. They’re still crude, and safety is a question, Motavalli reports, but the same was said of the first Japanese imports in the 1960s, and those turned out to be harbingers of a sea change in design and efficiency. Motavalli concedes that “because of high cost, range issues, relatively low fuel prices, and a scarcity of federal incentives,” EVs may yet hit one of the potholes that has crashed past runs. The odds are with them, though. High long-term oil prices are driving the shift, as are moves toward higher fuel-efficiency standards. Without some measure of electrification, Motavalli contends, few manufacturers will be able to sell in tomorrow’s car markets. A decade from now, EVs may be just one more kind of vehicle stuck in traffic. That would be exactly the sort of humdrum success EV players hope for. And it would be great for the environment, too.
high line The Inside Story of New York City’s Park in the Sky BY joshua David and Robert hammond Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 352 pp., $29.95
When you think of how
city parks get built, you probably don’t think a whole lot about the people behind them. You might imagine that it was just another bureaucratic stiff in the Gilded Age, in charge of car ving out
I Heard a Willow Fall The willow swept the roof as I lay in bed on winter nights and tried to think of something else besides the willow falling in the dark and crushing me in my sleep, which is what I also dreamed night after night, although I’d wake in time to escape its fall, then fall back to sleep, still worrying, however, that the tree might fall in a sudden squall or lose its grip on the shallow earth. Why worry? I thought. Lightning could also strike and smite the house. But I did, especially since the tree had begun to lean, as well as crack at the middle. “I’d cut it down,” I said to the dark the night it fell, “if it weren’t for its sweeping my dreams translate into the speech of a human’s voice. I am the danger that’s wed to beauty. I am the overstory with a thousand endings. —B y C h a r d
de N ior d
Illustration by blair thornley
green space way back when urban farming wasn’t a hobby and rotting horse carcasses were no more surprising a sight on city streets than taxicabs are today. Surely you don’t imagine boozefueled benefits at the Roxy, a onetime gay hot spot and dance club-cum-roller rink in New York City’s Chelsea neighborhood, featuring a roster of drag queens in evening gowns. But that’s the kind of thing that went into the creation of the High Line, a public park perched atop an abandoned elevated rail line that was once seen as a blight on the city’s West Side. The park was inspired by the vision of a pair of ordinary New Yorkers, Joshua David and Robert Hammond, who live, respectively, in Chelsea and the West Village—neighborhoods now connected by the park—and who have documented their efforts in High Line: The Inside Story of New York City’s Park in the Sky. What their stor y reveals most strikingly is that it’s something of a miracle that the park opened at all. The rail line, built in the 1930s for freight trains, was seen as an obstacle to progress, a place to get crapped on by pigeons by day and a shady pickup spot by night. But David and Hammond saw something more: a piece of history ripe for rediscovery and a unique landscape where nature could triumph over urban grit. Their quest began in the late 1990s. Over the ensuing years, the two-man team expanded to become Friends of the High Line, a nonprofit that somehow managed to muddle through some of the city’s darkest days, gaining steam in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks and eventually opening the park to the public in 2009, during the worst economic slump since the Great Depression. David and Hammond tell an engaging tale of how they pulled this off, giving ample credit to celebrities (Edward Norton), fashion moguls (Diane von Fur-
stenberg), hedge fund managers (Philip Falcone), and powerful politicians (Mayor Michael Bloomberg). They battled developers who wanted to tear the structure down, navigated arcane federal agencies to win permission to turn the rail line into a walking trail, and became celebrities in their own right as they rubbed elbows at fund-raising galas with New York’s see-and-be-seen set. At first glance, their book might seem the sort that you’d politely pass over in a museum shop, another drab entry in the category of urban studies. The first half is in the form of a 120-page-long conversation between David and
Hammond; the second is a collection of more than 200 photographs and illustrations. Yet despite the book’s staid appearance, David and Hammond reveal themselves to be wonderfully human—eccentric, neurotic, and easy to relate to. Hammond confesses that now that he has actually accomplished something, he’s finally getting over his embarrassment about all the self-help books he’s read. David, meanwhile, lets on that the only reason the two men met in the first place is that he thought Hammond was cute. Later, just as the team was gaining traction, Hammond had to be persuaded not to skip an important High
Line event in order to attend a meeting of the Radical Faeries. Yet David and Hammond do not come of f as frivolous or simply blessed with dumb luck. Their combination of personal quirks, public blunders, and political acuity makes for a surprisingly uplifting account. At the park’s groundbreaking ceremony, Diane von Furstenberg said: “The High Line tells us that in New York City dreams come true.” A groanworthy line, perhaps, but it’s nice to see that you don’t need to be rich and powerful to effect change. Regular people matter too. —laura wright treadway
s p o t l i g h t
THE NATURAL WORLD CLOSE-UP By Giles Sparrow Firefly Books, $29.95 EVOLUTION EQUIPPED THE HUMAN EYE FOR long-
distance work, to develop the survival skills we needed in a landscape filled with predators. Bring an object close to the eye, on the other hand, and it dissolves into a meaningless blur. Ever since the first artificial lens was ground, we have worked to compensate for our limitations, craving to see and understand small things in ever finer detail. Over the past 400 years or so, our visual technologies have become increasingly sophisticated: from simple magnifying glass to microscope to electron microscope, and now to “scanning probe microscopes” that reveal the minutest intricacies of life. This collection of hundreds of images immerses us in the unexpected beauties of lichen, algae, pollen grains, spider webs, seal fur, hummingbird feathers—and here, the petals of an orchid, magnified almost 1,200 times.
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Dispatches news and views from the natural resources defense council
Hot new model Increased fuel efficiency in U.S. cars will dramatically curtail carbon pollution.
sticker shock we like: Higher MPG Car companies and autoworkers unite to deliver a big win to consumers—and the planet
hen President Barack Obama
announced stronger carbon-pollution and fuelefficiency standards for cars and light trucks in July, it turned out to be good news for the country’s beleaguered autoworkers. Thirteen automakers have agreed to support the new standards for vehicles, which will deliver 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025. With new fuel-efficiency technologies, car companies will become more globally competitive and create thousands of new jobs. “The autoworkers’ union understands that the future for them in rebuilding the job base is cleaner, more fuel-efficient car technology,” says Roland Hwang, director of NRDC’s transportation program. A recent study conducted by NRDC, the United Auto Workers,
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and the National Wildlife Federation found that carbon pollution and fuel-efficiency standards previously put in place for 2012 to 2016 have already helped create or protect 150,000 jobs building components for cleaner cars. In total, the study found, more than 300 companies in 43 states and Washington, D.C., are developing and building new technology for the automotive industry, from advanced battery materials to improved transmissions. “Now that standards are going to be ramped up further from 2017 to 2025,” says Luke Tonachel, an NRDC vehicles analyst who worked on the study, “we expect even greater employment in a manufacturing sector that was hard hit by the recession and by oil price spikes that drove consumers away from big trucks and toward cars that were predominantly made overseas.” The fight to bring consumers efficient vehicles—and eliminate
millions of metric tons of carbon pollution, an amount equivalent to what is released by 72 coal-fired power plants annually—was led by a diverse coalition with NRDC at the helm. The unprecedented victory didn’t happen overnight, though. It started several decades ago, when Congress first raised fuelefficiency standards in 1975. The Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) regulations boosted fuel efficiency from about 14 mpg to 27.5 mpg by 1985. The decades rolled on, but those standards remained. It wasn’t until 2002, when California grabbed the reins and decided to pass its own carbon pollution law using its special authority under the federal Clean Air Act, that the issue returned to the spotlight. Throughout, NRDC worked as one of the “primary sponsors of this seminal clean car law, which ultimately broke the gridlock in D.C.,” says Hwang. One by one, other states began to adopt California’s standards. By 2007, “over a third of the nation was covered by the California clean car program,” Hwang says.
Did You Know…? You can defend the environment while receiving guaranteed payments for life with an NRDC Charitable Gift Annuity.
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“We definitely had the automakers’ attention.” But there was another hurdle. In 2003, the Bush administration had declared that the Clean Air Act did not apply to carbon dioxide emissions and could not be used to curb climate change. That position, if upheld, would mean the EPA couldn’t set federal carbon pollution standards, and neither could California or the other states. NRDC joined a coalition of states and environmental groups to challenge the Bush administration’s ruling, taking their battle all the way to the Supreme Court. In 2007, the justices ruled in favor of the coalition, holding that it is the EPA’s job under the Clean Air Act to protect public health and welfare from any dangerous pollution, including carbon dioxide. Two years later, the Obama administration penned an agreement to cut carbon pollution and increase fuel efficiency to 35.5 mpg by 2016. A wide range of stakeholders, including every U.S. and foreign car company selling models in the United States, environmental organizations, the United Auto Workers, and individual states, backed the pact. The announcement this summer that these standards would be pushed to 54.5 mpg thrilled those who had dedicated years and even decades to curbing carbon pollution. “I guess the first thing that comes to mind is, how do you top this?” Hwang says. “This is what I’ve been working on my entire career in the environmental sphere: raising fuel efficiency and reducing carbon pollution from cars.” These standards also mean job growth for a hard-hit industry in a shaky economy. “The American car industry is growing again,” Tonachel says. “But if we hadn’t pushed our industry, instead we’d be looking at thousands of lost jobs.” —Alyssa Noel
legal eagle Edward Strohbehn
ARGUING FOR THE PLANET
dward Strohbehn could reasonably BE describeD
not only as a co-founder of NRDC but as someone who helped pioneer the field of environmental law. In the late 1960s as a student at Yale Law School, he was inspired by the new and flourishing area of public interest law—utilizing the courts to advocate for civil rights on behalf of ordinary citizens. He and several classmates—Gus Speth (author and former dean of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies), John Bryson (now U.S. secretary of commerce), and Dick Ayres (founding partner of the Ayres Law Group)—brainstormed about using those same legal tools to protect the planet. Those “Yale Four,” along with founding director John Adams, went on to establish NRDC, “which began as simply an idea: something new, novel, interesting,” says Strohbehn, “a chance to make a difference. Starting NRDC was also a vote of confidence—in my colleagues and in the rule of law. Neither confidence was misplaced. Good people have made NRDC, and NRDC has made good law.” After working as an attorney for seven years at NRDC, Strohbehn was tapped by the Carter administration to serve as executive director of the Council on Environmental Quality. In 1980, the council published the groundbreaking Global 2000 Report, which looked ahead to the environmental consequences of poverty, loss of species, and climate change. Following his White House stint, Strohbehn moved west, soon joining the San Francisco law firm now known as Bingham McCutchen, turning his focus to the private sector and to helping corporations understand and comply with the huge swath of environmental laws enacted in the 1970s. That need has not diminished, Strohbehn observes, as environmental law has grown increasingly complex. His favorite work involves companies that strive not only to comply with the law but to “get ahead of the game” through innovations that help improve the environment. Strohbehn, meanwhile, continues to devote considerable time to the nonprofit sector. He served for eight years on the board of Resources for the Future and is now director of the Environmental Law Institute, both environmental and economic policy think tanks based in Washington, D.C. He is also a member of the Leadership Council of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. “As much as NRDC has achieved over the past 40 years,” Strohbehn says, “much more needs to be done by NRDC and by new institutions to advance our cause during challenging times and to forge the instruments of change.” —Michelle bialeck
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BETWEEN THE LINES
This Climate May Be Harmful to Your Ozone is a well-known trigger for respiratory problems such as asthma, particularly in children. Mount Sinai School of Medicine, in New York City, set out to discover what effect ground-level ozone, which is predicted to increase as a result of global warming, will have on the number of kids visiting hospital emergency rooms in the next decade. NRDC experts weigh in on the findings below.
This study connects the dots between global climate change, locally rising temperatures, and increases in local ground-level ozone smog pollution. It’s alarming that the health of more than 300,000 asthmatic children in 14 New York counties is being put at risk because of climate change.
Kim Knowlton Global Warming and Health, NY 6 0 onearth
Ozone pollution is nasty stuff—it’s like hydrogen peroxide in the lungs. So it’s no surprise that ozone pollution triggers life-threatening asthma attacks in vulnerable children. The surprise is how dangerous the combined effect of air pollution and climate change will be in the very near future.
Gina Solomon Health, SF
Politicians don’t always make policy based on the facts. What matters is what we do with this kind of information: establishing the data and showing how they are politically relevant to policy makers. Converting facts into political muscle is the key to influencing policy on air and climate issues.
Pete Altman Climate Center, DC
Congress has shown no inclination or receptivity to reducing groundlevel ozone, but instead has introduced bill after bill to weaken the Clean Air Act and eliminate the 40-year-old legal requirement to define unhealthy levels of ozone pollution based on scientific and medical evidence, not on politics.
John Walke Air and Energy, DC
Fin Win It’s a gruesome fate for
millions of sharks. Fishermen pull them from the sea, chop off their fins, and toss them back into deep waters, maimed but alive, leaving them to struggle and eventually drown. As the key ingredient of shark fin soup, a traditional dish in some Asian communities, an individual shark fin can sell for thousands of dollars. These predators have been at the top of the saltwater food chain for 400 million years, regulating the populations of other sea life, culling sick animals, and keeping prey species in check. But that vital ecological role has been threatened by the demand for shark fins. Efforts to ban the sale and trade of fins in California, one of the largest markets outside of Asia, have faced significant economic and cultural barriers, explains Leila Monroe, a staff attorney for NRDC’s oceans program. Monroe helped educate opponents of the ban and mobilize supporters—from fishermen to restaurant owners—to eliminate the market. These efforts were finally rewarded on October 7, when Governor Jerry Brown signed into law a ban on the sale and trade of shark fins in California, joining such states as Hawaii, Washington, and Oregon. Monroe believes the success of the California campaign will spread awareness about the threat of extinction faced by sharks from other dangers, such as continued overfishing and habitat destruction. This victory, in other words, is just —M. b. the beginning.
ABOVE: JEFF ROTMAN/PHOTO RESEARCHERS INC.
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Gray Is Green
A little more than Five
Governor Christie: His Billionaire pals posted by: Dale Bryk, director, NRDC energy and transportation program
overnment transparency is imperative
for a functioning democracy. So what happens when alliances between oil companies and elected officials form behind closed doors? This fall, Dale Bryk, NRDC’s energy guru, pointed out that in the case of David and Charles Koch and their private meetings with New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, it means a win for big oil and a loss for the citizens of the state. Christie and his administration talk a good game about transparency and ethics in government. “Folks in this state have a right to know what we’re doing in their name every day,” the governor told his cabinet at their first meeting in January 2010. Why, then, has Christie failed to disclose his private meetings with the notorious oil billionaires David and Charles Koch, meetings
show us your nature
brought to light by Mother Jones magazine? Why did the governor omit from his public schedule a late-June appearance with the Koch brothers and hundreds of wealthy donors at a closed-door “seminar” near the resort town of Vail, Colorado, where David Koch introduced Christie, calling him “my kind of guy”? All of this seems relevant in light of his recent actions to kill successful clean-energy, job-creating programs in the state—despite campaigning on these very issues. Indeed, at the Vail meeting the crowd cheered wildly as David Koch described Christie’s unilateral withdrawal of New Jersey from the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative. RGGI is the successful and bipartisan 10-state compact among northeastern and midAtlantic states that is building clean-energy industries, delivering billions of dollars to the regional economy, cutting air pollution, reducing energy costs for consumers and businesses, and creating good jobs that can’t be shipped overseas. That’s why it’s so disconcerting to see Governor Christie, who has given so much lip service to clean energy, getting so cozy with the Koch brothers.
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We’re Hungry! Jonathan Lavan usually focuses on underwater photography, but when he noticed a pair of American robins nesting in the berried wreath hanging on the front door of his suburban Chicago home, he decided to focus his lens above sea level. Lavan captured this image of three baby robins waiting for their siblings to hatch with a Sony DSC-W7 point and shoot. Although he tried his best not to intrude on the hungry hatchlings, the robins eventually relocated to a cozy (and more private) drain shelter nearby.
years ago, Robert Lane, then an 89-year-old retired political scientist, got some of his neighbors together at the Whitney Center retirement home in Hamden, Connecticut, to watch An Inconvenient Truth. Afterward, Lane remembers thinking, “We overcame the Depression, defeated the Nazis, won the cold war—and we still made a mess of the world.” So he got to work, circulating literature to his 200 neighbors and inviting environmental experts to speak at the center. He named his effort “Gray Is Green.” Lane reached out to other communities, expanding Gray Is Green into a national program to make retirement centers more eco-friendly, whether by switching to LED lights or installing green roofs. In partnership with NRDC, Gray Is Green has since evolved into a clearinghouse for information on effecting environmental change. Kath Schomaker, a graduate of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, started out as a speaker at the Whitney and became the program’s outreach coordinator. Schomaker focuses on “the intersection of several aging population groups,” from the silent generation (born from 1925 to 1945) to the baby boomers. These generations constitute one of the nation’s largest voting blocks, and Gray Is Green plans to mobilize their political muscle. One example: the Clean Air Promise, whose aim is to protect the Clean Air Act from congressional attacks and to maintain the law’s safeguards, which protect both the young and old from air pollutants. Visit grayisgreen.org. —M. b.
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what we do
office 21 floors above the streets of San Francisco, her view extends well beyond those waters. “This is a chance for me to broaden my horizons beyond the bay and its watershed, and beyond my particular scientific background, to work on national issues,” Swanson says. The 54-year-old grew up in Portola Valley, California, and
oversees three postdoctoral fellows who work with NRDC advocates on very targeted issues. “Everything we do at NRDC is based on science,” says Tom Roush, a trustee who has supported the center since its inception. “Our litigation, advocacy, the way we address problems, the solutions we suggest—all of it is validated by scientific fact.”
sounds of science
Marine biologist Christina Swanson stays on message.
BAYwatcher The new director of NRDC’s Science Center knows the waters around San Francisco and beyond
rom christina Swanson’s new office, you
can see a slice of San Francisco Bay. It’s a body of water, a habitat, and a managed system that she understands as well as anyone in the world. She knows all about the bay’s water quality, ecological indicators, contaminants, habitat restoration efforts, and fish—especially the fish. She can tell you whether you can eat fish caught in the bay, how abundant the Delta smelt within it are, how fast they swim, and what gait they tend to use (fish can trot, canter, or gallop, much like horses). Swanson, the new director of NRDC’s Science Center, recently left her job as executive director and chief scientist of the Bay Institute, where she used her expertise as a marine biologist and fisheries scientist to protect the health of the bay and its species. Now, from her
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she often dropped by a fish store the next town over. “I would go in there at 6 or 8, and the man would spend half an hour with me picking out the exact right fish.” Her fascination extended through college, a Ph.D. in biology from UCLA, and postdoctoral work studying how fish function in relation to their environment. The Ph.D. research brought her to Hawaii and the Philippines, where she studied the milkfish. “The milkfish is totally cool,” Swanson says. “It can grow to be this big—” she gestures wide in true fisherman storytelling style. “It can live in freshwater and super salty waters, and not many fish can do that.” As director of the center, Swanson is determined to help scientists communicate their findings, among themselves and with advocates and policy makers, to have more impact on the protection and preservation of natural systems. Opened in 2006, the center serves as NRDC’s scientific backbone, working across programs to encourage new research and support the organization’s more than 60 staff scientists. Swanson
He says that Swanson, with her experience at the nexus of science and public policy, will help the Science Center flourish. “We live in a frustrating time when science is ignored, dismissed, denied, and twisted,” Swanson says. But she recognizes that science is a process, and part of that process is communication. “We have to find new ways to communicate, beyond technical reports, expert testimony, and the press, to help people understand the story of science and the environment.” It’s like her musings on San Francisco Bay. “If you tell people whether they can swim or fish in the bay, it personalizes it,” she says. In fact, you can swim safely in the bay, but not after a big storm—the sewage treatment systems can get overwhelmed and spill raw sewage into the waters. As for fish, you can generally eat the little ones, but those big striped bass can carry mercury. “That,” says Swanson, her golden fish-skeleton earrings shimmering when she shakes her head, “is when people start to care about the rest of the system.”
left: PHOTOGRAPH FOR ONEARTH BY Gabriela Hasbun
“We have to find new ways to communicate, beyond technical reports and expert testimony, to help people understand the story of the environment”
NRDC Board of Trustees
pay it forward “I’ve had a wonderful life,”
says NRDC benefactor Nigel Renton. “My wife and I have eight grandchildren and one greatgrandchild. Now our priority is ensuring that they inherit the kind of environment and life that we have enjoyed.” Renton’s appreciation for the natural world began early—he recalls roaming through verdant fields and woods as a child in a rural town in Surrey, England—and has remained constant ever since. He and his wife, Barbara, first joined NRDC in 1986. Thirteen years later, they decided to deepen their commitment to the organization by making a gift through their estate and becoming NRDC legacy leaders. While Renton realizes that compromise is sometimes an essential tool in winning environmental protections, he also knows that stronger tactics are often needed. “There are many organizations doing good work on behalf of the environment,” Renton explains. “But what really sets NRDC apart is the ability and willingness to take legal action, when necessary, to protect the environment.” He goes on to say, “NRDC’s staff attorneys and scientists make a powerful combination for NRDC and for our world.” For information on how to leave your own lasting legacy, contact Michelle Mulia-Howell, director of gift planning, at firstname.lastname@example.org or 212-727-4421.
Daniel R. Tishman, Chair Frederick A.O. Schwarz, Jr. Chair Emeritus Adam Albright, Vice Chair Patricia Bauman, Vice Chair Robert J. Fisher, Vice Chair Alan Horn, Vice Chair Joy Covey, Treasurer John H. Adams, Founding Director, NRDC Richard E. Ayres Anna Scott Carter Susan Crown Laurie P. David Leonardo DiCaprio
John E. Echohawk Bob Epstein Michel Gelobter, Ph.D. Arjun Gupta Van Jones Philip B. Korsant Nicole Lederer Michael Lynton Shelly B. Malkin Josephine A. Merck Mary Moran Peter A. Morton Wendy K. Neu Frederica Perera, Ph.D. Robert Redford Laurance Rockefeller Jonathan F. P. Rose
NRDC Staff PRESIDENT Frances Beinecke EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR Peter H. Lehner PROGRAM STAFF: Wesley Warren, director; Action Fund: Heather Taylor-Miesle, director; Matthew Howes, Corry McKee; Air & Energy: Dale Bryk, director; Ann Alexander, Christina Angelides, Evelyn Arevalo, Mona Avalos, Jamy Bacchus, Max Baumhefner, Kaid Benfield, Terry Black, Uchenna Bright, Pierre Bull, Ralph Cavanagh, Allison Clements, Brandi Colander, Lisa Copland, Emily Davis, Donna DeCostanzo, Pierre Delforge, Natisha Demko, Amanda Eaken, Kristin Eberhard, Lara Ettenson, Deborah Faulkner, Shannon Fisk, David Goldstein, Vignesh Gowrishankar, Nathanael Greene, Ashok Gupta, Justin Horner, Noah Horowitz, Roland Hwang, Alexander Jackson, Richard Kassel, Valerie Keane, Kit Kennedy, Elizabeth Landeros, Noah Long, Daniel Lorch, Deron Lovaas, Luis Martinez, Sierra Martinez, Peter Miller, Simon Mui, Siddhartha Oza, James Presswood, Marissa Ramirez, Laura E. Sanchez, Thomas Singer, Brian Siu, Rebecca Stanfield, Luke Tonachel, John Walke, Sharianne Walker, Margaret Waltner, Devra Wang, Sheryl Warzecha, Samantha Wilt; Center for Market Innovation: Peter Malik, director; Judith Albert, Greg Hale, Philip Henderson, Radhika Khosla, Christine Luong, Yerina Mugica, Douglass Sims, Cai Steger, Samir Succar, Alisa Valderrama, Starla Yeh; China: Barbara Finamore, director; Bernadette Brennan, Hoober Hu, Hyoung Mi Kim, Yang Li, Yuqi Li, Alvin Lin, Zixin Lin, Mingming Liu, Runhui Liu, Jingjing Qian, Junxia Su, Jun Tian, Yaling Wang, Qi Wu, Christine Xu, Fuqiang Yang, Xiaoli Yan, Mona Yew, Anne Zhang, Xiya Zhang, Yao Zheng; Climate Center: Daniel Lashof, director; Radha Adhar, Peter Altman, Jamie Consuegra, David Doniger, Meleah Geertsma, Grace Gill, David Hawkins, Kelly Henderson, Antonia Herzog, Laurie Johnson, Franz Matzner, George Peridas, Adrianna Quintero-Somaini, Jake Schmidt, Theo Spencer, John Steelman, Lucy Swiech-LaFlamme; Government Affairs: David Goldston, director; Marc Boom, Lisa Catapano, Vannida Mel, Ann Notthoff, Ellis Pepper, Robert Perks, Lindsey Reed, Victoria Rome, Scott Slesinger, Melissa Waage; Health: Linda Greer, director; Diane Bailey, Amrita Batra, Dana Gunders, Sarah Janssen, Jonathan Kaplan, Avinash Kar, Susan Keane, Kim Knowlton, David Lennett, Daniel Rosenberg, Miriam RotkinEllman, Jennifer Sass, Gina Solomon, Monique Waples, Mae Wu, Kathleen Yip; International: Susan Casey-Lefkowitz, director; Carlota Arias, Elizabeth Barratt-Brown, Danielle Droitsch, Carolina Herrera, Anjali Jaiswal, Amanda Maxwell, Jacob Scherr, Elizabeth Shope; Land & Wildlife: Sharon Buccino, co-director; Andrew Wetzler, co-director; Charles Clusen, Sylvia Fallon, Debbie Hammel, Nathaniel Lawrence, Whitney Leonard, Amy Mall, Bobby McEnaney, Matthew McFeeley, Helen O’Shea, Rebecca Riley, Matthew Skoglund, Janet Stringer, Katie Umekubo, Johanna Wald, Louisa Willcox, Craig Dylan Wyatt, Sami Yassa, Carl Zichella; Litigation: Mitch Bernard, director; Irina Petrova, corporate counsel; Lisa Busch, Aaron Colangelo, Robert F. Kennedy, Selena Kyle, Ben Longstreth, Nancy Marks, Nicholas Morales, Cassie Rahm, Andres Restrepo, Lucia Roibal, Aaron Schaer, Joya Sonnenfeldt, Jennifer Sorenson, Michael Wall; Midwest Regional: Henry L. Henderson, director; Thomas Cmar, Jennifer Daly, Mary Hanley, Jennifer Henry, Bruce Ho, Nicholas Magrisso, Jessie Rossman, Dylan Sullivan; Nuclear: Christopher Paine, director; Geoffrey Fettus, Matt McKinzie, Jonathan McLaughlin; Oceans: Sarah Chasis, director; Jonathan Alexander, Seth Atkin-
Thomas W. Roush, M.D. Philip T. Ruegger, III Christine H. Russell, Ph.D. William H. Schlesinger Wendy Kirby Schmidt James Gustave Speth Max Stone James Taylor Gerald Torres Elizabeth Wiatt George M. Woodwell, Ph.D.
honorary trustees Dean Abrahamson, M.D., Ph.D. Robert O. Blake Henry R. Breck Joan K. Davidson
Sylvia Earle, Ph.D. James B. Frankel Hamilton F. Kean Charles E. Koob Ruben Kraiem Burks B. Lapham Maya Lin Michael A. McIntosh, Sr. Daniel Pauly Nathaniel P. Reed Cruz Reynoso John R. Robinson John Sheehan David Sive Frederick A. Terry, Jr. Thomas A. Troyer Kirby Walker
son, Alison Chase, Karen Garrison, Marisa Kaminski, Leila Monroe, Regan Nelson, David Newman, Bradford Sewell, Lisa Speer, Lisa Suatoni, Marina Zaiats; Science Center: Christina Swanson, director; Briana Mordick; Urban East: Mark Izeman, director; Johanna Dyer, Eric Goldstein, Alice Henley, Allen Hershkowitz, Darby Hoover, Elizabeth Horvitz, Albert Huang, Richard Schrader, Kate Sinding, Urban West: Joel Reynolds, director; Gregory Gould, Lizzeth Henao, Michael Jasny, Taryn Kiekow, Melissa Lin Perrella, Adriano Martinez, Damon Nagami, Lauren Packard, David Pettit, Gopi Shah, Zak Smith, Morgan Wyenn; Water: David Beckman, director; Claire Althouse, Ben Chou, Kelly Coplin, Jon Devine, Steven Fleischli, Noah Garrison, Rebecca Hammer, Karen Hobbs, Carol James, Anna Kheyfets, Lawrence Levine, Michelle Mehta, Barry Nelson, Douglas Obegi, Edward Osann, Katherine Poole, Tracy Quinn, Monty Schmitt COMMUNICATIONS: Phil Gutis, director; Cathryn Bales, Ynés Cabral, Edwin Chen, Robert Deans, Linda Escalante, Rachel Fried, Alba Garzon, Dylan Gasperik, Lisa Goffredi, Apolinar Gonzales, Elizabeth Heyd, Daniel Hinerfeld, Serena Ingre, Robert Keefe, Francesca Koe, Jessica Lass, Kathryn McGrath, Joshua Mogerman, Masumi Patzel, Jennifer Powers, Kimberly Ranney, Carlita Salazar, Auden Shim, Katherine Slusark, Lise Stevens, Suzanne Struglinski, Jackie Wei, Lisa Whiteman, Christina Ziccarelli, Lauren Zingarelli; onearth Douglas S. Barasch, editorin-chief; George Black, Scott Dodd, Janet Gold, Jon Mark Ponder, Jocelyn C. Zuckerman DEVELOPMENT: John Murray, director; Gina A. Abramo, Coretta Anderson, Spencer Campbell, John Cavanagh, Christine Corcoran, Elizabeth Corr, Justin Courter, Maria DeRiggi, Caitlin Driscoll, Sarah Edwards-Schmidt, Travis Eisenbise, Robert Ferguson, Katherine Gibson, Nancy Golden, Shari Greenblatt, Courtney Gross, Ashley Honeysett, Jennifer Iselin, Rita Itwaru, Patrick Kiely, Ying Li, Kelly McGonigle, Elizabeth McNulty, Nancy Metzger, Peter Meysenburg, Claire Morgenstern, Emily Moyer, Michelle Mulia-Howell, Shaniqua Outlaw, Matthew Perrin, Caroline Pronovost, Michelle Quinones, Lynne Shevlin, Shannon Slanker, Missy Toney, Tammy Tran, Julie Truax, Steve Van Landingham, Denise Vazquez, Catherine Vega, Nicole Verhoff, Marc Vigliotti, Desrene Walton, Marian Weber, Marianna Weis, Nick Wolf; Membership: Linda Lopez, director; Jean Bowman, Claire Brandow, Darlene Davis, Lillian Fernandez, Amy Greer, Alex Hernandez, Katharine Houston, Jordan Kessler, Jennifer Lam, Gina Trujillo, Marie Weinmann, Joyce Yeung FINANCE AND OPERATIONS: Judith Keefer, director; Finance: Sarah Gillman, director; Hiawatha Barno, Annette Canela, Dorothy Clune, Jeff Cruz, Debby Fuentes, James Hands, Sharon Hargrove, Lauretta Hoffler, Eunice Jean-Paul, Alex Liu, Shih-Chang Lu, Apurva Muchhala, Vivek Nadarajah; Administration: Jackie Albarran, Sasha Alleyne, Sonah Allie, Umar AlUqdah, Brian Anderson, Emily Bischof, Sarah Brailey, Larisa Bravette, Anita Brennan, Willa Bugnon, Angela Calderon, Janie Chen, William Christie, Tianya Coachman, Matthew Cohen, Genie Colbert, Lasans Crawford, Angeliki Ebbesen, Leslie Edmond, Matthew Eisenson, Mimose Elie, Mercedes Falber, Sevi Glekas, Brian Gourley, Anthony Guerrero, Sung Hwang, Brian James, Rodrigo Jaramillo, Leslie Jones, Vera Korol, Rene Leni, Felicia Marcus, Marisa McFarlane, Malia Palakiko, Leonard Patterson, Penny Primo, Ann Roach, Roseann Rock, Stephanie Sandor, Abby Schaefer, Robyn Spencer, Milagro Suarez, Vivek Varughese, Krista Ware, Bradley Wells, Lerone Williams.
onearth 6 3
open space mixing my metaphors my hand. Here was a text using personification and invoking awe to Instead, advised leaders of the Earth Literacy work- explain something that made sense: if a star’s core reaches a temperashop at Genesis Farm in Blairstown, New Jersey, say ture of 100 million degrees Kelvin, its helium nuclei will move quickly you are going to greet the sun as we, on Earth, turn enough to collide and fuse into carbon. The reaction is represented toward it. And that is in fact what happens. Earth as the formula 3 4He g 12C. And I am grateful for it. completes a rotation on its axis every 23 hours, 56 I am not asking you to worship the sun. Nor am I asking you to stop minutes, and 4.1 seconds. Depending on Earth’s location in its revo- worshipping whatever you worship, if anything. I am only asking that lution around the sun and your locawe look closely at the words we use tion on Earth, you spend a portion of to describe what moves us. We must that time in darkness. But when that recognize that sometimes our anthroproverbial ribbon of color blurs into pocentric view can be harmful, leadfocus on the horizon, pushes up the ing to the toxic belief that everything night, and makes the stars go out, it revolves around us. But other times is not from the sun’s rising. It is not our anthropocentric view can help us from Helios driving his golden chariot appreciate what most deserves our across the sky, nor from Grandmother love. We should uphold the metaphoriSpider, with the sun in a clay bowl, cal as much as we do the literal, but crawling back along her web from the recognize when we are using each. We other side of the world. It is from Earth should search for objective truth but turning toward the sun. deliver facts and data with immanence. Earlier, in college, I sat in a lecture When I stood on that grassy hill at the hall at a large university listening to my Earth Literacy workshop and really Astronomy 101 professor talk about imagined Earth turning toward the the birth and death of stars, white sun, I thought I might fall off the planet. dwarfs, red giants. The textbook said, This year, in my classroom at Stevens “Stars are not alive, of course … but Point Area Senior High, in Wisconsin, astronomers nevertheless refer to the I strategically hung a poster of “The changes that stars undergo as stellar Blue Marble”—the first photo of evolution . . . . The remnants of a dying Earth, fully illuminated and in color, star shower into space elements vital from space—beneath another poster to human life such as carbon and iron bearing the Pledge of Allegiance. I am not asking you to worship that become incorporated into new Below “The Blue Marble” hangs the the sun. I am only asking that we stars, planets, and ultimately people. American flag, its white stars on deep look closely at the words we use We therefore owe our very existence blue like the folded fabric of space beto stellar evolution.” yond our planet. A colleague saw the to describe what moves us. Though years apart, these episodes photo and proposed I turn it so that collided in my mind. The first asked me to use language that de- Africa was upside down. “There is no north or south from space,” she scribed the way something actually was, regardless of my own said. “No Africa.” Once again I had been locked to my own perspecexperience. The second asked nearly the opposite: to describe tive. I took her suggestion and have since discovered this was the something using the language of my own experience, regardless photograph’s original orientation. Every day my students view Earth of my knowledge. Yet in both the truth was evident: stars are, well, as the astronauts did from space. I hope it jolts something in them—as important—especially the sun. I was jolted while imagining myself turning toward the sun. I hope it On reading those lines in my astronomy textbook, I felt immediately makes them a little seasick, their state a star but the whole Earth a a sincere gratitude for the stars, entities I could witness every night, for marble: the planet where they live small enough to fit in someone’s giving me something palpable, though like the “sunrise” not directly hand, small enough to be lost, and fragile enough to crack, but more discernible: the carbon atoms in the protein molecules in the flesh of beautiful than one can imagine.
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t was forbidden to say the sun was rising.
illustration by shout
BY jill sisson quinn
Africa's Urban Harvest, by Jocelyn C. Zuckerman