Archive for April, 2012

Earth Week Excerpts: From “Lead Bullets and the Environment,” by Colin Stanton

Many species of birds, both thriving and endangered, are dying daily from lead poisoning because the overwhelming majority of ammunition used for hunting is lead based. The ammunition comes in two forms: the standard bullet and the shot. The latter is what is used by shotguns and instead of a single piece of metal traveling through the air at thousands of feet per second, a spray of pellets is emitted to drench a target. The use of this ammunition has caused birds—specifically predatory and scavenger birds—to come into secondary contact with lead and subsequently develop lead poisoning. The main family of birds that fall into the predator category is the raptors, which include golden and bald eagles; examples of scavengers include vultures and condors. These birds do not have normal access to lead aside from that which they get through human interaction, so it is imperative that lead based ammunition be banned. . . .

Professor Bryan Watts, director of William and Mary’s Center for Conservation Biology, says, “A piece of lead smaller than a BB pellet is enough to kill an adult eagle” (Nealon). Taking into consideration that a shot sprays a large amount of BB sized pellets at a target and that the section of the animal hit by the spray is usually left in the wild, chances are high for lead poisoning to occur. . . . New evidence indicates “that lead bullets fragment as they pass through prey items, leaving a trail of small pieces of lead that can be widely distributed within the body of the prey…. Consequently, scavengers can be exposed to high lead concentrations even when feeding on body parts far from the bullet’s final destination.” So, even when a hunter takes proper care in dressing a kill, many fragments can be left behind for the consumption of many scavengers, leading to their possible deaths. . . .

Consider professional butchers. They slice up meat for a living, getting rid of imperfections and any unwanted material, yet lead fragments in game hunted by shot are so small and distant from the clearly damaged tissue that these “professional butchers do not remove them when trimming venison for human consumption” (Knott et al, 95). Thus, “ingestion of fragmented lead ammunition is a potential concern as a cause of elevated dietary exposure of humans to lead” (Knott et al, 98). If a human was killed from lead poisoning after eating meat containing lead, the butcher would be held accountable and would have to go to court to defend themselves against negligent manslaughter charges. Or if the human was lucky and only got poisoned, the butcher would have to pay some sort of court ordered restitution. However, when it comes to animals, no law is even in place to protect them against a negligent man. Anthony Prieto, a hunter and anti-lead advocate, wrote, “I’ve seen X-rays of shot game showing dust-sized lead particles spread throughout the meat, far away from the bullet hole. The best solution is to stop using lead ammunition altogether.” It should be noted that Prieto is normally against anything that takes away hunting rights, for if it did he would not be involved in the campaign to abolish lead ammunition (Prieto).

. . . [S]o why not just create a law now to be safe before anything permanent happens? After all, it is easier to switch to and from man-made goods than to recreate a species. It has been suggested that this change has not occurred because “strong traditions and prejudices are hard to break even when the available information overwhelmingly favours change” (Fisher et al, 428).

April 30th, 2012

Earth Week Excerpts: From “What’s the Big Fracking Deal: A Case for the Ban of Hydraulic Fracturing,” by Rose St. Clair

. . . The issue of hydraulic fracturing has been confined to a narrow view of greedy pro-fracking oil mongers and un-American anti-fracking treehuggers for far too long. The idea that it is a two-sided debate has been summed up by Energy From Shale, a popular pro-fracking organization:

“fracking has emerged as a contentious issue in many communities, and it is important to note that there are only two sides in the debate: those who want our oil and natural resources developed in a safe and responsible way; and those who don’t want our oil and natural gas resources developed at all.” (“The Promise”)

However narrow a view this may be, the organization makes a (presumingly accidental) point: there are those who do not want oil and natural gas resources developed and who would rather see clean alternatives (e.g. solar and wind energy) pursued. But even among those who do want oil and natural gas resources developed, with a slew of negative consequences associated with the most popular technique for extracting those resources, it is commonsense to want some solution – something else, something new. And what needs to be done to best solve the fracking problem is to support the efforts of companies like HyperSolar Inc. in every possible way. The time, money, and work going into current fracking processes and studies would better contribute to both the environment and the sustainability of energy if applied to these modern, inventive projects.

April 30th, 2012

Better Living: Trees of the Future?

Despite the best of research efforts, we remain uncertain of exactly what changes our earth and ecosystems will undergo as global climate change continues. But a recent study, published in the journal Tree Physiology, suggests that we may have an unexpected laboratory on hand that will provide insight into the changes that trees will undergo in the coming years.

Large cities tend to be hotter than the surrounding land areas, a phenomenon known as the “urban heat island” effect. In cities, much of the land is covered with pavement and buildings, which absorb energy instead of reflecting it back. While this effect may pose problems for people living in cities as climate change accelerates, other organisms might appreciate the extra heat. The recently-published study demonstrated that red oak saplings in northeastern Central Park, planted in 2007 and 2008, developed eight times more biomass than those in the country. While increased nitrogen, a nutrient needed for plant growth, may have contributed to the faster rate of growth, temperature was found to be the main factor.

ScienceDaily reported on the story, and commented that other experiments in Japan and Australia have shown similar increases in growth under the influence of higher temperatures. On the other hand, rising temperatures have promoted “massive die-offs” in the western U.S. and Alaska. They quoted Gary Lovett, a forest ecologist at the the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies in Millbrook, N.Y., who said that “Cities are special places — they might be laboratories for what the world will look like in coming years.”

Cities could be a valuable resource for not just predicting the future effects of climate change on people and other organisms, but for practicing ways to counteract the effects of a warming climate. Being one step ahead in rising temperatures is a terrific opportunity to take that same step forward in climate change mitigation.

(Photo Credit: Wade McGillis/Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory)

April 30th, 2012

From “The Nuclear Error: Unsustainable Policy on Sustainable Energy,” by Zachary Price

On March 11, 2011, a 9.0 MMS earthquake occurred off the Pacific coast of the Japanese town of Tohoku, the largest Japanese quake on record. The tsunami triggered by this earthquake, along with the earthquake itself, cost the Japanese people hundreds of trillions of Yen in damage and tens of thousands of lives. On top of this wanton destruction, the quake sent a tremor through the globe’s nuclear energy industry: the meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant following the earthquake and tsunami has created a new wave of fear of nuclear energy. As the panic spread, many world governments have considered or enacted policies to slow the introduction of new nuclear energy facilities, cease their production, or even take existing reactors offline.

As the prices of fossil fuels rise along with global temperatures and sea levels, environmentalism and sustainability become more important to the functioning of our global society. Dependence on fossil fuels, paired with the low cost-efficiency of renewable energy sources like solar and wind power, hamstrings most global attempts to pursue sustainable energy generation. And yet, there is a powerful, important, and underutilized candidate for electricity production technology that can be implemented in the near-term and serve as a bridge to (and possible element of) a renewable energy future: nuclear fission. If current-generation and near-future fission technologies are not taken advantage of, our global community will miss out on a great opportunity to invest in a future of safe and sustainable energy production.

Freak accidents like the recent meltdown at the Fukushima nuclear power plant have given the nuclear industry a bad reputation for being unsafe and prone to dangerous catastrophic failure; this reputation is largely unearned and generally exaggerated. . . .

The decisions by world governments to delay or cancel nuclear reactor deployment and even decommission existing installations is dangerous and short-sighted. These decisions will require us to either be increasingly dependent on fossil fuels, thus accelerating our ever-worsening environmental problems, or to attempt a large-scale transition to new renewable energy technology which cannot meet our current needs in an efficient way. The MIT Energy Initiative gives this harsh assessment, “The sober warning is that if more is not done, nuclear power will diminish as a practical and timely option for deployment at a scale that would constitute a material contribution to climate change risk mitigation” (Deutch).

While nuclear energy is a viable alternative to fossil fuels right now, significant delay in replacing contemporary fossil fuel-based power plants with nuclear fission systems would sacrifice the possibility of decreasing the risks of climate change by reducing greenhouse gas emissions. In this way, the irresponsible decisions of world governments to delay or decommission nuclear reactors risks causing irreparable harm to our environment when there is a safe and efficient alternative.

April 29th, 2012

Earth Week Excerpts: From “Save the Florida Panther,” by Ciara Kazmierski

. . . What exactly is a Florida panther? A Florida panther is a big cat that is a subspecies of the puma. It is an important part of the ecosystem as a predator. Florida panthers are unique in diet and behavior, all essential in understanding the cats so that they may be preserved. While these animals once covered much of the Southeast, they are now only found in Florida, in habitats that are succumbing to human activities and expansion. . . .
This increasingly rare species is disappearing at an alarming rate. The US Fish and Wildlife Service explains that human activities are the root cause of the panthers’ problems. With the expansion of cities and suburbs, industry, and agriculture, the panthers are being pushed into closer and closer quarters with one another. This leads to territory fights that can result in death. Panthers are more likely to find themselves on asphalt with bright headlights bearing down on them. . . .
It is truly disheartening to see this predator fall. It is well known that extinction of a top predator in a food chain can have devastating results. All animals will be affected as those who were normally hunted become dominant in the habitat, reproducing with no predator to moderate their population. Excessive amounts of these animals then cause damage to their food resources, and the problems simply continue. This kind of unregulated reproduction and feeding could result in the breakdown and collapse of the equilibrium of that habitat.
So what can be done? The panthers need their space. In April of 2011, Craig Pittman wrote . . . [an] article on that very issue. A case had come before federal court that would have been a huge step forward for the panthers and their recovery. Pittman explains that “the suit, filed by a coalition of environmental groups, sought to overrule the Obama administration’s refusal to declare 1.3 million acres as critical habitat for the panther, Florida’s state animal” (11). This is a truly frustrating result.
It is interesting because Obama is currently running on a platform for the 2012 presidential election that claims he has made the environment a “priority” (13). While his website talks about how he has “enacted the largest expansion of land and water conservation and protected wilderness in a generation,” his main focus seems to be clean energy and making sure that those who read his site know that he handled the Keystone XL leak better than the Republicans would have as their proposal was “arbitrary and rushed” (13).
When it really comes down to it, however, Floridians should be appalled by the judge’s decision and reasoning for the panthers’ habitat. Why would the judge not overrule the Obama administration’s decision? Even a group of “panther and habitat mapping experts,” who said this grant of land would save the panthers, were ignored (11). The problem is nearly laughable as it is so ridiculous. Pittman’s article explains that “[a]lthough panthers have been on the federal endangered list since 1967, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has not declared any of its habitat to be critical, a step that would make it harder for developers, miners and farmers to alter the land” (11).
And why not? Why would the US Fish and Wildlife Service not simply declare critical habitat for them? With an animal like the Florida panther, with at most 160 surviving members, this decision seems to be simple, easy, one that should cause federal officials to sign the papers without blinking an eye. But the catch, the technicality preventing this from happening, is the fact that “the panther was put on the endangered list prior to 1978 — the year when Congress changed the Endangered Species Act to require the interior secretary to designate critical habitat for any species added to the endangered list” (11).
. . . Some finger pointing and bureaucratic nonsense has gotten in the way of saving Florida’s state animal. Even when three Florida Congressmen signed a petition to convince the US Fish and Wildlife Service to declare more land critical for the panther, the petition was rejected (11). At this point, it really feels like something more is going on behind the scenes. It would appear that land developers, agriculture, and suburbia have taken priority over the panther to the extent that even the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the agency which is responsible for protecting animals like the panther, has nearly abandoned them.

April 29th, 2012

Earth Week Excerpts: From “Hydrofracking,” by Yonsoo Kang

Hydraulic fracturing, otherwise known as hydrofracking or fracking, is a method used to obtain natural gases and petroleum from the earth. Fracking has primarily been used to tap into oil or gas formations that are particularly hard to extract. Oil companies have readily adopted hydraulic fracturing because of its ability to access into deeper deposits. Hydraulic fracturing has revitalized old oil wells that were thought to have run dry and expanded the natural gas drilling industry in the United States. This expansion has helped the economy of local communities by providing capital and employment. On a larger scale, some people see that hydraulic fracturing will be the answer to American energy independence from foreign oil.
However, hydraulic fracturing does have negative impacts on the environment, which cause issues between mining companies and local communities. Fracking requires an enormous amount of water, uses hazardous chemicals in its process, and pollutes the water table. There are clear societal and economic benefits to advocate for hydraulic fracturing; nevertheless, the costs to the environment and to us outweigh the well-intended results. . . . Is fracking for natural gas the answer to American’s energy problems? Remember, people can live without natural gas, but they sure cannot live without water.

April 26th, 2012

Earth Week Excerpts: From “Of Robots and River Spirits: Environmentalism in Western and Eastern Animation,” by Paolo Jasa

The movie opens with several shots of deep space as the song “Put On Your Sunday Clothes” from the stage musical Hello, Dolly! The camera then pans over a computer-generated version of Earth. At this angle, it’s obvious that it’s the very same world we know and love, but it’s tinged in a sickly green. Suddenly, the camera zooms in rapidly, past an atmosphere littered with decaying, abandoned satellites and other space debris and through clouds also tinged with green. The camera slows, flying through what looks like an eerie mountainous landscape. Mountains not made of rock, but of garbage. Garbage piled higher than the desolate buildings around it, outnumbering and dwarfing the skyscrapers that stand alongside them. It is here that the audience is introduced to the almost silent, eponymous protagonist of the film, whose sole purpose is to continually process garbage into small cubes and stack them into the ever-growing monoliths of waste seen in the beginning of the film. The protagonist is a Waste Allocation Load Lifter – Earth class, colloquially known in the movie’s universe as WALL-E. To some, the subtle yet undeniable environmental message of the movie feels a little heavy-handed. However, the message is nothing new to the medium; countless other films, animated or otherwise, have handled similar environmental themes with varying degrees of success. Take for example, the opening of the film Kaze no Tani no Naushika, or, as localized in the West, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind: after the opening credits that show her world’s violent history, the young, female protagonist Nausicaä touches down on the sands next to the Toxic Jungle to collect specimens of various flora and fauna. However, the poisonous spores that soon fill the sky, rendering her unable to leave the forest until they clear, stop her progress. The environmental message here is incredibly subtle, and is not readily apparent until much, much later in the film.

The two animated films carry similar thematic messages and thematic elements, and they even cater to a similar audience, yet their exact messages are different. In fact, the environmental messages that the films made by Disney, a studio based in the United States, make are markedly different from those made by Studio Ghibli, a studio based in the East; distinct ideological mores are at play here that are exemplified by either company, but may extend to several others in the medium. I believe that the inherent difference in the portrayal of environmental messages is based on the cultural biases of either company’s home countries, as seen in the animated works of Disney, and its subsidiary Pixar, versus Studio Ghibli, specifically those of its star auteur Hayao Miyazaki. . . .

Like WALL-E, the West believes that only by giving a helping hand can one save the environment. However, like Nausicaä, . . . the East believe[s] that a sense of harmony and balance with nature must be achieved and maintained in order to preserve it.

April 25th, 2012

Earth Week Excerpts: From “Some Men Just Want To Watch the World Burn,” by Walter Hickey

. . . The First Amendment guarantees citizens the right to “petition the Government for a redress of grievances,” and lobbyists can count themselves among journalists and clergymen as one of the few constitutionally protected professions. Needless to say, there is more money in the business of government relations than there is in the businesses of baptisms and blogging.

The Center for Responsive Politics is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization which was founded in 1983 by two Senators – one Republican, the other a Democrat – who lost their reelection bids because their opponents had collected more money than they had. In that time, the amount of money in politics had reached nowhere near the magnitude it is today. The Center’s mission is to organize, maintain and publish the most comprehensive existing database of money in politics. While the presence of money in politics cannot be averted, the Center believes that making the money from interest groups public may reduce its impact in swaying democratic elections. As it stands, for the past twenty years their website,, has allowed voters to evaluate candidates based on where the money which supports their election originates. The Center codes each contribution based upon the employer of the individual who made it, allowing researchers to identify the source and possible motive of campaign money.

Between 1990 and 2010 companies in the petroleum industry “donated $238.7 million to candidates and parties” (Kiersh & Levinthal). In 2011 alone, the Center reported that companies from these industries spent more than $148 million on 786 individual federal lobbyists. Kiersh and Levinthal noted that “oil and gas companies are always among the industries to spend the most on lobbying.” They noted that this diverse group is comprised of “multinational and independent oil and gas producers and refiners, natural gas pipeline companies, gasoline service stations and fuel oil dealers.” These industries have a vested interest in maintaining the legality and availability of petroleum availability, drilling rights, and low competition from alternative fuel sources.
In contrast, the environment sector, a designation which comprises environmental advocacy groups, spends a fraction of what the oil and gas industry does. Despite the fact that the environmental sector is also comprised of organizations which don’t directly oppose petroleum interests, the entire sector spent just less than $30.5 million between 1990 and 2010 on candidates and parties.

For perspective, the oil and gas industry spent $22.5 million on strictly congressional campaigns in the 2010 cycle alone. The environmental sector also spent just under $16.7 million on 106 lobbyists in 2011. Needless to say, the petroleum sector alone spends close to an order of magnitude more on government relations than the environmental advocacy groups can (Environment: Overview).

This disparity is a large part of the reason why there is the delay on the part of the government on enacting an effective climate change response. The interests of entrenched industries, articulated through their governmental advocacy efforts, remain staunchly opposed to altering the status quo. The ability of these groups to provide a considerable financial incentive to Congress to not act on scientific results underscores a central struggle for the environmental movement.

Money, as it stands today, is an inexorable part of the political ecosystem. Candidates with less money than their adversaries lose. They are unable to pay for the means to promote their own message. If an opponent has more money than you do, you have to work that much harder to sell yourself to the public. Exchanging money for influence is a necessary element of the current political process. As long as that remains the case, groups with more money will defeat groups with less money, regardless of the issue. Even though the science is rock solid on the side of the environmentalists, that movement will never succeed as long as there is a massive financial incentive for those in power to ignore facts for as long as possible. Unless this system changes – through mandatory public campaign financing, through mitigation of soft money, through increased, earnest transparency measures – this world will continue to get warmer. Formalized institutional bribery should be ethically unsettling enough for most. The fact that it is the integrity of the planetary ecosystem that is being sold should be slightly more unsettling.

April 24th, 2012

Earth Week Excerpts: From “Cap and Trade,” by Peter Hansen

. . . Despite public confusion about the veracity of global warming, there is broad scientific consensus that it is real. Though there is debate about exactly how anthropogenic the change is, basic chemistry and physics inform us that humans are influencing our climate to some extent. Probably the most significant way in which we wield our influence is through carbon emissions—the amount of carbon dioxide we put in the atmosphere. Though we all can and should make personal efforts at reducing carbon usage through turning off lights and appliances, using public transportation, and avoiding air travel, if we want to create changes that will have the sort of significant effect on atmospheric carbon we need, some sort of economy-wide control will be necessary. The most plausible way for the United States to impose the necessary sort of program will be to implement a cap-and-trade program on carbon emissions.

This cap-and-trade program will have to be carefully designed to be sure to accomplish its carbon-reduction goals without overly burdening American families or the federal budget. It will have to catch cheaters, support the poorer families who spend more on energy, and ensure that it doesn’t place American manufacturers at a disadvantage. The proponents of the bill will have to control the discussion of the law to make sure that there is no misinformation about the bill’s costs and that the bill is viewed in light of its good intentions. No one is trying to hide the fact that cutting carbon emissions and fighting global climate change will be a challenge. No one is trying to hide the fact that writing an intelligent, effective, and politically viable cap-and-trade bill is a challenge. Making serious changes with significant consequences to millions of people today and billions of people in the future will always be a challenge. But when it comes to climate change, the need is so clear and the consequences so serious that we absolutely must rise up to the challenge.

April 23rd, 2012

Earth Week Excerpts: From “The World Water Crisis,” by Megan Elmore

Water: It’s the most vital substance in our lives, yet every day we take it for granted. The idea of turning on the tap and not receiving water is unthinkable to most of us – but we rarely stop to consider where the water comes from or where it’s going. According to Charles Fishman, author of The Big Thirst, “… in the United States and the developed world, we’ve spent the last hundred years in a kind of aquatic paradise: our water has been abundant, safe, and cheap” (3). Our attitudes towards water have become too carefree; each person in the United States, on average, uses 100 gallons of water per day (7). Yet at least 1.1 billion people around the world – one out of every six people – lack access to clean drinking water (7). In Ethiopia, women spend up to eight hours a day fetching dozens of gallons of water from contaminated lakes. Aid groups such as WaterAid are working on providing villages with their own water pumps, but water privatization makes it difficult for the very poor to afford their own water (Rosenberg 7). Even in water-rich countries like the United States, droughts have led to water shortages in Tennessee that restrict water use to three hours per household each night (Fishman 11). The city of Albuquerque nearly ran out of water in the mid-80s when it was revealed that its aquifer was being emptied faster than rainwater could fill it (Royte 2). With water shortages becoming increasingly commonplace around the world, it’s time to stop and ask: Is the world running out of water?

The short answer is no. Brian Richter, author of Are We Running Out of Water?, writes, “Every bit of water that falls on land or in the ocean or is used for human endeavors is eventually evaporated back up into the sky as water vapor, replenishing our planet’s never-ending freshwater cycle. No water is actually ‘lost’ in that global cycle” (1). But the problem is that this water “isn’t being evenly distributed around the globe, and our needs for water aren’t the same everywhere” (Richter 1). . . .

Despite countless tales of water shortages and a deficiency of clean drinking water in third world countries, Fishman warns that the term “global water crisis” is actually a misnomer; “all water problems are local, or regional, and their solutions must be local and regional” (301). For example, a family that sells its cars and begins biking and walking everywhere has a tiny but distinct impact on the world’s energy system. But water conservation in America won’t help solve water problems in Australia. Thus, “there is no global water crisis, there are a thousand water crises, each distinct” (Fishman 301). However, that doesn’t relieve us of being responsible about our water usage; in fact, we must be more responsible about our water behavior because no one else will. We are the only ones that can have an impact on water scarcity in our own areas. We are the problem as well as the solution.

Water conservation must start with preventing water waste. Nineteen percent of water in the UK leaks away through faulty pipes; in Italy, 29% of water is lost. Each day in the United States, 7 billion gallons of water leaks out of water mains; “that’s more fresh water than thirty of the fifty states use each day” (Fishman 303). Stopping these leaks by replacing faulty water systems would make a big difference in the amount of water that is wasted each day. Furthermore, we must learn better farming practices – 67% of freshwater around the world goes to farming. There must be better irrigation systems in place that make better use of rainwater, and there should be incentives for farmers to use less water in food production (303). Recycled rainwater can also be used in the home; plants and lawns don’t need to be watered with pure, filtrated water that could be used for drinking or bathing instead. In Orange County, Florida, residents “use 57 million gallons of drinking water a day, and they use 51 million gallons a day of treated wastewater on their lawns and landscaping,” proving that treated water doesn’t necessarily have to replace our filtrated tap water, but it can serve other purposes (305).

Bottom line: water cannot be taken for granted any longer. But the first problem that we must overcome is water illiteracy, which should be addressed before we can tackle our most pressing water problems. For example, Sudan is actually rich in water, but it is poor in water management, and therefore little of its ground and surface water is used constructively. The water that is used is “often wasted with inefficient irrigation methods and even quite destructive rain fed farming methods, and livestock overgrazing” (Perspective: Sudan 1). By simply teaching farmers better irrigation methods, and setting up systems to catch and treat rainwater, we can solve a lot of water scarcity problems. Water organizations like WaterAid are also crucial for providing water to areas that don’t receive a lot of rainfall and are too impoverished to build their own well. To work towards global water equality, there needs to be a greater education system in place.

Put simply, water conservation starts in our own homes, right at our own taps and toilets. If even two million homes built in the last ten years had “been plumbed to use recycled water in yards and toilets … [they] would be using half the potable water of similar homes built before 2000” (Fishman 306). That would provide one million more homes with fresh drinking water. It may be difficult to change the world we currently live in, but we must begin changing the world we’re building each day. Water management is a crucial problem, but it is a problem that most definitely has a solution.

April 20th, 2012

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